There were a lot of things he might have dreamt. Years ago, he was afraid he would be dreaming Pelennor all his days, dreaming the noise and the stench and pain and the black wings. He might have dreamt orcs, too, with their red eyes and yellow teeth, their mottled skin. And again, the stench of them; the smell alone was worth several months of nightmares. He still has those panicked nights, waking prickled with sweat and relief, but they are few and far between now, growing rarer.
Instead he dreams horses, which do not frighten him at all.
They do not frighten him, but they sometimes leave him staring up into the dark, wondering. He thinks he has dreamt whole herds of them, miles of fields and pasture laid out in his mind. And not the shaggy sturdy Shire ponies, either, but tall fierce horses that pull miles within their stride.
Estella turns to him smiling and she is holding the baby against her hip.
He is in Buckland again and his world smells of warm earth once more. Things are settling back into place, and the rhythms of the Shire hum around him; ploughs break the dark earth and children grow up. He has been dreaming bits of horses, manes and tails, fetlocks and hooves, so that the whole of the dream is like one great eye passing over. Sometimes he only dreams of their hoofbeats passing off the edge of something, and then he opens his eyes and the sound has passed with him into waking, a whispering noise. And then he will blink; it's only his wife breathing beside him.
He delegates, rearranges, passes off duties, and in the sliver of time between harvest and winter he makes the long ride south.
"Do you have to go?" Estella says before he leaves. "The work's only just over."
"Just a short visit," he says to her.
"Hurry home," she replies, their exchange only a shining little token. She knows that he won't reconsider, and he knows that for a while things will be just fine without him, that she will be just fine without him, and this is one of the reasons why he loves her.
The weather is good for the trip; the autumn has been long and unseasonably warm, lingering like a housecat next to the hearth. On the way south he searches for markers and reminders of his first journey, as if nature were hanging out flags for his eyes only. But the moment he thinks he sees traces of the past in the pattern of purple-orange leaves on a tree, the moment he believes he can detect the echo of an echo in the sound of a stream running down the slope, he knows he has gone too far; searching for things that are absent, or present only in his mind. And then he will pat his fine sturdy Shire pony on its neck, knowing that it's time to slacken the reins and let the land drift past. The old Brandybuck blood, he thinks: you must love the road for the road.
Éowyn turns to him smiling and she is holding the baby against her hip. He is a bright grinning little boy, reaching out to grasp patches of sunlight with his fat pink hands.
"He looks like you," Merry says.
"Do you think?" she asks, pleased. "Some people tell me so, though I tend to believe he favors Faramir's side. Who knows?" She lifts the baby high in the air and he gazes down at her, laughter bubbling from his throat. "He may very well grow up to look like neither of us." She hands him back to the nurse, who bobs and retreats with the child. "And how is your son?"
"Well, thank you. Noisy and plump and happy."
"As well he should be. And Estella?"
"She's very well, too, and sends her regards."
"Give her mine, in return."
She shows him the gardens, which are elegant and winding and full of small hidden places. Fallen red leaves dot the path, and they walk slowly. Almost as slowly, Merry thinks, as the way he walked through the Minas Tirith gardens when he was wounded, when he was ill with worry and memory—how nice, to drag his feet for no other reason than that he wants to.
"Lovely," he admires. "Sam should like to see this, I think."
"Then he must come and visit us, too. I assume he was too taken up with his duties to ride with you?"
He clears his throat. "I didn't ask him, actually. I didn't ask anyone."
He nods, and she leaves it at that.
"But when he does visit," he resumes, "he'll pepper you with questions about all the flowers and vines and things, and what trees you think are the best for shade."
She laughs. "He'll have to ask Faramir; the gardens are mostly his project." A pause. "He very much wanted to see you, Merry, but he was called away."
She nods, no longer smiling.
"It's true then? Gondor might go to war?"
"Perhaps," she says, her voice measured. "We will do all we can to prevent it, but…" She trails off, and Merry understands the incompleteness, that there are too many things in the world and too many possible paths into the forest, and that in the end, trying to fathom what is down all of them at once will take you nowhere.
"Well, whatever happens," he says, "it can't be nearly as terrible as the last one, can it?"
She stops and looks at him, and the afternoon light is bright on her hair and her gown. Peace suits her.
"No?" she asks.
"No, I don't…" he murmurs. "I hope not."
"So do I."
They are quiet for a long time after that.
To be honest, though, they've never really talked very much. As if they're always re-creating that long, lonely ride to Pelennor. She had a reason to be silent, then, of course; she had a secret to keep, a disguise to maintain. But even now, not many words pass between them; and yet somehow he doesn't mind. The quiet minutes are as full as a busy hour of Shire-gossip. She has a way of directing him to what he truly wants or needs to say, of making the world clearer and sharper. And he thinks that maybe this is the way it is for Faramir too, and that this is one of the reasons why her husband loves her.
He asks if he can see the stables, and she says, "Of course." The building is large and airy and she takes him up and down the rows, introducing him to the stable hands who are tending to the horses. As she passes the stalls, she names the stallions and geldings and mares one by one, patting their velvety noses, stroking their necks. "Many of these horses were wedding gifts from my brother," she explains. "He would not let me go to Ithilien unless I had proper Rohan stock with me, I suppose."
"No, he wouldn't, would he?" Merry laughs, and thinks that he would like to see Éomer, too.
He stares up at the forelocks and the long manes, the large opaque eyes. He takes in the swishing tails and gently stamping hooves all around him. Tall and graceful and strong; solid and plain and whole. And real. He doesn't know what it was he was searching for, if he was searching for anything at all, to begin with.
He stands with Éowyn and stares at the animals until she asks him if he would like to see something new.
The map is so large that it takes up nearly all of the table in the center of the study. "We commissioned it some months ago, " she says. "From mapmakers of Gondor and Rohan both. I knew it would turn out well, but now that it's finished it really is lovely."
And it is. The inks are so vivid and the borders so fine that it almost seems to Merry that if he touches the Bay of Belfalas his fingers will come out wet, that if he runs his palm over the White Mountains, he'll feel the jagged sharpness on his skin. As if this were not a piece of colored vellum, but the whole earth laid out before him.
"Here we are," she says, pointing. "Here, in Ithilien, and Legolas and his elves just a ways away, here." She traces her finger slowly upward. "And here are the King and Queen, in Minas Tirith. And Harad—Faramir and his party should be just about here if they made good time today. And Faramir's kin, here, in Amroth, and my brother, here, in Edoras." She is clearly aware that Merry knows all of this, and yet she keeps going, as if the lines and the names are drawing all of this out of her, fueling some need. "And here…"
And here we were at Dunharrow, Merry thinks, and here are the fields where Théoden-king fell. And here are the dreadful Mines, and the Forest of Fangorn, and the wreck of Orthanc. And here is Weathertop, and here is Rivendell, and here is the Lonely Mountain from Bilbo's stories, and here are all of my stories, spanning handsbreadths and miles, and here…
"…and here is your Shire, of course," she is saying. "Buckland, with Estella and your little boy. And Tuckborough, where Master Peregrin is, and Hobbiton, with Samwise and with…"
"Frodo's gone," Merry murmurs without really realizing.
Éowyn stops and looks at him from across the table, across mountains and oceans and cities.
"I know," she says. "I know."
The light fades, and evening falls clear and cool. Éowyn and the nurse put the baby to bed, and then she and Merry sit outside wrapped in cloaks. He smokes his pipe and she doesn't mind.
He sits and listens to her breathing beside him, and he realizes that he's come because he needs her. He needs Estella, too, of course, and he loves her, loves her and their son more than anything else. But Éowyn understands a small obscure piece of him, a strange knotty tune playing itself out always at the back of his mind. And so he needs her like he needs Legolas and Gimli and Éomer, like he needs Strider—not that he's really old Strider very much anymore, it seems. Like he needs Faramir and Sam and Pippin. Like he needs Gandalf and Frodo.
He once thought that leaving the Shire, seeing all the wilds and wonders and terrors of Middle-earth would make his world larger, and it has. But in some ways his world is also smaller, now, shrunk down to the roomful of people with whom he can sit in silence and not feel the need to explain.
He sits with her, missing his wife as she misses her husband. He makes up his mind to ride south again one day and never return, and he watches the smoke from his pipe disappear into the darkness.
Lying in yet another strange bed far from home, he dreams of the horses for the last time. This time, the hoofbeats do not trail off into his waking. They fade into the blue and into the air, off the farthest edge of the map.
In the spring of the year [1484 S.R] a message came from Rohan to Buckland that King Éomer wished to see Master Holdwine once again. Meriadoc was then old (102) but still hale. He took counsel with his friend the Thain, and soon after they handed over their goods and offices to their sons and rode away over the Sarn Ford, and they were not seen again in the Shire. It was heard after that Master Meriadoc came to Edoras and was with King Éomer before He died in that autumn. Then he and Thain Peregrin went to Gondor and passed what short years were left to them in that realm, until they died and were laid in Rath Dínen among the Great of Gondor.
--The Return of the King: Appendix B