Through Shadows

Chapter 32

Chapter 32

Henbane

"...but Faramir did not go, for now being healed he took upon him his authority and the Stewardship, although it was only for a little while, and his duty was to prepare for one who should replace him."

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

Minas Tirith, 5th April, 3019, Third Age

For a moment she sat, looking over the artfully arranged walled garden. Three gardens she had come to know in Gondor and as different as they were all were closed in by high walls, preventing any open vista. Éowyn frowned. Probably that was simply caused by their location inside the city. Surely gardens in the countryside were different. The garden in Emyn Arnen would be different. And it certainly was immature that she felt sad, thinking of it.

Dusk was falling fast now, causing the different kinds of green to fade to grey. Only near the open gate the blossoms of the almond tree were still shimmered in the deepening darkness. From the yard the sound of people entering could be heard: voices, suppressed laughter, the sound of steps... Who knew when Faramir would return or if he would be able to come back into the garden at all before the feast? Perhaps it was better to walk at least a little nearer to the gate to see Elfhelm and the captains immediately when they arrived? Feeling strangely irresolute, she rose when her gaze was caught by the notebook lying on the bench. She could not simply let it lie there and leave. Without a second thought she picked it up and shoved it into the cloth that supported her broken arm, regretting it at once as memories unbidden started to flood her mind.

Had he really not known what it meant in the Mark to give a woman a knife? And his remark about her giving the dagger as an heirloom to his children? Resolutely, she shook her head. She was reading too much into his actions. Worse than those gossip-mongers at Edoras, when they were washing and bleaching the newly-woven linen on the meadows down at the Snowbourn.

She stopped close to the blossom-covered tree, breathing in the fragrance. In the yard servants were lighting lanterns, bathing the space in soft, flickering light. From where she stood she could see litters being carried into the yard by liveried servants. Women and a few men in finery were walking by and she could not help the feeling of rising reluctance. How much more would she prefer to simply stay here in this sheltered space, breathing in the scent of fresh, moist earth and plants.

What an irony to be engaged in an attempt to further the acceptance of Aragorn's claim to the throne of Gondor. Isildur's heir... The king she had imagined lifting her from the crumpled debris of Eorl's House. And yet save for the bitter taste of hurt pride she felt nothing. Not even jealousy. It seemed as if her heart simply had not been touched at all.

She stopped thoughtfully, chewing her lower lip. Aragorn's rights were beyond any doubt, and Éomer had made clear that he supported his friend's claim of leadership. Nobody knew about her unfortunate attempt to accompany Aragorn on his ride south so certainly everybody expected her to do as her brother. But how could Faramir be so sure of her support? True, she herself had told him of her admiration for Aragorn, only then realising that he had never been more to her than an escape from her circumstances, but was it not strange that Faramir had never doubted her statement? With rising unease she pondered how much of her thoughts and feelings the Steward probably knew and understood. And what really were her feelings?

Realising the direction of her thoughts, she angrily called herself to order. She would not make the same mistake twice and imagine herself having feelings she did not really have. Faramir was honourable, a good man, a skilled warrior, an acknowledged leader and certainly a man who could please a woman's eye, but he was not for her. Yes, if he were an Eorling, things certainly would be totally different. For a moment she tried to imagine the Steward with flaxen hair and beard, but ended snorting at her poor result. He was no man of the Mark, and he never would be, and she had better stop imagining things. It was futile and would only end in mutual embarrassment. He was a friend. A friend she did not want to lose. She clenched her fist and breathed deep. She was certainly interpreting his remarks wrongly, and she had to stop that. She would overcome her current confusion, and she would not risk their friendship for any shallow kind of infatuation.

Through the gate a stripe of light fell onto the gravel-path, and following a sudden notion, she stepped away from it, back into the shadow of the garden. From the direction of the building now long strides could be heard, and then the Steward appeared at her side. Even in the prevailing dimness it was obvious that he was vexed.

"What is it, my lord? Bad news or do you simply feel the messenger stole your time with unimportant tidings?"

"No to both, my lady. Thólinnas of Pelargir seems to be quick enough on the uptake. I assume he fears that Dol Amroth might extract advantages with Imrahil and two of his sons having fought on the Pelennor and before the Black Gate. So he tries to present himself in the best possible light, pledging his allegiance to King Elessar." He gave a lopsided grin. "Obviously the leading merchants of Pelargir have made more than clear what they think about the king, especially as rumours are spreading that the Lord Aragorn is no other than Captain Thorongil, the hero of Umbar. The harbour master of Pelargir claims to have recognized him. And last but not least his son has made clear where his loyalty lies."

"That certainly is encouraging news. So why do you frown? Is there a catch to it?"

He solemnly shook his head. "No, my lady. None save the fact that it robbed me of what precious little time I might have had in your company before the feast started." He gave her a lopsided smile. "The first guests are already arriving and I'm afraid once we have entered the hall there will be no chance of any word in private. We'll be under constant scrutiny of a bunch of people I would not call the most amiable that breathe in Gondor."

Éowyn shrugged. "Then let us make the most of what we have. And as for your fellow-Gondoreans: They don't have to like us, as long as they do what we want them to do."

The Steward grimaced. "Rohirric common sense, I dare say."

Grasping the chance to ease his mood, Éowyn gave him a look of exaggerated haughtiness. "That's absolutely right. And being practical I brought your notebook with me, because I did not want to leave it on the bench." Reaching into the cloth that supported her arm, she presented the small book to him, and he took it with a nod, but his face stayed grave. For a split second she felt as if she ought to simply reach out to him and stroke the tension from his face, but immediately she checked herself. They needed concentration, not distraction. Trying to sound as casual as possible, she asked: "Well, my lord, can you afford the time to stay with me until Elfhelm comes?"

When he nodded, she took his arm and they slowly proceeded towards the gate. "Let us stay out of the light though, as I would not like to be seen here in the garden by any arriving guests."

He gave her a lopsided look. "That might prove a bit difficult. Your dress and your hair shine like a beacon and I immediately saw you when coming out into the garden again."

Éowyn shook her head. "You were expecting me to be there, that's quite a difference. And you are a Ranger."

He nodded, and put his hand over hers. "That's both true, and yet you outshine Ithil tonight, my lady."

He certainly had an affinity for the moon! For a moment she thought to ask him about the poem, but then she decided against it. She could sense that he was troubled and deep in thought, no matter what he said, and it simply would not do to divert his attention from things that might be crucial for the outcome of this feast and for the future of the realm. They had reached the open garden gate by now and Éowyn stepped into the shadow of the door. "I'll simply stay here, my lord and keep you as my sentinel in the light. At least nobody would think it strange to find you in your own garden."

From the yard the noise of another arriving party could be heard, the heavy steps of the litter bearers and a young man's voice, asking something, and then the litter was obviously put down.

Faramir smiled faintly. "You are right again, my lady, though I think..."

She never learned what he thought, because all of a sudden he swiftly stepped into the shade beside her, urging her to move deeper into the corner behind the door, the finger on his mouth indicating the need of absolute silence. From the yard a woman's voice could be heard, curt and sharp, and then the litter bearers seemed to retreat. Éowyn turned to see the Steward's face more clearly, but it was too dark in the corner to make out more than the pale oval of it and the hand raised to his lips in a warning. Reaching for his arm, she squeezed it, letting him know she had understood. There was some rustle as if someone was arranging their robes, and then the woman's voice came again, seemingly right in front of the open gate.

"Stop sulking, Brandon. One could assume I demanded of you to seduce that trull in truth. You just have to make her drink that cup of wine. Gossip will do the rest." The woman's voice sounded suppressed but clearly annoyed and the man she addressed did not seem less on edge, for his answer came out in an angry hiss.

"As if I could ever bring myself to dally with such an unrefined virago."

There was the noise of crunching gravel as someone who obviously walked with a slight limp took some steps into the garden, paused and then retreated into the yard with a grunt. Éowyn held her breath. No doubt a man, but was it the man who had spoken or was there another person? He had not moved far enough into the garden for her to see him, but then that also made sure that the intruder had not seen them. Again the woman spoke, her voice even more irritated than before.

"Goodness, all I ask you is to take care that she drinks up and then leaves the hall to meet my man."

There was a snort. "Fine. And what if she does not want to play along?"

"Why shouldn't she? If you don't act too stupid she will certainly share a cup with a young lord wounded in the war." The woman's laughter was a clear sneer. "And once she is befuddled enough she'll believe you that the man has news for her from Cormallen. I will make sure that enough people of importance see her with him."

There was a pause in the conversation, and Éowyn almost thought that they had left when the woman added. "I certainly would prefer her to be seen in a compromising situation with an obvious commoner, but if she refuses, it nevertheless will discredit her enough if she passes out stupid with drink in the hall."

Again there was an annoyed snort from the man. "It is such a half-baked idea, mother. We don't even know if she really is that King Elessar's intended. We only have Rhíwiant's word for it."

Those bastards! And Saelind's haughty sister-in-law was in their scheme! Éowyn felt the urge to rush at them and give them a good pounding if not worse, but as if he had sensed her notion the Steward gently put his hand on her shoulder. She nodded her agreement, sure that though perhaps he could not see it in the fast deepening darkness he would at least feel the movement.

"And you doubt that?" The woman's voice was cold and sharp. There was a shuffle of feet and then someone spat. Probably the young man, because it was his voice that continued.

"I don't trust that hag as far as I can kick her. She hates the woman. That I know. But anything else..."

"One could really assume you discovered your heart for those northern barbarians."

The snide remark did not impress the man at all. "I just don't want those northern barbarians' steel in my guts, only because you have to push your luck, mother."

Éowyn smiled grimly. The man at least was realistic. But his mother was of a different opinion.

"Nonsense. Nobody will link her behaviour to you. Everybody knows that all those horse-people are prone to intoxication. And may I remind you, that we have an agreement?"

"Why can't Dúwen just settle for the Steward and have done with it?"

As if the Steward was some horse you could bid for at the spring fair! Éowyn clenched her fist, willing her breath to stay even, keen like a hunting hound now to learn what would come next.

"This is not only about your sister's future, you ass, but about who will have the say in Gondor. Who is that King they conjured up from the north? "

The answer came in an angry sneer. "At least someone important enough that you want him to marry your daughter."

"Even that coward Thólinnas is willing to lick his boots, just because he's afraid that Dol Amroth will oust him. But not I! And I have enough friends who will not bow to any nonentity. Don't give me that look, Brandon! I know the commoners sing his praise. The Saver of the country! Pha! Isildur's heir, they say. Well, he will have to prove that. It's a pity that Imrahil has sided with him. But be that as it may. The Stewardship will come to an end and the realm is open for a new distribution of authority."

The woman's voice had an urging tone now, and Éowyn could not help the image of someone obsessed with the greed for power.

"Don't you understand? Power and influence is there for those who dare to reach for it. We may not be able to prevent this undignified warlord from the north from sitting on Gondor's throne, but we can make sure that that Shieldmaiden won't be at his side. Yes, if he came up with some elven lady like Beren of old, that would be something the nobles would admire or at least accept. But a Rohir? It's bad enough that he calls that green horse-king his friend and brother! But we'll show him what Gondor thinks about his northern slut!"

For a split second the Steward's grip on her shoulder tightened. The man was as tense as a bowstring! But was that not understandable, hearing those conspirators talk freely about their scheme to impinge on the king? Éowyn grinned sardonically, thinking of their thunderstruck faces once Elrond Halfelven's daughter arrived.

"Keep your voice down, mother! You're attracting attention! You know that I hate this upstart as much as you do, and I have no love for those horseboys. But when you told me of your plan you made me believe that none of the lords would support his cause. We have been here for but one day, and what I have seen and heard differs largely from the picture you drew! And as far as that horsewoman is concerned, there is talk that she is highly favoured by Lord Bahor and his wife."

So the culprits' machinations did not work as well as intended. The Steward's hand squeezed her shoulder again, short and soft, as if to affirm her thoughts. But the woman on the other side of the door was by no means daunted.

"Is she? What does an invitation to a ladies' afternoon mean but the attempt to provide the ladies with some curiosity? Favour! Pha! They may garnish her with some hand-me-downs, nothing more. Mind my words: You'll see her in some out of fashion festive dress, but she'll wear no jewels, as those are certainly too valuable for dear Saelind to part with!"

There was a swish, as if someone in voluminous robes moved swiftly, and then she could hear the receding sound of steps, soon drowned out by a new group of guests entering the yard.

They waited a moment in silence and then the Steward took her hand and led her away from their hiding place behind the door, careful not to step into the light. Closer to the building the light that shone out through the windows illuminated the path, and only then could Éowyn see his features clearly. It was obvious that he tried hard to look calm to the outside, but not only the tense set of his jaw gave away his agitation. Never had she seen his grey eyes so dark and dangerous, burning with hardly contained fury. She could not help the agitation that surged through her, seeing him in his wrath. A warrior, even though his finery spoke of the courtier. Her mouth went dry and she swallowed, realising that her admiration was mixed with desire. Her heartbeat sped up. He would go for his foe and she would be his fellow-combatant. For the first time since she had been informed about the feast she was looking forward to it. And then her dreams were flushed out like a flock of quail. His jaw set, he sought her gaze.

"I am sorry, Éowyn. I should never have dragged you into this."

Irked, she took a step backwards, eyeing him belligerently. "Why, my lord? You knew there were antagonists in your game, and so did I. Do you think I will draw in my horns just because some conceited nobles try to make me a tool in their rotten machinations? We know what they plan, so we should go for them. Am I not right that you know who they are?"

"I do. But had I known they would go that far I would never have exposed you to their insolence."

Éowyn snorted. "Do you think I am that delicate? I don't give a damn for any insolence. They plot against the king for their own petty, ridiculous aims. They are no true danger to the realm, my lord, but mere clowns, unable to see more than their own imagined benefit."

The muscles of his jaws bulged as he gritted his teeth. "They are not worth the dirt on your shoes, Éowyn, and they dare to slander you."

Éowyn almost rolled her eyes. "A swine may scrub its dirty skin on an oak, but the oak won't care. We had better think how to spring their own trap against them."

"No, my lady. That is absolutely out of the question. I will not endanger you, no matter for what aim, and I will not allow you to do so."

What had got into this man! Haughtily, she raised her eyebrows. "Will you? And may I ask how, my lord? I cannot simply stay away from the feast now without raising questions and gossip and you know that only too well. You said yourself it would be crucial to have me and Elfhelm present as representatives of the Mark and now you chicken out just because some idiots insulted me?"

A sharp furrow appeared above the bridge of his nose. "Haven't you heard, my lady? They will try to drug you, poison you."

Éowyn raised her eyebrows. "So what? Who are they, anyway?"

"Lady Corunith and her son. I don't want you to risk..."

Ignoring his objection, she nodded. "Right. So we know them. You can point them out to me. We know they want to drug me to make me appear intoxicated and embarrass myself. And as that idiotic jade thinks me to be the king's intended because some other idiotic jade told her so, they count on embarrassing the king by that, killing two birds with one stone: Getting me out of their way and showing Aragorn that his powers are limited. Where is the danger for me, my lord?"

The Steward sighed. "Éowyn, there are worse things that can beef up the potency of a drink than just henbane, dangerous as even that is. You are right that it would set tongues wagging if you did not attend the feast, and you are also right about Corunith's intentions. And yes, we know who they are and I will point them out to you. But please, don't let them get near you and don't drink anything they offer to you. I will have a reliable man at your side to watch over you."

Éowyn frowned. "Do you think I need a nurse maid? That certainly will raise suspicions."

He shook his head. "No, my lady. You only have the use of one arm and you might require a certain support. But you are right that it had better be a woman." Grimacing, he lightly touched her cheek. "Éowyn, please. Don't make me regret that I involved you in this more than I already do. I swear to you, those villains will not go unpunished for what they intend and I'll make them pay dearly for every single insult to you they ever dared to even think, but tonight we have to step carefully. I want this feast to be a success, the realm needs it to be a success, but I would never forgive myself if you should come to any harm."

Éowyn suppressed a sigh. Over protectiveness seemed to be a universal male notion. Grudgingly, she nodded. "Very well then, my Lord Faramir. I will not take any unnecessary risk. And it would be sensible to inform Elfhelm and his captains about what is going on." Smiling lopsidedly, she added: "At least about the fact that those two might try to serve me poisoned wine. We had better leave out the insults; men seem to have a quite ticklish spot as far as their women's honour is concerned and that tends to addle their brains. And I would not like that stupid rumour about me being the king's intended spread any further."

The Steward nodded a little stiffly. "I'll inform Lady Sealind and some trusted men, my lady, to make sure that you can concentrate on the conversation with the more worthy guests. Elfhelm should be here any moment, and I leave it to you to inform him."

She put her hand on his lower arm, smiling spontaneously when she noticed that he still held the notebook. "Trust me, my lord, Elfhelm is very good at guarding my steps. I won't be in any danger."

Putting his other hand over hers, he smiled a little wistfully. "I know, my lady. But I blame myself for having brought you into this unpleasant situation. And my vanity not being the least reason for it, because I wanted to see you admired."

Men! With a sigh she shrugged. "Then I am really sorry that my stubbornness played into the hands of those knaves." Seeing his incomprehension, she added: "Lady Sealind wanted me to wear some jewellery. She even offered her own lhaewsmir to me, but I refused it, not fully understanding the importance. Now wearing one would really be a slap into the face of that bicce."

His eyes widened for a split second, his jaw bulged, and she saw him swallow fiercely, as he grabbed her hand in an almost crushing grip. "Éowyn..." He hesitated. "It would work. Yes. It would. I..."

She stared at his face, shocked by the expression of his eyes. Something wild lingered there in those grey depths, something odd, as if triumph and guilt were wrestling with each other. And then he simply turned to the building, dragging her behind him. "Come, Éowyn. We don't have much time. I'll... "

He opened the door and led her to the room where the maid had helped her change into her festive dress. "Wait. Just a minute. I'll hurry."

Speechless she stared as he rushed out of the room. What had got into the man? He truly seemed like one fevered or mad. But he did not leave her much time to ponder, for soon he was back, carrying one of those small boxes she by now knew to hold the traditional Gondorean jewellery.

"Come, my lady. Wear this, and make all who doubt Gondor's gratitude and serious emotions choke on their own lies."

She had truly admired the headgears she had seen, but what the Steward lifted out of the box simply made her gasp. Strands of finely wrought silver, shimmering like some magical serpents and two fragrant blossoms of aquamarine and rock crystal around a centre consisting of a cherry size dark-blue sapphire. The strand that would lie across the forehead held a similar stone, whereas the ends of the three strands hanging down from each hair slide sported smaller samples of all three kinds of precious stones. And then she realized that is was not silver but mithril. Just to imagine the rarity of such a jewel! Feeling dazed, she shook her head. "I cannot wear this, my lord. It simply is too precious."

He looked her straight into the eye, with the grave seriousness that so aptly mirrored his personality. "If you cannot wear it, Éowyn, then nobody can. Wear it for me tonight, for it will lessen my worries. You called the dress your armour, let this be sword and shield in one tonight, for nobody will dare to even think of accosting you with this adorning your hair."

Éowyn frowned. He certainly was right. This jewel was too extraordinary not to be known, and certainly it would be a more than strong signal not only to the conspirators if she wore it. Swallowing, she nodded, and stepping closer, he carefully fixed the slides in her hair. Ever so lightly she felt his hands on her temples and on her forehead as he arranged the headgear. So carefully, so gently. She almost flinched at the sensation of sudden heat as his fingers brushed her cheeks and neck, smoothing out the bejewelled strands. In vain she fought the blush that was rising into her cheeks, tried to tell herself it was but a necessary touch, like that of a squire, checking the buckles of the cuirass. And yet her skin tingled, all her senses screaming that it was a caress. A caress she craved for, a caress she needed all her willpower not to lean into, begging for more.

How could she be such an abominable fool! And then to her utter mortification she realised that she had closed her eyes under the Steward's gentle ministrations. Her eyes flew open. He was there, close, so close. And his face... How could a face normally so controlled, so composed show such a vivid display of contradicting feelings? She totally felt at a loss, and swallowing hard, she took half a step backwards.

"Éowyn..." His voice was thick with emotion as he slowly raised his hand, reaching out for her, but never touching her. "Éowyn, I..."

The abrupt opening of the door interrupted all further communication. Lady Saelind rushed into the room, visibly out of breath. "My goodness, here you are! Faramir, you are delaying the proceedings. The girls have arrived and the Marshal is waiting for the Lady Éowyn in the garden and... Oh!" The lady's eyes widened, taking in the jewellery Éowyn was wearing.

"The proceedings have been changed due to compelling reasons, Aunt Saelind. The Lady Éowyn and I will enter the hall from the side of the dais." The Steward's voice was even as if nothing had happened, and in a few sentences he supplied Lady Saelind with the necessary information. The lady nodded, unflustered and businesslike and only the mentioning of her sister-in-law caused her to press her lips into a thin line for a moment.

"I'll send someone to inform the Marshal about the changes and to fetch Nínim." With a regretful shrug she turned to Éowyn, who had been standing quietly, thankful for the chance to regain her composure. "I think you had better tell Lord Elfhelm about the incident yourself. I don't want to take the risk of a servant babbling. As for Nínim, she has ever been a confidante to me and she is wary and intelligent. She'll certainly be up to the task to act as your shadow."

Éowyn grimaced. "The dragon guarding the hoard."

With two fast strides Lady Saelind walked up to her and to Éowyn's profound surprise, pulled her close and kissed her cheek. "We will always treasure you, child." Holding her at arm's length, the elder woman smiled grimly. "I told you it was a battle, but I truly did not expect anything like this. Now hurry, you two, before the guests start getting nervous." She made to leave the room, but then turned again, squeezing Éowyn's shoulder. "And remember: No matter what happens, you are the highest ranking woman in this hall. They have to bow to you, so make sure they do." With that she hastened away.

Confused, Éowyn took the Steward's proffered arm and they followed much slower, walking down the corridor until he stopped in front of a massive door. "Ready, my lady?" His voice was sober, as was his enquiring gaze.

Éowyn breathed deep, squaring her shoulders, and then nodded. "I am, my lord. Ready to fight and determined to win this battle."

His lips hardly smiled, but his eyes suddenly shone with warmth and joy. "Then, my Shieldmaiden, let us take on whatever lies ahead of us."


The moment they entered the hall even the slightest flutter of confusion and distracting desires was gone. Holding her head high, Éowyn walked across the dais. This was a task, her contribution to their peoples' future, something that was not to be taken lightly. True, she had fled the hateful duty that bound her to hearth and home while men won glory in battle, but then she had thought that reaching for glory in death was the only escape from dishonour and misery. Now that the House of Eorl had risen again from the ashes, she would teach everyone its valour.

A hush fell as the first guests spotted them, seconds before the attention of all was drawn to them by the seneschal's announcement. At a measured step, the Steward led her to the front of the dais. There were some whispers and even a number of muffled exclamations, and then the nobles that were gathered in the hall greeted them, bowing and curtsying in that strange solemn Gondorean way. Only one lady right in front of the dais stood unmoving, staring at Éowyn as if stunned.

Rhíwiant, counsellor Bahor's elder sister, sister-in-law to Lady Saelind and informer of the conspirators! Éowyn schooled her features into haughty blandness, staring at the crone with unwavering eyes. Nobody would treat an old woman that way in the Mark, but remembering Saelind's words, Éowyn insisted, and suddenly, as if realising the situation around them, Rhíwiant lowered her gaze and curtsied, still not able to master her surprise and anger.

Smiling, Éowyn let her gaze run over the assembly. She immediately spotted Elfhelm and his men, Tuingail still in their company, while Ivoriel stood a little apart at the Princess' Geliris side. And further down she saw Lord Bahor in the company of some men she recalled having seen at their meetings, whose names though she did not remember.

"Have a look left of Bahor." The Steward smiled, his voice a mere whisper close to her ear, and for a split second she thought that it must look to the guests as if he was whispering some encouragement or endearment to her. "The woman in the dark red kirtle and the young man with the surcoat of the same colour. That's them: Corunith and Brandon of Adab-en-Celon."

Responding with a smile, she nodded, and the Steward led her to her seat at the high-table. She was placed on the Steward's left, with the Princess Geliris on his right, and as the Lord Faramir was holding the chair for her to sit down, the princess grinned conspiratorially at her. "His senschal had planned for us to be placed the other way round, as protocol demands with you being the guest of honour, but Faramir insisted it would be easier for him to assist you during the meal like this."

The Steward shrugged and took his seat. "I hope you don't mind, my lady, but it simply deemed more practical to me."

And she had thought him to be too uptight to walk at her "wrong" side when they had first met! Éowyn laughed. "It seems that Rohirric common sense, as you called it, is contagious, my lord. It is certainly much more practical like this, though I don't doubt that Lord Bahor would have obliged me and cut my food for me."

The old counsellor who had taken his seat at her left, winked at her. "Most certainly, my lady. Though I do not doubt that our dear Steward's service will be nonetheless welcome."

Servants were entering to pour wine, but as soon as Éowyn's cup had been filled, the Steward reached for it and unceremoniously changed the cups. "I'm sorry, my lady, I forgot to inform the servants." Turning to the servant, he added: "It's water for the Lady Éowyn, please."

That man certainly was not taking any risk! Éowyn found it difficult not to snort

"Water?" Bahor's expression showed pure disbelief.

"I'm afraid my arm is giving me some problems lately, my lord, and the healers gave me a draught before the feast, advising me not to drink any alcohol tonight." Éowyn hurried to smile at him when she saw his worried look. "It's nothing serious, just the usual pangs of healing, but they can be quite disturbing." Still smiling at the kind old man, she purposefully kicked the Steward's shin with her left heel, but to her disappointment Faramir only bowed to her with his typical faint smile.

Soon everyone was served and they rose to toast the victorious forces of Rohan and Gondor and honour the fallen of both realms, and then the meal started. It was a lengthy affair with course following after course, and Éowyn was glad that Lady Saelind had explained to her what to expect. So she took a bit of everything, finding most dishes to her taste, except for the poached vineyard snails in garlic butter. Servants flitted to and fro, carrying decanters to refill the guests' cups and as more short speeches and toasts were made between the courses, she had to admit to herself that she was quite content to be able to fall back on water instead of wine. Out of the corner of her eyes she noticed that the Steward too filled his cup from the jug before them and she wondered for a moment if he had only used her as an excuse to stay sober himself. But certainly that was not more than an additional benefit. His foremost aim no doubt had been to make publicly clear that it would not do to offer her any wine. She suppressed a sigh. He certainly was clever, but why did he have to be so patronizing and over-protective all of a sudden?

And then the meal was over and all attendees mixed in conversation. Éowyn soon found herself in the focus of the ladies' interest. Besides enquiries after her obviously broken arm a compliment on her dress was by most of them used as an opening of conversation, and though only few of them mentioned it openly, Éowyn did not miss their admiring looks at the lhaewsmir she was wearing. She even overheard some ladies remarking on it amongst themselves in awed whispers. It obviously really was a kind of sword and shield in this battle of vanity. Seeking the Lord Faramir with her gaze, she found him in animated conversation with a group of elderly ladies.

All in all there were nearly twice as many woman as men in the hall, and those men that were present were either too old to fight or clearly bore signs of having been recently wounded. Éowyn sighed, wondering how many of the guests might have lost dear ones in the war, but her attention was soon solicited by the ladies around her again.

She smiled, talked, answered questions, and the longer the evening stretched the more often the enquiries could be reduced to two topics: the new kings of Gondor and Rohan. She said little about Aragorn save praising his valour and leadership and describing his appearance as detailed as she could when being asked to do so repeatedly. But she did not mention Elrond Halfelven's daughter, as despite all their curiosity none of the ladies asked whether he was married or betrothed. Her brother though was something else entirely. The ladies expressed their condolences at her uncle's death, and then rather unabashed tried to get any information on her brother out of her that could be had, especially when they had learned that there was no woman at his side.

Hiding a malicious grin, Éowyn answered their questions. Yes, her brother had been appointed heir to the throne by the king himself, no, there would be no doubt concerning his rights in Rohan. Yes, Éomer had been appointed Marshal at a very young age, yes they had been fostered by their uncle at Meduseld, and no, the hall was not as large as Merethrond, but it was beautiful. And again and again she was asked to describe her brother: the warrior, the king, the man. She held nothing back, almost breaking out in uncontrolled giggles at the muffled sigh of one of the younger ladies when she pointed out for the umpteenth time that he was called the Lion of the Riddermark for more than his warrior skills. There was no doubt that a great number of the younger ladies would pester their parents to go to the rejoicing in Cormallen, and Béma, they would descend on that brother of hers like a pack of she-wolves on heat!

It seemed to her that an eternity had passed until she managed somehow to escape the throng, Nínim always in tow, when she saw Elfhelm approaching her. She had only had little time to inform the marshal about what Faramir and she had overheard right after the meal and had referred him to the Steward for the pointing out of the two culprits, because the first people had already drawn near to address her. Several times during the evening she had spotted the group of Eorlingas, they too being in earnest conversation, and every time there had been one of them not involved in the talk, but keeping a watchful eye on her.

"Well, Marshal Watchdog, satisfied with the evening so far?" She gave him a wide grin, and with a grunt he raised the tankard he was holding to her in a salute.

"That Steward of yours even thought of providing some decent ale. Not that I mind wine now and then, but to pass an entire evening ale certainly is better."

Éowyn frowned. "That Steward is by no means my Steward, Elfhelm. You had better keep that in mind."

"If you say so." The marshal shrugged, and she did not like the way he drawled his answer one bit. But before she could give him a piece of her mind, he drew her attention to a seemingly unsuspicious young man in a dark red surcoat who was crossing the hall, a small silver goblet in each hand.

"That coxcomb has been watching you for at least the last half hour," Elfhelm muttered under his breath.

Brandon of Adab-en-Celon! Éowyn raised her eyebrows. "Where is his mother?"

"Sitting over there with a bunch of other gossips." The marshal jerked his head towards the far end of the room, never leaving the man out of his eye. "She has not moved from there for the entire evening."

Searching the pointed out space with her eyes, Éowyn finally spotted the lady, obviously in conversation with a group of elderly ladies. But no Lady Rhíwiant, Éowyn observed with a grim smile. Obviously Corunith was clever enough to shun being seen with the woman who had been unfortunate enough to attract attention to herself tonight. She was just about to make a remark about that to Elfhelm, when a man addressed her. Looking up, she beheld Corunith's son, an adoring smile on his face, holding out one of the goblets to her.

"Lady Éowyn of Rohan, please do me the honour and share a cup of this excellent vintage with me."

Annotations:

Henbane was widely used to procure sleep and allay pains. Though it was know to be poisonous itwas used to beef up beer in Germany up to the 17th century

bicce: (Old English/Rohirric) bitch


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