Cupping her face gently in his hands, he stroked one finger down her cheekbone and tipped up her chin to meet his gaze. “Eowyn,” he murmured. “It is not pity that I offer you. Don’t you understand?”
So blue, she thought hazily. His eyes are so blue. And look at how those crinkles appear when he smiles at me. How well I know him now.
Suddenly his face grew anxious. “Don’t leave me, Eowyn. Don’t forget me.”
“Of course I won’t,” she started to say – but the words wouldn’t come. She couldn’t speak. Struggling, she tried again, but her mouth wouldn’t open. She couldn’t breathe. She was trapped underground… she had walked through the Dimholt door after all, into the Paths of the Dead, but the Dead had overpowered her. She was separated from Aragorn and the others, lying helpless in the dark, and a horrible, high-pitched voice was laughing at her, louder and louder.
Eowyn sat up in her Dunharrow bed trembling, drenched with sweat and gasping for breath. The unearthly laughter still echoed in her head.
After a few moments the swirling dizziness in her mind settled, and she remembered. She had failed. Fear of the Dead, rather than death itself, had overmastered her and Windfola and she had been left behind at the Dimholt. She put her head in her hands as the waves of shame and misery swept over her again.
So much for her training and proud confidence in herself. So much for the honour of the House of Eorl. She had been forced to return, hopeless and defeated, to Dunharrow, and Aragorn and his company had gone… where? Were they indeed dead, as Halbarad had feared?
Yet perhaps they were not. Shut up in her tent during the day, wishing to be alone with her own distress, Haleth had taken the strangest of messages for her from Dunhere, lord of Dunharrow: a tale of whispering shadow men seen rushing up the mountain, as if responding to some call. What did that mean? Were they coming to Aragorn’s aid or going to destroy him?
And what of that other dream, the stranger she saw over and over in her sleep? The memory of that was much dimmer, overtaken by the dream terror of the Dead, but the gentle stranger was insistent – returning almost daily to warm her imaginings and confuse her waking hours.
Most likely just a pleasant phantom of my own creation, she thought with a sigh. There could never be such a man … and why would he love me, anyway?
Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, Eowyn stood up and walked to the opening of the pavilion. The sun had risen long before; she had overslept. But for once in her life, she didn’t care. She didn’t want to be up and active. She felt empty, like a piece of driftwood or a floating husk that the life-giving seed had left behind.
She glanced at herself in the mirror. The smudges under her eyes were dark and obvious, and her face blotched from hours of tears. Haleth had tried to calm and comfort her at first, but eventually she had wisely left her mistress alone – hoping for an explanation later.
But there was no point in explaining, Eowyn thought wearily. Haleth would never understand her feelings … in a way, she did not understand them herself.
The only certainty was that her courage had failed. One of the few things she took pride in had deserted her at the test. She had to prove herself – prove that she could fight as she had been taught; prove that she wasn’t afraid. So she would go with the Riders into battle to the Mundberg. She would happily die beside the king and her countrymen and show Aragorn – show all those who dismissed women as weak or stay-at homes – that she had as much capacity, as much right, to glory in death as her brothers. Why wait at home for death to find her there? At least in battle it would be swift.
A small voice – almost an echo – sounded in her head: Don’t forget me, Eowyn, it said. She paused a moment, longing to return to the momentary peace that dream had given her. Then she shrugged. Who is there to forget, after all, she thought. He is a dream, and there is no future in dreams. Not for me.
After a visit to the Edoras armoury, Eowyn laid out her new attire on the bed. She would have to wear nondescript armour, and carry a shield other than that of the House of Eorl, or she would draw attention to herself.
A worn saddle and other unfamiliar tack was ready for Windfola. She would have to be sure to keep herself and the horse out of sight of Eomer – or anyone else who could easily recognise him – or her disguise would be discovered in a moment.
The afternoon had worn away, and it was getting dark. Too early, Eowyn thought. Perhaps there was a storm brewing. The sky seemed dull and thundery. Or perhaps it was just the headache that still oppressed her, caused by one too many storms of tears since yesterday. But she had no more tears in her now. She knew what tomorrow would bring. Her fate would be in her own hands at last, and before long there would be an end to it all, one way or the other.
Then she heard it: the sound of a horn in the valley below, answered by many horns and trumpets. Theoden had returned. Eowyn gathered up the pieces of fighting gear and hid them in her trunk. Until morning. Until she needed them. She took a quick look in the mirror and saw there were still traces of redness around her eyes. Perhaps no-one will notice, she thought. They are full of their own cares: the news of the battle just past and the preparations for the next one.
At least they would not find her unprepared for their arrival. She could take pride in that.
Calling the servants to her, she instructed them to get the table ready with the celebratory meal they had made. Then she placed a ceremonial helm on her head, put her sword around her waist, and went out to welcome the king home.