Eowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan

by Vison

Part Six

It seemed to Eowyn thatTheoden was being eaten up by despair, as if some great carrion beast sat upon his spirit and tore from his breast all his strength and manhood. He, like many of the Rohirrim, had ever taken the view that a man must endure stoically, without complaint, whatever fate sent. What made a man was this power to stand up under the misfortunes of life, stand up and shout defiance back to the blackness whence came sorrow and evil. But why this despair had come upon her uncle Eowyn could not say, for it seemed to her that his being, his heart and spirit, were become a bleak wasteland of fear and defeat, and that she could not understand.

There were many days, besides, when Theoden seemed much like his old self. Though his body seemed sometimes frail, he could rouse himself to meet his captains when they returned to Meduseld, and he followed the comings and goings of his riders on a map spread on the table in his chamber. Those were the days, too, when Eowyn was most welcome, when his face would light with a smile for her, and he would tell her to draw up a chair and listen, for she might learn something.

Yet, the next morning she would go into breakfast and he would be slumped in his chair and would frown at her and complain that his posset was cold. “Little enough dost thou have to do, child,” he would say harshly. “It seems to me that thou ought take more care of household matters!” Worse yet were the days when he would not leave his chamber, given over to the black mood that bowed his shoulders and darkened his mind.

Theodred came seldom to Edoras in these days. And when he did, he was weary and war worn, and looked only to rest for a day or two before he was out on the marches again. Theodred was never much given to introspection, and anything like weakness or illness made him itch to be away from all things he regarded as women’s matters. Eowyn could not bring herself to complain to her cousin, and it was true, too, that Theoden was most like his old self when his son was with him, or when Eomer was home. The two young men saw only that the King was older, which was according to nature. They also saw little of Grima, for he kept himself apart from the King when they were there.

Eowyn was waiting for something, although she could not say what it was. She longed for a change, scarcely caring now whether the change was for good or ill. And when one day it was the 12th day of May in the year 3016, her twenty-first birthday, she stared at her own face in her looking glass and could not even weep. The maiden who stared back at her was pale and cold as a frost flower, her soft mouth held closed in a hard line. No roses warmed her cheeks. Eowyn dressed as custom required of her, she had ear-rings in her ears and ribbons bound her hair, yet less than the poorest maiden in the realm did she care about such things.

That was a cold, wet summer, the second in a row. Crops were poor and folk spoke in fear of the coming winter, for stores were low. It was necessary that some thought be taken, some preparations made to save the people of the Mark from hunger. From this hamlet and that they came to Edoras, desiring that the King deal with these matters. And who should he put forth but Grima son of Galmod? Eowyn’s heart sank, and she feared for the worst. But to her surprise and the surprise of many others, Grima managed very well. He saw to the purchase of corn from Gondor, and saw that all was done fairly and openly. He was often gone from Meduseld on this mission, and while he was gone Eowyn felt as though some weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

But a thing happened during this time that left a mark on the king’s heart, and Eowyn’s. His old groom, Folcwine, was accused of a black crime by a young maid, a girl but newly come from some remote corner of the Mark. Eowyn spoke to the girl and tried to get to the bottom of the matter and found that she had no choice but to tell her uncle that Folcwine must go. Though she did not herself believe him to be guilty, so many did that to allow him to stay would be seen as an affront to all the women in the land, and so he was dismissed.

He came to Eowyn on the last day. She would have given much to be excused from seeing him, but she never shirked any duty, no matter how unpleasant.

Folcwine’s old face was grim and set, his eyes red with weeping. He would not sit when Eowyn gestured to a chair.

“I have come to bid thee farewell, my lady,” he said. “Thou hast ever been my friend and I know that thou dost not believe this evil of me.”

“Folcwine, I am sorry,” Eowyn began, but stopped when he raised his hand.

“It is better so, my lady,” he said. “This is no place for me any more, nor for any of the king’s old friends. Our time is done. The king my master has given himself over to that Wormtongue, and both my king and the Mark will suffer for it.”

There was nothing Eowyn could say. Several days later came news that Folcwine was dead by his own hand. Those who believed him guilty saw it as guilt, and those like Eowyn who did not believe him guilty knew it was despair.

Though Eowyn was glad for the sake of the Mark that Grima had done so well fending off famine and trouble, she was sorry for his return far beyond only the sight of him. For he was now become arrogant, but in a sneaking and cunning manner, always speaking and acting with greater servility than before. And she felt his eyes upon her as once she had long ago. He was not less in courtesy to her, but he spoke with a kind of assumed intimacy that sickened her, coupling her name with his when he spoke to the king and others, saying, “My lady Eowyn and I”, as if she consulted with him, or sought his advice.

She could scarcely bear to be in the same room with him, but if she gave in to her loathing, Grima had no check upon his influence over the king. His presence was like an evil fog, pervading every corner of Meduseld. And like fog, he was impossible to grasp; there was no way to get a hold upon him and his doings, he was as slippery as a fish, as cunning as a stoat.

Grima spoke to her of the matter of Folcwine. “This was a shocking thing, my lady!’ he said, winding his hands together in the new habit he had. “The poor maiden has begged me that she might be allowed to go to her home for a space, to restore herself.”

“Why would she speak to thee?” Eowyn said sharply. “As for her going home, I wish she might, and that she might stay there.”

Something flickered in his eyes, and he said no more.

The next day Eowyn learned that the girl had gone, leaving Edoras with some traders bound for the south. She knew, with horrified certainty, that Grima in some way arranged the whole affair. He had killed Folcwine as surely as if with a knife. And something else she learned then, too, of the death of Master Goldwine, her uncle’s physician. The day more than two years earlier that he was dragged to his death, he had been seen riding out of the gates with Grima Wormtongue. Hearing this, she felt cold and afraid.

Scarce any of his old henchmen now lived with the King, or even in the town itself. Some were dead, some had quarrelled with Theoden (or rather with Wormtongue). He was surrounded now by nithings, men who scarce deserved the name warrior, men who owed their position to Grima son of Galmod, who had no proper loyalty to the Mark or its folk. Courtesy they gave to Eowyn, indeed, she believed it was so ordered by Grima. She understood, her skin crawling with disgust, that these creatures believed her to be in league with Wormtongue! She paced her chamber, twisting her hands together in an agony of fear and hatred. She thought longingly of sending to the stable for her mare, of calling upon Hama the door warden and the loyal household troop, and riding out of Edoras, to ……whence?

She sat long that night, writing to Theodred and to Eomer. Yet when she had finished, she read her own words and tore up the paper and put it in the fire. Such suspicions and accusations should not be put on paper. Who could say that they would come only to the hands intended?

Twice in that year or so did Gandalf Greyhame visit the Mark. Both times there came to be sharp words between the wizard and King Theoden, and both times Eowyn was ashamed and heartsick to see it. Her uncle obstinately refused to hear the wizard’s advice.

It was when Gandalf was leaving in the fall of the year 3017 Eowyn sought him out and begged him to forgive Theoden, citing his ill-health and the manifold cares of the kingdom. “We are constantly beset by troubles,” she explained. “Saruman’s betrayal alone overset my uncle, and the news is bad from all corners of the Mark.”

“For myself, I take no insult, my child,” Gandalf answered. “My hide is thick. But this Wormtongue, lady Eowyn! How came thy uncle to lean so heavily upon such a weak staff?”

“I do not know,” she confessed. “I cannot myself understand it! Those men who my uncle ought more properly to consult do not come to him any more, for they must first get past Grima. Some come to me, or complain to my cousin or to my brother, but this breeds disharmony and resentment. Things go awry, and it is hard to see…..” she broke off, and looked away.

Gandalf sighed. “I would do much to help thee, my child, but I cannot stay here. I am needed elsewhere, indeed, I ought not to have stopped here at all. I must hasten South to Minas Tirith! Thy cousin Theodred should be here, he should leave the field to his captains and come to his father.”

“He will not, Gandalf. And how should he? Wherever he goes, he gives heart to our folk.”

She went out with Gandalf, walking down the broad steps of Meduseld in the bright October sunshine to where his horse and hers waited. She had decided to ride to the outer road with him and take her leave of him there, and perhaps have more of private talk with him than she was sure of in the Hall. The door wardens smiled, seldom did Eowyn Eomundsdattir leave the hall in these days and all loved to see her. Hama, door warden and captain of the King’s guards, held his cupped hands that she might mount her mare.

Gandalf was astride his rough-coated northern horse and Eowyn jested with him that he ought to have a better mount. “That Saruman, he would never put his leg over such a beast! His folk are stealing ours, since he can buy them no longer.”

At this Gandalf laughed bitterly. “If that were his only crime! I fear he is deeper stepped into evil than…..no, I will say no more. But be wary, my child. His arm is long, and he can do much evil to thee and thine beyond stealing horses, or even raiding into the Mark.”

Gandalf would have gone on speaking, but just then they caught sight of a troop of horsemen and Eowyn saw, to her delight, that in the forefront was her cousin Theodred.

So Gandalf rode off to the South and Minas Tirith and Eowyn rode back up the hill with her cousin. Joyous was their meeting, and joyous, too, was the meeting with King Theoden. This was one of his better days, oddly enough, as if disputing with the wizard Gandalf had given him fresh energy. Indeed, he said as much himself, taking pride in having defended, as he said, both himself and the Mark from interference!