An Act of Desperation - Chapter 9- Desperation
And Tigerlily and wims, thank you for all your suggestions, as always.
Chapter 9- Desperation
I did not sleep that night. I lay on my back inside my tent, my eyes stinging with tears that would not fall. I felt torn between anger and sorrow--why had he not told me?
He did tell you, when he said he would rather be in Rivendell. The thought made me feel even more foolish than I had before. "I should have known," I whispered into the darkness. A man like him would have been able to win over the heart of any maiden; how could I not have guessed that another may already have captured his heart?
Who would take you? For fair you are, yet cold...
I could feel myself trembling and pulled up another blanket, wondering if it was the cold mountain air or my broken heart that left me feeling so numb. And I wondered about the elf-maiden. Undoubtedly she was beautiful, with a flawless complexion and soft, gentle hands. My own hand, calloused and rough from a lifetime of gripping reins and sword hilts, reached up to brush away a lone tear that trickled down my lightly freckled face. I could feel the skin peeling off my nose, burned from spending the days since my arrival in Dunharrow out in the sun and wind. She was probably gentle and kind, the type who would be content to mind the house while he was out on the battlefield. I was sure she would never have even entertained the thought of fighting beside him--a perfect lady in every way, unlike me.
I knew I could never make him love me. Nor would I want to; I would have him love me freely, not out of a sense of obligation or pity. But then, pity is all any man would ever feel for you. No one could every truly love a cold-hearted shieldmaiden.
I rolled over, trying to shut out my despairing thoughts and my hand rested on something cold and hard. When I tightened my grip on it, I realized it was the hilt of my dagger that I had left beside the low cot. I sat up as I picked it up and carefully unsheathed it. My breath quickened as my fingers ran over the cool blade and down to the razor-sharp edge.
No! The dagger fell to the ground with a thump as I sat there, my hands shaking as I realized what I had almost done. There was no honor in such a death. I lowered myself back down onto the cot, closing my eyes.
Now what? I wondered. I remembered Aragorn's talk of duty; perhaps my duty was to offer hope to my people, even if every fragile hope I had held for myself was destroyed. He had not gone yet, and maybe I could still convince him to wait and ride with Théoden.
If nothing else, maybe I can still die in honor beside him. With this thought, I rose from my bed and dug through my belongings until I found a split skirt and tunic. I shed my dress and pulled these on with the mail shirt over top. I quickly tied my hair back with a leather cord, pulled on my boots and cloak, and strapped on my sword belt. I slung the shield I had carried over my shoulder, put on the helmet that I had worn for the journey to Dunharrow, and picked up Windfola's tack before leaving the tent.
Dawn was not far off, though the first grey light of morning had not yet touched the overcast sky as I walked to the main pavilion. I knew that Aragorn and his company would be leaving shortly, and already men were making preparations in the section of the camp where the Dúnedain had stayed. For the moment, I left Windfola without his tack; I could saddle him up quickly enough, and duty demanded that I bring the cup of parting to Aragorn before he left.
I poured wine from the cask with trembling hands, then took the cup in both hands to keep it steady as I walked back out. I could see Aragorn standing by his horse; the others had all mounted while I was inside. He was about to pull himself into the saddle when I softly called, "Lord Aragorn?"
He turned, and looked surprised to see me dressed as I was but did not say anything. I drank a little sip from the cup, and could taste the bitterness of the wine as it burned my throat. "Westu hál, my lord," I said. It took all of my strength to keep my voice from trembling, and tears began to prick my eyes as I looked on him.
He took the cup from my hand and drank, then handed it back to me. "Farewell, Lady of Rohan!" he said. "I drink to the fortunes of your House, and of you, and of all your people. Say to your brother, beyond the shadows we may meet again!" His words sounded more confident than he looked.
My vision blurred, and I blinked hard in an effort to prevent the tears from spilling out. "Aragorn, wilt thou go?" I asked, my voice catching in my throat.
"Then wilt thou not let me ride with this company, as I have asked?" My hand clenched so tightly around the goblet that I could see my knuckles whitening.
"I will not, lady." His voice was flat and left no room for argument. "For that I could not grant without leave of the king and your brother; and they will not return until tomorrow. But I count now every hour, indeed every minute. Farewell!"
I fell to my knees, and the cup fell from my hand, spilling the last few drops of wine on the ground. "I beg thee!" I said, a single tear escaping at last.
"Nay, lady," he said softly, and took my hand to pull me back to my feet.
Even through my sorrow, I could still feel my heart pounding at his touch. As his eyes met mine, I whispered, "Please, Aragorn! My people need you!" I need you...
He looked down on me sadly as he raised me to my feet. "I'm sorry, my lady. I cannot give you what you seek." The hidden meaning to his words was not lost on me, and I felt a bitter chill as he lightly kissed my hand and turned away.
He never looked back. I stood frozen, unable to turn away as he led the line of men through the double row of standing stones that marked the entrance to the Dwimorberg. His figure vanished into mist and shadow, followed by the horse that Legolas and Gimli shared. One by one, the Dúnedain followed until all had disappeared. As the last horse disappeared from sight, the spell keeping me bound there was broken, and I turned and ran. Either none of my people were yet up or they had refused to come out, and so no one saw as I tripped and fell, pushed myself back to my feet, and stumbled the rest of the way to my tent. I pulled off the helmet, let the sword and shield fall to the ground, and collapsed facedown onto the cot. Then I wept until I fell into a troubled sleep.
If anyone noticed something was wrong, the words remained unspoken. Now that it was known that the men would be returning from the battle, a thick tension fell over the camp as people grew tired of waiting. Men from the Harrowdale also came, bearing reports of strange things happening in the valley below us, and my own troubled face was attributed to that. I was able to keep myself occupied for the most part with preparing lodging for the king and his officers and other camp duties. My eyes would occasionally fill with tears when I caught a glimpse of the Dwimmorberg. When this happened, I was forced to stay out of sight until the moment passed--I could not allow the others in the camp to see my weakness, lest I caused them to lose whatever hope they may yet have possessed.
It was late afternoon the next day when I was finally able to fulfill Aragorn's last request for arms to be prepared for his Halfling friend. After digging through the piles of gear in the tent we had set up as a makeshift armory, I managed to find a small leather tunic and shield--if I remembered correctly, they had belonged to my uncle as a boy, then had been passed down to Théodred and my brother.
I turned my attention to finding a helmet that might be small enough to fit. I knelt down and began shifting helmets from one pile to another. As I picked up one to move it, I noticed that except for two openings for eyes, the entire upper portion of the wearer's face would be obscured. I moved to set it into the growing pile of discarded helmets, then hesitated and looked around to make sure I was alone.
I drew my sword and propped it up against the helmets to act as a mirror, then pushed my braid over my shoulder and put the helmet on. Though the image was distorted in the steel, with the mail-shirt that I wore, I looked like I could have been any young man who had not yet grown a beard. Perhaps if I looked like a man...
This is madness! I thought as I pulled the helmet off and let it fall to the ground with a clatter. The men of Rohan were not fools, and a woman could never pass for a warrior in their ranks. I went back to my task of finding gear for Meriadoc with a frustrated sigh. Still, even after all had been gathered, I could not bring myself to put the helmet back with the others and set it with the Halfling's armor.
I heard trumpets and left the tent to see the sun sinking behind the mountains. In the fading daylight, I saw a blur of activity in the field below, with one line of riders beginning to ascend the path. The King of the Mark had returned at last. I hurried over to Windfola and put on his tack. By the time I was mounted, the group had nearly reached the top of the path but I rode towards them nevertheless. As I drew closer, I could see Théoden leading the way atop Snowmane, and a pony trotting beside the stallion. The figure riding the pony looked like a young boy at first, with a mass of curly hair and bare feet. As they drew closer, I could see that his face looked older, though he was still no taller than one of our children. That must be Meriadoc, I thought, turning my curious stare away from the Halfling. Éomer was close behind, a grave look on his face. My uncle turned from the road and spotted me.
"Hail, Lord of the Mark!" I called, forcing a smile as I pulled Windfola up beside them. "My heart is glad at your returning."
"And you, Éowyn?" my uncle asked, looking at me closely. "Is all well with you?"
I glanced away, hoping my eyes wouldn't give me away. "All is well," I said softly, trying to convince myself as much as him. I swallowed hard, then looked back at him and repeated, "All is well. It was a weary road for the people to take, torn suddenly from their homes. There were hard words, for it is long since war has driven us from the green fields; but there have been no evil deeds. All is now ordered, as you see." I motioned to the rows of tents on the right side of the road. "And your lodging is prepared for you; for I have had full tidings of you and knew the hour of your coming."
"So Aragorn has come then!" Éomer said, the corner of his mouth twisting into a half-smile. "Is he still here?"
I looked away, shuddering involuntarily as I saw the entrance to the Dimholt. "No... he is gone."
"Whither did he go?" Éomer's smile faded. The Halfling followed my gaze in fearful curiosity.
"I do not know. He came at night, and rode away yestermorn, ere the sun had climbed over the mountaintops. He is gone." My voice fell flat.
"You are grieved, daughter." I turned to see my uncle looking down on me, his gaze solemn but kind. "What has happened? Tell me, did he speak of that road? Of the Paths of the Dead?" He motioned towards the Dwimorberg as he spoke.
"Yes, lord, and he has passed into the shadow from which none have returned. I could not dissuade him...he is gone." I glanced down again, the weight of my failure pressing down on me.
I could see the glimmer of hope fade from my brother's eyes as he spoke. "Then our paths are sundered; he is lost." He sighed sadly and continued, "We must ride without him, and our hope dwindles."
We fell into silence until we reached the pavilion. People had gathered from the camp to greet the king and learn the fate of their loved ones, and I could hear a few cries of joy as families were reunited. I dismounted and was about to lead Windfola away, when I heard Éomer calling my name and turned.
"Éowyn, would you do me a favor and take care of Firefoot for me? There's something I need to do." He glanced away, and I followed his gaze to the edge of the crowd, where Maeglith had appeared with her two children in tow.
I looked up at him in alarm. "Éomer? Is Háma..." My voice trailed off, and he nodded sadly. "Oh no..." I whispered, then took the reins. "Go." He turned, and as I led the horses away I glanced back just in time to see Maeglith stumble back with a look of numb shock on her face as Éomer began to speak with her.
I led Firefoot and Windfola over to a grassy patch where a few picket lines were already driven into the ground, then tied up the two horses. Then I removed Firefoot's saddle and bridle, patting the brown stallion absently as he began to graze. I did the same for Windfola, then rubbed the two horses down, concentrating hard on my task in an attempt to block out my thoughts of Maeglith and all of the other women in the camp who had lost loved ones.
And what about Freda? I thought sadly as I headed back to the camp. I was more grieved at the thought of the little girl growing up with only faded memories of her father. And if Maeglith's grief kills her, as it killed my mother... Lost in thought, I was not paying attention to where I was going and ran into a small figure. He fell to the ground with a small groan. I looked down to see the Halfling that had accompanied my uncle earlier.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" I exclaimed, kneeling down to help him up as I searched my memory for his name. "Please accept my apology, Master Brandybuck," I added, remembering just in time.
"Don't worry about it, my lady," he said, brushing off his jacket. Then he looked up at me, a little curiously. "You are the Lady Éowyn, are you not?" I nodded as he continued, "I have heard a great deal about you from the King and Lord Éomer."
"None of it's true, I'm sure," I said, giving him the best smile I could muster at the moment. "And please, just call me Éowyn."
"On one condition," he said. I raised an eyebrow curiously. "I'll call you Éowyn if you just call me Merry. I'm getting so tired of being called `Master Brandybuck!' It's too much like what folks call my father back home."
My smile was more genuine this time; I liked the Halfling's straightforward manner. "All right, Merry," I said. Merry accompanied me as I began to walk towards the pavilion; I could tell he was feeling out of place, and decided to try to make him more comfortable. "Where is your home?" I asked.
"My family lives in Buckland, by the Brandywine River in the Shire," he said. "It's far north and west of here, I'm told. It's a very peaceful land...hobbits aren't really the kind to go off on adventures." He sighed a little sadly.
"You must have quite a tale to tell," I said. "I'd like to hear it sometime."
He brightened up a little. "Really?"
I nodded. "But for now, would you do me the honor of escorting me to supper?"
He smiled and took my arm as well as he could, considering the difference in our heights. "The honor is mine, my lady," he said. We quickly crossed the remaining distance to the pavilion, and he released my arm and pulled the tent flap back, bowing gallantly. I couldn't help smiling briefly as he followed me in.
When I entered, Théoden was already sitting at the head of the small table with Éomer to his right and Dúnhere to his left. Merry moved to stand at the king's side, and I sat next to Éomer. No one seemed willing to speak, and it didn't take long for my thoughts to turn dark once more.
We ate in silence for quite some time, with the Halfling waiting on the king until he was asked to sit down and join us. We were nearing the end of the meal when Merry finally spoke up. "Twice now, lord, I have heard of the Paths of the Dead. What are they? And where has Strider, I mean the Lord Aragorn, where has he gone?"
My heart sank even further at the mention of Aragorn. My uncle sighed sadly, and my brother pushed some food around his plate. Finally, Éomer spoke up. "We do not know, and our hearts are heavy. But as for the Paths of the Dead, you have yourself walked on their first steps." Merry looked frightened at his words, and glanced over at Théoden nervously. "Nay, I speak no words of ill omen!" Éomer added in an attempt to reassure the hobbit. "The road that we have climbed is the approach to the Door, yonder in the Dimholt. But what lies beyond, no man knows."
"No man knows," my uncle repeated in a low murmur. "Yet ancient legend, now seldom spoken, has somewhat to report." He glanced at me, and I looked down at my hands. "If these old tales speak true that have come down from father to son in the House of Eorl, then the Door under Dwimorberg leads to a secret way that goes beneath the mountain to some forgotten end. But none have ever ventured in to search its secrets, since Baldor, son of Brego, passed the Door and was never seen among men again. A rash vow he spoke, as he drained the horn at that feast which Brego made to hallow new-built Meduseld, and he came never to the high seat of which he was the heir."
The flames in the lamps set about the tent flickered as if a cold wind had entered the tent. I could not help being reminded of the ghost stories that Éomer and I would make up when we were children, huddled beneath a bed during thunderstorms. Théoden continued, "Folk say that Dead Men out of the Dark Years guard the way and will suffer no living man to come to their hidden halls; but at whiles they may themselves be seen passing out of the door like shadows and down the stony road. Then the people of Harrowdale shut fast their doors and shroud their windows and are afraid. But the Dead come seldom forth and only at times of great unquiet and coming death."
Dúnhere had remained silent throughout this time, but now glanced up at me. We silently debated who would tell of the reports from the valley for a moment. Finally, I said quietly, "Yet it is said in Harrowdale that in the moonless nights but little while ago a great host in strange array passed by. Whence they came none knew, but they went up the stony road and vanished into the hill, as if they went to keep a tryst."
"Then why has Aragorn gone that way?" Merry asked. He seemed genuinely frightened; his amber-brown eyes mirrored the cold dread that had been following me since Aragorn's departure. "Don't you know anything that would explain it?" He looked at me, pleading silently.
"Unless he has spoken words to you as his friend that we have not heard, none now in the land of the living can tell his purpose," Éomer said, unable to keep a note of bitterness out of his voice.
I gazed off distantly, Aragorn's face drifting into my mind. "Greatly changed he seemed to me since I saw him first in the king's house, grimmer, older," I said. "Fey I thought him, and like one whom the Dead call." I swallowed hard as a now-familiar lump began to rise in my throat again.
"Maybe he was called, and my heart tells me that I shall not see him again." My head jerked up at my uncle's words, and I felt a dark sense of foreboding. My uncle met my gaze; his eyes were sad, but filled with a calm sense of purpose. "Yet he is a kingly man of high destiny. And take comfort in this, daughter," he added gently, "since comfort you seem to need in your grief for this guest.
"It is said that when the Eorlingas came out of the North and passed at length up the Snowbourn, seeking strong places of refuge in time of need, Brego and his son Baldor climbed the Stair of the Hold and so came before the Door. On the threshold sat an old man, aged beyond guess of years; tall and kingly he had been, but now he was withered as an old stone. Indeed for stone they took him, for he moved not, and he said no word, until they sought to pass him by and enter. And then a voice came out of him, as it were out of the ground, and to their amazement it spoke in the western tongue: `The way is shut.' Then they halted and looked at him and saw that he lived still, but he did not look at them. `The way is shut,' his voice said again. `It was made by those who are Dead, and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.' 'And when will that time be?' said Baldor. But no answer did he ever get. For the old man died in that hour and fell upon his face; and no other tidings of the ancient dwellers in the mountains have our folk ever learned."
I looked at him sadly. What comfort is there in such a tale? I thought grimly. He seemed to sense this, and added, "Yet maybe at last the time foretold has come, and Aragorn may pass."
I wanted to believe him, but couldn't. More likely he has already met his doom, I thought. And his blood is on your head, since you failed to stop him.
Éomer's thoughts seemed to mirror my own. "But how shall a man discover whether that time be come or no, save by daring the Door? And that way I would not go, though all the hosts of Mordor stood before me and I were alone and had no other refuge." He glanced down in frustration. "Alas that a fey mood should fall on a man so greathearted in this hour of need! Are there not evil things enough abroad without seeking them under the earth? War is at hand!"
The conversation was abruptly cut off as we heard a commotion outside the tent; an unfamiliar voice called for the king while the guards challenged him. I decided to take the opportunity to make my retreat. "My lord, may I be excused? I would see to Maeglith." He nodded, and I left the tent, passing two unfamiliar dark-haired men as I crossed the path to reach the larger camp.
Though I wasn't exactly sure where her tent was, finding it turned out to be easier than I thought: I found Freda crouched in the shadows outside of a small tent off to the side. She was hugging her knees to her chest and resting her head on them. "Freda? What are you doing out here?" I asked, kneeling down beside her.
She turned her tear-streaked face towards me. "I don't like watching Mama cry," she said softly.
My stomach knotted painfully; her reaction was too similar to my own when my father had died. "I'm going to go see if I can talk to her," I replied.
She nodded silently, and I pulled aside the flap closing the tent. "Maeglith?" I called softly. The dim moonlight filtered through the canvas of the tent just enough to show Fréalaf asleep in the corner, and Maeglith lying face down, her shoulders shaking in silent sobs. When she didn't answer, I tried again. "Maeglith, it's Éowyn. May I come in?"
There was a long pause, then she said, "Yes, my lady." I ducked down to enter, then knelt beside the weeping woman. She reached out and gripped my hand tightly, and we sat like that in silence for a long time, since I could find no words to comfort her. Finally she whispered, "I wish I could just see him one last time."
"I know, Maeglith," I said softly. "He was a good man, and a good friend. We will all miss him."
She moved into a slightly different position, and for the first time I noticed she was clutching some cloth. At first I thought it was a blanket, then she smoothed it out and I realized it was one of Háma's tunics. "It's foolish, I know," she said. "I brought some of his things with me...I never thought he would not return." She began to weep again as she finished speaking.
I did not respond for a while. A foreboding chill settled over me. Is this to be my fate also? I wondered. To stay behind and wait for the news of Théoden's and Éomer's fate? I can't do it, not this time.
I glanced away from Maeglith, and noticed a pile of clothing on the ground near the side of the tent. A dim shape that resembled a pair of breeches lay on the top. At the sight, a plan began to form in my mind. They cannot stop me if they do not recognize me. My eyes widened at the thought. Just as quickly, I remembered Aragorn's words to me the night before. Your place is with your people, he had said. I knew what he had meant; when my uncle left, he would leave me in charge of the refugees again. But the warriors are also my people, I argued silently.
I suddenly realized that Maeglith's sobs had evened out into soft, even breathing. I left as silently as I could. Once I was outside, I took a deep breath to clear my head. How could I even dare to think of disobeying my uncle's orders? If either he or Éomer found out, they would both be furious with me. Forcing my mind back to the present, I glanced around and saw Freda still by the side of the tent. The little girl had curled up on the ground and was fast asleep. I cannot leave her there, I thought with a sigh, and stooped down to pick her up. She stirred a bit but did not wake as I entered the tent and laid her next to her brother. I quietly covered her with a blanket and turned to leave once more.
I was almost back to my tent when I spotted Éomer at the edge of the camp facing the Dwimorberg, looking off into the darkness. I pulled my cloak a little tighter to try to ward off the cold, then walked over to him. "You should be resting," I said. "I'm sure you had a long ride today."
He jumped a bit in surprise, then relaxed as he looked over at me. "As should you," he replied. "You look like you haven't slept in days." I shrugged my shoulders noncommittally, though I could not remember the last night I had slept well. Probably before Wormtongue came to Meduseld, I decided.
Éomer's brow furrowed as he studied my face. "Éowyn, will you be all right?" he finally asked.
"Of course I will. I just need a little rest, that's all," I lied, knowing full well that Éomer would not believe me.
"I'm worried about you, little sister," he said as if I hadn't even answered. "I'm worried about what will happen to you once I'm gone."
Now it was my turn to frown as I looked up at him. "Don't be a fool, Éomer. You won't be gone long." I tried to sound confident, but could not halt the nagging doubt in my mind. And if he doesn't return, what then?
He seemed to read my thoughts. "I'm not coming back, Éowyn," he said grimly. "None of us will, this time. Even if we survive this battle, it won't take long for the Shadow to overtake us at last."
My eyes widened as I looked at him. Whatever had happened after I left, I could plainly see that my brother had lost all hope at last. "Éomer, what are you saying? You're frightening me."
He looked back at the dark mountain, his eyes hardening. "We ride for Gondor tomorrow morning. Minas Tirith is under attack, and the Lord Denethor calls for our aid. This will be the last battle. If Minas Tirith falls, it is over. And it is likely that the city will fall ere we even reach the Pelennor."
"Éomer, don't talk like that," I snapped. He raised an eyebrow at me, and my voice softened. "You'll come back, you have to." I glanced down, a lump rising in my throat. "You and Uncle Théoden are all I have left."
He moved a little closer and laid a hand on my arm. "I know." He frowned at the mountain again. "Whatever happened between you and Aragorn, you must let it go, Éowyn."
I pulled away abruptly. "What do you mean? Nothing happened." My voice was harsher than I intended.
"Then why did it seem you had been weeping when we arrived today?"
"I was just tired," I protested, glad that the darkness hid the embarrassment that colored my face.
"No, you weren't." His voice was flat as he continued, "Just forget about him, Éowyn. He's not coming back either."
I looked away from him. "He left a message for you." He glanced over, and I added, "He said to tell you that beyond the shadows you may meet him again."
Éomer snorted derisively. "It's madness to even think such things. No, little sister, he is gone. And we will ride out tomorrow to fight a battle we have no hope of winning."
I lifted my head defiantly. "Then I'm going with you."
"No, you're not!" His eyes flashed in anger momentarily, then softened. "No. It will put me more at ease, knowing that at least you are safe for the moment."
"I don't care about that!" I protested. "How can you expect me to stay behind and do nothing? You couldn't when you heard of the orc raid."
"That's different," he said. "Fighting in a battle isn't like practicing at the training ground, Éowyn. One wrong move and you're dead. Maybe you can use a sword, but nothing can prepare you for that. At least here you have a better chance of defending yourself." I opened my mouth to protest again, but he cut me off. "I'm not going to argue about this with you; I don't want to leave angry with you."
We looked at each other for a long moment, then I finally said, "Very well. Take care of yourself, Éomer."
"You too." He abruptly pulled me into a hug, which surprised me because he was usually not the type to show affection in such a way. We walked back in silence towards the camp, and he paused in front of my tent. "Good night, Éowyn."
"Good night," I said as he left before turning to go inside. As I stumbled over my things in the dark, my foot kicked a small pile of clothes that I had left on the ground from the day before. As I kicked them out of the way, I remembered the plan that had begun to form when I was with Maeglith earlier that night. I knew it was desperate, and if I was caught...
No, I won't be, I decided firmly. If the end truly had come, as Éomer said, then at least I could die in honor fighting beside the two people I cared about more than anyone else in the world--even if they would never know.