27. Chapter 27
March 21st 3020
Any lingering ghosts likely to jump out and confront him were pounded into the grass of the Pelennor by the flying hooves of the three horses. Éomer knew that he was without a doubt watching the best horsewomen in Middle-earth. Éowyn, Welwyn and Lothíriel raced their mounts along the grass that ran beside the road, jumping the drainage ditches and the occasional broken wall. Laughter floated back to him; the joy on his sister’s face made up for so much heartache.
Above the Ephel Dúath a few puffy clouds traversed a clear sky. Men worked untroubled in the fields, a line of white washing fluttered in the soft breeze and the squeals of happy children reached him from a nearby stream. If he’d ever had any misgivings that the sacrifices of war were not worth it, he only had to look at the simple freedoms that could now be enjoyed in this land, and his own.
“It is good to see that riding can be undertaken purely for pleasure,” Elfhelm remarked beside him. “So often it has been only a means to get to war.”
Elfhelm must have been having similar thoughts. Éomer grinned in agreement. “I am tempted to join them, but all of us charging madly towards the river might turn into a stampede.” It was a good job he had galloped Firefoot the evening before.
“And I know when I am outmatched,” Wilflede admitted, content to canter alongside her husband.
Éomer knew her to be a good rider, of course, but not the equal of the other three. The rest of the party, Faramir, Éothain, Amroth and his friend Oríon, Legolas, two esquires and a guard, were also happy to enjoy the morning and the ride at a more leisurely pace.
As they neared the river the three slowed down and walked their horses to cool them off, waiting for the rest to catch up. Éomer looked around with interest as they reached the new crossing, four leagues down river from Osgiliath, where a chain ferry had been put in to shorten the distance from Minas Tirith to Emyn Arnen. Faramir had explained it was less disruptive to the many boats that used the river than another bridge, and more quickly constructed. On each bank oxen turned the huge capstans to haul the chains that pulled the flat bottomed barge across; a few men used long oars to keep the bow stemming the flow of the river. The ferry could take many horses and goods, and would be a boon to those who intended to settle in South Ithilien. But today they were the only ones, and after securing the horses the whole party congregated on the starboard rail for a glimpse of the house Faramir had been building over the winter. Parts of it started to emerge from the trees in the distance; the house looked west to the City and south down the river to the sun and the sea. It was built of wood and stone, blending easily into its surroundings.
Éowyn strained to get a better look, appealing to her betrothed.
“Oh, Faramir, why can’t we go that way? I want to see properly. It won’t do any harm.”
Faramir put on his stern look; it would be like moving a mountain. “No, there are still a couple of days’ work needed to finish it. And anyway, I don’t want you to go inside the house before we are married. We did agree that if you remember, or I would not have come across here.”
Éowyn folded her arms in disgust. Faramir’s lips twitched and he looked indulgently at her, but Éomer knew she had no chance of persuading him. However, she would not be Éowyn if she didn’t try again.
“What about the furniture? You haven’t asked my opinion at all. I think I ought to have some say in it.”
Faramir winked at him, but kept his face straight. “I have put in a large bed, a table and two chairs. That’s enough for the first couple of weeks of our marriage. You can choose the rest later.”
Éomer laughed out loud when Éowyn’s face turned a pretty shade of pink, and she said no more. He couldn’t help teasing her.
“It’s good to see that there is someone who can shut you up. That’s more than I have ever been able to do, Éowyn.”
With a glare towards him, Éowyn took Lothíriel’s arm and led her towards the front of the barge, talking loudly “Brothers can be so overbearing, how do you cope with three?”
“Getting me into trouble now,” Amroth complained with a grin on his face.
“I am sure you deserve it,” Éomer quickly retorted. He kept his eyes on Lothíriel and Éowyn for a moment, who were laughing together, blonde and black hair very close.
“Are you sure you are going to come all this way on your wedding night?” he murmured to Faramir. “It will take a couple of hours.”
“I want Éowyn to wake up and see trees and the river from the windows, not look out onto walls of stone.”
Éomer nodded, he could understand that, but admired Faramir’s fortitude.
Minutes later the ferry bumped against the wooden slipway, and they led the horses clattering up onto the road. About half a league on, the main way curved to the right, but determinedly, and in spite of mutterings from Éowyn, Faramir led them on a narrower track that left the river and cut into the woods. The land started to rise and the trees became thicker. After a short while they heard the sound of running water, and with no other warning a clearing opened out on the bank of a small river, which ran on to join the Anduin. Éomer agreed Faramir had brought them to a lovely spot for a picnic: bluebells massed in the open spaces, alders and birches dipped their branches into the water, and on the edge of the woods the bright, new leaves of beeches filtered the sunlight. Only a year since he had travelled through North Ithilien, but this place bore no resemblance to the bleak campsites of those days. Banishing the memory, he put Firefoot to graze. Elfhelm and Éothain had a fire going as soon as all the horses were settled.
The kitchens had provided them with ample food, but not content, Legolas disappeared, bow in hand, farther along the track. Amroth pulled some fishing lines from his saddlebags, giving one to Oríon. To Éomer’s surprise, he also gave one to Lothíriel, and in a few moments she had it rigged with some bacon stuck on the hook.
“Do you think you will have any luck?” he asked, although she handled it deftly.
She laughed. “I am sure Amroth will. Fish usually jump on the hook for him. You’d better make a spit to cook them.”
“I doubt he remembers how,” a familiar voice came from behind. “Someone else always does it for him. It comes with rank.”
“Don’t you believe Éothain,” he assured her. “I may be out of practice, but I remember perfectly well.”
Rewarding him with a grin, Lothíriel slid down the bank to the stream, stepping carefully and choosing the flat stones.
“She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, I’ll give you that.”
Éothain sounded incredibly surprised, as well he might. Éomer tried to imagine some of the other ladies of Gondor with their sleeves rolled up, balancing on a rock and dangling a line into the water.
But Amroth caught three before Lothíriel pulled one in. Éomer had been expecting her to squeal, either with delight, or in response to the shiny, slippery fish. But apart from a huge grin, she took out the hook quickly and competently. However, Oríon took it from her and neatly dispatched it, throwing it onto the grass for Welwyn to gut.
A little niggle of concern wormed through him seeing the easy companionship between Lothíriel and Oríon, but irritated with himself for his jealously he pushed the idea firmly down: from what he had seen so far they behaved much like brother and sister.
As the pile of fish grew, Legolas returned, four rabbits slung over his shoulder. “They crop the grass by the side of the track.” He explained his prowess in his normal understated way.
Another glorious afternoon, eating out in the wilds had never been so good. Excellent food and even better company, but now Éomer was afraid he was likely to doze off. To keep himself awake he sat on a boulder watching Éowyn and Lothíriel paddling in the shallows. They started splashing water over each other, laughing outrageously.
Not being able to behave in so wild a manner – Éomer wondered if he’d like to – Lothíriel’s young guardsman, Durthor, came down to the water to refill his flask, stepping from boulder to boulder trying not to wet his fine boots. Suddenly he slipped, fell right onto a jagged rock and let forth an almighty scream.
Éowyn stood with her mouth open for a second before she moved, but Lothíriel was nearer. She got there first followed by himself. The boy was groaning loudly, half in half out of the water, his right leg at a most unnatural angle and his hose stained with blood.
Immediately Lothíriel her put her hand on the young man’s head and said something under her breath. Incredibly he quietened and breathed easier.
With her hand still on Durthor’s head, she looked up at him, her face a mask of concern. “I need a knife!”
Éomer took one from his belt and handed it to her. With only a slight struggle she cut the shiny boot along the stitch line and removed it, and with no hesitation slit his hose from ankle to hip. Blood mingling with the water, an open wound and a glimpse of bone, Éomer had seen too many injuries not to know that they had a problem.
Lothíriel cut a strip from the lad’s hose, washed it in the water and made a temporary bandage. “Luckily it is not pumping blood, but I will have to try and treat it here and put on a splint. We shall need a wagon to get him to the City. Even if I set the leg, the less he is bumped around the better. Someone will have to go back.”
Éomer didn’t bother to argue, he knew she was right. He hopped up to the bank to talk to Faramir and Elfhelm.
“Lothíriel says we need a wagon. I agree with her. We cannot move him on horseback. How far is your house from here?” he asked Faramir.
Faramir shook his head. “The house is a fair distance from the ferry. It is almost as quick to go to the City, the road is better. Also the Healing Houses have special padded carts with straps for transporting the wounded.”
“Then it had better be you that goes. Your authority and knowledge will get things done more quickly.”
Faramir nodded. And Éomer carried on, “Take Éowyn with you, and your squire.” He glanced to Elfhelm. “Also Elfhelm and Wilflede, they will wish to get back to their child. The rest of us will stay.”
“Éomer, it will be very late by the time someone gets here. My men patrol the woods, but be careful. We should have brought a proper guard and not given way to inclination.”
He couldn’t deny that, but like Faramir, the temptation to have a free day away from formality had overruled his sound judgement. And Éothain’s nagging. ”
Faramir prepared to leave, and with a quick squeeze to his sister’s arm, Éomer went back down to Lothíriel. Amroth handed her a leather bag, and she took out a small sack containing bandages and pads, resting them on a dry rock on the edge of the stream. There were also many herbs and a phial holding some liquid. She returned to her patient, tipping some of the liquid into his mouth. Éomer moved close to see what she was doing.
“It is a powerful medicine,” she said, dropping her voice, “it will take away the pain and he will sleep. Now I must decide what to do.”
“What are the choices?” Éomer asked.
“If the leg is not straightened now, it might be too late; the tissues will swell and the muscles and sinews tighten. The cold water will help, but not for long. If I do not do it and we move him the bone will chafe the flesh, and he will very probably lose his leg.”
Éomer frowned, it sounded hopeless. “Have you the strength and the skill?”
“The strength will come. It is not the worst break I’ve seen or dealt with, but if I make a mistake then the nerves could be trapped, or, worse, the broken bone could rip the large vessel that carries blood down the leg. If that happens out here in the wild, it will all be over for him.” Her face twisted with indecision. “I have helped many times, but have never attempted it on my own before.”
He didn’t know how to help her. If the same had happened to a member of his éored out on the Emnet they would have made up a sled and trailed him back to Aldburg, a very bumpy ride. Doubtless the sufferer would have lost his leg. Éomer looked down at her troubled face, “If it were me, I would not wish to lose my leg.”
Some of the tension left her and she nodded before calling to where the others were waiting, “Legolas, could you find some branches for splints, straight and strong.” The elf departed almost before she had finished speaking, and she turned to Éothain “Please could you make up the fire? I will need some boiling water, and some wine to cleanse the wound.”
She waited while Welwyn fetched a flagon, smoothing her hand over Durthor’s head. The lad had his eyes closed. Taking the wine from Welwyn, Lothíriel poured a good quantity over the open wound. He jumped but his eyes stayed closed.
“I must do it now before he wakes. I am afraid you are going to get wet, but I dare not move him. Amroth, come down here and hold his body, do not let him struggle. Éomer you must hold the top of his thigh very still and tight, it must not move when I pull.”
Reassured by the fact that Amroth accepted his sister’s instructions without a quibble, Éomer got into position. Lothíriel knelt in the water and grasped the boy’s leg above the knee.
“Hold tight!” she reminded them. “The pain will get through to him.”
She closed her eyes and muttered something he could not hear. Then she pulled hard and twisted. Durthor jerked and groaned. Éomer held on, and when he looked again the leg had straightened and the wound closed almost over. Lothíriel expelled a great sigh of relief and her lips moved in a silent thank you. They all relaxed, and she examined the wound, prodding it gently. It was oozing a little blood but nothing more. She fixed pads, and the splints Legolas handed her. When she was satisfied they moved Durthor carefully to the fire.
“He must be kept warm and the wound kept clean, but he is young and strong. The signs are good.”
Adding some herbs to the boiling water, Lothíriel was able to properly clean the wound. A bit later he started to groan and she spooned something else into his mouth. She had tied her long hair back into a knot and put on her blue cloak. Éomer decided that she looked even more beautiful than she had at the feast wearing that wonderful dress. He thought back to what Aragorn had told him that night, and he knew now with certainty that, far from wishing to throw her over his saddle and ride away, more than anything he wanted to wrap her in his arms and keep her safe.
And he hoped he could do just that one day, but he was on edge as he moved his eyes from Lothíriel and scanned the clearing. Dusk had fallen almost without them noticing, and what had been a peaceful, pleasant place now seemed full of menace. The trees closed in, dark and tall, and the noise of the water would mask any enemy creeping up on them. Faramir had assured him that Ithilien was safe: the Rangers had not reported problems for many months, but he had lived with danger for so many years and was not prepared to take any chances.
He stood up and moved away from the fire so the light wouldn’t spoil his vision. Legolas was also alert, leaning against a tree, staring into the woods and fingering his bow. Strange that having always shied away from magic and mystery, he now felt so comfortable in the company of elves. This Elven Prince from a far off land had stood beside him at Helm’s Deep the great bow of Lórien singing as orc after orc went down. He smiled to himself. If Legolas entered the forthcoming archery tournament, no other would stand a chance.
Amroth had his back against a log; he looked asleep, but Éomer doubted it. He decided that it must be Amroth’s lazy languid air, combined with his dark good looks that drove the ladies wild. He thought back to when he had first set eyes on the young prince: on the Pelennor, helm gone and with his black hair flying, he’d rallied his father’s troops again and again. Oríon sat nearby, looking to be deep in thought. He wore no sword so would be little help, but Éomer had listened to his ideas on defending Gondor and recognised the sense of his arguments. Whether sea or land borders, it was far better to stop invaders before they reached the populous. He didn’t profess to understand the intricacies of more efficient sails, but he accepted Oríon knew what he was talking about.
Éomer sensed a movement and saw Éothain get up to go to his saddlebags. He took out a short sword in a leather scabbard and passed it to his wife. Welwyn drew the sword, tested the blade with her thumb, and, nodding to her husband, sheathed it and fixed it on her belt. She went to the fire to brew some more tea. Éomer sighed. He knew he could rely on her; Welwyn had more than proved herself.
His young esquire kept himself busy collecting wood around the edge of the clearing to feed the fire. He’d received the best training the Mark could give, but as yet had not been tested. Éomer looked to the main cause of his worry: Lothíriel. Although she had been very calm so far, he did not know how she would react in any dangerous situation, and he was loath to find out.
Welwyn passed the mugs around, and went over to the fire, sitting down beside Lothíriel and handing her a mug.
“Thank you.” Lothíriel took the tea from her, and sat back. Durthor had fallen asleep again. She stretched, feeling stiff and cold, and clutched the warm mug with both hands, smiling at Welwyn.
“You’re wearing a sword, Welwyn. I have no doubt you know how to use it?”
Welwyn patted it. “Yes, I do. Like Éowyn, I trained from a young girl. Quite a few of us did. I certainly felt more comfortable in the bad times knowing I had a fair chance of defending myself.”
Lothíriel looked straight at her; she had wanted to ask the night of the feast but guessed that the answer would be gruesome. Comparing their homelands had fitted with the lightness of the evening, but now, here, with the dark and the trees it seemed appropriate.
“Is that how you came by your scar?”
Welwyn started, her hand unconsciously going to her face. “I thought it was the Rohirrim who were supposed to be direct.”
Lothíriel shrugged. “When we were at the feast the other night I got the impression it bothered you greatly, and you were trying not to let it. I thought it might help to talk about it.”
Welwyn finished her tea and drew up her knees, wrapping her arms around them. “It might. At least I don’t see any horror in your eyes, not like most of the Gondorian ladies who recoil from me – ever so politely. But perhaps it would have been better then, rather than you telling me about the sea and Dol Amroth. The music and the lights would have softened the memories of Helm’s Deep.”
“Ah, I did wonder if you fought in that battle. I imagine you would have wanted to defend your home.”
“It was the children. The orcs tried to break into the caves. There were so few of us to defend them. It ended up with me standing between Éomer and Éothain. I hewed down orcs without a thought that night, but it was a long time before the horror of killing left me.”
Welwyn ran her finger down the scar, her expression turning wistful. “This happened right at the last. Éothain carried me back up to the keep. He wouldn’t let anyone else near.”
“You were betrothed?”
“No.” She smiled with some memory. “In fact, I don’t think we liked each other very much until that night. But my mother said that is often the way of things.”
Lothíriel felt a surge of regret: how wonderful to have a mother to discuss such matters with. She shook away the thought as Welwyn carried on talking.
“It was Lord Aragorn who saved my life. Without him, I might never have woken up. Éomer told him about me. And after healing me he used his skill to treat our injured warriors, even though he must have been exhausted. Many are alive today because of him.”
Lothíriel smiled, Welwyn had been lucky he was there. “He is an incredible man. I once cried all over him.”
That put an answering smile on Welwyn’s face and she leant closer. “Did you? Why?”
Lothíriel sighed: amazed she could talk about it. “Well, I have also killed.” Welwyn gasped with surprise.
“Although with a bow, not at close quarters like you,” Lothíriel put in quickly. “Killing has a lasting effect on one, but my scars are hidden, and the Lady Galadriel helped me to deal with them.”
Welwyn opened her eyes wide. “That’s strange. It was her that helped me. I used to cover the scar with a band, which I admit looked ridiculous. But when the Lady was at Edoras she told me that if I continued to hide it, the deformed flesh would eat inwards, warping my mind.”
Lothíriel chuckled. “That sounds like her. She is a little overwhelming, but what she told me helped a great deal. And anyway, Welwyn, all who get to know you will cease to see the scar. I bet Éothain never notices it.”
Her brows drew together as she thought about that. “No, I don’t suppose he does.” And then she laughed. “The Hornburg survived the assault of ten thousand orcs; it capitulated when Éothain stormed in.”
“Now, there’s a story I want to hear.” Lothíriel said grinning.
Welwyn looked behind her, Éothain wasn’t paying any attention but she still dropped her voice. “He came when he got back from the war. I was so self-conscious of my scar and thought no man would ever want to look at me. I wouldn’t see him, and locked myself in my room refusing to open the door. I didn’t want to show myself, especially to him. But when he couldn’t persuade me to come out, he started to batter the door down and Wilheard – he’s my brother – tried to stop him. My mother told Wilheard not to be so stupid, and to let Éothain force his way in.”
“Your mother sounds very sensible,” Lothíriel butted in.
“She is, but by then they were both mad and had no other thought than wanting to knock each other’s heads off. It was all going on in the passage outside my room; I thought they were going to kill one another, so I went out.”
“That made them stop, did it?” Lothíriel asked, giggling. Men were past understanding.
“No, I was very affronted because they didn’t notice me. But then my father turned up. He’d been visiting one of the villages and said he heard the ruckus when he crossed the dyke. He put a halt to it.” She grinned. “Éothain and Wilheard are the best of friends now.”
At that moment Durthor moved. He groaned and his eyes fluttered open. “I’m cold.”
She didn’t have another blanket, so Lothíriel took her own cloak off and tucked it around him. A sharp breeze had got up and she shivered.
“I’ll find you another,” Welwyn said, standing up. “Oh, Éomer is coming over with his. I’ll leave you to it.”
Lothíriel looked up and saw Éomer heading towards her, already removing his cloak.
He’d seen her shiver, and cursed himself. Her skirt must still be wet in spite of the fire.
“Sorry, I should have noticed before,” he said, draping his cloak around her shoulders.
“Thank you. I think it’s because I am still wet. But I don’t want Durthor getting cold.”
“How is he?”
Durthor had gone back to sleep. “He will recover, I think. It is known that the body loses fluid in such cases and that is dangerous. I am giving him medicine to help.”
“Faramir told me you had a gift and used it, but I did not realise you were so skilled.”
“Does it bother you?”
Her eyes challenged him, and unexpectedly something Guleth had said came back to him – ‘But she is gifted, and stopping her doing the work would be like cutting off her right hand. My father understood that and always respected her calling.’
“No, of course not. I can only be grateful to anyone who has the gift. I learnt that from knowing Aragorn. Éowyn, Faramir and Merry would not be alive but for him. However, I did not realise that when your father suggested sending some of the wounded to Dol Amroth you would be dealing with them. But we did not know what else to do, there were so many.”
“It was right the right thing to do, there is still much skill in Dol Amroth. Some say that it has been passed down from when the Elves were there.”
He was just going to ask her more when there was a faint sound he recognised as a sword unsheathing. Éomer whirled around, drawing his own sword, to see that Legolas had fitted an arrow to his bow. Amroth, sword in hand, had gone from lethargy to battle ready in just a brief moment.
Legolas looked across to him and nodded towards the trees. Praying his worst fears were not about to be realised, Éomer reached down for Lothíriel’s hand and pulled her up, guiding her behind him. He stared into the darkness, straining his ears. Was that a shadow, or something else?
“Prince Legolas, please put down your bow. We are friends.”
The relief made him shout out. “I know that voice, Mablung!”
“Aye, you have a good memory, Éomer King,” replied the Ranger, walking into the ring of light from the fire, followed by three others.
Mablung pushed back his hood and Éomer looked on a familiar face. He’d rarely been so pleased to see anybody. “My friend, the journey to the Black Gates is not one that I will ever forget, nor will I easily forget the skill of you and your men.”
The Ranger acknowledged this with a nod. He looked around the clearing, “My lord, why are you out here in the wild, in the dark, with so few?”
Éomer sighed and, avoiding Éothain’s eyes, explained the situation.
“Lord Faramir is correct,” said the Ranger, “we have had no trouble for months, but you should not have taken the chance.”
“You are right, of course,” he answered, wishing to close the subject. “Are you out on patrol?”
“Not really, we are making our way slowly towards the City for the wedding and the tournament. We saw your fire.”
Éomer’s esquire passed around some tea and Éothain went to his saddlebag and produced a silver flask. “I think that we need this after that little shock.”
They all gathered around the fire. The moon had risen, lighting the clearing and once again their picnic spot looked peaceful and benign. Éomer listened with interest to Mablung’s assessment on the speed of recovery of North Ithilien now that the shadow over it had been removed, but then he saw that Legolas had moved away, his attention focused down the track.
The elf pointed and smiled. Soon they could all hear the sound of many horses coming towards them.
As the first riders appeared, Éomer was surprised to see, not only Elphir, but Aragorn himself, followed by large detachment of his guard. There was also someone else he recognised: Master Raglan, the healer. The little man sat a bit awkwardly, but he remembered him at Cormallen expressing a determination of learning to ride.
Aragorn slid to the ground next to him. “We are honoured,” Éomer greeted him. “This is unexpected.”
Aragorn smiled. “Elphir and I have been talking with emissaries all day. It is a lovely evening so we thought the ride would do us good. The wagon is coming behind.”
Éomer nodded. Good, he could get the girls back to the City. He tickled Roheryn’s dark nose, and ran his hand down the rough neck.
“They haven’t persuaded you to ride a more elegant looking horse, I see.”
Aragorn grinned. “Not yet, but he is getting on a bit.” Then he spotted the rangers by the fire.
“Mablung, is that you?”
“Aye, Sire. It is good to see you again.”
The ranger strode over and Aragorn grasped his hand. “What are you doing here, teaching woodcraft?”
“They crept up on us,” Amroth admitted, laughing, “gave us more than a fright.”
The dour ranger raised a wry brow. “If it were not for the Elf we could have slit all your throats.”
By this time Master Raglan had already examined Durthor and was discussing him with Lothíriel. Éomer realised they would know each other as she had worked in the Healing Houses of Minas Tirith. Raglan patted her on the shoulder, but he couldn’t hear what he said.
“You all go on,” Aragorn said to him, “take the ladies home. Half my men can go with you. We will wait for the wagon and follow on soon. What are you going to do, Mablung?”
“We will camp here tonight, Sire, make use of the fire. Then set out for the City in the morning.”
Éomer started on saddling Bracken; Aragorn had his eyes on Lothíriel.
“If she used her gift to fix his leg, Éomer, she is going to be very weary. Watch her on the way home.”
“That’s true,” Elphir agreed. His face softened as he looked at his sister. “She has a habit of falling asleep without any warning, especially when she has been working with the sick. But Amroth knows that.”
“Do not worry, I will look after her.” Éomer walked over to Lothíriel who seemed reluctant to leave her charge. “Come on,” he said, “you have done your part. Leave him now.”
Lothíriel collected her things, and Éomer lifted her onto her horse. With a wave to Aragorn and Elphir, the remnants of the picnic party, plus a sizable number of Royal Guardsmen, set off along the track. Éomer could understand why Aragorn and Elphir had relished the ride if they had been incarcerated in a counsel chamber all day. It was a beautiful night, with the moonbeams dancing among the trees and the glimpse of stars through the leaves, and now with Lothíriel safe beside him he could relax and enjoy it.
They had been riding for about half an hour, and had just passed the cart coming the other way, when Éomer suddenly noticed Lothíriel swaying slightly in her saddle. Quickly he manoeuvred Firefoot right next to Bracken.
“You are tired,” he said, “come and ride with me.” She nodded; her eyes were already closing. Amroth was only a moment behind him, but he took hold of Bracken’s reins, enabling Éomer to lift Lothíriel over to Firefoot. Mumbling something, Lothíriel put her arms around him, laid her head on his chest and fell fast asleep. She smelt of wood-smoke and had a smudge of dirt on one cheek. Much of her hair had escaped from the knot and curled around her face. Very carefully, he eased the curls away from her eyes and mouth.
Amroth stared at him, but he didn’t want to give her up. In fact he wanted to hold on to her forever, she felt so good in his arms. “I just got there first,” he excused himself.
Amroth looked him straight in the eye. “Éomer, as far as Lothíriel is concerned, I am sure you always will.”
But behind him Éothain chuckled. “It seems that your charms are waning, lord. You have a beautiful woman in your arms and she goes to sleep!”
“Nay,” said Legolas, “she sleeps because in Éomer she has complete trust, for their match was made long ere they met. Did you not feel the dart of fate when you first saw her, my friend?”
Éomer looked down at the sleeping girl: her eyelids fluttered and a pulse throbbed in her neck. She looked small and vulnerable and he wanted nothing more than to protect her for the rest of his life.
“The trouble with elves,” he replied, “is that they see too much.”
It was difficult to believe that they had met only two days before. How one’s life could change. The problem was that he realised he had fallen utterly in love with a woman he hardly knew, and about whom there was some mystery. What was more, in spite of what Legolas had said, he had no real idea of how she felt about him. He would have to find out soon.
They reached the river crossing far too quickly. The ferrymen were waiting. They would have a late night, but perhaps having their king as a passenger would make up for it. He thought all the clanking would wake her, but it didn’t, so he stayed on Firefoot all the way across. But when they were not far from the City she suddenly woke up, blinking up at him for a moment. His face only inches from hers, he smiled reassuringly, wondering if that was always the way she woke.
“You fell asleep, and would have fallen had I not caught you. Do you feel better now?” She didn’t draw away, but a quiver ran through her.
“Yes, thank you, much better. But I think I had better go back to Bracken.”
Éomer put his lips next to her ear, the warmth of her flesh so tempting. “Well, that is a shame. Are you not enjoying this?” Her heartbeat thumped against his chest, his own must have been dancing a reel.
“I will not deny it is a pleasant way to travel,” she whispered, “but to arrive in the City in your arms again will be considered rather shocking.”
Feeling eyes on them, Éomer whistled for Bracken and reluctantly put her back on her own horse.
March 22nd 3020
After an early morning ride, Éomer spent most of the day in meetings, mostly with Imrahil and Elphir, setting up trading agreements. He had enjoyed it and had been careful to listen and learn from his veteran advisors who had much skill in negotiation.
At noon Aragorn and Elfhelm joined them. They discussed the establishment of relay stations so that letters and messages could pass between Minas Tirith, Edoras and Dol Amroth in the shortest possible time. Aragorn had then suggested that they swap their skills, so that his young soldiers could learn horsemanship in the Riddermark and the Rohirrim benefit from working with the Rangers of Ithilien. Imrahil had admitted that they seldom used trained scouts and had little skill in that direction, maybe Éomer could help there. It was a good plan, and they broke up agreeing to develop it further.
Finishing with the meetings in the late afternoon, he decided to walk down to the arenas where the riding and jumping courses had been built. He needed to stretch his legs and get some air.
The tented city outside the wall had grown, with families arriving from the countryside around the City. The lure of Faramir’s wedding on the anniversary of Sauron’s defeat made all want to celebrate.
As he approached the jumping ring he smiled to see that Welwyn and Lothíriel were trying out the fences. He watched them unnoticed for a while, pleased that whereas Welwyn with her experienced mount was jumping every fence, Lothíriel was schooling Bracken over the lower ones. She talked to him continuously, encouraging the young horse, and giving him the confidence that he could so easily lose if she outfaced him.
He noted that she was not wearing a riding skirt today, but a long tunic, and leggings with high boots. Her hair was tied loosely back from her face and with her golden skin lightly flushed she made an entrancing picture.
After a while Lothíriel realised he was there, and with a word to Welwyn, trotted over. She looked bright and cheerful, well recovered from the previous day’s adventure. Éomer held Bracken’s bridle and scratched his nose.
“You look very fetching in that outfit,” he remarked, running his eyes over her trim figure.
“Well, thank you.” Her face coloured very slightly. “It is my usual riding attire at home, but here they used to be rather prissy. However, it is safer over the jumps than skirts. My uncle Denethor would have thrown a fit, but Aragorn is much more enlightened. It is one very good thing to come from his friendship with the Mark: he is used to your ladies wearing breeches for riding.”
“I think Aragorn has more sense than to put some outmoded propriety over ease and comfort. From what I know of him many things in Gondor may subtly change,” he replied.
“Good.” The word came with a lovely smile, which did nothing for his composure.
“And what do you think of Bracken now?” she asked.
“He’s doing well. You have formed a bond already.”
“Yes,” she answered, patting the glossy neck, “there was a time when I thought that I would never wish to own a horse again.”
An opening if ever there was one. “Lothíriel, what happened to your horse?”
She did not answer for a few moments and he could tell that her thoughts were far away. A shadow passed across her face before she answered. “Amaurea was shot from beneath me by Southron arrows. She fell into the icy water and was swept away.”
His breath caught, she must have been attacked in some way. It fitted with what Éothain had passed on from Welwyn, but before he could ask for details Halcon appeared at his side. “My lord, could you give me your advice?”
Lothíriel inclined her head and trotted off, and Halcon continued talking, asking questions that Éomer did not hear. He would have to wait until the evening meal to talk to her.
But that night he could not get near her. They dined in the ante- room, joined by Elfhelm and Éothain, Déor and others, along with some of Gondor’s captains. The men were enthusiastic about Aragorn’s plans and talked long, making suggestions on swapping training and knowledge, and their talk went on long after the ladies had retired.
Tomorrow, Éomer swore to himself. Tomorrow he would find out.
To be continued.
List of Original Character appearing or mentioned in this chapter.
Master Raglan. Assistant warden of the Healing Houses in Minas Tirith.
Durthor - A member of Lothíriel’s guard.
Oríon - Son to Sergion. Childhood friend of Amrothos and Lothíriel.
Welwyn- Daughter to Erkenbrand and Winfrith. Wounded in the Battle of Helm’s Deep and healed by Aragorn.
Wilflede - Hama’s eldest daughter – Married to Elfhelm
Welwyn- Daughter to Erkenbrand and Winfrith.
Wilheard – Erkenbrand’s son.
Déor - Friend of Éomer’s