I left Hethlin to the high ground she had so ably won, and went back down the steps. But I was by no means yet ready to face the wedding party, and so I walked for a little while further round the walls.
...the way your father used to try to control you...
Was this truly how she saw me? I had been – I thought – seeking only to protect her from the reproaches that were certain to follow if she did not take more care over her conduct... She was hardly experienced in the ways of the city and the court. The understanding we had had amongst the company in Ithilien would not extend to her here, and her very presence amongst the company would almost certainly be counted against her. I had saved her life, I had permitted her to remain in Ithilien. Surely I bore some responsibility for her?
And as for her comparison...
...you put me much in mind of him...
I shivered. From my brother alone had I been able to bear that charge, and none else had dared say it; not in my hearing, at least, although I had oft seen it in the eyes of those whom I had to call to task. Ice cold, folk said of him. How wrong all had been about my father.
I turned quickly and went back to the court. I was just in time to say farewell to Mablung and Delyth, and it was not hard to put on a show of happiness for them – it was not a show at all. But after they had gone, my thoughts turned dark once more. Those about me asked whether I was thinking of my lady – and indeed I was—
...your deserter bride...
And it was that which I found the most intolerable of all she had said. With my own shortcomings I was quite thoroughly well-acquainted – nor was I blind to Éowyn's, no matter what many seemed to think. But what she had said... that had been not only unwarranted, but cruel too. Hethlin had seen Éowyn in the depths of her despair – why should she want to judge rather than to pardon her? Why, indeed, did she believe she had that privilege at all? I could think of but one likely explanation, and it did not, I feared, reflect well upon Hethlin.
I left soon after the bride and groom, and made for home. Inside, there were one or two lamps lit for me, but it was too quiet. I stood for a moment in the dim hallway, trying to determine whether I should go and speak to my uncle. His counsel was always good and, besides, I did have some questions yet about his "forfeit"...
...don't hover, lad... I will be home all day tomorrow, if you wish to speak to me...
That, I decided, was plain enough. I took myself straight upstairs to bed, and fell asleep troubled from the evening's event, sore and bewildered from the conflict, and missing Éowyn.
The next morning I was early at the White Tower and, when the bell sounded to mark the hour before noon, I left saying I had pressing business in the city. I went directly to my uncle's home in the sixth circle.
None of my cousins were there. And my uncle... my uncle was having breakfast.
"Ah, Faramir," he said, when he saw me. "I lose my wager with myself then. I thought that you would be able to restrain yourself from coming to see me at least until mid-morning."
"Uncle," I said, sitting in the chair beside him, "it is past mid-morning."
He looked out of the window. "Is it indeed? Well," he said, turning his attention back to the table, "it seems I needed the rest."
But, I thought, as he poured me some tea, he did not look as if he had slept well at all. As I took the cup, our eyes met and his mouth twitched. "I wonder what it could be," he murmured, "that brings you here this fair late morning."
I sipped my tea. There were many matters I wished to discuss with him, but for the moment I would begin with what had been troubling me since I had seen him again at Amon Dîn. "Tell me," I said, and looked him sharply, "just how sick were you on the journey to Lórien?"
He quirked an amused eyebrow at me. So much for inheriting my father's fabled stare.
"Sick, son? I think that imagination of yours is running away with itself."
I put down my cup.
"It is a very long time since last you lied to me," I said, "and you do it very ill. Tell me what happened."
As Hethlin shut the door behind me, I sighed, resignation and rueful amusement equally mixed in my mind. It seemed my fate was ever to be refused, at least initially, where matters of matrimony were concerned. And it was difficult to fathom--according to many folk who had expressed their admiration over the years, I was witty, charming, and attractive, even before my wealth was factored into the sum of my parts. But just let me set my heart upon a woman, and she refused to have anything to do with me! My relentless inner voice suggested that that might be because I tended to fixate upon women I knew were not attracted to me, but I preferred to think it was because I was discerning enough to only desire women of equal taste and discernment.
In truth, I had not expected Hethlin to accept my proposal-as I had told her, I knew the timing was bad. She, by her own admission, had only just come to the realization that she was attracted to me. She was too young to truly know her own mind and heart and was wise enough to admit it. I had confronted her at a time when she was very conflicted, and had just come from a devastating argument with Faramir. No, my seige had been laid in the heat of passion without benefit of proper intelligence or advance planning, and so it was no great surprise that it had been unsuccessful.
Though it had not entirely been a failure--she was now aware of my feelings for her. And there is nothing so flattering as the realization that someone loves you--it tends to engender tender feelings towards the adoring one. Had this been the standard sort of romantic campaign, I would have regrouped and launched a new, more subtle assault. But things were complicated by the fact that the young woman was in my keeping as an esquire.
Andrahar had given me a totally deserved tongue lashing on the way home--How, he had asked, was he supposed to train her as an equal with the other young men, a task that was already difficult enough, without me acting like a love-sick lad in public? Was I unaware that the other esquires thought that the only reason she was being allowed to train with them was because she was the King's kinswoman? Did she really need the additional burden of being thought my mistress as well?
When I told him that I intended to propose marriage to her, he called me an old, besotted fool, compared Hethlin to Nimrien in ways that were not in Hethlin's favor, and made some very telling commentary about men of my age lusting over women of her young years. Then he had stalked off to bed, genuinely affronted. I was not winning friends, it seemed, or even keeping the ones I had!
To make matters worse, once I had sought my bed, sleep totally eluded me, and for the most embarassing of reasons, reasons Andrahar had alluded to in his rant. That kiss had been like a match set to dry tinder, for I have ever been a man of passionate nature. Immediately following the death of my wife, and for a couple of years afterwards, I was not much troubled by my appetites, for grief suppressed them, but they eventually resurfaced, and when it became apparent to me after an extensive search that there was no young lady in Gondor I wished to appoint as Nimrien's successor, a rather trying period followed during which I struggled to suppress my desires completely. As the father of young children, I would not stoop to amuse myself with the courtesan companions of my youth, and with no new marriage in the offing, I had no other choice but to learn to live without an outlet for my passions . The prospect of yet another year or two of such suppression was a dismaying one, but my promise to the King made the possibility very likely. One way or another, I would have to distance myself from Hethlin until her training was completed.
I did not drift into sleep until just before dawn, and my rest was uneasy and disturbed. Waking but a few hours later, I found that my children had departed the house upon various errands. The servants told me that Elphir and Mariel were with the Queen, and that Erchirion had gone down to the Harlond, presumably on the theory that ships on a river were better than no ships at all. Lothíriel was out with friends, and Amrothos in hot pursuit of elves to tell him more about life in the treetops.
All of them except for Amrothos had seen my little display the night before, and someone who did not know them well might have thought my children were considerately minding their own business. I, however, knew better. The obvious, calculated scattering of the Cygnets of Dol Amroth reeked of a premeditated mass attack--I was most likely in for an intense interrogation come dinner that evening.
Having dressed, I was contemplating this possibility and addressing myself to my breakfast without much enthusiasm in the deserted dining room when one of the maids announced my nephew. Faramir entered, looking almost as tired as I felt. But when I endeavored to jest with him about the early hour of his visit, I was chided about the fact that it was almost noon. Amused, I conceded the fact and asked him about the purpose of his visit as I poured him tea. Rather to my surprise, he did not question me about Hethlin, but instead about something entirely different, and he did it with an intent stare that was reminiscent of his father.
"Tell me," he asked, "just how sick were you on the journey to Lórien?"
I was rather amused by the attempt to intimidate.
"Sick, son? I think that imagination of yours is running away with itself."
He put down his cup, seeming almost affronted. I knew that he had been disturbed by my display with Hethlin, but had not anticipated this level of antipathy.
"It is a very long time since last you lied to me," he said, "and you do it very ill. Tell me what happened."
It was my turn, it seemed, to chide him. "You would be more likely to acquire the information you desire, Faramir, if you did not start your interrogation by accusing your subject of falsehoods. Particularly over breakfast." He snorted at that, as I chewed and swallowed a spoon of porridge. " If you must know the truth of the matter, I was not sick on the road to Lórien, I was wounded and poisoned." He was neither impressed nor intimidated.
"At Amon Dîn, you told me you had been sick in Lórien, Uncle, and when I first saw you there, you were very pale and fatigued. You are still not acting quite yourself. I would know the truth of what happened to you on that journey." I had to smile at his persistence.
"Ah, I understand now! You seek an excuse for my rowdiness of yestereve!" He had been playing with his spoon, a habit of old, and suddenly slammed it down upon the table with a force that made me start.
"I simply seek to know if you are going to be all right, Uncle! I am fearful for you! Between this odd behaviour of yours, and what is so carefully not being spoken of before me, I am terrified that whatever ails you has no cure! I would not lose you as well!"
"Oh, lad...." The corner of the table was between us, making the arm I wished to put about his shoulders impractical, but I reached out and took the hand with the spoon, clasping it. "Faramir," I said, looking him squarely in the eye, "I swear to you that I am not ill any longer, I am merely recovering. I will die one day, but it won't be this that kills me, and I'd like to think I'm good for a few years yet!"
"Apparently," he said drily, seemingly reassured, "given your behavior last night." I released his hand, and smiling, picked up my cup to take a sip.
"Ah! Finally, we come to it! Speak your mind, nephew."
"I would know the truth of what happened to you on that journey," I insisted, tapping impatiently at the table with a spoon – but my uncle, it seemed, was mainly amused by my questioning.
"You seek an excuse for my rowdiness of yestereve!"
He was being most unfair. This house was so full of life from the presence of its master and his family, and I could not but compare it to my own, filled – for all my efforts – with the memory of those who had departed. I could not bear to think of this place becoming the same. Before I could stop myself, I had slammed the spoon down on the table.
"I am fearful for you!" I shot back, angrily. "I am terrified that whatever ails you has no cure! I would not lose you as well!"
His mood – which hitherto I could only describe as evasive – suddenly softened. "Oh, lad..." He took my hand, and swore to me that he was no longer ill. "It won't be this that kills me, and I'd like to think I'm good for a few years yet!"
"Apparently," I muttered, "given your behaviour last night."
He dropped my hand, on the defensive once more, and picked up his teacup. "Ah! Finally, we come to it! Speak your mind, nephew."
I stared back at him. He seemed most preoccupied about last night's events, even more so than I. "Your health is what has been on my mind," I said. "And Elphir's, for that matter."
He gave a short laugh. "Have you all been discussing me?"
"Just he and I – we are neither of us idiots, uncle, nor are we children. You must speak to him," I urged him.
"I do not doubt that I shall be questioned at length at some point today." He took another mouthful of porridge.
"Will you tell me what happened?" I asked again.
He put down his own spoon with a clatter. "Faramir, it is as I said! I was wounded and poisoned, healed in Lórien, but have taken a while to regain my full strength. Why, I must ask, should I wish to torment you or my children with the dreadful details of something that is over and done with?"
"I doubt," I said softly, "that you could tell me a tale so bad as that surrounding my father's death, and I seem to have survived that news well enough." He did not reply, and then I raised my hands to admit defeat. "Forgive me – I will press you no further on this matter. But for myself, it is simply that I am tired of secrecy, and should you wish to tell me, I would hear the tale in full."
He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. "You are much better at this kind of manipulation," he said, giving me a half-smile.
Cataloguing my faults was, I thought, in danger of becoming a favourite pastime amongst my friends and family, but I did not respond. He seemed about to tell me what I wanted to hear and, besides, what he had said was true.
"Very well," he said, and then launched into a fuller account of all that had befallen him on the journey north. When he had finished, he turned back to his breakfast, and I stared into my cup, thinking. After a moment or two, I spoke again.
"It is... a long way from the eaves of Fangorn to the woods of Lórien. How did you get there so quickly?"
He looked down into his dish, and took another mouthful of porridge. When he spoke, his voice was indistinct, and I was not quite sure that I had heard him correctly.
"I beg your pardon?"
He swallowed. "Eagles!" he repeated, and this time all was perfectly clear.
"I see," I said flatly, and frowned.
He seemed to be suppressing a smile. "Now that expression," he said, waving his spoon at me, "is much more like the Steward of Gondor."
"I am becoming a little weary of hearing how like my father I am," I muttered.
He looked at me long. "I have already heard about your... discussion last night with Hethlin," he said.
"Well," I replied, "news does indeed travel fast around the city these days. I wonder, am I still the villain of the piece?" As I took a sip of tea, another thought occurred to me. "You are only just out of bed," I said, narrowing my eyes at him, and thinking of his evasiveness, his preoccupation with the night before. "When, exactly, did you hear about our argument? And how?"
My, but the lad was persistent! And it was obvious to me that he would not rest till he had more information than the bare bones he already possessed, so after a bit more prevarication, I gave him my carefully calculated, next-step-up version of what had transpired on the road to Lórien, and afterwards. It was the same one I intended to give to Elphir, should he press me on the matter--enough detail to hopefully satisfy, while sparing the listener the full horror of the matter. For I did not think that either my nephew or my son needed to know that I had been within hours of dying, or that I had been in agony the entire day before--what purpose would it serve?
The manipulative side of my mind suggested that by letting Faramir know exactly what I had gone through, and Hethlin's part in my salvation, their quarrel might be mended, and a purpose served indeed, but still I hesitated to do so. Meddling very seldom turns out well, and I truly hate to reveal a weakness, a legacy of years of diplomatic maneuvering for both my own demense and Gondor in general. And it is possible that part of my hesitation was caused by another, baser motivation--that it suited my own romantic plans for them to continue to be at odds--but I do not like to think so.
In any event, I told him what I thought would satisfy, and it seemed to serve. He did notice the discrepancy of the distance between Fangorn and Lórien, but when I explained that an Eagle had carried me, he accepted that without any further questioning as to the means by which it had been brought about, which rather surprised me. I wondered if he had spoken to Celeborn at some point, and been told of Hethlin's bond with the Eagles. Though he did frown at the idea, and when I pointed out how much he resembled his father when he did that, got rather defensive, murmuring about how tired he was of hearing that particular comparison.
I hesitated for a long moment, for I suspected the source of his irritation, and then decided to grab the bull by the horns, and get to what I felt was the true point of his visit, whether he admitted it or not.
"I have already heard about your.....discussion last night with Hethlin," I admitted quietly.
"Well, news does indeed travel fast around the city these days! I wonder, am I still the villain of the piece?" was his rather grumpy reply. He bent over his cup and took a long sip of tea, and as he did so, I saw comprehension dawn in his eyes. "You are only just out of bed," he said, eyes narrowing in suspicion. "When, exactly, did you hear about our argument? And how?"
"Why, from Hethlin herself, last night," I said calmly. "I went home, but could not sleep, so I walked over to the Citadel, and found her unable to sleep as well. So we talked."
"Then I am very definitely the villain of the piece!" I smiled.
"I will not deny that she is wroth with you, but she admitted that she had been vicious as well." Faramir was playing with his spoon again.
"'Vicious' is a rather inadequate word! Cruel is more like it! Did she tell you what she said of Éowyn?"
"Not precisely, no. But we have spoken of Éowyn before, so I can imagine."
Another of those narrow-eyed looks. "And what did you tell her, when you spoke of Éowyn before?" My eyes hooded, and my tone grew cool.
"I have already made known to you that I approve of your choice of bride, and wish the two of you every happiness. But if you must know, we spoke in Edoras after Éowyn admitted she had deserted Dunharrow. Hethlin did not know what she should do--she genuinely liked Éowyn, but she was disappointed and dismayed to discover she had acted thusly. She wished to hear my opinion upon the matter."
He had been a little taken aback at the sudden chill in my demeanor, but recovered himself. "And did you give her your opinion?"
"I did indeed. I told her that yes, I considered Éowyn to have disobeyed orders and abandoned her post, but that there were extenuating circumstances, as is sometimes the case when one choses to do that. And I told her that she could choose to either cut her ties with Éowyn because she felt that she was too dishonorable to associate with, or that she could forgive her against the inevitable day she herself would make a mistake. She chose to forgive Éowyn."
"It did not sound so to to me yestereve," Faramir growled. I sighed, relented, and pushed my bowl of porridge away, picking up the teacup in its stead.
"That was, I suspect, not so much about her forgiving Éowyn as you excusing Éowyn, the final proof to Hethlin that you loved Éowyn and would never return Hethlin's affections. And, I might add, proof that you were as fallible as the rest of us, which came as quite a shock to her."
"Fallible? In what way?" He poured more tea into his cup, and stirred a spoon of honey into it, then passed the pot to me at my gesture. I did the same.
"You would never have excused such a breach of duty from any of your men, or her, which told Hethlin that your affections had quite overwhelmed your usual rigorous sense of honor and duty."
"She said as much to me," Faramir murmured, "and told me you had explained to her her place in my life." I nodded.
"I did, and hurt her when I did so. She is in pain, Faramir, she still loves you very much. For the most part, I think she is doing an admirable job of suppressing it, and trying to move on with her life. But when you cornered her last night, and attacked her, you gave her the opportunity to give back to you some of what you've inadvertently given her. Small wonder if you came away from the encounter feeling mauled."
"That was rather a surprise," he admitted, after taking a sip from his cup. "I don't know what I expected, unless it was for her to apologize contritely and say 'Yes, Captain, I'm sorry, I'll mend my ways.' I certainly didn't expect her to become so judgemental, or to have such an instinct for the jugular."
I folded my hands about my own cup. "Hethlin is not the hero-worshipping little soldier-acolyte she once was, Faramir, and you will be in for more unpleasant surprises if you continue to think of her as such. She did some extraordinary things upon our journey, and she's done a great deal of growing, with more to come. I quite look forward to seeing what she will become." I took a drink, and set the cup back down upon the saucer with slightly more force than was necessary. My nephew cocked an eyebrow at me as I continued.
"She had nothing to apologize for, for she did nothing wrong," I declared. "I was the one who caught her out of the dance, and I was the one who kissed her. She says that you accused her of seducing me. That quite rightly offended her, and though you may not realize it, it offends me as well, nephew, for it implies that I am some sort of witless fool in my dotage, prone to being led about by my passions! I think it is time you explained yourself!"
Hethlin's condemnation of Éowyn had troubled me in more ways than one, and it was not just Hethlin's opinion that was my concern. Just as much, I wished to know how generally that opinion was held. I did not want Éowyn to hear such things said about her when she returned to Gondor as my wife – there would be enough said at court about my choice of a Rohirric bride. But if such was being said widely about Éowyn, I wanted to know about it, and I intended to see it stopped.
As for my own opinion – how could I censure Éowyn? By riding from Dunharrow she had been in her place to destroy the Black Captain, who had ravaged my mind and under whose shadow I had all but fallen. For ending that terror I could only thank her. And her leaving Dunharrow meant also that she had been there to walk towards me in the gardens of the Houses of Healing, to make that healing possible. How could I wish for her to have been anywhere else?
But there was more to it, as Éowyn and I both knew, as we had confided to each other. For we had both, year after year, stood at the side and watched as the darkness settled upon our lords, powerless to change it or to stop its advance, until at last the only escape seemed to be to end it all with whatever honour there was left to be salvaged. I could not censure Éowyn for the failure of my own heart. I could not censure Éowyn for her despair. And if that made me fallible, then I would gladly own the fault.
I said none of this to my uncle. He spoke for himself as much as for Hethlin, I deemed, when he described my affections as overwhelming my sense of honour and duty. On this matter, it was plain, he and I would have to remain in disagreement – which meant that I would have to remain silent. My uncle is a forceful man who knows how to put his case and does not like to lose, and I did not care to quarrel with him – in part because I desired no more conflict, and in part because I owed him respect and gratitude, not argument. And I was well used to keeping my own counsel whilst holding my tongue.
He was speaking now about Hethlin, about why she had responded so strongly to my questioning. "She is in pain, Faramir, she still loves you very much. For the most part, I think she is doing an admirable job of suppressing it, and trying to move on with her life."
He was making a much better defence to me of Hethlin, I thought, than I had to him of Éowyn.
"Small wonder if you came away from the encounter feeling mauled," he finished.
"I don't know what I expected, unless it was for her to apologize contritely," I murmured. And that was true – I did not know what I had expected. I was not now sure why I had ever begun the conversation, and I could see this morning the extent to which I had mishandled it. Hethlin had indeed changed. I would have to give that much more thought.
My uncle's voice, in the meantime, was unaccountably rising. "She did some extraordinary things upon our journey," he said, "and she's done a great deal of growing, with more to come. I quite look forward to seeing what she will grow into."
His cup clattered loudly in its saucer.
"She had nothing to apologize for, for she did nothing wrong!" he declared, with a force that startled me. "She says that you accused her of seducing me. Though you may not realize it, that offends me, nephew. I think it is time you explained yourself!"
He had flushed red. He was, I saw with a shock, genuinely and most angry with me.
I took a sip of tea while I considered my response. Then I set down the cup and looked down into it.
"If I have given offence," I said quietly, putting as much contrition as I could into my tone without demeaning myself too thoroughly, "I can only beg your pardon. It was not intended. My remarks to Hethlin last night certainly strayed well beyond what was appropriate. I am sorry."
He frowned at me, but seemed a little placated. Before he could speak again, I stood up and walked across to the window. I rested my forehead against the cold pane of glass for a moment, and then raised it to look out into the garden. A thought came back to me of the summer after Elphir was born, when my aunt and uncle had come to the city. My brother and I had seized every opportunity we were allowed to escape the strictures of the Citadel and come down to see them in this house on the circle below. Looking out, I remembered as if it were yesterday my brother clambering up one of the trees at the far end of the garden while I, not quite tall enough to reach the lower branches, considered how I could go about joining him. And then, all of a sudden, I was lifted up and put there. I turned my neck to see my uncle behind me, holding me – and I was furious, that I had not been permitted to find my own way. My uncle had raised an eyebrow at what was almost certainly my best scowl (which I had not yet learnt to mask), smiled back at me, and said, "The key to a successful campaign, son, is to know when to seek aid."
I was aware of him sitting behind me – waiting, no doubt, for me to say something. I half-turned back to speak to him – then thought better of it and gazed again outside, drumming my fingers against the windowsill. Elphir and Mariel had returned, I saw, and had brought their little boy outside. I watched them walk together across the garden, and my heart turned upon itself to see them – in joy at the thought that Éowyn and I might ourselves soon enough have a child of our own; and in fear, that it was instinct rather than experience that we must draw upon if we were to be successful. Everything, I thought, was changing.
At last, I did turn back. I walked a little away from the window, stopped, and folded my arms. Then I opened my mouth, closed it, and stared at the wall behind my uncle's chair.
"Faramir, you're prowling. Stop looking past me and say whatever it is you want to say."
I bit my lip. This man had been a father to me. He had coaxed me, encouraged me, sustained me and loved me. I loved him in return without condition, and I knew I could not bear the loss of his esteem. To ask what I wanted to know might well cause offence beyond repair. And, given his defensiveness this morning, I could not guarantee that I would not be misunderstood. I wondered again exactly what had happened in his conversation with Hethlin the night before. But where it did not touch upon me and Éowyn, I was hardly entitled to press him – and herein lay my trepidation.
"Will you tell me what is on your mind?" He sounded almost impatient.
I looked straight at him, reminded myself that this man was not and never had been like my father, and hoped that I was not about to make a dreadful mistake.
"You speak so well of Hethlin," I said quietly. "Are you in love with her?"
His expression was indescribable.
"If I have given offence," my nephew said, "I can only beg your pardon. It was not intended. My remarks to Hethlin last night certainly strayed well beyond what was appropriate. I am sorry."
I flinched inwardly, for I had heard that carefully measured tone of conciliation before, but it had always been addressed to Denethor, never to me. It was Faramir's version of the hound baring his throat to the pack leader. And I scowled, a bit irritated that he thought he had to resort to such instead of speaking his mind openly--surely after all these years, he knew me better than that?
Apparently not, for now he was avoiding the possibility of further conflict by walking over to the window and resting his head against it. He seemed to find somethng of interest there, for he watched for a bit. After a moment, I could hear Alphor's high-pitched voice exclaiming about some butterfly in the garden, and realized that my eldest and his family had returned. I wondered if Faramir was contemplating the family that lay in his future. He fidgeted a bit more, obviously hesitant to broach whatever was troubling him, and ended by refusing to meet my eyes. I pondered how best to handle this, and decided that being matter-of-fact might be more effective than cosseting. Such was generally the case with restive horses and fearful small children--it might work for troubled nephews as well.
"Faramir, you're prowling," I declared. "Stop looking past me and say whatever it is you want to say." He bit his lip and said nothing, still considering the wisdom of speaking further.
"Will you tell me what is on your mind?" I asked bracingly, still using my no-nonsense strategy.
He looked at me then with his eyes that were so like my sister's, and I saw apprehension in them.
"You speak so well of Hethlin," he said. "Are you in love with her?"
I had been striving so hard to get him to speak his mind, that when he actually did it, I was stunned for a moment, unable to reply. It was the most personal thing he had ever asked me, and it must have cost him a great deal to do it, given my irritable behavior earlier. His father had long ago drummed into him the dangers such inquiries were fraught with. I knitted my fingers together upon the table and looked straight back at him.
"Yes. Yes, I am. I asked her to marry me last night." My nephew, a master by upbringing at concealing his emotions when necessary, stared at me in shock.
"You.....proposed marriage to Hethlin?" He moved as if sleepwalking back over in the direction of the window.
"Then she would be my....aunt?"
"Yes. And the Princess of Dol Amroth. Providing she had accepted, which she did not." When one has taken a massive blow, subsequent ones don't register quite as strongly. His brow furrowed and he frowned at me.
"She refused you?"
"Yes, she did. Difficult to imagine, isn't it?" My flippancy did nothing to lighten his mood.
"Did she say why?" Sighing, I took up my teacup, found it quite cold, and drank it down anyway with a grimace.
"She had several good reasons, which I could not fault. She admitted to feeling an attraction for me, but feared it was because of what she sees as a similarity to yourself. She does not know whether she is going to train as a Swan Knight or go North with her grandfather. And then there is her involvement with Lord Elrohir." His frown deepened at the mention of the elf-lord.
"During our argument, Uncle, Hethlin told me you knew of her affair with Lord Elrohir, and approved of it. I will admit, I am curious--why would you propose marriage to a woman you knew was involved with another man?" I shrugged.
"Because they had both told me that they were not interested in marriage when they first informed me they had become lovers." His eyes widened in disbelief.
"And you sanction such an arrangment? How can you?"
"How can I not, Faramir? Do not my other esquires, when they are on leave, seek feminine companionship? Are they not allowed to do so, so long as it does not interfere with their training? So long as Hethlin cleaves to Elrohir, she is in no danger of catching a child, even after Lord Elrond's intervention. And if she cannot catch a child, and limits her dalliances to those times when she is on leave, then there is no interference with her training, and I have no grounds upon which to forbid her."
"You could forbid it on the grounds of your concern for her reputation," Faramir suggested rather coolly.
"Thus sayeth the gentleman who shared a bedroll with her upon countless winter nights in Ithilien? And was saying to me not all that long ago, after sharing a bed with her in the Citadel, that only the small-minded would think ill of it?" He flushed a bit at that. "Your objection, Faramir, is more because of a reflexive sort of possessiveness than because of any true concern for Hethlin's reputation. I observed it at Amon Dîn. You know as well as I do that Hethlin could never redeem her reputation amongst the minions at court were she to live the rest of her life as purely as did the legendary Maiden in the Tower. So who am I to deprive her of something that gives her joy?"
Faramir, who had been tapping his fingers upon the windowsill, gestured at me in exasperation. "You are the man who reminded me of the pettiness of the small-minded. You are the man who used to be far more mindful than I of appearances and their consequences. You cannot take me to task for behaving as you taught me. I do not understand what has brought about these changes in you!" The frustration in his voice was very genuine, and I realized that I was going to have to be more forthcoming if we were to reach any sort of understanding.
"It was not Lórien, or the Lady Galadriel, if that is what you are thinking, though they may have been the last straw. In truth, I think that it was a combination of things. I do not mean to downplay your experiences during the retreat, for I know how horrible that was for you, and the more so because the horror was unnecessary." He bridled a bit, and I threw up my hand. "I do not speak ill of the dead, Faramir, I simply state a fact that both of us are good enough commanders to accept. It was a waste of men and resources that we could not afford. And it almost wasted you, which possibility I still cannot contemplate with any equanamity." His expression softened at that, and I smiled.
"For you, the battle was over after the retreat, other than the battle for your own life. For me, things were just beginning. Your father.....was not capable of rule from that point on, and had, in fact, turned command over to Mithrandir. But the wizard was canny enough to know that he was regarded with suspicion in some quarters, and he turned to me for aid. He required of me, he said, the performance of my life, and I endeavored to give it, trying to bolster morale in the City, so that we would hold as long as we possibly could. Then I fought upon the Pelennor, and right after that, rode to the Morannon." Faramir moved back towards me as I was speaking, and seated himself at the table once more, his eyes intent upon my face.
"The Morannon was my retreat, Faramir," I said softly. "I rode there with Elphir expecting to die. None of us, I think, had any real hope that we would survive. The best we could hope for was that we would hold out long enough before we fell that Mithrandir's desperate gamble would succeed, and that our loved ones back in Gondor would survive because of our sacrifice."
"When Frodo accomplished his quest, I felt giddy at the reprieve, but soon fell into my old habits once back in Minas Tirith. Then the journey to Lórien took place, and I became so very sick, and had a great deal of time during my recovery to think once more about mortality, and how truly precious the time we are given is. Galadriel let me look into her Mirror then, and that only strengthened the resolve I had made to live the life I had been given back as fully as possible."
"That was when she let you look at the Trees, wasn't it?" Faramir had been fascinated by my account of Galadriel's Mirror, when first I had spoken of it upon my return. "And the Elven cities?"
"Indeed. And what it showed me was that nothing lasts in Middle-earth, not even those most glorious things that are wrought by immortals. I determined then, that loving Hethlin as I did, I would propose to her upon completion of her training, for I felt I had much to offer her despite the difference in our ages. Then we returned to Minas Tirith, and I started hearing rumors that her grandfather was wanting her to return to Arnor with him. The wedding came, and when chance threw her into my arms, my self-control failed me. I have been alone for a very long time, Faramir, and I do not always bear it as well or as easily as you might think." He bowed his head for a moment, studying his hands, then looked up as I continued.
"Having revealed myself, as it were, and with the possibility of her leaving Gondor never to return looming over me, I decided to go ahead and speak to her before I lost her forever. I had no real expectation that she would accept, but it was truly a situation where I had nothing to lose. And that is the whole of the matter."
"She told me when we were fighting that she did not think you looked upon her in that way," said Faramir quietly.
"Well, she is in no doubt about my feelings now."
Marriage. He had proposed marriage? And she had... refused him?
Since my power of speech appeared to have deserted me, I could at first only stare at him. And then I struggled to put some words into a meaningful order.
"Did she say why?" I managed. My head was still spinning from his news and I barely heard his reply – although I did catch the name of the Lord Elrohir.
"Why," I asked, in irritation, "would you propose marriage to a woman you knew was involved with another man?" The words were scarce out of my mouth before I heard the contradiction. Had I not loved and wished to wed Éowyn when she had thought her heart lay elsewhere? And yet that had hardly deterred me in my purpose! I felt my face begin to redden, but my uncle had not noticed my audacity – or was being, given the circumstances, gracious enough to let it pass.
"They told me that they were not interested in marriage," he replied, quite calmly.
Now I have had long practice at concealing my thoughts – a necessary skill as both a captain of men and as my father's son. And thus I was able to prevent my jaw from dropping open. I was not, however, able to stop myself from staring at him again in frank disbelief. This was my uncle speaking, and not just that – this was the Prince of Dol Amroth, with a reputation to maintain and with duties and responsibilities to perform. He was not the kind of man to make a fool of himself over a girl half his age, nor was he the kind of man ever to speak blithely – as he was doing now! – in terms of 'dalliances'.
"And you sanction such an arrangement? How can you?" An accusatory note had crept into my voice.
"How can I not, Faramir?"
"You could forbid it on the grounds of your concern for her reputation," I said coldly. And your own, I left unsaid. My father's voice. His words, too.
"Thus sayeth the gentleman who shared a bedroll with her on countless winter nights in Ithilien? And was saying to me not all that long ago, after sharing a bed with her, that only the small-minded would think ill of it?"
I could not prevent the colour rising to my cheeks at that. I seemed to be lurching between contradictions this morning, while my uncle had quite clearly been replaced by an entirely different man. I could not understand what had wrought these changes in him nor, for that matter, in me.
As to the latter, my uncle was already freely offering his opinion. My errors, it seems, are easily enough explained, and consequently appear to make a permanently acceptable subject for conversation.
"Your objection, Faramir, is more because of a reflexive sort of possessiveness rather than because of any true concern for Hethlin's reputation."
Had this been any other man – with the exception of the King – I might well have struck him for that. We had moved on now, it seemed, from description of my faults into bald insult. I clenched one hand at my side, reminded myself of the many benefits that arose from self-restraint and, with my other hand, took out my fury on the windowsill.
"You are the man who reminded me of the pettiness of the small-minded," I pointed out, once I was sure I could keep my voice in check. "You are the man who used to be far more mindful than I of appearances and their consequences. You cannot take me to task for behaving as you have taught me."
But even as I spoke, I was thinking of the word he had used – possessiveness – and of what Hethlin said, that I sought to control her. And it came to me that I was not, perhaps, being my uncle's pupil in this.
"I do not understand what has brought about these changes in you in you," I finished, with a note of conciliation, but my mind was searching wildly for some explanation of his conduct. One did present itself immediately. For the Mistress of the Golden Wood, it seemed to me, had taken an uncommon interest in those of my family that had crossed her path.
"It was not Lórien, or the Lady Galadriel, if that is what you are thinking," he said quietly, as if he had read my mind. And I flushed again, and endeavoured to put that thought aside for good – as being unworthy of myself and of the Lady, and most of all as being unworthy of my brother, who had been no-one's pawn but had still been prepared to sacrifice himself.
"In truth, I think it was a combination of things," he began – and then, to my dismay, began to talk about the retreat from Osgiliath. I started. I had not spoken of it, not even to Éowyn, and I did not intend to do so now. He raised his hand, seeming to think my sudden movement meant I was taking offence at his words. But I had barely been listening. I wanted this subject closed – it was over, it was done, it could not be changed. He began then to speak about his actions during the siege, when the stewards had failed in their charge – and I listened hard, because he had not given me this account before, and because I did not want my mind to stray further back towards Osgiliath, and after. I came and sat beside him at the table again, looking at him intently as he spoke, about the ride to the Morannon.
"I rode there with Elphir expecting to die," he said, and I remembered too well how that was, and recalled too the belief that we in the City had had ourselves, that we did not have long left before the Enemy's hordes were upon us once more, and that we would fall soon in our turn. He spoke of the giddiness he had felt when the Shadow departed – and I had felt that too – and then he spoke once more about his illness on the journey to Lórien, and the time to reflect his recovery had brought him, and also how he had looked into the Lady's Mirror.
"That was when she showed you the Trees, was it not? And the Elven cities?" I had to wonder at what I might have been shown given that chance, but I feared to dwell too long upon it. Too often in the past I had looked into a mirror and seen only my father's eyes looking back at me.
"Indeed," he said. "And what it showed me was that nothing lasts in Middle-earth, not even those most glorious things that are wrought by immortals."
Nor brothers fabled for their skill at arms, nor fathers who had ever been as obdurate as stone – nor grief, I decided, thinking of Éowyn.
"The wedding came, and chance threw her into my arms, and my self-control failed me." He gave me a sad smile. "I have been alone for a very long time, Faramir," he said quietly, "And I do not always bear it as well or as easily as you might think."
I stared down at my hands. He had never spoken to me this freely before. Even after the death of my aunt, throughout the time I had spent then with him in Dol Amroth, he had said nothing like this to me. I had seen him grieve, yes, then and afterwards; I had known that he must have felt her loss long and deeply – but he had his family nigh, all of his children to love and to watch grow, and then his duties when he had become Prince. I had never thought of him as being lonely.
"And I decided to go ahead and speak to her before I lost her forever," he finished.
I looked up at him again. He was still a vigorous man, with many years ahead of him yet. But his recent illness had left its mark upon him. For the first time I glimpsed the old man that he would one day become.
"Hethlin told me that she did not think you looked upon her in that way," I said carefully.
"Well," he answered dryly, "she is in no doubt about my feelings now."
I stared at him for a long moment, and it seemed to me that before my eyes he was altering, becoming... more fallible, perhaps? More of a man, certainly.
I looked down at my hands again, lying flat upon the tabletop. Even these few short weeks since I had set down my sword had made a difference, and they were healing. I thought of the years that had passed during which I had come to believe that I would hold nothing other than a weapon, or the hand of another man as he died. And then I thought of Éowyn's hands, cool and pale, reaching out to take mine, and how it felt – as if I were somehow changed or completed by her touch.
"Whereas I, Faramir," my uncle was saying, "remain somewhat in doubt as to your feelings."
I looked up at him and saw it on his face – the uncertainty, as if he were waiting for my judgement. My judgement? On him?
"What can I say?" I answered, and his face became a blank. "That I think... that Hethlin is a foolish young woman if she continues to refuse you. That there is no contest between you and the Lord Elrohir. That it will certainly cause a sensation from the Citadel all the way back to Belfalas...!"
Here he started to laugh.
"That, above all, I would see you happy," I concluded, a little inelegantly, but it was from the heart.
"So I have your blessing, then?" He raised an eyebrow at me.
I raised one back. "Did you doubt that you would?"
He shrugged. "On occasion you can be rather..." he waved his hand, as if trying to summon the right word, "unbending."
"I was brought up to the stone," I murmured – for often, I thought, he was wont to forget the main part of my inheritance. Then I smiled at him a little, and was both relieved and glad to see him smile back.
"But on one point, at least, I shall never give way," I said, still smiling. "Under no circumstances will I ever be induced to address her as 'aunt'."
"Under no circumstances will I ever be induced to address her as 'aunt'!" my nephew declared to me, and I grinned in relief, for I had been worried that he might in fact be much more exercised over my courtship of his former Ranger than was apparently the case. Though I did note his use of the phrase 'foolish young woman'.
"That is something you will not have to worry about for some time to come, I think," I said a bit ruefully. "If you recollect, the young lady said 'No.'" He winced slightly, then gave me a curious look.
"What will you do now? Will you leave things as they are?" I sighed.
"For the nonce, I have little choice but to do so. I have spoken my mind, and must wait now for her to express interest in turn--to pursue her further at this point would be boorish. If she decides to go to Dol Amroth, then I will in all likelihood leave things there in Elphir's hands, and remain here to advise the King until her training is finished." Faramir frowned.
"You would exile yourself from your home? What purpose would that serve?"
"The purpose of removing temptation," came my prompt reply. "Faramir, I have already seen that I cannot trust myself any longer where she is concerned. I could not abide being so close to her every day, without being able to act upon my inclinations. And as Andrahar has rather caustically pointed out to me, being thought of as my mistress or betrothed would render what is already going to be a difficult task well-nigh impossible for Hethlin. No one would ever believe she was there upon her own merits--as it is, most of the esquires think it is because Aragorn is humoring her."
"If Aragorn were humoring her, she'd be back in Ithilien right now," Faramir snorted. I nodded and split the last of the now-tepid tea between my cup and my nephew's. He picked it up and sipped it, his brow furrowed.
"I find it difficult to believe that you could not bear to be in proximity to Hethlin at Dol Amroth," he said. "Are you saying that you truly find her that irresistable?" I nodded.
"Yes. I will spare you a flowery, poetic catalogue of her virtues. But she is a woman to trust at one's back in battle or on one's back in bed. I've had the first experience, and would very much like to have the other." Faramir's jaw dropped, and he stared at me in astonishment.
"UNCLE!" His tone was utterly scandalized, and I threw back my head and laughed. The young never care to contemplate the fact that their elders too have needs and desires, and I simply couldn't resist being wicked. Sometimes the Prince of Dol Amroth is a very tiresome role to play.
"Oh Faramir, the look on your face! Four children, remember? And I was not always the faithful, temperate gentleman I am today. Before you were born, I was quite the rakehell, and the most popular gentleman in Belfalas! Not to mention Anfalas, Dor-en-Ernil and Pelargir....." He looked at me for a long moment, still a bit white about the eyes, started to say something, paused, and then decided a change of subject was in order.
"What if Hethlin decides to go North, Uncle? Or marries Lord Elrohir?" I sobered at that depressing prospect, and my voice grew a bit curt.
"Then I learn to live without. It would not be the first time." He nodded sympathetically, and I leaned back in my chair.
"I would appreciate it if you would not speak of the proposal to anyone, Faramir, and that does include my children." He was surprised at that.
"You do not intend to tell them?" I shook my head.
"If you need an argument to dissuade you, contemplate, if you will, Lothíriel's excitement if she knew her father were courting!" He gave that a moment's consideration, then I thought I saw a slight shudder go through him. "Besides, it would not be fair to Hethlin--if she comes to Dol Amroth she must come as just another esquire. I think I can rely upon Andrahar to keep the news to himself. And I do not believe that Hethlin will be spreading it around."
"I doubt it as well, though if she tells Lord Elrohir, he may be more.....forthcoming." Faramir's face had gone cool and expressionless of a sudden, which was far more telling than if he had stated his disapproval openly.
"Leave Elrohir to me," was my swift suggestion. "I think that I may be able to prevail upon him by persuading him that silence is in Hethlin's best interest. For all that he can be provoking, he would not intentionally do anything to hurt her." Faramir nodded, and after a moment, began twisting the silver ring upon his left hand. I raised an eyebrow.
"Speaking of Hethlin's best interests, and yours as well, Faramir, I do not suppose that there is anything I can say to you which would convince you to mend your quarrel?"
He shook his head slowly and regretfully. "I know you mean well, Uncle, and that you care for us both, but it would be best if you did not interfere." I gave him a good long look, and debated for a moment whether I should tell him the full truth about the journey to Lórien after all. It would dispose him more kindly towards Hethlin, t'was true, but given the fact that the sons of Elrond had almost mercied me, it might also fan into full flame the simmering resentment between himself and Elrohir. The King would most likely not appreciate being placed in the middle of a quarrel between his Steward and his foster brother, so in the end I held my tongue and simply nodded.
"Very well then, I will respect your wishes, but I ask you not to wait too long. Aside from the fact that I love both of you well, and your discord is distressing to me, you do remember the old saying--misfortune loves a quarrel between friends."
"T'is a soldier's saying, Uncle," Faramir protested with a sad smile, "referring to luck in battle."
With a wave of the hand, I declared, "Luck in battle, luck in life--they are not so different. And I would not have you enter your new life with a cloud hanging over your head." At that moment, there came a knock, and the maid peeked in the door.
"Pardon me, my lord Prince, but we were wanting to lay the lunch out."
"Very well, Nirwenn, give me a moment." She nodded, and retreated, closing the door behind her as my nephew murmured with a wicked gleam in his eye--
"And having just finished breakfast, you must start all over again, poor man....."
"Impertinent whelp!" I growled fondly. "Would you care to join us?"
"I would like nothing more, but unfortunately I have been absent from the Citadel long enough already this morning to cause unease and excitement among my subordinates."
"But Lieutenant Lorend had been posted to Ithilien, I thought!" I quipped, and he actually laughed. Getting up, he moved to my chair, bent down and embraced me.
"I should mend the quarrel if only that I might tell Hethlin what a complete fool she is being to refuse you!" he said into my ear. I reached an arm about him in my turn, and squeezed him back.
"I do not believe that would incline her towards accepting my suit, son, and it labors under enough handicaps already! But I am grateful that you do not think I am an old fool. Or if you do, that you have refrained from saying so."
"You have never been a fool, Uncle," he said, releasing me. "And we do not always choose those towards whom our hearts are inclined." I rose to escort him to the door as he spoke again. "As I said before, my fondest wish is for your happiness. If the two of you can contrive to make each other happy, that is even better."
"Time will tell about that," I said. "But tell me--since you will not stay for lunch, will you not return for dinner? You know that my cook is better than yours." He gave me a shrewd look.
"This is not about the respective abilities of our cooks, it is about you needing reinforcements when your children start questioning you about what went on at the wedding tonight!"
"However do you get these ideas, Faramir?" I gave him a look of baffled innocence.
"From years of watching my cousins in action!" he laughed, laying a hand upon the doorlatch. "I'll consider it, and send you word late this afternoon. Which is not all that long from now, Uncle, in the event you had not noticed!"
"Be off with you, you wretch!" I exclaimed, and watched him depart with affection, thinking that things had gone far better than I had any right to expect.
An hour and more later, I was sitting back at my desk, reading through the lists of recommendations lately received from the company commanders. Of the names before me almost a full half, by my reckoning, would be given honours to their memory.
I set down the papers and my pen. A pot of tea and a cup had appeared by my right hand. My father's secretary – my secretary now, of course – seemed to read my moods very well. I poured the tea and thought over the morning's news.
I had saved Hethlin's life for her to fall in love with me. She had saved my life and – in so doing – met my uncle, who now loved her. Such are the twists and turns of fortune.
I drank some tea, put down the cup, and did not return at once to my reading.
"Well," I said to my empty office. "Well."
That my uncle had taken me by surprise this morning I could hardly deny. And that he and Hethlin would face much interest – and disapproval – should this information become widely known, I did not doubt.
I picked up my pen, and wrote to my uncle confirming my attendance at his home this evening. In this matter, I thought, he would receive nothing less than my unequivocal support – and he had my sympathy. For I did not doubt either that many in the city and beyond were trading their opinions of my own choice of bride – Rohirric, and a deserter. It was not my place to judge where my uncle's heart led him. And I was gratified, too, that he had confided in me when I had questioned him, and had not kept the truth from me – for at times he seemed to see me more as the boy I had once been, and often sought to protect me when there was no need.
Besides, I thought, as I signed my name, I could hardly abandon him to all four of his children at once. That was not a fate I would wish upon an enemy.
I sealed the note to him, and reached for another blank sheet. This message was not so easily written, but in time it was done, and Hethlin's name written on the front. If mending our quarrel – or making the attempt – would further the cause of my uncle's happiness, then I would do it. For, I thought, as I set the messages to one side and returned to my papers, a successful campaign might well depend upon seeking aid, but it would founder if none were willing to give it.
Altariel: Thanks to the HA list for the discussion of Galadriel and Boromir, and to Flick for her triolet on Faramir's thoughts about Boromir's death.
Isabeau: Thanks to Altariel for coming over and playing in my sandbox! And to Michael, who is not as fiendish as Mr. Altariel, but has been very patient with my obsession with the royal men of Gondor and Dol Amroth.