Five years before the War of the Ring
Theodred’s sword spun out of his hand and he fell heavily on to the grass of the Firienfeld.
“Aha,” cried Eowyn, raising her own sword in triumph. “Victory!” She sashayed around the field, reliving the tricks of swordplay and footwork that had outwitted her cousin. “They should have called me Hild, don’t you think?” she said, turning to him proudly. “For my warring prowess?”
Theodred raised himself onto one elbow and grinned at her. “Maybe they should have. That’s one win each to you and me – but I think I might stop now before you beat me. I have a feeling that Elfhelm’s taught you too well.”
Eowyn smiled, leaned her sword against one thigh and laced her fingers together, arms out in front of her, to stretch her muscles. Theodred grunted as he sat up. “Ooouuuufff,” he said, uncomfortably. “I’m completely winded, you know. It’s a pity we won’t be able to put all this good work to use someday in a real battle.” Eowyn’s smile faded, and he cursed himself for his foolishness.
“Don’t be angry, cousin,” he said quickly, seeing the look on her face. “I asked. I did ask. And Elfhelm backed me up. But father won’t have you going off with the eored, even just to watch the borders. The lands of the East Mark aren’t safe, and he doesn’t want you to fight.”
Frustrated, Eowyn threw her sword onto the ground beside him and sat down. “I can fight as well as any of them. Better than most, I’ll be bound.” Her companion nodded. “I know,” he said. “Believe me, I know. My muscles won’t be the same for a week. I’m sorry. But it’s not my choice to make.”
She glowered at him. “My father would have let me go,” she muttered, half to herself. “It was he who gave me my first sword. He encouraged me to fight. He knew the kind of times that were coming upon us all. So I’m prepared
“But what for? I’ll never do anything worthwhile now. I’ll just sit at home and watch Grima poison the mind of the king – your father – and patch up everyone’s wounds when they come riding home in glory.”
Theodred shook his head. “Battle’s not that glorious, you know. It’s ugly. It’s loud and it can be quite frightening. Orcs are such ghastly creatures.” He shivered.
“Better that than sitting in the dark in Meduseld for half the day,” replied Eowyn. “I think such dark thoughts there sometimes…” her voice trailed away.
“Come on,” said Theodred briskly, standing up and looking skywards. “The afternoon’s wearing away. We’d better go back down to Meduseld before…” he stopped.
“I know,” Eowyn sighed. “Before I’m needed at the king’s table. And I can’t go covered in grass, or he’ll know straight away that I’ve been practising again.”
She stood up, brushed the grass from her dress and picked up her sword. “But I tell you, cousin,” she said, thoughtfully. “One day, I will fight in battle. I am sure of it. I have the heart and courage of a man and I have the skill. The day will come when I will ride with the Eorlingas and fight beside them, as one of them.”
“Very well,” Theodred shrugged. “I’m not about to argue with you. But in the meantime, ask Eomer next time you’re keen for some swordplay. My back is killing me.” He looked around suddenly. “Where’s my sword?”
Eowyn grinned and pointed up into the tree behind him. “Right up the top there,” she said with a pleased chuckle. “Have a pleasant climb.” Theodred rushed at her, but she dodged him and raced past to the edge of the field. “Come on, hurry up and grab it or you’ll be late for dinner as well.”
She bobbed a small, mock curtsey. “Now, if you’ll excuse me my lord prince, I’ve got to go down the hill and turn myself back into a lady.”
Theodred laughed and waved. Smiling, Eowyn set off down the path from Dunharrow to Meduseld.
Eowyn woke with a start from a deep sleep, her conscious mind hanging on to the threads of a dream. What had she seen, and who? She shook her head, her memory blurred by tiredness.
There had been a man in the dream, she was certain. A stranger – someone she had never seen – and he seemed to be seeking urgently for her, for a reason she could not remember. It had certainly not been a man of Rohan, but nor had it been Aragorn, whose face and voice had filled any idle moments amid her duties in Dunharrow.
For here she was, in her country’s safe haven in times of war, designated Lord of the Rohirrim – or rather, she reminded herself, mother hen in charge of the women, children and any men too old too fight. The young, the infirm and the sacks of grain: these were her charges in Dunharrow. She sighed, and rubbed a hand across her eyes.
The repeated knock brought her quickly to her senses. That was what had woken her.
“My lady?” came the query.
Eowyn got quickly to her feet, brushed a smoothing hand down the front of yesterday’s gown – which she had carelessly slept in – and opened the door.
“Lady Eowyn,” the sentry bowed. “Forgive me for waking you. I know you did not retire until late.”
“It’s all right, Leod,” she said. “But what is afoot? The sun has only just risen. Has the king returned already?”
“No my lady,” said Leod. “Gandalf Greyhame has arrived on Shadowfax. He is bound for Minas Tirith and will not be stopping here long. He is come fresh from the battle at Helm’s Deep, so I thought you would want to speak to him.”
She nodded quickly. “Tell him I will come out and meet him in a few moments.” Leod bowed and withdrew.
Eowyn turned hurriedly back into the pavilion that was her lodging place as Dunharrow’s lord, and frowned into the glass as she ran a wide-toothed comb through her fair hair to tidy it. She gave her plain, workmanlike brown dress another brush, frowned at her pale reflection one more time and walked outside into the pale dawn.
Gandalf was sitting in the Firienfeld under a nearby tree, Shadowfax standing quietly at his side as if awaiting orders. He rose to greet Eowyn.
“My lady,” he said. “We are breaking our journey at Meduseld for a few hours. I came quickly up to the Hold to tell you of the victory at Helm’s Deep, and to warn you to take care under the threat of the Black Shadow.”
“The Black Shadow?” she asked, puzzled. “What new design of the enemy is this?”
“His Nine Riders, lady. They have appeared on winged steeds, and now possess an even greater power to strike fear into men’s hearts.”
“I do not fear them,” Eowyn said, setting her teeth with grim pride. “Let them come and shriek at us. We will not cower before them.”
Gandalf shook his head. “You do not understand,” he said urgently. “As the strength of Mordor grows, so does the terror they can create. I saw riders arriving in Meduseld for the weapontake weeping and falling to their knees when the shadow passed over a little while ago. You must be prepared for greater fear in your people. You must be prepared to strengthen them and stop them fleeing if more riders pass over.”
Eowyn nodded stiffly, not willing to let Gandalf see her shock that Riders of Rohan would be reduced to such cowardly behaviour.
“I thank you for coming to warn me,” she said eventually. “But didn’t you say `we’? If the king is not returned, then who is accompanying you to Mundberg? Is it,” she cleared her throat, which had suddenly become very dry. “Is it the Lord Aragorn?”
“No, Lady,” answered Gandalf. “He will be at Helm’s Deep with the king. They fought together in the great battle, then travelled to Isengard to confront Saruman. The company should have returned to the Hornburg by now. They will take the mountain paths from there to Dunharrow, so if all goes well you should be able to welcome them in three days from now.”
He looked at her face, eager for news of Aragorn rather than the safety of her uncle, the king, and brother Eomer. “But I will not spoil your uncle’s telling of the battle tale,” he said, smiling gently. “Just make sure you ask him about his dawn riding and the trees.”
“The trees?” repeated Eowyn, confused.
Gandalf smiled again. “A remarkable end to a remarkable battle. But I will say no more. I must return to Meduseld and take some food before we continue on our journey to the White City.” He bowed and turned to go.
“But your companion,” said Eowyn, more sharply than she intended.
“Oh yes,” said Gandalf. “A hobbit, named Pippin. “Your folk call his people the holbytlan and regard them as creatures of legend and myth.” He smiled at Eowyn’s obvious surprise. “Pippin is going to battle with me, and his friend and fellow hobbit, Merry, will be riding with the king to Dunharrow. I hope you enjoy his company,” he finished with a pointed look, and small smile.
Eowyn felt sure that Gandalf knew more of her thoughts than she would wish to share. She would have eyes only for one of the king’s company when they returned – which he clearly knew – and she envied even the hobbit’s place with Gandalf and his chance to go to war. Yet she attempted to return the wizard’s smile, wished him a good journey, and said farewell.
Shadowfax picked a quick path down past the Pukel men towards Meduseld and she watched them go, sighing at the emptiness in her heart. What else was there for her to do, after all, except to deal with the daily needs and petty quarrels that arose when many people, used to open plains and space to roam, were hemmed into a small place?
At least everyone had been organised into tents, and the food stored away. There was nothing left to do but sit with them, like a hen on an egg, waiting for something to hatch.
She sighed again, raised her hand in farewell when Gandalf turned for a moment, and returned to her pavilion to dress for the day.
Gandalf frowned at her retreating figure and shook his head. Eowyn’s heart was leading her towards a sorrow and rejection that he knew could break her, after all the disappointments the past years had brought.
But he could not solve every mortal’s problems. The need to reach Minas Tirith was pressing. He spoke again to Shadowfax, and the horse quickened his pace.