Through Shadows

Thanwen

Chapter 026

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So here comes the next chapter and I hope you enjoy reading and find it worth having waited for it. I have tried to get some order into my schedule and think that I cannot manage to post more often than every second Sunday if I want to keep posting on a regular basis. So I'm afraid that in the future you will have to wait two weeks instead of just one. :-[


Chapter 26

Hydrangea


Then Faramir came and sought her, and once more they stood on the walls together; and he said to her: "Éowyn, why do you tarry here and do not go to the rejoicing in Cormallen beyond Cair Andros, where your brother awaits you?"

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


Minas Tirith, 2nd April, 3019, Third Age

Listlessly, Éowyn stared up to the fast brightening square of the window. Sleep had not found her until close to dawn, and she felt bodily and mentally exhausted. The longer she had pondered on Éomer's letter, the greater had become the urge to accept Elfhelm's assumption that her brother had been drunk. And yet she could not help feeling betrayed. What had got into him to send her a message written by a scribe, an official missive with all the royal paraphernalia? And what was worse: Written by a Gondorean scribe, in the letters and language of Gondor. She clenched her fist. What other reason could there be but the need to prove to someone who did not speak the language of the Mark what the letter said? She grimaced in disgust. A drunken bet perhaps. But whatever it was, how could her brother debase her thus, reducing her to a mere recipient of orders?

There had been a moment in the afternoon when she had tried to convince herself that she had overreacted, that she had read things into the letter that were not really there. The letter said nothing explicit about a marriage to Imrahil's son, nothing about a union of the Mark and Gondor. But her careful request had confirmed that Erchirion was unmarried, a skilful warrior of about Éomer's age, known for his prowess in battle and his sympathy with women, no matter their rank. And then there was the fact that Imrahil had a daughter, though as Faramir had said she was more or less spoken for by Amrothos' friend. What if Éomer had come to an arrangement with the Prince about a double wedding? She felt sick to the stomach. Had she not just the other day talked to the Steward about the exchange of hostages?

"My lady, shall I brush out your hair?" Tórdes' soft voice called her back to the present. With a sigh, she shook her head.

"No, thank you. Just leave the braid as it is and come back this afternoon to do my hair for I'll be visiting at Lady Saelind's."

The woman nodded eagerly. "Shall I go and try to get you a more appropriate scent, my lady? I don't know if the shops in the soap boilers' lane have already opened again, but I'm sure I could find something."

Tórdes' remark brought back the memory of the finely scented soaps Boromir had given her and the thought caused her to waver for a short moment, but then she shook her head. "It will not be necessary, Tórdes, and certainly you are needed here in the Houses and have no time to run around getting me perfume." Recalling Anwen's remark about Tórdes' start of work, Éowyn frowned. "Don't you usually start work later?"

Tórdes shrugged. "With so many healers leaving for Ithilien, the shifts have been changed. And anyway, with the worst being over here we don't need so many healers on night shifts and most have taken up working day shifts. Mareth and Anwen too, and therefore I was ordered to start a bit earlier to be able to assist you in the mornings."

Seeing Éowyn's frown, she added: "It's all the same, as we sleep in the kitchen at the moment and we have to rise anyway when they start to stoke up the fires."

"You sleep in the kitchen?"

The woman nodded. "My husband works there, and that is why I got the idea to stay when the women were ordered to leave the city."

"And your family? Do you have children?"

Again a nod. "Our eldest is married to a farmer's son from Upper Lebennin where they share a holding. He regularly comes to trade his father's salted meats and sausages in the city, and that was how they met." She paused for a moment and swallowed. "He certainly is a clever lad and sees more than many. And when there was that terrible attack at Osgiliath and the bridges had to be torn down he offered for us to live with them. My husband and I stayed, as we knew that every hand would be needed in the Houses, but we sent our younger children and my husband's old mother. And glad I am that we did, for our house was burnt down and totally destroyed." With a sad smile she shrugged. "Nothing remained, nothing at all. And yet we were lucky. And who knows, maybe we'll see them building up the first circle again, or we will finally move to our son-in-law's."

Letting Tórdes drape the fine cream-coloured shawl around her shoulders, Éowyn bit her lower lip. How much were these simple people enduring without complaint. Commoners, lowlings, and yet for all the nobles' pride the backbone of any realm. Tórdes, Ioreth, the man who chopped the wood for the kitchen fires... Ceadda, Frithuswith, the stable hands at Edoras... There were more people than her suffering from the aftermath of this war, others who had less means than her, and yet did not give up. So how could she? She squared her shoulders, remembering Théodred's motto and his last words to her when he had ridden off to the Westfold never to come back again: "Don't lament – fight!"

She heaved a breath. If she only knew who she could trust and who she had to fight.

ooo

The sun had already risen when she finally stepped out from under the ambulatory, and the Steward was waiting for her. His voice was calm and polite as always, but she saw the worry in his eyes as he scanned her face with a quick glance before raising her hand to his lips. For a moment she felt like telling him about Éomer's letter, about her misgivings, her anger. Felt the need to unburden her heart to someone she trusted, but then decided against it. He certainly was a friend, but he needn't know about her brother's outrageous demeanour. She tried to convince herself that it did not do to talk about something her brother might even have regretted as soon as he had been sober again, but it didn't work. She only knew too well that what really kept her from spilling her heartache to the Steward was the fear that he, being a Gondorean, would not think Éomer's command of her unacceptable at all, but would see her submission to her brother's orders as something that befitted a woman. Angrily she felt the sting of unshed tears burning behind her eyes. How weak she had got that she could not bear the idea of being disappointed and rather preferred ignorance!

She did not want to look out over the Pelennor, did not want to look east to where somewhere in the foothills of the Ephel Duath there was the camp of the victorious troops, but she did not feel up to making her aversion known and so she followed the Steward up to the wall in reluctant silence.

Except for the guards that came marching in from the Causeway Forts, the Pelennor lay still. Soon the traffic on the south-western road would start again, with people streaming back to the city, a city she more than ever wished to leave. To be able to ride home to the Mark... And yet it would be no solution. All of a sudden, her eyes caught the movement on the river, just above the ruins of Osgiliath. Ships going upriver! A convoy of six boats, mastering the current of the Anduin with the help of sails and the brisk western breeze.

"Did news from Cormallen reach you, my lady?"

Feeling his gaze on her, she nodded. "My brother wrote to me." She could not help the slight quiver in her voice, and angrily clenched her fist.

"And do you plan to travel there?" His voice was calm, but she could not help the feeling that there was the edge of a certain anxiety he tried to conceal.

She turned her back on the north and looked downriver, carefully avoiding his gaze. "The healers don't recommend any travelling at the moment." It was no outright lie, but under other circumstances she would not have heeded their advice, and she knew that only too well. Feeling uneasy, she searched for a possibility to change the topic, when her gaze fell on the slopes of Emyn Arnen. Trying to sound as casual as possible, she asked: "Does the Princess Lothíriel's room really have a balcony overlooking the Pelennor?"

She regretted her remark the moment she had uttered it. Even feeling cornered by his questions she should not have reacted with what she considered a deep hit. But before she could turn to him and utter an apology, he answered, his voice tense and carefully controlled.

"It has a balcony, my lady, and before you ask me: Yes, there also are steps leading down to the garden of the house. But I assure you I never ... "

"Please, my Lord Faramir!" Reaching out, she put her hand on his arm. "Don't misinterpret my question. It never occurred to me to believe any of your cousin's asinine remarks. Believe me, if I did, I would not have asked you." She hesitated, her hand still resting on his lower arm, and then her sense of truth and openness broke though. "I am sorry to have embarrassed you. I only wanted to avoid talking about Cormallen and I merely asked out of curiosity."

His brow in a deep frown, he shook his head. "I am sorry, my lady, I would never have brought up the topic of Cormallen if I had known..."

"As if I don't know! But please, let us forget about it now."

"As you command, my lady". He took her hand and kissed it. "I am only afraid that when you visit the Lady Saelind this afternoon, you will find yourself face to face with a crowd of Gondorean noble women who will talk about little else."

She felt like rolling her eyes: Female gossip and hero-warship! But then something like that had to be expected. Confining herself to raising her eyebrows, she said: "I thank you for your warning and will make use of the time until then to steel myself for battle." Seeing him smile, she added: "The lady claimed to be your kinswoman..."

He nodded. "So she is. Her mother was Ecthelion's elder sister. But she means a lot more to me, for when my mother died she took over the female part of my care and education and I owe much to her. I dare say my life would have been a lot more deplorable but for her commitment."

They stood for a while side by side in silence, and only when Beregond appeared at the top of the stairs to signal that breakfast was ready did she realise that the Steward had not let go of her hand.

ooo

"So what am I to expect at your kinswoman's house?" Seating herself in the familiar alcove, she held out her cup to him. He smiled faintly, and filling the cup, he started to explain.

"First of all, as Lord Bahor is the Chief Counsellor, it's a building in the Citadel. And before you ask me: It does not have any balconies that open to anywhere else but the yard. I'm afraid Minas Tirith was built as a stronghold rather than a town, and most houses are arranged around a yard that at least provides some open space and some water. That and the thick walls also are quite convenient with the heat in summer."

Éowyn frowned. "And what about Prince Imrahil's town house? Why does that have a balcony that opens outwards? "

He smiled faintly. "Oh, the Princes of Dol Amroth always were a special lot. When Prince Galador took over the house in the days of Mardil, the Good Steward, he not only had it refurbished completely but he even had a part of the main building pulled down and reconstructed in a way that suited him better. People then ascribed it to his mother being a wood-elf. You see, part of the old house had been erected on an outcrop of the rock with its back right into the ramparts. By having that part demolished, Galador got the space for a small garden between the walls of the newly built wing and the ramparts. Not much, just enough for some flowerbeds with sweet smelling perennials, a bower covered in rambling roses and a small marble-edged pool with irises and water-lilies, surrounded by a gravel path. At least that was what it looked like when I last saw it. But the most unusual element certainly is the huge balcony that stretches along most of the first floor. It is said that Galador insisted that if he could not see the sea, at least he wanted an unhampered view over the river. It became the nursery in Imrahil's days and in the end the Princess Lothíriel, being the youngest, claimed it for herself."

Having filled his own cup, he took a sip and then smiled wistfully. "It is truly lovely to sit out there on the balcony, but what fascinated Boromir and me most was the fact that there were fish in the pool. There still are, and I am sure you would have liked them. We used to feed them with bread crumbs and they are that tame that you can touch them when they are feeding. Small, red-golden fish, obviously some kind of miniature carp. One of Imrahil's ancestors got them from the ambassador of Rhun."

Still smiling, he shook his head. "Let us come back to your afternoon's visit. I don't know how many ladies will attend, as there might be some arriving today and not wanting to miss the opportunity to get to know you. Those who have arrived until now are family: Lady Saelind, her daughter, who is married to Lord Hurin of the Keys, a daughter-in-law and her younger sister. And then there is a young cousin who might be a surprise to you."

"To me? And why?"

Laughing, he picked up one of the small wheat-flour rolls. "It wouldn't be a surprise anymore if I told you. And now my lady, will you tell me what you want to have for breakfast?"

"Something savoury to start with, please."

With his eating knife the Steward pointed at one of the small dishes that held a yellow mush, dotted with green. "What about some egg-butter?"

"Egg-butter?"

"Finely-chopped up boiled eggs, mixed with sweet cream butter, spices and the first spring herbs – mostly parsley and chives."

She nodded. "That sounds good."

And it really tasted good, too. Having swallowed the first mouthful, she licked her lips, where some of the generously applied mixture had got stuck. Smiling, the Steward held out a wooden plate with finely sliced spicy sausage to her.

"Have some of these with it, my lady."

Éowyn hesitated a moment, having just been about to raise the roll to her mouth for a second bite, enough time for him to pick up a slice and reaching over the table, to hold it right in front of her mouth. She grinned. Not bad to have a caring friend if you were short of one hand! She opened her mouth, expecting him to pop the slice in, but to her utter surprise he proceeded carefully and slowly, his thumb brushing her lower lip in the process ever so lightly.

"And now have a bite of the roll with it. You'll see it mingles perfectly."

She hurried to follow his suggestion, feeling strangely unsettled by the tone of his voice and his smiling eyes. Chewing, she examined his features through lowered lashed. Béma, how did this man manage to even smile seriously!

"Is there anything wrong with my face, my lady?"

His teasing remark stirred her like a challenge. "Yes, my lord, there is. You lack a beard."

"Oh, do I?" How much he tried, he did not manage to hide his surprise at her answer and counting it a hit, she went for a pursuit.

"Certainly. How can you expect any Shielmaiden to fall for a shaved man! Grow a beard, and I will take you to the Riddermark, and I promise you that all Shieldmaidens of the North will come together and fight each other just to get your attention."

He grimaced comically. "I see you have talked to Maeron."

Laughing, she nodded. "I have. He admitted to having pestered you about me and I'm afraid I made him laugh a lot which certainly was painful for him with his freshly healed chest wound. But he is on the way of improvement in general and what is best: His wife came to see him, having returned the day before. But I'm sure you already know that."

He nodded. "Healer Esgarion told me in the evening." Seeing her mocking grin, he added: "He has reported to me every evening for the last two weeks."

"Is there anything in this city you do not know, my Lord Steward?"

"There certainly is. A lot of things I dare say. But there is one thing before all I would like to know but have not found out yet."

She looked into his eyes and felt her heart warm at their serious friendliness. A friend's eyes, grey and profound like the sea in her imagination. Smiling, she raised her cup. "I do not doubt that if it really matters to you, you will find out about it, no matter how long it will take you."

To her surprise his face remained serious, and as if to gain time he reached for one of the rolls and cut it open before he answered. "Then I shall hope that your words come true, my lady, for it certainly really matters."

Puzzled, she drank her tea while the Steward wordlessly ate his roll. The silence between them felt awkward and only subsided when he finally seized the teapot to refill her cup. "I'm sorry, my lady, to have spoilt your fun. Let us talk about something less complicated." The typical faint smile was back on his face, and changing the topic he said: "Did your crass message rider find you the other day?"

"Ceadda?"

The Steward reached for another roll. "Yes. I suppose he had expected you to come down with me to the camp. At least he approached me, flaring at me as if I had spirited you away."

Éowyn grinned. "And up here he upset poor Ioreth. Ceadda can certainly be quite a churl, but he has a heart of gold and is the best herder the Eastemnet has ever seen."

"So Elfhelm said. The marshal seems to have a high opinion of him."

"Ceadda's only real fault is his fierce prejudice that only the Eastemnet or the Eastfold at most is a place worth living in and that anybody who has not been born there certainly is of an inferior mettle and cannot be trusted." Éowyn grimaced. "There is constant rivalry between the Westfold which holds most of the Mark's farmland and the Eastfold, where still a large part of the population follow the herds in summer, living in tents. It has caused severe hostility every now and then and keeping the balance between the Folds poses quite a task to the diplomatic skill of the king. I don't think it was the foremost reason for Théodred to suggest that I should marry his friend Erwin of Westfold, but I am sure it was a nice extra to the arrangement."

The Steward nodded thoughtfully. "It certainly made sense. Though my father was anything but pleased when his offer on behalf of Boromir for your hand was flatly rejected by your uncle."

Éowyn gaped. "Your father offered...? When?"

"A year after Cuileth's death." He frowned, scrutinizing her face. "My lady, do you mean to tell me nobody has ever spoken to you about it?"

She shook her head. "No, ... I mean, yes. I did not know. An offer from Gondor has never been a topic." She shot him an embarrassed glance. "Certainly it would have been most awkward for Théodred. And I really wonder why Boromir agreed to such scheme."

The Steward gave a bitter laugh. "He never did. He only learned what our father had done in his name when the response arrived from Edoras that you were already trothplighted to a Rohirric lord. He was livid and found it extremely difficult to stay quiet."

Thoughtfully, Éowyn tapped her knuckles against her front teeth. "The trothplight took place at the beginning of autumn at Edoras, as it is custom in the Mark to hold that feast in the bride's house. But on his way back to the Westfold Lord Erwin was ambushed by a troop of Hillmen and killed."

"In autumn?" The Steward did not attempt to hide his surprise. "But my father wrote to King Théoden in spring."

Éowyn frowned. Could it be that Denethor's proposal had triggered Théodred's plans for her marriage to Erwin of Westfold in order to avoid the embarrassing situation of Boromir being married to her? Would Théoden King have agreed to refuse the Steward's offer without asking her? But then he had already been under the Worm's spell, not only listening to his traitorous advisor but even giving him free rein in most matters. Could it be...? She felt her stomach tighten with sudden nausea and drew a sharp breath.

"Éowyn?" Worry and alarm were unmistakable in the Steward's voice.

"I'm sorry, my lord, I cannot..." To her utter embarrassment her voice trembled.

The next moment he crouched beside her seat. "I'm sorry, my lady, I did not mean to upset you. Let me assure you it has never entered my mind to incommode you in any way."

"For Béma's sake, I know that or I would never have trusted you!" She clenched her hand to keep herself from swatting him, feeling annoyed at his polite phrasing and at the same time strangely soothed by his simple physical closeness. A large, warm hand was gently put on her fist.

"Whatever it is, don't feel pressured. I will never intrude into anything you wish to keep secret. But should you ever want to talk about it, or should any other problem assail you, send for me if you think I can be of help. I promise I will come and try to do what I can, no matter when."

She leaned back and simply closed her eyes, willing her tears not to spill. She could trust him. When she opened her eyes again, she could not help feeling guilty at the worry and care displayed in his face. How could she be so weak as to make a friend worry! Slowly she shook her head.

"I don't know my lord, and there is no chance that we ever will learn for sure, as nobody lives any more who we could ask. Maybe the King did not want me to even consider leaving Edoras and kept the news from me. Perhaps Théodred had already talked to him about his plans to suggest a marriage between Erwin and me, and my uncle deemed it a better solution than a marriage to your brother. Or Théodred was so appalled by Denethor's offer that he saw it necessary to act and only afterwards arranged Erwin's consent as soon as possible." She paused and heaved a breath. "But it also could be that Gríma, my uncle's traitorous advisor, intercepted Denethor's letter and therefore nobody knew about it."

The Steward frowned. "If he did, Théodred would have learned about our father's attempt when he and Boromir met in summer. So it can well be that Théodred thought to arrange your union to Erwin only then to prevent any political discrepancies. But I don't know why your uncle's counsellor should have kept my father's offer from the king and from Théodred."

Again Éowyn shook her head. "My Lord Faramir, my cousin would never have thought about marrying me off to avoid diplomatic complications. He rather wanted to get me out of Gríma's range of influence. The Worm had become a power to deal with at Meduseld, and Théodred worried for my safety. And he already then suspected Saruman the wizard to be behind all that."

The Steward's frown deepened. "And yet he arranged a place for you that would have brought you much closer to Isengard. I don't see how that makes sense."

Éowyn grimaced. "Oh, it makes a lot of sense, if we assume that Théodred's foremost aim was to get me out of Meduseld and away from Gríma. And certainly that cursed wretch realised that Théodred had seen through him. I cannot prove that he arranged the deadly assault on Erwin, but we know that he played into Saruman's hands and thus is at least partly responsible for the battle in which Théodred fell."

Brusquely she pulled her hand out from under the Steward's, clutching it in front of her chest. "When Gandalf came to Meduseld but a few days later, he confirmed that Gríma Wormtongue had an agreement with the cursed wizard at Isengard that I was to be the traitor's reward for him killing off the male members of the royal family."

ooo

The chief counsellor's house was one of the impressive buildings situated on the northern side of the Citadel. Light coloured stone contrasted with the massive door of dark wood and wrought iron above which the counsellor's coat of arms beside the King's tree showed, carved in stone. Passing through the gate, they entered the yard and the footman directed them to the low flight of stairs that led up to the entrance of the main house. Inside Éowyn found herself in a spacious front hall, and while the footman ushered her guards to one of the window seats, where already a low table was laid with cold meats and two tankards, another servant led Éowyn up the wide stairs to the first floor, where he opened a door and stepped aside with a respectful bow to let her through.

The room she entered now was suffused with light that flooded in through three large windows, framed by finely chiselled marble columns on one side of the room and a row of smaller ones high in the opposite wall. Near the large windows a group of six ladies stood and for the first time Éowyn saw Gondorean women clad in other than the muted colours of grey and brown. Smiling kindly, Lady Saelind came up to her and welcomed her, and taking her arm then led her to the other women. "Please, meet my daughter Ivoríel."

Though her daughter was clad in a voluminously flowing gown, it was obvious that she was heavily pregnant, and Éowyn wondered how she had travelled in her state. The bluish-green hue of her garb underlined her paleness, and there were dark shadows under her eyes, but nevertheless her entire person radiated a contagious attitude of peace and content. Smiling, Ivoríel bowed. "I am sure you will forgive me for not curtseying, but I'm afraid it won't agree with my girth at the moment." Her voice was melodious and soft, but the mirthful irony was clearly audible, a softer echo of her mother's wry intelligence.

Éowyn took her hand. "My dear Lady Ivoríel, as I assume this to be a private meeting, there should be no need of courtly conduct. I am most happy to meet you."

A harrumph caused her to look up in surprise. The eldest of the ladies had stepped up beside the pregnant woman, eyeing Lady Saelind with open indignation. She was dressed in black with rich silver embroidery adorning the sleeves and the hem of her gown, her head covered in a finely worked veil of the same colours, but to Éowyn this and the ornate necklace of mithril and berg crystal she wore only underlined the sourness of her face. "My dear Saelind, no matter that this is to be a casual meeting, you should have introduced me first."

"Should I?" The high arc of Lady Saelind's eyebrows rose even higher. One of the other ladies started to giggle. And then Lady Ivoríel turned to the crone with a broad smile. "Oh, dear Aunt Rhíwiant, mother certainly introduced me first out of convenience, as with one introduction she would have ticked off two people."

At least two of the women now chuckled and the old lady's brows knitted in an angry frown, but before she could answer anything, Lady Saelind introduced her as her husband's elder sister. The lady still looked sour when Éowyn acknowledged her politely, but totally unimpressed Lady Saelind presented the others to Éowyn, two almost identical women in their thirties, the Ladies Morchenel and Meldes, sisters of the Lord Hurin. The sixth was rather a girl than a woman, and Éowyn had to muster all her self-command not to stare openly. While the other women all sported the typical Númenórean features, the girl's open, sun-kissed complexion with the straight nose rather reminded her of the Mark. She was a little shorter than the others, and though not stout by no means as lean as them, but what surprised Éowyn most was the girl's hair which hung unbraided to her waist. Instead of the dark colour common in Gondor it was of a light brown, shimmering like fresh buckwheat honey when she dropped into a deep curtsey before Éowyn. Lady Saelind's eyebrow twitched. "And this, Lady Éowyn is the Lady Tuingail, your cousin."

"My cousin?"

"Her grandmother is the Lady Thédware, King Théoden's eldest sister, first daughter of King Thengel and Queen Morwen."

The girl gave her a wavering smile, her eyes shining with admiration, and then Lady Saelind ushered them over to an array of low, upholstered chairs around a table laden with all kinds of sweetmeats Éowyn had ever imagined in the most gluttonous dreams of her childhood. Having captured the seat at her left, Tuingail busied herself helping Éowyn to a cup of watered wine and taking her time to explain the different cakes and desserts to her, not missing to point out her favourites, tiny pastries filled with walnuts and pistachios soaked in a syrup made of honey, cinnamon and orange peel. While the bottom of the pastries was soft from soaking, the top was surprisingly crispy, cracking when Éowyn carefully tried to bite off a morsel.

"And? Do you like it?" Beholding the big grey eyes in a face pink with excitement watching her, Éowyn could but smile.

"They are delicious, Tuingail. Nut cakes anyway are my favourite, but this variety is especially nice."

The girl beamed at her. "The original recipe is said to hale from Near Harad, but it has become a traditional Lossarnach treat." Placing another tiny pastry on the small silver plate in front of Éowyn, she added proudly. "My mother keeps a lot of bees and the honey of Lossarnach is very famous."

"It certainly is, though the production of rose oil is certainly more important for Lossarnach's economy," Lady Ivoríel chimed in from across the table, and one of the Hurin sisters added with a sigh that there was nothing like the smell of roses when it came to perfumes.

"There is no other fragrance befitting a noble lady, though the addition of some likewise precious ingredients from Harad or Khand would not be amiss." With ostentation Lady Rhíwiant waved her ring-adorned hand in a dismissing gesture.

"Would you perhaps like a cup of tea, Lady Éowyn?" Lady Saelind's pointed ignoring of Rhíwiant's remark nearly caused Éowyn to snort and keeping her countenance was not made easier by the gleam of wicked mirth in the lady's eyes when she handed her a cup, filled with a brown-golden tea of excellent flavour. Sipping her tea, Éowyn listened to the other ladies' reports on Lossarnach, their journey there, and their expectations of meeting husband and brother soon, when the conversation was again disturbed by Rhíwiant's harrumph. When she was sure of having the other ladies' attention, the crone repeated: "As I said, rose oil." Her eyebrows raised, she turned to Éowyn. "If my nose does not deceive me, you are using lemon oil, my lady?" She smiled maliciously. "How unusual. But certainly a refreshing sign of Rohirric simplicity."

"When I was young, Rhíwiant, simplicity and genuineness was seen to be a desirable trait of character, and I doubt that has changed in these days." Lady Saelind's voice was cold, and yet perfectly controlled.

The old woman shrugged. "For commoners perhaps. But certainly you would not go so far as to say there is something like noble simplicity and grandeur. We certainly owe our rank a certain behaviour, and that for me does not include simplicity."

Hidden in the folds of her skirts, Éowyn clenched her fist. That old bat was certainly asking for a thrashing! Her features deadpan, Éowyn turned to Rhíwiant. "The healers advised its use as a mild mood elevator, my lady. And I do find its clear freshness is indeed helpful. But certainly you can recommend a more effective remedy?" Seeing the rising unease in the old woman's face, Éowyn smiled sardonically. "Pray, tell me, Lady Rhíwiant, what would a Gondorean lady like you use to cope with images rising before your inner eye each night of your friends being hacked to pieces by the servants of the Dark Lord? Of horses breaking down, their hooves tangled in their own entrails as the orcs slit their bellies to get at the riders. Of your kinsman, squashed by the weight of his own dying steed. Of the pain, the exhaustion, the stench and the unfathomable horror that grasps your heart as the shrieks of the wraiths echo on the air over the battlefield. Tell me, my lady, what noble remedy is there, against the terrible nothingness that your people call the Black Breath?"

With grim satisfaction she noticed Rhíwiant's pale face grow even paler and the awkward silence that fell over the afternoon party. It was Tuingail who spoke again first, her voice clearly showing the awe she felt: "Did you really smite the Witch-king, Lady Éowyn?"

Heaving a breath, Éowyn nodded. "I did, Tuingail, with the help of a Halfling, who caused the wraith to get into my range of thrust by stabbing him in the hollow of the knee. But I would not like to go into details right now, for I know that only the love for my uncle, whose dead body he thought to defile, feeding it to his ghastly mount, gave me the strength to face him."

Taking up the teapot to pour her a second cup of tea, Lady Saelind inclined her head. "Let us not linger on battle and death then, but think of the glorious times ahead, with a King coming into his rights again on the throne of Gondor."

The women visibly relaxed, and one of the sisters said, disbelief audible in her voice: "They say there even are elves at Cormallen."

Feeling the women's eyes on her, Éowyn confirmed: "There is at least one I have come to know at Meduseld, my lady, Legolas, a prince of the Elvish people of Mirkwood in the north. But later there came the twin sons of the Elven lord Elrond from Rivendell in the company of a troop of grim warriors, all of them kinsmen of the Lord Aragorn."

"Have you really seen the king?" Tuingail's eyes shone brightly with anticipation.

Solemnly, Éowyn nodded. "I saw him when he passed through the Mark."

"Did you speak to him?" The girl's voice sounded breathless.

"I did. When he came to the Golden Hall and Théoden King welcomed him, and again when he came back victorious from the battle at the Hornburg. He rested at Dunharrow before..." She swallowed to overcome the sudden pang, remembering her humiliation. "Before taking the Paths of the Dead to reach Gondor's coast in time to fight the corsairs."

"What does he look like?" She was not sure which of the sisters had asked, but anyway all the women's eyes were on her now.

Éowyn shrugged. "Numenorean."

Lady Ivoríel laughed. "Of that I am sure. But does he not have any special features?"

Éowyn even managed to smile. "I'm sure you'll recognise him when you meet him at Cormallen."

"Won't you come, too?" Surprise and disappointment was clearly showing on Tuingail's face. What a child she was, compared to Anwen. Éowyn suppressed a sigh of annoyance.

"No. I'm afraid that my injury does not allow me to travel, yet."

"Oh, what a pity. I had so hoped that you would introduce me to the king." Tuingail's artless disappointment made the others laugh.

"You will not be the only one who will be looking out for him. I bet every halfway suitable woman will try to lay her claws on him." Chuckling, Lady Ivoríel put her hands on her belly.

"He certainly will make a regal quarry for Gondor's husband hunters." Which of the Hurin sisters was that? But the other one did not fall short of a contribution in the general banter.

"And we do have some enthusiastic huntresses, don't we?" Giggling, the ladies raised their cups.

These silly geese! Putting her cup down, Éowyn launched a well aimed stroke. "Then they will certainly nook their arrows in vain, for as far as I know he is given."

A chaos of exclamation and questions rose.

"Is he married?"

"Who to?"

"Are you sure?"

"How do you know?"

Schooling her features into a polite mask, Éowyn fought to keep her composure. "I believe it does not befit me to comment on Gondor's future king, but when I last met him, he was betrothed and he did not seem to me like a man who breaks his oaths or changes his mind lightly."

Looking into the women's surprised and disappointed faces, she could not refrain from adding wryly: "But perhaps the Riddermark could show her alliance to Gondor also in this case and supply some royal game: There is my brother, the King of Rohan, and as far as I know he is not bespoken."


Annotations:

Hydrangea: Probably originated in Japan and therefore not really a plant of Medieval Europe, but when it became fashionable in Europe in the eighteenth century it was seen as a symbol of vanity. So let's assume Gondoreans knew the flower and had got them (like Imrahil's goldfish) from Rhun. ;)

And as for the tiny pastries Éowyn likes so much: I was imagining Lebanese baklava, and I assure you, it really is delicious if you happen to have a sweet tooth! (As always: If you want the recipe, just PM me. ;))


I would like to thank the ladies from the Garden of Ithilien for their support, and especially Lady Bluejay for helping me with the language.

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