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Having made good time, the next day they stopped early to set up camp where the path to the passage under the mountains branched off from the main road. A bridge spanned the Blackroot River, here no more than a fast running stream, and beyond it the road began to rise in a series of sharp bends. It led up to the ravine that led to the Paths of the Dead, which was so narrow, it looked as if a giant had hewn the mountain with a sword.
By now every man knew his tasks, and the tents went up quickly on a wide field by the side of the road. The women disappeared for a wash, dragging a less than enthusiastic Tarcil along, and with Amrothos as a discreet guard, as usual. Éomer and his men also took the opportunity for a dip in the stream, but kept it brief, as the water was fresh from the mountains and icy. He had a suspicion he needed it though, unlike Lothíriel who managed to look neat and poised even when covered in dust.
Earlier on they had bought a freshly slaughtered pig from a farmer, along with some ale, and now the smell of roasting pork began to waft through the air. A cheerful feeling filled the camp: the men were looking forward to a good meal and even more to returning home the next day. Éothain had a decidedly anticipatory gleam in his eyes.
And himself? He missed the Mark, but Meduseld didn’t really feel like home yet, not after living in Aldburg as Third Marshal for all those years. During the winter he had not spent a lot of time in Edoras either, being too busy travelling around Rohan to get an idea of the damage inflicted by Saruman. And since Éowyn had left to get married in the autumn, Meduseld had seemed even more lonely.
After a habitual round of the camp, noting with approval that Unferth had been assigned latrine digging duty, he went to observe Éothain giving Tarcil a riding lesson. The boy loved horses and showed considerable aptitude. After a few months in the Mark he would probably be as much at home on horseback as a Rohirric child.
Amrothos and Khuri were watching too, but suddenly he noticed Lothíriel was absent. “Where is your sister?” he asked Amrothos.
His friend motioned vaguely in the direction of the mountain behind them. “Up there somewhere.”
Squinting his eyes, Éomer searched the hillside with some alarm. However, he soon spotted her sitting on a ledge overlooking the camp, up several turns of the road, which wound its way to and fro across the slope. Was that quite safe? It looked rather precarious. He decided he had better make sure.
Leaving the others to their devices, he walked up the steep path. As he got closer, he saw that she had a kind of collapsible desk on her lap and was writing in a small book.
However, when he approached she put down her quill, closed the book and leant back against the rock behind her.
“Enjoying the view?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s like that of a bird.”
Turning round, he had to agree. As far as the eye could see, the mountains marched west, while the green valley spread at their feet, watered by little rills that would eventually form the Blackroot River and empty into the Bay of Belfalas.
“The way the meadows rise towards the mountains reminds me of the sea running up against a shore,” Lothíriel mused. “Like a wave at its highest point, just before it recedes.”
Éomer nodded. It was an apt description. “May I sit with you for a moment?” he asked. “I won’t disturb you.” He got out a couple of apples, wrinkled at the end of winter but still sound, which he had pilfered from the kitchen tent. “Look, I’ve even brought gifts to ingratiate myself.”
She laughed and accepted them. “Do join me. But I’m afraid I can offer you nothing but a seat on the hard ground in return.”
With a sigh of contentment he stretched out on the turf beside her. “And the view,” he reminded her. Which was very nice, he thought, observing her through half-closed lids. Still a little damp, her hair fell loose down her back, giving her a delightfully dishevelled look.
“You can’t see it properly,” she protested.
He gave a vague wave of the hand. “I’ll imagine it.”
Sheltered from the wind and with the late afternoon sun warming the rock behind them, their ledge was a pleasant place to be. After a moment Lothíriel took up her quill again, dipped it in the inkwell built into a compartment at the top of her desk and continued writing.
Éomer felt himself relax. He could get used to this: lying in the grass, sunshine on his face, his lady by his side. “Is that a letter to your family?” he asked. “If you wish, I can send a courier south with it.”
“That would not make me very popular with your men, they are looking forward to returning home.”
He shrugged. “I’ll call for volunteers. As Amrothos always claims, Dol Amroth has the prettiest women of Gondor.” And the most difficult to woo, he feared.
Lothíriel chuckled. “My brother would know, he’s made a study of it. But it won’t be necessary, I’m not writing a letter, just working on some small drawings. Scribblings, Amrothos calls them, but it keeps me amused.”
“You draw?” Éomer sat up, intrigued. “May I have a look?”
“No.” For an instant the steel was back. Yet at once she added a more diplomatic refusal. “It would not interest you, my lord.”
It would have, but he had no intention of pushing his luck. “A shame.” He lay back down again. Suddenly he remembered the painting hanging in Imrahil’s library. “The picture of the castle of Dol Amroth in your father’s library, did you draw that?”
Surprised, she looked up. “You noticed? Yes, that’s mine.”
“I liked it.”
She concentrated on her work again. “Of course it’s not a proper oil painting, just a coloured sketch, but I love the view from that point along the beach.”
He thought back to it. “It seemed to me you somehow caught the…well…the way the castle stands there bravely and alone. I don’t know, kind of saying it’s ready to defend its people, but not certain of victory…” His voice petered out. “I’m not expressing myself very clearly.”
She was resting her chin on her hand, considering him. “No, you are.” Suddenly she smiled. “Thank you.”
Not quite sure how his clumsy words had earned her approval, he was nevertheless quite willing to bask in it. Crossing his arms behind his head, he smiled back at her.
Lothíriel dipped her pen in the ink and continued her drawing, casting a quick look out over the view every now and again. She was more relaxed than she had been in Dol Amroth, he thought, not as tightly strung. It was too much to hope that it was his presence that made her feel at ease, but it pleased him nonetheless. She should not have to worry about her and her son’s safety.
After a while she put down the quill, set the desk aside and stretched her arms. Reaching over, she picked up one of the apples Éomer had brought with him and took a bite. “Tell me,” she said, “have you been through the Paths of the Dead before? I’m not in the least worried myself, of course,” she added quickly, “but Tarcil asked me.”
He suppressed a grin at this little bit of bravado. If anything the boy was probably the one member of their party looking forward to the passage under the mountains the most, as it would give him something to boast about to his friend Alphros.
“Once I would not have taken them, even if all the hosts of Mordor stood before me,” he said. “But the dead are gone. I couldn’t very well ask my men to ride that way without first making sure that it was safe, so a few months ago I crossed through and back again.”
“All alone?” she asked, surprised.
“Éothain insisted on coming along, and in the end my entire personal guard did as well.” It had been quite an argument in fact.
“That was brave.”
This was more praise than he deserved. “Not really, Aragorn had said it was safe.”
“You trust him so much?”
“We’re brothers,” he said simply.
She nibbled her apple. “It seems to me the land still remembers the dead, but it feels sad rather than menacing.”
“Yes, and now couriers use the passage to reach your father all the time.” He turned onto his side and propped his head on his hand. “In winter it’s safer than the passes across the mountains. They might look peaceful, but the weather up there can change from a balmy spring day to a blizzard in a blink.” He grimaced. “Mind you, I’m not sure the passage will ever be very popular. Many people are still afraid of the dead.”
She turned to look out over the view. “You’re not?”
He thought of the many men and orcs he had killed, most of them faceless – but he preferred it that way. And then he thought of his other dead: father, mother, Théoden, Théodred, so many friends.
“Why should I fear them?” he asked roughly. “I have more family amongst the dead than the living.”
At his harsh tone her head slewed round. Startled, she stared at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That wasn’t a very good joke.” He had not meant to be so blunt, to bare his soul in this way.
And he did not think she was fooled by his words. Her eyes searched his face. “You said that Lord Aragorn was your brother,” she offered hesitantly. “So you do have more family.”
Éomer had not thought of that before. “You’re right.”
And there was Faramir as well, whom he had got to know and like on his visit to Emyn Arnen, another brother in the making. And perhaps, who knew, one day a family of his own? He smiled crookedly. But first he would have to persuade the lady of his choosing not to renounce all men.
That moment a squeal of triumph wafted up to them from below. When they looked down, they saw that Tarcil had progressed to hitting targets with a wooden sword carved for him by one of the men.
“That boy has unlimited energy,” he remarked to Lothíriel. “It takes half an éored just to keep him busy.”
She chuckled. “I know. And he’s all excited about going under the mountain. It’s best if he rides with Khuri, I thought.”
“To make him feel safe? But he hasn’t got a shred of fear in him.”
“I know.” She smiled down at her son, her face full of love. Now if she ever looked at him that way, Éomer thought, he’d just roll over onto his back and surrender. “It’s for Khuri’s sake,” she said. “Tarcil will keep her busy. She’s very nervous about the Paths of the Dead. But don’t let on I’ve told you that.”
“She hides it well behind that impassive face.” He grinned. “It unnerves my men.”
“Oh yes, she unnerved me when I first met her.” The apple finished, she tossed the core away and picked up her desk again. “Khuri used to be my personal guard, around me every day, but it took years for her to open up, let alone to elicit a smile from her. And that was all Tarcil’s doing.”
“We’ve come to respect each other, though we don’t always agree that I can look after myself. But she knows that her first priority is Tarcil’s safety.” Lothíriel hesitated, looking down at her drawing with eyes unseeing. “We would not have made it out of Harad without her, you know. She spoke the language and knew the customs. I just had my useless, elaborate court Haradric that would have given me away in an instant and knew nothing about the lives of the common people.”
“We owe her a great debt then,” Éomer said quietly. What would have happened to her, had she stayed in Harad? He did not even want to contemplate the idea.
“I certainly do,” Lothíriel agreed.
“And she never wanted to return to Harad, to her family?”
“She can’t. Khuri is dead.”
Éomer stared at her. “What?”
“Khuri was one of my husband’s body servants. Only the best fighters are chosen, it’s a great honour for the family, which is richly rewarded. But it means that her life was bound to his. Body servants cannot be released, they die with their master.”
“That must be a great incentive to keep him alive.”
“Yes, that’s the idea,” she agreed dryly.
“So why wasn’t she killed?”
“The others all died with him, but he sent her to bring me the news.” Her voice held no emotion whatsoever. “She could have killed herself then, it would have been the honourable thing to do. But she chose differently, she helped us get back to Gondor. And now her life is forfeit and she is far from home.”
And Lothíriel knew exactly how that felt, for she had experienced the same? Well, he had been unable to help her, but perhaps he could do something about Khuri.
“She could train with my men,” he suggested. “There’s nothing like beating each other up to make friends. I’m sure she’d be up to it.”
Lothíriel snorted. “Oh yes. But she might not want to give away how good she is.”
“But you need to practise to stay in shape. She doesn’t have to show us all her tricks, after all we won’t show her all of ours.”
“It’s an idea,” Lothíriel said. “I’ll suggest it to her. You’re very kind to go to so much trouble for us.”
“Please,” he said, “you’re the daughter of one of my best friends.”
At that she gave him a warm smile. “Almost family then, like Lord Aragorn?”
Except his feelings were anything but brotherly.
Next day they struck their camp and began their ascent in predawn light, for it would be a long day, taking many hours to pass under the mountains and make it all the way to Edoras. There were groans and some aching heads amongst those men who had sat up late talking and drinking, but everybody was looking forward to the end of their journey.
A narrow ravine with a stream running through it led to the gate to the Paths of the Dead, the cliffs either side high and sheer. They had to go in single file until they came to the gateway, a high arch leading into darkness, where they lit their torches and then continued riding two abreast. The path was level and smooth, Gimli’s people having mended it where necessary, but even so the going was slow and they had to concentrate on their footing.
All sound of the outside world died away, but the horses’ snorting and clop of their hooves echoed back eerily. One of the riders tried to lift his voice in song, as they liked to do while riding along, but it sounded so ghastly, he quickly fell silent again.
After a while the weight of the mountain began to press down on Éomer, making him long for the open sky. It was difficult to keep track of time as well, but after what he judged to be a few hours, he called a halt to have a quick bite to eat. He passed Firefoot’s reins to his squire Beortulf and walked back amongst his riders, pausing for a word of encouragement every now and again.
They had put the women and Tarcil in the middle of their group, and he found the boy asleep, Khuri holding him in her arms, her face even more impassive than usual.
Lothíriel gave him a tired smile when he stopped to pat Mellon’s neck. She had dismounted to give her horse a rest and was feeding it an apple, but even so it looked to be flagging.
“How are you doing?” Éomer asked. He really needed to get her a better, younger mount.
“I’m fine. It’s just difficult to believe that the sun is shining out there.”
He nodded. The mountain seemed to swallow the memory of light, open sky and wind in your face. “We must be halfway there by now.”
By common consent they did not pause long, but soon pressed on and after more uncounted time finally reached Baldor’s Cavern. Their torches could not light the great empty space, but his men knew it was not much further to the exit, and the mood lifted. He was glad they had removed Baldor’s bones, for that would not have been a pleasant sight for Lothíriel and Tarcil. Brego’s son now lay under a mound on the Firienfeld. Finally after all these years the white flowers of simbelmynë bloomed on his grave.
And at last a light began to grow ahead of them, faint at first, then ever brighter. They passed through the Dark Door, past the sentinel stone and into the Dimholt, a forest of dark fir trees that seemed almost an extension of the Paths of the Dead. Yet finally they emerged onto the Firienfeld and into the late afternoon sun, blinding to eyes used to the darkness for so long.
Éomer took a deep breath of the air, incredibly sweet after the musky smell of the passage under the mountains. Then he lifted his horn to his lips and blew it hard. The sound echoed back from the mountainside around them, celebrating their passage and safe return.
“Éomer Cyning,” the men stationed to guard the entrance to the Dimholt called. “The Lord of the Mark has returned!”
He looked round for Lothíriel, finding her blinking her eyes, taking in the steep rocky slopes behind them, the green field of grass and the row of standing stones dividing it.
Seeking her out, he bowed to her from the saddle. “Welcome to the Riddermark.”
He got a dazzling smile in return. “Thank you. It’s as beautiful as you said. Just look at those colours, they’re so fresh and vibrant. I feel as if I’d been reborn into a new world. I can hardly believe this is still the same day.”
“Yes, and tonight you’ll rest at Edoras. I can even promise hot baths all round. In fact I’m very much looking forward to one myself.”
The corners of her eyes crinkled. “But what will your men think of you? Won’t your reputation suffer?”
He threw back his head and laughed. “I’ll have to risk it. After all I don’t want to be known as Éomer the foul-smelling either.”
“I wouldn’t mind that,” Tarcil, who had woken up a while back, put in. “Baths are boring.”
“Then you should stop jumping in every dirty puddle that presents itself,” his mother pointed out mock-seriously.
Éomer leant forward. “It’s one of those things we men just have to bear bravely,” he told the boy.
After a brief break to water the horses, they got ready to tackle the last leg of the journey. From the Firienfeld a steep switchback road led down into the valley of the Snowbourne. There Déormund, Dúnhere’s son, Lord of Harrowdale, came to greet them and offer his hospitality. They accepted some food gladly, but did not stay to talk for long, for Éomer wanted to get home to Edoras.
Dusk had descended by the time they took the road again; the sky clouded over. And before they had even passed the next village, rain began to fall, a light drizzle at first, but rapidly turning into a chilly and persistent downpour. What a welcome to the Mark. All the time in Gondor it had been dry and now this. He knew it was an irrational feeling, but he could not help worrying that Lothíriel would hate the place.
The horses were tired and stumbling, and the riders felt no better by the time they finally approached Edoras. The barrows were dark shapes either side of the road, but he had sent a messenger ahead, so torches lit the gate and the wall, hissing in the rain. Horn calls greeted their homecoming, and despite the late hour and foul weather many of the townspeople came out to greet him and his men.
While most of the riders peeled off to find their own homes, his small party continued up the path to the courtyard in front of the hall, where grooms from the royal stables ran to take charge of the horses. When Éomer went to lift Tarcil down from where he sat in front of his mother, a big, soggy cloak wrapped around the two of them, he saw that Lothíriel looked exhausted. The boy had been fretful, complaining about the wet and insisting he wanted to ride with his mother.
“Nearly there,” he said, looking up at her. “Think of that bath.”
She snorted and dismounted stiffly. “It’s the only thing that kept me going the last few miles.”
With Éomer carrying the boy and Lothíriel taking Amrothos’s arm, they ascended the steps to the hall. Hailing him, the doorwardens threw the doors open. Meduseld stretched before them, sparely lit by the long hearth in the middle.
As they walked down the hall, despite her tiredness Lothíriel looked around her with interest at the richly carved pillars, the intricate patterns on the floor and the tapestries hanging on the walls. He wondered what she made of it. Did she compare it to her father’s castle by the sea? Or even Harad’s royal palace?
On the dais at the other end of the hall stood the king’s chair – his now, though sometimes he still half expected to find his uncle sitting in it. Beyond that a door flanked by two guards led into the private quarters. There Weynild, Meduseld’s housekeeper, awaited them. Her grey hair caught up in a severe bun, back ramrod straight, clothes spotless, she made them all look even more bedraggled by contrast.
“Welcome home, Éomer King,” she said, bobbing a curtsy.
“Thank you.” He turned to Lothíriel. “This is Weynild, who looks after us all.”
The princess smiled politely and got another curtsy and a sharp, appraising look, though quickly hidden. Éomer had sent a courier ahead with instructions while still in Dol Amroth, but suddenly he wondered what rumours might have got started. He frowned and hurried through the rest of the introductions, resolving to have a word with the woman later.
Weynild led them down the corridor and pushed open one of the doors. “I’ve made the Queen’s Rooms ready for Lady Lothíriel, as instructed.”
“The Queen’s Rooms?” Lothíriel asked, faltering. “Please, my lord, I would not want to impose on you. You do me great honour, but a modest guest room somewhere is all I require.”
“It’s the most convenient,” Éomer replied. “There’s a connecting door to Tarcil’s room next-door, which used to be the nursery. And it has its own bathroom.”
When she still hesitated, he explained further. “It’s also the most secure. There’s only a single entrance to the royal quarters, guarded all the time as you saw, and more men are within call. Also my own rooms are adjoining if anything should happen.”
That had actually been his original thought when he had arranged matters, but he might not have set it out in his letter quite clearly enough, to judge by the interested way that Weynild followed their conversation.
“Oh,” Lothíriel said, then gave a decisive nod. “Yes, that would be good. Thank you so much, my lord.”
Khuri, who had already inspected the corridor, went inside first and checked the windows, nodding approval when she saw they were more than a man’s height above the ground on this side of the hall, with guards patrolling outside. The room itself looked warm and inviting. A fire burnt in the hearth, on a table a plate of food and a jug of wine stood ready and new tapestries graced the walls. Weynild had done wonders, Éomer thought, for the room had stood empty for many years, ever since Queen Elfhild’s death.
“This used to be the queen’s solar,” she told Lothíriel, “but we’ve installed a bed and freshened up both rooms. And by now the bathwater should be ready.”
The princess gave her a warm smile. “It’s lovely. You have no idea how much I’m looking forward to a bath. Thank you so much, it must have been a lot of work getting the rooms ready on such short notice.”
Weynild unbent visibly. “Not at all, it’s a pleasure. I will leave you to it now.” She turned to Éomer. “Your bath is ready too, Éomer King. And I’ve had the guest chamber down the hall prepared for Prince Amrothos.”
With another curtsy she withdrew. The woman’s efficiency had something oppressive at times. Éomer fully understood why not even Wormtongue had dared interfere with her ordering of the household.
A revived Tarcil wriggled out of his arms and went to investigate first the food and then his rooms, followed by Khuri. Amrothos meanwhile had a look around and tried the connecting door to the King’s Rooms, only to find it locked.
“That leads into my quarters,” Éomer said.
“What?” Amrothos sounded startled.
“As Weynild explained, these are the rooms traditionally belonging to the queen. But we’ll just keep the door locked, with the key on this side.”
Amrothos frowned. “I’m not sure my father would approve. People might think…”
Lothíriel, who had just poured herself a glass of wine, lifted an eyebrow. “Really, Brother, you are getting more like Elphir every day. Do you suspect me of wanting to hop into the King of Rohan’s bed?”
“No, of course not, but–”
“Good, because if I wanted to, I could just as easily take the main door.” She turned to Éomer. “Don’t worry, I have no intention of doing so. The only place I want to hop into at the moment is a bath.”
He very nearly assured her reflexively that she was welcome in his bed any time, but settled for a gurgling sound instead.
“See, now you’ve embarrassed the King of Rohan,” Lothíriel said to her brother.
“Sister!” Amrothos protested.
Éomer knew only too well whom Amrothos suspected of wanting to seek a different bed. “I can have a bar fitted,” he offered stiffly.
“Certainly not,” Lothíriel exclaimed. “That would be insulting. In fact I’m perfectly fine with leaving it unlocked, and I don’t need a key.”
Speak of temptation… “No, better keep it the way it is,” he said.
“That’s settled then.” She turned to Amrothos and made a shooing motion. “See, I’m old enough to mind my own business. Now go and find your room, I want my bath.”
Éomer would have withdrawn too, but she stopped him a moment. “My lord, you really are exceedingly kind. I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Not at all.”
“I’m afraid I’m not sure how long we have to stay here, but if at any time you need these chambers, you will tell me?” She sounded anxious.
“Please don’t worry about that.”
“But should you want to marry…”
Inwardly Éomer sighed. It did not look as if that would happen anytime soon. “I promise you’ll be the first to know,” he said.
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