6. The Muster
The King's company could not travel swiftly over the narrow mountain paths, but they had ridden long and far with few halts. My brother had been given leave to ride with me rather than among his own éored, and patiently bore me company near the end of the line.
Before the evening of the first day, we had passed above Fossdale. I strained my eyes trying to glimpse any detail of the steading, but there was no more smoke, and from this height all was silent below. Halred and two scouts rode down to see what they could, but returned to the main body of Riders barely an hour later, their faces grim and set. Halred said only that the stables had burned to the ground in a fine pyre and they had found no sign of any other survivors.
By the end of the second day I was numb with weariness, and on the last morning Halred had had to boost me into the saddle. I was abashed at needing help to mount – something unnecessary since I was four years old – but was so spent I could only accept it with resignation. Now I rode swaying in a dull trance of exhaustion through which I saw nothing but the tips of Moth's ears, drooping with her own tiredness as we descended the long road down the slopes of Harrowdale.
A sudden blast of horns startled me fully awake – we had reached the fords of the Snowbourn at last. Here Dùnhere, Elfhelm, Osric, and other captains I knew by sight came to meet the King, bearing news of the muster's progress, and Halred left to join his éored in the main camp. I was going up to the high Hold with Théoden King, who had bade me stay with Éowyn this night. I clung grimly to Moth's mane as we climbed up, and up, and up. The switchback road was a pale blur in the twilight, and the grey stone Pukel-men wavered, moving in the corner of my sight whenever I looked away for a moment.
At the very top we halted as Éowyn came forth from the tents and hailed her uncle and brother. After they had finished speaking, she came to where I stood – one arm over Moth's neck keeping me upright – and greeted me kindly, if a little absently. She asked if I wished to sup at the King's table that evening, but I declined; I wanted nothing but a bed, on the bare ground if necessary. Besides, I was not fittingly dressed for a King's board, even in an armed camp. One of Halred's spare tunics hid the upper portion of my stained and torn gown, but none of my appearance had been improved by days of hard riding. So Éowyn led me to her own tent, and asked her waiting-woman to find another pallet for me. Freja bustled about, finding bedding, bringing me bread and soft cheese and ale, and clucking over my half-healed scratches. Éowyn spoke a few words of sympathy about my father's death and asked about the battle at the Deeping, but when she found that I had little energy left for speech gradually fell silent.
Since that evening, I have often asked myself whether I should have perceived her fey and reckless mood. Yet I do not see how; though she was only a few years younger than I, Éowyn and I had never been the closest of friends. I liked and trusted her, but we were not heart-sisters. Over the last months the mood of all in Meduseld had been dark; Éowyn's despair seemed only a little deeper than most of ours, and that was attributed to her care for her uncle in his illness. And in the end, even if I had noticed, what could I have said? Her mind was set, and she would not have listened to any other counsel.
True night had fallen by the time I finished my hasty meal. Torches had been lit by the King's tent, and the captains were going to and fro reporting to Théoden and Éomer. A Rider's voice hailed us from outside. "Lady Éowyn? Are you within?" Freja went to the open flap of the pavilion and returned with Elfhelm following her. I rose to leave, yet before I could slip into the partitioned-off inner chamber he said quickly, "Stay a while, Mistress Elfled, if you would."
He stood for a moment, awkwardly shifting his weight from foot to foot – a strange sight, for Elfhelm was a Rider whom I had never seen make an ungraceful movement, ahorse or afoot. "Your father was one of the finest men of the Mark, and not only on the field of battle. I never knew him to do a mean or unworthy thing. He bore great honour, and his loss is grievous indeed."
I did not wish to think of my father now, yet in a way it comforted me that others who had known him well mourned him too. I managed to smile stiffly at the captain. "Thank you for your words, Elfhelm."
He bowed his head in acknowledgement. "I must attend the King now. Farewell."
"I will walk with you to my uncle's pavilion," Éowyn said swiftly, and rose to follow him. "Do not wait up for me, Freja," she added, "and let Elfled seek her bed whenever she wishes."
Two minutes later I crawled onto the pallet that Freja showed me, and sank into black oblivion.
* * *
No dawn came the next day, only heavier cloud. In the early morn – if one could call it so, with no sign of the sun – I walked with my brother over the Firienfeld as we said our farewells. The murky sky was dark and sombre, but Halred's mood was not; he was young enough to be certain that he was riding to glory and to avenge our father's death, and so we embraced and parted with words of hope. As the muster left I stood with the other women and watched the long lines of Riders pace slowly by. I did not see Éowyn; Freja said that after bidding farewell to her brother and uncle she had retreated into her tent and asked to be left alone. Halred rode with Elfhelm's éored. As he and Moth passed, he grinned at me and beat spear on shield in salute. I raised a hand and smiled as brightly as I could.
I knew how Eowyn felt; I desperately wanted solitude myself, and walked a while in the pinewoods wandering as far as I dared. I do not know how long it was before I heard Freja calling my name. As I stepped out from the dark shelter of the woods I saw her in the meadow, opening her mouth to call again.
"Here I am. Has Éowyn asked for me?"
She looked back over her shoulder at the tents. "No, mistress, at least – well, I don't rightly know where Lady Éowyn is. That's why I came looking for you. You haven't seen her by chance?"
"I haven't seen a soul, I've been walking on the mountain. She asked to be left alone, didn't she? What's amiss?"
Freja's nervous gaze kept flickering back and forth across the camp. "It's like this. I went to look in on her, see if she'd eat something now, for she'd not broken her fast this morning. But she's not in the tent. Her pallet's as neat as a pin, and all her things are there, but she's not." Freja and I stared at each other a moment, and when she glanced at the cliff edge again I could not stop myself from looking in the same direction.
"Surely she's just gone to check the tents, or some such thing," I said briskly. "She'll be back in a moment or two."
"But this was more than an hour ago, Mistress Elfled, and I've been all round the camp, and—"
"Have you checked the picket lines?" I interrupted.
"Then for pity's sake let us do so! Perhaps she's merely gone riding."
Windfola was absent from his assigned spot on the lines. The band around my chest loosened and I was able to take a deep breath; whatever Éowyn might think of doing to herself, she would never harm her horse. Then the horseboy for that section of the lines told us that Windfola had not been there all day, and fear constricted my throat again. Freja's near-panic had infected me, making useful thought nearly impossible. "Was there anything out of place in the tent?" I asked her for the fifth time, but before Freja could open her mouth to reply, I turned on my heel. "Never mind. I'll see for myself."
Eowyn had left a note half-hidden under her small wooden jewel casket. It was addressed to me, probably the only person in the camp who could read it, in Tengwar. The hastily scribbled letters of my name took me back to the hours Eowyn and Éomer and I had spent reluctantly learning the Elvish runes under the tutelage of their grandmother.
I go to battle with the Riders. All is in readiness here. Take my place, if you will, and do what you can until the darkness falls.
I am sorry to leave you with no hope. May we meet again in death's dominion.
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.