Storm Front - Chapter 5
Bill the pony was cantering resolutely along a packed dirt road, following the predator he had helped to free from the farm. In his eyes, his escape had been anticlimactic compared to the massive fight the predator had put against the men. She had even killed some of them.
Still, though he had been frightened, his fear was nothing compared to how the other horses had reacted. They had been absolutely petrified of getting near her. Perhaps it was his trust in the eagle, which had put forth so much effort to free the predator, but he didn't find her quite that terrible. True, he would much rather be anywhere else at the moment, but he wasn't about to panic.
"What are you planning on doing with her now?" Bill asked, looking up at the eagle, who was gliding alongside.
The eagle did not respond for a long while. Finally, he circled around and settled on Bill's shoulders. Bill slowed to a halt.
"We must not lose her!" the eagle declared warningly, seemingly abashed that he had stopped. "Keep going, my brother."
"Why?" Bill demanded, planting his hooves firmly and turning to glare at the eagle. "What use do we have with a man-eating predator? What is keeping her from turning back and killing us both?"
"She is suffering from madness unbidden," the eagle explained calmly. "I saw it when I looked into her eyes. She does not recognize the faces and names of those whom she used to love. Unless that madness can be broken, she is a danger to herself and others."
Bill snorted loudly, and almost laughed.
"If that was supposed to convince me to keep going, you are much mistaken, my friend!" he said.
The eagle gazed at him, his expression so crestfallen that Bill sighed heavily.
"I am scared," he admitted. "I do not want to keep going. Those men, the ones back at the farm, I recognized some of them. They were my old companions, my old friends. I want to go back to them." He bowed his head. "I miss my Sam."
The eagle ruffled his wings, brushing his feathers gently over Bill's flanks. Bill stared pleadingly at him.
"Please, my friend, I do not want to do this," he whispered. "I want to go back."
The eagle moved to a low branch, but the expression on his face did not change.
"Someday, you will be rewarded for your sacrifices," he said softly. "I promise you, someday you will again see the ones you love." He turned and gazed at the horizon. In the distance, the predator had stopped on the crest of a hill. "I do not know how far she intends to run, but I beg you to keep following her."
Bill swished his tail and shook his head, trying to think. After a long while he also turned and gazed at the dim figure of the predator. She seemed to be pacing. After a moment, she turned and disappeared down the far side of the hill.
"Go, my brother," the eagle said. "Follow her, and I will find you."
"Where will you be?" Bill asked, worried at having to go alone.
"I will be seeking out the only hope we have," he replied. "Good luck."
And with that, the eagle flew off. Bill watched him go, then sighed and broke into a hard trot, moving to catch up with the predator.
"I must be dreaming," he murmured dejectedly. "I must be."
* * * * * *
Arwen lay awake, listening to Aragorn's deep breathing. She could not risk moving until she was sure he was fast asleep. It had not been a pleasant few days for either of them. After Legolas had finished the tale, she had immediately offered to lead the search party.
"She will not try to harm me," she had said.
Arwen had received a very nasty shock when Aragorn had refused to let her go.
"I will not allow you to risk your life," he had said flatly. "The only people I will send out after her are armed soldiers."
"Faye will not tolerate that!" she had protested. "You send armed men, they will not return. Faye knows me. I am positive I can get through to her."
"Can you not see what she did to our son?" Aragorn had snapped fiercely. "Faye is a monster! Four men are dead because of her, men who did not stand a chance!"
"Aragorn, you have to trust me," Arwen had replied. "I must go after her. She needs my help."
Aragorn's eyes had been very cold at that moment. Arwen had held his gaze, determined to make him see reason. Finally, he had put firm hands on her shoulders.
"You will not," he had said, very firmly. "I forbid it. Look at yourself, Arwen. You're barely weeks away from birth. You will not last a long journey, and even if you could, you could not run fast enough if Faye became hostile."
"She will not hurt me," Arwen had said desperately. "Aragorn, please."
"No," he had said flatly. He had turned to Maida. "Take her back to our chambers."
A soft snore from Aragorn allowed Arwen to relax. He had finally fallen asleep. Slowly, she sat up, slipping out of bed and moving silently to her wardrobe, where she had hidden a travel pack the day before. Despite her added bulk, she moved whisper quiet. Arwen remembered the lessons she had received in her youth.
Faye had taught her well.
Silently, Arwen changed into travel-wear and shouldered the pack, looking back at her sleeping husband before slipping out into the corridor.
"I am sorry," she whispered. "I hope you will understand."
Arwen had been planning this departure for a while, and so knew exactly where to go in order to avoid being seen by the guards. Very slowly, she made her way out of the castle and through the city, every sense alert to her surroundings. Several times as she journeyed through the lower levels, she was almost caught, but by luck and stealth she arrived at her destination, the stables. She walked past the stalls, gazing at their occupants until she found who she was looking for.
Maida still rode a large draft horse, as she had done since her childhood. This one was a proud chestnut stallion named Atego. Atego snorted when Arwen opened the stall door, his bridle in hand, and lowered his head obediently. Arwen patted his strong, arched neck.
"I need your help, Atego," she whispered. "My mare is not strong enough to carry me as far as I need to go. Not like this." She settled a hand on her belly. "I pray your mistress forgives me."
"Only if you let me ride your mare."
Arwen spun around. Maida was standing at the doorway, a smirk on her face. For a moment, there was silence. Then, Maida laughed.
"Arwen, I did not need foresight to see this coming," she said teasingly. "You're going off to find Faye, right?" She studied her. "Tell me, how were you planning on getting yourself up and down Atego's back?"
Arwen glared at her, and Maida laughed again.
"Let's go," she said. "We need a decent head-start before the menfolk find out we're gone."
Arwen bit her lip. She had been planning this for days, but she had not taken into account the fact that Aragorn would immediately ride in pursuit. For a moment, she was crestfallen, then Maida patted her shoulder.
"If we ride fast, we'll be able to stay ahead of them," she said. "Besides, there's only going to be three of us. We'll be hard to track."
Arwen stared at her, shocked.
"Three of us?"
Suddenly, the sound of approaching hooves on cobblestone echoed, and Eowyn soon appeared at the doorway, dressed as Maida was in travel clothes, leading her horse.
"The guards have just changed shifts," she said softly. "Let's go while they're distracted."
In her hurry to prepare Atego and her mare, Canassa, Arwen did not question Eowyn's presence. Her back and leg muscles strained uncomfortably as the shieldmaiden and Maida helped her onto Atego's back, and she clutched her belly with a slight wince. Maida noticed.
"Are you sure you want to do this, Arwen?" she asked. "What if you give birth while we're journeying?"
"I'll risk it," Arwen replied determinedly. "For Faye."
Exiting the city unnoticed turned out to be easier than Arwen expected. Eowyn had let a fourth horse out of its stall, and when they drew near the gates, she chased it away. The guards departed their posts to catch it. Maida led the way out of the city, and soon they were galloping across the Pelennor, the moonless night helping to shadow them from the watchful eyes of the city. Arwen bit her lip as Atego's long strides jarred her.
"We'll ride until daybreak," Eowyn called, her cloak billowing out behind her as her horse leapt over the wreckage of a cart still left from the war. "It'll be harder for them to track us if we keep close to the wilderness, so we're following the mountains. Faye ran north when she escaped. We may be able to intercept her path."
Arwen nodded, focusing her thoughts on Faye to keep her mind off her discomfort. Faye had no doubt suffered the worst possible tortures in the last centuries, and yet she still lived. Arwen could stand a little discomfort if it meant finding her.
They kept the fairly quick pace until sunrise, and by then they had gone an impressive distance. Maida discovered a quiet glade with a small stream flowing past, and there they rested. Eowyn pulled a map out of a saddlebag and started plotting their location, Maida watching over her shoulder. Arwen rested back against the trunk of a large tree, gazing at the horses as they grazed. Atego, Canassa, and Eowyn's gelding Bregan were relaxed, greedily eating the clover growing on the bank. She sighed, trying to relax. Sleep came so quickly that she had no chance to fight it away.
The little glade was deserted. Eowyn, Maida, and the horses were gone. Arwen looked around for them, but she was calm, unconcerned about their absence. The stream sparkled like liquid silver in the beams of sunlight, but beyond the first line of trees there was nothing but blackness.
In the brightest beam, an apparition was starting to form. As Arwen watched, it took the shape of a crouching woman. The woman was standing the way a prowling cat would, with one leg bent underneath and the other stretched out behind. Her hands appeared odd, though the image was too blurred to determine why. Still calm, Arwen watched as the ghostly woman turned, looking at something behind her, matted hair falling limply over her shoulder. It took no time for Arwen to see the woman was Faye. She truly did look the beast Legolas had described.
Suddenly, the dream-hazed silence was broken by the rustle of powerful wings. Something heavy settled on Arwen's bent knee, and she looked down to stare into the eyes of a handsome brown eagle. At this range, it was easy to see the specks of black and gold amidst the brown in the feathers. It clicked its sharp beak and turned to gaze at the apparition of Faye, which was now moving like it was running, though it remained in the beam of sunlight.
"You are too late," the eagle said, its voice rich and deep. "Faye has already passed into the mountains. If you wish to find her, you must turn northeast now."
"Turn northeast," Arwen murmured, still stoically calm. "Turn. . .north. . ."
The dreamscape vanished, the apparition disappearing to be replaced by Atego, Canassa, and Bregan. The horses were looking at her, or rather, looking at her leg. The eagle had not faded upon awakening. It was still perched upon her knee.
"Maida!" Arwen cried, the word escaping her before she could stop herself.
Eowyn and Maida had not noticed the eagle's arrival, so focused were they on the map, but at Arwen's cry, both jumped up and rushed to her.
"Do not move, Milady!" Eowyn declared, drawing her sword from its sheath.
The eagle squawked, glaring at Eowyn, but it did not move. Arwen, coming to her senses as she recognized the magnificent bird, held up her hand.
"No!" she said quickly. "I'm sorry. I was just startled." She placed her hand on the eagle's smooth feathery back. "He is a messenger, come to warn us that we're going in the wrong direction."
Maida and Eowyn stared at her, bewildered. Then, suddenly, Eowyn's eyes grew wide.
"You!" she said, lowering her sword. "You stole Anduríl from Aragorn!"
The eagle squawked again, more quietly, giving an unmistakable nod of its head. Maida knelt, extending her hand to the bird. It allowed her to touch its soft feathered head. Maida closed her eyes and sighed.
"Arwen is right," she said, looking at Eowyn. "We are going the wrong way. The eagle has been sent from the Valar to guide us to Faye."
Arwen studied Maida with interest. When she had voiced her knowledge of foresight days before, Arwen had believed Maida was just trying to annoy Gimli. However, as she watched Maida concentrate on the eagle, she began to doubt her original opinion. Perhaps Maida really had inherited the rare gift.
The eagle bowed its head, then spread its great wings and flew upward, circling above the glade. Eowyn sighed, clearly deciding to take their word on faith, and quickly prepared the horses while Maida repacked the gear. Arwen raised herself to her feet, stretching her back to ease the soreness. She felt a firm kick, and smiled as she rested her hand on her belly. The eagle's presence meant that the Valar were watching over them now. With the eagle's guidance, finding Faye had now been assured. Eowyn brought Atego to her, and she smiled at the shieldmaiden.
"Thank you for coming," she said, glancing up at the eagle. "We will find Faye now."
"I saw her in that field, Milady," Eowyn replied gravely. "I saw what she did to your son." She sighed. "Maida came to me and asked me to accompany you to help protect you. I know Faye loves you, but her mind is now lost to madness. I am here to ensure your safety."
Arwen frowned, unable to think of a reply. She knew, even now, that her love for Faye was blinding her better judgment, but she just couldn't bring herself to imagine the possibility that Faye would not respond, and even become violent.
"Come on," Eowyn said, offering a hand. "We do not have much time."
Once all three were mounted, the eagle turned and began flying off towards the mountains. Arwen led the way, forcing the awareness of the now constant discomfort in her belly from her mind, keeping her gaze determinedly forward.
The eagle's arrival had ignited within Arwen a burning hope she had not possessed since that day in Lothlorien when she had decided that Faye was not coming back.
But why now? A tiny voice in the back of her mind asked. Why did the Valar wait so long to help? They could have rescued Faye long before now had they wanted to.
Arwen shook her head, but she could not prevent the thought from cementing. Why had the Valar waited? Could all of this somehow be related to Faye's punishment? She remembered all too well hearing of how Faye had unjustly blasphemed against the Valar after Celebrían's capture. Angered, they had sent the eagle to tell her that in order to gain forgiveness, she would have to hunt down and destroy Thuringwethil. Faye had done so, centuries ago. Why had she not been allowed to come home?
Arwen glanced back at Maida, and by reading the grave expression on her face, knew that she was thinking the same thing.
* * * * * *
The first sign that reached Aragorn to tell him something was wrong was Eomala. The child had wandered into the room where he and Faramir were holding an informal meeting with the members of the court, approached her father, and had asked whether or not he had seen Eowyn. Aragorn turned and looked down at Eomala, frowning.
"You haven't seen Eowyn?" he repeated, for Faramir had shaken his head almost casually. Eowyn normally ate breakfast with Eomala, and it was very unusual for her to break routine. "Not at all?"
"Not since yesterday," Faramir replied, gathering his daughter in his arms. "She was gone when I woke up." He shook his head again. "That is no cause for concern. She is probably with Queen Arwen and Lady Maida."
Aragorn was suddenly very alert. Now that he thought about it, he hadn't seen Arwen yet either, and the absence of Maida and Gimli's normal morning verbal duel should have concerned him immediately. He turned to the Dwarf.
"Have you seen Maida?" he asked, his memory flashing back to the tense argument he and Arwen had struggled through.
"Not today," Gimli replied gruffly. "And it has been the most peaceful morning yet."
"Are they not here?" Eomala asked, her eyes wide.
Now everyone was looking at them. Aragorn stood, looking directly at every person in the room.
"Has anyone seen either Queen Arwen, Lady Maida, or Lady Eowyn this morning?" he demanded.
A pulse of fear shot through him as murmurs filled the room. Nobody seemed able to give him a positive reply. He turned to a waiting guard.
"Search the city!" he commanded. "Find them!"
"My king, I do not think there is cause for concern," Faramir began, but he quickly trailed off. Worry was starting to form in his own eyes as well.
Twenty minutes later, a soldier entered, panting, to tell Aragorn the news he dreaded to hear.
"The ladies' horses are gone," he gasped, having run the distance from the stables. "As is their riding gear."
"They've gone in search of Faye," Legolas said after the soldier had left, realization dawning on his face.
"They've gone after that beast?!" Gimli declared, jumping to his feet. "She'll tear them apart!"
By now, the entire court knew the story of the events at the plantation, and so the worried murmurs immediately became much louder at Gimli's words. Aragorn sat down again, momentarily too stunned to think. The others were staring at him, waiting for him to command them.
"I'm going after them," he finally said, a rush of anger over his wife's foolish actions stirring him back into motion. "I will not let Arwen do this."
He stood and left the room, so lost in his emotions that it took a minute for him to realize that Legolas had followed.
"Wait, my old friend," he said, and Aragorn turned to him. "I do not think you understand why Arwen left."
"I do not need to know why," Aragorn snapped. "Arwen disobeyed a direct command. She is putting herself and our unborn child in danger. You cannot stand there and tell me you are not concerned."
"I would be outright lying if I did," Legolas replied. "I am concerned about her, but I realize now that we should have expected little else. Arwen would have found a way to leave no matter what."
Aragorn opened his mouth to protest, but Legolas shook is head.
"We can do nothing to stop her now," he said grimly. "All we can do is pray, and hope." He paused.
"And be thankful she did not go alone."