There was something in her that turned to him, like a compass needle, something that ignored the stubborn reasoning of her mind, and even the blind grasping of her heart, to align in his direction. She could petulantly delay coming out to the garden, but come she would; then she listened, half-amazed, as her mouth told tales of her childhood and other innocuous anecdotes that seemed to reveal more than was meant—certainly more than was wise—to this man, who took in every word like notes of a favourite song. At times she tried to measure those words more carefully, to remember that she objected to his wilful monopoly of her time and attention, and to let him know it; after all, she wished to be gone from there. He could have given her leave. Pretending to defer power to the Healers was a ploy to fool a child. But somehow her defences dissolved. It could have been his careful, patient questions, or how much he so willingly revealed in turn, or the not-uncomfortable silences they lapsed into now and again. Or nothing to do with speech.
He spoke at whiles of his childhood as well, of small adventures with his brother there in his city, but never for long, and with sadness crossing his face. It was plain that his was a tale with few happy turns, and she found herself in sympathy, wishing, at least, that no further harm should befall him. Of course she did not have any part in preventing such harm, or so the resolute march of her mind told her. His fortunes were his own.
Until…oh, that day. Now she feels, by turns, warm with remembrance, weak with anticipation, and fairly panicked. What has she done? How has she let herself be thus led?
A thousand compass needles, all quivering, turning, aligning with a surety that is frightening.
Once again, as the hours and days in the saddle go on, a vague memory steals upon her, not quite a memory but an impression, some base note that seemed to call all those needles: what it was she cannot even name, except to call it his scent. She puzzles over its components: a deep, cool underpinning beneath some livelier layer on top. Cinnamon on slate?—Oh, this would not do—next she would be conjuring up terrible love-songs or sighing over discarded clothing as she has witnessed lads and maids of her household do. She is a woman of arms, by Eorl.
But we are now in times of peace, such as have not been known in your lifetime.
What of it?
She catches her brother studying her with a look of bemusement. She stares back until he smiles and looks away.
The loose group of Riders moves on, under a sky that is now so washed with warm light it is breathtaking. The very grasses seem to sing with gladness. Their pace is steady, not leisurely but not pressing. She glances about the company and sees how they speak together, weary but smiling. In the talk she overhears they are not quite able to rework their memories of battle into fodder for boasting, not yet, but they are filled with thankfulness. Now and again one Rider or another draws up to greet her, some shyly, others barely containing their amazement, and it is a comfort to mark those who have survived.
The time to honour those who have not will draw nigh soon enough.
I wonder what it will be like to…an idle, curious thought bubbles up, but then comes a rush of response out of nowhere—oh no, she does not wonder that, not now.
Her brother has ridden close and leans over. "How goes it with the White Lady of Rohan?"
She shoves at him, quick, without thinking. "When did you…do not call me by that name."
He playfully shoves back. "Oh, my sincerest apologies, Princess—"
Now she reaches out with her good arm to slap at his head, smiling despite herself. The horses catch their mood and dance a bit, so that her target is just out of reach. It has been such a long time since they felt free to jostle and spar and play this way.
As the sun falls into the west and the sky deepens, they make camp for the night. The songs they sing reflect their mood: simple but joyous, glad for the gift of life. She wonders if the Men of Gondor have their songs at evening; but no, not so many; she would have heard them.
Retreat to her own bedroll brings a fresh wave of thoughts unbidden.
This man wore his heart on his sleeve, he did. So very rash. How long had it been, five days? How could he possibly know me well enough to…
You were willing to throw yourself at another after only a few hours. But clearly that was an aberration, some product of too much to think on and too little action. She marvels that her infatuation seems but a daydream now, nothing of substance. A vision of light and open air.
The crux of his words that day springs out of memory: were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you. Such a bold claim. More than a claim, she knows. The thought carries a shadow of grief evaded.
But what did he truly know of her? And if he did sense or guess at her true nature, as it had seemed then, why did he so suddenly wish to cleave to her? Was it merely the throwing out of a line, the desperate act of a drowning man? Grasping in the same manner that she once had?
Vague hints and pieces of rumour had come to her from those labouring in the Houses. There was no doubt that something awful had befallen the father of this man, something quite other than a noble death in battle, and this something seemed at least a partial cause of his own malady. She had thought it unfair that so many should be chattering around him and yet fall silent in his presence, seeking to keep him unaware. And so she sought to keep herself unaware as well, striving to turn aside in time or to ignore the chatter, to be fair to him at the least.
But it seems to her now that he was not wholly unaware. He knew his father was dead, and that he had not died upon the battlefield, and that was enough. Few words passed between them on this, and yet it lay heavily upon him.
Still he seemed able to lay aside that burden in her presence. He took heart in many fair things surrounding them, and helped her to do the same: birdsongs, flowers blooming, the steady progress of Spring though there be no hope of a Summer to follow. He seemed to have much practice at this.
She remembers the unmuted light in his face when he turned to look at her. She would like to believe he would have shown it still in different circumstances.
She compares his company to the heavy weight of the Wormtongue's attentions. Even when he was merely Gríma, he had seemed to regard her in an unduly favourable light, as a fair adornment for whatever space he would claim, no matter the black looks and stony silences he received. He took pains to learn things about her—circumstances, habits, and the like—but it was a mere list of facts for his use, to try to curry favour, to prove his match. As his poison began to ferment and grow in strength, so too did his designs. If he could not win her, he intimated, he could trap and force. In all, she was merely a vessel for his delusions; she knew that her true nature was of no consequence. All the more a violation.
So many truths could be cloaked behind a veil of one's own devising, willingly concealed by one's own desires and expectations. How to tell when one's heart spoke unfettered?
In sleep she finds herself in a great house, like unto the Golden Hall but changed, larger and darker and leaning off-kilter. She is walking slowly through the rooms, searching for the straight hallway she knows must be there. Behind an odd round door she finds this straight way and follows it to a wing she has not seen before, with tall windows in every wall, long white curtains billowing in a gentle breeze like sails. For a moment she fears becoming lost, but then she hears a sound like clear bells, and is comforted.