Merry, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli prepare to leave the wreckage of Isengard alongside Théoden, King of Rohan, and his party. Aragorn is still working out his plan of travel to Minas Tirith, and Legolas and Gimli are eager to go along with him. Merry demands not to be left behind, but Aragorn suggests that Merry will travel with Théoden—though he warns him that the journey might not end happily. As the group rides towards Edoras, one of the Riders of Rohan brings news from the back of the pack that another group of horsemen are gaining on them. Théoden brings the Riders to a halt.
Aragorn has become a beloved friend and leader to Gimli, Legolas, and Merry, who each ask to go along with Aragorn, even though he doesn’t have a clear plan mapped out. News of other riders following the path of Théoden’s company is cause for immediate caution, because even in their own lands, Rohan is under the same threat that Gondor is. The enemy is spreading.
The other party of riders draws up: there seem to be as many of them as there are Riders of Rohan, if not more. Éomer calls the unknown riders to a halt, at which one of them dismounts. When Théoden asks for the riders’ purpose, the leader introduces himself as Halbarad Dúnadan, Ranger of the North, and reveals that they’ve been looking for Aragorn. To Merry’s relief, Aragorn greets Halbarad like an old friend and introduces the Dúnedain riders as his own kin. The two groups of horsemen agree to ride together.
The party of unknown riders is unidentifiable by the Rohirrim until their leader reveals their identity, which suggests they prefer anonymity and stealth to pride and fanfare. This is a rare occasion in which Aragorn is among his own people, and their goal of locating him is a sign that he’s coming into his own power and accumulating allies.
Elrohir, who is riding with the Dúnedain, brings a message from his father, Elrond, to Aragorn: he should “remember the Paths of the Dead.” Aragorn says he’ll only go that way if absolutely necessary. He sees that Halbarad is carrying a long staff wrapped in cloth and asks what it is, to which Halbarad replies that it’s a gift from Galadriel. Aragorn guesses what it is and asks Halbarad to continue carrying it for him.
It's clear from Aragorn’s response to Elrohir that the Paths of the Dead are a dangerous and uncertain route. He senses that Halbarad’s carrying something significant, and his ability to guess what it is suggests that it’s an item he’s been anticipating using for a long time.
At the end of the night, the riders arrive at Helm’s Deep, where they plan to rest and discuss their next movements. In the morning, Legolas and Gimli wake Merry to show him around the fortress. Gimli is eager to visit the caves, but there isn’t time—Legolas promises they’ll return together if peace is restored. Merry yawns: he misses Pippin, he hasn’t had enough sleep, and he feels like a burden to those around him. He asks after Aragorn, and Legolas tells him he’s in a high chamber where he’s been thinking for hours.
The stringent urgency of wartime is unfamiliar to Merry, and he finds the constant movement and lack of comfort and friendship difficult to tolerate. Legolas’s description of Aragorn suggests that Aragorn is being tormented by indecision, and the process of deciding what path he should take is a complicated and taxing one.
Gimli, Legolas, and Merry walk together and observe the wreckage that was left from the battle at Helm’s Deep. They go to the hall for the midday meal, where a seat is set for Merry at Théoden’s side. Théoden tells Merry he will have a pony made ready for him. Éomer says there isn’t much armor around for a person of Merry’s size, but Merry reveals his own sword and, moved by his love for Théoden, lays the sword on his lap to offer his service. Théoden accepts Merry’s offer.
Though Merry feels alone and out of his depth, his seat beside King Théoden at the meal table and Théoden’s request for Merry to be given armor and an appropriately sized steed proves that Merry is valued and respected. His traits of generosity, care, and sacrifice surface in his offer of service to Théoden, something he does even without understanding the danger ahead.
After the midday meal, the Riders and the Dúnedain assemble, mounted. Éomer and Aragorn emerge from the fortress to join the company. Aragorn seems to have aged years overnight. He tells Théoden that his plans have changed. Instead of journeying slowly and secretly to Dunharrow with the Riders of Rohan, he will ride there swiftly with the Dúnedain on their way to the Paths of the Dead. When Théoden hears Aragorn’s plan, he’s frightened and confused—all he knows of the Paths of the Dead is that no living man has ever survived them. Éomer is certain he’ll never see Aragorn alive again.
Aragorn’s solitary night ruminating on his plans seems to have led him to the realization that he must act urgently and take the drastic risk of the Paths of the Dead. The reputation of the Paths is so fearsome that Théoden and Éomer immediately doubt that Aragorn will survive—the plan seems more like a death wish than a battle strategy.
The Riders of Rohan depart. Aragorn returns to the hall to eat before his journey, where Legolas asks him why he changed his plans. Aragorn says that he looked into the Seeing Stone to communicate with Sauron. As heir to the throne of Gondor, he is the master of the Stones; still, he found the encounter exhausting. Through the Stone, Sauron learned of the living heir to Gondor’s throne. Aragorn’s hope is that this news will prompt Sauron to make a reckless first move in the war. The Stone also showed Aragorn that huge enemy forces are moving from the south, and the only way to ensure they don’t defeat Gondor is for Aragorn to take the quickest path: the Paths of the Dead.
Aragorn’s decision to use the Seeing Stone to his advantage shows that he’s confident in his own strength; he’s beginning to claim the rights afforded to him as heir to the throne of Gondor. He knows that Sauron’s arrogance might lead him to make the first move in battle. Learning of the enemy troops to the south drives Aragorn not to despair but to take a huge risk for the chance to protect Gondor, highlighting both his bravery and his allegiance to the kingdom.
Gimli asks if there’s any hope of surviving the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn reminds him that he’s Isildur’s heir and can go that way at a time of dire need. He tells Gimli and Legolas he’d be grateful if they came with him, but they are free to decide their own paths. He explains that the Dead are an ancient people who, instead of honoring their oath to Isildur, abandoned him in the first battle against Sauron and were cursed never to rest until their oath was fulfilled. Legolas and Gimli resolve to go with Aragorn. They mount their horses, Halbarad blows a loud horn, and the company thunders away.
Aragorn refuses to force his friends to follow him, demonstrating the love and respect he feels for them. Their decision to go with him anyway once again proves their loyalty, though they’re unsure of their chances of survival. Aragorn’s plan shows that he’s fully accepted his position as Isildur’s heir and is eager both to settle the disputes of the past and to provide Gondor with every possible chance of victory against Sauron.
The Dúnedain riders arrive at Dunharrow the next night. Éowyn greets them. They recount the battle at Helm’s Deep to her over supper. When Éowyn learns that they plan to ride the Paths of the Dead, she blanches, sure that their journey will end in death. After dinner, Éowyn finds Aragorn to speak with him alone. She tells him that if he is sure he needs to go on this path, he should take her with them. Aragorn tells Éowyn her duty is with her people, but this frustrates her: she feels that she is always chosen to stay behind while others ride out to perform more noble deeds. She’s capable of riding and fighting, but because she’s a woman, she’s always left to tend to the domestic affairs. Aragorn still refuses to let her join them on their journey.
Éowyn was absent from the battle at Helm’s Deep, entrusted instead with the protection of Rohan’s women and children, so the only knowledge she has of the fighting must come to her second-hand. But she’s confident in her ability as a rider and soldier and has no qualms about following Aragorn through the Paths of the Dead, even though she knows they’re likely to be fatal. Aragorn refuses to let her come out of love for her, but it seems he doesn’t fully understand her desperation to be useful in battle rather than in a domestic setting. Éowyn’s response implies that she feels belittled by the domestic tasks she’s been assigned all her life.
At daybreak, the company sets out to ride. Éowyn comes to bid them farewell, and Gimli and Legolas are surprised to see her weeping. Again, she begs Aragorn to let her ride with them, and again, Aragorn refuses. She stumbles back to her tent, distressed. The company rides to the foot of the mountain where they find a door carved with signs and figures. The riders and the horses are deeply unsettled, but Aragorn urges them on, and the others’ love and respect for him encourages them to follow him. Gimli’s knees shake; he's embarrassed to be a Dwarf, so used to the underground, and yet so terrified to go on.
Gimli and Legolas’s surprise at Éowyn’s display of emotion implies that she has a tendency to be unwaveringly tough and keep her feelings private. Meanwhile, the dread that emanates from the Paths of the Dead is tangible and potent even from outside the mountain and frightens even Gimli, who spends his life in caves. This suggests that an ancient danger—more threatening than just the darkness of the cave—lies ahead.
The company moves ahead with lit torches. Voices seem to whisper around them in a language they don’t recognize. They reach a huge cavern, where Aragorn finds a man’s bones and armor. He doesn’t know who the man is or why he used this path, but he turns his attention now to the Dead and calls them to meet him at the Stone of Erech. There’s no answer to his call except for a profound silence followed by a chill wind. The torches are blown out and can’t be lit again. Eventually, the company passes out of the cave. They mount their horses again, and Legolas can see the Dead following behind them, ghostlike.
The remains of the unknown man are a sign that others’ attempts to follow the Paths of the Dead have ended tragically—Éomer and Théoden’s worries weren’t unfounded. The men’s dread increases with the lack of response from the beings in the mountain, and their blown-out torches underscore the fact that anticipation and uncertainty are more frightening than an identifiable danger. Legolas’s awareness of the Dead reminds the reader that, as an Elf, he’s blessed with heightened senses.
The sun has set. Aragorn urges the company to ride with speed. Just before midnight, they reach the Stone of Erech. When they stop, Aragorn blows a silver horn, and the company hears a round of answering horns like an echo and feels the host of the Dead around them. Aragorn commands the Dead to aid him and has Halbarad unfurl the standard he’s been carrying. The company camps until morning, then rides out again, exhausted, with the Dead following.
Even though the company has just endured a unique terror, Aragorn urges them on, which suggests that their speed is of vital importance. Because Aragorn asks Halbarad to reveal the standard, it’s clear he's decided to fulfil his role as Gondor’s leader and demand the loyalty and respect that come with this status.