8. Chapter 8
I got the chance to wear my new cloak the very next day. Apparently tradition demanded that a Yule hunt be held, so Éowyn had organized an outing into the mountains. The whole court assembled outside the gates of Edoras just after sunrise, the horses' breath hanging in the cold air in big white clouds. Swathes of mist drifted past us, swallowing up the grey horses favoured by the Rohirrim, so only the jingle of tack and occasional creak of leather revealed their presence. It reminded me of that day three months ago that I had met the Marshal on the road to Aldburg. How threatening his men had seemed then. Now I found comfort in their presence, their manner and speech no longer strange.
A hunting horn interrupted my thoughts, the call taken up all around me, until the mist rang with the sound and our pack of hounds started howling and barking. Nimphelos threw her head up nervously, and I leaned forward to pat her. Suddenly Éowyn appeared out of the fog.
"Théodred's given the sign to depart!" she called. "This way."
I followed her towards the front of the column, but then hung back, not wanting to particularly meet the two men riding there. Prince Théodred and Marshal Éomer were deep in conversation, their kinship evident from their looks, with both of them tall, powerful men with the blond hair of the Rohirrim, although the prince's hair was darker than his cousin's. His party had arrived late in the afternoon the day before, and I had been introduced to him after the evening meal. Fortunately Lord Éomer had claimed his attention just that moment, enabling me to fade into the background and slip away to my room soon after. Now I let Éowyn ride ahead and pulled up next to a woman on a dark grey palfrey. I had met Lady Ceolwen the day before, though I had not expected to see her at the hunt, for she was visibly pregnant.
"Princess Lothíriel." She smiled a greeting at me. "That's a lovely cloak you're wearing."
"Thank you. I have found I need warm clothes in this northern climate." I did not elaborate on the provenance of my newest garment.
Ceolwen gave a sympathetic chuckle, her blue eyes twinkling at me. "I imagine so!"
Beside her, her husband Lord Erkenbrand leaned forward. "Ceolwen, love, are you warm enough?" I had heard him called the Bear of the West Mark and he dwarfed his delicate wife, but that moment he resembled nothing so much as an anxious mother hen. Turning my face away, I hid a smile.
Ceolwen patted his hand. "Don't worry about me." Leaning towards me conspiratorially, she explained. "You see, this is our first child."
As I congratulated her, he looked on proudly. Éowyn had told me he had full-grown twin daughters from a first marriage and idly I wondered what they made of their father doting on a woman half his age. Our road had started to climb the mountains behind Edoras by now and the rising sun turned the streamers of mist clinging to the trees pale gold. Somewhere in the forest a jay called out his warning and behind me a rider cursed the vigilant bird for alerting the other animals. For myself I did not mind. I might have brought my bow with me, but I did not intend to spill any blood on such a beautiful day.
Ceolwen went on to pepper me with questions about Gondor, and Dol Amroth in particular, showing an artless curiosity in foreign peoples and customs. Telling her about my father's Yule Ball I found myself suddenly longing for home. Not the great hall lit with thousands of candles and thronged with lords and ladies in their finery, but the quiet evenings spent reading in the library with my father sitting in his worn leather chair by the fire. And my brothers! Elphir, who had got me out of many a scrap, quiet and scholarly Erchirion and even the ever-teasing Amrothos. A pang of homesickness ran through me at the thought of spending Yule so far away from them. Were they thinking of me? Dirhael had been gone three weeks, he might well be home by now. I had received no news from Dol Amroth since I got here, but surely that just meant they were busy. I pushed the thought away from me that something might have happened to them in Gondor's many wars.
All of a sudden I became aware of Ceolwen peering at me anxiously. "Are you all right, Lady Lothíriel?"
I forced a smile. "Just thinking of my family."
"Oh, I'm so sorry." she exclaimed. "It must be truly awful to be so far away from them." Then she seemed to realize that this was hardly a very tactful observation. "I mean...that is..." I could see her rack her brain for something to say to cheer me up, her expression of dismay almost comical.
Suddenly, from up ahead, we heard a woman's voice raised in annoyance. "It's mine!" she shouted.
Erkenbrand cursed under his breath. "Excuse me," he said and spurred his horse.
Nimphelos neighed and would have followed him, but I reined her in. At my questioning look, Ceolwen shrugged. "Just the twins. Both of them want to become Hunt Queen. They've probably spotted something and are arguing who gets to shoot first."
Well, with the racket they made, any game would be long gone by now. "What is the Hunt Queen?" I asked.
"The prince will choose the best huntress at the end of the day." Ceolwen grinned. "And more importantly, he will share his evening meal with her at the head table. That's why they are so keen." She rolled her eyes. "I overheard them joking that whichever of them becomes Hunt Queen will get a clear shot at the prince, the other having to settle for Éomer."
"The Marshal!" I quickly modulated my voice. "They seem rather certain of themselves."
"Well, admittedly the two together are rather eye-catching," Ceolwen said dryly.
Having seen Leofe and Aeffe briefly the night before, I had to agree. They had identical faces, shaped round like dolls, with cerulean eyes and golden hair. Taken together the effect was downright disconcerting.
At least the altercation up ahead seemed to have been resolved and quiet reigned again. As we climbed higher, patches of snow appeared between the trees. Nimphelos snorted in distrust at the unfamiliar substance, but stepped on it daintily, following the other horses. And having seen snow before, I managed to refrain from dismounting to play with it. However, I could not resist reaching out a hand every now and again to shake off the snow from low hanging branches. I was so caught up in this little game that I did not at first notice who had let his stallion drop back to our side.
"Shall we have a snowball fight later on?" I looked up in surprise to find Lord Éomer grinning at me.
Ceolwen laughed. "What a wonderful idea, Éomer. I haven't had one of those for ages!"
"That's because you're a married woman now. A dignified matron."
"A matron!" she exclaimed in mock anger. "Just you wait, you will pay for that with a load of snow down your back."
When he saw my surprise at their easy banter, Lord Éomer leaned forward to explain. "Ceolwen is my cousin on my father's side and grew up in Aldburg as well." His eyes seemed to linger on my cloak for a moment, but he did not comment on my wearing his gift. Instead he nodded at the bow in its scabbard by my leg. "Éowyn has told me you're a good archer. Are you going to join the hunt?"
I wrinkled my brow in confusion. "What do you mean? Aren't we all going hunting?"
"Oh no!" Ceolwen exclaimed. "I for one have no desire to get all sweaty and dirty scrambling through the underbrush. I leave that kind of thing to my husband."
"There is a small lake ahead where refreshments have been provided," Lord Éomer explained. "The hunt proper will start from there, but those who wish can stay behind and enjoy the sun. Many of the ladies will probably do so."
Ceolwen gave what could only be described as a snigger. "Except those who want to become Hunt Queen..."
That decided me. The prospect of a gallop through the woods might sound enticing, but I had absolutely no desire to catch the prince's eye. "I will stay, too."
"And you, Éomer?" Ceolwen asked. "Although I suppose that's a silly question. You'll want to accompany Théodred."
"Oh, I think he can manage on his own for once."
Ceolwen raised her eyebrows in surprise, but whatever she wanted to say was lost on me as we emerged from the forest into a valley cradled between two gently sloping mountains. Glittering brightness hit my eyes and I exhaled my breath in wonder. Snow everywhere! And so much of it. Covering everything under a thick blanket that softened any sharp edges, it lay much thicker here than in the woods. Solitary fir trees dotted the slopes, throwing blue shadows, but in the sun the snow sparkled like diamonds. A limitless expanse of glittering white, except where the lake stretched before us like a black mirror. Frozen!
The horses followed a narrow path down to the lakeshore, and I noticed that animal tracks crisscrossed the snow everywhere. We had nearly reached the shore, when with a hoarse cry a golden eagle launched itself from one of the trees. It soared up into the sky, dipping its wings at us contemptuously. Wild and free.
An arrow whizzed through the air. The bird banked steeply, shrieking his outrage at the disturbance to his peace. Another arrow. Fly higher! I nearly shouted it aloud. Up ahead the quarrel erupted again and I held my breath, praying for those stupid girls to get distracted. Flapping his huge wings, the eagle gained height. But oh so slowly! The next arrow fell short, but only just, and I knew the bird was still within reach of a more experienced bowman. Then it caught an updraft and soared away.
I released my breath in relief and became aware of Lord Éomer watching me. He had his bow out, but no arrow nocked to the string. However, he said nothing, just put it away and picked up Firefoot's reins again.
"You dislike hunting?" he asked.
Did he think me silly for wanting the eagle to get away when it would make such a splendid trophy? I shifted on my saddle uncomfortably. "I know we need to fill our larders for the coming months, but surely that bird wouldn't feed anybody. Let it be free."
Whenever I made this argument with Amrothos, my brother would laugh at me fondly and call me his softhearted little sister. Not so Lord Éomer. He rubbed his beard, considering my words. "Yet in order to defend our own in times of war, we need to practise our skills," he pointed out. "The hunt serves that purpose as well."
"Yes, of course. You're right." I bent forward to stroke my mare's neck, taking comfort from the touch.
"No. You are right." The words startled me and made me look up at him. The Marshal had a vertical crease between his eyes as if annoyed that I gave in so easily. "You are right," he repeated. "Lately everything has narrowed down to concerns of war, yet we do not fight for its own sake. At times we need something to remind us what we're fighting for."
He had a way at looking at you as if you were the only person in the world that mattered. I dropped my eyes. No wonder that his men rode into battle so willingly at his command, and for a nod of approval from him would probably follow him to the very Gates of Mordor. And myself? I strangled the thought. And I was intensely grateful to Ceolwen for covering the rest of the trip to the lake with inconsequential chatter.
Once there, we dismounted and grooms ran up to lead our horses away to an area where the snow had been compacted and straw spread on it. Firefoot made a fuss at being picketed away from Nimphelos, and the Marshal had to go and calm him down. The servants had lit several fires as well and over one a huge pot bubbled away, giving forth the smell of mulled wine and spices. As hunting horns announced the departure of Prince Théodred's party, Ceolwen took my arm and we wandered down to the lakeside, drawn by the blank sheet of ice. Reeds bordered the shore, frosted over with a thin cover of snow that gave them a fragile beauty.
I heard footsteps crunching in the snow and turned round. Lord Éomer strode towards us, a grin on his face and strange contraptions dangling from his hands. "Look what I've found."
He handed me one and I turned it over curiously, never having seen such a thing before. A flat piece of wood, shaped like the sole of a shoe, with some kind of gently curved metal blade fitted to the underside and laces dangling from it. "What is it?"
"We call them skates. You strap them onto your boots and slide across the ice."
I stared at Lord Éomer uncertainly. Surely he was making it up? At the expression on my face Ceolwen broke into laughter. "It's true! Unfortunately, in my condition I cannot risk a fall, but you will have to try."
Behind me, somebody whooped loudly and as I looked on in disbelief a couple of the young guards in our party glided out onto the lake. I grabbed Lord Éomer's arm. "Won't they break through the ice?"
"No need to worry," he reassured me, "my uncle's foresters tell me the lake has been frozen for over a month. By now the ice will be as thick as a man is tall."
I found that hard to believe, but by now the two men had reached the middle of the lake without any mishap. Their gliding motions looked so elegant and easy, like a shearwater skimming along the surface of the sea. Deceptively easy, I realized, when one of them stumbled and went flying. Propelled by his own momentum he went on sliding for several more yards before coming to a stop. His friend bent over with laughter.
Lord Éomer dangled those things - skates - in front of me teasingly. "Well, my lady, are you game?"
How could I resist such a challenge? I lifted my chin. "Certainly."
Ceolwen settled down on a boulder and patted the stone, inviting me to sit down beside her. "They have to be fastened correctly. Let Éomer do it for you."
It felt strange to have him kneel down in front of me while I held out first one foot, then the other to have the contraptions fitted. I wore heavy winter boots lined with felt and should not have been able to sense his touch, but nevertheless warmth crept into my cheeks. Just the sunshine, I tried to convince myself.
By now more people had come down to the shore and several more ventured out onto the ice wearing skates, although not all were as accomplished at using them as the two guards now drawing circles in the centre of the lake. Lord Éomer tied on his own and then held out a hand. "Shall we?"
I got to my feet, wobbling uncertainly. Just standing upright on solid ground required all my concentration and he actually wanted me to walk on ice with them? Holding onto his arm, I managed to take the few steps down to the lakeshore. The metal blades fitted into the wood were only thin and I had to be careful to keep my weight balanced. He stepped onto the ice and helped me do the same. Instantly one of the skates skidded out from under me.
"Careful!" Strong hands caught me and I clutched at them gratefully. He stood solid as a rock while I clawed my way back to an upright position. Only to have to other boot slide on the ice, pitching me forward right into his arms. Lord Éomer caught me by the elbows and steadied me. "Take it slowly," he laughed.
How could he stand so firm? Unsteady as a child taking its first steps I clung to him and looked back at Ceolwen longingly. What had possessed me to try this mad venture?
She waved to us. "Go on. You're doing fine."
"Lean forward," he advised me, letting go of one arm and helping me slide a couple of yards very cautiously.
"It's the less painful way to fall."
The man was enjoying himself! I realized that by agreeing to come out onto the ice I had committed a tactical error - I was clearly out of my element here. Moving as surely as if he stood on solid ground, he transferred my grip to his other hand and shifted closer. "Allow me to assist you."
Suddenly his arm slipped under my cloak and around my waist. Surprised, I nearly fell backwards again and his hold tightened. "Steady!" When I had caught my balance again he started propelling me forward gently. In no time at all we were gliding along as fast as a man can run, but completely without effort.
Laughter bubbled up within me. "It's like flying!"
Growing more confident by the minute, I relaxed and even risked a glance down. The trick seemed to be to set one foot at an angle and use it to push off with the other. At his nod of encouragement I tried to imitate Lord Éomer's easy movements. After all I was an accomplished dancer, it couldn't be all that difficult. The moment I thought that, our skates somehow got tangled. I stumbled and trying to keep my balance yanked on Lord Éomer's arm.
The result was spectacular. He lost his footing and pitched forward, somehow managing to twist and fall onto his side. His momentum carrying him along, he slid across my path, only just missing being cut by my runner blades. Spinning round slowly he came to rest a few yards away, flat on his back with arms and legs stretched out. Without him pushing me I soon stopped moving and turned round carefully. He had put his hands on his face, his whole body shaking. With laughter I realized after a moment.
I did not know how to propel myself forward on my own, but solved the problem by kneeling down and crawling across the ice to him. "Are you all right?"
When I bent over him, he lifted his hands from his face. His hair had picked up a thin coating of snow from his glide across the ice. "I am afraid you were my downfall, my lady. However, only my pride is hurt." Lord Éomer wiped tears from his eyes. "I haven't laughed like this for ages."
He grinned up at me, the habitual strain and worry forgotten for a moment, giving me a glimpse of the man behind the accomplished warrior. But slowly the mirth faded from his face and he reached up to touch my cloak that had fallen across his chest. "The colour suits you. I knew it would."
The low intensity ringing in his voice gave the words more weight than they should have. I knew I ought to pull away from him, but found myself drawn to him as to a loadstone. Confused, I retreated into formalities. "I haven't thanked you properly for your gift yet."
"You do me honour by wearing it." One of his slow smiles blossomed, and I noticed how a few tiny flecks of amber speckled his blue irises. "Lothíriel, my people hold Yule to be outside the normal progression of days. A special time, with the sun perfectly balanced between the old year and the new. Shall we make a pact?"
"What do you mean?"
He sat up and held out a hand. "A pact for today: not to talk of war and sorrow or whatever else the future might hold, but to just enjoy the moment here and now."
An undercurrent of recklessness ran through his words and I hesitated, at a loss what to answer. Prudence dictated that I refuse.
I did not want to be prudent. "A pact," I agreed.
His hand swallowed up mine, sealing our bargain. "Will you call me Éomer?"
What had I let myself in for? No properly brought up lady of Gondor called anybody but her family by their first names. "For today," I agreed.
His teeth flashed in a grin. "Very well, Lothíriel." He had a way of drawing out my name, as if enjoying every syllable of it. "May I claim your hand in a dance tonight?"
I might as well carry on with the course I had committed myself to. "Yes."
"That is agreed then." He exhaled his breath in satisfaction and scrambling to his feet, pulled me up, too. "So are you up to more ice skating?"
Perforce I had to cling to his arm, dependent on him to keep my balance. Well, I would change that and master this art. Even if I broke a leg in the process. "Of course."
"My brave girl!" Once again he laid his hand lightly on my waist, pushing me forward. "But then I never doubted your courage. Not after you faced down a whole éored and their belligerent Marshal."
That surprised me into a laugh. "I rather had the impression the Marshal faced me down."
"Oh no. My riders all agree who came off better in that encounter between Marshal and Princess."
I was starting to get the knack of gliding along without watching my feet all the time and shot him a quick look. "That should teach you a lesson."
"It has. Next time I ride that way I will make sure I have the full muster of the Mark behind me."
The picture of Éomer needing the whole army of Rohan to back him up made me chuckle. I relaxed and let him guide my movements. He was right, such a beautiful day should be enjoyed and not spoilt by worrying about the future. The sky stretched above us unmarred by any cloud, and the sunlight sparkled off the deep green ice sheet. Storms would come soon enough, we did not have to anticipate them.
By the time the servants called us back for a midday meal of chunks of bread with vegetable stew, it actually felt strange to walk on solid ground again instead of gliding along effortlessly. Ceolwen laughed at me when I wanted to get back on the ice immediately, but Éomer humoured me.
In the late afternoon hunting horns announced the return of Prince Théodred's party and reluctantly we made our way back to the lakeshore. Anyway, the sun was starting to set and we would have to leave shortly in order to make our way down the mountains in daylight. While Éomer went to talk to his cousin, I collected Nimphelos from the picket line. The hunt had been successful with the carcasses of several deer and even a chamois slung from long poles, but the smell of blood made the mare skittish, so I led her away from the press of horses. In the thick of it I spotted Éowyn, her cheeks rosy from the chase, and Lord Erkenbrand's two daughters. They each had several braces of bloody birds hanging from their saddles, which they were busy counting. Feeling nauseated I made my way down to the lakeshore.
Ceolwen sat on a boulder a little apart, enjoying the view, but wanting time to myself I walked further along the shore. The setting sun turned the ice to molten gold and far out a solitary figure still drew lazy circles, his shadow grotesquely elongated. The day was ending - a day filled with laughter and sunshine. The thought made me sad, but I decided to put the memory of it away in my mind, like a sparkling piece of treasure, to be taken out in darker times. Scratching Nimphelos's poll, I watched the skater for a while longer and then turned to stroll back.
Ceolwen had got up and stood at the shore looking out, her rounded belly easily visible. In the reeds behind her a small shadow moved and I frowned, trying to make out what it was. Four legs, a bushy tail. A dog? Then it staggered out from behind a clump of cattails and I recognized the animal for a fox. But what was a fox doing so close to people? It seemed disorientated and something about the way it moved, the strange jerky motions tugged at my memory. Where had I seen its like before? Suddenly the image of a patient in the Healing Houses of Dol Amroth a couple of years ago sprang to my mind. The foaming disease!
What should I do? Call out to Ceolwen? But if she made any sudden movement the animal might attack her. And nobody else near enough to help! Beside me, Nimphelos whickered nervously when she caught the sharp fox reek. Of course! I spun round and reached for the scabbard holding my bow, nearly dropping it in my haste. Fit an arrow to the string, turn round, aim. The fox had taken a few staggering steps towards Ceolwen.
"Elbereth!" I breathed, releasing my arrow.
A sharp yelp told me it had found its mark. Ceolwen looked round and cried out in surprise. Running towards her, I fitted another arrow. "Get back!" The animal gathered itself to jump at her. I was still too far away!
Time slowed down. Ceolwen stepping back, a hand going to her belly in a protective move. Flecks of foam from the animal's mouth falling to the ground. Sharp teeth glittering in the setting sun. The arrow. The target. Then my bowstring twanged and time speeded up again.
Hit midair, the fox crumbled to the ground. Ceolwen shrieked. I ran towards her and pulled her back from the carcass. "Did it touch you?"
That moment somebody grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me round. "What do you think you're doing!" Lord Erkenbrand's fingers dug into my arms. "You could have hit her, you fool! Killed my wife!" Red with fury, he shook me like a rag doll.
"Erkenbrand! Let her go!" At the command, Lord Erkenbrand's grip weakened. Éomer interposed himself between us and I clutched his arm.
"The fox," I gasped, "it was going to bite Ceolwen."
"Nonsense," Erkenbrand declared, pulling his shaking wife into his arms. "Foxes don't attack humans as anybody but a witless Gondorian princess would know."
"That's enough!" Éomer snapped. "Control yourself." His arm went round my shoulder protectively.
By now a crowd of people had gathered around us. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw somebody bend over the fox's body.
"Don't touch that!" I shouted.
The man jumped at my tone and looked at me with a frown. Prince Théodred. My heart sank. "I'm sorry, my Lord Prince," I stammered, "but the fox-"
"The trophy is yours, my lady," he interrupted me, his face stern. "But let me tell you, I do not like the way you came by it."
He thought I had shot the fox because I wanted to be Hunt Queen! The idea was so ludicrous, I did not know what to answer. Éomer forestalled me anyway.
"I am sure Lothíriel had a very good reason for what she did," he declared firmly. "If she says the fox was going to attack Ceolwen, I believe her."
Lord Erkenbrand snorted loudly, but unexpectedly Ceolwen came to my assistance. She pushed herself away from her husband's chest. "It did jump at me."
"The fox had what we call the foaming disease," I cut in. "I recognized the symptoms. We had a patient with the same staggering walk in the Healing Houses of Dol Amroth."
At my words, the people standing near the carcass retreated hastily. Not even Gondor's healers had a cure for this disease, picked up by being bitten by an infected animal and invariably fatal. Prince Théodred drew his sword and gingerly turned the fox onto its side. There was the typical foam at the mouth, caused by the inability to swallow liquids.
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