A birthday present for Altariel, who had requested Imrahil's first visit to Faramir's house in Emyn Arnen. A certain former Ranger got invited along as well.
"It is hardly Dol Amroth," I said to my uncle with not a little trepidation. But Imrahil, clad in blue hunting leathers, dismounted from Caerith, looked about the courtyard of Emyn Arnen and smiled.
"Why would it be? Dol Amroth is an old city. You are building something new here." He glanced up the hill, at the ruins of the old house. "I see why you put it down here. You've got a lovely vantage and view." Then he gave the walls a critical look. "And you've given some thought to defense."
Relieved at his response, I admitted, "Unfortunately, that is still necessary. Though again, this is not Dol Amroth, and it was not built with a prolonged siege in mind." My uncle's city, founded upon promontory bedrock, most astonishingly held a freshwater spring in its depths and water reservoirs and massive store rooms carved by our Numenorean ancestors out of that very rock. Had the Corsairs come ashore, Dol Amroth could have pulled her people into the citadel and held out for a long time, perhaps even years. Emyn Arnen was not quite so fortunate, though she possessed cisterns and a good well.
Hethlin appeared beside us suddenly, holding her hand out for the Prince's reins.
"Shall I take Caerith, sir?" She and Liahan had escorted the Prince, while a couple of Beregond's picked men provided the same service for me.
Imrahil handed the reins over, giving her a warm smile. She smiled back and nodded. "My lord." Glancing over at me, the smile became a grin and she nodded again. "Captain," she said, totally ignoring more recent honors. Then she led Caerith off into the stables, her new white belt gleaming bright as her snowy head. Liahan lingered for a moment.
"You and Hethlin are officially relieved once the horses are seen to, Captain," Imrahil said. "We'll leave it in the White Company's hands until we depart."
Liahan bowed. "Very well, my lord." He then led his horse and Hethlin's stallion Fortune off.
"What would you like to see first, Uncle?" I asked. "The gardens, which I will admit are still a work in progress, or the rest of the house?"
Imrahil looked about for a moment, then glanced back up the hill. "Would you mind if we went up there first, Faramir? I'd like to look at the house and grounds from above."
"If you don't mind the hike after our ride, then of course." We set off through the south gate and took the path up the hill. It was a fairly steep path, but both of us lived in cities founded on peaks and spent a fair bit of time walking uphill as a matter of course. In addition, my uncle rarely missed a day of sparring practice, with Andrahar as often as not and Andrahar never gave him any quarter. His stride as we went was as long and fluid as a man a third of his age and he had enough wind left over as we went to chat with me about some trivial details of the recent councils in Minas Tirith.
The fact that my uncle had not yet seen Emyn Arnen had been a convenient excuse to escape those very same meetings. Aragorn, rather tired of them himself, had been only too glad to conspire with us, for without our presence it was not possible for the Council to meet. And in truth, tempers had become so short over the last couple of weeks that a break of a day or two would probably benefit everyone involved and make future meetings more productive. Although I did wonder if there hadn't been another royal conspiracy besides our obvious one. Éowyn had remained in Minas Tirith due to some request of the Queen's and it shamed me to find that the prospect of time alone in my uncle's company was rather a relief. Had the King intended me to consult with my uncle about my current marital difficulties or was he just giving the two of us time to reflect?
Not that conversing with Uncle was ever a hardship. Indeed, the ride from Minas Tirith had been an extremely pleasant one. The weather had been beautiful, a perfect, cool, clear fall day and while the Prince of Dol Amroth was not Cousin Amrothos' equal where scholarly matters were concerned, he was interested in a broad range of subjects and could converse knowledgeably on most of them. I trusted my uncle enough to confide my innermost thoughts as I did with no other man living. Yet there was one thing that stood between the two of us that I had not broached yet.
Now, as we finally reached the ruined walls of the old house and looked down over Emyn Arnen and further down to the Anduin valley, the Prince exclaimed in pleasure over the view, his hair lifting in the breeze. And watching him, I felt a pang of shame, for Uncle had held the City during the siege when I was unable to. He had ridden to the Black Gate when I was still recovering. When against all odds he had survived and could be enjoying his grandchild and the one to come in Dol Amroth, when he could be romantically pursuing my former Ranger, he was instead riding to Dale, once more in my stead, and all because I could not bring myself to touch a sword. This man had loved me as another son, had accepted me and supported me always. The thought of him falling in battle far to the north and knowing that I was to blame was almost too painful to contemplate.
"I can see the plan of the house now. It seems very well laid out to me, Faramir," he was saying, that most charming smile of his manifesting itself once more. I gathered my courage. This was not what I'd brought the Prince to Emyn Arnen for, but it had to be said.
"Uncle, I'm sorry."
"What was that, Faramir?"
"I owe you an apology."
Imrahil turned to me, obviously baffled by the change of subject. "Whatever for?"
"That I've left you once again to do my job for me because I can't bring myself to pick up a sword. I am the one who should be going to Dale."
Comprehension washed over my uncle's features. "Ah. I see." He reached into his belt pouch and pulled out the silver swanship-graven flask that always traveled with him. Uncapping it, he took a swig and handed it to me. As might be expected, it was filled with extremely good brandy, as I discovered when I took a drink in turn. I handed it back The Prince took another sip before capping it and putting it away once more.
"There's nothing to be sorry for, Faramir," he said matter-of-factly. "And as for it being your job, it actually isn't."
Startled, I said, "I beg your pardon?"
"It's not your job! You're the Steward of Gondor. The house of Mardil no longer rules Gondor. The Steward's job is once again to maintain the realm in the King's absence. It's not to ride to war. And even when your house were the Ruling Stewards that did not always equate with actually fighting. I will point out to you that while your father did indeed lead men into battle when he was the Heir, once he became Steward he ceased to do so-as did your grandfather Ecthelion. By staying here, you're not shirking your duty, you're doing it!"
"I am one of the only two Princes of the realm, Aragorn's chiefest vassals."
"That is true. And I am the other. And you are going to stay here and mind the domestic matters and I am going to go and help with the military ones." Imrahil shrugged. "Equal division of labor."
"Hardly equal! I do not risk death minding the domestic matters!"
The Prince attempted to look sober and thoughtful, but I knew that gleam in his eye. "I don't know… Some of Aragorn's Council members…death from boredom or frustration seems very likely to me!"
"Uncle, please be serious! You've done so much. You deserve a rest."
He waggled a finger at me. "You did much as well. And Aragorn. And Éomer. And Elphir. And Chiron And Andra. And the rest of Gondor's and Dol Amroth's and Rohan's armies and navies. We all want and deserve a rest-well, all of us except for Éomer and some of the Rohirrim! But this needs to be done." The Prince grinned suddenly, his eyes sparkling. "Unless what you mean to imply is that I'm too old to be riding forth and should leave it to younger men. Whereupon I will remind you that Aragorn has more than two decades on me!"
Despite the nagging feeling of guilt, I could not help but laugh. "No, I would never imply anything of the kind, Uncle!"
"Good to know. And at the risk of offending you, I'm the most logical choice to accompany the King. Aside from the fact that I don't have a wife and small children to leave behind, I simply have much more experience in command and diplomacy than you do, Faramir. Not to mention much more experience in finding my way around foreign countries."
Remembering my uncle's voyages to Khand and Harad in his youth, I admitted, "I had not considered that."
"I didn't think you had. Too busy flogging yourself over this."
It seemed useless to deny it. The man knew me too well. "I just don't…I don't want to lose you too, Uncle."
"Oh, lad." The sea-grey eyes were suddenly intent upon me. "I know that what happened on the way to Lorien must be preying upon your mind, but I can't promise to come back. You know that. I can promise to do everything I can to make sure I'll come back, and that I do. And unlike Lorien, this time I'll have Andra with me. Not to mention many of my best knights."
"And Hethlin. Whom I will also look after for you."
Grateful for an opening to change the distressing subject, I asked, "Are you ever going to do anything about that, by the way?"
Uncle grimaced. "It is as I said before. Not until after Dale. And not even then, unless Hethlin gives me some indication that she would find it welcome. She is currently under my command. It would not be appropriate."
"I hate to point this out, Uncle, but time is fleeting. When exactly is it going to be appropriate?"
"That's a very good question," Imrahil sighed, "for which I have no answer at present. The other aspect to this is that we are going north. And considerably east as well, but we will be closer to Rivendell. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Elrohir didn't show up."
"Do you want Hethlin to chose him?"
"I want her to have whomsoever her heart wishes for her to have! And while it is true that Elrohir might very well end by nursing her in her old age, that is a choice that he is more than capable of making. As well as enduring the other consequences of his actions. He is more than an Age old, after all." A rather self-deprecating smile ghosted over my uncle's lips. "She would have more time with him than me in any event. A better quality of time as well, in all likelihood. I would not have her possibly waste a decade or more of her life nursing an old man."
I cast my eyes down for a moment. My uncle's openness about his vulnerabilities was a relatively new-found thing in our relationship, and it was a welcome one. It said that we'd finally moved beyond a parent-child relationship to one of equals-though I did not doubt that he would continue to try to protect me. It was a decades-long habit of his after all. But his pain was very palpable. I cast about to find something to lighten the mood with and after a moment it came to me.
"Hethlin very much seemed to enjoy dancing with you at the celebration."
As I had hoped, the Prince's expression lightened as well at the memory. "That is true," he mused. "And on a more promising note, when Aragorn reminded her after she got her white belt that she had fulfilled his conditions and was free to go where she wished, she said that having just gotten her belt, she was not inclined to set it aside just yet. So that is perhaps a hopeful sign."
"That belt cost her a lot of pain. Not to mention what it cost Uncle Andra in time and effort! It's good to know that she's come to value it."
"There's no one else like her in Gondor. I don't think she realizes it, but there's no one else who knows how to be both a heavy fighter and a Ranger." He froze for a moment, then continued, his face grave. "I think that it is my turn to apologize now, Faramir."
A pang of what might have been grief shot through me when he spoke thusly, though I knew it had been with no intent to harm or insult me. Rather to the contrary. My uncle had been at pains throughout our talk to make me feel better and I did not want him to think his attempt had been in vain. So I made an effort and was pleased to find my voice hearty enough when I asked, "For what? For speaking the truth? Now that I've laid my blade down, she is the only person in Gondor capable of that. And there's definitely no one else in Gondor like Heth!" My very great affection for Hethlin made it easy enough to smile. My uncle seemed relieved, and clapped me on the shoulder.
"Let's go back down, so you can give me the grand tour! With supper, I trust, at the end of it?"
I cocked an eyebrow at him. "It won't be a Dol Amroth feast of five courses, with a different set of minstrels warbling through each one, but if you can lower your expectations somewhat, I promise you won't leave the table hungry!"
"That's all I ever ask of a meal."
It was a grand tour indeed. The Prince, with a thoroughness that bespoke his gratifyingly genuine interest in the matter, poked his nose into every space that I allowed him to examine, up to and including the pantries, the attics and the cellars. Eventually he declared the house an aesthetic and practical success and the library, which was were I ended the tour, to be his favorite room in the house.
"Certainly it seems to be the room that has had the most attention and thought lavished upon it!" He grinned. "And I'll wager it was the first room finished."
I strove for the dignified mien worthy of a prince of Ithilien. "That's not entirely accurate. It was one of the first rooms finished!"
Imrahil's eyebrow took flight and he chuckled. "Oh, really? You weren't all camping out in tents and on cots in unroofed rooms while moving books into the already-finished library?"
"No. But it is true that I spent a lot of time pondering about which volumes I wished to bring here and which to leave in the City that might have been more profitably spent on other matters!"
"Well, here's another for here," his uncle said, presenting me with a paper-wrapped parcel he'd retrieved from his room in the course of the tour. I opened it and found a slim book bound in Ithilien green. Flora of Gondor was the title.
"I thought this might be appropriate for a house-warming gift, because of the gardens," the Prince explained.
There was an inscription in the front of the book.
There is more warmth in a loving family than in the fire on the hearth. Long may Ithilien flourish and prosper. Your loving uncle Imrahil. Narquelië, 3021.
I leafed through the book, finding it to be filled with beautiful drawings of Gondorian plants worked in the most exquisite detail. As Uncle's presents tended to be, it was a tasteful and appropriate gift. "Éowyn will love this, Uncle, and it will be useful as well. Thank you." Book in hand, I moved to embrace my uncle, who embraced me right back. There was no discernable difference, no weakening due to age or his near brush with death of two years ago in his grip. It was as any other embrace I'd had from him, and that was reassuring. If he was set upon going to war, he was at least well-prepared to do so. The tour done, I took my uncle down to dinner.
When dinner began, Imrahil firmly declared that he'd had enough talk of war in Council and refused to entertain any further discussion of that subject. This suited me only too well. So the meal passed very pleasantly, with tales of what had transpired in Ithilien over the last two years that I'd not covered in my letters to catch Hethlin up. Liahan contributed a few anecdotes about some Swan Knights I'd had known personally and the Prince shared some funny stories from Lothiriel's latest letters from Rohan.
After dinner, the Prince and Liahan decided that they were going to retire to the library, to sit in front of the fire with books and warm drinks. Hethlin said that she was going out for a breath of air. I had something I wished to give to her, so after seeing my other guests settled, I went out to look for her and spotted her, pale head gleaming in the moonlight, headed across the courtyard to the south gate. A whistled Ranger call stopped her progress and she paused, turning to smile when she saw me approach. Both she and Liahan had done off their armor and come to dinner in their undress blues, and there was little to remind me of the dark-haired, shy Ranger girl I'd once known in this assured, polished, silver-haired soldier. Except for the black bow on her back and that smile, which hadn't changed in the least.
"Captain," she greeted me. It took an effort to repress my internal wince at her favored form of address and she seemed to sense something of it, for her smile lessened a bit.
"I'm not surprised," I said, putting warmth into my voice, " that you'd be on your way up the hill to the old Ranger camp. You ever had a tendency to seek out the highest places."
"I don't have to if you've come to talk and would rather not go," came her amiable answer. "I know that you've been up there once today already with the Prince."
"It's a lovely night and Ithil is rising. I don't mind walking dinner off." I patted my stomach. "And in truth, I should do a bit more of it. I've spent too much time behind my desk or in Council chambers of late."
Hethlin looked me up and down. Despite her past, admitted attraction to me, it was not salacious in the least, simply someone who knew a good deal about bodily strength and fitness making an assessment. "You've done no irreparable damage to yourself as yet, far as I can see."
"That's good to know." I gestured to the bow. "That's hardly necessary."
Hethlin shrugged. "Old habit. Your bow was always to hand when you left the refuge in Ithilien. I found myself uncomfortable without it."
"Oh, Heth," I said, shaking my head and smiling. "We'll have to get you out here more often, I can see. Things have changed just a little!"
"Not in the parts closer to the mountains they haven't, I'll warrant!"
I sighed and admitted, "You do have me there."
One of the guards on the wall came down and opened the gate for us and we passed through and headed up the path, both falling by old habit into the long, easy Ranger stride, which covered the most ground with the least expense of energy. It was oddly comforting, walking with Hethlin like this, bringing back some of the more pleasant memories I had of my time with the Rangers. It had not all been death and blood and battle…there had been comradeship and laughter as well. We'd gone perhaps a quarter mile and were starting to climb the steeper part of the path, when Hethlin asked, "What's wrong, Faramir?"
"Does something have to be wrong for me to wish your company when you're about to go off to war?"
"I do know you. Something's bothering you."
I remembered that even as a very young Ranger, Hethlin had always been insightful for her age, and usually at the worst possible times. I was silent for a few more strides until I decided that it was best to be honest, then asked, "Does it disappoint you, that I'll not be coming up to Dale with the rest of you?"
Her answer came swiftly and firmly. "Why should it? I certainly wasn't expecting you to."
That was surprising, and oddly hurtful. "You weren't expecting me to? Why?"
I found myself the recipient of a disbelieving stare. "Why? Because you're the Steward of Gondor, that's why! Someone has to stay behind and mind the store! And because you told me once that when the war was over, you'd lay your sword down quick as ever you could! You were the last person I thought would be coming with us! Your brother was a soldier born, but I always knew you weren't." The rising moon shone silver upon Hethlin's hair and glinted off her grey eyes, which narrowed of a sudden. "Is this what you were talking to Imrahil about earlier?"
"Yes. Among other things."
"And what did he say?"
"Pretty much what you just did."
"Then hopefully between us we've put your mind at ease."
"As much as counsel can, I suppose."
She shot a sidelong glance at me, noting my somewhat dejected tone. Then my former Ranger said matter-of-factly, "Faramir, why don't you tell me what happened on that patrol you did with Mablung last year?"
Shock halted me in my tracks, and I could feel the blood drain from my face. Even in the moonlight, I fancied the resultant pallor could be seen. "When and where did you hear about that?" I all but snarled into the face of the woman who had saved my life. There was a time when such a display of my ire would have frightened Hethlin, or at the very least moved her to try to placate me. That time was apparently long past. The warrior who had defied the Witch-King apparently no longer found me much of a challenge.
"Mablung told me, of course," she said calmly, her gaze locked on mine. "When he came to Minas Tirith for the tournament. He didn't give me any particulars, said that was for you to do. But he got me off to the side and said, If you get the chance, ask the Captain in private what happened when we went out on patrol last December. He must have thought that talking to me about it would help you. So I'm asking." Promising myself some choice words with my senior Ranger captain at some future date, I thought at first to refuse Hethlin.
Then I remembered her state when I'd drawn her from the river, the fact that her body would be for the rest of her life a map of the horrors that had been inflicted upon her and that despite that, she had not surrendered, but had grown and persevered and gained respect and honor for herself. I remembered that she had been with me in my worst hour, standing guard before the door of the room in the Causeway Forts and that she'd been at my side for most of the retreat, despite some sharp words between us. And it came to me that of all my friends, Hethlin Blackbow would understand.
"I went out in late December to do a tour of Ithilien's defenses," I began in a much more civil tone, and some tension I'd not seen until now left Hethlin's rangy form. She had not been entirely unmoved by my anger after all, it seemed. "I intended to go the whole length of the principality."
"You picked a piss-poor time to do it," Hethlin noted dryly.
"Yes, I did. I had been enjoying the peace at Emyn Arnen so much, my life here with Éowyn and my books, that I kept putting it off. I did not want to have to go into battle again." Thinking that perhaps it would be easier to speak were I in motion, I started up the hill once more and she fell in beside me, her head cocked attentively in my direction.
"Mablung and his men found a small band of orcs and we attacked them. A pitiable, starving band they were, no challenge at all for us. We attacked, and I faced down their captain, as I felt it was my proper place to do. And then, suddenly, between one breath and the rest, it all changed and I was back in the retreat again, with all the blood and the darkness and the never-ending noise…" I had to stop speaking for a moment to collect myself, shaking my head a bit as if to dislodge the memory. Hethlin paced silently beside me for some moments, until I could bring myself to continue.
"When I came back to myself, I had hacked the orc to pieces. I was still hacking it. Mablung stopped me. Later that night, the men were speaking of the retreat and asked me what I could remember. They told me that I was the one who had started the singing."
"I wouldn't know about that," Hethlin admitted with a shrug. "I don't remember any of the first part of the retreat at all, just the bits right before the gate with you fighting with the Haradrim captain and the arrow coming down."
"Well I wish I could forget! I started telling the Rangers what bits I did remember and found myself weeping like a distraught child. Coming back to myself for the second time, I saw that Mablung had sent the rest of them away to give me privacy. And then we talked."
"What did Mablung say?"
"That we'd both seen this in other men and knew what it meant. That I needed to lay my sword down before something ugly happened. I went back to Emyn Arnen instead of going down to Poros as I had intended. And that's the whole of it, except that my hand starts shaking uncontrollably if I so much as reach for a sword. So there is no way that I could lead an army into battle. The King knows, which was why he made the dispositions that he did."
"But you wanted to be done with that in any event, did you not?" Hethlin asked gently; then before I could reply, she added, "It's one thing to chose to do so, another entirely to be forced to do so, isn't it?"
I nodded. "That's part of it, I think. Also, I felt it was my duty to lead my men. What sort of Prince am I if I am not willing to hazard myself? How will they respect me?"
"Did Prince Adrahil's soldiers not respect him?" came Hethlin's quick question. "From what the Prince says, they had no problem with him sending them into battle when he could not join them."
I looked at her, startled. I had never before considered my grandfather's example, but his situation was similar to mine. Although…
"A recurrent fever is one thing, Heth. Grandfather had to take to his bed on a regular basis. I've not got a mark on me and seem hale and whole enough."
"And what of a wise man who is hale and whole, but has no knack for soldiery and never took up the sword. Do you think he could not command? Many have." She pondered for a moment as she climbed. Then she asked, "What does Éowyn say about this?" When I did not answer, she gave me a sharp glance. When I still did not answer, she stopped in her tracks. It was unexpected and I continued a couple of steps beyond her before stopping myself and turning back.
"Faramir. Surely you've spoken of this to your wife?"
"No. Not yet."
"Whyever not? It's been almost a year!" Exasperation was plain in her voice.
I grimaced. "How well would that go over, do you think? You know who Éowyn's brother is. You know how the Rohirrim are. You've been there. Their social order is a ladder with exactly two rungs-Warriors and All Those Other People. I remember Éowyn telling me you had to defend me to some of the marshals' wives, back before we were married. They thought me suspect even then. What do you think will happen if this becomes public?"
Hethlin's well-groomed eyebrow arched. "Faramir, do you honestly mean to tell me that you think that the one defining difference between the Men of the West and the men who never saw Numenor is that only the Men of the West can properly appreciate the myriad uses of bureaucrats?"
I couldn't help it-despite the seriousness of the subject, I had to laugh. Hethlin had indeed acquired polish during her stay at Dol Amroth. She'd even learned how to move among the great at court. I had not witnessed it myself, but I'd heard the tale from others of her confrontation with the Lady Jerulas during the celebration while defending my nephew. More than one had expressed disappointment at the Queen's intervention. Jerulas was hardly well-loved, to say the least, and the general opinion had been that, had Hethlin been allowed to continue, she would have chewed up and spat out Belfalas' most shrewish lady.
"No. But I do know that Éowyn takes pride in my honor as a warrior. I would not lose her respect. I would not lose her, Hethlin."
Hethlin looked down at her feet for a moment, then back up at me. "Faramir, speaking as a woman-for I am one, as I hope you do realize-"
"I do indeed realize."
"Speaking as a woman, I can assure you that Éowyn is more likely to be offended by your long silence, should she discover it, than by anything you might tell her. For your refusal to confide in her may very well lead her to believe that you do not trust her, or do not think she loves you sufficiently or is not strong enough to deal with the situation. None of which will endear you to her."
"She thought she was marrying a warrior, Heth."
"Bollocks!" Hethlin snapped. At my surprised look, she continued. "Faramir, I told her long before the two of you were married that you were only a warrior because you had to be and that she needed to understand that about you. I told her what you'd told me but a little time before, about putting down your sword as soon as you could and catching up on your reading. And she laughed and said that you were a dear friend and that she was impressed that you knew so much about so many things. She may not remember it now, but Éowyn was warned that you were not a warrior by nature."
This was news to me. I wondered what else Hethlin had told my wife, but wasn't sure I was courageous enough to ask for the particulars. "Why ever would you have bothered to go to all that trouble?"
"Because you loved her, and I loved you and I thought that she was what you wanted," Hethlin said with a shrug; then, when I started to speak further upon it, cut me off with an almost irritable gesture. "Don't worry, that's all done with now."
"I'm hardly worried, Heth," came my gentle response. Then, more briskly, I asked, "So-this policy of confiding everything of yours. Are you so honest with my uncle? And he with you?"
"Yes. We've always been straight with each other."
"And Lord Elrohir?" I couldn't help but ask. Her brow furrowed.
"Eventually," she said.
"'Eventually'? What does that mean?"
"It means that from time to time, Elrohir has held back truths from me because he thought that they would hurt me or that my poor little mortal brain couldn't handle them," Hethlin said dryly. "But to his credit, he's always come clean eventually."
"So he's eventually honest?"
"That's pretty much it. And I can tell you that I find it damned provoking and irritating, not to mention condescending. So I'm speaking from experience when I tell you that you will only anger Éowyn worse by hiding this from her."
"Does this mean you are not looking forward to the possibility of seeing Elrohir again?"
I became the recipient of a gimlet glare worthy of her large, raptor friends.
"You are changing the subject! Talk to your wife, Faramir! She is your helpmeet, is she not? Let her help you deal with this!" To my very great relief, having said her piece on the matter, Hethlin started walking again. I did as well. Before long, we reached the old ruins and strolled over to the corner where the walls still stood tallest and where we'd been accustomed to camp as Rangers. She surveyed it for a moment, lifting her head to the night breeze much as Uncle had, and I smiled.
"Looking for Eagles?" I asked, eager even as she had accused earlier to change the subject from my failures and foibles.
"There aren't any near here. I can't hear them," came her response. "Though I expect I'll meet all sorts when we go north. We'll be traveling beside the Misty Mountains most of the way, and that's where they nest for the most part."
"Perhaps one will take you flying again."
"In the winter?" She shuddered. "It was cold enough in the summer! Not before I've got heavier clothes, I hope!"
"It must have been marvelous, though."
"It was," Hethlin agreed. "And terrifying! The world looks entirely different from up there. It does help you to understand a little about the way that they think. Gwaenaur told me that Eagle language has all sorts of words for different kinds of winds and clouds and weather and such. Many more than we do. Not so many for earthbound things."
The scholar in me found himself intrigued. "Are you going to learn to speak Eagle then?"
Hethlin laughed, and uttered a squawk. "Unlovely though my voice is, even I don't have the right range for that!" I laughed as well.
"Do you know, it's odd," she said a moment later. "I can't hear the Sea. When I first went to Dol Amroth, I was very conscious of the sound of it, always there in the background, sort of a murmur. Eventually, I learned to ignore it. But now I notice that it's missing. The Prince is not going to like being so far away from it for so long."
"You will look after him, won't you?" I asked. She lightly slapped the swanship embroidered on the breast of her tunic by way of answer.
"That's pretty much the job description, right there."
"And protect him from himself, as you used to do me?"
Her mouth took a wry twist. "That's a little more difficult, since I'm at the root of most of his trouble."
"Perhaps the two of you will sort things out."
"Perhaps." Obviously reluctant to converse upon that matter any more, she walked over and scuffed her polished boot through the old fire ring. "We had some good times, didn't we? Even in the midst of it all."
"That we did. I was just thinking that a little while ago. Oh, and I didn't join you just to recount all my problems to you. I've got a gift for you."
"Really?" Her eyebrows went up. "You didn't have to do that."
"I wanted to." I reached into my belt pouch and brought forth her present. "It's going to be really cold up north whether you fly with the Eagles or not, so I thought this might come in handy."
'This' was a tinderbox done up in silver. A very nice one, with a compartment for the flint and steel and a larger compartment containing lint and some fine shavings for tinder. Hethlin took it from me and opened it, regarding the contents appreciatively.
"Thank you, Faramir. They issue us tinderboxes, but this is much nicer."
"I had it made especially. Look at the outside."
She closed it once more, then ran her fingers over the design upon the cover, then lifted it and peered at it in the moonlight.
"Is that…a daisy?"
"It is. A daisy in honor of Ithilien's fighting lady. For you will always be of Ithilien, no matter where you go."
An old joke between us, that daisy. Hethlin stood blinking in the moonlight for a moment, her fingers caressing the tinderbox. Then she took a step forward, and embraced me, her lips brushing my cheek.
"Thank you, Faramir."
If Uncle's embrace was no different, hers had changed and was much stronger than I remembered, all wiry muscle. She'd even grown a little taller, I thought. But her hair still smelled of pine and the woods, some soap she obviously favored. I let my hand rise and brush down that silver head and thought for just a moment upon old temptations that had been long ago set aside. Hethlin gave me a squeeze hard enough that I fancied my ribs were creaking, then released me and stepped back.
"I wanted you to see the house too, you know," I told her. "I hadn't intended you to just be Uncle's guard."
"You could give me the ha-penny tour when we go back down," she suggested. "I think I will survive without an intimate exploration of your pantries."
We both laughed, and started back down the hill.
At the end of the ha-penny tour, Hethlin declared herself satisfied, saying that this house reminded her of me where my house in the city did not. I mentioned the possibility of renovations there, and while her spoken answer was much more polite, I sensed an unspoken thought that almost anything I could do would be an improvement to the city house. She went off to seek her rest, and I wished a good evening to my Uncle and Liahan, still in the library, and went to bed as well.
The next morning was as fair as the last one had been. We set forth to return to the City mid-morning after breakfast, and as I rode, I reflected upon the previous day. It had not been a true house-warming party as the term was more properly understood, but it had served its purpose. Two people I loved and cared about had been brought into my home, and they had found it pleasing. And I had also resolved an issue between us which apparently had preyed far more heavily upon me than it had upon either of them, and that took a great weight from me. The King of Gondor was a wise man, I thought, as I rode back towards the City with a lighter heart; fortified, I hoped, against the duties and burdens that lay before me.