A/N: Written in response to 13 o'clock Erik's "Self Loathing", preceded by "Selfless" (by me) and "Selfish" (by 13 o'clock Erik). I tried to go with the "self" theme again, but nothing I came up with sounded right. :D Go read Erik's stuff, for it is epic and fully of delicious angst. Back to you, dear sir. :D
Warnings: Grima/Eowyn shippage, UST, cutting, unrealistic amounts of blood, angst.
Disclaimer: They belong to the great genius Tolkien. I just play with them.
Philosophers have said the soul, the very essence of man is in the blood – that character is determined by it, that whatever blood we carry marks us forever for what we are. I often think of this as I practice my swordplay, battling my brother and cousin - for often I slip and cut myself accidentally. Blood, thus, has always fascinated me. How better to know a man, to know myself, than through the blood that beats inside – a king's blood, a soldier's blood, a coward's blood?
And here before my eyes is blood, blood I have longed to understand – Gríma's. Worm's. Traitor's.
Gríma's blood spills over pages of parchment scattered on the floor, red ink blots in the midst of angry diatribes and passionate pleas. I stare, entranced; it is his life force flowing there in rivers, pooling on his papers, staining the stones. It burns fiercely, bright crimson beneath the glare of a flickering candle. How beautiful it is, I think, how terrible. It is startling in contrast to his pale white skin. My skin, too, is pale; my blood if spilled would look much the same. But I have never dared, as he has. Not like this.
I step closer, fascinated, and lay a hand on his shoulder. He jumps and turns to me, but I am not looking at him, not yet. Glass lies everywhere, a mirror shattered by his fists. I see the cuts, thick and deep, crisscrossing his hands. There will be scars, a network of them, hidden from view beneath the thick layers of his robes of office. Some other woman might come to know them someday, when he marries. If he marries. If he marries anyone but me.
I meet his gaze. His eyes are pale, but they shine in the dim light, his thin lips slightly parted as he looks me full in the face. He stares several long moments; not once does he blink.
Finally, I speak. "I'm sorry," I say.
He blinks at last. "You did not do this to me, my lady," he says, but there is something behind his eyes that suggests I did.
I swallow guilt. I am unkind to him; we all are. But surely such a man deserves to be treated for what he is – a traitor, a worm. Yet some have always treated him this way, rejecting him, mocking him, whispering ugly rumors about him in the dark corners of the great hall. Is this, somehow, my fault? I tremble at the thought.
Gríma intrudes on my reflection. "What does my lady require of me?" he asks.
The question is so strange, so ludicrous in the given situation that I laugh, a sharp bark of it, a startling sound in the quiet. "I did not come here because I required anything of you," I say. "I heard the noise and your cry, and I came."
He glances at his injured hands. "My lady's concern is touching."
I suspect he is being ironic but say nothing. I study his fingers, the backs of his hands – they bleed freely, cloaking his flesh in crimson. "You will need tending," I say, and turn away to fetch bandages.
"Don't." He reaches out and grabs my arm. My shift catches in his hand and slips off my shoulder. Traitorous garment. I turn to look at him and see him taking in my bared skin, and blush.
"Let go," I command. "I will return." When he does not release me, I say again, more forcefully, "I will return."
Reluctantly, his hand slides away from my arm, but still he stares, chest rising and falling with heavy breaths. There is a bloody handprint where his fingers were, staining the pure white of my shift. I shrug the shoulder of the gown back into place, my eyes darting between him and his wounds. "Bandages," I say to myself. "Water."
"I have both." His voice is dull, flat. Even his eyes look tired. "That way." He points towards a chest across the room. There hangs above it herbs of many types, drying. Behind, there are shelves of bottles – potions, salves, and the like. I hurry across the room to them, glancing behind me occasionally. His eyes follow me. I fling open the chest and rummage through it until I find what I require. On a table beside his bed there is a basin of water, perhaps for washing in the morning. I lift it cautiously and carry it over, treading lightly on the cold stone floor.
I hesitate before him, uncertain where to set the basin I hold. He sits on his knees below me, looking up. Slowly, reluctantly, I kneel before him – one concession I silently swear never to make again. I set down the basin, refusing to meet his gaze, and begin dipping the bandages in water to clear the excess blood. Still not looking into his face, I go about my task, wiping clean his skin. I note, even as I avoid his eyes, that he recoils from me, hunching his shoulders, as though he is trying to shrink. I realize then, for the first time since I entered, that he wears only his breeches and boots. The sight of blood had so captured me that I had not noticed before.
The smell of blood overwhelms me as it washes away to reveal his pale skin. His blood smells no different than my own – sharp, like metal. This surprises me, somehow – surely my blood smells of metal because swords and war are so great a part of me. Or does all blood smell the same, look the same? And if that be the case, then is it really the blood that makes us different? If the same blood flows in our veins, then what makes Gríma a traitor, and me a warrior? Is it something in the flesh, woven into the making of the body? It is certainly flesh that Gríma desires, that his hungry eyes devour whenever he looks at me.
The blood blossoms anew even as I clean each cut and hurriedly bandage it. I move to his second hand, wrapping it as gently as I can. "You will not be able to use your hands much," I tell him as I finish. "Not for a few days at the very least."
He looks startled and displeased. "But there are many things I shall need to do," he protests. "I have much writing – messages to send to Gondor, records to keep – "
"Let them alone," I say, too sharply. "Surely you can pass a few days at my uncle's side only, and not at your writing table? We have more need of good words in court than good words on a page."
"And who, I wonder, will keep record of what happens in court?" Gríma says angrily.
I look up at him finally, frowning. "Perhaps you should have thought of that before you smashed your mirror with your bare hands," I snap.
He flushes and looks down. His shoulders hunch again, and he draws back. I am struck by the gesture – like a frightened child, a boy embarrassed before a woman he does not know. I sit before him for a few moments, waiting for him to speak, but he ignores me, arms crossed over his stomach. I note other scars, a few on the back of his shoulders, some along his arms, some on his chest. And then I am curious about the bandages, the water. Did he anticipate these wounds? Does he cut himself like this often? What joy is there to be found in opening the flesh, in tearing the skin and seeing oneself bleed?
I do not ask. But I think I know.
I rise instead and go to another trunk, one that I suspect holds cloths. It is plain he does not wish me to see him so exposed. Within the trunk a second sable cloak is folded, quite new, or like it. I lift it from its place and bring it to him, draping it around his shoulders.
He looks up at me, startled. "My lady?"
"You are cold," I say.
He wraps it around him, holding it tightly closed as he tries to stand. I kneel to help him, but he pushes me away and stands himself. "I would appreciate it if you did not speak of this to your uncle," he says, his tone stiff, formal.
I make no promises. I say nothing.
He looks at me, and his eyes flicker all across my body – my face, my throat, my shoulders, lower. "You should go," he says, his voice hoarse. "You need rest."
"Does it help?" I ask.
He glances at me, caught off guard. "Does what help?"
I push back the cloak, or try to. He resists, tugging it back into place, but I pull it aside anyway, heedless. His breath catches in his throat, and I can feel his heart pounding beneath my fingertips as I reach out to touch a scar on his chest.
"Does it help," I ask, "To see the blood? To feel it?"
I let my hand drop, but I stare, transfixed, at the scar I touched. It so absorbs me that no other part of him matters – not his frail shoulders, his too-pale skin, the belly he is trying to hide even now. Here before my eyes is a physical manifestation of the scars he keeps within – scars not unlike my own. Do I inflict these on him, as he inflicts them on me? Did he have scars before me, scars whose origins I will never know?
"Yes," he rasps, reaching out to take my hand. The bandages are tight around his hands, a surprise against my wrist where I expected flesh. "Yes, my Lady, it helps."
He brings my hand up to touch the scar. My fingers brush it lightly, and he breathes heavily, pulling me into him. He leans forward to lay his head on my shoulder, pressing a kiss to my throat – and I jerk back, feeling my cheeks burn.
"No," I say flatly, stepping farther and farther away from him.
He looks at me, his eyes hazy and clouded. It is as though he sees not me, but some phantom, some dream creature who cannot exist. And then his gaze is frighteningly clear, and I know then that he does see me – sees, in fact, into my very core.
"One might wonder why it is that you continually find me in the dead of night like this, my Lady," he murmurs, a small grin flickering across his face. For an instant, there is confidence there, pride and assurance like that which he wears in the courtroom, where he dares others to judge him, to openly condemn him for what he is. No one ever does. Not even I, I who am a Shieldmaiden, I who proclaim to fight against him with every weapon available to him.
Not even I.
"Unhappy chance," I spit, backing towards the door. "You disturb my sleep."
"As you disturb mine," he replies.
I grit my teeth. "For quite different reasons," I say.
"So you would have me believe," he says. "But here we are."
He is right, of course. Here we are, and here we have been, and here, I fear, we will continue to be, until one of us breaks. And while I am strong, while there are few who fight as ferociously as me, somehow I think in this battle Gríma will prove the stronger. For it is not a battle with swords that we fight, but a battle of the heart, of spirit and passion and fierce, fierce will. My will is steel, but so is his.
"I'm leaving," I tell him, practically snarling.
"Then go," he sneers. "You have done your duty here." He bows mockingly to me. "Thank you, my Lady, for your tender ministrations. I hope it assuages whatever guilt it is that eats away at that heart of yours."
"If you ever had a heart, your guilt would have devoured you and sent you to your grave long ago!" I cry, and turn to flee. In fleeing, I step on the broken shards of glass. I feel sharp pain in my feet and gasp, grasping at the wall for support.
"Éowyn!" Gríma sounds startled, remorseful. I hear him approaching from behind me, sidestepping the glass. "Éowyn, here, let me help you."
"I do not need your help," I hiss. "I do not need you at all."
Stupidly I flee down the hall, limping heavily, and slam my door closed. There I collapse, fighting angry tears.
When I recover myself, I pause to study my feet. They are bleeding heavily. In one, a fragmented glass piece remains. I bend and maneuver it out, fighting with it, crying out occasionally when it proves difficult to remove. Outside I hear footsteps, and when I pause to glance behind me, there are shadows on the other side of the door. So Gríma is listening then. I grit my teeth and pull the piece out, finally.
I pull myself to my feet and walk across the room to a trunk. My clothes are folded inside. I drop to my knees and dig through until I find an old gown, one that I can spare for bandages. I tear it into long white strips, searching for a basin of water. Thankfully my waiting lady has left me some for the morning. I stand long enough to grasp it, then sit with it and clean my wounds, bandaging them tightly.
I wait for some time for the bleeding to stop, for the blood to harden and the healing to begin. I hold my knees to my chest and try not to think about Gríma, about the scars, about lifeblood and passion and what drives a man. I try to think of other things – of battle, swords, glorious deaths, the tales sung down through the ages in the Golden Hall. Useless; my thoughts drift, back to scars, both his and mine; back to lifeblood, to breath, to the needs of flesh; to backbone and strength and all that makes a man, a man.
I sit an hour, maybe two, maybe more. The bleeding stops, the minutes crawl, and still I sit sleepless, feeling the dull pain in my feet. Slowly even that fades, until all I feel is fear and emptiness and an all-consuming loneliness, the loneliness that makes me scream into the dark, that troubles my dreams and forces me to reach out to the only one reaching back.
I get up suddenly and cross the room, and find the shard of glass once trapped by my skin. I lift it in my hand and study it. It is stained with my dried blood. My reflection in it is distorted, hazy, clouded by rust red.
I take it, lift it to my heart, and cut.