I awoke the next morning from a hazy dream, one that left me weak and warm and languid in my furs. But as soon as my eyes opened, the dream was gone, every moment of it. The images that had burned so clearly in my mind's eye were faded wisps, fingers and words and a warmth I clung to but could not place. Groggily I threw aside the furs and stepped onto the floor, gasping sharply at the cold stone against my feet. The cold cleared my head, and the final images that remained from the dream were gone.
I noted that Gríma had left me several gowns from the wondrous wardrobe. I was unsurprised when I noticed the dark blue one among them, thin and smoky and impossibly daring. I pushed that one aside at once. He would never see me in that gown. Never.
My other choices were still fantastic, but they were certainly more modest than the blue dress. He had left me a forest green gown with draping gold sleeves, slit open to expose my arms; the pure white gown he had given me the day previous; and another white gown that was very simple, a clean shift with no sleeves and a small silver cord at the waist. I had never seen anything quite like it – it appeared almost to belong beneath a gown, but it was too beautiful to be hidden beneath another garment. I chose this final gown for the day. It was simplest, and its uniqueness attracted me.
While I belted the cord at my waist, I left Gríma's bedchamber and went to his study, where I assumed he would still be. He did not disappoint; he was there, laying out an elaborate spread of food on the small, empty table where I had down my sewing previously. He paused when I entered the room and looked me over from head to toe. I shouldn't have been surprised by his boldness, but in his days at court he had been far more cautious. Here in his tower, he feared nothing – not even my wrath, it seemed.
I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. "Are you quite finished?" I questioned when his eyes finally met mine again.
He bowed. "For the moment," he said, grinning. "You look splendid, my Lady. Truly, you are fairest in white. It is no marvel that our people chose to call you the White Lady."
"I am not in the mood for your flattery, snake," I muttered, storming past him.
"Indeed?" He followed me, still grinning. "Then tell me, fair one, why is there a blush tinting your lovely cheeks?"
I turned on him, eyes narrowed. "You are unusually bold today, sir," I said. "Why so overeager?"
"I believe you gave me a solemn promise last night that you would not argue with me until you'd finished your meal," he said, smirking, "And I intend to take full advantage of the time where you can say nothing to contradict me."
"Contradiction is not argument!" I protested.
He held up a finger. "You're arguing, sweeting," he said.
I sulked, tossing my head at the endearment. "I will eat fast," I said.
"Oh, but you won't. This is only the first part of your breakfast."
I stared at the spread in awe. The entire table was covered in food – fruits, meats, breads, teas and ale. "You jest," I said.
"I don't. Sit." He pulled back a chair for me, and I sat reluctantly.
He reached across the table and pulled a strawberry from a platter of fruit. "Taste this," he said. "These are some of the best I've seen."
He held it to my lips, but the indignity of eating out of his hand was too much for me. I plucked the berry from his fingers and ate it myself. It was admittedly delicious. "Yes, very good," I said grudgingly.
He reached for one more. "Have another," he said, holding it out to me.
I pulled that one from his hand, too. "Are you determined to feed me from your palm? I am no child."
"Indeed you are not, and I do not see you as such," he said.
"I am aware of it," I said. "But do not treat me like a mare to whom you may feed apples when she is well-behaved. I am perfectly capable of feeding myself."
Disappointed, he stood and stepped away from my chair. He circled around the table and sat directly across from me, staring steadily at me as I took a peach. "If you find yourself devoid of any task today," he began, "You are free to seek me out. I shall be here mostly, and with Angaran."
"Being in that room crushes my spirit," I said. I paused guiltily. "How is Angaran?" I asked.
"Improving slightly, but the changes are very small," Gríma said, discouraged. "I had hoped his improvements would be greater when I awoke. He did speak to me a little, in feverish dreams."
"What did he say?" I asked, leaning forward eagerly.
"Something about Faramir," Gríma said, eyes narrowing. His lip curled, and an ugly gleam came into his eye. He had never met the man, and already he hated him – simply because I called him husband. How could anyone be so possessive of someone he could not call his own? "Do you love him, Éowyn?"
"Faramir?" I asked, unsettled. "Of course. He is a good man."
"Tell me why you love him."
I paused, staring at him in disbelief. "What?"
"Tell me why you love him," Gríma insisted. "Tell me all about him. Describe him to me. I want to see the man who claims you as his wife. I want to understand why it is he who shares your bed and not me."
"He did not betray kin and country, for one," I said crossly.
"We are not speaking of me, but of him," Gríma said. "Go on, tell me about him."
I hesitated. What could I say of Faramir that Gríma would not already know? "He is kind," I said, "And his people love him. He is everything a son of Gondor should be; the proud line of Numenor can still be seen in him. He fights to defend his people, and they respect the work he does. He holds the close counsel of the king – "
"You are telling me about your husband's public face," Gríma interrupted. "And what of the man himself? Tell me."
I blinked. I had just begun to warm to my subject. What could he possibly mean? "We met at the Houses of Healing," I said, uncertain. "We – "
"That's not about him."
I glared at Gríma, frustrated. "I don't understand."
Gríma tapped his fingers atop the table. "You speak of him as though he were a stranger, some acquaintance you have at court and about whom you occasionally hear gossip," he said. "Whereas if I asked you to describe me, you would launch into a detailed description of my character and personal traits."
"You would not be flattered," I said.
I was surprised when Gríma smiled. "I doubt it not," he said. He studied me a few moments as I ate a bit of meat – it had been long since I had eaten anything so filling. "You've made me curious," he said finally. "I want to know how you would describe me."
"I assure you, you don't," I said, taking another bite of meat.
"Go on," Gríma insisted.
I raised an eyebrow. "You'll regret it," I warned.
"I regret much heavier things than so simple a request," he said scornfully. "Loose your wrath upon me, princess. Give me your most detailed, angry impressions of me. I want to know."
I finished chewing and looked at him levelly, debating. Finally I decided he deserved exactly what he'd asked for. "You are a bastard," I began – and was startled when he smiled. "A bitter, cowardly, lonely bastard who cannot let go of the past," I continued, more forcefully. "You are and always will be angry at the people of Rohan for whatever crimes you hold against them from your youth."
A list of qualities began dancing across my mind, and I spoke rapidly, heat rising in my face as words spilled from my lips. "You are stubborn and want everyone to believe you don't give a damn what they think – but certain people's opinions matter to you more than you'd care to admit, and you will always, always try to impress them. You hate your father because he produced you with a woman not of Rohan. You would rather hide from the sun and hide away in the company of your scrolls and dusty pages than spend any time with the other men of Rohan riding horses or fighting with swords. You love the things you cannot have – namely me – and you idealize them far beyond what is reasonable. You constantly live under the shadow of what you did in the War of the Ring, and it is a shadow you will never escape. Your name is tainted, and you are alone." I paused, studying him. He looked pained and immeasurably sad. "You have always been alone," I said softly.
He lowered his gaze. "And?"
I leaned forward a little. "You are quick to anger," I continued, "And you do not forgive easily. You hate crowds and people because you fear rejection, and your seemingly aloof behavior usually earns you the rejection you so fear. So far as I can tell you are afraid all the time. You are clever and quick-witted, and you have a gift with words." I dropped my gaze. "I once believed you loved words more than you could ever love me."
"I have never loved anything as I love you," he said, voice hoarse.
"So you proclaim," I murmured. "But I doubt. You love your life and safety more than you love me or the words you use so freely."
"Is that why you think I chose Saruman?"
I looked up once more. "Yes," I said certainly.
He shook his head. "He told me he would kill you," he said.
I blinked. "What?"
He nodded. "He showed me a vision," he told me. "It was… the most horrifying thing I have ever seen."
"So you chose my life over thousands of others?" I demanded, temper flaring.
"I loved you!" he spat, slamming a fist on the table. "You were more to me than words, than kingdom, than life. And I thought, then, that there was still a chance – because there was a chance then, as you yourself have told me. Even though you had turned cold, even though you had begun to hide from me, I had hope." He sighed and ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "It wasn't like you think," he said.
"You don't know what I think," I said.
"You believe Saruman came to me and immediately laid out his plans for Rohan," Gríma retorted. "You think I accepted at once. You think I understood what I was doing."
"How could you not?" I cried. "Do not cast the blame on ignorance! You are clever. You must have known."
He shook his head. "A few tasks, Saruman told me – that was all," he insisted. "A few simple tasks. They were easy enough for a king's counsellor – a word here, a change of guards there. I could not see the full design." He began to look agitated, shifting in his chair, his leg bouncing restlessly. "But you grew colder, your brother and cousin crueler, and the court hated me as it always had for being the other. And Saruman came to me with larger tasks, and prodded all those places where I hurt the most. First it was you he promised me – do these few things, he said, and she will see you for what you are." He laughed bitterly. "I suppose you did see, didn't you? And that is why we're here today. Because you saw my weakness and recognized the terrible things that I would do."
My heart pounded hard in my chest. I could not meet his eyes. I sincerely believed for a moment that if I looked directly at him, my heart would shatter. I did not want to hear this. I did not want to think of it this way, but it was easy now to see the transition that I had previously chosen to forget. I remembered a befuddled Gríma, quiet and brooding and uncertain. I remembered odd commands and eccentric requests, things that had made no sense that suddenly clicked into place. Yes, I could see this period that he described – this time in which he had not known. I saw it with such clarity that I wondered briefly if he was using the voice, but the tone was his own.
"A few tasks?" I repeated meekly.
"That was all I agreed to at the start," Gríma said, nodding. "And then a few more – seemingly harmless, things that weren't difficult. The first time I saw the full design was the day your brother and I fought."
I flinched. I remembered that fight. It had been one of the most ugly fights I had ever seen – Gríma and Éomer, screaming insults at one another and eventually coming to blows, even though they were in the open. They had stood on the porch of Meduseld and they had finally revealed their hatred. I remembered my uncle diving between them, tearing them apart and scolding them for behaving like adolescent boys even as they both bled all over him.
I think they might have stopped then, perhaps even moved beyond their hatred, had I not run to Gríma first when they were separated. I had been avoiding him for months then, trying to heed the advice of my brother and cousin, but my heart went out to him – I had heard the things my brother had said to him. Worm, he had screamed. Pig. Weakling. Bastard. And the worst: half-breed. That had set Gríma on him at last. I had never seen the counsellor in such a rage. In those moments I felt acutely the cruelty of the world to both him and me, and I had run to him first. And when Théodred saw, he was enraged. He yanked me away and spat, "No half-breed will ever touch my cousin!"
And then Gríma had set on Theodred in fury, and I, caught in the middle, had fought them both off. My uncle tore them apart finally, but he could not stop Gríma from snarling at us, "What care I for the ignoble insults of straw-heads, men who would sooner lay with horses than their women? You are no better than your dogs."
His eyes had landed on me, had held my gaze for a few moments. I had hoped for an apology, a kind word. "Straw-head," he growled instead, and stormed away.
It was later that day that Gríma kissed me, when I was sent by my uncle to see how he was recovering. It had been awkward, of course. A long silence, a sudden and fervent apology spoken in words so elegant I could not possibly have rejected them.
He had been bleeding. I, noticing, had bent over him, a wet cloth in my hand, intending to dab away the blood from his lip – and suddenly he had a hand buried in my hair at the back of my head. He pulled my mouth down to his and kissed me frantically, nearly dragging me into his lap. I tasted his blood in my mouth and felt a whirl of things I did not understand – the blossoming of desires I could not name, not then.
Before, when my mother had died, I had resented her for sickening out of longing for a man, a man who was always gone riding and who spent more time training my brother than paying attention to me. I loved both of my parents, but as my mother grew weaker and weaker I questioned her constantly. What use was it, dying over a man who was gone? How could anyone burn so for any other being?
But I burned then. I burned. And simultaneously I saw my mother, weak and sick, abandoning me to the caprice of the cruel world because she could not survive without my father.
I could not bear it. I pulled my head from his grip, dropped the cloth into the basin on the table, and fled.
I was but fifteen then, a girl barely old enough to claim womanhood. He was a man, several years my senior. He understood and longed for that heat, that need that passed between man and woman, but I had no grasp of men's desires – or my own. His desire frightened me, but not nearly as much as my own hunger. So I had run from him, and I had stayed well and truly away. I had numbed myself.
And this was what had come from that misunderstanding, from our fear and anger and miscommunication. We sat now at a table staring at one another, and I could not begin to understand all the things I felt.
"I remember," I whispered finally.
He smiled mirthlessly. "So I see," he said. He paused. "I was… tactless, with that kiss. I apologize."
I laughed a little. "If only you had apologized years ago," I said.
"If only." He sighed. "I was angry with the unfairness of the world. It is not an excuse, but it is why I did what I did. I suppose I wanted to prove to myself that your cousin was wrong – that you could, in fact, love me, even if he did not want it to be so. Instead I drove you away."
I shrugged. "I was young," I said. "You expected more of me than I was able to give you."
"I know. I'm sorry." He reached out for my hand. Slowly, uncertainly, I gave it to him. He held my fingers loosely in his, staring intently into my face. "That night Saruman came to me with a potion," he said. "He told me it was a small thing to give to your uncle – he did not specify what it did. I was alarmed, and I asked what it was. Saruman would not tell me, but he insisted the dose he held would have little effect. He said it was to be my vengeance against Théodred and Éomer for what they had said and done. And then he spoke of you, and spoke of your uncertainty and fear. He told me I had driven you away – I did not believe him at first – and that through him was the only means to both protect and win you. He was… most persuasive. I accepted what he said as truth, and I gave your uncle the potion. And when I understood what it was doing to him, it was too late… he was in Saruman's control, and I would be killed – or worse, you would be destroyed – if I revealed what had happened. So I accepted my role and did whatever was asked of me."
"You were a fool," I said.
"I was weak," he agreed. "And I am the sorrier for it." He closed his fingers more tightly over mine, stroking my skin with his thumb. "But you must understand, no matter the things I did or said, I always loved you. I still love you."
I hesitated. What could I say to him? My feelings whirred like angry hornets driven from their nest. They pricked at me inside, leaving painful welts wherever they stung. "I will try to accept that," I said finally.
"That is all I ask." He squeezed my hand. Blushing, I pulled my fingers away. He left his hand where it was. "You still haven't told me about your husband," he said.
For some reason, it was easier to talk of the past than my present. "Why do you want to hear about him?" I demanded. "Will that not cause you more pain?"
"I need to know you love him," Gríma said matter-of-factly.
I crossed my arms and looked away. "What does it matter to you what I feel for my husband?" I asked.
He stared at me. "I will not see you lost to an unhappy marriage," he said grimly. "I will not permit it."
"You cannot permit anything regarding my marriage!" I cried. "It is my decision whom I wed and stay wed to!"
"And it is my decision whether or not you leave this tower," Gríma replied. His serenity infuriated me. "Now, tell me: do you love him?"
I sniffed. "Of course I do."
"Then tell me about him. Describe him. Paint me a picture with words. That is how this began; remember?"
I rubbed my arms, uncertain. "I have not your gift for words, my lord."
"I think you will find the proper ones, if you love him."
I sighed. What could I say of Faramir that I had not already attempted? "He… he is devoted," I began. "And he is good and honorable. He loves to talk of me, telling of my defeat of the Witch King in the war." I smiled a little. "He wants me to laugh more," I said. "He does everything he can to make me smile. He treats me kindly and cares greatly for me." My smile fled, replaced by a concerned frown. "But his strongest devotion is to his country, to Gondor and its people, and thus he is always gone. I sometimes think he's still trying to prove himself to his father, even though his father perished in the war."
"So you are alone," Gríma said with a nod.
"No!" I glared at him. "He comes home as often as is permitted. And I traveled with him on this journey."
Gríma arched a brow. "Did he offer to let you travel with him?"
I looked down sullenly. "I asked," I said.
"I see." Gríma folded his hands and leaned forward, setting his chin on his locked fingers. He stared unblinking into my face, even though I would not look at him. "And what of those journeys where you have not asked to join him? What do you do when he is not at home?"
I bit my lip. "I do my duty," I said.
"I see," he said again. "You entertain, you run a household – all the appropriate duties of a princess."
I set my jaw defiantly. "It is not so bad a life."
"But it is not what you wanted."
"And how would life have been different for me, had I married you?" I demanded, glaring at him.
"You would have been free to continue your swordplay," Gríma said at once. "You would have been permitted to ride to war if you so desired."
"And if we had had children?"
I realized at once that even suggesting the idea had been a poor decision. His face lit up at once, and he smiled – a genuine smile. The thought apparently delighted him. "I assume you would want to care for your own children," he said, voice distant, "And I would have assisted you there." The smile faded, turning to a dark grimace. "Have you any children?"
I shook my head slowly. My barrenness in my three years of marriage concerned me greatly, and though Faramir had said nothing of it I knew it worried him too.
"You are troubled," Gríma said.
"Obviously," I snapped. I drew in a deep breath. "It will be fine. It's only that he's not home often enough – "
"He neglects you."
I bristled. "He's important," I said.
"Surely an important man can demand some time to be with his wife," Gríma replied. "Won't his people respect his wishes?"
"For staying with a straw-head?" I stopped and winced, looking away. I had not meant to share my bitterness, but as usual Gríma had successfully coaxed out of me what troubled me most.
"Ah," he murmured, "So that's it. You are not of noble blood like Faramir, and while the people of Gondor love the Rohirrim as friends, they certainly do not want their favored steward wedded to one."
"They do not credit us with any dignity," I said angrily. "Even Faramir sometimes treats my brother and I as though we were children. Aragorn at least respects and admires us, but…" I paused, shrugged uncomfortably, and reached for another strawberry. "It's unimportant," I said, taking a bite of the fruit. Its taste bubbled in my mouth, momentarily distracting me. "These are delicious. Where do you get them?"
"I grow them," Gríma said. "Éowyn, surely the people of Gondor must admire you for destroying the Witch King."
I reached for a slice of bread. "You have no butter or cheese," I said instead of responding.
"I don't happen to have a cow or goat or any other animal that produces the milk necessary for such food," he said, irritated. "You are also an esteemed friend of their king; surely they must respect you for that?"
"You have no eggs, either," I said.
He snorted in disgust. "Your sudden interest in your food is most surprising," he said. "Very well, princess; if you cannot bear to share any more of your pain with me, I will stop inquiring."
"It isn't your business, anyway," I said, licking juice from my fingers.
"And yet you told me much of it quite readily," he noted.
"You have that effect on everyone," I snapped. "You're too easy to speak with, and that's how you stole every secret you ever used against the courtiers in Meduseld."
He held out his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Is it my fault if I am naturally a good listener?"
"Yes," I said, rising. "I'm through eating. I think I will tend to some of your atrocious sewing, if you are willing to leave me in peace."
"You have hardly eaten," Gríma protested, also rising. He circled around the table to grab my hands. "Éowyn, love, I did not mean to anger you with my questions. I only wondered if you were happy."
"It is not my lot to be happy," I retorted. "It never has been. Why should that change now?"
"I could change it for you."
"I assure you, you could not." I tugged one hand free, but he clung desperately to the other. "Gríma, really," I said, tugging at my hand. "I have work to be done. Will you leave me be?"
He sighed. "For the moment," he acquiesced, finally dropping my hand. He did not look ready to end the conversation, so I waited.
"Éowyn," he began, a few seconds later, "whatever you think of me and however much you resent me, I thank you for the conversation, and for sharing so much of yourself with me, whether or not you intended to. I have missed you, and being with you – with someone clever and intelligent and conscious – is more of a pleasure than you realize. And if we could talk again, I would much appreciate it."
I turned my back on him. "We will see," I said.