Through Shadows

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Coltsfoot and Lungwort

But in the morning , as Faramir came from the Houses, he saw her, as she stood upon the walls; and she was clad all in white and gleamed in the sun. And he called to her, and she came down, and they walked on the grass or sat under a green tree together, now in silence, now in speech.

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

Minas Tirith, 21st March, 3019, Third Age

Shivering in the cold morning breeze, Éowyn shoved her free hand into the folds of the shawl that was draped around her. Standing high on the ramparts of the sixth circle that also formed a part of the walls around the garden of the Houses of Healing, she looked out over the Pelennor. Though in the still dim light she could make out but few details, the general chaos on the late battlefield was something that could not be overlooked. The fire in the trenches dug by the orcs had long been extinguished and the trenches that had crossed the roads had been filled in already, but all over the plain fires blazed or smouldered. Were they watch fires or were men still busy burning the last remnants of the enemies' equipment that had not been seen worth acquiring as loot? A western wind blew, driving the fumes away from the city, but there was a taste of smoke in the air, and Éowyn was thankful that obviously the burning of the carcasses had already finished.

She frowned as the huge mumakil came into her mind. Terrible beasts, but certainly animals. Was their meat edible? If it was, that could provide quite an important part of the provisions for the numerous troops in Mundburg that had to be fed. Denethor's courier had said at Dunharrow that the city was well provided and had enough store, but certainly that was mainly grain. And meat was always welcome with men, be they warriors or not. But who knew? Aggressive and horrible as they were, perhaps the meat of those beasts tasted and reeked as badly as that of an old wild boar during mating time. She only too well remembered her father's men having killed a most impressive boar that had attacked one of the swineherd's boys the autumn she had turned six. How huge the animal had been, how razor-sharp his giant tusks... And yet these tusks had been all her father had kept, for the meat had stunk so terribly that it had only been fit for dog food.

Again she let her eyes wander over the open space. On the other side of the Great River the country started to rise gradually but steadily to where the Ephel Dúath stood threatening in the east, a ridge of black teeth, highlighted by the red-glowing sun that now slowly rose behind it. A rising sun... Even in the darkest moments of Théoden King's decline each dawn had filled her with new strength and vigour, but now she could only think of the doomed men out there below the shadows of the cursed mountains. She swallowed to get rid of the lump that was forming in her throat. Seven thousand men marching into the very maws of the Dark Lord. Where were they now? That close to the mountainside the darkness of the night might not even have lifted yet. Or did the shadows of the Enemy's evil linger there all the time? They would be busy breaking camp... In her mind rose the familiar scene with its smells and noises, the clinking of gear, shouts of men and neighing of horses... And she would put a wager that at some of the fires some hapless lad had burnt the porridge and was now being dressed down by the Riders. The smile that started to creep into the corners of her mouth froze as she realized that she did not even know if they were having any breakfast at all or if they perhaps were engaged in battle at this very moment, or worse, already slain, having walked into a trap under the shadows of the haunted ridge that fenced the Dark Lord's land. Mordor... The very name caused her to gag.

"Lady Éowyn." A male voice ringing up from the garden below shook her out of her pondering. Éowyn grimaced. The Steward! She had not expected him to come to the garden that early, and had hoped for some quiet time alone outside of the confinement of her room. She should have known better. Squaring her shoulders, she turned to face the speaker. Clad in grey and black, the Lord Faramir was walking towards the wall, raising a hand in greeting when she turned. Slowly she started to descend the stairs, adapting her breathing to her paces, steadying herself for the inevitable meeting. She would not lose her composure again. Gondor's Steward would not find her unprepared this time.

He waited for her at the foot of the stairs, bowing in that strange solemn way she had noticed before to be Gondorean custom, his right hand on his chest. "Good morning, Lady Éowyn. I hope you had a restful night." He smiled and she was surprised how much the faint crinkling of the corners of his lips made him look like Boromir. But where Boromir's eyes had sparkled with mirth each time he had greeted her at Edoras when visiting the Mark, Faramir's gaze was grave as he looked at her with enquiring concern. She lowered her head in a gesture of greeting, thus avoiding those grey eyes that so disturbingly reminded her of Théodred.

"Would you care for a walk through the garden, my lady? I suppose it might still be too dark for a clear look over the Pelennor and would rather suggest you should try for that a little later." The Steward's voice was even, not giving away what he might be thinking about her. Forcing her features into polite blandness, she nodded and side by side they started to walk back the path he had come. He did not offer his arm to her as she had expected, and though she was quite relieved at not having to walk that close to him and even touch him, it surprised her. True, her left arm being broken they would not be able to walk in the traditional way, the lady at the right hand side of the man, but why not simply offer his left arm, as he was not carrying a sword at the moment anyway? But then the Gondoreans were said to be more than pompous and ceremonious in their manners, so perhaps he did not think it proper to simply adapt to the given situation. Éowyn fought to keep the sneer at that display of stiffness and artificiality off her face until a short glance out of the corner of her eye made her notice the slightly awkward way the Steward was holding his left arm.

Had not Merry talked about Faramir having suffered an arrow wound, and Denethor trying to kill his son before burning himself? She swallowed. How much about those events did the Steward already know? Certainly he had been informed about his father's death, but what about the direct circumstances? How could it be that the Enemy's influence could get that strong over a man as stern and powerful as Denethor had evidently been? And what about her uncle? Would Théoden King too have turned against his kin like that in the end? Had he not already started behaving like that, arresting Éomer? Instinctively she pulled the folds of her scarf closer, though it was much too thin to provide any real warmth. Down here in the garden she was not exposed to the chilly wind any more but she would have preferred one of the sturdy carded cloaks from the Mark to the delicate fabric of the shawl. Anwen, who had helped her dress, had been delighted by the sight of it, and certainly it looked splendid, made from a mixture of soft white wool and cream-coloured silk, but it was something for the eye rather than of real practical use.

They had reached the arcades that contained the entrance of the Houses, and with a motion of his hand, the Steward invited her to accompany him up the central path. It went straight towards the far end of the garden, cutting it into two identical halves. At regular distances smaller paths branched off in exact right angles. Neither yesterday, nor when she had stepped out of doors today, she had paid much attention to the layout of the garden, but now, walking over the perfectly even sandstone flags the broad path was paved with, she noticed how unnatural and boring it looked. It consisted mainly of a well-cut lawn, strewn with a number of quite impressive trees and some orderly flowerbeds, all arranged along the paved lanes. The single trees were always placed exactly in the middle of a square piece of lawn, framed by the paved paths, and Éowyn recognized chestnuts, ash-and linden trees, oaks, still in their crumpled and withered autumn foliage, and closer to the outer wall hawthorn and what looked to be some kind of cherry trees while on the other side of the garden different coniferous species grew. She could make out pine and larch, silver fir and spruce, but one quite large tree she could not place. Could it be one of those famous cedars of the south Boromir had told her about? Along the lanes stone-benches were set up in exactly the same distances from each other surrounded by low, precisely trimmed privet hedges. All seemed clearly laid out, clean and orderly. Éowyn grimaced. What had she expected from a Gondorean garden but straight lines and order? At least it provided a space where she could be in the open.

"I see you are not overly enthusiastic about the garden of the Houses." The Steward's face was unreadable, but she could sense the laughter in his voice.

Caught again, discontent like a spoilt child. Clenching her fist, she contained herself, and tilting her head she said: "So am I to assume that you are, my lord? I have to admit that I expected the taste of a Captain of Rangers to differ slightly."

In answer he laughed openly. "You certainly know to pay back, and you are more than correct about my tastes. But alas, lady, these are not the fair woods of Ithilien but a garden for the convalescents to walk in to get accustomed to the use of their limbs again after injury or severe illness. I know the garden is rather boring, but it is part of a greater scheme, entirely focused on the needs of the patients." His foot patted the flagstone. "Sandstone," he explained. "Because it does not get slippery easily, which would endanger people who are not stable on their feet." He pointed at the closest bench. "There are opportunities to sit down at short intervals."

Éowyn frowned. "It would not be beneficial to a weak person's health to sit down on cold stones."

Faramir nodded. "It certainly would not." They had reached the bench by now, and the Steward pulled out some drawer from below it and took a rolled up square mat made of little pieces of polished wood out of it and put it on the bench with a smile. "That's why there are these wooden mats everyone can easily make use of if the weather is too cold to simply sit on the stone. Do you want to have a try?"

The Gondorean had a point there, Éowyn had to admit grudgingly, but she shook her head, and when he had put the mat back into the box, they continued towards the far end of the garden, the northern wall, in silence. There, at the foot of the wall, herb beds were situated, each one encircled with a low perimeter fence of white stone. Small wooden signs, labelled in pokerwork told the names of the herbs, and for the first time the orderly arrangement pleased Éowyn. The spot directly below the wall would be in the sun for most of the day and was a very convenient one to grow herbs, most of which preferred a light soil and full sun. It must be a beautiful and wholesome part of the garden in summer. Already, in most of the beds, the first green witnesses of returning life could be seen. Sprouts in one, swelling buds in another and the first pert leaves. Only a few beds were still covered with fir-branches and straw, containing some more exotic plants that even in the rather mild climate of Mundburg needed some protection against the cold. Éowyn walked past the herb beds, studying the signs: sage, lavender, allheal, boneset, pennyroyal, different kinds of mint and to her utter delight in one of the beds clusters of coltsfoot were already showing their flowers like tiny suns, well before their leaves would start to appear. Walking along the herb beds, they reached the western wall, and there, in the shade of a dark yew, lungwort covered the last herb bed in a carpet of flecked leaves and flowers of light-blue and pink.

"There are not many flowers that early in the year, but the few that bloom certainly ease ones heart."

Only when she heard the Steward's voice did she realise that she had been smiling in her delight to see the blossoms. With a pang she thought of the pale tulips on the plains of the Mark that would boom soon, the tufted pansies in the shrubberies... She swallowed. There was no hope, but were not these small flowers in their persistence a challenge to keep fighting? She looked up and found the Steward eyeing her with a faint smile. Embarrassed at being caught wool-gathering, she avoided his gaze.

"They are but simple flowers and yet such a lovely dash of coloured joy, a sign of life renewed." His voice was soft, a low-pitched baritone that reminded her of fertile soil. Caught by surprise, Éowyn did not know what to answer. No doubt the Gondorean was an accomplished warrior, but would any warrior really care for flowers like that? And if he did, would he say so? True, she had seen more than one lad in the Mark, collecting flowers for his sweetheart, but then the girl's interest, or rather the lad's interest for the girl had been the driving force and not any genuine liking of flowers on the man's side. A sudden thought struck her: Could that Gondorean aim to impress her with his remarks? Well, she was not that easily impressed, so let him harp on about flowers. Schooling her features into a polite smile, she turned back to him, only to find him gazing thoughtfully at the coniferous trees along the western wall. Finally he shrugged. "All these trees grow in Ithilien, the once fair land on the other side of the Anduin. And despite the Enemy's influence they still persist, their fragrance filling the air on the slopes." A sad smile flitted over his face. "The smell of pines and the noise of water, gushing over rocks... that is Ithilien for me." He heaved a breath. "But on every patrol we found more spots that had been destroyed and defiled..." He shook his head and turned back towards her. "But let us not talk about the evil that has been achieved, lest it burdens our hearts additionally. Come, my lady, let's walk along these trees and take their persistent green as a sign of hope."

Hope! She barely managed to suppress a snort. But she followed him across the lawn, and for a while they walked silently from tree to tree. Every single one was beautiful in the typical symmetry of the coniferous species, and Éowyn had to admit that she almost enjoyed the walk. The Steward did not seem to be a man given to idle prattle and she appreciated being left to her own thoughts. At the end of the row stood a pine, a strong tree with gnarled twisted branches and scaly bark. Putting a hand on the trunk, the Steward smiled. "Here is the tree I like most. Beautiful, persistent, useful... and able to get a foothold on the steepest slopes. A conifer, and yet different from the other species." He turned to her, and his smile deepened. "I seem to be allured by things that differ from the ordinary."

Éowyn nodded politely, but again she did not answer, not wanting to give him a prompt for any remark that might overstep the invisible fence she had built up around her. Merry had certainly been right. The Steward was agreeable company, but she had been warned and he would not bait her into talking, accidentally revealing what was not meant for anybody's knowledge. They had returned to the broad paved lane in front of the Houses by now, and as the sun had risen completely in the meantime, Éowyn wanted to climb the walls to have a more revealing look out over the Pelennor and the lands to the east. Walking towards the staircase that led up to the ramparts, they passed one of the flowerbeds, and Éowyn could not help but grimace at its unimaginative accuracy. The Steward must have seen it, for he chuckled softly.

"Those flowerbeds certainly are nothing breathtaking, I give you that. But much thought and care was given to their construction and planting. As you can see they are situated exactly opposite the benches. All throughout the year, a convalescent sitting on one of the benches will be able to spot something flowering in the bed in front of it, even during wintertime. There's the winter rose, winter aconite and a little later snowdrop and spring snowflake, the blue stars of wood squill and soon there will be crocus and daffodils in the lawn." Éowyn blinked, hearing the Steward list the names of all those early spring flowers that could be also found in the wild. Not only did he seem to like flowers but he also knew their names. Seeing her surprised face, he laughed. "I know, there is but little green in this city, but that does not mean that we do not love plants of all kinds. Why, even in the smallest yard of the poorest house you will find at least some pots with herbs and probably the odd geranium."

Éowyn was relieved that they had reached the staircase by now, for its narrowness forced them to climb it one after the other and thus she was spared an answer. Gathering the folds of her skirts with her free hand she had to concentrate not to step on the hem of her dress. That Steward confused her, and she did not like to be confused.

The view over the plain in front of her was worse than she had expected. Mercilessly, the rising sun had pulled away the smothering veil of darkness and the space of the battlefield lay before her eyes in undisguised gruesomeness. Once green fields, gardens and meadows had been trampled by thousands of hooves and boots, leaving nothing but muddy devastation from the city walls to the banks of the Great River. From where she stood she could only look east and north, her sight to the south being obstructed by the massive outcrop of rock that divided the city into a northern and a southern part, and of the fairly untouched patch south of the gate that Éomer had told her of, where the Eorlingas had put up camp, she could see nothing. Fifteen-hundred Riders dead or maimed, three thousand out there with Elfhelm to break the blockade of the West-Road and more than a thousand on the march towards the Black Gate... And how many had already died at the Fords of Isen, at Helm's Deep? Her people were bleeding white on trampled battlegrounds all over Gondor and the Mark.

There were tents or rather awnings out there in some places, perhaps spots where soldiers or those that laboured with the wreckage of the battle were stationed, but there was no house, no barn or even shed on the entire plain. No trees, not even shrubs could be seen. She swallowed, remembering Boromir's proud description of the Pelennor, Minas Tirith's kitchen garden as he had called it. Where were the farms and cottages now, where the gardens and orchards he had talked about, mirthfully recalling his forays as a boy on the strawberry fields and cherry trees in early summer, teasing Théodred whom he had known to love those fruits?

Now there was nothing but blood-soaked mud. She swallowed at the bitterness that congealed in her mouth. And where were all the people? The farmers, gardeners and dairy-maids? She remembered Éomer telling her that Denethor had evacuated the women and children of the town, so surely these people and their livestock had left in time, but did she not know how hard it was on a farmer to leave behind the soil he had tilled? With a sudden pang she realised that the situation was not different in the Westfold. The large fertile valley of the Deeping Coomb with its rich fields and orchards had been devastated, and Saruman's orcs had destroyed and defiled everything they had found in their way when they had marched on the Hornburg. Even if against all odds they should survive, what would the survivors live on, here as well as in the Mark? Orcs stealing horses, plundering Hillmen they had faced and fought back, but this enemy aimed at the soil itself, the backbone and soul of every people.

Out of its own volition her gaze wandered towards the river. Like the road to the north the one to the east had been cleared of the debris and where it reached the river she could see the ruins of a large city. Osgiliath, the ancient Citadel of the Stars, she remembered from hours spent under the droning voice of the royal tutor at Edoras. On the other side of the river green prevailed, light woods stretching along the bank and up into the folds of the hilly country till they met the black slopes of the Ephel Duath. From the ruins at the river a broad road headed straight east until it was lost in the haze. The road they had taken. Seven thousand men and fifteen-hundred horses. Where were they now? Turning north, she let her searching gaze follow the ridge of the mountains, but even in clear daylight there was nothing distinct to make out.

"The old Harad Road follows the seam of the Ephel Dúath from the Crossing of the Poros to the Black Gate. That would be the fastest way, and the only one such a large host can take."

The Steward's voice suddenly reminded her that he was standing at her side, and what was more, a keen observer. She would have to be more careful not to be caught in his net of studied politeness. Yet what he said made sense. The old Númenorean roads in general went as straight as possible from one place to the other and given the state of the West-Road that crossed the Mark north-westwards she could imagine that even disused and out of repair for ages they would still provide a rather speedy passage. She cast another look at the straight ribbon of the road on the other side of the Anduin and frowned as a sudden idea hit her. "Will not the enemy expect them there and try to assault the host? They will be drawn out on the road and thus an easy target for attack."

The Steward shook his head. "The lay of the land does not allow the clandestine gathering of large troops along the road. There could be single archers hidden, but I'm sure the Lords of the West will have sent scouts ahead and the Rangers know every fold of the land like the back of their hands. There is only one spot the enemy could try an ambush where the road cuts through an out-thrust of the eastward hills and therefore is flanked by rather high slopes. But even there is no space for more than a few hundred men – and unmounted ones that is." He grinned lopsidedly. "Anyway, I doubt that the enemy will succeed there, as the spot is well-known by my men. It's our favoured spot to tackle the enemy."

Again she wished she had a map. She hated to have to ask him, but she was no fool. If she wanted information on the Land of the Moon there was nobody better to ask but an Ithilien Ranger. "How far do you think they have proceeded by now?" At least she was satisfied with the even casualness of her voice. She certainly would not tell more than she said in words.

Faramir hesitated, obviously thinking. "Well, they will have to stay together, their cavalry waiting for the infantry..." He grimaced. "They'll need at least four more days to reach the Black Gate. If they stay unchallenged, that is. So perhaps come evening they may reach the spot I was talking about, some ninety miles on the road from Osgiliath."

Four more days. Four days of waiting. She squared her shoulders. She would not let these days pass unused. Four days to exercise to get back as much of her strength as possible. She grimaced. It was no use fooling herself, she would not be able to wield a sword at the moment, but a dagger would be a good idea, and a spear maybe, though a one-handed thrust was not of much use. After a last glance over to the ridge that fenced in Mordor she turned her back to it, grimly determined to walk over to the quarters of the Riders to get herself the weapons she needed and start exercising.

The opposite wall of the garden lay in bright sunlight, and only now she noticed several nooks in it, each containing narrow stone benches around a small square table. Towards the first one a tall man was walking, carrying a covered basket, and despite his grey raiment she did not think him to be one of the healers, his entire bearing seeming rather soldierly. Seeing the man, the Steward turned to her.

"My lady, would you do me the honour of breaking your fast with me?"

She did not feel especially thrilled by the prospect, but for politeness sake she nodded her consent, and they descended from the ramparts and walked over to the nook where the man had laid the table in the meantime. On a linen tablecloth he had put a small loaf of wheat bread, a dollop of butter on a glazed earthenware plate, a bowl with what seemed to be cream cheese, and a smallish pot with a wooden spoon in it. Two earthenware mugs, a covered teapot and two wooden plates completed the arrangement. She did not really feel hungry, but at least Gondor's Steward did not seem to be fond of breakfast ale like most men of the Mark and not a small number of the women as well. One had to be thankful for small favours. When they had sat down, the man poured them some tea, and she curiously picked up the mug to smell the aromatic reddish brew.

"You can lace it with honey, my lady, if you prefer sweetened tea." Smiling, the Steward pointed at the smallish pot, but Éowyn shook her head.

"I was just wondering what kind of tea it is. I first thought it to be rose hip, but it obviously is something different."

He nodded. "It's hibiscus, one of my favourites."

"Hibiscus?"

"A flower growing wild further south." He pointed at the teapot. "This one is from Dol Amroth. Prince Imrahil's housekeeper knows about my weakness for it and keeps me supplied."

She did not like being reminded of said prince, and to be spared further conversation, started to sip her tea. The taste was much to her liking and she decided to have it without honey that would overlay the delicate fruity aroma and the slight hint of lemon.

"Would you like some goat-cheese with your bread?" The Steward had torn off a crust of bread and was holding a small eating knife. Motioning to the bowl he said. "It's my favourite for breakfast, but you can have some butter if you don't like the cheese. And there also is the honey."

Éowyn was torn between surprise and the urge to scowl. This Gondorean could not have got that information out of the hobbit, could he? She had never talked to Merry about her early childhood at Aldburg, about those glorious spring mornings out on the plains when her parents had taken her and Éomer with them to inspect the newly born foals. How she had loved those mornings, the smell of dewy grass, the smell of horse everything and everyone seemed to be soaked in mingling with the scent of the barley bannocks the herders' wives used to bake in the coals of the camp fire. And then there had been goat-cheese. Creamy and cool it had been a wondrous contrast to the still warm bannocks... Pulling herself together, she swallowed. It was no use becoming nostalgic like an infirm crone.

She cleared her throat. "Some cheese would be nice, my lord." She watched him spreading an ample amount of cheese on the bread and then hold the crust out to her.

"Some honey with it?"

Nodding, she reached for the honey pot to spoon some honey on top of the creamy cheese, but to her utter embarrassment her fingers refused the task of turning the wooden spoon fast enough to keep the honey from dripping. Frustrated she stuck it back into the pot.

"My lady?"

She nearly squirmed at the earnest care and worry in the Steward's voice. Don't look into his eyes. Not now. Schooling her features, she steadied herself. "It's my hand, my lord. I have certain problems controlling it." To her embarrassment her voice sounded pressed and brittle.

"A strain? Did you overtax it in battle, sprain it?" The tone of his voice still made her feel insecure, but the questions were down to earth in a soothing way. Without raising her gaze Éowyn shook her head.

"No, I don't think I sprained it. I don't know what it is. No pain or anything the like. Just a general numbness since..." Her voice petering out, she clenched her hand. "The Halfling suffers the same, but we took up exercising. I'm convinced that's the right way to overcome it though there might be a reoccurrence now and then."

Putting down the bread he had held out to her, he reached out for her hand and taken by surprise she did not pull it away. Holding her hand, he put his other one on top of it, enclosing her cold hand in his larger warm ones. "Do you feel that?"

How could that voice be so irritating? She nodded. "Yes, I do. As I told you, I am exercising it. When I woke it was absolutely lifeless, numb and cold, but..."

The sensation of his hands, firmly rubbing and massaging her cold fingers made her cease talking. Dumbfounded she stared at them. Large hands with long, slender fingers, clean short-cut fingernails that obviously had been treated with some oil. Well, if Boromir had had a valet who shaved him, why should not his brother have one to polish his nails? He was a Gondorean nobleman after all. Her hand was warming slowly under the Steward's ministrations, and while still staring at the flawless fingernails in a mixture of curiosity and disgust, she suddenly realised the coarseness of callouses scraping over the skin of her hand. Callouses and polished fingernails. What a contradiction! Blushing, she pulled her hand back. "I assure you, it is improving. Though I find exercising a bit difficult. I wish I had something to strengthen my ability to grip and train my muscles. A short iron bar would be fine."

He nodded. "It certainly would. But besides rebuilding strength you should also give a thought to coordination and nimbleness. But let's have breakfast first. Would you mind if I spread some honey on your bread?" Not waiting for her answer, he reached for the wooden spoon. "Say stop if it's enough."

They ate in silence and she gradually relaxed, finding herself enjoying the taste of the food in the end. A second mug of the fruity tea ended their meal, and when the Steward suggested a final walk along the western wall, Éowyn agreed without hesitation. Despite the early time of day she felt slightly exhausted. Not bodily though, but rather worn out like after attending one of the tedious councils at Meduseld under the Worm's sway, when she had had to be more than wary of his evil influence on the king and think twice about any word she had uttered. The wall protected them from the western breeze and reflected the sun, and she felt its warmth on her face. They passed some more nooks, and Éowyn was surprised how inviting she thought them now in the mild spring sun.

"They are probably too hot on a summer afternoon, but now in spring they are nice. And even in summer a morning game of chess can certainly be enjoyed here."

Startled by the Steward's remark, Éowyn looked up. Only now she noticed the inlaid white and black squares on the surface of the small table. Éowyn bit her lip. How had this Gondorean sensed that she had been interested in those nooks? She merely nodded her head affirmatively, avoiding looking into his face. Again in silence they proceeded towards the herb beds, until they reached that strange tree she had noticed before. Intrigued she stopped. Was it really a cedar? One of those legendary trees of the Falas she had heard of but had never seen? Walking over to the thick trunk, she put her hand on the grey, fissured bark. Like calluses on a warrior's hands. She frowned. Where had that thought come from?

"It's one of the oldest trees in the garden." The Steward's voice was soft, and there was something in it that made her look up with concern.

"It's a cedar, isn't it?"

Smiling sadly, he nodded, putting his hand beside hers on the bark. "My mother loved it, for it reminded her of Dol Amroth. The walks with her to this tree are one of the few things I remember about her."

Éowyn felt embarrassed, like being caught intruding. How could he mention things that intimate? No way would she have shared memories of her mother like that with a stranger. Her mother who had loved the birches, a birch herself in Éowyn's memory, white and slender, a tree of light and life until that horrible spring without bloom.

"My lady?" The soft voice again, and a likewise soft touch on her hand, easing her fingers that had clutched into the fissures of the bark. Flustered she withdrew it. How could she let her feelings show like that? He held out his hand, palm bent upwards. "Let me show you an exercise to regain control over your hand, Lady Éowyn." She shot him a doubtful glance, but he smiled encouragingly. "I'm an archer, my lady, and I need both strength and nimbleness. I think this might work for you. Will you give it a try?" She nodded, and following his instructions, she put the tips of her fingers against his. "Now don't look at your hand. I'll push a single finger at a time against yours, and your task is to react with counter pressure as fast as possible. Ready?"

He moved slowly at first applying but little pressure and giving her time to react, but as soon as she found she could manage, he sped up, forcing her to concentrate. She clenched her teeth, feeling challenged, and yet this ridiculous kind of sparing made her feel good in a strange way. Alive, she thought, pushing her thumb forcefully against his.

"Enough, my lady!" Catching her hand in his, he smiled. "Don't overdo it. You should not risk spraining your fingers. Better repeat it again this afternoon." She nodded, surprised how warm her hand felt. The fatigue was gone and she was breathing a bit faster than usual. Four more days until the inevitable would happen. She would be able to wield a blade by then.

"Westu, Éowyn hál!" The sonorous voice rang through the garden, and swivelling round, Éowyn beheld a tall Rider approaching her at a brisk pace. If the voice had not already told her who he was, his wiry frame and the flaming red of hair and beard would have removed any doubts.

"Ceadda!" She almost squealed with excitement, seeing him. Ceadda of Aldburg, an expert as far as horses were concerned, the guard of her early childhood, the one who had taught her to ride and swear, the later much to the disapproval of her mother. He greeted the Steward with no more than a casual nod of the head and then faced her with a broad grin, his eyes mere cerulean slits in his weather-beaten face.

"The Marshal sent the fastest riders to bring the news to Mundburg right after we had cleaned up that scum on the road and made sure that none of the rats escaped. So here I am, Éowyn, Éomund's Dohtor, to tell you that we were victorious in Sunlending and to answer any questions you might have. At least that's what Marshal Elfhelm told me to do."

"You said riders. Who..."

Ceadda made a vague movement with the hand that held his helmet. "Young Cena came with me. The bloke talks the Common Speech like a bloody Gondorean, and therefore the Marshal sent him to the Citadel, to inform the Steward there."

Hiding a grin, Éowyn motioned to the Gondorean. "Well, Ceadda, then perhaps I had better translate your missive, for this man is the Steward."

"Is he?" Ceadda's eyebrows rose in mock surprise. "Well, we've finished a nasty job over there on the West-Road, and now the Marshal's troops are slowly returning to Mundburg. We have less than hundred fallen Riders, but a large number of injured. And we lost more than five hundred horses." He grimaced. "Aimed at their bellies, those bastards. But we left none of those beasts to crawl back to their evil master." He drew a deep breath. "Marshal Elfhelm is accompanying the wounded. They will be here in the late afternoon. The leeches we had with us told me to give word to the Warden."

Éowyn nodded. Turning to the Steward, she briefly informed him of Ceadda's missive. He listened solemnly, and then to her utter surprise, bowed to Ceadda. "We certainly owe the Riders of the Mark. The courage of Eorl's people is praiseworthy."

Éowyn translated, and the Rider's blush nearly outmatched the colour of his hair. Smiling, she turned again to the Steward. "My lord, not finding you in the Citadel, no doubt Cena will soon arrive here, and will be able to answer any further questions you might have. If you will excuse me now, I would like to accompany Ceadda to the Warden, to make sure that the man gets all the details he needs."

The Steward nodded. "I'll send my man for Elfhelm's courier and ask the counsellors over to the Houses this evening." Bowing, he took her hand and kissed her knuckles in courtly manner. Looking into her eyes, his face suddenly split in a broad grin. "And have pity on the Warden and spare him, Lady Éowyn. He's a good man in his own way, and we still need him."

Annotations:

Sunlending: Rohirric name for Anórien


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