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The influx of guests kept Éomer busy. Erkenbrand rode over from the Westfold and Déormund from Harrowdale, both accompanied by many men. Elfhelm meanwhile brought his whole family with him from Aldburg. Some of the riders were put up at one of Meduseld’s guest-houses but most stayed with family or friends in Edoras.
Weynild and her staff managed all the details, but everybody seemed to want to have a word with him. Also, ever since Éowyn had left, Meduseld had no lady to make guests feel welcome, smooth the way and take the myriad small decisions involved, and so all that work fell to him too.
Not that there was a shortage of candidates to fill that role. Thankfully Erkenbrand’s granddaughters were far too young, but Elfhelm and Déormund had each brought their daughters, as had every other lord with offspring of marriageable age. Éomer couldn’t make up his mind if they had not heard the rumours making the rounds in Edoras, or if they had decided on a last, desperate, all-out assault.
This did not improve his mood in any way. The year before, he had been drunk with their unexpected victory, the sheer surprise of still being alive when he had thought himself the last Lord of the Mark. But by now the realisation of how many men they had lost and the extent of the destruction wrought by Saruman’s orcs had sunk in. So many missing faces: Háma, who had stayed true to his ailing king, good-natured Dúnhere, brave Grimbold. He would never again see his uncle’s kind smile, never again play fox and hounds with Théodred and hear his booming laugh. They had won, true, but at what a cost.
Yet when at sunset he stepped out onto the platform outside Meduseld’s doors and looked down on the courtyard where the people of Edoras were assembling, he also reminded himself that they should celebrate the lives of those they had lost and thank them for their sacrifice. To himself he vowed that he would not squander their gift.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, just the heavens stretching enormous above them, darkening into night. In the west the sun slipped behind the mountains reaching up towards the Gap of Rohan, their icy peaks afire. Éomer waited until the last ray of light was quenched and shadows started to wrap around them, then he stepped to the edge of the platform and lifted his horn to his lips.
He blew with all his might, and after a moment his men joined in. The sound rang out over town and plain, rising brave and defiant, as it had done on the battlefields of the Mark and Gondor: the great horns of the North, calling home their dead.
Slowly the sound faded, leaving behind a resonating silence. Nobody talked, there was no coughing, not even the whisper of cloth as somebody moved. Éomer turned round and motioned for one of his guards to step forward and hand him the burning torch he carried.
He descended the stairs; silent as ghosts the crowd parted before him. Holding the torch high he took the road leading down to the gates, which was lined with people. All the lights in the houses had been extinguished, the windows thrown open to the night air. As he walked out between the barrows, followed by the silent crowd, the simbelmynë on the mounds glimmered like fallen snow in the twilight.
In the field between Théoden’s barrow, the last of the line, and the River Snowbourn logs soaked in oil had been stacked high. When he thrust the torch into the kindling, the fire caught at once. Sparks rose up into the sky like stars to wink out over their heads. The crowd sighed.
Éomer watched the flames for a moment, then stepped back, signalling for those around him to approach. First was an old woman with a younger one beside her, who carried a child in her arms. Both of them cast a piece of wood on the fire, silently mouthing a name. Tears ran down their cheeks.
One by one slowly other people came up. Werhard, the landlord of the Boar and Hounds, whose youngest son had fallen at the Hornburg, Leofrun with a solemn looking Hildwyn by her side. One man, his face carved with deep lines, added no less than four pieces of wood to the flames. The bonfire would be well fed tonight.
There was a pile of wood nearby, chopped up already, but most people brought theirs with them. Some had elaborate carvings, others just boughs from a favourite tree. Éomer went to find his squire Beortulf, in whose care he had left his own remembrance tokens, cut from an apple tree in his mother’s garden in Aldburg, where she had loved to sit and read.
Having retrieved them, suddenly in the shadows at the edge of the crowd he spotted Lothíriel, standing there with her arms wrapped round Tarcil, watching the scene. Something in her face called to him.
On impulse he went over to her. “Anybody can join in, you know.”
She jumped. “Éomer! What do you mean?”
“While it’s traditional in the Mark to remember the dead a year after they parted, there is no time limit set on grief.” For years after his parents had passed away, he had lit a fire in their memory. And she too had lost her mother at a young age, her cousin Boromir only recently in the war and perhaps others too. “If you feel like it, choose a piece of wood and add it to the fire for a loved one.”
Tarcil stirred. “Hildwyn says that the fire will carry a message to her father. Is that true?”
He crouched down next to the boy. “We believe so. Not a message exactly, but they will feel our love and know that we think of them and miss them.”
Tarcil looked up at his mother. “May I put a stick on the fire for Father?”
She sent an uncertain glance at Éomer. A Harad king to be remembered in a Rohirric bael-fýr? But why not? He doubted very much the dead cared about that kind of distinction.
“Yes of course,” he answered.
Lothíriel took one of her son’s hands, Éomer the other, and together they walked over to the pile of kindling, where Tarcil very carefully chose a piece of dark cherry wood. Hesitating a moment, Lothíriel too picked up two tokens. At the fire, people respectfully made room for them. Éomer motioned for them to go first.
Eyes closed and face screwed up in concentration, Tarcil threw his piece into the flames. Trying to send a message to his father? Éomer had hardly ever heard Tarcil mention him. Did he realise he had been the enemy of his mother’s people? And here they stood beside the barrow of Théoden, who had slain the King of Harad, the boy’s uncle.
Lothíriel stepped up next. The warm light played across her face as she stared into the flames, eyes large and dark. Who did she think of as she slowly placed her pieces of wood in the fire, one after the other? But that was between her and her dead, not a question ever asked.
He had polished his tokens, but otherwise left them in their natural shape and just carved a rune on each. Éomer tossed the first piece into the heart of the fire. “Uncle,” he whispered under his breath, “long may you feast in the company our ancestors. Rest easy, knowing that you led our people to victory and that they have peace now. I swear I will do all to keep them safe and be worthy of your trust.”
Taking a deep breath, he cast in the second token. “Théodred.” His voice caught. “You were like an older brother to me. Know that you held the fords and your sacrifice was not for nothing, for we avenged you and our people came through darkness into light. I swear that while I live, your memory will not be forgotten.” A wave of loss coursed through him, old grief and new. “May the earth rest lightly on you.”
Staring into the flames, he reflected upon the many men he had led into battle, the friends and comrades he had lost over the years, as marshal, as king. He could have tossed a whole tree into the remembrance fire, he thought bitterly.
A light touch on his arm recalled him to the present. He found Lothíriel regarding him, not with pity – he could not have born that – but with understanding, as one who had walked the same path.
“Éomer,” she said, gently pulling him away from the fire. “You are not alone. You have friends.”
He nodded and took a step back. If only he could gather her up in his arms, hold her and be held. The certain knowledge of how much he needed her filled him, how empty and cold his life would be without her. But she wasn’t ready to hear that yet.
They stood and watched the fire for a while longer. It would not be the only bael-fýr in the Mark that night, there would be many more throughout the land, in the dales and on the plains.
Suddenly he noticed that Lothíriel was shivering. A breeze had sprung up, and she was only wearing a light shawl over her gown. “Let’s go back,” he said and offered her his arm.
With Tarcil skipping along on her other side and Khuri melting out of the shadows to follow them, they took the road back up to Meduseld. The hall stood open to everyone, but many would choose to spend the night sitting round the bael-fýr instead, talking, drinking and remembering the fallen, so he had donated some casks of ale. Already the first had been breached, he noticed. Oblivion would be in high demand tonight, even though it was only temporary.
With the resilience of youth, Tarcil had turned his mind to other things and started to bargain with his mother how long he would be allowed to stay up.
“Hildwyn says there will be songs after the food. May I listen for a while?”
Lothíriel frowned. “It might be too rowdy.” She cast Éomer a questioning look.
“Maybe later,” he said. “But not while a bard performs.”
“May I?” Tarcil begged. “It might be educational.” He pronounced the word carefully.
“Who told you so?” his mother asked, amused.
“Hildwyn’s mother. She explained some of the stories to us.”
“That’s very nice of Leofrun.” But still Lothíriel hesitated.
“Please, Mummy? Just for three songs.”
Éomer opened his mouth, but encountered an entreating look from Tarcil. He closed it again.
“All right,” Lothíriel said. When Éomer and Tarcil both grinned, her eyes narrowed. “What?”
“The first song at a remembrance feast traditionally tells the tale of Eorl the Young and the Battle of Celebrant,” Éomer explained.
“Let me guess,” Lothíriel said. “It’s very long.”
“I should have known.” She shook her head in loving exasperation at her son. “But you, my lord king, disappoint me. You should have warned me. What kind of misguided male solidarity is this?”
Éomer’s mood lifted at her light-hearted banter. He tucked her hand more safely into the crook of his arm. “I too was young once.”
“Young and foolish?”
“Yes, now I’m just old and foolish.” Especially where a certain princess from Gondor was concerned.
Oblivious to his thoughts, Lothíriel chuckled.
However, at the doors to Meduseld, she disengaged her hand. “I mustn’t keep you from your guests any longer.”
“But aren’t you eating at the high table?” He had counted on having her protection.
“No, I’ve promised Leofrun I’d sit with her.”
“But you’re a princess,” he protested. “A queen. My honoured guest.”
“And trying to live quietly, remember? You’re very kind, but my mind is made up.”
The steel in her voice was no less keen for being wrapped in velvet. She swept him a curtsy, took Tarcil’s hand and slipped away into the crowd.
Éomer looked after her in frustration, but had his attention claimed by Déormund of Harrowdale coming up just then, accompanied by his daughter Déorwenna. Out of politeness to his old friend, he ended up ascending the dais with a lady on his arm after all, albeit the wrong one. And not only that: he noticed with dismay that Elfhelm’s eldest daughter had been placed next to him, with her younger sister on her father’s other side. The chase had commenced, and the only huntress he would have liked to surrender to had quit the field.
Since there was no lady of the hall to greet their guests and address a few words to them, Éomer opened the bael-feorm, the remembrance feast, himself. The servants had poured the traditional mead, so he raised his cup and bid all welcome. He kept his speech short though, and once everybody had shared the first drink in memory of the fallen, he sat down for the food to be served.
Erkenbrand leant forward from his seat. “So tell me, Éomer, when are you finally going to find a queen to do the honours of your hall?” he asked with the good cheer of a spectator who had no horse in the race, his daughters being married already. His booming voice carried to all the nearby tables and caused a distinct hush.
Éomer studiously avoided looking towards Lothíriel sitting with Leofrun and the other widows. “All in good time.”
“Well, don’t wait too long,” Erkenbrand said. “It would please our people to see the House of Eorl renewed.”
Éomer winced. Wonderful. Now if he asked Lothíriel to marry him, she would think he saw her in the manner of a broodmare. “Thank you, my friend.” A distraction was clearly in order. Luckily he knew the other man well. “By the way, do you still have that stallion by Thundercloud out of Brightcoat, the one with the two white socks?”
His ploy worked a treat. All thoughts of finding his king a bride gone from his mind, Erkenbrand launched into a discussion of horses, in which soon everybody took part.
Wanting to be good host, Éomer turned his attention to the women sitting beside him. Since he had served in Elfhelm’s éored as a young rider, he had known his daughters from the time they were children. But his elevation to king seemed to awe them so much that they answered his questions about life in Aldburg only shyly, with much blushing.
By contrast Déorwenna, who had taken the seat on his other side with complete self-assurance, sent him glances from under her lashes and smiled invitingly. The youngest child and only daughter of a doting father, she had probably never been gainsaid in her entire life. Éomer had not seen her for a while and had been surprised to find her grown into a beauty with hair the colour of ripe wheat and cornflower blue eyes.
She seemed keen to try out her newly discovered power over men, and in the past he might have enjoyed exchanging banter with her. The girl had a quick wit, sometimes bordering on the impertinent, but so charmingly delivered that everybody forgave her. Whoever married her would have his hands full, Éomer thought. He found it amusing enough talking to her, yet he could not help thinking that next to Lothíriel all these girls looked immature.
He wanted an equal, a woman knowing her mind and able to hold her own against him, yet above all somebody who saw him for himself. A queen but also a wife, a friend, a lover.
Repeatedly he caught himself looking towards Lothíriel, who was talking animatedly to Leofrun and her other friends. She wore an unadorned, dark blue dress that she probably thought suitable to her widowhood, unlike the bright dresses of the young girls around him, but its simple lines only served to highlight her soft curves. The hall being warm, she had put her shawl away, baring white shoulders and the golden torc around her graceful neck, which did not exactly help to make her inconspicuous either.
He would have liked to catch her eye, but the only time she glanced his way, she quickly looked away again. Why couldn’t she have sat at the high table, the evening would have been so much more bearable.
It was a relief to have the bard step forward. He would be able to lean back and listen to the music, instead of having to make conversation, although Déorwenna bent over to whisper observations in his ears as the hall hushed.
King Théoden’s bard had retired, but his son Gléowaerd had inherited his father’s talent. He sat down at his harp and told the story of Eorl, followed by a new composition of his own about the ride of the Rohirrim. Éomer had not heard the lay before and found himself gripping the arms of his chair when the bard sang of how Éowyn faced the nazgûl king. It made a splendid tale, but finding her lying on the battlefield and thinking her dead had been the worst moment of his life.
A movement caught his attention: Lothíriel leant forward. He had no idea how much of the Rohirric she understood, but her eyes seeking his own felt like a lifeline. Nobody else noticed as Gléowaerd went on to sing of the Rohirrim’s onslaught sweeping across the battlefield to be checked by the arrival of the corsair ships.
Éomer remembered the lust of battle gripping him as he had raised his sword in defiance, then laughing with incredulous joy when Aragorn unfurled Elendil’s standard. He had thought to make a worthy end there, though nobody would ever know of the last King of the Mark, and instead now he sat in Meduseld, listening to his bard telling the tale.
Thunderous applause shook the hall when Gléowaerd finished. With a bow the bard made room for a couple of fiddlers and drummers playing traditional ballads while he took a break.
After the third song, Éomer saw Khuri shepherd a yawning Tarcil away to his bed, but Lothíriel stayed, looking entranced by the music. Throughout the evening Gléowaerd took turns with the other musicians to play more tunes, some slow and sorrowful, some quick and lively. At another occasion there might have been dancing as well, but not at a bael-feorm.
In one of the breaks, Éomer got up in order to stretch his legs and walk around the hall to talk to his guests. Déorwenna rose at the same time and took his arm with a pert smile.
“May I come with you?” she asked.
Short of shaking her off roughly, there did not seem to be anything he could do, so he nodded, though he did not like to look so particular. If only Lothíriel married him, that would put an end to such unwanted attentions.
Making the round of the hall, he stopped at every table for a short word with his men. When he got to where Lothíriel sat with her friends, he had the distinct impression that the other women looked at him with reproach for having Déorwenna on his arm. But really, what was he supposed to do? Even Eanswith, ever cheerful, regarded him with a frown. The only person who showed not the least trace of resentment was Lothíriel herself, who gave him a polite smile.
“Are you enjoying the music?” he asked, trying to break the ice.
“Yes indeed. I wish I spoke more of the language, but even so I find the songs moving.”
He smiled at her in approval. “In time you’ll start to understand better.”
“Perhaps.” Her eyes moved to Déorwenna. “Will you introduce your companion?”
“Of course. Princess Lothíriel, this is Déorwenna, daughter of Déormund, Lord of Harrowdale. If you remember, we passed it on the way from Dunharrow.”
“I do.” She rose and inclined her head. “Well met, Déorwenna.”
Faced with such a regal manner, Déorwenna instinctively dropped into a curtsy. “Thank you, my lady.”
Lothíriel gave a cool nod of acknowledgement. “Your father very kindly offered us refreshments.”
“It was an honour,” Déorwenna stammered.
Éomer could sympathise with her confusion. He had forgotten how imposing Lothíriel could be, descended from the tall ship kings of Númenor and with a thousand years of princes of Dol Amroth in her bearing. Far from home amongst strangers she was impressive; if she ever came into her own she would be absolutely magnificent. He wanted her for his queen.
Déorwenna had caught herself again. “The sweet little boy sitting with you earlier on, is he yours? How old is he?” she asked.
Lothíriel’s eyes softened at the mention of Tarcil. “Yes, he’s my son. Tarcil is six.”
“So old?” Déorwenna exclaimed. “Really?”
Éomer frowned. What was she trying to imply? But Lothíriel seemed unperturbed. “Yes, really,” she said, her voice even more gentle. The nod she gave them was very much a dismissal though. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Déorwenna.”
“The pleasure was mine,” the girl answered.
They moved on, but before they were out of earshot Déorwenna leant over. “Is that Haradric woman, the one which was skulking around in the shadows, with Lady Lothíriel also?”
Éomer came to a halt. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh just because my father was saying how strange it is to see a Haradrim, one of our enemies, in Meduseld.” She tittered. “But then Lady Lothíriel was married to their king, wasn’t she? With that torc, she looks like one of them herself.”
Enough was enough. Éomer dropped her arm. “When you are a little older and have seen a bit more of the world, you’ll find that it holds many strange things.” At a nearby table he spotted Éothain and waved him over. “Lady Déorwenna is tired, I think. Could you take her back to her seat so she can rest?”
“Of course, Éomer King,” Éothain answered at once. He seemed to relish his task.
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