The dining room was every bit as gloomy as the entrance hall, a long room with a long table in it. Candles illuminated the end that Faramir took me to, but the farthest expanse of it was lost in dimness. Places were already laid for us, and the plate of the Stewards was very fine stuff indeed, shining as it did upon a table cloth of the finest damask. I was almost afraid to touch the table, or anything upon it. Faramir pulled out a chair for me, and I seated myself as he picked up a small silver bell and rang it.
He saw the way I was looking around apprehensively, and smiled.
"I did not ask you here tonight to frighten or intimidate you, Hethlin, and I wish for you to be comfortable. Would you prefer to eat in the garden?"
That was a tempting prospect, but I did not wish to put him to so much trouble, and said as much. I also asked, impolite as it was--"Did you really grow up here?"
"Yes I did," he replied without taking offense. "Though when I was a little older, after Mother had gone, both Boromir and I liked to slip down the hill to Uncle's house as often as we could whenever he was in town. It was a much friendlier place, and there we could shout and race to our hearts' content. Father did not appreciate such disturbances." He looked about the room himself for a moment, and smiled wryly. "It is not all so bad as this, Hethlin--there are a few chambers that are quite pleasant." I blushed darkly.
"It is not my place to criticize your home, my lord. And it is certainly far more impressive than my own."
"But it is not a very welcoming place, I will admit that. There are things I would change, and I will do them, but not until Eowyn comes here to stay, and has her say about how things should be arranged. I wish for her to feel at home here."
"Of course, my lord. I am sure she would appreciate that." I strove to keep my tone as neutral as I could, but he cocked an eyebrow at me nonetheless. Servants entered just then, bringing us some light soup and salad to begin the meal, and poured wine for us. I considered asking them to water mine, as I had drunk some brandy earlier, but decided just to be cautious instead.
Faramir toyed with his soup spoon for a moment, then steeled himself to get to the point. "Hethlin, what you said when we quarreled about Eowyn being a deserter bride was possibly one of the most hurtful things I've ever had anyone say to me. And if I may say so, I have to wonder if you were not looking at the situation through the eyes of jealousy when you said it." I looked at him, and frowned grimly.
"Well, for my part, my lord Steward, I have no doubt that you look at the situation through the eyes of besotted love! The truth of the woman probably lies somewhere in between." He gave me a surprised look, and I continued. "I will not apologize for it, Faramir, and I won't take it back, for 'tis nothing that I did not hear from her own lips! And as far as hurting goes, you received no hurt from me till you had hurt me first with an accusation that had no founding in anything but your own fancy!" He held up an appeasing hand.
"Peace, Hethlin! I did not ask you here tonight to demand an apology of you, but to give you one. What I said about you and my uncle was wrong, and I was wrong to have said it. You are both adults, and your personal lives are none of my business."
"It was not that you were intruding into my personal business, but that you were willing to think ill of me when you had no reason to do so that offended me, Faramir," I declared, still rather angry. He nodded, closing his eyes and rubbing the bridge of his nose for a moment. Eventually, he opened them and gave me one of his direct looks.
"Point taken. Let me try this again. I apologize for my remarks about you and my uncle, and for implying that you were some sort of loose woman. Is that better?"
"It is if you really mean it."
"I would hardly SAY it if I did not mean it!" he began with some heat, then paused, seeing me sitting there with a very satisfied expression upon my face, and wagged a finger at me.
"Obdurate wench!" I grinned, suddenly in a much better mood. Faramir shook his head with the air of one much put upon and applied himself to his soup. I followed suit. After a brief time of silence save for quiet slurping sounds, he looked up and addressed me again.
"I will not dispute your opinion of my betrothed any further at this time, Hethlin. I suspect that this is one of those things we will have to agree to disagree upon. I am, however, somewhat concerned about how widely held that opinion is. Have many at court or in the City been naming her a deserter?"
"Nay, my lord, none that I've heard," I responded quietly. "Of course, I am not the one to ask about the people at court. You would want Princess Lothiriel or your uncle for that. But all that I have ever seen her receive from the people of this city is love and admiration. She is the heroine who rode here and felled the Black Captain. It was in Rohan that I encountered the discontent. If you recollect, I told you when we quarreled that it was the disrespectful manner of some of the people at Edoras that made me ask her what the matter was, and caused her to reveal what happened at Dunharrow to me."
"Yes, I remember that," he said slowly, the worry line upon his brow suddenly in evidence. "Was it very bad, Hethlin? Do you think someone would try to harm her? Should I try to convince her to leave Rohan earlier than we had planned?"
"That I do not know, but what I saw was mostly the little folk, the servants and such. And she is the new King's sister. I cannot imagine people wishing to offend or anger Eomer." I smiled wryly. "You could use it as an argument to get her to return with you earlier, I suppose. It is hard to imagine how it could be worded nicely, but then, you are clever with those sorts of things. All that poetry and such."
He pondered this for a moment, and I took a less than cautious drink of my wine.
"Look at it this way. It's a good thing that they feel so. If she is loved here, and people are angry with her there, she is less likely to want to change her mind and stay."
"I have been fearful that she would change her mind once she was home," Faramir admitted, apparently cheered by my reasoning and giving me one of his sweet smiles as he had been wont to of old. My heart turned over in my chest, and I suddenly realized something with a blinding flash of insight. All my wavering and indecision about what to do with my future was because I had not given up on him yet. I was not seeking actively to wrest him from Eowyn. That would have been an undignified and probably futile endeavor. But my inner self had recognized that there was the possibility that she would change her mind. It had not informed me of that fact; but then, my inner self was much like my father in that it seldom told me anything important in a timely manner. Eowyn had fallen into and out of love with Aragorn with lightning swiftness. It was possible that she might very well do the same with Faramir. And if she did, I intended to be there, newly ennobled and fertile, to console him.
Servants came in then, bringing several covered dishes from which issued forth savory smells, and I bent my head over my plate to hide the elation in my eyes. Faramir inspected everything with a critical eye before allowing it to be served to me, and the time spent selecting and serving out the portions that I wished to eat enabled me to master myself. There was a beef roast and a couple of pheasants, and many fancy side dishes--he had gone to some trouble and expense to impress me. But he hesitated before passing me the platter with my pheasant upon it.
"I am sorry, I had not thought. Are you allowed to eat this?"
"Allowed? What do you mean?"
"Elrohir explained a little about your friendship with the Eagles. Will they be angered if you eat of the flesh of birds?" I chuckled.
"It doesn't work that way. Eagles eat pheasants, don't they? So I can eat pheasants too. What I can't eat is eagles and their kin, which is not much of a hardship. This is lovely! I'm sure it will taste almost as good as that chicken you sent down to us the night we returned to Minas Tirith." Faramir smiled reminiscently.
"I remember that. Uncle shared his chicken with me, and truthfully, half a chicken more than suffices a man. A whole chicken between the three of you, however--I feared it would not satisfy, but little as it was, it sounded better than the turnip stew the butler proposed to feed you."
"Oh, it was much better!" I agreed. "We were most thankful and appreciative, and Mablung and Lorend and I gnawed the bones and licked the crumbs from the table. There were plenty of other things with it as well. It was one of the best dinners I have ever had."
"That is good to know, even now," he said, but his face darkened slightly, and it took me a moment to figure out why. Then I understood--the day after that cheerful feast, we had ridden to Osgiliath to begin the worst two days of his life. It was time to change the subject.
"So...." I asked cheerily, "what else did Elrohir talk about besides the Eagles?" As I had hoped, a flicker of annoyance drove the melancholy from his countenance.
"Elrohir," he declared, "spoke a great deal too much about a great many subjects. Including one subject upon which I thought I had final knowledge, but about which, it turns out, I was woefully uninformed. I refer, of course, to the journey to Lorien." I started, and paused with my fork halfway to my lips, but his ire, if ire it could be said to be, was not directed towards me.
"Just yesterday morning, I asked Uncle Imrahil to give me a truthful account of what had happened during that journey. He had been most forthcoming about the other subjects we discussed and I thought he had been equally.....complete.... about it as well. That appears not to have been the case." His glance turned on me then, the Captain's look of old. I gave him the most guileless look I could manage.
"Uncle had described his ordeal as being somewhat uncomfortable. Elrohir says he was in excruciating agony much of the time. Uncle described his condition when he arrived at Elrond's as rather debilitated. Elrohir says that death was imminent. Elrohir also admits that he and his brother wanted to put Uncle out of his pain--and that you would not let them. He further says that you nearly killed yourself calling the Eagle that took him to Lord Elrond. In short, you saved my uncle's life! Why, Heth, did you not tell me any of this when I was being a total ass at the wedding?" His exasperation and embarrassment were very obvious, so when I replied, I kept my voice as non-committal as possible.
"I could not speak of any of it, because it would have violated the Prince's orders to me. Besides, it was as much Elladan's nursing as my help that saved your uncle. And if by now, after all that we have been through together, you still do not understand what sort of person I am, and what I am and am not capable of, then what good would my defending myself have done?" I looked at my fork, realized I was still holding it mid-air, and laid it back upon the plate. Faramir bowed his head, and nodded slowly.
"I do appear to have made a serious lapse in judgment where you are concerned, Hethlin. Your Elrohir attributes that to my desiring you but being unwilling to admit it, and transferring my disappointment in my own lack of control to you."
I was very surprised that he would admit so much. "Do you think he is right?"
"I admitted that I had felt some attraction for you not so long ago, if you recollect, but he exaggerates the extent of the problem." Well! That was a backhanded sort of remark to make, and he realized it after a moment, for he winced and said, "I am sorry. That was rather unkind."
I was unkind in my turn. "It is all right, my lord. I am beginning to become accustomed to it."
He acknowledged the hit with a grimace and said, "You have always been one of the few people who would speak your mind to me, even across the gulf between commander and soldier. I should hate to lose that."
"Then you must not turn on me when I tell you something you do not wish to hear," I said gently, "or I will cease to do so." He nodded, and addressed himself to his food for a time. I followed suit. Eventually, he spoke again.
"Hethlin. About my uncle. For all that he is excessively over-protective of me--and I promise you I will be having words with him about his continued reticence about Lorien--he is the one person in the world I love the best outside of my immediate family. I do not think I would have taken his death well, following my brother's and father's as closely as it would have done. Thank you for saving his life."
"You are welcome, Faramir. It was no hardship to do so." He gave me an imploring look.
"He says that he loves you, and despite his age, he is a most admirable man. Can you not see your way clear to marrying him?"
"I agree that he is a most admirable man. In fact, he is the man in Gondor whom I respect the most, and that includes you and the King. But he deserves nothing less than a woman who will love him with her whole heart, and I am not that woman at present."
"Because you are still in love with me?"
"Because I am still in love with you."
"And what of Elrohir?"
"Elrohir and I are.....difficult to describe. Friends, I guess."
His eyebrow flew up again. It was getting quite a bit of exercise this evening. "Friends who just happen to share a bed?"
"Aye. That's pretty much it. I cannot ask him to be anything else to me, or he will have to choose to be mortal and die like the Queen. He is too special for that. And I don't think he wishes to do so in any event."
"Are you sure? Because based upon his actions here today, I am not so certain." I gave him a surprised look, but he ignored it and did not elaborate further upon what had happened that afternoon between the two of them. His voice was dry when he continued. "I will grant that he is certainly a...... unique individual, for all that he is a twin."
I ate a few more bites, pondering what he had just said and wishing that I had some way of extracting the information I desired from him about Elrohir. In the end, I settled for asking him a question about something else entirely.
"I will own I'm a bit surprised, Faramir. I would have thought that you and Eowyn would wish to wed almost immediately. But from what you told me earlier, it seems as if you are going to allow some time to pass before that happens." He nodded, and swallowed.
"Yes. Eomer has agreed to the betrothal, and we are in fact betrothed now, but he has asked that we wait to make the public troth-plighting until after King Theoden's funeral. He does not wish it to compete with his uncle's barrowing, and he feels that it would cheer the folk afterwards. After that, we will wait a year until we are wed."
"A YEAR? Why?"
"That was Eowyn's idea. She says that her brother will need her at first, and I am inclined to agree. Eowyn has managed the domestic side of Meduseld since she was a very young woman. Eomer is going to have enough to do accustoming himself to his new and unexpected role as King without trying to find a new chatelaine as well." I grinned, and drank some more wine.
"You should point out your cousin's many virtues to him, then. Lothiriel likes Eomer very much. Hasten her courtship and you may hasten the day of your own fulfillment along with it."
He smiled. "I had thought she was looking upon Eomer with favor. It's a bit odd, really--he's not at all the sort I would have thought she would like. Too brash."
"Oh, he has his good points," I said dryly. I then recounted to him the story of how Eowyn had first introduced him to me at that interminable awards court which had ended with my being sworn to his uncle, and about how he had tried to teach me the Rohirrim swear words at lunch, and how wrathful Eowyn had been. He laughed, his eyes twinkling.
"I wondered why she was in such a bad mood when she returned after lunch! But she would tell me nothing save that I was not the cause of it."
"She was very embarrassed. She wanted him to make a good first impression, because she was trying to play matchmaker."
"Was she now? And is it in you to be the Queen of Rohan?" He looked rather intrigued by that prospect as he took up his cup and drank from it. I glowered at him.
"You just want to be safely rid of me!" I growled. "Nay, I've no desire for Eomer. He's a nice enough fellow, really funny, and the Valar know he's a decorative sort, particularly first thing in the morning with only his breeches on." Faramir cocked an eyebrow at that. "But aside from that and the things he would do to you the night before, what would you do with him the rest of the day?"
Whereupon the Steward of Gondor snorted wine up his nose, much to my satisfaction. "Honestly!" I chided him as he wiped his face with a napkin, and cursed and coughed, waiting for the burning sensation to go away. "You should listen to yourself! 'Heth, don't you want to marry my uncle?' 'Heth, are you sure that Elrohir is not serious about you?' 'Heth, how would you like to be the Queen of Rohan?' 'Heth, marry someone, ANYONE, PLEASE!'"
"I truly did not mean to imply that," he managed to choke out after a moment, "though I can see where you would think it! I suppose that, having little family left of my own save for Uncle and the cousins, I consider my Rangers to be family of a sort, and would like to see them settled and happy now that the war is over. I want that for you most of all."
"'Settled' and 'happy' may not both be possible for me. Too much Ranger blood. Besides, Grandfather says I am a little young to be thinking of such things."
"Does he now?" His voice was still slightly strained, but another good cough finally cleared things up. "You're what--twenty-two ? That sounds old enough to me."
"Ah, but the blood is purer up North, and they live longer. The Queen says I can expect to reach seven-score years, if my line of work doesn't end things sooner." Faramir looked both impressed and surprised at that. "And they grow a bit slower as well. Elrohir says I haven't done growing yet, and Grandfather says most Northern women don't seek a husband until they are thirty. Aragorn's mother was wed when she was twenty, and they thought her practically a child bride! It was almost a scandal!"
"Aragorn's scandalous antecedents seem to be a subject dear to your heart!" my former captain declared with a grin. "I think I'll leave it to you to discuss such things with the King. You do it so very well!" I gave him a sour look, and he chuckled. "Does your disposition need sweetening? Shall I ring for desert?"
As the dinner had been both lovely and large, I found that plan most agreeable, and told him so. Though when a tray arrived filled with enough honey-cakes and berry-tarts for six people, I accused Faramir of making mock of my sweet tooth.
"Hardly," he said with the utmost gravity. "It is not mockery, but merely careful preparation. There are enough here for me for now, and for you for now, and for you to take a couple of napkins full with you in case you get peckish in the night.......Elrohir should be thankful." I snorted, but I also ate several of the cakes and tarts. He consumed a more moderate amount, watching me eat with a smile on his face. I looked over at him after finishing a berry tart, and wiping my mouth with a napkin.
"I like it when we're this way a lot better." He nodded acknowledgment.
"As do I."
"So now that we're all easy with each other once more, I was wondering if I could ask you to do something?"
"What would you have of me?"
"I would have you refrain from telling your uncle that you know all about what he went through." A flicker of surprise crossed his face. "Faramir, you weren't there! The man was dying in agony, and the only things he was worried about were you, and his children, and even me! He made us all swear that we would not tell any of you about what had happened--he wanted us to lie, and to say that he'd been shot through the heart, and had not felt a thing. So we swore that we would. I'm sure that Elrohir will say that since he lived, the oath does not hold, but I will be taking Lord Peredhil to task about this nonetheless."
Drinking deeply of my wine, I rushed to continue before Faramir could say anything. "The Prince also said that he wanted to ride on, to try to reach Lorien, even though he knew there was not enough time left to him to do that. The only reason he did that was so that I would feel better about not having given up on him. And he asked me to look after you for a while after he died, to make sure that you were going to be well. He was afraid that you had lost too many people that you loved. He said he thought that might be what had happened to your father." Faramir flinched at that, and his face darkened. He bowed his head over his cup, folded his fingers around it, and was silent for a long moment.
"That last was something that Elrohir did not tell me," he said finally. "Uncle's is a generous spirit, possibly the most generous one I know. Very well, Heth, I shall not speak to him any further upon the matter."
"I would appreciate that. You speak as if his protectiveness were a fault, but in this instance, I have to agree with him. What has been served by you finally knowing the true extent of his torment?"
"I think that what Elrohir intended to accomplish was not to show me how my uncle had suffered, but to show me what an idiot I was being where you were concerned," came the Steward's wry response, "and he was certainly successful in that." I felt it safest not to comment upon that at all, and after a moment, he continued. "So--Uncle asked you to look after me, did he? Did you tell him you'd already appointed yourself my defender long ago? And would protect me even from myself?"
"It did not come up," I said, puzzled. Faramir seemed very satisfied about something all of a sudden, and I could not figure out what it was. "He passed out after that."
"Of course." He wiped his hands with his napkin, and pushed away from the table. "Would you care to play a game of chess?" he asked. I shook my head in fervent denial.
"That would last all of three minutes! I know how good you are."
"I thought that Uncle had been teaching you!"
"He has. He just started. He beats me in five moves. You'd probably beat me in one, or just by sitting down or something." The Steward gave me a challenging look.
"You might find it instructional."
"No doubt," I said, wiping my own hands as well. "And humiliating. You ought to go play with the Queen. She's pretty good. She was giving your uncle a hard time."
"I'll have to try her then. A new opponent is always welcome."
"Could we go back to the library anyway? It seemed such a pleasant room. And I made a promise to you some time ago, and I need to carry it out."
"What was that?" Faramir was intrigued, but I just shook my head.
"If you do not remember, then I am not going to remind you. You will simply have to wait and see." We both rose, and he politely allowed me to precede him back to the library. Cool evening breezes drifted in through the open windows when we arrived, rendering the room even more pleasant than it had been earlier. "Would you sit on the couch please?" I requested politely, and he complied, albeit a bit stiffly. He'd been still long enough that his fight-abused muscles were locking up. He was going to hurt in the morning. "And shut your eyes," I added.
That he did a little more slowly, and though he was smiling, I thought I also detected a little sudden anticipatory tension in his person. What did he think I was going to do, I wondered, suddenly swoop down and kiss him? Admittedly, it was a tempting idea. He seemed my Captain again, sitting there with his black eye and his poor battered hands folded in his lap, and not the high and mighty Steward of Gondor at all. But neither he nor I were the people we had been scant months before. He had risen from being the disregarded second son to the pinnacle of the kingdom's power before giving it up to serve another in a position of honor and respect. And he had found, against expectation, a woman he could love. Ill fortune for me that it had been Eowyn, but perhaps it would not prove so for him. I could wish him well in that regard while still nurturing my new-found hope that she would change her mind and release him.
As for me, I was no longer the simple farmer's daughter I once had been. Ranger of Ithilien, cousin to the King, friend to Eagles, esquire to the Prince of Dol Amroth--who knew what else I could become, given a few months? Things had certainly changed since the day three Rangers and their Captain had ridden under Darkness to Minas Tirith.
But for now, I had a promise to keep. Seating myself upon the other side of the couch, I glanced over at Faramir quickly, but he was minding his manners and keeping his eyes closed. He sighed softly and relaxed as he felt me settle onto the cushions.
"How much longer am I to sit here, Heth?" he asked, though there was no impatience in his voice.
"Give me but a moment, Captain," I said, and reached into my belt pouch for what I'd brought with me that evening, half-expecting to have to throw it at his head or return it with icy dignity, had things not gone well. He had given it to me at Osgiliath, and I had carried it with me ever since, through some of the worst and best days of my life, letting it leave me but once. Mr. Baggins had returned it but a couple of days before, with a sweetly worded note of thanks.
I opened the swan-ship embossed cover and began to read, in what I hoped he would notice was vastly improved Elvish. "In Valinor, in olden days, the horses of the Hunter would roam, far and wide, over hill and dale, free and shining in the light of the Trees, and their life was good, and they were content. All save one, who was curious, and sought to know what existed in the wider world..."
Faramir's eyes flew open. He looked over at me and laughed in delight. And for the moment, I was content.
Author's Note--This has been as long a journey for me as for Hethlin! I had no idea, when a friend first told me about ff.net in January of 2002, that I was about to embark on a quest that would gain me new friends all over the world! But then, Captain started by my saying to myself, "I would like to write a little story about Faramir. Just a couple of chapters long. There aren't many stories here about him......" The rest, as they say, is history, or perhaps more accurately, Hethtory.
I owe thanks to a lot of people, some of whom were authors I read and admired, and were nice enough to review and encourage me, and others who have been faithful reviewers or expert consultants or beta-readers. Space, and a rapidly deteriorating memory prohibit me from listing them all here, but E.W., Miryam, Dwimordene, Soledad and Jillian deserve special thanks. My most extra-special thanks are reserved for two people: my partner in crime, Altariel, who shares my love of Poetry-Boy and puts up with my dislike of the Horse-Wench; and my partner in life, Michael, who puts up with my time-consuming obsession with a fictional girl and the series of incredibly interesting and attractive men in her life.
To all my readers, thank you for your very kind remarks and support over the last two years. And no, this is not the end of Heth's adventures..........