8. Chapter 7
The silence was oppressive. Éomer sighed as he leant on the battlements and looked out at a landscape wreathed in morning mist. Except for the lookouts in the towers either end of the walkway nobody was about yet. Just him and Éothain - who had said no word beyond greeting his king as he fell into step behind him.
A chilly breeze tugged at his cloak. "Yes, I know," Éomer finally snapped, pushed beyond his endurance. "I shouldn't have bought her that belt."
More silence. It was the bees of course. He might as well have shared his cup of mead with her. And since Beocca had witnessed it, the tale would probably be known to all his riders by now. He groaned. "She's Gondorian. It's just a simple gift to her, she doesn't know."
Yes, he did - and had at the time. Yet he hadn't been able to resist. That belt had been made for her! And he had wanted to be the one who put it round her. He still remembered the primitive satisfaction he'd felt when the clasp had clicked close. And Gliwen, blissfully unaware that she had just accepted a courting gift, had thanked him!
He rubbed his temples, wondering if he could blame the wine for his conduct. Yet the intoxication had originated from a very different source - an evening enjoyed far more than was reasonable. For a short while he had merely been a simple rider strolling through the fair in the company of a pretty woman and his best friend.
He didn't even know what it was about Gliwen that attracted him. True, she was pretty enough, but so were many other women in Gondor's court. And Queen Arwen's unearthly beauty put all of them in the shade anyway. Perhaps the way Gliwen seemed completely oblivious to his station as a king? She certainly didn't hesitate to let her displeasure known if she considered him overstepping his authority. He grinned reminiscently, remembering their sparring.
Éothain cleared his throat. "So what will you do now?"
"I'm not sure," Éomer admitted.
"Lady Gliwen deserves better than being gossipped about," his friend declared.
In his experience, Éothain only distinguished between two categories of women - those he could introduce to his aged mother and those he couldn't. His captain had been a bit doubtful about Gliwen at first, but apparently by saving his king from what he perceived as a watery death, she had firmly placed herself in the former category. Unfortunately, to Éomer the world wasn't as simple as that.
"They won't gossip about Gliwen, they'll gossip about Princess Lothíriel," he pointed out.
"Oh!" Éothain scratched his chin. "I hadn't considered that. That's quite a pickle you've landed yourself in."
Truer words were never spoken! Éomer stared out over the marshes stretching to the north of the castle. A rising wind from the sea tore the mist apart so the ghostly forms of trees emerged. Amrothos had promised to take them riding there in the afternoon, but Éomer wondered if he would be up to it. The prince had looked like something dragged out of the gutters, wet and none too clean, when they had met him on the way back.
He drummed his fingers on the cold stone of the battlements. It had been wrong to talk Gliwen into posing as her sister and twice wrong to gift her with that belt for all to see. Neither of the two sisters deserved the gossip that would accrue from his actions. But then deception rarely paid off, so it was hardly surprising this one had already come back to haunt him.
However, he would be leaving tomorrow and surely with time the whole affair would be forgotten. By the participants as well, Éomer told himself firmly. He thought of returning to Meduseld, to the royal chambers behind the great hall, which he inhabited on his own now that Éowyn was gone. They still felt like that of a stranger to him with the richly carved, enormous bed and the faded tapestries. Luckily he could spend most of his time on the practice grounds and in the stables. As for the Queen's Room and the nursery, frozen in time decades ago, he had only taken one look before ordering them closed until needed.
Until needed… Involuntarily the picture of Gliwen standing in his bedroom, twirling round and laughing at him flashed through his mind. Or lying in his bed, her rich wealth of hair spread across the pillow, smiling up at him. The sudden surge of desire coursing through him took him by surprise.
He fought it down. It could not happen. For though she would make a fitting bride to any other man, the King of the Mark could not have her. A queen's lineage had to be impeccable, the claim of her progeny without doubt. He smiled bitterly. What would his people say to mingling the blood of the line of Eorl with that of the daughter of a common servant? No, you did not breed your only stallion to a mare of questionable parentage, not if your future depended on the offspring.
And what if he did not marry her? After all her mother… Éomer stopped his train of thought, appalled at himself. How could he even consider suggesting such a dishonourable thing to Gliwen? Exposing her to the censure of his own people and the contempt of the Gondorians would be the least. And what would she do when he did marry, as he must? All to get her in his bed. His bed…
Éomer took firm hold of himself. What had got into him? It was not as if Gliwen were the only woman with whom he could spend a pleasant evening, or who had ever stirred his blood. He hardly knew the woman anyway! There was nothing special about her.
No, he knew what he had to do. Tomorrow he would ride out of the gate below them, not looking back - forgetting her as a passing fancy, just as she would forget him. And then he would find himself a queen. Preferably with blond hair.
"Éomer?" Éothain enquired worriedly. "What is the matter?"
"Nothing." He turned to face his captain. "Leave me now. I want to be alone."
After a look at his face, Éothain dipped his head and left.
The wind sighed round him, tugging at his hair. The castle was waking up, with servants hurrying across the courtyard, carrying baskets of logs to stoke the fires for the morning baths of the ladies. A gaggle of geese protested loudly at being driven in the direction of the kitchen.
Suddenly he spotted a furtive figure wrapped in a faded red cloak slipping past the guards and hurrying towards a postern gate.
After a moment's hesitation he followed her.
The boughs of the apple trees hung down dejected and the grass was slippery with dew as he walked through the fruit grove. He stopped outside Gliwen's tower and hesitated. What did he want with her anyway? Then he kicked himself mentally at hanging around her door like a lovesick youth. There might not be another chance to see her, so surely it would only be polite to take his leave of her and thank her for her company the night before? Firmly he knocked.
"Is that you, Hingam?" she called. "Do come in."
He pushed open the door and stepped across the threshold into a lofty room only sparely lit by a couple of candles. Bookshelves lined it from floor to ceiling and a large table dominated the centre, littered with unidentifiable bits. He stared. Was that the skeleton of a bat hanging from the ceiling? One cupboard held a row of bottles, some of which seemed to have things floating inside.
It took him a moment to spot Gliwen who was kneeling by a row of baskets lined with white cloth, a crate by her side. She hadn't looked up, being too busy cooing to something inside the baskets. "I'm coming, Hingam," she said, "I just need to feed my babies first. They're hungry." Her voice grew soft and tender. "Aren't you, my sweet little ones."
Her babies? Incredulously Éomer stared at the basket. Her words were like a punch to the stomach, delivered out of nowhere. After the first unbelieving surprise a wave of blackest rage rushed through him. He would kill the man!
With a couple of strides he crossed the room. "Who was it?" he snarled.
Gliwen yelped and fell over to land on her backside. "Éomer! What are you doing here?"
"Who was it!"
She went white and scrambled to her feet. "It was my idea, mine alone. Nobody else had anything to do with it."
"Nobody else? Ha!" The poor innocent was even defending that piece of orc bait. Another thought struck him. "Did Dorgam do this to you?" He clenched his fists. "The pig! Just wait till I catch him. I'll slit his throat!"
"Lord Dorgam?" she stared at him in incomprehension. "Of course not. He would never-"
"I swear scum like that doesn't deserve your loyalty. Who was it? Tell me, Gliwen!"
She staggered as if he had hit her. "Gliwen?" she whispered.
The poor dear. She looked as if she had seen a nazgûl. He gentled his voice, for he did not want her to think he blamed her. It was all the fault of Imrahil and those useless brothers, for not taking better care of her! "Just tell me the father's name and I'll take care of him. He will never bother you again."
She clutched her head. "What name? I told you, Imrahil is my father-"
"Not yours! Their father." He motioned to the baskets by her feet.
Her mouth fell open. "Theirs?"
"Yes, of course!" What did she think.
Then Éomer followed her glance to see that the baskets were filled with leaves. Leaves? Suddenly he saw something small wriggling amongst the greenery. He recoiled. "What is that!"
Gliwen made a helpless gesture. "Just my newest project."
Her project? He grabbed a candle from the table and took a closer look. The basket was full of whitish caterpillars crawling over the fresh leaves in a feeding frenzy! What?
Gliwen snatched the wavering candle from his hands. "Be careful!"
An awful suspicion dawned on him. Had he just made a complete fool of himself? "No," he groaned.
She still stared at him as if she feared he had gone out of his mind. "No, what?"
"Don't tell me you are raising butterflies."
Gliwen shrugged. "Well, something of the sort."
He felt exceedingly foolish for jumping to conclusions like he had done. But really, she had no business to use that tone of voice to a bunch of repulsive insects! "Why didn't you say so," he snapped.
"You never gave me the chance," Gliwen bristled. "Instead you simply burst in here, startling me. I was really scared when you-" She bit her lip. "Never mind. And I don't see why it should bother you anyway, what I do here. This is my tower and Father gave me permission to use it as I please."
Éomer gave a stiff bow. "I'm sorry for startling you." He felt rather ill-used for having to apologise when he had only been concerned about her.
Gliwen frowned. "And anyway, why did you shout at me that way?"
"It is nothing, just a misunderstanding," Éomer answered. "So is this where you live?" He looked around the room.
However, Gliwen refused to be distracted. She tapped a foot, obviously following some thought through to its logical conclusion. "What did you think I had in these baskets?" she murmured. "And why did you ask after the father?" Éomer watched helplessly as she put two and two together.
"Oh!" she breathed. "You thought…"
He braced himself for the inevitable explosion of outrage and mentally mustered his excuses. A bit of grovelling for the implied slur on her reputation might be in order, for they took that kind of thing rather seriously here in Gondor.
Gliwen started laughing. She laughed so hard, she had to hold onto the table and clutch her stomach to keep from keeling over. Éomer watched with rising irritation. Really, he would have preferred grovelling to being made fun of in this manner!
"Enough!" he finally snarled when she showed no sign of reaching the end of her mirth.
She touched his arm, gasping for breath. "I'm sorry! But Amrothos always says that if I ever have children they will have antennae, six legs and tiny wings. You should have seen your face when you looked in there!" Suppressed laughter shook her again.
With a reluctant grin, Éomer shrugged. "I might have been overhasty. My famous temper, I'm afraid."
She sobered. "Yes."
Had he frightened her? He took her hand. "I'm sorry, Gliwen. I should have known you wouldn't keep that kind of thing from me."
Blood rushed to her cheeks. "Éomer, listen…I…I…"
"It's what I like about you," he told her with a smile. "You're not one of those priggish court ladies, all of them smiling, polite liars, saying one thing and thinking another."
Her face drained of colour. "You don't know me very well," she whispered.
"I think I do."
He felt Gliwen's fingers tremble in his grip as the words hung between them, brittle and fragile in the sudden silence. She would not meet his eyes. What did she think of his intentions, Éomer wondered suddenly. He felt like cursing. Damn Imrahil for not marrying her mother and giving his daughter the protection of his name! Instead he neglected her and left her vulnerable to the world. A beautiful young woman like her, had she had many dishonourable suggestions made to her? He would not add to that burden.
"I consider you my friend," he said gently and released her hand. "Indeed I came here this morning to thank you for showing me around the town. We'll be leaving tomorrow, so I thought I might not have another chance."
She took a step back. "You're most welcome. And anyway, you gifted me with that lovely belt, didn't you."
Which she didn't wear, but he forbore to say so. It would have been the perfect opportunity to take his leave now, but instead he found himself casting around for something more to say. "So this used to be your grandfather's tower?" he asked.
"Yes." She seemed to be grateful for the change of subject and motioned to the bookshelves. "I inherited a fair share of his personal library as well."
He had a look at some of the titles. A Treatise on the Nature, Economy, and Practical Management of Bees - no surprise there. Travels through Northern Harad, containing an account of the natural productions of those regions, together with observations on the manners of the Haradrim. He raised his eyebrows at that one. The next one was titled Seaweeds and their Uses. Well, nobody could accuse her of having a narrow field of interest!
Then another volume caught his eye, lying open amongst the clutter of the table. It contained a beautifully illuminated drawing of a building high on a hill, the sun gilding its roof. He turned it over to read the title embossed on the spine: Land of the Horselords - a history of Rohan.
He looked up to find Gliwen blushing. "I like to read on a variety of subjects," she said, sounding defiant.
"So I see."
He studied the picture of Edoras again. With a few sparse lines, the artist had caught the line of the mountains floating in the air behind the great hall of Meduseld, reaching for the skies. He traced them slowly. Starkhorn, Hwítberg, Irensaga. Almost he could feel a gust of cold, bracing mountain air.
Gliwen put her head to one side. "Do you miss your home?"
"I haven't really got one." The words were out before he thought about them. At the confusion on her face, he shrugged. "My uncle presented me with my father's sword when I was sixteen. I joined my first éored and from then on we were always on the move."
"Always?" She sounded incredulous.
"Not always, I suppose, but it felt that way. Field camps and barracks are not very homely." He closed the book and handed it to her. "Then three years ago I was made Third Marshal and moved to Alburg, to my father's old house. However, I never really settled in there."
She took the book from him and hugged it to her chest. "Why not?"
He shrugged again. "With my mother and Éowyn gone, it didn't feel like home."
"But everybody needs one!" She gestured at the room around her. "A place where you belong."
Éomer looked at the untidy shelves, full of old books and sundry odds and ends. The big central table was made from solid oak, scored here and there with burn marks. An assortment of things littered it: stones with strange striations, the paper nest of a wasp, large pine cones. Under some bird feathers lay a rough chunk of amber next to a dozen translucent snail shells.
"Is this where you belong?" What a strange life for a young woman like her.
"Of course!" She put the book away on one of the shelves. "I have everything I want here."
"And what would that be?"
Gliwen stretched out her arms as if to embrace the whole room. "A place to work and to keep my things." She motioned at the windows, where the sun was streaming in after melting away the mist. "Light. A view." Her lips twitched. "Silence and solitude."
He laughed. "Unless a certain King of the Mark interrupts you?"
Gliwen grinned. "Yes. My mornings are usually less eventful." She cast a frowning look at the window. "And now forgive me, but I need to get on with my chores."
She obviously expected him to leave, but he ignored the hint and instead inspected the book shelves again. The nobles got up late here, so breakfast would not be served for a while yet and nobody would miss him. After a brief hesitation she knelt by her baskets again and continued to clear out the old denuded branches and put in fresh greenery.
A companionable silence fell between them as he studied her library, leafing through those volumes that struck his fancy. Her interests ran towards the natural world, with none of the books on strategy and warfare that made up the bulk of his own book collection. The only thing they shared seemed to be a love for maps, for she had a whole bookcase full of beautifully tooled leather tubes labelled with the names of different regions of Gondor.
By the window stood an old chair, covered in a much darned blanket and heaped with cushions, while on the windowsill lay little treasures, shells she must have picked up on the beach or curiously shaped roots and stones. Despite the untidiness - or perhaps because of it - it was a comfortable, welcoming room, very much filled with its owner's personality.
She was still busy feeding her pets and he wandered over to have another look at the pale, wriggling caterpillars. On second sight they looked even less attractive. At least she had stopped cooing over them.
"What are they?" he asked.
She hesitated. "One of my father's captains brought them back from Harad. They are silkworms."
"Yes. You see, we have long known that silk is made by insects, since the Númenoreans discovered the process. However, the secret was lost here in Gondor and until recently we dared not trade that far south for fear of the Umbarians."
Éomer stared at the caterpillars. "These ugly things produce silk?" he exclaimed.
"They're not ugly!" she fired up. "On the contrary, they are fascinating creatures. Granted, at the moment they spend all their time eating. But later they'll spin themselves into cocoons and that's when we harvest the silk."
She fetched a wooden box from her table. Inside were a number of ivory coloured cocoons about the size of a quail's egg, but when he picked one up, it was as light as a feather.
"Sadly we have to kill most of them in order to get their silk," she said with a sigh. "But a few we let hatch to breed more silkworms. This is the second generation I'm raising."
"Amazing," he said and crouched down by the baskets with fresh interest. After paying for Éowyn's wedding dress, he knew the price of high quality silk. "What do you feed them?"
"Mulberry leaves," she answered, showing him a bough with fresh leaves. "It's the only thing they eat. These are from Father's gardens, but in time I hope to plant special groves of mulberry trees just for them. One day Dol Amroth might supply the whole of Gondor with silk."
He smiled at her enthusiasm. "You have great plans for these little creatures."
"Oh, yes! Just imagine, perhaps by the summer I will have the first handkerchief made of my own silk."
Was that the only chance she'd ever get to own something truly expensive? He should have bought her one of those Harad scarves the evening before! Gliwen bent to her task again, replacing old leaves with fresh. While he still considered silkworms repulsive looking, he had to admit they had great potential to bring prosperity.
"The Mark has mulberry plants growing wild in the more sheltered valleys," he mused and tentatively touched one of the caterpillars. "Will you let us have some?" A moment later he realised that he was asking her to give away what might turn out to be a major trade advantage one day. He opened his mouth to retract his request, but she beat him to it.
"Yes, I will. But you need to send somebody here to learn how to care for them first."
"You would do that for us?"
"Of course. We owe the Rohirrim our lives - I owe you my life! You may have anything you ask for." Then she blushed scarlet as she perceived the possible pitfalls to that promise. "I mean…" she stuttered.
Éomer turned a laugh into a cough. "You are most generous, my lady," he replied, fighting hard to keep a serious face. "I will offer you one of our finest steeds in trade."
"A horse?" Gliwen grimaced. "That's very kind of you, but what would I do with a horse?"
It was his turn to be disconcerted. "Ride it! I thought you said you knew how to."
"Oh yes, but one of your famous steeds would be completely wasted on me. I just use horses occasionally when I have to go somewhere I can't reach by ship. I find them rather boring creatures."
That pronouncement left him speechless. He wasn't used to a Gondorian lady who did not at least pretend an interest in what they usually assumed to be his only topic of conversation. Did she realise what a challenge she had just issued to a horselord?
"How can you call horses boring," he protested. "Firefoot is highly intelligent." Far more clever than Éothain anyway!
"I'm sure he is," she agreed. "And I know they're very useful for transporting things. But for really interesting creatures you can't beat insects. Take ants, for example."
"Did you know they build bridges across small streams by just using their own bodies? And I've seen ants carry what must have been twice their own weight. What horse could do that?"
Suddenly Éomer felt amusement bubbling up inside him at the comparison. This was not the kind of conversation he was used to from Gondorian ladies. He snorted. "Even so I don't fancy riding an ant into battle."
She looked at him with wide eyes, before starting to giggle. "You don't?"
He rose. "No. And moreover I will prove to you that horses are anything but dull. You're coming riding with me. This afternoon." He would show her that nothing beat a day spent outdoors in the fresh air.
She crossed her arms on her chest and regarded him through narrowed eyes. "No."
"Are you afraid?"
Gliwen scrambled to her feet. "Certainly not!"
"Then what's the problem?"
"The problem is you." She jabbed a finger at his chest. "Stop ordering me about. I won't have it!"
Enjoying the way she rose to his bait, he captured her hand. "But only a moment ago you said I could have anything I asked for."
He grinned down at her and after a moment received a reluctant answering smile. "Please, Gliwen?" he added.
"I can't! People will start talking about you and Lothíriel - and anyway, I'm sure she wouldn't want to stay in again for the whole day. Yes, I'm sure she wouldn't, so it's not possible."
Éomer noticed she had changed from won't to can't, progress of a sort. And in any case he doubted the deception of the night before would stand up to plain daylight, for the sisters were too different in temperament if not in looks, so having her pose as Princess Lothíriel again was out of the question. However, there was more than one way to skin a warg.
"What if you wore a hood so people won't recognise you and met us along the way?" he asked. "I'm afraid it will mean some walking, but I'll bring horses along for you and Amrothos."
She waved his objections away. "Walking is no problem. However, I don't see why we need to drag Amrothos into this."
Éomer grinned inwardly at her implicit acceptance of his plans. "I won't have you going anywhere on your own," he answered. In fact he didn't like the isolation of her tower outside the castle walls. Why, anybody could just walk in and pester her! "Do you think your brother would agree?"
"I can deal with Amrothos, but-"
"Splendid," he interrupted her. "So do you think you can manage to get away unobserved?"
"Of course I can…" She blinked in confusion. "What am I saying! I have in no way agreed to this madness."
He still held her hand and took the opportunity to stroke his thumb across her knuckles. "Madness perhaps," he whispered. "But what is the harm in stealing a single afternoon away from your chores?" Unacknowledged between them hung the fact that he would be gone by the next day.
She swallowed. "But what will your riders think? And Éothain?"
"I'll deal with him. As for my riders…" He frowned. There was no need to take a full escort and he'd make sure to choose those who knew to hold their tongue. However, perhaps another small falsehood would be needed. He didn't like it, but was willing to countenance it for the sake of Gliwen's reputation. "I could let it be known that Lady Lothíriel wishes to go on an outing without being recognised as a princess," he suggested. "Then you can just be yourself."
Her fingers trembled in his hand like a captured bird. "Éomer…"
"I know you don't like it," he hastened to assure her. "And indeed I abhor having to use such deception. But it's only this once. Please Gliwen, humour me…"
She looked up at him, her face cast in soft shadows, the eyes enormous. The sudden impulse to trace the graceful line of her neck ran through him and the memory of burying his hands in the rich, silken softness of her hair came back to him as if had been yesterday.
Gliwen dropped her eyes. "Very well," she whispered.
Éomer swallowed, his throat gone dry. Was he playing with fire here? He shook himself mentally. Nonsense. He was a grown man, well able to control himself. He would prove his point to her and that would be all.
And anyway, what could happen if he slipped away from his obligations for a single afternoon?