An Empty Saddle to Fill
Bright does Eorl's hair flow in the wind of his passing, and more white than the foam of the river is the mane of Felaróf, the great sire of the Mearas that he rides.
This, I see more clear than aught else. Save for one, uncertain shaft of light that pools upon the woven cloth, the halls of my fathers' is dark, for here the sun founders in winter's bitter waters. Here, in these dimmed days, treachery whispers behind tall pillars and the unseen blade glitters in the depths of the shadows. Even now, though I sit before the brightly burning hearth, I feel their prick brush o'er the fine hairs of my skin.
Had I my wish, I would ride even now upon the fields of the Westfold, where my foes' words do not worm their way into my father's heart. There, truth is a spear that flies as if upon wings of a fell bird riding the swell of the wind. There, death rides forth undaunted, though it be laid bare by the sun for all to see as will.
But, a son of Eorl am I, no less than those who lie in the long lines of the barrows beyond the gates of Edoras. I shall not abandon them. There my bones shall one day lie. But not yet. Keen is the edge of my knife and sharp is the song the steel sings for me as I skim the stone along its length. Oh, no, not yet is mine the silence beneath the simbelmynë. And ware to he who might wish to claim it for me before my time.
Footsteps, though they come softly, lift my eyes from hearth and blade, for I know those feet. Their slip of leather upon stone cries out no warning, but brings a smile to my lips. Since before she came to call this hall her home, I have heard her step.
"Éowyn," say I, rising, my welcome in my voice. Her eyes shine in answering warmth.
Fair is she, young and supple as a green reed, with hair that catches the hearth's flame. She lifts a hand that would press mine in greeting and, for a moment, I long to feel the softness that is my sister's embrace. I step to meet her, a smile greeting her in return. I have been long upon the far borders of our land and there is little in Rohan that is fairer than her face. Any man's heart would be lightened by the look of gladness she turns to me.
And yet, when our fingers touch, I lunge and grab her wrist, spinning her into a hard embrace that would bring her close to the knife I yet hold. Or so I had intended, but soon the blade is twisted against my thumb and out of my grip. My foot smarts where she had brought her heel down upon it and my jaw tingles with the shock of her elbow. And still she moves, pulling my wrist past where once I had thought to place it. Swiftly, I am overbalanced and wince at the fine, bright edge of steel that speeds toward my throat. The jolt of my hand at her fist stills the blade but inches from skin.
I clutch at her and find her eyes upon me. I know not which chills my heart more, the keenness of the knife that, in a moment more, could have taken my life, or the coolness of the gray eyes that consider that possibility. My heart pounds and I gasp, breath stolen by my surprise and the sudden goad of fear. I had not thought to find the blade of the assassin in my fair cousin's hands. But, then, she smiles with something near to satisfaction, well pleased with having stolen my own knife from me and, this once, turned the master into the apprentice.
"I see you have not forgotten your lessons," say I and release her hand.
"Nor you your teachings."
I smile. A good thing, that, else I would bear the marks of her strike. I have turned from her and return to the task that I abandoned. "How fares my father?" I say
She will not answer, her smile falling from her face.
"When are you away?" says she, the ice in her voice more keen that the edge of the knife that she lays upon the table between us. If she had missed with one blade, her words bite true to her mark. Woman's heart in a knight of the Riddermark's form, yet she is a daughter of kings and must find the courage to face the darkness of the bitterest watches of the night alone.
"Eowyn," say I gently, but even then am too late. For her eyes fall shadowed and still, a cold anger that pierces even I, though I am not the man who must face their full force. I do not need to turn to see the sway of black, heavy robes and the pale face that hovers near. I feel it in the rising of fine hairs.
"Your King would bid you attend him, my lady," says he, his voice as cream and honey.
How still he stands. How carefully he refrains from touching his lord's sister-daughter with naught save his eyes. He has bowed and his smooth hands have lifted before him, a hair's breadth from touching her sleeve.
"I come," says she with the barest of courtesy, for she would dismiss him and order her own going.
Yet still he waits. How could those eyes not peer at her from dark slits beneath those heavy lids? How could that tongue not be forked and slip from between those thin lips to taste the air for her fear? For mine.
His shadow falls upon her. "Your King awaits," says he and gestures before him.
She stiffens, her glance as harsh as the winds from the frozen North of our forefathers. Should I do as the sudden flames within me bid, I would twine the heavy chain that wreaths his shoulder about his neck and with it lift the King's counsellor from the floor. Too oft of late has he spoken in my father's voice. But the hand I raise falls upon my cousin's arm, drifting to her wrist so that I may pull her close.
"Go to my father," say I and brush her cheek with my lips, a brother's kiss, poor payment though it be for her pride. "Shall we speak later?"
She nods, her eyes the quieter for having seen what lie in mine. Though its fruit is as yet unripe, still the harvest will come in our time, fair one.
"Westu Théodred hál," says she and presses her cheek briefly to mine, clasping my fingers as she does so before letting go.
She turns without a glance for the pale man who, had he the power, would have her caress him and no other. As she moves from me, the fire touches her head of flaxen hair as a flickering crown.
Stand strong, fair cousin. Stand strong for the day the sons of Eorl may walk the Mark no longer.
"With your leave," says he and I look upon him to find he has bowed low, his gaze demurely cast down, the very picture of abject submission. And yet, his dark eyes glitter beneath those leaden lids as he follows the Lady of Rohan's progress. His show of humility sours my tongue and it is only the bright shadow of Eorl that looms over his shoulder that tempers my words.
"Gríma," say I and no more, for I trust myself no further. This proves sufficient, if aught was indeed required. Though his dark robes brush the floor as he shadows my cousin's steps, still I remain standing, watching.
Would you strike from the shadows and then slither your way into the house of Eorl's bed, beget a new line of barrows beyond our walls? Yet still the seed of our fathers' house shall outlive you. Have you not eyes that can see? Tall she stands, her back as straight, her arms that gentle my father into his sleep as hale, and her mind as keen as the blade that hangs from my hip.
Dost thou desire my fair cousin, King's counsellor? Then, I say, lay easy thy wedding night, oh weaver of words, for, even should thee send the sons of Eorl to the halls of our honored dead, from my very grave shall mine hand spring the fair trap of bright, sharpened steel that awaits thee in thy bed.