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Every now and again for the next few days, Éomer pondered the puzzle that Lothíriel had handed him, but without finding a resolution. It was as if the ground he was standing on, which had seemed to firm, had subtly shifted.
Lothíriel herself was completely unaware of his thoughts. She was far too busy, first mixing her paints, being very particular about the exact shades she wanted, then starting on the painting proper. At least she was enjoying herself, often humming under her breath. It made him grin how she would stop guiltily, even though he had assured her it did not disturb him, only to fall back into the habit when she got caught up in her work again.
Gradually they settled into a routine, spending the mornings in the library and sharing a light midday meal before he headed down to the training grounds in the afternoon. Occasionally they would go for rides, often with the children, but sometimes just with a small escort along. Lothíriel loved it when she could let Shirram have his head.
Even after she had finished her painting and Éomer had it framed, packed very carefully and dispatched to Éowyn at Emyn Arnen, she continued to keep him company in the library. The books still needed sorting and she would write letters, teach Tarcil or work on her drawings. Often he would look up from his own papers, catch her eye and exchange a smile.
Yes, she was happy to be in the Mark and spend her days with him. Now if only she would spend her nights with him too. But always there was that reserve she retreated into when pushed too far. And he remembered all too clearly what she had said about marrying again, comparing it to a bird flying back into its cage.
Whatever had happened in Harad had marked her deeply. From what her family had told him, he had assumed she had suffered from her husband’s brutality – straightforward in its own way. Now he began to wonder if she had been more subtly abused. The hurts of the spirit could be more difficult to heal than the hurts of the body.
But all he could do was to give her time. So he talked of simple things, making plans for seeing other parts of the Mark and visiting the Eastemnet once the horse herds headed out there. He was content to see her relax, be at ease around him and make new friends, counting her smiles as his reward. Yet in the evenings, when he lay in his big, empty bed, he would often stare at the connecting door, so tantalisingly unlocked, and bury his head in the cushions with a groan.
As such it almost came as a relief to be away for a couple of days when he was invited to attend a wedding in Harrowdale, one of Déormund’s nieces marrying a local farmer. He had long talks with his old friend, managed to mostly avoid Déorwenna’s company and enjoyed the music and food. Even so, at odd moments, he found himself missing Lothíriel, and Tarcil too. It was worrying how those two had stolen their way into his heart and yet he had no idea how they felt about him. Or at least how Lothíriel felt. Tarcil had long ago adopted the attitude of Éothain’s twins and regarded him as a source of entertainment and an ally against maternal oppression.
It was a warm, early summer’s day when Éomer rode back to Edoras. High overhead swifts dived and soared, their shrill cries filling the air. In the small hamlets lining the road farmers tended their kitchen gardens and on the hillside sheep grazed, the lambs like little white dots against the fresh green grass.
As always his heart rose upon seeing the Golden Hall glinting in the afternoon sun, though it would have been even nicer to have a certain black-haired lady of Gondor awaiting his return. For a moment he indulged himself with the picture of Lothíriel rushing down the steps and flinging herself into his arms. However, the horns announcing the arrival of the Lord of the Mark only brought the stable lads running.
Éomer preferred to look after Firefoot himself, so he waved them away. In the stables he noticed some horses he had not seen before, but before he could ask about them, his attention was claimed by Shirram, the stallion kicking the walls of his box, looking restless.
“Hasn’t Lady Lothíriel taken him out lately?” he asked the stable master. It was perfect weather for a ride.
But old Mearcred shook his head. “I haven’t seen her the last two days.”
Éomer frowned. Was she ill? Lothíriel and that black demon of hers were usually inseparable. Feeling disquieted, he let his squire Beortulf finish grooming Firefoot and hastened up the steps to Meduseld.
“Westu Éomer Cyning hál,” the doorwardens greeted him. “My lord,” one of them added, “Weynild has been looking for you, she wanted a word.”
Éomer motioned for them to throw the door open. “Later.” Still intent on finding Lothíriel, he stepped inside.
The hall was full of Gondorians.
Or at least it seemed so. He rocked to a halt. It was the time of day when the household would slowly get ready to lay the tables for the evening meal, but his riders had not assembled yet. However, two tables were occupied already, and boisterous voices talking Westron echoed around the hall.
Who were they? He had not expected any visitors, neither Aragorn nor Imrahil having mentioned anything in their recent letters. As Éomer walked forward, he recognised the blue and yellow coat of arms depicting a boat on a river: the men had to come from Pelargir, one of Gondor’s richest fiefs. He had met its lord on the march to the Black Gates. What had been the man’s name again? Ah yes, Eradan, son of Minardil.
He was in fact sitting at one of the tables and jumped up upon spotting Éomer. “My lord king,” Eradan exclaimed and came forward to grasp Éomer’s hand. “What a pleasure to see you.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Éomer answered politely. “What brings you here?” For a moment he wondered whether Eradan was the harbinger of bad news, but the man had the look of a well-fed cat, sleek and contented.
Eradan gave an elegant little bow. “Oh, I have long wanted to see the famed plains of Rohan. So now that peace is finally established, I thought to take the opportunity and come for a visit. I hope you do not mind the intrusion?”
“Of course not, you are welcome.” Éomer would have preferred to get advance notice of their arrival, but the Rohirrim prided themselves on their hospitality. “I’m sorry to have been away. Will you join me at the high table tonight?”
Another bow. “You honour me, my lord.”
Aware that he looked a bit worse for wear, his clothing covered in horse hair from grooming Firefoot, Éomer soon excused himself to get changed. By contrast Eradan was impeccably dressed in a silk tunic in his blue and yellow colours, matched by black trousers and shiny boots.
Still puzzled by the man’s presence, he resolved to deal with him later. First he needed to find out what ailed Lothíriel. But at the door to the private quarters, Weynild hovered.
“When did they arrive?” Éomer asked, jerking his head in Eradan’s direction.
“The day before yesterday. I’ve put them up in some of our guest-houses, but it would have been easier, had I been forewarned of their coming.” The housekeeper did not look very happy.
“I had no notice either. What does he want here anyway?”
“Oh.” Weynild shot him a sharp glance. “Lord Eradan said something about fostering trade, I believe.” She dropped him a curtsy. “If you’ll excuse me, my lord, I need to supervise the servants.” Suddenly she seemed eager to get away.
Éomer frowned after her. What was going on?
In the corridor behind the hall, Tarcil looked round the door of his room. “King Éomer? I thought I heard your voice.”
Éomer was surprised to find the boy indoors. “Hello Tarcil, you’re not out riding? Where’s your mother?”
“She’s in the library.” The boy had a face like a thundercloud. “King Éomer, now that you’re back, can you send that stupid Eradan away?”
“Why, what’s happened?”
“He wants to marry Mummy.”
On his way to the library, Éomer stopped as if poleaxed. “What!”
“Hildwyn says her mother told her so. But I don’t want Mummy to marry. I like it here.”
Black fury rushed through him. While he had been away, that dog had wormed his way into Lothíriel’s affections? How dare he. But a moment later reason asserted itself. What she had said about not wanting to marry also had to go for that peacock. Or did she know him from before? Had perhaps even invited him to Rohan? She had mentioned that Pelargir made the best paper in Gondor, but surely not even Lothíriel would take that as a reason for marrying somebody. Or would she?
He tried to keep the wrath out of his voice. “So what does your mother say?”
Caught up in his own emotions, Tarcil noticed nothing. “She says I mustn’t be rude to him. That he’s an ally of my grandfather’s.”
Well, that hardly sounded like an enthusiastic endorsement. Éomer slowly released his breath. “Not bad advice actually,” he said. “In situations like this, it’s best to be friendly, observe your opponent and discover his weak spot. Then, when he least expects it, you strike.”
Tarcil cheered up visibly. “You think so?”
“Oh yes, I have long experience.” It was in fact the tactic he was going to apply himself.
Mollified, the boy skipped along at his side as Éomer continued on his way to the library. Suddenly he wondered what he had set in motion. He cleared his throat. “You do realise that the first rule in this game is not to be caught?”
Tarcil nodded earnestly. “Oh, yes.”
Éomer did not find that altogether reassuring. Still, what could the boy possibly do?
In the library, Lothíriel was sitting in the window seat, reading a book. Upon the opening of the door, she looked up. “Éomer, you’re back!” He got a blinding smile, but at once she controlled her expression. “Did you have a nice time in Harrowdale?”
He could not help feeling slightly dazzled. “Yes, thank you–”
“Mummy,” Tarcil jumped in, sounding triumphant, “King Éomer doesn’t like Eradan either.”
“What?” Éomer protested. “Now wait a minute, I didn’t say that.”
“I could tell.”
Lothíriel gave a long-suffering sigh. “Tarcil, all I said was to be polite to the man.”
“I am polite.” He winked at Éomer. “I will go and observe him now.”
Lothíriel stared after her son. “Why would he want to observe Lord Eradan?”
Closing the door behind the boy, Éomer chose not to answer that. “Did you know he was coming for a visit?” he asked, striving for a disinterested tone.
“Lord Eradan? No, he just turned up here two days ago.” She put her book aside, a frown on her face. “Éomer, I had meant to talk to you about him.”
“Yes?” Did she by any chance want him to chase the man back to Gondor? He would have been only too delighted to oblige.
“He says he attended the celebrations in Minas Tirith and heard of my whereabouts there. Apparently Aerin mentioned that I’m in Rohan. I’m sure she meant no harm, but…”
Éomer understood at once. All thoughts of Eradan fled his mind. “You’re worried who else might hear?”
“Yes, exactly.” Lothíriel gave him a strained smile. “My father thinks that the danger has passed, and even my aunt has written to say no new enquiries have been made in Dol Amroth’s ports, but I’m not easy in my mind.” She bit her lip. “Would you mind if I stayed here a little longer?”
“No! That is, I don’t mind. You may stay for as long as you wish.” To himself he thought: forever.
She relaxed. “Thank you. I’m so lucky to have you for a friend.”
“Not at all.” Was that all she considered him, a friend? He wanted her to marry him, but not out of gratitude.
Unaware of his thoughts, Lothíriel leant back in the window seat. She tilted her head. “It will be good to have you round again. Lord Eradan said something about trade talks, surely that should keep him busy.”
Fresh wrath bubbled up in Éomer. “Has that man been pestering you?”
She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh, nothing I can’t deal with. But he keeps wanting to go out for a ride with me. You see, he’s got this showy gelding, completely white, that he’s very proud of. Pretty enough, but with a weak back in my opinion. His poor squire has to spend hours grooming the horse, keeping it spotless. He’s even brought his own soap with him from Gondor. But Lord Eradan is such a bore, going for a ride with him would be torture. And of course Tarcil’s taken an unreasonable dislike of him.”
She chuckled. “Perhaps not.” Her faced darkened. “He had the impertinence to tell me that the boy needs a father.”
Involuntarily, Éomer’s hands curled into fists. “Do you want me to send him packing?”
“What? No, of course not. I don’t want to offend him.”
“I, on the other hand, would not mind doing so in the least.” For a woman who habitually carried a blade up her sleeve, she had a surprising amount of scruples. “You don’t have to put up with that kind of thing, you know.”
“It doesn’t matter. Besides, it’s hardly a new sentiment. Even my father has voiced the same opinion.” She shrugged. “My family has long thought that I should remarry, preferably a lord with a holding near Dol Amroth, so they can keep an eye on me.”
Éomer’s throat went dry. “Is that what you want?”
“No.” She looked away. “I will not let my family dictate whom I marry. Or anybody else. I have done my duty by Gondor, I don’t owe her anything anymore. And I certainly would not marry to provide Tarcil with a father.”
“Actually I’m not sure Eradan would make him a good father anyway. They do not seem to have hit it off.”
She snorted. “Hardly. Not that Lord Eradan would care, as long as he gets his alliance with Dol Amroth.”
“Is that what you think Eradan wants?” In his opinion she underestimated her personal charms. Men might go to great lengths to have this woman in their bed. He would.
Luckily Lothíriel could not read his thoughts. She shrugged. “Oh, I’m tainted by my association with Harad, but my bloodlines still make me a good match.”
“Tainted? Did that man dare to call you so?”
“No, but I can read between the lines. He did of course assure me of his undying love.”
Éomer bristled. “Under my roof?” He was willing to bide his time with her, but would not stand by and let her be snatched away from under his nose.
“Oh no, nobody has pestered me with marriage proposals here in Rohan.” She stared into nothing, a sharp crease between her brows. “I stayed with Lord Eradan in Pelargir after my escape from Harad, waiting for my family to pick us up, and he had nothing better to do than to propose. I had just been made a widow, was his guest, grateful for his hospitality, dependent on his aid.” Her voice shook with remembered indignation. “What kind of man would try to take advantage of a woman in such a situation?”
“What kind of man indeed,” Éomer agreed, a sinking feeling in his stomach.
At the evening meal, Eradan was visibly disappointed that Lothíriel did not sit at the high table, but bragged of his fief’s riches in a carrying voice, either for her benefit or simply out of habit. Éomer doubted Lothíriel would be impressed. Now if the man had boasted of the quality of his paper or mentioned pigments, it might have been a different matter. As it was, Éomer found it easy to keep his equanimity; after what Lothíriel had said about Eradan, he did not think him a serious rival anymore.
She sat at her usual table, but while Tarcil kept watching Eradan closely, she paid him no notice at all, talking to her friends and retiring early. Eradan marked her go with a certain frustration. Éomer had wondered why Weynild had put him up in one of Meduseld’s guest-houses instead of a room in the private quarters. Now it dawned on him that perhaps his household had been quicker on the uptake than him. There would be no chance of Eradan happening upon Lothíriel in the corridor or the library.
The next couple of days he kept the man busy, taking him down to the training grounds, where Eradan actually acquitted himself better than expected. Not on horseback though. Lothíriel had been right, his white gelding might be pretty, but had a weak back, and the Rohirrim could not respect somebody who chose a horse for its looks.
Éomer’s riders meanwhile enjoyed showing off their skill in front of the Gondorians. One evening they even got into a brawl with some of them in the Boar and Hounds, putting the tricks learnt from Khuri to good account. The next day Éothain handed out stable duty to the miscreants and apologised to Eradan. However, since he did so in the hall at dinner time, recounting in great detail how the Gondorians had got thoroughly trounced to comments and giggles from an appreciative audience, Eradan wore a fierce scowl by the end of it.
Lothíriel avoided him mostly, which meant that as a consequence Éomer did not see as much of her as he would have liked either. Tarcil by contrast was always underfoot, Khuri trailing him silent as a ghost, with Hildwyn and Éothain’s twins his constant companions. The boy made no secret of the fact that he wanted Eradan gone, though he kept his promise of being polite, but only just barely. Altogether Éomer considered it an unsatisfactory state of affairs, but Eradan showed no sign of giving up.
He kept asking Lothíriel to go for a ride with him, until she finally accepted, though she invited Éomer to come along too. Eradan looked less than pleased at this addition to his party, for he probably intended to impress her with his equestrian skill. Little did he know that Lothíriel and Shirram could leave him standing anytime they chose to.
On the morning designated for the ride, Eradan awaited them in the courtyard outside Meduseld, beautifully turned out, with his boots absolutely gleaming. His eyes boggled when he spotted Lothíriel in her usual attire of Rohirric trousers, only to then linger on her legs for what Éomer considered entirely too long.
He waved one of his men, who carried a voluminous parcel, forward. “My lady, allow me to present you a small gift.”
Lothíriel accepted it reluctantly, while beside her Tarcil looked on with a scowl.
Eradan smiled at her. “Please open it.”
It turned out to be a summer mantle made of very fine cloth, blue on the outside with a lining of yellow silk. Éomer was instantly annoyed. Those were Pelargir’s colours.
Lothíriel shook it out, her face unreadable. “My lord, it’s beautiful, but–”
“Not as beautiful as the lady for whom it is meant.” Eradan gave her a little bow.
“You are too kind. However, I cannot possibly accept it.” She handed the mantle back to the servant. “As you know I’m a widow, Lord Eradan, it would not be suitable.” Her voice was gentle, but implacable.
He frowned. “But it’s been what, two years?”
There was a flash of anger in her eyes, but she lowered them at once. “Twenty-three months. However, in Dol Amroth we put great store in proprieties.” And she stood there, daring him to comment on her less than traditional attire. Éomer could almost have felt sorry for the man. Almost.
Eradan tried a different angle. “But you need not stay a widow forever.” His suave smile had a forced edge to it. “When you meet the right man…”
His patience fraying, Éomer crossed his arms on his chest. Couldn’t the man take a hint?
Lothíriel inclined her head to Eradan. “When I do, I will let you know.”
Éomer winced. She really had a gift for cutting off a man at the knees with a few softly spoken words. Eradan’s smile congealed. Clearly he wasn’t used to not getting whatever he wanted. It didn’t help either that Tarcil chortled audibly.
Hastily Éomer offered Lothíriel his arm. “Shall we go for that ride now?”
Throwing him a grateful look, she accepted it. “Yes, let’s.”
That moment a commotion arose from the entrance to the stables. One of Eradan’s men, looking decidedly anxious, pushed through to his master’s side and whispered something in his ear.
“What?” Eradan exclaimed. “Have you taken leave of your senses?”
“My lord, I swear it’s true. We’ve tried everything.”
“What’s the matter?” Éomer interjected.
“It’s my lord’s horse, Galad is in a terrible state.” The man seemed to almost be in tears.
The showy gelding? Éomer frowned. Was he ill or had suffered an accident? A colic could come on very suddenly. Yet when he caught sight of old Mearcred, the stable master was rolling his eyes, looking more exasperated than worried.
Eradan was already pushing through the crowd, so Éomer decided to follow him. Inside the stables, they found the grooms clustered at the door to one of the stalls, but they made way for him and Lothíriel. He looked inside.
The horse was blue.
Éomer felt his jaw drop.
Big, irregular blotches of colour covered the gelding’s entire neck and back, running down the legs and his belly, while the mane hung down lankly, an even deeper blue. Only the head had been left white, giving the unfortunate impression of it being severed. Two grooms stood beside the horse holding brushes, a bucket of soapy water at their feet.
Eradan took a few staggering steps into the stall. “What have you done?”
“Nothing, my lord, I swear,” one of the grooms exclaimed. “Galad was like this when we came in this morning. We’ve been trying to clean him, but it just won’t come off.” There was suppressed laughter from the back of the crowd.
Lothíriel had caught her breath at first, but now she slipped into the stall too and ran a hand along the horse’s back. Éomer had a sudden vision of her showing him her precious ultramarine powder. It couldn’t be that, surely?
The gelding turned his head round towards her, and she patted his neck. “It’s woad.”
Eradan stared at her. “What?”
“A plant used to dye fabric. Probably somebody simply boiled up some leaves and then spread the resulting mush on Galad.” Her voice shook slightly.
“Oh, just a prank then.” Éomer very carefully avoided looking at Tarcil.
Eradan’s face flushed with anger. “A prank? You call this assault on my dignity a prank?”
“It’s unfortunate,” Lothíriel tried to soothe him, “but it will eventually wash out, or at the worst grow out.”
Éomer was hard pressed not to laugh at the outrage in Eradan’s voice. He exchanged a look with Éothain. “My captain will look into it. In the meantime feel free to borrow one of my horses.”
“I can tell you who did this.” Eradan spun round towards Tarcil, who was leaning against the door of the stall, a suspiciously innocent expression on his face. “That boy has been a thorn in my side for days. I bet it was him.”
Éomer secretly agreed. If there had ever been a child who knew everything about paints and dyes, it surely had to be Lothíriel’s son. Even so, he readied himself to interfere. “Come on, Eradan,” he said. “It’s just a little joke.”
“Tarcil, show your hands,” Lothíriel commanded.
At once the boy stretched out his hands for inspection, unmarked except for a few smudges of dirt. But then Lothíriel had known as much, Éomer thought with amusement, she would surely have noticed any stains earlier on. He’d had no idea she could be this devious.
“There,” Lothíriel said. “Had it been him, his hands would be stained blue too. Woad is very difficult to wash out.” However, she did not draw attention to the fact that the other children were nowhere to be seen.
Her words did nothing to soothe Eradan. “You know it was him.” He pointed an accusatory finger at Tarcil. “That boy deserves a thrashing. Him and his friends.”
Éomer felt sorry for the man being made to look ridiculous, but he would not stand by while he threatened Tarcil.
But Lothíriel beat him to it. “My lord, I assure you that if Tarcil is involved, he will be called to account,” she told Eradan, drawing her son to her side, “but only I will be the judge of his punishment.”
That only inflamed Eradan further. “You’re far too soft on him and have no control over that child. What that little snake needs is a father to teach him manners.”
“I am fully capable of dealing with my son myself,” Lothíriel snapped. “We can do without you very well,” she added, her tone cool and dismissive again.
It was the last straw. “Playing the high and mighty Princess of Dol Amroth?” Eradan spat. “You should be grateful that any decent man will still have you, when you’ve come home with a Haradric brat, the get of the Serpent King himself, clinging to your skirts!”
All of a sudden the situation wasn’t funny anymore. A wave of rage swept through Éomer at seeing Lothíriel’s stricken face, her arms going around Tarcil. He stepped forward. “Lothíriel, do you want me to kill this man for his insolence?”
Everybody stared at him. Eradan froze.
“Are you serious?” Lothíriel stammered.
“Deadly serious. Just say the word.”
She swallowed. “No, of course not. He’s not worth it.”
“As you please. Will you excuse me for a moment?”
He grabbed Eradan by the tunic and pulled him along. The crowd hastily made way, and the men at the stable doors threw them open. Eradan began to claw at his grip ineffectually, his shock wearing off, but Éomer simply cast him to the ground in the yard.
“I want you out,” he snarled. “Out of Meduseld, out of Edoras, out of Rohan. I revoke your guest rights.”
Eradan stared up at him. “But…but–”
“If you’re still here by sunset, I’ll run you through like the pig you are. You’re not welcome anymore. Éothain, see to it that he is gone within the hour.”
“Yes, lord,” his captain snapped, eyes hard.
Lothíriel and Tarcil had followed the crowd into the courtyard. He bowed to them. “My apologies, I had to get rid of some vermin. But I think you won’t get pestered again.”
They looked at him with wide eyes. Suddenly Lothíriel gave a shaky smile. “No, I don’t think so either.”
“Would you like me to make him apologise?”
She sighed. “No, it would hardly be sincere, would it.”
True, but he would have enjoyed making the man grovel. Fresh wrath coursed through him at the hidden pain in Lothíriel’s eyes. She still had her arms around Tarcil. “Don’t listen to a word that oaf says. Remember, you and Tarcil are worth a dozen of him.”
That earned him a genuine smile. She inclined her head, and Tarcil straightened up from his hunched posture.
Éomer mounted the steps to Meduseld to watch while the shocked Gondorians got rounded up and put on their horses, servants having hurriedly packed their belongings. Lothíriel meanwhile retired to have a word with a chastised looking Tarcil.
In a surprisingly short time Eradan and his men, deflated and scared, rode out under the guard of half of Éomer’s personal éored. One of the servants was leading the gelding, covered by a blanket, but with his blue mane and tail still showing.
From the terrace outside the hall, Éomer and Éothain followed their progress out of Edoras and along the Great West Road until they disappeared out of sight.
Éomer felt his mood improve. He should have done this days ago. “Éothain,” he said.
“Do you know, I don’t think you need to look at your sons’ hands too closely tonight.”
There was just the barest hint of a snigger from his friend. “I hadn’t planned to.”
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