She is born in the summer, when the air is heavy with sunlight and the twilights are deep and purpled and the wheat fields sing in the wind. She comes early; eager already and hungry to breathe deep and run as the mighty Mearas thunder over the low country. Under the boundless blue sky, encouraged by the prairie windsongs, Théodwyn King-Sister brings her girl-child into the world with no one near but a blood-bay stallion.
Your name will be Éowyn, Théodwyn whispers with a voice like steel pulled from a scabbard. The prairie winds lean down to kiss this tiny red wailing thing and to tease her wet curls. You have the horse-joy in you, little one.
The woman with the voice like a sword swaddles her newborn daughter in a saddle blanket, binding her against her breast. The blood-bay whickers and comes near, nosing the babe gently with hot, satin horse-lips. His coat gleams in the golden light; red as the sunrise, an omen for things yet to come.
As Théodwyn gallops back to Edoras, blood and after-birth still slick on her thighs, the baby settles into sleep; lulled by the summer sun and her mother’s pounding heart, and the surging stride of the blood-bay stallion.
The golden hall of Meduseld rings with her baby-laughter. She laughs at the geese in the courtyard, at her cousin’s coin tricks; she laughs when she falls and again when her mother scoops her high into the air. Her father carries her on his broad shoulders, pawing the ground like a warhorse and she screams with joy. Her uncle Théoden’s mastiffs seem to think she is one of their own; a small golden-haired puppy with fat, sticky hands. They roll and race about the rush-lined hall and Théodwyn is content to leave this daughter of hers in their charge; the great dogs will not let her come to harm.
A frightful heathen, but she’s a dear thing, the serving women whisper among themselves as they prepare the feast for Éowyn’s third name-day.
Makes wee Éomer seem a blessing. I’ve never known such a child to never stop moving!
Freydis, the king’s chosen bowl-bearer, smiles and adds, or to laugh so much!
That night, Éowyn Horse-Joy falls asleep on the Prince Théodred’s lap while her brother steals marzipan cakes by the armful and her parents dance in the firelight, their eyes as bright as the stars above them. They see only each other. It is King Théoden who carries her off to the trundle bed and wraps her in the lambskins with a kiss.
Dream sweet, wild one, he whispers, leaving one of the dogs to stand sentry at her bedside.
Éowyn sighs in the darkness, and smiles.
It is summer, and the blue sky is hazy with sunlight. The locusts sing in the tall grasses and the wheat is grown tall. Éowyn is seven now, and her laughter has grown only merrier. She has secreted herself upon the roughly-thatched roof of Meduseld; a trick she has learned from a close watching of her brother. It is more work for her shorter legs, but no match for her stout heart. Perched here on the seam of the kitchen’s rooftop, she can see for miles. Edoras is alive below her feet. The Riddermarket is humming, and the stables are full of the comforting noises of stamping hooves and whickers. Tall Tom Smith is in his smithy, pounding horseshoes with a hammer as broad as a sword; Tom Smith makes longswords too, she knows. He made her father’s blade, and one day she will ask him to make one for her. Her father has been away these last summer days, hunting orcs with his golden helm and the beautiful sword that was made by Tom Smith.
Below the smithy, the little village children who are Éowyn’s co-conspirators in mischief run laughing through the winding lanes of Auld Town. Éowyn spies Brida Gunnarsdotter among them, her coppery braid flying madly, and she waves though Brida is much too far away and too busy trying to push Erland Nielsson into the pigpen to notice.
And beyond Edoras in all its sprawling, squalid splendor stretches the rolling steppe where the Mearas galloped of old and where she herself was born; and beyond the plains, the great snow-capped mountains.
Éowyn! Éowyn! Come and help me with the spinning!
Her mother is calling for her, but Éowyn will answer her not. For the sun is warm and she is not yet ready to descend from on high. Instead, she grins and looks away to the plains, imagining herself galloping there upon a white stallion, off to faraway lands and great deeds and heroic battles under the cornflower sky.
When she squints her eyes she sees that there truly is a white horse galloping over the yellow plain. It is her father’s animal; and he is riderless.
Today is the last day Éowyn Horse-Joy laughs for many years to come.
Éowyn is too young to sing the lament. Théoden-King does it instead. His voice breaks and scrapes over the rough melody.
Éowyn stands beside her brother—somber and shivering. For the first time, Éomer does not push her away. He lets her cling to his cloak. His tears fall into her soft yellow hair. They are all they have left to each other now.
Such a tragedy, the horsewives whisper. They are both so young. They’ll grow even wilder than they are already with neither father nor mother to steady their ways…
Éomer’s choked sobs echo through the darkened hall that night. It is Prince Théodred who goes to comfort the boy at last. Éowyn does not shed a single tear. Not even in the silence of her trundle-bed. Instead she curls up against the king’s dogs, her small fingers tracing trinity-knots into their coats. She was not wrought for weeping. She never learned how.
No one can say for certain where she first learned to use a sword.
When she is ten, Éowyn is called before her uncle’s throne. He does not smile down on her. His eyes are stern and not even Prince Théodred will meet her fierce stare. Across the king’s lap lies a wooden sword.
Where did you get this, child, the king asks.
Éowyn’s voice is sure as steel. Sure as her mother’s. It breaks Théoden’s heart.
Tom Smithy made it for me.
And what use does a girl-child like you have for a sword?
Éowyn who was once called Horse-Joy frowns. She does not understand why her uncle must ask her this.
Tom Smithy made my father’s sword. My cousin has one. My brother was given a blade last Midsummer. I wanted one to practice with like he does.
Théodred and Éomer will ride with the Rohirrim, child. It is their birthright to carry a sword and to use it.
Éowyn bares her teeth; pearly, square things. Behind his father’s throne, the prince hides a smile.
My mother wore one belted at her hip. Why should I not have one as well?
Théoden-King does not want to remember this. He hides his eyes behind a browned hand so that this little slip of a girl might not see the salt spring up in his eyes. Girls and swords, swords and girls…the only result is gutting grief. But he looks at his niece, all untidy braids and muddy kirtle. The serving-women call her wild, unmanageable, ungentle. There is no denying this child who does not laugh any more. The sword suits her, and she has chosen it. Perhaps it will bring a smile to her lips again. Even if it is a cold and deadly one.
The king sighs.
The village is saying that you crowned Erland Nielsson with this oaken toy. Gunnar Halfhelm saw you do it, so don't tell me it wasn't so, chit. It will not happen again. If you are to receive a proper blade, you will learn to use it properly. Halfhelm will teach you.
Oh Uncle, she starts, and a laugh almost bubbles out of her. Instead, she runs to throw her arms around the king’s neck before racing out into the sunshine to share the good news with Tom Smithy.
She calls the thin blade Hléapere, and every boy in Edoras has grown wary of its bearer. She is small but fast, and her little sword is sharp. Halfhelm is her tutor, but she was born to the blade, just as she was born to the saddle. She learns what she can from him, then turns to other teachers.
Brida Gunnarsdotter teaches her how to set and lay rabbit snares. Éowyn is supposed to be accompanied by a Rider whenever she leaves Edoras, but the girls slip off alone to the lowlands where they hunt and race bareback. Sometimes, they skin their catch and roast the conies under the sun. Sometimes, they strip off their wool dresses and swim in the shallow pool—a gentle offshoot of the mighty Isen—that cuts between the rocks. They braid their hair with heather and cornflowers and grow brown with the sun. The serving women shake their heads in frustration when Éowyn refuses her dinner that night.
Eat, little one, they entreat her. You are skinny as a newborn foal.
But Éowyn, full of wild rabbit, does not open her mouth except to snap her teeth at them.
Her uncle’s bard Hardbein teaches her the rough-hewn songs of the Rohirric peoples. They are battle-songs, mostly, and unfit for the tongue of so young a girl. Éowyn sings them to her gray stallion as she braids his mane. Those who hear her throaty songs shiver as they pass by. The horses in the stables stamp their feet and prick their ears, nostrils spread wide. They know…she means what she sings.
The Prince Théodred teaches her the formations of the mounted Eorlingas.
Please, cousin, she wheedles, perched upon a hay bale in the stables. Beside her, the prince runs a bone brush through his bay’s tail. I am born to the house of Éorl, the same as you and Éomer.
Yes, but you will never be a Rider of the Riddermark.
But I will be a shieldmaiden. And if it should ever be asked of me, don’t you think, cousin, that I should know how to lead the Eorlingas into battle?
The prince laughs and swats her.
When should you need to lead the Eorlingas, little cousin?
If Edoras should fall and my uncle killed while you and my brother are away patrolling our borders, then I should raise the Eorlingas and lead them in a great host against our enemies.
I do not doubt it, Éowyn. You have great courage for so small a thing.
Then you will show me?
The prince sighs heavily, but he is smiling too.
I will show you. It is better you learn well from me than poorly from another.
They practice on the golden steppes, Théodred shouting and pointing with his longspear. The two horses thunder in tandem over the flat ground. Above the sound of pounding hooves, a silvered laugh floats on the air.
The man in the black cloak comes to Meduseld soon after Éowyn’s thirteenth name-day. He has some knowledge of the Dunlendings, who have taken to attacking the king’s patrols. When Éowyn races through the hall with her favorite mastiff, Tor, hot on her heels, she sees the pale man seated beside her uncle. Voices carry in the high vaults of Meduseld, but this man speaks so softly she cannot catch a word. Théoden-King calls to her, but Éowyn pretends she cannot hear and escapes to the courtyard. She sits upon the stones, watching the banners of Edoras whip violently in the wind. Tor leans against her and Éowyn strokes him until her heart stops pounding. She was rude, she knows, and she will have to apologize for it. She cannot explain it, even to herself, but she has no wish to come close to that man with the soft voice and the white hands that twitch up and down upon the arm of her uncle’s throne like large, pale spiders.
She cannot avoid him forever though. Not when her uncle has made her bowl-bearer. She feels his watery eyes upon her as she pours the mead into his goblet. Éowyn—born under the open sky, who rides without saddle or bridle and dreams only of the battlefield and the glorious deeds she shall surely count to her name—feels her hands tremble. For the first time in her life, she is afraid. The man, Gríma, lets his white fingers brush against her wrist as she passes his cup back to him. She bites back the urge to strike him, to seize him by his dank, greasy hair and smash his pale face into the table over and over until he has no eyes with which to look at her. Instead, with slow and measured steps, she moves away to fill the next cup.
She makes Brida Gunnarsdotter her lady. Her uncle believes this to be a sign of her settling into the mild-mannered noblewoman he wishes her to be. After all, she is sixteen now. Fair and tall and pale as the dawn. There is not one young man in Rohan who would not take her as his bride could he ever summon up the courage to ask for her hand.
But her uncle is wrong. Éowyn takes Brida as her lady because she has come to fear walking the corridors of Meduseld alone. Brida stands watch at her chamber door while Éowyn bathes, quickly wrapping her in furs. This, after Éowyn spied a flash of black robes as she climbed from the oaken tub, her naked body gleaming and her long yellow hair running in wet rivers. She had forgotten to throw the bolt. Éowyn cried sickly to herself as she sank back into the tub, scrubbing her skin red and raw. She could not sleep that night. She kept hearing Gríma Wormtongue’s soft whispers in her ears. Pretty child…let me touch you…let me taste you…taste you… The next day, Brida moved her small chest into Meduseld and her cot into the Lady Éowyn’s bedchamber.
They walk arm-in-arm through the hall. Brida steers Éowyn firmly away when the pale Gríma approaches; his eyes staring too hotly, his red tongue trembling. Brida is allowed to be rude. She is no noblewoman, after all.
Éomer has already had words with Théoden-King, and more than once, Gríma has appeared in his small chair beside the throne of Rohan with ugly green bruises blossoming on his pale face. But Éomer and Théodred are gone so often, riding with the Eorlingas to fortify Helm’s Deep, or else to quell Dunlending rebellions and to drive out the orcs that encroach ever more boldly into the land of the Horselords.
But Éowyn knows Brida cannot always be with her. And Gríma Wormtongue is patient. She carries a dagger in her soft leather boot. She wonders if she would really use it.
At night, alone in her bed, Éowyn knows that she would.
One morning, Théoden-King calls his niece to him. Éowyn wonders at it. Her uncle has paid her so little mind these last months. He has paid everything so little mind; as if he is walking about in a fog. The Riddermarket has fallen into decline, and the poorest villagers steal what they can. Tom Smithy, gray and bent now, has not made a broadsword since summer last. When Éowyn asks him why, he tells her that Gríma Wormtongue ordered it so; saying the king had no more need to grow his armies.
And yet, my lady, orcs crawl like black spiders over the low country and the Dunlendings raze our far villages to the ground.
Hearing Tom's words, Éowyn had been seized with a sudden fear. She ran back to her rooms and pulled out Hléapere. The blade was still there. Still sharp. She pressed a finger against the edge until the blood ran hot and red between her knuckles.
Kneel before me, child, says Théoden-King. The right arm of his chair is scratched and worn down.
Éowyn is relieved to see that Gríma’s chair is empty. She and her uncle are alone.
Théoden has grown old. Éowyn does not remember how or when this happened. Where once a strong, broad-shouldered man with wheat-gold hair and a braided beard sat and laughed and dandled her on his lap, there is now a hunched and gray-maned shell. His eyes are misty and weary, except when he looks at her now.
You have not been to see me for so long, child, he says, and his voice is sad.
No, Uncle. I come to speak to you every day, but you send me away. You have much to discuss with your advisor.
For a moment, the king looks confused. Éowyn longs to touch his face, to remind him of her love. She wants to feel his hands, strong again and full of comfort.
But you do not fill my cup anymore.
No, Uncle. You sup alone these days. Here, in this chair. Gríma Wormtongue is your bowl-bearer now. She cannot help this last bitterness.
Silence falls. Somewhere, the dogs are fighting. She can hear their snarls and the sharp snap of their jaws.
Éowyn…her uncle’s voice is strong again. He looks at her, and knows her. He remembers her now, laughing and wild. You have so much of your mother in you.
I miss her, Éowyn whispers. As soon as she says it, she knows it is true.
Your mother named you, and she birthed you alone. She was strong as steel. She was a shieldmaiden, and her sword was true.
Théoden-King brings forward a thin parcel, wrapped carefully in silk scarves.
This was hers. I give it to you now, for you will have need of it one day. Rise, Éowyn, daughter of Théodwyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan.
The sword is heavy and broader than Hléapere. It fits perfectly in her slim hand. At its hilt, gold-worked horses encase the steel blade. She practices with it alone. When she hears that deadly whir of a weapon slicing through the air, she smiles.
That is the last morning for some long years that Théoden-King knows his niece’s name.
It is bleak dawn, the watcher’s hour. Éowyn is in her cousin’s chamber, helping him to dress for battle. Éomer helps the prince with his armor, trying to hide his disappointment at being left behind as best he can. As she braids thin strips of leather into his hair, Éowyn remembers dimly how her mother used to do this for her father. Her father did not come back when he went to fight the black orcs. Éowyn shakes her head. These thoughts will not do.
Éomer tucks a braided lock of pure white horsehair into the prince’s gauntlet.
For luck, he mutters gruffly. He too is thinking of another morning many years ago.
Look to the East, cousins. I will return to you, I swear it.
Out in the courtyard, Théodred clasps Éomer’s arm and presses his forehead to Éowyn’s. Théoden-King sits in the darkness of Meduseld, alone save for a pale-faced shadow with a too-quiet voice. Once, the king can be heard to whisper my son…
Fear not for me, Éowyn, Théodred murmurs before he leaps upon his warhorse. We have a fair wind at our backs. The gods have promised the victory to us!
The Eorlingas thunder as a pounding river of horseflesh into the red sunrise with songs upon their lips.
The Prince Théodred does not come back.
This time, Éowyn sings the lament. Her voice breaks with her heart, and the Rohirrim gathered at the burial mound quiver, hiding their faces. This slim woman-child’s grief is too much to bear. This time, it is Éomer who cannot cry. His knuckles are white upon the hilt of his sword and his mouth is set in a hard line of anger and hatred. She puts a slender hand upon his shoulder. They truly have only each other now. As ever, the King sits in his empty hall.
After all the mourners have gone away and no one is left but her and the sentries, she throws blossoms of simbelmynë onto the grassy mound. Like snow, they already cover the barrows where her mother and father lie cold and unfeeling. Éowyn looks up to see a white face cloaked in black staring down at her from Meduseld. There is no mistaking the lustful hunger. This time, she does not try to hide. She stares back, her teeth bared, eyes sharp and deadly as iron. Let him see her for what she is. Let him see what it is he desires.
A cold, cruel thing. A sharp object. She will cut him if he comes too close.
As the winter falls away, Éowyn spends much of her time outside. She feels as if she is waiting upon the edge of something. A great wave…soon it will surely break and she will ride it to whatever end. Sometimes Brida accompanies as when they were children, but more often she goes alone. She races falcons over the prairie where she was born with her mother’s sword belted at her waist, and the ghost of a blood-red stallion seems to urge her ever faster. Out here there is no Wormtongue to violate her with those eyes that see too much, no frail and failing uncle to please, no serving-women to fuss. Out here, there is only the wind and the prairie grasses and the sunlight. Her braids stream behind her like the banners of Rohan; proud, bent upon glory won under the open sky. She leans closer against her steed’s dark neck and sings the warcry of the Eorlingas. Beside them, the ghost of the blood-bay whistles. You have the horse-joy in you, little one…