5. A rude awakening
Light barely showed through the curtains when I awoke. For just a fleeting moment I wondered at my surroundings, then – like the tide sweeping into some half submerged cave – it all came flooding back. I shut my eyes again. I was in Edoras. In the king’s house. And by tonight I would be a Queen. The Queen bit did not start me trembling, I acknowledged, but the tonight. I willed the shaking to stop. Ridiculous to be afraid of something that happened naturally between a man and a woman and, as likely as not, was happening in many homes in Edoras even as I lay here in my virginal bed. No, I could not call it fear; I had just thought that when my time came I would be much more familiar with the man who would enlighten me into the pleasures of the flesh as I had heard my brothers refer to it on more than one occasion. I had naively assumed that I would have something more than just regard for my husband. I realised at that moment that I did have a great regard for him, but it was unlikely I would not. No one could doubt he had proved a good friend to Gondor. He had certainly demonstrated that. An accomplished warrior; a respected leader and now an esteemed king, Éomer was valued by my own king and, more importantly, by my father, who gave his friendship and his respect more sparingly than most. Giving myself a good talking to worked and the quivering ceased as abruptly as it had started. Just a case of wedding day nerves, I told myself firmly. Opening my eyes to face the day and lifting myself up in the bed, I stared at the curtains. The light that stole through them showed dull and sunless. The window faced east, but no pale gold rays were peeking through faded fabric. A grey day. My wedding day.
I sighed, and tucked myself back under the covers. Aerin was not likely to appear for a while as no one expected me to rise early, so I stayed in the bed trying to doze – it didn’t work as my active mind refused to cooperate and started to list the various reasons why I had agreed to this bonding at all. The first few were easy to recall: I had felt a sense of duty- to my King- to my country; my father wanted the match – he had told me that as well as the political advantages such a union would bring, Éomer would make me a fine husband. On reflection, I did not doubt that he believed this. My father would never have bonded me to a man he did not honour and personally like. On top of that I had not wanted to return to living in Dol Amroth. The next few reasons were more difficult to recall but I knew I had considered the other suitable candidates likely to come forward. None were promising. Also, it could not be denied that the opportunity to be Queen of the Mark could not to be pushed aside lightly. Not because I particularly wanted to be a queen, after all I was already a princess, but because it would give me a purpose. I had been hoping to carve a future for myself in Minas Tirith, but Gondor already had a Queen and Ithilien a princess, so I could have been considered a little bit superfluous. Here, in Rohan, hopefully my time would be gainfully filled.
Deciding that they were good enough reasons, I tried to doze again but my disobliging brain refused to lie still. It focused on the other reason – the one I found difficult to admit even to myself. The King of Rohan had been considered an enviable catch. A princess I may be, but a woman I was also: too much a woman not to relish the notion that I had been given the choice to say yes or no to such a matrimonial prize. And when I had baulked at the thought of his abrupt manners and his stern face then I had reminded myself that I liked a challenge. Not that it now looked that he would be so much of a challenge: except for lifting me onto my horse his manners had been impeccable and the grim countenance had been replaced by an expression of continual affability. It would not be permanent of course. I had seen that he could be subject to fits of moroseness and as I understood it, bouts of temper, but I could deal with that. All of a sudden I could hear my mother’s laughing words when I complained about some fault in my brother’s treatment of me- ‘you must learn to manage men, Lothiriel – take your father – have you ever seen me unable to tease him out of the sullens, or soothe his wrath?’ And I hadn’t. My father, who could quell my unruly brothers with the raise of one eyebrow or reduce an errant servant to a quivering jelly with a softly spoken word, would allow himself to be coaxed and cajoled into doing anything my exuberant, beautiful mother wished of him. But then, he loved her. I did not have so fair a start as that, or my mother’s easy, lively ways, which was probably why a wedding night caused so much anxiety to a normally sensible disposition.
Luckily, before I could work myself into any further state of apprehension, a brief knock sounded at the door and Aerin came bubbling into the room. I say bubbling because it described her personality perfectly and never was I more grateful that I had chosen such a merry young woman to accompany me. This morning she appeared to be even more cheery than usual. In fact she was brimming over with suppressed laughter.
“Oh, good morning, my lady. I thought you would be awake and I have brought your early meal.” Aerin carried a tray on which looked to be my usual morning fare of fruit, bread and honey and tea. I went to get up but Aerin shook her head. “No, you stay in bed, my lady.” She put the tray down on a chair and came to plump up my pillows, “You are to be spoiled this morning. I insisted on it.”
“You, did?” I asked guardedly, guessing from her expression that this had something to do with her merriment.
She giggled engagingly, “I stood up to that hatchet faced old woman who runs the place. You would never believe what she wanted to put on your tray.”
“Oh, dear, Aerin. Don’t tell me you have been upsetting her.”
“Quite frankly, my lady, I don’t care much if I have. Of all the things as to want to give you fatty bacon and porridge on your wedding morning. I’ve never heard the like. I told her straight that it was not suitable for my lady and if you had to eat that you would as likely as not be sick, being that you would be bound to have a few nerves, so to speak.”
“You did,” I said, wondering where she had got the courage.
Aerin nodded happily, “And when she said that you must be a poor soul if a bit of honest food would make you sick, I said what did she think she would feel like if she was dragged all those leagues to another country by way of a gruesome dark tunnel and then had to live amongst a lot of strangers and marry a man she hardly knew?”
“Aerin, you didn’t,” I uttered, totally horrified.
“Oh, don’t worry, because that nice Lady Byrhtwyn came in. She spoke very softly but she made it clear that I would know what would suit you this morning.”
My handmaiden’s fierce defence shocked me so much that the reference to Lady Byrhtwyn caused no reaction except that I collapsed back against the pillows. Aerin plumped me up again with a grin, put the tray across my lap and leaned close to my ear, “Léod told me to give Elfgyuu as good as I got. He said she’d been shooting her mouth off about stuck up princesses from Gondor, so I was warned. You ought to have heard her going on about your tea.”
“My tea?” I asked open mouthed.
“Well, I told her we had brought your favourite Hibiscus with us, but she said what was wrong with the blackberry and nettle that everyone else would be drinking. Probably nothing wrong with it, I said, and no doubt you would be trying it soon, but just for this morning I wanted you to have your favourite. She sort of sneered and said that,” Aerin screwed her face into what she supposed mimicked the housekeeper’s scorn, “‘she supposed Hiss- biss- cus,’ that’s how she said it, ‘ was something exotic, out of the reach of ordinary folks.’ I got her there, of course,” she broke into laughter, “because I told her that it was a very lovely big bright flower, but in Dol Amroth it grew like a weed along the sides of the roads and anyone, prince or pauper, could have Hibiscus tea, just for the picking. That kept her quiet,” she finished triumphantly.
“I imagine it did,” I said, keeping my voice bland. I found it hard to cover my amusement but although I felt grateful for Aerin’s loyalty, I could not really condone rudeness to the Meduseld housekeeper and guessed that one of us would probably pay for it. I picked up the tea to take a sip. Lovely, just as I liked it, but I doubted I could manage the fruit and bread. However, Aerin kept watching me, and only turned away, to seek out the wardrobe that was hidden somewhere in the panelling, when I started on a piece of bread. She took out my wedding dress, removed its linen cover, hung it up on the open door and proceeded to straighten up the fine pleats, in between glancing around to make sure I was eating. Since my meal had been obtained with such difficulty I made a valiant effort and managed to get down a fair proportion.
“At least they’ve stored it well,” she said rather grudgingly, “I will not need to do much. There is a hot iron ion the hearth so I will sort it out after your bath. It wont take me long to undo the holding stitches.” Aerin said replacing the linen cover.
“There should be plenty of time. Lady Byrhtwyn is going to show me the royal apartments. My hair can dry when we do that.”
“It can, my lady and you can wear your robe because no one else will see you. The water for your bath will be here soon. That will take much longer than usual, but your hair should be dry in time.”
“Why will it take much longer?” I asked.
Aerin finished with the gown and turned to look at me with a rather wicked smile on her pretty face, “Because you will have to use the pumice and make sure all your skin is smooth. I need to do your nails as well.”
Seeing my blank expression, she giggled, “My mother told me it was very important to use the pumice on one’s feet. She said men liked soft skin and that you need to be sweet smelling as well. She said that if a wife attended to all those things then her husband would not stray. She should know because she had eight children and evidently my father was quite a catch when he was young, although,” she shook her head rather disbelievingly, “I think she might be exaggerating on that a bit.” Shrugging her shoulders she carried on, “Anyway, I don’t believe he’s gone anywhere else, so she must have done something right.”
Stunned by this announcement, I pushed the tray aside and got out of the bed, “Perhaps we’d better start then. I presume your mother gave you advice because you were intending to get married?”
“She told me everything I needed to know. She liked Léod. It was only really my father who was a bit put out by it all, what with the horses and me moving to Rohan.” Suddenly her face turned a fiery red, and she got out in a strangled voice, “My lady, you do know all about it, don’t you? I mean, with you not having a mother, somebody has told you?”
My turn to giggle now: the look of horror on Aerin’s face, when for a moment she thought she may have to instruct me on marriage, was just too comical. “Don’t worry, Aerin, I have a very plain-spoken sister-in-law who took it upon herself to educate me.”
Another knock came at the door at that moment and I just had time to tie my robe before the chamber was invaded by an almost silent Elfgyuu and a number of chattering girls, one who carried a bath, one with a basket of wood and others with buckets of steaming water. I nearly apologised for the work involved but stopped myself: if they begrudged the future queen a bath on her wedding morning then something was really wrong. However, Lady Byrhtwyn followed the retinue and her pleasant greeting reassured me.
“Good morning, my lady. I hope you slept well.”
“Yes, I did. Thank you.” The bath was put behind the screen and then the girls queued up to fill it.
“Do you want the fire made up, my lady?” Elfgyuu asked.
“Yes, please, I will need to dry my hair.” She nodded and gestured to the girl with the basket.
“We think its going to rain,” Lady Byrhtwyn had gone to look out of the window, “the ceremony may have to take place in the hall instead of on the steps.”
“Oh, that’s a shame. The people of Edoras will not be able to watch,” I said disappointedly.
“They probably won’t worry as long as they get their day off work and plenty to drink,” Elfgyuu looked almost pleased.
I bit back the retort I had in mind and said quietly, “I am sure they would like to show their respect to Éomer King on his wedding day, Elfgyuu.”
“Yes,” Byrhtwyn glared at the housekeeper, “and the female population will be saddened if they do not see our new queen in her wedding dress.” She glanced towards the silken fabric hanging down beneath the plain linen shield. I guessed that she had already looked at it when it had arrived.
Elfgyuu sniffed as she caught sight of the dress but managed something that could have passed for agreement, if one felt generous, before ushering her goggle-eyed helpers out of the door. “There is a bucket of cold and one of hot left, my lady. I expect your maid would like to make sure your bath is exactly how you like it.”
“I certainly would,” said Aerin, answering for me, and disappearing behind the screen.
Byrhtwyn gave a short sigh as Elfgyuu closed the door behind her, her firm lips were pressed tightly together but I knew it was not me who displeased her “Have you everything you want, my lady?”
“I have, I did not realise a bath caused this much work.”
“Luckily it won’t in future. Your dressing room has water fed to it, my lady. Éomer King sent for a stove from Gondor, and it was just a case of diverting some of the water from the stream via wooden channels. I will show you latter.”
My mouth must have remained open for a considerable while because she started to laugh, “Our king is always receptive to new ideas.”
“My lady, you must come and have your bath otherwise your hair will not dry in time.” I could hear Aerin swishing her hand about in the tub.
I smiled at Byrhtwyn, “I’d better do as I am told.”
“Yes, my lady. I will come back in a while and show you where you will be tonight.”
By the time Byrhtwyn came back I had been scrubbed, pumiced, creamed and powdered. My nails had been pared, my eyebrows plucked and the ends of my long hair neatened. Aerin had patiently used three cloths to gently extract all the water from my thick tresses and now, when we heard the knock at the door, I sat by the fire, just wearing my shift, whilst she gently brushed my hair dry. And it was raining - no ordinary rain either: it had started with huge drops and then water had literally poured from the sky; now it rained steadily and all that could be seen through the window was a dull grey waterfall.
“I don’t think it’s going to let up,” were the first words Byrhtwyn said as she came through the door. “Éomer King and some of his guests have gone out riding; I must take you now, my lady before they get back.”
“Riding? In this?” I stuttered in total amazement as I got up from the stool and felt my hair. It was nearly dry.
“It wasn’t raining when they set out. Your brothers wanted to try out some horses,” she shrugged, “and since the wedding wasn’t until later. I expect they took shelter somewhere during the worst of it. But there will be more than one bath wanted when they come back.”
“I would have thought the kitchen staff would have enough to do with the feast, without my brothers getting soaked,” I said, suddenly irritable with my siblings.
“We are going to send them to one of the guesthouses. It’s the food that is the problem. It can’t all be prepared in the kitchens. We are roasting the pigs and the venison under the shelters outside, but even so the rain is driving in.”
I wondered if things could get any worse. The rain seemed a fitting welcome to a princess who nobody wanted. Perhaps Rohan was trying to tell me something. Deciding not to be so silly, I picked up my robe from the bed and wrapped it around me, “We had better go then, before Éomer King gets back. It would not do for me to bump into him before the wedding, especially in my robe.”
“No, I have set someone to warn me when he returns, but I want to show you your chambers.” She took me through another door that led to a passage behind the main hall which linked the two rear towers. Light came through high windows because she explained that Eomer’s study was on the left and it benefited from the windows on the south side of Meduseld. “The central parts of the hall are original,” Byrhtwyn informed me, “The towers and this extension at the back were added later. There is a lovely sunny garden out there as well,” she said waving her hand in a southerly direction. I wouldn’t be going out there today but it sounded promising. We entered into the entrance hall of the southwest tower and Byrhtwyn pointed to the right, “That is the door from the main hall, my lady. You will come through there tonight.” She pointed to another door but did not open it, “That is the nursery; it needs refurbishment, as do the rooms up in the tower. They are for older children but have not been used for years. Théodred used the southeast tower, where you are, as did Éowyn and also Éomer, when he lived here. You can decide what you want to do with the rooms,” she said glancing up.
I nodded, I supposed it depended how many children came along and did not feel it merited any discussion at the present moment.
“This room will be mainly for you, my lady. Éomer King has his study,” Byrhtwyn opened the next door and held it wide so that I could pass through. I entered a square room which glowed softly: the pale ochre walls imbuing a sunny feel even on such a grey day. A large tapestry, with a design of trees and flowers, covered part of one wall, but except for decorative candle sconces, the rest were bare. The wooden floor was mostly covered by rugs and a small fire danced in the hearth; two leather armchairs, with coloured blankets draped across them, were placed either side of it. To my left stood an ornately carved dining table. It was not large and six matching chairs were set around it. The dining table surprised me, but the beautiful desk, which sat in the window embrasure, surprised me more as did the empty bookcase to the side of it.
“I had the fire lit to keep the room aired, my lady,” Byrhtwyn said, as I went to the desk and ran my hand across the polished wood. I loved it immediately and a smile crossed my face as I realised that the drawer handles were made in the shape of horses’ heads and the legs were adorned to look like tails. I turned to her, “It’s beautiful.”
“It belonged to Eomer’s mother. He had it moved from Aldburg because Éowyn wrote and told him you were doing some translation work, something from elvish, I think she said. We decided this west facing window was the best place to put it because its gets the afternoon sun. Mornings are more likely to be taken up with chores or riding. He thought you would have time in the afternoon to sit here and so he had the bookcase made for you.” She laughed, “It’s a good job he did, with all those books arriving. They are in a store room, by the way. Your clothes have been unpacked but everything else we left for you to supervise.”
I could not answer her for a moment; and a big lump came to my throat. It was the first real sign that I had since I arrived in Edoras, that I was actually wanted here, by my betrothed, if no one much else. “I shall certainly make use of it,” I said at last, “and it will be nice when I can see the view.” I peered out of the window, working out that I should be able to look up towards Harrowdale, but I could only see a few rooftops through the gloom.
I moved away from the window and looked towards the dining table. “Does that mean that we will not have to take all our meals in the hall?”
“Éomer decided to change things. The table came from Aldburg as well. He thought it might be good for you to be private sometimes, and he needs time off, away from the continual harassment he has had over this past year. This used to be the queen’s bedchamber, but we moved the bed some time ago for Éowyn to use. You slept in it last night. Éomer decided it was not needed, and a sitting room would be preferable.” I stared at her for a moment, realising that she meant there was no queen’s bed when a faint expression of apology passed across her face. “Éomer decided that the king’s bed was plenty big enough for two,” she hesitated for a moment and then averted her face slightly, “he said, my lady, that if you did not like it you could always put a bolster down the centre, it’s plenty big enough.”
I did not expect such a comment put in such a matter-of-fact way by such a matriarch, or that my future husband would have talked so openly to a woman old enough to be his grandmother, but my indignation was tempered by an irresistible desire to giggle. The thought that such a warrior as the King of Rohan would be prevented from reaching his objective by the mere presence of so ineffectual a barrier as a feather bolster, was storming the bastions of incredulity. It was obvious that Byrhtwyn had a similar thought because when she dared to look back to me, her lips were twitching in a very inappropriate manner. But she obviously decided that some explanation was necessary because, on controlling her amusement, she said in her soft way, “Éomer King is a man of resolution, my lady, but he did say if you want to be just a queen and not a wife then he would sleep on the cot in his study.”
I knew from my dealings with Éowyn that the Rohírrim were a plain speaking lot, but I had somehow not anticipated it from this mild mannered matron. Deciding that only by putting aside some of my own natural reserve would I learn to deal with these people, my response was equally blunt, “I have every intention of fulfilling my role as both a queen and a wife to the best of my ability. However, it has been made obvious that not all welcome me here, but I shall try to ignore that and hope that time will give them a better opinion of me.”
Byrhtwyn had the grace to look discomfited, “I apologise for that, my lady. Let me assure you, that most will welcome the one Éomer King has chosen to be his bride, and those who do not, are reticent out of love for him.”
I folded my arms and looked steadfastly at the woman in front of me. I did not want her to see my anger, “You had better explain, Lady Byrhtwyn. I would like to be clear as to why I am held to be an unsuitable wife for your king.”
She did not drop her eyes “You do not mind forthright speech, my lady?”
“Forthright speech offered with the intention of helping or aiding others is always welcome – but uttered with no thought but to wound, it is of dubious use, unless it is to proclaim the mindset of the giver.” The current Halfdige of Meduseld nodded her head slightly in agreement and pursed her lips as though wondering where to start. I did not help her.
“Everyone knows that the marriage was arranged, my lady. It is common knowledge. It is not the way of the Rohírrim and many found it strange. In general we are a people of strong passions and often intense emotions. That a bond between a man and a woman can be made by writing an agreement on a piece of paper, is a foreign idea to us. Those who care for Éomer King, and there are many, wished for him the joy, comfort and constancy of love.” She smiled softly and went over to the window looking out at the rain before she continued. “When Háma was young, before I married him, he would go out on patrols and return tired and hungry, sometimes cold, wet, or even wounded. His mother would minister to him, arrange a bath, bind his wounds. Once we were married, I would do those things. When he became a doorward, he would come off duty with freezing feet, and aching legs and I would massage them until the feeling returned. And years later, when he no longer had to take his place outside the door but stood next to his king in all things, he would sometimes return to me at night distraught and drop his head despairingly into my lap. Helpless he was to change the way the evil crept over his beloved master and friend.” She turned suddenly staring vacantly at me for a moment before lowering her eyes, “Those are the requirements of a wife here, my lady, and Éomer King is no different from any other man. He may not ride out on patrol any more, but the pressures of unexpected kingship through the hard times we have had make it more imperative that he has a welcoming place to lay his head at the end of the day.”
“And you think I cannot provide that place?”
“They say you are a clever woman, who cares more for books than people. They say you come from an exotic southern land and will never be happy here. You will always yearn for the sea.”
My fingers dug into my palms as a wave of hot anger shot through me, and only my long training as a princess stopped me from saying something truly cutting, “I can assure you, Lady Byrhtwyn that you can suspect me of many things but I will tell you that I have no wish to live in Dol Amroth and I will definitely not miss the sea. As for the other charge levelled against me…well, it is too preposterous to merit an answer. I would have you remind everybody that your king requested my hand in marriage and from what I understand, and indeed from what I have heard from his own lips, he is one who follows his own counsel.”
“That is true, my lady, and I am sorry if I have caused offence. I thought some explanation should be offered for any rudeness you have suffered.”
I was angry, and I had taken offence, but not at Byrhtwyn. One did not slay the messenger and I forced myself to be calm. “I have not taken offence, I asked and therefore I cannot complain at the answer. I have no quarrel with your treatment of me and can only hope that time will allay the misgivings of others.”
“If it is seen that your bond is successful, then the atmosphere will change, my Lady.”
“Then let us hope, shall we? And now,” I said forcefully, deciding that the only way forward was to use my authority, “perhaps we could continue the tour as I must prepare for the wedding.”
“Of course, my lady.” She moved towards a door in the left hand wall, “Your dressing room and the water-closet are through here.” The door opened into a fair sized room, with rugs thrown over a stone floor. One wall was lined by wardrobes and cupboards; I guessed one must be the closet. It was warm, not surprisingly, as a Gondorian water boiler stood in one corner, fixed over a small contained fire. A basket of charcoal took up space on one side and a cauldron on the other. Hung on the wall were two tubs of different sizes. The room also had a marble washstand, a screen and a couple of chairs.
“The water is being heated, my lady, because Éomer King will want a bath when he returns. His dressing room is the other side of the bedchamber. There is a fire there also, and the room is also fed with water, but it is only possible to heat enough for a wash. His baths will need to be taken in here.”
I refrained from saying anything about that, I could hardly complain at the lack of privacy after what I had been told. I was not expecting it, but I was not expecting Éomer to have gone to so much trouble to provide for my coming, either. It would be churlish of me to refuse to share it. “The running water is convenient, it has to be piped a long way in Minas Tirith and Dol Amroth.”
“Yes, I imagine that was why Brego built Edoras here,” she answered, sounding pleased to be talking on a neutral subject. “The stream has always been divided to provide drinking water and to wash waste away, but it is only now that it has been diverted directly into the rear of Meduseld.”
I nodded, and guessed Edoras would be a lot sweeter smelling in the summer months than the cities of Gondor sometimes were.
“Your clothes have been put away, my lady,” Byrhtwyn indicated the wardrobes. “Your maid can sort them as she wishes. I will just show you the bedchamber.”
I never got to see it because at that moment we heard a call and then a rap on the outer door. When Byrhtwyn answered the knock a young lad stood there.
“Éomer King is coming up the steps,” he panted in halting Westron, “and it looks like he spent the morning standing under a waterfall.”