The sun was gone, and twilight was settling over Edoras. The last of the riders arriving for the weapontake from the lands close by had ridden in that afternoon – close to a thousand – and Eowyn had been busy ensuring everyone had food, water and space enough to pitch their tents.
The horses were now grazing contentedly, blankets over their backs to keep them warm in the overnight chill. All was ordered and peaceful. There was nothing else to keep her here. Reluctantly, she turned Windfola’s head uphill, returning up the mountain paths to Dunharrow. But hardly had she seen her own horse settled in for the night when she was startled by the sound of hooves approaching the Hold. A company was riding onto the Firienfeld, and at its head was … Eowyn’s heart gave a lurch, and she retreated into her pavilion.
She looked down at her workaday shirt and overdress, wishing that she had paid more attention to her mother’s advice, long ago, about how the daughter of a princess of Rohan should behave. “You’ll thank me one day,” Theodwyn had said, after hauling her small, protesting daughter out of the stables or off her horse, dressing her prettily and brushing her hair until it shone.
Now here she was: not washed or brushed or beautifully dressed, but covered in the dirt and sweat of the day, and smelling of horse. The Lord Aragorn was not 100 yards away – with what looked like an impressive array of men – and she was dressed like a stable hand.
Without sparing a thought for why her appearance should make such a difference now – when all the riders of Rohan had seen her in the same attire throughout the day – Eowyn unlaced a length of canvas looped around one of the pavilion’s supporting posts and whispered urgently into the gathering dusk. “Haleth? Haleth! Are you there?”
The reply was swift, and surprised. “My lady?” A comfortably rounded, middle-aged woman appeared out of a small tent to her right, her eyes roving past the entrance to the royal pavilion with a puzzled expression.
“Not there, Haleth – back here.” The woman stopped immediately, turning her head to one side. “Behind you,” Eowyn hissed.
Haleth slipped down one side of the pavilion, just as Aragorn and his companions dismounted and began to stretch tired legs and see to their horses. “What is it, my lady?”
“Can you bring me a basin of hot water, and my white gown? And quickly?”
“Certainly,” Haleth replied, casting half a look over her shoulder. “Any particular person you’re dressing for this evening?” she asked drily. When she saw Eowyn about to retort, she waved a placating hand. “I’m going, I’m going. I presume you mean the gown with the gold and blue threads at the neck and wrists?”
And she was gone, before Eowyn could reply. Pulling the canvas back down so the opening wouldn’t be noticed, Eowyn sat down to wait. She had better not take long. What if he… what if Aragorn knocked at the entrance of the pavilion? What on earth could she do, dressed as she was?
Peeking through a hole near the front of the tent, she watched him, deep in discussion with the elf and dwarf – Legolas and Gimli, whom she had met on their last visit to Edoras. But there was also another man, a stranger, very similar to Aragorn in style and bearing. Who was he? Not the man in her dream – the dream that had troubled her every night for weeks. Still, he looked very noble and strong, but somehow sad.
A familiar feeling, thought Eowyn with a sigh, remembering yet again the night when a small group of riders from the East Mark had returned to Edoras, fatigued and weary after battle and long hours in the saddle, with the news that their eored has been ambushed by orcs and her beloved father Eomund was dead.
It was after his death that Theodwyn had stopped taking pains with Eowyn – indeed, she hardly seemed to notice her seven-year-old daughter at all, so wrapped up was she in her own grief. And then she had died herself a few short months later. It was Haleth, Theodwyn’s lady-in-waiting, who had stepped into the breach as well as she could – looking after the womanly part of her upbringing and offering an ear if she wanted someone to talk to.
But Eowyn had never sought a shoulder on which to weep. Her response to her own grief had been fierce: she would not cry; she would not be comforted. Rather, she wished to be alone, or off with the boys learning their war skills. She wished to ride and fight all the harder. It was her enemies, after all, that had deprived her of both father and mother within the space of two seasons. It was her enemies, therefore, that she should learn about and prepare to fight, as her father had said.
Elfhelm, her father’s close friend, had known his wishes and undertook Eowyn’s training himself. In doing so, she knew they were defying her uncle, the king. He had no daughter, and loved her as his own – but he did not understand.
How long she had cared for Theoden, worried for him and watched month after month as his mind and will were confused, almost sucked away, by Grima? Every day for many years now she had felt almost compelled to be by Theoden’s side, protecting him if she could. Her wish of riding out to battle, of living in the open air and free from bondage to any man, had seemed impossible. Each day dragged endlessly into the next with no end and no hope.
It was hard to avoid feeling bitter, but her uncle had not been master of himself. Even if he had, she thought grimly, he would have wished to protect her – as his orphaned niece – from pain and war and harm. Until the right man came along, of course.
But not once had Eowyn given thought to this for herself. Men, or love, or her future as a woman, had been the furthest thing from her mind. Then on the sunrise of that golden morning – was it only five days ago? – she had seen Aragorn ride up to the door of Meduseld and felt her heart melt with a suddenness that shook her. He had been introduced as the heir of Isildur – the greatest lineage of Men; and with a nobility and wisdom she could plainly see. She could not take her eyes away from his face, and for the first time had longed to be noticed… as a woman.
There had been attraction there, of that she was sure. Aragorn had looked at her, and looked again, and he had smiled. Yet he had seemed somehow distant when she tried to approach him, almost as if he were afraid of saying too much. Or perhaps he was just being polite and thought she was too rustic or too young, or somehow beneath him.
Eowyn watched, and considered him, wondering if this was, at last, what it felt like to love. For as she had grown to womanhood and her thoughts had deepened about her mother’s death – from no physical sickness or ailment – Eowyn had thought long about it. What was it that had made her mother unable to live? What was it like to love one man so much that to lose him forever created an unhealable breach – a despair and anguish so great that it made one seek death?
“Interesting view?” came a voice at her shoulder. Eowyn jumped, and turned to see Haleth placing a bowl of steaming water at the end of the long table behind her.
“I think anyone could have come into the tent in the past five minutes, and you wouldn’t have noticed a thing,” she added, with a slight smile.
“Oh very well,” said Eowyn crossly, “so you caught me spying. But they have such a kingly bearing, these men. They’re taller even than the Rohirrim. Who are they?
“Dunedain, mostly – the people of the Lord Aragorn,” replied Haleth, pulling Eowyn’s soiled dress over her head, “but apart from the elf and dwarf who were here last week, there’s two other elves, apparently – the sons of Elrond of Rivendell.”
“Why have they come?” Eowyn asked, as she unlaced her shirt and reached for a small sponge to wash herself down.
“Heaven only knows,” said Haleth with a shrug. “They’re handsome enough, though – I just hope they can fight as well as look the part.”
“You can’t judge a warrior by his looks, Haleth,” Eowyn said absently, as she finished washing and reached for a towel. Haleth merely raised an eyebrow and said nothing, holding Eowyn’s dress ready in her hands.
A short time later, hair brushed and braided at her back, a poised Eowyn had greeted Aragorn and his companions, inviting them into the pavilion where supper had been laid out at the long table.
After hearing all there was to be said about the battle of Helm’s Deep – where the courage and strength of her people made her swell with pride – Eowyn had a few moment’s leisure to talk to the man on her left – the tall, sorrowful stranger she had seen earlier, who introduced himself as Halbarad.
“You seem somewhat sad,” she ventured. “Are you grieving for someone you have lost? Don’t you want to go to the war?”
“We all came willingly to serve Aragorn – he is our chieftain,” replied Halbarad. “But I, and many of my comrades, have left family behind. I have a wife and tiny daughter, and we ride to an uncertain end. My heart tells me I will not see them again.”
That is likely enough, thought Eowyn. That is how I feel myself. All the men ride away, and who will return? Perhaps next time it will be my brother who does not come back from battle… as last time it was my cousin Theodred. And all the while I have to sit here, helpless, and watch it happen. She frowned.
“I see such thoughts have occurred to you as well,” said Halbarad gently.
“Perhaps they have,” she returned with a small smile. “And my heart goes out to your wife, for my lot is like hers: to sit at home, not knowing if those you love will return.” Halbarad nodded, understanding, but her eyes had moved towards Aragorn – and he saw her. She flushed.
Before he could speak, she stood up. Let the part of hostess cover any embarrassment, she thought. At her movement, all the men were silent.
“My lords,” she said, “you have ridden long and hard and need to go to your rest. But so many men have ridden in for the weapontake that our accommodation will only be hasty and poor, I’m afraid. Tomorrow we will find something more fitting for you.”
“I thank you, Eowyn,” said Aragorn, “but there will be no need to trouble about us longer than tonight. We will be riding tomorrow, and early.”
“Then… you came out of your way to see me and share tidings of the battle?” she asked. Her heart was warmed at the thought, and she smiled. “That was good of you.”
“We were happy to tell of your people’s victory,” said Halbarad gently, “but we have not travelled out of our road at all. It led us to Dunharrow.”
How can that be? thought Eowyn. There is no other road past here, no other way except… she looked at Halbarad’s sad face and felt a sudden chill.
“We are taking the Paths of the Dead,” said Aragorn.