Thankful that the evening had ended, Lothíriel pulled the covers over herself and sank down into the comfort of feathers and horsehair. Such a cosy bed, but with the unsettling events of the last few hours still niggling away she wondered if she'd be able to sleep. The only hope was to ruthlessly force all thought of Éomer's behaviour from her mind, after all what had he actually done except look at her a little improperly? Most likely he had been amusing himself, seeking no more than light relief after the responsibilities of the journey and before he actually took up the reins, or perhaps the chains, of kingship. His remarks, although provoking, had not actually said anything significant, and once the boar had arrived conversation had become general around the table. Which had certainly suited her, she told herself quickly. So she would do best to forget the whole episode and concentrate on why she was in Rohan at all, which was to help prepare Meduseld to receive numerous guests over the coming months. However, she had come to realise it might not be a straightforward assignment. They could scour and polish for weeks but proper hospitality meant offering plenty of good, tasty food, and from what Éowyn had said appetising fare had been sadly lacking in the months before the war. And there was the winter to consider, pride wouldn't let her go back to Gondor leaving a poorly stocked larder behind her... salt, she needed to ask about salt.
'Éowyn.' Lothíriel tapped her bed companion on the shoulder, she couldn't be asleep already.
A drowsy voice mumbled from under the covers. 'What is it?'
'Where does Rohan get its salt?'
'Salt? What do you want with salt?' Éowyn sounded as if she'd been asked for some exotic spice, and must have been right when she'd described herself as a poor housekeeper. Shield-maidens obviously left such mundane things to others.
'Salt will be needed to preserve boar. We can dry venison, but boar's trickier, it goes off very easily. You will need meat over the winter and I understand that most of the cattle have been slaughtered by Saruman's armies. It will be a while until your herds recover.'
'Lothíriel!' Éowyn sat straight up staring at her incredulously. 'What a time to pick to discuss cattle, I was nearly asleep.'
Lothíriel laughed. 'Well you're awake now, so you might as well tell me where your salt comes from. Then we can both sleep. Do you get it from Gondor?'
Exasperated, Éowyn shook her head. 'I don't believe this.'
'Well you asked me to sort out Meduseld, there's a lot to think about. I've got vinegar and bran coming for the cleaning, but I forgot about salt. Maybe we could send a messenger...'
'No need.' Éowyn let out a groan and wriggled back under her quilt. 'We have our own salt supply. In fact we have two.'
'Really? You have access to the sea?' That was a surprise.
'No, most comes from brine springs.'
Lothírielfrowned. 'Salt springs? Inland?'
'Yes, somewhere on the edge of the Downs, there's a small community there. They dig shallow pans and run the salty water into them, the sun does the rest. However the best salt comes from a mine near Helm's Deep, but it's dangerous work so is only used at table.' She waited but Lothíriel was digesting the unexpected information. Sighing, Éowyn pulled the covers back over her. 'Now can I go to sleep?'
How strange, and how intriguing, Rohan had salt pans as they did in Belfalas. Lothíriel opened her mouth to ask why there was salt water so far from the sea, and thought better of it. Éowyn probably had no more idea than herself. Maybe Elladan would know. Anyway, she should be able to sleep now that one of her main concerns had been answered. A few minutes later she turned onto her side and settled down, using her knee to prevent herself from rolling into Éowyn.
Lothíriel rubbed her eyes, light poured through the window. The room looked to the east and they had both thought it a good idea to pull the curtains back to ensure an early wakening. But Éowyn still slept even though a shaft of sunlight streaked across the bed. Lothíriel chuckled to herself—probably the ale she had drunk. She had persuaded the shield-maiden to sip her drinks in the upper halls of Minas Tirith, but here in her own land Éowyn had drunk deep.
She was just thinking of waking her friend when a knock came on the door. The call to enter let in three women, Mildryth, Hungife and the girl who had attended Éowyn the night before.
'Sorry to get you up early, my lady,' Mildryth said, 'but I think everyone is eager to get away and back to their homes. Some of the farmers going to the Wold have already left, and Erkenbrand is ready to depart with those for the Westfold.'
And she'd thought they were up early!
Éowyn pushed herself up, grumbling under her breath. 'It's only half a day's ride to Edoras, we've plenty of time.'
'No sense in putting things off,' Mildryth said sharply. 'Both of you will have to get used to it.'
Lothíriel looked up wondering what she meant, but Mildryth shook her head. 'I was talking of Éomer, my lady. It's going to be difficult for both of them going back to that hall. It will feel empty without Théoden King, but things have to be faced and its best to do it sooner rather than later.'
Lothíriel nodded, and swung her legs out of the bed and onto to the floor. She could agree with that, there was no use putting it off – however difficult the next few months might be, she had consented to come here so had better put her heart into it.
'Hungife,' Mildryth said to young woman, 'just pop to the kitchen and get some sage tea, would you. Lady Lothíriel looks a bit stiff. '
Lothíriel opened her mouth to protest, but Mildryth caught her eye and she shut it again.
'There's a favour I wanted to ask you my lady, it concerns Hungife,' she said as soon as the door closed.
'A favour, Mistress Mildryth?'
'I want to ask you to take Hungife with you to Edoras to act as your handmaiden whilst you are in the Riddermark...'
'But there are plenty there that need employment,' Éowyn butted in.
'I know that.' Mildryth scowled at her. 'But Hungife has family there; she's been unhappy here since Alred died and doesn't get on with his mother. Éowyn is right, my lady, with so many dependants at Meduseld she's not much chance of being taken back unless she goes with you. She's a good girl, and her mother will look after the bairn while she sees to her duties.'
'She was rude to Lothíriel,' Éowyn said folding her arms.
'I know, she told me. But grief does funny things and everyone deserves a second chance.' Mildryth and Éowyn both turned to Lothíriel waiting for her decision. Not an easy one to make, the girl had been rude, but on the other hand she had been reasonably efficient. Maybe she would try and make up for her rudeness and be a supportive ally, after all Lothíriel had no idea what she was walking into. Talk had led her to believe that Meduseld might be quite grim. But she did not want to upset any of the servants there, not if she was supposed to be gaining their cooperation.
'Is anyone likely to object?' she asked Mildryth.
The housekeeper shrugged. 'They will understand that Hungife wants to be near her mother and grandmother. In fact she has her grandmother to thank for the good Westron and her manners, old Algiue used to wait on Queen Morwen.'
Lothíriel looked to Éowyn for help. The shield-maiden didn't sound very interested. 'It's up to you; one more servant won't make much difference.'
'Very well,' Lothíriel said after a moment, 'tell Hungife she can come as my maid.'
Halfway through her breakfast of bread, soft cheese and honey, Lothíriel suddenly thought about how Hungife would travel. She had no idea if it was her responsibility to find the girl a spare horse. And the baby, she now had doubts about a maid with a young baby. Mildryth's forceful personality had overwhelmed her a bit. Normally she would exert herself more, but not knowing the customs made it difficult. She consoled herself with the thought that Éowyn always spoke her mind and had not put forward any real objections.
And she supposed the smile on Hungife's face had pushed away any further doubts: the young woman's eyes had been alight for the first time since Lothíriel had met her. And anyway she did not need a full- time maid, there would be plenty of time for Hungife to spend with her baby. It was not as if she needed to get dressed up two or three times a day. Éowyn had told her they lived a relaxed life, mostly dressing for riding in the day and then tidying themselves up for the sunset meal. Lothíriel thought she'd rather have someone around her who could translate her wishes to others and perhaps teach her a bit of the language, than an expert handmaiden. Yes, it would probably turn out well and on the whole she was glad she had agreed to Mildryth's request.
Her worry about the way Hungife would travel was resolved immediately she went out into the courtyard. Hungife, together with her baby, was perched on top of one of the pack horses, the weight of both of them unlikely to trouble the big gelding who looked like he could carry a dozen maids.
No chance to speak to the maid as Bealdric brought Storm straight up to her – the horse taking her attention when he whinnied a greeting and nuzzled for a titbit. They had formed a good partnership during the long ride and more than a bit of her felt sorry she would have to return him to Erchirion at the end of the summer.
She was just preparing to mount when the clip of hooves made her swing round. Éomer and his immediate guards trotted out from the stables that attached to the hall. The courtyard filled with men and horses. Éomer rode into the only open space and cast his eyes over the line of packhorses, stopping his inspection abruptly when he became aware of Hungife. His eyes flicked to the steps in front of the hall where Mildryth was standing, waiting for Éowyn to come out.
'Why are we taking extra servants with us?'
'Lady Lothíriel needs a personal handmaiden; she is not used to seeing to herself,' the housekeeper answered. 'Hungife speaks good Westron and has proved herself capable.'
Lothíriel couldn't see his face, but his back stiffened. He spun Firefoot around none too gently, forcing one of his guard to side-step his horse. The King of Rohan's great charger bore down on her, his master's face a hard mask. Now what was the matter with him? Except for the impertinence of weighing up her assets the night before, she'd found him much more likeable and easy going than she'd originally thought. How wrong could she be – he towered over her menacingly.
'You must know there are plenty of servants in Meduseld, Lothíriel. Are you trying to ensure that your needs are looked after immediately you walk through the door?'
His undeserved accusation made her gasp. But he carried on before she could defend herself.
'Fed up with washing your own feet, are you? And I thought...' Éomer shook his head as if he didn't want to voice those thoughts, but anyway Lothíriel didn't wait. She grabbed the reins from Bealdric and virtually pulled Storm over to a convenient mounting block.
The arrogant blockhead! He only saw what was in front of him! Well he could think what he liked; no way would she try and appease him with an explanation. With any luck he was so disgusted he would keep well away from her. Good!
Storm fidgeted and fussed, picking up on her agitation. Lothíriel dropped him back in the line, well out of Éomer's way as everyone took their places. When Éowyn finally appeared, she looked surprised at Lothíriel riding so far back but brought Windfola alongside her anyway.
'What's the matter, Lothíriel? You look like you're chewing on one of those lemons of yours.'
'Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I'll just be glad to get to Edoras.' Not true, she'd like to go home, smell the tang of salt on the air, look out onto a blood-red sky and waves crested with fire as the sun sank into the sea. She wanted to gallop along the flat sands racing her brothers, laughing and joking, not spend her precious time housekeeping for a bad-tempered hulk of a man whose scowl was as permanent and dark as the mountain that loomed over them.
'Well, we're moving,' Éowyn pointed out. 'If you want to get to Edoras, I suggest you stop frowning and catch up with the line in front.'
Storm clattered forward, hating to be left behind. On the way down the hill the horses ahead of her parted slightly and Lothíriel found herself looking straight at a long mane of tawny hair. Irritatingly she couldn't stop thinking about their latest spat – the unjustness of it. So quick to condemn her, as if he wanted her to fall short. But with a sharp jolt she realised it was not anger she had seen in his eyes, it had been disappointment.
Still seething, Lothíriel managed the first part of the journey without having to make conversation. Éowyn looked to be brooding on her own troubles, doubtful of what they would find when they eventually got to Edoras. The township had evidently been left empty when Théoden had led his Riders to war. Éowyn said that the people would have gradually returned from Dunharrow but whether anyone felt able to take charge of Meduseld she was unsure. Gríma had steadily got rid of those who would once have taken responsibility, leaving the hall staffed by the old and the few prepared to lick the hated counsellor's boots. Reports had given some hope though – no orc or evil being had been near and Éowyn thought that with a bit of luck it would just be a case of organisation and appointing the right people to serve the new king. Lothíriel hoped it would be that easy, Éomer didn't seem the type to put up with a sloppily run household, especially having been used to the efficiency at Aldburg.
Cross for concerning herself with something that she couldn't alter and would be revealed to her soon enough anyway, Lothíriel concentrated on looking at the changing landscape. The road had moved farther away from the mountain face and to her right the boggy marshes they had passed the previous day had given way to tall grass thick with flowers. Oxeyes daisy turned eggy faces to the sun and cornflowers were just breaking from their buds, preparing to fill the meadows with the bright blue of summer. The grassland stretched for as far as she could see, all the way to the Wall of Rohan and only broken by the waters of the Entwash, Éowyn told her. No wonder they could breed so many horses here.
Half a day to reach Edoras turned out to be an optimistic estimate, Éowyn no doubt being used to a faster pace than that achieved by a large group containing wounded riders. They stopped after a few hours and slices of oatbread were passed around, washed down by small ale dispensed from wicker-covered flagons that had been loaded onto the packhorses. When the journey resumed Éowyn went to the front to ride with her brother and Elladan dropped back to take her place.
Lothíriel could recognise him now and wondered why it had taken her so long – there was definitely a greater tilt to the older twin's eyebrows. Perhaps because he had proved the more humorous of the two. She was pleased to have his companionship and it must have shown on her face, for he smiled.
'You look as though you wish for my company.'
Laughing, Lothíriel pushed back some of her escaped hair; it was too nice a day to remain cross. 'I did want to call on your three thousand years of knowledge,' she said with a cheeky grin.
'I am not sure whether I should be pleased or not, if the only thing you require of me is information.' One mobile eyebrow tilted suggestively, but that just made Lothíriel grin more. She was under no illusion that Elladan was doing anything more than amusing himself. And probably trying to annoy Éomer. If her brothers were anything to go by, then taunting friends was a favourite male occupation.
'The best thing to do with a resource is to make use of it,' she said breaking into laughter. 'I thought you might be able to tell me why the Rohirrim are able to harvest salt so far from the sea. Éowyn says salt water issues from beneath the ground and salt can also be extracted from the mountain rocks.'
Elladan looked surprised. 'And I thought you would want to know about your ancestors.'
'Oh, I do. But salt is of more immediate interest as the people of Rohan need food to last them through the winter.' She had just realised they could salt some of the beans.
'A more pressing problem than the doings of long-dead princes, I agree. And a thirst for knowledge must always be admired. Although you might be better off asking Elrohir, he's the scholarly one.'
Lothíriel flicked her eyes to where the other twin was riding with some of Éomer's guard. She had barely spoken to him. Elladan flashed her a wry smile. 'No, perhaps not, my brother finds dealing with mortals more difficult than I, and female mortals tend to flummox him.'
Lothíriel frowned. 'Why would that be?'
'I think he finds them so...immediate, when there is so much time. But forget that,' Elladan said quickly when he saw her puzzled look, 'talking about salt will be less contentious and probably more instructive. Do you know nothing of the making of the landscape around you, Lothíriel?'
'Of course,' she said a bit stung. 'I know of the Music of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar, I know when the Elves were created and when men first walked the earth...'
'Ah...' he interrupted, 'but we are talking about the bones of Middle-earth here, the foundation that holds the earth beneath our feet. Arda has changed many times since the beginning, Lothíriel. Mountains have risen and fallen and seas advanced and retreated, rivers changed their course. Difficult to imagine, I know, but once fish swam over these plains where horses now graze, and as the water drew back it left behind its salt for the Rohirrim to harvest ages later.'
'You know this?'
'My father knows this, and I have seen the shells of sea creatures embedded in rock leagues from where Belegar now washes against the shores.'
Lothíriel sighed; there was so much she did not know. 'I wanted salt to preserve boar and it has led me into a history lesson. There is so much to learn other than housekeeping.'
'But you can do both,' Elladan said with a sympathetic smile on his face. 'Just because you are a woman it does not mean you cannot study the tomes that collect dust in your father's library.'
'No, and it is one of the things I am looking forward to doing. There has been so little time until now: when I was young I was taught the responsibilities of my position and the womanly skills expected of me. Every free moment I could glean I escaped from my teachers to ride and swim, having enough of being confined in stone walls. Since I felt the need to know more of our history and the world in general we have been under the threat of war, of possible annihilation. It seemed important to make preparations to succour our people through the dark times. I learnt about farming and livestock, how to preserve food and how to ration it in case of siege.' Her earlier irritation returned. 'And when I thought to go home, read of other things than war and housekeeping, I was persuaded to come here to housekeep.'
'You regret agreeing?'
Lothíriel couldn't help her eyes straying to Éomer: he rode a few lines in front of them, back straight as a ramrod. She sighed. 'I suppose not, if I can help. At least not for Éowyn's sake, I don't. It will only be till the autumn and then I will have months to do as I like at home.'
Elladan had not missed the direction of her glance. 'You seem at odds with Éomer today, yet last night I thought you positively friendly.'
Her face flushed. 'He...he makes instant assessments as far as I am concerned. In his eyes I have done something wrong, but only because he has jumped to false conclusions. However, I will not defend myself from his censure; he must learn to think before he shouts at me.'
Elladan's eyes lit with amusement. 'Are you going to tell me what he thinks you have done that should upset him?'
Why not? Her fury at the King of Rohan's high-handed ways made her bold. No reason to keep it to herself. 'Éomer thinks I organised Hungife to travel with us as my maid because I was fed up with attending to myself and wanted to ensure I had help immediately we arrived in Meduseld. But Mildryth the housekeeper at Aldburg asked me to take her on as a favour so she could return to her family. Éomer did not give me time to explain that.'
'Ah, but you said you would not defend yourself anyway, Lothíriel. You are angry he thinks that about you, but too proud to tell him otherwise.'
'I do not understand why a little thing like one extra servant bitters him so much. But...,' she hesitated, still wondering if she had been wrong. 'I am sure he was more disappointed in me rather than angry. Which seems strange.'
'Hmm...' Elladan considered the matter for a moment. 'His reaction is obvious to me; I am not sure why it is not to you.'
Lothíriel waited, her eyes on the elf expectantly. A slow smile softened his sharp features.
'I am sure you will work it out eventually.'
Lothíriel opened her mouth to protest, but a shout stopped her. One of the guards pointed ahead. The road had curved around to the left and rising above a low foothill, Lothíriel could see the roof of a great building. It shone gold in the afternoon sun.
Not all gold, mostly thatch Elladan told her. The gold restricted to the eaves, ridges and the pillars that supported the massive doors. They must renew the thatch every autumn to keep it so bright, Lothíriel decided. But there was no time for any more intimate conversation as riders pressed around them, keen to see firsthand how their homes had fared. Lothíriel felt eyes on her and looked up to see Éomer frowning at her and Elladan. Let him frown all he liked, she would converse with whom she wished. Turning her face away she gazed at the hall atop the hill which was becoming clearer every moment – she wanted to see all she could too, after all this was to be her home for the next few months.
Not a very joyous entrance to the Royal Courts of Edoras, the road ran straight through the barrows of Rohan's past kings. Again no statues, she noticed as they gained the gates, it seemed that in Rohan heroes were remembered in song rather than stone. No bad thing perhaps as stone crumbled but song lived on in the hearts and minds of the people. Still, this was a young place, fashioned mostly from wood, the stone they had used too new to crumble yet.
The ride up the hill passed in a blur as women and children crowded around the returning Riders. Strangely there was none of the formality here that she had seen in Aldburg, but then the place had been all but empty for the duration of the war with no-one left in charge. With a wave of his hand Éomer dismissed his guards to let them be greeted by family members, the simple action confirming what Lothíriel had already suspected – underneath the stern king lurked a caring man. As in Aldburg there were many wounded warriors and these formed themselves into an informal honour guard to line the steps up to the doors of Meduseld. Bealdric having taken Storm away, Lothíriel followed Éowyn up to the high platform, taking a moment to cast her eyes over the many wooden houses that covered the hill below her. Some were simple but those nearer the hall quite large and elaborately carved. A bright spring gushed from a stone sculpted in the likeness of a horse's head; beneath was a wide basin from which the water spilled and fed a stream that chattered its way down the main street – a real boon for the inhabitants to have such cleansing water.
'Osythe!' Éowyn's excited shout broke into Lothíriel's reverie. A tall, fair faced woman who must be nearing her sixtieth year had stepped forward and clasped Éowyn on the arm. Osythe's blue eyes held no bright sparkle, but she welcomed Éowyn warmly, bowing her head slightly when Éomer reached her. He muttered something Lothíriel could not hear and squeezed the woman's shoulder sympathetically.
'I thought I ought to come,' Osythe said when Éowyn gave her chance, 'or you would have had a very cold homecoming. No one knew quite what to do so I pushed myself forward and took charge. At least the beds are aired and there will be food on the board tonight.'
'Oh, I am so glad.' Éowyn sighed deeply, a relieved smile suffusing her face. 'There is much to do, but between the three of us I am sure we will soon have Meduseld to rights.' She turned impulsively, stretching out her hand. 'I told you about Osythe, Lothíriel. Her husband Háma was my uncle's Door-warden.' Lothíriel found herself pulled forward. 'This is Lothíriel of Dol Amroth, Osythe. She came all this way to help me.'
'My lady,' Osythe nodded a respectful greeting, but looked steadfastly into Lothíriel's eyes with the openness Lothíriel had come to expect from the Rohirrim. Lothíriel liked that, and immediately felt that the task before them would not be so difficult with this woman at their side. She murmured her condolences as she had remembered that Háma had been killed at Helm's Deep. Her words were met with a sad smile before Osythe said. 'I will organise a room for you, my lady. Éowyn is in her old one...'
'Oh, we can share for tonight,' Éowyn butted in, 'and all can be sorted tomorrow. Our things will be along later. Where's Hungife, Lothíriel? I bet you want to change, I certainly do.'
Lothíriel looked back down the hill. 'I think she has gone to take the baby to her mother's.'
'Well,' Éowyn said bristling, 'I hope she does not neglect her duties, after you were kind enough to agree to bring her here. A maid with a young baby is not ideal, but it's difficult to refuse Mildryth.'
The conversation going on to the side of her abruptly stopped as Éomer broke off the exchange of words he was having with one of the wounded warriors. Lothíriel didn't move as Éomer looked straight at her. His eyes bored into her, suspicion turning into a question when she held his gaze. But she wasn't going to explain, let him work out that he owed her another apology. She would enjoy that.
To be continued.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.