17. A waiting game
For a short while Aerin revelled in being the centre of attention. The serving girls crowded around wanting to hear the story from the victim’s lips. From their merry conversation I gathered that she was looked upon with envy— not many maids returned to Edoras with their own escort. In the end, Elfgyuu shooed them off enabling me to talk to my maid and Egelfled.
Luckily, Aerin had not broken her shoulder but her collar bone, less serious, but painful none the less. After the excitement of the welcome she soon sat down on a nearby seat, tired and hurting from the day’s travelling.
“It will heal quite quickly, my lady, but she needs to keep her arm supported.” A long piece of cloth had been wound around her shoulders to keep the broken bone in position.
“Thank you, Egelfled. You have done well. I hope that you were received courteously in the village.”
“Oh, yes, my lady. And they provided a cart to bring her home, but it took all day.”
“Well, you will want to see your children so I won’t keep you now but I would like to have a little talk tomorrow.” I had a little proposition I wanted to put to Egelfled, hoping that she would agree to pass on some simple healing skills. Rohírric wives looked after their men; I did not want to be any different. Not wanting to discuss it in the hall, I agreed a time for her to see me in the morning before speaking to Aerin.
“You will have to be excused your normal duties for a while, Aerin. That bone will take time to mend.” She looked exhausted but started to stand again using her good arm to push up from the bench. I waved her down and she sank back onto the seat, sighing audibly.
“I am sorry, my lady, I don’t think I can see to you one handed.”
“There’s nothing to stop her helping with the table laying and such like. She can carry a few things with her good arm.”
Elfgyuu’s softening towards me obviously did not extend to my maid. I controlled my giggle but Aerin glared at her, tiredness and pain forgotten – war about to break out.
“I have never shirked my duty and don’t you accuse me of that! It there’s anything I can do for, my lady, then I will. And I’d even do something to help you if you took that sour look off your face…”
Elfgyuu drew herself up but I stepped in, not wanting any more discord. “Aerin will do what she is capable of. She needs to rest for the next day or two but then I have a special task for her. Don’t worry, Elfgyuu, she will not be idle.”
Two days passed before she could take on the job I’d planned for her: looking after Egelfled’s children whilst their mother spent time with me. I would have liked to have kept my mission secret but Egelfled could not teach me everything and needed to introduce me to others with greater expertise. Elfgyuu sniffed a bit when told of Aerin’s absence, but nodded her approval when I explained my wish to learn the Rohírric ways from those who knew best. Sensing that my relationship with Elfgyuu had reached a turning point, Aerin willingly made herself available for laying tables and managed to redeem herself for her previous rudeness. Telling me that the woman ‘only had to go halfway’ and she would do the rest.
What with Cereth’s new attitude – embarrassment over his failure to fully support me over the under age marriage dispute along with his grudging admiration for how I had handled the whole day, making him more willing to cooperate with me – the first few days of Éomer’s absence were peaceful and pleasant.
The coming of winter meant a lack of travelers, both those who wanted to trade as well as messengers from Gondor, so I spent some time on my translation work, something I had hardly looked at since my marriage.
But on the forth day Lord Bertwald died, and I soon found myself standing on a windy hillside in slanting, sleety rain. Never having attended a Rohírric burial I could only leave it to others to order the honoring of a man who had given his life to the service of the Riddermark. First he had served as a warrior, then an advisor to Théoden, and finally to Éomer, easing the first months of my husband’s kingship and welcoming his wife when other’s held back. I knew Éomer would have wanted to be here but he still chased wargs somewhere in the Ered Nimrais. The final shovelfuls closed Bertwald’s barrow, I raised my eyes to the clouded tops of the mountains, and shuddered.
Perhaps Eomer’s absence from the burial, or even the burial itself started the mutterings. Whatever, both Elfgyuu and Cereth stared to plague me about the date of his return. What could I tell them? I don’t think I fully realized until that week exactly how much Éomer meant to the Rohírrim. Not just him personally, although even Cereth, for all his irritating ways, was devoted to his king, but as the heir of the House of Eorl. Elfgyuu would know there was no chance of ensuring the sucession until Éomer returned and with secrets difficult to keep in Meduseld I suspected Cereth and most of the servants did as well. Common sense told me that failure to conceive after six weeks of marriage could not be held against me and in spite of the whisperings I held my head high, refusing to show other than my most gracious and self-assured front. But common sense does not always quieten those niggling, stomach churning thoughts that wriggle their way into an otherwise sensible disposition. One day soon Rohan would have its heir, the alternative too horrific to imagine.
Willing myself to ignore the undertones and tittle-tattle of the servants I carried on normally, managing to even going out for a ride on a couple of fine mornings but six days after I had returned to Edoras Cereth officially requested that I send out a patrol to check on my husband.
“He rode out of the Hornburg eight days ago, my lady.”
“But, Lord Cereth, you surely cannot expect me to send a patrol. For a start it could not be large. Do not forget the King took double his normal guard with him including many of our best warriors. With that and with our commitment to the farmers of the Folde it would leave Edoras poorly defended.”
“We are in a time of peace, my lady. Edoras is not under any threat.”
He gave me that look again, as though I were some stupid female with no concept of keeping a city safe. I tried to speak with confidence, more than I felt perhaps, “I cannot believe that if Éomer King has encountered any problem he cannot handle we would not have heard about it. The possibility that a pack of wargs have annihilated the Royal Guard and two éoreds of Westfold Riders is highly unlikely, don’t you think? Someone would have brought the tale to us.” When I received no response to this I carried on, “Let me put this scenario to you, Lord Cereth, just say that for arguments sake the wargs were a trap to draw the King and his forces into greater danger, farfetched I know, but do you think it right to send more men and leave Edoras open to attack?”
“If we lose Éomer King, my lady… the Éorlingas will not survive anyway. There will be no Riddermark without the House of Eorl.”
Really, these people were obsessive! Perhaps they would be happier locking their king in a cage. “Lord Cereth, I really do not think I can justify ordering a search party after just eight days.”
He didn’t agree with me and went off mumbling about getting the council together. A good idea, I thought, sure that my decision would be upheld. That night at the evening meal I tried to catch any talk of unease from the wives of Eomer’s guard. Mutterings, I heard, but nothing directed at me, only at their men and the care they would need when eventually they returned. Reassured a bit, I tried to put Cereth’s suggestion out of my mind when he made no mention of calling a council meeting, seemingly accepting my judgment for the moment.
With many of the men away with their king the hall tended to clear quite quickly after the meal had finished. I stayed for awhile listening to the bard strumming quietly, softly singing the long ballad of Brego. But soon I sought my bed, wondering how many more nights my sleeping partner would have four legs.
The huge claws tore at Lyftfætsceadu, ripping her hind quarters and forcing her down. Desperately she struggled, screaming her agony as her flanks ran dark with blood. Slowly, as if performing some new equine trick, her forelegs crumpled and her chest hit the ground. Too late, much too late, to drag my leg from her crushing weight as she toppled. Heaving myself backward, elbows scraping rough stone, I strove frantically to pull the mass of splintered bone and mangled flesh from under her twitching body. And all the while the creature watched me. Exhausted, I ceased my efforts, looking madly around for some weapon to use against this evil being, but when it finally moved towards me – leisurely, teasing, licking lips with purple tongue, yellow pointed teeth still dripping my horse’s life-blood – I reacted in the way any woman would… “Éomer…!”
The sound of my own voice must have woken me and I sat straight up in the bed – my heart thumping wildly, rivulets of sweat running down my back and with my leg still trapped. Disorientated, unable to make sense of the heaviness on my lower limb I reached forward, finding a warm hairy body. But my hand touched no warg, only Hasopad. The relief took my breath away.
A warm soft tongue licked my hand before he nestled his muzzle under my fingers, encouraging me to scratch his bony head. Grateful for the contact, I spent a few moments rubbing at his ears before sinking back down against the pillows, wondering if I would sleep again. Fearful that the dream had been some awful prophesy I lay for a long while as vile imaginings chased through my mind. Cereth had started a notion that I now could not shake. Rational thought compelled me to believe the dream no more than a mix of my feelings of being besieged by adversaries coupled with a natural dread of the creatures my husband faced in the mountains.
In the time Éomer had been away no more than normal anxiety had stalked my thoughts However, many uncertainties are born of loneliness and in the dark hours of the night my fears raged wildly as my mind plays tricks and the worries of the sunlight hours were magnified tenfold. Pitifully, I huddled under the blankets of a bed whose dimensions increased for every day my husband stayed away. Never had I felt so bereft. Even Hasopad, who in my distress I allowed to stay on the bed, failed to comfort me.
Cereth caught me again on my way out of the hall in the morning, but I pushed his concerns aside. In spite of my nightmares I could not countenance going against my husbands commands. My only solace came from remembering my father’s advice, given freely during my betrothal period: ‘There will be times, Lothíriel when you will have to rely on your own judgment. Listen to others, but sift their advice, for they may have different objectives.’
The worst part was having no one to discuss it with. Or rather, no one whose opinion I valued. I considered talking to Daegberht. He might not be a councillor but he had vital experience as a combatant. Éomer himself had told me so. But I did not really want to involve him in a disagreement.
With no answer to my problems the next morning I woke with my insides twisting in torment, the agony of self-doubt like a knife probing a festering wound. These people had far more experience than I of battle and war, and of wargs I knew barely anything. Was Cereth right to be anxious and fearful? Knowing that I would be pressured again as soon as my chief advisor made his regular morning visit and unable to face eating, I wandered out onto the platform intending to gaze over the plain to see if, someway, I could connect with my husband. Maybe, I would somehow receive some confirmation of the rightness of my resolution.
A sunny morning welcomed me, with the fresh wind lifting my hair as I stepped outside. The two Doorwards immediately rose to their feet, but I waved them down, answering their respectful greetings and strolling to the edge of the steps. Oh! I went no further, my appeal for help about to be answered in the nicest way. A tall, blonde warrior bounded up the steps towards me, braids swinging, and a smile on his handsome face. He almost skidded on the top step and I thought he would bump into me such was his momentum, but at the last moment he stopped suddenly, just managing to jerk his head in a bow.
“My Lady Queen, you look pleased to see me.”
More pleased than he knew. I counted him and Helwing as real friends, and there were not many of those in Rohan. An audible sigh of relief escaped me as he took my hand to his lips.
“I am always pleased to see you, Aelfric you know that, and you have come at a very opportune moment.” Strong fingers squeezed my hand allowing a brief moment of pleasure at the physical contact from one I was fond of. Comfort had been rather lacking for the past week. Aelfric released my hand and instead took my arm, reaching down to fondle Hasopad’s ears, as we headed for the door.
“You are worried about Éomer; I can see it on your face.”
“No… well yes,” I stumbled over my words. “You have been told?”
“I saw Daegberht in the stables, and I am not pleased.”
“Oh…?” I shot my eyes up to his face to encounter that cheeky grin of his.
“I am not sure I will ever forgive my King — sending me to sort out the guarding of the Dimholt, whilst he rides off into the mountains chasing wargs!”
In spite of my worry I couldn’t help laughing as his grin altered to a look of chagrin. Not all feigned, I knew. But then his expression changed again, this time to one of compassion. “But I must not joke, my Queen. I imagine you are worried. Let’s sit down and we can talk.”
Entering the hall, I signalled to one of the girls. Most of the tables had been cleared so we sat down at one of them. “You must have left Harrowdale early this morning, Aelfric. Have you eaten?”
The girl disappeared to fetch bread, cheese and a tankard of ale, and not wanting to talk of my worries until she had returned, I asked the next thing I wanted to know, “How is Helwing?”
Even before he uttered the words, the smile on his face confirmed what I had thought the last time we met, “Helwing is with child.”
Did all men exhibit that special pride, I wondered, immediately trying to envision how Éomer would react. Aloud, I confirmed my genuine pleasure at the news. “That’s wonderful, you must send her my best wishes and as soon as Éomer is back I will ride over to visit her.”
“She will like that, my lady. You must stay a few days.”
Aelfric’s meal arrived at that moment. I waited until the girl had gone, and he had slaked his thirst after the morning ride, before I started to unload my problem onto a pair of broad shoulders. “It is not that I am overly worried about Éomer,” true in the daylight I wasn’t, “but Cereth thinks I should send out a patrol to check up on him and also a letter asking him to come back.”
His brows drew together for a moment and then he let out a sigh, “Oh, I see.”
“You do not seem very surprised.”
“I am not surprised that Cereth wants him safely back in Edoras.”
“I suppose not. But I can hardly call him home as I would an errant child.”
“No, I do not think our king would appreciate that.” Aelfric chewed thoughtfully on a piece of bread for a moment, before venturing a half smile, “The thing is that Éomer still has the wildness in him, and Cereth, once a warrior himself, knows that.”
“Wildness, that’s what you call it, is it?” A good name for the exhilaration I had witnessed in my husband’s eyes the morning he had ridden from the Hornburg.
“He has been warring since his sixteenth birthday, my lady. One cannot change a way of life in so short a time.”
“I understand that. It must be the same for many of the Riddermark’s warriors; he was not alone in his excitement.”
Aelfric laughed. “I freely admit, my lady, that if it were not for Helwing’s expanding belly, I would be riding to join them.”
“Like you, there are probably a few here who would relish my order to go, but I confess I never thought of it until Cereth stared plaguing me. Now I don’t know what to do.”
“What is your instinct?”
“My instinct, Aelfric, is to do nothing. Éomer said not to look for him before a sennight but he may be longer and I would probably hear nothing until he returned.”
“There you are then, and if he wanted reinforcements or supplies he would first look to Erkenbrand. I doubt he would send to Edoras. From what I learnt from Daegberht he is much closer to the Hornburg than here. They may even have gone over into the uplands of Gondor. If Éomer thinks he will be back in a reasonable time he will not send a messenger. In the old days a patrol could be away weeks.”
“That’s what I thought. I think Cereth is panicking. Éomer is so important to him, to all the Riddermark. He just can’t bear the thought of anything happening to him. I can understand that, but I know Éomer would resent us checking up on him.”
“I am sure he would. He knows what he is doing, Lothíriel. Look,” Aelfric put his tankard down and picked up my hand from where it rested on the table, rubbing my knuckles, “If he is not back at the end of two sennights, send word to me and I will go. I shall want to know what’s going on myself by then and he will not be surprised to see me.”
Truly grateful, I leant toward him, put my other hand over his and squeezed, “Thank you.”
I sat back almost immediately, as we were sitting in full view of any who passed through the hall and I did not want to give any cause for gossip, not quite sure how the Rohírrim would view a queen’s physical contact with an unrelated male, however innocent. A moment later Cereth came in, and Aelfric, Lord of Harrowdale, Council member, warrior and Eomer’s friend gave him a forthright opinion on leaving their king alone.
Cereth could have resented the fact that I had obviously discussed the issues with Aelfric, but if nothing else he was fair and recognised my right to seek advice from others, thus he accepted Aelfric’s offer to seek out Éomer in due course as a compromise and peace reigned again.
Peace it might have been, but the ensuing days brought no relief from my nightmarish dreams. Many times I woke cold and sweating. Strange, my marriage to Éomer had rid me of the painful images of my mother’s body moving lifelessly to and fro amongst the scavenging crabs but now, with him gone, I nightly wrestled strange creatures or watched helplessly as my husband fought with demons. Hasopad took up permanent residence on the royal bed.
Only my acceptance by some of the women of Edoras, made up for such a time of anxiety. My little trysts with Egelfled became the way I gained approval by the ladies with whom I would have most contact over the coming years. Having met me as a queen, coming to know me as a wife seeking to learn the practical ways the women of Rohan cared for their husbands succeeded in breaking down the perceived barriers of race and rank. The whole experience reassured me that one day I would feel totally at home.
Slowly, the days passed. Most afternoons I sat at my desk pretending to write whilst, in reality, I spent a great deal of time staring up toward Harrowdale wondering if I should send a message to Aelfric. Then late on one particular afternoon, almost two sennights after I had returned from the Westfold my deliberations were interrupted abruptly by Hasopad uttering a series of short high-pitched barks. Swiveling around in my chair in surprise, lurchers being normally silent, I saw him leave the rug in front of the fire and trot to the door. Reaching the solid oak barrier, he turned his head back to me, clearly asking to be let through.
Heart hammering, I deliberately and carefully placed my quill back in its stand, smoothed my hair and got up. Hasopad waited for me again at the door to the hall, shot through when I opened it and raced across the hall toward the main entrance. I continued at a measured pace, hoping, but not quite believing, that the dog had not made a mistake.
Aerin, a few serving maids laying tables, all stopped their chatter. Their eyes fixing on Hasopad as he scraped and scratched on the outer door until, attention gained, the door swung inwards.
Just then, I heard it. We all heard it – the sharp, sweet sound of Rohírric horns.
The sudden smack of earthenware hitting tiled floor, startled the listeners. The break of silence provoked an outburst of excited prattle only to be cut short by Elfgyuu’s crisp voice as she emerged from the door to the kitchens, wiping her hands on her apron. “Sweep that up, Aerin and pull yourself together.”
“It is them, isn’t it, Elfgyuu,” said Aerin eyes wide ignoring the broken shards of pottery.
“Aye, it is the King’s call. Now pick that up.”
Ignoring her, Aerin turned to me, near panic on her face. “I must get down to the stables, Léod might be injured.”
“That is precisely why you will not go, Aerin. There may be many injuries and the healers will already be on their way. The duty-guard will see to everything, if fact all the men will offer their help. The women are not wanted there, so I suggest you pick up that mess and then go and wait with Léod’s mother. Léod will come as soon as he is able.”
“But what if he is injured, my lady. I want to see him.” She took a step toward the door but a hand firmly grasped her arm.
“Listen to the Queen, Aerin.” Elfgyuu said in her voice of steel, “Men may be hurt; they will not want a young girl seeing them like that. The tradition is that those who are not seriously injured will be taken to their homes or here, to the hall, if they have no families. Any gravely wounded will fall under the care of the healers and their loved ones will be fetched. Is that clear?”
Chastened, Aerin nodded and bent to pick up the broken plate. Feeling sorry for her —having already found out the way of things from Egelfled – I spoke quietly to try and reassure her. “Léod will probably not be long, Aerin. He will have no duties tonight as others will see to the horses. I expect his mother will appreciate some company while she waits.”
“Yes, my lady. Sorry, I have been so worried.”
“Understandable, now go on, we do not need you here.”
I encountered Elfgyuu’s sardonic look as Aerin rushed out the hall, her eyes met mine and her lips twitched. “That one has a lot to learn.”
“She has, Elfgyuu, but she will,” I said knowing my own panic hovered just below the surface and only pride, rank and what I had learnt from the Rohírric women stopped me rushing to the stables to see if Éomer had returned unhurt. “Now,” I announced, in a voice that owed more to training than to inclination, “I will go and make sure everything is prepared for the King and then come and assist you here.”
“I gave orders for the fires to be stoked at the first strain,” she said, turning to give orders to those who had already come to help.
Hroddwyn, Eru thank her, had already opened up the fire under the boiler by the time I returned to the Royal Chambers. She eyed my preparations but said nothing, whether because she expected naught else or because she knew how I had been spending my time, I did not ask. Optimistically, none of it would be needed.
A well ordered routine ensured that by the time I returned to the hall preparations were well in hand. Cauldrons of water hung over the fire, and in one corner tables had been cleared and baskets of linen bandages piled on seats. Hopefully they would not be needed either, but as I overheard two of the women saying: after a prolonged fight with wargs to have no wounded men, would be extraordinary fortunate.
Dusk had overtaken day by the time I stood in the entrance, a tray of mead cups in hand, trying to make sense of the voices that wafted up on the evening breeze. Shadowy figures crossed the main way between the houses but I could discern no one on the path from the stables to the hall. With nothing else left to do Elfgyuu joined me, her eyes searching the path as mine had done. But, in spite of the vigilance of two women, it was the slight stiffening of the posture of one of the Doorwards that first alerted my to my husband’s return. Two men were coming slowly, along the path in the direction of the hall. Easy to discern Éomer by his height, but I peered through the gloom to recognize the other. As they got nearer I realized the second man, now discerned as Éothain, had his arm under Eomer’s shoulder giving him support. Coming into full view of those of us standing on the platform Éomer shrugged off his friend and limped heavily toward the bottom of the stone stair, pain in every movement. I remained motionless for just a moment before I thrust the tray of cups at Elfgyuu, picked up my skirts and flew down to meet him.
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.