10. Chapter 10
I stumbled along in Éomer's wake, my mind spinning wildly. Thirst quencher? He thirsted for me? Surely there could be no other explanation for his words, not the way he had said them. This was no Gondorian courtier offering polite words of admiration to his prince's daughter; this was a man who knew what he wanted. And intended to have it. Alarm mixed with excitement ran through me as he pulled me into a dance.
To be abruptly replaced by worry of a different kind. "Éomer, I don't know the steps to this dance!"
Slipping an arm around my waist, he laughed. "It's easy. Trust me, I won't let you trip."
As if I weighed no more than thistle down, he spun me round and into the midst of the other dancers. The fiddlers' fingers chased across the strings of their instruments and drums beat a rhythm like a racing heart. I was used to Gondor's stately court dances, their every step prescribed, and faltered at what looked like wild confusion to me. But Éomer guided me along with a firm hand on my back, and I found it was not so difficult after all.
"See," he said, "I knew you would do fine. So, are you enjoying your first Yule here?"
Breathless, I smiled up at him. It was rather disconcerting how close he held me while we whirled round. "It's very different from home."
"I imagine so." He grimaced. "I'm afraid you had rather a rough introduction to the Mark, but I hope you like it here nevertheless."
I knew he meant the troubles encountered in Aldburg and Edoras, but I could not help remembering our first meeting. "Yes, it was rough," I agreed. "A certain Third Marshal nearly made me turn back on the spot."
That elicited a chuckle from him. "I'm glad you didn't!"
The dance came to an end just then, but he gave nobody else the chance to claim my hand, glaring at any riders daring to approach me. The musicians downed a quick round of ale and started playing again - a slower tune, similar steps. But I nearly exclaimed in surprise when, after about ten strokes of the music, Éomer took me by the waist and lifted me high in the air. However, all around us the other couples did the same, and I realized it was part of the dance. There was a definite twinkle in his eyes as he set me down on my feet. He had felt my surprise and was enjoying himself!
"After all," he took up the conversation again, "you've saved my skin several times already."
Abruptly recalling my earlier misgivings, I clutched his arm. "Éomer, I have to talk to you!"
He tensed at my tone. "Why? Has something happened?"
"Wormtongue!" he exclaimed and came to a halt. "What did he do? Let me tell you, I do not like it one bit the way he watches you and Éowyn. If he dared to touch-"
"No, no!" I tried to calm him. "Nothing of the sort." People were staring at us, and I tugged at him to start dancing again.
Reluctantly he complied, but his face betrayed his murderous thoughts. "One of these days I will..."
"That's exactly what I'm worried about," I broke in. "Éomer, he hates you! Please be more careful around him."
His face cleared. "You're worried about me?" For some reason the thought seemed to please him. "Don't be, I can take care of myself."
"You did not see the look in his eyes when you put him down just now. The man is dangerous!"
He shrugged carelessly. "As you said, he hates me anyway. It won't make any difference if I let him know what I think of him."
That did not exactly ease my misgivings. "Promise me you will watch your temper with him," I begged, clasping his arm and looking up at him imploringly.
A sudden grin chased across his face. "Do you know, I think I like it when you worry about me."
The cheek of the man! He laughed at my outrage, and lifted me in the air again. "But I promise to take care."
Mollified, I smiled down at him. How exhilarating it was to be swung around so effortlessly!
"And anyway," he continued, "we agreed to only talk of pleasant things today. Remember our pact? Breaking it carries dire penalties."
"What sort of penalties?" I asked, amused.
Another turn, lifted again. "Oh, I'll think of something," he answered. "Mucking out stables? Patching up more grumpy warriors?"
"That sounds grim," I agreed.
By now the dance floor was crowded with couples. Both Erkenbrand's twin daughters had found partners, and I saw Éowyn dancing with one of the young guards she often sparred with. She laughed out loud at something he said, her usual reserve absent. Then with a last flourish the dance finished. We had ended up near the main doors, which stood wide open tonight to allow guests to pass in and out, and suddenly Éomer pulled me towards them.
"Would you like some fresh air?"
"I'm not sure..."
"It will do us good to cool down after the dancing," he declared.
A couple of Meduseld's young pages leant against the wall, and after an exchange in Rohirric too quick for me to follow, one of them ran off. With the same autocratic manner as before, Éomer lead me through the doors and out onto the terrace. His smile dared me to protest.
I deigned to let this pass, but lifted my chin, letting him know I would not always be so compliant. The man was entirely too sure of himself! However, when we strolled to the edge of the terrace to have a look at the square below, the night air felt pleasantly cool after the crowded hall. To our right the waning moon was rising behind the mountains, turning the straw roofs of Edoras to spun silver. By now the bonfire had burnt down to a bed of glowing coals, and some of the young men made a game of taking a run-up and jumping across the embers while the girls watched them and clapped.
"Is it safe?" I could not help asking.
"No," Éomer replied, "but tonight is not a night to think of safety."
His low, dark voice made me suddenly overwhelmingly conscious of how close to me he stood. Close enough to touch. I stole a glance out of the corner of my eye at him and then quickly looked away when I saw him watching me.
Running steps approached from behind. It was the young page from the hall and he carried a bundle in his arms. "Here it is, my Lord Marshal," he panted, handing it over.
Éomer smiled at the lad. "Thank you, Caelin. You're very quick."
"At your service, my lord!" With a bob of his head the boy took his leave.
Éomer shook out the bundle and with a start I recognized the dark blue wool. "That's my cloak!"
"Of course. I can't have you freezing to death out here, you know."
The confidence with which he took charge not only of my person, but also of my possessions robbed me of my breath. Éomer stepped round my back. "Allow me." He settled the cloak round my shoulders, and as he did so, his hands brushed against the bare skin of my neck. The faint contact sent a shiver through me.
"See, you're cold," he whispered. Sliding his hand under my hair, he pulled it out from under the cloak and with a deft flick let it fall across my back. His hand lingered there, and for a heartbeat the world around us hushed and I was aware of nothing but his presence next to me.
Then a group of revellers spilled out of the hall, laughing and talking loudly. "Have a happy Yule!" they shouted.
At the first disturbance Éomer had interposed himself between the merrymakers and myself, but he relaxed again just as quickly. One of the group, a young woman, carried a basket on her arm. Approaching us, she took something from it and held it out to Éomer. "A Yule bun for you and your lady, my lord?"
He accepted it with a bow. "Thank you."
With a pert smile she whirled around and the whole lot descended the stairs to join the group around the bonfire, where they were welcomed with loud cheers. Éomer snorted with amusement when he saw somebody lugging out a fresh cask of ale. "They will pay for that in the morning."
He led me to one of the stone seats where usually the doorwardens held their watch. With the doors to Meduseld open to all guests, they stood empty tonight, although I supposed there were still men on guard around Edoras.
"Would you like to sit down?" Éomer asked. He settled me on the smooth stone bench and then seated himself at the other end. Breaking the bread roll apart, he held out one half to me.
"What is this?" I asked, accepting it.
"A special bun baked only on Yule." He leaned back against the stone seat, the moonlight illuminating his face. "It is said that two people sharing one will do so again the next year."
I hesitated in the middle of raising the bread to my lips. Who could say where and in whose company I would be celebrating the next Yule? But I would not think of that. Not tonight. Very deliberately I took a bite of my bun. Sweet and sticky with honey, tasting of cinnamon, cloves and other spices.
Éomer smiled as if he'd been given an unexpected gift and popped his own half in his mouth, his eyes never leaving mine. "Thank you, Lothíriel," he said.
"For sharing today with me," he said in a low voice. "For making me forget about war and fighting." He turned his head and looked out over the plains. "Tell me, Lothíriel, what do you want in life?"
I hesitated. It was the kind of question that could only be asked in the darkness of a star strewn night and it demanded honesty. "Not having to worry about my loved ones all the time," I answered at last, "marrying a man of my own choosing, having a family one day, I suppose..." Modest wishes. Impossible to fulfil.
He nodded. "Sometimes I dream that the Mark is a place where those who want to live in peace can do so. Where a Third Marshal can settle down to raise horses and fade into obscurity."
His hair spilled across the backrest next to me, and a strand brushed against my shoulder. The crazy impulse to lace my fingers in it ran through me, taking my breath away with its urgency. I clasped my hands in my lap.
"When I was a child we used to spend part of each summer on the Emnet, in tents," he went on, "following my father's horse herds. In the morning we would rise with the sun and in the evenings we'd sit round the campfire and the adults would tell stories. My mother knew the most wonderful tales. We lived very simply, but how I loved those summers." He looked straight at me. "Lothíriel, do you think you could come to like this land?"
I froze, suddenly afraid of where his question was leading. When I did not answer, he bent forward and picked up my hand, slowly tracing the shape of my fingers. "I know you're used to more luxurious surroundings, yet you have settled in here so well..."
Panic rose within me, but I felt unable to move. "Éomer-"
With his other hand he cupped my cheek, leaning towards me. "I realize that at the moment I am away from Aldburg very often, but surely, when times are better..."
Some things were impossible, even on a night like this. I took a deep breath, a sob almost. "I can't."
He stopped, arrested in mid motion. Desperately I groped for something to say to ease the situation. "You're breaking the pact. Remember? We agreed not to speak of the future."
Éomer searched my face, then slowly inclined his head. "Very well, I won't...at least not tonight."
His palm still rested against my cheek. Calloused and a little rough, but very warm. I was exquisitely aware of him: the way his eyes had turned to black pools in the moonlight, the slight smell of ale on his breath, how one knee touched my own. His hair had fallen forward and it would be so easy to reach out and bury my hands in it. Heat flushed through me and coiled into a tight knot in my belly. For a heartbeat I teetered on the edge of throwing all caution to the winds and kissing him.
The call of a horn emanated from the hall.
I jumped at the sudden sound, feeling as if I had been forcefully pulled back from a precipice. "What is that!"
Frowning, Éomer lowered his hand. "The call for the Yule cup."
Without his touch, all warmth drained out of me and I started to shiver. Forlorn, I wrapped my cloak more tightly around me. "What does it mean?"
"It marks the end of the feast. We will have to go back inside."
He offered me his arm and we returned to the hall. But on the threshold he held me back a moment. "Lothíriel, I'm sorry if I was too bold just now. I would not want to pressure you."
I shook my head, unable to voice the emotions coursing through me. On one hand I knew I could not escape the bonds of my station and felt relieved that nothing had happened between us, on the other hand that same fact filled me with a maddening regret. But I could not tell him that, so by common consent we threaded our way along the edge of the crowd towards the dais.
"The call has come very early," Éomer observed as we ascended the steps.
That explained the disappointed faces all around me. Servants were busy carrying in trays of cups filled with ale and started handing them out. When we reached the high table I saw that our goblets had already been filled.
Prince Théodred handed me mine and turned to Éomer. "So you have finally decided to return my Hunt Queen?"
Unabashed, Éomer grinned. "Only because I had to."
"I had hoped for a dance myself," the prince added, "before having her so impudently abducted from under my protection."
Éomer's eyes glittered with amusement. "It was my turn, cousin. After all, you had her company all through dinner."
Prince Théodred bowed to me. "But not enough of it. I am deeply disappointed to have been robbed of my chance for a turn on the dance floor with you, my lady."
Not quite sure how serious his complaint was meant, I smiled back politely. "I would have been honoured to partner you. Maybe another time, my Lord Prince."
"I will keep you to your word. I saw that you are an excellent dancer."
"So she is," Éomer agreed, a bland expression on his face. He seemed very pleased with himself.
Prince Théodred's eyes narrowed. "And where exactly did you disappear to after the dancing?"
"Lothíriel felt the need for some fresh air, so we went to sit outside the hall for a little while."
The prince raised one eyebrow. I did not think Éomer's use of my first name escaped him, and suddenly I wondered who else might have noticed our absence. Perhaps we had not been altogether discreet? Under Prince Théodred's scrutiny I could feel my cheeks starting to heat up.
Éomer saved me from having to say anything further by changing the topic. "Théodred, why was the end called so early?"
The prince shrugged. "My father's wish apparently."
Gríma's, I thought. The councillor looked rather pleased with himself for spoiling everybody else's enjoyment of the evening. He was watching Éowyn, whose face held nothing but cold politeness. A sure sign she was hiding some strong emotion - as no doubt Gríma knew as well.
Once all his guests had been served, the king rose from his chair, assisted by his guards. However, it was Prince Théodred who spoke the traditional farewell words in his stead. "Share this cup with me," he said, "and may good fortune go with all assembled here."
He lifted his goblet to his lips and drained it in one go. We all followed suit, but after the first sip I nearly choked. So bitter! The ale must have come from near the bottom of the barrel, for it tasted strange. Out of the corner of my eye I looked at the men beside me, but none of them seemed to notice anything amiss. Trying to be polite, I forced another mouthful down, but then had to put the cup aside, hopefully unobserved. A wave of dizziness swept through me.
Fortunately the king retired to his rooms just then and the ladies of the household followed suit. Some of the men were likely to remain talking over a last mug of ale, but the celebration had ended and there would be no more dancing. At the door I threw a last look back. Éomer was watching me. As I had known he would be.
Back in the quiet of my room I took off my cloak and sank down on my bed. Lifting a hand to my cheek, it seemed to me I could still feel Éomer's touch there. Perhaps I always would.
"What a fool you are," I whispered to myself.
I had been playing with fire, I realized. And worse, wanted nothing more than to throw myself into the flames. Wanted him to slip his arms around me, to draw me close, to kiss me, to...
I groaned and buried my head in my hands. Fool, fool, fool! The bitter taste of the ale still lingered in my mouth, clashing with the sweetness of the Yule bun, and I could feel a headache forming. When had I lost my heart to the Third Marshal? Listening to him telling me about his childhood while patching up his wound? When he had said goodbye to me in the stables? Or when he had smiled at me on the road to Edoras? In any case, a long time ago and I had closed my eyes to it ever since. Until today.
The thing was, I didn't even know why I liked him. Quick to lose his temper, he had been authoritarian and highhanded in his dealings with me from the start. I smiled at the memory of our first encounter. Or how he had steered me out of the hall earlier on without giving me the slightest say in it. The man liked to get his way! But at the same time I knew he would never coerce me into anything I did not want - I was safe with him. For some reason I felt more alive in his presence than I had ever felt before. As if something about him strung an answering chord deep in my soul. And he felt the same! Had said as much. Fire kindler. Thirst quencher. He had intended to ask me to marry him, of that I was sure.
Feeling dizzy, I leant back against the headboard of the bed and pressed the palms of my hands against my eyes. What would my answer have been if we had not been interrupted by the call for the Yule cup? To marry him! For a brief moment I indulged myself with the vision of Meduseld filled with guests, my family amongst them, Éomer and me on the dais exchanging vows.
Which left running away with Éomer as the only option. Startled by the thought, I opened my eyes and lowered my hands. Where had that idea come from! To run away and marry him in secret? Slowly I traced the shape of my fingers, just as he had done. Live in Aldburg with him, share his life, his worries, his bed...
Denethor would be livid! But could he do anything? Yes, he could, I realized with a sinking heart. The Steward's displeasure was not a matter lightly chanced, and he held his grudges with legendary tenacity. Surely he would bring all his influence to bear on having Éomer disgraced - and Wormtongue would be only too pleased to oblige him. Leaving Éomer's people without their protector. What would he think of me then?
A wave of dismay swept through me. It seemed to me that whatever I chose, I would lose what I wanted most. My head pounding, I got up to wash my face. I needed to clear my mind, to think things through.
A loud knock sounded on the door. One hand on the water jug, I froze. Could it be him?
"Who is it?" I called. To my annoyance my voice came out in a squeak.
"Captain Wulfstan," the answer came.
I knew the man was one of Gríma's few adherents amongst the king's guard. What did he want with me? Deeply uneasy, I crossed the room and opened the door.
"What is the matter?" I asked, drawing myself up to my full height and using my most imperious tone.
His glance flicked over me and I fancied I saw a trace of disappointment. Had he thought to catch me in my nightgown? "Princess Lothíriel," he answered, "the king wishes to see you."
The king? At this time? I frowned at Wulfstan. "The hour is late, surely-"
"King Théoden insists," he interrupted me smoothly, "for the matter is pressing."
You did not defy a king in his own house. "Very well," I agreed, motioning him to precede me. We did not meet anybody in the passageway, although the murmur of voices reached me from the door leading to the Hall. Was Éomer still up? The mad impulse to dash in there and seek shelter in his arms ran through me.
I suppressed it.
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.