12. Chapter 12
I hardly slept at all that night, and when towards dawn I finally slipped into a fitful slumber, my dreams were troubled by pale faces leering at me. Far too early, one of the maids woke me. Not that I complained - after all I had asked Lord Erkenbrand to arrange for an early wake-up call. Grimly I set about packing.
Smallclothes, chemises, a nightgown, riding jacket and skirts, my second best boots, three woollen dresses. My healer's satchel of course, and the small purse of gold coins that Dirhael had given to me for my expenses before leaving. The books would have to stay behind, I realized with a pang, as I needed all the room in my saddlebags for my warm clothes. I traced the embossed spines for one last time before putting them aside. From the desk, Éomer's carved horse watched me accusingly.
Impulsively I tossed Felaróf on top of the growing pile on the bed. "You're coming with me!"
In the corner by the door, my red dress lay like a pool of congealed blood where I had thrown it last night. One thing I did not need to pack, I thought with a shudder, for I had no intention of ever wearing it again.
Sooner than I would have thought possible I was ready, and summoned a page to carry my bags out for me. He went on ahead, but I lingered to pick up my cloak and have a last look at my room. Over the last months it had become home to me, and I would miss it. The cushioned window seat so comfortable for reading one's books, the bed where I had laboured over my kites for many an hour, the chair by my desk where he had sat while I dressed his wound. Pushing that last memory firmly away, I turned to leave. I could not afford any weakness now. At the last moment I snatched my bow from its resting place on the weapons stand. Although there was little likelihood of needing it again.
In the hallway I ran into Éowyn. My heart sank, for I felt guilty for abandoning her to face Wormtongue's wiles all on her own. But what else could I do? Surely seeing her brother accused of plotting to seize the throne for himself would be even worse.
"Lothíriel!" she called. "The servants have told me you are leaving. Surely they are mistaken?"
"No, they're not," I replied, aware of many curious glances cast my way. "Ceolwen has been so kind as to invite me for a visit to the Westfold."
"But so sudden!"
I took her arm and drew her down the corridor. "I know. However, I might not get another chance to see that part of the country, so I decided to take her up on her offer." The excuse sounded horribly thin.
Éowyn did not think much of it either. "What do you want to do there?" she asked. "And in the middle of winter of all times."
I shrugged evasively. "I've read a lot about the fortress of Helm's Deep and would like to see it for myself."
We had reached the door leading to the terrace, but Éowyn held me back. "Lothíriel, have you told Éomer you're leaving?"
"Éowyn," I interrupted her, "I do not have to account to your brother for my actions."
"But I thought... you spent the whole evening together yesterday... perhaps you reached some kind of understanding?"
"Really, Éowyn," I laughed, doing my best to sound like the spoilt court ladies I had met in Minas Tirith, "your imagination is running away with you. We just shared a dance!"
She stared at me. "It was more than that. The way he called you his thirst quencher!"
"You're attaching too much importance to a silly game," I told her.
Éowyn tightened her grip on my arm. "How can you say that! I've never before seen him look at a woman in such a way."
For a moment I forgot the role I was playing. "No?"
"Certainly not!" she exclaimed. "You can't be serious to be leaving with Théodred. What will Éomer think of you?"
Trust Éowyn to cut to the heart of the matter. Yet I could not possibly explain my true reasons to her and expect her to keep silent about them to her brother. No, I could not tell her, or Gríma would surely carry through his threats.
"Éowyn, nothing happened between us last night," I lied to her ruthlessly, hoping she could not see the truth in my eyes. "You are reading too much into a harmless little flirtation. I'm sorry to be leaving you so suddenly, but it's for the best."
"A flirtation!" She let go of my arm in disgust. "I can't believe it. You're nothing but a heartless Gondorian princess out for another conquest! I had thought better of you."
That hurt, but I could not afford to let her see it, so I just shrugged. "No harm done."
For a moment I thought that she would strike me, but instead she whirled round and ran back down the corridor. Wiping a tear from the corner of my eye, I watched her go. Why did it feel as if I had betrayed her when I was only doing the right thing? Straightening my back, I went out the door.
Icy wind whipped around me and snowflakes stung my cheeks, falling from a sky the colour of lead. Wrapping my cloak tightly around me, I made my way along the side of the Hall and down the stairs. In the courtyard stable lads were leading the horses up and down to keep them warm. I saw Lord Erkenbrand with his arm around Ceolwen, talking to Prince Théodred, but no sign of Éomer. He had stayed up late the night before, maybe he was still abed? Even though the thought was cowardly, I could not help hoping that we would be gone before he got up.
Spotting one of the grooms leading Nimphelos out of the stable, I went to relieve him of the reins and retired to a quiet corner while the riders sorted themselves out. Then the doors to Meduseld opened and Éomer came striding down the stairs. Wearing a green surcoat over his hauberk and carrying his helmet under his arm, he looked impossibly handsome. Quickly I sought shelter behind Erkenbrand's daughters, turning Nimphelos so she stood between me and the courtyard. Leofe and Aeffe gave me hostile looks, but I could not be bothered with them. That moment I would have given anything in the world to be safely at home in Dol Amroth, leagues away from this place.
Had Éowyn told him yet? But when I risked a quick glance, I saw him clap his cousin's shoulder, smiling and relaxed. His squire Cnebba handed him Firefoot's reins and he thanked him with a cheerful grin. Wondering if I could somehow escape his notice in the crowd of riders, I edged towards the exit of the square, but I had not reckoned with Nimphelos. Just as I had started breathing again, she threw up her head and neighed loudly. Across the courtyard, Firefoot slewed round, nearly pulling the reins from his master's hand. Éomer cursed good-naturedly at his stallion's antics and glanced round. Our eyes met.
I ducked behind my mare's back, but it was too late. Without even looking I knew he was heading my way, and sure enough a moment later the sound of hoof beats approached and Nimphelos snorted loudly in greeting. I busied myself inspecting a stirrup.
"Lothíriel? Are you going to accompany us part of the way? Oh, and last night I found something that belongs to you."
My mind went blank. I knew I should tell him that I was leaving, but no words came. I couldn't even force myself to look at him, instead I stared at Nimphelos's saddle, committing every slight scratch on the leather to my mind, every stain, every uneven stitch.
"Lothíriel?" Éomer asked again and the concern in his voice nearly undid me. "Is something the matter?"
He reached out a hand to touch my shoulder and I shrank away from him. At the same time the impulse to fling myself into his arms nearly overpowered me. I realized then that I would have to be quick. Quick and ruthless as a surgeon cutting off an infected limb.
I forced myself to meet his eyes. "I am leaving for Helm's Deep."
"Leaving!" He let the reins go slack and at once Firefoot took the opportunity to nibble Nimphelos's neck. The mare huffed softly.
"Ceolwen has invited me to stay with her," I explained.
"But whatever for?"
"I would like to see the fortress of Helm's Deep for myself." Trotting out the excuse for the second time did not make it sound any more convincing.
Éomer shook his head as if he could not quite believe my words. "You never mentioned this to me yesterday. And neither did she."
"I did not think it necessary."
His eyes narrowed. "Are you telling me that all the while that you were dancing with me and talking to me last night, you knew you would be leaving the next day?"
I could not bear to have him think me so dishonest. But at the same time I had to keep him from suspecting the real reason for my precipitous departure - or I would just play into Gríma's hands.
"It was a sudden decision," I temporised.
Éomer seemed to be thinking furiously. "When did you decide?" he demanded to know.
How I wanted to spill out the whole story to him and find comfort in his arms. But I told myself that if I truly loved him, I would do whatever necessary to keep him safe - no matter what he thought of me. So I did my best to let the cold of the winter day leach into my voice.
"I do not see how that concerns you, my lord."
At my formal tone he flinched as if I had hit him. His face hardened. "I have to know. Did you take this decision after you retired?"
Why should he ask that? But there seemed to be no point in denying it. "Yes, I did. I visited Ceolwen for a chat before going to bed." The lie left a vile taste in my mouth.
"Did you," he whispered, and his hand went to a pocket of his trousers to clutch something. He shook his head again, very slowly, as if in denial. "I thought I knew you, Lothíriel. I thought you were..."
His voice petered out and I had to grip my arms to keep myself from flinging them around his neck. The Marshal's weakness...the mocking words still echoed in my ears. So I kept still - but my chest hurt as if it were filled with shards of ice instead of a beating heart.
Then he looked straight at me. "My Lady Princess, I am not stupid and I can tell a liar when I meet one. Master Aethelstan gave Ceolwen a sleeping draught and she would have been fast asleep by that time. There is no way you could have spoken to her."
My falsehood so mercilessly exposed, I opened and closed my mouth, not knowing what to say. How often had Amrothos told me I was hopeless at lying!
As heat flooded my cheeks, Éomer gave a curt laugh. "Oh yes! I think you went to see somebody else last night to get your invitation to visit the West Mark."
He withdrew his hand from his pocket and gold glinted in the pale winter light. My hair band! I recoiled as if he'd offered me a snake.
"What? Where did you get that?"
"On my way to bed last night. I found it lying on the floor..." He rubbed a finger across the small bend Wormtongue had made. "...outside Théodred's door. You were careless, my lady, and must have dropped it there. Did you have a nice cosy chat with my cousin?"
I opened my mouth for a hot denial, only to close it again. Trapped! How could I explain the whole affair satisfactorily without detailing my encounter with Wormtongue? And that would of course only lead to the confrontation between the two men that I had been trying so desperately to avoid.
Éomer watched me closely. When I did not answer, he nodded to himself. "Well, quite clearly Yule is over. I suppose I ought to thank you that you granted a lowly Marshal like me a day of your precious time, my Lady Princess."
Cold rage rang in his voice and I knew he would have liked to grab me and shake me hard. Yet strangely enough his temper did not frighten me - nothing he could do to me was as bad as what I was doing to myself.
To keep quiet was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. But though it felt as if my heart was slowly being torn to shreds, I inclined my head in my most regal manner. "The honour was mine."
"Honour?" Éomer put on his helmet, his eyes burning with fury behind the narrow slits. "What would you know of it?"
I bowed my head, aware that I deserved his cutting words for my lies, and pulled the edges of my cloak tighter around me. The cloak he had given me, I realized, as he looked me up and down in disgust.
"Do you want your cloak back?" I asked.
"Keep it. It was a gift, given freely," he snapped. "I will consider it the price for the lesson learnt today. And now I won't interfere with your plans any longer."
He took Firefoot's reins, but the stallion had other ideas. Laying back his ears, he reared, no doubt wanting to stay with his ladylove. Éomer had none of it. With brutal efficiency he forced the stallion down and pulled him round to leave.
"Please be careful," I whispered, but I don't think he heard me. Or if he did, he gave no sign of it.
Something made me look up to the entrance of the Hall that moment. The doors stood open and it seemed to me I could spot a movement in the shadows there. Was Gríma watching us and enjoying himself? I had intended to scotch his plans, but instead he had managed to twist my actions to hurt Éomer. True, Wormtongue could no longer use my presence as a means to provoke him, but it felt like a hollow victory. Sick to the stomach with disgust at my own lies, I swung into the saddle. Soon after, Prince Théodred gave the sign to depart, and under Éomer's stony eyes we filed out of the courtyard.
Down at the gates we picked up the rest of our escort, the prince's own éored, before crossing the Snowbourne and taking the Great West Road. Only once I allowed myself a look back at the other party of riders making their way in the opposite direction at speed. Even now my heart urged me to turn Nimphelos round and gallop after him, insisting everything would be all right if I did so. As if he would ever believe me! It seemed to me that an invisible cord connected us, stretching thinner and thinner with every pace my mare took away from him, but never quite snapping. Grateful for the icy wind, I drew up my hood and huddled deeper into my cloak. It did not warm me.
I do not remember much of the rest of that day. Prince Théodred was anxious to get back to the West Mark and set a fast pace. He dropped back to my side once, but I answered his polite enquiries with monosyllables and after a while he gave up and spent the rest of the journey riding at the front. Leofe and Aeffe threw me puzzled looks at my odd behaviour, but I just ignored them.
We spent that night at a small hamlet, its houses huddled against the mountainside, and early the next morning we set off again. Far ahead and to the north of us, the Misty Mountains drew nearer, all but their snowy peaks shrouded in clouds, while ahead of us an arm of the Ered Nimrais reached out for them. It was crowned by three jagged peaks, their slopes so steep that they remained dark and bare of snow even in the depth of winter. Here we turned south to enter the Westfold Vale, Lord Erkenbrand's domain. It was a fertile land and many homesteads dotted it, surrounded by small orchards and fields lined with low hedges. A narrow gorge led up into the hills and we followed the swift running stream that had carved it, the road rising slowly but steadily.
Miserable with cold and tired from too little sleep, I felt as if we would never reach our destination, but finally a large dike loomed up before us. The road led upward through a wide breach and as I raised my eyes I beheld the Hornburg. It lay in shadow, for the sun had already set behind the sheer mountain cliffs, a tall, forbidding tower surrounded by high walls, built close against the side of the Deeping Coomb. A mighty wall stretched across from it to the southward side of the valley, smooth and overhanging like a wave turned to stone at the moment of cresting.
In my books I had read that the Sea Kings of Gondor had built this fastness and indeed the stones were joined in the same seamless manner as those of the palace of Dol Amroth. But there the similarity ended. Where my home had wide, lofty windows open to the sea breeze, here they were mere slits in the thick walls. And instead of white walls carved with graceful vines and flowers, grey stone met us, unadorned and forbidding. A causeway led across the stream and up to the gates of the castle and we entered a small cobbled courtyard where we dismounted and had grooms lead our weary horses to the stables.
Ceolwen had started to droop in the saddle for the last few miles and Lord Erkenbrand unceremoniously swept her up and carried her inside. Saddle-sore and stiff with cold, I watched enviously, before following them into the hall of the burg. A large fire burnt in the central hearth, but did not warm the lofty room. Sitting down at the head table, I shivered as a draft from the door behind me ran down my back and I gratefully accepted a bowl of hot soup from one of the servants. They seemed flustered by the influx of so many travellers, though surely they must have known of our coming.
Lord Erkenbrand had taken his wife to their quarters and soon afterwards Prince Théodred excused himself to receive reports from his scouts, which left me in the company of the twins. Still feeling cold, I wanted nothing so much as to crawl into my bed, so I asked them whether they could show me my room.
Aeffe - I still could not tell them apart, but she told me her name - volunteered to do so and led me up a steep winding staircase to the upper levels of the tower. Here servants were readying a chamber for my use, sweeping it out and putting new sheets on the bed.
Aeffe pushed open the small window and gestured at the view hidden by the gathering darkness. "The room faces south, towards The Narrows."
I remembered something I had read in a book and my curiosity was piqued despite my tiredness. "Is it true you have extensive caves here?"
She nodded. "Yes. Nowadays we just use them for storage, but they serve as a refuge in times of war. Helm Hammerhand held out against the Dunlendings here for the whole of the Long Winter."
A chill ran down my spine, not entirely caused by the icy air entering through the open window. In my haste to get away from Edoras I had never once considered that I had moved much closer to the smouldering conflict on Rohan's western border. In fact Isengard lay little more than a day's ride away. But then I shook my head. This fortress had been built by my own people and with a single purpose: defence. It would take much more than a few marauding orc bands to threaten it.
The servants scattered fresh rushes on the floor before withdrawing, whereupon Aeffe took her leave as well. After a cursory wash I quickly slipped between the sheets of my bed, for the fire had not yet managed to warm the room. Watching shadows flicker across the high stone ceiling, I thought of my cosy room in Edoras with longing. I would miss it and also the people there. Éowyn dragging me down to the practice grounds each morning, Aethelstan discussing herb lore, my dependable shadow Beorngar and the children full of enthusiasm for their kites.
I turned over onto the side, trying to find a comfortable position. But the pillow was too hard, the mattress lumpy, the sheets rough. I sighed. Whom was I fooling? All that would not matter in the least if only I were with Éomer. I wondered what he was doing that moment. He should have got home to Aldburg the day before, so would probably be sitting in the hall with his men, unless he had been called away on patrol already. I hugged the pillow to my chest. Wherever he was, for certain he would not be thinking kindly of me. Would I ever get the opportunity to explain my reasons for leaving Edoras to him? And would he forgive me? My only consolation was to hold on tightly to the thought that although he might despise me, at least he was safe. And that was all that mattered, I told myself fiercely while brushing away a traitorous tear.
I put my fingers to the spot on my cheek where his hand had rested so briefly. Regret filled me that I had not kissed him when I'd had the chance. What would it feel like to have his lips touching mine? One of Amrothos's more daring friends had once kissed me in one of the arbours of the Dol Amroth palace gardens, but I had the sneaking suspicion that Éomer's kisses were of a different order to poor Belegund's.
I closed my eyes and pictured Éomer slipping an arm around my waist and pulling me close. And then I would lift my face to him and he would bend over me and... Delightful warmth spread through me.
I bit my lip. Fool! It was not a sensation I would ever experience now. The sooner I forgot about the Marshal the better, I told myself as I drifted off to sleep.