"...and you wished to have renown and glory and to be lifted far above the mean things that crawl on the earth."
Book Six, Chapter V: "The Steward and the King"
“Of course I was able to meet the Ring-bearer,” she will say later, when anyone asks. Only briefly, though, in the days after the coming of the King, she will quickly add. And if ever the questioner desires a narrative of greater eloquence and more import, she will direct him to her husband, whose time in the company of the Halfling was far longer than any meeting she could recount. This will all come later, as deeds begin to fade into tales, and mere words claim the spaces that memory has vacated.
For now, though, she is still the young Lady of Rohan, newly healed and betrothed, shield-arm cradled in a sling, a woman far from home. Here in the City, the white stone walls scatter the rays of sun in a way that makes everything seem bright and strange; the light leaves its pale afterimage behind her eyelids when she blinks. A warm breeze stirs the loose strands of her hair and plays at the edges of the paper she holds in her sword-hand; a list of provisions for the journey back to Edoras, when Théoden will come home for the last time. But how I used to despise this sort of duty! she reflects. Long had she chafed and brooded under the endless household inventories and petty tasks she was forced to oversee at Meduseld, as Lady of the Golden Hall. True, they were needed to keep body and soul together, but there was no real strength within them, she thought, no balm to heal a powerless King, no lever with which to strain against the darkness and doubt. Her heart’s own desires were woven between the notes of distant songs of old, in the doing of high deeds.
Now, however, she is not ill-disposed towards such small matters as the ones at hand. She doubts she will ever long for bower or hearth with the same fervency with which she once craved battle and death; there will remain a thread of Dernhelm in her, always, whether she wishes it or not. Still, she no longer sees the workings of kitchens or storerooms as a loathsome burden. Away from the suffocating gloom, viewed in the light of day, they are the plain bread and mead of life, no more and no less. Satisfied with the list, she folds it with one hand (this takes more than one attempt) and tucks it into a pocket; she will give it back to Elfhelm when he returns.
“My lady.” The male voice coming from behind her is not that of the Marshall. She turns, and to her surprise, finds her gaze drawn downward to meet the face of the speaker. She has glimpsed him in the recent crush of ceremonies and banquets, but has not yet seen him so close, let alone spoken to him. But here he is, standing before her on the flagstones, most likely passing through to somewhere else. He is shorter than Meriadoc, she notes, but older; that is readily clear in his face.
“Ring-bearer,” she replies, dropping a curtsey that she hopes is low enough to suit him. How we must seem like great birds to these small folk, swooping down from the heights! Perhaps he sees it, too, for when he comes up from his own elegant bow, he is wearing a small smile. “I am most honored to make your acquaintance.”
“And I, yours.” He keeps a more still posture than Merry, she notes, as if he possesses a greater measure of serenity than does his young kinsman. “We all stand in debt of your valor, do we not?” he adds. His tone is respectful, but quite unlike that of those who come showering her with impossible praises. He sounds almost like Faramir in this moment—Faramir, who gives her no awe, but only belief, which she has finally realized is infinitely rarer and more precious.
“The same debt stands for you, and for your valor, sir,” she responds. She notices the bandage upon his hand, but tries not to let her eyes linger on it. Frodo of the Nine Fingers, indeed. He, in turn, has cast a brief glance upon her sling, such an unlikely and arresting adornment for a lady in a fine gown. For a moment she wants to laugh. And here are the walking wounded, braving their pains to lay laurels at one another’s battered feet. Unshod feet, in his case, and therefore all the more heroic…
As if to signal an end to the formal introductions, she takes a step backwards to one of the benches in this courtyard and sinks down upon it with a beckoning gesture. “If you have no pressing matters to attend to, you are welcome to join me for a moment,” she offers.
He considers briefly, then nods. “That would please me greatly.” He walks forward and hoists himself up lightly, with an ease that shows he is by now practiced at dealing with objects intended for larger beings. As he settles beside her, she thinks she can see his posture relax, perhaps in that slight lowering of his shoulders or the tiny slouch that appears in his back. Was the stillness she observed in him truly serenity, or simply weariness? He straightens again, momentarily, as if he has just remembered something. “My congratulations to you, my lady, on your betrothal,” he says, a smile evident once more. “The Lord Steward speaks most joyously of it.”
“Thank you!” she replies, fully returning his smile as she turns her head to look at him. “And he has spoken most highly of both you and Master Samwise.” For Faramir believed in you, as well, did he not? “When we were in the care of the healers, he told me of your meeting in Ithilien, and the perils that you had seen. A brave journey, if ever such a one were undertaken.”
Frodo shifts his leg, bouncing one heel gently against the carved stone. It would be a childlike gesture but for the strangely pensive air he manages to invest in it. “Some would call it foolish,” he says mildly.
“Nay, sir! ‘Twas not that, at all, for you fulfilled your appointed task.”
At these words she can see something tense within him, ever so briefly. A less attentive watcher would have been blind to the change, but Éowyn is no stranger to concealment.
“Yes,” he says softly. “Yes. That burden was given to the flames, in the end.”
That burden… The way he utters the word gives it a roundness and a heft, as if he could conjure the presence of the Ring with his voice. A mere circle of gold, she thinks, and yet with the fate of all the world bound up in it. Here is the center of the story, its simplest and most frightening part—and yet the very same part that some corner of her heart cannot quite accept. For Power, her heart tells her, could never be so small and so plain as that. It must be something greater. Power is the acrid, poisonous web that Wormtongue cast over Théoden’s court. Power is the red-clouded glory of the Riders’ charge, and the slaying-songs that burn in their throats as they hurtle themselves forward. It is the black figure that towered before her amidst the carnage and smoke of the Pelennor, that even now haunts the dark corners of her dreams. And it is the weight of the bitter years lodged inside her bones, and every drop of the pride and despair that compelled her to ride forth, leaving Dunharrow behind her. Dunharrow. My own appointed task… She shakes her head and speaks again, before she knows quite what she is saying.
“And yet it is hard to believe, to imagine how such a small thing should hold the world’s undoing, and hold so many men in its thrall.” She looks at him and is startled by what she finds in his eyes; in addition to age, there is a pale blue sorrow lodged within them, silent and stark as a late autumn sky. “I doubt not that it is true, of course,” she adds. “Forgive me, for I am not so learned in this lore as I might have been.”
“No forgiveness is needed, for you have given no offense, my lady.” He looks thoughtful, and licks his lips before he continues, staring down at the ground. “The powers in this world that can take such strength, such will, and bend and shape it so that it is held in a bit of metal…they are ancient, and in our own way we are far removed from them. They are faded already, and there will be no others, I think. Indeed, there cannot be.”
He looks up at her once more, and she realizes that he has been carefully considering her all this time, in much the same way that she has been observing him. And why should he not, silly girl? she thinks, for you are not the only one with eyes to see.
And for a moment, she believes that she truly can see. She sees that the sorrow in his eyes is not purely borne of simple weariness or hurt. It is a measure of mourning for that which is passing, that which is already gone. Look long and well, he seems to say to her, for days like these shall not come again. The blackest and most bitter of the malice has fled this place, but with it, too, will go the brightest light and fairest beauty. Never again will you lift your blade in full and desperate glory, for those against whom you ride to war will be mere Men; their flesh will be as soft as your flesh, their blood as red as your blood. And you will learn to love the warm earth and the sweet grass once more, for your wounds are of the kind that can be mended in this world. One day, you will no longer remember. And for that you should be thankful.
But the moment is only that, and it ends quickly. Looking back on it, she will never be able to precisely recall why she feels the smallest shard of pain and longing in her heart when she thinks about that brief talk in the courtyard. In the future, if she truly wishes it, she might be able to speak at some length about the Ring-bearer. But she will not wish it, because she will feel oddly, inexplicably protective of her recollection, even after it has faded to the background to become one more fragment of memory from that strange Spring in which the world was broken and forged anew. And so in the end, she will not tell her questioners very much about Frodo. She will send them along to her husband, who is more generous with certain of his memories, as if they will not diminish with the telling.
In the weeks following their exchange, Éowyn will see Frodo often enough, trading smiles and salutations at this function or that banquet. But they will never truly speak again. Every time she glimpses him, he will seem to her to be smaller and more distant than the time before. As if, she thinks, he is already receding.
A/N: Thanks to Thevina Finduilas for the great beta.