The Worst of All Evils
1. The Worst of All Evils
"In reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man's torments." (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Elfhelm leaned forward in his chair. His hand inched across the coverlet toward Éowyn's injured shield-arm, where it lay awkwardly against her chest. He cursed himself. He had known known that his command and possibly even his life were forfeit, should something happen to her, but he had ignored his heart's misgivings, and now he saw the wages of that decision.
Her face was flushed from fever; one forearm splinted under its tight wrappings, the other showing bruises and cuts. What little he could see of it, at least. Most of that arm was swathed in bleached bandages. The white gown the healers had clothed her in, the linen bedsheets, even her pale golden hair was now washed clean of blood and grime. Ai, hwithlæfdige min... it was as if the colour had bled out of her, until only this shell remained.
The door opened with a creak, and Elfhelm looked up. Recognizing the man looming in the doorway, he hurried to his feet. "Good even, Éomer lord." He stood silent there for a moment, waiting for the other to speak. Finally he added, "Shall I leave you?"
"Nay," Éomer said, his voice strangely distant. He nodded to himself. Looking Elfhelm in the eye, he repeated more coldly, "Nay. We must talk."
Elfhelm moved away from the chair and around to the other side of the bed; there, at least, Éomer would have to think twice before striking him. Éomer rapped his fingers against his knee. Elfhelm remembered teaching Éomer that trick to control his temper in council with Gríma. He winced -- why must I demand such patience? -- and looked across the bed apprehensively. "What do the healers say?" he asked. "The city buzzes with news of her and everything else that has happened, but everyone seems to have a different tale. I would hear the truth."
Éomer scowled. "Lord Aragorn called her from the brink of death, and she spoke with him earlier. And the herb-master seems to think there is reason to hope, if she would but rest for a while. " His eyes fell to his sister's pale form. "But my heart still doubts. She lay so long on the Pelennor and was carried roughly before the prince Imrahil realized that she lived. And she fought like one who sought naught but a good death."
"Yet surely all their lore can save her..." Elfhelm began.
"Lore, indeed," Éomer murmured bitterly. He looked up at Elfhelm, and his eyes hardened. "All this last winter, my cowardice -- my refusal to rout out the Worm -- condemned her to watch him poison the man who was dear to her, both as king and kinsman. And now she lies there, unable to sleep without those strange potions coursing through her veins." He swallowed hard, and Elfhelm had little doubt he was trying to master his fiery temper. "She begged me not to give her that draught, but your wise healers said it was for the best. Your decision to let her ride robbed her of that choice. How came she to lie here? She should be well, in Dunharrow."
Elfhelm remembered Éowyn that night she had approached him, after the muster. The young mistress who refused to smile, busying herself with the necessary tasks but taking no pride nor joy in any of them. That was well? Yet he certainly would not speak on that of all subjects. "I did not dare hope for victory," Elfhelm said after a moment. "None of us did."
Éomer opened his mouth to reply but closed it again. Elfhelm dared to close his eyes, trying to gather his thoughts. Already he had heard the stories of how Éomer had cried "death," adding his own strain to the cacophony that was Pelennor. Ever since the dawnless day, when the cry from the heavens over the Dwarrowdale had chilled him, and all the arm, to the bone, Elfhelm had not dared to hope for more than to postpone that death. To make the Enemy pay dearly for the fall of the Éorlingas. What difference would it have made if --
"She had a task higher than most, that did not require her to die... " Elfhelm's eyes blinked open, and he saw that Éomer's hand was clenched tightly around the bed-linens. All of a sudden Éomer rose, heedlessly taking the sheets with him.
"Cold..." Éowyn murmered, "more timber... send them..."
Éomer threw the cloth disgustedly down on the bed and started pacing the side of the bed. Thud, thud, clink, scrape, clink, thud, thud -- the metal toe of his rider's boot fell heavily first on the bear-skin rug, then on the stone floor, then on the bear-skin rug again as he returned the way he had come, marking the time that neither man found anything to say.
"She should not be here..." Éomer said at last, his voice husky. He made to turn back toward the head of Éowyn's bed but lost his balance and fell, his knee hitting the bare floor and his wrist falling heavily against the footboard. He bit his lip, Elfhelm guessed to curb his tongue in the presence of a lady, but pulled himself to his feet quickly and moved away. Scrape, clink, thud -- he turned again and in wide strides crossed the room to the medicine shelf built into the wall.
"She had no business here -- " He picked up a vial to examine it -- "she had her king's commission and a necessary duty to her people who loved her, she -- " His fist tightened, and Elfhelm heard the glass shatter. The brown liquid oozed down Éomer's arm and side. This time Éomer winced, and Elfhelm rushed toward him. He eased Éomer's fist open and carefully picked off the larger pieces.
The door opened and one of the boys who ran errands for those houses gawked at the liquid pooled in the palm of the highest lord of Rohan. "Shall I..." he began, but Elfhelm interrupted him, saying, "Leave us; I shall tend to him." Éomer did not need another witness to his temper.
The boy left, and Elfhelm led Éomer back toward the head of Éowyn's bed. "Sit, sire," he said as comfortingly as he dared, and he eased Éomer down into the chair. He noticed that the marshal's eyes shone with unshed tears but said nothing. Instead, he examined the lord's palm.
"We shall need tweezers, and marigold," he observed and walked back to the medicine shelf on the opposite wall. He lingered longer than was strictly necessary, double-checking the label of the infusion to make sure he had chosen the right one. When he was satisfied that Éomer had had enough time to regain his control he walked back to his side.
Éomer held his hand out and Elfhelm gently probed the wound, fishing out the smaller shards carefully so they did not scratch Éomer further. "I knew how to tend life-threatening injuries long before I was made marshal," he explained, "but it was your cousin who first taught me the mercy of a soft -- " He stopped mid-sentence. The last thing he needed to do was remind Éomer of other kinfolk he had lost in recent days. But Éomer's eyes had a far-off expression; Elfhelm guessed Éomer had hardly heard a word he said.
"Do you think..." Éomer began, fixing his eyes on his sister, "do you think that she would have sat at the feasting table with Bema, if she had journeyed to the halls of our fathers? Would he have honoured her as a hero? Or scorned her as a deserter, a coward?"
Satisfied he had found the last of the pottery, Elfhelm sat the tweezers on the bedside table and poured a little marigold tincture onto Éomer's hand. Éomer did not suck in his breath or even flinch at the sting, and Elfhelm sighed. No distracting him from questions that had no answers, then.
"I know not, lord," he admitted, looking directly up at Éomer. "Perhaps the wise men of your uncle's court could fathom an answer from old songs, but as for me..." He let his eyes rest briefly on Éowyn before locking his gaze on Éomer once more. "I have only my heart's guidance, and whether it speaks true is any man's guess. If you would still have it, I say she was neither."
Éomer's shoulders sagged noticeably. "Neither?"
No crown yet weighs his head, and already what burdens he must bear! Shoving his own doubts aside, Elfhelm hurried to offer what explanation he had. "Neither hero nor coward. A man is not a hero because he fears no evil, but because he masters that fear. Éowyn is far beyond such feelings."
Éomer looked at him, his face troubled. "No fear? We all knew fear. None of us hoped to survive -- you said so yourself."
Elfhelm nodded. "But Éowyn knew only that her heart was broken. I will not lecture you on your sister, sire, for I only saw her in those last days. But I saw her face after your uncle was renewed. The hope that Wormtongue's fall brought you -- to all of us -- it could not touch her. She was frozen to the core, and Gandalf's words were like the dawn sun on crops touched by a late frost: it wilted her."
He paused for a second and breathed in the faint wholesome scent that lingered in the room, hoping to clear his mind. "That night before we rode from Dunharrow, when she snuck with her horse into my éored's camp, I saw only a shell of the maiden who had stood upon the steps of Meduseld watching the sun's rise. Only a youth who sought death -- Dernhelm indeed. But even so, your sister once chose to become that shell rather than defile herself and cleave to Wormtongue."
Éomer blinked away a lone tear. "And that was courage?"
"I know not. Some might name it so. I would certainly not call her coward."
Neither man spoke for a long moment. Outside, the tower bells rang the fifth hour of the night. At last Elfhelm rose and straightened the sheet, carefully tucking it around Éowyn. "Shall I leave you?"
This time Éomer spoke no word, and Elfhelm took that for agreement. "I shall tell the warden where to find me, should you wish my presence. I am yours to command..." He paused a moment, knowing full well that the times were uncertain and that Éomer might never sit crowned in Meduseld, but he realized that meant nought to him. "I am yours, my king."
He walked quietly through the door and turned to pull it shut but paused at the sight that greeted him: Éomer leaning forward in his chair, calloused fingers running through his sister's hair splayed across the pillows. Ferocious as a mountain lion at need, perhaps, yet war has not drowned all his tenderness. Aye, he will make a fine king, should the shadow spare us.
He pulled the door closed and sought his bed.
Hwithlæfdige min is my attempt to construct an Old English translation of "my White Lady".
I do realize that Gondorians do not seem to have much definite knowledge of the afterlife, but Théoden's dying statement that he goes "now to the hall of my fathers" suggests a more concrete belief among the Rohirrim. Whether these beliefs are "true" in terms of the larger legendarium, it seemed natural that Éomer might find reflecting on them comforting.
Thanks to Gwynnyd for the beta help.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.