12. Chapter 11
When they approached the castle, Lothíriel sat up straight again. "Remember, you have to set me down at the entrance to the path to my tower!"
"Nonsense," Éomer replied. "You're going straight to a healer."
Alarm shot through her. She could almost see the scene of arriving at the castle and having everybody fussing over her – there would be no chance of keeping her identity secret. And what would he say then!
She twisted round to look up at Éomer. "No! I'm perfectly fine, my aunt will look after me."
He frowned. "Cover up for you, you mean."
"Well, yes, that too," she admitted.
"I don't like it–"
"Please!" She caught at his sleeve.
He slowed Firefoot down. "Will I get you into trouble if we ride in openly?"
Lothíriel got a vision of having to explain her duplicity to Éomer in the stable yard. "Oh, yes!" Trouble didn't even begin to describe it!
Éomer hesitated, but as they approached the entrance to the small path, he came to a decision. "Very well. However, I'm coming with you."
His riders got orders to wait for him and then he urged his stallion up the track. Luckily the horses of the Rohirrim were surefooted, and though halfway up he had to dismount and lead the stallion, he insisted on Lothíriel staying put. Little Handir watched them with alert eyes as they walked by.
"Gliwen has been hurt. Go fetch Prince Amrothos and Lady Ivriniel and tell them to come at once," Éomer shouted at him, sending the boy running.
At the crumbling wall encircling the orchard, she got plucked off the horse unceremoniously, then lifted onto the wall. "It's my hand that got hurt, not my feet," she pointed out, not sure if she felt offended or amused at having him treat her like a parcel being delivered.
Éomer paused to tie Firefoot's reins to a branch. "The less you do, the better." He regarded her keenly. "You've regained some colour. How are you feeling?"
She moved her hand experimentally. It still hurt, but there seemed to be no swelling – it felt no worse than a bee sting, and she'd had plenty of those. "I'll be fine."
He rubbed a temple, looking tired. "So the snake really was harmless."
Lothíriel lifted her eyebrows. "I told you so. Did you doubt me?"
"Well, even one of your Gondorian sages can get it wrong sometimes." He picked up her injured hand and turned it over to inspect the fingertips peeking forth from the bandage. "It's not too tight, is it?" He stroked her fingers lightly. "Can you feel that?"
"Yes." The touch brought back memories of their interrupted kiss and Lothíriel felt the heat rise to her cheeks. Hopefully the shade of the trees would hide it! But he had his head bent over her hand anyway, turning it this way and that. Sitting on the wall, she could actually look down on him, a strange perspective. His hair grew a tawnier shade at the roots, only to fade to sun-bleached blond. What would it feel like to lace her hands through it?
Still he wouldn't look up. Instead he dropped her hand into her lap and started to pull at some moss that grew in the crevices of the wall next to her. "How I hate being helpless," he declared suddenly.
What had brought that on? "I think everybody does," she answered, trying to feel her way.
"There was nothing I could do! If something had happened to you…"
At the suppressed emotion in his voice, Lothíriel reached out a hand. "Éomer, please, I will be fine."
"You were under my protection – I was right there!" More moss got ripped off. "I wish that snake had bitten me."
Lothíriel sought his eyes. "Éomer, sometimes the hardest thing is having to stand by and watch, unable to do anything." Her time at the Houses of Healing came back to her and she shivered. "Believe me, I know."
He caught her hand. "When I saw you all white and fainting," he whispered, "I desperately wanted to kill something. Anything at all – yet how useless that was after my carelessness."
"You're not to blame," she insisted.
"But I blame myself!" He slammed his fist against a stone. "I was a fool!"
A few pebbles trickled down, reminding Lothíriel of their unfortunate brush with Gondorian wildlife earlier on. Despite the seriousness of the topic, a tiny bubble of amusement rose within her.
"Well if there is a snake hiding in this wall," she said, "I hope it will bite you, not me!"
Startled, he looked up at her. "What! Is that likely?"
She grinned. "Not really. They prefer somewhere warm and sunny. But it would only be fair."
"So it would." Reluctantly, he returned her grin.
"Éomer, just forget about it." Greatly daring, she touched his hair. "No lasting harm has come to me."
"By luck alone." He gave her a crooked smile. "But I would still rather have fought a band of orcs singlehandedly."
She could sympathise with the wish to act, though it had done her little good. Her abortive visit to Minas Tirith came to mind. "Perhaps we women are more used to helplessness," she answered, unable to keep the bitterness out of her voice as she remembered her quarrel with Elphir. "After all we spend our entire lives under the control of some man." Even now her father could promise her to some suitor and what would she do then?
He put his head to one side. "Doesn't that depend on the man? We aren't all cut from Lord Dorgam's cloth."
"What difference does it make? Women are still completely powerless."
"But Gliwen, you have power," Éomer said, capturing her hand.
"What do you mean?"
"The power of your eyes, your smile…"
She snatched her hand away. "I don't want that sort!"
He lifted an eyebrow. "Then what do you want?"
She considered his question for a moment. "I would want you to listen to what I say, my reasons, no matter whether I was as beautiful as an Elf Queen or ugly as a beggar crone. Don't you see?"
He grinned. "Perhaps you could teach me?"
She stared down at him, uncertain at this unexpected turn in their conversation, and said the first thing that came into her head: "You? You're the most peremptory of all the males in my life!"
Éomer threw back his head and laughed out loud. "Oh Gliwen, I love you. Will you marry me?"
"What!" She grabbed the wall to keep from falling down.
"Will you marry me?" He recaptured her hand. "I suppose this being Gondor I ought to ask your father first, but–"
"No! Promise me you won't!"
Éomer frowned. "Gliwen I do not understand why you're so afraid of your father. Imrahil is a reasonable man."
"No! Please, you mustn't talk to him."
Perhaps she did have power in her eyes, for at her beseeching look, he relented. "I won't. At least not for the moment." He touched her cheek gently, as if afraid she might bolt. "Look, Gliwen, I won't lie to you and pretend all will be easy, but I meant what I said just now: I want you to be my wife." He grinned. "That's an official marriage proposal from the King of the Mark, lady of mine, and I'm quite willing to tell your father as much."
His wife! Hearing the sincerity in his voice, she felt like the lowest hound. "I can't! Oh Éomer, you don't know me at all." She desperately wanted to tell him the truth, but what would he think of her then? He would be disgusted with her and she just couldn't bear the thought.
Éomer smiled at her. "Let me worry about that. We might only just have met, but I think I know you well enough."
He kept misunderstanding her! Lothíriel took a deep breath. "That is not what I meant. Éomer, I need to tell you something, I…" She hesitated.
Footsteps sounded behind her as somebody came running through the orchard.
Éomer cursed softly. "Are you very attached to your brother?" he asked. "Because quite frankly at this moment I'm strongly tempted to strangle him and bury his body in the woods somewhere."
Amrothos! She wasn't sure whether to encourage Éomer in his plans or be grateful for the interruption. Had her brother just saved her from herself?
Unaware of his friend's murderous thoughts, Amrothos rushed up to her side. "What happened! Handir said you're hurt?"
Lothíriel swung her legs over the wall and stood up. "Nothing serious, just a snakebite."
"A snakebite! How–"
"Leave be, Amrothos," she snapped. "I'm fine." Looking back at Éomer, she saw that he had untied Firefoot's reins and swung into the saddle.
He lifted a hand in a salute. "Gliwen, we will speak again." Firefoot threw up his head and he reached forward to pat the stallion. "Remember, the King of the Mark always keeps his word."
"What did he mean by that?" Amrothos asked as Firefoot disappeared down the narrow track, ridden with careless ease.
"Never mind." Lothíriel took his arm as a wave of exhaustion crashed down on her. "Now are you going to help me to the tower or not?"
He took one look at her face and slipped his arm round her waist. "Poor Lothíriel, what kind of trouble have you got yourself into this time?"
Her brother's kindness was too much for her.
"Éomer wants to marry me!" she wailed. Then she burst into tears.
Luckily for Amrothos, who was supremely uncomfortable with female tears, her aunt arrived soon after. Ivriniel got her inside the tower, sat her down on the comfortable chair and set Amrothos to brewing willow bark tea. Then she unwrapped the bandage around Lothíriel's hand and applied a poultice of comfrey.
Feeling numb, Lothíriel let her do as she pleased. Éomer wanted to make her his wife! Her gaze fell on the book of Rohan still lying open on her table. To leave Dol Amroth and move to Edoras, to see those mountains that were nothing but a few brush strokes to her at the moment. Above all, to share Éomer's life, his bed…
And she knew then that was exactly what she wanted – that smile which had unexplainable effects on her breathing, his strange mix of intuitive understanding and complete peremptoriness in his dealings with her, the exhilarating feeling of vitality he aroused by his mere presence. Only she had made it impossible for herself to accept his offer. Instead he would be riding off in the morning still believing a pack of lies about her. It was unbearable!
"I'm such a stupid, witless, dumb fool!"
Ivriniel paused a moment in re-bandaging her hand. "Aren't you being a little hard on yourself?"
"Not hard enough! I should never have gone to Minas Tirith, I should never have kissed him!" Her voice dropped. "And I should never have lied to him."
Her aunt sighed. "Poor child, you seem to have tangled yourself most thoroughly."
Amrothos handed her a cup of willow bark tea. "Here, maybe that will make you feel better."
Glumly she took a sip of the bitter brew. "You were completely right."
Startled by this unprecedented statement, her brother took a step back. "I was?"
"When you said I should tell Éomer the truth when he first arrived." She understood now that he wouldn't have given her away to her father, that was not his way. But she had not known him well enough at the time and had panicked.
"Cowardice," Lothíriel muttered to herself. She set the cup of tea down with a thump. "But that will end here and now!"
Amrothos retreated another step. "Sister? What are you planning to do?"
"From now on there will be only Lothíriel," she declared. "I will put an end to Gliwen."
His eyes popped. "You want to feign her death?"
"No!" Although for a moment the idea tempted her. To drown that irritating woman in the deepest spot of the Bay of Belfalas! Or pretend the snake had been an adder after all and the poison too strong… Then she kicked herself mentally. No more lying. "I will tell him the truth. Tonight."
Her aunt heaved herself to her feet. "That's probably the best thing."
"Well, for myself, I will make sure I'm as far away as possible," Amrothos exclaimed. "Have you any idea what he'll do?"
"I'm not afraid of what he'll do," Lothíriel answered. A lump formed in her throat. "I'm afraid of what he will say."
"You are very quiet tonight, my lord."
Éomer started and turned towards Ealdred. "My apologies. I was thinking about what to do when we return home." Which was the truth as far as it went, only he had no intention of telling the other man exactly what matter he considered. He had found there were times when surprise was the best weapon – and telling the royal council that their king intended to marry the illegitimate offspring of one of Gondor's highest lords was definitely one of those.
Ealdred motioned at the throng of courtiers filling Imrahil's great hall. "It's our last evening here, you should enjoy the company."
Éomer's eye got caught by their host's sister, a vision in silver and mauve, her ample bosom surely covered in enough pearls and amethysts to buy Meduseld's golden roof twice over. "As you are?" he asked back.
The man actually coloured! "Lady Ivriniel has been most kind to me," Ealdred answered.
"So I hear. Did she show you the library?"
"Yes, and she's promised me the first dance." The councillor looked around. "Speaking of dancing, where is Princess Lothíriel? I don't believe I've seen her yet."
Éomer shrugged, his momentary amusement at Ealdred's obvious infatuation fading. "I don't know."
"Ah, there she is."
Éomer followed his councillor's gaze to see the princess entering through one of the doors. An ice queen, he thought, in her pale turquoise gown the colour of snowmelt in the spring. Its long sweeping sleeves trailed the floor behind her. How strange that the face set in a meaningless polite simper could display so much emotion in her sister. Recalling the enthusiasm with which Gliwen had shown him her odd little antlion, he grinned. And later he'd seen the same face with lips slightly parted, cheeks flushed, eyelids fluttering closed…
He came back to the present to find Ealdred smiling at him. "The princess is very attractive, isn't she?" The man's voice petered out suggestively.
"Yes, very," Éomer answered curtly, annoyed with himself for daydreaming.
He needed to keep his wits about him if he wanted to ram his plans down the council's throat, and setting up a potentially much more suitable match was not the way to do so! For he intended to wed Gliwen no matter what anybody said. He had put his whole life at the service of the Mark, never grudging any effort or pain, surely for once he deserved a little personal happiness?
A strange elation filled him. He finally knew what he wanted, whom he needed by his side and nothing would stop him. The realisation had come crashing down on him in that moment of sheer terror when Gliwen had gone chalk white and nearly fainted away. To lose her! Only then had he understood how much he needed that cheeky smile to warm his soul. And he didn't care in the least what people might say about their union! But would it hurt her to have them sneering at her low birth? Not that anybody would dare to do so in his presence!
Prince Imrahil had spotted his daughter as well and now approached them with Lothíriel on his arm. While Ealdred greeted their host, Éomer bowed over a hand covered in long white kid gloves.
"King Éomer," the princess greeted him, then withdrew her hand at once.
"You look beautiful," he complimented her. "As usual." Which was the truth, but his own taste just happened to run to slightly dishevelled beekeepers instead of frosty princesses.
Imrahil bestowed a benevolent smile on them both. "Éomer, my friend, I heard the two of you spent a pleasant evening down at the harbour last night."
Éomer shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, very pleasant."
"Did you have a look at the stalls? We get merchants from as far away as Harad."
Ealdred leant forward. "Didn't you encounter somebody from Rohan, my lord?"
"Yes, the man married a Gondorian and has settled down in Dol Amroth."
Ealdred beamed at Imrahil. "Éomer King bought a beautiful hip belt for your daughter from him."
"He did?" Imrahil turned to Lothíriel with a frown. "What a shame you're not wearing it tonight."
Looking slightly panicky, she hesitated. "It didn't go with the gown," she finally stuttered.
"It would have shown your appreciation, Daughter," Imrahil reprimanded her gently.
"Please," Éomer interrupted, "it's but a small thing."
Luckily Lady Ivriniel descended on them that moment, for Éomer felt like he could not bear the half truths piling up much longer. With a jab of guilt he noticed that Princess Lothíriel looked strained, too.
"Our dance is coming up," Lady Ivriniel trilled at Ealdred, holding out a hand heavily beringed.
Flustered yet pleased the councillor accepted it. "With pleasure, dear lady!" He nodded at them. "You'll excuse us?"
Ivriniel paused to smile at her niece. "Lothíriel, dear child, why don't you show King Éomer the gardens." She turned to him. "You mustn't leave Dol Amroth without having seen them."
"Oh, I really–"
He got no further, for Princess Lothíriel put immaculately gloved fingers on his arm. "It would be a great pleasure."
Knowing defeat when it stared him in the face, he tried to accept gracefully. "The pleasure is all mine, my lady."
Under Imrahil's fond parental gaze, he led her out onto the terrace, mentally steeling himself for having to listen to her prattling on about flowers. When would it be acceptable to excuse himself? Yet once they reached the gravel paths she leant in closer.
"I need to talk to you," she whispered. "It concerns Gliwen."
"Gliwen!" The sudden fear that she'd taken a turn for the worse shook him. "Is she all right?"
"Shhh!" the princess hushed him. "Not here."
Seething with impatience, he followed her along a moon-lit path between privet hedges until they came to a high wall overgrown with honeysuckle and climbing roses. Princess Lothíriel pushed open a gate and led the way through into a grassy square surrounded by carefully tended beds of flowers. In the centre stood a cherry tree, its blossoms closed but still shimmering white in the moonlight.
The princess wandered over and touched the trunk as if for comfort. "This was my mother's garden," she explained. "Father planted the tree for her when they first got engaged."
Despite his impatience to hear of Gliwen, Éomer paused at the sadness in her voice. "I'm sorry," he said awkwardly.
In this sheltered corner of the castle the night was completely calm, only broken by sleepy chirps from a bird they must have woken up. He cleared his throat. "You wanted to talk to me?"
Impatiently he waited for further explanations, which didn't seem to be forthcoming though. "Is Gliwen all right?" he asked. "The snakebite hasn't turned worse, has it?"
"The snakebite is fine…"
"But?" He was tempted to take her by the shoulders and shake her. Why wouldn't the woman talk!
"Oh Éomer," she suddenly burst out. "I've been practising how to say this all evening, but now the words have deserted me."
"Say what?" And when had she started calling him by his first name?
Princess Lothíriel took a shaking breath. "There is no Gliwen." Her voice broke on the last word.
"What do you mean!" The sudden conviction that they had done something to Gliwen took him. "You haven't sent her away, have you? I'm warning you, if she's been treated badly…"
The princess shook her head. "No! You misunderstand me–"
"I understand you very well. You and your family have been taking advantage of your sister all her life, using her as a common servant. And because she's such a nice person, she doesn't even mind. But that will change now! I intend to take her away from this place to where she's appreciated."
"What have you done to her?" he snarled. "Where is she!"
"She is here."
Taken aback, he stared at her. What was she talking about, they were completely alone. Had she lost her mind? Princess Lothíriel tugged at the fingers of her gloves.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Giving you proof."
Then the glove came off and beneath it… Refusing the evidence of his eyes, Éomer took a step closer. A white bandage peeked forth in the moonlight. While his mind still tried to grasp the ramifications, she unwound the bandage. A few drops of dried blood showed, then puffy flesh, two puncture marks. He stared at her hand, trying to make sense of it. It was Gliwen! What was she doing masquerading as her sister?
A fist of ice closed around his heart. Something was wrong here, terribly wrong. "Gliwen? Is it you?" he asked in disbelief.
She shook her head. "No, Lothíriel." She reached up and removed her hairpins to have her dark hair tumbling down about her shoulders. "It was always Lothíriel."
He shook his head in denial. "What are you saying? It can't be. This is some kind of trick!" But then his gaze fell on her hand again, which she held out mutely. There was no faking the snakebite – or was there? Did the princess intend to take her sister's place somehow?
"You can't be Gliwen!" he shouted. Fear shook him as he felt his happiness slipping away through his fingers like water.
Princess Lothíriel winced. "Gliwen doesn't exist, never has. We invented her," she whispered. "Éomer, I'm so sorry."
It was the way she said his name that convinced him in the end, the complete matter of course with which she dropped his title, the soft breath on the final consonant that had so enchanted him in Gliwen's speech.
"No," he whispered.
"Please, let me explain–"
He took a step back. "What kind of sick joke is this? It was always you?"
"In the cupboard in Minas Tirith?"
"Going down to the harbour?"
"In your tower?"
She swallowed. "It is my tower. My grandfather–"
He did not let her finish. "Going for a ride with me?" he snapped.
"At the pond, being kissed!"
As his voice rose, hers sank to a whisper.
Unable to contain his agitation, he took a few steps about the garden. The princess watched him with eyes enormous in the moonlight, the bandage dangling forgotten from her fingers. "I know it looks bad," she said, "but you have to understand…" Her voice trailed off.
"Bad!" It suddenly hit him that half her family had to be in on the scheme. "Your aunt, Amrothos! They know?"
"Yes, I needed their help."
"Elphir? Imrahil!" Surely not his friend – but the world had shifted so much in the last minutes, anything seemed possible. What had once seemed solid ground was revealed as a quagmire. A stinking, foul quagmire sucking him in!
She shook her head. "They have no idea. It was because of my father that–"
He wasn't listening, his mind working furiously. "But why? You came up with an illegitimate sister, went to all this elaborate masquerade just for my sake?" Then it hit him. "You want to trap me into marriage!" he exclaimed.
He paid her no heed. "When I arrived here and showed no interest in Lothíriel, you invented Gliwen!"
"Please, Éomer, that's not it."
It only made him more furious that she should use his name. "King Éomer to you," he snapped.
She leant against the tree behind her, as if needing its strength. "I know I deserve your wrath."
"You deserve much more than that!" A thrashing! And what enraged him most was the fact that even now he still wanted to take her in his arms to soothe the hurt in her voice. But it was all an act! His mind still had problems grasping the whole extent of the deception. "So what made you decide to come clean now?" he mused. His gaze fell on her hand. "The snakebite! Something you and your band of conspirators couldn't hide."
She shook her head. "That would have been easy to cover up. No, I–"
"Easy to cover up!" he exclaimed. "Yes, I suppose it must be for a consummate liar like you."
With satisfaction he saw her flinch. Why should he be the only one to hurt! A cherry blossom floated down to settle on her black hair. To think he had wished to bury his hands in it, but more than that, had wanted to share everything with her: his bed, his life, his heart!
Black rage boiled up within him. Taking a step towards her, he seized her by the shoulders and roughly pushed her against the tree trunk behind her. The princess started, but said nothing, just looked up at him with eyes like pools of darkness. He slid his fingers up a white, slender neck where her pulse beat like a running horse and leant in closer. "I could do anything I want to you. Anything!"
She released her breath in a soft sigh. "You always could, Éomer."
Her words cut through the haze of rage like a steel blade. What was he doing! He let go of her as if she had burnt him. To what extremes had she brought him, to threaten a helpless woman! With sudden certainty he knew that he needed to get out of here before she goaded him into something he might regret later. Wordlessly he turned on his heel and strode out the garden.
"Éomer!" she cried, "where are you going?"
"Home," he snapped.
But there was no home here, only twisting paths between high hedges. He plunged down one at random, his only thought to get away. His mind still in a whirl, he ended up at the foot of the castle walls, then hastened up the stairs to the battlements. Clean air to clear his head! Yet when he leant on the stone balustrade, welcoming the fresh wind, the first thing he saw was another reminder of Gliwen, a corner of the roof of her tower.
Not Gliwen, Lothíriel! So all the while she had lied to him? Sitting on that crumbling wall, acting the simple beekeeper, strolling through the market with him and accepting gifts from him when she probably had cupboards full of clothes. Sharing a simple meal of trail bread with his men and feigning enjoyment. And the girl in the tower offering his heart a home…
His fingers clenched on the cold stone. Lies, all lies! Had she laughed at him, the gullible barbarian from the north? Made plans with her co-conspirators how to tangle him further in their webs? And then, when she had him exactly where she wanted him – making her an offer of marriage – she had coldbloodedly revealed the deception. Well, she would find that she had trapped a lion!
His blood pounded in his ears as fresh fury rose within him. How he wanted to kill something! Or just get out of these walls that looked so elegant, yet held such deception. Yes, he would take Firefoot and go for a ride. Alone. And if he met a band of brigands, so much the better.
He turned to go when a noise caught his attention. A giggle echoed from one of the watchtowers, then a female form emerged accompanied by a tall man. Éomer recognised the rich mauve gown at once. A blond head speckled with grey bent close to a dark-haired one, but neither one seemed aware of him yet.
"We must have been over the battlements at least twice," Lady Ivriniel laughed, "and still you want to see more."
"My dear lady," Ealdred replied, "with you I'd walk all the way to Mordor and still crave more of your company."
The sudden murderous impulse to grab them and throw them over the parapet shook Éomer. "Lord Ealdred!" he snarled.
They jumped. "My lord?" Ealdred stuttered. "What are you doing here?"
"Taking the air, the same as you!"
Lady Ivriniel had taken her swain's arm. "You've spoken to Lothíriel?" she asked, all the mirth gone from her voice.
"It didn't go well?"
"Oh dear, and Lothíriel had hoped to clear up the…misunderstandings."
Misunderstandings! Rage hazed his vision. "Oh, I think those are all cleared up," he said through clenched teeth, "but the princess has made a mistake, a grave mistake. It was exceedingly foolish of her to tell me the truth."
The old lady drew herself up to her full height. "Actually I thought it was the bravest thing she's ever done."
Éomer reminded himself again that he did not harm defenceless women. Even when they asked for it. But they would learn not to bait a lion! "Ealdred," he whispered.
"My lord, are you quite all right?"
He wasn't and might never be, but that did not matter at the moment. "I have a task for you," he told his councillor.
Ealdred peered at him in confusion. "Yes, what task?"
Éomer bowed to Lady Ivriniel, the barest nod that he could manage. "You will have to excuse us. I need to discuss something with my councillor."
Then he smiled.
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.