Author's note: I know, I know... Once again, apologies that it's taken so long for me to update this. I'll admit that the first scene on this chapter had me very writer-blocked for some time, along with the usual distractions via real life and whatnot. Thanks to Deandra for pointing out some major flaws in the first draft (she hasn't seen this one, so hopefully the second version is ok.) So for those of you still reading it (especially to those of you that have surprised me recently by still reviewing!), I hope this was worth the wait.
Chapter 31—The Leave-taking
I lay in my bed, staring at the darkened ceiling of the room I had been using in the Citadel. It had been quite some time since I had given up on sleeping that night; my mind was too full to allow me any rest. So, despite my exhaustion from having stayed up late to pack my things for our departure, I had spent many hours tossing and turning, dozing off fitfully at best.
We were to leave in the morning, and so the previous day had been mostly spent on seeing to our mounts, assisting Éomer with coordinating the supplies that Aragorn had promised to send with us for the journey home, and saying farewell to my new-found friends at the Houses of Healing. Daeron had kindly lent me a thick book filled with the herblore of Gondor and carefully-drawn illustrations of the different plants, in order that I might continue my studies once I had returned to Rohan. In return, I had promised that I would do my best to learn what I could of any effective remedies among my people that were not used by the Southerners, in order to pass that along when I was next in Gondor. I had also made a point of visiting Mithríel and Bergil to say farewell to them. Beregond had been with Faramir at the time, discussing what his duties would entail as Captain of the Guard in Emyn Arnen. Mithríel told me that, though his sentence was to leave Minas Tirith, they had learned later that day that they would be allowed to stay in the city until the settlement was both livable and able to be defended from any foe that might still roam the hills across the river. She was extremely grateful for the King's leniency in this matter, particularly because Daeron had decided to make her the head of the Houses of Healing that were to be built there—she was certain that it would take her months to procure all the supplies she would need to get started there, especially with so much getting used up in the recent battles. For my part, I was glad she had gotten the position—not simply because she was my friend, but because the time spent with her over the past several weeks, both as a patient and as an apprentice, left me with no doubts that her experience and skill made her perfectly suited to the task.
I had spent the evening with Faramir, mostly walking around the upper part of the city and talking. Faramir spoke a great deal about his plans for Emyn Arnen; there had been a thriving town there in days of old, he said, but, like much of Ithilien, it had been abandoned as the enemy made greater headway in those lands. He and Beregond had decided that they, along with those of Faramir's Rangers who were able-bodied enough to accompany them, would ride out there within the week to assess what repairs needed to be made and what supplies were needed to do so. His excitement about having the chance to restore the area was contagious, and I found myself deeply regretting that I would not see it ere I left. We also discussed my apprehension about my reception by the refugees I had abandoned at Dunharrow. While he could not honestly assure me that I would not be met with bitterness or anger, his willingness to simply listen to me did much to calm my fears for the moment, at least.
We talked of many other things as well, much as we had done in those days spent together in the gardens at the Houses of Healing—anything but the fact that I would be leaving him the next day. I found the thought of it increasingly harder to bear, and did not want to spoil what little time I had left with him by my sadness. So we had ended up in the gardens of the Citadel, mainly due to my unwillingness to part from him too soon. Despite sitting in a more secluded area under a tree, Éomer had still found us there. Needless to say, he had been quite unhappy about finding me in the Steward's embrace, and my protests that it had been nothing more than an innocent kiss fell on seemingly deaf ears. If I knew my brother, he was probably still fuming about it, and wondering how he would react to Faramir's proposal now was a great part of what kept me awake.
Faramir himself had been responsible for the rest of it; later that evening as I had been packing, I had heard a soft knock on the door, followed by a small, folded piece of parchment sliding underneath. The note, though hastily scribbled, was obviously in Faramir's hand and simply asked that I meet him in Finduillas's garden at dawn. And so, once I had abandoned the idea of sleeping, I had been waiting rather impatiently for the grey light preceding the sunrise. I finally rose from my bed, donning the riding outfit that Lothiríel had helped me obtain and packing my nightdress away. I was not bringing much more home than I had brought with me; I had decided to leave the borrowed Gondorian dresses for whomever might need them, and so I had only a few articles of clothing, the book of herblore, and the blue mantle, carefully wrapped up and packed away along with the dress Lothiríel had gifted me with for the coronation. All that was left out was the cloak I had brought from home, the silver horse-head brooch still pinned to it at the neck. I brushed my fingers over it thoughtfully as I threw the cloak on—though the days were already as warm in this southern land as early summer in Rohan, the evenings and mornings were still cool and damp. Then I slipped out of the room and carefully shut the door behind me before making my way down the hall.
I had no difficulty in remembering the way, but was still a little surprised to see that the door leading to the garden was already slightly ajar; after all, it was barely light out yet. I slowly pushed it open, wincing at the low squeak that came from the hinges, and stepped outside. Faramir was already there, standing by the parapet and looking towards the east. He turned around slightly as he heard the door, a smile immediately crossing his face at the sight of me.
It suddenly struck me that this was essentially the last time I would see him for quite some time. He must have seen it on my face, because he met me halfway across the grass, catching me in his arms and pulling me as close as he could. "Faramir," I whispered, half-burying my face against his shoulder and swallowing hard past the lump that had already risen in my throat.
"I know," he said just as quietly, his fingers stroking my still-unbound hair gently. "This is difficult for me as well."
I pulled back only far enough that I could see his face. "Last night… was Éomer very upset about it?" He and Faramir had both walked me to my room, and I had only barely caught the stony look in my brother's eyes as I had closed the door.
Faramir sighed. "He was not happy." I could see a slight trace of uncertainty in his eyes as he then asked, "Éowyn, I am not sure that he…"
I rested my finger on his lips to silence him before he could finish. "It will take time, but he will come around. Of that, I am certain."
"And if he does not?"
I smiled a bit, remembering a similar conversation between us not too long ago; it seemed our places had reversed. "Then we will find a way to be together, even if I must disguise myself as a man again and ride to Gondor alone!" I declared.
Faramir chuckled, but there was something in his eyes as he looked down at me that left my stomach in knots. "I hope you will not have to resort to that," he said in a low voice, bringing his fingers to my cheek and touching it lightly. "I have no wish to belittle what you did, but you are far too beautiful to hide yourself behind such a disguise." We stood there looking at each other for a long moment; I know not which of us moved towards the other first, but the next thing I knew, I was kissing him almost desperately. He returned it just as fervently, holding me as close as possible.
I did not want it to end; it was as if some invisible wall within me had suddenly crumbled and now desire for this man threatened to overwhelm me completely. And so I was disappointed when Faramir abruptly pulled away from me, running his hand through his dark hair and taking a ragged breath as he looked up at the sky. The sun had not yet cleared the eastern mountains, but there was a rosy glow on the horizon that indicated it would not be long. "I should not keep you here much longer," he stated quietly, disappointment clearly written on his face.
"Probably not," I reluctantly agreed. Éomer and I were supposed to dine once more with Aragorn and his company, including Prince Imrahil and his family, before the Rohirrim departed. I knew that my brother was hoping that we would be riding out by mid-morning. "But can we not wait a few moments longer?" I pleaded.
He nodded wordlessly, pulling me into his arms once more and resting his cheek on top of my hair. I wrapped my arms around his waist, swallowing hard against the lump in my throat. Neither of us spoke for quite some time as we watched the sun's first rays make their way over the distant peaks, turning the sky around them a breathtaking mixture of gold and orange fading to a deeper blue. Only a few clouds drifted by, their pearlescent wisps a striking contrast against the blue. "It will be a good day for travel," Faramir murmured, lifting his head away from mine and looking out over the fields before giving me a wry half-smile and adding, "Though I admit that part of me wishes for a downpour, if it would keep you here another day."
"I know." I looked up at him then and said softly, "Thank you…for everything. I do not know how I would have gotten through these past few weeks without you, Faramir."
"I am certain that I would not have done well at all without you," he replied, bending down just enough to press a kiss against my forehead.
I turned my eyes to the east; the sun had nearly cleared the mountains. I had very little time left alone with him. Reaching up towards my neck, I fumbled to unpin the brooch that held my cloak closed. Faramir turned a questioning look on me, and I placed it in his hand, saying, "I want you to have this."
"Your uncle gave it to you," he protested. "How can I…"
I interrupted him with a kiss this time. When I pulled back, I replied, "The same way I can take your mother's cloak with me. I will see it again, and I want you to have something to remember me by."
"I could never forget you, Éowyn," he said, moving closer again. As I closed my eyes, I could feel his lips touch my forehead, then my cheek. "I love you," he whispered just before kissing my earlobe, then my neck just below my jawline; it sent a shiver up my spine that had nothing to do with the coolness of the morning air. He must have felt it, but he merely moved on to my lips, capturing them in a slow, lingering kiss.
I was the first one to pull away this time, resting my forehead against his. "We really should go meet the others," I stated, breathless.
"I know," he replied, stroking my cheek with his hand.
I kissed him softly one last time; unshed tears were lightly stinging my eyes, but I would not allow them to fall. "And I do love you," I said.
"I know," he said again, smiling. I smiled back as he stood and helped me to my feet. We walked hand-in-hand towards the door leading back to the Citadel. Once we reached it, he paused and raised my hand to his lips, lightly kissing it. "You had best get back to your quarters," he told me, his eyes looking into mine intently.
"I suppose I should. I will see you at breakfast, then," I replied. He nodded, then released my hand as he opened the door, and I stepped back into the cooler darkness of the Citadel.
It seemed that I had barely returned to my quarters before a knock sounded on the door. "Come in," I called, preoccupied with checking the room to ensure I had not left any necessary items behind.
"Good morning," Éomer greeted me, keeping his tone carefully neutral, "Are you packed?"
"Yes, I finished earlier this morning," I replied. Then, unwilling to let things fester long between us again, I blurted out, "Éomer, about last night…"
An uncomfortable look crossed his face. "I do not wish to discuss it."
"I spoke truly when I said that nothing happened between us," I stated, ignoring his comment for the moment. When he did not reply, I asked, more hesitantly, "You do believe me, right?"
"Of course I believe you," Éomer answered, sighing in near-exasperation. "I just had no wish to see you and him…" He paused, then finished lamely, "…like that."
"I am not a child anymore," I said, narrowing my eyes slightly at him. "And you know full well that he does intend to marry me."
"So he says." Éomer's voice was a near-growl.
"What do you mean?" I asked suspiciously.
He looked uncomfortable again, then said, "I have heard many a story of men making promises they had no intention of keeping when they wanted such favors from a woman. How do you know he will not do the same?"
"Faramir is not like that," I answered calmly. "You will see—he will keep his word." Éomer still looked skeptical, so I laid a hand on his arm and said, "I have known you my entire life, and there is no doubt in my mind that you would not treat a woman in such a callous manner. What makes it so hard for you to believe that he will not treat me thusly?"
His eyes softened. "I just do not wish to see you hurt again, Éowyn."
"I know. And he will not—of that I am certain," I said. Éomer did not reply, so after a moment I took his arm and said, "They are probably expecting us."
"Undoubtedly," Éomer agreed as we began to walk down the hall.
I decided it was time to attempt to lighten the mood a little. "Perhaps this would be easier if we started trying to find a wife for you? I can think of several women in the court here that would be more than happy to volunteer…"
I could not help laughing at the look of horror on Éomer's face. "Spare me!" he groaned. "All I want right now is a hot meal and to get home without getting ambushed by any hordes of orcs or scheming noblewomen!" I laughed again, though I abruptly stopped as he paused in his tracks, suddenly more serious. "Which reminds me," he added, "it is time that I returned this to you."
As he unbuckled his sword-belt, pulling the scabbard free, I suddenly noticed that the sword he had been wearing was not his. Shocked, I looked up at him. "You are giving this back to me?" At his nod, I said, "But I thought you did not wish for me to fight again."
"I do not," he replied, "but I do not know what we will encounter on the road home. Mordor may be defeated, but its minions are not entirely destroyed; nor do I know what awaits us in Rohan. If by some chance we are attacked, my mind will be more at ease if I know that you have the means to defend yourself."
"You surprise me, brother," I said softly as he handed the sheathed sword over to me. "But thank you."
Éomer shrugged slightly, then a tiny smirk crossed his face. "As long as you do not use it to lend strength to your arguments in favor of your Steward."
Out of pure habit, I smacked him on the arm as he laughed at my irritated expression. "You are so stubborn!"
"As are you, my dear little sister," he replied, "and you need to put that with your things so that I can get some food."
"Agreed." With that, I hurried back to my room and laid it with my pack, then rushed back down the hall to catch up with Éomer.
It seemed Aragorn had decided to have only his closest friends for breakfast this time—all four of the hobbits were there, of course, as were Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli. Faramir was also present, along with Prince Imrahil and his children. Éomer quickly became engrossed in a conversation with Aragorn and Imrahil, with Faramir and Gandalf occasionally making a comment. From the snatches of talk that I heard, it seemed that it had to do with affairs in Rohan, and I was sure that Éomer would tell me later if anything important was discussed. Since I was sitting near Lothiríel, I turned my attention to her. "You shall have to come to visit us in Rohan sometime, Lothiríel," I offered.
She smiled brightly. "I think I would like that, from what you have told me of it. Truth be told, I have never been further from home than Minas Tirith, and it would be interesting to see what life is like outside of Gondor."
"Well, no one thinks anything odd about a woman riding astride, for one thing," I replied. "Then we can see what that pretty mare of yours is truly capable of."
Lothiríel laughed. "Perhaps you could come to visit us in Dol Amroth as well, and I could take you to the beach." She lowered her voice and added conspiratorially, "Faramir is quite fond of the sea, from what I hear, though it has been long since he has come to visit us."
"I shall keep that in mind," I replied with a smile. It faded as I glanced across the table and saw Merry, who was looking a little glum. "Merry, you shall be coming to Rohan before long, will you not?"
The holbytla brightened up a little. "I hope so. Éomer did say that I am more than welcome to come along when he returns for King Théoden. I would come with you now, only I don't want to leave Frodo. And Aragorn seems to be waiting for something, but he won't tell us what."
I had my suspicions as to what—or whom—Aragorn was waiting for, but kept them to myself. "I am sure he will tell you when he is ready to."
Pippin, who was sitting next to Merry as usual, chimed in then. "Are you nervous about going back home, Éowyn? Since you weren't supposed to leave, I mean."
"Pippin!" Merry shot a dark glare at his cousin.
"What?" Pippin looked at Merry blankly before taking another forkful of ham. Merry rolled his eyes in exasperation, then looked at me and opened his mouth to apologize.
"No, he is right, Merry," I quickly stated before he could speak. "I was not supposed to leave. Truth be told, I do not know how they will receive me back home now."
"You could apologize," Merry said tentatively, furrowing his brow slightly.
I smiled, a bit sadly. "Have you learned nothing about my people, Merry? The men here may have accepted it, but those who remained behind will not understand. Especially those I left in Dunharrow."
"What would it take to smooth things over?" Lothiríel asked.
"I know not. We can be quite stubborn, especially when it comes to holding grudges. And I do not know if the women will understand why I left them—it is always difficult for those left behind, especially when those they wait for do not return." I could still remember the pain within my own family after my father had been slain—especially my mother's.
Lothiríel looked thoughtful. "What do they do in Rohan for those people—the widows and such?"
I frowned a bit. "I do not know," I finally admitted. "I suppose I never really thought about it. My uncle took us in, of course—I suppose their families help them too, when they can. That might be more difficult now, though, since more men would have been lost in this war."
"That is certainly something to think about," Lothiríel replied. Her voice was nonchalant, but when I looked at her steadily, she merely raised her eyebrow at me and smiled. Understanding the challenge, I smiled back, silently thanking her—that was something to think about, indeed.
By mid-morning, as planned, Éomer and I were holding our mounts by the reins as we, along with Éothain and the other men of Éomer's guard, stood at the front of the column of Rohirrim. Elfhelm and Erkenbrand were further back in the line, having chosen to ride with their own eoreds. Aragorn and Éomer were speaking to each other, exchanging farewells. I tried to pay attention to what they were saying, but my eyes kept drifting over toward Faramir. He was having the same difficulty, it seemed, and it was not long before I had to force myself to look away lest I broke my resolve to return home. I must have missed the formal farewell, because as I turned my gaze back towards Éomer and Aragorn, the latter smiled. "Safe journey, my friend."
"I suppose I should wish you good luck!" Éomer replied with a grin and a laugh. Aragorn laughed as well as the two men grasped each other's forearms, then embraced in the same fashion that I commonly saw among the men of my people, thumping each other soundly on the back.
Aragorn then turned to me and bowed. "Though it was unhappy circumstance that led you here, I will not forget the service you have done my people, my lady. I wish you every happiness."
"Thank you, my lord," I replied, giving him a small curtsey, then lowered my voice so that the onlookers might not hear and added, "And I do hope she comes to you swiftly."
Aragorn raised an eyebrow at that, and I fought a tiny smile—my guess at Merry's question over breakfast had been correct, apparently. But his only reply was a bemused smile.
Aragorn stepped back then, and Merry stepped forward, bowing to Éomer. "Farewell, my lord," he said.
"Only for a time, Merry—if fortune is kind, it will not be long before I call on your services once more," Éomer replied. "And for all that you have done for both my family and my people, you have my eternal thanks."
Merry bowed once more, then turned to me. Before he could bow, though, I knelt down to his level and said, "None of that, Merry—not after all we have been through together." With that, I pulled him into a swift hug, then whispered as I pulled away, "Keep an eye on Faramir for me, would you?"
"Of course," he replied with a wink. I smiled gratefully, kissing him on top of the head as I stood back to my feet and brushed my riding skirt off.
Éomer gave me a look that signaled that it was time to leave, and all of the Rohirrim followed suit as he mounted Firefoot. "For your hospitality these many weeks, I give your people thanks, my lord," he called out, turning his horse towards Aragorn once more, "and if Gondor needs our aid again, my sword will be at your side."
"Likewise, we will come swiftly to your lands if Rohan calls," Aragorn stated, causing many of the Riders to cheer in obvious approval of his oath—I had often heard complaints among my people, as the orc attacks grew more frequent, about Gondor's unwillingness to aid us even though ancient oaths bound us to assist them if they called. Éomer then drew his sword and signaled that it was time to move out. Éothain led the way with a few of his guards, then Éomer nudged his horse into a slow trot.
I followed suit with Windfola, though his gait quickly slowed as I turned in the saddle to look at Faramir. He simply nodded at me instead of saying farewell, but the warmth in his eyes as they met mine said more than mere words could have conveyed. I smiled at him as best as I could, though I was already beginning to feel more sorrow over the leave-taking than I had expected. Then I hurried to catch up to Éomer as we rode under the archway where the ruined gates of the city had once stood.
I did not look back until we were far over the Pelennor; I could not. The land around the city was already beginning to heal from the battle fought there, as new grass was beginning to creep in to cover the scorch marks and the fresh earth that marked where trenches dug during the siege had been filled. As for the city itself, it stood proud and gleaming in the sun; only what appeared to be small imperfections in the outer wall at this distance showed the effects of the onslaught against it. Éomer must have somehow been able to read my thoughts from my expression, for he turned to me and said, "The land heals more quickly than the people who fought here, it seems."
"Perhaps we simply have more to overcome to find peace again," I replied, "but that does not mean it will not come."
"I hope you are right, Éowyn," he stated quietly, then turned to face forward again without another word. I knew then for certain that, although it felt as if I had left a vital part of myself in Minas Tirith, returning home had been the right choice. I had found my healing; it was suddenly clear to me that Éomer, having to shoulder far more of the burden of responsibility for our people, had not yet. He would need all the aid I could give him in the months to come. All I could do now was prepare myself for our return as well as I could, and hope that my choice to come to Gondor would not prove to add more weight to that which he already carried.