Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and J.R.R. Tolkien.
They left the city with the wind in their loosened hair, the horses fretting from the early waking. The Great Gates of the White City would not open for long hours yet, but the pass they had been given opened a postern gate in the northern wall, and a second gate at the end of a long tunnel. The dark-haired men of Gondor, helmed and speared, watched them ride by and out into the Pelennor, eyes following them long after the gate had shut, until they left the foot of the walls and took the road.
Eomer had the lead, on a gray-coated mare. Theodred rode just behind, on the finest horse the Horse-Broker had had in his herds, a fire-eyed black. Eowyn rode beside Theodred, on a Wold-gray that was the sister of Eomer's mare.
Between Eowyn and Theodred rode the shieldmaiden.
The Fields of Pelennor were laden with fog. They could see little of the road but for the stretch beneath them, and nothing of the fields that rolled forth from the walls of the City of Stewards or the mountains that reared behind it. Eomer carried a torch, and it hissed and steamed but gave only a vague and wavering light, enough to follow but not enough to see. They rode close to each other, Eomer not one horse-length in front of them and still no more than the long shape of his hair and cloak and the sputtering torch.
Eowyn's hair and cloak were damp before she could worry of it. Theodred and Eomer had their swords bared on their pommels, but hers remained in its sheathe. Should a foe come upon them, Eomer would throw her the torch and Theodred would give her the lead of the mare that carried the shieldmaiden.
They rode through the clouded dark, all the world lost in the white froth. A hundred thousand white horses at the gallop, blowing hard. Eowyn could not but think that only fools or desperate men would take the road in such a night, and at any moment one of their horses would break its leg. There were mornings such as this in the Riddermark, but even desperate fools knew better than to ride the dark there. Yet neither Eomer nor Theodred spoke against it, and there was a silence among them that seemed to have followed them out of the city, out of that rank, wet alley.
Black and terrible had been the face of the son of Denethor. She'd stood there with her brother, watching with him as Theodred and Boromir bared their teeth at each other as if they would rather have been shouting, as if they had not been friends for all these years, as if they had not been boys together. Eowyn had not needed to see her brother's face to know what he was thinking, for the same thoughts were hers, the same unease.
The shieldmaiden had not spoken then, as she did not speak now. The cloak pulled close, the hood pulled low, Eowyn could see nothing of her but her hands, small fists on the pommel before her. She rode aside, as Boromir had placed her, but her back was straight and she kept her balance.
A weak light suffused the fog ere long, and Eowyn knew that daybreak was come. They stopped long enough for Eomer to douse the torch with dirt, the other three staying mounted, and then they rode on.
When the fog at last began to break and the first gleams pierced the east, Eomer brought the pace to a walk.
“The White Mountains.” He pointed. “This is Anorien. If there has been flooding, the valleys will be hard to cross.”
“We will press on.” Theodred looked at Eowyn, and then at the shieldmaiden. “My lady, are you well?”
Eowyn turned to the shieldmaiden, but there was no answer. The shieldmaiden's head was down, and she would not look at them.
They continued on for several more miles on the road, the fog clinging to their manes and hooves, and then the light failed and rain began to fall. When Eowyn looked upward, all was darkness. Eomer shouted over his shoulder, “We must stop! The water is rising!”
There was a valley ahead of them, Eowyn knew. With so much rain in recent days, a flood was likely. When they had followed the merchants south, they had spent some days encamped just north of there waiting for the water to become shallow enough for the wagons and wheelhouses to ford. Even here the road fell as it followed the valley, and she could see the water eddying around the hooves of the horses as it rushed down the slope.
Eomer led them off of the road and up a steep ridge. Eowyn at first did not understand what he was doing, but remembered just as the clearing came into sight. The Horse Broker they had followed south had pointed this place out to them as they passed. Here once had stood a watchtower, though who had built it and who it had watched for was lost to time and the forgetfulness of Men. It stood close against the foot of the White Mountains, and though it had been an age since it last was manned, it still had four walls and a roof.
“We will rest here,” said Theodred. “If the rain stops, we may still be able to cross the valley. If it does not, we will have a fire for the night.”
They urged the horses up the ridge, onto the ledge on which the watchtower had been built. By then the wind had come up and lightning flashed, followed by thunderheads that made the horses show the white of their eyes. Theodred had wrapped the leads of the shieldmaiden's horse about his arm, but the white mare came obediently enough.
The watchtower stood hard against the mountain, as the Horse Broker had said. From its ledge, it had once perhaps commanded the valley, but now it was concealed by trees and a rockfall. One wall had fallen partway down, but the roof was on it and the space inside was large enough for even the horses.
Eomer dismounted and stepped over the broken wall. “The ashes are cold. We will have no guests.”
Theodred swung to the ground, and then came to the side of the shieldmaiden's white mare. Looking up at her, he said, “My lady, we must shelter here awhile.” He offered her his arm to hold as she slid down.
The shieldmaiden came down off of the mare stiff-backed, and when her feet met the ground she cried out and began to fall.
Theodred caught her up, going to his knees so that she fell against him, and he shouted. Eowyn flew down from her own mare, and Eomer was running to them. They reached Theodred and the shieldmaiden just as he lifted her in his arms.
The dark below the tower was cold and smelled of old soot. Eowyn tore off her cloak and laid it on the floor for the shieldmaiden, and Theodred set her down as tenderly a mother with her babe.
When he pulled his arm from under the shieldmaiden's cloak, it was wet from wrist to elbow with blood.
“Her back,” he said, and Eowyn held the shieldmaiden's head as Theodred turned her onto her stomach.
Eowyn pulled away the shieldmaiden's cloak and her breath caught to see the back of the tunic drenched with blood. Taking the dagger that Eomer held out to her, Eowyn lifted the lower hem of the tunic, wincing to hear the roughspun peel from the skin, and began to cut.
It was the work of a few breaths. When the dagger's edge cut through the last few threads at the nape, the blade smeared by then with blood and the pieces of the tunic pulled aside, Eowyn could not help but recoil. Her mouth opened, and the hilt of the dagger slipped through her fingers.
Theodred's face was the white of snow. Eomer stood over them both and his eyes were fixed on the shieldmaiden's back. The smell of blood warred with the smell of wet stone.
“Why,” said Eowyn at last, her voice shaking, “why, what could she have done? Why, when Boromir...when...”
She closed her mouth, but she could not unsay the name. Theodred looked at her, his eyes hot with anger, but he only said, “Eowyn, you must help her.”
For Eomer and Theodred were men, and the shieldmaiden was no kinswoman. Eowyn's heart beat fiercely at the thought, and she told them both coldly, “Then stand back.”
They backed away from where Eowyn knelt beside the shieldmaiden, but would have stood staring if she had not demanded water of Eomer and cloth to staunch from Theodred. For once they heeded her commands without complaint, and her brother brought her his waterskin while Theodred searched in his saddlebags for something he could cut.
The shieldmaiden's cloak was wet. Eowyn tried to ease it from under the shieldmaiden, only to find that something caught it around the neck. When she pulled at one of the shieldmaiden's shoulders while reaching under it for the clasp, the shieldmaiden gasped and shivered.
The clasp was silver, shaped into a tree. The roughspun had been poor and tawdry, and so were the shieldmaiden's gown and shoes, but the cloak and the clasp were of high quality. Boromir,
thought Eowyn, and she tucked the silver clasp at least into a pocket. Theodred would be wroth to find such a thing, and she could always return it to the shieldmaiden later, when there were no eyes to pry.
With the clasp gone, Eowyn pulled the cloak away and saw the shieldmaiden's head.
Eowyn gasped. Without warning, tears filled her eyes.
Theodred was kneeling down beside her. He had removed his surcoat and been cutting at it, but now he knelt beside her.
“Oh,” moaned Eowyn, “oh, Theodred, her hair. Look. Her hair. They took her hair.”
The shieldmaiden's hair had been cut. She was not bald, but some knife had been taken to her golden hair so that all that was left was not the length of a fingernail, hacked close to the scalp.
A maiden's hair, and they had cut it. They had shorn her head as if she were a harlot.
Eowyn dared not look at Theodred. The son of her mother's brother, so dear to her that she could not have loved him more if he had been her brother, and she feared to look into his face. Neither did she want to look at Eomer, who had come back in leading the horses out of the rain and stood over the broken wall, looking over Theodred's shoulder. Rather she bent back over the shieldmaiden, wiping away her own tears with the back of a hand the nails of which were red with blood. Rather she brush the wisps of hair back from the shieldmaiden's face, her heart sinking as she felt the fevered skin against her fingers.
The shieldmaiden's lips were moving.
“Hwaet?” Eowyn lowered her head even farther, her own hair falling over her neck and covering the shieldmaiden's shaved scalp. Torn flesh and blood filled her nose. “What did you say? I am here!”
The shieldmaiden trembled. Her face was wet. “Fa...”
The shieldmaiden's breath warmed Eowyn's ear. “Fa...Fara...mir...”
The shieldmaiden was weeping.
Eowyn closed her eyes. And then she lifted her head.
“No,” she whispered back, into the shieldmaiden's ear. “No. It is Eowyn.”