Two weeks after Sigelm had brought his message, I had not yet said anything of my plans to Eowyn. Each day I told myself I must warn her that I was leaving, and each day I put it off until the morrow. I should not have been so timid. Asking leave to go was merely a courtesy, since I was a thegn's daughter and no bondservant, but I feared that Eowyn would unleash her temper on me if I spoke of leaving while she was preoccupied with many other cares. I excused myself by arguing that the household was too busy, and it was true that our preparations for the Queen's visit seemed simple compared with our work now. When Eomer returned from Mundburg with Theoden's body, both a king's funeral and a king's crowning would be held. Many great folk of Gondor were coming to do honour to the Mark; indeed, it was rumoured that the new Sea King himself would ride to Edoras.
On the day before the arrival of the Kings was expected, Eowyn surprised me with her own unforeseen news. She had asked if I had a moment for private speech in her chamber, and I agreed, thinking it the perfect chance to gather up my determination and tell her that I was leaving. Then Eowyn told me that she was betrothed to the new Steward of Gondor, Faramir son of Denethor, who would also arrive with her brother tomorrow. Suddenly what had puzzled me about Eowyn in recent days - her quiet thoughtfulness, her air of unspoken happiness - settled into place like the bit into a horse's mouth.
"Will you live in Mundburg?" I asked her.
"Near to it," she corrected me. "The King has granted my betrothed the land of Ithilien, across the river from Minas Tirith. But yes, I shall be leaving the Mark." Bright banners of colour flagged her cheeks, but her smile wavered for a moment. I remembered my manners belatedly and wished her joy.
"Thank you, Elfled. Eomer will announce our betrothal at the feast for Theoden, and until then I would rather that no-one else knew, but I wished to ask your help in preparing for the wedding. I will need a gown in the style of Gondor--"
"But I won't be here," I blurted, and then bit my lip -- I had forgotten all the careful words I had crafted to break my plans.
Eowyn stared at me. "Why not?"
"I meant to speak to you about this soon, Eowyn. I am going back to Fossdale, my uncle's steading in the Westfold. My cousin Hereward needs help to hold the land."
At another time I might have enjoyed the sight of Eowyn silenced with surprise. She opened and closed her mouth twice before asking, "When shall you leave?"
"As soon as I can," I told her. "I thought to depart not long after the funeral feast."
"How long shall you stay? Will you come back in the spring?"
"I do not think I shall ever return," I said slowly. "Without Halred and my father, Meduseld is no longer my home. I must make my own place in the world." I had not thought matters through to that conclusion before; but as soon as the words left my mouth, I recognized their truth. "I am not needed here any longer. Even if you are gone, Hilda can manage the King's household until Eomer marries."
"Are you certain?" Eowyn asked. "I thought that Fossdale was destroyed, and its people killed. Is there anything left to restore?"
"I know it will be hard work. I am not looking for ease, only a task I can usefully perform."
"You sound as I felt when I rode to war," she said, and touched my arm gently. "I know that you lost much, Elfled, and I grieve for Hama and Halred too -- but try to remember that much was saved too. You may yet find happiness again, as I did, when least expected."
I shook off her hand. "Do not lecture me, Eowyn!" How dared she speak so? I did not need her pity. "You ran away to seek death -- do not deny it -- but now that you wish to live, you have the arrogance to tell me I should comport myself with a smile. Well, do not fear. I shall remove myself to the Westfold, and you will never see my long face again." I did not stay to stare at Eowyn's shocked, angry face, but stalked out, shoving the heavy door closed behind me with a childish bang.
* * *
On the night of Theoden's feast, Eowyn and her betrothed sat at the high table. He was indeed noble of face and bearing; to see them together, dark and bright, was like something out of an old tale. I tried to suppress a twinge of envy. I had never before been jealous of Eowyn's beauty, but since her return she was fairer than ever. It was not only that she had resumed wearing soft blues and deep greens instead of stark white; she seemed to glow from within like an illuminated lantern. I supposed that was what happiness in love did.
I sat with the other unmarried maidens, who were merry and flirtatious at the sight of so many fine knights and captains. I was still silent and bitter. How greedy the lords of Mundburg were! It was not enough that the Mark had given so many bright lives, so many brave men and horses -- now they were taking our White Lady as well, to wither in a house of stone. I had not spoken to Eowyn in three days, since our awkward conversation had ended with my outburst. I resented her undeserved good fortune. She had deserted her post and been rewarded with glory instead of scorn for oathbreaking; she had left me behind, unconsidered, to do her work in her stead. But she was still the sister of our King, the lady of Meduseld until Eomer chose a Queen, and I did not wish her to be lost to the Mark forever.
The feast was impressive, for we had done our best, but I hardly tasted the rich meat and wine. At the end honey mead was poured and the whole company drank to Theoden and the kings gone before, to Eomer King, and to Eowyn's betrothal. There were a few murmurs of surprise at that news, but Lord Faramir was of noble blood and a proven warrior, and people seemed to wish them well. Then Eomer named his new captains and the Marshals of the Mark: Erkenbrand for the West, Elfhelm in the East. Elfhelm deserved the honour, and I was glad for him -- but I had had enough of toasts. I rose from my place with a murmured excuse, made for the kitchens, and escaped outside into the cool night.
Though torches had been lit in the stable courtyard, compared to the bright hall it seemed very dark without. I slipped past the wardens at the gate of Meduseld by Halred's secret path, remembering all the hours my brother and I had spent together scouting an unseen way around our father's post. The quick Snowbourn led me down into the quiet city.
At the first footbridge I stopped to sit down and breathe deep of the cool air. The poplar trees on the banks swayed in the wind, pale leaves pattering like a light steady rain on hard earth. Cat-tails in the stream rustled and as the wind picked up strength even the wooden bridge sounded underneath me with a slow, deep thrum. Buttons of grey moss grew on the planks. I picked them off and tossed them into the water, watching it carry them away between my dangling feet. I felt almost at peace.
"I thought that I might find you here." Elfhelm sat down beside me and added his own scrap of moss to the purling waters. "There was some confusion at the feast, something about requiring more mead…"
I snorted. "Hilda knows where to find it. She needs to judge the company's thirst better."
"Eowyn said at table tonight that you had commended the girl to her as your successor. So you are leaving Edoras? When?"
"Whenever King Elessar’s party sets out for Helm's Deep. Eomer bade me ride with them."
"You could have no better escort." Elfhelm sounded relieved.
I laughed. "What could there be to fear? The Mark is safe now, surely."
"The Dark Lord is gone, but not all of his creatures vanished along with him. We've hunted down a few stray orcs on the fields of the Eastemnet. A rider alone might not be safe yet." He hesitated. "Eowyn spoke as if you and she are less than friends now. Is that why you are leaving?"
I shook my head impatiently. "We were never friends. It's true I didn't care for being told my duty by one who abandoned hers, but I would have left in any case."
Elfhelm picked at another plaque of moss, his words coming even more slowly. "I am only trying to understand. I thought-- I thought that you would stay in Edoras."
I shrugged. "What reason do I have to stay? My father is gone, Halred is gone... even Moth is gone."
Elfhelm looked sharply at me. "You sold Moth?"
Shame at the thought of the care Elfhelm had taken to return my father's horse made my tongue sharp when I answered. "Moth was mine to do with as I pleased. She'd be of no use on a farm, she is too finely bred. She has gone to be a broodmare, where she'll have an easy life and no doubt throw many fine colts."
"It was a wise choice," he said placatingly. "Still, even if your family is gone, I do not understand why you are running away from Edoras-- "
"I am not running away! This was my home while my family lived; now they are all dead, and I have nothing to hold me here any longer. Why should I not leave?" I glared at Elfhelm. "You at least should understand. How many times did I hear you tell my father you missed the broad lands of the Entwash, and would go back if you had only yourself to think of? You are going home now, and I would never call you a coward for it." My voice cracked, and I stopped, panting with anger.
"I don't deny I am glad to be returning to the Eastmarch, but I am going because my King sent me. If he asked me to serve elsewhere, I would." He looked at me levelly. "Self-pity does not become you, Elfled."
Cold rage filled me. "If I were a shieldmaiden, Marshall Elfhelm, I would strike you for that. Do not lecture me like a child. I am weary of advice, and of being told not to despair."
"I am not lecturing you like a child; I am telling you the truth. You can leave Edoras, but you cannot leave your sorrow behind."
"At least I can escape being reminded of it every minute that passes." Angry tears caught in my throat and I did not trust my voice any longer. I struggled to my feet and ran back up the path to Meduseld.
* * *
Two days later, King Elessar and his party made ready to set out for Helm's Deep. The crowd of horses and riders that filled the court of Meduseld was bright and varied; knights of Gondor and Riders of the Mark, Elves, the four holbytla, and a single Dwarf. I waited in the Great Hall until the last possible minute. I did not want to ride with so many great folk, but Eomer had intended it as an honour, and it would be churlish to refuse and take another Rider who could ill be spared for my own personal escort.
It was quiet and dim inside the hall; the hearth was bare, for it was the warmest height of summer when all things ripen to harvest. I lingered in front of my mother's tapestry of Eorl, trying to fix it more strongly in my memory, though my eyes and fingers already knew every thread of it. The voices of the group outside -- laughing, singing, calling out to each other -- rang off the pillars. I had no more farewells to make. Last night I had said my brief goodbyes to the women of the household. Hilda had even wept, though I doubted her tears were sincere.
I reached out and stroked Felarof's slubbed tail one last time before I left.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.