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A/N: Many thanks to Ellynn for her hard work sorting through it all! many, many hugs!! :-)
Ch. 6 – The Reckoning
3013 TA – Edoras (Fall)
In the act of trying to decide between three different choices of color, Cyneith fluttered between the bolts of fabric, unable to choose which between the dark red, the deep blue or the pale green for her wedding dress. All were wool and finely woven, though the different fabrics were woven in different patterns and techniques designed to either reflect or absorb the sunlight in different ways. Color was very important in a wedding dress as it marked a girl’s passage into womanhood. All three had been given by other noble families for her to choose from. As Cyneith’s mother had passed years earlier and no fabric had been made and set aside as was tradition, the other noble families took pity upon the girl and offered up what they could. Another girl might have looked on the gesture as condescending or a suggestion that she was pitiable. But Cyneith’s good heart did not see the offers in that way. She saw only the kindness in the gesture.
Éowyn smiled at her friend and tried to share in her excitement, but inside, she was weeping. She was about to lose the only friend her own age she had in Edoras. Cyneith was marrying Háldred and Éowyn’s heart was breaking. Still she endeavored to look excited. She was genuinely happy for Cyneith. Her friend was kind-hearted and never judged her for some of the opinions that Éowyn held, that others often labeled as odd or unusual. Háldred had grown from a gangly boy into a fine young Rider and a pleasant-spirited young man. His training was over, and he would be returning to his father’s holding in the Eastfold and would be taking Cyneith home with him as his bride. Cyneith’s sigh and declaration broke into her musings.
“They are all so pretty and everyone is so kind to give me this choice!”
Éowyn laughed. “Well, you have to choose one! Guthhild and Thilda have to set to work if they are to have the dress ready by next month. How about the pale green with the gold and green trim? That will go very nicely with your hair coloring and your fair skin.” She placed some of the unbolted fabric across Cyneith’s shoulder and laid a little trim on top to illustrate the point.
Cyneith turned to look at her reflection in a floor length silver metal mirror, a gift from her overly indulgent father. She tilted her head one way and then another as she pondered, lips pursed. “Hmmm!” She paused and squinted her eyes slightly as she pondered. “I think you are right, Éowyn! The green is best! We will go with that!”
Decision made; the fabric was given to a not-so-patiently waiting servant to be trundled off to Guthhild to begin construction. Éowyn gave the servant a commiserating smile as she sent her off on her errand. The two girls sat together for a while sipping the honey mead that was Cyneith’s favorite. Éowyn sat and listened to her friend talk about this arrangement for the wedding and that arrangement for the feast to follow. She was indeed happy for Cyneith but the more she nattered on the more separated Éowyn felt. All of the girls she grew up with in Edoras were married. Cyneith was the last.
Éowyn realised that time for training was nearing so she got up off of Cyneith’s large bed and said, “I promised Éomer I would meet with him at this time.” She was out the door so fast that she did not see the befuddled look on Cyneith’s face at her abrupt departure. She ran down the pathway far enough from Cyneith’s home stopping in an alcove. She tried to quell the sudden overwhelming desire to cry. Why she felt this way she did not know. She drew in a few deep breaths and steadied herself with the knowledge that some good hard swordplay would set her to rights. It always did. Training was her refuge; it had been since the day she picked up a sword when she was ten years old. There she felt confident. There she felt proficient and respected. Cyneith would marry in a month’s time and soon after that she would ask her uncle if it was time that her training finish. She could then call herself a Shieldmaiden at last.
It was the night before of Cyneith’s wedding day. The wedding eve feast in which both families came together to begin the solemnity of the wedding had come to an end. It was tradition after that for the bride and her attendants to spend the night together before the wedding. It was the last night before the girl became a bride and entered fully into womanhood. They sat in Cyneith’s bower, again drinking the honeyed mead and relaxing. Éowyn looked up and saw that Saelith was staring at her. Éowyn took a large swallow and tried to ignore her old nemesis. Saelith was not going to allow that to happen. She looked away purposefully.
“Cyneith! Married life is quite agreeable,” Saelith spoke as if she had been married far longer than the year she and Haere had been wed. “Haere hates to be parted from me. I think we were made for each other.” She giggled. “Of course,” she slipped a sly look at Éowyn, “not everyone can marry for love, like me and my dear Haere! Some who can’t find someone will simply just have to take whoever is chosen for them.”
Éowyn swallowed some mead a little too quickly and to her mortification started coughing uncontrollably. Cyneith rushed to her. “Éowyn! Are you all right?” Her pretty face wrinkled with concern as she patted Éowyn on the back gently.
Éowyn simply nodded. She cleared her throat and was breathing more or less normally within a few moments. She side-glanced Saelith, wishing she had her knives on her. Saelith feigned innocence. Éowyn told herself that she was here for Cyneith because this meant so much to her. She would not rise to Saelith’s baiting.
Saelith said, “I’m sorry. I did not mean any harm.” Her voice dripped with insincerity or at least it seemed that way to Éowyn.
“I’m sure you didn’t,” Éowyn said in a low restrained voice trying to keep her temper.
“After all, as I remember, you only wanted to be a Shieldmaiden and not get married at all.”
Éowyn jumped up at that remark, all vestiges keeping her temper gone as she flew at Saelith who was shocked at how quickly she could move. Éowyn had her in an arm hold they had been practicing earlier in the month in training session. And just as quickly she released her. “You are lucky that I am not.” Yet, she added in her thoughts. “I need some air.” And she left Saelith rubbing her throat and looking daggers at her.
“Peasant!” She spat out at Éowyn’s retreating back.
Éowyn just kept on walking and did not even dignify her remark with a response. She leaned against a wall that was outside of Cyneith’s home and let the brisk night wind of late October whip through her. She hugged her arms around her with the same thought circling around her head. Just what is wrong with me! She knew that Saelith lived to get a rise out of her. She had done it ever since Éowyn and Éomer had come from Aldburg to live with their uncle after their mother had passed. What she never knew was why.
“Éowyn?” Éowyn heard Cyneith’s concerned voice at the doorway.
“I’m out here,” Éowyn answered in a tired voice. She heard the door shut and then quick footsteps to join her leaning against the wall.
“Here,” Cyneith said starting to wrap Éowyn up in what appeared to be a large man’s cloak, “it’s my papa’s. We can both fit.” Éowyn did not object because she was starting to shiver ever so slightly. “I’m sorry for what Saelith said. You know how she is.”
“I blissfully had forgotten until she forced me to remember!” Éowyn chuckled ruefully. “She just gets under my skin so easily. I still do not know why it bothers me so or why she does it!”
“Because she is a mean and spiteful cow!” Cyneith said vehemently in a way that was so unlike her normally kind mien.
“Now that’s an insult to most cows I know!” Éowyn quipped.
“True, True! And cows are far more useful than Saelith will ever be!” Cyneith stated and both girls dissolved into laughter.
After calming down a bit, Éowyn wiped mirthful tears from her eyes. “Oh Cyneith, I am going to miss you!”
Cyneith looked at her in a teary-eyed stare. “I am going to miss you, too.” They hugged under the cloak, which was not an easy task.
“Why did you ask Saelith to be attendant anyway? You don’t even really like her.”
“Oh that. Well, Aldhild was heavy with child and Papa insisted that it would curry favour with Saelith’s Papa if I were to choose her as second attendant.”
“Oh,” Éowyn began with a small voice, “then I guess putting her in an arm hold then wasn’t the best plan.”
Cyneith looked at her in all innocence. “What arm hold? I didn’t see anything.”
Éowyn gave her a quick hug and kissed the side of her face. “You are the best!”
Cyneith just laughed. “Come on, let’s go inside! It is getting too cold out here. And we will just pretend like nothing happened. It will drive Saelith mad!”
Éowyn laughed. “That sounds like a plan I might hatch! I’ve been a bad influence on you!”
“Nonsense!” Cyneith declared. The two girls quickly dashed inside as a light snow began dusting the hay strewn streets of Edoras.
The wedding ceremony for Cyneith and Háldred was beautiful. Éowyn watched the couple drink mead from the same cup and speak the words of joining as her uncle King Théoden, in what he called his most joyous duty as Chief Celebrant, looked upon them. She felt happy for them. Two good friends of hers were joined as husband and wife. Éowyn wiped tears away, tears of joy and of sadness. She was losing a good friend and she once again felt alone. She could not imagine joining as Cyneith did. She did not feel that way for any of the young Riders. She saw girls of vibrant energy become young mothers. To her eyes they seemed overly tired and bound to live a life so different from what she wanted. She saw her mother fade away after her father died. She did not have the will to carry on. Éowyn could not understand how she could leave them. How she could not even try to stay with them? If love made you desert those that loved you, how could that be a good thing? Éowyn took a deep breath and determinedly pasted a happy smile unto her face for Cyneith’s sake. But after the day’s festivities she would re-dedicate herself to training to become a shieldmaiden which she had let lapse somewhat to help her friend plan her wedding.
During the ceremony, in which Théoden had taken great joy to officiate, he stole a few looks in his niece’s direction. She was teary-eyed, which of course was only to be expected. However, towards the end of the ceremony and during the feasting that followed he noticed a steely determination that she was hiding behind a pleasant smile. Théoden knew his niece well and he feared what that determined look presaged.
The next morning he found out. Éowyn came to his study early, before his council meeting began. She looked bright and eager and clearly had a reason for her visit. He felt a pit of dread forming in his stomach.
“Uncle, when can I end my training and formally become a Shieldmaiden?” Éowyn asked, her eyes fired with purpose.
Théoden felt as if he was teetering on a precarious precipice. There was no way she could become a Shieldmaiden; it simply could not be done. His deception had been kindly meant and had worked for so long but Théodred and Éomer had been right. The reckoning had come, and the bright hopeful look in his beloved niece’s eyes slashed through his heart. He did the only thing he could think of. He stalled for time. Delaying the inevitable, he said, “Let me speak to the training master and explain the situation. We can then go from there. Will that be satisfactory?” He ended hoping for the best.
Éowyn nodded enthusiastically. “That would be fine!” She bounded over to her uncle and kissed him on his whiskered cheek. She smiled and left the study.
Théoden buried his head in his hands. He had no idea what he was going to do. His beloved niece, whom he could not have loved more if she were his own daughter, had trusted his word that she could become a shieldmaiden. It had seemed such a harmless lie seven years ago when she was a lost and angry young girl. Training had turned her into a confident young woman who was loved by all in Edoras. Théoden was at a loss.
Deorgar entered the room ostensibly to inform that the council meeting was convening, but Théoden stopped him before he could say anything. “Bring the Prince and the Lord Éomer here to me immediately!”
“But my lord, the council—”
“Deorgar! Now. There is an issue I must speak with them about urgently. The council can wait. There are no pressing issues that cannot wait for half an hour.”
Deorgar placed his fist on his heart and said, “At once, my lord.”
Théoden stared after him and then turned to a side table and poured a goblet of wine to calm his racing heart. He noticed that his hand shook as he lifted the goblet. He downed the dark red liquid in two gulps and poured himself another as he waited for his son and nephew to arrive.
Théoden’s steward did not have to go far to fulfill his errand. Both Théodred and Éomer were in the council chambers awaiting the King’s arrival. They sat together looking over a few parchments when Deorgar approached them. He bowed to them both and stated in a lowered voice, “My Lords, the King wishes to see you both in his study immediately.”
Théodred’s dark blond eyebrows shot up at the curious request. “Did he say what it was about, Deorgar?”
The steward shook his head. “He did not. He only requested your lords’ presence immediately.”
Éomer nodded. “Thank you, Deorgar. We shall attend.” He slipped a puzzled look at his cousin who returned the look.
Théodred looked at the councilors. “My lords! If you will pray excuse us. We shall return shortly.” The councilors exchanged puzzled looks as Théodred and his cousin left the chambers.
It was a short walk from the council chambers to Théoden’s study. They walked in almost before Deorgar could announce them.
Theodred saw his father toss back a goblet of wine and he could just feel the tension flowing from him. Concerned, he said, “Father, you wish to see us?”
Theoden looked at his son and then at his nephew. “Yes,” he said quietly as he placed the goblet on the side table and poured wine into goblets for both his son and his nephew before informing them of the reason they were summoned.
“Éowyn was here earlier, asking about when she would be deemed ready to end her training and become a Shieldmaiden.”
“Oh no,” Théodred said softly.
“Oh yes,” Théoden answered just as softly.
Éomer gulped his wine in an attempt to quell his temper. He was not successful. With the impetuousness of youth, he shouted, “I told you from the start this was a bad idea!” With great effort he dampened his temper. His heart ached for his sister. “What is to be done? It is not possible that she can be made a Shieldmaiden!”
“I am well aware of that, nephew!” Théoden snapped.
From the door came a small voice. “What do you mean you are well aware of that?” All three men turned at once and saw Éowyn standing there. Her eyes wide and staring, all color drained from her white cheeks causing her light freckles to stand out against the paleness of her skin. “Uncle?”
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