25. Chapter 25
My whole body ached. With a groan I turned over onto my stomach and tried to burrow deeper into my bedclothes. The sudden movement sent a twinge of pain up my back and an abused muscle in my shoulder throbbed in sympathy. From somewhere the sound of muted voices reached me.
I did not want to wake up. My mind groped for the remnants of my dreams. Dreams such as I had not had for months, filled with laughter and happiness. And another sensation, bone melting and entirely delicious. I wanted to dive back into the ocean of sleep and lose myself in its pleasant currents. If only I did not hurt so much!
All over my body small aches and pains clamoured for attention. Reluctantly I opened my eyes. Brown canvas wall met my sight, backlit by the sun. Already the inside of the tent was warming up, the air turning stuffy. I rolled onto my back, ignoring protesting muscles, and stretched my arms. The events of the previous night came floating back into my mind and a wave of contentment swept through me. Éomer believed me! Had kissed me. Wanted to marry me.
Outside, the voices had got louder. I distinguished my brother's cultured tones and another, deeper one. A voice that sent a shiver of pleasant anticipation down my spine. For a while I just lay there and listened to the familiar cadence of his words, simply content with knowing he was close. Then slowly the meaning of his words penetrated my sleep-fogged mind.
"... make sure the princess has taken no harm," Éomer was just saying.
"Lothíriel is fine," my brother answered. "Like I said, she just needs plenty of rest."
"I would like to take my leave of her personally," Éomer answered.
Take his leave? That brought me wide-awake. Where was he going? All of a sudden the answer dawned on me: home!
My heart plummeted. I had not thought one moment past the fact that he loved me. But he could hardly keep his whole army waiting around on his pleasure and neither could he return to Minas Tirith with me. Fool!
"That's not necessary, Éomer, my friend," Amrothos assured him. "I can tell her you asked after her. She won't mind."
I did not wait to hear Éomer's answer. Ignoring my aching limbs, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and scrambled to my feet. What to wear? Last night I had borrowed one of my brother's shirts for a nightgown, not exactly suitable attire. But what if Éomer decided to leave without seeing me! I snatched a blanket from the bed and wrapped it round me. Then I rushed outside.
To my surprise I found that my tent was the last one left standing and all around us servants were in the process of dismantling the camp. Éomer and Amrothos slewed round at my precipitous exit from the tent.
"Lothíriel!" my brother exclaimed. "What are you doing out here?"
"You are leaving?" I took a step towards Éomer.
And promptly tripped over my blanket. Strong arms caught me before I could do more than exclaim in alarm.
"Be careful!" He took hold of me and steadied me.
I put my hands against his chest and looked up at him. "Éomer, are you leaving?"
"I have to..."
"Lothíriel!" my brother interrupted us. "Look at you!" He grabbed the blanket that had started to slip and wrapped it more firmly around me.
Reluctantly Éomer let go of me, his hands lingering for a moment on my waist. "My men have left already, but I wanted to say good-bye."
To say good-bye when I had only just found him again! Looking down towards the river, I saw that his riders had crossed the stream to follow the Great West Road, the long line snaking off into the distance. At a loss for words, I clutched my blanket closer around me.
"I will be back in Minas Tirith in two months' time," Éomer added. "To escort my uncle's body home for burial. I hope I will see you then."
More waiting! It was on the tip of my tongue to beg him to take me with him, but I controlled the impulse. Something in his eyes made think that he might take me at my word. And then what would my brother do? Let alone my father... And the last thing we needed right now was to strain the alliance between our countries. I knew all that, and I also recognised that Éomer had to act as a king now. But to just once be able to do as I pleased, not as I should! However, duty won out.
So I inclined my head to him. "I will be there."
He reached out a hand as if to touch me, but checked himself. Instead he bowed to me. "My lady, until then. Westu hál." His voice sounded rough.
Blinking back tears, I watched him turn round abruptly and disappear amongst the crowd. Even though I knew the feeling to be irrational, I could not help resenting the fact that he had not kissed me properly. I realised that he could hardly do so in front of my brother and that he wanted to avoid prolonging a painful farewell, yet at the same time my heart ached at his curt manner. But the moment he was gone, Amrothos took me by the arm and bundled me back inside the tent.
"Lothíriel," he sighed. "Please don't tell me that you've lost your heart to Éomer!"
I wiped my eyes on a corner of the blanket. "What makes you think so?"
"I knew it!" he exclaimed, throwing up his hands in exasperation. "Lothíriel, half the ladies of the court of Gondor are hero-worshipping him and the other half is chasing him in the hope of becoming Queen of Rohan."
"I'm not like that," I protested.
"I'm not saying you are, little sister." He slipped an arm around my shoulders. "I know he's very handsome and exotic looking with that mane of blond hair. And I'm sure he was kind to you, for he's a good man."
Kind? I wasn't sure if that was the right description of Éomer's behaviour. But my brother gave me no chance to say anything.
"I just don't want you to cherish any false hopes," he went on. "He's had all the beauties of Gondor in hot pursuit, yet he never really showed any interest." The look he cast over me seemed to indicate that he did not really think I could compete with the ladies of the court.
I swallowed the protest rising to my lips. Did he think so little of me? And it was almost insulting that he showed not the least worry of something improper having taken place between Éomer and me! But I couldn't very well tell him so.
Lowering my eyes, I sat down on the bed. "Maybe you're right." Maybe not.
"Believe me, you're better off forgetting about him," he answered, patting my shoulder. "In fact, I got the distinct impression that he has somebody waiting for him in Rohan."
Not anymore, I thought. But aloud I asked: "You won't tell Father, will you?" An alarming notion occurred to me. "And also about last night?"
"Of course not. Have I ever carried tales to him?"
"No, never," I agreed. Dear Amrothos, he had always been a loyal brother to me.
Secretly I heaved a sigh of relief. What my father would say to that escapade I did not even dare to imagine. No, it would be much better for Éomer to proceed according to Gondorian custom and apply to my father first for his permission before paying suit to me. That way nothing could go wrong.
Amrothos straightened up. "We have to be off soon if we want to make it back to Minas Tirith today. I'll send the maid in to help you get dressed."
I nodded meekly.
But in the doorway he paused. "I'd forgotten what it is like, having you around." He grinned. "It was downright quiet without you!"
My riding dress had survived the previous night's adventure in better shape than I had thought possible, so I looked quite respectable when I left the tent again. At once the servants started to take it down and stow away the canvas on a cart.
"They will follow behind," my brother explained while he led me down to where the horses stood ready.
"Nimphelos!" I exclaimed upon spotting my mare. "You found her?"
"One of Éomer's men brought her back. Apparently the two runaways returned early this morning, just as he had predicted."
As we got closer I received another surprise, for standing next to the mare, holding her leading rope and that of his own horse, was Beorngar. I greeted my former guard with much pleasure, delighted to see that he had made it through the battles unscathed. Nimphelos lowered her head to huff gently into my hand. I could not help thinking that she looked rather self-satisfied.
"So you decided to come back to your mistress?" I said, rubbing that place under her forelock that she liked to have scratched. "Did Firefoot cause a fuss at being parted from her?" I asked Beorngar.
"A little." He shrugged. "But he was tired. Éomer King is riding one of his remounts today."
Amrothos had patiently listened to us speaking Rohirric, but now he touched my arm. "We have to be off, Lothíriel."
I took Nimphelos's reins from Beorngar. "Will I see you in Minas Tirith in two months' time?"
Beorngar offered me a leg up. "I am coming with you." Then he addressed himself to my brother. "Éomer King has told me to keep myself at the princess's disposal."
"What?" Amrothos exclaimed. "That's not necessary. I assure you, we have plenty of guards."
"I don't doubt it. But Éomer King felt it was the least he owed the princess after all that she has done for the Mark."
"Please, Amrothos," I said, before he could refuse the offer. "Beorngar here was my guard in Edoras. And it would make me feel safer."
Amrothos drummed his fingers on the leather of his saddle. "Oh, very well."
My spirits lifted. It was almost as if a small part of Éomer had stayed behind to keep an eye on me.
"You don't mind having to stay in Gondor longer?" I asked Beorngar as we rode out of camp.
He shrugged. "I have nobody waiting for me back home." A wry look my way. "Besides, the Marshal - that is the King - felt that you needed somebody to keep you out of mischief in his absence."
Just outside the camp, Faramir and a group of his rangers were waiting to join us. My brother set a fast pace, and before long we overtook parties of Gondorians that had left earlier in the morning. But to my relief we didn't stop to talk to any of them, for I had no desire to meet Lady Rían or her daughter.
The road followed the edge of Drúadan Forest for most of the day before turning south and finally, as the sun cast the long shadows of the mountains across our path, the White City rose in the distance before us. Thin tendrils of fog had issued from the river and drifted across the Pelennor, making the city seem to float above it, pale and insubstantial. The devastation of war was all too evident still. Homesteads had used to dot the fields, their produce feeding the citizens of Minas Tirith, and at this time of the day the farmers should have been busy bringing in their animals for the night. But no goat bells broke the silence, no squawking hens, no grunting pigs. Only when we got nearer to the city did we encounter work parties repairing the burnt out husks that used to be busy farms. Here some of the fields showed a delicate sprinkling of spring wheat, but everywhere deep grooves crisscrossed our path, as if heavy loads had been dragged along.
"What happened here?" I asked my brother.
"We had to haul the mûmakil carcasses away for burning," he explained. "Although some of them got butchered on the spot to feed the armies. I got right tired of the taste of mûmak meat."
"Real mûmakil! I have only ever seen illustrations of them in old books."
He snorted. "Believe me, that's where they should stay."
We approached the city now and I saw that although it had looked almost untouched from afar, the damage to the buildings was extensive. Then a row of mounds of freshly turned earth along the base of the wall caught my eye. Some of them had spears stuck in them, others pennants that hung limply in the damp air. My throat went dry. No need to ask what those were.
The entrance to the city yawned open before us, guarded by a company of the king's soldiers with their familiar wing shaped helmets. Off to one side lay the ruins of the gates, the wrought iron twisted and blackened by the hate of the Witch King. When they recognised my brother, the guards waved us through and we passed under the thick arch of the gateway, the sound of our horses' hooves on the cobbles echoing back from the stone. When we emerged on the other side, the first sight that struck my eyes was a row of long, gently curved objects stacked neatly all along one wall. More than double the height of a man, they shone a pale white.
I nudged Nimphelos closer to Amrothos's horse. "What are those?"
"Mûmak tusks," he answered curtly. "King Elessar plans to sell them to feed the widows and orphans of those they killed."
I stared at them. My mind refused to picture a creature that had tusks that size - to have to face them in battle did not even bear thinking about.
In silence we followed the road winding its way up through the seven levels of the White City. The further up we got, the less apparent the damage of war became. Through open windows I caught glimpses of families sitting down to their evening meal and my stomach reminded me that it had been a long time since a frugal lunch of bread and cheese. But at last we neared the archway leading to the sixth level and looking up I saw the dark shape of the huge beech tree that shaded our garden. The town mansion straddled the gate and watching the traffic go by had provided us with hours of entertainment when we were children.
It was a strange feeling to ride into the courtyard of our house. Nothing seemed to have changed since that day over half a year ago that I had left. Even the grey tabby cat that belonged to the cook watched us from her usual vantage point on the stable roof. Her green eyes reflected the light of our torches back at us as we dismounted and went inside. There the housekeeper was very much surprised to see us and at once led us into the dining room.
"My Lord Prince, they're back!" she announced, visibly flustered.
My father looked up from his meal, a glass of wine halfway to his mouth. "Amrothos? What are you doing here?"
Then he spotted me behind my brother. "Lothíriel!" He jumped up and crossed the room in a few large strides. "How did you get here so quickly?"
I moved into his embrace. "I decided to come home on my own."
With an unusual lack of restraint, he kissed and hugged me. "What a relief to have you back safely! I was worried about you." After a moment, he caught himself again. "But why didn't you wait for your brother?" he asked. "The roads still aren't safe."
I leant my head against his chest, revelling in the simple contact. "I organised myself an escort in Edoras."
"Éomer mentioned nothing about it."
"He didn't know," I answered. "May I have something to eat now?"
"Of course." He let go of me and got his first proper look at me. "Child, what have you done to your hair!"
Later that night I sat in the window seat of my bedroom, towelling my hair dry after the first proper bath since leaving Edoras. I was almost too tired to go to sleep, so I stared out over the Pelennor fields to the Ephel Duath where a waxing moon rose behind jagged peaks.
My father had been appalled at the tale of what I'd been through during the battle of Helm's Deep and would have liked to send me straight on to Dol Amroth. 'To regain your peace of mind', as he put it. But I had resisted that idea firmly, and my father had been so surprised by such unusual opposition to his commands that he had given in.
I sighed and leant my head against the windowpane. It would be difficult to go back to being the dutiful daughter he expected me to be. Already they had fallen back into their old, familiar roles: Amrothos teasing me gently and my father expounding at length on the politics of the court and the consequences of having a new king. I wondered if they knew that said king went around bandaging the legs of mongrels? Father might yet get a few surprises. Not the least of which would be the King of Rohan showing up to ask for my hand...
That thought made me smile and I got up and crossed to the bed. The sheets had been turned back and one of my nightgowns lay ready. I slipped the cool linen over my head and fingered the neckline, which was embroidered with tiny yellow flowers. Strange that my old clothes still fitted me, when I had returned such a changed person.
Then I blew out my lamp and slid between the sheets. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the outlines of the furniture slowly emerged from the shadows. Two wardrobes, a desk and my shelf of books - all so very familiar. We had spent several months every year here in Minas Tirith, whenever my father had dealings with Denethor and the other nobles of the realm. Although I had always thought of Dol Amroth as my true home.
And now? Where was my home? I felt a stranger here, but would it be any different in Dol Amroth? At least I knew where my heart was: camping under the star-strewn sky, somewhere on the Great West Road. Without the ladies of the court along, they would probably not bother to put up any tents, not if the weather remained dry. Just gather round the campfires and share tales or sing. Was he thinking of me? Hugging one of my pillows to myself, I decided that he was.
I would just have to survive the next two months somehow and then he'd be back. Once he had asked for my hand in marriage, we would be able to spend more time together - unfortunately only suitably escorted of course. Father was bound to insist on all the proper forms being observed, so it might be a long time before I received another kiss from Éomer. And then there was the matter of Gondorian betrothal periods...
Just as I drowsed off, another thought occurred to me. Éomer had never actually asked me to marry him; I had just assumed he would. I grinned. Ah well, otherwise I would just have to seduce him.
It was to be my last peaceful night. Something in my soul must have decided that finally the time had come to deal with all the horrors I had witnessed. Perhaps it was because I no longer had anything useful to do, but spent the days sitting in the garden, reading my books. Every night images rose before me of maimed men - dying even as I frantically bandaged their gaping wounds. Gríma leered at me out of the shadows and orcs stalked my dreams. But worst was Gubrak groping me with taloned hands, his hot breath moving across my body. And no Éomer arrived to save me, for he lay cold and dead on the stone floor.
I began to dread the sun sinking behind Mount Mindolluin, for it meant another night full of gruesome dreams. Instead I started to doze during the day and stayed up half the night, trying to keep my mind busy with reading. Yet invariably I would fall asleep and then the nightmares commenced anew. If only I could have sought shelter in Éomer's arms, but he would not be back for many more weeks! It made me feel like a swimmer that had to keep afloat somehow until aid arrived.
My lack of sleep showed in black rings around my eyes and my family worried about me; I could see it in the way they tiptoed around me, keeping the conversation to the most innocuous topics. Father even went as far as to send for my aunt, probably thinking that I needed female companionship and the chance to unburden myself to a sympathetic ear. But when she arrived, Aunt Ivriniel was more horrified at my hairstyle than my experiences in Rohan. She declared that I was not to appear in polite society under any circumstances, an edict that caused me no hardship to obey.
At least she brought my other two brothers with her, to keep her safe on the journey, as she put it. Although in my opinion it would have taken a very foolhardy corsair to tackle her. However, I was delighted to see my brothers again at last, especially Erchirion, the closest to me in temperament. But not even his presence could chase away my dreams.
Finally, after several weeks of the situation steadily worsening, my father decided to take me to the Houses of Healing. I was reluctant, for I did not think I would find help there, but Father overruled me.
I knew the Warden of old and he greeted me with unmistakable pleasure. With his kind brown eyes and hanging jowls, he had always reminded me of a faithful old hound. When my father explained my troubles, he pursed his lips.
"Alas, the maladies of the mind are often more difficult to heal than the ailments of the body."
I shifted uncomfortably. He made it sound as if I was mentally disturbed!
My father tapped his fingers on the armrest of his leather chair. "Surely there is something you can do? What about that Athelas brew?"
"That is indeed most efficacious with those affected by the Black Breath." The Warden peered more closely at me. "However, if I understand correctly, the Princess's trouble stems from a different cause?"
I shrugged. "Just a few bad dreams, brought on by my experiences during the war."
"A few bad dreams?" my father exclaimed. "You've woken up sobbing and weeping every single night since coming home!"
And here I had thought I had been discreet. Had the maids told my father all the details of my nightly upsets?
The Warden clucked his tongue in distress. "No doubt the horrors she witnessed upset the delicate sensibilities of the Princess. We have had several such cases."
My father leant forward. "Is there something you could give her to help her sleep?"
"We've had good results with low doses of poppy syrup. However, in this case..."
"I'm not having any of that," I interrupted. Both men looked at me in surprise, as if they had forgotten my presence.
My father patted my hand. "Really, my dear, you must let the Warden decide what is best for you. He has known you since you were a child."
But I was a child no more!
The Warden held up his hand. "As I was just going to say, those are purely palliative measures, aimed at giving a brief relief. Real healing will only come with time."
"Is that all you can do to help my daughter?" Father asked. Worry lines etched his face.
"I'm afraid so. It is said that in fabled Númenor such ailments could be treated like any other illness of the body, but we do not have that knowledge anymore."
I saw a lecture on his favourite topic coming, so I got up. "Master, you have been very kind."
"Not at all, my child," he assured me. "I will have a small measure of poppy syrup made up for you. But you must use it sparingly and for no longer than a week."
"I know," I answered. How ironic that I was now supposed to dose myself after dispensing so much of it to our wounded. But I had no intention of using it anyway.
However, I did not want to start an argument with my father in front of the Warden, so I excused myself to wait in the garden. My father stayed behind, perhaps still hoping that the Warden possessed some magic wand with which to wave away all my troubles.
Beorngar was waiting outside in the corridor and accompanied me. He took his charge of guarding me extremely seriously and always came along whenever I left the house. The gardens lay drowsy in the late afternoon heat and medicinal herbs lined the gravel paths, the strong smell of sage making me sneeze. I sat down on a bench in the shade of a cherry tree and closed my eyes. If only I weren't so tired all the time!
"Take that thing away!"
The shout woke me from my doze. I sat up with a start, looking at Beorngar. He had slewed around sharply, towards the centre of the garden.
"We didn't want a donkey, you stupid woman!"
Curses in Rohirric followed, not all of which I understood - probably a good thing. I made out a woman's voice, yet could not quite catch her words. She sounded upset. That made me jump up and hurry towards the ruckus, Beorngar one step behind. We turned round the corner of a hedge and found a small enclosed lawn. A girl in a blue healer's smock stood in the centre, a donkey by her side, and facing her were several men, their blond hair identifying them as Rohirrim. One of them limped forward, leaning heavily on crutches, and I saw that his right leg had been taken off at the thigh.
"Are you trying to make a mockery of us?" he growled.
The girl clutched the mane of her donkey. "I'm sorry!" She looked to be no older than me and thoroughly frightened by the man's threatening manner.
"What is the matter here?" I intervened sharply.
Heads turned my way and the man with the crutches surveyed me ungraciously. A scar ran in an angry red line all the way from one ear down his neck. He had been lucky it had missed the artery there, the healer in me noted.
"What business is it of yours, woman?" he snapped. He added a curse in Rohirric.
Beorngar took a step forward. "Watch your tongue, Tondhere!"
The man peered at him. "Is that you, Beorngar? What are you doing here?"
"Never mind," I said. "What I want is an explanation of what is going on here." I changed into Rohirric. "And without any swearing if you please."
His eyes widened at my use of his language. One of the other men tugged at his sleeve and whispered something into his ear. I thought I recognised some of them as hailing from Aldburg - they would probably know me, at least by reputation.
"My lady," Tondhere said, looking sullen, "we want to return home with the King when he comes to collect Théoden King for burial. For that we have to practise riding or we won't be able to make the journey."
His friends nodded. All of them seemed to be missing a limb or looked to have been gravely wounded.
One of them spoke up. "Healer Haleth here promised to help us and then she brought that animal." He pointed at the poor donkey, who had started to crop at the grass.
"But it's all we have in the Houses of Healing," the girl protested. "Besides, the Warden will provide wains for the wounded."
"Wains!" Tondhere spat. "I'd rather not return home at all than return in one of those things." His friends muttered their agreement.
"People will laugh at us," one of them said.
I sighed in exasperation. Men and their pride! At the same time I felt sorry for these gallant warriors brought so low. I was sure they would never have dreamt of shouting at a hapless girl when they were whole.
"Nobody will laugh at you," I declared in Rohirric. "You are returning victorious from one of the greatest battles of this age. Wear your wounds as the badges of honour they are!"
I noticed they stood straighter at my words and followed up my advantage. "And what is more, I pledge you the help of Dol Amroth. We have many horses in my father's stables and I will see to it that you get the use of some of them."
Tondhere looked at me suspiciously. "Truly? Won't Prince Imrahil mind?"
"No. We owe you." Which was what I would tell Father if he questioned my decision. Although I doubted he would, as he thought very highly of the Rohirrim.
"However," I continued, "you must promise me that you will let the Warden decide if you are able to ride a horse home." Then I stopped abruptly. I sounded like my father!
Tondhere nodded slowly. "Fair enough." He cleared his throat. "Thank you, my lady... I'm sorry that I swore at the girl."
I raised an eyebrow and indicated the healer who had followed our exchange in Rohirric with an expression of confusion on her face. "Don't apologise to me, apologise to her. She was only trying to help."
He coloured and bowed his head to the girl. "Healer Haleth, I'm sorry for shouting at you. Please excuse my bad manners."
She murmured her acceptance of his apology and the group shuffled off to their quarters again. As they turned round the corner of the hedge, one of the riders' voices floated back to us.
"So that is Éomer King's princess? She's as dictatorial as our lead mare back home! It seems to me he has met his match."
Behind me, Beorngar choked on a laugh. I consoled myself with the thought that the Rohirrim valued their horses beyond anything else.
Meanwhile the girl heaved a sigh of relief. "Thank you, my lady. I had better put the donkey back in the stables. Some of the healers use him to ride to the outlying farms when they visit patients there." She shook her head in bewilderment, as if still surprised by the men's reaction to her offer. "He's perfectly sound and willing."
"I don't doubt it," I assured her. Couldn't she see it? These were horse lords!
Already my mind was busy with plans. While we retraced our steps to the Warden's study, I made a mental list of things to do. Did we have enough suitably steady horses in my father's stables? If not, would King Elessar help me out? Where could the men exercise away from curious looks? Would they need help with mounting and dismounting? I had seen horses trained to kneel down on the ground to help their riders get on, usually court ladies in their elaborate dresses, so that might be an idea. Also the men would need mounts for their journey to Rohan.
I hardly noticed the Warden's parting advice, I was so taken up with my plans. But stepping out onto the street I stopped a moment to enjoy a fresh breeze wafting down from the mountainside. I felt better than I had for many days, ever since arriving in Minas Tirith.
A/N: and another year is drawing to its close! I hope you will all have a happy and relaxing Christmas and a good start to the New Year. Until then!
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.