by Soledad Cartwright

Disclaimer and rating as in the Prelude

Author's notes:
This chapter deals mostly with Éowyn's journey with the people of Edoras to Dunharrow. Therefore, the description of that grim place was taken from 'The Return of the King', with slight modifications and interwoven with Éowyn's inner thoughts.

There also are mentioned the shieldmaidens of the East and their fate. Now, since I have no idea which traditions Tolkien was following when he made a shieldmaiden out of Éowyn, what you can see here is practically *my* understanding of the whole institution. I've created it for my original stories, so let's assume that it works for the Easterlingas as well - whereby it's not said that it would be the same thing for the shieldmaidens of Rohan!!

To Imogen see the note before the Prelude.

I was told repeatedly that people hated Éowyn because she thinks like a man. I happen to disagree with this opinion, though it would not be surprising if she did. It's said that she was bred among men of war, all the women of her family dying when she was but a small child. Still, I believe that she thinks as one of the Rohirrim - regardless if male or female -, who love to fight and place personal and family honour above all else.

So much said to her defense, and now on with the story!


When we finally reached our goal, the Dunharrow, I was bone-weary. Not from the riding itself - could I have ridden away swiftly, on my own speed, I would have come to Dunharrow at the following sunset. Yet I had to take care for the people of Edoras: women and children mostly, for only those of the men stayed behind who were no longer able to wield a sword... and the wounded. So we went by slow paths in the hills; and it was a weary road for the people to take, torn suddenly from their homes - hard, and above all else, long.

Every one was very tired, for though we have ridden slowly, we had ridden with only very little rest, too. Hour after hour for nearly three weary days we had jogged up and down, over passes and through long dales, and across many streams; and the urgency in my heart to ride on and leave the slow behind grew with every passing hour.

I knew that feeling all too well: it was the battle-heat of the shieldmaidens that consumes from within if it cannot be given free release and its thirst quenched in the blood of the enemy. Few of us had inherited this horrible thirst from the early, barbaric days of our people, and it only awakes in times of great peril, as a gift to be able to defend the ones who are entrusted our care... yet its fire burns us slowly to death if naught else is given it to burn.

But I could not ride out to battle. I had people to care for and a fortress to defend, should the need arise. And though I did not wish our people more peril to come, secretly I hoped for it, to relieve the wrath inside me ere it tore me apart.1

The third day was waning. In the last rays of the sun we cast long pointed shadows that went on before us. Darkness had already crept beneath the murmuring fir-woods that clothed the steep mountain-sides. We rode now slowly at the end of the day, for the old and the little children were exhausted and the carts could barely hold even that limited speed.

Presently, the path turned round a huge bare shoulder of rock and plunged into the gloom of soft-sighing trees. Down, down we went in a long winding file, and once again I felt my chest tighten and remembered how much I hated to be here, captured between these narrow dales. I felt like a trapped animal again, as if the mountain sides were closing up on me, and I wondered briefly how I could have lived between the stone walls of Mundburg, had Boromir lived to fulfill his oath.

He loved his city, spoke about it as if it were rather a lover than a thing to defend - he would never live anywhere else. Well, fate solved that quarrel ere it could have arised - but of what a high price! Gondor has lost his Captain-general, the Lord Steward has lost his Heir, and I - I had lost the last man who could have become a friend and an ally in my struggles.

And though we only met once, and naught but respect were between us, I missed him terribly. For, driven as he was himself, he only could understand the urge in me, the longing for great deeds, the need to have a purpose - a true one, not just a loan like this which only was given to me because the men felt it beyond their dignity to stay home and rule those who cannot fight.

None of them wasted a single thought about *my* dignity. I am a shieldmaiden, chosen and taught to fight as any man (or better), yet my King would not take me to battle with him. Without Háma, the ever-faithful, he would not even remember that I am, indeed, the last of Éorl's House. Boromir promised me that we would ride to battle together. Now he is dead, and I am forced to stay away from the fight.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When at last we came to the bottom of the gorge, we found that evening had fallen in the deep places. The sun was gone. Twilight lay upon the waterfalls. A shadowy prison it was, though a beautiful one. I already felt restless, as always, when forced to come here.

All day far below us a leaping stream had run down from the high pass behind, cleaving its narrow way between pine-clad walls; and now through a stony gate it flowed out and passed into a wider vale. We followed it, and suddenly Harrowdale lay before us, loud with the noise of waters in the evening.

There the white Snowbourn, joined by the lesser streams, went rushing and fuming on the stones, down to Edoras and the green hills and the plains. Away to the right at the head of the great dale the mighty Starkhorn loomed up above its was buttresses swathed in cloud; but its jagged peak, clothed in everlasting snow, gleamed far above the world, blue-shadowed upon the East, red-stained by the sunset in the West.

A skyless world it was, in which the eye, through dim gulfs of shadowy air saw only ever-mounting slopes, great walls of stone behind great walls, and frowning precipices wreathed with mist - not a place for living Men to dwell upon, unless they are from the Kin of the Dúnlendings, who were born from those very stone like Dwarves and had been here already before us, yes, ere even the people of Westernesse built Mundburg upon the Great River.

For a moment I sat motionless in the saddle of Windfola, my cheerished steed, who should have been far away in the battle at the Fords, instead climbing mountain paths like a dwarf pony, listening to the noise of water, the whisper of dark trees, the crack of stone - and the vast, waiting silence that brooded behind all sounds. I never loved mountains, and every time I was forced to come her, I was borne down by their insupportable weight. For these mountains hated us, who had taken the land of their people of old - and I could feel their hatred. I almost could touch it with my hands.

Five hundred summers seem like eternity for a folk as young as ours; yet for the mountains, it is but a fleeting moment, like the wink of an eye. They remember - and they love and hate like all living things do. For these mountains are very much alive, even if most people cannot feel their slow heartbeat below their rocky skin. The Dúnlendings and they ancestors are the ones who always belonged here and always will - we are naught but intruders. A nuisance.

Someone - one of the younger women, who escorted the carts on horseback and carried spears and swords to defend their families - rode up next to me, and I shook off my bad feelings for a moment.

''Harrowdale, at least!'', I said. ''Our journey is almost at an end. Let us not tarry here, for the people are weary. They need a roof above their heads, even if 'tis but a tent, so that they can rest at least.''

The woman - Enyd was her name, I remembered, for she belonged to the court and we met in Meduseld rather often - nodded and rode away, to guide the people downwards. I waited for a moment, collecting my strength to face this place once again, then began to descend, slowly, carefully, for through Windfola had steady feet, they were not used to such paths.

The paths out of the narrow gorge fell steeply. Only a glimpse, as through a tall window, could be seen of the great valley in the glooming below. A single small light could be seen twinkling by the river - a watchfire, mayhap, or a torch. Everything else was dark and gloomy, and so became my heart the nearer we came.
By Éorl's name, how I loathed this place!

In the deepening dusk I finally came down into the valley, followed by the long line of the people of Edoras. Here the Snowbourn flowed near to the western walls of the dale, and soon the path led us to a ford where the shallow water murmured loudly on the stones.

The ford was guarded. As we approached, many men sprang up out f the shadow of the rock; and they all knew me and cried with glad voices:
''Éowyn! The Lady Steelsheen2 of Éorl's House has arrived!''

Then one of them blew a long call on a horn. It echoed in the valley. Other horns answered it, and lights shone out across the river. And Dúnhere, chieftain of the folk of Harrowdale, rode to the ford to meet us, and while the people of Edores began to cross the waters, we spoke briefly.

Now, most people, even the Gondorrim, who should know better, like to believe that all Éorlingas are tall, gold-haired and blue-eyed. Certainly most of us are, but not all, for we had mingled with other races of Men, and many of us bear their marks on our faces.

Dúnhere was one of those, his mother being from the folk of the Dúnlendings: a war orphant, found alone and starving in one of the hiding places of their warriors, and brought up among our people. Therefore Dúnhere was shorter than most of our Men, with a broad and heavy body, a square face and wavy, reddish-brown hair. Many of his folk in Harrowdale bore similar traits, and he was even respected by the Dúnlendings, for his ancestry and his great skills both as a warrior and as a born ruler.

I was glad to see him alive and well, for it meant that no evil had found its way to the Harrowdale yet - but even more was I glad to see the tall, grey-eyed, auburn-haired woman riding on his side, in her shining mail shirt; though I saw that her shield-arm was resting in a sling. Probably broken, for her eyes were fewerish with pain. Still, I was glad to see her, for I knew that she was there in the battle at the Fords of Isen, and I feared that she might be among the many who were slain alongside Théodred.

''Imogen!'', I cried out in relief. ''How glad my eyes are to see you! How is Elfhelm faring?''

''Still at the Fords'', she answered in her deep, somewhat rough voice. ''The battle is not yet over, and we cannot foresee how it ends. Yet I have heard that Théoden King rode out with the last host of Rohan. Is that true? Is he freed from Wormtongue's spell for good?''

'''Tis true and he has been healed'', I answered, 'and I would be glad to tell you all about it - both of you -, as much as I wish to hear tidings of the battle and of Théodred's death. But let us get our people to the safety of Dunharrow first.''

They agreed, and Dúnhere and a few of his men helped us to gather the weary people and lead them on. The road now led eastward, straight across the walley, which was at that point little more than half a mile in width. Flats and meads of rough grass, grey now in the falling night, lay all about, but in front of the far side of the valley a frowning wall could be seen: a last outlier of the greet roots of the Starkhorn, cloven by the river in ages past.

Finally, we came up under the looming cliff on the eastern side of the valley; and there suddenly the path began to climb, and I started shivering, for I knew that we reached the place I dreaded most, ever since I set foot into the Harrowdale as a child.

We were on the ancient road, a great work of Men's hands in years beyond even the reach of song. Upwards it wound, coiling like a snake, boring its way across the sheer slope of rock. Steep as a stair, it looped backwards and forwards as it climbed. Up it horses could walk; and wains could be slowly hauled; but no enemy could come this way, except out of the air, if it was defended from above.

Which was the very reason why we brought our people here.

At each turn of the road there were great standing stones that had been carved in the likeness of Men, huge and clumsy-limbed, squatting cross-legged, with their stumpy arms folded on fat bellies. Some in the wearing of the years had lost all features, save the dark holes of their eyes, that still stared sadly at the passers-by.

I still can remember the first time I came here, after the death of my parents, sitting before Théodred on his great horse, safe in his strong arms. Barely seven summers had I seen back then, and the sifght of those still stones filled me withg a dread that had not lessened ever since. I know not why they still cause me such fear, for no power is left in them, or so 'tis said, and the Riders of the Mark heed them little and call them old Púkel-men and laugh about them. And yet, every time I have to take this road, I shake with fear and disgust, and they haunt my dreams for days, even after I have left.

Imogen, who rode alongside me, was not the least frightened, of course. Her own people descended from the Men who made this ancient road, after all, so she came into her own here, much more than I did - and, living in the shadow of Dol Guldur, takes one the fear of dead things.

I watched her fair but hard face, that spoke of much suffering, in spite of her youth and beauty, and I could not help but admire her, more than any other woman I had ever met and fought with - more than even Aud of the deep eyes, Théodred's fair and valiant wife, who followed him to death by sheer willpower only.3

I loved and admired Aud, brave daughter of Erkenbrand, who was like a mother to me during the lonely years of my youth, spent among men of war. Yet with Imogen, I felt the strong bond of sisterhood I had never felt before - a bond that goes further even than the oath of shieldmaidens that binds us all together.

Whenever I see Imogen Ragnarsdóttir, the valiant, strong-willed wife of Elfhelm, I feel deeply ashamed for my never-ending inner wailing about my own fate. For trying my recent years in Edoras might have been, naught were my trials compared with the harsh life of this brave woman. And still, there *is* some likeness between the fates of the both of us.

Imogen comes from the East, where her father, Ragnar the Smith, is Master of the Deep Furnaces Under the Mountain - first of the chieftains of the Easterlingas of Rhún, but no King - not yet, at least. So he has to bind his fellow chieftains to his throne by any means necessary - including letting them bed his daughters.

Life is harsh for the women of the East. They wed at a very tender age, almost as children, and their husbands keep many other women aside their wives: concubines, who could not find a husband, for the men fell in great numbers in war against the Orcs, against the other tribes and against the kingdoms of Elves and Men they try to plunder every time the need grows too great.

Yet they have to breed, for the tribes need children, many children, in order to survive under the shadow of Mordor, whose overlord they serve with clenched teeth and under heavy curses. What else could they do, when they master who dwells in Dol Guldur, has such a great power over their hearts and over their meager lands that could barely feed them?

The Easterlingas dwell in deep caves under the mountains of Rhovanion and under the western outlines of the Ash Mountains, for that is the only way to be safe from the Orcs and other foul creatures of Mordor - or, at least, as safe as it ever can be. The men often leave their dwellings, to go into battle under the command of Dol Guldur's captain, a dwimmerlaik they call Khamúl4, but the women (and their daughters) never leave the poor safety of the caves, never feel the kiss of sunlight on their faces, and fade away from the dreaded dry fever and die at a young age. 'Tis a wonder, and shows their great strength and resilience more than aught, that they still can bear children at all.

And if their husband is killed in battle - moreso when he was a chieftain or some other dignitary - the women, wives and concubines and daughters alike -, are slain and laid to grave with him and his belongings, to serve him even beyond his death. Only the male children are sent to their next kin to grow up with their cousins5.

The only way for a woman to escape this fate is to become a shieldmaiden. Shieldmaidens of the East are and ancient and secret bound, very different from us of the North. Their lives are led by strict rules and if one tresspasses (or becomes ill), the others kill her, slowly and painfully, to set an example for further generations. They are not allowed to wed or to bear children, for their only duty and purpose is to fight.

And to bed whom their fathers or chieftains tell them to bed, in order to strengthen their family's or tribe's position.

Yet sometimes the bonds of a shieldmaiden are cut, without her being asked about it, when the need arises to wed her to an important ally - or to an enemy who has a claim for heavy weregild against their father.

Which is the very thing that happened to Imogen.

For Elfhelm had been sent as Théoden King's messenger to Ragnar the Smith, some four years ago, ere Dol Guldur forced the Easterlingas to fall over the Mark once again. Yet the men of Ingolf Ragnarsson6, the hot-headed young warrior captain of Rhovanion, captured him on his way there, and brought him in shackles to Nimwarkinh, where Ragnar, self-proclaimed Prince of Rhún dwells in his deep halls under the mountains, and had him thrown into the Black Cavern - the deepest dungeon beneath his father's halls, filled with murky water and foul creatures.

Such a breach of custom and hospitality is unheard of among Easterlingas, and Elfhelm would have had the right to demand Ingolf's head on a plate as weregild. Yet Ragnar the Smith could not have his Heir killed (for his other sons, though he had made his very guard out of them, were born to his concubines, not to any of his deceised wives, so they could not follow him on the throne), so according to their customs, he offered his only remaining daughter instead.

Elfhelm could not refuse, for it would have caused the fall of Ragnar and his whole family - failing to pay the proper weregild could do that to a chieftain, and Ragnar had no treasures left to pay his debt otherwise. Yet during that fateful night Elfhelm learnt that Imogen was very ill, having caught the dry fewer (or Fade, as they call it in Rhún), that slow but deadly sickness that kills most women of the East. Her only chance to live was to be freed from the caves and brought somewhere where she could live in sunlight and free breeze.

And Elfhelm took a liking on her and asked Ragnar the Smith to give her to him as his wife, in order to strengthen the peace between the Mark and the East. And so Imogen was cut from her bond with the shieldmaidens and came to the East-mark with Elfhelm, where she was healed, thank to the healers who came from Gondor to Elfhelm's request. But she kept wielding her sword, unless the Men of the Mark rode out to fight her own people.

She had been the only woman fighting to keep the Fords of Isen, for Théodred asked Aud to remain in Edoras and help keeping the King's halls safe; but Elfhelm could never refuse Imogen when she wanted to go into battle with him; and though I often wished that I, too, could ride out with them, I was glad that at least she was there and could tell me how my beloved cousin was slain.

But now was not the time for tales of that battle yet. First we had to bring the people of Edoras to safety, set up camp and have them rest and eat. Then, after every one has been settled, we could talk.

Then, we could grieve.

We already climbed some hundreds of feet above the valley, but still far from below we could dimly see the winding line of our people, crossing the ford with the help of the guards back there and filing along the read towards the camp Dúnhere's folk had prepared for them. Many from the Harrowdale were waiting to help them get settled and to offer food after our tiresome journey.

I was deeply touched from this hospitality.
''You are more than gracious, Lord Dúnhere, you and all your people'', I said to the chieftain, seeing the kindness the folk of Harrowdale offered our refugees. ''We all are in your debt.''

He smiled at me, as he used to do when I was but a child and came visiting him and his family with the King, and his eyes were soft.

''At times of peril we must hold together. Little does it matter where we dwell in peace - or what blood in our veins flows. We are Éorlingas, of birth or of choice, and the only thing that matters is to keep our people safe. Or would you have come to the dale of horrors if your duty had not demanded from you to come?''

I glared at him in utter shock, and he laughed: a deep, rich laughter, very much like the King's in his youth - or my father's whom I barely remembered.

''Do you believe I had not seen how much you loathe to come here? The mere sight of the Dwimorberg makes you sick. I remember, when you were a child, you avoided even to look at it and híd in Théodred's tent.''

''You did that?'' Imogen asked in disbelief. ''Why? Nothing that dwells there has any power left.''

''Oh, but that is where you are wrong, Imogen Ragnarsdóttir'', Dúnhere answered gravely. ''This is but your second visit here, and you know not the horrid tale behind these mountains. Look there!''

He held on his great steed, for we came to a sharp brink, and the climbing road passed into a cutting between walls of rock, and so went up a short slope and out on to a wide upland.

''This is the Fírienfeld, as we call it'', Dúnhere said to Imogen, pointing at the green mountain-field of grass and heath, high above the deep-delved courses of the Snowbourn, laid upon the lap of the great mountains behind: the Starkhorn southwards, and northwards the saw-toothed mass of the Irensaga. ''And the grim black wall, rising out of steeep slopes of sombre pines is the Dwimorberg, the Haunted Mountain. Later, when we have the time, I shall tell you its tale.''

With all my willpower I forced myself to look where he pointed - where, dividing the upland into two, there marched a double line of unshaped standing stones, that dwindled into the dusk and vanished in the trees. Those who dared to follow that road - and there had been only very few of them ever since our people left the North and came to the Mark - came soon to the black Dimholt under Dwimorberg, and the menace of the pillar of stone, and the yawing shadow of the Forbidden Door.

Once, when I was not even born yet, in the foolishness of his youth Théodred took the risk upon himself and went as far as the Dark Door. Yet when he saw it gaping before him like the mouth of night, fear flowing from it like grey vapor, he came to his senses and fled backwards.

Never saw I my valiant cousin shiver with fear, save the rare occasions when he spoke about that day. Even six and twenty years later, he would shake with the sheer horror of those memories. Does it truly make me a coward, to be afraid of such a thing that made even Théodred the Brave shake?

''Such is the dark Dunharrow, the work of long forgotten Men'', Dúnhere added. ''Their name is lost and no song or legend remembers it, save a few tall tales of the North I have heard from the Rangers who come here at times.''

''For what purpose had they made this place?'' Imogen asked. ''Was it a town or a secret temple, or a tomb of kings maybe?''

''No-one could say after such long a time'', Dúnhere shrugged. ''Here they laboured in the Dark Years, before ever a ship came to the western shores or Mundburg was built; and now they had vanished, and only the old Púkel-men are left, still sitting at the turnings of the road.''

I stared at the lines of marching stones: they were worn and black; some were leaning, some were fallen, some cracked or broken; they looked like rows of old and hungry teeth. Naught could have forced me to follow them into the darkness beyond, and more than ever I admired the bravery of Théodred, who went as far as the Forbidden Door, wishing to return the bones of Baldor, son of Brego7, to lay him to rest among his forefathers. And though he failed at last, this was a valiant deed, one born of respect for his sires, and all admired him for it greatly.

''There still are legends about these Men among the Rangers of the North?'' Imogen asked in surprise. ''Not even *my* people do remember them any more, and we are said to be their descendants.''

''Just tall tales, naught else'', Dúnhere said, ''but I shall gladly tell you them, lady, if you wish - tomorrow. Tonight, you should rest, at first. My people will watch your sleep, so be in peace.''

And so we went to our lodgings and lay to rest. Yet my dreams were haunted, as always when I had to stay in Dunharrow: with grey shapes of the Restless Dead who dwell unter the Haunted Mountain; and with the darkness of a great, winged shadow, approaching swiftly from the South, and faintly and from far away I heard a shriek that froze the blood in my veins, even in my sleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

End notes:
Imogen's people are the descendants of the once-feared Wainriders of Rhovanion and dwell under the mountains at Lake Rhún. Ragnar the Smith is considered the Prince of Rhún among his own people, but his grip over the lesser chieftains is not tight enough to break free from Dol Guldur and turn around Sauron.

1 This berserker-fury is said to have appered among Viking warriors. Since the Rohirrim bear a great likeness to these northern people already, I decided to give the shieldmaidens of the North - and some of the the Rohirrim in general - this 'gift', too, in order to make their love for battle more understandable. Remember Éomer laughing and singing on Pelennor when it seemed sure that they have lost the battle and will all die.
2 Steelsheen was a name given by the Rohirrim to Éowyn's grandmother, Morwen of Lossornach, whom she was - according to the Appendix of LOTR - very much alike. So I simply presumed that she, too, was called so by the Men of the Mark, especially because she was a shieldmaiden.
3 An event described in ''Ice Blossom''.
4 One of the Nazgúls, who commanded Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood after Sauron's return to Mordor.
5 This custom of the Easterlingas is based on the Hallstatt-culture of the Iron Age, from which tombs of this fashion has been found.
6 Borrowed, together with his father, Ragnar the Smith, from my original stories.
7 Eldest son of the second King of the Mark. In 2569, after the Great Hall fo Meduseld was built, Baldor woved that he would treat the ''Paths of the Dead'', and did not return. Brego died of grief the next year.