Bill stepped gingerly towards the shore of the wide river, trying with all his might not to look to the right, where a massive waterfall thundered, billowing clouds of white mist into the air. Here, the current did not look strong at all. In fact, it appeared more of a long lake than a river.
That didn’t make him feel the least bit better.
Night had fallen long ago, the stars clouded by the mist. Even in the darkness, Bill could see the dark form near the far shore. The predator had been attempting to lose him ever since he had prevented her from attacking the man in the bog. So far, she had been unsuccessful, but now Bill was not sure he’d be able to follow her. He was not looking forward to going swimming. Standing at the edge, he watched as the predator stepped out of the water, shaking violently before disappearing into the forest beyond.
For a long moment, he stared at the space where the predator had disappeared, his snorts of frustration and fear echoing into the darkness. Tentatively, he dipped one front hoof into the water, then the other. He could feel his body trembling, and he lowered his head to drink, trying to soothe his nervousness. Nearby, a cricket chirped loudly. Bill sighed heavily.
“For your sake, brother,” he whispered, thinking of his friend. “Catch up soon.”
Heaving another deep sigh, Bill trotted forward, the ground beneath his hooves falling away quickly as the water became deeper. In moments, he was kicking his legs with all his might, snorting as he fought to keep water out of his nostrils. The waterfall thundered ever more loudly in his ears, but there was very little current here, and after a while he lost his fear of being swept over the edge.
The distance turned out to be far greater than he had originally anticipated. Bill could feel his leg muscles beginning to burn with fatigue. He snorted again and kept kicking. Finally, much to his relief, he could see the far shore drawing near.
Suddenly, he saw a dark form emerge from the forest. It was the predator. Bill slowed his pace, watching to see what she would do. She approached the edge of the water, her eyes focused on him, but she stopped at the edge and crouched down. The predator was studying him, and that made Bill nervous. Had she finally decided to kill him, and was merely waiting to come into range?
Bill continued swimming towards shore. He could not stay out in the water, for he was rapidly becoming too tired to stay above the surface. However, he tensed as he felt his hooves finally strike soil, prepared to run if the predator lunged at him. Struggling out of the water, he cantered to the forest edge, turning to look back and see if he was being pursued. The predator’s eyes were still on him, but she had not moved.
A long, tense moment passed, and still the predator did not move. Bill pawed the ground, unsure of what to do. If the predator wasn’t going to attack, then what was she planning? She had been trying to run from him for days. Why had she stopped now?
Still staring at the predator, Bill sighed deeply and took one tentative step forward. He knew he couldn’t have stood there forever. The cool mist was starting to feel uncomfortable against his wet hide. The predator still did not move, and so he took another step, and then another. Finally, the predator moved, rising to her knees and extending a four-fingered hand. Bill was taken aback. The expression on her face had changed. At first, the predator had been emotionless, but now she was looking at him in nothing short of confusion, like she had just seen him for what he was. The way she was holding her hand towards him was in no way threatening. She seemed to be reaching for him, wanting him to come within her grasp.
Bill inched towards the predator, extending his neck so that only the tip of his muzzle grazed her fingers. He had decided that if the predator was trying to trick him, he could accept a few scratches on his nose if it meant escaping from her. However, the touch that met his sensitive nose was gentle. Amazed at his own daring, Bill stepped closer, moving so that the predator could rest her entire hand on his muzzle. The predator looked at him, moving her other hand to gently cup his nose.
“Endis?” she whispered, looking thoroughly baffled.
Bill snorted, unsure of what was coming. The predator stood, balanced uneasily on one leg, and rested her weight against him, her forehead upon his. To Bill, this action was akin to any one of the affectionate touches he had received in his life. He could not help but nuzzle her shoulder.
The predator backed up, and Bill stepped forward, his fear ebbing away as quickly as the river current. Finally, the predator turned away and started walking towards the forest. At the edge, she looked back at him, and Bill followed. She was no longer attempting to escape him. She seemed to have decided he would make an acceptable companion.
For a long while, Bill had worried that with the eagle no longer accompanying him, he would fall victim to wolves and other such creatures. However, from what he had seen the predator capable of, he knew he no longer had need to fear.
The predator would protect him, just as the eagle had done.
* * * * * *
Faye crouched at the edge of the water, watching the horse that pursued her as it swam across the river. She didn’t know what had caused her to return. It was just a soft, persistent complaint deep within the recesses of her clouded thoughts that had slowed her pace to a halt and turned her head back. She couldn’t understand it, but she also could not ignore it.
The horse was clearly nervous of her, and as soon as it struggled onto shore, it cantered away from her. Its movements were jerky and stiff, showing that the beast was fearful. For a long while, she stared at it, and it stared back, pawing the ground. Her thoughts were churning inside her. Deep within the din, something was trying to form, a solid memory from a life long forgotten. Did she actually have memories from that far back?
The horse took a tentative step forward, and Faye stared at it. It seemed to be trying to fight its fear of her. It took another step, and another. Suddenly, something inside her formed, and before her mind’s eye a beautiful bay gelding appeared, wild and fierce. She knew this horse. She had seen him, known him. . .befriended him. It was a memory from before the torture and pain. A memory she didn’t even know she possessed. She sat up and reached for the horse. Confusion was consuming her senses, and nothing else was solidifying that could explain her thoughts.
The horse approached hesitantly, extending its nose until it brushed her fingertips. She felt its warmth and softness, a familiar sensation. Why was it a familiar sensation? Her confusion was only growing. The horse moved again, pressing its nose fully into her hand. She felt its warm breath on her wrist, remembering the bay gelding again. She remembered a snowy field, and seeing him approach her eagerly. She remembered. . .
“Endis?” she whispered, having grasped the horse with both hands. Where had that name come from?
Faye forced herself to her feet, shifting her balance to lean upon the horse. She pressed her forehead on the dirty fur between its eyes, her head paining with the effort of trying to remember. She felt the horse nuzzle her shoulder affectionately, sensing its fading fear. She released it, backing away, and the horse followed willingly.
Looking back at the horse, Faye forced herself to relax. She didn’t know why she did not object to the horse following her. It had been chasing her for days. It had even prevented her from taking what would have been a large and much-needed meal. She had thought not wanting to attack it was strange. Now, in an action completely beyond her control, she had accepted it.
Only days before, she had thought that her life consisted of nothing but torture, pain, and the stench of mud and sweat. However, now that she was free to run and think, Faye was slowly beginning to realize that there was more. Had she known happiness before? Friendship? Love? The little boy with the amulet, this horse, the gelding Endis in the snowfield. They all meant something, and she wanted nothing more than to be able to pull the pieces together. Faye headed once more into the forest, the horse shadowing her. Running seemed to be helping spur the resurrection of the old memories.
And even if it meant running for years, Faye would not stop until she had all the answers.
* * * * * *
At first, it had appeared to Arwen that a half-day lead was a distance that could be easily bridged, especially with the aid of the horses. However, it had soon become apparent that at some point Faye had picked up her pace considerably, because by the time Arwen and the others had found the point where Faye had crossed the Anduin by way of the Nen Hithoel, the trail had already gone cold. Arwen stared across the river, the sound of the waterfall pounding her ears, and sighed deeply. She bit her lip to fight back tears of frustration.
“Arwen,” Maida said, approaching and grasping her shoulder. “We tried, my friend.”
Arwen stared at her, unsure of what Maida meant. Eowyn, who had been standing nearby, stepped forward.
“We have been journeying for almost two weeks,” she said, clearly making an attempt to sound understanding and firm at the same time. “You are almost due, and I can see how uncomfortable you are while you are on horseback. The trail is cold.” She paused. “I do not see how we are going to be able to catch up.”
Fury boiled within, and Arwen expelled a sharp breath. It was true, the discomfort had been acute for days, but she had felt nothing that told her the baby was ready. She looked up, searching for the eagle, but it had flown ahead. She wondered if it had even realized they had stopped.
“I will not,” she said flatly, turning back to glare at Eowyn and Maida. “I will not give up.”
“Arwen, please listen to reason!” Maida begged, tears forming in her eyes. “The baby will be born any day. We won’t make Minas Tirith. . .”
“I am fine.” Arwen was fighting to keep the tone of her voice calm. “The discomfort is minimal. For Faye, I will suffer it.”
Arwen could see that Maida and Eowyn believed continuing to search would be in vain. Arwen turned again and looked towards the far shore, where Faye had surely been not that long ago. Atego was standing halfway in the river, snorting as he drunk the water. Canassa and Bregan were grazing on the grasses lining the riverbank. She approached Atego, soaking her boots as she walked into the water to grasp his reins.
“Arwen,” Eowyn said, following and grasping her arm. “It is too late. Faye is gone.”
Arwen’s gaze shot from Eowyn to Maida, who was standing on the riverbank, and finally to the far side of the river. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she could feel the frustration building inside. It was as if every disappointment she had ever felt in the long years of waiting for Faye to return had come back all at once. Her hands trembled, so much so that she lost her grip on Atego’s reins. Eowyn released her arm, quickly grasping the reins before Atego could wander off, and turned back to Maida. Maida sighed and waded in to stand beside them.
“I know how much you care for Faye,” she said softly, her eyes watering as Arwen stared, “but you have to consider yourself. Your baby will come in a matter of days, and we just can’t risk you giving birth in the wilderness. We have to turn back.”
She knew that it was inappropriate, being the Queen of Gondor, but Arwen could not fight the desperation any longer. She sank heavily to her knees, her back screaming protest, and burst into desperate sobs. She sensed Eowyn’s shock, but Maida threw her arms around her, whispering comfortingly. Arwen gripped her back, fighting to calm down but failing. At that moment, she felt the weight of everything she had lost over the years. Her soul was so darkened by frustration and despair, she could not see anything beyond it.
“The eagle returns,” Eowyn suddenly proclaimed, gesturing to the sky.
Arwen forced herself to look up, her vision blurred by tears. Sure enough, the eagle was swooping down towards them, cawing imperiously when it saw they were not moving. It seemed highly agitated, and continued swooping at them, finally raking Eowyn’s forehead with its talons. Eowyn yelped in pain and surprise, quickly unsheathing her sword.
“Enough!” Maida cried angrily. “Friend eagle, we cannot follow you any longer. We are tired, and Arwen will give birth any day. We cannot risk her health, not even for Faye.”
The eagle screeched again, but it checked its flight and settled on Atego’s saddle. Eowyn glared at it as she wiped blood from her forehead, but she did not attempt to strike it. Arwen could see that the shieldmaiden had suffered two shallow gashes across her forehead just below the hairline, but the bleeding had already stopped. The eagle glared at them, clicking its beak impatiently. Arwen stared at it, then turned to Maida.
“The last time you touched it, you saw its thoughts,” she said, and Maida nodded. “Touch it again. I think it wants to tell us something.”
Maida blinked, but obediently stood and approached the eagle. Once again, her fingers grazed the feathers on its head. For a moment, her expression was calm, but then her eyes lit up. She gasped in shock, pulled her hand back, and twisted around.
“It saw her!” she cried. “The eagle wants to tell us that Faye is not far ahead. The pony has already found her, and is purposely slowing her progress. They’ve turned north.”
Eowyn dropped her sword hand to her side, poorly hiding her shock. The eagle was starting to become restless again, ruffling its feathers, but Eowyn held up her free hand to silence further sound from both it and Maida.
“Exactly how far is `not far ahead’?” she asked sharply. “There is a difference in travel speed between eagles and horses, especially one carrying a pregnant woman.”
“Just beyond the forest on the other side of the river,” Maida replied, looking taken aback. “They just entered the Brown Lands.”
“The Brown Lands are a half day away,” Eowyn said, pulling the map from out of one of Atego’s saddlebags and pointing at a spot Arwen couldn’t see. “There’s nothing that will impede Faye’s progress in those lands. She has probably tripled her pace by now, if what Arwen has said about her is accurate.”
“But she has the pony with her, and the pony is slowing her down,” Maida pressed.
“Five minutes ago, you were willing to help me convince Arwen to turn back,” Eowyn snapped.
Eowyn and Maida continued to argue, but Arwen had long ceased paying attention to them. She had kept her eyes on the eagle, her sobs finally quieted enough for her to think clearly. Her mind wandered back to the night she had first seen it, gazing at her from her windowsill. She had been an Elfling then, fresh from the most terrifying experience of her life to that point. The eagle had guided Faye back to Rivendell, and brought in its wake a time of great peace and joy. It had appeared again, many years later, to send Faye away on the quest that had taken her out of Arwen’s life. And now, here it was, trying to guide her back to the woman she loved as a mother.
Arwen sat up, a sudden realization dawning. She wasn’t just being guided by an eagle. She was being guided by a servant of Manwë himself. This was a creature sent by the Valar, which meant that she was not alone in this endeavor. Many times in her life, Arwen had offered the Valar pleading prayers, and although most of them went unanswered, there were some that had been granted. The most recent had been her request to protect Aragorn during the journey to destroy the One Ring. She wanted nothing more than to reach Faye, but despite not revealing it to Maida or Eowyn, she knew she could not continue on in her present state. Arwen took a deep breath, staring at the eagle until it met her gaze.
“I need help,” she said hoarsely, startling Eowyn and Maida into silence with her words. “I cannot do this alone.”
“You are not alone, Arwen,” Maida said, clearly confused.
“I cannot go on like this,” Arwen continued, ignoring Maida. “I cannot go on knowing my baby will be born any day. I need. . .” She took another deep breath. “I need to know that my baby will remain unborn until we catch up with Faye.”
Maida gasped, and Eowyn stared incredulously, but again Arwen ignored them, still staring intently at the eagle. The eagle had not broken eye contact, and in fact seemed to calm down as Arwen spoke.
“Please,” she finished. “I do not want to lose Faye again.”
For a long moment, there was silence. Even the horses were quiet. Then, the eagle clicked its beak and took wing, circling low above them. Arwen watched it for a moment, then turned and gazed at Maida and Eowyn, who were both frozen in shock.
“Will the Valar hear your prayer?” Maida asked quietly. “What you ask for is unnatural.”
“I know,” Arwen replied, sighing deeply. “Please, my friends, do not abandon me now. We must continue on.” She focused her pleading gaze on Eowyn. “If only for a little while.”
Slowly, Maida and Eowyn approached and helped Arwen to her feet. As she was doing so, Eowyn returned Arwen’s gaze with a look of concern and defeat.
“Very well,” she said. “But only for another day or two, unless we see real proof that we are catching up.”
Eowyn released Arwen and left to retrieve Bregan and Canassa, who had wandered a little ways away. Maida allowed her to settle her weight against her.
“All praise to the Valar,” Maida whispered, smiling. “I cannot recall when any other of the Eldar were more blessed.”
“I am no longer of the Eldar,” Arwen replied softly.
Maida did not reply. Arwen turned to look at her, and saw the shadow of tears in her eyes.
“When will you journey into the West?” she asked.
“When I am sure that my presence is no longer needed,” Maida replied, her voice cracking slightly as she spoke.
Arwen closed her eyes and turned away. She did not have to ask to know what Maida had meant.
She would remain in Middle-earth until the moment of Arwen’s death.