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A/N: Thanks to Ellynn my wonderful word tamer and patient beta! ((hugs))
Ch. 9 - A Seed of Worry is planted
Three months later…
Éowyn stood with her bow in her hand, the leather of the well-worn grip, warm in her hand. She pulled the bow and sighted down the shaft, stilled her breathing and let fly the arrow. It hit the target on the hay bale with a satisfying yet nearly silent thwump. She smiled and reached for another arrow out of her quiver and repeated the motion again and again – each time the arrow finding the black. Each time she smiled. She could feel the tension of the morning slipping away as the meditative repetition of shooting worked its magic once again. She came out here amidst the trees of the shouldering forest to think and simply to be. Within her uncle’s hall she almost felt as if she could not breathe. Knowing that the goal of Shieldmaiden was no longer... No, she corrected herself. The goal of Shieldmaiden had never really been in reach. That reality had been difficult to reconcile within her heart. Holdlith’s words remained with her, but they were blunted by the realities of larders to be maintained and servants rotas to be approved.
She no longer blamed her uncle or her cousin or her brother. She knew that what they had done had been done out of love and she did not have the heart to blame them. But even with that acceptance, the truth of her life was that she felt rudderless and the weight of expectation was pulling her towards a life she did not want. She did not want the life that lay in front of her, mapped out due to who she was, but she saw no way out of it. A life of duty lay before her and she had to find a way of living that life. She was the King’s niece and she had responsibilities. People expected much from her. Sighing heavily, she walked to the hay bale target to retrieve her arrows. She walked back to Wildefýr and unstrung her bow and stored the rest of her shooting equipment in her saddlebags. She sighed heavily; she needed to return the halls to set the menu for evening meals for the next week with Thilda. Not a task she relished at any time, but it had become one of her duties now that she was coming of age.
Théoden watched Éowyn walk in from the stables. He noticed that she seemed restrained, almost as if something had muted her spirit. He knew what it was; it was just so much easier to pretend that he did not. But as he was an honorable man, he would not avoid watching what was happening to his beloved niece. True to her loving nature, she did not hold a long-lasting grudge against him, her cousin or her brother. Nor was it like her to shirk duty. She went about the cottages tending those in need, smiling and laughing and speaking to each cottager as if they were her only consideration that day. Théoden knew this because he often spoke to the various young Riders that he sent to accompany Éowyn on her rounds.
She smiled and went about her duties, charming all who lived in Edoras, but there were times when Théoden saw no joy reflected in her eyes as there had been in times past when she was unwittingly living with a lie. It struck him to the heart. He thought about what he might be able to do to help, but he could think of nothing. And the fact remained that he had already “helped.” That was the source behind Éowyn’s unhappiness, hidden so assiduously from even keen observation.
Later that afternoon Éowyn gathered up the basket filled with necessary bits and pieces for cottagers in the lower portion of Edoras. The visits to the cottagers, besides her archery and the now only occasional sword play between her and her brother or cousin, were her favorite time of the week. She could go among the people and simply talk with them and see if she could make their lives any easier with help or extra foodstuffs or some new thing for the children to play with. With them there was no side, no pretense, no silent judgment for what she was not. She looked in her cart again and saw the linen wrapped parcel that contained the carved rampant horse that she prevailed upon Éomer to make for Háláf, a boy in the lower reaches who had had his leg broken in a cart accident. She smiled; she could hardly wait to give it to the boy. He had begun the training to become a Rider, but that had stopped because of the cart injury. It was a clean break and Éowyn had seen to it that the King’s own healer had set the bone, but the child was still upset that his training should be delayed. So she asked Éomer to carve something special for him. Her brother was very gifted in wood carving when he had the time to indulge, but that did not happen often given his new duties as Third Marshal of the Riddermark. He had recently been named as such by their uncle. Éowyn could not have been prouder.
Earlier that month…
Éowyn fussed about her brother, straightening a buckle here, smoothing a fold there. He had to look just right. “Éowyn…enough!” Éomer grabbed her hands to still them.
“But I want you to look perfect! It is very important that you look just right!” Tears started to fill Éowyn’s eyes. “Papa would have been so proud. Third Marshall of the Riddermark!”
Éomer wiped a tear off of Éowyn’s cheek. “Yes, he would have.” He smiled, then teased gently, “But he would not have cared if I had a belt buckle crooked or a fold unflattened.”
“Mama would have!” Éowyn insisted.
Éomer smiled brighter. “Aye! That she would have! All right, smooth away!”
Éowyn smoothed one more wrinkle. “There, now you look perfect! Oh Éomer, I am so happy for you and so proud.”
Éomer folded his arms around his sister, hugging her tightly and kissed the top of her head. “We best be going.”
Wiping the tears away, Éowyn straighten her shoulders. “Aye, that we should.”
The investiture took place in the main hall, the Hall of Song, as was tradition. Éowyn scurried to her place in the front of the hall, near to the king. King Théoden stood at his throne in full regalia of green, white and gold for the investiture of his beloved nephew to the high position of Third Marshall. Éowyn beamed at her uncle, who gave her a very quick glance. While he held his somber countenance for this most formal affair, his eyes twinkled at her and she smiled even wider. That is, until her eyes passed over Grima, who stood at her uncle’s right hand, where Déorgar had stood for all the years of Éowyn’s life. Dear Déorgar, she thought. He had succumbed to old age; he had died the month previous. He had not been well for a while and he gave up his life to a breathing sickness. It had not been an easy end for him, but he had passed with Théoden, Éowyn and his two daughters at his side. At least he had died surrounded by love. It was all anyone could wish for.
Inexplicably, Grima had become counsellor to the King. It had caused comment. Grima was thought to be too young for such a high position, but when Éowyn mused in private company with her uncle what all were thinking, Théoden’s temper flared – a very rare occurrence where Éowyn was concerned. He had quickly apologized and had taken his niece’s hands in his and said, “Pray pardon, my child. My temper is inexcusable. You ask a fair question, and it is one I cannot fully answer. Suffice to say it was his father’s wish and I saw such need as to grant it. And now I must ask you to say no more about it. For I will not be able to answer more fully. Only to say that it is my wish.”
Éowyn searched her uncle’s eyes and was shocked as she saw sadness and fear living there, but also a stalwart resistance to any more questions. She smiled to hide the pain that was growing in her own heart. She swallowed her questions and kissed her uncle’s bristly cheek and said with forced cheerfulness, “Then we shall say no more about it!”
She quickly moved to straightened papers on his desk in an effort to distract herself from the tears that were threatening to slip past her eyes. She had vowed at that point to always be there for her uncle in whatever ways she could to ease his path through life. She may not have known what hold Galmod’s son had over her beloved uncle, but she would be there always to provide what counterweight she could. It was the one service, the one purpose she would not allow to be taken from her.
Feeling Grima’s eyes upon her, Éowyn glanced at him and quickly looked away. She felt nothing but coldness for him. She would never forgive him for the pain she saw in her uncle’s eyes that night. That hint of dread that now more often than not haunted his normally bright and resolute gaze.
She put aside such distressing thoughts for the moment. The investiture was about to begin. Éomer strode purposefully forth, looking calm and confident. He held his unsheathed sword in front of him as he walked. It lay on his open palms, his arms forward and bent at the elbow, one hand at the intersection of guard and blade; the other under the flat of the blade. Only the slight strain around his eyes showed Éowyn the little bit of nervousness he felt inside. It was a tell that only she knew about. Théodred stood at his father’s left, the traditional place for the heir to the Golden Throne to stand. As soon as Éomer came to the foot of the steps that lead up to the throne, Théodred descended stopping on the last step.
“Who comes to serve Théoden, son of Thengel, King of the Mark?” Théodred intoned the formal words of inquiry.
Éomer answered in a strong clear voice, “My name is Éomer, son of Éomund, and I come to serve Théoden, son of Thengel, King of the Mark.”
Théodred stepped to one side as ceremony dictated, intoning, “You may pass to stand inquiry in front of the King.”
At this Éomer ascended the four steps to stand before Théoden, who rose from the throne to make further search of Éomer’s heart.
Théoden eyed Éomer with the pride of an uncle and the command of a King. “You come to serve your King?
“Yes!” Éomer proclaimed firmly.
“You come to protect the Mark and its people even if it should cost you your life?”
“Yes, it is my will to serve!” Éomer avowed solemnly. He kneeled raising the sword with both hands as he bowed his head. “I offer my sword, my heart, my life in service to you, my king, and to the people of the Riddermark. Accept it as you will!”
Théoden looked down at his nephew and Éowyn saw pride and love fill his face. “I accept your sword, your heart and your life in service to the Mark. Rise, Éomer, son of Éomund, I name you Third Marshall of the Riddermark. Sheathe your sword and embrace your king.”
Éomer rose and sheathed his sword and embraced his uncle as raucous cheers ripped through the Hall of Song. Éowyn clapped her hands and wiped the stinging but happy tears from her eyes, she walked forward to embrace her brother. Through her stinging eyes she chanced to see Grima not cheering, and she thought she saw a flash of malevolence cross his pale face. She blinked to clear her vision and by the time she looked again he wore a smile. She did not further examine him or the feelings he evoked not wanting to spoil the happiness she felt in this moment for her brother.
Éowyn started and then looked at Héohelm. “I am sorry, Héohelm. I was away, but I am back now!”
The young rider laughed a little. “Not to worry, my lady. As ever I am at your service if only to keep you from tripping over stray dogs or falling into watering troughs.”
Éowyn looked down and did indeed see an adorable stray puppy at her feet. She crouched down. “Aren’t you a sweet little thing?” She did not reach for the puppy but waited for it to trust her enough to come near. Within a few moments it came near and sniffed her and began to lick her hand on her knee. Only then she did reach for the dog to pet it. This lasted many moments. She laughed, stood up and dusted off her hands on her cloak. “Onwards!” They took several steps and then heard a bark.
Héohelm looked behind him. “My Lady, it seems we have acquired a new companion.”
Éowyn looked behind her and there was the little stray puppy, sitting in the middle of the street, panting and looking expectant. “Well, come along, my little friend.” The puppy barked and started trotting happily to them. “All right. Are we all assembled now?” She said looking at Héohelm.
“It appears, my lady!”
“Right then! Onwards!”
Within a few minutes they were knocking on the door belonging Háláf’s father. Déor immediately answered, “My lady! Thank you for coming!”
Éowyn replied, “Not at all, Déor! I do so enjoy coming and spending time with you and your family. You know that!” Déor beamed at Éowyn’s words. “Now then to business! Léoulf continues his visits, does he not?”
“Aye my lady! He comes about twice or three times a week to change the wrappings on Háláf’s leg. He says that the leg is healing nicely and that Háláf should have no troubles with it in the future. All thanks to you, my lady.”
“Pish! I am only happy I was able to help. Where is Háláf? I have something for him.”
“Oh my lady, you do too much already.”
“Again I say ‘Pish!’ It gives me great joy to do these things. Where is Háláf?”
“Here, m’lady! Look at me!” Éowyn looked to the entrance that led to their small chicken coop. The boy was upright and walking on a pair of tall walking sticks, though his injured leg was still bound with wrappings infused with a healing salve.
“Praise the Valar, you are walking!” Éowyn exclaimed.
Háláf made his way over to a bench near the hearth and sat with a soft plop. The smile of accomplishment was shining on the boy’s face and it lit Éowyn’s heart with joy. She knelt at the boy’s side. “That was excellent, Háláf, that truly was!”
The boy smiled. “I have been practicing all week to show you! You said you had something for me!”
Déor interjected, “Háláf! It is the Lady’s to give! It is not for you to ask! Tis not right, boy!” Háláf looked somewhat chastened.
“It is all right, Déor!” Éowyn quickly said. “No harm done!” She turned her attention back to the quiet child. “I do have something for you. But it is not just from me alone. I asked my brother, Lord Éomer, if he could do something for you.” She paused briefly to turn to her young attendant. “Héohelm, if you would please hand me the package from Lord Éomer.”
“At once my lady.” The young Rider ducked out the door and came back with a smallish package wrapped in undyed linen. He quickly presented it to Éowyn who then placed it in young Háláf’s lap. “Unwrap it!” she instructed the stunned child.
Háláf untied the knot at the top and the linen fell away from a beautiful rampant horse carved in rosewood. Éomer had outdone himself. Éowyn grinned ear to ear at the look of rapt delight on Háláf’s face. “My brother had some time between duties, and I prevailed upon him to carve something special.”
“Oh my lady!” Saeryth, Háláf’s mother, exclaimed. “This is too fine for us! Surely not.”
“Once more, I say, ‘pish!’ My brother was happy to do it. And he will be hurt if Háláf did not accept it.”
Háláf looked at his mother in a mute plea for her to accept the gift. “Well, in that case,” Saeryth smiled, “we gratefully accept this gracious gift on one condition…” She looked pointedly at her son. “That this gift that the Lord Éomer so graciously gave to you is not be to paraded in front of your friends. For I am sure it was not given with that intention.” Háláf nodded his head most vigorously. “Then aye, my lady.” She looked back to Éowyn. “We most graciously accept the Lord Éomer’s work.”
Their rounds completed for the day, Éowyn and Héohelm made their way back to the Golden Hall. It had been a most satisfying day and Éowyn felt happier than she had in some time. Upon reaching the kitchen entrance, Éowyn asked Héohelm to stow the cart and then return to the kitchens afterwards. She had secured two scones and two mugs of mead from Gamith, one of the kitchen maids. After his return from the stables were the cart was kept, he gratefully received the mug and scone from Éowyn and they sat peaceably, eating and drinking.
After she released Héohelm from her service, Éowyn made her way up to her Uncle’s study to tell him how Háláf was progressing. Before she knocked on the door, she noticed it was slightly ajar and she could hear two voices. One was her uncle and the other was Grima. She was deeply concerned how tired the king’s voice sounded. They were discussing an issue of some contention, and then came a phrase that fell ill upon her ears. “Yes, all right, Grima. If you think it best. Leave me please. I find I am suddenly fatigued.”
Then came an unctuous, “According to your will, my lord. I will take my leave.”
She heard a rustle of robes and movement towards the door. Suddenly she realized that she did not want them to know she had overheard and dashed around the corner listening for a door click as the signal that Grima had departed. She waited a few moments, then went back to the study and knocked the door. Receiving a tired “Come!” she entered. Théoden sat looking despondent, but upon seeing Éowyn his face lit with joy. “Éowyn!”
“Uncle? Are you well?” Éowyn asked, searching her uncle’s eyes, seeing behind the joy a weariness that was unlike her energetic uncle.
“I will be fine. Already I feel better now that you are here! Come sit with me and tell me of your day!”
Éowyn gladly did as she was asked and they spoke long and cheerfully, but at times a troubled look would cross her uncle’s face which he would quickly hide again. Not before Éowyn would notice though, but before she could comment he would again engage her, and the conversation flowed once more. Even so, a seed of worry planted itself in her heart and would not be dislodged.
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