Thistle and Thorn
But Éomer said: "Where is the Lady Éowyn, my sister; for surely she should be lying beside the king, and in no less honour? Where have they bestowed her?"
And Imrahil said: "But the Lady Éowyn was yet living when they bore her hither. Did you not know?"
Then hope unlooked for came so suddenly to Éomer's heart, and with it the bite of care and fear renewed, that he said no more, but turned and went swiftly from the hall; and the Prince followed him.
quoted from: The Houses of Healing; The Return of the King; Book Five by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Minas Tirith, 17th March, 3019, Third Age
"Fréa, watch your back!" Her voice shrilled over the din of the battle, yet Fréalaf, Squire of the Prince, did not heed it, his attention focussed on the Dunlending trying to assail Prince Théodred from the left. Being engaged in fierce combat with three more attackers, the prince had not noticed the danger yet and but for his squire's alertness the Hillman might have succeeded.
Steel clanked, as their swords met, Fréalaf bending low on his horse to intercept the Dunlending's blow. Sweeping his own blade up, the Rider caught his opponent right under the chin, slashing throat and jaw in one strike, just as at his master's command the prince's charger reared, thrashing hooves crushing down on the other Hillman's head and shoulders, leaving but a pulp of mangled flesh and facial bones.
Taking on one of the two remaining foes that still assaulted the prince, Fréalaf wedged his horse between the Dunlending and Théodred, thus shielding his lord. He was bringing his sword down in a mighty thrust, aiming at the vulnerable space just below the visor, when the gelding's hind legs gave way, the sinews of one being slashed by a cruel blade.
Pulling his feet out of the stirrups and flinging himself off, out of the reach of the convulsing body, was a movement often trained, but just as Fréalaf was trying to gain his feet again, the axe came down on his back, splitting cuirass and bones in a vile thud.
Unable to move, she stood and watched, her view obscured by shrouds of thickening mist, as Théodred reined his destrier in, to come to his squire's aid, but his movements were strangely decelerated, and even before the whole scene faded into grey before her helpless eyes she knew he would be too late.
And then there was only Fréalaf's dead body, lying face down on the cold and empty plain, fog swirling about him, blood oozing from the gaping wound, pooling around his lifeless form, rising like some terrible tide, covering the plain to the horizon.
"Fréa!" With a sobbing cry she tried to move, to reach him, pull him close, but she as well seemed to be caught in the eerie heaviness. That eerie heaviness, muffling every sound and reducing her pace to that of a swimmer, fighting against a strong current. She stumbled, and sinking to her knees, her outstretched hands sank wrist-deep in the blood.
Out of the mist, a black shadow congealed, crowned yet faceless, looming before her, a deadly mace in its hands, fear streaming from it like liquid ice, choking her with deadly dread, slowing her heartbeat and causing her blood to freeze. Then, as she felt she would crumple, unable to bear the threatening menace any longer, the terrible form stooped before her, a piercing cry flying from the invisible mouth.
"Éowyn, Éowyn!" The Halfling's voice cut through her numbness and with a last desperate gathering of her strength she thrust her sword into the gap between hauberk and crown.
The shriek of a female voice brought her to her senses, her gaze catching sight of a young woman in plain grey garb, crouched against a whitewashed wall, an upturned serving tray at her feet amidst some broken crockery and the spilled contents.
"There, my lady, steady." Another woman's voice caught her attention, an even, low-pitched voice, seeming somehow familiar, and turning her head, she noticed a middle-aged woman in the same grey raiment beside her bed.
Her bed? Why was she in bed? What had happened to her? What was wrong with her left arm? Sitting up, she looked about and only then did it dawn on her: Mundburg... the battle on the Pelennor...Théoden King falling…and the evil shadow of the dwimmerlaik coming down out of the sky to devour him.
She shuddered, clutching herself with her uninjured arm, puzzled at the lasting numbness.
"Are you awake, my lady? Do you hear me?" The elder of the two women came closer, intelligent light-brown eyes perusing her face realised she knew the woman. She had been one of the healers who had set her arm… Mareth, she was, senior healer Mareth.
"Yes," Éowyn confirmed, her voice hoarse, "Yes, I am awake now. What happened?"
Helping the younger woman up, the healer just shrugged. "You apparently had a nightmare of some kind and mistook Anwen for something dangerous."
Frowning Éowyn eyed the slim figure that now started to clean up the shards and the spilled food: a girl rather than a woman, certainly not older that sixteen at the most. The veil covering her head, that all female healers wore, had come askew, revealing dark hair, combed back from the delicate face, dominated by large light-grey eyes. Noticing her gaze, the girl blushed. "I wanted to bring you some breakfast, my lady, and I hadn't realized you were in a dream, when I bent over you."
Appraising the distance between her bed and the spot the girl had been crouching, Éowyn addressed her, trying to hide her embarrassment and solicitude under a mask of cool politeness: "I assure you I did not intend to disconcert you. I dreamt of…being attacked. Did I hurt you?"
The young healer shook her head. "No, you just pushed me away."
With a low chuckle, the elder healer rearranged the girl's veil. "Some learn it the hard way. I told you, Dear: Never approach, let alone touch a patient before addressing him first. There are healers who have suffered worse. Anwen, you were lucky, just imagine it had been Grimboern."
The girl blushed profoundly and made to leave the room to discard the mess, only to be stopped by Mareth's low voice. "When you've finished, go and fetch a new breakfast tray from the kitchens."
"No," Éowyn interrupted, "I don't feel hungry. I will tell you if I want any breakfast." She was not letting these healers force anything on her, be it only food.
"Very well then, my lady." Mareth seemed not to be impressed at all by her rebuke. "We'll leave some tea though, just in case you should want to slake your thirst later. Just turn a little to the right now, will you, and let me straighten your sheets."
"I'll get up," Éowyn retorted haughtily. She was no cripple, nobody would keep her in bed.
Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, she sat up, clutching the sheets as the sudden dizziness assaulted her. Trying hard not to gag, she forced herself to keep her eyes open, sensing the healer's scrutinizing gaze. After a while the faintness passed, leaving her covered in cold sweat. With a mixture of embarrassment and fury she realised that she needed to pass water.
She was not going to use the chamberpot in front of these Gondoreans like some invalid!
"Do you feel able to stand?" Mareth's sceptical tone was the last straw. Feet slightly apart, clenching her uninjured fist, her eyes blazing, Éowyn rose.
Totally unimpressed by her glare, the healer nodded and went over to open the window. "Some fresh air will do you good."
That level voice! Éowyn felt like kicking the woman. She nevertheless welcomed the draught of air coming in through the window, speaking of cool, untouched freshness.
"I suppose you might wish to relieve yourself." The healer did not even bother to turn towards her, thus clarifying the humiliating aspect as what it was: natural and inevitable.
Carefully masking her fury, Éowyn nodded and stepped towards the screened off area of the room that she remembered held a washstand and chamberpot. The healer approached as well, uncovering the commode for her. For a short moment their eyes met. "You tell me what kind of help you need, my lady."
"None," Éowyn snarled, pushing herself past the healer.
"Very well then, I'll just go to fetch some sheets to freshen your bed." Her face not giving away anything, Mareth bobbed her head to Éowyn and left the room.
Making use of the moment of privacy given to her, Éowyn struggled to gather the folds of the voluminous nightgown, swearing under her breath at the limited use of her hands. Her broken arm throbbed dully, though not in the hot and prodding way that would indicate an infection, and anyway, she would rather break her arm again than admit the pain she felt. She was more concerned about that numbness in her right arm, though the healers had assured her, that would lessen, given the due time and regular exercise. But the thing that really brought her to the point of jumping out of her skin was the dratted weakness that caused her to depend on help.
Having finished her morning ablutions and being tucked in with fresh sheets, Éowyn could but admit to herself that she was glad to be back in bed, as she felt weak and wobbly like never before in her life. She was grateful to finally be left alone, and facing the ever brightening square of the window, that the healer had left open at her request, she let her mind drift.
How long had it been since she last had dreamt of Fréalaf's death? She sighed, trying to bury deeper into her pillow. She had thought of him more than once in those joyless years at Meduseld, watching over her uncle's faltering steps, desperately trying to hold Wormtongue's influence over him at bay, but the nightmare of his death had never occurred at that time. Her nights had been bleak, her dreams haunted by Gríma's whispers, his pale face with those clever, heavy-lidded eyes, his clammy hands groping for her. Those had been the years when she had bolted her room door and her heart, closing out all but her brother and Théodred.
She frowned. Those long years of servitude to a king and a country she once had loved and admired, years in which she saw the strength and pride of both crumple, until there was nothing but a pale shade of what she had once felt in her heart, leaving her soul barren and empty, frozen over like the black tarns at the foot of the mountains.
How she missed him! Fréalaf "Freckles", her childhood friend, her comrade and ally against her often high-handed and over-protective brother, Théodred's squire after Éomer had found out years later, that the young Rider was sweet on his sister. He would have drowned him in the trough in the stable yard but for Théodred's intervention.
Dear Théodred, who had understood her like nobody else, her friend, protector, substitute father. A great warrior, heir to the throne, sixteen years her elder, and yet he had always had an open ear for a little girl's sorrows. She swallowed hard, feeling her eyes burn with unshed tears.
Her protector he had remained till his death at the Fords. He had taken her and Fréalaf's part against both his father and her brother, moving the lad out of Éomer's reach by taking him into service as his squire in the Westfold. Her Fréa … eighteen years he had been when he had fallen, defending his Lord in an ambush, seven years ago. It had been Théodred who had brought her the ill news himself, causing her to plummet into an abyss of despair. For weeks she had dreamt of Fréalaf's death and only slowly she had been able to find her way back to life. Seven years ago now, but it seemed like an age.
Éomer had never forgiven himself for his violent temper and jealous protectiveness that had been the reason for Fréalaf leaving Edoras in the first place, though she never had blamed him for Fréa's death. Death was a Rider's risk, a fate that could have befallen him anywhere, be it in the Westfold or in the Eastemnet of the Mark, and she had told her brother so. She was not sure if she had managed to convince him, but their closeness had increased considerably afterwards. Strange, how loss caused them to stick together, to cling at one another, finding the strength to go on...
How many days had passed since Théoden had been crushed to death by his own charger on the fields of the Pelennor? She remembered waking up, her brother holding her hand, but how much time had passed since then? She had been drifting in and out of drug-hazed sleep, confusing her sense of time, but there must have passed at least one more day. She recalled the healers treating her arm, washing her, the helpless fury at being weak and immobile, the keen and anxious face of Elfhelm, who had come to see her, and Éomer's hardly contained wrath at finding the Marshal at her side. And after he had summoned Elfhelm to follow him outside she had heard his angry voice behind the door, accusing him of letting her ride with his Éored.
She sighed and shifted, trying to find a more comfortable way to place her splinted arm. Éomer loved her, but he was Éomund's son and sported his father's hot temper. And now her big overbearing brother was King of the Riddermark...
She must have dozed off, because she only noticed the elderly healer when she had already entered the room, carrying a serving tray.
"Good morning to you, my lady. Well, isn't it a nice morning after all those gloomy days?"
The plump little woman walked over to the bedside table and put the tray down, her stream of words never ceasing as she did so. "I always say to myself, there is nothing but a nice morning and surely some nice breakfast to go with it. So, here you are, my lady. Mareth told me when leaving after her shift that you have not broken your fast yet, so certainly it would not do to leave you waiting any longer. I would have come earlier, but you see, there is so much to do ..."
"Well, Mistress Healer, if there is, why don't you just go and do the things that need to be done?" Éowyn's tone was icy, as she needed all her self-command not to strangle that annoying woman. "And take that tray with you. I do not remember having ordered any breakfast."
The cold rebuff left the woman speechless for a moment. Gaping at Éowyn, she finally shook her head, obviously not believing what she had heard. "But my lady, you need to eat to get back your strength. It took the Lord Aragorn such a pain to get you back to life, now don't you spoil all his efforts by being stubborn."
Clucking her tongue, the healer motioned to the tray. "Look, I've brought you a nice slice of buttered bread, fresh from the oven, and there's some stewed fruit, all of it easy to digest, just you give it a try... "
"I said, no," Éowyn cut in on her, hardly able to control her voice anymore. "Leave the room. Now!"
"But my lady, ..."
Béma, was there nothing to stop that mouth! Éowyn wondered if kicking her would be of any avail, when a low growl from the direction of the door startled her and the healer alike.
"No buts. Leave, woman. I think my sister has made her demands clear to you."
Swivelling round, the healer stared at the man who had entered unnoticed and then hurriedly dropped into an awkward curtsy. "I'm sorry, my lord, I did not intend ..."
Raising one of his eyebrows, Éomer, King of Rohan, stepped aside and wordlessly jerked his head towards the open door. Blushing furiously, the healer shot past him, and he swiftly closed the door. Turning round, he gave his sister an impish grin.
"I've always wanted to save some beautiful maiden from the clutch of a dragon. Though that one is obviously spouting words instead of fire."
Chuckling he drew the single chair in the room close to her bedside and sat down. "How are you today, Wyn?"
She growled. Why did he always sport that overbearing and patronising attitude when dealing with her? She was no whimpering maiden needing rescue, though his way of dealing with that crone had been quite impressive. Sitting up straight, she glared at him, but before she could say anything, he had fetched the pillow and pushed it up behind her back.
It was downright ridiculous, how happy she felt at the sight of her brother. She forced her face into a scowl. "Stop fussing, you big oaf. I'm no invalid."
He cocked his head, giving her a pensive look. "Certainly not, but if I were in your position, I might have a bit of a problem, plumping up my pillow with just one hand."
Leaning back in the wicker chair, causing it to creak under his weight, he gave her one of his typical lazy smiles. "Ah, Wyn, it's so good to know you are alive and kicking, even if those kicks are aimed at me."
She could not help a corresponding grin, and for a while the siblings sat in silence, content with each other's company. The fine white linen shirt and the blue velvet tunic looked strange on him, but then: The Rohirrim had not burdened themselves with luxuries like a change of clothes, so certainly he had got the garment from one of the nobles of the town. A short glance told her that his breeches were new too; just his riding boots were the same, the ones he had worn when they had set off for Mundburg, a sennight ago.
Yet she could not resist the urge to tease him. "I see they provided some proper clothing for you. Did they endow you with a nightgown as well ?"
"A what?" His eyebrows shot up to his hairline.
She plucked at the sleeve of the garment she was wearing. "A nightgown. These Gondoreans seem to be afraid of any glimpse of bare skin and stuffed me into this for propriety's sake, though it was more than difficult with this splinted arm."
"That I can well imagine." He grinned. "And no, they didn't give me a nightshirt. But they provided me with a velvet "lounging robe", whatever they mean by that."
Éomer lifted his arm, looking sceptical at the embroidered cuffs. "This was the plainest shirt Erchirion could give me to wear, as all the more sturdy garments will be distributed to the Riders."
"Imrahil's second son. Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth that is." Seeing that this information was no help, he added: "He's the one who realised you were still alive and sent for help. Seems to be the sole Gondorean Lord who knows at least something about horses. As far as I understand he's got Gondor's only cavalry unit."
The one who had forestalled her death... That was no topic she wanted to discuss. She turned her head, avoiding his eyes. "So you are staying with him now, I guess."
Stretching his long legs, he nodded. "Yes, at his town house in the sixth circle, not far from here. All in all things are very well organized. All the lightly wounded are put up in houses in the city… There must have been quite a lot of empty buildings, and the horses are tethered further south-west on the Pelennor, where the ground is almost unspoilt. Most of our Riders put up their tents down there. Well, yesterday I stayed over at the Rohirric camp as well, but as Erchirion wanted to show me the public baths this morning, it was very convenient to stay in the city last night."
She scanned his still moist hair. It was not braided the way he normally wore it in combat, but fell in rich barley-coloured waves past his shoulders. The same colour as Théodred's. Had Théoden King's hair been like that in his youth? She only remembered her uncle white-haired and bearded. She sighed unintentionally. There were so many things from her childhood she remembered so little about. The image of her father had coagulated into a remembrance of strength, a rich voice, resonant and low, a tall, looming figure in mail, warrior braids that light-coloured that they seemed nearly silver… She had her father's hair colour, her mother's being much darker, shining in the colour of ripe hazelnuts when it had not yet been bleached by the burning summer-sun of the plains.
"Wool-gathering?" Éomer's voice was soft, and with a pang she realized how much alike to their father's it was… Their father's in those rare moments at Aldburg, sitting with them at the table, quiet and relaxed, smiling at his wife and children… Those rare moments, when her mother's face had seemed to glow with happiness from within. Only years later Éowyn had understood the sudden flush that had crept into Théodwyn's face at her husband whispering into her ear, their hands intertwining as they left for their bedroom.
"Éowyn, sister?" She looked up into her brother's worried face. His left cheekbone sported a bruise that went well up to the bridge of his nose. Probably hit by the edge of a shield across the vizor, she deduced automatically. Quite a lucky dog, her big brother, just some inches lower and a blow like that might have cost him some teeth if nothing worse.
"It's nothing," she answered evasively, "I just pondered on the fact that none of us has mother's hair colour." She was not sure whether he would believe her, but to her relief he readily took up the topic.
"Well, I think mother got her tawny hair through Grandmother. Morwen's other daughters had even darker hair; at least that's what they say."
Éowyn snorted. "She was in quite a hurry to leave the Mark after Thengel King's death."
"Don't be unfair, Wyn. Two of her daughters were married in Gondor, and in the first place, she never married the King of the Mark but a Horselord in the service of Gondor. Thengel had to be convinced to come back after Fengel's death, and but for the persistence of his mother he might well have stayed in Gondor in the first place."
"Ah well, you may be right." She was in no mood to quarrel with Éomer, and perhaps as far as duty towards set tasks and one's people went, she did not have such a confident standing, she thought with a wry smile. "You wanted to tell me about the baths, didn't you?"
Cocking one eyebrow, he gave her a suspicious look, but nevertheless eagerly complied. "It was really worth going there. You see, from what Erchirion told me I expected something like the sweat lodges they have in the Wold… "
He shrugged. "Well, as a matter of fact I was totally gobsmacked when we entered, and I'm bloody sure that's what that silly ass wanted to achieve."
Éowyn could not help a grin. "I see, mighty impressive for the northern barbarian those baths, were they?"
Grinning back, Éomer nodded. "To be sure. All marble and mosaic, large lofty rooms… not bad at all. We had to strip and get scrubbed down first, before entering the actual bathing and sweating area, and all with perfumed soaps and pristine towels ..."
"And some buxom wenches to assist with the scrubbing, I bet." Displaying her most innocent face, she looked at her brother, but to her regret he did not swallow the bait.
"No, I'm afraid no wenches. But even without them it was splendid. Just imagine: polished wood, warm stone-benches to stretch out on, artificial waterfalls spouting ice-cold water, what bliss after a turn in the sweating room."
Her heart warmed at his boyish grin and the obvious pleasure over the baths, the plain joy of cleanliness and a glimpse of luxury after days in the saddle and the gore, grime and stench of battle.
"They even have a pool, Wyn. Indoors." He shook his head, as if he still could not believe it. "Imagine: A pool with crystal-clear water, deep enough to swim in it, filling a wide hall." Stretching his arms over his head, he bent backwards till his joints cracked.
"I've arranged for our Riders to get a turn. They will keep the staff at the baths occupied for a while."
He chuckled. "At least the baths is one thing to give Gondor credit for. You should go too, as soon as your arm is mended."
Éowyn snorted. "Sure, Brother. I bet you, our Riders will be mightily pleased if I share the pool with them!"
"No, I didn't mean that." In vain he tried to hide his grin. "There are also baths for women only. Though I don't know if they have a pool too, as there seem to be a lot of…ah well…facilities Gondorean women use to enhance their beauty."
The way he stressed the words made it more than plain to Éowyn what her brother thought about said enhancement. Her curiosity stirred, she asked: "Pray, tell me, Brother: What do they do?"
Éomer grimaced. "They remove the hair from their armpits and legs."
"What?" Sure he was pulling her leg! "You mean they shave…their legs?"
"No, they put some mixture of beeswax and I don't know what on the skin and rip the hair out." Éomer tried to keep his face impassive, but she sensed how much he enjoyed teasing her.
"You're kidding, Éomer! And anyway: How do you know?" Trust her brother to be one day in town and to know all details about the local women's legs!
"I'm not, I swear! Erchirion told me there are maids in the women's baths who assist with applying the stuff and ripping it off."
"But that's painful!" Just the thought of said treatment made her cringe.
"I bet it is! But Erchirion said, that that's nothing compared to what the women of Harad do." Now the smirk in Éomer's face was obvious.
"And what would that be?" The moment she asked, she knew she would regret it, "mischief" being written in bold letters across Éomer's face.
"Ah well, they remove all their body hair." He leaned back in the chair, letting the news sink in.
"You mean: Rip it off with beeswax?" Éowyn was stunned.
Her brother shrugged. "Obviously their men like it that way, and not only they. Erchirion told me there had been some whores from Harad in the lower circles of the city, and they had been quite frequented."
Éowyn rolled her eyes. Béma's horse! Men's talk in the baths! Did they have nothing else on their minds? And to say that women gossiped!
Just when she was about to scowl at him, she perceived the seriousness in his eyes, contradicting his displayed mirth. With a pang she realised he was trying to distract her, make her laugh like he had done when she had been ill as a child, just the topic being slightly different. She decided to go along with his effort, and seeing the snug expression on Éomer's face, decided to pay him back in his own coin. "Well, perhaps your Riders would be more pleased if you took them there, instead to the baths."
Éomer guffawed. "I'm afraid there is no chance of doing so, as the brothel has been closed down. As a matter of fact, there are but few whores in town, and there have already been brawls and alley fights amongst the soldiers in the lower circles. It would be better if there were none at all instead of so few." He shrugged. "As it is there are only those who refused the Steward's orders to leave."
Seeing the incomprehension in his sister's eyes, he explained: "All the women and children were evacuated well before the siege began. Say what you will about Denethor, as a strategist he was worth his salt."
"Was?" She was not sure if he really had intended to phrase it like that.
Éomer scratched his jawline. "He died, actually killed himself, and as his only surviving son is seriously wounded, it's Prince Imrahil who governs the city at the moment ."
"Imrahil?" She found it difficult to control the pitch of her voice. "And what about the Lord Aragorn? He claimed to be Isildur's heir at the gates of Edoras."
Turning his face, her brother avoided her gaze. "He certainly is, Sister. But he deems the time unripe, as we still are in the middle of war and he does not want strife except with the Dark Lord. Therefore he has not entered the city yet, save for treating the sick."
Treating the sick … how she hated being counted among them!
Éomer cleared his throat. "Wyn, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to stir...things..."
She shook her head. "Just forget it, brother. Things are as they are, and problems won't go away if we give them a wide berth. But I think now is not the time to talk about the past; it's the present we have to deal with. Tell me, Éomer, how many casualties do we have?"
For a short moment Éomer looked at his hands, before facing his sister again. "Almost fifteen hundred dead and severely injured and even more horses." His voice was hoarse, and for a short while neither of them said anything. Finally he bent forwards and gently took her right hand. "Wyn, the war is not over yet. I had no time to come and see you yesterday, because we held a council of war, and Elfhelm and I were busy mustering the war-worthy Riders afterwards. It will be his task to dispatch the orc-host that's blocking the West-Road."
"You made up again with Elfhelm?"
Éomer squirmed uncomfortably. "He is a good man and a worthy marshal. I know he is not to blame, Wyn. And I probably even knew when I accused him the other night. I was beside myself with fear and self-reproach, and I vented my temper on him."
She squeezed his hand reassuringly. "He did not know I was riding with his Éored until we had passed Halifirien and it was well too late and too dangerous to send me back with orcs in the Wold and enemies crossing the eastern borders. He could not do anything different. "
Looking at their clutched hands, she sighed. "And I think he simply understood, Éomer. He'd had to watch his daughter's despair … "
"Don't..." He shook his head, his clenching fingers nearly squashing hers. She winced, and abruptly he let go of her.
"I'm sorry, Wyn. But please, don't remind me..." His breath came ragged, and he pressed his lips firmly together to stop the quivering of his bottom lip to.
How could she not have thought of it! Orcs in the Wold! Gytha! Conscience-stricken she slid closer and swung her legs over the bedside. Bending forwards, she made to take his hand, but at the same moment he threw his head back, the gargling sound of his suppressed sob tearing her heart apart.
"Brother, Bealdric's estate is well-fortified, and he has quite a number of able warriors." How unconvincing she sounded to herself.
He looked at her, his eyes brimming with tears. "Wyn," his voice was little more than a hoarse whisper. "I ordered the host to ride on. I forsook her. And don't you tell me now I could not have done anything different, for I know myself. And I even know we would have been too late in the Wold and everything would have foundered in ruin had we turned aside. Wyn, I know, but it does not change anything. I should have been with her, I should have protected her, I... Wyn, she is but eleven, she ..." Unable to continue, he slumped forward, and as she gathered him to her with her right arm, he buried his face on her shoulder, crying with violent sobs, his broad shoulders heaving.
The weight of his limp body pressed down on her broken arm, his jaw digging painfully into the bruise her splintered shield had left on her collarbone. Yet she did not cringe, but straightened her back to better support his body and hold him: silent, enduring and brave, not heeding her own pain, while her warrior-brother cried for his little girl, his daughter up in the Wold.
She had never seen her, and Éomer had not been able to visit the child often these last years, but many times he had told her about the girl, his Gytha, until the mere mentioning of her name had evoked the picture of a little girl astride a sturdy pony in her mind. A laughing freckled face, with dark blue eyes, a mouth much too wide, whooping with joy as they galloped over the plain, red-golden locks fluttering in the wind.
She pressed her cheek against her brother's head. "She will be all right, Éomer, she will be all right."
Slowly he broke the embrace, passing the hem of his sleeves over his eyes. "I'm sorry, Wyn. I should not burden you with my sorrow on top of all you have gone through."
He seemed exhausted, but his face was calm, now his emotional outburst was over, passed like a thunderstorm over the plains of the Folde. How she envied him for his ability to live out his temper, though she knew that it had endangered him more than once in the past. She yearned to release the pressure that threatened to break her the way he did: in the blaze of one short eruption. And yet she knew that without her armour of frozen calm she would not have lasted one week facing Wormtongue's machinations.
"Have some tea, Éomer. There's a mug on the bedside table." It admittedly was an attempt to change the topic, but it would do him good to drink something, be it only tea.
Scanning the small table that held the tray with her breakfast, he uncovered the still warm mug on the tray, sniffing its contents sceptically. "Nettle I guess, and some bramble leaves."
His face nearly made her laugh. "I'm sorry, Éomer, but obviously the healers don't know about the virtue of breakfast ale."
"Breakfast?" He frowned. "This is supposed to be your breakfast? That old chatterbox brought it just now, and it's nearing noon. What do these morons think they are doing? How can they..."
"Whoa, Éomer! Don't strangle them yet. They brought me breakfast early in the morning and I sent it back."
Better not tell him about her nightmares. She shrugged, trying to keep her facial expression as composed as possible. "I don't feel hungry. So what? Drink the tea if you want it or try the other mug if you prefer something cold. The healer assured me that the tea is not drugged."
Cautiously he lifted the small earthenware lid that covered the other mug. "Smells fruity."
Sipping gingerly, he pulled a face. "Blimey, that's sweet. Tastes a bit like rose hip."
With a brusque movement he held the mug right under her nose. "Tell me, what do you make of it?"
Taking the cup, she too sniffed and sipped, rolling the tea on her tongue. "I'm not sure, Éomer. There certainly is rose hip in it, and it also has the colour, though there is something else I don't rcognise. Not unsavoury though..., and there certainly is some honey in it, but it's not that sweet that it should keep you from drinking it, so stop making a fuss."
She handed the tea back, but her brother did not look convinced at all. "Please tell me, what's in this one." Pressing the still warm mug into her hand, he watched her expectantly.
"Wimp!" Taking a small sip, she wrinkled her nose. "It is nettles and bramble and I think some strawberry leaves as well, and certainly there is less honey in it."
"Fine, so that is settled." Snatching the mug from her hand, he raised it to his lips, only to stop with a big sheepish grin.
"Well, Wyn, we haven't toasted our victory yet." Raising his mug to her, he pressed the other one into her hand.
"To the Riddermark, Sister."
Taking the mug, she clinked it against his. "To the Riddermark."
What a farce, to sit injured and useless and toast a valiant country with herb tea! But she did not want to deject her brother, and so she played along. Avoiding his eyes, she gulped down the tea, realising as it went down her parched throat that it had been more than a day since she last had drunk anything. Lowering the mug she caught her brother's gaze, a thoughtful, scrutinising look. He was obviously up to something.
"Wyn, if you don't want to have that bread, do you mind me having it?" Puzzled she shook her head, and without further ado he grabbed the buttered slice and took a hearty bite.
"Not bad at all," he mumbled around the mouthful of bread, munching with obvious delight.
Breaking a morsel off, he held it in front of her lips. "Come on, have at least a piece to clear me from the accusation of stealing my sister's breakfast. Open your mouth."
She frowned, but let him pop the piece into her mouth. "I would not have eaten it anyway, so you just spared me another useless discussion with those dratted healers."
He nodded. "I see. And what's in that bowl?"
She shrugged. "Stewed fruit, apple I suppose."
"You're sure? Could be some Gondorean I don't know what." He reached for the bowl, taking one of the fruit pieces on the spoon and eyeing it critically from all sides, before presenting the spoon to her. "Try."
"For Béma's sake, Brother! Stop behaving as if it is going to bite you!" Yet she could not but laugh at his antics and willingly took a small bite. "It's apple, you moron. Eat it and have done with it."
Without further hesitation he slurped the syrupy dessert off the spoon, only to grimace again.
"What is it now? Too sour this time?" She had never known her brother to be picky about his food and he was certainly getting on her nerves, behaving like some spoiled brat.
"No, the fruit is fine, it's just that syrup. Would you mind to drink it off for me so I can have the fruit without it?" He was making his most convincing puppy eyes ever, she thought, when she took the bowl and slowly drank the sweet liquid. There were but three more pieces of apple in the little bowl and Éomer finished them off in no time, only to return his attention to the rest of the bread.
It took him only one more bite to nearly finish the slice, offering the last bite to her. She shook her head. "I don't feel hungry."
"You told me so, Wyn, but I beg you to eat it for the sake of sharing. I'll be leaving tomorrow morning." His face was grave now, and she felt her throat tighten.
"Where to?" Had he not said the host clearing the West-Road would be under Elfhelm's command?
"The Morannon." He looked at the now sunlit square of the window, avoiding her gaze.
The surprise nearly left her speechless. "The Black Gate? Sure we don't have remotely enough men to think of successfully calling the Black Lord out."
He gravely shook his head. "No, not successfully, but call him out we must nevertheless."
With few words he explained Gandalf's and Aragorn's plan to her and she nodded. Doomed to death they may be, but not beaten yet. "Yes, they are right. It might be useless, but there is a chance it might work. And even if there weren't … What use is it to wait for the approach of the enemy that will kill you nevertheless? None, I say. So better to stand in the front line and fall, fighting valiantly, even if there will be no one left to sing your praise afterwards. I wish I could ride with you."
A sudden movement of Éomer's hand stopped her, and shrugging, she gave him a wry smile. "No, Brother, I know quite well I can't. I would just be hampering you in the poor state I'm in. And yet it grieves me that I will be left behind once more, condemned to inaction and to wait for your return with a trembling heart."
"Éowyn, whatever happens, by killing the Witchking, you have earned your place at the warriors' table, Shieldmaiden of the Riddermark." He stroked her hand, a sad smile on his face.
She looked down at their hands, not willing to let him see the treacherous gleam of her unshed tears. Trying to compose herself, she let her fingers run over his chaffed knuckles. A warrior's fingers… Some of his cracked fingernails still sported trails of dirt, even after his visit to the baths, while the entire nail of his bruised thumb had turned into bluish-black. "Well, Brother, if against all odds we should return to Edoras one day, perhaps our people will grant me a warrior's remission, though there might be enough who will talk of desertion."
Éomer shook his head. "They say that according to the prophesy, no living man could have killed the Witchking." Gently he stroked her cheek. "Sister, I know how much heartache you went through, and yet I believe the gods favoured you."
She swallowed, willing her voice to sound confident. "It's over now, Éomer. Eorl's House has risen from the ashes. And even though we may well die, all of us, we will do so now with our heads held high."
"We certainly will." Squeezing her hand, her brother bent towards her and kissed her cheek. Looking up, she met his gaze, grey-blue eyes, dark with worry and care.
She closed her eyes as he rested his forehead against hers, his hoarse whisper piercing her heart. "Sister, please, fight to get well again. I beg you, don't give up. What will I be fighting for without you?"
He stood and walked across the room, and then with a last nod to her he opened the door and slipped out. Sinking back onto the pillow, she stared at the ceiling with unseeing eyes.
Éomer, warrior-king of the Mark would stand for the House of Eorl, brother in arms to the Lords of Gondor, a Leader of the Armies of the West, an equal at their side. But how ever emphatically she tried to convince herself, deep inside her heart, cowering behind the cold walls of pride and duty, there was the little girl, left behind by the last living member of her family.
Thanks for their support and advice go to the ladies of the Garden of Ithilien, to Ygrain33, who never failed to encourage me, and especially to Lady Bluejay who kindly helped me with the language. Her beta reading spared me a lot of embarrassment.