12. 12. The Invitation
Arathea looked at the parchment clutched in her hand. It was the same as Éomer held. It was an invitation to a celebration in the new land of East Lórien. She knew not why she received her own and she felt chilled as unknown dread froze her blood.
“I assume you will attend?”
“If my Lord does not object,” she said with a slight bow, her hands shaking. Her discomfort did not go unnoticed and Elfhelm wondered at her distress.
“I have no objection. Now I would ask your insights on this matter as there is some disagreement amongst my council.”
“Sire, you cannot mean…” Éomer sent his group of advisors a dangerous look. All objections stopped. Éomer usually asked her opinion in private, knowing the other advisors were not fond of her; out in the open like this was not going to endear her to the advisors. Still, she stood tall and focused on her King.
“Obviously I received an invitation to attend the celebration, also. I am flattered that the elvin lords would include me. However, I am reluctant to leave my realm again at so early a stage. I had thought to send a representative in my stead; but do not wish to offend our allies. Some here agree; some say I have no choice but attend, and others would have me send only my regrets. How would that be viewed by the elves?”
Thea understood Éomer’s concerns. “My lord, to not attend at all would be the only cause of offence. If you send one of your Marshals in your stead that could speak on your behalf they are sure to understand. Lord Celeborn is a reasonable elf and King Thranduil, I assume, the same. Furthermore, I am certain King Elessar has been invited and think he, too, might send another; perhaps Lord Faramir.
“All the more reason for you to attend, Sire,” Eadward interjected. “If Lord Faramir attends, it would be an opportunity to see your sister. You have been missing her greatly.”
Éomer was no fool. He knew the advisor hoped to go as well, moving himself up the proverbial ladder. Furthermore, with the King gone, Lady Ethelfled would have his marshal at her mercy. That woman just would not get her claws out of the poor man. Éomer did not understand why the older man did not simply tell the awful woman to leave him be! Surely the marshal did not entertain the notion of…Éomer shuddered at the thought. If Elfhelm was going to be bullheaded then the king would just have to intervene. It seemed he was doing a lot of that lately and while he was glad for his companions, he felt the sting of loneliness.
“I will send Marshal Elfhelm with an escort of fifteen. He will stand in my place and speak if needed on the behalf of Rohan.” Eadward made to object but thought better of it.
Elfhelm bowed to the King, “As you command, Sire.”
Dinner that evening was all a buzz. True to his word, Rúmil did not stay for even a meal and Thea was quick to explain that Rúmil was very new to the world of men. While some scoffed at the elf’s behavior, Éomer understood and made sure it was clear to all that he did not feel slighted. Thea would have preferred, like Rúmil, to skip the meal as she was still distressed about the invitation and confused about Lady Ethelfled, however Éomer had commented about her absence at the earlier meals. After some discussion, Thea was given the option of leaving with Rúmil or going with Rohirrim in two days. Éomer made his preference clear. It, therefore, had been decided that Grimbold, with Erkenbrand as his new captain, would depart as planned for the Hornburg, and Elfhelm and his contingent would travel north to East Lórien. Thea realized the king would be, for all intense and purpose, alone save his Captain. She thought to forgo her trip, staying to help support him, however, something deep within her said this was a journey she had to take.
“Oh I cannot wait!” Lady Ethelfled was saying excitedly. “I must see to my outfits right away. Imagine us in the magical elvin realm!” She snaked her arm through Elfhelm’s and laid her head on his broad shoulder. “What a wonderful opportunity for you darling,” she purred. Elfhelm pushed the food about his plate; Ethelfled was not an entirely unattractive woman--if she kept her mouth shut--and he knew there was a time when he might have considered her advances as no other sparked his interest. However, that time was slipping away as he stole glances at the enchanting woman across from him. Thea, trying hard not to look at the Marshal, could not help but notice the sour look on his face. She quickly looked away.
Éomer looked up from his supper, “Outfits for what?” he asked, already knowing her answer.
“Why for East Lórien. I must show them the high quality of a Lady of Rohan.”
“Or lack thereof,” Gamling muttered next to Thea.
“You will not be attending.” Éomer said flatly.
“What? But my Lord, surly you jest. It is only appropriate that I attend at Lord Elfhem’s side.”
Éomer pinned her with a stare that took the wind out for her sails. “I said you will not be going. It is a long and potentially dangerous trip; it is not some romantic getaway.”
Ethelfled looked to Elfhelm, expectantly, but he kept quiet, his face unreadable. The Lady from the West-Mark was on her own. “Yet that girl is permitted to go?” She pointed her fork at Thea. “Really Sire, you must send Rohan’s finest. A mere scribe, with no breeding, just cannot do that—sweet as she may be,” she added, her words dripping, “You must send a proper lady!”
Éomer glared at the woman, “Arathea has more breeding than you will ever know,” he ground out, “not to mention she is th…” He caught himself as Arathea flashed him a panicked look. In his displeasure Éomer almost let loose Arathea’s secret. He composed himself and continued, “She does not go as part of the delegation of Rohan. She received a personal invitation and goes as an independent guest. It is merely for her safety that I ask her to wait and travel with the Marshal.”
The prideful woman’s eyes bugged. The scribe received a personal invitation to the feast? There was something amiss with that and she would find out what it was. Ethelfled settled back into her chair silently. Seeing that the woman was duly chastised, Éomer returned to his dinner. At the end of the meal, Thea all but fled the hall, feeling the gaze of Lady Ethelfled boring into her very soul.