With detached incredulity she watched the dark stain spreading on her sleeve, seeping slowly, turning the dark brown wool almost black. She blinked, trying to clear her vision, found her eyes misted by tears, became more confused than ever. Why should she cry? There was nothing to cry for. Nothing mattered. She watched the stain make its leisurely way into the fabric of her sleeve, spiderwebbing up her arm. She knew it would stain. What did it matter if her gown was ruined? It was her own fault.
Looking around, time returned to the world, she hunted out a rag on the table; there were no servants in the king's chambers. Painstakingly, she mopped up the wooden table, tried to wring out the sleeve, but it was all ready too late. The gown would be ruined. What did it matter, really? It didn't. Why should she matter in the slightest?
She was too weary to be irritated with him, really. In resigned exasperation, flung the rag aside, the damage done and amended. If he was all ready spilling his wine, what chance was there she could cajole or force just a little more food into him? Sighing, she glanced at the trencher, barely touched. She could hardly fault him, when she had not the stomach for it, either. But she wished he would—could, she amended bitterly to herself—eat it, just the same. Her task was hard enough as it was.
There was no end in sight. Watch the sun rise, clinging feebly to false hopes that perhaps, perhaps, somehow, that today would be different, would be better than yesterday. Watch the sun set again, pretending she didn't feel the cold, pretending that it did not matter that her hopes had been futile. Hope was futile. It all came to naught. Living with fear, anxiety, was telling on her face, telling on her soul, which none could see, yet all did. She was no longer sure that she even possessed one, or if it had died stillborn within her. She felt the ache of it deep in her bones, did not need to hear it spoken. She had become very practiced in pretending, these last years.
There was no use in pretending that maybe tomorrow, or the morrow after, that there would be deliverance. Not for him, not for her. The poison had sunk deep, too deep to be sucked out, filling the bloodstream. The venom paralyzed the body in agony; a slow way to die. Fingering the haft of the well-made dirk at her waist—no mean farmer's knife, this—she wondered for a moment should she do it? A quick stab, a thrust, a slash well-placed, and it would be over. He was taking his time dying, falling slowly into an eldritch decay. Would it be kinder? To end it now, put an end to his suffering? It was an idle fancy. She knew she would never be able to kill him, the man who had become all her father had never been, had filled the emptiness in her soul where her mother had gone. She could not even kill this mean, shrunken shadow that held so little of the man she respected. The memory of Théoden King lived still in her, if the soul had gone utterly from this shrunken husk.
She was too weary even to be vexed with him for overturning the goblet. She knew he didn't mean it. She could hardly fault him for the palsy that gripped his body, the illness that aged him so fast. She at least had somewhat of a handle on her own mind, and he had almost none. She went through the motions, not really feeling anything, not heeding her own breathing. Nights came quickly on the plains in winter-time. Already, the sun had set, and she was overdue for her own evening meal... Not that she was actually hungry, not that she wished to take a place at the hall table, where there were so many eyes watching her, always watching. A pair of black eyes, unblinking, lingering over-long over her body, eyes bespeaking thoughts of filth. She could not endure the Worm's gaze, not tonight, not after today. Hope had fled from her. Some days she still found shards of optimism within herself to cling to; other days, she crafted a mask of blank paper, that did not betray her fear and doubt, not even to herself. I was harder to prove the lie to herself, alone in the chamber with him, a dim chamber rank with the staleness of infirmity. It was harder to tell herself that everything was all right, when she saw a proud back bent as if with a heavy burden, a back she was so used to seeing erect and straight as her uncle commanded drilling troops, lead a hunt, hunted her down wherever she had run away to. She choked on tears that shouldn't have been there, overcome by memories. In her unbridled adolescence, when a kindly old man had allowed her to yank the reins from authority's hands and take the bit between her teeth and just gallop, she hadn't had to be strong. Théoden had been her stone fortress, had been the bulwark that shielded her, and she had felt safe. Now the old defenses had crumbled, walls that had fore encompassed a country, and now were not even enough for a Keep. She must be his shield now, as his warrior's arms lost their strength, and she wasn't at all sure that she was strong enough.
It had all happened so fast. No one had thought to mark the danger-signs, none had though to check the rising unease. There were no explanations, now, no presidents to verify current crises. He'd been dying for years, now. The first illness had brought with it few tidings of fear; she couldn't remember how long ago that was now. It had been so sudden, with a slow recovery. Or so they had hoped. There had been little enough respite, yet. Now it was days bad or worse. There hadn't been a good one in a long while. His every breath was bedaubed with uncertainty, and the reek of poison. She did not see how they could not smell it. His blue eyes clouded and his tongue numbed beyond speech, he was nothing more than a shadow of himself. As she was becoming a shadow.
She held her peace, though it pained her. None would ever know the extent of the hemorrhage, the knife had plunged so deep and twisted cruelly in her flesh. It was so hard, to sit here and watch him falling to pieces before her eyes, to spoon him gruel like a babe and still he wasted away. All she could do was watch, stand by and do nothing. None else had thought to look closely enough, or perhaps they were clouded, also, and blinded by things they did not wish to hear. Times were hard. No one would welcome the death of the king.
The hard pressure of the knife-hilt against her hip was a constant reminder, a cold brand against her skin. It would be so easy. It would take no time. She blinked, and saw red blood streaming in a tepid river across her pale hands, staining her gown front further. She looked up through stinging eyes at the lined, ashen face of the old man bowed against the chair-frame before her. What difference did it make? He was dying—nay, he was dead, dead already, mind, body, soul, without the cold steel of her knife to aid him.
She dashed the back of one shaking hand across her eyes, to clear them, to pretend that she had not been weeping. To pretend that she had the strength to face the dawn.
From behind the not-quite closed doorway, there came the gentle, oh-so suave sound of soft leather and crushed velvet shushing against the stone cobbles. Éowyn held her breath, every line of her body suddenly tense and rigid. The soft, slithering footfalls paced the length of the doorway, once, twice... when her brain finally registered her lungs' frantic screams for respite, they moved languidly off, down the hall, receding though never gone.
Her breath rushed out in a stifled gasp, and she laid her head down on her arms upon the table top—it spun with far more than lack of oxygen. Her shoulders heaved with sobs. She was not pretending any longer. There was only one death she prayed for.