1. Say Me Not Nay!
Say me not nay, Éowyn! With those words had the long battle begun, and Éowyn bitterly cursed that day, which had arrived five years earlier and turned a maid into a woman in the space of hours. Say me not nay, Gríma Gálmód's son had said, and leaned too close, so that Éowyn had felt the heat of him all along her body. At the time, he had been tall and straight, and not unpleasant to look upon–a man of ambition with a quick mind and a masterful tongue that bent all ears and minds to its will–to all appearances a fine match for an orphan, however noble. Yet the thirteen year old girl that she had been had looked into his eyes, and seen there lust and greed–the desire to possess her as if she were some rare bauble–and above all his pride, cold and cruel. Young I was, but not a fool, though others less discerning thought me mad or arrogant… for a time, Éowyn thought, as she strode regally down the halls of Edoras on her way to the kitchens. A menial job, to bring the king's breakfast to him like a serving wench, but Éowyn would suffer no other to have it. In matters of the king's personal comfort, she made it her task to oversee all, since she was denied any other useful function. And besides, she would not permit Gríma Wormtongue to rule all in the king's household, and if she lowered herself to such tasks as were beneath her station (at least when looked upon from the strict demands of rank, but not when viewed through the lens of love) she could at least watch him as well. Not, she thought bitterly, as the first whiff of porridge reached her, that I am able to stop him, but I shall remember his every flaw and misdeed, and when the time comes, I will see him hang for all of them!
So she resolved once more as she gave greetings to the goodwife who met her amidst the seasoned steams of the kitchen and relinquished the tray to her. Éowyn had been too young when she rejected Gríma's suit to understand more than that he personally was a twisted creature, deserving of nothing if not a noose. She had expected him to strike her, or to spit, but though his rage at her refusal had been hideous to behold, it had been also subtle: a flatness had come into those eyes, and his face had tightened as his breath hissed loud in her ear. But then his serpentine soul had hardened, and he had withdrawn, bowing stiffly, and then gone swiftly away. But if he had not repeated his proposal, neither had he forsaken his quest: since that day, he had dogged her steps and haunted her sleep. And all the while, while the court of Edoras sought to understand how I could have the audacity to spurn him, he strengthened his position in the council, 'til he has now little to fear from any, be they among the great of Rohan. For Gríma had spent his wrath over her rejection on more puissant enemies than a woman-child, and his poisonous whispers had spread throughout the council until, mortally weakened, that august body had collapsed. None now remained to counter his hold upon the king, and those former councilors were in dishonor… or dead. Fools, all those wise men, not to see then what a slip of a girl could see! Alas, I understand all too well now what Gríma is! Éowyn railed in silence as she entered the king's outer chambers.
As was his custom in the mornings, Théoden sat in his chair near the hearth, and exhaustion showed in his face as he silently read through the messages of the day. Sometimes, Éowyn felt she scarcely recognized her uncle who had been as her father, so great was the change wrought in him: hair that had once been dark as chestnuts had greyed quite swiftly over the past few years, and now was shot through prominently with strands of white; a back that once had bowed to none now lacked the strength to hold itself straight even in public court; and the high spirit that had made Théoden a shrewd and beloved king seemed spent beyond rekindling. This morning, the king seemed almost listless, as if some great care refused to leave him, and Éowyn felt her heart sink, though she held her head high. "Give you good day, my liege," she said calmly, and if her voice held a chill note, it was not for the king but rather directed towards the stooped figure that stood in the shadowed recess near the door.
Gríma Wormtongue stood there, ostensibly awaiting his sovereign's pleasure, but in reality watching her every movement. She felt his eyes upon her, seeming to pierce the layers of green and blue that draped her form with a determined modesty, and she wished she dared strike him. It was a violation, and she refused to dignify his invasive yet furtive regard with a response, knowing full well what she would see should she chance to turn and look at him. Though no older than Théodred–who was now accounted in his prime–his hair had begun to grey in earnest, and his mouth frowned perpetually in a face grown sallow and thin, and deep lines marked his brow and ran along the corners of his thin-lipped mouth. And beneath heavy lids lay eyes so pale a blue they seemed almost blind, but for the malevolent spark that flickered there in unguarded moments. She knew not what aged him, unless it were that his body could scarce bear to hold the venom that his heart spewed forth like vomit. If that were true, then it was but justice, and she felt a moment of satisfaction for the fact that he destroyed himself as surely as he ruined others. But it was a fleeting instant which died quickly as she gazed upon Théoden once more, and saw the look of pain that passed over his face as he bestirred himself to concentrate on the simple mechanics of living. King and councilor had aged together, held fast by some unnatural bond, and it entered her heart that should Gríma die, Théoden might also pass away.
Once more, Éowyn bemoaned silently that the child she had been had lacked both the perception and the standing to force the council to recognize the danger in their midst. She had grown up swiftly since she had pierced Wormtongue's disguise (though others had grumbled that she grew too worldly too soon), yet not swiftly enough to save Théoden. Now the king was so thoroughly under the sway of his sole councilor that none, not even one well-loved niece, could turn him from a course that Gríma prescribed. And if she could not rouse Théoden to the needs of Rohan, then it was worse than futile to beg her own case before her uncle, and so she bit her tongue and said nothing to anyone. For whom else, indeed, could she tell? Not her brother, much though she might fantasize about what would happen if Gríma put a foot wrong with Éomer. Though she doubted not that he would cut the miserable backstabber off at the neck, his forwardness was one reason she dared not reveal her secret fears to him. For so long as Gríma remained perfectly civil as the law measured such matters, Éomer's loud and brash complaints on her behalf would serve only to give his enemy the rope to hang him with; and that she could not bear to watch.
And as for Théodred, much though she loved him, he was already at odds with his father's councilor. If he knew of Gríma's hunt, his wrath would be a thing of elemental power but it would avail nothing, save to topple him from the precarious path that he walked, where to stray was to fall into the abyss of either royal displeasure or political isolation. Rohan could not afford to lose him to either possibility, and so she guarded her secret and bided her time, waiting for she knew not what, precisely. A chance to prove him a monster before honest eyes! she determined, as she watched Théoden push back the tray as if in disgust, except that he seemed to have no energy for such strong emotion. Rather, he seemed merely resigned and sad, and Éowyn felt her gut twist within her as the king gave her a fragile smile and gestured that she could take the food away.
"Go, dearest, with my thanks," he said in a low voice that was too soft.
"My lord, is there nothing more that I can do?" Éowyn asked, and begged inwardly that he would understand. The brown eyes flickered, and for a moment, there shone a brief light that recalled the king of former days. But then it faded, stifled perhaps by the sudden presence of Gríma, who approached now and signed Éowyn to obey. Fury and shame warred with despair for control of her heart, and her eyes lit like sapphire flames as she stared at Wormtongue. The councilor met her gaze and there was a brief battle of wills, as Éowyn strove to conceal her fear from Gríma and her hatred from Théoden. But though Wormtongue withdrew first, lowering his eyes as he bent to speak with Théoden, his mouth stretched in a thin, predatory smile, swiftly modified, just before he broke contact. Éowyn snatched the tray up and her knuckles whitened as she strode angrily from the room, heart pounding in her chest. What did that smile mean?
And though she racked her mind and memory for some insight, she could come to but one conclusion: that whatever it was that gave Gríma Wormtongue cause to smile, it was cause enough to sicken her. I must be wary in the days to come, she thought grimly, for while I live and breathe, he shall not have all his own way! Nay, not a half of it!
The strongest fortress may be brought to collapse by the slow wearing of rain upon stones, and the same is true of men. Even the most stout-hearted can be moved to despair if pressed hard enough, and for long enough. Gríma knew this well, and so he smiled as he bent to the king's side, assuming his obsequious mask. Whether there lay now anything behind that mask was a question that the councilor refused to ask, and he bent his mind to the task at hand. "My king," he said, "I would bring before you a question which, though it seem perhaps lesser than other matters, may prove to be of grave interest given these dark times."
"And what matter is that, councilor, for it seems to me that all your cares are voiced thus!" replied Théoden, and if there was in his voice and words a hint of irritation, as of some deeply buried splinter of doubt or resentment, Gríma did not worry overmuch. The fool gains wisdom only when it is too late! he thought. Let him hate me, even, so long as I can control that hatred, and thereby gain my reward! In his mind's eye, he saw again the fierce eyes of Éowyn, and her tall, lithe figure as she spun on her heel and glided out, graceful as a dancer even in war. For however silent and restrained, they did make war between them. Gríma knew this, and their struggle was dear to him: he looked to each encounter, each battle, with the fervor of a fanatic, eager for the next scent and taste of blood. And Éowyn's hatred is sweet indeed, edged with fire and utterly delectable! Once I hated her for her refusal, but a long hunt is often the more gratifying. Something akin to hunger whimpered at the core of his being, where dwelt the poisoned emptiness to which he had long ago succumbed, and it throbbed pleasantly in his veins. Gríma let that feeling play freely for but a moment, for he dared not become distracted now if he hoped ever to satisfy that craving, and then he forged ahead smoothly along his intended path.
"Your son, Théodred, is a man of full years, yet he has no wife, your majesty," he responded, and let a hint of urgency creep into his voice. "Times grow worse, and who knows but that war may come to us in the end. Should the rule of this land, long committed to your line, be in jeopardy for lack of heirs of the line of Éorl?"
"There are others who have some claim upon that bloodline, not our house alone," Théoden replied, glancing up at him. But Gríma saw doubt gnawing at the king, and he smiled inwardly.
"Assuredly, lord, and yet it is always the duty of a king to spare his people such decisions should the worst arrive. We need look no further than Gondor to see the folly of a people in that respect! I would not see Rohan suffer its own stewardship, if it can be avoided. Théodred need only take a wife, if one of suitable standing be found."
"We have spoken on this matter before, my son and I," Théoden sighed, and waved a long-fingered hand as if in dismissal. "Time yet remains, and I would not force his heart to a match not of his choosing. When duty demands, then will he do it, but not before." Which answer might be expected to alarm a faithful councilor who had broached such a topic, yet Gríma was pleased. Indeed, he had expected little else of Théoden, who, remarkably, had married for love in spite of his rank. Théoden's grief over his wife's death was as a living thing, though time had made it a familiar rather than a foe. More, his own good fortune had swayed the king to resolve that he would allow his own son the same chance to find and win the heart of a woman of his own choosing. But Gríma had in fact very little intention of seeing Théodred marry anyone, whether chosen or forced upon him.
"If that is so, then I would that time and good fortunate favor him, and Rohan. But it is my place to look further than mere wishes, if I may say so, majesty, though I pray I shall never see my fears realized. But if Théodred will not marry, then to whom would you leave your people should disaster take us at the last?"
"There is Éomer…." Théoden began, and Gríma sighed, as if regretful.
"Éomer is a brave warrior, and will serve well should war come upon us. I know my lord loves him as a son, but Éomer has neither the wisdom nor the training for the kingship. He is much like his father, in that respect, rest Éomund well!" Gríma paused, both for pious effect and in case Théoden bestirred himself to object to this characterization. But the king remained silent, though it was an uneasy quiet, and so his councilor continued on, slowly, as if he had only now thought of a solution. "Clearly, though, a child of Théodwyn would have the greatest claim to the throne, second only to one of direct royal lineage."
"What, then? Éomer is not a fitting heir, you hold," and there was a hint of displeasure in this pronouncement, but Théoden passed on quickly. "So then what would you propose?"
"I, sire? I know not with certainty, but it comes to me that all our best hopes lie with the women of Rohan, rather than with the men, if you will forgive me." Gríma smiled humorlessly. "Through your sister have we a cadet branch of the house of Éorl, one which cannot be disputed. And yet once again, we find that the distaff side may prove our salvation, if Éomer prove unsuitable in the end. For would not Éowyn's children be accounted inheritors, should she have any?"
At that, Théoden did frown, and his hand atop the table clenched into a fist. "Even less would I wish a husband unwanted upon her, for we begin now to look further afield than duty will, perhaps, stretch. Éowyn has shown no interest in marriage; in that matter, you may find Éomer the more apt to persuasion for once!" Théoden gave a fleeting smile that held but a pale echo of wry amusement for the truth of those words.
"Perhaps, and yet perhaps not. For I perceive in Éowyn a steadiness that her brother lacks, if I may say it. It is, perhaps, in the nature of woman to be thus in matters domestic, and I think if the idea were brought properly to her attention, she might receive it. She might even, perhaps, agree, if only a suitable match could be found."
"You are strangely optimistic in this matter, councilor," Théoden replied, and his eyes narrowed. "Why is that?"
"One must have faith in some matters, lord king," Gríma said disarmingly, and shrugged, inviting the king to read in his words and gestures a trust that even he did not quite understand. "Éowyn has a noble heart, and her love for the people of Rohan is no less than Éomer's, but she seems to me the more sensible of the two. I can say no more than that."
"I still like not the idea of forcing her to marry," Théoden said. "And if I shall not compel my own child, I would not compel another's!"
"But if Éowyn inclined to marriage?"
"Then that would be a different matter."
"I see that nothing can sway you in this, my lord, so I shall not press further. There are, after all, many other matters to attend to, and war is still but a possibility, though a dread one. Shall we turn to the matter of the Orcs raiding the Eastmark?"
"If we must," the king sighed, for he was weary of this subject too, having heard of it too often. And though he felt certain that there must be some greater reason for the breach of Rohan's sovereignty if times were so poor as they seemed, Gríma ever pointed only to the marshal whose charge the Eastmark was: Éomer. Théoden was not so far lost to Wormtongue's influence as to overlook the seeming contradiction of a councilor who urged ever that he look to the dark times ahead and yet who steadfastly ignored the significance of their concrete manifestations. But he could not seem to argue against Gríma or overrule him, for when he spoke all other concerns seemed to melt away, as wax beneath a flame. Always of late there seems a noise, as of flies abuzz over a field of carrion or refuse and I cannot concentrate! Théoden thought, and though he tried to hold onto the frustrated wrath that attended that analysis, it slipped away from him like sand through a sieve, leaving him to a hounded resignation. Will he never end? If he would only be silent for a few moments, then perhaps I might shake off this lassitude! He closed his eyes and his brow knit as he strove with himself to command a halt to his councilor's words, which seemed to flow over him as water–unclean water–and yet he could not summon the strength. Why this weariness? Will it never quit me? Dark times indeed are come, and how shall I face them? Such were Théoden's thoughts, as Gríma continued to weave his words in a skillful net that even the king recognized in the deepest recesses of his heart, where dwelt untouched the remnants of his spirit of old. But the knowledge was not enough to kindle it–not yet. And Théoden, trapped within the darkness that had been wrought for him, despaired of ever seeing the day or deed that would reawaken it.
"… if he cannot hold even the eastern border, I shudder to think that he should dare to advise your majesty in matters of strategy," Gríma was saying. Théoden managed not to sigh loudly, having that much concern for his own dignity, though he grimaced and leaned his elbows on the table so he could pinch the bridge of his nose against a headache.
"Éomer is young yet. He is perhaps unprepared to act as councilor in full stead," Théoden said, though reluctantly, and for a moment wondered whom he defended, Éomer or Gríma. "Still, how shall he learn unless he attend me?"
"Of course he shall learn much from such sessions as we hold. I say only do not give him his head in such matters, nor trust too far his judgment until it is proved wiser." Will you not be silent? "I mean no disrespect, of course, to the Third Marshal…" Only be silent! "… for assuredly, he and his house have rendered generations of loyal service, and it would be ill indeed to set the mistakes of youth against him as if they were decisions made in the fullness of wisdom…" As a crow or a dog braying in my ears is the sound of that voice! Be still, I beg you…! "But all the more reason that we should think carefully what matters to entrust to his care. Too much responsibility will prove deadly for our security, yet too little may sting his pride to anger, and thence to who knows what follies?" Have done with it and leave me be! "Do you not agree, your majesty?" That insinuating, honey-coated voice paused, and beneath its sweetness lay the bitter, but so relieved was the king that it spoke no more that he said only:
"I shall think on this matter. Now, if you would excuse me… ?"
"Of course, your majesty," Gríma replied, and bowed low as he left the chambers. Théoden did not watch him go, too exhausted and grateful for the peace to look up. Thus he did not see the smile that tugged at Gríma Gálmód's son's lips, though perhaps he sensed the other's furtive triumph in the foreboding of doom that fell upon him as the door shut at last, closing upon the world without.
Éowyn stood upon a small balcony that looked out over the main gates of Edoras, and her eyes roved aimlessly over the sun-lit land. The air held still a touch of frost–likely the last of the season ere spring arrived–yet the hills above the green plains were bedecked with a living snow, a coverlet of newborn simbelmynë. Fair was the day indeed, and yet for all her staring she saw it not, for her thoughts were elsewhere. Far from Edoras, she roamed in thought and rode alone the great swards of the Eastmark, carefree as a falcon. And sometimes, she would come upon a rider in those fantasies, one tall and golden-haired who raced her across the plains with a glee and passion that was infectious. Éomer! she thought and felt a pang of longing for the comfort that she found in her brother's presence. Meduseld had seemed so cold since he went away, and though she loathed herself for her weakness, she knew that were Éomer here, Wormtongue would trouble her less. Until my brother wearies of him and gives his enemy his best weapon: his own impatient wrath! Using Éomer as a shield against the venom of Gríma, especially when she knew that such exposure was certain to bring him to an ill-pass one day, seemed dishonest and cowardly, a blot upon her honor that marred the love she bore for her brother. For he knows nothing of Wormtongue's desire, and so is all unwitting that I, under the veil of love, use him thus for my own protection! Not that he would grudge me it, but…! Éowyn's thoughts became more tangled after that, as all manner of qualifications arose at once in a mass too confused for her to order. Yet it seemed to her that her dependence upon ruse and misdirection, and upon others, was ignoble–a matter for scorn rather than pity, and nearly intolerable to so high-hearted a lady.
And does it help that I stand here and dream the day away? she demanded in an effort to extricate herself from her brooding unhappiness. Shall I be found wanting in my duties, or shall I take them in hand? Éowyn pushed away from the balcony railing and turned to go back to the door that led into the hall. But she did not even manage a single step in that direction, for standing at the other end of the balcony was Gríma Wormtongue, watching her with predatory eyes and an aura of anticipation. With a sharply indrawn breath, Éowyn drew herself up as tall as she could make herself, and firmly quashed the desire to step back from him. I will not give ground before him!
"My lady Éowyn," Gríma fairly purred at her, and advanced a few paces, 'til Éowyn found herself wanting to twitch at his proximity. Still, she moved not, determined to refuse him that victory.
"Excuse me, councilor, I have work to attend to," Éowyn replied in tones that would have frosted a summer day, but Gríma did not move aside.
"As do I," he responded, "but my business is to you. I think you would do well to hear it."
"I think it is not so pressing," she snapped, and made as if to brush past him, but he put an arm out and blocked her path forcefully.
"Even when I say that it concerns your brother?" he asked, and spoke almost gleefully into her ear, and Éowyn stiffened.
"What have you to say of my brother?" she demanded, and took a reluctant step back so she could face him squarely. "And if it is of any importance, then why does not my uncle summon me?"
"The king does as he sees fit, and you are not one to question him," Gríma hissed, and his smile was cruel. "I came but to tell you that Éomer lies not in favor with this court at the moment. As his sister, you might perhaps counsel him to restrain his tongue, and so spare himself and others much pain in the future. But I fear," and here Wormtongue shook his head as if in regret, "that Éomer has little subtlety and rushes ever in where cooler heads would not think to go."
"You mean that my brother speaks the truth, when others hold craven silence!" Éowyn replied contemptuously. "If that be your only charge, then do not trouble to tell me of it!"
"I think you refuse to understand the warning I give, my lady," Gríma said. "Did you know that the Eastmark has been repeatedly penetrated by agents of the Dark Lord, who think to rob us of our horses there? Did you know that Éomer's absence from Meduseld was not wholly of his choosing? Did you believe that all his angry and pleading words were forgotten? Think you that when he at last falters in his misplaced zeal that he shall not suffer the consequences? Who then would protect the fair Éowyn, his sister? An orphan is so very dependent upon others, is she not?" Gríma's voice dropped to an insinuating murmur, and Éowyn felt the ground drop from beneath in a sudden spell of light-headedness. "It may not happen tomorrow, or the next day, yet it could. I would not see you left utterly bereft, Éowyn," he said, bluntly using her bare name, in breach of all propriety.
"I would never wed thee!" she snapped, and let the full weight of her hatred hang upon that familiar address. "Orphan I may be, but thou art beneath me in all matters! How darest thou speak my brother's name to me, when thou seekest only to destroy him, and thereby tame me with thy left hand?"
"Then make no mistake, Éowyn, I will destroy him if you give me cause. Do not think that any would hear your complaints if you think to tell tales in the court," Gríma replied and his voice was taut with malice and anger, and yet also a certain perverse pleasure. "And remember that when the Third Marshal does stumble, he would benefit if his sister could plead for him… to her husband." With that, Gríma backed a pace, eyes glittering as he looked upon what he had wrought, and then he bowed low and left.
All the rest of that day passed as in a fog, as Éowyn went about her chores by force of habit alone. Some wondered whether she was ill, so pale was she, and so distracted did she seem. None guessed the truth, though, and perhaps few would have believed had they been told. For such was the power that Wormtongue had, in measure granted him by his true master, that he swayed even Éowyn to believe his lies, though she recognized the evil in him. And so he held her in thrall to that fear for her brother. Could I refuse Éomer my help when he needs it, especially when I would be able to help him more than any other? she asked herself. Surely not! I would die for him, though such a declaration sound unnatural almost in woman's mouth. Yet that was not the same thing as pledging herself to protect him at all costs, and she felt certain that Éomer would be horrified to discover what she contemplated that evening as she sat in her bower and fingered the necklace that their mother once had worn. It was a simple green stone held in a tear-shaped backing, and strung upon a fine gold chain. 'A symbol of the loyal heart,' Théodwyn had told her when she had placed it in her daughter's hands, just before her death. 'Wear it proudly.' And so she had, and Éowyn remembered those words ever when her heart rebelled against the tedium and helplessness of her station. A loyal heart, she thought, but how loyal? Shall I shame Éomer by accepting such a bribe, so that he shall rue the day that he was spared? For though I doubt not that Wormtongue means for him to join the other four councilors who troubled him most, I think Éomer would not find their ghostly company unfitting. Have I the heart to let him go, when Wormtongue at last rises up to destroy him? Could I force myself to submit for his sake?
And though a part of her wished she could say Yes, the greater part of her soul cried out against any such notion. I am not a chattel to be given away! she thought, rising and pacing her room as a caged lioness. I will not submit to Wormtongue's lies and corruption for anyone, surely! But how shall I live if Éomer is brought down, even killed? Gríma has murdered before, and shall again, though his hands remain ever in plain sight of all. How shall I avoid this trap that he has wrought for me?
She paused at her window and gazed out at the clear night. And slowly, an answer began to take shape in her mind….
At the turn of winter to spring, it was the custom of the Rohirrim to gather together to celebrate the new season with feasting and song. With the summons to merriment, however, came also a call to duty: for at this time, the king held court and all advisors and men of rank were ordered to come and learn the king's decrees for the new year. Éowyn was busy with the preparations for this gathering, and also for the more festive activities, but she worked tirelessly and without complaint, shored up against burdens by anticipation and determination. For upon that gathering hinged her one hope of freeing herself from Wormtongue's grasp, and she hoped only that none would move to forbid her plea. I wish I did not need to hide this from Éomer, or deny him an explanation, for he will surely ask it. But I have no choice, and perhaps, she thought, perhaps it is better thus.
It had been difficult for her to greet her brother properly when he had arrived, though she had not had to feign joy at the sight of him. Yet she had excused herself from most of his invitations on the pretext of work still to be done (which was, in fact, a true enough excuse), and she felt his eyes upon her, and knew that he sensed something was amiss. "Will you not stay and speak for moment?" Éomer had caught her in her room on the evening of his arrival. "Surely there is time enough to tell me at the least how you have fared here!"
"I would speak with you, brother," Éowyn had replied, torn by regret and shame, "But there is so much to be done."
"So you say," Éomer said slowly, and gazed unhappily at her, "and yet is there not something else that drives you, Éowyn?" And he came and draped his arms about her, gazing down with troubled eyes. Always those eyes betray him! she thought. In them one can read his heart if he takes no care to dissemble, which he rarely does. Alas, my poor brother, you have a dishonest sister! But I dare not confide in you this secret.
"There are always other things," she replied instead by way of misdirection. "I like not the mood of the court, and listen, brother! Little service can I do you often times, but in this I can warn you: watch yourself, and guard your tongue in the days that come, for Wormtongue loves you not at all. He has set his claws in the king our uncle, and I have not been able to shake them loose! Therefore be wary, and remember that your sister would grieve were anything to happen to you!" There, that for my conscience, and for Éomer's good, I hope! And for all that she had walked proudly from his arms, she had fled the room.
When at last, the lords of the realm were assembled in the council chambers, and Théoden sat in the seat of judgment, Éowyn felt only a small trepidation as she joined them. After two days of avoiding her brother and even Théodred, she wished only for the ordeal to be over, whatever the outcome. As was her right as a member of the king's household and a blood relative, she slipped within the crowded room to listen the talk of the men and await the closing of the session. Amid the tapestried walls and splendid banners that hung from the rafters, Éowyn attracted little attention though she was the only woman present. Much of what was told and argued she had little knowledge of, for she was not privy to all of Théoden's meetings with Wormtongue, nor did she read the king's correspondences. But the main matter she knew too well: the minions of the Dark Lord were abroad in increasing numbers, and troubled now all lands.
"Gondor's people upon our borders," Éomer said, addressing that point after a long discussion on what preparations Rohan ought to make against this enemy, "report that Ithilien is under constant threat, and that Cair Andros' garrison has been strengthened to guard Anórien. Yet still the Orcs and other things of nameless breed slip past, and in greater numbers than ever. Minas Tirith can no longer halt the tide."
"And what of Rohan's guard?" the hated voice spoke up, and Éowyn clenched her fists as Gríma stood forth. "Is it idle, that we lose still more herds to these… these creatures? Will you not speak, Third Marshal, since whatever troubles Gondor may have, we at least must decide how best to stem that tide into our fair land?"
"It is not idle," Éomer replied in a clipped tone that suggested he would fain say more, but realized his peril should he give his wrath free reign. "Councilor, I do but report what I have seen and heard from those friends that we trust." And if there was a slight emphasis on that last word, none missed it, nor mistook its meaning. But do they agree with that sentiment? Éowyn wondered, casting her gaze round, trying to decipher the discomfort that the assembly effused. "Ours is a scattered people, and that makes defense difficult, yet we do not suffer incursions lightly when we hear of them."
"You speak from long experience, of course," Wormtongue said disarmingly, but Éowyn saw how he twisted that phrase to his own purposes, and felt her own wrath rising up fiercely. "Yet such measures as we take seem no longer sufficient, though Mordor has not by any means declared war. Shall we suffer such losses as we have had when the enemy employs but a tithe of his strength? Do you not agree, my lord Éomer, that something must be done to stem the tide of goods that crosses our borders going eastwards?" There was a hiss as the whole company seemed to tense and breaths were sharply indrawn at the barb nestled within seeming good advice. Théoden said nothing, nor gave any sign; but at the King's right hand, Théodred frowned and darted a dark glance at the councilor, and then looked with concern at Éomer, who stood with his arms folded across his chest as he stared at Gríma. Wormtongue noted the look, and his eyes narrowed, but then he turned his full attention back to Éomer. "Well? What say you, Third Marshal?"
"If we could but increase the number of horsemen assigned sweep rides, we would extend our reach greatly. As for other measures," Éomer leaned forward, placing his palms flat atop the ornate table, and met Wormtongue's eyes steadily, "I think all of us here have begun to strengthen our stonework, but the people must be alerted and made ready for war, for we know not when it will come. And if you are so concerned, Gríma son of Gálmód, about losses in the east, then perhaps you will agree that the timing is ripe to let fall restrictions upon the Marshals as to how and when we shall ride against our enemies."
"The right to wage war is the king's alone, and that right he has not surrendered," Gríma replied instantly, as Éowyn had known he would. Indeed, that was the law, though many chafed at the bit for as it was now interpreted, one could do no more than defend oneself once attacked. Preemptive action was denied a man until the king could rule upon such matters… and by then it was always too late.
"I would hear it from the king, " Éomer spoke softly, but some of those about him drew back slightly, as if unwilling to stand too near him for fear of being condemned by association. But Éomer only looked to Théoden, his uncle and for many years now a father as well, and waited for an answer.
Théoden hesitated a moment, then slowly shook his head, and Éowyn closed her eyes in anguish as he spoke the damning words, "The matter is not yet decided, but I shall consider it, Éomer." And so they were still hobbled, trammeled by a law's misuse! And against my brother is set yet another black mark in Gríma's records, and he will twist Théoden's recollection to see his words–sensible words and just–as arrogance, an assault upon royal authority. A long silence followed that pronouncement, and there was some shuffling of feet as the lords sought desperately for something to break the silence. Or perhaps they seek to break the spell, but if love will not, then what more can we do? she asked herself. And if Wormtongue dares such an attack in front of witnesses, what will he not dare in private? I can feel him watching me now, curse him! He thinks to see me accept his suit before the day is done!
Eventually, the court moved on to other matters, though Éomer spoke not, guarding his silence. At last though, just before the closing of the session, Théodred rose from his seat and said, "At this time, it is the custom that those who have petitions may present them to the king for consideration. Are there any here who would speak?"
"I would," Éowyn spoke clearly into the silence, and heads turned in astonishment at the sound of her voice. Éomer's head jerked up and he stared at her, mouth half-open as if he would protest. But a hand on his arm–Elfhelm's, she perceived–reminded him of the formality of the moment, and he shut it, though he continued to stare. Éowyn strode forward, and the men parted to let her pass until she stood before her uncle the king. Théoden, too, seemed puzzled, and Théodred looked grimly uncertain. But most pleasant was the surprise that flitted across Wormtongue's face, and she had to resist a smile. Such a moment was not made for mirth, and she knelt before the king in supplication. "I would beg a boon of the lord and king of this realm, desiring to set myself in the service of Rohan's people." Murmurs arose at that, for such a formula was reserved generally to foreigners who would take allegiance-in-arms with Rohan, and it had not been heard since Thengel's day. And why would a woman have need of such a speech…?
Théodred, she decided, recognized her intent after but a moment's thought, but if he would dissuade her from her purpose, he was too late for he was bound to remain silent until she had finished. "I am named Éowyn, daughter of Théodwyn," she continued, adhering to a formula still more ancient, one that had fallen into disuse for more than three centuries. "My father is dead who should serve you, my king, and so I pledge myself in his place to be a shieldmaiden of the Mark. And I beg of you, sire," she said firmly, and smiled now as she saw Wormtongue's insulted wrath, "I beg you: say me not nay!" Her plea fell into dead silence as every man listened and watched with dreadful fascination the spectacle unfolding before them. Théoden, even, seemed shocked, but she thought she discerned in his face an understanding. Perhaps even approval, though Éowyn tried not to hope too much. This was the best and only chance she would have, for Wormtongue could not speak upon pain of expulsion. Hear me, Théoden King, uncle whom I love as my father! she entreated silently. Do not deny me!
Finally, the king shook off the silence, and said slowly, "You are aware, Éowyn daughter of Théodwyn, that if I accept your suit, you shall bind yourself to this realm alone, and to no other man, whether in loyalty or in marriage, until I release you or you fulfill the duty of your father who is gone?"
"I know it well, and I shall not fail in my duty, my liege," she replied steadily. Another silence, in which she thought surely the court must hear her heart hammering against her ribs. Why does he hesitate? Will he not say yea or nay?
"Sister-daughter," Théoden said heavily, and she felt her heart sink. "You ask a grave thing of me, who am your uncle as well as your lord. Yet," he paused and this time a certain levity entered his tone, an affection that she had long missed, "I see that you are resolved in this course, and that your honor will suffer no refusal. Therefore, We accept your service to Our realm. Rise then, Éowyn, daughter of Théodwyn, Shieldmaiden of the Riddermark!" Then rise she did, seeming in that moment to stand taller than any of those gathered about. And yet she was fairer than they, her slender form clad in simple white and bearing no jewel but a tear-shaped emerald upon her breast. Éowyn turned eyes bright and fierce upon Gríma Gálmód's son. I shall never be his now, and whether Éomer fall or no, his fate at least shall not hinge upon my choices! Their eyes met, and hers danced with the joy of victory at last!
"Why, Éowyn?" Éomer's voice sounded behind her as she gazed out once more from the balcony, though now the land was starlit under a crescent moon. Beyond him, from inside the keep, many voices rose high and gaily in song or laughter as the Rohirrim fêted the new year.
"Must there be a why?" she asked softly when he came to stand beside her as he had when they were children. "Do men ask why Éomer Éomund's son serves his king?"
"They do not, but may I not ask as your brother, and not as a man?"
Éowyn smiled at that, and could not restrain the low chuckle that rose within her. After a moment, she heard him snort in the darkness, realizing what he had just said, and he put an arm about her shoulders. "You may ask, of course. But what answer shall I make, Éomer? It had to be done, that is all."
"I see," he replied and sighed softly, and was silent for a beat. Then, in a tone even more hushed and serious, "Will you tell me one day?"
Éowyn hesitated, but then she nodded. "One day I shall. But do not look for an explanation too soon."
Her brother nodded, and in the moonlight, she saw him grimace as he turned his head to look at her. "I will not hide that I like this not at all," said he, "but the king has ruled and I may not interfere. Remember only this: that even as you would grieve, so would I should aught happen to you. Do not seek danger, for that drew our father to his death."
"I never seek danger."
Éomer made a noise that sounded like disbelief, but he said nothing further on the subject. Instead he hugged her tightly and then asked, in a determinedly light tone, "Such a night was made for celebration, no matter what the season. Does my sister, who is now a shieldmaiden, still dance, or has she abandoned that pleasure for swordcraft?"
Éowyn laughed and could not forebear to smack him lightly on the shoulder for that jibe. "Of course I dance… provided you have learned how to lead!"
"Then let us make a trial of this, you and I!" With his arm still tucked about her, he guided her back inside, into the music and the light, and Éowyn let drop her worries. Just for tonight, for you are right, my brother! This is a night to celebrate!
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.