Take stance. Deep breath. Raise bow. Hold for count of one...two....three.....curse as shoulder flames into pain, necessitating lowering of bow. Repeat.
“Heth. Stop that, or I’ll set the Warden on you. Get that sling back on.” Faramir strolled by with a smile on his face, his feet leaving footprints in the still dewy grass. He crossed the garden to where the White Lady of Rohan sat on a bench beneath some trees. Her pale face turned up to him, and she moved over obligingly enough to make room for him on the bench.
“Just trying to get fit, my lord,” I called over to him. “Before the end of the world and all.”
“I said you had to be on your feet in a week, Heth, and you’re there already,” he called back. “Don’t overdo it.” His head tilted to one side, he began to converse with the Lady Eowyn. Another sunny morning in the gardens of the Houses of Healing had begun.
Three mornings ago, after he’d left me in my bed, Faramir had come out to the gardens, only to be greeted by the Warden and the Lady Éowyn. She’d had some complaint about the window in her room, or some such business. And my Captain, who’d seen enough of the horrors of war in the last few years to sicken several men, had taken one look at her pale and perfect loveliness and fallen hard. Now he spent his days in the gardens with her, walking and talking, pouring out his heart to her in a way that would have vanquished any other woman in an hour’s time.
But the Lady Éowyn of Rohan was no easy conquest. I supposed I should have been grateful for that, and about half of the time I was. The other half I spent offended that she was spurning something which I so greatly desired. Not that she rejected Faramir completely. No, she seemed happy in his company, and addressed him as ‘friend’. But I could tell that though he was biding his time patiently, he was hoping that eventually she would turn to him for something more than friendship.
I am a petty enough person that to see him in that position pleased me a little bit. Not that I would ever have truly wished him pain. But a little discomfort, some small suffering, just a tiny piece of the heartache that was growing in me day by day-those he could endure without distressing me overmuch. For I knew now that I would be forsworn in the end. Since he had given his heart to another, I would have to break my promise to Mablung. Never could I speak to him-not if the Dark Lord himself was beating down the walls and the world ending indeed.
I laid my bow on the bench, and picked up the leather roll that contained my fletching supplies. Fletching was something I could do when I tired of walking or reading, and it did not stress my shoulder overmuch if I was careful. Of course, it took three times as long as usual, but time was a commodity I had plenty of at the moment. I had almost finished repairing my old arrows, and was about to begin on a supply of new shafts. A casual glance across the garden showed that the happy couple were now walking about, deep in conversation. Faramir was smiling, which had happened more and more often over the last three days, and I was truly glad to see it, even if I deplored the cause of it. I could not hear what they were speaking of, nor did I try. He still checked upon the progress of his wounded Rangers every day, but now that I was upon my feet, and usually out in the gardens, he had ceased visiting my room, and there were no more confidences.
Our relationship was currently that of Steward and Captain, and it was easiest upon me if it remained so.
A servant in the livery of the Tower entered the garden as I finished stripping the old feathers off of the shaft. He went directly to Faramir, and spoke with him briefly, after which Faramir bowed to the Lady Éowyn and departed with him . I returned to my work. After a time, there came a sound of approaching footsteps, and a white skirt moved into view. I looked up, and found the White Lady looking down at me.
Her hair was the proverbial river of gold, and unbound, fell past her hips. Her face was perfect, a sculpture in white marble. Her form was lithe and pleasing. I had a couple of inches on her in height and reach, but she looked like she might be faster on her feet when at her full strength, and probably tricky with it. I was reasonably sure that I could hit harder than she did. It would be interesting to spar with her, should the occasion arise. I had never thought to have the opportunity to fight another woman warrior.
“Princess.” I made to rise, but she forestalled me with a wave of her hand. “May I sit?” she asked. Her voice was low for a woman, throaty, with a slow, rolling sort of accent to it.
“Please do.” I slid my equipment over, and myself with it, and she seated herself gracefully. Her eyes were the ice blue of a winter’s sky, and there was baffled puzzlement in them as she looked upon me. There was a mirror in the hall of the House, and I knew what she was seeing-a slightly mannish young woman with old hair and eyes, a huge purple bruise blooming over the right side of her face, and a line of tiny, neat stitches marching across her right cheek. At least the swelling had finally gone down, and I could chew with only a minimum of care.
“Captain Hethlin, isn’t it? I heard that right? You are a captain?”
I smiled. “Only a very recent one, by the Steward’s grace, my rank yet to be proven in the field.”
“But he did give you the rank.”
“Aye, lady. Though in truth, in time of peace it would have taken me far longer to achieve it. There’s a bit of a captain shortage in Minas Tirith at present.”
“But you think that even in peace time, without such a ...shortage, you would have become a captain?”
“Eventually, yes.” She digested this for a moment.
“How old are you?” My, but we were getting personal quickly. Perhaps it was the way of the Rohirrim. I decided to respond in kind.
“Twenty-one. How old are you?”
“Twenty-four. How long have you been a soldier?”
“I’ve been with the Rangers of Ithilien for three years now. How long have you been a Rider of Rohan?”
“Less than a month. How does your family feel about you being a soldier?”
“My family is dead. How does yours feel?”
“I had to ride in secret. My uncle, Thèoden King, is dead, and did not know that I rode with him. My brother, Èomer King, had little opportunity to speak with me ere he left for the Black Gate. If he returns, his wrath may well fall upon me yet.”
“My lady, if he returns from the Black Gate, and I do hope he does, I think he will be so relieved at being spared, and so joyful at seeing you again, that the only thing that will fall upon you will be his loving embrace.”
“Mayhap you are right. I certainly hope it is so. Three years, you say? I did not know the Gondorrim had a tradition of shield maidens.”
“We don’t, really. Though there were ruling Queens in Numenor, long ago. Some of them may have led men into battle. My situation is a little unique.”
“But of course. You have the Lord Faramir’s... favor.”
It took a moment for that to sink in. Tricky indeed. A shot under the shield, and no mistake. Feathers and arrows flew everywhere, as I suddenly found myself on my feet with no recollection of how I’d gotten there, looming over the Lady of Rohan and snarling.
“I am NOT a captain because I have the Lord Faramir’s favor, whatever you mean by that, Princess! I’m a captain because I can put an arrow in the eye of a Mumak at a hundred yards! I’m a captain because in the last three years, I’ve killed more orcs and Haradrim than you have hairs on your pretty, golden head! I’m a captain because I rode under the shadow of the Black Riders and did not quail, and because I took down a mounted champion of Harad on foot, and armed with nothing but a knife! Get thee healed, my lady, and I will as well, and then we will send for our swords, and I will show you why it is I am a captain!”
She did not quail, though her eyes widened at bit. Her glanced met mine, blue steel crossing grey, and after a moment, she nodded, as if satisfied about something.
“Peace, captain! That was ill-done of me. I beg your pardon. Forgive me if you can. I am out of sorts with fear for my brother, and the Riders, and...all the others that went forth. To have no word like this...it is enough to drive one mad.”
“Indeed.” I took a deep breath, and then another, and another yet. I was not, it seemed, temperamentally suited for a diplomatic career. “You are forgiven, lady.” It was not a gracious pardon. After a moment, I bent down, and began to retrieve my scattered fletching supplies. She slid off the bench and began to help me. I glared at her, but she persisted. We both of us had only one good arm apiece, and the fletches had drifted everywhere, so it took a while.
“In truth, I would like to cross swords with you, but in friendly rivalry,” she said after a time.
“The same thought had occurred to me as well,” I admitted grudgingly. “You’d probably win, though-I’m better with a bow than a sword. I do mostly foot and horse archery-though I did pick up a bit of mounted sword skill here recently on the Pelennor.”
“Ah-so you like horses, then?” she asked eagerly. Two hours later, we were both kneeling on the ground in front of the bench, and I was showing Eowyn how to fletch arrows. During that time we had discussed the ride of the Rohirrim to aid the City, the retreat from Osgiliath, Great Horses We Had Known, her family, my family, and Gríma Wormtongue (who, I agreed wholeheartedly, just needed killing). It was probably just as well that there were no men present during the Gríma discussion-it devolved into a gruesome numbering of the ways two women with reasonable martial skills could wreak vengeance upon a lower life form masquerading as a man.
“My lady,” I said during the pause in conversation that happened when we had finally slashed and minced him to our mutual satisfaction. “I would speak plainly if I may. I apologize in advance if I offend you-I am a stranger to the ways of courts.”
“Your manners would play well enough at Edoras,” she replied. “In truth, I find your bluntness refreshing. So many of these Gondorrim talk in circles, afraid of giving offense, and never coming at what they truly wish to speak of. So speak your piece.”
“My lady, I can be no child’s mother, so I will be no man’s wife. Nor his whore. Your way is open, should you wish it so. I am not standing in your path.”
“To the Steward, do you mean?” She frowned thoughtfully.
“Aye. He is my commander, and, I like to think, my friend. But there is naught else between us.”
“But you wish that there were.” Her look was questioning, but not unkind.
“Aye.” I bowed my head. “By all the Valar, I do. But I do not wish him to know-it would do nothing but upset him, and spoil what little we do have. You will not tell him?”
“He will not hear of it from me,” promised Éowyn, now wrapping her cord around the arrow shaft with intense concentration. There was silence for a time, then she said, “The Lord Faramir is a gentle lord, and a good man. But I love another.”
Well! That was the best news I’d heard in a month of Sundays, as the irrepressible Master Gamgee would have said. But I endeavored to hide my glee under a more appropriate show of sympathy.
“Is he at the Black Gate?”
“He is the commander of the Armies of the West. It is the Lord Aragorn of whom I speak.”
“The King? But why is this a problem?” I was baffled. “Surely the Lady of Rohan is a suitable consort for the King of Gondor. I would think that his counselors would urge him to wed you.”
“Aragorn does not return my affections. He respects me as a woman of rank, and would prefer that I contain myself within the bounds of friendship,” Eowyn said softly, and my sympathy deepened and became real. For such a proud one to have humbled herself so, and been rejected-how horrible that must have been for her.
“You wonder what you did wrong, what it is that you lack, don’t you? You can’t understand how you can feel so much for him, and he not feel it in return.” She looked at me in utter understanding, and nodded.
“I rode with Théoden King because I sought an honorable death in battle after Lord Aragorn’s rejection, and it was not granted me. I am still alive, and he who was the cause of my grief in the first place is the one who drew me back from death. And now it is to do all over again.”
“Seek death in battle, you mean? Well, you’ll get your chance soon enough, if the Captains fail.”
“As will you, Ranger captain. Will you be glad of it when it comes, since you may not have the man of your choice?” I shook my head.
“No. I don’t deny that it hurts-Gods, how it hurts sometimes! But there’s too much I haven’t done, and haven’t seen. I haven’t been to the North, where my family came from. I haven’t seen the Misty Mountains. There are lots of nice horses I haven’t ridden yet!” She chuckled at that. “And I have friends, good friends besides him. They would be hurt if I didn’t fight as hard as I could for as long as I could.” I finally got up off of my knees, gathered the fletching into my lap, and sat on the bench once more. Eowyn followed me.
“Also, honor constrains me if nothing else would. Lord Faramir drew me from a river once and saved my life, and I discharged my debt to him on the field of the Pelennor. But the sons of Elrond-to them my debt has not been paid. Elrohir nearly killed himself seeking me in the Grey Lands. Elrohir himself! I don’t know if I can make you understand what that means. I am Dunedan, and his uncle was the father of our whole race! And he risked himself for me! No, my life is not my own to spend. Or rather, it lies upon me to spend it as dearly as I can.”
She looked upon me with wonder. “You are stronger than I, Hethlin. I don’t know if there is a word for how strong you are.”
“Oh, pfffffft! I have my weak moments, believe you me! Many of them quite recent, thank you!” I looked up, and saw Faramir returning.
“Ah, here comes Lord Faramir now. I wonder what the errand was that drew him from your side, Lady.”
“Lord Húrin had somewhat he wished to confer with him about.”
“Matters of defense then. Well, if it concerns me, I’ll hear about it soon enough.”
He approached us, and bowed to Éowyn. “Lady. Captain. How well you both look, and how nice it is that you are getting along so famously. I rather thought you would, you know.”
Éowyn and I looked at each other, smiled, and let that pass. She held up her arrow for Faramir’s perusal.
“I have fletched an arrow this day, my lord. And Hethlin says not even the Wise can tell where it would land once it left the bow! Though I have my suspicions.” She pantomimed it leaving her, then flying around behind her, and striking her in the rump. He laughed, a smitten twinkle in his eyes, and took the arrow for inspection. I felt a sudden chill run down my spine, and shivered.
Love her if you must, my lord, I thought as I watched them, but see her true. See her clear. She is fair beyond reckoning, and sorrowful as well, but she is not like your mother. Hers is not so gentle a soul. She claims to love another, and I cannot think she would give her heart for an idle fancy, nor take it back easily. And she is death-wished as well. I shuddered again, for the Powers that overlook a battlefield are drawn to the death-wished, and tend to grant their desires-often with ill effect on those nearest them.
If you lessen her, make her the lady fair who needs your rescue, you trammel her as surely as your father did Finduilas. But she is not Finduilas. She will not die pining for the sea breezes of Dol Amroth. If she feels herself trapped, she will claw her way out of it. And the Valar protect anyone who gets in her way.
“My lord, the healers are setting lunch on the table. I’m going to go in, and confer with Lorend on the duty roster this afternoon.” Faramir nodded absently, still intent on Éowyn. She looked up at me and smiled.
“I have enjoyed conversing with you, captain. We must do it again. I’m sure I could use at least one more fletching lesson before I become a master!”
“Oh, at least, lady!” I bowed to them both, and went in, thinking how much easier it would have been if I could just have hated her.