Title: Picking up the Threads
Summary: In Ithilien the Prince and his lady are finding their way slowly
Disclaimer: The originals of these characters belong to their copyright holders. I borrow them for amusement not profit.
Prompt: This is written for foxrafer who asked for a response to the prompt “omission, retrieval, flame, bolster, monolith” and not too much angst/heavy kink/BDSM and character death.
When the Prince of Ithilien carried his lady over the threshold of their new home, it had seemed a cold, bare, place to the shield-maiden raised within Rohan’s wooden halls. There was light enough that streamed through the high windows, but the grey months at the end of the year did not show the stone to advantage and around it was a wilderness of mud and churned up turf, where plans for the garden were pegged with small red stakes and string, waiting the turn of the year and Legolas’ guiding hand so that the paths and beds could be laid out.
Yet if the great stone building was not yet a home to them, they were perhaps not so fit for it either; neither of them schooled in their new roles.
Eowyn had had a cursory education in running a great household; Theoden had rather his niece learn the arts of government in those troubled times, for it was always at the back of his mind that some day the burden of leadership might fall on her. There were housekeepers a-plenty, he thought and felt his heart swell with pride as he watched her work the young horses, as at home amidst the herd as any of the men. Now she was the noble lady wed to a foreign prince, who knew enough of courts to know that there would be traps all around for the unwary foot stepping into a maze of interest and doubtless intrigue too.
For his part Faramir, usually the most biddable of souls, had baulked at bringing with them to Ithilien any of his father’s household and the faint haunted look in his eyes told its own tale that she would not pry into, not yet. However, if she did not know needlework, Eowyn was a shrewd tactician and had her love search through Minas Tirith to find her some trusted sergeants; old stewards and retired housekeepers who had once served noble families and who could teach their young commander what was expected for the honour of the house in Gondor and Arnor.
Unfortunately, the half-dozen elderly men and women they had brought to Ithilien, doubling up on roles where their years made sharing out the work a necessity, had begun by marking their territories in hall or kitchen, pantry or stable with some ferocity. Eowyn had hoped they would set out the way that the Prince’s household should run and train both her and the younger folk, all of them out of step in this thing called ‘peace’, particularly the soldiers who had passed from an active life to their despised ‘indoor’ work, but it seemed at first as if there were at least three irreconcilable ways of tackling any task, each pronounced as the only proper solution. So, their initial weeks in Ithilien were spent amidst an atmosphere of suppressed rancour.
Faramir had forborne to interfere had, silent, watched her efforts to comply with all of their contradictory instructions until the day that the housekeepers, in a bickering huddle, had heard the faint cry, turned and seen their mistress wrestling in vain with an unravelling bale of linen that cascaded down the stairs, losing her footing and only being saved from falling by a maid who caught her arm and hung on so that they landed on the steps in a heap.
Chastened the women had banded together then to set all to rights and moreover to plan for the future. Their tenure in the servants’ hall they knew was temporary and the old stewards surveyed the candidates set before them, grumbled about the younger generation, and selected those they thought best fitted to train on.
Gradually, the palace began to resemble more nearly a home as well as a Prince’s seat of power, and the young couple’s apartments were furnished with a few treasures brought from Minas Tirith in furniture and tapestries. Meanwhile, the women had agreed that the mistress should be protected from the routine work when the master clearly would have his lady beside him if he could. For all the King had made him a Prince he was for aye the noble, gentle, soul hiding beneath the hood of a Ranger cloak they knew from his youth. Young Lord Faramir would have his lady by his side, valuing her counsel, so they would provide the mistress with a capable housekeeper and instead teach Eowyn how to recognise when a job was done well, what signs to look for that the household was set fair and how to track down the root of any problem.
Her ‘sergeants’ had left them some weeks since, bidding a fond farewell to their mistress, sure that they had prepared for every eventuality that might arise in a well-run royal household. Unbeknown to the Prince and his lady, they had even begun to train up a brace of nursery maids; however, it would be some months yet before Ithilien could be said to progress smoothly and in the meantime there were small alarms and excursions that served to keep Eowyn in a state of some anxiety. Faramir endeavoured to impress on her that so long as she was beside him, he did not care about the occasional spoiled dishes, but still Eowyn worried that perhaps they did not do enough credit to the Prince of Ithilien.
It was an inexperienced maid who had set the lamp down on-top of the chest and hurried away without trimming the wick and it had been a terrible omission. Despite its hasty retrieval from the wall and Eowyn beating the flames out with a bolster, there was not a lot left of the old tapestry; the silken river was a shrivelled border to a smoke-blackened scene in which one Argonath remained, standing sentry, a monolith in a charred landscape.
Turning away from the white-faced girl who was blubbing into her sleeve, Eowyn threw open the shutters in hopes the stink would abate somewhat. It was some time since she had the stench of a burnt hall in her nostrils, but it had been as though a mailed fist had closed about her throat as she and Faramir’s secretary had pulled the burning hangings down. The old man had stamped on the flames, whilst she had snatched up the closest weapon, a pillow from the great bed. A smell of singed feathers overlaid the smoking tapestry. It reminded Eowyn of burnt holdings and empty hen-coops.
Despite the cold night, she leant out of the open casement and breathed in lungfuls of clean air. The sudden chill was starting an ache at her temples and the maid’s wailing compounded the pain, but even as she turned to reassure the girl that she would not be summarily dismissed, her lord appeared to view the damage and managed to soothe the maid and clear their chamber of the gaggle of interested onlookers more quickly than she could have imagined possible. It was only as Faramir shut the door behind the last of the servants carrying away the smouldering hanging that she realised she was still holding on tightly to one of the shutters and willed her fingers to relax their grip.
“I know it was your Mother’s work,” she began, but got no further before Faramir came to her, stopping her mouth with his own and capturing both her hands, turning them over, inspecting them for burns and then laying a gentle kiss to the palm of each.
When he looked up at her, there was a smear of soot across his cheek-bone and Eowyn freed herself to wipe it away.
“Maybe it can be mended,” the slight break in her voice startled her and she coughed, adding, “so much smoke.”
She drank down gratefully the cool water that Faramir gave her, watching over the rim of the beaker, as he poured himself a measure of wine. Eowyn thought his hand showed the slightest tremble; some fires still had the power to shake him. She determined, if it were not possible to make all good and remembering the crackling and hissing sound of the tapestry burning she thought that unlikely, to bring some good thing from this disaster. What that might be, she thought, returning Faramir’s rueful smile, she had no idea, but something would emerge, of that she was sure.
Surveying the damage the next day, her heart sank a little. This had been one of the great treasures, the labour of Finduilas and her women through the years and large enough to cover a wall of their chamber. Now one side showed a twisted, blackened mess of charred thread.
She had never been so close to the fabric of the hanging as now when it was laid out in a courtyard where the stink should not pervade the house. Originally it had shown a view of the Anduin, the rocky cliffs and wooded hills above, and the Argonath stood sentinel on its banks. When it had hung in their chamber the upper half of the picture rather faded from view once the lamps were lit. Now, she realised that it had been created as a mixture of weaving and stump work, where needlewomen had added layers of wool and silk embroidery over a woollen padding onto a woven picture, making some figures almost step out of the flat image. The burnt edge of the hanging crumbled at her touch and she absentmindedly wiped the soot off her fingers and onto her skirts.
The faint clink of keys announced the housekeeper’s arrival at her elbow.
“Do you think,” Eowyn said doubtfully,” we might salvage something of this?”
The housekeeper just sniffed, whilst Eowyn tapped her foot and considered the problem.
After a few moments the housekeeper, cleared her throat.
“My Mother,” she ventured, “had a small piece of silk work her Mother gave her and she set it into a wooden border and hung it up so she could see it always.”
Eowyn looked sharply at her and then back at the hanging. One of the Argonath figures was largely unscathed, albeit smoke blackened.
"Isildur might make a hero on his own,” she said.
The keys jingled as the housekeeper nodded approvingly.
“And we could have his brother made new, in a matching frame,” Eowyn announced, warming to her idea. “There must be some still who have the skill with a needle.”
The housekeeper was bending down to peer at the embroidery.
“If they do not,” she said straightening up, “then they can copy from this piece. It’s fine work, but we needs must clean it first, my lady. Setting aside the fire, it doesn’t look as though it has been cleaned for long enough.”
Eowyn remembered the bustle when the hangings had arrived by cart from Minas Tirith. There had been an important diplomatic visit in the offing and barely the time to shake off the obvious dust and cobwebs before this one had been hung. Now, laid out on the pavement, she could see grease from smoking lamps and candles spotted the fabric.
“Do you know how to clean it?” Eowyn asked.
“I’ve had instruction, my lady,” said the housekeeper dryly and when Eowyn glanced at her, she was surprised, and a little heartened, to see a twinkle in the young woman’s eye.
“Is there an entry in The Book?” Eowyn enquired.
The corners of her mouth twitched into a smile at the thought of the hefty tome left them by her ‘sergeants’, handed over with some ceremony and in which every eventuality would be found to have been accounted for.
The housekeeper permitted herself as close to a grin as her new position would allow and answered, “A chapter, at least.”
Thus it was that they searched out the clearest mountain stream they could find and submerged the hanging, laid out flat and weighted down with stones at the edges, so that the running water could lift away the first surface dirt. Then had come a warm soapy bath, in a huge wooden trough, build especially for the purpose. They had used a lotion of soapwort, but rather than rub at the cloth, had found the smallest child about the household, a little girl who kilted up her skirts, giggling, and trod back and forth upon it. The water had turned grey the first couple of times, but they persevered and when the froth no longer changed colour, it was back to the stream to rinse away the soap.
The colours were changing by the day, but it was only as they lifted the hanging from the stream and laid it on the bank in the morning sunshine, that they were almost dazzled by the glitter of metal threads and realised that the trees that topped the river-gorge had been stitched in their autumn glory, scarlet and gold and bronze sparkled before their eyes, throwing a glow about the head of the remaining figure.
Faramir and Eowyn had gazed on it a little awestruck when invited to view the tapestry, laid out once more in the courtyard, carefully pinned and stretched to dry true.
“I don’t remember this at all,” Faramir said quietly. “In truth I did not go to my Father’s private apartments often. I think this was hung somewhere the sunlight could not reach it.”
He had approved the plan to frame the surviving part and to copy the work for a companion piece; it would be an opportunity to pass on some old skills to new fingers.
“Your father did not want the coloured threads to fade,” Eowyn assured him.
“No, I do not think so,” Faramir replied.
Elessar had lent them workers skilled in handling Gondor’s tapestries who had set to securing the threads inch-by-inch, and for several weeks Eowyn had been busy with other and perhaps weightier tasks, so that when the foreman weaver and head seamstress had begged an audience she had thought it must be to tell her that the work was completed.
Certainly the work was progressing well, albeit slowly, but in beginning to repair some of the stump work they had stumbled across something that the mistress should see for herself.
Eowyn had followed them down to the small parlour set aside for them. It was cosy; large enough to take the raised frame and long table used to work on the tapestry, but warm and light enough to work by. The finest stitchery was done in the mornings, but they could work on the tapestry weave at all hours.
Just now the room was deserted. The foreman weaver had sent everyone for their noonday meal, so that they might show Eowyn it all without an audience. At the point at which the new frame would cut off the damaged sections of the tapestry, they had been unpicking the woollen embroidery used to create the waters of the Anduin in order to run a red thread through the tapestry weave as a marker. When the wool began to unravel, beneath they had found other, finer, silk embroidery and now they were unsure what to do. Should they replace the old wool and hide the silk, make it as it was, or should they reveal all of the silk work, but then the pattern did not seem of a piece...
Eowyn was half listening to them, transfixed by the delicate work, by a border of shells, seashells and rippling waves in blues and greens. It was true that this did not seem to belong in the original picture. Perhaps, she said aloud, Finduilas and her ladies had begun one hanging, only to leave it unfinished, and use the same cloth for the second picture. Even to her own ears it sounded unconvincing and Eowyn was grateful to the foreman weaver for forbearing to point out that parts of the image were woven into warp and weft and impossible to change.
It was right, Eowyn said, that the Lady Finduilas’ work should be honoured and the Isildur made good to stand sentry until Anarion would be ready to join him. The wool work would be replaced, but in the meanwhile if another section needed repair they must not be afraid to uncover what lay beneath and she would bring the Prince to view their discovery when there was time.
Over the next few days, they sent her word as more damaged areas gave up their secrets. Beneath a section of cliff-face they had found the sail of a small boat and high up what seemed like the wing of a sea-bird. Eowyn had heard from Faramir and from Arwen too, of Finduilas’ love of the sea. It was said that she had shunned the great rooms of state and favoured a small tower room with one window looking seaward, but Arwen thought it long gone, or perhaps Denethor had it walled up after her death.
She had told Faramir of her discovery and he’d gone to pore over the delicate work, running the tips of his fingers across the edges of the waves. He did not remember her now, did not remember his Mother. Sometimes it seemed to Faramir that he remembered so little; the last of his line and it was as though the span of his years were a series of individual scenes, lit up by the life force of others – father, brother, an imagined mother whose perfume he remembered, if not her face, because Denethor had it on the kerchief tucked into his cuff.
They talked over what they might do. There was no knowing what they might find if they stripped off the whole, losing the Anduin picture in the process. There might be nothing more than a few fragments that had been rejected, covered over. Best, perhaps, to repair what had been one of the family’s treasures as best they could and restore it, so that their children might see what the Lady Finduilas had done. Privately, Eowyn thought that there was not much in the grim but imposing figures of the Argonath that would appeal to a child, but perhaps Gondorian children were different and that thought gave her pause for a while.
It was a few days later that the foreman weaver, making his daily report handed her a slip of parchment on which was drawn a series of stars, caught in the branches of what appeared as a very crooked tree. There were eight stars in all and an elvish letter or symbol below the eighth.
“We found this, my lady,” the weaver was saying, “stitched into the cloth beneath Isildur’s feet.”
“It is another puzzle I doubt we will ever solve, Master Olme,” she said lightly, “they seem to have changed their minds about this hanging a good deal.” And then she made to enquire after the process of setting the tapestry, reduced yet still twice the height of a man, into its frame.
Later, Faramir turned the parchment this way and that and held it up to the light, but he could not find any hidden message in it, despite the tree and stars, for the tree was crooked and the stars too many. Yet there was something familiar about it he could not quite place.
The job of Steward had come down to Faramir and he was glad to do it, to give what aid he could to his new King, but there was no denying that it was a heavy burden, ruling in Ithilien, going back-and-forth between his new lands and Minas Tirith where his work did not diminish by his absence, despite a loyal staff.
On this occasion Eowyn had accompanied him to the city and it was only for the briefest of moments that on their arrival he had seen her hurried away by the Queen and thought that they had some plan afoot.
Ensconced in her chamber, Arwen was listening intently to Eowyn’s description of what lay beneath the surface of the old tapestry. She remembered Galadriel speaking of Finduilas as more elleth than human; haunted by the sea, haunted by its loss.
Eowyn took a slip of parchment from her sleeve and smoothed it out before handing it to Arwen.
“This was worked into the cloth below Isildur’s feet,” she was beginning to say, when Arwen gave as close to a squeak as a queen should, went swiftly to her desk and begin to rifle through sheafs of papers. Eowyn’s heart had begun to beat strongly, hoping, daring to hope that Arwen knew its meaning. Suddenly, the Queen whooped and snatched up a leaf returning to thrust it into Eowyn’s hands.
Eowyn stared at it bewildered. It appeared to be a plan of a maze and then she saw one large space labelled and realised that it was a plan of the citadel.
“I kept losing my way,” Arwen said, shrugging her shoulders at such a human frailty, “so the King drew this plan to guide me.”
She turned the slip of paper and laid it alongside the drawing. Eowyn saw then that the crooked tree became a series of corridors in one corner of the palace...or at least part of the tree for some of the branches appeared to be missing.
Arwen wrinkled her nose.
“There was damage to the citadel, and some rebuilding,” she said. “Some of the passages may have gone since this was made.”
Then she said, “We have at least two hours before dinner.”
They had enlisted one of the Queen’s own Guard to carry a lantern and with Arwen carrying the map and Eowyn the tapestry sketch, had hastened through the palace, eager to begin their quest. As they travelled its halls and corridors Eowyn saw all bow at their passing, servants and courtiers like grasses on the plain before a gentle wind. It did not seem to her that it was a rule enforced but borne out of true respect and yet she was glad that in Ithilien, she and Faramir were free from this level of formality. She would endeavour to keep it that way.
It was when they reached the point at which the ‘tree’ trunk began that the hairs on her neck began to prickle, for they were stood in a small hallway at the junction of several long corridors. This was a less frequented part of the palace. Arwen had turned to her requesting the sketch so that she might be sure of which corridor to take, but Eowyn had no doubt and led her across to an archway above which, in a shallow niche, stood a familiar stone figure. The pose was different, but the accoutrements the same, this was Isildur and they would pass beneath his feet on whatever journey Finduilas had willed to them.
The sketch seemed accurate up to the point at which one ‘branch’ came to a dead end in a stone wall. Although they searched there did not seem to be any evidence of re-building or of some hidden chamber, so they back-tracked and began to follow another limb, almost identical except this one had a star caught in its branches.
The stonework was smooth on the walls of the blocked corridor and it was the sharp-eyed guard who’d spotted the small star carved into the stonework just as the wall turned. They had pressed, tugged and prodded it more in hope than expectation, but to no avail.
Eowyn could never quite explain why she had decided that they should go directly to the eighth star, the one with the symbol below it. Arwen thought it possibly a very old letter ‘F’ but the ink was faded and hard to read.
By now they were deep within the body of the citadel but climbing too, branches on the tree revealed themselves as narrow stairs that seemed to twist this way and that. It was a curved wall that held the eighth star, seemingly an unremarkable corridor that led to other places. They stood looking at the little star cut into the stone. Somewhere, not far away, they could hear the murmur of voices, whilst from the other direction there was the clatter and scrape of a pair of hobnailed boots on a stone staircase.
The sound of footsteps had died away and still they had not moved. The star was high up on the wall, but it was not so high that Eowyn could not reach up to touch it. It gave way so easily beneath her fingers and there was a sigh as the stones swung back, revealing a darkened room. Directly ahead Eowyn thought she could see the outline of high windows shuttered and without waiting for the torch she strode across wooden boards and came to the window, where a simple bar lifted away let her begin to fold back the shutters.
She could hear that Arwen had followed her into the room. The light flooded in and behind her Eowyn heard Arwen cry out softly and the exclamation from her guard as he saw the Queen sink to the floor. Eowyn spun around. She would have cried out too, except that tears were choking her voice and pricking at her eyes. For hung around the little room were great seascapes in silken thread; boats with swan prows raced amidst a green-blue swell, their masts leaning into the wind; a flock of seabirds swooped low across stormy waters and a wide, calm sea, was streaked red and gold by a setting sun. In that distant sunset, Eowyn thought she could just make out land and a sob from Arwen brought her to herself, to go to the Queen, to help raise and take her from this place.
Eowyn had held Faramir’s hand tightly as he first entered his Mother’s sanctuary, had held him as he’d wept for losses old and new, but they had both been quietly glad when the King had insisted that they take the hangings back to Ithilien. The room would remain undisturbed but the seascapes should go with Finduilas’ son, to be held in trust for his children and their children in turn.
Eowyn turned in her lord’s arms to rest her head on his shoulder. They had thought long about where the hangings should be placed, whether they should be kept together, and in the end had decided that the racing ships should grace the great hall, whilst the wheeling birds, so marvellously rendered that they both imagined they could hear their cries, looked down on a council chamber.
The sunset they had kept for their bedchamber. It hung on the far wall, opposite the great bed, well away from the harshest sunlight, but not so distant that it could not be touched, warmed, by the glow of evening. Just now it seemed to radiate such peace that Eowyn felt she could almost hear the gentle lapping of waves reaching a sandy shore. Propped up on pillows beside her, Faramir felt his eyes begin to close and as Eowyn’s breathing became soft against his breast, he let those murmuring waters lull him to sleep.