An Act of Desperation - Chapter 14- The Steward and the Shieldmaiden
I stayed in bed for the rest of the day; I felt too numb to do anything else. I didn't even make an attempt to argue with the healers. The women who came to tend me exchanged worried glances when they thought I wasn't looking, but I didn't care.
By the next day, I was feeling increasingly restless, especially since no one I asked had any news regarding the company that had ridden out. By the third day, my shock and restlessness had turned into anger, especially at Éomer. But since he wasn't there, it didn't take long for me to direct it at every unfortunate person who dared cross my path. When a young woman, who introduced herself as Idril, brought me a bowlful of thin porridge for breakfast, I asked her if she had heard any news of the fate of those who had gone to war. She looked surprised, then told me, "But they only left two days ago, my lady," as if that were an answer. The glare I directed at her sent her hurrying off.
It seemed that Mithríel was the healer assigned specifically to me; at any rate, I had seen her the most over the last several days. She arrived shortly after breakfast, frowned to see how little I had eaten, then set about the task of unbinding my arm. "Mithríel," I asked, "have you heard of any word from the men?"
She shook her head after sparing me a sympathetic look. "None, my lady," she said. "Nor will any tidings arrive today, most likely. Why, I'd be surprised if they've even reached the borders yet."
"Thank you," I mumbled, though I felt no gratitude. I remained silent while she finished checking the splint and re-wrapping the bandages around my arm, then she left with the promise of returning later.
So this is how it will end, I thought bitterly. Left behind again to face it on my own. I could scarcely dare to hope that I would somehow find a way to meet it with honour. For a long while, I stared at what little I could see of the view outside the window. As the morning dragged on, I became increasingly bored and restless. The monotony was broken slightly when Idril returned with the noontime meal, but I quickly grew restless again. Finally, I tossed off the blankets and stood up.
The time of rest had done me good, I reluctantly admitted. Except for the chill I still felt, my strength had almost returned completely, and I had no difficulty in walking about my room. Knowing this only increased my desire to find something--anything--to do; I could not bear the thought of waiting in my bed for whatever doom would overtake the city. With this thought in mind, I began searching around my room for something to wear besides my cloak and nightshift. There had to be someone in this house whom I could speak with about this.
The door abruptly opened again. "What are you doing?" Mithríel asked, her grey-green eyes narrowing. "You should not be out of bed!"
"If I spend one more minute in that bed, I'll go mad," I retorted, slamming the still-empty wardrobe door shut in frustration. Where on earth am I going to find some decent clothing? I wondered. In spite of my eagerness to leave, I was hesitant to go walking about in naught but the shift. "Is there no one I can speak with?"
Mithríel gave me an exasperated look. "But my lady, you have not yet fully recovered!"
"I'm recovered enough," I said as I threw my cloak over my shoulders. It was not much covering, but it would have to do.
After a long moment, the dark-haired woman sighed in resignation. "Will you at least let me help you get properly dressed?" I nodded my assent, and she left the room for what seemed like an age. When she finally returned, she was carrying several garments draped over one arm, and, thankfully, my own riding boots in the other hand. She helped me into a blue-grey gown of the fashion that the women of Gondor wore. The dress was too short at my ankles and wrists, and Mithríel gave me an apologetic look. "It was all I could find on such short notice," she said as she helped me lace up my boots. "We will have something to fit you better soon. Your brother gave us one of your dresses, and a seamstress who remained in the city is using it for measurements."
"One of my dresses? But how?" Then I remembered stuffing my dress into my saddlebag at the last minute before leaving Dunharrow. "Oh...never mind," I sighed. Even though it had been scarcely a week since I left, it seemed a lifetime ago.
Mithríel nodded but did not reply as she tied a wide strip of linen around my neck to serve as a sling for my arm. I shrugged in a futile attempt to make the accursed thing sit more comfortably around my neck, but Mithríel did not seem to notice. "Come, my lady, I will take you to the Warden now," she said. She led me down the hall, then knocked firmly on a heavy wooden door.
The door opened to reveal a room full of herbs and roots in various stages of drying. An elderly man was sitting at a table where he was packaging up the herbs. He turned slightly in his chair as he heard us enter, a look of slight surprise in his light blue eyes. "Daeron," Mithríel said, "The Lady Éowyn wishes to speak with you."
The Warden rose slowly, and the skin around his eyes crinkled in a smile as he looked at me for a long moment. "How may I help you, my lady?" he finally asked.
"Sir," I said, "I am in great unrest, and I cannot lie longer in sloth."
The smile faded. "Lady, you are not yet healed, and I was commanded to tend you with especial care," he said firmly. I scowled. Why did Éomer have to insist on treating me like a complete invalid? Daeron continued, "You should not have risen from your bed for seven days yet, or so I was bidden. I beg you to go back."
"I am healed!" I insisted. "Healed at least in body, save my left arm only, and that is at ease. But I shall sicken anew, if there is nothing that I can do." He shook his head, so I decided to try a different approach. "Are there no tidings of war? The women can tell me nothing."
"There are no tidings, save that the Lords have ridden to Morgul Vale; and men say that the new captain out of the North is their chief." Aragorn, I thought sadly. If I gave any reaction, he did not notice as he added, "A great lord is that, and a healer; and it is a thing passing strange to me that the healing hand should also wield the sword. It is not thus in Gondor now, though once it was so, if old tales be true. But for long years we healers have only sought to patch the rents made by the men of swords. Though we should still have enough to do without them." He sighed. "The world is full enough of hurts and mischances without wars to multiply them."
Does everyone in Gondor ramble on so much? I thought, irritated. "It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two, Master Warden. And those who have not swords can still die upon them," I said, fidgeting in place as I gestured towards the drying racks. "Would you have the folk of Gondor gather you herbs only, when the Dark Lord gathers armies? And it is not always good to be healed in body. Nor is it always evil to die in battle, even in bitter pain." My gaze drifted to the east window, and my hand involuntarily clenched as if I were holding a sword. "Were I permitted, in this dark hour I would choose the latter," I added softly. The Warden gave no reply, and after a moment I turned back to him. "Is there no deed to do? Who commands in this City?" I asked.
"I do not rightly know; such things are not my care." I clenched my jaw in frustration; didn't these people know anything? "There is a marshal over the Riders of Rohan, and the Lord Húrin, I am told, commands the men of Gondor. But the Lord Faramir is by right the Steward of the City."
Finally! I thought, hoping that perhaps he'd be able to help. "Where can I find him?" I asked.
"In this house, lady. He was sorely hurt, but is now set again on the way to health. But I do not know..."
"Will you not bring me to him?" I interrupted, not caring that I was being rude. "Then you will know." Daeron looked exasperated but bowed slightly, then motioned for me to follow him.
As we walked, I tried to plan out what I would say. The name Daeron had given sounded somewhat familiar--probably some lord of Gondor that had been mentioned in passing in the court. But if the people I had encountered thus far in the Houses were any indication, I would need to have a clear idea of exactly what I wanted to say in order to get past their flowery manner of speech. And though I had a fair idea by the time we reached the door, I was feeling more impatient than ever. I need to get out of this place, if it's the last thing I ever do, I determined. He pushed the door open, motioned for me to walk through, then followed me into the garden. It seemed a pleasant enough place, although after seeing nothing but stone for three days, any patch of weeds would have been a welcome sight. The grass was interrupted by neat beds of young plants--some of the herbs they used for healing, I guessed. A few short trees, still bare except for the buds swelling where leaves would soon grow, stood near the walls, offering some shade. The entire garden was encircled with a wall of the same white stone that the entire city seemed to be made of, with a broad walkway about waist-height below the outer wall. A narrow staircase led up to the top of the wall, with a narrow stone pathway between the wall and the door where I stood now.
But all my attention was focused on the man standing alone on top of the walkway. His back was to us as he looked out towards the east, one hand resting on top of the wall and the other bound up in a sling similar to mine. It seemed to me that there was something strangely familiar about him, I thought, though I could not quite place it.
"Lord Faramir," he said. As the man turned towards us, I froze in shock, and everything I had been planning to say flew out of my head. It can't be, I thought. That's impossible. He was tall, about the same height as my brother, and didn't look like he could be too much older. His face was clean-shaven, and his straight, raven-black hair cropped shorter than the men of Rohan wore theirs. And although I hadn't seen his face clearly before, there was no doubt in my mind that he was the man I had seen in my dream after the battle.
He glanced at the Warden briefly, then his eyes turned to me, and a combination of surprise and recognition crossed his face. He kept looking at me in disbelief as he quickly descended from the wall and moved towards us.
Daeron continued speaking, and the man's piercing gaze finally turned from me. "My lord, here is the Lady Éowyn of Rohan. She rode with the king and was sorely hurt, and dwells now in my keeping. But she is not content, and she wishes to speak with the Steward of the City." He could not keep a hint of sarcasm out of his voice as he spoke.
"Do not misunderstand him, lord," I blurted out. His eyes turned back to me, and for a minute I feared I had offended him by insulting the skill of his city's healers, so I continued, "It is not lack of care that grieves me. No houses could be fairer, for those who desire to be healed. But I cannot lie in sloth, idle, caged. I looked for death in battle. But I have not died, and the battle still goes on."
Faramir looked at the Warden and nodded, and he bowed deeply and left. As Daeron was leaving, Faramir and I carefully studied each other for a long moment. The slight pallor to his face told me he was recovering from some recent illness, though he stood as one who was completely healthy. And although he still looked somewhat surprised, his expression had relaxed into a kinder one. Though his build was slighter than those of the men I grew up with, the man was obviously a warrior; I could guess that it was likely that he could evenly match any warrior of my own people in combat. For my part, I had the uncomfortable feeling that he could see right through me as he gazed at me, almost as if he could read my thoughts. The look in his grey eyes, a mixture of deep sorrow and gentleness, left me strangely unnerved, yet at the same time there was something about it that made me believe that perhaps he would understand.
"What would you have me do, lady?" he finally asked softly. "I also am a prisoner of the healers." I automatically opened my mouth to answer, but I had not been expecting such a reply, and so no words came. "What do you wish?" he asked again. "If it lies in my power, I will do it."
"I would have you command this Warden, and bid him let me go," I said, my words sounding more confident than I felt. I sound like a petulant child, I thought, feeling suddenly irritated at myself.
If he thought so as well, he showed no sign of it. "I myself am in the Warden's keeping," he answered, "nor have I yet taken up my authority in the City. But had I done so, I should still listen to his counsel, and should not cross his will in matters of his craft, unless in some great need."
"But I do not desire healing!" I exclaimed, feeling more certain of myself again. Why can no one understand this? "I wish to ride to war like my brother Éomer, or better like Théoden the king, for he died and has both honour and peace."
Faramir looked surprised at the request, then sad. "It is too late, lady, to follow the Captains, even if you had the strength. But death in battle may come to us all yet, willing or unwilling. You will be better prepared to face it in your own manner, if while there is still time you do as the healer commanded." He paused, then added in a tone that said he was as reluctant to admit it as I was to hear it, "You and I, we must endure with patience the hours of waiting."
I wanted to argue with him and opened my mouth to do so, but something in me broke at his words. Feeling suddenly helpless, my head dropped as a lump swelled in my throat. My eyes filled with tears, and one trickled down my cheek before I could stop it. I did not look back up at him as I desperately fought back the tears; I would not allow myself to be so weak as to weep in front of a man I had just met. "But the healers would have me lie abed seven days yet," I finally said softly. "And my window does not look eastward."
"Your window does not look eastward?" he repeated. "That can be amended." I raised my eyes to his, though my head was still bowed, and he smiled at me sadly. "In this I will command the Warden. If you will stay in this house in our care, lady, and take your rest, then you shall walk in this garden in the sun, as you will; and you shall look east, wither all our hopes have gone." I breathed a sigh of relief, grateful that I would not be confined to my room any longer. I was about to thank him and leave, but his next words startled me. "And here you will find me, walking and waiting, and also looking east. It would ease my care, if you would speak to me, or walk at whiles with me."
My head snapped up, my eyes locking with his. Looking closer, I could see now that there was a hint of blue in his grey eyes, filled with the pain of some recent grief. But they were also kind, and I could feel the heat rising in my face as I realized he was serious. "How should I ease your care, my lord?" I asked. "And I do not desire the speech of living men," I added without thinking. Then I bit my lip, thinking that perhaps I had offended him.
If he was offended, he did not show it. "Would you have my plain answer?" he asked.
"I would," I said. It's about time I got a plain answer out of someone around here.
"Then, Éowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful." The unexpected compliment brought the blood rushing to my cheeks, though I could see no insincerity in his face, and so I was completely unprepared for his next statement. "It may be that only a few days are left ere darkness falls upon our world, and when it comes I hope to face it steadily; but it would ease my heart, if while the sun yet shines, I could see you still. For you and I have both passed under the wings of the Shadow, and the same hand drew us back."
I stiffened at his last words, my eyes wide. There was only one way he could have known about that... But it was just a dream! I silently protested. I was sure my face was still several different shades of red as I stammered, "Alas, not me, lord! Shadow lies on me still. Look not to me for healing; I am a shieldmaiden and my hand is ungentle." Wormtongue was right about that one thing, at least. Faramir's brow furrowed slightly as I added, "But I thank you for this at least, that I need not keep to my chamber. I will walk abroad by the grace of the Steward of the City." With that, I gave a quick curtsey and turned to go. My cheeks were still burning as I reached the door leading back into the Houses. For just a moment I hesitated and looked back; he was still watching me, a thoughtful look on his face. I quickly whirled around and fled to the safety of the Houses.
I stood at the window of my new quarters, looking out over the fields to the shadowy mountains of the East. Occasionally, I could see a flicker like fire beyond the mountains, interrupting the growing twilight and causing me to shiver. I knew I would not see the armies by this point; they would be passing through the mountains now, if not already past them. But still I watched, desperately hoping for any sort of sign that my brother was still alive.
And the Lord Aragorn, of course, I belatedly added. It was a shock to realize that this was the first time I had really thought about him all afternoon. My mind had been slightly preoccupied after my meeting with the Steward, wondering why on earth he had expressed an interest in my company.
My head dropped a little at the thought, and I noticed that I could see the gardens from the window if I looked down. The early evening light was still enough that I could see two figures wandering slowly through the garden, one tall with black hair gleaming faintly in the fading light, the other a good deal shorter with golden-brown curls. Though I could not see their faces from above, it looked as if they were talking.
As I watched Faramir and Merry, for a moment I wished that I had someone to talk to, and almost went down to join them. Then, as if he sensed me watching, Faramir's face turned to look up at my window. I quickly darted out of sight and sat down on the bed. Though I knew I was being a coward, I couldn't bear to see the pity that I knew would be in his eyes.
And so, for the rest of the evening, I remained alone with my confused thoughts. There was nothing else I could do.
I was standing in a large room, the only light coming from a few torches standing by a bier at the far wall. The light flickered off the tall, dark marble columns that stood at regular intervals near the walls. The floors and walls were all also cold marble. Shadows filled every corner, giving me the feeling that I was standing in a tomb.
I slowly moved towards the bier. As I drew closer, I could see that it was my uncle who had been laid there, his unmoving hands resting on the hilt of his sword. He looked like he was only sleeping, and for a moment I could believe that perhaps none of this had really happened--that I could open my eyes, and find that everything that had happened since Théodred died had been some terrible dream. "Uncle?" I whispered tentatively, hoping against hope that he would open his eyes and smile up at me, as he had only weeks ago when Gandalf healed him.
He made no answer, as I knew in my heart he would not. I drew my cloak a little tighter, clutching at the horsehead pin until I felt the edges digging into my palm, stumbling back as the realization finally sank in that he was gone forever.
My vision blurred as a tear began to trickle slowly down my cheek, followed by several more. I had no strength left to hold them back. "I failed you," I finally choked out. "I tried, but I couldn't help you. Not with Wormtongue, and not with..." my voice trailed off; I couldn't bring myself to mention the Witch-king aloud. Just the thought brought a chill to my fingertips, which slowly began to creep up my hand.
"It should have been me instead," I whispered. "All I wanted was to find an honorable end. I would have gladly died beside you, Uncle...I would give anything to trade places with you." My voice broke in a sob. "We still needed you; what hope do we have with you gone?"
And when he is gone, what then? There is no one left.
Gríma's words came back to me as clearly as if they had been spoken anew. I whirled around, eyeing the shadows behind the columns, but I could see nothing.
You knew this was going to happen. The king is dead. Your brother will soon be dead. There is no one left.
"Éomer will return," I whispered automatically. It was the only hope I had left to cling to. "He has to...I never got to say goodbye..."
A cloaked figure stepped out from behind the column, a dark hood pulled low over his face. "This war cannot be won. Your brother will fall, Aragorn will fall, and the world of men with them." The voice--Wormtongue's voice, I realized, though the figure was taller--grew more malicious, and I suddenly realized that my arm was completely numbed. The chill was spreading quickly now. Still he continued, every word driving me deeper into despair. "The Shadow will cover all, and your end will come too, Éowyn daughter of Éomund. And you will have to face it alone, just as you've always been alone. You'll be just as powerless to stop it as you've always been." The hood fell back slightly to reveal only shadow where Gríma's face should have been.
"No..." I stumbled back. "You're dead...I killed you..." I whispered. The figure reached for me, and I stepped back once more, falling back as I tripped over a step. He had me cornered, and I could feel him pulling me back into the shadowy land that Aragorn had called me back from. My sight dimmed once more as he reached his armor-clad hand towards me...
I sat up in bed, sweating and gasping for air. It was only a dream, but waking was no better. It took me a moment to realize that tears were running down my face unchecked. Feeling too broken-hearted to fight them anymore, I buried my face in the pillow and wept for the cousin I had lost, the uncle I had so utterly failed, and the brother who would not return. When the tears finally subsided, all I had the strength left to do was stare vacantly into the darkness, holding my still-numbed arm close in a vain attempt to warm it, and wait for dawn to come.