14. Chapter 14
Once the door of Prince Théodred's study had closed behind me, I fled up the stairs, seeking the shelter of my chamber. Alone! I wanted to be alone! But halfway there, I hesitated. Ceolwen or the twins might look for me in my room, curious to hear why the prince had wanted to speak to me. Gossip travelled quickly in such a small place.
Where else could I go? Visit Nimphelos? But the stables were too busy for me to sneak into her box unobserved. Suddenly I remembered that on the floor below the guest quarters a small door led out onto a covered walkway, where once lookouts had been posted. However, many years ago Lord Erkenbrand had turned the topmost floor of the keep into a guardroom, and I had discovered that nobody used the walkway anymore. It afforded a wide view over the valley and quite often I spent time there, leaning on the parapet and enjoying the solitude.
Wind tugged at my clothes and blew my hair in my face when I stepped through the door, but the morning sun shone strongly, warming me. Leaning back against the stone wall, I sank to the floor and hugged my knees. I had received a proposal of marriage. One that would mean becoming Queen of Rohan one day! I burst into tears.
Burying my face in my skirts, I tried to muffle my weeping, for I did not want anybody to hear and investigate. Marry Théodred. What would Éomer say? Had he received the letter yet? Fresh sobs shook me at the thought. The blue wool of my dress grew damp with tears while the accumulated heartache of the last weeks overwhelmed me. Ever since Yule nothing had gone right, on the contrary, things had gone from bad to worse. How could my plan to get away from Gríma have miscarried so disastrously? Éomer! How I needed him. I wanted to ride off at once in order to find him and explain that I wasn't the coldly calculating tease he must think me. Wanted him to comfort me. Wanted to feel safe again.
But after a while I strove to get a grip on myself. Tears would not help me find a solution to my problems, and neither would wishing to be somewhere else. Swallowing down my sobs, I considered my options.
Marry Théodred. I trembled. He was a good man, I reminded myself, everybody agreed on that. A warrior first and foremost, but one who cared for his people deeply and would give all he had to protect them. And while he might not have his cousin's personal magnetism, his men respected him and followed him willingly. Twice my age...yet many people, including my own aunt, would consider that the perfect age for a husband. How often had she told me I needed a steadying influence, somebody to curb the 'rash impulses of youth'.
I wiped a tear from my face. Nobody had ever asked me if I wanted my impulses to be curbed. Would he be a strict husband? It was difficult to judge, for Théodred had praised my qualities as a queen without saying a word on how he felt about me as a person. So much in a noblewoman's life depended on the man she married! I could not deny that I had come to like this country and its people. To be Queen of Rohan and answerable to nobody but my husband was no bad prospect. But...
Thoroughly disheartened, I traced a crack on one of the flagstones. I knew of course that Théodred could have been twenty years younger and handsome as an Elf lord, yet I would still have found fault with him. He was the wrong man! Why couldn't his and Éomer's role be exchanged. Éomer be the Crown Prince and Théodred the Third Marshal. I realized that all this time in a corner of my heart I had still hoped that fate might take a hand and solve my problems for me. But fate had shown not the least interest in my affairs.
"You are a fool!" I said aloud. I had told myself that a lot lately.
Perhaps it was selfish to put my own concerns first when I could help my country and Rohan by marrying the prince. And perhaps he had been right to call my feelings for his cousin a youthful fancy that would pass - a mere infatuation. I straightened my shoulders and smoothed out my crumpled skirt. Ceolwen had married a man many years her senior, yet she had grown to love him. As for Lord Erkenbrand, he obviously worshipped his pretty young wife and was bursting with pride at the prospect of the child about to be born to them.
And maybe that was the greatest service I could render my country, my only chance to land a blow in our fight against the Enemy: to bear an heir for Rohan. Give hope to his people, as Prince Théodred had put it. Involuntarily I imagined him touching me with those big, powerful hands of his. Lacing them in my hair, kissing me... bedding me. Cold sweat broke out all over my body. He was such a stern, commanding warrior, I could not picture him gentle and relaxed.
I wiped sweaty palms on my skirt. After all it was not as if I had expected to make a love match, on the contrary I had known all my life that I might one day have to share the bed of a man I hardly knew. As my aunt delighted in telling me, submitting to a husband was a noblewoman's fate.
Sudden resentment welled up within me at Éomer for showing me the possibility of something else. Something bright and exciting and filled with joy. A joining of hearts, not countries. But that brief glimpse had robbed me of my peace of mind and made my duties so much harder to fulfil. And if I married Théodred I would spend the rest of my life being constantly reminded of what I could not have, for there would be no way to avoid meeting Éomer.
Stiffly I got to my feet and leant on the balustrade. I watched a group of riders cantering down the valley, while a couple of ox-drawn carts were coming the opposite way. At the end of February, winter was slowly releasing its grip on us and no longer held absolute sway. Below, white flowers dotted the sward above Helm's Dike - snowdrops, the harbingers of spring.
I could not do it.
Far better to marry a fat, old and profligate lord from Gondor - the further away from this country the better. Or perhaps the Harad King was looking for a wife? I shook my head. As if I'd be given a choice - if Denethor ever heard of this offer, my fate would be sealed in the time it took to sign a letter.
I retreated to my room for the rest of the day, claiming a headache. In the evening Ceolwen looked in on me, but tactfully refrained from asking any questions. My reddened eyes probably told their own story anyway.
I did not sleep well, and just before dawn was torn from uneasy slumber by the sound of people rushing up and down the stairs outside my room and shouts echoing up from the courtyard. When I threw my cloak around myself and went to investigate I found the bailey full of riders tacking up their horses and wolfing down a hasty breakfast of cold porridge. A fine drizzle fell, making the torches stuck in brackets along the edge of the courtyard spit and sizzle. Servants ran around handing out saddlebags filled with supplies while the high-strung warhorses sidled nervously and rolled their eyes.
The darkness made it difficult to distinguish faces, but spotting Aeffe with her bright flaxen hair talking to one of the riders, I grabbed her arm. "What is happening?"
The rider turned round and I recognized Dúnhere, Lord of Harrowdale. "Scouts have brought warning that Saruman is mustering all his troops before the Gates of Isengard," he explained. "We are riding to secure the Fords of Isen."
I reeled, all my personal problems forgotten. This was no longer a few hostile raids across the border, this meant open war. "Has word been sent to the king?"
"Of course," he replied curtly. "The prince has already dispatched errand riders, asking for reinforcements."
Would he get them? Or would Gríma manage to delay them somehow? I wanted to ask more questions, but just then Prince Théodred came striding out of the keep, talking to Lord Erkenbrand. His second-in-command, Grimbold, followed close behind and started bellowing orders in a deep voice that rang around the courtyard. The riders mounted up and the apparent chaos sorted itself out into orderly ranks. Théodred clasped Erkenbrand's arm in farewell, before taking up the reins of his stallion and swinging into the saddle. Dancing with excitement, the grey reared, but Prince Théodred controlled him effortlessly and brought him into line. He cast a quick look around the courtyard, checking on his men, and his glance slid across me without recognition. Armour gleaming, he lifted his arm to give the sign to depart.
"We ride, Eorlingas!"
The stallion sprang forward and the riders thundered out the gate, the call of their horns echoing back to us. I stood for a long time listening to the fading sound, as slowly the sky lightened with dawn and the servants doused the torches.
The calm was over, the storm about to break on us.
A grim mood settled on the Hornburg after Théodred's departure, though for the next days no further news reached us, neither from the prince nor from Edoras. About a week later I was in the stables, grooming Nimphelos after exercising her in the small practice ring behind the burg. Lord Erkenbrand had forbidden us to ride further than the dike, and although I saw the good sense behind his order, I chafed at being confined to the castle.
Hooves clattered in the courtyard, but I paid no heed, thinking it one of the scouts returning. Suddenly a groom burst into the stables.
"A messenger from the prince," he shouted. "Something's happened!"
I dropped my brush, and with the other people rushed outside. Already a crowd had formed around the messenger, who stood leaning against his horse. The poor thing was completely lathered, its coat flecked with foam and blood. When one of the grooms took its reins to lead it away, the rider straightened up. His helm dinted, his hauberk tarnished and hacked, he looked to be in no better shape than his mount. My mouth went dry.
That moment Lord Erkenbrand forced his way through the crowd. "Anwynd! What news?"
The rider crumpled to his knees. "Grimbold sends me." He stopped, as if unwilling to go on.
Grimbold. Not the prince? An eerie silence settled on the crowd. Somewhere in the cliffs above us a crow cawed harshly.
Anwynd took his helmet off and looked up at Lord Erkenbrand. "Théodred is slain." Tears ran down his face.
Everybody started talking at once and next to me a woman burst into hysterical sobs. Dead! Prince Théodred dead! I could not believe it. In my mind I still saw the powerful figure that had ridden out of this very courtyard in haste, yet full of confidence. It did not seem possible he was gone.
"Quiet!" Erkenbrand bellowed. "What happened?" he asked the rider.
"Prince Théodred had intended to meet Saruman's forces on the western bank of the Isen," Anwynd explained. "We crossed the river yesterday morning, but got surprised by the strength of our enemy. There were so many!" he exclaimed. "Dunlendings, wolf riders and black Uruks! We managed to withdraw to the fords in good order, but Saruman had sent down another force on the eastern side." Exhausted, he paused.
I looked round the courtyard to see white, frightened faces. Many of Prince Théodred's riders had housed their women and children in the Hornburg.
Somebody brought Anwynd a cup of water, which he gulped down thirstily. "I was with the prince's company on the eyot in the middle of the river when we got assailed from both sides. I swear their sole intention was to kill Théodred!" He shook his head. "A whole company of great orc-men with axes went for him. We would all have died if it weren't for Elfhelm."
"Elfhelm!" Lord Erkenbrand exclaimed. "We've had no news from him. He came?"
Anwynd nodded. "He came. But too late." He wiped a dirty hand across his eyes and I could feel tears wetting my own cheeks.
"Too late," the rider whispered. "Théodred lived to see Elfhelm arrive. Let me lie here - to keep the Fords till Éomer comes, were his last words." He lifted his hands, palm upwards. "The orcs withdrew after Elfhelm's assault and we saw no more of them, but our losses are heavy. Grimbold has withdrawn to the eastern side of the fords and awaits orders."
"Has word been sent to the king?"
Erkenbrand straightened up and there were lines on his face that had not been there before. "I will see to it." He looked round the silent crowd. "The situation is dire, but not hopeless. We have faced overwhelming odds before and prevailed." His voice gained force. "Let us make Saruman rue the day he decided to take on the Eorlingas!"
A few ragged cheers went up, but mostly people just nodded grimly. Slowly the crowd dispersed. In a daze I went up the stairs and slipped through the small door leading to the covered walkway where I liked to stand and look out. It had become my refuge over the past few days. Théodred dead! I gripped the balustrade as the fact slowly sank in that all my agonizing had been in vain. A tiny spark of relief kindled within me, to be swiftly drowned by guilt. How could I think such a thing! He had been a good, honourable man. I had never wanted to see him dead. But though the notion was irrational, I could not help thinking that it was almost as if he had lost his life because of me.
Perhaps fate took an interest in my affairs after all.
I don't think Lord Erkenbrand and his captains slept more than a few hours over the next days. He had decided to gather his people behind the safe walls of Helm's Deep and sent out messengers at once to spread the word through the Westfold. He also sent errand riders to Edoras to bear the heavy tidings of the death of his son to King Théoden and to ask for reinforcements. I wondered if the news would pierce the thick fog hanging around the king and how Gríma would react. And Éomer? Would he come?
Confused accounts of wolf riders on the plains reached us, but as of yet Saruman's forces had apparently retreated. On the third day Erkenbrand left for the fords with what force he had been able to gather in order to take command himself. Ceolwen's eyes were rimmed with red, although she smiled bravely as she offered the stirrup cup to her husband. But when the riders had gone, she fled to her room and did not emerge again that day.
A steady stream of farmers with their possessions bundled on wagons or on horseback had begun to arrive at the Hornburg. The twins and I took on the task of assigning them places in the huge system of caverns that riddled the mountainside behind the keep. Then a couple of days later the real refugees arrived. Hollow eyed and gaunt faced, they brought tales of having their houses burnt down, their animals killed, of being able to escape with nothing but their lives. And these were the lucky ones.
Fortunately I was up before dawn and sank into bed exhausted long after midnight or nightmares would have plagued my sleep. As it was, a feeling of unreality dodged me. Surely this could not be happening to me? What was I doing in a place so far away from home, without guards or family? The idea that we might get besieged, that I might actually die here seemed faintly absurd. Me, the Princess of Dol Amroth, born to a life of privilege? And somewhere deep inside, the promise that Éomer had made to me on the road to Edoras still echoed. I will keep you safe.
Ceolwen, the twins and I had formed an informal council of war between us. Every day we met with Seaxulf, whom Lord Erkenbrand had left in charge of the fortress, and his second-in-command, Gamling, to discuss what needed to be done. One morning we conferred in Ceolwen's study, when a servant announced that another messenger had arrived. Ceolwen went white, for lately all news had been bad, but she bade him enter.
I sat by the table, studying a map of the caverns, but glanced up when the rider came in. To my surprise I knew him. "Beorngar!"
"Lady Lothiriel," my former guard acknowledged me, looking tired and travel worn.
I jumped up and grabbed his arm. "What are you doing here?" Sudden hope flared inside me. "Has Marshal Éomer sent you?"
Beorngar looked away. "I'm sorry."
An awkward silence fell, then Ceolwen cleared her throat. "You have news for us?"
He hesitated. "My lady, Háma sends me with an urgent message for your husband. I meant to seek him at the Fords of Isen, but on the road last night I encountered scattered bands of his men. They spoke of being attacked by a great army that forced the fords and that they had to retreat southwards. I had hoped to find Lord Erkenbrand here."
Ceolwen's face drained of all colour, and she clutched the arms of her chair. "We've had no word from him."
Seaxulf leant forward. "Did the riders you encountered say how big the enemy army is?" he asked.
Obviously ill-at-ease at being the bearer of such bad news, Beorngar shifted from one foot to the other. "Very large."
Seaxulf exhaled his breath in a sigh. Like Gamling, he was grey haired and a veteran soldier, although some years younger. The force that Erkenbrand had left behind consisted mostly of the oldest and youngest of his riders. Would it be enough?
Leofe looked from Seaxulf to Gamling. "Will they come here? Mightn't they make straight for Edoras instead?"
Though no warrior, growing up around my brothers I had heard enough of the theory of warfare not to cherish such a hope.
Gamling shook his head. "They dare not leave us behind their lines. Besides, this way they can gobble us up first and then regroup in a safe place before moving on to their next target. No, they will come."
Aeffe threw back her hair. "I'm sure Father is on his way here. And nobody has ever taken the Hornburg while the people of the Mark defended it!"
Leofe nodded vigorously, and I saw how Beorngar stood straighter at these brave words. But I also noticed Seaxulf and Gamling exchanging glances. We all knew that we did not have enough warriors to man the Deeping Wall, which ran from the Hornburg to the opposite side of the coomb. Which meant that we would have to divide our forces, one holding the burg, the other defending the caves. Unless help came.
I paced to the window and looked out, then turned to Beorngar to voice all our thoughts. "You say Háma sent you. But what of the king? Will he act? Will Marshal Éomer?" Surely he had to know how desperate the situation was.
"I cannot speak for the king, but as for the Marshal..." Beorngar took a deep breath. "My lady, Háma sent me to ask Erkenbrand to come to Edoras, because he hoped the king would listen to him. Marshal Éomer has been arrested."
"Arrested!" I had to grip the windowsill to keep from falling.
"I do not know the whole story, but apparently he went against the king's orders by taking his éored away from Aldburg to chase an orc horde crossing the Emnet."
"But surely the king cannot blame him for that!" I exclaimed.
Beorngar sighed. "That's not all. On the way back he encountered three strangers. You know that by the king's new laws, only he may grant them leave to cross our lands. But the Marshal let them go, and moreover lent them horses. His men had some confused tale of one of them being some mighty lord from a faraway country, the other two an Elf and a Dwarf."
I dismissed that last report as a misunderstanding. No Elf had been seen in Gondor for over a thousand years, in fact most scholars held that they had left these shores altogether. "I'm sure the Marshal had his reasons," I declared.
"Gríma thought otherwise."
"Gríma! If you listen to what that slimy worm-"
Beorngar held up his hand. "Please, my lady, I agree with you. But you know how Wormtongue has the king's ear. And then of course Marshal Éomer lost his temper..."
My heart sank. "What happened?"
Beorngar refused to meet my eyes. "Lately he's not been altogether...cheerful. I wasn't present when the Marshal spoke to King Théoden, but the tale is that he drew his sword and threatened to cut Wormtongue to ribbons. Before cooking his liver over a small fire."
Yes, that sounded just like my Éomer. So Wormtongue had achieved his goal after all and managed to make his adversary break the peace of the hall. I pressed my lips together. He would pay! "I'm leaving for Edoras at once. Are you coming with me?"
"Lothíriel! You can't!" Like the others, Ceolwen had listened to our conversation in stunned silence, but now she spoke up.
"I have to!"
"Please, my Lady Princess," Seaxulf cut in as well. "It's much too dangerous alone, and we cannot afford to send any men with you."
"Nimphelos is fast," I insisted, "if we encounter orcs, we will just outrun them."
"There are wolf riders abroad," Beorngar said regretfully. "I dare not risk it. If something happened to you..."
Ceolwen got up to take my hands. "Lothíriel," she said, "please think. What would you do in Edoras anyway?"
To my horror, I felt tears rising to my eyes. "I don't know. I just..."
She hugged me. "You have to trust to Éomer to find a way out. He's resourceful, he will think of something."
Trying to regain my composure, I nodded and turned to look out the window. Perhaps she was right and there was nothing I could do. But it was hard, not being able to act. Behind me, the others tactfully began to discuss the distribution of supplies to the Hornburg while I stared out over the Westfold valley. My sacrifice had been in vain, I might just as well have stayed in Edoras. What difference if Éomer got arrested now instead of at Yule!
I pushed the casement open to let fresh air in, but the day was unseasonably hot and sultry. Far away to the east, clouds were moving in, promising a storm to come. And in the distance over the valley, a thin spiral of smoke rose into the still air. Even as I watched, it thickened and billowed out.
They were coming for us.
A/N: Théodred's last words and the information about the first battle of the Fords of Isen are taken from Tolkien's Unfinished Tales.
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