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Twilight of the Gods: 2. Reflections of the Past
She knew not what had befallen her. It was as if – as in one of her recurring childhood dreams – she had stepped out into the sea, and a great current had seized her and towed her under and swept her around until she knew no longer which way to swim to reach the surface. It was as if a wave had crashed over her head and was pressing her to the sandy bottom. A great wave of insecurity, of fear... and a deep inner hurt that she could not explain, but was undeniably there, a throbbing pain in her heart, a feeling of inner void where something should have been... or used to be.
She was standing at the edge of the cliff, next to the wooden railing that had been built to provide security, and the steady breeze tugged at her and sent her skirt and hair blowing as her gaze absent-mindedly swept the vast plains below her without really seeing anything. The falcon on Lothíriel’s gloved hand stared at her with piercing grey eyes, and for a moment, it seemed to Prince Imrahil’s youngest daughter as if the animal was staring right to the bottom of her soul.
“What do you see, Reccéleas?” she whispered, briefly surfacing from her trance and smoothing the soft feathers under the bird’s throat with delicate fingers. The strong, pointed beak opened, but it tried not to seize her fingers. The grey eyes stayed fixed on its master’s face, and the animal’s serene expression made Lothíriel wonder what it was thinking. Probably something in the likes of ‘Why can you not let me go? I care not for your worries!’ “Do you see the water in my eyes? Do you hear the sound of the waves crashing on the shore? The screams of the white gulls?” A slight, melancholic smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Aye, I believe that would be what would fetch your interest – the gulls. Am I not right? Although I would not allow you to hunt them.” The falcon just looked at her, and at last, she held up her hand and let go of the leather straps she had tied around her wrist. “Go, Reccéleas! It is a beautiful day. Ride the wind for me.”
Her eyes followed the bird as it soared up into the sky, screaming for its companion whom she had released shortly before. Two small, brown and white dots riding the breeze together. Oh, how what a wonderful feeling of freedom that had to be... Her hands sank back at her sides and, unbeknownst to her, came to rest on her lower belly again, the source, she was sure, even though she could not say why, of her latest bout of confusion and depression. Three weeks ago, her pregnancy had been officially announced. Rohan was expecting its heir, and somehow, alone by the announcement, Lothíriel had felt a pressure on herself she knew not how to cope with. To know that the entire kingdom was looking at her to perform her duty and provide a successor to the throne, another ruler coming from the legendary line of Eorl the Young... it was intimidating. She felt so small when she thought about it while her hands absent-mindedly caressed the soft curve of her lower belly. Éomer loved her deeply, she knew this. There were no doubts in her mind that he never only saw her as a means to continue his bloodline, and he was so much looking forward to their child! She should have been glad, she knew, but instead, she was frightened and confused: Again, her life was about to change drastically, and yet she was not certain whether she had already coped with the first change, which had come to pass almost one year ago…
It had happened without warning. There had been no signs of the decision that was about to change her life. Nothing that could have prepared her for the plans of her father’s political advisors, who had somehow succeeded in persuading Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth to give his beloved daughter to the King of Rohan as a visible confirmation of their newly confirmed alliance. She had been stunned when he told her. Yes, he had asked her opinion, but only after he had made that suggestion to their allies, and of course by then she had not been at freedom anymore to deny her father’s wish, lest they would seriously insult the people of the Riddermark... and its king.
King Éomer of Rohan... at first, she had been intimidated by the thought. Of course, as a princess of Gondor, Lothíriel had been used to the mannerisms and behaviour of the nobles from the days when she could barely walk... It was not the thought of becoming the wife of a man endowed with the power to command an entire country that had caused her discomfort, but rather what was known about the kingdom of the Horse-Lords, or at least what was being told about its people. Fierce and stern they were said to be, always ready to take up arms... Great warriors, without whom Gondor would have lost not only the last war, many said. Warmongers others called them. A stoic and relentless people that had ruthlessly chased away the earlier occupants of the land they had been gifted with, thus condemning them to a life in misery and poverty. They were said to be wise, yet unlearned, with most of the population unable to read or write. Of their own language, no written form existed; it lived only in songs and memories, passed on from generation to generation. Wasn’t that a sign that they were, in truth, primitives?
For days and weeks after her betrothal to the Rohirric King had been made official, Lothíriel had invaded the great library of Dol Amroth to find out more about the people of the Mark, and she had talked to historians and teachers, and what she had found had troubled her. Apparently, the Rohirrim lived very rural lives, simple and straightforward. It evolved around basic needs: food, security and shelter. The land was as stern as the people living of it, and did not sustain life easily, nor leave it much room for any fancier things to occupy one’s time with. Life constantly had to be fought for, a never-ending battle against the elements... and their many foes. From what Lothíriel had been able to gather, the kingdom of Rohan had not seen many years without troubles since its foundation, which was a reason for their inherent distrust of strangers... and she was going to be its queen. A stranger. A frightening thought. What was she supposed to tell her kinsmen once she was there, if she couldn’t even fully understand their lifestyle? How were the Rohirrim supposed to look up to someone who had no idea of the ways that formed their identity? And how where they supposed to respect an alien woman who had only seen 24 summers?
She had pondered for endless days and even longer nights while she had half-heartedly countered each of her brothers’ jests. To them, the idea of their little pampered sister becoming the queen of a rustic people had seemed to be a well of unending amusement. And then, last fall, something unexpected had happened: Her cousin Faramir had invited her over to Ithilien for the annual Harvest Celebration... where she had met the first Rohirrim she had ever known: her groom’s sister. The slayer of the Witchking! People praised her courage in songs! She was said to be a great warrior-princess, and where Lothíriel had been fully prepared to be intimidated by the woman that had inspired so many tales and songs, she had been in for a great surprise. Instead of the austere, manly-looking fierce female warrior she had expected to meet, the woman who greeted her had been delicate and slender, about her age, with flowing golden hair down to her waist and a face that breathed no less nobility than those of the Gondorian women she knew. A still young face, albeit with a depth and wisdom to her dark eyes that spoke of hard times she had had to brave in the past.
And yet Éowyn had been different than all Gondorians Lothíriel knew, too, but in a good way – less stiff, less formal, more straightforward and open and equipped with a brand of rough humour Lothíriel was amazed to find in a woman. A very spirited and womanly presence, one the daughter of Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth had immediately felt sympathetic to, and not just because they were of one age. But of course, she had then admonished herself, her gentle cousin Faramir would never have chosen a woman of the likes she had imagined when she heard of her deeds! Yet standing next to her, it was hard to believe that Éowyn had indeed single-handedly killed their most horrible enemy, and, living up to her curious reputation, Lothíriel had sought out her soon-to-be relative to enquire about the duel. Their conversation had further improved her sympathy for King Éomer’s sister, for – unlike many others she could have named, who would have used the opportunity to brag about their courageous act – Éowyn had been humble, not even wanting to talk about it much. Because the memory still hurt, she had explained. She had lost her father-like uncle in that battle and did not deem her deed an act worthy of song. After all, it had come too late to save Théoden-King.
They had talked until late into the night, much to her cousin’s surprise, who had probably expected for her to turn in early after the long journey from Dol Amroth and the voluptuous dinner. They had talked for hours, and finally, Lothíriel – after having first inquired about all aspects of Rohan life – had dared to ask the questions she had been burning to ask from the start. The king... her brother... what was he like? What had she to expect as his wife, and what would he expect of her?
Éowyn had been hesitant of telling her too much. It was her firm opinion that it would help the newlywed couple to discover each other without any expectations or prejudices looming in the background, caused by the words of others. But two things she had said had remained in Lothíriel’s mind: “If you are ever in trouble, Éomer will tear himself in two to protect you! He will stop at nothing to make certain that you are well. If ever anything is amiss, you can and you should trust him to set it right. And if I may give you just one more piece of advice: Always speak your mind. Do not hold back. I know by now that it is custom in Gondor for most of the women to stand behind their men silently, and never to openly question their decisions. The same may indeed be true for most of the Rohirrim as well, but more than anything, they are a truth-loving people and hate nothing as much as pretence. You may rather tell them a truth they do not want to hear and earn their respect, than swallow your objection and use flowery words to mask what you really think. They will know once you do that, and they will not like you for it. As for my brother… he does not fear a strong woman’s opinion, and he will certainly ask for yours every once in a while. It has to do with the way we grew up, with losing our parents early. We had only each other to confide things to we wouldn’t have told anyone else. Whenever a decision had to be made, little or small, we asked for the other’s advice, and Éomer’s interest in your opinion will be real and not out of politeness. Seize that opportunity! My brother is an honourable man who will always aim to do what is best for his people, but he may not be the greatest diplomat who ever lived. He is truthful to a fault, and can surely use your help in this regard... and I am certain that he will not reject it. He can be intimidating at times, but don’t fear him. If he sees the wisdom in your words, he will listen to you!”
Strong words. Words that had had their effect on Lothírel and filled her with an expectant curiosity, stronger than the frustration over her unchangeable destiny. She wanted to know the man this wonderful, brave woman had spoken so lovingly of. She wanted to meet her betrothed. “Truthful to a fault?” After the great disappointment she had suffered three years ago through the hands of a young Gondorian nobleman, absence of pretence and masquerade had certainly seemed like a character trait that was desirable to find in a future husband. Hadn’t the stiff guardedness, the detached stance and the unreadable eyes of her other suitors kept her from getting entangled much earlier? After all, she was the last of the women of her age she knew to get married. Perhaps the King of Rohan would be exactly what she needed: a suitor coming from a different background, with different manners and a different approach to life and court etiquette. She would have to wait and see... and hope. There was only one problem: It had been October... a full nine months for her to wait until her curiosity would be satisfied! A long time... lots of things could happen in nine months... and they had!
Shortly before the turn of the year, a messenger had arrived and brought tidings from Meduseld of King Éomer having been seriously injured in the wake of an assassination. The news had unsettled Lothíriel more than she could have rationally explained. She had not even known her groom yet, but hearing of his condition had stirred up gloomy thoughts in her of how it would be if he died before she could even marry him... yet another man to desert her. And Éowyn… it had saddened her to think of Éomer’s sister, who had already had to brave so many bad situations in her still young life. It would have been devastating to her to lose her brother, too, the only family still left to her. Their conversation in Ithilien had left no doubt about how close the two siblings still were despite the distance that separated them.
From that day on, before she went to bed, Lothíriel had made it a habit to send a silent prayer to the Valar for her future husband, asking them to make him feel better soon and to let him recover fully from the wounds he had sustained in the assassination. Assassination… it was such an ugly word! Had it meant in fact that someone close to the king had attempted to take his life? One of his own people? If that was so, would she be in danger, too, once she was their queen?
The next day, she had asked her father for more details, and the information he had shared had simultaneously troubled and calmed her. Presumably, it had been an old foe that had been believed dead, who had lured Éomer into a trap. It had been none of the Rohirrim, which had been comforting… but still she had found herself worrying for her future husband until the message of his slow recovery had arrived weeks later. Her prayers had been answered… and at the same time her anxiety had grown to finally get to know the man she would spend the rest of her still young life with. It had gotten to the point where she had barely been able to wait for June to arrive. Usually, springtime and early summer in Dol Amroth were the seasons Lothíriel cherished the most – the walks or rides along the shore, the wonderful occasions when they went out with her father’s sail-boat to spend a day or more on the open sea if weather permitted… But strangely enough, that year the days had seemed to stretch endlessly, and each week had felt to her like an entire month, but finally, after all preparations for her wedding had been finished, her dress been tailored and her belongings packed, it had been time for her journey to the land of the horse-lords.
At her father’s side on the wagon and accompanied by her brothers, her maid and a representative delegation of the nobles from Dol Amroth, they had set out through the mountains for the Old South Road, which would lead them all the way up to Edoras, the capital of her new home. She had been delighted when – on the crossroads – she had spotted another delegation waiting for them, this one led by King Elessar and his wife Arwen Undomiel, and among them her cousin Faramir and her groom’s very pregnant sister, the Prince and Princess of Ithilien. It had been a great and noble procession that had set out for Rohan at the height of summer, one of the likes the simpler folk did not often get to see.
Never before had she travelled so far from home, and so Lothíriel had eagerly revelled in the different sights and new landscapes they journeyed through, amazed at how different the northern lands looked, felt and even smelled. The weather had been pleasant, dry and warm, without becoming so hot that it would have prevented her from sleeping. Her sleep had been uneasy, but that had rather been a result of her growing anticipation, of the butterflies in her stomach, something that had amused her brothers even though she had done her best to hide it from them. Their pace had been slow enough to really see the land they were travelling through, and when they had been rewarded with the first sweeping view of Rohan’s vast green plains with the Ered Nimrais looming mightily on the horizon, Lothíriel had felt an unexpected twinge of joy and excitement. It had been an adventure, and yet she had understood at that time that her unfiltered appreciation for each single part of the journey stemmed from the fact that her mind could not yet bring itself to comprehend that it was a one-way journey. She would not ride home along with her family after this was over. In fact, she was riding home now! No, the idea had been incomprehensible... yet.
Upon entering the realm of Rohan, it had taken three more days until she had been able to spot the lonely, rugged hill of Edoras up ahead in the distance, commanding the vista like the king in the great hall on top of it commanded the land. The golden roof had shone in the gleaming afternoon sun as they approached, on horseback now, leaving the wagon they had been travelling on behind as it would have been a hindrance on the steep path to Meduseld, which – high above them – had been breathing an air of ancient honour and pride, awing the onlookers with its splendour, and all of Lothíriel’s concerns about her new home being a land of a rustic population who knew nothing of the fancies of the modern world had been discarded right then.
As they had looked on, the wooden, artfully crafted gate had been opened and a procession of kingly-clad mounted warriors in shining armour on grey horses had moved out to take flanking positions in greeting of their high guests. Banners and standards – all featuring the Rohan motive of the white horse Félarof on green and the sun – waved in the light breeze as they passed the lines on their uphill climb to Meduseld. The winding dusty path had been lined to both sides with cheering people, a sight that had touched the young princess’ heart because their welcome felt so honest, so unforced, and before long, she had found herself smiling and waving at the simply-clad folk that behaved so differently from what she was used to from her home.
At last, when they reached the stairs to the dais upon which Meduseld stood, she had caught the first glimpse of the king standing in the middle of the line formed by his Royal Guard, glancing down onto the long procession of guests he was about to welcome. It had only been a brief look they had exchanged before others obstructed her view, but it had electrified her just the same. Just a short notion of a tall, broadly-built man clad in green and gold, standing proud and erect, long, blond hair blowing in the breeze, a darker, trimmed beard... gazing intensely in her direction, despite the large procession of people flooding the way to the Great Hall. Part of his hair had been tied into a braid that fell down on his shoulders with the rest to keep it from blowing into his eyes. It was a style that was not favoured by the Gondorian men, who wore their usually long hair open like her cousin Faramir, and in fact a style Lothíriel had so far only seen on Elves. She had always thought of it as strangely effeminate, but there was nothing effeminate about the man gazing at her from the dais. His expression had been unreadable, however, and for a moment, Lothíriel had found herself worrying what he thought about their imminent wedding. It had not been his idea either, had it? This union had been forged by political advisors, not by fast beating hearts and yearning minds. What if he was disappointed by her? What if – for the sake of strengthening the alliance between Rohan and Gondor – he had forgone the love of another woman, a woman of Rohan? How was she supposed to deal with being nothing more than a political burden to him?
The unsettling thought had refused to leave her as she dismounted gracefully and gave the reins to a serious-looking, regally clad young boy who had already waited for them, looking for her father. And some of her worries must have been obvious enough for Prince Imrahil to pick up, because he had immediately stepped over to his daughter to offer his arm, which she had thankfully accepted. Her heart drumming away leaving her to think that her chest would burst, her stomach filled with butterflies and her knees strangely jittery, they had then ascended the stairs behind the princely couple from Ithilien. Before they reached the dais, Lothíriel had caught Éowyn’s brief look back at her and her encouraging smile, but even her soon-to-be sister-in-law had failed to calm her down while she had waited for the King of Rohan to greet them.
With Faramir’s broad back obstructing her view, it had been Éomer’s voice that had given her the first idea of the man she was about to spend her life with, while her gaze had wandered down the long line of the warriors that formed the Royal Guard. They had looked awe-inspiring in their red-and-golden armour, their polished bronze helmets and chain mail and artfully crafted cuirasses sparkling in the low-standing sun. The motive of the horse and sun was repeated everywhere she had looked, in armours, huts and pillars, but she had hardly been able to take in what she had seen, for her attention had been exclusively focussed on her betrothed’s deep, serious voice. His tone had at first sounded awfully official as he greeted the Lady Arwen and the King of Gondor, once again causing her worries. Oh well, so much about getting away from the stiffness and etiquette of the Dol Amroth-court... Rohan, or at least Edoras, did not seem to be quite as different as she had hoped...
She had barely ended that thought, when it was negated by laughter as the two men embraced and clapped shoulders. Relief flooded her. Obviously, the Rohirrim’s very formal behaviour had been nothing but a jest, and – equally obvious, she should have known before – the two kings were not only allies but very good friends indeed. Éomer had then proceeded greeting his very pregnant sister, whose belly had been round enough for Lothíriel to wonder whether Faramir’s child would first see Arda’s face on the steps of Meduseld. For a moment, Éowyn’s brother had embraced his younger sibling with such loving passion that Lothíriel had feared he would crush the woman, causing everyone to laugh and Faramir to jokingly protest against the rough treatment of his wife. Perhaps she had been too hasty in her judgement after all, perhaps – She had not finished the thought when the Princess of Ithilien had raised onto the tips of her toes to whisper something into her brother’s ear; smiling as she pulled back. And causing him to smile, too. The smile was still on his face as he looked her way, his expression an unspoken invitation to step closer.
Nine months of questions had finally been answered. She had been nervous, but determined to keep her composure. Determined to appear every bit as regal as her soon-to-be husband. She was a woman of twenty-four summers and noble ancestry, there was no reason for her to feel intimidated or inferior. And so, while her inside had been in an uproar, Lothíriel had raised her chin and met the king’s eyes as she strode towards him, still holding on to her father’s arm. Searching for a hint in Éomer’s gaze that he was just as nervous as she while he greeted her father with a curt, but friendly nod and a few well-chosen words. What she had found though had been even better and took her by surprise, as she came to a halt and bent her knees in a perfect curtsey, briefly dropping her eyes as expected of her. Had it really been awe she had discovered in her groom’s expression? Looking up, she had been surprised to suddenly hear her own voice. Thankfully, it hadn’t quivered as she spoke the words she had been thinking of saying during the journey, with a little help from Éowyn on the ‘surprise part’.
“It is a high honour for my family and me to be welcomed in this wonderful fashion by the people of Rohan, and even more of a joy and relief to see you are doing well again, Sire. Our thoughts had been with you in those dark hours of winter. Westú Éomer hál! ” Extending her hand, Lothíriel had seen the king’s amused – or touched? – expression as he seized it and bowed gallantly, his tall frame lowering to her height for a brief moment before he straightened again. Surely she had made fool of herself in front of everybody by trying the old Rohirric greeting! Still, there had been no mockery in Éomer’s eyes when he had raised his head to address her.
“Princess Lothíriel, it is me who feels honoured to greet the most beautiful flower of Dol Amroth in the Riddermark. Your presence graces our land and these halls. Please allow me to welcome you on behalf of the people of Rohan, as this is just as much a day of joy to them as it is to me personally. It has been a long time since this land has seen a queen, and we are looking forward to seeing these days renewed.” He had brushed his lips over the back of her hand and then lowered it again, but without letting go of her fingers, the dark eyes intently focussed on her face as he continued. “I thank you for your concern and friendly words, and I also thank you for taking the pains of learning our difficult language in order to greet me, even if I assume that I know the true conspirator behind this surprise.” A short, teasing side-glance at his sister before his gaze had briefly rested on Prince Imrahil, who had been standing beside his daughter with a pleased smile on his face. Lothíriel had felt a little better then. Maybe her Rohirric had not been as bad as she had thought it to be after all. “I should also thank your father for suggesting this arrangement so selflessly in the first place, because I can tell from experience how much it hurts to give away something so dear and precious to one’s heart.” A brief wink in Faramir’s direction. Éomer, to Lothíriel’s great surprise, had then bowed to them. “I will forever be indebted to you, my lord.”
“Indeed you will be, Éomer-king,” Imrahil had rebuked, still lovingly gazing at his daughter before returning his attention to their host. “This is exactly the reason for arranged marriages. To have one of the parties indebted to the other, so that you can count on their allegiance for all time, no matter what evil or daring deed you intend do?” Laughter rewarded the prince’s elegant jest, and Lothíriel silently thanked her father for loosening up the atmosphere.
“Wise words, Prince Imrahil! I see I still have a lot to learn in matters of the state, as this was so far unknown to me. Once we are family, I shall make it a point to ask you for lessons in shrewdness.” Laughing, Éomer’s attention had then returned to her, causing a shudder to race down her spine. Somewhere over to the left, Éowyn had said something, but she had sounded incredibly far away all of a sudden as Lothíriel dared to follow those dark, serious brown eyes down, their colour such a stark contrast to Éomer’s only slightly-tanned face and the fair, sun-bleached hair. Reading them. And liking what she found.
The man in front of her was different from the men she had known until now. While the ceremony so far had certainly not been any less refined than those she had witnessed at her father’s court, it had taken her experienced eye but one look to see that this was not Éomer’s true nature. It was something he had been taught by advisors because it would be expected of him, and he knew to handle himself in these surroundings well enough, but there was also something in his posture that told Lothíriel that he did not enjoy it. That he usually was a man of simpler gestures, one who would never have chosen this position of power for himself if his ancestry had not dictated it. More rugged and less refined than the Gondorian noblemen Lothíriel had known her whole life, but impressive in his own, different way. Every inch a warrior and unable to hide it. It had been written in his gaze, his stance, his build, the little scar on his left temple... it probably lay within his very blood. A man ready to fight for his believes, a force of nature, not lightly to be crossed and always to be reckoned with.
‘He will tear himself in two to keep you from harm!’
Aye, she believed it now. No words or actions had been necessary to reveal the truth for Éowyn’s words, for all Lothíriel needed to see had been plainly visible. It had taken her no longer than a few heartbeats to know that she could learn to love this man, and respect him for what he was, and she had laid that belief into her gaze for him to see as she took her father’s arm again to follow the king’s gesture that invited them to step into the Golden Hall. A playful sparkle in the deep brown had confirmed to her that the message had been received... and understood.
Lothíriel surfaced from her contemplation as she recognised the feeling in the back of her neck. She was being watched. She was no longer alone. And yes, of course this would be the time when her husband would be done with the errands, which usually occupied his attention for most mornings. She was looking forward to seeing him, and yet afraid of it at the same time. He would know about her state of mind. She had read it in his expression for days now, had felt it in his repeated attempts of lifting her spirits, and yet she had not let him in about her sorrows… her fear about an uncertain future. So much change… Just when she had thought that her life had finally found order again, something happened that turned everything upside down and left her to begin anew.
He was close now. He probably thought she did not hear him, but the low creaking of his leathern riding clothes was something he could not have avoided even if he had floated towards her. A slight smile wandered over Lothíriel’s face. She raised her chin, determined not to let him see her melancholic mood and said, her gaze still held by the distant mountains:
“Your smell gives you away, my king. But just how you managed to bring your horse to this place, you still have to tell me.” Only now did she turn her head to look over her shoulder, a smug sparkle in the slightly slanted dark eyes. For a moment, he looked disappointed, and she almost regretted having spoiled his surprise as he closed his arms around her.
“It is only me alone, Pearl of Amroth… and even your delicate south-Gondorian nose should have grown accustomed to the flavour of Rohan life by now.” He pressed his face into her hair and demonstratively took a deep breath. “Whereas you don’t smell like Rohan life at all. You smell like…”
She turned in his embrace and slung her arms around his neck, eying him with haughtily raised brows, which caused him to smile. She was almost a head smaller, yet still possessed the ability to look down on anyone of greater height, every inch a queen, no matter how young she still was.
“You better think hard of what you will say, my king of peasants and horses! For both my father and my liege lord are mighty men of war, and they will not hesitate to crumble your little, insignificant land underneath their heels for the insult of one of Gondor’s most respectable flowers.”
“It always makes me wary when those flowers call themselves that,” Éomer smirked. "But in this case, I can of course do nothing but confirm your words.” His eyes found her lips.
“Oh, I see. Flattery it is now...” she purred, looking up to him from under half-closed eyelids, glad to find that she had successfully distracted her concerned husband from his suspicion. Of course she had noticed the worried looks he had given her over the past three weeks, even if he hadn’t said anything openly. “Now what do you think this will get you, my king?”
"My queen’s affection, hopefully,” he confessed with a wink and leant forward to kiss her… gently, at first. But his glance told her that he would not leave it at that. Why, she certainly was not hoping that he would! “And hopefully, it’ll chase away whatever ghosts are haunting you.” His hand went up into her hair and opened the ornate clips that held her black curls.
Lothíriel closed her eyes and bathed in the feeling of closeness, yet his words pulled her back into reality. So he had noticed after all. With a guilty conscience, she bent back in his arms, seeking his gaze.
“Ghosts? Whatever are you speaking of, my lord? What ghosts should haunt me? I know of no ghosts.”
So, she was still denying it. Did she think he was so blind not to see her torment? Or was it rather that she did not want to admit her state of mind to herself. Unwilling to let her go away with this, Éomer gently untangled the black strands of hair that reached all the way down to Lothíriel’s waist.
“I cannot say, sweetness, although I do have my suspicions.” He searched her dark brown eyes for a sign of what was troubling her. “Lothíriel... something is amiss, I can see that very clearly. And please don’t insult me by denying it any longer. Ever since you know about our child, you have been acting strangely. What is it? Please tell me. Do you not want it for some reason?”
Her eyes widened. How could he think such a thing?
“Of course not,” she declared heatedly, freeing herself from his embrace and turning her back on him while her hands reflexively came to rest on her yet only very slightly rounded stomach. There was life in her, new life. Life she desperately ached to hold in her hands. Yet why had she felt like crying ever since she had learnt about it, when what she should have done was to laugh with joy? She did not understand herself anymore. Her eyes on the distant Old South Road where a group of riders was moving along the fringes of the White Mountains, she pressed her lips together, desperately thinking of what to tell Éomer. Funny how the riders looked like ants from here. She could not even tell whether they were coming or going, they were too far away. A deep breath, then a cautious glance at her husband out of the corners of her eyes. “How can you ask that? I want our child more than anything in the world.” That was the truth. It certainly felt like it.
Éomer stepped up to her side, his eyebrows knitted in confusion... and worry.
“Then what is it? If the child is not the reason than there must be some other reason. Do you not feel at home here? Do you long to be somewhere else instead?” She twitched only slightly, but he saw it nevertheless. “Lothíriel?”
“I... I don’t know what to say. It is nothing, really ...” Finding the right words for what she was feeling was so hard, all the more since her eyes were burning now and her voice in danger of getting caught in her throat. Curse that man for being so shrewd at reading people! She did not want for him to know of her homesickness when he and the people tending to her in Meduseld had done everything in their might to make her feel welcomed! Like one of them. But the truth was, she wasn’t, and she couldn’t hide that fact very well. No matter where she went, she always felt observed – and judged. It was impossible for her to enjoy even a few moments of privacy whenever she left the Golden Hall for a stroll through the city. People gaped at her, and there was no way to hide, no way for her to blend into the crowd. With her black hair and dark skin and eyes, she felt like an exotic creature among the usually blond or reddish, fair-skinned Rohirrim. A beautiful bird from a distant land, not a person. Not accepted for who she was. Now that her pregnancy was known throughout the land, it had even become worse...
Once she had been visiting a travelling show at Dol Amroth and wandered around between the cages which contained animals from far-off lands. People had surrounded them and stared at their occupants, pointing their fingers at the creatures in wonder. She had not felt like that at all, awed or wondrous. Instead, she had felt strangely depressed by their sight. It had been her brothers’ idea to take their little sister out to see something of the likes that could not be experienced every day, and she had been excited when they had asked her… but a single look at the wild beasts that were now caged for the rest of their lives, one look into their sad eyes had ruined her mood for days, and she had fled the exhibition as soon as she had been able to find an excuse without disappointing her brothers too much. But thinking back, that was exactly how she felt now.
And she missed the sea – its smell, the sound of the waves crashing onto the shore... The cries of the white gulls. The feeling of wet sand beneath her naked feet. The strong, salty winds. There was wind here, too, but it tasted differently. It carried the scent of hay, of horses, and of wild flowers. Sometimes, in late autumn, it also carried the scent of snow, but never the one scent she was yearning to detect in it. The wind in this land was a stranger. The people surrounding her, they were strangers. She missed her father... and her brothers. Her friends. That she was frightened of the new change in her life. But how was she supposed to tell all this to her husband when she had long pretended to be over that state? How should he be able to understand? Oh, what was wrong with her?
“Lothíriel...” Éomer opened his arms, again offering her comfort, and this time, she willingly accepted it, hating herself for her weakness as the tears her eyes were brimming with for no reason suddenly spilled over and she hung in his embrace, shook by silent sobs. “You have to let me help you. It is clear that you feel tormented by something, and I would very much like to chase that shadow away from your thoughts. What can I do? Tell me, and I will do it.”
“I am afraid there is nothing you can do, my great king. It is not in your power.” Through the veil of tears, she forced herself to smile at him, but it only added to his confusion.
“Not in my power?”
“Do not look affronted, Éomer, please. I didn’t mean to insult you.” She stroked his face, and this time, her smile was for real as she saw the consternation on her husband’s face. The feeling of helplessness was something the King of Rohan was unaccustomed to handle. “Believe me, this condition of mine is nothing serious and quite common for women in my delicate state… at least, that is what Maia has told me. She said that it is different for each woman. Some turn all moody and melancholic, like me, while others have wild mood-swings and can even become very aggressive-“
“So what you are telling me is that I should be thankful you have not become aggressive,” he smirked, somewhat relieved, and gently kissed her on the forehead while his hand slid down to caress the soft curve of her belly. “Am I guessing rightly?”
“I cannot say,” she played along, glad he was taking the subject lighter now. She put her hand on top of his. “But aren’t the Rohirrim a people that go along rather well with fierce behaviour? Perhaps you would like me better that way.”
“Like you better?” Éomer exclaimed, incredulous. “What – my beautiful wife does not feel loved? If that is the cause for your melancholy, I shall aim to remedy it at once…!” He crushed her to his chest and pressed his mouth onto hers, all gentleness gone. She answered to his fierce passion by digging her nails into the leather of his tunic and tasting him. Sensing him. Forgetting the troublesome world around her for a moment… until her lungs felt like they were about to burst, and she broke contact, gasping. His free hand smoothed a lock out of her face and then traced her finely cut cheekbone back to her ear. He was breathless, too. “I apologise for making you feel unloved, my queen,” he then somehow managed to whisper into her ear between two heavy breaths. “I was not aware that the respectable flowers of Dol Amroth needed constant affirmation of their husbands’ affection.”
“It is what keeps us respectable flowers alive, dearest king,” she breathed meaningful, as if she were confessing a great secret to him, and arched her eyebrows to accentuate her words. “It is even more important to us than food, or the very air that we breathe. Without affection, we wither and turn to dust faster than a leaf that falls from the tree.” She was reluctant to let go of his lips, and once again pressed against him, relishing in his very presence, the pressure of his hands on her back … and his scent, even if it was somewhat mingled with that of his steed. But of course Éomer was right, even her delicate Gondorian nose had become accustomed to the scent of horses to the point where she hardly noticed it anymore. It was like the salty scent of the sea at Dol Amroth. You only noticed it once it was no longer surrounding you.
“I shall remember it then.” One last kiss before he craned back his neck to look at the two falcons riding the breeze far above their heads, squinting into the bright summer sun. “Is my lady still occupied with her birds, or can we leave them to themselves for a while and join the life in Edoras? For that was my initial reason for coming here.”
“Asking me to join you? Is there anything special going on? Midsummer is next week, isn’t it?” His expression told her that it was so. And it also told her that he would not give away his real reason yet. It had to be another one of his little surprises he used to come up with these days to brighten her mood. She had not the heart to disappoint him. “Yes, we can certainly leave them to themselves for a while. They will find their way back once they have found prey. Their young are hungry, and they will not leave them alone for long. I shall leave their cage open.”
She freed herself of his embrace and went over to the volary to open the door for as far as it would open while he waited. From inside the cage came the feeble, but demanding sound of the young falcons, which were yet hardly visible in their nest on the rocky wall. To Lothíriel’s ears, it was a wonderful sound. Perhaps she would succeed in establishing the art of falconry in Rohan the way it was a tradition at Dol Amroth. It certainly deemed her an appropriate occupation for this land and also was a quite convenient way of providing food to the owners of the birds. Something that was in dire need throughout the Riddermark these days.
Éomer’s voice cut through her thoughts, and she realised that she had been dreaming again. Oh well... her poor husband certainly had to suffer from her strange condition!
“I am coming, my lord. Please, be patient with your confused wife. Don’t they say that patience is a kingly virtue?” She turned around and strode back to where he was waiting with a small, teasing smile on her face... and noticed for the first time the green stains on Éomer’s sleeves and side of his jacket and breeches. The sight caused her to arch her brows.
“I wonder who ‘they’ would be,” her husband teased her back, now clearly eager to leave as he extended his arm to her. “It sounds very much like a Gondorian wisdom ... but here in the Mark, we have a different saying: Patience lets an opportunity pass before you can seize it. And it is past midday already. I am hungry, and I also want to show you something. Let us go.”
Lothíriel accepted his arm, and, looking her husband up and down pointedly again, asked with played innocence: “I realise this may be a sensitive subject, my lord, but… did you stumble on your way up to the hall, or did your horse throw you again?” She was delighted to see her fierce, intimidating warrior actually blush at her remark, and his expression darkened as he narrowed his eyes to first glower at his wife, and then stare in the direction of the stables, even though he could not see them from their position on the backside of the hill.
“That horse will learn to accept me as its master, Lothíriel. Mark my words!”
“Oh, I have no doubt of that...” She patted his arm. “But am I mistaken when I say that your steed seems to share quite a few of your character traits? It is amusing to see the two of you battle.”
“Amusing, you say?” he glowered at her in mock-anger, his eyes sparkling. She was not intimidated.
“Aye… it amuses me. It must be one of the epic battles of our time.”
They reached the stairs, and Éomer’s fierce expression changed to a grim smile as he looked down on his delicate wife. A smile that promised that he would get her back, even if he would settle their little quarrel for now.
“Then it may not be a bad thing after all! Everything that helps you to overcome that strange state of mind you have been in for the past weeks is highly welcomed. If the very thought of our fight amuses you so much, would Your Majesty then care to join me tomorrow when I ride out for yet another duel with that ornery black demon?”
She cocked her head as they ascended the stairs together, arm in arm.
“That sounds very exciting indeed, my lord. I may just feel inclined to accept your invitation... provided my stomach approves of your idea as well. I have to confess that I haven’t felt too well these past mornings... yet another quite common aspect of my condition, as my maid told me. This is getting to be quite an inconvenience, really... but it should pass. Maia said most women only experience it in the beginning of their pregnancy. Now, my mighty king, would you mind telling your unsuspecting wife the particular reason that requires her attendance?”
His expression stayed inconspicuous. Either was Éomer improving at hiding his thoughts, or her suspicions were, in fact, wrong.
“There is none… other than that I would very much enjoy your company while I go and inspect the preparations for the celebration next week. It is also time again to show myself to the people… and I am certain that they would equally enjoy seeing their queen, too. They haven’t seen a lot of you lately. They are troubled. You had secluded yourself from them for far too long, and some were even asking me whether you were well, or perhaps reluctant to bother with the common people.” Éomer suddenly found himself looking into widened brown eyes. Lothíriel came to a halt.
“They would be thinking that of me? After all that I have done for them?”
“Not seriously, no.” Gently, he nudged her on. There were a few steps yet left to ascend. “Your efforts in helping the families and orphans that suffered in the war were much appreciated by the people, but you know that already. They even look with a friendly eye towards your efforts of teaching them reading and writing, even if they may not see the necessity after having lived without it for hundreds of years. It was always understood that the nobles and high military ranks had to be taught because they had to communicate with the leaders of other lands as well as each other, but as for the commoners… Their lives revolve more around cultivating the land and learning the various crafts needed to sustain themselves than reading books. The lore and legends of the Riddermark are passed on from one generation to the next by telling, not by reading. It’s a tradition. A tradition that most hold very dear, I may add. I still remember how eager I was for the evening whenever my father had announced that he would tell us another tale of the Mark’s heroes.”
Lothíriel frowned. Apparently, nothing she did these days was right.
“So they think now that I want to completely overthrow everything they have grown to know and love. How very comforting!”
“Lothíriel, please... Of course they do not!” Éomer soothed her, sighing to himself. Oh yes, his beautiful wife was difficult to handle under these special circumstances. He would have to learn to tiptoe around issues she might be offended at. He remembered all too well the complaints of some of the soldiers he had ridden with in his wild days as Third Marshal. They had been in the same situation he found himself him now, but back then he had not been able to understand. Needless to say, their grief had always been the source of much amusement around the campfires. “They may not understand it, but they are willing to try. The classes are full. Haven’t you kept up with the state of the programs you initiated?”
“Not for a while,” Lothíriel admitted, somewhat guiltily, while casting a last look back into the valley. They had almost reached the top of the hill. The group of riders she had seen earlier looked even smaller now, although it had moved closer, while another one was moving away. On their way to the village they belonged to, to be there in time for the Midsummer Celebration, she mused. The thought of the warriors riding home to their loved ones was romantic. It was only her second celebration, and the first one she had experienced had been dominated by the marriage, but the way Éomer had explained it to her, it was the most cherished festivity of the year... next to the Harvest Festival. Only that there had been no reason for giving thanks last year as the harvest had been very meagre. The Mark still had its problems, but they were different than the ones it had had to face until two years ago.
Slowly, still in thought, she shook her head to herself. “I… had other things on my mind.”
“I certainly understand that.”
They reached the path that would take them around the Golden Hall and into the city, and for a while, their conversation rested as they both listened to the wind and the still distant noises it carried up to them. The sky was clear yet, but the air had a strange, metallic taste which told Éomer that a thunderstorm was approaching. A good thing. It had been far too dry for weeks now, the rain was badly needed. When they passed the door-wardens at the entrance of the hall, Éomer nodded off the silent question asked by the guard’s expression. No, he wanted no escort. Today, he wanted to be alone with his queen. He would protect her.
Lifting his head as they descended the front stairs, his gaze wandered over the thatched roofs and the distant road. There seemed to be many travellers these days. Many groups, large and small, journeying between Aldburg and Edoras, and further onwards into the Westmark, all eager to reach their destination for the great celebration next week. Rohan was getting ready to celebrate again, even if the times were still hard in the aftermath of the long war. For their sake, Éomer hoped that the travellers would arrive at wherever their day’s destination lay before the thunderstorm would be upon them. It was a most awkward situation getting trapped in bad weather with rain drenching one to the bone and having to battle a skittish horse… of course, there were also those horses who needed no thunder to behave like that!
A shadow fell on Éomer’s face as he pondered the situation of his kingdom. Two years after the war had ended, Rohan was still dependent on help from its ally. Honouring their old allegiance during the siege of Minas Tirith Gondor and Rohan had renewed a long-forgotten friendship, but their reward had come with a high price. The battle on the Pelennor had cost them dearly: Of the six thousand men and horses Rohan had sent, only one sixth had returned to the plains, and while the knowledge alone that so many men had died violently had been devastating, the lasting effect was even worse: hardly any men were left to do the hard work on the fields. The women and children left were doing what they could, but the constant care – ploughing, sowing, watering and harvesting – was almost too much to be handled, all the more as the Rohan soil was not very fertile and huge spaces were needed to fill the settlements’ barns. In a desperate attempt to provide some much needed relief to his struggling people, Éomer had already assigned the few men which made up the constant éoreds – as opposed to the villages’ riders who only became warriors in time of war – to journey through the land and help out wherever help was needed the most, but their effort was nothing but a drop in the bucket. Their people was stretched too thinly over a vast, but unforgiving land, and if all this was not enough, the conditions had also been against them in the year of his marriage, when a long, dry summer with hardly a drop of rain had caused most of their crops to wither on the ground.
Éomer had been loath having to ask his friend King Elessar of Gondor for help again, but there had just been no other option open to him. There had not even been enough left to give as a token of his well-meaning to the small delegation of Dunlending tribal-leaders, who had travelled all the way across the winterly Westmark to ask for help for their own starving people. After 500 years of hatred and war between their people, it had been the first sign, the tender seed of a possible way of co-existence after his uncle had exercised mercy on them in the wake of the battle of Helm’s Deep, and Éomer had hated not having been in a position to nurture it. As sign of his good will, he had ordered to give the Dunlendings two sacks of meal as well as two sacks of dried fruit and half a side of dried pork meat from the royal provisions which were only for extreme times of need, but it had been very clear to him upon seeing the delegation leave again that they had expected a lot more. What food he had given them would not last for long.
Hunger. This foe was different than anything he had faced so far. Not violent, but frighteningly persistent, and for now there seemed to be no way to beat it, as another long, hard winter lay behind them and spring had arrived too late and changed into another dry summer. Sometimes Éomer worried whether they would have to rely on Gondor for all eternity…
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