1. A Battle of a different Kind
"What is going on here?"
Éomer's shout silenced the cheering with the abruptness of a muteness spell. Heads jerked around and eyes widened as the men recognised their marshal standing behind them, apparently very much aware of what had been going on. A narrow cordon opened in the direction his dark eyes gleamed, coming to rest on the mail-clad figure on the other end. Clearly uncomfortable with his new marshal's undivided attention, Éothain lowered his sword.
"Your sister challenged me, my lord. She said that not only would she be able to hold her own against me, but win the upper hand, too. I could not let this pass unanswered." He straightened.
"How old are you, captain?" Éomer was not amused. "Twenty-five summers? She is twenty-one. She is still too young to know, but you ought to know better than to encourage her!" For a moment, the Rohirrim's dark eyes lingered on his comrade's tense expression before he shifted his attention to the smaller figure behind Éothain; a figure that straightened and lifted its chin in defiance of his outrage. "Éowyn..."
Her eyes flaring up upon hearing his insult, Éowyn raised her sword, daring him.
"I know you do not like to see me fighting your men, Brother, but I can hold my own against them. Let me show you! Just because they made you a Marshal last week does not mean that you can to hold me back from showing my skills. I know you'd rather have me doing needlework at Meduseld than brandishing a sword, yet such is the passion of your sister, I'm afraid."
With in inward sigh, Éomer stepped into the cordon, dismissing his miserable captain who quickly retreated to the others who were watching the family drama unfold.
"If you think that of me, you are mistaken, Sister." He came to a halt in front of her, staring down at his younger sibling with all the authority of his superior height and age. "For I am glad and proud to have a sister who knows how to defend herself." His fingers went for the hilt of her sword, but she held on, daring him to take it from her in front of the men of his éored. "Defend, Éowyn, not attack. I know how badly you want to ride with us, but it will never happen."
"Not as long as you are going to be their marshal, Brother, I know." Frustration and fury mingled in her eyes. "You will see to it that I will never get the chance!"
Frustrated by her stubbornness, he leaned closer.
"Aye, that I will, and it will be for the best. I am loath to dampen your spirits, Éowyn, but these soldiers of mine you've been fighting, sometimes besting, even..." Éomer waved in an all-encompassing gesture before his attention turned back to her, "... they never wanted to hurt you. They were determined not to hurt you! This is not to say that they held back in training, but things are different in a fight to the death. Utterly different. Men who would be inferior in training will substitute skill with crookedness. Men who are a head taller than you and twice your weight will relentlessly make use of that advantage. Before you could hope to get near them, they would have you dead. Training is nothing like riding out to engage in real battle. Let me tell you this from my own experiences, Éowyn!" As he spoke, he could see how enraged she became by his words.
"You are saying that your men allowed me to defeat them because they were afraid to hurt me? Because they were too courteous to hit the king's niece?" Pain flashed in her blue eyes as she swung her sword toward him. "I hate you, Brother! How can you say this to me?" Éomer intercepted her blow at the last moment before it would have dented his head.
The metallic clang of the two swords meeting seemed to wake the surrounding men from their stupor. This could not be happening. This was serious!
"My lord, shouldn't we leave for patrol?" Éothain tried a diversion, yet Éomer would not heed it.
"You misunderstand me, Sister! I did not say that you were not skilled with the sword. Yet against a determined opponent of greater strength and build, you would stand no chance in battle, and that is why you won't be riding out with us!" Keeping their swords locked between them, Éomer fought to lower his voice to what he hoped would reach Éowyn as soothing words of understanding, of common sense. He failed spectacularly.
"Let me show you what chance I would have against an opponent of greater strength and build, Brother!" She jumped back, and with a quick feint, succeeded with her thrust by hitting his arm with the broad side of the sword. It was the last straw. Before he knew what he was doing, Éomer dropped into a fighting crouch.
"You just won't listen, will you? You want to learn the hard way!" He lashed out a mighty strike that barely missed her as she ducked away with a wild, triumphant "Ha!"
Not knowing whether to root for their marshal or his defiant sister, the surrounding men remained quiet, deeply uncomfortable with the situation; their silence lending the scene an awkward, serious quality. This was no simple training fight they were witnessing. This was a power struggle, a desperate attempt of the younger sibling to beat the fate dealt to her by having been born the wrong gender, while the older one struggled to protect the only member of his family still alive by keeping her away from battle. As bitter as it would be to see the young woman's spirits crushed, Éothain mused as he watched the duel, he hoped that Éomer would win and prove his point. One reason for the Riders of Rohan being such an unstoppable force against their enemies was the knowledge that their kin were safe at home while they rode into battle. Having their women accompany them, no matter how skilled they were with sword or bow, would have meant greatly weakening the éoreds' effectiveness and recklessness, as the warriors' chief concern would no longer be how to affect their foes, but how to keep the women from harm. It was hard enough losing comrades in battle; losing the ones they loved... Éothain grimaced. It would be devastating to any man's morale.
Éowyn feinted left, but this time Éomer anticipated the thrust and intercepted with a mighty blow that travelled up her arm, almost knocking the sword from her fingers. To her credit, Éowyn merely grimaced and tried anew, unfazed by the fact that she hadn't been able to penetrate her brother's defence yet. Laying her accumulated anger at her fate into a wild cry and a lunge that would have caused a bad bruise had she actually hit, she was unprepared to counter Éomer's answer as his greater reach enabled him to hit her chainmailed ribs and sidestep her attempt without her ever coming close. A pained hiss escaped her lips as her free hand involuntarily jerked up to her hurting side.
Lowering his sword, Éomer straightened.
"Stop this madness, Éowyn. I do not want to hurt you!"
"Don't worry for me, brother! I can take whatever you have to give," and with a battle-cry, she charged again, furiously hitting left and right in a lighting-quick combination, driving him back under her onslaught. Sparks flew as their swords met, and the circle of men Éomer was being driven against opened to make space for the two combatants. Again, their swords were caught between them, and as both pressed against the other, their eyes met over the steel.
"This is exactly the situation I spoke of," Éomer panted, his breath coming in rapid bursts as he held tight against Éowyn's struggle to free her blade. "Once your opponent has you like this, your fate is sealed!"
"I am not yet defeated! Far from it!"
"You are but a heartbeat away from it."
"Wouldn’t you wish that!!"
With an eruption of speed and strength, he violently pushed her away, sending her tumbling, and the mighty strike he lashed out struck the sword from her hands before Gúthwine's tip came to a halt in the pit of her throat. On her knees in the dirt, Éowyn froze. If possible, the silence around them deepened even more to the point where it became deafening. Where to go from here? Coughing, Éothain lowered his eyes. Such an outcome had not been on his mind when he had accepted the young woman's challenge.
Keeping his posture for a moment longer, Éomer inhaled deeply. He had defeated her, yet felt neither triumph nor satisfaction about the fact. Slowly, he let his arm with the sword sink, then resheathed it forcefully. Just what had he tried to prove to himself? How skilled he was? How much she lacked? That she was wrong, and he right? How great his fear of losing her was? Without looking at the men of his éored, he spoke lowly.
"We are running late. Meet me at the stables. I will be with you momentarily." When nothing happened, he raised his head. "Go!" Muttering their affirmation, the men turned away, occasionally casting a glance back over their shoulders as they followed his order. None of them spoke.
Éomer waited until they were out of hearing distance before he extended a hand to his still kneeling sister to help her up, but she ignored him. Her shoulders slumped, she knelt in the dirt with hanging head, eyes squeezed shut. Her lips trembled.
"Éowyn?... Éowyn, you forced me. I did not want to do this."
"Aye. Aye, Brother. You did not want to hurt me. You only wanted to show me my place." Her voice shook with bitterness, and she still would not look at him.
"I do not want you to ride out and fight against foes you are not ready to fight." Lowering himself to his knees as well, Éomer laid an arm around her, gently pulling her toward his chest, fully expecting her to pull away from him. "Éowyn, I don't want to lose you, too. Will you not understand?"
Finally, wide pools of blue met his gaze; her eyes brimming with tears as she finally allowed him to pull her close.
"Do you not understand how hard it is for me to stay back when you ride into battle? Not to know whether you will return each time you leave? Why should I be the one doomed to stay behind, doomed to worry... and to grieve? It is a fate worse than being killed, Éomer, to be trapped within these halls, waiting for something I cannot change and have to accept that helplessness without a fight."
"But you are leading a fight of a different kind, Éowyn, and it is of no less importance!" Looking over her shoulder at the stark silhouette of Meduseld in the bright morning light, stroking her hair, Éomer became aware of a figure watching them from the terrace. His expression darkened, and he tensed, causing Éowyn to lift her head in question.
"What..." She saw, and she understood. "Aye, he is one of the reasons I cannot stand to be in these halls anymore, Éomer. He is always there, and he seems to know everything, all my thoughts. I shiver whenever I feel his prying eyes upon me. It is worse whenever you are gone. He knows he has to hold back when you are home, but each time you are away, he becomes more daring. Uncle won't listen. I fear that one day, there will be nothing left to keep him from..." She did not finish the sentence, but finally accepted her brother's help as they both rose to their feet, looking at their dishevelled appearances with a sad smile.
"Théodred will be here this afternoon if nothing unexpected comes up. I will try to be back before he has to leave again." He squeezed her arm, hearing the sound of hooves as the men of his éored emerged from the stables further down the slope. He had to be going. "Until we can get rid of that filth, we need to protect Uncle from his influence. Sooner or later, I will find the proof that he is in league with our foes, but until then, I am counting on you to keep the king safe, Éowyn. Yours may very well be the harder battle, but I know you have the strength to win it. We need to be patient. One day, the tide will turn, and when it does, we must be ready."
One last time, he crushed her to his chest before finally turning away to accept Firefoot's reins from his captain's hand. Mounting with a swift move, Éomer granted his sister a curt nod, then threw the grey around, and a moment later, the éored thundered down the slope, leaving nothing but a dust-cloud behind.
Éowyn's eyes followed them until there was nothing left to be seen. Then, inwardly steeling herself for a war of words that would no doubt come her way if Grima had witnessed their fight, she turned back towards the Golden Hall, ready for a battle of a different kind...