14. A painful departure
Warmth? My source of warmth had gone. “Éomer…?” The plea reached out into the shadows.
Heavy footsteps came towards the bed.” I am sorry; I didn’t mean to wake you. Stay there, I’ll light the lamp.”
I thrust away the dregs of sleep and heard Éomer fiddling around by the fire. Gradually the room came into focus as the lamp burned brighter. He stirred up the embers and added another log, the blaze chasing away more shadows.
“Surely you did not intend to leave without saying farewell,” I said. Suddenly, coming instantly wide awake at the possibility, I threw back the covers and swung my legs down onto the floor. Luckily they found one of the rugs, but before I had chance to lever myself up, large hands pushed me gently back towards the mattress.
“Go back to bed. I intended to come and say goodbye just before we left. There is no need for you to get up, Lothíriel. We are leaving at dawn.”
Knowing how useless it would be to protest at that moment I tucked my legs back under the covers but refused to lay down. “But I want to see you off.”
Éomer put his head on one side and placed one finger against my cheek, looking down into my face. His eyes held a tender smile. “That will be nice, but stay for a little longer. I have a bit to do first and then I want a last conference with Éothain and Erkenbrand over a quick meal. There is plenty of time: it’s nowhere near dawn yet.”
“Alright,” I agreed as my hand ran almost unconsciously down his arm, feeling his warmth through the thick wool of his shirt: so little between flesh and razor-sharp teeth. I shuddered. “But I’ll help you with your mail.”
A kiss dropped on my forehead, “No, it’s cold. Give the fire a chance to get going before you dress.” I gave up and sank back against the pillow pulling the covers up as Éomer picked up his tunic, hauberk, sword and breastplate. “Don’t worry if you go back to sleep. I will come and say goodbye.” With a last look over his shoulder he left the room, sending a cold waft of air rushing towards me.
Sinking back under the covers satisfied me for no longer than a minute. Immediately I tried to work out how long it would be before they left, determined not to fall asleep.
When I awoke it was with a sense of dread, the gap between the curtains showed a dull grey. Sheer panic made me jump straight out of the bed, stubbing my toe painfully on a small chest. How could I have gone back to sleep? And why hadn’t he come back to say goodbye. I flung back the curtain peering out into the dim light, but could only see a blank stone wall. The first thing that came to hand was the green velvet dress, unsuitable, but it would have to do. Never had I dressed so hastily, blessing the foresight that had told me to leave my hair plaited the night before. Grabbing my cloak and with my heart thumping wildly, I flew down the worn steps arriving in the hall in a flurry and almost bumping in to a group of riders leaving the dining area. Immediately they parted to let me through, bowing good-morning. I slowed, rescued my dignity and passed through into the dining hall.
Lady Wilflede appeared from the direction of the kitchen, she carried a tray laden with small squat wooden cups. When she got closer I noticed they were very similar to the ones we had at Meduseld. Of course, there would be a traditional farewell mead drink given to the Riders. They had not left. The relief made me momentarily giddy and I clutched at a pillar trying to restore my equilibrium before she noticed. The meal must have just finished because a huge cauldron sat on the hearth, its sides sticky with remains of creamy porridge. On the table, only a few lonely remnants of the rich fruity bread pudding, popular as early morning fuel, graced pottery plates. Two serving girls, tongue tied and hesitant at my greeting, started removing dirty dishes and brushing crumbs into wooden bowls.
“Leave that now and go and fetch the rest of the mead-cups,” Wilflede instructed the two girls as she passed them. “Good morning, my lady,” she said in the next breath. You have just come down in time; they are almost ready to leave.”
When I got outside, the Inner Court was full: of men; of horses; of noise. A few packhorses stood next to the doorway, still being laden and puffing out little clouds of hot hay–sweet breath into the cold air. Shivering slightly, I huddled my cloak tighter and looked around. Firefoot and Éothain’s mount, Helm were amongst a group of horses that included a wild looking beast, almost all black except for one white patch over his left eye. Somehow I knew he belonged to Lord Erkenbrand. As my eyes searched around for my husband a man passed me carrying an armful of spears. I had never seen anything quite like them before, but I knew them for what they were immediately: warg spears. My brothers used something similar for hunting boar, but these were longer and heavier and the stop much broader. The significance hit me hard in the stomach, how much force did it really need to stop a warg? At that moment I spotted Éomer, he was surrounded by a large group of Riders but he saw me almost straight away. Instantly he excused himself and wound his way towards me, his face lighting up with pleasure as he approached.
“I was just going to come up. I thought you had changed your mind and decided to stay in bed,” he teased.
“I wouldn’t do that,” I said quietly, still reeling from my sight of the spears, but not being able to voice my fears. Taking my arm, he drew me away from the press of men that crowded the area. “What’s that you are wearing? I asked, noticing the leather collar of some kind of jerkin protruding over his hauberk.
“Oh, someone lent it to me. The leather is… harder wearing.”
“A bit more resilient, you mean. I saw the warg spears, Éomer. Are you sure you don’t need better armor?”
“I am sure. I need to be able to move. I promise you that we take all reasonable precautions. The spears have proved efficient and we use heavier arrows…”
“Because it takes more to kill a warg than a man or an orc,” I interjected.
He sighed. “Yes, it does. There is no forgetting you are the daughter of a warrior. But because it takes more force that does not mean it is more difficult, just different.”
At that moment a horn sounded. “It is nearly time, Lothíriel. I am afraid I am going to have to leave soon.”
“Of course,” I squeezed his arm and tried to put on my bright mask but now that the moment had come for him to depart, I felt bereft. All too conscious that with him leaving, the anchor that had been holding me fast to my new land, could cast me adrift. He must have guessed at my unease because he pulled me against his chest and tipped my chin up so that he could look directly into my eyes.
“Lothíriel, I hope to be back in Edoras within a week, but if I am delayed you must not worry. All sorts of unexpected things can happen. In this case the most likely is that the quarry may disperse into the mountains and we have to hunt them down individually. If there is any problem you will hear from Erkenbrand, otherwise I am likely to return at any time.”
“Yes, I understand that. I am bound to miss you, but it is nothing I am unable to cope with. In fact, it’s something I need to get used to.” I tried to sound confident, painfully aware just how lonely Meduseld would be without him.
“Well, I didn’t expect something like this so soon, but I have to admit the prospect of you missing me is appealing.” His eyes held mine, full of unspoken declaration.
I swallowed. The words I wanted to say stuck in my throat. There were so many people around. Certainly not the time to say how much he now meant to me, so I just put up my hand and stroked trembling fingers down his cheek, “Keep safe.”
Éomer didn’t seem to care about the audience because he grabbed my fingers and pressed his lips against them. “I will, I promise.”
Knowing I would make a complete fool of myself if I prolonged the goodbyes, I drew away slightly. “I will have to find someone to show me around today. We may not get back here for a while.” The Battle for Helm’s Deep would go down in legend; I had hoped to hear about it first hand.
Éomer, always quick to take my cue, grasped hold of my elbow and looked around the courtyard, breaking the tension between us. “Circumstances stop me showing you myself, Lothíriel, and I regret that, but I have arranged for one who fought alongside me, to take my place.” He waved to an old man who stood a little apart, watching the preparations to leave with an almost wistful look.
“Gamling, come and meet my wife.”
“I have been waiting for the opportunity, my Lord King.”
Lively blue eyes looked out from a face the texture of old leather; wispy, silvered hair hung un-braided past his shoulders, but the aged warrior held himself straight and tall.
Éomer moved away to deal with some query as soon as the introductions were over and I was left in the company of my proposed guide.
“It will be a pleasure, my lady, to show you around the Deep. Éomer King tells me you particularly wish to see the postern gate and stand on the walls of the Hornburg.”
“Friendships, between men, kings and countries were formed here, Gamling. In this place, the battle for Middle-earth began.” I stopped, surprised by my own emotion, but I would not be the queen of this land if it were not for the alliance that started here.
Gamling smiled, his broken teeth at odds with the rest of his neat appearance, “You have the look of him, my lady: the same eyes.”
“Look of who…?” Oh, of course, my father, I did not realise you had met him.”
“Not your father, my lady, Lord Aragorn.”
I smiled. “Yes, I have the grey eyes of the Dúnadan.”
“So have many,” he agreed, “but yours have that certain depth that tells me you will make the Riddermark a wonderful queen.
My mouth opened to chide him for being a honey-tongued old flatterer, but I stopped myself and the words turned to a gulp. His sincerity showed in his beatific smile and I sought desperately to voice my gratitude for his support without succumbing to the sudden rush of emotion that flowed through me. Coming on top of my anxiety at Eomer’s departure, his unexpected comment threatened to have me in tears. Whether he realised or not, he eased my discomfiture by taking my arm, “Come, my lady, let me escort you to the Outer Court. You will want to watch them leave.”
The courtyard gradually emptied, as King, Marshall and the higher-ranking Riders joined the men outside. By the time we passed through into the Outer Court, what I thought all but mayhem had turned into total semblance of order and my overall impression – one of exhilaration. I knew enough about men - and warriors in particular - my brother Erchirion especially - to expect nothing else at the start of what they probably considered not much more than a pleasurable jaunt. But before that moment I had never witnessed such an expression of controlled excitement amongst horses. Too well trained to move from their allotted positions, their enthusiasm for the anticipated fray showed in the restless tossing of powerful heads, the spark of an iron-shod hoof as it scraped the ground and the sporadic, collective snorting.
Wilflede stood near the head of the line, holding the tray of ornamental mead-cups. More trays rested on a low stone wall. When the excited clamour receded into relative quiet she looked up and down the ranks of Riders to check everyone was mounted. Once satisfied, she unhesitantly stepped right up to the side of Firefoot, trusting her king had the stallion under control. Wilflede passed a cup to Éomer, her husband and then the other nobles, speaking the traditional words of fare- thee- well and safe return, with a clear voice that cut right through the neighing of warhorses and the muttering of men. Once the Lords of the Riddermark had tossed back the sweet drink she signalled to the serving maids to bring forward the first of the trays of plain wooden cups that were to be passed around. Now that the ‘Hlafdige’ had fulfilled her role I moved towards her, “May I help, Lady Wilflede?”
Her blue eyes lit up with pleasure and her honest face showed genuine delight,” Of course, my lady, we would be honoured.”
Quickly we moved amongst the men and horses, passing cups along the lines, knowing that although the ancient ceremony could not be neglected, they were eager to be gone. I saved a special smile for Léod, who sat confidently amongst so many warriors. But when I reached the rear I found someone unexpected. “Eadric,” I addressed the veteran retainer, I did not know you were riding.”
“I volunteered, my lady. I will be running the base camp. They will need hot food in between the hunting.”
“Well, that reassures me,” I said, flashing him a grin. “I thought it was all dried meat and oats.”
“We are a bit more organised than that, my lady and I am skilled in treating wounds.”
“Oh, of course, I forgot. Well,” I said, smiling brightly, “good luck then.” Wishing he had not reminded me of wounds, I quickly handed out the last of the drink. Once the last cup had been handed back a heavy silence descended throughout the courtyard, even the horses quietened and appeared to be waiting for the signal to move.
At that moment my interest centred on my husband, and I quickly walked back to stand near the head of the column. A look could be interpreted as saying many things, those blue eyes fixed on me for just a short moment, but it was enough to wrap a cloak of reassurance around me and send a hot rush of longing to my very core
Éomer drew his eyes from me and raised himself on his stirrups, looking around at the assembled company. His whole posture now proclaimed the warrior; the leader. He had been a warrior long before he became a king and then a husband. But those new roles sat firmly on his broad shoulders. My journey to this land had regrettably been one of anxiety and trepidation. My arrival had displeased some, but the welcome from the man I had agreed to wed could not be faulted. Perhaps his pride touched, that his two great friends had coerced me to marry him, but for whatever reason, he had put heart and soul into the carefully crafted relationship. Through him, I had discovered the pleasures of physical love but also the security of having a husband who although appreciated the strength of women, would always stand as a strong post on which to lean. During the first weeks of our marriage loneliness had encouraged me to cling to him, but only now, as he raised his hand to give the order to move out, did I realise that I had come to truly love him.
The first blush of pink showed in eastern sky as the challenging notes of horns echoed around hard stone walls. The column moved forward and the clatter of hooves grew in momentum, rising to a peak as the bulk of the Riders passed me by before gradually diminishing as the tail reached the causeway. I watched until they cantered across the green gore, disappearing into the early morning murk. Aerin still stood on the wall with her gaze fixed down the road, every now and then her hand would brush across her eyes. What luxury to be able to show one’s feelings so blatantly.
“You will get used to it, my lady.”
“Oh, Lady Wilflede, I did not see you there.” She moved quietly despite her bulk. I looked down into her kind face and detected genuine understanding. “I imagine all this is quite familiar to you.”
“Unfortunately, yes. But as I said, you get used to it.” A flash of carefully hidden disquietude crossed her face for a brief moment, “But it doesn’t really get any easier. You just learn to deal with it.”
“That’s just what I told my maid. She is finding this difficult.”
Wilflede glanced towards Aerin who still looked out across the wall. “Well, she’s very young and not very experienced in life, I imagine.”
I smiled; Aerin wasn’t much younger than me. But then, I had waved my father and brothers off to a war I thought they would never return from. “I suppose she is.”
“She’s got nothing to worry about, anyway. They will be back before we can turn around. Now,” she let out a deep breath of…optimism, probably, which I thought better to ignore, “we’d better go and have our own meal, my lady. We can’t have our queen wasting away.”
No, but with concern gnawing at my insides, I did not feel like eating.
“‘I hear them, but they are only the scream of birds and the bellowing of beasts to my ears.’ That’s what he said, my lady.”
We stood on top of the Deeping Wall, the massive structure protecting the Hornburg. Reputedly, in the far-off days of the glory of Gondor the sea-kings had built this fastness with the hands of giants. Here, the heir to the throne of Gondor and the future King of Rohan had together defied the evil hordes that spewed from the depths of Isengard. A dwarf an elf and a few hundred men had withstood the power of a once mighty Istar who had become a pawn to black arts of Sauron. My guide’s eyes were bright and clear as he re-lived the moments of glory.
“When I got up here they were both leaning on their swords, resting when they could, you know. And Lord Aragorn, hoping for the dawn to come, he was. But they didn’t despair, not those two. Not once during that long night did either of them think it hopeless. And when I said that dawn was not far off but it wouldn’t help us, Lord Aragorn said – ‘Yet dawn is ever the hope of men.’ I pointed out that the foul spawn of Isengard would not quail in the sun, and couldn’t they hear their voices taunting. That’s when Éomer King said it - as if they were nothing to him,” Gamling shook his head in remembered wonder.
My husband’s fortitude in battle was well known to me – unbelievably, my brothers had used it as one of their arguments to persuade me to accept his marriage offer, but to hear it from one of his own men added a certain poignancy
The old warrior withdrew for a moment, looking out over the wall and seeing- what? He’d returned to that night when the future of Rohan had been balanced on the edge of only a few sharp swords. I said nothing, and presently he smiled and looked back at me again.
“That’s when they used the fire of Orthanc to blast the culvert open. We were pushed back into the Deep as the waters flowed. Lord Aragorn and a few others cut their way back up, but me, the Dwarf and Marshall Éomer - as he was then - we stayed. The women and children sheltered in the caves, my lady. Those filthy brutes weren’t going to get anywhere near them. I don’t know how long it was we fought in the narrows, before we heard the horn. It seemed forever - they kept coming and coming.
His eyes misted so I looked away for a moment to give him time to recover, and then asked, “And Gandalf and Erkenbrand came just in time, didn’t they, Gamling?”
“They did at that, my lady. But not before we lost many good men. Now, let’s go down to the postern gate.”
The gate, where Aragorn and Éomer had drawn swords together and Gimli had saved Eomer’s life, I especially wanted to see.
Gamling showed me everything he could until eventually, just after midday we stood on top of the causeway looking down on Háma’s grave.
“As I said earlier, my lady, they were good men.” He sighed, shaking his head sadly, “And none better than Háma. It grieved Théoden King something terrible to lose his captain, his friend.”
“Yes, I heard something about him from his wife.”
“Ah, Lady Byrhtwyn: a strong woman. I understand she has kept Meduseld together since the Lady Éowyn left to marry that ranger.”
In spite of the sombre conversation a giggle rose in my throat at my cousin, the Prince of Ithilien, Steward of Gondor being reduced to a ranger, by this proud soldier. Luckily, Gamling noticed nothing and had already started walking a little farther down the causeway. I followed him, and we stood looking towards the Dike where the road ran between two mounds. I had only glanced at them as we rode in, but now, after the description I had heard of the battle, my gaze held deep respect. We tarried for a short time whilst he told me a little about the destruction of the orcs, the moving wood and pointed out the Death Down and then we slowly returned back over the causeway and up the ramp.
“You’ll have time for a little rest, my lady, before the evening meal. And I expect there will be a messenger in before dark. Éomer King will want to let us know if it’s safe for you to travel tomorrow.”
“I am sure it will be, don’t you think so, Gamling?”
A smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “He won’t take any chances with you, my lady. You can count on that.”
Yes, I knew I could. But I only nodded, keeping the warm feeling that crept into my chest, to myself. But after I had thanked Gamling for his morning’s escort and started to ascend the stairs to my room, I allowed my mind to muse. Not on my husband, but on Byrhtwyn, whose wise words on the behaviour of a Rohírric wife had angered me on the morning of my wedding but, after reflection, had encouraged my response to my wedding night and led to the closeness I now enjoyed with Éomer. I vowed then, that when he returned I would remember her advice. My heart went out all the women who had no man - father, son or husband - to welcome home. Pray that all would return safely.
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.