Eowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan

by Vison

Part Nine

January wore away in cold and dreary darkness. Theoden had fallen yet deeper into the black pit of his despair, and oft sat huddled upon his great carven seat, wrapped in furs, clenching the arms of the chair. The great hearth was kept alight, and the winter airs would sift in through the vent and the room would fill with smoke and yet Theoden King of the Mark sat mostly uncaring. At his feet lay his hounds, they alone of all those who dwelt in Meduseld were unknowing of what the King had come to. Even upon the glad day that Theodred and Eomer rode in together he could not seem to lift himself enough to pretend that he was as he had ever been. He rose to his feet, true, and hailed his son and his nephew, but his voice was nearly lost in the echoing chamber.

Eowyn could see that both Eomer and Theoden at last understood, and she saw the pity in their eyes when they looked upon the King. Yet they hailed him in turn with all courtesy, and spent the long winter evening in the Hall with him. Men around them jested and sang, full of ale, for their companions were pleased to dine with the King. Eowyn did not sit long after the drinking began. The men were glad to be in the Hall and not on the field, weeks and months of war made them eager for pleasure and forgetfulness, and apt to drink more deeply than was their wont. Theoden had ever required moderation in his Hallmates, he did not favour the heavy drinking of his ancestors’ days. Yet this night he said naught, it seemed he no longer much cared about such things.

The next day she breakfasted with Theodred and Eomer in the little parlour set aside for her own use. Her guests in this dainty room were generally women and girls, her outland cousins maybe, or a friend from the town. Her two menfolk seemed nearly to overfill it with their tall bodies and great boots, yet never had she had guests so welcome. A bright fire snapped on the hearth and the mild February sun shone in upon the polished wood of the table.

She had taken great care to order a fine meal, going herself into the kitchen to speak to the cook. But that worthy laughingly chased her away, saying, “My lady, dost think I do not know what to set before my lords Theodred and Eomer? It is not often enough that we have them at home, so be sure I will put before them a breakfast such as they have not had for a very long time! Eh, I do hope and so do we all my lady that one or both of them might stay for a time!”

Eowyn herself ate little, for her heart was full. Full of joy to see these men she loved so, and full of pain for all else. She knew that the time for speech had come, that Eomer and Theodred and she must now consult and decide what was to be done. Glad was she now that she had said little before, ever was it better with these two that they see for themselves.

The plates removed, and mugs of ale posset in their hands, the two warriors leaned back in their chairs, idly gazing at this and that in the pleasant room. Eowyn leaned her elbows upon the table and waited.

“Well,” Eomer said at last, “it seems that my uncle the King is not the man he once was! It is not surprising, perhaps, in a man of his years.”

Theodred laughed bitterly. “A good attempt, Eomer, but not very near the mark. It is not his years alone! No, my father is not the man he was, and so it falls to us, his nearest kin, to do what we might for the good of the Mark. And for him.”

Theodred then frowned and went on, “Why is it that all goes ill at once? A man’s head cannot take it all in!”

“It is ever so,” Eomer answered. He nodded to Eowyn. “Well, sister? I see that thou art full of words!”

“I scarce know where to begin, Eomer,” she answered. “He will sometimes not speak to me at all these days, but stays as thou saw, in his chair or in his chamber, staring at naught.” She rose to her feet and went to the window, staring out into the winter day. “There are those who say it is all the work of Grima Wormtongue. It is so hard for me to say! I dislike Grima, and so can see little good in aught he does. Things cannot go on as they are, but what is there that can be done?”

“Get rid of Wormtongue, for one,” Theodred said heavily. “That much is certain.”

“Theo, forgive me,” Eowyn said. “But if you send Grima away, who shall take his place? My uncle can no longer……I fear……..he needs someone to lean upon, Theo!”

“Then he shall have me to lean upon,” Theodred answered. He now rose to his feet and put his arm around Eowyn’s shoulders. “I am bound for the Gap of Rohan tomorrow. When I return, I shall stay here with my father. I see now that it is my duty, a duty more pressing than my duty to my Eored.”

“The Gap of Rohan!” Eomer exclaimed. “What sends thee there?”

Theodred shrugged. “Something is afoot beyond the common, or so I hear. There are times when a man must seize the bull by the horns, as they say, and so I go bullfighting. Nay, nay, I do not go to Isengard! I have no wish to see aught of that Saruman, blast his eyes! That was a blow to my father! He has not seemed the same since, that treason hit him hard.”

“Yes,” Eomer said thoughtfully. “That is true. But it is more, Theo. My sister will not lay all the blame at Wormtongue’s feet, but I suspect the blame is his, nonetheless. He thinks of Grima son of Galmod, not of the Mark and our folk! We have given him too much rope, cousin.”

“All the better to hang him with,” Theodred said. “Do not look so! I do not mean to kill him! I might have him thrown into the gutter, but I will not touch him. Touch a cur like that? I would not so dirty my hands.” He looked at Eowyn from under frowning brows. “And what of thee, cousin? Does he still trouble thee?”

She hesitated. “He has never done aught…….to me…….”

His eyes narrowed. “There is something! Why do you not speak plainly?”

Eowyn shook her head. “It is just that…I think he….” She could not go on for a moment. “He watches me! I feel his eyes upon me! But he never speaks one word out of turn, never offers me the least discourtesy, Theo! I swear to thee, he does not. Theo, do not look so!”

“It is an insult that he even walks on the same earth as thee, Eowyn.” He looked at Eomer. “What say thou?”

“I could kill him for even looking at my sister,” Eomer said. “She has only to speak the word, if he has done more than look.”

“I will never speak it! I will never be the cause of a man-slaying, Eomer!”

“Calm thyself, my sister,” Eomer said. “I do not think that thou art in danger from Wormtongue, and I so will not interfere, not just yet. It sickens me, but I will not kill him for his thoughts.”

Theodred hit the table with his fist. “Once we sons of Eorl would not have allowed such a beast to creep about among our womenfolk!”

Eomer laughed. “No, that is true, cousin! Once the halls of our fathers ran red with blood over insults both real and imagined. We are not our longfathers, Theo! My uncle the King requires courtesy from us, and courtesy to all in his courts.”

“Thy uncle the king! Ah, cousin, cousin. It goes sorely against the grain with me, to think of leaving the field to sit about in Meduseld! Perhaps, perhaps, cousin, it ought rather to be thy duty than mine?”

“Oh, no!” Eomer laughed in earnest. “I will not have it so! Thou art to be king in thy turn, Theodred son of Theoden, and there is no time like the present for thee to begin! I do not suggest, cousin, that thy father be unseated! But I see that he needs thee, and so dost thou!”

“Yes,” Theodred said dourly. “The King of the Mark needs his son at his side. Was I not brought up to do my duty to my king and my folk? But it is hard, Eomer! “

Eowyn said, “Glad will he be, thy father, to have you in his Hall!” She went on, “And glad will be the folk of the Mark, too.”

“Doubtless they will, cousin. But all these folk are a heavy load upon me, who is used to riding light! Come, come. We have only this day, for on the morrow I ride out to battle, and I guess it will be my last riding.”

“Do not speak so!” Eowyn cried. “Theo, those are words that might be taken another way!”

“Taken by whom, Eowyn? My dear girl, do not look so at me! I do not speak in omens or riddles! Me, of all men, thou must know that!”

She shivered. “I know, Theo, but I wish that thou had spoken otherwise, just the same.”

“Let me amend my words, cousin. On the morrow I ride out to battle, and when I am returned victorious I will sit beside my father the King and so order matters that peace and plenty shall fall upon the Mark like rain! Does that suit thee better, Eowyn?”

“Yes, it does, Theo!” she answered, but there was a chill upon her heart still. No matter how lightly he spoke, he was going out to battle, to wield spear and longsword. The chances of war were just that: chances. No one knew, ever, what might be the outcome of any foray, of any charge.

She thought of how Theodred and Eomer appeared, mounted upon their chargers, armour gleaming, crested helms glittering in the sunlight. Any man of the Mark would follow them, risking life and limb for the King and the Mark. She thought, too, of how Theodred would fret, when once he was back in the Golden Hall. He was quick to act and speak, not thoughtless but not overly thoughtful either. Yet she knew, with quickening heart, that he was more than a match for Wormtongue, and that the King would never take sides against his son.

The day flew by and the evening meal came. Eowyn sat by the King with Theodred on her right hand. It was a merry meal, all things considered. Eowyn had not felt so light-hearted for many months, and she was ready to laugh at the least excuse.

She heard what Theodred was saying.

“Aye, we ride out on the morrow, to the West, and the Gap of Rohan. We ride quick and secret as may be, Elfhelm! This latest incursion must be stopped, the Dunlendings and their friends have got mighty bold, and it is time they had their manners mended.”

Just then she saw Grima’s face, intent, his expression not guarded as usual. He caught her glance and turned away. After a time, before the meal was properly over, he rose and went out.

Eowyn was glad. His nearness cast a pall over her feelings and thoughts, and whatever had sent him forth she cared not to know.

This was not a year that February had its extra day, but she thought, why should there not be a feast anyway? Theodred would be home, and maybe Eomer too, and there was surely need of some festival to bring light and laughter into the Golden Hall, if only for a day? She bethought herself to speak to the chamberlain, it was not too soon to plan, the month wore so quickly on……………….