Come to dinner again this evening, the note said. All three of you. There is someone I would like you all to meet.
Some days - more than a week - had passed since last we had seen and dined with the Steward, for he had had much business to attend to, preparing the City for the return of the King. Yet Thiri, it seemed, had been waiting for this message to arrive. She seized the sheet of paper from my hand.
"He has certainly taken his time to invite us to meet her," she said, a slight frown creasing her dark and delicate brows. "I had almost begun to think he was hiding her away..."
"How have you heard about this already?" I said.
She cast me a scornful look. "Chiron! The whole City has been abuzz with the news for days now!"
"Not the parts of the City that I inhabit--"
"And that, brother dear," my sister said, rather reprovingly, I thought, for one so young, "is the mistake that most men make. You, and many like you,” she continued airily, waving the paper at me, “will have to learn that in this new Age, not everything of consequence will be settled by feats of arms." She gave a smile. "At least our cousin has seen sense. At last."
I retrieved the letter from her. "You have been longing for a wedding, haven't you, Thiri?"
"You have had your fun," she said sharply. "And now I intend to have mine."
I decided not to remark upon her perceptions of battle, and asked instead, "And what makes you think that is why he wants us to join him for dinner? Maybe there is someone else he wants us to meet. A favoured lieutenant, perhaps?"
"I hardly think so--" she began.
"Thiri," I said, cutting her off, "were I in Faramir's position, nothing less than a royal edict would persuade me to invite you anywhere near my prospective bride."
She glared at me, then leaned over and tapped the postscript he had appended: Forgive my mood at our last meeting. I swear that this time you will find me a new man. "That is what makes me think we are about to meet the woman who has finally captured our cousin's well-hidden heart," she said. "And besides," she added, "I heard it from Rothos."
"Back again," Rothos muttered darkly, as we were ushered into the gloomy hallway of the Steward's house. "And what has he been doing...?"
We made our way further inside carefully - past crates and boxes, and even some ornately carved chairs stacked in pairs, and more piles of books than I would have believed even this house could hold. In between all his other duties and bringing order to the kingdom, the Steward had plainly been hard at work in his own home. As we passed, I saw that two great piles of books were labelled with what I presumed would was their intended new home - City Archives. There were certainly great changes afoot here. I would never have dreamt that my cousin would give away books.
And then we were brought to the Steward himself, and I saw for the first time the woman he had asked to be his wife. Faramir had spoken truly. She was indeed very beautiful. With her long golden hair, she was a world away from the dark beauties of Gondor, and she was dressed completely in white. He himself was still in mourning black and, standing side by side, before the fireplace, they made a very striking picture. He took her by the hand, smiled at her, and then they stepped forwards together to greet us.
As we all came a little closer, I could see that, despite their evident happiness, not all traces of the recent griefs had yet been removed - from either of them. There was more than a slight hint of weariness behind his eyes, and she seemed to be holding her left arm a little awkwardly, close to her. The cost, I suspected, of slaying monsters.
He looked very nervous as he introduced her, but she herself seemed quite composed as she greeted us in turn. Her voice was a little deeper than I had expected; her accent rich. She received my brother and me almost formally, as if she were already mistress of the house and we her guests. Faramir hovered anxiously by throughout our exchanges. She was perhaps a little cool, I thought, as I drew back from her; and I fell to wondering what kind of woman I had hoped my cousin would choose for his wife, and what kind of woman this was who had won his heart.
Then Thiri came forward to embrace her. "I am so glad to meet you," my sister said, with all the frank warmth she had inherited from our father, "You are so very welcome to the family."
And at last Éowyn granted us a smile. It seemed involuntary at first, and then she allowed it to spread across her face and to her eyes. Faramir began to smile himself. Perhaps she was not so distant after all, I thought, nor so cold as first impressions might suggest. And it was not beyond the realms of possibility, of course, that meeting the three of us all at once was something for which her courage needed to be summoned...
As the two women drew apart, the candlelight glittered on a silver clasp in Éowyn's hair.
"How lovely," Thiri said softly, gesturing with her finger towards it. Éowyn moved forwards slightly so that my sister could see. "Swans," Thiri said, with a slight note of surprise. I leaned in a little too to take a look. As Thiri had said, the filigree was a delicate bird motif, all long necks and wings, familiar from jewellery I remembered my mother wearing, or that Thiri wore herself.
"Swans are for Dol Amroth, is that not right?" Éowyn asked, squaring her chin and looking at my sister directly.
Thiri looked back at her and smiled. "Yes," she said. "That's right."
"I thought," Éowyn explained, her voice becoming a little uncertain, and glancing at her betrothed, "that it might suit for this evening."
Faramir gazed lovingly at her, and reached a hand up to stroke a strand of golden hair. "Very much," he said.
I glanced over at Rothos, who quirked an eyebrow up at me. I grinned back.
"It was mother's," Faramir was quietly explaining to Thiri. "I found it as I was going through one of the upstairs rooms."
"Faramir has been lavishing gifts upon me," Éowyn said, with a twitch of her lips. "I believe I shall continue to encourage him in his efforts to clear the house."
"Whatever I have," he murmured, taking her hand and leaning in to kiss the top of her head, "is yours." They gazed at each other, lost for a moment in their mutual devotion - tinged, I thought, with more than a slight edge of astonishment at whatever turn of events had brought them together. I put a hand up to cover my mouth and, glancing to my side, saw Rothos roll his eyes. Thiri, however, was looking on with unalloyed delight.
Conversation at dinner naturally concerned their courtship. Thiri, of course, wanted every detail - and I have noticed over the years that whatever differences there may be between marriages, all lovers are eager to share the story of their first meeting. Mother and father would gladly tell theirs - although I privately suspected father of some embellishments over the years - and Elphir and Mariel, with very little pressing, would blissfully share the details of his unanticipated trip to the City, her wrong turning on the fifth level, the chance meeting, and the dropped glove...
Faramir and Éowyn were no exception to the rule, and I have to admit that theirs also made a very charming story. Both healed by the same hand, both left behind to wait...
"Within moments of our meeting," Faramir said, smiling and reaching out to take her hand, "Éowyn was complaining to me about her chamber."
"And within moments of that, you were telling me I was beautiful!" she retorted. Rothos and I exchanged looks. Faramir's lady, it seemed, certainly did not refrain from speaking her mind to him. And then, suddenly, her face softened, and she was smiling back at him. "I had not thought the Men of Mundburg could be so plain-spoken," she said.
He raised her hand and, very gently, kissed the palm.
"And then?" Thiri prompted.
They held hands and gazed at each other.
"Then I was very wilful," Éowyn admitted.
"And I was very persuasive," Faramir said.
Her eyes began to sparkle. "You had some help," she said, looking down demurely at her plate. I was heartened at this show of playfulness from her. "Your loyal lieutenant visited me and explained exactly how foolish I was being."
He blinked at her. "Hethlin?" he murmured. "I didn't know that..."
"Is that your lady Ranger, cousin?" Rothos asked.
Faramir nodded. "Yes, that's Heth. I'd forgotten you'd met her."
"Best watch out, Thiri," I said from my corner of the table. "It seems you may find yourself in competition for the post of Chief Matchmaker to the Royal Court."
My sister waved her hand to dismiss me. Éowyn, I noticed, had watched this exchange with curiosity. How must our family, I thought, seem to an observer?
Faramir's table had improved since last we had dined with him - he was quick and courteous enough to point to the part played by the convoys lately arrived from Belfalas. The wine was once again excellent, and there was plenty of it. I let the conversation ebb and flow around me, enjoyed the wine, and fell to watching my cousin's betrothed. She too was taking great pleasure from the wine, and with little seeming effect. I began to match her, glass for glass - and midway through the meal, she saw what it was that I was doing. She raised an eyebrow at me and, without a word, tipped her glass - in challenge, I saw! - drained the contents of the glass, and gratefully accepted when Faramir offered her more. I reached for the bottle closest to my hand, filled the glass, and raised it to the lady in white sitting at my cousin's side.
Thiri exerted all of her powers to draw Éowyn out. Éowyn's reserve made it a not inconsiderable task, but in time we learned that, like Faramir, she had lost a mother early, and a father too; that, like Faramir, she had found herself wounded and adrift in the City when the Army went East; and that - like Faramir - she had been grieving for the loss of men who were to her a brother and a father. At Thiri's gentle coaxing, she spoke a little about her cousin Théodred, and his death. I thought I saw a tear begin in her eye - she stopped quite suddenly, and then shook her head.
"That was the day before Boromir died," Faramir said, filling the gap for her, and, again, they each sought anchor, reaching for the other's hand.
Indeed they had a great deal in common - although it seemed to me that much of it was grief. When we left the table to go into the garden, they were still holding hands.
Outside the evening was warm, and the dark blue sky dotted with the silver of the stars. As was my habit, I picked out Helluin. My brother, my cousin and I stopped on the terrace, but Thiri led Éowyn away into the garden. Faramir filled our glasses once again.
"When will the wedding be?" Rothos asked him.
Faramir leaned forwards on the wall and rubbed at his eyes. "I have a coronation to attend to first," he sighed, and then gave a dry smile. "An event which tends not to occur often in Gondor, and so seems to be taking up a great deal of my time."
I laughed. "Weddings are perhaps a little more common," I agreed, "although one between the sister of the King of Rohan and the Steward of Gondor--"
Faramir raised a finger. "The former Steward of Gondor," he corrected.
"A wedding between the sister of the King of Rohan and whatever your role in the new kingdom turns out to be," I allowed, "will undoubtedly be of great significance."
"Politically," Rothos said.
"Strategically," I added.
"Diplomatically," Rothos suggested, after a moment's thought.
"Social--" I began.
"Thank you, both," Faramir said, cutting off our flow with a swift, downward motion of his hand. "You may rest assured I am not unaware of the consequences of this match. And to answer your question, Rothos, it could well be as long as a year before we are wed."
Whatever Faramir's own opinion, it was plain to me that the King would reward both him and his House for their long service. His place on the Council, surely, was secure. And he was well-loved in the City. Steward or not, the people of Gondor would want to wish the Lord Faramir well on his wedding day. "I suspect it will be a grand occasion," I said.
Faramir looked less than happy at that thought.
"You can be glad, surely," I comforted him, "that you will no longer suffer the attentions of the pack." As I had intended, he began to laugh.
It was at my elder brother's wedding, back home, that I had had my first real encounter with the pack. Another grand affair, that wedding, between the heir to the princedom and the elder daughter of a nobleman, and all the great and the good of Gondor gathered in Dol Amroth to celebrate. Even the Lord Denethor was persuaded to leave his City, which caused a minor sensation. A more major sensation - as far as the ladies of western Gondor were concerned - was the presence of his two unmarried sons.
It was without a doubt a severe test of their upbringing and their patience. As for myself, it had been almost a full year since I had been in Belfalas, and I was seeing much of my home as if through new eyes. It was therefore not until quite late in the evening's celebrations that I realized I was attracting more attention than I had been wont in the past. And it was only a short while after I fully grasped all the consequences of that knowledge that I realized I had not seen either of my cousins for at least an hour.
Drawing upon all my familiarity with the quieter corridors of the castle, I escaped into the gardens, and made my way to a spot I had used in the past to find some peace.
My two cousins were already there. Faramir was stretched out on the grass, one hand propping up his head, the other holding a glass. Boromir was sitting with his legs pulled up before him, each hand resting upon a knee. One held a glass, the other the bottle. At my approach, they both looked up quickly. When they saw that it was only me, they both became easy again. Faramir smiled; Boromir grinned and saluted me with his glass.
"So you know this hiding place too," I said, coming towards them.
Boromir frowned at me, mock-stern. "We have been losing ourselves in these grounds," he growled, "since before you were born." He waved the bottle. "Come and help me finish this excellent whisky I found," he said. "I hate to drink alone, and Faramir is nearing his limits."
Faramir narrowed his eyes. "Nowhere near enough," he murmured, and held his own glass out to his brother. Boromir bent his wrist just a little to tip out some more of the liquid. Some reached its target. Most splashed onto the grass. Boromir looked at it sorrowfully.
"The pack is out hunting for you both," I said, as I sat down opposite them. Boromir grimaced. Faramir shuddered and took a sip of his drink.
"You should be grateful to us, Chiron," Boromir said. "Wouldn't you agree, brother?"
Faramir nodded. "Oh, most certainly."
"Grateful?" I said, anxiously, looking at each of them in turn. "Why? what have you done?"
They laughed at me. Boromir contemplated his glass, then the bottle, and handed me the glass. "Nothing to fear, cousin," he said. "Only, that with Elphir married, you are now more obvious prey."
"But so long as we are here - and unmarried," Faramir pointed out, "then you are safe. From the pack."
I took a mouthful of whisky and swallowed hard. "Then I would urge you both not to follow Elphir's example too quickly, and to visit often."
They exchanged one of their looks, as father called them, where intelligence seemed to flow between them without their needing to trouble themselves with speech, and then Boromir threw back his head and began to laugh. Faramir, grinning, rolled up into a sitting position.
"Rest easy, Chiron," he said, "I believe neither of us are inclined in that direction just yet."
What, I wondered now, would Boromir have thought of his brother's betrothed? What would his father have thought? I set my wine glass down on the wall before me; watched Faramir as he watched Éowyn walking with my sister.
"You were always very closed about the possibility of marriage before," I said to him, at length.
"I never met anyone I wanted to marry before," Faramir pointed out. "And what would have been the purpose before? We none of us were going to live long enough. And we and our children would have died in torment."
I flinched, and then glanced up at the stars. Not true any more, I thought.
"But now..." Faramir looked out across the garden. "Now, everything is different," he murmured. "Everything." A little way distant, Éowyn saw him watching her, and raised her hand in greeting. He waved back and began to smile again.
Rothos groaned, and then leaned forward to speak to me. "Chiron," he said, "I believe our cousin is about to urge us to find brides of our own."
Faramir flushed red and, to his credit, he did not try to deny it. He laughed a little. "Forgive me," he said.
"Tell me, cousin," Rothos said, "what does her brother make of the match?"
Faramir folded his arms in front of him. "We have not yet met," he admitted.
We both, in tandem, feigned dismay. I whistled. "Speaking as a brother myself," Rothos said, shaking his head, "I must say I think the strategy you are pursuing is a risky one."
"Very risky," I agreed.
"Didn't he leave her in your care?" my brother asked.
"It has all the makings of a scandal," I mused.
"Alliances have foundered on less," Rothos added.
Cruel, perhaps, to torment the man, but with his brother gone the duty fell to us. Faramir took it all with good grace but, when Thiri and Éowyn rejoined us on the terrace, he wasted no time in putting an arm around his lady's waist and drawing her close to him. And they exchanged smiles of such warmth that then I could bring myself to believe that sorrow was not all that they shared.
As we went back indoors, Éowyn raised her empty glass to me. I showed her my own, forgotten, still full.
"The victory is yours, my lady," I said, with a slight bow of the head.
"But I am certain," she said, inclining her head in courteous response, "we shall find ourselves matched against each other once again."
"Well," said Thiri, once we were out of earshot, "what do we all think?"
"She makes him happy," Rothos said, simply. "That is more than good enough for me."
"Father will be delighted," I agreed, and glanced back over my shoulder. They were standing together in the doorway - he had put his arm around her shoulder, and she was reaching up to hold his hand. Side by side they stood, the new master and mistress of the house; white lady, black captain. She turned her head to say something to him, he began to laugh, that made her laugh in turn. And they held on to each other, tighter.