5. Chapter 5
Over the next weeks the weather turned cold and grey, yet still every morning Éowyn came to collect me to go down to the sparring grounds, fretting whenever rain kept us housebound. Left to my own devices, I would not have kept up such a vigorous training regime, but she seemed to appreciate my company. My archery skills benefited anyway.
The afternoons I spent exploring Edoras and its environs. It was a strange feeling to have so much free time on my hands. At home assisting my sister-in-law with keeping Dol Amroth's household ledgers had kept me busy, but here I had no duties to occupy me. Soon I discovered that there existed Houses of Healing of a sort in Edoras, although they almost did not deserve the name, being no more than a single building with a small herb garden attached. Master Aethelstan, the eldest of the three resident healers, had visited Gondor in his youth and trained in Minas Tirith.
After two weeks of having nothing to do besides reading the books I had brought with me from home, I approached him and offered my help, which he accepted gratefully. It was refreshing to have nothing worse to deal with than the occasional broken bone caused by a fall. In fact most of our patients suffered from ailments brought on by the cold weather, aching joints or gout, for which Aethelstan had an excellent if malodorous ointment.
I also enjoyed getting to know some of the common people, although most of them only spoke a limited amount of Westron. This meant I soon acquired a large if rather strange vocabulary of Rohirric, including such words as splint and bedpan. It was Aethelstan who recommended I should consult the king's library when one day he found me writing down simple phrases in Rohirric.
"I believe there exist several books on the language of the Mark compiled for Queen Morwen, Théoden's mother," he said. "She hailed from Gondor, the same as you."
I had of course seen that there existed a library, but had not wanted to approach the king to ask permission to use it. Somehow Gríma always hovered about him, and the man made me deeply uneasy. But now that I had a good reason, I decided to speak to King Théoden.
A few days later I happened to exit my room, just as Gríma went down the hallway on some errand, vanishing through the door to the Hall. Seizing my chance, I approached the men standing guard outside King Théoden's chambers. One of them I knew from the training grounds, and he greeted me with a bow. "Princess?"
"Good morning, Háma. Do you think I could speak to King Théoden?"
He looked surprised at my request, but told me to wait while he went inside to ask permission. When he came out again he nodded to me. "The king will see you."
The first thing that hit me when I entered the chamber was the stifling heat. Then the gloom. A large fire burnt in the grate, but shielded by metal screens it did little to actually light the room. Heavy curtains covered the windows, cutting out all the daylight, and it took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness.
King Théoden sat in an ornately carved chair by the fire with Éowyn standing in her usual place behind him. As I advanced across the room, my feet sank into thick furs, which muffled my steps completely. Through another doorway I caught a glimpse of the bedroom, its massive four-poster bed equally shrouded in darkness. Getting closer I noticed the king's face was lined with tiredness, which did not surprise me with the room so stuffy. I ached to fling open a window and let in fresh air. But I suppressed the impulse and sank into a deep curtsy instead.
He motioned for me to rise. "You asked to see me, Princess Lothíriel?"
When I nodded and went on to explain my request, he stroked his beard thoughtfully. "Yes, I remember," he said. "My father commissioned some books for my mother to help her learn the language of Rohan. Without much success I might add." His eyes crinkled with laughter. "She was of the opinion that people should conform to her ways and not the other way round! And nobody dared contradict her either, she had such an imperious manner."
King Théoden's smile invited me to join in his amusement, and I found myself grinning back at him. "She sounds like Aunt Ivriniel."
"Does she? You will have to tell me about your aunt sometime," he said. "But as to the books, they should still be in the library."
"May I have your permission to use it?" I had carefully phrased my request to refer to more than just Queen Morwen's books, well aware that libraries were jealously guarded. Scholars from all over Gondor came to Dol Amroth to petition my father to look at ours. "I know how to handle precious volumes," I added.
"Of course you may." He reached for a short black staff that leant against his chair. "Éowyn sister-daughter, help me up." When I wanted to go to his other side, he waved me away. "I can manage. You go and open the door, child."
Háma looked surprised to see his master leave his room, but quickly went to the king's assistance while the other guard was sent ahead to throw open the doors to the library. The heavy wings creaked a protest when they swung inward.
I took a deep breath of the air as I entered the chamber. Musty and stale with the smell of aging parchment and dry ink. How I loved it. This room, too, was wrapped in gloom, but I felt no compunction in drawing back the curtains here. King Théoden blinked as light flooded the lofty room, even though it was only an overcast winter's day. He straightened up and looked around at the bookshelves that lined the walls from floor to ceiling. "I haven't been here for months," he murmured.
I had already started to covertly inspect the spines of the books on the shelf nearest to me, unable to keep my hands off them. "Oh! You have The Prince by Mardil Voronwe," I exclaimed in delight.
King Théoden laughed, a surprisingly deep sound. "I see we have a scholar here. It's nice to find somebody to appreciate this room again. Please feel free to use the library at your leisure."
"Thank you!" I beamed my pleasure at him and he smiled back. A smile full of warmth and kindness. I was starting to understand why his men showed such devotion to him. And also where the Marshal had got his charm from.
A couple of uncertain steps brought the king to the desk standing against one wall. "I used to work on my papers here." He brushed a finger across the surface, leaving a trail in the dust. "Of course Gríma does all that now."
Éowyn and Háma stood by the door, watching him closely. It took me a moment to identify the emotion on their faces. Hope? On a sudden impulse I turned back to the window and pushed against the iron latch holding it shut. Obviously it had not been opened in a long time, yet I managed to push it ajar slightly, dislodging dirt and staining my hands red with rust in the process. Fresh air stole into the chamber through the narrow chink, disturbing the dust of long neglect. By the desk King Théoden straightened up and breathed in deeply.
"What do you think you're doing!"
Gríma stood in the doorway, his pasty face flushed with anger. But at once he modulated his tone. "Dear master," he said, striding up to the king and taking his arm. "It gladdens my heart to see you up, but you have to conserve your strength." A venomous look came my way. "Though some people here seem determined to have you catch your death from cold."
I opened my mouth, prepared to give a heated reply, but Théoden forestalled me. He waved his advisor away. "Do not fuss over me so, Gríma. I merely wanted to show Lady Lothíriel the library."
Gríma rubbed his hands together unctuously. "You are always so generous with your strength, my Lord King," he said. "But surely you must be tired. Let me escort you back to your chambers now."
The purpose seemed to drown out of King Théoden as he looked down at his councillor, and he leaned heavily on his staff once more. "Yes, I suppose I should rest. I am feeling weary."
Behind him I saw Éowyn bunch her fists in her skirts. Háma just looked sad. Even the breeze had died down.
Gríma helped the king walk back to the door. "I have prepared your cordial, which will hopefully keep the chill from settling in your bones."
Apart from his first furious exclamation he had ignored me, but as he left the room he looked back over his shoulder. The icy threat in his eyes made me shiver, but I lifted my chin and stared right back. Let him make of that whatever he wanted.
I also wondered about the ingredients of this so called cordial, and the next time I caught Master Aethelstan on his own I asked him if he knew.
"I'm not sure," he replied, staring down at the dried leaves of sage and lovage he was grinding up in the mixing bowl. "Wormtongue has never shared his secrets with me. But then many healers do not want to give away knowledge of their personal preparations."
"Have you ever attended the king yourself?" I asked while handing him a flask of wine, trying for a casual tone.
He poured a measure of wine into the mixing bowl. The potion was meant for a couple of our patients who had developed a nasty hacking cough. Aethelstan pondered my words. "Only once when Wormtongue was away for a few days." He sighed. "The king weakened considerably just in that short time. I have to admit I was glad to see Wormtongue return. The king's health improved immediately he came back."
I nodded and kept my thoughts to myself. From my days in the Houses of Healing in Dol Amroth I knew there existed substances - though proscribed of course - that made the body crave for them and if withdrawn too quickly caused serious illness. Possibly even death. Aethelstan presumably knew this, too. Yet I could not blame him for not wanting to utter such suspicions against the influential councillor. Everybody might call him Wormtongue, but it happened behind Gríma's back, not to his face. Very few people dared to do so openly. Thinking of one of them, I could not help wondering when Marshal Éomer would come to Edoras next.
The weather continued overcast and grey for another week, but then a strong westerly wind blew away the cover of cloud lying like a heavy blanket over the land, and for a brief time the golden days of autumn returned. One morning found me trudging up the hill after attending one of the births brought on by the change in the weather. It had been a difficult one due to the babe lying breech, so the midwife had asked for a healer's assistance, and I had accompanied Master Aethelstan. My own part had largely been to hold the woman's hand and comfort her between labour pains, yet I had felt a deep personal satisfaction when at last the infant had been laid in her arms.
By now I knew many of the citizens of Edoras and exchanged greeting with them as they went about their morning chores. Dirhael walked by my side, alert as always, yet his watchfulness seemed hardly necessary, and when I reached the bottom of the stairs leading up to Meduseld I dismissed him to his bed.
He yawned. "You will be seeking yours, too?"
"I will indeed," I answered. "I'm tired."
The sunlight flamed off the roof of the Golden Hall as I ascended the steps, reminding me of my first glimpse of Edoras. Meduseld no longer seemed proud and inaccessible as it had that day. Instead, as I got to know and like the people living here, it had started to feel like home - even if only a temporary one. Except of course for the one dark spot blighting it. But I had seen so little of Wormtongue lately that I had almost convinced myself to forget his presence.
At the top of the stairs I turned right to follow the path along the side of the hall leading to the back entrance, when one of the doorwardens hailed me. Surprised, I stopped. The doorwardens usually sat as still as carved statues, their business only with those seeking entrance to the hall. "Yes?"
"Forgive me, my lady," he said. "But you are training with the healers, aren't you?"
I had met him down at the sparring grounds and groped in my mind for his name. "Yes, I am. Do you need assistance, Odda?"
"Not me," he replied, "but Marshal Éomer has come from Aldburg and he's hurt."
The Marshal hurt! I grabbed Odda by the arm. "Where is he? Have you sent for a healer?"
He recoiled in surprise at my vehemence. "Oh, he's not hurt badly, only a glancing arrow wound. Don't worry, my lady." He patted my hand awkwardly. "But he would not let anyone see to it, so knowing that you have some experience with healing I thought maybe you could help?"
Only an arrow wound! If not treated properly they could turn infected just like any other injury - as the fool Marshal surely had to know. Men and their cursed pride! "I certainly will," I replied at once. "Where is he?"
"In the hall, having audience with Théoden King."
That gave me pause. The king might not appreciate me barging in on his presence. But on the other hand why shouldn't I pass through the hall on the way to my quarters? I inclined my head at Odda. "If you'd open the doors for me, please?" He obliged me with alacrity, looking relieved to have handed over his responsibility.
The hall had become familiar to me by now and I quickly passed by the beautifully worked tapestries, all my attention focused on the scene at the dais. Flanked by four guards, King Théoden sat on his chair while Gríma crouched behind him, whispering into his ear. Éowyn was missing from her customary place and I realized that this time of the morning she would be down at the training grounds.
Marshal Éomer stood at the bottom of the three steps leading up to the dais. "I'm telling you this was not a hunter missing his aim," he said, his words carrying across the hall. "The arrow was meant for me."
Gríma straightened up. "Really, Marshal, you should not overestimate your importance in the scheme of things."
Lord Éomer took a step forward. "And how would you like to have somebody shoot at you?"
I had reached the hearth in the centre of the hall, but now I slowed my pace, not sure what to do. Breaking in on the king's audience did not seem very politic. A small crowd of servants had gathered a safe distance away, so after a moment's hesitation I joined them. It seemed to me that Gríma's eyes flicked my way briefly, but the Marshal did not notice me. A trickle of unease ran down my back when I recognized the guard captain as one of Gríma's few followers amongst the king's men. An ambitious man keen to rise in the ranks, Wulfstan had recently been promoted over Elfhelm's objections. And why were there so many guards present in the first place?
Wormtongue raised an eyebrow. "My Lord Marshal, are you threatening me?"
"No." Not yet, hung in the air.
"Good. After all you would not want to distress the king over such trifles."
"I do not consider an attempt upon my life within a couple of hours' ride of Edoras a trifle," Marshal Éomer bit out between his teeth. At least he appeared fighting fit, so the arrow wound could not be too serious. Then I saw that his cloak was stained with dried blood on the shoulder and had to clamp down on the sudden urge to run to him at once.
Gríma waved his words away. "Yet you said you could find no trace of this archer." Somehow he managed to insinuate that Lord Éomer had made up the whole story.
"We searched for him, but with night falling early this time of the year we had to break off the hunt and stay overnight in a woodcutter's hut."
"Did you." The councillor sniffed in audibly and wrinkled his nose. Behind him, Wulfstan sniggered.
Throughout the whole exchange King Théoden had sat in his chair, eyes open, but I doubted whether he had heard anything. He had taken a serious turn for the worse the last few weeks, and seemed aware of very little going on around him. Now the Marshal appealed to him directly. "Uncle! Our enemies lurk on our very doorstep. We must do something!"
The king looked up at him, his attention sharpening at last. But Gríma leaned forward at once. "Must? Who are you to give the king orders?"
Lord Éomer dropped to one knee in front of the king. "Your servant, sire. Will you not listen to what I have to say?"
Tears stung my eyes. How could King Théoden not heed the love ringing in those simple words. The hall hushed.
Then Wormtongue broke the silence with a laugh. "How touching, Marshal. But really, a huntsman's arrow gone astray hardly calls for such dramatics."
Lord Éomer's whole body tensed. "You and I both know, Worm, that there was nothing accidental about this arrow." Watching him, I could not help fearing he would not be willing to curb his temper much longer. And then?
"No?" Gríma rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "But perhaps you are right and your past has caught up with you."
"What do you mean?" The words radiated menace. Standing behind the throne, Wulfstan shifted forward onto the balls of his feet, his eyes fixed on the Marshal.
Gríma lowered his voice. "Well, everybody knows how popular you are with the ladies. Could it be an angry father perhaps? Or a husband..."
Marshal Éomer jumped up, his hand going to the hilt of his sword.
"My Lord Marshal!" I stepped forward.
He spun round. "Princess Lothíriel. What are you doing here?" His frown let me know he was less than pleased to see me. What could I say to distract him?
"I might ask you the same," I replied, giving a polite laugh. "But then I suppose you took advantage of the lovely weather to come for a visit. What a pleasant surprise to meet you again. Don't you think it's ever so nice to see the sun again after all the cold weather we've had?" I was babbling of course, but it seemed to achieve its end, for the rage drained out of him to be replaced by bafflement.
"But you will think me a spoilt hot house flower for complaining about the cold already," I continued my silly chatter, "when it hasn't even snowed yet. I have been told we might get as much as two feet of snow." I stopped, rapidly running out of things to say about the weather. Lord Éomer stared down at me in bemusement and I forced a smile. "Just think, all that snow. It must be quite a sight."
"Lady Lothíriel," Gríma interrupted me, "if you don't mind. The Marshal is having an audience with King Théoden."
"I'm sorry!" I sank into a deep curtsy. "How silly of me. You mustn't mind me, I was just passing through on my way to my room." I made as if I spotted Lord Éomer's bloody cloak for the first time. "Oh dear. That looks a trifle nasty. Promise me you will have it seen to."
"Thank you, my lady, I will," the Marshal answered, his humour restored.
I hesitated, but there was nothing more I could say. "My lords," I dropped another curtsy and continued to the door leading to the private quarters as if that had been my destination all along. Behind me, Lord Éomer addressed the king again, but his voice was level and controlled now.
A/N: I am going away on holiday for two weeks on Saturday, so won't be able to post another chapter for a while. But I promise to have one ready for you when I get back. This also means that I won't be able to reply to reviews, but I appreciate all your comments very much and will get back to you when I return. Have a good time!