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Unto the ending of the world: 19. Queen
April 20 – 21, 3019
It was a quiet morning, the slight haze over the plain certain to burn away before long. Éowyn sighed inwardly as she watched the sun rise. What she wanted most was to saddle Windfola and escape from everything for a few hours, but there would not be time today. Nor would there be much opportunity for riding in the next few days, as it could not be long before her messengers returned from Gondor. She would have to settle for this brief walk, and maybe some sparring later in the day, even if she had to think of Éomer each time she picked up a practice sword. He at least had not held back so much when they fought together. She closed her eyes briefly as her grief for her brother nearly brought her to tears. She should not show herself vulnerable, not out here where she did not know who was watching; that lesson she had learned well in the time that the Worm had held the reins of Théoden's court.
Éowyn awaited the return of the messengers with some anxiety. It had been three weeks since the last news, and not only did she need to know how Gondor stood and what should be done about Anórien, the return of the messengers also signalled the moment to call all her councillors together, as there remained much of the ordering of the Mark to be decided. While many had already sworn to her, there still remained oaths to be renewed, and lords' heirs to be confirmed in their new positions; some of those who had died on the Pelennor had left no clear heir, or their sons had fallen with them, and successors would have to be decided on.
Elfhelm had returned to Edoras from the Eastfold several days ago. While there had been no major attack and no signs of one to come soon, there were smaller skirmishes, and he had wanted to see the situation for himself. He had been too late to speak with the Elves who had come back with Erkenbrand, but the two men had spent much time in discussion, and Éowyn was aware of their concern over the east of Rohan.
It did not surprise Éowyn to find Merry Brandybuck outside as well. He was sitting staring out at the plain, clearly deep in thought. She should take some time to talk with her esquire; he might be lonely at times, but from what she had seen and heard, he was also settling well. "What are you thinking of, Master Holbytla?"
He looked up, startled at her approach. As Éowyn sat down on the flagstones next to him, she asked, "Are you not lonely here in the Mark?" Merry hesitated and she smiled as she added, "If I released you from your oath, would you go back to your Shire? I will not be offended if you say 'yes'; I know you miss your friends and your home." Even if she was glad of his presence, she would not keep him in Rohan against his will.
Merry blinked, clearly taken by surprise by her question, and replied after some thought, "I do not know. Most likely not. Not yet anyway." She gave him a surprised look and he continued, "I would wait at least until Pippin can come back from Gondor; it would not feel right otherwise. When he does return, he will come through here, and the hobbits in the Fellowship should go home together." He winced as he said it and went on softly, as if meant only for himself, "Even if it will not be all of us..."
"But you are a lord's heir," she said, curious about what moved him. "Do you not think your father has need of you in these dark times?"
He thought for some time again, then said, "Perhaps, but my father is hale and our land not yet under attack. Should he have need of me, word can be sent through the Rangers or the Elves. And I am only one hobbit. I could not make that much difference. I doubt I will be called home unless something happens to my father. Otherwise, my family understands that I will return when the time is right."
Éowyn raised an eyebrow at that and waited. The hobbit looked away before he continued. "Ah... I was in rather a hurry last year, and I only let them know I was going away with Frodo in a letter after I had already left."
Of course, she thought, and nodded. "I understand, but should you change your mind, come to me and I will see that you get home." She certainly understood his position, though at least her small friend had not abandoned his sworn duty to follow his cousin.
Merry smiled in acceptance of her offer, but did not say anything.
Soon the hobbit went back inside, but Éowyn remained outside a while longer. Thinking of Gondor made her consider other alliances also, and she thought back to the day that she had first allied Rohan with the North. The Northern Chieftain had spoken harshly to her then, and looking back she had to admit he had been right in his judgement. Riding to Gondor, and abandoning her charge in doing so, had been wrong, perhaps even dishonourable, and an abandonment of her duty, not just to her lord, but also to the people who had relied on her. She had taken care that one who was capable was left in charge, but that had not been enough. It was a mistake she was paying for now in lost trust. And yet, without her, maybe none would have returned from Minas Tirith. Were the three thousand Riders who had come home to fight again the price of honour?
Of course, for some the alliance with Lothlórien had cast further doubts on her judgement, and it did not help that she could not speak of the reason for looking for such allies. Only Elfhelm and Erkenbrand knew of the Enemy's Ring. She had taken a risk by sending Erkenbrand without the approval – or even knowledge – of the full Council. It was probably only because it was supported by Elfhelm, and because one as widely respected as the Lord of the Westfold had ridden to Dwimordene that the alliance had been accepted at all. Erkenbrand's report of the destruction the Orcs had caused in the Elvish lands, and of their numbers, had also done much to forestall further objections. All knew that in high summer the grasslands of the Mark would be as vulnerable to fire as was the Golden Wood. Not even Swithulf had objected openly.
She ought also to send an envoy into Eriador before long. There was still much to discuss with the Dúnedain, as there would be with Rivendell. Though both Dunland and Isengard had been quiet since their defeat at Helm's Deep, it would not do to neglect the western flank of the Mark, even if Éowyn could already imagine her councillors' sour reaction to the confirmation that she would go through with allying Rohan to Rivendell. "More Elves, my lady?"
As she stood up to go inside, Éowyn noticed riders approaching from the direction of Dunharrow. Had her messengers returned? The regular errand-rider from Dunharrow itself had arrived the day before, and it was unlikely that there would be any other traffic from there at this time of morning.
Meduseld's hall was slowly filling up, as others had also seen the riders' approach and confirmation had come that they were indeed the messengers from Gondor. Taking her place on the dais, Éowyn noted that of her advisors only Elfhelm, Erkenbrand and Wigmund were present. There was still some time before the messengers' arrival, and she called Merry over to ask him to find her other councillors and tell them that she would meet with them immediately after she had heard the news from Gondor.
At last, the doors of the hall opened, and the doorward announced the messengers. The news would not be too bad then, Éowyn thought, else they would have asked to speak to her alone. Then again, with Minas Tirith already lost, how much more ill news could there be until the Enemy started pushing further into Gondor? The Eastfold and Anórien were fairly quiet, there was no news of large attacks or troop movements from the Wold and beyond, but surely the Enemy had to be attacking somewhere?
Aesc, the messengers' leader, spoke once he reached the foot of the dais, "My lady, I bring news out of Gondor. The Lord Steward sends his well-wishes for your reign. He also wishes to convey his sorrow over Rohan's losses in this war, especially the death of your uncle and your brother, and expresses his appreciation of Rohan's unfailing loyalty in Gondor's time of need."
Éowyn inclined her head briefly, keeping her expression neutral. The message was polite enough, but no more than courtesy required between allies.
"And how stands Gondor?" she asked.
"The Steward has moved his seat to Pelargir, but the Enemy has not yet moved beyond Minas Tirith. I also have a letter with more details."
Éowyn held out her hand impatiently. She already knew about Pelargir, and there was no change in the Enemy's position near Minas Tirith from what she had heard before either. As she took a thin bundle of papers from Aesc, she spotted one letter in a different hand and she took it out for a closer look. As she read the address, she smiled.
"Master Brandybuck, I believe this one is for you," she said, handing the letter to the eagerly waiting hobbit. "Is anyone else awaiting a letter from Gondor? If so, it may be in here as well," she addressed those in the hall, making a show of looking. Merry blushed at the laughter directed at him, but he seemed pleased enough with the letter.
Slightly later, in her audience chamber, Éowyn broke the seal on the Steward's letter and quickly read it. There were some details her First Marshal ought to know, so she handed Elfhelm the letter, and waited while he too read it. When he was done he returned it to her, looking pensive.
While she waited for her councillors to arrive, Éowyn considered everything that would have to be discussed. It was going to be a long day, if indeed they managed to conclude their business before nightfall.
The last to arrive was Déorlaf, complaining loudly about his old bones and being woken too early. As he sat down, Éowyn addressed the Council, starting with Denethor's letter. It would have been easiest to let them read it for themselves, but not all councillors were lettered or understood Westron.
"Much remains to be done in the ordering of the Mark, but as the return of the messengers from Gondor is the main reason for calling you together today, I will start by telling you what the Steward of Gondor has written. He confirms that Gondor stands strong yet, though many were lost when Minas Tirith fell. With the loss of Minas Tirith, Gondor is no longer able to defend Anórien, as it has been cut off from the rest of Gondor. The Steward therefore requests that the Mark further honour its alliance of old, by keeping these lands safe as if they were our own."
"Have we not done enough for Gondor?" Eadwig asked bitterly. "It is time we looked to our own interest, rather than have the best of our men die on a foreign battlefield for no purpose."
Éowyn was ready to respond if Elfhelm did not, but it was Sighere who replied first, "Defending Anórien is in our own interest."
"Indeed it is," Elfhelm now added, agreeing with the Eastfold man, "I would rather have Anduin than Mering be our first line of defence."
"And how will we cover such a large area? Do we even have the men and the horses to hold Anórien?" Eadwig went on.
"Anórien and the Eastfold should be defended as one, and with the help of the Ents both there and in the Wold and the East Emnet, we have the strength," Elfhelm said. "All that lacks is a Marshal, and who that will be is one of the things that will have to be decided this day."
"Relying on the Ents!" Eadwig replied scornfully. "If that is your strategy, it is the most addled idea I have heard in a long time." He now turned to Éowyn, ignoring Elfhelm's angry look. "I do not trust the Elves, yet an alliance with Dwimordene I can at least understand, but these talking trees? Even if they are indeed real, and not an Elvish illusion, what good can they do? Drop leaves on the Enemy's Orcs as they march past?"
"Have the Ents not done enough to convince you of their worth?" Erkenbrand asked. "Not only would Helm's Deep have been lost to Saruman's men without them, but the whole eastern part of the Mark would have fallen."
"It is still not natural," Eadwig muttered, ignoring the reference to Saruman; not surprising, Éowyn thought; Eadwig, like Swithulf, had been in league with Wormtongue. Éowyn regretted she still had to bide her time; she would have preferred to move against those who had supported the Worm before this Council, but it would have been unwise to do so yet.
No one else said more about the Ents, and Éowyn returned to Denethor's request – as she understood it, it truly was no more than that, for the ancient agreement between Gondor and the Mark had not foreseen the situation they now found themselves in.
"As for Anórien, its inhabitants now in the Mark are free to either remain here or attempt to return to Gondor. Should it be possible to retrieve at least the harvest of the winter grain that was sown last year, the Steward of Gondor judges that it should be used for the benefit of the Mark and the refugees from Anórien."
That at least had the immediate approval of the councillors, though old Déorlaf did ask how they would find enough people to bring in that harvest as well as their own.
"That is of later consideration, but at least the refugees themselves ought to be willing to assist in the work," said Folcwine.
Éowyn forced herself to keep her attention on her councillors' discussion of the settlement of those of Anórien's people willing to remain in the Mark. Before, in the days when Théoden had still taken an interest in the running of the Mark, she had on occasion attended him while he sat with his advisors, and she had thought then that it seemed as if these old men would gladly live on talk alone. She would still rather be outside in this fair weather, but at least now she understood that what went on in such meetings was worth spending time on. Even so, her thoughts wanted to stray to other matters, and she considered the wisdom of having sought alliance outside Gondor. She doubted that Gondor could now offer the Mark any assistance were it needed, for had Gondor had such strength, the Steward would not have abandoned Anórien so easily.
She waited until the discussion died down. "With Anórien settled, we must look to the Riddermark itself. As we all know, our losses in riding to Gondor's aid have been grievous," she briefly inclined her head at Eadwig, in acknowledgement of his son's death, "And not only are there many places to be filled within the éoreds, it is now for us to decide on questions of succession for those who have fallen without an heir."
All spoke their agreement, and she went on, "But first, I would name the Lord of the Westfold for the position of Second Marshal, which he has already in effect filled, and commendably so, since the fall of Théodred at the Isen."
Erkenbrand merely nodded. Éowyn had already spoken to him about it, so it was no surprise that he was willing to accept. No one objected, though Folcwine looked less than pleased. Before speaking of what had been her brother's post, Éowyn had to pause to allow her to continue with a steady voice. "There remains one marshal to be named, but it would seem there is no one suitable for the position of Third Marshal within the eastern éoreds."
At first, no one spoke, but eventually Déorlaf, after exchanging a look with Folcwine, said, "Is there truly no one? What about Éothain?"
"No," Elfhelm replied, "Though he is a good warrior, I would not place him in command of a Muster when he has not even led an éored yet."
"Then what would you do?" Wigmund asked.
Sighere suggested, "Elfhelm would be my preference; he has experience..."
"But still lost three thousand men on the Pelennor," said Eadwig.
"None could have done better there," Éowyn silenced him, letting out her irritation at those who had not ridden to Mundburg themselves, but would judge the battle nonetheless. Even if Eadwig had sent his son, he was not so old that he could not have ridden forth also. "And I agree with Sighere. It will be best if Elfhelm commands the east."
"The First Marshal always takes the Edoras Muster," Folcwine objected.
"Not always. There has been no First Marshal named for many years," Éowyn replied. "I think it best that the First Marshal will take the muster at Aldburg, and I..."
"You cannot mean to command the Edoras Muster yourself!" Wigmund now interrupted, stumbling over his words in his rush to speak, "That is... no woman... you cannot, the council..."
Éowyn refrained from pointing out that in the past more than one éored, though never a whole Muster, had been commanded by a shieldmaiden, nor did she say that she would have considered this as a solution, had it not been for her own lack of experience in command. "If you will let me finish..." she said, waiting until Wigmund offered his apology for interrupting. "I do in fact have one in mind: Herulf of Harrowdale."
Elfhelm gave his agreement, as did Erkenbrand after some consideration. Éowyn cast a regretful look at the window where she could see that the day was already well beyond noon. At least there had been little opposition so far.
With the marshals decided, they moved to the list of those who had fallen without a clear heir. Here too, there was not much argument and Éowyn's hope that they might conclude the council this day grew.
"Finally, Harrowdale," Éowyn said, relieved at reaching the end of the list of holdings to be discussed. "Lord Dúnhere too left no heir, and I would name Herulf to succeed him."
"Are there none who are closer kin to Dúnhere?" Swithulf asked.
Éowyn was ready to reply, but Erkenbrand spoke first. "No, and I for one support Herulf."
"I do not," Folcwine stated bluntly. "I have no objection to him commanding the Edoras Muster, but he should not be given Harrowdale. His relation to the late Lord of Dunharrow is too remote, and there are others more deserving of the lordship."
"Such as your sister-son perhaps?" Elfhelm asked, as Éowyn tried hard not to snort in contempt; in the eyes of all but his doting family, Anlaf was a drunken wastrel, and the only thing he was deserving of being a good beating.
"Absolutely not," Erkenbrand now stated, before Folcwine could reply. "I will not see such an important holding given to one who can barely rule himself."
"The lad can be a bit wild," Déorlaf said, attempting to soothe both Erkenbrand and Folcwine. "But holding responsibility has been the making of many a young man."
At that, Wigmund turned to look long at Éowyn and laughed contemptuously. "Indeed, and of many a young woman too, as our lady Queen has shown so well."
In the shocked silence that fell at the councillor's words, at first Éowyn found herself both lost for words at what he had said and flustered at the way his eyes lingered on her body. The reproach itself was hardly new, she had heard it often enough since her return from Gondor; this however was a challenge to her position as much as a condemnation of her actions. She could not let this go by. "How dare you speak thus, old man," she started, surprised at how calm she sounded.
Before she could continue though, to her surprise it was Folcwine who spoke. "Wigmund, for shame. Have some restraint." Then turning to her, he smoothly went on, "I must apologise, my lady; it has been a long and tiring day, and I am sure Lord Wigmund spoke more uncouthly than he intended."
Seeing the look that Swithulf and Wigmund exchanged, and knowing the length of experience Wigmund had as a councillor, Éowyn doubted this very much. Old Wigmund might be, but he was no dotard. The insult had been intended.
Jarring her from her thoughts, Folcwine continued to speak, softly, almost unctuously. "My lady, it is true that you have made mistakes. That is only understandable, you are young yet, and inexperienced. You took on a responsibility for which you were not ready, and must have felt overwhelmed by it. What could be more understandable than that one such as you, with a shieldmaiden's courage, sought the only escape you could see and rode to battle, giving little thought to those you abandoned. No, my lady, I beg you, let me finish," he said as she tried to interrupt him. "We are not your enemies, we only wish to help you in these difficult times. Rely on those who have more experience, my lady. Let your Council guide you and regain the trust of your people."
"And what would your guidance be in this, Lord Folcwine?" Éowyn asked coldly, wondering what he was leading up to. She noticed that of her councillors only Erkenbrand and Elfhelm did not appear to know where this was heading.
It was Swithulf who responded. "You are the last legitimate descendant of the House of Eorl, my lady, and your brother named you Queen before his death. For that reason many are yet loyal to you, despite their doubts. Yet you are a woman also, and no woman has ever ruled the Mark. After the death of Helm Hammerhand it was not his sister who took the throne, but her son."
Éowyn said nothing, only looked at Swithulf. If she spoke now, she would not be able to stay calm, and she would see where this would go. She might not have the support of all her people, she did know that; yet most did stand behind her, and to claim otherwise was disingenuous at best. What did her councillors intend?
Swithulf was clearly uncomfortable under her gaze, yet after a quick look at the others, he went on. "My lady, you must be wedded. There must be another heir for the House of Eorl. And in view of your youth and inexperience we believe that it is best that you let yourself be guided in this by the counsel of those who are better able than you to consider the effects of your choice."
That was it then, Éowyn thought, her anger rising, this was how they thought to control her, how they intended to rule. Obviously, the proposal did not meet with the approval of all. Wigmund, Eadwig and Folcwine were clearly in full agreement, while Sighere and Déorlaf looked more than a bit uneasy. Erkenbrand and Elfhelm were looking at her, waiting for her reaction, and though they had nodded in agreement that there must be an heir, they were clearly not pleased with the direction this was taking. She gestured at them to remain silent; she had already let them speak for her too much, and she must not show weakness now.
Though she was outraged to the point that she did not know whether to scream or storm out, Éowyn was surprised to find herself replying calmly. "I see, my lords. And have you yet decided among yourselves who will pander for me? Or will you share the stud fee?"
None would meet her gaze at first, until Déorlaf spoke, albeit hesitantly. "My lady, surely you see the need that you wed?"
Worst of it was that she did see that necessity. Yet the way they went about it... She would not be pushed by them, and she would not be bound by their choice for her. Too much of her life had been a cage, her actions bound by duty, by what was expected of her. She took a deep breath before speaking, feeling as if it was her own hand that now closed and locked the door of her cage. "Yes. I do see the need, but I will not bow to your demand that you may choose my consort." That last freedom they would not take from her.
"Will not you at least concede then that your choice must be..." Swithulf began.
"That my choice must be what?" she snapped as he hesitated.
"Within the Mark," he continued.
That was reasonable enough, she thought. She was hardly going to ask the Steward of Gondor for his son's hand in her next despatch to their ally. "Very well, that is acceptable," she agreed.
Folcwine looked as if he still wanted to say more, but as all others now spoke to agree with her, he wisely remained silent.
After the end of the meeting, Éowyn remained standing in the now empty room for some time, gazing out into the darkening evening. Could she have handled this differently? They had been right, at least on the need for an heir, but even so...
In the morning, as soon as it was light she went to the stable. She had barely slept, and she needed to be outside. Perhaps the dawn air would clear her mind. There was certainly enough to think about.
Éowyn would have preferred to ride alone, but her guards were unobtrusive, and she accepted the necessity of their presence. Windfola was even more eager to be outside than she was and after a run to get rid of the worst of his enthusiasm, they ambled about aimlessly for some hours, allowing her to think about the previous day.
It was an unpleasant deal that she had been forced to accept from the lords of the Council, yet Éowyn also knew that her own actions were at least partly to blame for their lack of trust in her. And they were even right that the survival of the House of Eorl was more important than her personal wishes, even if the demand felt as much as a punishment for her dereliction of duty as that it felt like necessity. Nor had she been made to break off a betrothal, or had many choices outside the Mark.
She felt her face flush in embarrassment at the memory of her brief and all too brazen pursuit of Aragorn; even had that been more than infatuation on her part, she knew he had been far too high for her. There might have been some in Gondor who would have been suitable, or perhaps among what remained of the Riders' northern kin near Mirkwood, but most likely she would have wed within the Mark anyway.
That was not what bothered her about this demand from the Council. The women of the Mark were free to make their own choice in marriage, but she had also known that, while she would not be made to wed one she found abhorrent, it was expected that she would choose a husband appropriate to her station, if not someone whom it was politically expedient to tie to the House of Eorl. At least, she had known that until the Worm's rise to prominence in Théoden's court. As well as her uncle's decline and the political manoeuvrings that had endangered both Théodred and her brother, there had been Wormtongue's gaze always dwelling on her, its meaning clear enough. And it still stung that Théoden had not done more to protect her; he must have seen what was happening, certainly at the start when his mind had still been clear. But that was done with now, she could not let herself be ruled by these old fears. Even if he still invaded her nightmares, the Worm no longer had power over her, and she should spare him not a single thought.
Now that she was Queen, not merely the King's sister-daughter, it was even more important that she marry to her House's advantage. She understood that well enough; if only it did not make her feel like a prize mare to be bred to a suitable stallion from the right bloodline. She bit her lip to stifle an almost hysterical giggle. If she took that particular comparison further, it would at least take the spineless geldings in her Council who had suggested the idea off the list; not that she would take any of the ones who had argued that they had the right to choose her consort. Even if she could admit the necessity of the demand that she wed, she would not reward them for the outrage of trying to take the freedom of choice from her.
Alas, too many of the younger lords of the Mark had fallen on the Pelennor, and there were few for her to consider. Perhaps Herulf, now that he had as good as been named as Lord of Dunharrow, or one of the other new lords? Or Elfhelm? He at least was a friend and loyal to her House. Even if she felt no particular love for him beyond the affection of friendship, she also felt no revulsion at the thought of having to lie with him, and she trusted he would not seek to advance his own ambitions at her expense. It was after all a small step from Queen's consort to King, especially once she bore an heir to the throne.
There were far worse men than Elfhelm, and she shuddered again at the thought of some of those, including themselves, that her councillors would consider suitable consorts for her. None were as repulsive as the Worm's leers and suggestive looks had been, though that old lecher Wigmund came close. He already had not been able to keep his eyes to himself while the Council was in session. Luckily, he was old enough that she doubted he could do more than look. Elfhelm. In truth, there are few better left in the Mark...
But enough of that. She was already far across the plain, and Windfola could do with another run. She should give him his head on the way back. Going towards home it would not matter if she outran her guards; though they had good horses, there were few except the mearas who could match Windfola for speed. Éowyn waited until her men were near again and called out her intention to them.
Windfola was prancing impatiently, eager to go, and as soon as she shifted her weight in the saddle and loosened the reins, he was off. The horse's long strides rapidly taking her back to Edoras, Éowyn let everything except the wind in her hair, Windfola's strength and speed, and the joy of riding fall from her mind. This was living, and for the duration of the ride at least, nothing else mattered.
Near the hill, Windfola slowed down of his own accord, and Éowyn waved a cheerful greeting to the gate guards at the bottom of the hill as she entered the town. She let Windfola make his way freely, as he was as eager now for his stable as he had been for the run earlier. While her horse walked up the hill towards Meduseld and the King's stables, Éowyn wondered idly whether she should have the stable renamed.
After she had settled Windfola and brushed him down, Éowyn was so deep in thought as she left the building that she did not notice there was someone coming in, and she nearly bumped into him.
"Lord Elfhelm. My apologies. I was not paying attention."
"No need to apologise, my lady. I should have looked better myself."
No time like the present, and I have made up my mind. I may as well do this before my courage fails me. Éowyn raised her hand to stop Elfhelm as he wanted to walk on. "My lord, will you marry me?"
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