2. Chapter Two
'Éowyn, you should not have come here!'
The cell was maybe three paces long and wide, with floor and walls of stone, save for the door, which was made of iron bars. There was a pile of straw along the far wall, but no other furnishings.
'Éomer . . .' I could speak no further. There was so much I longed to say to him, but what was the use? If he had not drawn his sword this day in the hall, Gríma would have found another way to trap him, and quickly. Éomer did not know it, but Gríma had poisoned the King's mind against him before these three strangers had come to sway him to near treason.
Still, the law Éomer had disobeyed had been made recently at the urging of Wormtongue, and I knew my brother to be of sound judgment in military matters if nothing else. Whatever the errand of these three strangers in our land, it must have been an urgent one.
His hands slowly uncurled from around the cold bars and reached out to gently take my own. There was a dull despair lingering in the darkness behind those eyes, a look I had not seen before, and it frightened me. I wanted to reassure him, but I had no comfort to offer. Only the knowledge that his death might be postponed, and to Éomer that would be no comfort if he knew what price I had paid.
And he must not know. That much was certain. Much though I wished I might throw myself into his arms as I had long ago, and let his strength support me awhile, I knew that I could not accept the shelter and protection he would so willingly offer. I could not speak my heart to him, nor take comfort in confiding to him my despair at the thought of what I had agreed to. Oh Éomer! what will you do, what will you say, when you learn the truth? For I cannot hide this from you forever, nor can I ever persuade you I did it of my free will. How can I make you see that it is necessary? And how will I stop you, before your anger seals your own death?
I leaned forward, whispering as we had when we were children, awake when we should be sleeping. 'Tell me of the strangers,' I said. 'Who were they, and what was their errand? I know you did not tell the King all.'
He shook his head, and I saw that his face darkened, though with what I could not tell. Dread for the future, certainly, but there was grief there, too, before he hid it. 'Strange creatures,' he said softly. 'A Man, an Elf, and a Dwarf, out of the Golden Wood. We rode past them in the grass without seeing them, for their raiment was of Elvish make.'
'Never did I think I could pass three strangers in plain day, and not halt and challenge them! Indeed, it was they who first challenged us!'
I shook my head, laughing a little, though the sound caught in my throat. 'If they escaped your vigilance, they must be Elvish folk indeed! But how is it that an Elf and Dwarf travel together? And what do they do in the lands of Men?'
'The Man's name is Aragorn, son of Arathorn,' he said, and his voiced dropped. I frowned. 'He claims he brings the sword of Elendil reforged to Minas Tirith, in Gondor.'
I breathed out slowly. Narsil reforged . . . the legends of Elendil were old, far older than our people's rule in Rohan, but the songs of Gondor had been sung in Edoras before the dark times, and I knew of Elendil, and the power of the name of Narsil. If the Blade That Was Broken was reforged . . .
Then indeed, the tides of war were sweeping swifter than we had imagined, and soon events would be upon us that would shape the end of the Third Age, if not the end of the world. The Nameless Enemy was gathering, this we had known long, though Théoden had heeded it but little. But here at last was evidence that the enemies of Darkness were mobilizing, and I knew suddenly that we stood at the edge of some great cataclysm. Events were rushing toward some dreadful climax, and even the wild folk of the North knew it. Men and Elves had not ridden together in battle since the Last Alliance, and here they came again, and with the same sword that had struck down the Dark Lord at the end of the Second Age.
Open war would soon be declared, I doubted not. And the King of the Mark would send no aid to Gondor. Not only that, but his two ablest captains were gone, Théodred slain and Éomer imprisoned. Not for the first time I wondered whether Gríma Wormtongue served another master besides his own greed and lust, for he could not have timed his base treachery better. At the moment of Doom, the Riddermark was powerless to assist those men we had sworn our alliance.
'The Elf and the Dwarf are of high lineage in their own kin. The Lord Aragorn said they were hunting orcs, who had taken captive two of their comrades.'
'The very orcs you slew?'
'The very same. But if the halflings were among them they had escaped already.'
Éomer nodded. 'The Lord Aragorn said that their companions were indeed halflings, and would appear to be no more than children.'
Out of the North, and bound for Gondor . . . Memory whispered, and I gripped Éomer's hands hard. I saw his face again, turning to look back one time before he rode away North. Imladris . . . wherever that valley lay, it was there he had gone, and he had gone to bring aid to Gondor, that I knew without him saying it. 'Whither came they? And had they news of . . . ?'
He hesitated a second too long, and I knew.
'Valar, no . . .' I could only see his eyes as they had last looked on me, hard as stone, a careful mask against whatever pain lay beneath. Had he died, then, believing I did not love him, that I had never loved him?
'When?' I whispered. 'How?'
Éomer pulled my hands toward him, through the bars, cradling them close to his heart. He would not meet my eyes. I leaned forward, letting my forehead rest against the cold metal, closing my eyes and trying to focus on Éomer's words, trying to stay on my feet when the floor seemed to have dropped out from under me.
'He traveled south with Aragorn and his company,' Éomer said. 'He was slain defending the halflings at Rauros.'
He had been dead weeks . . . and I had known nothing, sensed nothing. But how could I? It seemed wrong, terribly wrong, that he should have been dead so long and I would have known nothing. I wondered if he had thought of me at his death, and if his thoughts were angry or bitter. Did he love me still? Did he hate me for what I did to him? What I did to preserve his life . . . a vain sacrifice I made for both of us, and now he would never know.
Oh Boromir! So we were born unto an ill fate, thou and I! And so it was all for nothing, the pain I brought to both of us, when I thought to save your life. Alas that there are other perils in this world besides the treachery of Wormtongue, and I could do naught to protect you from them!
Would that I had called to you, said some word, when you passed through Edoras that last time! Barely a few months ago, and I saw how your eyes rested on me at that meeting. Then at least I might have told you all, and if you challenged the worm then and there you might have won, or at least died close to me. Now I will never be able to tell you how much I loved you, how much I always loved you. You who would have protected me . . . it was I who hurt you, who tried to protect you and failed. And now what have I? A kingdom in ruin, and marriage to a faithless, contemptible wretch. And Éomer . . . if I can shield him as I could not thee!
'The Lord Aragorn was with him at his death?' I whispered. My eyes were dry and stinging, sorrow and remorse too deep for tears. Éomer nodded. 'And he is coming here?'
'Aye, he gave me his word. And despite what Wormtongue says, I believe he will keep it.'
I nodded mutely, an almost physical weight settling in my chest as I squeezed his hands tighter, knowing in some detached part of my mind that it would not be long before my legs would no longer support me.
Éowyn . . .' My brother's eyes were anguished, and I knew he felt my grief as keenly as if it were his own. Remembering what it was that had brought me down here, I struggled to find words. Somehow . . . I must make him see . . . I cannot lose Éomer, too. He is all I have left. My parents . . . Théoden . . . Théodred . . . Boromir. Death strikes at all those I love, and I am helpless. All my life I have tried to be strong. I have had no choice. But now I will need all my strength, just at the moment of my greatest weakness.
'Éomer . . . you must . . .'
A soft footfall behind me made me stop, before the look on his face froze my blood.
'My lady, it is hardly safe for you to visit these levels unescorted.'
If any of the Valar still look down on us mortals, let him speak not of our agreement! Not in front of Éomer!
Perhaps he has only come to gloat over Éomer's imprisonment. Or to torment me merely with his presence. Perhaps he will not say anything . . . else this sacrifice will be as worthless as were the others.
'I desire to speak with my brother in private,' I said, and my voice was chill. 'I hardly think I need protection from him.' Not nearly as much as I need it from you!
I let go Éomer's hands slowly and turned to face him fully, drawing myself up as well as I could, praying for a strength I knew I did not have. I will not let him see me afraid.
'Nevertheless, you should exercise more prudence. I would not have it said that you keep company with common criminals.'
His eyes glittered darkly, but I was at a loss to guess his purpose here. Unless it was to try to exercise his new authority over me? 'Blood is blood, my lord,' I said, striving to keep my voice level. Perhaps that would satisfy him. Never before had I addressed him as lord outside the King's presence. 'And whatever crimes he may have committed, Éomer is still my brother.' I took a long, slow breath, struggling for calm as I felt my resolve crumbling, resisting the urge to catch hold of the bars to support myself. 'Wilt thou not have pity on me in this hour, and leave us in peace a moment longer?'
My hands were shaking as I clasped them behind my back. A dangerous game it was I played, such a fragile web of deceit hiding my desperation from both men, my most beloved and my bitterest enemy. Let neither see my thoughts!
He smiled, and my heart shriveled within me. 'As you wish, my dear,' he said. Surprise at this sudden agreement turned to apprehension at the endearment. Perhaps it would go unnoticed . . .
Not likely. I felt Éomer tense behind me, though I could not see him. Gríma's smile widened. He reached out a hand, and I forced myself not to flinch as he touched my hair softly, winding one strand around a finger.
I spoke before Éomer could, and my voice was deadly. 'Take your hands off me.'
He obeyed, but slowly.
'Is it thus a woman speaks to her future bridegroom?'
And so it comes undone . . .
He could not see how my hands shook, but Éomer surely could. Not that it mattered, not anymore. Pure shock was all that kept my brother from speaking now, and I knew it was over. My heart was as wet paper, crumpled by careless fingers. The last remnants of my pride spoke then, as I lifted my chin and looked in his eyes.
'I know not what stinking barn you were raised in, but in this hall a man does not touch a woman until they are wed!' I hated myself for the way my voice trembled, breaking on the last word.
He reached out again, this time drawing his fingers lazily across my cheek. His hand brushed lips turned bloodless, then moved slowly down my neck in a gruesome mockery of a caress. It would have been less painful to me if his fingertips were soaked in acid.
There was a rattling of metal as my brother threw himself against bars. 'Take your hands off her, worm!' Éomer's shout echoed in the stone corridors, and I flung one hand out blindly, behind me, grasping for his arm. My fingers curled around his wrist, nails digging into the flesh of his hand, as if by the strength of my grip I could restrain him. His pulse beat fast, furious, against my palm, but he said nothing more. We both stood as though turned to stone, as Wormtongue twined his hand in my hair.
'That day is not far, my dear,' he said. He took his hand away, but his eyes ran over me as though I was wearing nothing at all, and I struggled not to shiver. 'I look forward to our wedding night.' He smiled again, and turned to leave, walking away slowly as if he owned the hall and all in it.
It was an effort to unwrap my fingers from Éomer's wrist, but as soon as I did so I mumbled something about needing to be elsewhere, to see to my uncle.
Éomer was having none of it, though. His face looked as pale as I felt, but his hands around my arms were like iron. I struggled vainly against him as he pulled me roughly against the bars and held me there. I could not meet his eyes.
'It is the only way!' I said at last. Red marks from my fingers were slow to fade on his arm, and I could see the crescents where my nails had drawn blood. I could feel his eyes on me, confused, angry, helpless. This wasn't supposed to be happening!
'What is the only way? Éowyn . . .' His voice was taut. 'What manner of bargain have you made?'
'The only one I could,' I said. 'The one I had to.'
I forced myself to look up, and almost reeled back from the sheer force of fury in those blue eyes.
'You will not do this,' he said. The words were ground out, desperate. 'You will not do this for me.'
Oh Éomer! Would that I had been born a man, as thou! Life has been so much simpler for you, fighting orcs and guarding the borders of our land, while others lived in the rot at its heart. Now you must learn what I had to learn, these many bitter years . . . the pain and the necessity of compromise. Fortunate are you, that you never had to learn it before!
'What would you have me do?' I demanded. 'Would you have me watch you beheaded like a common criminal? For I will not do it!' I was shouting at him now, and some part of my mind recognized I was near to hysteria. 'You cannot ask me to do it! You are all I have left, can you not understand that? I will not lose you, too! Whatever the cost, I will not lose you too!'
My raised voice brought the guard running from his post at the entrance to the prison levels. I looked away from Éomer, distracted, but he did not release me. It was a good thing he did not, for his hands on my arms were all that kept me from falling to my knees right there.
'Lady!' The guard stopped in front of me, uncertain. Peering more closely at my face, he laid a hand on my arm. 'Are you all right? You are white as a ghost!'
I took a shaky breath. The guard looked between me and Éomer, concerned, but not sure what to do. I had seen this man before, and I knew him to be one of those who despised Wormtongue and what he had done to our hall. He could not believe that Éomer was a traitor, nor that I would be in danger from him. Still, his duty was clear, and it was even clearer that I was in distress.
'Unlock this door.' He looked at me. 'I said unlock it!' My voice wavered on the edge of tears, but I was past caring. 'Let me in there! And then leave us.'
The guard came to a decision swiftly, pulling a ring of keys from his belt and inserting one into the lock. The door swung open, and I let myself fall at last.
Strong arms caught me, held me, crushed me so I could hardly breathe. He was supporting nearly all my weight, pressing me against him so I could feel the beating of his heart against my cheek. He smelled of sweat and straw and horses, and for a moment I fought simply to breathe normally. All the strength had gone out of me, but he was tense as a drawn bowstring, I could feel it.
'Éowyn! Éowyn!' I squeezed my eyes shut, burying my face against his shirt, unwilling and unable to answer. Helplessness was one thing Éomer despised, and yet there was nothing he could do now, no way for him to shield me, and at last I believe he knew it. 'This shall not come to pass!' he said softly, roughly. 'I shall not live knowing my life was bought at such a price, from one I love so!'
You have no choice, Éomer! I thought, shaking my head wordlessly. I had no strength even to cling to him, as the tears came at last, racking sobs that hurt, dragged forth from some place deep inside me I hadn't even known existed. I wanted to believe his words, to believe he would make everything all right, as he had promised so often when nightmares had frightened me as a child. But we were children no longer, and this was not something against which I could let him protect me.
He did not relax his hold on me, and in my tears I took comfort from his simple physical presence, the warmth of his arms, the evidence of my senses that he was close. He knew better than to think that my lack of response meant I had agreed with him, but it had been so long since he last saw me in tears that he would not argue with me now. He buried his face against my hair, squeezing me tighter as though he could shield me with his body alone. A painful surge of love swept through me, along with the realization that the cruel necessity of compromise was something Éomer was not young enough still to learn. No matter how many times I might explain it to him, there was a part of him that would never accept that there was a reason he had to allow his sister to submit to such a marriage, even for the security of the Mark, much less to save his life.
After what seemed like hours, my sobs gradually subsided, and I leaned against him quietly, refusing to open my eyes or say a word that might shatter the fragile illusion of security that had stolen over me, in the circle of Éomer's arms. My legs felt like water and would not support me. It had grown dark outside by this time, and no more light came from the tiny windows high in the ceiling at the end of the hall. The only light came from a tiny lamp outside the cell, but I blinked as I finally forced my eyes open.
Hesitantly, I looked up. My brother's face was taut and drawn in the yellow light, the face of a wild stallion caged and desperate. He looked somehow hopelessly lost, and his eyes when they met mine held a profound grief. There was that in the set of his jaw that told me he was still seeking a way out, a way that he might protect me, and I knew he would never stop seeking. There was so much I wished I could say, but my throat was too choked with tears, and I could hardly begin to absorb what this day had been. The end of life, the end of hope . . . and we were left, two survivors of a wrecked nation, clinging to one another amid the ruin, awaiting the final stroke.
In one motion he swept me off my feet, cradling me against him so my head rested against his shoulder. He lifted me as if I were a child, feather- light in his arms, holding me close a few moments before he brought me to the pile of straw on the other side of the cell, laying me down gently and brushing a lock of my hair away from my face. No one had tucked me into bed thus since my mother died when I was young.
A thousand thoughts struggled for expression behind those eyes, but he only touched my shoulder. 'Shh,' he said. 'It's all right, sister. Sleep now.'
I could not disobey. I wanted to ask him to stay till I woke, as I had done when I was a child, but that was foolish. The door was locked; he wasn't going anywhere. My eyes closed, exhaustion catching up to me as I let myself drift into unconsciousness.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.