Novarwen pulled Brethil to a stop when Gandalf did the same with Shadowfax. He nodded up to a hilltop, where Novarwen could make out the shape of a huge hall perched on top of it. Aragorn reined Hasufel beside them. “What is that?” he asked, nodding up at the hall and the city surrounding and climbing the hill it rested on.
“Edoras,” Gandalf replied, “and the Golden Hall of Meduseld. There dwells Théoden, King of Rohan.” In a quieter, but bitter, tone, he added, “His mind is swept away.” Novarwen looked up at the hall and shivered. Something was there. She could feel it with what she was coming to think of as her seer-sight. An old man sat on a throne. He was withered, his skin as white as eggshells and as fragile-looking, his eyes a diluted, watery blue, wrinkles abounding on his skin. A moldy fur robe was draped badly around his shoulders. He wore his crown as though it weighed more than the world. His eyelids drooped.
A man entered the hall, a man with dark, stringy, greasy hair. His fine clothes looked as though they had never been washed. His face was pale white, but his eyes sparked fire as he looked at the king, and that fire did not bode well –
Novarwen gasped and pulled herself out of the vision. Until she was trained, she had no desire to let herself get dragged into this sort of thing, not until she could trust herself to drag her out of it. The others did not seem to have noticed anything odd. Gandalf nudged Shadowfax, and Hasufel and Arod followed him. Feeling cold, Novarwen stroked Brethil’s head, gave him a nudge with her knees, and guided him after the others. Brethil whinnied concernedly, and Novarwen leaned down on an impulse and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I’m all right, Brethil,” she whispered. “At least, I will be.” He neighed again, sounding unconvinced, but he obeyed her nudge to ride on.
Novarwen was very conscious of the stares that the people of Edoras gave her and the others as they rode to the Golden Hall. She fidgeted, never having liked being on display in Mirkwood, and liking it less here, where she didn’t even know anyone. Brethil seemed to have caught her unease – he neighed and stamped his foot, his ears twitching back at times. Novarwen almost refused to leave him when a young stable boy ran towards them and said he would take their horses to the royal stables, but a look from Gandalf silenced her protest. She dismounted, unwillingly handed Brethil over, and followed Gandalf up the steps to the doors of Meduseld.
A red-haired man in armor marched toward them. “I cannot allow you before Théoden King so armed, Gandalf Greyhame.” He paused, then added, his mouth twitching in dislike and the words sounding as though they tasted bitter on his tongue, “By order of Grima Wormtongue.”
Gandalf’s eyebrows rose, but he unbuckled his sword and handed it to the man. Legolas gave a guard his bow, quiver, and knives, and Novarwen relinquished her own, as unwilling to give them up as to leave Brethil. Aragorn and Gimli propped their sword and axe on the wall by the door, but Gandalf, although he had easily given up his sword, still held his staff. The red-haired man noticed. “Your staff,” he said, holding out a hand for it.
Gandalf coughed. Coughed? He can’t be sick, he’s been reborn as a White Wizard! Novarwen thought. “You would not part an old man from his walking stick,” Gandalf replied, his eyes suddenly looking weary. The red-haired man bit his lip, then opened the doors and let them in.
There, sitting at the far end of the hall, was Novarwen’s vision. The old haggard man who looked as though all he wanted in the world was to be dead and at peace, and the snake-man, his greasy hair falling into his watery eyes, a malicious look on his face. She fell back, not wanting to look. The vision had been look enough.
“The courtesy of your hall,” Gandalf called, moving toward the throne, “is somewhat lessened of late, Théoden King.”
The greasy-haired man, who Novarwen guessed to be the Grima that the doorwarden had spoken of, whispered quickly into Théoden’s ear. The king raised his head. Agonizingly slowly, he asked, “Why…should I welcome you…Gandalf Stormcrow?” He looked worriedly at Grima, who nodded as though to reassure him that he had done well, and then sank back into his throne.
Grima took over. “A just question, my liege,” he murmured, then rose to confront Gandalf. “Late is the hour when this conjurer chooses to appear,” he said loudly, a triumphant smile on his face, relishing every word he spoke. Novarwen had a strong desire to shut him up. His voice stung her ears. “Lathspell I name him,” Grima continued. “Ill news is an ill guest -“
“Be silent!” Gandalf cut in, his voice angry. “Keep your forked tongue between your teeth. I have not come here to bandy crooked words with a witless worm.” Grima stared, his watery eyes suddenly frightened. Gandalf shoved him aside with his smooth white staff. Grima’s stare became fixed on it, and he cried, “His staff! I told you to forbid his wizard’s staff!”
Suddenly something tackled Novarwen to the floor. She yelled in pain as she hit the stone floor cheek-first, then twisted away with Elven speed and hurled herself at her attacker. He was sinister-looking, and he held a knife in his hand. Novarwen swore, leaped for the blade, and wrestled it out of his hand. She threw it across the hall and punched the man’s jaw. “Théoden, son of Thengel!” Gandalf cried as the man jerked out of the way of the blow and aimed one of his own. “Too long have you sat in the shadows.” Novarwen pinned the man’s arm behind his back and punched again, more successfully – the man was knocked out. Her companions had vanquished their own attackers by the time she stood up, in time to hear Gandalf say, “I release you from this spell!” She held her breath as the wizard closed his eyes and extended his hand to Théoden.
And exhaled it in bitter astonishment as the aged king began to laugh, a cracked, old man’s laugh. “You have no power here, Gandalf the Grey!” Théoden taunted.
For answer, Gandalf gripped one end of his gray robe and threw it aside, revealing his white robes in a blaze of brilliant light. Théoden was shoved against his throne, gasping, as Gandalf, illuminated by his own radiance, advanced. “I will draw you, Saruman,” he growled, his jaw clenched, “as poison is drawn from a wound.” Théoden gasped again as his back slammed into the throne.
A voice, unlike any Novarwen had heard before, spoke from the old king. “If I go,” it hissed, “Théoden dies.”
The wooden throne made a hollow sound as Théoden slammed into it again. “You did not kill me,” Gandalf replied, his voice raw with anger. “You will not kill him.”
“Rohan is mine!” sneered the voice, Théoden’s lip curling as Saruman spoke through him.
Gandalf thrust his staff at Théoden, who leaped into the air as if he wanted to impale himself on it –
And he fell back into his throne as Novarwen got the distinct impression that somewhere, wherever he was, Saruman the White had also fallen back, giving way to the power he now knew Gandalf possessed. She bit her lip, watching worriedly as Théoden caught his breath.
A woman in white, her golden hair flying, ran past Novarwen and caught the king’s arm. She stared into his face, and before their eyes, Théoden slowly changed from a weakened puppet to a…king. There was no other word for it. Royalty was suddenly written on the now-healthy brow, in his straight-backed seat, in the fainter, less numerous lines on his face, the clear eyes. He stared at the woman in white. “I know your face,” he murmured, his eyes intent, searching for something he had lost a long time ago and was only just getting back. “Eowyn,” he said softly, recognition in his eyes. Tears fell from the woman’s eyes as Théoden repeated her name.
The king flexed his fingers. His eyes widened as he felt their weakness. “Your fingers would remember their old strength better if they gripped your sword,” Gandalf suggested with a smile.
Someone, from somewhere, brought a sword. A light flickered in Théoden’s eyes as he looked at it. His hand reached out and took the hilt. His fingers, long disused, slowly curled around the hilt. Novarwen saw Eowyn smile through her tears as he lifted it high into the air.
Gimli coughed. “Your Majesty,” he said, catching Théoden’s eye and looking pointedly at Grima, trapped by Gimli’s weight on top of him. Théoden’s face darkened as he caught sight of his former trusted snake of an advisor. Novarwen smirked to see Grima visibly quail.
Théoden raised his sword. Gimli prudently stood up and got out of the way as Grima tumbled out of the hall’s open doors, rolling down the stairs, finally halted by a flat space on the stairs. Théoden advanced like an avenging whirlwind, his sword firmly in his hand again. “I’ve only ever served you, my lord!” Grima gasped, cowering on the ground.
Novarwen had the distinct impression that if Théoden were not a king, he would have spat at Grima. “Your leechcraft would have had me crawling on all fours like a beast!” he bellowed, the moldy old fur robe flapping in the wind like the wings of a strange bird.
“Please, my lord -” Grima gasped, his pale face going even paler as Théoden hefted his sword, raising it high above his head, preparing to bring it down on Grima’s head. Novarwen’s eyes widened. This was a cold-blooded murder – not that she blamed Théoden in the least, but to see a man killed before her eyes, without the madness of battle to excuse it…
Aragorn darted forward and grabbed Théoden’s wrist, straining to stop the downswing of the blade. “No, my lord!” he whispered. Grima scrambled to his feet. “Enough blood has been spilled on his account,” Aragorn added, releasing Théoden’s arm as Grima tore down the steps, shoving the people of Edoras out of his way as he made for the stables. Novarwen breathed a sigh of relief as Théoden watched Grima ride away.
The king finally turned back to face them all. “Where is Théodred?” he asked, confusion in his eyes. “Where is my son?”
Eowyn gasped, and her hand flew to her mouth. Novarwen glanced quickly at her. Somehow she did not seem the gasping type, so something must be very wrong.
Eowyn stepped forward. Her eyes were frightened. “My lord,” she said, her voice shaking, “your son is dead.”
Théoden stared at her in horror and disbelief. “He was buried a short while ago,” she added, her face almost as white as Grima’s. Théoden looked past her, past his hall, out to a field beyond Meduseld, where Novarwen could see mounds of earth, grass and tiny white flowers growing on them. Eowyn’s eyes flickered toward it, her gaze lighting on a particular mound, then returning in consternation to Théoden. The king looked suddenly as old as the land itself. His face was haggard; his eyes held a world of sorrow. He took a faltering step towards the mounds, and Gandalf took his arm and led him the rest of the way. Eowyn lasted until Théoden knelt beside the mound. Then her shoulders shuddered with strangled sobs.
Novarwen quickly took her hand. Eowyn looked up, startled; then her fingers tightened on Novarwen’s. “Come on,” Novarwen whispered gently, turning from the burial mounds toward the doors of the hall. “You should go inside.”
“I’m not – I don’t want you to think I’m weak -“
“I don’t,” Novarwen reassured her. “I think you’re an incredibly brave woman to go through this and not break until now. But you do need to lie down and have a good cry. Come on. Where’s your room?”
Eowyn’s breath shuddered in her chest. “There,” she said, pointing to a large door. Novarwen pushed on it, and it swung open. She helped Eowyn into the room, and was about to leave when she heard Eowyn call, “Please – don’t go.”
Novarwen turned around. “I won’t,” she promised, and she didn’t. She sat by Eowyn’s bed, quietly holding her hand as Eowyn cried bitterly into her pillow, and she stayed with her long after Eowyn had fallen asleep, her golden hair strewn over the pillow and her face.
She looks so fragile, Novarwen mused, but she’s strong. She’d have to be strong to live through what the year with Grima must have been like. She looked at what portion of Eowyn’s face she could see under the hair. In fact, sometimes she doesn’t look fragile at all. Novarwen smiled. I would have liked to have her as my sister.
The door gave a slight creak of hinges as it opened. Novarwen’s head snapped around, and she saw Aragorn standing in the doorway. “Novarwen, King Théoden asked for Lady Eowyn’s presence in the hall – and yours.” A tiny smile curved the corners of his mouth.
“About what?” Novarwen asked. She held Eowyn’s hand tighter, almost protectively. “Lady Eowyn needs to rest as much as she can.”
Aragorn sighed. “Two children rode into Edoras as King Théoden and Gandalf were at Théodred’s mound,” he told her. “We thought Lady Eowyn could take better care of them than we could.”
“You’re quite right,” Novarwen teased, trying to lift her spirits. “I pity any children left to your tender care!” Aragorn gave her a smile in return for the jibe. His eyes lingered very briefly on Eowyn before he left. Novarwen did not miss the look, nor did she fail to think of the meaning of the look before she woke Eowyn and told her about the children.
Once she had something to do, King Théoden’s niece was a whirlwind of activity. She cleaned her face of tearstains while asking a servant to bring the children bowls of soup, and once her face was clean, she carried a stool to a closet, stood on it, and handed down two thick wool blankets to Novarwen before climbing down, replacing the stool, reclaiming the blankets, and running to the hall.
Shaking her head fondly, Novarwen followed at a more decorous pace, but once she entered the hall, all decorum was abandoned. She froze for an instant in the doorway, staring at the Elf talking to Théoden, and then gave a cry of joy and threw herself into Theryn’s arms.