Through Shadows

Chapter 38

Chapter 38

Aspen

...and she dwelt still in the Houses of Healing and walked alone in the garden, and her face grew pale again, and it seemed that in all the City she only was ailing and sorrowful.

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

Minas Tirith 9th April 3019, Third Age

Dawn found Éowyn again in the garden of the Houses, walking the paths in solitude. Now and then she stopped to take a closer look at a plant, but the longer she walked, the more absorbed her thoughts became. What did she want? Her gaze went to the walls that closed in the garden and she smiled mirthlessly. She knew for sure what she did not want, and this closed in garden, for all the memories it held, was part of it. And yet those walls seemed to have lost their power to oppress her mind. Seeing her doubts and fears for what they were, realising what they had caused her to do she felt as if this dawn was the very first after a long, cold night. Whatever it was the coming day held for her, it would be a new start and she would take it in her stride. With measured steps she walked along the inner wall, passing the alcoves and stopping at the last of them.

There was no denying it: She had enjoyed breaking her fast in the Steward's company, had relished both – the excellent food and his company... Nay, she corrected herself: She had relished the food and noticed its excellence because of his company. A company she had realised she missed the very moment he had not been able to continue the practice because of his duties. What had she missed most? Thoughtfully, she let her fingers trail over the edge of the small stone table. His smile certainly had been important to her. That half-smile, the corners of his mouth only crinkling ever so lightly while his eyes shone with true warmth. She heaved a breath. Those eyes that had vexed her so much in the very beginning, reminding her of Théodred.

Slowly she turned towards the pine tree and stepping closer, she touched the flaky bark of the tree, breathing in the resinous smell. There was no doubt those two men had more in common than just the eye colour. Both were accomplished warriors, acknowledged leaders of their people, and yet in both she had found such a wealth of caring, of commitment, of giving themselves... She bit her lower lip. Had she perhaps only felt so comfortable in Faramir's company because her lonely heart had taken him as a substitute of the confidant she had lost?

Stepping back from the tree, she shook her head. Perhaps that had played a role in the beginning, had been a reason why they had talked about Théodred and Boromir, but had she really not been able to see Faramir for what he was? Had their conversations not turned to entirely new topics, things that did not have whatsoever connection with Théodred?

How close to each other they had become in such a short time. I do not want to lose so soon what I have found... It had been but five days since their first meeting when he had said that. And he had not changed his mind when the victory over the Dark One had become clear, nor when he had realised that she had not understood that he had been wooing her.

He had wanted to tell her about his mother's headgear, of that she was sure. With a sigh she turned towards the main path. He would have proposed marriage to her there and then had not Saelind entered. And then... Too great a temptation Elfhelm had called it in his attempt to make her understand Faramir's behaviour. And yet it still felt like a betrayal of her trust in him. To parade her as his bride in front of the guests! Yes, perhaps he had meant to protect her that way, but to do so without letting her have a say in it... No, though she was able to understand what had made him act the way he had done she was not able to forgive and forget, no matter what Elfhelm and Gelíris said.

To be given a choice! Was it too much to ask? She stopped, having reached the first crossing of the paths. He had given her a choice in that letter if what Saelind had told her was no lie. For a moment she stood undecided, but then she shook her head. No, the Lady probably had not told her all she knew, but Saelind was no liar. A cunning observer and manipulator, yes – but she would tell no square lie. And the woman was proud. What might it have cost such a woman to seek her out and confess to have tried to channel the development of her relationship to Faramir? And to have to admit that she not only had failed in it but even had worsened things!

Slowly Éowyn walked down the side-path towards the outer wall. Elfhelm had been right to compare the Lady Saelind to Frithuswith. Intelligent, effective, proud and loyal to a fault to the beloved children they had raised, even when those children had long ceased to be small boys, needing motherly protection. To accuse her of rashness, no matter what Faramir had done! Éowyn shook her head. The hawk protecting her fledgeling. For Saelind Faramir's conduct needed no excusing and it was her, Éowyn's cruel behaviour, that made the poor man forget his duty. Not only by drinking himself into stupor but more so by even risking his health, drinking that swill from Dol Amroth. Éowyn grimaced. Probably she had made the lady her enemy by hoofing her out last night, but not for a dragon's hoard would she have let anybody witness how much the lady's news had shaken her.

And yet it had been exactly that news that had soothed her in the end and filled her with calm confidence. If Faramir really had written what Saelind had told her - and she did not doubt the lady to that effect - he had given her a choice, no matter what political turbulences that might raise. And what was more: He had kept his promise, though it obviously had cost him dearly. She could not help her throat tightening at the thought of Faramir's expression the very moment they had met in the corridor. The joy, followed so quickly by utter sadness before he had managed to school his features. She swallowed. He had been educated for Gondorean court-life, was a master of diplomacy, able to control his expression like no one she had ever met in her life. And yet he...

She sat down on one of the benches, dizzy with the enormousness of her discovery. Had she but spoken that moment she would have ended his pain. Even if he might have tried to influence her, to sway her in his favour, to woo her as Gelíris had put it, that moment there had been nothing of that. No control, no restraint, just one short moment, a split second when his very soul had lain open to her.


"What's the matter with you, Tórdes?" Éowyn frowned at the woman who was combing her hair.

For the fifth time that morning Tórdes had got stuck on one of the wind-caused tangles in Éowyn's hair, yanking the strand painfully. Every time a wordy excuse had followed, the woman's embarrassment growing all the while. Also now Tórdes started to apologise: "Oh, dear me. I am so sorry. I..."

"No, Tórdes. You got me wrong." Éowyn turned round to face the woman. "I certainly am not too keen to have my hair pulled, but I don't mind overmuch either. What puzzles me is that you do it. Pray, what is it that makes you so nervous?"

Tórdes blushed. "I... I don't know how to put it, my lady. It is just..." With a sigh she lowered the comb. "I told you that my husband and I were sleeping in the kitchen of the Houses because our house had been destroyed during the siege."

Éowyn nodded. "And?"

The woman shrugged helplessly. "Well, by decree of the Steward we got housed in one of the large empty houses of former nobles and I simply hate it." She shot Éowyn an insecure glance. "Mind you, it certainly is better than nothing, but it is always noisy and I feel so uncomfortable being squeezed in with people I don't know, and..." She heaved a breath. "And yesterday my son-in-law arrived, bringing supplies for the city from Lossarnach. He... The children are happy he said and as we would have to start anew anyway, why not come to live with him? He assured me that we would not be a burden to him, quite the contrary, as they will need every hand during the summer. We... We would even have a small cottage to ourselves as one of their labourers recently married into one of the bigger farms, taking his old mother with him. It would just need a bit of refurbishment and he even said ..."

Laughing, Éowyn reached for the woman's hands. "But that sounds wonderful, Tórdes. Why are you still here? If I were you I would have packed my things and be on my way to Lossarnach."

The woman swallowed. "Really? And you would not be angry or disappointed with me, my lady?"

"Me?" Éowyn was at a loss. "Why should I?"

"Because I have been appointed to serve you. The Warden was highly displeased when my husband told him that we would like to leave. He said that it would not be difficult to find someone for the job in the kitchen, but working as your maid I had a duty and..."

Éowyn shook her head. "You have no duty towards me, Tórdes, whatever duty you may have towards the Warden and the Houses. But being a wife and a mother, the well-being of your family should be your foremost duty. Do what you think the best for you and your family and don't let anybody talk you out of it." She smiled at the still indecisive woman. "And don't you worry for my sake. With the women coming back to the city there certainly will be no problem finding a maid, though I doubt that I will find one who does my hair as nicely as you."

Blushing profoundly, Tórdes smiled. "Then my lady let me finish your hair. And what about applying that wonderful perfume of yours? It's supposed to be a sunny day and you might want to go out and enjoy company."

To enjoy company! Embarrassed that she could not forestall the blush creeping into her cheeks, Éowyn averted her face. As much as she was inclined to meet Faramir and talk with him she still felt unsure how such a meeting would develop. She just hoped... She checked herself. Was that really her, thinking of hope? And yet if she was honest to herself, she did hope and desperately so. Not for his love, nor for him repeating his proposal of marriage but for a chance to overcome their misgivings, to assure each other of their mutual care, no matter if the result was friendship or love. She wanted him to smile again, and everything else would fall into place then.


"It's all right, Grimbeorn. I know it's idiotic to whine. I just had not expected that she would ask me to stay behind at the garden door." Slumped down on the pallet beside his captain, Berhtulf was quite a pathetic sight.

Grimbeorn sighed. "Well, lad, that's a lesson we all have to learn, I fear. There are moments when – no matter how important we think ourselves – we have to step back. You would probably just have made her feel awkward had you insisted. Look, she and her cousin have been living here in the Houses for decades. It's their home. And once she reached that door..." The bulky warrior shrugged, looking over to Éowyn for help. Crouching down, she touched the young Rider's knee.

"She was not alone there, Berhtulf. She is cared for. Give her time. Glendis died but yesterday. Wait some days, and if she doesn't take up her work in the ward again, send her some sweets or some other small present, just to give her the feeling she is loved. But don't interfere now, when the loss is still so fresh."

In an attempt to keep her unease at bay Éowyn had decided to visit the injured again, but as soon as she had entered the ward her attention had been caught by a crestfallen Berhtulf. She could not help feeling sympathy for the young man who found it so hard having his commitment and compassion rejected due to rules he found difficult to understand.

Berhtulf made no attempt to answer and did not even look up when there was the sound of muffled voices in the yard. Then someone entered the sickroom. Surprised Éowyn recognised the Warden. Seeing her, the old man hesitated for a moment, but then, having bowed politely to her, he addressed Berhtulf. "Mistress Ioreth begged me to ask you if you want to be present at her cousin's funeral." With obvious embarrassment he added: "We normally don't have outsiders present, but she asked me..."

Supporting himself on Grimboern's shoulder, Berhtulf rose. "When?" he asked, his voice thick with emotion.

"In half an hour we will start to carry the mortal remains down to Rath Dínen. Meet us at the side entrance of the Houses if you want to attend."

"Rath Dínen?" Surprised, Éowyn stared at the Warden. "But is that not the place of the Hallows where only the Lords of Minas Tirith are laid to rest?"

The Warden nodded, pride showing in his wrinkled face. "Yes, my lady. And of course we healers have no luxurious tombs and statues, nor are we embalmed like the Great of the realm. But since the founding of the Houses in the times of Mardil we have our granted burial ground there and besides the Kings and the Stewards and their families we are the only ones buried there, in acknowledgement of our services to the city."

Not much later Éowyn, Grimbeorn and Berhtulf were following the narrow bier that held Glendis' body, shrouded in linen of the same dull grey her attire had been in her lifetime. Four men in the healers' garb carried it, but Éowyn could not help the thought that probably the wooden plank that served as the bier weighed more than the tiny body on it. Ioreth was accompanied by Mareth and Anwen and two other women Éowyn did not know and she had only once glanced in Berhtulf's direction, nodding to the young Rider with tear-dimmed eyes.

Passing Fen Hollen they entered the Hallows. Impressive tombs lined the Silent Street, covering the long-drawn-out mountain saddle. Houses of the dead, they were themselves white and dead like their inhabitants. What a difference to the grass-covered mounts of the Mark, strewn with the blossoms of Simbelmyne, the tiny, ever-blooming stars of remembrance, life conquering in the presence of death.

And then there was a gap in the line of impeccable marble. Blackened stone and the burst dome of the tomb spoke of the terrible fire and Éowyn could not help a shudder remembering Denethor's madness and what it might have resulted in had not the Hobbit and Beregond pushed aside fear and duty to save Faramir. In an attempt to avoid the disturbing sight she fixed her gaze on the path in front of her, but even there, in the gaps between the single flagstones, traces of soot were still to be seen.

She suppressed a sigh. How many days had passed since that terrible event? How many times had it rained and yet the gruesome reminder was still there, etched into the cracks. And what traces of that day had been left in Faramir's heart and mind, even if one might hope for a merciful unawareness of most of the goings-on due to his fever?

They walked on till the paved path was finally blocked by a wall made of the same white stone as most of the city's buildings. The massive wooden door in it stood open, and passing through they found themselves in a smallish yard closed in by high, white walls on three sides while the fourth one consisted of a squat building. The path to the door of the building was paved, while the space on both sides of it held nothing but bare soil. On the right side two wooden planks had been erected, sporting short inscriptions – nothing but a name and a date.

On the left a hole had been dug in the ground, the stony soil having been heaped beside it. Two men in worker's garb stood silent in the background as the Warden moved over to the open grave, positioning himself at the head of it. At his sign, the healers who had carried the bier took the corners of the shroud and carefully lowered Glendis body into the pit and then put the bier upright at the head of it, revealing its inscription: Glendis, Víresse 9, 3019. Ioreth stared to sob and Anwen embraced her while Mareth stood beside her, watchful in case the old healer might need more support. And then the Warden spoke, mentioning Glendis' name, announcing her having lived and died under the rules of the Houses, thanking her for her commitment. It was just a few, dry sentences and then he picked up a handful of earth and let it drop into the open grave.

Éowyn heard Berhtulf gasp. "Are they not going to sing her over the threshold?" His whisper was worried and when she looked up she could see how much it cost him to hide his shock. But nobody of the present healers raised their voice in song. All stepped to the brink of the pit, dropped a handful of earth into it and then silently went to the door of the yard. Ioreth and the two women at her side were the last ones and then there were only the three of them in the walled graveyard.

Slowly Éowyn stooped to pay the old healer the last respects according to Gondorean custom and the two men did alike. Then the workmen came up to the grave to shovel the heaped up earth into the pit. Berhtulf heaved a breath and Grimbeorn put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "It's different, lad, and we have to accept it. This is Gondor and certainly it is a great honour to be buried in the Hallows."

The young Rider shook his head. "But they don't close the circle. How is life to go on if..."

"For them life ends here, Berhtulf." Éowyn found it hard to speak. "They have no children, no family, there is no circle of life for them. But being buried here in the Hallows of the Kings certainly is an honour."

The young man grunted. "Naked soil without song and gifts for a life of toil and devotion. What honour is this?"

Thoughtfully Grimbeorn looked around. "I wonder how many can be buried in this small space. Ten at the most I would say. So how can this graveyard have been in use since the days of Mardil as the Warden said?"

"Can I be of help, soldier?" Having observed the three of them, probably surprised as to why they had not left yet, the elder of the two workmen addressed Grimbeorn. The captain nodded.

"Yes. You see, I was wondering at the size of the graveyard. I mean, it looks rather small and..."

The man nodded. "Yes, it certainly is. But then, the corpses only stay in the ground for three years, and..."

"What?" Berhtulf almost shouted. "And then? Do you dig them out again?"

The Gondorean nodded. "Certainly, soldier. After three years there's nothing but bones any more. We dig them up and then the healers come and clean them with all due respect – wash them with wine that is – and then they're put in the charnel house." He pointed with his thumb over to the building. "Want to have a look? It's quite impressive."

Éowyn was the first to overcome her surprise, and walking over to the door, she curiously pushed it open, Grimbeorn and Berhtulf following close. In the dim light that fell through the open door and two small windows at its sides she beheld a narrow room of surprising length. Floor, walls and the vaulted ceilings were made of the typical white stone, all of them plain and undecorated, save for the far away end of the room, where she could spy regular ornaments in the gloom. Intrigued she walked closer. And then she froze. What she had taken for ornaments were bones. Thousands and thousands of bones, sorted according to length and shape, piled high from floor to ceiling in eye-catching patterns, with rows of pale skulls forming arched friezes in between.

"They put the bigger, more sturdy bones in the front and the smaller ones, vertebra and the like, are piled behind. And when the bones reach the ceiling, the healers start a new wall. There are quite a number of walls behind the one you see at the moment." The worker had followed her, explaining the macabre sight with audible pride.

While Éowyn nodded her thanks to the man, Berhtulf had already turned round on his heel and was leaving the building, Grimbeorn hastening after him. Éowyn found them outside, waiting for her beside the fresh grave. The young Rider's face was ashen.

"Do you really find it that disgusting?"

Berhtulf shook his head. "No, not disgusting. Not at all actually. I suppose I am rather shocked by the strangeness." He shrugged, heaving a breath. "I mean, there is devotion in the washing of the bones, and the way they are arranged... I'm shocked, but they are beautiful. And yet I have never felt that far away from home than in this moment. I... It simply is too alien for me to grasp and I wish I were back in the Mark."

The colour had come back to his face while speaking and now Grimbeorn laid his hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Come lad, let's go down to that inn on the fourth level all the boys are raving about. I dare say the ale there is as close to the Mark as you may wish for."

They walked back the Silent Road and when they reached Fen Hollen Éowyn thought for a moment to go back to the Houses but then decided against it. She would not sit in her room, waiting for when the Steward might come to talk to her. He would come once Saelind had spoken to him, of that she was sure. And she was convinced that the lady would talk to him in the end. The only unknown was how long it would take Saelind to swallow her pride to do so. Angrily, Éowyn frowned. And yet to help the woman who had fostered Faramir to keep face she would have to wait instead of seeking him out herself, informing him about what had happened. And who knew? Perhaps a little more time would help her to make up her mind what to say. Grimboern and Berhtulf had already disappeared round the next bend of the street when she finally made up her mind.

"I want to go down to the camp. And no, Céorl." She shook her head at one of her guards who made to say something. "No horse. I think the exercise of a walk will do me good."

She had reached the space right behind the former gate where workmen were busy clearing away the last rubble of the broken gate and surrounding houses when she beheld Gelíris riding in from the Pelennor. Again Éowyn could not help a feeling of envy. The princess' face was flushed from the ride and she sat her mount with perfect ease and grace, her riding dress accenting her womanly curves.

"Éowyn! How nice to meet you!" With a genuine smile the princess dismounted, pulling her into an embrace without any reservation. "Have you slept well, dear?" Stepping slightly backwards, Gelíris examined her crucially. "Dare I say, you look much better."

"Thank you, my lady. I am feeling better, too."

Éowyn's answer caused the princess to tilt her head, eyeing her enquiringly. Éowyn shook her head. "No, my lady, I would prefer not to talk about it. I am trying to distract myself, visiting the Rohirric camp. At least if the healers won't allow me to ride a horse I want to have a look at some."

"The Rohirric camp?" The princess' dark eyes sparkled with interest. "Do you mind me accompanying you? I would really like to have a closer look at the famous horses of Rohan and also to tease that dour marshal of yours a bit."

"Elfhelm?"

Gelíris nodded. "He seems to be convinced that Gondor is a pit of evil and all Gondoreans spawn of Mordor. Why, he would not let you out of his sight for a single moment at the feast."

Éowyn shrugged. "He certainly is more than devoted to the House of Eorl, but I assure you he can very well tell the difference between friend and foe. But let's go and visit him. Then you'll be able to judge for yourself."

Ordering the guards that had accompanied her to ride ahead, Gelíris took Éowyn's arm and when they entered the camp after little more than half an hour's walk the marshal was already awaiting them, welcoming them with a cup of light rosé wine. If the princess had found him dour at the feast, it seemed as if the tall Eastfolder was trying to make up for his chilly manner by all available means. And once he understood that Gelíris was truly interested in the horses his politeness turned into true cordiality.

Hanging back a bit, Éowyn watched with mirth and interest how the princess twisted the stern marshal around her little finger. No, no matter how great a captain Prince Imrahil might have been as a young man, he had never stood a chance against this southern whirlwind from Tolfalas!

Putting down his empty cup, Elfhelm smiled winningly at both of them. "Well, what about having a look at the paddocks while my men get some lunch ready, my ladies? I dare say you both could do with a bite after your exercise."

"A splendid idea! And then perhaps we could have a look at the Haradrim's camp, couldn't we?"

Éowyn was not sure if it really was mischief she saw in the princess' eyes, but the marshal's face turned a quite interesting tint of red.

"The Haradrim? My lady I doubt their company would be fit for a lady."

Gelíris shrugged. "I know they are whores, Marshal. But the women of their tribe are also skilled dancers. And those dancers not only employ musicians for their performances, but normally also have a matron to massage them. And for real relaxation there are few things in the world that can rival a true Haradric massage." She gave Elfhelm a wide smile and then added: "But perhaps we had better give them a warning before turning up there, as it is not my intention to embarrass your men. What do you think, would tomorrow morning be convenient?"

Éowyn bit her lip not to laugh out loud at the marshal's face and the swiftness with which he assured the princess that the next morning would no doubt suit, but as soon as they had reached the first paddock all embarrassment was gone and princess and marshal plunged into shop talk about horses. Éowyn said little, content to listen and to see how much both of them enjoyed their conversation. Gelíris' knowledge was profound and the usually so reserved Elfhelm literally beamed with joy and pride.

They were about to turn back to the marshal's tent when there was some commotion at the entrance to the camp and turning round, Éowyn beheld three Riders, jog trotting a group of five horses down the main lane of the camp. And one of those horses... She gasped with surprise. Salubrūn! Though dust-covered, the bay's coat gave proof of his name. It was of a rich, dark reddish brown, not disturbed by any markings. His mane and tail were almost black and also all hooves were evenly dark. And the horse's frame! Strong, proud, well-muscled... Éowyn suppressed a sigh. That horse was truly the most beautiful of all in the Folde.

It was Elfhelm, who found his voice first, though his exclamation was far from civil and Éowyn was more than happy that the princess did not speak the language of the Mark. "Erce's tits! What has got into that bugger to turn up with Hrodwyn's best horse in Gondor? Ceadda!" His shout would have been heard over the din of a battle without any problem. The herder lifted his head, a wide grin on his face.

"Hail, Marshal. A bit testy, are we today? Greetings from your lady-wife, Elfhelm." Still grinning, the Eastfolder drew up to a halt in front of the marshal and dismounted. "Oh, and from the rest she said I guess you had better get yourself back to the Mark, for she's obviously missing you."

Slinging his reins over the saddle-horn, the herder turned to Éowyn. "Well, Cynesweoster, here he is, as fast as I could get him. I'm sorry I had to throw in the foal too, a wonderful filly, clearly showing the Mearas' characteristics, but Hrodwyn would not be swayed otherwise. Though I managed to get Salubrūn's tack in the packet, saddle, saddle cloth and all. I dare say he'll be an impressive fellow once we've dolled him up."

Flabbergasted, the marshal looked from Ceadda to Éowyn and back. "Don't tell me you ordered him to..."

Éowyn shrugged. "I told him to offer Lyftfætmanu for the gelding and her foal as an addition if necessary and to bring me the horse as soon as possible."

Elfhelm stared. "You... But why? And what does that wife of mine want that foal for? She's partly Meara and Hrodwyn will not be allowed to ride her."

"But her granddaughter will." The herder was far from being impressed by his lord's irritation. "Given time the little one will be a splendid wedding gift for the king's daughter."

With a grunt the marshal acknowledged the reason of the herder's remark and then, wagging his head thoughtfully, he turned to Éowyn. "Why didn't you tell me, Éowyn. I'm sorry that it didn't occur to me that an ambler would ease riding for you, but we certainly could have found..."

Éowyn interrupted him. "I wanted Salubrūn, Elfhelm, because I wanted the best. I don't mean to ride him, I..."

"What a picture of a charger!"

They had totally forgotten about Gelíris. The princess had walked up to the horse and now stood admiring him, her hand on the gelding's muzzle. Elfhelm snorted. "That is no charger, my lady."

The princes regarded him with an irritated frown. "You are certainly joking, Marshal. I happen to know a bit about horses, and I assure you that even in the best lines of Dol Amroth I have not seen the like of him." She turned back to the horse, stroking his dusty coat. "Just look at this well-arched neck, the strong, wide jaw. Ah, you certainly are a proud one." Patting his neck, she shook her head. "Short back, strong bone, well-muscled loin... This horse has everything a good warhorse needs."

The marshal grimaced. "I'm afraid, lady, he hasn't. It may have escaped you, but he's a gelding."

Gelíris slew round. "So what? The Swan Knights all ride geldings. What do you want: to show off or to have an absolutely reliable courser?"

Elfhelm shrugged. "I have seen the way the Swan Knights fight on horse. No doubt impressive and efficient in their own way. But no lord of the Mark would ride a gelding in battle. Managing a stallion, having him respond, fight for you, that is part of the thrill of battle and also proves an Eorling's right and ability as a warrior and leader."

The princess laughed. "I have seen stallions fight and certainly they are impressive in all their male aggression. But don't you tell me that a gelding's reliability does not make up for it in a fight. But it certainly is not that showy, is it?" Her laugh turned into a smirk. "No, my dear Marshal, this is not about the quality of a horse, but about some men's identification with their mounts. It needs to be a stallion for a real man. My, there's no doubt you Rohirrim are certainly a testicle-happy lot."

The marshal's weather-beaten face turned the colour of a beetroot and Éowyn bit the inner part of her cheek not to laugh out loud. The princess lowered her lashes, a lazy smile on her face at the sight of the man's discomfort and then she turned back to Salubrūn who had stood patiently all the time. Examining the muscle structure, her hand stroked over the horse's side. After a moment she shook her head. "Even if you thought he would not do as a destrier, I simply cannot understand that you gelded him and did not attempt to breed him."

"Breed him?" The marshal visibly found it difficult to believe his ears. "My lady, I assure you if that had been possible we would have made him a destrier."

"He was born with only one testicle, my lady. Hrodwyn even waited until his second year before she had him gelded, because she hoped it had only been retained and would descend later," Éowyn explained, but Gelíris only shrugged.

"So what? I bet he would have been better with one than many stallions with two. Why not give it a try? I didn't know the Rohirrim were so fond of throwing money down a rat hole."

"Nobody would have bought a foal sired by... " Elfhelm spit angrily. "Any breeder who would try to sell such a horse would lose his reputation throughout the Mark.

Gelíris laughed. "Well, Marshal, I certainly would have bought his foal, though Dol Amroth favours greys." She grimaced. "Another example of male vanity, though I have to admit they really look dashing with the Swan Knights' dark blue and silver."

Elfhelm snorted. "I dare say Dol Amroth's horse master would have told you a word or two had you turned up with a mount sired by such a cripple."

The princess' finely arched eyebrows rose. "Dol Amroth's horse master happens to be me, Marshal. And I assure you that nobody in their right mind, not blinded by male pride and prejudices would take any offence. Why, my lord, if he sired offspring, who in their right mind would care how many balls he needed to do so?"

The marshal's jaws simply dropped, and Éowyn could not help a laugh. "You had better stop that discussion, my lady, or the marshal might suffer a stroke. And anyway, though it certainly is a pity that Salubrūn cannot be used for breeding, his value is no way less than that of a destrier. He's an ambler, and the finest I have ever known."

"An ambler?" Gelíris eyes widened. "Uinen's sweet mercy. I would kill for such a palfrey."

Éowyn shrugged. "I'm afraid you'll have to kill your nephew then, my lady, as I have meant this mount as a present for the Lord Faramir."

"What?" If Elfhelm had been upset before, he now simply lost it. "Éowyn, that's... That's simply impossible. You can't give him a gelding."

Slowly the princess folded her arms in front of her chest. She had not understood the marshal's words as he had slipped back into the language of the Mark, but his mien had been more than clear. "What is it, Marshal? Don't you think the Steward of Gondor worthy of such a present?"

Elfhelm blinked and then shook his head. "Quite the contrary, my lady. I think highly of him and want to spare him the insult."

"Insult?" Gelíris visibly was at a loss.

With a grunt the marshal explained: "It is tradition for a noble bride to give a stallion to her intended. A stallion, mind you. Not a gelding, no matter how precious the horse might be. It would make the Lord Faramir the laughing stock of the entire Mark."

Éowyn found it hard not to roll her eyes. "I am not his bride and this is no bride-gift, Elfhelm. He wants to build up his ancestral estates on the other side of the river. He needs a reliable mount and I have the means to supply him with one. Simple as that. Faramir does not know about the wedding customs of the Mark."

The marshal heaved a breath. "And for that it had to be Salubrūn?"

"It had to be the best, Elfhelm. Not more and not less." Their gazes locked, but the marshal soon averted his eyes, shaking his head. For a moment she wondered what Elfhelm would say if he knew about the dagger she had been given by Faramir. She could not help feeling strangely relieved at the thought that it was at Saelind's house, thus sparing her the temptation.

"Bride-gift or not, this is simply the most beautiful horse I have ever seen." Gelíris turned to Éowyn. "By the way: When did you send for it?" On the first impression her face gave nothing away, but when Éowyn looked closer, the twinkle was obvious in the princess' eyes.

"Ten days ago. And it has nothing to do with... with all the chaos." The twinkle deepened, and Éowyn added sullenly: "I simply wanted him to have a fitting horse."

Chuckling, Gelíris passed her arm around Éowyn's waist. "Certainly, my dear." Still holding Éowyn close, the princess turned to Elfhelm. "Pray, my Lord Marshal, would the Rohirrim scorn a warrior who had for years been the leader of troops defending the borders of the realm, who had proven his abilities and valour in countless skirmishes and battles, if said man became a counsellor instead continuing as a warrior?"

Elfhelm shock his head. "Certainly not. In the Mark..."

Smiling, Gelíris held up her hand, interrupting him. "And if such a man, a steward high in the confidence of the king, rode a palfrey instead of a charger... Would they despise him?"

Angrily, Elfhelm grimaced. "No, my lady. Certainly not, for it would not make sense. But in the Mark a counsellor would rather be an elderly man, not a war-worthy ..."

"I'm afraid we are in Gondor, Marshal." The princess' voice sounded casual, but her smile was all but wicked. "Most Gondoreans, lords and commoners alike, are absolutely ignorant as far as horses are concerned. But they will see this one and gape, for seeing his beauty and proud bearing they will sense his worth, no matter if he is a stallion or a gelding. And now, my dear Marshal, what about the promised food? I have to admit I am starving."


It was hours later when Éowyn got back to the Houses, sweaty and exhausted but still in a mirthful mood after riding pillion with Gelíris back to the sixth circle. She had made an appointment with the princess and promised her a ride on Salubrūn, while Gelíris had convinced her to join her visiting the Haradric camp afterwards, telling her about warm water and luxurious soaps, perfumed oils and the wonderful soothing of a massage. And the princess had almost fallen off her horse, laughing when Éowyn had agreed to tag along as long as nobody got near her with that particular wax.

Éowyn sighed. She would have liked a bath now, washing of the dust from the camp and the sweat from the exercise. How could one get so easily out of shape with just two sennights without proper training? At least she should ask Tórdes to get her some hot water and help her sponge down. Absorbed in thought she did not realise that she had taken the path to the garden instead the one to her room, and for a moment she stood surprised when she rounded the corner of the Houses.

And then all of a sudden everything around her ceased to exist as her eyes caught the tall figure of the man in black and grey, who – having spotted her - stepped out of the shade of the pine tree.

Annotations:

The aspen tree symbolises determination and overcoming fears and doubts. It does not play a role in the chapter, but I thought it fit to present Éowyn's state of mind.

charnel houses (ossuary) The described practiceof burial was (and still is) used in Christian Europe in areas where space for burials was/is scarce, e.g. on islands and on rocky grounds.

Some notes on medieval horses

charger/chaser: The expression used for warhorses in the medieval times of Europe. Such horses were expensive and only owned/ridden by nobles. They could be mares, stallions or geldings, though geldings seemed to have been preferred as the lack of sexual urge makes a gelding's reactions more calculable. Common men-at-arms and also some knights would rather ride a type of horse called rouncey.

destrier: The medieval token of male superiority and prestige. ;D Destriers always were stallions and very expensive. Probably that is the reason why only few and high-ranking nobles rode them.

palfrey: A riding horse of high quality. Palfreys with ambling gaits were preferred because they provided a much less exhausting journey for the rider, saving him the up and down of ordinary jogging. For travelling such horses were used by whoever could afford the tremendous price, while the use of specific warhorses was restricted to battle.


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