5. The Meeting
Not used to being so indecisive the irritation gripped him as he hesitated. The best thing to do would be to retreat quietly back the way he had come. He could go and knock on Éowyn’s door. She would probably be fully dressed by now. It might be the most sensible thing to do but he did not move. What if she saw him retreating? It would look rude and why should he not talk to her? They were out in the open, in full view of anyone gazing out of the windows; it would not constitute a breach of propriety. The only reason not to stay was the presence of some unchaste thoughts that had entered his head the moment he had set eyes upon her and which were, rather annoyingly, still lingering. No, that could not be counted enough reason. He was not some moonstruck youngster and should be able to have a perfectly amiable conversation with an attractive young woman who happened to be promised to a good friend. On the other hand it might be wise to keep well away and concentrate his thoughts on the array of ladies that were sure to be presented tonight.
He had still not made up his mind what to do when she turned around and caught sight of him. Her face immediately lit up with that totally open and genuine smile he had witnessed outside the city gates. Once again his breath caught. Seldom had he seen such a lovely young woman. He sighed, fate had made her wishes known, and he had heard someone say recently, probably Gandalf, that she was a mistress not to be ignored.
“My Lord Éomer!” she exclaimed her soft voice containing nothing but pleasure. “Have you come to look at the view?”
“That and to allow my hair to dry,” he grinned. Her easy unaffected manner was contagious.
“Ah yes, Éowyn told me she had threatened you.” Without moving her head she ran her eyes up and down his body, momentarily assessing him. Then those wonderful grey orbs came to rest on his face. They had been sparkling before but now they were twinkling merrily. All of a sudden the collar of his tunic which had felt fine when he put it on became exceedingly tight. “I imagine you will pass muster. You look alright to me, anyway.” She said, obviously not at all overawed by being alone in the presence of a strange man. But of course she had made friends with his sister and about to be betrothed to a brother in arms. She would look upon him as a friend also. It was a good job she could not read minds.
“It is my sister’s mission in life to tidy me up. I decided to cooperate today.” He smiled apologetically, “I am sorry, my Lady, Amrothos told me your name and I remember you shared it with a goddess. I am pretty sure it began with…N, but that is all I can remember and Éowyn never mentioned it today. Although she said she intended going shopping with you.”
Éomer thought he saw a faint flash of surprise cross her face but it disappeared before he could be sure. “Oh, I thought he had stopped using that one. He called me Nessa when we were young and it sort of stuck. My given name is rather a mouthful it is….No,” she laughed; we will be formally introduced tonight. Nessa will do for now. A little informality is good sometimes, don’t you think, my Lord?”
“I personally think a little informality is best most of the time,” he retorted good humouredly, “so my name is Éomer.”
That assessing look again although this time he knew it wasn’t his clothes she was thinking about. “I imagine you have been rather overwhelmed by the change in your status.” She looked over towards the River Anduin and Cormallen, “It would not be so noticeable out there with your men, but I expect you felt it as soon as you reached the City.”
How did she know that? Grief, he hoped she couldn’t read minds. He found himself staring at her, thinking of what to say, when she carried on.
“You will get used to it, you know.” She smiled and changed the subject looking away from him out over the wall, “Now you are here, you can show me where Éowyn slew the Witch King, and how far you got through the enemy ranks before you saw the Black Ships.”
“You are interested in the battle?”
She laughed softly, “I am a soldier’s daughter and the men discussed it all through the midday meal. It is almost impossible to be brought up in Dol Amroth without developing some interest and knowledge of warfare.”
Éomer took a few steps towards the edge of the wall. He kept some paces away from her but with complete naturalness she moved to stand very close to him. His nostrils immediately picked up a sweet exotic scent. “You smell glorious,” he said it without thinking.
“Why, thank you. It is a perfume made from the flowers of a tree called a Frangipani. I imagine that is new to you as well.” She reached up a little, put her had lightly on his arm and sniffed his hair, “You smell good too. I always think the scent of pines is very manly.”
He swallowed, the touch of her hand had been feather light but his arm felt on fire. If he didn’t know better, he would think she was flirting with him, but when he looked in her eyes they were completely guileless. She just seemed to be naturally friendly. Her closeness however did not help his determination to remain detached so he moved closer to the wall. A wasted effort because she came with him. Their shoulders touched, or rather, her shoulder was touching his arm, and she looked totally unconcerned about it. But of course she would be: he held no interest for her. He could not resist studying that beautiful face for a moment. He had such wonderfully smooth skin, tanned to a pale creamy brown. Long black eyelashes fringed silver-grey eyes and her lips were ….
“They are already building up the walls where you rode through. Where did you sound the horns?”
Éomer started and dragged his eyes away from her face. He looked towards the North, “We all got right through without being challenged but if the walls had not been already down it would not have been so easy. Théoden sounded the first blast just as the wind changed.”
“Amrothos said it was the best and most welcome sound he has ever heard.”
Éomer smiled ruefully, “I think the best sight in my life was seeing Aragorn’s Standard unfurl on the lead ship, but next to that it was probably the ranks of blue and sliver that marched out from the City.”
“And the worst sight was seeing Éowyn lying on the battleground?” A silence descended. “It is better to talk about it, you know,” she said softly when he didn’t answer. “It will be healthier for the future.”
“You are right,” he hesitated, “and you are also right - it was the worst sight of my life. But the best words were when Imrahil told me she still lived. Our relationship will always be special because of that.” Eomer looked out over the Pelennor, “You can just see the mound where Snowmane is buried and the fell beast died.” he pointed slightly to their left, “but it was way down there, only a mile from the Harlond, where I saw the ships.”
She followed his gaze around to the right, “You got so far?”
He nodded, “To be honest I was very lucky. Tactically, I made a very bad move and endangered my men needlessly.” He sighed, “In fact one of my closest friends lost the bottom part of his leg.”
“You blame yourself for that, Éomer?”
He thought for a moment. “No, not for that. Aelfhere fought as recklessly as me that day. He would as likely as not have been injured in some way. However, the sight of Éowyn lying dead, as I thought she was then, wiped the last shred of rational thought from my mind. As I said, I was lucky. It could have been a lot worse.”
“Luck plays a heavy role in all our lives. Your friend, Aelfhere, how is he?”
“Surprisingly well. Both mentally and physically, I think.” Éomer allowed himself to fix his eyes on her face again. He could not really imagine why he was talking to her like this. A young woman he had only just met. “You have expert healers in Gondor. It appears he will manage quite well with a false foot. I asked him today to join my guard.”
The clear grey eyes locked with his. “Because you really do feel guilty or because you feel sorry for him?”
“No…, he said slowly. “Because before all this, if I had ever imagined that I would need a guard, then I could not have countenanced him not being part of it.”
She nodded once as though she expected no other answer. “My father said you would make a good king.”
“Did he? He shows more confidence than me.”
“That is how it should be. If you were so sure of yourself you would be nothing but a bore,” she threw him an amused grin. “I imagine you are looking forward to returning to Rohan.”
“I am, but my sister may be thinking differently.”
“Ah, she told me that you had found out. She has been worried about your reaction. I have only been a few days in the company of both of them, but they seem well suited.”
“Everyone tells me Faramir is and good and honourable man.”
“Oh, he is. She could not do better for a husband?”
“You know him well?” He thought she looked a little taken aback by the question, but she answered quickly enough.
“I had not seen him for a couple of years but before Gondor was quite so much under the shadow, he made many visits to Dol Amroth.”
The mention of Dol Amroth brought the bathing experience back to Éomer’s mind. He hesitated for a moment but then thought that she would not actually laugh at him. She would be a little amused maybe. “Nessa, can you tell me what a sponge is?”
Her eyes widened slightly and he caught her lips twitching but she answered him without actually breaking into laughter. “It is a sea creature. We use them for washing.”
“So Elfhelm told me but I thought he was teasing. It looks like no creature I have ever seen.”
“They do not swim but are fixed to the sea bed. They are definitely alive, before we harvest them, that is. I have always thought that they seem to be something between a plant and an animal.”
“Oh, they are dead?”
Nessa looked as though she just had to giggle at that. So he amused her even more by saying, “I threw it in the bath but kept well away, ready to jump out. I was worried it would start swimming around.”
“Then you were very brave to have put it in your bath in the first place.” She wasn’t laughing because her lips were pressed tightly together in a very determined effort not to.
Éomer swallowed again as he fought an overwhelming urge to touch her. He desperately wanted to run one of his newly cleaned and softened fingers over those lips, to ease them apart and then bring his own lips down to capture hers. He had to turn away whilst he frantically sought for some neutral subject to talk about that would take his thoughts elsewhere. He would converse for a few more minutes and then make his excuses. Turning back he found that her eyes were still full of amusement but she had managed to hold back her laughter. “Did Dol Amroth suffer much in the war?” he managed to get out.
“The villages along the coast were badly hit but Dol Amroth itself is well fortified.” She adapted to his quick change of topic with no noticeable surprise.
“What’s it like? Imrahil has invited me but I doubt I will have time to visit for quite a while.”
“Well, it is a fortified City, not dissimilar to Minas Tirith, but on a much smaller scale. The family and many of the Swan Knights live in the inner bastion, and the townsfolk and soldiers in the lower parts. There is water on two sides, so the sea is a big part of our lives.”
“But the Corsairs did not trouble you?”
“No, on one side we have the protection of a reef. That means,” she went on to explain, “that we have a very shallow bay and any boats would have to come over sharp rocks. Then the harbour is in a natural inlet which is easy to defend. We always have watchers in the towers and if there is any threat the bells are rung and we raise big chains across the harbour entrance. During the war though, the people came to the City from the surrounding countryside for protection. We were full to bursting.”
“And you have come here, which is full to bursting with Rohirrim.”
“Yes,” she smiled, “and many of our people also. They came for the celebrations some weeks ago. My father wanted me to join him but I had duties at home.” A soft contented look set on her features, “I was determined not to come but then Amrothos wrote to me, begging me to change my mind. I could not disappoint him.”
“You have always been…close to him?” He could not stop himself from asking.
She nodded; “We were playmates when we were little and got up to all sorts of mischief together. Now I think that possibly I love him more than any other being. Perhaps even more than my father. I feel guilty about that sometimes, but my father was rarely home.”
“It is natural,” he said quietly, wondering why he was still here. The empty void, that had been in his stomach since had realised that his sister would really be leaving him, had filled with stone. “I imagine it will soon be time to appear in the hall. I must see if Éowyn is ready.”
She made to turn, as though to make her way back inside, but then stopped and those gorgeous eyes sparkled again. “I know the Rohír has a mighty reputation as a warrior. I know there are few to best him on a horse, but can he dance?”
He grinned in spite of the feelings of despondency that were assailing him, “It has been known.”
“Good. I shall use that fact that I am friends with your sister to force you to ask me before all the others besiege you.”
“I will ask you more than once if I am allowed.”
She pursed her lips as though she was working something out, “Luckily the fact that you are a friend and comrade of my father will permit that.”
She did have a lovely smile, he thought, almost mischievous. “Nessa, do you ride?” It came out before he could prevent it.
“I ride very well, but my horse is at home. We came by ship” she now had her head delightfully cocked on one side waiting for him to elucidate.
“If I find you a horse will you come riding with me tomorrow? My sister and Faramir also,” he knew he should not be saying this but somehow felt powerless to stop himself.”
“I would like that very much. You need not worry about the horse; Amrothos has a spare I can borrow.”
“He will not mind?”
“No,” she laughed, “we are always swapping mounts.”
“No, I meant he will not mind you coming riding with me?”
“Why should he?” That faint look of surprise again. “He knows you will look after me and Faramir will be there.” She looked towards the sinking sun, “I must rush. There are still a few things to do. I will see you in the hall, my Lord.” She dropped him the briefest of curtseys and almost ran back along the path towards the building. She had lifted her skirt slightly so she would not trip and the net of heavy glossy hair swung from side to side.
Éomer stared after her for some considerable time. Long after she had disappeared through the door. What had he done? He should have walked away, not asked her to ride with him. When had he lost control of the words emitting from his mouth? He ran his fingers through his hair. Damn, how stupid could he be? She was such a friendly person that she saw no harm in it. Of course, if his feelings for her were just friendly, there would be no harm in it. Except they weren’t, they definitely weren’t. More time spent in her company would only compound the problem, for him anyway. He had no doubts about that.
“Éomer! Éomer!” He looked around to where the voice was coming from, although he had recognised it immediately. Éowyn waved at him from the doorway. Béma, was that Éowyn? She had on a green, sort of floaty dress in a flimsy material, but what he noticed most was her hair. Her fine blonde tresses had been twisted into a knot on the top of her head and the rest of the length of it hung down her back like…well like a dressed horse’s tail. Ribbons were treaded through the knot. They looked like silk he noticed as he got closer and they matched the dress. The style showed off her fine bone structure. She looked stunning.
“What have you been doing?” she said crossly as he reached her. “It is late. You should be there in good time.” She started to automatically brush down his tunic although there could be nothing on it.
“I came out to dry my hair and I got talking to your friend Nessa.”
“Your hair looks shiny and clean,” she reached towards him and sniffed, “and you smell nice. But you must have run your hands through it again. I thought you would so I brought a brush.” Before he could protest she reached up with the brush she was carrying and started to make long strokes through his hair. “Who is Nessa?”
“Éowyn, that’s enough!” he must have sounded as irritated as he felt because she stopped and looked at him with a certain amount of surprise in her eyes.
He tried to soften his voice. It was not her fault he was so disturbed. “Éowyn, I did not know you had such a short memory. Nessa is the young woman you went shopping with this afternoon.” He smiled into her eyes, they were full of hurt. Chastened, he ran his finger down her cheek, “And if she had anything to do with the way you look tonight, then you must go with her again.”
“She did, and I will,” his sister grinned looking slightly mollified. “But her name is not Nessa it is…”
“Oh, I know, it is her pet name, the one that Amrothos uses,” he interrupted as the realisation of what he actually had to do hit him as hard as a blow from an orc’s cudgel.”
“Come on,” he pushed open the door and ushered her inside, “I have to speak with him before the feast starts.”
To be continued.