Through Shadows

Chapter 23

Chapter 23

Smallwort

She did not answer, but as he looked at her it seemed to him that something in her softened, as though a bitter frost were yielding at the first faint presage of Spring.

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

Minas Tirith, 30th March 3019, Third Age

She woke, feeling rested and in a strange way cheerful, as if she had drunk a cup of potent wine. Wriggling out of her nightshirt, Éowyn stretched, enjoying the cool morning air on her naked body. What a joyful dream she had had! She remembered only a few absurd scenes of it, but there had been light and colours, grass and trees and a steady breeze, carrying the aromatic scent of pines. No wonder it had left her in such a good mood.

And no doubt the fact that she had occupied herself the day before, exercising her hand and visiting the injured, had exhausted her bodily at least enough to enable her to fall asleep quite soon after laying down. Only the evening walk had been a bit strange without the Steward's company. She shook her head at her own feelings. It was not even two sennights since she had met the man and already she missed his company. She was certainly getting pathetic. And yet she would have liked to ask him for further information when she had spotted the small groups of travellers heading for the city from the south. Her view hampered by the spur of rock that more or less divided the city into two halves, she had only been able to overlook a small part of the road before it came too close to the city walls for her to see it any more. Could it really be that already the first evacuated people were returning to the city? She would ask the Steward first thing when they met for breakfast.

She hurried to get dressed, and taking the cream-coloured shawl instead of the much warmer mantle, she then made up her mind to seek out the female healers in the Rohirric wards. It would not do to make it a habit to have the Steward of Gondor fasten her clothes every morning. She chuckled at the idea of putting that up on his agenda, but decided she had better not tell him.

She had not gone far along the corridor when she heard the fast approaching steps of someone wearing the straw-soled shoes that were seemingly common in Gondor, and then Anwen came around the corner, carrying a smallish basket on her arm. The girl's face looked tired, but she immediately realised that Éowyn was not on her way to the garden.

"Oh, good morning, my lady. Is there anything wrong? Do you need anything?"

Éowyn shook her head. "Good morning, Anwen. There is nothing wrong. I just wanted to ask you or any other of the women to fix the fastenings of my garments."

With a nod, Anwen put down the basket and started to tie the laces of Éowyn's kirtle. Unobtrusively Éowyn searched the girl's face but could not find any hint of sadness or disappointment. Perhaps Lhindir had not talked to her yet? But it would not do to ask her, so she had better keep her eyes peeled for further hints in the future.

Having finished her task, Anwen took up her basket again. "I'm on my way to the apothecary to fetch some tinctures and ointments so that when the healers commence the day shift they can start changing the bandages without delay. In an hour Tórdes will start work. Shall I tell her to come and do your hair, my lady?"

Éowyn shrugged. Most probably her hair looked sleep-tousled despite it being gathered up in a braid and that woman had certainly done a splendid job before, but to what purpose should she care for some elaborate hair-do? "Just send anyone, Anwen. No more than combing and braiding a simple plait is required."

The girl bobbed her affirmation and then hurried on, while Éowyn turned and took the corridor that led to the garden. The small oil lamps on the projections along the wall had already been doused, but the diffuse morning twilight floating in through the small windows provided enough light. Stepping out from under the ambulatory, she at once spotted the grey-clad figure coalescing out of the shadows of the large pine to her left. She hid her smile, remembering one of the fragments of her dream.

"Good morning, my Lady Éowyn." Smiling, the Steward approached her. A quick scrutinising glance revealed that he must have found the necessary rest, for the shadows under his eyes were much less striking than the day before. With an answering smile, she reached out her hand.

"Good morning, my Lord Faramir. Does your busy agenda allow you to accompany me for a short walk before breakfast?"

Kissing her hand, he responded in a similar tone. "I told my counsellors that the first hours of the day are yours to dispose of, my lady, and I assure you that not one of them would dare to gainsay a Shieldmaiden's wish."

They made for the main path, the Steward informing her about his visit to the Rohirric camp.

"So you already started to learn that secret language?"

He shook his head. "No. I first want to concentrate on learning what I would call the Common Speech of Harad properly." With a wry smile he shrugged. "It would not make any sense to know signs the meaning of which I cannot grasp because I do not know the expression in Haradric. And I suppose showing interest and devotion for learning a language or other aspects concerning a person's culture also is a way to show respect and thus to build bridges for a better understanding in the future. A fact Gondor might profit from one day."

She gave him a mocking side-glance. "That all is certainly true, my lord. But don't deny that you simply enjoy learning all those things, no matter if they are important for Gondor's future or not."

Smiling, he bent his head. "No, my lady, that I will not deny. I do find joy in the process of learning in general, in the ability to connect certain threads of information to build a wider understanding. But I also believe that it is a good thing if a man's occupation does not just revolve around itself without any further use." His smile deepening, he winked at her. "Does that not at least pacify your pragmatic Rohirric side?"

She laughed. "It was you who asked me if I thought that everything had to be practical to be beautiful, my Lord Faramir, and you know my answer."

Still smiling, he opened the small sling bag he was carrying over one shoulder and took out a book. "I'll go down for another lesson right after breakfast. I'm making good progress, though I have to admit I'm taking my notes in tengwar as I can write it much faster than the Haradric letters, but no doubt I have to get more practised in writing and reading them too."

He opened the book, showing her a list of words and phrases written in a surprisingly neat handwriting. Éowyn blushed slightly, thinking what he would say, if he saw her attempts to write. But then she preferred to use cirth anyway, and there certainly would be no need for her to ever write to him.

Aloud she said: "I have to admit that I have never been too fond of reading and writing. Uncle insisted on Éomer and me learning to read and write both, cirth and tengwar, but we have not been very eager students, much to our tutors' dismay."

"Do you know any languages besides Rohirric and Westron?"

She nodded. "Our mother had already started to teach us some Sindarin, and Uncle demanded that we continued our lessons. But I would not count on that if I were you. I was an even worse student than my brother as far as languages went, and that says a lot."

The Steward shrugged. "Being older, he had been longer under your mother's tutelage, who, being Morwen of Lossarnach's daughter, certainly had a special connection with that language. No doubt the wish to please his mother makes a child more willing to learn."

She did not know what to answer, feeling strangely touched by his words, and in an attempt to get out of the focus she asked: "And you, have you ever thought about learning the language of the Mark?"

He solemnly shook his head. "There had never been any political pressure for doing so as everyone from Rohan who Gondor had to consider spoke fluent Westron." A faint smile flitted over his face. "I still remember Boromir's surprise and even admiration when he told me that Théodred spoke Sindarin like a Númenórean."

Éowyn nodded. "It was very important to Théoden King that we were at least able to master the basics of his mother's language. Though I'm sure that there also was a political afterthought to it as my uncle took great pride in the idea of the heir of the House of Eorl to be not only learned in the traditions and history of the Mark but also in the ways of Gondor."

Until the shadow of the Worm fell over Meduseld. She would not mention that, nor dwell on the stupor, the slow decline that had seized the King, dragging the honour of the House of Eorl down with him as he had fallen into spell-caused dotage. Feeling embarrassed, she swallowed, averting her face.

"My brother told me once that Théodred would make a better diplomat than him. Though I have to admit that Boromir always saw diplomatic skill more like a necessary evil and preferred to solve problems using his sword." The Steward's voice was calm and she felt as if it was reaching out to her, offering help to overcome her embarrassment.

Still uncertain, she cleared her voice. "He certainly was a great captain."

They walked for a while in silence, until Faramir suddenly spoke again. "I think that learning Rohirric would be totally different from any other acquisition of a foreign language I have ever experienced."

Surprised, she looked up. "Any why?"

"Because of my motivation and aim. Learning it would not be an attempt to be able to negotiate with some ambassador of a more or less hostile realm but rather the wish to develop a deeper understanding for the culture, the motion of...of a people I highly admire and care for."

She gazed at him doubtfully. "I can certainly understand that learning a friend's or a foe's language is based on a different motivation, but how does that influence the process of learning?"

He stopped, hesitating for a moment as if to gather his thoughts. "Language is something that is alive, Éowyn, something that transports the culture of a people, the thoughts and emotions of the person who speaks it. And each language has its own rhythm and melody, allowing a listener who opens his mind and heart to it a glimpse into the speaker's soul."

She blinked, surprised at his eager seriousness, but before she could think of any sensible remark, he continued.

"If I was to learn Rohirric, Éowyn, I would not approach it with the mind of a scholar, but I would like to embrace it like a child who learns his first words under the loving care of his parents and thus embraces not only the words but also their deeper meaning."

How much he reminded her of Théodred! There was certainly more to it than only the colour and expression of his eyes. Had she perhaps sensed that the very moment she had met him for the first time and could that have upset her so profoundly? If only this intriguing Gondorean could become a confidant like Théodred had been! She frowned at her sudden notion and tried to push it away as a stupid idea, but it did not work. It was useless to fool herself: She felt lonely in this city of stone and she craved for an understanding mind, for a friend's company, for someone she could talk to, could share her thoughts and feelings, for someone to trust.

Weakness! An angry hiss, chilling like a draught of icy air, the word jumped up in her mind. She clenched her hand. She needed a clear mind. Had not he himself opened up his heart to her, had trusted her with his most secret thoughts and feelings? And did not one act of faith deserve another? Squaring her shoulders, she sought his gaze.

"Théodred told me something similar when I complained that I had to learn Sindarin, something I could see no use in whatsoever. He reminded me that his father not only had a Gondorean mother but also had been born in Gondor, and that therefore Sindarin meant much more to him than just a knowledge that might come in useful in politics. I am not sure if I really understood then what my cousin meant when he said that Théoden King had learned that language with his heart rather than with his brain and it would comfort him to see us honouring it."

The Steward did not say anything, just nodded understandingly, and she averted her eyes and fixed them on a patch of smallwort at the foot of the wall. She had never talked to Théoden about his childhood. A sudden pang of regret assaulted her. There was so much she had never asked him about, had never cared about. And now he was gone. And so was his son. Théodred, her guardian, her friend, the only man she had ever opened her soul to without any restraint. Théodred, who had taken the place of a father in her heart, a warrior, leader of warriors, highly esteemed by his men, her shining example on the training ground. And yet she had seen him care with all his heart and soul, seen him desperate with grief, suffering beyond measure. And he had overcome his despair, slowly, but stubbornly like a true son of Eorl, unwavering in his devotion and duty to the people of the Riddermark. He truly was a member of Eorl's House to be proud of. Clenching her teeth, she tried to fight back the tears, staring at the small golden flowers at her feet with unseeing eyes.

"Théodred was a worthy man, a man who deserves to have a special place in our hearts." The Steward's voice was soft, soothing and unobtrusive. "And he never hid that you held a very special one in his."

Surprised, she raised her head. "And how do you know?"

He smiled. "Boromir told me. Théodred often talked about you, once you and your brother had moved to Meduseld and he seemed to have seen himself as responsible for you. More like a father than a cousin."

She nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "And he talked about that to Boromir?"

"He certainly did. But I have to admit that you yourself made quite an impression on my brother."

Frowning, she shook her head. "I cannot imagine how, my lord, for I seldom talked to him at all."

The corners of his eyes crinkled as his faint smile turned into a broad grin. "Well, my lady, I did not say that he was impressed by what you said. But I most vividly remember a very amazed Boromir who told me that he had taken you some very sweet and innocent fragrance suggested to him as a fitting gift for a young girl by Lord Behor's wife, only to find you the morning after his arrival on the training grounds, knocking the stuffing out of a lad at least one head taller than you."

Éowyn could not help a responding grin. "I was thirteen then, and the perfume was lily of the valley. But I can't remember who I took apart that morning."

"Théodred laughed heartily at my brother's embarrassment, and from that year onwards Boromir always consulted him on his presents for you."

She nodded, still smiling fondly. "I remember Théodred asking me what I would like, or even making suggestions. He told me about those soaps that had blossoms of lavender in them. And that special one made with honey that had very fine sand in it and really took away any dirt but still left the skin smooth. Oh, and I remember the beautiful little eating knife Boromir gave me."

"One with a red coral for a handle?"

When she affirmed eagerly, he explained: "He got a number of those on one of his visits to Dol Amroth and was very fond of them. It certainly was an accolade that he gave one to you."

The Steward's face was grave again, but in his eyes the warmth of the smile still lingered. Remembering a loved one... How strange that they seemed so close talking about the ones they missed... She heaved a breath. "Théodred told me so. It was the year after the lily of the valley perfume. He said, he was surprised that Boromir had found a fitting present for me. They were all the time hoaxing each other."

He gently took her hand. "Then let it be our comfort that they enjoyed the time they had."

Swallowing, she nodded and then said: "You are a lot like him. Théodred I mean." She felt like biting her tongue the moment she had uttered the sentence and saw his eyes widen in surprise. Embarrassed, she tried to explain. "There are many similarities, my lord, though I have to admit that you look different." Apart from those eyes, warm and grey like the dusk of a summer's day, but she would not say that. Groping for words, she averted her gaze. "He... he was a great captain and warrior, and yet he had a deep love for lore and enjoyed learning, much like you. And he was a man who deeply cared for everyone, be they high or low. He was loved and honoured not only by his men but by all the people."

Only when she wanted to pass her hand over her moistening eyes did she notice that the Steward was still holding it. She hesitated, thinking about pulling it back, and yet it simply felt right. How often had Théodred held her hand as a child, just assuring her that he was there for her. After that accident when her pony had broken his leg and had to be put down... And she had not even realised how much work that man had had to deal with, how many responsibilities he had had. She felt a single tear roll down her face, but she made no attempt to brush it away, in a strange way reluctant to break the contact. She heaved another breath and then shook her head. "Théodred was a wonderful man and I deem myself blessed to have known him. He will always hold a special place in my heart."

The Steward gently squeezed her hand. "I shall take your words as an incentive to live up to his example." For a while neither of them spoke, until finally he let go of her hand, offering his arm instead. "Come, my lady, let us enjoy the view over to the river before breakfast. I fear we do not have much time. Apart from the language lesson I have an appointment with my officers concerning the reduction of the troops, and then there is another meeting with Lord Bahor concerning the supplies that should be sent to Cormallen as soon as the message comes that the road and the river are safe."

"Are you expecting news from the Riders you sent to check the riverbanks?"

He shook his head. "Not yet. But we also sent boats up to Cair Andros, manned by skilled sailors from Pelargir. So let's see who comes back first."

They had reached the stair in the meantime, and soon found themselves on the ramparts, looking out over the vale of the Great River. The short stretch of the southern road they could see still lay deserted, but despite the early hour groups of men were already marching down the straight roads that led to the river and the north.

"Changing of the guards at the Causeway Forts and the gap in the Rammas to the north," the Steward explained, following her gaze.

Éowyn nodded. "I remember seeing them last night as well. But there also were quite a number of people frequenting the road that comes from the south. Could it be that already people are coming back to the city?

"Yes, there are a lot of people who did not fly far, especially those who had no means of transport." He grimaced. "Unfortunately it is they who will now find their housing in the first circle destroyed. But I gave orders that they are to be housed, though I dare say they might find it harder than the lightly injured Riders to get along in one of the abandoned houses of the fourth circle as quite a number of families will have to share a kitchen."

Éowyn frowned. "There are still empty houses despite all the troops you had to provide lodgings for?"

The Steward shrugged. "Most of the soldiers were placed in the third and second circle, closer to the gates and closer to the taverns. We'll see what can be done when they leave and when enough people have come back to start clearing and rebuilding the first circle in earnest. At the moment at least the most urgent problems seem to have been solved."

They stood for a while in silence and then the Steward cleared his throat. "As a matter of fact not only inhabitants of the lower circles have come back to the city, my lady. The Lord Hurin's family returned last night, as did Lord Bahor's wife. They are living in the Citadel and I thought that as your health is improving you might like to be accommodated in a way that befits the sister of the king of Rohan and..."

"No." She almost laughed at his baffled expression. "I do not need any other accommodation, my lord, and I would not like to rely on hospitality that is only given because the Steward of Gondor insisted on it.

"My lady?" His face was almost back to the stony mask she had seen him display in his talk to the Haradric priestess.

Squaring her shoulders, she looked him straight in the eye. "Let's put our cards on the table, as it behoves among friends, my lord. Walking along the outer wall yesterday, I unintentionally overheard your argument with your cousin Amrothos."

The Steward blanched. "My lady, I extremely regret that incident. I assure you my cousin..."

Éowyn snorted. "He's an idiot, not worth being discussed. He wanted to annoy you and he succeeded. And even he himself agreed that he got what he deserved. Let's just leave it at that."

"He agreed? What do you mean?" The Steward's browns nearly met in his dark frown, and she could not help the thought that he looked quite impressive. A face like a thundercloud, the lightning to strike any moment...

"He admitted to his servant that had you really strangled him he would have deserved it." For a split second she could see the clash of contradicting emotions in his face, and smiling she reached out and touched his arm. "My Lord Faramir, has it never happened to you at sparring that your opponent tried to provoke you in order to break your concentration and lure you into acting rashly and thus making mistakes? I will not go into detail what I have heard on the training grounds, but truly that was exactly what that idiotic cousin of yours did. He was bored, hurt, disappointed and probably in physical pain and he took a vicious pleasure in challenging you, pushing you hard enough to crack your composure. And you know that."

He heaved a breath. "What else should I have done?"

"Punch him? At least that's what I think my brother would have done." She shrugged. "I don't see that you could have reacted in any other way, once the affair had gone that far, but you let him goad you in the first place. And both of you knew that. Men get weak if they are honourable and really care for someone. That's exactly how Gríma the Traitor lured Éomer into drawing his sword against him in the Golden Hall, providing the Worm with the pretence for arresting him."

"Your uncle's counsellor dared to insult you?"

Éowyn snorted. "Certainly not. No matter how senile he was, my uncle would have had the Worm's tongue cut out had he as much as hinted at anything like that. No, Éomer found him ogling me secretly, something that I had already noticed happening regularly. That was enough for Éomer to go berserk. Even though he knew that Gríma was only waiting for such a chance."

The Steward slowly shook his head. "Don't judge your brother too hard, my lady. He loves you, and it was his worry for your wellbeing that made him act unwisely."

As if she did not know! She almost rolled her eyes."It seems that our heart is quite a bad counsellor, my lord, if we have set it on someone."

There was the subtle twitch of his brow, but his voice was low and calm when he answered. "So it seems, my lady, for its worried flutter makes our blood run hot. But I would rather be the Steward's fool than the Steward if I had to buy brilliance of mind through forsaking love."

She did not know what to answer, and for a while they just stood side by side, looking out over the Pelennor. On the other side of the river the Ephel Dúath loomed and where it retreated a little further from the Great River the gentle slopes of Emyn Arnen lay in the morning sun. Éowyn hid a smile. What would the Steward say if she told him that she had dreamt of his gardens? Though she remembered only fragments, some of which certainly had shown her parts of the woods near Aldburg, with large grey trunks of still naked beeches rising from a carpet of hollowroot and thimbleween and here and there in wetter places large patches of smallwort, glowing like minute suns. But there had been one strange scene that no doubt had been set in those hills across the river. She had been in what she had accepted for a garden in her dream though it had been nothing but a single straight furrow running down from the hillside to the banks of the river. She had knelt beside it, planting onions. And then there had been the Steward. He had come out of the woods, leading Salubrūn on a simple halter rope. The gelding had slowly walked over to the furrow and baring his huge yellow teeth, he had started to pull the freshly planted onions out again. She had laughed and swatted him... And then she had woken, her own and the Steward's laughter still in her ears.

"Why do you smile my lady? Will you tell me and let me share your mirth?"

The Steward's softly mocking voice jolted her out of her musing. How did this man always manage to catch her unawares? But she would pay him back for his dratted power of observation! Nonchalantly she said: "It was nothing but a dream I had last night, my lord. A most absurd one, for it did not strike me odd that a man had ploughed from hill to river, though every child knows that it would be stupid, because the slightest rainfall would wash the soil downhill. And in reality I have never seen a horse interested in onions. But there was an even more absurd thing, something that would have been stunning in reality, nay even downright unbelievable, though in my dream I accepted it as perfectly right. And that was you, wearing a tunic of bright blue, trimmed with dark-red border."

His eyes widened, and he opened his mouth slightly as if he wanted to say something, only to close it again. Laughing, she put her hand on his lower arm. "Don't you worry, my lord Steward. The unusual display of colours did not shock me in the slightest, though I have to admit I don't remember but fragments of my dream. But it certainly was a merry one, for I woke laughing."

Annotations:

Smallwort (Ficaria verna) is a small yellow flower the leaves of which appear very early in the year and can be used as an antiscorbutic agent before it starts to bloom. (The plant then accumulates protoanemonin which is toxic.)


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