Fortunate for Éowyn that I had arrived the night before the muster left - what would she have done if I'd not been there? Slunk away without any word at all? I smiled bitterly to myself every time I thought of that note. "All is in readiness" - well, Éowyn was a shieldmaiden and thought as a soldier did. It is true that the tents were well-placed and that no fault could be found with the horse lines, but there were no proper provisions for a field kitchen, and no order to the stores. It took days to sort out just how much food we had and set some kind of rough rationing in order. Then we had to decide what to do with the stock. The Firienfeld offered little pasturage for sheep, let alone horses or cattle, and herders nearly came to blows over the tiny patches of meadow on the mountainside. Eventually I persuaded the people that while we stayed in Harrowdale all of the herds should be grazed in common, but not until many hours had been spent debating it.
Freja insisted that I make use of Éowyn's wardrobe. I balked at the idea, but had to admit that it was a sensible one, for other than the tattered gown on my back, all the clothes I possessed were either laid away in a cedar chest in Meduseld or adorning some Dunlendish raider's woman. Éowyn was far taller than I, of course, but once we tacked the hems up quickly, her gowns served well enough for me. I felt like one of the mummers that had sometimes travelled to Edoras from the south, dressed in another's clothes and performing her role as best as I could. It all seemed worse than ridiculous.
Day after day, the sun was only a dull bronze coin behind the haze in the eastern sky. Even when the unnatural darkness broke four days after the muster left our hearts were not lightened. The only saving grace of that long time was that I had no chance to wonder what was happening to Halred and Éowyn and all of the other Riders of the Mark.
* * *
One of the boys posted as watchers by Alnwulf, the aged Rider who had perforce become our captain, blew his signal horn. The whole encampment froze to listen, but the horn rang only once for warning, not twice for present danger. By the time the lad had scrambled down from his perch atop the cliff overlooking the vale, Alnwulf and I were waiting for him at the bottom. "A horse!" he gasped, "a horse coming up from Underharrow."
"You're sure it's but a single rider?" Alnwulf's voice was clipped and anxious. But the boy swore that only one horse was approaching, and so the old man decided that it was safe enough to wait and see what might happen, instead of forming at once behind what feeble defense we could mount. By the time the rider finished climbing the steep switchback path up to the Firienfeld, every one of the refugees from Edoras had gathered at the top awaiting his arrival.
It was Oslaf, a Rider from Edoras whom I knew well from days of peace. He was wounded on his sword arm, and he bore news of war. All listened as he told of how the muster had skirted the Road by secret paths to attack the enemy before the walls of Mundburg; how Théoden had fallen, but been avenged by Éowyn in her guise of Dernhelm; and of other deeds of great valour on the Pelennor Field before the city had been saved by an unforeseen army arriving on captured ships of the Corsairs.
Oslaf's tale gave us all a brief sense of hope, and there were even a few scattered cheers; but grim silence fell again as he said that Éomer had ridden with the Lords of Gondor to bring the war to the gate of the Enemy himself. "They departed Mundburg the same day that I did, but their road is longer, and an army cannot travel as swiftly as a single messenger. They will not reach the Black Land for three or four more days." And even the fastest messenger could not ride from there to here in less than a week, I calculated. If the West were defeated, the first we would know of it was when hordes of Orcs swept over the Mark.
People pressed close after Oslaf was done, calling out names, begging him to tell them the fate of their brothers, sons, husbands, and fathers. Those that he knew he spoke of, though there were many more of whom he had no news. He told me that Halred still lived and had not ridden to Mordor, but gone north with many Riders under Elfhelm, for a great army still blocked the road from Mundburg. To avoid it, Oslaf had come by the secret mountain ways the Wild Men had shown the Riders. Another messenger, he said, would follow in a few days, after the battle for the Road. Though his wound would have excused it, he would not stay in Harrowdale, but only rested his horse for the afternoon before turning back.
* * *
In the days following Oslaf's departure, the whole camp seemed to be balanced on a knife-edge of tension. Unreasonable quarrels broke out afresh every hour. I could not settle to any useful work, but wandered about checking the picket lines, the rough fences of cut thorn, and other things I had checked a thousand times before. There was not even a breeze to stir the pines, unheard of in Dunharrow; the very mountains seemed to be holding their breath.
When the eagle came, I was trying with very little success to sort out the facts of some housekeeping dispute, surrounded by women screaming like warhorses. Their shrieks of outrage over the supposed theft of barley meal became impossibly loud and raucous, until I clapped my hands over my ears, looked up - and realized that I was hearing the cries of a great eagle arrowing down upon us from the peak of the Starkhorn. "Sing, ye people of Rohan!" Its harsh voice rang out like the clash of spear on shield. "The Dark Tower has fallen, and Sauron is defeated! The King of Gondor and the Lords of the West are victorious!" The eagle spiraled above us, crying out its message once more, then spread its wings and flung itself northwards over the Irensaga.
Shrill cheers went up all over the Firienfeld, as the women and children shouted. "Hail Éomer King! Hail Lords of Mundburg!" No one seemed to doubt the truth of the message, even though the people of the Mark are not accustomed to eagles bearing tidings. Pipes and drums were brought out, and a song of victory from the days of Fréalaf echoed off the Dwimorberg. Seeing that all were determined to celebrate, I had one of the last casks of strong ale broached. The merrymaking continued all afternoon and into the evening. That night, bonfires were lit and music played until the early hours before dawn. It was hard to say which was more intoxicating, the ale, the dancing, or the feeling of release. I stood in the shadows just outside the ring of firelight, sipping from a mug of ale and smiling determinedly as one after another came up to clasp my arm and exclaim over our incredible good fortune.
As the fires burned low and the cask ran dry, a few couples slipped into the privacy of the pinewoods. Let them clutch at one night of happiness, I thought; soon enough we would discover how much this victory beyond hope had cost the Mark.
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.