Many, many profound apologies for my long absence. I promise I am still writing and am still here, but real life and writer's block have conspired to place a hold on many things. In any case, I did manage to get this little story finished and ready for posting, so maybe that can make up for a tiny amount. HUGE thanks must go to Docmon, the amazing beta, whose encouragement and friendship are invaluable. Finally, there are fragments of dialogue between Eowyn and Aragorn in this story, and everything they say was lifted straight from The Return of the King, page 67-8. All other ramblings are mine, so don't blame Tolkien for them.
Elladan's breath floated through the air in misty puffs. The night was clear and cold, and he had drawn his silver cloak about him for warmth. He supposed that he could have retired to the booth provided for him and wrapped himself in snug blankets; he would have little opportunity for rest in the days to come, and this alone should have been reason enough to send him to bed. But something held him back. Some nagging unease in the back of his mind. Perhaps it was the bright stars overhead and the foreboding that he would not see them again for many days. Perhaps it was the lurking chill of the Dwimorberg that rose behind the encampment as a black shadow against the sky. Or perhaps it was a combination of all the fear and uncertainty that had been building in his heart since he and Elrohir had joined the Grey Company. Whatever the reason, sleep had proven elusive, and he now wandered the stronghold of Dunharrow much as he would have wandered the corridors of his father's house. But where he might have found solace in the latter, there was little comfort to be found here. Thus his wanderings continued, as did his search for peace.
Eventually, he stopped beside one of the standing stones that marked the path to the Dimholt. They were an eerie sight, these worn sentinels that led into shadow. Unremarkable by themselves, they nevertheless represented the first steps into a dark peril: The Paths of the Dead. On the edge of his senses, he could hear the whispers of the deserters, and the night became colder still. Shivering, Elladan moved away. In him ran the blood of both elves and men, and at times this dual ancestry manifested itself as a hindrance rather than a help. While his elven senses detected the presence of cursed shades, his mannish heritage awoke in him a fear of those spirits. Deciding it would not behoove him to venture any further up the dreaded trail, Elladan began walking back toward the tents.
He had just passed the first of the tents when the sound of voices caught his attention. Out of respect for those already sleeping, the voices were low and hushed, but Elladan heard them clearly. At first he hesitated. The words were not intended for his ears, and if he stopped to listen, it could be interpreted as a breach of trust. But he recognized these voices, and he also recognized in one of them feelings that would constitute a breach of trust should those feelings be returned. Pursing his lips together, Elladan debated the matter a moment more and then moved forward. He was a brother first and foremost in these matters, and beyond that, the conversation was taking place late at night between a man and a woman without escort. Should questions of propriety arise later, it would be good to have a witness.
"If you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle."
"Your duty is with your people."
"Too often have I heard of duty! But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse?"
Safely ensconcing himself within the shadow of a tent, Elladan shifted until he could see the figures around the corner of another tent. Eowyn was easy to find. Her white gown shimmered in the starlight, and her hair was pale gold beneath the waning moon. Aragorn proved more difficult to locate, but by following the sound of his voice, Elladan eventually saw through the deceit of Lothlórien's cloak. He could not read the Ranger's face as it was turned away from him, but there was a stiffness in his posture that bespoke unease. It was a subtle sign, evidenced primarily by the set of his shoulders, but to those who knew Aragorn well, it was as plain as a signal fire. Elladan decided to move closer.
"Shall I always be chosen?" Eowyn demanded as Elladan drifted toward another tent. "Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?"
"A time may come soon when none will return. Then there will be need of valor without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defense of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised."
"All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honor, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more!"
Now close enough that Aragorn might see him if he glanced his way, Elladan stopped once more. At supper, he had marked Eowyn as a woman to be reckoned with, and he had seen a hunger for glory in her eyes when Aragorn spoke of Helm's Deep. Her nature did not lend itself to waiting, yet according to Legolas, that had been her lot for many years. And watching her now, Elladan saw the growing restlessness in her heart. She had freed herself of a wearying duty only to be laden with seeming idleness.
"What do you fear, lady?"
"A cage. To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire."
"And yet you counseled me not to adventure on the road that I had chosen, because it is perilous?"
Another thing Elladan had marked at supper was the way Eowyn kept her eyes upon Aragorn. This was not in itself unusual. Every maiden shrewd enough to see beyond the guise of a trail-worn Ranger kept her eyes upon Aragorn. But from Eowyn, Elladan sensed something more. She saw the man as a doorway. An escape from her obligations, and as such, she loved him. Elladan was uncertain as to how much of Aragorn's lineage the lady knew or understood, but it was clear that she saw greatness. And her heart yearned for it in a way that made Elladan wary.
"I would not see a thing that is high and excellent cast away needlessly!"
"Nor would I. Therefore I say to you, lady: Stay! For you have no errand to the South."
"Neither have those others who go with thee. They go only because they would not be parted from thee—because they love thee."
The night seemed to freeze at her words. She had made little mystery of her feelings earlier, but this open declaration took Elladan by surprise. He saw Aragorn open his mouth to speak, but before he could say aught, Eowyn was gone, retreating into the night. Startled, Aragorn took a step as though to follow her, but then he stopped, his face uncertain. After a moment, he swung around and went inside his own booth, his motions curt and abrupt. Sounds of movement came from within, and then all was quiet. Elladan was left alone in the shadows.
"A fair face and a stern spirit," said a voice from the darkness. "Women of her mettle are too few these days."
Or perhaps Elladan was not so alone after all. Stepping back into the deeper shadows, he shielded his eyes from the torchlight until he made out the figure of his brother standing near. "You listened?" Elladan asked.
Elrohir shook his head, his eyes dark. "I heard only her parting words. She does not lack for boldness."
"Indeed not," Elladan agreed softly. "She is a true shieldmaiden for her people. At times, I am reminded of those who rode with Eorl upon the Field of Celebrant. Do you see it also?"
Elrohir made a faint noise of assent, but his eyes were no longer upon Elladan. Rather they were upon the booth where Aragorn would pass the night. "I have just returned from a walk with some of the Riders. During supper, they offered to show me the Mearas that had been brought here as well as some of the armor recently crafted."
Elladan nodded slowly. He had received a similar invitation but had declined, feeling that his thoughts were too distant to appreciate the Rohirrim's preparations for battle. "What were your impressions?"
"That their horses are a wonder to behold, easily a match for our own, but that they are not a people gifted with skill in the forge. Still, their efforts should be sufficient for their own needs." Elrohir paused, and a strange look settled over his face. "We spoke somewhat about the history of this place, as well as the history of Rohan. There was mention made of the battle that took place upon the Field of Celebrant." Elrohir stepped closer to Elladan, his expression unreadable. "They do not remember that we were there."
Elladan frowned, wondering at his brother's purpose in the discussion. "I would be greatly surprised if they did. By their reckoning, that battle took place over five hundred years ago, and we were but two upon a field of many."
"A field that we remember clearly. Yet for them, it has faded into naught more than a legend. A dream of ancient days." Elrohir folded his arms across his chest and again turned his gaze toward Aragorn's booth. "Is there reason to fear?"
Baffled, Elladan could only stare at his brother. "We stand upon the brink of terrible war, our dwindling numbers are pitted against the dark forces of a fallen Maiar, the hope that is also our doom rests upon the shoulders of a simple hobbit, and you ask if there is reason to fear?"
A dark glower from Elrohir informed him that his response was not helpful. "I am newly come from a meeting with men who no longer remember our role in their beginnings. I stand upon the first steps of a path that will take us beyond the doorway of the oathbreakers. And I have just now arrived to hear a woman of rank and renown—without the propriety of escort—declare her love for the one who is betrothed to our sister! Considering the pattern of forgetting and forsaking, thus I ask again: is there reason to fear?"
Realization dawned, and suddenly weary, Elladan took his brother's arm and began walking toward their own booth, employing a forceful tug when Elrohir hesitated. "Your fears have roamed far afield if you doubt Estel. Mayhap the presence of the dead has influence in your thoughts."
"I do not doubt Estel," Elrohir said, shrugging off Elladan's hold and stopping his march. "I doubt Aragorn."
Narrowing his eyes at the distinction, Elladan also stopped. "Explain."
"Consider Isildur. He had the trust of elves and men, yet when he came into possession of the Ring, he refused the counsel of both father and Lord Círdan. He was changed, and it led to his ruin. There are things in these lands that are perilous and powerful to those of the younger races. By Elbereth, they are perilous to all races! Even the Wise are not immune, for is not Curunír's betrayal a warning for those who would look too deeply into the Enemy's counsels? Now consider Aragorn. He has never taken hold of the Ring, yet he did walk in Its presence for nearly four months. Moreover, only yesterday morning he took the palantír and challenged Sauron directly. Such things are not without consequences! Do you truly believe that he is the same man who set forth from Imladris in a Fellowship of nine?"
Elladan was silent for a moment, studying his brother. "Do you truly believe that he has changed so much as to warrant your accusations?" he asked at length. "For if you did, you would not be sharing such accusations with me. You would be confronting him."
Elrohir met his eyes for a moment, but then he blinked and looked away. "Perhaps. But you must share my fears, else you would not have been listening to their talk."
"I will not deny it," Elladan said quietly. "But in this I think we have both misjudged Estel. To answer one question, his devotion to Arwen remains. Or at the very least, he does not return Eowyn's affection. Neither the Ring nor the palantír has swayed him otherwise. So is there reason to fear? If you fear our sister will be spurned, then nay. Your fears are needless. But if you fear that Estel has been affected by his experiences—or perhaps changed to the point where his judgement is altered—then I do not think your fears amiss."
A change seemed to go through Elrohir, and he shivered. "Before my eyes, he has aged since asserting his right to the palantír. With every moment that passes, it is as though he feels more keenly the press of time, and with this press comes boldness born of desperation. Were it not for father's counsel, I would deem the morrow's path an act of folly. And prior to challenging Sauron, so would Aragorn! He hesitated when first I shared father's words. Now he embraces them! At times, I would even call him fey!"
"And the morrow's path may prove more taxing than Estel's challenge of the palantír," Elladan sighed. "For all of us. Yet these are fey times. Who better to lead us than a fey man?"
"Forgive me," Elladan said quickly. "The night breeds an ill humor. But as for our fears… Aragorn holds fast to the oaths he took as Estel, and as such, he acts for Middle-earth and for Gondor. Think not that he chooses this path lightly. You know he does not. And you know also that he would not choose this path under other circumstances. But these are not other circumstances. Desperate and fey he might seem, but so seem we all. And so it must be, for prudence will not win this war. Mayhap we will come to rue our boldness, but until that time, this is the only course with a hope of victory."
"If so faint a hope can be called such," Elrohir murmured, but he began walking again. "Even so, I draw some comfort from our words. There is reassurance in knowing that the only oathbreakers present this night are those who no longer draw breath."
Elladan frowned, and the night's chill crept down his spine. "I would not be so quick to make that claim."
Elrohir raised his brow in silent inquiry.
"Eowyn," Elladan explained, once again stopping their walk. "Her charge is to lead these people while her kinsmen ride to war, but it is not a task to her liking. She would sooner spend her days in battle."
"If these people are her charge, then she has little choice in the matter. She must remain."
"Must she?" Elladan looked out over the dark encampment. "This is a fell place filled with fell whispers. They are not loud enough for mortal ears, yet their presence cannot be denied. I perceived their voices when we climbed the trail this evening, and treasonous words breed treasonous thoughts."
"You said yourself that Eowyn was a true shieldmaiden," Elrohir pointed out, though he sounded less certain. "Surely she understands her duty."
"She may understand too well," Elladan murmured. "She sees herself as thrice wronged: once by Wormtongue, once by Theoden, and only moments ago by Estel. Three times has the task of waiting been placed at her feet, and twice she has obeyed only to see the constraints of that duty pull her further and further from any hope of valor. She has dwindled while those commanding her have risen in power and might. Will she allow a third time?" Elladan shook his head. "Were she in Edoras, perhaps. But not here. Not so near these shades."
Elrohir's eyes narrowed. "What do you see?"
"Too much. Too little. The days narrow, and darkness comes quickly. But my heart tells me that Eowyn will join the ranks of the oathbreakers, in deed at least if not in fate." He rubbed his brow. "It may be that much good will come of broken oaths. Certainly those within the mountain will be of greater use to us than they would have been to Isildur. Yet what of the cost? For thousands of years, the oathbreakers have been cursed to walk as shades. To linger in twilight while all around them fades into naught."
"To suffer the fate of the elves," Elrohir whispered.
Elladan looked at him sharply, but then he began to nod. "Yes," he said at length.
"Perhaps Arwen has it aright after all," Elrohir muttered. He fell silent for a moment, his eyes distant, and then he sighed. "Should we speak of Eowyn to Estel? He has some influence among the Rohirrim."
Elladan shook his head. "Nay. He will have foreseen this himself, if weariness has not driven it from his mind. Moreover, we have no right to deny Eowyn her choice. The oath is hers to keep or break as she chooses. Enough choices have been made for her already."
"If we err in this, we may come to lament our own choices," Elrohir warned. "For if aught should befall her—or if aught should befall Rohan in her absence—it will be on our heads."
"Then it will be on our heads," Elladan declared. "But I will not decide out of fear for the future. The days are moving too quickly for that. We can but look to our own path."
"As the elves have done so frequently of late."
Elladan frowned. "Would you rather we compel a vow that is not ours to condone or condemn? Would you rather we be oathkeepers, as were the sons of Fëanor?"
"I would rather this war were put behind us," Elrohir snapped. "I would rather be gone from this place. And I would rather you not compare our deeds to those of the kinslayers!"
Dropping his eyes, Elladan placed a hand on his brother's shoulder. "My apologies, Elrohir. I spoke out of anger."
Beneath his hand, Elladan felt his brother relax. "As did I," Elrohir murmured. "And I also am sorry. This mountain… These whispers…" He trailed off and shook his head.
"Put them from your mind," Elladan said firmly. "For now, we must be as both elves and men: we must look to our own, and we must forget the past. And if fortune is kind, then the future will look back on this moment and forget that we stood here debating Eowyn and the oathbreakers, just as the present forgets that we fought on the Field of Celebrant."
"If fortune is not kind, then none will look back at all," Elrohir answered, but there was resignation in his voice.
"Yet that, too, would be a kindness," Elladan said quietly, "for who would wish to endure such a fate?"
Elrohir shook his head wearily. "I have not the heart for this now. Come. If we must trust our fate to bold action, then I would seek what rest I can."
"Go," Elladan said. "I will follow."
He received a sharp look for that, but Elrohir said naught and turned away, setting out toward the booth that they would share. When his brother had passed from earshot, Elladan turned his eyes to the east where stars glittered faintly above a darkening land. But not even the stars could ward against the silent whispers that closed in around him, and he stiffened at their touch. Small wonder that others had been enticed to join the betrayers. Theirs was the work of despair, and Rohan had seen despair aplenty.
"Elbereth guide you, Eowyn, daughter of the Mark," he whispered, questioning the worth of his quiet plea in the face of such darkness. "The shades cast a wide net, and already I fear you lost to it. But mayhap you will find hope and oaths unbroken once the night has passed."
And having said these words, Elladan turned to follow his brother, keenly aware that his own path lay deep in the Dwimorberg's shadow.