The marshals were calling a halt, and word was sent back down the ranks of the Riders that the army would bivouac for the night under the protective cover of a broad thicket of willow trees. The first stage of the journey to Gondor was over, and the six thousand Riders were still only 36 miles away from Edoras. A long way to go, thought Eowyn gloomily, as she peered about her in the heavy brown dusk and dismounted, helping Merry down with her.
Having no official connection to any eored or area company, she had attached herself to the company of her mentor and father’s friend, Elfhelm, hoping to remain unmarked amid the other 100 men under his command. Eowyn handed Merry his pack and rolled tent so he could get to work raising a roof over his head for the night, then heaved her own tent and pack off her shoulders. But before she could see to her own needs, she must look after Windfola.
“I need to water the horse,” she said briefly to Merry and walked off towards the sound of the river to her left. The Snowbourn and Entwash met nearby, so the direction of the water was unmistakable. Eowyn made a beeline for it, patting the hot flanks of her tired horse as she went.
By unlucky chance, the noise of the water chattering and bubbling over rocks masked the sound of another Rider on the path ahead of her. She crashed into the back of him right by the water’s edge and he stumbled and cursed, losing his footing and grappling for a tree branch that overhung the running stream. As he swung around, Eowyn recoiled in shock. It was Elfhelm.
“Give me a hand,” he said sharply. She held her hand out immediately, but turned her head to one side so he couldn’t get a glimpse of her face through the helm she was wearing. Pulling him to safety took some effort – he was much broader and heavier that she was – but eventually both his feet were back on stable ground by the side of the river.
“Thank you,” he said shortly. “You need some more training – you’re not exactly strong, are you?”
Eowyn swallowed before answering. “Not as strong as some, my lord marshal,” she answered, trying to lower her voice to make it sound more masculine. “But I am handy in battle, I assure you.”
“Are you indeed?” he muttered, removing a twig that had lodged itself in a corner of his armour. “What is your name, lad?” he asked. “And why do you ride with my eored when I do not know who you are?”
“My name is Dernhelm,” said Eowyn, moistening her dry lips. “I ride with your company because you have great renown in the land, and I want to ride under a great captain.”
“But I do not know you,” he persisted. “You have not come to me and spoken to me – you have tiptoed into the back rows of my company – oh yes, I saw you,” he added, as Eowyn started. “I would hardly be the great captain you call me if I did not notice a stranger in my ranks.”
“Of course,” she answered, her head drooping. “I should have known. Forgive me.”
“That all depends,” he replied. “Where do you come from, and why have you no company to ride with?”
“I am alone,” she said. “My family comes from a tiny village in the Eastfold – my parents and cousin are already dead, killed by orcs or the mischance of these evil days. There is only me. I knew of you by reputation and …” she faltered and looked away.
Elfhelm raised his eyebrows and sat down on a rock by the riverbank. “Really, I think you can do better than that,” he said. “The stories you told your uncle as a child to cover up your combat practice were much more interesting.”
“E-Excuse me?” she stammered. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Really?” he said drily. “Very well. Have it your way. Then let me say … Dernhelm, is it? … that you are welcome to ride with my eored. I am proud to have any … er … son of my friend at my back. If your sword arm is half as true as his – and I have good reason to know that it is – you will be an asset to any captain.”
To relieved and too shocked for the moment to speak, Eowyn sat down next to her old teacher and took a few deep breaths. Elfhelm stretched his legs out in front of him to loosen his muscles after hours in the saddle, then stood up with a grunt.
“But I have two words of advice for you,” he said. “First, try not to talk to anyone. You really don’t sound enough like a man to get away with it. Second” – and he pointed to her right hand – “you ought to take off your mother’s ring. Half the men in my company would recognise it.”
Eowyn looked down in surprise at the gold and amethyst ring on her finger; the wedding ring her father had given her mother. She had worn it for so many years that it had never occurred to her to take it off. Such a simple mistake, she thought, shaking her head.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, giving Elfhelm his title as her battle superior as she twisted the ring from her finger.
“Just keep it safe, for goodness sake,” he said, leading his horse away from the water. Eowyn began to do the same, and he stopped at once. “Haven’t you forgotten something?” he asked.
What now? thought Eowyn, her mind spinning with the knowledge that he wasn’t going to give her away. She sought for a small, concealed pocket in the mail she was wearing to hold her ring and looked up at him questioningly.
“Windfola,” Elfhelm prompted, pointing at the river. “He’s not going to thank you if he doesn’t get a drink after carrying you on his back for half the day. Just get on with it, then get back to your tent and get some sleep. We’ve a long ride ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” said Eowyn. “And thank you.”
He turned back to her. “Don’t mention it,” he said quietly. “You honour your father’s memory by being here. I know Eomund would be proud that you have chosen battle over safety.”
He turned and walked back to the camp, and Eowyn proudly led Windfola to the water’s edge.
Some hours earlier Haleth, seeking her mistress among the tents, found the letter that Eowyn had written – bidding her farewell – and on reading it, sat down and wept.
My disappearance will come as no surprise to you, I am sure. I have ridden to war, and I want you to inform Guthwara of my decision and command him, on my behalf, to take charge of the refugees of Dunharrow in addition to the people of Harrowdale. He is a wise man, and will see to the needs of everyone with an expert hand. I do not expect to return, but I do expect to fight to avenge the death of my father, my mother and my cousin, and to show as much strength and courage as any man. There is no sorrow in death on the battlefield – especially if we are all to die in this war, one way or another. Far better for me to go where my heart would take me. You have been a loyal friend, keeping secrets that I know you did not wish to because of your desire to uphold the promises made to my mother. Do not reproach yourself, dear Haleth. It is better this way. Farewell,
My dear Haleth,
My disappearance will come as no surprise to you, I am sure. I have ridden to war, and I want you to inform Guthwara of my decision and command him, on my behalf, to take charge of the refugees of Dunharrow in addition to the people of Harrowdale. He is a wise man, and will see to the needs of everyone with an expert hand.
I do not expect to return, but I do expect to fight to avenge the death of my father, my mother and my cousin, and to show as much strength and courage as any man. There is no sorrow in death on the battlefield – especially if we are all to die in this war, one way or another. Far better for me to go where my heart would take me.
You have been a loyal friend, keeping secrets that I know you did not wish to because of your desire to uphold the promises made to my mother. Do not reproach yourself, dear Haleth. It is better this way.