Eowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan

by Vison

Part Two

So highborn, so proud, so sure of her strength. She writhed inwardly, remembering Aragorn’s face, his eyes holding an expression she could read only too well! What had she been thinking? Only, it was not thought. She knew that. He had wakened her all unknowing, just by walking into the hall. Just by his bearing. The timbre of his voice, the shape of his chin. The column of his neck, and the set of his head. Seeing him as a man, she was suddenly a woman who had been only a frozen maiden. The ice left her heart at the sight of him, and something throbbed in her blood that made her hands tremble.

Bitter, bitter was the cup she had mixed for herself! If she had only been more discreet, she who was expected to be queenly and dignified and calm, a maiden of the court, a maiden whose every step was seen, whose every word was heard………….

Once and once only her uncle had mentioned, kindly but firmly, that her days of romping must now be over, that the sword was to be laid aside, the chainmail jerkin hung at the back of her wardrobe. “Yes, yes,” he had said, smiling fondly, “I know that you are a brave lass and bold, my Eowyn, but now you are a woman and must take up a woman’s duties. ‘Tis to the House of Eorl our people look, and it is not fitting that they see a daughter of the court galloping about the plains with a troop of young men! Think, sister-daughter, of what is owed thy station.”

That she had swallowed uncomplaining. A maiden of the royal house cannot do as she wishes, but must do, ever and ever, what is required of her. She had sharpened and oiled her long sword and put it in the scabbard and wrapped it in linen and laid it in a chest. The jerkin of chainmail was polished and folded into a square bundle and laid beside the sword, and alongside that, the queerly head-shaped lump that was her mithril-embossed helm. She had closed the chest and locked it and had knelt before it, laying her cheek to the hard wood. Why had they told her those tales? Why had they let her touch a sword at all, why had they praised her arm and her speed and her skill? Why had her uncle given her that swift mare with the shining neck and proud head? So she could ride, attended by giggling ninnies, around the park? Well, since a shieldmaiden she could no longer be, she would turn all that strength and endurance to enduring the life that now lay before her. It was then, in that long hour of solitude, that the ice began to form in her heart, and the merriment had begun to die from her eyes.

…who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in? ( The Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter 8, The Houses of Healing.)

But bitter though those first days had been, worse was to come. Her uncle the King fell quickly into old age, failing daily, hourly. Where was the man who had thrown her up onto her first horse, laughing with pride as she sat neatly on the dancing beast, her little girl face alight with happiness? Where had he gone, the uncle who had made Theodred and Eomer allow her to learn the sword exercise with them, who had rewarded her quickness with the gift of yet a better blade, made just for her? Where was the courtly and dignified man who held her hand on his arm, walking the length of the Golden Hall to greet some foreign embassy, who set her like a jewel in her chair beside his, and delighted in her presence, lighting, as he said, that darksome old hall?

She could not even see any longer the man who had ordered her to set aside her boyish ways and take up her stitchery. Even that Theoden had been tall and straight and looked at her out of clear eyes, and spoke in the manner of a King.

Her own chamber became her prison, and also her refuge. She could sit in the high window and see all the city spread out before her, and beyond, the high sky and the blue hills to the West. There was a piece of “work” ever in her clasp, grubby with long mauling, dragged in and out of her workbasket so that her achingly idle hands had somewhat to do….Such books as she had she left untouched on the shelf, for in those books were tales out of the glorious past, tales of the Mark, of Eorl the Young, of deeds of daring, of high endeavors by folk long dead…..but now no one would ever read of her. Eowyn Eomund’s daughter would never ride out a shieldmaiden again, no deed of arms would come within her compass…..

Theodred her cousin teased her with talk of her marriage. But even as she scolded and fumed, trying to stop his laughing mouth, fear crept into her mind. Who was she to marry? She would obey Theoden in much, but surely, surely her uncle would allow her to choose for herself? Lying awake, she would whisper the list, the short list of suitable men, the men she saw in her uncle’s court, and she could name only them. But somewhere, somewhere in the wide world was there not a man who was not on that list, who would come into her life like the wind from the North when it poured over the plains and up to stir the pennons and banners of the Golden Hall?

But as Theoden failed and fell into his dotage, led by her own shrinking arm to his high seat, all such thoughts left Eowyn’s mind. Now were her days full enough, for he demanded much care, this foolish old man. He frowned if his breakfast was late, he pouted like a child if his dinner was cold. He fretted over the smoke that curled in the ceiling, he ordered the hounds out, then called for their return. He murmured nonsense in his feeble voice, singing old songs again and again.

Sometimes he was there. Sometimes she would see her dear uncle in those rheumy old eyes. Sometimes she saw that he was in there , imprisoned in his ruined body as she was imprisoned in his house. Compassion moved her then, and she would kneel and chafe his veined old hand and say, “Uncle, uncle, what is it? Tell me, tell your Eowyn!”

Then the curtain would fall again, and he would stare, and maybe laugh. “Why art thou kneeling, girl?” he would say, pettishly. “Get up, and call Grima to me! I must needs take counsel with him.”

But Grima never needed to be called. He hovered like a bird of prey, just behind this curtain, just on the other side of that door. At the sound of his name he would glide forward and lean to the King and his oily voice would slither from his lips to the King’s ear and the King would nod and smile and nod and smile again.

Always had she known Grima son of Galmod. Old Galmod, thin and bent, had been her first teacher, helping her to spell her out her letters, guiding her hand to shape them. Grima was a big boy then, not one of the little scholars in Galmod’s classroom. Grima, page to King Theoden, learned horse manage and sword exercise with the other young men, and was, besides, the eager pupil of the Wizard Saruman.

For in those years Saruman was oft at the court of Theoden, and all thought his presence an honour. He came and went, sometimes gone for years at a stretch, but welcomed when he returned.

As she grew up, Eowyn was ever cautious of Saruman, although not afraid. She sensed the hidden power in him, something beyond his tricks and conjurings, something large and dangerous. Though she could not love him, she, like the others, was glad of his infrequent praise. He arranged an observatory in a tower of Edoras, and taught those who wished to learn of the motions of the stars. He would name every constellation, say out the tale behind every name.

Eowyn most loved these lessons, many nights she was his only student, shivering in the high cold airs. She drew a map, clear and bright on the finest vellum, and coloured it herself with the costliest paints and gilding. Here was the Moon in his courses, here was the Swordsman of the Sky, marching through the night. Knowing that he loved such things, she rolled it and bound it with a ribbon of gold and shyly offered it to Saruman as a gift.

Saruman unrolled it carefully, touching some of the stars with his long ivory hand, and said, “This is very fine, child. Not only skill, but knowledge, is limned here.”

“I wished to thank thee, sir, for teaching me about the stars,” she said. Then she smiled a little impishly and went on, “I hope thou wilt remember me as thy most faithful pupil.”

He regarded her as usual with a bemused smile, for it seemed that maidens were not part of his vast learning. “I see thee,” he said to her, “as a rare flower yet in bud, that will bloom one day with such beauty as men might sing of.”

“Yet oft it is seen that such blooms hide thorns,” she replied, bold enough, looking frankly up into his shadowed eyes. “But to grow up beautiful means naught, sir. I would be wise rather than beautiful; learned, rather than made into a song.”

He had flicked her chin with a careless hand, and laughed. “Wouldst thou? Then maybe thou ought to wear a sack over thy head, my child, for I see that men’s eyes are already following thee.”

His smiling dismissal angered her. Wizard or no, he ought not to laugh at her, to make light of her high notions, ought not to see her as just another pretty playtoy made for the amusement of men. It was at about this time that he again left Edoras, and in his train he took some of the young men of the place, Grima son of Galmod one of them. The day he left, riding the tall black horse Theoden had given him, Eowyn and Eomer watched from an upper window.

“They say that Grima is to stay with Saruman at Orthanc,” Eomer said, glancing at his sister. “He is very eager to learn what he might be taught there! As for me, I would not willingly be caged up in some stuffy tower.”

“Nor I,” Eowyn answered. “Yet I have been glad enough to be taught by Saruman just the same. I have no turn for cookery nor needlework, but I am thankful for his lessons in astronomy and mathematics.”

Just then Theodred had come in. “Astronomy! Mathematics! You silly chit, what man is ever going to want to marry a girl who knows more than he does? I don’t know what my father was about, allowing you to study with Saruman!”

Eowyn flew at him, her anger only partly feigned. “And swordplay, too, cousin! Do not forget I bested you, the last time we crossed blades!”

Theodred held her off, laughing. “You vixen! Stuffed full of learning, and swordplay too, you will never catch a husband! I know I would never wish to marry a girl like you! Too bold by half, if you ask me.”

“No,” she answered scornfully. “I know what kind of girl you fancy, cousin. Some simpering fool who says, “Oh, Theodred, my lord, how tall and brave and handsome you are’.”

Theodred laughed again. “Oh, are there such maidens at my father’s court? You ought to show them to me, cousin. But such matters are too dull for today. Let us ride out, you two! Come, I have already sent to the stables for our horses. Eowyn, put off that gown and get into your riding gear. I hear there is a caravan on the road, shall we go out and see what is to be seen?” Then, prompted by who knew what devilish impulse, he went on, “Time enough to think of marriage for you when your cavalier has returned, anyway.”

“My cavalier? What do you mean?” she asked, dread sinking into her stomach.

He grinned, and said, “Why, Grima, you ninny! Have you not seen how he looks at you?”