"Shall I always be chose?" she said bitterly. "Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?" Éowyn to Aragorn, quoted from: The Passing of the Grey Company, The Return of the King; Book V by J.R.R. Tolkien
Schooling her features into complete blandness, Éowyn scrutinized the man in front of her - a handsome face, narrow, clean-shaved with the typical grey Númenórean eyes. Intelligent eyes, their falseness hidden under long dark lashes, treachery masked by a faked smile. That insolent knave! For a split second Éowyn felt like lashing out, wiping that mockery of true emotion off his face with her fist, but then she thought better of it. Plastering on a smile, she tilted her head. "And who, my lord, might you be?"
"Brandon of Adab-en-Celon, my lady." Politely, he bowed, still holding the goblet out to her. She took it gingerly, feeling Elfhelm tense at her side, but he did not interfere. Not so Nínim. The handmaid cleared her throat and then said: "My lady, please keep the healers' advice in mind. You had better not drink wine with the potion you had to take because of your arm."
Éowyn shrugged, pretending indifference. "The feast is almost over, Nínim. And one small cup of wine surely cannot do much harm."
Brandon bowed again, his hand on his heart, assuring her how honoured he felt by her acceptance. He was only a little taller than her but much wider in the shoulders, clearly showing the sword fighter's build and it was obvious that he favoured his left leg. So it had been him inspecting the garden. Eyeing him appraisingly, Éowyn swirled the contents of her goblet. "You fought on the Pelennor, Lord Brandon?"
His smile widened and he shook his head. "No, at Pelargir, my lady. I was wounded in the first assault of the corsairs on the town and had to forego any further battles."
The young lord wounded in the war! Éowyn almost snorted. Fighting to keep the wickedness out of her smile, she raised the goblet. "To valour and victory then, Lord Brandon. And to the friendship of our people."
"To valour and victory. And to the friendship of our people." For a fleeting moment his eyes flashed with triumph, but immediately he had himself under control again as he took a draught from his goblet.
Watching him intently, she took a sip and then lowered the cup again. "Well, my lord, and now, as custom in the Mark, let us exchange the cups."
For a moment Brandon looked stunned, his face blanching, and she could sense how much effort it cost him to keep the smile plastered on his face. "I feel certainly flattered, my lady, to be considered worth to participate in a Rohirric custom, but I feel it is my duty to inform you that customs seem to differ highly in our countries. Exchanging cups would be seen as a much greater estimation than you probably have in mind as far as I am concerned."
Éowyn found it hard not to bare her teeth in an evil grin. The stinking ferret tried to get out of the snare. Tilting her head, she held out the cup to him. "Never you worry, my lord. Marshal Elfhelm here at my side will remove any doubts that might come up. Eorl's sons fought for Gondor according to the vows and traditions of the Mark, so I only deem it right that Gondor does us the honour to celebrate with us the way of our ancestors."
Brandon blinked. With grim satisfaction Éowyn saw tiny beads of sweat gather right above his upper lip. Raising her eyebrows, she said with just a tinge of iciness in her voice: "I cannot imagine you really want to insult Gondor's closest ally, rejecting not only the ancient traditions of my people but also rebuffing me, the king's sister."
The Gondorean gulped. "Not at all, my lady, quite the contrary. I only had your reputation in mind."
Elfhelm snorted. "The Lady Éowyn is the representative of the House of Eorl in this town, and I am a sworn Marshal of the Riddermark. What damage could you do to her reputation?"
Éowyn almost laughed out loud at the desperate expression that flitted over Brandon's pale face. If he refused now, he risked his head, and he knew it. Smiling sweetly, she motioned to Elfhelm to take Brandon's goblet. "I certainly thank you for your discretion, Lord Brandon, but don't you worry about any possible misunderstandings. Now, to your future and your health. Down with it!"
After a short side glance at Elfhelm, Brandon nodded, and taking Éowyn's cup, he raised it and then downed it in one go while she did likewise with his.
"My lady, excuse me for interrupting your doubtless interesting conversation, but I would like your point of view on a rather important aspect." The voice was as brittle as frozen steel.
Surprised, Éowyn looked at the Steward who had appeared at her side. Where for Béma's sake had this man suddenly come from? Taking her elbow in a possessive and almost rough way, he tried to lead her away. She dug in her heels and addressed Brandon with her sweetest false smile.
"If you will excuse me, my lord. But I'm sure Marshal Elfhelm will be delighted to keep you company."
Turning to Elfhelm, she added in the language of the Mark: "Have an eye on him and try to keep him in the hall as long as possible. And if he leaves, send someone after him to find out where he goes."
His hand all the time on her elbow, the Steward silently led her towards Lady Sealind and her daughter who were standing close to the dais. She could feel his anger, even without seeing his bulging jaws and she wished she could simply kick him really hard there and then. Who did he think he was? Wasn't it enough that she was already saddled with a possessive and high-handed brother? Only when they had reached the dais and Saelind and Ivoriel screened them from the rest of the hall did he speak again, almost choking with suppressed fury. "Why, my lady? What in Morgoth name has addled your brain to act that recklessly? You promised..."
Her anger getting the better of her, Éowyn abruptly freed her elbow. "I know very well what I agreed to, my lord: Not to take any unnecessary risk. And that's exactly what I did. Eorl's House keeps its word."
He still had his features under control, but his answer came out as a snarl. "Don't twist my words. Where was the need to drink that wine? You were even reminded by Nínim not to do so."
"My lord, I am no disobedient child of yours, and I won't accept being treated as one. And now would you please excuse me, I would like to refresh myself. Nínim, would you please attend me? I may need your assistance."
Without so much as looking at the Steward, Éowyn swept towards the door, the handmaid following close behind. The moment they entered the corridor, Éowyn grabbed Nínim's hand. "Lets hurry. Lead me somewhere where I can get rid of the stuff I drank as discretely as possible."
The handmaid squinted her eyes. "You mean...?"
Éowyn nodded vigorously. "I think it was safe, but I will not take any risk. Get me a bucket or something. We can always blame it on the incompatibility of the wine with the potion."
In no time Nínim ushered her to the dressing room where there stood a chamberpot in an adjoining closet, and while the handmaid carefully held back the strands of the headgear, Éowyn determinedly shoved her forefinger down her throat.
"Have some water to rinse your mouth, my lady. And here is a towel. You had better sit down for a moment before going back to the hall."
Thanking Nínim, Éowyn sat down near the window, trying to calm her agitation. How dared that man interfere, to talk to her like that! What a pompous, self-righteous, high-handed behaviour! As if she was too stupid to buckle her own shoes!
"Do you want me to get you anything to eat to calm your stomach, my lady? A rusk perhaps or some plain white bread?"
Éowyn nodded, more to get rid of the handmaid than really caring for something to eat. The Lord Faramir had not even attempted to listen to her. Had he really expected her to chicken out and resort to the excuse that the healers had told her not to drink any wine when that bastard Brandon obviously set all signals the Steward had insisted on at defiance? Had she not played along with all demands and precautions? Was she not wearing the lhaewsmir Faramir had asked her to don and had she not even lied to Lord Bahor to cover up his ruse about her not wanting to drink any wine?
Embarrassed she noticed the hot sting of unshed tears behind her eyes. What an idiot she had been to think that he really cared for her opinion! Oh yes, he had been nice as long as she had played along, and as soon as she had dared to make her own decision he paraded the Steward and treated her like an imbecile!
Entering silently, Nínim brought her two rusks on a plate and a cup of tea. "Chamomile, my lady. It will do you good."
Éowyn grimaced. She knew the woman was right, but she simply hated the taste of chamomile. But now was not the time to complain about minor matters. She hastily gulped down the tea, remembering that it tasted even worse when tepid, and then started to nibble a rusk, her thought turning back to the Steward's behaviour. Her first rush of anger over, the disappointment bit all the deeper. He had cared about what she had said, he had acknowledged her suggestions, had understood her emotions... Why had all this changed of a sudden? Had she herself perhaps been blind, or seen things into his behaviour that had not been there? Had he perhaps seen her differently when they had been waiting for the Dark Lord's final attack, both of them determined to make an honourable last stand? Had his attitude changed because there was a future before them? Was he perhaps now expecting her to behave in what he thought to be a woman's way, obedient to her lord's bidding?
Shaking her head, Éowyn doggedly took another bite. She felt too upset to think things through, but she had to get something into her stomach, for who knew for how long the festivities would go on. Having finished an entire slice of rusk, she rose, wiping the crumbs off her dress. "We had better go back to the hall, Nínim, before the guests start wondering what happened to me."
The handmaid nodded and pointed over to the small table close to the mirror. "Perhaps you should just renew your perfume, my lady." She shrugged, seeing Éowyn's reluctant gaze. "At least that's something that every Gondorean would accept as a reason for your absence."
With a suppressed sigh Éowyn nodded her agreement. She truly liked the smell, though she felt a strange, saddening pain, thinking that it had been the Steward who had told her what fragrances to combine. Had he truly seen it as something to mirror her personality or had he only had the social necessities of the feast in mind? And what had got into her to follow his hints like a biddable child anyway? She squared her shoulders. It was futile to think about it, futile to wallow in misgivings and self-pity. The battle was not over yet, and she had to go out again to finish what she had started: To win the sympathies of Gondor's nobility to assure a peaceful future.
Striding to the door, she opened it and found herself face to face with the Steward who obviously had been about to knock. She could not help the impulse to simply rush past him, but she immediately dismissed the notion as childish. Willing herself to keep her composure, she addressed him. "I guess I am demanded back in the hall, my lord. I was just about to go there."
The Steward shot her an unreadable glance. "Nínim, would you please leave us alone for a moment?" His voice sounded even and controlled, and without further ado he again took Éowyn's elbow and led her back into the room. "How do you feel, my lady?"
Éowyn grimaced and pulled back her arm, her anger revived by his possessive gesture. "I assure you I took care of getting rid of the stuff Brandon proffered me. So that has been dealt with. And otherwise, what do you expect me to say?"
He sighed. "I should have known that you are practical, and it certainly allays my fears. But you should not have given him any chance to harm you in the first place."
"Harm me?" Éowyn bristled. "My lord, you rubbed their nose in the fact that I was not drinking any alcohol, and he defied it..."
"And you could have referred to that without any problem. Why did you rise to his bait?" Again there was the barely subdued fury in his voice that raised her hackles.
She wished she had two healthy arms just for the sake of crossing them in front of her chest. Glaring at him, she asked: "And what would you have done in my place? Am I to step back and cower before any imbecile just because I'm a woman?"
He looked as if he felt the urge to roll his eyes. "No, my lady, certainly not. But we don't know what drug he used. It might have been a potent poison, and..."
"Nonsense!" Her hand cut the air in an angry move. "He approached me publicly, with Elfhelm standing at my side, witnessing. He could not risk anything deadly or even anything operating too fast as everyone would have blamed it on him if I showed any symptoms."
"He could blame it on the intolerance with the potion given to you by the healers." The edge in his voice seemed to have sharpened and Éowyn wondered when he would start to shout. Sensing he was losing ground, she snorted.
"And that would have saved him?"
Instead of shouting, he started to pace the room. "Éowyn, there are insidious drugs, poisons that operate slowly, poisons that only need a tiny amount to be deadly. You took up a game you did not know the rules of. One you cannot play for all your valour."
She shrugged. "We'll see. I told Elfhelm to keep an eye on him."
Having walked up to the window, he slew round. "Do you think I did not have people all over the hall watching him? Him and his viper of a mother."
Had she really expected the Steward not to have set a watch on the conspirators the moment he had learned about their plans? Éowyn had to admit that she had simply not given a thought to that. Seeing her hesitation, the Steward added: "Brandon had already disappeared when I turned round to look for him after you had left the hall."
"He went to the privy, and I assume it was to vomit."
Éowyn triumphed. "You see? Does that not prove that my action was hazard-free? My lord, this is not the first time I face machinations, and you know that. I did not rush brainlessly into some fancy bravery."
He looked at her gravely and said in a calm voice: "We'll see, my lady. My men have intercepted him, and we will learn if the wine has any effect."
How could it be that she at once felt so soothed when he looked at her like that? But she would not give in! Lifting her chin in defiance, she shrugged. "If it was really drugged the way they mentioned, he will seem reeling drunk soon. And tomorrow he'll use it as an excuse for having asked me to share a cup with him in the first place."
The Steward nodded. "If the wine contained only what they talked about, yes. But we cannot be sure of that."
How could the man be so slow-witted? Éowyn raised her eyebrows. "My lord, do you think he would have drunk it if he thought it might be really dangerous for him?"
The Steward was not impressed at all. "You counted on throwing up what you had drunk fast enough. So might he." It was his turn now to shrug. "As I said: We'll see. My men are interrogating him as to why he thought it proper to ask you to toast the victory, thus obliging you to drink wine, even as it had been made clear that the healers advised against it."
"Well, in that case my action gave you a convenient reason to get your hands on him." She found it difficult to keep the scorn out of her voice, and his answer came like a whiplash.
"I would have found a reason, convenient or not, one of these days, my lady. Without you taking a gamble. I thought I had made myself clear that I wanted you to avoid..."
Breathing deep, she clenched her fist. "Oh yes, my lord. You had made yourself very clear. What do you think I am? Your puppet?"
For a split second his face seemed almost contorted, but then he regained his composure, though his voice was not entirely calm when he answered. "As I am the Steward of Gondor, you are my responsibility at the moment, my lady. And that alone would be enough reason to be concerned about your safety. You wanted to set a trap for them from the very beginning..."
She nodded with grim determination. "I did. But I agreed with your reasoning. And I did not seek him out. He approached me, and I had to react."
"And I told you before that..."
Irritated, she threw up her hand. "My lord, this is futile. You are arguing in a circle. And anyway I think we had better return to the hall." Leaving him standing there, she walked to the door, but before she reached it, his voice stopped her.
"I think you are right that we should not continue our conversation at the moment. But please, my lady: I need to talk to you. Do me the favour and give me a chance to... explain certain things to you once the feast has ended."
Staring at him, she raised her eyebrows. "Certain things? And what do they matter?"
Their gazes locked, and for all her anger she could not deny the genuineness of the feelings she beheld in his eyes, even before she heard his answer. "They matter to me, Éowyn. And very much so."
When Éowyn entered the hall the Princess Geliris immediately came up to her, a worried expression on her face. "What's wrong? Did the Lord Faramir not find you, my lady?"
Éowyn inclined her head. "He did indeed find me, my lady. And I assure you there is nothing wrong. He has to take care of something and then he certainly will be back to the hall, my lady."
"Oh, dear." The princess grimaced. "Try to understand him. He certainly overreacted, but he was worried about you."
Fighting to stay at least outwardly calm and composed, Éowyn nodded. "I know that he was, my lady. We talked about it. But I would prefer not to dwell on it." Out of the corner of her eye she caught Lady Saelind's questioning look, but her attention was immediately engaged again by the princess who put a hand on her shoulder, pulling her close.
"Don't pay him back in kind. That would not achieve anything. Believe me, he will realise that his interference was somewhat exaggerated." A faint smile now curved Geliris' full lips. "You see, after all he's a man and he can't help it."
Embarrassment mixed with anger caused Éowyn's cheeks to flush and she brusquely stepped out of Geliris' embrace. "And because he's a man I have to understand and excuse his high-handed spleen?"
Princess Geliris shook her head. "No, you don't have to excuse anything. But understand... Yes, my lady, because the moment Faramir starts to think soberly again, he will try to understand your behaviour."
Éowyn bit her lips to keep herself from a rushed answer. Was that not exactly what she herself had experienced in the Steward? Had he not always tried to understand what stirred people, what caused them to behave the way they did? Had he not attempted so truthfully to understand Boromir's and Théodred's relationship? But why then had he all of a sudden behaved so patronising towards her?
"Don't make things more difficult for him than they already are. All his life he has given so much and with all his heart, only to lose what he loved again and again." The princess' voice was soft and so full of concern and sadness that Éowyn felt she could but nod in agreement. Béma, she really was behaving like a little child! Strange only that it did not embarrass her the way she had thought it would. Surprised at her own reaction, Éowyn looked into Geliris' eyes. Warm brown eyes, reflecting the same care and love her words had held.
And then the princess slowly raised her hand and let her fingers trail the strands of the lhaewsmir. "Aquamarine and sapphire... May the powers of both guide and protect you, my dear."
All of a sudden Éowyn found her mind racing. Both gems were said to strengthen insight and reason, the sapphire being even called the stone of sapience. Had the Steward thought about that when he had selected this special headgear for her to wear? Was he trying to influence her with the help of this jewel? But then the sapphire also was seen as strengthening convalescence, or rather the bearer's will to recover. And was not the aquamarine alike, helping to overcome any heaviness of spirit and black mood? And there was the rock crystal, too, intensifying the virtue of any stone it was combined with. No, there was no falsehood, even if he had thought to use magical powers... Her heart missed a beat. The aquamarine! Had not her father always worn one around his neck, one her mother had given to him to help him control his fits of wrath? And was the stone not also seen as a protector of matrimonial happiness, intensifying love and fidelity? Her head swam.
Out of nowhere suddenly Tuingail fluttered like a breathless little finch and grabbed Éowyn's arm, her face showing all signs of heartfelt sympathy. "Oh, Éowyn, it's so good you are back. I was so worried when I saw..."
Nínim's curt voice stopped the girl's exclamations. "Leave her in peace, Lady Tuingail. The lady has been sick."
"Sick?" Geliris gave Éowyn a scrutinising look. "So Faramir's objections made sense, at least partly. You really should not have agreed to share a cup with that poser."
Éowyn breathed deep and squinted her eyes. The interruption had helped her to regain her senses and she wondered whether the princess really did not know about Brandon's plan or simply was a perfect actress. But before she was able to make up her mind, Lady Saelind interfered in her usual calm but firm way. "You had better sit down for a while then, my lady. Let Nínim get you some tea..."
Éowyn shook her head. "Thank you, my lady. But all that has already been done and I assure you I feel recovered enough to last through the rest of the feast."
Still clinging to Éowyn's arm, Tuingail let out a sorrowful sigh. "I am so sorry for you, Éowyn. That Brandon is such a moron. None of the people I talked with like him. And to think there will be your favourite cakes at midnight and you being sick."
That girl! Éowyn felt like groaning, but she had to admit to herself that the clueless remark released the tension. Smiling, she squeezed Tuingail's hand. "Watch it when you go to Cormallen, my dear. Don't say anything like that to one of the Halflings you'll meet there or they will hopelessly fall in love with you."
The princess laughed, and assuming that whatever disturbance had occurred had been settled, some ladies that had stood nearby approached them, and soon Éowyn found herself in another conversation about what to expect at Cormallen.
She did not know how much time had passed when she suddenly noticed servants passing round trays of small cakes while others were proffering small cups with a very dark red wine. Was it already midnight?
"My lady." Again she had not noticed the Steward approaching, and now he stood at her side, holding out a glass with a dark golden liquid on a finely wrought small silver plate to her. By the fragrance emanating from the glass she immediately recognised the tea she had drunk at Lady Saelind's and on the plate beside it she spotted one of the special Dol Amroth almond cakes, the kind she had shared with the Steward in the garden of the Houses. For a split second she thought about refusing the offer, but feeling the eyes of the ladies around her on them, she thought better about it. It would be stupid to spoil everything they had achieved tonight because of hurt pride. Gingerly she took the plate, only to realise that having only the use of one hand, she would not be able to hold it and drink at the same time.
"Have a seat on one of the settees over there, my lady. There also is a side table to put down your cup." Motioning to the furniture in question, the Steward led her there, and when she had put down her cup and sat down, he casually sat down on the armrest. "The Lady Corunith bade me to express her most sincere regret for her son's unseemly behaviour. Unfortunately he seems to have indulged in the wine without the due restraint and was not able to judge his behaviour anymore. He and his mother have already left discretely with two of my men supporting him as he was not able to walk on his own."
Éowyn raised her cup, more to hide the wicked smile that played around her lips than to really drink. She had served that knave right, and certainly now the Steward would have to realise that too. She felt the moving of the armrest as the Steward rose.
"Is there anything else you require, my lady? Some other dainty, perhaps some ginger or a nut cake?"
Éowyn shook her head. "No, my lord, thank you." Putting down her cup, she took the almond cake and started to nibble it. She felt torn in a strange way between joy and annoyance, hearing her preferences mentioned by the Steward. Why was he mentioning them? Was it really only care, the intention to please her, or was he just reminding her that he would not forget about anything she had told him? Was he perhaps even trying to influence her? Was he really able to read people's minds and hearts as some said? The almond cake suddenly tasted bitter. What had got into her to doubt him like that? Or had their quarrel only opened her eyes to what might lure behind his pleasing facade?
Feeling at a loss, she reached again for the cup, but her attention was soon claimed by several guests approaching the Steward to thank him for the feast and take their leave. Éowyn remembered Lady Saelind having told her that the serving of sweets at midnight was the traditional closing of a feast, and as the people were also bowing to her, their curiosity only ostensively concealed, she smiled, wishing everyone a good night.
After a while there was a lull in the parade of the guests, and she used it to leave as well. The Steward kissed her knuckles in courtly manner, but then held her hand in his for just a moment longer than necessary, his eyes searching hers. "I thank you with all my heart, my lady, for your presence and your commitment, and I sincerely hope that in the end tonight's occurrences will be remembered favourably by you."
How ambiguous his remarks were, his hints only understandable to her... Or was she again reading something into his words he did not intend? What a floundering fool she had become! And yet his eyes were so sincere, so free of any falsehood and cunning... Perhaps Princess Geliris was right, perhaps he had realised... had understood why she found his patronising unacceptable. Perhaps... Someone clearing his voice made her realise that they were standing in the still crowded hall, holding hands and staring into each other's eyes. Blushing furiously, she pulled back her hand, dropped the Steward a curtsey and left the hall as quickly as dignity allowed.
Arriving in the appointed room, Éowyn pulled the bell and soon the Steward's first maid appeared, her face like before in a warm smile. "Sit down, my lady, and let me remove the headgear. Or do you want me to remove the shoes first? Perhaps a cold footbath would do you good?"
Éowyn shook her head. "Thank you, Éredhil. But the shoes did not cause me any trouble. Just help me change. I still have an appointment with the Steward and would like to have finished changing before."
Bobbing her a curtsey, the woman did as bidden. She was busy tying Éowyn's laces when after a short rap at the door Tuingail entered.
"I just came to say good bye, cousin." The girl's sweet face was lit by a wide smile as she took Éowyn's hand. "I am so happy that you have reconciled. Faramir and you I mean. I was so worried when I saw him descend upon you like an eagle on his pray, even if the others thought it exceedingly romantic."
"Romantic?" Not understanding anything, Éowyn stared into Tuingail's eager face.
The girl shrugged. "Most ladies thought he was furious because that Brandon of I-don't-know-what dared to offer you wine, even though he had made it clear that it would not do. I mean, that idiot was snubbing the Steward by not heeding his instructions, wasn't he? But some ladies think it was rather because Brandon had addressed you in the first." Tuingail giggled. "They believe Faramir was jealous. But I think that is nonsense. He would not have let you wear his mother's lhaewsmir if he had not had absolute confidence in you. That's what Ivriniel said, too."
Éowyn stood stunned, unable to react. Had everybody gone mad? Faramir jealous because she shared a cup with... Béma, what utter baloney!
Not noticing Éowyn's agitation, Tuingail turned to the still open box. "It is such a lovely piece of jewellery and you looked so splendid in it." Her fingers trailed the headgear adoringly. "Did you know that the Lord Denethor gave it to the Lady Finduilas when Faramir was born? Ivriniel told me." With a deep sigh the girl closed the box. "They say she already had been ill for years and the birth had weakened her additionally and he had hoped it would help her recover. He must have loved her a lot."
In a desperate attempt to clear her mind, Éowyn shook her head. She should have realised that it probably had been his mother's headgear. And also what kind of assumptions that might raise. But given the situation, would it have made any sense had she not agreed to wear it? Her head swimming, she addressed the girl, trying to sound as stern as possible. "Tuingail, I hope you will not join into any stupid gossip concerning the Lord Faramir and me."
The girl shook her head. "Oh, never you worry, Éowyn. I know that nothing can be officially announced for at least a year because of the death of his father. And I am sure Faramir will keep strictly to the laws and traditions, what with him being Steward and all that." She waved her hand about vaguely. "And I did not think his approach romantic at all, but rather forceful." Again she sighed. "I was so worried that you had quarrelled in earnest, especially when you came back to the hall alone."
Éowyn suppressed a groan. That much for relying on a chicken to have brains! "I have been sick, Tuingail, and that's it."
The girl nodded eagerly. "That's what I told them. Goodness, everybody was so excited, and they really were so upset because of Brandon's insolence. But then it was so sweet when Faramir took you the final treat and sat down at your side." Heaving a deep breath, the girl beamed at her. "The two of you looked so splendid, you all in white and he in sable and both of your garments adorned in silver. It was like a picture out of the myths of old." She giggled. "Do you know that they dubbed you the White Lady of Rohan?"
Éowyn shook her head. "Tuingail, you are exaggerating. I assure you..." She stopped. What use was it to talk to this featherbrained child? She would believe what she wanted to, she and the other gossips. Éowyn clenched her fist. How could the Steward have made her part of such a staging? And without giving her as much as a warning. She heaved a breath. At the moment it certainly benefited his plans, and nobody would dare to raise any questions during the time of mourning, but what was to happen in one year's time?
"Éowyn?" Tuingail's voice sounded timid, and when Éowyn looked at her she found the girl looking worriedly at her, blushing all over. "Éowyn, I am truly sorry if I have caused you grief. I mean, I know that one year is such a long time and... I... I just wanted you to know how happy I am for yours and Faramir's sake, and..." Under Éowyn's stare the girl's voice petered out.
Her fist still clenched, hidden in the folds of her gown, Éowyn nodded curtly. "I would prefer you stopped talking about it at all. And by that I do not mean only to me. Is that clear?"
Her eyes wide, Tuingail nodded and then dropped her a curtsey before leaving the room hastily. Swivelling round, Éowyn strode to the window. What was going to happen in one year's time? What was going to happen... Feeling the hot sting of rising tears behind her eyes, she slammed her fist against the wall in frustration. How could he put her in such a situation? How could he use her like that? How could he betray her confidence in such an abominable way?
She heaved a breath. It was useless to rave and lose her composure. He had wanted to signal to the conspirators to keep their fingers off, or rather that she certainly was not engaged to Gondor's future king, and he certainly had succeeded in the last. She grimaced. Thinking logically about it, Brandon's assault did not make any sense, unless he had wanted to embarrass the Steward. A pawn! That was what she had become. A mere tool in the hands of some Gondorean nobles to play their political games, and the man she had trusted one of them. She felt like gagging.
"My lady? Would you like me to bring you a cup of tea or anything the like? It might take the Lord Faramir some time to see the guests off."
She had completely forgotten about the maid. The woman was gazing at her, trying in vain to conceal how worried she was. Breathing deep, Éowyn squared her shoulders, forcing herself to at least outward composure. "Thank you, Éredhil. I suppose I'll just need some fresh air. Tell the Lord Faramir that he'll find me in the garden."
She never remembered how she found her way into the garden, but the cool air at once brought her to her senses. Ungracefully she slumped down on the bench near the door. What an incredible mess she had got herself in! For a moment the idea of simply walking away crossed her mind. Her guards no doubt were waiting for her somewhere near the gate, and nobody but the maid knew she had an appointment with the Steward. But as fast as it had come that temptation passed. She would not run away, just because the talk she had to face would be hurtful and embarrassing. And had not the entire situation been caused by her shunning her duty in the first place? Were the gods showing her that nobody could escape their fate, no matter their valour and exploits?
And why did all this matter so much to her? Why was she such an abominable fool to let him matter so much to her? Had she not sensed that there was something strange about that headgear? Had she not seen the hesitation, nay, even guilt in his face? She pressed her lips into a thin line. His misgivings did not matter, for in the end he had acted like he had, putting her inevitable humiliation second to the political advantage.
But had he not tried to tell her? At least he had wanted to, and then Lady Saelind had swept into the room. Éowyn bit her lips, seeing the lady's behaviour towards her now in an entirely different light. All of them had been fooled into assuming...
She heard the door open, and turning she saw him, still clad in his finery as he stepped into the shaft of light emerging from the nearby window. He stopped, scanning the garden, and having spotted her, approached with long strides. "Éowyn." His voice sounded slightly breathless, and she wondered if he was agitated or simply had hurried to meet her.
Schooling her features, she rose from the bench and bowed barely noticeably. "My lord." He reached for her hand, but shaking her head, Éowyn retreated half a step. "I esteem your efforts to explain your behaviour, but having heard enough gossip about the special significance of the headgear you made me wear tonight, I would be thankful if you could cut it short and not add to my humiliation.
Clutching his fist, Faramir grimaced. "Éowyn, please, believe me. I had not planned making you wear my mother's headgear. I decided on the spur of the moment when you told me..."
Interrupting him, she raised her hand. "I know, my lord. And it worked, didn't it?" She gave him a mirthless smile. "And as there are stringent regulations concerning the period of mourning, you have won your king at least an entire year to establish himself enough to weather some gossip about some nobles' unfulfilled expectations. And I dare say there will happen enough things to distract them from one more or less announced marriage that is not to take place."
He obviously was at a loss, torn between approaching her and accepting her obvious rejection. Finally he shook his head and spoke. "No, my lady. You got me absolutely wrong. Believe me, all I wanted was to protect you from that knave's grasp. And I have terribly failed in that."
As if she did not know that! And yet she could not help the expression of utter regret on his face undermining her resolution. What a pathetic idiot she had become! Angrily she turned away from him, before she answered. "Have you ever asked yourself if I wanted and needed your protection? I don't blame it on you that your plan didn't work, my lord. I blame you for deciding over my head what had to be done."
She felt he was stepping up to her and immediately regretted having turned her back to him. How could she not have thought of that beforehand! Taking a step toward the gate of the garden, she tried to increase the distance between them again, but from the sound of his steps on the gravel he was bluntly following her. Irritated, she stopped, and immediately he continued to talk. "Éowyn, I have realised that my behaviour was unacceptable and even immature, but when I saw that knave approach you... I swear that I had not realised that you would think my conduct being so absolutely misguided." He paused before adding: "And I had not realised you might find the people's assumptions annoying or even humiliating."
She shrugged. "What is done is done, my lord. I don't mind them wagging their tongues too much, as I will have left for the Mark before anybody will get suspicious. You need not worry or feel obliged."
"I'm not trying to back out of my obligation, Éowyn. Giving you the lhaewsmir I did something I truly meant. But I fear I have taken you unawares, nay I know that I have. There was no time to explain things in a fitting way."
How sincere his voice was, how pleading! She was thankful for the dark and the fact that he could not see her face. Swallowing, she composed herself to be able to answer, and then reached for the shards of her anger. "My Lord Steward, I never doubted your honour for one moment. But I don't care for a man marrying me because he thinks it his obligation. Or a man who thinks he has the right to mould and pattern my life without even asking me, or worse, one knowing my intention and acting wilfully against it because he thinks he knows better than me what I really want."
There was no immediate answer, and like she would have in combat she went for the crucial thrust. "I believed you a friend, someone I could trust, someone I could open my heart to in the approaching darkness. Yes, my lord, I truly enjoyed your company. And yes, I felt cherished in your care. And I admit, my lord, I even felt attracted by your manliness. But I will never put up with any schemes that make me a man's trophy and with nobody who tries to change me into an obedient wife."
Shocked by her own outburst, she turned halfway to see his reaction. But instead of being shocked, he merely looked at her, shaking his head. "Éowyn, I did not mean to overrule you. Not when I asked you to wear the lhaewsmir nor when I led you away from Brandon. I was simply worried. I was worried out of my wits, because I felt responsible for you, because I had brought you into that situation, that danger.
She could not bear his eyes on her, feeling like squirming under their earnest care. Averting her gaze abruptly, she spat: "I am a Shieldmaiden of Eorl's House, not a simpering maiden, waiting for a hero to rescue her."
He sighed. "I know Éowyn. But please, don't let your stubborn pride rule you."
How could his mere voice make her feel so weak! Angry with herself, she tossed back her head. "That stubborn pride, as you call it, my lord, kept me alive and sane all those years under the evil whisper of the Worm. And now, that the strangling veils of his machinations are ripped apart, I will not bow under any man's supremacy."
His voice was low, but brittle, like on the brink of breaking, and she could not help the shiver it sent down her neck. "I do not claim any supremacy over you, Éowyn. Try to understand. I was over-hasty, blinded by my worries for your well being." He stepped even closer, and with sudden alarm she felt his breath on the skin of her neck. Hastily she stepped away and turned. The light from one of the windows illuminated the sadness of his face, and yet there was resolve in the determined set of his jaw. All of a sudden her feelings when he had fixed that cursed jewel in her hair came back to her mind, and with it a wave of confusion, shame and self doubt. How had she become so biddable? And then he sighed, and before she could evade his movement, the tips of his fingers ever so lightly trailed along her temple.
"Perhaps we should not try to solve this tonight. But know: I want you to be my wife. And not for any obligation or to keep the people from gossiping. I can understand that you had to rely on your pride in the past, and I admire your strength and your valour that go with it. But don't let that pride rule you, Éowyn. You used it like armour, and armour no doubt it is. But pride for pride's sake is an armour of ice, keeping sun and love from getting into your heart. Don't let its deadly cold freeze your heart."
Éowyn stood paralysed, staring into the Steward's face in disbelief. How could he know? How had he got access to her dreams, her nightmares? Could he read her mind? Was he really a wizard?
He took her hand in his, and spoke again, his low voice compelling now, like phrasing a prayer or a spell. "Éowyn, don't walk alone in the dark. Please, turn away from the abyss. There is light behind you, there is life."
He knew! He had known all the time, had led her on a string like a puppet, had lulled her senses, bewitching her, weakening her until she had been ready to fall for him. Panic and anger soaring through her, she pulled back her hand, clenching it to a fist, desperate to control the sickness that suddenly assailed her. Choked by unshed tears, she stared into his worried face, and then all of a sudden the snarl burst from her lips: "No, my lord. I will not be a tool or a toy for any wizard's pupil."
I chose lavender as a title plant this time, because it very nicely represents the occurring misunderstandings, partly due to culture differences. Lavender in a lot of countries symbolises love and devotion, in Germany it stands for mistrust and disappointment.
Just imagine a British Faramir trying to hint with the help of a posy how much he loves his German Éowyn. (evil cackle)