The trees rustled softly in the dark. Eowyn lay on her back in her little tent, hands behind her head, listening and thinking.
She was relieved beyond words that Theoden had decided to leave the road to camp overnight by the Eilenach beacon, a few miles into the Druadan Forest. Although doubtful of the truth of her warning two mornings ago, it was clear that Elfhelm had spoken to the king about it. Who knows what he had said, but Theoden had responded, turning aside from the great west road. His men were under cover for the night as scouts spied out the road ahead.
Eowyn sighed. Soon, soon they would be at Minas Tirith. It could not be soon enough for her. She was sick of riding all day and on into the evening. Sick of waiting. Her head throbbed, and she rubbed her forehead absently with one hand. It was impossible to sleep – she seemed to have a dozen drums beating in her head.
Outside someone fell heavily to the ground, swearing broadly at the tree root that he could not see in the dark.
“I am not a tree root, sir,” said Merry’s voice, “nor a bag, but a bruised hobbit. The least you can do to make amends is tell me what is happening.”
The man laughed fruitily, and Eowyn at once recognised the laugh as Elfhelm’s. “I’m surprised I haven’t knocked half the army’s tents down,” he said. “I can’t see a thing in this murk. But, in answer to your question, I have come to wake the men. We may have to move quickly.”
Why? thought Eowyn. They need their sleep. Are we in danger of attack? Merry was asking the same question, so she listened intently.
“The enemy is on the road,” Elhelm answered. So he did believe her, then. “What concerns us is the sound of the drums in the hills. Have you not heard them? They belong to the Wild Men of this wood, who use them to send messages over great distances.”
“Are they about to attack?” asked Merry anxiously.
“No – not yet, at any rate. One of their head men has come to us in the night and wishes to speak to the king. His people are afraid, he says, of the orcs and the evil of these times, and they can’t fight them as we can. He says they wish to help us so that we, through fighting at the Mundberg, can help them. I’m not sure whether to trust them or not,” he finished thoughtfully. “But we will see. Pack yourself up, Master Bag! We need to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.”
Eowyn sat in silence as Elfhelm’s footsteps crunched away towards other tents nearby. In the dark she could hear men speaking softly, and mail and harnesses jingling. The word was spreading. Soon most of the men would be up and making ready to ride.
But she wanted to see and hear what this Wild Man had to say. She had heard of his people in bedtime stories as a child and, as she grew, had assumed these tales were myth. Apparently not.
Creeping quietly through the trees towards the light of a lantern by the king’s tents, Eowyn heard a deep, strange voice speaking. He talked of a fire in the stone city, the need for haste and that there were many of orcs ahead on the road. So her premonition had been right, then. The way ahead was barred. How could they get to the Mundberg now?
As Eowyn peeped around a sheltering tree she saw Merry nearby, also keen to hear the news. She took a step back into the darkness – then her eyes were held by the sight of the oddest man imaginable. Short, with stumpy, bandy legs, pudgy arms and a thin beard, he was wearing nothing but a skirt of thick river grass as he sat in front of Theoden, Eomer and a few senior marshals.
He looked more like a child’s drawing than a finished being, and yet… he sat proudly before them, speaking confidently and looking the other men straight in the eye. This was no deceiver. She was fascinated.
“… very many gorgun, more than Horse-men,” said the strange man, finishing his summary of the strengths of the enemy.
“How do you know that?” asked Theoden sharply. The man sucked in his lower lip and frowned, clearly unhappy at being challenged in this way.
“Wild Men are wild, yes, but not children,” he said, with emphasis. “I am great headman, Ghan-buri-Ghan. I count many things: leaves on tree, stars in sky, men in dark. You have a score of scores counted ten times and five. They have more. And many more fight now at the stone city. Who will win?”
“The scouts did say there were trenches and stakes across the road,” said Theoden. “If their numbers are this great, we will have a bitter fight on our hands. There is no chance to charge them down and push through to the battle.”
“And yet there is great need of haste,” said Eomer. “Mundberg is on fire!”
“Let Ghan finish,” the Wild Man said. “Orcs sit on big road, yes, but they do not know all roads. I can lead you by paths men from the stone houses made long ago. They forget them, but Wild Men do not. You stay under cover of wood behind Din, leave gorgun behind and go through Grey Wood and back on to Horse Road. Then fight in stone houses and drive away darkness with bright iron…”
Eowyn had heard enough. While Ghan continued to speak she crept away quickly to her tent. She needed to get under cover before the sullen dawn arrived and someone spotted her – hair loose and without her helm on to disguise her face.
She was sure the king would accept the Wild Men’s help – what choice did they have, after all? It was the only way they could arrive at Minas Tirith without an ambush. If only they were not too late.
With a jolt, Eowyn realised that something had slipped from her mind since late last evening. She had felt nothing strange – none of the pains that had bothered her so much a couple of days ago. Why? He had been injured, and now she felt nothing. Surely he was not dead? She gripped the flaps of her tent, suddenly anxious, and searched her feelings for something… anything that could give her confidence that all was well.
Nothing. She bit her lip and sat down inside her tent, her hands clasped together and pressed to her mouth. If only she knew what had happened… but there was no time to wonder now. She needed to get herself ready for another day in the saddle – and quickly, before Merry came back. There would be time enough to think in the long hours that lay ahead.
Eowyn twisted her long hair up and onto her head, covered it with her helm, then reached for her sword belt. One more day.