6. Chapter 6
I breathed in a sigh of relief when I reached the sanctuary of my room. For a moment there I had thought Lord Éomer would draw his sword in the presence of the king, thus breaking the peace of the Hall. An act that would have meant certain dishonour and possibly banishment. Or his death? I did not even dare to think of that possibility. More and more it had become clear to me what kind of game Gríma was playing here. He knew his adversary far too well, knew how to use the Marshal's love for his uncle and his sense of honour against him. But to what end? From what I'd heard about Prince Théodred's opinion of him, Wormtongue's influence would only last as long as King Théoden lived. Surely the councillor would have been much better off trying to curry favour with the Prince and the Marshal. Yet instead he appeared determined to set the king against them. As if he wanted them eliminated? The notion no longer seemed ridiculous after hearing how narrowly Lord Éomer had escaped an arrow.
I shook my head. That was taking a silly fancy too far. Maybe it was just personal animosity on Gríma's part, to do with his unhealthy interest in Éowyn. The way he constantly watched her through those heavy lidded eyes of his made my skin crawl. I did not know how she could stand it.
Just a little while ago I had been ready to fall into bed and sleep the morning away to recover from the previous night's vigil, but now I found myself too unsettled to do so. After taking a few restless turns about the room I sat down in the window-seat, my favourite place, and looked out over the thatched roofs of Edoras. The ever-present wind chased the shadows of clouds across them, turning them from gold to brown and back again, while in the distance the White Mountains reached out to touch the sky, unconcerned by the troubles of us short-lived humans. They would have looked this way the day my ancestors first set foot upon these shores, ages of men ago, and they would look the same when we would all be gone. I found that a comforting thought.
A knock sounded on the door. Not the usual polite rap by the servants, but loud and firm. My heart speeded up. "Come in!"
Marshal Éomer stood in the doorway. He took in the room with a quick glance, checking the layout being second nature to him, just as it was to my brothers. Then his eyes settled on me.
"Lady Lothíriel." He bowed. "I had hoped you might take pity on me and dress my wound."
"Of course!" I scrambled to my feet. "Your audience with the king is finished already?"
Lord Éomer shrugged. "It was pointless. I did not have an audience with the king, I had one with Wormtongue!" He spat out the name.
"I'm sorry." It seemed such an inadequate thing to say, yet it did earn me a tired smile.
"Not your fault. Indeed I owe you my thanks. You saved me from myself earlier on."
Silly how much those words warmed me! "You're welcome, my lord." Suddenly it seemed very important to set one matter clear, though. "I don't usually babble like that."
That earned me a real smile. "I guessed as much."
Pulling out the chair from under the desk, I motioned for him to sit in it. "May I examine your wound?"
Once his cloak was off a single look sufficed to inform me that before anything else, I would have to wash off the dried blood. I went to the door and sent one of the pages to bring a jug of hot water. Turning back to my patient, I saw he had set his helmet on the floor and was examining the items on my desk. When I had put my clothes away upon first arriving in Meduseld, I had found a carved horse at the bottom of the clothes chest. A child's toy and crudely made, it had nevertheless caught my fancy, for it looked much loved with one broken leg mended carefully. On a whim I had placed it on my desk where it could enjoy the sun again and watch me read.
He picked it up and turned it round in his fingers. "Felaróf. This used to be mine, you know. Where did you find it?"
"At the bottom of the clothes chest." It was strange to watch those big, capable hands handling the horse and imagine him as a child. What had he been like? A handful I would bet. "Did you carve it yourself?"
He nodded. "Yes. My uncle showed me how."
At my surprised look he grimaced. "Théoden was not always as he is now. When Éowyn and I first came to Edoras, he welcomed us into his heart. But I had difficulties adjusting, even ran away to Aldburg once. I suppose I thought if only I could get home, things would go back to the way they used to be. Even though I knew better of course."
How old had he been? Éowyn had told me about losing both their mother and father within a few short months and my heart ached to think of the little boy wanting them back. "Did you make it to Aldburg?"
"Almost. My uncle and his men caught up with me just outside the walls. I had stolen a pony and thought I would be in for a good hiding."
"And were you?"
"No. He let me ride back with him on Swiftleg, his warhorse. And later he gave me a sharp knife and taught me how to carve wood. This was one of my first efforts. In the evenings we used to sit by the fire in his study and talk while we carved things." He stared down at the little horse. "Uncle must have had other concerns, for even in those days our borders were restless, but he made time for me."
And now the king did not even seem to recognize him anymore. It had to hurt. Wordlessly, I started to tidy up the books lying on my desk and put them away on the new shelves on the wall. Lord Éomer got up to help me.
"Your wound!" I protested.
He grinned. "I'm not at death's door yet, you know."
I put my hands on my hips. "My Lord Marshal, if you think I want blood all over my precious volumes you are very much mistaken. You will sit down again this instance or I refuse to treat you."
"Yes, my Lady Princess."
The meekness in his voice did not fool me. At least he took his seat again and let me continue with clearing the desk. One of the books caught his eye and he started to look through the pile. "Did you get all these from our library? I didn't know we had anything on the language of the Mark."
"King Thengel had them compiled for your grandmother and I got your uncle's permission to use them." I had to extract the book from his grasp, for he showed every intention of starting to read it.
He looked up at me. "Spricst tu se tunge thaera Mearc, hlaefdige min?"
"Thankas, hlaford min. Ic forstande wel." I laughed at the surprise on his face. "Actually, I speak very little. But I have found that I understand a great deal. It's almost as if your language and Westron were related to each other and after a while the ear adjusts to make sense of what it hears."
Lord Éomer nodded thoughtfully. "It's true many words sound similar. But you must have a talent for languages if you've learnt so much in two short months."
"Thank you." I gave an exaggerated curtsy to hide my pleasure at his compliment.
With all the books put away, I got out my healer's satchel and rummaged around for a clean cloth. That moment steps in the corridor announced the arrival of the page bringing the hot water. He clutched a large jug, which he set down on the desk.
Lord Éomer smiled at him. "Thank you. Swidhelm, isn't it? Son of Redwald?"
The lad glowed with pride. "Yes, my lord." He puffed out his chest and I could almost see him telling his friends how the Marshal had known his name and thanked him for his service. Clearly Lord Éomer possessed the same unconscious gift of winning his men's allegiance as my father did.
Before leaving, Swidhelm bowed to me. "Is there anything else you require, my lady?"
"No thank you," I told him. "You may leave the door open."
Lord Éomer did not comment on this, but for myself I had no intention of causing gossip by treating him alone in my bedroom. Once again I inspected his wound, washing away the worst of the caked blood. The arrow had grazed a deep groove across one side of his neck, catching him in the vulnerable place where the mail shirt ended. A little to the side and it would have hit him in the throat, a fatal wound. The thought made my hands tremble.
"You will have to take your hauberk off," I told him brusquely.
With my help he lifted the heavy mail shirt over his head, wincing as the movement opened his wound again. I staggered under the weight of the chain mail and he jumped up to steady me.
"Sit down!" I ordered him and dropped my heavy load by the foot of the bed. Let somebody else worry about sorting it out.
Underneath the mail he wore a thick padded tunic that laced up the back. It joined the growing heap on the floor, as did the shirt beneath it, leaving him with a bare chest. A very well muscled chest, I noted, but then that was hardly surprising. I told myself I had seen plenty of bare skin lately and to get on with my task.
"How did this happen?" I asked, stepping behind him and lifting away his hair from his shoulder. "Didn't you wear a helmet?" His tawny mane was surprisingly soft under my touch as I brushed it to one side. It smelled of wood smoke.
"I took my helmet off to enjoy the sunshine," he explained. "That should teach me a lesson."
I dipped my cloth in the water and began to wash off the blood. "Did you see the bowman?"
"Only a glimpse in the woods above the road. By the time we'd climbed up there, he had disappeared. My men managed to track him a little way, but then it got too dark and we did not want to risk an ambush."
That made sense. "Yet you're sure it was no common huntsman?" I reached for the bottle of spirits. "This will sting," I warned him.
He drew in his breath with a hiss when I poured the liquid on his wound, but showed no other sign of discomfort. "I just know, call it instinct. It was almost as if he'd been waiting there for us. And then I was careless and he got lucky. If I hadn't turned round to say something to Éothain just at that moment, he would probably have killed me."
He said it so matter-of-factly! I rested one hand on the smooth skin of his back as I dabbed off the surplus spirit. Warm, firm and very much alive. The thought that life and death had lain but a heartbeat apart frightened me.
"Please be more careful in the future!" Then I chided myself for my outburst. He was a warrior, every time he rode to battle he risked his life. And he did not have to tell me that he was not the kind of commander to lead his men from the back.
Lord Éomer looked down at his hands. "Would it grieve you very much if I came to harm?"
What did he expect me to reply to that? A Princess of Gondor could not wear her heart on her sleeve. I stepped away from him and busied myself laying out a bandage. "Of course it would, my lord, for I consider you a friend." When he did not answer, I babbled on in desperation. "And it would grieve your sister sorely."
Fortunately he did not press the issue any further. "Yes, I know," he said. "Éowyn worries about me all the time. Will you promise me not to tell her what a narrow escape I had?"
I got out my jar of wound salve. "But she is no child, surely she would want the truth."
"She carries so many cares on her shoulders already with looking after my uncle, I do not want to burden her even more," he explained, adding with a smile. "I suppose I will always think of her as my little sister."
My brothers were just the same. They still treated me like the little girl running after them with her plaits flying in the wind. "Very well then," I agreed. "Now hold still." Perhaps he was right, I mused as I slathered on the honey salve generously. Éowyn possessed an unyielding will, yet it seemed to me a brittle strength. She would not bend, no matter the pressure applied to her - but she might break.
The injury was in an inconvenient spot and would need some sort of protection to keep the mail shirt from chafing it. So I made a pad by folding a clean handkerchief in half and then fixed it in place with a linen bandage that I wrapped across his neck, down the back and under his arm. It was an awkward business and necessitated me ducking under his arm several times and leaning across his chest. Fortunately nobody passed my room just then, for I do not know what they would have thought. And all the while those dark eyes followed every move.
When I finished tying off the knots he moved his arm experimentally. "Thank you. That feels much better." He lowered his voice. "You have gentle hands, my lady."
Unbidden, Gríma's words came to me. Everybody knows how popular you are with the ladies. While I refused to believe what he had said about Lord Éomer's past catching up with him, I recognized the Marshal for a dangerous man. Especially for a Princess of Dol Amroth who would have no choice in the man she would wed.
I became aware of the fact that I was staring at him and took a step back. "You are welcome, my Lord Marshal," I replied formally, my training as a princess coming to my rescue. But how I cursed my fair skin betraying me with a telltale blush as I turned to my desk to tidy away my healing supplies. In fact they needed very little tidying-up, but I busied myself rolling up one of the unused bandages with great care, all the while supremely conscious of him sitting there, watching me. He filled my little room with his presence.
I was both relieved and disappointed when he got up and put his shirt back on. "With your permission I will send my squire later to collect the hauberk," he said. "I just want to speak to Elfhelm and Éowyn quickly, then I have to be off again."
"You won't stay the night?" To my chagrin I found that I had looked forward to his presence at the evening meal. The atmosphere in the hall weighed like a heavy pall on me at times.
"I can't." Was there a trace of regret in his voice? "I have to be where my scouts can find me quickly. As it is, we are often too late by the time we get to the Emnet." He raked his fingers through his hair in frustration. "I asked my uncle to let me station my éored at the Entwade, but he - or rather Wormtongue - refuses to countenance the idea."
"I'm sorry." From my studies I knew the Entwade was the only place where the River Entwash could be crossed for many leagues. "Would you be a lot quicker?"
"Oh yes." I had hung up a map of Rohan on the wall above my desk and he crossed over to it to illustrate his point. "In summer my scouts swim their horses across the Entwash further down to reach Aldburg directly, but now the river is treacherous with icy water from the Misty Mountains and they have to detour all the way to the Entwade." He pointed out the ford north and east of Edoras. "It adds half a day to their journey. Time we can ill afford." Broodingly he stared at the map as if he could find the marauding orc bands by sheer will power.
I ached to help him somehow. "Can't your scouts cross the river by boats?"
He shook his head. "Too dangerous. The river seeks a new course every year, so the channels are never quite the same. In some places it runs swift, in others you get bogged down in swamp and quicksand. We have tried attaching a message tube to an arrow and shooting it across, but often the arrows fall short or the message is lost."
Reliable communication. The basis of warfare as Hyarmendacil had written in his famous treatise. Raking my mind for an idea, I joined Lord Éomer at the map. "I wish I could help you."
"Thank you. It's a shame you cannot teach my scouts to fly." His laughter held no mirth.
In my books I had read about the use of mirrors as signalling devices, but the weather here was too unreliable for that, for at any time the wind might blow clouds across the sun and block the light. Teach them to fly. The wind!
"What about kites?"
He looked at me as if I'd lost my mind. "Kites? What do you mean? They are but children's toys."
In my mind the idea was blooming into its simple beauty. "Tie your message to a kite and fly it across the Entwash. If you station a man with a kite on either side of the river you can fly them no matter where the wind comes from. And you always have wind in this country."
Lord Éomer looked sceptical. "I don't think a kite could carry a message tube. Its own weight and that of the long line needed to reach across the river would drag it down."
"Not one of your kites, no." I could not help feeling slightly superior. "They really are children's toys. But the silk kites we fly in Dol Amroth are to your kites like race horses are to a mountain pony. In strong wind they nearly pull you off the ground."
"All very well." Clearly he did not appreciate my disparaging tone. "But where will we get these miraculous devices? Do you mean to send to Dol Amroth for them?"
However, I had already thought of that. "No, I will make them for you. You will see." With a pang I realized I would have to sacrifice one of my silk nightgowns for the material. No matter, the nights were getting cold anyway and I would simply have to change to a woollen one.
His eyes bored into me. "It might just work. Very well, I'm willing to give it a try. A few hours' head start might make the difference between victory and defeat one day." He tapped a finger on the map. "This would be a good place to station those men. And I will be back in Edoras for Yule in three weeks' time. Can you have the kites ready for me by then?"
In one of his lightning shifts of mood he grinned at me as at a fellow conspirator. "Good. I will take my leave of you then."
I accompanied him to the door, where he took my hand. "You have my thanks, Lady Lothíriel. And I will try and keep my temper in the future, so as to need no further rescue." He dropped a kiss on my knuckles. "Although rescue by you is rather pleasant."
Why did he do this to me? Here I'd thought myself on solid ground again and then he pulled the carpet from under me with as little as a jest and a smile. I hesitated, smoothing my features to cool courtesy, but floundering in my search for an innocuous reply.
Lord Éomer seemed to read the confusion in my face and took pity on me. "I'm sorry." He rubbed his eyes. "I'm tired, don't mind me. We only just got back from riding patrol on the Emnet when the summons from Edoras came, so I haven't had much sleep the last few nights."
He bowed and would have left, but I reached out a hand to stop him. "Wait!" Something in his words nagged at me. What had he said about the hidden archer? The man had waited for him? I closed the door and leaned my back against it to make sure nobody would enter. "Lord Éomer, who summoned you to Edoras?"
He raised his eyebrows quizzically. "The king of course."
"So Gríma would have known." My mind racing, I tried to think back on the day before. "He was here yesterday, for I saw him briefly in the hall, but he could easily have passed the word to somebody to ambush you on the road." I nodded to myself. "Yes. Your uncle might not even remember sending for you, the way Gríma keeps him drugged half senseless."
"What!" He grabbed me by the shoulders. "Lothíriel, whatever has given you that idea?"
Quickly I recounted my visit to King Théoden, talking to Aethelstan afterwards, and the conclusions I had drawn.
His grip on my shoulders tightened until it was painful. "Have you spoken of your suspicions to anybody else?"
I shook my head. "Not even to Éowyn."
"Good. Then don't."
I couldn't believe he'd said that. "But don't you want to help your uncle?"
"Of course I do!" he exploded. Abruptly he let go of me and started to pace the room. "My lady, do you realize you're accusing the king's councillor of treason here?" He held up a hand to ward off interruptions from me. "And you have no proof."
I took a couple of steps after him. "Proof! You want proof when you should act?"
He whirled round. "And what do you want me to do? March into my uncle's rooms and take away his medicines? You said yourself that the only time Aethelstan looked after Théoden, the king got worse."
I bit my lip. Somehow I had thought that once I confided my suspicions to Lord Éomer, my part would be over and he would take matters into his own hands. How naïve of me. "I'm sorry."
His anger faded and with it the animation on his face, leaving him looking tired and discouraged. "I see no other choice but to wait and watch. Wormtongue is just hoping for me to make a misstep, which he would use to take my office away from me. He would like nothing better than to leave my people without protection. I cannot afford that."
This tallied with my own impressions so closely that I had to agree. "Very well." I turned away to hide my disappointment.
Lord Éomer knew anyway. A hand landed gently on my shoulder. "Don't give up, I will think of something. But promise me not to mention these suspicions to anybody else."
A lump in my throat, I nodded. His hand gave a quick squeeze. "Believe me, feigning ignorance is safest for you."
He did not have to add that as a stranger to Rohan I held a precarious position anyway. Wormtongue had made that clear already. "And you?" I asked, turning round.
"I will manage," he replied with a shrug. "I always have." A frown of worry still marred his face. "I just wish I did not have to leave you here all on your own. Listen Lothíriel, if you ever need me, send word by Elfhelm."
"Would you come?" I whispered. Of their own volition my fingers crept up to his chest.
He caught my hand in a firm grip. "I promise."
The door flew open with a bang. Before I knew it, I found myself pushed behind his back, away from harm's way. Then he relaxed just as suddenly. "Éowyn!"
His sister launched herself at him. "Éomer, are you all right?"
He held her off. "Yes I am. Don't fuss so, Éowyn!" Perhaps it was my imagination, but he did not sound particularly pleased to see her.
"I just got back from the training grounds. Odda said you were hurt!" She hugged him.
"Only a scratch. Lady Lothíriel was so kind as to patch me up."
She peered round him and noticed me for the first time. "Oh, there you are, Lothíriel. Thanks for looking after my brother."
I took refuge at my desk once more, lining up my healing supplies in a tidy row. "No need to thank me, I'm glad to be of use."
Lord Éomer took her by the elbow and steered her towards the door. "You see, I'm in capable hands. But we mustn't trespass on Lady Lothíriel's time any longer, and anyway, I want to talk to Elfhelm, to see if Théodred has sent word. Are you coming with me?"
She preceded him out the door, but he paused briefly before leaving. "Lothíriel, remember what I said."
Once the door had closed behind them, I sat down heavily on the bed, suddenly grateful not to be forced to make polite conversation with Éowyn. A stab of pure annoyance ran through me. What was she doing barging into my room unannounced like that! I picked up Éomer's helmet from the floor and stared at the empty vizor. My heart sank as I recognized my emotion: envy. I envied Éowyn for being allowed to show her worry for her brother openly and not having to hold back.
For as long as I could remember, the path I would tread in life had been clearly marked for me. Constricting my choices, true, but making the world a dependable and orderly place. Now the Marshal threatened to lure me off this safe path. I smoothed out the white horsetail crowning his helmet. One day duty would dictate whom I would marry, be it a foreign prince or one of Gondor's rich southern lords. That Denethor would let me settle for a mere Third Marshal of the Mark, when I could be used to bind a much more powerful man closer to his interests, was about as likely as the King returning.
Spricst tu se tunge thaera Mearc, hlaefdige min? - Do you speak the language of the Mark, my lady?Thankas, hlaford min. Ic forstande wel. - Thank you, my lord. I understand it well.
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