12. The Promise
The magnificently attired footman probably wondered why the King of Rohan had not gone straight into the hall but took time, even at this late hour, to study the dance programme. It was prominently displayed in the entrance lobby just as he had been told. He nodded to the man, who may or may not have been surprised that such an acclaimed warrior appeared so interested in dancing. A warrior, however, always needed to be prepared and the best had more than one plan to fall back on. The intelligence gathering was one reason that by the time Éomer walked into Merethrond, the great feasting hall was almost full. Faramir, who he had left at his desk halfway up the tower of Ecthelion, had already taken his place. The wily Gondorian was the other reason that had caused him to be rather late: he needed to get his thoughts together after his meeting with his future brother-in-law and had spent time lingering for a while looking out over the wall. Only since leaving the Steward’s office did a niggling little thought enter his head: Faramir had been very probing and also very obliging in suggesting somewhere he could meet Lothíriel in private. One did not have to be very astute to work out what had been going on. Imrahil had dropped hints about his daughter when they had been at Cormallen, and however determined he personally had been not to fall in with any prearranged plans – he had probably been wasting his time. The thing he had been trying to work out: did Lothíriel know all about it, and if she did, what did she think. The end result of all the deliberating he had done had not changed his mind on anything. He needed to talk to her.
Aragorn and Imrahil had not sat down but were standing near the top table talking quietly together. It still somewhat amused him to see the former Ranger dressed in such finery. This time he wore a highly embroidered dark red tunic made from some rich looking material that had a definite sheen. Perhaps he did not feel the heat, although Éomer doubted that. Aragorn raised a hand and the gesture caused the Lord of Dol Amroth, who was garbed in his usual dark blue, to turn is his direction. The Prince nodded a perfunctory bow. Éomer started to make his way towards them when he noticed two things: The first being that Faramir was sitting next to Éowyn and their heads were together. Black and blonde hair mingled pleasingly and her intended looked to be talking softly into her ear. Éomer had no trouble guessing what about. The other, the more surprising of the two interested him more. Lothíriel sat to the left of her cousin and the empty place next to her was very likely his. Before he could give any thought to the significance of this, Aragorn spoke to him,
“Good, you’re here. We can sit down. I waited for you; otherwise the whole lot would be up and down like jack-in-the-boxes.”
Imrahil let out a stifled chuckle, “I suppose it will take a while to become totally used to accepting the deference due to your position, my Liege.”
“A great while, I imagine,” Aragorn’s grin looked slightly forced, “but no doubt, if the last few days are anything to go by, then I shall be constantly reminded of it.” He turned to his Rohirric counterpart. This time the grin was genuine, “Where have you been, Éomer? Faramir says you left him some time ago.”
“Oh, I fancied some air. I must have forgotten the time.” Éomer deliberately let his eyes rove over the opulence that adorned his friend, “Where did that lot come from?”
Aragorn raised one eyebrow provocatively, “I have no idea. Faramir procured it from somewhere.”
“Well, perhaps we ought to sit down now,” Imrahil deliberately interrupted the conversation, “if the meal ends too late they will have to considerably alter the dance programme.” He had caught the worried glance of the Master of Ceremonies.
Éomer subdued the resigned sigh that threatened to become audible. He’d have to find another way of achieving his objective if the research on the dance order proved wasted. He followed the steward who had appeared at his side. As he thought, the man led him to the empty seat between Aragorn and Lothíriel. Imrahil sat down on the other side of his king, this time next to Gandalf. Éomer pushed aside the thought that the places were part of some Gondorian strategy. Lothíriel was, after all, the highest Lady present and etiquette probably demanded that, with the different table arrangements on this less formal evening, she sat next to the principle male guest. He still held suspicions, but in his deliberations had decided that it didn’t matter what they had planned for him and the princess as long as he established that she felt genuinely happy to fall in with it. For the moment he would just enjoy the unexpected pleasure of having her as a dinner companion. A ravishing dinner companion, he realised as he took in her soft shiny hair held by the pretty jewelled net. Like her father she wore blue, but a blue with an almost green tinge. In addition to that she showed decidedly more flesh. He made that observation just before the entire hall rose to pay their respects to two monarchs.
Not until everyone had sat down and he started to say his good evenings did he realise Legolas and Gimli were sitting right opposite him. The dwarf wasted no time.
“Ha, Éomer King, trust you to find a seat next to such a lovely lady.” Gimli totally ignored the fact that Éomer had no choice of seat.
Legolas, of course, had to join in, “It is always good to surround oneself with beauty.” The silver-tongued elf displayed his usual gently amused expression
“In that case, Legolas, tell me: why do you spend so much time with our hairy friend here?”
“I will have you know that I am accounted to be a very handsome fellow. The depth and the quality of the facial hair is considered to be paramount in attracting a… umm….,” Gimli mumbled the last word which Éomer discerned as mate. Unabashed, the dwarf ran his eyes over Eomer’s face, “Anyway your beard is a very poor effort. It must seriously hinder your chances.”
“I freely admit that I doubt that I would be able to obtain a favour from the Lady of the Golden Wood, as you did so easily. But perhaps,” he grinned at Legolas, “elves and dwarves see beauty differently.”
Gimli glared at him. “Not one word, Éomer King. Not one word about her or I’ll…”
Éomer put up his hand, “No, I will wait until I meet her. You will have my judgement then, as promised.” He glanced at Lothíriel. He knew before he looked what he’d see – he was right - her lips were clamped together. She controlled her laughter and looked between the two of them,
“I gather from that little exchange that you are good friends.”
“Good friends!” the dwarf spluttered.” He threatened to chop my head off when we first met!”
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite find it. Being hidden by our tall grass, that is,” Éomer enlightened her, the grin all over his face.
“Gimli scowled at him but, instead of retaliating, lent across the table looking straight at Lothíriel, “This elf,” he jerked a thumb in the direction of Legolas, “had an arrow aimed at his heart before you could blink an eye. Not that he did blink an eye,” he conceded. “In fact he never moved. One thing I’ll say for him … he doesn’t panic easily.”
Éomer smiled, “And one thing I will say for my undersized friend, here – he’s good to have around when you are in a tight spot.” He leant a little closer to Lothíriel, pausing for a second as the wonderful fragrance of her stirred his senses. “He saved my life at Helm’s Deep, so I can’t be too rude to him.”
Lothíriel looked back to Gimli. The few bits of uncovered skin on the dwarf’s face showed distinct signs of changing colour and he mumbled something about being in the right place at the right time.
“Come on,” she said to Éomer, clearly intrigued, “tell me what happened.”
“Well, when they were using the rams on the gates Aragorn and I took a few swordsmen and went out of the postern gate to disperse them. It went alright but a few orcs played dead and grabbed me when we were returning. Unbeknownst, Gimli had come out to watch. Never was an unbidden guest more welcome.”
“I’d gone after them to shake off sleep,” the dwarf added. A light came into his eyes, “My axe was able to hew more than wood that night.”
“But by the time you came back my count was more,” Legolas could not resist goading his friend.
However, Éomer, fearful that the talk would become more bloodthirsty, changed the subject and persuaded Lothíriel to talk about her homeland. A good choice as neither Legolas nor Gimli, or indeed he, had seen the sea. Aragorn joined in the conversation when he overheard what they were talking about and reminisced, to their amazement, about time he had spent in Dol Amroth long before Lothíriel had been born.
The meal progressed in its stately way and they were on to the puddings before Éomer had the chance to have a quiet word with his dinner companion.
“Will you allow me the first dance?” As he said it he thought of Éothain’s pronouncements on the clues ‘Ladies’ gave out so he almost let out a sigh of relief when she agreed with no hesitation. “I also thought numbers five and nine would be suitable.”
She looked at him a bit surprised, “Have you just picked those out of the air?”
“No,” he shook his head. “I had a look at the programme before I came in.” He knew exactly why she had queried his choice. Number five was one that allowed a certain intimacy but number nine was very staid. “I thought that perhaps you would not be too tired and we could enjoy some conversation after that,” he did not want her promising any more dances.
The smile on her face told him she had caught on, “I shall be delighted to save those for you, my Lord. I am sure that will be enough dancing for me tonight.”
Éomer reluctantly let go of Lothíriel’s waist at the end of the dance. He brought her hand up to his lips, “I will see you in a while, my Lady.”
“It won’t be long she said,” indicating the number board. When he looked up he saw that instead of the six he would have expected number eight topped the list. She grinned, “I think the meal started late owing to a certain king not being on time.”
“My turn now, I think my Lord King.” Elfhelm bowed to the princess and led her off. Éomer followed with his eyes for a moment, chuckling to himself, he would be having words with his Marshall. He looked around; it would look odd if he danced with no one else, although he had stood up with his sister and Nienna. Luckily he spotted a lady he had been introduced to, the wife of the Captain of Aragorn’s new guard. Pleasant conversation during a slow dance allowed him to pass the time to number nine uneventfully.
“Why did you choose this one?” Her grey eyes held their usual twinkle, “I would not have thought a Blushing Pavane to be much in your style.”
It wasn’t with all the bowing and curtseying but it had one advantage: the couples lined up across the hall rather that down it. Éomer took her hand and led her to end of the middle set, right next to a gap into the server’s walkway. “I was hoping you would come outside for some air when it is over,” he said, just as the slow insipid music started.
“I will,” she said just before she sank into a deep curtsey, “but we will not be able to plead that we are hot from the dancing.”
“No, we will plead that the sunset is too beautiful to ignore.”
“It must be nearly over.”
“The dance?” he asked hopefully.
She giggled softly, “No, the sunset.”
Éomer glanced across to the far side of the hall to where the side doors were open. The small piece of sky he could see was streaked with red. “There will be a bit left to serve our purpose.”
The dance seemed never ending but at last the he heard the closing bars. When the polite clapping stopped, and the couples started to break up, he took her arm. “This is the quickest way to the garden.” For a brief moment they were shielded from the rest of the hall by the general milling around and changing of partners. He quickly used the time to sweep her behind the filigree stone work and then down the outside steps. These bypassed the entrance to the underground kitchens and brought them into a public area of the Citadel gardens, but one on the opposite side of the building from where everyone else exited. As he had thought there was no one else in the immediate vicinity although he could see some strolling away to their right.
“I rather think you planned that.” She did not sound worried or cross, just somewhat amused.
“I wanted to have a private word with you. Something that does not seem easy to achieve around here.” He had the key in his pocket but he did not really want to use it because…well, he did not want her to know Faramir had given it to him and he was also a little dubious about taking her to such a secluded place. Here it was open… well almost. He led her down towards the wall. “There’s a seat down here.” He knew because he had checked it out earlier. It was in at the bottom of the grassy bank adjacent to the wall and he took her hand to help her down the slope. The seat also had the advantage of being partly shielded by a large bush. When they reached it Éomer let go her hand, he had no right to hold it yet, and lifted up the lower branches of the bush. He looked underneath, “I had better check for hobbits.”
“Surely they could not eat any more.” She laughed, as everyone had remarked that Merry and Pippin had looked particularly stuffed at the end of tonight’s meal
“I am sure they could.”
She did not sit down but moved across to look out over the wall. It reminded him of that first night when he had thought she was betrothed to Amrothos. He stood next to her, looking out: the last rays of the sun were picking up the line of the river and the moon had already risen. The mountains of Ephel Dúath were true to their name: sunk in deep shadow. The two watchers took in the view in silence for a moment.
“It’s beautiful now that the darkness covers the scars of battle.” She said at last.
“Soon it will be beautiful even in the daylight. Rents in the earth heal and green will quickly cover brown.”
“Yes, you are right. But even when it is restored, the landscape must be very different from that of Rohan.”
Just the lead in he needed, “It is very different from Rohan. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“The difference between Gondor and Rohan?”
“Partly.” That mischievous smile was in her eyes, evident even in the fading light. He reached out and took her hand; so wonderfully soft and cool, in spite of the dancing. Almost unconsciously he started to rub his calloused fingers up and down one of hers. She did not draw it away. “Lothíriel, I…” He stopped alerted by a movement up beyond the bank. He relaxed again. For a moment he thought he would have to use the damn key, but it was only the lamplighter and the man passed on with a nod. Éomer drew her slightly to the left - into the newly formed shadows. She put up no resistance. “I wanted to ask you if you would pay a visit to Edoras. Your father is coming when we escort Théoden King’s body home in July. I was hopeful that you would come too.”
“To give you my opinion on the difference between Gondor and Rohan, you mean?”
He could not help but smile at her teasing. “Not exactly…” he paused, “I wanted you to decide if you could spend the rest of your life living in the Mark.” She said nothing, just raised her eyebrows as though she was expecting him to carry on. He took a deep breath, “With me. That’s what I mean!” The breath he had taken made the words come out rather more forcibly than he intended but she showed no surprise.
“If I understand you correctly, Éomer, you want me to come on a visit to Edoras and then decide if I like it enough to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“I do. I want to know if you think you could be happy living so far from your home and if you think you could be happy with me. If you decide you could then I will speak to your father. I want to make sure you understand what your life would be like and…I want you to decide. No one else.”
She did not answer for a moment and appeared to be deliberating over her reply, “You are saying, I believe: that you want me to decide without paying any regard to political considerations.”
“That is exactly what I am saying.” She looked up at him with a candid open expression. Not embarrassed or shy but perhaps a bit thoughtful. He was in immediate danger of kissing her, but he did not want to do that. Well he did, but he did not want to put any pressure on her whatsoever.
“I understand now what my brother meant.”
She nodded. He noticed that a smile was starting to play around her lips. “Yes, Erchirion. He told me that before we went to dine with Beren’s family there was something I ought to know.”
Éomer waited for her to continue, every nerve on edge.
“He said that Horselords have an extraordinary amount of pride. He felt that it was sometimes necessary, when dealing with them, to make one’s feelings very plain.” The smile changed to a wicked looking grin, “I think it would be a good idea if I do as he suggests.”
To his utter surprise and supreme delight she withdrew her hand from his, took a step towards him, wound her long slim arms around his neck and raised her lips to his. The surprise paralyzed him for no more than a heart’s beat. What was a man expected to do with an invitation like that…?
It was just as he thought from the moment he eyes upon her- she fitted. She fitted into his arms; their heads leaning sideways fitted together faultlessly; their lips came together with no difficulty and when after a few moments he encouraged her to part those wonderful lips slightly: then his tongue fitted into her sweet mouth - absolutely perfectly.
When he let her go he was conscious of her breathlessness and of the thumping of her heart. It matched his own. She made no attempt to pull away but rested her head against his chest. He lowered his own slightly and let his lips wander over the silkiness of her fragrant black hair.
“Do you think I need to go all the way to Edoras to decide?” she whispered.
“Hopefully not. But I want you to,” he replied in a similar soft tone of voice. She pushed away from him a little, looking up at his face. Her eyes were dark, but also questioning. “I want you to be absolutely sure. You will be marrying me, but also you will be taking on a people and a culture that is strange to you. I want no regrets.”
She shook her head, “There will be no regrets.”
He smiled as he ran a finger down her nose and then gently across her lips, “I will do my best to make sure there are none, but I cannot announce any betrothal until Théoden is buried anyway.”
She nodded, “Of course, I forgot that.” She raised her hands one each side of his face, pushing back his hair, “I will come to Edoras, Éomer King. I will meet your people and learn of your land and I promise that I will not change my mind.”
It was a while before they made their way hand in hand through the gardens and around to the other side of the hall. He had needed to spend some time with her, knowing that the chance of any meaningful conversation over the next few days was very doubtful. There were meetings about aid and about further strategy, but also, he could not leave the logistics planning of moving an entire army home, solely to Elfhelm. Not when they had wounded men and barely enough horses. The next two nights were going to be taken up with mess dinners: with his own men and those Gondorians with whom he had fought alongside. A huge farewell feast had been arranged for the final night. He would be lucky to get another walk in the garden with her. Edoras would be better: he knew all its hidden paths.
As they reached the area where many others were strolling, taking in the soft air before retiring for the night, she dropped his hand and tucked her arm through his in the accepted manner. They had agreed that no one else would know until he spoke to her father in Rohan. Although he did have to tell the prince he had invited her. That alone would cause some inevitable speculation. At some stage he would also have to pass his thanks to Erchirion, but that could wait.
They nodded to a few people and made their way back into the hall through the wide open side doors. The first person to catch his eye was Faramir. The Steward was talking to Amrothos, and Éowyn and Nienna were in deep conversation a little way apart. Faramir showed slight surprise at seeing them entering from this direction, he thought. Lothíriel excused herself and went to join her two friends. Éomer took the key out of his pocket and tossed it to his future brother. The Gondorian’s reactions were as fast as his own. He caught it cleanly.
“Thanks for the decoy. It’s always good to create a diversion,” Éomer chuckled at the bemused expression on the Steward’s face.
To be continued.