Darkness clung in the East, and the last light of the sun had faded hours before in the West. Six days had passed since the Captains of the West had gone. The Houses of Healing in Gondor lay as silent as if all within had traveled towards the gates of Mordor also. Even the lights of the Houses gave no hint of life. The Warden had ordered them extinguished after the third hour of the night on to ensure the rest of the patients, and the Lady Ioreth would soon make a round of beds to confirm that all were sleeping peacefully.

Not so much as a chirping cricket broke the silence of the night, but after a while a flicker of light glanced along the cloister. The gleam did not come from a candle, but a furtive ember that crept along the colonnaded walkway below the line of sight of a man, had there been any there to see. Even had a watcher espied the small light winking in the gloom he might have disbelieved his eyes, for it passed without a sound. The light came to a halt reflected in the polished oak door of one of the sickrooms. Then a faint scratching sounded against the sturdy wood.

“Hsst! Faramir, are you awake?”

The door opened, and a tall man looked out. His face was pale with illness, but the lines of pain were smoothed away and his grey eyes shone clear. Nevertheless, it took him a moment to spot his caller, who stood below the level of his breastbone.

“Master Meriadoc! It is far past the hour when we usually stroll in the garden. What brings you here?” Even as he asked, the Steward gestured his visitor inside. The room lit briefly as the hobbit drew on his pipe.

“To tell you the truth, Lord Faramir, I cannot sleep. This darkness from the East weighs on me like the darkness of a barrow mound. Pippin fares deeper into it, and Frodo and Sam as well, and when I close my eyes to sleep I feel the shadow of the Black Rider on me.”

Faramir listened to him gravely. The courage and hardihood of these small folk had not ceased to amaze him. “I thought I would relax with some pipeweed in the garden, but it’s lonely in the dark – and besides, if Dame Ioreth found me out there this late she’d scold my ears off. ‘No tonic like bed rest,’ she keeps saying. But how am I to rest in bed?”

“I also find it difficult to rest, now that the first weakness of my wound is past. But if you desire to escape the sharp side of Dame Ioreth’s tongue, you ought to hurry back to your bed before she comes to check on you.”

Merry grinned at that. “No worries there. I mounded up the bolsters under the covers. It’s a little trick that Strider showed us – Aragorn, I mean. She’ll never know I’m gone.” He perched on the end of Faramir’s bed, swinging his hairy feet off the edge and puffing contentedly on his pipe. Faramir took a seat facing his guest and watched the puffs of smoke rising from the ruddy coal of the pipe.

“I have not seen pipeweed from the North in years,” he said at last. “Not since Mithrandir was last in Gondor, searching through some of the archives. I followed him, for the love of the stories and lore he’d let fall in passing, and fetched whatever scrolls he needed. He would sit and smoke for hours as he read and thought. The smell of your smoke brings it back sharply, though it was years ago.”

The hobbit spoke with a catch in his voice. “Just so I’d promised to share a pipe and herb-lore with King Theoden! Strider said I should smoke and think of him, and I lit my pipe just now without a thought for him, though he was as fine a gentleman as anyone could hope to know.”

“You are doing exactly as King Elessar urged you to, then,” said Faramir gently. “And you were by King Theoden at the end, from what I heard. You defended him and his kinswoman at their moment of greatest need on Pelennor Fields, so you have no cause for shame. Without your aid, the White Lady of Rohan would not have survived to reach this house.”

The thought that she might not have survived to meet him here chilled him still. It had been such a near thing, decided by the hobbit’s courage and the Lady’s own unrelenting determination in the face of a far stronger foe. The witch-king had defeated many doughty warriors before he came across the two who had brought him down. Faramir shook his head at the thought. Even the Lord of the Nazgul, eons old in cunning and sorcery and secure in the prediction that “no man” could kill him, could see his doom before the fatal moment. Imagine the witch-king’s horror at encountering not one but two determined warriors, neither a man. How bright the Lady Eowyn must have shone in that moment, against the great shadow of Angmar.

Faramir rose then and crossed the room to a small chest of cedar wood. Thinking of Lady Eowyn’s needs, he had sent for some of the clothes left from his mother’s wardrobe. While the women of the Houses of Healing had provided her with clean garments to replace her torn and battle-stained clothes, they had had nothing worthy of Eomund’s royal daughter. Inside the chest were garments that suited her station and her beauty. He had only to present them to her in some way that would not make her lovely face frost over.

Merry’s mind had turned in a similar direction, unaware of Faramir’s thoughts. “I do not believe that she went to the Pelennor Fields intending to survive. I have not seen anyone so fey as she since –” He stuttered to a halt. Faramir could almost hear the completion of the thought, since Boromir.

Merry hurried on, as if to distract the man from his unfortunate words. “Anyway, she needs some fun, a laugh, maybe a pipeful of Longbottom Leaf and a glass of the Gaffer’s brew.” He jumped to his feet with a creak from the ropes of the bed. “We ought to go visit her! Pippin left me his second best pipe, from Saruman’s stores, you know, and I rather think the old wizard owed it to her.”

Faramir began to demur, but the hobbit’s enthusiasm overwhelmed his objections. Finally he picked up the casket of clothes as his own offering and followed the perian out into the garden. Eowyn’s room looked East, and opened off of a courtyard in another wing.

As the hobbit and the man crossed the hallway between the two, a pale light came bobbing toward them. Faramir spied it first, and gave a short “hst!” Before the sound had finished crossing his lips, his companion had darted backwards out of the hallway and under a bush in the courtyard. His bare feet made no noise on the stones, and once in his hiding place he lay as still as a Ranger in ambush. Hampered by the casket, Faramir followed him more slowly, and rolled up as close as he could to the low wall of the colonnade.

The lamplight came nearer, and with it the sound of slow footsteps. The young Steward of Gondor had far too much time to imagine what the approaching Healer might think to find him hiding in the garden, and what his father’s cronies might say when the story was told. The footsteps had almost reached his hiding place, and with them a low voice. He couldn’t make out the words, but his shoulders tensed in anticipation of discovery. When the voice was almost on top of him, he recognized it. Ioreth the Healer was singing, almost tunelessly, “The Flower of Dol Amroth”. She passed on and the song faded, only to be replaced by the light chuckling of the perian.

“Pippin and I together haven’t had many scrapes as close as that,” he confided as they crept onto the walkway once more. “I guess once you’ve learned to swipe mushrooms from farmer Maggot, the skills stay with you.”

Faramir laughed as well. The harmless stealth was exhilarating. He had not hidden for any reason other than to save his life or take an enemy’s in many years, not since Boromir had been young enough to play with him. When Boromir had reached his young manhood, the heavy duties of the Steward’s heir and Captain of the forces of Gondor had taken all his time. Faramir, left without a playmate, had forgotten hide and seek and begun to search out the old lore of his city instead.

Soon they came to the closed door of the Lady of Rohan. Faramir stood in the shadows while Merry walked up and rapped lightly on it, loud enough to be heard, but too gently to wake up any inside. The Lady was not asleep, though, and came to the door with the swiftness of one who had been watching for visitors.

She quirked a blond brow and surveyed them. “This is unexpected. You have come only minutes after the Healer stopped by to assure herself that I was resting. Did she summon you, my Lord Steward, to persuade me to go to sleep like an obedient patient?” Challenge shone brightly from her eyes.

“No, Lady, nothing of the kind -”

“We brought pipeweed!” The hobbit’s chatter raced past Faramir’s cautious speech. “And Pippin left me his spare pipe. Really, I think he’d want you to have it. Won’t you invite us in?”

Eowyn’s shoulders shook and she stepped back from the doorway. The two visitors took this as an invitation and joined her inside. Faramir marveled – could anyone resist the Shire folk when they used all their persuasion?

Eowyn gestured them to chairs by the fire. She had built the blaze up well, still cold at times from the memory of the Wraith’s darkness. She pulled up a stool beside them, then stirred the fire again and added wood. The sling she wore on her left arm did not hinder her. Faramir was glad to see that she had not been scanted in her supply of firewood. It was limited, as all supplies were recently in Gondor, but no one deserved the warmth of a good fire more than the heroic princess of the Eorlings. The firelight chased gold and amber highlights up the length of her hair. Faramir, as always, found himself staring at her hair, so rich and rare a color among his people.

Merry busied himself with getting out his extra pipe and tobacco pouch. The pipe he’d been smoking before had gone dark, but he quickly relighted it using a spill from the fire. Then he puffed mellow rings while he inspected his cousin’s pipe.

“Pip never did have the habit of cleaning his pipe properly. I can’t imagine what the Old Took would say to have a grandson of his so careless of his pipe.”

Faramir watched the process of cleaning and refilling the pipe closely. In his experience, each pipe smoker carried out the business differently, but all handled it with great seriousness. Besides, he could watch the perian at his ritual and sneak occasional glances at Eowyn unnoticed. Each time he looked, her gaze was focused on the fire.

He nerved himself up to speak. He had faced orcs, Haradrim and Nazgul, so the White Lady’s wall of ice should not terrify him. “Lady, I have noticed that you feel the cold of the evenings. Our nights in spring can be rather sharp, when the river brings the sea mist up to the City.”

She turned to him, firelight lining her cheekbone. “It is far colder on the plains of Rohan when the winter wind comes off the mountains, but you are right. Though I am mostly recovered, I find the chill bites through me more than it used to.”

“Try this, Lady Eowyn. There’s nothing like a good bowl of Longbottom Leaf for restoring the warmth to your bones.” Merry extended the pipe to her. Eowyn accepted it with a smile in her grey eyes. It suggested how she would look laughing; Faramir promised himself that he would see her laugh. The pipe looked very small in her hand.

“Now,” the perian continued, “you hold it to your mouth, and when I light it, you must draw on it to bring the fire into the bowl.” He demonstrated with a long pull on his own pipe. When Eowyn nodded to show that she was ready, Merry moved around to her other side and lit his match. She sucked on the pipe at his signal, and almost instantly collapsed coughing. Merry caught the pipe as she dropped it, his face quizzical with dismay.

Both the princess and the perian looked as if they could use a pat on the back. Faramir stood and offered it cautiously. Eowyn’s shoulder felt warm and vivid under his hand. She did not withdraw from his touch, but looked up with her face red from coughing.

“I am afraid your pipeweed is not for me, Master Meriadoc, but I thank you for sharing the customs of your Shire with me.” With the flush of her coughing fit on her cheeks, she looked more approachable. Faramir took the opportunity.

“I also brought something to warm you.” He went to the box he’d brought with him and withdrew a rich blue mantle. Presuming upon their closeness of a moment before, he wrapped it around her shoulders. Once again, she accepted his touch without demur, even when he lifted the pale gold length of her hair out of the collar of the robe to lay it across her shoulders. There it shone like the sun deep in a cloudless midday sky, and the silver stars set on the garment were no brighter than her eyes.

The hobbit watched them, smiling around his pipe stem. He seemed about to make a comment, when he was interrupted by a rapid knock at the door.

“Lady Eowyn! Are you still up?” Ioreth had returned. “You promised that you would be in bed soon, but I see that your fire is blazing up again. My lady, you must rest.” Merry put his hand over his mouth, fighting a giggle. Faramir bit his lip against a laugh as well and gestured to his hostess. She frowned almost as if she might laugh herself and called to the Healer.

“I did not mean to be up still. I must have fallen asleep in my chair before the fire.”

“And are you going to bed now?” Ioreth pressed her, as if to a child. The door rattled, then opened. The three inside exchanged guilty looks, while Ioreth surveyed them from the doorway.

“Lord Faramir! Master Meriadoc! For shame! Have you nothing better to do than keep this poor child from her rest? Go back to your own rooms now.” She shooed them out of the room with flapping hands. As the door closed behind him, Faramir thought he heard Eowyn laughing.

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