26. Chapter 26
The next day I sought an audience with King Elessar. I expected to be given a date when to appear before him in the Great Hall where he received petitioners, but instead one of the servants ushered me into his study. It was filled with smoke. Startled, I began to cough and looked around for the source of it.
Somebody laughed. "My apologies, Princess Lothíriel. We'll open a window."
I peered through the fumes. The King and Mithrandir stood leaning over a table strewn with papers. The smoke issued from thin rods with a small bowl at the end, which they held to their lips. Pipes - I had heard of them, but never seen them. And they stank! I wrinkled my nose.
Mithrandir opened the window behind them, letting in a gust of much needed fresh air. The parchments fluttered in the draught and the King hastily placed weights on them to keep them from flying away. Just common pebbles, I noticed, nothing like the heavy, elaborate glass paperweights that my father owned.
He looked up at me. "You asked to see me, Princess?"
I coloured under his gaze, feeling as if he could read my thoughts. Quickly I launched into an explanation of the wounded Rohirrim's need for horses to practice with. My father's stable mostly held high-strung warhorses belonging to our Swan Knights, which I did not consider suitable. Also there was the question of the best place to exercise.
King Elessar frowned thoughtfully. "A very valid point, my lady. I should have thought of it myself."
He puffed on his pipe and more acrid smoke emerged. I could only hope that Éomer would not adopt his good friend's habit.
"I will instruct the stable master to find you suitable mounts," the King added. "I think that some of the injured horses that Éomer left in our care should be recovered enough by now to be ridden."
"And you could use the ring where the Tower Guard exercise," Mithrandir put in from his place on the window ledge. "It's empty most of the time."
King Elessar nodded. "A good idea. I will tell Captain Minardil to assist you."
So easy! In no time at all, they had organised all the aid I needed. When I thanked him, the King waved away my words.
"It is I who am in your debt, Lady Lothíriel, for looking after our allies."
My mission fulfilled, I took my leave. But as I opened the door, glad to escape into fresh air again, the King cleared his throat.
"By the way, a courier is scheduled to leave for Rohan tomorrow. If you wish, he can take a letter from you to Éomer."
"A letter?" I stammered.
"I thought you might want to write to him, appraising him of your plans regarding his men..."
"Oh." To my annoyance the word came out as a squeak. "Yes, I might do that."
"Very well. I will tell the courier to come and see you tomorrow morning." He looked down at his papers again, the smoke hiding the expression on his face.
Grateful for the reprieve, I escaped into the corridor.
I sat half the evening over a blank piece of parchment, not knowing what to write. Or rather, I knew exactly what I wanted to write: that I missed him and would not feel whole again until he held me in his arms, that I wanted him to kiss me the way he had that night in Drúadan Forest, that I needed him to chase away my bad dreams and keep me safe.
But of course I couldn't. How many hands would the letter pass through? And what if my father wanted to see what I wrote to the King of Rohan? So in the end I penned a very short and proper missive, just putting down the bare facts.
Over the next days I threw myself into helping the men in the Healing Houses. The Warden was dubious at first, but when he saw how enthusiastically the men reacted to the chance of being able to ride again, he gave me his support. Few of the healers had experience with horses, but they knew how far to push healing tissues and when to stop. And my presence made sure their orders were heeded.
Some of the riders, especially those from the West Mark, spoke very little Westron and were glad to see a familiar face. I began to make a habit of visiting the Houses every day, and also of taking Wuffa with me. The boy treated his stay in Minas Tirith as a wonderful adventure, although he made no secret of the fact that he looked forward to going home again. Fortunately, my family regarded him as some sort of pet of mine, and none of them ever inquired into why he was so certain that we would soon return to the Mark.
To my surprise King Elessar was a frequent visitor to the practice ring. Despite the many calls on his time, he took a personal interest in all the men hurt during the war. And even more surprisingly, I found that he was very easy to talk to. He told me about his time amongst the Rohirrim serving King Thengel and about meeting Éomer's father. For my part, I'm afraid with my many questions I revealed rather more of my heart than I intended to, but then he probably suspected already.
I was talking to him in the garden of the Healing Houses one morning when Wuffa came running up.
"Lady Lothíriel," he called all breathless. "Your father asks to see you at once! Éomer King has sent horses. Lots of them!"
When I reached the courtyard of our house, it was filled with a string of horses led by a group of travel-worn riders. There were about two dozen animals, all equipped with bridles and saddles, and the small space made them appear to be a lot. My father was just conferring with his rather agitated stable master.
"We do not have the room," the man exclaimed. "Not unless we send some of our own horses back to Dol Amroth."
"Lothíriel," my father greeted me, waving a letter. "These are yours. Éomer writes that he puts them at your disposal. But where am I supposed to stable them? Did you consider that at all when you started on your scheme?"
Fortunately I had discussed the possibility with Aragorn.
"The King says that we may use the temporary stables that he's had erected for visitors on the fifth level," I answered.
Father looked rather taken aback that I had thought so far ahead. Determined not to be a burden on him, I waved Beorngar over and instructed him to show the Rohirrim where to take their horses. In no time at all the courtyard was empty again, only a pile of steaming horse dung bearing testimony to their presence.
My father had watched in astonishment. "Are you sure Aragorn won't mind?" he asked.
"He suggested it himself," I assured him. Then I tried to sneak a look at the letter in his hand. "Did King Éomer write anything else?"
My father looked down at it. "Only that he'll be back in Minas Tirith by the middle of July. Oh, and there was a note included for you..." He unfolded another small piece of parchment and scanned it. "Just a thank you."
It took all my self-control not to snatch it out of his hands. "May I have it?"
He handed it over, and I excused myself to go and freshen up. But once I was out of his sight, I bolted up the stairs to my room. With the door locked safely behind me, I settled down in the window seat and spread out the stiff parchment on my lap. My first letter from him!
He had a neat hand. Not the elegant, highly elaborate court script taught in Dol Amroth, but a more economical style, very much to the point - a bit like his manner of fighting.
Dear Lady Lothíriel,
I am very much in your debt for looking after my wounded riders and hope that the horses I have sent you will enable the men to make their journey home on horseback. I made sure to only select calm and docile animals.
I lifted my eyebrows. That sounded as if he had chosen the horses himself!
Please do not hesitate to write to me again if you need anything else. But from my own past experience I know that my men are in good hands with you.
For some reason that made me remember the time when I had treated his arrow wound, so many months ago. Warmth spread through me.
I will be back in Gondor soon and hope to then be able to express my thanks to you personally.
Éomer of Rohan
He had underlined 'personally'. I blushed at the pictures those words called up in my mind. Just how personal did he intend to become?
The time flew by after that and with the renewed purpose in my life, my nightmares abated, although they did not vanish altogether. I spent my days between the Healing Houses and the practice grounds. Father had been worried at first that I had taken on too much, but he gave me his support and one day even told me that he was proud of me. Surprisingly, Aunt Ivriniel approved of my activities, for they kept me out of the eyes of the court. Little did she know that Aragorn and Faramir came by nearly every day, sometimes even accompanied by the Dwarf Gimli and his unlikely friend, Prince Legolas. The Rohirrim extended to them the easy comradeship between fellow warriors.
The end of June brought another surprise: a beautiful Elven bride for our king! Although beautiful did not really even begin to describe her. I attended the wedding, with my aunt constantly telling me to keep in the background, and amused myself by watching the court beauties being disconcerted by their new queen's simple elegance that owed nothing at all to powder and paint.
I wondered what she made of us. In the library back home, my father kept a casket with the letter by Steward Mardil that granted the Princes of Dol Amroth dominion over the Fief of Belfalas. The paper was faded and the one time that my father had shown it to me, I had hardly dared touch it, for fear of it crumbling to dust. Yet this woman, looking no older than myself, had already been centuries old when that letter had been received by my long dead ancestor. I found that difficult to believe. Until I saw her eyes - they held the memories of ages.
July arrived and I found myself getting restless. It was as if the Queen had brought otherworldly weather with her, for one cloudless day followed the other. It should have made for good travelling conditions and increasingly I spent time on the citadel walls, looking north. But no news reached us.
Then one morning my maid woke me with the news that the Rohirrim were back.
I peered over the top of the crenellation down onto the road. The garden wall of our house provided the ideal viewing spot to watch the traffic go by through the gate to the sixth level just below me, and had been one of our favourite places as children. In a single morning you might see colourfully dressed courtiers on their way to petition the Steward, rangers from Ithilien bringing their reports, or one memorable day even a procession featuring the Harad ambassador with a caged lion.
But today I was looking for a very different visitor. I lifted my gaze from the road and let my eyes travel across the Pelennor. Like mushrooms sprouting overnight, green and brown tents had sprung up in three orderly, concentric rings. I could almost make out the White Horse on Green flying from the pavilion in the centre. And earlier on I had spotted a party of horsemen making their way towards the city gates.
Hooves clattered across the cobbles, but it was only a courier in the king's black and silver livery, probably carrying reports from the coastal provinces. The wall was very deep, so I sat on it and leant back against one of the merlons. A lilac bush provided welcome shade from the morning sun.
It was hard to believe that I would finally see Éomer again, even if only briefly. Unfortunately he would head for the citadel first to speak to Aragorn. My father and brothers had already gone up to await him. He would call on me afterwards, I was sure, but I had found myself unable to stay away when I knew he would pass so close by. If only I could have sneaked out and met him on my own!
Just then more hoof beats sounded, of a whole company this time. Eagerly I leant forward. There! A blond rider bearing the White Horse standard, and behind him... My heart gave a funny little hiccup when I spotted Éomer. He was talking to Marshal Elfhelm, who rode beside him, but that moment he lifted his head, as if somebody had called his name. His gaze swept across the houses lining the road, then up. And up. Our eyes met.
For the space between one heartbeat and the next, the world vanished around me and there was just him and me. Suddenly his teeth flashed in a white smile and I could breathe again. Next to him, Elfhelm leant over, then started to follow his gaze. Hastily I scrambled back out of view.
I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of hoof beats slowly fading. He was back! Somewhere in the garden, a thrush lifted up its voice in song. In a daze I picked up the book I had brought with me and strolled back towards the house. A lawn stretched before it, edged by flowerbeds and shaded by the boughs of the enormous beech tree in the centre, planted my great-grandfather. Had I paid more attention to my surroundings, I would have avoided it, but as it was, I nearly tripped over my aunt's basket of embroidery yarns before I realised she was sitting in a chair there.
"What are you doing, child?" she greeted me. "Always walking round with your head in the clouds!"
I mumbled an apology.
"Speak up!" she commanded me. Over the last couple of years she had become hard of hearing, but she insisted that it was just us not speaking clearly enough.
"I said that I am sorry," I shouted.
"No need to yell at me!" she answered. "But I have not seen you for days. Sit by me for a while."
I would have preferred to retreat to my room and daydream about a certain rider of Rohan, but I could hardly decline this invitation. Aunt Ivriniel appraised me critically while I settled down in a chair opposite her. She wore unrelieved black, as she had ever since her husband's premature death many years ago, and necklaces of jet beads hung around her thin neck. Once she must have been a great beauty, but grief and disappointment had worn deep grooves into her face.
"At least you're dressed properly for once," she commented.
Self-consciously, I looked down at my gown. It was one of my favourites, the silk a light blue colour shading into turquoise that made the white lace lining the neckline seem like sea froth. And my aunt had hired a new maid, an elderly, thin-lipped woman, who had a clever way of gathering my unruly hair into a bun, although it was secured rather tenuously by dozens of hairpins.
"Thank you, Aunt," I said.
She took up her embroidery frame again and I saw that she was working on another handkerchief. My father had a whole chest full of these exquisite little silk squares.
"You should do something useful," she told me. "For example, practise your embroidery and sewing. You used to do very pretty stitching."
"I am doing something useful," I replied.
An old argument. On every one of her infrequent visits during my childhood, she had tried to drill me in what she called the 'womanly arts' and I knew that I was responsible for several of those lines of disappointment on her face.
"How will you find a suitable husband if you do not behave like a properly brought up lady?" Aunt Ivriniel asked, pointing her needle at me. "I admit that your father has trained you well how to run your future home, but men also expect their prospective wives to be accomplished in the domestic arts. They require their shirts to be mended, have their favourite dishes cooked for them, and generally to be made comfortable."
"Not all men are like that," I protested. "Helping my wounded riders is more important than mending shirts."
"You are a Princess of Dol Amroth, you should not mix with common soldiers - no matter how deserving - on a daily basis."
"Father doesn't mind."
That had been a mistake. My aunt took a deep breath and launched into her familiar complaint. "I always said that Imrahil has given you far too much freedom," she declared at the top of her voice. "And now you see what has come of it! Your hair..."
Gravel crunched from the direction of the house. I touched her arm.
"Aunt, somebody is coming."
Was my father back already? Surely not. The trunk of the beech tree was so wide that it would have taken three men to span it with their outstretched arms, and it cut off much of the view of the house, so we could not see. Then the housekeeper appeared, escorting a visitor.
Éomer! I could only stare at him in stupefaction. What was he doing here? Fortunately my aunt was too busy surveying him to notice my reaction.
"The King of Rohan to see Princess Lothíriel," the housekeeper announced.
I jumped up, on the verge of throwing myself into his arms. But I remembered my aunt's presence and after a brief hesitation sank into a curtsy instead.
"King Éomer. What a surprise."
"Lady Lothíriel, I could not pass by without stopping to thank you for the care accorded to my men."
He took my hand and kissed it. Warm breath brushed across my skin and sent a jolt of pleasure through me. He must have felt it, for his fingers curled around my hand and lightly stroked my palm. When he looked up at me, his eyes were dark with hunger.
My aunt clearing her throat brought me back to the present. I schooled my features into a polite mask. "My Lord King, I believe you have not yet met my aunt. Please let me introduce Lady Ivriniel to you."
He bowed over her hand as well, though he did not linger quite so long. "I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting you, my lady, but I have heard Imrahil speak of you very fondly."
His manner was courtly, his Westron impeccable. Aunt Ivriniel looked at him in surprise, obviously revising the mental picture she had of the King of Rohan.
"Won't you sit down?" she invited him.
"Thank you." He chose the sturdiest of the chairs. "Unfortunately I cannot stay long, for I am expected up at the citadel. But I wanted to express my gratitude personally."
His eyes swept across me in an intimate caress, making my breath hitch in my throat. All he had done was kiss my hand and already my heart fluttered like a bird wanting to escape its cage.
A frown appeared between his eyebrows. "My lady, have you been ill? You look tired; I hope you haven't worn yourself out on behalf of my men."
I looked away. How could he tell so quickly? "Just a few bad dreams," I answered.
He opened his mouth as if to pursue the topic, but that moment my father's well-trained servants appeared with plates of diced watermelon. The cook had the fruits shipped up from the coast and hung them in nets in our well so they were always fresh and cool.
Éomer complimented my aunt on the excellent quality of the melon and she smiled at him graciously. His line might be a mere five hundred years old, but a king was still a king.
"Are you planning to stay in Minas Tirith long, my lord?" she asked.
Éomer shook his head. "I'm only here to collect my uncle's body for burial." He turned to me. "Tell me, Lady Lothíriel, will you be accompanying your father to Rohan?"
I inclined my head in assent. "Yes. I would like to pay my respects to King Théoden."
He nodded with satisfaction. "Excellent." I got the impression that he had gathered the information he had sought.
"Imrahil must be grateful to have you here to lend him support," he said to my aunt. "And I see that it is from you that Lady Lothíriel has learnt her skills as such an accomplished needlewoman."
Ivriniel blinked up at him. "She has?"
He gifted her with one of his brilliant smiles. "It was one of the first things I noticed about her."
My aunt shot me a triumphant look. "I have always maintained that a true lady should be skilled in all domestic matters."
"Oh, absolutely," he agreed. "In fact Lady Lothíriel stitched up something for me on her first evening in Aldburg, for which I was exceedingly grateful."
The tease! I concentrated on my plate of melon pieces, or I would surely have dissolved into laughter at Aunt Ivriniel's self-satisfied expression. Éomer was clearly on the way to being classified as a 'nice young man' in her books.
After a few more polite exchanges with her, he got up to take his leave. "Thank you so much for your hospitality, Lady Ivriniel," he said. "Do you think it would be permissible for your niece to show me the garden on the way out?"
In a mellow mood, she beamed up at him. "Of course. An excellent idea. It's very pretty this time of the year."
"Would you be so kind, Lady Lothíriel?" He held out a hand to me.
I placed no more than the tips of my fingers on it as I rose to my feet. "If it is your desire, my lord."
"It is very much my desire," he whispered as we walked across the lawn back towards the house. The warm sound of his voice sent a quiver through me.
Out of the corner of my eyes I saw him grin down at me. The man knew what an effect he had on me and enjoyed it. Show him the garden! Well, I would prove to him that I could be a perfect Gondorian lady, just as Aunt Ivriniel always wished for.
I stopped in front of a clump of daylilies. "We have a variety of these plants in our garden as they have very pretty flowers," I said, pitching my voice to carry. I motioned at the delicate blooms on their long stems. "As you can see these are yellow, but we also have orange..."
"Do you know," he interrupted me in Rohirric, "I'm not sure what suits you better: the elegant gown of a Gondorian princess or the blanket wrapped hastily around you the last time I saw you."
Rendered speechless by this frontal attack, I stared up at him.
"I like the tousled look," he added. Then he raised his voice. "Are those also daylilies over there, my lady?"
How dare he! But two could play that game.
"They are snow lilies." I started walking again, careful to keep to the elegant, gliding motion deemed appropriate for a lady.
"Or maybe a tousled Gondorian princess would be nice?" he mused aloud in Rohirric.
I fought to keep my voice level. "In Gondor we treasure lilies for their sweet scent, and as a symbol of purity of mind and heart, my Lord King."
"Really? How fascinating! You will have to tell me more about that."
He was irrepressible. I cast a quick look back at my aunt. She had taken up her embroidery again and was watching us with a benign smile. Little did she know!
"We also like to combine the ornamental flowers with more useful plants," I ploughed on, "for example: thyme, rosemary and sage, as in this setting."
Éomer raised a questioning eyebrow at me. "I believe they carry a symbolic meaning, too?"
I inclined my head in assent. "Courage, loyalty and strength." They would suit him well, actually. Unlike the lilies!
"Unfortunately the roses are past their prime," I continued my tour, "yet you can see how our gardener has shaded the colours from white to yellow to deepest red."
"And what do they stand for?" he asked, his voice dripping innocence.
He had to know in Gondor roses signified love. And passion.
"They stand for sharp thorns," I answered sweetly.
He chuckled. "I'm not afraid of thorns, not if the end is worth it."
We had stopped underneath an arch overgrown with blooming honeysuckle. The sweet scent filled the air.
Éomer took my hand and twined his fingers through mine. "Do you know what I would like to do now, min leoflic merewif?" he asked in a conversational tone. "Kiss you until you are breathless." He pulled me closer.
"Éomer! My aunt!" I hissed in alarm.
"She can't see us."
"What?" I twisted round to check.
Sure enough, the thick trunk of the beech tree was between my aunt and us. Éomer had found the one spot in the garden where we would be unobserved.
"You've chosen this place on purpose," I accused him.
"Yes," he admitted his perfidy without the least shame. "And moreover this very convenient shrub here - which undoubtedly has a deeper symbolic meaning assigned to it as well - will screen us from any passing servants. We will hear them coming on the gravel path long before they can spot us." An arm snaked around my waist and pulled me against him.
Clearly I still had a lot to learn from such an experienced campaigner.
I placed my hands flat on his chest, pushing against him. Not that it made any impression on Éomer. "Aragorn and my father are waiting for you up at the citadel," I reminded him.
"I know," he agreed, tightening his hold around my waist. "I sent Elfhelm ahead to tell them I would be along shortly. You make me do foolish things, my lady fair. But I could not pass by without seeing you. Without touching you..."
One hand came up to cradle my face. "It's so good to see you again," he said, suddenly serious. "Every day during the last two months I wished that I had not let you go with your brother."
"If only you had taken me with you," I whispered, yielding to him. "I missed you so much!"
He traced a finger across my cheekbones. "I missed you, too. Like a physical ache, an emptiness that could only be filled by you. Meduseld is cold and bleak without you."
Somehow my arms had crept up to twine themselves round his neck. "Oh, Éomer! Don't ever let go of me again. I need you so much!"
Our lips met and the world narrowed down into the here and now. I had thought that I remembered what his kisses felt like, but the reality of him was so much headier. And I had forgotten how safe he made me feel. How complete.
I closed my eyes to better taste him. The fragrance of honeysuckle mingled with his warrior scent, that familiar mixture of leather, sweat and horses. Leisurely, he laced his fingers through my hair, releasing a shower of hairpins. His other hand followed the curve of my spine with gentle pressure and my skin came alive under his touch. I gasped.
Éomer gave a guilty little laugh. His lips moved downwards, brushing along the exposed line of my throat, leaving my skin aflame with sensation wherever he passed. Involuntarily, I dug my fingers into his shoulders and threw my head back. He took that as an invitation to graze his lips across my collarbone and settle in that sensitive spot at the bottom of the throat. His warm breath tickled across my skin when he kissed it. In the pit of my stomach a fire kindled.
He froze. I uttered an inarticulate protest. I didn't want him to stop!
"It is you!"
The voice came from behind me. I knew it.
A/N for the meanings of herbs I borrowed from the English folk ballad 'Scarborough Fair'.
A/N: min leoflic merewif: my beautiful sea-wife (= mermaid)
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