8. Chapter 8
Dol Amroth Winter 3013
First noticeable only as a trail of dust, the column barely seemed to move; a slithering snake, winding slowly towards the city.
Lothíriel stared, eyes seeking for a reassuring glimpse of her brothers’ standards, but all she could see was a long ribbon of grey on the road, with the occasional flash as shield or spear caught the light. Sergion came to stand beside her, shading his eyes from the glare of the low winter sun as he searched the approaching line of soldiers and survivors. He watched for a while before keen eyes separated the individual figures. “There are many walking, some pushing handcarts and a line of wains. The messenger said we would be dealing with a large number of wounded. You will be needed, I think.”
Lothíriel nodded. She had already been up since before dawn preparing trays of spirit, wadding and sutures, before scrubbing tables and boiling instruments in preparation for the expected influx. Over a year of training, one half of which seemed to have been spent cleaning, the other studying the great annals of anatomy lodged in the book-room attached to the Healing-house. With no allowances made for her rank, she studied and slaved with the other apprentices who had been lucky enough to be accepted into the most prestigious curative establishment in the land. Soon, when the wounded arrived, she would be holding bowls and removing soiled dressings, assisting those trained to save. Watch and learn, the Master’s motto. A year of hard work; but it had stopped her chafing at the restrictions imposed on her after her father had received threats from the Prince of Harad. Only a daily swim, archery practice and a ride on the beach with Sergion and her guard, punctuated a restricted life that now kept her close to the city. But Lothíriel couldn’t stop a smile as she thought of beautiful Amaurea and the incredible bond she shared with her horse; the feisty mare being the only good thing to have come from her disastrous dealings with Umar.
Fixing her eyes on the line and squinting, she could make out Elphir’s standard and behind it another; it would be Erchirion’s. She swallowed hard. Thank the Valar, both her brothers were safe. But now she could see the long trail of refugees following behind the soldiers and a shaft of shame pierced her heart. “I should have sent Amaurea back,” she muttered only half aloud.
“What?” Sergion had been concentrating on trying to see.
“Amaurea. I should have sent her back. He might not have been so angry.”
“Lothíriel.” His hand landed on her shoulder. “Sending her back would have made no difference. Refusing the gift would have been to insult him more. He would have killed her.”
“No, I can’t believe that. The mares are so precious to them. Maybe he made the threat, but surely he would not have carried it out.” Sensing his hesitation Lothíriel turned to face him and saw the look of revulsion on his face. “Sergion, what are you not telling me?”
“I am afraid he would have killed her, my dear, and the servant, if the man had returned without delivering the gift. It’s all a matter of pride. I won’t tell you what the manner of death it is for a man that displeases Umar, but Amaurea, valuable as she is, would have been put out to take her chances with the desert lions.”
Lothíriel gasped. “He’s evil. She could not defend herself against a whole family of lions.”
“No, so don’t chastise yourself for enjoying her.”
Nonetheless she did, and even though she had fallen in love with the mare from the first moment she had become acquainted with her, had it not been for Seron’s words she would never have kept her for her own. Now though, Amaurea was part of her and she could not imagine life without the extraordinary horse. Trained for desert warfare, she accepted only those she considered worthy of her friendship. Amroth she liked and would allow to tickle and caress her. She had some feeling for Sergion because he accompanied them on the gallops she enjoyed, and likewise the groom who often fed her. But Amaurea only tolerated the others who regularly used the stables and Erchirion she downright disliked, woofing angrily at him through her big nostrils whenever he appeared.
Sergion suddenly laughed. “She’d have taken down a few. I have never seen a horse more able to defend itself.”
“Yes.” Lothíriel certainly agreed with that. “With her and you and my guard, no one could be safer than me.”
But as she said it another shaft of remorse shot through her: she might be safe but those that lived along the coast or ploughed the seas to earn their living certainly weren’t. And from the accounts they had received so far, this raid had been the worst as it had been unexpected because of the threat of winter gales. So unexpected that her father and had been sojourning in Minas Tirith when the call had come for aid. It was only by a stroke of luck – a trader passing warning that a fleet of Corsairs were on the sea – that a full scale disaster had been avoided. Elphir and Erchirion had already ridden out with their companies to support the coastal defenders, but they had not known where the raiders would strike first.
They were close enough now for her to see the extent of the horror: wains full of women and children clutching a few possessions. Those that managed to evade the raiders invariably came back to smouldering ruins. And in some wagons, bandaged figures sat hunched or lay inert – protecting their coastline came at a price. Lothíriel grasped the top of the wall, digging her fingers into the rough stone until they hurt. Her fault. All this pain and misery was her fault. If she had not ridden down onto the beach on that fateful day none of this would have happened. Umar would have probably hardly noticed her at the banquet, but by her hoydenish behaviour she had brought herself to his attention, and now their people suffered.
“Lothíriel are you all right?” Her father asked, softly coming up behind her. He had only returned the night before, too late to do anything other than wait, trusting his sons to have beaten off the latest threat. Before answering she looked along the road, seeing what she had missed before – Elphir, at the front, had a woman cradled against him, her light hair showing over the folds of his cloak. Lothíriel ran her eyes swiftly over the ranks of horsemen: many had a burden, mostly children. She searched out Erchirion. He rode holding the reins in one hand; the other clasped a small boy, who had a bandage round his head.
Her stomach lurched and almost unheeded, the tears started to fall. “Father, this can’t go on,” she whimpered, turning to him. “You must tell Umar I will go to him. If he wants me so badly he will not hurt me. I cannot bear this any longer.”
“Lothíriel … Lothíriel.” her father hugged her to his chest as she sobbed her heart out. “This is not down to you. We have had raids for years; they have just got more frequent lately.”
“No,” she muttered. “I know he is helping them. Everyone is saying so. He gives them men, trained fighting men.”
Imrahil caught Sergion’s eye over her head. They knew it to be true but had hoped she did not. Only three months after he had sent a definite refusal to Umar, the first reports had come of the sign of the Black Serpent rife amongst the crews of the Corsairs ships. But to think of sacrificing his daughter…even Denethor had given up on that idea. “Lothíriel, there is no way I would allow that. No one expects it, not even your uncle. We now do not think there is any way Umar would have sided with us and suspect that the raids are part of some bigger plan. You must put it out of your mind.” Suddenly a wave of apprehension passed over him, and he grabbed hold of her shoulder causing her to wince. “Lothíriel, promise me you will not do anything stupid like trying to get to the Prince.” Clutching her chin with his other hand, he forced her to look into his face. “Promise me!”
Slowly she nodded, eyes still full of tears. “I won’t. Of course, I won’t.”
Reassured, Imrahil released her, smoothing a stray hair back from her face. Even with her hair in such a severe style, and the loose grey dress disguising her figure, her burgeoning beauty could not be hidden. Damn Umar! It was appalling, that he had to conceal his lovely daughter from the world to stop her being used as a bargaining tool. And Umar might not be the only one who would not hesitate to use an innocent girl to try and threaten Gondor’s rulers. Showing none of his fears he put his arm lightly around her shoulders. “Come, let us go and meet Elphir, and then you will have to report for duty, I imagine.”
As they descended the stone steps from the wall Sergion surged ahead, summoning a few soldiers to his side. The huge open square by the city gates thronged with people. Amrothos was already there; impatiently ordering everyone to stand back as he tried to clear a space for all the mounted troops to enter and their riders to dismount. But the citizens of Dol Amroth were not easily moved and many on the look out for injured relatives, refused to give way, straining their necks to peer through the gate and down the road. Although some, like the warden of the orphanage and a small group of healers, stood quietly to one side, knowing they would be needed soon. A few moments later, with Sergion’s help, the crowd moved to the sides of the square and Imrahil and Lothíriel joined Amroth just inside the gates. Imrahil knew it had galled his youngest son to stay behind when Elphir and Erchirion had left, but with himself in Minas Tirith it had fallen to Amroth to remain in the city. Imrahil could not help being glad, Amroth was on his way to being a fine warrior, but he had not yet reached his twentieth birthday and had plenty of time to prove himself. Now, in spite of the serious situation, he grinned at his father.
“It looks as if Elphir has stolen a march on Erchi and nabbed the girl!”
Imrahil chuckled. Lothíriel only managed a half-smile, which caused Amroth to look intently at her and at his father questionably when he must have noticed her red eyes. But Imrahil shook his head, silently telling him to leave the matter alone.
Amroth didn’t stop to argue as at that moment his elder brother rode through the archway. Immediately he went to the head of Elphir’s horse, holding the gelding’s bridle so his brother could drop the reins. “You all right?”
Elphir gave him a rather distracted nod, drawing his eyes away from Amroth and softly saying something to the woman in his arms before his gaze sought out his father.
Imrahil stepped up to the side of his son’s horse, instinctively reaching his arms up to relieve Elphir of his burden. Elphir hesitated passing her down, which gave Imrahil the chance to glimpse apprehensive hazel eyes peeping out from a pale but pretty face. Her light brown curls were tangled and matted and as the folds of the cloak fell aside he saw that her dress had been torn and the top of one arm bandaged. Imrahil smiled encouragingly. “Come, I won’t drop you.”
But Elphir did not release her, and something in his son’s face – tension, and uncharacteristic belligerence perhaps – gave him a moment to school his features before the startling announcement came.
“Father, this is Meren. She is the sweetest, bravest woman I have ever met and she’s going to be my wife.”
Beside him, Imrahil heard his daughter gasp. Amroth merely opened his black eyes wide, clamping his lips together to stop whatever retort had come to mind. Covering his shock, Imrahil met his son’s determined gaze. Not prepared to argue in the middle of the square and give the surrounding crowd anything more to gape at, he turned to Lothíriel. “Before you go to the Healing-house, run to the palace and organise a chamber to be prepared for Lady Meren, please.”
Elphir’s face relaxed and Lothíriel glanced fleetingly between her father and her brother, before she picked up her grey skirt and hurried off. Imrahil turned his attention back to his son. “Is Lady Meren badly hurt?”
“No, I will be fine,” the girl answered in a soft melodious voice. She pushed herself away from Elphir’s chest and made ready to allow Imrahil to lift her down.
“A whip caught her,” Elphir said, wooden faced. “The thong cut through her dress and seared the skin from her arm. It will need dressing properly.”
Carefully avoiding the bandaged arm, Imrahil set his prospective new daughter on her dainty feet.
Éomer dug in his heels, urging Firefoot on. Branches whipped at his face and small chunks of mud kicked up by Starkhorn’s hooves, spattered him with black splodges. The two horses emerged from the dark of the wood, surging down a track that crossed the edge of the plain to an outcrop of rock: the finishing post. Ah, a slight stumble told him the horse in front of him was beginning to tire. He grinned: now he would get him – the open grassland more suited to the bulk of his stallion than the confines of weaving through the trees. Gradually Firefoot caught up with the smaller horse, but Éothain yanked his mount to the right forcing Éomer to either pull Firefoot off the smooth sward and onto the rough edge, or drop back. Not wanting to risk an injury to his horse, he did just that, sweeping right to the other side of the track to try and get past Starkhorn. Firefoot tried his best, and if they’d had another 100 yards to run they would have done it, but when they reached the rock that marked the winning post, they were a neck behind.
“Damn you, Éothain! You didn’t give me room!” Éomer shouted as they pulled up past the rocks. Pleased that although Firefoot’s flanks heaved, Starkhorn blew much harder, he tweaked the grey’s ears. They had both enjoyed the run and the time spent cooling him and rubbing him down would be worth it.
“Giving quarter is a sign of weakness – isn’t that what we have been taught? Drop your guard and your opponent will have you!” His face covered by a big smirk, Éothain shrugged his shoulders. “With a wager at stake, anything goes.”
Éomer wiped the back of his hand over a bloodied cheek. Next time he’d get in front at the start. “I suppose. But if you think that short-backed nag of yours will beat Firefoot over the jumps, you will be in for a shock.”
“Starkhorn jumps lighter and always will, so you’ve no hope of trouncing me. Resign yourself to years of cleaning up after him as long as you keep that clumsy great brute.”
What! Éomer didn’t mind anyone insulting him but he wasn’t going to have his horse castigated without retaliating. Completely discounting that he had previously insulted his friend’s mount, he shot back a remark accusing Starkhorn of having flat shoulders and weak hocks, which instigated a lively argument lasting until they reached the rest of the patrol waiting under the trees.
Barking an order to move out, Éomer effectively put an end to the good-natured ribbing from his men. He didn’t mind providing some entertainment for his Riders, but shovelling up Starkhorn’s droppings in the camp that evening would be enough.
Making sure he kept well away from Éothain- he couldn’t stomach the self-satisfied grin on his face – Éomer led the patrol towards the bank of the N?dre; they would camp in their favorite glade. He sniffed as they passed through the open woodland – spring had truly come. Ramsons clothed the ground between the trees, the smell of wild garlic permeating the air and, amongst them, bluebells just showed a promise of the glorious colorful carpet to come. Everywhere he looked small birds busied to and fro, pieces of dried grass protruding from their beaks. A blackbird scolded them for disturbing the peace, and from the other side of the valley Éomer heard the distinctive call of the cuckoo. But with the coming of spring to the Riddermark the threat of raids increased tenfold. Winter had given them respite. Not that the Riders of the East-mark had been idle: wrapped in their furs, scouts had kept vigil on the plains. But the snowmelt had made the Anduin virtually impossible to cross and only now, when the icy waters coming down from the northern ranges of the Misty Mountains had started to recede, could the orcs threaten the herds. This was the first patrol for some time that would be away for weeks.
Éomer welcomed it. Not that he hadn’t enjoyed the time available to further Firefoot’s battle-training. Or the Yule celebrations at Edoras, where the irritation of having Grima watch his every move was compensated by the dawning realization that Elfhelm was besotted with Hama’s middle daughter. Amusement at watching the normally phlegmatic Marshal enthusiastically squiring a young lady at the festivities had enlivened his visit. It also led to numerous whispered conversations with his sister, who relished filling him in on all the Court gossip. But now, after the inactivity of winter, he wanted to get back to the job of protecting his beloved homeland from its persistent invaders, and he wanted to see how Bergit and Edwick fared. The last time he had been in Eastfeld he’d noticed a marked deterioration in his friend, Edwick’s once powerful body shrinking and wasting from forced immobility. True, his fingers were still strong from weaving and plaiting the hard willow to make baskets and the creels used to collect the mussels and crayfish that thrived in the local streams, but although he tried to stay positive, mind and body had weakened. Bergit, her spirit not cowed by the misfortune visited upon them, had made light of the problems of providing for the family, but Éomer hated that she needed to work so hard. Tomorrow he would see her. He both looked forward to it, and dreaded it.
Hisael stood with comb in hand, a determined look on her round face. “It’s your brother’s wedding, Princess, you owe it to him to look your best. And what about me? What will everyone think if I let you appear looking like a dowd?”
“I don’t see why I can’t wear my hair in a plait,” Lothíriel argued. “I do so every other day.”
“This is not every other day, and if you were a few years younger it would be acceptable, but you are fifteen now and cannot appear in front of all the distinguished guests looking like a child. Now come on,” Hisael coaxed when Lothíriel said nothing. “You have to stand next to Lady Meren and hold her posy. Everyone will be watching and she is so pretty you will not want to be outshone.”
She didn’t care if the whole world outshone her! And as for everyone watching – well, she didn’t want everyone watching. But knowing further protest was useless, Lothíriel submitted to having her hair brushed and combed until it gleamed with a blue sheen and fell into long curls down her back. Happy with the hairstyle, Hisael fixed a silver circlet around her head. Positioning the pearl swan that decorated it in the middle of Lothíriel’s forehead, she pinned it at the back to stop it slipping. Lothíriel stood up, examining herself in the glass. She must have grown over the winter – now she stood almost a head above her maid. Critically she examined her reflection – blue had always suited her. Meren had helped her choose the dress but now she thought it was cut too low and hugged her slim figure too tightly. She hesitated; if she stopped to change she would be late. Sighing, she nodded at Hisael, “All right, I am ready. It’s just my necklace.”
The maid took the row of beautiful creamy pearls from their silk-lined case and reached up to fasten them around her neck. “They are just the thing for a young girl; your father gave them to you at the right time.”
Lothíriel patted the pearls into place. “He said I could have my mother’s jewellery when I turned eighteen, but I will have to share it with Meren now.”
Hisael pursed her lips considering. “I imagine he may give some to Lady Meren, but most will be yours. Prince Elphir will want to give his wife her own.”
“I suppose he will,” Lothíriel replied. “But if my mother was still alive she would have wanted Meren to have some of her things. She would have liked Elphir’s choice of wife.”
“Everyone likes Lady Meren.” Hisael agreed. “She’s so sweet and nice it’s difficult to imagine her standing up to those wicked men.” The maid shuddered. “Not giving away where the children were hidden, even though they put a whip across her.”
Lothíriel did not want to be reminded what men were capable of. Others might think it romantic that Elphir got there in time to run his sword through the Corsair captain, but no one had said exactly what Meren had suffered, at least not to her. And the thought of Meren or any other woman being at the mercy of such vileness, sickened and frightened her. But Hisael chattered on.
“Well, we might not have been expecting to have a new princess here, but with Lady Eglaneth gone back to her family, Lady Meren will be a good companion for you. More your age as well. She will be able to accompany you on all sorts of outings.”
Outings! Lothíriel wondered if Hisael lived in the past. The only outings she got now were taken in the company of her guard. Even a trip to the port called for major organization. Meren didn’t ride, and Lothíriel doubted she would be allowed to drive her new sister anywhere without considerable protection. Maybe something would happen to change her life – preferably Erchi coming across that pig Umar on a dark night! But for now the important thing was to see her brother married. “I had better go. Thank you, Hisael. Don’t you be late, will you? Make sure you take your seat.”
“I’ll be there, Princess. All the palace staff are really looking forward to it.”
Lothíriel hurried to the courtyard, where already many of the guests stood around talking. A quick glance told her that most were the ones who had stayed in the guest-house the night before; others were arriving at the big gates showing their invitations to Ephrem, her father’s steward. Seeing everyone so splendidly dressed, she was suddenly glad she had listened to Hisael. The ladies in particular had used the occasion, and the spring weather, to show off their finery. But when she spotted Amroth and Oríon standing under the Cedar tree in the corner by the gate, she saw it was not just the ladies who had made a real effort. Amroth might be her brother, but she recognized how attractive he must be to others: fine sculpted features, shoulder length straight black hair, lively black eyes and tanned skin always evoked interest from the ladies young and old, and in the blue and silver uniform of a Swan-knight, he looked magnificent. Oríon, too! Equally as dark as Amroth, standing next to anyone but her brother, he would be considered extremely handsome. She was used to seeing him pouring over plans in ink-stained brown serge, but today he wore a dark red embroidered tunic and must have polished up his sword for the occasion. Grinning, she headed in their direction but then stopped as she saw both their heads turn in unison, eyes following a young woman with fair curls who clung to the arm of a overly dressed man twice her width and old enough to be her father. Amroth leaned towards Oríon and said something that caused him to laugh. Men were awful! Thank goodness she couldn’t hear the conversation.
Amroth set his gaze on the girl’s behind. A very nice behind: firm and rounded. A few yards past them she twisted her head, glancing at him over her shoulder. “Told you,” Amroth said. “I said she’d look if I winked at her. That’s one mug you owe me. And I wager I get a kiss before the night is out.”
“She’s married to him.” Oríon hissed.
“A mug says I can get a kiss and if they stay more than a night it will be something more. Pretty women married to ugly old men are the easiest to seduce. You ought to try it.” Amroth cocked one eyebrow at his friend, enjoying his discomfiture.
“And risk being challenged?” Oríon flashed back. “No thank you! I haven’t your skill with a sword.”
“That’s the beauty of it – that lump of lard could no more wield a sword than I could jump over the bell tower. All he has in his favour are his riches.”
Orion pulled a face. “Even so, he could pay someone to run you through. Surely there are plenty of unmarried ones to play around with.”
“And end up tying the knot? Not likely! Wives and widows are safer game…”Amroth closed his mouth with a snap as he realized his sister was within earshot.
“You two look guilty. You must be planning something.”
Amroth grinned. “Nothing you want to know about, sweet sister.” Casting an appreciative eye over her, he took her arm. “You look lovely, I was worried you were going to appear in that awful, grey smock thing. You’ve scarcely worn anything else lately.”
“You’d hardly expect her to, would you, working in the Healing-house.” Oríon remarked, all practicality.
“Precisely.” Lothíriel agreed before subjecting the pair to scrutiny. “And you both look mighty dashing. Are you out to break some hearts?”
Oríon smothered a laugh. Amroth glared at him to shut him up. The trouble was with Lothíriel – you never knew quite what she saw. “Oops,” He squeezed her arm, relieved to be able to change the subject. “Father is beckoning us from the top of the steps. I think we are meant to take our places.” He looked across and raised a hand to his father.
Satisfied he had got Amroth’s attention and his son would steer the lingerers in, Imrahil returned inside and joined Elphir, Erchi and Faramir. Elphir did not appear at all nervous and apart from occasionally fingering his sword, waited quietly for his bride to appear. The guests had started filing into their seats and the oohs and ahhs coming from their lips repaid Imrahil for the enormous cost of decking out the Hall. Tradition in the Palace was for weddings to take place in the afternoon, so as one couldn’t rely on candles to soften the solid stone of the Great Hall, the tables had been covered with swathes of blue silk. Masses of bluebells stood in the centre of the tables, held tall in silver vases, and more filled every window ledge. An army of foresters had collected them from the woods that clothed the southern slopes of the Tarnost Hills and although they would only last one day, the spectacle made the effort worthwhile. Then sensing stiffening in Elphir’s posture, Imrahil looked over to the door that led from the East-wing. Sure enough, a guard held it open and he could just glimpse Meren and her father and brother. She entered head held high, but a tell-tale blush stained her cheeks. In pale yellow silk, her delicate features framed by soft curls, she reminded him of a shyly opening primrose.
Seeing the joy on his son’s face when the blue and yellow ribbons were wound around their hands made Imrahil glad he had agreed to the match. Not that he could fault Meren, a pretty little thing who had behaved with bravery and dignity when her brother’s house had been stormed by hordes of raiding corsairs. But it was not the marriage he’d planned for his eldest son. The daughter of a minor-lord she might be, but she brought no land with her and no benefit to Dol Amroth. However, Elphir had proved intractable and as he did not wish to be at odds with his first-born, he had accepted the situation gracefully. Denethor had accepted it less gracefully, but the Steward’s opposition had fuelled his own determination to be master in his own house. He’d had enough of Denethor’s meddling over the Umar debacle. But as often the case, standing firm had caused Denethor to relent, and at least he had allowed Faramir to attend the wedding, not being able to spare both his sons from the Eastern front. As Imrahil saw it, fate had taken Meren to her brother’s house on the coast to help look after her nieces and nephews while their parents visited away, and fate had taken Elphir there is time to save her from rape and slavery. Who was he, a mere Prince of Gondor, to argue with fate?
Weddings were always joyful, and those held in the Palace famed for their magnificence. And if they appreciated the adornments made to the Hall for their pleasure, the guests couldn’t complain about the food either. The feast as good as any served up in Merethrond. The music too, the harpers of Dol Amroth were reckoned to be the best in the land, but he decided that the woman playing at that moment excelled anything he had ever heard. Of course, even though she lived in the mountains she hailed from the coast, not far from Dol Amroth. Her origins apparent from the lyre she played so skilfully: it had been made from the shell of a large sea-turtle. Her stirring voice filled the Hall with melody as she sang a ballad of two lovers shipwrecked on a lonely shore. Imrahil sat back in his chair studying her – Duinhir was a lucky man: rich chestnut hair fell in waves down her back and her skin, white and creamy, looked untouched by the harsh mountain winds. It looked as if that daughter of his, sitting at her mother’s feet, would grow up to be a beauty, too. Still scrawny, and a year or two younger than Lothíriel, she had her mother’s burnished hair and fine bone structure. A nudge in his ribs brought him out of his reverie.
“Father, the tide will be falling. You have to make your speech.”
Imrahil grinned. His son was eager to take his bride away, and he couldn’t blame him. All the Lords of Dol Amroth took their brides to the tower on a small island just off the shore. Reached by a causeway uncovered at half-tide, it contained everything needed for twenty-four hours of bliss. No wonder Elphir oozed impatience; he didn’t want to miss a moment. Imrahil kept the speech short. What was there to say – that he hoped they would have a long and happy life together and he would be blessed by many grandchildren. He said it, but did he believe it? Only a fool could not see that the days were getting darker and the threat closer. Pushing such thoughts aside, Imrahil lifted his goblet.
Moments later they were outside. Resplendent in dress uniforms, the mounted guard waited. Amroth led up Elphir’s horse, clothed for the occasion in a blue quarter-sheet richly embroidered with silver swan-ships. Imrahil didn’t hear what Amroth whispered in his elder brother’s ear but took a guess as to the content when Elphir good-naturedly cuffed his cheeky sibling. Not surprisingly, first Erchi and then Faramir took the opportunity of Elphir’s lapse of attention to kiss the bride. Meren’s colour deepened, hand flying to hot cheeks. She looked as sweet as a posy of spring flowers. Elphir put his arm around her, whispering something that made her smile. Embarrassment forgotten, she readily let herself be gathered into her new husband’s arms to be lifted into the saddle. Then when he swung up behind her she waved to the crowd before cuddling happily back against him. Banners flying, the procession made their way towards the gate.
With the dancing about to start, guests started making their way back into the Great Hall, but Amroth waited, listening to the cheering as the bridal pair and their escort made their way down the street to the city gates. When the cheers died away he headed inside. A whole evening of entertainment lay ahead, but first he intended to seek out Lothíriel. She looked ravishing in that dress and he’d already noted glances being thrown in her direction by a number of young nobles. Well, they could damn well keep away from her! If necessary he’d stay beside her all night. But he need not have worried, for when he spotted her she was sitting on a side-bench with Faramir, enthralled in deep conversation. This luckily left him free to pursue his own agenda.
Gárbald gave one sharp bark, but when he recognized the intruder his belly hit the floor; tail thumping the ground he crept submissively forward in a collie welcome. “You’re an old softie,” Éomer chided him. He bent to pull at the dog’s ears but hearing a click behind him, swung round. Mouth open in surprise, and with the baby on her hip, Bergit stood in the doorway staring at him. Realizing the identity of her visitor her blue eyes lit with pleasure, and surprise turned into an elated smile. A jolt shot through him as he realised how much he had missed her. But before he even had time to offer a greeting Éomund launched himself through the door, throwing his chubby arms around Éomer’s legs. “Éomer! Éomer! New horse. Want ride,” the little boy entreated him. Laughing, Éomer picked him up. “You have to be introduced first. Firefoot has to get to know you before he will allow you on his back.”
Fearlessly, the little boy stretched out a hand, roughly smoothing it down Firefoot’s long nose. “Friendly horse,” Éomund announced as Firefoot did no more than push his muzzle against soft fingers. It always amazed Éomer how the most formidable war-horse would be gentle with a child. When Bergit joined them she greeted him courteously and with obvious pleasure, but from her hip Félewyn glared at him with all the suspicion of a shy one-year old. A grin from a tall stranger, wearing unfamiliar armour, caused the babe to hide her head in her mother’s breast. Éomer let her be for the moment: he didn’t know Félewyn like he knew her brother. She had been mostly asleep the few times they had met before. Instead he concentrated on Bergit: knowing she would try to deny it, he wanted to read her face; discover if her difficult life had worn her down. Open and honest as always, she met his gaze squarely, but he detected tension around her eyes, worry lines he had not seen there before. His continued scrutiny brought slight colour to her cheeks and she dropped her eyes, veiling the slight anguish he had sensed. “Ride now?” Éomund lifted his eager face to Éomer’s, tugging at his collar to draw his idol’s attention away from his mother.
“Don’t pester Éomer,” Bergit scolded him. But her words were lost in laughter as her son struggled around in Éomer’s arms, desperately trying to grab Firefoot’s saddle and heave himself onto the horse’s back. Before Firefoot objected to the harsh treatment, Éomer settled the little boy on the saddle, holding him with one arm and the reins with the other.
“Let go! Let go!” Éomund demanded. Firefoot twitched his ears, but otherwise looked resigned to having a child bouncing around on his back, so Éomer let the rein rest on his neck and took hold of the bridle.
“Hold on tight, then,” he ordered. “It’s a long way to fall.” The boy needed a pony, but Éomer knew providing one was probably out of the question for his parents now. He’d give it some thought; work out how he could gift one to the children without causing too much talk.
“He’s well behaved for a stallion, Éomer, and lovely with Éomund.” She ran her eyes expertly over the horse. “Did Alfhére breed him? He looks like one of Wingfoot’s.”
He’d forgotten that Bergit, born and brought up with the herds, would have no trouble recognising Firefoot’s bloodline. And she would have ridden bareback from childhood; Éomund must be given the chance, too. “Yes, he’s a great lad. As long as you give him plenty to keep his mind occupied.”
“There are all like that, mare mooning, we used to call it. If they are not performing, they are thinking about it.”
Éomer chuckled. Her matter-of-fact assessment of a stallion’s behaviour didn’t surprise him: the girls that worked with the horses always so straightforward about such things. But a small hand grabbed his arm impatiently, so with a sideways grin to Bergit, he ran with Firefoot to the end of the yard. Éomund pounded his heels into the horse’s side. “Faster! Faster, Éomer!” Riding boots were not made for running, and a good job he had hold of the bridle —he had visions of the boy and horse trying to jump the gate. Bergit shook with laughter as the chickens scattered in all directions, even little Félewyn stared mesmerized at the spectacle. Bergit had chosen her son’s name well: Éomund would no doubt turn out to be as fearless and reckless as his namesake. He guided Firefoot in a circle back towards his mother ready for another circuit of the yard. Tomorrow he’d take him in the paddock.
“I will go and see to the supper, Éomer. Don’t let him wear you out.” Bergit turned to go inside but Éomer, bringing Firefoot to a halt, called softly.
”Bergit, how is Edwick?” Éomer gave the reins to Éomund to play with, and waited for her to answer.
Glancing at the kitchen door she moved closer to him, dropping her voice. “He is not well, Éomer. He tries his best to keep cheerful for the children and me. But the life has gone out of him. And he gets breathless. They say it is water on his chest because of his bulk. Although he seems to be shrinking in front of me.”
“And how are you managing? What about the business?”
“We are not doing too badly. Elthain will never be the craftsman Edwick was, but he makes a living and pays us what he can. Though it pains Edwick to see him doing things that he used to do so much better.”
Éomer could understand that and felt nothing but pity for his friend. “I’ll stable Firefoot and then come in.” He winked at her. “Éomund can help me, it will be quicker.”
Bergit smiled, throwing her son a fond glance. “Edwick will be glad to see you. He could do with some male company. Sometimes his cousin spends the evening with him. But he will stay late and Edwick gets tired easily and then cannot get comfortable in the bed. The healer gave me herbs for him, they help him sleep.”
With Firefoot comfortable, Éomer sent Éomund back into the house while he removed his armour and cleaned himself up; by the time he entered the kitchen appetising smells were coming from a large pot on the stove. The last time Éomer had seen Edwick it was just before Yule and now his appearance shocked him. Legs covered by a blanket, he sat in a chair by the stove, a leather strap helping to keep him upright. His once healthy face gaunt and sallow. Éomer supposed the winter and lack of fresh air had done that. But Edwick’s eyes still held a spark of fire and he grasped Éomer’s hand with near his usual strength. “Killed any orcs, Warrior?”
“Not recently.” Éomer replied clasping his shoulder with his other hand. “But the next one I get will be dedicated to you.” Edwick had never seen an orc but hated them nonetheless, and had always enjoyed reports of their demise. Éomer passed him all the news he could during the meal, and after supper they played a few games of Tafl whilst Bergit saw to the children. “I’ll bring a chess board and teach you,” Éomer offered. “I should be around a lot, now the weather is easing.”
“Hmm, they play in the tavern sometimes and I’ve watched a few times in the past, but I don’t know if I will ever learn the moves. And besides,” he grinned. “I can beat you at Tafl.”
“Are you up for one more game? I need my revenge.” Mindful of Bergit’s words he did not want to overtire the man. They played another game and halfway through Bergit joined them, sitting near the candle with a garment of Éomund’s and a needle and thread. Éomer wondered if she rested at all, but when he looked she was watching him not her stitching. She said nothing but a tiny muscle quivered at the side of her mouth before she dropped her eyes to her work again. He lost the game.
“Do you want any help?” Éomer asked when they put the board away.
But Edwick shook his head. “I still have the strength to drag myself and I’d rather that than anyone carry me, even though you probably could now. Bergit will see to me.”
“Then I will say goodnight to you both.” He guessed Edwick did not want him watching the struggle he had with unresponsive limbs.
Bergit picked up her work and cleared away their mugs. “Take a lamp, Éomer. And will you let Gárbald out for a moment. I’ll let him back in when I’ve finished with Edwick.”
The dog heaved himself up from the mat, tail waving as Éomer went to the door. “You’ve got it easy,” Éomer admonished him, “sleeping in the house.”
“Gárbald’s getting older and this winter was so cold.” Bergit said, patting the collie’s head. “He’s got used to it now and I don’t like to make him stay out.”
When he went outside, the night had darkened, low cloud cover hid the moon. Gárbald disappeared into the gloom, but since he couldn’t get out of the yard Éomer didn’t bother about him. Instead he went to check on Firefoot, raising the lamp above the stable door to cast enough light to see. He chuckled. “You and me both, friend.” The stallion, having eaten his fill and with nothing else to do, passed the time in a soporific trance. The subject of his dreaming evident as he thumped his erection against his belly. Éomer left him to it, the horse obviously well settled in the strange stable.
A while later, just about to enter dreamland himself, the click of the latch brought him fully awake.
“Sh…, it’s only me.”
“Bergit…? Is everything all right?” His first thought was that Edwick needed help.
“Yes, fine. There’s nothing wrong.” She closed the door softly behind her. The candle she held flickering light on her pale face.
Sitting up, he stared at her. Vaguely he realised she was untying the woollen robe she wore. But the significance of her action didn’t really resister until he saw her shapely body outlined by the thin nightgown. She stepped right up to the narrow bed and caught hold of the edge of the quilt. “Move over, Éomer.”
“What!” Béma! This was no dream.
“Move over. I am coming in.”
Like lightening he grabbed the quilt, holding it tightly so she could not lift it. “No, you can’t. What about Edwick?”
“I still love him, Éomer. This makes no difference to how I feel for him. And if it were not for the accident I would never be here.” Her eyes bored into his. “But you know you want this. You’ve always wanted it.”
And he thought he’d hidden his feelings well. Éomer swallowed: so much wanting to pull her down on top of him, but hating himself for even considering it. “Edwick will know you’re not there. I couldn’t bear to hurt him, Bergit.”
“No, he won’t. He has the herbs, they keep him asleep. And if one of the children wakes, well, I left the kitchen door ajar and Gárbald will come and find me. He knows I’m here.”
Still Éomer hesitated, his head pounding with indecision. Bergit placed her hands on his chest, pushing him back down on the bed. “I need someone to hold me. Some relief from the drudgery of it all. Please, Éomer, you must understand that.”
His eyes locked to hers, Éomer relaxed his hold on the quilt. Bergit bent her head, and the touch of her lips crushed the last remnant of his restraint.
To be continued.
My thanks to Lia.
And I am indebted to Sulriel for her insight into the behaviour of stallions.
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.