The Golden Hall burned. The blaze licked up the walls, burning the tapestries, melting the paint, wreathing the throne in flames. She could hear screams through the smoke. The banner of Eorl the Young,with its white horse, was the only bright point in the hall. The roof creaked above her head, and as she searched desperately for those she loved, it started to collapse....
Éowyn sat up in her bed, sweat streaming down her body. It must have been the heat that brought the nightmare on, she thought, as she rubbed her aching head. Suddenly she could not stand it any longer – the darkness pressing on her, the roaring in her ears. She sprang from her bed and seized a shawl as she walked out the door.
The passages were lit just enough for her to find her way. At first she walked slowly, but the fear that tainted even her sleep hastened her steps. Soon she was running, her breath coming in gasps. She had to see that the hall still stood.
Slipping between two pillars, she entered the great hall of Meduseld. It was dimly lit, but intact. She walked to her uncle's throne, and leant against one of the steps of the dais hugging herself. Her breath slowed till the rasps became gentle.
It had been so vivid – the smells, the sights, the sounds. The nightmare had haunted her sleep for years, but tonight it had been more intense than usual. She had heard her brother's and uncle's voices calling for her, and she could do nothing. She was helpless, always helpless.
For so many years she had been afraid – afraid of she scarcely knew what, afraid of footsteps echoing behind her. And ashamed – ashamed that as the King's mind sank, and his people died by the sword, she had been but a glorified nursemaid. She had never suspected that Wormtongue's poison was the cause of Theoden's decline. That Gandalf had driven it from the King's mind was little comfort.
Though Theoden was free of Saruman's spell, Rohan was still surrounded by enemies – indeed, the noose had been drawn tighter. In the morning they would ride to Helm's Deep – but Éowyn had little faith in the safety of the fortress. Battle would come to Helm's Deep, as it had come to all of Rohan.
Éowyn knew what part she would play in any such battle – standing in the shadows. The Shieldmaiden of Rohan could not be risked in battle until all was lost; that was the order of things. The years past, in which so many had fallen, had taught her that well. She did not know how she could bear it any longer.
And so it would remain - she would be protected and forced to watch as everything she held dear was destroyed. This was the protection they offered her, not knowing that the desperation of loss would kill her, as it had her mother. Pain of the body she could survive, but she knew in her heart that further pains of the heart would tear her to pieces. And the only antidote was to do something – fight, die if need be, but not wait in the house for the names of the dead
Her quiet tears had become sobs, and at last a cry of pain broke from her. She put her hands to her mouth, trying to hold the sound in, when she heard a sigh, the sound of a heavy body rolling over, and a grunt as someone stood up. She had forgotten that the three travellers were sleeping in the hall, as a token of Théoden's displeasure with Aragorn's 'presumption' in telling the King what to do.
She could not run. He must already know she was there – her white nightgown caught the light, and she had not been quiet.
"My Lady, what has disturbed your sleep this night". She looked up at him, and heard the breath catch in his throat as he saw her tears.
"It is long since there has been hope in these halls, my lord. And even its presence cannot drive away the terrors of the night". He nodded, and again Éowyn was struck by his sheer presence. She had met great men before, and knew in the very marrow of her bones this was a man born to lead, to inspire, to lift hearts from despair. He seemed, now, to be searching in the space between them for words.
"The Wormtongue's reign did not drive all hope from Meduseld, my lady, for even in the dark you withstood fear. I have heard it said that you were faithful beyond all others."
She could not restrain the slight shiver the mention of Wormtongue had sent through her, but shook her head.
"You are too generous with your praise. I did nothing. It was you, and your companions, who brought back the light, not I."
"My lady, forgive me, but you are wrong. The Lady of Rohan has given the folk of Edoras hope – I see it, if you do not."
"What good did I do them when I was but a puppet for Grima's greedy thoughts? His little toy." Éowyn stopped, regretting her words. She had not meant to let her bitterness spill out.
"What do you mean?"
"You are a hunter, my lord?" He nodded "Then you know what it is to stalk prey through the forest for days, for nights, without pause. I was Grima's prey."
She said the words flatly, but as she saw the pity in his eyes she despised herself all the more. She had borne so very little and yet she sought this man's sympathy. How was it that he could look at her her with such warmth? She, who had withstood so much, could be broken by a kind glance and a few understanding words from a man she did not know.
He reached out a hand, perhaps to wipe a tear from her cheek, but stopped himself. Suddenly she thought that it might be good to be touched. It had been so very long since she had been touched with affection – she could feel an ache within her, a longing to be held by a pair of loving arms. It would be so strange, so wonderful, to feel safe.
A deep tiredness swept through her body, seeping into her very bones. "Forgive me my lord, I did not mean to wake you. If you will permit me, I shall seek sleep again."
He took her hand, and kissed it, "Courage, my lady,"he whispered. She could not help but give him a startled glance, but said nothing. Dipping in curtsey, she walked, as smoothly as she knew how, from the hall. Though she might not find sleep again this night, she had at least found some measure of calm. She thanked him for that.