27. Chapter 27
Father! Reality came crashing down on me like a bucket of ice-cold water emptied over my head. What had I done... Without thinking I buried my head in Éomer's shirt.
His arms went round me protectively. "I'm a fool," he whispered in Rohirric.
"What do you think you are doing!" my father exclaimed.
Éomer had gathered himself. "Imrahil, you must forgive me. I got carried away."
"Carried away? I should say so!"
I forced myself to straighten up and turn round. Red-faced and scowling, my father stood a few steps away from us, with my three brothers ranged behind him. Erchirion had one hand on Father's shoulder as if to hold him back. Next to him, Amrothos stood with his mouth open, still assimilating the situation. What did they think of me? Then I spotted Marshal Elfhelm behind them as well; he gave his king a helpless shrug. Heat of a different kind raced through me. Why couldn't the earth open up and swallow me!
"Unhand my daughter at once!" my father snapped.
I became aware of the fact that Éomer still had his arms around me. Reluctantly he let go of me, leaving me cold and vulnerable. My hair had come undone on one side and hung dishevelled around me. How could we have not heard them coming!
"Imrahil," Éomer said, "it is not as you think. I am here to ask for Lothíriel's hand in marriage."
Amrothos's eyes popped and he made a strangled sound, which might have been funny at another time.
Elphir, ever the diplomat, spread his hands. "Maybe we should discuss this in private?"
Father made a cutting gesture. "There is nothing to discuss."
Struggling to regain my composure, I stepped forward and took my father's hands. "Please, Father, do not be angry with us. I'm sorry we behaved in such an unseemly fashion. I was just so pleased to see Éomer again!"
Some of the fury drained out of him as he looked down at me. "It's not you I am angry with, Lothíriel," he said, squeezing my hands. He lifted his head to glare at Éomer. "But I am disappointed! I called you friend and came here to welcome you to my house. Never would I have thought to find you sneaking in behind my back and taking advantage of my daughter."
Éomer coloured. "You are right to censure me. I am entirely to blame."
I wanted to protest that I had not minded being taken advantage of, but behind my father's back Erchirion shook his head warningly, so I kept quiet.
Amrothos had found his voice again. "But...but..."
What if he mentioned us disappearing into Drúadan Forest! That would surely put an end to any hope I had of marrying Éomer. I cast my brother a look full of entreaty and he seemed to understand, for he closed his mouth with a snap.
"I only wanted to see Lothíriel briefly," Éomer went on, "to make sure she was all right after the ordeals of the war. I don't know what got into me."
Father's face softened slightly at this reminder that Éomer had saved my life in Rohan.
"Please, Father!" I pleaded. "We meant no harm."
He sighed. "Lothíriel, what an innocent you are!"
"I assure you, I came here with honourable intentions," Éomer said.
Father pulled me to his side. "For the sake of our friendship and because my daughter begs me to, I will forgive this incident. But if I ever catch you again..." He did not have to specify the consequences.
Éomer bowed his head. "It won't happen again. You have my word."
I could not help feeling a sharp pang of disappointment. It had felt so right to kiss Éomer and be held by him. Why hadn't we paid more attention to our surroundings! What fools we'd been.
"Imrahil, will you allow me to pay suit to your daughter?" Éomer asked.
Father hesitated. I stepped away from him and looked up at him imploringly. "Please...?"
"Lothíriel, you are so young. Surely nineteen is too early to think of marriage."
"I'm twenty," I reminded him. My birthday had come and gone unnoticed while we awaited news from Gondor back at the Hornburg.
He raked his hand through his hair. "Your mother was twenty-seven when she married me."
Couldn't he see that had nothing at all to do with my own situation? And my age had not stopped Denethor from using me as a pawn in his game.
"It would be a good match for Gondor," I tried to reason with him, "strengthening the alliance between our countries."
Éomer took a step forward and placed a hand on my shoulder. "Imrahil, I swear to you that I would take good care of Lothíriel. I would lay down my life for her, for she is my life."
Father regarded us for a long time. "We will see," he finally said. "Depending on your behaviour from now on."
Clearly he was in no mood to be moved by pleas. Éomer seemed to recognise this as well, for he bowed again.
"I will take my leave then." He looked at me. "Lothíriel, I'm so sorry."
For kissing me or for being caught at it? I swallowed down a sob at having him go.
"What is all this shouting about? What is going on here?" somebody barked that moment. Then Aunt Ivriniel appeared from behind the beech tree. She peered at Éomer.
"Oh, you're still here, my Lord King. Did you enjoy your tour of the garden?"
Unsurprisingly, after that I saw very little of Éomer during the rest of his stay in Minas Tirith, and never without having at least one brother in tow. My father even limited the number of dances allowed to us at the nightly entertainments. However, Éomer still managed to make his intentions clear by studiously ignoring all the other ladies after his allotted time with me. I had to admit it afforded me some guilty pleasure to see the court ladies disconcerted in this way, but at the same time I felt frustrated at our impasse.
And so matters still stood, when three days later I found myself with my father and brothers amongst the nobles assembled outside the door to the Hallows to honour King Théoden on his way home. The sky was overcast and the sun hid behind dark grey clouds, as if it mourned for him, too. I shivered in the morning chill.
"They're coming!" A whisper of anticipation ran through the crowd.
When I craned my neck, I saw that the Kings of Gondor and Rohan had arrived, accompanied by a small guard of Rohirrim. As they drew level with us, Éomer glanced up and picked me out effortlessly amongst the other ladies. Sorrow shadowed his face and I knew that it was no easy task for him to collect the body of the man he had looked upon as a father. I had to clasp my arms to keep myself from running up to him. If only I could have chased those sad thoughts away! Feeling powerless, all I could do was try to convey my sympathy through my eyes. But although he did not acknowledge me with more than a slight inclination of his head, the lines of strain seemed to ease.
The porter of Fen Hollen appeared from his little house by the door to greet the two kings and show them the way. I rubbed my arms to stay warm while we waited patiently for them to come back. It took a long time, but finally the gates swung open and they and their men emerged again, carrying a large bier on their shoulders that gleamed a dull gold and looked very heavy. The crowd fell silent and bowed their heads as the men bore their burden past in a measured tread. We fell in behind them.
I had never before appreciated how long and winding the road down to the gates was. The citizens of Minas Tirith lined the way, wishing to pay their respects to the man who had led his riders over three hundred miles to come to their aid and had died defending them. I cast my mind back to when I had spoken to him for the last time, that morning at the Hornburg. A kind man, honourable and true, who had risen above his personal tragedy to fulfil his oaths.
At last we passed through the great gates and emerged out onto the wide expanse of the Pelennor Fields. A wain stood ready to receive King Théoden's bier and the hobbit Merry sat on the wagon, holding his sword and shield. Those of us who would ride to Rohan had their horses waiting for them and the orderly procession broke up as everybody sought out their steeds. Dirhael, who commanded our company of Swan Knights, led up Nimphelos and helped me mount. She was frisky, dancing about nervously while I arranged my riding skirts. Then suddenly a quiver ran through her and her ears swivelled forward. I looked up to see Éomer ride towards us, with Firefoot pulling eagerly on the reins. Nimphelos greeted her swain with a pleased nicker.
Éomer inclined his head to me. "My lady, will you honour me with your company for a while? I would count it a great favour." He had the look of somebody who had not slept much and strain still lined his face.
"Of course," I answered at once, not even glancing at my father for permission.
Éomer needed me. Besides, what harm could there be in riding by his side; after all he could hardly ravish me in plain sight... even though I might not have objected to a little ravishment. I blushed. Where had that thought come from? He was a bad influence on me, I chided myself as we made our way through the crowd.
When we reached the wain, it started out at a slow pace, pulled by a team of two heavy draft horses. Éomer as chief mourner fell in behind it and following us, the rest of the cortege sorted itself out. My father was talking to Aragorn and I saw their eyes linger us. What were they discussing? I hoped that Aragorn would exert his influence on our behalf, for it was well known that he called Éomer his brother. And surely he would welcome such an alliance between Gondor and Rohan? How ironic that all winter I had worried about having to fulfil my obligations as a princess and now I trotted forth those same arguments to convince my father to allow me to marry the man I loved!
I also looked round for Éowyn, but she had let herself drop back to ride by Faramir's side. I sighed. She had not exchanged more than a polite greeting with me since coming to Minas Tirith and avoided me the rest of the time. Somehow I got the feeling that gaining her forgiveness would be a lot more difficult than her brother's.
The wind had picked up and above us clouds scudded across the sky, looking close enough to touch. As the procession wound its way slowly across the Pelennor towards the northern gate, more people lined the way, but I did not think Éomer noticed them. He stared fixedly at the tailgate of the wagon before us, lost deep in his thoughts. I let him be, content to just know him beside me. It was enough; there was no other place I'd rather be. I took the opportunity to study the other travellers, especially the Elves. Surely no King of the Mark had ever been laid to rest in more splendid company. A low radiance seemed to cling to some of them, particularly Lady Galadriel and Lord Elrond. More felt than seen: a dim glow glimpsed out of the corner of the eye that vanished when you looked at them directly.
After about an hour of travelling in this way, suddenly a pheasant rose from a bush beside the road, wings whirring as it took flight. The horses started violently and at once Éomer reached over to grab Nimphelos's reins.
"It's all right," I told him, leaning forward to pat the mare's neck.
He straightened up and looked around, as if only now realising how far we had ridden already.
"I'm sorry," he exclaimed. "You must think me very poor company and wonder why I asked you to ride with me."
I frowned. "Éomer, I don't except you to entertain me all the time. You have enough cares on your mind, so don't worry about me."
He smiled at me. "You're not much like the other ladies of the court, are you?"
"So my aunt tells me." I shrugged. "Besides, I kept myself busy observing the Elves. It's incredible to see them with my own eyes."
Éomer nodded. "I know. Had you told me a year ago that I would meet Elves, Halflings and the Heir of Elendil, I would have laughed in your face. To say nothing of talking trees! It's like walking in a children's tale in plain daylight." He grinned. "In fact I had to take back certain rash words about the Lady of the Golden Wood."
I had heard about his disagreement with Gimli and could not resist teasing him. "Yes, I have been told how much you admire Queen Arwen."
For a moment he looked disconcerted, but he quickly recovered. "It must be the black hair." He winked at me. "Although it is much too long, of course."
I laughed. "Few people would agree with you."
"Then they aren't discerning enough."
He cast a look over his shoulder. My father and brothers were riding a few paces behind us, with his guards following at a discreet distance.
Éomer turned serious again. "No, Arwen is surely the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, graceful, kind and wise. But while I am very happy for my friend Aragorn to have won her, I do not envy him in the least." He changed into Rohirric. "For I do not have the overwhelming urge to protect her." His eyes caressed me. "To wake up next to her in the morning...and to have her fall asleep in my arms."
Maybe I had been wrong about his inability to ravish me in plain sight. Just by lowering his voice he could turn my insides to mush. How did he do that?
"Have I offended you, Lothíriel?" he asked.
Not trusting my voice, I shook my head.
Éomer sighed. "But I owe you another apology, don't I, for the other day. That was a foolish thing to do."
No need to explain that he was referring to our interrupted kiss in my father's garden.
He shifted in his saddle uncomfortably. "I blame myself for taking advantage of your innocence. It won't happen again."
"But I'm equally to blame," I protested. "After all, I did not stop you."
He flashed a grin. "To be honest, I'm not sure you could have."
"Now you're being silly!" I told him.
That made him laugh. "Oh, Lothíriel, that's one reason I love you. The Gondorians treat me with such exquisite politeness, it's stifling. And my own people seem to think I have the solution to all their problems. I need somebody to just see me for myself, not the King of the Mark."
Warmth filled me at his words. "I have always seen you for yourself."
"I know. Promise me to always be undiplomatic."
I grinned. "That should be easy."
Éomer smiled at me. "I need somebody to tell me when I act in a stupid and idiotic manner." He raised a brow in self-mockery. "Although most of my stupid acts involved you in one way or another, min heorte."
That night we pitched our camp some ten miles north of the Rammas Echor, then set out again mid-morning. Our pace was slow, due to the many wains we had with us, not just King Théoden's, but also those for the injured. I settled into a routine, spending part of the time riding at the front with Éomer, and part of the time with my wounded men. Gondor's healers had padded the wagons with thick straw mattresses, but even so it was a bumpy journey, and those who were able to preferred to ride.
One of those who had recovered well was Tondhere. On horseback he possessed a gracefulness entirely lacking on the ground. And his new freedom had given him back his confidence, so much so that he was full of plans for the future.
"My father has a small shop in Aldburg," he told me one afternoon. "I want to expand his business and trade with Gondor. I've seen the woollen cloth they sell in Mundburg, most of it inferior quality in my opinion." He motioned at his missing leg. "As long as I am on a horse I can still fight to defend my goods."
"You're right." I tried to think what else he could sell, for Rohan needed trade to make up for the losses in foodstuffs during the war. Horses were the obvious answer, but I knew that Éomer wanted to build up the herds to their former level first.
"What about tapestries?" I asked. "Maybe I could persuade Éomer King to give one to my father as a gift, to hang up in his town house. That would be sure to start a fashion."
Tondhere barked a laugh. "It's a shame you are a princess, for you would have made a good trader!"
Éomer also let himself fall back to ride with the wounded from time to time, taking a personal interest in each man. Wuffa had discovered that he was an excellent storyteller and squeezed him mercilessly for tales of Rohan's heroic past. I enjoyed listening to him recount them, at times not even taking in his words, but just content to have him near. After all the anxious months of waiting for news from Gondor, it still seemed a dizzying prospect to have a future spread out before us.
A future together. I took the opportunity to spend as much time in Éomer's company as possible. For while I knew him like a second self where his heart and honour were concerned, in other matters I knew very little about him. What were his likes and dislikes? I found out that he preferred ale to wine, that he liked porridge for breakfast, laced liberally with honey, and his tea so strong it was undrinkable. That he could be grumpy in the mornings, but my presence called forth a smile like the sun suddenly breaking through cloud cover.
Always one of my brothers attended me, although it must surely have bored them witless. Especially since they did not understand any of our conversation, as Éomer delighted in talking only Rohirric with me in their presence. They each reacted in his own way: Elphir wore a polite, glazed smile, while Erchirion applied himself to learning the language. Amrothos just ground his teeth in frustration, but I was careful not to push him too far. It had taken some persuasion, but he had promised me not to mention my disappearing into Drúadan Forest, so I owed him. I dared not even imagine what my father would say if he found out about that escapade.
About a week after leaving Minas Tirith, we crossed the Mering Stream into Rohan and a subtle change came over Éomer: he was the lord of the land now and the heavy mantle of power and responsibility settled on him. The news of our coming had spread ahead and from the many narrow valleys of the Ered Nimrais his people came down to pay their respects to King Théoden on his last journey. At Éomer's request, I rode at his side at the head of the cortege from then on.
I saw many speculative glances cast my way and wondered what my father made of them. Often during the past days I had been aware of his watching presence, but so far he had kept his own council. Éomer had a distinct way of emphasizing his claim on me by seeing to my comfort and protection. And there was something very possessive about the way he was always there to assist me mount or dismount - not that I really needed any help, but it was rather nice to have him swing me down effortlessly from Nimphelos, so I indulged him. He knew, of course, even though only his eyes dancing with laughter gave him away.
Finally, after another week's travel, the golden roof of Meduseld came into view, glinting serenely in the rays of the setting sun. We had arrived.
"Home," Éomer said.
Breguswith, the Meduseld housekeeper, led the way through the door behind the dais into the corridor leading to the private quarters. She looked harried, no wonder with all the guests to provide for.
"I'm sorry, my lady," she told me. "But we had to give your chamber to some of the ladies from Gondor."
I hadn't even realised I still had a room in Meduseld. "That's fine," I assured her, wondering where she would put me instead.
That moment she stopped outside Éowyn's room and knocked on the door. With Éowyn? Surely not! At the call to enter, Breguswith opened the door and went in, but I hesitated on the threshold.
Éowyn stood bent over the washbasin, her saddlebags dumped at her feet. "What is it?" Her eyes rose to me and she frowned. "Do you need anything, Lothíriel?"
Breguswith cleared her throat nervously. "Éomer King desires that the Princess shares your room, Lady Éowyn."
"That won't be necessary," I put in quickly. "I can stay in the Dol Amroth tents." My father had decided to forgo a guesthouse, so the many ladies from Gondor would have more room.
"It was Éomer King's expressed wish," Breguswith said, her voice carefully neutral.
He might as well have ordered us to make up. I wondered if my face held a similarly mulish expression as that of Éowyn. Neither of us liked to be commanded about.
"Come on in then," she agreed.
And she ignored me studiously while servants brought in a truckle bed and set it up for me. I was tired anyway and all I wanted was a quick wash and a soft pillow to rest my head. Another time I might have attempted a few words of conversation, but now I just put my nightgown on and slipped in between the sheets.
Soon afterwards, Éowyn followed my example and blew out the candles. "Good night."
I lay staring up into the darkness. My muscles ached from spending a fortnight on horseback and the bed squeaked every time I tried to find a more comfortable position. The noises that reached my ears were both familiar and strange after my long absence. Wind sighing around the eaves outside, the call of a guard to another, a burst of laughter from the men still talking in the Hall.
It was almost as if I had not left at all, I thought sleepily. Maybe I had dreamt the whole Ring War and the men out there were still celebrating Yule. I yawned as I spun that fantasy on. No misunderstanding between Éomer and me, no harsh words... I turned onto my side and the bed creaked loudly. I yawned again as sleep finally claimed me.
Clammy hands fondled me, slipping up my arm while my mind wandered in a fog. A wet kiss placed at the bottom of my throat, breathless words whispered in my ear. I will have you. Black eyes turned red as an evil spark kindled in them. Claws raked across my breast. You are mine. The stink of old blood.
Go away! I struggled weakly, but my feet were caught and I could not move. The hands were dragging me down. Éomer! Help me!
He is dead. Dead and rotting.
A dark shape bent over me, shaking me. "Lothíriel, wake up!"
I stared up without recognition. "It's not true! Please tell me it's a lie," I begged. "He is alive!"
"Éomer!" I sobbed. "He is alive!"
"Yes, he is," the voice soothed me. "I swear it."
The voice would not lie to me, I could trust it. Slowly the room came into focus and my terror receded. Éowyn - for of course it was her - held my hands in hers and sat kneeling by my bed.
"Let me light a candle," she said.
The sharp crack of steel on stone and then warm light flooded the room, chasing away the last shadows of my dreams. I sat up and found my legs tangled in the bed sheets. Had that caused my nightmare? Éowyn would think me silly.
Surreptitiously, I wiped tears from my cheeks. "I'm sorry for waking you. I'll move to my father's tents tomorrow."
Éowyn shrugged. "I'll put up with your bad dreams if you put up with mine." Then she bit her lip, as if she'd said more than she had intended.
I gaped at her. "You have nightmares, too? But you're the slayer of the Witch King!"
"Perhaps that's why." She pressed her mouth into a thin line.
I mulled this over while I settled down on my cot again. Éowyn placed the candlestick on a small table by her bed and slipped back under her sheets to stare up at the ceiling. She had always seemed so strong and her deeds on the battlefields of Gondor had given her a reputation to match. To see this crack in her façade of cool Shieldmaiden was startling.
"What did you dream?" she asked abruptly.
It was always the same. "Gríma touching me...the orcs in the caves," I swallowed. "Éomer dead."
The night was so quiet, I could hear her breathing. How late was it? We had to be the only people awake, apart from the guards on their rounds. The candlelight surrounded us in a small bubble of silence.
"I told him he would be a fool to forgive you," she said all of a sudden. "Back in Dunharrow, before we rode for Gondor. I was angry at the time...angry and bitter."
I was at a loss what to answer. Éomer had told me a little about her falling in love with Aragorn, although he considered it more a grasping for some sort of escape.
"And now?" I asked.
"And now I'm not sure. Faramir thinks highly of you, he says you would make a good queen. As for Éomer..." She snorted. "It's obvious he intends to get what he wants and soon, even if your father doesn't realise it yet."
That made me blush. "I think Faramir feels the same about you."
"He's better at hiding it."
We exchanged a grin, some of the old ease restored between us.
"Éowyn, I owe you an apology," I said impulsively, "for abandoning you to Wormtongue's machinations. It was foolish to run away like that, but I saw no other way out."
Her grin faded and with a sigh she turned onto her side and stuffed the pillow under her head. "It hurt to be lied to. And I could have done with a friend." Her eyes were large and troubled in the candlelight. She frowned. "Éomer said that Wormtongue threatened you."
"Yes." Remembering my nightmare, I wrapped my blanket closer around me. "He put something in my Yule cup to paralyse my will and then he had Wulfstan call me to your uncle's rooms. He intended to...to bed me. To revenge himself on Éomer."
Éowyn shivered. "Wormtongue always knew what would hurt the worst." Her voice petered out and I wondered what he had said to her.
"But you got away," she added.
"Yes. But Gríma threatened to use me to disgrace Éomer. So I ran. As far away as I could manage."
Burning low, the candle flickered and then went out.
"I ran too," she whispered, her face a pale oval in the darkness. "All the way to Gondor."
I remembered something she had said to me the first time we went down to the training grounds. "And did you find your glory?"
"So they say. But it's easy to be heroic when you have nothing to lose."
She fell silent. Outside an owl called and a shadow flitted past the window, briefly outlined by the light of the moon. A high-pitched squeal of some small animal followed, a mouse perhaps. I hoped that it had got away.
The quiet stretched between us. Had she fallen asleep? I closed my eyes, weariness dragging at me. I would think of Éomer and hopefully that would chase any bad dreams away.
"He loves you," Éowyn said in a voice so low it was almost inaudible. "You had better make him happy, or..."
"I will," I promised.
A/N. min heorte = my heart
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