The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 44: The Dead Tell No Tales

The day the Riders of Rohan were to set off for Gondor was just dawning when Elfhelm at last returned to his tent, burdened with war gear. With him came a slightly-built warrior clad in a long grey cloak with hood drawn up. The sentries, dozing at last after a night of feverish last-minute preparations, paid little attention to them and Elfhelm lifted the flap of his tent, passed in with his companion then planted a spear in the ground at the entrance, to warn off any intrusion.

Inside Elfhelm put down the weapons and mail, and the young warrior pushed back the hood of the cloak. Bright hair fell over her shoulders and the dying light of the brazier glowed in her grey eyes; it was Éowyn, the king’s niece.

Elfhelm placed the pile of war gear on his camp bed and stood in front of Éowyn waiting. The girl raised her long fine white hands and undid the ring brooch, wrought of silver in the shape of two greyhounds on the chase, and threw off the cloak. Under the warm cloth she wore her riding habit of blue-embroidered brown wool, but she had hacked it off at the knee, revealing leggings bound tight to the calf with linen strips and ankle boots of leather. Elfhelm nodded; the men wore these clothes, and Éowyn would not be noticed dressed like that.

Then he picked up a gambeson of padded wool, old and mended but clean and helped Éowyn to pull it over her head then he bound up the lappets at the back. There were rust spots around the neck from old armour. Elfhelm then picked up from the bed a knee-length hauberk of mail and gently lowered it over the girl’s bright head. It was not large, once made for a young warrior and discarded when outgrown. But it had been worn to battle; some rings were dark and out of place, mended after damage by spear or sword thrusts. Éowoyn wondered idly if they had been fatal wounds…

The mail was heavy, and Éowyn shrugged it into a more comfortable position. Elfhelm frowned and said;
‘This is poor gear for a royal maid of the House of Eorl! Why not let me get you some fine armour from the King’s baggage? Or that of Théodred, unused since his death. Wear it to avenge him, royal lady….’

‘No!’ said Éowyn. ‘That would give me away. I must be as just another Rider of Rohan so I can escape detection….at least until it is too late to stop me….’

Elfhelm bowed and continued. He took up a helm and gently placed it on Éowyn’s light golden hair, settling it gently into place.

It had been a noble’s helm, once. Around the gilded band and down the crest and nosepiece was incised a frieze of galloping horses, flying free in a line of spirited shapes. But the side was dented and the gilt band pulled away from the helm, where it had been damaged, once again in battle. Although richly decorated it had been set aside for more elaborate gear by its owner. Now Éowyn helped Elfhelm settle it on her head, the felt lining making it snug. But it was heavy, however small, and she wondered would she be strong enough to ride for three days in armour and still fight. She forced down the thought, and into her mind came her chamber in Edoras, a silken nest in a gilded cage, and the hated shape of Grima peering in at the door…..
‘My Lady Éowyn! Perhaps you are not well today! Let me sit a while with you…’

He had a particular smell, musty and yet acrid, and the whites of his eyes were yellow, as were his teeth and skin. He could have passed for a fever victim, except he never sickened; only those around him sickened….She felt his weight press down on her couch, and sprang up in disgust. But he followed her with his eyes, devouring her face, her eyes, her breast…
‘No!…no, I am well, thank you. I pray you, leave me….’

And his look of fierce malice as he crept out into the dark hall.
‘One day…’ he seemed to say ‘I will not be put out like a dog….’

‘My Lady?’ said Elfhelm, and Éowyn seemed to start out of a daydream.
‘Let me put on a tunic over your mail shirt, for the cold…’
And over the hauberk he drew a tunic of linen emblazoned with his own arms of a black horse on white silk. She looked up into the young man’s grey eyes. He seemed embarrassed and said;
‘I would be honoured if you would bear my crest, just this one time…’
‘Éowyn smiled.
‘Gladly, my friend…’ she said, and waited while he laced up the sides. Then he looped a baldric over her shoulder for her sword scabbard and buckled it, Éowyn swaying as he pulled the straps tight. Then he handed her her sword.

Éowyn’s sword was a lighter copy of her uncle Théoden’s. The hilts were fashioned of two horses’ heads facing each other. Éowyn took the sword in both hands and drew it from the scabbard. The blade, fine steel, glinted in the dying light of the brazier as if it ran with blood, then returned to its dull blue. As always, when she took the hilt in her hands Éowyn felt a rush of strength.

Always hobbling her steps to her aged uncle’s, always stopping, pausing. The slow death of her hopes and the betrayal of her trust by those she loved. Never speaking till spoken to, always waiting for his slow words, mumbling, dribbling. All those months, those years, she had known comfort only holding this sword. It spoke to her of strength, honour, death with valour, the undying fame of the mighty dead. She yearned for such a death, till she thought her heart would break. Far from the smell of the sickroom, the whispers in passageways, the looks of servants. Out on the open Mark, driving foes before her, far from the yellow eyes of Wormtongue and all false friends…

‘Is the baldric too tight?’ asked Elfhelm, wondering at her silence. Éowyn hastily shook her head and sheathed the sword and hung it on the baldric. Then Elfhelm stepped back.

‘Well,’ he said doubtfully. ‘You will pass, from a distance. But my men will soon guess, my lady….’
‘Swear them to silence’ ordered Eowyn. Elfhelm smiled; there was a good deal of her uncle Théoden in the lady….he bowed and replied.
‘They will say nothing, never fear you….’

Elfhelm hesitated, then stepped up and held out to Éowyn a little knife sheathed in grey doeskin.
‘Put this in your belt, my lady.’ When Éowyn looked at him in surprise he added;
‘For my peace, lady.’

Éowyn pushed the little dagger into her belt. Then Elfhelm turned to a standard hanging from a spear in the corner. He took out his knife and cut a long swatch from the white silk banner. He stepped up to Éowyn and asked;

‘My lady, I beg you, allow me to give you this token, that I may know you on the field of battle.’

Éowyn was going to refuse, but in the yellow firelight the young lord’s face was anxious and pale and full of pleading. She smiled and nodded and Elfhelm wrapped the white silk around her upper arm, where it shone bright in the dim light. Then he said;
‘If I am slain, none will know who you are….and if we are both slain, who will know what became of you?’
Éowyn smiled grimly at him and said;

‘The dead tell no tales….’