Through Shadows

Chapter 13

Chapter 13

Glacier Crowfoot

"Think you that Wormtonge had poison only for Théoden's ears? - 'Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs?'- Have you not heard those words before? Saruman spoke them, the teacher of Wormtongue. Though I do not doubt that Wormtongue at home wrapped their meaning in therms more cunning. My lord, if your sister's love for you, and her will still bent to her duty, had not restrained her lips, you might have heard even such things as these escape them. But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?"

Gandalf to Éomer, quoted from:The Houses of Healing; The Return of the King; Book Five byJ.R.R. Tolkien.

Minas Tirith, 24th March, 3019 Third Age

In the darkness of her room Éowyn's eyes fastened on the slightly lighter square of the window high in the wall. It was too dark to even make out the silhouette of the flowerpot, but she felt the draught of fresh air streaming in. She frowned. It was the time of the dying moon, feared by many in the Mark, for the forces of Evil were believed to be especially strong in those last dark nights before the reappearance of the waxing moon. That did not bode well for the plans of the Lords of the West, and not a few of the Eorlingas marching on the Black Gate would feel the additional burden of that threat.

Given the unease she felt and the fierce beating of her heart, it must have been one of her nightmares that had caused her to wake, but she could not remember anything. Willing herself to relax, she tried to go back to sleep, but to no avail. At least five days from the Crossroads, the Steward had said. They could not yet have reached the Black Gate, could they? She sat up, ignoring the throbbing in her broken arm. Perhaps if she took the iron bar and did some more exercises it would tire her body enough to finally sleep. But then, what did she desire sleep for? Time was running out for all of them, so better use it to be prepared for an honourable end. Her feet met the cold of the tiled floor. Crouching, she grabbed the bar she had deposited near the bed legs. How good the solid iron felt in her hand! She rose, and bending her arm, started her exercises.

To think she had only once mentioned her wish to exercise her sword-hand, and immediately the Steward had taken means to provide her with what she had wanted, not to talk about the dagger she carried strapped to the splinting of her arm. And yet he had refused to interfere with the Warden's ruling of the Houses. Holding the bar still with her arm stretched out in front of her, she grinned. No doubt a keen politician, this Faramir. But a good man, too, she told herself, sobering again. Had she herself not felt the immaturity of her request to change her room? What an idiocy to even think about it with the Houses filled with wounded. She sighed. No doubt she had to thank him also for keeping her from making a fool of herself in the eyes of the healers.

Feeling the muscles of her outstretched arm starting to tremble, she frowned and clutched the bar tighter. Only a few days without regular exercise, and there already was a difference in strength and endurance, but any reaction was better than the previous numbness. How far had the Steward really seen through her? And had he perhaps even understood her reasons? Clenching her teeth stubbornly, she willed her aching muscles to endure. The man was an enigma, and he was working hard on staying one. She shook her head. How could it be that someone who so obviously kept his thoughts and emotions hidden from anyone around him seemed honest and trustworthy at the same time?

Giving finally in to the increasing pain of her strained muscles, she let her arm swing down slowly, recalling their last conversation. What in Béma's name had got into her to tell him the name of the glacier crowfoot in the language of the Mark? Had she wanted to find out how much of it he really knew? And if so, why had she felt the urge to challenge him? There had been no reason to feel provoked at all.

Raising the bar again, she tried to recapitulate what exactly had happened. They had walked in that small walled garden, talking about the plants around them, and he had answered her questions concerning those she had not known, a number of exotic varieties that had never made it to the rougher climate of Edoras. And then he had asked for her favourite plant. Why had she not just answered and left it at that? Why had she plunged into an explanation, given reasons for her preference, nay admiration of the glacier crowfoot? Did it really matter that the Steward knew about it? Did she really care that he understood?

Hvít Snáwbrýd... Éomer had called her that, when he had put her hand in Erwig's and she knew that he had hoped with all his heart that she would overcome her winter of grief and loneliness at that good man's side. And yet she had ended in only deeper frost. And never would she return to bloom and life, now that their doom was approaching. Never would she bear fruit, never would her petals turn red like the Snáwbrýd's did, having mastered the long time of waiting near the glacier's edge...

With an angry grunt she started to swing the bar in circles. What had been said had been said, and as there was no way to take those words back there was no use bemoaning having uttered them. And even less reason to pity herself. Perhaps she had only been a bit shaken after all the impressions of the day. Unbidden the image of the huge marble throne hall rose before her inner eye. Black and white and golden... And that throne... So high above everything below. Had she really imagined herself...?

Had the Steward realised what he had shown her? And that garden, a present of a loving, devoted husband for the woman he loved... Beautiful it might be, but its high walls did not only protect it and the lady it had been dedicated to, but it closed them in, locking them away.

What had the Lady Finduilas felt? That woman from Dol Amroth, used to those vast plains of the sea Faramir had described to her in such an enhancing way? Had she not been the highest ranking woman in all of Gondor? Was that not as close to a queen as possible? And yet there had been no space for her in the throne hall of Minas Tirith, not even on the black seat at the bottom of the stairs. Éowyn shook her head. If it was correct what Faramir had told her, Denethor had loved Finduilas sincerely. And yet all that love had got her was a green lining of her golden cage.

Carefully searching her way in the dark, she put the bar down at the foot of the bed and then sat down on the bed, groping for the covered mug the healers had left there as they always did. Slowly she sipped the fruit-flavoured water, and suddenly realised what it was: Hibiscus! She took another sip. It certainly was a very thin Hibiscus tea, a faint shadow of the fruity brew the Steward liked to have for breakfast. Setting the mug down, she rose again and walked to the window, raising her face to the draught of cool air.

How she wished to stand on the terrace that surrounded Meduseld, the Golden Hall perched on the hilltop high over Edoras, and drink in the sight of the plains to the east, while to the west and south the roving eye would be caught by the harsh beauty of the mountains. They were not called the White Mountains for nothing, their majestic peaks covered in snow even in the heat of summer.

Éowyn sighed. Tonight even in the Mark she would not see them, as darkness swallowed up everything. Not even standing on the mountain ledges of Dunharrow would she see anything, save perhaps the fires of the guards below in the valley of the Snowbourn. How were they faring, all those she had left behind, breaking the oath she had taken to lead them in the absence of the king? She clenched her teeth, feeling the muscles of her jaw bulge. Guilt! Forsaken duties! And yet, what would it have served the Mark if she had stayed? Had she not fulfilled her duties to the Mark all her life, no matter what it had cost her? Did she not have the right to at least die the way she chose?

To chose instead of being chosen! Only once before had she done so, nearly ten years ago now, when she had given herself to Fréaláf. With a sad smile she shook her head. No, truth be told she had not given herself, but rather taken him, driven by fathomless passion. She sighed. How inexperienced and naive both of them had been. Dear Fréaláf, trusted and beloved companion of her childhood, the one she had set all demands of maidenly demeanour at nought for, the one she had truly loved, defying her brother's wrath and her uncle's stern disapproval.

True, she could have waited, should have waited, as with Fréaláf being of Byrnstan's noble line there had been no real obstacle to a marriage, even though as not being the eldest son he would not have inherited his father's land and title. In the end Théoden King had given in and agreed to a betrothal, but how much persuasion had that cost Théodred? Théodred had understood her, had known what it meant to be driven by love and insatiable craving against all things that duty and code of conduct demanded.

He had sworn he would adopt her first-born son as soon as he was old enough for fostering, making him his heir to the throne of the Mark. And had he not been trying to get her out of Edoras, away from the Worm's uncanny influence, when he had arranged her marriage to Erwig, years after Fréaláf's death, renewing his promise concerning the succession to the throne?

Oh, she had known for good it had not really been a selfless offer, but he had played fair. Théodred needed an heir, and a child of her body meant an offspring of Eorl's line, but he had accepted her own choice in the first place, and had then tried to find her a good husband. And Erwig certainly had been a good choice. She had not been averse to the union, though there had been nothing that had driven her to him, a man twice her age, Erkenbrand of Westfold's younger brother and Théodred's trusted friend. Perhaps they would have come to love each other, had they had the time. He had been gentle the one time she had shared his bed, gentle and eager to please her, and no doubt ardent enough to ensure a healthy child. A healthy child to fulfil Théodred's duty to the Mark. To help him deal with the terrible guilt he felt. Guilt he had incurred trying to do his duty to the Mark.

Éowyn gulped, fighting the tears that started to sting her eyes. Why had things gone so terribly awry? Why had fate been so cruel? She slumped down on the bed again, grateful that no one could see her.

Théodred had certainly cherished Juthwara, his silent, mild-tempered wife and queen-to-be, who he had married one year after the King had taken his deceased sister's children into fostering. Had the young woman loved Théodred? Éowyn was not sure, but Juthwara no doubt had been his confidante and if Théodred had not felt the passion for her a husband ought to feel for his wife, the two of them had hidden it well. She was willing to do her duty to the Mark and her husband, and she trusted him, Juthwara had answered Frithuswith when the old housekeeper had asked her worriedly, for reasons Éowyn had not understood then.

And how terribly Juthwara had paid for her trust and willingness. Éowyn turned her head, staring into the dark with unseeing eyes. Never would she forget that cursed day when even the shards of her world had fallen apart, when Edoras, when Théodred himself had lost the illusion of joy and safety for her. The second crisis after the dreadful experience of her parents' death. She had not been ten then...

For the entire day they had been waiting. Had been waiting with raising uneasiness. And though nobody paid her any attention, Éowyn felt the tension, the fear, closing in on everyone, seeping out of the walls of her room like poisonous vapours. The evening before, Frithuswith had kissed her good night with a happy smile, whispering to her that she should sleep, for in the morning there would be a new child in Meduseld.

But nothing the like had happened and Frithuswith had not been there in the morning as usual, only a nervous maid who had put a bowl of porridge on the table and told her, she had better stay in her room and out of the way. Éowyn had stayed there for some hours, hoping that Frithuswith would come, or Théodred himself, calling her to see the newborn baby. How happy he had been when he had announced Juthwara's being with child. Juthwara, mild and friendly like an early summer's day.

Confused and frightened Éowyn waited. What was wrong? For something obviously was wrong, very wrong, with servants bustling along the corridor of the royal quarters and Frithuswith not even looking in onto her. Never since her mother's death had she felt that forlorn, and in the end she left her room stealthily and crept into Théoden King's study.

There, close to the window, stood the desk Théodred used. A rather small piece of furniture, but with panels reaching down on three sides, it had always been one of her favourite hiding places, her "nest", where she used to curl up with one of the cushions whenever she needed quiet and solace. This safe haven she sought out that terrible day and she must have fallen asleep in her loneliness and despair for she noticed Théodred and his father only when they already stood beside the desk.

From where she lay she could only see their legs, and it took her some time to realize that Théoden King had to be holding Théodred upright, for her cousin's legs were wobbling, his knees sagging now and then. But what frightened her most was his voice. The rich, low-pitched baritone she loved so much, the voice that used to sing to her, tell her tales about the magnificent deeds of the heroes of old, of the times when the Béma himself had walked amongst the children of Men was nearly unrecognisable. Oh, she had heard this voice shout as well, dressing down her overbearing brother, which had always filled her with secret delight, had heard it bellow orders to his men at sparring or when his Éored was to depart for the Westfold, his area of responsibility as Second Marshal of the Mark, but it had never sounded close to anything like this. The words he uttered were slurred, whiny, interrupted by sobs, and she realised that he had to be drunk to the brink of unconsciousness. But what caused her to gulp in terror was not his drunkenness but the unveiled hatred with which he addressed his father, spitting out insult after insult.

"Théodred, Son, come, lie down, will you?" Théoden King's voice was quiet and sad, and Éowyn felt her heart beat in her mouth, not understanding why he put up with Théodred's behaviour, but at the same time she was scared to death at the thought her uncle might snap and hit Théodred.

"Théodred..." Again her uncle's quiet voice, hovering incongruously with the absurd sight of the men's legs right in front of her hiding place.

"You..." She did not understand what Théodred said, but he must have tried to pull out of his father's grip, for his unsteady legs staggered violently, but his next sentences were only too clear.

"Leave me alone. Leave me alone. Why don't you leave me alone? Why didn't you leave me alone in the first place when I was born? Why... " Théodred's ravings ended abruptly and for a while she could hear nothing but his choked sobs and her uncle's soothing murmurs, until all of a sudden she heard her cousin howl: "I'm cursed! I'm a murderer. I was born a murderer and you did not have the guts to kill me there and then to end it once and for all!"

Théoden King's voice was strained when he answered: "You are drunk, Son. You need to rest."

Théoden gave an ugly laugh. "Son... Yes, I'm your son. Your fine son who was his mother's bane and who killed his wife and child. You bloody coward. Why did you not kill your wife's murderer? But no... You would not give me a clean death. Not you! You passed on the curse to me. But I will not take it. Do you hear me? I will not..."

She saw the king's feet move swiftly, heard his muffled curse, and then with a short grunt Théodred crumpled to the ground. Frightened out of her wits, she stuffed a fist into her mouth to keep herself from screaming. Théodred, her friend, her cousin, her hero...

She could not see his face where he lay unconscious on the floor in front of the desk, only the lower part of his body to his waist, his legs twisted strangely and his tunic askew and crumpled. Her uncle's steps moved away, and she heard him open the door and his muffled voice as he talked to someone before shutting the door again. And then to her utter horror she saw the cloth of Théodred's breeches darken, a stain spreading fast over groin and thighs.

The opening of the door and fast steps approaching shook Éowyn out of her paralysis. "Hurry, Frithuswith." Her uncle's voice was urgent, coarse with grief. "He was raving and I did not know how else to stop him. Nobody needs to see him like this. Let's get him into my bed."

If Frithuswith answered at all, Éowyn did not hear it, but immediately her view was obscured by the housekeeper's skirts as she bent and took hold of Théodred's knees, aiding Théoden King to haul his son over to the adjoining sleeping-room.

No one noticed the little girl under the desk, staring at what remained of the hero of her childhood: Nothing but a wet spot on the floor tiles.

Heaving a breath, Éowyn tried to banish her depressing memories, but there did not seem enough air in the small room to allow her to breathe freely. She needed to get out! Remembering that the women had put out the robe on the wicker chair, she reached for it, and wrapping it around her as best as she could, she made for the door, not bothering herself about her naked feet.

Having opened the door, she blinked. She had expected the corridor to be as dark as her own room, but its entire length was dimly lit by small oil lamps standing on projections on the wall. How come she had not noticed them the night Anwen had called her to Oswin's side? Had she been focussed that keenly on the task ahead? It seemed impossible. Had she simply not been prepared to see them? Hesitating, she stepped out into the corridor, closing the door softly behind her. Her naked feet made no sound on the white and black flagstones and also from the other rooms came no noise. She sighed. So many things she had not seen in her life, be it because she had not been able to or because she had not wanted to. It had taken long till she had fully understood what had happened to Théodred, until she had felt able again to love him the way she had before, no matter how hard she had tried. Slowly she walked down the corridor. White, black, white, black. A chess board. The chess board of the gods, and Men were but pieces on it, no matter what rank they held.

That day she had not seen anyone on the corridors of Meduseld when at last she had slipped back into her own room, nor had she ever talked to anybody about witnessing Théodred's humiliation. Not even to Frithuswith who she had shared everything with until then, though she had tried the night after Théodred had left Edoras for the Westfold, only days after the burial of Juthwara and the child. Said burial had been the first time she had seen Théodred again, but he had not had eyes for anybody. Gaunt and fey he had seemed, and she had felt in a strange way relieved to be ignored by him. It had seemed as if Théodred had closed a solid but invisible door to everybody. Even after the burial he had not taken part in the life of the hall, had not talked to anybody, but kept to his rooms. Mourning, some had said, brooding had said others.

Though nobody had talked to her directly, she had heard the servants' horrified whispers about Juthwara's sufferings and the healer's futile attempt to at least save the unborn child by cutting it from the dead mother's womb, of the prince's desperate flight into drunkenness, but nobody had ever mentioned any quarrel with his father.

Éowyn had not dared to slip down to Frithuswith's room at the opposite end of the corridor while Théodred had been in his room at Meduseld for fear of meeting him, but when at last she had tried after he had left, she had found the housekeeper's door locked, something she had never experienced before. Puzzled and curious, she had pressed her ear to the wood of the door and heard Frithuswith murmuring in a low voice and then to her utter surprise the answering voice of her uncle, too low for her to understand what was being said, but the sorrow and despair she had understood, would have understood even without the sobs that suddenly had stopped his words.

Not even at her mother's death had she felt as forlorn as that moment out on the nightly corridor in front of Frithuswith's locked door. In Aldburg people had understood her grief, her hurt, had tried to soothe her. And there had been Éomer, her big brother, whom for all his high-handedness and despite all their constant bickering she had loved and still loved, certain in the knowledge that he loved her, too. With him being in tutelage with Erkenbrand, Lord of the Westfold, for the first time in her life she had had to face sorrow without his protection. Sorrow unbearable as every single of her confidants at Meduseld had seemed unreachable, leaving her alone in the dark.

Éowyn reached the door to the garden, and opening it, she stepped out under the ambulatory in front of it. The garden itself lay in complete darkness, and she gave up the half-hearted plan to climb the walls to look out over the Pelennor, knowing that besides a handful of watch-fires there would be nothing to see. Now and then a fiery flicker flared up in the east, followed by a low rumbling sound a little later. She clenched her teeth, thinking of the men that were somewhere out there on their hopeless march on the Black Gate. What chances did even the bravest and most accomplished warriors have, set against a foe who could torture the very bowels of the earth?

Instead of climbing the walls she sat down on the broad step of the ambulatory, leaning her back against one of the columns, her thoughts wandering back to that time of utter loneliness. What had saved her sanity had been Fréaláf. Fréaláf, son of Brynstan, Lord of Fyrthe, scarcely one year older than herself, who had come into the royal household as Juthwara's page.

She had seen him for the first time when riding out with Juthwara to fly the gyrfalcon Théodred had given his wife as a morning gift, and she had found it difficult not to stare openly. Tall for his age, he had been uncommonly thin, reminding her of a newborn colt, an impression that had even been stressed by his long face, typical of the Eastemnet. And she had not been able to keep her eyes off his red hair. Not the red-golden hue so common in the Emnet, but a fierce red like a burning brand flying in the everlasting breeze of the plains. But what had intrigued her most had been the myriads of freckles that had not only covered his face but every single spot of his body that had been visible.

A keen falconer even at his young age, he had highly enjoyed his rides with Juthwara, and his eyes had gleamed with commitment and joy, though he had seldom talked to anybody, save to Frithuswith in their cosy hours in the kitchen, and then his topic had been restricted to his seemingly countless siblings who he obviously had missed seriously.

For a moment Éowyn closed her eyes, leaning back against the column. Her thoughts were futile, would not bring him back, and yet... She hugged her broken arm, a sad smile curling her lip. Forsaken children they had been then, and little more she was now, sleepless in the small hours, waiting for the Enemy's final step that would stomp them into nothingness.

It had not occurred to her then that with Juthwara's and the child's death the boy might feel as deprived as she, as nothing had reached through the dark and cold she had felt imprisoned in. She had not noticed him that bleak morning in the stables when having finished grooming her pony, she had simply stood and stared down the stable aisle with unseeing eyes. She had not noticed him until he had embraced her, his long arms winding around her, pulling her close to his bony body. And then, with his mouth bent to her ear, he had started to murmur the "Gosling" to her, that simple, ancient song, mothers probably had soothed their ailing children with before the Mark had as much as existed.

"Hush little gosling and don't you worry

your mother's plume keeps you warm.

From fox and hawk she will protect you

and keep you from sorrow and harm."

He had done nothing else, not stroked her nor tried to make her speak about her grief, just held her, chanting in his slightly scratchy voice while she had cried into his tunic, until at last her knees had sagged with exhaustion and he had wordlessly led her to sit on one of the upturned wooden buckets. Only then had she started to feel ashamed for having cried in front of him like a baby, but when she had risen brusquely and turned to leave, her had held her back with surprisingly strong hands.

Éowyn shook her head, wondering that after all these years she still remembered every detail, every single word...

"It is dangerous not to cry, when something grieves you deeply, Éowyn. My grandmother told me that the tears you don't let flow gather inside you, and if you don't cry at all, they will drown your heart."

Wrestling herself free, she had hurled defiance at him. "Is that so? And why do you not weep then, if it is so important?"

He had blushed, but holding her gaze had admitted: "I do cry. The first weeks at Meduseld I cried nearly every day because I missed home so much. But I cry when I'm alone, because I know that the others will think me a wimp."

She had shaken her head, remembering him handling the huge hawk. "But you are not."

With a faint smile he had shrugged. "And neither are you. But they would tease us nevertheless. Cry if you are sad, Éowyn, but do it when you are alone or in the company of someone you trust. And you can trust me."

And trusted him she had, though they had never spoken about the matter again and she never again had cried in front of him. But she had felt a closeness towards that boy she had never felt before, a closeness based on equality and mutual respect and care. Over the next years they had spent hours together each day, doing chores in the hall, sitting at lessons on the history of the Mark and riding in the surroundings of Edoras, not heeding the whispers and quips of their peers, and when at the age of twelve Fréaláf had become Elfhelm's squire, which had meant regular weapon training, Éowyn had thought it the most natural thing in the world to do what Fréaláf did, and smiling Théoden King had indulged her. Éomer had frowned when he had come for one of his rare visits, but Théodred had encouraged her, recounting the tales of the Shieldmaidens of the North until Éomer had grudgingly agreed that it befitted Éomund's daughter to continue that tradition.

Slowly her fingers traced the splinting of her broken arm until they found the handle of the dagger tied to it. She probably would not have learned to fight but for Fréaláf, and here she was, having slain one of the Dark Lord's most important captains. How proud he would have been of her...

How proud she herself had been when for the first time she had been allowed to swap the wooden practise sword for a real though blunted one at the age of fourteen. And she had known she had truly gained the honour. Neither the marshal nor his swordmaster had given her any preference, and more than once in the years of her training had she stood at the edge of the training ground, almost vomiting with exhaustion. But she had endured, spurred by Fréaláf's silent reliability at her side, and though they had seen each other less as their responsibilities and their tasks had grown, their meetings had become more precious until that day when they had looked into each other's eyes and realised that nothing had changed but everything had been different.

Éowyn shifted a little. The cold of the stone stair was gradually creeping through the thick cloth of her robe, but she did not want to go back inside to the confining walls of her room. Slowly she rose. She felt stiff and cold, as if the darkness around her had crept into her. Determinedly she squared her shoulders. She needed to move, to walk. The walls with their steep stairs were out of the question, but with the smoothness of the garden paths, pacing to and fro for a while would certainly be no problem even in the prevailing dark.

Keeping the Houses to her left, she walked down the paved path until she reached the corner of the building, and she was just about to turn, when a sound she least expected reached her ears. Laughter. Rich, male laughter, and not too far away. Intrigued she rounded the corner, following the path that led to the main-entrance of the premises. The space between the building and the gate was lit by a horn-lantern, hanging over the door of the small porter's lodge near the gate, and in front of said lodge three men were sitting in intense conversation: an old Gondorean, who probably was the original porter, sitting comfortably on a sturdy bench and two Rohirrim in full armour on low three-legged stools, their spears leaning within reach at the wall.

Éowyn shook her head. What had Lhindir said: It looked as if the Rohirrim had taken over the Houses? She suddenly felt a surge of sympathy for the Warden. She had better talk to Elfhelm the next day. She turned to go back, but after looking into the lit area the darkness of the garden seemed even deeper, and to make things worse, her bare toes bumped against the slightly higher edge of the path, causing her to swear through clenched teeth.

"Halt! Who goes there!"

Éowyn swivelled round. In the blink of an eye the Riders had grabbed their spears and stepped out of the light, not to pose a target for any arrow that might come flying out of the dark. The old porter simply stared, his mouth hanging open.

"Éowyn, Éomund's Dohtor."

She stepped into the light, and the two Riders joined the porter in staring. It was the old man who found his wits again first. "Is anything wrong, my lady? Do you want me to call someone to show you to your room?"

She wondered how often he had been confronted by confused patients walking the garden at night and could not help feeling embarrassed. "Thank you, but I know my way back. I was only going for a walk in the garden when I heard your voices."

The porter shook his head. "My dear lady, it is well past midnight, and it really is too dark for a nightly walk." He eyed her with concern. "Do you want me to get you a light?"

One of the Riders bent down and pulled another lantern out from under the bench. "Take ours, Hlaefdíge. The guards relieving us will probably have one we can take for our way back."

She shook her head. "Thank you, but the corridors of the Houses are lit and I can use the main entrance. I only walked in the garden because I was sleepless."

"Sleepless?" Again the Rider fumbled under the bench, this time bringing forward a high wooden pitcher with a pewter lid. "Try a draught of this. A very nice well-hopped brew, not the dishwater they dare to call beer over here. The bloke who makes it is from the north, from Dale. Says he learned brewing from the Dwarves. I always get myself a pitcher of his best to have before going to sleep."

Opening the lid, Éowyn smelled the beer. It seemed fresh enough, and when she took a hesitant sip, she found it cold, very strong and markedly bitter. Well-hopped indeed! Certainly a very effective nightcap. She took another, rather generous swing, and the Riders nodded their approval, grinning broadly. Putting the pitcher down, she faced its owner. "Thank you for the draught. I shall certainly sleep the better for it. Just one thing. You say: always. Does that mean that there's a regular night watch here at the Houses of Healing?"

The Rider shrugged. "Not only at the Houses of Healing and not only night watches. There is that arrangement between the Captains. The Eorlingas have to guard certain points in the city and out on the Pelennor. But certainly the Houses are of special concern and Marshal Elfhelm put up a guard the very moment he learned you were here."

Éowyn nodded, her features a polite mask. So it was Elfhelm she had to thank for the permanent guard, not that over-protective brother of hers.

Giving her an adoring smile, the younger of the two bent forwards eagerly. "You are the king's sister, Lady Éowyn. And if Éomer King should fall..."

Shaking his head, the other Rider intervened. "Don't call it forth, Anlaf. But you are of Eorl's House, lady. And Eorl's House we protect. You are the future of the Mark."

Éowyn suppressed a grimace. Everywhere the same old tale. Did these fools really think there was a future? But she was spared an answer.

"Take this, my lady. It makes for more comfortable drinking." The porter who had not understood their conversation in the language of the Mark had retreated into the lodge and now came out again, offering her a small, earthenware mug. Eagerly Anlaf seized it and filling it to the brim, he passed it to Éowyn. She cursed inwardly. No way could she refuse it now. Not that the beer tasted bad, quite the contrary, but she was loath to listen to what the Eorlingas expected her to do. Thanking the Rider, she took the mug, and sipping the contents, she inquired casually after the situation on the Pelennor.

"It's slowly getting sorted," the older Rider said. "It was a mighty gruesome job to clear up the battlefield, though we left the collecting and burning of the orc carcasses to the prisoners."

"Prisoners?" Éowyn asked over the brim of her mug.

"Aye," he nodded. "We let none of the foes live, be it orc or man, and the Southrons and Easterlings did lead us a fine dance, but then there were their camps outside the Rammas, with supplies, equipment, servants and camp-followers." He grinned. "Things were distributed justly. We got the Southron's camp as Théoden King slew their Captain, and the booty was beyond imagination in all respects. And only treasures like gold and such and weapons were to go to the king. Anything else was left to the éoreds."

The younger Rider shrugged. "I have heard about it, but was not there to enjoy the booty, being appointed to support the injured, but I dare say you lads had quite a time."

The older Rider laughed. "Not that evening, believe me. We were simply too knackered."

Feeling suddenly sick to the stomach, Éowyn emptied the mug and handed it back to the porter. The Riders saluted respectfully as she made for the entrance of the Houses, but as she opened the door the older one's voice reached her ear.

"Don't you worry, Anlaf. The captains made sure that every Rider will get his part of the spoils. And as for the wenches: Why don't you come down for a shag when you are off duty? They may be swarthy, but I tell you they..."

Stepping inside, she slammed the door shut. The glory of war! Rich booty in all respects! The value of women: a warrior's possession and if things went wrong nothing but part of the spoils of war.

Annotations:

Glacier crowfoot is my favourite plat. As it's name tells, it grows beside snowfields in cracks of rock, watered by the moisture of the meltwaters from the glaciers. In both, the Scandinavian mountains and in the Alps it is the flower that "climbs" the highest. When it starts to bloom, its petals are white but turn dark red in the end.

Hvít Snáwbrýd: (Rohirric/Old English) white snow lass/ snowbride

My "invention" for the glacier crowfoot in the language of the Mark

Hlaefdíge: (Rohirric/Old English) lady


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