Here is it now, the final chapter of the story. It feels strange to part with it now after 2.5 years. I had a wonderful time writing it and got to know many wonderful people out there in Cyberland – Maddy, Stacy, Tiziana, Neu, Agape4Gondor, Sidonie and many others – and I hope to hear from everyone again when hopefully, my muse leads me to write another adventure.
For now, I want to thank each and everyone of you for staying with me all this time and for your encouragement over the last two and a half years.
All the very best,
Chapter 80: Into the Storm
Chapter 80: Into the StormAs Éomer approached the other side of the hall, he saw a guard standing before Théoden's chambers; a man whom he had never consciously noticed before and who seemed strangely young to be among those who guarded the ruler of Rohan himself. Pausing as he sought for a name to the face somewhere in his memory, Éomer furrowed his brow, and his obvious puzzlement was reason enough for the object of his bewilderment to approach him.
"My name is Léod, son of Folcard, Marshal. I belonged to Captain Céorl's éored, until the king took me into service on the day of your return. As most of the Royal Guards were killed…"
"I understand. Yet your name sounds familiar to me, Léod, son of Folcard. I think I heard it before," Éomer said, thoughtfully eyeing the man. "If I am not mistaken, Éothain told me that you were among those men who stormed Meduseld with him… the one especially gifted in the use of a bow, if I recall his words correctly. You were one of the first to follow him into the tunnels."
Even in the twilight, the sudden dark hue that crept into Léod's face could not be mistaken. Éomer could not help but knowingly smile to himself. It was a truly Rohirric trait to see one's courageous deeds only as a necessity; no one committed deeds worthy of song to hear these sung, and none of the warriors knew how to react to praise other than with embarrassment. Apparently, everyone felt much more comfortable with the thought of singing only about their deceased heroes, as those men could no longer object.
The young man before him lowered his gaze.
"The Captain was too generous. I am by no means more skilled than others of my éored."
Knowing better than to pursue the issue when the warrior already felt awkward, Éomer looked at the door on the far end of the corridor. He inhaled, still hesitant to follow his initial instinct. And yet this needed to be done. He needed a clear head before they rode into battle.
"The King is in his study?"
"Aye, Marshal. Would you like me to tell him that you are here?"
"It is not necessary. I will speak with him there." Once more, Éomer regarded the man before him with great earnestness. "You were one of the few who took action against the enemy, which most were not ready to dare. I will not forget this, Léod." And with a nod, he left the guard behind, no doubt feeling even more awkward now.
Before the heavy door to Théoden's study, Éomer involuntarily braced himself. He did not know yet what he was supposed to say to his uncle, uncertain even of what he wanted to achieve with this meeting. He had neither prepared a speech, nor given any thought to how to begin. Unlike his cousin Théodred, words did not come easily to him, and diplomacy and politics had never been strengths of his. He wished it were different, perhaps then he would perhaps not feel quite as uncomfortable. He was still contemplating his best course of action when the door was suddenly opened from within, and a very surprised Théoden looked at him.
"Èomer? I mean… Marshal?" Théoden's expression was both wary and – albeit to a much lesser degree – hopeful. "Did you come to let me know about the state of preparations?"
"Aye, Sire." Even if it was not why he was here, and his tense stance betrayed that fact well enough, Éomer decided that it would be a good start; a chance for him to get his nerves in check before they addressed their quarrel. "May I come in?"
"Certainly." Théoden opened the door further for his unexpected visitor and cast a quick glance at the young guard in the corridor, who gave him the little nod saying that everything within Meduseld was quiet, then he turned around and shut the door. His nephew's rigid bearing had not escaped his attention as he strode back to his desk, and his vague hope that Éomer was here not only in his capacity as leader of their army received new nourishment.
"Please, Marshal, do take a seat." Théoden gestured and slipped into his chair. "I take it that you spoke with your commanders? What do they say? Is everyone ready to leave? And have all come who were expected?"
In hopes to find his courage within himself while he stared at the tapestry behind the older man, Éomer gave his report. "I spoke with Erkenbrand, who oversees the camp outside the city gates, and he said that men and horses have recovered from the previous effort and are eager to ride… as eager as one can be when the destination is war. All know what is at stake though, and want to add their share in the rescue of the Mark. Provisions for the ride have also been distributed. Your éohere is ready to leave, my Lord."
"What can you tell me about the Captain of Aldburg, will he be able to ride with us? When I saw him at the funeral today, I could not help notice that he still looked far from recovered."
Éomer inhaled, and his gaze briefly met Théoden's. "I agree that Elfhelm did not look well, but he was able to help carrying Céorl's bier today, and I am convinced that nothing either of us could say or do would stop him from riding with us tomorrow. Not that I would even think of objecting. His great experience and strategic skills cannot be missed on the battlefield if we want to stand half a chance against the enemy."
"Mmh," Théoden nodded. "I believe you are right. The Captain of Aldburg is a very wilful man, and that strength will carry him as far as he needs to go. In that, he is not unlike other warriors I know." His gaze strayed over to the window, but only darkness lay beyond the glass… and perhaps, if one looked close enough, a certain dark red hue on the far eastern horizon. The very thought of its possible cause it chased a chill down Théoden's spine. What if Gondor was already a raging inferno of flames? Would they ride straight Mordor's fire? With a deep breath, his gaze returned to his waiting nephew.
"What chance do we have to defeat the enemy, what is your opinion, Marshal?" He was aware that Éomer arched his brows in surprise at the question. "Your friend Aragorn… he did not tell you anything more when you met him in the mountains than he told us here at the council, did he?"
Éomer shook his head.
"No, Sire. He expects a great army, many times greater than Saruman's, but I fear that until we see it, no one - perhaps not even the great Gandalf Greyhame himself - will be able to tell what we are up against …. and yet maybe, it is for the better that none of us can imagine what creatures we might have to fight. Until a few days ago, none of our men ever encountered anything worse than a Uruk-hai or a warg; and yet on the way from Isengard, we were attacked by a creature so vile that our horses fled in panic. How this attacked would have ended if we didn't have a wizard with us, I dare not think about." He paused before he continued in an even lower voice. "Sire, you know the courage of our horses; it is beyond comparison. They will not even hesitate to attack a pack of wargs if we ask it of them. That thing… it was beyond anything we ever encountered, pure evil, and I fear that that was only one of the Dark Lord's vile creatures awaiting us in the east. What our horses will do in a battle against such things, I cannot predict."
For a moment, Théoden stared wordlessly at him, concern deepening the lines on his face. It had been clear to him before that the odds would be vastly against them in the coming battle, but to hear Éomer's words now uncovered the full meaning of their undertaking for the first time. Of course, it was more than likely that the Dark Lord had far more vicious things in his service than Uruk-hai. Still, no matter what they would find, they would have to find a way to overcome them.
"Thank you, Marshal," Théoden managed to say, his voice hoarse. "It is indeed a frightening thought, but we cannot let this make a difference. No matter what the enemy throws at us, we must face and defeat it. Somehow, we must focus the courage our entire people and put it in the weighing dish. Perhaps, that will tip the scales in our favour. Our hearts must carry us through our foe's darkness."
Looking down on his folded hands, Éomer sought for the right words to change their discussion to the issue that had initially brought him to this room. But how to begin? He inhaled. "Whom will you leave in charge here while we are gone? Have you decided yet?"
Théoden's gaze strayed to the door.
"Your sister will lead our people while we are away. I was on my way to tell her when you arrived. The Eorlingas still trust in your ancestor's blood, and your own triumph certainly strengthened their belief in it even further. I do not doubt that they will eagerly follow Éowyn. I have every confidence in her. She will know what to do even if things turn ill. Wouldn't you agree, Marshal?" His attention returned to the young man before him, and he thought he saw relief in the younger man's eyes.
Éomer nodded. He could not tell why, but somehow, Éowyn's behaviour during their short conversation in the hall had troubled him. This way, duty would keep her here, no matter what plans she might already have made in the back of her mind. 'She is not even strong enough to walk down into the city and back again. What plans should she have made in this condition?' It was the voice of reason, and yet, knowing Éowyn, the whispering voice in the back of his head would not cease.
"That sounds well. I agree that Éowyn is fit to take over, and it will give her something to do while we are away." So, they had solved this problem as well and still they had not touched on the one that had brought him here, although the hour was getting late. If he wanted to reach a solution to the problem that plagued him, it had to be found now.
From the other side of his desk, Théoden regarded him with patient expectance as the silence once again stretched between them. Clearly he was waiting for the true problem to be addressed, although the expression of cautious hope on his face seemed frail. From his uncle's face to the tapestry behind him, Éomer's gaze swept the weakly illuminated room until it came to rest on the bottle of wine upon the desk.
Having followed his gaze, Théoden lifted it.
"Would you like some wine before you go to bed, Marshal? I believe that there is indeed something that we should drink to." 'And it might very well be the last opportunity we'll ever have.' He had tried to suppress the thought, but it was inevitable.
"Please." Silently Éomer observed as Théoden filled two glasses and handed him one. "To what shall we drink?"
It did not escape Théoden that his nephew avoided addressing him with either his title or as kin, as if he was uncertain what to do. Was that a good sign? He lifted his glass.
"How about "victory and the safe return of our riders and horses to the land they ride to defend?"
Éomer nodded and lifted his own glass.
"To victory and safe return!" he said and drank, but even as their gazes met over the rims of their glasses, each man could see the doubt in the other one's eyes… and the understanding that something important still stood between them, unsaid.
For another small eternity, they stared silently at each other; the only sound in the room the crackling fire behind them, then Théoden set down his glass, and his gaze became piercing. Even before the first word left his mouth, Éomer realised that it was now or never.
"Would that be all, Marshal? For the hour is late, and if we want to leave with dawn, it would be time to try and get some rest now. There won't be much of that once we've left."
Béma, why was this so difficult? Èomer had never been good at apologising, but this situation was worse than any pickle he had ever found himself in before. At last, he took his heart with both hands and exhaled. Straightening in his seat, he met Théoden's inquisitive gaze.
"I did not come to discuss the state of preparations with you, Uncle, and I can see that you know it."
Carefully, Théoden nodded his head and at the same time, registered with growing hope the informal addressing Éomer had used.
"I could tell what was on your mind the moment I opened the door, Éomer; in this regard you have changed little since your childhood days. Hiding your emotions was never your strength… which is a true Rohírric trait, and one that I will from now on always value highly after having been misused as the pawn of a crook for so many years." A cautious smile lay only in his eyes. "I could sense your true intentions, but I was hoping for you to address it, first, because I had already said everything I could tell you. That I was proud of you, and how unfathomably sorry I was and still am for failing Éowyn and you in such a horrendous way. You would not accept my apology then, and although it broke my heart, I came to the result that perhaps, I did not deserve forgiveness. Perhaps, your scorn is Béma's just punishment for my mistakes. Is that what you came to tell me?" With hope he saw the deepening furrows on Éomer's brow.
"I had some time for thought myself today," the son of Eomund began, hesitantly, and looked at his hands, as the words for his speech had been scribbled down there. "And I saw your horror at the funeral, when you were at last confronted with the hard truth. And I asked myself what I would do if I had committed the mistake to trust in a traitor, and have my people and my kin pay for my error of judgment. I asked myself whether I could truly be certain that I was above such a mistake." He exhaled, and as he looked up again, he thought he saw moisture in his uncle's eyes, although he could not be sure. Éomer's throat tightened.
"And what did you find?" Théoden barely dared to ask.
"I found…" Éomer hesitated. A great weight seemed to lie upon his chest. "I found, that despite everything that happened, that despite the long dark years of anger and frustration and despair… that I could not forget the man who sat by our side when Mother died. The man who took us in his arms and although there was nothing to cure our grief at this time, tried his hardest to comfort and shelter us." Suddenly, Éomer's voice grew firm with conviction as he straightened in his seat. "I could not forget the man who took us with him to Edoras, and – although his kingly duties barely left him any time – would always be there for us with compassion and advice. No matter how hard his day had been, he never forgot to be with us when we went to bed… This man, perhaps more than anyone, helped me to become the man I am today."
"I do not want to ride into battle with this rift between us, Uncle. I do not want to die hating you, or you dieing thinking that I hated you, and thus grant Gríma Wormtongue even this small victory. No matter where the filth is now, he certainly thinks that even while his greater plans were thwarted, that he at least succeeded in poisoning what we feel for each other for all time… And the more time to think I had, the more I know it in my heart that I do not hate you, and that the love that I have always felt for you is stronger than everything that that snake could ever concoct."
For a moment, Éomer's confession left Théoden bereft of speech, but at the same time, a great, comforting warmth spread through his body, and this surge of relief was so powerful that he was not even aware of the tears spilling from his eyes.
"You always were like a son to me, Éomer, no different than Théodred," he said when speech came back to him. "I never meant to hurt you, or your sister. That I did will forever remain a thorn in my heart."
"No," Éomer insisted, and rose from his seat. His expression was resolute, his weakness overcome. "Let us pull it out now. Let us ride as kin tomorrow, and forget the shadow of the past; the shadow of the Worm. His poison nearly killed us, but in the end, we defeated it. Let us remember only this. Uncle? Will you forgive me my anger?"
"Your anger was justified, Sister-son, there is nothing to forgive, at least not from my side. And I swear by my father's honour that no one will ever be able to drive a spike between us again. Come, Éomer, and let us speak of this no more." And with this, the King of Riddermark came to his feet and embraced his nephew like a long lost family member, and at least for the few hours they had left before the ride, everything was good.
The cocks' crows cut through the darkness, even if barely a sign of dawn could be seen on the eastern horizon. Their cries announced the new day, the day the people had waited for and whose arrival they had feared at the same time. In the many cottages of the city, life began to stir as the warriors readied themselves for the ride, and their wives and children helped them, making an effort to remain strong as they did not want to make the parting any harder for their men than it already was. None could tell whether this was good-bye, or farewell.
Éowyn, too, heard the noises of the waking city, but contrary to the riders, she did not have anything left to prepare: she had finished with her own preparations under cover of the night, and now she sat – already fully dressed – in her chair by the window and waited for the knock that would tell her that the men were ready to leave. Then she would do what was expected of her: she would bid her uncle and her brother farewell, stone-faced and not allowing her tears to spill although she would in all likelihood never see them again. This part she would not even have to fake, because it would be a very real farewell. After all, Éowyn knew well enough that both men would send her back immediately if they ever became aware of her presence among the troops, no matter whether battle would be just about to commence. And she was realistic enough about their odds in that battle not to expect the riders to return.
Which meant that she would die, too, if she joined them, but the thought did not scare her. Had she not always yearned to ride with the warriors and do deeds worthy of song? Had she not envied Éomer his many opportunities to prove his worth? How infinitely better it would be to die among their riders on the battlefield in protection of their people, than to stay here, doomed to wait for the terrible news of their defeat, while at the same time, her mind became more unhinged with every dream that the Worm stole from her!
Not even Théoden's orders to stay back and take up command about their people had shaken Éowyn's belief in her decision. What good could she do here if their army was defeated? The warriors were riding to their final stand; if their éohere would be overcome, everyone's fate would be settled, no matter what anyone left in Edoras decided. There would be no one left to ride to their rescue.
Impatiently, the daughter of Eomund rose to her feet and opened the window. A voice inside her head told her that dawn had to be on the way, and yet she could not detect it as her gaze wandered eastward over the plains. 'Is it already the enemy's darkness?' A cold chill settled in the pit of her stomach, and she strained to push the unsettling thought aside, instead directing her gaze toward the stables, where – in Windfola's stall – she had secretly deposited her sparring armour and saddlebags filled with provisons during the night. As soon as she had seen Éomer and Théoden off, she would run to the mares' stables, change into her riding clothes and armour and head after them with the hobbit in her saddle and ignore everyone who tried to stop her. As it would take the éohere a while to get into motion, she saw no difficulties in that course of action.
She hoped that Éomer did not suspect anything, even if she felt inclined to count that fear among the unfounded. Her brother certainly had more than enough on his mind today to worry about her, even if the stare he had given her last night had suggested that he had sensed something. And yet how could he possibly suspect what she was about to do, Éowyn tried to calm herself. After all, what the hobbit's water had done to her over night was nothing short of a miracle, and Éomer usually was not one to believe in miracles. If she did not feel the results herself even now, she would have believed it neither: even after this sleepless night – she had been too afraid to encounter her tormentor again in her dreams to try and go to bed - she felt more rested and energetic than she had felt in a long time. Ready to take on the world, as the saying went. Not even the thought of Gríma Wormtongue could change her disposition today.
Something else had happened, too… An unconscious smile wandered over Éowyn's face as she rolled her shoulders and felt the unusual strain of the garment. Only last night she had laughed at the possibility, not believing in the hobbit's words, although she had chosen the loosest dress she possessed… but it could no longer be denied that she had grown a little over night. Not much, she hoped, nothing that would catch people's attention, and yet her dress bespoke the truth clearly enough. 'It might make it harder for me to find a good husband when I return. Aren't most men afraid of tall women?' She giggled in sudden amusement. 'Dear Merry, what would I have done without you? Forgive me my doubts. I will forever be indebted to you!'
A sharp rap interrupted her train of thought and she jumped, all giddiness vanished as quickly as it had occurred. This had to be Éomer.
The door opened, and her brother stuck his head into her chambers, eyebrows knitted in obvious surprise as she approached him.
"You're already dressed?"
She gave him a little smile, suddenly feeling weak in the knees at the thought that these were very likely the last moments they'd ever share with each other.
"I could not sleep, so I decided to get ready early." She embraced him, and felt a telltale burning behind her closed eyelids. This was not fair! Éomer had just been given back to her, how could fate tear them apart again so soon? With a deep breath, she took a step back, inwardly reprimanding herself to keep her emotions in check. No one would be helped if she broke into tears now. "Are you on your way to the stables? Will you let me accompany you?"
"It will be a madhouse down there," he said doubtfully, but looked glad over her suggestion just the same. Every additional moment they were granted was precious.
She caressed his cheek.
"Since when would I mind, Brother mine? Come, Firefoot is waiting for his master."
All the way through Meduseld and even on the path down toward the Royal Stables, Éomer felt strangely disconnected from reality. His gaze swept the Golden Hall's interior in the knowledge that in all likelihood, he would never see these sights again; not this time. He muttered his thanks and farewells to the members of their household, who had assembled in two lines before the door, forming a corridor through which he walked after his King and Gamling, and it felt eerily as if he were watching himself from outside. Like an disconcerting dream he could not wake from, all the more as no daylight fell yet through the high windows into the hall… but it was no dream.
Many of the servants were crying as they passed them, and over their suppressed sobs, Éomer heard Théoden's reassuring words telling them not to despair, that nothing was decided yet. At one point, Maelwyn stood before him, pale and sad, and he gave her a little appreciative nod to remind her of her promise, and knew she had understood when she returned it.
Then the doors were opened for them, and they stepped out onto the terrace to the sound of many horns announcing to the city and the waiting warriors that the King was on his way. Despite already knowing what he would find there, Éomer's eyes strayed to the east. "A dawnless day…" he muttered to himself, and a chill settled in the pit of his stomach despite the mild breeze. Beside him, Éowyn stiffened as she followed his gaze.
"Is this already the enemy's doing, Éomer?" she asked silently, fearing his answer. "Is he so powerful already that he has extinguished the sun? 'Béma help us if it is so!' she thought with fright. 'For what could we hope to achieve against such might?'
Still Éomer refused to give in to the dark thought. "It is but a layer of clouds, Sister. If the Dark Lord were able to do what you fear, then we would not be here anymore. He would have swiped us off the face of the earth long ago. He may be able to conceal the sun's face from us, but he cannot touch it. He is no god; his powers are not endless." 'At least that is what I hope;' he added silently in his head, and from the corner of his eye, saw Éowyn's sceptical features and understood that she was likewise unconvinced.
Together they walked down the stairs and into the stables, where frantic activity had already broken out with stable hands and warriors preparing their steeds for the ride.
"The King! The King has arrived! Hail Théoden!" Solgard, Master of the Stables, announced, and for a moment, all activity ground to a stop.
"Hail Théoden-King!" the men shouted and unison and bowed, and the so-addressed inclined his head in greeting.
"Carry on, kinsmen! As you know, we are being expected!"
And with these words, the large building became a human anthill once again. Solgard stepped closer.
"Sire, we already readied Snowmane for you. Please, if you will accompany me and see whether you will find everything to your liking…"
"I am certain that I will, Solgard," Théoden nodded, and turned around to Éomer and the others. "Step out of your stalls when you are ready, so we can leave in an orderly fashion."
His commanders quickly disappeared in the stalls that held their own steeds, and for a while, not a word was spoken as warriors and stable hands busied themselves with bridles and saddles.
Resting her arms on the stall-door, Éowyn watched silently as Éomer concerned himself with Firefoot. Breghelm, his usual aid, calmly assisted him with the difficult stallion, who had long sensed the unusual tension among the men and danced around in the hay, barely standing still long enough to be saddled. She hoped that Merry waited for her in the mares' stables. So far, no one seemed to have noticed the hobbit's missing, and she hoped that it would remain so.
As Éowyn turned around, pressing her back against the wood, her gaze swept the long, twilit building. Such grandeur in these ancient halls, such dignity... She had always loved to be here, but today, the stables were a place of grief. With a soundless sigh, she forced the thought away and observed Éothain, who was saddling his Scatha behind Éomer. Behind them, Elfhelm prepared his long-legged bay while Freela stood before their stall with the same dread on her face that Éowyn felt in her chest. The two women exchanged a quick, knowing glance, and suddenly Éowyn's throat tightened.
Was she mad to ride with the warriors? War was not an adventure; it was brutal, ugly reality, and although Éomer had reminded her of this countless times before, she realised that she had not understood him in fullness before, then the grim expressions of the Riders made it clear to her now. These were the faces of men preparing to ride to their death. Suddenly, she did not want them to leave, and she did not want to join them, not even to escape the Worm's evil echo.
"Béma…" it escaped her in sudden horror; the surge of dismay stealing her breath. Behind her, Éomer looked up from his work and wrinkled his brow in concern, but he remained silent when Éowyn did not turn to him. Instead it was Éothain who asked: "Éowyn? Are you well? You are very pale."
She looked over her shoulder and forced a smile upon her face that felt more like a grimace.
"Aye, Éothain. Thank you. It is just that…" she shrugged, at a loss, but he understood her even without words and nodded.
"I know. It is… all this." The regarded each other for a moment longer in mutual understanding, before Céorl's son returned to his task.
At last, all activity died down and the men opened their stall doors and waited with the reins in their hands for their king.
"Éomer…" Éowyn threw her arms around her brother, and at last, the tears she had sworn to hold back now flowed freely down her cheeks. The pain of separation was too strong. How could she let him ride to his death? "I know you cannot be careful in battle, but please, you must return! Brother…"
He returned her embrace, and brushed a gentle kiss upon her brow as he follow the trace of her tears with his fingers, wiping them away.
"If the Gods decide so, then we will see each other again, Little Bird. Keep Edoras safe for us while we're away. Our people trust in you, and I know that their trust is justified."
She could only nod, as the lie would not come over her lips. She was about to disobey Théoden's direct order and desert those who depended upon her, and even now, she was lying to her brother's face. Wasn't that even worse than the betrayal of which they had accused Éomer?
"Éothain!" She embraced the young man who had grown up together with them, as well. "Come back to us, all of you. Every single one of you." She looked into Elfhelm's eyes further behind and knew already that her wish would not – could not! – be granted. Indeed the cold, hard truth was that they would be lucky enough in any of them returned at all.
"Behold, Théoden-King!" Gamling's voice suddenly cut through the murmurs of farewell from the end of the aisle, and all faces turned toward the rider on the great white horse who had emerged from the stall in the very back of the stables. Snowmane's hoof beats echoed through the ancient building as the stallion passed the stalls, and one by one, the King's captains swung into their saddles and followed their commander in the order of their rank.
As he reached his waiting nephew, Théoden reined in his mighty horse and leaned down, a weak but nonetheless encouraging smile upon his face.
"Do not despair, Éowyn. This is not the end." He held out his hand and she took it, looking up to the man who had raised her with moist eyes, but denied herself the comfort of further tears.
"Westu Théoden-hal!" she said instead, her chin lifted in defiance of her desperation. "Be well, King of the Mark. Lead our Riders to victory!"
For a moment, Théoden's smile became more prominent, and pride sparkled in his eyes over his niece's courage.
"That is the spirit, daughter of Eomund!" he whispered, only meant for her ears. "Hold Edoras for me while I'm away." And with this, he let go off her hand and urged his steed on. With a deep sigh, Éomer directed Firefoot behind the mighty Méara stallion, and his last look found Éowyn before Gamling's horse stepped into his line of vision.
Numbly, Éowyn backed away into Firefoot's deserted stall, doomed to watch like all the others who had followed their loved-ones down to the stables, until one by one, riders and horses disappeared into the muted twilight of the dawnless day. For a moment, only silence remained as they listened to the quickly fading sound of hoof beats, then slowly, suppressed sobbing began to rise from those who had been left behind.
With a hard lump in her throat, Éowyn stared at the open stable door, frozen to the spot. She needed to go now, before these people turned to her and changed her mind. 'Merry is waiting for me,' she thought, and the mental image of the hobbit in Windfola's stall, as he paced with growing nervousness now that he heard the warriors leave, broke her paralysis at last.
She stepped out into the aisle with her heart pounding like a drum in her chest, distinctively aware of the others' stares but unwilling to acknowledge them, and forced herself to walk slowly until she reached the door. The place before the Royal Stables was empty. No one was there to see what she was doing. Abruptly Éowyn broke to the right, and all but ran to the mares' stables further behind. How fortunate that their warriors only rode stallions; the building would hopefully be all but deserted. She pushed the door open and slipped in, holding her breath as she looked around – and expelled it again in relief. As she had hoped, the stable hands usually assigned to the mares had gone down to the square to see their warriors off. There was no one here to interfere with her plan.
"Merry?" she called as she rushed down the aisle, aware of the horses' curious glances and pricked ears as she passed them.
"My Lady?" a thin voice answered her, the relief in it not to be missed as Merry stepped out of the stall. With satisfaction Éowyn noticed that he was already wearing the clothes and mail she had deposited for him in her mare's box earlier. "I was afraid you'd change your mind! It is hard to keep track of time when there is hardly any daylight--"
"They only just left. I came as quickly as I could," Éowyn said and silently thanked Béma when she spied her riding clothes and armour where she had left them at night. She looked back over her shoulder. "Would you mind…?"
Following her gaze, Merry suddenly blushed.
"Oh… of course not. I'll be waiting by the door." Quickly he slipped out of the stall and left her to change out of her dress.
"I will not take long." Her heart beating like a frenzied, captured beast within her chest, Éowyn furiously shed the garment and slipped into the linen shirt. 'I'm a traitor! I promised Uncle and Éomer to stay here and take care of Edoras. What am I doing here?' Now the woollen tunic and the deerskin breeches. In her haste she almost lost her balance as she put on her riding boots. Now for the mail. She fiddled with the bands that held it together, feeling time slipping through her fingers. Gods, this was taking too long! "Merry? Merry, come back! I need your help with the cuirass!"
She heard the hobbit's urgent steps, and the next moment, he slid into the stall and tied the bands for her. Done. Now for Windfola!
"Can you hold her for me, please?" Éowyn said, the mare's bridle already in her hands. "She dislikes the saddle, but today, I cannot spare it."
"Oh well…" Merry stammered, as he regarded the tall horse. "I suppose." Reluctantly, he accepted the reins from Éowyn.
"Just hold her tight." Resolutely throwing first the blanket and then the saddle onto Windfola's back, Éowyn quickly demonstrated to the huffing mare that she would not tolerate her protest today, and despite despite her fears, they were ready much sooner than she had anticipated. Solemnly, she turned to the waiting hobbit as she slid the helmet she had found in the armoury over her head. Not wanting to take any chances, even if it would have been rather unlikely to cross Éomer's or Théoden's path in a mass of ten thousand riders, she had not taken her own. This one hid her face well. She took a deep breath as she realised that this was indeed the point of no return.
"Now, Master Hobbit…tell me: is this indeed what you want to do? Ride with our forces and give battle when we meet the enemy? If you have concerns, I will understand."
Merry seemed to grow as he squared his shoulders and looked her firmly in the eye. There was fear in his gaze, but his voice sounded strong with conviction when he said: "Nay, my lady. Let us ride together and help our friends."
Éowyn could not help but smile over the little one's earnestness. And she could not deny that it was a comforting thought not having to ride alone. To have someone with her who shared her secret.
"Very well. Then let us do so. Only one more thing I must ask of you before we join the éohere, and you must promise me this. It is important."
"My Lady?" Warily, Merry looked up. What now?
"When we are among the riders, you must address me as "Dernhelm". The Lady Éowyn will remain in Edoras. It is 'Dernhelm' who rides to war with the Rohirrim."
Relieved, Merry expelled the breath he had held.
"Of course, my Lady… I mean 'Dernhelm'. I will remember it. But regardless of the name you will use, we should avoid your brother, I think, or he will know the truth despite that helmet of yours."
"We will not meet Éomer." She gestured for him to step closer. "Come, I will help you into the saddle. It is time."
Again, all citizens of Edoras had gathered on the square, but there was a drastic difference to their celebration of a few days earlier when their riders had triumphantly arrived. The people were still. A horrible silence hung over the square like the hangman's noose, and although they had assembled here not for the first time to see their army off, it was the first time that Éomer saw only fear in their peoples' eyes. Fear, and despair,and grief for their parting family members. No hope. In some eerie way, it felt as if they were already dead.
He looked away in search of a more positive sight, through the open gate to where their éohere waited alongside the way, lances and armour reflecting even in the dull twilight and banners flying on a wind that felt already heated by the fires of Mordor.
"They do not expect us to return," Elfhelm muttered darkly to his left, and although his stomach clenched at the words, Éomer did not know what to set against his Captain's unusual gloomy disposition. "This feels like a bloody funeral march!"
"Well, then it should be our task to prove them wrong!" he said at last, unwilling to surrender to despair himself just yet. "Where not chances always against us? And yet we are still here."
"We never fought against Mordor, and the Dark Lord himself," Elfhelm grumbled, his eyes on the far horizon from where darkness still oozed across a leaden sky. "What are orks but beasts compared against evil itself? How can we hope to win?"
"We do not stand alone in this fight," Éomer insisted. "History is on our side." He was aware of the disbelieving glance his former mentor gave him, but did not honour it with a reply. Instead, he kicked his heels against Firefoot's side to urge the stallion forward as they approached the gate. Above them, horns were sounded, and at last, the horrible silence pierced by a single clear voice as it broke out in an ancient battle song. For the first few words, it rose into the air alone, and people turned their heads to see who was singing it. Then it was picked up, quickly, by a second and a third voice. Like a ripple through the water, the song spread through the crowd, until warriors and citizens sung the ancient melody together, a mighty sound from many thousand throats rising into the sky like a challenge. It lifted people's hearts, and the dread upon their faces was soon replaced by intensity and iron will.
They were the sons and daughters of Eorl the Young. Fate had never gifted them with anything, and they had never asked for anything. What they had today, they had acquired with courage and persistence, blood and sweat and tears. Surrender was not in their blood. If they were indeed to die on the eastern battlefield, if the Mark's history was indeed to end, then it would be so, but the Rohírrim would make it an end to remember; a dignified, honourable end all those who survived Mordor's onslaught would praise in their songs!
As they passed through the gate and the warriors beheld for the first time their armoured king on his mount, the song stopped and was replaced by the sound of hundreds of horns. Then the men stabbed their lances against the sky and shouted: "Hail Théoden-King! The King rides to war!"
Now Herugrim reflected in the twilight as the son of Thengel lifted it above his head in answer, his eyes gleaming with pride. Éomer barely recognised his Uncle as he rode up the older man; and it seemed to him that some strange spell had given Théoden back at least twenty years of his life. He could not remember having ever seen the King like this, and awe resounded in his voice when he asked permission for his rally speech, traditionally to be held by the First Marshal and leader of the troops.
Upon Théoden's curt nod, Éomer urged Firefoot on until they came to a halt before Snowmane and his rider, and around them, knowing what would follow, the men fell silent.
"Riders of Rohan!" Éomer then cried, and his steed danced restlessly below him. "Oaths you have taken! Now, fulfil them all: to Lord… and Land! Forth Eorlingas!" And as his war cry was repeated by ten thousand voices, Firefoot reared. Then Théoden passed his nephew, and together, they accelerated down the path with the éohere falling into place behind them, and their thunder shook the lonely mountain and the city built upon it, and was heard for many leagues across the plains, announcing to the world that Rohan was riding to war.