11. The Housemaid -IV
Lord Gríma is speaking to Théoden King, as Lathwyn is lighting candles on side-tables. She hears everything that is said while she works, though as always she does not truly listen - that is the way of all servants.
She is nearly finished when the word Dunland catches her attention. Lathwyn realizes that Lord Gríma is trying to convince Théoden King to ally with Dunland, to allow Dunlendings to protect the Fords of Isen, and this notion sets her to trembling so badly that she spills wax from the candle on the back of her hand. She gasps at the pain, then quickly mutters an apology for disturbing them, even while inwardly she is still trembling. She makes certain the King needs for nothing, and leaves the room, trying not to stare at the King's advisor. As she departs, she notices a strange, cloying odor; she knows she should stop and try to find the source, but does not trust herself to be impassive if there is more talk of Dunland.
When she enters Théodred's chamber, he is sprawled face-down on the bed, still clad in boots and breeches. A closer look proves that he is fast asleep, and Lathwyn cannot help but be relieved, even if he has only today returned from the field. She does not want to explain to him why her mind is in such turmoil.
She carefully tugs off his boots - he does not so much as stir - and pulls the bedclothes over him. She considers what his reaction will be if he wakes to find her there, uninvited, and decides that she cannot bear to sleep on her own cot tonight. Lathwyn strips to her thin shift, and quietly slips into the bed. She studies Théodred's sleeping face a moment, notices a new bruise turning purple on his jaw and hopes it does not pain him too badly. She moves as close to him as she dares, for she does not wish to disturb his slumber. But then Théodred drapes his arm over her waist, drawing her nearer, though he does not truly wake.
Lathwyn does not dream of Dunland, as she had so feared, but of her grandmother. Not dead on the plains -- as she was in life, pleasant and willing to share her herb lore with a small granddaughter. It is not a nightmare, yet Lathwyn wakes with a feeling of panic, shivering as if from fever.
Théodred stirs, murmurs sleepily. Is all well?
It is only a chill. Go back to sleep, Théodred.
His eyes gleam in the dim light, and his next words are wide awake. Shall I warm you?
She reaches for him gratefully; he moves to cover her body with his, and the moment of panic is soothed away.
The conversation continues to haunt Lathwyn. She cannot imagine why the Lord Gríma would suggest such a thing - does he believe that Dunland would ever forget its hatred of the Rohirrim? She is certain they will never do any such thing, and though she knows little about things political, Lathwyn is disturbed by the idea of Dunlendings keeping watch over such an important defense. She knows only too well what Dunlendings are capable of, will bear the marks of their misuse til her life's end. Lathwyn ponders speaking to Théodred of what she has heard, but is afraid that he would brush her worries aside as foolish.
She has grown more comfortable with Théodred as time has passed, and it has become easier to call him by name, as he has so often asked her to do. This clearly pleases him, and Lathwyn is mildly startled to discover that his reaction gladdens her. It is not the first time he has surprised her, however; he is not like the handful of men she has been with more than once. He does not lay a hand on her in public, knowing that such displays make her uncomfortable, nor does he force conversation when she has nothing to say. Théodred does not tell her that she is too solemn and should be merrier, and he does not accuse her of being unfeeling and cold, as many people - not only men - have done. He does confide his worries about his father to her, as well as concerns for his cousins, and she is both touched and proud that he trusts her with such unburdenings.
Perhaps most oddly to her experience, he has no questions about her past. He will trace the scars on her belly or back with gentle fingers or lips, but says nothing. Despite this, she cannot help but tense every time he touches her so. And he surprises her yet again one night.
I am never going to ask about these, Eledher. He speaks softly, as if reading her mind. Be at ease. I know where they came from.
She stares at him, for a moment speechless. How do you know?
Théodred's answer is wry. I have been Second Marshal of the Mark for some time, you know. Who do you think Erkenbrand's men reported to, when they first brought you and the others here?
As autumn sets in, Lathwyn becomes more anxious about the King's health. He does not eat enough, citing an ill stomach, and he complains of a dryness in his mouth and throat which will not be quenched. Occasionally, she has noticed that his eyes seem overly-wide, while his face is often flushed. Once or twice, while he is waiting for her to complete her duties, she has seen him leaning forward, hands working, muttering to no-one. Without fail, he calls her Théodwyn and grows very agitated if she calls him "my Lord". Théoden King's manservant has noticed all these things as well, but he has yet to speak openly to Lathwyn of them, so she says nothing.
When she goes to meet Lord Gríma's messenger, Lathwyn receives an ugly shock. She has not seen this man before. Not only does he squint at her disdainfully, and leer at her bosom in a most offensive fashion, he is clearly of Dunlending blood, and for a moment she freezes as he extends the packet of letters to her. How did he get inside the city gates? she wonders, fighting the dread that rises within her. Can any from Dunland simply stroll into Edoras unquestioned? Lathwyn masters her loathing, and snatches the packet from him, favouring him with a glare full of hatred she had forgotten she possessed. She can feel his narrowed eyes watching her walk away, and she has to restrain herself from running away from him as quickly as she can.
She is so upset by this encounter that she considers asking the Lord Gríma why he has hired a Dunlending for such errands, but of late, she has found herself hesitant to approach Gríma for any reason. Oh, when Lathwyn sees him, there is still an initial stirring in the pit of her stomach, but then she recalls the advice she heard him giving to the King, and fear touches her. She has never listened to the idle servants' talk in the Golden Hall, thinking such chatter mostly idle rumour, but now, she begins to pay attention to what is said. She ignores anything she hears that cites Lord Gríma's "strangeness" as reason for suspicion -- she herself has been thought rather strange for her quiet, solitary manner, and does not hold whispers of strangeness against any person.
More frequently, she hears Lord Gríma's name spoken in resentment, as well as in mistrust and wariness. Lathwyn wonders why this is - until recently, she has only ever seen Lord Gríma from afar, making certain that Théoden King is attended every moment, serving the King with unswerving loyalty. Lord Gríma has always been different in manner and dress than others in the court, and this is no doubt the source of some of the gossip Lathwyn hears of him. But she cannot forget Lord Gríma's words to the King, and they gnaw at her.
The Lord Dúnhere comes to the Meduseld, bringing with him his wife and daughter, and the Hall is cheerful and lively. When such banquets are held, all the servants who are not attending the kitchen will stand in the shadowed corridors to observe the dancing and merriment which comes after the meal. It is a tradition, and no-one is reprimanded, as long as duties are not shirked. Lathwyn stands with Liðides, and they watch, whispering between themselves. Once Lathwyn sees the Lord Gríma watching the Lady Éowyn, and she has a bright flash of memory, of men staring at her in a similar fashion, and unconsciously, she shudders.
Her eyes are drawn to Théodred, and there they stay, for she rarely sees him like this. He laughs often as he talks to the guests, striding about the Hall with the confidence of the noble lord that he is. His hair shines in the torchlight like wheat under the sun, and, thinking of how it will feel to entwine her fingers in that hair later in the evening, Lathwyn cannot keep a proprietary smirk from tugging at her mouth. Liðides chuckles softly, nudges her in the ribs.
Then Lathwyn sees the look on the face of Lord Dúnhere 's young daughter, and her joy fades. The girl is beaming at Théodred, who is smiling broadly down at her, and the Lord Dúnhere himself is wearing an look of hopeful satisfaction. As she watches, Théodred takes the girl's hand, bows low, and leads her to the middle of the hall, where they begin to dance.
Understanding hits Lathwyn so forcefully that it is as if she has been kicked by a horse: Lord Dúnhere expects his daughter to marry Théodred. That is why he has brought her here -- to meet her future husband. She is younger than Lady Éowyn, but she is certainly old enough to be betrothed -- and Théodred appears to be quite taken with the girl.
Lathwyn cannot breathe, does not want to watch but cannot look away from the sight of someone else in the arms of the man who has been hers and hers alone since the first warm days of spring. Her heart clenches tightly in her chest; white-hot anger flashes briefly though her, and she does not understand. She has never pretended, even to herself, that her association with Théodred could be permanent, for he is heir to the throne, and she is merely a servant. But the sight of him dancing and laughing with Lord Dúnhere's daughter has shaken her more deeply than she would have believed possible.
By chance, Théodred's gaze meets hers over the girl's head, and he acknowledges her with the barest nod of his head and a furtive wink. She cannot muster so much as the ghost of a smile; instead, she turns, and hastens away from the Hall, and she does not hear Liðides' puzzled whispers.
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.