7. Chapter 7
The next morning I excused myself from accompanying Éowyn down to the training grounds. Instead, I spread all my silken nightgowns and petticoats out on the bed, hoping to find enough suitable material to make four kites. I had decided it would be good to have spares available if one got broken or lost and now the time had come to decide which of my clothes to sacrifice, as I would need a considerable amount of material. Looking down at a nightgown embroidered with tiny red roses and hemmed with frills of lace I could not suppress a giggle at the thought of bits of my underwear flying around Rohan. I put that one aside again and made a note to myself not to tell the Marshal where I had got the silk from.
That moment somebody knocked on my door. To my surprise it was Dirhael, who entered my room with quick strides and slammed the door behind him.
His eyes alighted on the pile of clothes on my bed. "You're packing already! Good. When can you be ready?"
I stared at him. "Ready for what?"
"So you haven't heard!" Dirhael's usually placid face was flushed with anger. "I've just had an audience with this so called councillor of the king. Lord Gríma has informed me that the presence of me and my men is no longer necessary. We are to leave on the morrow."
"What!" I could not believe my ears. "And what about me?" I asked.
"You have guest rights in this benighted place, so the king has apparently decided that a guard is unnecessary."
Not the king. Wormtongue. Gríma wanted to get rid of me! Trying to force my thoughts into some semblance of order, I jumped up and paced to the window. As clearly as if I'd heard him issue the command, I recognized the councillor's hand in this. A warning? Or possibly revenge for foiling his plans in the Hall the day before. I had asked too many questions, had helped the Marshal against him, so now he wanted to remove this particular pawn from the board.
"What? Certainly not!" Dirhael exclaimed.
I pressed my forehead against the cool windowpane. "Steward Denethor sent me to Rohan, so that's where I'll stay."
He gripped me by the shoulder and forced me to turn round. "Listen, Lothíriel, now is not the time to turn stubborn. Nobody would expect you to stay here without a proper honour guard, not even your uncle."
"He is my liege. I won't go against his wishes." And I was no pawn.
"It's because of that Marshal, isn't it!" Dirhael exploded. "He is the reason you do not want to leave."
"Nonsense!" But my flushed cheeks gave me away. "I will not be pushed around by Wormtongue. And that's my final word."
And I stood my ground, even though Dirhael did his utmost to convince me to go with him. In the end he left in disgust to tell his men to get ready. I stood a long time staring out the window, wondering what had got into me. Only a little while ago I would have jumped at the chance of returning home, but now that I had it, I did not want to take it.
What would have happened the day before if I had not intervened? Nobody could say. I just knew that I did not want Gríma to succeed with his plans, for whatever they were, they did not bode well for my friends here. Not just Lord Éomer, I told myself, but Éowyn, Aethelstan and the other people of Edoras I had come to know. I would do whatever I could to oppose Gríma.
And besides, I had promised to make those kites by Yule. As my father always said: once you make a promise you keep it. With fresh determination I returned to my task.
I needed that determination the next day to stiffen my spine when I went down to the gates to see my men off. Dirhael had managed to delay his departure until late afternoon, yet finally all the horses had been checked over, all the loads balanced evenly, all the journey bread stored away. The time to say goodbye had come.
Leading his horse behind him, he came over to me. "Please, Lothíriel," he said. "It's not too late yet. Won't you reconsider?"
At a loss for words, I stroked the gelding's nose. "I can't."
"Can't or won't?"
I shook my head and gave him the letters I had penned for my father and brothers. "Will you deliver these, please?"
"The Valar only know what Prince Imrahil will say to me when I come back without his daughter," he muttered, tucking them away in his pocket.
"Tell him I will be fine."
Behind him, the leader of the escort detailed to see my guards to the border cleared his throat. He looked ill at ease at the task given to him, but I did not doubt that he would do whatever needed to see his king's orders fulfilled. Reluctantly, Dirhael and his Swan Knights mounted up and left. By the time I had climbed the hill and reached the platform outside Meduseld they had passed the Barrowfield and turned right along the Great West Road. I stood there a long time, watching them dwindle into the distance.
It was strange that night to sit at our usual table without Dirhael and his men keeping me company. Yet I had no sooner taken my place than Háma's wife and her young daughter joined me. A pretty woman with reddish hair and her face covered in freckles, Aescwyn was heavily pregnant with their second child and laughed at having to squeeze her large belly between bench and table. Her little girl watched me solemnly all through the meal while Aescwyn kept up a flow of amusing chatter. Several riders dropped by for a word and later Marshal Elfhelm made a point of coming over to our table and enquiring after my day. Unusually for him, Gríma had also chosen to take his evening meal in the hall, and several times I caught him watching me. Still warmed by my anger I stared back boldly. Let him remember that the Princes of Dol Amroth had been warriors for over a thousand years.
Marshal Elfhelm had told me to just ask for an escort if I wanted one, but in truth I did not really need a guard while going about Edoras. My black hair and unusual height made me stand out from the crowd and by now everybody knew me for a guest of King Theoden's anyway. Éowyn for her part never bothered with guards unless she went for a ride further afield. In the end it was mostly Dirhael's silent companionship that I missed, the certainty he would be there to back me up if I ever needed him. On the other hand I found a curious kind of freedom in the fact that for the first time in my life I had nobody to account to anymore, not even a kindly old servitor of my father's. Like a bird about to try its wings - a feeling both daunting and exhilarating.
However, my daily life continued much as it had before Dirhael left. A few days later I was in the stillroom of the Healing Houses when one of Aethelstan's fellow healers called me over.
"Somebody here you know, Lady Lothíriel."
Thinking it one of my patients, I joined him. A big burly man sat in a chair, having his arm examined. He did look faintly familiar, but I could not quite place where I had seen him before. Then I spotted the irregular scar running from his elbow to the armpit and recognized my own handiwork. The rider I had stitched up that night in Aldburg!
"This is Beorngar," the healer introduced the man. "Neat work," he commented, inspecting the fading scar.
Beorngar looked up with a grin. "I know. Though I did not appreciate it at the time." He held out his hand. "I never thanked you either, my lady."
I wiped my fingers on my apron and shook his hand. "You're welcome. I'm pleased to see your wound has healed so well. But I hope you're still taking it easy?"
"Oh, yes," he nodded. "Marshal Éomer has sent me here to recuperate. When I'm better I will start training with the king's men."
He seemed fit enough and I wondered why he could not recuperate in Aldburg, but then perhaps Beorngar had family in Edoras to look after him. I thought nothing of it when he left the Healing Houses at the same time as me and accompanied me up to the Hall. But then I went down to the market the next day and again he happened to come along, difficult to overlook with his great bulk and his swordsman's gait. My suspicions were confirmed when I found him loitering about the training grounds whenever I went down there with Éowyn. Apparently I had acquired a new guard. Even if neither of us ever openly acknowledged the other.
While my days went on much as before, divided between the training grounds in the morning and the Healing Houses in the afternoon, my evenings were taken up with my new project. I had decided not to go for the simple diamond shaped kites common in Rohan, but for a better balanced triangular model. It looked like a bird with its wings spread wide and had a short tail to lend it additional stability. The children of Dol Amroth loved kites of this particular type and painted them gaily for the annual Autumn Festival.
When I told Éowyn about my plans, she offered to help, but I soon found out she wielded the sword better than a needle and thread. However, she proved adept at whittling down the willow branches we used for struts. And sewing the kites actually turned out to be easier than coming up with enough light yet strong string. In the end I sacrificed more of my clothes and undid the silk thread, spinning it into stronger twine and then rubbing a little beeswax into it to make it waterproof. A laborious process, but at least it kept me busy. Sometimes I wondered what the servants made of the pieces of butchered nightgowns lying around everywhere - probably they put it down to the eccentricity of a Gondorian princess.
The first time I took one of my kites down to the fields outside the city to try it out and adjust the balance, I caused a sensation amongst the children of Edoras. In no time at all crude copies of my kite were flying everywhere. The adults just looked on indulgently, thinking me kind to amuse their children in this way, which suited me fine.
Winter had really settled in by now and we even had a snowfall the week before Yule. I think I amused the whole of Edoras with my antics at the first snow, even though it was only a couple of inches deep, but then it was the first I had ever seen. When she saw my delight Éowyn promised to take me for a ride up the mountains after Yule, but for the time being preparations for the celebration took up most of her time. Prince Théodred and many of the lords from the West Mark would come, as would Lord Éomer. Knowing this, I worked tirelessly every evening and finally had all four kites finished at the end of three weeks.
The day before Yule visitors began to pour in. Many stayed with friends or relatives in Edoras, but the staff had also readied guesthouses and a few would enjoy the king's personal hospitality in Meduseld. In the afternoon I made myself scarce and took my kites down to the horse training grounds, accompanied by a crowd of children. Across the plains to the north dark clouds were moving in, but where we stood the sun still shone.
Admittedly I had chosen that particular field because it afforded a good view of the road leading up to Edoras. After all I wanted to show the results of my labours! My kite had no sooner gained the air, tail fluttering in the strong wind, when another group of riders came into view. I recognized the powerful grey stallion in the lead at once and felt a tingle of excitement when his rider waved the rest of his escort on while he took the bridle path leading along the foot of the dike.
Upon arriving, Lord Éomer handed the reins of Firefoot to the ever-watchful Beorngar, who was leaning on the rails of the enclosure, and joined me in the centre of the field.
"I see you've kept your word, Lady Lothíriel," he greeted me, "and I'm impressed."
"Thank you." I could not help preening at his words. The kite pulled at the line like a living thing, a brave, graceful bird flying high above us. I had painted a sun on it, one of the emblems of Rohan, and the gold glowed against the dark, stormy sky.
Carefully I gave it more line. "See how high it flies."
"It will clear the Entwash easily." He frowned and brushed back hair that the wind blew in his face. "But how are we going to get it down and reach the message tube attached to it?"
"Watch," I laughed, releasing my hold on the string and just letting it run through my fingers. With the tension gone, at once the kite began to float to the ground. The children squealed and ran down the field.
"Of course!" Lord Éomer grinned at me with delight.
I grabbed the line again, pulling it sharply backwards, and with a snap the wind filled the sails of my kite, making it rise into the sky, out of reach of those little hands grabbing for its tail. Howls of outrage mixed with laughter rose from the children, for this was a game we had played before. Deeming my demonstration successful, and with an eye on the approaching storm, I then started to wind up the string on the wooden spindle I used for that purpose, but I had forgotten to bring gloves and my fingers were clumsy with cold.
Suddenly he stepped up behind me, arms reaching round me to assist my fumbling attempts. "Let me help."
Surprise nearly made me drop the spindle. His warm hands guided mine to wrap up the string and while he did not touch me otherwise, I was intensely aware of how close he stood behind me. The memory of touching his bare skin came rushing back at this most inopportune of moments and I had to tell myself I could not possibly feel the firm muscles of his chest through several layers of clothing and chain mail. Where had all these thoughts come from all of a sudden?
When the kite came within reach I stepped forward and grabbed it, busying myself with detaching the horizontal piece of willow branch holding the sails taught. "You can undo this and roll up the kite so it fits into a quiver." I demonstrated how. "The struts are quite elastic, but in case if any ever break I have included spares. Just undo these stitches and slip them in." Without meeting his eyes I pointed out the exact place. "It's more of a problem if the fabric tears, in which case you will have to use one of the other kites. There are four of them altogether." And I was turning into a right babbler! Why did the man have that effect on me? I just hoped he would attribute the heightened colour in my cheeks to the icy wind.
With a bow he took the four quivers I held out to him. "Thank you, my lady. That was an enjoyable experience." Startled, I looked up at him and he added, "a sight both brave and beautiful." His tone carried nothing but blandness, but his eyes conveyed a different message as they lingered on my face.
I felt resentment rise within me. He had no business to tease me like this. "I'm cold, so I will return to Meduseld now, my Lord Marshal," I told him, striding off across the field. "A good day to you."
"Wait!" With his long legs he caught up with me easily. "Please forgive me if I have offended you in any way, my lady. Let me assure you that I did not mean to."
Grudgingly I nodded. After all I could not even put my finger on what exactly he had done to unsettle me. Something in the tone of his voice, the faint emphasis he put on my lady. His smile.
When he saw us coming, Beorngar swung the gate of the enclosure open. He had been walking Firefoot to keep him warm, and Lord Éomer thanked him while he fastened the quivers holding my kites to his saddlebags. "How is your arm?" he asked.
"Recovering nicely." Beorngar grinned at his Marshal. "I'm showing Elfhelm's men a few tricks."
Lord Éomer snorted with amusement. "Just don't overdo it."
"When do you expect me back, my lord?" Beorngar asked, carefully avoiding looking at me.
Just as carefully ignoring me, Lord Éomer tightened Firefoot's girth. "Not anytime soon. I don't think you're fully fit yet."
Beorngar beamed happily. "I feel a definite strain in my arm."
"Good man. I will see you later."
His orders received, the rider gave a cheerful wave good-bye and sauntered away. To enjoy a day off, now that he'd been dismissed? "You sent him to guard me, didn't you?" I asked abruptly.
Lord Éomer stroked Firefoot's nostrils and with a huff the stallion nudged his master for more. "What if I did?"
"Then I would thank you."
"In which case I would answer that when escorting you to Edoras, I promised to keep you safe. And I keep my word." He motioned for me to walk with him along the bridle path. "But the truth is of course that your father's captain just happened to stop over in Aldburg on his way home and Beorngar just happened to need further treatment in Edoras."
"I see." I wondered what Dirhael had said to Lord Éomer. After all he had more or less blamed him for my resolution to stay in Rohan. I pondered this with half a mind as we walked back to the gate and up the road to the royal stables.
"How long are you staying for?" I asked.
"Only for Yule. The day after tomorrow we'll all be off again."
"We cannot let up our vigilance." Firefoot swivelled his head to look at a passing mare and Lord Éomer pulled on his bridle. "Although we've had no raids the last few weeks." For some reason he didn't sound pleased.
"Surely that's a good sign?" I asked. "Maybe the orcs have decided that raiding Rohan isn't worth the losses?"
He shook his head. "The Enemy doesn't care about losses. It feels more as if his attention is elsewhere, as if he's waiting for something to happen." He lowered his voice, almost speaking to himself. "The calm before the storm."
Shivering, I wrapped my cloak tighter around myself. He noticed, as he noticed everything. "Forgive me, I did not mean to disquiet you."
I nodded and by unspoken agreement we kept the conversation to innocuous topics after that, Lord Éomer making polite enquiries as to how I liked Edoras and I entertaining him with recounting my first encounter with snow.
But when we reached the courtyard outside the stables he stopped and rummaged through his saddlebags. "This is for you," he said, handing me a large package.
"For me?" Curiously I inspected the parcel wrapped around with brown cloth and tied up with a length of twine. It felt soft and quite heavy. "But why?"
"Call it a thank you," he replied with an impish grin. "It is Yule after all."
Cuthwine emerged from the stables that moment, accompanied by a couple of grooms, and called out a greeting. With a jaunty nod my way Lord Éomer went to talk to the stable master while I was left turning the parcel over in my hands. A Yule gift? Tucking it under my arm with some difficulty, I slowly ascended the steps to Meduseld and made my way to my room.
Once there, I plumped down on the bed and placed the parcel in front of me. Large and squat, it sat there and waited for me to open it. With my family so far away, I had not expected any gifts for Yule this year. True, I had bought a small trinket for Éowyn from one of the silversmiths, a pendant in the shape of a falcon, but I did not expect anything back. In Gondor, the giving of gifts between men and women was limited to close family: fathers, brothers and husbands. Or those who wanted to become husbands...
But perhaps customs differed in Rohan. And he had called it a thank you. For what - my help in Aldburg? Patching him up on his last visit? The kites? I told myself that I was reading too much into a simple present and reached for my scissors. They cut through the fine stitches holding the cloth together easily and as it parted I saw something blue peeking through. Impatient now, I pulled back the wrappings to find a tightly folded pile of fabric. Released from its constraints, it tumbled across my lap in a rich cascade, the colour of the evening sky before the first stars come out - a blue so intense it was almost black.
A cloak? Getting up and shaking it out, I found that the inside was lined with silver fur, incredibly soft under my hands. Unable to resist, I wrapped it around myself and twirled round. It fell in elegant folds past my knees, not so long that it would drag on the ground, yet cut wide enough that I could use it on horseback. I put up the hood, the fur tickling my cheeks, and luxuriated in the feeling of warmth enveloping me. Like a pair of arms wrapping themselves around me.
That brought me back to my senses. What was I thinking of? I could not possibly accept the cloak! It was much too costly. Not something you could pick up from a market stall, but obviously made to order.
"Silver and blue," I whispered and sat down on the bed heavily. The colours of Dol Amroth.
He must have commissioned it especially for me. But how long ago? Surely such a fine garment as this must have taken many weeks to make, even with several seamstresses working on it. It spoke of an amount of forethought that almost frightened me. I stroked the soft fur. Winter lynx? Dirhael would tell me to give it back at once.
Dirhael wasn't here.
What should I do? I bit my lip, thinking furiously. Maybe customs really differed in Rohan and the exchange of gifts between men and women was commonplace. For certain, refusing his cloak would be like a slap in Lord Éomer's face. And he had been so kind to me. I reminded myself that before parting, my father had repeatedly adjured me to be diplomatic. In trying not to offend the Marshal I would merely be following his orders.
I pulled my knees up to my chest and hugged them. Yes, customs had to be different here and anyway, nobody back home need ever know. After all, why shouldn't he give me a present to show his appreciation of my assistance to his men? And that was all it was, I told myself as the cloak pooled around me like the petals of an exotic bloom.
A/N: Kites have a long history of being used in war, although not necessarily as described above. And if you want to know what kind of kite Lothíriel made, you can google 'Delta kite' for pictures.
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