2. Chapter 2
One of the servants woke me the next morning far too early. My own maid from Dol Amroth being too old to brave the long journey to Rohan, I had decided to do without one for the time being and instead one of Lord Éomer's servants attended me. I groaned when she pulled back the curtains of my bed and the sunlight hit my eyes.
"Your pardon, my lady," she said, "but Marshal Éomer sends his compliments and he wants to leave in half an hour."
"Well let him," I mumbled, trying to bury deeper under my sheets. Did the man expect a send-off?
"You are to accompany him to Edoras," the maid explained.
I sat up straight. "What?"
She motioned nervously to a tray. "I have brought you breakfast."
I opened my mouth to make a sharp rejoinder for being woken so rudely, only to close it again. She was not to blame for the message after all and I did not want these people to think me a spoilt Gondorian princess. Obviously the man wanted to provoke me. Well, I would not rise to the bait that easily.
"Thank you, Winflaed," I replied, remembering her name. "Tell the Marshal I will be ready."
It meant a hasty meal, only a quick wash and having to throw my belongings into my pack randomly, but I kept my word. Dirhael met me at the door to the courtyard and escorted me to where a stable lad stood holding my mare's reins. Nimphelos's dappled grey coat shone with health and when I mounted her she arched her neck and danced nervously to the side. Plenty of oats and more sleep than her mistress. I checked her gently and sat deeper in the saddle, letting her know I would not tolerate any tricks today. Not in front of a courtyard full of horselords. And especially not in front of the particular horselord who after a last consultation with one of his men swung into the saddle of his stallion and gave the sign to depart.
Unlike the previous days no mist wreathed the road. Instead the sun shone from a sky the deep blue of autumn, casting our shadows before us as we rode along under the eaves of the White Mountains. Beech trees covered their slopes and a slight breeze blew down their leaves like a rain of gold coins. A beautiful day - too beautiful to hold a grudge. Gradually I felt myself relax and when after an hour's ride Lord Éomer let himself drop back to my side I gave him a spontaneous smile.
He took off his helmet and smiled back. "My lady, my apologies for having to wake you up so early. But I got an urgent message this morning requiring me to attend my uncle, so I thought to offer you our escort."
Glad now that I had not caused a fuss, I inclined my head. "That's very kind of you."
"Not at all. We are in your debt." Yet a quiver in his voice made me think he knew only too well what my initial reaction had been. The cheek!
His stallion threw up his head and gave a deep-chested neigh. Showing off for Nimphelos's sake? With a grin Lord Éomer shortened his reins and reached forward to pat the stallion's neck.
"Do you like the lady, Firefoot?" he asked.
He did not look like a man who had been up most of the night after a hard fight. All traces of gore gone, his mail gleamed in the sunshine and his hair fell in a tawny curtain across his shoulders.
Remembering the ghastly scene in the hall made me shiver. "I noticed last night that most of the wounded were women and children rather than warriors. What happened?"
"Orcs raided one of our villages in the East Emnet." His expression turned grim. "But we interrupted their sport."
Their sport? Suddenly I remembered the pretty young woman with cuts all over her. Bile rose to my mouth.
Lord Éomer lifted one hand as if to touch my face, but did not carry through with the gesture. "I'm sorry! I should not have told you that."
I shook my head. "No. I'd rather know the truth."
Next to me, Dirhael leaned forward. "My lord, is this a common occurrence?"
"Only lately. They used to raid our herds for black horses, but only in small groups, easily defeated. But the last few months they have stepped up their attacks and are burning whatever they cannot take with them. This last pack numbered over a hundred of the foul beasts." His hands clenched on the reins. "We have taught them to fear the thunder of our hooves, but we cannot be everywhere."
"So what can you do?" I asked. The tale sounded so familiar. Only last June Sauron's forces had overrun Osgiliath, leaving Gondor's defences in disarray.
"I want to withdraw our people to the other side of the River Entwash, leaving only guards and fast scouts in the Emnet. Although this does not please everybody."
"Why not?" Dirhael asked. "It seems a sensible thing to do."
Lord Éomer shrugged evasively. "I cannot say." He nodded at me. "My lady, will you now tell me what brings you to the Riddermark?"
"My father has arranged for me to stay in Edoras for a while," I answered. "With the storm brewing in Mordor he thought it safer than either Dol Amroth or Minas Tirith." A belief I could not quite share anymore after what I'd seen and heard.
The Marshal looked troubled. "Until recently I would have agreed with him. But now we seem to have strife threatening on every border."
"What do you mean?"
"The wizard Saruman." He said nothing more for a moment and if sensing his rider's dark thoughts the stallion shook his mane. "You know that he dwells in Isengard?"
Remembering that fact from my reading about Rohan, I nodded.
"We had always considered him a friend of the Mark," Lord Éomer explained. "But less than a month ago Gandalf the Grey came to Edoras, begging our help and warning us to prepare for war. Since then tidings have reached us that Saruman is stirring trouble amongst the Dunlendings in the West who still resent our settling here."
I exchanged a look with Dirhael. Sent to safety! "Does Lord Denethor know of this?" I asked.
"I have no idea. Théoden King would not listen to Gandalf and told him to take a horse and be gone." He gave a mirthless laugh. "The wizard took Shadowfax, the chief of our horses, and now the very mention of his name provokes the king to anger."
Troubling news. I had been reluctant to leave my home and my family at a time like this, but had submitted to my father's wishes. Now it looked as if I might have done better braving the dangers of corsair raids.
The Marshal seemed to read my thoughts. "My lady, please do not disquiet yourself. Edoras is the heart of the Mark, and I promise we will keep you safe there."
He spoke the words in a low, steady voice and for some reason my mood lightened. A promise from a man who would do his utmost to keep his word - and his utmost would be very good indeed. "Thank you."
Lord Éomer inclined his head and spurred his horse forward again. When I looked over at Dirhael I caught him watching me thoughtfully. "What is it?" I asked.
"Nothing... just that the Marshal is a dangerous man."
I frowned. "A great warrior you mean."
"No, that's not what I meant." He hesitated. "Lothíriel, you are the Princess of Dol Amroth and as such your fate will be shaped by forces beyond your control."
As if I needed reminding that the men of my family would decide my future. Or more precisely my uncle Denethor - Lord Steward of the Realm and willing to use everything and everybody for the good of Gondor. It was him who had first suggested sending me to Rohan, an important ally whose crown prince at the age of forty still lacked a wife. Coincidence? I did not think so. Still, I told myself bitterly, I should probably consider myself lucky not to be sent to the Haradrim for safety.
Dirhael still regarded me steadily, his kind face troubled. "Lothíriel?"
"I know that," I snapped and urged Nimphelos into a trot. Besides, I didn't even like the man.
Every now and again we would pass small hamlets encircled by a stockade of wood or thorn and surrounded by well-tended fields of barley. The houses huddled close together, their thatched roofs touching each other and offering shelter to the chickens and pigs disturbed by our passage. The people seemed glad to see the riders, calling out greetings in their clear voices, and offering food and drink. I noticed that always Lord Éomer took the time to stop and exchange a few words with the headmen, who treated him with marked respect.
At midday we stopped in one of the villages to water the horses and have a quick bite to eat from our saddlebags. I slipped off Nimphelos's back, glad for the opportunity to stretch my legs and as I strolled around, the sound of hammer on anvil drew me to the open door of the smithy. One of the horses had cast a shoe, and I watched with interest how his rider calmed the nervous gelding while the smith fitted a new one. Then I turned round, and much to my surprise found myself the centre of a circle of small faces watching me curiously. It seemed like all the children of the village had assembled to see the stranger in their midst!
"Hello," I said, smiling at them.
A whisper of excitement ran around the circle. One of the boys at the front pointed at me, saying something under his breath, and when he caught me looking at him blushed and quickly hid behind one of the bigger children.
I crouched down to their level. "My name is Lothíriel."
The children nudged each other in the ribs. A pretty girl, amongst the oldest of the lot, touched her thatch of blond hair and said something that sent the others into giggles.
"They are asking if your hair is hard."
I started, for I had not heard Lord Éomer approach. "Why should it be hard?"
"Because it glints blue in the sun, like black steel."
"I see!" In the rush of getting ready for the journey I had not had the time to braid my hair, so it just hung loose down my back. I pulled a strand forward and held it out to the girl. "Would you like to touch it?"
Not needing more encouragement, she darted forward to reach out a tentative hand. "Hnesce!"
I looked up at Marshal Éomer who translated. "Soft."
Suddenly all the other children followed suit and I found myself surrounded by little hands reaching for my head, stroking it. Losing all shyness, they chattered away to Lord Éomer, who laughed. "They say it's beautiful, like the mane of Aldfrid's black stallion. Aldfrid is the headman of the village," he explained.
Momentarily rendered speechless at being compared to a horse, I stared up at him. A corner of his mouth quirked and I realised he was teasing me. "Thank you," I answered. "Please tell them that is praise indeed, coming from Rohirrim."
Grinning, he translated my words and the children beamed at me, obviously finding my reaction quite reasonable. The girl who had first dared to touch me asked him another question, which he answered with a shake of the head and a quick explanation.
"What did she say?" I asked.
"She asked if you are an Elven princess."
"Oh! And what did you answer?"
He bowed. "That you're just an ordinary princess."
No disguising the teasing now. I lifted my chin. "Do you bait all travellers to your lands in this manner?"
He raised a hand, acknowledging my hit. "I find it shows their mettle."
"One day you might overreach yourself."
Unconcerned, Lord Éomer shrugged. "I don't think so." He held out a hand to me. "We have to leave now if we want to reach Edoras before dark."
I smiled at the children as I got up. "Goodbye."
"Westu hál," they echoed back at me. The girl regarded me with serious blue eyes and asked a last question, which the Marshal answered with a grin.
As we walked away I nodded at him. "What did the girl ask?"
He looked down at me, something in his eyes causing heat to rise to my cheeks. "Whether I am going to marry you."
Thoroughly disconcerted, I busied myself with shaking out my riding skirts and said nothing more. Raised in the courts of Gondor and used to admiration, I should have had no difficulty in coming up with a playful retort. Indeed I knew plenty of ladies who would have laughed, lowered their eyelashes flirtatiously and said something clever and witty, but I just found myself tongue-tied. And I absolutely knew I would not be able to pluck up the courage to ask what his answer had been.
The road turned due west now and many swift-running brooks crossed our path, on their way to swell the River Entwash. As the afternoon drew on we met other travellers: a patrol out of Edoras and farmers on their way back from a market. They followed behind a big cart drawn by a pair of oxen and loaded high with bags of grain. Two young girls riding bareback on a pony exchanged good-natured banter with the riders, but fell silent when they spotted me. Growing up as the only daughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth I was used to being constantly observed by curious eyes, but never had I felt so conspicuous before!
The sun had started to descend towards the mountains, setting the sky ablaze, when we finally rounded one of the foothills and caught sight of our destination. At the entrance to a wide valley rose a green hill, a mighty wall surrounding it. Many houses clustered around its foot or clung to its sides and on a wide terrace at the top stood a large building, light flaming from its roof. For a moment I thought it was on fire and gasped.
"The Golden Hall," Dirhael said.
Realising that what I had taken for flames were the rays of the setting sun glancing off the roof, I took a breath of relief. The road took a sharp turn south now and as we drew near I saw that low mounds lined the road, covered in a carpet of tiny white flowers. From my reading I knew that the former kings of Rohan were buried here. The riders took off their helmets and dipped their spears in a gesture of respect as we passed between them. Then big wooden gates loomed up above us and the horses strained forward, eager for the stables they knew awaited them.
However, at a low word from Lord Éomer, Dirhael and I remained mounted and followed him up a winding way between the houses. I looked around with interest - after all Edoras might be my home for quite some time to come. A clear stream ran chattering in a stone channel by the road and the men and women we met greeted us courteously. At length we reached a small square with a broad stair leading up to the hall, at the bottom of which we dismounted. I patted Nimphelos's neck in gratitude before stable lads ran to take our horses' reins and lead them away to their well earned rest.
Lord Éomer offered me his arm and suddenly weary to the bone, I leaned on it heavily as we ascended the stairs.
"Lady Lothíriel," he said in a low voice, "a quick word of warning: please watch what you say here."
What did he mean by that? "I do usually manage to be polite to kings," I tried to pass it off as a joke.
He hesitated visibly. "It's not the king you have to watch yourself with." When I stared at him he shook his head. "Do not worry yourself. But I will make sure you get guest rights."
I did not get the chance to ask for an explanation, for we had reached the top of the steps, where two doorwardens waited. While the Marshal exchanged a quick word with them I turned to the west. With a last shaft of fire the sun sank behind the rim of the world, sending the shadows of the mountains grasping for us. A sudden wind sprang up, whipping my hair out behind me, and I shivered.
"You are cold!" Lord Éomer said and motioned for the guards to open the doors.
Ponderously the heavy wings swung inwards and the low murmur of voices met us. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I perceived rows of pillars marching away from us, holding up the roof lost in the shadows above. Torches fixed to brackets along the wall cast pools of light on a floor patterned in twisting devices running into each other and called up secretive glints from the carvings adorning the pillars. When we started walking down the hall a gust of air followed us, making the tapestries hanging on the wall billow out so the figures embroidered on them seemed to move in the darkness.
An open fireplace marked the centre of the hall, its fires lit against the autumn chill, and servants hurried about, laying the wooden tables either side for supper. Most of the places were taken already, but although Lord Éomer exchanged a nod with some of the men seated there, he did not slow his steps.
Gradually as we advanced, their voices fell silent, leaving the footfall of our boots to echo hollowly. At the other end of the hall I perceived a raised dais and there in a large gilded chair sat a man. His long white hair falling in thick braids and his hand grasping a short black staff, he watched us approach intently. King Théoden. Behind his chair stood a blond woman, tall and slim, dressed all in white.
Then something stirred in the shadows at the king's feet and I realised there sat another man. He lifted his pale face to us and smiled as we came to a halt in front of the dais. Sudden tension radiated from the man next to me. When I shot Lord Éomer a startled glance I saw that his face had become an expressionless mask, but his muscles bunched as if he readied himself for combat. The remembrance of his words of warning sent a trickle of unease running down my spine.