The Hours of Waiting
'You and I, we must endure with patience the hours of waiting.'
The first day
…he saw her, as she stood upon the walls, and she was clad all in white, and gleamed in the sun. And he called to her, and she came down, and they walked on the grass or sat under a green tree together, now in silence, now in speech.
He walked beside her, his hands clasped behind his back, accommodating his stride to hers, but without looking at her; his face was grave and quiet.
'There is no news, then?' she asked finally.
'No, none,' he answered, and then with sudden intensity, 'None, except that the sun is still shining, and the City is still standing, and there's a free wind blowing. That is good news for many who not long ago never expected to see another dawn.'
'Does it matter?' she asked dully. 'If not today, then tomorrow, or the next day…'
'It does matter,' he said, 'for though He may conquer, and His victory last beyond any day that we can foresee, and none be left to remember these things, yet they will have been, and that he cannot change. And the joy we have in them, we shall have had, and He cannot take it from us though he take all else.'
He fell silent again, but soon after paused in his walk, laying a hand lightly on her am.
'What is it, my lord?'
'Only a robin. There, in the apple-tree.' He stood very still, as if the thin sweet song was worth infinite attention. A moment later the song was interrupted, and with a brief fluttering of brown wings, the bird alighted on the grass a few yards away, and after a sidelong glance at the two of them, hopped to within a few inches of their feet. She looked from the tiny creature to the tall man, and saw that he was smiling with, she thought, the same impartial tenderness he had yesterday showed to her; then he moved his hand gently, and the robin, rather alerted than alarmed, flew off.
'We are friends, he and I,' he said, turning back to her, 'but it is as well for such as him not to learn too much trust in men.'
'A good lesson, my lord,' she said bitterly, 'and not only for your small birds!'
'Maybe,' he answered gravely, but his eyes held a glint of amusement that stung the colour into her cheeks. She turned away angrily.
'Do all the great warriors of Gondor spend their hours of leisure talking to the birds?' she asked, mocking him, but he answered with complete seriousness. 'Not many of them, perhaps. Though to my mind there are worse ways to pass the time. Do you only snare your birds, then, in Rohan?'
'Sometimes. I never thought that it mattered.'
'Snares matter. Snares and cages. Years ago, when I was a child, I knew a lady who kept a lark in a cage. One fine morning I climbed through her window and took the cage and set the lark free.'
She smiled in spite of herself. 'And did the lady find out?'
'I put the empty cage back in its place and crept away, but I confessed later when I overheard the lady scolding her maid for letting the bird go. I was sorry for the maid, but not for what I'd done.'
Larks and robins! She thought. Here he stands on the edge of the dark, talking nonsense about a robin's song and an empty cage … I hate cages … perhaps it does matter.
She heard her own voice saying, free from mockery this time, 'It was always the swifts I listened for, in Rohan, in the spring. And looked for them, in the empty sky, when the spring wind blew.'
'And so did I. I always watched for them returning here, over the city, in April, fearing every year that they might not come, but they always did. Sometimes, from the highest pinnacle of our tower, over there, you can see them flying beneath you. Sometimes, when the summer sky is so bright that it blinds you, you can't see them, but you can still hear their calls, so high you'd think they had flown up to the sun.'
'Perhaps they do fly to the sun,' she said with sudden vehemence. 'They are free to fly where they will, and never set foot to ground where they can be caged.'
'And yet every year they come back, faithfully, of their own free will,' he answered, and then, with infinite sadness, 'I'd like to think that … afterwards …there will still be swifts. Perhaps even a robin, somewhere.'
She did not answer. It was not until later that she realised that for a good hour she had been taken out of her own grief. When she did realise it, she felt angry, as if she had been cheated.
And each day after that they did likewise.
The second day
He was standing under the apple tree, examining one of the blossoms intently – like a gardener estimating the chances of a good crop, she thought, with a touch of scorn – but with more intensity. As if he had never seen a tree in blossom before, she thought; and then, with sudden chill understanding: it is not that he has never seen one before. It is that he never expects to see one again.
He looked up and smiled as she approached. 'A good flowering,' he said lightly. 'We can have cruel frosts, here under Mindolluin, but by the end of March we can usually account ourselves safe. I've known this tree all my life; he's a generous old soul, and I'm glad he has been able to give us the flowers one last time, if not the fruit.'
He sat on the bench beneath the gnarled and valiant old tree and motioned to her to sit beside him; she obeyed, though her first impulse had been to escape. Escape from what? From his courtesy? His gentleness and compassion? Rather from her own uncomfortable and growing conviction that he could see into her heart, see things that she would have died rather than reveal to any living man… He was sitting very still, his hands loosely clasped in his lap, not looking at her, not seeming to feel the need for further speech, and somewhere above their heads the robin was singing again, and she heard the beauty of the song, and saw the delicacy of the apple blossom with the delicate gold stamens at the heart of every tiny flower. How long was it since she had noticed such things? And why must he make her notice them now, when she was so set upon misery, and when the world was about to end, and nothing mattered any more? She sat and drew her misery around her, like a protective cloak, but she could not keep out the robin, or the apple tree, or his compassion, or the peace that was creeping treacherously into her heart. She wanted to go away and never see him again. She wanted to stay where she was, exactly like this, for ever.
A long time later he spoke again. 'I don't know your land well, lady Éowyn, though I know something of your people and their history. Is it very beautiful, your land?'
'Yes,' she answered, with more warmth than she had intended, 'it is very beautiful. Have you never seen it, then?'
'Only once, so long ago I can remember little of it, except that it was a land of grass. It's the scent of the grass I remember, and a wild horse-herd passing, belly deep in the grass; it must have been springtime, much as it is now.'
'Spring is a good time,' she exclaimed eagerly, unaware of her eagerness, caught up in memory, 'but not the best time of all. The best time of all is the beginning of winter, when the stallions drive the wild herds out of the desolate places to our homesteads in the Eastfold, where they can find food and shelter and yet not be under the hand of man. The wildness and the beauty and the freedom of them….'
She checked herself. This was the second time he had stirred the old longing for freedom, the old yearning for life in her heart, and it hurt bitterly, so that she felt she hated him for it. And yet the beauty of it was with her.
He did not answer, but she was aware that he had turned towards her; he held out a hand as it to clasp hers, then, as she flinched away, abruptly withdrew it, and although his face was as calm as ever she knew she had hurt him. It was frightening to be able to hurt one who had seemed so strong, untouchable by any word or feeling of hers, like … It was herself she hated. Yet a moment later, when she forced herself again to meet his eyes, she realised he was smiling. She could have screamed and hit him, or laughed and kissed him, but in the end did neither. It was harder than she had thought, to be ungentle with him.
'Having spent so little time in Rohan,' he said presently, as if there had been no dangerous stirring of feeling, 'I never had a chance to learn your speech. Will you teach me?'
Now she was merely puzzled. 'Teach you our tongue? When we have so little time?'
'There may be little time, but to my mind one thing that never wastes time is to learn, and in particular to learn words. To learn a new word for a thing is to see the thing in a new way. Almost to re-make it.'
'You talk like an old harper I once knew,' she answered unguardedly. 'He sang other men's songs, but also made his own. He said that every time he made a new song he made a new world.'
'And so he did. As for me, I never had a chance to play the harp, but I do have a great love of words.' He looked at her again, expectantly, and not knowing what else to do, she looked round her and began to name all she saw in her own tongue, and found herself laughing at his mistakes as he repeated the words and strove to remember the ever-lengthening list.
Presently he sat back and said, with simple satisfaction, 'Enough! I cannot re-make the whole city all in one day.'
'You remember well, but speak the words very badly,' she chided, and then, fearing to be thought discourteous, began to apologise, but he checked her with a smile. 'I'll try to improve, but even if I had a hundred years to practise them, they would never come as sweetly from my lips as from-'
She stiffened and he pulled himself up abruptly. There was an uncomfortable silence. He rose to his feet, saying, 'Well, the sun is high in the sky, and I have an appointment with Master Warden. Sit on here in peace, my Lady, and try not to think too hardly of me.' Before she could think of an answer, he had bowed to her and was gone.
The third day
And the Warden looking from his window was glad in heart, for his care was lightened…
'Hold the arm so, my lady, if you please… and so … does it pain you if I press here? And here? Ah, excellent. Already the bone begins to knit, as young bones will. A little patience, a little longer with the sling, and it will be as good as new.'
The Warden finished tying the bandage and sat back, his old face creasing into lines of contentment.
Does he not realise that we stand at the end of days and the end of all healing? she thought. Does he not know there is a world outside his little kingdom? And then, with remorse, But what good would it do if he laid aside his craft and despaired? At least there will have been a little less pain in the world, thanks to him.
The Warden had gathered his bandages and unguents together and was on his way out. At the door he turned suddenly and said, rather diffidently now that he was speaking outside the domain of his craft, 'My lady?'
'I think you have had some speech with the lord Faramir lately?'
'You know I have. What of it?'
'Only this, lady. Deal gently with him if you can. He has had grief and sorrow enough of late.'
'Why should my dealing matter to him?' she said harshly.
'If you cannot tell that, my Lady,' answered the Warden, the diffidence gone from his voice, 'then I think it is your eyes and ears I should be tending, not your arm. Good day to you,' and he bowed rather stiffly before going out.
She sat for some time, striving not to understand the Warden's words, and to put down the voice in her own heart which told her that she was not the only person in the world with an entitlement to sorrow. She resolved to keep to her chamber and not go out to him; if her dealings with him hurt him, let there be none!
A quarter of an hour later, scorning herself, she arose and went to find him.
He was sitting under the apple tree, his head bowed in his hands, in an attitude of such dejection that she was troubled, almost frightened, and would have drawn back unnoticed; but he heard her or sensed her presence, and instantly arose and bowed to her, smiling a little. Despite the smile, she saw that his face was pale and his eyes shadowed, and her heart stirred painfully with some feeling akin to pity.
'Are you in pain, sir?' she asked hesitantly, not knowing if he would take the words as an intrusion.
'In pain? Not really. Only anxious and weary, but I thank you for your concern. I can be but a poor companion to you today, but if you will sit with me here a little while, I should be glad.'
Obediently she sat down beside him, in a silence that was only deepened by the little sounds of wind and rustling leaves and bees and birdsong. She did not want to be where she was, but could think of nowhere she would rather be; she did not want to feel for him, or to have any power to either heal or hurt him; yet the pity she felt for him eased the burden of her own grief. Presently the robin came down from the tree, bright-eyed and boastful, and began a determined struggle with a worm.
The fourth day
…heavy as was the dread and foreboding of those days upon the hearts of men…
It was another bright morning, but the sky was as brittle as blue glass and there was a restlessness in the air. He was walking up and down the little lawn with quick impatient strides, his hands clasped behind his back, the fingers twisting as if he were locked in some inward debate; then suddenly he stood still, his head jerked back, and she knew that whatever doubt had been troubling him, he had resolved it.
He greeted her as courteously as ever, but his face was grim and stern. 'I am glad to see you, my lady, but there is something I must say to you that you will not wish to hear.'
She blenched. 'You have news from the East? The lord … my brother…?'
'No, no, nothing like that. There's no news, either good or bad. It is what must happen here that troubles me. I can't stay much longer in these Houses; there is too much to do.'
'So another prisoner of the Healers is intent on escape?' she asked, with a touch of irony. He smiled briefly in recognition of it.
'I take your meaning. Indeed it is easier to counsel patience to another than to espouse it oneself. If I seek escape now it's because my heart tells me that we have very little time to set this city in order before we begin its last defence, and that ordering is my task. I have promised the Warden to stay two more days because I need two days of quiet to make my plans. After that I must be gone.'
She felt a sick qualm that was nothing to do with the menace approaching the city; nothing to do even with the lack of news from the East, though she did not pause to realise that.
'And I? Must I remain here, when there is so much to be done?'
He looked very grave. 'Here? No. Éowyn, I said a moment ago that I had something to tell you that you would not want to hear. It is this. If the worst happens – if all our hopes prove vain – then this city will fall to the enemy. Our outer defences are in ruins, our gates shattered, our walls well-nigh breached. We long ago sent away most of those who could not fight; now it must be all of them. When the enemy comes, I'll have none here to face him but men who can fight, and are willing. For the others, we have secret refuges in the mountains. They may live and even be free, at least for a while. Need I say more? I am sending you away with them, as soon as it can be arranged. Maybe, afterwards, they will find some way to return you to your own people, if any are left.'
She turned on him furiously. 'Must I begin the old struggle over again? Is there no man alive who can understand that a woman can fight with as much courage and skill as any of you? And I – I am of Rohan, and you cannot command me. Here I am, and here I stay.'
His expression did not change. 'Lady, you were entrusted to the care of this city, and I am, or when I take up my office shall be, the highest authority in this city, and as such I can command you. Can't you see that what I am asking is the nobler part? It will be easier, much easier, to stay here and die in battle than to flee and live in hiding.'
'Then why are you staying yourself?' she cried. 'Why don't you run away? Why don't you all run away?'
He frowned, but answered calmly, 'Your question is a just one. I have two answers; one comes from the head, and the other from the heart. The first is that those who escape, and live, must carry with them a memory of the honour of Gondor; I cannot and will not ask them to live with the knowledge that we left this city empty and open to the enemy. The second is that I myself could not live with that knowledge, any more than I could leave a child in the path of an orc-raid. I have lived in and for this city all my life, and I shall die in it. And, Éowyn' – his voice softened a little – 'I should die the happier, if I knew you were safe.'
'Safe?' she echoed incredulously.
'Say rather, if you wish, alive to carry on the fight, if it can be done.'
His face was still calm, but she heard the strain in his voice and despite herself, her anger dropped.
'Once, not long ago' she said quietly, 'a woman of Rohan named Éowyn looked around the prison house of her life, and despaired. But she summoned one who was closer to her than a brother, a lad named Dernhelm, and with his help she escaped the prison house and went free. Now you may tell yourself, if you wish, that the lady Éowyn has returned to her prison and will die in it; but Dernhelm will stay with you and fight at your side, and perhaps someone in the dark years of that are to come will make a song of our last fight, to bring a little comfort in the darkness.'
Their eyes met, grey steel clashing with steel in the brittle light. Then suddenly he laughed, and reached out and set his hands on her shoulders, and said, 'Very well. Such courage cannot be denied. Dernhelm shall stay and fight at my side, and the lady Éowyn shall keep her freedom.'
'That will do very well indeed,' she said, smiling back at him. 'Since Dernhelm and Faramir have but two sound arms between them, they will do better together than apart.'
Éowyn, I would not have this world end now, nor lose so soon what I have found.
The fifth day
…and a great wind rose and blew…
The wind had stripped the petals from the apple tree, but the tiny knobs of the fruit were visible among the leaves.
There were two robins in the garden now. One sat in the tree and sang, while the other gathered twigs and dry grass, and set about building a nest.
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