Yours to command: 16. Fire

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16. Fire

Fire

Fireboat, fireboat, carry my wishes across the sea.
To the bride and groom long life and healthy children,
Good fortune and love that lasts the test of time.
Fireboat, fireboat, carry my wishes across the sea.

(Traditional Gondorian wedding blessing)

***

 

Dotted with hundreds of flickering lights, the Anduin stretched before Éomer like a river of stars. Far away behind them in the west, the last lingering traces of the sun still painted the sky a lighter shade of blue, but here in Osgiliath night had fallen. A lot of the town still lay in ruins, but even in the dim, orange light of their torches they could see signs of the rebirth of the former capital of Gondor all around them: walls newly whitewashed, houses rebuilt, gardens carefully tended.

Along the banks of the river, people had gathered to launch their fireboats and the bridges were crowded with spectators leaning over the balustrades. The crowd was in a festive mood, and laughter, snatches of songs and music floated through the still night air. Huge bonfires had been erected along the way, emitting sparks and plumes of smoke, and already impromptu ring dances had formed around them. The whole area was packed with people, but seeing the triple banners of the tree and seven stars, the swan-prowed ship and the white horse, they soon made way. Faramir and Éowyn riding at the front were showered with good wishes, the Steward of Gondor being much beloved by the common folk.

Once they reached a large square fronting the Anduin, they dismounted, and leaving their horses in the care of some of Aragorn's men, made their way to the riverbank. Stone steps ran the whole length of it, leading down to where large flat rocks lay half submerged in the water. The Mûmakil Stones, Faramir had called them. Legend had it that many years ago a wizard had turned a host of the huge creatures into stone when they tried to attack Gondor.

His squire had remembered to bring along the carefully wrapped fireboats and Éomer now stopped to look for Lothíriel. He spotted her a little way off, being helped down the uneven steps by Amrothos, who had joined them on the way to Osgiliath.

But before he could call out to the princess, he found himself hailed by Lady Wilwarin. She gave him a winsome smile.

"Oh, King Éomer, would you give me a hand? These steps are a bit slippery."

He had no problems with his footing himself, but then he wore sturdy riding boots. Politely he offered her his arm, and clinging tightly to him, she managed the descent without any mishaps.

Her glance lingered on his empty hands. "You have no boat of your own?" she asked, offering him hers.

It took Éomer a moment to take in the import of her words, for he had been distracted by the sight of Lothíriel and her brother taking off their boots and placing them carefully on the lowest step of the stone stairs. What were they up to?

Lady Wilwarin still held out her fireboat. Lavishly decorated with tinsel, it sported no less than three masts, rigged out with small canvas sails.

Éomer motioned to where Oswyn stood patiently waiting, holding the two packages. "Thank you. But my squire has mine."

"Oh!" for an instant she seemed disconcerted, but Éomer had no time to ponder on this, for a little downstream he saw Lothíriel and Amrothos step out onto one of the boulders jutting into the river. It wobbled slightly and although they both laughed, he could not help worrying about Lothíriel's safety. Somehow her brother had not struck him as the most reliable of persons. Fortunately a quick look up the bank showed the familiar figure of his Marshall.

"Elfhelm!" he called. His voice carried easily over the noise of the crowd; a skill he had acquired on the battlefield.

The Marshall took the steps two at a time. "Éomer King?"

"Elfhelm, would you look after Lady Wilwarin for me?"

Without waiting for an answer, he picked up his packages from Oswyn and quickly made his way downstream. Amrothos and Lothíriel had managed to step from one boulder to the next until they were quite far out. Motioning for his guards to stay back, he went to follow them, nearly overbalancing at one point. The furthermost rock was slightly tilted and not very large. When he jumped onto it, it shifted a little and Lothíriel threw out her arms in surprise. He reached out a hand to take her by the elbow and steady her.

She grabbed his arm. "Éomer, is that you?"

He felt foolish for startling her when he had actually meant to succour her. "Yes, it's me," he said. "I've brought your fireboat."

A torch in one hand, Amrothos sat hunkered over his own boat, which had a tiny mermaid carved into the prow. He looked up with a grin at Éomer's arrival. "Good! We were just about to send this off. Now she only has to carry my wishes across the sea."

Éomer frowned down at him. "What are you doing all the way out here, anyway?"

"It's the best place to launch fireboats from," Amrothos said with an impudent grin. "Trust an experienced sailor like me."

Annoyed at his boastful tone, Éomer answered more sharply than he had intended. "It might be, but it's also downright dangerous. What if your sister fell in the water!"

Lothíriel plucked at his sleeve. "Éomer, I'm perfectly able to swim and anyway, it's barely waist-deep here."

"Oh!"

The water looked so inky black in the torchlight, he had thought it much deeper. Amrothos bent down to check the thin strings running from the deck of his boat to the top of the mast, but Éomer was pretty sure he had seen a smile on his face.

He tried to recover some of his ground. "Well, at this time of night, even a soaking would not be a very nice thing."

"No, of course not," she agreed soothingly.

Why did he get the impression he was being humoured? Éomer decided to change the subject.

"I'm sorry I couldn't give you your boat sooner," he apologized.

She shrugged. "I quite understand. Amrothos said you had to help Lady Wilwarin with hers first."

"Well..." he cast a guilty look over his shoulder. Elfhelm seemed happy with the task allocated to him by his king, but Lady Wilwarin had not looked too pleased when he had excused himself. Then up on the steps he spotted Hereswyth, Elfhelm's wife, watching the scene with her arms crossed across her chest. Had he got his old friend into trouble?

"Do you like the fireboats?" Lothíriel interrupted his thoughts.

He nodded. The sight of the Anduin rivalled the sky above them. "It looks magical, just like you said."

She smiled up at him. "Yes. I think it's a splendid custom."

Boats that had been launched upriver of them floated by, carried on the lazy but inexorable current of the river. While some of them looked like they had been cobbled together on the spot from a couple of sticks and some twine, others were obviously the result of many hours of labour. Éomer wondered what wishes they carried with them when he suddenly spotted one that seemed distinctly familiar. Golden decorations glinted in the torchlight as the boat sailed by proudly, its sails billowing out in a slight breeze. Then just as it passed their position, the current swirled it round gently and it started to tilt to the right. Even as he watched, water began to pour over the side, extinguishing the candle with a hiss and causing the whole boat to capsize.

Amrothos laughed. "I wonder which landlubber that one belonged to? Too top heavy by far!"

Éomer looked back towards the shore and even from this distance he could see the chagrined expression on Lady Wilwarin's face. What had she wished for? shot through his mind.

Whispering a few words under his breath, Amrothos launched his own vessel. It did not suffer the same ignominious fate, but was swiftly swept away out of sight, merging with dozens of its fellows being carried towards the sea.

"We'll see if I have more luck betting at the horse races next time," he said with a grin.

Then he handed the torch to Éomer. "We're a bit crowded here, so I think I'll leave you to it. Can I trust you to bring my sister back safely?"

"Of course," Éomer answered reflexively, but Amrothos had already left their precarious outpost and jumped back onto the stone next to them.

Lothíriel looked rather surprised by her brother's abrupt departure, but she just shrugged. "Never mind. Maybe he's seen one of his friends."

Éomer turned his attention to the two packages he carried and carefully unwrapped the boats from the sackcloth the merchant had provided. The candles had come loose and he had to fix them in their brackets again.

"Would you like to go first?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I can wait."

Éomer knelt down and lit his candle, then he passed the torch to Lothíriel to hold. He stared down at the boat. What to wish for? Love and happiness for Éowyn and Faramir, yet that seemed almost superfluous. The hungry looks the two had exchanged today had not escaped him. They had waited a long time for the fulfilment of their union. The day after tomorrow he would relinquish his sister's hand and she would no longer call Meduseld home.

Peace and prosperity for the people of the Mark, he thought, and for himself enough strength and wisdom to be a good king. Gently slipping his fragile craft into the water he sent a last selfish wish after it: a little happiness for myself.

He felt slightly foolish as he waited with bated breath to see if his boat would sink or swim. After all, he had never set much store on superstition. But the river treated him kindly, carrying his messenger to the Valar away in its sure embrace.

The princess did not ask him what he had wished for and Éomer did not volunteer. Instead he helped her light her own candle and waited in silent companionship as she knelt down in her turn at the water's edge.

For a moment she let her fingers linger on the two wooden sailors that had been glued to the main deck, then she launched her fireboat with a graceful motion.

"Go!" she whispered.

For a long time Lothíriel remained there, motionless, her eyes closed as if she could follow the progress of her craft that way. The water lapped gently against their stone and he welcomed the caress of the cool night air after the heat of the day. Éomer felt some of the tension of an annoying afternoon drain out of him.

He touched her gently on the shoulder. "And what did you wish for?" When he had first met her, the answer to that question would have been so obvious to him, he would never have asked. Now he was no longer quite so sure, the way Lothíriel kept defying his expectations.

She raised her face to him. "I only have modest wishes these days."

It hit him like a punch in the middle. She should not be sitting there, looking slightly forlorn and wishing for modest things. She should be laughing at the world, demanding it give her everything she wanted, because such was her birthright.

With a curse, he threw the torch into the water and bent to pull her to her feet. "Don't," he said roughly.

She swayed and had to grab at him, surprised by his sudden actions. "What do you mean?"

He took her by the shoulders. "Don't let them take your dreams away. Wish for the most extravagant thing you can think of. Ask for the moon!"

Her hands rested flat against his chest and she looked up at him, her eyes unseeing but large and alluring. A shy smile spread across her face. "Perhaps I will."

Éomer stared down at her, feeling as if he was seeing her for the first time. Delicate pale skin, fathomless eyes framed by long lashes, a single strand of hair escaping its confines and curling against her cheek. Without his volition, his hands slid round her back and down to the gentle curve of her waist. She did not pull away.

Lothíriel put her head to one side. "And what do you wish for, Éomer?" The words were barely above a whisper. How red and inviting her lips looked.

Where had that thought come from? Suddenly the desire to kiss her coursed through him, taking his breath away with its urgency. Knowing that he had no right to do so, he tightened his hold on her. With a contented little sigh she leant into him. Soft and warm. Supple and yielding.

The daughter of one of his best friends, part of his mind reminded him, and a Princess of Gondor. Not to be trifled with lightly. He raised one hand to cup her cheek and ran a thumb across her lips. Her skin lay like smoothest silk under his calloused fingers. A blind woman, trusting implicitly in his honour. Lothíriel.

He struggled to get control of his unruly emotions. "We should go back, your father will be waiting for you."

"Probably..." She still made no move to pull away, though. The end of her braid brushed against the back of his hand, searing a trail of fire. He couldn't just let her go. He couldn't.

"A token," he breathed, his voice rough.

"A token?"

His hands were already busy unwinding the ribbon from her hair. "May I claim my reward later?" Trying for lightness. Failing utterly.

"Yes."

She smiled up at him with utter innocence when he thrust his booty in his pocket, feeling like a robber making away with ill-gotten goods. Did she even understand what had passed between them?

Loud clapping and cheering emanated from the shore behind them, making him jump. He cast a look back over his shoulder. Faramir and Éowyn had just launched their fireboat.

He turned back to the woman in his arms, his body sheltering her from the curious glances of the onlookers. Yet he was very much aware of them and also of his guards waiting for him on the bank of the river. There seemed to be no getting away from them lately.

Reluctantly, he released her, only keeping hold of one hand. "Let me help you make your way back to the shore."

She nodded, an expression of childlike trust on her face as she followed him from one stone to the next, stepping blindly wherever he told her to. When they reached the stairs, Imrahil stood there waiting for them, a cloak thrown over one arm and Lothíriel's boots in his other hand.

He gave them a piercing look. "Here you are!"

Éomer couldn't quite meet his eyes and he hoped devoutly that the other man would not read his unchaste thoughts regarding his daughter on his face. Guiltily he fingered the ribbon in his pocket. One of these days his mad impulses would get him into trouble.

Imrahil handed the boots to Lothíriel and told her to put them on. Reluctantly, Éomer relinquished her hand so she could sit on the stone steps. He could not help noticing that her legs were long and shapely. When he happened to look up again, Imrahil's eyes had gone from cool to distinctly frigid.

The prince helped his daughter up and wrapped the cloak around her. "It is late, Lothíriel. Time to go home."

Éomer took a step forward. "Will I see you tomorrow?" He remembered dimly that some southern lord planned an entertainment for Faramir and Éowyn.

She nodded. "I will be at Lord Girion's."

Imrahil pulled her hand through the crook of his arm. "Let's see first how you feel in the morning."

She patted his arm fondly. "Yes of course." Then she turned to Éomer and held out her hand. "Until tomorrow."

Conscious of Imrahil's intense stare boring into him, Éomer planted a light kiss on her knuckles. As if by accident, he let one finger brush across the palm of her hand. Did it tremble ever so slightly? "Until tomorrow, my lady."

Imrahil pulled her away and gave a cool nod in Éomer's direction. "Good night."

"Good night."

As the party from Dol Amroth made their way up the stairs, Éomer followed them with his eyes. At the top, Lothíriel cast a look back over her shoulder. Éomer had no idea how she did it, but her eyes seemed to find his own unerringly. She gifted him with a smile.

He remembered then that she had never told him her wish.

***

Muzgâsh beckoned to one of his servants. The top step of the stone stairs provided a wonderful vantage point, even though the common folk were kept back from the part of the riverbank where the King of Gondor and his guests launched their boats.

He pointed to Prince Imrahil. "The woman with the prince. Find out who she is."

His man bowed and disappeared into the crowd. Muzgâsh fingered his boat. Earlier on he had tried to use it as a pretext to get closer to the King of Rohan, but the guards had turned him away. Guards! The man did not seem to move anywhere without them. At least Muzgâsh had not been spotted this time. He still wondered what had made the man slew round just when he had, that morning at the fair. Clearly a foe not to be underestimated.

Nevertheless the evening had proved educating - very educating in fact. Even in the uncertain light thrown by the torches there had been something about the way the King of Rohan had briefly touched the woman that spoke of more than simple courtesy to Muzgâsh. Perhaps he had just found the chink in his enemy's armour?

Soundlessly, his servant materialized at his side again.

"The woman?" Muzgâsh asked.

"The daughter of Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth. She's blind. Her name-"

Muzgâsh cut him off with a sharp gesture of his hand. "I know her name."

Lothíriel. He had thought as much when he had seen the protective way the prince had put his cloak around her.

"How fitting," he whispered.

"My Lord Prince?" The man looked mystified.

Muzgâsh waved him away. "Just a bit of old family history."

So. The board had been set, the pieces identified and positioned, and the game could begin. He would make his first moves without his opponent even being aware of the fact that he was being cornered. Muzgâsh was an excellent Shah player.

Slowly he made his way down to the Anduin to launch his fireboat. It would look suspicious if he didn't do so. A fat merchant lent him a torch to light his candle and Muzgâsh forced himself to give the man an affable smile. He knelt down at the edge of the stairs and set his boat on the water. His own gods were far more warlike than these bloodless Elven gods, yet you never knew. Death, he thought as the river carried his offering away in its gentle current.

Death.


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.

Story Information

Author: Lialathuveril

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Post-Ring War

Genre: Romance

Rating: General

Last Updated: 09/30/07

Original Post: 09/27/06

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