Chapter 20 : Shieldmaidens
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“I still cannot believe that you convinced him to take the road to Helm’s Deep,” Éowyn said. “It is fine indeed that Rohan allows its women a little more freedom than some realms, but to advise a king!”
They were near the head of the line of Rohirrim, walking at a comfortable pace with their horses beside them. The few soldiers who had stayed in the city rode slowly before them. The long line of villagers snaked back across the plain, and though they could not be seen from where Hermione and Éowyn walked, there were a few armed men bringing up the rear.
“It’s only because I was able to help him,” Hermione said. “My companions, though, aren’t too happy with the decision.”
Éowyn glanced back to Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. Her cheeks were flushed when she turned back to Hermione.
“They wish to fight, not merely retreat, yes?”
Hermione nodded. “They say Saruman will attack no matter what. But there are no soldiers to do the fighting. They left with your brother!”
Éowyn’s eyes glittered. “I could fight. To take up a sword and enter into the glory of battle—oh, if only!”
“It’s not all like that,” Hermione said. “I used to think that from the stories I read when I was little.”
The blonde woman frowned.
“Have you ever been to battle, Éowyn?” she asked softly.
“I know you want to, but it really isn’t all that great. Where I learned magic, I was considered to be one of the brave ones. And I thought, because of that, that I would be prepared to stand and fight in battle. Why, I’d even been involved in battles of magic before, so I thought I was ready. I’d even been wounded before by spells.” She shuddered inwardly, remembering the time only last year when Antonin Dolohov had hexed her. She still didn’t know what exactly he had thrown at her – something that had made her chest hurt periodically for even a month afterward, some dark magic that she would likely never learn to use.
“Aragorn taught my friends and me to use swords, and Legolas showed me how to use a bow, so I thought that I was able to wield a weapon. But no matter how much I prepared, nothing made me ready for my first fight in the Mines of Moria.” Hermione paused, remembering. “I hadn’t killed until that day. I’ve at most knocked people out with curses. But battle here, without magic – it’s vicious, Éowyn. I was able to hold my ground well enough, but I didn’t let myself feel anything. And afterward I broke down. It doesn’t matter that they’re Orcs I’m killing; every one I kill makes me hate myself a little more, though I know it must be done to protect myself and my friends.” She sighed. “I just hope I never have to raise my sword against a human being.”
She looked back at Éowyn, whose expression had softened somewhat.
“I understand your story, Hermione,” the other woman replied. “But I have seen the horrors of war. These spells that are used – are they gruesome in nature?”
Hermione shook her head. “They are horrible, yes, but mostly they do not leave marks.”
“I have seen such sights that I wish I had never seen – sights branded in my mind. My own father – ” Éowyn broke off.
“Killed by the Enemy?” Hermione asked quietly.
Éowyn nodded. “Our ways may seem strange to you, but it is in the nature of our people to see out battles. Your companions knew this. That is why they tried to convince you to tell the King to stand and fight. That is why I wish to take up a sword and plunge into battle – for the glory that comes with being a warrior. Times are dark, and it is good that we are able to defend ourselves. Yet to have seen so many fallen warriors, my father included, sometimes makes me wish that we were a more peaceful people.”
“I’m sorry.” There was an awkward silence, in which Hermione wanted to say, But it’s not the same as if you had inflicted those wounds upon another with your own hands. But she didn’t feel that it would be right at this moment. The debate could be put on hold.
“Even so,” Éowyn said, “I do not think that it is right for my brother to say that battle is the realm of men. They have such feelings too, I imagine.”
Hermione smiled. “Indeed. Just because we are women does not mean that we cannot bear such feelings – they worry far too much about our delicate constitutions.”
“Too true,” Éowyn laughed.
“Can’t live with men, can’t live without them,” Hermione added. “It’s unfortunate.” The pair of them began to laugh.
“What’s that, lass?” Gimli asked, appearing at Hermione’s other side. Hermione raised an eyebrow. Had he come to try and convince her to talk to Théoden again? “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve not come to make you change your mind. What amused you so?”
“Just talk of men and how they can be insufferable,” Hermione said. “But we cannot live without them.”
Gimli chortled, “Ah, perhaps. One cannot live without the other, even among us Dwarves.”
“Really?” Éowyn asked. “I have never heard of a woman Dwarf.”
“True,” Gimli said, “you do not see or hear much of them. Of course, they look so alike to Dwarf men that they are often mistaken for them.”
Hermione met Éowyn’s eyes and they smiled. “What, they have beards?” she asked aloud.
Gimli snorted. “Pah. They can hardly be called beards. But Men and Elves seem to think they are, so they presume that Dwarves all spring from the earth!”
The two women laughed.
“Ah, that’s better, lass,” the Dwarf said, nodding to Hermione. “You too, my Lady,” he added. “Smiles from you both – you have been far too serious of late.” With that, he fell silent.
Hermione looked up and down the long line of Rohirrim. The city of Edoras had emptied – at Théoden’s command, of course, but the King had only given the order at her suggestion. Half of her wanted to be logical, to tell the King to simply lie low in Helm’s Deep. But the other half – the half that had earned her a place in Gryffindor and not Ravenclaw – wanted to make sure that these people were prepared for a fight.
I shouldn’t have to do this, she thought, sighing. I don’t even know if it’s the right thing to do. And what about Ron? What is happening to him right now? She gave herself a little shake. Focus, Hermione, she told herself sternly. There’s no way you’ll get anything done if your mind’s always on him.
So she pushed Ron and the Hobbits to the back of her mind and managed to pass the rest of the day in relative peace. When time came to make camp, Hermione and Éowyn shared a small tent.
“You have no idea how nice this is, being able to not worry about putting up a hard front for the men to see,” Hermione said, sitting herself wearily upon the ground. “I never want to appear weak before them, because here, they’ll use it as an opening to discredit me. Why, my two best friends are young men themselves, and I can’t tell them everything. They won’t use it against me, but even so…”
“True enough,” Éowyn said. “I sometimes wished I had had a sister. Éomer began training for war too soon after I was born for us to truly be children together.”
They both organized their belongings on either side of the tent in silence for a few moments. From her side, Éowyn asked, “Lord Aragorn, he is a fine man, is he not?”
Hermione paused in unrolling her bedroll. “He is, I suppose,” she said lightly.
There was silence for a few more moments. “Do you think that perhaps I have a chance at winning his affections?”
Sighing, Hermione turned to face Éowyn. She needed to choose her words carefully. Ginny had come to her once, asking for similar advice the year before, while Harry was still attached to Cho. Hermione could not very well offer Éowyn the same advice she had given Ginny.
“Do you know the jewel he wears around his neck?” she asked.
Éowyn thought for a moment, then nodded.
“It is from a woman – an Elf,” she continued. “I believe that they are promised to one another.”
Hermione decided that it was best to leave it at that, and quickly changed the topic. “Do you know when they’ll be offering food?” She received no response. “Éowyn?”
The other woman blinked and looked at Hermione. “Oh – I was going to make myself a little stew, but it may yet be awhile. There are likely a few cooking fires about…” she trailed off, falling back into her reverie.
Hermione nodded and left the tent. The evening air was slightly cold, and she stopped for a moment, thinking how good it would feel to have Ron holding her, his arms keeping the chill out….
A lump rose in her throat and a warm sensation prickled at her eyes. She blinked furiously and set off in search of something to eat, dress swishing behind her.
The first few Rohirrim she encountered nodded respectfully at her, but at the same time, they huddled closer to their fires and did not invite her in. Perhaps they were wary merely because of their small children, so Hermione just nodded back and continued on her way. Then the same thing happened three times more. By now Hermione was growing apprehensive. Have I done something so wrong? Théoden and Éowyn seem to like me well enough.
Finally she found Legolas and Gimli. The Dwarf was enthusiastically chewing on a slice of bread and slurping up some hot stew. A mug of beer was on the ground at his side. Legolas stood a few feet away with a piece of lembas in his hand, conversing with but not exactly looking at Gimli. Friends though they were, Hermione supposed that Legolas would always maintain a high sense of Elven dignity that Gimli would be hard-put to match. As soon as she stopped and stood by them they turned to look at her.
Gimli swallowed his food before nodding to her. “You look troubled, lass. What happened in the past few hours to make you so unhappy?”
“Oh, it’s not the last few hours, it’s the last few moments, actually,” she said. “I save their king and no one wants to offer me supper. Or – forget that, I understand that they might not have anything much to share. But they seem to be avoiding me, and I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong!” Frustration that she had not yet been able to do anything about the situation with Ron and the Hobbits combined with what had happened only a few minutes previously made her voice crack just slightly.
“It is not that you have done anything to displease them, Hermione,” Legolas said. “However, I believe that they fear you and your power. They did with Gandalf.”
“But I’m far from being anywhere near as powerful as Gandalf was!” she exclaimed. “How can they think…”
“They do not know that,” the Elf said. “And it would be unwise to disabuse them of that notion. All of them follow your lead, even King Théoden. To let them know that you do not believe in your own power – ”
“It would make everything fall apart,” she sighed. “Why do I have to be the rallying point? I did not ask for it!”
Legolas replied, but Hermione did not really hear him. For as soon as she had fallen silent, she thought of Harry and his position in their own time. Wasn’t he the person around which the Wizarding world gathered in their fight against Voldemort? She had indeed been aware of this fact, but had never really considered what it might feel like. Hermione’s mind drifted back to her fourth year at Hogwarts, when Harry and Ron had been fighting and she had functioned as a go-between. Harry had angrily spat something about trading places with Ron any time, gladly giving up his fame.
Now Hermione was painfully aware of Harry’s sentiments. These people were looking to her for guidance and strength. She did not want to let them down, but her logical half instilled in her a sense of fear. How did she know it was the right decision? How did she know she would not be killed before she got a chance to see Ron again? She sat down on the ground, staring into space.
She turned her face up to look at Legolas. “I don’t know what I’ve done. I can’t see where this is going, except into darkness.”
“You meant no harm by your decision,” he said. “I am sure that Gandalf would have offered Théoden the same advice to go to Helm’s Deep.”
“You think so?”
“Aye,” Gimli nodded. “Even though I’d tell the king to stand and fight, Gandalf would have done his best to keep the people safe. We should only hope that Saruman will not attack until the soldiers of Rohan are found.”
There was silence for a few moments, during which Hermione played with a loose thread on her sleeve. “I need to convince Théoden that we need to be prepared for war, don’t I?” She looked up at her companions. The two of them nodded their heads.
“I will let him know that it may be necessary. But I do not wish to see a battle; it would be a terrible blow to the people.” And if the Rohirrim are defeated, how then will we be able to stand up against Saruman to rescue Ron and the Hobbits?
“How far do you think we are, Éowyn?” Hermione asked as they were walking the next day. They had risen early and broken camp. A few of Théoden’s men had stayed behind to ensure that no one would be left behind.
“Not long now,” the other woman replied. “It is no more than a few hours from here.”
The two of them chatted merrily for a few hours, walking just behind Théoden and Hermione’s other companions. Legolas ran up ahead every now and then, his Elf vision giving a clear view of what was in the distance. Every time they caught up to him they asked him if he had seen anything, but he shook his head. With the sun in the sky and a clear road ahead of them, there was nothing that could go wrong. They would all make it to the fortress safely.
Or so they thought.
Éowyn was just relating an amusing story of a time when she had borrowed her brother’s practice armor and tried to go to the training grounds dressed as him. “I truly thought it was clever. Gamling decided to humor me until Éomer arrived, looking furious.”
“Been wanting to fight since you were that young?” Hermione asked, smiling.
Éowyn nodded. “Indeed,” she whispered, “I have brought with me mail and a sword. Perhaps I could – ”
But instead of finishing her sentence she trailed off, directing her gaze forward. Aragorn was running back to the line, followed closely by Legolas. The Elf stopped and turned back to study something as he drew an arrow from his quiver, fitting it to his bow.
Hermione’s heart plummeted as she watched the situation unfold. She did not need to hear Aragorn’s shouts that they were being attacked by Warg riders to understand what was going on; Legolas’s sudden turn had told her enough. Her eyes turned to the pack that Eadwine carried upon his back – her sword was there, together with the clothes she had brought from Rivendell. The horse grew restless as the villagers began to panic upon hearing Aragorn’s words.
Théoden called for all riders to come to the head of the column to join him. The command was passed swiftly down the line by the soldiers scattered throughout. The thunder of hooves filled the air.
“Éowyn! Hermione!” the King called. “You must take the villagers and lead them to Helm’s Deep. Make haste!”
His niece protested. “Uncle, I can fight!”
Théoden shook his head. “Please, go – you cannot be of use here. Do it for me.”
“Éowyn, come on,” Hermione said, tugging at her sleeve as the King rode away. “We’re in dresses, we can’t possibly…” she broke off, following the other woman’s gaze. Éowyn had locked eyes with Aragorn for the briefest of instants.
Éowyn snapped into action as soon as he turned and rode away. “Listen to me!” she called, her stance commanding. “Make for the lower ground; Helm’s Deep is not far from here. Do not wander off – stay together and follow me!” With that, she turned and led her horse down a different path. The villagers followed her. “Make haste!” Éowyn called back.
The clashing sounds and shouts of battle came over the ridge. Hermione wondered how her companions were doing against the enemy she had not even seen. Part of her was grateful that she would not need to participate in a battle again, but another part of her wished to help her friends. Silently she cursed her choice to wear a dress one the journey – a serviceable one, no doubt, but something with a skirt nonetheless. She had her wand, but she could hardly ride effectively enough to fight. From now on I’ll be sure to wear my Rivendell clothes.
She hadn’t moved yet, and the villagers were beginning to look at her curiously. “Follow Éowyn!” she cried. “She will lead you to safety!”
The line of villagers stretched so far back that she desperately wished that she could make Portkeys for all of them. If Théoden and his men were not victorious, what would happen?
Again the thought of just how many lives Théoden had put in her hands weighed heavily upon her. Seeing the whole of Edoras in a line behind her made it all the more concrete.
She stayed where she was to offer words of encouragement to those whose progress was slower than the rest – the elderly and the very young. All those with whom she spoke nodded and looked at her with something like awe. A small redheaded child smiled at her, his blue eyes wide and completely unaware of just how dire their situation was. Her heart ached even as she smiled back – the boy looked like a much younger version of Ron.
They walked quickly across the plain, skirts and cloaks flapping in the wind. Hermione saw Éowyn up ahead, standing still atop a grassy knoll. She caught up to the older woman soon enough and followed her gaze. The young witch felt her breath catch as the impressive sig/ht met her eyes.
Helm’s Deep looked as though it rose from the very foundation of the mountains. An enormous ramp led up to thick wooden gates, with a high stone wall surrounding the entire fortress. Surely it would take a long while to breach the outermost defenses, long enough for Éomer and his men to be found and arrive. Until then the villagers could hold out against Saruman, hidden in the caves of the mountain itself.
Hermione’s eyes swept along the walls. She was pleased with her decision to tell Théoden to come here – for, she reasoned, the technology of Middle-Earth was not advanced enough to give anyone much worry. The fortress had stood for many years, which in itself told her that it was soundly constructed. With the higher ground – standing upon the ramparts, that was – the villagers may yet be able to hold out against an army. Explosives were the only way to smash through the walls, and those had only been discovered by Chinese wizards less than two thousand years before her time.
“We are safe,” Hermione said softly to herself. And she would have been able to breathe easily if it had not been worrying about Ron.
About an hour later she found Éowyn surveying baskets of food. The blonde woman was speaking with the villagers to ensure that all the food and supplies were properly organized. As Hermione approached, she saw the other woman’s mouth narrow in a grim line before she ordered the villagers to store the food in the caves.
“Do they have any more?” Hermione asked.
Éowyn shook her head. “This – and only a few baskets more – was what they managed to bring. I fear that we will not have nearly enough if we should be trapped here.”
Hermione thought for a moment. “If the situation becomes desperate, I could try my hand at magically duplicating the food. It is true that I have never tried it before – and that food is supposed to be one of the most difficult things to magically manipulate – but I can try.”
“I pray that it does not come to that, but thank you.” Éowyn sighed before reaching down to take a basket. Hermione followed her example.
Together they wended their way through the fortress back to the caves. Hermione, who had expected nothing more than a dark, dank fissure in the rock, gasped upon entering. Éowyn turned and looked at her, puzzled.
The sight that greeted Hermione’s eyes was much greater than she could have possibly imagined – even after seeing Hogwarts, even after seeing the beauty that was Rivendell and Lothlórien. In the soft glow of the candlelight, she could make out the shine of precious metals and the glint of jewels. Stately columns formed by the joining of stalactites and stalagmites stood throughout the caves, some of them hidden by translucent curtains of calcite. Her mind flew to the Muggle geology textbooks she had borrowed from the library when she was nine years old. There were veins of gold that stretched through the walls of the cave, she was sure – and could that glimmer of silver possibly be mithril? The Rohirrim did not even know what sort of wealth they had here – right in this place where their peasants were hiding, guarding stacks and baskets of food!
But what good would all this wealth do, if they could not use it to buy the food they now desperately needed? Could they possibly use it to buy Saruman’s good will? No, she reasoned – it was far too late for that. Saruman was intent upon destroying every last man, woman, and child of Rohan; in his madness, he would likely accept the payment before striking a killing blow.
“What is it, Hermione?” Éowyn asked.
Hermione tore her gaze away from a glowing curtain of stone, trying not to think too hard about the geology behind its formation. “It’s just that these caves are far more beautiful than I imagined they would be.”
They set down their baskets as the other woman replied, “Beautiful they may be, but they are also safe. The women and children will hide here later if a battle ensues.”
A distant call reached their ears. “Make way for the King!” The sound of many hooves clattering upon stone filled the air as they together ran to meet the soldiers and Hermione’s companions.
It did not take long for Hermione to notice that fewer soldiers had returned than had stayed to fight. She scanned the crowd. There was Legolas, his intangible Elven poise making him easily distinguishable from the Rohirrim, and behind to him was Gimli. But where was…
The Dwarf slid down and forward to speak to Éowyn, who had voiced the question that Hermione could not even ask herself. “My Lady – he fell.”
Hermione placed a hand against the rough stone wall for support.
Aragorn is gone.
He was dead, and it was her fault. He would not have been killed if she had not rashly made the decision to journey to Helm’s Deep – and that said nothing about the other soldiers who had fallen in the fight. How many more would die because of her advice? How much had she affected the fate of Middle-earth, by unwittingly leading the last of Isildur’s heirs to his death?
“Hermione?” Legolas said. “Are you all right?”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “It’s my fault.” Opening them once more, she saw Éowyn standing before Gimli in shock. How many women had lost someone today, a brother, a husband, a father? In that moment she made up her mind.
“I made this mess, Legolas, and I need to help everyone out of it. I was selfish and could only see Théoden’s help in rescuing our companions.” She turned and looked at him directly in the eye. “I need you to help me find some decent armor. If there is a battle, I am going to fight in it.”
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