18. A time for healing
“Lothíriel, no! I am filthy and stinking.”
Éomer’s hands caught both my wrists, holding me away from him. Stopped from flinging myself against his chest, I raked my eyes over my husband. Filthy and stinking described him accurately enough – tawny hair hung in grimy clumps, once-colourful garments now the overall colour of mud, enhanced by dark parches of what I guessed to be gore. Looking down at the hands that held me fast brought no change; they were caked with dirt. As for the smell – I deduced a mixture of long-unwashed male, horse, woodsmoke and an overwhelming stench of, presumably, warg blood.
Involuntarily my nose must have wrinkled because, beside him, Éothain sniggered. “Orc blood smells worse, my lady.”
“Never mind that!” I snapped. “Give him your arm again. He’s hurt.”
“I don’t need….”
“Yes, you do! You can hardly put that foot to the ground.”
“Better do as she says, my lord. Women get very funny when their men are hurt.”
Ignoring Éothain, who could make a joke out of anything, I concentrated on my husband. He looked so weary that I wanted to reach up and touch his cheek, smooth away the tension I saw there, but he held me firmly away from him so I just whispered softly, “Let him help you, Éomer.” Blue, red-rimmed eyes met mine and somewhere amongst an ill kempt beard, familiar lips smiled. He dropped my wrists and with no more protest Éothain shoved his shoulder back under his king’s arm. I walked the other side which left Hasopad to tuck in close behind. The dog appeared determined not to let his master out of sniffing distance.
“What have you done?” I asked as the first step up caused a grimace of pain, quickly hidden.
“Nothing much. I just got clawed.”
Clawed! I stared down at his lower leg. Under a grubby piece of linen wrap I could see the tatters of a leather boot. “Under your boot?”
“No, my lady, through his boot. Their claws are…”
“Will you clamp your mouth!” Éomer barked at his hapless crutch, taking another painful step upwards.
“Oh…right. Well sorry, my lady. But it didn’t look much at first. This only started yesterday.”
“Then it is obvious the wound must be infected, don’t you think?” Sometimes I wondered if grown men had the sense of children. Experience of my brothers had certainly never convinced me otherwise.
“It just needs a soak. I will go to the bath house and…”
“You will not! Hroddwyn is preparing your tub. When you are clean I will look at your leg and decide if you need a healer.” The two men exchanged a wry look and concentrated on getting up the rest of the steps. Eru, did I sound like a fishwife? But a quick glance at Éomer showed that he was far from offended. Indeed amusement showed in the twitch of his lips.
Elfgyuu hurried forward when we reached the top of the steps, hovering until Éomer got into the anteroom. I thought she might be censorious of my loss of control and subsequent headlong dash to greet my husband, but she almost looked approving. “Let’s get him straight in the hall, my lady.”
Éomer groaned and put up his hand forestalling any fussing, “I am fine, Elfgyuu. I have a small wound which must have become infected. Save your concern for the others who will need your help.”
Her shoulders went back as she noticeably braced herself, “How many, my lord?”
Tossing back the mead I had passed him, Éomer wiped his mouth with the back of a grimy hand before he answered. His voice sounded deliberately neutral. “Five will be coming to the hall. Swidhelm is badly injured, the rest are relatively minor. We left two with Erkenbrand, but they will recover.”
The gasp came out before I could stop it. Swidhelm? The scout who gave early warning of the wargs presence. Then I remembered Léod. “Is Léod alright, Éomer?”
His brow furrowed, “Yes, Léod is fine. But we lost Eadric.”
This time the gasp came from Elfgyuu, her normally strong face crumpling in sorrow. “Eadric?”
I shared her surprise and distress and could not imagine why Eadric had been put in danger. “I thought he would stay at the base camp?”
“Most of the brutes were taken easily in the first few days but then the mist came down and that hindered us. That’s why it took longer than I hoped. We decided to put a cordon well above them and make a second camp in one of the high valleys. Of those that were left one escaped our net. I think it must have known it wouldn’t get away but it was old and cunning and backtracked, making for our camp. Swidhelm was already injured and by the time Oeric picked up its tracks again ….” He sighed, his hand tightly gripping the cup he still held. “Éothain got there in time to save Léod but not Eadric. Léod said Eadric pushed him out of the way and got between him and the warg.”
Put himself in front of Léod? Eadric was not even a trained warrior, just a brave man. I would always remember him as a gentle Rohír who treated me with great respect. Lord Bertwald! Another gentle man. How could I have forgotten him? Disregarding the dirt I clutched Eomer’s arm. “Lord Bertwald…”
Éomer put his hand over mine and squeezed lightly. “Yes, I know. Cereth told me. He’s down at the stables.”
“He is coming now,” Éothain stated, helping himself to some more mead from the jug.
I looked back down the steps. Cereth, in spite of his own limp, supported a Rider in much the same way as Éothain had helped Éomer. A number of men, injured and uninjured were coming along behind, amongst them two men carried a stretcher. Sidgweard, the chief healer in Edoras walked alongside it so I guessed it must be Swidhelm they were bringing to the hall. As they started to negotiate the stair they were joined by a small group of women who had been hurrying up the main way.
“We are going to be busy here so you might as well go and get cleaned up, my lord and then your leg can be attended to.” Elfgyuu looked Éomer up and down. “Are you going to the bath house?”
“No, he’s not.” I answered before my husband could say anything. “You will need all the water you can heat. I will attend to the King.”
Reluctantly, and only after sharing a thirst quenching mug of ale with his men, and a few quiet words with Swidhelm’s wife who stood white-faced whilst Sidgweard started work on her husband, Éomer left the injured to the care of the women and healers. He limped painfully across the hall, refusing any help. I had a niggling suspicion that he was not going to make an easy patient.
Hroddwyn had both tubs down on the floor when we entered the bath chamber. Steam rose from one, but the other stood next to the boiler, still empty. Her eyes took in Eomer’s appearance and her mouth quirked in a half smile. “There is a basket there, my lady. Perhaps you would like to put all the King’s clothes in it and leave it outside the door. I will take them to the washer woman and see if anything can be salvaged. I have left the bath as we agreed.”
She dropped a quick curtsey and left us alone. Suddenly I felt shy and did not know what to say. I desperately wanted to embrace him, something he wouldn’t let me do whilst he still had filth over him but more than that I wanted him to hold me. Painfully aware of my new feelings for him, I still had no idea if he felt remotely the same.
Éomer had already unbuckled his sword and had started to tug at his tunic, leaning against the heavy washstand to take the weight from his leg. I chastised myself for wondering about our relationship when there were more important things to do. “Where’s your breastplate?” I asked pushing his arm up to get at the laces. The putrid odour of warg hit me and I just stopped myself from taking a step backward.
“In the stables. Someone will bring it up later with the rest of my stuff.”
I nodded. Trying to wiggle my finger into the blood encrusted knot achieved nothing except to transfer some of the crud to me. I told myself to be thankful the blood belonged to a warg and not my husband. “I think I am going to have to use a knife. Have you got a sharp one?”
“Of course. Did you really think I wouldn’t?” Éomer reached down and produced a well polished knife from his undamaged boot.
“I imagine your sword is just as clean,” I quipped. Knowing where a warrior’s priorities lay.
“It is, but I am far from clean. In fact, Lothíriel, I am in a disgusting state and you don’t have to do this.”
I took the knife from him and stared to carefully cut through the laces, sticking the point behind them and pulling, whilst he held his arm high up in the air. “Don’t you want me to? Perhaps you would rather have your squire.”
He grinned, acknowledging his preference for dispensing with his squire’s services since our marriage. “Undressing me is normally very different. I am not usually so unwashed and smelly.”
The last lace fell apart and I stood upright, stepping back so he could take the tunic off. “Éomer, my feelings towards you will not alter because you having been living in the mountains for two sennights and are covered in warg blood!”
The tunic stopped halfway over his head. I waited for some comment but it resumed its journey silently. Emerging from under the soiled wool he fixed his blue eyes on me. The tunic landed in the basket with a sideways flick of his wrist but his gaze never moved from my face. “And are you going to tell me what those feelings are?”
No I wasn’t, not then anyway. I dropped my eyes from his and lowered my head shaking it slowly from side to side in refusal. “Turn around so I can unbuckle your hauberk.” He didn’t. Instead he stepped toward me, forcing me back against the wardrobe.
“Later, Lothíriel. Later we will acknowledge how much we have missed each other.”
The low velvet voice and his slow smile had its usual effect on my pulse rate but I pushed my hands against his chest, “Yes, later.” The weight must have gone back on his leg because he flinched. “You are hurting. We must get you clean and your wound dressed.”
One eyebrow rose in amusement, “I won’t forget, Lothíriel. I want clarification of that statement.”
Annoying, that he could look so attractive plastered with muck and grime. I retreated into practicality, “Turn around.”
The mail didn’t go in the basket it went over the back of a chair. So did the leather jerkin. But his shirt he took off and held at arms length, holding his nose and grinning before tossing it to join the tunic.
His deeply muscled chest looked as good as it always did but I resisted the urge to walk into his arms. However much I might want comfort after the difficulties I’d experienced during his absence, I needed to concentrate on the immediate issues. “You had better sit down so we can get your boots off.”
One came off easily. It went straight outside the door, disturbing a waiting Hasopad. The other would take much longer. I knelt down and cautiously started to unwind the linen that held the ripped leather together. “How did it get like this?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Yes, your boot seems to have been ripped apart.”
“Hmm…,” he looked down, taking a piece of torn leather in between grimy fingers, “I think it might be past repair.”
“If it is not now then I am sure it will be when I cut it away. The boot will not come off without a lot of tugging otherwise.” Picking the knife up again I started to saw through the remaining stitching, “Well, what happened?”
“It was in the first week, when we were still on the horses. We trapped a group in a corrie and then started to flush them out by firing from above. The plan was for a few of us to pick them off individually, but they made a break for it and it turned into a proper skirmish. My spear got stuck in one and another must have thought I made an easy target. Firefoot spotted it and swivelled round as the thing launched itself. So it landed short. Its foot connected with my leg just above the top of my boot. It dragged its claws down ripping the leather…”
“And flesh.” I finished for him shuddering at the image my mind conjured up. Gently easing down the mutilated boot I couldn’t see much flesh, just a crusted mess of linen wrap, blood and something that I guessed to be the remains of a herb.
“Yes, flesh,” he agreed sucking in breath as I eased the heel off. “It didn’t look too bad so we packed it with yarrow, wrapped it up and shoved the boot back on. I had to wind something around the outside to keep it all together.”
Boot or leg, I wondered. I stood up to get rid of the remains, outside the door the only place I could contemplate for it. When I returned Éomer had the end of the bandage in his hand, tentatively pulling, his face screwed up in pain as he did so. I slapped his hand away, earning myself a wry grin. “It will have to be soaked in the bath, Éomer. The bandage is stuck so badly to your skin that I risk doing more damage if I try to remove it. Anyway, you would not be able to stand the pain.”
“If I close my eyes and you pull it off, I…”
“I will do nothing of the sort! Just get the rest of your clothes off whilst I see to the tub.” I moved to the bath and felt the water. Steaming hot when it had been poured in, it was now just about right. Looking back over my shoulder my mouth must have dropped open in surprise.
“It is only my lower leg that is injured, Lothíriel; every other part of me is working perfectly.
I let my eyes linger for a moment; there was not the slightest doubt which part Éomer referred to. It stood proud and tall, rather like its owner. My lips twitched, but with a determined effort I managed a nonchalant reply. “It certainly looks undamaged but if you don’t mind I would prefer not to examine it thoroughly until after you get out of the bath.”
“Examine it! That’s not quite what I had in mind.” His face crumpled with laughter and he lunged toward me only to be stopped short by the pain from his injured leg. “Ouch! Damn leg. It was just a few scratches.”
“Come on, lean on me. You really must not put your weight on it.” I put my arm around him, enjoying the contact with warm muscle. Something I had missed. “A few scratches can cause a lot of problems. Now stop fooling and get in the bath.”
“Fooling am I?” Lips delicately brushed my ear and one hand roved up across my midriff, ending up covering my breast. “If you can’t imagine what it’s like to come home to a warm and willing wife…”
His other hand caught mine, pulling it down towards his groin, but I resisted, trying to squirm out of his grasp. “I’ll be more willing when you are clean and your wound has been attended to.” I doubt I deceived him with my protest, my desire as evident as his. Grinning, he let me go and carefully stepped into the bath.
“It’s not very hot.”
“Well, you took so long.” I reached for a jug and opened the spigot on the boiler. The water spluttered in. “It will be quicker next time if your squire attends to you.” I said tongue in cheek, not having any intention of letting that happen.
“You‘re probably right, he certainly has never had this effect on me.”
“Never mind the effect, move your legs whilst I pour this in,” I said, trying not to giggle and keeping the jug well away from my husband’s still prominent arousal. “Is that hot enough?”
He nodded; relaxing back in the water. Only to sit up straight again as I threw a handful of herbs into the tub and a pungent smell immediately filled the small chamber. “What are those for? I don’t want to smell like an apothecary.”
“Anything would be preferable to what you smell like now,” I retorted. They are just to help cleanse your wound. It is mostly sage.”
“Oh,” he sank back down again. “I didn’t know you knew anything about herbs.”
“I didn’t, but I have not been wasting my time whilst you have been away.” I picked up a bar of sandalwood soap that Éowyn had sent; at least his hair would smell good.
His eyes were closed but a smile lifted the corners of his mouth, “I know that, Lothíriel. Cereth pounced on me almost before I had dismounted to tell me what a good job you have done.”
“Cereth did?” Surely I had misheard. He had certainly not given me that impression.
“Yes, he told me I had made a very good choice for Queen. I couldn’t disagree with him.”
So stunned, that Cereth now thought it let alone was prepared to say it, I let the bar of soap drop from my hand into the water with a loud plop. Eomer’s eyes opened. “That’s a fortuitous happening. Are you going to fish it out?”
“No, I need to wash your hair. I know you; if I start searching around in the water you will have me in there with you.”
Grinning profusely, he lifted his hands right out of the tub and held them high in the air, “Promise I won’t. I’ll keep them up here all the time and you can try and find it. I think it fell between my legs.”
I couldn’t help it, I burst out laughing. That innocent look he had perfected enough to send me into giggles. But the thought that he would return tired, wounded and probably hungry and then joke around trying to get me to fish out soap from between his legs, staggered me even more. Then, remembering something Egelfled had told me about the men coming home from the wars and wanting more than anything to play with the children and return to simple family life, I realised that he probably needed this: light banter and fun after the killing and death of the previous days. So, kneeling down by the side of the bath, I let my fingers explore between his muscled thighs. “You promised to keep them in the air,” I murmured as a wet hand caressed my hair.
“Keep that up and I will have you in the bath.”
“Not with that painful leg you won’t,” Finding the soap I stood up quickly and dodged out of his way. Leaving him grinning, I pulled up the empty bath to catch the water when I washed his hair and then made a neck pad from a drying cloth. ”Lean your head back but keep your hands soaking in the tub. It’s the only way they will get clean.”
Hroddwyn had left some buckets of cold water so after mixing it in the jug with the hot from the boiler I poured it over Éomer’s fifthly hair. Normally shining, his tawny locks were dull and matted. “It’s going to need more than one wash and I am going to have to tug the comb through.”
“I could lie here all night.” With eyes closed again, the deep sigh spoke of satisfaction, “Just carry on kneading your fingers over my scalp …Ahhh! Lothíriel!”
“Keep still. I have to get the knots out.”
He sat up rubbing his head and pulling clumps of hair around to the front of his face to examine the tangles. “I think I’d rather cut it off.”
“Concentrate on scrubbing your hands,” I suggested passing a brush. “You won’t notice so much.”
Éomer looked down at his dirt engrained hands, made a disgusted face and started scrubbing. I continued to wrestle with his hair. Eventually, after a lot of effort on my part, a lot more protest from Éomer, and more hot water being put in the bath, the comb ran easily through it. Starting to give it a final rub dry, I picked up a sponge and tossed it in the bath.
“You next! Start on the bits you can reach and I will do your back.”
“Well, I would enjoy it more if you did the front.”
“Don’t be so sure. I might use the brush rather than the sponge.” Shaking his head with laughter he gave up and started to wash his chest. Resisting the urge to grab the sponge from him and do it myself – the bath would never end if I started that – I found another and attacked his back. Nearly as distracting—hard muscles sliding under my soapy hands. Which is why once his back was clean, I slid one arm down over his shoulder, rubbing my finger through the light dusting of hair on his chest. The other pushed his hair aside and I placed my lips against the warm smooth skin. Instantly an arm whipped up and trapped mine.
“Come around the front so that I can kiss you.”
“Perhaps it would be better if you just got out.” I didn’t want to wait any longer, the only thing I could think of at that moment was to have his arms wrapped around me, wet or dry. Sense won though, and I passed him a cloth as he stepped out of the tub. But his upper body only got a cursory rub before the cloth was thrown aside and his lips were on mine. One large hand cradled my face; the other grasped my buttocks pulling me hard against him. Realising that the embrace I had wanted was likely to lead to full-scale lovemaking, I pulled away. Instigating an indignant protest.
“I must look at your wound, Éomer. We cannot leave it.”
Lips nudged into my neck, “My wound has waited a week already.”
With his hands roving my body and the evidence of his desire pressed hard into my belly, my resolve wavered, but then we had the rest of the night. “The bandage will dry again. I must get it off now.”
A deep sigh, accompanied a kiss planted on my forehead, “Come on then, let’s sort it out and then we can go to bed.”
Nodding, I disengaged myself from the circle of his arms to find his robe. “You had better sit down.”
My determination to be a proper Rohírric wife had led me to seek basic instruction in wound care whilst Éomer had been away but even so I had to steel myself to remove the remains of the field dressing, he, and probably Éothain, had applied. Soaking had been the right thing to do but I still needed to bathe away the inner dressing with its crust of dried blood and yarrow. Finally, I exposed a large area of wound in various stages of healing. The sight of the damage brought back my nightmares of huge beasts tearing my husband apart. Two claws must have dug in above his boot causing deep puncture wounds and then ripped and raked the flesh in their downward tract. One looked to be healing reasonably well but the other entry point had swelled considerably
My stomach clenching, I prodded the area gently with just two fingers but even my careful touch caused him to wince and draw his leg away. “An abscess has formed, Éomer. It will need to be lanced.” I did not like the look of the red streak that extended from the half-healed wound down into his calf. It could mean the infection was travelling down his leg. The whole area of skin looked shiny and tight.
Éomer surveyed his leg for a moment and then pointed across the room, “Pass that dagger over and I will do it now.”
My eyes swivelled to the washstand where I had dumped the weapon used to cut of his tunic and boot. The previously gleaming blade was now dulled and streaked by blood.
“No Éomer, I will fetch a healer. Everything needs to be kept dirt-free.”
“They have enough to do. The dagger will be fine, just dip it in some hot water. I must clean it anyway.” He half stood up, reaching for it but I grabbed it quickly stepping well back out of his reach.
“No! And don’t you dare touch your leg before I get back.”
Still carrying the weapon I retreated backward out of the door, but pulled up short as he called to me.
He half smiled, his face turning serious with concern. The look he shot me far removed from the teasing ones of the previous hour. “Find out how Swidhelm is doing.”
Holding his eyes for a moment, I nodded. With the door open Hasopad slipped into the chamber past me, but Éomer waved at me to leave him so I hurried to the hall.
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.