An Act of Desperation - Chapter 7- Dunharrow
The rest of the journey passed as uneventfully as the first part. The sun was just beginning to sink past the mountaintops as we passed through a narrow gorge, just wide enough for the wains to pass in single-file. Freda looked up in awe at the mountains towering high above our heads. "It's like a tunnel," she said; we could barely see the thin line of the sky above.
"Not for long," I answered as I heard the sound of rushing water. We were at the head of the column now, and she gasped as the gorge suddenly emptied into a green valley nestled amid mountains capped with snow and shining like fire in the late afternoon light. A swift-moving river wound its way through the valley not too far ahead of us. I smiled--her reaction was much like mine had been the first time I saw it. "Hold on, Freda," I said as I dismounted and led Windfola by the reins, looking for a good place to cross. The winter had not completely passed yet, and the last thing I wanted was for the people to catch a chill from wading through the icy waters, especially since most of them were on foot.
I heard a clear horn call, then spotted a few men moving toward us. The leader stopped a few feet away, glancing at me and then back at the line of people slowly filing out of the gorge and gathering behind me. "What is all this?" he asked, looking at me. "My lady, who is in charge here? I would speak with him before I can allow you to go on."
"I am in charge," I answered. He looked rather taken aback. "I am Éowyn, daughter of Éomund and sister-daughter of King Théoden. He has ridden to war at Helm's Deep; I was ordered to lead those remaining to the mountains for their safety."
"No word of this has reached us here in Dunharrow," the guard protested.
"There was no time to send word; the men were gathered and departed just yesterday," I replied, feeling irritated. "These people have journeyed far today and are weary; will you let us cross, or not?"
He sighed a little. "You may cross. But I must send word to Lord Dúnhere."
"Very well," I said. "Is there a shallow place where we can cross, or at least a place where we can pull the wains across without overturning them?"
One of the other men spoke up. "We may be able to construct some sort of bridge, Lady Éowyn."
I smiled. "That would be wonderful. Is there anything I can do to help?"
The leader of the guards looked surprised again. "I don't believe so, my lady. It won't take long." He turned back to his men. "Alric, go bring word to Lord Dúnhere. Tála, come with me." The three men left, two of them quickly returning with planks that they laid over a narrow part of the river.
I remounted Windfola and rode him out into the shallow part of the river, directing the wains as they were hauled over. Next those on foot crossed, followed by the scouts on horseback. After everyone else had crossed, I rode to the far bank while Tála and the captain removed the planks. I thanked them, then began to follow the road leading eastward to the Hold.
We had nearly reached the foot of the mountain when we were hailed by another small group of riders. I recognized one of them as Alric; Dúnhere, the lord of the valley, rode at their head. He dismounted and I followed suit after making sure that Freda was holding onto Windfola securely. "Lady Éowyn!" he said, bowing slightly and looking rather overwhelmed as his eyes drifted to the crowd behind me. "I had not heard you were coming here."
"There was no time to send word, Lord Dúnhere, nor was there anyone to send. For that, I do apologize," I replied. "But the hour grows late, and I would see the people settled before it grows much darker."
"But, my lady, where will all of these people stay?" he protested.
"All we need is a place where we can set up our tents and picket the horses. We have not come completely unprepared, my lord," I said. "We have brought some means of shelter. We have also brought enough food that we will not infringe on the hospitality of your people." My eyes flicked up to his in a thinly veiled challenge; after the long night of preparations and the longer day of painfully slow travel, I was in no mood to argue with Dúnhere over where the people would sleep.
"The Firienfeld is not occupied at the time and there is plenty of room atop the mountain. Shall we accompany you to help you make camp?" Dúnhere finally answered after some thought.
"That would be greatly appreciated," I answered. "Thank you." I curtsied quickly before remounting. Dúnhere led the way, followed by the three men who had accompanied him. I waited for everyone to pass before I started up the path.
This was not the first time I had climbed the road to the Firenfeld; I had accompanied my family on several visits to the valley. Despite this, I could not help but marvel at the ingenuity of the path leading up the mountain. It wound around in such a way that it was barely visible from the valley below. Every turn was marked by a crumbling, primitively carved figure that looked somewhat human. Freda looked at these fearfully and turned to me, wide-eyed. "Lady Éowyn, is this mountain haunted?" she asked.
In the shadows created by the setting sun, I could see how her imagination would bring the statues to life. "Now where would you get an idea like that?" I asked.
"Hildelith said that it was," she said. "And they look like monsters."
"They're just stones, Freda. They cannot hurt you," I said, smiling to reassure her. She was satisfied with this answer and turned her eyes back to the road ahead, though she still viewed the statues warily.
But what about the Dimholt Road? I wondered, and just as quickly dismissed the thought. The Paths of the Dead were a legend, nothing more.
And so were Halflings, yet you have heard reports of them in your lands just days ago. I shivered a little at this thought; if this legend could come to life, then there was nothing to prevent the tales of the Haunted Mountain from being true as well. My hand unconsciously went to the hilt of my sword as we ascended the last few feet of the path before the Firienfeld spread out before us, dark in the gathering twilight. I could see the black mountain-cliff towering high above the field, blocking out much of the sky above and all of the last rays of sun. I could not make out any features of stone or see if there was indeed an opening leading into the cliff, but it made me shiver a bit nonetheless. Indeed, it seemed that all of the Rohirrim were anxious at the sight; the people huddled to the right of the path, as far away from the cliffs as possible. Even the horses stamped and whinnied nervously.
Maeglith appeared by my side, Fréalaf toddling beside her. I wordlessly helped Freda pull her legs over to one side of the horse. Maeglith helped her dismount, and the child took her hand and looked around, still wide-eyed. "Thank you, Éowyn," Maeglith said quietly. I nodded, then rode over to Dúnhere.
"How would you wish this to be organized, my lady?" he asked as he saw me.
I looked around. "We will have as many of the people as possible on the right side of the path." I knew that they would want to be as far away from the darkness of the Dwimorberg as possible. "The tents for the king, when he returns, will be on the left side. The wagons will be on that side as well."
He nodded. "That sounds reasonable," he said. The field soon became a flurry of activity, with everyone that was capable of work pitching tents, unloading wagons or keeping the children who were too young to help out of the way. I worked just as hard as any of them, perhaps harder since it seemed that anything that needed to be decided was brought to me for approval. Torches were lit, and we continued to work into the night until shelter had been set up for all who had come. Despite the labor, the atmosphere was subdued, as if we feared to make too much noise lest we awaken whatever evil lay trapped within the shadowy walls above us.
It's just your imagination, I told myself sternly. There's nothing there. At least I hoped not.
I pulled up on Windfola's reins as I reached the summit of the hill and looked around. A field spread out before me, flatter than any plain I had seen in Rohan and blanketed with rippling grass and wildflowers of every color imaginable. In the distance, I could see the silver ribbon of a river winding away in its path toward the sea. A city unlike any I had seen before towered above the valley. It looked as if it had been carved from the mountains surrounding it and was built in a series of walled sections; at the very top was a shining tower with unfurled banners fluttering in the wind. The entire city shone like a pearl in the early morning sun.
I turned to see Aragorn next to me, mounted on a chestnut-colored horse. "It is a beautiful sight, is it not?" I said, smiling at him.
His eyes sparkled as he smiled back at me, and the sight caused my pulse to quicken. "It is," he said. "Yet it pales in comparison to your beauty, my lady."
I could feel myself blushing. "My lord, you flatter me too much. Surely I am not worthy of such high praise."
"And why not?" he asked, dismounting. He reached up and helped me down, his hands holding me lightly at the waist as mine rested on his shoulders. My feet touched the ground, and he took both of my hands gently in one of his hands as my eyes locked with his grey ones. His other hand reached up and touched my cheek, then tilted my chin up a little. Then my eyes closed as he moved closer...
I could feel the sunlight dancing across my eyelids as I waited, but nothing happened. After a long moment, I reluctantly opened my eyes and groaned in disappointment. Aragorn, the field and the city were gone; in its place, I could see creamy canvas billowing gently above me and the rough edges of the blankets I had piled on the ground within my tent in an attempt to make the sleeping arrangements more comfortable.
This was the fourth morning in a row that something like this had happened. Aragorn would come, and take me to some place unlike anything I had ever seen in my country. He would never say much, although I could see his love for me shining in his eyes. Then he would lean in to kiss me, but I always awoke before his lips touched mine.
I loved him; I had no doubt of that now, and was always disappointed to wake up and find him gone. But these dreams left me feeling disturbed as well because there was nothing to prove that he felt the same way about me. I knew a kiss was not proof of love; Wormtongue had proved that to me well enough, and I pulled the blankets up further to try to block out the chill I felt at the memory.
When he comes back, then I'll know, I decided, and brightened up at this thought. After all, I had not had much of an opportunity to speak with him. He would return after the battle, and I would be able to spend some time with him then.
"Perhaps he'll even come today," I murmured to myself. Men had ridden from Edoras the day before bringing word from Gandalf himself that the battle had ended, and my people had been victorious. Though I did not know the details of what had happened, I did know that my uncle and brother were both alive and well, as were Aragorn and his companions.
Despite this good news, the men had come back clearly shaken. They spoke of some kind of winged shadow that had passed over Edoras, nearly landing atop the Golden Hall and filling them with paralyzing fear. Those of us in the encampment of the Firienfeld had increased the watch, but had seen no shadow save that which crept into the edges of our consciousness every time we looked over at the cliff surrounding the Dimholt Road.
In spite of the talk of war and shadow, my heart felt light as I arose and dressed for the day. Against all hope, my uncle had returned to his senses, my brother's place restored, my tormentor had been banished, and we had won the battle. And I was in love. With an almost giddy optimism, I was sure that whatever darkness lay ahead would also be defeated.
I pulled on my heavy wool cloak before leaving the tent. The mountains were still very cold, and since Gandalf had advised us not to light fires lest we attract unwanted attention, there was really no way to keep warm. The mail that I had continued to wear since our arrival in Dunharrow did not help matters much there either, but since I had spent much of the last several days watching for any possible attack, I wanted to be ready if one came.
The atmosphere in the camp was just as cold. Although we were glad of the victory, the refugees were growing anxious to know whether their loved ones would return this time. The additional threat of another battle to fight did not help matters much. People greeted me with nods as I walked past, but did not smile. Even the children were subdued; fear of the Dwimorberg kept them close to the camp. The horses were also restless and stamped nervously from their picket lines.
I headed over to the small cluster of tents in the main part of the camp where Hanna had set up a food preparation area. I had put Hanna in charge, and most of the other women were taking it in turns to help her. Thankfully, I had escaped this task; the last time she had attempted to teach me to cook, Éomer had made the mistake of trying the stew I made and had been sick for the rest of the day. I grabbed a small loaf of some flat bread and walked over to Alric, who had been one of the guards on duty during the night. He sat with his back leaning against a rock near the edge of the cliff overlooking the valley.
"Have you seen anything?" I asked.
"Nothing, not even a bird in the sky. It's not natural," he replied. Then he lowered his voice and added, "Although, I'll admit I'm relieved to not see anything after yesterday."
I nodded; Alric had been one of the men who had returned from Edoras the day before who had seen the "winged Shadow," as they called it. "Go and rest, Alric. I'll keep watch for awhile."
"Thank you, my lady," he said, standing up stiffly and bowing before walking towards the tents. Dúnhere had sent several of his men to help us guard the camp, but I and a few other women had determined to help. They had finally ceased to argue with us about it when the men had been sent to Edoras. I sat down by the rock and began my silent watch over the valley.
Alric had been right; nothing was happening. It soon grew rather dull and I allowed my thoughts to wander back to Aragorn. In my daydream, he was just about to kiss me when, once again, it was interrupted. I saw what looked like a great number of horsemen riding up the valley towards us.
I jumped to my feet and ran over to Windfola. I saw a young girl standing nearby and called to her. She looked startled for a moment, then said, "Yes, my lady?"
"I need you to go over there," I pointed to where I had just been sitting, "and keep an eye on the road. If you see a group of riders approaching and I do not return, I need you to alert the others in the camp and tell them to prepare to fight. Can you do this?"
"Yes, my lady," she said, running over to the rock. I saddled Windfola as quickly as I could, then mounted and began the descent down the mountain.
As I drew closer, I breathed a sigh of relief to see white horses on green banners, the mark of my own people. Nevertheless, I rode to the fords, where Dúnhere's men were still guarding the crossing. I was greeted with a few nods; if they still had any reservations about my being in charge of the camp, they kept their thoughts to themselves.
"What's happening? Has the king returned?" I asked.
One of the older men, Ránulf, shook his head. "No, my lady. The king sent word asking that the Riders be gathered from the other towns. These are the first of them."
So there will be another battle. The thought dampened my spirits a great deal. Once again, I would be left behind while the men were winning glory in the defense of our people, though my love for my country was just as strong. And there was nothing I could do about it. I automatically shifted back into the role that had been pushed on me and asked, "Where will they be staying?"
"In the valley," Ránulf asked. "Lord Dúnhere has made all of the arrangements."
"Thank you," I said, and turned Windfola back up the mountain path. "Good day," I called out almost as an afterthought.
The girl whom I had asked to watch greeted me when I reached the camp again. "Is everything all right, my lady?"
"All is well. It is our army that gathers in the valley," I answered. "Thank you for your time." The girl curtsied and went to rejoin her friends, and I was left alone with my darkening thoughts again.
Thanks, Tigerlily and C! And thanks to all you wonderful people who review! J