"They passed down the long ranks of waiting men with stern and unmoved faces. But when they had come almost to the end of the line one looked up, glancing keenly at the hobbit. A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death."
quoted from: "The Muster of Rohan"; The Return of the King; Book V by J.R.
Minas Tirith, 22nd March, 3019, Third Age
Éowyn closed the door of her room behind her, her heart still beating in her throat. Not able to control her excitement, she pulled the dagger out of her shawl, and jamming it against the bed with her knee, unsheathed it. What a weapon! Did it have a name, like that of the battle-tested swords? Did not that knife in the Lay of Luthien her mother had told her about have a name? She should have asked the Steward. But it was hers now, and did she not have the right to name it? Laying it down on the coverlet of her bed, she admired the craftsmanship. Clear, straight lines, razor-edged, with a slim spike, like the fang of a mythical beast. Her fingers glided down the fuller, and she felt her hand tremble with anticipation. She picked it up and held the blade up to the light to better admire the patterns typical of black steel. What a formidable blend of sober, deadly purposefulness and beauty!
"Swart Giecel." She had not intended to say it aloud, but she felt it was right the moment she uttered it. Black Icicle. A mixture of pride and joy flooded her. She had named her ultimate weapon. The one that would stay true and be her companion till her last breath. Holding it once more up to the sun, she relished in the subtle pattern of the steel that rather seemed to swallow the light instead of reflecting it. And then she froze, with the dagger still lifted. The flower-pot! Some of the blossoms seemed to have wilted, and a large part of the foliage hung feebly. Swiftly shoving the dagger below her pillow, she kicked the footstool to the window. Her searching fingers soon found her suspicion confirmed: The soil in the pot was as dry as dust. How could she not have thought of watering the flowers?
Stepping down from the stool, she took the heavy jug from the wash-stand. With her hand not yet fully under control it was difficult to rise it and when she wanted to step on the stool again, she nearly got entangled in the hem of her dress. Cursing, she put the jug on the windowsill and then lifted her skirts to step on the footstool again. How could such a simple task like watering flowers become such a challenge just because of a broken arm? And how many Riders had lost limbs in last week's battles, not just received an injury than would heel, time given? She frowned, remembering old Cuthred's tale that he sometimes still felt the hand, which had been bitten off by a warg more than twenty years ago. Shaking her head, she quashed the futile thought. There was no need to worry over a future that was not there.
Having no possibility to lift or part the foliage, she resorted to pouring the water as accurately as possible into the middle of the pot, stopping between the single flushes to give the soil time to soak it up. Apart from a few faded blossoms no real damage seemed to have occurred, and she knew heart's ease to be a more than hardy plant. Hardy, beautiful and a boon with all kinds of chest diseases, save for the coughing disease. But against the plague that swept over the plains each winter and early spring there was no help. One could only try to ease the suffering of the infected. Putting down the jug, she nipped out the withered flowers. Eight years old she had been when her mother had died of the coughing disease the very year her father had been slain by orcs, but having fallen ill herself and been drifting in and out of bouts of fever, she remembered little of that time, save the pungent taste of the heart's ease tea they had made her drink.
She sighed. The flower was one of those plants that had accompanied her through all her life, growing in Edoras as well as Aldburg. And it had been blooming on the southern slope below Meduseld that cold spring when Théodred had asked her to marry his friend Erwig of Westfold. She remembered she had stood like now, nipping blossoms of heart's ease, culling them to replenish the stores they had used over the winter when Théodred had approached her.
How many years had passed until then? Four...five? It seemed an eternity. Three years after Fréaláf's death, ten after Juthwara's... The loss of loved ones...the merciless meter of time. And Erwig had joined their number, ambushed on his way back to the Westfold after their betrothal. Could it really be that Eorl's House was cursed like Théodred had said?
She shook herself in an attempt to clear her mind. Erwig no doubt had been a good man, and she was sure they would have come to love each other, or at least enjoy each other's company, but she would not call him her love. Not even her lover as she had lain with him but once, after the festivities of their betrothal, and that had been more to please Théodred than out of real attraction. Not that she regretted having done so. Erwig had been kind and patient, and she had felt relieved that he had been so different from Fréaláf's youthful gangliness that making love to him had been totally different. A widower of similar age to Théodred's with three grown children and a late-comer of six, a boy being born two months early by a mother dying of the coughing disease, Erwig had agreed to Théodred's suggestion to have their first son adopted by the prince to become the future king of the Mark.
She wondered when in the years after Juthwara's death this idea had taken possession of her cousin. An heir of Eorl's line, born by her and begotten by a worthy Eorling, to be raised at Meduseld as Théodred's heir. He had supported her relation with Fréaláf, had faced down Théoden King, swearing he would make Éowyn's son his heir. And how she had longed to be married to that young Rider! Fréaláf "Freckles", the only man she had ever loved and given herself to without any restraint. And if she had had her own way he would have stayed the only one. But nevertheless she had agreed after his death to a union with Erwig out of duty to the Mark. Though certainly Théodred had also had her safety in mind, finding her a good husband and freeing her of the ever darker looming dread of being married off to Gríma the Worm. She grimaced with disgust. Not that she would have ever submitted herself to anything like that, even if it had been ordered by her uncle, but had Gandalf not come in time, what might have happened? She straightened her shoulders. Whatever it might have been, it would have resulted in a gutted Worm.
A knock at the door woke her from her gloomy musings and then Merry entered, smiling like summer-sun, a man of impressive height and muscular build in tow, whose facial expression at seeing her could only be described as awed.
"Good morning, lady Éowyn. This is Master Amathron, weapon smith of the Citadel."
The bulky man bowed, his right hand on his chest, and then cleared his throat, but instead of starting to speak, he just shot her another admiring look and held out a parcel wrapped in sackcloth to her. Seeing the smith's shyness, Merry intervened.
"Master Amathron has made a tool to train and strengthen our arms, my lady." Motioning to the parcel, he added. "I got a similar one. Just have a look yourself. It is marvellous and so practical."
Intrigued, Éowyn reached for the parcel, and obligingly the smith started to unwrap what he was carrying. Éowyn blinked. It was a short iron bar, just what she had mentioned to the Steward the other day, and yet what was held out to her now in the weapon smith's broad, calloused hands was a true masterpiece. The bar was about an ell long and consisted of three iron rods that had been twisted around each other. At both sides the ends of the rods had been bent outside, each one ending in what looked like a stylised knot. Thus whatever way one put it down, the bar would stand on four feet, the middle part of the bar well removed from the surface it had been put down on, easy to grip for a person who wanted to pick it up. And to ease that purpose further, said middle part was wrapped with several layers of thin suede strips. She took the rod, raising it shoulder-high. It had just the correct weight and fitted into her hand perfectly.
She turned to the smith. "I mentioned wanting an iron rod to the Steward, but this, Master Amathron, certainly surpasses anything I imagined. It is a perfect tool for the exercise I had on mind, and even the weight is exactly as I would have liked."
He blushed at her praise, but overcoming his embarrassment, finally spoke: "Well, my lady, when the Steward told me you needed something to train your sword-arm I sent my apprentice to weigh some of the Rohirric swords to get an idea. You see, your swords are somewhat shorter than the usual Gondorean ones, better fit for the use from horseback. This rod has exactly the weight of a captain's sword."
"He made a smaller one for me," Merry chipped in, and then turning to the smith he added: "I can understand how you got the weight right for the Lady Éowyn, but for me?"
Amathron smiled. "I asked a healer to measure the length of your arm and the breadth of your palm, my Lord Perian. Knowing the approximate length of a soldier's arm and the weight of a Rohirric sword it was not difficult to figure out what the bar had to be like for you."
"And I thought it was for some clothes!" Merry did not even try to conceal his surprise. Smiling, Éowyn let her thumb trail over the suede strips.
"You certainly are a master of your profession, Master Amathron, one that Gondor can be proud having. I will tell the Steward so, when I thank him for his consideration."
Bowing even lower than upon entering, the smith left the room, and raising an eyebrow, Éowyn addressed the hobbit. "Well, King's Squire, then where is that iron bar of yours? Go get it, and let's go outside to do some exercise in the fresh air."
Merry's grin nearly split his face as he went to get the tool, and a short time later the two of them had found themselves a convenient space near the inner wall of the garden to practise.
"To imagine: He had the healers take measures." Merry could not stop chuckling. "It seemed odd to me as they had already taken my measures for some clothes to be made the day before. But I did not want to seem impolite." Smoothing the front of his tunic with his left hand, he added. "I suppose what I'm wearing now is some children's garment, probably Bergil's. It feels a bit odd around the shoulders."
"Beregond's young son. He stayed in the city to run errands for the healers. Though at the moment he more or less seems to be running errands for Lord Faramir. That flowerpot the Steward sent you..."
"The Steward?" With a mixture of anger and embarrassment Éowyn noticed the shrillness of surprise in her voice.
The hobbit blinked. "Why, yes. Didn't you know? Bergil told me Lord Faramir had asked his father to get some nice plant for your room, something living and colourful, he said. And Beregond sent him home to fetch one of his mother's pots. She seems to have quite a number of different ones, but this one was the only one already blooming."
That Steward! She should have known. Clenching her fist around the bar, Éowyn tried to calm herself and show a sedate temper.
Frowning, Merry looked up to her. "My lady, is anything wrong?"
Having gained her equilibrium, she shook her head. "No, it's nothing. But I would not like to deprive the good woman of her flowers."
Merry let the iron bar sink. "My lady, do you really think there is a chance she might come back?" He blushed, shaking his head. "I shouldn't say such things, I know. My friends and kinsmen are out there, and I should not lose hope." He shrugged. "I just don't know, it is sometimes so difficult... Ah well, if, against all odds, she should return, why not give it back to her?" His grin slowly crept back into his face. "I suppose you care better for it than Bergil. The boy even complained that watering the pots was a nuisance. But I doubt his mother would want it back. She will rather think it a great honour to have provided you with something to please your eye, and anyway all these people would gladly do what they can to be of use to the Lord Faramir."
She did not feel in the mood to listen to any further praise of the Steward. And why was she making such a fuss over a simple flowerpot when she had taken a dagger worth a fortune from his hands? Angry with herself she went on with her exercises, and immediately the hobbit joined her, obviously relieved that the embarrassing moment did not last.
They had been training for nearly an hour, when Merry let his bar sink, clearing his throat with a sheepish look. "Excuse me, Lady Éowyn, but that bell in the citadel has just rung, and if you would not mind..."
"Do you feel exhausted, Master Holdwine? Don't fret about it, just say so. It would do nobody any good if you overtaxed yourself the very first day."
The hobbit shook his head. "No, my lady, I don't feel overtaxed by the exercise. It is just that Mistress Ioreth, upon learning how much I love mushrooms, promised me some mushroom soup for second breakfast and..."
Éowyn grinned. "No way would I keep a hobbit from a dish of mushrooms. Perhaps we should stop anyway, as I still want to pay a visit to the injured Riders."
They walked back to the Houses. Here and there convalescents were sitting on the benches, who greeted them with a mixture of respect and curiosity, but all of them were Gondoreans. When they entered the long corridor it lay silent and cool, seeming dim after the bright light of the garden, and Éowyn could not help the impression of coming back into a cage. She gritted her teeth. She did not want to spoil the happy anticipation of the Halfling who walked beside her, telling her about how the old healer had come to know about his passion for mushrooms. They had nearly reached Merry's room, when the Steward appeared around a corner of the corridor.
"Good morning, my lord." Lifting his bar, Merry beamed at him. "These bars are really splendid."
"Is that so?" A faint smile lit the Steward's face.
"It certainly is, my lord," Éowyn confirmed. "Your weapon smith has truly outdone himself and wrought a simple and yet beautiful tool that fits with our needs to the point."
"I'm pleased to hear that."
In the dim light of the corridor the signs of tiredness in the Steward's face seemed even more prominent, the dark circles around his eyes appearing nearly black.
"You should be resting, my lord."
He nodded. "I should and I will, my lady. I'm just coming from my cousin Amrothos, and it took me a little longer that I had expected."
Just when he was about to turn towards his own room, Ioreth came around the corner, carrying a stoneware pot that, given the pot-cloths she used, was quite hot. Behind her a boy appeared, a tray with a bowl and a small loaf of bread in his hands.
"Good morning, my lady, my lords. My Lord Perian, here I bring the promised soup. Bergil, bring the crockery to Lord Meriadoc's room. My Lord Faramir, you really look tired. You should have sought your bed hours ago. I told you..."
"Peace, Mistress Ioreth!" Laughing softly, Faramir raised his hands. "I was on my way to lie down. So it is you, keeping me from my rest with your scolding."
"My lord!" The old woman sputtered. "I never meant..."
"What about a bowl of mushroom soup before you have a lie-down, my lord?" Merry's face was too deadpan not to be purposeful. Éowyn hid her smile. So the hobbit too had noticed the Steward's exhaustion. Well, a bit of soup certainly would not be amiss after the little he had eaten in the morning.
"Oh, you should have a try, my lord," Ioreth eagerly supported Merry's offer. "My cousin Glandis made it, and if there is a person to make a really delicious mushroom soup it is her. It is only dried mushrooms at this time of the year, but it's the best king's mushroom you can imagine, collected in the woods of Lossarnach, my lord."
"King's mushroom?" Merry frowned. "I thought I knew quite a bit about mushrooms, but I've never heard about that one."
"It's probably just another name for a mushroom you know," the Steward said. "Just have a try and you'll recognise it at once. I thank you for your kind offer, Master Meriadoc. I gladly accept. But we had better have our meal in my room then. At least there is a table and enough chairs for the three of us."
Three? Éowyn frowned. "I'm sorry, my Lord Steward, but I'm not hungry at all."
"Oh no, Lady Éowyn, you certainly are." Realising the ineptitude of his remark, the hobbit blushed. "Please, my lady. How could I enjoy a dish of mushrooms without sharing it with you? Why, it was only a few days ago that we talked about mushrooms... At least give it a try."
Éowyn felt it impossible to gainsay Merry without hurting him, and they entered the Steward's room, following Ioreth, who proudly carried the pot as if it was a crown at a king's coronation. The Steward's room was like Éowyn remembered it from the council the night before. A bed took most of the space on the right-hand wall, the high headboard positioned towards the door. Obviously the Steward too was fond of a glimpse of what little open sky was to be had in this prison of white spruceness. A small wardrobe stood on the left and under a window high up in the wall similar to the one in her own room there were a table and three chairs.
Ioreth put her load down on the table, carefully shoving a map that had covered the middle of the of the surface to the far end, and putting down his tray, Bergil ran to fetch the necessary bowls and spoons.
One glimpse at the map made clear to Éowyn that it showed the area between the Great River and the Ephel Dúath. Moving to the left side of the table, she had a closer look. She spotted Osgiliath on the river, the road going straight ahead until it reached some kind of crossroads, and then there was the road that ran parallel to the mountain ridge: the Old South Road as the Steward had called it. Forgetting the others, she let her finger trail the straight line of the road that led to the Black Gate until she reached the ravine the Steward had mentioned, the only place where an attack was likely. There was a stream nearby, crossing the road a bit further north and then flowing down to the Anduin. Tiny sketches of different trees marked the predominant vegetation, but there were also signs and letters on the map she did not understand.
"It's a beautiful map, isn't it?" Merry's voice betrayed honest admiration, and to her surprise she found the hobbit at her elbow, eagerly studying the map. "I wonder where they are now. Could you not point it out to us, my lord?"
Her finger still on the map, Éowyn looked up and met the Steward's glance. The motion of his head in Ioreth`s direction was hardly visible, but enough for Éowyn to understand. "Well, Holdwine of the Mark, I suppose you had better eat first, don't you think so? It certainly would be a pity if the soup turned cold." She was not sure if there really was a faint smile on the Steward's face or if it was just her imagination, but Ioreth hurried to support her point of view, and finally the Steward himself addressed the hobbit.
"Don't wait for us, Meriadoc. This is your present, and a well deserved one I dare say, so sit down and start enjoying it and we will join you in due time."
Happy anticipation on his face, Merry obliged and opened the lid of the pot, and at once a delicious aroma filled the room. "Penny buns!" the hobbit exclaimed, reaching for the ladle to fill his bowl.
"Penny what?" Ioreth frowned, almost speechless for a moment.
"Penny buns, Mistress Ioreth. That's what we call them in the Shire. They truly are delicious and one of the few mushrooms that don't lose their taste when dried." He tried the first spoonful and rolled his eyes in delight. "Wonderful." Having gobbled down two more spoonfuls, he addressed the old healer again. "You must excuse my rude behaviour, Mistress Ioreth, but your cousin surely has outdone herself and I assure you no hobbit would be able to resist this soup, even at the danger of his life."
Ioreth literally beamed with pleasure and was about to launch into what Éowyn expected to become a lengthy description of the recipe, or the story of her cousin's life or probably both when Bergil came rushing in with the demanded items. At once Merry grabbed one of the bowls, and having filled it with a generous portion of soup, he placed it in front of Éowyn with an impish grin. "Try, my lady, you will find it worth it, and I will score some more points with your brother."
Seeing the Steward raise his eyebrows enquiringly, Éowyn explained: "My dear brother is, and has always been, a bit overprotective, to say the least. He engaged the late king's squire here to beguile me into eating."
The Steward smiled. "I'm afraid over-protectiveness is quite a common trait with elder brothers, my lady. And with Halflings," he added, his smile turning into a grin, as Merry put the other bowl in front of him, filled to the brim.
Totally unfazed the hobbit shrugged. "As long as there's life there's need of food and drink. And I assure you, mushroom soup is one of the better choices, especially this one."
The soup truly smelled enticing and it also looked appetising. Taking the spoon, Éowyn stirred the the contents of her bowl. Small pieces of mushroom swam in a thick soup that obviously had more than just a drop of cream added to it, along with finely chopped chives. She tasted the first spoonful and raised her eyebrows in surprise. It certainly was delicious. She had a second try. What she had taken for chives seemed to be at least partly fresh shoots of garlic, adding a hearty quirk to the dish. And there was something else, a spice or herb she did not know, but which blended wonderfully with the other ingredients. Eager to find out, she filled her spoon a third time, when she heard the hobbit chuckled.
"I told you, you would like it, didn't I?"
She smiled. "And right you were, Merry. It is very tasty, though different from how we would make it in the Mark. There is a certain spice I do not recognise."
"Do you mean the nutmeg, my lady?" The Steward too had tried the soup and was now breaking the small loaf of bread, holing a crust out to her.
"It's a spice we get from the East, though we mostly import, or rather imported it through Umbar." The Steward grimaced. "There is money to be made in the trade of spices and essences, and by far not all Umbarians are corsairs. There's a good deal of more or less honest merchants who would prefer having a stable market for their products in Gondor to waging war with her."
"I don't know about honest when Umbarian merchants are concerned, my lord, but I bought this from a monger from Pelargir, you know the one who has his stall down in the first circle near the Old Guesthouse in the Lampwright's Street, and I dare say those people from Pelargir are worse that any cheating Umbarian could ever be." Ioreth nodded that vigorously that Éowyn thought her veil might come off any moment. "But for Dol Amroth these scoundrels would hold the monopoly on the spice market, and they make you feel the fact with their prices. Though one has to admit that their goods really are of a very fine quality."
As interesting as her information was, Éowyn just hoped the healer would shut up and leave the room, and she wondered how the Steward and obviously Merry too could endure the woman's endless prattle with such calm. Or was it just indifference? More to avoid any further remarks from Ioreth than really feeling hungry, Éowyn continued eating, pointedly concentrating on every spoonful. For a moment there was blessed silence, and looking up, she saw hobbit and Steward eating with visible delight.
"Is there anything else you might be needing?" The old healer stood watching them with a satisfied smile, her hands folded in front of her belly.
Before Éowyn could say no, Merry eagerly nodded. "Some of that tea would be nice, Mistress Ioreth. That fruity one, you know? You served it to me the other morning."
Her smile deepening, the old woman nodded. "Yes, my Lord Perian, I certainly remember. It's hibiscus, you know. And it happens to be the Lord Faramir's favourite too, isn't it my lord? I'll have some brought to you. And you, my lady? Would you also like hibiscus or would you prefer a different taste? We have rose-hip, or if you want something else there also is peppermint, or lime blossom tea, or..."
"Thank you, Mistress Healer. Hibiscus would be fine." Éowyn found it difficult to keep the edge out of her voice and was relieved when the old healer at last left the room, taking Bergil with her.
As soon as she had closed the door behind her, there was a soft chuckle from Merry. "Goodness gracious, that woman really is talkative, isn't she?"
Éowyn snorted. "I just wonder how you can stay that calm with her around."
Filling his bowl for a second time, Merry laughed. "Oh, my lady, growing up at Brandyhall certainly prepares one for such kind of things, as does having three sisters. But Mistress Ioreth certainly could talk the hind leg off a donkey."
"Don't be too strict with her, Meriadoc. She certainly is talkative, but she is a very apt and dedicated healer." The Stewards voice was serious, but looking up, Éowyn saw the corners of his eyes crinkle in suppressed laughter.
"Oh, I know that and I never doubted her ability nor her good will, my lord. It's just that her tongue is as busy as a mill-wheel. But I am ready to endure more than just a prattling old woman for this soup." With a sigh of contentment the hobbit refilled his bowl, and for a while they sat eating in silence. In the end Merry finished three bowls in the time Éowyn needed to deal with her first one, and she felt rather full after that. The Steward too finished his portion, and setting the bowls aside, he pointed at the map.
"I did not know that you are interested in maps or I would have asked you to have a look before. What you see here is the Captain's map, and there are signs and information on it I'm not allowed to reveal to anyone outside the Rangers' detachment. But still there certainly is enough to be seen." Turning to the hobbit, he pointed to the slight eastwards bending of mountains and road on the map. "That's the point the troops may have reached today and not much further all living vegetation ends and the barren lands that stretch in front of the Black Gate begin."
"Barren you say?" Éowyn frowned. "That certainly might prove an additional problem with the feeding of the horses, though I can imagine as they are using the road and going at a quite slow pace they might have fodder on wains with them."
The Steward nodded. "They certainly will. Watering might be a more pressing problem though. There are some streamlets running down from the Ephel Dúath, but I would not vouch for their safeness at the moment. At least that will become more and more doubtful the closer they get to the Black Gate. Not to mention the fumes that poison the air over there."
Éowyn chewed her lower lip. "Perhaps they'll leave the horses behind at a certain point. A fidgeting, frightful horse is of no use to a warrior, and turned loose at least the horses might be able to flee if things go wrong."
"So you really think it hopeless?" The hobbit's voice was little more than a whisper.
The Steward looked up from the map. "No, Master Meriadoc, not hopeless, though I have to admit that there is not much hope. But I met your kinsman and his..." He hesitated, and finally smiled as he continued. "I'm not sure what to call Master Samwise, for calling him your kinsman's servant would certainly not do him justice. But he said he was Master Frodo's gardener, and a gardener he will remain in my memory as long as I live." He pointed to where the stream, after crossing the road, seemed to form a kind of smallish pool. "That's where I met them a fortnight ago. And that's the road they planned to take into Mordor."
Éowyn too followed the Steward's finger eagerly with her eyes as he pointed out the hidden pass over the Mountains of Shadow, when a knock at the door disturbed them and Bergil entered with the tea.
The hot fruity beverage seemed to have a soothing effect on her, and Éowyn felt her lids droop while she was listening to Merry's eager questions concerning his friends.
"My lady, you should lay down for a bit."
The Steward's soft voice startled her out of her drowsiness, and irked at being caught drowsing she snapped: "As should you." Regretting her backhanded remark at once, she gritted her teeth. Wonderful, now she really was in for some jibe. But looking up she found the Steward's face serious.
"I dare say everyone of us is tired, even our stout hobbit."
Merry stretched and stifled a yawn. "Ah well, I certainly would not say no to a nice little nap. There is little better than to rest after a fine meal."
Only now did the Steward smile, that smile Éowyn had found typical of him, with not more than a faint curling of the lip but such warmth and sincereness in those deep grey eyes that she found it hard to bear. How could this dratted Gondorean remind her so much of the man who had been like a father to her? Angrily she averted her eyes.
"My lady?" There was a worried undertone in the Steward's voice that caused her to immediately check herself. "You told me you wanted to visit the wards today, and I too would like to go and pay my respect to those who fought for Minas Tirith. What about all of us having a rest now and then going together to visit the injured afterwards?"
Still embarrassed by her lack of composure, she nodded. "Certainly, my Lord Steward. I dare say the Riders would feel honoured if the Steward of Gondor paid them a visit."
Rising, he took her hand. "And so would the soldiers of Gondor if the White Lady of Rohan came to see them."
King's mushroom: my "invention" for the cep or penny bun (boletus edulis)