12. An unscheduled return
Dawn came unhurriedly; content to let the night cling to its domain. Éomer and I stepped out into a grey dripping world. Grass burdened with dew; cloying autumn mist embracing the ground; a dull dismal daybreak. We huddled around the flickering fire, cradling mugs of honeyed tea in grateful hands.
“The sun’s breaking through.” Éomer waved one hand toward the east.
Just above the level of the mist a pale, muted banner of orange streaked across the sky, the edges shading pink as the struggling sun pushed its way upward into the acquiescent day. I looked down at the river; the mist still lay thick below us. “Do you think we will be able to see to get across?”
“When we get close we will. It looks worse from up here.”
The men had already begun to take down the tents and the three women had the meal well underway when we started down the road to the Fords. We were not alone, though. A couple of guards followed at a discreet distance. Descending into grey murk, the boisterous babble of the water reached our ears long before our eyes could see it, or any way across to the small island. The eyot in the centre of the wide stream was hidden, but the mound, complete with spears and cairn, floated above the mist like some ghostly craft sailing on an ocean of smoking vapour.
When we reached the bank, Éomer pointed in the direction of the mound, “Look, you can just see the stepping stones.”
My eyes followed his finger, and, as I looked, the swirling haze thinned slightly, revealing the path of flat rocks.
“Come on, the mist is gradually dispersing as the sun comes up.”
I doubted if such a pallid orb would stand much chance against this drab blanket but I took his proffered hand and gingerly followed him across. To my relief, not wishing an icy ducking on such a morning, after we had taken the first few steps our way stood out clear before us.
Once across, Éomer told the two guards to stay on the pebbly beach before pulling me up the muddy bank to stand beside him on the wet grass. As the mound loomed up in front of us he lapsed into silence, his face set into a tense mask. But he still held my hand, so after a while I ventured a remark. “So many must have died?”
“Yes, but not so many as we first feared. Gandalf rounded up all those who had scattered and he and Erkenbrand marched them back to Helm’s Deep to relieve us. Just in time as it turned out.”
“But you still wish that you had been here?” Éomer made no answer for a few long moments but when he did so I thought that his face had relaxed considerably.
“I suppose not. If I had died here, then Merry and Pippin would have been taken to Isengard and there is no doubt that Saruman would have bled them dry of information. Frodo might not have made it to Mordor unseen. The Quest could have failed.” He stopped talking abruptly and started walking, leading me with him. Together we circled around the mound until he stopped again on the other side. “I do not think Théodred would have wanted me to come to his aid if he knew that by doing so, the West could fall.
“I am sure he wouldn’t or even if it just meant your death,” I replied, smiling up at him. “You sound as if you feel a bit better about the whole thing.”
“Yes, I do. It would be foolish to deny that the Riddermark needs me. Like you, I am also glad we came, even if we cannot stay as long as we intended.” He dropped my hand and put his arms around my waist, looking at me in his intent way. “I have hopefully laid a few of my ghosts; next, we must go to Dol Amroth and confront yours.”
I nodded, “I would like that, but strangely the memories have not bothered me so much since I talked to you on our wedding night. I find myself thinking about my mother quite a lot now. Often I imagine how she would have handled a situation. It has been helpful rather than upsetting me.”
“Good.” His hips brushed mine for a fleeting second, but then he stood up straight looking over my shoulder, “Look, the mist is dispersing.”
I turned around. A few wisps still clung to the stones, but I could see the crossing clearly visible the whole width of the river. I had given no credit to the sun, but contrary to my lack of faith, she had defeated the grey monotony and the morning at last attained its true colours.
Aerin handed me a bowl of steaming porridge when we got back to the camp, no cream though, just honey. But very welcome for all that. The tents had been taken down and most of the equipment already strapped to the packhorses, so we perched on a convenient rock and made a hurried meal. I watched the two Rohirric women whilst Éomer bolted his food down. More interested in discussing with Éothain the number of scouts they were going to send out on the return journey, than eating. Hroddwyn, the young widow, went about cleaning pots and mugs, as she usually did – silently. I imagined the wargs would not bother her as she had nothing much left to lose. However, Egelfled, whose husband was a senior member of Eomer’s guard, looked slightly drawn, no doubt wondering if she would be making the journey back to Edoras without her husband’s escort. If Éomer went Warg hunting then Aiken probably would too. But as yet Éomer had not made known his intentions. He finished his food before mine had barely cooled and I could tell that he had put any melancholy thoughts to the back of his mind and wished to return to the Hornburg with all speed. After all, the needs of the living outweighed those of the dead. I finished the porridge, but had barely the time to drink my tea and eat a biscuit before Léod led over my eager horse. Eadric took my cup and, with my husband still busy giving orders to his Riders, Léod gave me a leg up into the saddle. Within moments the last few utensils had been packed away, somebody threw dirt on the fire to douse it, and we broke camp.
I knew the pace would be fast. The horses were rested; the morning cool, and the mission urgent. I could sense the difference in the men too, we had had scouts and outriders since we left Edoras, but many times I noticed the Riders around me looking up, scanning the rocks above us, alert to any danger. Glancing at Aerin I stifled a laugh, not surprised to see her giving a very good impression of enjoying herself, possibly the extra spice of danger responsible for the flush on her cheeks and the excitement in her eyes. If I had any doubts about her riding abilities, seeing that she had only learnt that summer, they were misplaced. I knew that she had spent a great deal of her off duty time making sure she would make a suitable wife for a young man, who even more than most in Rohan, spent his life amongst horses.
By the time we reached the branch in the road where the way led up to the Hornburg I had difficulty thinking of anything other than a bath. We had seen nothing of wargs, or any other danger, it had just been a tiring few hours. Now, though, I pushed my aches away and concentrated on studying the countryside around me. The Westfold Vale was true farming land, with rich fields and many homesteads. We travelled steadily upward, through grazing cattle and past small farms with their assortment of pigs, goats and hens, until finally we entered the Deeping Coomb. It looked like a great green chunk had been cut right out of the mountainside. The road followed the course of the Deeping Stream, the noisy rushing water issuing from a gorge at the far end of the coomb and flowing rapidly towards the plain. As we progressed further toward the mountain and into the gorge the cliffs rose like huge towers each side of us and ahead – the first fortification – the Dike. A triangular tract of green sward spanned the distance from the Dike to the Wall, beyond. The road climbed gently up across this high-meadow and ended at Helm’s Gate. The guards waved us through, and in what seemed like no time at all we were trotting up the long causeway to pass through the outer wall of the Hornburg. And there, at the entrance to his domain, Erkenbrand, Lord of the Westfold, Marshal of the Riddermark, waited to welcome us.
Erkenbrand wasted little time on official greetings, very obviously eager to talk to Éomer and he started almost before my husband had helped me down from Sceadu. “You made good time, my lord; I did not expect you quite so early.”
“Yes, we rode hard. I expect my wife is tired and could do with a bath.”
“Of course, rooms have been prepared. Wilflede is waiting to escort the Queen,” he indicated his wife, who came forward and bobbed an extremely inelegant curtsey. She was short and very plump and much more suited to bowing, but I suppose she must have thought my position warranted the honour.
“Éomer,” I said under my breath. “I would like to know if anything has happened first.” One look at Erkenbrand’s face, unusually drawn tight with worry, told me it had.
Éomer fixed me a speculative look for a moment, possibly wondering if I should be involved in such discussions, but then nodded and squeezed my hand. “In a moment, Erkenbrand. Perhaps we could have some refreshment first and discuss the situation. Have you had any sightings?”
“Not any sightings, but I am afraid they have killed. A young shepherd was due to bring his flock down from the high pastures yesterday. He did not appear.” He shook his head almost despairingly, “A search party went out, but found naught except one shoe,” he hesitated, “and nothing at all of the sheep. We would not have known wargs were to blame if Swidhelm and Oeric had not arrived.”
I put my hand to my mouth to stifle my gasp, the bile rising in my throat at the thought of a young boy facing a pack of wargs –his poor family! But I controlled my horror, lest I be excluded from the discussion. I wanted to know what went on in this new land of mine.
“Where are Swidhelm and Oeric now?” Éomer asked, giving my hand another squeeze. He did not miss much.
“Out looking, my lord. They managed a few hours sleep but left at first light with some of my men. If they find any signs, we will get word.”
“They will find them. But you did not send out enough to launch an attack, I presume. We will need to stalk them, surround them. None must get away.”
Erkenbrand shook his head again, “No, Swidhelm will send a report back and he will endeavor to keep track of them until you get there.”
I tensed inwardly. Did that mean my husband had intentions of going after them himself? Had it already been discussed, I wondered, already been decided the night before?
Éomer neither confirmed nor denied my suspicions when he answered Erkenbrand. “As soon as we know where they are we will have to send out a large force, get right around them. I don’t want them getting near Edoras; but also, I do not want them going farther along the Ered Nimrais and crossing into the inhabited uplands of Gondor. They are not used to dealing with them there.”
“No, that’s true. We, at least, have some experience of fighting them. Anyway,” Erkenbrand slapped his king on his back, “we can do nothing until we have some news. Let’s get you some food and then your lady wife can take her bath.”
We passed through into a large hall, unlike Meduseld where wood abounded, here, all was stone. Coloured hangings clothed much of the walls; spears and lances crossed over the top of open archways. These openings led to further rooms, inside which, even this early in the day, torches were burning in dark corners. It could not be considered homely; everything spoke of the province of a warrior. In a large space through one of the arches a dining table had been set. Made of dark carved wood, the table could have accommodated forty people. A simple meal had been laid out at one end and I ate my food quietly, tired, and perhaps a little worried, listening to the men discussing the finer points of warg hunting, until a soft tap on the shoulder made me turn around.
“Would you like to come to your room now, my lady? Your maid has finished her meal and is preparing your bath.” Erkenbrand’s wife had a cheery vibrant voice; she also had smooth tanned skin and a lovely open smile.
I smiled back, “Yes, I would, thank you.” I knew I was not going to learn any more, the general feeling of the men that they would hear nothing until the evening at least, and any expedition unlikely to set forth before morning.
I followed Wilflede back out into the hall and up some stairs. She led me to a large wooden door outside which stood a pile of empty wooden buckets. “I hope you will not mind sharing with Éomer King, my lady, we do not have a great many bedchambers. The burg was not designed to be a house.”
“No, of course not,” I replied, wondering if he would be sleeping here anyway or off up into the mountains. The room was not big, most of it taken up by a large four posted bed. A screen partitioned off one corner and I could hear the sounds of water being poured into a tub.
“Éomer King will probably want a bath as well,” Wilflede said cheerfully, “I will send him up when some more water has had chance to heat. There will be some for you later, Aerin isn’t it?” She called towards the screen.
“Oh, thank you, Lady Wilflede. I could certainly do with it.” Aerin appeared, empty bucket in hand.
Wilflede nodded, “Right then, I’ll leave you to it. Call me when the bath needs emptying.” She waddled out leaving me alone with my maid.
“I should get undressed quickly, my lady. The water is hot now but will soon cool down. It’s not very warm with all this stone.”
Except for my cloak, I still had on my outdoor clothes so had not really noticed the temperature. However, as soon as I started to undress I realized that although a fire had been lit, stone and autumn chill combined to render it rather ineffectual.
“Help me with this mail, would you Aerin?” I normally preferred to dress and undress myself, but the mail shirt fastened at the back.
“I thought at one time you might have needed it,” she remarked as she loosened the fastenings enough for me to pull it over my head.
“I doubt it would stop a warg,” I said slanting her a wry look.
Aerin shuddered. “I suppose not. But Léod said that Éomer King, Éothain and the others would have sorted them out. We were quite safe.”
I tried to refrain from chuckling, wondering if Léod really thought that or if he had sought to reassure her. Not that from what I had seen she had looked at all worried. “Well, let us hope they track them all down.”
“Oh, they are bound to. Léod says that Swidhelm is the best tracker in the Riddermark and Éomer King will lead the men himself.” She replied with certainty.
“It is common knowledge that the King is going on this hunt, then?”
“Oh, yes. Léod says he will not be able to resist it. He’s not had a good fight for ages.”
“A good fight! Is that what they call it? I cannot believe they relish battling with those evil creatures.” I tried hard not to show my incredulity but Aerin laughed.
“Léod says that the warriors need to keep up their skills and the training grounds are not the same.”
Getting a bit fed up with hearing Léod’s opinion, I went behind the screen to take off the rest of my clothing.
Feeling tired after our early start that morning I rested on the bed for a bit after my bath, glad I had packed a thick woollen robe. I say rest, but first I had to watch Wilflede supervise a procession of servants carrying out buckets of dirty bathwater. Then, just as I started to drift off, the whole process was reversed, with hot water brought in to refill the tub. I presumed my husband would soon appear for his turn. He did, within minutes, and I heard him outside insisting that he was perfectly capable of removing his chain-mail, and no, he needed no help at all.
“You are sure, my lord? We can send for your squire.”
“No, thank you, Wilflede. You say my wife is here. I am sure she will not mind undoing a few fastenings.”
“Well, if you’re certain, my lord. Call if you need anything else.”
The door closed with a deliberate clunk. Éomer looked towards the bed and grinned, “I don’t think she quite understood that I actually would prefer you to take my clothes off, rather than my squire.”
“If you’ve got any sense you will leave them on,” I muttered. “It’s freezing in here.” I knew as soon as I said it I would be in for some teasing. A few short steps brought him to the bed. He sat down beside me with a thump and pulled me up against him.
“I hope my little Gondorian hot-house flower is going to survive her first winter in this cold barbaric country.”
“I’ll manage,” I replied, giggling unashamedly when he took my earlobe between his teeth and proceeded to nibble it gently. But since the bath water would be getting cold I reluctantly squirmed away. “I must get your clothes off.”
He immediately stood up and stretched his arms out from his sides, beaming at me. “You do have some wonderful ideas. I will not hinder you.”
Used to his humor after nearly six whole weeks of marriage, I ignored him and struggled off the bed wrapping my robe tighter around me. Reaching under his arm I attacked the lacing holding his tunic, but only two had been freed before he grabbed me for a very thorough kiss which left me breathless and suspicious. His next words confirmed my suspicions.
“Lothíriel, I am going to have to leave you here.”
“You are going after the wargs?”
“It’s what I do best.”
I said nothing and resumed my battle with the laces.
“We are going to have to put a cordon around them. None must escape. It will need some organization.”
Standing back from him, I jerked my head towards him, indicating the tunic, “You can take it off now.”
He grabbed me again but this time held my chin in his large hand and looked me straight in the eye. “Tell me what you think, woman.”
“I think, Éomer, that it is your decision. If you are asking my advice, then I would say that you will probably fret abominably if you do not go, but that does not mean that it is right to do so. There is a risk to your people but is it great enough to put yourself in such danger? Is there another who could lead? If there is, then you have to admit that you want to go and be happy with that.”
“Erkenbrand is getting too old to spend nights in the mountains. Elfhelm is not here, neither is Aelfric. Swidhelm is an excellent tracker but not a leader. There are a few others, but wargs are intelligent evil creatures ….” He dropped my chin and sighed before stepping back and pulling the tunic over his head emerging with tousled hair and an almost childish, and certainly a rebellious, look on his face. “I want to go.”
I took the tunic from him. “In that case, take your boots off and then turn around and let us get this hauberk off so you can have your bath. It may be the last for a while.” Slanting me a rueful grin, he did as he was told and I tugged at the fastenings on the mail. “If you are going to be more than a few days then I should go back to Edoras: Grievance Day is coming up.”
“Oh, damn.” He twisted his head over his shoulder to look at me, “I’d forgotten we were aiming to return by then. Do you mind going back and can you manage. It will be the first time you will have used your given authority?”
“I would prefer to go home if you can spare the escort and as for managing, well I wouldn’t have thought it will be much different than the last time, when I sat with you, and probably nothing I haven’t had to deal with when I did the same thing in Dol Amroth during the war. The only thing is - how popular will it be to have me sitting in judgment.”
“You were sworn in as Underking and anyone who doesn’t like it can sort out their own problems,” Éomer retorted in his usual blunt fashion. “You are perfectly capable of reaching a sensible decision on any dispute put before you.”
“I hope so,” I helped him push the heavy mail off his shoulders; it slithered down piling in a heap on the stone floor. Éomer picked it up and draped it over a convenient chair and started to pull his wool shirt over his head. “It will only present a problem if there is any aspect of Rohirric law I am not conversant with, although I am sure Lord Bertwald will advise me.”
The shirt followed the hauberk. “Cereth is very knowledgeable, he will also be there to help you. And translate anything you cannot understand. Yes, I know he’s taking a time to come round,” he said seeing the skepticism on my face, “but you will win him over. He has always been very loyal to the Mark, especially in the dark times. He stood up to Grima more than most.”
“Well, he certainly sees me as another usurper.”
Éomer grabbing me was becoming a bit of a habit, not that I complained about being held tightly against a lovely warm, bare chest. “Lothíriel, what matters most is that I want you here. You have made me happier in a few short weeks than I thought I had any right to be. I just hope I make you as happy.”
My answer somehow got lost between his lips and mine. A few short weeks and now I could not imagine wanting to be in any other place than I found myself at that moment. “The water will be cold,” I whispered as space materialized between us again.
“Are you sure you don’t fancy another bath?”
I wondered if that velvet voice would always send shivers through me. “You will find there’s no chance,” I chuckled, “you will barely get in it yourself. They have to carry the water so far that the tub is the smallest tolerable.”
“You don’t mind, do you?”
“Don’t mind what?” I asked, taking the opportunity to start divesting him of the rest of his clothing.
“That things are not quite so luxurious here as in Minas Tirith. Plentiful hot water for instance.”
“Éomer, I miss nothing. You did your best to make me welcome. Meduseld is very comfortable, and there’s plenty of hot water. Although, cold may be more appropriate for you at the moment,” I quipped as the last garment fell to the floor. “Now, get in the bathtub before the water turns to ice.” I gently pushed his hands away from their exploration inside my robe; he would never get his bath.
“Afterwards?” his voice was husky now.
“Afterwards,” I promised. He grinned, and finally sunk into the warm water.