Faramir shouted with laughter and rolled onto his back on the grass. “You’re telling me he called you a stable boy?” he chortled. “My brother? He must have been blind!” He propped himself up on one elbow and faced Eowyn again, grinning. “Or were you wearing a disguise?”
Lacing her fingers together in the lap of her royal blue gown, Eowyn thought for a moment. “Not exactly a disguise,” she said slowly, with a small smile. “But perhaps not quite what the heir to the stewardship of Gondor would be expecting the niece of the king to be wearing?”
“No doubt,” he said, returning the smile. “But tell me, was this all his rudeness or did he blunder elsewhere?” She frowned at him. “Don’t misunderstand me,” he said quickly. “I loved my brother dearly, and I miss him sorely, but when it came to women… well, let us say he understood the needs and speech of his horse much better.” Eowyn smiled again, but was silent.
Faramir cocked his head to one side and considered his companion more closely. Eowyn’s golden hair was pulled back into a single, thick plait, into which Ioreth – ever aware of events within the walls of the House – had incorporated threads of blue and gold ribbon. Her pale face bloomed with the delicate pink of health returning. How could anyone have mistaken this glorious creature for a boy, he thought.
But he made sure none of this showed on his face. Clearly his open admiration had unnerved her yesterday. He would tread carefully. So he asked her, more gently this time, to continue her story.
“I was more worried than angry when Boromir found me out,” said Eowyn. “Elfhelm – one of the most senior marshals of Rohan – was giving me some fighting practice once a week. No-one else knew, not even Eomer, because the king had forbade me from having lessons nearly two years before. I thought it best to keep it to myself. My uncle thought it wasn’t seemly … but I think that even then Grima’s mouth was speaking through him, looking for any excuse to have me penned up at home.”
“Who is Grima?” asked Faramir, puzzled.
“Forgive me – of course you would not know,” she replied. “Grima was Theoden’s counsellor and aide for many years. He was in the pay of Saruman most of that time, although we did not know it. My uncle’s mind was slowly being poisoned, and his strength of will drained away. It was horrible to watch. But what was even worse was that Grima… that he…” she flushed and faltered.
“He wanted you,” said Faramir simply. Eowyn looked up, relieved that he had understood, and nodded. “It made me all the more determined to fight – because it wasn’t just my uncle I was defying, it was Grima.
“How I hated him,” she said in a low voice, half to herself. “He was always at my elbow, always whispering in my ear. I would rather have killed myself than submit to him.” She took a deep breath. “So I spoke to Elfhelm. He would have kept teaching me even if it had not been for Grima, for he was my father’s oldest friend. He knew that my father would have wanted me to be prepared for whatever might come upon us.”
“So my brother happened to ride into the stable when you were still in your disguise?” Faramir prompted.
“I should have gone along with it – pretended to be a stable hand – and then he might not have noticed me,” said Eowyn. “But I didn’t think. I was worried about the king, and very anxious… perhaps I wasn’t as clear-headed as I could have been.” She gave him a wry smile. “In any case, I rounded on Boromir instead of keeping my head down like a submissive servant. Needless to say, he was rather surprised – but then the whole thing appealed to his sense of humour, and he kept making allusions to it at the dinner table.”
Faramir winced. How like his brother. It would have been a good joke to him, and he would not have thought about the effect it might have on Eowyn to spread his knowledge around. How often this had happened to himself. As a boy he had been studying lore books with Mithrandir, asking him eagerly about the events and people of his city’s history, and Boromir – laughing at him for being so bookish – had jokingly told some friends… who told his father. To Denethor, it had been yet another sign that his younger son was weak. Faramir sighed. “Were you found out?” he said at last.
“Not exactly,” she replied. “My uncle was ill and did not understand. Grima has his suspicions but could prove nothing. But my brother understood him all too well, and he told me it had to stop. We fought about it once Boromir had left. He did not see why I needed to do it, and I was too angry to explain properly. So we did not speak about it.”
“And you kept fighting,” said Faramir.
“Of course,” said Eowyn, surprised. “What else was there? My uncle was so unwell and Eomer was away watching the borders for weeks on end. I was kept within the confines of Edoras – partly because I wished to be close to my uncle and keep that … that snake away from him as much as I could, but also because Grima’s wiles trapped me there. He had my uncle’s will in his hand. It was sickening. I truly had begun to see no hope for my house.”
Faramir’s heart swelled with pity. The words were said simply, and without any sourness, but her life must have been bitter, and very lonely. It struck him that, without Boromir to make him laugh, he had felt much the same in these last months: trapped, disregarded and alone. He sighed again.
What troubles you?” asked Eowyn, aware of the shift in his mood.
“I was thinking of my father,” he said, absently picking up a pebble and rolling it over and over in his hand. “We did not part well. We were rarely on good terms, in fact. He preferred Boromir, seeing in him the fighting spirit he felt was the real future of our nation.” He threw the pebble at the wall behind the tree, and it smacked against the stone with a sharp plink before dropping to the grass.
Eowyn looked at Faramir in surprise. “But this favouritism – did it not drive a wedge between you and your brother?”
“It was not his doing,” Faramir replied. “He saw it, naturally, and it made him unhappy. He often spoke of my work to our father to try and change his opinion, but it had no effect. Because I did not love fighting for its own sake, in my father’s eyes this made me less of a man. And now he is dead, and there is no chance to heal the breach.”
Eowyn nodded. “Death is all around us,” she said soberly. “I thought that I would die in the battle, and now I wonder if it is not harder to live, grieving for those who are gone and waiting for the ones you love to return.”
“But I thought there was only your brother,” said Faramir without thinking, unable to keep the note of inquiry out of his voice.
She shrugged. “Yes… yes, perhaps you are right. We shall see.”
A qualm of unease settled in Faramir’s stomach. Surely she would not speak of Elfhelm in such a manner? No, she must be talking of someone else… then he remembered something the Warden had said in passing the day before: the concern the chieftain of the north had had for her, and his particular insistence for her special care.
But this could not be. Hurin had made inquiries among the captains as to whether the Lord Aragorn had a wife – someone who would become queen of Gondor if, by some miracle, Sauron was defeated. His information had been that Aragorn had given his promise to an elf maid, the daughter of Elrond of Imladris. She would indeed be a fitting queen for Gondor, thought Faramir.
So, Aragorn did not love Eowyn. But… could he be beloved and aware of it, and so more concerned for her welfare? Faramir chewed at the end of a fingernail. Aragorn was mighty in battle, and wise and compassionate with it. It would be no wonder if Eowyn admired such a man, he thought gloomily. And if her heart was full of Aragorn it would not leave much room for himself.
“Wake up, my friend.” Faramir started and looked up, and to his pleasure saw that Eowyn was smiling. “I am sure it would be very peaceful sitting here under the trees alone,” she continued, with a hint of mischief, “but we are supposed to be keeping each other company. If you are going to be so dour and quiet I will go for a walk and find someone else to talk to.”
“I wouldn’t hear of it,” he responded, sitting up and smiling in return. “But as you mention going for a walk, why don’t we? The sun has moved past noon. Let us go in search of some lunch.”
He stood and helped Eowyn up. She was more confident finding her feet than the day before, and he was careful not to get too close for fear of sending her back into retreat. But on an impulse, he offered her his arm and she, smiling at his gallantry, took it.
One small success at a time, he thought. And they walked into the House together.