It was said of Ar-Pharazôn, the Golden, that he had a labyrinth built to guard his treasures. In it dwelt a fearsome beast, half man, half bull, and none who entered it ever escaped its confines again.
(Telemnar: Ancient tales of Númenor)
Éomer was getting annoyed with himself. He had nearly come full circle, and still he could not spot any sign of either Lothíriel or the group of young noblemen he had observed earlier. No doubt the princess had long since retired and he was making a complete fool of himself by looking for her in the Citadel gardens.
Ahead of him, he could already see the stone wall enclosing the old, disused maze with its central mount. Heavily overgrown with ivy and honeysuckle, it marked the end of the public part of the garden. Just about to turn back, he cast a last look around. Then he heard it: muffled laughter.
Éomer took the steps down from the wall two at a time, following the faint sounds of merriment. He had the keen night vision of the Rohirrim, but the wall to his right cut off most of the moonlight and he cursed when he stumbled in his haste. The laughter got louder and suddenly he could make out a break in the vegetation, a door set in the wall. At that moment it swung outward with a protesting creak and a group of young men spilled out, all but falling at his feet. They were panting and shaking with laughter, clearly much the worse for drink. Their clothes looked damp with water.
He took a threatening step forward. "What are you doing here?"
One of the young men looked up at him, blinking in confusion, and then scrambled to his feet when he recognized him. "King Éomer! We were only having some fun."
His patience snapped. "Fun? What kind of fun?"
The young man motioned behind him to the door. "We only wanted to have a look at the old maze."
Éomer knew that this area of the garden had been neglected under Denethor and now was locked up until it could be set to rights. "How did you get in?"
The noblemen exchanged a guilty look. Éomer's presence seemed to have a sobering effect on them. "We forced the door," one of them finally admitted.
"Got lost in there as well," another one said and gave a hiccough.
"Fortunately she told us the way out," his friend added.
Éomer pounced on that last statement. "She? Who is she?"
At the look on his face they moved closer together. "The princess..."
"I knew it," Éomer exclaimed. "What have you done to her? You will be sorry for this!"
They blanched and all tried to talk at the same time.
"Really, my Lord King, we didn't do anything!"
"On the contrary, she helped us!"
"We got lost and it's so dark in there!"
Éomer took a deep breath, tempted to simply take one of them by the scruff and shake some sense out of him. Instead he fixed the one who seemed to be their tentative leader with a stern eye. "You there. What exactly has happened here?"
One of the others chose this moment to hurriedly disappear behind some bushes. Presently, retching noises could be heard. Éomer rolled his eyes. Had he ever been that young?
"It was like this, my Lord King," the young man he had singled out began. "We only intended to go a little way into the maze, to have a look at it. But then Tarlang there," he motioned at the bushes, "got spooked by some noise and ran away. By the time we'd caught up with him, we'd lost our way."
Probably a dare, Éomer thought. "But how did Princess Lothíriel come into it?"
They wouldn't quite meet his eyes. "She heard us calling," their leader finally admitted.
"We were lost. We thought if we shouted for help maybe somebody would come and rescue us."
If he hadn't been so worried about Lothíriel, Éomer would have laughed out loud at their embarrassed faces. "She found you?"
The young man shifted from one foot to the other. "Well, as it happened, we were only about three turns from the exit anyway. We just did not realize it at the time."
Éomer shook his head. Too panicked or inebriated to find their way out of a simple maze! But there were more pressing matters to attend to. "Where is the princess now?" he asked.
The young man made a vague gesture at the door behind him. "She said she wanted to have a look around."
"She's still in there?" Éomer felt fresh alarm course through him. "Are you telling me you left a blind woman alone at night in that place?"
"But she knew her way!" one of them protested. "She told us to go ahead."
Their leader seemed to be the most sober of them. "I'm sorry, my Lord King. We shouldn't have done that. I suppose we were just so glad to get out..." His voice petered out under Éomer's withering glare.
"We could go back in and search for her," one of the others suggested.
Éomer closed his eyes for a moment. Just what he needed: a group of drunken noblemen bumbling their way through the maze, no doubt losing their way almost at once and hollering for help.
"I'm going in myself," he decided, making a shooing motion. "Gather up your friend and see that you get out of here."
They obeyed with unbecoming alacrity, dragging their half conscious companion with them. With an exasperated sigh, Éomer turned to the door. He'd seen the maze from the wall and did not judge it to be all that big. It should not prove too difficult to find the princess in there, and when he did find her, he intended to give her a piece of his mind. What had she been thinking of, to go wandering off in there? What a foolish idea to take into her head!
The sides of the corridors were made from castellated yew hedges and had obviously not been cut for a while. If he stood on tiptoe he could sometimes catch a glimpse of the rest of the maze in the faint moonlight, but he kept stumbling over stones and fallen branches hidden in the deep shadows at his feet. A faint breeze had sprung up and the bushes creaked eerily. When an owl hooted behind him, he nearly jumped.
"Lothíriel!" he called out. Wouldn't she be frightened by the night's noises?
No answer. Ahead of him the path ended in a dead-end and he had to turn back. Éomer retraced his steps to the last turn and took another branch of the path. Then he suddenly hesitated. Hadn't he passed that gnarled bush earlier on? He had noted at the time that it looked like an old man bending down, yet there had been a widening of the path just beyond it that he could not spot now. He frowned. This was just an ordinary maze. The paths did not shift like they were said to do in Fangorn Forest.
"Lothíriel!" he called again, but only got the scurrying sounds of a small animal seeking for shelter for an answer.
Éomer decided to return to the exit and have a look from the wall-walk to see if he could spot the princess. He should really have done that at the beginning. With quick steps he made his way back, turning into the long passage that would bring him to the gate, only to nearly run into a wall. At first, he just stared at it in surprise. Smooth and made of stone, it obviously formed part of the wall bordering the maze, yet it had no business being there. Looking up at the sky, Éomer felt disorientated for a moment. The moon stood on his left, not behind him as it should have done.
Slowly, he walked back to the last turning, noticing only now that the hedges curved very slightly. He stood there staring at the three possible paths. One of them led past a bush overgrown with ivy and Éomer was pretty sure he had already been down it, but the others seemed strangely familiar, too. Another look at the sky showed him clouds moving in from the west, obscuring the stars and threatening to soon deprive him of the moonlight. With fresh determination, he plunged down one of the corridors.
It took him three more dead-ends to admit that he was well and truly lost. If only he'd had an axe with him, or better still a dwarf as well, he would have made short work of the maze! But the small eating knife he carried would make no impression on the tough stems of the bushes. Once again he had reached the same turning as before, this time coming past the ivy-covered bush. He cursed loudly in Rohirric and felt slightly better. As he stood there, debating whether he should attempt to climb up on one of the bushes, he heard a female voice calling.
Éomer looked around. He had noticed at the outset that a small mound stood in the middle of the maze. By craning his neck, he now managed to make out its darker shape against the backdrop of the starlit sky. A figure in a light dress sat on the stone parapet that topped it.
"Lothíriel?" he shouted.
"Éomer? Is that you?" She sounded very much surprised. "What are you doing here?"
His relief at finding her changed into annoyance. "I'm looking for you!"
"Oh! Does my father want me? Is it already time to go home?"
Éomer decided to ignore that. "How did you get up there in the middle, anyway?" he asked in an accusing tone.
"I just followed the right path. There's a nice breeze up here, why don't you join me?" He could have sworn there was a trace of laughter in her voice.
Éomer fought with his pride. "I'm lost," he finally admitted.
"Where are you?" she asked.
"Like I just said, I'm lost!" he snapped.
"No, I mean what does the section you're in look like?"
"Green and dark!" Then he sighed. "There are four pathways here, one of them leads to the northern wall and one of the bushes is covered in ivy." It seemed rather a slim description to go on.
"Is one of the passages narrower than the others?"
He had a closer look. "Yes, the one leading to the wall."
"And the passage next to it has a big stone on the ground that blocks a hole in the hedge?"
Éomer hunkered down and sure enough found a big stone there, just as she'd said. "Yes!"
"In that case, I think I know where you are. Well, all you need to do now is to say the word." She was definitely laughing at him.
"Yes, and Gondor will ride to your rescue."
Éomer suddenly remembered their dinner conversation. "Lothíriel! I'm warning you..."
She chuckled. "The word?"
Once again he fought with his pride. "Eels."
"I'm coming. Stay where you are and don't move," she admonished him. Then she disappeared from view.
With a sigh he leaned against one of the hedges and settled down to wait. Now that he stood still, all the nighttime noises seemed unnaturally loud. The owl hooted again and he spotted some bats flying by. A rustling sound behind him indicated some small animal, perhaps a mouse, looking for food.
Then he heard it: steps and the light tapping of a cane against stones and other obstacles on the way. He straightened up, just as Lothíriel emerged from one of the corridors.
"Here!" He stepped forward to take her hand and she smiled up at him.
"See? I told you I'd find you." Then she became more serious. "Actually, you were lucky I heard you. You have to be careful you don't lose your way in here, that's why the maze is usually closed off."
She didn't go as far as to call his behaviour foolish, but he got the impression the word was on the tip of her tongue. "Still," she continued, "I'm sure the King of Rohan's absence would eventually have been noticed and a search party sent out before you starved to death." Lothíriel grinned unabashedly now.
"I suppose I have to be grateful you spared me that ignominy."
She laughed. "We're allies, aren't we. Follow me!"
She led the way back down the path she'd come from, one hand trailing along the side of the corridor, the other sweeping the ground for obstacles with her cane. If Éomer hadn't already been lost anyway, he would have been in a very short time. The trail followed no logic that he could make out and at times they almost doubled up on their own tracks. Lothíriel didn't hesitate even once, however. Then a darker shadow loomed on his left and he realized they had reached the mound in the middle.
"This is not the way out!"
She chuckled again. "I know a shortcut from here, but I thought you might enjoy having a look at the maze from above first."
A flight of steep steps led up the side of the mound to a platform encircled by a parapet of roughly cut stones. Lothíriel made a sweeping motion with her hand.
"The labyrinth of Denethor. He had it built for my aunt Finduilas, but it's been neglected since her death."
Looking at it from this vantage point, Éomer saw that the convoluted layout of the maze did follow a common plan. It was divided diagonally into four parts that seemed to flow into each other. The twisted paths actually suited what he'd heard about Denethor.
"To the west you have the White Tree," Lothíriel explained, "and it's along its trunk that you enter the maze. Then to the south is depicted a ship on the ocean and to the east some kind of animal. I think it's supposed to be a bull, but I'm not sure what it signifies."
She turned around slowly, pointing out each quarter. "The last one is the crown and stars to the north. You have to find your way across each part before you reach the centre."
He stared at her. "How do you know what lies where?"
Lothíriel smiled. "We used to play 'Rangers and Haradrim' here as children. In fact, you're standing on our secret fortress at the moment. I know the maze like the back of my hand." A shadow crossed her face. "One summer we played at finding our way through it blindfolded."
The clouds that had been continually marching across the sky chose that moment to finally obscure the moon and a gust of wind sprang up, whipping his hair across his face. Lothíriel laughed in delight and spread out her arms, turning her face into the wind.
"This is almost like being on the seashore!" Another gust set her gown to fluttering wildly and pressed it against her slim body. Then the wind dropped as abruptly as it had arisen.
Éomer cast a dubious look at the clouds. "I think we'd better go back or we might get caught in the rain."
She nodded. "I agree, it smells like rain."
Éomer had expected her to lead the way back through the maze, but instead she walked around to the back of the mound. He saw a gaping black hole with some steps leading down into the darkness. Without hesitation she started to descend.
"Where are you going?" he asked in alarm.
She looked round, one hand resting lightly against the wall. "This is the shortcut I told you about. We'll have to hurry, though."
Éomer didn't like the look of it. "Can't we go back the way we came?"
"This underground passage is much quicker. It runs straight to a gate in the eastern wall and from there it's not far to Merethrond." She held out her hand. "Trust me."
What could he answer to that? In the dim light her face showed as no more than a lighter spot in the darkness, yet he could sense a smile on it. So he took her hand and she led him down the steps. Very shortly they turned a corner and the darkness became complete.
"Two more steps and then we'll reach the passage underneath the maze," she told him. "The ground should be even and uncluttered."
Her words echoed eerily and every sound they made, from their steps to the tapping of her cane, seemed magnified by the blackness around them. Éomer kept trying to make out shapes in the darkness, even though he knew it was useless. In the end he closed his eyes, forcing himself to trust to her guidance, her fingers warm and dry, drawing him forward.
Something soft brushed against his face and he stopped abruptly. "What was that!"
She chuckled. "Spider webs, I think. Just duck your head."
"A bit too late for that, my Lady Princess. You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
This accusation made her laugh. "Well, it's not every day I have the King of Rohan at my mercy," she shot back. "But we're nearly there."
She pulled at his hand and with a resigned sigh he started walking again, making sure to keep his head well away from the ceiling. Soon after she slowed down.
"There are more steps here, leading up to the exit of the maze. Be careful, they are uneven."
She had to let go of his hand to manage the stairs and he heard the soft rustle of her gown as she climbed. Then he suddenly spotted the faint trace of an outline of light in the darkness and could not help but speed up his steps.
"Oh no!" She stopped so abruptly that he nearly ran into her. "I'm so stupid! There is a door at this end to keep people from of wandering into the tunnel. It's probably locked."
Éomer took her by the elbow and gently squeezed past her. "Let me have a look."
The exit did indeed prove to be locked, but Éomer wasn't going to let such a paltry thing as a door stop him from getting out under the open sky again. He ran his hands along the top and down the sides to feel for the hinges. There were none, so the door must open outwards.
"Move back," he ordered the princess and threw his full weight against the door.
A bit to his surprise, the door gave way at his very first attempt and fell with a loud crash to the ground, raising a cloud of dust. Once that had settled, he helped Lothíriel across the threshold and then just stood there, enjoying the feeling of the cool night air against his face.
"Oh it's good to be out again!" he exclaimed.
One of the lamps illuminating the garden hung from the branches of a nearby tree and seemed so bright that it made his eyes water. He turned back to Lothíriel, just in time to see an expression of sadness pass fleetingly across her face. It hit him then that while he stood in the light again, she still walked in her own darkness and always would.
She shook out her skirt. "Let's go back to Merethrond. My father might be worrying about me."
They started walking down one of the garden paths. Just as they had turned a corner and Éomer could actually see the front entrance to the Hall of Feasts, the first raindrops began to fall.
Lothíriel hastened her steps. "We'll get wet!"
He took her hand. "Let's run." The raindrops, fat and heavy, beat a tattoo on the leaves of the bushes, but still she hesitated.
"Trust me," Éomer said.
She laughed. "Very well, it's only fair."
Gathering up her skirts, she gave his hand a squeeze and they started running. By the time they reached the eaves of Merethrond she was breathless with laughter.
"What fun!" she exclaimed when they stopped under the portico for a moment to catch their breath.
They had made it just in time, the rain was streaming down now. The few other guests, who had been caught out in the open and arrived back after them, all got soaked to the skin.
Lothíriel smoothed out her skirts. "Shall we go inside?"
"Just a moment." He had spotted the remnants of a spider's web in her hair and reached out to brush it away. She jumped under his touch.
"I'm sorry," he apologized. "But you have something in your hair."
Lothíriel lifted her face up to him, cheeks rosy with exertion. "It's all right; you just startled me for an instant."
She held still as he brushed the last strands of spider web away from her hair, his fingers lingering for a heartbeat on her cheek, smoothing away a smudge of dirt. Lothíriel shivered.
He suddenly remembered the men guarding the doors. Gondor's finest, they stood staring straight ahead, ignoring them, yet he did not want to cause any gossip.
"You're cold, let's go inside."
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.