10. Snake Fish
I swim in the water, yet no fish I am.
I slither through the grass, yet no snake I am.
The sea spawns me, yet its salt kills me.
Do not try to catch me, for your hands cannot hold me.
Wilwarin studied her reflection in the mirror, quickly smoothing out a frown lest it cause a permanent wrinkle to form. Her dress fell in a shimmering length of bright scarlet to the floor and the flimsy butterfly silk of the sleeves allowed a tantalising glimpse of graceful, white arms. Womanly armour, she thought, only unlike real armour it was designed to give the opponent a glimpse of what lay beneath. Tonight she aimed for elegant yet enticing, remote one moment and provocative the next.
A knock on the door to her room heralded the entrance of her mother. Lady Silivren took one look at her and clapped her hands together.
"You are so beautiful, my sweet!"
Wilwarin looked back at the mirror. Her face was a perfect oval, framed by a pair of curls she had very daringly let escape from the rest of the hair piled up on her head. It had taken her maid over an hour to achieve the deceptively simple style, as if the removal of a pin or two might bring the whole gorgeous mass tumbling down.
The daughter of a minor lord from Lamedon, Wilwarin hailed from a sleepy backward valley, but she had left it behind her long ago. Moreover she had no intention of ever returning there, either. But while her beauty had brought about a gratifying number of offers of marriage from Gondorian lords, she had set her sights higher. After all, if her sister could become a princess, why shouldn't she dream of similar advancement?
She picked up a small tortoiseshell box from a low side-table to the side. It contained a supply of finely ground malachite, imported at great cost from the south. She took a tiny amount with one fingertip and applied it very carefully to her eyelids. Stepping back, she admired the effect in the mirror. The green colour perfectly matched her eyes, making them seem even more sparkling than they naturally were.
Her mother gave a sigh of contentment. "You look like a queen."
Wilwarin snapped the box shut. "I intend to be one."
Her mother regarded her with some alarm. "You're not still upset about this afternoon?"
Upset? No, she was furious when she thought of the way she had been upstaged by that girl. Not even one of the other ladies of the Gondorian court - veterans at the game they were playing - but a twenty-year-old innocent. Some of her emotions must have shown in her face, for her mother clucked worriedly.
"Don't let it worry you, my sweet. She's no competition for you! Why, you are much more beautiful and accomplished."
"She's a princess, the daughter of one of his best friends," Wilwarin reminded her mother.
"But blind as a bat!"
Wilwarin closed her eyes for a moment. "Can't you see? That's exactly the point," she flashed. "He feels sorry for her!"
Her mother shrugged. "Well, of course he does, but -"
"He feels sorry for her and takes an interest in her," Wilwarin interrupted her. "Who knows where that will lead? He might end up offering her marriage out of sheer pity. After all, it doesn't take sight to perform the most important task of a bride."
She stopped herself from saying anything further and took a deep breath. A glance at the mirror revealed an unbecoming pair of red spots on her cheeks. It would not do to be seen like this. She forced the accustomed mask of cool courtesy back over her features.
"The girl is dangerous." She nodded at her mother. "But unless I'm completely mistaken she is also an innocent. I was taken by surprise today, but I won't be again."
She selected a thin gold chain from the array of jewellery laid out ready for her by her maid. On it hung a pendant, an emerald framed by small pearls, the gift of an admirer. As she slipped the chain over her head she noticed with satisfaction that the sparkling stone drew the gaze exactly to where she wanted it to be drawn. Gondorian nobleman, Rohirric king - in the end they were just men.
She gave her corsage a gentle tug to pull it even lower and with a last glance at the mirror turned to her mother. By habit she drew herself up to assume her usual dignified bearing, moving with a slow gliding movement like a warship under full sail.
The battle had only just begun and she had never been one to give up easily. She might have been born without the advantages that high rank provided, but intended to make up for it with sheer determination. After all she deserved to be Queen of Rohan.
Lothíriel tugged at the plunging neckline of her dress. "Are you sure this is right?" she asked her maid. "It seems awfully low."
Hareth chuckled. "Just leave it be. It is nothing compared to what some of the other ladies will be showing."
Lothíriel slowly turned around in a circle, enjoying the whisper of the cool silk and the feeling of it gently brushing against her legs. For once she wished she could see herself in a mirror. Dear, frivolous Faelivren, her brother Erchirion's wife, had given this dress to her as a birthday present last year, saying the vivid sea blue would bring out the colour of her eyes. She had been touched by her sister-in-law's consideration when Faelivren had explained how the sleeves were closefitting so they would not catch anywhere and that for the same reason she had specified that the skirt should come without a train, although that was all the rage at the moment.
Usually her aunt Ivriniel ordered her dresses for her and she tended to choose practical and conservative outfits in dull colours that would not show stains. While Lothíriel agreed with the sense of that, she also enjoyed wearing a truly pretty gown every now and again. Moreover, it would give her the confidence needed amongst so many strangers. Whenever she attended one of her father's entertainments in Dol Amroth, she could never shake off the impression that everybody was secretly watching her, waiting for the next misstep of the poor, blind princess.
"You look very pretty," her maid commented.
Lothíriel laughed and reached out to give her a hug. Hareth had looked after her ever since she had been a small girl, in easy and in difficult times.
Somebody knocked at the door and Hareth went to answer it.
"Are you ready yet?" her father asked as he stepped into the room.
Lothíriel swept him an extravagant curtsy. "Yes, my Lord Prince, I am."
A moment's silence ensued. "You look lovely," her father said with a catch in his voice.
Sobered, Lothíriel wondered if she somehow reminded him of her mother, whose early death had sorrowed him so profoundly.
"Father?" She took a step towards him, nearly tripping over the edge of the carpet.
He took her arm and steadied her. "Do be careful and move slowly," he reminded her, his voice back to normal. "We have to go now if we want to be on time."
He father had brought a new cane for her, the old one having been broken when she hit the warg with it. It was not the first to suffer this fate, however, so he always had replacements ready.
The rest of the family waited for them in the forecourt and once everybody had assembled, they could leave. Being on the sixth level, their town house lay very close to the underground passage leading up to the entrance of the Citadel, so they didn't have far to go. They were not the only ones arriving, and the tunnel echoed with the other guests' voices and soft laughter.
Once they reached the Place of the Fountain, they turned right towards the entrance to Merethrond, the great Hall of Feasts. As children they had had the run of the Citadel and its gardens and Lothíriel knew the place intimately. One night she had even secretly sneaked a look through one of the high windows placed all along the side of the hall - she'd had to climb a tree to do so. There had been a reception given for the ambassador of Harad. The finery of the ladies in their colourful gowns had impressed her deeply and the ambassador had been simply magnificent in a sweeping crimson robe with a lion's pelt draped across his shoulders. Little had she known that the next time she would be here, it would be as one of the guests.
Actually, she considered it nothing short of a miracle that her father allowed her to attend the celebration at the Citadel at all. He had been very much shocked when he had heard about the events of the afternoon and would have liked her to retire to bed at once to 'sleep off the fright', just like Alphros. Lothíriel had been briefly tempted by the thought of being able to avoid the evening's entertainment. However, it was Éowyn and Faramir's betrothal dinner and surely as a witness at their wedding she would be expected to attend. After Éowyn's kind treatment by giving her such a wonderful horse, attending seemed the least Lothíriel could do to honour her.
She had pointed this out to her father and the ensuing discussion had lasted over an hour and had, at one point or other, involved every member of the family. In Lothíriel's opinion the only good thing resulting from it was the fact that her father had been too preoccupied to object to the presence of Winterbreath in his stables. In a surprisingly short time a space had been found for the mare, much to her satisfaction.
The other courtiers must have made way for the Prince of Dol Amroth and his family once they recognized him, because in a very short time they entered the hall itself. The low hum of hundreds of people talking to each other emanated from it, reminding her of a huge beehive. Inside the hall, the air was hot from the many candles it took to light the huge space and the mingled scents of beeswax and various perfumes almost made her feel sick.
"I'm going to introduce you to King Elessar and Queen Arwen first," her father told her.
Lothíriel nodded. She knew that once all the important guests had arrived, a banquet would be served, followed by music and dancing until the early hours of the morning. Her father led her through the throng of people, only exchanging a short word of greeting every now and again. After the third time, Lothíriel gave up trying to recognize the people he spoke to, the background noise being just too much, and she contented herself with smiling politely. Then they ascended a couple of steps and the noise level seemed to drop slightly. Her father stopped.
"My Lord King, my Lady Queen," he said, "may I present my daughter."
Lothíriel sank into a deep curtsey. Panic suddenly swept through her at the thought that she did not know if her father had told their liege about her blindness. She secretly cherished the hope of being able to stay in Minas Tirith as one of Queen Arwen's ladies-in-waiting, so she wanted to make a good impression.
"Welcome to Minas Tirith, Princess Lothíriel," King Elessar said, his voice strong and resonant. A man used to command.
Black and silver, shot through her mind, but then the queen greeted her and Lothíriel forgot everything else. She tried to grasp the quality of her voice, yet it eluded her like clear water running through her fingers. All colours, yet none, perpetually changing, yet constant and true.
Lothíriel concentrated so hard on trying to decide what colour would be appropriate to her queen's voice that the meaning of the words completely passed her by. Still listening to the last fading echoes, she suddenly became aware of the fact that everybody waited for an answer from her.
"You have such a beautiful voice, do you sing?" she said the first thing that came into her mind. Then she blushed violently at her breach of protocol. You were not supposed to ask questions of your queen!
"Forgive me," she stammered.
Queen Arwen laughed: sunlight streaming through new leaves in spring. The huge autumn moon setting over the Western Sea. Starlight on a clear winter's night. Lothíriel gave up trying to find a comparison.
"Yes, I sing," the Elf said. "Do you like music, Princess Lothíriel?"
Lothíriel nodded. "Very much."
"Tell me, Imrahil," the king addressed her father. "Is it true what I heard about an attack by a warg this afternoon?"
"It is indeed," her father answered.
Once more, the incident was discussed in exhaustive detail. Lothíriel got the impression that the King of Gondor took it as a personal insult that the beast had slipped through the guard his rangers maintained all along the borders. His voice sounded grim when he questioned her father as to what exactly had happened.
"Unfortunately I wasn't there," her father explained, "but here comes Éomer."
Not only the King of Rohan, but also the bridal couple arrived at that moment. Lothíriel was overjoyed to meet her cousin at last.
"Faramir!" she exclaimed. A moment later she was swept up into an embrace.
"My little cousin. Only just arrived and already in trouble I hear!"
"Well, that's hardly my fault," she protested as he set her down again.
"Princess Lothíriel," the King of Rohan interrupted them. "How are you feeling?"
She smiled up at him. "I'm fine," she assured him. Why did everyone treat her like they expected her to faint away at the mere mention of the attack? "It takes more than a warg to stop me."
Even her father laughed at that, but he soon sobered again. "Éomer, my friend, I don't know how to thank you."
"Then don't," the King of Rohan replied quickly. "I was only doing my duty. I'm sorry the princess had to endure such an ordeal."
"Did you see where the beast came from?" King Elessar asked.
King Éomer explained about the two noblemen disturbing the warg while looking for game. Lothíriel suddenly wondered whether they were back yet or still out there in the dark forest somewhere. When the King of Rohan had reprimanded them, she would not have exchanged places with them for anything in the world. His voice had gone so cold and hard that she had shivered at it and she only hoped that he would never find occasion to speak to her in that tone.
At that moment, a fanfare echoed through the hall.
"The signal that the evening meal is served," King Elessar explained.
The noise level rose again as people started to make their way towards the end of the hall where the tables had been put up. Lothíriel hesitated. She assumed she would sit at the head table, but had no idea next to whom she would be placed. Where had her father gone?
"Princess Lothíriel," the King of Rohan addressed her, "may I have the honour of taking you in to dinner?"
She gratefully took his arm. "Yes please. I have no idea of where I am sitting."
He laughed. "I promise to make sure you end up in the right place. Since we're the witnesses at her wedding, I believe we'll be sitting to the left of my sister."
This came as a welcome surprise. Lothíriel had known Faramir had asked the King and Queen of Gondor to be his witnesses, but she'd had no idea whom else Éowyn had chosen. It made her feel more confident of her prospects of surviving the wedding ceremony without any major mishaps.
Taking his time and not rushing her like her brothers sometimes did, he led her across the hall and then settled her in her chair at the table.
"Here we are," he said as he sat down to her right. "And I promise not to move your wineglass."
Lothíriel smiled at that. Suddenly last night's incident at the dinner table seemed funny rather than embarrassing. He really had a gift of making people comfortable and relaxed in his presence.
"And I will do my best not to spill it all over you," she promised in her turn.
He proceeded to explain how the tables were laid out and where the rest of her family were sitting. Then the servants served the first course, small fluffy pastries filled with asparagus.
Lothíriel knew what to expect, because this time she'd taken the precaution of sending her maid to find out what kind of dishes would be served and in what order. It was a long and complicated menu, but she had plenty of experience in memorizing that kind of thing. In fact, it had been one of her father's bards who had shown her how to go about it. The trick was to imagine the picture of a place and then put all the items in it. As you mentally walked through this imaginary site, you were reminded at each turn of what you had placed there. The bard had explained that he used this method to memorize complicated ballads and Lothíriel had found it very useful. It was customary to use the picture of a house for this, but she had instead chosen the image of a maze like the one in the Citadel's garden.
However, it did not help her locate the food once it had been placed on her plate. When the servant had withdrawn, she carefully reached out a hand to feel the rim of her plate, only to realize that it was much too big to be hers alone. Of course, she told herself, this was a betrothal dinner and the guests were expected to share a platter in the traditional manner, just like the bridal couple did. It would not make things any easier for her, though. She just hoped the King of Rohan would not be offended when she used her fingers to unobtrusively feel for her food.
"May I offer you a pastry?" King Éomer asked.
On second thoughts, maybe it would not be quite so bad. "Yes please," she answered and held out her hand.
But instead of placing the expected pastry in it, the King of Rohan picked up her hand and gave a soft exclamation.
"You were hurt!" His voice had gone grim again.
Lothíriel had completely forgotten about the graze she had suffered on the palm of one hand when she had thrown herself to the ground that afternoon.
"Oh, please, it's nothing."
She had not even noticed the abrasion at first and now that her maid had put some ointment of comfrey on it, the cuts would heal quickly. Indeed, it seemed silly to cause a fuss about it when she had so nearly lost her life.
King Éomer turned her hand over to have a closer look, his touch warm and unexpectedly gentle. "I'm sorry."
Lothíriel recognized the attitude at once from her father and brothers. Another man who thought himself responsible for all the world's cares, unable and unwilling to accept that some things just were outside his control. A strength and a weakness both, life had taught her.
"Don't be," she replied, only to be suddenly struck by the realization that she had never even thanked him properly for saving her life. Did he think her ungrateful?
"My Lord King," she began, "Forgive me for not thanking you earlier for rescuing me..."
"Please," he cut her off at once. "I promised your father to deliver you back safely. You were under my protection. Indeed, I blame myself for not taking archers along."
"Well, you couldn't have known we would be attacked on a pleasure ride, could you," she pointed out.
"Even so, I should have taken precautions." He gently put her hand down. "It's difficult when others have to pay the price."
"You mean your injured rider?" She ventured. "How is he?"
"He will live. I stopped at the Houses of Healing to check on him, but they had drugged him with poppy juice." He hesitated. "The healers had to amputate the arm the warg mangled, though."
"Oh! I'm so sorry." The words sounded terribly inadequate and Lothíriel felt guilty at the thought that the man had been hurt while watching over her.
"Guthlaf doesn't know yet. I will have to go and speak to him in the morning."
Guthlaf - no longer just a nameless rider. Lothíriel wondered if he had a family waiting for him back in Rohan.
"May I come along?" she asked impulsively.
"Come along? Why?"
She had forgotten her determination to never again set foot inside the Houses of Healing. But this was more important. "I would like to thank him for guarding me," she explained.
The King of Rohan hesitated a long time. "It might be unpleasant," he warned her.
Still he hesitated.
"Very well." And it seemed to Lothíriel that his voice warmed with approval.
They were interrupted by a servant serving the second course, stewed rabbit on a bed of spring greens. Once more, Lothíriel had to concentrate on eating. She would not embarrass herself in front of the whole court of Gondor by getting stains on her beautiful new dress. To her relief, King Éomer did not expect her to keep up polite conversation while doing so, but just let her get on with this difficult task. A companionable silence settled between them and Lothíriel found herself relaxing.
Stripes of duck in a fig sauce, suckling pig stuffed with fresh herbs, pheasant in a sour cherry sauce and all the little side dishes went by without mishap. Next it would be the partridge pies and then at last the almond and honey cakes that would ring in the round of sweets that concluded the banquet.
When the servant had withdrawn, she cautiously reached out a hand to feel for the pies, but encountered a sticky substance instead. She quickly withdrew her fingers and surreptitiously wiped them on her napkin. What had that been?
Her dismay must have shown. "Is something the matter, Princess Lothíriel?" King Éomer enquired.
For a moment she considered just saying she wasn't hungry anymore, but then she decided to tell him the truth. "I have no idea what's on our plate."
"Jellied eel, I think," he enlightened her.
Eel? She quickly ran through the list of dishes she had memorized. "That's impossible!"
He seemed amused. "Why? Isn't eel served at Gondorian tables?"
"According to the menu, it should be partridge pies."
"How do you know?" he asked back.
She quickly recited all the items from her memory. "See?" she concluded triumphantly, "No mention of eels anywhere."
"Did you memorize all that in advance?" the King of Rohan asked, disbelief in his tone.
"Of course. I always do."
"But why? Why not simply ask for help?"
Lothíriel bit her lip. He wouldn't understand, nobody did. "I don't want to be dependant on somebody else all the time," she tried to explain, feeling unexpected bitterness. "When was the last time you had to ask for help?"
A short silence fell and Lothíriel mentally berated herself for letting her feelings get the better of her.
"Last winter," King Éomer suddenly said in a low voice.
Lothíriel frowned. What did he mean by that?
"Last winter," he repeated, "I had to go begging to Aragorn and your father for food to tide us over the winter. We would have starved else, for Saruman had destroyed most of our supplies."
"Oh!" She'd had no idea of this. "I'm sorry! I didn't know..."
"It doesn't matter," he interrupted her. "I will do whatever it takes to have my people survive. But," his voice softened, "I can appreciate why you would not want to ask for help. Sometimes taking is much more difficult than giving."
He did understand! "I hate being helpless and depending on the men for rescue all the time," she burst out. "Sometimes, I wish I were able to fight."
Lothíriel remembered saying good-bye to her father and brothers when they set out for what they thought would be their final battle in Minas Tirith. She had wanted nothing so much as to kill some orcs herself, for daring to threaten her family.
He sighed. "Fighting and killing is what I'm good at, yet at times I'm still helpless. I was unable to protect my own sister from the machinations of my uncle's advisor."
"But at least you can do something."
"I know. But even now that I am king, there is still famine and illness, orc raids..." He sighed again. "So many times we are too late. In fact I would have been too late today, if you hadn't acted for yourself and distracted that warg."
Lothíriel shuddered at the memory. The worst had been the stink of rotting meat emanating from the beast and not knowing what she faced. "I just acted by reflex," she waved his words aside.
"In that case you have good reflexes. Most women would just have stood there, too frightened to do anything. Or else have fainted."
She shrugged the compliment away. "I simply didn't have the time for that."
He laughed. "Well, if you can stand up to a warg, you should also be able to ask for help when faced with something you do not recognize being placed on your plate."
Lothíriel had to grin. "In a way that's infinitely more difficult," she admitted. King Éomer chuckled.
"Tell you what," he said after a moment in a much lighter tone, "Shall we make a pact and arrange a signal for when you actually do need help?"
"Yes. Just mention eels and Rohan will ride to the rescue."
Lothíriel laughed. "Like the beacons of Anórien, my Lord King?"
"Exactly!" he replied. "And will you call me Éomer? All my friends do."
Lothíriel was sure her cheeks betrayed her blushing. "I'd be honoured to."
A/N: Concerning the riddle: eels are spawned from eggs in the sea and once they have reached a certain size begin to travel up the rivers, even slithering overland at times. Once they're adult they will return to the sea, mate and die there.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.