3. Chapter 3
Marshal Éomer bowed deeply. "Westu hál, Théoden King." He changed to Westron. "May I present Princess Lothíriel of Dol Amroth and Dirhael, the captain of her guard? Her father has sent the princess to Edoras to sojourn with us for a while."
As I sank into a curtsy, the king beckoned me closer. "Come here, child."
I found myself looking into a pair of kind blue eyes. Faded with age now, once they must have been the same intense colour as the Marshal's. King Théoden smiled. "My mother hailed from Lossarnach and was kin to the Princes of Dol Amroth. Welcome to my hall."
"Thank you," I answered.
The other man rose to his feet and took my hand, bowing over it. "Allow me to introduce myself as well. Gríma, son of Gálmód, and humble councillor by King Théoden's will. At your service, my lady."
Humble? That sentiment did not agree with the manner he let his glance linger on my face. He had dark hair, unlike the usual flaxen colour of the Rohirrim, which made his skin look even paler by contrast, and his fingers were long and slim, unmarked by toil or training for war. They felt clammy with sweat and I had to suppress the impulse to snatch my hand away. "Thank you," I murmured again and under the pretext of smoothing my skirts took a step backwards. The air seemed warm and close.
"You honour us with your gracious presence," the man answered. His eyes flickered past me in the Marshal's direction. "I hope you have been treated with all due courtesy?"
My chance to get back at Lord Éomer for his highhanded treatment of me? I smiled politely. "Certainly. Marshal Éomer was so kind as to escort us to Edoras himself."
Lord Gríma lowered heavy lids over his eyes. "Indeed? It's good to see the Marshal attending to his duties."
I held my breath, expecting an explosion of wrath from behind me at this veiled insult, but Lord Éomer ignored the words completely. "Théoden King," he addressed his uncle in a clearly audible voice, "will you grant the princess guest rights in your hall?"
The king frowned at him. "Yes, of course."
The councillor stayed silent, but I got the impression that nothing escaped him. All of a sudden I felt intensely grateful for Lord Éomer's solid presence at my back.
"You are very kind," I answered the king, even though I had no idea what boon I had just been granted.
King Théoden waved my thanks away. "No, no." With a tired sigh he leaned back in his chair.
"My Lord King," the councillor spoke up at once, "you are weary. Why don't you retire now?"
The king looked into his eyes and his shoulders sagged. "So tired," he agreed, in the manner of a man already half asleep.
"Uncle," Lord Éomer protested. "You summoned me to appear before you urgently. Will you not hear the report I bring of how things fare in the East Mark?"
"Can't you see the king needs his rest?" Lord Gríma hissed. "Are you so eager to have him overextend his strength?"
A muscle bunched in the Marshal's jaw. "Uncle! Orcs are plundering our villages and slaying our people. We need more riders to patrol the border to catch the fiends before they have a chance to do harm."
"Always you ask for more men," the councillor sneered, "caring little that you would leave the king without protection in his own hall." He turned to the king. "Doesn't he, dear master?"
King Théoden nodded as if in a dream. "Yes indeed."
Marshal Éomer clenched his fists, but said nothing as Lord Gríma helped the king rise from his chair. King Théoden must have been a tall and powerful man once, but now he walked bent over with small uncertain steps, leaning on his councillor's arm.
"Tomorrow," Lord Gríma said over his shoulder. "You may plead your case and also give an account of your actions." The last had an ominous sound to it.
"Tomorrow," the king murmured.
With the soft rustle of skirts the woman went to take the king's other arm. I had forgotten all about her, she had kept as still as if she were one of Uncle Denethor's marble statues. Then the door leading to the private quarters at the rear of the hall thudded closed behind them.
I avoided looking at Lord Éomer. Unless I misjudged him completely this was a man who would not take defeat gracefully. And that he had just suffered defeat, there could be no doubt. He said a few words in their tongue, short and very much to the point I suspected.
From one of the tables a rider rose to join us. His hair and beard streaked with grey, he nevertheless moved with the trained grace of a fighter. "Éomer?"
The Marshal gave him a rueful smile. "I know. My temper again." He clasped the other man in a quick embrace. "But I'm forgetting my manners. Princess Lothíriel, please meet Marshal Elfhelm, who commands the Muster of Edoras."
The rider inclined his head, but his mind was clearly on other concerns, for he started talking to Lord Éomer at once in a low voice. Several times I heard the name Isengard mentioned and that of the sorcerer Saruman. Trouble? But just then I felt too tired to enquire into the matter, let alone worry about it. Instead I looked around, wondering whether I could find a servant and discover if these so called guest rights extended to a room and a bed. Also the smell of roast pork wafting over from the platters distributed by the serving maids made my stomach growl.
Lord Éomer seemed to read my thoughts, for he drew me towards an unclaimed table and motioned to one of the girls to serve us, all the while plying Marshal Elfhelm with questions. The food was simple, just a nourishing vegetable broth followed by slices of roast pork covered in thick gravy, but I set to with a healthy appetite. As if drawn by a lodestone, by and by more men drifted over to join us and soon a lively conversation in Rohirric got going. I listened to it with half an ear as I wiped up the gravy with a piece of bread. It seemed to me the language bore some relationship to Westron and I might almost understand it, if only my mind were less sluggish. Every now and again a familiar word would jump out at me, usually to do with war and fighting. Just like at home - had there really once been a time when dinner conversation had revolved around such peaceful matters as the planting of fields or the latest book brought from Minas Tirith? This set me to wondering what my father and brothers were doing right at that moment. I imagined them having dinner, sitting at our big oak table, silver plates and crystal goblets glittering in the candle light and throwing reflections on the polished surface. Amrothos would flirt with all the lovely ladies while in his wake Elphir would smooth their fathers' ruffled feathers.
"My lady, are you tired?"
The question startled me upright and I realized I'd half closed my eyes and sunk against Lord Éomer's shoulder.
"Would you like to retire?" he asked.
"Yes, please," I replied, blushing.
He helped me rise from the bench. "You look almost asleep already."
I suppose it was his understanding smile that made me let my defences down. I smiled back at him. "It's your fault for keeping me up half the night."
The moment the words left my mouth I realised how they would sound. Why couldn't you catch words from the air and stuff them back in your mouth! Now he would laugh and make a clever riposte and his men would snigger behind my back. My cheeks heated up.
"My wounded riders were deeply grateful to you, though," he replied in a serious tone and only a tiny crinkle in the corners of his eyes betrayed his amusement. "Let us go and seek my sister Éowyn. She will know which quarters you've been assigned."
This enabled me to wish the men at the table a good night, which they all echoed courteously. Lord Éomer motioned for me to ascend the dais and led us through the same door the king and his advisor had used. Behind it lay a hallway leading to a series of rooms, from one of which the blond woman who had attended King Théoden was just emerging.
"Here she is," my companion said and introduced us to each other. "Éowyn," he addressed his sister, "would you please look after Princess Lothíriel for me? I want to talk to Elfhelm some more, he's been telling me how Théodred fares in the West." Not giving her the chance to reply, he turned to me. "She will take good care of you." A quick bow to me, a nonchalant wave at his sister and he left.
For some reason I felt alone and vulnerable with him gone, but I managed to suppress the annoying urge to run after him and beg him to stay. After all I hardly knew the man!
Lady Éowyn waited patiently. "This way," she said, beckoning me to follow her down the corridor. Though she had the look of the Rohirrim with their blond hair and blue eyes, it seemed to me I could discern traces of her Numenorean blood in her slender build and uncommon height, similar to my own. As we passed their ornately carved doors she named the rooms: the king's study, the library, Prince Théodred's rooms, her own.
"This is yours," she said, opening the door next to her own. "We have been keeping it in readiness ever since we received Lord Denethor's message."
I stepped across the raised threshold into a large room. As Lady Éowyn went round, lighting lamps with a taper, the furnishings emerged from the shadows. Simple enough. A bed covered in a quilted counterpane, a large clothes chest, a desk, a weapons stand.
A weapons stand? I stared at it, stories of Shieldmaidens running through my mind. Surely they wouldn't expect me to learn sword fighting, would they?
Lady Éowyn followed my glance. "This used to be my brother's room. Would you like me to have the stand removed?" Perhaps it was my imagination, but I fancied I heard a trace of contempt in her voice. Did she take me for a soft Gondorian princess?
"No, of course not," I answered at once. "I can store my bow on it."
Her cool blue eyes sharpened as if truly seeing me for the first time. "You know archery?"
"I have a little skill at it."
"Good. You'll have to show me sometime."
I could not help thinking that she would be a stern judge, but nodded agreement. The servants had piled my bags by the door and I checked that all the books had been brought in, but I felt little inclination to start unpacking. Instead I sat down on the bed with a tired sigh.
Lady Éowyn showed me the washstand with its jug of water. "Is there anything else you require? Otherwise I will leave you to your rest now."
"Thank you." I really only wanted to shut my eyes and seek the oblivion of sleep. Only as she reached the door a thought struck me. "Lady Éowyn?"
She turned round. "Yes?"
"What does being granted guest rights by the king signify?"
"It means you are made a member of the king's household and he owes you protection." Her voice held absolutely no expression as she wished me a good night and closed the door behind her.
I stared at the wood, inlaid with a sinuous pattern of leaves and flowers. So the Marshal thought I needed protection. From what or whom exactly? And more than ten Swan Knights could provide? I suppose it was silly, but I got up and shot the bolt to my room.
The next morning, with the sunlight streaming in through the window, my fears seemed groundless and slightly absurd. I slept in late, had a leisurely breakfast and then decided to explore my new home. In the passageway outside my room gossiping maids went about their tasks, a reassuringly mundane sight. Instead of passing through the hall I took a side door used by the servants, which lead directly onto the terrace surrounding Meduseld. The guard stationed there bid me a cheerful good morning.
When I stepped to the edge of the terrace wind rushed around me, tangling my hair, and my heart lifted. So much like home! Except for the absence of the salty tang of the sea - instead the air smelled of wood smoke and moist earth. Children's laughter reached my ears and when I looked for them I saw a group of them a little lower down the hill, flying kites. The familiar sight sent a pang through me.
It had rained during the night and I had to step around puddles as I walked along the side of the hall towards the main door. At the top of the stairs I hesitated, knowing that I should take a guard along if I wanted to look around Edoras, but having no idea where Dirhael and his men had been quartered. The doorwardens stared straight ahead, only their blond hair moving in the wind showing that they were made of flesh and blood rather than stone.
Just then in the square below a man caught my eye, leading out a horse from a building. Of course! I would visit Nimphelos and see how she had recovered from the journey. Picking up my skirts, I descended the stairs.
I found the royal stables to be rather grand and impressive, as befitted a king of horselords, but the same welcoming smells of horse and hay as at home pervaded them. The stable master himself showed me the horsebox where my mare was stabled and smiled with pleasure when I complimented him on the excellent care she had received. Indeed her dappled coat shone like the pearl my father had named her after. By habit I had saved a couple of apples from breakfast and gracefully Nimphelos condescended to accept this tribute to her beauty.
"This one knows her worth," Cuthwine laughed, patting her neck. Then the stable master excused himself to see to the rest of his charges.
I caressed the mare's soft coat while she munched contentedly, promising her a ride later in the afternoon. Further down the passageway another horse watched us, lifting his head over the top half of the door, and I recognized Lord Éomer's stallion, Firefoot. Nimphelos shook her mane flirtatiously, well aware of her charms, and I had to smother a laugh when in response the stallion arched his neck and pawed the ground.
Suddenly his ears flicked forward and he turned his attention towards the main doors. I heard somebody exchange a few curt words with the stable master, then come our way. I only caught a brief glimpse of him as he strode past, his lips pressed together, eyes flashing with fury. Lord Éomer.
"Come on, Firefoot," he said and picked up the saddle from its hook outside the box, "we're leaving."
Leaving already! Carefully I eased open the door and stepped out onto the corridor. "Lord Éo-"
The saddle crashed to the ground. He spun round, sword drawn. Before I even had the chance to scream, he had slammed me against the wall and naked steel pressed against my throat. Just as abruptly he let go again.
"Lothíriel! What are you doing here!"
I gasped for air, my heart pounding like a galloping horse. "My mare," I managed to choke out, "I wanted to check on her."
"Oh! Well, you shouldn't creep up on me like that."
Creep up on him! I pushed away from the wall. "And you shouldn't jump somebody who just happens to pass by!" What was wrong with these people? This was the second time in as many days that one of their warriors had attacked me. I wiped my sleeve across my eyes. Why had my father sent me here.
"Forgive me if I frightened you." His voice had softened. "I'm afraid I just reacted by instinct. Are you all right?"
I nodded and took a deep breath, trying to still the trembling that threatened to overwhelm me. "It's just that I'm not used to being startled like that."
"Of course not." He cursed softly. "Lothíriel, please don't look at me like that. I'm sorry! I should have better control over myself." Suddenly he searched the corridor. "And where are your guards?"
"I don't know." As a matter of fact we were the only people in the stables. I could not help thinking that everybody else had possessed the good sense to seek cover from his temper.
Lord Éomer sighed. "I think I saw them in the hall, they're probably waiting for you there. Promise me to take them with you from now on."
"Oh I will," I said with fervour.
Lord Éomer winced. "I suppose I deserved that. Will you forgive me?" Gently he brushed his knuckles across my cheek.
My heart speeded up again, but this time for a different reason. Suddenly aware of how close to me he stood, I lowered my eyes. I had noticed before that he had a magnetic presence, not just caused by his size and physical power, but by the raw force of his personality. With a sinking feeling in my stomach I realized that if I wasn't careful, he would pull me in like a riptide pulls in an unwary swimmer. A dangerous man.
Schooling my features to cool politeness, I took a step back and gestured at the saddle lying on the floor. "You are leaving, my Lord Marshal?"
"Yes." Slowly he lowered his hand, then bent to pick up his gear. "The king has ordered me to return to Aldburg at once."
I couldn't quite decide whether to regret or welcome this news. He opened the door to Firefoot's box and stepped inside. "Anyway, there is nothing more that I can do here."
Remembering his words to the king the day before, I frowned. "Did you get the additional riders you asked for?"
He brushed out the stallion's coat before spreading the saddlecloth. "No."
"I have been told to use my men more wisely." Biting off every word, he heaved the saddle onto Firefoot's back. "I have also been taken to task for my plans to pull our people out of the East Emnet."
I could guess whose influence was at work here. "But why?"
"Wormtongue - Gríma - accused me of abandoning our lands and told me to fight instead." He slewed round. "To fight! What kind of fight does he expect women and children to put up?" Laying back his ears, Firefoot sidled nervously and he reached out a hand to calm the stallion. "I'm sorry, but I'm in a foul mood. One of these days I will lose my temper with the Worm and cut him to pieces."
And probably do just what Lord Gríma intended, playing right into his hands. To draw steel in the king's presence was a serious offence. I gripped the side of the door. "So what will you do?"
"Draw them back anyway. I will not leave my people out there ready for slaughter. The king need never know." He fitted the bridle over Firefoot's head. "If only Théodred were here, but he's needed on our western border."
I nodded in sympathy, although I could not quite share his regret at the Crown Prince's absence. It had foiled Uncle Denethor's plans quite nicely.
Lord Éomer led Firefoot out of the box and paused next to me. "My lady, I have to leave now." He took my hand and raised it to his lips. "Remember you have guest rights and the king's men owe you protection. Marshal Elfhelm is a good man and so is Háma, my uncle's chief doorwarden. Look to them if you feel troubled."
He searched my eyes as if for reassurance and I managed a shaky smile. It could not have been very convincing, for his brows drew together in a worried frown. He opened his mouth as if to say something more, but then closed it again and just brushed a kiss across my knuckles. "Westu hál, Lothíriel."
Firefoot tossed his head impatiently and with a last lingering glance my way Lord Éomer led him down the passageway. As I watched him go, I could not help feeling that my only point of certainty in a shifting quicksand world had just left me. It didn't even help to tell myself that I was better off without his dangerous presence.
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.