Two days past the crowning of King Elessar, the Steward of the City came to the Houses of Healing, there to speak with Lady Éowyn, who would soon depart for Edoras. She would go to make ready for the burial of his uncle, and to prepare the household for her brother the new King. But then, she had sworn, her eyes steady with promise, and her weapon-hardened hands warm between Faramir’s own, then she would return to be his wife.
He found her alone in the open courtyard, with a blade in hand. Her back was to him, and he stood unspeaking and half-hidden under an archway and watched her as she moved from guard to attack, from parry to guard again, her body following the steel, flowing through the paces precisely, if slowly– and he wondered if this was the first time she held live steel since her injury. When exactly she took notice of his observation, he could not tell, but when she finished the exercise, she lifted her sword in salute, her eyes locked onto his.
He made a shallow bow with one hand over his heart, and walked down the steps to meet her. ‘Did you not say you would abandon the ways of war, my lady?’ he asked.
She lowered the blade, and the corners of her mouth turned up slightly. ‘Your recollection deceives you, my lord,’ she said. ‘I vouched to stop seeking battle for its own sake, for my heart had turned to a different desire. But whether I seek it or not, fight may still come to my door unbidden, and for that reason I would have the strength back to my arm.’ She moved the sword to her off-hand, and a slight frown appeared between her golden brows as she rolled her right wrist.
‘Would you rather not practise with others, then? The White Company keeps a yard fit for the purposes of training,’ said Faramir.
Éowyn tilted her head, and her smile twisted wry on her fair face. ‘I hear that the women of Gondor bear no arms. Wouldn’t the fine soldiery of the Citadel rather see me wielding a distaff?’
‘Only if you gave it as much skill and grace as the blade.’
Éowyn laughed. ‘Ah, but how would they judge that, I wonder, unless they too be apt in the craft of spinning thread.’
‘Well caught, my lady. Not all can be as many-talented as yourself.’ He bowed again, this time with such depth and flourish that it made her laugh anew.
'Flattery suits you ill,' she said, 'for you have a truth-sayer's face.' She sheathed the sword and considered him for a moment in silence, her fingers tapping nervously at the engraved pommel. ‘If I would come,’ she finally said, ‘I should need more appropriate garb.’ She picked at the hem of her long gown. ‘Let us say I find out what has become of my Rider’s gear and do join the guard in their exercise– then what of yourself? You must be hale enough to train with a blade, or is that not so?‘
‘Why would you ask,' said Faramir, 'unless you mean to test my skill?’
Éowyn lifted up her chin, and she was near tall enough to look him level in the eye. ‘Only if you would test mine.’
‘I would be glad for the opportunity,’ said Faramir. ‘Would it suit you to meet on the morrow? Down at the grounds, one hour past the noon bell.’
‘That will be well-suited, my lord.’ Éowyn gave him a solemn half-bow without a trace of mockery. ‘And now when that matter is agreed, you might perhaps suffer to wait while I inquire after my equipment – and then I would hear more of the fair land beyond the Great River where you’ve been granted dominion.’
‘As I promised the other day,’ said Faramir.
And oh, would he tell her of Ithilien, even if no words of his would match her own perception. But they would have to suffice, until that too far-off day when they could ride there together, when she would be his lady wife. He hoped she would come to love the wild-grown gardens of that country as he had.
~ * ~
It was nearly two hours past the bell as he hurried down to the sand-strewn courtyard. The duties of the Steward, it seemed to him, were in the habit of multiplying, and he hoped his lady had patience enough for his lateness.
Among the familiar black-and-silver uniforms, one person stood out to his eye: a youth of Rohirrim, clad in a short-sleeved shirt of mail over faded green leggings, his helmet under one arm, and his golden hair hanging in a long queue down his back. He was talking to the Master-at-Arms, so perhaps this was Éowyn’s messenger, come to tell him his lady had tired of waiting and left.
Then he turned, and was no youth at all, but the White Lady of Rohan herself, wearing the accoutrements of weapon-play as easily as any fine gown he had seen her in. This, he realised with a start, was what she must have looked like, down in the battle of Pelennor. He had not seen her on the field then, and now that he did, he thought her beautiful. I am no man, said the tale of her glorious single combat, and if you knew, she truly was not– yet he had himself mistaken her at first.
‘My lord Faramir?’ she was walking towards him, and her boots sent small puffs of dust up from the dry sand.
Faramir made himself move down the last few steps. ‘I did not recognize you,’ he confessed.
‘Alas for me– I believed you a man of good perception, yet you are fooled by a mere change of dress to trews.’
Faramir laughed with her, then pointed at the shield he saw leaning against the rack housing the blunted steels. ‘You brought your own shield, I see.’
‘The ones you use are taller than I’m used to,’ she said, picked up the green-painted rondel of wood and smartly strapped it to her left arm. She turned and pulled from the rack a short sword – not in the Rohirrim style, but familiar enough as she tested the weight in her hand. ‘Whenever you are ready, my lord,’ she said, turning her gaze back to him, and perhaps his hearing was deceiving him, but it seemed to him as if her voice was changed as well; it was bright still, but now with the cadences of someone just past those embarrassing cracks and breakages that marked the transition from boy to man.
So they faced one another across the raked sand, and the first pass she made at him was at the forward target, or his hand. He easily evaded the beginner’s move, scoring a solid hit on her side as they turned and spun.
‘One,’ he said.
She nodded to him with a sudden wide smile he could not understand. When he went on an attack himself, she quickly parried his blade and directed it aside, shield clashing against his own as her steel dipped under it, the blunt tip poking smartly against the inside of his arm, even through the protection of his padded doublet.
‘One,’ she said, with her eyes laughing, and he knew how she had played him, deliberately offering him an opportunity to go easy on her. How many men, he wondered, had fallen into that trap?
‘Best out of five?’ he suggested.
When they reached five, she had scored one hit ahead of him, and suggested best out of seven. That one ended with his four to her three, and he asked if she would make it a nine. By the time of her fifth score, they were both covered in dust, and beads of sweat were running down in dark streaks from her hairline. He did not think he had ever seen her look more beautiful, and it astonished him.
‘I yield,’ he said, suddenly more short of breath than the mere exercise warranted.
‘I accept,’ she replied. ‘Though I deem us to be equal in skill.’
‘You flatter me, my lady.’ And he frowned, for somehow the address rang wrong to his ears. ‘However did you come by such training– or are all the womenfolk of Mark so adept at arms?’ He doubted this, for she had the turn of speed and feel of blade that only came as a birthright, and even then only through years and years of honing the skill.
‘My brother and I were raised together in the King’s household,’ she said and returned the blunt steel to the rack, then set to unstrapping the shield. ‘And though I was younger, I trained with him and my late cousin, as our father had seen I had the talent for weapon-play.’
‘You have done honour to him and your training both, I would say.’
She inclined her head. ‘So I should hope.’ She rubbed absently at her shield arm.
‘Does that still pain you?’ Faramir asked. ‘I hope that you did not overexert yourself.’
She made a most indelicate snort. ‘Hardly so. No, my lord. It is a good pain; from lack of use, not from injury.’
‘It makes me glad to hear– for I could hardly ask you for a rematch if I did you harm on the first round.’
‘Need I remind you who yielded, my lord?’ She lifted one eyebrow.
‘No you need not…’ he trailed off as they passed beneath the arch leading away from the courtyard. ‘What name did you call yourself,’ he continued, suddenly, inexplicably curious, ‘when you rode down from the Mark so disguised.’ He gestured at Éowyn’s garb; the clothing of men, for all that they fit her very well indeed.
‘I did not so much call myself anything, lest to bring any attention to my… as you called it, disguise ,’ she mused. ‘Save that the holbytla , Meriadoc, he did ask for my name. I gave it as Dernhelm.’ One side of her mouth quirked up, and she shrugged her shoulders. ‘It was what I could think up in the moment.’
‘It would mean something amusing in your tongue, for you to smile so, would it not?’
‘The helm of secrecy – apt, if you consider how a visor might disguise a maidenly face.’
‘Say rather: to disguise a face others might know for Lady Éowyn, for had you not already been known to me, I would have mistaken you for another young Rider, even without your helm.’ He paused at the strangely pensive look on her face. ‘But perhaps it might be better put so: whether you be a maiden or a youth, you look equally fair to my eyes.’
'Careful, my lord,' she said, 'your face betrays your thought– and how would it seem for a trothplighted man to have a roving eye for young Riders?'
He felt his face heat, and she laughed, and touched his arm. 'I jest, forgive me.'
'I did not.' He took her hand and pressed it, its rough and hardened places even more dear against his palm now that he knew how they had come to be. 'I would have us meet again in this fashion, afore you leave for your own lands.'
'I would be glad to do so.' And she was smiling Dernhelm's smile again, wide and pleased. 'If not on the morrow, then the day after, as it suits my lord.'
Faramir agreed to send word if he could not meet her, and so they parted for the day.
~ * ~
When they next faced off in the ring, the sky was clouded, with the smell of rain hanging in the air. The trodden sand clung to their boots, dark with moisture, and was cold to the touch, as Faramir came to find out.
Éowyn had been shy of touching him before, he soon realised, for now she did not hesitate to take to grappling if the opportunity presented itself. For all that he was taller and more strongly built, she was wily, using what leverage she had to great effect.
Which now meant he was prone on his back, with not an ounce of air left in his lungs, and damp sand down the back of his neck. A tall lean shadow was looming over him, with the clouds shining silver behind it and its face indistinct. ‘Are you unharmed, my lord?’ it asked in a high, boyish voice. Faramir could not yet muster the breath to answer, but he eagerly seized the offered hand up, its wiry strength plenty enough for him to heave himself to his feet again.
Éowyn’s fair mouth was pressed into a thin line with concern as she watched him. ‘I am sorry,’ she said as she let go of his hand, and startled at his still-breathless laugh.
‘Do you apologize to all your fallen opponents, fair lady?’ he said and straightened his headgear, shuddering as cold grains of sand trickled between his shoulderblades.
‘Some men, I have learned, are not well pleased to take such a fall from a woman,’ she said quietly.
And that was the sort of talk he could not have from her. ‘Then they are most utter fools,’ he said and clasped her forearms, as if she were a young recruit in his charge, in need of reassurance. ‘For you bested me fairly, and in turn I will not spare myself to do the same.’
She nodded, and straightened her shoulders. ‘I will hold you to that, my lord,’ she said and turned to pick up her blade from the sand. ‘Whenever you’re ready.’
That day, he bested her five to four, and afterwards, she teased him for simply inversing the numbers of their earlier match, and he blamed the fall, which she claimed had not been that hard, and the whole argument reminded Faramir of earlier days, of his brother and their friends, who now all lay dead.
‘Where did you learn to wrestle like that?’ he asked her as they sat in the courtyard behind the Houses of Healing, sharing a late noonday meal. ‘That was a most clever move you used on me.’
‘That was one of Théodred’s,’ she said, and a faraway look passed across her face. ‘It amused him, to have his little slip of a cousin play it on youths half again her height.’ She snorted out a watery laugh. ‘Still, it has often come useful to me.’ She drew her knees up against her chest and rested her chin atop them. ‘I miss him sorely,’ she confessed. ‘In truth, he was more like a second brother to me, if much older.’
And she told him of her childhood, of the brighter days in Eastfold, when both her parents yet lived, of the death of her father, and their remove to Edoras. And how later her brother had gained himself name and renown, riding the length and breadth of the land with their cousin– while she, with the Queen and her mother the King’s sister both long dead, and their cousin not yet married, had been thrust to the head of the King’s household, while barely a woman grown.
‘I was not well pleased with it,’ she admitted. ‘But I learned, for I would not have it said that I did not give it my best skill.’
‘Yet your heart craved for something else?’ And it did not occur to Faramir to claim a woman her birth and age should have been glad to run her own household as she pleased, as she clearly had not been.
‘Yes!’ Her eyes snapped to him. ‘I wanted– this as well.’ She gestured at her Rider’s gear. ‘The horses, the weapon-play– the freedom .’ She paused, searching for words. ‘I understand a man’s life is not free of duties, but they are different than those of the hearth. They do not… tie one down as tightly.’ With a shake of her head, she turned away. ‘I have spoken too much. You must take me for a fool.’
‘No.’ Faramir reached out to touch the side of her face. ‘You are the one I love best,’ he said gravely. ‘And I will endeavour to give you as much of that freedom as is in my power to give. If not for else, than for my own selfish reasons,’ he added, ‘for my duties are many, and I should be well pleased if we could steal some relief of them together.’
‘Together?’ You will vouch for that?’ Éowyn asked, and the sudden relief and joy on her face was terrible to behold– terrible, for Faramir did not bear to consider what she must have thought of him, before.
‘On my oath,’ he said, and did not get further than that before she kissed him, sweet and clinging.
‘You are not like your brother,’ she said after a while. They had finished their meal, though she still had a handful of bread crust, which she was flicking at the sparrows gathered at their feet, two or three crumbs at a time.
Faramir looked up, surprised. ‘How so?’ He had not known the two had met, and had oftimes regretted it, for he was sure Boromir would have liked his beloved well.
‘He guested with us in Edoras last summer, on his way West of the Mountains,’ she said. ‘Only briefly, for he was in a great hurry. Éomer was away, so he did not meet him.’
There was something in the way she said this, with a plain voice and a disinterested.look on her face, that felt to him like looking down into a forest glade and finding it too quiet. ‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘He fell into an argument with my cousin,’ said Éowyn. ‘No true harm was done, save perhaps… to his pride.’ Her voice turned strange at these last words.
Faramir knew his brother, his brashness and– and his roving eye. A futile, impotent anger flared within him then, for Boromir was dead and beyond his reproach. He took a deep breath to calm himself, then touched at her arm. ‘Éowyn…’
She looked at him, and now he could see she was in fact holding back laughter. ‘I did say that trick has been of use to me.’
‘You mean to say–’
‘He fell for it just as you did, but was wroth to have it happen. He had words with Théodred, rode off in a great rage, and we never saw them since, him or his horse.’
‘I heard he lost his horse at the crossing in Tharbad,’ said Faramir.
Her eyes clouded over. ‘So much the pity. That is not a good death for a horse.’ She paused. ‘Or for a man, either.’
Faramir sighed. ‘My brother,’ he said, ‘was a great man, but I fear his faults were great as well.’ And he told her what Frodo had told him, and what he had learned since, and how he had seen his dead brother come down the Great River with the arms of his enemies piled into the boat with him.
‘And he looked to be at peace,’ he said, ‘so I believe what they say is true, and that he passed with honour in the end.’
Éowyn took his hand, and they sat in silence, and so passed that afternoon.
~ * ~
Some days later, Faramir chanced upon his betrothed while abroad in the City. Once more in Rider's garb, she was in the company of two Guards of the Citadel, one of them Beregond, the three of them passing through and open colonnade in animated discussion.
He had a brief moment before she saw him, and in that short while his heart was filled with gladness for her sake, for it was good to see her thus, with words and laughter falling equally quick from her lips, for he too well remembered the shadow and quiet that once were upon her.
'My lord,' she greeted him, with a smile and a slight bow. And again, that low note in her voice that would not be called ‘my Lady’.
'Dernhelm,' Faramir replied to him, and his eyes flashed wide. At his side, Beregond did not appear surprised, and the other guardsman only barely so, which pleased Faramir a great deal, for it bode well to his plans.
'We are headed down to the stables, and then out to Pelennor,' said Dernhelm. 'I heard tell your folk do not shoot from horseback, so I meant to show them.' He had a short bow, unstrung, slung upon his back, and a quiver hanging from his belt. 'Do you wish to join us?'
'I'm afraid I do not have the leisure,' replied Faramir. 'But I would have a few words with you, if I may.'
Once Beregond and his companion had gone, with a promise to wait for Dernhelm down near the gates, and Faramir had sent away his page, the two of them stood alone in the empty colonnade.The sun was high on the sky, but here the air was shadowed and cool.
The young rider turned to face Faramir, with his hands on his hips. ‘Tell me then,’ he said slowly, ‘what would the Steward of the City have of a Rider called Dernhelm? What else is there to have but his story and his name?’
‘His companionship,’ said Faramir, ‘such as I have enjoyed these past few weeks. And that he join me in Ithilien, when the time comes for me to remove there. If it please him,’ he added with a slight bow, hand held over his heart.
‘It would please him,’ replied the other in the same fashion. ‘You say companionship– but would that be the company kept between a Captain and the soldiers in his company, or that between true shieldbrothers?’
‘I do not know if I understand.’ Though he did, even if he did not dare to voice it.
‘You don’t have the face for lying, as I’ve said before,’ said his beloved with a small, lop-sided smile, and stepped forward, trapping him neatly against the cool stone. He was not quite as tall as Faramir, this young warrior, but there was a hard lean strength in the body pressed against his own.
‘Would you wish that I had you,’ he whispered, ‘in the manner a Rider might have another, when far out and afield, long gone from his wife and hearth?’
'Yes.' The word shuddered from him, unstoppable and uncontainable as the Great River in spring.
The other inhaled sharply and looked at him with eyes wide and pale in the dim light, then plunged forward to claim his mouth. There was none of Éowyn’s gentleness in the kiss, it was a taking and a plundering that stole away both his breath and his doubt.
‘Would you have it said, then, that the Lord Steward of this city has bent to the will of a simple rider?’ asked Dernhelm, with breathless words that brushed against his lips.
Faramir laughed, and stole another wild taste of the lovely mouth that spoke such very foolish things. ‘I would have myself declared fortunate,’ he said, ‘to have found love with one who is the bravest and most fair in all of Mark.’
‘That luck is not yours alone,’ said his best beloved, and kissed him gently and kissed him deep.
And for a time they stayed in the shadows, hidden from the sight of others, and later stole away together, for while it is not proper for a man to bed a maid before they are wed, what passes between two shieldbrothers is no-one's affair but theirs.