Bill lowered his head, dipping his nose into the cool water being offered him. A cold, steady rain was falling, and he sighed as his saddle was removed, almost seeing the heat rise from his flanks. Never had the rain felt more welcoming. It had been a very long, tiring journey.
“This old boy is going to need a couple of weeks, at least,” came the voice of his mistress’s forest-dwelling friend, Ancalima. “You pushed him too hard this time.”
“I know,” his mistress, Faye, replied. “But I had to get away. I couldn’t bear to remain there a moment longer.”
Bill felt a hand settle on his shoulder, and he turned and gazed at his mistress. Faye appeared as equally tired as he felt, and he was grateful that she thought enough to see to his needs first. He rubbed his nose against her arm, and sighed as she stroked his sweaty neck.
All in all, Bill knew he was a rather simple soul. The last few years had given him a much broader perspective on the world than most of his kind possessed, but he still treasured the basic things. A good grooming, a bucket of oats, and perhaps a carrot or apple, and he almost always forgave and forgot the trials of the day. Now, standing with Faye in the little forest clearing, the journey finally over, he felt relaxed and at ease for the first time since leaving the city.
Bill did not know what had caused Faye to come running in his stall in the great city that fateful day, highly distressed and cursing in a language he did not understand. All he remembered was feeling the saddle being strapped to his back, and hearing the command to start running. And run he had, for many days and nights with little rest. Each day had passed in a blur, with the moon above slowly waxing and waning, until at last they had reached the wide river near the falls, and he finally realized where his mistress intended to go. At least this time, no giant spider leapt out at them while they wandered through the forest to Ancalima’s home.
“Let’s get the sweat washed off this poor old boy,” Ancalima said, picking up a bucket and drawing water from a nearby trough. Bill twitched when he felt the water being poured along his back. “The rags are over there.”
Bill stood there quietly, almost tempted to take a nap. One of the goats brayed softly, and he glanced over at them. The mule, Jent, whickered at him and tossed her head.
“You all there, Bill?” she asked. “Is the predator treating you right?”
“She treats me fine,” Bill replied. “I am tired, but I am well.”
“And what of your eagle friend? Is he still with you?”
“I see him every now and then.”
It was true. Though Bill had not spoken to the eagle in a long while, rare had come a day when he had not seen him, either watching him from afar or flying so high in the skies above that only the sun glinting off his golden wings had identified him. Bill looked around now, searching the trees for him, the mule and the goats doing the same. The rain was falling a little harder, the details of the trees harder to distinguish. Bill could not see any sign of his friend.
“There he is!” one of the goats said suddenly.
Bill felt a sudden tap on his right front leg, and he lifted his foot instinctively, distracted by the goat’s words. Sure enough, the eagle was perched upon the roof of the cottage. Bill nodded at him, and received a nod in return.
“Do you know what is going on, brother?” he asked, feeling something being scraped against his hoof. “I. . .ouch!”
Bill jumped, pulling his hoof out of the woman Ancalima’s grip with a snort. Ancalima stood and patted him. Bill glared back at her. She had made his hoof hurt!
“He has a stone stuck between the hoof and the frog on that foot,” Ancalima was saying to Faye. “I almost had it out.”
Ancalima leaned down again and gripped Bill’s leg, asking for him to lift it again. He did not want to, but the woman was persistent, and finally he grudgingly complied.
“Don’t worry, my friend,” he heard Faye whisper into his ear. “Ancalima will not hurt you again.”
Bill snorted and shook his head, slightly tensing when he felt the scraping again. But this time, it only lasted a few seconds. Ancalima released his foot and straightened up, a stone in her hand.
“There you go, Bill,” she said, tossing the stone aside. “You should be feeling fine soon.” Ancalima glanced up at the rapidly darkening skies. “Faye, we had better get inside before this storm front hits.”
Bill allowed himself to be led over to Jent and the goats, and shook himself vigorously when he was finally released. He watched his mistress and Ancalima disappear inside the cottage.
“Over here, Bill,” Jent said. “It is dry under here.”
Jent and the goats led him to a small, shabby lean-to, just large enough underneath for them, that Bill did not remember being there before. The goats immediately curled up, but Jent turned to him.
“I think I see why you like the predator,” she said. “My mistress was very happy to see her, so she must not be so bad.”
“She is not.” With a rush of wings, the eagle appeared and settled on Bill’s back. He extended a wing and shook it. “I do not like being wet.”
Bill looked back at his friend, amused. He watched as the eagle preened his flight feathers back into proper shape.
“What is Faye going to do with me now?” he asked after a few minutes. “Am I to stay here for the rest of my life?”
“I hope you do,” Jent interjected happily. “I like you, Bill.”
“I do not know what Faye intends to do,” the eagle admitted, with a glance at Jent. “Perhaps she means to stay here, or maybe she’ll move on again. She has terrible anger now against those she used to love. Until she works through her anger, she will never gain the peace my masters wish for her.”
Bill sighed, shifting his weight slightly. He had thought he would soon be able to go back to his Sam, like the eagle had promised so long ago. He was not young anymore, and he so wanted to be back in his Sam’s care before he died. He felt the eagle tap his back, and turned his ears to him.
“I will keep my promise, my brother,” the eagle said softly. “You will see your Sam again someday.”
“I hope so,” Bill replied, glancing out at the falling rain. “I really hope so.”
* * * * * *
“You attacked King Elessar?”
Faye winced slightly as Ancalima turned from the hearth, staring at her incredulously.
“You attacked him?” she repeated. “Right in front of a whole group of Citadel guards?”
“I was angry,” Faye replied, knowing how weak her protest sounded. She tried to rephrase her meaning more clearly. “Look at what he did to Arwen. He took away her immortality. He sentenced her to death!”
Ancalima did not respond. Faye stood and started pacing the length of the room, her right leg throbbing slightly with each clumsy step. Since leaving Minas Tirith, she had forced herself not to think about Arwen, but now that she was here, all the pain and frustration that had been building was starting to overpower her. Before she had quite realized it, tears had begun to slip down her cheeks. She sat down on the edge of the bed, burying her face in her hands.
“She’s going to die,” she said, her voice rough. “We could have been together forever.”
Faye felt Ancalima settle by her side and place a comforting hand on her shoulder. She let the woman embrace her, trembling as she fought back sobs. Never once in the five hundred years of her captivity had Faye felt pain as deeply as this. Everything she had ever done, every hope and dream she had ever possessed, had all been in vain.
“Why?” she said hoarsely. “Why do the Valar curse me so? Surely I have suffered enough to repay my blasphemy.”
Again, Ancalima said nothing. Faye raised her head and looked at her, seeing the strained frown upon her face. It was clear the forest woman did not understand, but seemed unwilling to ask for clarification. For that, Faye was grateful. The last thing she wanted to think about was the reason why she had been sent on that fateful quest. The quest that had caused so much personal suffering. Had she known then what she knew now. . .
“So what are you going to do now?” Ancalima asked suddenly. There had been silence between them for several minutes. “The guards of the Citadel aren’t after you for attacking the King, are they?”
“I do not think so,” Faye replied, shaking her head wearily. “But I know I cannot return. My presence is no longer welcome.”
“I can see why,” Ancalima began, in a half-hearted attempt at a joke. Faye scowled at her, and she frowned again. “I still cannot believe you attacked King Elessar.”
“I stirred more cloth than flesh,” Faye said. She growled deeply. “But I would have torn open his chest given the chance.”
“Elessar is a good man,” Ancalima protested quickly, shock on her face. “I’m sure you know the story of the Fellowship by now. Where do you think you would be today if he hadn’t aided in Sauron’s destruction?”
Faye’s scowl deepened.
“He could have journeyed to the pits of Mordor itself to rescue me, and I still would not think any different of him,” she snapped. “He stole my child from me! If I had known that seeing Arwen die is the reward I was to receive for all of my suffering, I would have ended my cursed existence long ago.”
Faye fought another wave of sorrow, her eyes watering with unshed tears. But this time, the horrible urge to break down was too great, and she collapsed upon her side, succumbing to the pain and misery.
“I cannot do this anymore,” she whispered through her tears. “I wish it all to end. Death is a sweeter fate than this.”
“No,” Ancalima moaned, fear in her tone as she knelt by her side. “Faye, do not say such things. You have come too far to give up now.”
But Faye was not listening. A terrible, burning desire for release was filling her heart, becoming ever stronger by the second. Before Ancalima could say anything more, she had jumped to her feet, stumbling to the door and flinging herself out into the pouring rain. Faye was almost instantly drenched, and a few seconds later faltered and fell to the muddy ground. She barely noticed. A few tree branches lay nearby, and with a strangled cry Faye grabbed for a sturdy-looking twig. It had been snapped off a larger branch at some point in the recent past, and the end was just sharp enough for the purpose Faye had for it. Holding it tight in her hands, she struggled to her feet. The sharp end of the twig was hovering over her heart.
“NO!” Faye heard Ancalima scream. “Faye! What do you think you are doing?!”
Again, Faye ignored her. Never before had the empty oblivion of death beckoned so invitingly. This, and beheading, were the only things that proved the bane of her kind. It was something she had always instinctively known. Her strength would drive this shard of wood through her heart. Her body would crumble to dust, and she would at last be free.
Memories flashed across her senses in rapid succession as she tensed her arms for the fatal blow. The howling and jeering Orcs as they urged the Wargs to attack ever more viciously. The creature Thuringwethil’s head falling from her skeletal body. Arwen standing above her, fury in her eyes. Arwen. . .dancing across a frozen pond. Arwen laughing as she chased butterflies in the late afternoon. She, Faye, sitting in Elrond’s study and learning how to read and write. Celebrían’s smiling face. Little Tinúviel sleeping in her arms. . .
Faye knew she was faltering. She still longed for death, but she couldn’t bring her arms to move. She gasped, trembling, the world around her fading slightly as she wavered on unsteady legs. She acknowledged nothing until she felt hands tighten around her wrists. Suddenly, Faye was aware of Ancalima standing before her, trying to pull the twig from her grasp, and of the eagle perched on her shoulder and screeching into her ear.
“Let it go, Faye!” Ancalima shouted.
Faye could feel Ancalima’s fingers clawing her own, attempting to release her grip on the twig. Allowing a howl of despair to escape her, Faye slumped bonelessly to the ground, dragging the eagle and the forest woman with her. The eagle jumped about and flapped its wings, and Ancalima straddled her, finally forcing the twig from her hands and throwing it aside..
“What in Arda is wrong with you?!” the forest woman shouted, her voice cracking with the strain of her emotion.
“I cannot. . .” Faye moaned back, unable to sit up with Ancalima’s weight upon her. “I cannot. . .Arwen was everything I had. Without her. . .I have no reason to live.”
The eagle cawed and hopped aside, moving just in time because Ancalima had gripped Faye by the shoulders seconds later, and was shaking her viciously.
“Killing yourself is not the answer!” Ancalima snarled, thoroughly startling Faye. “Faye, how can you not understand that Arwen is happy? I barely know her, and even I can see that she regrets nothing.”
“But why?” Faye asked, pushing Ancalima away and slowly rising to her knees. An inferno of pain and confusion was raging through her, and she doubted anything the forest woman could say would have the power to contain it.
“Why? I don’t know why. I am the last person you should be asking why,” Ancalima replied sharply. “Everything I know is from what I have seen. I know Queen Arwen and King Elessar love each other. I know they are happy together. I know they are wise, just, and powerful rulers. I know they are the best thing that has happened to our world in an Age. If you need more answers than that, Faye, then you are on your own.”
Faye stared at Ancalima, unable to think of a reply. She could see tears in the woman’s eyes even through the rainwater that trickled down her face.
“You are the first true friend I have ever known,” the forest woman said softly. “I want to help you. But I cannot do that unless you tell me how.”
The eagle crooned softly, looking up at her with its warm, dark eyes. Faye slowly raised her hand and settled it upon the eagle’s back. It nudged her arm with its beak, clearly trying to offer comfort. Ancalima settled a hand on her shoulder again.
“Don’t give up, my friend,” she said. “There is still so much for you to live for.”
Ancalima’s words were answered with a strangled sob, the only sound Faye could make as her resolution finally shattered. She cried, harder and more desperately than she had ever done before. Ancalima wrapped her in a fierce hug, and Faye sank into the embrace, burying her face in the woman’s shoulder. The eagle continued to croon and rub its head against her arm.
How much time passed before her cries finally diminished, Faye did not know. But when the inferno had at last been appeased, she realized that it had stopped raining. Beams of weak sunlight were breaking through the stormy grey skies. Faye released Ancalima, looking up at the swirling clouds high above. Never before had she seen a storm break quite so beautifully, and she had seen plenty of storms in her lifetime.
“Now, if I am not mistaken, there should be. . .” Ancalima said suddenly, looking around. She smiled. “There it is.”
Faye followed Ancalima’s line of sight, and soon spotted the pale rainbow glittering just above the treetops on the far end of the clearing. She stared at it for several minutes, turning only when Ancalima stood up.
“I think the storm front has passed,” she said, and Faye knew she wasn’t referring to the weather. “Come on. I expect my dinner is burning by now.”
Ancalima offered an arm, and Faye took it, standing as the eagle moved from her knee to her shoulder. Faye was grateful to them both. She knew the time would come for her to decide on the next step in her life, and because of them, she still had that chance. Friendship had kept her alive.
And friendship, Faye realized, was something worth living for.
* * * * * *
Eowyn sighed softly as she leaned back in her chair. The news of Faye’s attack on Aragorn had spread quickly throughout Gondor and Ithilien, though the reasons were as wild and varied as only rumor could make them. But Eowyn knew the truth. Arwen had told her why when she and Faramir had journeyed to Minas Tirith to make sure Aragorn had not been badly injured.
That had been several weeks ago. The story was finally starting to grow old, and Eowyn had stopped hearing it being whispered among the servants in the corridors. People had finally stopped worrying that the “blood-drinker” was still lurking in the shadows somewhere, waiting for the next opportunity to attack. It was now widely accepted that Faye was gone.
Eowyn had also stopped arguing in Faye’s defense. Most seemed to believe that bringing Faye back to Minas Tirith had been a mistake, and that the attack had been an inevitable consequence. Eowyn no longer tried to correct anyone for voicing that opinion. Nobody believed the truth; that Faye was a loving, caring woman who had made a terrible mistake when she had realized everything she knew was gone. To convince people was a wearisome task, and Eowyn had long since lost the will to face it. Whatever issue that came up in the future would just have to deal with itself, without her help or input.
Eowyn looked around. A captain of the guard was standing at the doorway, bowing to her. She beckoned him forward.
“Border reports for Lord Faramir have arrived,” the captain explained. “Do you know where he is? I cannot find him.”
“He is in the forest with Eomala,” she replied. “He insisted on some father and daughter time this afternoon.” She stood and accepted the reports from the captain. “I will give these to him when he returns.”
The captain bowed again and turned to leave, but Eowyn, who had been thinking he looked slightly familiar, suddenly recognized him. He was the captain that had detained the slave traders so many months ago.
“How are their captives adjusting?” she asked once she had voiced this realization to him.
“Very well,” the captain replied with a smile. “Four of them have recently been accepted into the perimeter guard, and I think one of my men is planning to propose to one of the women soon. I am sure they much prefer life in Ithilien.”
“And how did you discover them?” Eowyn asked. She had been meaning to ask this question for a long time.
The captain chuckled, shaking his head.
“I do not think you will believe me, but a little bird told us where to look,” he said. “Well. . .not so little. An eagle, actually. I did not even know there were eagles in Ithilien.”
“An eagle?” Eowyn asked, shocked.
“A brown one, with golden wingtips,” the captain replied. “I was sitting at my post when it landed in the tree above me. It told me `look yonder at your eastern lands’ and then it flew away. And when I woke up. . .”
The captain grinned sheepishly.
“Well, yes, I admit I had nodded off for a bit,” he admitted. “I dreamed the eagle was speaking to me. And when I woke up, I gathered a few of my men and patrolled our eastern borders. . .and we found the slave traders.”
Eowyn stared at the captain, amazement clear on her face.
“Is this true?” she asked.
“Not only true, but that is not the strangest part,” the captain said. “Right after I sent the message to you and Lord Faramir, I looked up into the trees and saw that same eagle looking down at me, like it was saying `well done’ or something. I turned away for a moment, and when I looked back, it had disappeared.”
The captain bowed a third time as Eowyn sank back into her chair, thoroughly bewildered.
“I know,” he said. “It is hard to believe. I still cannot believe it myself.”
“No,” Eowyn reassured quickly. “I believe you.” She chuckled slightly, shaking her head. “I believe you.”
The captain departed with a wide smile on his face, convinced that Eowyn believed his incredible story. Once he was gone, Eowyn leaned forward, resting her chin in her hands. There was no doubt that the eagle that had been her guide during the quest for Faye was the same one that had warned the Ithilien guard of the slave trade to begin with. The sheer fact that the eagle could appear to be in so many places in a short span of time was clear evidence that higher powers had been at work. Had the Valar planned for the quest, and set the events in motion that would lead to Faye’s return?
Well, if the Valar had planned it all out, then Eowyn was almost positive the recent events had not been something they had foreseen.
She heard someone enter the room, and turned to see Eomala walking towards her, Faramir not far behind. Eowyn sat up and gathered her daughter onto her lap.
“What were you thinking about, Mama?” Eomala asked innocently.
“A story,” Eowyn replied, handing the border reports wordlessly to her husband.
“Ooh!” Eomala said delightedly. “Can you tell me?”
Eowyn smiled slightly, kissing Eomala on the forehead.
“Not yet, my dear,” she said, looking momentarily at her husband before returning her gaze to her daughter.
“Because the story I am thinking of. . .does not yet have an ending.”
“And when will it have an ending?” Faramir asked, glancing up from the reports.
Eowyn sighed, shaking her head. The entire experience had been far beyond anything she had ever known before.
“I do not know,” she admitted softly.