They found their way to the head of the column of evacuees, riding next to Éowyn. Théoden’s niece seemed much more at ease now, listening patiently to Gimli’s discussion of Dwarf women. At one point she smiled and laughed, although Novarwen had the feeling that the laugh had more to do with Aragorn’s miming of a Dwarvish beard than with what Gimli was saying. Smiling herself, Novarwen kept Brethil at a slow walk to stay with them.
She was about to ask Theryn to tell her how he’d gotten to Rohan when Legolas asked the same thing. Novarwen gave him a playful glare which no one missed seeing, and Theryn nudged her shoulder teasingly before he began.
“I stayed at Rivendell a little while after you all left,” he told them, “but I wasn’t – I didn’t fit there, somehow. I thought I’d go back to Mirkwood, but I stopped in Lothlorien when I was almost there.” His face darkened. “Lady Galadriel told me of my birth there.” Novarwen gasped and slipped her hand into his. It had been a shock for her to discover that Theryn was the son of Haldir of Lothlorien, when all had thought he was a common-born Elf – it must have been an even greater shock to him. “She also told me that Gandalf had passed through not long ago, and she gave me a horse and sent me after him to Rohan.” He grinned a little embarrassedly. “Well, one of the things you do in Middle-earth is that whatever Lady Galadriel asks you to do, you do it! So I came to Rohan.
“I got here in time to see a village burning. I rode as fast as I could towards it, but when I got there, the houses were gone and the people were fleeing.” Theryn stopped to recover himself – anger and hints of tears had crept into his voice. When he had himself under control, he went on. “I caught up with a woman and offered her my horse. She wouldn’t take it until I promised to make sure her children got safely to Edoras. She had sent them away before their village was attacked. I promised, and she pointed them out to me before she got on the horse and rode away.
“The horse the two children were on was faster than I thought a farm horse could possibly be. I had my work cut out for me, chasing it. But finally I caught up with it, and I managed to convince the children that I was from their mother and that it was all right to trust me. We got to Edoras the day you did, only later, and then the boy fainted. I told the guards that they were Rohirric children, and they let us into the hall. And then -” he paused with the smallest of grins – “then you came into the hall.”
No sooner did Theryn finish his story than Legolas suddenly look around. Novarwen felt something, too, and would have sooner if she hadn’t been listening to Theryn. Her brother jumped off his horse and ran to the top of a hill. Novarwen could barely see him, but one thing she saw that chilled her blood – Legolas pulled an arrow from his quiver and shot it.
Novarwen wasted no time. “We’re under attack!” she yelled, leaping off Brethil and grabbing her own bow and quiver. Theryn looked at Legolas, saw him fire a second arrow, and reached for his weapons. Legolas was still on the hill, but he was still clearly keeping attackers at bay with his arrows.
Théoden heard Novarwen’s calls. He rode up to her instantly. “Is it true?” he asked, his eyes worried. She nodded, and he called, “All riders to the front of the column!” Novarwen grabbed Brethil’s mane and leaped onto his back. She heard Théoden say quickly to Éowyn, “You must lead the people to Helm’s Deep.”
“I can fight!” she protested.
“No!” Théoden cut her off. Novarwen knew that he didn’t want her to die, that he feared for her safety, but the sharpness of his reply stung even her. Then he looked at her, and she stared in disbelief, already shaking her head. “You stay, too, Lady Novarwen,” Théoden ordered.
“No!” Novarwen snapped flatly. “You can’t keep me out of this!” She glared at Théoden furiously.
“Don’t waste time by arguing!” he told her. “Help Lady Éowyn get the people to safety!” Then he was gone, riding away toward the hill where Legolas stood.
“She will need help,” Theryn said quickly, his hand on her shoulder. “I’m not trying to keep you out of this – though the Valar know I’m glad you won’t be hurt – but please make this easier for everyone and don’t fight him!”
Novarwen felt like hitting something. Theryn had just returned, even with the evacuation things might be going well, and now this! She wouldn’t even be able to protect Theryn if he needed her, her friends might be killed – and she had to lead the people to a place she didn’t believe would protect them in the first place! But the reasonable corner of her mind was yelling, You know he’s right, so do what he asks! “All right,” she managed. Then she threw her arms around Theryn’s neck and kissed him. When they drew apart, tears glistened on both their cheeks. “Take Brethil,” she said in a choked voice. “He’ll take care of you since I can’t.”
Theryn kissed her again, quickly, then pulled away and mounted the horse. Novarwen fiercely blinked her tears back as she watched him ride away. She swallowed a painful lump as he disappeared from her sight over the hill.
“Lady Novarwen?” asked Éowyn’s voice. Novarwen turned, surprised at the choked-up sound of Éowyn’s words. She was crying, too. But for who? Novarwen wondered. Actually she knew, but she couldn’t bring herself to admit it, not even silently. She took Éowyn’s hand and squeezed it. The other woman closed her eyes, but when she opened them she seemed stronger. “Make for the lower ground!” she called loudly, directing the wagons and people where she wanted them to go. Novarwen fell behind, showing the people farther back the way Éowyn wanted to take. Éolain’s mother was among the ones she pointed out the new direction to – the woman locked eyes with her for a moment before heading off in the new direction.
Finally Novarwen caught up with Éowyn at the front of the column. “I’m – sorry you couldn’t go to fight,” she said rather lamely.
Éowyn looked at her, astonished. “Do you mean that?” she asked.
“Of course I mean it!” Novarwen replied, indignant at first that she hadn’t been believed, then calming herself down.
Éowyn swallowed hard. “That’s the first time – thank you, Lady Novarwen.”
“Please stop that `Lady’ nonsense. I don’t go around calling you Lady Éowyn, do I?”
She smiled faintly. “No. I’ll stop.”
They walked on in silence. Finally Novarwen broke it – a question she feared the answer to, but had to know, was begging to be asked. “Éowyn, do you – I mean, how do you feel about Aragorn?”
Instantly Éowyn’s face became guarded and distant. “I admire him for who he is,” she said, her voice remote. “He told me he was promised to an Elven maiden, so admiration is all I can ever feel for him.”
Novarwen bit her lip in an effort to stop the sharp reply she was about to toss off. It came out anyway. “For the love of the Valar, Éowyn, tell me the truth! I’m not the sort of person who would tell the entire garrison of Helm’s Deep! You can trust me!”
Éowyn gasped slightly and looked away. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just remembered – it was too much, remembering…”
“Grima said exactly those words when he first came to Edoras. `You can trust me.'” Éowyn shivered.
Novarwen suddenly felt an odd little jerk behind her heart, and the next instant, a vision possessed her. She knew immediately that this was in the past. Éowyn sat on a chair in her room, her face red from working with her sword, judging from its presence unsheathed beside her. She picked up a small cup from a table and drained the water in it, breathing hard from the workout with the sword. Footsteps creaked on the wooden planks outside. Éowyn leaped up, wiping sweat off her face, the expression on it guarded.
The door opened. Grima, his hair greasy, his clothes filthy, as usual, came into the room. “What are you doing in here?” Éowyn demanded.
“Working with your sword?” Grima asked, avoiding the question. His voice sounded displeased.
“What has that to do with you?” Éowyn snapped, her arms crossed on her chest but her eyes wary.
“Your uncle,” Grima said, licking his lips as though relishing the words, “thinks it high time that you marry.”
“My uncle has been poisoned by your words!” Éowyn’s eyes flashed with anger as she spoke.
“He thinks it good that you, his beloved niece, should marry a man he trusts implicitly,” Grima continued. “I have his consent to a marriage between you and me.”
Éowyn stared in horror at him. Her face, which a minute before had been red with exertion, was now dead white. In one swift motion she grabbed the hilt of her sword and laid it against Grima’s throat. “Lay one finger on me,” she hissed, “so much as mention this – this joke of a marriage to my uncle, and you shall find that my steel will be more than happy to wed you in my stead.”
Grima backed away from the sharp edge of the sword. “Not now, then,” he said, his voice only slightly shaky. “But soon, my little winter flower.”
“Never!” Éowyn spat. “Never while I live!”
Novarwen flung herself out of the vision sweating, her knees shaking. She looked at Éowyn, walking steadily onward, her composure regained. Her heart swelled with agony and her eyes filled with tears. She reached out and grabbed Éowyn’s hand, holding it tightly. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Éowyn looked at her steadily. “You know,” she said – it was not a question.
“Just now,” Novarwen confirmed. “I think you are the bravest woman I have ever met.”
She saw Éowyn swallow again. “Thank you.”
“Éowyn – I would be glad if I could call you my friend,” Novarwen ventured, hoping Éowyn wouldn’t take the offer amiss.
“And so would I, if I could call you mine,” she replied, giving Novarwen a smile, a real smile.
“It’s got to be harder to get to Mordor than to reach Helm’s Deep!” Novarwen groaned. “It reminds me of the bad old days when I had to cross the Hithaeglir mountains – twice.” Éowyn shuddered. “Please, Éowyn, put me out of my misery and tell me that we’re almost there!”
“I can’t do that yet,” Éowyn laughed, “but I can tell you that the worst is over. It won’t be long now.”
“For which I thank the Valar!” exclaimed a man behind the shieldmaiden. Éowyn grinned at him and turned back to face forward.
“Tell me about Rivendell, Novarwen,” Éowyn asked. “I heard -” Her voice faltered for a moment, but she recovered herself. “I heard that Lord Elrond’s daughter lives there, and that she is the most beautiful of Elves.”
Novarwen took a deep breath. May Elbereth Starkindler see me through this, she thought. She remembered Arwen’s tears when Aragorn left Rivendell with the Fellowship – how long ago that seemed! – and she remembered Éowyn’s remote voice when she had said she only admired Aragorn, her words belied by the look in her eyes. Why did both of my friends have to be in love with the same man?
“Rivendell is beautiful,” Novarwen began. A place was a neutral enough topic. “It’s all greens and pinks and soft golds, and trees everywhere. The houses look like – almost like a version of Meduseld, softened and gently painted in gold.”
“And Lady Arwen?” Éowyn asked. “Is she as beautiful as her home?”
Éowyn, you stupidly stubborn woman! Novarwen thought. Why do you insist on hearing something it will hurt you to hear? “Arwen is beautiful, too, but darker, less golden dawn and more velvet night. She is the most beautiful Elf I’ve ever seen.”
Éowyn’s face was a stone mask. “Go on.”
“She – oh, Valar curse it, Éowyn, we’re not talking about Arwen, are we? We’re talking about Aragorn! We’re talking about how you love him, but you insist on hearing everything that could possibly keep him away from you!”
Éowyn was white now, her face as pale as the snow on Caradhras. She looked at the ground, at her feet, anywhere but at Novarwen.
“He loves Arwen, that’s true! He’s loved her since his youth, and she loves him, but you can’t accept that!” Novarwen knew she should stop, but she had always spoken her mind, and she somehow couldn’t halt the angry words that flew to her tongue. “You persist in wanting to live in misery!”
Éowyn suddenly turned her gaze on Novarwen, and the Elf-girl immediately wished she had shut up long before. Éowyn’s eyes were cold and furious. Anger glittered in them with the hard light of a dragon’s hoard. “Do you think I didn’t have enough misery to last me a lifetime when Grima was in control?” she asked, her voice as frigid as a winter storm. “Do you think I’d willingly seek more out?”
“That’s what you’re doing!” Novarwen cried in exasperation. “You want to hear about Rivendell, you want to hear about Arwen – you’re wallowing in your own self-pity, Éowyn! Why don’t you just accept that Aragorn doesn’t love you that way and keep living, instead of dwelling on it every moment?”
“Oh, so should I find someone else to love, just to take my mind off the man I love already?”
“Ride away and marry Grima if it would do you good!” Novarwen snapped.
She knew the second before the words leaped out of her mouth to slap Éowyn’s face that she should not say them. She tried to choke them back, but they jumped off her tongue and struck Éowyn. Their stinging slaps brought vivid color back to her face – the red of anger and hurt and betrayal. “No!” Novarwen gasped, horrified. “Éowyn – no, please – I didn’t mean to say that – please, Éowyn -” Her hopeless stammers did nothing to bring the color down in Éowyn’s face.
“But you did say them,” she said, her voice shaking, tears in her eyes. “Are you happy now?” A tear fell down Éowyn’s cheek and clung to the line of her jaw. “Are you?” she cried, her voice breaking, and leaped up onto her horse. Forgetful of her duties, Éowyn rode hard across the plain, letting the wind whip her tears back into her eyes as they fell on her face.
Tears in her own eyes, wanting desperately to take back her last words, Novarwen turned to the people behind her. “Perhaps Lady Éowyn has seen our destination!” she yelled, hoping to save the situation. “Let us rest here and wait for her.”
Her suggestion was greeted with a rumble of approval from the citizens of Edoras. They stopped their wagons and sat down; some even brought out food. Novarwen wasted no time in finding Éolain’s mother and telling her that she and Éowyn had had a fight. She didn’t say what the fight was about – after what she had done, the least thing she could do for Éowyn would be to keep her love turmoil a secret. Éolain’s mother gave her a sharp look, though, and Novarwen had a feeling that, Elf though she was, she was not doing a very good job of hiding the cause of the fight from the mortal woman, whose name, she learned, was Théodel. “And so, you are afraid that Lady Éowyn is too angry to forgive you?” Théodel’s voice added a touch of the overdramatic to the words.
“I think so,” Novarwen confessed miserably. “I said – I can’t believe I said it! If I was Éowyn, I know I wouldn’t forgive me!” She paused, having heard what she had just said, and asked, “Does that make sense?”
“A little,” Théodel replied, smiling slightly. She took Novarwen’s hand in her work-worn one. “But wounds heal, Lady, and quarrels can be forgiven, if not forgotten.”
“But what if they are quarrels that shouldn’t even have begun?”
Théodel rolled her eyes in annoyance. “Elf-girl, I know you’re at least a thousand years older than me, but sometimes you can have the sense of an infant who likes to play with her brother’s shiny sword. I believe that no quarrel should never have begun. Fights make us who we are. Yes, I know that sounds terrible,” she grinned, “but I think it’s true. It’s the fault of the circumstances if the quarrel is begun; it’s the fault of the people involved if it is never ended.” She squeezed Novarwen’s hand in comfort. “Does that help at all?”
“Yes,” Novarwen replied honestly. It’s my job to end it, then, she thought. I began it, and it was my fault for saying it, so I have to end it. She hugged Théodel quickly and made her way back to the front of the line. “We will wait here until the Lady Éowyn returns,” she called; she would rather that Éowyn not get lost looking for them, and she wanted to be able to make up as quickly as possible.
Éowyn was astonished to find that the people of Edoras had not gone on to Helm’s Deep after she had – well, ridden away in a tantrum. But a tantrum not unprovoked, she reminded herself. She dismounted and cast her eyes over the group, looking for Novarwen. She desperately wanted to end the fight, but she thought that the Elf should be the first one to make amends.
Novarwen was easy to find – she was sitting in front of the people, her eyes gazing into the distance. Éowyn approached hesitantly. What would happen when she made her presence known to Novarwen? What would the Elf say? She cleared her throat.
Novarwen started up from the ground. She had been so lost in her daydreams that she hadn’t even heard Éowyn return. She met the eyes of the shieldmaiden of Rohan with some embarrassment, but mostly with sorrow and guilt. “Éowyn -” she said. Then, seeing the same embarrassment in her friend’s eyes, she reached out and pulled her into a tight hug. Éowyn returned it with more strength than Novarwen had expected. She felt a tear drop onto her neck from Éowyn’s eyes, and she whispered, “I’m sorry,” and held her friend tighter.
They pulled away, smiled into each other’s eyes, and gathered their bags. “Keep going!” Éowyn called to the people. “Not long now!” With the strength that comes of hope, the people of Edoras picked up their bags, harnessed their horses, and walked on. Within the day, they reached the fortress and welcome refuge of Helm’s Deep.