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34
Of Times There Were Before

"How did you sleep?" Rowanna enquired of her mother, as she finished brushing Míranna's hair as gently as she was able and did her best to braid it into some sort of order. Míranna sighed.

"Not with great ease, my dear, I must admit - "

"I thought I heard you stirring before dawn. Were you dreaming again?" She tucked her mother's braid into a net and plumped her pillows a little for her. "Nightmares?..."

"Hard to say." Míranna frowned a little. "They were all mixed up; some things were terrible, and yet an instant later they were gone. I saw a great army of Men of the West before the gates of Mordor, sinking under terrible black waves of orcs and Easterlings; but then the White Tree blooming on a mountainside, and then a dark-haired woman sitting on a stone bench in a garden and weeping as though her heart would break..."

"It sounds rather like the visions of the Lady Galadriel's Mirror, and from what I am told, about as much use," Rowanna grumbled, "showing what has been, and what might be to come, and what might not! What do you think the –" She was interrupted by a knock on the door. "Let's see who that is – it's a little early for Narwen..." She rose to answer it.

"The Steward?" Rowanna stared at the errand-boy of the Houses who had brought the message.

"That's right, mistress, my lord Faramir – he asks whether, if you are at leisure, you would be kind enough to join him in his rooms around the ninth hour this afternoon to take some tea. He says to tell you that he hopes Master Meriadoc the perian will be there also." The lad glanced past Rowanna into the room. "And he further asked me to say that he knows of the charge upon your care, and that if your lady mother's condition does not permit of your joining him, he will quite understand."

"I – well, I –" Rowanna in her turn glanced back towards the bed; Míranna, who was looking distinctly amused, nodded firmly. "Please tell my lord Faramir that, unless my mother should take an unexpected turn for the worse, it will be my pleasure to join him." As the errand-boy grinned acknowledgment and strode back down the hallway whistling, she sat down heavily on the end of Míranna's bed.

"Tea? Perhaps Denethor is not the only one of his line to have lost his mind in the siege of Minas Tirith! Here the whole City waits on a knife-edge, driven half mad for want of news from the East, and the Steward is mustering tea-parties?"

"Oh come now, daughter." Míranna was smiling. "Perhaps the waiting is precisely what the Steward seeks to ease for those from far-flung lands he may think of as his guests." She coughed a little, and Rowanna quickly shifted to pass her the beaker of water from her side-table. "Or would you prefer to continue gazing out of that window all day while you gnaw your nails to the quick?"

Rowanna looked down at her fingers and grimaced. I can't gainsay her there. Two days since the Captains of the West had ridden eastwards; two days of the ten or more the anxious White City must wait for news, since it would be a week's march at least till the army could come to the Black Gate, and several days more for even the hardest rider to cover the many leagues back to Minas Tirith with tidings – good, or evil.

Is it better, that we hear nothing?.. She and Merry had debated the possibilities the previous day – in the privacy of Merry's room, since the folk of the City in general presumably knew nothing of the One Ring, and thought only that their captains had ridden out on a last brave, desperate attempt to overthrow the Dark Lord by force.

"They could be ambushed long before they ever get to Mordor," the Hobbit had pointed out, hugging his knees as Rowanna sat at his bedside. "If Gandalf and Aragorn are right and there are thousands more Orcs and Easterlings and Haradrim still ready to do Sauron's bidding..."

"And if Aragorn couldn't hold them back..." Rowanna shivered. "Then those scratch companies of archers and infantry that Bergil says are being drilled daily down on the Pelennor, and Elfhelm's éoreds, would be all we'd have left. We might not even know of it until - "

"Don't." Merry pulled the blankets up nearly to his chin. "Remember – there is just one other message that might come back westwards sooner. If Sam and Frodo..."

He broke off, turning away, and Rowanna thought she saw tears glitter in his eyes. Nearly a month, now, since he parted from them at Parth Galen, and two hobbits set off to walk alone into Mordor with the Ring. And yet – Sauron surely cannot have got It back, for if he had, we would all have been doomed when they attacked the City. So what can have become of Frodo and Samwise?... She reached for the Hobbit's hand and squeezed it. "That's true. Let's just keep hoping, Merry; I think that's all we can do..."

"So you truly think it is but a social invitation?" she demanded now of Míranna, who nodded.

"I cannot imagine what else, unless – no, surely - "

"What is it?"

"Well – you came riding into the City down the West-road just as all women and children had been ordered out, and I refused to leave. The pair of us have not exactly been obedient to the edicts of the Stewards in recent days, have we?" She broke off to sip at her water. "Or, in my case, for many years – but then..."

" Firstly," Rowanna pointed out, "Faramir was, what? Nine, when Father was killed? How likely is it truly that he would remember you refusing all Great-grandfather Andamir's demands that you come back to Gondor, even when the Steward added his name to the petition?" Though his brother did, she recalled with a shiver, I am still sure of it, when I first told him my name the evening after the Council in Rivendell... "Secondly, the Steward must have more pressing concerns on his mind at this point than either your transgressions of a quarter-century ago, or our minor infractions of the past week. And thirdly, if he truly did intend to hold either of us to account, is it really likely he would be inviting me to tea?" She looked down at Míranna, who to her relief was beginning to chuckle. "If you want something to worry about, tell me this – what on earth have I that is fit to wear?..."

In the event, a freshly laundered gown borrowed from the Houses' store of linen had to suffice for the afternoon's appointment, while one of the Healers' assistants who had a deft hand with a brush put up Rowanna's hair for her. If the Steward but knew it, she reflected as she made her way down the staircase to the more spacious rooms on the ground floor, I am a good deal more presentable than when I last saw him, when my shirt-tails had been turned into bandages and I was bloody to the elbows... Repressing the thought with a shudder, she came to a halt as the errand-lad leading the way knocked at a half-open oak door and announced to the room behind it,

"Mistress Rowanna, my lord Steward, Master Perian."

Before she could urge him not to get up – for clearly he did so with a little difficulty – the black-clad man in the armchair opposite had levered himself stiffly to his feet, and made a sketchy and careful attempt at a bow. Of course, Rowanna remembered, even before the nightmarish business with the pyre, he'd fallen in the retreat, hadn't he? They said he took a Southron arrow, and – yes, a cracked rib or two, by the look of him... He was half a head taller than she, long and lean of build, blue-black hair falling a little unruly into a fine-boned face bearing yellowing bruises all down one side. I would never have known him kin to his brother! she thought, remembering Boromir's great bear-like bulk – until she was appraised by a keen grey-eyed gaze which, just for a moment, took her back to an uncomfortable first encounter at the door of Master Elrond's feasting-hall.

"My lady; I am Faramir. I do apologise for calling you from your mother's bedside. May I ask how she does?" His voice was a little ragged as though from fatigue, and looking at him again Rowanna was struck by his pallor and the deep black hollows under his eyes. He must be weary half to death, she realised. He is, what? Five years older than I? And yet he looks as burdened as a ruler twice his age...

"The Healers say she is doing well, my lord, I thank you. She has been awake longer today, and with more strength to converse, though she is still far from getting up from her bed. And she could not be better cared for, I don't think, than here in the Houses. Please, my lord, do not stand any longer on my account – I know you are far from full fitness yourself..."

"Ah, but having been fool enough to get to my feet, in some ways it is easier to stay standing than to try to get back down into that chair!" the Steward responded with a rueful smile. "In fact, I fear that either I must prevail on your good nature and Master Meriadoc's to assist me, or someone will have to ring for one or two of the Healers' aides – oh, thank you, my lady, that – ow..."

"Hold on, my lord – there –" Rowanna reached for cushions from one of the other chairs and tucked them behind him. "Does that help?" She winced in sympathy as Faramir sank back. "Ribs?"

He nodded, grimacing. "The Healers are in dispute as to whether
I've cracked any or merely badly bruised them, but frankly the distinction seems to me rather academic at this point. Ah – tea!"

"And please," he added as a small table was brought up and the tea-things arranged, "I cannot stand upon ceremony with two guests who have already been called upon to help me back into my own chair! Call me Faramir. And, if I may – Rowanna and Meriadoc?"

"Merry, please," the Hobbit broke in as he looked over the tea-table approvingly. "Oh, Rowanna, look – these are just like those amazing pastries you used to devour in Rivendell –"

"Merry!" Rowanna protested. "Must you reveal me to the Steward as a glutton when we've only just – my lord?" For the Steward had suddenly sat up in his chair, and then been brought up short with a pained breath hissing through his teeth. "Faramir?"

"It's all right, I – Rivendell? You were there too?..."

"I was, though not for any reason connected directly with Merry, or with Frodo's quest," Rowanna admitted, pouring tea for Merry and Faramir – another useful skill I acquired from Bilbo! she thought with a flash of nostalgia. "But that is a tale to take up the whole afternoon, and - " she hesitated - "I confess I did wonder whether there was anything more specific you wished to talk to Merry and me about? Your invitation was – somewhat unexpected..."

"Forgive me for that. But yes –" the Steward took a long, grateful pull at his teacup – "there was something; or rather someone. Someone with whom I know that Merry rode to war – and with whom, the Warden tells me, you have also prior acquaintance, Rowanna. I am rather concerned for the state of mind of one of my fellow-patients here in the Houses; and so I am hoping that you will both be kind enough to tell me a little more of the Lady Éowyn of Rohan."

Rowanna felt a sharp pang of guilt. Now that Éomer has ridden out again, and Elfhelm is patrolling the West-road – are there any left here in the City who would look to her in friendship? I should have thought – I have been so much with Mother, and with Merry, but I could have gone to see her too...

"One thing I do wish to say to begin with, Merry," Faramir went on. "I know, believe me, that there must be much that has befallen since you rode from Dunharrow with the Rohirrim which you would rather not dwell on. I promise you you need speak of nothing that you do not wish to, and I will not press you."

"All right." Merry reached over the table and piled his plate as though to fortify himself. "I don't know how much help I can be to you, Faramir – but I'll try."

"Tell us perhaps first how you came to be riding with Éowyn," suggested Faramir, and Merry began; the Hobbit's natural enthusiasm for tales overcoming his initial reticence as he described his desolation at being left behind in Dunharrow, and the kindness of the one he thought a young rider named Dernhelm.

"I thought him younger and lighter in build than the others, but I had no idea at all that it was the lady Éowyn – Dernhelm said almost nothing, and we were in the saddle most of the time. And of course she'd had to leave Dunharrow in disguise, for the King had forbidden her to ride – and she was leaving when he had put his people in her charge..."

"She did what?" Rowanna narrowly avoided spluttering tea all over the room. "Éowyn? Abandoned the women and children and the old folk of Rohan? - they had been left in her trust?"

"That surprises you?" Faramir put down his cup and gazed keenly at Rowanna.

"It – it shocks me beyond measure, Faramir, in truth. When I last saw her in the bakehouse of Meduseld, ordering the rations, taking thought for all in Edoras down to the most lowly, who should have been her father's care had he not been under Wormtongue's poison – holding herself and the city together against all the world even as that vile creature sought to coerce her..." Rowanna shook her head to clear it of the memory. "I... I cannot imagine how desperate must have been Éowyn's torment, that she could do so. I do not think she can have been in her right mind."

The Steward nodded slowly, turning his teacup round and round in his slender fingers. "And you, Merry? What say you to this?"

"I – well, I do not feel in any position to rule on what great lords and ladies do in matters of command, or how they order things in time of war." Merry chewed his lip for a moment reflectively. "But – I'll tell you what I thought whenever I saw the face of the one I called Dernhelm, through all the days we rode to try to reach you, and never knew if we'd be in time: there goes one who has lost all hope, and who looks only for death." He sighed gustily, and took a gulp of his tea. "And she nearly found it, too. Poor Éowyn!"

Faramir frowned. "You do not think that what you saw was only the battle-readiness of the Rohirrim, Merry? You know what is said of them – that they have no fear of death on the field, and ride to meet it singing…"

"I saw that too," the Hobbit agreed, "when we charged across the Pelennor, and you could feel every heart lift and the battle-blood rising, the joy that we were not too late and there were yet great deeds to do. But that felt different somehow – the Riders embrace the fight, and laugh in the face of death without fear; but that's not to say that they ride to the combat seeking only to die, and will be disappointed if they wake and find themselves still living!"

"You truly think Éowyn wished to die?"

"I know it, Faramir. I saw it when –" he suppressed a shudder – "when the Witch-King was towering over us, black and terrible, and she stood before him with drawn sword and laughed in his face. Her only fear then was that he was too great a foe for her to thwart, that she could not keep him and his horrible steed from the King. She wanted death, as long as she could bring him down with her! If she hadn't felt like that – then I don't think she could have done it. Not when everyone else was fleeing from him or …crawling in the dust…" His plate rattled violently as he put it hastily down on the table, and buried his face in his shaking hands.

"Merry!" Rowanna was on her knees beside the Hobbit much faster than Faramir could begin to move, and hugged him tightly. "It's all right – you're safe now, he's dead and gone…"

"He – was so terrible!" Merry gasped into her shoulder. "The darkness, and the cold…"

"I know, Merry. I do know!" She rocked him a little, patting his back. "And so does Faramir. None here would think shame of any who were brought low by that dark power, for so have we all been. And all of us brought back. I by Master Elrond – " and again by Legolas! she thought, embracing the warm memory for an instant – "and you and Faramir by Aragorn." She sat back and looked affectionately at the Hobbit, who was hastily scrubbing at his eyes. "So you see, this tea-party has more common ground than I first thought! Come on – let me just refresh this teapot," she reached for the jug of hot water and did so – "and in a moment I'll pour you some more tea…"

"I am sorry, Merry." Faramir turned a little in his chair, though clearly it hurt him, and laid a hand gently on the Hobbit's arm. "I had no wish to distress you, and like a fool I took you straight back to a place none of us wants to revisit, even in memory. Please forgive me."

"It's all right." Merry took a deep, steadying breath, and reached gratefully for the refilled teacup Rowanna passed to him. "It happened, after all, and I can't make it go away; I just have to learn to live with it, I know that. And Rowanna is right. Strider – I mean Aragorn – brought us back again; the Shadow wasn't strong enough to hold us against his will. So it can be defeated!"

"By the King," Faramir agreed.

'By loyalty, and friendship, and love…' Rowanna thought, as an image flashed into her mind of Merry, on his hands and knees, crawling despite his terror to Éowyn's aid. Oh Legolas… Powers, let it yet hold true!

"Rowanna?" The Steward was looking at her with anxiety in his clear grey eyes.

"I'm sorry, Faramir – I was miles away for a moment." Before the Black Gate…

"I think," said the Steward firmly, "that we all need not only more tea but more cake. Merry, would you do a kindness to my aching ribs and reach for that bell-pull?"

By the time Rowanna took her leave over an hour later, the idea that the new Steward might ever have wished to call her or her mother to answer for disregard of official edicts had retreated into the realm of the absurd. Faramir had listened intently to the tale of Miranna's illness, especially to Aragorn's view of how it had come to overwhelm her and then to recede. Rowanna even found herself, somewhat to her own surprise, telling him in detail not only about her time in Rivendell, but how and why she had come to be there, and what she could remember of her own drawing back from the Shadow by Elrond. For Faramir was, she found, remarkably easy to talk to, full of curiosity, and never seeming to judge.

She had wondered whether talk of Rivendell would wound him, since it must inevitably lead to thoughts of his brother;
but the Steward's eyes lit up when Merry talked of the Hall of Fire and the feasting, and positively sparkled when Rowanna recalled her long afternoons with Bilbo in the library.

"The lore-books of Master Elrond – all the histories of Númenor and Aman! I only wish – but that doesn't matter now. What's done is done."

He wanted to know, too, all that Rowanna could tell him about Éowyn, and she recounted what she knew of recent weeks in Meduseld; the White Lady burdened by cares for her people, her brother and her King, all the time menaced by the slippery presence of Wormtongue.

"If I could get my hands on him! –" Faramir muttered.

"You'd have to wait your turn behind most of Edoras, then," retorted Rowanna with a chuckle, "and you'd all be lucky if by the time Éomer King had finished with him there was anything left for you to do but dance on the pieces!"

The Steward burst out laughing, then clapped his hand to his side and winced. "Milady – please don't do that! I don't think I have ever before asked a guest to be less witty or entertaining, but if you must – at least warn me first!" He sobered. "We knew of Gríma, but we had no idea matters had become so dire – at least, I did not, and I don't think Father did either. Well for us that Mithrandir came to Edoras when he did, or who knows what answer might have been made to the Red Arrow?"

Once Faramir realised that Rowanna had been brought up in Éomund's great hall in the Eastfold while her mother worked as broderess to Lady Théodwyn, he wanted childhood tales of the Mark too, to which Merry, who had not heard them all before, also listened with delight.

"I would tell you the one about the time she finished by pitching her brother into the dungheap," Rowanna concluded, "but I fear, my lord, your ribs are not up to it – that one will have to wait for another day!" She replaced her plate on the tea-table and brushed crumbs from her skirt. "And if you will both pardon me, it's time I thought of returning, in case Mother needs anything. She was growing drowsy when I left, but she has been having strange dreams, and I think they unsettle her more than she will own – "

"What does she dream of?" The Steward had looked up sharply from the table.

"Strange fragments of things, I think – she says they make no sense taken together; everything from the White Tree to people weeping in gardens. Back in the Mark I would have told her not to trouble herself, that dreams were of no account; but since dwelling in Rivendell…"

"You have learned that they may be much more?" Faramir nodded slowly in agreement. "Rowanna… do you think your mother might be well enough for me to pay my compliments to her tomorrow? Will you ask her if I may?"

"Gladly – she is beginning to fret already about keeping to her bed, I think, and it will be at least a week yet, the Warden says, before she is strong enough to rise from it; company will cheer her. Good even to you both – no, Faramir, don't get up from that chair! I'll see you tomorrow, Merry – sleep well."

But Rowanna's own sleep that night was troubled; in the small hours she woke sobbing from a terrible dream of Legolas lying broken and bloody on a black and stony plain, his long knife shattered beside him and the great war-bow of Lothlórien trampled into the dust, and the light gone from his clear blue eyes. Not wanting to get up for fear of disturbing her mother, she buried her face in her pillow to muffle the sound of her weeping, and cried until the sky began to lighten and she fell at last into exhaustion.

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