31. Serpent Tooth
Many years ago there lived in the deserts of the far South a giant Serpent. By day he slept in his cave and by night he went hunting, but at the dark of the moon he would shed his skin and be a man for one night. It happened one day that a maiden lost her way in the desert and the Serpent found her and took her to wife. Out of this coupling was born a son, Ulwarth, who made himself King of the Haradrim. And ever since the brood of the Serpent has held ill intentions towards Gondor and harried her.
(Telemnar: Ancient tales of Harad)
The fingers tightened on her own and Lothíriel could hear Éomer take a sharp breath.
"Almost finished, my lord," the healer said.
"Just get on with it."
Lothíriel felt her gorge rise at the thought of a sharp needle piercing Éomer's flesh, but she suppressed the feeling. Being sick all over him would most definitely not help.
"Are you all right?" Éomer asked.
She attempted a smile, but got the impression she didn't really succeed. "Just feeling a little faint."
"Hurry up!" he told the healer.
The man only grunted in answer, but soon pronounced his work to be finished. "Be careful not to strain the arm," he said, "and come and see me at the Houses of Healing tomorrow so I can renew the bandage."
Lothíriel nodded. She would make sure.
"Yes, yes," Éomer agreed impatiently. He squeezed her hand. "Lothíriel, would you like to sit down?"
Just then a breeze sprang up, bringing with it the smell of freshly spilt blood. For once Lothíriel was grateful for being blind, as the courtyard probably looked like a slaughterhouse. Nausea rose within her. "Do you think we could move away a little?"
"Of course!" He hesitated. "I think there is a garden round the side of the house, let's go there. Just a moment."
"Thank you." Suddenly feeling light-headed, she leant into him. Bare skin met her touch, firm and warm. A lot of bare skin she realized after a startled instant and recoiled in confusion.
He steadied her. "I'm sorry! I was just going to say that I have to put my shirt back on first."
"Oh!" Her cheeks heated up and she hoped devoutly that her father had not seen her snuggle against Éomer's naked chest. Where was he anyway? "Have you seen my father?" she asked.
"Fortunately no." A trace of laughter swung in Éomer's voice. No doubt the course of her thoughts was easy to guess. "I believe Aragorn has taken him off to organize the transport of the wounded to the Houses of Healing." He settled her hand on his arm, properly clothed now. "Let me show you the way to the garden."
Lothíriel stumbled a little on the rough cobbles and could not help hissing in pain when she stubbed her toe on a stone.
"Your feet!" he exclaimed. "I'd forgotten!"
A heartbeat later she found herself gathered up in his strong arms. "Éomer, your wound!" she protested.
He was already crossing the courtyard with large strides. "Never mind that. You weigh next to nothing anyway. Doesn't that father of yours feed you properly?"
A laugh escaped her. "He does, but I haven't had anything to eat since breakfast."
"What?" he stopped abruptly. "No wonder you feel faint." He turned round with her still in his arms. "Oswyn!"
Running steps announced his squire's arrival. "You called for me, my lord?"
"Get Princess Lothíriel something to eat at once. Bread would be best."
"Yes, my lord."
Lothíriel tugged at Éomer's shirt. "And some water please."
"And water!" he called after the squire. Then he continued on his way to the garden. "After all I would not want my bride-to-be to expire on me," he whispered in her ear.
His bride-to-be. She hid her face against his chest as suddenly the realization of how close she had come to losing him crashed down on her like a giant wave, robbing her of her breath and crushing her under its weight.
"Lothíriel? Have I said something wrong?"
Unable to still the trembling threatening to overwhelm her, she just shook her head and clutched at his shoulders. "It's me. I'm sorry."
He sat down and pulled her into his lap. "You know, Lothíriel, you don't have to be brave all the time." Enfolding her gently in his arms, he added. "Not when you're with me."
"Oh, Éomer!" Suddenly the memory of all the terror of the past day swept through her. Her throat tightened.
He cradled her head against his chest. "You're safe now."
Safe. At his words Lothíriel could no longer withhold the tears she had been bottling up for so long - they spilled out with big, raking sobs. Éomer just held her patiently, stroking her back and murmuring endearments. After a while her shaking lessened and she slowly regained some semblance of control, but for a long time she just leant against him, letting her tears wash away her fear. It was over.
"I was simply terrified," she whispered at last. Suddenly it burst out of her. "Oh Éomer, I thought he had killed you! There at the end..." She remembered how everybody had shouted in alarm and started to shake again.
He squeezed her shoulder. "If only I'd taken better care of you! I'm so sorry you got caught up in this whole horrible revenge business. What a coward to try and get at me through you."
Lothíriel could almost feel the man's wet mouth on hers, his hands groping her. She shuddered. "He wanted to take me with him and marry me! You see, before I lost my eyesight in that accident, Denethor had promised me to a Prince of Harad."
She nodded and Éomer cursed in Rohirric. "If your uncle weren't dead already..." He took a deep breath. "Never mind. I promise that from now on I will look after you." He dropped a light kiss on her forehead. "Are you feeling better now?"
Lothíriel wiped her sleeve across her eyes. What a mess she must look, she didn't even have a handkerchief! But surprisingly enough, she did feel a lot better, if still exhausted and worn out. "Nothing like a good cry to cheer you up," she said with a shaky smile. "I'm sorry; I'm not usually so tearful. Will your men think me dreadfully weak?"
He gave a short bark of laughter. "Lothíriel, the Rohirrim know courage when they encounter it."
Courage? "I'm not brave," she disagreed. Nevertheless, his words filled her with a warm glow.
"Let me be the judge of that. You kept your head and sent me a warning, you stood up to that horrible man and fought back. If that's not courage, what is?"
She had not looked at it like that. "I suppose so. But I just did what I had to."
"There you go." He brushed a strand of hair back from her face. "Do you know, I could get used to seeing you wearing your hair loose like this."
"Oh!" Self-consciously, Lothíriel raised a hand, but then let it drop again. "I suppose I ought to try and braid it. It's not very seemly."
"No?" he asked, running his fingers through her hair. "But it's lovely and thick..."
A flutter of excitement arose at the bottom of Lothíriel's stomach. Would he kiss her again? She would have liked him to, but what would her father say? And they were probably surrounded by his guards. Although it was really a bit late to start worrying about propriety now.
But he sighed. "I'm sorry, for you must be tired. And moreover I stink of sweat and blood."
"As if that would matter to me!"
He laughed and touched her briefly on the cheek. "Well, it matters to me, for you deserve better. Tell me, would you like something to eat and drink now? And I want to have a look at your feet."
Lothíriel nodded and he shifted her onto the bench. When he got up, she suddenly heard him stumble. "Éomer?"
"It's nothing," he reassured her. "I think my leg has gone to sleep while sitting down."
He passed her a cup and when she lifted it to her lips, she found it filled with cold water. "Oh, that tastes wonderful!"
Éomer had started to roll up the legs of her trousers and now uttered a short order in Rohirric. Somebody went running off. "Poor you, didn't your captors give you anything to drink?"
She set down the cup carefully. "They gave me some wine, but I realized it was laced with poppy syrup, so I didn't drink it."
"Is that how you escaped?" He closed her hand on a roll. "Here, have something to eat."
Careful to take small bites so as not to upset her stomach, she nodded. "I played asleep and when the guards left my cell unlocked, I slipped out." She smiled in remembered satisfaction. "And then I locked them up."
"Serves them right!" He snorted with amusement, but then his voice turned cold. "They will never threaten another woman, we killed all of them."
Lothíriel shivered, but could not find it in herself to feel sorry for the Southrons, for they would have shown her no mercy. Just then crunching gravel told her someone was approaching.
"Ah, here comes Oswyn with the water to clean your feet," Éomer said. "Hand it to me," he told the squire.
"You can't wash my feet," she protested, her mouth full of more of the delicious bread.
"You're the King of Rohan!"
Sure hands picked up one of her legs. "Exactly. Which means that I may do as I please. Hold still."
What could she answer to that? So she just leant back with a contented sigh while he washed off the grime and cleaned the small cuts and scratches. How strange to think that the hands that touched her so gently were the same ones that had just dealt death to the Southrons! Somewhere in the garden a frog croaked hoarsely and crickets chirped in the grass, welcoming the night. Slowly a fragile peace began to creep back into her soul. How wonderful to feel the open sky above her and to have the evening breeze bringing the homely smells of cooking. Safe.
"There you are," Éomer said, suddenly sounding tired. "Just let your feet dry for now and later the healer at the camp can put some ointment on."
"At the camp?"
Slowly he rolled down her trouser legs again. "Lothíriel, I want you to stay in our camp tonight, for I would not feel easy else. You can have Éowyn's tent," he added.
Lothíriel hesitated. She did not want to be parted from him again either, not after nearly losing him. "I would like to," she admitted, "but I'm not sure my father will let me."
"Well, here he comes. Just let me handle things." Getting up, he leaned on the bench so heavily that it shook. At the weariness in his voice, Lothíriel felt a brief flicker of unease, but then her father arrived.
"Lothíriel?" Her father took her hand. "How are you feeling?"
Distracted, she smiled up at him. "Much better."
"I've found your cloak." He draped it round her shoulders. "And the wounded have been taken care of, so we're ready to leave now."
"Were many of the men injured?" Lothíriel asked, feeling guilty for not enquiring earlier. Her ordeal might be over, but for others the suffering had only just begun.
"We were lucky to outnumber the Southrons like we did," her father reassured her. "A fair number of bad cuts, some head wounds and two broken arms, but no casualties." He touched her on the arm. "Lothíriel, I would like to get you out of here now. Let me carry you to the horses."
She extended a hand to Éomer, who took his cue at once. "Imrahil," he said, "I was just suggesting to Lothíriel that it might be safer if she spent the night in my camp. Of course you are welcome to stay, too."
Strained silence ensued. "Éomer, I truly appreciate what you did for my daughter today," her father replied, "but I assure you I am perfectly capable of insuring her safety."
"We do not know if any of Muzgâsh's men managed to escape," Éomer reminded him. How tired he sounded!
"I will take the necessary precautions."
"That's all very well," Éomer snapped suddenly, " but the Southrons managed to take her out from under your very nose!" He stopped and took a deep breath. "Forgive me, I'm tired and exhausted and not feeling very diplomatic."
Lothíriel bit her lip. Why had he said that? Now her father might well be too offended to agree. "Perhaps Amrothos could come along as well?" she suggested diffidently. "Please? It would make me feel so much safer..."
After a moment her father sighed. "Lothíriel, how could I deny you anything today of all days? Very well. But for one night only and then we'll have to see."
"Thank you!" she exclaimed.
"Thank you," Éomer echoed her. "And my apologies for what I just said."
"My friend, are you feeling all right?" her father asked. "You look pale."
Alarmed, Lothíriel sat up straighter. "Éomer?"
He squeezed her hand. "Dear heart, please don't worry. It's nothing but the strain from the fight." Yet his voice sounded hesitant. "I'll just sit down for an instant and will be feeling better in no time." The bench shuddered under his weight when he sat down.
Lothíriel twisted round to face him and groped for his hand. "Are you hurting?"
"Oh no, not at all." He stroked her hand in reassurance, but then hesitated. "Imrahil, would you mind having a look at my left leg? It feels ... strange."
"Your leg?" Lothíriel could not quite keep the rising panic out of her voice. "I thought Muzgâsh wounded you on the arm?"
"Well, he tried to stab me with a dagger on my foot, but I jumped back and he missed."
"Not quite," her father contradicted, all of a sudden sounding grim. "The skin is hardly broken, but there is a slight scratch on your shin here."
None of them said anything for a moment. Her father cleared his throat. "Éomer, can you feel me touching your leg?"
Lothíriel jumped up. "Where?"
"Lothíriel, your feet will get dirty again," Éomer protested, but she waved him to silence.
"Oh never mind! Where?"
Her father guided her hands to Éomer's leg and kneeling down she followed the cut in his trousers up to where it met bare skin. The scratch the dagger had left was so shallow she could hardly discern it. Letting her fingers rest on his leg, she frowned. "Your skin feels cold to the touch."
"Let me get a healer," Imrahil said. His footsteps receded quickly.
Lothíriel slumped against Éomer and wordlessly he stroked her back. Around them, she could hear his guards talking amongst each other in worried voices. Please, she thought, it cannot be... She dared not finish the thought. Could Muzgâsh strike at them from out of the grave?
It seemed to her that an eternity passed before the healer arrived. He knelt down beside her. "My lady, may I have a look?"
When Lothíriel got up to make room, her father put his arm around her shoulders and gave her a quick hug. "Don't worry, daughter. Aragorn is here as well and you know how renowned he is as a healer." She could only manage a jerky nod while she listened to the two discussing the injury in low voices. Please, oh please!
"Éomer, did you see the dagger the Harad Prince used?" King Elessar asked.
"Only briefly." Éomer spoke slowly, as if just forming the words exhausted him. "The blade broke."
Lothíriel shook off her father's arm and groped her way to the bench to kneel down next to Éomer and slip her arms around him. With a grateful sigh he leaned against her shoulder. "A strange colour," he added. "Black. Not made of steel, I think. Something else."
King Elessar cursed under his breath. "A Serpent Tooth!"
"What is a Serpent Tooth?" her father asked.
"I have read of them," King Elessar explained. "The Harad royalty carry them as a sign of their descent from the fabled Black Serpent."
Lothíriel swallowed. "Could it have been...poisoned?" Somehow voicing her fears made them seem real all of a sudden.
"I am afraid so."
Silence. Éomer's weight pressed heavy against her and his breathing sounded laboured. "Can you do something?" she asked in a whisper. Please!
"I will have to see," King Elessar said slowly and Lothíriel got the distinct feeling he was trying not to alarm her. Suddenly he seemed to come to a decision. "I have to find that blade first!" He grabbed her arm. "Listen Lothíriel, you have to keep him awake, don't let him fall asleep."
For the second time that day, Lothíriel found herself clutching at the King of Gondor. "But how?"
"I don't care. Talk to him, do something. But if you love him, you must not let him slip away from you. Will you do that?"
Lothíriel nodded. Then he was gone, leaving her in the centre of a circle of worried Rohirrim. "Éomer, did you hear?" she asked.
He already sounded half asleep, Lothíriel thought with rising panic. Twisting round, she tried to shake him, but she might as well have tried to move a mountain. What to do now? Talk to him!
She moistened her lips. "Éomer! Why don't you tell me about Rohan?"
"Yes! You want me to come to Rohan with you, don't you? What does Edoras look like?" She was babbling!
"Beautiful," he said slowly, his voice slurred. "On hill. Beautiful."
"And the Golden Hall? What does Meduseld look like?"
"Big." It hurt her to hear how much effort that simple word cost him. "Sorry," he sighed. "Tired."
"I know you're tired, but you mustn't fall asleep!"
"Princess, his eyes are closing!" somebody exclaimed. Oswyn.
"Éomer! Don't leave me!" A sob escaped her.
This seemed to rouse him slightly. "Not worry," he murmured. "Just sleepy."
"No!" She groped around desperately for something to keep him awake. "Éomer, I'm telling you, if you fall asleep now I will marry someone else!"
He seemed to straighten up slightly. "No." But then he slumped against her again. "... won't let you."
"I will! A Harad Prince!"
"Cruel," he said. "....not love me."
At the hurt in his fading voice she felt as if her heart was being hacked into little pieces. "Oh Éomer, of course I love you! But you must not sleep! Fight!" A tear ran down her cheek. Where was King Elessar!
"So cold," he sighed.
His head lay heavy on her shoulder and it took all her strength to lift his face between her hands. "Look at me!" she ordered him. "Open your eyes!"
He muttered something unintelligible. Somebody grabbed her arm. "Princess, he's falling asleep. Please do something!" Oswyn again, sounding as panicky as she felt herself. But what could she do! Éomer's cheeks felt cold and clammy under her fingers, his bright flame flickering and going out. Somehow she had to find a way to fan these last, dying sparks into a burning blaze again.
Desperation howling at the edges of her mind, she pushed his head back. "Éomer!" Some of his hair had fallen across his face and she smoothed it back. Her fingers traced his dear features, the shape of his eyes, his cold lips.
"Don't you dare leave me!" she whispered. Then she bent forward and kissed him.
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.