Meanwhile, Théoden, Éomer, Merry, and the Riders of Rohan push onwards towards Dunharrow.
An exhausted, lonely Merry worries about all his buddies—Pippin, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and of course Frodo and Sam.
After a grueling three days, they arrive at the valley of Harrowdale, where a narrow gorge leads to Dunharrow.
In the morning, they will travel on to Edoras before riding to war in Gondor—finally.
Éomer suggests that Théoden stay in in safety at Edoras, but Théoden refuses. That's no way for a king to act.
Trumpets sound as Théoden rides up. He is arriving victorious at Dunharrow, after their awesome showing at Helm's Deep.
The remainder of his people are ready and waiting for him there.
We must say, the road to Dunharrow is quite fascinating. It's a steep track with many switchbacks, and it's lined with odd, clumsy statues of men. These are called the Púkel-men.
Only the King's guard is going up into the Hold; the rest of the Riders are going to camps that have been prepared for them.
From this high place, you can see the valleys of the River Snowbourn. You can also see the Dwimorberg, the Haunted Mountain, where Aragorn has gone to find his army of the Dead.
As they arrive at the Hold, Éowyn comes out to greet them.
She is dressed in armor to the waist, with her long hair in braids beneath her helmet.
Although she promises them that everything is hunky-dory, she seems downright depressed.
That's when she breaks the news that Aragorn has gone to the Paths of the Dead.
Éomer is immediately gloomy: "Then our paths are sundered [...] He is lost. We must ride without him, and our hope dwindles" (5.3.35).
For his part, Merry is getting really sad now. He has no companions left in the fellowship with whom he can ride into battle.
When he hears a trumpet calling for the king's meal, Merry goes to wait on him.
At dinner, he finds Théoden, Éomer, Éowyn, and Dúnhere. Théoden invites Merry to join them at the table.
Wanting to know more about what's going on, Merry asks what, exactly, the Paths of the Dead are.
No one really knows, Théoden says, even though they are aware of the gate into the Haunted Mountain. The one guy who has ever gone into the Paths of the Dead, Baldor son of Brego, never came out again.
But maybe now is the time the Dead have been waiting for, muses Théoden. Éomer stomps all over this faint hope. He is sure Aragorn is dead meat.
Just then, a man from Gondor arrives, demanding to speak to Théoden.
When Merry see him, he gasps, because this dude looks a lot like Boromir.
But Boromir he is not. His name is Hirgon, and he is the errand-rider of Denethor.
He is carrying a Red Arrow, the sign of Gondor's direst need, and he has come to ask "for all your strength and all your speed, lest Gondor fall at last" (5.3.58).
Rohan will answer. Théoden can bring six thousand spear-men.
Of course he actually has ten thousand troops, but he has to leave four thousand to protect his own fortresses.
Unfortunately, it will take another week for the men of Rohan to walk to Minas Tirith. Hirgon worries that Minas Tirith will already be a ruin by then.
The next morning, a man wakes Merry to prepare for the journey.
When Merry protests that it's not dawn yet, the guy tells Merry there will be no dawn today. But no matter what, they have to leave for Minas Tirith. They're in a rush, remember?
Merry walks in to hear a man standing next to Hirgon, explaining, "Now a great cloud hangs over all the land between here and the Mountains of Shadow; and it is deepening. War has already begun" (5.3.78).
Hirgon tells Théoden that there is a lot of food stockpiled in Minas Tirith, so they shouldn't worry about provisions.
Théoden agrees: they just have to worry about speed.
Théoden orders Merry to stay and help Éowyn, who will be leading the people of Rohan while Théoden is on the battlefield.
Brave Merry wants to go with Théoden, even if that means that he has to run behind their horses on foot the whole way.
No dice, Merry. Théoden says he can't come because he's too small to ride a full-grown horse with the speed needed to arrive in Gondor in time to save it.
Nevertheless, Éowyn gives Merry a belt, a knife, and a shield.
As Merry walks out with the men of the king's household, his eye is caught particularly by a young man near the end of the ranks of soldiers.
Merry suddenly realizes that "it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death" (5.3.94), which is unsettling to say the least.
The troops set off past "many sad faces of women [looking] out from dark doors" (5.3.95).
Merry keeps arguing with Théoden about being allowed to go to Gondor, until finally a young Rider approaches Merry and asks if he wants to ride with Théoden.
Duh! Merry says yes, and the Rider—Dernhelm—puts Merry in front of him on his horse.
So Merry rides after Théoden after all: they go to Edoras and then on through Rohan.
As they travel, they hear news of orcs attacking the Wold of Rohan on the eastern borders of the country.
Though the riders want to help, Éomer answers that it's too late to turn back; it's Gondor or bust.