17. Of Butterflies
Those who do not lie will find it difficult to detect falsehood.
This is their weakness.
Those who lie will find it difficult to perceive the truth.
This is their weakness.
(Saying from Gondor)
Lothíriel enjoyed the sensation of firm muscles under her hands, pent-up power temporarily quiescent, but ready to burst forth at any moment. Whispering endearments, she ran exploratory fingers along the strong back. She wanted to know every inch of the great body next to her. Velvety soft, yet permeated with solid strength, it radiated heat. At the very first touch, two days ago, a piece of her heart had been taken, exchanged for a promise of freedom and laughter.
She stroked the wide, powerful chest. Warm breath caressed her cheek and she reached up to bury her fingers in the long hair.
"You're so beautiful," she sighed.
Winterbreath snorted as if in agreement and gently butted Lothíriel with her head. Recalled to her task, Lothíriel took up grooming the mare with long even strokes again.
All around her, she could hear the early morning routine of the stables taking place, grooms talking to each other while cleaning the horseboxes, the rattle of a wheelbarrow on the cobbles outside, the creak of the well chain as stable boys hauled up buckets of fresh water for the horses. Comforting sounds that didn't disturb the tranquillity of her own small corner. She leaned into her strokes, determined that Winterbreath should be the best-groomed horse in her father's stables.
She thoroughly enjoyed her work and knew there existed no better way to get to know her new horse than to care for Winterbreath's daily needs. At first, the head groom of Prince Imrahil's stables had been scandalized to see his master's daughter wield wisp and curry comb, but he had capitulated when informed that the King of Rohan himself had advised her to do so.
Lothíriel started to hum a Rohirric tune as she worked, but resisted the temptation to take a few dance steps. She had already hit her shin on her bedside table while doing so the night before and stubbed one toe most painfully. Hareth had scolded her for not taking more care, but only half-heartedly, infected by her mistress's happy mood. The maid did of course have no idea what had caused it, although Lothíriel's request to get her prettiest riding dress ready for this afternoon might have given her a hint.
The door to Winterbreath's horsebox creaked and Lothíriel turned towards it. She had paid no attention to the steps going to and fro in the passageway outside. One of the grooms bringing fresh hay? But she found herself greeted by her father.
He planted a light kiss on her cheek. "You're up early, daughter."
She nodded toward Winterbreath. "I wanted to spend some time with my new horse."
Lothíriel could hear him patting the mare's neck. "A very generous gift from Lady Éowyn."
"She's beautiful," Lothíriel agreed, wondering all the while why her father sought her out so early. His next sentence enlightened her.
"Lothíriel, I've been thinking that you should have a day of rest today." He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder before she could utter a protest. "You know that tomorrow is the wedding and you will need all your strength to carry you through the long day."
"Father, I'm not some frail invalid!" She could have added that she wasn't stupid either and recognized a pretext when she heard one.
"Of course not. But I do not like to see you run yourself ragged with all these dances and excursions. After all, with the long ride from Osgiliath, we didn't get in until late last night. Believe me, I just have your best interests at heart."
Didn't they all. At times it seemed to Lothíriel that she was positively surrounded by people who had her best interests at heart. All of them thought they knew better than herself what she should do with her life and none of them bothered to ask for her own opinion. She reminded herself that her father meant well. Besides, giving him a sharp answer would only confirm his right to treat her like a small child.
She took up brushing Winterbreath with long even strokes again. It had a calming effect on her. "I'm not tired at all, I will manage." In fact she felt like she could have danced the entire day away. At least with one particular rider from Rohan. Better not mention that to her father, though. The unreasonable animosity he had displayed towards Éomer the previous evening had not escaped her.
"Nevertheless," her father insisted, "I think it best that you stay in today."
Hadn't some great king written that attack was the best defence? Lothíriel decided to try it out. "I promised Éomer, I'd be at Lord Girion's this afternoon."
"Lothíriel," her father sounded unusually hesitant. "I'm worried about you."
She ducked under Winterbreath's neck and started on the other side. "You needn't be. I can look after myself."
Her father followed her. "I'm worried that you've set your heart on something you cannot have."
"Like what?" she challenged him. Now they were getting near the heart of the matter.
He touched her on the shoulder again. "Daughter, I know Éomer has been very kind to you. Also he's handsome and charming. But..."
"But?" Her vigorous strokes did not falter. Winterbreath would not have a single speck of dirt left on her coat by the time she was finished with her.
"But he's like a brightly burning flame, attracting poor moths only to have them throw themselves into his fire."
Moths - was that what her father thought of her? A drab creature of the dark? She had to bite back an angry retort and turned her face away so he would not see the expression on it.
"It's not his fault," her father assured her. "He does it just by being who and what he is."
Lothíriel remembered the way Éomer's hands had rested against her back, warm and sure, gathering her in, holding her safe. It had been like coming home on a cold and windy winter's day and finding a blazing fire welcoming her with its warmth. A place where she belonged. Ask for the moon...
"I am no foolish moth," she said quietly.
"Dearest, I did not say so. Indeed, to me you are a lovely butterfly."
A butterfly. Lothíriel wasn't sure if she considered that an improvement on being compared to a moth.
Her father seemed to notice nothing wrong in her silence. "You are so young and inexperienced. I would not want you to get hurt for anything in the world."
Lothíriel took a deep breath. It would do her no good to remind her father that it was eight years too late for that. Or that she considered herself a woman grown, although she would of course not reach her full majority until her twenty-fifth birthday.
She tried hard for a reasonable tone. "Father, you worry needlessly. Éomer would never hurt me."
"Oh, not intentionally, I'm sure. But he might not even realize that the favour he shows you, though perhaps nothing unusual in Rohan, will reflect badly on your reputation here in Gondor."
Lothíriel wondered what her father had seen at the fireboat ceremony. Surely it had been too dark to make anything out?
"Nothing has happened," she protested. Yet, a treacherous voice in her mind added. She had every intention of letting the King of Rohan claim the traditional forfeit for his ribbon from her. Éowyn had explained the custom to her at the time, adding that none of the Rohirrim would think to collect it from a foreign princess. Well, one of them would.
"Lothíriel, you cannot disappear into the gardens with a man for half the evening and not expect the court gossips to have a field day with it. And last night - I know customs in Rohan might differ, but frankly the way he eyed you was most unseemly."
Instead of being scandalized, Lothíriel found that a warm feeling spread through her. "Really?"
"Really," her father repeated, his voice full of displeasure. "I intend to have words with him."
Alarm shot through Lothíriel. She did not want the Prince of Dol Amroth to charge through her affairs like an angry mûmak. "Oh father, please, don't!"
"I'm determined to put an end to this, for nothing good can come of it." Her father took her arm and gently turned her towards him. "Lothíriel, you realize he cannot make you his queen."
She had not thought that far, simply enjoyed the memory of being held in his arms, the tender way he had touched her face, the shivers of pleasure that had raced down her back. "Why not?" she whispered.
"Lothíriel..." old and fresh pain in his voice. "The Queen of Rohan is more than just an ornament to the throne. She is expected to reign in her husband's stead whenever he is away. How could a blind woman possibly hope to rule a people of such fierce warriors?"
She swallowed. "Has Éomer said so to you?" Had he just been playing with her? Suddenly, she was painfully aware of her lack of experience in matters of the heart.
Lothíriel felt like she could breathe again. She recalled the rough edge to Éomer's voice and his reluctance to let go of her hand. The certainty that she wasn't mistaken in him filled her. But before she could answer, she heard running steps in the passage outside and the door to the box banged open. Winterbreath started with a violent neigh and Lothíriel spun round to calm her.
"Alphros!" her father remonstrated.
"Oh grandfather, it's you! I'm sorry for startling the horse. But mother sent me to get Aunt Lothíriel. We've got visitors in the garden."
The mare had settled down again. Murmuring soft words of encouragement and stroking her gently, Lothíriel turned to her nephew. "Visitors?"
"Aunt Wilwarin and Grandmother Silivren."
Lothíriel's heart sank. Just what she needed. "Very well," she nodded. "I'm coming." But before she left, she turned to her father. "Please, may I visit Lord Girion's this afternoon?"
When he didn't answer at once, she reached out tentatively to take his arm. "This is important and I know what I'm doing. Trust me...please?"
He sighed. "You know how difficult I find it to deny you. Very well."
She gave him a quick embrace. "Thank you!"
"But I will accompany you and so will your brothers."
How many minders did he think she needed? She would have preferred to just have Amrothos along, but knew better than to protest. "That's fine."
After returning the brushes to one of the grooms and giving her face and hands a quick wash, Lothíriel let Alphros lead her to the gardens. Her nephew skipped alongside her, chatting away happily, but she found her mind wandering. She had only the vaguest of notions what Lord Girion had planned for their entertainment, although some kind of hunt had been mentioned, but surely they could find an opportunity to slip away. Perhaps Amrothos could be persuaded to help them. The mental picture of what Éomer might say and do filled her with happy anticipation.
"... you will, won't you, Aunt Lothíriel?" Alphros's voice broke into her daydreams.
"Sorry, will I do what?"
"Haven't you been listening?" he asked her accusingly. "I said, can you ask the King of Rohan if I can have a tooth of the warg that attacked us."
"The warg? Are you serious?"
"Minardil doesn't believe how big it was, so I said I'd get a fang to show him."
Lothíriel remembered that she had met Minardil, his best friend and the son of Alphros's personal guard, on her first evening.
"Well, I can try," she said.
"Good! That will show him!" She got the impression that for her nephew, the terror of the incident had already receded and become a story - one where he played the hero.
She smiled down at him. "I will ask, but mind you, I'm not sure if the fangs were saved."
He clapped his hands. "Thank you! Did you know father has said I may come along for the hunt this afternoon? And Minardil as well!"
Lothíriel had to smile at his enthusiasm when he eagerly told her his plan of becoming the greatest hunter of Middle Earth when he was grown. It kept him busy until they reached the gardens.
"Here they are," he announced.
Lothíriel found herself greeted most graciously by the Ladies Wilwarin and Silivren.
"My dear Princess Lothíriel," Annarima's mother exclaimed. "How are you today? Do please sit down and have a chat with us." Without asking for her leave, she took Lothíriel's elbow and led her to a bench.
Forcing herself to be polite to their guests, Lothíriel suppressed the urge to shake her off. Lady Silivren sat down next to her, a nauseating wave of perfume surrounding her. "The sunshine is not too hot for you, is it? Would you like a servant to fetch a cushion for you?"
Lothíriel took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Thank you, I'm fine." She was well used to being treated as a mixture between an idiot child and a sickly invalid.
"Lothíriel, what have you been doing?" Annarima asked, "Your dress is covered in grey hairs."
"Oh!" she should of course have gone to change her clothes, but her mind had been elsewhere. Moreover, Hareth had selected her oldest tunic to work in the stables. Lothíriel decided to brazen it out. "I've been grooming Winterbreath."
It did not take sight to imagine the disdainful looks being exchanged at her words. Fortunately, after a short, strained silence, Annarima turned the conversation to gossip about the other members of King Elessar's court. Lothíriel leaned back and let her mind wander to more pleasant matters while she pretended polite interest. In the past, she would have been deeply embarrassed at being caught in old and dirty clothes. Today she could just shrug it away, as if she'd been gifted a suit of invisible armour against such petty annoyances.
Poor Alphros had to sit on his grandmother's lap to be fussed over while all the particulars of the warg attack were rehashed in exhaustive detail. Somehow Lady Silivren's sympathies seemed to lay mostly with Annarima, even though she had fainted away and not seen any of the fight. Guthlaf's fate appeared completely forgotten.
Lady Wilwarin had taken a seat on her other side. Now she leaned over to touch Lothíriel lightly on the arm. "Tell me, would you like to join me on a short walk around the garden?"
Lothíriel hesitated for a moment, but the desire to get away from Lady Silivren's overbearing attentions outweighed her reluctance to accept Wilwarin's company and she agreed.
Since she had her cane along, Lothíriel had no problem finding the way, but even so Wilwarin insisted on linking her arm with hers. "We can have a nice cosy chat," she laughed.
Once they were out of earshot of the others, she leaned in closer. "Dear Lothíriel, you have no idea how happy I am."
"You are?" Lothíriel asked warily.
"He has said I should tell you, that he considers you his dear friend."
"He?" Why did she have a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach?
"Éomer." Wilwarin managed to make a honey sweet endearment out of the name. "He's such a lovely man, isn't he, and so kind and gallant."
"Tell me what?" Lothíriel interrupted her rudely.
"Éomer has asked me to marry him."
Lothíriel stopped abruptly and wrenched her arm away. A cold hand gripped her heart. "It can't be!"
Wilwarin seemed not to have noticed her agitation. "I couldn't believe it myself," she said chattily, "but he accompanied me home last night and then he proposed to me. It was so romantic, the moonlight and the stars above us..." She gave a sigh. "He's so handsome! Well, of course you wouldn't be able to tell, but you can take my word for it." She tittered.
Lothíriel started to hate her.
"My mother says half the women of Rohan and Gondor are secretly in love with him," Wilwarin went on with a laugh.
Lothíriel felt the foundations of her happiness crumble like a sandcastle overtaken by the rising tide, the destruction swift and inevitable. No! It couldn't be true. Wilwarin had to be mistaken or else she was lying. Desperately, Lothíriel tried to concentrate on the other woman's voice, sifting truth from falsehood through the pounding of blood in her ears. If only she could see her face!
"It's a heavy responsibility of course, but Éomer persuaded me in the end, telling me how long he has searched for a worthy queen. Do you know Marshall Elfhelm?"
Not trusting her voice, Lothíriel nodded mutely.
"He has told me that the Queen of Rohan is expected to rule by her husband's side and acts as underking in his absence."
In a horrible way, this tied in with what her father had told her. But how could Éomer think for even a moment that somebody like Wilwarin would make a suitable queen? More suitable than me anyway, for she can see, Lothíriel thought bitterly. She turned away and tried to force some semblance of order on her chaotic feelings. In this part of the garden, the paths were lined with roses, blooming early in the warm weather. The scent of them filled the air, so rich it almost sickened her.
She was a fool! Several times, Éomer had mentioned an alliance by marriage and she had known he referred to his plans to wed Wilwarin. Oh yes, she had known, but his touch had made her forget all about it. A sense of deep betrayal filled her. If he meant to marry Wilwarin, why had he acted the way he had last night?
Pebbles crunched as the other woman stepped up to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. "I can see you're surprised. Indeed I was myself, when Éomer asked me to become his wife. You will promise not to tell anybody, won't you?"
Lothíriel still kept her face turned away. "Why not?" It seemed a strange request.
"We're keeping it a secret for the time being. You see, the Rohirrim don't like the idea of a queen from Gondor. Just a few more days until Éowyn's wedding is over."
Dimly, Lothíriel recollected Éomer mentioning something similar when he had taken her to have a look at Galador. Yes, it all added up. A dull numbness had replaced the sense of betrayal. She shrugged. "As you please. I won't tell anyone."
Wilwarin's gown rustled as she leaned closer. "Dear Éomer said he looks on you almost as family and that he wanted to share the happy news."
A terrible suspicion dawned on Lothíriel. "He said to tell me?" she asked haltingly.
"Oh yes. He thinks of you as a sister."
A sister? That had been no brotherly touch last night. Had she been so transparent with her feelings and this was meant as a warning from Wilwarin? Or worse, as a kind hint from Éomer? Did he feel sorry for her? She drew herself up and forced a smile on her face before turning round.
"My congratulations to you and King Éomer."
"Thank you, I will relay your good wishes."
Lothíriel gave a nod. "If you'll excuse me now, I have to get ready for this afternoon."
"Of course." The satisfaction in Wilwarin's voice was hard to miss.
But instead going of back to the house, Lothíriel first turned her steps further into the garden. She would need a little time on her own before she could face the world again.
"Where's Lothíriel?" Annarima asked her sister when Wilwarin rejoined them.
"She went in to get changed."
Her mother laughed. "Well, about time! She looked like a stable-girl, covered in all that horsehair." She patted the bench next to her. "Come and sit down, my sweet."
Annarima regarded her closely. "You look very pleased with yourself, sister."
Wilwarin hesitated for a moment. Her eyes fell on her nephew, still sitting on his grandmother's lap, a bored expression on his face. She gave him a smile. "Alphros my dear, why don't you run along and fetch us something to eat from the kitchen."
The boy jumped up and agreed with alacrity. Unless she was very much mistaken, they would not see him again for some time. Lady Silivren leaned forward. "You have something to tell us?"
Wilwarin nodded and quickly recounted what had just happened.
"King Éomer has proposed to you?" her mother squealed.
"Not so loud!" Wilwarin hissed. "You know perfectly well he hasn't."
"But you just said-"
Wilwarin rolled her eyes. "Mother, you're so slow at times! Don't you see I had to do something? You remarked yourself on the infatuated look King Éomer gave Lothíriel last night."
She had seen it herself and known at that moment that if she didn't act quickly, her aspirations to become Queen of Rohan were doomed. While Prince Imrahil could be trusted to raise objections to having his little girl married off, she did not think that anything could stand in King Éomer's way once he had really made his mind up.
Annarima had listened with a frown. "So you lied?"
Wilwarin nodded coolly. "Yes." She knew her sister wouldn't betray her. "Or do you want her to become Queen of Rohan?"
When she saw her sister's hesitation, she smiled. "Lothíriel would outrank you then, wouldn't she? How would you like having to curtsy to her and to give her precedence?"
"It still doesn't seem right," Annarima objected, "And what if she mentions this to King Éomer?"
"She won't. The Princess of Dol Amroth admitting she fell for a man, only to have him offer for another woman's hand? But even if she did, I would just say it's all a misunderstanding. After all, there were no witnesses."
Her sister frowned in worry. "It's still risky."
Wilwarin shrugged. "If you risk nothing, you will gain nothing."
And she had everything to gain, for she was determined not to end up like her mother, married to a minor lord and dependent on her daughter's charity to live a life of adequate means.
Lady Silivren clapped her hands. "Aren't you clever!"
Wilwarin smiled. She had gambled and bought herself some time. All she needed now was another moonlight walk with the King of Rohan. She would have had him the other night, if it hadn't been for those noblemen fooling about. A kiss, a half-spoken promise was enough to snare him, for he would never go back on his word. Men and their stupid honour.
"I'm really doing Lothíriel a favour," she pointed out to the other two, "for she can't become Queen of Rohan anyway, can she."
"That's true," her mother nodded, "nothing but unhappiness would await her in Rohan. She could never cope."
Wilwarin firmly pushed the memory of Lothíriel's stricken face away. Anyway, as a princess she wouldn't want for a good match. No doubt her father had a nice Gondorian nobleman in mind already and soon the King of Rohan would be forgotten.
Yes, she was definitely doing Lothíriel a favour.
While not very large, the garden of the townhouse of the Princes of Dol Amroth sported several hidden corners and crannies. Lothíriel knew them all. She sat curled up in a niche of the great wall, the stone cool against her back, her head resting on her drawn up knees. Honeysuckle grew in abundance all over the place, spilling its sweet scent into the air.
They would be gone by now, but still she couldn't bring herself to go back to the house. Surely a little time still remained before she had to get ready to join her father and brothers for their excursion. How she wished now that she had agreed to stay at home. Could she plead a sudden headache? But that would be cowardly and no doubt Wilwarin expected her to do just that. No, she would have to face Éomer sooner or later, so better to get it over and done with.
Lothíriel plucked a sprig of honeysuckle and started to shred the delicate petals methodically.
"You are a complete fool!" she told herself.
She could hardly be the first girl to fall for the handsome King of Rohan. No doubt he had seen many cases of hero worship and had thought to give her a kind hint. Only she didn't like him because of being a hero - she had plenty of those in her own family. No, she liked him for his unthinking kindness, for trying to understand what it meant to be blind, for making her laugh. But she would get over this silly, childish infatuation. Why, three days ago she had not even known him and she had been perfectly happy. Surely she could go back to that blissful state of ignorance again.
But her mind kept returning to the memory of the night before. She had obviously put too much importance on Éomer's tone of voice, had let herself be swept away by the sensation of having him hold her in his arms. Would a look at his face have told her that he only had a light-hearted flirtation in mind? She sighed. He had after all done nothing except to beg a ribbon from her, just like many others of the Rohirrim. He could not have known that she also gave him a piece of her heart with it.
Lothíriel was reminded of a story Hareth had told her as a little girl. A king had exchanged his heart against a piece of stone and had wrought bands of iron and ice around it so he would never feel love or sorrow. As a child she had felt sorry for him.
Now she felt envy.
A/N: Wilwarin is Quenya for 'butterfly'