by Two Ladies of Quality
Tey held the embrace for several moments amid the cheering and celebration that the battle of Helm's Deep was over, but remembered duties on both sides broke them apart.
Aragorn drank in Eowyn's joyful smile. "You're all right," he said. "When the Orcs broke through, I thought ..." Then he saw her hands and the remnants of the blood she hadn't been able to scrub completely off. "Eowyn ..."
"A few got through," she said calmly. "We stopped them."
He would have laughed if not for the whimpers of the wounded that were beginning to drown out the cheers.
"More fools they, challenging a shieldmaiden of Rohan." She blushed and looked away, fighting a smile.
A queen of men, Aragorn thought, and the phrase echoed in the corners of his mind. A Queen for the race of Men. As he was meant to be their King. When he'd lived his life quietly, avoiding the destiny so many insisted he follow, he'd given his love without thought of what was expected of him. Now Arwen was gone to safety, away from the trials and war that were claiming Middle Earth. She was too fair for such troubles.
One of the women hurried up and tugged on Eowyn's sleeve. "Lady, you're needed. There's folk hurt."
Eowyn looked out over the ruined walls of the Keep and the Deeping. Tears started in her eyes at all the bodies, then she firmed her shoulders. "I'll be right there." She turned to follow the woman, then looked back at Aragorn. "You should rest. We'll need your help later."
The expectation in her eyes wounded him. "I need to speak to Gandalf. There are--matters to discuss." He looked back towards the east, where the morning's bright sunrise was being dimmed by ugly clouds.
She stepped towards him. "You're leaving again."
"I must. This war is only starting."
Daughter of warriors, she knew better than to protest, but her face spoke volumes. "When?"
"I don't know. Soon."
She put a hand on his arm. "After you've eaten and gotten some rest."
"I must find Gan--"
"If you collapse from hunger and exhaustion, I don't think he'll be impressed."
He snickered before he could stop himself, then got himself under control. He bowed deeply. "Yes, my lady. Do you know where Legolas and the others are?"
She did her best not to smile at him. It wasn't quite enough. "Gimli is in the great hall, eating like the sensible person he is." Her smile faded. "Legolas is with the elves, tending their wounded."
"I should go help him--"
"I must! They've lost Haldir, death is a stranger to them. I understand them, I can help."
She nodded after a moment. "Promise me you'll take some time for yourself soon," she said softly.
He took her hand in his filthy one and kissed the knuckles. "I promise." Once again he saw the dried blood in the lines of the skin and under her nails. "Promise me you'll get some rest as well. You've done a hero's work tonight."
Her smile held as much resignation as pleasure. "The hero's work is done. The woman's work is just beginning." She squeezed his hand, then walked away.
Night fell over Helm's Deep. Able-bodied men and boys patrolled the remnants of the wall, watching for Orc stragglers and new mischief from Orthanc. Inside the Keep, the worst of the wounded had either died or settled into an uneasy drugged sleep. Eowyn walked wearily through the battered Great Hall, which had been converted into an infirmary. Tents had been found to house the less-injured outside the Keep. Theoden himself did not argue against holding his war conferences under canvas.
Many of the men and boys were tended by their womenfolk--or by women who no longer had menfolk of their own to look after. Weary warriors would come to the door, enquiring after a comrade, but this was primarily a woman's world.
Eowyn paused near the door to speak to one of the ladies. "Do we need anything else tonight, Hanna?"
"One or two miracles would not be refused. Otherwise, things are well enough. The stores here at the Keep have been well tended." The woman put an arm around Eowyn's shoulder. "Go rest, child. There will be work here in the morning, you needn't do it all tonight."
She nodded with a sigh. "And the men will ride away to war, leaving all this behind."
Fortunately Hanna misunderstood Eowyn's melancholy. "We can tend the homes they leave and have them ready for their return. Go rest now."
As Eowyn turned away, a quiet voice came from the doorway. "You promised me you'd rest," Aragorn said softly.
Her spirits rose at sight of him, bedraggled and worn as he was. "If you don't scold me, I won't scold you. I recall you giving a similar promise to me."
His tired smile hurt to see. "Yes, I did. But I had to speak with Gandalf and Eomer, and Theoden King needed to see us, and there were maps to look at ..." He looked past her at the rows of wounded. "And you've been here, healing wounds while I make plans to cause more."
She didn't need to look, the men's faces were large in her mind. "At least you plan battles in the open air and can think of things beyond these walls."
He held out his hand. "The air outside is little cleaner, what with the Orc bodies we're still clearing, but the stars are out."
As Eowyn took his hand, Aragorn saw he was being watched by the other woman. It was a speculative look that went from him to the Lady of Rohan, as if his worthiness was being considered.
They did not speak as they walked through the quiet halls. All the doors were smashed, and guards lifted weapons in brief salute as they passed. The upper ramparts of the tower were clear of the stains of battle, and the worst of the rubble had been rolled out of the way. The pair of guards patrolling these reaches moved to the far side from where Aragorn led Eowyn. He helped her seat herself on a stable section of wall.
She only winced a little at the aches from being on her feet for hours. She raised her face to the breeze, letting the moving air clear her mind.
Aragorn watched her, trying not to think. The starlight played on her face and in the hair that floated in the breeze. But there was blood at the tips of her hair, dried into hard points. He caught one of the locks and gently separated the strands. "The fair should not be touched by such ugliness."
She looked at him gravely. "Blood is an honorable badge of battle."
He shook his head. "It's not right ..."
Eowyn put her hand over his, which still worried at the bloody ends of her hair. "I was not raised to languish in a bower. My place is fighting for my people."
He waved a hand over the dark battlefield. "This is war, my lady. This is battle. Bodies piled because there are not graves enough for all of them. Friends dead, companions separated, the sun setting on one battlefield only to rise on another."
"We are no strangers to battles in Rohan. This is not my first. I doubt it will be my last."
He sat down next to her. "Eowyn, if things turn out ill, war will find you soon enough. You musn't go searching for danger."
She sat up straight and took her hand from his. "Mustn't, my lord? My king may use that word with me, but none other has that right."
So proud, so strong, so fair, so fragile. "It would break my heart, my lady, were I to hear of you coming to harm."
Eowyn went still, giving away nothing with her eyes except a small light of hope. "I would grieve as well, my lord, were I to hear the same of you."
Aragorn took her hand again, looking at the scratches and scrapes, the broken nails and grime. Hands which dug without hesitation into the work that was given them. He remembered long, graceful fingers, pale hands that floated as gracefully as leaves on the wind as they underlined a scrap of poetry or an oft-told tale. These were human hands, made for a human world. They held their own grace, a grace Aragorn could answer without feeling young and clumsy and tolerated.
He looked up and met Eowyn's eyes. "I am not free," he said softly. "There are battles yet that call me and a fate that I must answer. But were I free--"
She put a finger over his lips, then slowly dropped her hand to briefly touch the silvery jewel he wore at his throat. "There's another face in your mind," she whispered.
"She has left Middle Earth."
"But not your heart."
Aragorn dropped his eyes, unable to deny it. Arwen's voice whispered in his ear, her perfume drifted through his dreams. When he touched Eowyn's skin, he was always faintly surprised at the human roughness when his fingers expected elven silk. "I am not toying with you, Eowyn."
"I know." Her voice was quiet, as if she was sure that no one lived who would trifle with Eowyn of Rohan. "You said you'd be leaving soon. Do you know when?"
He sighed. "Tomorrow. Gandalf has heard rumors of Orthanc, we must go see."
She nodded, once again the remote shieldmaiden. "You should get some sleep, then, before you continue your journey. Good night, my lord." She rose and walked to the doorway.
He hesitated, then followed, catching her just inside the shadows. "Wait, please."
"For what?" she asked, calmly, hopelessly.
His Ranger's eyes could see enough in the dark. His fingertips found her cheek, and then his lips found hers. Choices made, hopes lost, human hungers in a world where darkness could be routed by the dawn but never completely destroyed.
She pressed against him, her fingers tangled in his shirt, but she pulled away before the stolen moment went on too long. He let her hair drag through his fingers as he let her go. The dried blood caught on his fingers briefly, but she gave no sign of noticing the tug.
Tears threatened in Eowyn's eyes but did not fall. "Good-bye, Aragorn," she whispered, then she slipped away
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