28. Chapter 28
Éowyn showed that she had forgiven me by dragging me down to the practice grounds at the crack of dawn the next morning. My bow had been lost in the cavern in Helm's Deep and probably still lay there somewhere underneath rotting orcs - not that I had any intention of ever recovering it - but Heorogar, the master-at-arms, lent me one suitable to my strength until I could have a new one made. It was almost like old times, except for the missing faces. Most of Théoden's guard had been slain with him on the Pelennor Fields and been replaced by men from Éomer's own éored.
The rest of the day Éowyn spent closeted with Meduseld's steward and the housekeeper, leaving me free to show my father around Edoras, and so we went for a walk down to the gates and then up along the encircling wall. I tried to look at the town as if I were a stranger. Was my father comparing the thatched houses made from wood to the stone building of Minas Tirith or the elegant, rambling houses of Dol Amroth? And did he find them crude and rustic? Yet surely he had to see the care lavished on the beautiful woodcarvings and the pride of the women busy sweeping out their homes, keeping them scrupulously clean. Everywhere I looked, I could see signs of renewal: roofs freshly thatched, doorposts repainted, gardens planted neatly. And the people! Instead of displaying the faint air of dejection that had hung like a pall over them during Théoden's last months, they looked you straight in the face, smiling and confident. Many of them remembered me from my time at the Healing Houses and exchanged greetings and news of their families with me.
From the wall we could see the lush fields where this year's crop of foals was pastured, surely superior animals to anything Gondor could offer, and further to the White Mountains, which furnished an impressive backdrop. I made certain to point all this out to my father, but he returned only polite nods of acknowledgment. Climbing back up the hill, we stopped at the Houses of Healing, where I was overjoyed to meet Aethelstan, fully recovered from the injuries received at Helm's Deep.
And then when we crossed the square in front of the hall on our way back, I suddenly found myself hailed by a familiar voice.
"Lothíriel!" somebody screeched.
I whirled round to see Aeffe fling herself from her horse. She rushed up to embrace me, closely followed by her twin sister. We hugged and laughed and then Ceolwen was there as well with little Ermenred in her arms. How much he had grown!
"He's so big!" I exclaimed. "And he looks just like his father."
A deep laugh from Erkenbrand made me recall my manners and I turned to greet him as well. To my delight he had brought Gamling along, the old warrior who had commanded the garrison of the Hornburg in his absence.
Aeffe was squeezing me so tight, I had trouble breathing. "Oh Lothíriel, it's so nice to see you back!" She lowered her voice to what she probably considered a conspiratorial tone. "Father told us about meeting you on the road to Gondor. Was Éomer King very much displeased?"
I met Ceolwen's questioning eyes over Aeffe's head. "Not too much once he got over the shock of seeing me." Ceolwen seemed to understand my message, for she flashed me a grin.
My father clearing his throat behind me finally made me remember his presence. Although he had probably met Erkenbrand during the war, he would of course not understand a word with us gabbing away in Rohirric. So I took his arm and introduced him to my friends.
"Lady Lothíriel's father!" Gamling beamed. "What a pleasure to meet you."
As we walked up the steps to the hall and the twins plied me with questions about Gondor, I was suddenly struck by a thought - all my life, I had been known as the Prince of Dol Amroth's daughter, the relationship defining how people regarded me. Yet the warm welcome extended to us in Rohan was due to my help during the war and had nothing at all to do with my rank. The pensive expression I surprised on my father's face as he talked to Erkenbrand made me wonder if perhaps the same thought had occurred to him.
Over the next days more guests from all over the Mark arrived and three days after our arrival King Théoden's funeral was held, followed by a great feast to celebrate their new king the same evening. Ceolwen looked happy and relaxed with her husband safely by her side again and the twins were an instant success with the Gondorian courtiers. Aeffe displayed her scar proudly and was much sought out as a dance partner - but not only by the Gondorians, for I saw Beorngar stand up with her repeatedly.
Later that night, Éomer took the opportunity to ask me to dance. I accepted with alacrity, for we had seen little of each other lately with all his duties as host.
"I'm sorry that I've been so busy," he told me. His hand rested lightly on my waist as he swung me round, the closest together we had been since that disastrous kiss in Minas Tirith. As if following my thoughts, he added, "I intend to talk to Imrahil again, to come to an agreement about a betrothal, but I need to find an auspicious moment."
Faramir and Éowyn whirled by, laughing, and I watched them enviously. Éomer had announced their handfasting earlier on.
I sighed. "Father's been very reticent. He hasn't said a single word to me one way or the other."
Éomer had watched his sister, too. "Well, I have another argument now."
"And what is that?"
"As Aragorn said, I'm giving away the fairest thing in my realm. Surely Gondor owes me back something equivalent?"
I laughed. "I'm not sure if Father will agree."
The dance ended soon after and out of politeness Éomer had to stand up with some of the other ladies. No chance this time to slip out unobserved!
Aragorn and his company left four days later, as they intended to accompany the Ringbearer and his friends as far as Isengard. My father had elected to stay in Edoras and I wondered if his decision had anything to do with Éomer asking for my hand. Perhaps he too meant to discuss it further?
It was time for the midday meal when we returned from saying our goodbyes outside the gates of Edoras. All morning, clouds had moved in from the west, and as I walked up the stairs leading to Meduseld, big, fat drops of rain began to fall. A warm summer shower, but nevertheless I was glad to get underneath a roof.
The Hall was abuzz with people laughing and talking, while the rain drummed a counterpoint on the roof. Éomer settled me in the chair next to him, with Father and Amrothos on my other side. All through the meal, he kept up a flow of light conversation, but I saw him watching my father from out the corner of his eye. Waiting for that auspicious moment?
With a look of concentration on his face, Wuffa came to serve our wine. Éomer's steward had taken him in hand and started to train him as a page. One thing had not changed however: Wulf was at his heels as always.
My father thanked the boy and gave him a kind smile. "Do you like it here?" he asked.
Wuffa nodded. He had learnt enough Westron in Minas Tirith to make himself understood, even if some of it was of dubious provenance.
"Yes, my Lord Prince," he answered. "I'm learning how to be a page. And Wulf likes it, too."
Éomer grinned. "That dog will eat me out of house and land. He gobbles his own weight in meat every day."
Wuffa clutched the decanter of wine to his chest. "He'll make himself useful. I want to train Wulf as a guard dog."
On my other side, Amrothos snorted. "I hope he'll make a better guard dog than a tracker. Why, he led me around in circles for over an hour in Drúadan Forest."
Father frowned. "What were you searching for in Drúadan Forest?"
My brother froze and I just knew I had guilt written all over my face. Father looked from Amrothos to me, alerted by some parental instinct for mischief.
"Amrothos?" he asked.
"He was searching for Éomer King and the princess," Wuffa piped up. "They had got lost in the woods." He poured the last of the wine. "You see, it was very dark," he added helpfully.
Not as dark as my father's face. "What is this? Why was I never told about it?" he asked.
Éomer got up abruptly. "I suggest that we continue the discussion in my study."
For a moment I thought that my father might refuse, but then he gave a curt nod. "Very well. But I demand an explanation."
"You will get it."
Éomer led the way to his rooms and held the door open for me. I hesitated on the threshold. The last time I had been here, Gríma had awaited me inside - not a good memory.
But when I entered the room, it was completely changed. Gone were the heavy curtains shutting out all the light and instead of the thick furs a carpet in a warm red colour covered the floor. Against one wall stood a desk piled with papers and a map of Rohan hung on the wall behind it. The only thing that remained was the ornately carved chair by the fireplace. When Éomer offered it to me I declined with a shudder and elected to sit in the window seat instead. The window stood slightly ajar and from outside the rich smell of wet earth drifted in.
Father remained standing by the fireplace. "Well?"
I watched with numb acceptance as Éomer spread his hands and prepared to launch into an explanation. Once my father found out that I had been alone with him in the forest I might as well pack my bags to return home.
"As you know, on my way home to Rohan after the battles I met your daughter and her party a day out of Minas Tirith," Éomer began. "That evening Lord Húrin gave a farewell party just outside Drúadan Forest."
Father folded his arms across his chest. "And?"
Éomer began to pace the room. "There had been...misunderstandings...between us and I needed to talk to Lothíriel. I wanted to know the truth before returning to Rohan." He took a deep breath. "So I persuaded her to walk in the woods with me. Alone."
I waited for the inevitable explosion. It didn't come.
My father tapped his foot on the fire grate. "And then?"
"We talked and settled our differences." Éomer looked him straight in the eye. "I kissed her." When my father showed no reaction, he added defiantly, "several times."
I held my breath. But my father's face remained unreadable. "What happened next?"
Éomer seemed equally surprised by my father's lack of reaction. "Lothíriel had lost her shoes - there was a small accident - so I carried her back to the camp. We managed to persuade Amrothos that nothing had happened."
Silence descended, only broken by the rain tapping against the windowpane behind me.
Finally my father sighed. "You said nothing at all during the war to indicate an interest in my daughter."
"Amrothos mentioned that he thought Éomer had someone waiting back in Rohan," I pointed out.
Éomer slanted me a smile. "Did he? Perhaps he is more perceptive than I thought after all." He turned back to my father. "You see, we had to clear up our misunderstanding first," he explained.
"And that was when you decided that you wanted to marry Lothíriel?"
When we both stared at him in surprise, Éomer elaborated. "I had resolved to do that a long, long time before."
How long before? Suddenly I remembered stopping over in that village on our way from Aldburg to Edoras and the little girl who had asked Éomer if he was going to marry me. What had he answered?
"Imrahil," Éomer said, "I ask you once more: will you allow me to pay suit to your daughter?"
I wasn't sure if I agreed with Éomer's choice of an auspicious moment and regarded my father's face anxiously. But he gave nothing away.
"I do not approve of my daughter spending time with men in the woods not properly escorted," he said.
I swallowed down a hot protest that I hadn't gone with men, I had gone with Éomer. "I'm sorry, father," I said instead.
He looked over at me. "Oh, I don't blame you, Lothíriel. I'm sure Éomer was very persuasive." He turned to Éomer. "However, I'm willing to take your word that nothing more happened nor will happen, for I know that I can trust your honour."
I released a breath of relief. Perhaps there was some hope left.
Father crossed the room and took my hands. "Lothíriel, I have been watching you during the journey, and I had a lot of thinking time," he said slowly. "I am proud of the work you did with the wounded Rohirrim, how you helped give them a new purpose." He smiled down at me. "My little daughter has grown up. Aragorn remarked that you would make an excellent queen and he would approve of such an alliance between Gondor and Rohan." He squeezed my hands. "But are you really sure this is what you want?"
"Oh, Father, I am," I breathed.
"Then I'm willing to countenance the match."
I jumped up and threw my arms around him. "Thank you!"
He laughed. "I was young once, too, you know."
"Thank you, my friend," Éomer said. "I promise to take good care of Lothíriel."
He held out his hand and my father clasped it firmly. "I would not give my dearest treasure to somebody I could not trust to keep it safe."
I did not really like being called a treasure, but I was too happy to object.
Éomer took my hand and raised it to his lips. "My betrothed." He grinned. "That calls for a glass of wine."
He drew me with him to a small table by his desk and passed me three glasses. Then he uncorked a bottle of wine and started to pour. Suddenly I remembered Gríma doing the very same thing on that fateful Yule evening, but as if reading my mind, Éomer smiled at me reassuringly.
"We threw out all the old wine. This one is newly brought from Gondor."
He filled the glasses to the brim and handed one to my father. "To your lovely daughter, soon to be Queen of Rohan."
I blushed as they toasted me. "Thank you."
Although strictly speaking Éomer still hadn't asked me to marry him - he had only asked my father - but I would not insist on formalities.
We all took a sip. The wine tasted of sunshine and long, lazy summer days. Perhaps it even came from Dol Amroth.
"May we announce our betrothal tonight?" Éomer asked.
"I don't see why not," Father agreed.
"And then there is the wedding date, of course..."
My father shrugged. "I don't think we have to worry about that yet, there is plenty of time to settle it."
My heart sank, for in Gondor the proper engagement period constituted a year and a day. Yet surely, being in Rohan, we would be allowed to marry sooner?
Éomer took another sip of wine. "Well, I was thinking how useful it is that all the nobility of Gondor is assembled in Rohan already. And in another ten days or so Aragorn will be back from Isengard. That would tie in nicely with the traditional waiting period of a fortnight between hand-seal and wedding."
My father choked. "A fortnight? Impossible!"
I set down my glass on the desk. "But Father, we are in Rohan and here customs differ."
"I am willing to take that into consideration," he answered, "and I do not insist on a whole year's waiting period. I was thinking of sometime in the spring. That way you can spend the winter at home in Dol Amroth, preparing for it."
More waiting! I'd had enough of that to last me a lifetime. "What is there to prepare?" I objected. "Éomer is here, I am here and so is the rest of our families. What more do you need?"
Father frowned at my outburst. Probably he thought I was showing an eagerness unsuitable to a properly brought up maiden. Or perhaps he remembered his own courtship. Grandfather had been a stickler for propriety and I knew that he had insisted on all the proper formalities being observed when my parents had got married.
"There is also the matter of my sister's wedding to take into account," Éomer threw in. "If we marry now, Éowyn could show Lothíriel all the ins and outs of running Meduseld before she departs for Gondor."
For a heartbeat annoyance flared within me. Although I knew Éomer was just doing his best to persuade my father, it sounded as if his main concern was exchanging one housekeeper for another!
"True enough," my father conceded. "But please consider, the wedding dress alone will take several months to sew."
"Actually, it's ready," Éomer said.
"What?" we both exclaimed.
Éomer raised an eyebrow. "I assumed that Lothíriel would wear the traditional wedding dress of the Queens of Rohan. Éowyn has had it made ready for her, it just needs a final fitting."
So that was what Éowyn had meant that night when she had said that Éomer intended to get what he wanted sooner than my father expected! I was torn between admiration for this clever move and irritation over having no say in the matter.
My father had a cornered look. "That may be. But I still want Lothíriel to have a quiet period of reflection about the choice she is about to make. You have an overwhelming presence and my daughter is very young, a mere twenty years old."
Éomer bit his lip. "I do realise that."
I opened my mouth to assure my father that I knew what I wanted, but he held up a hand.
"No. Let me finish. Lothíriel has suffered from terrible nightmares ever since returning from Rohan and I blame myself for sending her here without making sure she would be truly safe. Returning might bring back all the horrors she suffered."
Éomer lowered his eyes. "I hold myself equally to blame for not taking better care of her."
"Becoming Queen of Rohan carries heavy responsibilities with it," my father reminded him. "I would want her to recover fully before taking them on."
I was getting tired of having my state of mind discussed as if I wasn't present. "But I'm fine!"
Couldn't my father see how much I needed Éomer? Only in his arms would I feel safe. To my annoyance I felt hot tears rising to my eyes.
Father put his arm around my shoulder. "My dear, I only want what is best for you. Éomer loves you, I'm sure he will give you the necessary time to put the events of the war behind you."
I cast a look of appeal at Éomer, but he would not meet my eyes. "Perhaps Imrahil is right..."
"And your hair would have time to grow back as well," my father added persuasively. "You will be a lovely bride."
"My hair!" I twisted away from him. "As if that mattered! Stop treating me like a child. I know my own mind, I do not need anybody else to decide what to do with my life."
"Your father is only thinking of your own good," Éomer tried to soothe me.
For some reason I was equally angry with him. "You are no better!" I snarled at him. "You never even asked me to marry you."
"What do you mean? Of course I did."
"You asked my father. Not me!" I hissed. "I am fed up with the men around me instructing me what to do. All of you telling me what is best for me. All failing!" I jabbed my finger at the chair by the fireplace. "I sat in that chair when Gríma attempted to rape me. Where were the two of you then? I had no help from either of you. I needed none!"
Through the tears blurring my view I saw their shocked faces. My father reached out to touch me.
"Lothíriel, I'm so sorry..."
I stepped back. "How can you ask me to wait longer? I want to be with Éomer now, for time is precious! All through the war I did nothing else but wait for news and pray he would survive somehow."
Suddenly I could stand it no longer. I needed to get out! Whirling round I fled to the door and pulled it open. But on the threshold I looked back at my father.
"I will marry Éomer even if...if...if I have to abduct him!"
Then I stormed out.
The rain felt good. I closed my eyes and lifted my face up at the sky, letting the rain rinse away my tears. Cool and impersonal, it cared nothing about the cares of us mere mortals.
Reluctantly I turned round. One of the doorwardens stood behind me.
"It's raining heavily," he stated the obvious, plainly uneasy at seeing me get wet. "Won't you go back inside?"
I shook my head. My anger had carried me straight through the hall and out the heavy double doors. I had no wish to go back inside and face the curious looks. Lady Rían was probably already spreading rumours that I had quarrelled with Éomer.
The man took off his cloak and held it out to me. "May I offer you this, my lady?"
I found my voice again. "No thank you. Hunlaf, isn't it?"
He nodded. I looked around for somewhere to go and my eyes fell on the stable buildings. That was it, I would visit Nimphelos. Slowly I started down the stairs, lifting up my sodden skirts to avoid tripping over them. The fine blue silk had turned black in the downpour and stuck to my legs clammily. I started to shiver.
In the stables, the comforting smells of hay and horses welcomed me. A few of the stable lads were at work mucking out horseboxes, but nobody paid me any attention as I made my way down the passageway. Nimphelos was just pulling out fresh hay from her manger and greeted me with an absentminded whicker. Seeking comfort, I threw my arms around her and pressed my cheek against her neck. At first the mare started at my wet touch, but then permitted me to stroke her. After a while, I picked up a brush and started to groom her, although she did not really need it. The rhythmic movement soothed me and warmth began to creep back into my body from the exercise. When I was finished, I leant against her and closed my eyes.
"I'm such a fool," I whispered into her soft coat. "Father will never allow me to marry Éomer now."
Nimphelos huffed gently and nuzzled me.
"You were right to run away with Firefoot when you had the chance," I told her. "I should have done the same."
The door to the horsebox creaked behind me and Nimphelos lifted her head inquiringly. Without turning round I knew who stood there. Was he very annoyed with me for my ill-considered words?
He said nothing, but I could feel his presence at my back. A hand landed lightly on my shoulder.
"Oh, Éomer, I'm sorry for my childish tantrum," I choked out.
"I am hardly the right person to blame you for losing your temper," he said. His hands moved on to gather my hair and spread it out across my shoulders, combing through it with his fingers. "You're wet through, my sweet."
I felt myself relaxing under his touch like a nervous filly being handled for the first time.
"Is Father very angry with me?" I asked.
"He loves you. All he wants is for you to be happy." A hand moved down to trace my spine with a touch as light as a feather. "Three weeks."
What did he mean by that? Would my father let me stay in Rohan a little longer before returning home?
"What happens in three weeks' time?" I asked.
"The King of the Mark marries his queen."
I stiffened. "What?"
He laughed. "Imrahil has agreed! Once Aragorn returns from Isengard, the whole court of Gondor will be assembled here and that's all we're waiting for."
I spun round to face him. "Are you serious?"
Grinning down at me, he nodded. "Yes."
"But why? What made Father change his mind?"
"You did, I think. But you will have to ask him yourself. I did not linger to enquire into his motives once he had given his permission."
I shook my head in disbelief. "I expected him to pack me off to Dol Amroth at the first opportunity."
"So did I." An arm slid round my waist and pulled me close. "I thought I would have to wait for you to come and abduct me..." His voice shook.
"It's not funny!" I pushed my hands against his chest, but without putting any effort into it. Not that it would have done me any good anyway.
Éomer put a finger under my chin and tilted up my face. "Do know how magnificent you are when you're angry, min faeger fyrdraca?"
I loved it when Éomer addressed me in Rohirric. He spoke Westron like a native of Gondor, but his voice went dark and low whenever he used the language of his birth with me. Almost a whisper, it was as intimate as a touch. With a contented sigh I melted against him and his lips claimed mine in a light kiss. How long it had been since he had held me in his arms. Only now did I realise how much I needed him to hold me close, to love and cherish me.
Nimphelos chose that moment to snort loudly and shove me in the back, demanding attention. I stumbled against Éomer, who chuckled and pushed the mare's enquiring head away.
"Go and eat your hay!" He patted her absentmindedly on the neck. "My stable master thinks she's in foal to Firefoot, you know."
I nodded, for I had in fact suspected the same thing.
His arms had crept round my back again. "As the stallion's owner, by law I owe you restitution," he breathed in my ear before brushing a kiss across my temple.
Restitution? That sounded promising. I closed my eyes to better enjoy his attentions. "What penalties did you have in mind?" I whispered.
A chuckle rose in his chest. "I'll think of something." Gently, he kissed my eyelids, then moved down to my mouth again. My limbs went heavy as a warm languor spread through me.
But all of a sudden I remembered his promise to my father and drew back. "Éomer, you're kissing me!"
"So I am." He leant his forehead against mine. "After all we're engaged now. However, I had to promise your father to be circumspect."
Then I noticed how quiet the stables had become. The only noise I heard was the contented chewing of horses and the occasional whinny. No talking, no wheelbarrows rumbling by, nothing. Were we completely alone?
"Where have all the grooms gone?" I asked him.
"I've sent them away," he answered, his nonchalance taking my breath away. "King's prerogative. And unlike certain foreign princesses, my men obey me."
I ignored that last statement. "They will all be talking about us!"
"Probably." He sighed and reluctantly let go of me. "I suppose we should return to the Hall." His eyes flicked over me and a corner of his mouth quirked. "And get you into dry and clean clothes again."
I looked down at my gown. It clung to every curve of mine and was covered in short, white hairs from Nimphelos. Across one sleeve she had smeared an artistic splotch of slobber.
"Wait here," Éomer told me and popped out the stall.
A short while later he returned with a faded green horse blanket, which he settled round my shoulders.
"I'm afraid that's the best I can offer you at the moment." He grinned. "I do not want my betrothed to catch a cold just before the wedding."
I pulled the cloth closer around me. It smelled strongly of horse, but then so probably did I. "Oh, you do not fancy a bride with a running nose?"
Éomer laughed. "Do not even think that you can get out of marrying me that way! I told you that I like the dishevelled look." Then he turned serious again. "Lothíriel, I am sorry for not asking you to marry me. I just presumed..."
Recalling my outburst, I coloured. "Well, you presumed correctly."
He stroked a thumb across my cheek. "Even so, I should have asked you first."
The memory of a long ago autumn day floated through my mind.
"Do you remember our journey from Aldburg to Edoras last year?" I asked him.
Éomer looked confused. "What about it?"
"We stopped over at a small village at midday and I talked to some children. One of them, a little girl, asked you whether you were going to wed me."
His brow cleared. "Oh, that! Yes, I remember."
"What did you answer?"
Éomer smiled down at me. "I said: I will ask her when the time is right." He cupped my face between his hands and took a deep breath. "Lothíriel, will you marry me?"
A/N: According to the appendix Éomer and Lothíriel wedded the year after, but I thought I would allow myself to go slightly AU in this matter and have them marry earlier.
A/N: min faeger fyrdraca - my beautiful fiery dragon
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