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Chapter 21 – Daughters of the Rohirrim
Sitting huddled in the little shack her captors had built to contain her, Elana wrapped her cloak more tightly around herself and Deore. The baby had fallen asleep a while back, but the night was dank and chill, and Elana could not settle herself to rest. The golden flickers of firelight leaking through the cracks in the boards taunted her with their promise of warmth denied. When Forstrang was on guard he would usually let her out to share the fire, but tonight Andgit kept watch, and he didn’t care if she froze in here. In fact, she suspected he enjoyed the thought of her discomfort.
Five days now it had been, since the night they had brought Theodred to her and presented them both with impossible choices. Surely the battle must have been fought by now, for good or ill. How long after it was over would the news take to reach Edoras? Would they even bother to tell her what had happened, before they carried out her fate, whatever that was to be?
She clutched Deore to her and rocked, cold and miserable. She was thinking about lying down and at least trying to doze, when she heard hoof beats, then Andgit’s voice hailing Forstrang.
She stiffened. The guard was not due to be changed until tomorrow morning. Careful not to wake Deore, she squirmed closer to the door, and put her ear to the largest crack facing the fire.
“Hey, Forstrang, what’re you doing here? You got news?”
“Yeah.” Forstrang’s words seemed even more terse than usual. “Word arrived this afternoon. Battle’s over.”
Elana’s blood froze, and she pressed even closer to the crack, her pulse so loud in her ears she feared she would not be able to hear. Andgit’s voice was impatient. “Well, what happened? Did Theodred take the bait?”
“Nope. Fought just like he’d never talked to us.” Elana squeezed her eyes shut, overwhelmed by pride and fear. “Donaldo’s trick worked, though. Theodred took the army across the river, right where Saruman wanted him.”
Andgit sounded pleased. “So, we won, then?”
“Not quite. Elfhelm got there in time and they managed to hang on to the Fords for now. Won’t be able to for long though.”
Andgit spat. “Boss’ll be upset about that. Probably take it out on us.”
“Nah. We took out Theodred. That’ll cheer him up. No way they’ll be able to hold out long without him.”
Almost Elana missed it, so casual and emotionless were Forstrang’s words. But their full import hit her with Andgit’s coarse laughter. “Oh, that will cheer him up all right! I think he’ll consider a setback well worth it, to have our noble Second Marshall dead.”
Their voices continued, but Elana couldn’t hear them anymore. Numb, her mind seemed unable to function. All she could do was rock, and shake her head. “No,” she whispered. No. It cannot be true. “No….”
Lost in despair, she remained oblivious to the men’s conversation, until Andgit’s voice shocked her to attention. “So, what’s he want us to do with those two?”
“Oh, he told me to kill them, of course. Theodred broke the bargain, and they’re no more use to him now. Guess I better go ahead and take care of that.”
Elana shuddered, and buried her head in Deore’s hair. Was this the end, then? Hot tears scalded her eyes. All their bright hopes, all the sacrifice and courage, to come now to nothing but death and defeat…
Then she swallowed, took a deep trembling breath, and wiped her eyes. She stood up and faced the door, waiting, Deore still asleep in her arms. From the depths of her heart’s emptiness, she summoned up a last bitter resolve. Her fate was beyond her control, but she could still choose the manner in which she faced it. They would go to their deaths with heads held high, as befit daughters of the Rohirrim.
The door opened, and Forstrang held out his hand to her, something like pity in his eyes. He ushered her to his horse and held Deore while she mounted, then handed the baby up. The motion woke her, and her big dark eyes met Elana’s in silence.
Andgit trailed behind. “Where are you taking them?”
Forstrang didn’t look behind as he led the horse away from the clearing. “He told me to take them off in the woods away from camp and bury the bodies.”
“I suppose you want me to come help dig.” Andgit didn’t sound enthusiastic. Elana noticed with a chill the shovel bound to the back of the saddle.
“Nah, you stay here. I’ll take care of it.”
Gratefully Andgit retreated to the fireside. “Hey,” he called over his shoulder. “You’d better take her stuff with you, and bury it with them. Don’t want anything around to let anyone know we had her.”
Forstrang paused. “Good thinkin’. Could you get it for me?” Andgit, grumbling, disappeared into the shack and returned with Elana’s pack, haphazardly stuffed with all her belongings, which he attached to the saddle. Then Forstrang took the reins and started off.
Forstrang led the horse silently into the dark forest. Elana stroked Deore’s head, clinging fiercely to her pride lest she lose all dignity and dissolve in tears and pleas for mercy. She would meet her death with as much courage as Theodred had met his. Oh, Theodred, this was not the reunion we wanted, yet it seems it is all that is left to us….
They followed the streambed, past a thicket of trees. A shadow detached itself from the deeper darkness of the thicket and fell in behind them, a cloaked horseman. Elana twisted around to get a better view, then jumped as Forstrang’s hand across her mouth stifled her questions. “Hush,” he muttered, waiting to remove his hand until she nodded, eyes wide. The procession continued, turning away from the stream and the trees that bordered it, and cutting off across the trackless plain, while Elana remained lost in silent confusion, not understanding what was taking place, but afraid to hope.
They rode for at least an hour. Then Elana, sense of direction hopelessly muddled in the starless, moonless overcast, was surprised to hear the horse’s hooves thud on the hard packed dirt of what could only be the main road west out of Edoras.
Halting, Forstrang turned to the cloaked rider. “This is as far as I can take you. Andgit will be expectin’ me back when it’s been long enough that I would’ve had time to bury them.” He took the shovel from behind the saddle and plunged it into the ground at his feet, drawing it forth stained with dirt. He fastened it back in place, and then turned to lift the speechless Elana down.
The hooded rider had dismounted, and approached, no more than a deeper shadow in the night. Elana, heart hammering with a wild mix of hope and terror, clutched Deore close and strained to see in the darkness. “What is going on? Who are you?”
“I’m a friend of Theodred. I’m here to help you escape. Now be quiet; I’ll answer all your questions as we ride. I need to get you as far along the road as I can before I must turn back.” Turning to Forstrang, the rider clasped his arm. “I don’t know how to thank you enough, Forstrang.”
“Aw, it was nothin’. You just get her out of here. Miss Elana, you better get you and Miss Deore there out of Rohan quick as you can.”
Elana was dizzied by her sudden change in fortune. “Oh, I will. Thank you, thank you…” Forstrang pressed her pack of belongings into her hands, then was gone into the darkness.
The cloaked stranger led his horse over. “Windfola can carry two; we’ll go faster if we both ride. Here, let me get that pack, then I’ll hold Deore for you.” Soon they were mounted, Elana in front clutching Deore and the stranger behind. He murmured to the horse, who set out at a brisk trot westward.
The stranger’s voice, which had been low-pitched when he spoke to Forstrang, changed to a higher, lighter tone as he spoke to the horse. That, and the lines of the stranger’s body pressed close to her back suddenly made sense to Elana, and she swiveled to try to catch a glimpse of the rider’s face. “You’re a woman!”
She no longer attempted to disguise her voice. “Yes, I’m Eowyn, Theodred’s cousin. He sent me to find you, before...”
“Is it true, then, what Forstrang said? But he was lying. Oh, tell me that was a lie too...”
But her hope was dashed as fast as it had sprung to life. Eowyn’s voice was harsh. “No, that was the truth. Theodred fell in the battle.”
Elana could feel the rigidly controlled tenseness in Eowyn’s body, and hear the grief that so closely matched her own. She bowed her head and they rode far in silence.
Eventually, when the night was far advanced, Eowyn halted Windfola where the road bent north to pass around a rocky outcropping. In amongst the stones they found a sheltered nook where they dismounted.
Eowyn busied herself unfastening Elana’s pack from Windfola’s saddle, then set about kindling a small fire, that they might warm themselves. “This is as far as I can take you. I locked myself in my chambers and told the servants to leave me alone. They will respect my grief, but if I don’t come out by morning someone will eventually get suspicious. So I must get back. You can continue on foot, west out of Rohan. I suppose you should head south, into Gondor. There you may find people to take you in. Not that there’s anywhere you could go where Deore will be accepted.”
“You know about Deore then. About what happened to me.”
“Yes, Theodred told me all about you, back when he first returned to Edoras. He was so changed, by meeting you. He tried to hide it from me at first, but his love for you shone in his face. He told me he was there when Deore was born, that he loved her as his own daughter, that he wished to bring you to Edoras and wed you.... May I hold her?”
Eowyn’s voice was choked with unshed tears. Hearing her speak about Theodred struck to the core of Elana’s grief, yet she hungered to hear more. She laid Deore, once again wakeful but quiet, in Eowyn’s arms.
Gazing into the baby’s face, whose deep brown eyes reflected the golden flickers of firelight, without surprise or revulsion, Eowyn remembered that day, so bright with promise. “I told him I would stand on the steps of Meduseld, and kiss her, and name her as my niece.” She closed her eyes and for a moment her shoulders shook, but then she lifted Deore and gently and firmly kissed her forehead. Deore smiled, revealing her four white, pointed teeth, and cooed. “You are my niece. Theodred chose well, I think. And may I count you as my sister, Elana? For he was truly close as a brother to me.”
“Oh, yes.” Words failed her, and she moved, awkwardly at first, to embrace Eowyn. They both found comfort in the touch, and the tears flowed freely between them.
When their grief was spent they withdrew, and a little embarrassed Elana wiped her eyes. Deore had grown fretful, so she took her back from Eowyn’s arms and seated herself on a ridge of stone, settling the baby in to nurse. She beckoned Eowyn over to sit beside her. “If there is time –surely we can take a little time – come talk to me. Tell me about him.”
Eowyn sat down, and for an hour she told Elana about Theodred, about his kindness when she first came to the king’s house, about his seeing in her the potential to be a warrior, about the long hours when he trained her, demanding but never harsh. Elana listened, savoring each word, achingly aware the she would now never hear these tales from his own lips. She spoke then, haltingly, about her own time with him, about her first glimpse of him through the bars of her cell when he pledged himself to her rescue, about his steady support through the drama surrounding Deore’s birth, about the tenderness and sorrow of that day they declared their love and were torn apart. Then for a while they spoke of themselves, of their own lives and upbringings. Elana marveled at the determination and skill with which Eowyn had pursued her dream, and envied a little her freedom and strength. Eowyn, for her part, was fascinated by Elana’s tales of growing up surrounded by her large family, so different from Eowyn’s own, and by the gentle but powerful bond so evident between mother and child. She had never wanted motherhood, had considered it only a burden and a prison, yet now watching Elana and Deore she found herself glimpsing an aspect of womanhood she had never appreciated before, and much to her own surprise she found it intriguing, even appealing.
But finally the time came when Eowyn knew she could linger no longer. She must return to Meduseld while it was yet dark and she could slip back into her chambers unseen. She hoped she would be able to attribute the weariness that dragged at her to nothing more than her sorrow. Now that sorrow was magnified by the need to leave this newfound friend and sister when they had barely had the chance to meet, yet the knowledge that another heart grieved as she did was, if not comforting exactly, yet still sweet.
“I am sorry I can do no more for you. As long as Wormtongue holds my uncle’s ear, I am all but helpless. And I fear for what will happen in the coming days. There is so little hope that Rohan can even survive.... Yet if beyond hope we do come to better days, I am of the King’s house, and perhaps one day it will be in my power to help you more.”
“I will remember.” Elana embraced Eowyn one last time, then hefted Deore onto her back, tying the carrying cloth tightly around them both. “Thank you again....”
But Eowyn raised her hand, signaling silence. She was gazed at Windfola, who was agitated, eyes rolling and head tossing. Eowyn soothed him with a gentle hand, but still he trembled, staring fixedly back toward the road. “What is it, boy, do you hear something?”
But then they both heard it, coming closer, hoofbeats approaching from the east.
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