14. Strangers and Spices
Strangers and Spices
The skilled warrior will take no more than a heartbeat to discern both weaknesses and strengths of his opponent. He will not see them in the brandishing of a sword or the drawing of a bow, but in the eyes of his foe. For there he will perceive the true essence of the man.
(Hyarmendacil: The Art of War)
Lothíriel clutched his arm and gasped. Éomer watched, amused, as she leaned forward to make sure she would not miss a word, her mouth forming a small 'o' of excitement.
"...and then the dragon made another pass at our hero, diving down out of the sun to rake him with his iron claws. But Baranor, mighty warrior and beloved of Silmarien the Fair, did not quail under the onslaught."
The storyteller paused dramatically and the crowd held its collective breath. Lothíriel tightened her stranglehold on Éomer's arm and he got the impression she would have liked to jump up and down with excitement, just like the children who were standing at the front of the circle.
As the old man went on to tell how the hero defeated the dragon through some highly improbable feat of arms, Éomer found watching Lothíriel's face much more interesting than listening to the story. She spared no attention to her surroundings, but appeared completely captivated by the tale, biting anxiously at her bottom lip while the fight went on and clapping her hands in delight when Baranor finally killed the beast and declared his undying love to the beautiful Silmarien.
"Oh!" she breathed, "wasn't that simply marvellous?"
Éomer smoothed out the much-abused sleeve of his tunic and exchanged an amused glance with Faramir. His sister's betrothed had joined them on the way down to the main gate of Minas Tirith. He had suggested they stop off at the fair, as he needed to buy something - a plan which had been enthusiastically endorsed by the ladies.
"Marvellous," Faramir agreed. "Do you think we can go on now?"
Lothíriel grinned at him, quite obviously not fooled by his stern tone. "Getting impatient, dearest cousin? At least I don't stop at every stall selling womanly fripperies."
"No, but you do wherever a bard or storyteller plies his trade. That's the third one."
The old man had picked up his hat and came round collecting his reward from the crowd. His eyes brightened when Éomer tossed him a small silver coin.
"Many thanks, noble lord, to you and your lovely lady wife." He bowed deeply before he passed on.
Lothíriel ducked her head, but not quickly enough to hide the colour spreading across her cheeks. Éomer thought it rather endearing, the way she blushed at the slightest provocation, but not wanting to embarrass her further, he settled her hand in the crook of his arm and turned to walk on.
Suddenly, off to the side, he sensed more than saw movement. Out of nowhere, a warning trickled ice-cold fingers down his back. Éomer slewed round, one hand going to the hilt of his sword, ready to either defend or attack. In the same motion he pushed Lothíriel behind his back.
"Éomer?" she asked in confusion, clutching at him.
His guards had come instantly alert. Taut as a bowstring, he scanned the crowd. It had almost dispersed, yet on the opposite side of the small square, a tall man stood, staring at him. Éomer caught a quick impression of a swarthy face and piercing black eyes before the man hurriedly ducked behind some passers-by and disappeared down one of the side alleys between two tents.
Faramir had his own sword half drawn. He frowned. "What is it?"
After a moment, Éomer shrugged. "I'm not sure. Just somebody staring at us."
Yet the premonition of danger still sang through him. The man had moved with the smooth efficiency of a trained warrior. His captain, Éothain, sent two of his guards to have a look down the alley where the stranger had disappeared, but they returned after a moment, shaking their heads. Then Lothíriel's white face caught his attention and he felt remorse for frightening her.
He took her hand and placed it on his arm again. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to alarm you."
"Should we return to the horses?"
He considered this for a moment. "I don't think that's necessary. Whatever danger there was, it's over."
Yet Éomer cast another look back before they left the square, all the while chiding himself for overreacting. His guards picked up his mood and scanned the crowd suspiciously. He had left a couple of his men waiting with the horses outside the fair, but Éothain had insisted on taking the rest with them. While Éomer dispensed with guards altogether back home in Edoras, his captain had proven adamant about always having them along in Minas Tirith. Perhaps he had a point. Yet nothing happened as they walked further along the narrow lane lined with stalls on either side, and Éomer forced himself to relax again. The war was over; he would really have to get used to living in peacetime. But sometimes old habits died hard.
The princess had walked by his side silently, but now she lifted her face to him. "Was it someone you knew?"
"I don't think so. In fact, I'm not even sure what made me react like I did." He sighed. "Old instincts coming to the fore, I suppose."
A frown appeared between her eyes as she mulled this over. "You should trust your instincts. Promise me to take care."
Touched, he smiled down at her. "I will. Anyway it's probably nothing."
Next to them, Éowyn and Faramir walked arm-in-arm and Éomer felt his spirits lift when he heard his sister laugh at something Faramir said. In the years before the war, such carefree sounds had become rare in Meduseld. It warmed his heart to see her happy at last, even though he would miss her greatly.
Éowyn turned to Faramir. "What is it you wanted to buy?"
"A fireboat for tonight. There should be a row of stalls selling them a little bit further along. In fact I think I can see them."
"What's a fireboat?" Éowyn and Éomer asked at the same time.
Faramir looked surprised. "Don't you have that wedding custom in Rohan? They're like small toy boats. You place the stub of a candle in it, light it and send it down a river. Tradition has it that they carry your wishes across the Western Sea."
"Anybody can join in," Lothíriel added. "It looks really magical at night."
For a moment Éomer wondered how she would know, before realizing that she must have seen the custom observed when a child. They had reached the stalls pointed out by Faramir and he stopped to look over the wares. The boats ranged in size from tiny nutshells to artfully carved and decorated vessels longer than his arm. Most of them sported sails depicting the white tree of Gondor with the crown and seven stars above it, but there were some with his own beloved white horse on a green field. He picked one up that had a tiny sun carved into the bow.
"May I have a look?" Lothíriel asked. When he passed her the boat she ran her fingers over it.
"Get another one," she advised him. "The bottom is much too shallow and it has no keel. You see, boats with high rigging might be very pretty, but capsize at the slightest breeze."
Éomer had to grin. "I bow to your superior nautical knowledge."
One boat after another underwent a close inspection until she pronounced herself satisfied with one of them. Éomer started haggling.
"Are there any with the swan of Dol Amroth?" Lothíriel asked him when he had finished his purchase.
Éomer had a look around, but could not spot any. "I don't think so." Seeing Éowyn and Faramir buying their boat together, he was struck by an idea. "Would you like to share mine? After all, you chose it. I'm sure it's big enough to hold two candles."
She blushed even more furiously than before. "Oh no, that would not be seemly!"
Éomer wondered what he had said to cause her embarrassment. "I meant no offence."
"I quite understand," she stammered. "It's just that you only share fireboats with your family. Or if you're engaged..."
Had he inadvertently proposed marriage to Lothíriel? "That's not what I meant," he assured her hastily.
"No, of course not," she agreed, her cheeks still aflame. "I think I'll get one with the white tree."
But in the end she settled on a modest sized boat with the white horse of Rohan on its sail. With a smile she fingered the pair of roughly carved sailors on the deck. "After all, I'm Éowyn's witness. They can carry my wishes to the Valar for me."
Faramir was appealed to for a loan by his cousin, and the stallholder promised to have their boats delivered to the camp of the Rohirrim. He seemed very much pleased to have such illustrious customers.
"Let's get something to eat," Éowyn suggested when they walked on.
Lothíriel sniffed the air. "I think I can smell berry tarts."
Faramir laughed. "You're a glutton for sweets, Lothíriel!"
The stalls lining their path sold a bewildering array of foodstuffs, from grilled skewers of lamb over small pastries stuffed with carrots and peas to freshwater fish wrapped in cabbage leaves and then steamed. Under an awning, an enterprising merchant had set up a row of tables where for a small fee you could eat your food sitting down. At Faramir's bidding, little boys ran off eagerly to fetch a selection of food and some ale to drink.
Faramir grinned as he pulled Éowyn down to sit on the bench next to him. "I have to warn you, I don't know about the quality of the ale, but I think it's still the better choice than wine."
Éomer sat down opposite them and Lothíriel quite naturally slipped in beside him. Some of his men joined them at the table, while the others stood guard. Éomer no longer considered this an unnecessary precaution.
Lothíriel beamed up at him. "This is such an adventure!"
He had to smile at the unfeigned pleasure on her face, like a child presented with an unexpected treat. Yet this was the same woman who had told Guthlaf in a voice ringing with quiet authority what made a man - and what didn't. The Princess of Dol Amroth proved full of surprises.
He remembered that her father had not wanted her to visit the fair. Surely Imrahil would not object to her going in his and Éowyn's company, though. "We're not getting you into trouble with your father, are we?"
She shrugged. "Possibly. But it's worth it. Anyway, the day after tomorrow is the wedding and he can't very well forbid me to go."
Faramir leaned over. "Lothíriel is a firm believer in asking for forgiveness after the deed."
"I admit, it's a policy which has served me well in the past," she grinned, "and which I learnt from a certain Ranger."
Éomer and Éowyn exchanged a look. That kind of friendly teasing sounded familiar.
Wearing an innocent expression, Lothíriel turned to Éowyn. "It might shock you to hear that our Prince of Ithilien here has a chequered past."
"Lothíriel!" Faramir said warningly, just as Éowyn leaned forward eagerly. "Do tell!"
"Well..." the princess lowered her voice, "for example, there is the appalling tale how one summer, young Lord Eradan of Lebenin found his saddlebags full of rotting oysters on his way home."
Faramir looked thunderstruck. "You were only a toddler! How did you hear about that?"
"Rotting oysters?" Éowyn interjected, trying to look disapproving and failing utterly.
Lothíriel nodded. "Apparently poor Lord Eradan had to burn his saddlebags, including all their contents, and was left without a stitch of spare clothing to wear."
"Believe me, that pompous ass deserved it," Faramir snorted
Éomer tried desperately to keep a straight face. "You shock me with this tale of my sister's husband-to-be. It makes me wonder what kind of man I have betrothed her to."
Éowyn folded her arms in front of her. "Well, as it happens, I have a few interesting stories to tell as well."
It was Lothíriel's turn to lean forward. "You do?"
"Let's not go into those," Éomer interrupted hurriedly, thinking of some of the pranks he had gotten up to as a boy. The deaths of his parents had put an abrupt end to that part of his life, but their old housekeeper in Aldburg still had a large stock of such tales. Fortunately for him, the arrival of their food and drink saved him from further questions.
The little boys returned to place platters full of assorted dishes on their table and pass down pitchers of ale and earthenware cups from which to drink. Éomer handed the least chipped ones to Lothíriel and Éowyn.
Not being watered down too much, the ale actually surpassed Éomer's expectations, and Lothíriel's presence made the meal memorable. She possessed an infectious enthusiasm, exclaiming with pleasure when presented with her favourite foods and proving eager to try anything unknown. Éothain sat on her other side and was too polite to refuse when she urged him to taste some heavily seasoned meatballs, a southern delicacy. His captain's face and hasty grab for his cup of ale after eating just one of the spicy things warned Éomer to plead a full stomach when she turned to him with the same offering. He had the niggling suspicion that even the dogs might spurn it.
The dogs! With a start Éomer became aware of the fact that their table had attracted the attention of several of the strays that roamed the fair in search of a bit of food to scrounge. One of them did in fact sit right behind their bench, a hopeful grin on his face and his tail wagging. Éomer felt something closely resembling panic sweep through him at the vision of ending up with a pack of assorted dogs to take home to the Riddermark with him in addition to Galador. A bit of quick thinking was clearly in order. He leaned over to give terse instructions in Rohirric to the guard sitting at the end of their bench. The man looked surprised for a moment, but then nodded and got up.
Shortly after, one of the boys who had brought their food came along, bearing a plate full of scraps. He whistled and the dogs got up eagerly to follow him. At Éomer's nod, his guard went along to make sure no ugly fight erupted. With a satisfied smile, Éomer turned back to his own meal, only to encounter his sister's thoughtful gaze. He suddenly remembered the searching questions Éowyn had asked that morning as to his whereabouts the night before and gave her a small frown. Éowyn dropped her eyes, but it seemed to Éomer he saw a smile lurking in them.
Fortunately Lothíriel had remained completely unaware of his little subterfuge, plying Éothain with questions as to the great horse fair held each autumn in Edoras.
"It's not just about selling horses," his captain explained, "but also about having a relaxing break between the hard work of the harvest and the winter settling in."
Lothíriel nodded. "We have similar traditions down in Dol Amroth, involving the sea."
One of the little boys delivered a plate of tarts and she picked one up and offered it to Éothain. "Try these, I can smell rhubarb."
His captain thanked her and regarded the pastry dubiously.
"Do you know what is planned for this afternoon?" she asked him.
Éothain took a small, cautious bite. "The main event will be an archery competition on horseback, and some of our young riders will display their skills. And races, of course."
Éomer picked up a tart as well. Hot from the oven, the sour taste of rhubarb went well with the sweet pastry. "There is a saying in the Riddermark that if more than two Rohirrim meet, they will hold a race."
Lothíriel laughed. "In Dol Amroth we say the same about sailors. The number of times my brothers have raced each other across the bay! I presume there will be lots of different races?"
"Oh yes. Only the distance covered varies."
"Tell me, can anybody take part?" She nibbled her rhubarb tart, looking thoughtful.
Éomer nodded. "Yes, the races are open to all contestants, whether from Rohan or Gondor."
"Not that the Gondorians will have any chance anyway," Éothain put in.
She smiled demurely. "You think not?"
Éomer had taken another bite of his pastry and now he nearly choked when he finally realized where her questions were leading. "Lothíriel! Don't even think about- " He stopped abruptly when he saw the mischievous grin spreading across her face.
"You..." There was a world of threat in his tone.
She looked up at him, her beautiful grey eyes wide with feigned innocence. "Yes, my Lord King?"
He suddenly became aware of his men watching him, grinning widely. A stern glare on his part wiped the expression off their faces and turned the laughter into hastily muffled coughs. At least he still commanded the respect of his riders, if not of the Princess of Dol Amroth.
"You will come to a bad end one of these days," he told Lothíriel roundly.
She laughed at him.
Their meal finished, they returned to where the rest of his men waited with the horses. It proved slow going, with crowds forming around jugglers, soothsayers and musicians wherever the lane widened slightly. Éomer spotted a man on stilts that were twice his own height and another one who conjured small coins out of thin air. At one stall Éowyn bought some colourful ribbons and the princess would have liked to stop every time she heard a bard or storyteller. But while Éomer would not have minded lingering longer at the fair, in the afternoon he was expected to judge some of the contests at their camp, so they had to push on. Finally, they left the fair behind them and the crush of people lessened. Their horses were tethered in the shade of a copse of trees a little way apart.
Lothíriel had walked back arm in arm with Éowyn, and now the two joined him where he stood checking his stallion prior to mounting him. The princess took out a piece of bread from one of the pockets of her gown.
"I saved this from our midday meal. May I feed it to Firefoot?"
The stallion took a step towards her and swivelled his ears forward eagerly. Éomer laid a warning hand on his neck. "Gently!" To Lothíriel he said, "you may."
She held out her hand and the big grey daintily picked up the piece of bread, velvet lips brushing across her palm.
Lothíriel reached up to stroke Firefoot. "Thank you for saving my life yesterday."
She turned to Éomer. "Amrothos said he was magnificent."
Éowyn leaned over to pat Firefoot and flashed Éomer a wicked grin. "And what is my brother going to get?"
Éomer frowned at her. "The princess has already thanked me."
Lothíriel chuckled. "Anyway, I only had the one piece of bread."
Éomer could not suppress a certain amount of irritation when his sister doubled up with laughter. It was high time she got married off.
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.