To Tread a Rocky Path - Ch. 1: A Visitor

"Watch out, Faramir!" Eowyn screamed as she swept the tiny ball skillfully under Daeroch's belly to Faramir's left side.
He quickly swung his wooden stick over Daeroch's shoulders and guided it well in front of him. He saw Boromir catching up from the right, hunched over Gail at full speed.
"More, Daeroch, more!" Faramir shouted to his horse, leaning further over his neck. To his surprise, Daeroch managed to lengthen his already enormous strides and continued to speed towards their goal.
It loomed up quickly before them, with Theodren keeping it. He inclined slightly over his horse's back, gripping his stick nervously in his right hand as the pair came closer. Faramir suddenly steered his mount to the right at a sharp angle. With his left hand, he gave a powerful swing and the ball went flying towards Theodren. Faramir watched as the ball looped over Theodren's fingers, a smile spreading on his face...
"WE WON!" bellowed Eowyn, galloping to Faramir's side and gave him a huge bear hug. "You are the best horseback polo player I've ever seen!"
Faramir laughed between his huge intakes of air, he patted Daeroch's sweaty neck and said, "Thanks for the wonderful pass, Eowyn. It was beautiful!"
"Fantastic job, you two!" Theodred (their goalkeeper) came cantering up.
"Nice work, little brother," Boromir patted him on the shoulder.
"Give credits to the horses," said Faramir modestly. He patted Daeroch and he neighed proudly.
Eomer nodded. "He's a lovely horse, what breed is he?"
"He has Mearas blood in him," Theodren guessed. "Look at his nose, it's square like the Mearas. But his back is not as arched."
"Yes, he is part Mearas, on his father's side," Faramir confirmed. "Alright, enough talking- the results please?"
"We are two wins ahead of you guys!" boasted Eowyn smugly to Eomer, Theodren and Boromir. She then dismounted and said, "Let's take a break, then we'll have one last game before lunch."
"Sounds good to me," Faramir agreed and swung his leg over the saddle. They felt as heavy as lead.
He lead Daeroch to a huge tree nearby, taking off his saddle and bridle. The horse rolled over on the cool grass, then he trotted off to the little creek nearby for a drink. Faramir removed his gloves and ran his hand through his damp hair. A cool breeze ran by and soothed his sweaty face.
He looked around and sighed, Edoras was definitely more beautiful than Minas Tirith- at least there was more open space. He was tired of the cold stone towers and standing so far from the earth; it was good to tramp the dirt and grass instead of hard concrete.
Someone sneezed. Faramir turned around and saw a lock of golden hair swaying around the bend of the trunk. He tipped forward, and saw the girl called Theowyn reading a book as thick as a pillow.
"Good afternoon, my lady," he greeted, sitting down beside her.
She looked up in surprise, then smiled. "Good afternoon, my lord."
"Nay, just call me Faramir," he said.
"You can call me Theowyn, I'm not used to be called `lady'," she said, smiling shyly.
There was an awkward pause. They both looked ahead, hoping either one would speak. Unfortunately, neither of them were keen in starting conversations. At last, Faramir spoke.
"Did you see our game?" he asked.
Theowyn shook her head and knocked on the hard cover of her book. "I was reading."
"Well, uh, we won again," he stifled a stiff laugh. "Eowyn's a very good player."
"Oh yes," Theowyn giggled, a sudden sparkle coming to her eyes. "She's a cheerful little thing, I am very fond of her. Eomer is also quite troublesome, though he's turning fourteen next month."
"Well, do you want to play with us?" offered Faramir smoothly, intending it to be a friendly gesture.
Theowyn did not sound a word. She just looked at her book, a slight flush rising on her cheeks. Faramir bit his lips, what did he do wrong?
"Um, Theowyn? Are you alright?" he asked carefully. "You- can't ride?" he ventured.
Anger flared in Theowyn's eyes, and on her cheeks. She leapt up, her book in her hand, lips pursed, glaring at him. "Excuse me, my lord, but I'm too busy for this kind of childish game." Then she walked away in a temper.
Faramir blinked and frowned. "What's the matter with that girl?" he muttered to himself.
"Hey Faramir!" called Eowyn and ran up to him. "What's wrong?"
He pointed to Theowyn and said tonelessly, "Her."
"What did you say to her?" she asked.
"I asked whether she wanted to join us," he answered innocently.
Eowyn rolled her eyes and said, "You shouldn't have said that. She's really touchy on the topic of horses."
"Why?" he asked.
"She has this enormous fear of horses, but don't mention it around other people, or you're dead before you know it," replied Eowyn in a low, mysterious voice. But he saw laughter twinkling in her eyes.
Faramir watched as the blue figure disappeared behind the slope with sympathy. He thought, I wonder if there's any way I could help her.

After the embarrassing encounter with Faramir, Theowyn went straight to the Golden Hall, hid her book, and helped the cook set the table for lunch. They were dining in the King's Garden, Theowyn's favourite place to dine in. It was not a large garden, but its grass, trees and flowers seemed to have a healthy glow on them. She loved to sit on the stone bench under the large tree with long, soft branches and violet flowers, and read the afternoon away. Sometimes birds would chirp above her head, or settle nicely at her feet to peck at her bare feet fearlessly.
Theowyn loved the little birds there. She found it impossible to recognize every single one but she had a favourite- a brown-feathered eagle with golden eyes. She was very fond of it and gave it a name, Swift, for it glided across the sky more swiftly than any other bird she ever saw.
"Please help me with these plates, Theowyn, while I prepare the soup," said Nina, the head cook of the kitchen. She was a plump, elderly woman, but as energetic as a teenager. She had been in charge of the kitchen for as long as Theowyn remembered, and she loved watching her cook.
Theowyn took the fine china plates and set them neatly upon each seat. She then put the knives and forks and spoons to their places, and also the light blue napkins folded into interesting shapes.
Nina came through the kitchen door, hugging a large, crimson clay pot carrying its hot and fresh mushroom soup. She placed it on the table and said, "Thank you, darling. Now, can you go into the kitchen to get some dishes for the soup?"
"Sure," Theowyn said and jogged to the kitchen. She opened the wooden door and inhaled deeply the delicious smells of luncheon floating from all directions. She saw bread, pies, stew, lamb chops and vegetables in pots and pans, and resisted the strong temptation to grab and eat a bit of this and that.
She found the dishes in a cupboard in the corner and withdrew about fifteen of them. She carefully stacked them in two piles and stepped cautiously from the kitchen, her eyes glued on the dishes. When she left the smooth kitchen floor, she winced because she felt the uneven and shifting ground underneath her. She felt like falling every second.
"Ooops!" she shrieked as her foot was challenged by, perhaps, a piece of small stone. She lost her balance, and fell over...
"Careful!" someone rushed in front of her and reached for one of the stacks, tipping Theowyn's balance backward.
"Woah!" she breathed as she reorganized herself.
"That was close," the person- or the elf- who saved her dishes smiled, clutching the dishes.
Theowyn flushed and said, "Le hannon." Sincerely hoping that she pronounced the phrase correctly.
Surprise overtook the elf's face, then he smiled broadly, "Nad dithen."
From her vague memory of vocabulary she recollected that "Nad dithen" meant something like "You are welcome". Before her mind was settled the elf asked,
"Man eneth lín?"
"Theowyn. Man eneth lín?"
"Legolas. Mae govannen," he bowed a little.
Theowyn curtsied awkwardly, as she was still holding the dishes. Legolas saw that and started for the table, and she followed, head down, very much embarrassed.
Nina was surprised when she saw the elf, but quickly recovered and started spooning out ladles of hot soup. Then Theoden and Denethor appeared from the backdoor, laughing and talking loudly. Some other guests from Gondor followed behind, entertaining themselves.
Then the youngsters burst into the garden, damp with perspiration, waving polo sticks over their heads. Eowyn was in the lead, half-dancing half-skipping, an haughty grin on her face. Faramir followed behind, trying to whistle but could not do it properly. Theowyn smirked and took a seat at the table, looking at her bowl of steaming soup.
"May I have the honour to sit beside you, my Lady?" a voice said politely.
She looked up and saw Legolas. She blushed a little and nodded, flattered by the courteous elf.
Within minutes, everyone was seated. The children sat opposite to Theowyn, luckily, with Faramir at the other end. Theoden sat at the head of the table, with Denethor next to him, then Legolas and Theowyn, followed by the noble guests from Gondor.
Theowyn kept silent and collected bits and pieces of conversations around her. The polo players were still evaluating their game, often interrupted by Eomer and Eowyn's trademark "did not, did too" debates. The Gondor men were talking about boring topics on economy and politics, Theowyn could make no sense of what they were arguing about. Theoden was telling tales of hunting, which obviously were lies because she knew he could not ride without clinging onto the reins, let alone letting go of them and shooting with bows.
Finally, when dessert was being served (Nina's famous chocolate cake), Legolas turned to Theowyn and asked, "How did you learn our language?"
"I learnt it from books, a long time ago," she answered. "It was difficult, especially the pronunciation part. Is mine correct?"
He nodded and said with praise, "Your accent is exquisite. You have talent." He smiled and paused, then he asked, "Have you heard of Aragorn?"
"No," she shook her head. But the name sounded strangely familiar.
"He is a Ranger from the North. He speaks Elvish as fluently as elves do," said Legolas.
Theowyn nodded politely and poked at the cake with her fork. She did not feel like eating nor listening to tales of other people. They fell quiet for a few moments.
"Do you want to have a ride with me?" Legolas asked her in all of a sudden.
She bit her lips. She did not know how to answer him, as she had a liking for him and did not want to spoil their so far friendly relationship. To her greatest surprise, these words came out of her mouth,
"I cannot ride."
She recalled having said this to a village girl who asked the same question. In half a day, she had spread this rumour to all the people of Edoras who cared. Theowyn had not admitted her disability to ride since then. She could give no reason for being so frank to the elf, but he gave her a feeling of trust and reliability.
Legolas did not show any sign of shock or mock as most people would, but he nodded understandingly and ate his dessert. Theowyn looked away and accidentally caught Faramir's eye. He was obviously staring at her. She nodded coolly, then gazed at the kitchen door.
Suddenly, Legolas took her hand and whispered, "Follow me."
She let him pull her from her seat, and slipped quietly away from the bustling table with none but Faramir noticing.

Trixie's note: Sorry it took so long! I have a tragic story behind this hehe! I actually submitted this a long long time ago but to the wrong section... and I was so angry that I didn't do anything for weeks. Anyway, it's now submitted and I hope you'll enjoy it!

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