The Price of Freedom

By Erin Lasgalen

FORWARD AND WARNINGS: R for content. This story is an AU. With the exception of the first chapter it is set post-ROTK. It will contain heavy violence, the mention of rape though no actual depictions. and sexual content-again, no gory details. DISCLAIMER: This story was written solely for the purpose of non-profit entertainment. All canon characters and places therein are the property of Tolkien Estates and New Line Cinema.

Prologue: Prelude at Helm's Deep

In old age, many men look back over the arc of their lives and see all that was left undone, all that might have been better wrought, all their mistakes and short-comings.
This is no less true for women.
But in the perfect hindsight of many years, I see one key moment where the choice of all my roads to come might have led me down a different path had I not succumbed to the suffocated need for one last breath of cold spring air on the eve of the Battle of the Hornburg.

Eowyn of Rohan

She stood on the highest tower of Helm's Deep, beneath the lip of the great Horn, watching what would very probably be her last sunset this side of eternity. She was not yet four and twenty winters, but she felt old as the bones of the mountain below her feet. And every bit as cold and bleak.

She should have been below, organizing the women and children in the caves under the fortress, making sure they had rations and water for the coming siege. She had spent the last three hours rounding up all the village healers and midwives, and cobbling together a makeshift surgery, appointing children to gather spare rags from wherever they could for bandages.
There will be no need of the rations stored in the Deep, she thought distantly. Everything would be decided, one way or another, in the next twenty-four hours. She watched the lowest rim of the sun touch the horizon.
I will watch the sun go down on this, the last night of my life, before I go down to the battlements to die in this warren hole like a cornered rabbit.
She smiled grimly, amending that last thought. Not like a cornered rabbit. She would die with a sword in her hand, defending the helpless ones below. There would be no more skulking, no more hiding. No more jumping at shadows, fearing every blind corner would reveal Grima Wormtongue. No more twisted leers, no more soul-poisoning words and oh-so-accidental brushes of hand or body as he passed. No more slinking footfalls and banked heavy breath outside the bolted door of her rooms.
Only the memory of the nightmares remained.
Very soon, she would be beyond the cold, shuddering reach of the dreams that had been much more than dreams, the horror that had breached locked doors and the sanctity of her own will.
It had begun nearly a year ago as an indistinct whisper in the back of her mind, a vague, shadowy presence that intruded into good dreams, upsetting the rhythms of her sleep. In the beginning, it has always seemed like a child's nightmares in the light of day. She had dismissed it as bad dreams born of stress. Over the last months that presence, that faint whisper, had begun to speak to her, though she could never remember exactly what it said when she woke. The voice had grown steadily stronger through the long watches of the bitterly cold winter nights, becoming a tangible thing. By the end, she had begun to hear the breathless words in her waking hours. Each morning, she woke cold, as though icy hands had caressed her body while she slept. Each morning, she woke with nausea swirling low in the pit of her stomach, feeling as though some invisible noose were slowly tightening around her neck.
It was four days since her uncle had banished the bile-spewing monster from Edoras, since hope and salvation had arrived in the form of 'four ragged wanderers clad in elvish gray.' It was five days since she had lain down to an exhausted, grief-ridden sleep on the eve of Eomer's banishment, the pain of Theodred's death still twisting inside her like a serrated blade. It was five days since Grima had come to her one last time in her dreams.
She had told no one. What could she have said?
Uncle, I had a terrible dream. I dreamt that Grima came to me as I lay asleep and I did all that he asked of me. He lay with me, if only in the dream world. And worse, he bent my will to his with his foul sorcery so that I received him willingly. I enjoyed him, Uncle.
There were no words that she could use to speak of such shame aloud, and no one she loved that she would ever burden with the knowledge. She had not yet slept a full night without waking in a pool of sweat with a fist crammed into my mouth to stay her screams. She closed her eyes, willing thought and memory away before she began to shake like a leaf in a storm. Just a little longer to live with the memory.
She opened her eyes again after achieving some measure of numb calm and looked down upon the battlements, scanning the tiny figures for a familiar stance or gait. She found her uncle striding along the Deepening Wall of the keep, gesturing to the man beside him. Aragorn was gazing toward the muddy plains that spread out below the fortress, saying something to her uncle, his posture serious and tense.
Aragorn, son of Arathorn.
The mere sight of him seemed to banish the chill hand of sickness and terror that had been clenched around her heart like an ever-tightening vise.
He was.
He seemed to encapsulate all that was best in Men. Warrior, Lord, Captain of Men, fearless in the face of evil. But not so high and removed from lesser folk that he was unapproachable. There was a warmth, an inner light in him. It drew her and everyone who crossed his path into the unconscious spell he wove about himself. It seemed to speak to her in the heart's wordless tongue, whispering that she too might be free and strong and brave. That she might one day feel clean again, and whole. All these things lay within her reach if she would only stretch out her hands to grasp them. It seemed like a little maid's first sighing fancy to think she could feel so much for him after knowing him less than a week. But she did. She did. He was more than she could have conjured had she fashioned him from her own imagination. He was all she might ever hope to aspire to or emulate. If he had come to the Golden Hall even a day earlier she might have loved him as a woman loves a man.
But there was no woman's love left in her. No sighs, no wanting, no desire. Grima had taken it all and twisted it to his will and now.
The waning sunlight on her face seemed to dim as though it were filtered through flawed, dirty glass. It matters not, she thought. Very probably, Aragorn was about to die, along with her uncle and herself and all that remained her people, hacked to bloody pieces upon the barbed, jagged swords of the White Wizard's orcish army.
"My lady?"
She jumped like a spooked deer at the sound of that soft voice. She turned on her heel to face its owner, her eyes narrowing. There was only one narrow, spiral step that led to the Horn Tower. It had never left the corner of her eye as she stood watching the sun's downward progress. How had he come upon her unobserved?
"How---?" She began. She stopped, returning his quizzical stare coldly, letting him make what he would of the men's garb and armor she wore, of the bright sword on her hip. She was discovered, her plan revealed. If he chose to betray her secret there was just enough time to see her ushered back into the caverns like a disobedient child. She studied him closely. She had spoken at length with both his companions during the day long journey from Edoras. Aragorn had commanded the greatest measure of her attention, but she had spent quite of bit of time listening at the dwarf Gimli's tales of distant lands and strange peoples. Master Gimli had immediately assumed a posture of long-lost uncle toward her, and she had warmed to his gregarious, gruff humor, forgetting all the darkness in her heart for a short time.
The Elf, however, had remained strange and aloof, speaking little, ever alert and watchful during the long trek to Helm's Deep. Years of Saruman's slanderous rumors had taught the people of Rohan to fear and distrust the Firstborn, and he had seemed to sense her people's discomfort, keeping his distance. She was positive she hadn't exchanged so much as a word with him in the days since the arrival of Gandalf and his companions in the Golden Hall. He was gazing at her, no readable expression at all on his fair features, except perhaps mild curiosity.
"How did you know I was here?" She asked rudely, without preamble.
"I saw you from below," he said. His lips twitched minutely. "You caught my attention because you did not move like a man. Then I saw your face and I knew you." He tilted his head slightly, but in every other aspect stood still as a stone, like a man trying not to frighten a wild foal. The brief smile smoothed away to something strangely gentle. "My lady," he said in a softer voice. "You need not fear that I will betray your secret to your kin."
She released the breath she hadn't been aware she was holding in an undignified sigh of relief. She opened her mouth to give thanks, and looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time. The first thing that struck her was that, up close, he was not merely handsome; he was beautiful. He was so fair it nearly hurt the eyes to look upon him. If he had come to Edoras eight years ago, I might have swooned at the sight of him, she thought. His face was an artless, unaffected portrait of every young girl's ideal of boyish beauty, but there was a piercing, eldritch quality here that was.not human. Or more than human. Meeting his gaze levelly for more than a passing moment made her wonder that she could have ever mistaken the one before her for a young Man. He was neither. The too- bright eyes in that beautiful youth's face were bottomless blue wells of memory and time. They were not mortal eyes.
"They sealed up the barricade to the caverns an hour ago," he said, jolting her out of these thoughts. "What exit did you use?"
She frowned, unsure again of his intentions. Before she could answer, his bright eyes spied the open hatch of the hidden ladder beneath the Horn's great cradle.
"Ah! I see!" He stepped around her and thrust his head over the porthole, smiling again in that muted fashion. "Gimli has already found half a dozen such passages in the lower levels that allow movement from one section of the keep to another, all unobserved. He said he thinks there are many more, but there is no time to seek them all out." He stepped back from the shaft, turning back to face her. "Does this one open like the others, from inside only, and show no hint of its presence on the outer side?"
"Yes," she said. A thought had slowly taken shape in her mind as he spoke. "You mean to use the passages to our advantage in battle."
He nodded briefly. "We are few, so we must fight harder, but also smarter. It is really Gimli's idea. He says it is an old Dwarvish strategy, to use one's own architecture to run circles around an invading army."
"I know of perhaps twenty other such passageways and hidden doors!" She said quickly. "Before he died, my father spent two years refortifying this stronghold. My family would summer here while the work was going on. Eomer and I discovered at least a score of secret doors and corridors while playing here."
She stared at him, nonplussed, as he sat down abruptly on the cobbles of the Tower's stone deck, rummaging through the small satchel bound to his waist. He motioned her to sit as well as he withdrew a small scroll of parchment and a coal pencil.
"I had this from Rivendell," he said, spreading the sheet flat between them as she sat down beside him. "I might have abandoned it long ago had not Lord Elrond in his foresight bade me keep it." He glanced up at her with a full, conspiratorial grin that reminded her of Eomer up to mischief when they were small. It did nothing to dim the unearthly sheen of his strange eyes, but it made him seem warmer, more solid. Less a creature of myth. "Will you draw a map of the hidden ways as best you can, my Lady?"
"You must call me Eowyn," she said. A slow burn of excitement was welling within her, a kindling spark of hope. Could the people of the Mark possibly survive the night? Hold the Hornburg against the onslaught that was bearing down on them?
"Eowyn then," he agreed. "If you will call me Legolas."
They sat for the better part of half an hour as she sketched out the secrets of Helm's Deep from memory, fashioning a kind of rough diagram, until the sun was a golden sickle dying behind the distant mountains.
"By your leave," he said at last, "I must tell Gimli that I had this from you. He will fall into a fit of apoplexy if he thinks a wood elf has ferreted out more of Helm's secret stonework than he." His shoulders shook with suppressed mirth, though he didn't laugh aloud. "Or.perhaps I will wait a while and watch him rant and---" He broke off, tensing beside her like a horse catching the scent of gathering wolves. He sprang to his feet with weightless ease, gathering up their makeshift map. She leapt up and followed his gaze toward the darkening plain to the south. She could see nothing. She glanced over at her companion, watching in fascination as his pupils widened like a cat's leaving only a thin sliver of blue around the rim. He must be able to see in the dark like an animal with such eyes.
"They come," he breathed.
"Can you see them?" she turned back, squinting in the dim light.
"I hear them," he said grimly. "The earth groans beneath their feet." He turned to face her. "I must go down and give this wealth of knowledge to the King and also to Aragorn." He frowned slightly. "We passed hard words between us, Aragorn and I, an hour ago. I should beg his forgiveness before we face this battle."
"I will go with you," she said, reaching for the helm she had chosen from the armory with great care. It hid her face without obstructing her vision.
"No," he said simply. "You will not." She stared at him in shock. "You must go back down to the caverns by the same path you used to leave." She watched, her face paling with anger, as he stepped quite deliberately between her and the Tower stair.
"Are Elves so quickly foresworn then?" She spat the question at him, recovering herself. "You said you would not betray me!"
"I said I would not betray you to your kin and your folk," he said calmly. "I did not say I would let you go down to fight on the front line of defense. Not this night. Not this battle."
"You cannot stop me!" She said through clenched teeth.
"I can," he said flatly. "I am stronger and faster than you, and I have many mortal lifetimes of experience as a warrior. If you force my hand I will knock you senseless and drag you down that dark ladder to safety."
She strode forward, and the sheer force of her fury must have been a tangible thing for he leaned back on his heels, startled, as she glared up at him with less than two inches between his nose and hers.
"Try!" She hissed.
He stared down into her white, enraged face, frowning intently. Nothing in his face said that he was moved by her challenge. He seemed to be trying to peer through her eyes into her thoughts. Could Elves read minds, she wondered with a chill? After a tense moment, he frowned and swore softly in his own tongue.
"Mortals can be very foolish sometimes," he said, almost to himself. "Lady," he said, before she could utter an answer to that. "Eowyn. You do not understand the danger---"
"Oh, of course not!" She said icily. "How could I possibly have wit enough to understand that we are all in danger of being gutted or devoured alive by an army of beasts?! I may be a fool in your eyes, but I am not a coward. I am not afraid to lay down my life defending my people! I have watched all this afternoon as my uncle ordered men to press swords into the hands of eleven-year-old boys to small to even lift their weapons. There are children out there on your 'front line of defense' whom I watched take their first steps. I will not hide in a hole like a craven weakling when I am stronger and far more capable than they!" Her voice had risen to a low shout. Her entire body was shaking with the force of the cumulative rage she had swallowed like steady doses of poison during all the days of Wormtongue's reign. She could feel something terrible straining at the leash of her frayed self-control. It was a black, irrational hatred and anyone or anything that would balk her after so many days and nights with only the sound of her failing uncle's labored breathing and the pallid monster's lies, twisted half-truths and filthy magics for company. "In times past, the women of this country have never flinched from taking up the sword to defend their families. Those who could not fight have thrown themselves upon the swords of the enemy to save their children. If you think I am foolish then you know nothing of mortal women!"

"I did not say that you are foolish," he said solemnly, no hint of answering anger in his voice. "But I am sometimes baffled by the mortal assumption that ignorance of hard---nay, terrible---truths is a form of protection against them. But you are right, Eowyn of the Mark. I know very little of mortal women. So, I shall treat with you as though you were a woman of my people. A very young, very green warrior who has yet to be tried in battle."

"Your women fight?" She blurted the question out, interrupting his next words before he could draw breath to speak. She closed her mouth abruptly, feeling suddenly young and silly under gravity of his fathoms deep silver gaze.

"Like mother bears guarding their young," he answered her softly. "All my people, without exception, learn to wield the bow and the long knife. You speak so poetically of throwing yourself upon the sword to save a child. I have seen our women do this with my own eyes. My---" He simply stopped speaking, his gaze turning inward as though he were forcibly wrenching his

mind away from whatever image of memory he beheld in his mind's eye. He finally shook his head. "That is another matter entirely and not relevant here. Elvish women do not fight in the forgaurd. Ever. I will risk your kin's ire in this; there are things you and the others below need to know before this battle begins. The orcs will kill the children and the old women if all is lost. They will tear them limb from limb and devour what is left. But they will not kill you and the other women of bearing age. You are all more valuable to Saruman alive."

"As---" She swallowed hard, a cold knot of dread forming in her throat. "As slaves?"

He regarded her steadily, and his next words were a soft harmony of horror and sorrow. "As breeding stock."

She stared at him, mute, feeling the blood drain from her face as the full weight of that short statement began to sink in.

"Saruman will wish to increase the ranks of his Uruk Hai in the wake of this battle should he be victorious," he said. "He has tampered with them, using his wizard craft to create a more vicious, hardier strain of orc. But like all their kind, the Uruk Hai breed only males."

"And they need...brood mares?" She felt choked, one hand flying to stomach as a sudden realization rose up and struck her with merciless clarity like a physical blow. "The---the orc raids! All the out-lying villages that have been razed in the last few years!" Most of the bodies had been burned beyond recognition, but she remembered now, with perfect hindsight, Hama speaking in hushed tones to her uncle, telling him how too many of the young women's bodies were simply missing. "Saruman was taking captives to---"

Gerta, Fallas' daughter, the child of one of Theodred's boyhood friends, had lived on the open grasslands of the Mark. The House of Fallas had for time out of mind shepherded the wild range cattle herds of Rohan, guarding them against wolves and orcs, carrying their tents on the backs of their horses and they moved, never laying their heads in the same place twice. In better times, her cousin had taken Eowyn and her brother to the summer gatherings of the Herd Clans on the high plains. Gerta had befriended her instantly, being supremely unimpressed by Eowyn's status as the niece of

Theoden King, but nearly as enamored of fast horses and swordplay as Eowyn herself.

A year ago, Theodred had entered the Hall, his face hard and immobile, like carved stone. Eowyn's first news of her friend's death, of the massacre of all the House of Fallas, had come as she witnessed Theodred pleading at his father's feet for leave to lead a retaliatory force to track the band of orcs back to their lair.

These shiftless cattle drivers take their lives in their hands, choosing to live on the open plains like the migratory herd beasts they tend! Wormtongue's saccharine voice had sliced into the mute shock of her grief like salt on a jagged wound. You have said the young women were carried off? This is the work of simple bandits who are no doubt long gone!

And to this, her uncle, who was by this time no longer truly her uncle, had nodded sagely. Theodred had left the Hall, his eyes dry, his face terrible, and never again exchanged kindly words with his father. Though there had been nearly sixteen years between Gerta and the Prince of Rohan, he had loved her and would have wed her had they both lived to see that summer.

Eowyn raised her eyes to meet those of the Elf, and thought that she finally understood that place were Theodred had been, that place of stone- faced grief that was beyond tears. Still.if they had been taken alive...

"The--the most recent captives might still be at Orthanc! They might still be alive!"

"No," he said with gentle finality. "The---they---" He broke off, drawing in a deep, unsteady breath, his face as pale as her own. "I am doing this poorly! Among my people, we only speak of these horrors parent to child. And then we do not speak of them again. I am yet unwed, and so have never been charged with this unhappy task."
"You are doing well enough," she whispered. "My uncle and brother love me well, but in this matter they would have left me blind and ignorant." She set her jaw to keep it from trembling as Gerta's face filled her thoughts once more. "Tell me everything. You said the most recent captives could not be saved. Does bearing an orc-child kill the mother or do they kill her thereafter?"
He shivered, his eyes dimming. "I took this duty upon myself, did I not?" He said after a moment's silence. "Do not say 'mother'. Orcs have no mothers. They have.hosts. The orcs quicken their captives with their spawn in the same fashion as all living things, but the orcling is not a child, it is a parasite. It grows within its host, devouring it from the inside for half a year before it tears its way into the world full-grown. By that time, the body of its host is nothing more than a membrane of flesh, a kind of cocoon." He had spoken quickly, almost mechanically, to force the words through his lips as quickly as possible. Now he stared into her blanched face and swallowed hard. He looked suddenly like a boy of twenty telling news of untimely death to near kin. "The one measure of comfort I can offer you is that after the first day or two of carrying the abomination within them, the victim's spirit departs this world, though the body remains trapped in a semblance of life."
She shook her head stubbornly, clinging to a pitiful spar of hope. Oh, Gerta!
"Is there no hope at all once the---the process has begun? Gandalf told me once that your people are great healers, that---"
"We have never found a cure," he said softly. "In the first age of the world, Morgoth, who was the Dark Lord's master of old, made the first orcs from Elvish captives. Their---manner of begetting and incubation has an element of blackest magics that is designed with my people in mind as hosts. The fea, the soul, departs. The empty shell lives on as a host for the Enemy's beast. My people.we have a sometimes blessed ability to will our own deaths. The bond between spirit and flesh shatters when we are." He trailed off and simply stopped speaking for a moment. "We simply die," he said finally, barely above a whisper.
"How fortunate for your women," she said.
His eyes caught hers, and she saw sorrow and a sudden quiet, terrible anger flow over his fair features before it was quickly hidden. He had seen more, understood more, from that one sentence than she would have thought possible. He said nothing. He seemed to be considering his next words with great care. He sighed heavily. "Did the Men leave a cache of swords in the caves?" He asked finally.
She nodded mutely.
"In plainest truth, I lied when I said I would drag you forcibly down to the caverns, my Lady," he said. "But I beg you not to go out to the Deepening Wall with the foreguard. The fighting will become close and deadly very quickly. The Orcs will not be fooled by that binding jerkin you wear or by your armor. They will scent you for what you are, and if the madness of bloodlust has not overridden every other thought they will try to take you alive."
"They will do the same, regardless, if we are overrun," she said bluntly.

"If they push past the innermost circle of the Keep and through the barricade before the caverns," he said, "they will be in a rabid killing rage. I do not say cast off your armor, Eowyn. I ask you to stand behind the barricade, sword drawn. Find as many as you can of the young women below who can wield a weapon. Defend the children. Fight like madwomen should they break through. If you are overborne by numbers, they will kill the most dangerous among you quickly. A brave, clean death." He eyed her closely. "I think they will find you very dangerous."
A brave, clean death, the shadow in her heart sighed longingly. An end to pain and memory. She closed her eyes against the image of Gerta and her younger sister laughing in the sun, their hair swept back in the wind as the raced the two-year-old fillies across a green sea of summer grasslands. Oh, Gerta! Oh Merciful Lady, how she must have died! And Gerta's sister, little Hannath! She had been only fourteen, but the Riders never found her body either.
She squeezed her eyes shut, stopping the tears before they began to flow. A gentle, warm hand touched her face, and she opened her eyes to see that he was standing close enough to have kissed her. That thought alone should have made her cringe away as she had cringed at every casual touch since--- since that night. But his hand on her cheek seemed to ease the pain of the jagged pieces of her fractured spirit that had been tearing at her insides.
"Eowyn," he murmured. "It is not weak to weep for those you loved."
"If I start crying now, I shall not be able to stop." She stepped back, stood a little straighter and steadied her trembling shoulders with an effort of will. "I will weep later, if there is a later."
He smiled down at her, and it seemed, though perhaps it was a trick of the eye, that all the was left of the dying light of day pooled around him in a soft halo. "The golden roses of Rohan are wrought of steel," he said. "And all the more beautiful for their strength." There was not the faintest flicker of submerged Mannish desire that always accompanied such compliments of beauty. He was gazing at her with an open, innocent appreciation, like a man admiring a sunset or a garden in bloom. And she somehow sensed that the greatest measure of the beauty he beheld in her was within. For an instant, she saw herself mirrored in the mithril-hued depths of his eyes, strong and valiant, pure and untarnished by bruising clammy hands and violation of the mind. For that look alone, she might have loved this man who was not a Man, this figment of legend and moonlight, more truly than Aragorn had she not been ruined for all such things.
But ruined she was.
She saw now with sudden stark clarity that she would not be able to return Aragorn's love, even if he offered up his heart with both hands. In truth, she might have shied away had he shown any interest at all beyond that of brotherly friendship. She loved him, she suddenly realized. She loved him as a soldier loves a great king. She would follow him to the ends of Middle Earth if he would allow it. But she did not want him. That door was closed now, and perhaps it would always remain shut. She wanted.
She wanted to be like him. Brave, strong and pure. And free. If she lived beyond this night, she could think of no better fate than to give her life in the service of Isildur's Heir. The thought of such an end gave her more joy than anything had in a very long time, and she smiled like bright, cold sunshine in the depths of winter.
Legolas was no longer smiling. Perhaps he had some measure of inherent Elvish magic, or perhaps the run of her thoughts had played out openly on her face, but he was staring at her in sorrow and alarm as though she had spoken her mind aloud. "Eowyn," he said softly, sadly. "Do not fade."
"Fade?" She frowned in confusion.
"Do not seek your own death. On the other side of this great shadow there is hope and healing of all your hurts. I swear it!"
"Perhaps." And she cursed herself when her voice broke. It made her sound like a little girl on the point of tears. "But I cannot see if from where I stand!"
He smiled down at her, and now, she saw that the soft radiance that shone about him in the deepening gloom was no illusion. He was glowing. "Then trust me. I am an Elf. My sight is much better than yours." He took both her hands in his and held them so that her palms faced upward between them. "I shall tell you something my father told me long ago, in the darkest hour of my life. He held my hands thus, and said, 'The strength to heal all your wounds, to banish darkness, to change the world if need be---it is all right here.'"
She turned her gaze upward, from her open hands clasped in his to his timeless, silvery eyes. She inhaled slowly, feeling a tremor run through her body as the words took hold inside her mind and heart. Something had shifted, changed within her in a profound way she did not yet understand. It was as though the future had altered even while it still remained unwritten.
"I will trust you," she said steadily. "You have told me more of the truth than those I have loved and trusted my entire life. For that, though not for that alone, I will call you friend if you do not think me too bold."
"I think," he said gravely, "it would be a great tragedy if you were ever anything less than bold, Eowyn Elvellon."
"Elvellon?" She repeated.
"Elvellon," he said again. His smile was like the sun on budding leaves in spring, warm and full of hope, like a child's smile. "It means 'Elf friend.'"
And in spite of the doom bearing down on them in the form of ten thousand ravening beasts, in spite of everything, she somehow found it in her heart to smile, too.

They broke through the barrier just before the crack of dawn. The first dozen or so did not get far. The initial fissure they tore in the weight of stone and new mortar Gimli Gloin's son had used the seal the main entrance to the caverns only allowed for one body to squeeze through at a time. The girls from the lowlands east of Westfold shot them with their light bows, taking turns, laughing aloud. It was a shrill, childlike noise that was a mixture of excitement and near-hysterical terror. It echoed through the sepulchrous caverns around them like the chiming of tinny bells.
Their laughter did not last long. Other creatures came, too big to be of pure orcish stock, too small to be trolls, shoving themselves against the gap, smashing the jagged edges wider. Only much later did Eowyn realize that she would not have survived the first five minutes of true fighting had the giant, nameless thing that was neither orc nor troll not fallen half in and half out of the fissure in the barricade, its body riddled by a dozen arrows. Then the others clambered over the great thing's carcass and battle was joined. The first of their enemies came harrowing toward her, hewing at her clumsily like a butcher's apprentice.
The world went cold and silent. All movement about her seemed to slow, and her senses sharpened to crystalline clarity. She sidestepped the flailing swing and gutted him with one smooth stroke of her blade, spinning forward again to meet the next attacker. All about her, she could hear the shrieks of women and girls as they took down his fellows with bows, swords, hammers, hoes and wicked-looking kitchen cutlery. Frerya of Storhald let out a scream of pure rage as she clove the head of the orc before her in two halves. Like Eowyn, Frerya was a noblewoman, a distant cousin to the House of Eorl. She had been trained to wield a sword as was traditional for all highborn women of Rohan. Many women---most, in fact---learned the ceremonial sword dances and fighting forms out of obligation to old custom, learning little that was actually useful. Frerya, it seemed, had learned much.
All these things passed in the space of a dozen heartbeats. She was aware of them peripherally, but as she pushed her sword through the neck of her second orc it all ceased to matter. A cold, merciless rage that was almost a living thing took hold of her.
The comfortless grief of the last two years, all her helpless fury as Theoden had failed, as Wormtoungue rose to power astride his prone body, as reason and right were slowly turned on their heads in the Golden Hall, the light dying in Theodred's eyes as he breathed his last breath in her arms, the feel of Grima's phantom body moving upon hers, the memory of how she had screamed with pleasure in the thrall of the dream-spell and begged him each time to take her again, the memory, clear as an artist's painting, of Gerta smiling, riding beside her at full tilt as they shrieked with girlish laughter under the golden sun---
It all distilled together and tore through her like a lightning strike, searing through her body and into the blade in her hands. It burned away everything within her that felt crushed and caged and dirty. Her sword was moving with the speed of thought, cleaving through the beasts like a hot knife through butter. She moved through them like a machine wrought for killing, and the joyous, euphoric bloodsong of battle took hold of her, thrumming through her veins. How long she fought she could not say. She lost time and all perception of anything except weightless elation as she slew her demons, as she took back her power, her safety, her pride, her freedom, from their clawed hands. Later, she vaguely remembered that she had gone tearing out of the caverns in a red haze of blazing adrenaline when she realized their were no more monsters left to slay, desperate to keep hold of the feeling that she sensed would fade when sanity reasserted itself.
She did not recognize the grizzled, bearded face behind the axe that spiraled into her field of vision as she burst into the Keep Hall, knocking her sword from her white-knuckled, bloody fingers. He whirled the axe around and swept her feet out from under her with its handle. When she would have scrambled mindlessly around him to grasp her sword again, he gripped her by the shoulders and shook her until her teeth rattled.
"It's over, Lass!" He finally bellowed into her face.
She blinked at him. She had thought he was kneeling before her at first. He was not. He only needed to bend at the waist a bit to look down into her dazed face. He saw recognition flood into her eyes and punctuated his words with a hard, comforting squeeze of her shoulders. "Ease down, Lass," said Gimli Gloin's son. "Deep breaths! And don't try to stand yet. You're going to be dizzy when you start to come down from that high wind you've been riding." He grinned, a flash of white teeth through the forest thicket of his beard. "You looked like my dear old Mam just now, when the berserker rage took her during the orc invasions of the Iron Hills when I was a lad. Sweet Aule, she could swing an axe!" He chuckled merrily, and the warm rusty sound seemed to bring her more to herself. It made the cold stone floor beneath her and the smoky air around them more real, less dreamlike. "If you had anything remotely resembling a proper beard," Gimli was saying, "I might be asking your uncle for your hand!"
A shaft of morning sunlight slanting through the cracks of the high, arched stone ceiling, struck her face. It was warm and bright, like the promise of spring after a bitter winter. She began laughing softly, taking his grimy hand in hers. One did not have to be a Man to be a dear man, she thought fondly. It only occurred to her much later that day that here was another whose touch did not draw a shiver from her.
"It you were any kind of horseman at all, Master Gimli," she said with a smile, "I would accept." The sound of steel on steel, a distant song of victory, echoed inward through the blood-smeared stones of Helm's Hall where they sat together, laughing in the midst of the carnage around them. She felt warm. She felt well for the first time in a very long time.
"Have we won?" She asked needlessly.
"Nearly," Gimli said. "Your brother arrived in the nick of time with Gandalf, Erkenbrand and several thousand of your countrymen. It was a dramatic bit of timing."
She could no longer feel the icy hand that had encircled her heart and mind like a vise. For the moment, she could even believe that she was free of it, that she had hewn her way through an army of all her horrors made flesh and slain them all. Nienna the Merciful, her tired mind sighed. Let it be so!

You are mine, my sweet, cold blossom. You will never be free of me!
She sat up with a choked scream, flailing off the straw cot where she had collapsed in boneless exhaustion after a day of gathering and tending the wounded. It was pitch black, still an hour before dawn. She sucked in a huge draught of air, fighting blind panic, pressing both hands to the side of her head as though she could squeeze out the feel of Grima's presence slithering through her mind. It was like a chill hand running greedily over her naked skin.
Two days before she would have folded into herself in nausea and terror, curling her knees to her chest on the hard floor, one hand clamped over her mouth to stop her sobs. Now, in the wake of her first true battle, she was altered profoundly. There would be no more hiding. Never again. One hand clenched around the sword she had taken to bed with her like a talisman against bad dreams. She shot to her feet and ran from the darkened Hall where she and village midwives had set up a surgery with the help of Aragorn. She ran through the Keep at a breakneck pace, tearing past the watch fires and the surprised faces of the guards posted along the broken remains of the Deepening Wall, down the rubble-strewn stair to the lower courtyard where her brother's Riders had quartered many of their mounts. She found one horse mysteriously saddled and tore the reigns from the long hitching post.
Theodred's horse. She took the proud beast's head in her hands, her eyes burning. "Will you bear me to Orthanc, old friend?"
"No, he will not!" A deep, melodious baritone said firmly.
She did not start in surprise. She only closed her eyes, leaning forward against Hasufel's broad nose, sighing like a condemned prisoner gazing through the futureless window of a hangman's noose.
"Let me go, Gandalf," she said. Gods, she was so tired.
His took her shoulder and turned her gently to face him. "Not for all the wealth in Middle Earth, child. You are being influenced, and would know why I forbid you if you were in your right mind. Grima is manipulating you to bring you to Orthanc. Wormtongue you could easily slay, I think, but he is only the cub in that bear's den. Saruman would make very short work of you." The old, yet un-aged cornflower blue eyes that had always born the twinkling promise of wondrous stories and Midsummer's Eve fireworks when she was small were full of worry. He lay one finger on her temple and a warm wash of peace flowed through her soul.
"Ah," he said softly. "I see." She shivered; there was enough power and quiet wrath in that sandpaper growl to shatter mountains with a word.
It was almost audible. She felt the invisible choke-wire that had been strangling the life out of her for months, wilting every good thought with its loathsome touch, snap. It was as though the wizard had taken sheers to a taut rope.
It was gone. He was gone. Just like that she was free of him. One hand went to her trembling lips, hovering there like a terrified bird. Her knees began to sag, her vision blurring. There was a storm brewing inside her that she sensed would tear her asunder if she did not release it. She had buried her tears for too long, piling grief upon grief in a storeroom of loss and pain that was near to overflowing. Someone guided her to sit on one of the hard benches against the courtyard wall. A water skin was set between her shaking fingers and rough-skinned, gentle hands pressed around hers, steadying her grip, helping her raise it to her lips as though she were a child.
"There there, Lass! Drink up, now."
She ruthlessly forced the sobs down, back into their cell of silence. She could not cry. She could not!
".could see that there was some shadow poisoning her spirit." Legolas' voice was soft, like distant music.
"I am a fool!" Gandalf said bitterly, his voice pitched soft as well. "I was so pleased with myself at having exorcised Saruman from Theoden that I didn't stop to consider that his foul student might have tampered with the mind and will of more than one member of the House of Eorl."
"Do not---do not tell." She could not speak yet. If she opened her mouth again she was afraid she would begin to wail uncontrollably from sheer relief. She concentrated on breathing in and out, on steadying her hands. Anything else was beyond her for the moment. The world tilted to one side and someone lifted her in both arms like a child. Another light touch on her forehead and dreamy peace flooded through her again.
The next sound she made sense of was Gimli's voice, speaking in a hushed whisper. She was lying in a cot in one of the small antechambers to the Keep Hall. "She's a strong lass!" His rough hand clapped over hers, tightening reassuringly. "She'll be right as rain now that you've purged her mind of that slinking worm's whispering."
"There was more harm done here than you imagine, Gimli," Gandalf rumbled softly.
"Are you sure it was wise to calm her, Mithrandir?" Legolas said. "I sensed some of what she has suffered and guessed more. This kind of pain must have an outlet or she will shatter from the stress of containing it."
"Do not tell my uncle!" She sat up, shaking her head to clear it, startling them all.
"Eowyn," Gandalf said gently. "Theoden should know---"
"No!" she said harshly. She gripped the Dwarf's hand firmly, bringing the world back into sharp focus with a monumental act of will. His hand in hers was like the feel of rich earth over strong solid stone, a brace of strength to lean the weight of mountains upon. "Would you break his heart as well as Eomer's?!"
No one answered her. She straightened her back. She took a long, deep breath of cold morning air and met the troubled gazes of the three before her with a chill composure that only served to deepen the shadows of worry in their kind faces. She said a brief, silent prayer of thanks to all that was holy that Aragorn was not here with them. "There is no time to weep for the loved ones we have lost or the pain we have suffered," she said in a clear, cold voice. "If we win and live to see the end of this war, we may nurse our wounds at our convenience. If we lose, it will not matter. But until either one future or the other unfolds we must each bear our burdens as best we can and not falter. Gandalf, you know my uncle must ready the Mark for war. If the call to arms does not come from Gondor today, it will surely come within a fortnight. I heard you tell Theoden that all of Mordor is mobilizing. Do not distract him or divide his focus with a tale that will serve no other purpose than to cause him grief!"
There was a silence.
"Mayhap," the wizard said gravely after a long moment. He leveled a piercing, grave stare at her, though her. She had the unnerving impression that he was reading deeper secrets in the depths of her eyes than she could plum in the silence of her own mind. "Mayhap there is wisdom in your words, my dear child. Though you will pay a price for your silence you do not yet realize. But I foresee that these woes you deem of no importance in the grand scheme of things will be the touchstone of great deeds in the days to come."
So, the matter was settled for the time being.
Later that morning, Theoden and Gandalf led a force of men to Orthanc to route Saruman out of his den. Her uncle left her with the duty of caring for the women and children of Westfold, effectively trapping her at the Hornburg while he and the other went to Orthanc to see to the White Wizard. And to Grima Wormtongue.
She turned her mind ruthlessly away from those thoughts and set it to the task at hand. She moved through the long days that followed, settling the refugees of Westfold and Edoras into what would very likely be a prolonged stay within the safety of the Hornburg, organizing living arrangements for the steady stream of those who continued to flock to the great stone refuge over the next few days. Many of them arrived with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Food and water would not be an issue. The caves of the Deep were stocked with enough rations for a year-long siege if need be. The logistics of sleeping arrangements for the ever-growing throng, of clean water for cooking and bathing, of coal and firewood, kept her moving and thinking and occasionally wishing to tear out her own hair in frustration.
All the while, as she pulled apart the tangled knot of disorganization and chaos about her, her eyes turned ever southward, seeking the return of her uncle. And of Aragorn.
She soon discovered that Gandalf had spoken the truth when he had told her there would be a heavy cost for her silence. The price of dry eyes and a cool clear head in the wake of the horrors of the last year fell upon her like encroaching winter after a taunting warm day in autumn. It congealed her blood. It froze her heart. It numbed every emotion one by one until she could feel nothing. Nothing at all. Outwardly, she knew she seemed crisp and efficient, a clear-headed, brave daughter of Eorl guiding her people in their Lord's absence.
Inwardly, she was dying by inches, her frost-bitten soul supping daily on the poison she could not release. Not yet. Not until her uncle stood victorious against the Enemy or lay cold and still beyond the reach of all grief. The release from Wormtongue's spell had given her no solace, no safety from memory, no rest. She was afraid to sleep. In the chill stillness of the nights she sat alone, ever wakeful, numb from cold without and within.
On the fourth day of her watch, he came again. Her captain, her lord, her savior. She ran out to meet them, a fragile, wintry joy flooding her ailing heart. She would go to war with Aragorn. She would ride at his side and fine peace and honor and blessed, blessed sleep in some glorious death upon the plains of Gondor!
The following morning, she stumbled dazed and hollow-eyed back to the grim, gray shelter of the Keep. Aragorn had departed. They had all gone galloping off bravely to a horrific death, leaving her behind to mind the old women and children. Even knowing the madness of Aragorn's scheme and the unnamable fate that awaited them along the Paths of the Dead, she would have followed fearlessly. She had implored him to allow her this noble death. In the end she had begged him on her knees like a slave. He had refused her out of care for her safety and out of respect for her kin. She was, after all, in the charge of her uncle and brother. It was the right of the men in her life to direct her fate, she thought bitterly. Her uncle and brother, who had protected her from harm so wonderfully up to this day!

She stopped that thought in its tracks, a wave of terrible shame clawing at her. Her strong, loving uncle had not been able to defend himself, let along her, from Wormtongue's magics. And dear Eomer had been banished for his pains when he had tried.
She stopped at the entrance to Helm's Hall, turning back to watch the tiny figures of riding away. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli were gone to walk the haunts of the dwimmerlaik of Erech; they were as good as dead. Her uncle was mustering the Riders of Rohan for war. Gondor would soon send the call to arms.
The fields of Gondor.
A tiny smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She would ride with them to glory. She would find a way.

I found my way. I found my glory, though it has come at a cost I would willing give my life to unpay.
Theoden lies dead, shrouded in the royal sepulchres of Minas Tirith temporarily, born there by my countrymen with a reverence just short of worship. He saved Gondor at the cost of his own life. He died like a king out of legends.
It would have been so much simpler if I had died with him.
The healers and servants in these Houses of Healing whisper as I pass, their voices hushed with awe. They hail me as the heroine who slew the Witchking of Angmar in single combat, the fearless shield maiden of the North. They do not know what I fraud I am. They do not know that my greatest wish in riding to Gondor was not to save them; it was to die heroically. All my desires in coming here were selfish and ignoble. My head-long rushed toward my own destruction blinded me to all else until I saw my uncle crushed beneath Snowmane's great body, the Nazgul leering over him.
If I had been quicker, less self-absorbed, more intent upon my King's safety, I might have been quick enough to save him. I know I would have been. Every man on the field was stronger than me, but none of them were as fast. I swing a sword with the speed of lightning striking from sky to earth. Theoden told me this with a great measure of pride once. I could have saved him, but I did not. I was caught up in the sheer joy of sky and wind and the strong horse stretching out beneath me as we rode forward. As it was at Helm's Deep, all the shadow and dark memory fell away as I swung my sword. I was strong and I was free, and I sang with the other Riders as we slew out enemies and drove them before us. Then Angmar came upon us and the host of Riders scattered. Snowmane reared, falling with Theoden trapped beneath him. They call me fearless. They do not understand that the tangible wave of terror the Ring Wraith emitted like a poisonous fume had no effect on me. There is precious little fear in a warrior who is already suicidal.
The Great Shadow has passed. On that fateful evening before the Battle of Helm's Deep, my fairest friend promised me there was hope and healing beyond this struggle, but still I have not found it. My brother has sent word from the Field of Cormallen begging my to join him if my wounds are healed enough for the journey.
A decision lies before me, two roads I might now walk.
The Steward of Gondor joins me on my daily walks through the gardens and courtyards of the Healing Houses. He believes he loves me, but he is wrong. He is infatuated, fascinated---and what he feels for me is more than kissing cousin to what I felt for Aragorn. He wants to be like me, or so he thinks.
He sees me as I want to be in truth, strong and pure and beautiful. He would come to love me with all his heart in time, I think. He is all any woman could hope for in a man. He is wise and kind and strong. I could live with him and be his love, his White Lady in the green forests of Ithilien. I could keep his house, bear his children and love him all the days of my life. I see that I might come to love him with all my heart as well. I am teetering on the threshold of loving him even now. One more day, or two, and I shall be his. I could say yes to the question he will soon ask. I could be his. And never mine. Never in all my life mine and no one else's.
It is not enough.
It would be very simple to let his love wash away the stain of Grima's spell, the memory of his dream hands on my body. But I cannot take healing of the wounds Wormtongue dealt me by loving another man. Aragorn taught me that. If he had returned what I felt for him, what I thought I felt for him, I would have shied away. In his wisdom, our new king gave me the thing I needed most from him. He gave me his hand in friendship and told me without words that the strength and will to change my own destiny lay in myself, not in him. Legolas said me the same thing when he took my hands in his and told me the power to heal all my hurts lay there, not in the hands of another. I was too blind to see it then.
No longer.
All the hurts of my body are healed. The Master of the Healers tells me he will release me into my brother's keeping with joy when he finally returns.
Into my brother's custody. Not my own. Even in this new age that is dawning as I write these words, I will always be in the keeping of someone else. Uncle, brother, loving husband. Never my own.
I have known the wind in my hair and the sun on my face as I raced forward into battle, bright sword held aloft in strong hands. I cannot go back to a cage, however gilded, however loving the master. And I see now that the wounds of spirit I still carry within me will not be healed by calling any man, however loving and good, my lord. Only on the fields of Pellennor, only at the breach of the barrier wall in Helm's Deep, when I stood sword in hand, alone but strong in myself, was I free and whole. I no longer wish for death. I think I am healing of the worst of my wounds. I will find a way to heal myself completely, but the path to healing does not lie in Gondor or even Rohan. I will leave this beautiful, white towered city tonight. I will leave its handsome, kind-eyed Steward.
I will find my own road.

Eowyn of Rohan