Chapter 1- Théodred

His eyes were on me again.

I could feel them burning into my back as I hurried down the hallway, like those of a wolf lying in wait for its prey. I shuddered at the thought, but even if I had the power to do anything to stop him, I could not take the time. Riders were returning from a battle by the fords of Isen, and rumors had come to Edoras saying that my cousin, Théodred, was among the wounded.

I reached the doors leading outside of Meduseld and pushed them open, ignoring the black creature that slinked behind me, and rushed down to the gate. My brother was already standing there, watching the Riders' approach, and turned as he heard my footsteps. "Éowyn," he said as he saw me, his voice thick with emotion. I ran over and stood beside him, my eyes searching past the walls of the city until I could see the Riders approaching; there were only three. "If he was badly wounded, he would not be riding, and none of the horses bear two riders," he said softly.

My heart sank as I looked back at Éomer. "Perhaps he simply could not ride, and sent a messenger instead," I answered; it was the only hope I had.

"Perhaps," he replied, "but my heart tells me otherwise."

Our fears were confirmed as the small group of men filed in, their horses stumbling with weariness. "What happened?" Éomer immediately asked. "And what of the Prince?"

The man at the head of the Riders slowly slid off the horse. His clothing was stained dark with the blood of his foes, while his arm was bound tightly with cloths soaked with his own. "He is dead," he said wearily.

I drew in a sharp breath, feeling strangely numb from the sudden grief. "What happened?" I heard my brother ask again; to me, his voice seemed to come from a distance.

"We were surrounded at the Fords," another man said. "They gained the eastern bank, and Grimbold on the west bank was hard-pressed to hold them back. Théodred was trapped on the eyot, and fell to an orc's axe before Grimbold could reach him." He glanced around and lowered his voice so that only Éomer and I could hear. "It was a strange battle—the fighting was always fiercest where the Prince stood, and once he fell they withdrew. If not for that, the Westfold would have already fallen, for we were sorely outnumbered. Even so, it is only a matter of time unless aid comes unlooked-for."

"His last words were for you, my lord," the first man added, looking at Éomer. "He said to let him lie there, at the Fords, to keep them till you come."

"Marshal Erkenbrand sends you a message as well, my lord," the third man finally spoke up. "He begs for your assistance."

Éomer considered this; I could tell that he was struggling against a desire to immediately muster his men and ride out. "There is one more thing, my lord," the second man said, removing something from his saddlebag. "Several of the orcs—the tall ones that killed the Prince—wore this emblem." He handed an iron helm to Éomer, and as he turned it over, I could see a flash of white against the dark metal.

Éomer's countenance immediately darkened. "Isengard," he muttered before looking back up at the men. "The King needs to know of his son, and of this treason. I would wish for you to come before him with me." He quickly gave orders for the messengers' horses to be taken care of, then turned to me. "Come, sister," he said more gently. I obediently followed the four men as we walked the stone path that led up to Meduseld. Háma, the doorwarden, allowed us to pass unchallenged; he seemed to sense that the news was ill, and made no attempt to hinder us with conversation.

I followed, a silent shadow behind the men, as we entered the king's hall. The room was dark, and the air felt as heavy as my spirits. My uncle sat upon the throne as if carved out of marble. Wormtongue sat on the stairs before the throne, in his customary spot. He briefly glanced at Éomer and the errand-Riders, then turned his sunken eyes to me. I could feel them looking me up and down, and tried hard to keep my face from betraying my disgust. As the men approached the throne and quickly knelt before the king in homage, I followed suit, waiting for my brother to speak as we stood once more.

"My lord," Éomer began, then stopped as if he was unsure what to say. "These men have just returned from the fords at the Isen. The orcs ambushed them before they could prepare for battle."

My uncle turned bleary eyes onto the messengers. "What news?" he finally asked, his voice cracking as he spoke.

"The battle went very ill, my lord," the man with the bandaged arm replied. "We lost many men, and the Prince…" His voice trailed off and he looked uncertain about how to continue. Finally, he stated, "Prince Théodred is dead, my lord."

"We buried him at the Fords," one of the other men said, "along with the men who fell defending him. Forgive us, lord, but there was no time nor men to spare to bear his body back to Edoras."

Théoden sat silently, a stricken look on his face. "My son…" he finally said weakly.

"Such a pity," the low voice of Wormtongue murmured. I lowered my eyes in order to mask the loathing I felt at the sound. "To lose your only son and heir; this is a grievous day for us all." I could feel anger rising within me at his words. What could possibly grieve you about this? I thought. My cousin was nothing to you. If anything, he had been merely an obstacle to be removed; he and my brother alike. A cold shiver ran up my spine as I wondered if Éomer would be the next to fall.

Even as the thought crossed my mind, Éomer stepped forward and boldly stated, "The men report that these were no ordinary orcs, my lord. They were larger and stronger, and they bore the mark of Isengard." There was a clang of metal on stone as Éomer tossed forward the helmet he carried. A crude hand was splashed across it, white spattered with blood—both the red blood of our people, now fading to a rusty brown, and the black blood of the orcs. "Every day they grow bolder. These are the orcs that killed your son; had they not withdrawn once he had fallen, the Fords would have been taken and they would already be roaming freely across the Westfold. We cannot let them go unchallenged!" Wormtongue's glare at him grew sharper as he continued. "Let me ride out with my men, my lord. We must protect our people, and if Isengard has now betrayed us, there is no time to lose."

"Éomer, I understand your anger, but you must not allow it to overcome reason. If your éored rides out, who will be left to protect the king? Erkenbrand is gone, and now that Théodred has fallen, you are the only one left." He turned to the king, his voice low and soothing; I wondered if the faintest trace of a threat in it was merely my imagination. "My lord, do not let the rash words of your sister-son determine your course in this matter. Saruman has always been a friend and ally to the Riddermark. It would be far wiser for Éomer to remain here in Edoras to guard your city."

There was a long silence as Théoden seemed to be considering what to do. Finally Éomer could stand it no longer. "My lord?" he asked.

"You will remain in Edoras." Théoden's voice sounded distant, faded by the unnatural old age that had claimed him. I looked away as despair struck my heart anew to see him in this condition.

"My lord…" Éomer began to protest.

The king looked up, his eyes filled with a numb grief. "Enough. Leave me." The messengers bowed and retreated, but I lingered, as did Éomer. He stepped toward the throne and Théoden looked at him again, beginning to look angry. "I said to leave me!" Éomer turned and left without another word, his face darkening.

I looked after him, longing to follow him rather than stay in the dismal hall, but I could not in good conscience leave him alone with Wormtongue. So, gathering my courage and trying to suppress the shudder I felt as I walked past him, I knelt before my uncle and took his hand. "Come, my lord," I said softly. "Grief for your son is making you weary. You need to rest." He did not argue with me, allowing me to help him to his feet as I put his cane in his hand. Then I led him down the hallway and to his chambers.

The hours after that were long and weary. Théoden did not speak a word; he barely even moved, he was so lost in his grief. I fought back my own, staying with him more to keep Gríma away than to try to ease his suffering; I had lost enough family in my years to know that I could not make it any easier for him. When I finally left him that evening to return to my room, I could hear strange noises coming from my brother's room as I walked down the hall and paused to listen. It sounded as if he was tearing the room completely apart while trying to be as quiet about it as possible, as I heard the faintest ring of metal hitting metal and the soft thud of leather on stone. Curiosity took over and I knocked on the door.

"Who is it?" I heard a muffled voice call from inside.

"Éowyn," I answered. The door opened, and I could see the disheveled state the room was in. I stepped inside and closed the door behind me as I surveyed the area. His sword-belt lay across the bed, as did a full quiver of arrows, his bow, and a fierce-looking dagger, its hilt carved in the likeness of a horse's head. Other assorted travel gear was piled next to his saddlebag. "You are leaving? Where are you going?" I asked, though my heart already knew.

"One of my scouts sent word earlier tonight that another host of orcs is entering our lands by way of the East Wall. If the reports are accurate, several of them bear the White Hand, and by all accounts they are heading straight for Isengard. King's orders or no, I cannot stand by and do nothing," he answered in a low voice, a grim look in his grey eyes as they met mine. "You do understand, do you not?"

Yes, I understand perfectly, I thought, unable to force back my bitterness for the moment. You cannot do what I am forced to every day of my life. But I kept this to myself as I nodded. "When are you going?"

"Tonight. I have already spread the word to my men, and they are preparing as we speak. We will leave under cover of darkness. With any luck, we will be able to overtake some of these orcs before more lives are lost. If anyone asks, you do not know where I am. I have no wish for you to be caught in the middle of this, Éowyn." He paused, his gaze searching my face. "I am glad you will be here with Uncle Théoden. I would hate to leave him here alone with that Wormtongue skulking about."

I bit my lip and cast my eyes downward in an effort to mask my fear at being left alone with him myself. After a long pause, I finally looked up. "Be careful."

"I will," he answered, though his eyes still seemed troubled as he looked at me. Finally I hugged him quickly but fiercely and turned to go. My hand was on the latch when Éomer called out, "Éowyn?" As I looked back, he added, "Promise me that you will also be careful? I do not like leaving you alone here, but the king needs you now—perhaps more than ever." I nodded and left, closing the door behind me.

Later that evening, I sat alone by the window in my darkened room, unwilling to light a candle lest anyone outside might suspect that I was still awake, or that I was watching. I could see the dim shapes of men moving in the darkness below, a faint sheen on their armor from the pale starlight. They moved swiftly yet silently, so as to not wake anyone in the city. Even their horses seemed to sense the need for secrecy; not a whinny was heard. They quietly led their horses down in the direction of the gate, where I knew one of the guards who sympathized with Éomer was stationed; he would let them out, and no one would know until they were too far away for anyone to stop them before they reached the orcs. One by one they melted into the night and vanished.

A solitary tear made its slow course down my cheek. Here in the darkness, the loss of my cousin, my frustration at being able to do nothing to help my uncle and king, and my fears that I would never see my brother alive again pressed in around me, enemies I was powerless to fight. "I wish I were a man," I whispered into the darkness. "Then at least I could go with you. Farewell, Éomer." Then I turned from the window, angered at my own weakness, and lay silently upon my bed looking up at the cold winter sky until sleep claimed me at last.

When I arrived in the great hall the next morning, Háma, the captain of the king's guard, approached me. "Éowyn, do you know where your brother is?" he asked.

"No, I do not," I answered—truthfully, for Éomer had not told me where, exactly, he was going. "Is something wrong?"

He lowered his voice and glanced around. "A great number of horses were discovered missing this morning, and no one can find Éomer, or any of the men in his éored. I fear for him; Wormtongue is with Théoden now, and I fear that his intentions are to convince the king that Éomer has betrayed him."

I nodded and thanked Háma, then approached the throne. My uncle looked up at me with weary eyes, while a dark glint shone in Wormtongue's. "Good morning, my lady," he said.

I bristled inwardly at the words, my heart protesting violently at the thought of ever being "his" lady. Carefully keeping my expression free of emotion, I turned to the king and asked, "Uncle, what is the matter?"

Wormtongue answered for him. "Your brother seems to have disappeared, my lady, along with many men and horses. It would appear that he has disobeyed the king's order—a most grievous offense." He searched my face, obviously looking for an answer.

"I know nothing about this," I replied, unable to keep the defiance out of my voice. "But if Éomer did choose to go and fight, he is only doing what he believes is best for our people." And what I would do if I were free to choose, I silently added, unlike you.

Wormtongue stepped down from the dais and stopped within a few steps of me. His dark eyes bored into mine as he lowered his voice. "You know something. It would be wise, Lady Éowyn, to reveal what that something is."

My heart quickened as I lowered my voice as well. "Even if I knew anything about this, Gríma, I would never reveal it to you."

His face contorted into a hideous scowl, his hands clenching in barely-suppressed fury. He stepped closer to me and whispered into my ear, "I would rethink that if I were you. If you wish to help your brother, you had best cooperate. The price of treason is high—and I will see that it is paid." With that, he turned and walked away, leaving me with a heart pounding in fear.

Author's Note: For those of you who have read this before, this may seem a little different now--I've revised this and the next chapter to bring it closer to book canon, eliminating Theodred's funeral. There will be minor editing throughout the rest of the story to clean up the writing style as well, but any additional changes that will be made up through chapter 29 will likely be very minor. If there's anything major, I'll point it out as I go.

reposted 3/16/07