13. Chapter 13
I woke up the next morning with an aching throat, a running nose and a head that felt as if it had been stuffed with wool overnight. It was the last straw: I turned my face to the wall and decided I wanted nothing more to do with this cold, inhospitable country. If only I were a bird and could fly home over the mountains to Dol Amroth and my family!
One of the servants came to bring me a jug of warm water for a wash, and I persuaded her to fetch me some soup. The rest of the day I spent alternately dozing and tossing around in bed trying to find a comfortable position, for my whole body ached with ague. Having heard from the servants about my illness, Aeffe looked in at some stage with a pot of willow bark tea, which I accepted gratefully. Yet just exchanging a few words with her exhausted me and I was glad to be left alone again.
The night brought no rest, but only fitful sleep, plagued with nightmares. Again and again Gríma stalked my dreams, looming over me, his clammy hands roaming all over my body. Then in the darkest hour of the night I woke up drenched in sweat from a vision of Éomer lying dead on a battlefield, his face pale and cold. Dark mist swirled around us and next to him lay a banner, the white horse trampled and torn. The image was so vivid, I could see his armour hacked to pieces, could see the engraving on the sword he still clutched in his hand. In the dream I grabbed him and shook him, but he gave no answer and I knew with horrible finality that I had never kissed him. Somehow that seemed to be the most important thing in the world.
Sobbing with heartbreak, I decided to stay awake and piled up all my cushions behind me to sit up in bed. Not until the first pale fingers of dawn stole across the sky did I nod off, trusting to the daylight to keep my nightmares at bay. In the end I slept most of the morning away, but felt no better for it. The day passed slowly, the only change was a persistent cough added to my other ailments. At dusk one of the maids offered to fetch me a meal, but my appetite had deserted me and I wanted nothing but tea. I was exhausted, as if I had ridden hard all day instead of having spent it in bed, and I could feel my eyelids beginning to droop. But I struggled to stay awake, afraid of experiencing the same nightmares again. Then I had an idea and got up laboriously. One of the maids had unpacked my clothes and put them away in a chest, but the rest of my things remained in the saddlebags. I found Felaróf at the bottom and put him on the small table by my bed to watch over me. Only then was I finally able to slip into sleep.
I awoke the next morning after a night of unbroken rest, feeling almost human again. As I sat up in bed I noticed that I no longer ran a temperature and my cold had receded. Perhaps life was worth living after all. That moment a knock sounded on the door.
"Come in," I called, thinking it one of the maids.
But to my surprise, Ceolwen entered the room, followed by an elderly man.
"Lady Lothíriel, how are you?" she asked, breathing heavily from the climb. "I have brought Master Herewald to see you, he's our healer."
"Oh, you needn't have bothered," I exclaimed. "I am much better today."
The man regarded me sourly. Tall and thin, he had his greying hair cut short, unusual for the Rohirrim, and wore a faded brown tunic. "I told you so," he said to Ceolwen, "just a cold. Nothing to worry about."
I was just about to say that it seemed remarkable that he would offer a diagnosis without even having seen me, when a coughing fit shook me.
Ceolwen drew herself up. "My husband was worried about the princess. Surely now that you're here, you might as well examine her."
Reluctantly Herewald crossed to the bed and took my wrist to feel my pulse. A quick look at my tongue, a brush across my forehead and he pronounced me on the way to recovery. When I had to cough again he extracted a bottle from his satchel and poured a measure of viscous dark syrup into an empty mug.
"Drink this up," he ordered me impatiently when I regarded the evil looking concoction dubiously.
I took a cautious sip. Revolting! "What is this?" I asked, gagging.
He folded his arms across his chest. "One of my own preparations. Extract of fresh pine shoots."
That explained everything. "I'm not having any of this," I declared, pushing it away. "You could at least improve the taste with honey."
His face suffused with red. "What would you know of it! I won't waste precious honey just to make my potions more palatable."
Ceolwen smiled placatingly. "We have plenty of honey in our storerooms. Should I see if I can find some for the princess?"
"Nonsense," Herewald declared. "I do not believe in mollycoddling my patients."
My head had started pounding again and suddenly my patience snapped. Why couldn't he leave me to be miserable on my own!
I sat up straighter in bed and glared at him. "Do you believe in healing your patients, Master Herewald?"
Flustered, he took a step back. "Of course."
"Well, you make a pretty poor job of it," I told him in my haughtiest voice. "I for one will dispense with your services."
When he just stared at me stupidly, I nodded towards the door. "You are dismissed."
"You can't do that!"
"Yes I can," I said, borrowing the silky tone my uncle used with miscreants. Though I had never had it directed at myself, I had often enough witnessed Amrothos being reprimanded.
Somewhat to my surprise it worked. Herewald muttered something about ungratefulness, but he backed out the door quickly. Exhausted I leant back against my cushions. Even so I actually felt better than I had for quite a while - ever since I had left Edoras in fact.
The bed sagged as Ceolwen sat down on it. "You've dismissed Master Herewald!" She sounded incredulous.
"With great pleasure." A thought struck me. "Now I just have to see that I do not get worse again."
Ceolwen grimaced. "You would never hear the end of it. Herewald is a good healer really, but he expects you to pay strict attention to his instructions." She stroked her swollen belly. "Although I suppose he was right that I should not have ridden to Edoras in my condition."
I looked at her in alarm. "Are you feeling unwell?"
"No, no," she waved my concern away. "Just tired." She sighed. "I know that I'm pregnant, not ill, and that thousands of women have given birth before me without causing a fuss about it, but I'm just so tired all the time."
Fuss! I thought of the birth I had attended in Edoras, of the hard work and the pain involved. Indignation rose within me. "Did Herewald tell you that?"
"Well, he should try it out himself!" I exclaimed. "Then maybe he would change his tune."
The image of the tall, gangly healer big with child actually made me forget my troubles for a moment and I grinned.
Ceolwen grinned back, but then she suddenly turned serious again. "Lady Lothíriel," she began hesitantly, "may I beg a favour from you?"
"What kind of favour?" I asked back, startled that she would want anything from me. From what I had seen so far, her husband adored her and would do anything for her.
Not quite meeting my eyes, she smoothed out the quilt covering my bed. "It's the ledgers..."
"Those of the household. And Théodred's." She swallowed. "I am supposed to keep them for him, but it's just so complicated! And I thought that as a princess you would know what to do..."
My heart sank at the hopeful look she directed at me. My least favourite occupation! I had spent many a boring hour adding up columns of figures and learning about different ways to manage households, for my father had insisted that a Princess of Gondor should know how to run anything from a smallholding to an entire province. Fortunately Aerin, my sister-in-law, was such an able administrator that she required little help in dealing with Dol Amroth.
I shifted uncomfortably, thinking that surely I had enough troubles on my mind just now without taking on any additional burdens. "Haven't you got somebody else you could ask?"
"Yes of course." Ceolwen got up. "I'm sorry to have bothered you, my lady. I will manage somehow."
But her drooping shoulders as she turned to leave told a different story. Suddenly I realized I was not the only person in the world having a difficult time and felt ashamed for my self-pity. "Wait!"
She looked round. "Yes?"
"I can try," I told her, "but I don't know if I'm going to be much of a help."
Ceolwen's face lit up. "Thank you! I'm sure together we will manage." She sat down on the bed again and squeezed my hand. "I did all right at first when it was just the Hornburg I had to run, but now Théodred has made his headquarters here and he has so many men! And I want my husband to be proud of me." Tears glistened in her eyes. "I shouldn't have gone to Edoras! They ran out of flour and had no bread for two days because of me and now Erkenbrand will be so disappointed."
I patted her hand, alarmed to see her so agitated. "He will understand, after all he loves you. And we'll make sure it won't happen again."
Nodding, Ceolwen wiped a tear away. "Thank you, Lady Lothíriel."
I smiled at her encouragingly. "Please call me Lothíriel." But inwardly I sighed. It seemed to be my fate to help with the running of other women's homes. Would it feel different if I were the lady of the household? To preside over say...Aldburg?
Resolutely I squashed that useless thought and swung my legs over the edge of the bed. "We will start tomorrow. But now I want to get dressed, I have spent enough time in bed."
Ceolwen rose, too. "Are you sure you're up to it?"
Though my head felt dizzy, I waved her concern away. "I will manage." I eyed Herewald's cough syrup. Unfortunately it seemed to work pretty well, so I would probably have to drink the rest of it. "Honey," I decided. "I want a lot of honey."
She laughed. "I will send a maid to get you some. And also something to eat."
The next day we settled down in Ceolwen's study, a large sunny room just above the family quarters. Shelves lined the walls, stacked with books of tidily bound ledgers, and I started by taking out the most recent ones. The problem very soon became apparent to me: the accounts for the running of the Hornburg and those of Prince Théodred's forces were hopelessly mixed up. In Dol Amroth, my sister-in-law kept three different sets of accounts, one each for the family's private funds, the running of the province and Steward Denethor's forces. How often had she drummed it in to me not to mix them up!
I started to leaf backwards through the volumes. A couple of years ago, when Ceolwen had first started keeping the records, Théodred's forces had numbered no more than his personal éored. Now they totalled fifteen times that number. I stared down at the figures and for the first time I realized the magnitude of the threat Rohan faced on its western border. All my life the shadow in the East had loomed over Gondor, dominating our thoughts, so I had paid little attention to the mention of this new enemy. But would the Rohirrim be able and willing to ride to our aid with Saruman waiting to pounce on them? Suddenly my personal problems seemed of very little account compared to the potential disaster facing us. And there was nothing I could do about it!
To distract myself, I browsed further back. Whoever had kept the ledgers before Ceolwen had not really grasped the correct method either. However, the next volume, written in an elegant hand, had all the columns listed neatly side-by-side. I saw it dated from seven years ago.
"Do you know whose handwriting this is?" I asked.
Ceolwen hardly glanced at it. "Aethelwyn's."
"Couldn't you ask her for help? She did a very good job with these."
"She's dead." When I stared, surprised by her terse words, Ceolwen grudgingly explained further. "Aethelwyn was Erkenbrand's first wife."
"She died five years ago." Ceolwen picked up a quill and began dismembering it methodically. "They say the twins are the very image of her."
And did Aethelwyn still throw her shadow on the household? I began to see why Ceolwen had asked a comparative stranger for help, rather than somebody from the Westfold. But I had grown up the daughter of the woman known simply as the Pearl of Belfalas. My mother had died giving birth to me and I knew all about trying to live up to an unreachable model.
"We'll start at the beginning," I said.
Several times during the next few days I wished for my sister-in-law's presence, but finally by our combined efforts we managed to get the accounts into some semblance of order. The next step was to do an inventory of the goods stored in the caves behind the Hornburg, for nobody really knew what exactly they held. For that I enlisted the help of Aeffe and Leofe and several women of the household, for Ceolwen was too big with child to go climbing about the caverns. I had expected the twins to complain about the menial work, but they actually seemed to enjoy helping. It took us five days to do a full inventory, and on the way back to the Hornburg one evening Leofe confided to me that she liked being useful for a change.
Like all of us she was grimy with dust, and had a bruise from stumbling over a rock in the dim light, but she grinned at me. "This is so much better than sitting around and doing embroidery."
"Or waiting for a suitor to show up," Aeffe threw in caustically from behind.
I had not realized before how confining their lives might be, and began to see them in a new light. With Ceolwen running the keep, they had few duties to fulfil except to assist with offering cups of mead at feast days. So when some days later they asked me if I wanted to accompany them on a ride, I agreed readily. Prince Théodred and his men had left the day after we arrived to patrol the Fords of Isen, but the Hornburg still held a full garrison and Lord Erkenbrand detailed some riders to escort us.
Once we got out of the narrow ravine of Helm's Deep and into the more open Westfold Valley we went for a gallop. To have the sky stretch above me felt wonderful, but when we had to return the mountains closed in on us again, cooping us in. It seemed almost like a physical weight bearing down on me and I thought how the Hornburg might be Rohan's safest fortress, but I much preferred Edoras with its vista of the plains.
Days stretched into weeks and slowly I settled into a new routine, assisting Ceolwen with running the household and going for rides with the twins. They were excellent horsewomen and though I caught them glancing at me curiously every now and again I enjoyed their company. With my books left behind in Edoras, I had few other matters to occupy me, for after my abortive meeting with Master Herewald I did not think he would welcome an offer of assistance from me. Rumours of deepening trouble reached us, of Dunlendings mustering in Isengard, and Lord Erkenbrand looked grim and set his men to stockpiling weapons, but as of yet all remained calm. Then one morning I awoke to find that Prince Théodred and his éored had returned late at night and he wished to see me. At once.
After hastily getting dressed and brushing my hair, I presented myself in his study. A utilitarian room situated on the bottom floor of the keep, it only had two narrow windows high up on the wall that did little to light the room. Prince Théodred was writing at his desk when I entered and motioned for me to sit on one of the wooden chairs facing it while he finished his letter. Feeling like a child caught in some sort of mischief, I folded my hands in my lap and waited. What did he want from me? At first I had thought that perhaps a message from my father had arrived, but surely if that were the case he would just give it to me?
The prince's quill scratched across parchment as he signed his letter with a flourish. Then he looked up and fixed me with a stern glare. "Princess Lothíriel. I presume you know why I've called you here."
It dawned on me that he was displeased with me. "Not really," I stuttered. Even though I had done nothing wrong, he still managed to make me feel guilty and I ducked my head.
"I've received a letter from my father..." the prince replied, picking up a parchment with an elaborate seal affixed to it and turning it round slowly in his fingers. What did he expect me to answer to that? He had enormous hands, calloused from wielding a sword, with an old scar running across the knuckles of one of them. I swallowed. This stern warrior was very different from the urbane prince who had paid me compliments at the Yule feast. When I did not answer, he leaned forward, forcing me to look up at him. "... a letter telling me that he wishes to discuss a marriage proposal between the two of us."
Even though I had myself considered this possibility, having it voiced out loud felt like a blow to the stomach. I could only stare at him.
The prince continued to hold my eyes. "The letter also informed me that this proposal was made with your knowledge and consent."
What? I tried to gather my scattered wits, but Prince Théodred gave me no chance to reply. "My lady," he snapped, "it is my turn to inform you that I will manage my affairs myself. If you think to achieve an advantageous marriage alliance this way you are very much mistaken."
"But I had nothing to do with it!" I exclaimed. "Please believe me," I begged when he continued to glare at me in the most intimidating manner, "I swear to you I knew nothing of this plan!"
He frowned. "A likely story. My father says quite clearly in the letter that he consulted you first."
"But he didn't!" I leaned forward and gripped the edge of his desk. "I haven't spoken to King Théoden for weeks. I truly don't know where he got the idea from that I had."
Drumming his fingers on the desk, the prince pondered my words. My confusion must have shown on my face, for slowly his expression softened. "You knew nothing?"
"This comes as much of a surprise to me as it does to you," I assured him. "I give you my word."
He unfolded the letter and scanned it slowly. "Lately my father has been growing old and is confused at times," he admitted grudgingly, as if it pained him to say so.
Confused was to put it mildly. I wondered if I dared confide my knowledge of Wormtongue drugging his father to the prince. Would he believe me? After all I had no proof at all. And why had Gríma agreed to this plan? Surely having Théodred marry and possibly produce an heir was the last thing he wanted.
"What does the letter say exactly?" I asked.
"He's calling a full council at Edoras to discuss the idea and draft a letter to your father and Steward Denethor."
At his words I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. "What comprises a full council?"
"The king's own advisors plus his Marshals and senior captains."
His Marshals! I swallowed. "And they would all have got a copy of this letter?"
"Yes of course," he answered. "That's one reason why I was so displeased."
What would Éomer think of me? Clearly this was another attempt by Wormtongue to drive a wedge between Prince Théodred and his cousin. What a fool I'd been to think that simply removing myself from Edoras would deprive Gríma of that particular weapon. He did not need my presence to hurt Éomer.
The prince had been watching me closely. "My lady," he said, folding the letter away, "I think I owe you an apology for my hasty words earlier on. Please forgive me."
I nodded mechanically, my mind still churning with images of Éomer storming into Meduseld, demanding to see his uncle.
Prince Théodred got up and started to pace the room. "I do not like to be treated like a pawn."
"No, of course not," I agreed. But I could not help thinking that I myself had been given even less choice in the matter. "When will this council take place?" I asked. "And what will you write back?"
"No date has been fixed yet. My father writes he will leave that to Gríma to organize." Prince Théodred raked his fingers through his hair. Exactly the same gesture of frustration that I had seen his cousin make. My breath caught in my throat. Éomer would despise me!
With a sigh the prince sat down behind his desk again. "My lady, I am not sure what to write back." He hesitated, as if searching for words. "Under normal circumstances, I would reject this proposal made without either our consent outright. But times aren't normal..." His face darkened. "...they are dire. To see their prince married, the prospect of an heir - it would give hope to my people. And they need hope desperately."
Under his steady gaze I could feel the bonds of duty tightening on me, constricting my chest, cutting off my breath. "This....this is very sudden," I stammered.
"Yes, I know," he answered, "and I beg your pardon for it. I have spent all my life fighting, so I'm afraid I'm not much good at wooing a woman." With a self-deprecating smile, he shrugged. "Oh, there have been other marriage proposals, but for some reason or other none was ever good enough for my father. Yet nobody could deny your suitability - of high birth, strengthening our ties with Gondor, a capable administrator, beautiful..."
"Please!" I interrupted him, jumping up.
Prince Théodred got up, too. "My lady, I will not press you for an answer, yet may I ask that you at least consider it?"
My thoughts in turmoil, all I wanted to do was to leave the room and be alone. "I need time to think."
"Of course." He came round the desk and took my hand. "My Lady Princess, you are everything I seek for in a queen." Lifting my fingers to his lips, he hesitated. "Only I do not want a wife whose heart is given to another man..."
I gasped. "What do you mean! Are you implying I would..." Blushing scarlet, I could not finish the sentence.
"I do not doubt your honour," he assured me. "But I'm not blind. I think that like so many ladies before you, you have taken a liking to my cousin Éomer. Not that I blame you, I know how charming he can be and certainly on his part he seems quite taken with you." He gave me a tolerant smile. "I look on Éomer as a brother, I would not like any bad blood between us. Yet you are both young and at an age where such fancies pass as quickly as they have arisen. That's why I believe you and I could deal tolerably well together."
He placed a brief kiss on my hand. "Think about it."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.