Of Music, Dancing, And Old Friends
"Now that was what I call a wild dance," the young Steward's lady laughed, leaning on her husband's arm, breathless.
"Too wild even for the wild shieldmaiden of the North?" Faramir teased and earned himself a light dig of an elbow in the ribs. Éowyn sighed in mock exasperation.
"Admit it, my husband," she said, "you obtain a little too much pleasure from that jest."
Faramir inclined his head in what could be interpreted both as a bow and as an affirmation. "That may be so indeed, but with a noble aim in mind: to prevent my young wife from believing falsely that we here in Gondor know only dignified solemnity, and that merriment is but a rare guest in our halls. The assumption would be most wrong, as my lady undoubtedly noticed during the latest Mettarë celebration; especially amongst the young, who, upon having consumed a certain amount of Dol Amroth wine, attempted to reproduce the statues of Argonath, with freshly fallen snow as their principal material…"
His speech flowed easily and smoothly as ever, punctuated by graceful gestures of his free hand, until he sounded and looked almost like a teacher lecturing a particularly difficult student, the exception being his eyes, which sparkled with amusement. Éowyn had to bite her lower lip not to burst into a fit of giggles.
Having regained her breath, she said, "Well, my husband, you have certainly done much to ruin that particular misconception about your people! As well as the one about Gondorians not being too good at fast dances."
"My darling," Faramir said, "it is my goal to show to you that we men of Gondor excel at many more things than just the ones we have mentioned."
He winked at her, and this time, she did giggle.
Both would have loved to carry on with their most entertaining conversation, but suddenly, a deep voice said, "My lord Steward, my lady…loath as I am to intrude upon your talk, I should be grateful if the Lady Éowyn agreed to dance with me."
Faramir and Éowyn both turned to see the King standing before them, a smile upon his face. The Steward's lady smiled in return and nodded.
"With pleasure, Sire," she said.
Faramir watched with a smile as his wife glided through the elaborate figures of the next dance – far, far from being as fast and wild as the one before it, but rather complicated. As the partners came closer, he noticed the King say something to Éowyn with a most mischievous air; her eyes immediately darted to Faramir, and she laughed, answering.
By now, his young wife had firmly established herself among Gondorian noble ladies. Their new home in Emyn Arnen was yet to be finished, so for the time being they were residing in the Citadel; and Faramir was rather glad it was so, for it gave Éowyn a very good opportunity to get accustomed to her position. Not that she needed to do a lot in that respect; a niece to a king and a sister to another, she was most certainly no stranger to the life at court.
She had quickly found friends, too, perhaps mostly due to her genuine interest in all things related to the land she now lived in. Everything seemed to interest her: customs, history and lore, buildings, food... Faramir was truly glad it was so, for he was often so busy that he only saw his wife early in the morning and then late at night, and he did not want her to spend her days in boredom. Nor did he wish to impose on her some duty toward which she was not inclined herself; however, her words about becoming a healer proved not to have been spoken lightly, as she took to that idea rather seriously and would spend long hours at the Houses of Healing, often returning with some old scrolls to peruse before the next session. The King, he sometimes thought with faint amusement, was lucky to be so occupied with the affairs of state; otherwise he could find himself in a role of a teaching aid too – so much he was able to infer from Éowyn's fleeting frustrated remarks when she could not find something in her books on healing.
All those thoughts kept circling somewhere at the back of his mind as he was watching the dance, until he became aware of a strange feeling. He must have developed it as a Ranger, when it was not enough to rely on one's senses, but also necessary to develop what some referred to as eyes on the back of one's head. Now that additional pair of eyes was telling him that he was being watched.
He felt someone approach him from behind and turned – not too abruptly, for he was loath to frighten whoever it was, but rather resolutely. A female laugh greeted him.
"How wrong I was to assume that I could catch you by surprise," said the tall, slender woman in a plum-coloured gown. "I never could, not even when we were little!"
Faramir looked at her closely, searching his mind for a memory of the woman. She looked his age, or perhaps a little older, and definitely from the White City, if he judged her outfit and her accent right; a thin silver circlet on her glossy black hair and a white flower on her bosom were her only adornments; and her smiling eyes were surrounded with long lashes that grew in a most peculiar manner, reminding him of...
"Eyes like stars," he said, wonder and pleasure in his voice. "Niniel!"
"Eyes like stars!" she laughed. "Careful, or your lovely wife will learn of this turn of phrase, and you shall be in trouble."
"Nay," said Faramir, shaking his head and smiling, "I will not once she learns your name."
"So you have told her about me? I do not know whether to be flattered or embarrassed!"
"I could not have helped it, my dear Niniel! Our little adventures were far too entertaining to keep the stories of them to myself."
"Indeed," she agreed, laughing softly. "Especially where your brother was involved."
"Certainly," Faramir agreed. "After all, he took it upon himself to be your very own knight."
"As did you, Faramir – well, once you were old enough!" Niniel exclaimed. "I had two brave knights all my own."
Faramir smiled and bent down to press a light kiss on her brow.
"'Tis good to see you again, Niniel," he said.
Breakfast was nearly over when young Boromir nodded at his brother and cleared his throat.
The Steward's keen eyes rested on him.
"Irildë, who oversees the servants responsible for our rooms, is to be married soon…" Boromir started.
Denethor nodded. "In a week from now, to be precise, to a farmer who lives close by the City walls and regularly supplies us with fresh fruit of his gardens," he said.
An amused look crept into his eyes as he glanced at both his sons.
"Surely you were under the impression that your father is not informed at all about the affairs of those who have served our family faithfully for years – seven in Irildë's case – and have deserved respect no less than they did their wages?"
"We certainly were not, Father," Faramir answered earnestly. "Well...maybe only a little bit," he corrected himself.
"Indeed. Very well...I have made arrangements for a wedding gift to be sent to Irildë, as a sign of appreciation for her service over the years. Perhaps you two wanted to add something to that? Is that why you have started this conversation, Boromir?"
"Yes and no..." Boromir replied. "In truth, we should like to attend the wedding ourselves."
Faramir hastened to add, "We have never seen a commoners' wedding, Father, and we are very...curious."
Denethor seemed to consider it for a moment.
"I fail to see any harm in that," he finally said. "It will probably prove useful to you both...and the farm is near enough for you not to require a military escort. Therefore..."
"An escort!" Boromir cried out indignantly. "Father, I assure you, I can well take care of myself and of Faramir! I do not require nannies, even if they wear armour and are called soldiers!"
Across the table, Denethor caught Faramir's highly amused look just as the younger lad was lowering his head to hide his mirth at Boromir's very predictable response. The Steward measured his eldest with a level gaze.
"My sons are silent," he said coldly, "while their father and lord is speaking."
Chastised, Boromir bowed his head. Denethor meanwhile continued.
"The servants, doubtless, will all attend this joyous event, so you can go with them. I would trust the staff of my own household with the safety of my children. Therefore, my answer to you is this: attend the wedding if you wish, and deliver to Irildë my gift, along with my wishes for a happy married life to her and to her groom."
"Do you think we should also bring a gift from the two of us?" Boromir asked.
Faramir cocked his head to the side, pondering.
"I believe we should," he said. "We have both known Irildë for years, and she has always been very nice, not merely efficient."
His brother nodded eagerly.
"I agree! But what could we possibly give her?"
"Give what to whom?" a voice asked from behind their backs.
The brothers whirled around, and both gave a delighted gasp.
The person who had interrupted their conversation was a girl of about fifteen years of age, slender and tall, with raven-black hair, sparkling dark grey eyes and a somewhat impish smile on her lips. She wore a very simple dark blue gown; ribbons of a matching colour were woven neatly into the two long braids that reached below her waist.
"Niniel!" Boromir exclaimed, rushing toward her and spinning her around in a wild dance of excitement and joy. "I did not expect to see you here...not in the least!"
The girl laughed. "I thought you had grown out of greetings of this kind, Boromir."
"And you were gravely mistaken," Faramir said, chuckling. "But, Niniel, this is unexpected indeed! We thought you were to stay with that new teacher of yours in Dol Amroth until Mettarë."
The departure of Niniel had caused both brothers much sadness, glad as they were that their much-loved playmate and friend was able to pursue her dream of old and study with one of the most renowned musicians in the whole of Gondor. Her parents had been reluctant to let their only and very young daughter depart for so long; however, everyone who had ever heard Niniel play the harp or her favourite lute would later sing loud praises of such talent in such a young one.
The Steward himself had remarked more than once on young Niniel's outstanding skill, adding that even old Angbor, known as extremely particular when it came to selecting his pupils, would undoubtedly accept her as one. That remark was what triggered the big change in Niniel's life, since Denethor's judgement proved correct – as was his custom.
Boromir and Faramir, who had grown accustomed to having Niniel at their side since early childhood, were now bursting with joy at her unexpected visit.
"See," she explained, "Master Angbor has had an unfortunate fall and injured his head. He should recover soon, but the healer has told him to stay in bed for at least two weeks...so they sent me back home."
"I am so happy that they did!" Boromir exclaimed.
"I am too!" Faramir agreed, nodding vigorously. "Well...but of course I am sorry that your master is ill," he added a trifle sheepishly, then chuckled.
Niniel giggled along, then remembered her first question.
"So what is this talk of giving gifts?" she asked.
When the brothers explained, she frowned pensively.
"Hmm...what is Lord Denethor sending her?"
"A fine set of porcelain dishes," Boromir answered.
"And his personal letter with greetings," Faramir added. "It was I who gave him that thought!"
Niniel grinned at him.
"I am not surprised at all to hear, that, Faramir," she said, casually throwing an arm around his shoulders. "As for the gift from the two of you...why not a set of nice bed linen? Both fitting for the occasion and useful for a new family."
Boromir jumped at her suggestion.
"Indeed!" he exclaimed. "Thank you, Niniel!"
"However have you survived without me all these months?" Niniel sighed in mock exasperation.
"Barely," Faramir giggled.
Standing between the brothers, she reached up with both hands and ruffled the hair on their heads, only to be grasped firmly by them both and squeezed in an embrace of the kind one gets only from the best of friends. Niniel laughed.
"I am so happy to be back," she said. "But do you two know what would make me even happier?"
"Going to the wedding with us?" Faramir offered innocently.
Niniel looked at him.
"I am not even surprised at your saying this, young Faramir," she said. "But you are right, I do want to go! I have never been at a commoner's wedding, and I am curious. Besides, I might have the good luck to hear some interesting tunes to play for Master Angbor when I return to him."
"Will your parents allow you to go?" Boromir asked.
"They will if they know that we are going, with Father's full approval," Faramir pointed out.
"Right," Niniel said, nodding. "We are going together, then!"
"All right...here is our gift...and this is Father's. Where is the letter, Boromir?"
"Here." Boromir waved it in front of his brother. He then eyed Faramir with mild curiosity.
"You have grown a lot, brother," he remarked, stepping closer to him and placing a hand on his shoulder. "In a few years' time, I shall not have to lower my eyes to look into yours."
Faramir smiled at the proud undertone in his brother's voice and was about to say something, but was interrupted by the sound of the door opening. In the doorway stood their father, eyeing them both appraisingly.
He was apparently satisfied with the sight of his two sons, dressed perfectly for the occasion, neither too plainly nor too richly; Faramir had chosen a white shirt and a dark blue tunic over it, and Boromir wore green; the only jewellery their outfits showed were the intricate clasps of their light cloaks, shaped in a tiny likeness of the White Tree.
"I trust the two of you will take good care of the young Niniel," he said finally. "Not only are you responsible for her as friends, but you should also consider her entrusted to your care as your father's subject."
"Certainly, Father," Boromir said.
"Also, the event that you are about to attend being a wedding feast," Denethor went on, "I hope you will keep in your minds the merits of moderation. I do not think I should elaborate on this, though, since I do not envision any trouble for you there...or perhaps I should?"
"Do not worry, Father, I will not let Faramir get drunk," Boromir chuckled, earning himself an indignant gasp from his brother.
"Faramir should be the last person for me to worry about in that respect," Denethor said, sharing an amused look with his youngest. "Unlike you, he is still too young to go to a tavern with soldiers for a supper that ends in a rather rough morning."
Boromir blushed; that one night out was certainly not something he was proud of.
Meanwhile, Denethor continued.
"However, I do not refer merely to drinking when I speak of moderation. I should not expect the Steward's sons to assume that, since they are invited to the household of a commoner, they are encouraged to lose all their manners and make fools of themselves."
"We understand, Father," Faramir said seriously.
"I should hope so. But hurry now; the servants are already gathering to depart for the farm, and you still have to fetch your young friend."
The brothers nodded, took their neatly wrapped parcels and made for the door.
They both turned to see their father looking out the window, his mind seemingly far away from the chamber. He then turned his head to them abruptly, a curious half-smile on his face.
"Enjoy the feast," he said.
And then there was a long, though certainly not unpleasant, journey to the farm, in the midst of a cheerful group of servants of the Steward's household, clad in their best garments decorated with ribbons and flowers. Niniel was thoroughly enjoying the walk; she had chosen a robe the colour of ripe plums, with a silvery sash around her slim waist; behind her back hung her somewhat battered favourite lute. Boromir had tried to act courteous and offered to carry it for her, but had only earned a look of shock and had been informed that he should never offer anything of the kind to any self-respecting musician. To that, the chief cook had laughed and said that he would do the same if anyone tried to meddle with his cooking gear, and Boromir had immediately promised never to offer to carry any of his pots or pans.
Thus, amid much laughter and some good-natured ribbing, they approached the gate of the farm, on which was installed a tall arch made of leafy twigs and flowers. Here, Boromir and Faramir stepped to the front of the group.
The cook bowed elaborately to Niniel and said, "May I offer my arm to this lovely young lady here? The wife's already here, helping to prepare the wedding feast, and it would do her good to see her old man still liked by such blooming young lasses!"
Niniel burst out laughing, flustered but pleased nonetheless.
"Indeed you may, master chief cook!" she replied. "However, in return I shall ask for that delicious rabbit stew of yours when we are back at the Citadel."
"Hmm, still got just what lasses want," the cook said, winking. Everybody laughed yet again, and they all made for the large garden, the site of the coming feast.
Some time later, Faramir wandered off to a large haystack at the back of the garden and sank into the warm, fragrant pile. He felt tired; however, this kind of fatigue was rather pleasant. The ceremony had not taken long, and the newlyweds had received their presents, the first of those being the gifts their three most distinguished guests presented: a set of porcelain dishes, accompanied by a letter from the Steward himself, read out by his heir, which had caused many an awed gasp; bed linen of dazzling white from Boromir and Faramir; and a lovely sky-blue tablecloth, richly embroidered along the hem, from the young Lady Niniel.
Then all had been invited to the long tables set right under the trees, where they could eat their fill of all that a rich farm could offer. The smells mingled: cheese, honey, apples and pears and a wealth of other fruit, ripe and juicy – Irildë's young husband was known to have the best orchard in the neighbourhood; fresh bread and cakes, roast meat generously seasoned with herbs, golden ale and good red wine to drink…
Such a feast, combined with the gentle warmth of late summer, had succeeded in making Faramir drowsy. He sighed contentedly and closed his eyes, burrowing deeper into the sweet-smelling hay.
"And here he is," boomed an accusing voice very near.
Opening his eyes just a little, he was greeted by the sight of Niniel bending over him. Boromir was strolling nonchalantly toward them.
"Well, and what is wrong with wanting a little rest?" Faramir said, giving her his sweetest smile. "I have been told 'tis advisable to have a good nap after a good meal."
"Advisable when you are five, not going on thirteen!" said Niniel with indignation. "Now there will be music and dancing – do you want to miss them?"
Faramir shook his head.
"Certainly not," he replied.
"I should not either," Boromir said. "But perhaps a little rest would do us good indeed…"
He plopped down next to Faramir, stretching his long limbs.
"If we start jumping around, being this full, we may have trouble keeping all this delicious food inside us…" he said.
"…And that would just not be right," Faramir finished for him, grinning up at Niniel again.
She shook her head at them.
"You two logs brought me here, and now you leave me to myself? Courteous of you, that!"
As she was talking, the brothers exchanged a swift glance and then suddenly pounced on her, pulling her down to lie in the hay between them. Niniel gave one indignant squeak, then burst into giggles.
"Is that a way to behave with your lady?" she said, still laughing.
Boromir shook his head.
"You are not our lady. You are…Niniel."
Niniel gave him a quick dig in the ribs with her sharp little elbow, but soon, all the three were laughing again.
"Your Irildë appears to have married well," Niniel remarked after their mirth quieted. "The farm surely does look rich, the household well-managed, even though there was no mistress to take care of it, and her new husband seems to be a very decent man. And, of course, 'tis obvious that he cares for her much, and she for him…which certainly means even more than all his wealth!"
"It does," Faramir agreed.
Niniel clasped her hands behind her head, squinting at the bright blue sky.
"Do you think we shall ever marry?" she asked with a sudden seriousness in her voice.
"Not me," he replied. "That is the one kind of trouble I fully intend to avoid."
"It needn't be trouble, Boromir," his brother objected.
"It would be with someone of my kind, and for the lady first of all," Boromir said. "I am certain I shall make a good soldier, I may even make a good Steward if there is someone to look after me" at these words, he tousled Faramir's hair affectionately, "but I could never be a good husband."
"So you are in favour of it, Faramir?" Niniel asked curiously, turning around to be able to see her friends' faces. "You would take a wife someday?"
"How can I say now?" Faramir said, shrugging. "And…how can one think of anything this far ahead…"
His face, still childlike, became clouded with gravity that seemed to pass to his two companions as well. Niniel nodded sadly, playing with the ends of her sash.
"I know, Faramir," she said.
They spent a while in silence, and then Faramir raised his head, a somewhat mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
"I think I should marry someone like you, Niniel," he announced.
"Now, that is a good thought!" he exclaimed.
"That is a stupid thought," Niniel said.
Boromir jumped in the hay.
"But…were you to choose between us as husbands, whom would you pick?" he asked.
Now Niniel glared at him.
"And this is a stupid question, Boromir son of Denethor!" she said indignantly. "It's like…like…like asking me which one of my eyes I liked more. They are both the same!"
"No, they are not," Faramir pointed out cheerfully. "They have been telling us at the archery range that one uses one eye more than the other for precise aiming. 'Tis the same as with hands."
Now he was the one to get a glare.
"Very well, but even if they are different, I like them both and should be loath to lose either, young sir. And this is beside the point…however could I marry either of you? It would be almost like marrying my own brother!"
"That it would be," Boromir agreed.
"It would indeed…that is why I said someone like you, not you…"
Niniel was about to offer another retort, but was interrupted by a high note played on a flute, the start of a cheerful song.
In an instant, she was on her feet.
"The music! They are going to start dancing! Come, quick, I want to listen better...darn, Boromir, stop pulling my skirt!"
She yanked the fabric from the hands of a giggling Boromir and ran off toward the sound. The brothers got to their feet too, laughing a little, and followed her at a slower pace.
When they approached the guests who were already dancing, they did not see Niniel among them. Boromir frowned a little; he was not concerned much about her, but was she not their responsibility, as their father said? Where was she?
"Boromir, look," Faramir said, pulling him to a spot where they could see the musicians. In their midst stood a tall, slim figure clad in a plum-coloured robe, a lute in her hands. Niniel's hair was pulled back from her face in a thick braid; she seemed deeply concentrated on the musician next to her, also playing a lute. Occasionally, she would glance at his face, getting a look of approval each time, and then a flush of content would colour her face.
The brothers exchanged half-amused, half-understanding glances before being pulled into the dancers' circle.
"She has forgotten all about us," Boromir said jealously, watching Niniel deep in conversation with an elderly fiddler. "She has been chattering with them for hours now!"
"It has not been hours," Faramir corrected. "And she studies music...'tis like when you want to talk to old soldiers about battles they have seen."
"'Tis nothing of the kind," Boromir grumbled obstinately. "Have I ever left my friends like this?"
Faramir chose not to answer that, but he looked quite amused. Just then, Niniel said some parting words to the musician and started walking towards the brothers.
"This has been a wonderful day," she said, putting an arm around each of them and smiling. "And it is turning into a very pleasant night... Thank you, you two, for taking me with you!"
"Oh, so you do remember whom you came here with," Boromir muttered, though his annoyance did not sound too convincing. Both Niniel and Faramir chuckled.
"Do you know the dance that comes at the end of the wedding?" Niniel asked.
Faramir shook his head.
"No," he said. ""Tis our first time at a commoner's wedding – you know that."
Niniel started explaining.
"For the last dance, all the guests make a long line, with the newly wed couple leading. The music starts to play, and they move all around the place: among the tables, the buildings, the trees in the garden, any place within a distance that allows them to hear the music well. This stands for the long journey that the young couple has started today. Then, when the tune is ending, the two lead the chain of people to the door of their house and there part from their guests. They go inside and close the door behind them, and that is the end of the wedding."
Even Boromir looked interested.
"Did the musicians tell you that?" he asked.
"Correct; that and many other stories about wedding songs and dances. I must remember them all to write them down when I return! Master Angbor will be pleased when I show them to him," Niniel said, her eyes glowing with excitement.
"But come! They are already starting to play that last tune," she said, taking both brothers by the hand and pulling them urgently.
Irildë and her new husband were already waiting for their guests to join in the closure of the feast. The bride smiled at Boromir.
"Would you join us too, my lord?" she asked with an inviting gesture.
Boromir seemed at a loss what to do, but only for a short instant.
"It will be my pleasure, dear Irildë," he replied, smiling back and gripping her hand.
Then he gave his other hand to Niniel, who, in her turn, pulled Faramir to her, and on and on went the human chain, stretching into the dusk, as the music began to play. Slow at first, it gradually gained speed; on they went, the three distinguished guests quiet, trying to catch the simple moves of the dance. As they grew more confident, they were pulled away into the garden, amid laughter and jokes punctuated by the steady rhythm of the many footfalls.
Faramir heard his brother call out something to him; he was about to answer, but Niniel's long hair, now free from her braid, flew across his face. He jerked his head back and forth, and when he finally untangled himself, he was greeted by the girl's broad grin.
"This is so incredibly wonderful!" Niniel exclaimed.
Faramir merely grinned back at her. Aye, it was indeed.
And then there was the ride back, all the three of them huddled together in some farmer's cart, their cook firmly holding the reins; the man insisted on this role because, as he pointed out, cooks were more resistant to sweet wine and good ale than most other people.
Faramir looked up.
"Look at all the stars!" he said in a soft voice. "You can see so many at this time of the year."
"Indeed," Niniel's voice said next to him. "Oh, here is a shooting star! Boromir, look!"
There was no response from the latter, so she nudged him lightly and was only rewarded with an incoherent mumble.
"He is asleep!" she hissed indignantly.
"Leave him be," he advised. "Boromir is not usually in the best of moods when roused from sleep."
He sighed contentedly, starting to feel drowsy himself. His feet ached a little from all the dancing, but he did not mind. That last dance had been so enjoyable, and he had loved the tune...indeed, Faramir could swear he was still hearing it in his head...
After a short while, he realized that it was not only playing in his head. Niniel, hunched up next to him, was humming it softly.
"Niniel?" he whispered, turning to her.
"Shhh...I am sorry if it bothers you, Faramir, but I have to do it...I should hate to forget that tune by the morrow, and if I sing it to myself several times like this, it will stay in my head," she explained, a trifle apologetically.
"No, it does not bother me in the least," he said reassuringly, settling more comfortably next to her.
And that was his last memory of the evening: the light chill of a late summer night, the gentle breeze on his brow, the stars twinkling at them from above, and the sound of a sweet young voice slowly lulling him to sleep.
"That was such a gloriously carefree day, for all the three of us..." Niniel said with a quiet sigh.
She reached to take Faramir's hand and squeezed it lightly. They had moved over to a bench near one of the windows, so that nobody would interrupt their talk.
"And I am glad we are here to remember it," she finished softly.
"I am too," Faramir replied with a somewhat wistful smile. "'Tis one of the best memories of my youth."
"Well...the two of us are here," she said very quietly. "How I wish there were three."
Faramir nodded, and both were silent for a while.
Eventually, he was the one to break the silence.
"I think Boromir was always slightly puzzled that he had enjoyed that feast so much," he said with a soft chuckle. "He would talk about it very excitedly, but not to everybody. It was almost as if he felt embarrassed to confess to his military friends that he had liked something as...trivial and sentimental as a wedding. I suspect that amused Father a great deal."
He winked at Niniel, and she giggled.
"I can easily believe that," she said. "Even then, he already had some reputation as a fearless warrior to uphold, and he probably thought this kind of...'nonsense' would make a dent in it!"
"Except that it wouldn't have."
Niniel folded her hands in her lap and looked at them pensively.
"'Twas probably the last day of such kind that we had. You know, Faramir, how in stories of great quests that we read together as children, there was always a chapter – nay, often only a small part of it – in which the hero is allowed a respite, and you know that during that respite, nothing ill can befall him?"
Faramir glanced at her.
"Yes, I know what you are speaking of," he said.
"That is what that wedding feast was for us," Niniel went on. "A lovely, sunny, merry day when we had not a care in the world... Have you heard anything of Irildë and her husband since then?"
As she asked the question, her voice was as steady as ever, but her hands were tightly clenched in her lap, very white against the rich colour of her robe. Faramir placed both hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him.
"Niniel," he said, smiling, "they are both alive, and their farm is still standing. Moreover, it will probably flourish like no other in their neighbourhood, as they have four strong, healthy children to help them, two daughters and two sons. Before the siege, they sent the children away, but neither of the parents agreed to go. Instead, they moved within the city walls and were in the lower circles, helping to carry away the wounded and fight the fires. When the siege ended, they had their children brought back, and their whole family were among the first to clear away the rubble and search for people buried underneath."
Niniel released a long breath.
"Thank you," she said, eyes bright with tears. "I do not know why...but it makes me very happy to know this."
"You are most welcome," Faramir replied quietly, touching her brow with his lips again. "But come! surely we do not want to spend the whole evening reminiscing! Also, I do not believe that you have met my lady yet."
"I have not, but my daughter Miriel has!" Niniel said, laughing. "That child would happily sleep in the stables, were she allowed to have it her way. She was there, fretting about a sick foal, when the Lady Éowyn happened to visit her own horse."
Faramir laughed too.
"I have heard of that encounter. I recall my wife being most impressed, as young Miriel was not unfamiliar with ways of treating sick horses."
Having said that, he stood up. Niniel followed his example, and they moved nearer the centre of the hall, where the long dance had just come to an end. The King smiled at Éowyn and accompanied her back to where her husband was standing.
"It has been a great pleasure, Lady Éowyn," he said, bowing to her slightly.
"Likewise, Sire," she replied. "Indeed, I had not expected you to be good at dancing!"
Faramir got the distinct impression that the King was barely resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
"This particular...misconception seems to be popular," Aragorn grumbled good-naturedly. "Do I indeed look too old and grim to enjoy a good dance?"
"After a dance as complicated as this, not in the least!" Éowyn reassured him, laughing.
Then she noticed a tall noblewoman standing next to Faramir, and looked at him with curiosity. Faramir caught her look and hastened to introduce Niniel.
"Oh...so you are Faramir's friend who has eyes like stars?" Éowyn exclaimed.
Niniel laughed, blushing slightly.
"I am indeed," she said. "Also, I believe you have already made acquaintance with my daughter Miriel at the stables, Lady Éowyn. She would not stop talking about you for days afterwards."
"I am truly flattered," Éowyn said with a smile. "The child surely knows a lot about the noble beasts."
During their talk, the King looked as if he was searching his memory for something... then suddenly, his face cleared as he said, "My lady, would you not be that same Lady Niniel who studied music from the most distinguished Angbor, known throughout all of Gondor as the best musician of his time?"
When Niniel confirmed it, Aragorn smiled and bowed.
"It is always a great honour for a realm to house such outstanding talent as yours is, my lady. Would you grant my humble request and agree to play for us tonight? 'Twould be most fitting if you were to close our feast."
A soft smile lit up Niniel's features as she nodded.
"Which song would you like to hear, Sire?" she asked.
The King shook his head.
"I should not dare to force my choice upon you, my lady; for in many matters, I may still be considered but a stranger here. Please be guided by your own wishes, or the wishes of those who know you far better."
Niniel's eyes rested on Faramir; to Éowyn and Aragorn both, it looked as if a silent understanding flashed between the two.
"I shall do so, Sire," Niniel said. "Let me order for my lute to be brought here."
Having said that, she turned and walked toward the musicians.
More than a few had noticed if not overheard in part the King's short discourse with Niniel, who was known well in Minas Tirith. Faint whispers floated around as she walked; they turned into half-surprised, half-delighted gasps when a tall man with a slight limp, instantly recognised as her husband, made it to the woman to hand her a somewhat battered-looking lute. Niniel thanked him, smiling, and sat on a tall stool, offered to her graciously by a young flutist.
For a long moment, she sat there with a contemplative expression on her face; then, she straightened up, gave her audience a dazzling smile, and pulled hard, almost violently on the strings of the lute.
The tune that immediately filled the hall was mingled with many a cheer. The musicians, too, grinned broadly and joined in, for almost every one of then had had some experience of entertaining lowlier feasts before they were honoured with their positions at the court.
Faramir caught himself grinning too, and his right foot tapping the merry beat of the tune. All of a sudden, he was aware of a number of eyes staring at him in expectation, and realized that even the highest nobles of Gondor were well acquainted with the customs of their land.
"Come," he said, taking Éowyn's hand. "I fear there is nothing that would give us a good excuse not to do what we are expected to, as we are indeed the most recently married couple here!"
Éowyn's eyes widened.
"But I do not know this dance!" she protested, albeit with a good deal of curiosity and mounting excitement.
"Neither did I when I first danced it!" Faramir said, laughing and pulling her after him.
...And shortly, a long human chain went zigzagging across the hall, the sound of many feet enhancing the strong and cheerful rhythm of the tune, which seemed to get stronger and faster with every moment, accompanied by bursts of laughter.
Faramir turned his head and met Niniel's dancing eyes, just before his lady's long golden hair flew right across his face after a sharp turn of her head. He laughed as he shook it off, heard Éowyn's answering giggle, and led the long chain on, on and out of the hall, toward where the sky was as bright with stars as four-and-twenty years before.
Author's Note: I imagine the dance I have described in the story as something like the French farandole, an open-chain folk dance. The decorated arch at the gate has been "borrowed" from a Western Ukrainian custom.
I would like to thank my faithful writing companions, Astara and Cressida, for all the help and encouragement I received while writing the story, and Cressida for giving it the final linguistic polish.