Darkness has fallen and the mist dissolved and changed to heavy rain in the course of the afternoon, neither of which has lifted the grim atmosphere that has choked our village since the éored’s return. The expressions of the warriors who have come to the tavern tell us to leave them alone, and although the ale flows plentifully, they eat their meals in silence. They drink to forget, not to celebrate, and when they do look up from their bowls, their eyes are old and they stare into a distance far beyond the walls of this building. I cannot help wondering what horrors they have been forced to witness; what cruelties they have seen that stole their youth and hope.
Aye, it is indeed hopelessness I see in their eyes, and I feel for them, for it is the same hopelessness that sometimes keeps me awake in the night, born from the slow realisation that there will never be an end to this. That battle will follow battle until even the most valiant warrior will have to succumb to the enemy and nothing will be left to fight for.
With a gasp, I jerk myself out of my gloomy contemplation. The Marshal sits in the far corner together with his captain and two of his men whom I know by face, but not by name. They are the only ones I see exchanging occasional words between spoons full of stew, yet I understand that it is only because Éomer just returned from the council with our elders and must share the results with his commanders. I cannot imagine what decisions they might have come to, because there can be no question that our children must learn to see after the herds; we cannot imprison them behind the fence until they are grown. Those of our men who occasionally serve with the armed forces do their best to teach our children in the way of the sword and bow from a young age on. They teach them to hide and wipe their tracks, and yet today’s events showed us clearly how worthless such knowledge is when the attackers are a band of orcs.
Every now and then Éomer’s gaze travels hesitantly over to me, but I evade it, not sure what to do or think even though his expression seems like a plea for forgiveness. Or is it only the fear of having to spend this grim night alone which makes him seek absolution now? Another one of these brief glimpses finds me, and I kneel down behind the bar to place the empty bottles into a box for Saewara to bring into the cellar, glad to escape from his sight, although avoiding him is no solution to our quarrel. And quarrel we did...
Éomer came looking for me after he had brought his horse to the stables, but still before he had seen to himself, a fact that underlined the seriousness of his visit, and he had waited until I was alone in the yard to approach me.
"I saw you run away,” he says, and I jump, because I did not hear him coming up behind me. His gaze is hard when I turn around to face him, and it chases a chill down my spine. “And I saw how you looked at me later. Tell me, Godwyna... do you pity our foes now? What would you have me do with them if it were your decision? Turn them free to slay again?”
“It is not my place to judge the deeds of the Third Marshal of Riddermark,” I say stiffly, still hoping to be able to avoid this confrontation by turning back to work, but he will not accept it. Rather roughly he grabs me and forces me to look at him, and for the first time ever, I knowhow it feels to be the focus of his accumulated anger.
“That filth killed a man and an unarmed boy! The Gods alone know what they would have done to his sister had we given them the time, and yet you believe that I am at fault for bringing them to justice?”
The beast still lurks behind those dark eyes before me; daring me to anger Éomer further. I am afraid, but I cannot remain still either, so I take my heart with both hands and ask him: “But how can torture ever be justice, my Lord? How can it be honourable to kill an already wounded foe in the cruellest manner by dragging him behind a horse for miles and then giving him to an angry mob to tear him to pieces?”
I am fairly certain that Éomer would never hit me, but the shadow that wanders over his face makes me shiver. This is not the son of Eomund of Aldburg I am looking at. I do not know where he is, but I cannot sense him in the darkness the man before me exudes.
“You would call your fellow neighbours an ‘angry mob’?” he snarls, dark eyes narrowed in disbelief, and for the first time ever, I find that I am terrified of him... yet not afraid enough to cease speaking my mind.
“When their circle closed around you after you cut those orcs loose, aye, they were just that. You reduced them to that by bringing the enemy back for them to kill, and that is another reason why I do not agree with your decision. You turned them into beasts! Do you think they feel better now that you gave them the opportunity to stain their souls with torture?”
“And if Godhere had been your son, you wouldn’t have felt the urge to repay his murderers in blood for what they did?”
I straighten involuntarily, and just as involuntarily, I raise my voice although I never wanted to speak of it again: “I was in that position once, Marshal, and trust me when I say that I know too well of what you speak! I cursed the man who gave me his sword and told me to kill the bound men before me! I cursed him countless times, because he made me feel guilty for not being able to do it, when I was in fact right not to do it! Even now I still spent sleepless nights because I feel I betrayed my husband by not killing his murderers, but I know that I would have felt even worse had I done so! It is not right for the warriors to pass their responsibility to us.”
“No...” Éomer looks disgusted beyond belief, and his hands fall off me. There will be bruises on my arms later where he seized me, but as I stare at him, I do not even feel the dull throbbing. “Our responsibility is to deal with the dirt and the blood and the pain alone, because no one else wants their souls stained with the ugly things war sometimes calls for. I understand. But if we perform those duties, it is also wrong.” He snorts and turns away from me, slowly shaking his head as he leaves. I know that somewhere inside this embittered warrior must be the man I know, the man who would be able to make sense of my words, but I do not know how to reach him in the darkness that has swallowed him.
“You know what I mean, Marshal!” is all I can say as he walks away from me, a sad-looking figure with his wet hair and drenched and mud-splattered garments. He halts, but won’t turn his head to look at me. “We kill our foes when we must, but we do not torture them… unless you want to be just like them!” I see him take a deep breath and brace myself for another sharp-tongued reply… but instead he continues on his way and leaves me standing in the rain. For a moment, I stare at the corner where Éomer disappeared, and the water runs down my face. I hardly notice it over the deep ache that spreads in my chest.
I wake from my memories with a shivering breath… and cannot suppress the impulse to look up from the pile of dishes before me over to the table where Éomer sits with his captain. He seems to concentrate overmuch on his plate, unwilling to acknowledge me, but Éothain meets my gaze and gives me a little nod. I understand and signal Saewara to collect the tankards from their table for another fill, wondering how we are ever going to resolve our quarrel if we keep ignoring each other. Since I am the one who started it, perhaps I should be the one to make the first step? But I don’t know how.
Instead I watch as Saewara walks over to their table, and can only shake my head at the entirely inappropriate hopeful expression on the lass’s face. To my left, Adney seems to think the same as she momentarily forgets the jar in her hands and creases her freckled brow, and although we are on opposite sides of the bar, I hear her disgusted snort even where I stand. The entire village knows of Saewara’s obsession with our riders, and especially the two young commanders of Aldburg’s éored. They talk behind her back and ridicule her, and while I usually do not approve of such behaviour, I cannot help thinking that it is justified in her case. Although she should have realised it long ago that neither man is interested in her, Saewara simply refuses to acknowledge that fact, and her advances get more bothersome with each of the éored’s visits. I decide that I will not let her disturb them today… although I probably should just let her do as she pleases. If Éomer’s mood is still as dark as it was all afternoon, she might learn a lesson she won’t forget so soon.
“Leave them alone tonight, Saewara,” I say quietly as I fill up the tankards she puts before me. “Just give them their drinks and otherwise leave them alone. They have no mind for such things today.”
But she doesn’t understand that I only mean well, no. Instead of taking my advice, the girl narrows her eyes at me and haughtily lifts her chin.
“Is that so? You’re only jealous because the Marshal will no longer look at you! I heard you quarrelling today in the yard! Has Éomer has grown tired of your scarred face, or has his compassion turned into boredom? Either way, it seems to me that your lord is looking for a new flavour.”
“And even if he were, you’d be the last he chose!” Adney comes to my help, and her green eyes sparkle with heartfelt disdain. “Éomer has better taste than to bed a deft, brazen tavern wench with a bottom the size of our barn and the brains of a chicken!” Her heap of wild red locks catch the reflections from the fireplace and lend her a demonic look, and although Saewara’s gaze indicates that she has an equally scathing reply upon her tongue, she decides to swallow it and disappears with her load after one last murderous glance at us. She knows Adney is only waiting for her to swallow the bait, just as she knows that she will never win a battle of words against the sharp-tongued redhead, whose bluntness has already become legendary in this house in the only six months she has been here. I would not call Adney my friend, but I am nonetheless glad to have her on my side.
“She thinks she is something special because she has the udder of a cow, but unfortunately, she also has the face of one... and I will not even talk of her wits!” Adney fumes as she watches her adversary with eagle-eyes place the tankards before the warriors. “If she makes one move toward Éothain, I swear I will drag her into the cellar myself and tan her fat bottom so deeply that she won’t sit for a week!” She looks at me and wrinkles her brow, and only now do I realise that my fingers are involuntarily tracing the broad scar on my cheek and neck. With a guilty feeling over having been caught at a habit I had hoped to have overcome, I lower my hand. Adney shakes her head in disapproval.
“You should know better than to listen to that dense wench, Godwyna. She will say anything to hurt you, but remember: it is you Éomer seeks whenever he’s here, not her. Gods, it would surely lower my opinion of him if he were that foolish!” The wrinkles on her brow deepen suddenly. “Yet I, too, heard you exchanging words in the yard today. I did not understand what it was about, but… is everything all right between the Marshal and you?
“I do not know,” I mutter half-heartedly while I pick up the business I forgot over our ugly quarrel. Yet it sounds not even convincing to my own ears. Nothing is right between Éomer and me, nothing. “I cannot tell.” Green eyes scrutinise me sceptically. “And Saewara… it doesn’t bother the oak if a pig scratches itself on its bark, right?”
“I mean it,” Adney says earnestly and lifts her brows. “Don’t take it to heart what that bitch says, she will be gone soon enough. I’ve had it with that horrible girl! I will speak with Tidwyn tomorrow.”
I nod, but avoid Adney’s gaze by pretending to be entirely occupied with the dirty tableware again, uncomfortable with the thought that Saewara might be thrown out because of me. Like all of us to whom Tidwyn gave a home and occupation in her establishment, the lass has had a rough life. No matter that the service we supply to the people might not be well-thought of by some of the nobler inhabitants of our village, but it gives us some sense of meaning, of being able to contribute to and be a part of their community. I do not want to be responsible for Saewara ending up on the streets, reduced to a beggar or thief; still I must admit that at times, the lass’s hostility is hard to bear. Well, today she certainly has nothing to be envious of, unlessshe preferred the rage Éomer holds for me over the indifferencehe has for her.
Putting the last bowl away, I look up – and see his eyes bent on me again. It is not the look I know so well, that silent question I’ve always been glad to answer with an equally silent nod, but there is also no more anger in those dark brown pools. If I see anything in them, it is exhaustion, both bodily and spiritually, and while I am glad that his fury seems to have passed, I am not certain whether I prefer this condition, beaten and drained of all energy. What is it he is asking me with this look, or is it even a question?
I do not knowand I do not know how to answer, although the prospect of having to lie alone tonight and seeing Aelfric’s and Godhere’s mutilated bodies before me whenever I close my eyes frightens me. Or perhaps it is the beast in Éomer’s eyes that will keep me awake. Yet what I fear to see most of all is the terrible emptiness of Lefsued’s expression when her grandmother carried her past me, reminding meof my own experience, of the night that changed my life. I can already feel those memories stirring in the dark places of my mind where I imprisoned them; the door that kept them trapped for all these years shaking under their ferocious blows.
Something shifts deep within me, and suddenly control slips away from me.
That stench... the hot stench of his breath... the laughter of the others...
The jar I hold in my hands slips and shatters into a thousand pieces on the hard ground... together with the pitiful remains of my self-command.
All heads turn toward me, and I quickly drop to my knees to collect the shards before I will have to encounter the warriors’ questioning or – yet worse - their concerned glances.
“Leave it, Godwyna,” I hear Adney’s voice behind me. “Saewara can do this. Go upstairs, it’s been a hard day for all of us.” Her voice sounds strange and makes me angry. I do not want her pity. I do not want anyone’s pity.
“I broke it, so I am the one who should clean it up,” I insist as I extend my arm, but by now I am shaking so badly that I don’t even have to hear Adney’s objection to know that I will not able to complete the task.
The weight upon me, crushing me, and the ferociousness of his thrusts.. the taste of blood in my mouth, but I cannot scream. Can’t...
I have no fight left in me when she helps me up and turns me around to face her.
“You will go upstairs now, Godwyna.” Adney’s tone indicates that she will tolerate no further protest. Not that I am about to issue any, for now I am shaking like a leaf. “We will close soon anyway; there is not much left to do except lock the door after the men are gone.” She swallows and then asks me in a lower voice: “Should I tell the Marshal that you do not want his company tonight?”
“He will not ask for me,” I somehow manage to utter. “You will not have to worry about that. He knows that I wouldn’t be of any use to him.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that yet, judging from the glances he’s been giving you all evening.” Adney gives me an encouraging smile, and in her eyes I see that she understands how frightened I am by the prospect of spending the night alone. “Quarrel or not, that man does not look to me as if he never wanted to see you again. Just wait and he will come to you. Trust me, Love, I know men like our Marshal! Now go, quickly.” She presses my hand, and I have to avert my gaze for I cannot bear to see the compassion in her eyes. Gods, and I thought this was over...
“Thank you, Adney,” I whisper, hating my shaking voice, and quickly flee from the curious glances.
My room awaits me as I left it this afternoon, well-kept and tidy, but the darkness within is almost a living thing, brimming with the ghosts of my memory that lurk in the shadows to assault and choke me. The hours I spent downstairs reduced the logs in the fireplace to dark red glowing embers that shed no light which would help me in the fight against the beast of my imagination. I hold on for dear life to the candle in my hand as I reluctantly enter my chambers. If it goes out before I can light the other ones, I will suffocate; I know it.
In my haste to get to the window I stumble over the rug on the floor and collide with the bed, but the pain in my thigh is nothing against the fear in my chest, and only when the warm flickering of the candles force back the surrounding blackness do I feel able to breathe again. Still there is not yet enough light for me and I rush back to the fireplace to feed the embers with more wood before they expire entirely. At first they are reluctant to take the food I’m offering them, and only when I take the poker to them do they bite back, until at last the flames take hold and the fire is revived.
Yet the weight on my chest diminishes only slightly, and tension refuses to leave me as I sit down on the rug and stare into the fire with unseeing eyes, only then realising that I made a mistake: I had hoped that the light would help me in chasing off the ghosts, but a moment later the iron ring around my lungs is back. The fire is part of the memories that haunt me, and it reduces the already damaged door of their prison to ashes. A deadly chill spreads through my body as I feel the images I tried to forget for so long roll toward me like a black wave in the night.
‘We slept when they came. I lay wrapped in the comfort of Heorulf’s strong arms and did not know that it would be the last time I’d hold him when they kicked in the door.’
I am no longer in my room, but open my eyes tomy house in the Westfold, Heorulf’s comforting scent in my nose and the sound of his quiet, regular breathing in my ears. I know what is about to happen, but I am powerless against the flood of memoriesthat batters my sanity.
‘A band of Dunlendings stand in the doorframe, their silhouettes sharply defined by the raging inferno outside, and I see cruel clubs and forks in their hands as they storm toward us. They reach us before we can react, and instead of making the useless effort of trying to reach his sword which hangs on the hook on the other side of the room, Heorulf shields me with his body from their assault. I feel the concussion of the first blow that hits him and shatters his bones, and he grunts in pain. I scream, but our enemies’ laughter drowns out both as they begin to tear me away from him.
“No! No, please-!”
But I should know better than to expect mercy from the hillfolk. They beat my husband to death before my eyes, and the last I see is the ever-widening pool of black that spreads around him as they bind my wrists and ankles and drag me out into the night.
I wear only a thin shift, but it is not cold, because our village is ablaze with fire. Horrible cries pierce the night from every corner where our neighbours are being killed, and I scream and cry and plead and curse at the rugged silhouettes in front of the burning houses. I begin to realise that we are doomed when my feet suddenly leave the ground and the next moment, I hang face-down over some stinking hillman’s shoulder. I scream and fight; unable to use my hands or feet, I bite off my captor’s ear, then a hard blow to my head ends my resistance, and darkness claims me.
I do not know how much time has passed when I wake to a splitting headache, but even before I open my eyes, I hear the enemy’s ugly speech around me, ending in dirty laughter when they realise that their victim has risen from the depths of unconsciousness. I do not know where I am, for darkness still envelopes me, and it is only when I feel the resistance against the lids of my eyes when I realise that they blindfolded me. The discovery chills me, and since the coldness of the night has caught up with me as well, I am shivering like a leaf. I hear the muffled whimper of another woman close by and instinctively know what awaits me. My heart pounds like a frenzied animal against the cage of my chest, and the rush of blood in my ears is thunder. The initial shock caused by the attack has vanished and I desperately wish it back, for even though I know that my anguish will only draw the enemies to me like bees to the honey, I cannot hold back the terrified sound rising in my throat . Only then do I realise that they stuffed a cloth in my mouth, too. I panic.
A moment later, a heavy weight pins me to the ground and rough hands cup my cheeks. I freeze with horror, pray for my heart to burst through my ribs and allow me to die before my assailant can carry out whatever he intends, but my wish is not being granted. My assailant belts out something in his ugly language that makes his comrades laugh, and his stinking breath fills my nostrils and causes my stomach to heave. A bottomless feeling of helplessness overwhelms me as I realise that I can neither kick, nor beat, nor bite to defend myself. My captors took good care of that after their comrade lost his ear.
My foe mounts me, and a horrified scream rises in my throat when I feel him between my thighs, but it, too, is muffled by the gag in my mouth. Frantically I squirm beneath him, the only resistance of which I am still capable, but that ends when the beast upon me backhands me with brutal force. Half unconscious, I taste the coppery flavour of my own blood and try to follow the darkness as a throaty voice whispers in broken Rohirric into my ear.
‘Some wild little filly I caught there! I think I break you in first, filly! Teach you obey your rider. But first, put my mark on you, so all know you mine!’
Suddenly there is a searing pain in my face and a hissing sound, and the stench of my burnt flesh fills my nostrils. A loud buzz builds between my ears as if my head suddenly became the home of an angry swarm of bees. I pray to faint, to be allowed to escape what must follow now by hiding in the deep blackness within me, but there is no God who listens to me...′
I stare into the fire with unseeing eyes, still in that cave, although there are no images in my mind of the horrors I endured in it. The memories of the pain and disgust and the smells and sensations and the laughter of the hillmen as the Dunlending raped me are already more than I can bear to remember. I did not faint, for I still remember the feeling of my assailant within me, but the memory of it is only vague and distant, as if it happened to someone else. I cannot say for how long the nightmare lasted, for at some point, I detached myself from my abused body.
I do not even have any recollection of my rescue other than suddenly finding myself on the back of a horse, wrapped into a grey blanket and held by strong arms while pale faces stared up at me, the smouldering ruins of our village behind them. I remember the sound of the people’s angry and dismayed mutters as they pointed at me, some of them crying.
’At some point we stop, and a deep voice asks me something. I understand the words, but not their sense, but make an affirmative sound anyway. The next moment, I am being lowered from the horse’s back into the helping hands of my neighbours. I stand on shaking legs, my fingers clutching the blanket that is my only shield against the cold and their prying eyes, not knowing where to go or what to do, when someone turns me around with words I don’t understand. Something is pressed into my hand, and I stare numbly at the sword I am holding.
A scarred, bearded warrior in full armour stands before me, pointing. I follow his gaze and see the bleeding, bound figures of my captors on the ground, their dark eyes wide as they stare at me from underneath their bushy eyebrows. Deadly silence spreads as my kinsmen’s whispering ceases. They expect me to kill the men; to avenge my dead husband and myself. I want to follow their unspoken urging, even in my weakened and numb state I want to repay my tormentors for what they did to me, and take a shaky step toward them. My fingers clench around the heft of the sword. The two hillmen are bound to immobility, lying before me like beasts ready for the slaughter. I lift the blade, tense... and meet the gaze of hate-filled, but deathly afraid black eyes. My hand trembles.
“Kill them!” I hear from somewhere behind me; calm, but insistent. “They deserve it. Think of what they did to you... and your husband. It is your right... and your duty”
Aye, it is, and I know that Heorulf would expect me to listen to that voice, to avenge him. He was a warrior; he would have spared no second thought had our positions been exchanged. But I have never killed anything larger than a goose, and only for food and not for vengeance. Slaughtering these two hillmen will not bring back my husband, and as much as I want them to suffer for their evil deeds, I find that I am not the one to bring wrath upon them. I cannot do it. The sword falls from my hand and I turn away, my sight blurring as the tears spill over at last. My legs no longer carry me and I barely notice when strong arms lift me up and carry me to the healer’s house...!
My memories end there. I spent the next days in a daze; at one time being helped to attend my husband’s burial but too numb to feel anything except for an endless emptiness inside of me. I slept much with the help of the healer’s draughts and slowly recovered while I tried to accept my fate: I would never have children. My husband was dead and my home destroyed. What it really meant was only made clear to me once my strength had returned sufficiently for me to wander to the blackened ruins of my home to see whether there was anything left to salvage from my former life. I did not find much, and most of what I found I did not want to keep, for it would eternally remind me of what I would never again have. Only one thing I took, for I had not the heart to leave it behind: Heorulf’s sword, still in its charred scabbard, but the blade itself sharp and bright whenever I draw it to remember him more clearly.
It is the only thing I took with me when I left the Westfold, for I could not bear to see the same sights that had given me and my husband joy now that he was no more. I moved to where no one knew me or my story, wanting to forget and to run away from the truth that I would have to spend the rest of my life alone. A woman unable to fill her home with the laughter of her own children is sooner or later forced to make a decision if she does not want to spend her nights without the comfort and the warmth of another human being beside her, and I made it, although it was not easy at first.
At first, the fear and disgust I felt at the slightest thought of ever being touched again by another man, even a Rohír, were almost too strong to overcome, and I would turn to stone whenever I felt a man’s attention focus on me. Then there were also the guilt and the feeling of betraying Heorulf which I had to battle. And yet the thought of spending the perhaps long rest of my life without ever experiencing closeness and a human’s touch again frightened me too much, and at last, I willed myself to endure it. I learned to bear it... and with time, even to enjoy it again. And although I know that this may not be a healthy way of dealing with my own demons, I unexpectedly found some purpose in it, too: I found it in the faces of our warriors when they return from battle with hollow eyes, warriors like Éomer, teetering on the edge of the abyss as they are endlessly subjected death and pain, grief and despair, forced to act like beast themselves and to forget everything that makes them human in order to survive. I found it in the fight for their souls.
Some of them will only need someone to listen to them, someone to whom they can confess their innermost feelings and fears. Others won’t talk, but will respond to being talked to - and to the gentleness of another human’s touch that reminds them that there are good things left in this world, things worth fighting for. I give them what healing I am able to supply to them, and when they leave, perhaps enough of their strength has been restored to get them through the next days… until they return and it is the same all over again; a vicious circle that cannot be broken unless the warriors themselves break and they surrender to the darkness forever. Has this been the day that claimed the son of Eomund? Or can I rescue him one more time?
A knock at the door jolts me out of my thoughts, and immediately I tense again. It must be him, for who else could it be in the middle of the night? Adney? Because she wants to look after me after my breakdown and is now even more concerned because I don’t answer? Still I don’t find it in me to ask for my visitor’s identification and thus give away my presence.
Unable to move or even breathe I stare at the door, and part of me hopes that whoever it is on the other side will leave... even if at the same time, the thought of spending this grim night alone scares me to death. My demons are still around, lurking in the shadows, and only wait for another opportunity to torment me, but if it is indeed Éomer before my door, he will bring yet more demons with him. What shall I do? I am still undecided when the knock is repeated, and then I hear a hesitant voice from behind the door... a male voice: “Godwyna?”
It is not a conscious reaction, but somehow I manage to pick myself up and slowly walk over. Why is he here? To insist on my service despite our ugly argument, can that be it? Can the son of Eomund be so insensitive? ’Ah, but it is not him!′ the voice in the back of my head objects as I lay my hand against the wooden door, hesitating.
“Godwyna, are you in there?”
All this thinking will do no good if I can’t look him in the eye. With a deep breath, I open the door and brace myself for another ugly scene, although I do not know if I have the strength for another quarrel in me tonight.
“What is it that you want, Éomer?” I see that he is taken aback by my harsh tone, but he recovers quickly and his piercing gaze finds and examines me. I do not shrink from his scrutiny. Why should I hide my pain from him? For one thing is certain: we have always been honest with each other. Honesty is the foundation of our relationship, whatever else people may call it. “Why have you come?”
He takes a deep breath, and I note with surprise that he seems to be nervous.
“I could not help notice that you were upset when you left,” he says, and I raise my brows. This is what brought him before my door? Concern? Perhaps all is not lost yet. But it is not all he has to say, and he struggles... until suddenly, his guarded expression melts into a guilty face. “I... I wondered whether it was because of me. Because of what I did today... and the words we had.”
Is this Éomer’s way of saying he is sorry? And what is he sorry for, his harsh words or the reason he gave me to attack him? I decide to give him a chance, viewing his nervousness as a good sign, but keeping my face devoid of emotion.
“This day... it brought back unwelcome memories. I had believed them to have faded, but...“I shrug, then shake my head as I counter Éomer’ gaze with a weary smile. “We all fight our own battles, isn’t it so? The moment we let down our guard, we’re under attack.”
He nods slowly, solemnly, yet his gaze never leaves me, as if he is trying to look into my head. Aye, he understands that he had a part in reviving the demons from my past, but he also sees that I appreciate his apology. For a moment, neither of us knows how to continue, then he suddenly says, and his stare goes right through me: “Today, when those orcs killed the boy and the girl screamed... it was my sister’s voice I heard in my head, and it was her I saw in the hands of that filth.”
He takes another deep breath and seems to struggle even harder for words, but they won’t come to him. I can only stare back at him while a shiver runs down my spine. Suddenly, all makes sense. We never spoke much when we were together, and he rarely mentioned his sister to me, and yet every time he did, the deep love he holds for the last of his family softened his features and lit up his eyes. Without words I understood that Éowyn must be the centre of her brother’s world, and that he would tear himself in two to protect her from the evilness that haunts our land.
“Was she once-” ‘-abducted as well?’ I meant to ask, but he interrupts me fiercely before I can utter it, as if alone the mention of such a possibility were too horrible to be voiced.
“No. But it was close once... too close.” For a moment I see the horror of those memories in his eyes and wait, giving him the time to decide how much he wants to tell me while he seems lost in thought. He stares right through me, and for the first time since I’ve known him, all his fearsare clearly visible upon his face. Never I have I seen him so vulnerable, and for a heartbeat I wonder whether it is not I who should apologise to him, for I did not see what prompted his extreme measures against our enemies. But the moment passes, and he wakes from his absorption and looks at me before I can find the right words. “It was not the boy’s death, as horrible as it was, that caused my reaction. Godhere died quickly and in protection of his sister, and had the same happened to me back then, I would have been content, provided that my death ensured Éowyn’s survival.”
I nod, unable to speak. My mouth is dry and my emotions are in an uproar over the enormity of the confession the man before me gives.
“I... I know that what I did today was wrong...” He shakes his head, no longer seeing me, and his voice drops to a whisper. “I could not stop myself. I wanted to repay them for the anguish they caused the girl... and the fear their brethren caused my sister and me, and for everything they might have done to Éowyn had fate not intervened. I thought... I thought if I’d kill them in the cruellest manner I could think of...”
“—it would make you feel better? It would chase those demons away?” I end the sentence for him, and see affirmation in his eyes as he returns to the present. “But that is not what happened, is it? It did not lift the darkness from your heart. It is not satisfaction you feel.”
He squares his shoulders, and with terrible honesty in his eyes, meets my gaze. “No.” Éomer’s voice sounds flat, and yet that simple word conveys everything – the self-disgust... and the guilt he is feeling. We stare at each other for another long moment of uncomfortable silence, and the only noise I hear is the crackle of the fire behind me and the rush of the rain outside.
Then, with a breath, he adds: “It was shame that made me lash out at you in the yard, and I apologise from the bottom of my heart for the pain my lack of restraint caused you.” And while I am still searching for the right words to accept his apology and forgive him, Éomer suddenly turns away. “We will leave early for Aldburg tomorrow I saw no other chance to explain myself. I will keep youno longer, for this day has been hard for the both of us, and it is time to rest. Good night.”
He starts to walk toward the stairs and I look after him, still standing in the door... until a sudden fit of panic seizes me.
“Wait! Éomer?” I step out, and he turns his head. I inhale deeply, and with effort, calm myself enough to say in an almost even tone: “You don’t have to leave... unless it is what you want.”
Furrows form on his brow as he turns around. He hesitates.
“What is it that you want?”
I lift my chin, filled with sudden conviction.
“This night is too dark to spend it alone... Will you shield me from its terrors?”
He regards me for a moment longer as if to find out whether I truly meant these words or only said them to settle our quarrel... and then comes back, and a weight drops off my heart.
I take his hand, and it feels good in mine, so strong and warm and real in contrast to the dark fears of the past day. I rise to the tips of my toes to kiss him and he responds, hesitantly at first as if still afraid to hurt me, but then with growing confidence as he pulls me into his embrace and we close the door behind us.
I do not know what Éomer sees in me that draws him toward me, but I know what I see in him: although the son of Eomund is older and of broader build, it was his resemblance to Heorulf which first caught my eye, and he is possessed of the same powerful presence and the same depths to his dark eyes. Whenever I closed my eyes and inhaled his scent, I could swear that I felt my husband’s presence within him, reborn and watching over me. Yet things will be different between us from now on, for while we never spoke much when we were together before, but sensed the truth about the other nonetheless, we reached a new level of understanding tonight. Tonight, I might have learned to love Éomer for the man he is and not just for the memories of my husband he revived in me. It is his honour for which I respect him, and his willingness to fight to retain it. It is his protectiveness and humanity.
I am aware that there will come a day when Éomer will seek me out no more, either because he, too, will have succumbed to the steadily increasing pressure of our enemies, or because he will have found a companion worthy of the blood of Eorl at last. As a lord, he is not free in his choices, and it is his duty to provide the Mark with an heir even if he is not yet the one to succeed our king if Théoden were to die anytime soon. He is not mine to have.
I know I will lose Éomer, and yet I only wish the best for him. I lost my faith in our gods that night when my life was destroyed, and yet I already know that I will find myself sending a prayer for protection to Béma when he leaves tomorrow. He carries a heavy burden on his walk along the razor’s edge, and while the past day proved that no man, not even the noblest of warriors, is infallible, it also gave me hope that he will master this challenge and emerge even stronger. He came to me as a God of Wrath, but it will be a simple man who returns to Aldburg tomorrow, and somehow, that is a good thought.
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