Hands of a Warrior by MP brennan

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Story Notes:

Huge thanks to Cairistiona for betaing this work.  This is primarily a movie-verse work, but it incorporates elements of the book canon as well.  Rated for medical content and dark themes.


I cross my arms against the slight chill. The caves below Helm’s Deep are never truly warm, no matter how crowded they become. Shifting uneasily from foot to foot, I wrinkle my nose against the prevalent odor of too many humans and animals packed into far too small a space. Behind me, my little sister whimpers in Mother’s arms. The soft sound carries, despite the huddled mass of women and children assembled. The only other sounds are the occasional cough, the quiet tread of pacing footsteps, and the distant lowing of livestock. The women, the elderly, and even the youngest children are silent. We are listening with all our being.

It is a fruitless vigil. Many tons of earth and stone separate us from the Hornburg and the men and boys who defend it. We can no more detect signs of the battle than overhear conversations between the stars. I swallow hard and clench my hands into fists. Despite the cold, I find the great caverns stiflingly claustrophobic. Somehow, the high, arching ceilings only add to this feeling—giving me the impression of being trapped at the bottom of a well. I growl in frustration and several of my neighbors shoot me disapproving glances. My mother catches the sentiment and hisses “Hush, Léoma!” I force myself not to glare at her.

I find it strange how even here, in the bowels of a fortress under siege, we women have arranged and divided ourselves by class and community. We do not stand or sit throughout the chamber, but rather cluster against the walls and pillars with impromptu “streets” running between us. Families huddle together. Normally free-ranging children are kept close by their mothers’ sides. The refugees of Edoras clump together in groups of ten or twelve, always slightly apart from the rustics of the West Fold.

The only constant movement is Lady Eowyn and her few helpers as they hurry up and down the by-ways, distributing food and blankets to the assembled people. Only a few minutes ago, my mother hinted rather pointedly that I should join the aides. I will not. I cannot bring myself to serve these people—to help ease their suffering. They deserve their suffering. While they cower here like frightened mice, these useless, petty women are defended by my brother. My little brother.

Tears sting my eyes, and I blink them away angrily. They came just after the evening meal—solemn squads of men already arrayed in grimy mail with swords and axes at their belts. With brutal efficiency, they split into teams of two and marched up and down the streets, assessing the refugees. Every man who was not in some way disfigured was immediately taken by the soldiers to the armories. Even those who had never bent a bow, even elders so old their hair was white and their arms shook, every one was pressed into service to defend the walls far above. I took little note; my own father was shot down by raiding hill men more than a year ago. Still, for a time after the last of them left, children cried for their missing fathers and grandfathers.

Little did we know, this was only the first wave of sorrow. Hardly an hour had passed when the soldiers returned. This time, they focused their gaze on families with older children. Already, every man over twenty was gone, and many of the older boys had accompanied them. Now, King Théoden’s men sized up every male child, questioning their mothers closely. My neighbor’s son Rynan was taken to the armories. He was ten years old. Ten!

My little brother Haela pressed close to me. I tried to edge in front of him, to shield his slight form from the soldiers’ hungry eyes. It did no good. He was spotted by a swarthy blonde warrior in rusted mail. At twelve, Haela’s lanky frame gave him away, though his arms were as thin as reeds. My mother pleaded with the man for about two minutes before dissolving in tears. I wouldn’t be so easily defeated. I planted myself between the soldier and my brother, arguing fiercely. I tried to use reason; Haela was no fighter, he had never used a sword before. I tried to inspire pity; he was only a child, and all we had left of Father. I tried to keep the dour man at bay by mere force of my will. It made no difference. The soldier merely set his jaw and repeated the King’s orders: “bring every man and strong lad—able to bear arms.” Despairing at last, I swallowed my pride and begged the soldier to take me in my brother’s place. At this, the man barked a laugh and repeated the response the Eorlingas have given since the founding of Rohan: “War is the province of men.”

But, Haela is not a man! I wanted to scream, but knew it would do me no good. My brother was dragged away, pure terror in his twelve-year-old eyes, because the King thought him a more likely soldier than his sixteen-year-old sister.

My face is sullen as I stalk up and down the small patch of stone allotted to the remnants of my family. I picture Haela picking his way through the crowded armory, surrounded by men two feet taller than him. I imagine how the armor will swamp him, how the helm will dwarf his tow head. I will not imagine what awaits him when he and his fellow children are arrayed for combat. I have seen orcs, of course, but I refuse to envision their dark, foul bodies anywhere in the vicinity of my baby brother. Always, though, my mind dwells on how my father returned to us—his body pierced by black, splintered shafts, his flesh hewn even after he was dead. A dull pounding is building in my ears. I can’t see; I can’t think. A strange fire, made of rage and terror in equal parts, runs through my veins. I have to do something. I have to do something!

There is nothing to do. I spin and slam my fist into the stone wall. The sound is sickening: the dull crunch of yielding flesh against sharp rock. It takes all my self-control not to cry out. I slowly retract my arm. The knuckles are bleeding, imbedded in places with glittering rock. I try to move my fingers and immediately regret it. Still, the pain clears my head. The fog lifts, and I can face people again. This proves to be a fortunate consequence, as my mother turns to me with a look of utter dismay on her face.

“Léoma!” She speaks in a whisper that somehow loses none of its sharpness, “What on Arda possessed you? You’ve likely broken your hand! And look, you’re bleeding . . .” Fortunately or unfortunately, Lady Eowyn herself chooses this moment to sweep down our street, her arms laden with bundles of rags. My mother summons her courage and clears her throat nervously. “Excuse me, milady? May I intrude for a moment of your time?”

Somehow, the King’s niece hears her muttered request and turns. Though she is dressed, like us, in a simple dress with her hair pulled back in businesslike braids, Lady Eowyn bears an unmistakable air of royalty. She holds herself very tall, but there is nothing willowy about her firm stance. Her face is set in strong lines that mirror the king’s, and her eyes flash like bright steel—hard and unyielding. I swallow, suddenly feeling very small and very foolish. The lady speaks, her tone courteous. “What do you require, madam?”

Mother wrings her hands. “My apologies, milady, it’s my daughter.” She seizes my hand, which is now dripping with blood and thrusts it towards the lady. “Might we borrow a rag to staunch this? She . . . she fell, you see, and cut her hand on a rock when she landed and I . . .”

Mother trails off as Eowyn calmly lowers her burden and takes my wounded hand in both of hers. Her fingers are cool against my inflamed skin. She turns my hand over, notes the absence of injuries on my palm, and carefully brushes some dirt from the gashes on my first two knuckles. “Straighten your fingers.”

I hesitate. “My lady, I . . .”

She silences me with a glance. Her gaze brooks no argument, and I suddenly realize that this woman does not for a moment believe my mother’s hastily concocted story. “Straighten your fingers.”

Slowly, though every joint screams in protest, I uncurl my fingers as much as I can. Eowyn probes each digit carefully, feeling the integrity of the bones. To take my mind off the growing pain, I study the lady’s hands. They are pale and smooth, not grizzled and dry like Mother’s. Still, I can see at once that these are not hands accustomed to embroidery. Her hands—like the rest of her—are not soft. They seem chiseled out of marble. She runs her index finger along mine, and I can feel a callus between her knuckles—the mark of many bowstrings. Her palms, too, are callused. The calluses run not along the heel of her hand, as they would on a laborer, but near her thumb. I wonder what made these marks. A sword? The reins of a horse? What wonders have these hands seen?

The lady looks up and flashes a slight smile that is purely for my mother’s benefit. “Fear not, madam, her hand is not broken. Those cuts are deep, though, and these rags are not fit for use as bandages. I’ve some supplies stored; if I may borrow your daughter for a little while, I will have it seen to. By your leave, of course.”

My mother sputters slightly. “I . . . of course, but . . . you needn’t trouble yourself, my . . .”

“It’s no trouble.” Eowyn cuts her off, inclining her head slightly as my mother hurries to curtsey. Taking me by the elbow, the King’s niece leads me away without another word. I fall in step beside the lady, who hesitates before releasing my elbow. “That was very foolish of you. We’re not waging war on our own fortress.” She comments coolly. I can only duck my head, shamefaced. She leads me into a small side chamber carved out of the rock. This is apparently a storage room of some type; crates and barrels line the walls. The ceiling is low, but the chamber is mercifully free of people, save Eowyn and me.

The lady proceeds immediately to one of the crates. She briskly sets aside her burden of rags, lifts the pine lid, and selects a few items. Turning to me, she takes my hand again and firmly wipes away the dirt and excess blood with a rough cloth. The woman then dabs my shredded knuckles with a stinging salve and covers each with a tiny, folded square of linen. These are held in place by a narrow strip of cloth wrapped in three tight loops around my hand. Her treatment is brusque, efficient, and pitiless, much like the tone in which she speaks. “You haven’t broken your fingers, but they’ll swell up all the same.” She tells me, her eyes on our interlocked hands. “The swelling could be more dangerous than the cuts, so you’ll have to use your hand—keep it loose.” She puts the finishing touches on the bandage. Though the wrapping is thin and covers only my first knuckles, I find that I can barely wiggle my fingers. They’ve swollen, just as she said. After a moment, the lady sighs. “Come with me.”

The far end of the storage room is relatively empty. Eowyn shoves a few baskets against the wall to make a clear space in the center of the room. From under a bundle of undyed wool, she draws a long, slim object made of gleaming leather. There is a slight rasp as metal is pulled free from its sheath, and then she stands before me, a slim sword in her hand. She steps forward with a sudden thrust, and I jump back in spite of myself. The lady ignores me, instead turning with the blade above her head to slash down at some imaginary enemy behind her. For a few moments, I watch in awe as her blade whirls through a dizzying combination of cuts, thrusts, and parries. Despite the deliberation in Lady Eowyn’s movements, I can see that this is no dance to her. The straining muscles in her arm and cool gravity in her face preclude any such fanciful descriptions. Eowyn wields death; beauty is merely incidental.

She freezes with the blade a foot from my face, and I jump back one more time. Our eyes lock, and I realize that I’m breathing as hard as she is. She straightens and effortlessly flips the sword to offer it to me, hilt first. I reach out, my bandaged hand trembling, to wrap my swollen fingers around the grip. Eowyn releases the blade and I nearly drop it, unprepared for the weight. Catching myself, I slowly raise the tip until it is level with my throat. My injured fingers protest this new activity, but I welcome the pain. Eowyn steps aside, and I sweep up and downward with the blade. My first strike: clumsy, uncertain, but mine, nonetheless.

My face flushes. I probably resemble a forester chopping wood more than a swordswoman. Hoisting the weapon, I repeat the strike, this time trying to connect it with a forward thrust as Eowyn did. The lady steps back against the wall, silently watching my crude attempts at swordplay. After a few moments, she asks, “What is your name?”

“Léoma.”

She waits, perhaps expecting me to give my heritage. I resume my exercise. My father is dead, and repeating his name to every stranger I meet won’t bring him back. Finally, she speaks, her voice stern. “It takes great anger to acquire an injury like that.”

I pause to look at her. What would a daughter of Kings know of anger and loss? For a moment, her gray eyes lose their composure, and the fire I see within burns away all my preconceptions. I realize that if Lady Eowyn seems cold, it is not for lack of feeling. Rather, the opposite is true. I don’t know why—and Mother would slap me for the presumption—but for a moment it seems I look into the heart of this noble, distant woman and see myself reflected back.

My mouth is dry. “My brother fights orcs tonight.”

Her eyes seem far away. “So does mine.”

TBC


Chapter End Notes:

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