Through Shadows

Chapter 14

Chapter 14

And the Warden looking from his window was glad in his heart, for he was a healer, and his care was lightened; and certain it was that, heavy as was the dread and foreboding of those days upon the hearts of men, still these two of his charges prospered and grew daily in strength.

quoted from:The Steward and the King; The Return of the King; Book VI by J.R.R. Tolkien


Minas Tirith, 24th March, 3019, Third Age

The sun was just rising over the dark ridges of the Ephel Duath, painting the white columns of the ambulatory of the Houses in soft hues of rose and orange, when Éowyn stepped out into the garden. There was no one outside yet, except for the man clad in grey and black who immediately rose from where he had been sitting on one of the benches and approached her.

For a moment she wondered what he would look like in more vibrant colours. The dark blue of woad would go well with the grey of his eyes and also some madder red would not be amiss, at least in a decorative border. She shook her head at her own musings, surprised by the sudden wave of nostalgia for small events of ordinary life. The dyeing had always been the only part of womanly occupation with wool or cloth in general that she really liked. Had liked, she corrected herself. How happy she had been during the forays to gather the plants, how much had she enjoyed the thrill of the dyeing process itself, as there always was that trace of uncertainty how exactly the colours would come out in the end... Strange, that the moment when the very existence of the entire world around her was at stake, she remembered and longed for such simple and common tasks.

Looking at the Steward, who now had nearly reached her, she imagined how he would react if she told him he had better change his grey tunic for a blue one trimmed with red, and she could not help a grin.

"Good morning, Lady Éowyn." He took her hand and kissed her knuckles while his gaze searched her face. "Did you sleep at all last night? I hope it was not pain nor dark dreams that made you walk the premises."

Piqued, she drew back her hand. "It seems you are well informed by your spies, my lord."

One of his brows twitched. "No, my lady, not by spies. Only by very concerned healers. Lhindir told me."

Remembering Ioreth's outburst the other day, Éowyn frowned, feeling bewildered and angered at the same time. What news were the healers exchanging amongst themselves? What exactly had Lhindir told the Steward? And not being on night-shift, who had he learned it from?

Her face must have given away her thoughts, for with a shrug the Steward said: "We are surrounded by caring people, my lady, and we must suffer their devotion."

She snorted. "You do not seem to suffer greatly, my lord."

An expression she could not decipher showed on his face. "And you, my lady? Does it displease you to know there are people who care for you?"

She was spared an answer by the sound of approaching booted steps. Looking up, she beheld Elfhelm, walking up to them with long, determined strides, a group of Riders following at a slower pace. But it was not the approach of the marshal that made Éowyn stare, but the tall woman in the centre of the group behind him. Though her body was covered in brightly coloured, voluminous robes her long neck and the uncovered lower arms, as well as the boldly chiselled face, gave away her extreme leanness. Being somewhere in her late forties, she had a proud bearing and sported an almost haughty expression, which was accentuated by the pulled-back hair, braided in numerous tiny tresses that clung tightly to the high-curved skull. And like the hair the woman's face was dark, shining like polished ebony.

Elfhelm greeted Éowyn with a short bow of his head, and then addressed the Steward unceremoniously. "Lord Faramir, I'm afraid I need your assistance in a quite nasty affair. As you know the Southron camp fell to the Rohirrim as spoils of war."

The Steward nodded but made no attempt to interrupt the marshal, who for all his brashness could not fully hide his discomfort and awkwardly cleared his throat before he continued. "Well, in this camp there is one group that keeps more or less to themselves: a contingent from Far-Harad. And the members of this group have obviously killed, or rather murdered collectively, one of their fellow prisoners."

The woman's haughty look seemed to intensify, one corner of her mouth twitching scornfully. She obviously understood what was said, and Éowyn sensed how much it cost Elfhelm to keep his composure. The Steward's face stayed blank, and his voice gave nothing away when he finally asked how he could be of any help.

Elfhelm grunted. "Don't get me wrong, Lord Faramir. I know how to deal with murder and with murderers in my area of responsibility, and the circumstances seem to be clear enough at first sight, as the murderers made no attempt to hide their deed. But as I said: at first sight. My lord, I need the aid of a scholar, someone who knows about the laws and traditions of Far-Harad for I do not understand the background of the entire affair, especially..." The marshal hesitated and glanced sideways at the tall woman. "Especially as there seems to be some kind of sorcery involved."

Immediately the Steward stepped forward, placing himself between Éowyn and the group, thus blocking her sight of the woman. Puzzled she moved to stand beside him, and only when he motioned to her to stay back did she understand that he was trying to keep her out of the woman's field of view. Éowyn froze. Could it really be that the woman was a Haradrim sorceress?

Realising the reasons for the Steward's movement, Elfhelm shook his head. "No, Faramir, you got me wrong. The Haradrim accuse the man they killed of having been a sorcerer."

With a short nod the Steward moved aside, his face still unreadable. "Just tell me what happened."

The Marshal grimaced. "Well, when we took the camp, we sacked anything valuable and useful, checked everything and everyone for weapons, confiscating even the last kitchen knife, and then more or less let them be, under a constant watch that is to make sure that no one left the camp." He shrugged. "It was obvious they were no warriors, so we did not harm them."

Éowyn noticed the woman's grimace; obviously she had an understanding of "no harm" that differed from the marshal's. Intrigued Éowyn scrutinized her dark face, fascinated by the high forehead, the huge, slightly slanted eyes, their expression hidden by halfway closed lids below exquisitely arched eyebrows, the prominent nose with the accentuated nasal wings, the full lips... Whatever she had imagined, hearing the word "exotic", here it had come alive. Engrossed in the strange woman's features, Éowyn nearly failed to hear Elfhelm's further explanation.

"Well, today in the morning, Irodebasa, this woman here, came to the captain of the guards and told him that they had killed one of their fellow prisoners. The captain immediately informed me and I went over and found the man, one Xurbo, hanging lifeless from the pole of the main tent. They had blindfolded and gagged him and hung him by his bound hands... And then they had skinned him, though I do not know whether that killed him or if perhaps they strangled him first. If I understood correctly, she told me they had to kill him because he was a sorcerer and evil." The marshal shrugged. "You are known to be a learned man, and therefore I thought you could help me to unravel this mystery, so we might learn the truth about the reasons of this murder."

The Steward turned towards the Haradrim woman, his face stern. "Do you speak enough Westron to understand what the marshal said?"

Wordlessly, she inclined her head.

"Do you admit to have bound and killed said man?"

No muscle in the woman's face twisted. "Yes."

"What exactly did you do?"

"We wait. He sleep. We take him. Bind eyes, bind mouth, bind hands. He not see, not speak, not point. He not put spell. We tie to tent pole. We take skin. He die."

The Steward turned to Elfhelm. "You said you left no weapon in the camp. How could they ..."

"She says they used this." At Elfhelm's beckon, one of the guards handed the Steward what seemed to be a rather large mitten made of cloth or leather. Éowyn frowned. Were those Southrons thinking their captors were dumb? The Steward said nothing, but taking the mitten, he let his thumb glide over its surface and then nodded grimly.

"A lion's tongue," he stated, the remark earning him an appreciative look from the Haradrim.

"A what?" Éowyn could not contain her puzzlement.

"Have you ever felt the touch of a cat's tongue?"

She frowned. "Why, certainly. It is rough...raspy."

He nodded. "It certainly is. They say that lions, the royal cats of the south, can lick the flesh off their victims' bones." He held out the mitten to her. "I have never seen one, but from how it is described in the book I read about Far-Harad, this is what they call a lion's tongue. It's a tool of torture, made of the skin of a shark, a very large fish. Come, Lady Éowyn, touch it, and you will understand."

Reluctantly she stroked the mitten. It was exceptionally smooth, causing her finger to glide over it without any resistance. The Steward nodded. "And now the other way round. But careful. Don't move too fast and don't put any pressure on it."

Her curiosity stirred, she followed his instructions, and exclaimed with surprise. What had felt so smooth in one direction now pricked her finger like dozens of tiny hooks. Intrigued she had a closer look. The piece of skin was covered with minute scales, each one shaped like a razor-sharp, hooky tooth.

Her gaze met the Steward's. "They did not need any knife. A swipe with this surely rips off skin like a farrier's rasp."

Taking back the mitten, he nodded. "So it does. I just don't know why they did it. If they wanted to kill him silently, they could have strangled him."

The Haradrim shook her head. "No good. He magic. No other way kill him."

Grimacing, Elfhelm shook his head. "We have reached that point before, but I don't understand what she wants to explain. She understands Westron quite well, but has too little of it to express herself in detail, and I don't know her language at all. "

Thoughtfully the Stewart turned the mitten in his fingers, and then to Éowyn's utter surprise, he addressed the woman in a language that, given the Haradrim's eager reaction, was Southron of some kind. He listened carefully to her rapid talk, and then explained. "She claims the man was one of the most important men at the Haradrim's court, the prince's counsellor and mage. When it became clear that the battle was lost for them, he changed his clothes and hid amongst the kitchen slaves, threatening to put a spell on them if they should reveal him."

"But that's nonsense." Elfhelm's face had grown grimmer with every sentence. "Nonsense or a blatant lie. No way was he a nobleman or anyone important. That's impossible."

Éowyn frowned, sensing a trace of embarrassment in his vehement denial.

"And why are you that convinced?" There certainly was no greater difference possible to the disgruntled marshal than the un-agitated Steward.

Elfhelm snorted. "I told you we searched them for weapons. We had them strip naked, all of them, and except for some very young boys, who we found locked in a kennel like a pack of dogs, there was not a single entire man in that camp. They are all geldings and that Xurbo..." He shrugged, as if unsure how to phrase it.

"What of him?" Still the Steward's voice showed no emotion.

The Marshal scratched his beard. "He was... Well, they had not only cut his balls, but he did not have a cock either. And mind you, they were old, healed cuts. Can you imagine anyone of influence, of a noble line being a gelding?" He shook his head. "No way! I tell you, he was some kind of servant, like the others. And then they all have a branding mark on their left arm. All of them, mind you. The murdereded man, too." He gave the woman a furious glance. "That makes him a serf, a slave. How can he be someone important?"

The Steward shrugged. "People and cultures differ, Elfhelm. There are eunuchs in Khand who hold office at princely courts and on the shores of Umbar they use scars and tattoos as a tribal sign. Why not branding?"

Intrigued Éowyn watched the three people before her. Elfhelm, every inch the Second Marshal of the Mark, seasoned warrior and approved leader, scepticism written openly on his face as his gaze went from the Steward to the Haradrim woman, who pointedly ignored him, her face a haughty mask, arrogant but powerless. And facing them stood the Steward of Gondor, his countenance inscrutable, the grey eyes as blank as granite pebbles. Different they were and yet there was one thing they had in common, a sentiment she herself knew all too well: Pride. But even in their pride they differed and Éowyn could not do otherwise but notice the Steward's silent superiority. Carefully she moved a step away to be able to watch better, as she had done so often at Meduseld in the times of the Worm.

Suddenly the Haradrim woman spoke up, her mien and voice clearly indicating at the insult she uttered. Frowning Elfhelm crossed his arms in front of his chest, when suddenly the Steward intervened. He did not raise his voice and his face did not show any trace of anger, but the woman stopped mid-sentence, swallowing hard.

Elfhelm spat on the ground. "And I was foolish enough to believe they were on our side as we freed them."

"Side?" the woman sneered. "When dog come eat bone, bone not take side."

The marshal's face darkened. "Woman, you and the others were friendly enough when my men took over the camp and kicked the scavengers out that were harassing you."

The Haradrim shrugged and again said something in her own language.

"Shut it, Irodebasa, or talk Westron," Elfhelm barked. "You know enough of it, and if you feel you must insult me, I at least want to know what you are saying."

With a lopsided grin, the Steward turned towards him. "Well, I suppose your men might take her last remark for a compliment. At least Gondorean soldiers would." Seeing the marshal's enquiring frown, he explicated: "If you don't want the hyenas to get you, sleep with the lion."

There was an audible snort of suppressed laughter from the group of Riders that guarded the woman, but Elfhelm did not share their mirth. "That Xurbo was a haggard wreck of a man, a eunuch, as you put it, and they killed him in an abominable way. I want to know why."

The Haradrim shook her head, but when the Steward asked her again in that strange language, she willingly answered, sometimes interrupted by the Steward, until in the end he released her with a nod, turning to Elfhelm. "If I understood correctly she claims to be of a tribe that is at enmity with the prince that led their contingent. She and some others were taken as hostages or made slaves... I'm not sure exactly what she wanted to convey. Anyway, you were right to assume that the people you found in the camp were slaves and that that was the reason the males were castrated. As for the boys, she says they were kept to be sacrificed."

"What?" The marshal glared at the woman.

With a stony face she nodded. "Irodebasa from river-tribe. Boys from river-tribe. Xurbo take boys, cut out heart for Terpo. Today night, moon right. Xurbo kill boy."

Thoughtfully, Elfhelm scratched his beard. "That would explain why the boys were kept in a kind of cage... But who is that..."

"Terpo?" the Steward suggested. "It means "dark" or "black" in their language. From what she says I guess it's their name for Sauron. She states that on specific nights the sorcerer would sacrifice one of the children to the Dark One, by cutting the still beating heart out of the child's body."

"But I told you: We took away all their knives. Even the cooking was done under strict watch." Elfhelm was visibly at a loss.

The Steward grimaced. "You were looking for metal, and for something that looks like a knife. She says that the knife for the sacrifice consists of four pieces that fit together and is made of dark green obsidian. She assumes the sorcerer managed to hide the pieces somewhere and perhaps you even saw one or two of them but they did not arouse your suspicion. Anyway, one of the women spied him assembling them, chanting in a language she could not understand. She reported to Irodebasa, and to prevent further killings they decided to get rid of the sorcerer. She says to prevent his soul from taking revenge on the people who killed him, they had to make him die slowly, to weaken his magic energy. They skinned him, believing his soul would somehow evaporate and not be able to build up into any powerful form again."

The marshal grimaced with disgust. "What a mess. I cannot deny that the pieces seem to fit together. Yet we have nothing but her word on all this. I still have my doubts concerning this Xurbo, even if we find that knife somewhere."

"She says that you could have recognised the difference of their brands, had you properly looked."

Elfhelm frowned doubtfully. "And what about him being gelded?"

The Steward shrugged. "She said their people believe that only women have magic as the earth is a woman. No entire man can become a priest of their goddess."

"Béma's horn!" Not only Elfhelm stared with shock. "You mean in order to become a priest a man has to submit to gelding?"

With a strange expression the Steward shook his head. "No, not submit to it. He has to do it himself to prove his dedication."

Éowyn found it hard not to grin at the marshal's thunderstruck countenance. But then Elfhelm shook his head. "You have told me what she is saying, but is there any proof that it is true? Nobody of the others can speak Westron, at least that is what they say, and even if I spoke their language they could have made up a story to pin the blame on Xurbo."

"If you think I might be of any help, I am willing to come to the camp to interrogate the others."

Slowly the marshal nodded. "It would certainly be worth a try." He gave the Steward a critical look. "What about your injury? Do you think you are able to ride?"

The Steward shrugged with a wry grin. "I might need a hand to mount, but once in the saddle I'm sure I'll stay there."

"Then, my lord, I would beg you to come down to the camp and help us with the investigations." Once the line of action seemed clear, Elfhelm was back to his usual confident self. The Steward nodded, and then turned to Éowyn.

"My lady, do you wish to accompany us?"

Neither his voice nor his face gave away anything, but looking into his eyes, she realised he did not want her to come. For a split second Éowyn felt tempted to answer in the affirmative, but she immediately suppressed the childish notion. He might have a preconception, but yet he gave her a choice, obliging her to act sensibly. She shook her head. "No, my lord. Elfhelm is a marshal of the Mark, appointed by the king, and I see no reason to interfere with his office."

The ghost of an appreciative smile flicked over his face and he bowed to her, his hand on his chest in the manner of Gondor, before he started to walk toward the gate, side by side with Elfhelm. But after a few steps he stopped and came back. "Lady Éowyn, Beregond will soon come with breakfast. Tell him where I am, and please, do me and him the honour and have at least something."

She snorted. "You are worse than Frithuswith."


"The housekeeper of Meduseld, Théodred's former wet-nurse."

"I see," he grinned, "the dragon of Meduseld. Boromir told me about her. Well, my lady, if it makes you eat, I will most contentedly suffer to be compared to that remarkable woman." Still grinning, he turned and walked to where Elfhelm and the Riders waited for him at some distance. Her gaze followed him. They may have searched his council as a scholar, but his bearing was doubtless that of a warrior. Only if one knew what to look for, one would notice the slight relieving posture of his injured side, but he strode with confident ease and the purposefulness of a battle-hardened captain. He certainly would make a last stand worth a song, going down in splendour and glory. And while she stood proud in the early morning sun, watching him leave, to her utter surprise a thought stirred in her mind, feeble, like the wing beat of a moth, and yet causing her to hold her breath. What a pity that such a man was not meant to live.

When Éowyn entered her room, after a breakfast that she found rather pointless without the Steward sharing it, Ioreth was waiting for her in the company of a man she introduced as Randir, the Citadel's shoemaker.

"Prince Imrahil's housekeeper bid me to make these for you. I hope they are to your liking." With that the shoemaker dug into his voluminous canvas bag and pulled out a small wrapped bundle. With a proud smile he folded back the wrappings and presented a pair of finely made slippers to her.

The polished leather gleamed in a brown-golden hue, and when she touched it, it felt as soft as glove leather.

Before she could say anything, Ioreth clapped her hands and exclaimed: "How beautiful! And most certainly fit for a lady. Nothing like those straw-soled canvas shoes. Try them on, my lady, and let's see if they fit."

The shoemaker cleared his throat emphatically. "My good mistress healer, if I make a pair of shoes for a person I have the last for, as I did have with mistress Hwinril having measured the lady's foot, said shoes will fit."

With a haughty look at the shoemaker, Ioreth took the slippers out of his hands and crouched in front of Éowyn. "We'll see ourselves what to think of your skills, Master Randir."

Looking at the shoemaker over the old healer's head, Éowyn grinned reassuringly at the man, and then stepped into the shoes. They fitted to perfection. Experimentally Éowyn paced up and down her small room, only to have her first impression confirmed. Smiling, she turned to the shoemaker. "Master Randir, these shoes certainly vouch for your masterly skills in your profession, and I'm very content to have some footwear I can slip on without the help of anybody."

The shoemaker blushed a little. "Ah well, my lady, as for putting on shoes without help... I was bid to make something else, and I assure you I worked everything the way the Lord Faramir told me to, but..."

"The Lord Faramir?"

The man nodded. "Yes, my lady. He ordered me to make a kind of shoe you could easily slip on and fasten with one hand. I tried my best, to be sure, but I am not sure if this is really fit for a lady." Again he rummaged in the canvas bag and then produced a pair of low boots made of sturdy dark brown leather. Instep and ankle sported broad straps with buckles, large enough to clasp and unclasp even one-handedly without twiddling. She reached for one of the boots and found the inside astonishingly soft to the touch in comparison with the outer shoe. Following her movements with his eyes, the shoemaker nodded. "The inner shoe in made of chamois, but I would advise you to nevertheless wear some stockings at least for the time you are breaking them in." He shrugged sheepishly. "I would have made the entire shoe like that, but the Steward demanded something sturdy that would protect your foot, give you a safe footing and at the same time allow you to run and jump. So I combined the double stitched boots we equip the Rangers with and a lady's shoe and added the demanded buckles."

Wordlessly Éowyn changed the slippers for the boots. Buckling was a bit more tricky than she had imagined, but within a short time she had managed to adjust the straps. Again she paced the room, relishing the way the boots added weight to her steps. Legs slightly apart she dropped into the sword fighter's stance, tried a sidestep, turned on the heel, rose to the tip of her toes... The boots held her feet firmly and yet did not constrain them, the sole did not slip on the floor tiles. Fighter's boots, fit for a lady! The delighted grin nearly split her face. "You have outdone yourself, Master Randir. These boots are splendid and exactly what I need."

The shoemaker sighed with relief. "The Lord Faramir told me so when I showed them to him last night, but I have to admit I wasn't convinced. I'm happy you like them and hope they may be of good service." He bowed, his hand on his chest, and left the room, followed by a rather doubtful looking Ioreth.

Once she was alone, Éowyn balanced on the balls of her feet, swivelled round and reached for the hidden dagger. It worked! She could grab it without any problem. Slashing an imagined foe, she ducked and swivelled round and counter-attacked until there was a knock at the door.

"Come in," she called, sitting down on the edge of the bed.

"Good morning, Lady Éowyn... Oh!" Staring at the dagger in her hand, Merry stopped talking mid-sentence.

Chuckling, she sheathed the weapon and pulled the cloth that held her broken arm over the handle. "I was just exercising a bit."

"I see. I suppose I should use that iron bar the Lord Faramir had made for me more often, but I have taken up running errands for the Riders in the city, where horses are of little use and I have not had much spare time lately."

Éowyn grinned. "No, certainly not. But I dare say the lifting of full tankards is an exercise as good as any."

The hobbit shrugged, not looking the slightest embarrassed. "Oh, well. The Riders certainly enjoy the occasional mug. I don't understand why the healers are making such a fuss about it."

With a reproving look, Éowyn shook her head. "They are right to make a fuss, Merry. Some plants they use for the treatment can become dangerous together with alcohol."

The hobbit nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, I see... Like the inky cap. It's a real shame that you can't enjoy a nice mug of ale with that mushroom. Or a cup of the light white wine they have here in the city. Very nice stuff." He smacked his lips and raised the linen bundle he was holding in his hand. "And that would also go very nicely with this." With a triumphant grin he opened the bundle. "I asked them for something more savoury, and what they came up with today is a real spicy treat. Have a try."

The cloth held about a dozen stick-shaped pasties, a little smaller than a finger. Taking one, she bit off a morsel, unsure, what to expect. The pasty looked a bit dry, but it was crunchy and it certainly was savoury! She tasted salt and garlic, oregano and thyme, but there were other spices she did not know. With an approving nod, she popped the rest of it into her mouth and chewed contentedly. Certainly a cup of ale or light wine would not go amiss with it. "Not bad for a change. Just leave the bundle on the bedside table. I just had breakfast and am still quite full."

The hobbit complied with her request and then addressed her hesitantly. "Excuse me, Lady Éowyn, but is it true that Marshal Elfhelm came to speak to the Lord Faramir this morning because there was...well, a murder amongst the Haradrim prisoners?" He blushed, beholding her stern gaze. "They said so in the fourth circle when I brought down the medicine for the Riders there."

Éowyn frowned. "They?"

"Well, Ceadda did, when he came up to visit his nephew. He comes every day, you see, and always brings the latest news."

"News? Gossip you mean." Bigmouthed Ceadda, who else? Putting on an unconcerned expression, she shrugged. "Someone was killed by the prisoners who accuse him of having been a sorcerer, and the Steward went down to assist the marshal to find out the true reasons and circumstances. It looks like the murdered...person was a member of the leading ranks and tried to hide among the kitchen slaves who took the opportunity to avenge themselves for former bad treatment." Seeing Merry's inquiring face, she shook her head. "I don't know anything for sure, Merry, and I prefer to wait for confirmed tidings, not rumours."

Seeing him fall into an awkward silence, she tried to ease the situation. "I had planned to visit the lightly injured in the city houses. I suppose you know where they are."

He eagerly nodded. "They are in several mansions in the fourth and in the fifth circle, my lady, and I have been to most of them." He eyed her thoughtfully. "Perhaps you had better restrict yourself to one circle, to make things not too exhausting. It..."

"Enough!" His shocked expression at her exclamation nearly made her laugh. "You lead the way, and I'll tell you if things are too exhausting or not." Lifting the hem of her dress slightly, she showed him her feet. "I have some boots to break in, Master Holbytla."

Soon they were walking down the paved street to the fourth circle, the inevitable guards in tow. Though the street was not narrow, Éowyn felt closed in with the walls of the tall houses raising in stand-offish white on both sides. Now and then small lanes branched off, and they passed impressive gates made of wood and wrought iron, some of them thrown open and allowing a glance into likewise paved yards. Few windows looked towards the street, and those few were on the upper floors and hidden behind small balconies and painted wooden shutters, gates and shutters being the only trace of wood in this city of stone.

When they turned into one of the small lanes that led to the first house Éowyn intended to visit, a group of Riders were coming their way with bundles of clothing under their arms. They greeted Éowyn respectfully.

"They are going to the baths," Merry said, and Éowyn noticed the trace of wistfulness in the hobbit's voice.

"Would you like to go?"

Merry shrugged. "I'm not sure. Perhaps I had better go tomorrow."

Tomorrow! She hardly managed to control her urge to snarl. What if there was no tomorrow? What if that dead Southron really had been a sorcerer, a servant of the Dark Lord, able to sense the time of his evil master's victory? Willing her voice to sound casual, she said: "If I were you, Merry, I would go with some Riders you know. It might be more fun in company."

He mumbled something unintelligible under his breath, but as they reached the gate of the mansion that moment, Éowyn did not enquire further. The yard they entered was paved, as Éowyn had expected, but in its centre stood a magnificent old linden tree, its cropped branches still naked, but already sporting thick buds, ready to burst. Around the massive trunk a wooden bench had been erected, and there a group of injured Riders was sitting, enjoying the sun. To the right the doors to what seemed to be a stable stood open, and two men were carrying water in leather buckets to it, adding to the picture of peaceful daily life. Right across the gate a broad three-stepped stone stair led up into the main building, and Éowyn spotted Ceadda there, assisting his nephew to limp down the stairs. He then led Leofstan across the yard to the bench with surprising gentleness and patience.

Only when he turned around did he spot the visitors, and a broad grin nearly split his face. "Ah, welcome, Éowyn Cynesweoster. Do you want to honour us with your visit or have you heard that it's our turn in the baths and you want to keep us company?"

Typical of Ceadda! She found it hard not to roll her eyes. Ignoring his jibe, she asked: "Your turn?"

Ceadda nodded. "The Captains have made an arrangement for the baths, and today those Riders stationed inside Mundburg get a turn. I went the day before yesterday, and there surely is no better way to get off the grime. Best part of this whole damned hovel of stone, if you ask me."

Éowyn smiled. So Éomer had really enforced his idea of letting the Eorlingas visit the baths, and obviously the men enjoyed it as much as their king had. Laying a hand on Merry's shoulder, she grinned at the herder. "Well, Ceadda Swíthesprecol, I do not wish to accompany you, but Théoden King's squire here would certainly like to go. Find me some men who are reliable and speak at least some Westron to take him to the baths and care for his well-being."

With a grin and a nod, Ceadda turned towards the house and whistled sharply on two fingers. Immediately the sound of running feet could be heard, and in no time a number of warriors assembled in the yard, weapons in hand.

Totally unfazed, Ceadda shoved his hands into his belt. "Woah! Keep your hair on, boys. The lady is looking for some decent lads who know the Common speech to take Holdwine here to the baths."

Swiftly four men volunteered to be Merry's "guard of honour", as Ceadda put it, and after Éowyn had assured him that there were enough men to show her the way to the other mansions that housed injured Riders, the hobbit took his leave, accompanied by three men, while the fourth set off to get clean clothes for him from the Houses of Healing.

Éowyn's gaze followed Merry, as he went towards the gate, chatting happily with the Riders at his side. How small he was and yet how great at heart. He certainly would enjoy the baths, and the company and some fun would do him good, though she had no doubt he would prefer to share this experience with his hobbit friend. A friend who was out somewhere with the host, about to reach their destiny, the Black Gate, making themselves a bait for the Enemy. Was Éomer still alive? Sharper than ever she felt the regret at not being able to be with them, to face forwardmost what was inevitable. Gritting her teeth, she pulled herself together and turned towards the house. The men here had fought valiantly and deserved better than a moody face. Forcing herself to smile, she winked at Ceadda. "Well, you master of gossip, now put your knowledge to use and show me around so I may visit and honour the Riders of the Mark."


tintorell: (Daphne mezerum) the entire shrub is poisonous and was in parts of Germany used as a protection against witches.

Woad (Isatis tinctoria) A plant used to produce blue and blue-green dyes before indigo became common.

Madder (Rubia tinctorum) A plant used to produce reddish hues.

inky cap : there are different species of the Coprinus family; all are tender and tasty mushrooms but should be eaten with care as they (especially Coprinus atramentarious) cause symptoms of poisoning when combined with alcohol.

Swíthesprecol: (Rohirric/Old English) bragger

Xurbo, Irodebasa, Terpo: To create unique names for the people from Far-Harad, I used Portuguese, spelled the words backwards and then put the last letter in front, using the expressions for "sorcerer", "wise woman" and "black".

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