17. Unity Part I
Edoras FA 53
With the wine came the letters; year after year they arrived as promised. Éomer devoured every one eagerly, wanting to learn all he could of his first-born son. Mostly I pushed aside the twinges of jealously that threatened to worm their way into my mind. But sometimes they lingered in the deep crevices. Not because Éomer had sired a son by another woman, but because that son was evidently the image of his father. Elfwine resembled my family, my father particularly, and could easily be mistaken for a Gondorian, which worried me in this land of flaxen-haired men. But with his usual common sense Éomer insisted that it made no difference to the Rohirrim at all. Elfwine was a Prince of the Riddermark, born in the Mark and growing up in Meduseld, learning the ways and the traditions of the Horse-lords – loyalty and love of land, far more important than looks. Éomer loved him deeply, and gave unstintingly of his time and energy to turn the lively child into a young man, noble and strong in body and mind.
As Elfwine grew, so did the bond between them, its strength brought home to me when Elfwine sat for two whole nights and a day in the stables, keeping Firefoot company as the horse sank slowly into the long sleep. His father, he said, away warring in the East, would not have wanted his favourite horse to die alone.
A few weeks later, my heart aching with sympathy for my husband, I watched them standing together at Firefoot's barrow. Éomer's hand landed on his son's shoulders, and the familiar pain shafted through me – how Éomer would have loved more children, daughters and sons that I could not give him. Unsurprising then, that had Éomer been given the opportunity, I was sure Halmir would be living in Edoras.
But all that was long ago, and there was so much to remember and be thankful for. Reminiscing on some of the most joyful times Éomer and I had shared, I must have drifted off to sleep, because suddenly I heard shouts and the clip of horses' hooves below me. Hope leapt! However, after a moment I saw that it was my son returning from a ride and not my husband coming home. I had been told that Elfwine had ridden out to exercise his new stallion that morning. He'd gone with just a couple of friends, a far cry from his youth when he had been guarded tighter than a dragon's hoard. Éomer had tried to make his son's life as normal as possible, but Elfwine had always had to be watched over. He'd never raced his horses across the plains of the Mark without a heavy escort, or camped in the woods with only a couple of close friends for company – light-hearted pleasures his father had enjoyed as a child in Aldburg.
A smile crossed my face as I looked back into the past again, remembering another time when Éomer had been away from Meduseld, and I had taken it upon myself to put my son in danger. On that occasion Éomer had ridden north with Aragorn, after Gondor's king had been here for an extended visit. The two kings planned to meet Merry and Pippin at Bree and escort them back to Edoras, before the hobbits would travel on to Minas Tirith with Aragorn.
Much to their chagrin, Elfwine and Eldarion had been left behind. Possibly because the two men relished their friendship and wished to enjoy each other's company in the wild without being bothered by chattering youngsters, but more likely because they were fed up with the boys bickering. As children, the two crown princes had got on well, but as manhood approached, their rivalry had grown. I could have said I acted without thought, as I sometimes am wont do. But no, every move I made on that day was deliberate.
Edoras FA 14
For some days after their fathers left to ride north, Elfwine and Eldarion contented themselves with no more than the occasional squabble in my presence. Surprisingly I could not put my finger on what problem lay between them, and could only wonder if Eldarion resented coming to Rohan to deepen his horse-craft. But Elphir had sent his sons as they became old enough to stay away from their mother, and Amroth regularly brought his, even though his horsemanship could hardly be bettered. Elboron came every year also, often leaving his parents in Gondor for weeks. None of my nephews had taken umbrage at being put in the charge of the Edoras stable-master or spending time living with the herdsmen on the Eastemnet. In fact they relished the free lifestyle, and so had Eldarion when he was younger.
Whatever difficulty the two boys were having with each other, I didn't like it. And then one night at supper, after they had returned from an extended visit to Aldburg, I realised things had got worse and an angry silence lay between them. The situation didn't improve, and questioning Elfwine told me nothing. At nearly fourteen he'd grown past the age when he would confide in his mother, and remained tight-lipped every time I probed. Had Eldarion been throwing his weight or his rank around? No, I didn't think so, as the other boys, sons of Éomer's guardsmen, who lived in Meduseld, treated him with respect but no awe. Aragorn had deliberately left his son with no Gondorian guard to fawn over him; did this proud young prince resent the rougher manners of the Rohirrim?
'Lothíriel,' an urgent voice broke into my reverie. Letting my quill drop, I swung around to see Bryde's pretty face framed in the open doorway.
'You had better come to the herb-room.'
'Someone is injured?' The chair got pushed aside impatiently in my haste. Éomer had ordered a large, new Healing House to be built at the bottom of the hill, but any accidents in Meduseld to members of the household I tended to treat myself, in a small room where we stored some of the common remedies.
Byrde grasped my arm, staying my speedy exit from the solar. 'Elfwine and Eldarion have been fighting in the stables. The stable-master brought them to the hall and called Déor. He was so mad, that had they not already been so knocked about, I think he would have banged their heads together.'
He could do so with my pleasure! Boys fought – my brothers used to do so all the time in their youth, but it was the result of quick flare-ups of temper and soon forgotten. This had been brewing for weeks. 'Any serious injury?'
Byrde shook her head. 'I don't think so, but lots of blood and bruising.'
We hurried across the hall, drawing questioning looks from those preparing the tables for the evening meal. They would find out soon enough, so I said nothing, my mind busy, not with worries about injuries, but how I was going to put an end to this enmity. Their fathers enjoyed a comradeship that had survived age difference and distance, a closeness that had led to trust and respect between two different kingdoms. Could I rely on time to settle the differences of these two future kings, or should I step in to try and ensure the next generation would benefit from such a friendship? But if I intervened with more than salve and bandages, what exactly could I do?
As we reached the door to the herb-room, a memory from the Ring-war flashed into my thoughts, words my father had written in a letter to Elphir just before the march to the Black Gate – 'Aragorn is Elendil's heir and thus I count him my liege. You have met him, so you know that there is no man as truehearted and noble.
Éomer will follow him also, they are as brothers. I envy them, for they share that special bond that comes only when men stand side by side, unfaltering, against overwhelming odds.'
Overwhelming odds! No, these two had never faced anything like their fathers had known. They might have received the best training, but they had been born into relative peace, and still too young to be sent to the infrequent skirmishes around our borders, neither had willingly been put in the way of danger.
My mind make up, I grabbed Bryde's arm. 'While I am treating them, have a quiet word in Déor's ear. Whatever I say, tell him not to interfere.'
With a surprised rise of her brows, she nodded and pushed open the door.
Eldarion sat on one end of the table, holding a bloodied cloth to his nose. I spotted the beginnings of a bruise on his temple and streaks of mud over his tunic. Not too bad by the look of it, unless his nose had been broken. I wondered if Elfwine had come off worse, but although slightly younger and a bit shorter, he had a heavier frame. At first I couldn't see my son, hidden by the bulk of Ælfgar, the Royal Stable-master. He stood with his arms folded, a grim expression making him look even more formidable than usual. But his stern looks belied the kindness that I knew lurked within him.
'I am sorry, my lady, I would not have bothered you, but this is not the first time they have fought. I have tried to keep them occupied, but...' Ælfgar shrugged, gesturing his inability to prevent hostility coming to blows.
'It's not your fault, Ælfgar. And I am sorry that your work has been interrupted by this.'
'Elfwine!' Ælfgar moved, allowing me to catch sight of my son, who without a doubt would soon be sporting a juicy black eye. 'You will apologise to Master Ælfgar.'
No argument, Elfwine had been taught obedience from an early age. He jumped off his end of the table and made a bow. 'I apologise, Master Ælfgar, for inconveniencing you.'
My eyes flew to Eldarion, but he forestalled my command and quickly made his apology. How alike the two were in looks, and could be easily mistaken for brothers, their Númenorean and Elvish heritages apparent in the fine bone structure of their handsome faces. They were good boys too, both of them, and it grieved me to find them so opposed to one another.
Although I had decided what to do, after Master Ælfgar had left I treated them in silence, packing Eldarion's nose and putting salve on Elfwine's eye and various small scratches they both had gained from rolling about the floor. Let them wonder a bit longer what their punishment would be. Elfwine certainly knew me well enough to expect some kind of retribution. Not for fighting, but for disturbing the peace of the stables. No doubt he anticipated becoming better acquainted with a pitchfork and a dung heap, and would not imagine what I had in mind.
Déor said nothing either, suspecting something unusual after Byrde had drawn him to the window and whispered in his ear.
I finished my task and cleared up the mess; Byrde emptied the water down the sluice and started to clean off the table. The boys still eyed me warily. They looked terrible, and I considered sending them to change and talking to them in Éomer's study, but some things were best dealt with at once.
I dried my hands and stood opposite, looking from one to the other. 'I am disappointed in both of you.' Neither dropped their eyes, but faced me squarely awaiting whatever punishment I was about to dish out. 'It would be easy for me to give you some noisome task, but that would achieve nothing. I have no idea why there is discord between you, but for the sake of your fathers, and your people, I am determined it shall end.' I paused to let them take that in. 'I am sure that you do not need to be told how your fathers met, but I will remind you.' My attention focused on Elfwine. 'Your father had his sword taken from him and spent three days locked up, because he trusted a Ranger from the North who proclaimed himself Elendil's heir for the first time on the green grass of the Mark.' I swivelled my gaze to Eldarion. 'Your father repaid that trust by returning to Edoras and aiding the Riddermark's fight against Saruman. Together they stood on the walls of Helm's Deep and defied a horrific army of ten thousand orcs and men. A friendship was formed in that place which will survive for a lifetime, whilst their privileged sons, crown princes of Middle-earth's most powerful realms, bicker and fight like a pair of greedy fledglings.'
Eldarion shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another, Elfwine stared at the floor.
I sat down on the chair with a sigh. 'You know, on my way to this room I remembered something my father wrote in the middle of the Ring-war. He said that the brotherhood between your fathers was formed because they stood together unfaltering, facing unconquerable odds. I cannot put you two in that position, but I can ensure that you have to rely on each other for a short while.' That got their attention. Elfwine stopped contemplating his boots and showed me a red face. Eldarion regarded me thoughtfully with his clear grey eyes.
'I am going to send you out in the wilds for a few days, unaccompanied. You can fend for yourselves, and whether you feast or starve will be in your own hands.' Hopefully, in such a position, there would be a chance of them mending their friendship.
Déor opened his eyes wide, a look of shock on his face. But I ignored it. Éomer had not been a lot older than Eldarion when he had killed his first orc. With no real threat to our lands, we had got used to protecting burgeoning young warriors from perceived dangers.
'The slopes of the Grindberg should be suitable,' I mused. 'Déor, would you arrange an escort to deliver these two to the escarpment that overhangs the Great West Road, first thing in the morning.' The Grindberg's lofty heights towered above the plains halfway between Edoras and Helm's Deep and its steep, wooded valleys held no villages. People tended to build their habitation nearer to the fortresses of the Riddermark.
'How long, my lady, do you wish them to remain on the mountain?' Poor Déor, he had trouble getting the words out, and his eyes silently entreated me to reconsider. I slanted him a smile. 'The ride to the Black Gates was seven days, if I recall correctly. I think that amount of time will suffice. The escort can return to collect them at noon on the seventh day.'
'Mother, can we take no food at all?' Elfwine's face had gone from red to white. Whether he was contemplating seven hungry days or the thought of spending so much time with his antagonist had unnerved him, I did not know.
I didn't answer, but turned to Déor. 'What food did you take when the Rohirrim rode to the relief of Minas Tirith?'
I saw a smile lurking in his eyes this time. 'A few strips of dried meat and a bag of oats, which each Rider had to share with his horse.'
'Then that is what you two will take. Seven days, seven handfuls of oats. But I am sure a prince of the Riddermark and the son of Middle-earth's greatest traveller should be able to catch their supper.' The shock on their faces nearly made me laugh out loud, but somehow I didn't think they would have preferred to be shovelling dung.
'Let them have a knife each, Déor, and some twine. There is plenty of wood to make bows and arrows to down the forest fowl, and if not, they should be able to snare a rabbit or two.'
Eldarion had said nothing so far, but I saw a spark of excitement in his eyes. 'We will not starve, my lady, my father has shown me how to live off the land.'
Elfwine shot him an irritated look. 'The men of the Riddermark are used to camping in the wild, I am not without skill.'
'Well, you will need to combine your talents so that you both may benefit. I suggest, Déor, that one of them carries the tinderbox and the other the cooking pot.'
Déor stifled a chuckle at that. Elfwine opened his mouth to say something, but thought better of it as I threw him a warning look. I could only hope that for growing young men hunger was a mighty persuader. I stood up, my eyes holding them both, before I made for the door. 'I do not wish for your presence in the Hall tonight, so I suggest you speak pleasantly to the kitchen staff if you wish for some supper, and prepare for an early start.'
'Lothíriel!' Déor caught me up halfway across the hall. 'This is a very dangerous game you are playing. Oh, don't get me wrong, I understand your reasons, but they are untried young men.'
'They have to start somewhere!' I retorted, and then I clasped his arm. 'Look, they will not suffer permanent harm from a week's poor fare and hard ground. The Riddermark has been safe for many years, and there are no pickings for brigands in that area.'
'No, I agree, but Elessar left his only son in our care. We have to make sure Eldarion stays safe.'
I thought quickly. 'Make sure they understand they cannot take on the wild boar, and if it will make you feel happier order a couple of scouts to keep watch for any trouble. But tell our men if they are seen, I will send them to spend the winter on the Wold. Those two have to believe they have no recourse but to trust in each other.'
Déor laughed. 'The men I choose will be as ghosts in the mist.'
I cannot say that no worries assailed me over the next few days, but reflection enabled me to justify my decision to myself. The escort remained camped in a high village a few valleys along from the Grindberg and I had faith that the scouts would quickly call on them at any sign of trouble.
With my son and my husband away, the days passed slowly and peacefully. But five days after I had sent the two boys into the mountains and I was contemplating another quiet afternoon spent with my books, Déor knocked on the door.
'A scout has arrived, Lothíriel.'
I looked up aghast, my heart hammering.
'No...No...' he said quickly. It is merely a messenger to say that Éomer King and his party will be here in time for the evening meal.'
'Oh...' I smiled. 'That's a relief. I thought you had come to say something had happened to those boys.'
'No, nothing. I am sure they are fine; luckily for them the weather has favoured them.'
'Well, I must away to the kitchens to make sure preparations are in hand. With two hobbits to feed tonight I might have to detail some extra help!'
But by the time I reached the hall, it had already burst into life, the older children helping to drag the tables into place, and a couple of servants rolling in a barrel of ale. It would need time to settle, not that it would remain in the barrel very long with the men of two Royal Guards quenching the thirst of a long ride.
Having made certain that the king's board would be well-laden, I returned to my chamber to bathe and prepare for my husband's homecoming. Slipping off my dress a shiver of anticipation ran through me, knowing that Éomer would hunger for more than meat tonight.
It seemed no time before I heard the sweet sounds of Rohirric horns and was standing outside with the welcome cup. Two kings bounded up the steps towards me, but I only had eyes for one. Before I could even begin my a duty, a strong arm pulled me close and warm lips claimed mine, for the years of marriage had not dulled our need of each other. Overcome by the feel of warm, solid man, I buried my fingers into his hair, balancing the tray precariously with one hand.
'Do you see that, Merry?' I heard a voice say, 'I think they've missed each other.'
'Shhh... You have to greet royalty, properly.' Master Holdwine bowed. 'Shall I take that tray from you, Lady Queen?'
Releasing my lips, Éomer laughed. 'No, you will probably drink the lot.' He let me go and I managed to offer Aragorn his welcome cup and utter the customary words. The King of Gondor inclined his head, grey eyes sparkling.
'I am glad to see traditions upheld, even if a little belatedly.'
Éomer grinned at him. 'That is our tradition. We have been practising it for many years now.'
And I hoped for many years to come. Slanting him a roguish smile, I dispensed the rest of the cups, before we linked arms and led our guests through into the hall. With us came the freshness of the open air as the men piled in behind, but I also I smelt horses and campfires and the odour of sweat. Water had been put to heat for all, but before I could suggest a clean up before supper Éomer looked around.
'Where are Elfwine and Eldarion? I didn't see them in the stables.'
'They are camping on the slopes of the Grindberg.'
He frowned. 'Oh, that's a strange place for them to go. Why there?'
'I thought it would be beneficial for them to camp in the wilds.'
'A good idea, I suppose. But I pity the poor men who have to wet-nurse those two, the mood they were in. Who's gone with them?'
Now for it. 'I didn't actually send anyone with them, although there are guards not far away. I thought it better that they manage on their own.'
'Lothíriel,' Éomer sighed, dropping my arm. 'What exactly are you saying?'
Quickly I explained, keeping my voice level, determined not to show that I had any doubts.
'You did what!' Éomer thundered, almost before I had got the last words out. 'Am I hearing this right? You sent the heir to Gondor to spend a week in the mountains with a few handfuls of oats, a knife and no guard! Eorl save me, Lothíriel, bear, boar and lion stalk those slopes. Have you gone mad? '
Never mind the heir to the Riddermark's throne, that didn't seem to bother him. 'I had to do something. And they were instructed to leave such prey alone, and to go for the goats and the fowl.'
Éomer stared at me with his eyes blazing, but Aragorn put a calming hand on his arm. 'It seems an excellent way of dealing with a problem to me, Éomer. And I doubt they will have to contend with anything more than an empty belly and a cantankerous billy-goat.'
To be continued.
List of original characters appearing or mentioned in this chapter.
Byrde Hama's youngest daughter, married to Déor.
Déor. Childhood friend of Éomer, now the captain of Lothíriel's guard.
Halmir Illegitimate son of Guleth and Éomer.
Ælfgar Royal Stable-master at Edoras
Elfwine – born FA1
Eldarion – born TA 3020
Elphir and Meren:
Alphros m – born 3017; Elphin m – born 3020 ; Eldir m – born FA4; plus one girl
Amrothos and Devoran:
Elenna f – born FA2; Rosriel f – born FA5; Carafin m – born FA7 (became Lord of Morthond when Devoran was given her inheritance); Baranir m – born FA8; Lindis f born FA11 (married Déor and Byrde's son, Caedda)
Eóthain and Welwyn:
Leofcwen f – born Yule 3020 ; Eadrid m – born FA5; plus three more.
Déor and Byrde:
Caedda m – born FA6 (married Lindis; four children including Osmund)
Ealgyþe f born FA 27; Éadwig m born FA29; plus two more sons and one daughter.
Erchirion and Inayah:
Two daughters and one son.
Æbbe and Godric
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