3. Chapter 3
Lothíriel sank heavily into the saddle, pulling firmly on the reins and hoping she had not overestimated her ability to control her brother’s newly acquired piece of horseflesh. Ease up boy; she passed a mental command and thankfully the big grey slowed to a canter. Exhilarating. Racing along the beach had been absolutely exhilarating, and the best thing she could have done that morning.
Still fresh at that early hour, it looked like being a beautiful day. Already the sunlight danced on the tops the waves as the eastern sky turned slowly from gold to azure. Moments later Erchi caught up with her and they headed to the edge of the surf, trotting through the foam, black hooves kicking a sparkling spray around them.
She knew her brother itched to hear her verdict on his latest purchase but he waited until they headed up the beach away from the roar of the waves breaking on the reef.
“He’s no rocking-chair, Erchi and too hard-mouthed for most.” She grinned at her brother who already looked sheepish. “Although you knew that because Amroth told you.” Erchirion screwed his lips, showing as always what he thought of his little brother giving him advice. Lothíriel laughed at the obstinacy that let him ask her opinion whilst spurning Amroth’s. But she took pity him, “He’s fast and willing and has a good heart. I am sure he will be forgiving, so should suit you well.”
“Good. If he’s fast, up to my weight and won’t throw any tantrums that will suit me fine. I want him to get me to the front of a battle not prance around a parade ring.”
“I’m sure he will do that, although let’s hope he doesn’t have to…”Lothíriel stopped as she caught sight of a group of riders galloping along the beach in their direction.
“Erchi, let’s go up through the woods.”
Erchirion followed her gaze, his lips tightening as he recognised whom Elphir and Sergion were escorting on a morning ride. Scarlet blazed out amongst the sober dark blue. “Now that’s somebody I would like to war against.”
A rush of affection for her belligerent brother overwhelmed her for a moment. Everyone else had spent the last two days fawning over the man, whilst right from the beginning Erchi had said they would be better off challenging him. She’d be happy to give him a hand, aware that over the last year most of her fear had gone leaving a deep seated anger. And now he was here again, reawakening all her feelings. How could her father think he could ally with this man? Surely he could see the evil under the polished mask. And to arrange dancing and entertainment, treating him as the most honoured guest; Lothíriel shuddered.
Since the first greeting on his arrival Umar had been closeted with her father and eating with the men, so she had seen nothing of him. But she had no wish to risk getting in any kind of conversation with the man and only Erchi’s solid presence and the fact that it would embarrass Elphir stopped her from bolting to the woods.
Keeping on their track took them close enough to wave and when Elphir raised his arm to slow his party, Lothíriel got the chance for a look at the magnificent black stallion Umar rode. The animal strained to be off again and she wondered why the Prince of Harad felt it necessary to use such cruel spurs. Elphir put his hand up to them, the Serpent nodded, his eyes lingering in her direction for only a moment, before with hooves drumming on the hard sand, the group galloped away heading down the long beach.
Later, after a day spent mostly in the stables, Lothíriel sat in the large window embrasure of her chamber, staring out at a flame-shot sky and swishing her hand about in scented water. It would be lovely on the beach with the tide ebbing, leaving the sand clean and firm. And if it wasn’t for the dinner arranged in honour of the Serpent she could be out there. She sighed; letting her mind wander as her maid scrubbed at dirty nails. At least she had changed since her first encounter with the Prince of Harad. That experience had caused her to spend two years clinging to her brothers and hardly leaving the palace. Now, another two years on, she had not forgotten the dreadful event when she had been forced to hide in the cave, but it did not rule her life.
“Well, I’ve got them as clean as I can, Princess. You must start taking more care; you are not a child any more.” Hisael picked up a bottle of sweet almond oil and started to massage it into Lothíriel’s hands.
“How am I expected to keep my hands clean and my nails undamaged and still ride and sail?”
Hisael pursed her lips. “You could at least wear gloves. Nothing looks worse than holding out a rough, ill-kemp hand to be kissed.”
Lothíriel didn’t consider that remark even warranted an answer but tried to cooperate when Hisael insisted on plucking some wayward hairs from her eyebrows. Luckily that seemed to satisfy her maid and the dress came next. “Stand still, Princess, I can’t tie the laces when you fidget so.” Lothíriel took a deep breath, and tried to obey her. She hated being gowned in layers of silk, and had got away with much simpler attire until her twelfth birthday. Now at thirteen they expected her to look like a young noblewoman, even if she didn’t act like one most of the time.
“There, that won’t come undone if you start dancing.” Hisael pulled the bodice straight across her breasts.
Dancing! There was no way she would be dancing, even if Amroth deigned to partner her. Not with that man around. True, he might have barely glanced at her that morning when she’d met him on the beach, but even so, she had no intention of making herself in any way noticeable tonight.
“They say the talks are going well,” Hisael remarked, picking up a hairbrush. “That’s good news, isn’t it?”
“Good news!” Lothíriel exclaimed. “I don’t think so. And how do you know anyway?”
Hisael chuckled. “Servants always know, surely you’ve learnt that.”
Of course she had, but how much they knew still surprised her. However, this time she hoped they had got it wrong. She might have lost her immediate fear of Prince Umar – after all sense told her that he wouldn’t actually harm a princess of Gondor – and both her father and Elphir had reassured her that his stupid suggestion of marriage would not even be considered. But that did not mean she wanted him around. She knew he had a black heart even if her father didn’t.
“There, your hair looks very pretty. It goes into lovely soft waves naturally, even though it’s so long.” Hisael picked up the glass so that Lothíriel could see.
Lothíriel studied her reflection for a moment, wondering for the umpteenth time why she had green eyes in a land where most had grey or black. Her hair shone almost blue and fell past her shoulders in a cloak of long dark curls. Perhaps it did look nice. “I suppose, but it would plait easier if it were straight and that would make it better for riding and swimming.”
“You’ll think differently when you are little older,” her maid chuckled.
Would she? Maybe she would. At the moment she did not care much what she looked like. Horses didn’t notice, neither did dogs, and you didn’t need to look pretty to fire an arrow straight or read an interesting book. But some of the girls in the palace seemed to think of nothing else, especially if Amroth happened to be around. In fact, now she thought of it, not only the daughters of various Swan Knights came to watch and comment when her brothers were in the training ring, the regular bouts had become a magnet for many of the wives as well.
Colour filled the hall, dresses swaying gently like summer flowers in a meadow as the ladies searched for their places, and amongst them straight spikes of dark delphiniums raised their heads over the common crowd. Leaning against a pillar, Amrothos chuckled to himself, not sure the Swan-Knights, resplendent in dress blue and silver, would appreciate being compared to flowers, however tall and stately.
The talks must be going well for his father to put on such a lavish show for their Haradric guests and most, including himself, relished the chance to put the huge hall to its intended use. Not that he liked Umar much; he agreed with Elphir there – the man exuded malevolence. Erchi wanted to ram his sword down the prince’s throat, but since his older brother expressed interest in doing that to anyone who wasn’t from Dol Amroth and many who were, he discounted it. It was Lothíriel’s reaction that bothered him. She hated the man. He had never managed to find out quite why, and of course there might be no real reason other than her gut feeling. No, not gut feelings with Lothíriel, but some uncanny intuition she seemed to possess. The realisation that she might be slightly fey had grown on him slowly, ever since the incident a couple of years ago when Oríon had nearly drowned and she had instinctively put her hand on his head. Not long after that he had caught her doing something similar to his horse when it had thrown a splint and then she had announced one evening at supper that Aunt Ivriniel would be arriving soon with some interesting news.
His aunt had indeed arrived as predicted, bringing with her a large man with a red beard whom she intended to marry. They had all been surprised: firstly because of her age and then because she had always sworn no one could take the place of her first dearly beloved husband. On the other hand, Aunt Ivriniel had not been at all surprised when Amrothos had confided in her his concerns about Lothíriel: evidently it ran in the family. The gift, if that’s what it was, had originated with the Elven-lady Mithrellas, mother of Galador, and reappeared every few generations. Amrothos hadn’t told his sister yet, but he supposed he would. He glanced around, noting that Lothíriel hadn’t appeared. She didn’t like this sort of thing. Too young, probably, but after being excluded on the previous evenings the other ladies welcomed the chance of showing off their finery and themselves.
“Sizing up what’s on offer?”
Amrothos grinned, turning around and punching his friend on his arm. “You sidled up pretty craftily. The thought of all the lovely beauties must have persuaded you away from those plans.”
Rubbing his arm, Oríon smirked. “You know, all work and no play, and all that.”
“Hmm…” Amrothos raked his eyes over the wives and daughters of his father’s officers and the local nobility. “Well, unless we want to be sent to the garrison on Tolfolas, I think we had better go and play down at the port when all this is over. Touch one of these and that rusty sword of yours will see some action.”
Oríon laughed but then went still, staring across to the door. “And I think your sword will need to be kept sharpened when your sister grows up a bit. I’ve never noticed before, but she’s quite beautiful.”
Amrothos followed his gaze to where Lothíriel had come in with Cousin Eglaneth, and sharply drew in his breath. What had Hisael done to her? Only that morning he had met her in the stables, wearing grubby breeches and with her hair scraped back. She had looked like one of the lads. Now she … Amroth’s thought got cut short when to his horror he saw a passing squire swivel his eyes to take a second look at her. His hand clenched; she might be tall, and the dress she wore did show her emerging womanhood but she still had over half a year to go before her fourteenth birthday. Oríon was right. He’d known she was a pretty one, of course, but wrapped in his own affairs must have missed the transformation from appealing child to the striking young woman who walked towards him. To be fair, Lothíriel seemed oblivious of it, chattering to Cousin Eglaneth and taking no notice of the surprised looks she was getting from some of the younger men and the benevolent smiles from the older ones.
The red globe just touched the horizon as Imrahil led his principal guest to his seat. Some light would remain in the sky for a good while but at least by the time they ate the sun would have officially set. Thank the Valar they didn’t have to wait until actual dark. But Imrahil didn’t mind pandering to them tonight as the talks had gone far better than he could possibly have hoped and judging by the remarks made today he felt quite convinced they would reach complete agreement on the morrow. Originally he had thought Denethor a little rash, authorizing him to offer a slice of South Gondor with access to the sea, but with the power of the Black Land growing they did not have a lot of choice. They needed men, good fighting men, and those Umar had in plenty. Three days of negotiations and it looked as though the bait was about to be taken. And not one mention of Lothíriel; either they had misread the extravagant language the Haradrim used or more likely the man had come to his senses.
All rose as they reached the top table. He just hoped his sons would behave themselves. He could count on Elphir: his eldest might dislike the prince but the last couple of years had taught him to hide his feelings under the essential disguise of diplomacy. Amroth was too intelligent to risk spoiling something he knew to be of such importance, and Erchi? Imrahil pursed his lips; he’d sat Sergion next to his middle son with instructions for his captain to distract him from reacting to any perceived slight on the part of his guest by discussing the deployment of their troops along the costal towns.
On the surface Umar certainly gave the impression of being in a gracious and sociable mood. The serpent on his chest looked far from friendly, but he himself smiled at all as he took his seat. Lothíriel sat almost opposite but the prince hardly glanced at her, Imrahil noted with relief. Only a couple of years older than Elphir, Umar emanated confidence. Probably could have been called handsome too, he decided, with his neat pointed beard and deep-set dark eyes, if it were not for the thinness of his lips. But it was the occasional flash of venom he saw in those eyes that worried him and gave him doubts as to their owner’s trustworthiness. Still, the man had intimated he would be willing to sign the treaty the next day and there was nothing in it about the protagonists having to like each other.
The first course arrived – huge prawns with hot spicy sauce. These were mostly devoured in silence, the necessity of licking fingers and wiping mouths precluding much conversation, but during the next course – saddle of lamb stuffed with herbs and juniper berries – the background buzz of chatter around the hall gradually increased. Imrahil signalled to the musicians to start strumming. Personally he had talked enough in the last few days and would be content to eat and listen but as he thought it, his guest put down his knife.
“Our talks are going well, eh Imrahil?”
Stifling a sigh, Imrahil put on his best diplomatic face. “Yes, very well. Hopefully we can reach agreement tomorrow.”
“Of course, I am confident we can. There is only one thing left to discuss and I am sure we will come to an understanding. With Sauron’s power growing daily and his shadow creeping ever closer to Gondor’s borders, I would hate to leave here with us being enemies.”
Imrahil froze; the threat in the man’s voice evident in spite of the smile on his face. Why? In the past three days he had made no threats, and had only held out for more land, for the good of his people, he had repeated often enough. Umar turned his face away, deliberately looking across the table to where Lothíriel sat next to Amroth, and in a horrifying moment of enlightenment Imrahil understood: Umar had been playing them along all the time. Three days of talks so they all realised just what he could offer as an ally or what a powerful adversary he would make, and now came the real demand. He didn’t care about the land at all; the bloody man still wanted Lothíriel.
As Umar stared, Lothíriel must have realised eyes were on her because she broke from her conversation with her brother and looked straight at him. Her face blanched and a tell-tell pulse started to throb in her neck, but for a moment neither moved, continuing to lock gazes. Realising something was going on, one by one the others around the table stopped talking and glanced up expectantly.
Having successfully gained everyone’s attention, Umar’s lip curled in what Imrahil could only liken to a cross between a smirk and snarl.
Umar continued to stare at Lothíriel, twirling the stem of his goblet with his long manicured fingers. He held on to his words for as long as possible to keep the fools wondering what was coming. Did they really think he would side with them for just a piece of land? If he valued it that much he would take it. As he would take their little princess. But he knew these Gondorians, all the talk of friendship when really they looked on him and his people as some lesser breed. Let them prove how much they needed this alliance. And if they didn’t, he would join with Sauron and have Imrahil’s daughter, the land and anything else he desired anyway. Oh, he was going to enjoy this. “If you and Denethor want me to help save Gondor, Imrahil, then I think at the very least I am owed its fairest princess.”
Lothíriel straightaway stood up, her green eyes flashing and her mouth compressed with rage. No brushing it off this time with soothing words, Imrahil realised as she angrily shook off Amroth’s restraining hand. But somehow he felt strangely reluctant to stop whatever was about to happen. He’d lost patience with the man and knew now that no agreement would ever be reached or in fact was ever likely to have been.
“You filthy beast!” Lothíriel shouted. “You will never, ever, lay a finger on me.”
Before he could even begin to reprimand her, his daughter grabbed her brother’s goblet and threw wine all over Umar, splashing him in the process. Without waiting to see any reaction she picked up her skirts and fled to the door.
Halfway to her room, the enormity of what she had done hit Lothiriel like a blow to the stomach. She had destroyed all that her father had worked for in one moment by her display of temper. She felt sick. Sick and scared. And what would happen when her Uncle Denethor found out? Her father would make her apologise to Umar but wanting the treaty so badly, her uncle might try to force her into marriage with the Prince of Harad. She was not altogether sure if even the Steward could gainsay her father in such a matter, but it seemed highly likely. She should have left it to Father. If she had kept quiet he would have probably sorted it out with a few well chosen words, such was his way. What had she done?
Lothíriel started to shake. She wouldn’t! She couldn’t! Not even for Gondor could she marry that vile man. She only had one choice: she would have to run away.
Reaching her apartments she opened the door and quickly scanned around the large room: empty! The door to the dressing chamber stood open but she could see no sign of Hisael. That was lucky; her maid must have gone for her own supper. Lothíriel threw open the wardrobe door and rummaged around the shelf at the bottom, bringing out a pair of breeches and a shirt. She would need a disguise to get out of the gates and had better get into it fast before Hisael returned. Drat the silly dress! Forcing herself to remain calm, Lothíriel pulled the last lace free and silk slithered to her feet. Her shift came off next, one strap ripping in her haste.
Breeches and shirt donned in record time, she went back to the wardrobe and found a leather jerkin and a pair of boots. Her hair! A ribbon hanging from her mouth Lothíriel scraped it back and held it tight. Letting go with one hand she retrieved the ribbon and managed to get most of the mass of hair securely bound. Pinning it under an old felt hat completed the disguise. A few essentials packed in a small bag and she was ready. Getting out of the palace into the courtyard unobserved would not be a problem; she knew every back stair and deserted passage.
Lothíriel kept in the shadow of the wall until she reached the open courtyard just inside the gates. Unless alerted, the guards were there to stop people entering the palace not leaving it, but she did not want them taking a close look and recognising her. At that moment the guards had nothing to do and were chatting amongst themselves. Not the time to try and leave.
Lothíriel tried to push down the panic that had started to rise. By now, her father had probably sent Cousin Eglaneth to her chamber to fetch her to apologise. How long before they started searching?
Just when she was about to brave it out and walk straight out through the gate she heard the rattle of wheels on the cobbles. Two loaded carts came clattering from the direction of the kitchens, the smell of shellfish growing stronger as they approached. Straining her eyes in the dim light she discerned piles of baskets loaded on the carts, but what? Ugh, she realised that the baskets must have originally contained the prawns they had eaten at dinner, now they held all the remains going back to the harbour for disposal. But the best thing was that a couple of urchins walked alongside the first wagon.
That made it easy. She waited until the second cart passed her and then with the hat pulled down over her face, her bag pushed out of sight, she held on to the back corner. With any luck the guards would take her for a simpleton.
After ribbing the carters about the awful smell, they did just that. “You keep pushing lad, the horse will thank- ee, if no-one else will.”
Lothíriel, touched her hat, mumbled a goodnight and kept her head down, petrified one of the urchins would look around and see her but the noise of wheels rumbling on the worn ruts in the gateway must have made them deaf to the guard’s voice. Heart thumping, Lothíriel passed through the gate and out onto the road that led down to the city gates. The populace moved freely between port and city all day and into the night when festivities were taking place, and they passed through with barely a glance from the gatekeepers.
Most of the light had gone from the sky and she used the darker shadow of a large clump of hibiscus to slip through the fence into the home paddock. Mista would be somewhere, along with a few other old favourites. Almost immediately the huge form of her father’s retired charger, Warlord, materialized out of the gloom. She would get a lot farther, a lot quicker on him but baulked at riding a warhorse without bridle and saddle, even if she managed to get on his back. “It’s all right, boy,” she whispered, stroking a scarred velvet nose. “Do you know where Mista is?” A whinny to her left gave her the answer. She swivelled around, picking out the little pony as the faint light from one of the torches that lined top of the city wall fell on his light grey coat.
Lothíriel pulled out the apple she had stowed away in her bag. She guessed Mista would follow her anyway but had wanted to be sure. “Come on Mista, we have to get through the gate before I can ride you.” Lothíriel headed towards where she thought the top gate would be, the one that opened near to the main way to Edhellond. She had decided where to go: only one person she knew would be able to stand up against her uncle Denethor. Aunt Ivriniel would give her shelter until her father forgave her. It took her a while to locate the gate, screwing up her eyes and looking for an irregularity in the dark shape of the fence – this would have been better happening on a night with a full moon, but Mista patiently trotted behind her, rewarded by the apple when she had him out on the road.
Lothíriel cradled her arms around his neck as he munched. “It’s just you and me, Mista
I didn’t have time to fetch Larca; he will be sad when he finds out.” She gave the pony another hug, grabbed his mane and sprang easily onto his back. Her legs might be long but her slim figure meant he could still carry her easily.
A mile further on, Lothíriel scrabbled in her bag and got out the thin cloak she had brought, the summer night cooler now. Darker too – she had never been out completely on her own in the middle of the night before and now they had entered a wooded area. She shivered, trees that looked friendly in the sunlight seemed menacing with their big limbs reaching across the road, clutching for one another. Every little night-time noise made her jump and grasp the pony’s mane more securely. Telling herself there was nothing different here than in daytime, Lothíriel distracted scary thoughts by trying to work out how long it would take to reach her aunt’s house. Hopefully by morning, she decided as Aunt Ivriniel lived about halfway to Edhellond, in a small castle amongst the pinewoods overlooking the beach. She should be able to find it from the road. Mista would need a drink so she would have to find a stream somewhere and they both would be hungry by the time they arrived, but that wouldn’t matter. She had done the right thing, her family would not have expected her to run away and that would convince them she was serious about not having anything to do with the Serpent. In fact….Her deliberations were cut short by the sound of horses clip-clopping along the road towards her. Her mouth instantly dried. She had no idea what to do, or who it was likely to be, but she knew she couldn’t stay on the road. Desperately trying to pierce the darkness around her she thought she could see a gap between the trees on her right? Lothíriel guided Mista to where the black lessened slightly, and managed to get out of sight of the road as the hoof beats came closer. Whoever was out riding this time of night should not have been aware of them as with Mista not being shod, she had kept to the verge.
Lothíriel peered out from between the trees as the riders went past, and caught the faintest glint of a steel helmet. Oh, how could she have been such a fool! These roads were patrolled by her father’s men; she had no chance of getting to her aunt’s castle unobserved. Nervous in the black of the woods and uncertain what do for a moment, she clung to Mista’s mane, laying her head down on the pony’s warm neck. “What shall we do Mista? Can you see where to go?” Mista, gave a soft whicker, stepped purposely forward, and headed to where the trees looked thinnest. There did appear to be some kind of track running almost parallel to the road. So with no choice other than to go back to the palace Lothíriel let the pony pick his own way, finding that if she crouched low over him hugging his warm body, the night did not feel so frightening.
Twice she had to force her eyes open, stopping herself from falling asleep. But Mista kept on going and when they came out of the woods onto an open heath Lothíriel saw that they had climbed far above the road, for way below her the ramparts of the City stood black against the lighter hue of the ocean. Edhellond must lay leagues to her right where the mouth of River Ringlo gleamed pale. Mista appeared unconcerned by thoughts of missing breakfast in her aunt’s fine stables and with only the light of the stars and the quarter moon to guide him, plodded gamely along on a track that bent around a rocky outcrop. Lothíriel took one last look back at her home by the sea, before some strange inner conviction that the pony knew exactly where he was going made her once again lie down over his shoulders, put her arms around his neck and bury her face in his silky mane.
Aldburg – The Riddermark
The hall at Aldburg thronged with warriors. Except for one patrol still on the Emnet virtually all the rest of the East-mark Riders lounged around with mugs in their hands, catching up on news and generally enjoying the opportunity to meet with comrades and friends.
To the side of the hall, Éomer sat alone, reading the letter he had been given when he had arrived at the fortress. His sister did not waste words, and those she used generally referred to her horse or her progress with the sword, so to have such a long missive from her had to be counted unusual. After the first paragraph, he realised why – she felt lonely. Their cousin Théodred no longer resided at Meduseld having been given command of the garrison at Helm’s Deep and control over the West-mark. That the king’s son had been made second Marshall did not surprise Éomer, his right after all, but that Théoden King had a new chief advisor who had suggested it, did.
Gríma? Éomer tried to recall him and could only remember a sly looking man who had arrived in Edoras from the northern borders of the Riddermark some years before. By the sound of it he had wormed his way into the king’s favour. Éowyn didn’t sound too thrilled about it. Éomer decided he would have to try and find the time to ride to Edoras to see her.
“What do you reckon is going on?”
Éothain’s voice broke into his thoughts and he looked up to see his two closest friends towering over him, Déor holding out a brimming mug. Éomer grinned and tucked the letter away in his pocket. Aldburg might be his base now and not his home but coming back had enabled him to renew friendships he had made as a child. Éothain, two years older than himself, blunt, beefy and down to earth, had felt it his duty to bloody the nose of the Marshall’s young son at every opportunity. In the end, on his father’s advice, Éomer had relentlessly pounded into him. They had been friends ever since. Déor, very fair, neat, and a year younger than Éomer but almost as tall, preferred to use his head before his sword or his fists but could be deadly with all three. Éomer took the mug and downed a long draught, looking to the far corner of the hall as he did so. Elfhelm sat at a table, along with a couple of senior Riders, one of whom was Déor’s father, Eorllic. The group had been in deep conversation ever since Éomer had arrived and he’d noticed that every now and then Elfhelm wrote something down, but then Éowyn’s letter had taken his interest.
“I am not sure, but Éowyn writes to say that Théodred has moved to Helm’s Deep. It may be connected,” Éomer replied.
The two Rohirrim played with that thought for a moment, Déor scrutinising the men at the table. “I imagine Théodred is being given the opportunity to show his abilities away from the influence of his father, but Edoras will be short of commanders.”
Éomer nodded. “I agree, Théoden King has not taken direct control of the éoreds for some time. Théodred will need to be replaced.”
They discussed the consequences of Théodred’s relocation for a while, until Éomer felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to find one of the serving lads standing behind him.
“Marshall Elfhelm wants to speak to you, lord.”
Marshall Elfhelm? The three men exchanged looks. Éomer gave the other two a wink and strode off to see what the new Marshall wanted.
Talking quietly with the small group of men, Elfhelm wore his serious look. Éomer waited for them to finish their conversation, studying his commander as he did so. Only a year or two older than Théodred, tall, fair and with the deep blue eyes typical of their race, his strong face had started to show the ravages of his years riding the plains. But Éomer still considered him to be a good-looking man and wondered why he had never remarried after his young wife had died in childbirth years before. But perhaps women did not always welcome being wed to a warrior. Pondering on this for a moment, remembering how his mother had worried so when his father has ridden out, he didn’t realise the group had started to break up until he heard Elfhelm’s voice.
“Sit down, Éomer.”
Éomer sat, nodding to Eorllic who remained sitting next to Elfhelm. Déor’s father and Éomer’s had been good friends and comrades in arms. But like his son, Eorllic used his head as well as his sword arm, whereas Éomund had often rushed headlong to battle any intruders, sometimes with too small a force. A trait that had cost him his life. Éomer had sworn not to be so rash in his dealings with the enemy, but acknowledged that when the blood ran like fire in his veins, he was a lot like his father. “I hear congratulations are in order, Marshall Elfhelm,” he said letting a smile break out over his face.
Elfhelm’s lips twitched, “News travels fast as always. But that is why I have got everybody here; we have to do some reorganising.”
“Do I take it you are leaving us, Marshall? I understand that Théodred has moved to the West-mark, so the éoreds at Edoras will need a new commander.”
“Yes, Éomer, you are right,” Elfhelm replied. “Théoden King has given me charge of his own forces. I have to be at Edoras within three days, which is why I am talking to you now.”
Éomer said nothing but studied the two older men who sat opposite him, wondering where this was leading. They both seemed to be watching him intently
“Eorllic and I have been talking over the changes needed here and we think it is time you were given a patrol to lead,” Elfhelm said keeping his gaze on Éomer.
Lead a patrol! His heart pounded with excitement but he tried hard not to show it on his face. However, some hint of the thrill Elfhelm’s words had caused must have escaped because the Marshall raised one eyebrow.
“So you think you are up to it?”
Regaining his composure, Éomer tried for professionalism. “I have taken control a few times, as you know, Marshall. But you must think I will do a good job or you would not consider promoting me.”
Elfhelm nodded, a smile appearing for a moment but passing swiftly. “You are in a unique position as one of my Riders, Éomer – the king’s nephew and second in line to the throne. But I think you know that your rank does not weigh with me when it comes to your job. However, because of your position and your possible future duties I have given you the opportunity to show your qualities of leadership. You are an excellent and proficient warrior. You can still be a little hot-headed, but mostly you control your natural impulsiveness well. It has not escaped me that in spite of your youth the men tend to turn to you for direction. That is the sign of a natural leader.”
Éomer shifted in his seat, slightly embarrassed by his commander’s assessment of him but Elfhelm had not finished.
“My move to Edoras has brought your promotion forward a bit, Éomer. I would have done it by the end of the year, anyway. I can only be thankful that in a few years you should be able to take up your rightful position in the hierarchy of the Riddermark on your own abilities and not just because of your birth.”
Éomer did not know what to say; to praise others profusely was not the way of the Rohirrim although Elfhelm did always comment on a job well done and was ever firm, fair and intuitive in all his dealings with the men he controlled. Éomer valued an opinion on his abilities from him more than he would from any other. “I will do my best to repay your faith in me, Marshall. You have taught me much in the last four years and for that I thank you.” Feeling enough had been said, Éomer went back to practicalities. “Am I to take over our patrol, or are you organising things differently?”
“I am changing you all around a bit. You will keep Éothain and Guflaf, but the rest will be new to you. I have found it works better that way.”
“What about Déor,” Éomer asked, “is there any chance he could be with me?”
Elfhelm shook his head. “Déor is coming to Edoras with me. I am taking a core of East-mark men. Besides, Eorllic will now have overall command here and although there is no doubt he would be fair in his dealings with his son, it is better that Déor serves a different captain.”
Disappointed, but seeing the sense of the decision, Éomer nodded, turning his questions to those concerning his new duties.
Later, in the privacy of his bed he mulled over the day’s events. He would need to write to Éowyn in the morning, she would be thrilled by his news. Hopefully he could find a few days later in the year to visit her. The day after tomorrow he would be riding out leading his first patrol: a gripping but intimidating prospect as some of the men Elfhelm had assigned to him were veteran Riders. They would be heading directly for Eastfeld, which meant Edwick and Bergit would soon hear of his promotion. Éomer knew they would be excited for him. Their friendship had continued, although when he had first acknowledged his feelings for Bergit he had tried to stay away. But that had only hurt and puzzled them, so he had gone back to sleeping in their outhouse every time he stayed in the village. Dealing with loneliness was something a Rider got used to, dealing with desire: inherently more difficult.
To be continued.
Author’s note – from Unfinished Tales by J. R. R. Tolkien
In the days of Théoden there was no man appointed to the office of First Marshal. He came to the throne as a young man (at the age of thirty-two), vigorous and of martial spirit, and a great horseman. If war came, he would himself command the Muster of Edoras; but his kingdom was at peace for many years, and he rode with his knights and his Muster only on exercises and in displays; though the shadow of Mordor reawakened grew ever greater from his childhood to his old age. In this peace the Riders and other armed men of the garrison of Edoras were governed by an officer of the rank of mar¬shal (in the years 3012-19 this was Elfhelm).
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