Through Shadows

Chapter 10

Chapter 10

Hawthorn

"Proud and grave he stood for a moment as he spoke to the guard, and Pippin gazing at him saw how closely he resembled his brother Boromir - whom Pippin had liked from the first, admiring the great man's lordly but kind manner. Yet suddenly for Faramir his heart was strangely moved with a feeling that he had not known before. Here was one with an air of high nobility such as Aragorn at times revealed, less high perhaps, yet also less calculable and remote: one of the Kings of Men born into a later time, but touched with the wisdom and sadness of the Elder knew now why Beregond spoke his name with love. He was a man that men would follow, that he would follow, even under the shadow of the black wings.

quoted from The Siege of Gondor; The Return of the King, Book V by J.R.

Minas Tirith, 22nd March, 3019, Third Age

She woke, blinking in the bright light that filled her room, making its whiteness look even more pristine.

"Oh, I'm sorry, my lady. I did not mean to wake you." A middle-aged woman in grey garb but without the healers' veil was standing in the door, staring at her worriedly. "The Lord Faramir bid me to see if you had woken but not to disturb you. I'm sorry..."

"You needn't be." Sitting up, Éowyn swung her legs out of bed. "I was on the brink of waking anyway. Tell the Lord Steward I'm up and then come back or send someone to help me dress."

To Éowyn's dismay the woman returned with Ioreth in tow. Prattling perpetually, the old healer checked the splinting of her arm, and for a moment Éowyn felt tempted to ask Ioreth to strap the dagger to it, but she immediately pushed the thought aside. She had better ask Lhindir and save herself the comments of the old chatterbox. While the woman helped Éowyn into chemise and underdress, Ioreth perused the pile of dresses that had been brought that morning by Imrahil's footman, together with the inevitable sweetmeats that sat in a still unopened smallish basket on the bedside table.

"Here, my lady. Why don't you put this on? It's laced at the sides, and that will certainly make putting it on very convenient. And I dare say the colour will go splendidly with your hair."

The sleeveless gown Ioreth held up to her had a colour that looked as if it could not decide whether it wanted to be green, blue or grey. It seemed to be made of the same mixture of fine wool and silk the shawl consisted of while the hems were trimmed with silk, patterned in brown and grey, and there was a sash to go with the gown of the same fabric and colours. Grudgingly Éowyn had to admit that the old healer was right, and soon she was dressed and the woman started to brush out her hair, while Ioreth busied herself stowing the other dresses away. Having finished, she came to stand beside Éowyn and finally said with a sigh: "What wonderful hair you have, my lady. So silky and such a fascinating colour. It's such a pity the ends are so uneven."

"So would yours be, Mistress Healer, if you had cut your hair with a dagger to shorten it to the length of warrior braids." With grim satisfaction Éowyn saw the old chatterbox blanch and shut up, but unfortunately the silence did not last long.

"I will send someone to even it out, my lady. As it is now these fringes spoil the overall impression, and it really is not fit for a lady of your status. I should have thought of it earlier, but as you know there was so much work to be done, and I hope you'll understand that, my lady. But I'm afraid there is no time for it now, as the Lord Faramir is already waiting and if you really want to visit the wards it would be better to do so before the distribution of the evening meal. I think we'll have to braid it and pin it up in order to hide the uneven ends and..."

"No," Éowyn interrupted, losing her patience. "Braid it into a simple plait and have done with it."

"Leave it to me, my lady." For the first time since she had come back with Ioreth the woman spoke, and then set to work with nimble fingers, while Ioreth stood by, watching critically. It did not take more time than Éowyn would have needed to gather her hair into the single braid she normally wore when riding, but in the end Ioreth clapped her hands with unconcealed delight.

"Why, my lady, it certainly looks like a crown of pale gold. You did a good job, Tórdes."

The woman smiled shyly at the old healer's praise, and thanking her, Éowyn made for the door. The moment she stepped into to corridor, a man pushed himself off the opposite wall, which he had been leaning against, and bowed respectfully. Recognizing the Steward, Éowyn couldn't help the fit of awkwardness. She had not expected him to be standing outside her room when Ioreth had said he was waiting. But then, what did she care if he chose to cool his heels at her door? With a composed expression she lowered her head. "I'm sorry for keeping you waiting, my lord."

"Some things are worth waiting for, Lady Éowyn."

She could hardly keep herself from snorting aloud. What a trite remark! The only thing that irritated her profoundly was the lack of that bland kind of smile such a compliment was normally accompanied by. Quite the contrary the Steward's face was grave, and when he took her hand to breathe a kiss over her knuckles, this graveness seemed to make it more than just a courtly greeting. Galled by her own self-consciousness, she pulled her hand away with slightly more force than necessary and felt relieved when he switched to business and suggested starting their visit with the wards housing the Gondorean wounded, as they were the nearest.

Those wards were arranged in the way Éowyn already knew, with large rooms around a small paved yard, and upon entering this yard the Steward was hailed enthusiastically by the dark-haired men lying or sitting on pallets near the water basin in its centre, enjoying the spring sun. In the sickrooms the situation only differed by the level of noise, as the men in there were mostly suffering from more severe wounds, but their delight in seeing the Steward was no way smaller. He introduced her to the men, and not a few tried to sit up, some with rather shy smiles and others with unveiled admiration, to greet her in that strange Gondorean way, one hand on their chests. But most of them simply were surprised, though trying to politely hide their curiosity under lowered lids. She had no doubt that their gazes would turn into open stares once she had passed. Like a mare paraded at an auction, she though with a flash of annoyance. But would not the Eorlingas stare in just the same way had one of the captains brought a Gondorean lady with him to their quarters?So she smiled, listened to the men's conversation with the Steward, nodded encouragingly when her eyes met theirs, but all in all she stayed in the background, while the Steward talked and clasped outstretched hands. He knew quite a number of men by name, enquired for others and calmly answered their questions. He most obviously was a skilled and inspirational leader, admired by his men. Ward after ward, sickroom after sickroom they visited, and while she was finding it more and more difficult to keep the smile on her face, Éowyn had to admit that the Steward's interest, patience and friendliness seemed genuine.

It was in the last of the wards that they met the Warden, a basket with small jars and phials on one arm and deeply in talk with an elderly healer. Seeing them, he immediately interrupted his conversation, and bowing, addressed the Steward: "My Lord Faramir, I think you will be pleased to hear that Captain Maeron's fever finally broke and Healer Esgarion here is convinced that the captain will survive."

"Is he responsive?" Éowyn could hear the only poorly concealed agitation in the Steward's voice.

The healer shrugged. "He was, little more than a minute ago. Though he might have fallen asleep, as he is understandably exhausted and weak."

With a short nod, the Steward left them standing in the yard and hurried over to one of the sickrooms. It obviously was not the first time he visited that man, whoever he was. With the Warden and the senior healer at her side, Éowyn slowly followed him. Like in the other sickrooms it took her eyes a moment to adjust to the relative dimness after the bright daylight of the yard. The Steward was kneeling beside one of the pallets at the far side of the room, holding a man's hand while he was talking eagerly. Not wishing to disturb, Éowyn stopped, but looking up, the Steward motioned to her to come over. The man on the pallet seemed quite old for a soldier, his hair showing more grey than black, as did the stubble that covered the lower half of his haggard face. He looked extremely frail, despite his large frame, his right collarbone protruding like a ridge under the sickly pale skin while the other side of his wide shoulders and chest was wrapped up in bandages.

"Lady Éowyn, please come and meet Captain Maeron, Minas Tirith's chief-archer."

Smiling, the Steward looked up to her, and Éowyn was surprised at how profoundly that smile wiped out lines of worry from his face she had not even realised existed before. The old archer's eyes turned to her, his lips crinkling in a faint smile. "A Shieldmaiden of the North. Who would have believed it would ever come true? And you really killed that demon?" His hand moved weakly over the blanket towards her, and she crouched down beside the pallet and carefully took it in hers.

"I truly am a Shieldmaiden of Eorl's House, Captain Maeron, and with the help of Meriadoc of the Shire, Théoden King's squire, I smote the Dwimmerlaik."

He sighed contentedly and closed his eyes, squeezing her hand before letting go of it. For a moment the Steward stayed at his side, looking down on the haggard face with concern, and only when the regular breathing signalled that the man had fallen asleep, he rose, reaching out his hand to help her rise likewise. Together they walked from pallet to pallet in the sickroom, talking to the wounded until upon finally finishing their round, they stepped out into the sun again. A group of healers was assembled in front of the Warden, who was dealing out the medicines, carefully noting in a small book what he had given to whom.

The Steward motioned with his head back to the room. "Maeron has taught me archery when I was but a little boy, making me my first practise bow. I owe him a lot, and ..."

He was interrupted by a man's voice, lowered to a raspy whisper, but even like that the resonant bass carried over the yard. "Man alive! What a nice piece of crumpet. And to think she chopped up that ghastly screecher single-handedly."

The Warden stopped mid-motion, his mouth open, an expression of utter shock, embarrassment and disbelief on his face. The healers around him pointedly avoided meeting her gaze. Éowyn suppressed a snort. What a bunch of sissies! Didn't they grasp that the man's remark had clearly not been meant for her ears and not for theirs either, judging from his lowered voice? And did soldiers in Gondor not delight in talking smut and bawling raunchy songs about their betters as they did in the Mark? Béma, she had heard worse any single morning on the sparring grounds of Edoras. Where did these prudes live?

The Warden swallowed hard. "My lady, I most humbly apologise for... I mean..."

Éowyn raised her eyebrows. "What for, Master Warden? Has anything happened?"

A deep blush slowly crept up his wrinkly throat, making it look like the neck of a griffon vulture. "But...that remark." He swallowed, struggling for composure. "That patient..."

Éowyn found it difficult not to grimace. "I'm afraid I can't follow you. What remark? I did not hear any." Turning to the Steward, she asked pointedly: "Did you hear anything, my Lord Steward?"

He met her gaze, his face deadpan save for a nearly invisible twitch of one brow. "A remark? If you did not hear any, I would not make so bold as to contradict you, my lady."

Only when they had left the yard did his controlled expression relax into a broad grin and as they were walking along the corridor towards the Rohirric wards, Éowyn wondered what people would make of them: two nobles, members of the highest ranking families of their respective countries grinning in mutual understanding like two rascals, relishing their latest prank.

Upon entering the first ward that housed Riders, Éowyn realized the converse of the situation: It was her now who was hailed, and the only difference the Steward at her side faced was that the Riders stared at him openly and with unconcealed curiosity. At least until she introduced him as Boromir's brother. Immediately a mayhem of different voices rose, comparing the Steward to his brother, who almost every man present had seen or at least heard of. Boromir, Théodred's oath-brother, Boromir who they regarded as one of Eorl's sons.

Smiling, the Steward let the noise wash over him and then addressed the men, thanking them for their valour. Side by side they went from pallet to pallet, squeezed hands, enquired after the men's wellbeing and answered questions until in the last ward they came upon Grimbeorn. Éowyn was surprised to find the energetic man lying on his pallet with a more than grumpy face. He greeted her, but did not bother to give the Steward more than a short glance. "Boromir's brother? He may be Boromir's brother, but who cares? Gondorean is Gondorean and they'll never understand our ways." With that Grimbeorn closed his eyes and turned his back at them with ostentation.

Taken aback, Éowyn stared. What had got into the captain? She was not sure whether she should be grateful that he had not spoken Westron, though he knew it better than most Riders, or if his avoidance of the Common Speech only added to the insult. But one did not need to know the words to understand the rebuff. She would not let this pass! Squaring her shoulders, she was about to react, when a soft touch at her elbow caught her attention.

"Don't, my lady." The Steward's voice was low but firm, and where she had expected anger, his eyes showed nothing but compassion. With a jerk of his head, he motioned towards the door, and silently they left the sickroom.

Once they had reached the corridor, Éowyn stopped and turned to the Steward: "My lord..."

He silently shook his head. "I am sorry, my lady, that the captain's behaviour caused you embarrassment, but please, don't feel troubled for my sake."

She clenched her fist. "Grimbeorn has no right..."

The typical faint smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. "Grimbeorn? He certainly lives up to his name."

Éowyn suppressed a gasp. "You speak the language of the Mark?"

"No, and I regret I don't. I learned the few words Boromir picked up on his visits to Rohan, but he was no committed teacher, and anyway I doubt he cared to learn much more than the military commands. And there are no books that could help me learning the language, at least not in the library of Minas Tirith. But I found a list with the meaning of the most customary Rohirric names."

"He rather behaved like a boar, and not like his namesake." She still found it difficult to keep her anger under control.

"Don't judge him too sternly. He no doubt fought valiantly on the Pelennor, he lost his shield-arm, and if I judge the way you addressed him correctly, you never before had any reason to complain about him or his bearing."

She was about to object, but he forestalled her, raising his hand. "My lady, we do not know what made him behave like that, nor what ill news might have reached him besides the losses he already had to cope with. And is it not possible that a fit of pain troubled him?"

Her face must have given away her dissent, because he gravely shook his head. "No, my lady, I'm not trying to excuse his behaviour, I understand that he meant to insult me, and had he behaved like that afield and under my command I would have taken him to task. But as the situation differs, so does my judgement. He is wounded. He gave his health in battle, and the only thing Gondor can offer him is a pallet in the Houses of Healing. That is all he has at the moment, and we, or better I, intruded into that last little patch of privacy."

Éowyn swallowed and turned her head away, hearing that other voice in her head. A lower-pitched voice, another accomplished warrior and leader, reminding a young hotspur of his duty. "If you want to lead an Éored you have to understand what goes on in the hearts and heads of your men, Éomer Éomund's son. As they are sworn to you, you are responsible for them, and it is your task to know ahead what they can cope with and what not." How full of his own importance had Éomer been then, and how patient and understanding Théodred. And he had achieved his aim and made her spitfire brother a competent leader. How she missed him, missed both of them!

"My lady, my lord."

Lhindir's voice interrupted her thoughts. She had not heard him coming along the corridor, but there he stood, carrying a tray with a supply of clean bandages. Seeing her expression, the young healer hesitated and then blurted out: "I assure you my lady, that I do not agree with Mareth, and most of us healers don't. And Anwen would certainly have liked to stay in the Rohirric ward..."

His voice petered out as he noticed the frown on Éowyn's face, but before she could demand further explanations, the Steward asked: "Mareth? What about Mareth? And how far does that concern Captain Anborn's sister?"

Lhindir swallowed. "I was not present when it started, my lord. It was yesterday, when they brought in the wounded from Anorien and..." He shot Éowyn an anxious look. "Mareth disagreed with the way the Lord Elfhelm..."

Why could not even this capable lad speak plainly? Bluntly Éowyn explained: "Acwuld, the marshal's standard bearer was fatally wounded and suffering great pain, and therefore he demanded a clean and honourable death, which the Riders gave him according to the customs of the Mark."

Save for an eyebrow that shot up the Steward's face remained motionless. "I see. And Mareth disagreed."

Éowyn snorted but did not say anything. Lhindir shrugged helplessly. "She certainly did. There must have been a major clash. Captain Grimbeorn came over to the healers' room in the morning and tried to talk to her, but things only got worse. She said she would go to the Warden and demand to be appointed to a non-Rohirric ward, and what is worse, she will take Anwen with her."

The Steward nodded thoughtfully. "Mareth is responsible for Anwen, as Anborn left his sister in her care. Does the girl know?"

The young healer shook his head. "No. She had already left when Grimbeorn came, and we did not deem it sensible to wake her, only to trouble her heart."

"So you are sure she would not like to leave the ward?" Lhindir blushed under the Steward's stern gaze, but shook his head vividly.

"No, my lord. And it has nothing to do with me, as I work during the day while she does night shifts. And even if it were not like that, we would obey the rules of the Houses. But she likes to work there. She feels at home there. All are kind to her. And Grimbeorn... he treats her like a daughter."

Éowyn nodded. "He does indeed. He even stood up against me when I criticised her the first day I met her, thinking her weak."

"And Grimbeorn knows that Mareth will take Anwen with her?" The Steward's face was unreadable.

Lhindir grimaced. "Mareth told him, and some other things beside. She made clear that she deemed it neither proper nor safe for a young girl to work there alone. I was afraid for a moment that they would go for each other's throats. I wish something could be done about it."

"So do I, Lhindir." The Steward nodded reassuringly. "But even I have no right to interfere with the politics of the Warden, and you know that. But I'll see what can be done, as I would not want my captain's sister unhappy. But keep quiet about it for now, not to raise false hope."

Eagerly the young healer nodded, and bowing to them went on to the wards of the Rohirrim.

Éowyn gritted her teeth. And she had believed Mareth to be a sensible and competent woman! And Grimbeorn must have thought alike, or he would not have tried to talk to her after the incident of the previous evening.

"Lady Éowyn, would you do me the honour to accompany me to the garden?" The Steward's voice gave no hint at his thoughts, and with a silent nod Éowyn complied. They did not talk, and even when they had entered the garden, the Steward remained silent for quite a time. Nearly all the benches and seats in the alcoves were occupied by men enjoying the rays of the westering sun, but as they walked down the main path towards the herb beds, the citadel bell rang, and the men began to walk back to the Houses in small groups. Some healers came to help those who had difficulty in walking on their own, and soon they were the only ones walking the paved paths. Éowyn frowned. Could it really be that late? How long had she slept? But then, it had taken them hours to visit all the wounded. She felt exhausted and disappointed and for the first time the Steward's silence was getting on her nerves.

Finally he stopped. "Well, my lady, it seems Captain Grimbeorn had a reason for swearing."

Éowyn lifted her chin. "He did not swear, my lord. He only said that the Gondoreans would never understand the ways of the Eorlingas."

The Steward grimaced and his voice sounded bitter when he answered. "I'm afraid he might be right, for such understanding needs the willingness to comprehend the reasons for different customs and traditions without prejudices. And there is much of the old Numenorean haughtiness in Gondor, though I doubt there are many who could deem themselves superior to other peoples of Men in these lesser days. If such an attitude was ever justified anyway. And yet in overcoming old arrogance and prejudices lies our only hope. We may be different, Lady Éowyn, but we all bleed red."

He did not wait for an answer and continued walking, but after a while he stopped again and sighed. "I really wish I could do something about this. I did not tell the girl, for I did not want to cause her additional grief, but men fleeing from Cair Andros informed me of Anborn's death two days ago. She has no family any more, and I don't want her to lose what little security and happiness she seems to have found."

The realisation assaulted her without warning. He cared! Seriously cared for that girl, like she had seen him care for his archery teacher, for the men in general, even for Grimbeorn who had given him little reason to do so. Éowyn clenched her fist. She would not let her cool judgement slip away because of a Gondorean showing some emotion. And he was not even behaving very cleverly either. Anwen was suspecting her brother to be dead as Cair Andros had fallen, and did the Steward really think it needed him to tell the girl of the events? She was about to tell him so, when he continued talking, looking absentmindedly at the tips of his boots.

"I cannot interfere with the rules and regulations of the Houses of Healing without severe reasons. And there is more at stake than the hurt feelings of my captain's daughter, though that is not the least of my care. There is the danger that once the rumour about Mareth's behaviour makes the rounds through the wards of the Rohirrim it might revive old rivalries and prejudices – and drive a wedge between allies. Given the Rider's reaction to my presence, Grimbeorn had not talked to them about what happened, though a lot of them must have witnessed Mareth's appearance last night and Marshal Elfhelm's reaction."

She suppressed a snort. He could not interfere! And what did he think he was doing? Aloud she said: "Grimbeorn is a reasonable man. And as for last night: Not many of the wounded in that ward understand Westron, most of them being herders from the Eastemnet. That's one of the reasons Grimbeorn stays there and has not left for one of the mansions for the lightly wounded."

The Steward snorted "Lightly wounded? He lost his lower arm." He shook his head. "I must talk to Marshal Elfhelm but I need to know more details." Abruptly raising his head, he looked at her. "Would you take it upon you to talk to Grimbeorn about the events to learn what happened?"

She faced him squarely. "I certainly would, but I don't think it necessary, as I was present."

"You were..." For the first time she saw unchecked surprise in his features.

"Marshal Elfhelm had asked me to sing the passing." Given his enquiring expression he did not understand, and so she explained. "In the Mark women stand at the beginning and at the ending of life, for it is believed that as women bring life into this Middle Earth they are also able to open the doors to the otherworld, and therefore it is women who bury the dead and perform the rituals for a safe passage of the soul."

Thoughtfully, the Steward nodded. "Now I remember. Boromir told me about it."

"Did he?" She shot him a side glance, wondering how close the siblings had been and what Boromir might have preferred to leave unsaid. Had not Théodred himself warned her not to be too open? Again the Steward seemed to be deep in thought, and he smiled sadly when he at last turned to her.

"My brother was fascinated by the earthiness and vitality of Rohirric life and culture, and he told me about everything he experienced on his journeys to Rohan."

Really everything? Why for Morgoth sake did she want to believe him? Why did she care at all? Théodred had always been more than cautious not to raise any suspicions, knowing they would cause severe problems for Boromir back in Gondor, and she would not do otherwise. Looking straight into the Steward's eyes, she said: "He was welcome and highly honoured in the Mark. We regarded him as one of Eorl's sons."

The sad smile deepened. "So he told me. And more than once he wished he really was one."

She was not sure what to make of his remark, and angry at the same time about her own self-consciousness. Was she really letting some Gondorean's softly spoken words disturb her that much? So she said nothing and instead continued walking, and it was the Steward who finally spoke.

"So what did Mareth say, the evening Marshal Elfhelm's standard bearer died?"

What a circumspect phrasing! She shrugged. "Fortunately she came in shortly afterwards and did not disturb the ritual. When she realised that Acwuld had been stabbed, she called us beasts and barbarians, and then the marshal told her to leave which she did."

He did not answer, only nodded, his jawline set, and for a while they continued pacing. Reviewing the events and her impressions, Éowyn finally shrugged. "I did not expect anything like that as I had experienced her to be a sensible woman and a competent healer. Though, thinking about it, three days ago a young Rider was dying from an infected belly wound, and she did nothing to speed his death and end his agony."

The Steward uttered something that resembled an angry snort. "She never would, my lady, as her oath keeps her from dealing out death. The healer's of Minas Tirith no doubt are the best we have in Gondor, but upon becoming a healer they swear never to take a life but to try everything to continue it."

She stopped in her tracks, staring at him in disbelief. "But that's ridiculous! Ridiculous and cruel, for it prolongs useless suffering. Acwuld's pelvis was smashed, and even if he had had a chance to survive, he would never again have been able to sit, let alone walk or ride. And they wanted to geld him. A warrior! How could they imagine that an Eorling, nay, any man would submit to such a life, such a living death!"

The Steward sighed. "I know, my lady, and I agree with you. But our healers see themselves in the tradition of the healers of Westernesse who are said to have been taught by the Elves of Eressea. They believe that killing, be it man or beast, diminishes the powers of healing. And there is something else. Our healers deal with drugs and techniques that easily could bring death in the hands of a person who means ill without a chance that anyone might ever find out. So the oath is a kind of assurance that the healers can be trusted."

"That makes sense of some kind, but still..." Their eyes met and the Steward nodded his understanding.

"They would have done everything in their power to lessen his pains, but they would not have killed him."

Breathing deep, she squared her shoulders. It was useless to bemoan things that could not be changed. Acwuld had been an Eorling, and the Eorlingas had taken matters in hand. But it just did not feel fair that young Anwen should suffer from this web of opposed traditions and obligations. There was more than one here who wanted further information! Coming to a halt, she asked the Steward: "You said Anborn left his sister in Mareth's care, and Anwen herself told me, she had no other relatives, but did your captain know that the girl would be working in the Houses of Healing?"

The Steward nodded. "Anborn appointed Mareth as Anwen's guardian. She is his friend Mablung's former wife and he knew her to be a responsible and kind enough woman."

"So Mareth is a widow?"

He carefully schooled his features. "No, my lady, Mablung divorced her for being barren, years ago, and as she did not want to return to her family who would certainly have seen her as a burden, she went to work and live in the Houses."

Divorced for being barren! Éowyn felt the bile raise in her throat. Some things seemingly did not differ in Gondor and the Mark, and they were not the ones she was proud of. Keeping any emotion out of her voice, she asked: "Live in the Houses?"

The Steward nodded. "There are quarters for the healers to live in on the other side of the wards. None of them is married or has children, my lady, and they give their entire focus to the wellbeing of their patients. But as they have no family who would support them come old age or sickness, being a healer and living under the rules of the Houses means that they will be cared for by their fellow healers as long as they live."

Intrigued she raised an eyebrow. "The rules of the Houses? Lhindir mentioned them, too."

"Healers swear to stay celibate."

Éowyn frowned. "Celibate? For all their life?"

The Steward nodded, and Éowyn shook her head in disbelief. To live alone... No, they had their fellow healers' company, but to live for an entire life without any soothing of the demands of the body, without passion, without the warmth of a body beside them... And they were by far not old or frail, but healthy, energetic men and women... Béma, what a waste of life! Sure, there were people in the Mark who abstained for a certain time as a pledge to the gods, and it was expected that husband and wife stayed true to each other even when separated, though as far as a husband's fidelity went, people were prepared to take things with a pinch of salt... But for an entire life? Still frowning, she asked: "All healers all over Gondor?"

The Steward shook his head. "No, not even all in Minas Tirith. Only those of the Houses, and that's one reason why they are so highly respected. That and their skills and absolute dedication to their patients. But they can leave the Houses to get married or to live somewhere else and work as a healer once their apprenticeship is finished. But leaving they would forfeit the right of living in the Houses once and for all."

"How can anybody be content with such a life?" She did not even try to mask her horror and disbelief.

The Steward shrugged. "For some of them it is the only way to lead an honourable life. And for a lot of them it also is a fulfilling one. I don't know many of the healers save Mareth, but the Warden for example, he certainly is the most skilled apothecary Gondor has seen for ages, and old as he is, he gives everything to the care of the sick, as he has done for the last fifty years. The Houses are his life, and the healers and patients his family."

Éowyn laughed mirthlessly. "They certainly are. But unfortunately he also treats them like underage children."

The faint smile was back on the Stewards face. "Old people tend to do that if they are kind. But I can imagine it does not sit well with the Rohirrim."

"No, not at all, but Grimbeorn managed to keep things under control." She only wondered how things would develop, once the rumour of Mareth's words and behaviour had spread through the ranks of the Riders. The seeming futility of being forced to wait idly already was something most of the Riders were irked about, and certainly that was amplified by the unfamiliar constriction of the city, causing them to feel frustrated and hemmed in. And had not the Gondorean captains reported brawls in the lower circles of the city? What if such animosities spilled over to the quarters of the Eorlingas or the Houses themselves? Certainly out in the camp Elfhelm had things under control, but how would small groups of Riders react, especially after a couple of pints in one of the taverns? Mareth's actions could be the seed of serious problems.

She felt the Steward's gaze on her, watching her silently while she pondered. They were allies who had to solve a problem. And had he not shown his regard and respect for her opinion when he had called her to the captains' council the other day? There was no other way, they had to be open and trust each other. Hesitantly at first, but more and more firmly, encouraged by his silent nods, she spoke her misgivings.

When she had ended, the Steward sighed. "You are right, my lady. And Anwen will find herself caught in the middle. Which brings us back to our start. The Rohirrim accept Grimbeorn as captain and you deem him a responsible man. But they certainly would take it for a major insult, should they come to know what was said by Mareth and they will start to ask questions why the two female healers are not working in their wards any more. Was that why Grimboern approached Mareth in the morning? If I understood Lhindir correctly, he more or less tried to appease her."

"And obviously she got hold of the wrong end of the stick."

Their gazes locked, and Éowyn nodded, her mind made up. "I'll go and talk with him, my lord. The last thing we need is bad blood amongst allies. But it will be your task to talk to Mareth."

A lopsided smile crept into the Steward's face. "To Mareth and to Marshal Elfhelm. And I know who I prefer to talk to."

Annotations:

Hawthorn played an important role both in traditional healing but also in folk lore. On the one hand it was seen as a key to the otherworld and its wood war used for rune inscriptions but on the other hand it was believed to be a sign of hope, even able to heal a broken heart.


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