"Do you envy him?"
The question startled Faramir, causing his cheeks to redden. He hoped Éomer would think that the exertions of riding rather than having been caught gazing at Aragorn had brought the blood to his face. Though one of the finest riders in the land -- the equal of his esteemed wife -- Faramir rode this day with the two greatest horsemen in the world, the kings of Rohan and Gondor, and he had become a bit winded.
But if his wife's brother had recognized the object of his stare, might Éomer also suspect the true reason for it? Quickly Faramir answered the question. "Not at all. I have everything I have ever wanted. Our lands are peaceful, the White Tree is in bloom, and I have won the hand of the most beautiful woman I have ever seen."
At this, Éomer smiled. Though he and Éowyn little resembled one another when the King of Rohan was dressed in the raiment of his position and the White Lady in loose, flowing skirts that gave her greater freedom of movement, on horseback the similarities between brother and sister were striking. They both pulled their long, fair hair back in leather thongs so that it streamed behind them like the tails of their horses, and they both sat confidently no matter the mount or saddle, even bareback.
"My sister has told me of your suffering before his arrival," continued Éomer, nodding to indicate Aragorn as he shifted his mount's reins from one hand to the other. "Even so. Had King Elessar not arrived, you would now rule as the Steward of Gondor."
"Had King Elessar not arrived, I would be dead, and the shadow would fall over the whole of this land." Faramir kept his eyes lowered, studying his horse's path, lest his expression reveal too much to this new brother whom he admired but did not yet know well. Éomer had been Boromir's friend and companion on many journeys when their father deemed Faramir unfit to travel to Rohan. Faramir had not complained at the time, preferring his books and his solitary training, but now his wife's brother was a mystery to him.
"He has earned in battle the crown and the love of the people that were his birthright." Éomer made no attempt to disguise his admiration for Aragorn, allowing his gaze to sweep across the older man's back. Faramir did not dare to mention that it was not on the battlefield but in the Houses of Healing that Aragorn had won a Steward's loyalty, and his heart.
Nor did Faramir dare to ask the questions that were uppermost in his thoughts. Did Éomer know that Boromir and Théodred had been intimate friends? Had he been envious of the love between the heir of Rohan's king and the son of Gondor's Steward? Instead Faramir tried to guess at the thoughts that had prompted Eomer's curiosity. "If your cousin had survived to become King of Rohan, would you have envied him?"
"No!" The word was an anguished cry that caused Aragorn to turn his head. Éomer whirled to face Faramir, bringing their horses so close together that their ankles very nearly brushed. "The rule of Rohan was Théodred's birthright. I loved him as if he were my brother. I would have given my life for his."
"As I would have for Boromir," Faramir replied. He saw Aragorn smile sadly at him before turning his eyes back toward the gates of Minas Tirith and hoped that Éomer would not notice how helplessly Faramir returned the smile. In a few hours the spring festival would begin, and then unrestrained affections would draw far less attention, when so many others joined in the celebration.
Yet the King of Rohan had noticed Aragorn's look, if not Faramir's. Lowering his voice, he murmured, "I understand that during their travels, Aragorn and your brother often disagreed."
"When two men of conviction come together in a cause of such importance, a measure of conflict may be inevitable," replied Faramir. He did not know what to believe, for none of the hobbits wished ever to speak an unkind word about Boromir once they had made Faramir understand that his brother had tried to take the Ring from Frodo. From Gimli -- whose forthrightness was refreshing after so much decorum -- Faramir was given to understand that Aragorn and Boromir had indeed quarreled about everything from how to approach Mordor to their different obligations to Gondor. Yet whenever Aragorn spoke of Boromir, his eyes filled with sadness and another emotion that Faramir recognized too well: unrequited longing.
Éomer was watching him, he realized, and turned to meet the gaze. "You knew of your brother's affection for my cousin," Éomer guessed.
Faramir did not pretend to misunderstand. He had known since he was very young that Boromir had no interest in marrying or fathering a child to follow him to the Steward's chair. Boromir had always preferred the company of soldiers, particularly that of Théodred. But why would Éomer mention such a thing? The whispers that had followed Boromir had sometimes been unkind, though because of his titles and his great skill in combat, they had never turned to public jeers or accusations.
Was this, then, a test that could lead to such an accusation by the King of Rohan against his sister's husband? "What of it?" Faramir demanded.
It was clear that Éomer believed he had offended. "I loved Théodred," he repeated. "I did not know your brother as well as he did, but Boromir seemed a fine soldier, devoted to this land." There was a long, awkward pause as they guided their horses past a piece of mortar, nearly buried now in the new growth of grass outside the city gates. "We are all of us bound by duty," added Éomer as they moved together once more. "My sister as well."
Now Faramir stared outright at Éomer, fearing the accusation in those words. Did Éomer know that Éowyn had hoped for a time to marry Aragorn? It had become a very private source of amusement between Faramir and his wife, their mutual fervor for a man who preferred to lock away his passions and give himself to a serene elf. If indeed he had loved Faramir's adored brother, Aragorn could not even bring himself to offer Faramir the comfort of that knowledge. "Nothing is more important to me than your sister's happiness," Faramir told Éomer. "If she wished to leave Ithilien for Dol Amroth, I would go with her. If she desired to ride with the Rohirrim while I served as Steward, and I could be with her only one day out of each year, I would let her go."
"You have brought my sister happiness. And I have expressed myself badly. Forgive me." It was likely, Faramir realized, that as the son of the Steward of Gondor, he himself had spent more time among nobles than either Aragorn, who had lived so long as a Ranger, or Éomer, who had stayed with the Riders of the Mark in their villages when he was not at Théoden's court. They had very nearly reached the gates of Minas Tirith; inside, preparations for the festivities tonight would be nearly completed, a mood of joyous anticipation building. With a quiet laugh and a glance at Aragorn's horse several paces in front of them, Éomer added, "I meant only to say that we are all infatuated with the King of Gondor. Even your cousin Lothíriel, with whom I hope to dance at the fires tonight."
While Éomer paused to see what response his words would draw, Faramir grinned. So Éomer had guessed all along, but his concerns lay elsewhere entirely. Lothíriel was vivacious and well-favored, and a marriage to her would bring a valuable alliance to Rohan, nearly as much as his own marriage to Éowyn. It was Éomer who needed Faramir's approval rather than the reverse.
"She is an excellent rider," Faramir said seriously. "She has three brothers who have taught her to wield a sword. I hope that your men have kept their training sharp during your absence, or she will embarrass them at their games of skill."
Éomer's laugh caused Aragorn to turn once more as they rode up behind him, waiting for the gates to open. "You are in fine spirits for the festival," he observed.
"It has been a fine afternoon, and I expect to enjoy myself, my lord," Éomer responded, inclining his head to his host. "Until then, I would like to visit with my sister. I am certain that the King of Gondor and his Steward must have private matters to discuss."
As Aragorn turned to Faramir, a puzzled expression furrowing his brow, Éomer smiled broadly behind the other king's back. "You are very kind, my brother," Faramir said, inclining his head to Éomer and Aragorn in turn. "I shall not fail to remember it."
Dismounting, they passed the reins of their horses to the grooms and said their farewells. With a gesture of his hand and a small smile, Aragorn directed Faramir away from the citadel toward the kitchens, from which rich scents emanated. "The banquet this evening may be the finest of the year, but right now I would trade my portion for a bit of smoked meat," confessed the king.
"Then as your Steward, the duty falls upon me to risk my honor and steal what I can," Faramir declared, hand on the pommel of his sword. "Those who keep your pantry have feared my incursions since I was a small boy."
He was rewarded with a warm laugh from Aragorn. "I would not have taken you for such a troublemaker."
"Left to my own devices, I would have been a paragon of virtue. But I had an elder brother to encourage my vices." He watched Aragorn carefully, expecting to see the high brow grow heavy with that sorrow the king would not name. Yet Aragorn merely looked curious.
"Boromir defied your father's rules?"
"The rules were always different for Boromir. I think it shamed him more than myself."
Now Aragorn wore the wistful expression that often crossed his face when Boromir was mentioned, and Faramir grew bold. "You grew to care for my brother on your journey together, did you not?"
Unexpectedly, the king laughed again. "We argued constantly, it seemed. Until the very end, I was not even certain that he believed me worthy for such a fellowship."
"Then he did not know you as well as I do." Faramir spoke the words lightly but Aragorn's gaze pierced him, and, perhaps for the first time, seemed to see what Faramir did not dare to add. Quickly he turned away, ducking into the doorway of a storehouse. It was empty, its contents already removed for the feast. Emerging, he kept his tone merry. "I am very sorry, my lord, but I have failed you. There is not a scrap to be had."
"Faramir, you have never failed me." Aragorn was still watching him with eyes that saw too much. "There is no man whom I would rather have for my Steward."
It should have been enough, the words and the smile they brought to Faramir's face. He should have thanked the king for his generosity and let it lie. Yet he spoke again: "I am not my brother, nor could ever be. But he is gone, and I am here. Whatever you might require, or wish of me...I am here."
"You are very kind, my Steward. I shall not fail to remember it." This time Aragorn spoke lightly, but his eyes conveyed something of the hunger they had shown when he had wished for something to eat. "It is a night for celebration. Will I see you at the fires?"
"My lord, you will."
Smiling, the king turned, and again Faramir found himself studying the regal bearing as they followed the path that Éomer had taken. The festive fires burned already. This night he had reason to envy no one.