The Roses of Imloth Melui
"It may be that only a few days are left ere darkness falls upon our world, and when it comes I hope to face it steadily; but it would ease my heart, if while the Sun yet shines, I could see you still."
Faramir's talk to Éowyn, quoted from The Steward and the King; The Return of the King; Book V by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Minas Tirith, 23rd March, Third Age
She felt the sun on her face and a soft draught of fresh air. Her eyes still closed, Éowyn stretched. How good it was just to rest in the sun, to feel warm... The sun! Her eyes flew open. The small, white room was filled with bright sunlight and through the open window voices could be heard, though she could not make out what was being said. She sat up, shaking off the last remnants of sleep. Bright day already! How could she have slept that late? She had woken way before dawn, due to a full bladder, and having returned to her bed after using the chamberpot she had thought to just doze a little more before getting dressed and going out into the garden. How could she have fallen asleep again? And have slept that long! Certainly the Steward would be waiting... Realising the direction of her thoughts, she checked herself. What had got into her? She was not his vassal and had no obligation towards him!
Brisker than necessary she threw back the sheets and made for the washstand. She was busy shrugging off the nightgown when there was a soft knock at the door and a second later Ioreth's voice piped up. "Lady Éowyn? Have you woken?"
Éowyn grimaced, suppressing a sarcastic answer. Peeping around the corner of the screen, the old healer offered her a good morning in a gush of superfluous words and asked her if she needed any help.
"I will need some assistance with the lacing, but otherwise I should be able to cope myself. But send for some breakfast, please."
"Breakfast?" Ioreth sputtered. "But..."
Éowyn's mood darkened. "I know it is too late for breakfast, but there should be some crust of bread and a cup of tea to break my fast, Mistress Healer. I'm asking for no banquet."
The old healer's mouth opened and shut again twice, before she was able to answer. "Oh, my lady, I'm sorry for... But you misunderstood me completely! I would gladly bring you anything you like if it could be found in the city, and certainly at any time you want. It is just that the Lord Faramir bid me to inform you that he's waiting to share his breakfast with you, should you wake, and..."
He was waiting! Again! Furious at not being able to conceal the blush that crept into her cheeks, Éowyn turned her back on the healer. "I do not remember having any appointment with the Steward. Please tell him that he needn't wait for me."
She expected Ioreth to leave, but nothing happened. Containing her wrath with difficulty, Éowyn turned round slowly. The woman had not moved, but literally stood her ground, and though her short, plump fingers were playing nervously with the hem of her apron, she met Éowyn's gaze. Brown eyes, frightened eyes, reminding Éowyn of a fat, oversized squirrel. "Well?" Her face a mask of contempt, Éowyn looked down on the woman before her.
Ioreth gulped, the fidgeting of her hands turning into clenching. "I beg your pardon, my lady. I know it is not my place and I should not... But...I...I just beg you. The Lord Faramir... You see, he has suffered so much lately. And, beg your pardon, he's such a good man, and... He truly deserves... I mean, he never..." Heaving a deep breath, Ioreth pulled herself together and started anew. "I'm a healer, my lady, as you certainly know. And amongst others, though he certainly holds a special place in my mind and heart, the Lord Faramir is in my care. He was on death's doorstep, my lady, and I cried bitter tears, thinking him doomed to die. He survived, thanks to King Elessar's healing powers, as did you, but like you he is still far from being healed. It is not the wound, my lady, but that awful pest, the Black Breath, which sucks out every last grain of joy and has caused many a good man to despair and die. I deeply care for him, my lady, for he deserves to be cared for and I would do anything to make him feel better, anything to lighten his mood, and..."
Her voice petered out, and she looked pleadingly at Éowyn. "Please, my lady, at least go and see him, even if you do not want to share breakfast with him. I have been watching him these past days and he looks so drawn and exhausted that I'm frightened. But in your company... Nay, already when he's waiting for you to meet him, it feels as if he is coming close again to how he used to be, as if he is stepping back into life. Please, go and meet him, my lady. He cares for you."
Éowyn's hand cut the air in an angry move. "I do not need any man's pity!"
"But he needs yours!" The plump, old woman nearly yelled at Éowyn, her small hands clenched into fists. "Please, my lady, swallow that pride of yours and keep him company. How many days do you think we still have, before we all perish? We all are awaiting the same doom, so how do you have the right to spurn a good man's sympathy just for selfish pride?"
Éowyn felt like she had been slapped. "Selfish pride?" she growled.
"Yes, selfish." Though her face openly displayed fear, the old healer nodded so vigorously that her veil became askew. "For your pride makes you blind to his sufferings, but believe me, he suffers no less than you, and..." As if she had spent all her energy, Ioreth suddenly clasped her hands in front of her face, breaking into violent sobs.
Éowyn stared, stunned by the healer's outburst, not sure whether she was more surprised by her actions or by her words. How strange; the woman in front of her visibly was afraid and yet tried to achieve determinedly what she thought to be best for those in her care. True, Lord Faramir was the Steward, a man of the highest ranking, but had Ioreth not likewise defended that overgrown puppy Berhtulf against the Warden? It looked as if the Riders did not call her Mother Goose just for her never ending prattle but for the uncompromising way she had of defending whoever she had taken under her wing. Éowyn could not help a kind of grudging admiration for the old healer.
All of a sudden Ioreth stopped crying and wiped her eyes and cheeks with her apron. "I'm sorry, my lady. I should not have spoken like that, but..."
"Enough!" Pulling the dagger from under her pillow, Éowyn threw it on the bed. "I want you to fasten this to the splinting of my arm. Go and fetch what material you need. And then help me with the lacing of my dress. You would not have him wait longer than necessary, would you?" She moved behind the screen again, let her nightgown drop and took up the wash-cloth.
"So you will go and see him? The Lord Faramir I mean, my lady?" Ioreth's voice sounded breathless, and Éowyn found it difficult not to roll her eyes. How could a single person be so dedicated and so annoying at the same time?
Quite a number of patients were already in the garden, some walking the straight paths, some sitting on the benches, enjoying the morning sun. Different from the day before, Éowyn noticed a number of blond heads among them, injured Riders, taking their first, still slightly insecure steps with the help of their comrades. All the alcoves in the inner wall were taken, and in not a few the convalescent men were playing chess with the pieces provided in the drawers below the small stone tables. It was a scene of general peace, but for the bandages and crutches that reminded any onlooker of the situation they were in.
Éowyn did not see the Steward immediately, but soon she spotted him in the alcove near the great gnarled pine, playing chess with a man she believed to be Beregond. Slowly she approached, taking the path along the inner wall, and just when she rounded the large pine, the Steward seemed to make the move that ended the match. His countenance showed a strange mixture of concentration and relaxation, but the shadows under his eyes were still prominent enough not to be overlooked. For a moment she hesitated. Could it really be that her company had a strengthening influence on him? And if the loss of appetite, the fatigue and brooding mood were symptoms of the Black Breath, as Ioreth had said, what did her own face look like? Angry with her own reluctance, she shook off her misgivings. She was of Eorl's House and she had come out to act, not to stand behind a tree and stare like some timid girl. A few purposeful steps brought her close to the alcove.
"Good morning, my lord Steward."
Her voice caused him to look up, and a huge smile flitted over his face before he regained control, schooling his features to the typical seriousness she knew. He rose, and greeting her, he took her hand and kissed her knuckles. "I hope you slept well, my lady."
Éowyn found it hard not to grimace. "I certainly did. Sound and long. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."
He smiled again. "I could repeat the words I said yesterday, but they did not seem to your liking. Though that does not make them less true."
Éowyn felt the itch to retort with some incisive remark, but was forestalled by Beregond, who asked her politely to move just one step so he could stow away the chess pieces in the drawer and lay the table. Intrigued she watched the tall man gathering the pieces with large, callused hands that clearly showed the warrior as much as his general bearing did. And yet he did not seem to feel humbled by the servant's duties he was performing, but even gave the arrangement of the different items on the small table more care than necessary. How far would these Gondoreans go for the love and esteem of their Steward?
She took her seat, and sitting himself opposite, the Steward offered her some cinnamon buns, asking at the same time if she would like to have something more savoury instead, like thinly sliced smoked ham or a piece of well-matured red cheese. She decided to start her breakfast with some cheese, and while the Steward buttered one of the small rolls for her, Beregond went to fetch some hot tea. She nibbled the roll and popped one of the tiny cheese cubes the Steward had cut for her into her mouth. Savoury indeed! Reaching for a second cube, she looked up, meeting the gaze of an obviously well-satisfied Steward.
"It seems, my lady, that a good night's sleep has whetted your appetite."
She frowned. "And what about yours? You should be even hungrier than me, having waited all morning for me to turn up."
He shrugged. "I'm afraid my appetite has suffered a bit lately. I definitely do not feel hungry, but now I have your company for breakfast, I think I should set a good example and eat."
"I insist upon it." Seeing one of his eyebrows twitch in that typical way, Éowyn put down the roll she had been about to take a bite off, and raised her chin in challenge. "I mean it, my lord. You said yourself that the lack of appetite might be a symptom of the Black Breath. If it is, you should deem it your duty as a Captain of the Free Peoples to eat, for it is one more way to defeat the Dark Lord."
His eyes sparkling with laughter, the Steward bowed his head. "As my lady commands."
Remembering the small parcel she had shoved into the triangular bandage that supported her broken arm, she pulled it out and offered it to the Steward to open. "You said the other day that you liked the sweat-meats made by Prince Imrahil's cook, so have a look at what he has to offer today, and help yourself, if it kindles your appetite. At least it is supposed to kindle mine."
Smiling, the Steward opened the small chip box, but he turned serious as soon as he had had a look at its contents.
"Is it something you don't like?" Éowyn enquired.
The Steward shook his head. "No, my lady. Quite the contrary. It is a kind of almond paste, a speciality of Dol Amroth I relished every time I went to visit my aunt and uncle as a child. But I am not sure if you really would like to offer it to me."
Éowyn frowned. "Why should I not? If you like it, what can keep me from offering it and you from taking it?"
Now not only his eyebrow but also a corner of his mouth twitched. "The meaning of the offering, my lady."
"And what might that be?"
"If a woman gives these almond cakes to a man it is meant to be a sign of... encouragement."
"Encouragement?" Éowyn was sure there was something she did not get, but stubbornly she lifted her head. "And what is wrong with that, especially in the dire times we have to face?"
The Steward's lips curved almost imperceptibly. "I fully agree with you, only that it is rather meant as an encouragement of courtship."
For a split second her mood hovered between anger and laughter, but then the pragmatism of the Mark got the better of it. "I certainly do not desire to be courted, but as I am able to say so, plain and loud, I see no reason why you should not eat the paste if you like it. It may be a tradition of Dol Amroth, but it's not a sacred ritual, and I doubt that anybody here in the garden will take any notice of it. Just eat and enjoy it."
The Steward's smile deepened, as he took something like a smallish cake out of the box. "Have one yourself, my lady. You'll find they are delicious."
Picking one of the pieces, she raised her eyebrows. "And what does it mean if a man offers almond paste to a woman?"
He laughed openly. "Nothing, I assure you. Almond paste is seen as a strengthening food in general and is often given to ailing children or convalescent people in general. But one certainly does not need to be poorly to enjoy the taste." He bit off half the cake, nodding encouragingly to her to try herself. Gingerly she looked at the small cake in her hand. It consisted of two layers of some kind of thin wafer, filled with a whitish substance that was soft but not creamy. Intrigued she took a bite. It was sweet and beside the finely ground almonds she thought she tasted some rosewater. It tasted strange after the cheese, but not bad at all, and she finished it with a few more bites and then smacked her lips.
"Tasty and nourishing. I see why it is given to people who need to regain strength but may have problems to eat much."
The Steward nodded. "It also keeps fresh for quite a long time when stowed in closed jars, an aspect that has always played an important role for sea-faring people like the ones of Dol Amroth."
Sea-faring! Éowyn wondered what the sea, what the ships looked like, how it felt to be on board of one of the great war-ships of the Falas she had heard Théodred talk of, and she said so, and for the next hour they sat in the alcove, the Steward talking about the sea, about it's vastness and all the strange creatures that could be found in its cold depths. Éowyn listened with bated breath, only now and then asking him to specify some of the things he had mentioned.
The Steward's face became animated, all tiredness having vanished, and despite her true interest in what he had to tell she felt a rush of pride and joy at being able to get him out of his melancholy. And she managed to make him eat. For in between his stories and explanations she would reach for a morsel of cheese, a slice of ham, and with a twitch of his eyebrow obligingly he did the same, now and then stopping his talk to cut up and butter more bread.
Several times she was so caught by his tale that she forgot to put the food in her mouth and rather kept it in her hand, listening. Then he would wink at her after a while and eat something himself, reminding her of the forgotten morsel. It was like some grotesque kind of dance, some childish play, and she enjoyed it profoundly. The Steward's voice was a little higher-pitched than Théodred's or Éomer's, but not unpleasant, and she wondered if he could sing. From the sea itself their talk turned to sailing it, and he told her about the important harbours of Pelargir and Dol Amroth, about all kinds of different ships, from small fishing-boats to merchant vessels and war-ships, but also about their everlasting strife with the corsairs of Umbar.
"Prince Imrahil and Lord Thólinnas of Pelargir have taken great pains in the construction and maintenance of a Gondorean fleet, seeing the danger Gondor and especially their coastal fiefs were exposed to should Umbar side with the Dark Lord, but unfortunately my father went against their council." The Steward sighed. "He even insisted on Amrothos being present in Minas Tirith when the outbreak of war was foreseeable, rather than let him operate one of the war-ships. Lord Thólinnas and his son Radhruin engaged in defending Gondor's coast, but as I heard Pelargir has been seriously destroyed I wonder as to what has become of Tol Falas and Dol Amroth."
He shrugged and had another sip of tea. "I suppose that is what pains Amrothos most. He certainly is not an easy patient for the healers to manage." He gave her a wistful smile. "I would have asked you to come with me and visit him, but he refuses to see anybody save the healers and me. And me he accepts only because he is not strong enough yet to throw me out bodily."
Having finished their breakfast to the last crumb, they rose and went for their daily climb to the wall. One week after the battle the ditches dug by Sauron's armies were all filled in, but still large numbers of men were busy everywhere on the Pelennor. Éowyn could not make out at once what exactly they were doing but then she realised that most of them were transporting earth and stones towards the line of burial mounds stretching across the Pelennor. How many Riders lay in those mounds? And how many Gondoreans, coming from all corners of the realm, some of them no doubt as far away as the Mark? Her thoughts went back to the battle, the charging of the Eorlingas, the frenzy of battle, Théoden King's moment of glory, and then that dreadful wraith, faceless, radiating horror like a cold mist, the Witchking riding that hideous winged creature, stinking of rotten meat...
"My Lady Éowyn?"
The serious tenderness of the Steward's voice interrupted her thoughts and she looked up into his face. Grey eyes, full of understanding. Had not he himself felt the terror of that foe, resisting it to the last to save as many of his men as possible? He knew what it was like to feel that icy voice cutting into the numbed brain like a naked sword. He knew...
Again she looked out over the marred plain that once had been fruitful and lush and all of a sudden the wish to see her uncle a last time welled up in her heart.
Their steps echoed through the huge hall of the Citadel, un-muffled by anything. No carpet, no hangings, no glimpse of wood softened the majestic impact of the stone, white and black marble, impressing the eye but leaving the heart cold. On pedestals stood the likenesses of former kings of Gondor, stern-faced, their stony eyes gazing into the distance, high above all other creatures crawling on the earth they seemed aloof, not caring for anything but their posthumous glory.
Éowyn found it difficult not to let her repugnance show on her face. Gondor – Stoningland. Never had this name seemed more fitting to her. And there, at the far end of the vast hall stood a guard of honour at both sides of Théoden King's bier, placed in front of a dais that led up in many steps to the throne. That too was made of stone, of the same white marble, polished to perfection, like the canopy above it. White gems formed the flowers of the tree, carved in bold relief into the stone of the wall behind the throne, glittering like minute stars, beautiful and sublime, a cold mockery of the very symbols of life. Éowyn swallowed. Had she really ever thought to be chosen by the man who was meant to sit there? She felt her skin crawl at the thought of herself, presiding in this lifeless hall. And anyway, where would Gondor's queen sit? Would she not be placed at the king's side? She gazed at the throne with an appraising eye. It certainly was splendid and spacious but not wide enough to hold two persons in a dignified way. Then her gaze fell on the black seat at the bottom of the stairs. Could it be that the queen was seated there? She frowned. True, the queen's chair of honour set beside the throne of the Mark bore a lower back-rest and it was slightly smaller than the throne itself, but otherwise it was an exact likeness up to the last carving.
"My lady?" Faramir's enquiring voice stirred her out of her pondering. Feeling caught at improper thoughts, she could not help a blush. How could that dratted Steward make her feel that uncomfortable with a single remark – nay, with his mere presence? Mustering her countenance, she shrugged. "I was just wondering who would sit in that seat at the bottom of the stairs to the throne."
"That's the Steward's place, my lady. Throughout all the years the Ruling Stewards of Gondor have presided from there as there has been no king of Gondor for many centuries and the throne itself has not been used."
Éowyn nearly choked, realising what he had not said: There was no place for a queen at the side of Gondor's king in affairs of ruling the country. Slowly she released her breath, careful to hide her agitation. In the Mark, the queen was Underking, first counsellor to her spouse and ruling in his absence. Her mind whirled. Could things be so different in Gondor? Even though in the Mark the house was regarded a woman's foremost domain, that included the care for general affairs which were not explicitly concerned with warfare, be it a farm or the realm, depending on the husband's rank. And certainly not to heed a wife's counsel was thought unwise by most men. What was a woman's position like in Gondor, if even the queen had no place at her husband's side? Did the Elven woman, did Elrond's daughter far in the North know about that? Éowyn looked up at the throne and the crown high above it. Marble and gold – lifeless and cold. More a tomb than a place for the living.
She slowly approached the throne and the bier that was placed at its foot. A bed of state, draped in white and green, the colours of the Mark, and on a golden cloth in its middle Théoden King's armour and weapons were placed, cleaned and polished, and arranged in a way to resemble the body of the warrior. For a moment she stared, not certain about her own feelings. Her brain told her that she could not really have expected her uncle's body to be still laid out an entire week after his death, but her heart found it difficult to cope with the mere symbols of his authority. True, there was nothing more fitting as token for the fearless leader of the Eorlingas than his gear, but strangely enough it reminded her in an uncanny way of the empty shell of a crayfish.
"His body is at the embalmers, my lady, as according to Gondorean custom the bodies of the nobles are embalmed." She looked up at the Steward's hushed remark, and he must have read the unspoken question in her eyes, for he shook his head. "I would rather advise against seeking him out. Try to remember him as you knew him, Éowyn, for what you find here is only the king, the token of the realm, and not the man who was close to your heart." She shuddered, and without a word she turned to leave the hall.
"Steady, my lady." The Steward's low voice reached her ear and she felt his hand softly touching her elbow. "Don't let cold stone be what you remember of Minas Tirith's Citadel. Come, Éowyn, let me show you something that might lighten your heart and give both of us a rest from what is pressing in on us."
Looking up, she met his gaze. Grey eyes, filled with care and understanding – so familiar and soothing and yet making her uncomfortable, as if they could look into her head and heart and read her most secret thoughts and emotions.
Soon they were standing in a paved yard, surrounded by multi-storied buildings on three sides while the fourth consisted of a high wall of the same white stone as the buildings. Large windows opened into the yard, some of them sporting small balconies with wrought-iron railings, but most of them were closed with richly carved wooden shutters. The yard itself was impeccably clean and orderly and the profound silence was only interrupted by the elderly servant who now came scuttling back with a large key ring which he handed to the Steward. He dismissed the servant and then crossed the yard to the small door set into the wall and unlocked it. With a screech that hinted at long disuse the door swung open, and the Steward motioned to her invitingly. Before she could follow his invitation though, her two guards stepped forwards, gazing through the opened door searchingly. Éowyn made a mental note to find out whom she had to thank for her watchful shadows - Elfhelm in his attempt to point out the honour and importance of Eorl's House, or her overprotective brother who still thought of her as his little sister, no matter what deeds she had done in battle. Anyway, they did not seem to have spotted anything suspicious, for they stepped aside to let her pass.
Walking through the door, Éowyn found herself in a garden, approximately the same size as the yard. But where the yard war plane and paved, here boulders and beams had been arranged to form differing levels, creating the impression of a much larger space than it actually was. Niches and ledges in the wall held flowerpots of different size and material while others hung on finely worked chains from girders below the windows. There were not many flowers blossoming yet, but all kinds of different foliage sprouted everywhere, leaving no doubt what this place would look like in but a few weeks. A narrow gravel path meandered through the garden, side by side with a swiftly flowing rivulet, which in some places formed small, shallow pools, before the water swashed over the rim to continue on its way meandering amongst the flowerbeds. The different terraces were accentuated by shrubs and smallish trees, most of them still bare but with buds ready to burst.
The Steward hesitated and then turned to her apologetically. "I'm afraid this is not exactly what I meant to show you, my lady. I had not realised that the garden still is so barren."
Éowyn shook her head emphatically. "But it isn't for one who has eyes to see. Look at the buds everywhere, the new sprouts reaching for the sun. And what about the different kinds of mosses that edge the water? And those ferns there, ready to unfold? No, my lord, there might be few blossoms yet, but just look at that tree over there. Its buds are about to open, and already one can see that the blossoms will be pink."
His gaze attentively following her pointing hand, the Steward smiled. "You are right. It is just that my memories of this garden differ so much from its present state. My father had it set up for my mother, having seen the prince's garden in Dol Amroth. This certainly is but a minor copy of it, much smaller and lacking the ancient trees, but my mother loved it, and one of the few things I remember about her is her sitting in the shade of that bower, her smile as sweet as the smell of the roses around her." He sighed. "How she loved these roses! Father had the best brought from Imloth Melui, and I'll never forget the summer mornings when the scent would rise from the garden below, floating into my room through the open window..."
"There are roses from Imloth Melui in the garden of Edoras, too. Thengel King had them planted for his queen, Morwen of Lossarnach, and they truly are wonderful, though Théodred assured me they are but a pale reflection of the splendour of that valley. He told me about riding through it on his way to visit Morwen after her return to Lossarnach." How enthusiastic Théodred's face had been that sunny afternoon in the garden below Meduseld when he had told her about that journey in his youth, years before the shadow began to fall on the Golden Hall. "He said the scent had been that prominent in the air that it had literally soaked their hair and garment and it had still been traceable in the evening." He had never seen the valley again, never had had the leisure for such journeys, his duty as heir to the throne of the Mark binding him more and more to grim and everlasting struggle. She sighed. "It was the only time he travelled together with Boromir through Gondor."
She felt the Steward stiffen beside her and angrily bit her lip. Fool! How could she have let her guard down like that? Had not Théodred himself warned her to be circumspect, especially towards anyone from Gondor? Not that she would ever understand Gondorean attitudes. Had not both, Théodred and Boromir, fulfilled their duty to their Houses and peoples? Had not both been accomplished warriors, acknowledged leaders, devoted to their tasks? How could anyone grudge them the comfort they found in each other's company?
"It's nearly twenty years now, and I still remember..." The Steward's voice was soft, thoughtful as if he was rather speaking to himself. He hesitated a moment, but then he turned, looking her straight in the eye. "Prince Théodred's friendship meant a lot to my brother, much more than I could fathom then, and his esteem and devotion lasted through all those years despite the distance between them."
Circumspect! The Steward certainly was schooled in matters of policy, but his pleading gaze spoke a different language than his careful words. She wondered how much he knew about his brother's ways, but he must have loved him dearly, that much she could clearly comprehend. And what was at stake anyway? Théodred and Boromir were dead, and who knew how many days they themselves still had. Slowly she inclined her head.
"Let me assure you that his feelings were truly reciprocated and there never was anyone who took Boromir's place in Théodred's heart." Looking up she saw an expression of utter relief flit across the Steward's features, before he took her hand, raising it to his lips.
"Thank you, my lady. To know that surely eases my heart."
There was no need to say more, and as they followed the path through the walled garden, accompanied by the murmur of the rivulet, Éowyn could not help the soothing feeling that rose within her. So different they were, and yet she could feel he tried to understand. Tried with such a sincerity it made her heart ache, and for the first time since the battle on the Pelennor she wished they had more time.
Imloth Melui: Sindarin: "sweet flower-valley"; a valley in Lossarnach, mentioned by Ioreth in "The Return of the King".