The shadows were deep and the light was dim that morning in Meduseld. The great doors of the hall were closed against the early spring chill, the braziers had burned low, and fragrant smoke swirled around the wooden roof beams. The golden rays of light through the high windows illuminated the carved pillars, the tapestries that lined the walls, and the stooped figure that walked there alone. The tapestries told the history of his people. He called them my people, though he did not love them, and they bore no love for him: Grima, son of Galmod, Grima the sickly, Grima the lame, born to ugliness and misfortune, but the latter could change, oh yes. The White Wizard had sent him a secret summons, calling him to his dwelling in Isengard. He could become a powerful friend, if he chose to aid him, and he had walked long in thought, pondering his decision.
There was someone in the Golden Hall, after all, it seemed. It was a very small figure, blond, holding a wooden sword in one small hand as it gazed at the tapestries. A peasant child strayed away from its mother in the marketplace, no doubt. He cast his dark hood over his head and approached, smiling grimly. He would send this cotter's brat screaming from the hall. "What are you doing in here?"
The child whirled around, startled. It was a little girl, perhaps eight years, wearing a simple, woolen shift, her white-blond hair in two long braids that hung down her back like ropes of pearls. He remained in the shadow of a pillar, so that only his pale face and eyes were visible. Her eyes widened, but she did not scream or run. More than one brave man of Rohan had quailed in the face of his ugliness, or cast a sign of warding toward him when he scowled. She was brave, this little one. Perhaps she would make a shieldmaiden one day.
"I am Eowyn, daughter of Eomund," she said. "Who are you?"
So this was Theoden's sister-daughter, the child of his favorite sister, Theodwyn. She was lately orphaned, or so he had heard. He had not laid eyes on her since she was an infant. How beautiful a little thing she had become, white and gold, like a spring lily! "Ah, welcome to the Golden Hall of Meduseld, Lady Eowyn, Eomund's daughter. I am Grima, son of Galmod, your uncle's humble servant and advisor." He bowed low, dusting the stone floor with his long sleeves.
"My mother is dead," she said, with the bluntness of the very young. "And my father also, and so Eomer and I are to live here with my uncle and cousin. Do you live here?"
"For many long years, having come here as a very young boy, for my parents passed away early in my life." He licked his lips nervously and cast his gaze around. It was said that her brother, Eomer, was quite large and strong for his age, and possessed of a hot temper. Where is the young serpent, I wonder? He would not have him come upon him unawares. "My mother died of sickness, and my father nobly in battle." This was only half a lie: His father had drowned fording a river. There had been no love between them, so he did not mourn overmuch. If not for his mother's pleading his father might have cast him away shortly after birth, leaving him to die, unwanted and unnamed, on some forsaken hillside.
"I miss my parents very much," she said, with a broken sigh. "It was sad to lose them."
"Indeed, Lady, it is sad. We have both lost too much, too soon." Suddenly, strangely, he wondered if her white hair would darken to gold as she grew. Would it be the pale yellow of ripe wheat, or perhaps the deeper color of old honey? How would her hair feel under the caress of his hand?
He crouched down low, making himself seem less of a threat. A cunning mind and a honeyed voice were his only attributes; he had honed them all through the long years, as a warrior whets his blade. He must use all of his powers of persuasion now to bring her within reach. "Come closer, Lady. See, see what I have here." He had been to the storehouses, counting and deciding what could be secretly and safely sent to Saruman the Wise, if he chose to serve him, and now he reached into the folds of his robe and drew out an apple. He held it at arms length, but she did not move. "It is the very last of the winter store, wrinkled and ugly, but it is still sweet. Will you not take it?"
Slowly, slowly, her tiny hand reached for the apple. He found he was holding his breath. He would move very slowly out of the shadows, so as not to frighten her when her fingers touched his. Perhaps he would not answer the summons of the Wizard of Isengard today, after all. Perhaps he would walk together with this child and tell her the stories on the tapestries. Perhaps through him, in time, she would learn that not all that was beautiful was good, and not all that was ugly was evil. She would put her little hand in his, fearless and trusting, and he would be kind to her. And she will then love me.
She grasped the apple and his other hand closed, ever so gently, around her wrist to pull her closer. But the doors of the hall opened wide with a loud noise, and the sunlight poured in, paining his weak eyes, and his sickly body betrayed him. He lost his balance and fell forward, shielding his eyes from the harsh light of day, and Lady Eowyn saw what the kindly shadow had hidden: The rounded shoulders, the creeping, crusty gray scale on his hands and arms and face that no physic could cure, the sickly pallor of illness that brittle bones and years of pain had given him, his sparse, dark hair-a gift of his mother's Dunlendish blood-already streaked with silver, though he was not yet old.
She screamed and struck at him with her wooden sword, soft blows that cut him like the lash of a whip.
Eomer ran forward and struck at him with his hard, young fists, pushing him away. "Villain! Unhand my sister!"
"Peace! Peace!" cried Theoden King, holding him back. "What goes on here?"
Grima laughed gently, still sprawled on the floor, though there was the salt taste of blood in his mouth. "I frightened her, my King. I wished only to give her this apple, a gift of welcoming from Grima to the fair niece of Theoden King." His shoulder ached where young Eomer had struck him. He would pay for that blow.
Eowyn had flung her arms around the legs of the King, hiding her face against him. He put his hand gently under her chin. "Come now, look, Eowyn sweeting, it is only my good servant, Grima. He will do you no harm."
"But he is so ugly!" Again, the bluntness of a child, and he had heard those words before, but why did they cut him so deeply coming from her lips?
"Eowyn, Eowyn, you have been unkind," the king scolded gently. "Now, will you not take his gift and give him your thanks?"
She looked at Grima for a long moment, and then snatched the apple from his hand. "My thanks," she whispered.
Eomer was still scowling down at him, his nose wrinkled as if he smelled something rotten. Grima knew this look. How very often he had seen it on the face of his father. Eomer was indeed large and strong for a boy only twelve summers old, broad-shouldered and heavy, his wrists already thick from wielding a heavy sword and spear. Grima could not cow him with his gaze, and he could never match him in strength, but he knew every warrior had a chink in his armor, however small, and he had years yet in which to find it.
Eomer put his hand on his sister's fair hair and she leaned against him. "You should not have wandered away, Eowyn. You might have come to harm."
Eowyn pursed her lips. "Oh, Eomer! I wanted to see the tapestries!"
"And so you shall," laughed the king. "But not today. Your cousin Theodred's favorite mare has foaled his morning: A little, dapple-gray with a white mane and tail. Would you like to see her?"
"Oh yes, Uncle!" Eomer said. He was already a fine rider and had a great love for horses; that was to be expected of a son of the Eorlingas. Grima had never cared for horses. His bones broke too easily for him to be comfortable in the saddle, and horses sensed his unease. It was yet another thing that set him apart.
"May we name the foal as well, Uncle?" Eowyn asked.
"You may, if Theodred gives his consent. What would you call her?"
Eowyn looked thoughtful. "Perhaps…Dernhelm?"
Eomer scoffed. "That is the name of a warrior, not a little gray filly!"
The Lady Eowyn pouted so prettily, threatening Eomer with her little sword, that the king laughed again and set her upon his hip, putting an arm around the shoulders of his sister-son. Grima could see that he already held a great affection for them, no less than what he felt for his son and heir, Theodred, his only child and the joy of his heart. "Look at her, friend Grima! Is she not the very image of my dear Theodwyn?"
"Indeed, my King." Though it seemed to him that she was already taller and fairer than the departed Lady Theodwyn, resembling more her grandmother, Morwen of Lossarnach, the lady the people called Steelsheen. "I go now to see that rooms are made ready for the children, Lord. It will be good to hear the laughter of little children in the Golden Hall once more." Grima's head was bowed and his eyes were cast down. Theoden could not see the dark thoughts that traveled across his face, like clouds over the sun.
"It will indeed. Come, children, let's away to the stables!"
Grima watched them walking away, toward the tall doors. Theoden had slowed his steps so that Eomer might more easily walk at his side. They were laughing together. Eowyn looked back over the king's shoulder at Grima. Their eyes met and she shuddered, dropping his gift to the floor. The apple was old and soft, splattering on the stones.
The doors closed and he was alone.
He knelt in the semi-darkness, rubbing at the stains with his coarse garments. He must clean it quickly and depart for Isengard. He would not have the doorwardens see him thus when they returned, or the evidence of his rejection and shame. He rubbed and rubbed, and envy and hate were as the bitter taste of gall in his mouth. His blood was thin, and she had cut his mouth with her wooden sword, and now it bled freely down his chin, mingling with the foolish tears that leaked from his burning eyes. Weep for thyself, Grima Galmod's son, for no one else would weep for thee, wretched fool.
How many times in his life had he sat thus, cut off from laughter and light, weeping for the hardness of the world? How he despised his own weakness! He must harden his heart. These would be the last tears he shed in Rohan. Let them wash away pity or mercy. Or love. He must harden his heart. "Love me. She will. She will then love me. Someday, when I am a great lord. She will love me. Someday. Someday…."
Thanks again to Rohan-nitpick, The Phantom, erewyn, Ozma, and Arwen for their very kind reviews. And my thanks and a hearty "D'oh!" and a slap of the forehead to RiverRatRogue for pointing out my goof. Oopsy! I stand corrected.