An Act of Desperation - Chapter 6- Leaving Edoras
I awoke before dawn the next morning, feeling completely exhausted. I had spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening taking inventories of what would need to come with us, making sure everyone in the city had started making preparations, and finding out how many people would be unable to walk the distance, namely the very young children and the elderly. These would ride in carts along with much of the food and other supplies that the rest of us could not carry.
We still had some horses left, mostly the sturdier ones used to draw the wagons and the ones too young to be ridden. The other horses would be ridden by several of the younger women who had volunteered to act as scouts. I would also ride in order to be able to move back and forth quickly and make sure no one was falling behind.
I had been so busy the previous day that I had not packed, so I threw some things into a saddlebag. I dressed in a simple tunic and threw on a sleeveless riding dress with a split skirt over top, then put on the mail shirt that my uncle had given me the day before over that. I shoved my feet into a well-worn pair of riding boots, and then pulled my hair into a thick braid. Finally, I put on a warm green cloak, clasped it with the horse brooch my uncle had given me and took one last look around the room.
A few embers were still glowing in the hearth, and I poured water from the pitcher beside my bed to extinguish them. My sword-belt lay on the bed, along with the dagger I had grown accustomed to carrying. I glanced around again as I strapped the belt around my waist and picked up the sheathed dagger.
The room was not built much differently than any other room in Meduseld, with stone floors and thick wood-paneled walls, and a narrow window by my bed. The walls were adorned with woven tapestries of horses and the golden sun that was the symbol of the kings. A small fireplace stood by one wall, with a few small things on the mantle. There was not much furniture, only a bed, a small table and chair, and a wardrobe. In spite of the simple furnishings, everywhere I looked seemed to have some reminder of my life in Edoras, from the treasured box that held my mother's jewelry to the large gash in the bedpost that I had made when I foolishly tried to practice fighting with my dagger in my room one time. This room had been my refuge ever since I had first come here; it had been the one place I could vent my frustration and grief, first when my parents had died and then in the long years during my uncle's illness. I wonder if I'll ever see it again, I thought as I reluctantly picked up my bag and closed the door behind me.
The great hall was filled with activity as I stepped into the room. The household servants who had also been left behind--mostly women, of course--were transporting the essential items out the doors to the wains that waited outside. I had put Hanna in charge of the food, and she was preoccupied with ordering around the younger women who worked in the kitchen with her as they struggled to carry out the large barrels of food deemed fit for travel. I walked by as one of the girls, who had been walking backwards with her end, bumped a table and stumbled. I quickly reached out and caught her end of the barrel. She steadied herself and thanked me with a grim smile. I thought for a moment about seeing how Hanna was doing, but one look at her face decided me against it--clearly she was not in a good mood this morning. Everything seemed to be in order and I turned to leave. Just then I heard a woman's voice shout, "Freda, slow down! You'll trip someone!"
"Sorry, Mama!" a little girl crowned with waves of reddish-gold hair called out as she nearly collided with me. I reached out and gently grabbed her shoulders to slow her down and she looked up with a big grin. "Good morning, Lady Éowyn!" she said cheerfully.
I couldn't help smiling at her, though it was edged with sorrow. The girl was only five, obviously too young to understand what was happening. I hoped earnestly that the journey would end well; she should not lose her innocent smile so soon. "Good morning, Freda!" I replied. She laughed as I picked her up. "You're not worrying your mother, are you?" My smile grew brighter as she shook her head emphatically.
"Don't listen to her, Éowyn. If she keeps running about like this, I may lose track of her and leave her here," her mother said with a smile and a little wink as she came up, a few mail shirts draped over one arm and a curly-haired little boy holding her other hand. I was determined that in case the mountain pass was watched, we could not be completely defenseless. Every spare weapon or other gear of war left in Edoras would be coming with us, and Háma's wife had volunteered to help me arm the other women since she knew a bit about weapons herself.
"Maeglith, you couldn't possibly leave this sweet child here! Why, what would Háma say if he found out his only daughter had been left behind?" I gasped in mock horror. Maeglith just smiled, and I looked at Freda. "You'd better stay close to your mother, Freda. She'll need you to help her watch out for Freálaf." She nodded solemnly, then her customary smile lit up her face again as I hugged her and set her down. "How much is left to carry, Maeglith?"
"The men took most of it, but there's still several spears and shields left. Swords, knives and some armor too."
I thought quickly. "The spears will be no good if most of us are on foot, and training is needed to be able to use those well. We'll take them in one of the wagons as a last resort. Nearly anyone could probably manage to defend themselves with the other weapons. The women who will be riding will need to be armed in particular."
"Of course," Maeglith said. "We can divide the rest among the women. Some of the older boys that are left could manage knives as well."
"True." I paused. "Have you packed yet?"
"Yes, our things are waiting in the armory," she answered. "We don't need to take much. Hopefully we'll be able to return soon."
"Yes, hopefully," I murmured thoughtfully as she left, Freda trailing behind after quickly hugging me around my knees. I smiled briefly, then a dark cloud settled on my thoughts again. Could I even dare to hope that any of the men would return? The large orc parties that had been raiding our lands would more likely than not be only a fraction of the forces that would be sent against them...
Gríma's dark prediction from the day before about the outcome of the battle crept into my thoughts, that all of the men would fall and the land be destroyed. I shuddered as I realized that this would be the kind of reckless hate that my people would be facing. How could I believe that Éomer and Théoden might be able to withstand it?
My spirits were lifted a bit as I thought of Aragorn and his companions. Obviously they were skilled warriors; if my brother's account had been correct, they had already survived several battles where they had been sorely outnumbered. And I could tell that there was much more to Aragorn than it seemed. If anyone could help the people of Rohan through this battle, surely the heir to the throne of Gondor could...
I suddenly remembered my errand and started for the armory. Why do I care so much? I wondered as I walked. I had only met the man the day before and had barely spoken with him, and yet I felt more concern for his safety than for the men I knew and had spent my entire life with. I could tell from the little bit of time that I had spent with him that he was noble, and that he had spent three days and nights pursuing a far greater number of his enemies to save his friends showed he was loyal. But I could say the same things about Éomer or Théoden, or many others that I knew among the Rohirrim. Why then was it Aragorn who was foremost in my thoughts now, and not my own kin?
Eru help me, surely I cannot love him! The thought struck me as swift as lightning. It could not be...could it? And yet, what other explanation could there be? He was everything I could imagine wanting in a man; brave, loyal, strong and handsome. And his coming, along with my uncle's healing, had given me what I thought I had lost forever--hope. We had a greater chance of victory if Gondor and Rohan joined forces, and I knew that many of the men, including my brother, had renewed hope to see the future king of Gondor fighting alongside them. And now that my uncle was well, perhaps I would finally have the chance to escape the gilded cage of Meduseld and do something more honorable than wait on tables and watch for the men to return. Perhaps I could finally find some happiness somewhere; I could only hope that he would be the one to help me find it.
I was startled out of my thoughts by a loud clatter. I had unwittingly knocked some spears that had been standing by the door over onto some helmets lying nearby. Feeling annoyed at myself for getting lost in a daydream when there was so much to be done, I quickly picked up the spears and left.
Before mid-day, all of the preparations had finally been made and the people were slowly filing down to the gate and out of the city. A few mounted women rode in front and on the sides of the column so that we would be able to see anything coming towards us from all sides. I had decided to stay in the back until I was sure that no one had been left behind.
Windfola snorted and pawed at the ground, anxious to leave. I rubbed his nose affectionately and he calmed a little. "I'm sorry," I whispered to him. "You were bred to be at the head of the battle, not a pack horse for a maiden." The stallion nuzzled me as if accepting my apology. With a sigh, I slung the shield I had chosen onto my back, picked up a spear and jumped up into the saddle. The spear felt slightly awkward in my hands. Although Éomer had taught me how to use it, I was much more comfortable with my sword and touched the hilt of it to reassure myself that I would be able to fight if it was needed. Then I signaled to Windfola and he began to move.
We walked slowly after the line of people. The group was mostly silent, although I could hear the cries of a few children who didn't understand why we had to leave, and the murmurs of their mothers trying to comfort them. I could also hear a few grumbles here and there from some of the older men who had also been left behind, but chose to ignore them. We passed through the gate and some of the older boys who were left pulled it shut. I did not look back until we had gone past the barrows where my ancestors and my cousin were laid. I could see Meduseld gleaming in the sun at the top of the hillside and the thatched rooftops of the houses surrounding it. A lump swelled in my throat, and I wondered why it was so difficult to watch my city shrink into the distance when all I had wanted to do for so long was to leave it behind. My heart felt heavy as I glanced back one last time to see the Golden Hall disappearing from sight. I set my gaze before me once more; this journey through the mountains would not be an easy one, whether we were challenged or not, and I wanted to be ready for whatever might befall us.
A few women armed similarly to me were riding to the sides and back of the column, and I reluctantly moved Windfola towards the front. The first stage of the journey was uneventful, and it took all of my concentration to keep looking for any possible ambush, especially since my thoughts kept wandering into daydreams involving a certain Ranger of the North.
When we were about halfway there, I called for a rest. After I picketed Windfola, I pulled a small loaf of bread out of my bag and began to eat it slowly as I wandered through the crowd aimlessly. I caught Maeglith's eye and headed over to see my friend.
Freda was sitting on the ground in a much less cheerful mood than I had seen her in earlier. "How much longer do we have to walk, Mama?" she asked.
"We have a little further to go, love," Maeglith replied, breaking off tiny pieces of bread and handing them to Fréalaf. She saw me coming and smiled briefly.
"But I'm tired! I don't want to walk anymore!" she complained.
"What about riding, Freda? You could come with me on my horse, if you'd like," I offered, coming up behind her.
She jumped up and whirled around. I laughed to see how her face lit up. "Really? May I, Mama?" she asked, turning her blue eyes on her mother in a pleading glance.
Maeglith looked at me skeptically. "Will she be too much extra weight?"
"Not at all," I answered. "Windfola will barely be able to tell. He was bred to carry much more weight than I."
She hesitated, then nodded her approval and Freda clapped her hands in delight and ran off to tell one of her friends that she was going to get to ride on "Lady Éowyn's big horse." Maeglith smiled. "That's very kind of you, Éowyn. She really looks up to you, you know." I nodded as she continued, "I just hope the dear child doesn't drive you mad with her chatter."
"Oh, I don't mind at all. I enjoy the company," I said truthfully. And having to keep my mind on her conversation will help to keep it off of Aragorn, I silently added, feeling slightly frustrated with myself. A warrior did not allow himself to be so distracted when so many people were depending on him. I fell quiet for a moment, watching Maeglith play with her son. Without thinking, I suddenly blurted out, "Maeglith, can I ask you something?"
She pushed a strand of her dark golden hair away. "Of course, my lady."
I felt a little foolish, but decided that I may as well continue. Maeglith was one of the few women in Edoras I considered enough of a friend to discuss things that I couldn't talk about with Éomer or the other men. "How did you know that you loved Háma?"
Maeglith looked slightly taken aback at the question; I could easily guess that the slightly older woman had not expected such an inquiry from me. To her credit, she quickly recovered and replied slowly, "I think part of me always knew. Háma was friends with my brother Léofa when we were growing up, and I had always looked up to him like he was another brother. But then as we got older, something changed between us. Things were very awkward for a time until we both realized that we no longer thought of each other as a brother and sister, but as something much deeper than that." She smiled, her face coloring a little at the memory. "He spoke of it first; he was so nervous that he wasn't watching where he was going at first and walked right into a wall!"
I laughed at the thought of the normally composed guard being that flustered. "I'm sure it didn't help that he probably couldn't take his eyes off you the entire time," I couldn't help adding.
Maeglith laughed as well. "That's true."
"So what you're saying is you just knew?" I asked, feeling like I was no closer to getting to the bottom of my sudden interest in Aragorn.
She thought for a moment. "Love reveals itself differently to everyone, Éowyn. For me, it was something that grew slowly over time. For my sister, it happened suddenly when she first met the man she's now betrothed to, and he felt the same right away. Léofa also fell in love with his wife quickly, but it took her much longer to return it. It wasn't until my brother was wounded in battle and we thought he would die that she realized how much she cared for him."
"It sounds that there's no way to really be certain then," I said softly.
"What does your heart tell you?" she asked, her blue eyes searching my grey ones as if trying to find out who was causing me to ask.
"Nothing," I answered quickly. Why did I say that? I wondered. Speaking to Maeglith about it had made me more certain that I did love him and that's why I was so distracted by him, yet something held me back from speaking of it. I just need more time to be certain--that must be it. This being decided, I added, "I was just curious, that's all."
She smiled at me knowingly. "I can only speak from my own experiences, Éowyn. But the one thing I can tell you for certain is that love comes when you least expect it--and often from whom you least expect it."
I nodded slowly. "Thank you, Maeglith." Freda came back then, her eyes still sparkling with excitement. The other people were preparing to move on, so I took the little girl by the hand and led her over to Windfola as I called back to Maeglith, "Don't worry, I'll take care of her."
"I trust you," she answered with a smile. "We all do."
My face colored slightly at the unexpected compliment, and it was with some relief that I soon lost myself in answering Freda's questions as I helped her onto Windfola's back. As I pulled myself into the saddle behind her, I briefly wondered if this was a good idea; if we were attacked, it would be harder to fight with a child on the horse. I did not want to disappoint her, though. I'll just deal with that if the time comes, I decided as we started moving again.
Thanks to Tigerlily & C for editing, and thanks to everyone who's been reading and reviewing! And I'm sorry if the story's a little slow at the moment... it will pick up soon, I promise!