11. Chapter 11
Minas Tirith 3017
After the muted light of the Healing Houses the bright sun outside made her squint. Screwing up her eyes against the glare, Lothíriel looked down the street. Where was Sergion? He never failed to meet her, not allowing her to walk alone even on the sixth level of the city and only a few hundred yards from their home. Then she saw him, hurrying from the way that led up to the Citadel. He was in the shadow of the wall, but the awkward way he walked made him easily recognisable. As always the thought of the pain he had endured and the months of recuperation smote her with sorrow. But he was still upright, strong and honed, and well able to wield his long sword. The injury had not impaired those skills. And the captains of Minas Tirith welcomed the help of one of Dol Amroth’s finest knights with the training of new recruits, when his duties to her permitted.
As Sergion got closer Lothíriel descended the few steps from the door to the cobbled street, stifling a yawn. Early shifts were the ones that made her the most tired. She could work all night if necessary, and frequently did, but getting up in the dark to start before dawn –ugh!
“I am sorry to be late, Lothíriel.” Sergion said, taking her arm.
Lothíriel reached up and kissed his smooth cheek. “You fuss too much, Sergion, I could easily walk home by myself. I am perfectly safe here. Surely not even all the rampant hordes of the Haradrim could breech the walls of the White City.”
Grinning, he tweaked at a few errant strands of black hair which had managed to escape her plait during the long shift. “Probably not, but your uncle, as well as your father, insists you have a guard. That reminds me, Denethor wishes to talk to you. He asks for you to attend him just before the daymeal, so there is time for you to change.”
“Talk to me! What about, Sergion?” Lothíriel was aware of the slight panic in her voice. “And don’t say I have to see him in that dreary hall. It’s about as friendly as a tomb in there.” No wonder her uncle had a reputation for being bad tempered and stern, he spent most of his time amongst morbid statues of dead kings. But to be fair, she admitted, pushing aside thoughts of his grim face, he had been kind to her — allowing her to continue her training as a healer when it was deemed safer for her to live far out of reach of Umar’s long arm.
“No, you’re to go to his study. But I am not sure what he wants, Lothíriel, he did not say. It may be something to do with Erchirion. He arrived today.”
A spurt of pleasurable anticipation pushed away her anxiety over Denethor’s summons. “Erchirion? Here?”
“Yes, you will see him tonight, but tomorrow he is off to join Boromir in Osgiliath.”
That made sense – her brother always liked a good fight. And Gondor’s borders were being continually harassed, providing plenty of opportunity. Then a thought struck her. “Did he turn up on his own, or did my father come as well?”
“He came alone. But your father is due to arrive for another visit in a few weeks.”
“I thought he would not stay away for long.” Lothíriel grinned, catching Sergion’s eye. But other than the slight stiffening of his chiselled features, he did not acknowledge the dig. Sergion had tried to keep it from her; nevertheless, she knew that her father had a lady friend in the White City. She wasn’t quite sure who it was yet, although she would recognise the lady’s perfume – warm and spicy, it clung to her father’s clothes. But why they thought she would mind she couldn’t fathom. Her mother had died many years before and her father was still a fit and handsome man, no reason for him to spend the rest of his life alone. She did not mind at all, but would have liked to be introduced properly. Somehow she could not believe that her father would have a relationship with a woman that he couldn’t introduce to her. The Lord of Dol Amroth had better taste than that.
By this time they had arrived at the entrance to the town house that had been owned by the family for years uncountable. Built against the wall of the Citadel, it was just along the street from the Healing Houses. A cool shady courtyard - one of the greenest places in the City – led to the entrance of a three storied house built of white stone. Large windows looked across the gardens of the Healing Houses and over the Pelennor to the silver sweep of the Anduin. Years before, frustrated at the lack of provision for horses in the City, her father had commandeered the empty house next door, turning the lower floor into stables and the top into accommodation for his knights when they accompanied him on his frequent visits. Lothíriel now knew why those visits had become even more frequent. Her permanent residence in the house must be a nuisance, but that consideration could not have weighed with her father when he insisted she would be safer here. The attempt to kidnap her had shocked everybody. Now all, including her uncle, took Umar’s threats seriously. In the weeks afterwards, when Sergion had lain fighting for his leg and his life, Lothíriel had angrily rued the missed shot that had allowed Umar to live. But now, having tended the sick and the dying for so long, she had no wish to take another life; however warped she felt that life to be.
Treated exactly the same as any other apprentice by the Warden and his staff, Lothíriel knew that none of the other healers would arrive home to find a maid waiting, a bowl of scented water already warm and clean clothes laid on the bed. Not that she was interested in, or had any need, for clothes other than her healing garb. Shunning any kind of social gatherings, she spent most of her free time reading. But Hisael tried; and today had laid out a blue silk dress with slashed sleeves and some matching slippers, embroidered with a tracery of flowers. The anxious look told Lothíriel her maid was expecting to be instructed to put it away and find something plain and serviceable.
But today the woman’s eyes lit with pleasure when Lothíriel said with a ghost of a smile, “Yes, I will wear it, Hisael. I have to go and see my uncle Denethor.”
“Oh, Princess, are you going to eat in the hall? Let me style your hair properly. You are too old to be wearing that plait in the evenings.”
Maybe she was, but it would do. With any luck she wouldn’t have to stay for the meal, but if she did, she didn’t want any of the men to notice her. If she looked plain and dowdy so much the better. She would wear a shawl over the dress just in case. “My hair is fine, Hisael, and I haven’t much time anyway. Oh, and hopefully I will eat here with Erchirion.”
But of course as much as she wanted to she couldn’t be completely anonymous. Walking through the corridors with Sergion at her side initiated the inevitable rash of hurried bows and curtseys. Not many young women walked around with their own guard, and in spite of the limp Sergion’s military bearing proclaimed his role. And rumour always ran rife in the Citadel; a princess coming to live for her own protection had got the gossip mongers going. But so far, with her keeping out of the forefront of court life, she hoped they had not found much to tattle about.
Her uncle’s study, only a fraction more homely than the Hall of Kings, was reached by climbing the stairs in the White Tower. To Lothíriel it had one thing in its favour – the view. It looked straight over the Pelennor to the Harlond and beyond, where the green hills of Emyn Arnen could be picked out against the blackness of the Ephel Dúath. But sweeping ones eyes left the ruins of Osgiliath came into sight – the frontier of Gondor’s battle with the unnamed. Otherwise the round chamber struck her as a bit like the Steward himself – hard and cold. Her uncle seemed to revel in personal discomfort and no hangings softened the marble walls and no rugs warmed the tiled floor. In spite of the rays of the afternoon sun shafting across the huge desk, Lothíriel involuntary shivered as she closed the door behind her.
“Ah, my dear, it’s good to see you looking so well.” Denethor got up from his seat and came around the desk, surprising Lothíriel when he put his arm around her and hugged her against him, kissing her cheek. But his lips were like the rest of him – rigid and controlled. Still, it could be worse, she had heard many say that the lash of his tongue could cut one to the bone; in her dealings so far she had experienced only a velvet leash.
“Your training is going as you wish? You are satisfied with the standard of the teachers?” Strong fingers lingered on her shoulder and she did not move. He held her fast, as he did all his subjects. Her perception heightened these last two years by her dealing with the dying and her chosen isolation, she felt his iron will as a tangible force. He let her go, and she sat down, her body sagging into the chair as he returned to his own. Only then could she answer.
“Yes, of course. How could I not be, Uncle? There are none better.”
”So I would hope, but I understand your own Master is very skilled.”
What did he want her to say, that the Healing Houses in Minas Tirith were superior to those in Dol Amroth? Instinctively she knew that was just what he wanted, and that he liked to have the best under his command. “He is, Uncle, but of course the Houses here are larger and so have a greater diversification of abilities.”
“Hmm …” shrewd eyes surveyed her, but he did not follow it up. “Remind me, Lothíriel, how long have you been here now?”
She was sure he knew exactly but answered politely. “We came two years ago this autumn, Uncle.”
“So you did. And your captain, I spoke to him today. He still limps heavily, but I suppose he always will.” Lothíriel didn’t answer, nothing to say to that really and she felt Denethor was only passing time waiting to get to the reason he had asked to see her. “It was a bad business, Lothíriel, but you mustn’t let it affect the rest of your life, you know.”
Her breath caught in her throat and she wondered where this was going. She felt his eyes boring into her, seeking to discover her secret thoughts. “I try not to let it, Uncle.”
“But, my dear, you avoid appearing in public. Understandable at first, alone here with just your guard. But even when your father visits you do not choose to grace us with your presence.”
“You are not always on duty, Lothíriel.”
Silence. She had been right to fear this meeting. Fiddling with the sleeves of her dress to avoid those all-seeing eyes, Lothíriel could not deny the accusation, so said nothing.
“You are eighteen now, my dear. It is time you took your place in our society …. Oh don’t look so scared, I am not asking you to give up your calling and spend every night preening, posing and chattering nonsense, like most of the women seem to do. But I would like you to attend the weekly feast in Merethrond. It will be good for you, there is a bit of dancing and music. You cannot shut yourself away for ever, Lothíriel.”
Panic started her shaking, but she didn’t want to anger him and have her training curtailed. Besides, she was thankful her presence was only required once a week. “I …if that is your wish, Uncle, then of course I will do so.”
“It is my wish. And I am expecting Boromir and Faramir to return to the City for a few days next week. So I will hold a special feast in their honour. It will be a good time for you to take your proper place. You are one of Gondor’s highest ranking ladies, Lothíriel.”
As if she could forget it! But she stifled the retort, saying instead. “Oh, my cousins will both be here. That is unusual.”
“Yes. Your brother’s arrival is fortuitous: he can relieve Boromir for a few days. My eldest son has not felt able to leave the front line for a while but I wish to discuss some strategy with him. And Faramir is due to report on a scouting expedition.”
She must have shown her pleasure – the fact that her cousins would be present would make the ordeal of a formal meal in Merethrond more bearable – because Denethor beamed at her.
“There, not so bad when you get used to the idea, is it?”
“No, Uncle. I shall look forward to seeing my cousins.”
“And one more thing. I do not think you get enough fresh air. You should be doing more than sitting in the garden reading. You should be riding, Lothíriel.”
Lothíriel stuttered, heat suffusing up her neck making her slightly breathless. “I don’t wish to own a horse, Uncle.”
“Who said anything about owning one? I do not get time to ride anymore. My gelding, Gilroch, could do with the exercise. I will give orders for him to be made available for you. Naturally your captain will go with you and he can pick some others as well. As long as you keep within the Rammas Echor, I see no harm. I will speak to him about it.”
Lothíriel swallowed as bile rose to her throat. She hadn’t ridden since that dreadful day when she’d lost Amaurea, but realized that she didn’t have a lot of choice, and anyway could not really spend the rest of her life without ever going on a horse. Somehow she would overcome those sickening memories. So she nodded. “Thank you. I will look forward to it.”
Denethor smiled, a glint of triumph in his eyes. He stood up, and Lothíriel recognising dismissal – he had got what he wanted – stood up also. She faced him across the desk, knowing he would always seek to control her. But his stern expression softened, and as before he came around the side of the desk towards her. Taken aback, Lothíriel stared, for his movement had allowed the long black cloak he always wore to open slightly. Beneath it, perhaps deliberately kept hidden, she glimpsed bright mail and the jewelled hilt of a sword. Her suspicion was confirmed when her uncle caught the edge of his cloak and drew it quickly across with one hand, reaching out the other to smooth her hair.
“Yes, I have got what I want, Lothíriel. I read your eyes, and they tell me you are not happy that I have. But I tell you this – the longer you walk in the shadow of your fear, the harder it will become to stay in the light. You are a noble amongst great nobles in the ancient realm of Gondor, and as such must squash those that crawl in the slime under the sole of your shoe. Those of the race of Númenor cannot let others see that they have lost hope, lest all lose hope. Always they must strive to push back the tide of despair that threatens to overwhelm the men of the west.”
Fine words! Denethor’s face, determined and unyielding, blazed with pride and conviction as he squared his shoulders and looked East. But when he continued to stare out of the windows, immobile and lost in valiant fervour, Lothíriel recoiled from what she saw there, gripping the edge of the chair to keep from reeling. But he didn’t notice her distress, and managing to contain her horror and not move from his touch, she blinked a few times. But the awful sight remained – what had been a glint in her uncle’s eyes had turned to flames. Horrified, she watched fire flicker in those dark eyes, the flames licking upwards to claim the heavy brows.
Edoras – The Riddermark
At Éothain’s shout the crowd parted, opening a pathway to the steps that led to the door of Meduseld. But Éomer’s progress was slowed by the press of people grabbing at him, wanting to clasp his arm or thump him on the back. Giving him no chance to stop, no time to greet old friends, Éothain shouldered them aside with a grin and a promise that the new Marshal would join in the celebrations later. But once on the steps Éomer paused, wanting to drink the atmosphere for a moment: the happy crowd clustering at the bottom of the age-worn staircase; the clean water gushing from the stone horse’s head into the overflowing basin, before flowing down the hill in a chattering stream that never dried. Edoras – seat of power, home to his king – what would greet him here on this day of days? But Éothain pushed him on with a hand in his back, “Surely you are not hesitant,” he whispered.
No, he wasn’t, but again Éomer paused once he gained the terrace, taking a mere heartbeat to compose himself. The doorwardens stood motionless, only their long braids and the edge of their green cloaks moving in the inevitable breeze that whipped up the hill from the plains. At that moment the sun discovered a scrap of clear sky amongst the threatening clouds, and its mirror images on two shiny shields glinted their own welcome. Éomer took a pace forward, and the hilts of long swords were turned towards him in the traditional gesture of respect.
Háma waited just inside the door; he greeted Éomer with a warrior’s clasp and a beam that went from ear to ear. “You made good time. But hurry now, Théoden King is waiting.”
Éomer nodded. He took off his gauntlets, throwing them onto a table, pushed his cloak back from his shoulders and pulled at his tunic to straighten it. Éothain did the same, standing behind him slightly. Háma ran his eyes over them both, his mouth twisting in pretended mockery. “I suppose you’ve done your best, seeing you were out in the wilds when you heard. Come on!”
Hand on sword-hilt, following Háma down the centre aisle, the distance between door and throne had never felt so great. The Hall felt stifling after the fresh air of the plains. But in spite of the number of people that lined each side, grouped closely between the pillars, only the regular clip of three pairs of boots could be heard over the spitting of the fire. Éomer had not been expecting such an audience, but then immersed in the troubles of an increasingly beleaguered land, he’d forgotten that others had time to celebrate the end of harvest, and dance and feast before the onset of another winter closed the Mark tight. Today, with the sun battling dark clouds, all but the dais stood in shadow. Háma stopped before it, bowing low to the sunken figure who sat on the throne. “Éomer son of Éomund, Third Marshal of the Riddermark, comes at your command, my Lord King.”
Third Marshal of the Riddermark – only the second time he had heard it announced aloud – the first being on the messenger’s lips. Following in his father’s footsteps indeed, but so young. His father had certainly been a lot older than twenty-six. Théoden raised one bony hand, beckoning him onto the dais. Éomer stepped up, a long stride bringing him to the King’s feet. This time he knelt with pleasure, not wanting to do anything other than honour the man who had honoured him so greatly. Éomer kissed his uncle’s hand, holding the trembling fingers tightly – why were they so cold?
“My Lord King, I will endeavour to repay your trust in me.”
Théoden did not say anything but his lips turned up in a smile and he nodded his acknowledgement, motioning Éomer to his feet. Éomer waited for some words, but as though the effort was too much, Théoden’s rheumy eyes passed over him and sought out his counsellor. Gríma stood up from his habitual place on the step, and moved to the side of the throne, placing one hand in a very proprietary way on the high back. White, claw-like fingers scrabbled over the wood, right next to his king’s shoulder.
Éomer was tempted to slap the hand away, but resorted to grinding his teeth. Gríma might be clever and possibly advise their aging king wisely, but everything the man did irritated him. However it was not the time to show his displeasure. Although something in his bearing must have revealed the tension in him, because a pace behind the throne on the other side, Éowyn indiscernibly shook her head, silently telling him to watch his words. How she’d changed these past two years, and not for the better. It had happened so gradually that he hadn’t really noticed at first, being away so much. But slowly and surely, her natural exuberance and spontaneity had been replaced by a gravity not all accountable to the dangers threatening their homeland.
His thought was interrupted by that hated voice. “It is indeed a great responsibility your uncle is giving you, Éomer son of Éomund. The whole muster of the East-mark under your command. So much rests on such young shoulders; let us hope his trust is not misplaced. Now the rashness of youth must be tempered by the prudence of experience.”
“If you doubt my experience, Gríma son of Gálmód, then I might ask why you advised my uncle in this matter.” Éomer stared into Gríma’s eyes until the hooded lids dropped to shield them from his thinly veiled challenge. But with a start, Éomer realised why – to keep him out of the way permanently. To make sure he was not temped to return to Edoras? Now why should that suit master Gríma?
But as if guessing his suspicions Gríma hurried to deny them “Your uncle commands his own counsel, and in this matter was adamant. We have heard of your exploits from many, and our Riders follow you without question. A valuable quality in a leader of men.”
But the murk in the man’s eyes did not reflect the flattering words on his lips, and Éomer ignored him. Turning once again to his uncle, he clicked his heels and bowed low. “Théoden King, my sword and my heart are always yours to command.”
Théoden put his hand out towards him, the twisted horse-tail ring he wore loose on a bony finger. “Éomer, my sister-son, I will never doubt it.”
Éomer grasped the cold hand again, and held his uncle’s eyes for a few seconds, trying to convey the love he felt for the man who had been like a father to him.
”Time for the mead cup, I think.” Gríma broke into the moment, which earned him a glare from Éowyn. But she went to fetch the jug of mead and carved cups, with which they would toast the Riddermark and the appointment of a new Marshal. Breaking off from his clasp with Théoden, Éomer scrutinised her, and was suddenly stunned by what he saw. Tall, and willow like, the white dress clinging to her slim figure as she moved, shining hair veiling her back like a cloak of gold. Taking the tray she turned round to face him – her fine features sculpted and pale, her eyes cool and calm, the blue softened to grey in the half-light. Béma! Why hadn’t he realised? His sister had turned into an absolute beauty.
Éowyn passed Théoden a cup, and then him, before giving one to Gríma. She stepped down from the dais and handed one to Éothain who stood in attendance on his Marshal. As Éomer put his lips to the silver-rimmed wood his glance fell again on Gríma, still holding onto the back of the throne. The man’s cup was poised halfway to his lips; his eyes were fixed on Éowyn as she moved towards Elfhelm and the other nobles standing near the dais. His expression told all. Éomer had seen that look on many a man’s face: it was the look of want; the look of lust, and his stomach cramped in response to it being directed at his sister.
He would have to speak to Éowyn tomorrow, Éomer decided as the promised rain confined the festivities to Meduseld itself. No chance in this crowd to talk privately to her, and besides, she was kept busy in attendance on Théoden. She should be enjoying herself! No wonder she looked a bit gloomy if most of her time was spent in the presence of an old man – however much loved – and a slimy worm who couldn’t keep his evil eyes off her.
“Do you think Éowyn is happy?”
“What?” Déor dragged his gaze away from the dance floor. “What did you say?”
Éomer scanned the whirling dancers, trying to pick out who had caught his friend’s attention. But in such a throng he could not be sure. “Éowyn, do you think she is happy?” he repeated. “She has changed. She is no longer carefree; the vibrancy has gone from her.”
Déor took a swig from his mug, considering his answer, Éomer felt. “She is frightened for her uncle, I think. He ages before our eyes and more and more Gríma Wormtongue speaks for him. Even Elfhelm, who commands the muster of Edoras in his stead, receives his orders from the worm’s mouth and not directly from his king.”
Éomer sighed. He was going to have to speak to Théodred, discover what he felt about his father’s increasing decline. Once again he wondered if Wormtongue had deliberately got them both out of the way. But he also had another more immediate concern. “I am worried for my sister. Do you notice Gríma’s eyes upon her?”
Déor drew brows together in a frown. “We all notice. But do not worry,” he said, squeezing Éomer’s arm in a gesture of reassurance. “There are those of us who watch over her. No harm will come to Éowyn while we still have breath.”
“Thank you, my friend. You have relieved me and also helped me come to a decision. I was going to ask Elfhelm to release you, and for you to ride with me. But now I think that for the time being anyway, I would prefer you to remain here. Unless you are eager to return to Aldburg – where your father waves his stick at any young rider who dares to go too near, and offers his advice to all.”
“Then I think I will remain,” Déor chuckled. “And there are other things to keep me here.” He let his eyes wander to a girl who had formed part of the set in front of them. Her hair a rich gold, it hung down her back in long ringlets. A tiny waist set off admirably, Éomer noticed, by curvaceous hips and a shapely bosom. Perfection in a small package. Grinning, Éomer leant towards him.
“Do you think Háma will let his youngest go to just anybody, after snaffling a Marshal for Wilflede?” But Déor laughed at his rudeness, and in accord they both searched out Elfhelm. Dancing with an arm around his wife, for once the Marshal had a relaxed smile on his face. Suddenly Éomer envied him, and Déor – if only Háma had another daughter lurking. It would solve a lot of problems if he could fall in love with someone suitable, and not a woman who belonged to another. Both sorry and thankful that his duties had kept him more and more away from Eastfeld, he acknowledged it had been a difficult few years.
“Elfhelm looks happy,” Déor said at last, “and Wilflede was ripe for marriage. But I feel Byrde is too young, and the times too uncertain for a warrior to settle to home life.”
“Tell that to Éothain!” Éomer retorted with a guffaw.
“He still hankers after my sister?”
“Well, I think he has given up. Her interest is elsewhere.”
“Is it? We will see about that. But as for Éothain, I think he needs a strong woman to control him, Æbbe is not much more than a child.”
Éomer agreed with the first part, but as for Æbbe being a child – he wondered when Déor had last seen her. But then he thought Byrde too young. Aloud he said, “Éothain will get over it, but for the last few months a warg with a head cold would have been better company.”
Chuckling they both returned to their ale, Déor following Byrde’s progress around the room, her younger brother squiring her in a lively reel.
The dance ended, and as Elfhelm took his wife’s hand to lead her to the seats around the side, one of the guards went up to him. The two men talked avidly together for a moment and even from this distance Éomer was aware of the Marshal’s stiffening posture. Elfhelm looked up, his eyes traveling around the room until they connected with Éomer’s. He jerked his head towards the door.
“Trouble?” Déor said, as they both put down their mugs and followed Elfhelm.
A rider waited in the ante-room, cloak sodden, boots and hose splashed with mud, his warrior braids hanging in rattails to his shoulders. He nodded his head to the two Marshals, and launched into his report.
“Godred of the Wold sent a rider to warn us – an army of orcs, hundreds strong, plundering as they went through. We picked them up when they reached the Emnet but there were not enough of us to attack on the open grassland. They are so many that they are not bothering to keep to the wall, but heading straight across the plain.”
“What! Coming here?” Elfhelm barked, his face contorting with surprise.
“No.” the scout shook his head. “We feel they are heading for the crossing below Rauros. But they will need to feed, and the herds are further to the West at the moment. Our worry is that if they keep on the same track they will be passing Eastfeld about dawn. My patrol has ridden at all speed to warn them, and offer protection. But they are not enough, so I was sent here.”
Éomer went cold, an icy dread numbing him. What he had feared for so long, and with him and his éored leagues away.
To be continued.
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.