It was the first of March when Éomer finally stepped out of the Golden Hall for the first time after months of illness had confined him to its chambers. Granting the two door-wardens a short nod and then ignoring their curious looks, he stepped forth to the edge of the terrace until he came to a halt in the corner farthest from them, seeking solitude. The first cold gusts that hit him where he stood were almost strong enough to push him back, but the flow of fresh air over his face was still a sensation he relished more than he had ever thought possible. It carried a weak scent of horses and the first hints of spring, a touch of sweetness, a promise of sun and rain, of flowers and green grass - and of healing.
The sweeping view from where he stood was something he had always taken for granted. Never once that he could remember had he paused on the terrace to admire the backdrop of the golden, thatched huts of Edoras, the towering, still snow-capped mountains behind them and below him, for as far as the eye could see, the broad valley of the central Mark and the river Snowbourn stretched all the way to the horizon. The sky was cloudy, the ground still of a muddy brown and after the retreat of the snow and the last year's old grass looked faded and dead, but there was a sense of expectation in the air, the knowledge that all it would take to transform the plains of Rohan into a green paradise once again were a few hours of sunshine.
For the first time ever, the view was stole Éomer's breath and filled his heart with an overwhelming love for his kingdom and its people. His people, whose love and loyalty had helped him survive the worst situation he had ever found himself in in his still young life. He had survived a harsh youth in the Mark, countless battles against overwhelming odds and treason within the halls he had called his home, but only recently had the situation been so hopeless that Éomer had not been able to escape from it by himself. Without the girl of the Meara-tribe, who had alone courageously followed the enemy to finally find and alert Elfhelm, and without his friend's and his éored's selfless acts of courage, he would have fallen prey to Gríma's evil schemes. Finally, there had been the sacrifice of the villagers of Iséndras. Many had died in that selfless act, and while Éomer had instructed Erkenbrand to provide fast and much-needed relief for his fellow kinsmen who had lost everything, he still felt eternally indebted to them. One of these days, when he had sufficiently recovered, he would visit the village again and personally express his gratitude.
Maybe… maybe after his wedding. Yes, most definitely after his wedding. As strong as his urge was, Éomer could not see himself undertaking such a lengthy journey within the next weeks, and with only three months left before the Mark's future queen and her entourage would arrive from Dol Amroth, there was already much to be taken care of by him, too many preparations for the celebrations he'd have to supervise to leave the capital for quite such a long time.
His wedding, yes… it was something that still felt too unreal to him in the wake of the recent incidents to be envisioned, even though the coming Midsummer-festivities would change his life forever. He had not even laid eyes upon his bride yet, nor knew he anything more about her than that she was the daughter of his ally and friend, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth. She was eight years younger than he and – so it had been told to him by the counsellors who had initiated the political match– in beauty even comparable to Queen Arwen of Gondor herself; an heirloom of her partly Elvish ancestry. That was all he knew. The lack of information should have made him nervous, yet the event itself still seemed to lie so far in the future, Éomer could hardly accept it as something that would eventually take place in reality.
Another violent gust blew his hair into his face and forced the King of Riddermark to seek shelter behind one of the wooden columns of the hall to shield himself from the onslaught of the wind. Absent-mindedly, Éomer smoothed the hair out of his eyes and revelled in the normality of the scene unfolding below him: In all of Edoras, his fellow kinsmen were busily going about their business, carrying sacks of various content to wagons, unloading other wagons as horses were led through the streets, the rhythm of their steps a comforting, familiar sound. Their local blacksmith was busy, too, for the sound of a hammer hitting metal carried all the way from the lowest part of the city up to Meduseld. The calm, patient every-day quality of the scene soothed his soul. Normality, yes, even boredom, was something that he welcomed very much these days, as they provided just another little step on the way to becoming the man he had been before his captivity.
A piercing cry rang out from above, and as Éomer craned back his neck to look for its source, he saw the elegant silhouette of a hawk sailing the winds; a perfect picture of freedom that – unbeknownst to him – brought a wistful smile to his gaunt, pale features. How he longed for that freedom to roam his kingdom again, too; for the time when he would sit on Firefoot's back again and hear the wind roar in his ears and the sound of nature awakening after the long siege of winter.
He had never been ill for such a long time, but apparently, the dark counsellor's devilry and his exposure to the elements had done more to him than had been visible at first… and of course, the extended time the bad weather had confined them to the wrecked fortress in the wake of the battle had not helped his recovery, either. Supplied only with minimal provisions, both of food and healing supplies, they had been forced to stay at Helm's Deep for three long weeks before the weather had cleared up enough for Elfhelm to load him onto a wagon under half a dozen blankets and make for Marshal Erkenbrand's domain, where they had stayed for another two weeks. Only then, after Éomer's condition had sufficiently improved to be transported over a longer distance in the middle of winter, had they proceeded on the long way back to Edoras, where he had then utterly collapsed.
And yet it was only now – three months after the incident - that his soul was slowly beginning to come to rest, and at last, his shoulder had begun to heal, too. It was still weak though and he had to carry the arm in a sling, something that – on dark, rainy days, still tended to dampen the king's spirits and led him to ponder his future. Like Sarabande, the healer in the village they had come through during their flight, their local healer thought that the arm would never recover sufficiently for him to ever take up swordplay, let alone do battle again. Too much of the muscle and tendons had been damaged and would not grow back. Her verdict had darkened Éomer's mood for weeks, and even now – after two months of making himself accustomed to the thought – a deep despair occasionally sneaked up on him whenever he least expected it.
Maybe he would do what his friend, King Elessar of Gondor, had suggested during his unexpected visit, and seek out the Elven Lord Elrond at Rivendell, whose reputation as a healer out-shone even that of his son-in-law. A faraway smile played around Éomer's mouth as he remembered how surprised – not to mention touched – he had been when he had woken from another of his fever-dreams at the end of December to find his friend sitting in the chair next to the head-end of his bed, silently reading a book with Elvish writing on the cover. Of course, his very first notion had been embarrassment over having been caught in such a helpless state, but it had quickly shifted to gratitude. Rohan's winters were stern, and no one who had no urgent business outside would ever travel the icy, snow-covered plains willingly. Yet Aragorn – as Éomer still addressed his friend, and the King of Gondor still liked to be called, too – had saddled his horse as soon as he had heard of the unlucky incidents his friend and ally had been caught up in. Upon Éomer's inquiry, his Chief of the Royal Guard, had finally confessed that he had sent the messenger to Minas Tirith and Ithilien with the tidings of the King's illness, and his efforts had also brought another, long-missed visitor to Meduseld…
"Don't tell me you were planning to make it down to the marketplace all by yourself, brother!" a familiar – and most welcome – voice reached his ears from behind. Éomer couldn't help smiling as he turned around to face the former White Lady of Rohan and now Princess of Ithilien. "After all, I promised Gamling to look after you – and keep your mule-headed mind from random acts of stupidity!" She tightened the leather and fur-laced coat around her throat as she stepped up to her brother, thankful for the playful sparkle in Éomer's eyes. He had been in a far too gloomy mood these days for her taste.
"Random acts of stupidity!" he exclaimed now, indignant, pushing the thoughts he had been pondering into the back of his mind for later. "And you think that taking a breath of fresh air would qualify as that?"
"No," she smirked by taking his good arm and placing her delicate hand in his. "But a trip down the hill to the stables or the tavern all by yourself certainly would. How would you get up here again without my help?"
"Éowyn-" he started to object, but she only patted his fingers with a sly smile.
"The mighty King of Rohan will need to exercise a bit more patience yet before he can do as he pleases again. As for now, his fate is being destined by his better-knowing counsellors."
"Such as yourself," he laughed, thankful for her efforts at brightening his spirits, which were still mostly melancholic these days. But her presence helped. Having family around him helped, someone in whom to confide things he would never have told anyone else, not even Gamling or Elfhelm, as much as he trusted them. It still took much for Éomer to speak of the dreadful days of his captivity, to acknowledge his still lingering weakness and insecurity. Those were things he would never openly admit, except to his sister. The people of the Mark needed a strong king these days in order to overcome the aftermath of the War. He had to be strong – for them.
Many had been the days during the long winter months and the time of his illness when he had wished for Éowyn's presence. And miraculously, when he woke from his afternoon-sleep three days ago – embarrassing that he still needed it, like a small child! – she had been there at his side, sitting in the same chair Aragorn had occupied when he had first seen him during his surprising visit. At first he had taken her for a dream, but the touch of her hand as she had clasped his in loving affection had chased the doubts away. Yes indeed, his brave little sister, slayer of Sauron's mightiest weapon, had come all the way from warm, sunny Ithilien to the still cold Riddermark just for him. In the sensitive state he was still in, it had taken all of his composure not to fall into her arms weeping with joy at the sight… all the more as she had brought him the wonderful news that he would be an uncle, soon! Due in a little over four months time, she was already showing quite a bit, and the radiant glow surrounding her delicate features had spoken louder than words that his warrior-sister had finally accepted womanhood in all its glorious entirety. The sight of her in this happy, glowing state filled Éomer with joy, and he treasured every moment in her vibrant presence as he allowed her to slowly pull him away from the corner he had sought out for his lonely contemplations.
"Aye, such as myself," she rebuked, gently nudging his side. "I have always been smarter than you."
The hawk far above their heads screamed again and performed a sharp turn that carried him away towards the mountains. Silently, the two siblings followed his path for a while before Éowyn picked up the conversation again.
"There will come a time when you will be able to go as you please again, you know?" She gave his hand a brief tug as she steered her pensive brother towards the stairs. "Your confinement will end soon. I can tell you are as eager to take into the wild as a colt that has been forced to spend the entire winter in the stables." His gaze told her all she needed to know. "Speaking of which – Firefoot has missed you. The stable-hands told me this morning that they were having a difficult time with your stubborn Méara-mule. He actually bit one of them yesterday! Shall we go and tell him that he must not do that?"
Éomer could not help but smile. She was trying so hard… How much he had missed her!
"For the sake of our stable-hands, I believe we should."
The stairs. He had not walked them in months, and it felt a bit strange to bend his still shaky knees. He felt embarrassed for actually having to clutch his sister's arm to steady himself as a wave of dizziness washed over him, but she gave no sign that she had noticed his need. Grateful for her discretion, he gave her a slight squeeze… and saw her smile out of the corners of his eyes… and flinch!
"Oh…!" A sudden twitch, and then her fingers clenched his arm for hold as she came to a halt on the last step of the stairs, the dark eyes widening in surprise as her free hand sought her slightly rounded stomach and pressed against it. Éomer turned in concern.
"What is it? Éowyn? Are you well?" She made a face, but nodded, a glow the king had not the words to describe lighting up her delicate features all of a sudden. "Éowyn?" Lines of concern appeared on his brow as he took a hold of his sister's shoulders to steady her. "Should I send for the healer?"
"No, no!" A dismissive gesture, and then suddenly unexpected, overjoyed laughter. "There is nothing to heal me of, brother. Wait!" She seized his hand and laid it on her belly, the dark eyes she shared with her older sibling firmly fixed on his. "Do you feel it?" At first, there was nothing put puzzlement in his expression, but suddenly, his face lit up and he looked down in wonder. "Do you-"
"Aye, I do!" he beamed, feeling an unruly excitement taking hold of him. "Is this the first time…?"
"Yes." She stared at him breathlessly, radiating a feminine beauty Éomer could not help but feel awed by. Placing her own hand next to his, Éowyn finally broke eye-contact and shook her head. "Oh, how I wish I could tell Faramir! He should have been here to feel his son move!"
"I can send a messenger," he offered, only half-jesting, and still feeling swept off his feet by his sister's open display of sheer, untainted happiness. This was so unlike the always distant, worried and tortured creature he had known almost all his life… and so much better! There was no question no anymore that the Prince of Ithilien was exactly what Éowyn had needed to heal, and he made a mental note to thank his brother-in-law as soon as they would meet again… presumably at his wedding. His wedding…
Still laughing, Éowyn shook her head as she lowly took up their walk again.
"No, please, spare the poor man. That would be too much. I will leave in a few days again, and when I am home, it shall be a wonderful surprise gift for my husband." She sighed wistfully as she pulled him along further in the direction of the royal stables. "Faramir was quite concerned about letting me go, but I suppose he understood that he would have had to confine me to the dungeon or fight me to keep me from coming to see you." Her fingers squeezed his arm affectionately. "I was horribly worried when that message came, Éomer, I cannot begin to tell you. I am so glad to see you finally getting better again…" She interrupted herself as she felt that their conversation was drifting towards the serious again. That had not been her intention, and so she directed their chatter towards a more pleasant topic again. "But tell me, brother, aren't you beginning to feel nervous about the events that will happen in your own life soon?"
He groaned. Of course she knew.
"I have faced treason, I have faced battle against thousands of orcs and other vile creatures, and there is nothing left anymore on Arda's beautiful face to put the fear of Eru into me… except for the thought of sharing the rest of my life with a woman I do not know yet. 'tis what you mean?"
"You worry for no reason, brother. I have already made your bride's acquaintance, and I firmly believe that the two of you will be an… interesting match." Her smile widened when she saw Éomer's all of a sudden urgent gaze.
"You have met her?"
"Aye… She is Faramir's cousin, as you know. We visit each other quite frequently. As someone who is not used to having a family, I was quite curious about getting to know my new relatives and could hardly wait. As it seems, she felt that way, too… and her three brothers just as well. You will get along well with them, I do not doubt that." Fully knowing how bad her brother was aching for more information, she nevertheless held back, just for the sake of teasing him. His quick glance showed her that he knew. They knew each other far too well to hide anything from the other.
"So…" he therefore shrugged, pretending nevertheless that the question's answer was only of mild interest to him. "What is she like?"
She nudged him in the side.
"Brother, please… you know I cannot tell you."
"A lady needs to have her secrets, of course," his sister lectured him, much in the manner of a stern teacher. "It is every husband's official task to uncover them, and would be most improper of me to tell. Let her surprise you." It was quite obvious that Éomer was not happy with her evasive answer, but she made it equally obvious to him that all further efforts of extracting information from her would be wasted by taking the distant neighing from the stables as an opportunity to suddenly turn away from her brother. "Now let us go and educate your impossible horse about the proper treatment of tender stable-hands, shall we?"
Playing the grumpy brother for a moment longer, Éomer let her steal his arm back again. Finally, he winked at her and allowed her to pull him along.
"Let us go. My counsellor has told me that good stable-hands are hard to come by these days…"
In the endless sky, the sun finally burst through the layer of clouds which had obstructed its bright and welcomed face, and bathed the day in a soft, golden light as Éowyn and her brother slowly walked down side by side along the path that led into the city below the Great Hall of Rohan…