It was the silence that woke me.
You might think it was commonplace to have a night without interruption, a night without twisted dreams. For me, it was a luxury, or perhaps a sign that everything had gone wrong. Each night, I was accustomed to hearing the faraway screams, shouts, the clang of battle in the distance. Orcs had made almost hourly incursions on our lands, and it was only the Riders that kept them back.
Had something gone wrong? Had the Orcs managed to slip through our defenses and slaughter all Edoras but me? I suppose it said something about me that when the night was quiet, I was frightened.
I could scarcely decide whether I wished to be awake or asleep. As frightening as a silent night was, I had been plagued by nightmares recently. Many of them. It seemed to me that every night while I lay awake waiting for the sweet descent of sleep, my room began to shrink, trapping me in a cage that grew ever smaller, until I withered and died.
The silence dragged on, becoming longer and longer, heavier, more frightening by the instant. What would I find if I left this shrinking bower? The Golden Hall of Meduseld asleep as it ought to be, or chopped to ribbons by Orcs that had come unseen, unnoticed?
Stop thinking, Éowyn. My thoughts led me deeper and deeper into this irrational fear, that I would be caught and chained.
I had to see, if at least to escape this cursed room. So I threw a cloak over my nightgown and picked up a dagger, just in case my darkest dreams were absurdly realized.
Outside my chamber, the halls were dark and silent, redolent with a sleepy peace. Why was it only me? Was it that I resented the net that had caught me, that seemed to wait to spring upon all women? I did not want this life of drudgery, serving a beloved uncle who did not even know my face anymore, while shadows skulked behind me and watched with hooded eyes.
I am a daughter of the House of Eorl. Even though I had reassured myself that no darkness other than that of the night filled these halls, I could not face going back to my lonely room.
I am not afraid of the dreams. I was angered with myself, for being such a coward; more like a mewling babe than the shieldmaiden that I was. And yet, this life had grown so dark. So dark that it swallowed everything, even the waning sparks of light.
My brother Éomer risked his life daily. Every time he rode out, I remembered what had befallen my father, Éomund. He had been killed by Orcs, but slowly, and cruelly. They would not let me see his body when they brought him home.
It was only much later, when he was safely interred in a closed tomb of stone, that I was allowed to come, a shy pale girl of only seven winters, to cry over him and plant the white simbelmynë flower that grew on the final resting places of all good men of Rohan. Even now, seventeen long winters later, the idea of crying over Éomer, of laying to rest the last of my immediate kin, frightened me more than I could say.
My uncle Théoden was trapped under the influence of the man who had once been his most trusted counselor, Gríma son of Gálmód. Whatever Gríma, faithless and accursed, had done, my king and kinsman was as weak and doddering as a man much older, and did not recognize me or heed my name. The worm had poisoned him.
There had been no word from my cousin Théodred, who had ridden afield a fortnight ago to the Fords of Isen, on report of trouble with Orcs there – and yet, no Orcs such as ever been seen.
Rather than the twisted, leering, sun-shy brutes that were the Orcs known to us, the reports were of a sort of goblin, man-high and thickly muscled, with coarse black skin and coarser speech. And yet – they had no fear of the sun, for they ran in it without being hindered or slowed.
I stepped out onto the cold balcony of Meduseld, tiled with stone and adorned with high wooden carvings filigreed in gold. Night swathed the land of Rohan in shadow. Far in the distance, across the high, sere plains, I saw the Misty Mountains, gilded silver in moonlight like the crowns of a great king.
No screams. No word, no fire, nothing burning, nothing dead. I felt the fool. But Éomer and Théodred had been gone too long now, and if there is one thing a woman of Rohan learns, it is how to wait, and to watch, day in and day out, for the sight of returning Riders.
If she is a common woman, she can run to her man, smother him with kisses, lead him to a warm hovel and a hearty stew. But if she is the Lady of Rohan, she must stand on high, and wait, before descending to greet them with polite words and traditional gestures. Then she leads them in to drink from the ritual cup of blessings.
There was a rough rasp behind me, the sound the worn edge of a cloak makes when drawn across stone. I turned slowly, knowing who I would see and yet dreading it.
Gríma, the man called Wormtongue for the lies he whispered into my uncle’s ear, glided out from the shadows of the portico like a shining, jet-black snake. It was late, very late, but he showed no signs of having retired. Beneath the lank shadows of his hair, he surveyed me with a small spark in those cunning eyes of his.
“My lady Éowyn. I had not thought to find you here, at so late an hour.”
“Gríma.” The word was poisoned with my distaste for this man; his creeping manner, his voice like oil and steel, and those eyes that always watched me. “What are you doing?”
The snake slithered gracefully up beside me, affecting my manner perfectly; mocking my pensive gaze and the flutter of my anxious eyes, betraying my desperate worry for my brother and my cousin. “Why, it is my duty, as a servant of the crown, to aid wherever I am needed,” he answered. “You seem unwell.”
I touched the dark shadows beneath my eyes. “I could not sleep.”
“And why is that?” He was the picture of solicitude, but he had started to circle me slowly, like something creeping about wounded prey before finishing it. “You could speak to your uncle about it.”
A hot flame of anger sparked in my heart. “That would do no good. He would not listen to me. He would not heed me. Because of you.”
His eyes widened briefly, before narrowing and becoming sly again. “My lady, you cannot accuse me of your uncle’s illness. I do all that I can for him. Théoden King has no stronger supporter and counselor than I.”
And that’s exactly why I distrust you. I took a step back from him, disliking the look in his eye as he kept staring at me. “Leave me.”
He circled me again, as if waiting to dodge in, to snap his jaws closed on me. “You seem so distant, so cold. Is your heart truly frozen, my lady? Frozen cold?”
“Frozen,” I said impassively, gazing away across the plains, determined not to let him know that he almost frightened me. I had never trusted him. All of Edoras slept, and would not hear me if I screamed.
He laid a hand on my shoulder, and it was all I could do not to recoil. “My lady, I worry about you, so alone, so unsure, in this world of shadows and deceits. Have you felt it? The closing in about you, as if your own chamber seeks to swallow you?”
“Leave me.” I wrenched away from him, my hand going to touch my hidden knife from instinct. “I worry about my brother, and my cousin. They have been a long time away.”
“Yes, they have. A long time. It would be most unfortunate if anything were to befall them….the king’s own son and his nephew…”
I had heard enough of the snake’s soft, poisoned words, seen enough of the way his gaze kept flicking up and down, as if he was trying to undress me with his eyes. I turned on my heel and went back into the dark corridors, feeling him watching me the entire way.
I paused outside the door of my chamber, still half-believing that some creature of my nightmares would spring on me, wondering where the sun was, how I would ever find my way through this darkness of fear and uncertainty. I closed my eyes and leaned my head on the doorframe, willing away these black thoughts.
Then I stood straight. I was not a common woman, I was the Lady of Rohan, and I had to be strong. Before Gríma could come creeping, I stepped inside, and closed the door. My nightmares would wait. I was not afraid of them. I was not afraid of a cage….I was a shieldmaiden. Fearless. Forged of bitterly cold steel.
I woke again in the grey light before morning, which suffused my chamber with a steel-like sheen. At first, I thought that the silence had woke me again, but then I heard the noise and clamor. Shouts and cries – of joy, of fear, or of death?
I would not run, but I must go. I had to be steel still, and if there was a battle, my people would look to me for strength. So I dressed in the long gown that I hated, and threw a fur mantle over my shoulders, then slid my feet into kidskin boots.
I emerged into a chaos of hurry and shouts and movement. Tossing my unkempt pale-golden hair over one shoulder, I joined the flow and presently came to the courtyard.
It was overflowed with horses, and men smelling of horses, and banners of horses flying green against a sky stained a deep rose. The sun was barely risen in the east, and the morning chill made me glad for my mantle. So was this it? Had the Riders returned?
A Rider – I thought his name was Éothain, one of Éomer’s for sure – made a bow to me and said, “My lady!” but other than that, there was too much confusion for anyone to look at me. I slid through the presses, dodging between horses and men speaking loudly. There was a terrible feeling growing inside me.
Then all of a sudden, there was a tall figure before me, his hand on the bridle of a smoky-grey stallion, a white plume flying from his helmet in the soft dawn breeze. His face was ashen and cold as he dismounted, and lifted down another, crumpled and bent.
My breath went out of me as if at a blow. For this tall, grim rider was my brother, and the other, the silent one, his face even paler, was my cousin.
“Men!” Éomer bellowed, in the voice that made you remember that he was now, in truth, the Third Marshal of the Mark. “Take the prince to the healers, at once!”
As he had commanded, his éored surrounded him and Théodred, lifting him onto a stretcher and carrying him quickly away. I stared at them, transfixed in my horror, as they pulled a blanket over him to hide the deep, ghastly wound in his stomach. Was this not just what I had feared?
“Éomer!” Down with protocol, with tradition, I could not help myself. To lose one of them would be horrid, but both would be more than I could bear. “Are you all right?”
He turned toward me slowly, scarcely seeing me. I knew my brother well enough to tell that he was still far away, recounting the battle blow for blow in his mind, attempting to understand what might have gone wrong.
“Éowyn.” He stepped forward, and rested his leather-gloved hands on my shoulders. “I am glad to see you.” But that was all; he was far too distracted to care. With a brief nod, he touched my hand quickly to his lips, then moved past and followed his men, and the stretcher that bore my cousin. I noticed that he moved with a curious stiffness.
I stood there, forgotten in the madness, no longer alone, but what good did that do me? Théodred could not have fallen, could not be wounded. He and Éomer had jousted a thousand times in the practice yard, and Théodred had held his own even when the arms-master had sent half the éored after him. He was the Second Marshal of the Mark. And now, no longer. My brother would have become the Third.
That is not possible. My mind tried to guard itself with desperate defiance. Théodred cannot have fallen…
But in my heart, I knew something had gone wrong. It would not have taken much – a slip of the shield, a parry a second too late. And then that hooked iron blade would have come up, and torn through leather and iron mail, into flesh.
“Théodred,” I whispered.
I hated feeling so helpless. I wanted to go with them, and sew up Théodred’s wound with my own hands, but I was a woman, and therefore, no doubt they thought I was too fragile. Perhaps they remembered the way I cried and cried when Father died. I had not let one tear pass my eye since then. It is far easier when you cannot feel anything at all.
They sent for me later that day, when they had cleaned him enough, or perhaps when they thought there was nothing more to do, and I ought to see him before he died. So I went, holding my head high, refusing to acknowledge the sidelong, sorrowful looks that the guards gave me. Théodred was beloved by the King, or had been, and he was great friends with Éomer, despite the fact that he was much older than both of us. He was always so chivalrous to scullery maids and great lords alike.
They cannot take him away. No one would be so cruel. I hurried up the stone steps, and into a low room that smelled pungently of sickness.
My cousin lay there, face beaded with sweat, eyes glazed and unseeing. There was a crust of blood on his face, and my brother sat beside him, tending a silent vigil. He looked up grimly when I came in, and shook his head slightly.
I would not think. I would not accept this. I would not let Théodred slip away, but he was going quickly, and I could not bring him back. So I sat beside Éomer, and we were silent for a long time, staring down at Théodred, watching as he slipped away.
Éomer took my hand, and squeezed it gently. He was trying to offer comfort, I knew, as Théodred had been as a second brother to me, not a cousin. Éomer was trying to comfort me because he knew that there was no way he could recover.
“What happened to him?” Inside, my heart might be breaking, but my voice was still calm, controlled.
“Orcs.” Éomer’s face was grim. “And yet, at the same time, not. They were more of the goblins that we have heard of. We found him at the Fords with many other dead men. They were greatly outnumbered. I thought he would die before we could ever reach Meduseld.”
I looked at him, and in his face I saw the same uncertainty I felt. He worried about me, about our uncle Théoden and his irreversible slide, about the candied venom that the snake breathed into his ear. But it was easier for him. He was a man, soon to be the King’s heir if our cousin died. He was the Third Marshal, leader of the Riders of Rohan. It was expected of him to fight, to ride, to show the world his valor.
As for me, it was my lot to stay home and watch, always waiting, waiting for the coming of the news I dreaded. I had to smile, to keep house, to see that the fire was stoked and the food ready for the returning men.
“You do not know how helpless I feel, Éomer,” I found myself saying. “All the time, while you are gone, I must wait, never knowing what has happened to you, or any of the brave men that other women wait for. You know I can ride, and fight. I am a shieldmaiden of Rohan. Let me join you.”
He smiled slightly, wrenched momentarily from his dark thoughts, and touched my cheek. “Éowyn, I have no cause to doubt your valor, or your courage. No man of Rohan does. You are the bright beacon of hope that brings us homeward. But that is the way it has always been. It would be sad indeed if this Enemy were so inexorable that even the women and children of the Riddermark had to fight.”
“What if it were you?” I asked him, staring at my cousin’s deathbed. “What if you were the one that had to stay behind, knowing that your country’s fate could well be decided? I know you, Éomer. You are a man of hot blood and quick action. It would drive you out of your mind.”
Éomer frowned slightly. “Think no more on it, Éowyn,” he said, and his words were meant to comfort me, but they only further froze my dark heart. I was not sure now that any could find it, not even myself.
I stepped back from him. “Think no more on you, and the peril which you encounter every day, and the way our father was butchered by Orcs? Would you have me be like our mother Théodwyn, destroyed by grief, forgotten, treated by everyone as someone to pity, before dying friendless and alone?”
Éomer stood as well, and took a step toward me, clearly eager to mend whatever fault he believed he had caused. He still moved stiffly, almost gingerly, and a dark fear shot through me. “Éowyn, you would never waste away. Never. You are too strong, a fair steel blade.”
His words were kind, sweet, but I had no patience with them. “Oh? Steel breaks, steel shatters, steel can fail you when you need it the most.” I could not help glancing sidelong at my cousin where he lay dying, and a sob choked in my throat, but I would not let it mature. “I would not dishonor Théodred by having cross words here, and now. If you desire me to tell you more of it, I would, but not now. Not here.”
And with that, I gathered up my skirts and whirled away across the stone floor. He reached for me, and I saw in his eyes that he felt the same pain. Perhaps it was unfair of me.
But then, it was unfair of them. A thousand times, when I was younger, they let me take a blunt sword, and practice in the yard with the boys. I bested them many times, which led to grumbling from their masters about being so poor that a woman could overmatch them. I never understood this. Why should a woman not be as strong as a man?
Then I grew older, and Mother died, and suddenly Rohan was without a queen, without a lady of any sort. And so I had to step back, to gown myself demurely and smile sweetly, and wait, always wait.
I left the hall which smelled of sickness, and ignored my brother’s pleading eyes that watched my back. The grey morning had grown to chill, cloud-choked afternoon, and a restless breeze swept the rubbish of life from the street. I walked past it unseeing, head held high, determined to show the world that Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, might crack, but it would never see her break.
I wanted a respite from questions and probing eyes and the constant reminder that I was regarded as inferior. I climbed into the winding stairs to Meduseld, past the golden posts that guarded its doors, and into the long hall of my uncle. I wished to tell him many things, and plead with him to remember his life as it was.
It was quiet here, heavy with sorrow and memory and the pervasive dullness of mind which had enveloped the King. Even the tapestries were limp and lifeless. The one bearing Eorl the Young looked as if our first king had been weighted with melancholy when he rode to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant, not fey and fearless as he must certainly have been.
The lore of Rohan was filled with many tales of fair-haired Men, and great steeds, and wise kings, and green banners flown streaming from tall ashwood lances. I was a daughter of that, an heir to the House of Eorl, and yet I was a serving-woman in my own hall, reduced to this.
“Uncle? My lord?” I did not know why I hoped for an answer; there had never been one before. “Éomer is returned with Théodred. Your son is gravely wounded, and it is believed that he will not survive.” My voice wavered perilously close to a sob.
He did not answer, gazing back at me with blank eyes. He leaned heavily on a twisted cane of black with a carved handle of ivory, and he seemed withered and bent as one far greater in years. Whatever that worm had done, it was killing him slowly.
I sighed, and knelt before him, for he was still my king and liege lord, I pressed my forehead to his ashen hands, wishing that I could give my own life to him. For he was the king, and needed it most, and I was just his serving-maid, all bond of kinship forgotten, there simply to wait on him. Perhaps he could use it more than I.
I had thought that we were alone, thought that perhaps I could spill my troubles to my uncle even if he did not hear or heed them.
I was wrong.
There came that slithering sound again, and then Gríma was there – false counselor, how I loathed him. He watched me with those queer unblinking eyes of his. His garb was dark, and seemed to have been long unwashed.
“My lady. You seem…distressed.”
I stood. The glint in his eye that I had seen earlier, on the balcony, had returned, but far stronger, desirous, almost. It would not be proper, not even close – and yet when had this worm paid any heed to protocol?
“Get back,” I told him.
“Many times have you rejected me, Lady Éowyn.” He showed no signs of leaving. The one person who could help me, who could care about me – my uncle – sat motionless, eyes far distant, lips moving to the words of some half-remembered dream.
“And why?” Gríma continued, stepping closer, running a slow finger down my shoulder to the neck of my gown. “I would care for you well, build you a hut or a keep or a castle, whichever you desire. When the dark times come, clinging to a raft might save you from being swept away in the water.”
“The dark times have come. They have been over me ever since I was born. Now leave me.” My voice was as imperious and icy-cold as I could make it.
His eyes glittered like the polished eyes of some jeweled snake, but colder, darker, infinitely more dangerous. He stood there, watching me, and made no move to obey.
“You are so fair, Lady Éowyn. And yet so cold, so bitterly cold.” He took yet another step closer, pressing upon me in the murk of the deserted hall. No one wished to waste time or talent waiting upon a failing king, a king that was privately believed to be beyond hope. No one except me.
My eyes flamed. “I told you to leave.” If he took another step, I would strike him.
“And I heard you, my lady. Many times. A man grows weary of so many refusals.”
The snake undulated gently closer. I could almost see the black film he would leave on the polished flagstones of the floor. I reached for the dagger I had had last night, but I had left it in my quarters.
“I know what you feel, my lady.” He was almost on top of me. “The cage…you fear it, do you not? To be trapped forever, to waste away and die, without glory, without honor, forgotten-about?
“I fear nothing.” A lie, if a brave one. There was nowhere for me to go; I could only hope to keep him off until he lost interest, and glided away to whisper more poison in my uncle’s ear.
Those sly eyes lit with a vile mockery of mirth. “Ah, you are brave, and always you deny it. Come, my lady. These dark halls tell on a man’s heart, make him wish for company – “
He stopped, staring over my shoulder. I whirled, and saw that I was not alone after all. Slowly, his eyes fixed on Gríma and flaming with rage, my brother Éomer stepped forward.
“So you are – are returned, my lord,” said the Wormtongue, with a passable show of obeisance. “I had not known that, in the dark tidings of Prince Théodred’s injury – “
“Silence, snake.” I had never heard such fury in Éomer’s voice. “Whenever you speak, your lies twine about you. I am returned indeed, and I tell you – if you stalk my sister’s steps an instant more, you will find that I will stalk yours, with steel in my hand. If ever again you try to trap her, or entice her, you shall find that the steel will fall, quick and mercilessly.”
For some reason, this broke my uncle from his stupor. He sat up, making a wet sort of noise in his throat, as if attempting to remember speech, and then he spoke.
“Who are you, to threaten death to my most loyal counselor?” he said, gazing straight at Éomer without seeing him at all. “Ever Gríma has guided me rightly, and I treasure his words beyond all else.”
“I am your nephew, my lord.” There was pain almost equal to my own in Éomer’s words. “The son of your beloved sister Théodwyn, the boy you took in and swore to raise as your own. Ever have my sword Gúthwinë, and my words of counsel, been at your service. And I tell you now – throw aside this darkness which has covered you. Banish this worm from your sight and your councils. And all will pay homage to you, as the Lord of the Mark that you are.”
This thing which wore my uncle’s face and voice, and yet was not him, spoke in the cracked, peevish voice of an old, petty man brooding on many slights he has suffered. “What? What? Banish Gríma? He who would die for me? How dare you, Rider. I tell you now, forget this. Swear that you will never assail him, openly or in secret, with arms or with words.”
Éomer gazed back at him, his clear grey eyes meeting without hesitation the blurred, rheumy ones of our uncle. Then he said, his voice calm but heavy with sorrow, “I cannot obey you, my lord. For it is the Worm’s voice that speaks within you, not your own.”
Théoden half-rose from his throne, and again he spoke in those awful, screeching tones. “What? What? Go away then, there will be no place, no sanctuary for you here. Go about with that lot of horseboys you call Riders, and we shall all be better off for being rid of you. Yes! Yes! Go, I tell you!”
Éomer bowed stiffly, but I knew his mind, and loved him dearly after the fashion of my frozen heart, and I felt how much this must have stung. Without looking at me, he said, “Come, Éowyn. I will not leave you alone to the mercies of this creature.”
I followed him from the hall, and outside, he looked at me. “Why?” he said desperately. “Why is everything sane fled from us, deserted us, twisted into poisoned and empty lies?”
“I do not know.” I realized then that both of us were suffering in different ways, and that these dark days had tainted everything. “I’m sorry, Éomer.” For what, I did not know. But I did not want him to go away again, he who was my only comfort in this house woven thick with lies.
“I’m sorry too, Éowyn,” he answered, staring out across the horizon. Mist embroidered the fringes of Edoras as the afternoon faded toward evening, and there was a glow like the heart of a flame bathing the high peaks of the mountains.
After a moment more, I gave in, and went to him, and rested my head on his broad, armored shoulder. Perhaps he did not understand me, and I did not understand him, but we were brother and sister, and at least we remained in our right minds. I loved him and I did not want him to leave, and I knew that he must and did my best to cool myself toward him so the sting would not be so great, but now I missed him and wished to come to him, a small sister creeping to her elder brother again, as she had in the nights when dark dreams troubled her and she had no mother to comfort her, for her mother had died of grief.
Éomer sighed, and laid his head on mine, and we stood there for a long time, silent, waiting as the mist crawled up to cover the buildings. And then still, we did not move, but stood, watching as the glow died on the crown of the mountain, and night came creeping behind to cover it.