Firefoot reached the top of the path to the Hold and walked out onto the Firienfeld. Eomer looked around, keen for a sight of Eowyn. Where was she?
He had been impatient to get the last stage of their journey over, and not just because he was anxious about the delay caused by the slow pace of their mountain path ride to Dunharrow. He was worried about Eowyn. She had been in a foul mood the last time he had spoken to her – bitter at being chosen to remain behind in charge of the women and children, and struggling with a new burden that he had never witnessed before: strong romantic attachment.
In a way, he mused, he should be grateful to Aragorn. He had begun to think his sister was not capable of love beyond that she held for her family and Haleth. But now he had seen the beginnings of a new side to Eowyn, and instead of rejoicing he found himself wondering what on earth he was to do about it.
For Aragorn clearly could not return her affections. That much was obvious from his behaviour to her – deferent, polite and caring, yes: potential lover, no. And if he had come back before the king’s party, and ridden off to the Paths of the Dead as he had said he would, God knows how Eowyn would deal with that.
Eomer saw Haleth out of the corner of his eye, and quickly dismounted, calling to her. “Dear Haleth,” he said, planting a kiss on her cheek. “It’s good to see you.”
She smiled, welcoming him in return, but she was clearly putting on a brace face. Eomer frowned. “Are you well, Haleth? You look tired. Is everything alright? How is Eowyn?”
“She is not well,” was the blunt response. “The Lord Aragorn left here yesterday morning for… for …” she gestured up the mountain. “Eowyn is taking it hard. She wanted to follow them. She almost did.”
“What?” exploded Eomer. “Are you sure?” Haleth nodded. “Aragorn told her she could not go with him, but I’m sure she followed them up to the Dimholt. I don’t know what happened there, but when she came back she was … crushed. Miserable beyond anything I have ever seen in her. She cried for hours, but wouldn’t tell me anything. I’m so glad you’re back. Maybe she’ll talk to you.”
This is even worse than I expected, thought Eomer. Aragorn is gone – most likely for good – and Eowyn is… what on earth am I going to say to her? He walked over to where his sister – dressed like a warrior for goodness sake! – was telling the king of the work that had been done since his departure. Eomer shook his head when he saw her. She looked dreadful: white and pale, her eyes wide and red-rimmed. Fortunately the king, tired from his long ride and concentrating on her welcome and news, didn’t seem to have noticed. Eomer sighed. This wasn’t going to be easy.
At dinner, he sat with the king, Dunhere, Eowyn and the little hobbit Meriadoc. Dunhere and Theoden were keeping the conversation going, the king enthusiastically relating tales from the battle at Helm’s Deep to the lord of Harrowdale. Eomer bided his time, waiting for the news about the Paths of the Dead to come out. And sure enough, before long, Eowyn – praised by the king for the completeness of her preparations for them – alluded to prior knowledge of the time of their coming. He seized his chance.
“So Aragorn has come, then,” he said. “That is good news.” Eowyn’s face was bleak, and this time Theoden spotted it.
“What is the matter, my dear?” he asked. “Did Aragorn speak of … the mountain road? The Paths of the Dead?” Her lip quivered at the mention of it, and she nodded.
“I could not convince him against it. He would not listen,” she said dully. “He said he must take that road – that there was no other way for him to play his part in the war. I … I did not understand him. Perhaps the dead were calling him. I do not know.”
There was a long silence, broken eventually by Merry. “What are the Paths of the Dead?” he asked. “People keep talking about them. Strider – I mean, Aragorn – and the others have taken that road, and … well, they are my friends, and I don’t know what it means, or where they have gone.”
The king sighed, and Eomer stole a quick look at Eowyn. She was looking at her hands and biting her lip. “The Hold, where we now are, is not far from the Door of the Dead,” Eomer said eventually. “The door is just a little further up the mountain, at a place we call the Dimholt … and no man knows what lies beyond it.”
“All we know is what the legends of our people tell us,” added Theoden. “It is said that one will come who can brave the fearful door and overcome what lies beyond it.”
Eowyn had stopped looking into her lap, and was watching her uncle intently.
“But could that be Aragorn? And how would he know that he was the one?” said Merry anxiously. “I am sorry to ask so many questions, but I really want to understand all I can.”
Theoden thought for a moment. “The stories tell that my forebears Brego and his son Baldor explored all the reaches above Harrowdale to seek out places where the people could be safe in times of war. They found the Door and a man sitting beside it, old beyond imagining. And when they sought to pass him and enter, he spoke to them.”
“He spoke?” Eowyn blurted out. “What did he say? Could they understand him?”
“Yes, they understood him. He said The way is shut. This door was made by those who are dead and the Dead keep it, until the time comes. The way is shut.“
“What else did he say? Asked Eowyn eagerly. “Did he say who might be the one to overcome them? Could it be the Lord Aragorn?”
“I do not know,” the king replied. “The old man died in that hour and fell upon his face, so Baldor and his father learned no more. But perhaps the time has come, and Aragorn will pass.”
“But how can a man discover that except by daring the door?” said Eomer. “I would not go that way, even if all the hosts of Mordor stood in front of me. How I wish that this strange mood had not come upon such a great warrior in our hour of need! I fear I shall never see him again.”
This was too much for Eowyn. She got up abruptly from the table and left the pavilion. Theoden narrowed his eyes as she left.
“She is distressed about what has passed,” he said. “Perhaps too much so … then again, she may simply be feeling the weight of the responsibility I have placed on her. I wonder if it has been too much for her.”
“I think not, lord,” said Dunhere. “She has carried out all her tasks ably and with confidence. There was no question she was up to the position. If my own eyes had not told me so, I would have thought I was dealing with a man.”
Theoden nodded. “Then it is as I thought.” He turned to Eomer. “My son, go and speak to her. She will not confide in a withered old man such as I” – he smiled gently – “but perhaps she will tell you what is in her heart.”
Eomer needed no more encouragement. He left the tent immediately and sought Eowyn out in her lodging. Before he opened the flap of her pavilion he stopped to listen. There were no tears. No sound at all. How strange. Yet Haleth was hovering nearby, her face anxious. He pressed her hand, put a finger to his lips and walked in.
His sister was sitting on her bed, completely still, knees drawn up to her chin and her head resting on her knees. Eomer was at a loss. He had expected Eowyn to need a comforting shoulder as he dried her tears, but she was as still as marble – and almost as white.
“Eowyn?” he said uncertainly. “Are you alright?” She nodded, but said nothing. Eomer sat on the bed beside her, and tried again. “The king is worried about you… and so am I. Won’t you tell me what is wrong?” She shrugged.
“I know you’re unhappy about Aragorn taking the Dimholt road,” he pressed. “It is something that has distressed us all. But there is a battle to fight. We must be strong.”
“A battle for you to fight,” she snapped. “I have to wait here and do nothing, and know nothing, until you come home in glory or enemies come to kill those of us who remain. Why should I be strong here, when I want to be strong in a saddle beside the king?”
“Please don’t say that,” Eomer replied. “Knowing you are here and safe is one of the few things that gives me comfort. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.”
“But I am supposed to bear it if something happens to you?” she asked. “You don’t know what you’re asking of me.”
Eomer was silent a moment, pondering the truth of her words. “I’m sorry,” he said at last. “Perhaps you’re right. I don’t understand. But please … promise me you’ll take care of yourself. You will promise?”
A ghost of a smile touched Eowyn’s lips. Taking care of myself can mean something very different to what he expects, she thought. She gave her promise, then reached out her hand and gave his shoulder a squeeze.
“Go now,” she said. “Tomorrow is an early start, with a long ride into battle. Go and rest.” He hugged her gently, kissed her cheek and left the tent.
Eowyn peered outside to make sure Eomer was gone. Taking out a piece of parchment, she sat down to write a farewell note to Haleth – dear Haleth, she will never understand – and included in it instructions for Guthwara, the uncle of Dunhere. Guthwara was crippled from a campaign in his youth, and would be taking charge of the people of Harrowdale once Dunhere had left for the Mundberg. Writing quickly, she commanded him to also take on the lordship of those in Dunharrow, and sealed the note.
“Wish me well,” she said. “Tomorrow I ride into battle.”