Days of preparation pass and soon the time comes for Éomer to ride back to Mundburg. She comes out to the stables with him, drawn by some nebulous want.
He turns to her in the midst of loading provisions. "So, tell me, Éowyn…what is it that you find in your betrothed?"
She has expected this sort of question, and yet it still takes her by surprise, for she has not thought of an answer. She starts to speak, and instead looks away at the long grass, waving in the wind.
"I thought that you might find your path… elsewhere," he says with a rueful smile. " 'Tis not so strange that your choice lies with our allies to the South. In truth I thought you might someday find the Steward's elder son to be a suitable match, so like he was to our own people."
She starts and glances toward her brother, but he takes no notice, meant to land no jab. She wants to be angry—this idea is almost repugnant—but checks herself as she recalls fond reminisces in the garden.
She, too, remembers Boromir. Only once did she see him, come to pay his respects to their King, but the impression remains of a man too sure, too proud, expecting them all to be awed. Her brother certainly was. He was a fearsome warrior, and earned her reserved respect on behalf of her people. But she remembers the way he looked at her but once, assessing her, then bestowed a smile meant to be disarming.
She had not spoken of that in the garden.
"Nay," she says simply. He looks at her and starts to ask, but thinks better of it.
What is it this man offers? Freedom. The word comes unbidden. Freedom of what? From what?
She begins haltingly. "My…betrothed…" My betrothed! "He sees me as I am."
Her brother looks slightly surprised, but nods slowly. "That is well. But yet you seem to me to hesitate still. What is it you fear?"
What do I fear? For once, nothing of substance—nothing but my own wayward navigation, and its consequences.
She gives a partial answer. "I cannot help but wonder whether it is right for me to abandon this place, and leave you to set things aright."
His smile holds hard-won understanding. "Too long have you tried to carry that weight. 'Tis time you got out from under it. I would not have given my blessing had I deemed it impossible to carry on alone."
"You gave—" An odd mixture of relief and indignation rises up, and she feels it in her cheeks. "When was it that he asked for your blessing?"
"The day ere we rode out."
She narrows her eyes and holds firm her lips, deciding on indignation. But before she can speak it—
"I also warned him that my blessing was naught but a door opened, not a doom pronounced."
She nods and tries to suppress a smile, but cannot, and grasps his hand. "Thank you, my brother."
"I believe that he intends to ask you again for your hand when he comes, and may keep on asking, all the way up to the moment you are wed. Which is one mark in his favour, as exasperating as it may become."
Laughter bursts from that now-uncovered well inside. She wonders if she will ever stop. But then—when he comes—
"When he comes, you say?"
Her brother coughs, casts his gaze over the grass, and affects the tone of a marshal. "Aye, when I return with the company—ah, the funeral escort of our Théoden King—the new Steward of Gondor will be among them."
"I see," she says evenly. "Did you intend to reveal this to me beforehand?"
"If you asked. What is one more distinguished guest among the Wise and the Lords of the lands round about us?"
"Oh, you are wicked."
He grins his familiar grin of jests.
"Do not worry, my dear sister. I will make sure that he does not lose his way, and that the men of my éored do not deal with him harshly even as he comes to steal away their most treasured prize...not too harshly."
Again she speaks with a shove.
"There is much yet to do. Get you gone and let me labor in peace. And do not tarry too long."
As she seeks for the next task, her mind begins to turn. She had told this man she would return. Did he doubt her word? Or is it that he cannot wait?
The time of their parting comes back to her. She had spoken her piece, suddenly rueing the need, and hesitated on how to follow, offering her hand in a vague gesture of conciliation. He took it and drew her close, nearly engulfing her, head bent over her, seeming to want to breathe in her very essence with long slow breath. She wondered at her lack of alarm. But then he released her and came back to the necessary state of leave-taking, and immediately she felt bereft.
She thinks now that he was simply taking what solace he could against the chances of the days to come.
Desperate clinging, or pieces falling together as they should be?
At an idle time she finds herself moving toward her chamber, thinking of some small chore or object to retrieve, but knowing what it is that draws her. She has not looked at his letters to her since she left the city. She wonders now if they will be there, or if they were only present in a dream.
But no, they are there in the drawer. Not many, four small leaves of parchment, but they seem to weigh as much as a sword in her hand.
She finds the treasured box her grandmother gave her and starts to put the letters inside. Simply putting things in their places, as she has been doing now for days. But she cannot help but glance at the first word of the topmost, then the first line, and then she is sitting on the bed and reading them all.
She looks up at the familiar walls. Here is the dent in the bed frame where she stabbed it with a dull knife in a childish rage. There is the place on the windowsill she rested her head to look at the furthest constellations deep in the night. The room seems different, seen as if from memory and not right in front of her, an echo.