23. Chapter 23
A couple of paces from me, Éomer brought Firefoot to an abrupt halt. The stallion tried to rear, snorting and pulling on the bit, but Éomer checked him firmly.
"Lothíriel! What are you doing here?"
For a moment all I could do was to drink in the sight of him. Alive and well! And I had forgotten how handsome he was. The setting sun turned his blond hair to burnished gold and made his armour shine.
"I'm going home," I answered.
He gave a ferocious frown. "I wrote to Ceolwen that you were to stay at the Hornburg."
"I know. Please don't blame Ceolwen."
"My lady," he snapped, "I know exactly whom to blame."
"Oh, that's good then."
I smiled at him. My heart was singing inside, it was so wonderful to see him again. And for the briefest instant the corners of his mouth turned up and an answering spark flashed in his eyes, but then he suppressed it.
Instead he turned his scowl on my escort. "These are my own men! Godric, I take a very dim view of your going along with this scheme of the princess's without my permission."
Poor Godric looked alarmed. "But my Lord King," he stammered. "Captain Freotheric himself gave me my orders. The Princess had a letter from you that commanded him to provide her with an escort home."
I squirmed in the saddle. This meeting was not going as I had planned. "I had to use a small subterfuge to secure their services. Please don't be angry. I'm only borrowing them."
"Borrowing them!" His tone made his displeasure plain.
"Just for a little while..."
Éomer's brows lowered in a frown. Somehow things were going from bad to worse! What had seemed such a reasonable course to take in Rohan now looked rash and childish in the face of his relentless disapproval. And I did not even have the subtle backing that a pretty gown gave.
"My lady," he said, "I thought I had made my orders clear: you were to stay at the Hornburg and wait for me!" Then he checked himself. "That is, wait for your brother."
Perhaps matters weren't completely hopeless! But he gave me no chance to exploit this slip of the tongue.
"I only had your safety in mind. As King of the Mark I expect my orders to be obeyed," he snapped.
I looked down. It would probably not go down well if I pointed out that I was a Gondorian princess on Gondorian soil and thus outside his dominion. Besides, he had his whole army to back him up - not that he needed it.
"I'm sorry," I murmured.
Firefoot chose that moment to try and sidle up to Nimphelos, and Éomer had to rein him in hard. Nimphelos, that tease, lowered her head to nibble at a blade of grass while the stallion chewed on his bit, foam flecking his neck.
"Stupid animal," Éomer growled, but not without affection. He fixed me with a stern glare. "Now what am I supposed to do with you?"
Remembering our leave taking, I had an idea, but thought it better not to voice the suggestion out loud. As his glance lingered on me, the expression on his face did make me wonder though if his thoughts might not run in the same direction.
"Lothíriel!" the shout made me look up.
Unnoticed by either of us, Éomer's companions had ridden up. One of them nudged his horse forward. Amrothos!
He looked me up and down in disbelief. "It is you!" His eyes fastened on my face. "What have you done to your hair!"
Irritation surged up within me. Was that all he could say? "Yes, brother, I'm pleased to see you, too!" I shot back.
My heart sank as I recognized more of the men and women staring at me with shock and surprise on their faces. Why, half the court of Gondor seemed to be present! What were they all doing here? Lord Húrin of the Keys with his wife and beautiful daughter, Lord Brandir of Lamedon and half a dozen other nobles that I had a nodding acquaintance with. My eyes fastened on the one friendly face amongst the lot. Faramir! But next to him, Éowyn gave me a stony look.
One of the ladies leant over to whisper something in the ear of the woman next to her. Abruptly I became aware of wet trousers clinging to my legs, the sorry state of my tunic, my bare feet. And my hair... I must look like a vagabond! Holding my spine ramrod straight, I gave her my haughtiest glare.
Éomer took in the situation with a single glance. "We make camp here," he decided. "Set up the tents away from the river and post a ring of sentries."
As his men ran to do his bidding, the ladies of the court dismounted, assisted by their attendants. Lord Húrin's daughter, Emeldir, shook out her rich riding skirts and smoothed back a strand of auburn hair.
"What a lovely idea," she said with a gentle smile.
I held out my hand to my brother imperiously so he would help me down. As if I hadn't groomed and tacked up Nimphelos myself for the past week!
"Amrothos," I whispered, nodding at the ladies, "what in the name of the Valar are they doing here?" An unwelcome thought struck me. "They're not travelling all the way to Rohan, are they?"
"No, no," he answered. "Lord Húrin wanted to farewell the Rohirrim by accompanying them for a day, and in the end half the court decided to join him. I think Éomer was none too pleased about it either. But they've brought their own tents and supplies."
He motioned to one of his men to take Nimphelos's reins and drew me aside. "Lothíriel, what happened to you? Are you all right?"
I cast a look back over my shoulder. Éomer had dismounted to consult with Éothain and his other captains while his squire, Cnebba, led a rebellious Firefoot away. The ladies' palfreys rolled their eyes nervously at the stallion's loud neighs of protest. I had missed my chance to talk to Éomer.
The purpose drained out of me and with something closely resembling a sob I buried my head in Amrothos's chest and clung to him. "It was just so horrible! The war, the wounded, the endless waiting for news! And I was so worried about you all."
His arms went round me. "Poor you! We heard that you got landed right in the middle of a terrible battle. Father really blamed himself for sending you into danger. But you're safe now." He slipped his arm around my shoulders and gave me a squeeze. "I'll take care of you, little sister. This time tomorrow, you'll be resting in our house in Minas Tirith, and once you've recovered, we'll ship you off home to Dol Amroth, where you can forget all your troubles."
The prospect held no enticement for me. I nodded dispiritedly and we walked away from the river, towards where the Swan and Ship banner marked the Dol Amroth encampment. All around us, men were busy setting up camp, fetching water, lighting fires and grooming their horses. To my surprise I found myself hailed repeatedly by riders I knew from my days in Edoras, or whom I had patched up during the battle of Helm's Deep. My spirits rose a little at the friendly greetings.
"Where did you learn to speak their language so well?" Amrothos asked almost accusingly after I stopped yet again to inquire after one of my former patients' health. "You sound like a native!"
I shrugged. "It's not so different from Westron. Besides, I had no choice but to learn it if I wanted to be able to communicate."
When we reached the Dol Amroth camp we found our tents set up already. And I spotted another very familiar face.
"Dirhael!" I exclaimed.
The old soldier greeted me with a huge grin. "So it was you!"
"Yes." Disregarding protocol, I embraced him. "How wonderful to see you again. I was worried about all of you."
He looked surprised, but pleased. "I was worried, too, when I had to leave you behind in Rohan." He got a closer look at me. "Your hair! What happened to it?"
"Never mind," I answered. "An accident during the battle." I got the sinking feeling I would have that question posed to me many more times.
Wuffa had trailed along behind us and now he looked around while Wulf sat a little apart, scratching his ear with earnest concentration. Spotting the big shaggy beast, one of the Swan Knights picked up a stick to chase him away.
"Hold!" I called. "He's with me."
"That mongrel?" Amrothos asked, taken aback.
"Yes," I answered curtly, not willing to go into the whole story. "Could somebody please see to it that he and the boy get something to eat?"
"I'll do it," Dirhael volunteered.
Seeing Wuffa well taken care of, I turned back to Amrothos.
"The boy is with you as well?" he asked with a frown as he held the tent flap open for me to pass through.
"I intend to train him as a page," I explained.
"What do you need another page for?" But then he shook his head. "Never mind. We'll find something for him to do, don't you worry about it."
With a grateful sigh I sat down on the low camp bed that constituted the only furniture in the tent. "I can manage."
He surveyed me from head to foot. "You don't look as though you can," he said, raising an eyebrow. "Aunt Ivriniel will throw a fit when she sees you."
"It's not as if I chose to be involved in a battle," I pointed out in exasperation. Did they even realize that I could have lost much more than just a few inches of hair?
"No, of course not," he soothed me. "It's not your fault. Father should really have sent an escort to fetch you straightaway when Dirhael returned without you. But with the attacks on Minas Tirith imminent, we thought you would be safer in Rohan."
Safer! Little did they know. Why did all the men in my life think they were best qualified to decide what was good for me?
"My lord," somebody called from outside the tent, "the washing water for the princess is ready."
Amrothos opened the tent flap. "Come in." He turned back to me. "I will leave you to it now, Sister. Why don't you have your dinner in here and then call it an early night? We can speak further tomorrow."
"Why, where are you going?" I asked.
"To Lord Húrin's," he explained while a couple of servants filed past him bearing buckets of water and my saddlebags. "He has organized an informal gathering, much as in Cormallen, to farewell King Éomer."
"I'm coming with you."
He stared at me. "Really, Lothíriel, that's not necessary. I'm sure nobody will expect you to attend, not in the state you're in."
I gritted my teeth. "I'm coming."
"But look at you-"
"I will wash and put on fresh clothes," I said through clenched teeth. "And you will wait for me."
He cast a look at the servants, who were assiduously concentrating on rolling in a washing tub. "Have your wash and then we'll talk about it."
"Amrothos," I called after him as he ducked out the tent. "If you don't wait for me, I'll find the way myself."
He did not answer. But I could well imagine the expression on his face.
It took several buckets of water until I felt really clean and once again I thought longingly of a proper bath. However, that could not be helped. My father had sent one of the maids of our town house along and she towelled my hair dry and combed it out, bewailing the state of it all the while. Then I put on my woollen riding dress, crumpled and too hot for the early summer weather, but at least clean. For shoes I borrowed a pair of clogs from the maid, as my boots were still damp inside.
When I ventured outside again, I found Amrothos waiting for me, looking very dashing in a scarlet surcoat and shiny black boots with golden tassels. He rolled his eyes at my unconventional footwear, but did not again try to dissuade me from coming. The reason very soon became clear: Faramir and Éowyn had come to fetch us. I embraced my cousin enthusiastically, but hesitated over what to say to Éowyn. Ever since leaving Edoras, I had felt guilty for lying to her and abandoning her to Wormtongue's wiles. At the time my plan had seemed the only way out, but in reality it had caused us all nothing but trouble and heartache. What she thought of me now, I dared not even imagine.
She looked equally ill-at-ease, nodding a stiff greeting to me. Fortunately Faramir filled the awkward silence with questions about my time in Rohan. And as we walked through the camp to Lord Húrin's tents it suddenly dawned on me why she had come along: to be with Faramir. The way she smiled a fond challenge at him when he helped her step across one of the guy ropes. How he managed to hold her arm close without seeming to. Surely not! My peace loving, scholarly cousin and this Shieldmaiden from Rohan? The thought made me stumble and Amrothos had to steady me.
"Those shoes!" he muttered.
Lord Húrin had chosen to set up his camp under the eaves of the forest, in a small clearing by the side of the river. Lanterns hung from tree branches, fashioned in the shape of kingfishers, their plumage inset with coloured glass. The effect should have been festive, but instead the pine trees seemed to exude a strange sense of brooding. I looked longingly towards the river, where the sky was still light and swallows glided and dived through the air. Near the trees darkness had already settled, with the light of the lamps swallowed up by row upon row of grey trunks. Involuntarily I remembered the eerie forest at Helm's Deep, for I got the same sense of unseen eyes watching me. Not unfriendly exactly, but not welcoming either.
From somewhere the soft strains of a harp reached us, and the guests already assembled made a valiant effort at appearing carefree and happy. Yet their laughter rang too loud.
I stared at the canvas chairs dotted about in small groups, the tables scattered about, set with snow-white linen and silver plates full of delicacies, and the liveried servants carrying trays with goblets of wine.
"They must have brought several wagons full of supplies with them," I whispered to Amrothos. "Surely this is a bit excessive for an informal gathering?"
He chuckled. "All in a good cause."
"What do you mean?"
We moved forward to be greeted by our host and his wife. Lady Rían welcomed me genially and asked after my journey. Once she might have possessed the same beauty as her daughter, but her partiality for sweets had left its marks on her figure. I had to suppress the impish thought that if she ever accidentally sat on her small, spindly husband, she would flatten him. But as usual she was impeccably dressed and I had no doubt that she noted every least imperfection of my attire - not a difficult task.
Then her daughter floated forward, in a gown of kingfisher blue that clung to every curve, her auburn curls spilling down her back. Emeldir greeted us politely enough, but her attention was clearly elsewhere. And sure enough, when a stir amongst the other guests indicated a new arrival, she excused herself and flitted away, like a bird spotting a tasty morsel.
I turned round to see that Éomer and his men had arrived. He exchanged a few words with his host, then let his glance roam casually around the clearing. Our eyes locked. But before I could react, Emeldir caught his attention.
"King Éomer," she exclaimed, clapping her hands together. "How lovely that you could come."
"It's an honour," he replied politely.
She took his arm. "Would you like to have a look around? We've put up lanterns, just as at Cormallen." She giggled. "And Cook has prepared all your favourites."
I watched them walk amongst the guests, her sweet little face lifted to him in adoration, hanging on every word he said. So that was what Amrothos had meant! My heart shrivelling up inside my chest, I grabbed my brother's arm.
"Are they engaged?"
"Not yet," Amrothos replied. "The bets are still on whether he will escape the jaws of this particular trap closing on him or not. Although his men seem to think the whole thing hilarious." He shrugged. "But Emeldir has set her heart on him, and you know her, her parents deny her nothing."
That explained the extravagant entertainment. And Lady Rían at least would surely enjoy the prestige accruing from such a match if her daughter married the King of Rohan. A flash of pure rage surged through me.
Amrothos was still watching the two. "Of course, politically speaking, an alliance would make sense for Gondor. We could do with strengthening our ties with the Rohirrim." He lowered his voice. "Although King Elessar has done nothing to push the match. But he's still inexperienced in such matters."
A hint of spicy perfume wafted past us. Amrothos turned round and brightened up at once. "That's Lady Aredhel. Lothíriel, will you be all right on your own for a bit?"
"Of course," I replied.
But as he approached the richly clad beauty and she held out a white hand to have it kissed, I wondered who was the hunter and who the hunted. Some things never changed! I shrugged and turned my attention back to the rest of the gathering.
More of the unmarried noblewomen had congregated around Éomer's tall form, looking up at him in worship like a litter of soft, silky puppies. With somebody else it might have been amusing to watch, but now it gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. So much for my plan to talk to him in private. Did he think I would fawn over him, too? Well, he would find out differently!
Mustering all my determination, I turned my back on him and moved further into the shadow of the trees. Most of the guests crowded near the riverbank, as if made uncomfortable by the forest, and I took a kind of perverse pleasure to sit down in an empty chair all on my own.
However, I did not remain alone for very long, for upon spotting me Lord Erkenbrand brought me a goblet of wine and a plate of pastries. He at least was delighted to see me, greeting me in his great, booming voice. We attracted a few startled glances from the Gondorians, who were used to softer tones, but Erkenbrand ignored them, inquiring how I had left matters at the Hornburg. Of course, he mainly wanted to hear about his family and swelled with pride when I described little Ermenred to him.
We fell easily into talking Rohirric and to my surprise very soon Marshal Elfhelm and Éothain joined us as well. They were keen to hear about those of their riders they'd had to leave behind, injured after the battle of Helm's Deep, and how the spring planting progressed. I answered their many questions as best I could, yet again and again my eyes were drawn across the clearing.
Éomer and his bevy of admirers had slowly moved closer as he exchanged a word here and there with the other guests, and now they stood not far away from us. I could not help thinking that Éomer was listening to our conversation with half an ear, for he seemed rather distracted. That moment he glanced over.
I looked down hastily and concentrated on my pastry. Lord Húrin had really outdone himself. Surely whipping up all these delicacies in such a short time had taken an army of cooks! One of the servants offered baked artichokes to Lord Erkenbrand and with a word of thanks he took the whole tray, leaving the poor man looking rather startled.
"Here, have some," Erkenbrand said to me with a twinkle in his eye. "Éomer!" he called, "why don't you join us. Have one of these choke-things, they are quite nice."
The men made room for Éomer as he helped himself to one of the dainties and offered them to his companions as well. With their delicate silk dresses the ladies looked rather out of place, as if they belonged indoors, not out here on the edge of an impenetrable forest. Even Lady Rían, who had accompanied her daughter, cast a nervous look at the enormous trees overshadowing the clearing. At an imperious wave of her hand, servants brought more chairs and the ladies settled down in them, spreading their bright skirts around them.
Lord Erkenbrand wolfed down his food with alarming speed. I had never seen him in such a genial mood before, with the heavy weight of responsibility removed from his shoulders. And of course he was finally going home. How Ceolwen and the twins would be pleased! Thinking of them made me realize how much I missed them, not least for the moral support their presence would have given me.
"So how did you get here?" Erkenbrand asked me in Rohirric, waving his goblet at a servant for a refill. "I thought you were meant to stay at the Hornburg. Did Éomer King change his mind?"
"Eh, not quite." I did not dare look up. "I thought it would be easier if I made my own way home. Save my brother the journey."
"I suppose it makes sense. But I'm surprised Freotheric let you go, he's such a stickler for keeping to his orders."
"He thought those were his orders. I made him believe I had a letter from your king."
"Did you? That sounds just like something my girls would do!" Erkenbrand started laughing. "Elfhelm! Did you hear? You have to train your men better. First they did not notice Éowyn riding with you, and now this."
Marshal Elfhelm shrugged sheepishly. "I told you before that it was dark!"
I looked up to find Éomer watching me. "You won't reprimand Captain Freotheric, will you?" I asked impulsively. "He really had no idea."
All of a sudden he grinned. "I told you that I know whom to blame. Besides, I don't take my men to task for yielding to overwhelming odds."
That made me laugh. For a moment we shared the same easy rapport that we used to have, then his grin faded. Next to Éomer, Emeldir looked annoyed at being excluded from the conversation. Her mouth settled into a pout and she cast an imploring look at her mother.
Lady Rían leaned forward. "Such a melodious language you speak," she put in smoothly. "How I would like to learn more of it one day." It was as good as a rebuke and taking the hint, Éomer apologized for speaking in Rohirric.
She eyed me critically. "My dear, you have changed a great deal." Not to the better, went the implication.
A year ago, I would have smiled uncertainly and retreated to my books as soon as I could. Now I lifted my chin in challenge. "Thank you. I've learnt a lot during my time in Rohan, so it's not surprising I seem changed."
Her eyes narrowed. Lady Rían had been a close friend of my uncle Denethor's and had unofficially ruled the court in Minas Tirith for many years. No doubt she was not used to anybody defying her.
She gave a little laugh. "Indeed? I have to admit I hardly recognized you this afternoon. Such a charmingly rustic dress! In fact I'm afraid I took you for a peasant for a moment."
Titters from the other ladies. Next to me, Erkenbrand stirred angrily. "Probably because of my bare feet," I replied in a level tone. "Or because I did a lot of actual work during the war."
Her smile congealed as she detected the hidden criticism. "Ah yes, we heard that you assisted the healers. I suppose any willing hand came in useful."
Éomer frowned. "We owe Princess Lothíriel a great deal," he said with a hint of warning in his voice.
"My dear King Éomer, of course," Lady Rían replied at once. Her double chin quivered as she smiled at me. "You must be glad to be back after the terrible hardships you suffered."
I shrugged noncommittally, avoiding Éomer's eye.
Emeldir gave a little shiver. "All those horrendous battles you fought for us!" Another adoring look at Éomer from under long lashes. "How brave you are! I'm sure I would have died of fright."
I suppressed the uncharitable impulse to say that no doubt she would have. Did the fool think it romantic to be caught up in a battle? She had probably expected Éomer to assure her that he would of course protect her, but instead he stared down at his wine, a bleak expression on his face. I knew without having to be told that he remembered all the men he had lost. His uncle, Théodred...
Lady Rían filled the uncomfortable silence with a great sigh. "Such terrible times! I am sure the bards will compose many a song about those battles." A sly look at me. "By the way, my dear, is that where you suffered your misfortune with your hair?"
Suddenly I was tired of all the little snipes. "No," I replied. "It's a traditional style for Shieldmaidens in the Mark." I pulled a strand of my hair forward. "You cut off a finger's breadth for every orc that you kill."
Lady Rían's mouth dropped open as I bared my teeth in a smile at her. But at the same time I carefully avoided looking at all the men of Rohan around me who did of course know the sum total of orcs I had killed. Yet nobody spoke up to give me the lie.
I got up from my chair. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I find the atmosphere here rather cloying. I think I need fresh air."
It wasn't an easy feat to glide majestically out of the circle of watching faces with those bulky clogs on, but I acquitted myself creditably. Another moment more and I would have taken them off to bash in a few perfumed heads.
My momentum carried me across the clearing and to the edge of the riverbank. I took a deep breath to steady myself. That odious woman! She couldn't have made it any clearer that she wanted me gone. Well, she would get her wish, for I had no intention of trespassing on her hospitality any longer. I just needed a brief space to collect myself, then I would find Amrothos and return to the tent.
The riverside sloped steeply because the stream had swept away part of the soil and I got a good view of the river. The sky was still light, for the sun had only just set, and further down I could make out some riders watering their horses. My brother's Swan Knights, I realized. They had Nimphelos along, glowing like a pearl in the twilight. That moment I would have willing exchanged places with the man washing her down. It would have been far more enjoyable than attending Lady Rían's gathering.
"Fool!" I whispered. What had I expected anyway? That Éomer would take me in his arms and proclaim his undying love?
Somebody cleared his throat behind me.
I gasped and spun round. Éomer!
He took a step back and held up his hands. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to startle you."
My heart rate returned to normal. Or as normal as it could be with him standing so near. "My fault," I replied. "I wasn't paying any attention."
He stepped up to the edge of the riverbank, but a careful distance away. "I see your men are giving Nimphelos a wash," he stated the obvious.
"Yes. She enjoys that."
Casting a quick look over my shoulder, I saw Emeldir and her friends still sitting with Erkenbrand and the other Rohirrim, but many curious glances were directed our way. A strained silence fell while I tried to think of something innocuous to say. As usual in Éomer's presence, my mind had gone blank.
He cleared his throat. "I told the truth just now. We owe you a great deal and I appreciate your help with my men."
"I only did my duty," I affirmed, stealing a look at him out the corner of my eye. He was staring out over the river, but I did not think he saw anything. The memory of his kiss swept through me, of those lips claiming mine. His taste. Heat flushed through me. How could he do that to me without even touching me!
"I never thanked you properly," Éomer went on, still watching the men washing down the horses. "Not just assisting our healers, but also the kites."
"The kites!" I had forgotten about them. "They worked?"
"Yes, we would not have caught that orc band making for Fangorn Forest if it hadn't been for them."
I inclined my head. "It would have meant nothing without the valour of you and your men."
Silence again, stretching between us like something alive. I felt as if I were walking between sleeping beasts and the least misstep on my part would wake them up and they would pounce on me. So many things we dared not touch upon: that night in Edoras, my lies, Théodred, our kiss...
"I heard about your uncle's death," I said stiffly, taking up the thread of the conversation again. "I'm sorry. He was a good man."
"Yes," Éomer agreed. "But at least he died his own man. After the past years, that's more than I ever hoped for." He had his hands clasped behind his back, as if he wanted to keep them from straying.
I swallowed. Tomorrow he would leave for Rohan and I might never see him again. I had to talk to him, tell him the truth about that awful night in Edoras. Even if it might mean having my heart torn publicly to shreds in front of the whole court of Gondor.
A loud neigh cut through the air. Hooves drummed on dry earth. What? Between the tents a horse burst forth, a short leading rope trailing behind it. People had to jump aside to avoid getting trampled as it slid down the bank to the river, showering sand all over them.
Éomer cursed. "That's Firefoot!"
The stallion had caught his footing again and plunged into the river.
I grabbed Éomer's arm. "What is he doing?"
"It has to be a mare."
We looked at each other. "Nimphelos!"
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