Shadow and Hope
The stablehands of Meduseld sometimes refer to him as "my" horse. But as I stand outside the walls of Edoras and watch Shadowfax as he runs around in his paddock, I am reminded once again that he was never mine. Nor do I believe he was ever meant to be.
I know why they say such things; he is one of the Mearas and I am the heir to the throne of Rohan. It is expected that someday when I am the one to rule, he will allow me to ride him as I lead our people into battle. But I cannot help but think that this lord of horses could not deign to carry even a king of mere men. He is a second Felaróf, born to us again out of the old days, and I am not the only one to wonder that Snowmane could have foaled him.
But I am no second Eorl; I am nothing more than the last son of a failing line. Despite the full efforts of myself, my cousin, and Marshal Erkenbrand, we lose more ground against the orcs with every battle, and darkness encroaches from all sides. And now, we fear, from within as well. Every day, the King falls further into dotage, and even I, his son, can no longer reach him. He is trapped, as surely as the magnificent creature I see within the paddock, by the subtle words of his counselor Gríma. I am as powerless to pull him back from the shadows of his mind as I am to stem the tide of the orcs that invade our lands in ever-increasing numbers. Nor do I yet have the power to cast Gríma from the court; that power lies with the King alone.
I cannot help but wonder if even such a drastic action would come too late. In many ways, the damage has already been done—irreparably in some cases, I fear. Even if my father were to suddenly recover from the illness which holds him, too many delays have left the men of Rohan unable to keep all our borders secure. Whispered rumors begin to spread that Isengard works against us as well—a development which, if true, disturbs me far more deeply than the trouble we have increasingly had from the orcs of the Dark One in the East. While I do not wish more trouble on our ancient allies of Mundburg, all of Gondor lies between us and Mordor, but Isengard lies right on our border. We are already hard-pressed to defend the Gap; if Orthanc presses its hand against us, I know not how the Westfold will stand. Our defenses crumble a little more every day.
I can see my family crumbling under the pressure as well. I have no doubt of Éomer's loyalty, both to my father and to myself; his greatest ambition has ever been to see our land wiped clean from the pestilence of the orcs. And though his hatred of them runs as deeply as his father's, I have seen him learn in time to temper his rashness in fighting them. Even so, I cannot help but notice, however subtly it may be done, how Gríma ever seeks to cast suspicion upon Éomer's actions in battle as of late. The greater constraints on our time that the constant fighting demands now lessens our ability to consult each other on our courses of action, and though Gríma is wise enough not to make any blunt accusations against him, I fear that he is the source of my father's slowly-growing mistrust of his sister-son. Perhaps he seeks to cast me in an ill light in the King's eyes as well; I am home so little these days that it is hard to know all that is said behind closed doors.
As straining as trying to protect our people in place of—and sometimes in spite of—our King is on the two of us, in many ways the burden lies most deeply upon Éowyn. She never complains, at least not in my hearing, but I know that the daily life of her uncle's court is taking its toll on her. My heart grieves for my young cousin. Once the golden child of Meduseld and beloved by all within my father's household, her bright smiles come only infrequently now, if they come at all. It was she, left behind within the confines of the Golden Hall while her brother and I spent our days on the battlefield, who first alerted us to the possibility of the danger lurking within our own home, and I have no doubt it is she who puts forth the most effort to counter it. But it is a battle a young maiden was never meant to fight, and though I know she is strong, I wonder that she does not crack under the pressure.
As a family, as a people, we are caged, as surely as the white horse running vainly within the confines of his pen. I truly believe that, if he wished, Shadowfax would leave this city far behind for the freedom of the fields, and I know not why he stays, except perhaps out of loyalty. I do know that he was meant for more than the life he now leads, though. I wonder if the same is true of my people, if we were meant for more than to slowly be killed off and overrun by darkness.
As if he can read my thoughts—and perhaps he can—Shadowfax ceases his running and walks towards me. His coat gleams like the finest silver in the bright summer sunlight, and he regards me with wise, dark eyes. If he could speak the tongue of Men, I have no doubt he would have some word of wisdom or encouragement for me. As it is, he merely stands just out of reach.
Strangely enough, my thoughts begin to weigh less heavily on me as I look back. In him, I see a living embodiment of the legends of old, in which victory was often found against insurmountable odds. I see the strength of my people, forever tied to our land and especially our horses. And I know I will not fall into despair, though I am not one of the ancient heroes. Though his presence may be merely a reminder of the glory that once was, while such a creature walks the earth, I cannot believe that, as the old song says, the days have truly gone down in the West. While there is still strength in us, we will continue to fight for all we hold dear, whether it be only to make our end glorious or to preserve our lands and our way of life for those who come after. No, I will continue to hope for a brighter future—even if it is one I will not live to see.
Author's Notes: This story is set before the events of The Two Towers, not long before Gandalf escaped from Orthanc and came to Edoras, leaving with Shadowfax (September 3018). Théodred was killed at the Fords of Isen, 25 Feb 3019.
Eorl was the first King of Rohan, once their lands were granted to them by the Steward of Gondor, Cirion. Felaróf was his horse and the first of the Mearas. (RotK, Appendix A, part II) "Mundburg" is the Rohirric name for Minas Tirith, as given in TTT.
In the Unfinished Tales, in the "Battle of the Fords of Isen" chapter, Gríma's strategy for causing dissent within Théoden's court was largely trying to set Théodred and Éomer at odds with each other and with Théoden, and playing them off each other in Théoden's mind when this did not succeed.
The part with Éowyn being the first to pick up on Gríma's role in Théoden's decline is my own invention, taken from "Eyes Wide Open." In my storyline, this is also set after that story.