The news had gone round the camp quick as lightning--The lady is with us! Was that relief in their voices? Were they glad that she had come, or was that simply the relief that all men felt to learn that one more had escaped the grave? Those awed and incredulous murmurs, were they rooted in gratitude or horror for the magnitude of Éowyn's daring? It was difficult to judge when feeling conflicted so violently, and the men of Elfhelm's éored were conspicuously silent. Again, Éomer could not tell, as he passed through the ranks (with hood drawn up and face downcast to avoid recognition) whether that silence bespoke a sense of disgrace for having harbored her or whether the men were simply leery of opening themselves to the thousand and one questions that others would ask, again and again, in an attempt to discover just how it had happened that the Lady Éowyn of Rohan had ridden to war in their midst.
But to Éomer, how she had done it was less important than that she had done it. For she should be in Dunharrow! That was the thought that lodged in his mind, and had, ever since he had seen her lying pale and motionless upon the field. Almost, he had not recognized her, for she had lain amid the black and empty robes of the Nazgûl, her face pressed into its folds, her hair spread like an aureole on that funereal shroud--white on black, warm gold against a cold, iron crown. His esquire had stooped to move her, thinking to give the fallen a better resting place against the possibility that there would be none left to bury the dead as they deserved. Only then had Éomer seen her face and the shock had left him numbed, had torn something inside of him and let the madness escape. She should be in Dunharrow! Even as he had raised his death chant, that had been the thought most in his mind.
And yet she was not. Which was why he stood now in the Houses of Healing, staring at his sister's still form. Earlier, when he had stood and received her hand from Aragorn, he had been too overjoyed--too overwhelmed--to speak much more than duty required, and once the others had left, speech had abandoned him. He had gone to his knees, hugging her tightly and (he suspected) weeping as he had clutched her to him, 'til Éowyn had at last protested that she could not breathe thus, and would he please, please look at her. He had obeyed, and in that moment, it had burst forth from him: "You were at Dunharrow. You were to be safe at Dunharrow, Éowyn... at Dunharrow."
"And you were to die on Pelennor," she had replied, in that strangely lackluster tone that had colored her earlier words.
"I had no choice."
"Nor did I. My choice was made for me."
"Why must it ever be 'Éowyn' when men are troubled?" she had demanded then, anger flaring suddenly, lending a hectic flush to her cheeks. "Ever, ever that name... always in my ears, 'til I cannot hear myself think! Éowyn must do all, and be all for all people, yet keep her virtue, keep her modesty, keep her heart and head to herself for who wants those? No more, brother! Come again later, and perhaps you shall find Éowyn here and waiting for you to call her, ready to empty herself out again. But not now. Now, I am weary." He had showered her with apologies then, which had only irritated her further, but he could not have left her. And so he had bitten his tongue and sat silently on the edge of the bed, back braced against the headboard, one arm laid about her while with the other, he had stroked her hair. Éowyn had spoken no more, and he thought that she might still have been angry with him, but she had let him hold her, and that had been much. Worn out himself, brother and sister had drifted off towards sleep together, until someone's insistent voice had roused him again. The fussy old woman, Ioreth, had had her hands on her hips as she had stared, disapprovingly, at him.
"This is a sick house, my lord--if you are not ill, you ought to let the injured rest peacefully," she had harrumphed, and then, glancing at the mess he had left on the sheets--for he had had no time to wash or change his clothes--had added, "Warriors!" in a way that suggested a lamed ox would have more brains. Ioreth, offended, had fairly chased him away. "Have a care, my lord, this is not a barn nor a stable! Go see to yourself and come back when you are decent. Those were clean sheets, you know," she had declared, escorting him firmly out the door.
But now, Ioreth was elsewhere occupied, and having bathed and changed into a spare shirt and breeches, he felt as if he might be able to face the wench should she surprise him in his sister's room. The candle on the nightstand cast a warm, pale light upon Éowyn's sleeping face, and there stood by it a draught of some sort. The scent of athelas still lingered in the air, and Éomer felt the coil of tension in his chest unwind a bit as he breathed it in. But it did not disappear entirely. She was always fair, but she is too pale still, he thought, creeping forward, wincing when a floorboard creaked.
"The healers gave her a sleeping potion, sire," said a voice from a darkened corner, and Éomer whirled, startled. "They said she would not wake 'til well after dawn," it continued quietly, as Elfhelm moved into the circle of dim candlelight.
"Why are you here?" Éomer demanded, blunt in his surprise and confusion.
"It seemed fitting," the marshal answered, facing Éomer squarely, hands clasped behind his back. "If you wish, sire, I shall leave." A tempting offer, but as Éomer searched the other man's face, he read therein something of the silence that gripped the men of his command... and a willingness to break it.
And so Éomer said only, "No, stay awhile." Elfhelm nodded, and, without speaking, both men then turned their attention back to Éowyn. And Éomer wondered, What was he to you, sister dear? Or what is she to him? A few years Éomer's senior, Elfhelm had always been an ally against Gríma's whisperings, and certainly, as the captain of the King's éored at Edoras, he had seen more of Éowyn than Éomer had in the past few years. Never had he doubted the honor of either sister or marshal, and Éomer still felt no fear on Éowyn's behalf--had she loved Elfhelm, she would not have turned so suddenly to Aragorn. Contrary she could be at times, but not fickle, and once her loyalty was given, it was given. But now he wondered about the Second Marshal, for Elfhelm had known 'Dernhelm's' secret, and knowing it, had said nothing--had arranged to conceal the deception, instead, and conspired to allow willful desertion by not one, but two, members of Théoden's household. And he put my sister knowingly in danger. What am I to think?
"This has been long in the making," Elfhelm at last said, breaking the silence, and he glanced at Éomer from the corners of his eyes.
"And you said nothing to me, Elfhelm?"
"Long making does not mean long knowledge, sire. I did not imagine that I would find her among my men, but perhaps I should have," the marshal replied, shaking his head as he rubbed at his eyes with thumb and forefinger. "She was so desperate at Dunharrow! She came to see me that evening, ere I went to rest. As an old friend she hailed me, and asked to speak, as we had done before in Edoras, when Wormtongue ruled all. All was prepared in Dunharrow, she said, all was ordered, as ready as could be given the... 'weather.'" He paused and sighed, lowering his hands to fold them once again tightly behind his back. "'But how,' she asked me, 'shall I be ready, if I am to turn a blind eye to the time and tidings? Is not the world ending, Elfhelm? Shall I die saying only that I kept grain enough to feed my people 'til doomsday? That the floors were swept when the hordes arrived?'"
"She never said a word of this to me," Éomer replied, troubled. "I thought her grieved over Aragorn's departure. Why did you say nothing?"
"Habit, I suppose," Elfhelm replied with a fatalistic shrug. "She came to me in confidence, or so I deemed it, and as in Edoras, we never betrayed what was spoken between us to others." The marshal gave a soft, pained bark of laughter. "Gríma taught us well to guard our tongues!"
"But when you discovered her among your ranks, still, you did not come to Théoden or me to tell us," Éomer turned now a sharp stare on the other man. "Confidence between confederates must yield when breach of duty occurs, yet it did not. Éowyn was bound to remain in Dunharrow, and you let her ride to Pelennor, hid her from us and the hobbit, Merry, as well. If such is friendship, then it seems to me too much, and I must ask you--how stands it between you and my sister, that you would grant her such a favor?"
"For my part, she is a great lady, and a greater friend, but no more than that, I swear it," Elfhelm replied steadily, ignoring the king's hand on the pommel of his sword. Meeting Éomer's eyes, he continued, "I cannot say what was in your sister's heart, my king, but I am certain it was not love, unless it were for Théoden King. Of late, I have felt a chill in her presence, as if winter ran in her veins. When she came to my tent that first evening of our ride, I thought her fey--we were all dead men, but she was one of the few who did not regret it. Have you not seen the look?" The marshal's unwavering regard brought a flush of shame to Éomer's face. Elfhelm branded him with a glance, and he looked away, seeking what solace there was to be found in his sister's face. Unsurprisingly, he could find little. And so:
"Aye," Éomer answered quietly, "I know it."
"Mayhap I should have sent her back, but I could not spare the escort. At the least, I ought to have brought her to you, or to Théoden King," Elfhelm admitted.
"And yet?" Éomer prompted when the other hesitated.
"What does one say to the hopeless? Go home, sit by the fire and wait on better times? Or pray that the world shall end, so that you may spend your life as fitly as you may? She had been too often rebuffed and disappointed, and ill-used, even with good intentions, sire." Éomer's expression hardened at that, but he held his tongue and checked his outrage, forcing himself to consider the other's words carefully. Elfhelm was an honest man, and Éomer had always admired him for his calm appraisal of all things. Where Éomer had fought all his life against the temper that had killed his father, Elfhelm had always been steady, and passion had seemed to flow around him without touching him, unless he willed it to. If he said that Éowyn had been ill-used, then it behooved Éomer to listen. And yet.... The Second Marshal was still an honest man, but it seemed that he, too, had reached his limits, as had they all. Mayhap Éowyn's despair had infected him, or perhaps he had fallen himself under Gríma's spell without realizing it. Who could tell?
Why must this be complicated? Éomer wondered, complaining silently to the world at large. Acutely conscious of his new rank, he could not simply give his sympathy to Elfhelm and Éowyn; any decision he made would have the force of law, and if he judged them guilty, then they were guilty--of desertion, of dereliction of duty, of conspiracy and rebellion. Yet Elfhelm was right in a way, much though it pained him to admit it: Éowyn had been ill-used, and he, her brother, had not been able to protect her--had (in Éowyn's eyes, to judge by her earlier words) used her badly himself. And so perhaps it had needed a friend to do what brother and uncle could not, even if it broke the decree of a king, and usurped Éomer's place as her kinsman. Jealousy was not a feeling that Éomer was much given to, but he felt its bite tonight, as he realized how much and integral a part of Éowyn's life Elfhelm had been while he had been away.
If Elfhelm knew aught of his liege-lord's thoughts, he gave no sign of it. The Second Marshal waited silently at his side, hands still clasped behind him, head bowed, awaiting, Éomer knew, his judgment. A part of him, the simple Rider that wanted nothing more than ruthless clarity, wanted to decide this on the edge of a sword--preferably in such a way that he bled, too, so that honor was satisfied on all sides even as anger and jealous hurt were appeased. But I am not a simple Rider, and Éowyn is not only my sister, but my subject now. But how, indeed, should I decide this? My sister rode from Dunharrow, from the people she was entrusted with, and slew the Nazgûl that would have destroyed us all ere ever Aragorn arrived. And were it not for Elfhelm, she would never have reached Pelennor. Where is the right and wrong of it?
Silently, Éomer crossed the floor to Éowyn's bedside and he took her right hand in his. Callused like his own from hours of practice in the tilting yards and sparring, her hands were not those of a sheltered lady of rank.'You had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a courage and a spirit at least the match of yours,' Gandalf had said; true enough, and if men called her Steelsheen already, it was for the steel in her backbone rather than for the mail she had worn. Riddermark's thorniest rose, he thought, and I love her too dearly. Aragorn, for once I must respectfully disagree with you, for right and wrong are not for me to judge, and particularly not in my own house--not tonight.
And so, giving Éowyn's hand a gentle squeeze, he leaned down to kiss her cheek and then carefully laid that hand upon her breast. Sleep well, Sister, and tomorrow we shall speak again. Perhaps then, there shall be no need for anger. Turning to Elfhelm, he said then, "How shall I condemn the one who saved us all, and not simply from the Dwimmerlaik? Even if I could match her deeds, what punishment could I render that would fit the circumstances of her crimes? But you, Elfhelm... I do not deny that you acted in my stead, and did as I could not have done. It was well done, yet still, I am her brother, and she was under Théoden King's command, to hold Dunharrow until we returned, or until all was proved in vain. Therefore, my friend, I cannot but judge you guilty for having failed in your duty to the crown. Are you prepared to hear your sentence?" he asked, and Elfhelm stiffened a bit, though he seemed to have expected no less.
"I am, my king."
"Then hear now the words of Éomer Éomundsson, but lately and regretfully King of the Mark: you are hereby sentenced to remain at Minas Tirith, to guard what remains until we should return, or until all is proved in vain. You would have spared Éowyn that, and so now must take that burden upon yourself." He paused, searching Elfhelm's face. The marshal's expression was closed, his eyes hooded, but he bowed in acceptance.
"It shall be as my king commands."
"I do not doubt it." Another pause, and then Éomer sighed, running a hand through still-damp hair. "And since you must remain here, come what may, do me one favor more, Elfhelm. Continue to look after my sister for me, as you always have. I... seem to be an irresponsible sort of brother to her." Elfhelm blinked, but then a rather crooked smile stole across his face in the candlelight, and he chuckled softly.
"But one whom she loves nonetheless. Gladly shall I do this, and we shall both hope to see you safe home again, when the last battle is fought, be it here or at the ends of the earth."
"As shall I. Good night, Elfhelm. Éowyn," he nodded to each one last time, and then slowly turned and walked away, leaving Éowyn in Elfhelm's care once more, much though it hurt like poison to leave her yet again in another's hands. But such was only justice, and fitting even for a king.
"[Y]ou had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a courage and a spirit at least the match of yours." RoTK, 157.
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