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Horses and Verses
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
Horses and Verses

By Isabeau of Greenlea and Altariel


~~~

“No niggard are you, Éomer,” Aragorn said to me, “to give thus to Gondor the fairest thing in your realm.” As if I’d even been consulted upon the matter! No, I had sent to my sister from Cormallen, asking her to join me there, and had been refused. And by the time I returned to Minas Tirith, the matter was settled, and she had promised herself to this Steward, now the Prince of Ithilien as well by the King’s decree.

Perhaps it is the dark hair. Maybe that is the explanation. For Éowyn spent her youth surrounded by tall, well-made Riders with golden manes, and spurned them all. Gríma’s pursuit of her cannot explain all of her reticence. Indeed, one would think she would have chosen one of them to cleave unto long ago, that he might protect her from Uncle’s counsellor. She was certainly of an age to marry, and on more than one occasion, I had suggested certain Riders I thought worthy, that she might do just that. But she was chaste and chill, and kept her own counsel on matters of her heart.

Then Aragorn rises up out of the grass, and the next thing I know my sister has spoken of love, been spurned and sought death, and found reknown instead, all as swift as shooting stars. Then, working her way back from death, she finds this fellow healing as well, and the next thing I know she is pledged to him. Another dark-haired, grey-eyed man like Aragorn. I know that he knows of her attachment to the King--I wonder, does he ever worry that he is a substitute for the man she would rather have? And if he thinks she is using him to replace Aragorn in her heart, then why did he agree to the betrothal at all?

I simply do not know enough about him, and he is not very forthcoming himself. I have tried to sound him out a time or two, and got naught for my trouble. He has been courtesy itself through what has been a sad and trying time for me, overseeing my uncle’s funeral and burial. And so I put on a good face for the betrothal ceremony itself, out of love for Aragorn and political considerations both. But I am not easy in my mind about him, and every time I try to discuss the matter with ‘Wyn, she gets either angry or upset, and tells me he is the best of men, and that I am being unreasonable. So there is no useful information to be got there.

Perhaps there is another way. The King and his Queen have retired for the evening, as has Prince Imrahil. ‘Wyn has departed as well, after exchanging a final kiss with her husband to be. At least he seems competent enough in that. A good thing--our women are not for those who are bashful in bed-sport. He is looking about with that somber expression of his, obviously thinking about excusing himself, since the women have all gone, and those that are left are the marshals and martial men, still drinking to Uncle Theoden’s memory. I shall invite him to drink with us, and see if ale will not loosen his tongue a little. Perhaps I may discern what sort of man he is in truth.

***

Our kiss lasts longer than I would have thought fitting for such a public place (and with her brother nigh) but it is she who breaks away first - and with regret, I think. She bids me softly goodnight, and I watch the White Lady leave the hall. At the doorway she stops and turns, gazing coolly about the room - radiant, lovely, my beloved, my betrothed. Then she sticks her tongue out at me, and departs.

I had been both eager and anxious to see her once again. Three months had passed since she had left Minas Tirith, and I did not know what changes time and distance might have wrought; what she might now think, upon reflection, of the promise we had made so quickly, and in such extraordinary circumstances. Romantic, my brother called me once - as if it had not occurred to me already! Yet I was sensible enough to fear that Éowyn's heart, given so swiftly, might once again have
changed. Seeing her smile as she caught sight of me upon arrival was more than enough to allay that fear. She was just as I remembered - my Éowyn. And now here I sit, with a ring upon my finger, the sign of our promise and our hope.

Her brother I deem not so contented. I would not say that he is suspicious of me, but he is certainly not at ease, and he has watched us closely since my arrival. I wonder who it is that he doubts most, Éowyn or myself? Does he not understand his sister's heart by now? And what could I say to dispel his fears? I love her. That is all I can say - and I cannot conceive of saying it to him! So he looks at me uneasily and I, in turn, have kept my distance, and taken refuge informality - and today above all I have tried to keep my thoughts wholly on Éowyn. For what does one say to a man who - in but a matter of days - lost those who were to him as father and brother, and so found himself with duties he never foresaw would be his? I have not the words, yet.

And so once again, despite all efforts, my thoughts have strayed to those of my own kin who are with me no more, and why they are gone, and how... I doubt not it would be better if I did not dwell on that which cannot be changed. I am far from home, I should take this chance to set these matters behind me. I am glad to be here. I am glad that Éowyn is near. I am grateful for her brother's hospitality. And I envy him, that he can honour his dead.

It is late, and I am tired... but now I see that the King of Rohan himself is approaching me, with a cup in one hand and a determined look in his eye... I rise from my chair.

'Sire,' I say, intending to make my excuses and leave.

***

I start towards him, my cup in my hand, and grab a half-filled pitcher from a nearby table.

“Sire,” he says politely, rising to his feet. I suspect that he is going to try to make his escape, so I gesture him to sit back down. I am not above using his courtesy to keep him with me.

“Sit, my lord Steward. We have had no time to talk, you and I. I apologize for that, but I am sure that you know how much planning these sorts of ceremonies take.”

He nods, and I pour a little ale into his cup. It doesn’t take much to refill it--he has been merely sipping all evening, it would seem. My own takes rather more of the pitcher.

“There was much to arrange for the King’s coronation and many of our plans were changed at the last minute to accomodate the Queen’s kinsmen,” he says quietly, his grey eyes watchful. “I understand what you have been going through. How do you feel, now that it is over?”

“As if I can get on with my life at last,” I admit. “Uncle is at rest now, having achieved great things. My only regret is that we were not able to do such a ceremony for Théodred. He was as a brother to me, but he fell in the midst of the war, and there was no time for a proper barrowing.” Faramir’s eyes grow distant.

“Such it was with my brother as well.” I know that Boromir fell above Rauros, fighting valiantly, for so Aragorn told me, and that he had been given to the River.

“I knew your brother,” I tell him, “and liked him very much. I was but a boy when he first visited Rohan. All of us lads were wild for him--he was so strong and noble, and yet somehow more like unto our people than your grave folk usually are.” The corner of the Steward’s mouth twitches slightly.

“Yes, we are rather stick-in-the-mud, aren’t we?” I curse myself silently for a clumsy fool.

“I did not mean it in exactly that way. Perhaps I should say that he delighted in many of the same things that our folk did. Feats of arms and songs and feasts. Even the horn he carried seemed like something a Rider of the Mark would carry.”

“Yet the horn was an heirloom of our house, the token that the first-born son would carry,” murmurs Faramir. “It was cloven in his last battle, and there is no mending it.” He picks up his cup and sips from it. I take a longer draught from mine, for it is better that than gnawing upon the foot in my mouth. An uncomfortable silence falls.

***


For a man who once played his hand so badly he spent two nights in the dungeons below this very hall, Éomer has proven to have an unexpectedly canny streak. There is no way I can leave now without giving offence. So I sit down again.

Well played, my lord.

He carelessly fills both our cups to the brim and throws himself in the chair beside mine. I fold my arms about me. We exchange a few remarks, but my heart is not in the game and for all his show of ease neither, I think, is his. I fumble for words and hear myself ask him how he feels - but he seems to welcome the directness of the question. He talks of beginning afresh, of his uncle's last and glorious achievements (...I wonder does he know how my father died...?), of his regret that his cousin did not receive the burial due to him... (...and how long would it have been ere the boat reached the Sea...?)

'Such it was with my brother as well.'

He is most generous then in sharing what he can recall of my brother - although it seems that the finest compliment he can give is that Boromir seemed hardly to be of our 'grave folk'! I tease him gently about this sentiment, but to my dismay he seems to believe I am offended. Does he think I have no sense of humour at all? He hastily tries to explain himself... but even my brother's horn, it seems, made him more like a Rider of the Mark than a Lord of Gondor.

A wave of sadness washes over me, replaced swiftly by a rush of anger. Each man I meet, it seems, must claim a part of my brother for himself. Is there to be naught left of him for me? I have not even his body.

My reply is soft, and rather cool, and I regret the words as soon as they are spoken. Éomer looks quite aghast, as if he is guilty of giving offence and not I. We both reach for our drinks.

'Boromir always spoke most highly of your cousin,' I offer awkwardly, at length. 'I regret that I never met him.'

It does not help. Indeed, I believe I have only made matters worse, for now he looks both sorry and saddened. He reaches again for his cup.

I close my eyes for a moment. This is far from what I had hoped - I wish to make a friend of this man! And not just because he is our ally, not even just for Éowyn's sake... My brother would indeed have made a better envoy here, of that there is no doubt.

And how he would laugh if he could see me now: the epitome of Gondorian stiffness! I can almost hear him: Take care­ - and here he would jab his finger at me - or you will turn out just like father! But our beloved father - although not what I would call a warm man - was at least a consummate politician. He knew how to play the game to his advantage. Delicacy and self-deprecation will get me nowhere with the King of Rohan. I wonder what he will make of bluntness?

He has picked up his cup once again. I clear my throat.

'So tell me, my lord Éomer,' I say, with just enough of a twitch of my lips to give him all the clue he should require, 'do you mind me marrying your sister?'

I had waited till the liquid was touching his lips.

***


“--do you mind me marrying your sister?” Faramir waits to ask his question till I am about to take a drink, and it is only by the veriest good luck that I avoid spewing ale all over the table in front of me. I look up at him, red-faced, and see the corner of his mouth twitch again. I am beginning to think that that expression may actually indicate humor, and that he might not be the cold fellow I thought--though his sense of timing is certainly fiendish.

“Well if I did, I certainly wouldn’t speak of my discontent where ‘Wyn could hear!” I blurt. The twitch turns into an actual smile, and a certain warmth comes into his eyes at the mention of my sister. His affection for her seems genuine, I will give him that. And his position insures that he is not marrying her to curry favor or seek power. Indeed, I heard whispers among some of the courtiers while I was in the Stone City expressing discontent with his choice of bride. There were those who felt that he was lowering himself by allying himself with the House of Eorl-- though they were careful not to speak so within earshot of any Rider! A daughter of Númenor was the bride they desired for their beloved Steward.

For my part, I think he is wise to look outside of those old families, for their blood grows thin and twisted. Why, his own father went mad, which gives me pause, though Aragorn assures me that Denethor’s affliction was due to the arts of the Enemy, and no weakness of mind on his part. And there was the occasional odd whisper about his mother, and her fading and death. Yes, I will admit, I questioned the King at length about his Steward when this match was first proposed to me. But in the end, what could Aragorn really tell me? He sees deep into the hearts of men, or so ‘tis said, but he has only known the man for a matter of months himself.

“In truth, Lord Faramir, I do not know enough of you to know if I mind or not,” I add, deciding to be forthright. His eyes widen slightly, but he accepts this with a nod. “I fear I tend to make my judgements of men based upon how they perform in battle, and we did not have the opportunity to serve together.”

His face becomes still of a sudden, and I curse myself yet again. The retreat that he had fought all the way across the Pelennor has been for the most part disregarded, overshadowed by the victories that followed on the Pelennor and at the Morannon. But I have heard enough to know from the participants that it was hellish. And all of those involved have said that he was the only person who could have held those men together, which is a very great point in his favor.

I honestly do not mean to keep offending him--the man is to be my brother by marriage, and such bonds are as blood ties to my people. But Éowyn is my only kin, and I wish to make sure that she will be happy....

“We are in a time of peace now, my lord Éomer ,” he remarks softly. “It seems that you will have to find a new method for measuring men.”

“Indeed,” I reply a bit glumly, and take another long drink.

***


For a moment, I think he might actually choke, but he swallows just in time. Then he looks up at me and his face has gone crimson. I fear I may well have overstepped the mark... He is king, after all, and this is his hall... I do not relish the thought of having to explain to Éowyn - or, for that matter, Aragorn - why it is the King of Rohan saw fit to strike me...

'I certainly wouldn't speak of my discontent where 'Wyn could hear!' he says, to my great relief. So we have this in common, at least - a healthy respect for the White Lady of Rohan! I cannot help but smile.

'In truth, Lord Faramir,' he continues, 'I do not know enough of you to know if I mind or not.'

Well, I did ask.

I nod to acknowledge that I appreciate his candour, but he has not finished yet. For it seems that he judges men by their prowess in battle (no marvel, then, that he admired my brother so) and thus he has no way yet to measure me.

No indeed, for defeats, on the whole, tend not to cover a captain's name in glory, and it was the House of Eorl that delivered Minas Tirith, not the House of Húrin. And yet, I believe I have naught to prove, even to one such as he. I had slain my first man ere he was of an age to leave the schoolroom. A point of pride, indeed! I have never desired to be judged or remembered by my acts of war.

'We are in a time of peace now, my lord Éomer,' I remind him gently. 'It seems that you will have to find a new method for measuring a man.'

'Indeed.'

He does not seem entirely happy with that notion. But I cannot believe he longs for the false certainties of war - and what certainties were there, in the end? We both of us were trapped by the devices of the Enemy into disobedience, and to our cost - he imprisoned and I... well, my lord and father never held back from showing his anger. I believe I might prefer the uncertainties of peace. What would Éomer make of this idea, I wonder?

'For my own part,' I say, since frankness has stood me in good stead thus far, 'it would come as no great regret to me if I never picked up a sword again.'

He looks at me in surprise. 'And what does 'Wyn have to say about that?'

I like his name for her, although I shall never use it. He remembers the girl that she was; I love the woman that she is, and that is Éowyn.

'I don't believe,' I reply dryly, 'that I quite have the courage to insist she does the same.'

And at that he laughs out loud, and takes another draught of ale.

I set both my hands down flat on the table before me and look down at them. Two silver rings, when but a few months ago there were none; Steward of Gondor and (soon enough) a married man... Peace, it truly seems, can hold anxieties as much as war. I wonder if Éomer is as fearful as I? I push both hands through my hair, bringing them to rest behind my head, and lean back more comfortably in my chair, stretching my legs out before me.

'Besides,' I say, 'it will not, I think, be long before we shall be fighting side by side. We have won a war, yes, but I do not think it will suit our enemies to allow us time to recover much strength. There will be war again... in eighteen months, two years...? It is hard to say exactly, but soon enough.' I do not like the sound of that as I say it, but for his benefit I give the half-smile which he must surely understand by now. 'You can wait to make your judgement of me until then.' He can take that as a challenge, if he likes.

***


“For my part,” Lord Faramir admits to me calmly, “it would come as no great regret to me if I never picked up a sword again.” Surprised, and feeling the instant scorn of a Rider who would never say such a thing (though I think I mask that successfully), I ask him what ‘Wyn has to say about that. What I mean to ask is how does she feel about him desiring to lay his sword down, but he misunderstands me, possibly deliberately, and answers as if I am referring to her laying her sword down. Once again, he dodges the arrow of revelation--though I give him credit for realizing already how formidable ‘Wyn can be. So I leave it be for the nonce, and laugh, and take another drink, which I am beginning to sorely need.

He sets his hands upon the table for a moment and studies them, perhaps to avoid my gaze, then of a sudden shoves them through his hair, and leans back, stretching out more comfortably, hands behind his head, as if he has come to some conclusion that has relaxed him. He is a comely man, I can certainly understand ‘Wyn’s attraction to him on that level. Fair of face, and with the slender, wiry build that makes a good horseman, and yet can be deceptively strong. Not obviously a warrior, and I ponder anew something that his uncle said to me back when I was in Minas Tirith.

Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth has three sons, and his first two, the Princes Elphir and Erchirion, are both warriors. But his youngest, Amrothos, though raised in a kingdom that had been under seige by the Enemy for years, and of a noble family that would be expected to fight to protect his people, has never been a warrior, and never touches a sword. And he does not seem to feel the lack, nor does his father or family scorn him. I gather that he is something like a scop, though not exactly.

When I asked the Prince about him, he answered readily enough. “Amrothos was never meant to be a warrior, and I would not force him into such a role, even as you would not try to make a palfrey into a war-horse.” Then he added, a bit sadly, “ I am not Denethor, to take a scholar and turn him into a captain.” By which I gathered he had meant Faramir, as Boromir had always seemed to delight in the arts of war. But upon other occasions he has spoken pridefully to me of his nephew’s ability to command his men. It is all very puzzling. He is the one person present who has known Faramir all his life, and I respect him for both his wisdom and prowess as a warrior. Perhaps I will seek him out tomorrow, and see what he can tell me. Tomorrow afternoon, the way things are going.

“Besides,” I hear Faramir say, “it will not, I think, be long before we shall be fighting side by side. We have won a war, yes, but I do not think it will suit our enemies to allow us time to recover much strength. There will be war again... in eighteen months, two years...? It is hard to say exactly, but soon enough.” He is smiling that quirky little smile of his once more. “You can wait to make your judgement of me until then.”

Is that some sort of challenge? I choose to ignore it. He is not the only one who can indulge in misdirection. At least he does not seem reluctant at the thought of going to war once more, despite what he says. Duty, it seems, will drive him when the desire to fight will not. And I do not fault a man for not loving war, so long as he does his duty.

Sighing, I go to take another drink, and find my cup empty. I pour what little remains in the pitcher into it. I am beginning to feel that slightly fuzzy feeling that tells me I should probably slow down a bit, if I wish to keep my wits about me.

“My advisors tell me much the same,” I say, taking a draft from the newly filled cup. He is certainly not trying to match me--he has not taken but a sip or two so far. “But I do not think it will take a war to judge you, my lord. If you can survive ‘Wyn a sixmonth unscathed, you will more than prove your courage to me.”

He does not laugh; to do so might not be politic, since I might take that as a criticism of my sister. But there is a glint in his eye as he replies.

“Even as you cannot judge me in battle, Lord Éomer , I have yet to see you brave the perils of courtship! Surely in this time of peace, you will move to secure your House.” I sigh, for he has touched upon a nerve.

“It is my duty, and the most fervent wish of all my councillors. But I have little heart for it at present. You,” and I waggle a finger at him, “had best hope I become enthused about it soon! Otherwise, I may fall in battle with no heir, and you find yourself the sire of the next King of Rohan!” A look of shock crosses his face, to be swiftly quelled, and I chuckle. The idea has apparently never occured to him.

***


There was indeed a challenge implicit in my remark, but it was an opening for him too, a chance for him to indicate to what extent his mistrust of me was lessening the more we spoke. And instead, to my frustration, he simply reaches for his cup. Which tells me one of two things: either that the King of Rohan responds not at all to the veiled diplomacy I learnt and practised under my father's eye - or else he still cannot as yet bring himself to trust me entirely.

I am also forced to marvel at the amount of ale he can sink without any apparent effect.

'I do not think it will take a war to judge you, my lord,' he says, which is more what I had hoped to hear. But then he adds, 'If you can survive 'Wyn a sixmonth unscathed, you will more than prove your courage to me,' he says.

I am a little at a loss as to what response he would like to such a remark. Any agreement would seem to be a slight upon my lady, and I am loathe to do that, not even for the sake of a moment's comradeship with her brother. And I wonder at how it is he can see his sister as so formidable or, more, at how he seems even now not to have grasped the depth of the despair which drove her to Gondor. Yet it is plain too how much he loves her, and for that I must admire him...

I am beginning to doubt I shall ever reach an understanding with this man. I have broached the matter only once with Éowyn, but she simply laughed and said that she did not doubt my powers of persuasion. Perhaps I should speak to my uncle. He served alongside Éomer from the Pelennor to the Morannon and knows him better than I. Perhaps we might speak about it in the morning... although the night draws on, and Éomer seems no closer to stopping or, indeed, to releasing me. My eyes are becoming heavy, and I was ready for sleep when this interview began!

I murmur that he has yet to brave the perils of courtship, and that hits harder than I had intended. I should have foreseen that in his position his councillors would be plaguing him to resolve the matter of the succession. This, at least, I have always been spared. Boromir had to suffer father's scrutiny on occasion, but the affairs - such as they were - of the second son were of less interest. And, besides, I was bound to wed whomsoever my father chose. It would come as no surprise to me to learn that some around court believe a Rohirric wife unfitting for the Steward, but none have dared express such opinions in my hearing.

I am tired and my thoughts have strayed, and so his next remark catches me completely unawares.

'I may fall in battle with no heir, and you find yourself the sire of the next King of Rohan!'

I have, in recent months, lain awake many nights reflecting upon my new responsibilities as Steward and Prince, but that casual remark brings home to me for the first time the full consequences of my match with Éowyn. This is all indeed far from the very ordinary life of a second-born son...

Éomer is laughing at my discomfort. I reach for my cup and take a very long draught, which rallies my spirits a little.

'Yet I must wonder,' I say, having regained a little of my composure, 'whether the people of the Mark would accept as their king one of our 'grave folk'...'

That makes him laugh even louder. One or two of those seated nearby look around to see who or what has amused their king so. They seem surprised that it is me. I take another sip or two of ale.

'That will be neither forgiven nor forgotten, will it?' he says.

'Most likely not,' I admit, and then I smile at him unreservedly for the first time since we began this strange sparring match. He drains his cup and then looks at me with an odd gleam in his eyes.

'Wait there,' he says, and gets up - a little unsteadily, I think - from his chair, returning a moment or two later with a new pitcher from which he fills our cups again. Will I sleep at all tonight, I wonder?

***


“Yet I must wonder,” the Steward says, “whether the people of the Mark would accept as their king one of our 'grave folk'...” But this time I can see the smile lurking in his eyes, and laugh again, even as I laughed at his dumbfounded expression on being told he could be the father of kings--just not the kings he was thinking of! He actually takes another sip or two of ale. The man finally seems to be loosening up a bit. I ask him if my “grave people” remark will ever be forgotten or forgiven, and he admits that it will not with the first genuine smile I have seen from him. It transforms his face, and finally, I see what it is that ‘Wyn sees in him. I drain the last of my cup.

Feeling rather more brotherly than I have all evening, I do not wish to stop the conversation now that we have just begun to honestly talk to one another. “Wait here,” I tell him, and make my way slowly to a nearby table, where stands another pitcher, this one nearly full. I return with it, and fill our cups once more. He looks into his, and I see weariness, and an ill-concealed dismay at the prospect of spending more time in my company, and my heart sinks once more. Truly, there is no getting anywhere with this man!

“So give me your advice,” I say in a cooler tone, drinking deeply once more against my better judgement, “in the matter of the Rohirric succession, since it is in your best interest to do so. Your cousin Lothíriel is said to be sweet-natured as well as comely, and she is even something of a horsewoman, as I would expect your uncle’s daughter to be. He purchased a young mare for her from me on his return from Lorien. How do you think she would suit me as a wife?”

Faramir seems surprised, then gives the matter grave consideration after a moment. “I think that ‘Thiri would suit almost anyone as a wife. She is indeed very kind of heart and possessed of a full measure of wit as well.” He gives me a sidelong look. “I assume that is important to you?” He must be resentful indeed that I am keeping him from his rest.

I start to take a drink, then think better of it. “Of course! One can’t expect to get keen-witted sons from a dullard wife! Any horse-breeder knows that! Have you observed Edoras to be full of stupid women?” I let my irritation show, and that slight widening of his eyes indicates that he knows he has overstepped. This attitude upon the part of the Gondorrim that we are all unwashed barbarians, simple in our way of thinking, annoys me profoundly. And I am frustrated with my lack of progress with him in any event.

“No, of course not,” he replies carefully, falling into a conciliatory manner so swiftly and automatically, that I pause for a moment to regard him thoughtfully. His father, it is said, was a difficult man. Perhaps this habit is a relic from years of dealing with him. Gríma it was, strangely enough, who finally taught me the necessity of holding my tongue and temper. Though some would say that he did not do a very good job of it......“It would be a good match,” he admits. “Aragorn would approve. But you would have to convince my uncle. He has promised his children that they will be allowed to marry for love.”

“Prince Imrahil is a hopeless romantic,” I declare, and this time I do take a drink, “though that is not something that any Rohirrim would hold against him. I like and respect him very much.”

Faramir’s manner softens considerably of a sudden. “Uncle is the very best of men,” he murmurs. I am pleased to find at least one thing that we can agree upon.

“Well, if he has promised his daughter that she may marry for love, then I shall have to strive to be lovable.” For some reason, this comment makes him smile a little once more.

“Surely,” he says mildly, “that is not such a horrific task.”

***


I look down in alarm at my newly-filled cup. I have never been a great drinker - while living in my father's household I would not have risked the loss of restraint. And, as tired as I am now, I cannot see any such loss of restraint working in my favour whilst I remain conversing with this man, this king. But to refuse might give offence and I most certainly do not want to squander the goodwill that exists between us now, and so - against my better judgement - I drink deeply from my cup. Such are the sacrifices we make for love.

But when Éomer speaks again, his tone is suspicious once more. I am quite at a loss to understand why, for I had thought we had just reached an understanding. And then, to my surprise, I realize that he asking me whether my cousin Lothíriel would make him a suitable wife.

In truth, it is hard to consider my little cousin marrying at all, for it seems to me hardly a moment has passed since I watched her trailing after her brothers and driving them to distraction by demanding admission to their games. But she is one-and-twenty now, of course, and I fall to thinking about the young woman who came to Minas Tirith for the coronation.

'Thiri would suit almost anyone as a wife,' I say fondly. 'She is indeed kind of heart and possessed of a full measure of wit as well. I assume that is important to you?' I add in jest, hoping to restore some of the ease we had just lately shared.

But this remark infuriates him. 'One can't expect to get keen-witted sons from a dullard wife!' he snaps back. 'Any horse-breeder knows that! Have you observed Edoras to be full of stupid women?'

I am bewildered at this new mood - the man is as changeable as the Sea! Does he truly think I am one of those fools - and I cannot deny that there are such - who think the men of Rohan in some way unworthy of the friendship of Gondor? If indeed I were such a man, would I so love or wish to wed my beloved Éowyn? And does he forget that it was a forefather of mine that swore an oath of friendship to a forefather of his; that saw indeed the worth of his people?

I bite back my instinctive response - that while I have seen no stupid women in Edoras I have certainly suffered stupid men - for a quarrel would serve neither of us, and would distress Éowyn - and I would not wish to have to explain it to the King. But with no other option immediately presenting itself to me - partly, I think, because of my need for sleep but in equal measure, I suspect, because of the amount of ale I have just taken - I am forced to fall back on my oldest means of defence.

'No, of course not,' I say, in as even a tone as I can muster. Such indeed are the sacrifices we make for love. It seems to placate him, although he eyes me carefully yet. I shift our talk back to the question at hand: Aragorn would approve of such a match, I am sure, although, as I tell him, my uncle has promised his children that they should marry for love.

At the mention of my uncle he frankly expresses his admiration, which says much more for his judgement than did his outburst of a moment before. 'Uncle is the very best of men,' I agree.

'If he has promised his daughter she may marry for love, then I shall have to strive to be lovable.'

And with that single artless remark Éomer restores my faith in him entirely. It is quite clear to me that the King of the Mark is in danger of falling in love - and with my little cousin, no less! - but I am amazed at this open expression. No wonder he did badly in a court entangled in the deceits of a man such as Wormtongue. Indeed, he appears to be so free of guile I am astonished he spent only two nights out of favour. Nor, I think, would he have flourished in the ambiguities of my father's council.

'Surely that is not such a horrific task?' I ask gently.

He takes another draught from his cup and glares back. 'Are you mocking me?'

'No,' I reply firmly. 'Not in the slightest.'

'Then what are you saying?' His frustration is now quite evident.

I look around the hall for a moment, trying to put some order to my thoughts.

'Simply... that I doubt the wisdom of setting political considerations above all else,' I say at length, softly. 'Authority brings with it duties that must be fulfilled, yes, but not only does it seem a great deal to ask of a man that he bind himself purely to fulfil those duties, but I do not believe he could then conduct them as well as he might if he had followed his inclinations. And so in this matter I think you should follow your will and your heart. Of course,' I add, with a smile, 'there is still Thiri's will and heart to take into account!'

For a man who has drunk so much his eyes are now very sharp. 'So your advice to a man in my situation would be to marry for love?'

'Yes,' I agree, after a moment's pause, 'that would be my advice.'

His eyes widen, and he tilts his head, as if he is expecting something more. What else can he require of me? I should have thought that was obvious enough! With a sigh, I shift forwards in my chair and lean my hands flat on the table before me, then look him directly in the eye.

'My lord Éomer... my father and my uncle differed on many matters - they were very different men. And as long as I was bound to obey my lord and father, I would have married wherever he willed. But now that...' I am free, I almost say, but I will not give that much to him, not yet, 'now that I am able, I shall follow my own will. Which - and not only when it comes to marriage - is very much like my uncle's.'

I have told him a great deal there; certainly more than I intended when we sat down together at this table. He values plain speaking and so I must speak to him as plainly as I can; but I cannot give up all restraint on his account, and he must learn not to expect or demand that of me. I can only hope now that I was alert enough to express myself clearly, and that he is still sober enough to hear all that I have just said to him.

He sits and stares at me for a moment, with that cool and judging look perfected by his sister. 'I understand,' he says, at last, and a smile plays across his lips. 'You've set my mind at rest, my lord.'

I fall back into my chair, exhausted.

'But please,' begs the King of Rohan, after a moment, lifting his hand to his brow, 'Can we now just get drunk?'

I reach for the pitcher and fill our cups. 'Yes,' I say, 'I believe we can.'

~~~

Isabeau and Altariel, 3-9 March 2003


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