16. In the Gloaming
In the deepening twilight, a silhouetted figure sat hunched over next to the fire, hands moving in jabbing thrusts. “Ai! Dung and dragons!” The epithet was mumbled, but still audible to another woman approaching the fire, her cloak wrapped tightly around her. “Why must these loops keep sliding off?”
“So, Fréalas, I see that you are still endeavouring to master those needles!” Geornwyn clucked her tongue, her bemused face illuminated in the flickering light.
“Yes,” Fréalas replied, exasperated. “And I had thought that learning to shoot an arrow was difficult. Learning to knit may well ruin me!”
Geornwyn laughed aloud. “Then my timing to have you take over the watch is quite fortuitous! We cannot afford to lose one of our nightwatchmen.” Fréalas placed her wool and bone needles on the ground, then winced as she gingerly stood up.
“This cold does nothing for my joints,” she said, leaning down to pick up her project.
“For one in the prime of her youth, you sound like an elder like me!” Geornwyn exclaimed. “This experience will keep you from getting soft.”
“Soft?” Fréalas shook her head, but she was smiling. “No, I do not think so. None of us are overflowing in comforts, though I for one would certainly not mind being back inside my house sleeping on my bed. Ah well.” She began to walk toward her tent. “Tis good to be alive, even if the amenities are lacking and there is still no news from anywhere.”
“It could be said that no news is good news,” Geornwyn retorted, leaning in to warm her hands over the merrily crackling fire.
Fréalas stopped and shook her head. “Would that were the truth, but I think now I would rather have any news, whether good or ill. Despite the practice, my skill at waiting is not improving as the days go on.”
Geornwyn waved her along. “Go get that dog of yours and take your post. You can complain to the stars overhead, if you wish, they will be happy to listen.”
Fréalas made a vague grunting sound of dissent, then resumed her way to her lodging. Aided by the light of a torch outside of the tent, she placed her knitting in a corner on top of a blanket, put on her heavy cloak, and kneeled down to rub Gold Eyes' head. “Time to wake up, sleepy bones!” At the word ‘bones,’ he picked up his head from the floor, and Fréalas smiled. “Yes, hopefully someday soon I will be able to treat you as well as you had become accustomed before this retreat.” Vigorously rubbing his floppy ears, she said, “But for now, it is time for sentry duty. Come on!” The dark brown dog got up from the floor, then shook himself from front to back as his owner retrieved her bow and quiver with several arrows. The two figures left the tent and walked down the path toward the end of the camp near where the path up to Dunharrow reached the edge of the Firienfeld.
Fréalas' watch had nearly come to yet another uneventful end. In the recent undisturbed nights while she had been watching from the tall plain, she had found herself remembering many songs from her childhood, and one in particular kept coming to the forefront of her mind, much to her dismay.
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.
One for my master, one for my dame,
One for the little boy who lives down the lane...
…and on it went as she paced.
Yes sir, yes sir...
Just then she saw small lights far off in the distance. Suddenly very attentive, she tried to focus on the moving specks and, after a few moments, she could see that they were headed toward the Starkhorn. There didn’t appear to be many of them, but they could be decoys with hundreds of men behind them. Fréalas rushed back to the camp, telling the others on night watch to put out all torches and fires until she could tell how many people there were and whether they were friend, or more likely, foe. Soon it was inky black on the high plain, making the forest of the Dimholt seem all the more menacing. Staentwylas and Swiðhild joined Fréalas in watching the small lights continue their approach to the mountain, then begin the long ascent on the ancient switchbacking trail that would lead them to their camp. “They must surely be one of the Rohirrim if they knew how to find this road!” Staentwylas whispered, even though the approaching visitors were still well beyond earshot.
“Or they saw our fires from across the far plains.” Swiðhild had been opposed to any fires after dark, and now his suggestion seemed to be a good one, though heeded too late.
“There cannot be that many of them,” Fréalas said under her breath, “unless they can see in the dark. There are only three torches.”
The three guarding the exiles of Edoras stood and waited as the people carrying the lights continued up the road. Soon they could hear the sound of a horse’s feet clopping on the stony path, as well as wooden wheels turning.
Fréalas looked at her companions, their spears aimed at the path’s end in front of them. “Staentwylas must be correct as I do not believe that Orcs travel with wagons.”
Then the cry of an infant carried up the path, and Fréalas loosened her grip on her bow as a woman’s voice said, “Ssshhh, ly´tling. We are almost there.”
Moments later Fréalas, Swi
Fréalas stared back. She did look familiar, but in the flickering torchlight she could not place who this woman with the haggard face was.
“It is Meagolwyn. I have travelled from the Southern Folde after escaping from those evil men who burned our village to the ground. The children and I hid in the woods for several days, but no one ever returned, so I decided to scavenge what I could and come to Edoras.”
“Meagolwyn! But that is many leagues from here.” Fréalas dropped her bow and quiver and rushed to her childhood friend, embracing Meagolwyn’s gaunt frame and crying infant. “You have come all this way with your children?”
Meagolwyn nodded, rubbing her forehead on Fréalas’ shoulder. “I had thought that someone would return, but they did not, and I felt more and more threatened there by myself. It seemed safer to travel by night to Edoras, but when I saw that it too was abandoned, I almost lost hope. Then I saw your lights and I wished with all I had that some of our people were here.”
“There is much to tell you,” Staentwylas spoke softly. “First let us get you some mulled wine and dried meat. I am sure that you have not eaten well during your journey.”
Meagolwyn nodded, patting the head of one of her children who was clinging to her skirt. “Staentwylas, you too are here!”
Fréalas stepped back to retrieve her weapon. “Many of Edoras are here now, but the story of how this has come to pass should be done in front of a fire.” After receiving a sharp look from Swiðhild, she asked, “You were not followed?”
The woman shook her head. “We have seen no-one in many days now. I was beginning to think that all had been slain, though I did not see any barrows.”
Swiðhild took the horse’s reins and led the small group down the main path. Meagolwyn began asking questions which were answered swiftly until she said, “You have not mentioned the Lady Éowyn. May I speak with her?”
Fréalas paused for a moment before answering resignedly, “She is not here.”
"You called for me, sir?"
Merry stood in the doorway to Faramir's chamber, looking rather ill at ease.
Faramir smiled warmly, and motioned for the hobbit to come in. "Please enter, Master Meriadoc of the Pheriannath! I have heard of your feats of outstanding bravery, and you are to be highly commended."
At this, Merry's ears turned a bright shade of red, and he muttered something, "Just doing what needed to get done, couldn't leave Pip out near Mordor like that..."
“Meriadoc, would you care for some food and wine?”
The hobbit politely bowed his head. “Yes, Steward Faramir. But please- you can call me Merry. I can’t get used to all of these formalities, pardon my saying so.”
The kind-faced Steward nodded with understanding, then moved to the table where some bread and wine and dried fish had been laid, and prepared a small platter for his guest.
“Your people, lord,” Merry continued, “are of noble face indeed, and speak with authority.” He gratefully accepted the plate, then with a piece of bread halfway to his mouth said, “Have I done something to offend them? Or you? The healers have been nothing but splendid and caring…”
Faramir shook his head, mirth in his eyes. “No, no, dear Merry. I asked you here because I have just met Éowyn of Rohan, with whom I have been told you spent every day during your travels from Edoras to these lands. She is a lady of few words, one trait among many that makes her stand out to my eye more than any other woman I have met. If it would not infringe on your time, I would like to know more about this woman who bears such beauty, and yet is gripped by such sorrow.”
Merry chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed. “Lord Faramir,” he began, “I would be more than pleased to tell you all I know about Éowyn, but sir,” a troubled look crossed his face. “To me she is still Dernhelm. Through those long days and nights, I did think I was with a man of the Mark, just one who was younger than most. And she wasn’t one much for chatting, though I did get lonely during our long rides and would try to foster a conversation with her.”
Faramir nodded, then indicated for the hobbit to continue.
“Well sir, he, I mean, she - she seemed to have given up hope, if you know what I mean. Not in a desperate way, but when I first saw her, him, I didn’t know it was her obviously, but I saw her eyes and they were so clear, but they seemed to be looking through me, to his own end. Her, I mean.” Merry looked over at the table. “Do you mind if I have some of that wine, sir?”
“Of course not!” Faramir poured Merry a glass and brought it to him. “Would you care to walk around the garden as we talk? I find the view of growing things to be soothing in such dark times, and that way you can enjoy your pipe in the open air, should you wish.”
After drinking his wine, Merry gratefully fingered his pipe with his hand and said, “That’s fine. There’s much more to tell, now that I think about it. She was very kind, and quiet, and loyal.” The two walked out into the corridor, their footsteps echoing in the stone hallway.
“You know, she found ways to move through the ranks so she never let King Théoden out of her sight. And somehow she just knew about some things, without being told.” The hobbit looked Faramir in the eye as with one hand he searched for his tinderbox in his breeches' pocket. “That’s how she came to me, sir, I know it. She could tell that I was pretty desperate at being left behind, though we had never spoken.”
As they walked out to the garden Faramir replied thoughtfully, "That does not surprise me. I feel as though she has seen deeply into me, and I would despair of her parting."
Merry lit his pipe, unable to reply.
Éowyn stood outside, as she had for the prior few days, looking out to the north, her woollen cape wrapped around her. She had recently returned to the chilly garden after spending a welcome respite from her own thoughts by spending several hours in conversation with Merry, who again shared her fate.
"Looks like we've been left behind again," here he paused, as he always did, still adjusting his perspective of her from warrior Dernhelm to Lady Éowyn, "eh, Éowyn?" She nodded, her emotions so jumbled and exhausted that her face remained impassive as a result. Merry conjured a rueful smile for himself.
“Merry," she asked, "would you please tell me more about your friend Peregrin? You and I bear the terrible burden of kin and loved ones fighting when we cannot be near them, and it would gladden my heart for you to elaborate on your valiant friend and what your life was like up in the land of Buckland.” She took his hand and affectionately squeezed it. "I am sorry now that I did not engage you more during our days of travel, and I hope that you will not spurn my request."
"Oh no, not at all!" he replied, and launched into several hours' worth of childhood tales, of their plans to accompany Frodo as he left the Shire, and even his recent limited moments together with Pippin before he was called away to join Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and others six days ago.
Now she found herself leaning against the stone wall, hands clenching her cape as she scanned the unfamiliar landscape. As the wind blew, she absentmindedly removed her unbandaged arm from its warm haven to move an insistent rogue piece of hair out of her eyes back behind her ear. What fate is this, she wondered for the hundredth time, that befalls Merry, these other halflings, Éomer, Aragorn… thinking of him, with his grey eyes and commanding yet compassionate manner, always made her feel suddenly distracted, and she hated herself for it. They will fight valiantly, to be sure, she thought, returning to more comfortable thoughts of war and loyalty. So many who are loyal to Rohan accompany them.
Then she felt cut to the quick, just as she heard the nearby door open. As though the voice had carried on the wind, she heard in her mind, ‘You will remain here, to carry out what may well be the most important task there is, which is to continue on, to fight against this evil that encroaches on our borders and protect your citizens. You do remember the oath you took, Eorendel?’ Turning, she saw Faramir standing before the large carved wooden door. He nodded his head, placed his hand to his heart, then raised his eyes.
“Éowyn!” he said, his twilight-coloured eyes searching her face for displeasure. “Would you prefer your solitude?” Éowyn shook her head slightly in response, hoping that he could not see the anxiety she was trying to suppress.
“No, my Lord Steward,” she replied, motioning to the empty stretch of wall next to her. Guiltily she looked down, realizing that not once since she had joined the Riders had she thought about the women, elders and children of Edoras that had expected her to be their ruler. But you did not expect to live! Her thoughts ran wildly as Faramir walked the few paces to reach her side. He stood quietly, as though he were waiting for her to speak. She looked at him, this caretaker of a kingdom which had no king, whose borders faced the very land of evil incarnate, and felt humbled.
“You are troubled.” Faramir’s voice was gentle, but insistent.
Éowyn gazed at him for a moment, then gestured to one of the tiled paths that wound its way through the garden as she said, “Shall we walk? I am afraid that I am used to a more active life, and this well-meaning emphasis on rest does not suit me.”
Faramir nodded in assent, and Éowyn found herself troubled by the depths of grief in his eyes. “Too often inactivity can lead to brooding, especially when such great travails are being undertaken and we are unable to assist.”
Éowyn felt as though salt had been rubbed into a cut deep in her chest. No, she inwardly moaned, I am quite unable to assist, this useless bird with its clipped wing. She studied the tiled walkway and flinched in surprise when Faramir’s warm fingers softly moved back some of her hair that had fallen before her face.
“Your people find me strange.” It was a statement, spoken with a note of challenge. “Do you not also, Lord Faramir, find me, as some have suggested, a half-wild creature?” She looked at him resolutely, expecting a rebuke. When he did not reply, but instead stepped toward a patch of vivid flowers flaunting themselves despite the cold, she became agitated. Perhaps due to your whining from the days before he is now going to treat you like a child, she chastised herself.
Faramir returned with a newly-cut wild rose, its red-violet petals fluted on the edges. After cutting the thorns from the stem with a small knife, he handed it to her. Surprised, Éowyn accepted the gift, instinctively placing it before her nose to smell its scent, closing her eyes as she inhaled its light perfume. Faramir looked at her, this woman who had appeared as unbidden as a stray flower growing up from a crack in the wall, and knew as certainly as he had known of his brother’s untimely death that he did not ever want her to leave. She was unpredictable, moody and haughty, yet beautiful and honest, and, like himself, she bore wounds far beyond those sustained on the battlefield. He also sensed that she, too, was haunted by visions beyond what sight alone could reveal.
“No, Éowyn,” he found himself speaking. “You appear to me as one who thrives in open spaces, free to chase the wind should you so desire it, and it is but these walls which chafe at your spirit.” The dark circles under her eyes belied how little rest she endured during her days in Minas Tirith and how heavily she bore the weight of her inability to fight at her brother’s side. His heart racing, Faramir laid his hand on her arm, and looking into her grey eyes that echoed those of him who had rescued them both from the Shadow, he asked, “Will you tarry and tell me of your homeland? This waiting is insufferable to us both, but I find that even the heaviest of burdens is lightened by your presence.”
Éowyn stood silently under his intense gaze and was about to speak when suddenly she was overcome by a wave of emotion that emanated from Faramir and washed over her. He wanted her to speak of Rohan, about her childhood, about whispering winds which lulled her to sleep… and unbidden, just for a moment, she saw a hint of his soul in his eyes, glittering as brightly as dark sapphires and smouldering like an unquenchable fire, and she was struck mute.
Faramir looked encouragingly at her, taking her arm and walking slowly down the path. His own sorrows were there as always, burning yet not consuming, an ever-present flame that lingered until, he assumed, the world ended in the near future. Would that the monstrous wave of which I dream would suddenly sweep down and cleanse this land of ash and death! he thought mournfully, then knew again in an instant that he did not yet want to drown in water or sorrow. He yearned to hear Éowyn speak, afraid that he had been too insistent, afraid that there would indeed be no more tomorrow, just when the tiniest seedling of hope had planted itself in his heart.
Éowyn walked as she tried to put the vision from her mind so that she could speak coherently. My life! Where do I begin? She was in agony.
“I deserted my people.”
She said the words quietly, her eyes studying the ground. “I will tell you more should you wish it, but know that first. The dark into which I knew I rode has not deserted me, nor do I think it ever will.” As her future tilted toward oblivion, Éowyn ceased to resist, and surrendered to the end.
Éowyn, valiant shieldmaiden of Rohan, would fight no more. To her mind, she had utterly failed, and she waited only to be swallowed into the bleak nothingness of the last few days.
They walked a few silent steps, then Faramir replied as he took her hand, “I am not your king, and judgment is not mine to give. Let us speak no more of it.” He looked at her, and his heart seized. Her eyes were full of pain and misery, and a wan smile flitted across her mouth as she withdrew her hand.
“Friend, let us not. One need only open one’s eyes to behold rampant despair, we do not need to discuss it at length.” She turned to walk back down the path to the Houses, then looked back at Faramir. “I am exceeding rude,” she said faintly. “I have not thanked you for the flower.” She held it upright in her hand. “It will brighten my room. Thank you for your kindness to one as ungentle as I am.”
Faramir stood watching as Éowyn made her way to the door, pulled it open by its thick brass handle, then disappeared as it closed behind her. This is not how things progress in books! he thought with a mixture of anger and frustration. Well-trodden paths of guilt and self-berating rose to his consciousness, and he followed blindly. Had Boromir lived, he would have charmed her within a day and they would be discussing battle plans, he despaired.
But it is you who live! an inner voice cried. Wait, and be patient.
“But there is no time!” he muttered, striding toward the wall, gripping it with his fingers until his knuckles were white. “Perhaps I should speak with the Halfling again…” then putting his face in his hands, he lamented to himself, “Your affections are reckless. Would that I could trust my own counsel anymore.”
He leaned on the wall for a few moments, then feeling utterly spent, he walked slowly to the base of an unkempt hedge, lay down on his side, and pulling his cloak over his face, fell into a dream-filled sleep.
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.