Disclaimer: I own nothing that already belongs to Tolkien & Affiliates. Everyone is fictitious and bear no intentional resemblance to any persons known to me the author, living or dead. Mostly.
A few days later we did start off home—kind of. Well, we went to Aragorn's new home, Minas Tirith, and from there supposedly we would someday head back to the Mark.
I couldn't decide whether or not I was glad to be returning to the City. The last weeks out here, with the open air and grass, had been divine, although there had been a bit too many trees for my liking. And now I had to go back to the stone and the close quarters and closed-up sky.
But I got on the boat with the Healers without complaining—getting Mai to follow took all my concentration—and then the river took us away, took me away from my betrothed. The plan was that first Aragorn would be crowned and then we would hurry off home to prepare for the Mark's coronation, which probably wouldn't occur until high summer. I suppose we could have had Théodred's own coronation about then, too; only the timing would have been rushed, trying to bring his father's funeral caravan back in such a short time and Aragorn not being able to reciprocate and attend the Mark functions. And we all knew that such events ought to be done with all deliberate speed only. So, since the question of Gondor's sucession was a bit more pressing than our own, to Minas Tirith first we marched. –Well, the armies marched; the Healers and their charges (including me) came back by water, which, being much smoother, was better for anyone still nursing injuries abed.
And thus I was on a boat waving goodbye to Théodred and feeling a bit forlorn even though I knew I would be seeing him again within the week.
The trip downstream took little more than a few hours; it turned out that getting everyone onto the boat took far longer than the actual journey. When we disembarked, I led Mai straight off the deck and hurried out of the way of the many shiphands and dock workers flooding the area.
I jumped and turned round to find Éowyn waving at me through the crowd. Mai and I picked our way carefully over to her.
"Well met, cousin," she chirruped at me.
I looked at her suspiciously. "Who are you, and what have you done to the real Éowyn?"
She laughed and gave me a genuine, open smile. She looked well—more than well; she was practically glowing. "I am just happy." She considered this. "I suppose you have just never seen me this way."
"Probably not. – You look very well. Did Lord Faramir take good care of you, then?"
She blushed. "Of course. But we must get out of this mess! Come on, cousin!"
Before I could ask her what that perplexing appellation meant, Éowyn swung her mount round and headed towards the road to Minas Tirith. I hurriedly mounted Mai, and we stumbled after her.
I found the road easily enough and Éowyn more easily still—her bright hair and regal posture made her easy to pick out. She was waiting rather impatiently.
"Aw, can't wait to get back to your betrothed?" I teased.
She mock-glared at me. "I could soon be saying the same about you, I dare say!"
I ducked my head. "Probably could do it right now."
Her mouth hung open for a moment. "And when were you going to tell me?"
"Now. It's not going to be officially announced until we get back home," I informed her. "But you can tell Faramir if you must."
"He can probably figure it out on his own," Éowyn shrugged. "But really, it sure took you long enough. Now look at me and Faramir—"
"Speaking of which," I hastily interrupted, "Éomer doesn't know about you two. So he's rather ... miffed about you not coming to Cormallen."
"What about Théodred?"
"He suspects," I admitted. "He was rather jealous of the praise I kept heaping on the Lord Steward, so I had to explain how much he'd helped you."
She considered this. "Do you think my cousin will give his blessing?"
"I don't see why not." I shrugged. "Now Éomer might be a bit of a problem." A big problem.
Éowyn grimaced. "He has always been rather protective. You are very lucky to have a brother who approved so easily."
I grimaced right back at her. "You didn't see him babbling on in front of the counselors about how 'of course I had his blessing, and how he'd been wondering how long it would take us, and how he had been thinking about setting up a betting pool, and whether we wanted the first one to be a boy or a girl, and so maybe the bets ought to be on which comes first,' blah blah blah. Ugh."
She chuckled. "Have you considered a date for the wedding?"
I stared at her. "No. – I honestly don't think I could, not until we were certain we'd actually be able to make it through next winter. I don't know exactly what a royal wedding entails, but if it follows any traditions I know, we'll pretty much be giving a party for all of Edoras."
Éowyn gave me a lopsided smile. "Spoken like a true Queen, Saffi! I suppose it just shows how ill-qualified I really am for such a position."
I didn't know how to answer that, so I stayed silent.
"Believe it or not, Saffi, but I am glad not to be a queen. I don't think—I am not quite cut out for it. I am much more content to be wife to the Steward. And of course Faramir being Steward helps." She grinned. "Don't you think, cousin?"
I stared at her. "That's the third time you've said that. We're not cousins."
"Not yet," she agreed; "but once you marry Théodred you will be." She smiled slightly. "So we'll be family."
"Family," I repeated. A new family for a new life, and for a new Age. It had a nice ring to it: "Cousin."
We reached the Citadel late in the afternoon. Éowyn led me to the living quarters; apparently, as a soon-to-be royal and friend of hers, I was now an official guest of the Steward.
My new rooms were vast and lushly decorated. I said as much to Éowyn while servants fluttered around, primping pillows and unpacking my few bags.
"Now Saffi, the rooms are not that big at all," Éowyn told me with a completely straight face. "And according to the housekeeper, the furniture is quite outdated now. So really, your rooms are barely acceptable."
We stared at each other for a moment. Then Éowyn flopped down in the nearest chair and sighed out, "I know, right? I mean, Meduseld hasn't been in the best condition as of late, but still... I remember when it was in full splendor. Théodred would tell us how small it was compared to Gondor, and Éomer and I always made fun of him and said that he was just exaggerating, that nothing could be bigger or better than Meduseld. And now look at this!" She swept her hand round at the room.
"Do you not like it?"
"It's lovely. I just—I'm not used to it yet, that's why it doesn't feel like home. I suppose." She shrugged. "But I don't have to think about it for a while, anyway." Then her face brightened. "Faramir!"
Faramir was, as usual, very nice, and very polite, and very inclusive, but I could see from his face that he would have loved to have found Éowyn on her own. I excused myself and left them to themselves—and the servants. I guess that in Gondor a man and woman weren't supposed to be alone, even when betrothed. Thank goodness for good old Mark-custom, I thought fervently. Without it I would have had to lose what little precious time alone with Théodred that we could find.
A few days later, the Armies of the West arrived at the gates of the city, and Aragorn became king.
His coronation was stunning and grand. For the occasion scores of lords and ladies turned out in all their southern finery, while the ordinary people of Minas Tirith lined the streets to get a glimpse of their new king. The city was full and bustling as people took up residency once again, and there were harpers and players on viols and flutes and horns and all manner of instruments come from across the land, all to see Aragorn be Crowned.**
But the best part was that, through it all, he looked like a man who has finally come home.
During the days that followed, I met a few of the higher-ranking Gondorians—the ones that Théodred actually liked—and managed to avoid the rest. Our engagement had not been announced, only shared with those nearest and dearest (Faramir, by dint of Éowyn, got to be included). I knew that I would have felt horrible had we told these strangers before our own people, but such thoughts didn't make me feel any better about the more desperate Gondorian ladies trying to "befriend" my betrothed. I trusted him, and they didn't know any better, but somehow that logic failed to subdue me. Éowyn had to keep herself from laughing hysterically when she saw the look on my face at one banquet where several ladies seemed intent on draping themselves seductively all over Théodred, much to his dismay and Aragorn's amusement. After that I stopped forcing myself to attend and to restrain myself for hours on end from punching people. Instead I busied myself with training the girls.
I know that it might have been odd for me to avoid most of the festivities, but I could not find it in myself to make merry (or rather smile and pretend to) when I wanted to be home so badly. And since I was not yet Officially Important, I could still slip away and not cause a stir. I realized that I would miss that when I was married, the anonymity. Once I was Queen everyone would know me. How much of my privacy would I be losing?
"Saffi, don't be such an idiot about this," Sodred informed me one night. We were in a side corridor a few yards away from another Official Gathering of Important Persons. "What do you mean, you're going to 'lose your anonymity'? Since when did anyone in Alricsloft ever have any privacy whatsoever?"
I considered this. "Oh. – Right."
"So shut up and stop complaining!"
I rolled my eyes. "Wise advice indeed."
"Hey, you're not the only one getting tired of this." He scowled. "I miss Anwyn."
I had almost forgotten. "I've been all caught up with Théo, haven't I?" I asked guiltily.
I didn't know what to say, so I squeezed his hand in silent apology.
"Hey, don't get all mushy on me," Sodred exclaimed in mock-disgust. "Just don't expect to see me for a few months once we get back. We'll be busy making up for lost time."
"Ugh! Thanks for that mental image!"
"It's only fair, the way you and Théodred carry on."
He had a point, so I took it and didn't hit him. Well, not too hard, anway.
Théodred wanted to go home, too, something I found out the very next morning. He was holding a letter and staring blankly out the window when I entered his sitting room.
"Good morn, Théo."
"Good morn, Théodred."
I briefly considered saying something outrageous (like "I've decided to run off to the Golden Wood and marry an Elf"), but I figured that would be just a little too mean. So instead I went over and kissed him. That got his attention quite nicely.
When the need for air forced us to separate, Théodred looked down at me bemusedly, still keeping me within the strong circle of his arms. "Hi, Saffi. Where did you come from?"
"I've actually been trying to get your attention for a bit," I told him. "What was so distracting? I mean, it's a nice view, but..."
He sighed. "I was just thinking about the Mark, and the recovery, and when we could possibly get married."
"Not until we're sure of the food supplies, right?"
Théodred smiled and sighed and kissed the top of my head lightly. "Exactly, love." (He didn't look too happy about it, though, not that I could blame him.) Then he handed me the parchment, explaining, "The letter I was reading: it's from Erkenbrand. He agrees that we should hurry back."
"Will—" I wasn't quite sure how to put it. "Will we have your coronation soon as we get there, or...?"
"No." He shook his head and made an ineffectual swipe at a piece of hair that had fallen in front of his eyes. "We've got to rebuild first, and there can't be a funeral without a coronation right after. I was thinking we go first, see how things are, and have the funeral and such (along with all the nobles and their rich appetites) when we think we can actually handle it. I don't think it's feasible to have both massive repairs and a state funeral all at once."
"Ah." That made sense. "But the effort's coming on as well as can be expected. So really there's nothing different to enact beyond what's already being done? besides going home." In my opinion, what the Mark really needed at this point was simply for us to bring the army home—practically, it meant increasing the workforce by at least a third—and to bring Théodred home.
"Then you agree that we should go home soon as is humanly possible?" he asked hopefully.
I tucked the wayward strand of hair behind his ear. "Of course. Seeing you means that the war is over and that the House of Eorl still stands strong. You're practically the living symbol of the Mark, so having you there in the flesh will remind people that we can and will recover."
"How soon do you think we can get started?" Théodred asked, stroking my hair absentmindedly.
I leaned into him. "I think we should talk to Aragorn first, to be polite and also for logistics; I mean, for all we know, the Road is still impassable. But he'll understand."
He did. In fact, he was almost suspiciously excited about us going home, something Théodred and I both noted. But we waited until our ambassadors had spoken and haggled and come to an agreement on Official Escorts and Ye Olde Gondorian Rituals of Courtly Goodbyes and all that before digging for answers.
After the meeting had ended and the others had dispersed, Aragorn pulled us aside to ask in private if we could host some "visitors from the North."
"What kind of visitors?" I asked suspiciously.
"Some ... friends of mine.—Elves, to be exact."
I stared at him. "You want me to host Elves? I don't— We can't—"
"Please, Lady Saffi. I would not be asking if it were not truly important."
I stared at him. What could possibly be so important to make it acceptable for Elves to stay with us while we were still sweeping out the dead bodies? (Metaphorically speaking. Hopefully.)
Then Théodred said suddenly, thoughtfully, "You're not married yet, are you?"
Aragorn inclined his head and said, "Not yet," and I suddenly understood a lot more.
"We'll do it, then," Théodred promised with a blinding smile, "since one of these visitors is coming to stay."
I got the chance to read the rest of Erkenbrand's letter after spending the afternoon training the girls in the fine art of knifing someone in the belly. They were fast learners, which was good since we'd be parting very soon. I didn't quite know what to do about them, to be honest. In a perfect world, perhaps I would have been able to bring them home with me.
Instead, Avareth had pledged herself to becoming a full Healer someday, and the other two were still holding on for their families to come get them. In the meantime, they practiced swordsmanship while I looked on and got to thinking that having a child or two (or four) wouldn't be so bad, especially with Théodred as the father.
Once the girls looked to be in no danger of killing each other (especially since I'd roped Éowyn in to helping me out), I settled down to read. Erkenbrand's letter, most likely taken by a scribe, cut straight to the point:
Speaking of which, I have already heard a few of your advisers grumbling about you needing to get married or whatnot. Théodred: Please do not let them force you into anything you do not wish to do. I recall something about you and a young lady the last time we met (although, given the circumstances, you understand why I do not remember any more), but don't rush things just because you are in want of a wife. The Mark will not prosper if its King and Queen cannot hold it together with love. ...
Erkenbrand, Captain of the Hornburg
I had not really considered the idea that anyone had ever been pressuring Théodred to marry. After all, war and defense of our borders seemed to me to be enough problems to try to deal with.
I said this to Éowyn, who had come and sat next to me and was now trying and failing to not read over my shoulder.
She stuttered and gave me a disbelieving look. When she'd finally caught her breath, Éowyn managed to get out, "Where have you been to not know this?"
I blinked. "Um...Westfold?"
"Théodred's forty-one, or about to be!" she said impatiently. "Most men marry in their twenties or early thirties and then get to work making babies. My cousin, to put it bluntly, is behind. Most royals do tend to marry late, but not so late as he." She considered what she'd said and then clarified, "Not that I regret him waiting for you and all that, but viewing the matter purely in a prudential light, he ought to have found a wife long ago. The only reason the Council let it slide was that war came right as he was starting to get a bit old, so, as you said, there were more important things to worry about."
I grimaced. "And it would probably have been nice for you to have a powerful companion, wouldn't it?"
She looked at me sharply. "I didn't say that."
"It's the truth, though?"
She shrugged. "I already had high-born friends, and he split us apart smooth as butter all the same. No, Saffi, I don't think it would have helped, not in the end."
We sat quietly for a bit longer, the only noises being the sound of wooden blades whacking together. Then Éowyn said, "Will you—when we go back to Meduseld, Saffi, I don't know—
"Faramir won't be with me," she started again. "Could you—not shadow me, obviously, since you'll be busy, but—but if the memories—" She swallowed.
"I'll watch out, don't worry. – Plus I'll have you so busy teaching me all about running the household and Edoras's politics that you won't have time to remember anything beyond your betrothed's name."
She smiled at this. I pressed on. "But Éowyn, I think it might help, too, if you told someone else."
She glanced at me sharply.
"Specifically, your brother."
The glance turned into a full-on glare.
I shrugged. "Just my opinion. But—"
"But it just might be right?"
I crossed my arms. "I'm completely right, and you know it! He's your brother. He deserves to know—not necessarily all of it, but to understand something of you and where you're coming from. And you don't have to do it right now, or even tomorrow! Just think about it, okay?"
She scowled. "Fine. – You'd make a good bully."
I grinned and sat back unfazed. The sun was shining, my girls hadn't actually injured anyone yet, and we Eorlingas were going home soon.
*Around 1700-ish (5 pm for you Americans), which, during the summer, means there's still several hours before sunset.
**The second half of this sentence is rather heavily borrowed from ROTK: The Steward and the King.