Through Shadows

Chapter 35

Chapter 35

Laurel and Almond

"I have, maybe, the power to heal her body, and to call her back from the dark valley. But to what she will awake: hope, or forgetfulness, or despair, I do not know. And if to despair, then she will die, unless other healing comes which I cannot bring..." Aragorn, quoted from:The Steward and the King; The Return of the King; Book Five by J.R.R. Tolkien

Minas Tirith, 7th April 3019, Third Age

Trudging up from the fourth circle back to the Houses of Healing, Éowyn all but swore. A second sleepless night had not improved her mood at all. Again and again she had pondered Elfhelm's remarks and yet had not come closer to any solution. She suppressed a sigh. She needed to clear her head of all those ifs and buts, of the self-doubts she felt and, most important of all, of her hidden fears if she wanted to be able to judge the Steward's behaviour and also her own reaction to it in a dispassionate way. She grimaced. That certainly was a contradiction in itself when all the trouble seemed to have been launched by passion if Elfhelm was to be believed. She felt exhausted and downcast, like being buried under the rubble of a landslide, borne down by its sheer weight. How was she to shove all that aside, all that chaos of thoughts and feelings? She could not even sort out what had really happened, so how was she to find out what she herself felt and wanted?

Suppressing a curse, Éowyn felt the wetness seep through the straw soles of her shoes. It had rained in the morning and though most of the water had drained away down the gutter in the middle of the street, there were small puddles where the pavement was uneven or crags had formed with age-long use. She only hoped that the soaked soles would not simply come undone and leave her barefoot in the streets of Minas Tirith. Grumpily she scanned the pavement to find the least wet part of the way ahead, when a low-pitched female voice resounded from one of the side alleys.

"Lady Éowyn, how nice to see you!"

Turning, Éowyn spotted the princess Gelíris emerging from one of the lanes, accompanied by a footman in the livery of Dol Amroth. For a split second Éowyn stared stupefied. Béma, how could a woman radiate such an amount of sensuality and yet seem absolutely ladylike? The princess' rich auburn hair was gathered into a thick bun at the nape of her neck and seemed to glow in the late afternoon's sunlight. And while she bore herself upright and with natural authority there was nothing about her that hinted at arrogance. Her brown eyes lit with a warm smile, the lady approached with energetic steps. "Good afternoon. Out pillaging the shops, my lady?"

Bending her head in a greeting, Éowyn negated. "I've been visiting the wounded Riders who are housed on the fourth circle."

Gelíris' face turned grave. "We certainly owe them and I will pay them a visit one of these days. But I have to admit I have been about on a more frivolous errant today. There is a silversmith in the jewellers' lane, an artist who is without equal as far as the working of silver is concerned. I commissioned him to fashion me a bookmark." For a split second Éowyn had the impression that a faint blush rose into the elder woman's tanned cheeks, though given the princess' smile the cause seemed to be excitement rather than embarrassment. And indeed her assumptions were proved right by the princess' explanations. "I will be leaving in a few days for Cormallen and I brought a small book containing poems about the sea with me from Dol Amroth as a present for my spouse. It has been wonderfully illustrated by one of the master shipwrights, one Calimab, who is a really gifted artist. And I want to have a fitting bookmark for it."

"A silver bookmark?" Éowyn frowned, trying in vain to imagine what the thing might look like.

The princess nodded eagerly. "Yes. They are one of his specialities, a kind of clasp you can put on the page you have been reading, consisting of a very thin oblong plate of open work silver. I ordered one, sporting a mermaid to fit in with the poems."

"I am sure the Lord Imrahil will like it." Not really convinced, Éowyn smiled politely. The prince was an accomplished warrior, a skilled strategist if what the men told about him was not too much exaggerated; she simply could not imagine a man like that reading poems, no matter how splendidly they were illustrated. But given the story Faramir had told her about his aunt and uncle, Imrahil would probably appreciate any present his lady-wife gave him.

"Don't look so doubtful, my dear." Laughing softly, the princess took Éowyn's arm and the two of them started to walk up the street towards the gate to the fifth circle, the footman and Éowyn's guards following at a respectful distance. "He will love it – though I am not sure if more because of the poems or because of Master Calimab's drawings. That man simply is a wizard with a silverpoint."

She winked at Éowyn, who could not help a conspiratorial grin. "I see. More mermaids?"

The princess burst into laughter. "A few. But mostly ships and waves and all kinds of sea-creatures. Though there is a very beautiful sketch depicting Uinen as she convinces Osse to calm the waves."

Still grinning, Éowyn raised her eyebrows, a quite vivid image of how Uinen might attempt to reign in her quick-tempered spouse in her mind. Their gazes met, and it was obvious now that the princess' dark eyes were sparkling with mirth. Pouting in a droll way, Gelíris shrugged. "Maiar or not – they are wife and husband. So I don't see that there should be anything indecent about it."

They laughed and then passed the gate in silence, avoiding their voices being carried to unwanted listeners by the echo of the tunnel. It was Éowyn who took up the conversation afterwards. "So you won't be leaving for Cormallen with the other ladies?"

"I won't. I received a letter from my husband yesterday. He is planning to send all the wounded from Dol Amroth fit for transport back home by ship. So it's my task to arrange for ships to pick them up at the Harlond and take them directly to Dol Amroth, thus sparing them another change at Pelargir. Radhruin agreed to make his vessel available, though he himself will stay at Minas Tirith. Well, I suppose step by step things will get back to normal." Glancing at Éowyn enquiringly, she asked: "And you still insist on not going to Cormallen? Might not your brother expect you to join him there?"

Éowyn shook her head. "He visited me yesterday, and we talked things over. He agrees that I had better stay in the Houses for a little longer."

Gelíris stopped in her tracks. "King Éomer is in Minas Tirith?"

"No, he left again in the evening. We met at the Riders' camp and spent a few hours together."

"He took it upon him to travel four days solely for a few hours' chat with his sister?" The princess gave a low, guttural chuckle. "Let's hope the fact that the leading men of two realms are doing your bidding because they love you doesn't make you vain."

Éowyn pulled her arm out of Gelíris' without realising that she did it. "I do not attempt to make any man do my biding, my lady, and I certainly know of no one who loves me save my brother."

Surprised by Éowyn's action and her clipped tone, the princess shot her a thoughtful side-glance and then shook her head with a sigh. "I thought you had made up again, especially as Faramir was so eager to get the leave-taking of the guests over with because you were waiting for him. At least he thought you were waiting for him."

For a while Éowyn said nothing. It certainly had to be expected that people present at the feast had jumped to that conclusion. Had not that been exactly what she had felt the moment she had looked into his eyes? And how would things have worked out had not Tuingail babbled ? Would she not have reacted differently had he himself explained the circumstances to her?

Traffic was getting lesser the higher they went and soon there were only a few people, mostly servants of some kind, busy with all kinds of errands, who crossed their way. The princess walked at her side, and though Éowyn sensed her glance from time to time, Gelíris made no attempt to talk until they had left the gate to the sixth circle behind them. The street there widened into a small square, surrounded by a line of low, closely pruned laurel trees, their evergreen leaves gleaming in the slowly westering sun. The princess walked over to them and having carefully selected one of the dark-green leaves, she plucked it and stowed it away in her small belt bag. Seeing Éowyn's surprised look, she smilingly explained. "I will dry it, and it will go with the book for my husband."

Éowyn nodded. "Laurels for the valiant and victorious." How could she have forgotten? Had not Boromir brought an entire wreath wrought of laurel for Théodred, explaining that it was seen as the token of victory in Gondor and befitted an excelling warrior like the Prince of the Mark? But the princess shook her head.

"No, that was not foremost on my mind, though it certainly is the first thing people think of concerning laurel. But like almost every tree the laurel has a wealth of different meanings in the Falas. It is also seen as a symbol of constant and unwavering love. On Tolfalas lovers who have to part for a certain time go and pluck a laurel leaf at sunrise and then break it and keep a half of it each to ensure that their love will last and they will be reunited."

Plucking a second leaf, she held it out to Éowyn: "Take one, my lady, for your valour in battle and as a small herald of the wreath Gondor will bestow on you."

Éowyn took the leaf gingerly. No doubt with the glossy upper side of it in contrast to the greyish, velvety lower one it was simply beautiful, a beauty enhanced by the flawless, regular shape of the leaf. How different the fresh one looked from the dried ones she knew. And how aromatic the smell of even the uncrushed one was! And yet, should she really take it, knowing about the double meaning it could have?

Seeing Éowyn's reluctance, the princess added with a smile: "It is also believed to help in the breaking of curses, protect against witchcraft, lightning and fire in general. And it is said that if you write a wish on a dried bay leaf and then burn it your wish will come true. It's a miracle that the laurels in Gondor are still carrying leaves for certainly everyone can make use of them for all kinds of different uses, let alone their virtue in healing and cooking." Her smile turning into a grin, she added: "Well, and perhaps my nephew should get himself a bunch of them, as carrying laurel leaves can also be seen as a sign of atonement."

As if the leaf was burning her, Éowyn felt the overwhelming urge to throw it away, and it took all her willpower not to give in to the notion. Why was everything in this dratted city, in this confounded land of stones, coming back to the Steward? Taking a few measured breathes to gain control over her emotions again, she shoved the leave into the cloth that supported her broken arm and they continued their walk in silence, until after a while Gelíris stopped again. Facing Éowyn directly, she asked in a low voice: "Is it so difficult to forgive him for one moment of exuberant possessiveness? He loves you, Éowyn, he was worried, loath with himself for not having been at your side sooner to prevent that moron from approaching you."

As if that was the foremost problem! Choosing her words carefully, Éowyn tried to avoid an answer, intent at the same time to find out how much the lady knew about the back-story of the events at the feast. "Tuingail told me that some guests even interpreted the Steward's rather forceful reaction to him being jealous."

The princess snorted. "Nonsense. Who can be that brainless as to believe that?"

Éowyn shrugged. "Some did, though even Tuingail thought the assumption stupid."

Gelíris shook her head. "Don't underestimate Tuingail, my lady. She is young, a child still, and I would not have brought her out that young were I her mother. But the war has changed many things." She sighed and then added: "She is naïve, and certainly she talks faster than she can think, but she has an unerring feeling for a situation, an atmosphere. Give her some more years, preferably as far away from Minas Tirith as possible, and you will have an open-minded, intelligent and sympathetic young woman. And to come back to your statement: Do you really care what the guests thought about Faramir and you?"

Feeling the princess had seen through her tactics, Éowyn fell back on evasive reasoning. "The entire feast was launched to move Gondor's nobility to support Aragorn's claim to the throne. And as the Lord Faramir presided over the feast in his authority as Steward of the realm he was the focus of everyone at the feast. So certainly it matters how people judge him, being the future King's right hand man and proxy."

Gelíris raised her eyebrows. "Faramir actually is the Ruling Steward of Gondor at the moment and thus the highest ranking lord in Gondor, no matter what claim that lord from the North has."

"But he has made known that he acknowledges Aragorn as Isildur's heir and thus as rightful king of Gondor." Éowyn was at a loss about the princess' intention, but Gelíris did not make her wait for an answer.

"So he has. And as he is highly esteemed by many, his decisions no doubt are of extreme importance. It is not an easy task to announce the stepping back from his authority in favour of a king returned to the realm without giving anyone the slightest impression that he is losing face through it. But Faramir is a clever player at the diplomatic game, and he truly managed to give everyone the impression that by accepting Isildur's Heir on the throne of Gondor the importance of Hurin's House and Gondor's nobility in general would rather have a chance to regain their old glory. And then as the cherry on the cake he presents the highest ranking lady of our most important ally, the King of Rohan's sister as his bride. That was quite a clever gambit."

Éowyn felt her throat go dry. "And what if it was not more than that: a gambit?

"That's impossible!" The princess simply stopped in the middle of the street and stared at her. "Uinen's sweet mercy! What makes you think such a thing? He would never have..." A deep frown appeared on the lady's face. "Did you have an agreement of that kind? Did you agree to play along and now are worried because it worked too well?"

"No, we..." Éowyn found it hard to talk, and silently cursed herself for her emotional weakness. Swallowing, she added: "We had agreed to make the case for the Lord Aragorn, Faramir as the Steward of Gondor and Elfhelm and I as representatives of the Mark. But perhaps he saw a chance of a staging for political reasons and acted on the spur of the moment?"

The princess shook her head emphatically. "No, Éowyn, he might have acted on the spur of the moment, I don't know about that. But there certainly was nothing staged in his behaviour. He was clearly upset when he rushed to your side to get you away from that drunken idiot. There truly was no other thought or emotion steering him but the care for you." She glanced at Éowyn thoughtfully. "Though it eludes me what worried him that much, for worried he clearly was."

So he had not told his aunt about Corunith's planned assault. Unbidden the scenes in the garden rose before Éowyn's inner eye, their mutual accordance when hiding behind the door, the fragrant blossoms of the almond tree, shimmering in the dimness, Faramir's strange words, his closeness, her sudden fright... Carefully she cleared her throat. "My lady, you said that trees in general have a special meaning to the people of the Falas. What about the almond? And do you know anything about that almond tree in the Steward's garden, my lady? I mean, is there anything special about it?"

"The almond tree?" Gelíris' eyes widened with obvious surprise. "Why, Denethor had it planted for Finduilas when Faramir was born. They say she had already been frail before and the pregnancy took a heavy toll on her. Everybody was afraid that she would not survive and I am sure that Denethor wanted to assure her of his love." Gelíris sighed. "You see, there is a legend in Dol Amroth, about a lass who drowned herself, believing her lover had fallen in battle, while in reality he had survived and was only late to return due to storms. Taking pity on her, the Valar turned her into an almond tree, and when her lover came back after weeks at sea, he embraced the tree and it flowered though it was still winter. That's why the almond tree in Dol Amroth is seen as a symbol of constant love and devotion that will overcome all obstacles and survive all troubles."

Constant love and devotion... and he had mused about the almond blossoms destroyed by the rain before Corunith and her son had turned up. Feeling dizzy all of a sudden, Éowyn averted her face, stifling a groan. It had to be a coincidence. It could not be... But what if...?

Reaching out, the princess touched her cheek. "Lady Éowyn, dear, what's the matter?" Her eyes filled with compassion, Gelíris took Éowyn's hand. "My... How cold your hand is! Come, child. My house is just a few yards ahead. You had better sit down for a moment and have some brandy to regain your colour."

From the side of the street the Prince of Dol Amroth's residence did not look much different from the other stately buildings on the sixth level. There was a paved yard, sporting the typical tree and a number of large flower pots and a broad flight of stairs was leading up to the richly carved door made of almost black wood which opened into a large entrance hall. As soon as they were indoors, the princess passed her arm around Éowyn's waist in a protective movement and steered her into a small but cosily furnished room where she made her sit in a large comfortable armchair. "Now just sit down, and let me get you a heart-warmer. Do you want to put your feet on a footstool?" Not waiting for an answer, the princess placed a likewise upholstered footstool in front of the armchair and then shook her head with a frown. "Your shoes are soaked. As nice as these straw soles are in summer, they don't do in wet weather. Didn't you know that it had rained when you set off for your visits?"

Feeling like a scolded child, Éowyn did not know what to say, but to her relief, the princess did not seem to expect an answer. Squatting down, Gelíris removed her wet shoes and then wrapped a bright-coloured blanket around her feet and legs before moving over to one of the shelves where she poured a brown-golden liquid from a bottle of ornamented glass.

"Here you are, dear." The princess smiled, though her brown eyes still had a slightly worried expression. "Drink it in small sips. It's quite mellow for a brandy, but nevertheless potent."

Gingerly Éowyn took the small glass the princess handed her and took a tentative sip. The liqueur really was mellow, filling her mouth with sweet savouriness, but as she swallowed, she felt the slight burn down her gullet, indicating at the potency of the drink. She took another small sip, rolling the liqueur in her mouth before swallowing. Warmth seemed to pool in her stomach, and with a contented sigh, she leaned back in the chair.

"Feeling better?" The princess' eyes examined her kindly. Éowyn nodded, taking another nip. What was it that made her simply accept the other woman's orders and, even stranger, feel comfortable with them? The small glass was nearly empty now but Éowyn decided not to gulp down the remains at once. The warmth was spreading from her stomach to the rest of her body, leaving a soothing sleepiness in its wake. From under half-closed lids, Éowyn watched the princess who had taken a seat in an opposite chair.

A woman like that brandy. Seeming so mellow and mild and yet she was so energetic, had such a natural authority. Éowyn swirled the contents of her glass. Quite a potent drink... She drank the remains and handed the glass to the princess who, seeing her finishing, had stood up to receive it. Hair like a polished chestnut, brown smiling eyes, framed by dark lashes... and crinkles in the corners... solidified laughter. So sweet and golden-skinned... kissed by the sun and by Imrahil, Prince of pirates. Éowyn felt a giggle rise within her. The princess' smile deepened. "Would you like another one, dear?"

Éowyn shook her head. "I had better not. I have not eaten anything today, and..."

"You have what?" The frown created a deep furrow right above Gelíris nose. "But why? Is the food in the Houses so little to your liking?"

"The food is fine, my lady," Éowyn hurried to assure the princess. "I simply did not feel like eating. I have not really slept too well since..." Her voice petered out as she realised what she was about to tell the woman in front of her. How could she... She was not able to think further, for putting the glass aside, the princess simply sat down on the armrest of the chair and pulled her close.

"Poor girl, why do you need to make everything so difficult for yourself!" The low voice was soothing, but Éowyn could not help feeling stung by Gelíris' comment. She was of the House of Eorl, and certainly not just any silly girl, bemoaning unrequited love. She straightened herself in an attempt to signal to the princess to let go, but the princess only loosened her grip around Éowyn's shoulders a bit, so she could look into her face.

"I would not have proffered you any liqueur had I known you had an empty stomach, dear. You had better try eating something light now to keep the brandy from upsetting it." Letting go of Éowyn, Gelíris took a glazed jar from the shelf and opened the lid. "Here, have a rusk. And if that stays down, we'll try a light meal."

Rusk! Éowyn nearly rolled her eyes. That item of Gondorean food seemed to be on her menu quite a lot lately. And then the remembrance of that evening was there again: Their meeting in the garden, the almond blossoms, his sad smile, his... She bit her lip. What had it been in his face when he had fixed the headgear to her hair? More to distract herself than with the intention to eat she took one of the small round rusks the jar held and bit off a piece reluctantly. To her surprise she found it spiced. There was just a tang of honey, but the foremost flavour was the strong taste of ginger.

"I hope you like the taste. Our sailors use ginger-flavoured hardtack to fight nausea, and this is what our cook thinks to be the variety fit for ladies." The princess grinned. "I have to admit I simply like them with my tea, and therefore always have a jar in my room."

Slowly, Éowyn chewed the dry pastry. She would have liked to have something to drink with it, but probably it was better to force it down as dry as possible to soak up the liqueur in her stomach. Why had she not thought about not having eaten before? No doubt she was a bit affected by the brandy, and probably Gelíris was right to suggest some food. Determinedly, Éowyn reached for a second rusk. She would at least try to keep her tipisness within bounds. For a while neither of them spoke, and only when Éowyn had finished the second rusk the princess asked if she cared for a cup of tea.

"I even have chai. Tuingail told me you like it."

"The Haradric herb?" Éowyn was surprised. "Isn't that difficult to get?"

The princess shrugged. "Imrahil has his special sources for almost everything. And as I know the Lady Saelind to prefer it I ordered the housekeeper to always have some in store. So what do you think about having tea in the garden? It's only small, but I can imagine you will like it. Faramir loved it, even when he was not a child anymore."

"He told me about the fish." Éowyn was not sure what caused her to mention that, but the remark brought a wide smile to Gelíris' face.

"Oh, did he? Imrahil told me that Elphir and Faramir once fed them with that much bread that the fish simply could not eat it and the entire surface of the pond was covered in mushy crumbs. I would have forced them to clean the pond themselves, but I was not here, because being pregnant with my third one I did not accompany my husband and our eldest to the annual festivities in Minas Tirith." She grimaced. "And for all her usual sternness, Lady Sealind would do anything to keep inconveniences out of her ward's way. It is no small wonder that Faramir has not become a totally spoilt brat with the indulgence she showed him."

Éowyn could not help the thought that there might just be a trace of rivalry between the two quite formidable but also quite different Gondorean ladies, and she simply hoped that her silent amusement at that did not show in her face. But fortunately the princess' mind was already focussed on the next thing that needed to be done. She rang for a servant, ordering chai and a light meal to be served in the garden and a pair of sandals to be brought for Éowyn.

It took but a moment for the servant to return with a pair of sandals consisting of finely woven leather straps, and though they fitted perfectly in length they were a bit tight at the ball of Éowyn's foot, but that could easily be adjusted by loosening the straps. With one of those warm smiles that seemed to come so natural to her, Gelíris took Éowyn's hand. "Come, my dear. I have to admit I miss the private garden I have in Dol Amroth and this one is only a poor shadow of it, but let us pretend we are there and can hear the sound of the waves from afar."

They crossed a large drawing room and had almost reached the open door that led out into the garden, when they spotted the young man, lounging on one the settees. The princess stopped in her tracks. "Amrothos, how for Uinen's mercy did you manage to get down here? You know what the healers said, and..." Checking herself, she turned to Éowyn. "I'm sorry, Lady Éowyn, but that offspring of mine really has the knack of getting on my nerves." With an expression between grimace and smile she randomly waved in the man's direction. "My youngest son, Amrothos."

The young man raised his upper body with what might have counted as an allusion of the typical Gonorean bow. Éowyn scanned him quickly. Though it was difficult to tell for sure with him lying, there was little doubt that he was quite tall. Tall and lean, though the haggardness of his face certainly was caused by him being wounded. He had an intriguing face, handsome in an exotic way, even with the sunken in cheeks and the obvious shadows under his eyes. He was cleanly shaved, making his typical Numenorean nose look even more like the beak of a raptor. But it was the eyes that caught her attention. Keen, light blue eyes, half hidden under long dark lashes, bright eyes that immediately reminded her of the jackdaws at Edoras. There was surprise in those eyes now, surprise and a kind of sardonic haughtiness that got her hackles up. That conceited twit! Schooling her features, Éowyn said with similar haughtiness: "There is no need to introduce us, for we know each other."

"But..." The princess gaze shifted from Éowyn to her son. "You told me yesterday you had never met the Lady Éowyn."

Éowyn shrugged, feigning detachment. "At least he seems to know me well enough to be able to judge my bearing and reputation."

For a split second Amrothos' eyes widened with alarm, but nevertheless his mouth twisted in a lopsided grin. "So dear Cousin Faramir blared it out."

Fighting the urge to punch the grin off his face, Éowyn said coolly: "No, he did not. I happened to be outside below your window when you had the kindness to call me a slut."

"You did what? Amrothos, that cannot be!" The princess looked appalled.

Her son at least had the decency to blush. "I'm afraid it's correct, mother. Faramir almost crunched my larynx for it, and rightly so." With a shrug he turned to Éowyn. "Well, my lady, will your brother be content to let me heal that I may stand on my own legs before he calls me out?"

Éowyn snorted. "You are taking yourself much too seriously. And if I wanted you to be challenged to a duel I would not wait for my brother to step in, but do it myself."

Raising his eyebrows, Amrothos smirked. "We certainly would be a sight to behold. The cripples' dance of the dead."

"Amrothos!" Anger now clearly predominated in the princess' voice, but Éowyn just grimaced scornfully.

"You are but a self-centred braggart. But I give you this: I believe that you would not have uttered anything like you said in public. And as well my name was never mentioned. You meant to upset the Lord Faramir and I was only a means for you to achieve your aim."

For a moment surprise showed openly in Amrothos' face and then his expression shifted to appreciation and he nodded. "As I said: Faramir was right to strangle me. But believe me, had I known you, I would never have said anything along the way I did." He shook his head. "I'm not trying to excuse myself, but I truly never meant to hurt you, my lady. I wanted to get at my cousin, wanted to see his damned composure crack, wanted him to lose control." Shaking his head, he heaved a breath. "That man had been getting on my nerves since the day I woke after the battle on the Pelennor, and things got worse after the Dark One's downfall. He came to see me every bloody day, whether I yelled at him or refused to talk to him. The healers were not sure back then whether my leg could be saved, and they still don't know if I will ever walk again." He laughed mirthlessly. "I suppose he kept annoying me to focus my irritation on him, preventing me from despair over my fate, and if he really did so, I have to admit he succeeded. I hated him, and yet I needed to hate him to keep myself from sinking into the bottomless pit of self-pity."

Éowyn could not help being impressed by the young man's blunt openness, but that could not be said of his mother. The princess was obviously scandalized by what her son had done and she stood there motionless, her arms folded in front of her breast, watching him with grim determination. Éowyn fought the urge to grin. No, the princess Gelíris certainly was not a doting mother who would let her offspring get away with anything she did believe to be indecent. Amrothos shot his mother a side-glance and for the first time Éowyn saw something like uncertainty flicker over his features, before he turned his gaze back on Éowyn and continued to explain. "And then I discovered his weak spot: You! His sweetheart."

Éowyn met his gaze coldly. "He told you I was not."

Immediately the smirk was back on Amrothos' face. "That was certainly not due to his lack of trying."

"How dare you..." Angrily Éowyn realized that this pest of a Gondorean had managed to break her composure much easier than that of his cousin. And she would not allow that glass of brandy as an excuse for rising so easily to his bait. She certainly should have stayed cool. Glaring at him, she regretted that Faramir had not really choked him. Being far from impressed by her display of anger, Amrothos shrugged.

"My lady, you certainly did not make things easy for him. But never mind. He seems to have got across at last that he wants you for his wife and I'm happy for him."

Fighting the impulse to finish what Faramir had started, Éowyn looked down on the sprawled man. "And what gives you the impression that I would accept him?"

"Wha...?" Amrothos stared at her open-mouthed, stunned by the iciness of her voice and then turned towards his mother. "But you said she wore Finduilas' lhaewsmir, didn't you?"

Gelíris gave her a worried glance. "I was sure you had made up, seeing you together on the settee." Seeing Éowyn's mien, she sighed. "I would have sworn..."

Éowyn lifted her chin. "We had an aim with that feast, my lady, as I told you. A quite crucial aim quite a number of people had been working for with utter commitment. An aim that will be important for our peoples' future. It would have been folly to destroy what we had already achieved just because of some... unfulfilled expectations."

The young prince stared at her with open disbelief and Éowyn went in for the final hit. She would end this stupid discussion once and for all. "I have to admit that a union certainly would make sense with regard to Rohan's and Gondor's alliance and that I acknowledge the Steward as a man who knows his duty to his country, but..."

"Duty?" Amrothos' voice nearly cracked. "Are you trying to hoax me? Yes, he certainly knows his duty, has know it for all his life. But a man does not write love poems out of duty, my lady."

Taken aback, Éowyn frowned. "What do you know about..."

Amrothos shot her an enquiring glance. "He certainly read them to you, didn't he? He always has this bloody notebook about him. He left it one day when he went to the healers because he thought I needed a potion to calm me down and subdue the pain. Or the other way round." He grinned lopsidedly. "Who knows and who cares. He left it on the bedside table and I snatched it. And yes, I admit I did so in order to find something to yank his chain. And that's when I found the poems." His grin turned to a low chuckle. "All about hair like the light of the moon and the valiant maiden whose smile warms his heart like the sun..."

The poems! Squaring her shoulders, Éowyn clenched her fist in the folds of her skirt. The poems she had found in the Steward's notebook the evening of the feast. She felt dizzy, her heart beating in her mouth, but the furthermost feeling was wild rage, and she needed all her willpower to answer with composed contempt instead of simply strangling the puffed-up princeling. "You have no proof that it was me he wrote these poems about."

"No proof?" He openly smirked now and then started to declaim with exaggerated pathos: "Éowyn Niquesse, írima ná vea..."

"Stop it, Amrothos. Now." The Lady Gelíris voice caused the temperature in the room to drop palpably. Thankful for the princess' intervention, Éowyn heaved a breath. Her head swam, but she willed herself to stay at least outwardly calm. The Steward had quarrelled with Amrothos more than a week ago so he must have written those words even earlier... Her thoughts were interrupted by Gelíris' voice.

"I am waiting, Amrothos." There were deep furrows around the princess' mouth, her nostrils flaring. Béma, those eyes really could kill! Despite all her confusion Éowyn could not but admire her. The woman obviously did nothing half-heartedly. And given her son's expression, he knew that he had overstepped the line. With a sigh, he shrugged.

"You are right, mother, as always." His face serious, he turned to Éowyn. "I'm sorry, my lady. I don't know what makes me behave like a cad. But I endured Faramir for days on end, his love-sick mind revolving around how to please you, and here you are trying to tell me he did it for political reasons." He shook his head. "That is sheer nonsense. If there ever was a man deeply in love it is my cousin. And if there ever was a man to deserve being loved back it also is him, for he not only is an honourable man and a devoted leader and valiant warrior, but he also excels in patience, and he sees into people's hearts and feels their pain."

As if she did not know that only too well! Hoping her voice would not give away the embarrassment that she was hiding behind a mask of contempt, Éowyn snorted. "He truly is all you say, son of Imrahil, and as truly he stands high above you and your crooked praise."

Swallowing, she realised that her composure would not hold much longer, and she turned pointedly towards the princess, not deigning to give a further look at her son. "My lady, if you will excuse me. It has been a long and tiring day, and I think I had better retire to the Houses."

She bobbed a curtsey, and not waiting for the lady's answer, she left the room.


All the things said about the laurel and the almond are taken from myths and meanings those trees have around the Mediterranean Sea. The Dol Amroth myth about the almond tree is but a modification of the Greek legend about Phyllis and Demophon.

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