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Warning: this chapter contains discussion of still birth.
Cheered to be unencumbered at last, Éomer continued his round of the hall, for he wanted to have a word with every guest, even if only a quick one. It would have been more pleasant with Lothíriel at his side, but after his frosty reception earlier on he didn’t fancy trying his luck again.
The doors to Meduseld stood open. When he went outside to catch some fresh air, he saw the bael-fýr in the fields below still burning bright. The distant sound of singing floated up on the air. Inside the hall, one of the fiddlers launched into a popular drinking song and many of the men joined in, some decidedly off-key. Freawaru, Meduseld’s cook, would be busy next day brewing her special tea.
When he went back inside, he saw that Elfhelm’s wife had already left, taking her daughters with her, though a pouting Déorwenna still sat at the high table. Lothíriel and her friends seemed to have retired too, which was probably wise. He did not begrudge his guests the ale or the oblivion it brought, but he did not intend to stay to the bitter end either.
Hailed by Gamling, one of the men who had been driven back to the caverns with him at the battle of Helm’s Deep, he stopped to have a word with the old rider. The man was still as spry as ever and never tired of telling the tale how he fought at the side of Gimli the dwarf.
But suddenly through the press of people he spotted a dark head amongst all the blond. What was Lothíriel doing still in the hall? Half hidden behind some pillars, she was standing with the other women in front of the tapestry of Eorl the Young on his horse Fréaláf, discussing something.
Excusing himself, he made his way towards her and saw her gesturing at the picture, bending forward to trace the interlaced patterns forming a frame around the tapestry.
He had nearly reached her when a group of riders staggered by drunkenly, Westfold men by their accent. Unaware of them, Lothíriel straightened up and took a step back. That moment one of them reached out and grabbed her round the waist.
“Come here, my pretty,” he called.
With a curse Éomer sprang forward.
He was too late.
In one smooth motion Lothíriel hammered her elbow into the rider’s throat. The man’s head snapped back. She spun, kicked the man’s feet out from under him and when he fell to his knees grabbed him by the hair and bared his throat. Steel glittered in her hand.
It happened so quickly, Éomer was still a few steps away. Everybody froze in disbelief.
Breathing fast, Lothíriel stared down at the man, who looked back, eyes rimmed with white. Instantly sober, he knew that if he made one wrong move, he was dead.
The hackles on Éomer’s neck rose, as if in the presence of a wild animal. Lothíriel did not see them, she was caught in some vision all her own.
“Lothíriel,” he said very gently.
She did not react.
“Lothíriel,” he said again.
The blade at the man’s throat trembled. She lifted her eyes, dark and enormous, to him. He knew that look, had encountered it before in men who had seen things that haunted their dreams.
He took a slow step forward and held out his hand. “Lothíriel, you are safe.”
At the back of the motionless crowd Éothain made as if to interpose himself – he too knew how volatile the situation was, how unpredictable Lothíriel’s reaction might be. Without looking at him Éomer shook his head and advanced another step. He was within reach of her knife now.
“Lothíriel, you are safe,” he repeated. “I swear I’ll protect you.”
She blinked and returned to the present. “Éomer?”
He released his breath in relief. “Yes. Can you please let the man go?”
Only now did she seem to notice the rider she held at knife point. With a conscious effort she released her grip and took a step back. The man sagged at her feet. He had to know he had come as close to death as he had ever been in battle.
At Lothíriel’s white face and shaking hands, sudden fury took Éomer. “Éothain,” he said. “Throw this man in gaol.”
“Yes, lord.” Éothain shouldered his way through the crowd, collecting a couple of guards along the way. “At once.”
“But Éomer King…” the man’s friends protested.
“Lock them all up. How dare you molest the princess,” he snarled.
Faced with his wrath, they recoiled. He very much wanted to kill somebody, anybody at all. Lothíriel had been accosted in his own hall, and he had been unable to prevent it. And who had taught her to fight like that? As for the knife she still held in trembling hands, where had that come from?
Leofrun and Eanswith had gathered round her, shielding her from the many curious glances of the crowd. He would have liked to take her in his arms and comfort her, but that might not be welcome. Having another man thrust himself at her against her will was the last thing she needed right now.
Lothíriel drew herself up, regaining some of her remarkable self-control. The knife had vanished again. “If you don’t mind, I will retire now.”
“Of course.” He offered her his arm.
As he escorted her across the hall and up onto the dais, whispers sprang up around them. So much for being inconspicuous. He ignored everybody and led her through to the corridor outside the private quarters. Once the door had closed behind them, she let go of his arm and sagged against the wall.
“Lothíriel, are you all right?” Éomer asked, then cursed himself for such a inane question. Of course she wasn’t all right.
She waved his concern away. “I’m fine, don’t mind me.”
“Shall I get Khuri for you?” He had a vague idea the presence of another woman might help, though he didn’t quite know how.
“Please don’t. She’ll only feel guilty. I will be better in a moment.” Lothíriel made a helpless gesture with a hand. “It was just the remembrance fire…and then that rider…it brought it all back, I suppose. I’m not usually that easily startled.”
What did the fire have to do with it? She didn’t make a lot of sense. “Do you want to lie down in your rooms?” he asked.
Lothíriel shook her head. “I just need a moment to compose myself first. Khuri will come to check on me, and I don’t want to upset her. But I’m fine here, you don’t have to dance attendance on me. Your guests will want you.”
“Nonsense.” How could she think he would just abandon her here in this state. “The only thing they want tonight is enough ale.” He opened the door to his own rooms. “Come and sit down for a moment until you feel better.”
She hesitated briefly, but followed his invitation. The servants had left a lamp burning, so he went round the chamber and lit some candles before kneeling by the banked fire in the fireplace. Lothíriel took one of comfortable chairs there, while he stirred the embers with a poker and put on fresh wood.
Éomer sat back on his heels and frowned at her. “You’re cold.”
“Please, I’ll be fine.” However, he could see her shivering. From delayed reaction?
She had left her shawl behind in the hall, so he looked round for a covering for her bare shoulders, but apart from an old sheet that he used when oiling and sharpening his sword, he had nothing to offer her.
On the spur of the moment, he pulled the coverlet off the bed and wrapped it around her. It was far too big and heavy, but she burrowed into the thick wool gratefully. The dark green decorated with gold thread suited her, he thought. His colours.
In order that she would not feel uncomfortable, he had left the door ajar. Now there came a soft knock, and Weynild entered with a tray. “I’ve brought the princess some tea.”
“You are best of housekeepers,” he exclaimed.
Lothíriel gave her a shaky smile. “Yes indeed. And you’re all so kind to me.”
Weynild poured her a mug; the refreshing scent of lemon balm filled the air. “Please, you’re our guest. And you’ve been treated abominably.” She sounded personally offended. “I assure you, those louts in gaol will get nothing but thin gruel while they’re there.”
With sudden amusement Éomer recalled the time he had occupied that very same cell at Wormtongue’s instigation. Weynild had brought him his meals personally and the cook had prepared all his favourite dishes to keep up his spirits.
Wriggling her hands free of the coverlet, Lothíriel wrapped her fingers around the mug. “What will happen to the man? He was drunk after all.”
Éomer frowned. “That is no excuse. Do you demand wergild for the assault on your person?”
“What? No, that won’t be necessary. And anyway, I don’t want to cause more talking.”
He would have liked to take the man to task himself, but she was probably right to let it go. Even so he resolved to let the rider stew in gaol for a while, to make him grovel.
“Very thin gruel,” Weynild muttered to herself, apparently thinking along similar lines.
Lothíriel cradled her mug. “I feel better already, thank you.” Some colour had returned to her face.
The housekeeper put the teapot on a low table by the window. She had also brought a plate of small nut cakes, Éomer saw.
Weynild hesitated for a moment. “Do you want me to stay, my lady?”
“Oh no, please don’t let me keep you from your duties, I’ll be fine now,” Lothíriel assured her.
She did not seem to be the least bothered by being in his rooms late at night. Éomer by contrast was very much aware of his massive fourposter bed standing in the shadows, the sheets all awry from when he had pulled the bedspread off. On the other hand she had just given a demonstration of what would happen to any man who took liberties with her.
The housekeeper dropped a curtsy. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Thank you, Weynild,” Éomer said.
“My lord king.” She left, softly closing the door behind her.
While Lothíriel curled up in her chair, he sat down cross-legged on the rug in front of the hearth. Giving her enough space and time to regain her composure was the only thing he could do for her, Éomer felt. She stared into the fire, absentmindedly sipping her tea, and he was content to watch her.
All they could hear was the faint sound of music from the hall and the crackle of the fire. Éomer could almost imagine that he shared a quiet drink with his wife before retiring to bed. In his mind’s eye he pictured leaning back against her chair, and when she bent down for a kiss, pulling her into his lap. Then he would undo the braids tightly wound around her head and run his fingers through that luxurious mass of black hair. And she would give him a smile that was only meant for him.
He forced himself to look away, lest she see the naked need in his eyes.
“I don’t even know if it was a girl or a boy,” she whispered suddenly. Gazing at the embers, she looked fragile, caught up in a world of her own.
Éomer felt instinctively that he had to tread lightly. “What do you mean?” he asked in a gentle voice.
“I cast a piece of wood on the remembrance fire for it. My little one that I didn’t even feel quickening. It never got a chance at life, but I hope it is comforted.”
He caught his breath. She had lost an unborn child? Feeling utterly out of his depth, he didn’t know what to say.
“They nearly got me too,” she went on in that sleepwalker’s voice. “For they were trained assassins, not drink-sodden riders.” She looked up at last, her eyes bleak. “They did not think a soft northerner would know how to defend herself, but Khuri had begun to teach me after that first time.”
His mind was still trying to make sense of what she’d said. “You got attacked by assassins?”
“Three of them. I got one.” She frowned in recollection. “By sheer surprise, I think.”
“Didn’t you have guards?”
“Oh yes. They killed the other two, but not fast enough.”
With every word she said, his outrage was growing. “What about your husband? Didn’t he take care of you at all?”
“He tried.” She sounded tired. “The first attack happened while we were out, just the two of us and a couple of guards. He was showing me the market, for he knew how much I disliked being cooped up in the palace all the time. After that he refused to take me anywhere without a full company of guards.” She rolled up her left sleeve and showed him a thin blade in a leather sheath. “And I got Khuri to teach me how to handle a knife, so I could defend Tarcil and myself.”
So that was where she had got the knife from. He had never before noticed how she always wore garments with loose sleeves. The thought of her needing such a device sickened him. He lowered his head. “I’m sorry you were reminded of that in Meduseld, under my protection, where you should have been safe. I failed you.”
“No! It is I who is sorry. I broke the peace of your hall, ruined the feast.”
“That’s the last thing you should worry about. Anyway, they’re still drinking and laughing. They will have lots to talk about.”
She frowned. “Khuri won’t be pleased. She always says my best defence is how harmless I look. As it is, she feels guilty.”
“Why is that?”
“When the assassins attacked, she grabbed Tarcil and ran. Luckily he was so small that he doesn’t remember.” Lothíriel shrugged. “Khuri wonders if she could have made a difference. But she had her orders: Tarcil’s life was the most important.”
“I suppose your husband wanted to save his son and heir.” Éomer felt bitter. The man had not valued his wife; no surprise there.
“Oh no, it was me who had given those orders.” She stared down at her cup of tea, brooding. “But I never thought to be attacked in my own rooms; the royal quarters were supposed to be impregnable. After that I did not feel safe anywhere anymore.” She looked up. “Arantar was furious. Furious and grieved for our baby. I was just afraid. It couldn’t have happened without somebody in his family complicit.”
“It must have been like living in a snake pit.” Thank the Valar she had escaped from that.
“Yes.” She sounded desolate. “I was ill for a long time afterwards. I think that was when I started to hate Harad.”
Only then? He would never understand her. Lothíriel took another sip of tea, and he would have liked a drink too, only something considerably stronger. He picked up the poker and thrust it into the embers of the fire, wishing he could have used it on those assassins instead.
“I’m sorry to bother you with my troubles when you have so much on your mind already,” she said, “but I felt that I owed you an explanation. I drew steel in your hall.”
“Lothíriel, if in any way I can lighten the heavy burdens you carry, even only a little bit, I would consider myself privileged.”
“You do lighten them, just by listening. I’ve never told the whole story to anybody else.” She gave him a shy smile. “Everybody is so kind here. It’s good to have friends.”
Just a friend. But he would be whatever his lady needed from him.
“You may call on me whenever you wish.” He hesitated. “You say you’ve never told anybody. But what about your family, don’t they support you? Your father and brothers love you.”
“I know,” she sighed. “And I love them dearly too. But my father would like me to forget everything that happened, to be the flower-garlanded maiden he named me, carefree and happy. But I cannot unmake myself, cannot unlearn my experiences. And I wouldn’t want to.” There it was again, the hidden steel. She fixed him with a sudden sharp glance. “I bear no grudge towards Denethor, you know.”
“He used you,” Éomer protested.
“Of course he did. It was his right as my liege. And he used himself and his sons just as hard. It was a sad ending for a great man.”
“How can you say that after what he did to you?”
Lothíriel rubbed her forehead. “Oh, I admit I was lucky. My fate could have turned out very differently.”
She could have spent the rest of her life in Harad, certainly. The thought did not bear thinking about.
“And yet,” she said, “Denethor just did what was necessary. I’m sure you too have sent young riders into battle.”
“That’s not the same!”
“It was simply a different sort of battle. My uncle knew, and so did I.” She drew the bedspread more tightly around herself. “Though I admit there were moments when I cursed him, when I was afraid.”
And him all unaware of it. Éomer could not help thinking that he should have known, ought to have felt her distress somehow. “It should never have been necessary.”
“No. Just as it should not be necessary to send young riders into battle.” She sighed. “If only we lived in a world where men have peace who wish for it.”
Éomer vowed he would do everything in his power to make it so. “One day we will.”
She smiled down at him. “I hope so. But in the meanwhile do not feel sorry for me. I want respect for what I did, not pity. After all I was lucky. Others the same age as me, young boys, have paid the ultimate price: their lives.”
He still could not see it that way. “They had chosen their path, they were warriors.”
“I considered myself one too. A fine blade in my uncle’s hand.” She shook her head, a wry, inward-looking expression on her face. “I can’t believe how young and naive I was. The world is so much more complicated than what you think at eighteen.”
“I wish I could have spared you the experience.”
She put her head to one side. “Of course you do. You’re just like my father.”
First a friend, now her father? This was getting worse and worse. “In what way?”
“You carry the world on your shoulders, think yourself responsible for all under your care.”
“I am.” The bonds of command ran both ways. He demanded obedience from his men, but in return they had the right to expect him to look to their welfare, whatever the cost to him.
“Yet there are things you cannot protect your people from,” Lothíriel pointed out gently.
“Do you think I do not know?” He remembered his mother’s illness, how she had wasted away despite the healers’ best efforts. “Believe me, I know all about being powerless. Why, I haven’t even been able to keep my own sister away from the battlefield.”
“But still you fight.”
“Of course,” he answered simply.
She nodded. “You’ve been so good listening to me. But tell me, do you have anybody yourself, to talk to?”
He felt caught. In the past, if anything troubled him, he would have gone to Théodred for advice or talked it over with Éowyn. Now he might discuss military matters with Éothain or his Marshals, yet always there remained the fact that he was their king and the ultimate responsibility lay with him.
“You have nobody, do you,” Lothíriel said in a soft voice, regarding him closely.
“I…I suppose not.”
“It is as I had thought.” She leant forward in her chair. “I don’t want to impose, but if ever you need somebody to simply listen, or to talk things over with, I would be happy to help.”
Éomer inclined his head. “Thank you.” And he might even take her up on her offer. Not to confide his biggest headache, though.
“Good.” Lothíriel put down her mug and wriggled out of the bedspread. “It’s getting late, Khuri will be wondering where I am.” When he started to rise, she waved at him to stay seated. “Please don’t bother, I can let myself out.”
After a few steps, she paused and looked back. “And thank you again, I feel much better now.”
He bowed to her from the waist. “At your service, always.”
Lothíriel smiled. “Good night.” She opened the connecting door between their rooms.
Éomer made a strangled sound. “Lothíriel, the door.”
She paused on the threshold. “Oh. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Mind?” he croaked.
“I didn’t want Amrothos to make a fuss, but I feel safer having you within call, so I left it unlocked. In an attack every second counts.”
Éomer found his voice again. “Of course. You honour me with your trust.”
“Nonsense. I for one don’t pay the least attention to my brother’s silly fancies.”
“Thank you,” Éomer answered. However, he wasn’t quite sure if he should be flattered by her words or insulted by how harmless she thought him.
Lothíriel hesitated a moment longer. “Éomer,” she said suddenly, “do you intend to marry Lady Déorwenna?”
Taken by surprise, he stared at her. “What? Certainly not.”
He couldn’t help being pleased that she cared. Surely that was a positive sign?
Lothíriel went into her own chambers. “I don’t think she would make you a good queen. And as a king you have to use your head.” She swung the door closed. “Though I understand of course why you find her attractive.”
What? Éomer jumped up. “No!”
Too late. She was gone. With a groan he crossed the room and leant his head against the door. It had been unlocked all this time? Did the servants know? But they had to, after all they cleaned the rooms. Which meant that he was probably the last person in Meduseld to find out.
The wood was smooth and polished under his touch. He closed his eyes for a moment. His lady. Worldly-wise and innocent at the same time. Hard as steel one moment, fragile like glass the next. Seeing the man behind the king and yet so blind.
But at all times: driving him crazy.
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