Know Thy Place – Part 6
The first thing Éomer realised on Yule day was that it had stopped snowing. The storm had blown the clouds away, and now the sun was reflecting from the white landscape, everything glistening so brightly that their eyes hurt just looking upon it. Ice crystals sparkled like jewels, and their golden light lifted every rider's heart after the dreary days which lay behind them. The wargs had not returned, and thus Éomer exited the barn in high spirits, despite of a sleepless night of pondering. After hours of deep thinking and listening to both the arguments made by his head and his heart, he had finally made up his mind and could hardly wait to see Freya again. Elfhelm had to be wrong, he had decided. Their different standing was of no importance. If he did not care for it, why should she? Freya and he would make it work.
Sauntering over to where he saw the young woman leaving the shed with a bucket of fodder for the chicken and geese in her hand, Éomer called out to her with a happy smile on his face and the feeling of excitement surging through his body. It felt good to be confident with his decision after a night of doubting.
"Good morning, Freya! Isn't it a wonderful day for Yule?" His gesture encompassed the blue sky and sunshine, but when she met his gaze, the expression on her face was a bucket of cold water into his face. The skin around her eyes looked swollen and red, as if she had cried, and his smile was not returned. Instead, she wordlessly turned her back on him to enter the stable. Dumbfounded by this utterly unexpected reaction, Éomer hastened his steps to hold the door open for her.
"Is aught wrong? Freya?" If he was not mistaken, there was accusation written in her eyes as she briefly looked back over her shoulder. But if that was so, what had he done to deserve that? "What is it? Did I do anything?"
"You were not honest with me, my lord."
Honestly perplexed and indignant at the accusation at the same time, Éomer struggled with both his voice and the right words as he felt his temper rise. Why was she addressing him in this formal manner?
"You would call me a liar? What did I lie about? And why are you talking to me like this?"
"You may not have lied to me, but you did not tell me all I needed to know." Avoiding his questioning stare, Freya pretended to be utterly occupied with the task of feeding the animals which surrounded them with excited clucks and battled for the best positions.
"Whatever are you talking about?"
Again silence answered him, until finally, the object of his puzzlement inhaled deeply and turned toward him, noticeably bracing herself.
"Why did you not say that you were the son of Marshal Éomund of Aldburg? And that you were the king's nephew?" She lifted her chin, and her expression bespoke her deep disappointment. "You are a noble, Éomer. I figured as much from your clothing and manners, but I could not know that you were a descendant of Rohan's most respected bloodline. Why did you not tell me?" Her bright blue eyes scrutinizing and painfully betraying her bitter emotions, she stared at him for a moment longer before she brusquely turned her back on him to leave him standing, bereft of words. With renewed vigour, she resumed the feeding of the birds, almost throwing the fodder at them.
Frantically searching for the right thing to say, Éomer shoved a goose away with his foot to follow her deeper into the shed, tempted to kick it instead. The truth was that he had not wanted it to look as if he was taking advantage of his position. He had kept his ancestry secret from her out of good intentions. So how could she be angry with now because of that?
"Freya…" He extended a hand to her shoulder to stop her, but she shook it off with an abrupt turn. Only then Éomer realised the glistening wetness of her eyes in the semi-darkness of the stable, and a sudden pang of guilt raced through him. He had never wanted to cause her pain. "I thought it not important. What would have changed if I had?"
"Everything, Éomer!" she raised her voice, in danger of choking on the words as her throat tightened. "Everything would have changed, and you know it! I would not have allowed myself to be infatuated with you had I known who you were!"
This was getting stranger and more awkward by the moment. Éomer narrowed his eyes in disbelief and growing anger.
"Because you despise nobles?"
Impatiently, she shook her head, and the next hand of fodder was thrust to the ground so forcefully that the chicken fluttered away from her in irritation.
"Because it is not the tradition of our people. It would never be accepted. You could be the King of Rohan one day, you cannot love a commoner, and you know that very well. Did you not tell me because you guessed rightly that I would deny you if you told me? Was it just because you wanted to brighten your days for as long as you would be trapped here with us and then discard me? Were you only toying with my feelings?"
Her words knocked the breath from his lungs. How could she think such a thing? Gods, it hurt to hear her talking like this. Did she even know how much she was hurting him with her suspicions? His voice betraying his sudden bitterness, Éomer asked heatedly:
"You would believe that of me? I have been nothing but utterly sincere with you! I would never pretend anything to a girl just for the prospects of a warm bed for two days. I even came here to tell you that I meant what I said to you yesterday. That I do not care what my captain thinks about us. I suppose it was he who told you?"
"My father. He spoke with your captain before. But it not important who told me. I am an ordinary girl, Éomer! I am not highly educated. I know how to milk a cow, or how to raise a pig or a calf when it is abandoned by its mother. I even know how to slaughter them, but I can neither read, nor write! I have no education in the ways of the nobles, I have no fancy dresses. I know nothing about how to behave at the royal court. I have never even been to Edoras! You could not afford to be seen with someone like me!"
"All that is of no importance to me," he objected, desperate now. What was the matter with her to disparage herself like that? And how could she not trust him? "That is why I did not tell you: I did not want it to stand between us, and I cannot believe that my lineage would matter to you!"
She wrung her hands. Why did he not understand?
"It will matter to the people, Éomer! It would matter to me, if I heard that a member of the royal family married a commoner! The bloodline of Eorl is the best Rohan has to offer; it is our people's pride! It is where we put our trust in, and therefore it must remain as strong as it can possibly be."
He was incredulous.
"I cannot believe what you are saying! You would say that your blood would weaken the Mark? Surely you cannot mean that! How can you have such a low opinion of yourself?"
"I have no low opinion of myself, but I know what I am, and I know what I am not. We were born for different tasks in life. Éomer, this is the way the common people are thinking! You cannot change it. My duty is feeding our people, and I am honoured by it and take it seriously. Yours is the protection of our land, and I know that you are just as serious as I am about your task. We both must serve Rohan in the best way we can, Éomer, but our ways of serving are different. We must do what we were born for. What is expected of us. We cannot just run away from it!"
She was all but shouting now, and he could no longer help not raising his voice, either.
"But I won't ever be king! Théoden has a long time on the throne to come yet, and after him, it will be his son, who succeeds him, not I. I do not plan on becoming trapped in the Golden Hall for the rest of my life. I will always be out here, roaming the plains and protecting our people. That is the way I want it."
"And that is the way it should be. But who knows what fate has in mind? Do you know? Life in the Mark is dangerous; I do not have to tell you that, especially after last night. The prince protects the Westfold; he is battling orcs and Dunlendings every day. Something could happen to him, Éomer, and then you would be heir to the throne. Have you ever given this any thought?"
"The king's son is too valiant a warrior for anything to happen to him!" Éomer rebuked with conviction in his voice, stubbornly denying himself the vision Freya had just pointed out to him.
Her gaze grew even more intense.
"Even if you are right, and it comes as you hope for: what good would I be to you if you were roaming the Mark with your éored in protection of our people? I could not accompany you. I would always be alone. And while I would not wish for anything to happen to my father, I am not blind. He is growing old, and one not-too-far day, all the work on this farm will be left to me and my brother and sisters... and the man at my side." She shook her head in desperation. Why was he making this so hard? She had cried the entire night over life's injustice, but when morning had shown its pale face to the world again, she had finally come to accept the ancient facts of life in the Riddermark. Why could he not do the same? "This is my life, Éomer! My days are filled with caring for my family and our animals and our fields. I know no other way of life, and I would not want it."
His brow furrowed at that.
"But if I asked you to come with me to Edoras—"
"So that the women at the court could wrinkle their noses and laugh at the silly farm girl?" she interrupted him. "Éomer, no! I do not belong there. This is my home, the place I want to be. My family has owned this piece of land for as long as I can remember. Before us, my father's father lived here. And his father before that. This is my responsibility, Éomer. I cannot just leave, even if I wanted to." She put the empty bucket down and stepped up to him, laying her hands on his chest when she noticed his angry expression. "I feel bound to this piece of land, Éomer. This is where my roots are. Do you not feel bound by the oath you swore to our king? I know how important your duty as a rider of Rohan is to you, you cannot hide it. You are a good man, and very protective of the people under your care. You are good at what you do, and you love it. You would not find happiness leading my life." She drew a deep breath. "Éomer, our people need you out there. They need your protection. We depend on it. Forsaking your true calling would be a betrayal, both to us, and to yourself. Do you not see it?"
He was at a loss, having only one more point left to make, and yet he knew that it would not change her mind as he grasped her hands and held them firmly, dark eyes meeting blue.
"But I love you."
She swallowed, and her features were grave. She did not shrink from his pleading gaze.
"No. No, you don't. We have known each other only for a day, Éomer, it is not enough to fall in love with someone. You probably think that you could grow to love me, and I know that I could grow to love you, if we were given more time… but nothing good can come out of it. We need to remember our place in life and let it be. One day, we will find the person who is our perfect match, but we are not meant for each other. I know that you understand; I see it in your eyes. You want to deny the truth to yourself, but you are aware of it just the same. Let's not fight over this. I want to remember you fondly, and perhaps, we can be friends. Would you want that?" She bent back in his arms to read his expression.
"Friends?" he echoed, hollowly. What was friendship compared to love? An empty thing, nothing he wanted when his emotions ran far deeper than that. What good was being accepted, but not loved? Given the choice, he rather wanted nothing. But he knew not how to put it into words.
"Your captain patrols this territory quite often," Freya spoke again, desperate to comfort him. "I do not want our future meetings to be bitter. I want to look forward to seeing you again next time your éored travels this path. Would you not want that, too? Éomer?"
"But it is not enough for me." Gently, he raised her hands to his face, brushing his lips over them while he inwardly pleaded her to listen to him. She did not fight it.
"But when it is all I can offer you, will you take it? Or will you hate me now when you ride away, and let us both suffer the sharp sting of disappointment each time we see each other?" His silence and the dark expression on his face frightened her. "Éomer?"
"What choice does that leave me with?" Letting her hands sink, he shook his head, half angry and half dispirited. Gods, what had he done wrongly to deserve this? Why could life not be good to him once in a while? Unexpectedly he had found someone who understood him… and was rejected. Letting go of his grasp, he took a first, hesitant step back. "I could not hate you. But it is too early yet to say what I can offer you instead of my love. I am sorry. Freya…"
Turning with a last, sad shake of his head, he left the shed, and her behind. The morning that had started out so well had lost all brightness for him. Rejoining his comrades in the barn and ignoring their curious glances, Éomer strode over to his captain to request to be one of the two men who would be sent on a scouting trip today to investigate the conditions. He could not possibly remain at this place even an hour longer…
The metal buckles and clasps were even colder than his fingers as Éomer readied his steed for the continuation of their ride, his mind not on the task at hand. Automatically, he tightened straps and fastened the girth around Stormwing's rump, not partaking in his comrade's cheerful banter. After three days of forced inactiveness, the men were looking forward to continuing their patrol through the winterly Mark and meet with the rest of their éored to hear how they had spent Yule. Even Éothain's condition had improved to the point where the young man felt eager to leave, but his friend's unusual quietness prevented him from contributing to the expectant conversations. Done with his preparations, the son of Ceorl slowly turned around, silently observing Éomer's strangely automatic movements. This was a mood he had not yet seen his friend in, and it worried him.
"Are you all right, Éomer?" he asked lowly, almost drowned out under a burst of laughter from the men in reaction to a jest Arnhelm had made. "Can I help you in any way? Hold Stormwing for you, or…" He shrugged, not really knowing what he could offer that would be of service to his friend.
"Thank you, Éothain, but I can do this." Éomer paused only briefly to cast a grateful glance back at him. "This will pass. Do not worry for me. In a day or so, I will be the same hot-headed, stubborn rider you've cursed for years, yet for today I would request that you take no heed of me." He turned back, and with a deep breath, Éothain followed his example to concern himself with his own steed again.
While his hands busied themselves with the tasks they had performed countless times before, Éomer's thoughts went back to the past evening. It had been the dreariest Yule he had experienced in years. Despite the generous feast and his comrades' good mood, which had resulted in singing and many comical stories they had shared with the family, he had sat quietly among them, filling his stomach without a taste for what he ate. Avoiding Freya's anxious glances, he had stuffed the meat and steamed vegetables into his mouth and not once reacted to Éothain's concerned questions whether he was feeling well. When at last the feeling of suffocation had become too much for him, he had volunteered for the second watch and gladly left the barn.
The cold air had cleared his head, and for the longest time, he had stared at the stars, trying to master the strong feeling of disappointment which had weighed him down all day. Inwardly, he knew that both Freya and Elfhelm had spoken the truth, and his mind had already grown to accept the fact that she was not meant for him, even if his heart was still fighting it. Not for the first time, he cursed the strength of his emotions, the passion being one of his defining character traits. It made life so complicated. How much easier things would be if he were more level-headed, as cool and detached as the older riders of his éored. And yet, he knew not whether – given the choice - he would have given it up. Trying to empty his head and think of nothing while his keen eyes surveyed their surroundings, the sound of the barn door opening had woken him from his contemplations. Of course, it had been her. Not daring to approach him, Freya had closed the door behind her, her gloved hands anxiously working the pelted collar of her cloak as she worked up the courage to address him. He saw her before his inner eye, heard her voice inside his head as if she were still standing next to him…
"Will you be all right?" Her tone was quiet and concerned, and Éomer's gaze travelled over her as he searched for the right words to say. She looked beautiful in the pale light of the stars and the waxing moon; the silvery reflections lightening her ash-coloured hair and lending her white complexion an almost translucent quality. Yet it was her expression where Freya's real beauty lay for him – a maturity and wisdom written in her eyes which stood in stark contrast to her still young face, and which indicated the goodness of her heart and soul. The shabby cloak of rabbit fur she was wrapping around her too thin frame, the freckles and slight lines on her face giving her away as someone used to working hard on the fields under the open sky, what did they matter? He inhaled deeply, lowering his eyes for a moment before he felt confident enough to speak.
"Aye." And with growing conviction, he had added with a slight nod: "Aye, I will be. It is for the best." Briefly contemplating whether to tell her how bitter he still felt, he decided against it. It would not help the situation. A first hopeful sparkle lit up her anxious gaze.
"So we will remain friends when you leave tomorrow?"
He nodded again and braced himself as she approached, encouraged by his quiet, if not resigned tone.
"Aye. How could I ever wish you evil?" He took her hand as she extended it, not breaking eye contact. A slow, relieved smile began to spread over her face as she rose to the tips of her toes to breathe the slightest of kisses onto his cheek.
"Thank you. This means a lot to me," she whispered, the band which had tightened her chest and hardly allowing her to breath suddenly gone. "This place will always be a home away from home for you, should you wish for it." The smile vanished. "May Béma keep you out of harm's way, Éomer. Our prayers and good wishes will accompany you."
"And may he also keep a watchful eye on this farm and your family whenever I cannot be around to guard you myself." Too moved to think of anything further, Éomer removed his gloves, cupping her cold cheek with his warm fingers. The touch of her skin stirred up his emotions yet again, and it took all of his remaining restraint to remain composed and return only her innocent kiss.
For a small eternity, time stopped. And when he finally straightened again, holding her gaze, he felt the beginning of something new between them, and his bitterness vanishing.
"Take care, Freya." The slightest trace of a smile accompanied his words, and she returned it gladly and whole-heartedly.
"You too, Éomer."
With a last forceful tug at the saddle belt, Éomer concluded his preparations and straightened. There had been nothing left to say. With a small nod, Freya had taken the first few steps away from him backwards, blindly extending her hand for the handle when she reached it, and keeping eye contact with him until the last possible moment before the door closed behind her. He had stared at the space she had occupied until a burst of laughter from inside had woken him from his sunkenness. And this would be the picture he would take with them when they left now.
Taking the reins to lead Stormwing out of her box, Éomer followed his comrades outside.
The sun was not yet up when the fifteen riders exited the barn, leading their saddled and bridled horses outside to continue their patrol through the Eastmark. It was a cold but clear day, and their breaths rose in white columns into the twilight as they assembled on the path that would lead them out of the valley. The men's mood was spirited after the three days' forced rest and the excellent meal they'd had the night before, and even Éothain had recovered from his illness enough to look forward to their ride.
Shutting out all emotions he felt stirring inside of him at the sight of the fully assembled family, Éomer swung into the saddle and watched his captain limp over to the people to express his gratitude for the accommodation of their éored. Good wishes were exchanged, and finally Elfhelm, with the help of Arnhelm and Tolgor, mounted his steed. Éomer's gaze wandered over the five people who would have to brave the hard life of the Mark alone again after their departure, and he could not help wondering if he would see all of them again next time the way led them here. What would they do if the wargs returned? Or the wolves? What if a band of orcs found this sheltered valley in the White Mountains?
'They have always lived here,' he remembered Freya's words. 'They have lived here for generations, and they will continue to set the fields and help our people survive for generations to come. They are living the life most of our people are living: self-dependent, proud and stubborn. They will not yield to the dangers of the wild, ever. Life is harsh out here, but they can master it, with a little help from us every now and then.'
His eyes found Halad, and the lad beamed as he felt his attention. With a brief, acknowledging nod, Éomer finally shifted his gaze to Freya, who stood behind her brother, her hands on his shoulders, and the pain of rejection was still there, albeit distant and muted, already fading. They both had their duties waiting for them. He had taken vows to protect the people under his care and to avenge his father. He had only yet begun to fulfil them, and yet their fulfilment was what he lived for. With new determination, he inclined his head in a composed gesture of farewell, and from the expression of relief which was now spreading over Freya's face, he knew that he had been understood.
"Be well, Captain Elfhelm," Féonwar spoke into his silent observations. "Your unexpected arrival was a blessing for us, and yet I pray that your path will remain free of enemies for the next days. May Béma himself hold his protective hand over you and your men." The farmer's gaze travelled over the waiting riders, briefly pausing on Éomer before he bowed, and Elfhelm nodded his appreciation.
"I thank you, Féonwar. May he also hold it over you and your family." Turning to his men, he forced his bay stallion to the head of the éored and raised his voice: "Let's go, Rohirrim! They are awaiting us at Aldburg!"
Men and horses eager to move after their forced confinement, the éored thundered in a white cloud toward the end of the valley. Just before they entered the narrow mountain path which had brought them to the farm, Éomer cast a last look back at the five small shapes between the barn and the house who had filled his vow with meaning.