14. Interlude - Winter
The winds scream across the plains. Rohan is pounded repeatedly with storms of snow and ice, making for one of the worst winters in recent memory.
Conversely, it is one of the most enjoyable seasons Lathwyn can recall. The severe weather keeps everyone in Edoras; Théodred has issued orders that none of the éoreds should venture out except in the most dire of circumstances. Three Riders -none of them young nor untried --were lost in the last blizzard, and he will not risk losing more. As a result, Théodred himself is a constant resident of the Meduseld, and this pleases Lathwyn more than she will admit.
Lathwyn has not spent one night in her own bed since the last days of summer, when Théodred invited her to make use of his room, even while he was on patrol. She likes waking next to him, likes feeling protected by his very presence. Lathwyn knows that this is a part of her attraction to Théodred -- he makes her feel safe, and that is all she has ever wanted. That is not all of the attraction, of course. Théodred is caring toward Lathwyn as no-one has been in long years, as well as being an attentive lover, and she has noticed that she is more at her ease, when he is in Edoras. Now when she dreams, it is not of Orcs, but of her long-dead family. She dreams of her grandmother's teachings: hyssop for colds, meadowsweet for an aching head, chamomile or pudding grass for women's complaints, but use pudding grass only sparingly, and do not give it to a breeding woman, for it can cause her to cast out the child.
Although these dreams are not nightmares, Lathwyn awakes with a deep sense of unease. She does not know why - her mother's mother was a kind woman who never spoke a harsh word to her grandchildren.
Lathwyn does not relay the incident with Lord Gríma to Théodred, for she does not think it worth mentioning. Rather, she finds it odd that Lord Gríma did not strike her -- she fully expected him to do so, and saw by the look in his eyes that he very much wanted to. She knows that she was the one at fault. If she had not been so careless with Lord Gríma's correspondence, he would not have grown so angry. Lord Gríma was correct; she had been lax in her duties, and she will not disappoint him again. Of course, with the weather, no couriers have come to Edoras in many weeks, so it is nothing she has to worry about at present.
However, although she is not aware of it, Lathwyn keeps her distance from Lord Gríma , unless it is unavoidable. She is only distantly aware that she has grown wary of Lord Gríma's mild tempers, just as she was once wary of Cynat's calm moods. In Lathwyn's experience, a volatile man in a placid mood is suspect.
Théodred sees the bruise on her hip. Did I do that? he asks in surprise.
Lathwyn chuckles, lazily combing her fingers through his hair. If you did that, there would be a bruise on the other hip as well, would there not? Théodred flashes a grin in reply as he lightly kisses the mark. I was not paying attention, and ran into a table.
He is satisfied with this answer. He is, at the moment, occupied with the soft white skin of her belly, and does not notice the mark on Lathwyn's arm til much later.
Liðides catches Lathwyn alone. Are you sure it was wise, accepting that from Lord Théodred?
Lathwyn looks at the bracelet on her wrist, then back at Liðides, puzzled. Why should I have refused him?
Eledher, you are not a fool. You know that princes cannot form permanent attachments to women like you or me. Why would you bring such pain upon yourself? Soon he must wed, and he will have to put you aside.
Then should I not hold to him while I can? Lathwyn asks quietly.
Liðides studies Lathwyn for a long moment, and Lathwyn prepares herself for an onslaught of disapproval. But instead, Liðides says nothing, only lays her hand on Lathwyn's arm, and her eyes are full of sympathy.
Though she is pleased to have Théodred near for more than three or four days at a time, Lathwyn sees that he is greatly annoyed at his inaction. He begins to spend more time with his father, and this does not improve his temper any. Many evenings, before they retire, Théodred will rail against the weather, Gríma, the state of Rohan, the unfairness of old age, and occasionally his lord cousin before finally exhausting his frustration. Lathwyn says nothing most nights; she knows that he feels utterly helpless in the face of all these things, most particularly his father's decline. There is nothing she can say to ease that, no matter how it might pain her to see Théodred in such distress.
Some mornings, when one rises, the other is already gone.
Some mornings, they stir within moments of one another.
Some mornings, Lathwyn wakes first, and watches Théodred as he sleeps. She lets her gaze roam his face, the dark golden hair spilling across his wide shoulders, and wonders why she resisted him for so long. Sometimes she will coax him awake by gentle touch, or by covering his body with hers; sometimes she is content just to look at him and does not think about anything but how satisfied she is to be there next to him.
Some mornings, Théodred wakes first. He likes to watch her come awake, for when she first sees him next to her, a warm, pleased smile curves her mouth, and her sleepy eyes light up. He does not think that she knows she does this, and she never does it at any other time. Sometimes, he will urge her to wakefulness with fingers or mouth; sometimes he will simply stroke her back, from the nape of her neck down the length of her spine, as if she were a cat, until she wakes, and smiles at him.
Before the weather turned so cruel, Théodred received word from Dúnhere and Erkenbrand. Both agree that Gríma's intentions are not in Rohan's best interest; both admit that they are both made uneasy by the King's dependence on Wormtongue. Dúnhere is easier to convince than Erkenbrand his uncle, but in the end, both reluctantly acknowledge that the Second Marshal was correct in his assessment of the situation - if the lords of Rohan do not take matters into their own hands, the safety of the country is forfeit. Théodred has every faith that both lords will do what they think best to protect their lands. He has sworn to take all responsibility for their actions upon himself, should they be discovered. It pains Théodred to countermand orders signed by his father the King, but he does not know what else to do. He can still find no proof that Gríma is allied with any known enemy, he cannot convince his father to ignore Gríma's counsel, and he will not allow Rohan to be more vulnerable than it must. Some days, Theored is filled with self-loathing, for it feels as if he is betraying his father; other days, he knows his father would be grateful for all that his son and Marshal is doing.
They are lying together, sated and drowsy, when Théodred notices a bruise on Eledher's arm, a bruise in the clear shape of a hand. Who has treated you so roughly? I would speak to him.
She raises her arm and looks at it curiously. It is of no matter -- I did not even know it was there.
Of no matter? I know that in some halls women are mistreated so, but I will not allow it the Meduseld. If someone has laid hands on you, I would know who, Eledher.
It was an accident, Théodred. She is half-asleep. It has not happened before -- you would surely have noticed if it had.
This is true, of course. He is in a position to take note of any such marks on her body, and he has seen none before tonight. She seems so unconcerned that Théodred thinks he must be overreacting. Surely if some man were troubling Eledher, she would come to him immediately. You must tell me, if it happens again. I would not have you fearful for your safety in my own hall.
Her smile is unexpectedly tender as she lays her hand on his cheek. Of course I will tell you. But how could I be fearful for my safety, leofost, when you are so willing to shelter me?
This too-rare display of emotion moves Théodred, for he knows how hard such words come to Eledher. He catches her hand in his, pressing a kiss into her palm. She gives a little sigh of contentment, laying her head on his shoulder, and he falls asleep with her warm body nestled comfortingly against his own.
Théodred is not a man who is used to being mewed up inside for long periods of time. He knows that there is nothing else for it; during such harsh conditions as these, Orcs will not stage attacks - they will simply let nature do their killing for them, and loot such villages when spring arrives. But Théodred still feels as if he is neglecting his duty. As winter drags onward, he finds himself more easily irritated. He tries to find ways to keep occupied. He orders one of the smaller halls to be turned into a temporary salle -- there are too many weather-bound Riders to conduct weapons practices in the smaller, permanent building -- and this gives the restless men an outlet for their energies. There are still disagreements over everything from women to the portions of food at meals, there is a great deal more drinking than usual, and at least once a fortnight, men will come to blows over some petty thing. Théodred and Éomer do their best to keep the peace, but the cousins find it difficult to make it through a meal without growling at each other. There is no one thing over which they argue; it is just the tension of being so long indoors, unable to carry out their sworn duties to king and country. Éowyn has begun ignoring them, if she happens upon her brother and cousin together, for she is fed up with their constant arguing.
I am sorry that your men are discontent, she says testily to Théodred, but I cannot give your boredom sympathy, cousin. Now you know how I feel nearly every day of my life, except that you do not have Gríma watching you as if he owned you.
Fortunately, since both Marshals have been confined to the Meduseld, Gríma has not been watching Éowyn as openly; in fact, Gríma seems to barely notice Éowyn. Théodred is grateful, although he is sure it is an act. He is not certain that he could have -- or would have -- kept Éomer in check, had Éomer decided to confront Gríma about this.
Théodred's mood is worsened by the fact that he has taken to spending more time with his father. Observing Théoden so closely, Théodred can see that he has been a fool in thinking that the King will ever improve. He is not ready to give his father up for lost, but Théodred must force himself to recognize that Théoden will never again be the proud, hale man who once strode these halls with such confidence. Now, Théoden cannot walk from his rooms to the Hall without support; now, Théoden is often not aware of his son's presence, even when it is Théodred providing such support; now, more often than not, Théoden defers to Gríma before speaking a single, garbled word.
And of course there is Gríma , a malevolent shadow trailing behind Théoden always. Théodred watches Gríma carefully, scrutinizing every word and movement for some scrap of evidence that Wormtongue is plotting against the throne. Idly Théodred wonders what would happen if he simply drove his dagger through the man's throat. But without proof of treachery, it would be assassination, and he cannot do such a thing. Additionally, Éowyn has confided her suspicions that there is some sort of bewitchment at work, and Théodred must acknowledge the possibility of this -- Éowyn's instincts are good, and she has spent a great deal more time in the King's presence than her brother or cousin. If it is true, then there is no telling what the reprecussions might be to the King, if Gríma were dead.
The King's lucid days come less and less frequently, and many days it is all Théodred can to do keep from roaring his anger to the entire city. Bare-knuckled sparring and practice bouts with the sword help ease some of his tension, but still, he is always on edge. One evening, while Eledher carefully combing snarls from his hair, Théodred snaps at her. That hair is attached to my head, you know!
Her hands still. I may not be used to riding free on the plains, Théodred, but I do not like being forced to stay inside for weeks on end any more than you do.
Startled at her sharp tone, he turns in the chair to face Eledher. He sees, with a pang of guilt, that she is angry at him, and she is right to be so, Théodred thinks ruefully. I am sorry, he tells her, touching her hand. I did not mean to take my ill-humour out on you. It is just -- I am finding it difficult to keep my temper these days . The very walls seem to press in on me.
Something in her face eases. I know that it is not easy for you, but it is not easy for anyone else, either.
Chastened, Théodred promises that he will not speak to her so again. Later, he realizes what that odd expression on her face was. For a moment, Eledher was afraid of him - afraid of how he would react to her anger. He rebukes himself fiercely, for he would not have her ever be frightened of him.
Gríma is tense, as for most of the winter, he has been out of contact with Saruman. Of course the storms are to blame, but Gríma is concerned that Saruman will be angry. He does not truly think that Saruman will consider him false for not being able to send messages, but during the small silent hours of the night, Gríma wonders if his master's wrath will be visited upon him. As do all residents of Edoras, Gríma longs for spring. He cannot bear to be so in the dark; needs Saruman to know that he is still faithfully carrying out his given duties. But no courier arrives, and so no such word can be sent.
Gríma's patience is also pushed to the breaking point by the relentless presence of the Lords Théodred and Eomer. His every move is watched by the two Marshals. Lord Théodred has begun to pass a large part of each day with the King, and Lord Théodred's loathing is an almost tangible thing. Gríma is almost tempted to forego his meetings with Théoden King entirely - after all, it is not as if there is anything to discuss, as news from any part of Rohan is slow to come, and uninteresting when it arrives. But he cannot, even though the constant scrutiny is driving him mad - that would cast further suspicion on him. And the young lords are already far too suspicious. Gríma supposes it must be fortunate that he can not receive any word from Saruman, for strange couriers arriving with letters would be looked upon with deepest mistrust, and a Hall full of bored, twitchy Riders would be only too happy to interrogate such a messenger.
Gríma is surprised that the Lord Théodred never confronts him about any incident with Lathwyn. He had been certain that the woman would run to Lord Théodred immediately, bleating that Gríma had mistreated her. But apparently she did not, and he finds this very interesting. Lord Théodred is not the only person in the Meduseld who remembers the circumstances which brought Lathwyn to Edoras, and Gríma wonders if Lathwyn has kept quiet out of fear, or because she thought it nothing out of the ordinary.
The King does not seem to be worsening, but he also does not seem to be any better, and Gríma must restrain himself from demanding if Lathwyn has been administering the dwail potion regularly. It would be pointless, for if she had been, Théoden King would be nearly at death's door. Gríma is not at all certain that he would be able to keep himself from flying into a rage if Lathwyn admitted this. If the Lord Théodred were not in residence, he would confront her, but he is walking a thin line, as far as the heir is concerned, and cannot afford to make any missteps. Again he thinks that this is perhaps fortunate; if the King were to die now, there would be no way for Gríma to seize control and hold the throne until Saruman could act. For one thing, he does not have the promised men at his command; for another, it must wait til warm weather returns, and all the fighting men are gone from Edoras, so that resistance will be minimal.
The storms have slackened dramatically, and in the space of seven days, the weather shifts from brutal to tolerable. The Lords Théodred and Éomer ride forth with their men, and, though they are only gone part of a day and have nothing of interest to report, they return in high spirits. Spring cannot be far away, and the mood in the Hall is much lighter.
Gríma is seeing the King safely ensconced for the night -- this seems to happen earlier with every passing day-- and he is watching closely to see if Lathwyn pours a measure of potion. He notes her take the vial from her pocket, and, satisfied, turns back to the King, who is drowsing by the fire.
My lord, your Marshals say that all is well outside of the city walls. Soon we shall be able to communicate with the lords of Rohan, and see how they have fared this season.
Gríma is feigning his pleasure at the news; he must always keep up the pretense that he cares what has happened to other cities and villages.
A crash makes him jump, although the King barely moves at the noise, and Gríma turns to see what that clumsy woman has broken. He sees the King's goblet and a metal tray on the floor. The spilled wine is spreading, and Lathwyn has yet made no move to clean the mess. She is simply looking at the puddle, entire body rigid and motionless. With blinding certainty, Gríma knows that somehow, the fool has realized what she has been giving the King .
Lathwyn has been strangely distracted all day. Again she has dreamed of her grandmother; again she does not understand why she awoke so disturbed. She dresses in silence and slips out of the room before Théodred can see her confusion.
As much as Lathwyn enjoys having Théodred on a nightly basis, his agitation at being restricted makes her nervous and short-tempered.. After just half a day in the field, she can see the difference in his mood, and she is deeply relieved that the weather has finally taken a turn for the better. Soon he will be gone for days on end, which will be odd after the idle days of winter, but a tiny part of her is thankful. She knows he will be much happier, and much easier to live with once he is regularly patrolling the lands again.
Lathwyn is preparing the King's nightly cup of wine, and cannot avoid putting the dwail in, for Lord Gríma is watching her like a hawk. She sighs to herself; she does not see the point, for she has never noticed that it brings the King any relief from his painful joints.
Lathwyn carefully measures out one drop, hearing Lord Gríma's long-ago voice in her head -- One drop only, for dwail is very potent -- and swirls the contents of the cup to mix the two liquids. She places the goblet on the serving tray, and, as she turns to take the cup to the King, she suddenly hears another long-ago voice in her head.
Dwail is an old name for nightshade, her grandmother whispers.
The tray falls to the ground from her nerveless fingers.
She stares stupidly at the spreading pool of wine, red as blood against the stones of the floor and panic are rising within her and she is certain that she is going to open her mouth and scream but she does not, cannot even draw a breath.
She is frozen in place with horror.
Her mind is shrieking. Nightshade!
A hand closes around her arm, and Lathwyn gasps as she tries to jerk away, but Lord Gríma is too strong for her. His face is contorted with rage and hate; she has not seen a man look at her with such a vicious expression in more than ten years, and cold, hard fear overrides the panic. He knows that she knows.
Say one word to your Marshal, and I swear to you, you will be back in Dunland within seven days.
She tries to summon up some reply, but Lord Gríma's words have left her utterly without defense. He continues, eyes shining with malice. Do you think that he would believe you? Do you think that anyone will take your word over mine? I am Advisor to the King -- and you are just a glorified kitchen whore.
From somewhere, Lathwyn finds a bit of strength, and tears her arm from Lord Gríma's grasp. You cannot -- you cannot …
I cannot what? Lord Gríma's sneering face is inches from hers. There is nothing that I cannot do, you fool. Tell the King's son, and you will see what happens to you. You will see what happens to him.
Lathwyn is shaking; terror has its tight hand around her throat. She knows that he is not exaggerating; even one as naïve in politics as she knows that the Lord Gríma has control over the King, and therefore can do nearly anything he likes. And she has no doubt that he would have her carted back to Dunland in a heartbeat; that he would kill Théodred, given a chance.
A cry escapes her, and vindictive triumph comes across Lord Gríma's face. Lathwyn cannot bear to be near him any longer, and she flees. She does not go to Théodred's room, oh no -- instead she goes to the library, for she knows no-one will be there. She hides herself in a dark corner, and weeps brokenly, sobs shaking her body. She knows that Lord Gríma is correct -- his word will be taken over hers. She is of no importance; she has no rank and no honour, as far as men are concerned, for she is just a woman, and a common woman at that. Théodred will not believe that she did not know what she was doing, not after so many months. She will be alone, and there will be no-one to protect her from his rage, or that of his cousins and all the Riders in Rohan.
And the letters -- oh, what is in those letters that she has been delivering so trustingly? What else is she guilty of?
The glass vial presses hard against her thigh, and she shoves her hand in her pocket, meaning to smash it against the wall -- but she stops, seeing there is still a mouthful left. For a long moment she stares at the deadly liquid, and she knows what she must do.
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.