41. The Red Arrow
The Red Arrow
Théoden King closed his eyes and rubbed the knot of muscle just above the bridge of his nose. He had been scowling too often, and his head ached. Just one week ago, he had wakened from the trance of poison and sorcery, and had only been out of his sickbed for three days. And this evening he felt every minute of his seventy-one years.
Why must they bicker so? Will they not cease this prattling? He opened his eyes and glared at the three other members of the House of Éorl: two standing, red-faced, pointing fingers at one another with raised voices, and the third—his son, the eldest, who ought to know better—egging the others on with ill-advised comments.
"It is improper, that is why! You are a woman, Éowyn…"
"…a word that means little more than slave, or chattel, apparently…"
"That is not what I said…"
"…You may as well have, Éomer! You think it proper for me to risk life and limb whilst you and the rest gallop away without a backward glance, leaving me to govern and protect half the populace, but now that the men have returned, little Éowyn is to have no say, no role—nay, she shall not even be allowed to stand silent in the corner of the council tent, for it isn't proper…"
"She has a point, Éomer…"
"Stay out of this, Théodred! She is my sister…"
"Yes, I am your sister—not daughter, not servant, not property! I have equal blood of the House of Éorl as you, brother…"
"But you are a woman, cousin… It is against tradition, you know that as well as…"
"Théodred, you were the one who knighted me, have you forgotten? You came to me, to enlist my aid, when no other would take on the duty..."
"…because no other would stay when his brethren were called to battle…"
"…and not miss a chance for glory! Such is the way of men—to think of their own renoun before the safety of their womenfolk and children left behind…"
"Éowyn, you twist my words!"
"…Nay, it is your logic that twists to meet your wishes…"
"Silence!" Théoden roared suddenly. "Be still, all of you!"
Théodred, Éomer and Éowyn turned in surprise to find their elderly King standing, his face flushed, his fists clenched.
"I am King in Rohan still—or have you three forgotten?"
"Of course not, my Lord…"
"I would never think such a thing, sire…"
Théoden walked slowly toward them from the opposite side of the pavilion, his two manservants pacing closely beside him, their hands out, ready to catch their Lord if he stumbled. His back was stooped, but he was still a tall man, and he raised himself up to the fullest height he could achieve—which was taller than any other in the room, save for Théodred. And it was to his son that he directed his next words.
"You started this, Théodred, by making a rash choice, and you are the one who must understand and bear the consequences. Now, listen, and learn," he snapped.
The King then turned to his nephew, Éomer. "I called my son's choice rash—and so it was. But sometimes, a rash choice is proved correct. Your sister was at my side when I awoke, when I knew nothing of what had transpired in my own realm. She sat by my sickbed, then by my chair, then stood at my side, while I have slowly recovered… It was she who explained all… She who answered my every question… She who has been, in truth, ruling in my stead—ruling, not only fighting—making decisions, apportioning supplies, settling disputes, restoring order… In short, your sister has done everything any leader must do—and did it as well, or better than any man. To insist that she--who has amply proved that the blood of Morwen Steelsheen as well as the blood of the House of Éorl runs in her veins—be barred from the councils of Rohan merely to abide by tradition is nothing but ignorance. I will not have it."
Then he turned to Éowyn. "But you, sister-daughter, must learn to tame your tongue, which of late has grown barbs! Patience is not a sign of weakness. You must learn that trampling on the pride of others will undermine a leader's power, not enhance it! You have proved your worth—you need not prove it again and again, or strive to prove that you are more worthy than any other. You need not push others down to shore up your own doubt that you belong where fate has placed you!"
The King glared as the three younger members of his royal household and family stared at the floor, having nothing, apparently, to say. Théoden returned to his chair with a grumble. I am too old for this…
In one short week, too much had changed, too many new confusing revelations and ideas had been thrust upon him. His faithful councilor—or so he had always believed—Grima, was not only a traitor, but was dead, slain by his nephew… And yet the tale was twisted, for Grima was not simply a traitor. Had he not in his turn killed the White Wizard? And that was another twist, for when he was last able to judge such things for himself, Théoden had counted Saruman as a valued ally, not a deadly foe... But the realm had gone to war with Isengard, and he had not launched it, nor even sanctioned it, yet he had woke to discover his only son and his country's strongest Riders afield in the fighting…
But here was another twist, for a Rider of remarkable ability and strength—at least in strength of will—had remained by his side. He looked up again. This was the most difficult revelation for his aged brain to manage—that the steadiest and perhaps the most capable of the current members of the House of Éorl was none other than the slightest and least tested warrior among them. Since awakening in Harrowdale, Théoden was faced, again and again, with Éowyn's intellect, her sharp eye for falsehood, and her unerring grasp of the great events sweeping forward. His sister-daughter recalled his own mother to mind acutely. Éowyn was very like to noble and commanding Morwen in all ways, save for the color of her hair and eyes: shimmering gold instead of raven-black with silver traces, and brilliant blue instead of dark grey. She certainly had Morwen's razor-edged wit, using it all too quickly, and with less skill than her grandmother. But such traits could be softened, and diplomacy learned.
She even managed, it seemed to the old King, to have control of that which tradition named as the main impediment to the rule of a woman—her supposedly uncontrollable passions. For but two days ago, he had watched as the tall, noble Captain of the Northmen with his company of strange followers passed through the refuge, pausing to give homage to the King and to greet the Lady-Knight. Théoden was not feeble enough to fail to notice how his sister-daughter felt about the stern warrior—and that her affections were not returned. Even he had felt drawn to the one named Aragorn, and was deeply shaken at his insistence in taking the black road out of Dunharrow that led to certain death. But Éowyn had managed to keep her attraction to the man on a tight rein, and spoke to him calmly, revealing nothing. That encounter, Théoden mused, must have cost her a great price, yet she faced it steadily.
Once the Northmen left, Éowyn had been the one to insist that messengers be sent to all corners of the Mark, even before Théodred, Éomer and the other Marshalls arrived from Helm's Deep this forenoon. It was she who called for the gathering of every Rider not yet engaged. She had ordered, with his approval, the procuring of supplies and the clearing of a great field for the assembly of the tents that now stood, housing three thousand knights and awaiting the muster of three thousand more. And it was she who had suggested, before Théodred or Éomer voiced the same, that the Marshalls and other Lords be brought together in council, to discuss the grave circumstances and decisions that faced them.
Théoden-King gripped the arms of his chair as the horn sounded for the assembly. He rose, his manservants a step behind him, and proudly strode from the tent toward the council-meeting about to begin. As he passed he nodded three times—and all three followed, with no further dispute.
Éowyn joined her brother and her cousin at the side of the King's chair in the much larger tent raised for the gathering of the council of Rohan. A few men frowned and glared at her presence, but none said a word aloud against her. She listened as Théodred reviewed the recent battles against Isengard, naming the many fallen. No one could blame him for beginning with his friend Hama, for all knew that the King's son and the King's Door Warden had been fast friends since boyhood.
The Lady-Knight's thoughts wandered as his speech continued. She was still smarting from her uncle's stinging rebuke. Barbed tongue? Trampling on others' pride? It seemed that whenever a mere woman spoke her mind with anything other than a docile tone, the taunt of "sharp-tongued" or other, less complimentary names were used. She seethed at the injustice of it. No outspoken man would be so insulted… And yet, could there be a grain of truth—or more than a grain of truth to her uncle's words?
She thought on her many tense conversations with the stiff-necked, proud warden of Harrowdale. Yes, she might have handled that differently, mayhap with more cooperation from the stubborn fool. She had always bristled at the old saw, that honey catches more flies than vinegar. It had seemed but a ploy to keep women in their places, encouraging meekness and compliant obedience to the benefit of the men. But with the role of leader thrust upon her, she began to understand a different point of view. Too forceful a manner was likely to spark an equally fierce reaction; she had witnessed it, time and again, and could see now that she had caused it. And such did not always serve one's purpose… Nay, truth be told, such rarely served one's purpose…
Her ears pricked up as her cousin said a name she would just as soon forget, but knew she never would.
"…the Lord Aragorn of the North, and those doughty warriors who came with him, played a crucial part in the victory. Were it not for his actions, and the courage and sacrifice of the Northmen, the battle for Helm's Deep might well have been lost. We owe him and his kinsmen a great debt…"
Éowyn stood utterly still, her eyes forward. She could be justly proud, she thought, of how she had behaved when last she saw that Lord of Men. Aragorn and his Company had come to Harrowdale two nights ago and had departed the following dawn. She had held herself steady in his presence. She had not begged, or groveled, or treated with him in any manner other than of one leader to another. She had not—would not give him any more cause to pity her. She had presented him to the King, had met his gaze with head held high. She had heard his news of the battle and of the fate of her kin. She hid the dismay she felt when he announced his plan to take the Paths of the Dead. And she had accepted with nothing more than a gracious nod his peculiar request that she see to the safety of the Holbytla, Meriadoc.
Nay, it would never be said by any in the Mark—and, if the Lord Aragorn and his Lieutenant, the Lord Halbarad, were true men and kept their tongues from wagging—that the White Lady-Knight of Rohan would bow to any man, other than her King.
Théodred was speaking now of the wars in the East, and the news that the Wizard of Orthanc was allied with the great dark Power in the Black Land beyond the river Anduin. She began to attend to his words again when a commotion stirred at the entrance to the great tent. Two men on guard blocked the entry of three others, who spoke quietly but insistently. The Prince sent Éomer to investigate. Éowyn watched carefully as her brother bent toward the newcomers, hardly listening to Théodred's continued speech. Finally, Éomer hurried back toward the front of the tent.
"These men are from the East—from Gondor," he said to Théodred, who scowled at him and tilted his head slightly. His face flushing as he grasped his error, Éomer turned to the King sitting nearby. "My Lord King," he said with a bow. "They have ridden from Minas Tirith, and they beg leave to give a message to the King of Rohan, from the Steward of Gondor…"
"Let them come," Théoden said in his deep clear voice.
Three tall men in travel-stained dark green cloaks and silver helms strode quickly forward. The tallest bowed and stood before the King's chair. He carried a single arrow, black-shafted, with black feathers and a glittering steel barb, but the point was painted blood-red.
*He sank onto one knee and presented the arrow to Théoden. "Hail Lord of the Rohirrim, friend of Gondor!" he said. "Hirgon I am, errand-rider of Denethor, who brings you this token of war. Gondor is in great need. Often the Rohirrim have aided us, but now the Lord Denethor asks for all your strength and all your speed; lest Gondor fall at last."
"The Red Arrow!" murmured Théoden, holding it with a trembling hand. "The Red Arrow has not been seen in the Mark in all my years! Has it indeed come to that?"*
As the Gondorian messenger, the King and the Prince spoke together, Éowyn found herself examining the hidden contents of her heart. A battle as fierce as Helm's Deep was being fought in that tender place in her breast. One the one side she fervently hoped that the man who had awakened her desire would pass through the deadly darkness, come to Gondor in triumph and claim the kingship he so clearly deserved. But upon the other side, her hurt and anger would rejoice to see him fall… or better still, have his claim rejected by the disdainful men of Gondor—the Steward Denethor not the least. That part of her felt a rush of satisfied revenge at the thought of proud Aragorn turning tail and running north to hide among his scattered people, never to be seen again in the south kingdoms…
Éowyn's drifting thoughts jolted to attention, for the King had risen, and was speaking.
"And so, what say ye, men of Rohan? Are we truehearted folk? Is the word of the Riddermark trustworthy? Do we abide by the ancient oaths of our forefathers, and ride to the aid of Gondor?"
As she heard the King's words, the conflict within her dissipated. The hour had come to rise above petty spite. She was a Knight of Rohan, not some pouting maid nursing her bruised feelings. She joined her voice proudly with the Riders and Marshalls of the Mark as they answered with a single, unanimous word: Yea!
*quoted verbatim from The Return of the King, "The Muster of Rohan," p. 781
Merry wondered if he could possibly feel more wretched. Tired of pacing in the small tent assigned to him, he wandered through the high haven of Dunharrow. Fully a third of the floor of the valley was fenced off, and within the pickets, horses of every color and description trotted, snorted, galloped, nickered, tugged at the grass, neighed and whinnied. The smell of them permeated every corner of the place. A city of tents had sprung up between the wooden buildings of the town of Harrowdale and the looming mountains. He could no longer pick out his own little fluttering square of fabric. He was, he knew, thoroughly lost, and he didn't really care.
I've got no place here, that's clear enough. Might as well be lost... He wished with all his heart that he had never gazed into the Lady's Mirror. If I hadn't, I'd probably be in Minas Tirith right now, with Pippin and Boromir… Or maybe he should have stayed with the Ents. They at least spoke to me and didn't ignore me… And, he mused irritably, most of them actually spoke the Common Tongue. So few of these tall, yellow-haired men spoke anything but their own language, Rohirrhic. While he caught a few familiar sounding words here and there, most of their speech was entirely unintelligible.
He felt totally alone, more alone than he'd felt even when lost in Fangorn. He frowned and looked around at the men hurrying to and fro, carrying saddles and spears and swords, leading yet more horses to the enclosure, and drawing cartloads of all manner of other goods. Being surrounded by people who all had something important to do served only to increase his sense of profound isolation.
Merry thought of his options. He could try to follow Aragorn. He turned and gazed up the valley toward the dark peaks. The Grey Company had passed into that black cleft two dawns ago. His face burned again as he remembered his humiliation and frustrated anger.
"I leave you in good hands," Aragorn had said, as he gazed down from where he sat atop Shadowfax. "The Lady Éowyn has promised to see to your safety and your needs…"
"But I don't want to be the only one left behind, Strider!"
"You cannot come with us, Merry. Our path will be very dark, and if we emerge from it we must ride as swiftly as we possibly can. None of us can take you before him…"
"You promised Frodo that you would take me with you…"
"Nay—I promised only that you could travel from Lothlorien with me. I knew not the road before me then." Merry saw Aragorn's face harden as he clenched his jaw. "I cannot take you with me. I will say no more. Fare you well, my friend, and who knows? Perhaps we shall meet again…"
Merry had struggled to keep from running after them and begging to be taken along as they rode away into the silent dawn. Gimli turned at the last and gave him a sad smile and a nod. Aragorn did not look back.
Now, more than two days later, the Hobbit stared at the road that he knew led to the entrance to a dark tunnel known as the Paths of the Dead. He could try to follow; perhaps the Dead were gone now—hadn't that been the entire point? Weren't the Dead supposed to follow Aragorn? Maybe the tunnel would be safe, and he could pass through to the other side…
And for what? he thought. Two and a half days late, all of them on horseback and you with not even a pony, and no idea where he's got to once—if—you get through to the other side… That was no good.
He turned around and looked down the valley as it swept in a great curve west and south. The long shadows of evening had come. Night was arriving. But he'd traveled by darkness before. He could do it again. He had ridden with the Grey Company from Isengard. Surely he could retrace the path, cross the great plains of Rohan and find old Treebeard again...
But why? What use would that be? He would be safe, certainly. But that isn't why you came on this journey, to be safe. You came for Frodo. And though Frodo's path had diverged from his weeks ago, he could still do his best to carry on, to do whatever he could to help… to help in the fight against Evil, like you said to Treebeard and Quickbeam. If he'd really meant those words, he couldn't just go where he'd be safest. The image of horses running came to his mind's eye—the images he had seen in the Mirror of Galadriel. That's where I belong…
He had to find a way, somehow, to make these strange Riders understand, to convince them—or even just one of them—to take him along when they rode to war.
All right then, you have to start somewhere, he said to himself. He hadn't laid eyes on the Lady Éowyn since he had stood at the back of the Grey Company while Aragorn spoke to her and the old King. She had sent others to find him a place to sleep and a bite of food, but hadn't taken the time to speak to him directly. I'd better try to find her, and soon. She, at least, spoke the Common Tongue. The only claim he had even for the right to speak to her was her promise to Aragorn to see to his safety and his needs. It wasn't much, but it was something. Well, let's forget about safety for the time being, and focus on needs. And his greatest need was to make himself understood.
He turned toward the tents, searching the twilight for someone, anyone, who could speak Westron and direct him to the Lady of Rohan. He swallowed hard at the thought. Somehow, the idea of confronting that stern and beautiful woman was more daunting to him than either the Paths of the Dead or a long trek across miles of wild open country. Come on, Merry, like Old Papa Rory always said: the first step is always the hardest… He started walking.
Éomer was so angry he thought he might strike down the next person he met. To avoid becoming a murderer, he'd leapt on his horse and galloped away—anywhere, just away. Away from her, from him—from all of them!
His cousin had lost his senses. His uncle had awakened from the trance a doting old fool. And his sister! His lovely, sweet, spirited little sister had turned into a shrew—and he was the only man, apparently, in the Mark who could see it! What was wrong with all of them? Had they all gone blind and deaf?
The Prince, whom he had heretofore admired greatly, looking up to him as a warrior and a leader even more than he did his beloved but elderly uncle the King, had done the unthinkable. His cousin had granted leave for the newest so-called "knight" of the Mark to join the muster and ride to war. His sister would be taking up arms and riding into battle! The Prince insisted she dress as a man, but still, the very idea was not only scandalous, but horrifying! What was more, Théodred seemed pleased, even enthusiastic at the thought. And the King was as mad as the Prince, for he apparently approved!
He had shouted, screamed, railed—to no avail. He had resorted to pleading, to begging on his knees. He had nearly been driven to tears by his rage and his fear. And the three of them had stared solemnly, gazing at him with looks of alarm and pity as if he were the one who had gone mad!
Éomer knew not what to do. He had sought out his lieutenant, Éothain, who agreed it was madness but could think of no way to stop it. You must abide by the rule of the King, sire. What else can you do? But Éomer rode from his friend and officer feeling even more upset. A terrible thought came to him—that if Grima Wormtongue were alive, he would be clever enough to find a way to prevent this. He would agree that Éowyn's safety came before anything else—the man had been, after all, completely besotted with his sister, however loathsome he otherwise had been.
So, the Marshall thought, as his horse slowed to a trot on the steeper slopes above the valley of Dunharrow. I must think like Master Grima, he told himself, his heart caught in a vise of desperation. I must be as devious as he. I must find a way to prevent this madness and protect her, especially from herself. I must!
Merry did his best to present a logical case to the Lady of Rohan, who listened attentively to his plea as they stood in the cold wind just outside her pavilion. He thought of how he and Pippin had pleaded—whined, really, when he thought of it—with Master Elrond. That won't do, not with this Princess… The fabric of the tent flapped, and the lantern she had brought out with her sputtered. He pulled his shoulders back as far he knew how and tried to appear solemn, strong and determined, like a soldier—even though his lips were turning blue, and his teeth were threatening to chatter. He wondered whether to mention the visions in the Mirror, and decided against it. Instead he spoke of his desire to do his part, his need to be reunited with his comrades, and his fervent promise that he would not be in anyone's way.
The Lady Éowyn glanced into the darkness. She had dismissed the guard who had brought the Hobbit to her tent. For a moment, no one was in sight.
"You had best come inside, Master Holbytla," she said. "For we have much to say to one another, and the night is bitter." Without another word she turned, pulled the fabric flap aside and disappeared. Merry's eyes widened and he swallowed hard. She wants me to go inside her very own tent? He looked both ways before he rushed to follow and get out of sight.
Inside, he saw with relief, a curtain divided her tent into an outer and an inner chamber. The outer chamber was furnished with two chairs, a wooden trunk, and a small table, upon which sat the glowing lantern. Rich tapestries hung on the walls, and a thick woolen rug hid the earth. But the few items of furniture were hardly visible, for nearly every surface—including the ground—was strewn with her belongings: stacks of books, two hooded cloaks, heaps of other clothing, several pairs of leather boots, a half a dozen daggers of different lengths, a sheathed sword on a leather belt, a round shield with a green background and the image of a running horse, baskets of fruit, two rounds of cheese, a small horn embossed with silver, four water bottles of various sizes, what seemed to be dozens of stockings, a helmet, a silvery shirt of supple mail, and waiting in the center, a very small pack.
She ignored all of it and turned to face him.
"Now then, Master Holbytla…"
"Please, my Lady, if you don't mind, call me Merry," he interrupted. "Or Meriadoc, or Master Brandybuck, if you insist on formality… Not that I mind what you have been calling me, but I'd rather you just used my name…"
"Then I shall do so, and you may call me Éowyn." She nodded toward him. "I was about to say that I believe we have much in common, you and I..."
"We do?" Merry blushed as he looked up at her fair face, her plaited golden hair, and her slender but strong figure. He couldn't think of anyone he had less in common with... maybe the Lady Galadriel…
She smiled slightly. "Not in appearance, perhaps, or background. But in purpose, and in the strength of our wish for the same thing. I also greatly desire to do my part, and wish not to be left behind again. I also would not be parted from those dear to me. And, I am pleased to say, I have been granted leave to join the Riders as one of them—for I was made a Knight of Rohan by the Prince, with my own sword, which, by the way, I am quite capable of wielding…" She gestured toward the gleaming gold-and-silver scabbard with a look of determination. "So you see, Master Merry, I understand your predicament very well," she said. "And what is more, I have decided that you shall ride with me, upon my war-horse, Windfola, who is more than strong enough to bear us both."
Merry could hardly believe his ears. His mouth dropped open and he rudely stared. "Oh!" he said at last, when he could breathe again. "Thank you, my Lady… Thank you so very much!"
Her smile faded, and she stared sternly at him. "I wonder if you will thank me in a week. Rohan goes to war with a ruthless Enemy. It may be that none of us shall return from this journey toward the Darkness."
He held his head up. "I know that, Lady. I have kin, and beloved friends, who are already well along on the path toward terrible danger, and they might not return, either. For me, it would be worse if I did nothing—if I was the only one who lived through this, because I didn't find a way to join them."
Éowyn nodded slowly. "Yes, that is my feeling, as well. All who have the ability to defy this great Darkness have the duty—and the right—to do so, in whatever way their talents allow."
She smiled impishly then, and Merry saw her face transformed into that of a lovely young woman, not much older than a girl. She looked at the amazing disarray in her tent. "And my talents do not allow me to fit all that my head tells me I might need on this dire journey into this tiny sack!" she laughed, as she pointed at the still empty pack. "Ah, my dear brother would point to this…" as she indicated the mess surrounding her, "…as clear evidence in support of his contention that no woman should be allowed on a campaign of war!"
"Well, Lady Éowyn, perhaps I can repay your kindness," Merry said with a grin and a bow. "For packing lightly is one skill I have acquired on my journey to this place! Seven months on the road and walking for hundreds of leagues carrying everything I need on my back has taught me that much. If you would let me, I will do my best to assist you."
"Would you?" she said with a blush. "I would be in your debt—for I have traveled little in my life, and I am truly confounded by the thought of choosing what to take and what to leave! I dare not ask my brother, or my cousin the Prince, or any other Rider. They would think me so foolish…" Her eyes suddenly glittered as she looked about the room. "And I would not have any of these men think me foolish…" Her voice fell to a whisper. "…or afraid..." Éowyn sighed. "Have you any sisters, Merry?" Her voice was suddenly full of sadness, and it tugged at the Hobbit's heart.
She is so young—just like any hobbit-lass still in her tweens, eager for life to begin but afraid of it at the same moment…though this lady has more cause to be afraid than any lass I've met…
"Alas, my mother lost many bairns before they were born until she had me. I am an only child. But I grew up in an enormous old house called Brandy Hall, where the definition of family includes cousins, aunts, uncles, and sundry relations out to the third and fourth degree, and then some!" he laughed. "Several of my cousins are as close as sisters to me, so I do have some experience in playing brother, but I daresay, without the overly protective feeling some brothers have for their sisters—especially their little sisters." He thought wryly of his cousin Barilac and the way Barry hovered over his slight but feisty younger sister Celandine. His adventurous little girl-cousin had often recruited his support for one of her escapades out of sight of her doting, over-protective brother, to his delight and Cousin Barry's—and Uncle Merimac's—lasting irritation.
Merry took a step forward into the middle of the pavilion and stooped down, reaching for the empty pack. He hesitated for only a second before sweeping ten pairs of stockings off the nearest chair and plopping the pack onto it. He placed his hands on his hips and looked about.
"All right, then! I shall take command of this dreadful campaign! Let's begin with what you are certain not to need." He pointed to the stack of books with a smile as mischievous as the Lady's. "If I'm not entirely mistaken, time for reading will be a bit difficult to come by on this journey, until it's all over, of course, and we're all celebrating in some lovely inn in Minas Tirith—where, I suspect, they are civilized enough to have lending libraries!"
He strode to the books and soon had a tower of them balanced in his arms, and in a moment had them neatly placed out of the way. The Lady began to laugh as he returned to the middle of the tent and picked up three daggers in their sheaths.
"Each one is undoubtedly deadly, and very handsome, I agree," he said. "But three?" He looked down again. "I mean, six?"
She held her hands before her mouth as her giggling continued.
"You are allowed only two, Lady, to wear upon your belt beside your magnificent sword," he said firmly. "But you may choose your favorite pair," he grinned, as he grasped all six clumsily in his two small hands.
Slowly, the tall golden-haired woman and the short, brown-headed Hobbit sifted through every one of her possessions. Merry decided that a brother would not be embarrassed to help his sister choose two pair of stockings, and only two, or decide that the fur-lined cloak was not likely to be needed. He busied himself neatly placing her horn, shield, sword and helmet close to the entrance while she sorted out a pile of more private things. With his back turned, he admonished her—though he could not keep the chuckle out of his voice.
"Now, now, no more than one extra of each, Lady!"
"Master Merry, I believe you have eyes in the back of your head!" she laughed, her face red as she grudgingly removed a second, soft undertunic from where it had found its way into her pack. "There, I believe that task is finished… You may turn round again…"
Merry came and made an inspection. The pack was two-thirds full, and the remaining piles of her possessions were in a bit less of an alarming state than when they'd begun. He nodded approvingly.
"Perfect," he said. "You've left just enough room for what's really important… Extra food!" He chose the smaller of the two rounds of cheese and four firm red apples from the baskets, and placed them on top of the pack. "Hmm, there's a bit of room left…"
He looked around the tent, searching for the perfect item to complete her packing. Éowyn wandered to one wall of the tent. She reached down.
"Perhaps just one book?" she asked with a pleading smile, an old volume of what she had always assumed was Gondorian poetry, translated into Rohirric, in her hand. The slim book had been her mother's, and was inscribed from her grandmother—Morwen, the noblewoman from Gondor, of whom she had faint memories from earliest girlhood. She passed her hand over its embossed leather cover lightly, tracing the mysterious design of stars and a crescent moon above a line of waves. Her mother, Théodwyn, had died bearing her, and this book was one of the only remaining fragile tendrils that connected mother to daughter.
But the no-nonsense Hobbit was already shaking his head. "Nay, Lady, you really ought to take something more practical… I have it!" He pointed triumphantly. "An extra water bottle. When full, it will be heavier than a book, but you'll really appreciate it when you're thirsty."
"I suppose you're right." Reluctantly, she let the book fall. She slumped into one of the chairs with a sigh. "How ever can I repay you, Merry? I would have been still trying to decide what to take at dawn!"
"I believe you'll soon have done more than enough to repay me, Lady Éowyn." Suddenly, he found himself hardly able to suppress the urge to yawn. Still deciding at dawn...has down already come?… He stepped to the opening and peeked around the flap that hid the doorway to the pavilion. "What time is it, I wonder?" The sky shimmered with bright stars, and no one was in sight. He noticed a few torches, far off, it seemed, at the edge of the tents where guards were stationed. The wind stung against his face, and he stepped back from the entrance with a shiver.
Éowyn yawned, and giggled again. "I believe it is very late..." She felt the gust of cold, and shuddered. "And very cold!" The Lady rose to her feet, and it was her turn to place her fists firmly on her hips. "Master Meriadoc Brandybuck, it is now my turn to claim the right of command. You shall stay here, in my outer tent, for the rest of what remains of this night… Now, now!" She raised her finger, as he began to stammer in protest. "I wonder: do you even recall where your own tent is?"
Merry blushed fiercely. "Well, no… But I'm sure I could find someone to guide me there…"
"And who might that be? Is anyone else even awake?" she demanded with a smile. "Nay, my friend—for I do consider you a friend, Merry—we are both soon to be traveling in one great mass of men and horses, with no privacy or care for decorum. This evening you have helped me greatly with your practical good sense, and I insist on doing the same. Wait here, just a moment…"
She ducked beyond the heavy drape that divided the pavilion, and soon emerged with two blankets. "I can only offer these to cushion the ground, but at least it is warm within the tent, and you may use my fur-lined cloak for a pillow, if you wish."
Merry took the blankets from her with a shrug. "All right, my Lady. But please, if you wake before me, make certain to call out a warning. At first light I'll hurry to my own tent, before anyone knows I've been here."
"I shall be certain to wake you very early, and preserve both our reputations!" She hesitated for a moment, then walked quickly to where she had let the book of poetry fall. She leaned down and retrieved it, and before Merry had a chance to scold her, she tucked it into the bottom of the small pack. Her chin lifted with mock defiance as she smiled. "Sleep well, friend," she said as she slipped behind the drape.
"And you, my Lady…"
Merry blew out the lantern; he soon saw that a second light was lit within the inner tent, for a glow came from behind the screen of fabric. In a moment, that, too, was extinguished. He assumed he would find it nearly impossible to sleep in such an awkward place, full of anxiety that the Lady's broad-shouldered and fearsome brother or her powerful cousin, the Prince, would somehow discover him and think the worst. But soon he drifted off and was fast asleep.
He woke with a jerk and opened his eyes. What was that? The tent was totally dark, but he felt a slight chill, as though the entrance had been opened and the night air allowed in. He stiffened; what was that noise? He heard the soft scraping of leather, and a muffled moan. Then a harsh whisper—a deep voice, coarse and commanding. He couldn't make out the words—then another voice.
"Stop fighting us, woman!"
Merry's heart thudded as he got to his feet as quietly as he knew how. He heard the muffled cry again. The voice being stifled was higher pitched… Éowyn! Someone was there, or there were two of them, and they had her! He could hear it clearly now, the sounds of a struggle, of fabric tearing… He couldn't believe this was happening—here, in the middle of all the Riders of Rohan, to the highest Lady of this realm… What should he do? He crept forward silently, wondering whether to yell, to sound an alarm… But maybe that was wrong! If these horrible scoundrels could come here, in the midst of all these men who ought to be protecting her, maybe no one would care, or respond to a shout for help…
He heard a soft thud and a louder scuffle, followed immediately by a grunt and a low curse.
"Little hellion! She bit me!..."
"I swear we're not being paid nearly enough for this…"
The muffled cries came steadily, as if someone—she's fighting, and they've got her mouth clamped shut, or have gagged her—was trying to scream in desperation. That was enough for Merry. He had to do something. Now.
His eyes, adjusting to the darkness, fell on her daggers… No good… He couldn't do much against two attackers, Big People, probably well armed, strong enough to overcome the Lady-Knight… He glanced about quickly. That's it! He reached down, grabbed the horn, and blasted three loud notes.
"Help! Help! Someone, help us! The Lady Éowyn is under attack… Help!"
At once, the heavy drape hiding the inner chamber was flung aside. Two men in dark clothing rushed out. Merry saw a scowling face, and a gloved fist—and nothing more.
In the King's pavilion, Théoden sat on his cushioned chair and watched as his son and heir paced restlessly. They had spent hours talking this night, father and son, catching up, it seemed, for all the weeks—months, perhaps—they had lost, days and nights drowned in a haze of ugly dreams and dark, muttering voices. The King had already heard all the news, in brief, but wished to hear it told in its entirety: every decision made, each turn in the road, who held true, who had wavered. He heard anew of the frightfully close first victory at the Fords, fate turned by strange events and stranger allies appearing out of nowhere. And the second terrible defeat, the staggering losses… Each step of the journey to Helm's Deep was reviewed, each hour of that costly siege. His son's grief poured out again—Hama had been as close as a brother to Théodred.
After grief had come a confession, and guilt. Théoden heard the story or the first time from his son, of the massacre of the unarmed Dunlander prisoners, and of the Prince's role in it.
"I…I knew it was wrong, even as I ordered it," he muttered. "I was so enraged, at what those foul Orcs had done… I could not seem to stop myself, even as a voice inside me clamored against it… And then Éomer…" His voice fell to a whisper. "He is not at fault. He is young, and followed my command…"
"Yet not all did so…"
"True—some faced the hard choice between disobeying a direct order, and… and…"
"…And following the course of wisdom," Theoden said sternly. "Disobedience is not always wrong, when the ruler strays from reason." The old King sighed and shook his head. "Yet I blame you not, my son. If I had spent more time in the teaching of state-craft, and less in encouraging you to learn the skills of a warrior only… If I had been wiser, and had not so eagerly listened to Grima's soothing words… If I had been stronger, less willing to yield to the discomfitures of old age, and had grasped my duties as King more forcefully, not allowing him to 'lighten my burden,' as he so oft put it…"
Théodred turned from where he was standing near an intricate tapestry of subtle green and gold, depicting the riding of Éorl the Young upon Felaróf, his white stallion. The Prince came and sat at his father's right hand, and leaned toward him.
"No fault can be laid upon you, Father," Théodred said fervently. "It is upon my head, and no other's. But I have learned the lesson, and deeply. I listened well to the rebuke of Aragorn."
The King nodded. "In the brief time we met, the Northerner seemed wise and noble… Kingly, I would say…"
"Aye," Théodred said. "Would that he had not strayed from reason, in the end. My heart is heavy at the news that he and his stalwart Company have passed into the darkness from whence none have emerged…"
"Yet who can say where another's errand lies? He was utterly certain of his road. Perhaps… Perhaps the time has come for that fell Path to open. Perhaps many things not looked for in an age, or longer, shall come to pass…"
The Prince rose and poured them goblets of mulled wine against the chilly night as their talk continued. They spoke of the Marshalls of the Riddermark, of wise Erkenbrand, and of fair Elfhelm, and of courageous Grimbold and the other officers and Riders who had spoken in council that evening. The muster was well underway; the Prince surmised that six thousands would ride to Gondor at sunset of the day after the morrow, or perhaps a bit sooner. Then Théodred frowned.
"Father, I am concerned for Éomer," he said quietly.
The King grunted. "And well you should be. You have tested him harshly, my son…"
"What mean you, sire?"
Théoden shook his head and sighed. "You have no sister, Théodred. You cannot know what it means to him, to be made to consider not only losing her—she whom he has tried to protect as a father protects his child, yet without the benefit of the wisdom that should accompany fatherhood—but to consider, aye, to vividly picture losing her in the worst imaginable way…"
"I never conceived that his reaction would be so severe…"
"There was much you did not consider, my son, when you agreed to Éowyn's request…"
Théodred stared at the King. "But if you felt that way, Father, why did you not object?"
Théoden glared back. "Because you are my heir!" he said sharply. "You are the Prince of the realm, and will soon be King. It would not do, even before members of my own household, for me to undermine a decision of yours—one that is not, in fact, entirely without reason or merit. But tell me, Prince: Do I detect doubt in your voice? Why did you agree to allow her to risk everything? What was in your mind—or was it but a whim, because you are fond of your cousin, and cannot deny her?"
The Prince frowned, and looked down. His face flushed, and it seemed that he paused to examine carefully his own motives. He drew in a deep breath before he replied.
"Nay, it was not that, though I am fond of her, and I believe I understand her more truly than does her beloved brother, who sees only the vulnerable female, and not the royal woman…" Théodred turned to his father. "I believe, my Lord King, that some great destiny awaits her, to the East. Something that she alone can do… I felt it very strongly, when she came to us to plead her case. It was as if I knew, in my heart, that she was meant to ride to Gondor and to war…"
The King gazed at him intently. "Mayhap… Mayhap the blood of Morwen Steelsheen runs not only in her grand-daughter, but also in…"
At that moment they were startled at a loud outburst outside the King's pavilion. A horn sounded, frantically, then shouts, and more shouting—cries of Stop! Stop them, they're getting away… Men running, more shouting, cries of pain, a voice speaking rapidly... The Prince jumped up and went to the door-flap. In a moment he returned with the guard, whose face was white with fright.
"My Lords!" the man said breathlessly. "There has been an attack, within the bounds of the encampment…"
"An attack!" the Prince cried. "What has happened?"
"Two men were caught, sire, trying to…" He seemed to choke, and could get out no more words.
"What's happened, man?"
More guards appeared, and then Harmund, Théodred's second rushed into the pavilion, his face stricken. The officer bowed quickly and spoke.
"My Lords, no harm has come to any—but dire events have happened, a great crime…"
"To the point, Harmund!" Théodred shouted.
"Two were interrupted in their attempt to…to carry off the Lady Éowyn, my Lords…"
"What!" the Prince cried.
"Where is she?" Théoden said at the same moment.
As if in answer to her uncle the King, Éowyn appeared then, her green tunic thrown over her loose white gown, her fur-lined cloak tossed about her shoulders. Her hair was in disarray, and her pale cheeks were marked with red lines—where a firm hand had been clamped over her mouth. Her eyes were afire with fury. Just behind her came the Captain of the Guards, with four of his men pinning two between them—men in dark cloaks, wearing no sign of the livery of the Mark. Their hands were bound behind their backs. One's face was marked with bruises, and the other had blood streaming from his brow.
"I am safe, my Lords," said she, and her voice was steady and clear. "But as you have heard, these two entered my pavilion this night and tried to bind me and take me with them by force..."
"Bring them before me!" the King demanded, his voice deep and harsh. The guards did his bidding at once, roughly shoving and dragging the two men forward to stand before the King.
"Who are you?" Théoden said. "And more to the point, who hired you? For you two ruffians would not have the wit nor the courage between you to reach for so high a thing… Speak!"
The bruised man fell to his knees before the King.
"My Lord, we were ordered not to hurt her, I swear it…"
"We would not have harmed her, sire…"
"Who hired you?" the King roared.
Éomer had entered unseen, and he now stood before all those who now crowded into the pavilion, his face flushed, his head held high, his breath coming in shallow pants.
"You?" Théodred said in a hushed whisper.
Éowyn covered her face with her hands, and the King closed his eyes and bowed his head. But the Prince erupted with rage.
"You! You? You did this—to your sister? What sort of animal are you? You monster! Tell me why I should not slay you this instant, you vile…"
"I did it to protect her!" Éomer cried. He turned to Éowyn. "You would not listen! You do not know, my dear one—you have no idea of war…" His voice broke. "I could not bear the thought of it…I did it for you!"
He reached out for her, but she squeezed her eyes shut and pulled away. The King glanced at his son, who was staring in shocked silence.
"What exactly were you hired to do?" Théoden snapped at the two men. "Tell me the truth!"
"It is as the Lord Éomer says, sire: he hired us to take her away, to hide her in a shelter in the mountains until well after the muster had taken place and the Riders had gone…"
"We were to leave this note, in her chambers…" The man brought out a folded parchment from the pocket of his cloak.
"Bring it to me," Théoden said sharply, snapping his fingers. Harmund jumped forward and fetched the paper for the King. Théoden frowned as he read it, then he passed it to Théodred. His eyes flew over it.
"It claims to be a note by the Lady, begging forgiveness for her sudden flight. The note said that she had misgivings, and was too afraid to join the muster…" He snorted and tossed it to the floor. "I believe it is written in Éomer's hand…"
"I do not deny it," he said dully.
"Ah! Éomer!" the Lady whispered. "How could you…" Her back was turned, and she shook her bowed head slowly.
The King eyed his son pointedly, who seemed to have been stricken mute. "Well, Prince? What say you now?"
Théodred looked up. He glanced around the crowded pavilion. At least a hundred men had gathered, and all were staring at the scene. Many murmured with one another; the room was full of the sounds of furtive whispering. He scowled and turned first toward the two bound men.
"Captain, take these men to the Sheriff at Harrowdale and inform him of their transgression. We have no time nor facility to deal with them." The Captain nodded, and he and his guards pulled the two to their feet and pushed them before them. "The rest of you—I command that you clear out at once. This is the royal pavilion! Harmund, clear them out—all of them, and you included."
Éowyn turned round, and she placed her hand on her cousin's arm. "Wait, a moment, my Prince," she said. "Harmund, has anyone seen to the Holbytla, Master Merry…"
"Right here, my Lady," came a high voice from within the crowd of tall men. In a few moments, they gaped as from between their legs a small, curly-haired figure emerged. Merry stepped forward and bowed deeply to Éowyn, then to the King. A large, ugly bruise marred the left half of his round, high-cheeked face, but he was smiling cheerfully.
"Meriadoc Brandybuck, my Lord, at your service and your family's," he said with another deep bow.
Théoden's lips twitched, but Éowyn gazed at him solemnly.
"Master Brandybuck has already given service to the House of Éorl, sire," she said. "It was he who raised the alarm, when he happened by and heard the commotion within my tent. It was his quick thinking that saved me…" Merry took the opportunity to bow again, all the better to hide his flushing face.
"Indeed," the King mused. "How fortunate that you happened to be walking by, so late, and on such a cold night..." He grunted. "And I see you paid a hard price for your quick thinking, Master Holbytla…"
"A very small price, your Majesty," he mumbled, without raising his head. "I'm so glad I was able to help in any way I could…"
Éowyn placed a hand on Merry's shoulder and steered him toward the door-flap. "Thank goodness you were not more seriously hurt, Master Brandybuck. I thank you, and hope to speak to you upon the morrow… Good night, Master Holbytla…"
"Good night, my Lords and my Lady," he said as he rushed away.
The Royal Household was finally alone: the King, seated, his white brows drawn together in a frown; the Prince, standing, his arms crossed over his chest, a confused scowl on his face; the King's sister-son, his head hanging, his shoulders slumped; and the King's sister-daughter, her face averted toward the door-flap, where a small figure had just disappeared.
"Well, Prince?" the King said sternly. "I ask again: what say you now?"
The Prince stared at his father. "I would say this first of anything: that I have little store of wisdom for such things as these. I ask, therefore, my King, that you promise to speak, if you find fault with what I say this night."
Théoden nodded. "I shall do so."
Théodred looked then toward his cousin. "Come," he said gently. "Éowyn, come. You, at least, should sit, after your ordeal this night. Sit beside the King."
She did as he asked, careful to avoid meeting her brother's searching eyes. The Prince crouched down beside her and brushed his fingers over the marks on her face.
"There will be some rather nasty bruises there, tomorrow. Tell the truth: are you hurt in any other way?"
"Nay," she sighed. "Oh, there will be bruises on my arms, where they held me fast, and here…" and she held up her wrist, "…where they tried to bind me, but nothing as serious as the bruise to my pride."
Théodred smiled a little at that, and nodded. He glanced up to see the King watching him carefully. The Prince drew in a slow breath and stood. He turned and faced the young man he had considered like to a brother.
"Éomer, you are of the House of Éorl. By blood, the privileges and burdens of rule fall upon you, as they do upon your sister, and upon me. I would, then, ask you what fate you would lay upon one who had conspired to have your sister taken away against her wishes—even if not to harm her, but only to place her out of the way, until such time as her own desires could no longer be fulfilled. What say you, son of the House of Éorl? What doom should fall onto such a one?"
Éomer closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He shuddered, and when he opened his eyes again, to stare at the Prince, all hope seemed gone from them.
"Banishment," he said hoarsely. "Forbid me to show my face in the Mark, ever again…"
Several moments of silence passed. Théodred then turned to Éowyn.
"And you, cousin? What fitting punishment do you wish to see meted out to the one who wronged you?"
"I would… I would that my brother,whom I love, had never thought to do such a thing," she whispered, her gaze downcast. "I would that he trust in me, that he learn what sort of person I am, and not just that I am a woman; that he see my strength and resolve, and not just what he perceives as my weakness and vulnerability." She looked up then, and caught the Prince's eyes and peered at him intently. "I know his heart. He did not wish me harm, and no lasting harm was taken. Many are the Rohirrhim allied to my brother, and their loyalty—and his, must be taken into account. Therefore, I would that he receive no punishment, but that he continue as he has, in his duty to the Mark, in his role as Third Marshall, and that he be in command of his Riders and come with us to fulfill our ancient alliance with Gondor, and to whatever doom awaits us all,"
Théodred gazed at her, shaking his head with a look of astonishment. His face grew stern, and his voice was hard.
"Alas, to allow such a deed pass by with no punishment at all would send the wrong message to others whose hearts might not be so pure. Therefore, I decree that Éomer shall not be banished, nor shall he keep his rank and title, but he shall be one of the Riders under Grimbold, whom I now raise to the rank of Third Marshall. And Éowyn, Lady-Knight of Rohan, shall ride in my company, and report to Harmund, second of my eored. And now, the hour is late. Éomer, I will trust you to see your sister to her pavilion, and guard her through what remains of this night. Until the morning, then…"
The Prince and the King were alone, once again. Théodred sat heavily into the chair at his father's side. He sighed deeply and let his head fall back.
Théoden reached out and grasped his son's hand and squeezed it. "You did well, Théodred. Very well, indeed. You are a wise man...."
"With your help, I am learning, sire…"
"This night has helped me reach a decision, my son. When the muster of Rohan rides East, I shall remain here, in Harrowdale, to rule and protect our people, until you return from war triumphant, or until the Darkness falls. It is time, Théodred, that command fall upon your capable shoulders."
And as the first glimmer of dawn came to the high valley of Dunharrow, Éowyn pulled the drape aside and found her brother, curled on his side on the woolen rug in the outer chamber of her pavilion, his head resting on her fur-lined cloak and two blankets spread over him, fast asleep, a faint smile on his face.