The Riders of Rohan arrive at Harrowdale. Merry is tired from the long journey, and lonely—he thinks of all his friends who are now far from him. Théoden tells Éomer he will continue on to Edoras tomorrow, and Éomer suggests that, after the muster there, Théoden return to Dunharrow to wait out the war—but Théoden resolves not to hide from battle. The Riders press on to Dunharrow and are greeted by voices and trumpets: it seems that the other soldiers of Rohan have already assembled here without waiting for the muster at Edoras. One of the chiefs explains to Théoden that Gandalf had urged the Riders to gather quickly. Théoden asks the marshals and captains to meet him in his quarters as soon as they can.
No matter how far he is from home, Merry’s thoughts are with his friends and his priority is to care for and protect them. Éomer thinks that the king should be kept away from the battle to ensure his safety, and Théoden’s rejection of this suggestion shows that he’s not a cowardly or even a cautious leader, but one who’s ready to meet the enemy head-on. It’s clear that Gondor’s in a dire situation due to Gandalf’s request for the Rohirrim to muster early—urgency is paramount.
The king’s company follows the path in a zigzag up a cliff face, where at points there are statues of squat men. After climbing a few hundred feet, the company reaches a field near the foot of the Dwimorberg—the same mountain Aragorn’s party rode into. Éowyn greets the king and his guard. Merry suspects she has been weeping, though she tells Théoden all is well. She confirms that Aragorn and his riders followed the Paths of the Dead yesterday morning, and Éomer resigns himself never to see them again. Merry ruminates on the Paths of the Dead, and he feels confused and abandoned by all his friends. A trumpet sounds, and he’s summoned to the king’s side.
Éowyn’s decision not to tell Théoden of her true feelings, pretending instead to be satisfied with her role as protector of the women and children, suggests she might be hiding her plans or intentions from him. Merry is easily affected by Éomer’s despair, and he doesn’t understand enough about the war to know why Aragorn would choose to take such a treacherous path—yet his ignorance doesn’t keep him from being a valued part of the king’s company.
Théoden invites Merry to sit beside him. They eat silently together until Merry asks about the Paths of the Dead. All Théoden can tell him is that the last man to venture down that road never returned. Merry doesn’t understand why Aragorn would take the Paths; the others are just as confused, though Théoden suggests that perhaps the time has come for the Dead to allow the living to pass through, as was rumored long ago. Éomer still despairs at Aragorn’s decision, believing he’s been distracted from the war at hand by yet more evil.
Théoden doesn’t fully understand the terror of the Paths of the Dead, which leaves room for the idea that Aragorn might have made a wise decision in going there, or at least that there might be a sliver of hope for his return. Éomer can’t understand how Aragorn’s choice of such a dangerous path could end up benefitting Gondor or Rohan—he’s focused on the tangible strength of their numbers and is unaware that there could be other methods of gaining strength.
An errand-rider of Gondor arrives to speak with Théoden. The rider, Hirgon, is carrying a red arrow: a token of war. Denethor sent him to ask for Rohan’s aid. Théoden is cowed by the arrow and asks what Denethor thinks Rohan can offer. Hirgon shares Denethor’s suggestion that the Riders of Rohan would at least be better off within Minas Tirith than outside it when it is besieged. Gondor is desperate for help, and Théoden agrees Rohan will assist them, though they still need to fortify their own lands. They will arrive with 6,000 men in a week’s time. Hirgon says this may be too long, but any help is better than none.
Théoden’s honor and willingness to sacrifice himself and his people shows in his decision to offer Gondor assistance, even when Rohan is under great threat themselves. The conversation reveals that both Gondor and Rohan are working against overwhelming odds, acting more out of honor and principle than any logical or tangible hope.
Théoden suggests that his company rest, and he tells Merry to be ready at sunrise. Merry vows to ride with him, and goes to sleep chanting, “I won’t be left, I won’t!” When he’s awoken, a cloud has covered the land. Though it’s morning, the sky is dark. He enters Théoden’s quarters to hear Hirgon saying that the cloud has come from Mordor and is a sign that war has begun. Théoden decides that they should ride to Gondor quickly on the open road, because the shadow provides cover. The horns blow to marshal the riders: they sound harsh and ominous to Merry though they once sounded “clear and brave.”
Merry’s confusion at being awoken in the darkness, despite the fact that it’s technically morning, shows that he’s entering a state of war he’s unused to, where unnatural demands on his spirit will be made. His changing perception of the marshalling horns shows that he’s discovering the dread of war and it’s beginning to influence his buoyant attitude.
Théoden releases Merry from his service and instructs him to stay behind with Éowyn. Merry is dismayed. All his friends have gone to war; he shouldn’t stay behind. Théoden allows him to come as far as Edoras. Then Éowyn takes Merry to show him the armor she’s found for him and says that Aragorn asked her to make sure Merry was prepared for battle. After providing him with a helmet and shield, she bids him farewell.
Théoden was happy to have Merry in his company as long as he required jolly companionship, but his dismissal of Merry at this point shows he doubts the hobbit’s skill in battle and can’t foresee Merry being of more use than he would be a hassle. However, it seems that Aragorn knew Merry would be involved in combat somehow, proven by his request of Éowyn to outfit Merry in armor.
The Riders of Rohan assemble, joined by a large host of men on spare horses. Merry rides behind Théoden past the ranks of men. One Rider, smaller than most others, catches Merry’s attention—his hopeless expression is chilling. They reach Edoras by noon. Merry begs again not to leave Théoden, but Théoden tells him he would only be a burden to the Riders. One Rider—the one from before, with the hopeless expression—approaches Merry and tells him he’ll take him on his horse and hide him under his cloak. He asks Merry to call him Dernhelm.
The fact that Merry’s eyes are drawn to the soldier with the steeliest, most hopeless expression shows that the reality of war is still shocking and new to him—he’s unused to seeing someone so resolved to go to their death. Soon, though, Merry’s fate is bound to this hopeless soldier’s: the danger of the oncoming battle is now inevitable.
As the Riders make the journey from Edoras, they are greeted intermittently with news that Rohan’s borders are being assailed by the enemy. Éomer urges the Riders on: it’s too late to divert from their path. They journey past the beacon hills, but by now the beacons have been extinguished. The shadow above them grows and deepens.
Théoden’s decision to bring his soldiers to Gondor’s aid is quickly proving to be a decision of great sacrifice—he’s required to actively ignore the threats on his own land in order to be of use to a fellow kingdom.