"And yet, Éomer, I say to you that she loves you more truly than me; for you she loves and knows; but in me she loves only a shadow and a thought: a hope of glory and great deeds, and a land far from the fields of Rohan." Aragorn to Éomer, quoted from: The Houses of Healing, The Return of the King, Book 5 by J.R.R. Tolkien
Minas Tirith, 6th April 3019, Third Age
With a frown, Éowyn stared at the letter the man in the livery of the Steward's House had handed her with a polite bow. It was not the first time that she had seen paper, though documents, ledgers and the few letters that had been written at Meduseld during the time she had lived there had all been written on vellum. The envelope was folded to the double size of her hand, the front showing her name in the typical flourishes of Tengwar, while the back held the Steward's signet, pressed into the wax that sealed the letter. For a moment she thought of simply refusing its receipt, but then she just nodded to the man and handed the letter to Tórdes, to put on the bedside table. Bowing again, the man left and Éowyn motioned to the woman to continue brushing her hair.
"Won't you read the letter, my lady?"
Éowyn only shook her head. It was already well after lunchtime, and she had just got out of bed and was still dressed in the voluminous lounging robe. She had found no sleep at night, her thoughts revolving around the question of how far the Steward had seen into her, had pried into her soul, manipulating her for his aims. Had he perhaps even been able to manipulate her dreams? And even worse had been the fear of what might accost her in her dreams. Only when the first signs of the approaching day had paled the nightly sky had she closed her eyes. Not to sleep, but at least to finally doze, exhausted by anger and doubts.
And again and again she had seen the Steward's face before her inner eye, his shocked expression at her last remark, the overwhelming pain in his gaze before he had forced his features into absolute inexpressiveness, leaving her after a courtly bow without saying a single word. She truly had managed a crucial hit, paying him back for his breach of trust, only that she did not feel any triumph.
And now he had sent her a letter. A long one, given its thickness. She grimaced. Those Gondoreans and their love for words. What use was it to explain the very same things again and again? What he had done to her could not be made undone and his arguments she already knew. There was no reason to read the Steward's scribblings. And yet she felt tempted to open the letter. What a stupid notion! He surely would explain, apologise, tell her he cared for her, would even marry her... All the things he had already told her the night before. Or would he reprimand her for her calling him a wizard's pupil, something that had obviously hurt him a lot? In either case she did not feel inclined to be bothered by it. There was absolutely no reason to feel tempted by a mere square of whitish paper. And she would deal with it once and for all.
When Tórdes had braided her hair into the requested simple plait, Éowyn asked the woman to help her dress and don the straw-soled shoes she had got from Imrahil's housekeeper and then ordered her find a sturdy basket, at least two ells in diameter and one high, and a cloth to cover it. "And please, tell one of my guards to come here."
Even before Tórdes returned with the basket, the guard, a middle-aged man Éowyn did not know, stood at attention in her room. Éowyn greeted him curtly. "I want to go down to the camp, Céorl, and I also need someone take a basket with some things to the Steward's palace."
"The changing of the guard is due in half an hour. I will take the basket and Aescwine can go down to the camp and have a horse sent up for you, Hleafdige."
Éowyn nodded. "I will have the basket brought out to you and wait here for the arrival of the horse."
Saluting, the guard left and only a moment later Tórdes appeared with a large basket.
As soon as the woman had left again, Éowyn moved into action. Her face set with grim determination, she gathered every single thing she had been given by the Steward and started to pack. Right at the bottom of the basket she placed the iron rod and then the boots and the slippers beside it. Reluctantly, she reached for the dagger. She would never again own a weapon like that. Angry with her inconsistency, she put the dagger into the basket. She should have insisted on him taking that weapon back in the first place and not let him lull her senses with his honey-drenched words. To keep it for his children! Had he already then thought about proposing to her? She hesitated. He could not have known then that there would be some conspirators at the feast, he probably had not even had planned that feast and certainly he had had no idea of her wearing his mother's headgear. She clenched her fist. Be that as it may. She would draw a line under all this, making clear to him that she would not be bought even by kingly gifts.
It proved difficult to fold the mantle with the use of just one hand, but in the end she managed, and having put the garment into the basket, she placed the unopened letter on it. She regretted that she was not able to also add the phial with the perfume, but then that item already was at the Steward's, totally forgotten on a small table in the dressing room. A fragrance mirroring her personality! She grimaced and then covered everything with the cloth, stuffing the hem neatly around the edges of the basket.
She had just finished when Tórdes came to take the basket, and no matter how often Éowyn repeated to herself that it was the right thing to get rid of everything that reminded her of the Steward and also of her own idiotic behaviour towards him she could not help the feeling of sudden cold and emptiness as the door closed behind the woman.
Cursing under her breath, Éowyn tried to arrange the shawl around her shoulders when there was a knock at the door and to her utter surprise not her guard entered the room at her prompt, but the Warden. The old man's lined face showed an earnest, almost worried expression. "Good afternoon, my lady. I am sorry to cause you any inconvenience, but I have just been informed that you were sick at the feast last night and I thought I better had a look at you."
"Master Warden, I assure you that nothing..."
Clearing his voice cumbersomely, the old man moved closer and then almost whispered to her. "My lady, please. I have been let in on what happened by the Steward himself. You certainly might be right that it simply was henbane and you also might have purged yourself from any traces of the drug, but there are poisons that can have a much more dangerous effect. Complying with the Steward's orders nobody else in the Houses is to know, so please, let me check according to healers' knowledge if there might be the danger of a nasty surprise."
He did not even wait for her answer, but simply reached out, taking her wrist to check her pulse. Tilting his head, he looked at her, and Éowyn could not help feeling reminded of the tame owl they had kept at Aldburg when she had been a child. "Your pulse is a bit fast, my lady, but I dare say that is rather due to your anger with my interference. Just let me check other possible symptoms without further delay so you might get rid of me as fast as possible."
Surprised, Éowyn raised her eyebrows. Who had thought that the old pompous Gondorean had a wry sense of humour? Purposefully he checked her pupils, her palms, her throat, asked whether she felt thirsty or had diarrhoea. He certainly knew his profession and it was his professionalism that made her go along with his request. In the end he nodded solemnly. "There is nothing I can spot at the moment, my lady, but I would like to look in on you again before you go to sleep tonight. We should not take any unnecessary risks."
The phrasing immediately got her hackles up. Had anything and everything in this cursed city to remind her of her quarrel with the Steward? Giving him a dismissive nod, she turned her back on him, feeling vindicated in her intention.
"Éowyn!" The broad smile nearly splitting his face, Marshal Elfhelm rose from behind his makeshift desk. Taking in her facial expression, his grin immediately changed to a frown. "What brings you here? Is anything wrong?"
"I've decided to leave the Houses and come to stay in the camp."
He thoughtfully scanned her face. "Have you talked to the healers about that?" Seeing her anger at his question, he shook his head. "Don't fly into a rage, Éowyn. You know that you are always welcome, but I will do nothing against the healer's decree." She wanted to interrupt him, but he raised his hand, intercepting her. "No, Éowyn. I know they are bothersome some times and their counsels are hard to accept, but they are the best in the way of healers I have ever seen. It would be folly not to obey them and you know that."
Had she not heard exactly the same rubbish from the Steward two weeks ago when she had wanted to leave the Houses? She grimaced. "I have not talked to them, and I don't want to. I want to leave the Houses, this cursed city, and I will go mad if I have to stay there a minute longer."
The marshal raised his eyebrows. "Don't you think you are exaggerating things a bit?"
With a huff she slumped down on one of the camp chairs. "Elfhelm, you were at that damned feast last night, you know what those cretins are wagging their tongues about."
His features not giving away anything, the marshal went over to a small shelf and filled two pewter goblets from a stoppered decanter. "Have some wine." Seeing her grimace, he laughed. "Don't you worry. It's that light white stuff your Steward prefers to drink, at least in the mornings."
"It is not my Steward, Marshal, and I would very much like you to bear that in mind." Pointedly ignoring the goblet which Elfhelm put within her reach on the small table, she glared at him.
Eyeing her over the brim of his goblet, the marshal nodded knowingly. "So that is why you want to leave the city?"
Angrily, Éowyn gritted her teeth. Why could this dratted Eastfolder always make her feel like an insolent child? Trying to sound as sober as possible, she said: "He talked to me last night."
Elfhelm nodded. "I would have expected nothing less."
How could this man be so unconcerned! She needed all her willpower not to yell. "He did all this on purpose! He lured me into this situation, cornered me so I had to play along."
The marshal took a draught. "Perhaps he did, but I am not too sure about it."
Éowyn clenched her fist, fighting the urge to slam it down on the table. "He must have known how the guests would react to me wearing that cursed headgear, and he didn't even bother to warn me."
That remark at least affected the marshal and his straight eyebrows nearly transformed into a single angry beam by his deep frown. "He didn't tell you before?"
"No, he didn't. He bloody never did." She stopped, heaving a breath, but then her sense of truth gained the upper hand. "He tried to, but he was interrupted by Lady Saelind, telling us that you had arrived and were looking for me."
Thoughtfully Elfhelm swirled the contents of his goblet. "I see. Must have been quite a temptation."
"A temptation?" Éowyn did not believe her ears.
With a sigh, the marshal put down his goblet. "Éowyn, are you daft? Blind? Deaf? That man has been eating his heart out for you for the last two weeks."
Elfhelm sat down, grimacing at her. "Éowyn, please tell me it is not true that you have no idea about what the Lord Faramir feels for you, or rather started to feel for you quite soon after you had met for the first time?"
She simply gaped and shaking his head, the marshal reached for the decanter to top up his goblet.
"Éowyn, the Riders are not betting on if you will wed him but on when you will do so. For at least ten days everyone has been convinced that the two of you are as lovey-dovey as can be and you have not noticed?" He paced his large hands over his face and groaned. "I just can't believe it."
"But what?" The marshal looked irritated. "A man tries to find out everything about you, tries to be in your company every minute he can do so..."
Éowyn jumped up. "That's not true! We only walked together in the early mornings. Well and in the evening … and sometimes... I mean..." A mix of embarrassment and fury silenced her and she cursed the stupidity with which she had risen to Elfhelm's bait. The marshal was quietly drinking his wine, his cerulean eyes never leaving her, and unnerved by it, she finally turned her back on him. When he spoke again, his voice was calm and matter of fact.
"Éowyn, from the very beginning the Lord Faramir took up certain tasks due to his authority in the city, as his counsel and knowledge was highly needed. That certainly strained him a lot, wounded and suffering from the Black Breath as he was, but he always made time for you. And can you deny that he did try to read any wish in your eyes?"
She slew round in a desperate attempt to fight off the sudden feeling of guilt. "He tried to buy me. He..."
Elfhelm sighed. "Girl, you are truly making a man's life difficult. What other chance did he have to show how much he cared?"
She suddenly felt faint, as if with the peak of her anger all her stamina had worn away, too. Slowly she sat down again. "But I thought we were simply good friends..."
The marshal turned his goblet in his large, sinewy hands. "Perhaps you were right at some point, Éowyn. And certainly being friends is not the worst start for coming to love each other." A sudden smile crinkled his weather-beaten face. "I have heard quite a number of stories about some Fréaláf of Snowbourne and a certain Shiedmaid who needed a very long time to find out that a young man might feel something else for her than friendship."
How could he dare to compare Fréa with... Éowyn swallowed, checking herself. Had not she herself been doing exactly the same only yesterday? Béma, what if...? Her head swam. But how could Elfhelm know that it had taken Fréa and her such a long time to realise what they had felt for each other? Or rather to admit to each other what they had sensed but had not dared to utter lest it destroyed their friendship? Had they been so obvious for everybody around them? Could it really be that... Had Faramir really... Éowyn suppressed a groan. The knife, the mantle, her behaviour at breakfast, feeding him... and he feeding her strawberries! Their talk about Emyn Arnen... And she had told him she had dreamt about planting a garden there! Béma's horse, what must he have thought about it if he had been …
Feeling mortified and utterly defeated, she eyed the marshal. "I cannot go back, Elfhelm, I simply cannot. He... he proposed marriage to me at the end of the feast and not only did I decline, but I think I hurt him really badly."
The marshal's brows rose. "Bodily?"
She groaned. "No, you moron. I... I think I insulted him."
"You think?" His expression was absolutely deadpan and to gain time, she reached for the goblet on the table, only to find herself staring into it, thinking about the stories Faramir had told her about the wine his father used to order from Tolfalas for his mother. Liquid sun... What her goblet held could rather be compared to the light of the moon, pale and cool. She took a tiny sip.
"I accused him of having bewitched me."
The marshal grinned. "I know few men who would take that as an insult."
She shook her head. "No, it did hurt him. Deeply."
Elfhelm frowned, and she added: "He sent me a letter this morning and I sent it back unopened. And all the presents he had ever given me too."
"And you are feeling better now?"
Mutely she shook her head. It was futile to deny she was feeling miserable.
With a sigh, Elfhelm put his goblet down. "Girl, is he really so hateful to you?"
Blushing, she averted her gaze. "It's useless to talk about it, Elfhelm. I have done what I have done, and that's it."
"And there is no way to say you are sorry?"
Her head flew up. "Never!
He looked at her, slightly shaking his head and then he rose and started to pace the small space the tent gave him. Watching him, Éowyn could not but wonder if all men had that habit when they felt agitated. Théodred had done it, Éomer and even the outwardly so composed … Angrily she checked herself. Was really everything coming down to that man?
After a while, Elfhelm stopped, though he did not turn to face her. But she did not need to see his face as his voice clearly gave away his emotion. "Éowyn, you know you have a special place in my heart, don't make me walk the plains of despair again. I knew since our first camp at the Snowbourn that the Halfling was riding with us and it did not take much brain to find out who had given him the opportunity. Nevertheless it was true what I said to your brother: I did not send you back because I feared for your safety. Éowyn, not the orcs and warg-riders that roamed the Wold were the greatest danger that might have happened to you, but you yourself, desperate in hurt pride." He shrugged. "I don't know what happened between you and the Lord Aragorn at Dunharrow and I'm pretty sure I don't want to know..."
Her goblet crashed on the table, the wine sloshing wildly. "Nothing happened at Dunharg, Elfhelm. Nothing. And neither anywhere else."
He slowly turned to face her. "It is not my place to judge you, Éowyn. But I saw your eyes shining on him when you proffered him the farewell cup at Edoras, before we rode to the Westfold and I saw the same eyes dim and filled with hopelessness when we met again on the Firienfield."
Embarrassed, Éowyn averted her eyes. How many people had seen what Elfhelm had noticed? How many tongues were wagging back in the Mark by now? She felt like gagging.
"Éowyn, listen." Elfhelm's voice was low and intense. "What I saw reminded me of Ethelfleda, and of the darkness that clawed at her mind after Cedric's death, almost sixteen years ago."
Éowyn stared. She had heard about the marshal's daughter from Éomer, though her brother had told her little more than that she lived in the Wold, married to a minor lord, a fierce warrior and yet a loving husband who doted on Éomer's child of the Blessing no less than on his own children. But she had never seen Ethelfleda, nor Gytha, the girl.
"Ethelfleda is at least as stubborn as you, and I don't know what she quarrelled about with Cedric, only three weeks before their wedding. I did not interfere then, thinking they would make up, as he was to ride to support Théodred's troops. But she let him ride off to battle unblessed."
Éowyn stifled a gasp. So the rumours about the marshal's daughter were true. Elfhelm must have sensed her thoughts, for he nodded, smiling sadly. "It almost made her go insane when she got the news that he had fallen and I could do nothing but watch." He heaved a breath. "For years Ethelfleda feared for his soul, feared that due to her stubborn pride he was walking the plains, a homeless spirit."
He did not continue and only slowly Éowyn realised what he might be aiming at. Stubbornly, she raised her chin. "I don't know why you are telling me all this, Elfhelm. They don't have the ritual of the Blessing here, and anyway being of the Mark, I could not connect a man from Gondor to his land. But most importantly: I have never promised anything to the Steward."
The marshal sighed. "I'm not sure, Éowyn, he might think you have. I'm afraid our cultures read behaviours of men and women in a different way."
Now it was Éowyn's turn to rise. "I will not run after him..."
Looking at her, Elfhelm shook his head. "I would never ask you to do that. But give him a chance. Wait. Let him show if he's persistent enough. A good stallion is patient but doesn't give up having felt the mare's hooves."
Again she felt the annoying mix of embarrassment and anger, and what made it worse, there was this tiny voice, somewhere in the back of her mind, insisting that the marshal was right. Éowyn clenched her fist. The Steward was not a man of the Riddermark. He would not know about any proverbs of the Mark. And did she even want him to know?
But Elfhelm did not let up, yet. Looking at her with those cerulean eyes, so typical of the Eastfold, he persisted. "You found him worthy to be your friend? You enjoyed his company, his attentions? And did you not feel cherished? I'm not a woman, Éowyn, and I know women judge certain things differently, but I would say he isn't a sore to the eyes either. And surely none of us doubts his ability as a warrior and leader."
Annoyed she turned away, unsure what bothered her more: Elfhelm's words or the fact that she had to admit that he was right. "Give him time, Éowyn, and ask your heart if he is not worthy to be loved by you."
Feeling she had doubtlessly got the shorter end of the stick, she growled. "You're a man and you are taking his side."
The marshal snorted. "I certainly am a man, but I am not taking anybody's side, except perhaps sanity's as that seems to have eluded you. Éowyn, I have watched the two of you over the last two weeks. I am not blind and neither dumb. The bloke is head over heels in love with you and you have smiled at him like the rising sun any time he addressed you. Béma's horn, woman! Try at least to understand yourself!"
She stubbornly stared at the canvas of the tent, her embarrassment slowly getting the better of her anger. Why could Elfhelm not simply realise that things were settled and over and that any feelings she might have had did not matter anymore? But the marshal was far from giving over, his voice showing the edge of sarcasm.
"The two of you obviously quarrelled yesterday after he publicly played the jealous swain. And then he comes up with a cake for you, some bloody cake that seems to have some bloody meaning here in Gondor if I understood the rumour right, and there you two are, holding hands and staring into each other's eyes as if the rest of the world around you has just ceased to exist. But no, you cannot tell each other that you have been just stupid, hurting each other and say that you are sorry?"
She bit her lips, forcing herself to stay quiet and first of all, not to let him see how terrible she felt. Had she not realised the very thing he had just mentioned herself last night? Only she had thought... She paused. What had she really thought? Had she thought at all, the moment Faramir had held her hand and looked at her with those grave, grey eyes? She had hoped, had lost herself in idle speculation on what he might feel for her. What an idiot she had made of herself.
"Éowyn," She felt the marshal's hand heavy on her shoulder. "I have been married, and happily married for more than thirty years now, do you really think Hrodwyn and I have never quarrelled?"
There was some commotion in front of the tent, a familiar voice, and then the guard threw back the flap. Éowyn jumped, knowing the newcomer before the guard even had time to announce him. Éomer! That infuriating, high-handed brother of hers dared...
And then he entered the tent and all of a sudden her world seemed to have a solid centre again. Looking into his face, her anger evaporated. He had come back, he was hale. Unable to move, she simply stood and stared, oblivious to the tears that slowly rolled down her cheeks. Her big oaf of a brother was back. Wordlessly he came up to her, and only when he raised his hand to wipe away her tears did she notice the bandage.
"Your hand?" She could not keep the worry out of her voice. His sword-hand! What if...? He did not answer, but embraced her awkwardly, obviously afraid to touch her broken arm. Grabbing his tunic, she shoved him away at arm's length. "What is wrong with your hand?"
He smiled sheepishly. "Nothing, Wyn. I mean, not much really."
"And you're bandaging it for decoration?" The sarcasm in Elfhelm's voice was not to be missed and Éomer grimaced. Only now Éowyn thought again of that condescending letter, written by a Gondorean scribe. An injured hand certainly would explain why Éomer had dictated it to a scribe, but it was no explanation nor an excuse for its content. She turned to Elfhelm to ask him where he had stowed away the odd missive, determined to throw it into her brother's face, but the marshal was turning his back towards her, busy filling a goblet for his king. Handing Éomer the wine, he raised his eyebrow. "Well, Éomer Cyning, if you don't think it necessary to explain to your old captain, at least your sister has the right to know, don't you think?"
Lowering himself carefully on one of the camp-chairs, Éomer stared into his goblet as if he could find the requested answer in it. Staring at him, Éowyn wondered if kicking his shin might really be an adequate means to make him talk, but then he finally spoke, the expression of embarrassment never leaving his face completely.
"The fight had already been over, you see. And we had won. I had removed my gauntlets to bandage Erchirion's head. He'd got a slash across his forehead and was bleeding like a stuck pig." Éomer stopped and took a swig of the wine before he continued. "Well and then there was that damned orc. Half dead already, but the bastard managed to get one of his fangs in." With a shrug he raised his bandaged hand. "Didn't seem too bad in the beginning, but when I woke up the next morning my hand looked like a burst sausage." He grimaced. "Well, and then the wound fever set in and Aragorn threatened to kick my arse because I had not told him at once and in the end I was more or less out cold for almost a week. And then Elfhelm's letter arrived."
"Elfhelm's letter?" Surprised, Éowyn turned to the marshal.
Elfhelm shrugged. "I wrote him immediately we got those missives written by a Gondorean ink-slinger, because... Well, first of all because the tone and the language made me furious and second because the content was idiotic. I told you, Éowyn, I believed him to have been drunk when dictating them. But even then there was something about them, especially about that letter you got, that struck me as odd, even if he had been completely sloshed." He shot Éomer a wry grin. "I've seen you rat-arsed often enough to know about that."
Éomer sighed. "They said that there would be messengers going to Mundburg, and Erchirion wrote to his mother and sister and so I wanted you to get a message, too, Wyn. But I couldn't use that dratted hand and I was befuddled by the fever... Well, and I admit I had had a cup or two to blunt the pain. I wanted Erchirion to write for me, but he said it would not do." He shrugged. "I think he hates writing as much as me, but perhaps it really would have been a bit strange to have him write to my sister." He cast Éowyn a sheepish glance. "Well, in the end he monopolised the Lord Hurin's scribe, and I told the man what to write and simply signed the empty vellum."
"You did what?" Elfhelm looked as if he wanted to jump at his young king. "That quill-driver could have caused serious political damage had he..."
"I know, Elfhelm. I wasn't myself and it was idiotic. I know I should have sent a trustworthy man to inform you, but I didn't want you and especially Wyn to worry about me." He raked his left hand through his hair. "I'm terribly sorry, Wyn. It truly was horse turd the bloke put down."
Éowyn snorted. "To sign a letter in blank! Blimey, if you swallowed a fly you certainly would have more brains in your stomach than in your scull." Suddenly a thought hit her, and she rammed her forefinger into her brother's breastbone. "Tell me, Brother, how do you know about the content of the letter, if you say you signed the vellum in blank?"
"I sent it back to him, asking him to explain it or eat it."
The marshal's voice was calm, and matter of fact as usual. Éowyn frowned. "And you didn't say a single word!"
A wry smile stole over Elfhelm's features. "There was no use to talk about it, before we had a solution."
Éomer shrugged. "Elfhelm has never been one given to many words." He grinned at the elder man. "And he has never been one of many letters either. So I knew that things were serious, even before reading his dressing-down." He drained his goblet. "I'm afraid I haven't got much time, for I will have to be back at Cormallen on the eighth of April. I came together with Hurin of the Keys on a convoy carrying wounded back to the city for better care. The ships will go back tonight." He cast Éowyn an expectant gaze. "What about coming with me, Wyn?"
Éowyn just stared at him, speechless. Her overbearing brother had made a journey of four days there and back only to clear up the misunderstandings and to tell her that he was sorry?
It was Elfhelm who anwered in her stead. "I think she had better not, Éomer." His face not giving away anything, the marshal topped his king's goblet up. "There was a feast last night which we attended, representing the Mark, and unfortunately the circumstances proved too demanding for your sister. I think she had better stay in the care of the healers for a little longer."
Éomer frowned. "And what do you really want to say, Elfhelm? Or better: What do you not want to say?"
Éowyn suppressed a sigh. It certainly was no use trying to fool her brother. "I was sick at the feast, Éomer, simple as that."
"You were what?" He stared at her doubtfully.
"I threw up, brother of mine. Never heard of that?"
He stared at her in disbelief. "Don't tell me you got that drunk at an official feast, Wyn."
She rolled her eyes. "No, I didn't. I'm not you, Éomer. I drank one goblet of wine and then I left the hall to get rid of it, as it did not agree with me."
Éomer's eyes wandered from Éowyn to Elfhelm and back and then he raised the refilled goblet with a sigh. "Well, I believe what you told me, but I sense there is much more you are not telling me."
With a wry smile, the marshal shrugged. "You know me, Éomer: No need to talk about it before there is a solution."
"And there is the chance of one, a solution, I mean?" Éomer looked sceptically, causing Éowyn to shrug.
"I don't know, Brother. But I feel that Elfhelm is right. I need more time." Their gazes locked, and for a moment she felt simply overwhelmed by the worry and love she saw in her brother's eyes. How could she have misunderstood him that grossly, believing he would order her to wed a man he had chosen for her without her having a say in it? Avoiding his eyes, she fought to suppress the thought that sprang up like a hungry wolf, sinking its teeth into her heart. What if Elfhelm was right? What if there had been more than just this one misunderstanding, what if... Checking herself, she heaved a breath. "There is something we have not told you, Éomer. Something I don't want to talk about at the moment, something I perhaps will find a solution to, though I am not even sure at the moment if I really want to solve it. But I assure you there is nothing dishonourable about it."
Smiling sadly, Éomer took her hand. "Wyn, I've never thought you would do anything dishonourable. I only want you to be happy. There will be so many people at Cormallen, there will be music and merriment, and I can imagine it would do your heart good. But if you think otherwise..."
He was interrupted by Elfhelm who stepped between them, putting his large hands on their shoulders. "Come now, you two. What needs to be done, needs to be done, and rather than lament the circumstances you had better make use of the time you have together. Sit down, let me order a bite, and then let's chat a bit like it befits victorious campaigners."
As if on cue, there was a shout from outside and then a Rider entered, carrying a tray with bread, sweet butter, cheese and cold meats and after the empty pitcher had been replaced by a filled one they did as Elfhelm had suggested. The bread was still warm and Éowyn nibbled the chunk Éomer had torn off and buttered for her, only now realising that it was the first thing she had eaten that day. It was painful how her brother's care reminded her of all those mornings she had spent in the Steward's company, and yet it felt good to see him, alive, gesturing wildly while he explained some details of the positioning of their forces at the Black Gate, smacking his lips having downed the contents of his goblet, and again and again looking at her as if to assure himself that she was really there.
Elfhelm did not say much, as was his wont, restricting himself largely to scrutinizing them with his all-seeing eyes, and Éowyn could not help the image of an eagle, keeping a close watch on his fledglings. Béma, how much these two men represented what was good in the Mark, and how heart-warming it was to be in their company. Swallowing the last bite of her bread, she turned to her brother. "And you really mean to go back tonight? Will not travelling upriver at night be dangerous?"
Éomer shrugged. "There will be a quite full moon tonight, and Hurin told me the wind will work against the current, making the passage much quicker and less strenuous for the crew as they'll be able to use the sails."
"Hurin? You said you travelled with him, didn't you?"
Éomer nodded. "The man was quite eager to be back in the city, his wife being shortly before delivery, if I understood him correctly."
"You did. And I'm sure she will be delighted to have him here."
Éomer shrugged. "He will be rather busy assisting that Faramir who is the Steward at the moment with all the preparations for the coming coronation. But Erchirion told me she is quite a nice lady."
"So she is," Elfhelm interposed. "You would certainly like her, but I'm sure you would simply love her mother."
"Her mother?" Éomer's brows nearly touched his hairline.
The marshal gave him a toothy grin. "Yes. Lord Counsellor Bahor's worthy wife. Try to imagine Frithuswith dressed up as a Gondorean lady. There are all the Númenórean features, a very prominent nose and some remarkably arched eyebrows, but that woman has wits as sharp as well-honed steel and yet can be as earthy as a midden."
Éomer laughed. "Yes, I can well imagine I would like her, as long as I am not the one she aims her remarks at. You certainly had the buttered part of the bread here, with all these enticing ladies around you."
Éowyn snorted. "Don't you tell me, it was the ladies you missed out there."
Grinning, he shoved a slice of meat into his mouth. "Not really. But Erchirion told me quite a few stories about some, well, highly professional houses in Dol Amroth and that certainly made me realise the lack of female comfort."
Men! Éowyn rolled her eyes. "Why am I not surprised, Brother."
"Because you know how men's brains work?" He looked at her with that exaggerated expression of mock-innocence on his face that back in the Mark had always made her hit the ceiling. Not this time, Brother! Smiling sweetly, she raised her eyebrows.
"Oh, I didn't know it was called brains nowadays, Éomer."
It was already dark when she finally came back to the Houses, feeling exhausted and yet too agitated to sleep. Only a few hours they had had, but that short time spent in her brother's company had steadied her, reminding her of her roots. Strange, how much she had missed the uncompromising directness, the earthy humour, the chat about horses and weapons... Though again and again her thoughts had wandered back to the previous night, to the Steward, to his behaviour, her remarks...
Time will show... She highly doubted Elfhelm's assessment, but she certainly did not want to go to Cormallen. Music and merriment... No, one Gondorean feast had been more than enough for her. And at least it would seem quite logical after last night's events that she stayed at the Houses.
Entering the lamp-lit corridor, she paused for a moment. Had it really only been a misunderstanding in the first place? Had she simply not understood what the Steward had meant to signal to her? Pulling herself together, she squared her shoulders. Just because one assumed insult had turned out a misconception she certainly could not expect every tort to come to nothing like mist on a sunny day, just with a few explaining words.
Approaching her room, she beheld the boy who, holding the quite large pot with the heartsease with both hands, was awkwardly trying to close the door of her room with his elbow. Sensing someone near, he looked up and almost dropped the flowerpot.
"Lady Éowyn." Blushing furiously, he made an attempt to bow, clutching the pot to his chest.
Éowyn breathed deeply through her nostrils, fighting to stay composed. So the Steward had got her basket and had sent a page to take the heartsease, too. How could she have forgotten about the flowers! Well, let him take it and have done with everything. Nodding to the boy, she made to round him to push the door open when suddenly he spoke, hiccuping with agitation. "Mother sent me to take the pot. I mean, she said the flowers would have withered and..."
A suspicion dawned on Éowyn. "Your mother? And who are you?"
"Bergil. Bergil, son of Beregond, my lady," the boy stuttered. "Mother and the girls came back yesterday, and the Lord Faramir gave father a day off to stay with his family."
Trying to ignore the remark about the Steward, she yet could not help appreciating his notion. And at the same time it explained why he had not sent Beregond with the letter... How could it be that she could not keep that blasted man out of her thoughts? She had better concentrate on things at hand.
Forcing a smile onto her face, she nodded to the boy. "Give you mother my thanks for letting me have one of her flowerpots. It certainly improved my mood in those gloomy days." And then an idea hit her. There still had to be the small fruit cakes Imrahil's servant had brought that morning. Tórdes had refuse to take them, insisting that she should eat them herself as she had not had any breakfast. Smiling, she motioned to the boy. "Come, Bergil, let me give you a treat for your mother to deal out to you and your siblings."
Opening the door, she headed straight for the bedside table to pick up the napkin that held the cakes when she noticed the fragrance: sweet, enticing, hovering right in front of her. Surprised, she raised her head. There, on the windowsill stood a new pot, holding the source of the scent: five small blue hyacinths.
Dumbstruck, she stared and then the boy's worried voice reached her ear. "Lady Éowyn, is anything wrong? Don't you like them? Mother thought the smell would speed your recovery."
Hyacinths are mentioned as late as the 16th century for the first time in Europe, but I hope I can get away with it. (I mean, the professor has them have potatoes and pipe-weed in Middle-earth...:-[)
They symbolise hope and patient waiting, but also can hint at a complaint about coldness.
Hleafdige: (Rohirric/Old English) lady (literally "bread-giver")
Céorl is an Anglo-Saxon name, but as it means "free man/warrior" I have the Eorlingas use it as some kind of title when addressing a Rider whose name they don't know. (Tolkien has Théoden King call a Rider they meet on their ride to the Hornburg that and that's what gave me the idea.)