Winter's Child

by llamajoy

Author's Notes: And this would be the third and final part of this Éowyn trilogie, sort-of companion story to the first two. Tolkien's timelines get a little fuzzy after the War of the Ring, so this is set roughly five years into the fourth age. Éowyn would be approximately in her late twenties, Éomer Éadig (now King of the Mark) in his early thirties, and Faramir (that cradle-robber), in his early forties. Forgive the movieverse weirdness of naming Théodred's horse Brego, but I like it.

When the nights are lengthening one by one, daylight is more valuable tender than fine-minted mythril, just as pale and dearer still. Winters in Ithilien may not be so harsh as the winters of Éowyn's childhood, in the Eastemnet with the Snowbourn frozen solid, the horses stabling two to a stall to keep warm-- but even here the air is bitter, and the southerly sun shines but feebly on the hills of Emyn Arnen.

Éowyn rides in the mornings regardless, though the stirrups of her younger days would only be half so long as the reach of her legs, and the figure waiting patiently by her hearth is no longer her father, her uncle, her brother. Perhaps it is strange to southern eyes that their Princess take to horse alone, but the people of Gondor are growing accustomed to their mistress' habits, and he who might have sway over the White Lady of Rohan, asking that she keep to the warmth of her chambers, is ever last of all to stay her hand.

Swept on the tide of that great rush that has changed all their lives, she cherishes the things that do not change: though it be the wind that stings her eyes and whisks her hair from its wraps, or the crescent curves of snow kicked up by Windfola's broad hooves, catching in her eyelashes and her scarves. Her horse's gallop might be mellowing with age, Windfola not the restless filly she once was, only two winters past foaling fine colts of her own. But the cadence of it, hoofbeats resounding on hard-packed snow, is still familiar to Éowyn as her own pulse.

Tomorrow, she thinks, or perhaps next week, she will tell him. Already she has lingered long over it; she wonders that he does not suspect, marvels again that he trusts her to bide her time. Soon enough she will no longer have the choice of when to speak it, betrayed by time and her own indecision. She lifts her face into the wind and lets her horse run as she will, the swiftly-moving air slipping icy fingers around her waist. Highly she suspects that, were he to know, she would no longer be free to ride, even with the escort he so often offers. And so she waits for another morning, another day, and turns Windfola's head towards the north.

Not long after, the sun not yet to its zenith in the sky, she realizes she is not alone. Another drumbeat set of hooves follows her-- not at a rushing gallop, but a measured pace, well-considered. By the patience and the distance of it, she knows who it must be, and the sound sets her heart racing in matched rhythm.

Cresting over the hill behind her comes Ithilien's prince, head uncovered and his hair dancing in the wind, and Éowyn holds to her reins as a child first learning to ride, unbalanced, feeling too tall by half astride her horse. She slows to a trot, Windfola not unwilling to wait for her kin: the mare Míriel, a wedding-gift these five years past, mearh of the aged line.

Side by side they walk without looking direct at one another, cautious of their horses' footing as if they were untrained fillies that might stumble in the snow without a watchful hand on their reins. Faramir's face is lightly flushed with the chill, his eyes bright as they talk of nothing and the mist of their breath mingles and steams in the air. For the first time Éowyn thinks that it might not be his guards whose company he proffers, each morning as she saddles her horse to ride. She lowers her chin that her scarf might hide her face, her guilty smile.

Snowdrifts move against the rolling hillsides, like an éored of nameless white horses, untamed and surging toward the mountains. Éowyn feels a tightness at the back of her throat that has little to do with the cold. Many are the times she misses the Mark, the country and the people of her blood. But today she is not standing on the steps of Meduseld in her robe and her hide-slippers, hoping for a glimpse of a shadow on the road; today she is that shadow, her own silhouette striking against the snow.

Meet it is that the lord of the land ride out to greet his guests, but it is she who catches sight of them first, her eyes keen on the horizon-- a horse she knows, grey gelding whose headtoss she might recognize half a league away. Firefoot, and Éomer astride him, the plume of his helm bright and bold as a war-song from the Hornburg. There is another slighter horse by his side, a prize mare by the looks of her, undappled dark and strong, worth a king's ransom. Éowyn knows Lothiriel not by her face, not at this distance, but the colors of her trappings: the emerald green that her husband has chosen to match her eyes.

When they meet, Éomer Éadig hails them, and she thinks of Théoden King in the cant of his head as he meets her eye, the keen and considering glance he gives her. For a second she is afraid he will speak of it, guess her truth and spill her secret heart. But his face is not without compassion, and under the crest he is still her brother, after all. There is snow in his beard and the ends of his hair are turning white with it-- mounted there on his fine, great steed, at last he makes a respectable King Frost, she thinks, and has to bite her lip to keep from saying something fond and foolish.

Coming closer, their horses nuzzle noses in familiarity, not so over-trained that they do not canter in their pleasure. The lady of Gondor, Queen of the Riddermark, flinches at the motion, her slim gloved hand too tight on the reins. She is lovely perched atop her horse, her dark hair blowing away from her face like a sleek black standard never touched with battle, but Éowyn sees how her smile is pinched, how the set of her slender shoulders reveals her unease. She wonders if all of the womenfolk of Númenor are so quiet and sad about the eyes, if Faramir's mother had looked thus, looking out of her window at the sea.

Softly Éomer speaks to the mare, and for the first time Éowyn sees Elfwinë, huddled in his mother's arms. The bow of Lothíriel's back is suddenly a protective shape, keeping her child close, bundled against the cold. They boy is all wide eyes and ruffled blond hair, his fingers knotted in the horse's braided mane, settled snug between the horse's back and his mother's breast. In a flash of memory, pale like winter sunlight, Éowyn imagines herself that small: tucked between Théodred's legs against Brego's shoulders, clapping as the snowflakes landed on her eager hands.

Elfwinë lifts a chubby fist to wave, and something gentles unexpectedly inside of her; the child recognizes her, calling her by name, or as close as his baby tongue can manage. Faramir lifts him carefully from his mother's arms, and the sound of their laughter, man and child, echoes uninterrupted across the bright winter sky.

Only as they head back to Minas Ithil-- Éomer and Lothíriel riding before, Elfwinë dozing in his father's lap-- can Éowyn meet her husband's eyes. They are riding at a slower pace, now, knowing that dry clothes and festivities await them, guests of esteem to rouse the castle to a great feast. There will be snow on the rooftops, and last year's log in the hearth, and mulled mead, and sticky aniseseed cakes for those too young for drink. And even now, at midday, there will be a taper burning in every window to mark the passage of Midwinter's Day. Guard against the wolves of winter, the women of the Riddermark would say. Hold your family close.

She reaches out to touch Faramir's hand, wool gloves rough and warm. Quietly she lets him hand her down from her horse, landing in the snow, great silver swaths of it cascading around them.

To the people of the Riddermark, the orphan is sacred: he who has nothing to offer, and nothing to lose; he whose voice, raised in entreaty, rings loudest in the ears of the old gods. And what gift does the orphan wish, with all the fervency of his heart?

She cannot summon his family to come for him, as he has done for her. Father, mother, brother, all things lie beyond her reach.

Save one.

And so it is that she finds the courage to look at him, and memorize his face, a tiny smile flickering like a midwinter candleflame on her brow. She finds it is not so difficult to speak, the words not building a cage but loosing open a long-closed doorway. It eases within her chest, a buoyant feeling, not at all the clamor and the cry she half-feared. A battle won without blood shed, without a weapon raised-- a victory, and not a surrender.

Leaning against him, sheltered from the winds, she stands in his lea but not in his shadow, the early-rising sun pealing down on their heads. And in his heartbeat she hears a hundred hundred horses galloping, an éored named at last, breathless and bound for the sea.


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