An Act of Desperation - Chapter 5- A Shieldmaiden's Duty
I quickly shut the door behind me, waiting a moment as my eyes adjusted to the dimmer light of the hall. I heard Wormtongue shouting and quickly ducked behind one of the tall pillars, hoping he would not see me. Fortunately, his attentions were turned elsewhere for the moment. As I glanced out from behind the pillar, I could see him stalking across the floor, a string of curses pouring from his mouth. "How can my lord be so foolish as to listen to this conjurer? He will not be satisfied until the last of our men have fallen and all the land laid waste!" Háma followed him, carrying the king's sword and glancing toward the ceiling in exasperation. To his credit, he did not waste words on a reply. I stayed where I was until they had exited the hall, then lifted my skirts a bit and rushed across the floor to the door leading to the lower level.
"Hanna?" I called out as I entered the kitchen. My stomach growled slightly in protest at the smell of freshly baked bread as I remembered that I had not yet eaten that day. Hanna had been the head cook of the king's household for as long as I could remember. She had never failed to greet me without a grandmotherly smile and some tasty morsel, especially during my frequent late-night visits to the kitchens as a child when I was unable to sleep because of nightmares.
She turned to greet me now with her customary smile, her steel-grey hair coiled around her head in a tight braid to keep it out of her way. "Lady Éowyn! What can I do for you, my dear?"
"The king requests that whatever food can be contrived in haste be set out for himself, my brother and the four guests who arrived earlier this morning," I answered, hoping that there would be something already prepared--fit for a king, I thought with a smile as Aragorn's face flashed once again through my mind.
"You're in luck. I just finished baking my bread for the day, and this stew is almost done," she said, motioning me over to the pot she had been stirring and scooping up a spoonful.
I took the spoon she handed me, and tasted the stew. The meat was perfectly done, with just the right amount of spiciness. "It's wonderful as always, Hanna," I said, smiling. "This will be perfect." She smiled and then ordered some of her kitchen staff to start preparing the table.
I carried out the bread, and one of the serving women carried out a stack of wooden serving bowls and spoons. A third carried goblets, and we quickly put everything in place before Hanna carried the stew pot out and set it in the middle of the table so that the guests could take as much as they wished. One of the guards had been sent to the cellar for a cask of wine, and filled the glasses just as my uncle and his companions walked in and sat down.
Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli ate in silence, concentrating on their food as if they hadn't had a decent meal in days. Gandalf and Théoden talked softly about Saruman and the threat he now posed to Rohan. Éomer ate silently as well, listening. My part was to wait on the king and his guests--refill glasses when needed or fetch whatever else was desired.
I tried to pay attention to the conversation, but could not concentrate. I would look over at Aragorn when no one was watching, hoping I wasn't being too obvious. I gradually became aware, however, that there was something missing from this scene.
I glanced over at my brother, who motioned me over with his goblet. I picked up a nearby pitcher and began to pour more wine for him. "Éomer?" I whispered as I poured. "Where's Wormtongue?"
He smiled grimly. "He's gone. He went back to his true master." He added with a sigh, "I just hope his going won't cause any more mischief than his remaining here."
I barely heard his last statement. All I could think was that the nightmare was over. I wouldn't have to sneak around my own home anymore. I wouldn't have to spend my days hovering around the dark hall for fear of what would happen to my uncle. I could have run out of the room singing for joy, but restrained it to a wide smile. Éomer began to smile back, then his eyes hardened as they caught a glimpse of the thin cut on my neck. In my excitement over my uncle, I had forgotten to keep it hidden. "Did he do that?" he asked, looking as if he'd jump up from the table and hunt Gríma down then and there. I looked down but did not need to answer; my silence was answer enough for him. "Why that little...he didn't do anything else to you, did he?" His hand clenched tightly into a fist. Our uncle briefly looked over and I silently groaned. The last thing I wanted was to make a scene over this.
I shook my head, though I still felt sick at the memory of his cold kiss. "No, that was all. I'm fine, Éomer," I said, laying a hand on his shoulder to restrain him as I fixed my hair to hide the cut again with the other. "Just forget about it. He's gone now; everything will be fine."
The look of fury on his face gave way to a sorrowful relief as he gently squeezed my hand. "I hope so, Éowyn." He studied my face for a long moment as if trying to see if I was hiding something from him. I looked away first, handed the cup back to him and returned to my uncle's side. Théoden looked at me curiously for a moment, but did not press the issue as he resumed his conversation with Gandalf.
I was brought back to the present as my uncle announced that he was giving Shadowfax to Gandalf, and men came bearing armour and shields. I watched as Aragorn chose the arms he would bear until I noticed Théoden signal to me. "Yes, my lord?" I asked after quickly walking over.
"Éowyn, bring some more wine, and the cup." I nodded and swiftly left the room. It was tradition for the king and his captains to pass around a cup before riding out. As the only woman of the house, it had been my duty to bear this cup to the king ever since my mother had died. I went down to the kitchen and picked up a small flask of wine and a gilded goblet decorated with galloping horses, their golden manes and tails streaming behind them. When I returned to the great room, my uncle rose to his feet, followed by the guests. I quickly poured the wine into the goblet and stepped forward.
"Westu Théoden hál!"* I said in our own tongue, then switched back to the common tongue for the benefit of the others. "Receive now this cup and drink in happy hour. Health be with thee at thy coming and going!"
The king took the cup and drank from it, then handed it back to me. I gave it to Gandalf second, then I came to Aragorn. I paused for a moment, then looked up at him with a smile as I tried to think of something to say. "Hail, Aragorn son of Arathorn!" I finally said softly as he took the cup from me, then mentally kicked myself. Oh, that was just brilliant, Éowyn! You finally get a chance to speak with him and that's the best you can come up with? I was thankfully distracted from my thoughts as his fingers brushed mine, and my hand shook as I felt my pulse quicken.
His smile faded a bit. "Hail, Lady of Rohan," he answered. I glanced down as I passed the cup to Legolas, wondering if I had somehow offended him. Next came Gimli, then Éomer. If my brother had noticed anything, he made no sign as he drained the rest of the cup.
My uncle headed for the door, and we all followed him. As the guards opened the doors, I could see that all the people of the city were gathered there still. The men were already clad in armour and milling around, preparing their horses or checking weapons. The commotion died down as they saw the king standing there. "Behold!" he called out in a voice stronger than I had ever remembered hearing. "I go forth, and it seems like to be my last riding. I have no child. Théodred my son is slain. I name Éomer my sister-son to be my heir."
Éomer and I had been standing side by side behind our uncle, and as these words were spoken we exchanged a quick glance of surprise. I suppose I should have expected it, since my brother was the last male left of our kin. It's amazing how everything can change so quickly, I thought. Had it really been just yesterday that my uncle had imprisoned my brother for alleged treason?
I suddenly realized that Théoden was still speaking. "But to some one I must now entrust my people that I leave behind, to rule them in my place. Which of you will stay?"
The nobles all looked at each other silently, unwilling to stay behind while there was a battle to be fought. The king spoke again. "Is there none whom you would name? In whom do my people trust?"
Háma stepped forward. "In the House of Eorl," he answered.
My uncle spoke quieter now, though I could still hear. "But Éomer I cannot spare, nor would he stay. And he is the last of that House."
"I said not Éomer," Háma said, and as he did his gaze shifted past the king to where I stood. My heart felt like it stopped for a moment as he continued. "And he is not the last. There is Éowyn, daughter of Éomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone."
My uncle considered this a moment, then nodded. "It shall be so. Let the heralds announce to the folk that the Lady Éowyn will lead them!" He sat down on the stone chair set before the doors as the heralds called out this news to my people. I stood frozen in shock. Me? Lead the people? I couldn't even help my uncle, let alone the whole city! I was much less confident in my ability to govern than my skill with a sword, and wondered why he would trust me with such a task.
I felt a gentle nudge on my arm, and looked up to see Éomer giving me an encouraging smile. "He wouldn't ask you to do it if he didn't believe you could," he said softly. I smiled back at him, grateful for his confidence in me, then stepped forward as the king spoke softly with two of the guards standing there. The guards departed, and I knelt before him.
"Uncle, why may I not go with you?" I asked, softly enough so that only he could hear. "I can fight just as well as any of these men." I already knew what his answer would be, but I had to try.
"No, Éowyn," he said sternly. Then his eyes softened. "I know you can fight. That is why you must do this for me. I do not know if the paths through the mountains are being watched; our people may need your sword before the journey is finished." He gently laid a hand on my arm. "There is no one else to do this, Éowyn, and no one else that I would trust more with this task, save your brother." I nodded, though I did not feel much better about it. He smiled at me tenderly, as if sensing my doubt, and pressed something into my hand. I looked down to see a silver cloak-pin carved in the likeness of a horse's head--the same brooch worn by the Riders.
My head jerked up in surprise. "Uncle?" Just then the guards returned; one carried a coat of mail and the other my sword. These were handed to the king, who in turn gave them to me. I clutched the brooch tightly as I put the mail on. "Your sword is in my service now, Éowyn," Théoden said. "I think it only fitting that you bear the mark of one of my warriors."
I looked down, a thick lump forming in my throat as I looked down once again at the finely detailed brooch. "It was ever at your service, my lord," I said, echoing my brother's earlier words. "Thank you."
The words seemed so inadequate to express the gratitude I felt at this gesture, but he understood and smiled as he stood and took my hands, raising me to my feet and then closing my fingers over the brooch. "Farewell, sister-daughter. Dark is the hour, yet maybe we shall return to the Golden Hall. But in Dunharrow the people may long defend themselves, and if the battle go ill, thither will come all who escape."
"Speak not so!" I cried, not wanting to consider the possibility that they might not return. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a slight movement, and glanced over to see Aragorn nearby, watching. I felt that nervous flutter in my stomach again at his gaze, and hoped with all my being that he would return. "A year shall I endure for every day that passes until your return," I added as I looked back at my uncle.
"The king shall come again," he said. "Fear not! Not West but East does our doom await us." He gave me one last smile, then turned and went down the stairs. Gandalf fell into step behind him, followed by Éomer. As he passed, he whispered to me, "We will meet again, sister. I promise." I gave him what I hoped was a confident smile. Next Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli followed him, then the captains of the household. I stood watching before the doors, setting the point of the sword down on the ground and holding the hilt in one hand, the brooch still in the other as it rested on the top of the hilt. As Aragorn walked away, he suddenly paused and looked back, and his eyes briefly met mine. I smiled at him, and he lifted his hand in a small salute as he turned away. I saw Legolas give him a questioning glance and speak to him, but I was too far away to hear what was said.
The men too old to ride into battle watched silently, along with the women and children. As I watched the shapes of the individual men and horses blur together and the glint of sunlight on their armour and spears grow ever fainter, I briefly wondered how many times I had stood there, watching with the other women as the men rode away to battle and glory until they were out of sight. After this, the women would all turn away and go back to their houses as if nothing had happened. I had asked my mother once as we stood there watching my father ride away why this was so, and why none of the women ever went with them. She told me that this was the duty of the women of the Riddermark. "It takes a different kind of courage to wait, and to be able to go on with your daily life when all your hopes lie with those who went away," she said. "Besides, if all of the women went away to the battles, who would be left here to ensure that there is something to return to?" I didn't have an answer then, but something inside me had still protested the idea that my fate was to always be the one left behind. The protests grew even louder now; everything I cared about in the world and every hope I possessed was getting further away by the minute, and I longed to go fight alongside the men more than ever.
But I knew my duty. I finally turned to go back to the house myself after they were long out of sight, hoping that whatever little I possessed of the type of courage my mother had spoken of would be enough to complete the enormous task that lay before me of emptying the city.
*Fare you well, Théoden
A/N: Tigerlily- once again, thank you.
And thanks to everyone else who's been reading and commenting! The s'mores are back- enjoy!