13. A dangerous plan
My playful husband had gone. He disappeared at the very moment we heard a loud knock at the door and Éothain’s strident voice penetrated age-hardened oak.
“Sire, there is news.”
Éomer erupted from the bed, reaching out to snatch his breeches from the chair. “I will be there in a moment,” Dancing on one leg, the breeches just managed to make it up over his hips before he grabbed his shirt, pulling it impatiently over his head. He probably would have flung the door open in his haste to hear Éothain’s report, but the heavy wood resisted and would do no more than swing ponderously inward.
The door’s opposition gave me a moment to grab my robe and cover myself decently, but luckily Éomer retained enough memory of the previous half an hour, to step into the corridor and pull the door shut behind him. Seizing the moment, I fled behind the screen, intent on presenting myself as a suitably dressed Queen of Rohan. The soft squeak of the door alerted me to my husband’s return to the room.
A tawny head appeared around the tapestry, “Swidhelm’s found where they are holed up. I am going down as soon as I have dressed. Erkenbrand already has the maps out.”
“I should get ready, anyway. It must be nearly time for the evening meal.”
“I suppose so.” He glanced at my disordered hair, “Would you like me to send Aerin up?”
“A good idea,” I chuckled, smoothing it down, “and anyway it will be interesting to hear what Léod has to say about all this.” Éomer raised an eyebrow: I had been entertaining him with Léod’s thoughts on his king’s actions.
Aerin however, was unusually silent. Evidently, discussion amongst the Riders led her to believe that Léod would probably be included in the mission. If the paths became unsuitable for horses and they needed to be left under guard, then someone skilled would be required to keep them quiet and calm.
Servants were setting the long table when I arrived back down in the hall. There was no-one else to be seen at first but then the soft mumble of voices led me to another chamber where my husband, Erkenbrand, Éothain and a few other Riders clustered around a small table, studying a map. The details were obscured from me but no doubt it showed the paths and terrain of the Ered Nimrais. A fire burnt brightly in a large ornate fire basket, but, in spite of its generous size, it barely filled the huge hearth.
Moving quietly, I headed for the chair nearest to the source of warmth. Éomer never noticed me, being heavily engrossed with Éothain in discussing some strategy, but Erkenbrand flashed me a smile. I eased myself carefully into old leather, not wanting to disturb the conference.
Sitting slightly apart from the men allowed me to observe Éomer covertly. For the first time since our marriage I saw him, not a king and as a husband, but as a warrior and a leader. His whole demeanour now reminiscent of the stern man I had encountered so briefly in Minas Tirith, all those months ago. His finger moved decisively over the map. He listened attentively to the suggestions of his companions but when he made a decision his orders were terse and sharp. The others nodded in agreement, not questioning his judgment. After a while, they could plan no more and the meeting started to break up. Bodies relaxed and arms stretched thankfully. Erkenbrand strode off to find out about supper and Éomer looked up and caught sight of me. His face softened; his eyes smiled and my heart leapt.
He came over as the group dispersed. “You look nice,” he remarked. “Green suits you.”
“The dress survived the packhorse,” I agreed.” My first Rohan-green dress and at least the thick velvet kept out some of the draughts.
“Lothíriel, I am sorry this trip has not turned out as we intended. I will have to be gone at first light. Swidhelm has passed word that the wargs are using some caves high in the next valley, but they could move on at any moment and we could lose them.”
“I imagine they can travel very quickly,” the shake of my head intending to push his apology aside.
“They certainly can, and unlike orcs, do not tend to make permanent quarters. They follow their prey and if they are hounded out of one valley, will target another.”
“What do you intend to do?”
“Contain them if we can. The main thing is to stop them dispersing into the mountains. The terrain is not suitable for the horses there and they will easily outrun a man. We need to put a cordon around them and drive them onto the lower slopes.”
“So you will have to send men above them to drive them down?”
“Yes, that is why we need a large force. If I send up just a few men the wargs will not run from them, they will attack them. We have to make them think they are outnumbered and at the same time hide the fact they are being driven into an ambush.
It sounded extremely dangerous to me, but I had no intention of voicing my fear. Éomer probably decided not to admit to any danger, because he smiled and took my arm leading me towards the dining hall. “I do not anticipate a problem, but it may take a few days. I am sending you back to Edoras with six of my guard and some of Erkenbrand’s men. I want you to stay here tomorrow and by the evening I will send word if it is safe for you to leave the next day, when I have assessed the situation. Erkenbrand has suggested that instead of camping you spend the night with his daughter in the village of Héacoomb It is less than a day’s ride back to Edoras from there.”
“That sounds a good idea,” I agreed.
Crossing the main antechamber we passed under the archway that led to the large hall containing the dining table. Wilflede waited next to small table which held bowls of washing water. “Good, evening, my lady, my lord. Supper is about to be served.” She bowed and then handed us some drying cloths.
I dipped my hands into the tepid water, and smiled, “I hope you have not been too inconvenienced by us arriving a day early, Lady Wilflede.”
“As long as you don’t mind chicken, instead of pork, my lady, then it doesn’t matter at all.”
Serve me right, I admonished myself: making a typical Gondorian meaningless remark only landed me with a typical Rohírric honest answer. “I am very fond of chicken, Lady Wilflede. They certainly smell good,” I remarked, as two servants struggled past carrying a spit containing around a dozen large chickens. They carefully placed the spit on two iron rests set in the large hearth. As usual, the arrival of food caused a break in conversation.
“Ah, here it comes,” Erkenbrand boomed, eying the chickens. He stepped towards us, “My Lord King, my Lady Queen, please be seated.”
I doubt any more could be squeezed around the table. What with a fair proportion of Eomer’s guard, the high ranking Westfold Riders and their wives, plus a few elders, the count looked to be well over forty. My place was between my husband and Lord Erkenbrand who immediately engaged me in conversation.
“Did Éomer King say you will be staying with my daughter on the way back to Edoras, my lady?”
“Yes, I shall look forward to renewing our acquaintance.” I replied politely. “She lives in the village of Héacoomb, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, she does. Her husband has a large farm,” he said, with pride in his voice. “You will be there long before sundown. I am detailing some of my best men to go with you. Once you are within half a day of Edoras, they will return to strengthen my éored. We are patrolling the edge of the plain; hopefully we can encourage the devils to come down that far. They won’t get away then; I will make sure of that”
The light in his eyes told me he hoped he would get chance to prove his words. A grin hovered on my lips: too old to spend nights in the mountains! What would he say of Eomer’s convenient assessment, I wondered? Doubtless the Marshall of the Westmark did not consider himself too old to lead a warg hunt. “Are they likely to be chased down?” My question asked more to provide suitable conversation than from a desire to know.
“Hopefully they’ll come straight to us, my lady, but they’re wily creatures and not totally predictable.”
“Are you talking about women or wargs, Erkenbrand?” Éomer butted in.
“If its Erkenbrand, it’s probably women,” someone sniggered.
“Give me a warg any day,” Éothain muttered.
“He gets better luck with them,” a comment came from down the table.
The general amusement lasted until the first dish arrived: huge mushrooms coated in herbs and breadcrumbs and cooked in butter, one, more than enough for me. “You have tried these before, my lady?” Wilflede asked.
“Yes, we have eaten them a few times at Meduseld recently, it being the season. Mushrooms are a favourite of mine, but these are different from the kinds I am familiar with in Dol Amroth.”
“I don’t think they grow anywhere as well as they do in the Riddermark. That’s why they call them horse-mushrooms. But we have many more kinds that we pick in the pinewoods. You will recognise those, I feel.”
The next course - freshwater mussels - instigated another round of conversation as to the difference between dishes in the Mark and those I enjoyed in Gondor. But luckily for the Lords of the Riddermark sitting around me, a chicken is a chicken, anywhere. This allowed the conversation to turn to the behaviour of wargs. The animated discussion encouraged me to leave the men to mull over the following day’s sport and retire for the night as soon as the apple tart had been consumed.
When I arrived in the bedchamber Aerin was in the process of sliding a warming pan between the sheets. “Oh, you managed to find one, that’s good.”
“I’ve stoked up the fire as much as I can, my lady, but you might as well try to heat Meduseld with a candle. No wonder they wear a lot of sheepskin around here.”
“It’s not even winter yet, but no doubt we will get use to it. Although, surely Meduseld is not so cold,” I said, having thought about it. “Here, it is all stone and the building is in the shadow of the mountain for a large part of the day.”
“I hope it doesn’t get bitterly cold. I’m not sure I will learn to live with that.”
I stared at my maid in surprise; it was unlike her to be so negative, “However cold it gets, Aerin, Léod’s cottage is warm. It is easy to see why they use wood and thatch. And it’s only another six weeks and you will be living there…Aerin, what’s the matter?” Her face crumpled and her eyes filled with tears.
Aerin wiped the back of her hand across her eyes and sniffed, “We had an argument.”
“An argument? With Léod?”
She looked so miserable I was unsure whether to put my arm around her, or laugh. I compromised, “Well, it can’t be that bad. Sit down and tell me.”
She sat on the edge of the bed looking down into her lap “He is pleased Éomer King wants to take him tomorrow.”
“Of course he is. It shows he is trusted.”
Aerin looked back up at that, eyes wide in indignation. “But he is not a warrior. I do not want to marry a warrior. I did not realise the danger yesterday but now all the men are talking about it. I do not want him to go.”
“And you told him that?”
She nodded unhappily. “And he said he may have to go if Éomer King goes to war again. They always take stable boys and even a stable-master to see to the horse lines. I never thought he would be needed, although with so many warhorses…”she shook her head. “Anyway, I told him that I would not spend months waiting at home, frightened he will not come back. I do not want that kind of life.”
“But you knew that, Aerin,” I stated, somewhat mystified. “You met him during the Ring-War when he rode with Théoden King.”
“I know I did, but I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t think there would be any danger once the war ended.”
“Do you love him, Aerin?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then you will have to learn to deal with it,” I said somewhat harshly, “or give him up. And I am sure you do not want that. He cannot refuse to go with his king because his future wife does not like it. You cannot ask that of him.”
The little plaintive voice hardly rose above the sound of her sobs, which prompted me to reach over to the side table to get a clean handkerchief. “Here, dry your tears.”
“Thank you, my lady.” A few sniffs and a swallow accompanied this. “I don’t know what came over me. And he will go off in the morning thinking I’m cross with him.”
“No he won’t. Go and find him now.”
“But, my lady…”
“Go on. I can get myself into bed.”
The door closed behind her, leaving me with an impression of a tear streaked face. Shaking my head, I wondered if my maid now realised the reality of leaving family behind to live in a strange land.
I looked around for my nightgown: my mind still on Aerin. Léod’s position in Edoras meant he could see her for a good part of every day. Absurd, that she would think he always would be there to keep her company, but then, unlike me, the demands of duty did not form the main part of her schooling. I sighed; staring at the mirror gave me no answer to the question of how easy it would be to manage without my own husband for the next week, or even longer, maybe. His excellent job of shielding me from the more vocal dissenters had helped enormously, but I could not rely on him for ever and needed to fight my own battles. However, from the beginning that prospect always worried me a lot less than being married to a stranger. Well, he was a stranger no longer and my return to Edoras alone would give me the chance to address the other issues. Another look in the mirror told me that Éomer spoke the truth and that, even by candlelight, green suited me.
Amused at my own thoughts, my attention turned to getting ready for bed and, once I located my nightgown: fine lawn quickly replaced velvet and silk. My hair could stay in its plait: it would be quicker in the morning. With nothing else to see to, I shot under the covers, pushing the warming pan to the other side of the bed. I had barely pulled the quilt up around me when the door opened and Éomer appeared, clutching cuirass and sword. He propped his sword and scabbard in a corner by the fire and dumped the breastplate on top of his hauberk. The tooled leather gleamed in the muted light.
“You cleaned them?” I remarked, glancing at the scabbard and the glowing sun on his cuirass.
“Not me,” he grinned, “my squire. I have to give him something to do, since you like to undress me.”
Some other thought disturbed my mind, otherwise I would have challenged him on that one, “You have not got your full armour with you …”
“Before you start worrying,” he interrupted me, “I do not need it. Wargs to not throw spears and fire arrows, or wield swords…”
“No! They just bite your head off, I imagine.”
“Lothíriel,” the bed shuddered as he sat down beside me, “I will be fine. With what we have planned it will be better to be more mobile.”
“I suppose, but what about Firefoot? I thought you were not going to take him into battle anymore.”
“I’m not, at least not a long campaign, but this is different. I shall be glad of his experience. In fact, I am relieved I brought him. Firebrand is still hot-headed and in this situation his youth could betray him. Hopefully, there will be no major battle before he is fully trained. Don’t worry, I am well prepared.”
He already held my hand, but I reached my other over and clasped it on top of his. “I am sorry. I didn’t want to make a fuss.”
“You have every right to question: it is you who will have to explain to the likes of Cereth, why I decided to go.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I would not be so undignified as to answer that. I shall engage all the pride of my lineage and tell him that the king makes his own decisions.”
“Quite right,” he started to grin but then his face altered as some other notion changed the grin to a slight frown. Whatever thought caused the frown also made him hesitate over his next words, “Lothíriel … I did not intend to say this, but…I have put Daegberht in charge of your escort home. He is a very experienced warrior. You will do exactly as he tells you, won’t you?”
“Of course I will.” I promised you that at the beginning of the trip…Éomer, are you trying to tell me there may be some danger?”
“No,” he said with a soft smile and a squeeze of my hand, “if I thought that, you would stay here. If I am uneasy tomorrow I will send word for you not to leave. But prudence commanded me to discuss all eventualities with my men, and that includes the faintest chance of an attack upon you.”
“Tell me what has been decided then. It will be better if I am prepared.”
“There is virtually no likelihood of any wargs escaping our net in the mountains, or Erkenbrand’s vigilance on the plains. But if by any chance a few elude us then you must not worry. Daegberht knows just what to do. He will lead you and the other women out onto the plains. Wargs are no match for our horses on the open grassland. You must think of nothing else but following Daegberht. Is that clear?”
I said nothing which prompted him to carry on. “Now, I have frightened you. Maybe it is better not return to Edoras. I can send a messenger.”
Tempted, for only a moment, I shook my head. My father had always encouraged his children to meet any fear head on. “No, please don’t, Éomer. I want to go back.”
“I would rather you did, but we will see tomorrow. If there is any doubt in my mind you will stay here.” He gently lifted my hand to his mouth, rubbing warm lips over my knuckles, “Now, I must get to bed,” he said abruptly dropping my hand, before standing up, pulling his tunic over his head as he did so. I settled back against the pillows, hoping that the sight of my husband undressing would thrust fear-provoking thoughts from my mind. Once the shirt started to come off they reduced to no more than a faint unease. Perhaps because I decided that no warg stood a chance against those muscles. He must have gathered that I enjoyed watching him as his lips were twitching and his eyes were on me. A little teasing would not come amiss.
“Of course, if I’d accepted one of my other suitors, I would not have to worry about wargs at all.”
“True.” He dropped the last of his garments and made for his side of the bed. My eyes followed him, not quite expecting such an evident arousal in the circumstances. “And if you’d married that hog’s pudding or the streak of lard you told me about, you would be living in the lap of luxury and not… What’s this?”
I giggled. He recoiled, horrified. “It’s a warming pan, and you are right: marriage to one of them would have least meant that I would not be freezing.”
The pan collided noisily with the floor and once in the bed his arms pulled me into a wonderfully warm embrace. “I can’t promise the luxury but I can promise you won’t be cold for much longer.”
“Éomer,” I protested, as he relaxed his grip and my nightgown started to come off, “you can’t. Not after this afternoon.”
“Oh, yes I can.” With a slight struggle the nightgown came deftly over my head with only a little help from me.
I tried once more, “You have to be up at first light, fit for battle.”
“Just you remember you rejected those old men in favour of…”
“A barbarian from the north,” I supplied helpfully.
“The young king of Rohan, I intended to say.”
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.