2. 2 - A Renewed Allegiance
- Chapter 2 / A Renewed Allegiance -
A sea of grass: this is what the endless, green fields of Rohan are called, moving with the wind in rolling waves. They murmur softly, they beckon to the rider and the steed; they speak of freedom. But that winter day, the earth was bare and cold; even the wind had died down. If should have whispered of ruin and death, of spilled blood and betrayal, flailing the city mercilessly to fit the agony it endured from within. We had had no warning for what grief was about to become ours.
The stones beneath my feet were slippery, and my balance already compromised by my gait; winter was not kind to pretenders, though it offered the possibility to hide beneath additional layers of clothes. As I cautiously limped towards the palace, doing my usual chores and trying to avoid attention, I had noticed the eerie silence that reigned in the streets of Edoras, usually so windswept at this time of the year. Turning around, I looked to the plain below to see an éored gallop towards the city, the riders urging their horses forward as if their life depended on it. I stepped aside, a morbid curiosity born in my mind to be the first to discover the new test that fate had bestowed upon us. And so I was indeed the first to see our Lord Éomer thunder through the gates, a lifeless body sitting in the saddle in front of him. My heart stopped. Théodred… There could be no mistake, despite the crimson blood caking his noble features; it was our lord and heir who had been mortally wounded.
As the riders flew past me, I cursed under my breath and glanced around. With such grim news, the palace would be in an uproar, but the chaotic squawking and the tears would do our prince little good. Théodred's condition required immediate help. As a healer's daughter, I knew a little about stitches and wounds. As an old woman, I would be listened to: blessed be the reverential obedience to the elders! But no matter how dense the guards were, the sight of an old woman jogging through the courtyard would undoubtedly raise suspicions, so I reigned in my impatience and my anxiety, and hobbled on.
As I neared the bottom of the stone stairs before the palace, the sentries at the doors glanced up lazily from their cards to judge whether the visitor was important enough to stand up: Ceolwulf, who was no threat to me since I appeared too old for his tastes and, sitting opposite of him, the young guard whose cruelty I remembered all too well. I had made my enquiries: Osred was his name. A rider of little years and experience, promoted to such a rank for some black deed that I had no wish to know of. Sighing inwardly, I remembered Háma's advice and headed for the back door.
As I had predicted, chaos reigned in the kitchens and the servants' quarters. Wide-eyed maids and excited children ran around aimlessly like beheaded chickens, wringing their hands in terror and grating on my nerves. I pushed my way through the crowd to Rowena, whom I knew to be more cold-blooded than the rest. "I need hot water," I said, "Fresh cloth, thread and a needle." I glanced to the doors. "I will offer my help, if there is yet anything to be saved…"
Rowena narrowed her eyes. "If they let you near him... It is said Gríma has insisted on a bleeding. Slimy bastard." Still, she did not disappoint: within minutes, she had gathered all I had asked for. "Be careful, Magge," she said, lowering her voice. "Not everyone in Meduseld wants to see Théodred in good health."
I spread my arms in a mockingly friendly gesture. "I am old, ugly and alone, my friend. There is not much they can threaten me with..." With those words I left, but Rowena's concern weighed on my mind. Was I truly looking for trouble? Was I threatening the subterfuge I had worked so hard to create? I held no illusions concerning Gríma's lack of remorse if it came to mistreat an old woman, nor about his pretended concern for Théodred's health. I had to consider the possibility that his ever-plotting mind would come up with the idea of blaming me for Théodred's death, and the sad consequences that it implied for my small, unimportant self.
Shaking my head, I made my way to the royal chambers, thinking that I had finally acquired the ultimate sign of old age to go with my disguise: lunacy. Why was I willing to risk everything for someone who would most probably die soon? If not today, if not from an infected wound, then tomorrow, or in a month, on another battlefield. Fool... Yet the thought of standing idly while the prince fought his battle against death in some suffocating room was unbearable. It was just not right… For a fool he may be, but unlike most, he still fought on, wasting his life for a long-lost cause. Such courage and selflessness I envied him. They were what made him a prince, and me a nobody. Only a woman, a designated victim in the war to come, destined to go quietly.
I clenched my teeth in determination: let come what may. Strength was not the privilege of Kings. I would do what had to be done. I had disappeared once already; if it came to that, I could try to disappear again.
It had begun five years ago. Already Théoden had begun to listen more to what treacherous advice Gríma would whisper into his ear than to his own kin. The counsellor gained influence, and used it to consolidate his position within Meduseld by hiring men both strong and stupid, traits that so often result in cruelty towards the weaker ones. They drank, gambled and sung all night long, turning into the repulsive, insensitive beasts that they had always been deep inside; taking what they wanted with no regards for the casualties of their fun. We soon learned to avoid them… Soon, but too late for Aelflaed.
She had been my friend, in those happier times when I was still young inside. We used to spend free time together, daydreaming, laughing and mooning over handsome riders… She was beautiful, my Aelflaed. A wonder for the eye of any man; and despite our efforts to remain unnoticed by the new inhabitants of Meduseld, her pretty face had quickly caught the attention of the most reckless and cruel of them.
I will always remember that day, when she was found bloody and broken in the corridor, after having been played with and thrown out of the room. I had hoped for tears, I had prayed for anger, but Aelflaed would not say a word or flinch as her wounds were tended to. She was just empty, as though any will of life had been beaten out of her. And, during a moment of inattention, she had slipped out of the kitchens to hang herself in the stables.
After that, I had thanked the stars that my face should be plain and unremarkable, but discovered that it mattered little. In their drunken state, Gríma's men would chase down anything in skirts and young enough to spread its legs, willingly or by force. Then I promised myself that I would not allow anyone to destroy me as they had destroyed Aelflaed; but this oath implied that I trusted my own strength of mind enough to resist such an aggression, which I did not. So I had come up with another way: who would desire an old woman with a crooked body and half a wit?
I disappeared that day, and Magge had been born. My departure had raised little questioning, since many of the smarter girls had already fled the city, preferring the possibility of a Dunlending or orc attack to a life of terror at the court. A few days later, the old woman that I had become had appeared at the doorstep, and asked for work…
And work I did, slaving away for the swine who called themselves men, cleaning their mess, and occasionally trying to repair what damage they had done, cleaning away the blood and any other trace of them on their victim, offering shelter and switching chores so that they would not be left alone with their aggressor again. Elswide would be watched very closely as well, but her case was different. Ceolwulf was her husband, and there was little we could do to save her from his clutches but pray he got himself killed in a drunken brawl.
We were the watch in the shadows, the silent and helpless guardians of those who fell victim to a war before it even began.
Théodred did not wince when I started to wash his wounds. He gave no indication that he was still alive; only the faint movement of his chest allowed me to think that I was tending to a living man and not washing a dead body. Still I worked with extreme caution, loath to cause him any more pain and to distress my Lady any more.
Éowyn paced impatiently behind me, her face a mask of stone. She had learned to hide her emotions well, to restrain her impetuous nature lest her feelings be used against those she loved. Now, she appeared calm and composed, if not for the occasional clenching of her fists. She did not trust me with her cousin's life, not that I blamed her. I only trusted a chosen few myself, and not enough to let them know my true identity.
The water in the basin was slowly becoming as dark as the blood that I kept wiping from the Théodred's wounds. But at least they did not bleed so freely anymore, sign that the blades had not been poisoned. I thought sadly that there was no need for it: the deep gashes on the prince's chest and stomach should have sufficed to kill him, and maybe that was yet to happen. My experience in healing did not allow me to judge whether Théodred would survive the night, but the pallor of his skin spoke against it.
As if to echo my thoughts, Éowyn drew closer. "Will he live?" she enquired coolly.
I rinsed the cloth in the basin, weighing my answer. "I hope so, my Lady. But I can not tell."
"Magge, is it?" I could feel her eyes on my back. "Where do you hail from? I do not recall seeing you here before."
"From the Eastfold, my Lady." It was a little lie: my mother came from a small village near the Entwash, and I had often heard her tell me about it.
"Where in the Eastfold?" came the next question, spoken in the same, cold voice.
I smiled beneath my hood at my Lady's distrust. "Near the Mouths of the Entwash, about an hour's ride. A village named Gissing."
"Gissing?" Éowyn narrowed her eyes. "I had a handmaid who came from there…"
I winced. How could I have forgotten that I had once mentioned it to the Lady? Distracted by my task, I had been careless. "Morwrei, yes… I have known her." It felt strange to speak of myself as though I was dead.
"Morwrei…" Éowyn seemed to relax a little; she unclenched her fists and came to stand by Théodred's bed. "So many have left… It feels as though…" She fell silent, maybe wondering if I was trustworthy enough.
"…As though everyone goes their own way to seek their destiny, and you are trapped here to watch them all race by," I finished, expressing my own feelings. It had not been easy for me to accept the loss of the glorious life I had painted myself when I was younger: the love, the family I had desired now seemed a heavy dream, already half-forgotten despite my attempts to remember.
Éowyn sighed softly. "And I keep reaching out, but they move too fast…" She looked at me, her eyes serious as she finally let her guard down. "You understand how I feel… But where does your allegiance lie?"
"It lies with you, my Lady. And with our King, our prince and Lord Éomer your brother." I reached out for the needle and the thread. "It always has, and always will."
"Always is a long time," remarked Éowyn wryly. She watched me start stitching the edges of the wounds together. "Many have sworn such loyalty, only to forsake it for a new master."
I chuckled mirthlessly. "And I am old. Always will be short for me: too short to change my mind."
"Then I am glad to count you as an ally." Éowyn touched my shoulder briefly; I stiffened under her hand and she drew back, looking confused. "I will leave him in your care. I need to speak to my brother." She glanced to the door. "The men outside are still loyal to the King, I believe. You may call for them, should the need arise." We both understood the meaning of her words: should the prince's life be in danger, whether from his wounds or a traitor's blade.
"I shall watch him until you return" I bowed, thinking that Gríma was too cunning to attempt something as brutal as a murder. No, it would be far easier to cut away everyone who still showed loyalty to Théodred and his cousins, to isolate them. And I wondered who would protect me from Gríma's wrath once I walked out of this room.
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.