12. In Her Darkest Hour
March 2, 3019
Their argument had been short, but venomously bitter.
“You absolutely cannot go,” Fréalas insisted as she sharpened her sword at the grinding wheel.
“Of all in Rohan I must go!” Éowyn shot back, her face revealing the fury that raged inside her. “It is not right that you, and Willow, and now you tell me your own mother, are going to hide yourselves among the Riders leaving before nightfall! I am the one whose sword cries out for revenge. I am the one who needs to join with this bright-eyed man of the North who cured my uncle of Gríma’s poisonous words and who shall surely do great acts in our defense. I am the one who will be left to mother the old and the children, standing alone in Meduseld. I am the one…”
“You are the one,” Fréalas curtly interrupted, “who was selected, and rightly so, I might add, to be the leader of Rohan while the King and Éomer go to Helm’s Deep.” Fréalas' normally pale face was scarlet with rage. “What if none of us return? Who will our people turn to? Leading a people whose folk are as widely scattered as the Rohirrim are, into what appears to be a growing war, will take far more skill than simply wielding a blade, and I know you do that with an ability that far outstrips mine." Fréalas stopped pressing her foot on the treadle of the wheel and glared at Éowyn. "But if anyone’s sword cries out for revenge, it is the chorus of blades of the house of Frithmund.”
Éowyn felt herself taking a step back from her friend, unused to hearing such anger and reproach in her voice. She tore her eyes away from Fréalas, whose normally cheerful grey-green eyes were now boring through Éowyn with wrathful intensity, and chose instead to look at the sword balanced between the other's hands and round stone.
“Éowyn.” The voice was gentler now, but still commanding. “You are the niece of the king. You must do your duty in this. I realize that you did not ask to be born into a ruling family, but you are no child and you have been well instructed in many matters of state and war.”
“But I…” Éowyn began.
“You will remain here,” Fréalas continued, forcing Éowyn into silence, “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?”
Stillness hung in the room, allowing muffled sounds of frenzied activity of the cavalry of Edoras preparing to ride west against Isengard to filter in like dust falling through sunlight.
“To defend Rohan even in her darkest hour,” was the sullen reply. “So why can I not go with you?” Éowyn pleaded. “How am I defending anyone if I am standing on the front steps of the Golden Hall?”
“Éowyn!” Fréalas snarled the word into the air as she pushed the pedal again. “This is not your choice. It is your duty. Mother and Willow and I are going in secret because all swords are needed, and even as young men, youths barely out of childhood are included, we will fight as well with better chance of not being discovered. We are not going in order to win some kind of glory and valour!” Sparks flew where the blade of Nihtscadu was held against the stone, the sides coming to keenly sharp edges. “Think beyond yourself only for a moment. Do you not know how dearly I would prefer for you to be by my side? To hew at orcs and imagine Frithlíc’s star sparkling in the heavens as his death is avenged? But that would be unforgivable for the other hundreds of souls in our lands who cannot fight. Who are, in fact, in need of guidance, and shelter, and food, and of reassurance. That is what a good ruler provides, and I know you are capable of doing so.”
Fréalas lifted her foot from the treadle, and the sound of grinding metal ceased. She looked imploringly at her friend and said, “Can you not tell how much I will miss you?”
Éowyn, who had been chewing an already rather well-bitten fingernail, spat out, “I know nothing except that I am being abandoned when I should be going to fight. You can sit prettily on your high horse of ideals, for you do not have to ride it.” Éowyn stormed to the door of the armoury, then turned an icy gaze upon Fréalas. “Frithlíc always did say that you were too optimistic for your own good. If you think that by adding three women to the thousand Riders you will turn the tide of battle, then you are not optimistic, you are mad.”
She stomped away into the din of the city, blonde hair trailing away behind her. Fréalas took her sword and gave it an appraising look, then wiped it with a nearby cloth and sheathed it in its scabbard.
I am out of patience and out of tears, she thought to herself. We are both adults, and even though I am furious with her, I trust her to do what is right.
As she walked from the armoury, she muttered out loud, “But she is so stubborn! And arrogant! And self centred!” Shaking her head, she made her way back to her parent’s house to put together a small pack and conferred with Fréawyn. Mother and daughter had agreed not to tell Frithmund of their covert plans; they would perform their normal rituals of farewell, then put on helms and shields and follow at the end of the line of Riders.
An hour or so later, her copper hair pinned tightly to her head under her grey metal helm, Fréalas permitted herself one last look as the Riders thundered away from Edoras. Éowyn stood alone in front of the great carved doors of Meduseld, her mailshirt glistening in the sunlight and a forced expressionless look, Fréalas was sure, on her face. Turning her charge to keep up with the great host of Rohan, Fréalas allowed herself briefly to acknowledge the ache in her heart then pushed it out of the way to focus on the long ride and battle ahead.
Fréalas stood sentry on the inner gate, looking at the night sky, trying to ground herself in the familiarity of the animals and figures represented in the stars. Even when we are gone, she consoled herself, those who come after us will be able to see the same stars, and all of these trials that we have suffered will not be for naught. As she concentrated, out of childhood habit she bit down on her lower lip, letting her eyes flit from constellation to constellation, Eofer to Fiscere, to Windeltréow with its cascading branches of stars. To the South, the stars were dimmed by clouds. She shivered despite her warm battle raiment, not fully understanding what dark forces were at work in that direction, but knowing that it did not bode well.
It had been a challenging ride from Edoras, to say the least. Fréalas, her mother Fréawyn, and Freatwas, more commonly known as Willow, had managed without much difficulty to infiltrate the ranks of Riders with very short notice. Many of those who had so valiantly left Edoras were boys a decade younger or more from Fréalas and Willow, and though set about in similar battle gear, their youth and fear absolutely pulsed around them. The most difficult part, Fréalas considered, is knowing that Father is somewhere in this stone structure, and I cannot tell him I am here. A light caught her eye, a quick flashing of a star coursing through the skies, shooting toward the earth. No, perhaps not the most difficult, she reconsidered, thinking of Éowyn, who had finally accepted her responsibility of being unforeseen monarch, all the while wishing more than anything else to be off fighting with the men of Rohan.
Still. Fréalas was smarting from their argument from the day before, and decided that although their meagre fighting party could certainly use Éowyn’s quick sword-hand, the rest of the people would need her far more. And she needs to learn some discipline. Here she would continue to run wild, taunting Death itself if she could. Despite her now-simmering anger, Fréalas risked a smile to the night sky at the vision of her friend standing her ground against forces far beyond her ken, then resumed her active perusal of the bleak landscape before her. Since she was alone in this part of the gate, she had taken the liberty of taking off her helm though she kept her hair in a braid. Her hair was not so long as to be curious, and in the cover of night and solitude, she felt that she could risk having a bare head for an hour or so.
“Did you solve your riddle of the stone?” The voice was right behind her.
Drawing her knife, Fréalas spun around to face whoever had caught her unawares. Angry and trembling, she found herself looking at the very man who had caught Éowyn’s attentions. Despite Fréalas' height, he was far taller than herself, with dark hair and piercing grey eyes. There was an expression of mirth in his face, though there were dark circles under his eyes. Slowly he raised his arms to show he would not draw his sword.
“I take it,” he looked down at the knife pressed against his mail shirt, “that too many years have passed for you to recognize me, especially in this place and in these days.” The beginning creases of a smile formed at his lips as he continued, “Though this is the unlikeliest of places I would have expected to see a woman of Rohan. I suppose I am safe in assuming that you are not alone, and that you few are here in similar guise. Rohan has indeed valued both sons and daughters in its defence, even if the latter are more difficult to see with unaccustomed eyes.”
Unwilling to move her knife, Fréalas looked him up and down, noting his worn clothes and mud-covered boots. Slowly, very slowly, a full smile crossed his face, and a very distant memory came to the fore of Fréalas’ mind. Long ago, back when she was still a child living in the Firien woods settlement... shooting arrows... the woods... a stranger... With a start, she exclaimed, “Long-Walker?!”
He nodded, and said, “You are old enough now, Fréalas, daughter of Fréawyn, to know my true name. I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, of the Dúnedain.”
Fréalas let her arms drop, and asked simply, “How do you remember such a one as me from many years ago? I am a child no longer, and we are indeed far from those fair woods.”
Aragorn gestured at her hair. “That colour on one of the Rohirrim is unique enough to remember, no matter the age.” He motioned to her knife, and the sword girt at her side. “I see that you are as good as your word, and continue to defend your folk, even in the most dire of circumstances.”
Fréalas shrugged. “I do not wish for my end to come any sooner than it must, nor any of our people. We have lost far too many of our brightest on routine patrols, and now our young and old are here to bear the brunt of the evils of Isengard. Why should those who can also bear sword and shield who happen to be women not be allowed to do their duty?” She swallowed before continuing. “In truth, I am here in large part to avenge my dear brother, killed not three years ago. My mother is here too, and father, though of course he could not know that the remainder of his family is here.” Fréalas gazed deeply at Aragorn, searching for the judgment that she felt sure she would see, and when she didn’t, she continued. “You will not betray our trust, Aragorn, son of Arathorn? For you do seem to be a man who keeps his word. We are not here for glory in battle, but it is not right for youths so recently out of childhood to be here, nor men with heads of grey, and so we few felt it would not be so terrible a wrong to join them, even if we are seen as contrary to our gender.” Aragorn continued his intent listening. “‘All grasses sigh in the wind.’ It is a phrase we Rohirrim have, meaning that we are all equal when one thinks of life and death, regardless of gender, or how large your pasture is, or the numbers of sheep in the paddock, or children running around the house…”
Aragorn looked intensely at her, and while she felt somewhat apprehensive expressing her innermost thoughts on why she was at this stronghold of her ancestors in the guise of a male Rider, under his unsettling gaze she felt suddenly very young again, as at their first encounter many years ago. Even in the dark of that very black night, Fréalas knew she was blushing.
"I am grateful to you and your kinfolk, brave daughter of Oromë." Aragorn nodded his head to her, then with his tired eyes twinkling, said, “As long as your helm is on your head, and your head is still connected to your fair form, your true identity is safe with me. I am very sorry about the loss of your brother. These days are dark indeed, but if bright days ever dawn again, I will hope that you are blessed with many fair faced children to run amuck on the plains of Rohan. Perhaps one will even be as fearless as the one I met many years ago.” Before turning to go, he looked earnestly at her. “We will need all of the courage that can be mustered when the scourge of Orthanc arrives. Keep your helm on your head, and may your sword flash with the fire that is in your spirit.”
Fréalas stood staring for a few moments as the Dúnedan walked away, off to visit other lone sentries, or, she hoped, to get some sleep. She turned to look at the night sky once more, then leaned down and put her helm back on her head, after twisting her hair up underneath it. After several minutes of staring at the sky, she thought, Well, maybe I can see how he caught Éowyn's eye so quickly. He is an honest, caring man. And a handsome one. And he listens…
She shook her head, looking out at the ever darkening sky, not at all sure whether the butterflies that she felt were from speaking with this man from her past or from the battle only hours away. Focusing on the horizon, she took several deep breaths, resting on her sword. Looking up at the stars again, she spoke quietly under her breath, “Please look after me, and Mother, and Father, and Willow, and all of these honourable people. We only want to defend ourselves… but if we fail, please take us up and add us to the lights in the sky.”
Fréalas shouldered her shield, and proceeded to walk around the circle of the inner court of the Hornburg to stay awake.
Meduseld, March 3
Éowyn stood gazing out her window at the White Mountains, their snow-covered peaks gleaming in a sterile beauty that seemed to mock her as she looked at them. She was alone, her room unlit by even one torch, and as she finished her glass of wine, she realized with a start as she went to pick up the bottle to refill it, that it was empty. Am I drunk? she wondered. What does it matter? she consoled herself. Even the forked-tongued Gríma has left these halls, this city, filled with nothing but ghosts of people left behind to wait for their eminent deaths. Putting down her glass, she resumed her vigil at the window. Her eyes unfocused, and then was suddenly overwhelmed by a vision. “No… no…” she murmured, wishing the images away, but they had her in their hold and as always, she was helpless and surrendered to them.
She could see the fighters of Rohan, their helms with proud plumes like horses’ tails, shining in the sun, standing in rows like the orchard trees that brought forth apples and cherries in the warm summers. And then terrible things, black things, more countless than ants when disturbed from their hilled homes, rushed through, hewing and hacking, felling the soldiers row by row. Then she saw Aragorn, or saw only his piercing grey eyes, seeing through her to her naked soul, willing her to go there, to bury the dead, even as his sword, which seemed to have flames licking its blade, cutting away at the horrific black creatures, the very light of his sword making them quail in fear. Must I, my lord? her seeing-voice wailed. Let me instead raise Cwicseolfor and join you. My place is with the living, not the dead. The grey eyes turned again. Then wait for the living. They will need you. Hope still reigns. She saw to the far edges of the lines of the Mark, saw that many still stood, and pride again leapt within her heart. Yes, yes I will be here to lead them! In seeing so many pitilessly cut down, her blood began to boil, then all of a sudden, all she could see were the cold mountains off in the distance, an icy wind on her skin coming in from the open window. A deep shudder brought her to her knees, and she felt as though she had run for many leagues and was exhausted. She folded in on herself, resting her head on her knees as she lay prone, Máthmæht chirping agitatedly in his cage.
Early morning, March 4
Her arms ached with every swing, stroke after stroke, most of the them spattering her with gore and black orc blood. How long had this been going on? Did it matter? She staggered backward, chest heaving, resting her arms for a brief moment while there was a rare pause in orcs crawling over the wall. Fréalas was adrift, floundering in a sea of carnage. As though through a fog she heard screams, guttural incomprehensible yells, an incessant grating of metal on metal and the sickening softer sounds as knife and arrow sank into flesh. She gagged, again and again, trying not to heave up the bile that had formed in the base of her throat. A wild coherent thought dashed through her mind as she leaned over, alternately heaving and drawing haggard breaths: Éowyn, pray with all your soul to the stars that you never have to go through this. Then there was another set of foul metal-covered fingers scraping the walls, and she rushed forward.
Out of the corner of her eye as she swung her sword down, hacking a black hand from its former owner, she saw someone in Rohirric armour collapse, the graceful movement a mockery of the unjust act that caused him to crumble at her feet. Then the orc behind him fell backwards off the wall, a telltale elegant arrow in his eye that revealed that the lone Elf she had seen from a distance had found his mark yet again. Taking precious seconds, she glanced down and then immediately wished she had not. It was Fultwine, a mere boy of fourteen at the most, and one who had spent much time with her at the sheep paddocks, showing as much promise as Éomer in his sheep-shearing abilities. His creamy pale skin was now rudely covered in his own blood, his throat cruelly slit. Fréalas leaned her head back and howled a cry of rage and anguish. Heedless of everything else around her, she dropped her sword and sank to her knees, caressing his face with her leather-covered fingers, her tears dropping on to him, cleansing some of the grime from his youthful cheeks. Suddenly she heard the horn and cry to retreat, and after placing a kiss on his forehead, she gently lowered his head to the ground, then sternly wiped the tears from her eyes, picked up her sword and followed the other remaining fighters into the heart of the Keep.
Fréalas and her mother Fréawyn rode behind the eored with the other refugees from Helm’s Deep, not that their presence would have attracted much attention at that particular moment. All persons still riding on horseback were exhausted, and filthy beyond recognition to anyone save immediate kin. Willow had found them, and after grateful embraces of appreciation and thankfulness for still being alive, she had volunteered to take their swords and armour since her parents had died a few years before and she did not need to disguise her return. This allowed the two women to better blend in with the rest of the women of Rohan returning from the keep. Unbeknownst to them, however, the women, children and elders of Edoras had actually gone up to the plains of the Firienfeld, and didn’t yet know that it was safe to return.
It was as though the fire that normally burned in the feet of the horses of the Rohirrim had been extinguished; they had lived to see the day, to be sure, but the cost had been dreadful, and the horses felt it as keenly as their riders. Some women behind them were singing a song of triumph, their clear voices reaching up to the sky, but Fréalas found her heart still far too heavy to contemplate joy. As she silently rode back to their city on the hill, Fréalas found herself assaulted by visions: her brief conversation with Aragorn; the interminable night; weeping over Fultwine, lying dead next to the wall; standing with the rest of the Mark inside the Keep, her sword held unsteadily in front of her ribs, unable to fathom what further terrors might yet come…
She found herself lulled by the quotidian sensation of riding a horse over level ground, shivering in the cold wind that blew incessantly through the grey sky until her nose registered an unfamiliar smell, and she looked to the west. Though this was unfamiliar country to her, she instinctively knew that trees had been burned, and as the acrid smoke wafted over her, she choked. Turning her head, she could see the damage that had been wrecked while they were fighting in the hold of her ancestors, and, unbidden, tears coursed down her cheeks. It was as though the very children of Rohan had been set aflame while she was fighting side by side with their parents. Trees had been butchered and set alight, their monstrous glow still visible in the unforgiving light of day. Fréalas could not bear it, and lowered her head so that she could blindly continue on.
Frithlíc. Had he been truly avenged, when so many others had been slain as well?
She turned the words over and over in her mind as she willed herself to keep riding forward. She tried to make the words have meaning, but could not. Instead, they became hollow syllables in her head, mere sounds. She forced herself to listen to the singing, yearning to lighten her heart, to revel in the overthrow of the scourge sent from Isengard, but everything within her was full of mourning.
For a brief moment, she looked up into the iron-grey sky, empty save a few pale streaks of cloud and a carrion-bird making slow, deliberate circles around the distant stronghold she had left. It was almost beautiful, its elegant motion, the inexorable pattern down and down, until she thought about the tall barrows on which it would rest, so many golden-haired men, and youths, who would never know that the evil had been overcome. Do they hear our lamentations? she wondered. Surely even as they are at rest they know that their names will be sung for generations to come...
And then the tears began again, even as she surrendered to the reassuring feeling of riding on solid earth, grass brushing the horses’ flanks.
Frithlíc. Her mother. Her father.
She was assaulted by grey eyes that could see through to her very soul, and she didn’t care. See what you will- I have tried to be brave, to uphold my secret vow to defend the Riddermark. But not to be fighting side by side with children, seeing them cut down, this is not the way things should be…
Smoke filled her nose, riding… riding…
What is there to do? We cannot resist such reckless hate for long. She looked over at her mother for solace, but Fréawyn was lost in her own thought, a dirty strip of cloth across her forehead covering a deep gash. Had they made a difference, she and her mother and Willow? Does my father still live? Or Tóswífan? Why was I allowed to survive? Her thoughts were sluggish, all of her senses still in shock from the trauma of battle.
And so she kept riding.
Fultwine= fultum- help, support, aid
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.