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One Summer’s Day
A hand reached over and rested briefly on Theodred’s cuff before moving to point at two figures moving with what they undoubtedly considered to be considerable skill through the long grasses.
The king’s son narrowed his eyes as he turned to look at the two small blond figures slipping away from the walls of Edoras.
He thought briefly before turning to his lieutenant. ‘Send a message to my father to tell him I have taken my cousins out for the day, Aldemir,’ he commanded softly.
‘My lord!’ his friend objected. ‘You need rest.’
Theodred shook his head. ‘I can’t let them run off alone, old friend,’ he said. ‘And Eomer doesn’t need to get into more trouble for something that his sister has forced him to do.’
His aide nodded stiffly. ‘If you insist.’
Theodred dismounted. ‘See he is well cared for,’ he said, handing over the reins before moving off in pursuit of his cousins.
‘Wait, Eowyn!’ Eomer insisted. He was not surprised when she completely ignored him and continued determinedly to put as much distance as she could between herself and the city. ‘Eowyn!’
She turned her wordless glare on him. Her blue eyes were sparking furiously and he sighed, abandoning for a while his attempt to discover what had caused her to storm out of Meduseld and contenting himself with trailing behind her.
She had been paying attention to what she had seen of scouts moving quietly, he thought. She zigzagged carefully, making use of the available cover and keeping as far as possible out of the direct line of sight of the guards as she led them down to the river, where she wriggled them into a patch of dense scrub.
Eomer lay back on the leaf litter, inhaling the scent of growing things. He had hoped to get his sister calmed down and back to her room before any of her care-givers was aware of her absence, but he could see that it was not going to be that easy. She was sitting as rigid at one of the trees around them, except for her hands, which were busy ripping to shreds one leaf after another. She began to rock slightly, backwards and forwards, the movement increasing until it looked as if she was at the centre of some personal tempest. He looked at her warily and decided against speaking, feeling that it would be safer to wait for her to be ready.
It had been a long year. First their father had been killed, leaving them all bereft; then their mother had fallen ill and they had watched her fade as the days shortened, until, by the time their uncle and cousin had arrived, she had seemed to be only a watery reflection of the mother he remembered. They had had to leave their home and come with their uncle to his crowded city, to be given over to the care of strangers. Eomer was old enough to have understood, at least in his head, that his uncle simply did not have time to do much with them – but it had seemed to strike Eowyn as a final betrayal. She had changed from a confident obliging little girl, warm in her affections and co-operative with her minders, into a brooding termagant, swinging between silent withdrawal and hysterical vicious rage.
Everyone had been kind and understanding at first, assuring him that she would recover, but, as time passed, he had seen they were becoming exasperated by her. He had been afraid that soon they would stop trying to coax her back to the world and that she, too, might die and leave him. Meanwhile, she had clung to him. A lot of the time, she had followed him like a wraith, watching his training or lessons, on the edge, observing silently, but rarely involving herself with those around her. In addition, he had often been sent for when she was at her worst, because only in his arms had his sister calmed down and accepted food or comfort. Much as he loved her, he had increasingly found himself to be in despair.
In some ways, it was becoming worse now that her distress was less obvious. Her refusal to co-operate was beginning to annoy some of her caretakers and she simply paid no attention to the activities and behaviour expected of her as sister-daughter to the king.
Eomer listened uneasily. He knew that they should not be here alone. They were close enough to Edoras that they would probably be safe, but there were dangers roaming the plains of Rohan that would not be deterred by a boy with nothing more than a belt knife. He had been told before not to wander and to keep to the boundaries, so he knew that, again, when they returned he would be in deep trouble. How they expected him to stop Eowyn when she was in this mood he did not know, but surely nobody imagined that he would let her run on her own.
He stiffened as he heard the sound of footsteps among the trees. Looking swiftly at his sister, he decided that drawing her attention to the noise and telling her to be quiet would, in fact, just increase the likelihood of them being heard. Eowyn appeared to have frozen in position, even the faint keening fallen silent. He eased the short knife from its sheath.
‘Eomer!’ a voice called softly, its gentle tone deliberately unthreatening. ‘Eowyn? Where have you got to now, I wonder?’
The boy relaxed, dropping his head briefly as some of the tension oozed from him. ‘Theodred! Here we are,’ he answered. He moved slowly in his desire not to startle his sister, while at the same time showing his cousin how to reach them.
Theodred smiled at Eomer’s pale face. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get in there,’ he said, inspecting the close-growing brambles and tall shoots of the coppiced trees. ‘Why don’t you come out? We can go for a walk along the river and find somewhere rather more comfortable to rest.’
Eomer looked harassed. ‘I don’t think Eowyn’ll move, Theodred. She’s – not in a very good mood.’
‘What’s upset her this time, Eomer?’
The boy sighed helplessly. ‘I don’t know; she wouldn’t tell me. But at least she’s not kicking or biting at the moment. There’s a bit more of a path over the other side. D’you think you could get through?’
The young prince felt his belly tense with sympathy for the burdened lad his laughing little cousin had become. ‘I’m a brave warrior, coz. I don’t think I’ll be beaten by a few bushes. Show me the way.’
As he sat down on his cloak, Theodred rested a warm hand on Eomer’s shoulder. ‘This is a good hidey-hole,’ he said approvingly. ‘Hard to approach and as safe as it could be. I remember coming here when I was younger.’ The boy leaned into his cousin’s calm hug. ‘You’ve done well, Eomer, although it might have been wiser to get someone to help you. I know,’ he added kindly in response to a sigh. ‘You don’t want to tell tales on your sister. But there’s more to what is going on than simple mischief, Eomer. No-one would be angry with her.’
‘She keeps running,’ the boy whispered, as if his throat hurt too much to speak normally. ‘I’m scared one day I won’t be there when she does. What’ll I do if she never comes back?’ He allowed his cousin’s strong arms to give him comfort. ‘Nothing seems to help, Theodred. She just keeps getting worse.’
The two of them turned to watch Eowyn as she sat motionless, eyes closed in her white face, all colour drained from her. The bones of her face were too sharp, Theodred thought, and the shadows were creeping out from under her eyes. He did not know what he could offer in the way of help, but healers and mothers with years of experience of unhappy children had been trying for months without any apparent success. He surely could do little harm.
‘You know her best, cousin,’ Theodred said. ‘Has anyone listened to you? What would you do to help her?’
Eomer looked confused. ‘How should I know? People say different things. Lady Winfrith thinks she needs to feel safe and have something useful to do – she wants to shut her up in Meduseld and teach her embroidery of all things – and Master Tostig says she needs rest and food and time. I think they’ve all tried to coddle her long enough.’
‘What do you think she needs?’ his cousin asked.
Eomer looked at his sister again. ‘I think she needs to know it’s all right to be angry. I think she needs something to fight. She doesn’t want to sit and sew – she wants to hurt something. I know it made me feel better when I started training again.’
Theodred nodded slowly. ‘It makes sense to me,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘She doesn’t run from the training fields. I’ve seen her watching. Do you think we should get her to join in?’
‘Are you sure it’s a good idea?’ Eomer enquired dubiously. ‘She’s dangerous enough with teeth and nails. Do you want to put a sword in her hands? And she’s a girl!’
Theodred laughed. ‘Weapons training needs control – and maybe what Eowyn needs at the moment is to feel that she can take control. She’d make a good shieldmaiden. It’s about time Rohan had another.’
Eowyn knew they were watching her. She could feel their eyes. People had been watching her for months: standing back, worried expressions on their faces, kind words in their mouths, irritation in their hearts, but nothing between their ears. She could feel the rage bubbling up in her again.
It was odd, Theodred thought, how his instinct for danger had developed as his experience as a warrior grew. He could tell that something was coming. He automatically moved to the alert, searching the woods around them for approaching enemies, preparing himself to move swiftly to the attack. Unfortunately, he did not expect the source of danger to be his frail-looking cousin.
The knife lay where Eomer had dropped it when he recognised his cousin. Eowyn moved swiftly, with a fluid grace, grasping the knife and stabbing at her cousin with a mindless ferocity that Theodred was used to seeing in orcs. He caught the movement from the corner of his eye, but, had Eomer not been in a position to grab at his sister, Eowyn would have knifed him before he was able to defend himself. Eomer dragged her backwards, falling with her on top of him as she swung the blade wildly in search of a target.
Theodred managed to catch hold of her wrist before she managed to do more than nick his arm, tightening his grasp until she was forced to release the weapon.
‘Are you all right, Eomer?’ he asked, as the lad attempted to hold the kicking girl, receiving blows from feet and elbows. His cousin grunted as one of Eowyn’s fists landed with unexpected force. Theodred lost patience and, taking hold of the girl by her upper arms, lifted her from her brother and shook her. ‘Stop, Eowyn,’ he said firmly, projecting the authority he would have used in addressing a young warrior caught in a brawl.
His voice penetrated the haze into which Eowyn had retreated.
‘I’m going to release you now and I do not expect you to start kicking again,’ he continued. ‘Stand still and look at me.’ He waited for a moment to be sure she had heard him before letting go.
‘You’re bleeding,’ Eomer told him softly.
‘Much?’ Theodred asked. ‘I don’t want to take my eyes off her at the moment.’
‘I don’t think so,’ his cousin replied, moving close enough to inspect the other’s arm. ‘Shall I tie something round it?’
‘I’ll look in a bit,’ Theodred continued to meet Eowyn’s blue eyes until he felt that her attention had turned out towards him. He spoke insistently, ‘What do you think you are doing, Eowyn?’
It felt like swimming out of a fog that clutched at her, cold fingers passing through her arms and pulling at her chest. As long as she was able to focus on the face in front of her, it couldn’t take her, couldn’t pull her back – but it was hard. There was so little holding her in place, just the one cord connecting her to her brother kept her safe.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, her voice sounding gruff with disuse.
‘Do you know who I am, cousin?’
Minutes passed as he willed her to speak.
‘Theodred,’ she said eventually.
‘What do you want, Eowyn?’ he said insistently. ‘People keep telling you what you need, but what do you want?’
She looked confused, as if she was no longer accustomed to being asked her opinion, but she made no attempt to speak.
‘Look at Eomer,’ Theodred told her, repeating the words until she turned her eyes to look as the dishevelled and somewhat haggard boy. ‘Can’t you see what you are doing to him, Eowyn?’ he asked. ‘He needs you to get better, little one. You are the only one who can help him.’
Eowyn was aware of a spark of warmth deep inside struggling to counter the seeping cold that filled her. Theodred beckoned to Eomer to come and join them and he drew them both close in a three way hug, despite her increased tension. ‘No kicking, Eowyn,’ he said firmly. ‘I want you to remember that you are not on your own. You are as responsible for Eomer as he is for you. Tell her, cousin.’
‘Please get well, Eowyn,’ her brother requested desperately. ‘I need you – I don’t know what I’ll do if you don’t get better soon.’
Almost involuntarily, Eowyn stretched her hand to her brother, her thin and rather grubby fingers brushing the tears from his cheek, before she turned her bright blue eyes back to her cousin. ‘Did you mean it?’ she asked hoarsely. ‘Will you teach me to be a shieldmaiden? So that the orcs can't cut me up and eat me?’
‘If that is what you want, little cousin,’ Theodred vowed steadily, quailing inside as he acknowledged to himself that skill at arms was no guarantee of safety, ‘then that is what I will do. But,’ he added, ‘you will have to make me a promise, too. You will have to swear to me that you will never give up – that you will fight always to be the person I know you can be. Through fire and water, in darkness and despair, you will hold on, for the sake of those who love you and whom you love. For Rohan.’
‘For Rohan,’ she echoed, his words finding a home deep inside her.
His grip tightened briefly and then he released them both. ‘I have sent a message to say that you are both spending the day with me,’ he told them, and, aware of the wave of relief from Eomer, he grinned at him. ‘You will avoid Master Galma’s wrath today, at least, coz. However,’ he continued, ‘you will not have a very enjoyable afternoon, as I have had no opportunity to get any food and I don’t really want to take you back to Meduseld yet awhile.’
‘We could fish,’ suggested Eomer with enthusiasm, as he turned to a small hollow in one of the trees, removing an oiled-silk package. ‘We keep hooks and line here in case we manage to get away. Eowyn used to like fishing,’ he added, looking at her doubtfully, as she stood passively in her cousin’s embrace. ‘And I can make a fire.’
‘Shall we do that, Eowyn?’ Theodred asked.
She nodded stiffly, willing the drifting mist to keep away and leave her alone, and thrust her cold hand into her cousin’s comforting grasp. ‘You have blood on your sleeve,’ she muttered.
Theodred glanced at Eomer. ‘Never mind, little coz,’ he said gently. ‘It’s nothing to worry about. Let’s go along the river and sit in the sun for a while.’
It was not easy to wriggle free of the brambles with Eowyn’s hand in his, but he managed. The last thing he wanted to do at this moment was upset the link she seemed to have made with him and the world. Eomer took her other hand as soon as they reached the path and clutched at her convulsively.
She looked at him. ‘It’s all right,’ she said reassuringly. ‘It’s light.’
Eomer was confused until he recalled that once, when the world had been different and he had had two loving parents, he had feared the dark. He laughed to himself. He supposed he still did – but to him the dark no longer meant night, but instead the soul-numbing emptiness of abandonment.
‘It is sunny by the water,’ Theodred stated simply. ‘You can get warm there, little one.’
As they came out from the shelter of the trees into a summer’s afternoon, Eowyn gasped, as if the brightness was unexpected, and then drew a deep breath of the warm grass-scented air. Theodred led them confidently to one of his favourite spots along the riverbank and took a seat on a wide sun-warmed rock, drawing his little cousin into his lap and pulling her brother down by his side so that he could use his free arm to hug the lad. It seemed, the prince thought, that what both of these youngsters needed was not carers, but care.
‘I like it here,’ Eomer said sleepily after a while.
‘So do I, cousin,’ Theodred replied, nudging him gently, ‘although my normal partners here are somewhat older than your sister. It is a good spot to be private and admire the view.’ Eomer giggled. ‘Having said that,’ his cousin continued, ‘I suspect I should be boring and adult and tell you both not to come here without me.’
‘We’re not really supposed to be out here at all,’ Eomer pointed out.
‘This is your place,’ Eowyn agreed. She turned her head and rested her cheek on her big cousin’s chest, inhaling the reassuring smell of sandalwood and leather and horse that seemed to be part of him. Her hand twined in his hair, taking hold of a thick hank and refusing to let go as her eyelids drooped.
Eomer looked at Theodred, his eyes pain-filled. ‘She would sit on father’s lap like that,’ he muttered, unwilling to disturb his sister. ‘And she’s got a thing about hair.’
‘Does she pull your hair like this?’ Theodred winced.
‘I’m not big enough for her to sit on properly,’ Eomer informed him sadly. ‘She can’t get comfortable and hold my hair. She squirms and then she cries – and then she gets in a state.’
‘I will speak to my father,’ his cousin said thoughtfully. ‘I’m sure he will see that it would be a good thing if I was to be around for a while.’ He sighed. ‘You do realise it can’t be for long, don’t you, Eomer? I have duties – and so do you.’ He looked down at the girl in his lap. ‘And so will she. We are of the House of Eorl, cousin; we can’t just do what we want.’
‘When Eowyn wakes up, Theodred, will we have to go back to Meduseld?’
‘I’m afraid so, coz.’
‘Will you tell anyone she cut you with my knife?’
Theodred smiled and ruffled the scruffy blond mop. ‘I don’t think that will be necessary,’ he said. ‘In fact, I think we should definitely keep that quiet. I don’t want my eored laughing at me, so I would be grateful if you could forget that part of the afternoon completely.’
Eomer regarded him seriously, then grinned. ‘If you say so, cousin.’ He looked down into the water. ‘We never did get round to fishing.’
‘Another time, perhaps.’
‘I’m getting rather hungry,’ Eomer apologised.
‘What about you, little one?’ Theodred looked down into the sapphire eyes contemplating him.
‘We’d better head back, then,’ he agreed. ‘Are you ready?’
‘I think so,’ she agreed.
The shadows were lengthening as they entered the gates of Edoras and wound their way up to Meduseld. Eowyn pressed herself so close to his leg, that Theodred found himself limping, before he swung her up into his arms, kissing her cheek before settling her on his hip. Eomer walked beside him, clearly proud to be seen with his magnificent big cousin. The streets were quiet, the business of the day completed and the activities of the evening not yet under way. Theodred kept up an easy flow of small talk, encouraging his cousin to laugh and chat back, as Eowyn listened, watching both their faces. She stiffened as they mounted the steps to the Golden Hall, but she continued to respond to Theodred with small smiles as he swept her though the doors without giving her time to think.
‘You need to wash off some of the dirt and change your dress so that we can dine with your uncle,’ he told her. ‘And Eomer and I have to do the same, or I will be in trouble.’
Lady Winfrith came towards them, a complaint about Eowyn and her behaviour doubtless on her lips, but Theodred did not stop. ‘Not now,’ he said sharply as his cousin’s grip on his hair tightened.
As he approached Eowyn’s room, Theodred was delighted to see a maidservant in the corridor. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her into the girl’s chamber. ‘Help me,’ he demanded. ‘Get her changed quickly.’ He turned to speak to Eowyn. ‘May I go and change if I promise to come back for you, little one? I will be as quick as I can.’
He and Eomer arrived back at the same moment, both of them still fastening buttons and doing up ties. Eowyn was ready for them, hair brushed and her white dress clean. She released the maid’s hand and reattached herself to her cousin.
‘Come on, Eowyn,’ Theodred told her. ‘It’s time for you to let everyone know that you are back.’
They walked into the Great Hall together, side by side, pausing briefly at the sight of the lords and ladies of Rohan. Theodred leaned towards his cousin. ‘I forgot this was a feast night, Eowyn,’ he said, glancing at Eomer and indicating that he was to move round the other side of his sister to act as a shield between her and the curious faces. ‘Will you be all right, little coz, or would you prefer to dine in your room?’
The blue eyes met his, and the girl took a shaky breath. ‘We have duties,’ she said, repeating his earlier words. ‘For Rohan.’
‘Good girl,’ he approved, and, her cousin holding her securely, the three other remaining members of the House of Eorl swept into the room to greet their king.
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