At the Closing of the Year
Author's note: Takes place in TA 3005, approximately fourteen years before the war of the ring: Éomer is fourteen, Éowyn is ten, their cousin Théodred is twenty-seven, and their parents Éomund and Théodwyn are three years gone.
if I cannot bring you comfort
then at least I'll bring you hope
-- the closing of the year
"Barefoot?" Éomer cried in dismay. His handmade holly-crown, too big for him, slid down about his ears, and the herd of little children following him giggled even more.
Éowyn, who was indeed in her sleeping gown and precious else, blinked at him as though she hadn't heard him coming, as though he and his entourage hadn't been making enough racket to welcome three or four Kings of Winter instead of just the one.
He shook his head, shucking off his own hide-slippers and lifting his sister into them, though they were considerably larger than her feet. "Sister, just yester evening the Snowbourn froze, you ought not..." Distracted, Éowyn was barely protesting, which gave him pause. "What is it?"
"I've lost it," she said, lifting her eyes from the tiled stones at last. "It's gone."
About to ask what, Éomer saw her small fingers worrying at a chain around her neck, and guessed. Éowyn was not a silly child; it could only be something precious, and no orphan can name one thing more treasured than the token of a loved one lost. "Mama's necklace."
Nodding, she bit her lip; sister-daughter to the king, too brave to cry. "The silver horse. That she gave me."
His gaggle of hangers-on, sensing unseasonable sobriety, detached from him like a bramble brushed free from a horse's mane, tumbling on down the hallway-- seeking, no doubt, sweetcakes to pinch or winter berries to thread into chains of evergreen, mischief to make on the one day of the year it was not only permitted, but sanctioned.
"Well," her brother said, fourteen and practical. Nothing a little logical backtracking couldn't solve, like he'd found their uncle's favorite drinking-horn before the great feast and been a hero for a day. He fidgeted absently with his crown, which at this point was beyond help. "When did you see it last?"
"Yesterday." It wasn't much more than a whisper. "Before cousin Théodred took us out on his horse."
"Oh," Éomer said, face falling, imagining the snow-covered miles stretching from Meduseld almost as far as the sunset. They had ridden for hours, breath steaming white in the bittercold air, keeping each other warm with laughter, and good-natured Brego warm with exercise.
But, because it wasn't helpful at all to be get caught up in sadness, Éomer shook his head briskly. "That doesn't mean anything," he said, and his sharpness brought her chin up, nearly hopeful. "You wear it all the time, don't you? You could have dropped it before we left, or even earlier, and only just now noticed."
"Maybe." She was obviously unconvinced, though she believed yet that Éomer was infallible. "Do you think?"
He smiled encouragingly. "Of course I do. Have you asked Théodred yet? Or Uncle?"
Seeming to see him for the first time, her mouth twitched in a little smile. "Your crown is crooked. What are you doing?"
It heartened him, and he threw out his chest and in his best booming voice he said, "I am King Frost, little girl, and I am come to bring the winter to Edoras this year."
More skeptical, perhaps, than many of the children he had enchanted earlier, Éowyn pursed her lips: barely out of childhood himself, his hair just barely long enough to braid, her brother cut quite a scant figure. "King Frost would be taller," she said sagely.
Éomer stood on his bare tiptoes, prancing and proud like a stallion fresh home from his first battle. "Like this?"
"King Frost would have, um, bigger hands," she said, with her own petite hands on her hips, though truthfully she was trying not to giggle. "Isn't that what they say? To carry all the snow."
Too late she saw the sparkle in his blue eyes, too late she tried to dodge his hands-- smaller than King Frost's, yes, but deft and clever!-- as he grabbed her. Éowyn shrieked with laughter as he tickled, fleeing down the hallway in his slippers and making him chase her, himself barefoot on Midwinter's Day.
Even on Midsummer's Day, he would have been the faster runner, ever since he'd shot up like a colt, his legs twice as long as hers. Now, though, through the chilly corridors of Meduseld, he moved quick as a horse with a fire on its tail. Veering crazily from foot to foot on the cold cobbled stone, he caught up to her at the door to their rooms.
She consented to have herself fussed over, her Yuletide dress splendid and silvery-white, to match Éomer's new embroidered shift, denoting his new rank as member of their uncle's muster. Her servingmaid (for she would not call the woman her nurse, being all of ten years old and not needing such babying) braided her golden hair with the green velvet ribbons that Théoden had given to her, dearer-than-daughter.
At the broad double doors to the meadhall itself, the other children found them, and even Éowyn could not stay subdued, with all Meduseld around her in such a holiday mood.
It was when the hour grew late at Théoden King's feast that the stranger came into the meadhall, frost on his boots and snow swirling in the eddies of his cape. Unlike the other guests, he did not shrug out of his long green cloak, but the hair Éowyn could see beneath his hood was the color of frost-silvered straw, the bearded face broad and imposing. He must be one of Uncle's kin, she thought instinctively, something about the height and presence of the man implying regal blood.
None of the men already at feast paid him much mind, their heads bent over their boar and bread, or tilted up to swallow the last dregs of a winehorn. The King was deep in counsel with his son (either arguing or agreeing with each other over Théodred's latest appointment as Marshal, she couldn't tell which); Éomer was busy enjoying his first taste of honey malt. The stranger did not move to stand among them, or to sit, but watched their festival faces with a look on his own that she could not read.
Éowyn, feeling very small indeed-- but more importantly, mindful of her proper manners-- filled the biggest horn she could carry with Théoden King's finest mead and walked up to him. "Westu hal, good sir," she said, adding the last because like a tall tower, or an ash tree, he was even more impressive up close. "You are well come to Edoras, my lord."
He took the drink she offered, his wide hands still gloved and his riding cloak hanging still about his shoulders, and drank it thirstily. So as not to stare, her eyes lit on his wrought-gold horn belt, at her eye-level. It was styled as the figure of a prancing stallion, impossibly intricate windblown mane and rich, curling tail; with white smooth river-stones for eyes. Not for the first time she thought that he must have been a person of great importance; hadn't she seen a horn of similar craft in her uncle's treasury?
"I thank thee," he said suddenly, and Éowyn's blood stood still in her veins, like sap that the frost turns to sweet ice. His voice was deep like she'd known it would be, like thunder moving over the Eastemnet; his accent had that bittersweet tang of the North in it, his inflection fancy like her uncle's armoring rituals. With no small awe she tried to find her tongue, to remember the proper way to receive thanks.
"May King Winter smile on you, this year's turning." It filled her up with wordless pride, a simple cup poured full with finest wine, that she could offer the hospitality of her uncle's table to such a noble stranger; that she knew the right words to say. "'Tis the longest night of the year, and like to be the coldest. Plenty wine we have, and seats by our fire." She swallowed, wondering if she were starting to talk too much, and if Éomer would have rolled his eyes at her. "If you would like to warm yourself, my lord."
As she was gathering her courage to look up at him, his palm came to rest with surprising gentleness on her shoulder, like a great raven alighting on a branch without the slightest rustle. His hand, in its well-tooled glove, was rich crimson, a color uncommon in the Riddermark, and doubly expensive for being so rare. "Thanks to thee, little Éowyn. But this night my journey is not yet done."
She saw him to the feast-hall doors, stammering something, wishing him fair travel and thanking him honestly for the honor of his presence. In all her long years afterward, though, she never could remember what she said to him, or his response in that magnificent thunderclap of a voice. While she stood on the threshhold, she saw him beckon for his horse, and the sight of the beautiful grey steed quite took her breath away.
He spoke soft greeting to his horse, in the manner of all good rider-lords, and in his mounting, the cloak slid from his head. For the first time she saw him plain, firelight glinting on his silvered hair, his cloak clasp, the horn at his belt.
Humbly she realized she was staring open-mouthed, and wondered what words might erase the offense of her boldness-- but then he smiled a smile that touched his face as the sunshine touches snow, shedding brightness and warmth unexpected. His eyes, now she saw them clearly, were the color of ice, smooth and pale as river-stones.
"Ferthu hal, Éowyn," he called, as he spurred his horse to a canter.
Dumbstruck she watched him ride off, the last glimpse of his wine-red gloves as he waved, the snap of his green cloak like her uncle's pennant. His stallion's hooves kicked up only the tiniest clouds of snow, like the evening breeze might scatter the simbelmynë; the three-beat cadence of his departure echoing in her ears like her own stuttering heartbeat.
And then Éomer was beside her, admonishing her to come in from the cold and stop gawking like that, and to do her cousin the honor of joining him at the royal table. Half breathless, she could only follow, blinking snowflakes from her eyelashes and turning her face back to the warmth of her uncle's fireside. The rest of the night was full of feasting and mead, and singing, and the fiddle and the harp. By the time she tried to recall the stranger, or his horse, she could remember only very little.
The night was quite old by the time she and Éomer turned in; after the last of the dishes had been cleared away, and there had been dancing, and the tallest man in their cousin's éored donned the holly-wreath as King Frost, passing out treats to the giddy children. Her brother scolded that it was long past her bedtime, though she suspected she was helping him to their rooms as much as he was guiding her; neither his walk nor his smile was quite steady. His laughter was his own, though, and both of them were weary on their feet and glad for the promise of warm quilts and a night full of dreams.
Éomer was asleep soon as he lay down, and Éowyn had to wiggle his new dagger from his fingers so that he might not hurt himself in the night. Her own small gift, though-- gold coins to put in her shoes, for luck-- clinked forgotten on the floor as she drew back the thick covers on her bed.
There. On her pillow, where she was certain she had looked before, and not just once.
Right there, tiny and perfect against her palm, the well-loved silver muted to a shimmery grey: her mother's horse. She wrapped her fingers around it carefully, and a fierce wonder moved through her, like an éored of horses cresting over the hill and galloping for home.
She thought she heard a chuckle, like thunder riding down the Ered Nimrais; but when she moved to the window, the winter night was silent but for the sound of falling snow.
Her eyes stinging with more than sleep, she crept into her brother's bed, flinging her arms around him-- not only to wish him a blessed Yule, as he mumbled drowsily-- but because at that instant she thought she might dissolve if she didn't have someone to hang onto.
notes not vital to the understanding of the story, but that someone might find interesting:
Norse mythology holds that the Father of the Gods wanders his land as the days grow shorter: Odin in his December aspect of Jul (hence the time, Jultid) rides among his people on his magnificent unworldly horse, coming to their firesides to listen to their troubles, to hear of their victories, and to leave small gifts to those in need.
Helm Hammerhand perished in the Long Winter of 2758-9, unable to reclaim his country from Wulf and the Dúnlendings. With spring thaw, his nephew Fréaláf subdued Wulf and reclaimed Edoras for the people of the Mark, becoming himself the first in the Second Line of Kings of Rohan. And ever after, the Dúnlendings believe that the discontented spirit of Helm wanders his land.
Given that the people of the Riddermark are based unsubtly on the descendants of the Vikings, right down to the transliteration of their language-- and given Odin's fabulous horse!!-- I just had to combine the two ideas. ...Not that Helm's horse has eight legs, mind.