Faramir looked at the plans in front of him, at the construction site, back at the plans, and then to the short, bearded gentleman in front of him.
"No, Master Dwarf, the outbuildings must be completed before the Great Hall. We're not going to be doing any entertaining here for some time, and the outbuildings are essential." When the dwarf grunted, he added, "It's either that or we stable the horses in the Great Hall."
"I don't know why those beasts need such a big stable anyway," the dwarf grumbled.
"Don't let Eowyn hear you say that," Faramir warned.
"No worries there. She's off with my pointy-eared friend, planting daisies or some such."
Faramir laughed. It was good to see Gimli again, and his assistance in the design and building of their home in Emyn Arnen was greatly appreciated.
Gimli and Legolas had shown up two days ago, less than a week after Faramir and Eowyn had finally moved their household here to Ithilien. Their home had been under construction since late last summer, but between his illness and some terrible rains during the winter, they hadn't gotten nearly as far as Faramir had hoped. They had finally moved only because Eowyn had insisted that if she was to have any sort of garden at all this year, it had to be planted now, and she was not about to make the long journey between Minas Tirith and Emyn Arnen every day.
She was right, of course. And the main house was just about complete. It would be weeks if not months yet before it was all decorated to their liking, but at least there was a roof and a door, and a bed–a magnificent bed they'd bespoken in Rohan and had shipped to them in pieces. It was still in pieces when they'd arrived in Emyn Arnen last week, and figuring out how to put it together had been a very amusing beginning to their life in Ithilien.
Faramir took a deep breath, gazing out over the hills of Emyn Arnen. His home. He loved Ithilien, loved everything about it. Loved its green hills, its meandering streams, its trees, its scrubby bushes and luxuriant grasses. And he loved his home here. Even if it was only about half completed.
The project had become considerably more grand than either he or Eowyn had anticipated. They'd planned on building a simple yet sturdy home for themselves in Emyn Arnen. But once the decision had been made to not rebuild Osgiliath, Faramir realized that wherever the Prince of Ithilien made his home, that would become Ithilien's "seat". So their simple home had become something of a compound; their house was now just one small part of it. There would be the Great Hall for official functions and meetings, quarters for visitors and guests, stables, kitchens, smithies and shops, servants' dwellings, and a small barracks for the guards who would be assigned to the compound. Indeed, it had turned from a simple home into a small community.
They had chosen one of the higher hills in the range and had situated their home near the top of it. In fact, the Great Hall would be at the very top. It was a similar style and philosophy to Edoras, with its small community gathered on the hillside below the Golden Hall, its wall encircling the hill's base. Emyn Arnen's wall would come later, though in the meantime they had the added protection of hills on all sides. There were only two easy paths from the lowlands up to their home, and they'd made sure one of those was inaccessible. It was amazing what a thicket of thorny shrubs could do as protection. The one remaining accessible path meandered between the hills from the valley below before reaching the compound, and any visitor would be spotted long before they reached the summit.
While the Great Hall would be the focal point for the site, with its walls made of Osgiliath stone, Faramir's heart, and indeed most of his focus, was with his home. His house, the first place that had ever been totally his. It was built of stone and wood, reflecting the basic style of Gondor, but with some flavor of Rohan added, as befitted their combined cultures. The two styles were so different, they were a little afraid to see how they would look together. But surprisingly, they managed to blend the styles admirably. The house's main door faced the center courtyard, just to the north and west of the Great Hall. But it was the back of the house Faramir was especially pleased with. It faced northwest, and when one stood on the portico in the back, one could look out across the hills, over the Anduin and across the Pelennor to Minas Tirith.
Although he no longer permanently lived there, Faramir still kept the Steward's residence, as he would be required to be in Minas Tirith frequently on business. And Minas Tirith was his first home. He had grown up there, spent many long hours in its museums and libraries, learned to fight and love and die there. And he'd learned how to live, too. Yes, Minas Tirith would always hold a special place in his heart.
It was a little over an hour's ride at a moderate pace from gate to gate, because the only place to cross the river was at Osgiliath. Ideally, Faramir would have liked to institute a ferry to cross the Anduin at Harlond, closer to the hills, but that would have to wait as well.
To the south and west of the house was Eowyn's pride and joy: her garden. Granted, at this point, there was little in it worth mentioning, but the soil in Ithilien was rich and the air was pure; things grew quickly here. She couldn't wait to start making her way throughout Ithilien, traveling with Legolas as he and his elven kin replanted the countryside and made it bloom.
In fact, it had only been the necessity of traveling to Rohan in the early spring that had delayed their move. But there was no question that they would go to see Eomer and Lothiriel wed. Nothing could have kept them away from that event. Not to mention Eowyn had enjoyed visiting her home again.
So now here it was, early April, and they were finally happily ensconced in Ithilien, Eowyn planting flowers with Legolas, and Faramir arguing about construction details with Gimli.
He looked down at the dwarf on the other side of the table. "I'm sorry, Gimli, I've been–"
"Aye, that's all right. The Spring sometimes does that to me, too. But don't tell the elf."
Faramir laughed. Gimli and Legolas were the most unlikely of friends, but truer friends were hard to find.
"Now then, about the stables," he prompted.
Gimli sighed exaggeratedly. "Very well. We'll have the stables completed next. But if we don't get the Great Hall finished, it will look like the wreckage it was made out of."
Faramir just shook his head. He was not going to argue with the dwarf again about using stone from Osgiliath for the Great Hall. Gimli wanted new-hewn stone with a polished look to it, but Faramir was insistent that they take stone from the ruins of the once-great city. It was deemed too expensive to rebuild Osgiliath to its former glory, and indeed, with the threat from the east destroyed, it was no longer needed as the defense of Minas Tirith. It would still be a garrison, but Osgiliath's days as a city were over.
But not forgotten, and that was why Faramir wanted to use some of its stones for the building of his hall. In those stones, he reasoned, dwelt the history of Gondor, a history that should be remembered and honored. Better to use these once-fine stones to create something new and fine in Ithilien than to let them crumble into decay with the rest of the abandoned city. He'd been flexible on many other points in his new home, but on this matter he was resolved.
"My lord!" One of the guards ran up the hill toward him. It was a steep hill, and there were no steps on the side where the soldier had come from, so he was breathing heavily when he reached the top. "The King approaches!" he panted.
Faramir started. "What? When?"
"Now. We saw riders coming from Minas Tirith, but they were too far away, and there were only two of them. It was only when they reached the valley that we realized who they were."
"They're by themselves?" Faramir didn't even question who was riding with Aragorn. The Queen was the only logical person who would ride with the King so unexpectedly, especially since Imrahil had gone back to Dol Amroth after his daughter's wedding in Rohan.
Faramir gazed down the hill, but couldn't see the main gate. "Very well. Obviously, when they arrive, see to them."
"My lord," the guard nodded and ran back down the hill.
Faramir looked at Gimli. "Forgive me, my friend, but–"
"Ach, it'll be good to see Aragorn again," Gimli dismissed.
"You didn't stop on the way here?" Faramir frowned.
"Er...no. We came here directly. We thought we would stop in the City once we were done here."
Faramir chuckled. Aragorn was in for a surprise, then.
No sooner had he thought this than he heard the sound of hoofbeats coming up the hill. Faramir cast a quick glance toward the garden where Eowyn was with Legolas. Well, nothing for it, they'd just have to surprise her as well.
Aragorn and Arwen were dismounting, handing their horses over to the groomsman and a guard.
"Forgive us for intruding, my friend," Aragorn began, smiling broadly. "We come as beggars, seeking your hospitality."
"You are most welcome," Faramir replied with a smile, stepping up to clasp Aragorn's arm. "Though our hospitality is a little meager at the moment."
"No matter," Aragorn said. "We are glad to simply be in your–Gimli!" Aragorn spied his old friend.
The dwarf laughed and clapped his hands before barreling into Aragorn to give him a mighty hug.
"When did you get here?" Aragorn asked, once the dwarf let him go and he could breathe again.
"Day before yesterday," Gimli answered.
"And you stopped not at Minas Tirith? I think I've been snubbed, old friend."
Gimli looked chagrined. Or rather, as chagrined as one can look when most of one's face is covered by a great beard. "We wanted to get here and get some work done while the weather was so fair. We were going to stop by when we were through here."
"We? Is Legolas with you?" Arwen asked.
"Yes, he's in the garden with Eowyn," Faramir answered. "I'm afraid I didn't have the chance to let them know you were coming; they're probably up to their elbows in dirt."
"No matter," Aragorn dismissed. "We know we're intruding, we can't expect–"
"It is no intrusion," Faramir countered. "We're pleased to see you." He gazed at Aragorn for a moment, taking in his friend's slightly too-broad smile and a touch of something pained behind his eyes. "You are always welcome here, invitation or no."
The pained look faded somewhat. "Thank you," Aragorn said. "That's good to hear."
Faramir glanced at Arwen, who caught his gaze for the briefest of moments before flicking her eyes away and back to her husband. She had noticed her husband's slightly odd behavior as well.
Aragorn, meanwhile, was looking around the compound. "You're making progress," he said.
"Not as quickly as I'd like, but yes, it's coming along," Faramir agreed.
"Will you show me?" Aragorn asked.
"We should let Eowyn know you're here," Faramir answered.
"Of course," Aragorn nodded.
"Would you like to clean up first?" he asked, specifically directing his question to the Queen.
"I'm fine," she answered with a smile.
"Very well," Faramir nodded. "Come with me."
He took them on the path that went beside the house to the sloping plot of land that was becoming Eowyn's garden. It was one of the fairest spots on the hill, already lush with flowing grasses and several trees, including a very impressive ash tree near the house.
One long stretch near the house was dug up and it was here Eowyn and Legolas knelt, putting seedlings in the ground. As they approached, Faramir could hear Eowyn's laughter and the soft murmur of the elf's voice.
"Eowyn," he called and she looked up.
She saw their guests and her eyes widened. "Oh!" She jumped up. "My Liege, my lady," she began, bowing, "I'm sorry, I–"
"No need to apologize," Aragorn said, approaching her, "we are unexpected visitors in your midst."
"I'm afraid I'm–" she held her hands out in front of her; they were very nearly black with Ithilien's rich soil.
"That's all right," Aragorn said, leaning in to kiss her cheek. Then he took one of her dirty hands in his. "That's the best kind of dirt, that of good, honest earth."
She laughed as he released her hand, and Faramir saw her glance at him, a look of slight confusion on her face.
Aragorn, meanwhile was greeting Legolas, who had wiped his hands on a cloth. "Mae govannen!" the King said, clapping his friend on the shoulder. Legolas smiled broadly at him while passing the cloth to Eowyn, who wiped her hands on it and went to greet the Queen. "You did not come to Minas Tirith to see me," Aragorn mock-scolded.
"We would do so before we left," Legolas assured him. "I wanted to take advantage of this fine weather, and the Lady Eowyn was anxious to get things planted."
"Eowyn, this is lovely," Arwen said, looking around the garden. "I love the tree!"
Eowyn smiled. "We tried to keep as many of the trees as we could. In fact, in some cases, placement of the buildings was determined by where the trees were."
"That's wonderful, keeping the natural setting," the Queen said.
"We've still much to do here," Eowyn went on, "but we're getting a good start."
"Please," Aragorn said, "don't let us disturb you."
"Oh, no, that's fine," Eowyn said, brushing at the side of her forehead with the back of her hand and leaving a dirty smudge there. "I could use a break anyway." She smiled at Legolas, who returned the expression.
"I'm sure you must be tired from the journey," Faramir said. "Why don't we go up here?" He indicated the porch which had steps leading down to the garden. "We can sit, enjoy the view, and I'll arrange for refreshments."
"If you'll excuse me, I'll get cleaned up," Eowyn said and hurried into the house.
Faramir watched her go, smiling. Ever since they came to Ithilien, it had been like watching Eowyn blossom along with the flowers. She was a woman very in tune with nature, and the cold stone of Minas Tirith did little to nurture her. It wasn't that she withered in the City as his mother had done, but that she didn't thrive. After several weeks without anything but a small patch of grass and shrubs to suggest nature, she started spending longer and longer periods out in the Pelennor with her horse.
It had been just after the turn of the year when he'd taken her south to Dol Amroth to visit Imrahil and his family. She'd been instantly enchanted by the sea, as he knew she would be, but found the city of Dol Amroth itself to be little better than Minas Tirith, although she'd enjoyed spending time with Imrahil, who she adored. Faramir had enjoyed the trip as well. He hadn't been to his uncle's home by the sea in quite a few years, and he relished the memories the place evoked.
Once they'd returned home again, they had only a month before they left for Rohan and Eomer's wedding, and by the time they'd left, Eowyn was more than ready to be out of the city once more.
And now they were here, surrounded by nature, and Eowyn was sparkling in a way he'd never seen in her before. It was as if she'd finally found the place she most belonged. She was "home".
So was he.
The small party filed onto the porch and took seats.
"Just be careful not to sit too close to the edge," Faramir warned. "We're still working on the railing. Now let me go and see about refreshments and–"
"Please, my friend," Aragorn interrupted, "don't put yourself out on our account."
"It's no trouble," Faramir insisted. "I'm sure after their morning in the sun Legolas and Eowyn could use something cool, and I've never known Gimli to turn down a drink," he teased. "Excuse me."
He went into the house, heading toward the servants' area. He found Penil coming in from the front of the house.
"My lord, the mason wants to know if he's to continue with the Great Hall."
Faramir sighed. As if he didn't have enough to deal with. "No, tell him to take a break and someone will be with him directly. Then send someone to the kitchens and get us a tea tray for six with cold tea and beer. Have it sent to the back porch."
"Yes, my lord," Penil nodded and turned to go. Then he turned back. "I got used to his just showing up at home in Minas Tirith," he commented, "I didn't think he'd still do it here."
Faramir laughed. "I rather suspect we should just expect the King to turn up at any time, no matter where we are, and that way we're never caught out."
"Yes, sir," Penil smiled and went to run his errands.
Faramir took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He shook his head. Perhaps that was all it was; Aragorn was feeling awkward about just dropping in, though that had never bothered him in the City. He headed to his chambers.
Eowyn was standing at the washbasin, her dress pulled down to around her waist as she cleaned up. He watched the muscles in her back as she toweled her arms and neck and felt himself stir for her, as he always did.
"That's a sight for sore eyes," he murmured, closing the door behind him.
She glanced over her shoulder and smiled at him. "Don't even think about it; we've got a household full of guests."
"Yes, I know," he said, coming up behind her and putting his hands on her waist. "But that doesn't mean I can't admire the view." He nuzzled her neck.
"Faramir, stop it," she said, laughing. "I mean it, I have to get dressed."
"I'll help you," he murmured into her hair.
"Oh, yes you're being a big–" she gasped as he stroked a breast and caressed the back of her neck. "You don't play fair," she breathed.
Reluctantly, he let her go. "I'm sorry," he said.
"Oh, yes, I see how sorry you are," she smiled at him. She slipped her arms into her dress. "Here, make yourself useful and do me up in back."
Silently, he complied. What he wanted to do, of course, was take the dress off her, but there were guests to consider.
"What's going on with Aragorn?" Eowyn asked.
"You noticed that, too?"
"I noticed...something," she said. "Almost as if...as if he was trying too hard, putting forth an effort to be sociable. That's so unlike him."
"I don't know what's going on. But Arwen noticed it, too. If you get a chance...."
"I'll talk to her," she nodded.
"There. All done." He smoothed the back of her dress and let her braid fall down her back again. "I've ordered refreshments."
"Good." She turned around, gazing at him. "There will be time for us later, my love."
"I know," he said, pulling her close. "I've just gotten used to not sharing you."
She laughed lightly. "We haven't been here that long. And Legolas and Gimli have been here for the past two days."
He shrugged as they left their chamber, walking back toward the porch.. "It's different, somehow. I don't know. Maybe it's Aragorn this time. I feel like we have to play host."
"That's probably because they've never been here before," she suggested.
When they went out onto the porch, Legolas and Arwen were talking softly, the Sindarin flying rapidly. They looked up as Faramir and Eowyn came out.
"Where's Aragorn?" Faramir asked.
Legolas answered. "Gimli is showing him around. They will be back soon."
Faramir debated going after them, then changed his mind.
"My Lady," he began instead, sitting opposite Arwen, "is the King all right?"
She sighed and her eyes closed briefly. "I do not know. He has been...quiet the last few days. As if absorbed in thinking about something. I try not to bother him when he is like that. If he needs to talk it out, he will come to me. But he came to bed very late last night, and his sleep was not restful.
"Then this morning, he announced he would ride to Ithilien to visit you. Perhaps you can find out what is troubling him."
Faramir considered what she had said. "If he is not inclined to talk to you, I don't think–"
"One will often say to a friend what one cannot say to a spouse," she suggested.
Faramir was about to refute her when he stopped himself. There had been enough moments in his life with Eowyn when he found it difficult to tell her what was troubling him, times that Aragorn had pulled that information out of him easily. "I'll try, my lady," he finally said.
She just smiled. "Faramir, I am an uninvited guest in your home; surely you can call me Arwen."
Faramir ducked his head, feeling himself redden. He had no problem, when they spent time together in Minas Tirith, either in the King's residence or the Steward's, in being less formal with her. Why was it that here, in his own home, he felt like he had to be on his best behavior? "My apologies, my...Arwen," he managed and she laughed softly.
"Thank you, my friend," she said, squeezing his hand.
Aragorn and Gimli chose that moment to return, followed directly by a maid bearing the refreshment tray.
"Faramir," Aragorn began, sitting next to his wife, "your plans here get more elaborate every time I hear of them."
"We kept forgetting about things," Faramir explained with a shrug. "It's one thing when you're building a family dwelling, but something else again when you're building the provincial seat. We hadn't planned on it being this complex, but it...got away from us."
Aragorn laughed. "Still, it will do Ithilien proud. It will do you proud."
"Faramir," Gimli began, "I've told the mason to work on the stables. He said his part should complete by the end of the week and then the carpenters can start."
"Good. Thank you, Gimli," Faramir answered, feeling chagrined that he'd completely forgotten the mason was waiting for instructions. "I'd meant to see to him when I went in and it slipped my mind." He looked up and Eowyn was watching him, a slight smile on her face. He grinned back at her. He knew exactly why he'd forgotten.
Eowyn served everyone refreshments and quite a long time was spent just sitting and talking, old friends together. Until eventually, Legolas said he should get back to the garden, and Gimli made a similar excuse about the building.
Eowyn got to her feet. "If you don't mind," she addressed her husband, "I'll go help Legolas. We want to get that entire side bed planted today."
"Of course, go on," Faramir answered and she kissed his cheek.
"Eowyn, could you use my assistance?" Arwen asked. "I find I miss puttering in a garden."
Eowyn smiled. "We'd be pleased for your help. Let me see if I can find you an apron so you don't dirty your dress."
Arwen just shook her head. "My dress is not a fine one; a little dirt won't hurt it."
"Could you use our help as well?" Aragorn asked.
"She might accept yours," Faramir told him with a smile, "but I'm afraid I'm forbidden to touch anything in the garden."
Eowyn put her hand on her hip. "Well if you'd bothered to ask before pulling all the wild irises, you wouldn't be in the deep now."
"They looked like weeds," he shrugged. He'd been enthusiastic about helping her until he thoroughly disgraced himself in the garden. Now he was relegated to watching her and hauling heavy bushels of dirt and stone.
Aragorn just laughed. "I'm afraid I wouldn't recognize a wild iris, either."
"But you know herbs," Eowyn said.
"Yes, but for healing. I know many of those, but few flowers or cooking herbs."
"Well, thank you for your offer, but I think we'll manage just fine," she said.
"It's clear we're not needed, my lord," Faramir said. "Let's find Gimli and see what he needs."
But the dwarf was busy carving newel posts for the railing that would surround the back porch, and there didn't seem to be anything else that needed their attention.
Faramir gazed at Aragorn, who seemed to be more tense than was his wont. He seemed coiled tight, like a spring. His gaze was never still as he examined every detail of his surroundings.
"Let's walk," Faramir said. "It's a beautiful day, and I suspect the exercise would do us both good."
Aragorn smiled. "You're not wrong."
With a quick word to Gimli, they set off.
The doe was completely unaware of them. She stood next to the stream, drinking, her soft brown coat shining in the sunlight. They'd come upon her unexpectedly and she hadn't heard their approach.
"And me without my bow," Faramir whispered.
"You don't mean to bring her down," Aragorn questioned.
"I do if I want to bring dinner home," Faramir replied. "It was a mild winter and game is becoming plentiful. We'll need to be careful lest it become too plentiful. And there's hardly a part of her that wouldn't be useful to us.
"But it's a moot point, as I have no weapon."
"I have a knife," Aragorn offered.
Faramir glanced at him. "How's your aim?"
"Probably not good enough to bring her down, and we daren't risk simply wounding her."
Faramir nodded. "We'll let her go, then. Come on, I'm thirsty." He moved through the thicket, making enough noise that the deer startled and took off, leaping gracefully over the grasses as she made her escape.
The water in the stream was clear and cold. Farther to the north, the waters that ran from the Morgul Vale were still polluted and sluggish, but here nature was gaining a good foothold.
They drank their fill, then settled on the ground, leaning against a nearby boulder.
It felt good, being out in nature again. As a Ranger in Ithilien, Faramir had spent years in the wild and had grown to love it, and he knew Aragorn, with his own years as a Ranger, felt the same way. They hadn't talked much on the hike, finding pleasure in silent companionship. It was one of the things Faramir had always admired in Aragorn, that ability to be comfortable in silence. As they'd traveled, the King's tension seemed to ease as his loose-limbed stride took over. Faramir smiled. Telcontar the name of his house was. Strider. It was an apt name.
Aragorn turned his face to the sun and closed his eyes, absorbing the warmth. Even though it was only April, the day was very mild, and away from shade it was getting warm. Faramir unlaced his tunic and unbuttoned his leather vest, rolling up his sleeves. He gazed at the burgeoning nature that surrounded them, reveling in its peace and its beauty.
"I would see these lands peopled again," he said softly. "They are so fair, they deserve to be enjoyed and used. Farmers to the south; herdsmen to the north. I would see towns built along the Anduin. I would see Minas Morgul cast down and the horror of those years erased. I would see peace in Ithilien."
Aragorn didn't open his eyes. "That is my wish also." He lowered his head and looked at his Steward. "You are making a good start."
"I hope so," Faramir smiled. "It feels sometimes like we're...pioneers, forging our way in a new land, never mind that the land was inhabited for thousands of years before."
"But has been uninhabited for hundreds of years since," Aragorn reminded him. "A lot can change in even a generation. A lot has changed in just one year."
It had been just over one year since Frodo threw the ring into Mount Doom and the evil power was destroyed. In that time, Faramir had become Steward, fallen in love, become Prince of Ithilien, been engaged, been married, been injured and near death, recovered, and now had become master of his own land. It was a lot to take in in a very short time.
"One year," Faramir murmured. He looked at his companion, who appeared to be lost in the same sorts of thoughts. "It's been quite a year for both of us."
"Indeed it has." Aragorn smiled, but there was something haunted in his eyes.
Faramir was debating how to broach the subject when Aragorn did it himself.
"I envy you, you know," he said.
"Me?" Faramir was surprised.
"This place. Your home. Your happiness."
Faramir stared at him, seeing not the confident king, nor even the stalwart ranger. Instead, he saw a man. Just a man, and a weary one at that. "What troubles you?" he asked. "And don't tell me there's nothing; I have eyes, I can see it."
Aragorn didn't bother to argue. He smiled sadly. "You are as shrewd as ever, my brother."
Aragorn took a deep breath, sighing heavily. "It's...difficult to pin down. I feel...restless. Irritated. As if my clothes were filled with sand." He raked a hand through his hair. "I have accepted my destiny, my birthright. I am proud to be Gondor's King. And I know that I am doing good."
"But?" Faramir prompted.
Aragorn gave a half-smile. "But I miss it. The Ranger. The freedom to roam wherever the road led me. Of being in control of my own destiny and not responsible for thousands of others. I even miss the fighting. At least in war, you could see the results of what you did. It was immediate. The enemy stood before you and you fought him. It was simple.
"Now.... Now it is politics and petty grievances and endless meetings. And papers. So many papers I sometimes feel that I am drowning in them. It seems there is nothing so small that it does not warrant the King's attention."
Faramir frowned. "If there are other tasks you wish me to–"
"No, you are a great help, as always," Aragorn insisted. "But...." His voice dropped to barely a whisper. "But you are not there. For the first time since I took the throne, I am alone."
Faramir's heart froze in his chest. "My liege, I–"
"I would not take you from this place," Aragorn continued. "I would not and I will not. Not when I see what it means to you. What it means to Eowyn. She loves it here, doesn't she? Far more than she ever liked Minas Tirith."
"Yes, she does," Faramir agreed.
"This is your home, and that is how it should be," Aragorn said, and Faramir wondered which of them he was trying to convince. "But I miss you." He took another deep breath, and the exhalation was a little shaky. "I miss Imrahil. I miss Boromir, and Legolas, and Gimli, and Gandalf, and the Hobbits.... I miss them all. I miss the companionship and the sense of purpose.
"For the first time, I start to wonder whether I am really the man for the job. I am a soldier, yes, and a leader on the battlefield. But the council chambers leave me feeling...moth-eaten. Just a little more diminished, each time I leave them. I have no patience for the foolish, petty concerns of Gondor's ministers, and sooner or later I will manage to alienate them. Some of them have all along resented a Ranger from the north upsetting their well-ordered lives. I knew it would not be easy. I just...never thought it would be this hard."
Faramir watched his King for a long moment. Aragorn had plucked a blade of grass and was twirling it between his fingers, staring at it spinning. Now that he'd revealed what was in his heart, some of the tension had faded, but it was replaced by a crushing sorrow that made Faramir ache to see it.
"What can I do?" Faramir asked softly. "Name it and it shall be done."
Aragorn looked up and the pain in his eyes was terrible to see.
"I will return with you to Minas Tirith," he went on, "and we'll go through that avalanche of papers. I left so hurriedly, we did not have time to set up a good procedure on how matters should move between us. And I know you have not been sending me everything you should," he scolded. Indeed, the courier who arrived every day with a parcel from the King had some days brought very few things that required Faramir's attention. At the time, he'd been grateful. Now he realized Aragorn was withholding them, lest he burden his Steward with too much work while he was still in the throes of moving.
Aragorn smiled sadly. "I didn't want to–"
"No, my liege. I am your Steward. Whether I am in Minas Tirith, or in Ithilien, or in Rohan, I am your Steward and will always be so. I am here to assist you. You don't have to take it all on yourself. Use me, that's what I'm there for."
"You should not have to burden yourself with my insecurities," Aragorn said.
Faramir couldn't stop his laugh. "Why not? You have burdened yourself with mine. I've lost count of the number of times I cried on your shoulder over injuries real or imagined, and you never turned me away, you never let me down. Let me return the favor. It is no hardship, believe me. It is what friends do." He put his hand on Aragorn's shoulder. "It is what brothers do."
Aragorn's eyes slid closed and he dropped his head, turning toward Faramir. But he did not move further. So Faramir took it upon himself, and he slid his hand behind the other man's shoulders, closing the gap between them. Only then did Aragorn reach for him, and Faramir held on and supported him, a hand gently rubbing his back.
He didn't think Aragorn wept, but he also did not pull away. They sat together for a long time, Aragorn's head resting on Faramir's shoulder, saying nothing, needing to say nothing. There were times when words were not just superfluous, they were intrusive; this was just such a moment.
Eventually, Aragorn sighed. "I have missed you," he whispered.
Faramir eased the hug, sliding his hand to cup the side of Aragorn's face. He stayed like that until Aragorn opened his eyes. "You should not," he said, holding Aragorn's gaze, "for I am not gone. I am right here, where you need me to be."
He held on, not letting him go, until Aragorn nodded his understanding. Then Faramir released him and they settled back against the boulder again. "Though I must say," Faramir began, "it is rather refreshing to see you have insecurities. I was beginning to think I was the only insecure one."
Aragorn chuckled. "Nay, I have plenty of them, my brother. More than you know."
"Yes, but you always keep them so well hidden." He glanced at Aragorn, grateful to see ease in his body posture and a little less pain in his eyes. "I take it you haven't explained any of this to Arwen."
He shook his head. "She.... She would understand, I am sure, but I do not.... We waited so long to be together. Her father forbade us to be together until I could claim my rightful place as King of Gondor and Arnor, and this I did. I suppose it is foolish masculine vanity but...it is that king she married, not this flawed creature you see before you."
Faramir shook his head. "No, my friend. It is a man she married. A human, mortal, flawed man. Do you really think she waited all that time just so she could be the consort to a king? She waited for you. All of you, the king and the man. Especially the man. A crown is a cold bedfellow, when all is said. But is not the crown she loves, it is you. King, yes, but also man.
"In trying to deny your manhood, whether to Arwen or to yourself, you place yourself above mortal men, which does everyone, including yourself, a grave disservice."
"I do not deny my manhood," Aragorn insisted.
"Your vulnerability, then," Faramir corrected. "That which makes us human. Not to say you have to revel in your imperfections, but you do have to accept them. Just because you're king now doesn't mean they all disappeared."
"It might be easier if they had," Aragorn said wryly, but Faramir shook his head.
"No, I would think that would make it more difficult, especially in dealing with the little annoyances that make up our day."
Aragorn looked at his Steward with a half-smile. "Such as Lord Celareth?"
Faramir laughed. Celareth was one of the oldest men on the Council, hide-bound and pedantic. It was the secret wish of many on the Council that one morning his servants would simply find Celareth dead in his bed, but at age ninety-five, the old man was still going strong. "Among others," he agreed.
Aragorn took a deep breath. "Why is it that the ones we love most are the ones it is most difficult to talk with?"
"Because they matter most," Faramir answered. "Because what they think is so important to us. We don't want to seem diminished in their eyes. Even though we know, in our deepest of hearts, that they will love us no matter what, we daren't take that risk. And I suppose we try to shield them from the lower side of our natures. If they do not know of our baser selves, they will not turn away from us."
"And in doing so," Aragorn completed, "we wind up turning away from them, hurting them. I know Arwen is concerned, but I had not the courage to tell her."
"But you will now?" Faramir suggested.
"I will now," Aragorn nodded. Then he smiled at his Steward. "Thank you, my brother."
"I did nothing," Faramir said.
"You listened. That is worth a great deal."
"I..." Faramir began. He could insist from now until next week that it was a mere trifle, but he knew how he'd felt, after unburdening himself to the King. "You are most welcome, my brother," he answered instead.
Aragorn smiled and stretched. "Shall we go on, or go back?"
"We can go on a little farther. There's a small falls a little ways up. I think it may become one of my favorite places."
"I'd like to see it," Aragorn agreed and they got to their feet, heading off again.
The falls were in a small grotto, almost like a miniature Henneth Annun.
"Only without the spectacular sunset," Faramir told Aragorn as they climbed down into the ravine. "It is too low for that. But it is secluded and safe. If not that I am loath to share it, I would establish it as another secure waystation and let the White Company keep it manned."
Aragorn looked around the grotto. "If it makes you feel better, it is really too small to be of much use as a safe haven. But you might keep some extra supplies here, just in case."
Faramir nodded. He'd found the spot while investigating the area surrounding Emyn Arnen when he first began work on their new home. Before he would bring Eowyn to Ithilien, he had made sure there were no enemies left within the hills, nor in the lands surrounding them. He'd been here several times since, finding himself drawn to the grotto and its cool, clear waterfall and crystal pool. Unlike Henneth Annun, there was no path behind the falls, so it was less secure than the rangers' hideout up north. But in Faramir's view, that made it more peaceful.
Aragorn, meanwhile, was taking in the quiet solitude of the small cove with appreciation. "I can see why it is a favored spot," he said softly, as if to speak in full voice were to dishonor the space.
"I would bring Eowyn here," Faramir said, "but I confess I am rather fond of the idea of a place that is mine alone. She rides daily, and when she is on her horse, she is in a world of her own. Even if I ride with her, there is still something rare and special between her and her mount, a world I cannot enter. Nor would I begrudge her those rides. But in the same way, I want something that is wholly mine. I am sure she would find this spot beautiful, but I do not think she would find the same...sanctuary here that I do. She has no tie to the land of Gondor, it would not seem to her as...rare. I am not explaining it properly."
"Yes you are," Aragorn said. "Ithilien is your land. That is why I gave it to you. Because you have a deep, abiding love and respect for this country. You are a son of Gondor, but more than that, you are a man of Ithilien. You will be its trusted guardian, and this is your sanctuary. In fact, I am honored you would bring me here, to this sacred space."
Faramir smiled. Of course Aragorn understood. He wondered whether there were any place Aragorn felt equally as attuned as he did here. Or whether his life, divided between the worlds of Elves and Men, between north and south, had left Aragorn as rootless as the Ranger he had been.
"I am–" he began, but Aragorn held up his hand for silence. He was staring into the water of the pool. "What is it?"
In response, Aragorn just pointed into the pool. Faramir followed his gaze and saw what had caused the King to pause. A small school of fish swam in the pool, their silver scales shone clearly in the clear water.
"You said something about bringing dinner home," Aragorn commented.
"And we have the same problem we did with the doe," Faramir said. "Unless you can catch fish without a hook."
"I used to be able to," Aragorn said. "I can try."
Faramir smiled at him. "You want to, I can tell. Go ahead. But lend me your knife first."
Aragorn pulled the dagger out of his boot, handing it over before stepping into the shallow pool, careful to cause barely a ripple.
Faramir watched him for a moment, saw him stand stock still for a long time watching the fish, letting them grow accustomed to his presence. Then he bent and put his fingers in the water, wriggling them.
Faramir, meanwhile, broke off a straight branch and using the knife, whittled the end of it into a point.
A splash made him look up from his work, and he saw Aragorn wrestling with a fish that was wriggling in his hands. "Get me a rock!" he called, struggling to bring the fish under his control.
Faramir found a fist-sized rock and stepped into the pool, bringing it over to him, as Aragorn got the fish onto a rock surface, and Faramir clubbed it, killing it.
Aragorn grinned and looked up at his friend. "That's one. How many should we go for?"
Faramir laughed. "However many we can get," he said, climbing back out and checking the point on his stick.
Aragorn looked at the implement in his hand. "Can you fish with a spear?"
Faramir nodded. "I'm better with a bow. But a spear will do."
"Boromir told me you were unsurpassed with a bow," Aragorn said.
The comment caught Faramir by surprise. It hadn't occurred to him that Boromir would have even mentioned him to his traveling companions. It was comforting, in a way, to know that he had been in Boromir's thoughts during those days, just as Boromir had been in his.
"It was one of the only places my skill outmatched his," he said. "He could beat me hand-to-hand, with swords, with knives. But I could beat him with a bow. Which used to frustrate him."
"No, my friend, he was proud of you, and of your accomplishments. He was your strongest supporter."
"I know," Faramir said softly. He smiled, remembering Boromir and his unswerving love. It had been the one constant in his life. Then he blinked, bringing his focus back to the present. Aragorn was watching him.
"Did you chase all the fish away?" Faramir asked, returning their attention to the task at hand.
Aragorn looked at the water surrounding him. "No, they're still here."
Faramir stared at the water, watching until he could pick one fish out in the pool. He followed it with his eyes until he felt he knew the fish and its movement. He raised his spear, calculated the distance, the resistance of the water, and the speed of the fish, all in a moment–less a calculation than an instinctual sense of the action. With a deep breath, he threw the spear, its point striking true. It stood upright in the pool, then fell over into the water.
With a curse, Faramir waded into the pool, feeling for the spear and the fish he knew would be attached to its point. By the time he found it, he was wet up to his shoulders, but he emerged victorious. The fish was quickly dispatched and set alongside its cousin.
Aragorn, meanwhile, was attempting to capture another fish, but this one was proving to be more stubborn than the first. He got hold of it, but it wriggled out of his grasp and flopped back into the water. He lunged after it, lost his footing, and fell face first into the pool.
"Aragorn!" Faramir shouted.
There was splashing and flailing and Aragorn emerged from the water, a fish clutched in his hands. "Catch!" he shouted and tossed the fish to Faramir, who missed it. The fish landed on the ground behind him and skidded into the rock face, where it flopped furiously. Faramir ran to it, clubbed it with a rock, and picked it up.
Aragorn, meanwhile, was dragging himself out of the pool, soaking wet and sputtering. He looked at Faramir, who looked back before both men burst out laughing.
"Perhaps not one of our better ideas," Aragorn said, shaking his head like a dog, water droplets flying all around him.
Faramir looked from Aragorn to the fish. "And all for three poor fish," he added.
Aragorn surveyed his drenched clothing, then Faramir's. "Dinner or no dinner, I foresee our wives being less than pleased with us."
"Eowyn will simply laugh at our foolishness," Faramir said. "Penil, on the other hand, will sigh with long-suffering patience. And his sister will no doubt have something pithy to add."
"Well," Aragorn said, wringing the water out of one sleeve, then the other, "we had best be heading back. Hopefully, we will dry somewhat before we must face our spouses, or our servants."
Faramir found a vine and tied the tails of the fish together, slinging them over his shoulder.
The return trip seemed shorter than the trip out, in part because in their soaked state, they hoped to dry on the journey. But mostly because their hearts were considerably lighter than when they'd begun. It had been good to talk with Aragorn, to coax the King into revealing the concerns in his heart and perhaps, feel some relief from his all-encompassing burdens. And it had been good to simply spend time with the man, not as King and Councilor or even as General and Captain, but as two men, two friends. To enjoy nature and beauty and true laughter together. Faramir glanced at the other man, whose face revealed nothing, but whose eyes no longer held the haunted pain he'd seen in them earlier.
The sun was setting when they finally achieved the second hill in Emyn Arnen where Faramir had built his home. He did his best to ignore the stares and the smiles of the guards and the servants, who in turn were trying to ignore their master's disheveled state.
Faramir handed the fish off to a servant to take to the kitchens. "Let us find some dry clothes," he said to Aragorn, leading him toward his chambers. He turned the corner and found Eowyn, standing in the middle of the corridor, arms crossed in front of her, gazing expectantly at them.
"My love!" Faramir cried. "We have brought dinner!" He moved to kiss his wife.
She stopped him with a hand on his chest. "You are wet," she said, pulling her hand back and looking at it.
"We were fishing," Faramir said simply.
"I was unaware fishing required swimming with the fish." But before he could say anything more, she said, "Go on, get changed. I am sure you have something suitable his Majesty can borrow. We will be in the salon." With that she turned away from him and moved off down the hall, nodding at Aragorn as she went.
They watched her go, silently.
Then Aragorn asked, "Was that good or bad?"
Faramir shrugged. "A little of both, I should think. She is annoyed that we have been gone all day and came home soaking wet, but relieved that we are home and whole, if a little damp." He smiled. He knew he'd probably hear about it later, but also knew that had she been really angry, he would not need to wait to hear her reaction. Eowyn was refreshingly free of the typical woman's tactics of cold silence or evasion. She spoke her mind freely and often, and while there was the occasion that Faramir might wish his wife was more circumspect in her opinions, he wouldn't change her for anything.
Penil was waiting for them when they got to Faramir's chamber.
"Here are towels, my lord, my Liege," he said. "I will fetch dry clothes for you."
Faramir looked at his assistant. "Did Eowyn send you in here?"
Penil shook his head. "I saw you come in. I knew you would need dry things."
"Thank you, Penil," Aragorn said, and the young man flushed and smiled.
"Excuse me, my Liege, are you of a size with Lord Faramir?"
Faramir quickly surveyed his friend. He'd actually never given their physical relationship any thought, wasn't even sure which of them was the taller, though he was fairly certain Aragorn was a little more broad, at least in the shoulders and arms.
"Close enough," Aragorn said. "Anything will do for now; just trousers and a shirt while my own clothes dry."
"Begging your pardon, my Liege, but your clothes won't be dry for quite some time," Penil said.
"It's all right, Penil," Faramir said. "Just something to get us through the evening; we'll worry about the rest later."
"Yes, sir," the young man bowed his head and disappeared into Faramir's dressing room.
"Conscientious," Aragorn murmured.
"He always has been," Faramir agreed, stripping out of his wet clothes. "It was one of my better decisions, taking him on."
"You have made many wise decisions, my friend," Aragorn replied, removing his own wet things. They both dried themselves and had barely done when Penil returned with a small pile of clothes for each of them.
"I hope these will do," he said.
"They'll be fine," Faramir said, taking his bundle of dry clothes and pulling them on. Aragorn did the same, nodding his thanks to the servant, who gathered up their wet things and took them away.
Penil had chosen for them soft trousers and simple linen shirts. Faramir glanced at his friend and was struck at how different Aragorn looked in these clothes, not because they fit him poorly or even that differently, for Aragorn was correct in that they were close enough in size that Faramir's clothes fit Aragorn acceptably well. Rather, the difference was in the color. Aragorn favored dark colors, his shirts usually black, dark brown, deep red. While Faramir often wore darker colors himself, in browns and greens and deep blues, he also usually wore those darker colors in tunics and vests over a lighter linen shirt. The lighter color gave Aragorn a less somber appearance, making him seem younger and more relaxed.
Aragorn saw Faramir watching him and smiled. "Will I do?" he asked, holding out his arms.
Faramir flushed. "You should wear lighter colors more often," he said. "It makes you look more...at ease somehow."
Aragorn grimaced. "When one spends most of one's life on the road, living out of doors, one chooses clothes that will not show wear or stains so easily. I am no longer in the habit of dressing lightly."
Faramir smiled. "And in dark clothes, if you spill your beer, no one is the wiser?"
Aragorn laughed. "That, too. Shall we find our wives?"
There ensued a short debate about boots, but in this Aragorn could not wear Faramir's footwear, as the King's feet were enough larger that Faramir's boots were uncomfortable. But the evening was warm enough, both men decided to forego footwear and go barefoot.
In the salon, Eowyn and Arwen sat with Legolas and Gimli, sipping wine comfortably.
"Ah, our wanderers have returned!" Gimli exclaimed.
"I understand you had something of an adventure," Legolas commented, smiling at them in that quiet, subtle way the elf had which made one never sure if he was laughing at you, or laughing with you.
"Not really so adventuresome as...damp," Aragorn said, taking a seat next to his wife. He leaned over and kissed her, murmuring something to her in elvish, something she replied to also in elvish, returning his kiss.
"How the devil did you wind up soaked to the skin?" Gimli asked.
"We had an encounter with some over-enthusiastic fish," Faramir said. He sat next to Eowyn, who was smiling, her earlier sternness faded, as he knew it would be. She put her arm around him, leaning against his shoulder, smiling up at him when he held her close, kissing her.
"Who won?" Legolas asked.
"We did. Eventually." Aragorn smiled at his friend and took a sip from Arwen's wine. "Is that beer you're drinking, Gimli?"
"It's mead," Eowyn said. "Would you like some?"
"Thank you," he answered. "We've had a...busy day."
"The fish are in the kitchens, I assume becoming dinner," Faramir said as Eowyn poured mead for the King.
"Actually, they very well may be held for luncheon tomorrow," she said, "as I understood dinner was well underway when you arrived."
Faramir sighed. "We would have told you except we did not plan on coming home with fish until...there they were."
"Under the water, just waiting for you to jump in and get them," Arwen said, a gentle tease in her voice and in her eyes.
Faramir laughed. "That's truer than you know."
"It also didn't help that we had no fishing gear," Aragorn added. "If we had, we would have most likely done much better at staying dry."
"And yet you still decided that you had to fish." Eowyn looked at her husband, her eyes sparkling with amusement.
"It seemed a good idea at the time," he shrugged and she laughed. He loved her laugh; it had a wonderful earthiness that never failed to thrill him. It really was too bad they had a house full of company tonight, for if he'd desired her this morning, it was nothing compared to how he felt now.
"Never mind," Arwen said. "You both are home, and not too much the worse for wear, though your leathers may not recover quickly."
Aragorn laughed. "I am just grateful to our friends; not only to they open up their home to us this day, but now Faramir has opened up his wardrobe to me."
"You are a troublesome houseguest, Estel," Legolas teased gently.
"Nay, he is no trouble at all," Eowyn protested. "Arwen was a great help in the garden today, and Aragorn kept Faramir occupied and out of the garden; such assistance is always welcomed."
Faramir chuckled, taking the teasing in the spirit it was intended. "We are always pleased to serve my lady," he murmured, giving her a gentle kiss on the mouth.
Conversation turned to the garden and other inconsequentials until the maid called them in for dinner.
The food was excellent, as it usually was. Pelia, with her former experience in the kitchens, had helped Eowyn choose a kitchen staff for Emyn Arnen, and they had chosen well. There was chicken, and vegetables, and roasted potatoes, and fresh bread, and also, three lovely poached fish, served with a lightly seasoned sauce that enhanced their flavor.
Faramir and Aragorn, of course, took some more ribbing about their fishing prowess, but Faramir noticed that everyone seemed to enjoy their catch, so drenching notwithstanding, it had been worth it.
After dinner, they retired again to the porch. Arwen and Aragorn took a stroll around the garden, gazing up at the starry night sky. From the porch, they looked to be bare shadows in the lawn, standing so close to each other, heads bent together. Faramir looked at Eowyn, wanting to take a stroll with her as well. But she was speaking with Legolas and Gimli.
"We will see you in the morning," Legolas was saying.
"You are leaving?" Faramir asked, joining in their conversation.
"It is but a short journey to our encampment, but we would go before it grows too late," Legolas told them.
"You know you should have made camp here," Eowyn told them. It was an old argument; Eowyn didn't understand why the elf and his kin stayed in the woods just to the south of Emyn Arnen. And Gimli and his people stayed in the valley between this hill and the next one. Faramir tried to explain that both groups felt more comfortable in their preferred environment, and although Legolas and Gimli were the closest of friends, dwarves and elves in general did not socialize. It was better this way.
"Perhaps once your guest quarters are complete," Legolas suggested.
"Good night, my friends," Faramir said, clasping both their hands. "You should offer your farewells to the King as well."
"Aye, we'll do that," Gimli said, and the elf and the dwarf went down into the garden to say goodbye to Aragorn and Arwen.
Faramir put his arm around Eowyn's waist. "Am I forgiven?" he murmured.
"For what?" she asked, leaning into his embrace.
"Being gone so long. Coming home late. Coming home wet."
She chuckled. "I was not angry, love. Exasperated, perhaps. But never angry."
"I love you," he whispered.
"Le melon," she murmured in return, turning in his embrace and kissing him.
They stood on the porch, gazing out at the valley below them, and then stretching away, the Pelennor and beyond that, the faint sparkles of light that were Minas Tirith. It was a view Faramir never tired of.
"It is a fair night in the moon-land," Arwen said and they turned, finding their guests had returned to the porch.
"It is," Faramir agreed.
"Shall we sit here and enjoy the evening?" Eowyn suggested.
A servant brought out cakes and mead and wine, and they sat on the porch and ate, and drank, and talked, and laughed. And were silent, too. Eowyn sat within the circle of Faramir's arms, and he noted that Arwen sat with her husband's head in her lap, her fingers gently stroking through his hair. There had been other such relaxing evenings in Minas Tirith, when they day wound down and they'd shared a light supper and an evening of conversation and companionship. The difference this time was the lack of pressing concerns that lingered, the ledger of uncompleted tasks that weighed them down. Here there was nothing but the clear night sky, the soft sighing of breeze in the new leaves, and the pleasure of each other's company. Minas Tirith was reduced to mere specks on the horizon, easily lost among the stars and the brightness of the moon.
As they talked, Faramir watched Aragorn, who seemed considerably more at ease now than he had when they'd arrived this morning. It was good to see. Until he realized that at least part of the King's ease was because he had been drinking mead fairly steadily all evening. Aragorn was drunk. He frowned. He'd seen Aragorn drink on numerous occasions, had shared mugs of ale and horns of mead and skins of wine with him. But Faramir had never seen him drink to excess. In fact, the King always held himself in the strictest of control. There were only two things Faramir knew of that Aragorn did without restraint: fight and love. This lapse tonight made him wonder if perhaps there weren't more troubling the King than he'd let on, things he didn't tell Faramir.
Aragorn had raised his head, murmuring something to Arwen, who laughed softly before kissing his lips gently. But when he laid his head back down, she looked up, and the pain and confusion in her eyes was heartbreaking to behold. She'd never seen him like this, either, and it was frightening her.
Just then, Penil stepped onto the porch. "Excuse me, my lord," he said softly, and his look told Faramir he wanted to speak with him privately. Eowyn sat up, letting him go, and he stepped into the house with his squire. "I'm sorry, my lord," his servant began, "but the King's things are still wet; is he planning on staying the night?"
Faramir frowned. Even if it weren't for Aragorn's clothes and his sobriety, it was probably unwise for them to attempt the trip back tonight. It was dark and the trip back to Minas Tirith took them through Osgiliath. Despite repeated sweeps through the ruined city by the rangers, strange sounds could be heard coming from there at night, and Faramir disliked having anyone enter the city ruins after dark. He nodded. "I think it would be best. Will his things be dry by morning?"
"Probably," Penil said. "Where shall they stay?"
The question pulled Faramir up short. The guest quarters were only stakes in the ground at this point, and while there were extra rooms here in the house, none of them had been furnished yet.
"They must stay in our room." Eowyn had come in and joined the conversation.
Faramir shook his head. "He'll never accept that. They already feel like they're putting us out."
"They can't sleep on the floor," she insisted.
"They can sleep in my bed," Penil said. Both of them stopped and stared at him. "It's not posh, but it should be big enough. And it can be moved fairly easily. I'll get Dencan and Rorath to help me. We'll put it in the chamber next to yours."
"Where will you sleep?" Eowyn asked.
In response, the young man turned scarlet and ducked his head. "I'll have a place, don't worry."
"You're certain of your welcome?" Faramir asked. Penil nodded, not looking up. "All right, but–" He put his hand on his servant's shoulder, "if I hear you wound up sleeping with the horses, I shall be very upset."
Penil raised his head, laughing. "It won't come to that, I promise."
"All right. Go fetch Dencan and Rorath, and bring your bed. And if you see your sister, tell her to bring linens."
"Yes, sir." The young man turned and moved quickly down the corridor.
Faramir took Eowyn's hand as they headed back to the porch.
Aragorn was sitting up now, looking bleary-eyed.
"It grows late," he said, his words slurring slightly.
"It does," Faramir agreed, "too late for you to consider traveling back to Minas Tirith tonight."
My friends, you have already done so much, we cannot–"
"You cannot travel home tonight," Faramir interrupted. "Besides that it is dark and Osgiliath is unsafe, your things are still wet. So unless you intend to ride barefoot.... You will stay here and that is the end of it. A bed is being made ready for you in one of the empty rooms. It will not be luxurious, but it will suffice for tonight."
Aragorn looked as if he would protest again when Arwen spoke. "We accept your hospitality gratefully," she said. "Indeed, I am too weary to ride tonight."
"Melethril, are you feeling ill?" Aragorn asked.
"No, Estel, I am just tired," she said, but didn't look at him. Faramir wondered whether she were really as tired as she claimed, or if she used it as an excuse to convince him to stay.
Aragorn nodded, and his eyes closed briefly. "And I am...." He looked at Eowyn. "Your mead is very fine, Lady. I did not notice how much I drank, but I fear it was too much."
Faramir chuckled. "Then it is doubly good that you are staying."
A few minutes later, Pelia appeared a the door and nodded to Eowyn.
"Your room is ready, if you wish to retire," Eowyn said.
"I think I would. Thank you," Arwen told her.
"Come with me, I'll get you something to sleep in." The two women left the porch, and Aragorn and Faramir watched them go. Then Faramir turned his gaze back to his friend.
Aragorn was still gazing at the door his wife had exited. Then he blinked and looked at Faramir. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "I did not even notice how much I was drinking."
Faramir smiled. "Perhaps you needed this tonight. You needed to let go completely. You never do that."
"Perhaps," Aragorn murmured, but did not seem convinced. "I have upset her, I think."
"If she has never seen you drunk, she is probably worried about what caused it. You still have not told her how you've been feeling, have you?"
Aragorn shook his head. "I would have spoken with her tonight." He sighed. "Now I will have to wait ‘til tomorrow."
"Then she is worried about you, that is all. Come on." Faramir moved to the King and extended his hands. "Let's get you to bed."
Aragorn took his hands and got to his feet, swaying a bit, and Faramir put his arm around his friend, steadying him.
"I am drunker than I thought," Aragorn commented so mildly that Faramir couldn't help laughing.
"I'm afraid your head will hate you come morning."
"No doubt," Aragorn sighed, resigned.
When they arrived at the chamber Aragorn and Arwen would use for the night, Pelia was just bringing a basin and jug in, which she set on a side table, laying towels beside it. Faramir walked Aragorn over to the bed and he sank gratefully onto it.
"Will you be needing anything else?" Pelia asked.
"No, thank you, Peli. You can go on to bed."
Pelia nodded and turned to go, then stopped and leaned up to Faramir.
"Ginger and licorice tea, that's what he needs," she whispered. "I'll see he gets some in the morning."
He chuckled. Where would they be without Pelia and her brother? "Thank you," he murmured, squeezing her shoulder. She smiled, that wonderful cheeky grin she had, and left the room.
Aragorn, meanwhile, was sitting slumped, staring at his hands. Faramir just shook his head. "Come, my friend, let's get you to bed."
Aragorn was completely docile as Faramir helped him out of his clothes, raising his arms while his shirt went over his head, then flopping back on the bed and raising his hips for Faramir to strip off his trousers. It was a little harder to coax him under the covers, but eventually, that got accomplished as well. As Faramir pulled the coverlet up, smoothing it over Aragorn, the other man clasped his wrist. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
Faramir sat on the edge of the bed. "None of that," he said, covering Aragorn's hand with his own. "We're all vulnerable from time to time. And at least here you know you're safe."
"I am, you know," Aragorn said, gazing at his friend intensely. "You always look after me."
"And you me," Faramir added. "It's what brothers do."
Aragorn smiled, really only half a smile, and his eyes slid closed. "My brother...." he sighed.
Faramir smiled gently. It hurt, in a way, seeing this strong man so vulnerable. But at the same time, he felt honored that Aragorn felt comfortable enough, and safe enough, to let his guard down and be completely open, completely without barriers.
He remembered the day that Boromir left for Imladris. He hadn't wanted to go, but there had been no dissuading Denethor from his set course. They'd talked as Boromir packed for the journey, and he could tell, though Boromir said nothing, that his brother feared he would not return. On that day, Faramir saw his brother more open and more vulnerable than he'd ever seen him. Of course, Boromir had soon covered it up with a laugh and a jest and slap of his brother's back. But he'd seen it, the openness and the fear. He saw it again as Boromir rode out of Minas Tirith that last day.
And he saw it now, in the King of Gondor and Arnor, the strongest man he knew. It was more than a little daunting, the trust Aragorn put in him. But few things made him feel as proud.
A noise behind him made him look up. Arwen and Eowyn had entered the room, Arwen now dressed in a night-robe of Eowyn's. While they were not of a size to be able to share clothes, the robe was loose enough that it fit the Queen acceptably. She stopped as she saw her husband in the bed.
"He has just gone to sleep," Faramir said, rising.
"No he hasn't," Aragorn mumbled and opened one eye, looking for his wife.
She laughed softly and said something to him in Elvish that Faramir couldn't quite catch, but Aragorn sighed and closed his eyes again.
Faramir moved to Arwen, seeing still the pain and confusion in her eyes. "Do not worry," he whispered to her. "He will be all right."
"I have never seen him like this," she whispered, her soft voice choked.
"I know. But he will be fine, truly. In the morning, he has promised to talk to you and tell you everything. All I can say in the meantime that you need not fear for him. All will be well, you'll see."
Her eyes were wet with unshed tears as she looked at him, smiling shakily. "Thank you," she whispered. "He is fortunate to have a good friend in you. We both are."
"As are we, to have you," Eowyn said, putting a hand on Arwen's arm.
Arwen's smile brightened and she hugged Eowyn, then Faramir. She blinked back her tears and he touched her cheek, wiping away the tear that had fallen there. "Do not let him see you cry," he whispered. She nodded and turned away from them, gazing at her husband in the bed. And Faramir took Eowyn's arm, escorting her from the room, closing the door behind them.
Out in the corridor, Faramir took a deep breath, blowing it out. Eowyn was silent, still holding his arm as they retired to their own chamber. It was not until they were behind the closed door that she spoke.
"All right, will you tell me what's going on?" she turned to him. "He is in pieces and she is falling apart. What happened?"
"He's not in pieces, he's just drunk," Faramir countered.
"Oh, yes, because he gets drunk so often," she said sarcastically. "What happened to bring this on?"
Faramir shrugged. "Only he knows for certain, though I can guess."
"He feels safe here."
"So he drinks?"
"So he lets himself go. He allows himself to drop all barriers, all reserves and all strictures that define his life. He is not a king here, nor even a ranger. He is just a man, a man who can be vulnerable because he knows no harm will befall him." He stepped up behind Eowyn to undo her buttons.
"What harm could befall him in Minas Tirith?"
"Not harm. Responsibility. He is a king. He is never off-duty. He went from being in total control of his life to feeling like his life is controlling him. He was at the breaking point. I don't think he even knew why he rode out here this morning, only that he needed to get away. And here he found the sanctuary he was seeking.
"He talked with friends. He went for a walk. He caught fish. A man who used to live off the land caught a fish for the first time in over a year. I don't think he intended to get drunk; I think he was just feeling comfortable enough that he forgot to moderate his drinking." He tugged off his shirt and unlaced his trousers.
"Yes, well he's frightened Arwen. She was in tears before." She stepped out of her dress.
He tossed his clothes in the general direction of his dressing room, then at her glare, went back to retrieve them, putting them in the room properly. "I know, and I'm sorry about that. Like most stupid men, he hasn't told her what he's feeling, so she worries. I tried to reassure her that he's really all right, but I don't know if she was convinced." He sat on the bed.
Eowyn pulled her chemise up over her head. "Probably not until she hears it from his lips." She took her clothes to her dressing room and emerged with a night gown.
Faramir made a face. "You're not going to wear that, are you?"
"We have guests," she said, as if that explained anything.
"Not in our bedroom we don't."
"And if they should need anything during the night?"
"They won't," he insisted. "Besides, you can just put on a robe."
"I lent my robe to Arwen."
"Then you can put on my robe," he said exasperatedly. "Love, if you put it on, I'm just going to have to take it off you again."
She chuckled. "I thought that was part of the fun."
"Only sometimes," he said. "Mostly the fun comes once it's gone and I can hold you." He got up and walked across the room, taking her in his arms and pressing her body against his. "Like this," he murmured, feeling her shiver at his touch.
She moaned in pleasure, and the gown fell to the floor ignored as he guided her back to their bed.
Faramir woke when Eowyn got out of bed.
"It can't be morning yet," he mumbled, "come back to bed."
"I'm sorry, love, but it really is morning. And I want to get a ride in before our guests awaken. I'll be back in an hour or so." She leaned in and gave him a gentle good morning kiss before heading to her dressing room.
Faramir watched her go, enjoying the view as always, then flopped back down, closing his eyes. He drifted, not quite asleep, until he heard her leave. He wanted to roll over and go back to sleep, but then he remembered Aragorn, who would most likely be waking with a crashing headache this morning, and he climbed out of bed, throwing on a robe.
He padded down to the servant's quarters, looking for Eowyn's maid, hoping that his wife hadn't taken the girl riding with her this morning. Pelia would accompany Eowyn occasionally, though most of the time Eowyn preferred to go by herself, as Pelia was not the most proficient of horsewomen.
He found her coming in from the kitchens, a pot and a mug on a tray.
"Oh, sir! I was just going to bring this up for his majesty," she said. "It's that tea I told you about. My old gran used to swear by it."
Faramir chuckled. "Liked to drink, your old gran?"
Pelia gave him a withering glare. "My grandad. She said this would get him off his arse, begging your pardon, sir, and back to work like he should."
"Then I'm sure it will be just the thing for the King. I'll take it, Peli, and thank you."
She smiled at him and he returned to the bed chambers.
A soft knock on Aragorn's door elicited no response, so he pushed the latch and cautiously peeked in. Aragorn was alone in the room, and Faramir frowned. Had Arwen gone riding with Eowyn? He knew they would sometimes ride together, but seldom in the early morning. He stepped into the room, setting the tray on a side table.
"Meleth?" Aragorn mumbled.
"Afraid not," Faramir answered. "I don't know where she is."
Aragorn opened his eyes, then pinched them shut again. "I thought you were she, coming back. She felt ill and fresh air usually helps. I doubt it would help my head, though."
Faramir chuckled. "Here, drink this," he said, pouring a mug of the tea. "Pelia's grandmother swears by it as a hangover cure."
Aragorn slid up in the bed and took the mug, sipping at the hot liquid. He made a face. "It's horrible."
"Most medicines usually are," Faramir commented. "But if you will get drunk, you have to take the consequences."
"Don't remind me," Aragorn moaned, taking a deep breath and drinking down the rest of the tea. He shuddered and handed the mug back to Faramir.
"More?" Faramir asked with a smile. Aragorn just glared at him. He slid back down in the bed again, sighing.
"I can't even remember the last time I got drunk. But I begin to remember why I never do. Was that Rohirric mead?"
"The one and only," Faramir answered.
"We should force that down the throats of our enemies; we'd win our battles in no time."
Faramir laughed. "First they'd become too legless to fight, then they'd want to kill themselves."
"Exactly," Aragorn agreed. "Too bad it tastes so good."
"Evil things often seem sweetest."
Aragorn snorted. "I cannot cope with poetic philosophy this morning, my friend. I beg you to leave me to suffer in peace."
Faramir looked at him critically. Indeed, Aragorn's face was pale and a little gray, with dark circles under his eyes. His breathing was shallow, and his forehead was creased in a frown.
He crossed to the bed and sat on its edge, his fingers going to Aragorn's temples.
"Wha–?" Aragorn opened his eyes.
"Close your eyes and be quiet," Faramir ordered him. "I have learnt a great deal about massage since you tended me in the Houses of Healing," he said. "You are a good teacher and so is Eowyn."
He rubbed Aragorn's temples, his thumb stroking between his eyes, easing the creases there. He massaged his jaw, his neck and throat, his skull, and again his temples, keeping up a steady, soothing pressure. Whenever Faramir would have a disturbing dream, Eowyn would do this for him until the vision faded and he could slip back to sleep. It always felt wonderful.
Aragorn was relaxing, the tension leaving him as some of the pain lessened. "You have a good touch," he murmured.
When Faramir finally took his hands away, Aragorn was asleep again. He smiled. It was probably for the best. He left his friend and headed to the back porch.
As he'd guessed, Arwen was there. She was sitting on the edge of the porch, her feet dangling off the edge, her shoulders hunched and her head down.
"Arwen?" he called softly and she sat up with a jerk. "I didn't mean to disturb you," he went on, going to her and kneeling at her side. "Are you all right?"
She turned toward him, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Here now," he soothed, taking her into his arms and holding her as she wept. "Shhh, it's all right, hush now."
"I'm sorry," she whispered, scrubbing a hand over her face.
"You are still worried about him?" Faramir asked, a hand stroking her hair.
She nodded. "He slept poorly last night. He murmured in his sleep, and tossed and turned. Once he cried out, but I knew not what had upset him."
"I just came from him," Faramir said. "He is feeling a little fragile, but he will be fine. I gave him something to help his hangover and rubbed his temples ‘til he fell asleep again.
"His restlessness last night was probably on account of the drink. I honestly believe he will be all right. When we talked yesterday, he explained some of his anxieties to me. They are nothing to do with you, he is simply feeling overwhelmed by his responsibilities."
"But why will he not talk to me about it?"
"Because for all his nobility and strength, he is still just a silly man who sometimes lets his fears get the better of him. He would not see you disappointed in him."
"How could I be? I love him with all my heart; I will always love him."
"He knows that. And he knows he must speak with you. Hopefully, he has learned his lesson.
"But what of you? He said you were feeling ill. I hope it is not from anxiety for him."
She shook her head and sniffed away the last of her tears. "No, it is not that. I...I am with child. And mornings are not the best for me."
Faramir's eyes widened. "He didn't say anything."
"I asked him not to."
"It is still so early. Barely even a month. I would wait to announce it until it is further along."
"A month. Then can you be sure?"
"I knew the night I conceived," she said softly. "I know that must sound strange to you, but I knew. I knew instantly." She sighed. "Even if I wasn't sure, my being sick in the mornings would tell me."
"How are you feeling now?"
"A little better. Fresh air helps. It is smells that bother me."
"Almost everything," she sighed. "Food, woodsmoke, horses, perfume. Even," she ducked her head, flushing, "the smell of...bodies."
Faramir released her. "Am I bothering you?"
"No. Once I am up for an hour or two, I usually start to feel better. I will be all right." She touched his arm lightly. "Thank you for your kindness and your concern." She smiled almost shyly. "You are very easy to talk to."
He covered her hand with his own. "I am glad to be of assistance. If I can ease your burden, and his, I am content.
"I owe him so much: my life, my present happiness, even my home here in Ithilien. And yet it's not about payback, for I know he would not have me beholden to him. It's about...bonds. Bonds of friendship, of kinship. The War took away everything I'd ever known, almost everyone I'd ever loved. But it gave me so much more, more than I'd ever dreamed of having. And almost all of that is thanks to him."
"It is thanks to your own self," she said, a hand gently cupping the side of his face. "He does not give his loyalty lightly. That he has given it to you, unwaveringly, means that you are worthy of it. You took his trust in you and redoubled it with your skills, your wisdom, your great heart. You are the most worthy of men, Faramir, and he has often told me how fortunate he is to have you as his most trusted advisor. His dearest friend.
"He never had a brother. There were my brothers, who cared about him, of course, and were great companions to him for many years. But they had each other and Estel was a third, an outsider. He grew up among elves and yet not a part of them. It was easy for him to go his own way because he never knew anything else.
"Now there is someone who is like a brother to him, the brother he never had. You are the brother of his heart and he treasures your place in his life. In our lives. Thank you." She leaned in, pressing a kiss to his cheek.
He closed his eyes, moved beyond speech by her simple declaration. It was nothing he didn't already know, of course. Aragorn was no miser in his affections nor his praise. But to hear himself so highly praised, so highly regarded by another, especially by this particular other.... It took the dark years of his youth and early adulthood and turned them to dust. The feelings of inferiority fell away, leaving him lightheaded by their absence.
He opened his eyes. She was gazing at him, affection in her gentle eyes. He smiled in return. "You know," he said, taking her hands, "it is still early. And he will probably sleep for some time. Rest will probably do all of us some good."
She nodded and he got to his feet, helping her up. "Do you feel better?" he asked.
"Much. Thank you. The sickness of morning has passed, and my heart is much lighter than it was."
"Good." He accompanied her back to her chamber. "There are no pressing concerns today," he said. "Sleep as late as you wish."
"That sounds appealing," she said. "I think we will." She leaned in and kissed him again, a feather-light brushing of lips against his cheek. With a tender smile on her face, she let herself into her chamber, closing the door behind her.
Faramir stood in the corridor for a long moment, staring at the door. He covered his face with his hands and breathed deeply. It was too early in the morning for the sorts of conversations he'd been having so far today. He felt drained. He loved his friends, truly, he did. But just at the moment, he would love them a lot better if they stayed asleep.
He staggered back to his chamber and fell face-first onto the bed.
He was still there when the door opened some time later.
"What are you doing?" Eowyn asked.
"Lying here," Faramir mumbled into the pillow.
"Yes, I can see that. Were you up?"
With a groan, he rolled over. She looked radiant as she always did after a ride, her cheeks pink from exhilaration, her hair a glorious tumble. "You're beautiful," he murmured.
She chuckled; she was used to his amorousness when she came in from her rides; it was almost an added benefit of them: ride for an hour, enjoy the open air and the feel of a horse responding to you, then come inside and have your husband respond to you as well.
She came over to the bed, sitting by his side and leaning into his embrace. "Did you check on our guests?"
"Mmm," he replied, kissing her. "I gave Aragorn Pelia's grandmother's hangover cure and he went back to sleep. Then I found Arwen in tears on the porch. Did you know she's expecting?"
"She told me last night," Eowyn answered. "Why was she in tears?"
"Worry about Aragorn, mostly. Though I wouldn't be surprised if some of it wasn't woman's moods as well. She's having a difficult time of the mornings."
"Is she all right?"
"Now she is," he confirmed. "We talked, she calmed down, she said she was feeling less sick, and she went back to their room. I told her to sleep in, so I don't know when we'll see them." He sighed and raked a hand through his hair. "I feel...frustrated."
"Well, I'm here now," she said with an alluring smile.
He laughed. "That wasn't what I meant, but now you mention it–"
She laughed with him, and he drew her down, kissing her thoroughly.
"So what did you mean?" she asked when they came up for air.
"Aragorn. I feel helpless, like I ought to be able to do more for him. But that would mean returning to Minas Tirith, and that I cannot do, not permanently."
"How would your returning to the City help him?"
"Share the load," he answered.
"It seems to me his problem isn't so much needing to share the load as needing to escape the load upon occasion. Even if you were there, so would be all of his responsibilities, everyone still requiring a piece of him."
"Hmm," Faramir pondered. Then Eowyn drew her fingers down the center line of his chest and he couldn't think about anything else....
Faramir held Eowyn's hand as they left their chamber. They'd spent a lovely morning enjoying each other: napping a bit, talking a bit, loving a lot. There had been a knock on their door, and when they opened it, they found a breakfast tray sitting outside. A look down the corridor revealed a similar tray outside Aragorn and Arwen's room. There was a lot to be said for good staff.
After eating, they'd returned to bed. Or more correctly, they returned to lovemaking, for they'd eaten in bed as well. Then they'd slept once more so that now when they were finally awake and out of bed, it was with one of the better senses of well-being than they'd had in some time. The past week or more had been hectic, for all coming to Ithilien had been their dream come to fruition. It was always difficult to move a household, especially when one was starting afresh as they were doing here. There were too many things which required their attention for them to spend much time in idleness, or even with each other.
Today, however, they'd been thoroughly, debauchedly, delightfully idle. Consequently, they felt totally rested and totally content. They went in search of their houseguests, finding them not on the porch as they'd assumed, but instead on a blanket spread beneath the great ash tree in the garden. Aragorn and Arwen sat hand in hand, her head resting against his shoulder, looking far more peaceful than Faramir had seen either of them in an age. It pleased him to see it.
"Good morning!" he called and they turned toward the sound of his voice. "At least, I think it's still morning."
"It is," Aragorn confirmed. "Just. Come join us." He raised his arm in a gesture of invitation.
Eowyn demurred. "I'd better see what Legolas needs," she said.
"Legolas needs nothing," the elf said, approaching the couples. "We are working on the fountain today so will not need you to do anything but advise."
"Are you sure?"
Legolas nodded with a smile. "We are laying stones today; Gimli is helping me. It is a beautiful day, enjoy it."
"I shall, thank you," she said. "But if you need me for–"
"Yes, Eowyn, if we need you, we will come for you. Now off you go." With a slight push, he propelled her back to Faramir, nodding at him. Faramir put his arm around his wife, returning the nod, and walked her back to the blanket.
They settled themselves and Arwen poured out glasses of cold tea. "Is your staff prescient?" she asked.
"I don't think so," Eowyn answered, accepting her cup. "Why?"
"We woke up, felt a little hungry, went to the door, and there was breakfast. When we got up, we came out to the porch and here was a blanket laid for us, and the drinks tray had four glasses on it."
Faramir laughed. "I wouldn't call them prescient; they just know us fairly well by now. Especially Penil and Pelia; they're our loyal keepers. I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't start hearing about it if we stay out too late one evening."
"They're treasures," Arwen said.
"Yes," Faramir agreed. "They are." So much of their lives not only became easier, it became actually possible, thanks to Penil and Pelia's good-hearted common sense and attentions.
He glanced at Eowyn, who looked at him and nodded.
"Speaking of our household," he began, "I...we have a proposition."
"Oh?" Aragorn raised an eyebrow.
Faramir nodded. "You know our plans here include guest lodgings, but we have not yet begun them. We thought that when we do, we should build an additional house. For you." He looked at them. Their eyes had gone wide, Arwen's mouth open in surprise, Aragorn looking frozen. "So you have a place to come when the pressures of the City become too much."
There was a long pause and Faramir looked from one to the other. Aragorn and Arwen in turn glanced at each other, then back at him and Eowyn.
"My friends," Aragorn began, "your offer is...it is more than generous. But we cannot accept."
Faramir felt himself go cold. "Why not?"
"It would not be...appropriate."
"Why not?" This time Eowyn asked. "What is inappropriate about having a place to stay when you are here?"
"It is not that," Aragorn said.
"Back in the days of the Kings," Faramir explained, "when Osgiliath was the capitol of Gondor, there was a summer palace at Minas Tirith. Think of this as the same thing, but in reverse."
"And therein lies the difficulty," Aragorn countered. "Emyn Arnen is your home, the seat of the Prince of Ithilien. If we were to have a house here, Emyn Arnen would cease to be yours; it would become the King's, in perception if not in actual fact. And that we will not do."
"Do not misunderstand," Arwen continued. "We love it here, and we love being with you. But we cannot have a residence here."
"No more than we could have one at Dol Amroth," Aragorn added. "You must be seen as Ithilien's master and master of Ithilien's seat, not simply custodian for the King. In the time of the Kings you speak of, there was no Prince of Ithilien; the King ruled over Ithilien the same as over Lossarnach or Anorien. But now Ithilien is a province like Belfalas, with its own ruler. It is not my place nor my intent to usurp that."
Faramir gazed at Aragorn for a long moment. "You'd already thought about this," he finally said.
Aragorn nodded. "Earlier this morning, when I woke up feeling better than I have in a very long time. We thought about how nice it would be to stay here more often. But unfortunately, it is not possible."
Eowyn frowned. "Not to have your own house, perhaps. But why cannot you still come and visit, come and stay? As our guests."
"Yes, why not?" Faramir continued. "If you will not have a house, so be it. Not a house, then, but apartments as part of the guest house. Just rooms set aside for your use, whenever you need them. It needn't be elaborate and certainly not conspicuous. The King visits Dol Amroth; the King should also be able to visit Emyn Arnen."
Eowyn picked up the thread. "You can furnish them to your liking, and they will be for your use alone, available to you at any time. Even if we are not at Emyn Arnen."
"If you are not here, we will be unlikely to come visiting you," Arwen said teasingly.
"But you could, and that's the point," Faramir insisted. "We are glad for your company, of course. But this isn't just about enjoying your company. It's about sanctuary. Having some place to go when the walls of Minas Tirith close in about you, when one more sycophant will make you do or say something you will later regret. Before it comes to that...come here."
There was another pause as Aragorn and Arwen looked at each other, a silent conversation taking place between them. Faramir glanced at Eowyn, who smiled hopefully. They'd talked about it this morning, and their proposal to their friends was not one they'd made lightly. She had her horse and the open fields; he had the groves and streams of Ithilien. Aragorn and Arwen needed something, too.
"You tempt us with your offer," Aragorn began.
"Then accept it," Faramir replied. "Accept it in the spirit of friendship and brotherhood with which it is offered."
"We would not intrude?" Arwen asked.
Eowyn chuckled and shook her head. "Look about you; our home has become a community; our lives are filled with servants, tradesmen and guards, all the people who are turning Emyn Arnen and Ithilien back into the garden it once was. We do not live solitary lives here, yet we would welcome your companionship. Or, we are happy to give you some time to yourselves, away from the demands of society."
"My brother," Faramir began, looking directly at Aragorn, who returned his gaze steadily. "I see in you a peace I do not know that I have ever seen in you. A contentment. When you rode here yesterday, you were tense and unhappy. I dare say that is no longer the case. That above all else should prove my point. The King needs a place where he can be not just Elessar, but Aragorn. Or Strider. Or even Estel. Let Emyn Arnen be that place."
Aragorn took a deep breath. "We are honored by your offer," he said.
"Then honor us by accepting it," Faramir replied.
Arwen smiled then. "We are the most fortunate of people, to have such good friends as you," she said, and with nary a glance at her husband, she continued. "We accept your generous invitation with full-hearted gratitude and thanks. We look forward to visiting you and your beloved garden for many years to come."
"Melethril..." Aragorn started to protest.
"No, Estel," she shook her head, speaking softly to him in elvish, words Faramir purposely did not try to discern, as it was clear the conversation was a private one.
They spoke softly together for several moments, her hand on his arm, her expression a mixture of determination and hope. Until finally he closed his eyes and smiled, nodding briefly.
He looked at his hosts again. "It seems I have been too long among the politicians and bureaucrats; I forget how to accept pure generosity without trying to over-think it and look for motives that are not there. I am...." He sighed and shook his head. "I do not even know how to express my gratitude to you. Except to simply say thank you. Thank you, my most beloved friends. Thank you."
Faramir smiled in return. "You are most welcome, and welcome here. And," he went on, "we can let it be known that when the King is at Emyn Arnen, he is not to be bothered with trifling matters of state. Anything deemed important can be passed through me, and if it really does warrant your attention, I can bring it to you."
Aragorn laughed. "You're serious about wanting me to relax, aren't you?"
"I will be honest; you worried me yesterday," Faramir said. "More than that, you worried Arwen. She should not have to worry about you like that, especially not now. If I can do anything to ease your burden, and hers, I will do it, be it traveling to Minas Tirith to take care of business or keeping the dogs from your door when you are here. As the Steward of Gondor, let me serve as your chief counselor. As the Prince of Ithilien, let me offer you my home; may it do you ease."
Aragorn said nothing, but his eyes glittered. He got to his knees, reaching for Faramir, who met his embrace. And then Arwen was there as well, and Eowyn, and the four of them huddled in the center of the blanket, hugging and laughing and crying and rejoicing in good friends and beloved companionship.
When the embrace finally broke, they sat back, wiping away tears of joy. Arwen was in Aragorn's arms, as Eowyn was in Faramir's, and the King leaned back against the tree with a sigh.
"So then tell me, my lord Steward," he began, "when are you coming to Minas Tirith?"
"Tomorrow, if my lord pleases," Faramir said with a smile. "I would have a full day for our work, and today is already half-over."
"Will you return that night?"
"Not if there is still work to be done. I can plan to spend two days, that should get us through most of it."
"Will you join your husband, lady?" Aragorn asked.
Faramir glanced at Eowyn, who nodded. "Yes. There are many things I need to get for the house, and we are somewhat lacking in shops here." She smiled.
"It has been a long time since I've been to the markets," Arwen said. "Would you like some company?"
"With pleasure," Eowyn answered.
Aragorn raised his eyebrows. "Our wives are going shopping, brother, we'd best hold onto our purses."
Faramir chuckled. "I cannot speak for your wife nor your purse, my lord, but I have complete faith in mine. For I know that Eowyn's tastes, though excellent, are not extravagant. She may buy what she pleases."
"You just say that because I always bring you ginger sweets," Eowyn teased.
"Ah, so now the truth comes out!" Aragorn laughed. "She bribes you with candies."
"Yes, it is true," Faramir admitted. "I adore those little candied ginger sweets. They were my mother's favorite, and I think I must have learned to love them in the womb."
"Do not let him tease you, my lord," Arwen said. "He has his own favorites."
"I do not eat sweets," Aragorn protested.
"What do you call sugared figs?" she asked sweetly.
Aragorn opened his mouth, then closed it again in resignation. "They're fruit," he muttered.
Faramir chuckled. "Apples are fruit. Sugared figs are sweets."
"We all have our little guilty pleasures," Eowyn added. "If I bring Faramir sweets, it is because I also buy for myself scented oils. I must have twenty different scents. I love them."
"What is your guilty pleasure, my lady?" Faramir asked Arwen.
She blushed. He'd never seen an elf blush before.
"You needn't say," Eowyn said. "Some things needn't be shared."
"Nay, it's just that...there is so much...." Arwen began. "So much of the world of Men is new and wonderful to me. Things I never experienced in all my long years in Rivendell and Lorien. I love the soft silks of the East and the fine perfumes of the South. I love the cool stones of Minas Tirith and the soft grasses of Ithilien. But mostly I love the people. The energy and the enthusiasm that Men have for their world. I love their bawdy jokes and silly tavern songs. I love the sound of laughter, especially the laughter of children."
"Those are all pleasures, indeed," Aragorn said, stroking her hair. "But not guilty ones."
"I do not know that any of my pleasures are ones I am ashamed of," Arwen said. "I take pleasure in all the things of Men, willingly. I do not understand Men being ashamed of things they enjoy."
"It is not shame," Eowyn explained. "It is more...silly pleasures that provide more happiness than they probably should. Enjoying ginger sweets and sugared figs, even though they are not good for you. Buying yet another scent when I cannot possibly use all the ones I have."
But Arwen shook her head. "Perhaps it is that everything in the world of Men is still so new to me. I cannot think of a single thing I enjoy that I do not do so wholeheartedly."
Faramir smiled. "I think perhaps, Lady, we could all learn something from your attitude."
"Indeed," Aragorn said, gazing at his wife, "I never appreciate the world around me as fully as when you are at my side."
She smiled at him and stroked his cheek, and he kissed her gently. Faramir looked at Eowyn, who was smiling, too, and squeezed her in his arms. It was good to see Aragorn so content.
They talked for a little while longer, until Gimli's voice called out.
"Aragorn! Come and be useful!" the dwarf bellowed.
"What do you need?" Aragorn called back.
"Your strong arm," Gimli replied. Behind him, Legolas was shaking his head, looking sheepish. "Unless high living has blunted your strength," the dwarf goaded.
"He is just trying to rile you," Eowyn said. "Pay him no mind."
"No," Aragorn shook his head, "he needs my assistance," he said mildly. With a kiss to his wife's cheek, he got to his feet. "Come, my lord Steward. Let us show our hirsute friend the strength of Men."
Faramir chuckled. Indeed, a little manual labor would not come amiss; after years of living in the wild, always on edge as a Ranger, he found the sedentary Court life sometimes chafed. He gazed up at Aragorn and took hold of the other man's proffered hand, getting to his feet. Together, the two men went to where Gimli and Legolas stood at the bottom of the garden, surrounded by the detritus that would eventually become a fountain.
"You think we have become soft, do you?" Aragorn asked the dwarf.
Gimli laughed heartily. "I knew that would get a rise out of you! You are far too easily goaded, my friend."
"I am not goaded," Aragorn replied. "I simply wish to prove you wrong."
For the next several hours, the two men worked with Gimli and Legolas, digging, moving rocks, laying pipes and arranging stones. By the time they were done and the fountain missing only its final touches, the sun was low in the sky and both men, not to mention Gimli, were dirty and sweaty. Even Legolas was in somewhat less than his usual pristine condition.
But it had felt good, the mindless manual labor, the using of one's muscles instead of one's brain. Faramir wondered what it said about the race of Men that they could get such pleasure out of nothing more than simple physical labor. Watching Aragorn work steadily at his side, the earlier tensions having disappeared, replaced by an ease Faramir wasn't sure he'd ever seen in the other man, he decided it probably boded well.
Eowyn and Arwen, meanwhile, not ones to sit idle, had spent the time working on a woven mat that would cover the floor of the porch. The woven reed mat was, Eowyn had explained, an old Rohirric craft, one she enjoyed far more than the embroidery expected of fine women in Gondor. For himself, Faramir didn't care if she did Rohirric craft, Gondorian craft, or none at all, but working on the mat gave her pleasure and it would be a beautiful addition to the porch.
They looked up when their men approached.
"Is it done?" Eowyn asked.
"Just about," Faramir replied. "Legolas tells me they'll finish it up tomorrow."
He glanced at Aragorn. "The shadows lengthen," he said. "Will you stay again tonight?"
Aragorn smiled but shook his head. "I must get back. In truth, I am surprised no one has come from the City to find me." Faramir and Eowyn exchanged glances. "What? Someone had and you fended them off?"
"Not exactly," Faramir began.
"We sent a messenger last night to Osgiliath," Eowyn continued. "And from there I am sure word traveled back to Minas Tirith. They have known where you are. If anyone needed you, they would have sent to you."
"Consider it a boon, my lord, that they have not," Faramir finished.
Aragorn grinned. "Indeed I do. But," he sighed. "I must get back."
"Then let us see if your clothes are finally dry," Faramir said.
"Not to mention getting cleaned up," Aragorn added. "I dare say I am no longer fresh."
Faramir chuckled. "Nor I. And, you'll notice, our wives did not greet us with their customary embraces."
"That is because your wives know well when to stand upwind," Eowyn said wryly and Arwen laughed.
"I'd say we'd been insulted except there is no insult to the truth," Aragorn laughed. "Come, my brother. Let us see to it that we no longer offend our wives."
Together, the men headed to the sleeping quarters, where they found Penil just coming up the corridor.
"The King's clothes are ready for him, my lord; they are you in your chamber," Penil said.
"Thank you, Penil," Faramir said, and Aragorn repeated his thanks.
"I, uh, didn't know if the King was staying tonight, so his chamber hasn't been tended yet," Penil said sheepishly.
Faramir smiled. Was there anything his servants didn't think about?
"The queen and I will be leaving shortly, Penil," Aragorn answered him. "But we thank you for your admirable service. I understand you gave up your bed last night."
Penil blushed furiously. "It was no problem, sir," he mumbled. Faramir smiled. He might have to do some discreet inquiries to find out who Penil had spent the night with. He had no problem with his servant being involved with someone, but wanted to make sure that he was being cautious. He was fairly certain his young squire wouldn't want to be saddled with a wife and baby at this point in his life. After all, the lad was barely eighteen.
"Even so," Aragorn went on, "it was appreciated. And please convey our thanks to your sister. Tell her her tea was very effective."
"I will, sir. Thank you," Penil smiled shyly. He glanced at Faramir. "There are towels set out for you, my lord; you and the King will want to clean up."
"Indeed we do," Faramir smiled. "Thank you." Penil opened the door and Faramir ushered Aragorn in before him. But before he followed, he turned back to his servant. "Come see me later, after the king leaves," he said in a low voice, his hand on Penil's arm. "There are some things I want to discuss."
Penil frowned. "A problem, my lord?"
Faramir shook his head. "The King has asked me to come to the City tomorrow."
Penil nodded. "Very good, my lord."
Penil took himself off and Faramir continued on into the room. Aragorn had already stripped off his tunic and was pouring fresh water into the basin.
Faramir let Aragorn wash first, then washed himself while Aragorn dressed. As enjoyable as it had been to indulge in mindless labor, it felt even better to wash the sweat and the dirt away. Hard work was fine in its place, but he did appreciate the more civilized aspects of life.
He turned away from the basin, toweling himself, and looked up to see Aragorn pulling on his leather jerkin. He worked the fastenings with fingers that bore the nicks and scratches that evidenced their work. He saw Faramir watching him and smiled.
"Not too much the worse for wear from their dunking," he commented, examining the sleeves of his tunic.
"No indeed," Faramir agreed. The servants had tended the leathers well; after their soaking, they'd been restored to their former suppleness.
"Nor am I," Aragorn said softly. "Thank you, my brother. I did not know how much I needed this, until I was here."
"You're feeling better, then." Faramir said.
"Immeasurably," Aragorn replied. "I hadn't realized just how heavy the feeling of oppression had become. Now I feel like a great weight has been lifted, and it is thanks to you."
Faramir smiled. "I'm just glad there was something I could do to help. As I said, you had me worried yesterday."
"I dare say I had myself worried as well," Aragorn agreed with a wry grin, then the smile faded. "I learned my destiny when I was twenty years old, and though I spent many years seeking to avoid it, I never doubted that one day it would be mine. It has been...more than a little humbling to discover that I am not quite the king I had hoped to be."
Faramir frowned. "How do you figure that? Admitting you need support isn't showing weakness, it's acknowledging your humanity. We are not of the Eldar, and that means we must accept our mortality and our vulnerability. To do less gives disservice to all that Men are. It is our very vulnerability that gives us our strength, the kind of strength that the Eldar, for all their wisdom, can only imagine but never attain."
"The shortest candles burn the brightest," Aragorn completed.
"Something like that."
Aragorn sighed and straightened his tunic. "Perhaps I spent too long among the elves. I still judge myself by their standards."
"Then perhaps it is time to turn your eyes toward Men. Arwen has."
Aragorn glanced at Faramir. "I shall never forgive myself for upsetting her."
"You should," Faramir said. "She has." Then he gazed at Aragorn with a frown. "You, eh, have spoken to her, haven't you?"
"Yes, my friend," Aragorn chuckled. "We talked this morning. All is well between us again. And we have you to thank for that as well. You have been the truest of friends to both of us."
"It is no hardship," Faramir said softly.
Aragorn smiled and took a step toward him, pulling Faramir into his arms. And if he held on a fraction longer than he ordinarily would have done, well, that was no hardship, either.
Finally, Aragorn let go with a kiss to Faramir's brow. His eyes were sparkling with too many things unsaid, too many emotions to be easily expressed. He let his hand linger on Faramir's shoulder, his thumb stroking the other man's throat, an intimate gesture and yet not an awkward one. There were no barriers here: no walls of protocol or rank or status. Here they were simply two people–men, friends, brothers.
Then Aragorn chuckled and released Faramir with a gentle pat to his shoulder.
"When will you come?" he asked.
"As early as may be arranged. The sooner we can make a start–"
"The sooner you can return here to your paradise?" Aragorn asked softly.
"The sooner those tedious details that so plague you can be out of the way," Faramir finished with a smile. "Though yes, if I am to be totally honest, I have a feeling I shall miss Emyn Arnen, when I am away. Even though the best part of being here will be with me."
Aragorn smiled and sat on the edge of the bed as Faramir finished dressing. "How did we get so lucky, my brother, to find such extraordinary women to be our wives?"
Faramir chuckled. "The bigger question is how did we manage to convince them to marry us?"
Aragorn laughed. "Indeed. I have often wondered that myself." His smile faded. "When I think of all she has given up for me.... I am overwhelmed. She is too fine and too rare for one such as me."
"She doesn't think so. And really, that's what matters. It should not matter why they married us, only that they did. Their reasons are their own." He straightened his shirt and smoothed his hair. "Come. They will be waiting for us."
There were many embraces and many goodbyes. Legolas and Gimli decided to ride back with the King and Queen and spend a couple of days in the White City, seeing to their interests there, before coming back to Emyn Arnen with Faramir and Eowyn when they returned again. So in addition to seeing Aragorn and Arwen off, they saw the Elf and the Dwarf off as well, Gimli settled as always behind Legolas on his horse.
Faramir watched the three horses ride down the hill, stood watching until they rounded a bend and disappeared from sight. They would, he knew, re-emerge near the bottom on the other side of the hill. They'd be able to see them if they watched from the porch.
His arm tightened around Eowyn as he gazed down the road their visitors had traveled.
"What are you thinking?" Eowyn asked, her cheek resting against his shoulder.
He smiled and bent his head, kissing her brow. "How much I love you," he said. "How much I love our home here. And how grateful I am not to be a king."
Her arm tightened around him. "I was thinking the same thing. When I think of what I used to desire, it seems so empty and false now. They may be the highest people in Middle Earth. But I deem we are the happiest."
He chuckled, but it was a sound tinged with sadness. Not sadness for himself; indeed, he could not imagine being happier than he was at this moment. But sadness for Aragorn. For the King. For his friend, who could never escape his destiny and the requirements of his calling. They had provided him with a temporary sanctuary, nothing more. It was all they could do.
"I deem you are right, my love," he murmured into her hair. "I deem you are right."
Arm in arm, they walked back up the slope to their house.
The Prince of Ithilien
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