They arrived at Dunharrow as the sun began to fall below the horizon, wearied from a ride that had been long and hard. The people of Edoras welcomed them gladly, eager for news of their king and their kin. Aragorn gave them what comfort he could, assuring them that Theoden lived and would come to them soon. And though he spared them the horrors of Helm's Deep his face spoke only too eloquently of the devastation he had left behind him.
Eowyn met them as they neared the lodge, standing straight and tall before her people as they rode to her. She greeted them with calm and measured words, but Aragorn could read her desperate need beneath the courtly phrases. What must she have feared, he wondered sadly, when they had come here alone? Where was her king, her brother, and the menfolk of her home? Though by now she must have heard his news, that they had prevailed, it had not been without tragedy for her people. And those she loved with the fervour of a true queen.
Whatever Eowyn's doubts she concealed them well, calling on the women to prepare a meal, and ushering them inside and be seated. Throughout the evening she maintained her poise as she questioned them of the events at Helm's Deep and Isengard. Aragorn answered her truthfully, for she would have it no other way, and did not shirk from unpleasant details.
When at last he had finished, there was still one question he had not answered, that he did not wish to answer now, in this company, and that lay unspoken in the minds of everyone who listened. When Eowyn saw that he would not say, her next question forced an answer from him.
'Where will you go now? If you head for Gondor you must know you have strayed far from that path. In bringing word of my king you have delayed your own journey and I will not forget the kindness.'
Aragorn felt a moment of guilt for he had no wish to deceive her. 'Lady, though I am glad to do so we did not come here to bring you tidings, but because our road begins in these hills.'
She looked from him to his companions in confusion and he spoke quickly. 'The Paths of the Dead is the way we seek.'
Eowyn froze, her face a bloodless mask. The hall faded from her mind. She forgot who and where she was, and all those who listened. 'Why?' she demanded in a brittle voice. 'Why do you seek death?'
'Eowyn, I do not,' he answered. 'I could not.'
She shook her head in anger. How could he lie so to her? How could he abandon them? Words rose and fell in her mind but she could not utter them. She wanted to rail at him, to throw herself at his knees and beg him not to go; to stay, to fight, with her and for her. But she did not, she only stared, her eyes devouring the lines of his face as though she gazed on a man who was already dead.
Aragorn quailed under her silent regard, lost in the emptiness of her eyes. 'Believe me, lady,' he implored. 'Fearful I may be but hopeless I am not. This road alone will not harm me though it is dark and dreadful. What lies beyond is a far greater challenge, and a danger more deadly than the shades of the fallen. Do not grieve for me yet.'
'Not for you,' she answered, 'for myself. I thought you would ride to war, in glory and splendour, and I would ride with you. I thought my time had come and I would at last be free to seek valour on the field of battle, valour that has been denied me all the years of my life.'
She stood, straight-backed and regal. 'Always I have stayed behind, bound to the hearth when I wished to be bound to a sword. I am a shield-maiden, a warrior among warriors, but I am not allowed to fight! Do you know what I have suffered, day after day, watching my brother ride out and unable to go with him? Can you imagine the burden it is to be left behind to worry and wait, not knowing whether this time his horse might carry back only a body for me to weep over? No, you cannot, for you have never had to do so, you will never have to do so.'
'Eowyn . . .'
'No! Do not tell me I am a woman and it is my place. I will not hear those words from you, I do not wish to see myself through your eyes, as you would have me be! I am not that woman!'
Gathering her skirts she swept past him, out of the lodge and into the calming coolness of falling night. Aragorn watched her go, unable to speak the words that would bring her back. Her censure burned him, for she was all that she had said and more, and his admiration went with her. But it was not his place to grant her what she wished, even if he had been inclined to. Such bravery as she possessed was never meant for the savagery of the battlefield, for war was not the glorious pursuit she believed it to be. Yet no matter how hard he wished to spare Eowyn, this was a war that none of them could escape.
Aragorn's tent was in darkness when he entered, the candle no more than a melted stump in its holder. Yet the pale light of the moon filtered through the rough canvas, enough for him to see the figure that waited, half turned from him and gazing at the floor. For an instant he felt a child again, fooled by the shifting shadows and unable to recognise which of his brothers it was that stood before him, then the Elf raised his head, the tiniest of movements, and he knew it was Elladan.
His throat closed. The words of greeting he should have offered would not come.
Elladan turned to face him. 'Estel . . .' He held out a hand but Aragorn made no move to take it.
'The day grows old, brother,' he said at last, his voice hoarse with the effort. 'We must take what rest we can before morning.'
'Estel, please! We must talk.'
Elladan look stricken. His voice cracked with the weight of his grief but Aragorn turned deaf ears to the plea. 'What is there to say that has not been said? It is time that will bring us healing, not speech.'
'For you perhaps,' his brother answered. 'But time I have in abundance and it has not the same meaning for me. Words are more precious. Your forgiveness is more precious.'
Aragorn twisted away from him, dark memories shattering his composure. 'My forgiveness you have, though none was ever needed. You may have what words you wish from me, Elladan, but please, do not make me relive that!'
His brother's face paled but he did not retreat. It was another voice that intruded on the shocked silence. 'But you are living it, Estel. You are still mired in the darkness and you must awaken.' Elrohir stood framed against the night sky at the entrance to the tent. 'The longer you allow this dream to maintain its hold on you, the closer you bring it to truth. The Enemy wishes you uncertain and fearful and divided from your kin. Would you give him what he desires?'
The pain in his shoulder flared, clouding his vision for a moment. 'You do not know what you ask of me!'
Elrohir gazed at him sadly. 'Is it so hard, Estel? Are you so blinded that you no longer know us? I ask nothing of you that you have not already given, more times than I can count. You have never closed your heart to us, do not do so now.'
Aragorn watched him with growing desperation. 'Then allow me the grace you have given me in the past, to work through my troubles for myself.'
Elrohir looked at his twin, seeing the defeated slump of his shoulders and the misery in his eyes, and shook his head. 'If this concerned only you I would not be here now. But your insistence in giving credence to this trick of the Enemy hurts more than just you. You cannot conceive of what it means for an Elf to be touched by the Shadow of Mordor. Elladan also suffers, and you compound that suffering when you make him the instrument of your own undoing.'
Aragorn froze, as the meaning of his brother's words sank in. 'What would you have me do?' he asked at last.
'Speak of it. Bring this thing out of the shadows that birthed it and into the light of day. For on the morrow we must forsake that light to walk a dark path, and it would be dangerous to do so with this evil festering in your heart.' Understanding the sudden fear that seized the man, Elrohir grasped his shoulder. 'You will not relive the horror, Estel. You will lay it to rest. Trust me.'
Aragorn laid his hand over his brother's, thankful for the touch. 'You will stay?'
'No, I cannot. I may wear my brother's face, but I do not speak with his voice and it is Elladan you need to hear.' And with those words he left them alone.
It was Elladan who moved first, taking one hesitant step towards his foster brother. Hearing the movement Aragorn turned, but unable to help his body's instinctive reaction he flinched away from the touch.
The Elf withdrew his hand, terrible hurt on his face. 'Do you truly fear me so much?'
'No more than I fear myself.' Aragorn answered honestly. 'What was done once can be done again. That is what I fear most.'
'I saw you die by my own hand,' Elladan told him, his face lined by grief no Elf should bear. 'Your blood was on my hands, on my face . . . I saw the knowledge of death in your eyes. I saw the thing I fear the most.'
'I am mortal, Elladan,' Aragorn said softly. 'Someday I will die and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. Just as there was nothing you could do then. You sought only to help me, I know that. What happened was not of your making. It was mine.'
'No!' Elladan protested, understanding at last the root of his brother's turmoil. And knowing him as he did he could only wonder that he had not seen it before. 'Do not try to take this upon yourself, Estel. Sauron twisted our minds. It is not your fault.'
'Did he?' Aragorn asked sharply. 'Can you tell me that with certainty? Is it not possible this nightmare sprung from my own mind, that I made it happen?
'Why would. . . How, why would such evil visions come to you?' But even as Elladan spoke a bleak thought came to him and he took a step back. 'You think I . . .?'
'No!' Aragorn broke in quickly. 'That is not what I meant. I ask only because . . .' He faltered, unable to continue, but Elladan's wounded expression made him realise his brother did not believe his hasty denial. He had never before voiced such thoughts to his family, to anyone, and the words, when they came, were slow and hesitant. 'It has always been my greatest fear that one day I might lose the family I have grown to love. That I would truly be alone. And sometimes, in the Wilds, I would dream it was so, when I was cold and life was harsh and all I loved was far away; that there was no sanctuary, no home to return to when I was weary and in need. I thought perhaps it had all been a dream, Rivendell, you, my father, even Arwen. Such thoughts tormented me, and I would come close to despairing, then I would see a single tree, or pass a crystal stream, and remember the valleys of my home and know it had not been taken from me.'
'I never knew.'
The hint of a weary smile touched Aragorn's face for an instant, the first Elladan had seen in days. Then it was gone, and the bleakness crowded in once more. 'I never wished you to. How could I? To speak of such things seemed almost to give them life, to admit that it was possible. I have always known that our separation is inevitable, for even if the sea did not claim you death would one day take me and that I have accepted, but these nightmares I never could.'
Aragorn sighed, running a hand fretfully through his tangled hair. Memories were rushing back, of a time not so long past, but once started, he found that the words could not be stopped. 'My life was dark for many years,' he murmured, and Elladan heard the note of despair in his voice. 'I walked alone through distant lands and the shadows were ever at my heels. I saw wonders and horrors, and some haunt me still. Friends I made, and enemies.' He gave a dry laugh. 'The oppressed are not always eager to be freed, Elladan, that I learnt well. Some I helped repaid me with false words and cruel deeds, and ever did I fear betrayal. There are few I can trust in this world, even now, and none were with me then. I was alone and I did not wish to die by the hand of an enemy. But I dreaded even more to fall at the hands of one I believed a friend.
'A friend,' Elladan asked carefully. 'Or a brother?'
Aragorn shook his head. 'That I never dreamed, for I knew it to be impossible. But those fears have become a part of me, and perhaps it shall always be so. And yet I grow so weary of suspicion. Life is cold and grey where there is no trust, no love. Nights are long and the days are cast into shadow. It has been a long time since I saw the sun, Elladan,' he said, his voice cracking with fatigue, 'and longer still since I basked in the warmth of its light. And sometimes it seems to me that even if we win this battle, and the next, we will never win this war. The end has already begun in Middle-earth. The land will change beyond recognition when the last of your kindred leave these shores and the world that is left for us to fight for will be but a pale imitation of the beauty and glory of ages past. Sometimes I even wonder if I wish to fight for it.'
Elladan looked up sharply and studied his brother through narrowed eyes. He knew that finally they had reached the heart of the matter. 'And do you?'
Aragorn returned the stare with a half-smile. In the end there was only one answer to that, the same as there had always been. 'Yes. Because it is my world. For better or for worse it is the world of Men now, and I would have your people see that we are worthy of this Middle-earth you bequeath to us.' He paused uncertainly, meeting his brother's gaze for the first time. 'But I am not sure if I am worthy of it.'
Elladan forced his expression to remain neutral as he crossed the short distance between them at last. Laying a hand on his brother's shoulder he was relieved that Aragorn no longer flinched away from his touch, though a flicker of disquiet rippled across his face. 'That is something you should never doubt,' he said earnestly. 'Look no further than your friends who follow you through these darkest of times to see your worth. They would not do so for a lesser man. You cannot allow the Enemy's trick to threaten the loyalty you owe to them, and they to you, by shouldering all the burdens of this world. Trust us,' he urged, but there was a plea also in his words. 'You will find a rock to lean on when you need it most. We will not fail you. Do not fail us.'
Aragorn laughed, but slipped from his brother's grasp with a neat twist of his shoulder. 'You sound like your father.'
'Our father,' Elladan corrected him, affecting to be unmoved by the distance Aragorn once more placed between them. 'Our father. He has not forsaken you and he never will, though at times I know it seems to you that the love of years past has dimmed. But it is not Arwen alone that clouds his thoughts. Do not forget, little brother, that our father is tied to Middle Earth more tightly even than you, for he has lived here far longer than any of us. The Shadow that falls on us all falls most heavily on him. His heart is weary, but his love for you remains.'
'That I know,' Aragorn sighed. 'Though sometimes it seems easier to believe that his regard for me has diminished, for it makes the sorrow I will bring him easier to bear.' His face twisted into a grimace. 'But let us not uncover old sorrows now, when we have enough already to face. There is a long road still before me before I can look to claim Arwen as my wife. When all this is done both she and I will face that bitter choice, and when that time comes, dear brother, I fear not even you will be able to help us, though no doubt you will try.'
Elladan grinned. 'Is that your tactful way of asking me to leave well alone?'
'When has that ever swayed you?' Aragorn answered with a smile of his own. 'No, it is but simple truth, as you well know.'
He paused, suddenly unsure how to go on. Elladan was watching him closely and he was only too aware of the fragility of the peace between them. He did not wish to damage that now, but he would not lie to him. Finally he gathered himself and met his brother's eyes.
'I understand your need to reconcile this rift between us. I feel it too. But this goes beyond us, if what you say is true, and Sauron himself somehow forced the vision upon us. There is no need for you to seek my forgiveness, and I never meant to make you feel that there was. If I keep my distance from you now it is because I sense that his touch still lies heavily on us both, and I fear what that might mean. I beg you to believe me when I say that I ask this now out of love for you, and regard for your safety. Do not accompany me tomorrow. Do not walk the Paths of the Dead. For in that darkness might not a greater darkness find easy purchase, and snare us again as it did before? Please, Elladan,' he implored. 'Do not risk yourself.'
Elladan looked stunned. 'Estel . . .'
'Theoden King will be here before long,' Aragorn hurried on. 'If you ride with him to Gondor we will see each other there.'
Aragorn fell silent. Elladan's eyes were wide with emotion, but there was no anger in them. 'Do you never tire of bring so honourable?' he teased gently. 'Your concern for me is touching, but as ever misplaced. Not everything that is dark is made so through the Enemy's touch, and the restless hordes beneath the mountain will answer to you, not to him.'
When Aragorn made to protest Elladan cut him off. 'You have made your request, Estel' he told him, 'and I understand your reasons for doing so. Yet I am not one of your rangers to order as you see fit, and I will make my own choice in this matter and so relieve you of the burden of responsibility.'
If not for his smug smile Aragorn would have thought his brother was scolding him. As it was he felt the familiar frustration of being outmanoeuvred by his Eldar kin. For a moment he thought to argue, then realised it was hopeless. He recognised the look in Elladan's eyes. He had seen it many times before, and it told him that this was not a fight he could win. So instead he held out his arm and his brother clasped it, his fingers gripping tight.
'Then we will go together,' he conceded with a weary smile. 'And if there is darkness under the mountain, I will glad of the brightness of Elves to light my way.'
It was late when she came to him, and he was tired. They both knew why she came, though neither would speak of it willingly. As she entered he turned to face her, marvelling at her beauty as she stood illumed by the warmth of the flickering candle, and he was grieved anew that he should be the cause of her pain. The silence stretched onwards until he felt he might drown in it, but it was not his place to speak first.
'Will you say nothing?' Eowyn demanded, finding her voice at last.
'There is nothing to say,' Aragorn replied, 'that would not seem hollow and empty to your ears.'
'But I long to hear it nonetheless.'
Aragorn studied her face a long moment, surprised. 'You wish for platitudes, even knowing them for what they are? I would not have thought you one who would shy from the truth.'
'What am I then, my lord? To you I am only a woman and women need comfort.'
Aragorn shook his head. 'No, not you, my lady. You are courageous and strong. You have no need of false comfort.'
'Yet I am still a woman,' Eowyn said bitterly, her fierce pride of only hours before scattered under the weight of her sorrow for the parting that must come. 'And I may wish for what I do not need. Can you offer me no hope?'
Aragorn smiled sadly, caught by the sudden need to reach out and soothe her pain. It was only with an effort that he kept his voice and words neutral as he replied, 'There is always hope, though it may not come in the form we expect.'
Eowyn stood stiffly, accepting the words for what they were, for what she had asked for. 'So you will go?'
'I will,' he agreed. 'Though to what end the road will take me I cannot tell. I know only that I must take it.'
She took an impulsive step forward, her hands gripping the velvet folds of her skirt. 'Then take me with you,' she implored, and her words surprised them both. 'I am not afraid.'
Aragorn's heart twisted painfully in his chest but his face turned grave. 'That I cannot do, lady, even if I wished to, nor may you forsake your people and the charge laid upon you by your king.'
'Even if you wished . . ?' She hesitated, hope flickering for an instant then dying away to dust and ashes.
'Eowyn . . .' Aragorn started towards her, wrung by the grief on her face. 'How could I wish to take such beauty into a shadow land, a land where the dead walk and the sun does not reach? You are meant for bright places and a heart that is free to love you as you deserve. Neither of these things can I give you.'
Her pale face was now a mask of ice and she scarcely seemed to breathe. She had guessed that such would be the answer if ever she posed the question, so she had shied away from it, never wanting to hear those words from his lips. But now it was too late, and in her fear and grief she had done what she had promised herself she would not do. She had bared her heart and it had been given gently back, but Aragorn's gentle rebuff cut more deeply than the cruellest dismissal.
Gathering her poise she offered him a brief curtsy, and as her face was hidden from him for a moment she schooled the rigid muscles to relax. When she rose and looked at him again there was only cool courtesy in her eyes as she murmured, 'Then I shall detain you no longer, my lord. For I can see you are weary and in need of rest.'
As Eowyn slipped between the flaps of his tent Aragorn resisted the urge to call her back. He closed his eyes, fighting to hold back the tears that exhaustion and too many hurts, inflicted and received, brought stinging to his eyes. First Elladan, now Eowyn. He wished only to protect them, and yet in attempting to do so he had caused them pain, and he could only hope that one day they might understand.