The Swallow by Rhymer

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Story Notes:

This was written for Back to Middle Earth Month 2014. The prompt was as follows: "'For our spring and our summer are gone by, and they will never be seen on earth again save in memory.'" (Galadriel, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Farewell to Lórien") Write or create art about a character who has reached old age.

Warning: This is not a deathfic. However, it does involve characters in the closing stages of their lives, discussing issues relating to death and mortality.


Against the broad blue sky, a darting swallow was tracing patterns.

Merry watched it as his pony plodded onwards. When the swallow flew in front of the sun, he lost sight of it. Hearth-smoke drifted from smoke-holes in the thatch, painting patches of white haze against the sky. When he saw the swallow again, it was half-concealed by the smoke, a pale ghost dancing against the blue.

"It must have been left behind," he said, "when the others flew south for the winter."

Pippin said nothing, just made a faint sound to show that he had heard.

The swallow darted low, snatching up insects from above the thatch. Old thatch, Merry realised. He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. The swallow was tracing shapes against old timbers, old roofs, old stone. The pony's hoofs clacked against the cobbled road, the cobbles already worn down from years of use.

Pippin said it first. "I thought…" He stopped and tried again. "Edoras wasn't… It was smaller last time."

The reins dug into Merry's palms. The first time he had seen Edoras, it had been a small gathering of buildings protected by a wall, with wide green lands around it, with streams and burial mounds and willow trees. Now it was a town, with houses sprawled out across the plain, far outside the protection of the old wall.

"But this," Pippin said, "this already looks old."

Merry could no longer see the swallow. Instead he had no choice but to see the houses that stood on what he remembered as open grassland. Children ran between them, playing. Young mothers stood chatting in doorways, some with a toddler on a hip, some with a spindle dangling from their hands. Even the grandmothers were younger than the houses they lived in, far younger than him.

"But peaceful, Merry," Pippin said. "It looks peaceful, and prosperous, and happy. It's all very different, of course, but it reminds me… It reminds me a little of the Shire, far more than it used to. Then, everywhere else seemed so strange."

There had been no playing children when Merry had first come to Edoras, lost and forgotten in Théoden's train. The faces of the few women had been grey and pinched, etched by tears they had been too proud to shed, but which left their mark, even so.

Merry had lived long enough to realise the futility of pride. Tears pricked his eyes, and he made no effort to hide them. "Strange, isn't it, Pip? I'm old. I know I'm old. I've said my farewells. I've made my peace. But this… Seeing an old town in a place that I remember as fields… It…" His voice trailed away.

"It brings it all home, doesn't it?" Pippin said quietly. "You know, Merry, I don't feel old, not really. Sometimes I don't even feel properly grown-up, as if I'm not old enough to be Thain, let alone old enough to pass the title on."

The ponies plodded on. Somewhere, out of sight, a child was singing. The words were not in Rohirric. The tune was one that the children of the Shire often sang, so far away.

"I don't think anyone ever does," Merry said. "Maybe they never should."

He saw the swallow again, joyous against the blue, and the music of the child's song wove through its patterned flight.

******

Merry had feared this meeting, through all the months and all the unending miles. At first he had questioned the messenger intensely. Was Éomer changed? Did he still have his wits? Was his body failing him? Was he fading so badly that he was likely to die before Merry arrived?

"He is my King," was all the messenger said, as if that answered everything.

"Perhaps it does," Pippin had said. Weeks ago, that had been, when they were resting in one of the many coaching inns that lined what had once been a ruined and barely passable road. "He's young. He doesn't remember a time when our kings were just travel-worn, disreputable wanderers or proud young warriors. Éomer has always been his king, constant and immutable."

Merry had not asked again. Instead he had braced himself for sadness. He had braced himself for paper-white skin against the pale sheets of a death bed. He had braced himself for a withered hand that would never again hold a sword. He had braced himself for blindness, or the querulous questions of someone who no longer recognised his friends or kin. He had braced himself for proof that he had lived beyond his time.  

The doors of Meduseld swung open. Merry looked up at the hangings, seeing both old and new; seeing the influence of Gondor as well as the old styles of Rohan. He saw the carvings on the pillars, where abstract patterns echoed the movement of galloping horses. Just before the doors swung shut, movement in the rafters caught his eye, and he saw that the swallow had followed them in, darting through the dark shadows below the roof.

His heart was pounding. Foolish, he told himself, as he looked at last at the man on the throne, the man who was already greeting him.

He was not unchanged. He sat unaided on the throne, but his back was less straight than it once had been. His hair was as white as Gandalf's after the fall, and had been cropped short; other men, younger men, wore their hair, still fair, in the same style. He looked like an old man. Of course he does, Merry reminded himself. When you saw someone every day, you failed to notice how they, and you, were changing. When you saw someone after a long absence, you realised how much you both had changed.

But Éomer's eyes were the same. His face was lined, but his smile was the same.

"He is still my King," the messenger whispered, the words almost lost in the echoes of the hall.

Merry began to walk forward.

******

"I was afraid…" Merry broached it at last. They were sitting on the high terrace of Meduseld, with screens protecting them from the east wind.

"Of what?" Éomer asked. They were alone now, just Merry, Pippin and the King of the Mark, with a table beside them, spread with the fruits of autumn.

"That you were…"

"Dying," Éomer said quietly. "I am."

Pippin was reaching for a honey cake. His hand froze half way to the table. Merry's plate was still empty, untouched.

"Or not dying," Éomer said, "not as such. The healers say that I am still hale. I am not in pain. I still have my wits, and I can still keep my saddle. But…"

Here, hidden by the screens, his seat was padded with soft cushions, and he leant on them as if he needed them. He looked up towards the darkening sky. Merry followed the direction of his gaze, but saw nothing there, just a faint drifting of smoke from the evening fires.

"I feel it close," Éomer said. "I am not like the Númenorean kings of old, with the power to choose the manner of my death. But we lived through great events, you and I. In our own way, we contributed towards the salvation of our world. I think a little part of that gift has been granted to us: not the gift of choosing the moment of our death, but the gift of knowing when that moment is nigh. I feel that I will not live to see the first snows of winter."

Merry could not shape words. As so often happened, Pippin was quicker than him. "Like Sam," he said. "He said his farewells, and rode away. Two years ago, that was. And there was Frodo before him, and Bilbo, of course. They said their farewells, and left before the end came, before they had no choice."

"As did we." Merry had not meant to say it. Éomer looked at him sharply, and Merry had to explain. "We're not going back to the Shire, Pippin and I." He looked at Pippin, and kept on looking at him as he spoke. "We handed over our titles and our heirlooms. We came here with just the clothes we're wearing and what saddlebags our ponies can carry."

Éomer said nothing, but Merry could hear the unspoken question: will you come to regret it, do you think?

He did not know. The Shire was infinitely precious, and he often longed for it when away from it. But when he was there, often he longed for distant lands and the friends he had made there. When in a place of swords and high stone towers, he longed for a people who saw the value of home and food and a quiet life. When sitting in the soft quietness of home, he longed for wide vistas and noble songs.

But he belonged to the wider world, as well as to the Shire. He had lived a long life in one of those places. He would end it in the other. Like Bilbo, Frodo and Sam before him, he had chosen to die in a place far from his birth. Such would be the ending of all the hobbits whose lives had been changed by the Ring.

The silence was a little too long. Éomer was the first to break it, with a laugh that was barely brittle at all. "Just the clothes you are wearing," he echoed. "Indeed, you look more travel-worn than you did when I first met you, not at all like the venerable hobbits you have become."

"Yes, he looks quite the vagabond, doesn't he?" Pippin said. "I've been telling him that for years."

"But you've gone the same way," Merry retorted. For a while, after their return, they had worn the rich, war-like clothing from their travels. As the years passed, such displays seemed increasingly unimportant. The older they became, the more they wore just what they wanted, not caring what others thought about it.

"And in truth, I am in no position to mock you," said Éomer, ruefully. He ran his hand across his cropped hair. "It felt like an affectation to keep it long when it was growing so thin. I expected the old men to throw their hands up in horror and protest that no King of the Mark had ever allowed his hair to be cropped short." He grimaced. "You have seen the result."

"A new fashion," Pippin said. "Fancy that!" A few decades ago, many of the young male hobbits of the Shire had desperately emulated Pippin's clothes and mannerisms. Merry had smiled to see it. Pippin had remained oblivious. Of course, he realised now, it was entirely possible that they had aped Merry, too, and Pippin had laughed at Merry's own oblivion.

"Or the world changing." Éomer seemed about to say something else, but bit it back. He picked up a goblet, swirling the spiced mead, filling the terrace with the scent of cinnamon. "Of course," he said, "there is no-one left to throw up their hands in horror. I am the old man now. Few remember any king but me. Even fewer remember the old days of the Mark."

Throughout it all, the sun was sinking, lost behind the mountains in the west. Merry shivered, tugging a blanket over his knees. He wondered suddenly if the swallow was still in the eaves, battering its wings against the thatch as it struggled to get out of the dark. He poured himself some spiced mead; plucked up a stem of blackberries. "Did you see the swallow?" he found himself asking.

"They have already flown," Éomer said.

Merry shook his head. "Not all of them. Not yet."

******

It rained in the night, but in the morning, the sun rose glorious in the east, and all the roofs of Edoras shone like spun gold.

It was too cold to eat breakfast on the terrace, but Éomer invited Merry and Pippin to a tall stone tower just outside the wall, "built for my lady," he explained, "in the style of Dol Amroth." They ate in a bright chamber with many windows, overlooking Edoras and the grasslands beyond.

"A messenger came in the night," Éomer said, as he spread butter on a hunk of bread. "King Elessar is on his way with a small company. He requests no pomp and ceremony, but he will be here before the week is out."

Pippin was cutting a slice of cheese. "Strider's coming here?"

"I asked him to." Éomer looked almost serene. It was that expression, rather than the marks of age on his face, that made him look different from the determined young warrior of Merry's memory. "I imagine he will stay until it is all over. Will you return with him to Minas Tirith, afterwards?"

Merry could not answer. He and Pippin had talked about it, of course: Rohan first, then Gondor, visiting old friends, exchanging stories, and then settling down somewhere peaceful and comfortable, surrounded by people who still remembered the past. But talking about it in the abstract was not the same as talking about it in the context of Éomer's death. 'Until it is all over,' Éomer had said, so calm, so serene, and 'Afterwards.'

How can you talk about it so calmly? Merry almost shouted, but Pippin touched the back of his hand, a quick brush under the table, and Merry saw what he had noticed before: that Éomer was gripping his knife so tightly that the blade was quivering.

He looked at Pippin, appealing for help. It won't happen for a long time, he wanted to say, but Éomer seemed so sure, just as Sam had known when it was time to ride away, and Merry and Pippin themselves had known that the time had come to leave their lives in the Shire behind.

"Perhaps," he said, and felt suddenly a whisper of a new certainty of his own. "But it won't be for long."

Pippin looked at him, eyes widening, but then he let out a breath, and nodded, accepting this.

******

The weather was glorious that afternoon: a mid-autumn day that still clung defiantly to summer. Evenings were dark, and the nights were as cold as impending winter, but in the afternoon, it was warm enough to walk slowly around the walls, and stand in the wind on the watchtowers.

"It's changed so much," Merry said, nodding towards the town that spread out beyond the walls.

"More than you think," said Éomer. "There are styles of building out there that were unknown when I was young, and styles of furniture and clothing, and new songs. When I was young, there were many who knew only our own language. Now all our children learn the tongue of Gondor, some even before they learn our own tongue."

"And the tongue of hobbits," Pippin said. "As we rode in, we heard a child singing a song of the Shire."

"Or your hobbit children sing a song of the Mark. Or both your children and ours sing the songs of Gondor or Arnor or anywhere in between." Éomer's lips curved into a smile, quickly fading. "We are all part of the Reunified Kingdom now. Like the Shire, we in the Mark have our own independence, but the distinctions are fading. Will any remain in a hundred years?"

Merry was lost in his own thoughts. "Things change," he murmured. "They change so fast."

"We have always clung to our traditions," Éomer said. "We were unchanging, and proud of it."

"So were we," Merry said, "although in our case, it was ignorance. We knew so little of the world outside, so we told ourselves that it was not worth knowing about, and carried on doing things exactly the same as we always had done. And now…"

The wind stirred the banners on the gatehouse. Far away, on the land that was still green, riders were exercising on strong, swift horses.

"Should I have fought harder to keep our own traditions?" Éomer's voice was quiet, as if he was speaking more to himself than to the hobbits. His hand rose, as if seeking to toy with long hair that was no longer there. "I could have done so."

Pippin spoke up then, surprisingly forceful. "And we could have kept the doors of the Shire locked tight against the world, but we didn't. And we were the ones who did that, Merry and I, because Frodo and Sam, they just wanted to slip back into obscurity. But we forced the change, and it's a good one; I think it's a good one. We have schools, and hobbits travel and trade, and have a voice in world affairs. So we're not as once we were, but it's better. I'm sure it's better."

Merry ran his finger across the watchtower wall, stone where it had once been wood. "When we rode in yesterday, everybody we saw was smiling."

"Yes," Éomer said, and he smiled, but he sighed, too. "Yes."

******

The swallow was still in the eaves, and every now and then, it flew low enough to gleam for a moment in the light of the candles. Éomer's attendants were wondering how to coax it out again.

A bard was singing about the glories of the kings of old and summers long past. When he fell silent, and the feasting was over, Éomer and the hobbits gathered close to the hearth, and spoke quietly as the flames died low.

"There are songs about me, of course," Éomer said ruefully, "but I have ordered that they are not sung in my own hall."

"There are stories about us, too." Merry grimaced. "A few months ago, I overheard a child telling a story about the great Meriadoc the Magnificent and all the monsters that he'd killed. Then up piped my little grandson. 'That's my granda,' he said. 'It can't be,' said the lad telling the story. 'Your granda's just a boring old bigwig. Meriadoc the Magnificent wore shiny armour and killed dragons and lived hundreds of years ago."

"That's why we left," Pippin said. "One of the reasons. Nobody there remembers, not any more. Even at the beginning, nobody really understood the things we'd seen or the way we'd changed. Sam did, of course, but he's gone now. The Shire's our home, but we've lived too long in it. But you understand, because you were there. And there's Legolas and Gimli and Faramir, and Strider, of course. We want to live with people who know that the things we lived through are more than fireside stories."

"There is little of that here," Éomer said, "but memories last longer in Gondor. King Elessar will outlive us all."

"And Legolas will live even longer," Merry said.

"Long after we have gone." Éomer let out a breath. "I wonder how it would feel to be the last person left who still remembers events that everybody else looks upon as a story. To us, the events feel real because they are still around to remember them, but to them…"

The swallow darted low. Out in the night, in some lesser hall, men started singing.

"When I was young," Éomer said, "I wanted there to be songs about me. I was desperate to be remembered after my death. Then the world grew dark, and all I could think about was trying to save my people, although I still hoped that men would survive to sing songs about us. Then, for most of my life, I thought it was the deeds that mattered. It was being a good king, not worrying about how you would be remembered. But now, as I near the end…"

"You will be remembered." Merry's voice was hoarse. "And remembered well."

"Will any of us be remembered?" Éomer asked, as if Merry had not spoken. "We live in the early golden days of the Reunified Kingdom. Elessar will be remembered. He will be remembered for thousands of years, the king who renewed the glories of the ancient kingdoms and made them shine even brighter than before. But my kingdom is changing. My people are changing. Will the Mark exist in five hundred years, or just be a footnote in the tale of a much greater kingdom?"

"Strider won't let that happen," Pippin said fiercely. "You know he won't."

"No." Éomer sighed. "But this near the end, I find myself thinking more about those things that I never did, and all those places that I have never been."

"Don't!" Pippin said vehemently. Merry looked at him in surprise. "Think instead about all the things you have done, and all the places you have seen."

"Yes," Éomer said. "You are right." His eyes moved up towards the darkness below the rafters, watching the bird. "But I am tired. I am content, my friends, really I am. I will seem different in the morning."

******

Morning brought a chill wind from the mountains. Éomer held court on his throne, receiving petitioners and granting boons. An honour guard sought his blessing before riding out to meet King Elessar. Spears were gifted, and swords were named.

Merry watched the faces in the hall, and wondered if Éomer saw them the same way he did. He thought not, perhaps.

Afterwards, they stood on the terrace and watched the honour guard ride out across the distant grasslands. Pippin had a blanket round his shoulders. Éomer made do with a double-layered cloak.

"I am tempted to go with them," Éomer said. "My own last riding."

"Why don't you?" Merry asked.

Éomer tugged his cloak more closely around his body. "How should a warrior king spend his last months? Should he lay down his sword and accept his weakness, and leave war to men who are still young enough to fight? Or should he rage against his coming death, and proudly and stubbornly insist on fighting until the bitter end?"

"I think…" Merry glanced at Pippin, and then at the distant horses. "I think there's a middle way.

"I am a very old man," Éomer said. "They are young and swift. I do not wish to ride with them, an embarrassment to my own men."

"You will never be that," Merry said fervently. "I was watching their faces in the hall earlier. They love you. They revere you. And the messenger you sent to the Shire… I asked him how you were. 'He is my King,' he said, as if that was the most important thing of all to him. You aren't any different, just because you've realised that you're old. You can embrace old age any way you like, and they will still love you."

"I… think I know that," Éomer said.

But Merry was not finished. "You've talked about how you're going to be remembered. You've talked about regrets. You've talked about yourself as a page in a history book. You say you've been granted the gift of knowing that your death is nigh. Well, I say that you've embraced it too soon. You've already consigned yourself to history. You talk about King Elessar coming to visit a fellow king, not about Aragorn coming to visit his friend. Don't ask yourself what an ageing warrior king should be seen to do; ask yourself what you, yourself, want to do."

The wind tugged Éomer's cloak from his clutching fingers. "Is that what you did, when you left the Shire?"

Merry closed his eyes, just for a moment, remembering. "Yes," he said. "I chose as myself, as Merry, not as Meriadoc the Magnificent, the hobbit who never existed, or as Master of Buckland. I chose as myself, and it was difficult, and I will always miss the Shire, but it was the right thing to do. It was the right thing for me."

"Then…" Éomer looked down. When he looked up, sunlight was shining on his smile. "Then I will ride out, Éomer son of Éomund, and go and greet my old friend and comrade, and ride with him one last time."

******

The horses were saddled. The attendants were flustered, but most of the men of Meduseld were grinning with delight to see their king back in the saddle, beneath the old banner he had flown so long ago, in days that they did not remember. The bard was watching, his lips moving as he began to compose a new song. Merry wondered what it would be called, and how it would end.

The trumpets sounded. Looking back, Merry saw a flash of movement in the doorway of the great hall. "Look!" he said to Pippin. "The swallow got out."

Pippin smiled, and Éomer threw back his head and gave a great shout, less loud than he could have managed half a century before, but equally defiant. His horse surged forward, and Merry and Pippin followed on their ponies.

They rode through the gate, and past the houses outside the wall. Before long, they reached the open plain, and with another loud cry, Éomer urged his horse onwards. The horsehair on his helmet flowed backwards, like the hair of a much younger man. His armour gleamed, and his cloak was bright and streaming.

Merry's eyes blurred with unshed tears, and through the blurring, he saw a vision from an older time: a proud young warrior riding at the side of his king. But then it seemed as if he was seeing an even earlier time, a time he had never seen in life: a very young Éomer, riding out for the first time, laughing with the sheer joy of it.

Above him, released from the darkness of the rafters, the swallow flew like an arrow, heading towards its home.

******

The end

 


Chapter End Notes:

Note: According to "the Venerable" Bede, writing c. 731, King Edwin of Northumbria was debating with his advisors and nobles whether to convert to Christianity. One advisor allegedly said the following words:

"The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."

The Rohirrim have some similarities with Anglo-Saxons, but they are not the same, so to reflect this, I changed the sparrow to a swallow, and gave the whole thing a different symbolism, but Bede was the inspiration, even so.



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