An Act of Desperation - Chapter 10- Dernhelm
Though my thoughts were mostly occupied with carrying out my plan as I walked toward the pavilion to meet with my uncle, I still could not help being disturbed when I noticed the sky. It was past time for the sun to rise, but a heavy darkness still hung over the encampment. There was not even a hint of light or shadow in the thick, iron-grey blanket to indicate the form of clouds. I could see as I looked around that I was not the only one anxious at the sight of it; people murmured quietly amongst themselves and occasionally glanced upwards nervously.
I was startled to hear a movement nearby, and turned to see my uncle standing beside me. "Come, Éowyn," he said kindly. "I wish to break fast with you and your brother before we go. Éomer is already waiting."
I followed him back to the pavilion. Éomer was sitting at the table in a brooding silence. His eyes briefly met mine, but neither of us spoke. After our near-argument the night before, I had no wish to upset him again, and it seemed he felt the same way. A woman came and set some bread and hard cheese before us. My brother and uncle ate silently; I occasionally took a bite but did not have much of an appetite. I was unable to shake the feeling that this could very well be the last time that we were all together, and was afraid to spoil things by speaking.
Théoden had just about finished eating when one of his guards, Gamling, entered the tent. "My lord, the men of Gondor wish to speak with you ere they go."
"Send them in," my uncle replied. Gamling bowed and left. Shortly after, two dark-haired men entered the tent. Both were clad in silver and black, with riding cloaks of green. Their helms were emblazoned with a small silver star, which I recognized as one of the symbols of Gondor. Théoden, Éomer and I stood as they entered, nodding our heads in acknowledgment as the men bowed. The taller of the two was apparently the leader, as he stepped forward after they had both straightened. My uncle remained standing, but Éomer and I sat down.
"Good morning, my lord, if one can call a day such as this good," the man said politely. I glanced over at Éomer. He leaned over and whispered, "His name is Hirgon. He is the messenger who came to us after you left, bearing the Red Arrow." My eyes widened as I began to understand why Éomer had fallen into such despair; I had not realized quite how serious the situation had become.
"Yes, Lord Hirgon. I fear the men see the darkness as an ill omen," my uncle answered as he finally sat down. The tent flap arose once again, and Merry stumbled in, looking like he had awoken just moments before. I gave him an encouraging half-smile as he stood at the back of the tent.
"It comes from Mordor, lord," Hirgon said. "It began last night at sunset. From the hills in the Eastfold of your realm I saw it rise and creep across the sky, and all night as I rode it came behind eating up the stars. Now the great cloud hangs over all the land between here and the Mountains of Shadow; and it is deepening. War has already begun."
My uncle sat for a long moment in deep thought, his head bowed. I could see a trace of the despair that had weighed him down for so long during Wormtongue's time. When he finally spoke again, his voice was heavy. "So we come to it in the end; the great battle of our time, in which many things shall pass away." Then he raised his head, and his eyes lit up once more. "But at least there is no longer need for hiding. We will ride the straight way and the open road and with all our speed. The muster shall begin at once, and wait for none that tarry." He turned to Hirgon. "Have you good store in Minas Tirith? For if we must ride now in all haste, then we must ride light, with but meal and water enough to last us into battle."
"We have very great store long prepared. Ride now as light and as swift as you may!" Hirgon said, his face lighting up hopefully.
The king turned to my brother. "Then call the heralds, Éomer. Let the Riders be marshaled!" Éomer rose and bowed. He glanced over at me, looking as if he wanted to speak. Finally, he softly said, "Farewell, little sister," and left. Hirgon and his companion followed.
Merry stepped forward tentatively after they had left. My uncle smiled at him. "I am going to war, Master Meriadoc. In a little while I shall take the road. I release you from my service, but not from my friendship. You shall abide here, and if you will, you shall serve the Lady Éowyn, who will govern the folk in my stead." I looked down sadly as I saw that once again, I was given no choice in the matter.
Merry looked rather unhappy with this arrangement as well. "But... but lord," he protested, "I offered you my sword. I do not want to be parted from you like this, Théoden King. And as all my friends have gone to the battle, I should be ashamed to stay behind."
"But we ride on horses tall and swift, and great though your heart be, you cannot ride on such beasts." My uncle's voice was kind, but firm.
"Then tie me onto the back of one, or let me hang on a stirrup, or something!" Merry cried in frustration. "It is a long way to run; but run I shall, if I cannot ride, even if I wear my feet off and arrive weeks too late."
I could not help feeling impressed at the Halfling's fervor. My uncle smiled. "Rather than that I would bear you with me on Snowmane. But at the least you shall ride with me to Edoras and look on Meduseld; for that way I shall go. So far Stybba can bear you: the great race will not begin till we reach the plains."
He turned and nodded to me, and I rose from my seat. "Come now, Meriadoc! I will show you the gear that I have prepared for you." He waited until I had left the tent, then followed. I slowed down to allow him to catch up, and we walked side by side through the encampment. "This request only did Aragorn make to me, that you should be armed for battle," I said, trying to keep the sorrow out of my voice. "I have granted it, as I could, for my heart tells me that you will need such gear ere the end."
I slowed down as I reached the armourer's tent. "How may I help you, my lady?" he asked, bowing.
"I need the armour that was set aside for the king's esquire," I answered.
The armourer saw Merry standing by my side and gave me a strange look, but kept silent as he disappeared inside the tent. He returned quickly with his arms full of battle gear and set it down. "Begging your pardon, my lady, but I am needed in the soldier's camp."
"Very well, thank you," I said as he bowed and departed. Merry eagerly went over to the small pile and picked up the helm.
"I can't believe you found one small enough!" he exclaimed.
"It was my brother's, when he was a child," I explained. "No mail have we to fit you though, nor any time for the forging of such a hauberk; but here is also a stout jerkin of leather, a belt, and a knife. A sword you have," I said, noting the intricately designed scabbard hanging by his side.
Merry bowed gratefully. "Thank you, my lady." He quickly pulled on the leather armour and helm. After he had finished strapping the scabbards for his sword and the knife onto his belt, I handed him a green shield painted with a white horse. He tried to stuff his arm through the iron bar across the back.
"Not like that! Here, I'll show you." He handed the shield back to me, and I showed him how to grip the shield in the center of the bar, so that he could easily move it to block a blow. "Here, you try," I said, handing it back to him and pulling out my sword. Merry's eyes widened for a moment. "Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you," I said, smiling to reassure him. "Now if I'm bringing my sword down upon you like this..." I slowly moved my sword as if I was going to bring it down upon his shield-arm, and he brought up his arm and blocked the blade. "Good!" I exclaimed, and he smiled. "Now let's try a couple more." I acted as if I was going to strike him a few more times, and he blocked every blow with his shield. "Very good, Merry."
He looked up at me. "You've been very kind, Éowyn. I don't know how to thank you."
I knelt down before him. "Take all these things, and bear them to good fortune." I smiled as well as I could, though my heart was heavy. Even the Halfling is given more of a chance than I am! "Farewell now, Master Meriadoc," I said before adding, half to myself, "Yet maybe we shall meet again, you and I."
"Farewell," he said with a bit of uncertainty, then bowed and left.
After Merry had left, I glanced around to see if anyone was watching. No one seemed to be paying attention to what I was doing, so I quickly entered the armourer's tent. It did not take me long to gather what I needed; the helm I had found the day before was still lying slightly apart from the others, and I grabbed the smallest leather hauberk I could find. I already had the mail shirt and shield I had taken from Edoras, and I had my own sword and riding gloves. Almost as an afterthought, I took one of the metal plates we used to protect our horses' heads in battle; if either Uncle Théoden or Éomer saw the distinctive splash of white on Windfola's forehead, I would be caught. I found a blanket, wrapped the armour in it and left the tent.
After my conversation with Éomer the night before, I had hidden the mail-shirt and shield under a bush in a pine grove that stood near the back of the camp. I made sure no one was looking, then crept back there and shoved the bundle next to it. There was just one more thing I needed to complete my disguise--clothes. I knew I wouldn't have anything that would pass for men's garments, but I knew exactly where to look.
My brother would not be in his tent; he would be down in the valley summoning the soldiers. Nevertheless, I softly called, "Éomer?" before entering. I was in luck; Éomer had obviously packed in haste, and several articles of clothing still littered the ground. I quickly picked up a tunic and a pair of wool breeches, rolled them up tightly and hid the bundle under my cloak. His mind would be on the battle; he would never miss them.
I peeked outside. Several men were standing near the entrance of the tent. I groaned silently. How am I going to get out now? If Éomer returned, there would be more questions than I cared to deal with. I experimentally tugged at the bottom of the canvas, but with no luck; the stakes were driven tightly into the ground. I peeked out again, and didn't see anyone there this time. I quickly left with a sigh of relief, tossing the bundle into my tent as I headed toward the pavilion once more.
"Éowyn," I heard my uncle call. He was standing a little ways off watching the preparations in the valley below, and looked over at me sadly. "I must go soon, Éowyn. I just wanted to speak with you one last time."
I could feel the threatening sting of tears in my eyes again as I walked over. "You don't believe you'll come back," I said flatly.
"Nay; my heart tells me I will not see spring come to Edoras again." Théoden sighed as his gaze drifted over the encampment.
"Then Éomer was right." My voice sounded small and childlike even to my own ears. "It is hopeless. We cannot win this fight."
"Perhaps not." He turned back to me, and the old gleam that I remembered from my childhood was in his eyes. "But we will fight nonetheless. I will not have it said of us that we failed to fulfill our oaths." After a moment, the fire in his eyes faded as he added, "May you never have to face a decision such as this, Éowyn."
A cold knot settled in my stomach; I knew what he was implying. I stood for a moment, my hands clenching and unclenching nervously. Finally I blurted out, "Uncle, let me come with you this time. I beg you!"
"No," he said.
"Why not?" I argued. "Any extra blade would be a help in this battle. Please, just let me come with you."
"I would not have you ride into needless peril," he replied. "And the people here will still need someone to lead them when the battle comes to Rohan."
I frowned. "If I were a man, you would not refuse me." I knew my argument was childish, but at that point I did not care. I was still unsure about carrying out my plan, and had no wish to deceive my uncle if I could still avoid it.
"Someone would have to stay regardless. I'd rather it be someone I can trust." He was evading the point, and we both knew it.
I looked up at him. "Uncle, if this truly is the last battle of our time, I would rather die fighting beside you and Éomer than to die here alone." My eyes filled with tears in spite of my efforts to hold them back.
He smiled sadly and put his arm about my shoulders. "Éowyn," he murmured, wiping away a tear that began to trickle down my cheek "It grieves me to leave you here like this."
"Then don't," I pleaded. "Let me come."
"I cannot allow that. If I must die, I would rather die knowing that our people will be cared for. And if there is the slightest hope of victory, I would have you safe here. No man wants to see his daughter face an end such as you would find in the battle." I looked up at him, and he added, "You know that I could not love you any more if you had been my own daughter. I only wish I had been a better father."
"You have been a better father than I ever hoped for," I protested.
He frowned. "Nay; a father would not have forced you stand by and wait on me as I became a dotard, with Wormtongue's words ringing in your ears day after day. Do not let his lies fill you with despair, as I did."
"I won't," I answered automatically, though I knew it was already too late for such promises. "And you never forced me to stay. It was my choice."
That seemed to ease his mind a little. He embraced me warmly, then stepped back and studied me as if he was trying to memorize my face. Finally he said, "Farewell, Éowyn."
"Farewell," I answered. As he turned and walked away, my resolve wavered. He and Éomer were so determined that I stay, and I did not wish to disobey my king's wishes.
But as I looked around the camp, the mountains encircling the Firienfeld seemed like walls closing me in. The sky hung heavily overhead, a roof of iron to complete my prison. I realized this was to be my end if I stayed behind, the dishonorable death of a prisoner.
"No!" I cried in a choked whisper. In that moment, my decision was made. If I was to die anyway, which I was certain I would, at least I could choose how I would meet that end. I whirled around and headed for my tent once more.
I had filled a saddlebag with the remainder of my breakfast, a few other loaves of bread, my riding gloves and dagger, and a few other small items. As I carried it across the camp, I kept glancing around, sure that I would be stopped and questioned at any moment, but it never happened. Once I reached the shadows of the pine grove, I quickly shed my dress and pulled Éomer's tunic and breeches on. I had to cut a strip of fabric off the waist of the pants and create a sort of drawstring to get his pants to fit my waist. After I pulled on the mail shirt and laced up the hauberk, I buckled on a harness that would allow my sword to be easily drawn while riding, pulled on my riding gloves and laced a pair of vambraces around my wrists. Finally, I clasped my cloak about my shoulders, picked up my dagger and pulled the end of my braid over my shoulder. I stared at it for a long moment, suddenly reluctant to cut it off. You fool! No Rider has hair this long! I thought, but still hesitated. Then I heard the clear ring of trumpets from the camp below, and realized I was running out of time. I quickly coiled my braid up and stuffed it inside the helm, then sheathed the dagger and pushed it into my boot.
I was just about to pick up the shield when I remembered that my white dress still lay on the ground. Even though I doubted anyone would come back here, I still couldn't leave any evidence behind, so I quickly rolled it up and hid it underneath the food in my saddlebag. I could not help shaking my head at how ridiculous it was to carry a dress into battle as I rolled up the blanket, grabbed my shield and left the grove.
It did not take me long to get Windfola tacked up. My heart was still pounding hard as I mounted and began my descent down the path, but still I was not questioned. It seemed I was not the only warrior who was running a bit late; as I reached the valley I could see the captains dividing the riders into companies, and the only acknowledgment I received was for one of the lieutenants to give me a critical glance, then direct me over to the third company, led by Elfhelm. For a moment I was disappointed that I would not be riding with Théoden and Éomer, but then I realized that I would have more chance of being recognized if I was in their company and went without complaint after I had taken a spear.
One of the men glanced over at me sharply as I pulled Windfola to a halt. "Hurry up, lad, the king is coming!" I nodded silently and took my place near the end of the line. As I watched, I could see my uncle following twelve Riders from his guard with Éomer on his right. I looked away for a moment for fear of being recognized, but then set my gaze forward. A warrior does not hide from the face of his king, I told myself sternly. I still felt relieved though, when neither my uncle nor my brother even glanced in my direction.
I had not noticed that Merry was riding behind the king until I felt his eyes upon me. I returned the gaze, though it took all my resolve to do so; I didn't realize that I had been holding my breath until he had turned his face ahead of him once more. The remainder of the king's company passed, followed by Grimbold's company. Mine was the last to leave the encampment. As Windfola began trotting behind the others, I kept my eyes riveted ahead. I had been saddened to leave Edoras, but this time I felt no grief or regret. I felt nothing at all.
We reached Edoras within a few hours, and my uncle called for a short rest while several Riders who had not reached Dunharrow in time for the muster were divided into companies. I picketed Windfola and walked around a little, knowing I should stretch my legs while I had the chance. Though we were resting outside the walls, I also wanted to take the opportunity to look around my city for the last time.
All around me, men were eating or talking in low murmurs. Many of them still looked at the sky uneasily. For my part, I avoided company and ate as I walked. From where I was, I could see the path leading up to the walls, and two horses picketed near the barrows, which I quickly recognized as Snowmane and Firefoot. Théoden and Éomer were standing nearby in front of the barrow where my cousin had been laid to rest, and though I could not hear what was said, I knew my uncle was trying to bid farewell to his son. For a moment, I fought the desire to join them, to offer my uncle what little comfort I could. But I knew we were close enough to Dunharrow that I would still be sent back, and I could not allow that to happen. I reluctantly turned away.
Within the hour, most of the men had mounted and were ready to continue. I was about to mount my horse when I saw Merry speaking with the king. Even though I would not have dared to move close enough to hear the conversation, I did not need to; Merry's face as he bowed and walked away told me all I needed to know.
I looked away and lifted my foot to the stirrup once more, then stopped and looked back at the Halfling. He is not much taller than Freda, I thought; surely a little more weight would not hurt Windfola. I hesitated again; I was taking enough of a chance being there myself. Why should Merry's fate concern me?
Because you, more than anyone, should understand, I thought with more than a little guilt. I had also offered my service and been refused; I could not deny Merry the same chance I had taken. With my mind made up, I picketed Windfola once more.
Merry's back was turned to me, and he visibly jumped as I came up behind him and said softly, taking care to keep my voice as low as I could, "Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say. And so I have found myself." He turned towards me, and a look of recognition passed over his face. I chose to ignore it for the moment as I continued, "You wish to go whither the Lord of the Mark goes. I see it in your face."
His eyes lit up in sudden hope. "I do," he said.
"Then you shall go with me. I will bear you before me, under my cloak until we are far afield, and this darkness is yet darker." My voice softened a bit as I added, half to myself, "Such good will should not be denied." I looked back down at him and said, "Say no more to any man, but come!"
Merry smiled in gratitude. "Thank you indeed!" he exclaimed. "Thank you, sir, though I do not know your name."
"Do you not?" I asked, hoping I did not sound as surprised as I felt; I thought for sure he had recognized me. "Then call me..." I quickly searched my mind for a name. "Dernhelm."
"Then thank you, Dernhelm," Merry said. "And please, call me Merry." I nodded, though I did not smile. I led him over to Windfola, and laced my fingers together to allow him to boost himself up to the height needed to reach the stirrup; I did not want to offend him by lifting him into the saddle. After Merry had pulled himself somewhat unsteadily onto the stallion's back, I mounted behind him and quickly arranged my cloak to hide his feet as much as possible. Then the heralds gave the signal, and we rode on once more.