Title: Worse Than the Witch-king
Theme: "The Wedding of Your Nightmares"
Elements: "something old"
Author's Notes: Middle-earth belongs to Tolkien. Thanks to Finlay and Charli800 for beta reading.
Summary: Éowyn has a foe even harder to defeat than the one she slew in battle.
Word Count: 8,279
All seemed peaceful in Minas Tirith on this sunny morning in May. Under a sky the colour of harebells, the fields of the Pelennor had come up green with grass and new wheat. Only here and there did dark patches of scorched land bear witness to the battle of the previous year. Homesteads had been rebuilt and new seeds sown. The people of the city went about their business, many with minds still weary and bruised, but nevertheless looking with hope towards a summer unsullied by the terrors of war. But in one of the comfortable apartments of the citadel, someone was in for a nasty surprise.
Returning to this city had stirred conflicting feelings in Éowyn. So much had happened here, and as much to give her reason for sadness as for joy. Yet this time she had come expecting nothing but elation. She was going to be wed after all.
The previous day Faramir’s relations from Dol Amroth had arrived and she had been introduced to his cousins, his uncle and his aunt. Lady Ivriniel was a tiny, withered looking woman with a face much like a shrivelled apple, but she had made it quite clear, both by her bearing and her tone of voice, that she considered the wild shield-maiden from Rohan beneath the dignity of her nephew. Éowyn, however, was undisturbed by this display of disapproval. She didn’t expect to have much to do with the woman once she and Faramir were settled in Ithilien.
Early this morning Faramir had set off with the Prince of Dol Amroth. He wanted to show Imrahil the house he was preparing and ask his advice on several matters regarding the ordering of Ithilien. They expected to be back within two days. Éowyn had bid them farewell cheerfully enough: two days seemed a negligible amount of time after the many months they had spent apart.
Free of the duties that had been hers at Meduseld, she was looking forward to a leisurely day with nothing much to do between breakfast and dinner other than a stroll around the upper circles of the city. She had just sent away her maid, when a knock at the door startled her and the Lady Ivriniel entered. She carried a large parcel wrapped in brown linen.
“Good morning, Lady Éowyn. I hope you are well.”
Éowyn returned the greeting with more politeness than cordiality.
“You will be glad to know that I have brought the dress. I am sure you have been anxious to try it on, and we only have a few days for the alterations,” said Lady Ivriniel.
“I beg your pardon, Lady Ivriniel. I do not understand. Of what dress is it you are talking?”
Lady Ivriniel tutted and made a little impatient movement with her head.
“The wedding dress, of course. I have brought it with me from Dol Amroth, where it has been kept ever since the last Steward’s wedding.”
She placed the parcel on the round table near the fireplace, opened the rustling layers of linen and pulled out a robe with a triumphant gesture.
Éowyn looked at it and blinked. She stretched out her hands and took it from the old woman. Her arms sank under the weight of the thing. A stuffy smell crept into her nostrils. She walked over to the window and held the gown up in the light. The fabric was one that she would only ever consider for curtains or bedspreads: brocade. It was woven in a pattern of dark brown and purple, shot with threads of gold and copper. Black lace trimmings obscured the shape of the garment, and the cuffs and the high collar were likewise edged with large, starched lace ruffs. Éowyn touched one of them gingerly. It felt scratchy. On closer inspection she found that the bodice was lined with fur. She glanced out of the window. Outside, the sun shone as pleasantly as it had done for the last week. Éowyn turned around and faced Faramir’s aunt.
“Tell me, Lady Ivriniel, why would I want to wear this?”
Ivriniel gave her a look of innocent incomprehension and took the dress out of Éowyn’s hands.
“It is the wedding dress of the Steward’s family, Lady Éowyn.” She held it up with a reverent gesture and cocked her head to one side. “I remember how lovely my sister Finduilas looked in it.”
“I have brought a dress with me from Rohan that I wish to wear at the ceremony. Come through to the bed chamber and I’ll show it to you.” Éowyn opened the door that led from the day chamber into her bedroom.
“Oh, but Lady Éowyn!” The shocked expression in the old woman’s face almost made Éowyn laugh. “It is traditional. You could not possibly wear anything else. The whole court would be appalled. Lord Faramir would not approve. And I fear the king and queen would be offended if you thus disregarded the customs of Gondor.”
“The king and queen both come from the North and probably care little for –” She paused. To suggest that Aragorn and his lady were indifferent to the heritage of Gondor was in all likeliness not a sensible thing to do. “– the fashions here,” she ended weakly. They were both standing in the doorway now, the dress wedged between them like a mountain range between two hostile countries.
“The king and queen would not endorse any breaking with tradition,” said Ivriniel firmly. She walked across the bedroom and draped the gown over a clotheshorse that stood in the corner by the wash stand.
“I will speak to Faramir about this when he comes back,” replied Éowyn. “I am sure he will agree with me.”
“It is not up to Faramir to decide what counts as proper in Gondor. I shall leave you now to become familiar with the dress. My maids and I will return this afternoon so we can measure you up for alterations,” said Ivriniel in a voice that brooked no opposition. “I wish you a pleasant morning.”
Before Éowyn could formulate her protest and point out that save for the King she could not think of a more suitable person than Faramir to decide what counted as proper in Gondor, the old lady had marched back into the day chamber and out by the door. Éowyn sank down on the edge of her bed shook her head.
“Please send word to the Lady Ivriniel that I am still indisposed,” said Éowyn to Acha, her maid, and leaned back on the pillows. “And I do not wish to be disturbed. Not even by you.”
“But my lady –“
“Not even by you,” repeated Éowyn. “Now leave me alone, please. I want to sleep. I will call you if I need you.”
Acha shrugged, dropped a curtsey and bustled out of the room with the breakfast tray. As soon as she had left, Éowyn threw back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. She glanced around. There on the clotheshorse where Ivriniel had left it hung the heirloom dress. Alas, it hadn’t just been a nightmare. The morning sun that came in through the window revealed the sheer awfulness of the gown. There was no way she was going to wear it, tradition or not.
Pleading illness had excused her from the fitting session the previous afternoon and it would be a good excuse again today. Unfortunately it also meant that she was a prisoner in her own quarters, for she could not risk being seen in the city. But she needed to buy time and she needed to think. She wondered whether it would be a good plan to fake sickness for the entire rest of the week and thus escape the horrible dress. After all, if it couldn’t be altered for her, she couldn’t wear it, could she?
She rose, walked over to her trunk and took out the dress she had intended – still intended! – to wear at her wedding. It wasn’t one of her usual white gowns, but a rich green like the banner of Rohan. She, Brandwyn and Acha had embroidered the hems with white flowers. The fabric felt light and soft against her cheek. For a while she stood hugging the dress. Then she draped it over the edge of the bed and stationed herself by the window.
Tiny white clouds dotted the sky. The view from up here was spectacular, overlooking the Anduin Valley towards South Ithilien. From the West, behind the Mindolluin Mountain, the River Erui came down to join the Great River. She could just about make out the villages that were situated on the long, thin stretch of land between the two rivers, morning sun glinting on the slated roofs. On the eastern shore of the Anduin rose the wooded hills of the Emyn Arnen clad in the fresh greens of May. Somewhere on the far side of those hills Faramir was showing their house to his uncle Imrahil. It suddenly occurred to Éowyn that it would have been rather more proper if he was showing it to her. Why hadn’t her taken her with him? Why hadn’t she said she would come? If she was away at the Emyn Arnen, Lady Ivriniel couldn’t prey on her with ridiculous dresses. Ah, but there was a custom in Gondor, wasn’t there, that the bride was not to see her new home until after the wedding. Éowyn snorted in the most unladylike manner. There was probably a reason for that, she thought.
For a long time she stood by the window thinking how lovely it would be to ride out, until the vision made her so irritated that she turned back into the room. She took her scissors out of her reticule and trimmed her fingernails. After a moment’s thought, she trimmed her toenails, too. Then she opened her tresses, brushed her hair and braided it again. She emptied the entire contents of her reticule onto the bed and put every item back neatly. When she had finished, a broken button, a plum stone and an unsavoury mess of crumbs, hairs and unidentifiable pieces of fluff were left on the sheet. She brushed them off and pushed them under the bed with her foot.
For about half an hour she occupied herself with emptying and repacking her trunk. Then she put on a gown and went through to the day chamber. The window here faced north and overlooked the road that had brought her down from Rohan. There was brisk traffic of walkers, riders and wains there these days. She watched it for a while. It was, however, not a spectacle that could occupy her for very long. The large oak cabinet at the east wall of the room promised more entertainment. Éowyn opened every single one of the little drawers and compartments, but they contained nothing more interesting than a few scraps of parchment and some candle stumps. All the better. Another half hour went by during which she emptied her trunk and placed her possessions in the cabinet. She would have to remove them again in a few days’ time, but it didn’t matter.
Around noon she sneaked out to the privy and when she came back she stood in the middle of the room and wondered what to do next. After a while, she went into her bedroom. There was nothing to do here, either. And she was getting hungry. Well, the miraculous bell pull would help her. Somehow or other she would take advantage of the superior achievements of Gondor. She took off her gown and crept back into bed, then pulled the cord. A few minutes later, Acha appeared.
“How are you feeling now, my lady?”
“The same as this morning, but I would like something to eat.”
“Of course, my lady.”
Acha curtseyed and left. While she waited for her food, Éowyn inspected the embroidery on the bedspread. It was a profoundly tedious occupation. Her thoughts returned again to her predicament. For a moment she considered speaking to Aragorn, but it seemed frivolous to trouble the new king of Gondor about a dress. If only Éomer were here! He would know what to do. Unfortunately, he had been struck down by a real illness, a nasty turn of shingles that had seized him the day before her departure for Gondor. She had been inclined to postpone the whole wedding and wished now she hadn’t given in to his urgings.
At last Acha came with a tray of bread, fruit and cold meat. Éowyn sent her away and devoured the meal. Then she got up again and looked out of the window. The sun was barely past its zenith.
All afternoon she paced back and forth between the two rooms, picking up objects and dropping them again. She tried to practise some sword movements, but with a hairbrush in lieu of a sword this proved uninspiring. Three times she cleaned her teeth. She even sorted all her ribbons by length and colour and mended a tear in her riding habit. At last, dusk crept over the valley and the birds began their evening song. It had been a beautiful day, she had spent it entirely indoors, and now her only choice was to send for more food and then go to bed early. Her plan to think of a solution remained unfulfilled, for she had not been able to fix her mind on the issue for any length of time. Éowyn sighed. There was no way she could endure another four days of confinement. Tomorrow Faramir would be back and he would settle everything to her satisfaction.
Another bright morning shone over Minas Tirith. Éowyn decided to give up on the faked illness, but to delay sending word to Ivriniel for as long as possible. Around noon Faramir would be back, and that would be ample excuse to postpone the fitting session until the following day. And by the following day, she hoped, it would no longer be an issue. Faramir would put his foot down. Let him deal with it, it was his aunt after all. Éowyn pulled her shoulders back. She felt like an army leader making strategic decisions. The dress looked at her accusingly, but she shrugged at it and went into her day chamber, where Acha was setting the table for breakfast. The alluring smell of fresh rolls and honey filled the room. Éowyn sat down and ate with a hearty appetite.
No sooner had she drained the last of the spiced milk from her cup, than a knock on the door made her heart sink. However, when Acha went to open, it was not the dreaded Ivriniel who walked in, but the Princess of Dol Amroth. Éowyn rose from her seat.
“Good morning, Princess Lothíriel,” she said.
“Good morning,” said the princess in her soft, lilting voice. “I hope I am not disturbing you. Please just call me Lothíriel. We should not stand on such ceremony. After all, I am engaged to your brother. I heard you were not feeling very well, so I thought you might enjoy some company. But you seem to be better this morning.”
“I am, thank you,” replied Éowyn. “But that doesn’t mean that your company is unwelcome.”
She indicated a chair and Lothíriel sat down. Éowyn placed herself in the opposite seat.
“And how do you like Minas Tirith so far?”
“I like it well enough,” said Éowyn. She looked at Lothíriel’s face with the deep-set eyes and easy smile. The princess seemed genuinely kind.
“But,” Éowyn continued,” some of your customs are not to my liking.”
“That is only to be expected,” replied Lothíriel. “Consider, though, that it will be in your power to make changes. As Faramir’s wife you will have much influence. People will be looking to you for guidance. Queen Arwen has already introduced several new customs at the court – and done away with one or two that didn’t suit her. There was some talk about this, but in the end people went along with her wishes, and I am sure in time most will forget that things were ever done in another way.”
“Oh, but this is different,” said Éowyn.
Lothíriel inclined her head and looked at Éowyn with a mixture of amusement and curiosity.
“Ah, is it a particular custom that irks you?”
“Yes,” said Éowyn. She hesitated, but the princess was kind and young and beautifully dressed in a gown of pale yellow silk. Éowyn got up from her chair.
“You’d better come and have a look,” she said and led Lothíriel through to the bed chamber. With a mock dramatic gesture, she indicated the dress. Lothíriel looked and quickly covered her mouth with her hand. Her eyes sought Éowyn’s and their shared horror needed no further expression.
“The famous wedding dress,” she whispered. “I knew Ivriniel was bringing it, but she did not let me see it. She said it was to be a surprise. Oh, poor Éowyn, you will look like a stuffed pheasant!”
“I am not going to wear it.”
Lothíriel gave her a sidelong look.
“Do not delude yourself. If my aunt wants you to wear it, then you will.”
“You do not know my aunt Ivriniel.”
“She doesn’t know me. I slew the witch king, remember?”
“I am not sure how helpful that is going to be in this case,” she said. “You can hardly attack my aunt with a sword.”
“I certainly feel like it.”
They both giggled.
“Still,” continued Lothíriel, “my aunt always gets her own way. You had better believe me. When I was fourteen, I was supposed to take part in our annual ball for the first time. Aunt Ivriniel was adamant that this was my noble duty, but I had a mind not to, because I could not think of anything more tedious. So on the night before the ball I threw my dancing shoes over the cliffs into the sea and was very pleased with own cleverness. However, the very next morning –“
Voices from the other room made them turn.
“That sounds like Faramir. He’s back early,” Éowyn said and strode through into the day chamber. Lothíriel followed. They found the Steward accompanied by the Prince of Dol Amroth. Cordial greetings were exchanged and all four of them sat down to drink the tea that Acha had just brought in. They spent half an hour in conversation about the state of Ithilien. Eventually, Imrahil and his daughter rose to take their leave. Lothíriel gave Éowyn a sweet smile and a wink.
“I shall tell you the rest of the story some other time,” she whispered.
As soon as they were out the door, Éowyn took Faramir’s hand, pulled him into the bedchamber and pointed at the dress.
“That,” she said, “is what your aunt wants me to wear at the wedding, because it is the heirloom of your family. She didn’t listen to me, so I want you to go and tell her that I shall not wear it.”
“Faramir! It is a monstrosity. Lothíriel says it will make me look like a stuffed pheasant. I don’t see how anybody can wear it and not die with shame.”
“My mother wore it,” Faramir said quietly.
Éowyn bit her lip and felt her cheeks flush. She had forgotten about that.
“Oh, well, yes, I mean...” Was there a way to wriggle out of this? “What time of year did your parents get married?”
“They were wed at Mettarë. What does that have to do with it?”
“It would have been cold then. So your mother was probably glad for such a warm dress. But it’s summer now. I will melt in that fur-lined thing!”
“But dearest Éowyn, it is only for a few hours. Consider: the eyes of the whole court will be upon you.”
“Indeed, and I wish the eyes of the whole court could see me in a more becoming gown.”
Faramir framed her face in his hands.
“Éowyn, you are beautiful, and everybody will think so. It is only a dress, it does not matter. I don’t think you need to make a scene about it. We shall have no peace at the wedding if Aunt Ivriniel does not get her will. And she is right, you know, it is traditional.”
Éowyn drew breath. It was all she could do to stop herself from stomping her foot like an impatient child.
“I don’t care if it is traditional! I want nothing to do with it. I brought a beautiful wedding gown from Rohan, and I will wear it. Go and tell her that.”
Faramir sat down on the edge of the bed and sighed.
“Éowyn, do you have to take this so seriously? I wish you wouldn’t begin to antagonize my family before we are even married. The Steward’s wife has duties to her people; she cannot just do whatever she wants. I thought as a member of the royal family, you would understand this.”
“I understand that as the Steward’s wife I have some say in such matters. Go and tell Ivriniel that I will not wear it.”
“I am tired, Éowyn. Talk to her about it yourself.”
“But she doesn’t listen to me. She is so...overbearing”
“Well, deal with it. Surely you are able to do so? You slew the witch king, didn’t you?”
“This dress has been in the possession of the Steward’s family for nine generations,” declared Lady Ivriniel as her maids busied themselves with pins and measuring tapes. “It was commissioned for the wedding of Ecthelion the First to Elwaloth of Pinnath Gelin. They say it was made by Elves, who wove in a spell to protect the fabric; though how true that is I do not know. After Ecthelion’s death it passed on to the family of Egalmouth, who was the grandson of Ecthelion’s aunt, for Ecthelion had no children. He was succeeded by his son Beren, who was in turn followed by Beregond, and both those Stewards did a lot to help your people against the Corsairs and the Dunlendings.” She managed to make it sound as if this put Éowyn under a particular obligation to wear the dress. “At the wedding of Beregond’s son Belecthor to Lothwen of Anfalas a table was knocked over and red wine was spilled over the bride. Fortunately the dress was saved, so when Thorondir married...”
While Ivriniel droned on and on, Éowyn struggled to keep awake and upright. The gown seemed heavier by the minute and was so hot that she was beginning to feel faint. Sweat trickled down her back. Her longing glance wandered to the window and to the summery landscape far below the city. Everything was green out there, green and fresh, with a wind just strong enough to swell the flags on the battlements. Her mind drifted off to the cool winds on the grass of Rohan. She should have got married at home. Why had she come here? Whatever had possessed her to agree to a Gondorian wedding? Wasn’t it the custom that the groom came to the bride’s home? No, she remembered, in Gondor it was the other way round, Faramir had explained. Still, why should his tradition count more than hers? She felt rather impatient with Faramir right now. Why could he not support her?
“Well, there are a good three inches we can let out from the hem. You are very tall, Lady Éowyn. Gondorian ladies are usually smaller.”
Éowyn felt inclined to comment that this was odd, since Gondorian men were tall enough, but she checked herself and decided that she didn’t have to justify her height. It didn’t matter anyway. It wasn’t as if she was going to wear the wretched dress. Succumbing to this fitting session was just a strategic retreat until she could think of a way out of the quagmire.
But was there a way? Ivriniel had cast one look at the green gown and dismissed it as a flimsy thing not fit to be worn at court. “Dignity, my girl, is to people of our station more vital than the air we breathe,” she had declared. There had been a sharp retort sitting on Éowyn’s tongue about the amount of lace that was compatible with dignity, not to mention colour schemes, but she had thought of Faramir’s reproach. Indeed, she couldn’t win anything by falling out with his aunt. However, the question of how she was going to avoid the humiliation of getting married in a dress out of a nightmare was becoming a little more pressing with every pin the maids put in place.
“What broad shoulders you have, girl. And such strong arms!” Ivriniel’s voice left no doubt that she considered Éowyn’s muscular built a most unbecoming and unladylike thing.
Éowyn shrugged, dislodging in the process the pins with which one of the maids had just arranged the fitting of the sleeve to the bodice.
“It’s the sword practice, I suppose.”
She savoured the look of forced indifference on the old lady’s face. However much she might abhor the very thought of a young lady taking up arms to fight, even Ivriniel had heard that Éowyn had slain the witch king, and she could hardly disapprove of that.
The opening of seams, the tucking, folding and pinning went on for another hour, by the end of which Éowyn felt ready to collapse. When at long last the maids peeled her out of the lacy abomination, she staggered over to the washstand and dipped her arms up to the elbows into the water bowl. Then she took a cloth and washed the sweat off her face and neck.
“Lady Ivriniel,” she said when she had finished, and she walked up to her and put a hand on the dress that now rested on the older woman’s arm, pickled with pins. “I have given some thought to the matter. This is a very special gown indeed. It is very stately and very dignified. However, and I am sure you will agree with me there, it is too heavy and too hot for a May wedding in such delightful weather. No doubt by some strange chance all other weddings in the Stewards’ family have taken place in winter and I think –“
“Nonsense, girl,” interrupted Ivriniel. “The wedding of Turgon to Camring of Lossarnach was in August. She was the third daughter and Turgon almost married one of her older sisters, but then they both died of Measles and Camring was only seventeen. She was a very beautiful woman by all accounts and a most demure and decorous wife. If you are worried about being too hot, bring a fan.”
With a short, sharp movement of her head, Ivriniel ordered her maids to get ready to leave.
“My maids will set to work directly. I will be back tomorrow afternoon to see if the dress fits properly. Await me at four o’clock. Good day, Lady Éowyn.”
And Éowyn, exhausted and craving a drink of water, let her go without another word. A last glimpse at the gown before it disappeared through the door confirmed her thought that Elves would never have created anything so appalling.
That night she dreamt that she walked through a forest, and the trees bore sleeves instead of branches. Lace cuffs reached out to grab her. The ground felt wobbly underneath her feet and when she looked down she saw that she was treading on a slippery sea of brocade. From above her head she heard the eerie rustle of starched ruffs. Pin pricks in her shoulders and back made her flinch. But not far ahead she saw the trees opening up to a grassy slope. She began to run. Soon she had reached the edge of the forest, but just as she emerged from among the trees and rejoiced in the thought of rushing all the way up that slope, she was tripped up by an enormous purple satin train.
With a cry of anger she fell to the ground and looked up. And there on the top of the hill stood the witch king and laughed at her.
Two days to go and she still hadn’t thought of a solution. About an hour before Ivriniel was due to come with the finished dress, Éowyn emerged from her quarters in her riding habit, and ten minutes later she left the main gate of the city on horseback and trotted down the southbound road. She didn’t intend to stay away long, just long enough to buy her some time to think of something, anything. The green, blooming landscape filled her vision, while she tried to turn her mind to a way out of the trap.
Could she escape the stuffed pheasant robe if she spilled red wine over it? But no, that had happened before, according to Ivriniel, and the dress had been restored. Éowyn wondered if whoever had knocked over the table at the wedding of - was it Belecthor and Lothwen? – had done so on purpose to save future generation from the monstrous gown. Much as this thought amused her, it was no solution to her predicament.
She could, of course, downright refuse. Nobody would dare to put the gown on her by force. But it didn’t seem right indeed to antagonize Faramir’s relations before she had even married him, she conceded that much. And what if Ivriniel was right and wearing a different dress would really cause a scandal at the court? If only Faramir was willing to stand up for her. But each time she tried to raise the matter, he laughed it off and told her not to worry about such trifling matters. She shouldn’t fret, he said, for didn’t he love her regardless of what clothes she wore? And it was only for a few hours, he said, a small sacrifice for the greater good of all. He simply did not understand that to be married in this dress seemed like a fate worse than death. It was most exasperating indeed.
With these ruminations crawling through her head, she rode on an on. It was only when she reached the summit of a small hill and saw the River Erui in the valley ahead that she realized just how far she had come. The city lay some twenty miles behind her. The sun stood in the West, hovering over the summits of the White Mountains, and she guessed that it was around six o’clock. With her horse now tired, it would take her at least three hours to get back. She turned and steered her mare back northwards.
Éowyn did not delude herself with any hopes that her delay would result in anything other than exiting Ivriniel’s anger. It was too late to try on the dress, but she would have to do it the following day. Then again, maybe some inspiration would come to her this evening.
She had underestimated Ivriniel’s persistence. When she finally arrived back in the citadel, she found the old lady and her two maids, meek and puny creatures both of them, waiting in her day chamber. Faramir jumped up from his seat.
“See, aunt, here she is. I told you she wouldn’t be long. Did you lose a horseshoe, dear?”
He gave Éowyn a stern look that belied his jovial tones.
“Yes,” she said, grateful for the ready-made excuse.
“You should not have ridden out in the first place on such a crucial day,” said Ivriniel in her most milk-curdling voice. “This is the third time I have come back to see if you had arrived at last.”
Faramir kissed Éowyn briefly on the cheek.
“I shall leave you ladies to it then. Good night Éowyn, good night, Aunt Ivriniel,” he said and made for the door. Immediately Ivriniel and her maids surrounded Éowyn and began to take off her riding habit. She didn’t resist. The attack had been too unexpected.
While the maids busied themselves with slotting Éowyn into the dress like a doll, Ivriniel lit all the candles, for the light was already dim in this north-facing room with the curtains drawn. Then she brought over a big mirror in a silver frame, mounted on casters.
“I asked Queen Arwen for a loan of this mirror so you could see yourself, girl. Well, I dare say we have done splendid work. The gown fits perfectly! Is it not magnificent?”
Éowyn glanced at her reflection. There was no telling by sight whether or not the shapeless mountain of lace and brocade fitted well. By feel, she had to suspect that Ivriniel’s idea of a good fit was best described as “tight and uncomfortable.” She didn’t do Ivriniel the favour of uttering exclamations of delight. After a few minutes of tense expectation, during which Ivriniel tried in various way to elicit a compliment form Éowyn, the prospective bride was eventually dismantled and the dress reverently laid on the round table by one of the maids.
Éowyn slipped into her plain day gown. Ivriniel, apparently resigned to make do without passionate expressions of thanks, patted her on the shoulder.
“So, now you are all set for the big day. Do you have a suitable trinket to wear?”
Éowyn held her breath. She looked at the table where the dress lay spread out and then across the room to the oak cabinet that contained her trinket box. She looked at the dozen or so candles burning in the tall candelabra that stood by the table. She closed her eyes for a second and saw what she needed to do.
“I have a beautiful necklace that Faramir gave me on our betrothal,” she said. “I keep it in a box in that cabinet over there. Just wait, I’ll show it to you.”
It was so easily done: walking past the table and as if by accident brushing the dress to the floor. Turning around in mock surprise, knocking over the candelabra with her elbow and, before any of the other ladies had quite understood what was going on, kneeling down to make sure that there was a nice, gaping hole burnt into the fabric. How fortunate that the starched lace caught the fire so easily. Éowyn grinned. Then she patted out the flames with a cloth.
“Oh dear, how clumsy of me!” Éowyn tried in vain to suppress the excited tremor in her voice, and it was just lucky that the others mistook it for a genuine expression of shock. Ivriniel seized the dress and wailed: “Ruined! The wedding dress of the Steward’s family is ruined! Oh, that I have to see the day of such misfortune! Has anything worse ever happened in Gondor?”
Éowyn covered her face with her hands to hide her smirk, which conveniently gave her the appearance of one overcome with shame and horror.
“I am so sorry,” she whispered, not trusting her voice to conceal her feelings of triumph. “So very, very sorry. That lovely dress! I had grown so fond of it.” She broke off. If she said any more, she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from laughing hysterically.
The two maids crowded around Ivriniel and surveyed the damage. There was a hole the size of a fist halfway down the skirt of the dress with three smaller holes around it and another large one a bit further down. Several of the lace fringes were badly singed. Éowyn peeked through her fingers to reassure herself that the dress was incapacitated without doubt.
She had won. It felt like slaying the witch king all over again.
Éowyn was up early. She had leapt out of her bed with a happy heart, if not an entirely clear conscience. But somehow, having destroyed the formidable heirloom of Faramir’s family didn’t seem a crime that would shackle her moral sensitivities for any length of time. A look around the room revealed that there was indeed no sign of the Wedding Dress of Doom. Instead, her own green robe hung on the clotheshorse. She sighed in deep satisfaction and considered what to do next. It would be over an hour yet before Faramir would come along from his own quarters to join her for breakfast. She decided to go for a walk.
Outside, the morning air felt still cool and a fresh wind blew from north-east. She had left the citadel without any clear plan of where to go, but before she was aware of it her feet were taking her towards the Houses of Healing. It had rained overnight and the wet sheen on the cobbles flecked the street with a pattern of glossy dots. Éowyn breathed in deeply and walked with light steps and even lighter heart. Tomorrow she would wed Faramir in her green Rohirric gown. The triumph of having outwitted Ivriniel was still pulsing in her veins.
When she reached the gate to the gardens around the Houses of Healing, she met with a familiar figure.
“Good morning, Ioreth!”
The old healer looked up and clapped her hands together.
“Bless me, if it isn’t the Lady Éowyn! Oh, how well you look, I am so pleased to see it! But no wonder, you’re getting wed tomorrow, and a mighty splendid wedding it will be. The people are all excited about it, just like when the king got married, or more so, I dare say, for the Lord Faramir has been well loved for many years, no slight to our Elfstone. And what about the famous dress, how does it fit you? Oh, I remember well the Lady Finduilas on her wedding day. I couldn’t help thinking she looked mighty uncomfortable in that big mountain of a dress, but noble folk have their own customs and I wager she wouldn’t have swapped for the prettiest silk gown in Gondor. And how is the Lord Faramir, is he nervous yet? Watch your feet, Lady Éowyn, the grass is all wet here. You shouldn’t be out in such dainty shoes, child. Oh dear, pardon me, my lady, I mean no disrespect but you just seem so –“
“Never mind that, Ioreth,” said Éowyn. “But say: would people find it very strange if I wasn’t wearing the heirloom dress?”
“Very strange indeed, my lady, very strange indeed. Why, has there been a problem with the fitting?”
“No, not really,” said Éowyn evasively. Angling for a change of topic, she continued, “Faramir told me that you were building a new wing to the Houses to replace the one that was damaged during the war. Is the work progressing well?”
“Oh, it is, Lady Éowyn, it is. If you want to come along with me, I’ll show you. Bless my heart, you look like the fresh flowers in the meadows, no more of that pallid sickness in you! I remember that dreadful day when they brought you in all cold and pale, and I thought, Ioreth, I thought...”
The old woman’s happy chatter flowed on as the two walked across the garden towards the new building.
Later, when she sat at the table with Faramir and drizzled honey over her porridge with much enthusiasm, she said casually: “By the way, there has been a mishap with the wedding robe yesterday. The candlestick fell over and burnt a hole into it. I’m afraid it is beyond repair.”
Faramir didn’t even look up from the piece of bacon he was chasing around the plate with his knife and fork.
“Well,” he said, “That’s a shame. My aunt will be disappointed. But you weren’t all that keen on it anyway, were you? Have you got something else to wear?”
Éowyn couldn’t help wondering whether he had listened to anything she had said on the topic during the last three days. Did men simply switch off their ears when women talked about dresses?
“As I mentioned before,” she said slowly and pointedly, “I have brought a dress with me from Rohan. This is what I intended to wear at the wedding from the start, and you are indeed right in assuming that I was not wholeheartedly pleased with the prospect of wearing the other gown.”
Faramir beamed at her, his cheeks bulging with bacon and toast. He swallowed.
“Very good,” he said. “That’s it all settled then. We can get married tomorrow without fail.”
“That we can,” replied Éowyn and smiled.
After Faramir had gone to see to whatever tedious business occupied him even on the day before his wedding, she beckoned Acha to come with her into the bedchamber. Not a word was said about the heirloom dress, and Acha swiftly helped her into the green gown. Then they went back into the day room, where Queen Arwen’s mirror still stood in a corner.
“Will you be wanting your hair braided in a crown tomorrow, my lady?” asked Acha.
“No, something plainer, I think,” replied Éowyn. “Or, mind you. Mind you, yes, a crown would be just right.”
She looked at her mirror image. The green gown gently hugged her upper body and flowed to the ground in soft folds from her waist. There were no frills, no ruffs, no adornments other than the embroidered white flowers. Her arms felt free and cool in the light, loose sleeves. This, she thought, flexing her sword arm, is the hand that slew the witch king.
“Yes, a crown,” she said. “I think I’ve earned it.”
And this was the wedding day come at last. Even before Éowyn sat down for breakfast, Acha brought in a large tin bath and began to fill it. Bucket after bucket of water was heated over the fire, and when Éowyn had finished her meal, her bath was ready. She leaned back into the warm, rose-scented water while Acha washed her hair.
“So who will accompany you then, my lady?” asked Acha.
“I do not know,” replied Éowyn. “Princess Lothíriel has named the maids of honour for me. Lord Faramir thought that would be best, since I would not have known who to choose without causing offence in one quarter or other.”
“You would have liked getting married at home, my lady, with trusted friends around you. It is a shame that Lady Eadlin could not have come with you as your lady in waiting.”
“Well, I’m sure she preferred getting married herself, Acha. And I didn’t want to drag anyone away from the Mark. I will find new companions here.” She sat up. “This water is getting cold, please help me out of the tub.”
It took a while to dry Éowyn’s long blonde hair. The fire made the room too hot, and Éowyn felt uncomfortably warm even in just her shift. She shuddered at the thought that, had it not been for her presence of mind, she would be looking forward to a day spent in a fur lined gown.
By noon, the crown of braids was finished and Acha stepped over to fetch the green dress from the clotheshorse. Just then, they heard voices from the day chamber.
“Lady Éowyn! Are you decent?”
Acha walked over to the door and opened it a crack. She had to step back quickly so as not be pushed aside when Lady Ivriniel marched in with her two maids in tow.
“You need to get more attendants, girl. It will not do to let people stand knocking at your door because your only maid is in the bedchamber with you.”
Éowyn stared. One of the maids held a large item wrapped in brown linen over her arm. A fringe of black lace peeped out at one end.
“You’ve brought back the dress,” Éowyn whispered.
Ivriniel’s features softened. She opened the folds of linen to reveal what Éowyn had hoped never to see again.
“Yes, we have saved it. I knew you would be glad. Fortunately I had a good supply of black lace with me. See, we inserted pieces of plain brown brocade and then moved this lace frill to cover the patches. Nobody will notice.”
She took the dress off the maid and held it up for Éowyn to inspect. Éowyn shrunk back from the menacing rustle of the ruff.
“Lady Ivriniel,” she began, “much as I appreciate your efforts in making this dress available to me, I have decided to wear the gown I brought with me from Rohan. It is not an heirloom, but it is also traditional, in that it sports the colours and the emblem of the Riddermark.”
Ivriniel paid no attention to this claim, but held out the gruesome gown and gestured to Éowyn to step in. Éowyn shook her head.
“I will not wear this dress.”
“My nephew wishes it,” said Ivriniel.
“When did he say so?”
“Just now, before I came here.”
She is lying, Éowyn though, Faramir would not order me. But she couldn’t be sure. Faramir had been very fond of his mother; that much she knew. Would he be offended if she refused to wear the dress Finduilas had worn? It was so hard to tell. And then she felt the treacherous warmth in her eyes, and her vision blurred. She gritted her teeth. No tears in front of Ivriniel!
It was an awkward moment, with silence stretching from wall to wall and with four pairs of eyes fastened on her.
“He wishes it most particularly,” said Ivriniel, “in memory of his mother.”
Éowyn’s resistance collapsed. She could not believe that Faramir would really insist, given how little interest he had shown in the whole matter, but she felt incapable of accusing the old lady of lying. She hesitated. Then she became aware that the moment for putting up a fight had irrevocably passed. Ivriniel and her maids advanced on her like a pack of wolves and encased her body in the dead-pheasant robe. It took but a few minutes and the deed was done. Almost immediately she began to feel too warm. Several pounds of lace and brocade dragged at her shoulders. Her chin was forced up by the scratchy ruff. It was every bit as bad as she had imagined.
“There now,” said Ivriniel. “You’re looking lovely. What a beautiful bride. My sister, of course, had dark hair...”
It happened very quickly, but Éowyn saw it: Ivriniel was wiping off a tear with the back of her hand. In a sudden flash of understanding, Éowyn grasped the whole story. It wasn’t the lace ruff that caused the tight feeling in her throat when she realized that the old woman had spent decades waiting for a chance to recreate the image of her sister as a bride. The last wild schemes of escape fled from Éowyn’s mind.
As she had anticipated, Éowyn was sweating by the time she reached the Merethrond. The Hall of Feasts was packed with wedding guests. It was a throng of faces that meant nothing to her, until she approached the front rows, where the most prominent guests were placed: the royal couple and the Dol Amroth family. Aragorn looked solemn, but Queen Arwen gave her an encouraging smile. Lothíriel was clearly struggling to suppress a grin. Éowyn didn’t dare look too closely at Ivriniel, for fear of seeing tears in the old woman’s eyes again. She walked past with firm steps.
And there was Faramir. Faramir, for whose sake she had come to this place and was getting married far from home in a horrible dress and without a single confidante apart from her maid. There had been a reason for all this, hadn’t there? Oh, but of course: she loved him dearly. That was probably a good enough reason.
Faramir smiled at her with all the warmth that she so treasured in him. She could see how uncomfortable he was in the tight-fitting waistcoat, and, yes, there were lace cuffs and a fur-lined collar. Was this another heirloom of the Steward’s family? Suddenly, she had to laugh.
Later, when the feast was over and they were alone in the room that was now theirs, she confessed the whole story to Faramir.
“You did it on purpose?” he cried. “I can’t believe it.”
“Why not?” she said. “Do you think your aunt is a foe worse than the witch king?”
Faramir looked at her and laughed.
“You are right,” he said. “It was a small fight in comparison. And yet, you lost! She made you wear it in the end.”
“Indeed.” She took his hand and stroked it. “It was a surprise attack at a time when I was sure I had won the battle. I hope I wasn’t a bad loser. At least I know now that she had just made it up about you demanding it. It would have grieved me to think so ill of you.”
“I would have never thought she could be so devious! All just to force that dress on you.”
“Oh, in the end I didn’t mind it as much as I thought I would, you know. I think I understand her reasons. And when I saw you waiting there for me, I realized it didn’t matter so much, and that the only really important thing is that we are together.”
“I am glad to hear that,” said Faramir and pulled her into his embrace.
“I’ll tell you one thing, though,” she said before she succumbed to his kisses. “If we ever have a daughter, I’ll make sure that dress is burnt to the very last thread.”