Through Shadows

Chapter 30

Chapter 30

Strawberries

From the ashes a fire shall be woken...

quoted from: Strider; The Fellowship of the Ring; Book I by J.R.R. Tolkien

Minas Tirith, 5th April, 3019, Third Age

Trying to calm herself, Éowyn focussed on the sound of her steps clacking across the tiles of the corridor. Much to Tordes' disappointment she had not applied any perfume and her hair was arranged in a simple braid at the nape of her neck. She would have to face him, and she wanted everything to be as sober as possible, with nothing to distract or evoke emotions. Reaching the door that led out into the ambulatory, she grimaced. She did not even know if the Steward was there. How stupid of her to take his presence for granted, especially after him being occupied the previous morning!

Fighting her reluctance, she opened the door. The air was moist and slightly cooler after yesterday's rain, and instinctively she breathed deep, relishing the freshness. She had always been a morning person and the early hours had always held a special place in her heart. Those precious moments when life seemed to be returning with the first rays of the rising sun that turned the bedewed plains into a glittering sheet of emerald.

"My lady."

The softness of that voice almost made her jump. Pulling herself together, she stepped out from under the ambulatory.

"Good morning, my lord. I am happy to see that at least last night you seem to have got a proper rest."

With that typical half-smile of his the Steward took her hand. "I'm truly sorry for not having been able to keep you company at breakfast yesterday, my lady. I hope you found at least the rest of the day to your liking."

Éowyn was not sure how to read his words, but as she could not sense a trace of mocking in his voice despite the oddness of his last sentence she decided to answer plainly. "I spent the morning in the healers' garden and also had breakfast there. And the afternoon was mostly taken with being tortured by Lady Saelind's seamstress, though I have to admit the lady is a rather agreeable jailer."

His smile deepened, and she felt embarrassed at how much she enjoyed seeing the corners of his eyes crinkle. For a split second she wished that she could clench her fist, fighting her disturbance, but as he had taken it to kiss it in courtly manner as he always did when they met that was impossible, or at least would have been an affront. She only wished she were more composed. But he did not seem to notice her anxiety and only nodded, still holding her hand in his.

"Lady Saelind told me about it. She seems to be very satisfied with the result of the seamstress's work, no matter how torturing you found it."

Stifling a sigh, Éowyn shrugged. "I do not criticise the woman's work, which really is exquisite, but rather her endless prattle. She's worse than Ioreth."

The Steward chuckled. "That, no doubt, means real terror. I'm not sure if I would have had the courage and the patience to face and endure that."

Éowyn shot him a side glance. Did he know that she had been in his room? That she had slipped in to avoid the two chatterboxes? Be it as it may, this was her chance to breach the topic. Squaring her shoulders, she said: "I'm afraid I have to confess I tried to give them the slip when I first heard them approaching me."

His smiling face with the raised eyebrows showed nothing but open interest and understanding and so she bluntly added: "I hid in your room when I heard them talking in the corridor, and only when they had passed I noticed that you were in there, sleeping."

"When was that?"

Was there true surprise in his voice, or was it mischief disguised in an innocent question? But either way she had to answer, and so she did. "Yesterday at lunchtime. I had just come in from the healers' garden and I simply did not want to meet them."

He now grinned widely. "Indeed, my lady, you have my sympathy. And I am proud you found a sanctuary in my room from a danger you deemed worse that the king of the Nazgul."

Looking into his grinning face, she could not but respond to his grin when suddenly he added: "But you should have woken me, my lady."

She felt her throat tighten. "Yes, I know I should. I... I just didn't think of it."

He tilted his head in a mock-reprimand. "That's a pity. It would have been nice to wake and see your face."

She simply gulped, not knowing how to react and feeling the heat of a furious blush rise into her cheeks. He had never tried any banter holding innuendos save the morning he still had been slightly drunk. Could it be that he was again, perhaps having drunk with Radhruin to celebrate the captain's victory? She discarded the thought the second it manifested itself. The man in front of her was wide awake and seemed to know only too well what he was doing, for after a swift glance at her beet-red face, he added with exaggerated politeness: "I'm sorry, my lady. I should not say such things, as they most certainly are not proper Gondorean etiquette when communicating with a noble maiden. Let me express my deepest regret and my hope that you have not seen anything that insulted your eye."

He was having her on! Glowering at him, she withdrew her hand. "I assure you, my lord, that I have seen nothing that I have not seen before, and as much as I appreciate your care for my eyesight, let me remind you of the fact that I am no simpering Gondorean maiden, swooning at the sight of a man's naked flesh."

His face immediately went blank, but not fast enough for her to miss the expression that flashed in his eyes for a fleeting moment. Confused she took a step back. This was Gondor, and obviously she had gone too far with her last remark. Though she was not sure if what she had seen really had been anger. It no doubt had been uncontrolled, even aggressive energy, but there had been no rejection. Quite on the contrary... She saw him swallow hard and when he addressed her his voice was calm and serious.

"Forgive me, my lady. I deserve the slap. I should not have baited you. Will you walk with me, at least for as long as Beregond needs to lay the table?"

With a nod she took his proffered arm and walked with him towards the ramparts, glad that at least for a moment she would not have to look into his face. She was making a complete fool of herself. Having admitted that, she felt a bit better and when she finally climbed the stair her rational mind had again gained the upper hand. It was spring. And he was a man. And despite all his current administrative duties as the Steward of the realm down in his heart he probably was a Ranger, deeply drawn by nature. How could she expect him to be sober with the rain having filled the air with freshness and energy bringing forth a riot of different shades of green?

For a while they stood side by side on the wall, looking once more out over the Pelennor. Most of the land that stretched towards the river was shrouded in mist and also the distant mountains seemed faint and blurred as if a veil had been drawn between them and the city. Éowyn heaved a breath and turned towards the Steward. "It is me, my lord, who should ask forgiveness, not you. For I intruded upon your privacy, only to avoid a task that irked me at that moment. Though I did not realise at first it was your room I had entered."

He tried to interrupt her, but stubbornly shaking her head, she continued. "No, my lord. Hear me out. I know I should have left the moment I realised you were sleeping. And the women I tried to avoid had passed anyway. I..." Béma, how difficult this was going to be. He was not interrupting her, only looking at her with these grave, grey eyes, but she could not help the feeling that they too were shrouded, as if he was trying to keep her from reading his mind. Determinedly she lifted her chin. She had started this – she would finish it.

"I first thought I had woken you, and therefore I came up to the bed to address you."

"Did you?" His voice was absolutely expressionless, but his eyebrow twitched ever so slightly.

She nodded. "Yes, my lord, I did. But if that appeases you: You were well covered and there was nothing that would have insulted anyone's eyes, even if they were a maiden of Gondor."

"Then, my lady, we had better let things lay, had we not?" Again that blank voice.

She was not sure how to proceed. How much did he already know? Was he trying to keep her from embarrassment? But what if the situation embarrassed him that much that he did not want her to say anything else? She suppressed a groan. Why had their cultures to be that different? Giving up on the topic, she shrugged. "If you say so. I only hope that I did not cause you to wake up untimely. You must have been exhausted to seek your bed in the middle of the day."

"I certainly was, but what I learned was well worth the loss of some hours of a night's sleep."

She gave him an enquiring side glance. "Beregond told me that Radhruin of Pelargir had arrived and you were needed at the Harlond."

The Steward nodded, his face grim. "Yes, he wanted to talk to me by all means before the envoy of a certain lord from Harondor arrived at Minas Tirith."

"Harondor?"

"The land on the other side of the Poros, my lady. Gondor's buffer towards Harad. The Stewards always have seen it as a part of the realm, but truth be told, its lords have not paid any taxes for centuries now, claiming to be in urgent need of all financial means the land can provide to keep it stable under the lasting threat from Harad." He shrugged. "I don't doubt the threat, but I am not sure if its lords have truly been trustworthy allies to Gondor all the time. Harondor has been an insecure candidate for long. So it was very important to get to know details. Especially as Lord Thólinnas of Pelargir did not consider it necessary to inform me about what was actually going on in his neighbourhood."

Éowyn frowned. "You deem him disloyal?"

"Not disloyal. But too focussed on his own interests, and therefore not as helpful as he could be." Absentmindedly, Faramir prodded the wall in front of him with the tip of his boot. "He did not inform me that Radhruin had been out on Tolfalas at all, nor did he tell my father that he had a contract with Lord Aerandir of Harondor concerning the mouth of the Harnen, the big river that forms the border between Harondor and Near Harad."

Grimacing, he shrugged. "Radhruin managed to keep the corsairs from gaining a foothold on the isle, but when he followed some retreating corsairs south, trying to keep them from reaching Umbar, he was attacked by two warships that obviously had not been involved in any of the previous fights and might have been anchoring in the roads of the Harnen estuary." He sighed. "Thólinnas has always tried to go his own way, but he certainly would never side with the enemy. I wish I could bind him closer to Minas Tirith. If he agreed to support the new king we would have gained quite a lot as far as the stability of the realm is concerned."

His gaze wandered over to where the ruins of Osgiliath pierced through the mist like broken teeth. "Perhaps I should address my uncle to advance Radhruin's marriage to my cousin to at least keep the coastal lands in line."

"You would trade her for your political aims?" Éowyn was not sure if it was her icy tone or the incisiveness of her question that made him wince.

"Please, my lady, it is not that I come up with something that is against Lothíriel's or Radhruin's interest. I know my cousin is not adverse to him, and as I told you negotiations about a union started before the war." He looked at her and shrugged. "I suppose it would be very much like your own marriage to Erwin of Westfold. And you said yourself that you might have come to love him had he not been killed so soon."

She averted her eyes, angry with him and yet knowing that he was right. And perhaps even Éomer had been right with his ill-phrased demand to come to Cormallen and meet the Lord Erchirion. A wave of weariness flooded her, and for a moment she wished she could simply go and hide in her room, draw the blankets over her head and shut out the entire world.

"Éowyn? My lady?" The Steward's low voice sounded worried, and she turned to him, giving him a bitter smile.

"It's nothing, my lord. It probably is necessary to have one's dreams shattered from time to time or rather have them swatted like an annoying fly not to get too distracted by them."

"I am sorry, my lady, if I have caused you pain." He wanted to add something, his eyes grave and so full of worry that she found it difficult to suppress the notion to console him. Slowly she shook her head.

"If you did, my lord, I know for sure that it was not intended. Yet life is cruel and we had better be prepared to face it."

He did not say anything, just looked at her with those gentle eyes until she simply could not stand it anymore and trying to break the silence said the first thing that came to her mind: "Pray, tell me, my lord, what is the Lord Erchirion like?"

He blinked, his expression dumbfounded. "Erchirion?"

She nodded. "Yes. Prince Imrahil's second-born, if I remember correctly. My brother spoke highly of him the day before they left for the Black Gate, and he also mentioned him in his letter summoning me to Cormallen."

"Your brother summoned you to Cormallen?" Though his face did not give away anything, there was something in his voice that reminded her of a very large dog's growl. Again she shrugged.

"He did, though perhaps if I were inclined so I could have said he invited me. But for once listening to the healers, I prefer staying in the city."

"I see." The Steward breathed slowly through his nose, and she could not help the thought that he used the same technique to calm herself as she did. Though why he should feel upset eluded her. For a moment he looked out over the Pelennor, and then, turning back to her, he said: "The Lord Erchirion is somehow different from his brothers in body and in mind, though you not knowing any one of them, this information might not really be helpful."

"Not really." She gave him a lopsided smile. "I am sure he is an accomplished, fearless warrior, probably also a good rider and has quite a high tolerance for booze of any kind."

The Steward raised his eyebrows. "It seems you know him quite well, my lady."

Éowyn shrugged. "I know my brother, my lord. And I have to admit he told me about their visit to the public baths. It seems Éomer has found a soul mate."

Slowly, he shook his head. "I don't know about your brother, my lady, but for all his being a true warrior, Erchirion is a most honourable and trustworthy man, gentle and kind despite his rough edges. And he is quite handsome too, though not in his father's dashing way. He rather resembles his mother."

"He has auburn hair?"

Surprised, the Steward shook his head. "No, my lady. His hair is a very dark brown. But his beard has quite a russet tint."

"He wears a beard?" Éowyn was intrigued, but the Steward shook his head.

"No, he doesn't. I only know because I once accompanied him on one of his voyages and as the weather was quite stormy for days, nobody on board risked having a shaving razor near their throats." Seeing her disappointment, he asked with a smile: "Is it so important that a man has a beard?"

What a strange question. Hiding her amazement, she tried to explain. "I find it strange to look upon a shaved face and accept its owner as being a man." Seeing his puzzled mien, she grinned. "You cannot imagine what a fuss every young Eorling makes about the first downy hair around his chin."

Raising his hand to his own chin, the Steward grimaced. "Oh, I certainly can, for that is not much of a difference in Gondor. But you probably cannot imagine what a fuss every young Gondorean makes about shaving said down for the first time in his life."

Éowyn could not but chuckle at the Lord Faramir's droll grimace. "What an obsession you Gondoreans have with removing your hair."

Now it was his turn to shrug. "Perhaps if our hair was golden instead of the browns and blacks we sport we would refrain from trying to get rid of it."

Laughing, Éowyn shook her head, but when she was about to comment on his remark Beregond appeared at the top of the stairs, informing them that the table was laid. Turning for the stair, she looked out over the garden. The change it had undergone over night was even more visible from the raised vantage point. In all the different herb and flower beds buds seemed to have burst, the deciduous trees were overcast with a fine net of green and the lawn simply gleamed in the light of the morning sun. How she had despised this strictly arranged garden with its straight, paved paths, the rectangular layout, the over-orderly beds and chopped lawns, but now, literally over night, Erce's caress had graced it, mothering it back to life and joy.

"My lady?"

The Steward's voice jolted her out of her contemplation. He had already walked down a few steps before turning to see why she was not following, and looking down on him before the background of the garden she could not help the impression that he was a part of it. How she wished for him to recover from all the grief he had had to face and find the joy he truly deserved.

Checking herself, she made to follow him down the stairs. "I just had a look at the garden, my lord. To my eye it looks as if someone has thrown a very thin and shoddily woven blanket of green over it with all the buds that have been coming forth after yesterday's rain."

They reached the ground and walking side by side, she could clearly see him smile. "It certainly is to be expected that a Rohir should mention weaving. It really seems to be a craft your people excel in."

Éowyn shrugged. "Not me, my lord. I always found it quite boring and tedious, with all these repetitive movements. I don't mind carding and spinning though, but the thing I really love is dyeing the wool."

"And that is so different from weaving?"

Éowyn suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. He seemed to really know nothing about wool. "It is different, my lord. There is the anticipation, the surprise of the outcome that thrills me. Even if you use the same amount of plants and lye there always is at least a slight difference in the colouring. And there is the collecting of the plants, the possibility to try for entirely different shades by mixing them. Weaving really is a far cry from that and I truly deem it one of the most boring womanly crafts."

The Steward's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Weaving is seen a womanly craft in Rohan? In Gondor it is mostly done by men."

Éowyn snorted. "Perhaps that is why Gondorean cloth has such a poor quality." He laughed, and again she was surprised by the warm feeling that sound caused to spread within her. Still chuckling, he tucked her arm through his. "I suppose I will never cease being amazed by the differences of our cultures. Tell me about your brother, my lady. Does he enjoy weaving?"

Snorting with laughter, she nudged his ribs, remembering too late that he had been wounded, but to her utter relief he did not complain or pull away. Somewhat sobered she said: "Éomer is a true-bred warrior, and fighting always will come first for him. He is highly respected and admired by his men because of his skills and valour in battle and he is a good leader. I don't know about his suitability as a king in peacetime though. He certainly is intelligent, but he hates court-life and abhors any kind of diplomatic embroilments, forcing him to walk on eggshells."

"And what does he look like? Does he have your colour of hair?"

Éowyn shook her head. "No. He is one of those true Eorlingas with barley-golden hair and blue eyes." She gave the Steward an appraising look. "He might be a little shorter than you, though the impression might be misleading as he is broader in build and in general more brawny than you. They say he resembles our father a lot." With a sigh she added: "And certainly he inherited our father's temper, and there's a tendency to fits of fury and rashness, though in general he is a considerate man. But what really bothers me is his over-protectiveness and the way he more than once has tried to force his high-handed view upon me, believing he knew best what is good for me."

"The typical elder brother, I dare say."

She shot him a glowering glance. "Well, I probably am glad I have only one. I really pity your cousin who is punished with three of that obnoxious species."

Smiling, the Steward shook his head. "You forget she has her mother as an ally, and no man of the Dol Amroth household has any chance of withstanding that power."

Éowyn laughed. "Oh, the Lady Geliris! I had totally forgotten about her! I met her the day before yesterday on my way back from the shops. She certainly is a most charming and amazing woman." Pausing she shook her head. "She behaved in a totally artless way and yet she was every inch the princess. And she looks simply fascinating. I can understand that the prince never stood a chance once he had set his eyes on her."

"My uncle certainly is a very lucky dog," the Steward agreed. "Those two are really made for each other and my aunt no way has been the vine needing the oak to twine on."

Éowyn frowned. "Is that the way Gondoreans see men and women? The Eorlingas see the woman as an elm and the man as an ash, both standing side by side in their own right though different."

They had reached the alcove by now, and the Steward led her to her seat. "The ash as a symbol for the man I understand, my lady, but the elm?"

Sitting down, Éowyn shrugged: "For us the elm is a fodder tree, my lord. We one year cut the leafed twigs and the next we only strip the leaves off the branches to dry as winter fodder especially in the valley of the White Mountains. Without the elm there would be no keeping of stock over the winter, and that makes it our mother-tree."

He nodded thoughtfully. "I understand that. But if somebody had asked me what tree reflected womanhood for me, I would always have named the birch, though in Gondor it does not grow south of Emyn Arnen."

"In the Mark the birch is seen as a sign of fertility, my lord, for life returned after the seeming death of winter, and we use it for all rituals that deal with seeding and birth."

Smiling, he sat down. "Then perhaps I should tell Lady Saelind to use some birch branches in the decoration for the feast tonight, for we truly have passed through a winter of terror and grief and a new hope has been born to us out of the bitter wreck of battle."

Reaching for her cup, he poured her some tea, and only then Éowyn noticed how richly the small table was laid. Besides the usual bread and cream cheese there were a small, carefully wrapped pot she expected to hold porridge and a number of plates and bowls filled with all the food she had shown interest in these last days: slices of spicy sausage, ripe red cheese, butter, sprinkled with finely chopped chives, but also cubes of candied ginger, stewed fruit and small pastries. And near the Steward's right hand stood a tiny basket, covered with a fine white cloth. Amazed, she shook her head.

"My lord, what is the reason for this veritable feast? Have the results of your enquiries been that crucial that they require celebration?"

His mien deadpan, the Steward answered. "Let me put it this way: As we have not eaten together yesterday, this actually is two breakfasts. Do I guess rightly that you want some porridge?"

Smiling, she nodded and started to sip her tea. What a difference to yesterday's lonely meal. Over the brim of her cup she watched the Lord Faramir, ladling a small portion of the hot porridge into a bowl and then adding cream and honey. He remembered how she liked her porridge. At least almost. Waiting for him to put down the honey jar, she said: "Add some fruit, please."

"I will, my lady." There was something in his low voice she could not place. Surprised she put down her cup and looked up, only to feel herself stunned by the expression in his eyes, as he looked at her, nodding ever so slightly. He certainly was up to something, and yet it was not mischief but rather something deeper, something she could not grasp. With profound embarrassment she realised that he would notice her bewilderment and she half-way expected him to do something to ease the obvious tension, but instead his next sentence almost made her gasp.

"Close your eyes, and open your mouth."

"What?"

The corners of his eyes crinkled in a faint smile. "Close your eyes, my lady, and open your mouth. Trust me. I have a surprise for you."

Feeling at a loss, she shook her head. "I do trust you, my lord. But I am not sure if I will like what you want me to taste."

"But I am." Now there certainly was mischief sparkling in his eyes, though that other notion had not entirely disappeared. Seeing her frown, he added. "Boromir told me, Éowyn. Never you worry and just indulge me."

She was not sure whether she was more embarrassed because of his silly demand or because of her own misgivings. Trying to fight her nervousness, she clenched her hand and closed her eyes. She heard him move and then he chuckled softly. "Open your mouth, my lady."

She sensed his fingers close to her lips and reluctantly opened her mouth a bit. "Don't be afraid, lady. Enjoy."

How could it be that she felt as if his very voice touched her? She felt tempted to open her eyes, but at that moment his fingers touched her lips. There was something small and cool he was obviously holding between forefinger and thumb, but she could not bring herself to open her mouth any wider. One finger softly pressed against her lower lip, and then he carefully pushed what he had been holding into her mouth. Her eyes flew open. A strawberry!

His entire face was aglow with a deep, silent joy. "See? I told you, you would like it."

Amazed, she shook her head. "Did your brother really mention that I liked strawberries?"

Smiling, Faramir nodded. "He told me that you were almost as mad about them as he." Emptying the tiny basket into the porridge, he placed the bowl in front of Éowyn. "I'm afraid it is only a handful, but they were the only ripe ones I could find. Eat, my lady, before the porridge cools too much."

Delighted, she started to eat, scooping up one of the tiny fruits with each spoonful, calming with every mouthful of the delicious treat. How stupid of her to have felt that nervous. It had just been a simple, caring notion of friendship. She should have known that he would not do anything she would not like. Only when she had reached for the last berry, she remembered that she should have shared with him. Blushing, she offered it to him, but he smiled and shook his head. "We will share when there are more of them, my lady. These few were entirely meant for you."

She ate the last strawberry and feeling his gaze on her, she found it hard to refrain from licking the spoon, just to tease him. It was so refreshing to have left all those possible entanglements behind. Their were friends, and they truly would stay friends. With a sigh of satisfaction, she shoved the empty bowl aside. "It is a wonder there are any strawberries at all this early in the year."

Holding out the plate with the sausage to her, the Steward explained. "We normally don't have them before the end of April. But Lady Saelind has a small hothouse and she always has the earliest in spring."

The spicy meat tasted even better than last time, and totally unabashed Éowyn reached for a second slice, pointedly ignoring the twitching of his eyebrows. "You should not have taken them in that case."

He shrugged. "I needed them as a bribe."

"A bribe?"

The Steward's face turned serious, his gaze seeming all of a sudden more intent. "Éowyn, today is my last day in the Houses of Healing. Tomorrow morning I will be sworn to my office as Ruling Steward, and I will move to the Steward's palace."

All of a sudden the tasty morsels seemed stale. Putting down the slice, Éowyn swallowed. "So this is our last breakfast."

He slowly shook his head. "Not necessarily, my lady. I thought that perhaps you might want to reconsider staying at Lady Saelind's. Then you would be quite close to the Steward's house. And to the strawberries. But even if you prefer to stay in the Houses, I promise I will try and come every morning, but you've seen what can happen."

Slowly she shook her head. She would not sit here and wait whether he might come or not. She had done her share of waiting, and she felt she would not be able to take any more. Heaving a breath, she spoke. "My Lord Faramir, you certainly have to do your duty to your country, and I had better not keep you from it. I think it is a fitting moment to end our appointment of sharing breakfast. I thank you for your care from the bottom of my heart, but I assure you I will be sensible and eat and train to speed my healing."

His face did not give away anything, but his voice could not hide his emotion. "I did not ask you to leave the Houses because I thought it necessary to make sure that you eat, Éowyn." He paused, reached for the bread and tore off a crust. Spreading cream cheese on it, he placed it in front of her.

"I missed you yesterday, Éowyn."

It took her a moment to realise that she was gaping. How could he admit such a thing that easily? A thing that she had been loath to admit even to herself the day before? Confused she sat, not knowing what to say. How simple and clear it would be to tell him that she had missed him too, and yet she could not bring herself to say a single word.

The expression of his face got worried. "Think about it, my lady. Will you?"

She nodded, reaching for the chunk of bread, just for the sake of doing something, and she sensed him breathe with relief. When he spoke again, his voice was back to normal.

"Take your time, my lady. Talk to the healers first if you deem it necessary. Both Lord Bahor and Lady Saelind will be delighted to have you. Not to mention your newly found cousin."

Éowyn could not help a groan. "My lord, Tuingail is surely sweet, but if our tour to the shops would have lasted but a little longer I might have drowned her in the fountain of the Citadel, just to cease her endless drivel."

Helping himself to a chunk of bread and cheese, the Steward chuckled, and Éowyn felt as if a weight had been taken of her shoulders by the brightening of his mood. "She's young, Éowyn, and it is going to be her coming-out. Bear with her overenthusiastic conduct just a little longer. Most probably tonight's feast will dampen her fascination for courtly life profoundly."

Feeling back on safe ground, Éowyn shoved her empty cup over for a second fill. "I know, my lord. She already complained that there will be no dancing."

The Steward grimaced. "It's not only the lack of dancing. I'm afraid that under the pompous cover of a stately dinner and some appropriate entertainment, there will be quite a lot of political wrestling, and I'm not too sure if we won't have to deal with a good measure of politely applied venom."

Éowyn raised her eyebrows. "Do you think she will even notice?"

"I'm afraid, yes. Tuingail is not stupid, and she's warm-hearted and has a very decent feeling for what is just. She is only very young."

Retrieving her filled mug, Éowyn shook her head. "Anwen is little older, if at all."

She saw his shoulders rise with a suppressed sigh. "I know, my lady. And that's why I wished for a less demanding life for her. But I think you are perfectly right and she's more than able to decide for herself." He thoughtfully started to drink his tea, and for a while they sat in silence, finishing their breakfast. It was her who took up the conversation, once that the Steward rose and Beregond started to clear away the dishes.

"Is there anything I should know to be prepared for tonight?"

He solemnly nodded. "Have an eye on Lady Corunith and her cronies. She's married to Dúrion of Adab-en-Celon on the Sirith, halfway between Pelargir and Minas Tirith. He's a rather unambitious man, but she is a political harpy, always eager to increase her influence. I don't know exactly who of her factionists will come, but she always has been in league with Pelargir and therefore will do anything to weaken the Steward's political influence and subsequently the king's standing. Though..." He stopped and chuckled softly. "Who knows? Now that I am the Steward she might think it worth the effort to trap me and trammel me with one of her daughters."

Fighting to keep a straight face, Éowyn put her hand on Faramir's arm. "Don't you worry, my lord, Rohan will certainly ride to your rescue."

He tucked her hand through his arm, and slowly they walked towards the main gate. "I would not at all mind being rescued by a Shieldmaiden of Rohan. But be careful, Éowyn."

How many times had she heard that last phrase back in Edoras? From Théodred, Éomer, even from old Eáldread, when the Worm had finally succeeded in making him leave the king's council. She would not back from any intrigue now, only because it was some Gondorean bitch instead of a man of the Mark. Lifting her chin, she said: "I will have lunch with Lady Saelind and then prepare for the feast. She asked me to come that early to fill me in on some of the nastier points that might occur, so certainly you will find me well-prepared, my lord."

Having reached the gate, he bowed to her with a smile. "I never expected anything else from you, my lady. And I am sure you will fight impressively in that armour of brocade Lady Saelind has had readied for you."

Éowyn laughed. "You've seen the dress? It certainly feels like armour, stiff as the cloth is."

"I haven't seen it, but Tuingail told me about it."

With an exaggerated exclamation of woe, Éowyn reached for the Steward's ear. "Dear me! How terrible! Certainly your ears must still be bleeding!"

Chuckling, he took her hand and kissed it. "As she talked about you, my lady, I was more than willing to suffer. I'm looking forward to seeing you this evening."

He had already disappeared into the hustle of the street when she realised that she still was standing at the gate, staring in speechless surprise.

Annotations:

Erce: The Rohirricversion of Yavanna

Ash and elm: In Nordic mythology the first man and woman are called Askr (ash) and Embla (elm), and there is a myth that three gods made them from the drift wood of said trees which they found on the shore. There is another (more modern) explanation, claiming that for linguistic reasons embla does not refer to the elm but rather to vine. Well, here you have my opinion. ;) Using elm foliage and twigs as fodder has been a traditional way of feeding stock in the more mountainous parts of Germany, and the elm really is a symbol for womanhood.

Corunith: cunning woman

Adab-en-Celon: house by the river


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