22. Chapter 22
It was a long night. Although Ceolwen had come to her time early, the babe was big and did not make it easy for its mother. The onset of her labour was deceptively slow at first, and she managed to lie down and rest in between contractions, but very soon they intensified. All through the night the twins and I took turns holding her hand and encouraging her, while labour pains coursed through her body.
Dawn painted the sky outside a delicate pink, then the sun rose in the sky, and still the child would not come. Poor Ceolwen lay on the bed, utterly spent, her blond hair matted with sweat and tears. Earlier on, she had cursed Erkenbrand in colourful terms, but now she was too exhausted even for that. Worried for her patient, Edlyn, the keep's midwife, had asked for Master Aethelstan's assistance, and now the two were conferring in low voices by the foot of the bed.
"The child is nearly here," Aethelstan told Ceolwen, "but you have to make another effort."
With a little sob, she nodded. We helped her sit up, to be better able to push, and already I could feel poor Ceolwen stiffening under the onslaught of another contraction. They lasted longer and longer, with hardly a pause in between. It was a battle fought just as hard and with as much raw courage as anything the men might have faced.
"I can't stand it any longer!" Ceolwen groaned.
"I can see its head!" Edlyn cried at the same time. "It's crowning."
And somewhere Ceolwen found the will to bear down one more time with all the strength she could muster.
"Yes!" the midwife exclaimed. "It's coming! Push!"
Suddenly it all happened very quickly. She bent over Ceolwen, pulling at something, and then a small grey bundle shot out onto the linen towel laid ready. Quickly Edlyn picked it up and wiped its face clear of the mucus covering it. A thin wail rose into the air, gaining strength rapidly.
Ceolwen had collapsed back onto the bed, but at the sound she struggled upright again. "My baby?"
Deftly the midwife cut the umbilical cord, and then carried the infant round the side of the bed. She beamed over her whole face as she laid it on Ceolwen's breast.
"You have a lusty son, my lady!"
"A son!" Ceolwen breathed.
With the midwife's help, she guided the baby to her nipple and the wails of protests cut off abruptly. Ceolwen stroked the fine down of his hair, and touched the tiny hands in wonder.
"He's so beautiful."
Already she seemed to have forgotten all the pain her son had caused her. I exchanged a glance with Aeffe and Leofe. Beautiful? Not the word I would have chosen for this wizened little thing with bluish-grey skin.
Ceolwen looked up at us with shining eyes.
"Absolutely beautiful," we all agreed.
After the baby had suckled for a while, Edlyn took him back to wash him and wrap him in a clean towel. She turned to me.
"Please, my lady, would you take him for a moment?"
I accepted the bundle gingerly. Never had I held such a tiny baby in my arms before.
She nodded to a chair next to the window. "Why don't you sit down while I help Lady Ceolwen clean up."
Taking great care with every step, I crossed the room and sat down where she had indicated. It was a hot, heavy day and the window stood open, letting in a light breeze, so I wrapped the cloth more tightly around the baby to make sure he would not catch a cold.
"He's so small," I marvelled.
Ceolwen gave a snort as Edlyn helped her get up from the bed. "Not when you had to give birth to him!"
"What are you going to call him?" I asked.
"Ermenred, after Erkenbrand's father." Her voice caught. "We discussed it before he left."
I looked down at the serious grey eyes watching me. He was beautiful. For a while I had forgotten all about the news the messenger had brought us the night before. What kind of world had Ermenred been born into? Would he ever see his father?
Yet as I looked out the window at the view over the Westfold Vale, something lifted inside me and I felt more hopeful than I had for many days. The sun seemed to shine more brightly than it had a moment ago, and the world sparkled fresh and new.
"What is the date today?" Ceolwen interrupted my thoughts. "Erkenbrand would want to know."
I made a quick mental calculation. "The twenty-fifth of March."
Perhaps it was just the fact of an heir born to their lord, but the people of the Hornburg took heart from that moment onward. And then two days later another messenger reached us, this time from Edoras.
He rode into the courtyard at sunset, an elderly, grey haired warrior, but sitting easy in the saddle.
"I bring news," he called. "The armies of the West have been victorious!"
Cheers went up and we crowded round him. Yet it seemed strange to get this news so soon after the previous report. Surely a messenger could not have ridden all the way from Gondor in such a short time.
"What has happened?" somebody asked.
"I do not know the details," the man answered, "but early yesterday morning an enormous eagle flew over Edoras. At first we were alarmed when it stooped down upon the Golden Hall, but then it cried out, and to our amazement it spoke the language of Gondor, bringing tidings that the Enemy had been thrown down and the Black Gate broken."
A talking bird! A month ago I would have dismissed such stories as children's tales, but I had become more cautious since. And suddenly in my heart I knew that it was true, however unlikely. As the people around me shouted with joy, dancing and hugging each other, I walked slowly back to the keep to take the news to Ceolwen, who was upstairs nursing her son. While I was relieved and amazed at the news of our victory, I could not quite join in the celebrations.
It seemed that against all the odds we had triumphed. But at what cost? Surely there had been another battle with Sauron's forces. Had my father and brothers survived? And Éomer? If only I knew! I paused to lean my forehead against the cool stone of the wall for a moment. My whole life seemed to have narrowed down to waiting for news. Sometimes all I wanted to do was saddle Nimphelos and ride to Gondor. I might not be able to help, but at least I would know! If something had happened to Éomer...if he had died... I swallowed hard. The light would go out of my world. He was a mighty warrior, I told myself, skilled with horse and sword. Holding on to that thought, I hurried up the stairs of the keep.
It took over a week for a more conventional messenger to arrive and bring news of a great battle fought before the Black Gates. But amazingly it hadn't been our warriors who had won victory, but a Halfling, cousin to the one whom I had so briefly seen, who had overthrown the Dark Lord. The assault on the Black Gates had been nothing but a distraction, to draw Sauron's attention away from his own land. And while our men had offered up their lives as bait, the Halfling had crept into Mordor, all the way to Mount Doom, and destroyed the foundation of the Enemy's power: the One Ring!
The courier brought other news as well: Gondor had a new king, the Lord Aragorn, who would be crowned in Minas Tirith in another month's time. My father and brothers had survived with minor injuries, as had Erkenbrand. And Rohan's new king would return home after the coronation. The vice that had held my heart in a terrible constriction during the long weeks of waiting eased up at this, and after the rider had delivered his news, I had to seek refuge in my room as my feelings overwhelmed me. Tears coursed down my cheeks. Éomer was alive! Alive and well! Although I would not sleep easy until I could see him with my own eyes.
As the days progressed, slowly more news trickled in. Small groups of Westfold riders arrived home, sent ahead to help with the spring planting. The caves behind the Hornburg emptied, and Gamling decided to let the captive Dunlendings go as well. They had finished rebuilding the Deeping Wall and were needed at home. The Rohirrim did not make war on women and children who needed help with the farming work. So Gamling assembled them all on the sward above the dike and their chieftain made a solemn oath in their own language not to cross the Isen and Adorn bearing arms ever again. Without soot blackening their faces they looked a sorry lot, and Gamling made sure they would not stray on the way home by sending a party of riders along to 'protect them from the trees'. This reminder of our uncanny allies made them blanch, and I did not think they would trouble us again any time soon.
With spring dotting the meadows of the Westfold Vale with a riot of flowers, the Hornburg seemed a much friendlier place to dwell. Often now we would sit in Ceolwen's study, discussing the handling of the refugees or the return of the injured to their homes while little Ermenred slept in his cradle nearby.
It was here that another courier found us one afternoon, bringing long awaited letters from Gondor at last. I had not expected any missive from Éomer after our turbulent parting, but nevertheless I could not help feeling hurt when I saw that he had written to Ceolwen, albeit only a short message. By unspoken consent we all retired to our chairs, Ceolwen and the twins to read their letters from Erkenbrand, I with the one from my father.
It was strange to see the Dol Amroth Swan and Ship seal after so many months without any communication from my family. How I had longed to hear from them during the winter. Why had they not written to me before? I broke the seal and started to read.
My dear daughter,
By the time this letter reaches you, you will have heard of our victory over the Darkness. It still seems like a dream at times, yet the Enemy is gone and Gondor is victorious and has a new king! Your brothers are all well, you will be pleased to hear. Erchirion suffered a cut to his leg in the final battle, but is making a good recovery, and Amrothos had a slight head wound. Nothing serious, though.
Even though I had known that my brothers had survived, I still heaved a sigh of relief to have it confirmed at last. And a king for Gondor! It would be strange to see the throne that had stood empty so long occupied again.
I was worried when Dirhael returned home last winter without you and you did not reply to the letter I sent to Edoras.
What letter? Could it have been lost? Suddenly another suspicion entered my mind. Had Wormtongue misappropriated it? I read on.
But our new friend, King Éomer, has put my mind at rest by assuring me that you are well taken care of and safe in Rohan's most secure fortress.
I frowned a little at that. It sounded as though I were a piece of jewellery put away in a strongbox!
He has also had the kindness to agree to let Amrothos ride with him when he returns to Rohan so he can escort you home. Until then he extends his hospitality to you.
I put the letter down for a moment and took a deep breath. Why did I feel like a parcel that had been mislaid and now waited to be collected?
We are resting in Cormallen in Ithilien at the moment, honouring the Ringbearer and celebrating our victory. It is a shame you are not present, for all the ladies of the court have decided to join us. However, that cannot be helped now.
The ladies of the court! That could only mean one thing: dances, outings and other amusements. And an unmarried king... Two really, but Lord Aragorn had given the impression of being well able to take care of himself. I turned back to my letter.
I am looking forward to seeing you at home again soon. Make sure to stay safely in Helm's Deep until Amrothos can collect you with a suitable escort.
Your loving father
I jumped up and paced to the window. More waiting! Father expected me to cool my heels here until one of my brothers could find the time to come and get me!
"Lothíriel?" Ceolwen asked uncertainly.
I whirled round. "What did Éomer write?"
She started. "Not very much. Just that Erkenbrand is coming home with him and that you are to stay here until then."
"Well I won't! They treat me like a package forgotten in some corner until they deign to pick it up. I'm sick and tired of waiting!"
"So what will you do?" Aeffe asked.
The answer was obvious. "Return to Gondor on my own. At once."
Leofe looked at me with big eyes. "But Lord Éomer told you to wait here. He is the king now!"
"Not mine," I pointed out with perfect logic.
Of course they all helped me in the end. We formed a small council of war between us, just the women, and planned how to go about it. A party of patients from Edoras would be returning home in another couple of days, so I could join them for the trip, but then I would need a proper escort. Sauron's armies might have been defeated, but small bands of orcs still roamed the lands along the Great West Road. We debated asking Gamling to lend me some riders to accompany me to Gondor, but I decided against it. I could tell that Ceolwen was uneasy at going against her king's wishes, and I did not want to get her into trouble. Surely Éomer could not blame her if she let me go to Edoras, and from there I would just have to see.
Suddenly my days were very busy again as I packed my things and said my good-byes to all the people I had come to call my friends. And sooner than I would have thought possible, the day of our departure dawned. Wuffa was coming with me, for his aunt had made it clear that she had no use for him. I wasn't quite sure myself what to do with him - perhaps have him trained as a page at my father's court - but he and his dog had attached themselves so firmly to me over the past weeks that I did not have the heart to leave them behind. So I had borrowed a sturdy little pony for him and he waited for me in the courtyard, bubbling over with excitement.
I had tears in my eyes as I made my farewells to Ceolwen and the twins. Aeffe would have liked to come along as well, and I had to promise to invite her to visit me.
"Wherever it is that you live," she added with a wink. The scar on her cheek gave her a rakish look.
"I will!" I answered, hugging her tightly.
Ceolwen stood with little Ermenred in her arms, who at a month old had grown into a pretty pink baby with chubby arms and legs, and it gave me a pang to depart from them. But at last all my farewells had been said, all my friends embraced, and I took Nimphelos's reins and lead her out the gate. It seemed as if all the inhabitants of the Hornburg had assembled to wave us good-bye. One of the women who had helped with the wounded pressed a loaf of fresh bread on me, the wife of one of my patients, a couple of honey cakes. My vision blurred with tears by the time we passed the dike and reached the road leading down the Westfold Vale.
The wains carrying the wounded were slow, so it took three days to reach Edoras. Though I had been sad to leave the Hornburg, now that I was on my way, the slow pace chafed me. But finally the golden roof of Meduseld came into view, gleaming in the spring sunshine, a sight both fresh and very familiar. The inhabitants of Edoras had returned from their refuge in Dunharrow long ago, and as I rode into town I found myself greeted by a surprising number of them who still remembered me.
The Golden Hall was strangely empty when I entered it, the fire in the hearth banked, the chair on the dais standing abandoned, waiting for its new master. I almost expected to hear the slow tap of Théoden's cane on the flagstones or to see Gríma stepping out of the shadows, leering at me. Going to my room, I found it unchanged from when I had left it nearly four months before, except that the servants had tidied up my clothes and made up the bed with fresh sheets. Feeling like an intruder, I turned over the pages of the book, which still lay open on my desk at the place where I had left off reading. So much had happened since!
But I did not have the time to linger. I had to secure an escort before I lost my courage at the thought of incurring both my father's and Éomer's displeasure. So I dumped my saddlebags on the bed, and only paused long enough to extract the letter Éomer had written to Ceolwen, and which I had borrowed from her before leaving. I had plans for it.
Feeling unusually reckless, I sought out the captain who had been left in command of Edoras. To my secret delight it was one of Elfhelm's men, a young man I had often exchanged words with at the practice grounds.
He jumped up as I entered his small office in the barracks. "Princess Lothíriel!"
I gave him my best smile. "Captain Freotheric, what a pleasure to see you. You are just the man I was looking for."
He flushed a bright red. "My lady, what may I do for you?"
"I was wondering if my escort to Gondor is ready yet, and when we can depart?" I opened my eyes wide, trying to look the very picture of innocence.
"Your escort?" he stammered. "I know nothing of that."
"Didn't Éomer King write to you?" I took Ceolwen's letter out, making sure that he saw the seal of the Kings of Rohan affixed to it prominently.
Poor Freotheric opened and closed his mouth, obviously not knowing what to say.
I unfolded the letter and pretended to read from it. "At your father, my dear friend Imrahil's, request I have sent word to Edoras to ready a company of ten men to escort you safely to Minas Tirith whenever it is convenient to you." I looked up expectantly.
Freotheric swallowed. "I'm afraid that the message must have been lost."
"Oh dear." I bestowed another smile on him. "Still, no harm done. I'm sure I can leave it in your capable hands to get me safely to Gondor."
He straightened up. "Of course, my Lady Princess. I will organize an escort at once."
Hiding my relief, I inclined my head. "I knew I could rely on you."
But once I had left his office, I leaned against the door and closed my eyes. How easy that had been! I could hardly believe that I had pulled off my rebellion so effortlessly. All my life I had been an obedient daughter, but now I found it intoxicating to get my own way for once. However, I would have to make sure that Freotheric would not get blamed for falling for my ruse.
In the end it took three days to get ready and I awaited the moment of our departure with growing impatience. But Freotheric took his charge seriously and made sure that I had a guard of seasoned warriors to accompany me. Wanting to ride light, I dispensed with a packhorse and left most of my things behind in Edoras. After all, I could always send for my books later, and the clothes I had brought with me from Gondor were too warm anyway. Besides, I still had the hope of returning one day.
At last we winded our way between the mounds lining the road out of Edoras and crossed the Snowbourne to join the Great West Road. I cast a last look back at the Golden Hall. Would I ever see it again?
We made good progress that day and reached Aldburg at sunset, setting out again the next morning. As we journeyed on, the weather remained fair and it grew hotter every day. To our right the White Mountains reared up, their snowfields shrinking rapidly in the heat and swelling the many brooks crossing our path with icy water. The largest of these was the Mering Stream, marking the border to Gondor. It was an odd feeling to return to my homeland, as if I'd been away for a lifetime instead of little over half a year.
That night we pitched our tents at the foot of Halifirien, the first of Gondor's beacon hills, and in the following days we passed the rest of them one by one: Calenhad, Min-Rimmon, Erelas, Nardol, Eilenach. How strange to think that King Théoden and his men had taken this very same road on their journey to Minas Tirith! Already the ride of the Rohirrim had passed into legend.
And finally Amon Dîn came into sight, the last of the beacons. It was a hot day, and late in the afternoon we crossed another stream, this one a meandering river flowing out of Drúadan Forest to join the Anduin on its course to the sea. Solitary trees dotted its banks, overhanging and with their roots exposed by the water washing away the soil. As we reached the opposite side, I dismounted to take off my boots. The river had been deeper than we anticipated and they had got filled with water. I sighed as I upended them. It would take days to dry them, and I had no spares along!
Nimphelos, who stood beside me, managed to look sleek and elegant even with her flanks flecked with mud, but I doubted whether I matched her. My wardrobe had shrunk to two pairs of trousers, a couple of linen blouses and a sleeveless tunic to go over them. All borrowed from the twins and none of it in pristine condition by now. I had one Gondorian riding dress along as well, but the heavy wool was hot and uncomfortable to wear in this weather, so I had decided not to put it on until shortly before we would reach Minas Tirith.
I bent down to splash cool water over my face and as usual my hair kept getting in the way. Every morning I tied it in a short, tidy ponytail and within the hour it would escape its bounds, getting in my eyes and looking a mess. What my aunt would say about it, I dared not even imagine.
Godric, the captain of my escort, stopped beside me and passed me a flask of water, which I accepted gratefully.
"How much further to go?" I asked.
"Less than a day, my lady," he answered. "We should be in Mundburg by this time tomorrow."
Visions of a bath danced before my eyes. Fresh clothes and proper food! Not having to face another day in the saddle, tired and sore. Seeing my family again at last. And Éomer... Had I done the right thing in coming to Gondor? Would he be very angry with me for going against his orders? I had thought long about what I would say to him and how to present my reasoning in a rational and dignified manner. All I needed was the opportunity to speak to him in private. If only he would give it to me!
That moment a shout from one of the men above rudely interrupted my musings, and Godric spurred his horse up the sandy bank to have a look. I hesitated, not sure if I should follow. We had encountered nobody but a solitary courier during the whole journey, yet that did not mean that orcs might not still lay in wait somewhere. And the eaves of the forest were very near, so they might have hidden there.
Yet when I listened, I could hear no sound of fighting, so in the end I mounted Nimphelos again, barefoot for the moment, and urged her up the bank. Godric was talking to one of his riders.
"... to wait here," the man was just saying.
"What is the matter?" I asked.
"Hareld here has encountered scouts, outriders for a large party of Rohirrim, he says. It might be better to await them here and see who they are."
Why did I get a sinking feeling in my stomach? The road ran straight and flat after the river crossing and when I looked east I saw a low cloud of dust. Such as might be raised by a large host...
The low rumble of many hooves reached us first, then we saw the sun glinting on spears and armour as rank after rank of riders came into view. We waited, and slowly individual figures became discernible. One of the men gave a shout of joy when he spotted the banner of the White Horse on Green.
"The King! The Lord of the Mark is riding home!"
Éomer. All during the journey I had mentally rehearsed what I would say to him upon meeting him at last, how to explain both my actions in Edoras and the disregarding of his orders to stay in Rohan. But I had not expected it to be so soon! Panic rising within me, I groped for my chain of arguments and found that my mind had gone completely blank.
Swallowing hard, I passed my dripping boots to Wuffa, smoothed down my crumpled tunic and sat up straight in the saddle. Why did the man always have to catch me looking my worst?
A solitary horseman spurred his steed forward from the foremost group of riders, unmistakable on his big grey stallion and with his blond hair flowing out behind him. He held up his hand and a ripple went through the orderly companies following him as they came to a halt.
I had just brought Rohan's army to a standstill.
A/N: the twenty-fifth of March is the day of Sauron's downfall.
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.