9. Chapter 9
"You've caused quite a commotion, haven't you!"
I looked up in surprise, for I had not heard Éowyn come in. But then she had the habit of knocking on my door and entering straightaway, without waiting for an answer.
"It wasn't intentional," I replied, unable to keep the defensiveness out of my voice.
She laughed, and sat down on my bed. "Oh, I know. But what a shame I missed seeing you shoot that fox. Théodred said it was spectacular."
Spectacular! When I had been utterly terrified. Some things Éowyn and I would never see eye to eye on. "How is Ceolwen?" I asked.
"Asleep. Master Aethelstan says she will be fine in the morning."
A great weight dropped from my shoulders. "I am so relieved."
Éowyn frowned down at the gown I had laid out ready on the bed. "What is this? You can't wear that."
"Why not?" I asked, holding it up so it fell in soft brown folds to the floor.
"Haven't you got something more festive?" Without asking for my leave she got up and started to look through my clothes chest. Éowyn herself wore white as usual, a dress with long sweeping sleeves and the skirt embroidered with tiny seed pearls.
"Now this is more like it," she said, pulling out the dress I had buried at the bottom of the chest.
The dark red silk glowed in the candlelight. A farewell gift of my uncle's - Steward Denethor, who never did anything without half a dozen reasons, some open, some less so. Lord Húrin's wife had chosen it for him with her usual impeccable taste and the colour would set off my black hair and fair skin to perfection.
"It's too rich," I protested.
"Nonsense!" Éowyn plucked the brown dress from my unresisting fingers and threw it back on the bed. "You are a member of the king's household now and we have to uphold the honour of Edoras."
When I still hesitated, she ordered me to stand still and threw the new gown over my head, settling the folds around me. The sleeves were tight fitting, as was the bodice, and the neckline revealed rather more than I was accustomed to.
"After all we do not want Erkenbrand's daughters to outshine us, do we?" Éowyn said with a chuckle while lacing up the back. I had never seen her so high-spirited before.
"You are in a very good mood," I observed.
For a moment her clever fingers paused, then she tied the final knot and reached for a hairbrush. "I will go back to attending faltering steps in the morning," she said in a level voice, "but tonight I intend to enjoy myself. Yule only comes once a year," she added in an uncanny echo of her brother's words that afternoon.
And they were right, I decided. Why shouldn't I too snatch a little happiness in these dark times? And perhaps a dance? Once Éowyn had brushed out my hair in the loose style appropriate to an unwed maiden, I rummaged in the clothes chest and soon found the soft leather bag I was looking for. It contained dancing slippers the exact shade of the dress and an elegant gold fillet to hold back my hair. Denethor had not stinted me.
"My!" Éowyn lifted one eyebrow. "Leofe and Aeffe won't stand a chance."
I tossed back my hair and matched her smile. "No."
Fortunately I had been forewarned; otherwise the dimness that met me when I entered the Hall would have alarmed me. We were amongst the last of the household to assemble there, but courteously people made way for us to pass through to the centre. For the first time since my arrival, the fire burning in the hearth there had been allowed to go out and even as we took our places, servants doused the last remaining torches. All over Edoras lights would be going out at that moment, indeed all over the Mark.
Slowly my eyes adjusted to the darkness. A little starlight still filtered in through the windows set high on the wall and I could make out Éowyn in her white dress. Behind me somebody coughed and the little shuffling noises that a crowd this size made seemed suddenly much louder. Then slow steps approached and I could hear the distinctive tap of a staff on stone. Even without expecting King Théoden I would have recognized his silvery hair and bent stature. Two tall figures accompanied him, one either side, and my heart gave a funny little hiccup at the familiar way one of them moved.
The king stopped in front of the hearth, and his companions helped him to kneel down, whereupon Prince Théodred handed him something. The sharp crack of stone on steel sounded and sparks flew. For a moment all three faces were illuminated, then Éomer caught some of the sparks on a piece of tinder. He blew carefully until the tinder started to glow, before handing it to his uncle. Prince Théodred guided his father's hand towards the fireplace and together they lit the new fire. The wood had been soaked in oil in preparation, so it caught quickly. Bright light filled Meduseld again, and people clapped and cheered.
One of the servants handed King Théoden a torch, which he lit at the hearth. We all followed behind when he carried it towards the door, where the doorwardens stood ready to pull open the heavy wings. In the square at the bottom of the stairs a huge pile of wood had been stacked up and what looked like the entire population of Edoras surrounded it. Shivering in the cold night air, I stepped to the edge of the terrace. The plains of Rohan stretched into darkness before me and no light anywhere betrayed the habitation of men. In his father's stead, Prince Théodred descended the stairs, the light of his torch brave and defiant. He thrust it into the wood stack and with a roar the fire caught.
A heartbeat later a light twinkled into existence at the foot of the mountains, then another one further up. My breath hitched in my throat as a chain of bonfires sprang up across the plains. Pinpricks of light in a dark world.
Down below people lit torches from the fire to carry back to their homes, when the call of a horn summoned us back into the hall. Suddenly Éowyn materialized at my side.
"There you are! You can help with the cup bearing." Not heeding my feeble protests, she pulled me over to one side, where a group of women had already assembled. Háma's wife, Aescwyn, gave me a welcoming smile and I recognized them for the women of the household.
Éowyn thrust a lavishly decorated drinking horn into my hands and beckoned to a servant to fill it. "Hilda here will accompany you to refill the horn with mead whenever needed."
The guests had taken their seats and slowly quiet settled on the hall. "But Éowyn," I whispered, "I have no idea what to do!"
"Just follow my lead and dazzle them with your smile."
Straightening her shoulders she stepped out onto the central aisle leading down the hall. With their usual politeness the other women motioned for me to go first and perforce I followed her. The table of honour had been set up on the dais with King Théoden presiding in the centre, his son and nephew and the most important guests at his side. A couple of guards stood behind his chair, one of them Wulfstan, Gríma's favourite. Reminded of the councillor, I looked for him and found him sitting at one end of the table, empty seats on both sides of him.
Then I had to concentrate on Éowyn to make sure I would not make any mistakes. After all, Gondor's honour rested on my shoulders tonight. She lifted the drinking horn filled with mead, and with a graceful motion presented it to the king.
"Westu Théoden hál!" she said. "Hearth kindler, foe defeater, shield of your people. Receive now this horn and welcome your guests."
King Théoden took a small sip and handed it back to her. She proffered it to Prince Théodred sitting next to his father and then moved down the table towards the left, greeting each man as he rose to accept the drink.
Hilda nudged me in the back. My turn! I stepped up to face the king. "Westu Théoden hál." Again he took a sip of mead, but I did not think he saw me. The pupils of his eyes were strangely dilated and he stared into space.
But I had no time to consider the meaning of this, for I had to present my drinking horn to the next man. Marshal Éomer. A splendid sight, he was dressed in a dark green tunic with a sun embroidered on it. He got up to face me and our fingers touched briefly on the finely chiselled silver of the horn.
"Westu Éomer hál."
He took a deep draught of the mead. "You honour me, my lady." Perfectly polite words, but all the while his eyes devoured me. Once I would have looked away in confusion, but a reckless mood had come over me. I met his gaze boldly.
Continuing down the table of honour, I presented my horn to Marshal Elfhelm and Háma. Then I joined the other ladies of the household serving those on the lower tables. As I moved amongst them I could sense men's eyes following me. A fine company had assembled in the Golden Hall, but suddenly the thought came to my mind that for some here it might be their last Yule. Who could say what would happen in the coming year? So I gave each man my best smile, willing him to enjoy the evening as much as I intended to.
Once everybody had been welcomed, Éowyn and I took our seats at the table set aside for the highborn maidens. Later the guests would mingle, but for the meal only wives joined their husbands.
"What happens now?" I asked in a whisper.
"Théodred proclaims the Hunt Queen."
As if on cue, the prince got up. From where I sat, I could see Erkenbrand's twin daughters lean forward eagerly. Both of them were clad in identical rose coloured gowns, only the colour of the ribbons in their hair telling them apart.
"Lords and ladies of the Mark," Prince Théodred began in a deep, carrying voice. "It is my pleasure to honour as Hunt Queen tonight a lady not only quick in thought and sure of aim, but also valiant."
Sure of aim? Not from what I'd seen of the twins, but then I supposed the prince was being polite.
"A lady," Prince Théodred continued while he descended the steps from the dais, "who not only took life, but also saved one."
While I still tried to make sense of that, he stopped in front of me and held out a hand. I think I stared at that hand like a complete simpleton, but then the cheering began. "Please," I stammered, "I can't-"
"I insist," the prince replied, pulling me to my feet.
To much clapping and stomping he led me to the high table. The tale of what I had done that afternoon must have become grossly distorted; there could be no other reason to explain the enthusiastic applause. Even so, I was touched when I saw Master Aethelstan and the other healers beam at me proudly. At the table the prince settled me in the seat between him and Lord Erkenbrand and I managed to steal a quick glance past the king at Éomer, but he would not meet my eyes, all his concentration on an empty drinking cup he turned round between his fingers. My heart sank.
"You do me too much honour," I told the prince.
"Not at all," Prince Théodred replied gravely, giving the sign for the meal to be served. "The Rohirrim honour gallantry." He had a quiet, assured manner, reminding me of my eldest brother, Elphir.
"Princess Lothíriel," Lord Erkenbrand said from my other side, "Allow me to apologize for my angry words earlier on. I was out of my mind with worry about my wife."
"You have no need to apologize," I assured him. "I am just relieved that Ceolwen took no harm. She will be all right, won't she?"
Lord Erkenbrand nodded. "Yes. We will leave for home first thing tomorrow morning." He bowed his head in an oddly humble gesture. "Lady Lothíriel, I owe you my wife's life and that of our unborn babe. If there is ever any service I can render you, you need only ask."
The whimsical notion to ask him to exchange places with Marshal Éomer came to my mind, but I suppressed it. "Thank you." Not that there was much likelihood of taking him up on his words.
The servants now carried in trays heaped with food: slices of venison in thick gravy, baked carrots and parsnips, pork pastries and rolls of bread made from the best white flour. I discovered that I was to share a plate with Prince Théodred. This seemed to be traditional, for he offered me the choicest cuts of meat with practised courtesy while asking me about the way things stood in Gondor. He had been to Minas Tirith a few years previously and had met many of the lords of my homeland there, even my own father. The prince asked many questions about Dol Amroth, and as I described the layout of the harbour to him he nodded attentively. I could not help thinking how pleased my uncle Denethor would be with me, could he see me. How ironic that here I was in my prettiest dress, being honoured by the Rohirrim and sharing a meal with their Crown Prince, when I had tried all day to avoid catching his attention. At least I found him easy to talk to, but many of his questions, being about military concerns, defeated me. While I did know the approximate number of soldiers stationed in our province, since I helped my sister-in-law with organising supplies for them, I had no idea as to their armament.
"I'm sorry," I replied at last when he asked me about the strength and equipment of my father's cavalry in the garrisons along the coast, "but I really have very little idea about the disposition of our forces."
"Of course." He sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Here a beautiful woman honours me with her company and I can do nothing better than question her on matters of war. My apologies."
I felt sorry for him, for he looked tired and disheartened. A good man caring for his people - it was not his fault that he was twice my age and did not possess his cousin's charm. Impulsively I smiled at him. "No apology needed," I told him. "And perhaps you should try and forget your cares, even if only for one night?"
Dangerous advice to offer I realised the moment the words left my lips. Prince Théodred smiled back at me. "Maybe you are right. I am delighted to see you possess wisdom as well as beauty, my lady. A rare combination."
I thanked him for his compliment, yet I could not help thinking that I would have done better to keep silent just now. A quick glance past him showed Éomer to be deep in conversation with Marshal Elfhelm, his back turned towards us. I concentrated on the sweet course being served and tried to ignore the looks of speculation cast our way from the people sitting at the other tables. Their prince smiling at me had not gone unnoticed and I had the sinking feeling that he smiled only seldom.
At least the nut cakes topped with candied fruit signified the end of the banquet and at the other end of the hall servants began to stack some of the tables against the walls to make room for dancing. As a group of musicians struck up, young men seeking dancing partners descended on Éowyn's table. I wondered if I could make my escape from the high table, but Prince Théodred showed no sign of tiring of my company.
"Will you tell me more about your homeland?" he asked, refilling my cup. "I have never seen the sea, though I hope to one day."
So I told him about the exhilaration of going sailing with a following wind and about tides and tempests. Just as I was describing a particularly bad storm we'd had last year, an exclamation of annoyance made me falter. With a loud scrape Éomer pushed his seat back and jumped up. "That bit of slime!"
He strode around the table and down the steps of the dais. Then I saw what had caught his attention: Gríma stood bowing over Éowyn's hand. The look of disgust on her face showed exactly what she felt about the idea of dancing with her uncle's counsellor. He looked up when he saw Éomer bear down on him, but seemed frozen to the spot.
Éomer struck his hand away. "Take your paws off my sister, Worm!"
Gríma cringed back. "I only asked for a dance."
"Éowyn is far above the likes of you." The words rang across the deathly silence that had fallen on the hall.
His hands curling into fists at his side, Wormtongue looked up at Éomer. I held my breath. Duels had been fought for lesser insults than this. But Gríma seemed to recollect he would stand no chance against such a warrior.
"I'm sorry," he said, backing away and bowing to Éowyn. "My lady."
She took her brother's arm, lifting her chin in disdain. "Get you gone, Worm."
At the sniggers from the crowd his face paled further, but he bowed again, before stumbling up the steps to the dais to retake his seat. I almost felt sorry for him, but as he passed us I caught a brief glimpse of his face. His eyes glittered with hate.
Erkenbrand leaned towards the prince. "What has got into Éomer? He is in a foul mood!"
"I don't know." Prince Théodred watched Éomer draw his sister away for a dance. "We had agreed to be circumspect with Gríma, but then you know my cousin's temper. Something must have set him off."
I only listened with half an ear, for I still watched the counsellor. He sat down and downed his cup of wine in a single draught. After snapping his fingers at a servant for a refill, he stared down at the wine broodingly, his hands clenching and unclenching on the fine silver. The way his lips moved soundlessly made me deeply uneasy. I had to talk to Éomer to tell him to be more careful!
I turned to the prince. "Will you excuse me? I would like to go and listen to the bards playing."
"An excellent idea." He got up and offered me his arm. "I need to stretch my legs after all this food."
I had no choice but to accept his company. Stopping at every table for a word with the men sitting there, we made our way down the hall at a crawling pace, while I fretted inside. Spotting Éomer and Éowyn at the edge of a circle of men playing some sort of game, I plucked at Prince Théodred's sleeve. "What are they doing? Can we have a look?"
"Of course," he said politely. "It's a word game popular in the Mark. Somebody starts by giving an expression and then three others will reply to it."
Not really listening, I nodded impatiently and pulled him over. Éomer looked up when we joined the circle, his eyes fastening on mine as a cat would leap on a mouse. I could not look away. I did not want to.
Suddenly he smiled. "Fire kindler," he said.
I blinked. What did he mean?
"The king lighting the Yule fire," said one of the men standing next to him. The others murmured in agreement, and I realized it was part of their game.
"The sun mirrored in a forest pool," said another one. The lyre in his hands marked him for a bard.
"Enemies crossing the borders of the Mark." That from a grey haired warrior. "Death dealer," he gave the next word.
"A pretty woman's smile!" somebody called from the back and the crowd laughed.
"Eorl the Young riding to the battle of Celebrant," Prince Théodred put in gravely.
"Flashing hoofs, glittering armour, warriors singing," said the bard.
And so it went around, some answers predictable, some surprising. Light bringer, heart piercer, honour bearer, word forger. But how was I to get the opportunity to speak to Éomer privately?
"Thirst quencher," Éowyn cast into the circle.
"Sharing the cup of honour with my men," Prince Théodred answered next to me.
Was that the only kind of thirst he knew? "A new book," I found myself saying and Éowyn gave me a funny look.
Éomer took a step forward. "Fair skin, grey eyes, red lips," he said, looking straight at me, the words ringing like a challenge. Éowyn's mouth dropped open.
He held out his hand to me. "And now, my lady, I think you owe me a dance."
Without waiting for an answer, he whisked me out of the circle and away.
A/N: For the game I borrowed the idea of 'kennings', an Anglo-Saxon literary device, in which a noun is replaced by a compound name. For example sea = whale road, king = ring giver.
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