Through Shadows

Chapter 27

Chapter 27

Thyme

"But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?" Gandalf to Éomer, quoted from:The Houses of Healing; The Return of the King; Book Five byJ.R.R. Tolkien.

Minas Tirith, 3rd April, 3019 Third Age

The garden lay peaceful in the first rays of the morning sun, but walking down the main path at the Steward's side, she could not help the feeling of unease. Something seemed to be wrong with him. Sure, he had been courteous as always, kissing her hand when they had met, but there was something in his bearing that disturbed her. And more so, as he was obviously trying to suppress it, schooling his features to composed politeness. Peeking at him out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the tenseness of his shoulders, the too controlled grace of his steps and all of a sudden felt reminded of that day when she had walked out on the ice of a frozen-over tarn above Edoras. Even and secure it had seemed, solid black ice one could trust – until the moment it had cracked with the noise of a breaking bowstring. It had left her paralysed with fear, staring at the white line that ran across the surface in front of her feet, the cold water speedily seeping through.

She shook her head. There certainly was nothing to fear from the man at her side and it was only the sense of his pent up tension that made her recall that event of her childhood. But why had he not offered her his arm as usual? Instead he was walking beside her, his hands clasped behind his back as if to avoid any contact, his face in an unreadable mask.

They reached the end of the garden and Éowyn slowed her steps, giving him the choice to turn left or right. But to her utter surprise he stopped and addressed her formally, his voice so controlled that it almost seemed cold. "My lady, I must beg your pardon if I unduly interfere with your private affairs, but I feel it my duty to ask you something and would be thankful for a clear answer."

Éowyn frowned. What had got into him to approach her in such a stilted manner? Lifting her chin in challenge, she looked straight into his face, but the impenetrable mask did not waver. Torn between anger and worry, she clenched her fist. What for Béma's sake was he hiding from her? Whatever it was, she would not play along!

Lifting her eyebrows, she scrutinised his serious face. "My Lord, I am convinced that between friends openness is the only acceptable way of communication and a clear question deserves a clear answer. Ask me plainly, and plainly I will answer, for I hold you in high esteem and do not doubt your intent and honour."

A faint blush crept into his cheeks, but he nodded solemnly. "My lady, it was reported to me that yesterday you made a certain remark about the personal status of Gondor's future king..."

Angrily, she threw up her hand. "I did. But only to answer the never-ending questions of your kinswomen who did not stop pestering me with their silly assumptions about the Lord Aragorn. I would never have started the topic myself."

He nodded gravely, but still hesitated before asking, as if it cost him quite an effort to do so. "My lady, you stated that the Lord Aragorn, soon-to-be King Elessar of Gondor was betrothed." He gave her an enquiring look and she nodded, wondering why her confirmation made him swallow and press his lips to a thin line. "Well, my lady, as you seem to know for sure: Could it be that it is you who he...?"

"What? Me?" With utter embarrassment she realised the shrillness of her voice and she needed all her willpower to add in a somewhat more controlled tone: "Who said anything like that?"

The Steward raised both his hands reassuringly: "Peace, my lady. Nobody said so. It was I who drew the conclusion, though somewhat rashly as it seems."

She gave him a bitter smile. "Indeed rashly, my lord." How could it still hurt that much? And why did she not have her voice under control? Embarrassed and angry, she turned her back on him. "No, my lord. It's definitely not me." She felt the sting of tears burning behind her eyes and swallowed. She would not humiliate herself even more and cry in front of the Steward. She would not... Breathing carefully through her nose, she resorted to her approved method to regain control.

After a moment there was a soft touch at her elbow, but the hand was withdrawn immediately. "I am sorry to have upset you, my lady. I had no intention of causing you pain."

His voice was coarse, thick with emotion, and she could not help feeling guilty. What an idiocy to hurt a trustworthy man just because she could not get over her own folly. For a flitting moment the scene that had repeatedly haunted her in her nightmares rose before her inner eye: She was standing at the edge of a fathomless abyss, uncertain of what was behind her and unable to look back. Heaving a deep breath, she squared her shoulders. She had to face him. It did not do to leave a friend alone and in doubt. And yet when she turned she found it difficult to raise her eyes to his face, and she cringed from the emotions she might see there. Instead, she fixed her gaze somewhere short of his collarbone and cleared her throat.

"I know, my Lord Faramir. On the contrary since the day I came to you to complain you have tried everything to ease my troubles, and I am grateful for your care."

In her limited view she saw his chest heave, and in a sudden wave of concern she reached out to him, putting her hand on his arm. "If there is a man in Gondor I would call friend, it is you, my lord. I trust you."

There was no answer, and filled with worry, she lifted her eyes, but then almost stepped back, surprised by the contradictory feelings displayed in his normally composed features. Was it really guilt that showed in the set of his mouth? But why then were his eyes shining with a kind of feverish exhilaration? How could pain and joy be so mingled... and why? But the impression only lasted for the blink of an eye, for feeling her eyes on him, the Steward schooled his features, while his hand took hold of hers. Bewildered, she tilted her head. "Faramir? My lord...?"

For a split second he closed his eyes, and then with the faint smile so typical of him, he raised her hand to his lips. "I thank you for your trust, Éowyn of Rohan, and I shall strive to be worthy of it."

He offered her his arm, and as they walked along the outer wall she felt her bewilderment and subsequent tension slowly ebb away. In its stead a feeling of silent content began to fill her and she let her gaze roam over the herb beds in all of which life and growth was visibly stirring. Spring was truly approaching unstoppably.

"My lady?" Hearing the Steward's enquiring voice she realised she had stopped, intrigued by a smallish woody thyme plant which was sporting lovely, minute green buds.

Sighing, she shook her head. "Spring comes earlier here than in the Mark."

He covered her hand in the crook of his arm with his own. "But nevertheless it will come, my lady. Don't despair. There will be a new spring for the Mark…and for you. And you will overcome the pain of unrequited love."

Unrequited love... Was it really that which had hurt her so much? Was it...? Slowly she withdrew her hand, shaking her head. "I don't even think that I truly loved him, my lord. I admired him, worshipped him, would gladly have died for him without hesitation – but I doubt that I saw the man below the shell of armour and heritage."

Her eyes still on the budding plant at her feet, she swallowed. Her mind was racing. Why had she said that? Why now? Why told it to... the man standing beside her? With absolute clearness she knew it was true, knew that finally what she had felt all the time as a vague idea had become plain, but she did not understand what had made her realise it that very moment. Was there really something of a wizard in the Lord Faramir as Merry had assumed? And had that helped her realise what had been ailing her? She heaved a breath, trying to sort out her thoughts and emotions. She needed a calm mind. It had been the rejection that had cut deep, his refusal to give her a place at his side, his denial of her abilities. And she would overcome that. But there was the matter of why she had been susceptible by the glory of Isildur's heir in the first place. There was the decline of everything she had been proud of, everything she had believed and trusted in.

Thyme, the supporter of courage... The brink of the abyss... Turn, Éomund's doter! Clenching her fist, she squared her shoulders. She had taken the first step, and she would continue. Wizard or not, he was a friend, he could be trusted.

Determined, she raised her head. "It was the situation of the Mark, the demise of Eorl's House and not the least Théodred's death that brought me so low. The influence of the White Wizard had shadowed Théoden King's mind, with the Worm skulking behind the throne, sucking the king's strength and life dry like an evil leech, leaving only the impotent and dishonoured husk."

"But how could a man like that get the king's ear and so much influence in the first place?" There was no doubt in his gaze, only inquiring seriousness, reinforcing her decision to get things straight. And yet she felt almost overwhelmed by the task ahead. To gain time and regain her composure, she started to walk again.

"He had not always been a traitor, quite the contrary. For many years he had been my uncle's counsellor, respected by all though also feared by some, because he was known to be uncompromisingly loyal to the king and most cunning in council."

Once she started to talk, her words came easier, and walking the path back to the far end of the garden, she explained. "Gríma, the Mask, people dubbed him in a kind of grudging admiration, for nobody got any information out of him that he did not intend to give anyway, while he himself was able to make people tell him more than they had ever thought of. When I came to Edoras as a child, Frithuswith introduced him to me, telling me that he was a trustworthy man and the king's right hand, and though I always kept a certain distance from him because he was a solemn man I saw him as my uncle's confidant."

She hesitated, for a moment not knowing how to proceed. She shot her companion a side glance, worried that he might ask her for details she was not willing to give, but she only found his serious, caring expression. Nodding her thanks for his silent encouragement, she continued.

"And then he began to change and to use his influence on the king in a way that contradicted all his earlier efforts. I cannot say for how long this had been going on before anybody realised, because as always he was subtle and cunning. It was Frithuswith who voiced her doubts first."

"Your housekeeper?" The Steward's voice did not betray any surprise and the question rather sounded like a kind of reassurance.

Éowyn nodded. "She had always been more than just the housekeeper of Meduseld, my lord. Since the day she came to Meduseld as Théodred's wet-nurse she had been special to Théoden King, and when I came to live with my uncle, she was his most trusted confidante. She may not be learned, but she is intelligent and vigilant and people say that she can see into hearts and minds. She noticed that Gríma's counsels began to become crooked and how he tried to scheme against faithful council members in order to strengthen his influence on the king. And at the same time the king himself started to change."

For a while she did not say anything, lost in her memories of those days, the doubt, the fear, the insecurity, but when she finally spoke, she had her voice under control again.

"We were deeply troubled and feared that the Worm might have put a spell on the king or perhaps was adding evil potions to his food. Frithuswith desperately tried to keep an eye on everything the king ate and drank, but her influence became more and more limited as people that could be trusted were removed."

"And your uncle's treacherous counsellor never took action against her?"

Éowyn smiled wryly. "He tried, but he didn't manage to dislodge her from Meduseld, as the king would never have agreed to that, no matter how weak and senile he seemed sometimes. But Gríma finally managed to oust all loyal advisers from the council." She shook her head. "Perhaps if Théodred had been at Edoras all the time things would have developed differently. But he was needed in the Westfold, for the raids of the Hillmen grew more numerous and fierce all the time. It took my cousin some years to discover that Saruman was behind all those troubles, but when he made an attempt to tell his father, Théoden King was already too deep under Gríma's influence. It was then that he was dubbed "Wormtongue" by all the king's true friends. No matter how much Théodred tried, his father would not listen to him, but rather put his trust in the Worm's whisperings and warnings against taking arms."

They had reached the end of the path, and with a bitter laugh she kicked the curb of the path. "Even when his son had been slain by the wizard's orcs Théoden King refused to see what Gríma was aiming at and continued to believe the traitor that Saruman was an ally of the Mark."

"Éowyn..." The Steward's voice was low and serious. "I will understand if you do not wish to answer my question, and you know you do not have to. But you said yesterday that Mithrandir confirmed that you were to be the traitor's reward. Am I right to assume that you had already apprehended something the like?"

She felt her throat go dry, but clenching her fist, she swallowed and nodded. "As I told you, in the beginning I saw him as someone who could be trusted. Things changed after some years, around the time when I turned thirteen, years before he actually must have allied himself with the wizard. He..."

Heaving a breath, she stopped. "I don't know how to phrase it. I could not explain what was wrong, but I sensed that there was something uncanny, something like a dangerous undercurrent in his personality I had not noticed before. I told Frithuswith and she kept her eyes peeled and soon realised what it was and advised me to avoid him whenever I could. She did not condemn but rather pitied him, but she guarded me like a watchdog from then on. It was almost a year later that I finally began to understand that he... "She stopped, grimacing with disgust. "He desired me, my lord. A man in his fifties, a man who given his years could be my grandfather."

"Did he ever accost you?" The Steward's voice was composed and only his knuckles, showing white on his clenched fists, gave away how much it cost him to keep his countenance.

Éowyn shook her head. "Not in the beginning. He knew he would risk the king's wrath and always kept the due distance, was polite and respectful, but he would look at me from under those heavy lids of his when he thought that nobody noticed in a way that made me feel sick."

For a moment she stopped talking, fighting back the revulsion, and only when they had reached the inner wall and turned to walk along it did she take up her tale. "I already told you yesterday that the Worm vehemently spoke against my betrothal to Fréaláf of Fyrthe, but only when Fréa had died defending Théodred did he get bolder in his pursuit of me. He would dare to ogle me openly, and often at night I heard steps pacing outside my bolted door and knew it was him."

She felt spittle gather below her tongue, heralding a fit of nausea, but she did not heed it. She had started this, and she would finish it, casting out the remnants of the traitor's shadows over her mind. "Frithuswith insisted that Imma, a woman she trusted, slept with me, but more and more orders would keep both of them busy with work in the hall, and it was only too obvious who these orders had come from, though the Worm always framed them as the king's wish. In the end he managed to make Imma's life that miserable that when Lord Eáldread, my uncle's oldest counsellor, was dismissed she preferred to leave Meduseld, fearing that otherwise she might become a tool in the hands of the traitor."

"How that?" Frowning, the Steward stopped to face her.

Éowyn shrugged. "Very simply, my lord. Because she was always kept until late in the hall, I would have had to open my door for her in the middle of the night. And when Eáldread was gone, the guard of the king's quarters was performed by Gríma's cronies. It felt like living under a permanent siege. Only when Théodred was at Meduseld were things less strangling, because he put his own guards on duty."

Troubled by her memories, she continued to pace, watching their shadows that the slowly rising sun cast on the white stones of the wall, a strange mixture of their silhouettes, like a monster out of the legends of old. She grimaced. It was shadows, a trick of the eye, betraying the beholder. There was nothing to fear as long as it did not also manage to affect the beholder's mind. Pulling herself together, she went back to her self-set task.

"And then Théodred proposed me marrying his friend Erwin of Westfold." Her mouth twisted in a bitter smile. "The Worm was clever enough not to oppose it openly, but he reminded my cousin how much the king loved me and how much he depended on my care. Ironically enough it was the king himself who turned against him, stating that it did not behove an old man, be he king or beggar, to stand in the way of his ward's right to have her own family and find the happiness in her offspring that was every woman's right."

Her dear uncle. Even in his darkest moments his heart had stayed true. Even when the Worm's evil poison had brought him to doubt Éomer's loyalty he had cared for her. She swallowed to keep down the tears. "And then Erwin was killed. We could never prove that Gríma had a hand in it, though we suspected as much. And with what I know now, I have no doubt at all that he had arranged for it. Who knows? The "Hillmen" might even have been his disguised followers as they left Dunlendish weapons and bits and pieces of gear behind, but we never found any corpses of Dunlendings."

"Was there no possibility of tracking them down?"

What other reaction had she expected from a Ranger? She felt the urge to smile despite her grief. "There had been a heavy downpour, and by the time Erkenbrand of Westfold was informed and able to send a troop of scouts out to the site of the crime there were no tracks and traces left. It was like fate had decided against the House of Eorl."

She felt the fear, the hopelessness reach again for her with icy claws. The end... the end of everything worth living for... With grim determination she clenched her fist. She would not let her fears and nightmares be the master of her. Yet she could not keep the quivering out of her voice entirely.

"Then Théodred fell and Éomer was arrested and all seemed lost. My uncle succumbed to grief and weakness, the borders of the Mark lay open to our enemies... It was then that death began to look like the only honourable way to end our shame. I even thought of killing the king, giving him a clean death at least and then set Meduseld ablaze should our foes approach Edoras."

She heaved a deep breath. "The rest you know."

He nodded solemnly. "I do. And I find your reaction now even more understandable than before. He must have seemed to you Valar-sent after all those years of fear and grief."

They had stopped again and this time right in front of one of the alcoves. Without her realizing it at first, her fingers trailed the pattern of the chessboard on the small stone table. A game of chess... and they all nothing but chess-pieces of the gods. Pawns... Straightening her back, she lifted her head and looked into his serious face. "The grief was not the worst, my lord. It was the misgivings, the thoughts that would assault me at night, when I lay harking, cold and fearful in my bolted room. Thoughts I knew to be wrong, to be dishonourable. But they would come, again and again like the nightmares that tortured me when I finally managed to fall asleep. I knew I was deceiving myself, but I could not ward the thoughts off. I even feared that my mind had been addled, that I had been drugged secretly by someone allied with the traitor to think the way I did. I hated myself for my weakness, for I realised that weakness it was, but I could not help the feeling of guilt. That, my lord was the worst. The never-ending whispers in my mind that I could have prevented all those deaths had I only given myself to the Worm when there had still been a chance to sway him."

She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting the tears, but to her utter embarrassment a single one escaped her lids. Immediately there was the touch of a hand, cupping her cheek, a warm thumb brushing away the traitorous drop. For a split second she felt the overwhelming urge to lean into the warmth and care of the hand, but then she swallowed and opening her eyes, took a half-step backwards. "It is all right, my lord. I can cope."

He nodded in his grave and solemn way. "I do not doubt that, my lady. And yet everyone, even the greatest heroes of all times, need a friend at their side now and then, a comrade to help them carry their burden."

She knew her smile to be rather wobbly, but strange enough it did not matter as she smiled up into his grave face through her tears. "I'm afraid that you are right as always, my lord. I really feel exhausted like having fought a battle."

A faint smile lit up in his eyes and stepping beside her, he put his arm around her shoulders. "Then, my Shieldmaiden of the North, let me lead you out of the throng of battle as your brother in arms, for victorious you have fought and deserve rest and relaxation now."

How easy it was to accept his care! Surprised by her own feelings, she let him guide her to their alcove, where Beregond had already laid the table and now stood to attention, his bearing clearly betraying the warrior he was. She slipped into the bench, feeling dazed and weary. Wordless the Steward filled her cup and she hastily gulped its contents down and then shoved it towards him for a second fill. With an enquiring look he pointed at the rolls, but she shook her head. "No, thank you, my lord. I cannot eat at the moment, but I would appreciate a second cup of tea. I feel truly parched."

Seeing his worried frown, she tried to smile. "I promise I will eat later. Just give me a moment to collect myself."

Nodding thoughtfully, he filled the cup. "I am sorry to have provoked such disturbing memories."

She merely shrugged. "Don't be, my lord. An infested wound needs lancing and if necessary cauterisation to heal."

"You certainly do not tend to pity yourself, my lady."

How profound those grave eyes could be. In an attempt to overcome her shakiness, she hurried to answer. "Oh, I do pity myself. Sometimes at least. But it never lasts long, because I hate myself when I'm whiny. But I have to thank you, my lord, for without you I would certainly not have found the strength and courage to..." She hesitated, not sure how to phrase what had occurred in the last minutes.

He put down the teapot with more care and concentration than necessary, and then turned to her. "I think you are right that facing your demons is the first step to overcoming them, but I do not know how I was of any help. I did nothing special."

Bristling, she disagreed. "But you did, my lord. You listened. Not only today, but all the time since first we met. And you are special to me. I would not have spoken to anyone... I have not spoken to anyone, but I feel, no, I know I can trust you."

He did not answer that, just looked at her with an expression she could not place. For a moment she stared in silence. Could it really be longing she saw in those earnest grey eyes? She felt her cheeks grow hot with a blush and averted her eyes. How could she think something that absurd! Sipping her tea, she managed to regain her composure, and when he asked her if she wanted another cup she was able again to meet his gaze.

"Thank you, my lord, but I do not want to deprive you of your portion."

His eyebrow twitched. "It's but a cup of tea, Éowyn. I assure you any honourable man would forgo much more to assist your wellbeing."

"But I don't want you to forgo anything for my sake, my Lord Faramir. I want us to share like true brothers..." She stopped, and could not help a grin at the oddness of the expression. "Like true siblings in arms, I mean."

He smiled. "Agreed. But then, if I eat, you have to share with me."

Éowyn groaned. "You are a true mother hen! And you twist my words." Unbidden the thought of Éomer's attempts to make her eat came to her mind. That cursed letter! It had to be … She hesitated. A misunderstanding? But what had made him send her such a missive in the first place? She suppressed a grimace. No, certainly Elfhelm was right, and her brother had simply been stinking drunk. And who knows? Perhaps he did not even remember having ordered the letter to be written and sent.

The Steward had cut up one of the rolls and was looking at her enquiringly. "I'll have goat's cheese with it, will you join me in that?"

Pushing away her troubling thoughts, Éowyn nodded. "But add some chives, please."

She watched him, as he prepared her roll, spreading a generous amount of the cream-cheese on it and then sprinkling it with finely chopped chives. Funny, with what eloquent grace the calloused hands of a warrior handled the small eating knife. But then he was no stranger to writing and even drawing... For a moment she wondered if he had ever tried whittling, the favourite pastime amongst the Eorlingas. But her musings ended when he handed her the roll, apportioned the rest of the tea into their cups and then motioned to Beregond to go and refill the pot. Feigning disapproval, Éowyn shook her head. "You are cheating, my lord."

He grinned. "Am I? As a good captain I'm just keeping my troops well supplied."

Éowyn raised her eyebrows, fighting to stay serious. "Oh well, just let me guess what your Rangers would say at their Captain's endeavour to keep them supplied with hibiscus tea."

He grinned even more broadly at her retort, and meeting his gaze, she could not help falling in with him. He was such a good man and back in the Mark she would truly miss him. She blinked, realising what she had just thought, and immediately the worried expression was back on his face.

"My lady?"

Hastily, she shook her head. "It's nothing, my lord. I was just thinking of...of the tasks I will have to face back in the Riddermark." She cursed inwardly at her telltale hesitation, especially as she was sure that the barely appreciable raising of his eyebrows signalled his doubts. Nevertheless when he spoke, his voice was calm and did not show any reservations.

"I am sure, my lady, whatever it is, you will master it. From what I have seen of you and come to know about you, you are not someone who shrinks back from any task ahead."

She needed a change of topic! Not caring for the context of their talk she said: "And how are your studies of Haradric proceeding?"

For a split second his features grew absolutely expressionless, showing what she secretly had dubbed his courtly face, but then he simply nodded with an understanding smile, though she could not but think that there was a certain sadness in it.

"I'm afraid I don't have the time at the moment to continue my studies the way I would like to. With the war being over and people coming back there is much to do, and though there certainly are a lot of skilled officials I at least need to be informed and in most cases have to make the final decisions, even if the tasks are performed by my subordinates in the end." He grimaced. "But what really takes much of my time and energy is the preparation for Gondor having a king again. There are quite a number of nobles who are not too happy about that change."

"Will they refuse to swear fealty?" Éowyn was relieved when she saw him shake his head.

"No, not with him being victorious against the Dark Lord on the battlefield. But there will be whispers, rumours, complaints..." An ironic smile tucked at the corners of his mouth. "That's why we make all of them meet him at Cormallen, out there in Ithilien, a part of the realm he won back for Gondor. And certainly a warrior-king surrounded by his loyal troops will be quite an eye-opener to the reluctant."

She mimicked his grimace. "You certainly make a good Steward, my lord. They might see through your scheme, but they have little chance not to go, unless they want to risk signalling open opposition."

"That was Imrahil's idea." The ironic smile deepened. "That man certainly is the cleverest fox in all of Gondor. The king would be wise to convince him to stay as his counsellor in Minas Tirith at least for the first years. And certainly that would be a signal to everybody."

"But what about you? You will stay Steward, won't you?" She was surprised at how much that mattered to her.

He nodded. "I received a private letter from Imrahil the other day, assuring me of the future king's intention to keep the hereditary stewardship. And I will be able to reclaim my ancestors' lands around Emyn Arnen."

She could not but beam at him. "That is something you truly deserve and it makes me happy to hear about it. Will you rebuild the old estate? But no, you certainly will start with the layout of your gardens first."

He smiled. "At least my mental occupation with them is not only an idle dream anymore. There certainly will be gardens at Emyn Arnen now."

"Though planning and constructing them is really helpful to find one's mental balance." Seeing his questioning look, she elucidated with a laugh: "I tried it the other day, and I'm afraid I used up the space of an entire hill, covering its slopes in perennials and vegetables. But I kept out chard, so there is no need to worry."

She had expected him to join in her mirth, but to her utter surprise he did not laugh but averted his gaze, pressing his lips together for a split second. Seeing him swallow, she totally felt at a loss, but just when she had made up her mind to ask him what was wrong, he silently shook his head, smiling faintly.

"Forgive me, my lady. It is just..." He swallowed again, and reaching out to him, she took his hand.

"Please, Faramir. Do not trouble yourself to speak about it, if you don't feel like it. I did not mean to interfere, but as you had invited me to share your daydreams, I did it one evening when I felt lonely. And it certainly helped."

He gave her hand a short squeeze, before letting it go. "Who knows, my lady, perhaps gardening at Emyn Arnen lifts one's mood even better than lemon oil."

She took up her cup and eyed him over the brink of it. "So your kinswoman informed you of the claim I made yesterday?"

He nodded. "She informed me of Lady Rhíwiant's behaviour and your reaction. It seems you had a rather stressful afternoon, my lady, and I'm really sorry for that. I had thought you would pass a nice and entertaining time."

"Oh, never you worry. It certainly was entertaining enough." She gave him a lopsided grin. "The ladies of your family seem to enjoy the baiting of a certain harpy a lot, and that enjoyment was quite contagious." Seeing his typical faint smile reappear, Éowyn laughed. "Lady Sealind and her daughter truly are a fighting team to reckon with."

Still smiling, he nodded his assent, and for a while they ate in silence. Only when Éowyn had finished and Beregond had come back with a newly filled teapot did she take up the thread of their conversation.

"I simply don't understand what a fuss you Gondoreans make about scents. Lady Rhíwiant acted as if I had committed a crime against decency, and Tórdes suggested getting me a different fragrance when she learned I was to meet the ladies of your family."

He shrugged. "Lemon oil certainly has its virtues, and the fresh smell is pleasing to the senses, but it is cheap, my lady, available for all, and that makes some people scorn it."

"Some people!" She snorted. "Some conceited, old..." She paused, realising just in time that the expression she had in mind was clearly one of the barracks and the training-ground.

His expression deadpan, the Steward nodded. "Exactly that, my lady. But for Gondoreans, especially for the rich and noble, perfumes are an important part of their appearance. They wear them like other peoples wear robes and jewellery. Not that they don't bedeck themselves with those excessively too, but perfumes certainly play a very special role."

Éowyn wrinkled her nose. "That way any feast must be quite a clash of scents and a torture to any nose."

He nodded. "It certainly is. Though fortunately there always are trends, scents that are new and therefore fashionable. And as they tend to be expensive and by applying them people can show off their riches, there is at least a general line of fragrance wafting over the crowd. But there always have been men and women who insist on a more individual and therefore extravagant scents." Grinning, he added: "Who knows? Perhaps you even launched a new fashion by wearing lemon oil."

"Yes, Rohirric simplicity!"

He shrugged. "Why not? It is nice, and you really like it and find it useful. I have to admit though that in both aspects, pleasing smell and mood-lifting virtue, I find bergamot even better."

Éowyn frowned. "Bergamot?"

"It's just a different kind of lemon, a more potent one I would say, but it too has the clear freshness you seem to like – and which I deem a fitting mirror of your character."

"My character?" Éowyn stared at him, bewildered. His face turned grave, but his eyes remained warm, as if his usual faint smile was hidden in their grey depth.

"Gondoreans associate certain scents with certain character traits and thus deduce a person's character from the perfume they wear. For example all smells of lemon and the like are seen as energetic and straightforward. But were I a perfumer I would not have your personality reduced to only that, for under the bold surface I sense warmth and reliability as well as the ability to endure. Therefore I would add sandalwood, though probably a real perfumer would shake his head at me for sandalwood is mostly used in perfumes for men."

Slowly the smile stole back onto his face, but so faintly that she rather sensed it in the deepening of his gaze than really saw it in the crinkling of his lips. His voice was soft, when he added: "But there has to be a third element, as above and beyond your braveness and reliability there is your beauty, Éowyn, and that should certainly be present in any scent you wear. If a perfume really was to mirror you, there should be a touch of sweetness combined with bold clarity and supporting warmth."

In vain she tried to ward off the blush, and to overcome her embarrassment she resorted to bluntness. Shrugging, she openly met his gaze. "If you say so. I don't know anything about perfumes and I will be content with anything you imagine to add, unless you make it lilies of the valley."

He chuckled softly. "No, certainly not. Though I love their scent when I come across them in the woods. But I cannot think of anything small and cached like them when thinking of you."

She laughed. "Make it thistles then. Their blossoms certainly stand out in colour and sweetness of smell despite the prickliness of the plant."

Serious again, he shook his head. "No, Éowyn. I would rather make it lilies. Proud, tall flowers whose beauty and scent fill all the senses of the beholder and yet make his heart ache with a tang of sadness."

She simply stared, not knowing what to say. Something was going on she did not grasp, or was it? Why was she feeling so... vulnerable under the gaze of these grave, grey eyes? Why did she have the impression there was something hidden in his words, a meaning she... She swallowed, trying to steady her breath and regain composure. There was no reason to behave like a frightened rabbit. She knew he could be trusted. She clenched her fist. Had she done right to tell him about her fears, the dishonourable years of Théoden King's decline? She was an idiot to doubt him. Squaring her shoulders, she met his gaze and the worry and care she saw in them nearly made her sigh with relief.

"What is it, my lady?"

A soft and serious voice, a good and honourable man. Slowly she shook her head. "I don't know, my lord. I feel like walking on thin ice, and cannot yet see where the shore lies."

"I wish you were able to accept a helping hand."

She smiled wryly. "What would you do, my lord? Throw me a rope?"

Holding her gaze, he nodded. "If there was nothing else I could do, that is what I would try at least, hoping you would be able and willing to hold fast onto it."

Annotations:

Thyme: Since ancient times Thyme has been considered an herb of purification and protection. Throughout Europe it has been seen as a symbol for activity, courage, strength, happiness, energy and affection for thousands of years.

During the Middle Ages, European ladies embroidered a sprig of thyme on the tunics of their knights, as a token of courage. Thyme was also used in drinks because its intoxicating effect was regarded as a symbol of courage and bravery. But also wearing a sprig of thyme in her hair was believed to make a woman irresistible. ;)


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