20. Chapter 20
Éomer lay on the trampled grass - sightless eyes staring at nothing, a sword protruding from his chest. Streamers of fog flowed around us and a wolf howled in the distance. Sobbing, I fell to my knees next to him and ran my fingers over his cold face. I had not kissed him!
Somebody laughed. "You're mine now."
Gubrak stood on Éomer's other side. Baring his fangs, he reached for me. "To the victor the spoils of war."
I screamed and sat bolt upright in bed. "No!"
My heart hammered in my chest as if I had just run a race. Gasping, I buried my face in my hands. It wasn't true! Gubrak was dead, Éomer alive. But the dream had been so vivid! Just a nightmare brought on by the traumatic events of the previous night, I told myself. Faramir was the one with dreams sent to him, not I. It would not come true. It must not!
With shaking fingers I pushed back the covers and swung my legs over the side of the bed. Then I paused. The last thing I remembered, I had been tending to the wounded in the caves, yet here I was in my room. How had I got up here? Looking down, I found myself still fully clothed, except for my boots lying on the floor. From his table by the side of the bed, Felaróf was watching me enigmatically, as if he knew more than I did.
"How did I get here?" I asked him.
Unsurprisingly, the wooden horse gave no answer. To judge by the light falling in from my window it was evening. Had I slept away the whole day? I listened for a moment, hearing nothing but the reassuring everyday noises of a busy castle: muted steps on the stairs outside my room, servants chatting, a horse neighing somewhere.
We had survived. Had miraculously won the battle. I thought of all the still forms on their pallets in the cavern, of Wulfstan dying while holding my hand. Every day forward from now on would be a gift. A gift that I might get the opportunity to talk to Éomer and explain my actions, perhaps once things had settled down... But I dared not think of that yet. Dared not hope.
Sighing, I got up and poured some water into the shallow bowl on top of the washstand. Splashing the cold water over my face made feel slightly more awake and tore away the last lingering cobwebs of my nightmare. I grimaced as swirls of dirt and dried blood coloured the clear liquid a rusty red, and reached for the cake of soap lying ready. First of all, if the rather ripe smell clinging to me was any indication, I needed a good wash!
It took no time at all to use up the water left for me and still I felt no cleaner. What would I have given for a long soak in a hot bath, but I couldn't very well expect such luxuries in the aftermath of a battle. However, just rinsing off the accumulated dirt would be nice. Perhaps I could find a servant to fetch me more water?
With dripping hands I opened the door to the corridor and nearly fell over Wuffa, who sat just outside.
"My lady," he exclaimed, "you're awake at last. Lady Ceolwen told me to wait here. Let me get her for you."
But when he scrambled up to go running off, I stayed him.
"Wait! Can you get a servant to bring a bucket of water for me?"
"Yes, of course." He nodded eagerly. "Will you look after Wulf while I'm gone?"
My eyes fell on the grey wolfhound that dozed curled up against the wall. Somebody had renewed the bandage on his injured leg and I knelt down beside him, inspecting the extremely neat work.
"Who did this?"
"Oh, that northern lord with the strange title who came with the king," Wuffa answered.
I stared up at the boy. "The Heir of Elendil?"
He nodded. "That's the one. He was really nice about it and told Wulf not to worry the bandage. And I'm sure that Wulf understood every word, for he listened to him!"
I shook my head in amazement. The man claimed the throne of Gondor and went around patching up animals! What would my uncle say? Somehow I rather doubted that Denethor would step down gracefully in favour of this stranger from the north.
Once Wuffa had gone in search of Ceolwen, I went to inspect my wardrobe. In my rather rushed departure from Minas Tirith I had neglected to bring any light clothing, a fact I now regretted. All my gowns were made of heavy wool, and with my gold lost to the orcs I wouldn't even be able to order new ones. Then I shrugged. How silly to worry about such things when we were lucky just to be alive!
A knock on the door heralded Ceolwen's arrival, and she entered the room followed by a couple of servants carrying buckets of water. To my amazement it was steaming hot.
"You've earned it," Ceolwen declared, directing the men to put down the buckets by the empty fireplace and to set up a screen. A third one rolled in a shallow wooden tub.
Ceolwen's maid, Burghild, entered next with a pile of towels in her arms, and shooed the men out the door. Clucking over the state of my clothes, she helped me out of my blood encrusted tunic and trousers. At first I wanted to wave her assistance away, but then I found I was stiff and sore from the exertions of the previous night.
"Your poor shoulders!" she exclaimed. "You can see the imprint of those foul creatures' claws!"
Looking down I could indeed see faint blue bruises on my skin, yet I did not recall the orcs touching me there. Then the memory of Éomer shaking me by the shoulders flashed through my mind. I did not enlighten Burghild though, but instead turned to Ceolwen who had sat down on my bed. The lines of strain gone from her face, she looked happy and relaxed.
"Erkenbrand is all right?" I asked, although the answer was self-evident.
"He is! His forces were mostly scattered, not killed, but it took him and Gandalf a while to rally them. They marched all night to arrive in time." Ceolwen beamed. "And he said how proud he is of us for dealing with the situation here."
Hopefully that would lay a few ghosts to rest. I smiled back at her as I stepped into the tub. It wasn't meant for sitting in, but large enough so I could stand in it and pour the water over my head. Burghild began to sponge down my back and quite casually I indicated my bed.
"All I remember is falling asleep in the caves. How did I get back to my room?"
"Oh, that was Éomer," Ceolwen drawled.
When I looked at her sharply, she grinned. "He found you buried in a pile of smelly blankets and insisted on carrying you back here. I think he felt guilty for shouting at you."
Éomer! Involuntarily I glanced at my bedside table. What would he have made of Félarof? And me looking such a mess!
I lifted a hand to brush back a strand of hair behind my ear. "I don't remember any of it."
"You just went on sleeping in his arms, right through all the noise and bustle of the King getting ready to depart."
"Where did Théoden King go?"
Isengard! I had seen drawings of the place in Meduseld's library. Had he gone to besiege it? But how could he hope to take it without siege engines?
At my expression of alarm, Ceolwen went on quickly. "Gandalf said that they were going to a parley, not a fight. The King only took his personal guard." An apologetic shrug. "Including Éomer of course. They left two hours ago."
I stared at her, unsuccessfully trying to hide my dismay. "He's gone!"
"Éomer will be back shortly," Ceolwen reassured me. Her face fell. "But not for long. Théoden King has sent out messengers to call all riders of the Mark for a weapontake at Edoras, five days from now. To ride for Gondor."
My breath caught in my throat. "Have the beacons been lit?"
Ceolwen shook her head. "No. But Gandalf says they will be soon."
Thoughts tumbled wildly through my mind while Burghild finished washing my hair and rinsing down my body. If the Rohirrim were called to Minas Tirith, so would Gondor's lords with their men. My father and brothers! I had been so caught up in my own troubles that I had spent little thought on them lately. But we all knew that the Enemy hated the White City above all else. He would strike there first and hardest. Which meant that my father would consider it his duty to be there personally, although he would probably leave some of his forces to defend the coast against the Corsairs. I wondered which of my brothers would stay behind in Dol Amroth. Probably Elphir, who would not want to entrust the protection of his wife and son to others. What if I never saw them again - oh why had Father sent me to Rohan!
When I looked over to the bed I saw my worries mirrored in Ceolwen's eyes. Of course, Erkenbrand would ride too.
She spread her hands. "Do not lose hope. After all we never thought to see another dawn and here we are."
Brave words. My throat tight with worry, I nodded and stepped out of the tub. Burghild handed me some towels and then emptied the dirty water down the hole in one corner of the room that led to the rain gutters. We heard it gurgling and splashing away while I dried myself. The maid had also brought some of Aeffe's spare clothes and gratefully I slipped into a clean gown. It was rather lower cut than my aunt would have approved of, but the twins favoured that style.
I pushed back my hair; it kept falling in my eyes. What a nuisance! Picking up my hand mirror from the bedside table I peered at my reflection. "I look like a pageboy."
Burghild snorted with amusement and Ceolwen actually started giggling. "I don't think anybody will ever mistake you for a boy," she laughed, looking me up and down.
I gave her a weak grin, but then turned back to studying the mirror. Grey eyes stared back at me warily. Somehow they looked larger and the short hair made me appear more grown up, with a hint of recklessness. Ceolwen could not know, but in Gondor only one type of woman cut her hair short - to advertise her profession. My aunt would throw a fit!
With a shrug I put the mirror down. What was done was done. Burghild had brought a pair of scissors along and trimmed the ends evenly. Once my hair was arranged to my satisfaction, Ceolwen got up from the bed, smothering a yawn.
"Are you ready? It is time for the evening meal soon and afterwards Aethelstan would like your assistance with the wounded."
"He survived the breach of the wall?"
"With a broken ankle. But he insists on being in charge of the healers."
What good news and how very much like the old man! With a word of thanks to Burghild we left and started down the stairs. In passing I cast a look out one of the windows and stopped dead. What? Surely those were trees? I stared out and then took the steps two at a time to where the door led out to my walkway. Mouth open, I leaned on the balustrade, unable to believe my eyes. Trees everywhere! They filled the valley below the dike, a dense wood with gnarled roots and branches, exuding a brooding sense of menace. The setting sun cast long shadows across it.
Out of breath Ceolwen joined me. "Oh, the trees! Didn't you hear about them? Gandalf brought them from Fangorn Forest. None of the orcs that went in there emerged again."
I wasn't surprised. Nothing in the world would have enticed me to go into those shaded depths.
I made a strangled sound. "But how did they get here?"
"I suppose they walked," she answered. "At times you can see the Ents moving amongst them."
The Treeherders out of children's stories! Wonder filled me. It was as if ancient tales had come to life over the last days, invading our everyday world. Elves and Dwarves, Elendil's Heir returning, and now this. What would be next? Birds that talked, the dead rising?
I shook my head and turned my attention to the rest of the valley. Everywhere I looked there were signs of the great battle fought. Men laboured to recover the fallen and lay them in two great graves either side of the road.
"The riders of the West Mark and the East Mark," Ceolwen explained in a subdued voice.
"And who lies there?" I asked, indicating a solitary mound next to the causeway.
"The chief of the King's doorwardens."
Háma! He had always been kind towards me. Grief filled me at the thought of the untimely death of another good man. And his poor wife and daughter. I wondered if Aescwyn had given birth yet, if he'd had the chance to see his child before riding away. Saruman had a lot to answer for. As for Gríma, surely it had been him who had given the orcs that map of the caverns. I hoped the king's men would catch up with the Worm and put an end to him!
Ceolwen took my arm. "Let's have something to eat."
I nodded in silence and followed her. Downstairs we found the hall filled to bursting with warriors, Erkenbrand's own men and those the King had brought. In front of the hearth, a young Rider held hands with a girl I recognised from the caves.
"What are they doing?" I asked Ceolwen.
I gaped at her. "Now?"
"What better time?" she asked back.
And as I watched them share the bridal cup I had to agree. Who knew what the future would bring, best to snatch what happiness you could. Their friends toasted them, and then accompanied the couple upstairs to their bedroom for the bedding down of the bride and groom. They carried a long staff before them with lots of bright ribbons fastened to it. There was much singing and laughing and although I did not understand all the jests, those I did made my cheeks burn!
Unobtrusively I finished my meal and left to go up to the caves. Aethelstan, sitting down with his bandaged ankle resting on a low stool, welcomed me with relief and immediately put me to work. The battle for Helm's Deep had been won, but here many small battles for men's lives were still being fought.
It was as much a case of listening to the men as of tending to them. Many had lost a limb and felt useless, as if their worth as men were bound up with their ability to ride and fight. So I washed feverish brows, held hands and lent a willing ear to their fears, even though the depth of their despair at times threatened to overwhelm me. Some of them were Lord Erkenbrand's riders, others I remembered from my time in Edoras, but there were also a surprising number of Éomer's men who knew my name.
Finally dawn brought Aeffe and Leofe to relieve me, and I retired to my room to sleep away the day. On the way back I saw that the valley was empty again, the trees having vanished during the night. All that remained of their presence was the trampled grass and a black mound of earth.
All that day the keep slowly emptied, with large companies of men riding to Edoras and Dunharrow for the muster of the Rohirrim. In the evening I returned to the caves to take up my duties for another night, this time under Master Herewald's supervision. I still did not think much of his bedside manner, but he did work tirelessly to ease the men's pain.
Towards morning I was handing out mugs of freshly brewed willow bark tea when a commotion at the entrance to the tunnel drew my attention. To my surprise it was Wuffa running up, Wulf limping behind him as usual.
"Théoden King is back from Isengard," he announced. "He came back last night, accompanied by some friends of that nice northern lord. Including another two Elves!"
More Elves seemed almost commonplace, compared to walking trees. I wanted to ask him if Éomer had returned as well, but Wuffa wasn't finished with his news yet.
"And a Halfling!" he added.
That caused the desired sensation. Another figure emerging from children's tales to walk our green fields! Wuffa had to describe this strange creature, the size of a child yet fully grown, at length. The men knew him well by now, for he had made himself useful bringing water and running small errands for them, and they plied him with many questions, which he answered volubly even though he'd only had a brief glimpse of the Halfling.
That was not the last surprise of the morning however. A little later I was in the middle of changing the bandage on one of my patients when a murmur rose around us.
I looked up to see the King enter the cavern, accompanied by some of his guards. At once my eyes got snagged by the tall figure at his side, blond hair falling past his shoulders. In clean clothes, and with his hauberk burnished, Éomer looked very different from when I had last seen him, covered in gore.
Quickly I turned back to my task, unwinding the stained linen from around Ceorl's torso. Herewald hurried over to greet the King and out of the corner of my eye I saw them passing along the rows of the wounded. King Théoden stopped at each one, exchanging a word of encouragement or just squeezing a hand or patting a shoulder. The men straightened up as he went by and I could see fresh hope in their faces.
Meanwhile with the bandage disposed of, I busied myself washing off the dried blood around my patient's wound and inspecting it for infection. Fortunately the gash across his ribcage looked to be healing nicely with no sign of redness. The healers of Gondor held it to be best to leave such wounds to the body's natural ability to heal itself, so I only wrapped a fresh bandage around it.
Just as I tied up the ends to hold it securely, the King reached us. I started to get up to curtsy, but he waved me back.
"Please, Lady Lothíriel, do not let me interrupt you." A kind smile. "It looks like you're in good hands, Ceorl."
"The very best," Ceorl replied promptly.
Embarrassed by this praise, I shrugged while I helped him put his shirt back on. "I'm only doing my duty."
And all the while Éomer's gaze rested on me like a heavy weight. Did he remember the time I had rendered the very same service to him? I could almost feel the warm, firm sensation of his skin under my fingers. What was I thinking of! Hastily I busied myself tidying up my satchel.
Théoden frowned at me pensively. "I remember welcoming you to Rohan last autumn, my lady, but I had not realized you were staying at the Hornburg."
I opened my mouth to make a reply, but Éomer cut in first. "Théodred invited Princess Lothíriel to visit him when he was in Edoras for Yule," he said, his tone challenging me to disagree.
I looked up to meet icy blue eyes. What could I reply to that? It was hardly the right place and moment to explain the whole terrible mess! And it seemed to me that fresh anger burned in him. Was he still furious with me for my foolish actions during the battle?
King Théoden passed a hand across his eyes. "I remember so little of that time," he murmured, "it was as though I was wandering in a thick fog."
Pity seized me for a father who'd had the last memory of his son stolen from him. "I'm so sorry!"
Very briefly he brushed a hand across my hair. "You are as kind as you are beautiful, child. Thank you for looking after my men." He hesitated. "Sadly I have to give you some bad news."
What could he mean?
"Your cousin Boromir," the King went on, "he travelled with Lord Aragorn's company. I'm afraid he was slain by orcs. The same orcs that Éomer and his éored killed outside Fangorn Forest."
I stared up at King Théoden, trying to absorb the news. It did not seem possible that Gondor's greatest warrior should be dead.
"I'm sorry," the King said, touching my shoulder in sympathy. "These are grim days that will leave many women weeping."
A lump in my throat, I nodded and he passed on to the next man. Boromir dead! I had not seen him for some years, for he was always busy at the borders, but he had always been kind to me in an absentminded sort of way. And what a blow this would be to Uncle Denethor!
Éomer had lingered behind, as if he wished to speak to me. "I'm sorry about your cousin," he said gruffly. "He was a good man."
I looked up at him numbly. "Yes...yes, he was."
After a further hesitation, he briefly inclined his head and went on.
Once he had spoken to all the wounded, the King and his guard left to have their morning meal in the great hall. Aeffe and Leofe came in soon after, full of tales of the newly arrived Elves and much struck by the fact that they were twins, the same as them. I shook my head at them in exasperation as they went on at length about raven hair, eyes like sapphires and finely pointed ears. Some things never changed!
Relieved of my duty, I could have left then, but instead I stayed to tidy up our supplies of medicines and make a list of what remedies needed to be replenished. And when that was done, I assisted the twins with brewing up more extract of comfrey. It was Aethelstan who finally shooed me away.
"It's nearly noon," he told me, "you go and get some rest."
Only when I trudged along the path to the Hornburg, with Wulf chatting away by my side, did I realize why I was so reluctant to return there. I was afraid of meeting Éomer, of seeing the cold contempt in his eyes. Why had the King named him his heir! Whatever I said now, he would surely think me to be after becoming Queen of Rohan.
When we reached the Hornburg, the outer court was filled with riders leading out their horses from the stables and saddling them up. More men leaving for the muster at Edoras? Then I spotted Éomer's squire with Firefoot. I slipped through the crowd and grabbed Cnebba's arm.
"Where are you going?"
"To the weapontake, my lady," he replied.
So soon. But they had only just arrived!
"Gandalf urged the King to make as much haste as possible," the squire explained.
I was not really listening. Leaving - and surely riding to another battle. What if I never saw him again!
"Where is Marshal Éomer?" I asked.
"Gone to get Lord Aragorn from upstairs in the tower."
I was already turning away, pushing my way towards the inner court, not heeding anything in my way and barely escaping sharp hooves. I had to speak to him! A quick glance in the great hall revealed King Théoden about to get up. I did not pause there, but instead hurried up the stairs leading to the upper levels. One floor, two floors, three. What if I had missed him! Just below the guest quarters I hesitated. Where would they have put the northern lord?
That moment I heard deep voices approaching from further up the stairs. Out of breath from more than just the exertion of running up from the courtyard, I waited for them. They checked as they rounded the corner, hands going to hilts before they recognized me for no threat.
Lord Aragorn had been speaking to one of the Elven twins, but now he drew aside with a bow to let me pass. Yet I hardly noticed him, my eyes being drawn to Éomer standing behind him with Éothain at his side. I would have to act swiftly, before my courage deserted me!
"My Lord Marshal," I said, "may I have a quick word with you?"
Éomer stared down at me unmoving. I took a deep breath as I tried to meet his gaze without flinching. He would refuse. And that would be the end of it, for I would not run begging after him.
"Very well," he snapped.
Taken by surprise, I hesitated. Where to begin?
"Perhaps you would like to have your conversation in private?" Lord Aragorn suddenly suggested.
I shot him a look of gratitude. "Yes, please."
He seemed tired, but there was a definite twinkle in his eyes when he indicated the door to my walkway. "I believe that leads to some sort of balcony. We will wait here."
Éomer held the door open for me and I passed through. At once the wind whipped around me, tugging at my skirts. I turned round to face him, unsuccessfully trying to tame my hair by brushing it behind my ears.
He regarded me with a stony face. "My lady, I have to leave in another minute, for the King is waiting for us. What did you want to say?"
I swallowed. He was not making it easy! "I wanted to explain what happened back in Edoras..."
"You do not need to explain," he cut me off. "I understand you perfectly."
"No, you don't. Please listen to me..."
"My lady," he interrupted, "you lied to me. What more is there to say? I do not have the least doubt that you've come up with a very plausible explanation for all your actions, but I for one do not want to hear it."
That hurt. While I was still trying to gather my scattered wits, he took a step closer.
"We passed the Fords of Isen on the ride to confront Saruman," he hissed. "My cousin lies there in a cold and lonely grave, hacked to pieces by Uruk-hai. Defending the Mark from invasion. Defending you! Have you forgotten him already?"
That explained the barely concealed rage in him this morning. The familiar guilt over Prince Théodred's death swept through me.
"I'm sorry your cousin got killed," I said stiffly.
A humourless bark of laughter. "Yes, I bet you are. It must have upset all your carefully laid plans."
No matter what I said, he was determined to take it the wrong way!
"You do not understand!" I protested.
He held up a hand. "I do not want to hear any more lies, my Lady Princess," he said. "I have heard far too many from you already."
Anger sparked within me. It was all very well for him to treat me with easy contempt; he hadn't had to face Gríma with nothing but his wits to aid him! And now he would ride off to Gondor and might never come back. With sudden clarity my recurrent nightmare sprang to my mind. Well, I would not let him leave without a kiss!
"Go then!" I said. And the same moment I closed the distance between us and kissed him full on the mouth.
Éomer went rigid. A heartbeat later I stepped back again, looking up at him defiantly. Let him think of me whatever he chose!
He took a deep breath, then another, as if fighting for control. "So, I was right," he snarled. "Théodred is not yet cold in his grave and already you have set your sights on the next heir."
I slapped him.
Or at least I tried to, for he was much too quick for me with his trained warrior's reflexes. Effortlessly he caught my upraised hand, seizing it in a vice-like grip.
"What do you know!" I shouted at him. "You have no idea at all what happened that night in Edoras. I just wanted a single kiss before you ride off and get yourself killed in some stupid, idiotic way!"
"Did you?" he breathed.
Suddenly he twisted my arm down to my side. I stumbled back and he followed me in one smooth motion, trapping me against the wall behind me. What was he doing! Instinctively I took a breath to cry out, but he gave me no chance. His mouth descended on mine with bruising force, swallowing my cry before it could emerge.
Hungry lips, rough and demanding, devouring me. My hands were caught between us, squashed against his chest, but I found no purchase on the freshly oiled mail. He sent my senses reeling. The smell of sweat, horse and leather enveloping me, his harsh breathing in my ear, cold chainmail pressing against me. One arm went round my back, crushing me against him even tighter. No man had ever dared to touch me in such a way! Deftly he slipped his other hand around the nape of my neck, giving a breathless laugh when he felt a shudder run through me. Then his lips seized mine again, neither gentle nor considerate.
I did not want him to be gentle and considerate. A dam broke deep inside me and I closed my eyes and poured all my need and desperation into our kiss. What if he never came back! Tears running down my cheeks, I slid my arms round his neck and clung to him. Éomer. How much I needed him! Groping blindly, I stood on tiptoe and laced my fingers in his thick hair, pulling him down towards me. I wanted him to never let go of me again.
Éomer drew his breath in sharply and responded by roaming his hands over my body with no constraint, leaving fiery trails behind him, until all that kept me from melting into him was his armour. With firm pressure, he traced the curve of my spine down to the small of my back, before settling his hands round my waist possessively. Hot and cold waves washed over me, threatening to sweep me away, and the beating of my heart drummed a furious tattoo in my ears, drowning out all other sound.
He tasted of salt. Of scorching sun and wild wind. I wanted him.
Gradually his touch gentled and some of the mad frenzy drained away. Easing his stranglehold, he withdrew his lips a fraction, his breath coming out in hard gasps as if he'd just engaged in a fight. Raising both hands to cup my cheeks, he brushed back a strand of wayward hair. When I opened my eyes, I found him staring down at me with a mixture of guilt and confusion.
With a finger he traced a wet cheek. "Lothíriel, what have you done to me?" he whispered.
Struggling for breath, I could not answer. My knees buckled. Without him to hold on to, I would surely have crumbled to the ground. It was difficult enough to remain upright, let alone think of a coherent reply.
The wind had dropped, and from down below suddenly the call of a horn rose in the still air. Éomer started. "I have to go."
Somebody knocked on the door to the walkway. "My Lord Marshal," Éothain called, "it's the King's signal!"
"Lothíriel, I have to go," Éomer said again and it sounded like a curse.
No! He mustn't leave me! I clutched at him, willing him to stay. But even as I watched, the mask of the dedicated warrior descended over his face, replacing the confusion with purpose. My arms dropped to my side.
He brushed a thumb across my lips. "I have no choice."
Then he released me and stepped back. I closed my eyes. Boots scraping against stone. The creak of a door opening, then a bang as it closed again. Clasping my hands over my ears, I sank to the floor and curled up into a tight ball. I did not want to hear him ride off, leaving me. Silent sobs began to shake me as I licked my lips.
I could still taste him.
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