An Act of Desperation - Chapter 12- Twilight and Shadow
As we followed Théoden over the fields towards the enemy, the clouds parted at last, allowing the morning light to stream over the field. I could see my uncle's golden shield gleaming as brightly as the sun as Snowmane bore him far ahead of us, though we tried to catch up with him. It seemed to me that madness had overtaken him; I had never seen him like that before.
I couldn't think about it anymore. A company of orcs that waited near one of the siege trenches had become aware of us, and turned to face us with spears pointed to make a wall. A few Riders armed with bows quickly shot some holes in the defensive line. The orcs responded by firing a volley of their own. I cringed involuntarily as one of the arrows whizzed past my head; I could hear a cry as it struck one of the men behind me. My uncle reached the front of the enemy line and plunged into the horde with sword drawn, followed closely by my brother and the other captains. I could hear Merry draw his sword behind me, and after throwing the spear into the line to clear a path for my horse, I followed suit.
As I rode into the fray, I had just enough time to use my shield to block a crudely made sword from plunging into Windfola's side. I beat the orc back with my shield, then thrust downward with my sword. The blade plunged into its chest and the orc fell. I had no time to think before another orc came up on my other side. This time, I had to parry the blow. Then the orc suddenly fell, and I glanced behind me as Merry withdrew his blade, now stained black with orc blood. He looked surprised, and glanced up at me.
"Good work," I called back to him as I swung at another orc, beheading it. All around me, I could hear the clash of steel on iron, the cries of horses and the screams of both men and orcs as they died. I caught a glimpse of my brother, eyes wild with battle-lust as he fought, but was quickly distracted as I had to fight off another orc.
Merry and I quickly found a way to fight hard and still keep out of each other's way. He kept his blows lower, aiming for the chest, and I found that it was easier for me to avoid hurting Merry by just beheading the orcs. I was also able to keep our left side covered more easily, since my reach was longer, so I concentrated more of my efforts there. I soon stopped thinking about what I was doing; my movements were pure reaction, simply an effort to take down just one more enemy before I was brought down myself. It was only when most of the orc company had been slain or scattered that I became aware that the men around me were singing one of the battle-songs that had been handed down from the days of Eorl himself. I smiled grimly, but did not join in.
I quickly cleaned off my blade on the edge of my tunic, then spurred Windfola on to follow the king. The walls of the city seemed to grow before my eyes as we reached the road, and even in the midst of battle I was awed by the sheer size of the city. Théoden reined Snowmane in, and those of us that had passed through the first onslaught crowded around him. I moved in close, but still behind Théoden and Éomer.
As he paused, I surveyed the situation. The other two companies were riding amid the trenches, driving the orcs towards the fires or the river, killing at will. A surge of pride rushed through me at the sight. But it had not ended yet.
I heard a strange horn call behind us, and wheeled my horse around to see a group of mounted men flying towards us, red and black banners blowing in the wind. One of the Riders nearby cursed loudly and called out, "Haradrim!"
My uncle raised his sword. "To me, Eorlingas!" he cried as he rode forward. The Riders and I quickly followed. Théoden broke through the line of men, heading straight for the captain, and I could hear the ring of steel as the two lines met, green clashing against red. Though I was not in the front of the line, I quickly found myself in the midst of battle as we drove into their line, splitting it as swift as lightning.
One of the Haradrim raised his sword against me, and I quickly responded by plunging my sword into his side. As he fell from his horse, I withdrew my sword. For a moment, I felt sick to see the red blood now staining the blade. I had not felt any remorse when fighting the orcs, since they had been troubling my people for my entire life. It had been orcs that slew my father and cousin, and in a way, my mother. But at the realization that I had just killed another human, I felt suddenly light-headed, though I was not usually one to quail at the sight of blood.
It was Merry who called me back to the present. "Dernhelm!" he cried, and I raised my shield just in time to block another blow. From that moment on, I forced myself to stay focused on the battle. I felt as if a fire was burning in my veins as I fought, filling me with a battle-lust that both thrilled and frightened me. Only once did I take my eyes off my immediate surroundings--I had ended up within a few feet of Éomer, and noticed one of the Haradrim riding towards him while my brother's back was turned, his curved sword raised to kill. I knew I could not reach him in time to stop him; without thinking, I wrenched a spear free from a fallen warrior and threw it at the man. My aim proved true; the man fell with the spearhead protruding from his stomach, the shaft still quivering in his back. Éomer turned just in time to see the man fall only feet from him. For a brief moment, his eyes met mine. I did not realize that I had been holding my breath until he nodded his thanks and looked away, and I exhaled in relief. He had not recognized me.
I heard a triumphant cry rise up, and turned just in time to see the Haradrim's banner, a black serpent on a red field, waver and fall. My uncle's standard-bearer raised our banner, a white horse on a green field, and waved it about. The Rohirrim cried out again, raising their swords victoriously. Merry shouted out with them, and I joined in this time, feeling elated. This was going better than I had dared to hope; perhaps we would have victory that day after all.
Snowmane reared up a little as my uncle waved his red-stained sword. The Haradrim that remained turned their horses and fled. I wiped my blade and returned it to its scabbard for the time as we rallied around the king once more, waiting for our next orders.
Just then, I felt a chill shoot throughout my entire body. The men and horses around me grew suddenly restless, as if they felt it too. Windfola stamped nervously, and I automatically stroked the stallion's neck to try and calm him. But all thoughts of calm flew away as an unearthly scream reached my ears. I looked up, my eyes widening as I froze in terror.
I saw a creature unlike anything I had ever seen before, more frightening than anything I had seen even in my darkest nightmares. It was black and scaly, with large, leathery wings that fanned the area around me with a cold, foul-smelling wind. Its tail lashed the air and its long, snake-like neck stretched out as it began to dive toward us with a terrible cry. As it fell, it seemed that it blotted the light out from the sky, and for the first time, I knew what fear really was. It was not the terror I had felt at the thought of losing my brother or any of my other kin; nor was it the concerns for the safety of my uncle and myself around Gríma. It was much deeper; I could sense the pure evil emanating from this creature, blinding me to all else.
I was not the only one to sense this, and I could hear the cries of battle-hardened warriors also driven mad with fear. Windfola reared up with a scream. I was still frozen with fear and failed to react in time. I flew through the air and hit the ground hard. The sounds of terrified men and horses were all around me as I rolled out of the way of Windfola's hoofs and came to a stop just inches from the glassy eyes of a dead man.
I stifled a cry of horror as I scrambled to my feet, looking around in a panic. "Merry!" I called out frantically, but could see no sign of the hobbit. Riders struggled to keep control of their mounts; even Éomer was struggling as Firefoot tore across the plains. Windfola was already out of sight. I glanced around again, praying that Merry hadn't been trampled by one of the maddened horses.
I heard a clear voice rising out of the chaos and turned to see my uncle. Somehow he had managed to stay mounted and was now raising his shield as a signal to the other Rohirrim. "To me, to me!" he cried. "Up Eorlingas! Fear no darkness!" I felt a flash of pride at his stalwart heart, which quickly faded into shock and horror as Snowmane reared up, screaming as a black arrow pierced his side. Théoden cried out in pain as the horse lost balance and fell, pinning him underneath.
"Uncle!" I screamed, all thoughts of secrecy forgotten as I ran to him, my eyes filling with tears. No! This can't be happening! Before I could reach him, the shadow-creature swooped down and landed on Snowmane's body, causing the horse to thrash in terror. I could see now that the figure of a man sat upon the beast's back. Yet I knew it was not a man. Though he wore a great black mantle over steel armor and a steel mask-like helm spiked at the top in mockery of a crown, I could not see a face. There was only darkness, and this darkness now turned to look at my uncle. Though his eyes were no more than a gleam, I could feel the malice in his gaze even from where I stood. In his hand he carried an enormous mace, which he now raised up.
I had to do something--I could not just stand by and watch him destroy the only father I had ever truly known. Not while there was a chance he might yet live. "Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion!" I called out, hoping to draw his attention away from my uncle. "Leave the dead in peace!"
The figure turned to me, and answered in a voice that chilled me to the core. "Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye."
As he said this, the raised arm dropped to his side. My distraction was working, and this gave me courage. "Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may." I answered, my sword ringing as I drew it from the scabbard. I did not feel afraid anymore; my love for my uncle left me with nothing more than a burning desire to avenge his death. And if I lost my own in the process, I had come here expecting no less.
The Nazgûl laughed cruelly. "Hinder me? Thou fool! No living man may hinder me!"
To my surprise, I laughed bitterly. Could it be that the one thing that had kept me out of battle my entire life would now work to my advantage? "But no living man am I," I said, reaching up and pulling off my helmet in a swift motion. The leather cord keeping my hair braided caught on the helmet and pulled out, and the wind quickly unraveled my hair, allowing it to spill down my back. "You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless. For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him!"
The wraith hesitated, and I raised my shield to prepare for the attack. The beast he rode on screamed and leaped up into the air. I moved back a few steps, hoping to lure it away from Snowmane. I kept my eye riveted on it as it circled in the air, then swooped down as swift as lightning. I waited until the last possible moment, then swung at its outstretched neck with all of my strength. The blade easily cut through its exposed neck, and its head dropped as heavily as a stone. I jumped backwards just in time as the beast's body crashed to the earth, so that I was now standing between Snowmane and the fallen creature. I was vaguely aware that the sun reappeared for a moment as I waited for the next move, every muscle in my body tensing in anticipation.
I did not have to wait long. The Nazgûl dismounted his fallen steed and walked towards me, the mace in his hand. He was a good deal taller than me, and for just a moment I fought the urge to turn and run as his eyes bored into me. At his glance I felt frozen, and never before had I felt despair so tangibly. I knew at that moment I had no chance of victory.
The wraith raised his mace with an ear-splitting cry, and I barely had enough time to raise my shield before the heavy blow fell, splintering the shield. Pain ripped through my body and my left arm fell, dangling uselessly by my side as my hand fell open and dropped what remained of the shield.
Broken, I thought with a grimace. When I was younger, I had fallen off a horse and broken my arm, but I was still unprepared for the agony I felt. My mind clouded and I fell to my knees, feeling strangely weak. It seemed to me that the pure hatred radiating from this dark spirit was draining whatever strength remained in my body. I looked up slowly through the darkness clouding my vision to see the mace raised in the air again. I willed myself to move out of the way, but my limbs seemed unwilling to respond. The mace began hurtling towards my head, and I braced myself for the end.
The blow never came. With a cry, the wraith stumbled and the mace slammed into the ground just inches from my body. "Éowyn!" I heard a familiar voice call, and the fog lifted from my sight just enough for me to see Merry standing behind the Nazgûl, his short sword raised up still, though he was now clutching his arm. Somehow the Halfling had wounded him. I slowly struggled back to my feet, using my sword as a crutch. The wraith also straightened, though he was still favoring his leg, and reached for me with an iron-gloved hand.
For just an instant, I hesitated. If I let him take me, then I would undoubtedly find what I had sought in this battle. Then perhaps finally I would have peace... I stumbled back a step as I raised my arm, then looked up at my foe again. I could feel the malice in his gaze as his hand stretched closer.
"Éowyn!" Merry cried again, this time more urgently.
I heard a muffled groan behind me. Uncle! "No!" I cried out. I would not falter now--not while there was still a chance I could save him. This little flicker of hope renewed my strength and with a cry, I raised my sword once again and plunged it into the opening of his iron mask.
In that very instant, the blade shattered as if it had been made of glass. I cried out involuntarily as my sword arm cramped painfully, as if the blood in my veins had suddenly frozen. The fog that had been creeping at the edges of my sight grew darker as the Nazgûl gave a wild, ear-splitting cry that grew ever higher in pitch. He then fell to the ground, and I stumbled backwards a step before falling to my knees once more. The hilt of my sword fell heavily from my lifeless fingers as the darkness closed swiftly around me. I heard Merry calling my name, though it grew ever more distant as the scream continued to rise, drowning out all other sound until it was all I could hear. The sound finally began to die away, and I was vaguely aware of falling as my eyes closed. "Forgive me, Uncle," I whispered, my breath coming in ragged gasps. "I tried..." Then the darkness closed over me, and I couldn't see anymore.
After I fell, the sounds of battle raged around me still, though it seemed to me that it came from a great distance. I could vaguely hear Merry's voice, though I could not make out the words. I heard Éomer shouting as well, crying "Death take us all!" The clash of steel on iron rang hollow in my ears, but the sounds grew more and more distant as I lay there. Through it all, the only thing I was clearly aware of was the cold. I had never been so cold. It was the kind of chill I had felt many times during Rohan's long winters when a blast of icy wind would leave my exposed fingers numb and in pain at the same time, only to a much greater degree than I had ever experienced before.
I could deal with the pain. It was the helplessness that was more than I could bear. My vision had failed almost completely by this time, and I could neither move nor speak. My chest felt like it was being crushed, leaving me unable to breathe. I'm dying. The thought gave me no peace, like I had hoped it would. Then there was nothing but the darkness.
It's still difficult for me to clearly remember what happened after that. A confusing jumble of images passed before me--the city going up in flames, the banner of the Rohirrim falling once more, the bloodied face of my brother as he lay on the ground, unseeing eyes staring at me accusingly. And through it all, I could sense malicious eyes staring at me from within a shadowy hood, and hear the mocking laughter of the Nazgûl. Or maybe it was Gríma that I heard laughing; either way, I knew I had failed. And I was still so cold; my sword-arm was completely lifeless, and the rest of my body felt as if I had been encased in ice.
And then the battle-scenes faded too, and I could no longer feel anything except for the cold darkness. Then my surroundings seemed to shift, as if I was in a dream, and I was back on the field. Though I could faintly see the city and the river in the distance, there was no sign of life; everything was merely a shadowy grey reflection of the waking world. The sky above me was unnaturally dark, and it seemed strange to me that I could see at all. Somehow I was on my feet again, but still unable to move of my own free will.
Although what little light existed in this place was fading rapidly, I could still see a movement out of the corner of my eye. The scene shifted slightly, and a man stood there, facing away from me. In the strange half-light, I could not make out his features clearly, save his dark hair. "Aragorn?" I whispered hesitantly. He then became aware of me, and turned towards me. Though I still could not see him clearly, I quickly realized that he was not Aragorn; his hair was a bit shorter and his frame thinner. Still, there was something about him that reminded me of Aragorn. His grey eyes met mine for a long moment; he looked just as lost as I felt. Then he turned his head suddenly, as if he had heard someone call his name; I blinked, and he was gone.
I stood there, confused, as my surroundings faded into complete darkness again. Then gradually, I became aware of something else, something completely foreign to this shadow-world. A light wind was caressing my face; not the foul wind from the battlefield that carried the scent of death and destruction, but a cool breeze that was lighter and cleaner than the wind on any mountain I had ever been on. As the wind brushed past me, I began to regain feeling in my sword-arm, though I still could not move. Then it seemed to me that the wind began to form words.
Awake, Éowyn, Lady of Rohan! Awake! The shadow is gone and all darkness is washed clean!
The voice grew louder, and slightly more familiar. Aragorn? I wondered. No, it could not be...he was gone. The darkness grew deeper as the doubts began to form in my mind.
A different, more familiar voice began to call my name, and in spite of myself, I found myself fighting to fully regain consciousness. The wind had taken on a pungent, herbal scent, and I could feel a cool dampness on my arm and forehead, though whether it was water or perspiration I did not know. I could feel the warmth of someone's hand holding mine, though only vaguely. The darkness I could sense through my closed eyes lightened a bit, and I could hear the murmur of concerned voices. As my other senses returned, so did the pain. My shield arm ached dully, and every muscle in my body felt as if they had been torn apart and hurriedly reassembled. My head throbbed, and my throat felt parched. For a moment, I longed to sink back into the darkness, but the voice calling me back would not allow me to.
I finally managed to open my eyes, blinking hard to try and clear my vision. I was lying in a bed in a room with pale walls. The only light came from a few candles and a small fire burning in a hearth; I could see a blank expanse of darkness through a window carved into the wall. The darkness made me shiver. I could see a person sitting in a chair beside me, though shadow still tainted my sight. The fuzzy images resolved themselves at last into a face, and I blinked hard again, this time in disbelief.
"Éomer?" I could not raise my voice above a hoarse whisper. My brother was sitting beside me, still fully-clad in his armour, though he had removed his helmet and riding gloves. He was holding my hand in both of his, and to my surprise, I could see traces of tears glistening on his face. He smiled a little through his tears. "What joy is this? They said you were slain!" I whispered. Had it all been a dream then? I wondered as I continued, half to myself, "Nay, but that was only the dark voices in my dream. How long have I been dreaming?"
"Not long, my sister," Éomer said, his voice thick with emotion as he gently brushed the damp hair back from my forehead. "But think no more on it!"
I struggled to sit up, but I was still too weak. Even that small motion sapped whatever strength remained in me, and I finally gave up. "I am strangely weary... I must rest a little," I said reluctantly. Éomer nodded as I allowed my eyes to drift shut. Then I suddenly remembered about our uncle. My eyes flew open. "But tell me," I asked urgently, "what of the Lord of the Mark?"
Éomer's gaze grew even more solemn, and he opened his mouth as if he wanted to speak but didn't know what to say. Then I knew. "Alas... do not tell me that that was a dream, for I know that it was not," I said, my voice catching in my throat as I looked up towards the ceiling. "He is dead as he foresaw." I couldn't save him.
"He is dead," Éomer finally said. "But he bade me say farewell to Éowyn, dearer than daughter." He glanced down and fell silent for a moment as if he was fighting with his own memory, then finally added, "He lies now in great honour in the Citadel of Gondor."
I lay there in numb silence, unable to think. As a child, I learned early on that death in battle was the highest honour one could achieve; it was this belief that gave my people the courage to face the often-harsh conditions of daily life in Rohan. Even so, honour gained did not ease the pain for those left behind; it had not when my father died, and it did not now. Éomer seemed to sense the turmoil I was feeling, and quietly asked, "Éowyn?"
"That is grievous," I finally said flatly. "And yet it is good beyond all that I dared hope in the dark days, when it seemed that the House of Eorl was sunk in honour less than any shepherd's cot." The words came automatically, but I could not help wondering if I really believed it.
I was forgetting something. It came back to me suddenly--Merry. "And what of the king's esquire, the Halfling?" I asked, feeling panicked. I couldn't remember seeing him after the shadow-creature stumbled...if something had happened to him, I'd never forgive myself. "Éomer, you shall make him a knight of the Riddermark, for he is valiant!" I exclaimed, silently adding if he is still alive.
"He lies nearby in this House, and I will go to him," a voice said from the other side of me. I turned to see Gandalf sitting on the other side of the bed; I had not even realized anyone else was in the room. He smiled kindly at me and continued, "Éomer shall stay here for awhile. But do not speak yet of war or woe, until you are made whole again. Great gladness it is to see you wake again to health and hope, so valiant a lady!"
Hope. The very idea was a mockery. My only hope had been an honourable death, but even that was denied me now. For a moment, I was furious with Éomer for not just letting me die. Then I sighed; I could not blame him. Had our places been reversed, I would have done the same.
Maybe there is still hope. The battle was over, but the war had not yet been won. Perhaps I would still have my opportunity. I looked over at Éomer, then at Gandalf. "To health? It may be so, at least while there is an empty saddle of some fallen Rider that I can fill, and there are deeds to do." Éomer frowned, but I ignored it as I added softly, "But to hope? I do not know."
Gandalf's smile faded, and his eyes grew sorrowful as he looked at me steadily. I could not bear the scrutiny of his gaze and turned my head away. He sighed softly, then said, "Rest now, Éowyn. I must go see to Merry." He left the room, closing the door softly behind him.
I turned back to Éomer. "How long will you stay?"
"As long as you wish," he said "And Gandalf is right; you should rest now."
"I'm fine," I protested, not wishing to slip back into the dark dreams that had plagued me earlier.
"No, you're not," he retorted. "You nearly died today, Éowyn! If Ara..." he abruptly stopped.
My eyes, which had been growing heavy despite my best efforts to stay awake, flew back open. "What did you say?" Éomer had the awkward look of someone who has said something he shouldn't. "Éomer, what is it?"
He finally answered, "Aragorn survived the Dimholt Road. I don't know how, for I have not had much opportunity to speak with him tonight."
"That's not what you were going to say."
He sighed. "Aragorn's the one who called you back, Éowyn."
A wave of conflicting emotions washed over me. Relief that he was still alive mingled with sorrow at the memory of his rejection and anger that he had healed me, only to leave me like this. It would have been better to have died, I thought bitterly.
Éomer was carefully watching my reaction. "Éowyn?"
I forced my expression to stay as neutral as I could. "Perhaps you are right, Éomer. I do need to rest."
He watched me a moment longer. "Very well," he finally said as he stood to leave.
"Wait," I said, catching his hand. When he looked back down at me, I pleaded, "Please don't go."
His grey eyes softened as he sat down again. "You will try to rest, even if I'm still here?"
"Yes, I promise," I said. At that point I would have said almost anything to avoid being left alone, but as weary as I felt, I did not think I would be unable to keep that promise.
"Good." He squeezed my hand gently. "Go to sleep then. And I promise I'll still be here when you wake."
I smiled gratefully, though weakly, and closed my eyes once more.