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The next day, Lothíriel brought her painting materials with her to the library. As promised, Weynild had located Queen Morwen’s desk for her, a beautiful piece of furniture, light and elegant, its wood polished to perfection until it gleamed with a warm, golden sheen. The housekeeper had it positioned near the window, where the light was best, at an angle to Éomer’s own desk.
Lothíriel started reordering the library, but did not progress very quickly. To Éomer’s secret amusement and her own mortification, she kept getting distracted and ended up reading the books instead of cataloguing their content and putting them away. Éomer very cannily added to this temptation by having the window seat fitted with comfortable cushions. He liked her company and had no interest in having her finish her self-appointed task anytime soon. Perhaps he should write to Aragorn for copies of more volumes from Minas Tirith’s famous archives?
He was sitting in the library, going through a packet of letters delivered that morning by the weekly courier from Gondor, when Lothíriel opened the door, a piece of cloth tucked under her arm and carrying a flat wooden box with a satchel balancing on top of it.
Upon spotting him, she hesitated in the doorway. “I’m sorry, I hope we’re not disturbing you?”
He smiled an invitation to her. “Not at all, please come in.”
Reassured, she entered the room. Tarcil followed her, carrying a tray with a jug of water and a couple of glasses, a look of concentration on his face.
Éomer jumped up. “Let me give you a hand.”
But she shook her head. “Please do not let me keep you from your work. Is it all right if Tarcil stays? He has promised to be quiet.”
“Yes, of course.”
No matter how often he told her that she was welcome in the library, she still apologised for interrupting him at his duties. Which was ironic, considering that most of the household probably thought it his foremost kingly duty to spend more time with her and finally get to the point.
If only it were that easy.
He smiled at Tarcil. “Are you helping your mother?”
The boy nodded. “I’m good at drawing, too,” he announced.
The tray wobbled dangerously, and Éomer relieved him of his burden. “Really? You have to show me.”
Under Lothíriel’s direction the boy helped to spread the cloth, an old linen sheet by the looks of it, on her desk. Éomer set down the tray and watched with interest as she began to unpack her drawing implements from the satchel: a set of paintbrushes rolled up in a leather case, several small knives with fine blades and a pestle and mortar. Finally she got out a long leather tube of the type to keep maps in.
“Paper from Pelargir,” she explained. “They make the very best quality, so I always get my supplies from there.”
“And what’s in there?” Éomer asked, pointing at the wooden box.
Flat and about the size of a large book, it was a work of art in itself, with its lid beautifully inlaid in an abstract pattern of different coloured woods.
Lothíriel stroked the box lovingly. “My pigments.”
She slid open the latch and carefully folded back the lid. The inside held four rows of small jewellery boxes nestled close together and further cushioned by red velvet lining the top and sides. The boxes themselves were worked from chased gold and decorated with fine patterns.
She opened one to show him a bright scarlet powder. “The Haradrim call this Kermes, it’s actually made from insects, I’ve seen it prepared.” Other boxes held ground malachite, several shades of ochre and a different, much darker red.
“That’s dragon’s blood,” Tarcil put in. “From when one of them fought with a mûmak.”
Lothíriel chuckled. “Don’t believe him, it’s the sap of a shrub.” She warmed to her subject. “But some of these pigments are produced from the most amazing sources. Back home in Dol Amroth they make a deep purple from whelks of all things.” She showed him.
“And there’s a whole box full of gold powder,” Tarcil added.
Lothíriel fended off her son’s curious fingers. “Yes, but this is the really precious stuff.” She opened another box, which held a dark blue powder, very finely ground. “It’s my favourite, made from a rare stone only found in the mountains of Eastern Khand. Weight by weight this is twice as expensive as gold. But it’s wonderful for painting sea or sky.” She gave a twisted smile. “I must have cost my husband an absolute fortune in ultramarine.”
Éomer mentally added pigments to his list of courting gifts. “So this is Haradric work?” he asked, pointing at the box. It surprised him to have them produce such a thing of beauty.
Lothíriel stroked the satiny wood. “Yes, one of the few things I managed to bring with me. I’ve since had to replace some of the pigments, but my father bought more supplies from the archives of Minas Tirith. The scribes there use them to illustrate their manuscripts. My family likes to indulge me, you see,” she added lightly.
To allay their guilty conscience? If so, he doubted it worked. “How do you use these pigments?” he asked. “Do you mix them with water?”
“Not quite.” She opened another, bigger box. This one held what at first glance looked like raisins, but turned out to be pebbles of a strange substance.
“Gum haradric,” Lothíriel explained. “It’s the dried sap of a special tree. You grind it up with the pigments and only then add water and a drop of honey.” With a tiny spoon she scooped up some of the ultramarine and placed it in the mortar, before adding a piece of the gum. “It will take me a while to prepare all the paints, but once they’re mixed up, even if they dry out, I can simply add a little water to them.”
Tarcil reached for the pestle, but she intercepted his hand. “You can have a go later. Remember, you’ve promised to finish your assignments from today’s lessons first.”
The boy grumbled a bit, more for form’s sake Éomer felt, but then borrowed his mother’s portable desk and settled down in the window seat.
“What does he have to do?” Éomer asked.
“Khuri is giving him lessons in Haradric.” She picked up the pestle and began to grind up the ultramarine in small, measured motions. “Some of the finer details are difficult to master, and I want him to be able to speak his father’s language well.”
She kept her voice level, but there was tension in her shoulders. Had she been criticised for keeping her husband’s memory alive for Tarcil’s sake?
“That’s good of you,” he said. Lothíriel just shrugged, but she seemed to relax imperceptibly.
Éomer watched her at her work a moment longer, then went back to his letters. The courier’s packet had included a missive in Éowyn’s sprawling hand, which he picked up to reread. It was full of the small news of her new home. He couldn’t help thinking that like him, she found joy in ordinary things. He had the suspicion he was not his sister’s only correspondent in Edoras though.
I hear you have the Princess of Dol Amroth staying with you, she wrote near the end. Faramir introduced me to her brother Amrothos at the festivities in Minas Tirith and we had a little talk. Éomer groaned inwardly. That sounded ominous. Will I meet her? You have hardly mentioned the princess at all in your letters, do tell me more about her.
What did Éowyn expect, a blow by blow account of his wooing? So far that would make for a sorry tale. A quick mental calculation made him wonder if she’d had a report of the incident at the remembrance feast yet. What would his shieldmaiden sister make of that?
He resolved to include a bland description of Lothíriel doing her commission for him in his next letter, sufficiently short not to give his heart away, but long enough to satisfy his sister. The last thing he wanted was for her to decide to come to Edoras and support him. He shuddered at the thought. Éowyn with his best interest at heart was a formidable force, but so in her own way was Lothíriel. It would be like a meeting of two steel blades.
He turned to the rest of his letters. Aragorn’s news was far less pleasant. Sauron might have been defeated, but there were still many of their foes out there, men who had no love for Gondor and Rohan. His friend liked to be prepared and had included reports by his scouts on the movements of their enemies to the south and east.
Éomer drummed his fingers on his desk. They would have to step up their patrols along the East Wall of Rohan and in the Wold, yet they were still short-handed from the loss of so many riders. Also, though the Dunlendings had been quiet lately, he did not like to leave that border unprotected either. Perhaps he ought to call a conference of his Marshals and captains to discuss the matter. He fetched a map from the library’s shelves and settled down to pore over the reports in more detail.
After a while he straightened up and stretched. Lothíriel and Tarcil were both bent over their tasks, an identical look of concentration on their faces, the resemblance between mother and son pronounced. It was rare to see the boy sitting so still, usually he was constantly in motion. Catching a glimpse of his work though, Éomer had the suspicion that Tarcil was drawing something, not doing his Haradric lessons. Not that he would give the boy away.
Noticing his eyes on them, Lothíriel gave him an absentminded smile as she brushed a wisp of hair out of her face, then went back to scraping the finished paint out of the mortar and into a set of shells she kept for that purpose. It was the kind of moment at which Éomer would have liked to stop time.
He desired this woman, wanted her to share his bed, but even more he wanted her to share his life. To work in the library while she read a book, to go for rides together, for her to be the lady of his hall and stand at his side as they greeted their guests. To possess that beauty, that grace, that strength paired with odd vulnerability. And to protect her. Always.
Éomer looked back down at his letters. Unfortunately his lady showed no desire to possess him back in her own turn. The thought had probably not even crossed her mind. It was as if she had walled up that part of herself, determined never to be hurt again. Young in years and old in experience she had called herself…
Having cleaned the mortar in readiness of mixing a new batch of paint, Lothíriel studied her selection of pigments, fingers hovering first over one box, then another.
Éomer got up and strolled over. “Do you want me to give you a hand?”
“Oh no, I’m fine. I’m just trying to decide which greens to make up, for I will need several.” She nodded at her sketch book lying open on the desk.
He saw that she had made an outline of the picture, with lots of notes on which colour to use. When he drew the book over, the pebbles holding the page open rolled away, and he caught a glimpse of other drawings.
He looked at Lothíriel for permission. “May I?”
“Of course.” She smiled, and it heartened Éomer how much she was at ease with him. Leaning across the desk, she flipped the book open at another page. “I had meant to ask you for your opinion actually.”
He got a whiff of her perfume; the sleeve of her dress trailed across his hand. Tantalisingly aware of her closeness, he forced himself to turn his head away, lest she read his thoughts on his face. He could hardly start kissing her with her young son looking on! Besides, she had a whole selection of sharp little knives laid out ready within reach.
“So what do you think?” Lothíriel asked.
He started guiltily, then realised she meant her sketch book. This showed a number of drawings of entwined patterns very much in the traditional Rohirric style, similar to those found on the flagstones and pillars of Meduseld. Caught up in the fold of the page were some strands of different coloured wool in blue and green.
Lothíriel tapped a finger on the patterns. “I meant to do a frame around the picture in the same style, like the borders of your tapestries.”
“And what are these for?” he asked, picking up the bits of wool.
She hesitated. “That’s just an idea I’ve had. You know that I’m often sitting with Leofrun and the other widows?”
He nodded. She seemed to consider her place to be amongst the matrons, even though he would gladly have had her at his side at the high table.
“Well, some of them have been showing me their work, woven carpets. So I’ve commissioned one to send to my sister-in-law.” She pointed at the wool. “These colours will set off her copper hair to perfection. I’m sure Aerin will place the carpet in her solar and then the other ladies in Dol Amroth are bound to want similar ones. The patterns are unusual, unlike anything you can get in Gondor.” She gave him an uncertain look. “I don’t want to meddle, but some of those widows are hard up, and I wanted to help. Weynild thought you would not mind?”
“Of course not. In fact you’re very kind.” And doing exactly the sort of thing a good queen would do. Though the traditional way would have been to find those widows new husbands. Trust Lothíriel to go for a different solution.
“I know how privileged I am,” she said. “And this way, even when I’ve returned to Dol Amroth, I’ll leave something behind.” She looked wistful at the thought.
Dared he hope that she wanted to stay? In any other woman he would have taken her words for a hint, but he knew better.
Tarcil, who had jumped down from the window seat to see what they were looking at, must have got bored. He poked a finger at the sketch book. “You’re in there too, you know,” he said to Éomer. “I saw your picture.”
“Mine?” Éomer asked in surprise.
“Tarcil,” Lothíriel protested. “It’s nothing really,” she said to Éomer. “Just a little sketch.”
The boy was already turning the pages. “Here.”
Éomer found a picture of himself lying asleep in the grass, with Firefoot bending over him. “That was the other day!”
She had made quite a detailed drawing of the whole scene and another one just of his face. At least he didn’t have his mouth open in his sleep, he was relieved to see.
“I thought I might draw a fair copy of it for Lady Éowyn,” Lothíriel said. She was blushing. “Your sister might find it amusing.” Taking possession of the sketch book, she snapped it shut and turned to her son. “So are you finished with your assignment, Tarcil? Let me have a look.”
Obediently the boy fetched his work, a page of writing embellished with lots of drawings of some kind of animal. His mother ignored his artistic attempts for the moment and read through it.
Éomer, looking over her shoulder, did not understand a word, not surprising since it was Haradric. “What does it say?”
“These are all greetings. Haradric has many different modes, depending on who is speaking to whom and how formal the setting is.”
“You had to learn all that?” No wonder she was quick to pick up Rohirric.
“Oh yes. Nothing gives you away as a foreigner faster than using the wrong inflection. And it’s very easy to cause offence without meaning to.” Suddenly she chuckled. “Mind you, it’s also great for subtle insults.” She turned to Tarcil. “So how would you greet a prince of the blood at a formal reception?”
“Rangat-met-murakha,” Tarcil answered at once.
“What would the prince answer?”
“Very good. And how would you address King Éomer here?”
The boy flashed them a cheeky grin. “That’s easy: Westu Éomer Cyning hál.”
Éomer laughed out loud, and Lothíriel shook her head in loving exasperation.
“He’s learning Rohirric fast,” Éomer said. He nodded towards the boy’s drawings. “So what are these? Horses?”
Tarcil frowned. “Of course not. Horses don’t have whiskers.” He pointed to some lines that Éomer had taken for hair, his tone of voice making clear that he did not think much of Éomer’s intelligence. “These are cheetahs.”
Cheetahs? Hadn’t Lothíriel mentioned them once? “A kind of cat, I think?” Éomer hazarded.
“Yes, my father hunted with them.”
“With them?” Éomer asked back. “Don’t you mean he hunted them?” He took another look at the picture. “Ah, I know. It must be another name for a lion.” He’d seen pelts of those in Gondor, imported from the south.
Lothíriel shook her head. “No, cheetahs are smaller and have spotted fur, but no mane. And they’re very fast. The nobles in Harad train them to chase gazelles. My husband had several cheetahs in his kennels, and Tarcil was allowed to go along on a hunt once.”
“I’ve got another picture,” Tarcil put in. “A proper one that mummy drew. Want to have a look?”
Éomer thought that Tarcil would go and fetch it, but instead the boy took him by the hand and dragged him towards the door. With a shrug Lothíriel put down Tarcil’s page of writing and followed them. Outside in the hallway, Khuri was standing guard. She gave them a surprised look as they trooped past.
Tarcil led them straight to his room, the old nursery. “In here.”
Éomer hesitated at the door, for he did not want to intrude on Lothíriel’s privacy. But when he shot her a look, she nodded her permission. Inside, he got a surprise: the room was very different to how he remembered it. A thick carpet covered the floor, cushions in bright scarlet silk were scattered across it, and one corner had been turned into a sort of tent with gauzy drapes hanging down.
“I wanted to make it as homelike as possible for Tarcil,” Lothíriel explained. Suddenly she looked anxious. “You don’t mind?”
He wondered what expression had been on his face at finding this little corner of Harad right in the heart of Meduseld. But how could he object when she only thought of her son’s wellbeing. “They’re your rooms. Please make yourself at home.” And he had to admit that it looked comfortable.
Tarcil had been rummaging around in a chest and now drew out a leather bound booklet. “Found it.” He leafed through the book and showed Éomer a page triumphantly. “See, this is a cheetah.”
The drawing depicted the animal staring at the observer, crouched behind the bars of a cage. The curious markings on the face made its gaze even more compelling, as if reproaching its captors.
“Father also had many falcons and hawks,” Tarcil went on happily. “And his own mûmakil of course.” He turned the page to show several ink sketches of those fearsome beasts. “Aren’t they amazing?”
“Yes, I’ve seen them,” Éomer said.
Lothíriel shot him a look at his dry tone. “Tarcil, they killed many men on the Pelennor Fields,” she said to her son.
“I know, but that’s not the fault of the mûmakil, is it? When they’re your own, it’s different.”
Éomer had to snort at the boy’s logic. “True.” The mûmakil all wore heavy chains, he noticed. The man seemed to have liked caging wild things. Including a princess of Gondor? “What else have you got in there?” he asked, curious.
“It’s all about Harad. Mummy made it for me.”
“I want Tarcil to remember his heritage,” Lothíriel said, sounding defensive.
The boy flicked through the pages quickly. Éomer caught a glimpse of sumptuous gardens, a couple of landscapes, one page dark blue with star constellations marked out, a market scene quickly sketched, a younger Tarcil playing in a fountain…
At one picture he stopped Tarcil from turning the page. It depicted a city sprawling across a hill, ringed with thick fortifications. “Is that the City of Serpents?”
Lothíriel nodded. “Yes, my husband took me outside once to show me the view.”
The wall seemed to be built from some kind of brown sandstone, not very high, but thick and massive. If they ever wanted to take it, they would need siege-engines. She had even included small details like the arrow slits on the watchtowers overlooking the approach to the main gates. Of course they’d have to get that far first.
“I’ve got a picture of my father too,” the boy threw in. “Here, at the back–”
Gently Lothíriel took the book away from him. “That won’t interest King Éomer, Tarcil. We mustn’t impose on his time any further.”
It would have interested Éomer very much indeed, but he did not want to upset her by abusing her trust. She was slowly opening up around him, he would not jeopardise that.
Tarcil however pouted. But suddenly he brightened up. “There’s one of him over there as well.” He pointed at the wall behind his bed. “It’s even in colour. May I show King Éomer that?”
Éomer saw that the boy had two pictures hanging up. One of them was of Lýtling, his pony, the other one of a man dressed in scarlet. He cast a glance at Lothíriel.
She shrugged with resignation. “Very well.”
The portrait showed a man looking into the distance, his face cast into sharp relief. Black haired and dark skinned, he wore a stern, formal expression with no softness in it at all. Had he forced Lothíriel to paint him? It must have taken her many hours of work. Éomer remembered what she had said about giving a title to all her works. “So what did you call this picture?”
She regarded it, her eyes unreadable. “Son of the Desert.”
The torc at the man’s throat had highlights glinting with gold dust. Éomer lifted his hand to it, but did not touch the paper.
“Father’s torc is mine now,” Tarcil said. “But Mummy keeps it for me until I become a man.” He sounded slightly unsure when that would be. “Want to see it?”
“That’s enough, Tarcil. It looks exactly the same as mine anyway,” Lothíriel put in firmly. But she seemed to think that Éomer was owed an explanation. “Usually a prince receives his torc from his father when he proves himself in his first battle. He will wear it always, until he dies, when it’s twisted and buried with its owner. However, my husband charged Khuri to give me his torc to keep in trust for Tarcil.” She gazed at the picture, a finger tracing her own torc. “I knew then that he was dead.” Her voice held no emotion at all.
But didn’t she mind having to look upon that man every day? What memories went through her head when she saw those dark, piercing eyes? The face of his enemy: all angles, aloof and forbidding. And yet…
There was one thing missing, Éomer thought suddenly. It was the portrait of a watchful, reserved man, yes. But not of a cruel one. Had she flattered him?
He frowned, not liking the thought. The rich scarlet of the man’s robes, the blue of the sky behind him reminded him of Lothíriel’s box of pigments. Had that been a gift from him? With all that gold it was certainly rich and ostentatious enough, but also … thoughtful. As if the man valued her.
The idea staggered him.
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