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Chapter 2- Poison
I spent the remainder of that day and the morning of the next assisting the king and making the arrangements for Théodred’s funeral as best as I could while still avoiding Wormtongue. During that time, Éomer did not return, nor did any word come of his whereabouts. Every so often, I caught Wormtongue looking at me darkly, like a snake biding its time waiting for an opportunity to strike. When this happened, I would glance away quickly–I did not want him or anyone else to know that I was afraid of him.
Now the time had come for Théodred to be buried. The skirt of my dark dress pooled around my feet as I knelt before Théoden, taking his withered hand gently. “My lord, your son is about to be buried.” He gazed through me, not comprehending. “My lord?” Still he made no sign. “Uncle?” I asked again, a note of desperation in my voice. “Will you not go to him?” After he did not respond, I decided to take matters into my own hands and gently helped him up.
This, at least, I could do. Théodred’s mother had long since passed away, before I was born. His father’s spirit had fled, though his body lived still. Éomer was gone; I was all that remained of his kin. If nothing else, I could see him to his final resting place. And I would not allow my uncle to miss the opportunity to say goodbye to his only son.
I took Théoden’s arm and led him to the end of the hall until we stood next to Háma at the doorway. He bowed slightly in acknowledgement of the king, and we stood aside silently as the men carrying Théodred’s bier walked out. Háma, Théoden and I walked behind them as they bore his body down the path leading to the gates, and the men that walked with us began to sing a slow song acknowledging the courage of their fallen leader. In this fashion we left the gates of the city. A new mound had been raised beside the road and an opening dug; Théodred’s body was carefully laid inside, and the entrance was sealed. As the representative of the king, I stepped forward first and gently tossed a few small blossoms of simbelmynë onto his grave; the others with me soon followed suit as the men continued to sing solemnly. My uncle stood motionless the entire time with a strange look on his face, as if something deep inside him knew what was happening but he had not yet fully comprehended it.
After a long while, the company began to scatter, and Háma once again stood beside me. “My lady, will you be returning soon?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I’d like to stay a little longer. Will you take the king back?” He nodded and departed with the others, and I was left alone.
I knelt down and picked up one of the flowers. Its milky petals felt as soft as velvet between my fingers, and as I gazed at it, my eyes blurred with tears. I finally allowed them to fall as my thoughts drifted into old memories…
I was seven years old. My father had recently died, slain by orcs as he fought to defend the land he loved. My mother had not yet passed on, and the three of us had come at my uncle’s request to live with him at Meduseld. He had quickly and willingly taken on the role of father to my brother and I, and Théodred had been as a second brother, though he was seventeen years my elder. He took it upon himself to cheer Éomer and I up, even as Mother’s health faded.
Éomer was eleven, and old enough to learn to wield a blade. On this day, I stood leaning on the fence of one of the training yards as he worked with one of the younger soldiers, learning to fight on horseback. My head rested on my folded arms as I watched him, frowning. Théodred came up and stood beside me. “Éowyn!” he said with a grin. “How’s my favorite youngest cousin?”
“I’m your only youngest cousin,” I mumbled. This was his standard way of greeting me and usually it made me laugh, but not this time.
The smile faded. “Is something wrong?”
“Éomer said I can’t fight because I’m a girl,” I blurted, looking up at him. “It’s not fair, the boys get to have all of the fun!”
He knelt down until his eyes were level with mine. His gaze was solemn as he answered, “Fighting is not fun, Éowyn. Many people get hurt and even die from fighting.” He then paused, and the smile came back. “But that does not mean you should not know how to defend yourself. Come with me.”
He led me to an unused barn, then told me to wait there for a minute. When he returned, he carried two short wooden practice swords. “Not by the blade!” he cautioned as I eagerly reached out to take one. “The first thing you should learn is to not needlessly hurt yourself on your own sword.” He then held it out to me with his hand under the flat of the blade and the hilt towards me. I swung it around a bit, trying to imitate what I had seen the men do. After a minute, Théodred stopped me. “Now hold the hilt with one hand, and stand with your feet shoulder-length apart.” I did so, and he nodded in approval. “Good. Now go ahead and hit me.” I swung the sword up, and as I did he quickly raised his hand and blocked it. Several more times I tried, and still he blocked it effortlessly.
“How am I supposed to hit you if you won’t let me?” I finally asked in frustration.
He just grinned. “No enemy in their right mind would stand there and let you. You must be patient and wait for the right opportunity.” I swung again, and this time he spun out of the way and his arm flashed back as my arm was still raised to gently tap me across the stomach with the flat of his sword. “Such as that.”
That was how the lessons began. Every day when he was not out with the Riders, Théodred and I met in secret and spent an hour or two practicing. I quickly learned to use the sword by itself, then with the shield. When my mother died a few months later, I channeled my sadness and anger into perfecting my technique, and even Théodred, who was one of our strongest warriors, was surprised at the quick progress I made. Finally, the secret had to be revealed for the next stage: fighting on horseback.
I hoisted myself up onto the horse, and Théodred handed me the practice sword. He would stay on the ground for now in order to teach me first how to fight a foot soldier. Just then, Éomer came out of the barn. “Éowyn, what on earth are you doing?!” he exclaimed.
“What does it look like?” I shot back.
“You can’t fight! You’re a girl!” he exclaimed.
“Yes I can! I can fight just as well as you!”
“Prove it,” he said, a mocking look in his eyes. Now that the challenge had come, I was struck with a sudden uncertainty and looked over at Théodred. He nodded and walked over to me, lifted me off the horse and set me on the ground, then knelt before me. “Go on, Éowyn. You don’t need to prove your ability to anyone but yourself.He might need a little more convincing though.” I grinned, and walked over to my brother.
We both took practice swords and shields. He wore an air of adolescent overconfidence as he swung to strike his first blow–an overconfidence that dissipated quickly as I easily blocked his first few efforts. After my blade struck his shield before he could block it with his own sword, a change came over his face. The game was on.
We circled around each other, and the air filled with the crack of wood on wood as we swung and blocked each other’s moves. Several of the men stopped what they were doing and came over to watch when they saw what was going on. “Come on, Éomer!” one of them cheered him on. “You’re not going to let yourself be beaten by a little girl, are you?!” A new determination arose in me, and my blows fell faster. The flimsy shields both cracked, and we discarded them and continued the fight with just the wooden swords. My arm was beginning to tire, but I refused to allow myself to give in to him.
Though I was quicker than him, he was beginning to gain the advantage because he was bigger and stronger than I. Slowly he backed me up closer to the wall of the stable. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the water trough for the horses, and dodged to move closer to it. He had nearly backed me up against it when my opportunity came. He lunged for the final blow and I quickly stepped aside. Éomer lost his balance and fell face first into the trough.
As he stood up, his fair hair dripping, he bowed as if admitting defeat. “I am surprised, Éowyn. Clearly I was wrong; you do have some skill with a blade.” He stretched out his hand and clasped my arm in the style the warriors do when greeting each other. “However, that will not save you from a good soaking yourself.” In the next instant, he had grabbed me around the waist, thrown me over his shoulder and into the trough. I shrieked as the cold water hit me, then reached down and grabbed a bucket that was sitting next to the trough and used it to splash more water on him. The men laughed, along with Théodred. Éomer smiled then. “How about we call it a draw?” he asked. I agreed and he helped me out, whispering “Good job” as he did.
Théodred laughed as he picked me up and spun me around in a hug, dripping skirts and all. “Well, my little warrior maiden, you have more than proved my worth as a teacher today. Let’s call it a day and start with the horses tomorrow.” I reluctantly agreed, though I was tired from the skirmish. As the men scattered, I gave him another hug. “Thank you,” I whispered.
“For what?” he asked, an amused look still on his face.
“For giving me a chance,” I answered, smiling. He smiled back, then motioned to Éomer. “Come, you two. Dinner will be soon, and you’re both a mess!” Then the three of us went back to the hall together…
I smiled faintly at the memory. Théodred had been a good teacher, and Éomer had never again accused me of not being able to fight. In fact, we had often practiced together after that. When my uncle learned what had been going on, he gave me his blessing to continue the lessons, saying that as a member of the House of Eorl, these were skills I should learn regardless of the fact that I was a female.
I was abruptly jerked back to reality when I heard a voice behind me, one I knew all too well. The cold knot that filled my stomach whenever he was near twisted painfully. “It is a pity for one so valiant to be lost so young.” I kept my face ahead and did not answer, hoping in vain that if I ignored him, he would go away. It was not to be. “You must miss him terribly, especially now that your brother has abandoned you.”
“Éomer will return,” I answered, still refusing to look back at Wormtongue.
“And if he does, what then? Do you really think the king will ignore the fact that he disobeyed a direct order? The best he will be able to hope for is prison.” I heard his heavy footfall, then a cold hand lay upon my shoulder.
I angrily pushed it away, stood up and whirled to face him. “Leave me alone, snake!” I cried.
“Oh, but you are alone,” he answered. “Your cousin, your parents are all dead. Your brother is as good as dead. The years weigh so heavily upon your uncle that he does not even recognize you anymore.” The hideous voice softened. “And when he is gone, what then? To whom shall you go? There is no one left.”
I remained silent for a long moment, his words pounding in my ears. “I do not know where I will go. But I do know this much–I will not stand by and do nothing while hope remains,” I finally answered.
“Hope? Of what?” he mocked, knowing just as well as I that my defiant words were hollow. “That when the king is gone, you will find a way to leave this place? You cannot join the Riders; they would never allow a woman to fight alongside them. Perhaps you could marry and start a new life, away from all of these troubles. But who would take you? For fair you are, Éowyn, yet cold, as fragile as a lily touched by frost. One gust of wind is all that would be needed to break a flower such as that.”
For a long moment, his eyes gazed into mine as his cold hand brushed the cheek where the tears I had shed for my cousin still remained. I closed my eyes, shivering in disgust at the touch, yet unable to pull away as if I had been frozen by some spell. When I opened them, his eyes gleamed with a dark light as they stared at me. Anger flared up inside of me. “Your words are poison!” I spat at him, then turned and walked back to the gate as quickly as I could; I would not give him the satisfaction of seeing me run from him. The tears started anew; I hated him, and I hated myself because as much as I tried to keep myself from believing them, his words still echoed in my mind, casting a deeper shadow of despair over my already darkened thoughts.
As I reached the open gate, I heard a cry, and stepped back just in time to avoid being overrun by pounding hoofs. I turned and looked in wonder at the white form racing away. If I was not mistaken, it was the horse Shadowfax–the horse chosen by Gandalf the Grey upon his last visit to Edoras, the horse that only a few days before had returned wild. It had taken the efforts of many strong men just to confine him in the paddock; none dared try to ride him. And he had somehow escaped, and now ran free over the green fields.
Never in my life had I felt such envy for a horse. For a moment I contemplated running away myself, to be free to go where I chose and do what I wanted. But Wormtongue had been right about one thing–I had nowhere to go, and I could not leave my uncle alone. Not like this. With a sigh and one last look as Shadowfax disappeared from view, I turned and walked back into the city.