An Act of Desperation - Chapter 8: Hope Fails
Chapter 8- Hope Fails
For the remainder of the day, I continued to watch as the valley below me turned into a military encampment. Watching them made me painfully aware of my own inactivity, and I felt as if I would go mad from boredom if I was not given something to do other than watch over the daily tasks of the refugee camp.
The sun had sunk past the mountains when I saw a lone rider coming up the path. I quickly hurried to meet him as he dismounted, eager for something to do. "Tála, what news?" I asked.
"Lord Aragorn is approaching with a group of men; Rangers of the North, I believed them to be. He will be here in about half an hour."
"How many? And what of the King and Éomer?" I asked even as my heart leaped into my throat at the thought of Aragorn coming.
"About thirty-five, my lady. And I have heard no word of the king."
"Thank you, Tála," I said. He bowed and we parted ways. I hurried over to the small group of women clustered about the only fire. "Hanna," I called out as I spotted her, "We have guests approaching, about thirty-five of them. Is there any food that can be set out in haste?"
"We have some bread left over, and I can boil some meat," she said. "Has the king returned then?"
"No, it is Lord Aragorn," I said. "I do not know where Théoden is."
"He will be here soon, my lady," she said, trying to reassure me. I thanked her and rushed back to my tent to find something suitable to wear. Although most of the clothes I had brought were more suitable for riding or completing daily chores around the camp, I had also packed my favorite white gown. I dressed quickly, then unbraided and brushed my hair, twisted some of it up to get it away from my face, and took a deep breath in a futile attempt to calm myself.
I left the tent and walked over to the edge of camp. In the last traces of daylight, I was barely able to make out a dark line of riders beginning the ascent up the path. At the pace they were riding, they would be here in less than half an hour. I paced around nervously, trying to plan what I would say to Aragorn when he arrived. These conversations are so much easier in my head! I thought in frustration.
"My lady?" I turned to see Hanna. "The meal is ready."
"Thank you," I said. "See that it is brought to the pavilion and that the long tables are set up." She curtsied and left. I briefly felt a stab of guilt at not helping her this time, but told myself that propriety demanded that I stay at my post so I could greet the guests. The darkness deepened, and torches were lit. Several of the people in the camp began to gather near the path in curiosity. Finally, I could see the dark shapes of the first of the riders on the part of the path that led into our camp.
The first of them dismounted, and in the flickering torchlight I could see Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, along with three other men. As they stepped closer, I could see that it was actually a man and two elves. The man looked a great deal like Aragorn, with dark hair cropped at his shoulders and the same clear gaze. I guessed that the elves must be twins, or at least brothers; they looked nearly identical with dark hair and a hint of mischief in their blue-grey eyes. Realizing that I had not yet greeted them, I stepped forward and curtsied, smiling at them. "Lord Aragorn," I said, my gaze catching his, "it is an honor to have you here. And you also, my lords," I said, glancing over the others with him. "Food and drink have been prepared for you in the pavilion, and we will see that your horses are fed and rested as well." At this, several of the older men and young women stepped forward to take the horses as the others with him dismounted, and began to lead them a little further from the camp where the grass grew thickly.
"I thank you for your pains, my lady," Aragorn said, nodding. "Will you be joining us at supper?"
I smiled brightly at the invitation, but did not want to seem too eager. "If that is your wish, my lord," I answered. It seemed to me that he hesitated for just a moment, but as he nodded his assent, I decided it had just been my imagination. I fell in step beside him, with Legolas and Gimli on his other side and the others behind him. We walked in silence for a few moments, until I was unable to restrain my curiosity any longer. "What of the king, and my brother? And where is Gandalf?" I couldn't help noticing the wizard's absence.
Gimli answered this time. "Théoden and Éomer are both well, and send their greetings. They will be here by nightfall two days from now." I smiled in relief.
As we entered the tent, Aragorn said, "A friend of ours will be accompanying them--one of the Halflings. His name is Meriadoc Brandybuck. He has sworn fealty to Théoden and has been received as a sword-thain." An amused grin crossed my face. Aragorn noted this and added, "I assure you, my lady, his heart and courage are much greater than his stature would lead one to believe. It seems to me that this is the case of all the Shire-folk."
"I apologize, my lord," I said, feeling a little guilty for being so quick to discredit the Halfling as a warrior. After all, how many times had I been similarly discouraged? "I will see that he will be looked after."
"If it is possible, I would also see him armed for battle," Aragorn requested.
"I will do my best, though I do not know if we have gear to fit him." I paused, then decided to change the subject. "Who are all these men that came with you, my lord?" I asked.
"They are Dúnedain from the North. This is my kinsman, Halbarad," he answered, motioning to the dark-haired man, who bowed his head. "And these are the sons of Lord Elrond of Rivendell, Elladan and Elrohir." The elves nodded politely. "We met them as we were returning, and they will be riding with me."
I glanced back over the line of men following us. Even in the flickering torchlight, I could tell that they were experienced warriors. "That is good tidings," I said, smiling as I felt my spirits rise. Every extra blade that would be going to the battle strengthened my hopes.
Aragorn glanced over at me, but did not respond for awhile. Finally, as we reached the pavilion he asked, "And how did your people fare on their journey, Lady Éowyn?"
"It was a difficult journey for many of them," I answered. "There were many young children and elderly people unused to such traveling, but we all arrived safely." I pushed aside the flap covering the entrance to the tent, then turned back and looked at him. "Thank you for your concern," I said softly.
We entered and took our places around the two long tables. As the guest of honor, I had placed Aragorn at the head, and Legolas and Gimli on his right. I sat on the left side, next to one of the Dúnedain whom Aragorn introduced to me as Halbarad, with the twins on his other side. The remainder of the company found seats, and we all sat down as food and drink were brought to us. Hanna led the serving women as usual, and I smiled at her as I caught her eye.
The men ate in silence for a long while, and it seemed to me that some shadow lay over them. Aragorn in particular seemed troubled, and his brow was furrowed in deep thought as he ate. I finally asked softly, "Is something troubling you, my lord?"
Aragorn's head jerked up, as one waking suddenly from a dream. Then he relaxed slightly but did not smile. "Nay, my lady. Forgive me, I am being a rude guest."
"No, Lord Aragorn," I protested. "I am sure you are weary and I do not wish to burden you with unwanted conversation." I glanced down as I said this, feeling awkward.
To my relief, Gimli set down his goblet and said, "Well I, for one, am weary of the silence. Come, Lady Éowyn, tell us of how things are in the camp."
"There's really not much to tell," I said, thinking, I would bore myself to sleep if I have to talk about it. "If you don't mind, my lords, I would rather hear of the battle. I have not heard much of it." This seemed to be a safe enough topic, and Gimli and Legolas spent much of the rest of the meal telling me of the battle. I heard of the assault on the gates, a strange concoction that the Orcs were somehow able to use to blast holes in the wall, and the subsequent retreat into the Hornburg and the Deep. Gimli had been with my brother during much of the battle, and my heart swelled with pride as Gimli said that Éomer had almost single-handedly held the Deep against the oncoming horde. Legolas then told me of my uncle's decision to lead the final charge at dawn and the coming of Gandalf and Erkenbrand.
"His men wanted him to stay in the Hornburg where it would be safer, but he would have none of it--he said he would rather die facing the enemy than trapped like an animal in a cage," the elf finished.
"Any of my people would have said the same," I said. "There is more honor in death facing your enemies than living in hiding, waiting for them to find you." I looked down at my hands for a moment as I thought bitterly, An honor that you are only allowed if you are a man. Aragorn, who had been silent throughout the entire meal, glanced up at me sharply as I said this, but said nothing.
I noticed that the conversation had slowed quite a bit, and the men that had come with him had almost finished eating. "Lords, you are weary and shall now go to your beds with such ease as can be contrived in haste. But tomorrow fairer housing shall be found for you," I said, thinking it would probably be best to change the topic of conversation.
"Nay, lady," Aragorn replied, "Be not troubled for us! If we may lie here tonight and break our fast tomorrow, it will be enough." I opened my mouth to protest, but he continued. "For I ride on an errand most urgent, and with the first light of morning we must go."
"Then it was kindly done, lord, to ride so many miles out of your way to bring tidings to Éowyn, and to speak with her in her exile," I said.
"Indeed, no man would count such a journey wasted," he said, and I smiled warmly at the compliment. My smile quickly faded, however, as he continued: "And yet, lady, I could not have come hither, if it were not that the road which I must take leads me to Dunharrow."
No. It cannot be. "Then, lord, you are astray, for out of Harrowdale no road runs east or south, and you had best return as you came." I fervently hoped that my face did not betray the sudden dread that I felt.
"Nay, lady," he said. "I am not astray, for I walked in this land ere you were born to grace it." I felt a slight hint of resentment at the implication that I was merely a child, but did not have a chance to consider this further. "There is a road out of the valley, and that road I shall take." Oh please, no... "Tomorrow I shall ride by the Paths of the Dead."
It seemed to me that all faded into silence at those words, and that all eyes were turned upon Aragorn and me. I myself could do nothing more than stare at him for a long moment. His grey eyes looked back at me with a clear resolve. I clenched my hands together upon my lap to hide their trembling. My mind recalled every dark tale I had ever heard of that road as I desperately fumbled for whatever words I could come up with that might possibly dissuade him. "But...but Aragorn," I stammered at last, "is it then your errand to seek death? For that is all that you will find on that road. They do not suffer the living to pass."
"They may suffer me to pass, but at the very least I will adventure it. No other road will serve," he said quietly.
"But this is madness!" I exclaimed, not caring that my voice was rising in panic. "Here are men of renown and prowess, whom you should not take into the shadows, but should lead to war, where men are needed." My gaze left him for a moment as I motioned to the rest of those assembled there. Gimli lowered his eyes; Legolas looked back at me with the same determination that I had seen on Aragorn's face. "I beg you to remain and ride with my brother," I said in a more quiet tone, "for then all our hearts will be gladdened, and our hope be the brighter."
"It is not madness, lady, for I go on a path appointed," he replied in a tone that implied that he was unwilling to argue about it any further. "But those who follow me do so of their free will, and if they wish now to remain and ride with the Rohirrim, they may do so. But I shall take the Paths of the Dead--alone, if needs be."
I lowered my gaze, knowing that if I said any more at the moment I would cross the line. The men resumed their murmured conversations shortly, but I remained in a numb silence. I watched Aragorn steadily, looking desperately for any possible doubt that could be used to convince him of the folly of this idea, but could find none. There must be some way to convince him, I thought. I could not stand by and watch him throw his life away; we needed every blade we could possibly get to have even a chance of winning the next battle. But as I watched, my hopes crumbled.
Aragorn finally stood up, and I stood with the others. "I thank you for your hospitality, Lady Éowyn, but I must take my leave. We have far to ride tomorrow," he said, bowing. I curtsied automatically as the others bowed and slowly left the tent.
I stayed behind until all had left, then slowly walked out of the tent. The Dúnedain for the most part had already entered their tents. I could still see Aragorn, about to enter the tent that he was sharing with Legolas and Gimli. I hesitated for a moment, then decided I had to try again. "Lord Aragorn?" I called. He turned and looked at me gravely as I continued. "Aragorn, why will you go on this deadly road?"
"Because I must," he said. "Only so can I see any hope of doing my part in the war against Sauron." I frowned at this; to speak of this path leading to hope did not make any sense to me at all. He seemed to sense this, but continued nonetheless. "I do not choose paths of peril, Éowyn. Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be, wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell."
Rivendell? The elf-realm? What could possibly be there? I wondered. I looked up into his face, searching for an answer but saw none, save the determination in his eyes. He would go through with this no matter what I said, I realized. A new idea quickly formed in my mind as I semiconsciously laid a hand on his arm. "You are a stern lord and resolute, and thus do men win renown," I said, half to myself. I paused a moment. The idea was desperate, I knew, but I could not stand by and watch him ride to his doom. "Lord, if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle."
He looked surprised for a moment, but quickly masked it. "Your duty is with your people," he finally said.
I frowned. "Too often have I heard of duty," I said, indignant. "But am I not of the house of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough." All my life I have done nothing but wait, I thought bitterly. "Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?"
"Few may do that with honor," he admitted, softening for a moment. Then a look crossed his face that I recognized all too well, and I frowned even more to see it. "But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord's return?"
"I had no choice," I muttered.
If he heard, he made no sign of it as he continued: "If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no."
I knew his words made sense, but I was past being moved by a sense of unwanted duty. "Shall I always be chosen?" I cried, unable to keep the bitterness and frustration from my voice any longer. "Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?"
He looked a little taken aback at my outburst. "A time may come soon when none will return," he said, his gaze growing steely. "Then there will be need of valor without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defense of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised."
Anger burned within me at this. "All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honor, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more." I lifted my head defiantly as I continued. "But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death."
"What do you fear, my lady?" he asked, more gently this time.
My eyes flashed as I tried not to glare at him. "A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire." All I want is a chance to prove that I could be of some value to my people; can he not grant me even that?
"And yet you counseled me not to adventure on the road that I had chosen, because it is perilous?" His tone held no trace of mockery, which made it sting all the more.
"So may one counsel another," I answered. "Yet I do not bid you flee from peril, but to ride to battle where your sword may win renown and victory. I...I would not see a thing that is high and excellent cast away needlessly." I looked earnestly up at him in a last effort to make him understand.
"Nor would I," he said, his eyes softening. "Therefore I say to you, lady: Stay! For you have no errand to the South."
For a moment I wavered, my eyes locked with his. My gaze dropped first. "Neither have those others who go with thee," I blurted. "They go only because they would not be parted from thee--because they love thee!" My face flushed as I realized what I had just said, and I glanced up at him, suddenly afraid of his reaction. And in that moment, I knew how he truly felt about me. Instead of the love and understanding that I had hoped to see, I saw sorrow mingled with pity as he gazed on me. A sick feeling settled in my stomach as I stepped back. "I'm sorry...I..." I stammered, then whirled around and fled.
Tears stung my eyes as I headed towards my own tent. Fool! I berated myself. I knew this would happen... of course he wouldn't love me. How could I be worthy of that from a man like him?
"He cannot return your love, lady," a voice said softly. So akin were the words to my own thoughts that it took me a moment to realize that someone else had spoken them. Then for a terrible moment, I thought that perhaps Wormtongue had somehow found the encampment and had come back to torment me once more. Without thinking, I swiftly pulled out the dagger that I still kept strapped to my arm and called out, "Who goes there?"
"Elladan, son of Elrond, my lady," the voice answered. I whirled around to see one of the dark-haired elves that had accompanied the Rangers looking at me, and my jaw clenched in anger to see pity in his eyes as well.
"You were listening?" I cried out as I felt my face grow hot.
"I could not help overhearing," the Elf said. I glared at him as he added, "But fear not; you spoke softly enough that any mortal could not have heard you." His words did nothing to ease my humiliation, but the anger quickly faded into disbelief as he added, "He is already betrothed to another."
"He...what?" I asked, completely in shock and feeling even more foolish. "He never spoke of it..." I knew I would regret the question as soon as it passed my lips. "Who is she?"
Was it my imagination, or did a brief look of pain cross his face? "Her name is Arwen. She is my sister."
I stepped back, feeling suddenly weak. "But... you're an elf!"
"Yes, I am aware of that," he said with more than a hint of sarcasm. My face flushed even deeper. "Believe me, my lady, part of me does wish that he would return your affections. I do not relish the idea of my sister dying because of him."
"Dying?" I echoed.
"If she chooses to remain with him, she will die in Middle-earth as a mortal. If she leaves him, she'll die of a broken heart," Elladan said. "Either way, she is lost to us."
"And yet you are still willing to ride with Aragorn," I said.
"He is like a brother to me," he said. "If she must fall in love with a mortal, there's not a another man I would choose." His gaze remained steady as he looked at me. "I'm sorry that I had to be the one to tell you."
"Not as sorry as I am," I said softly, then turned and walked away as my vision blurred with tears once more.