4. Chapter 4
The next morning brought Lady Éowyn to my door early. I had just finished putting the last of my clothes away in the chest at the foot of my bed when she knocked.
"I'm riding down to the training grounds," she said without preamble. "Do you want to come along?"
I had actually looked forward to spending the rest of the morning curled up in the window seat, reading one of books I had brought with me, but I couldn't very well decline the invitation. After all I wanted to make friends in my new home. So I agreed, and she sent a page running to order the horses to be made ready while I changed into my riding habit. Lady Éowyn wore breeches, I noticed enviously. My aunt had confiscated mine when I started to develop womanly curves at the age of fourteen, insisting I wear riding skirts instead. I couldn't help wondering what my escort would say if I turned up in a woollen tunic and doeskin leggings.
Dirhael did gape at Lady Éowyn when we met him outside the stables, but he caught himself quickly. Her horse would not have been considered a suitable lady's mount in Gondor either. Large and powerful, the grey gelding was obviously trained as a warhorse and well up to carrying a fully armed warrior. When I commented on this, she nodded.
"Windfola is one of my cousin's remounts. But Théodred keeps him here in Edoras, and I get to ride him."
It was a market day, and many people thronged the way down to the gate, which slowed our progress. Stalls lined the road all along one side, most of them selling food brought in from the outlying farms, but a few also had leather goods and woollen cloth on offer. One man sat cross-legged on the ground, a pile of pelts in front of him. They caught the morning sun with their rich colours: russet fox, silvery wolf, brown beaver and pure white ermine. Very soon we had a gaggle of children trailing us at a discreet distance, watching with big eyes and whispering amongst each other. I almost expected it by now. The adults showed more restraint, greeting us courteously and some of them even exchanging a few words in Westron with me. They were a forthright people I judged, meeting my eyes directly without undue deference.
Once past the gates Éowyn turned right and took a bridle path that ran along the foot of the dike encircling Edoras. It looked much travelled and led to a large field divided into smaller sections by fences. In one of them a dozen riders practiced throwing their spears at a target while cantering by. The wood gave a dull thump every time it got hit. In the next section a series of circles had been traced with sawdust on the ground, four of which were occupied by warriors sparring with swords. Others sat on the grass watching and calling out encouragement.
When we rode up one of the men came over to meet us. His blond hair peppered with grey and face tanned brown from constant exposure to wind and sun, he called out a greeting to Éowyn. Then he turned round and barked orders at the swordsmen who had broken off their bouts and craned their necks to watch us. They renewed their efforts with fresh determination. Éowyn introduced the man as Heorogar, her uncle's master-at-arms, and went on to inform him that I wanted to practice archery.
"You are Prince Imrahil's daughter?" he asked. At my confirmation he looked pleased. "When I was younger I served under Steward Denethor for five years and I met your father during that time," he explained. "The archers of Dol Amroth have an excellent reputation. We are honoured to have you here."
"The honour is mine," I answered weakly. It did not seem the right time to point out that it had all been Éowyn's idea. Did she share her brother's penchant for testing his guests' mettle?
Heorogar led us to another field where a line of straw butts had been set up at varying distances. Half a dozen men were busy shooting, but all activity ceased when we rode up. I felt everybody's eyes on me when I dismounted and got out my bow. Beautifully crafted and polished to perfection, it had been made especially for me by my father's bowyer and took less strength to draw than normal bows. Hopefully it would bring me luck!
For my first try I chose a butt about forty paces away, well within my range. Stringing the bow and strapping on a brace gained me a couple of minutes' grace, but then I had to step up to the line. Why did it feel as if the honour of Dol Amroth or indeed of the whole of Gondor rested on my shoulders? I squashed that thought as I nocked an arrow to my string, telling myself to concentrate on the target instead. To do anything else would be to invite failure. Emptying my mind of all considerations except hitting the concentric circles marked in black and white paint, I drew the bow and sighted down the arrow.
It hit the target to one side, nearly missing it altogether. I adjusted my aim and managed to get the outermost black circle with the next one. Biting my lip I withdrew another arrow from the quiver. I could do better than that! But I had not practised since leaving Dol Amroth and before then only intermittently, being busy in the library. I pushed these useless excuses from my mind and took aim again.
The arrow. The target. Nothing else mattered. I concentrated on my breathing, inhaling deeply, filling my lungs, and then releasing my breath and the arrow at the same time. Nock another one, shoot on the next breath. And another one. The world melted away around me and did not take form again until my fingers reaching for another arrow met empty air. I looked up to see the straw butt stuck full with arrows, massing in the black circle in the centre.
I had done it again. I suppose I had to thank my father for that. He insisted a Gondorian princess should be able to go hunting in the morning, make witty conversation with foreign ambassadors in the afternoon, preside over a state dinner in the evening and dance away the rest of the night. All this while being charming and beautiful of course. High expectations to fulfil, but surprisingly I had found I liked archery and had a gift for it - perhaps inherited from some long ago Elven ancestor.
Suddenly I remembered the spectators and turned round. Dirhael grinned from ear to ear, but the Rohirrim wore a surprised expression on their faces. Clearly I had done better than what they had expected from a soft Gondorian princess. Not that I could fault them for it, for I considered my skill at archery a pure fluke.
Heorogar inclined his head. "An impressive performance."
"Impressive?" Éowyn's eyes were shining. "She's absolutely lethal! Do you think you could put enough force behind your arrows to puncture armour?"
Puncture armour! Where did she get such ideas? I shook my head. "I've never tried."
"Well, with precision like that, if you hit the right spot it doesn't matter." She demonstrated by pointing out the vulnerable places at the neck and under the armpit on one of the swordfighters. The man nodded enthusiastically and I felt faintly sick, knowing only too well what damage arrows could inflict on a man's body.
I turned back to the field. "I think I will practise some more, my range needs improving."
My father might have insisted I learn to shoot a bow in order to go hunting, as Gondorian noblewomen were expected to, but while I liked to chase through the forest I did not enjoy the killing. Amrothos always teased me how little enthusiasm I showed for hunting when I was such a good shot. Only Cousin Faramir understood, saying the world was too simple when viewed down the shaft of an arrow.
Around me, the other bowmen took up shooting again. I felt out of place amongst them, for they were skilled and far excelled me in physical strength. Yet they appeared friendly enough, giving me encouraging nods and welcoming me as one of their own. My arms started aching from the unaccustomed exercise, but I gritted my teeth and continued practising. No doubt I would pay for it the next day.
"My lady, do not overdo it."
The voice came from behind me and I turned round. Heorogar sent one of the boys waiting on the sideline to go and collect my arrows. "You will strain yourself if you do too much all at once."
I nodded, feeling sheepish that my limitations were so easily perceptible. "May I come back another day?"
"You are very welcome to." He grinned. "It puts my men on their mettle to have a woman shoot so well."
Warmed by the compliment, I smiled back. "I'm not distracting them?"
"They will have to learn to cope with distraction. Besides, they fight better with a pretty woman watching them."
That made me blush. I looked round for a diversion. "Where is Lady Éowyn?"
"Knocking the stuffing out of one of my young trainees."
When I stared at him in surprise he guffawed. "Come and have a look yourself."
Heorogar had spoken truth. Éowyn was sparring with a lad about my own age, both using shields and swords with blunted blades. Tall and heavily built, he had the reach of her and outweighed her, but again and again she used his own momentum against him. As I watched in disbelief, she ducked one of his charges, landing a blow on his unprotected back as he went by. I winced. Surely that had to hurt even through the padded armour.
"It teaches them not to underestimate an opponent because of his size," Heorogar commented. I nodded mechanically, finding it hard to accept that they allowed her to put her person at risk in such a way. To ride and shoot was one thing, but to fight with swords! Even with their edges blunted, they routinely caused nasty bruises and could even break bones.
"Does King Théoden know she's practising sword fighting?" I asked.
I marvelled at his complacency. "And her brother?"
"Marshal Éomer? Oh yes, he knows. Although I suspect he's not altogether happy at her desire to train as a Shieldmaiden. But she's of the House of Eorl, it runs in her blood."
That moment Éowyn tripped her opponent as he went by on another futile charge, making him fall to the ground. When he rolled over he found her sword pointing at his chest.
"Yield?" she asked. Amazingly, she wasn't even breathing hard.
With ill grace he conceded defeat and Éowyn stepped back. Heorogar barked an order and another of his men picked up his sword to face her in the training ring. I had watched enough of my brothers' bouts to judge this one an experienced fighter as they exchanged the first blows. Even so she held her own. Lithe and graceful as a cat, she evaded closing with him, melting away under his strokes and letting him do all the work. I had thought her cold, but now I saw her eyes flash with temper when he managed to get a touch on her. She possessed the same fire as her brother I realized, only she hid it under a mask of ice.
Then at the crucial moment she struck. Sliding her blade under the man's guard, she unbalanced him, forcing him to give ground. He took a step back, but she gave him no chance to recover, pressing him and letting his riposte slide off her shield harmlessly. In what looked almost like a dance move, Éowyn spun round, following through her momentum and ending up with her sword against his throat. "You're dead, Wiglaf!"
"So are you."
Éowyn looked down at the sword at her midriff and laughed. "I am!"
Beside me, Heorogar stiffened. "What's the matter with you, Éowyn. You know your defensive movements better than that."
She shrugged. "I get tired of defending myself all the time. I want to attack."
Heorogar opened his mouth as if to argue the point, but at that moment a boy came running up. His green tunic with a white horse depicted on it identified him as one of the pages from Meduseld. He gasped out his message and I caught King Théoden's name.
The animation drained from Éowyn's face. "We have to go back. My uncle is asking for me."
Wordlessly Heorogar helped her out of her padded armour while some of the other men fetched our horses. "Will we see you tomorrow?" he asked.
"I hope so." She swung into the saddle and waved a curt goodbye.
Yet as we trotted back to the gates she let herself fall back to ride beside me. "Did you like it? Will you come again?"
My arms ached dully and my back muscles still protested at the abuse they had received. I thought longingly of my books, but there was something in her face that made it impossible to refuse. "It was...interesting. Yes, I'll come again."
A brilliant smile rewarded me. "It would be nice to have another woman along, a friend. The other girls here have nothing in their head but to moon over men."
Which men? I wondered involuntarily, then pushed the thought of a certain Marshal from my mind. With that smile of his he would be popular, but it was none of my business.
We reached the gates and had to slow down with the press of people on the main road. "Do you go for training often?" I asked. "You're very good with that sword."
She looked pleased. "I go every day if I can manage."
"Don't your uncle and brother object?" I tried to imagine my father's reaction if I announced the intention of taking up a sword and failed.
Éowyn raised an eyebrow. "Why should they?"
"You might get hurt!"
"I might get hurt if an orc attacks me and I cannot defend myself." She gave me no chance to answer that, but went on at once. "And don't tell me that the men will protect me."
I glanced back at the guards trailing us. My father always made sure I had a sufficient escort when I left the castle and I actually worried much more about my brothers' safety than I did about my own. "But that is their duty."
"Duty!" Éowyn spat the word. "And I suppose it is the women's duty to cower safely behind high walls whenever there is a threat."
I stared at her. "What else do you want us to do?" True, I tried to help by making myself useful looking after the wounded, but when it came down to it, we depended on our menfolk to defend us.
"I want to fight." Her fingers clenched on the reins. "Why should the men get all the glory?"
Glory. I had encountered no glory in the aftermath of battle, only blood and pain. Honour and bravery in the men who fought for those they loved, yes, but precious little glory. I looked away. "War is not as you imagine it."
She made a cutting gesture with her hand. "I don't care if I get hurt."
"You might die."
"Yes, but at least I would have had the chance to make a difference - doing deeds of valour that might be remembered down the long years."
With a sigh I brushed back a strand of hair. There were many who thought like her and loved fighting for its own sake. And with war looming on the horizon I suppose we should be grateful for them. "You might find what you're seeking for sooner than you think. Although I hope not."
Éowyn caught her breath. "The Shadow in the East?"
"He is rising." I shivered. "My father would not have sent me away if he had not been worried about it."
"Still, you are lucky to get away, to see the world. I've never been further from here than a couple of days' ride!" Suddenly she seemed to realize her words weren't exactly tactful. "I'm sorry. You must miss your family."
We rode on in silence, each caught up in her thoughts. How ironic that here I was, thousands of leagues from home, when I had never wanted to leave Dol Amroth. Would Éowyn like to exchange places with me? She reminded me of a creature gnawing at the bars of her cage, pining for freedom. Yet one day she might find that simply leaving home did not solve all problems.
Growing up a Princess of Gondor, I had always known that the privileges of my rank were offset by duty to my father and the responsibility for the people looking to us for protection. Not to forget owing allegiance to the Steward of the Realm, I thought bitterly. A cage wrought from love and obligation, which I carried with me wherever I went. Perhaps only those who had nothing to lose were truly free.
Soon we reached the courtyard fronting the stables, where we shed our guard. Éowyn led the way up the stairs and through the great Hall, empty at midmorning. In the corridor leading to the private quarters she stopped. The sun shining through one of the windows lit up dust motes in the air and cast a golden halo over her as she looked at me. "Please don't mention to anybody what I said earlier on, will you?"
"Of course not." Did she think I would carry tales to her uncle?
She twisted her mouth. "I don't want to worry my family. You mustn't mind what I say."
I inclined my head. "You have my word, Lady Éowyn."
"Oh, just call me Éowyn. We're friends, aren't we?"
Warmed by her words, I smiled at her. "I would like that."
That moment something stirred in the shadows behind her and the form of a man materialized from the darkness. "What a pretty sight," he said. "The golden fairness of a summer morning accompanied by the midnight beauty of a star filled night." Lord Gríma.
At his first words Éowyn had frozen, all expression wiped from her face. "What do you want, Worm?" she asked without turning around, her voice dripping contempt.
A flash of anger, quickly hidden as he lowered heavy lids over his eyes. "The king asked for you, my lady."
"I know." Slowly she faced him. "And I am on my way."
He approached further, but stopped short of stepping into the sunlight surrounding her. "Your uncle ate nearly his whole bowl of gruel for breakfast, you'll be pleased to hear."
I had read enough about the deeds of Théoden, Thengel's son, to feel pity for such a great warrior in his dotage. Éowyn paled, but held herself straight as a spear. "I will attend him once I have changed." Sidestepping Gríma, she continued down the corridor to her room, banging the door shut behind her.
Lord Gríma watched her go and for a moment I caught an unguarded expression on his face. A mix of anger and longing that made me feel queasy. What did he want with Éowyn? Then he turned his attention to me and I realized I had missed my chance to make my escape as well.
He smiled. "How nice to see you've already made a friend, my Lady Princess."
"Yes indeed." I did not have the nerve to just brush past him and edged to one side. The corridor was deserted with not even a guard in sight. Where had all those maids disappeared to?
"Friends are important." Politely he offered me his arm and I had no choice but to accept it. Gríma lowered his voice. "Especially when one is so far away from home as you are."
I let my fingers rest as lightly as possible on his arm as he escorted me down the passageway towards my room. At the door he stopped and brought my hand to his lips. Their touch was moist and flabby, making me shiver with revulsion.
Gríma smiled. "But you know, Princess Lothíriel, you should choose your friends wisely."
What was he insinuating? "Should I?"
"You have come to Rohan for safety, haven't you?" Clammy fingers brushed across my palm. "Let's just say that not everybody can offer you real protection, though they might look the part." He smirked.
Slow anger kindled within me. "And I suppose you can?"
"To a beautiful woman like you? I would be honoured to."
I snatched my hand away. "No thank you. I'd rather take my chances."
Then I pushed open the door to my room and slammed it behind me. Yet as I rammed home the bolt and leaned against the heavy wood, my heart hammering away in my chest, I could not help thinking that I had reacted exactly as he had wanted me to. Snatching up a handkerchief I rubbed at my hands, trying to erase all trace of him. Éowyn might treat him with easy contempt, but the man frightened me. He was so cocksure of himself - as if he knew something we did not.
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.