You are seven when you watch your mother wither away with grief.
You run out into the fields the day she dies. They let you go, knowing you will not go far, not good Eowyn, not the obedient second child of Eomund and Theodwyn. They think you are crying, and maybe you are, but mostly you are smiting the ground with your feet and slashing your hands at the gently waving stalks of grass.
You smite the ground. You must wonder, with the memories of your father’s war stories still ringing in your tiny ears. You must wonder, with the adrenaline still high in your veins from a pretend sword fight with your brother in the stables that morning, the adrenaline now warring with grief. You must wonder how a woman of a house so very brave could wither like an ailing flower.
You swear you will never make such useless choices.
They will call you the names of flowers all your days, Eowyn, White Lady of Ithilien, though you do not know this yet. You are so determined not to be your mother. It will give you comfort that they never call you withered, drooping, delicate. They call you frosted. They compare you to a lily, death’s flower, and don’t even realize what they say. When they call you a flower, they describe one with a core of brittle steel.
They send you and Eomer to your uncle the king. Theoden is young and strong, welcomes you with warm, open arms. You are unconvinced. His son Theodred is your cousin, and his laugh is the loudest thing you will ever have the privilege to hear, until you meet a pair of hobbits. You do not smile back until Theodred challenges you to a duel with wooden swords in the stables.
Before you go to sleep that night, aching with more than bruises in this unfamiliar bedroom, you stare up at the unknown ceiling. You map the contours of the room. A good shieldmaiden knows her surroundings.
You make a promise in the dark, pledging all seven of your years against the long oath of your life. Your mother withered, but you will break. You swear it. When you go to the ground, food for white daisies, you will be beaten into it. You hold that promise to your chest. You have so few things these days that you can claim, but this, this is yours.
You grow. The streets of Edoras become your home. Theoden becomes your father, and Eomer’s, except that your names still are echoed with “children of Eomund.” You miss your father. You miss versions of your mother that you rarely even met in that last year.
Theodred learns a king’s ways, Eomer tags at his heels, and you tag at Eomer’s. They are good-natured lads, if distractible, and you are better at sums than Theodred. No one laughs like him, though, and you can see every person in Meduseld glow when they hear the sound of their young, strong heir.
Your uncle’s vision starts to go, so you sit with him and read him his reports. He is still strong, though, you tell yourself, and ignore the white creeping over his temples like frost.
You have other duties, too, now. Some were handed to you, lessons meant for a lady of the noblest house of Rohan. Others you seized, a conquest, a victory written in the hall steward’s leftover tasks and escorting the cook to barter for bulk goods. You are so desperate not to be useless.
You become a young woman. You barely notice. You are busy gathering up new duties and burrowing your hands and heart into the work.
Old man Hama, who served in the Riders for four decades and now cannot do more than whittle, has a little house, heavy blankets for his bed, some bread and two hot meals every day. It is one of the first tasks you gather for yourself, this delivery of hot meals to an old man who gave his lifetime to your uncle’s service.
There are dozens more, old men like Hama, old women with gnarled hands and secrets tucked in their aprons. Some of the women, like you, loved the sword. Some of them, unlike you, have seen battle. You would sit at their feet for days, as a girl, but now you bring them hot soup when you can and then go back to your uncle’s side.
You do not bring food to Old Hama or the others yourself, not every day, not as you grow older, and you feel guilty about it. You admire service, loyalty, and patience, you respect them.
Old man Hama whittles beautiful things (he knew dwarves in his youth, the rumor goes, and they taught him how to make the intricate toys he whittles for the children of Edoras). You do not wish to meet dwarves. Adventure was always the thirst in Eomer’s blood, why he beats at the walls of Theoden’s hall, ranges farther and farther on patrols, but not you. You wish the dwarves all knew your name, that in a hundred years the glory of your house was sung from peak to peak.
Your uncle grows wearier. He grows older by years in the space of months. You read him his reports, but you have to wake him when he falls asleep by page four. You take over scheduling his appointments and rulings. It is months before you realize that yours is not the only hand lightening the load.
Grima Wormtongue lurks in the shadows of your uncle’s hall. He gathers duties to himself, too. You do not think a fear of uselessness is what drives him. He certainly does nothing useful with the power he gains.
You can feel him watching you when you walk to your uncle’s side. You lift your head. You do your duty.
The subjects who bring you tithes of produce, grain, and fish are treated kindly. They return home better shod, better fed, singing the praises of Theoden-king. The traders from the north and south and west are treated firmly, richly, proudly, and return home glowing with reports of Rohan’s fine steeds.
You feel guilty that you cannot repay service with service, each good Rohan man and woman with your own hands. When you have time, you taste the veterans’ meals before you have them sent out. When you have time, you bring them out yourself.
The men of Edoras watch young Eomer and Theodred when they ride out, when they spar, when they sit respectfully or argue in council. The boys ride off to their first skirmish while you watch from the steps of your uncle’s hall. The men watch them. They watch you go back into the hall and get back to work.
You feel guilty. You feel like your hands are empty of worth more often than not. They watch you, Theoden’s men, Meduseld’s women, the veterans and the stable boys, the goose girls of Edoras. They count your deeds and they find you overflowing.
All your life you are strewn with death. Before your uncle begins to wither in his throne under a curse you cannot name, before your cousin rides to a skirmish and doesn’t come back, before Grima’s sly tongue banishes Eomer in Theoden’s name, you know loss well.
You wonder if you were born under a fell star, of a plague, or into one of your mother’s worst days. You ask yourself if you are damned. When a Nazgul lies dead at your feet, years from now, you wonder if it was meant to be a blessing, these curses you have borne. Did you walk so close to death because you were meant one day to wield it?
You with your death’s imagery, you are cold, fragile, frosted, hard, winter’s child and summer’s wraith. Proud, in all that pride’s a sin. Loyal, for all that the old loyalties cling to you, bind you, and bring you low.
Handmaiden to a broken house, you once watched your mother wither with grief and now you watch your uncle.
You think you might break when Theodred dies, but you do not. You think you might break when Eomer leaves. You do not. You have been preparing for this for years, you realize. Your father rode out one day and never came back. Your mother turned her face to the wall, and she never came back. Your uncle snuggles into his thick robes, the ones you make sure will keep his limbs from chilling, his joints from aching. You are never sure he will remember your name.
You watch Eomer ride out into the hills with his three hundred men. You do not break.
You are left, alone, in your uncle’s hall. There are loyal men here, still, but all the loud, the brave, the strong, they followed Eomer. Those that remain are tired, loyal to Theoden’s ghost, or under Grima’s spell.
Tucked in your seat behind Theoden’s throne, you murmur soothing things to your drifting uncle, listen to your own heart break, and work on figuring the taxes with an abacus tucked in the folds of your skirt.
Some hours you have to escape. You go up to the watch towers. You think, Horses bite. You know this. Wild horses do, untamed horses, and you know that is not you. You, standing high on this wooden tower, staring into the teeth of the wind, a pretty banner, a cold grace, you know you are no wild horse.
You walk back to your uncle’s darkening throne room, preparing to wrap yourself in his withering grief and swallow none of it. You know you are no wild horse, but you swear you are not a tame one. You are a warhorse trained for battle, stamping in the stables. When Grima Wormtongue next turns unasked eyes your way, you bare your teeth.
Eomer is all you ever wanted to be. Or maybe Theodred—your cousin was bright, was strong, was allowed, and now he is dead. You wait on the sidelines of other people’s stories, trembling with what they call cold and you name bitter rage.
You will never wither like your mother. You whisper this promise to yourself at night.
But maybe you will break. You push yourself against the beams of your uncle’s hall, against the belt you pull tighter and tighter around your middle, against the cold cage bars you feel every time Theoden-king rasps “sister’s daughter” (two sins against your name). You push yourself against every nightmare. You will never wither, but some nights, late nights, cold nights, you hope to.
Where now the horse and the rider? Where the mother that wept? The cousin that laughed? The brother? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadows, like a withering of the frost. How did it come to this? How did it come to this?
Three warriors and a wizard come out of the hills. There is bloodshed in your uncle’s hall. Your uncle screams under the wizard’s staff and if you had a sword—if you had a sword—
But then he stands, golden-haired, your blue eyes set in his own weary face, Theoden-king.
You want to go with him, to keep an eye on these strange violent people who have healed your king. You do not trust them, not yet, you wary child of dangerous hills. But your uncle says to trust them, to trust him. You let him go. After all, Theoden is not your mother. He came back.
As the weeks pass, you find your gaze drawn more and more to the dark Ranger from the north. They will tell stories of your love for Aragorn—maybe even you tell yourself a story of your love from him—but you know the truth.
You are not here for Aragorn. You were never here for Aragorn. You are here for the light in his eyes, the light on his swords, the deeds that trail behind his name. You want these things and more. (Pride is ever the bane of your house, but greed, greed too lingers here in the halls of men). You do not want the only legacy of your name to be none at all. Your mother left behind instructions on how to wither. She left Eomer. She left you behind, you and your cold nights.
But even that, even you—you are no legacy. You are Eowyn, daughter of Eomund, caretaker of Theoden’s hall. Even you are not Theodwyn’s legacy, not in name, not in any way that matters.
Rohan prepares for war. You know the number of every blade and shield they will take with them, the herds, the rations, the blankets and medical kits. You marshal supplies like a high general, and then you watch your men go to war without you.
You bristle, surrounded by women and children, tied down by a duty you cherish and hate with equal measure. Your hands are full of field rations and careful notes on supplies, and they feel empty, useless, cold.
After the battle, after the visit to Saruman’s flooded citadel, Eomer brings you news of Grima’s death like he thinks it will warm your heart. You are busy carrying the numbers of blankets and food stores in your head, doing spur of the moment mathematics and arguing with men thrice your size as they try to take more than their share.
You return home. You settle in and Rohan remembers what it is to be at peace. Then Gondor calls for aid.
Your uncle forbids you to ride with them. Aragorn denies you, and what’s more, he pities you. It is obvious. You remind yourself that you will never wither, not even under that pity. You will break and it will not be by this kingling’s hand.
Your brother laughs at you. You fume off into the night, like into a field when you were seven, and make bloody oaths to the dark. Eomer’s laugh (it will never be Theodred’s, never as large, though you swear you can hear some echo of it, swear Eomer learned half his ways from his cousin) cuts through the night again. You circle back and see the subject—a Halfling, the quieter one, Meriadoc Brandybuck. Merry looks like a child. His chin juts out, stubborn, fierce. He looks like you at seven.
You choose the name Dernhelm that night. When you pick out a fierce mare for yourself the next morning, you find yourself making sure she’s strong enough to carry two.
This time, you, too, ride to war. You do not ride alone. You can feel Merry shake beneath your cloak and you do not ask him which emotion drives him.
When you stand on Pelennor Fields, over your king, against a lord of darkness they say no man can kill, you still do not understand your mother.
Or maybe you do, just a little. You are never sure, not for the rest of your days.
You do not understand the withering, but there is something here, something worthwhile in this useless act. There is no killing a deathless thing. There is no saving the man gurgling his last on the ground behind you. But you raise your sword in challenge. You are a shieldmaiden of Rohan and you will stand by your king. You are Eowyn, Theoden’s daughter in all but name, and you will defy this horror until the very end of you.
But you are no man. They do not tell any stories of your end.
So you do not end here.
The Nazgul named itself deathless, above such petty things. But you have its shadowy life spilt out on your sword. Your arm is shattered, your heart is breaking. When you wake in the Houses of Healing, to Aragorn’s cool hand, the sharp scent of crushed kingsfoil, and your brother’s weeping face, you think, one of us was deathless, demon, and it wasn’t you.
You weep when you are told Theoden-king has passed away. You already knew, but you weep.
He will be deathless, you tell the Nazgul in your head. I will teach songs of him to my children. He will laugh in the halls of our fathers and watch them grow. You I will forget. You will pass like a shadow on the mountains.
(Your arm will ache all your days).
(But so will your heart, and one of these you have learned to listen harder to).
They leave you in Gondor, to wait and to hope, to heal. It feels like you have spent so much of your life sitting, watching horizons for patrols to come home, but that’s not true. This is: you have spent so much of your life catching glimpses of horizons as you swept from task to task, your hands full.
Now, you stand at the window of the Houses of Healing. You are injured foreign nobility in a city of white stone, the epitome of uselessness. You feel colder than you ever have. One day there is a warmth at your shoulder.
Faramir does not ask you for your smile, or for your death. He does not ask you to be warm. He does not ask to save you. He does ask you to walk the walls with him, but that is because you have nearly worn the floor to its knees from your pacing.
He does not believe he deserves to ask for things, this child of Gondor, this sun-browned Ranger who so loves his shadowed kingdom.
You hear stories of Boromir. You are glad Faramir does not love as hard as his brother and his father did, to death and madness. You have spent too much of your life understanding the costs of such love.
You corner the healers, offer your hands, ask to learn. You need something to do with your hands. They fill your hands, with bandages and pain, with herbs and poultices. There is a beauty in this. You are cold to your very bones, but there is a beauty in this. There is a usefulness and it warms you.
You say you will retire your shield and sword. You will learn. You will plant thickets of kingsfoil in your garden, and breathe deep for the rest of your days.
One day, you gift Faramir with a smile. One day, you gift him with your hand in his. One day, he asks a question and you say yes.
When you come home, a bride of Gondor’s steward, a veteran yourself, you stop to bring old man Hama a bowl of hot soup. You pack your dresses, your saddles, your sword, your abacus. When you ride down to the main gates, there is weeping in the streets. Eomer, king now, is ruining his dignity, but the people of Edoras cheer you through tears. “Our White Lady,” they say, and reach out to brush your skirts in farewell. You feel like you might glow, might burst. Your wounds are aching (they will ache every day of your life). You know the names of the people of this crowd, and they know yours. This, you think, is glory.
Gondor has been a city at war for so long. The homesteaders who live outside the walls are all hearty folk, stubborn and cautious. You pile your saddlebags with blankets and jerky, dried soup balls and your medicines, blank bound books for taking census notes.
They are wary of you, you pretty woman from Rohan. You ask them their children’s names. You ask them what they need. They grumble things but attach the appropriate honorifics. They eye the mud on your hem, and send you away. They learn that when they tell you what they need, you bring it, or when you can’t you return all the same, penitent, and apologize. Your medicines are used on oxen as much as people. You are invited in for warm milk and biscuits. They learn to badger the guilt off your face as well as any citizen of Rohan.
You and Faramir make a home outside the high white walls of Minas Tirith. You settle in the hills of Emyn Arnen, across the river from the great white city. These are the shadowed abandoned lands where Faramir walked as a Ranger of Ithilien. Slowly, step by step, Gondor reclaims its own.
Orcs still run wild in these hills. Faramir rides out with his men. There are pitched battles in the hills. The homesteaders have strong sons, have places to hide and to hide their winter supplies, have long years of experience in scavenging through the shells of their own pillaged homes after an attack.
You ride out with your swiftest mare and your sword, medicines and census records in your saddlebags, a few guards at your back. You have traded the name of shieldmaiden in for stewardess, for healer. You think you’re even less likely now to allow an orc to stand between you and your people.
You help a young woman cut her hair behind the stable, give her something to bind her chest. You introduce her to the guard captain as Eodred, a distant cousin, here to learn from Gondor’s finest. You tell her, like you tell every fledging young recruit no matter if you have watched their hair fall to the ground behind the stable, about the cold aches of war.
You are Theoden’s legacy. You are Theodred’s. You are Eomer’s hope and Faramir’s light. You are Theodwyn’s daughter. You have her blood and her pull towards oblivion, toward tattered memories and a love that scars the earth.
You and Merry go out into the Pelennor Fields before he leaves for the Shire. You walk slow to match the hobbit’s stride. The two of you find dozens of places where the grass is torn up and the ground scarred, by fire or curses or oliphants. You cannot remember which scar was yours, where the Nazgul fell, where Theoden fell, where you and Merry fell until your brothers found you.
Merry goes back to the Shire, but he and Pippin Took come back to visit now and then, dropping in to Rohan and Gondor, stopping by Fangorn to have tea with Treebeard. You walk the old battle fields with Merry every time, talking about your children, talking about your kingdoms.
Faramir teases you, calls it going out with old friends to look for old deaths. It is a morbid kind of humor that runs through your household, but a warm one.
You come home after a long day of distributing supplies, of reviewing potential sites for new settlers on this side of the river, of rocking babies while you settle their elders’ debates with a steely hand. Faramir lifts his head when you come into his study, puts down his pen.
You look at Faramir’s smile, the ink rubbed off on the side of his nose. You think, I love you. You think, I would not die for you.
The hills of Emyn Arnen tumble away outside the open window and Minas Tirith stands gleaming white in the distance.
I would die for this, you think. I would live for this.
The scent of kingsfoil is crushed in your palms.