The hour of Men
Thanks to Sheila for betaing and to Livia and the Spike for encouragement.

The grass is brittle with frost beneath Eowyn's feet as she picks her way along the edge of the encampment. Behind her, the fires make shadows of the Rohirrim against the canvas. Most of them are long-gone in their cups, carousing and telling threadbare old bawdy tales. That is the way of men before a battle, and it is as it should be. So few of them will ever return to these tents.

Fewer, now, than they might have expected before Aragorn took the path to the Dimwald. The thought is bitter to her. Eowyn has watched for years beside the throne, and her eyes are clear. It did not escape her notice that what Theoden chose was to follow a son-in-law to victory. He will never reproach her with that choice, whatever comes of it, but she has seen the anger and contempt in other eyes.

Twice now she has been meant as a price to be paid, but it would seem that only the Wormtongue thought her enough. She has failed to give the aid a woman of the court should in dark times. She cannot bear to return to play helpmeet at Edoras as if the Shadow did not stretch over them all.

She finds her horse where he is tethered and strokes his flank. He has been faithful always to his rider, and she wishes she could give him a better end. She girts her sword about her, then fumbles in her saddlebag again. He licks the precious honey from her hand with a warm whinny, and she leaves him behind.

The path to the Dimwald lies murky ahead of her, a deeper dark in the night. She is not afraid of the dead. How could she be, who has been a ghost for so long? It would be unworthy of the niece of the king to pursue a man into far kingdoms, but not to pursue death. She remembers the old story of the lordly house set to burn by traitors and the woman who refused safe-passage out, choosing to cleave to her husband even into the fire. She thinks of the maiden of Arnor who cast herself from the tower rather than fall prisoner to the dark King. Once she had not been able to imagine that kind of bravery, but such choices seem very easy to her now.

There is no footstep, but she suddenly becomes aware that she is not alone as she goes. An elf stands beside her path. It was not the elf who rode with Aragorn, but one much older and grimmer. He must have come to them in the night, but he bears no stain of travel nor mark of weariness. His bearing is so dire and lordly that she lingers, though unwillingly, to gaze at him.

"Where do you go, Eowyn of Rohan?"

His tone angers her. "I go where I please in the camp of my uncle, and, elf-lord though you be, you shall not challenge me."

"You look for death."

"It does not matter."

He raises his eyebrows. "Indeed, you speak truly. It does not. The cause of Men is so weak that the loss of one will matter little, and this war claims even the noblest of maidens. With ease may you be spared from the battle."

"You do the king a great discourtesy to speak to me thus," she says through gritted teeth.

"Theoden? Speak to me not of the courtesy owed the kings of Men."

His aspect is so full of scorn that she flares out. "There is one king among Men braver than any elf-lord lurking in a fortress in the West!"

His face begins to darken, and she would be afraid if there were any room for fear left in her, but then he fixes her with a curious eye. "You deem that Man's merit high indeed, though he wears no crown."

"I do."

He stands still, lost in thought, gazing now down the dark path. "Do not do this thing, child of Rohan," he says finally.

"Why should I not? I am a woman who cannot serve either house nor lord. There is no use for me anywhere."

"There may yet be a purpose for you among the riders of Rohan."

"There is no place for a woman in the army." It is an old, old bitterness for her, to be bidden to care for those she loves by beating bedclothes and steeping leaves.

"No place for a woman, indeed." His glance is so keen that she takes a step back. Then he is gone.

But his words linger, making her stand in wonder, turning her eyes back to the camp. Elves believed there to be little of honor among Men. The Men of Gondor said the same of the Men of Rohan. None of them looked for it in a maiden.

So she would not find it as a maiden, as she never could.

She will die, but she need not throw her life away utterly. Her fingers come to rest on the hilt of her sword as she moves back towards the tents. She knows where the helms are kept.

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