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The Courtship of Lady Éowyn

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The Pelennor Fields looked quite different from when Merry had seen them last. He’d passed through here on his way to the celebration at Cormallen, but he’d not looked around much then: it had still been littered by chunks of stone from the city’s walls and the remains of the Enemy’s siege weapons. But even then, the barren brown fields he’d once wandered in a daze had given way to green grass and wildflowers. And now he sat beneath one of a dozen colorful pavilions scattered around Minas Tirith, in a cheerfully defiant contrast to the rows of orc battalions that had been here weeks before. It felt wrong to be sitting at ease in the shade of bright green fabric on the same ground that had soaked up so much blood, not even a mile away from one particular swath of dirt that was now burnt and black. Merry was keenly aware of its location: when he looked that way for too long, a painful shiver jolted up his arm.

Fortunately, there was such a magnificent spread of food before him that all the rest was easy enough to ignore. Gandalf was helping Strider with preparations for his coronation, Legolas and Gimli were meeting with delegations from their homelands, and so the four hobbits had been left to their own devices, which at the moment involved more food than even they knew what to do with. There was light, fluffy bread drizzled in oil and herbs from southern Gondor, spiced mead served warm as they did in the halls of Aldburg, and the hearty root vegetables tasted like they could’ve come straight out of the kitchens at Brandy Hall.

Beyond the wooden poles that supported the hobbits’ pavilion, Merry had a clear view of the road leading to the city’s main gate. Between the spears of their honor guard, walking along that road, he saw her, hair gleaming gold in the fading daylight. Servants and soldiers alike stepped aside to let her pass, many of them bowing low to her. She turned her head every which way, searching for something among the tents. Merry threw his arm over his head in a frantic wave.

Éowyn caught sight of him, and Merry’s jaw dropped at the grin she gave him.

He’d heard her laugh, but they’d always been hollow sounds, derisive or defiant or a mask for her tears. Her smiles had been empty things, comfort and compliance for the sake of others. She’d hardly ever smiled for Merry; folks back home would’ve thought her rude, but he took it as a sign of respect, one that made him love her all the more. Ever since she’d tossed her helm aside, she’d offered him only the truth, at least as she saw it, with no pretense of hope or happiness. To see her smiling now, so broadly and unabashedly, so truly: Merry’s heart clenched at the sight.

“Oh, it’s her! Frodo, look, that’s her!” Pippin waved to her even more vigorously than Merry had, which made Merry snort and smile. Pippin had not even been properly introduced to her yet.

Éowyn entered their pavilion, walking past the two awestruck guards, and she immediately dropped to her knees on the grass to receive Merry’s embrace.

When they parted, he said, “You look–” Happy, he’d meant to say, but it was too big a word for such a meeting, so he settled for something equally accurate: “Much improved.”

“I am,” she said. Something close to giddiness bubbled just beneath the surface of her voice. As bewildering as this change was, Merry could not help but smile at it.

“Oh! But where are my manners?” He gestured towards the other hobbits. “This is my cousin, Frodo Baggins, and my other cousin, Pippin Took; and this is Frodo’s loyal servant, Samwise Gamgee.”

Éowyn stood, only to then dip into a low curtsey. “My lords.” Sam, who lately seemed as if he’d almost become accustomed to being addressed with such respect by Strider’s men, now turned red as a strawberry.

Stifling a laugh, Merry turned back to her and asked, “Will you stay and have some dinner?”

“I cannot, I’m afraid. My brother has summoned me, and I should not neglect him any longer. Besides–”

One thing Merry had learned in his travels was that hobbit ears heard far more than any man’s, so he wondered if Éowyn thought she was being quiet when she drew in that sharp breath. He followed her gaze to where it had drifted across the field, to the tall, dark-haired man who stood, laughing, beside the Prince of Dol Amroth.

Merry looked back at Éowyn, at the smile she wore, at the soft expression that he would have never expected to see on so stern and sad a lady as she’d once been. And it all clicked into place.

His polite cough a moment later snapped her attention back to him, and though she still smiled, she schooled her expression with impressive quickness. “Besides,” she continued, as if there had been no interruption, “I hope we will see plenty of each other after the coronation. I would dearly love to sit and speak with you, now that we are in happier days.”

The sincerity of her words, so laced with the warmth that he’d once caught only hints of, as if someone had added fuel to the fading embers of her heart, filled Merry with such relief that he took her hand and kissed it. “Yes, it seems we have much to talk about now.” He smiled and winked. “But I suppose you should talk to your brother first.”

If she caught his meaning, she gave no indication; she merely kissed the top of his head before bidding farewell to the other hobbits.

But she did not go directly to Éomer King’s tent. Instead, she walked to where Faramir stood beside the Prince. Imrahil was speaking, but Merry would be quite surprised if Faramir heard any of it, with how his eyes lit at her approach.

“Well now,” said Sam behind him, “they make a handsome couple indeed!”

Éowyn made her way quietly down the stairs into the courtyard below her rooms. The moon was high in the sky, but beyond the walls of the King’s Palace, the hum of distant revelry could still be heard. She had made this same trek through the small garden at the edge of the palace grounds many times in the weeks leading up to the coronation, but never this late in the evening. It was nearly midnight, and she’d retired to her rooms two hours ago; she’d wanted to take special care to not be seen, now that there were more eyes about–most notably, her brother’s. That was a confrontation she was not yet prepared for.

She’d crossed beneath the marble archways on the far side of the garden, almost to the alcove and its hidden door that was her destination, when a voice from the shadows behind her said, “Late night stroll?”

For a split second, her heart seized in terror, before her mind caught up to remind her that she knew this voice, that it belonged to a friend, that she was far from the haunted halls of Meduseld. She had to follow the trail of smoke to find him, sitting on the flagstones surrounding the garden with his back against the wall, his bare feet spread out before him. Lit only by moonlight and the embers of his pipe, she could barely see the smile that teased at one corner of his lips. But even in the darkness, she could see the stiffness in his shoulders, pressed firmly against the wall; he was positioned in such a way that he had a clear view of all the garden.

“Yes,” she said with a sigh, in a belated response to his question, “in a manner of speaking.”

Merry raised his eyebrows. He held his pipe in his left hand, but his right arm–his sword-arm–he clutched against his chest. Éowyn wondered if he was even conscious of it; she had not always been, in those nights in the Houses of Healing when sleep would not come and there were too many shadows moving on the walls.

She sat on the stone beside him.

“I take it your brother doesn’t know you’re out here?” Merry asked.

“He does not. And I would prefer to keep it that way.”

“But he is aware of…” Merry waved his pipe in the air. “Well, whatever this is?”

Éowyn smoothed the wrinkles of her skirts and did not look at him. “What do you mean?”

“What indeed!”

His tone and his words tonight were distinctly less formal than they’d been when she’d first met him, though whether it was a result of their time together in the Houses of Healing or of the copious amount of drink he’d consumed throughout the day, she could not guess. Or maybe it was both of those things, and maybe it was also a bit of what had driven him out here in the first place, what had him holding his sword-arm so close to his chest; maybe that made him lose his care of formalities, at least out here, alone with someone else who was also haunted by shadows.

But if it was only the drink, then his constitution would put any man of Rohan to shame, and he slurred not a single word. “I was there for it, if you recall–most of it, anyway. Matters have certainly changed since I left the city, but I was there for the start of it, and I know a lad smitten when I see one.”

Merry had indeed been there, and Éowyn did not doubt that his keen eyes had seen plenty, perhaps more than she herself had. It was why he’d entered her room the day the host departed for the Black Gate. He’d not looked at her, only perched on the edge of her bed, drawing his legs up to rest his chin upon his knees, his jaw set with fierce determination as he’d whispered, “It’s all right. You don’t need to have any hope; I’ve got just enough for the both of us.”

Éowyn watched as a ring of smoke drifted out into the garden, waiting until it lost its shape before she said at last, “Faramir asked for my hand, and I accepted.”

“What? When?”

“A few days after you left for Cormallen.”

He shot to his feet with impressive dexterity, especially for one who had spent the better part of the evening drinking. “But he–” Merry snapped his mouth shut and looked away, frowning.

Éowyn raised an eyebrow at his sudden severity. “You have objections?”

“To Faramir? Not at all. But to the situation? Well, let’s see now…” He began to pace between two columns, using his pipe to gesticulate as he muttered nearly to himself, “By our standards, you’d be much too young to even think about marriage; but your folk reckon things differently, so I won’t consider that. And he did give you that lovely cloak, that’s as good a betrothal gift as any.” He paused to look at her. “But has he spoken to your brother yet?”

She folded her arms over her chest as she replied, “He has not.” At his widened eyes, she quickly amended, “And that is by my own request! I want to speak to Éomer first, or at least to be there when Faramir does. And I am not yet ready for that discussion.”

Merry’s brows furrowed, and he placed his hands on his hips. “Well, that’s not proper at all. Has he at least prepared a gift for Éomer King?”

Éowyn blinked. “A gift for Éomer?”

Seeing her confusion, Merry’s consternation dissolved, and tapping the lip of his pipe against his chin, he looked away sheepishly. “Forgive me. I shouldn’t assume the Big Folk share all our customs.” When she tilted her head, he continued, “You see, in the Shire, at least, the groom gives a gift to his intended’s family after she has given her consent.”

“Ah,” she said, pleasantly surprised, “so he need not approach the family until after he has proposed to the lady in question?”

“Oh, not at all. He should speak to the family before the official proposal. But that is after he has given a gift to his future bride, to indicate his intentions to ask her family for permission to propose. At least, that’s the traditional way to do it.”

Her bewilderment must have been evident in her face, because Merry shrugged. “Maybe it is a bit… overwrought. But it ensures that everything is in order, especially for the bride. The initial gifting shows that the lad cares for her, her acceptance of that gift shows she is amenable to the idea, the gift to her family compensates them for the loss of one of their own, and then the bride’s family gives her a gift at the wedding to ensure she will be taken care of. It all serves a purpose, you see.”

“It seems to be a costly venture for the groom.”

“Well, his gifts need not be monetary, but the grander the gift, the more likely her family is to bless the union.” He shrugged again and took another drag from his pipe. “But that is only how my folk do things. I’m sure the Rohirrim have their own traditions, and Gondor as well. I cannot fault Faramir–Lord Faramir–for doing things in his own way.”

Éowyn shook her head and smiled. “In this case, at least, I do not think Faramir’s way of doing things has aught to do with the traditions of Gondor.”

Merry heaved a sigh. “Then I shall have to speak to him about the value of procedure.” He was silent for a moment before dropping onto the ground across from her. “But why haven’t you spoken to Éomer King? I know it has been a busy day, but this is rather important.”

Faramir had made a similar inquiry of her last night, when she’d returned from her brother’s tent with Éomer being none the wiser of her betrothal. Like Merry, Faramir’s questioning had not been accusatory but borne out of mere curiosity as to her reasoning, which Éowyn herself had not quite grasped until a long discussion with Faramir had managed to untangle it.

She let out a slow breath. “For as long as I can remember, everything I have done has been in the service of others. I have always set aside my own desires to attend to the needs of my country and my family. Even when I rode to battle, the first thing I ever did for myself, it brought me no joy.” A smile flickered at the corners of her lips. “But this… it belongs only to the two of us.” Her shoulders dropped, the smile twisting into a scowl. “And as soon as I tell my brother, there will be discussions of inheritance and timelines and planning, and it will become a spectacle for all the world to partake in. Perhaps it is selfish of me, perhaps it is unfair to my brother; but I have had so little chance in my life to be selfish.”

In the dim light, she could see something very near to pity in Merry’s face. He’d given her that look a few times before, in those too-quiet moments in the Houses of Healing when she’d not had the desire to speak, and he’d run out of anything to say. She might’ve resented him in those moments, if she’d had the will to feel anything at all; but she recognized it now as springing from a place of love and longing for better things. And Faramir had taught her not to resent such pity.

But with a quick shake of his head, that expression was gone, and lifting his chin he took on an air of businesslike practicality, reminding her of his age, of the wisdom he’d accrued in such a short span of time, of the fact that he’d one day have a little corner of the earth under his care. “Well, it is not my business, and I will not offer this information to the king until you both have spoken to him. But I am in his service, strictly speaking, and if he asks me anything, I will not lie to him.”

“And I would never ask that of you,” she said.

“I know. But if I noticed something, I’m sure it won’t take long for your own brother to see it, too.”

She held his gaze. “But I deem your sight to be far keener than his.”

Merry’s brows lifted, and a timid smile broke across his face. “Maybe. But I think he’ll see soon enough how happy you are. And that ought to be enough to silence any doubts.”

Éowyn was not sure she shared in his optimism; but perhaps, as it had been that day when he’d sat in quiet vigil at the foot of her sickbed, his hope would be enough for the both of them. “Thank you, my friend.”

He patted his knees with finality. “It’s getting quite late, isn’t it? I suppose I should turn in.” But he made no move to stand, and instead glanced nervously back towards the windows of the house and the shadows of the lanterns that danced within.

“You know,” Éowyn murmured, “I had thought that lighting more candles would help, but they only ever created more shadows on the walls. It seemed–” She hesitated, only to realize that there was no point in shielding him from a horror that he had seen for himself. “It seemed as though each shadow was in his shape. Every candle I lit was another spike upon his crown.” Merry’s throat bobbed as his eyes met hers. “But, strangely, when I doused every candle and every fire and lit the room in only moonlight, I saw no more shadows in the cool dark.” She reached over to grasp his small hand in hers. “Perhaps that would help you, too.”

He sucked in a shuddering breath and nodded, squeezing her hand in return. “Yes… yes, that is a splendid idea. Thank you.” And then, as if that roll of his shoulders was enough to shake off the shroud of grim memories, he got to his feet and smiled. “But do tell the Lord Steward that I expect a bit more respect for proper etiquette from him in the future!”

Éowyn laughed, and standing, kissed the hobbit’s brow. “You have my word.”

Faramir had slept late. He could not remember the last time he had slept late.

Even in the weeks following the eagles’ proclamation, he’d been rising before the sun, his mind filled with too many preparations, too many discussions that needed to be had. Sleep had never come easily to him before, when he’d had only dreams of a ravenous sea to look forward to; and lately, with the promise of who he’d find in bed beside him, he’d had little desire to waste his time with slumber.

But today, he’d awoken alone, and the bright sunlight and laughter drifting into his room from the courtyard outside his window had him bolting upright from the bed.

He tugged a clean tunic over his head as he stumbled out into the hallway of his apartment in the House of the Steward, barefoot and bleary-eyed. He was taking a mental tally of the day’s tasks to determine if he had some early morning appointment when, piercing through the fading haze of sleep that had muffled his mind, one of the voices came into focus.

“Oh, see, this one here–we call it strangleweed. It’s a tiny vine that wraps ‘round the plant so tight that it’s near impossible to get rid of it without killing the host.”

As he came within sight of the courtyard, Faramir saw Éowyn kneeling in the grass. Beside her was Samwise Gamgee, his head only reaching slightly above hers where he stood, and the both of them were peering at a patch of pale purple flowers carpeting the edge of the garden.

“Now,” Sam continued, “I don’t know what this particular plant is called, but it looks a lot like the twinflower we have in the woods back home, and with those you can just pinch off the bit that’s covered in the vine, and toss it somewhere away from anything it might think to latch onto; though it’s best to burn it, if you can.”

Éowyn nodded. “I see. And are there any other weeds I should look for?”

“Well, that’s the tricky bit, isn’t it? My uncle Halfred–he works up in Overhill–he told me once that a weed is just any plant that’s growing somewhere you don’t want it to grow. You don’t need to call anything a weed if you like the look of it, so long as it’s not hurting any other plants, like this strangleweed here.”

Sam’s master, Frodo, sat nearby upon the overgrown grass with his eyes closed, resting against one of the white marble columns that surrounded the little garden. Frodo had his face lifted towards the sky, his features sharper and paler than when Faramir had first met him, so still that he looked asleep. One of his hands was tucked beneath his waistcoat.

Two other halflings stood in the corridor that ran alongside one edge of the garden, regarding a mosaic depicting a highly stylized imagining of the trees Laurelin and Telperion. According to Boromir, their mother had been enamored with this mosaic, to the point where their father had consulted Gondor’s best art historians about the feasibility of moving the entire thing into their main residence; when the venture had proved too difficult, Denethor had seen to it that the ancient gold and silver tiles were always polished to a glorious sheen, even years after his wife’s death. This mosaic was the main reason Faramir had chosen these apartments for himself years ago, the other reason being the airy garden that lay across from it.

Faramir barely had time to run his fingers through his tangled hair before the younger of the pair noticed his arrival. Pippin’s bright green eyes went wide with delight. Beside him, the smile that Merry gave was uncharacteristically reserved, and he had his arms crossed over his chest.

“I apologize for my tardiness, gentlemen,” Faramir said with an incline of his head. “I hope I have not kept you waiting long.”

A twitch at the corner of Merry’s lips betrayed him, revealing that his thoughts were not so grave as his countenance suggested. But it was Pippin who responded, “No trouble at all, we have only stopped by to offer our congratulations!” Faramir’s gaze darted to Éowyn, who gave a nearly imperceptible shrug even as laughter danced in her eyes.

“I am honored.” He glanced at Merry. “Though I have been told that I did not follow what your good folk would consider proper etiquette.”

“No indeed!” Pippin brushed invisible dust off of the shining tree emblazoned on his black surcoat. “And I must say, as a brother myself, I would be most offended if any of my sisters’ suitors did not keep me informed of their intentions.”

Merry’s stern expression dissolved into bewilderment as he turned to his cousin, brows furrowed. “What are you on about? When Pimpernel was getting married, you didn’t even know about it until your mother had you fitted for new formalwear.”

Pippin wrinkled his nose and pursed his lips before pointing at Sam in apparent victory. “Sam has sisters, he understands what I mean!”

Sam jumped at being addressed, his eyes going wide. “Oh… well, Daisy is the only one of them who’s married, and I’d say her husband did everything proper. He got his mother to embroider some lovely placemats for us.”

“In any case–” All eyes turned to the source of the soft voice. “We ought not impose our expectations upon a couple whose cultures are quite different from our own.” Though Pippin had voiced the objections, Frodo’s wry smile was directed at Merry.

“In Rohan,” Éowyn muttered as she frowned at the tangle of flowers and vines before her, “it is common to exchange swords at a wedding.”

The flapping of wings drew their gazes to the top of the garden wall, and glossy black feathers made them all go still. Sam snatched up a stone and reared back, but Frodo’s hand on his arm stopped his throw.

The crow cocked its head at its fearful audience before gliding down onto the grass. Éowyn’s nostrils flared; crows had been frequent servants of Isengard. They might have carried information that had gotten many of her countrymen killed.

But the crow paid her no mind. It hopped through the grass, picked up a small stick with its beak, and then took to the skies, out of sight. There were no more sinister voices to put it to evil work, so it had returned to work of its own nature. Faramir wondered how long that crow had been waiting to build a nest.

All around the garden, shoulders relaxed, slow breaths released. “Even the crows have moved on,” Frodo murmured. Sam let the stone fall to the ground.

Faramir looked towards Éowyn, but her eyes were fixed on Merry, who gave her an apologetic smile and a half-shrug. She returned the smile, and with a short nod, some unspoken agreement passed between them, only made apparent when she said to him, “When you see my brother, tell him I would like to speak to him this afternoon.” After Merry inclined his head, she returned her attention to Sam. “But if Master Samwise is not busy, I would love to hear more of the herbs he found growing in Ithilien.”

Merry had relayed Éowyn’s message, but he’d been caught quite off-guard when she’d asked him to join the meeting with Éomer.

“From what I have seen, yours are a most sensible folk,” she explained, in response to his initial reticence. “It is my hope that your good sense will help to sway my brother’s opinion.”

Merry had not felt particularly sensible lately, not since he’d begged Lord Elrond to let him go with Frodo; but Big Folk, it seemed, had different standards in this. “You really think he’ll need to be swayed? Setting aside Faramir’s neglect of protocol, it seems a fine match to me.”

“It ought to be simple.” There was a stiffness in her shoulders; it had always been there, ever since he’d met her, but he’d only noticed it for its absence the past few days. “But as you know, I have been conditioned to see only the grim possibilities that lay for leagues before sight of hope.” She smiled. “I am fortunate to have found companions who are the opposite.”

He reached up and took her hand. “One last battle, then.”

He’d said “battle” in jest, but it turned out to be a rather more fitting word than he would have hoped from where he now stood near brother and sister, king and shieldmaiden, glaring at each other with such wrath that Merry felt he could hold up a twig between them and watch it catch fire. Faramir stood beside Éowyn, his face a mask of solemn stillness; but his hands clasped behind his back were white-knuckled.

“How long have you kept this from me?”

“It is a rather recent development.” Éowyn’s calm, smooth reply did not at all match the fire that blazed in her eyes.

“And is this recent timing not cause for concern? Are you so eager to abandon your people that you would bind yourself to a stranger on a whim?”

The word “abandon” had Éowyn bristling like an enraged cat; even Faramir’s serene mask slipped as his eye twitched in silent fury. Éowyn’s voice was low as she said slowly, giving each word the weight of a stone, “After all I have done, you would accuse me of abandoning our people?”

Shame flashed across Éomer’s face, and the skin beneath his golden beard turned bright red. “I stated that poorly, and I am sorry; but my concern remains: that your decision was made hastily.”

Éowyn lifted her chin. “It was given careful consideration, I assure you.”

“And was any consideration given,” Éomer said, “to what this means for our House? Shall your son be both Steward of Gondor and King of Rohan?”

She set her hands on her hips. “And why should the legacy of our house lay solely in my womb?” She jerked her chin towards Éomer with a scornful scowl. “Do you absolve yourself already of that responsibility?”

Éomer’s entire face went a blotchy red as he looked away. “I had hoped to devote my time to the reordering of our kingdom, not to searching for a bride. And I had hoped–” There was something in the way his brows furrowed that went deeper than the anger in his voice or the shame upon his cheeks, quieter than the raging grief he’d shown upon the Pelennor: it was a fear that was almost childlike, as one who had been dropped into a strange land with no star to guide them. But he bit back what words might have revealed it.

Merry’s concern must have been writ clearly upon his face, for glancing up he found Faramir’s gaze upon him. As one, they both looked to Éowyn, who seemed to be focusing all her will on keeping her anger from overflowing. It was odd and rather unsettling to see her emotions so clearly on display, and Merry understood why she’d wanted to delay this conversation. It was more than simply a betrothal announcement; it was a crack in the ground between a brother and sister that threatened to erupt into a chasm.

Merry had helped Éowyn win a battle once before; he would try now to do it again.

“Could I–” he blurted out before he had a chance to lose his nerve, “could I speak with Éomer King alone for a moment?”

It was a sobering, if not baffling, thought, that a king of men held Merry in such esteem that he gave not so much as a questioning look at the request. When the door shut behind Éowyn and Faramir, Éomer’s shoulders slumped, his head drooped, and he heaved a sigh. “I hope you have some wisdom to bestow, Master Holdwine.”

Merry stuck his hands in his pockets and shrugged. “I’m afraid not. I actually have no idea what you’re going through. I don’t have any siblings, you see. Strictly speaking, it’s just me and my parents. But we live in Brandy Hall. It’s the Brandybucks’ ancestral home, and it’s stuffed full of uncles and great-aunts and all manner of cousins. Crotchety old gammers and squalling babes and everything in between. I’ve never in my life had to come home to an empty house.” Éomer lifted his gaze, and Merry knew he’d struck true. “But if I were to go home after all this, when I’d be most in need of rest and something familiar, only to find that everyone in Brandy Hall was all gone… well, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.” He shrugged again and tapped his toe against the marble floor. “Except to start over, I suppose.”

“And how would you start over in your land,” Éomer said, “if you did not know all its workings?”

Merry cocked his head. “Surely you learned some things about how to run the kingdom.”

Éomer looked down at his calloused hands. “I learned our marches. I learned battle formations and ambush tactics. I learned how to train new recruits and how to inspire them. I can lead soldiers into death, but to manage the lives of their families?” He nodded towards the door. “That was her domain. Even when our cousin was still alive, even when the Worm was whispering in our uncle’s ear. She always managed to lift her head above the poison Saruman had spread in the Golden Hall and see to it that our people carried on. She did it for years without complaint.” Éomer’s voice softened. “And I never thought to thank her for it.”

“No time like the present,” Merry said with what he hoped was an encouraging smile.

But Éomer returned the smile for only a moment before his eyes narrowed and he folded his arms over his chest. “Boromir was a friend to our people, but his brother is a stranger to us. You’ve spent some time together. What do you make of him?”

He thought back to when he’d first met with Faramir, brother of the man who’d given his life to protect Merry, and had not been able to help but compare the two. Faramir was leaner but still strong, his hair longer and messier. He was less austere than Boromir but somehow slower to laugh. His somber face, the shadows beneath his eyes, tense shoulders that seemed to stubbornly hold up a too-heavy weight: all made it quite shocking to learn that Merry was actually two years his senior. It was not as though he looked preternaturally aged, though all the toil and tragedies of his life would have justified it; it was that standing beside him made Merry feel all the more soft and sheltered. But Faramir had not begrudged him that naivete and had in fact been eager to hear the history of the Shire, its traditions, its crops and trees and rolling hills. The Shire still felt small–Merry suspected it always would–but telling Faramir about it had not made that fact feel like a bad thing.

“He’s not much like Boromir,” Merry said at last. Éomer raised an eyebrow, and Merry quickly continued, “Oh, he’s good and noble and strong and all that. But Faramir… well, the first time I met him, he spent hours listening to me talk, and he didn’t even ask me that much. It was only after I went to bed that night that I realized he’d gotten me to answer all sorts of questions that he hadn’t even asked. It’s the sort of clever mind that would be rather frightening, if it didn’t have a good heart to go with it. He reminds me a bit of Gandalf, in that way.”

Éomer’s skeptical expression did not change. “Is this supposed to assuage my doubts?”

“Well, only think about what he’s gained with the information he got from me.”

“A beautiful young bride who is next in line to the throne of Rohan?”

“He understands her,” Merry answered gently.

Éomer did not reply, but the lines on his face began to soften. Merry let his voice lighten as he gave a little half-shrug, “And in any case, if you haven’t seen in that man’s face just how smitten he is with your sister, I’m afraid to say you haven’t been paying close enough attention, if you’ll pardon me saying so.”

“Not nearly enough attention,” Éomer muttered. “I had hoped to make up for lost time when we went home together, to give her the honor and recognition that she is owed… but I was too slow to act, it seems.”

“Well, you did have a war to finish. It’s a lot to contend with.”

Éomer took a long, steadying breath. “You really think she will be happy here?”

“I think she is already happy here.”

“Then I had best prepare a sword.”

Merry’s eyes widened at what seemed to be a rather ominous response. “A sword?”

A smile crept onto Éomer’s face. “It is tradition among Rohirric nobility for the families of the bride and groom to exchange swords.”

“Oh, right.” Merry tapped his chin in thought. “Best make it a ceremonial sword. Something that’ll look impressive hanging on a wall. I suspect–I hope–that weapons won’t see much use in their home.”

Éomer nodded. “Good.”

The day before they were set to leave for Edoras, Faramir asked Merry to meet him at the House of the Steward. The newly-titled Prince of Ithilien was in high spirits, which was quite the turnaround from what had been his usual mood the past few weeks. Ever since Éowyn had departed the city, he’d been prone to gazing northwest (whose location he somehow always seemed to know) and sighing. Merry and Pippin had delighted in teasing him, and in this they had eager allies in his relatives from Dol Amroth; but Sam would always chide the hobbits for their lack of sympathy, and he had taken to standing beside Faramir and patting him on the arm, assuring him each day, “Not long now.”

But Faramir was smiling when he greeted Merry, and his good mood continued even as he led the hobbit through empty hallways past empty rooms. He pushed open a door, and inside was an apartment with a similar layout to Faramir’s, but smaller and sparsely decorated. There were no tapestries or glittering mosaics on the walls, only a single section of plaster with a mural whose colors had grown dull. A simple but sturdy table stood in the corner, with two empty tankards. A steel breastplate, helm, and other bits of armor sat on the floor beside the table; they might have once been shined to a polish but were now, like all else in this room, covered in a thin blanket of dust.

Merry swallowed the surge of grief that rose in his throat.

Faramir led him to a small wooden chest in the center of the room. The chest was far cleaner than anything else in the room, and only recently made so, judging by the dust-covered rag tossed beside it. Inside were about a dozen wooden figurines: soldiers, rangers, and their horses, carved in a plain style with minimal adornments and what had once been bright, cheerful paint. They would have been small even in Merry’s hands, clearly designed for a very young child. Faramir’s smile faded, and his eyes took on the haze of one reliving a distant memory.

“Our mother gifted these to him when he was a small child. He asked her to name them, and she gave them names from history, which she loved to study.” He took out a figure of a man clad in armor, bearing a shield and an axe. “This one she called Húrin–not after our ancestor, but after the great king of men in Beleriand. They say he was the last of his people to stand against a tide of darkness in a hopeless battle.

“Éowyn told me that it is tradition among your people for a lady’s family to receive a gift from her future husband. Gold or jewels seemed to me too cold. This is a simple thing, but it has a proud history. It spent many hours in the hands of a young boy, even when that boy had long outgrown it and only wished to humor his little brother. Perhaps it will someday see use again in your home.”

“Wh–” Merry held up his hands, and he could not hide the tremor in his voice. “I can’t take this! It’s–it should stay in your family, go to your children!”

“I only ask that you take one. Boromir made his sacrifice in the hope that lands like yours need never know fear or darkness. I think he would be happy to see a piece of his life go home with you.”

Merry at last took the wooden soldier and clutched it to his chest. Faramir’s voice lowered as he said, “I understand King Éomer’s skepticism, and I too understand his grief. I know well the burden of a bloodline whose legacy hangs by a thread; and far worse, the loneliness of returning to an empty house. We cannot replace who we have lost, but we can honor them best by rebuilding upon the foundations they left for us.”

“That’s near to what I told him,” Merry said with a sniffle and a smile, “though I didn’t put it quite so eloquently.”

“Whatever you said to him, I am grateful for it.”

“He would have come around to the idea on his own eventually.”

“Maybe so.” Faramir’s smile returned. “But his approval was not the only one I sought.”

It had taken no small amount of coaxing. She’d been nurturing quite the grudge against him for leaving her poor brother alone at Crickhollow to face those Black Riders. But after some apologies and a very long explanation that was still the condensed version of events, Estella Bolger had finally agreed to become Estella Brandybuck. And now, days before their wedding, she stood in front of a cart that had just arrived at the Buckland Gate, laden with such an array of treasure that might nearly put Bilbo Baggins to shame. The driver handed her a letter that read:

Knowing that Master Meriadoc, Holdwine of the Mark, values proper procedure in all things, let it be known that it is tradition in the Princedom of Ithilien that a groom’s family shall, on the eve of his wedding, bestow many gifts upon him and his new bride.

–With love, the Lord and Lady of Ithilien

Estella shook her head before approaching her betrothed, who was tossing berries to a family of crows that had taken to coming out every few days from the Old Forest. The dark scar above his brow did not bother him, but sometimes, loud and crowded spaces did. On such nights, she or Pippin would lead him outside, and they’d sit with him and watch the stars as he clutched his arm and breathed deeply. But as the saplings around the Shire grew taller and the birds more numerous, his good days far outnumbered the bad.

She nudged him with her elbow and nodded towards the cart. “Your friends down south are a strange bunch, aren’t they?”

Merry smiled as he watched the crows take flight, returning to their nests in the forest. “They are indeed.”