Through Shadows

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Hornbeam

Then Aragorn laid his hand on Merry's head, and passing his hand gently through the brown curls, he touched his eyelids and called him by name. And when the fragrance of athelas stole through the room, like the scent of orchards, and of heather in the sunshine full of bees, suddenly Merry awoke, and he said: "I'm hungry. What is the time?"

quoted from The The Houses of Healing; The Return of the King; Book Five by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Minas Tirith, 17th March, 3019, Third Age

The hours of the afternoon crawled by like an old grey spider, leaving sticky threads of loneliness and boredom in its wake. Éowyn paced the room, slowly, her steps unsteady, but no longer feeling queasy. Lunchtime had passed, and as foretold, her breakfast having disappeared, there had been but little urging on the healer's side to eat.

She smirked to herself, remembering the days of her childhood back at Aldburg, when Éomer used to save his little sister from the terror of black pudding, a dish she still abhorred to the day, gobbling down large spoonfuls of her helping every time their mother or the housekeeper were not looking their direction. It had not mattered that she had had to share her serving of stewed fruit with him as payment, at least not much, unless he had tucked in too greedily into the sweet syrup they both liked greatly.

She jerked to a halt. How daft had she been not to get it at once! That pest of a brother! Yet she could not help the wave of warmth that swept through her. Her big brother Éomer, accomplished warrior, King of the Mark, playing the picky eater to entice her into eating at least part of her food. She swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat. Just let him come back and she would box him around the ears for it nevertheless! She held her breath, realising what she had thought. Oh Béma, just let him come back!

Trying to compose herself, she went over to the window. The sky was of a cool pale blue, a spring sky still, not the flashing blue of summer, blazing like a banner of joy over the plains. Stepping onto the low footstool that was needed to reach the quite high placed window handle, she looked out, resting her hand on the windowsill. Stones… Nothing but whitish blocks and flags, pale like the bones of some long dead giant. Not a single blade of grass was to be seen between the flagstones, no moss or stone-crop on the wall that enclosed the small space, confining her gaze to the lifeless display of order and tidiness. What would she give for even a nettle to interrupt that stony desert! White stone, perhaps beautiful to the admiring eye from afar, shimmering in the sunlight, but she longed for the green of the rolling plains… A green of countless different shades, that now in spring would soon be dotted with a myriad of flowers of different colours and shape, a carpet of life bidding welcome to the new foals to be born.

A wry smile flitted across her face. Perhaps the Worm had not at all been far off the mark to call the house of Eorl a barn. Kings they might be, but farmers and herdsmen they still were in their heart and soul. That was the inextricable bond that connected them to the land, assuring their life and well-being. To that land, that at the same time demanded their blood and sweat to keep it alive and protect it: The everlasting circle that held all beings.

What did these stone-enclosed Gondoreans know about that? About the mighty breath of the gods, sweeping over the open spaces, their laughter thunder in the high vales of the mountains? She shook her head. If she was to step back into life again she had to get out of this confinement as soon as possible.

"Lady Éowyn?" A curly head poked through the slightly opened door… The Halfling.

She turned, smiling at his eager face. "Come in, Meriadoc Holdwine."

Stepping down from the stool, she motioned to the chair, still standing at her bedside as Éomer had left it. "Sit down, King's Squire."

Blushing profoundly, the hobbit clambered into the chair, awkwardly clutching a bundle of fine white cloth and finally placing it carefully on his lap.

She sat down on the edge of the bed, tilting her head. "So you are out and about, Master Holbytla?"

"Well, it's just my right hand that feels pretty numb, but otherwise I'm alright, I think."

"I'm pleased to hear that." She smiled at him encouragingly. He was fidgeting, obviously feeling uneasy, and she patiently waited for whatever it was he found so difficult to tell.

Finally he plucked at the bundle and said: "Well, you see, I got a present. Seems there are some noble minds out there who know a bit about hobbits and their appetites, and…well, as Pippin is not here at the moment, cause he has gone with Gandalf to get prepared for tomorrow..."

"Your friend will be joining the host?" Éowyn did not even try to hide her surprise.

The hobbit nodded. "Yes, he'll be for the Shire. I would like to go with him, but I think I wouldn't be of any use, I can't even hold a spoon with my right hand, let alone a sword." He grinned sheepishly. "Not that I believe a hobbit would be useful in a battle anyway, but who knows? Sometimes fate might have quite a surprise up its sleeve." Looking at her with much more confidence now, he continued. "See, I got some...dainties, and as Pip is not around, I thought to share with you, as eating alone is no real fun."

So that was how the land lay! The second one trying to lure her into eating with some tall story. Eyeing the cloth carefully, she noticed the fine linen, bleached to pristine white, and was there not a small embroidery in one corner? Could it be a swan?… A ship?… Something in between. And then she knew: The swanship of Dol Amroth! The emblem of the Prince.

Carefully the hobbit opened the bundle, revealing a selection of little cakes and sweetmeats. Her eye was immediately caught by the nut cakes, and she shook her head. Just how stupid did that bother of hers think her to be? Oh, but two could play that game!

"Well, Master Holbytla, I see that you are well provided for and it certainly is a delicious gift, but what if I tell you I got just the same, and have already eaten it, so I won't be able to get down anything more?"

"But that can't be!" He blushed furiously, realising he had given himself away and hastily tried to repair his blunder. "I mean, food is not a present for a lady. They would give you some flowers or trinkets or…I don't know." Cringing under her stern gaze, he fell silent.

Leaning towards him, she picked up one of the nut cakes, turning it between her fingers. Nut cakes... The warmth of the big kitchen at Meduseld, the smell of browned butter, the sweet taste of honey and nuts… She had been a little girl of eight on her first night at Edoras after her mother's death, sitting on Frithuswith's lap, crying silently into the woman's apron, while Frithuswith had been crooning softly to her. Dear Frithuswith, Uncle Théoden's housekeeper, who had as well been Théodred's wet nurse, when his own mother had died in childbed. Dear Frithuswith and her wonderful nut cakes, her and Éomer's childhood delight at Edoras. How often had she greedily pinched some cakes of her brother's portion, causing him to holler and threaten he would cut her braids if he ever caught her at it. She looked up, her former sternness replaced by a sad smile. "Meriadoc, what did my brother bribe or threaten you with, to make you try and convince me to eat?"

"Nothing, my lady." Once he was sure he was found out, the hobbit seemed utterly relieved. "He came to me just before lunch and told me that he would instruct Prince Imrahil's housekeeper to deliver some cakes for you daily, and that it was my task to make you eat at least some. Well, perhaps telling me I could keep the rest was a kind of bribing?" He eyed her thoughtfully. "He is worried about you, my lady, and I think he needs the assurance that somebody cares for you." Shrugging, he pointed at the cake in her hand. "It seemed just perfect to the two of us. I mean, what gift would be more fitting for a hobbit than food? So he thought of something he knew you liked to eat: nut cakes. And here we are with a bundle of sweetmeats. Mushrooms and fried bacon would be more to my taste, but Pip…" He stopped, blushing again. "Well, my lady, there was so much that I thought it would not matter as no way you could eat all of them, isn't it? And Pippin is going to leave tomorrow and who knows..." He swallowed. "I just thought to give him a nice treat, you know, him being my younger cousin."

She looked at his hands that were nervously fumbling with one corner of the cloth. Small hands, like a child's and yet calloused, nicked, a warrior's hands, the hands that accomplished the Witchking's downfall. "Food seems to be very important for halflings," she finally said in an attempt to help him out of his embarrassment.

He eagerly nodded. "Yes, it certainly is. As a matter of fact my people do little more that produce food and eat it. They may call themselves the Masters of Buckland, but there is not much difference from the common hobbit, except perhaps, that they have a bit more food to eat. We are farmers and gardeners, and we do love the soil we live on."

She smiled: "As for that, it is a good way of living, Master Meriadoc. The Rohirrim may be warriors, but in their heart of hearts they are farmers, and they too love the land they toil."

"Yes, but you are warriors all the same. We do not know of anything more dangerous than some hailstorm on our tomatoes." He frowned. "Mind you, for decades our borders have been protected by Strider's… I mean the Lord Aragorn's people, like by a living fence, and instead of thanking them we are suspicious, because they look grim and dour. Your people have fended off the wolf themselves for centuries... Now, that surely forms the character of a people."

She shrugged. "May be, but look what your friends and you have mastered. There must be some kind of endurance in your race, like in the wood of the hornbeam."

"Yes, perhaps you are right. I think we have lived a good life of plenty for so long that we take it for granted, but come dire straits even the fattest and wimpiest hobbit can cope with quite a lot. But as long as there is meat and beer, we will enjoy it." He gave a little chuckle. "And we are mad about mushrooms."

She looked at the small square of cool blue sky. "It's the wrong time for mushrooms, I'm afraid. There are but few ones that grow in spring, and even for them it is still early in the year. But who knows? Perhaps this far south they already sprout. Morels, I mean."

"Morels!" He rolled his eyes with delight. "They are splendid. We have them in April in the Shire. But there are others as well in spring. May-mushrooms are lovely too, though not as delicious as morels. Don't you have them in the Mark?"

"Not in the plains but where there are rowan trees and wild roses or sloes." She could not but smile at his enthusiasm. "Well, and there also grows one we call the sloe-mushroom, a smallish pink gilled one that is very tasty, though it does not look very convincing."

"Pink gilled? Sounds a bit like the deadly fibrecap," the hobbit said doubtfully.

Éowyn grinned. "Yes, that's right, they really look somewhat alike. But if you eat the wrong one, you will notice the difference quite fast."

"I don't doubt that." The hobbit shuddered. "No, I'd rather stick to the ones I know and am sure about."

"Not a bad idea if you esteem your life," she agreed.

"Well, I certainly do. But then: I have done so many things lately that are not really bound to lengthen my life..."

"Like stabbing Witchkings," she added drily.

He pulled a face. "I'm perfectly happy there was but one." Clenching his right hand, he looked doubtfully at her. "The numbness in my hand really gives me the creeps. As if he is still there inside me, killing my feelings. It keeps me remembering the fear."

Éowyn frowned. She too felt annoyed by that numbness, left from the contact with the Nazgul, but it did not affect her like that. How come the Halfling, that courageous lad full of life, was so shaken by it? She preferred to look at it pragmatically. "You have to train the hand to get rid of the numbness."

"I suppose you are right." He gave her a sheepish look. "It is just, that I saw my sword break into smithereens, and it reminded me so much of that knife that went up in smoke when the Nazgul stabbed Frodo, and ..." He stopped, his mouth hanging open. "Oh my, forgive me, Lady Éowyn, but I should not ..." Blushing with embarrassment, he did not know where to look.

"Never you worry, Master Holdwine." She reached out to him, only to realise, that she was still holding the nut cake between her fingers. "My brother told me about the Lords' plans, and even he, the King of the Mark, is not fully aware of every detail of Greyhame's plans. You don't have to tell me."

"He's my kinsman, and he's the one..."

She nodded. "I understand. Let us not talk about it, lest it troubles your heart overmuch."

But the hobbit shook his head. "No, it's not like that. I know that everything that can be done to help him and Sam is done. It is just that it was so terrible to see him change, drift into the other-world, after he had been stabbed." Haltingly Meriadoc described their journey from Weathertop to Rivendel, Frodo's suffering and the terrible cold and numbness in his hand. "You see, I know there is no such splinter anywhere inside me, but I nevertheless feel the presence of ..." He did not finish his sentence, fumbling nervously with the bundle in his lap. "And then Pippin looked into that cursed stone, that Palantir, and the Enemy got hold of him. Mind you, he was not there, but Pippin felt him, felt his gaze."

The hobbit swallowed. "And yesterday Pippin told me about the Lord Denethor. How he too had looked into such a stone repeatedly and had been deceived by the Enemy, driven into despair and finally into madness. And how in the end he burnt himself on a pyre because he saw no hope any more, thus forsaking his people who were still giving battle, just as the horns of the Mark sounded at the break of day. And he tried to kill his son, too." He shuddered. "Tried to burn him alive, as he lay unconscious from an arrow wound and the Black Breath." Raising his eyes to meet hers, Meriadoc shrugged helplessly. "They say he had been a competent steward, stern and proud, always putting Gondor's needs first, and to think how the Enemy's influence changed him..."

She felt the bitterness of bile on her tongue. Denethor was by no means the only one who had changed beyond recognition under the manipulation of Sauron and his minions. Saruman, the Worm, they all had been nothing but the Dark Lord's tools, and how thoroughly had these lesser culprits managed to bring Théoden low, till the House of Eorl had been stripped of all its valour and pride, the king of the Riddermark being nothing but a puppet in the hands of the wizard of Isengard. And had not she herself felt the cold grip of uncertainty and despair?

"I know what you mean, Meriadoc." Her voice was hoarse, her lips set in a hard, bitter line. "I too forsook my people, leaving them behind at Dunharrow where duty had put me. A duty I was no longer willing to fulfil."

"No, my lady." The hobbit shook his head. "You did not leave them while they were under attack and in need of your leadership. True, you had taken an oath, but I had done so as well, and did we not fulfil that oath, staying true to king and people though we disobeyed the king's orders?" He stopped and looked at her doubtfully. "Though in this case I'm afraid I am to blame even more than you, because I was directly ordered to stay behind. But anyway, as the times are exceptional, the measures people have to take are the same. Take Beregond of the Guard: He is a sworn soldier of Gondor, but had he stayed at his post, as had been his order, Denethor would have burnt his son Faramir. Only because Beregond followed his heart and did not attend to his duty, was he able to save the captain he loved and admired, and thus the plans of the Enemy were thwarted."

Only because he followed his heart … Had she really followed her heart, when she had decided to ride to Mundburg with the Éoreds? Had she not sought glory and death in battle due to hurt pride and stubbornness, even in despair? True, when she had made her stand against that foul beast and its rider, the King of the Nazgul, it had been out of love for Théoden, her uncle and foster father, who even in his spell-induced dotage had loved and cherished her as his daughter. In an attempt to repress the gruelling thoughts, she turned to the hobbit. "And where is that Beregond now, the one who put love before duty? Don't you tell me they left him in the Guard."

Meriadoc blushed profoundly. "Well, no. He was withdrawn from the Guard, but he serves the Lord Faramir now who is treated here at the Houses of Healing." His quite large hairy feet were dangling in the air, his legs being too short to reach the ground, but besides his shortness there was nothing that reminded Éowyn of a child. His proportions were that of a young man, just on a different scale, and his face, though open and apt to grin, still showed the traces of last week's exertions: a general weariness, and besides that a split lower lip and some scratches along his left cheek, where his vizor might have chaffed the skin. There were distinct shadows below his eyes, and it was only now that she noticed the scar on his forehead. An odd brown colour, but obviously not an old scar.

No, Meriadoc Holdwine, Squire of the King, was by no means a child, though his beardless face confused her greatly. The only other man without a beard she had ever seen had been Boromir, Denethor's eldest son, years back, when she had been but a little child at Aldburg and he a proud young Gondorean noble on his way to Edoras. She must have stared agape at him, because she remembered Éomer having slapped her under her chin to make her shut her mouth. A beardless man… That had been something as likely as a flying horse! It had been the gossip and the giggle of the maids for days, and she had listened without understanding all of it: That he shaved, even had a man-servant who shaved the hair off his face every morning. How could a grown man do such a thing? It had been the only time though she had seen him shaved, as on his later visits he had always stopped shaving as soon as leaving Minas Tirith, and when he had arrived at Edoras he had sported a generous amount of black stubble, much to the approval of the Rohirrim. When he had left after the usual sennight's stay, his beard had been quite impressive: short but shining black, shimmering in the sun like the raven's plumage. Théodred had told her Boromir would take it off, once he had crossed the Mehring Stream, as it was custom to shave in Gondor, and to her question - why the Gondorean warrior did not shave while in the Mark - he had only smiled fondly and said that it was Boromir's way to show that he esteemed the ways of the Mark.

"Lady Éowyn?"

The halfling's voice startled her out of her reverie. "I'm sorry, Master Meriadoc, I was just thinking of the other one of Denethor's sons, the one I knew: Boromir."

A pained expression flitted over his face. "He certainly was a good man, a great warrior." The hobbit swallowed hard, before he continued, his voice hoarse with grief. "He died defending me and my cousin Peregrin at Nen Hithoel, when Saruman's Uruks captured us." He touched the scar on his forehead. "That's where I got this decoration."

How much had this little person been through? Truly tough as hornbeam! There was more of a warrior in him than he would acknowledge. "Tell me about it, Holdwine, will you?"

He nodded, and with an even voice, pragmatic and serious, he told her about the fight, their captivity, how the Uruks had dragged them across the plains towards Isengard and how he and Pippin had finally escaped when Éomer's Éored had attacked the orcs in the morning. With her sense of observance, sharpened in the years of Wormtongue's machinations, she noticed that though his tale was scary, his attitude became more relaxed as he proceeded, and when he finally finished, she inquired after his hand.

Surprised he looked up. "Why, that's strange, but it feels better...warmer somehow."

Éowyn nodded. That was what she had expected. "Mind and body can't be separated, and as your mind feels at ease, it calms the troubles of your body. Share your troubles with a friend, to ease your pain, because that's what friends are for."

The surprise in the hobbit's face was replaced by a broad smile."Well, my lady, to that I agree with you wholeheartedly, but…if I may be so bold and call you a friend, then please, would you do as my friends and call me Merry?"

She laughed. "That certainly is a name that fits someone who went through all that peril and still knows to enjoy life."

"Well, my lady, let me take you at your word." His smile had become a grin, his eyes sparkling with mischief. "What you said about mind and body being connected: It works the other way round, too. And that's what we hobbits know and draw strength and courage from." He pointed to the cake in her hand. "See to your body's needs and your mind will calm down. And share with a friend to make it more enjoyable."

Smiling, she pointed to the other cakes. "Have one yourself then, Merry, and live up to your name." Slowly she started to eat the cake, morsel by morsel, and with each tiny bite the taste seemed richer, reviving the memory of her childhood at Edoras, those days in the loving care of Frithuswith, helping her to cope with the loss of her parents. Serving herself from the jug the healers had left, she found the water slightly spiced, adding a fresh fruity taste to it.

"Those cakes are really a treat. Your brother was right to send them", the hobbit stated between two mouthfuls.

"My brother is an oaf, king or no king." She popped the last bite into her mouth and drained the cup. How could it be that she felt so carefree?

Merry shrugged. "All siblings are, especially elder ones. My younger sisters used to pinch me for bossing them around, and they complained that I always got bigger portions than they did. And yet, if anyone of us was in trouble, we would stand up for each other."

There really did not seem to be much difference between hobbits and men, at least at a certain age. "We used to fight over nut cakes as children," Éowyn admitted, chuckling softly.

"Did you?" The halfling raised his eyebrows. "Must have been quite impressive."

"I assure you, my uncle's housekeeper was not in the least impressed", she told him dryly. "Do you want some water?" At his nod she filled the cup for him and for a while they sat in silence, until a knock at the door announced the healers with the evening meal, a bowl of some kind of vegetable soup accompanied by a slice of freshly baked bread. The woman serving it was the same that had done so in the morning, only this time she kept her lips clamped, while putting the tray down on the bedside table, though she could not refrain from shooting Éowyn a censorious side glance.

Éowyn suppressed a grin, wondering if the criticism was motivated by her not being abed or rather because she was sitting around in male company in a nightgown. Béma, the garment covered her from throat to toe, being that voluminous at the same time that she would have fitted twice into it, so what was the crone fussing about?

"Would you mind serving my meal here, instead of in my room?" Giving the old healer a friendly smile, Merry skilfully ignored her consternation, only to burst out giggling, as soon as she had left the room. "Blimey, Lady Éowyn, how did you manage to shut up Ioreth? Even Aragorn and Gandalf himself tried in vain."

"Don't give me credit for that. It was Éomer who succeeded." Seeing the hobbits enquiring look, Éowyn grinned lopsidedly: "He glared at her. They say his glare can well cause a troll to drop dead. The only one who is not at all impressed by it is his horse."

"I can well imagine." The hobbit sighed. "Mind you, she is not at all just a useless gossip, but a rather competent and very dedicated healer, but she really can make your ears bleed."

His soup was brought by a young male healer, a gangling lad with lank brown hair and a noticeable limp. Without ceremony he pulled the low stool close with one foot and beckoned Merry to put his feet on it. "Much more comfortable," he explained in a surprisingly low-pitched voice, when he set the tray on Merry's lap. Turning to Éowyn, he plumped up the pillow and placed it against the headboard of the bed. "Just scoot a bit further up in the bed, will you, my lady. It will be much more comfortable for eating." Patiently he waited, no fuss, no pleading, leaving her to decide and try. Despite his youth he reminded her of the old armourer at Edoras in his skilled but unobtrusive way. Old Wiglaf, who would provide competent advice, point out the fitting weapon, but always leave choice and decision to the warrior who was to trust his life to the weapon he had chosen.

So in the end they both sat with their bowls in front of them, and only now did she notice some strange whitish strings in her soup. Suspiciously she stirred the unknown food with her spoon, when a slurping sound drew her attention to Merry.

"Shorry," he mumbled, his mouth stuffed, "but it'sh delishioush. Noodlesh," he added, pointing with his spoon at the strange strings.

"Noodlsh?" Éowyn asked, not understanding why the hobbit nearly choked with laughter.

He swallowed, emptying his mouth, and explained. "I'm sorry, my lady. It's noodles. I already had some yesterday, and they taste really nice. A bit like boiled pancake dough."

Trying the soup gingerly, she too found it quite tasty, and for a short while they ate in silence. In the end she left nearly half of her portion, but Merry showed no constraint to make short work of it. "See, I have been on rather short rations lately, and anyway it would be a crying shame to let such good food go to waste. But as you said, Lady Éowyn, I'm the king's squire, and as that it will be my most noble task during the coming days to make you eat." He grinned. "Pippin has to give a report to your brother first thing tomorrow morning."

Her overbearing brother… Their foreheads touching, his eyes dark with concern. "Sister, please, fight to get wellagain... What will I be fighting for without you." She clenched her hand. She would fight, and be it only to regain the strength for a last stand… But at her own pace!

Eyeing the hobbit, she raised her eyebrows. "Well, King's Squire, what about giving the sweets to your cousin, eating my meals for me and telling that high-handed nuisance of an elder brother that I ate it all? Nut cakes and butter fudge are not really a fitting diet for someone who has eaten next to nothing for quite a while."

"I know, my lady." Merry smiled. "You see, I think it was rather meant to feed your soul, to strengthen it to mobilise your body. Your brother might be overprotective, deserving all the names you ever thought of calling him, but he loves you, and he needs you."

She swallowed. And what did she need? Did anybody care? Scolding her thoughts as mawkish, she squared her shoulders. She was of Eorl's House, she would not just sit and do her brother's bidding. Yet he needed all the support she could give him in what might well be his last battle, and who was she to diminish his valour.

"Then let your cousin tell him that I made a good attempt and will continue as I have started, to be strong enough to kick his shins when he comes back victorious."

Annotations:

hornbeam: a relatively small hardwood tree. It's wood is also known as iron-wood.

I invented names for the mushrooms, but the descriptions would fit for

Tricholoma georgii (May-mushroom), Maipilz in German,

Entoloma saepium (sloe mushroom) Ritterling in German and

Inocybe erubescecens (fibrecap) Risspilz in German.


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