1. Chapter 1
On the Wings of the Storm
October 3018, the Eastfold.
The riders coalesced out of the autumn mist like grey ghosts. One moment saw us riding along huddled into our cloaks, cold and weary, the next a menacing thicket of spears surrounded us. My father's men responded at once by forming a tight circle around me, their hands on their sword hilts. Although what they could do, I did not know, for the riders far outnumbered us and some of them had arrows nocked to their bows. These were supposed to be allies not foes, I reminded myself, my throat dry. But they did not look friendly.
One of them nudged his horse forward. A tall man, clad in mail, with a white horsetail flowing from his helmet. "Who are you?" he asked, speaking Westron. "And what do you want in the Mark?"
"We come in peace," Dirhael, the captain of my escort, answered. "Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, sends us and we bear letters from Steward Denethor to King Théoden." At his sign young Megil lifted our banner, the swan-prowed ship hanging limply in the moist air.
The man surveyed us, keen eyes missing nothing, his distrust evident. I wondered what he made of our company of ten Swan Knights and one reluctant princess. Involuntarily my hand twitched towards my bow, useless though it was wrapped in oilcloth. A mistake. The movement arrested his attention. "You there," he commanded, looking at me. "Show your face."
When I hesitated, not used to such a tone of voice, he rode forward another few steps and levelled his spear at me. As Dirhael's hand whitened on his sword hilt, I reached up to push back my hood. But the rider forestalled me, deftly slipping the tip of his spear past my cheek to flick back the heavy cloth.
A murmur of surprise, quickly suppressed, went up from the men surrounding us. Their leader's eyes widened behind the slits of his helmet, but he showed no other reaction. "And who might you be?"
Drawing on years of deportment and etiquette lessons, I squared my shoulders and tried to infuse my voice with confidence. "Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth. Your king is expecting us."
He looked me up and down, missing nothing, from my mud streaked boots to my crumpled tunic. Why hadn't I put on a fresh one that morning! The rider shrugged. "He might be, but I am not, so you had better explain yourself." His stallion chomped on the bit and he checked him absentmindedly. "And be quick about it!"
Resentment rose within me at his arrogant tone. It was not as if I had wanted to come to this chilly and inhospitable land after all. "And who might you be?" I echoed his words.
At some subtle sign of his, the Rohirrim relaxed and raised their spears. I got the impression they did not consider us a threat. "My name is Éomer, Éomund's son, Third Marshal of the Riddermark," he answered. "My charge is to keep the East-mark safe."
Next to me, Dirhael cleared his throat, but I ignored him. He might have heard this man's name before, but I'd had enough of his high-handed ways. "Well, Third Marshal of the Riddermark," I shot back, "in that case I advise you to do so and to cease bothering your king's allies."
His jaw tightened, but all of a sudden he laughed. "No one could doubt that you're a genuine Gondorian princess. Welcome to the Mark, Lothíriel of Dol Amroth!" He turned to Dirhael. "Where are you headed?"
"With your leave, my lord, along the Great West Road to Aldburg and from there to Edoras."
With your leave? Who was this man? The rider seemed to have come to some decision. "I do not have the time to deal with you now, but you seem to be who you claim you are," he said. "I will let you pass and what is more I will provide you with a guide as far as Aldburg. You will wait there for me."
I opened my mouth to protest, but closed it again when Dirhael shook his head. After all he had been chosen as the leader of my guard because he'd been to Rohan before. And because the old soldier had known me from childhood.
The Marshal noticed anyway and his eyes glittered with amusement. "I will see you there, my lady, and you can explain more fully what fortuitous chance brings you to our lands." He gave an order in his own tongue and one of his riders trotted forward. "This is Breca, your guide." All trace of amusement gone from his face, he gave a curt nod. "Now I have to make haste, for we're hunting orcs, doing our best to keep you safe."
Before I could think of an answer he urged his stallion forward, his riders passing us by either side like water flowing around a rock. The mist swallowed them up once more.
I looked at Dirhael and he sighed. "Lord Éomer commands their Eastern forces. He is the king's nephew."
I bit my lip. What had my father said to me at our leave taking? I rely on you to conduct yourself with all due courtesy, for you will be seen as representing our country and one day soon we might need Rohan's aid. But then he should have known better to send me instead of Elphir, the diplomat of the family!
We reached Aldburg late the following day. Whoever had long ago decided to settle here had chosen well. Nestled against the mountainside and encircled by a broad wall, it commanded the road. Our guide exchanged a few words with the guards at the gates and wearily we followed him between low houses thatched with straw. He led us to the heart of the town, a cobbled square fronted on three sides by houses and stables and overlooked by a mighty hall built entirely from wood. This apparently was the seat of Lord Éomer, where we were supposed to wait for him.
Well, I did not mind, for it meant the first hot bath and proper bed after eight days on the road from Minas Tirith. I felt so tired that I did not even bother to get out one of my books to read that evening, and when I laid my head on the soft goose feather pillow, I was sure nothing could possibly wake me up.
However, I thought wrong. In the middle of the night shouts and the clatter of hooves tore me from formless dreams. I sat up straight in my bed, my heart pounding. Where was I? Then I remembered and hastily throwing a robe over my nightdress got up to investigate. Dirhael met me in the hallway outside my room, naked sword in hand. He stopped a servant hurrying by with a pile of linens. "What is the matter?"
"The Marshal has returned," the woman explained. "We have to see to the wounded." She carried on down the hallway.
Looking after her, I hesitated, for I knew a little leech craft, learnt from the healers in Dol Amroth. Should I offer my help? Coming to a decision I stepped back into my room and unearthed the small satchel of healing supplies from my pack.
Dirhael had sheathed his sword. "Lothíriel, what are you doing?"
"I want to help." I headed out the door again, my captain following behind.
At the sight meeting me in the hall I rocked to a halt on the threshold. The tables had been pushed back against the wall and the wounded lay in long rows on the floor. My bile rose at the smell of vomit and fresh blood filling the enclosed space. Groans rose from them and somewhere a woman sobbed hysterically. I hesitated. What good could I do here? And they were not even my own people. Dirhael looked at me, a question in his eyes. I shook myself. They were people. Swallowing down my nausea, I approached the first of them.
A child! Forgetting my discomfort I knelt down beside the boy. He had a gash on the side of his head, inexpertly bandaged and bleeding sluggishly. "Get me boiled water!" I told Dirhael and started to unwrap the stained linens.
"Modor!" the boy moaned and my heart contracted with pity. Had his mother survived?
"Hush," I said, stroking his matted blond hair, "you're safe now." Although he did not understand them, my words seemed to calm him.
When Dirhael returned with a crock of warm water I cleaned the boy's wound to my best ability and wrapped a fresh bandage around his head, applying enough pressure to stop the bleeding. A maid passed by with a jug of water and I begged a drink for my patient from her.
I pushed the cup into Dirhael's hand. "Look after him and make sure he drinks plenty of water to make up for the loss of blood."
He nodded and I passed on to the next one in the line, a man whose broken arm had already been set crudely and who only needed it fastened more securely, a task well within my abilities. The young woman next to him had blood encrusted cuts along her arms and thighs, but a healer already attended to her. I looked away sickened when I realized that the regularity of the cuts meant they had been administered deliberately.
In no time at all I had used up my meagre supplies of healing materials, but one of the other healers wordlessly handed me a fresh pile of bandages. Despite the apparent chaos in the hall, made worse by the flickering light of the torches, these people quite obviously had dealt with this kind of crisis before. How often? And to think that my father had sent me here for safety.
The next of the wounded lay with his arm pillowed on blankets, face white from blood loss and with his eyes closed. Not wanting to disturb him, I carefully lifted the edge of the cloth and dabbed a little water on the dried blood, intending to wash it off.
He twisted round and grabbed me with his other hand. "Orc!"
I yelped in surprise, spilling the water. Feverish blue eyes met mine for a moment. What should I do? He reached for my throat.
"Beorngar!" The voice cut like a whip across the hall and the man hesitated. I scrambled backwards.
Then somebody stepped across me and took the man by the arm, easing him back onto his pallet. The wounded man let loose a confused torrent of Rohirric. I sat down on the ground heavily and became aware that everybody was staring at me. Across the hall Dirhael had jumped to his feet, looking alarmed, but I waved him back. Slowly normal activity resumed.
The man who had intervened looked round. Lord Éomer. I had not recognised him at first, lacking the horsetail helmet and with his armour covered in grime. He gave me a sharp look. "My lady, are you all right?"
Too shaken to reply I just nodded and tried to get up. At once he leapt to his feet and took my arm to assist me. "Are you sure?"
His eyes slid down me and away. Suddenly I became aware of the fact that my robe gaped open and the silken nightgown beneath it was soaked with water. Blushing furiously I wrapped the robe tighter around me and belted it firmly at the waist. "How is your man?"
"Still confused." He shrugged. "I'm afraid Beorngar thought you were an enemy. We doused him with spirits on the way to take the pain away."
"Well obviously you gave him rather too much if he mistook me for an orc," I said tartly.
His eyes glinted. "I suppose so. You do not really resemble one."
The man was insufferable! I knelt by the injured man's side again. "Can you tell him that I need to have a look at his arm?" I asked Lord Éomer.
Kneeling on the man's other side he nodded and translated my words. Gently I started to unwrap the stained linens. The man hissed with pain and clenched his fingers, but otherwise held still. A nasty wound. Ragged and clotted with old blood, it ran in an irregular line from his elbow up to the armpit.
I swallowed. "This needs stitching."
Lord Éomer regarded me doubtfully. "Can you do it?"
"Are you sure? Have you done it before?"
I sighed. "Yes, many times." Stitching wounds was an easy skill to learn and the healers in Dol Amroth had valued my neat stitches, probably due to sewing and embroidering from an early age. But I had hoped to get away from that here. I reached for my healer's satchel. "I will need a candle, more hot water and if you have any spirits left you had better give them to him."
He sent a servant running for a bowl of water and produced a wineskin, the contents of which he proceeded to ruthlessly pour down the poor man's throat. By the time the water arrived, Beorngar had his eyes closed and hardly twitched when I washed out the wound. From my satchel I took out the gently curved suturing needle and passed it several times through the candle flame.
"This burns off any bad humours clinging to it," I explained.
He nodded and watched closely as I threaded some of my supply of string through the needle. Made from specially treated sheep gut, it would dissolve within a few weeks, leaving the wound to heal of its own accord. Next I regarded the arm stretched out before me, mentally planning the placement of my stitches. His sword arm. It was vital to join the muscles in a way that allowed them to grow back together smoothly.
"Beorngar needs to keep completely still," I told Lord Éomer. "Will you hold him for me?"
"Yes." He leaned over the prone body, gripped the man's wrist in one hand and placed the other on his shoulder. "He will not move."
I did not doubt it. And with all preparations concluded, I could not put off the moment any longer. Taking a deep breath to steady my hands I made the first puncture. A shudder ran through Beorngar's body, but the arm never moved. I bit my lip and continued steadily, trying to be quick yet as neat as possible. The trick was to imagine to be sewing together an old shirt rather than human flesh. But it never quite worked. Shirts don't bleed.
In some places bone shone palely below the torn muscle and the last part inside his armpit proved difficult to reach. Sweat clouded my vision by the time I tied off the last stitch. Finished. I looked up to find myself only inches away from Lord Éomer's face. He had a smear of dried blood across one cheek and his hair hung in a wild tangle down his back. Throughout the procedure I had been aware of him watching me, but now his eyes seemed to catch mine, trapping me in their dark depths. Not the cool, detached grey of Númenor, but an intense blue, alive and hungry. Hungry? Where had that thought come from? I tore my gaze away.
To regain my composure I busied myself putting away my needle and thread, but much to my annoyance my hands shook. I cleared my throat. "Make sure he does not strain the arm until it is fully healed."
"We will. Thank you, my lady."
Nothing but polite attention on his face now. I chided myself for my silly fancies and blamed my interrupted sleep. Looking around the hall I realised that the chaos had turned into order, some patients being helped away, the others made comfortable on a row of pallets. Dirhael stepped forward from the shadow of one of the pillars and offered me his hand. Wearily I rose to my feet. "If my help is no longer needed I will retire now."
"Of course." The bow Lord Éomer gave me would not have been amiss in my father's halls. "Good night, Princess Lothíriel."
Barefoot and in a night robe stained with gore, I did not feel particularly dignified, but I dropped him my best curtsy. "Good night, Lord Marshal."
His eyes followed me as we left the hall. Or at least it felt like it.
A/N: absorbable sutures were invented by an Arab physician in the tenth century, so I thought I could let the Gondorians have them as well.
A/N: once again many thanks to my wonderful beta Lady Bluejay and to Willow-41z for her comments.