16. Chapter 16
Cereth had always reminded me of a magpie – the black and white garments he favoured, his beak of a nose – but now, with his black cloak flapping, he looked even more like the predatory bird.
His uneven gait up the steps didn’t help either. He could be hopping up a tree, branch by branch, hoping to pluck a baby bird from its nest. I reminded myself that he had earned his limp from service to the Riddermark. Hard to imagine that this silvered-haired, white- skinned man had once ridden guard to Théoden King.
He stopped on the top step, breathing heavily. “My lady, I have just heard of your return. Where is Éomer King?”
“Good evening, Lord Cereth,” I said, allowing, for once, some ice to creep into my voice. He had the grace to look guilty and bowed his head quickly before carrying on.
“The King, my lady. Why is he not with you?”
“Perhaps we should go inside; I am extremely tired and also hungry.” Without waiting for any answer I swished my cloak and turned on my heel, giving a good impression of an affronted queen. The lessons I had learned when ruling Dol Amroth during the war were not forgotten. Showing weakness preceded a fall.
Motioning Cereth to follow me I thrust my cup towards Elfgyuu, “Perhaps you would make sure the boiler is lit, Elfgyuu, I am in dire need of a bath. And I will not eat in the hall tonight. Kindly have my supper taken to my chambers.”
“Aerin met with an accident. She will not be back for a few days. I have made alternative arrangements”
“My niece, Æscwyn, would be happy to serve you, my lady.”
Oh yes, Æscwyn, the girl who had delivered the cold porridge. Glad I had forestalled that possibility, I smiled. “Thank you, Elfgyuu, but Hroddwyn has confirmed her willingness to stand in. She will be along with my things later.” Once again the housekeepers face froze into a mask of resentment. Did she really think she could order everything to suit herself? Ignoring her totally unnecessary indignation. I turned again to Cereth.
“Éomer King suggested I use his study while he is away, Lord Cereth. Perhaps we should adjourn there and I will explain why he has not returned. I do not think we need the full council at the moment.”
“Yes, of course, my lady. May I suggest some wine? You do look tired.”
For a moment I was sure some sympathy showed in his eyes. This made me drop my guard slightly. “It has been a hard two day ride to get back here, Lord Cereth, but please be assured that when I last saw my husband he was in the best of health.”
Elfgyuu visibly relaxed, allowing my feelings towards her to soften. I knew she all but worshipped Éomer and for that I could forgive her much.
“I will bring some wine to the King’s study, my lady. And supper will not be long.” She bowed and retreated towards the door to the kitchens.
“Shall we go, Lord Cereth?”
Hasopad kept close to my side, the lurcher’s long nails clipping the tiles as I led the way across the hall.
“Wargs! You let him go off to fight wargs!” All sympathy for my tiredness was forgotten as soon as I told him the reason for Eomer’s absence.
“Lord Cereth,” I tried to keep my voice reasonable. His eyes were bulging alarmingly and I didn’t want another advisor to suffer a seizure. “I may offer my opinion to the King, as may you, but in the end he will make his own decisions.”
Probably to gain time to control himself, the acting head of council strode to the window and peered out into the dark garden, before turning back to me with his face set into a mask of equanimity. “My lady, we have told the King many times that he must not put himself in danger until he has an heir.”
I clamped my lips together, only just refraining from pointing out that he certainly could not accuse Éomer of doing anything other than making every effort for that cause. “It is early days for that, my lord, and please tell me, did the King agree with the council’s edict?”
An irritable sigh and a return to the window told me Éomer had done no such thing.
Elfgyuu arrived with the wine at that moment. “My lady,” she blurted out as she put the tray on my husband’s desk, “the men say Éomer King is leading a warg hunt.”
“Yes, Elfgyuu, that is true.”
She poured me a goblet of wine, passing it with noticeably shaking hands and looking into my face almost pleadingly, “But he didn’t take his full armour.”
For just a moment her concern made me wonder if Éomer had been fooling me, but Cereth waved his hand impatiently. “It probably doesn’t make much difference as they may end up tracking them on foot. The point is,” he glared at me, obviously apportioning blame, “that the King should not have gone in the first place.”
“Whether you think he should or not, Lord Cereth, he decided to go and there is no use in discussing something we cannot change. There are other things we must talk about, one of them being Grievance Day, but if you have no objection we will meet in the morning. I would like to retire now.” The day had taken its toll, all I could think of was a bath my bed. Cereth had no option but to agree to postpone the rest of our discussion and both him and Elfgyuu bowed goodnight.
I reached my chambers to find that Hroddwyn had already prepared the tub and, as I soaked in it, she went to fetch my supper. By that time I was almost too tired to eat, managing only a little soup and bread. My temporary maid proved extremely efficient and very soon she ushered me into the bedchamber.
Lonely, I felt so incredibly lonely without him. I knew I would have to get used to it, but I could have done with more time. More time to be accepted; to feel as if I really belonged. After being so tired the urge to sleep had left me and I lay quietly, listening to the crackle of the fire and. watching the flickering shadows making patterns on the bed hangings. My thoughts naturally centred on my husband and our marriage but as I mused over the proceeding weeks in my mind an unusual noise startled me from my reverie. Holding my breath in some slight trepidation I heard a soft scratching at the door, the perpetrator growing more insistent as I hesitated. Then, laughing to myself, and more pleased than I would admit, I flung back the bedclothes and padded across to the door.
“Now, what would your master say to this?”
Hasopad pushed his head into my hand, encouraging me to pull at his ears. Assured of his welcome, he then strolled elegantly across to the rug by my side of the bed, folded his legs and curled into his customary ball, regarding me soulfully with his large liquid eyes.
With the comfort of his regular breathing and Eomer’s pillow clasped in my arms I must have quickly drifted off because the next thing I knew, my stomach was aching and light streamed through the window.
Not the wake up call I wanted: that familiar dull pain that meant Rohan would not be getting its heir quite yet. A little soon, of course, but that no consolation when I knew eyes would be upon me. I would have to face Cereth knowing Éomer had ridden into danger without a successor.
Cereth launched the attack almost before rising his head from a bow. “We will have to postpone Grievance Day, my lady. Éomer King will not be back in time.”
“No, I agree, he won’t be, Lord Cereth. But tell me, why do you think we should abandon something of such importance to the people?” His mouth opened and shut a couple of times. Trying to choose his words carefully, I guessed.
A deep sigh preceded his statement, “My lady, I do realize you were sworn in as Under-king, but that could be considered to be a formality only. We were not expecting the King to be away so soon…”
“Lord Cereth, I know my relative youth may give you cause for concern, but I assure you I am not so full of my own importance that I cannot take advice. I would rely on you in particular, especially on aspects of Rohírric law.” Pointing out my upbringing and my experience in deputizing for my father during the war was a waste of time— that fact had been brought out during the marriage negotiations. He must have some deep rooted objection to me and until I found out exactly what, I could not address it.
“But…. your lack of experience, my lady. These things need a certain sympathetic understanding of….the common people, the people of the Mark.”
Was that what this was about: my rank; my race? Not convinced, I said quietly, “Just what have you got against me, Lord Cereth? I understand the majority of the Council were in favour of my marriage to Éomer King. Why did you disagree so vehemently?”
“Because…” he shook his head, unable or unwilling to explain his antagonism.
“We are alone, Lord Cereth; I would prefer to sort his out between us.”
“Well then, my lady, if you really want to know then I will tell you. I saw through all the diplomatic presentations.” His voice rose, “They might have fooled the rest of the Council, but they did not fool me.”
Unsure why he had such strong feelings, I took a step backwards and retreated behind the desk, hoping to gain some strength from my absent husband. “Fooled you, who fooled you?”
“King Elessar and your father, of course.”
King Elessar? My father? Surprise made me drop down into the chair. “I am sorry; you will have to explain, Lord Cereth.”
“They duped you too, did they? Or just didn’t bother to tell you of the great Gondorian plan to take over the ruling of the Riddermark?”
He drew up his chest and smirked at me. A look probably intended to make me think I was no more that a dim-witted female, a pawn in the hands of powerful men. Sweet Elbereth, did my father know what he was doing: sending me to deal with men like this? And Éomer, leaving me to cope alone while he went on — what I angrily labeled in my distress — a hunting trip. But suddenly, I heard my mother’s gentle voice. I gripped the edge of the chair, so clearly I could hear her speaking to me. ‘Don’t let them get the upper hand, Lothíriel my dear. Say your piece quietly, with the voice of a woman but the strength of a man.’
“Lord Cereth,” I stood up to emphasize my answer, “I do not have any idea where you got such ideas, but I can assure you that, far from Gondor wishing to take over the Riddermark, I am here to strengthen Éomer’s reign.”
“Pssst…” both of his arms went up in the air and he moved to face me across the desk but took a pace back quickly as a low growl came from the rug. Hasopad curled his lip in warning. Sensibly, Cereth moderated his voice slightly, to something approaching affability. However, the tone did not change the words. “That’s what they told you. But I imagine you are already receiving instructions from Gondor. The messengers are to and fro all the time.”
“How dare you insinuate that I take my orders from Gondor!” I almost shouted the words which caused Hasopad to rise from the rug and growl menacingly at my antagonist. Cereth stepped right away from me, eyeing the dog with disfavor. The lurcher sank back down with a sharp command from me, but continued to rumble a threat. With my normal composure in danger of being lost, I deliberately and carefully lowered my voice, “I will have you know I am here to help ensure unity in the Riddermark. By marrying me instead of a woman from his own land neither the Westmark nor the Eastmark are given prominence. If Éomer King is away, then I can represent all factions. You, my lord, with your ridiculous suggestions and insinuations are undermining your King’s rule.”
“I would never do that!” His chin pushed up and eyes widened in shock. “The sovereignty of the House of Eorl is all important to me.”
“Then let me speak bluntly, my lord. Blunt speech is something the people of the Mark respect, is it not?”
“The truth is always treasured, my lady.”
“Then listen to this truth, Lord Cereth: I had to be persuaded to come here. How easy do you think it was for me to travel to a land of strangers to marry a man with whom I had exchanged no more than a few words?” Staring straight at him and speaking firmly but softly, I sought to convince him. “Yes, I did come at the request my King but not to act as some infiltrator, my lord, I came to assist Éomer in ruling his people. It was thought my upbringing and experience fitted me to the role of Queen of Rohan.”
“That is certainly true, my lady, but…”
“But nothing, my lord! In spite of the far from warm welcome I received from some here in Meduseld, Éomer King made it clear he valued our union. In a few short weeks our marriage has gone from strength to strength and my husband asked me to return to cover his absence. If you are not prepared to recognize my right to rule and give me your support, then you are questioning the authority of your king.”
Cereth drew himself up to his full height, his pride visibly shaken. “Our King has absolute rule, I do not question that. It needs to be so because the Lord of the Mark is commander of the Éorlingas and in battle there can be only one leader. But I have made my feelings known to Éomer King on this matter of marrying outside our people. He chose to disregard my counsel, as is his right. I concede, my lady, that what I have heard here this morning somewhat reassures me. I could have been mistaken and will reserve my judgment.”
Wanting to take advantage of the slight thaw in his manner, I walked around the desk and touched his arm, “I need your help, Lord Cereth. My job will be very difficult without it. The people of the Mark need all our best efforts and that means cooperation between those that rule. Perhaps if you get to know me better than you will come to believe that my heart and my loyalty now belong here.”
His brows drew together as he contemplated my words and I waited for him to sort out his thoughts. “I …I .., maybe I thought wrongly, my lady. It has never been my intention to make things more difficult for the King. It is just…,” he stopped, words failing him again.
“That after the troubles you had in Théoden’s last years you find it difficult to trust an outsider?”
“Yes, my lady. That’s it exactly.” He managed a half smile looking warily at me over his beaky nose.
“Your loyalty was not in question then, my lord, or at the moment. Rather…, I would say it is …misguided.”
“No-one, my lady, no-one will be happier than me to see a strong partnership between our King and Queen. I accept that I may have been hasty and I truly hope that my reservations are unfounded. But I have only ever wanted the best for the Riddermark.”
“In that case, my lord, I suggest we put our differences aside and work together over the coming days.
We had finally reached some kind of agreement, but the confrontation left me shaken and feeling weak. On top of that as soon as the door closed behind him my stomach cramped viciously – a painful reminder that total acceptance might not happen until I fulfilled my most important role. Pushing aside my usual inhibitions on drinking spirit during the day, I reached for the wine jug, still on the desk from the previous evening, and poured out a large measure of Gondor’s best. The rich wine revived my nerves; hopefully I had made progress with solving my main problem, now I had to find a way to gain Elfgyuu’s support. As so often is the case it came in the most unexpected manner.
A girl, born after three sons, would always create a stir. A princess, following on from three princes, ensured I never lacked attention. In Dol Amroth, a fortified city with its fair share of soldiers, learning to live with eyes upon me became a necessity. But to mount the dais that morning without Éomer by my side, I had to draw on all my reserves. More crammed than on my wedding day, the hall was filled with a great mixture of people: Lords, townsmen and women, farmers, all were there. Some had managed to get a seat but most crowded around the sides and some even in the anteroom, peering through the doors. Only in front of the dais had any space been left. I couldn’t say the atmosphere felt completely hostile, but nobody needed to tell me why this particular Grievance Day caused so much interest, it was written on a hundred faces – just how would a Gondorian, one who was not much more than a girl – make judgments over the Rohírrim?
Cereth sat beside me, taking the place Lord Bertwald would have occupied, and another council member, Lord Eadwig acted as steward. He wasted no time in calling the first case which involved two men: Olgerth, a simple shepherd and the other, Godéad, the owner of many flocks. I listened attentively as it was explained that Olgerth claimed he had lost some of his sheep. Even with the difficulty of the translation – Olgerth could not speak Westron and my Rohírric not good enough to follow his guttural accent – I realised he was accusing Godéad of seizing the opportunity afforded by a thunderstorm to deliberately appropriate a dozen of his sheep. Why such a rich farmer should want to do so did not strike me as strange as I had found, during even my limited years, that those that had invariably wanted more. No proof though, sheep are often dispersed by thunder and lightening, just a feeling. A difficult case as the breeds were the same and the brands very similar. So similar they could have been easily altered to look almost identical, but this time of the year they tended to become obscured, anyway. Olgerth swore he could pick out his sheep, given the chance, but could not explain how, just shrugging his shoulders and saying –‘he knew.’
Almost certainly the decision to face me with a dispute about sheep right at the beginning, came from Cereth. I could feel his smirk. Should I tell him of the numbers of flocks we ran on the saltmarshes of Belfalas, almost insight of my home? Drumming my fingers on the table feigning indecision, I swept my gaze around the spectators; all eyes were fixed on me. I stared everyone into silence — one could have heard a feather flutter to the floor, let alone a pin drop — before bringing my eyes back to focus on the plaintiffs and letting them wander unhurriedly between the two very different men.
When I did at last speak those nearest the dais visibly jumped. “Master Olgerth, when did you last shear your sheep?”
The right question invariably brought about the right answer and from there it became a reasonably easy task to find a solution. Different shearing times meant differing thicknesses of wool, and besides that, Godéad had sheared twice to Olgerth’s once. Either Godéad allowed Olgerth to pick out the dozen sheep he thought were his and no more would be said, with the thunderstorm taking the blame. Or, he risked forfeiting a dozen more and a fine if an independent judge found a difference in their fleeces. I could not deny my own smirk at the murmurs of approval that rumbled around the hall.
I am not sure whether they thought to fluster me with the next case: somebody's stallion getting away and covering their neighbor’s mares, but I applied the same principles as I would have done in Dol Amroth, asking only for advice on the size of the payment. At home, though, the problems arose not with stallions, but with bulls. The type of white bull we bred in Southern Belfalas being amazingly virile and resourceful. The Rohírrim naturally took the matter of unplanned breeding very seriously, but then, so did owners of pure-bred herds in Belfalas. The nods of agreement I received at the announcement of my decision gave reassurance that I judged fairly: with the deed done, recompense could only be limited. Even the gravity of the situation could not stop laughter erupting at the poor man’s embarrassment in trying to make excuses for his stallion’s misdemeanors to a young queen. It eased the tension and did no harm at all.
My successful start enabled me to suffer no qualms about asking Cereth for help with the next problem: something entirely outside my experience. A widow of a man killed in a brawl was not happy with the wergild she had been offered? Immediately I knew I had done the right thing: Cereth bristled with importance and made a sound judgment. Perhaps realising I really did wish to work in harmony with him; Cereth helped me out with the next problem: the blacksmith had an unwilling apprentice. Apprenticeships could only be dissolved by mutual agreement and a payment of compensation. The blacksmith proved stubborn and intractable but when Cereth added his voice to mine the man agreed that a reluctant worker boded ill for business.
A few more common and easily solved dilemmas and then came the last case to be heard that day. Did I imagine the renewed tension and the air of expectation? I looked around the hall searching for some clue as to the source of the charged atmosphere. Two groups of people were making their way towards the dais. Both groupings – they must be two separate families – contained an older man and woman but whilst one also included a young girl, the other had a young man. If I had not been watching so closely I would have missed the exchange of glances between Elfgyuu and the young man. She definitely gave him a nod of encouragement.
“What’s this about?” I asked Lord Cereth, knowing he had organized the proceedings. “Everyone looks expectant somehow.”
“I think they are all wondering on the outcome of this, my lady Queen. It is a difficult case and has caused a lot of bitterness. The young man, Leofric, and his family are popular and respected. Leofric wants to marry the baker’s daughter, Cynelufe. Her father, however, has made it plain he thinks Leofric not worthy of his daughter, which means that unless they get permission to marry…from you, they will have to wait until Cynelufe comes of age in eighteen months time.
“Oh, in Gondor, the King could not gainsay the father.”
“No, my lady, but here the King can give permission for those in the Folde. The two Marshalls of the Riddermark also have that right over their own people. It has always been like that. Of course, you are not much older than Cynelufe, my lady.”
He did not actually say that I had no experience in this area, but the implication lurked in his eyes. I would have liked to have retorted that my experience of a father’s will in relation to a daughter’s marriage could be considered great, but, as usual, I held my peace.
The Meduseld cook made all the bread we needed, so I did not know the baker, Gearwost, personally. He ushered his wife and daughter to stand in front of the dais but then maneuvered them around to stand slightly behind him, throwing an angry glance at his daughter when she tried to get near Leofric. Cynelufe clutched at her mother’s arm. Rather an arrogant man, the baker, I thought. In contrast, Wynsang, a saddler, once a tall man but now stooped from his trade, stayed back with his wife, encouraging his son to get closer to the dais.
From Leofric, I found out that he had been given the opportunity to join his uncle in the Eastmark, breeding horses. He and Cynelufe had been sweethearts for some time but in spite of him asking permission to take her with him many times, Gearwost had refused. Leofric could not understand why: he had prospects and his uncle had offered them a home. He had made his petition to the King because he felt Gearwost was withholding his consent unfairly.
“She’s too young my lady,” Gearwost’s predicable first words when I called him forward. He stood defiantly, his protruding belly proudly proclaiming his love of his own wares.
“But many girls are married when they reach sixteen. Master Gearwost,” I answered him. “Cynelufe is nineteen years of age.”
“In my experience, my lady, they do not know their own mind. She will not be happy living in isolation. She is used to the bustle of Edoras and will be lonely.”
A fair point, I conceded. A girl brought up to town life may not settle to a more restricted existence on the plains, but there was something about his reasons that did not ring true with me. Maybe the elven blood from my ancestors did make me unusually perceptive, or, more likely, it was that I observed his eyes wandering more than once to Wynsang’s wife, but whatever, I felt there was more to his refusal. I smiled, looking over towards Cynelufe, “Thank you, Master Gearwost, would you go and stand with your wife. I would like to talk to Cynelufe.” I beckoned to the girl indicating her to come up onto the dais and her mother gave her a little push. Stubbornly, Gearwost stayed where he was, within earshot. “I would like to talk to your daughter privately, Master Gearwost.” His face tightened with controlled anger but he had no choice but to move away.
“Lord Cereth, would you mind?”
“But of course, my lady.” Cereth got up from his seat and I motioned Cynelufe to sit down. Alone with me on the dais, she relaxed somewhat. A quick glance towards Leofric from whom she received a smile of reassurance, enabled her to meet my eyes. Luckily, although I had suffered a qualm when I dismissed Cereth, the bakery had long served travelers to Edoras, so she spoke reasonable Westron.
“You are sure you will be happy living a more rural life, Cynelufe?”
“Oh, yes, my lady, I am looking forward to it. I want to run my own home and I like growing vegetables. I can take them to the market in Aldburg. There is not enough room here to grow any to spare. And we will be made welcome: Leofric’s uncle has lost his wife, his only son was killed in the war and his daughter lives a good few miles away. He’s a nice man and will divide his house so we get a bit of privacy but I shall cook for him, of course. It’s such a good chance for Leofric but I don’t want him to go on his own: he will be working hard and will need a bit of comfort.”
It all sounded well to me but I needed to get at the root of Gearwost’s objections. “You work in the bakery, Cynelufe; do you think your father will miss you?”
“He will, of course, my lady, but if we do not get permission I will go to Leofric as soon as I come of age. He will have to pay someone to do my job then, anyway. I’ve told him he will not stop me whatever he says. I love Leofric and he will be a good husband.” She stopped a moment and then blurted out, “It’s not his fault.”
“What’s not his fault, Cynelufe?” I asked softly.
“Oh, my lady, Leofric wouldn’t say because we didn’t want to upset, well my mother mostly. I don’t know if she knows.”
“Tell me, Cynelufe. I need to know if I am to make a judgment. Don’t worry, I won’t divulge any secrets.”
Another glance at Leofric before she could answer. “My father wanted to marry Leofric’s mother. It was all long ago but caused a lot of trouble at the time because he would not accept that she preferred Wynsang. They had a fight, a bad fight, and my father had to leave for a while. He did not come back until my grandfather became too ill to run the bakery himself. When he did return he had my mother and me with him.” She hesitated, “Wynsang thought Leofric and I should know but nobody ever told my mother.”
I found it hard to believe the gossip had not reached the woman’s ears but that was not the issue here. “Alright, Cynelufe, you can go back to your family while I think on this.”
Cereth sat back down. “Did you know the history of the two families?” I asked immediately. He nodded, his eyes not quite meeting mine. “And when were you going to tell me?” I did not need his silence to confirm what I expected. “But you would have told Éomer King straight away, I imagine?”
His whole face sagged. “I am sorry, my lady. You did well to pick up on the undercurrents.”
An apology of sorts but I did not have time to dwell on it with the whole hall awaiting my judgment. Not a lot of thought needed — the problems of the past should not be loaded onto the present, at least not as far as two young people were concerned. Leofric’s family had more reason to be against the match but they had put any resentment aside for the sake of their son’s happiness.
I stood up and announced what proved to be a popular decision with the majority of the audience, although the black look given to me by Gearwost reminded me to avoid the bakery.
The meeting came to an end with refreshments being passed out from the Meduseld kitchens. Sharing a tray of tea with Cereth and Lord Eadwig I pondered on how long it would be before I received full cooperation. However, later, my irritation with Cereth became buried by my surprise when Elfgyuu sought me out after the hall had finally cleared.
“Elfgyuu,” I took a deep breath to steady myself. I really didn’t want to deal with anything else that day. “Is it something urgent, I am quite tired?”
“I just wanted to thank you, my lady.”
“Thank me, Elfgyuu?” I don’t know if I looked as surprised as I felt, but the woman actually smiled.
“Leofric is my nephew, my lady. He is a good lad and will need a wife where he’s going. It caused trouble in the family, him wanting to marry Cynelufe, but… well, we could all tell how much he loves her and the other is best forgotten.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize Leofric was your nephew. His mother is your sister?”
“Yes, my lady, my younger sister.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I might not have found out all the facts.”
“That wouldn’t be right, now would it, my lady, taking advantage of my position?”
Of all the…”No, Elfgyuu, It wouldn’t. I am just glad it turned out in your favour.”
“You made the right decision, my lady. The young ones shouldn’t have to suffer from the goings on of their parents.”
Our relationship did ease from that moment. I could not say there was complete capitulation on her part, that came later, but she never treated me with open hostility again. Tiredly, I made my way to the door that led to my chamber but a commotion near the outer doors made me turn. I could hear Aerin’s chirpy tones all across the hall.
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