“Death, death, death! Death take us all! Ride to ruin and the world’s ending!”
The words waking her chase her from her dreaming. Has she heard them somewhere? Imagined them? Desired them? They catch too well the calling of her heart.
She turns her head on the pillow and watches the curtains drift. Outside the window lies the garden; round the garden run the walls; beyond the walls is the whole wide world, as far from her grasp as it has ever been. Her body aches and her soul is empty, and in the garden walks a man who thinks she is beautiful.
“Tell me,” she says, a little later, sitting with him on a stone bench beneath a tree ready to blossom, “what do you think is going happen to us?”
He raises one hand to press his fingertips against his brow. “I think... that we will either live, or we will die.”
“I am tired of evasions,” she tells him. “I am not afraid. I am only weary. Tell me what you think is going to happen to us.”
He studies her for a while, as if measuring the truth of her words. He has dark shadows beneath his eyes. Does he sleep at all?
“Very well,” he says. “Since you ask – I believe there are several possibilities. The first is that we die, quickly, once the river and the field are taken. This is perhaps our happiest option.”
Her heart has begun to race with his words. Yes, yes, she thinks, that is what I wanted!
“I guess,” he says, “that this would be your preference. Nevertheless, I do not think it our likeliest fate. More likely is that the City would suffer another siege, this time without hope of relief. In that case, we would remain prisoners here until we starved or we surrendered. For myself, neither hunger nor thraldom appeal. But while I might swear now that I shall never kneel before the Enemy, a day may come when I can no longer bear to watch the people of this City eating stones, and thus I would humble myself for their sake.”
She cannot imagine doing that. She would starve first, or slay herself. “You said there were several possibilities.”
“Indeed I did. The Shadow, when it comes, may fall quickly, but there are secret ways leading from the City that we might use first, paths that would take us to the mountains. One other choice available to us, then, would be to empty the City, take these mountain paths, and from there fight for as long as any of us lives. This is the choice I favour. The Marshal of the Riders does not agree.”
“No,” she says. “No, Elfhelm would not like to flee, and neither, I think, would I.”
He puts his hand down upon the stone of the bench, as if that simple action might hold it to him for a little longer. “How it would grieve me to leave this City!” he says softly. “Leave it to His servants; depart with the thought of them running amok here; fouling, burning, wrecking, feasting amongst the ruin of halls and houses that have been my home for all my days.” Again his hand touches his brow. “But a City is not a people, Éowyn. And if I can carry from this place any memory of Númenor – its hope, its valour; aye, and all its disappointment! – if by leaving here I might live to breathe on the embers of that memory for one more day, then I will forfeit these stones, for the truth is I carry all that they are within me. Our world might burn, but memory would remain. Not for long, perhaps, but each moment would seem to me a victory.”
She is shivering. “You have a way with words,” she says. “You... work a spell with them.”
“Thank you,” he says, dryly. He studies her again. She lifts her chin and looks back at him directly. “Would you come with me,” he says, “into such an exile?”
Life, she thinks. Or death? What difference? “Perhaps I would,” she says. “What else would I do?”
“What would you do?” she asks him, the next day.
“What would I do when?”
“If...” She looks east, but cannot bring herself to voice all that is in her heart.
“Ah! You mean if our hope does not fail?”
He makes no reply. When she looks at him, she finds him studying the palms of his hands, and smiling.
“Well... of course there would be no need for Stewards then. Nor, perhaps, much desire for rivals.” His smile fades. “My life, thus far, has been spent in service, Éowyn. I have not given much thought to what I might do instead.” He tilts his head at her. “You understand this, I think.”
But her question has evidently troubled him in some way, and he falls to thinking. She watches him curiously. She has not seen him lost for words before; has not known him without an answer. You must have hopes, she thinks. There must be something you desire. Not for your City, or your King, or your people, but for yourself. When you dream, she wonders, where does that clever mind take you?
He stirs beside her. “And why not?” he murmurs. “A man needs fantasies, does he not? A prisoner, caged, will dream of the key. We dream or die.”
He stands up and walks over to the walls, then turns, and stretches out his arm, offering her his hand. “Come,” he says. “Come and see.”
With one hand on the stone and the other pointing ahead, he names the world spread out before her. “The Pelennor, the Rammas... beyond that, the river... And on the river, should one day you ever pass that way, you will find what remains of a great city, Osgiliath, the city of stars, where once kings and lords and scholars lived, and men and women loved, before all fell to ruin. It is a sad place, now, of lost souls and broken promises. But the country around those ruins, Éowyn, is called Ithilien, and it is a green country that gladdens the heart. And in that green land lie an old estate and an old house, home to no-one now save birds and beasts, but where a great lord of Gondor once held court. And if...” he says, and smiles at her, “if... then I shall go back there.”
She has forgotten to breathe. “How do you know this place?”
“I’ve walked there often, among the ruins.” A half-smile plays upon his lips. “And, besides – they’re mine, now.”
She has the faintest notion that she is being offered a gift. “Will you... Would you build this house again, in this Moon-land of yours?”
“No. Those days are gone. I would build a new one.” He is easy now, leaning on the stone walls, looking back at her. “And what about you, Éowyn?” he says. “What would you do – if?”
And, suddenly confronted with her own question, she finds she has no answer. There will be no King asking for her hand; she knows that now for certain, and her cheeks burn at the memory. But what of Edoras? Could she return there? Does she wish for that? For in truth, Edoras was never her home. She went there in sorrow, the loss of mother and father transplanting her, and the roots barely took before the frost set in. There could be no returning to Aldburg, where she had been a little girl. She is not a little girl any more, and she has taken her own course. Would she still be loved, in Rohan, or despised? Great deeds should earn great renown, but Éowyn has long known that the rules are different for women. What does she want, then? What has she ever wanted? Lately, she has wanted to die – but she has not died. What did she want before? What had been her heart’s desire?
She finds the words at last. She wanted to be free. All her life, she has wanted to be free.
She hides her face from him. But daily she is finding it harder to escape her heart, which clamours to her loudly in a language that she barely understands. And hanging heavy in the air between them is the unasked, pregnant question: Would you come with me, into such a garden?
Summer came, and took them beyond the walls and the river into that promised country, gift of hope. Together they walked among the ruins, and she knew her way already, for he had sketched this place to her many times, and his words work spells. Death, her heart cried out, once upon a time. But life is better – and love is best.
Love Among the Ruins by Robert Browning.
Altariel, 30th August 2011
Altariel, 30th August 2011