3. Chapter 2
The mead was excellent, the best he had ever tasted outside the Mark. Éomer let the liquid roll round his mouth for a moment longer. In fact it might even surpass the Hornburg's famous brew. When he said as much to Imrahil, his friend beamed with pleasure.
"My daughter's work. She supervises the whole process personally."
Ealdred, one of Éomer's advisors, caught his eye at those words and shot him a significant glance. Éomer sighed inwardly. The ceremonial offering of mead played an important role in the Riddermark and it was considered auspicious to have a wife who made a good brew. As the old saying went: strong mead makes strong sons. He wondered what other perfections this princess sported – besides her impeccable bloodlines of course. Although to give him his due, Imrahil had not made the least push to fix a match. On the contrary, the princess had attended neither the Fields of Cormallen nor Aragorn's coronation, quite unlike the rest of the female population of Gondor.
As a result his advisors had been delighted at this invitation to visit Dol Amroth, for it provided the perfect opportunity to inspect what surely had to be one of Gondor's most eligible females. He sighed again. In the past months, Éomer had increasingly begun to feel like a stallion that had a string of likely mares paraded before him. With the only difference that the stallion could enjoy himself and move on to the next one, whereas he'd be shackled to the one he chose for life. And all for the good of the Riddermark!
He let his glance roam over the assembled nobility of Dol Amroth that mingled with the Rohirrim to fill Imrahil's hall. Hundreds of beeswax candles lit up the huge space, an extravagance that showed the wealth of his host. Their scent warred with the extravagant perfumes worn by the ladies of the court, who seemed to be out in force tonight.
Suddenly black hair tumbling down a slender back caught his eye, but as the woman turned round the movement held none of that awkward grace he'd hoped for. No grey eyes regarded him gravely, instead he recognized the daughter of a minor lord he'd already met in Minas Tirith. Éomer frowned. A year had passed and still she intruded on his thoughts at the most inopportune moments! But only because he owed her an apology, he reminded himself. If only he had asked her for her name, then he could have settled the whole affair ages ago and regained his peace of mind.
His discreet enquiries at the Houses of Healing had yielded no results; the girl seemed to have vanished without a trace, as if the earth had swallowed her up. In fact he sometimes wondered if he had dreamt the whole encounter. If so, the dream might at least have continued a little longer!
A flutter at the other end of the hall drew his attention as people moved apart to make way for some late-comers. First to enter was Amrothos with an elderly lady of regal bearing and then...
He caught his breath. Could it be? She smiled politely at the courtiers greeting them and paused to exchange a word every now and again, never once looking toward him.
"Ah, here come my sister and my daughter at last," Imrahil said as the two women ascended the steps to the dais.
Of the elderly lady's introduction, Éomer only took in a confused impression of a profusion of pink lace. Then Imrahil led the princess forward and still she would not meet his eyes.
"Éomer, may I introduce my dear daughter, Lothíriel."
She sank into a flawless curtsy. "It is a great honour, King Éomer." A low voice with a tremor of nerves, speaking Westron as only the highest nobility did. And that moment he knew. It was her!
He took her hand and bowed over it. "The honour is mine." The wave of pure pleasure rushing through him took him by surprise. "But I think we've met before?"
Her fingers trembled and she looked up at him at last. "We have, my Lord King?" Her face held polite surprise.
His certainty faltered. She looked so different with her hair put up and the long flowing dress somehow made her seem taller. Had he been mistaken? But the eyes!
Imrahil looked from one to the other. "What is this? You know each other?"
Princess Lothíriel graciously unfolded a fan. "I'm afraid not, for I've not yet had the pleasure of making King Éomer's acquaintance." A bland smile. "Perhaps you have me confused with somebody else?"
His mind belatedly caught up with his tongue. Did he really want to explain to her doting father how he thought he had met her? And suddenly he remembered how she had hidden in the cupboard at Imrahil's approach. What was going on here? However, clearly he needed to use a more indirect approach. "I'm sorry," he said with another bow. "I beg your pardon, Lady Lothíriel."
She assured him of her forgiveness and then effortlessly led the conversation onto the kind of topics that the ladies here in Gondor could spend a whole evening discussing: the weather, his journey to Dol Amroth, their fellow guests.
Éomer's uncertainty grew. This refined young woman bore no similarity to the waif with a tear streaked face that he had last seen peeking out of a linen cupboard. Yet he couldn't just let the matter rest, he had to know. However, trying to draw Imrahil's daughter aside after only just meeting her would only call undue attention to them.
So he endured a little more of her insipid conversation, before excusing himself to talk to another acquaintance. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her relaxing as he moved away. She exchanged a quick smile with her brother Amrothos, the first unguarded expression he had seen on her face.
After that he circulated amongst the other guests, yet always kept an eye on her. Éothain, the captain of his guard, noticed and lifted an eyebrow in silent inquiry.
Éomer grinned back. "Just a little genteel hunting..."
He still couldn't quite make up his mind. And as she glided across the dance floor in the arms of one young man after another, he could have sworn she kept up an equally furtive observation of his movements. Then he saw his chance.
A dance had just come to an end and she stood with her partner near one of the doors leading out onto the gardens. Éomer bore down on them and the man most conveniently faded into the crowd with a deferential bow.
"Would you grant me a dance, my lady?" Éomer asked.
She fanned herself. "You're most kind, my Lord King," she replied, "but I really think I need a quick break, so-"
"Very wise," he agreed. And before she could add anything else, he placed her hand on his arm and whisked her out the door. At a nod, his guards stayed behind.
On the terrace outside, servants proffered trays of refreshments and he picked up two shallow cups of mead. "A drink?"
She accepted one of the cups with a stiff nod. "You're most kind."
He grinned to himself. She objected to his treatment of her, did she? Well, she could always blame it on his barbaric upbringing. "Shall we sit by the fountain?" he suggested.
"Whatever pleases you, my Lord King."
He ignored the lukewarm enthusiasm with which she received his proposition and led the way to one of the stone fountains gracing the formal gardens. Water spouted in a jet from the mouth of the statue of a giant fish and he wondered how the effect was accomplished.
"We don't have anything like that in Rohan," he remarked as he settled her on the rim of the fountain. "It's most ingenious. Do you know how it works?"
He hadn't really expected an explanation, but to his surprise she nodded. "My grandfather came up with the design himself. There's a big water tank on one of the towers with a series of pipes and valves leading down to the gardens." She motioned at the gravel paths. "After the water emerges in the fountain, it's channelled along underground pipes back to the bottom of the tower, from where it's pumped up again." She smiled. "We only have the fountains running on feast days, or the poor donkey that turns the pump would be worn out."
She had a nice smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes. Trying to put her at ease, he indicated her drink. "The mead is excellent. Your father mentioned that you take a personal interest in the brewing?"
"You're too kind," she murmured. "Indeed I only supervise the servants."
As befitted a Princess of Dol Amroth? The moonlight cast its cool light over her silver gown, calling up shimmering highlights. After having paid for Éowyn's wedding dress made from Harad silk, he had an idea how much it must have cost. The casual way she wore such wealth alone marked her for a princess. Nobody could be more different from the little healer girl clad in stained brown robes he remembered from Minas Tirith and yet his instincts still insisted he had met her before.
She fanned herself. "How warm it is. Do you have such mild weather in Rohan in the spring, too?"
They seemed to be back to polite conversation, which invariably involved the weather. He sometimes wondered what highborn Gondorian ladies talked about in bed – about balmy night breezes?
"Back home it's not as mild as here," he replied. "I suppose it must be the moderating influence of the sea."
"Yes, indeed." She nodded as if he'd just said something exceedingly clever. Then she set down her cup on the rim of the fountain. "Well, thank you very much for this brief break, my Lord King."
Clearly she wanted to end their private conversation. Éomer decided to be brutally direct. "It is you, isn't it," he said.
She froze in the process of rising from her seat. "I beg your pardon?"
"You're the girl I met in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith."
She frowned. "My lord, you are mistaking me for someone else. I haven't been to Minas Tirith in years, not since the Shadow grew so threatening."
Why couldn't she just admit it? "You needn't be afraid that I would give you away," he said.
She lifted her chin. "I really don't know what you're talking about."
"I think you do." He knew pressing her so hard was not well-mannered, but he wanted the truth from her. "On the night of the Pelennor battle, your father told me his daughter was safe and sound in Dol Amroth, yet I wonder how much he really knew about your whereabouts." He fixed her with a stern gaze. "Well, my lady?"
Those grey eyes regarded him as if mesmerized. "My father!"
"Should I go and ask him?"
"No!" she exclaimed. "Anyway, what would you say? That you think you ki–" She stumbled to an abrupt halt.
"...kissed his daughter in a linen cupboard," Éomer finished for her triumphantly. "Yes, indeed! Ha, I knew it was you!"
Her face drowned of all colour and he felt a flash of remorse. But really, she should have admitted it from the start. After all, he was perfectly ready to apologize for his behaviour.
She had sunk back on the rim of the fountain and gripped her cup of mead so hard, her knuckles stood out white. "Please, it's not what you think..." She took a large gulp of drink.
A group of young noblemen spilled out of the doors to the hall that moment, laughing and shouting, and momentarily distracted him. However, they moved down the other end of terrace.
When he turned his attention back to the princess, he found her regarding him steadily. "It wasn't me," she stated.
She lifted those lovely grey eyes to his face. "It was my sister."
"Don't be ridiculous. Imrahil has no other daughters," he pointed out, his temper fraying. What did she take him for to try and feed him such an obvious lie?
She licked her lips. "The family doesn't like to talk about her... Gliwen is actually my half-sister."
Surely she was lying through her teeth! But before he could tell her so, she continued her tale. "Everybody says we look a lot alike, almost like twins, but she's actually a little younger. It happened after my mother's death... Father sought comfort... and one of the servant women..." She blushed furiously.
Éomer closed his mouth with a snap as it finally dawned on him what this refined princess was telling him. A by-blow? Imrahil? He couldn't believe it.
"Are you telling me your father has an illegitimate daughter?" he asked, brutally blunt.
She blushed even harder and ducked her head. "Yes," she whispered.
Was that really the truth? Yet why would a well brought up Gondorian princess invent such a preposterous lie? That was even harder to believe. The ladies here were so prudish and prim, they even considered the discussion of horse breeding an improper subject. "Tell me more," he demanded.
"I will, but..." she swallowed, "...my lord, do you promise me you won't mention this to my father?"
He frowned. "And why not?"
"Father doesn't like us talking about Gliwen to outsiders – to spare her embarrassment."
There was no shame in being born outside the wedding cloak in the Mark, but he knew Gondor differed in that respect. As if it were the child's fault! Well, he didn't want to carry tales to Imrahil anyway. He could get to the bottom of things perfectly well himself. "All right," he agreed. "But only if you tell me the whole story."
Relaxing slightly, she took another gulp of mead. "There is not much more to tell," she answered, staring down at the silver reflections in the fountain. "Gliwen was always a lot wilder than me – she got me into trouble more than once. During the war, she decided to travel to Minas Tirith and was helping in the Houses of Healing when you happened upon her. However, Father never found out. When she got back, she told me what had happened..."
Truth or lie? Yet in a way that would explain why the girl he remembered differed so much from Princess Lothíriel. Well, he could always put it to the test.
"I want to meet this Gliwen of yours," he said.
"Why not? If she's Imrahil's daughter, I presume she lives in Dol Amroth as well, doesn't she?"
"Why yes, but..." She seemed to hear the challenge in his tone. "Very well," she agreed.
He rose and extended a hand to help her up. "Tomorrow."
Her fingers shook slightly. "Tomorrow."
Gliwen = honey maiden