Finer Far than Queen
Author's notes: This is part one of my LotR offering this december, though in fact it is the middle part of three (the first of which i wrote last winter: At the Closing of the Year. For this story, it is TA 3011, eight years before Ring-Time. so: Éowyn is sixteen, Éomer is twenty, Théodred (their cousin) is in his thirties.
"Uncle gave me this horse," Éowyn said reasonably, mounting without waiting for her brother's help. "Surely he did not intend that I should simply keep her hair brushed and her hooves polished?"
Éomer looked on in amused despair, as a gust of rain-scented wind banged the stable doors, catching at their hair. "I know." He tried not to sound pleading, laying a careful hand along the skittish mare's neck. "And I am sure she will serve her rider well, in time. But see how she is untrained--"
Truly, the slightest touch of Éowyn's heels to Windfola's sides set the young mare startling and bucking beneath her. But Éowyn only flashed her brother a challenging smile, quiet like the rolling silence just before the thunder. "Then I shall train her."
He coughed, with ill-disguised disbelief. "You?"
"I am as proficient on a horse as the next person," she bridled, steadying herself in the saddle and taking full advantage of the greater height it gave her. "Cousin Théodred has said that I might one day rival you."
"Indeed. But there is a storm coming, sister, and I'm sure Uncle didn't mean for you--" His sentences were perpetually unfinished, these days. The words trailed off uselessly as Windfola charged out of the horse-mews, Éowyn's hair snapping behind her like banners of gold.
"I will see you for the midday meal!" she tossed back over her shoulder, and he could just make out the sound of her laughter over the muted roar of the wind.
"Ferthu hal," Éomer said, under his breath, wondering which, of the four-year-old mare or the sixteen-year-old girl, was the more difficult to handle. As he wrestled to shut out the coming storm, he kicked at a half-open sack of oats by the stable doors, sullenly watching the grain dust rising into the humid air. At least the mare might be bribed with food.
He very much doubted that he would see his sister at the King's noon table.
Truthfully, he did not expect to find her at all that afternoon, not hours after the storm had descended in full force, whipped all the standards on their mounted spears to full attention, and then subsided into a heavy summer rain. Not with the noon meal long past and the dishes cleared away from the feast table.
Certainly not training outside the stables, in the rain, with a sword in either hand.
She did not see him, so absorbed in her swordplay and her grey eyes focused within, and so for a long moment he simply watched her. The back of her neck, the way her careful braids were just starting to pull loose from their pins. The curve and sweep of her slim shoulders, the reach of her two swords, one in each hand. The coiled power in the small of her back, the force driving her forward.
There was a cadence to it-- two blades, one woman-- that was not unlike dancing. Step and turn, step and back, and the weight and swing of the swords like partners around her. Éomer thought that his mother might have been proud, to see such rhythm and skill in her daughter. Just as quickly, though, he thought that she might have been horrified, too, to see Éowyn wearing such improper clothes and waving such sharp objects around. Théodwyn had been many things, but foremost she was the daughter of a queen, and eternally aware of her position.
Perhaps their father would have laughed, but Éomer doubted that he would have stopped her. (Their uncle did not laugh. Indeed, he had been the one to make her a gift of those swords, and from the royal armory.)
He shivered a little, himself too aware of the rain in his eyes, trickling down his chin, dripping from the end of his braid. She paid no more heed to the weather than a sword on the battlefield might, the rain only serving to brighten her elegant fine-honed edges. Her leather boots moving over well-worn smooth wet stone, she reached the end of one exercise, two swords meeting behind her with a clang, and began another.
With a touch of guilt, he wondered if half his éored would be so diligent in their own practice in such conditions. There, in her untempered fire, was something of the fierce joyous movement of mearas called to ride, cresting up over the hill with their hoofbeats resounding like drums. She would do great things, he was sure; she would surpass them all, she would--
He surprised himself by interrupting her, suddenly unable to bear the weight of his thoughts.
"I thought that I would see you for the midday meal."
The change that came over her was instantaneous, as the Snowbourn would ice over in the depths of winter, beautiful and sharp with cold. Caught mid-movement, her arms quivered just a little, and Éomer could see the pull on her shoulders of two swords held above her head. But she did not move, and the graceful lines of her were all the more remarkable in stillness.
Without lowering her swords she angled her head to meet his eyes. "Westu hal, Éomer," she said, with cool civility. "I didn't see you there." The implication was clear from her tone that she would have made no apology for doing him accidental harm, had he been fool enough to catch her off her guard.
Almost sheepishly, Éomer cleared his throat. "It is only that I missed your company. If I did not know better, I would think you were avoiding me."
She brought down her blades abruptly, more in frustration than in strict discipline. "I had thought that neglecting my training would be worse an offense than not sitting in my proper seat at the banquet table."
He tried to say, "I have never told you not to train--"
"You say it every day. With your eyes, with your excuses. You wish to keep me--"
"I only wish to keep you safe," he finished her sentence, knowing as he spoke that it was the wrong thing to say.
"That is no way to honor father's memory!" she said, drawing herself up to her full height, her voice ringing like flashing steel. "Only give me a sword, that I may serve the king my uncle. You of all people ought to honor that."
Éomer caught his breath. Old enough to remember, he heard in her voice the grief of their grandmother: her son-in-law slain and her daughter dying, herself failing against the tide of age and powerlessness. "This is no way to honor Éomund's memory," she had said, her voice unbreaking and her back unbowed. "All the kingsfoil in Lossarnach will not now bring back my daughter's breath, grieving so for her husband gone. Bring me his sword!" And Théoden her son had denied her request, knowing her mind and not doubting her resolve.
Nine years ago, Éomer had been old enough to see such things, even if he had not then understood them. Now, he looked on his younger sister with a shudder, seeing the same glint in her eyes that had earned Morwen of Lossarnach the name of Steelsheen-- the same current of desperation sharpening her to a terrible, beautiful edge.
Twice he opened his mouth to respond; twice the words died unspoken in his throat. When he found his voice it was not what he expected to hear himself say, but sometimes it is true that the old stories speak best. "...You are like Baldor," he said to her. "I fear that one day you will ride on paths I dare not follow, and you will leave me far behind."
Her hands gripped her swordhilts so tightly he could see her fingers turn pale. He thought she might chide him for discussing ancient history, but rather she said, "Nay, brother," and her voice was quiet. "You are the elder; it may be you who rides away from me. And I, like Aldor, will sit in quiet grief in Meduseld and grow famous for my old age."
Incredulous, he swept the rainy hair from his eyes. "You?" He wondered just how long neither had been listening to what the other had to say. No longer could he hear the din of falling raindrops, realizing at last that they were not so different as he once had thought.
Thinking that he meant to counter, she spoke again, more strongly. "What good is a golden hall without the valor that raised it? What good, letting the older brother ride off alone, to glory and death?" Fiercely she swung her swords, hewing at imaginary foes. "You will ride with cousin Théodred, Marshal of the Mark; you will be a fine right-hand man for the next king. And my hair will grow silver and long, and I will wed and wither, fading to nothing in the shadows--"
And for once it was brother who interrupted sister, raising his voice to stem the heated flow of words. The strength of his decision startled him, but once convinced he would not be swayed. "I am not your enemy, Éowyn daughter of Éomund. By chance I am your kin, but by choice I am your friend. I would gladly give you my sword. Will you not trust me?"
"...I only wish to be allowed to fight," she said softly, seeming lost without the force of his opposition to lean against. She glanced at the blades before her, held steady and unwavering, at the flashing glint of well-wrought steel. "The weight of a sword in my hands is something I understand. I wish to be no different than any man in your éored."
"But you are different, Éowyn," he said, and caught her eyes before she could retort. "You are far dearer to me. I would only ask that if you fight, you fight at my side."
She bowed her head. It was not submission-- never submission-- but a reluctant, creeping sort of quiet. "All right," she said at last. Her sigh was as the early spring wind that stirs the simbelmynë: clear and sharp, eloquent and sad in its silence. "If you will fight at mine."
With more relief than he dared to voice, Éomer smiled. "There is no shame in taking strength from your family, is there?"
Her response was wordless, barely even a nod, resuming her sword exercises. As if their argument was at an end, as if the rain did not continue to pour around them.
"Stubborn! Come inside where it is dry," he wanted to say. Or, perhaps, if he was feeling desperately foolish, "Rain is for the flowers, and you are not so delicate." In the end, the words he decided to say were simple ones. "You ought not stay so long in the rain, sister."
"A Rider of the Riddermark ought not neglect daily training, brother," she echoed him stiffly, the formality harsh and foreign in her voice, heavy like the court-fancy clothing of Meduseld had once weighed on their younger shoulders. Without interrupting the flow of her movement, she lifted her chin to glare at him, and neither was willing to look away first.
Until Éomer, scratching at his beardless chin in what he hoped was a masculine, thoughtful fashion, suggested, "Perhaps a Rider of the Mark ought to consider training inside?"
That earned the first traces of her smile, a familiar warmth returning to her eyes. He wondered if it were the first time he had ever named her Rider, wondered if the word meant so much to her. Perhaps so: they both chose their words carefully, learning that much from nine years at their uncle's court, orphaned sister-son and -daughter to the King.
Taking a half step back, Éowyn tossed the sword from her left hand at him, and raised a fair eyebrow in unspoken invitation. He caught it one-handed, unconsciously weighing it, finding the balance and heft of it. Éowyn still did not quite smile, but there was a triumphant sort of joy in her eyes. "And might a Rider's brother do her the honors--"
He didn't let her finish, rushing in with a heavy-handed swing and a wordless shout. Of course she was ready for it, parrying effortlessly and letting his greater bulk carry them both backwards, across the training yard and through the stable doors.
"--of a practice bout?" she finished, unwinded, as they found their footing in the narrow dusty confines of the horse-mews.
"Nothing he'd rather do," Éomer bandied, punctuating each syllable with swordplay. She was taller than he remembered; he had to dodge a blow rather ungracefully as he had underestimated the reach of her arm. It made her laugh, and to hear such a sound, he did not rue the stumble.
The rain in their clothes seemed to steam in the warmth of the stable, evaporating with the heat and movement of their bodies. Each admired the other's fighting stance and skill; they were nearly evenly matched. What Éowyn lacked in reach, she more than made up for in agility-- and what Éomer lacked in swiftness, he compensated with his greater height.
Windfola nickered curiously as their fight took them a shade too close to her stable. Éomer cursed as the mare tried to eat the ends of his hair, as he was busy deflecting a particularly vicious downswing.
Éowyn, delighted, tossed her head; her braids, long coming unbound, tumbled suddenly loose. Now they spun free around the axis of her, whips of blonde fire that flashed in the lamplight, dazzling.
Distracting, Éomer thought, without knowing he was thinking it. It occurred to him for the first time that she was more deadly than any man of the Mark, regardless of height or girth, for the sheer unexpectedness of her, that she might always catch her opponents unprepared.
But wait, there, he saw an opening, and his sword sliced in-- and a tiny cloud of golden hair, neatly severed from the end of her braid, caught in the wake of her spin and floated away.
Her eyes were wide, appreciative and incredulous at once. Slowly she smiled, as though answering a long-sought challenge. "So you would cut my hair, brother mine?" she said, with deceptive airiness, as they circled one another. Both were light on their feet as warhorses relieved of their armor, their heads rearing back and manes shaking free. "Perhaps you yourself could use a shave?"
Éomer, who had not yet managed to grow a respectable beard, cried a laughing protest, and their fight was in earnest.
Neither was quite willing to say how it happened-- Eomer, perhaps, from pride; Eowyn from humility-- but she bested him, and with remarkable speed.
With a laugh, sharp and ringing, she struck the sword from her brother's hand-- and he could not tell which was the more satisfying to her: the clattering ring of the tumbling steel, or the raw bewilderment on his face.
"What say you?" she said, her voice catching, nearly breathless. Steadily she raised her sword to his neck, as if she were the victor come to claim her spoils, or slay the opposing force.
Éomer's throat worked speechlessly, his thoughts flitting briefly to overpowering her, or dashing past her to reclaim his sword.
She must have seen his fingers twitching, for she spoke as if reading his mind. "On horseback," she said slowly, her eyes alight, "your fallen sword would not be so easily reclaimed. Is that not true, my brother?"
His eyes went wide, and though he had to tilt down his chin to look her in the eye, still her presence commanded him. For a moment they stood in silence, unmoving, breath coming hard from their sparring. She matched him, fire for fire, grey eyes for blue, both sparking with heat like forging metal.
At last he shook his head, mindful of the closeness of the edge of her steel. "You speak rightly, of course."
With a tumultuous release of breath, she exulted, "Ha!" Only then, with his acknowledgement of her victory, did she lower her blade, as elegant at ease as she had been, moments before, in her ruthlessness. "You might not forget this lesson so easily," she said, but there was gentleness, now, in her tone. As if she had proven something not to him, but to herself.
He laughed, but ruefully. "I may bear the scars for years to come, lady," he said, favoring the places where she had bruised him.
Running lightly to his side, she ignored his protests of injury and embraced him with surprising feeling. "Good," she said, but he could hear the unspoken gratitude beneath her words. "It serves you right."
Then, Windfola-- nose in a bag of oats upended by their fight-- lifted her great heavy head as if to scold them for interrupting her dinner, and they held on to one another and laughed for long and hard.
"And now," Éomer managed, when he found his breath, "out of these wet clothes before Uncle finds us, and has our heads."
"Mindful as ever, Éomer," she teased him, though she too made a face at the mud on her boots and the dust on her shirt. She wound a hand in his short braid, tugging playfully. "What ill would Uncle speak, his niece and nephew working together so diligently?"
Shrugging, he raised his hands to quell further argument, and she skipped away to rescue Windfola's feedbag from its untimely fate. Happier now within her own mind, she seemed bright and fey, as a spirit unleashed from the depths of Dwimordene. He thought for a moment that she seemed to become someone else when she fought-- but then he saw the flash of steel still there in her eyes, undisguised by the softer aspect of her smile.
He looked up to find her watching him intently, with a little twist of her lips that was almost a smile. "In time you will grow a fine beard," she said, in mock-appraisal, as though giving him her royal blessing. "And serve whatever king you may."
"And you..." he began. She mistook his pause for dramatic emphasis and rolled her eyes, but the words he chose were sincere. "You will be Éowyn of the Riddermark, finer far than Queen. And I pity anyone who might try to stop you."
And in the end she could not argue with that, taking his proffered arm and walking contented beside him, into the mead hall of the king.
tiny glossary of terms
* Dwimordene -- (literally, "shadow-valley"; "magical wood") the Rohirric word for Lórien.
* Lossarnach -- a flowery vale of the southern White Mountains, near Minas Tirith, and an ancient fiefdom of the kingdom of Gondor. Morwen, wife of Thengel King, mother to Théoden and Théodwyn, hailed from there.
* Baldor & Aldor -- two sons of Brego, second King of Rohan. Baldor rode off to walk the Paths of the Dead, so the younger brother, Aldor, became the third King of the Mark.