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They arrived back in Edoras early in the afternoon. Éomer heaved a sigh of relief when the familiar hill came into view, Meduseld perched on the top, its roof glittering golden in the sun. Home. He still stayed alert though, for the feeling of having hostile eyes observing them had never quite left him. He would not be completely at ease until the remaining Haradrim had all been caught.
Tarcil had dozed for most of the time, complaining every now and again that his head hurt and refusing to ride with anybody but his mother. They had given him sips of water to make up for the loss of blood, but it worried Éomer how little like his usual cheerful self the boy was.
When they reached the town, they caused a stir. The guards at the gate had announced his arrival by blowing their horns; many people came running to see what had caused this unexpected early return.
They must have looked a sight, all of them splattered with gore, and him and his men worse for wear after their long ride, their horses exhausted. Tarcil lay in Lothíriel’s arms with his eyes closed, his face pale and head bandaged. Fresh blood had started to seep through Leofrun’s scarf, staining Lothíriel’s tunic.
Éomer fended off all questions, just giving curt reassurances that the threat had been dealt with. He had sent one of his riders ahead to alert Healer Brictwen, and the woman awaited them on the steps to Meduseld. While the stable lads led the horses off to mangers full of well-earned oats, Éomer carried Tarcil to his room and laid him on the bed there.
At once a flock of women gathered round the boy. Weynild bustled in with a jug of warm water to wash the blood off and Freawaru, the cook, hovered anxiously in the doorway, offering to fetch a bowl of soup.
Finding himself completely forgotten, Éomer retreated to his own room. The bed beckoned temptingly, but after changing out of his mail and having a quick wash, he went back to check on Tarcil. The room was quiet and dim now, with the shutters closed and only a couple of lamps burning. All the women had left, except for Lothíriel and Khuri sitting by the bed and Brictwen busy with a brew at the fireplace.
Éomer tiptoed over to peer at Tarcil. The boy was asleep. His face was clean and his head freshly bandaged, but he seemed so unnaturally tidy and still that Éomer’s heart contracted. He looked like a corpse laid out for burial.
“How is he?” he whispered.
“Healer Brictwen has given him poppy syrup and stitched the wound,” Lothíriel answered, gently stroking her son’s hand. “Now he needs to sleep.”
“I’m brewing a tea to give him when he wakes up,” Brictwen added from the fireplace. “He’s lost a lot of blood.”
Éomer looked at Lothíriel, who still wore the blood splattered trousers and tunic from earlier on, with her hair in disarray. Her voice had been firm and collected just now, but he could see the strain in her eyes.
He wanted nothing so much as to seek his bed, but he couldn’t leave her to face this alone. “I’ll keep you company for a while.”
Lothíriel flashed him a grateful smile, but at once turned her attention back to Tarcil. Glancing round for a place to sit, Éomer’s eyes fell on the corner of the room that had been turned into a kind of Haradric tent. The thick carpet with cushions scattered across it looked very inviting.
As he lowered himself onto a heap of bright scarlet cushions, a wave of tiredness crashed over him. He yawned. Three days and nights spent racing across the Mark were beginning to take their toll. But hopefully a short rest would set him right.
Éomer woke to the smell of food. His belly rumbled as he stirred. Had he fallen asleep? Blinking, he sat up, his muscles protesting from the abuse they had suffered over the last days. He found that he had a blanket thrown over him, Lothíriel’s elusive flowery scent clinging to it, and somebody had taken off his boots.
Outside, night had fallen, and only the fire in the hearth lit the room. He must have slept longer than he thought, for the room had that hushed quality of the late hour when only the guards on their rounds were awake. He winced. So much for keeping Lothíriel company in her distress. Unless she found his snoring comforting, of course.
The low murmur of voices reached his ears. Lothíriel was sitting by the bed talking to the healer, who was bending over Tarcil. When the woman stepped back, Éomer saw that the boy was sitting up, a tray of food on his lap. Surely that was a good sign?
He got up and padded over. “How are you feeling?”
“My head still hurts,” Tarcil complained. He sounded querulous, but some colour had returned to his face.
When Éomer glanced at Lothíriel, she gave him a tired smile, but even so looked more relaxed. She must also have found the time to change her clothes, for she wore a simple, dove-grey gown instead of her blood stained tunic and had braided her hair.
“Finish your broth, young man, and you’ll feel better tomorrow,” Brictwen declared.
Éomer felt heartened by her calm manner. The healer had dealt with many injuries over the course of the years and did not seem to be overly concerned.
“Hildwyn’s been asking after you,” Lothíriel told her son. “Maybe she can come for a visit in the morning.”
“And you can tell Éothain’s boys all about your adventure,” Éomer added.
That visibly cheered Tarcil up. “I will.”
Éomer smiled at him. He would not be surprised if the boy got nightmares, but perhaps it would help to frame it as an adventure rather than being the victim of an attack.
As Tarcil ladled up his broth without much enthusiasm, Éomer’s stomach rumbled loudly. He had not had anything to eat since setting out in the early hours of the morning, nearly a full day ago.
Lothíriel jumped up. “Oh, I forgot, we saved dinner for you.” She pressed Éomer into her chair and brought over a tray of bread, cheese and meat pastries, then poured him a glass of red wine, before sitting down on Tarcil’s bed. Éomer could not help thinking that it was rather pleasant to have her fussing over him.
He fell to with a will, not pausing until he had wolfed down three of the pastries. Lothíriel grinned at him. He returned a lop-sided smile. “It’s been a long day.”
“I know.” She turned serious. “Éomer, I will never be able to thank you enough–”
“Then don’t,” he interrupted her. “There is no need for gratitude between us. You know that’s not what I want from you.”
A slow blush rose to her cheeks, but that moment Tarcil claimed her attention. “Mummy, will you tell me a story?”
Éomer finished his meal in a more leisurely manner while Lothíriel told the tale of how Túrin Turambar slew Glaurung, reducing it to what the boy called the ‘interesting bits’, by which he meant how Túrin had tracked down and battled the dragon. It seemed to be a favourite story. Tarcil’s eyes slowly drifted closed as it reached its gory end.
Lothíriel’s voice stilled, and for a long time she just sat there watching the slow rise and fall of her son’s chest. With his hair rumpled and a few stains of broth on his nightshirt, the boy looked a lot more like his normal self.
Éomer leant back in his chair and sipped his wine, content to simply know they were safe and enjoy their presence: his little family, soon to be so in name as well, he hoped. Involuntarily his gaze lingered on Lothíriel’s lips. After a kiss like that he would not let her slip through his fingers, he vowed to himself. Then he had to grin. There seemed little danger of that happening. His lady had made her mind very clear.
A soft knock on the door interrupted these pleasant thoughts. Éothain peered in. Seeing Éomer awake, he came in, nodding a greeting to Healer Brictwen sitting by the hearth.
Éomer leant forward. “Any news?”
“Some, but nothing definite yet.”
Éomer cast a look at Tarcil asleep in his bed. “Let’s go in the library.” He didn’t want to risk waking the boy, and perhaps it was better not to worry Lothíriel either. She had gone tense again.
However, she was having none of that. “I’m coming too. I want to know what’s going on.”
Outside in the corridor, Khuri was standing guard. At a soft word from Lothíriel, she went in to keep watch over Tarcil, a familiar face in case he woke up.
In the library they found their two desks just as they had left them when they departed for the Eastemnet. It seemed like a lifetime ago. Lothíriel fingered the box of pigments and traced an unfinished sketch lying on the polished wood of her desk.
Lighting a couple of extra lamps, Éomer noticed that grooves of tiredness marked Éothain’s face. Had he rested at all? Involuntarily he felt guilty for the hours of uninterrupted sleep snatched that afternoon.
“What have you discovered?” he asked.
“Several things. First of all, we traced the assassin who stayed in Edoras. He claimed to be a wool merchant and travelled here from Gondor. It seems he knew that Lady Lothíriel and Tarcil were your guests.”
Éomer nodded thoughtfully. So Lothíriel had been right to worry about word of their whereabouts getting out, whether it was through her family or even through Eradan. “What else?”
“We found the Haradrim’s horses, hidden in some woods near Askdale Vale. I’ve posted some men to watch them.” When Éomer unrolled a map, Éothain showed them the exact location.
So close to Edoras? Fresh rage boiled up within Éomer. The Haradrim seemed to think they could move within the Mark with impunity, threatening those under his protection. But they would learn differently.
He studied the lay of the land. The area was densely wooded, so would make a good hiding place. “We must try to track them. However, from Askdale they might have taken to the mountain paths into Lamedon.”
Éothain nodded. “That’s what I fear. They must be desperate and might capture a shepherd or woodsman to show them the way across the passes.”
“I will send a rider by the Paths of the Dead and alert Angbor of Lamedon,” Éomer decided.
“That won’t be necessary,” Lothíriel interrupted.
Éomer frowned at the bleak tone of her voice. “What do you mean?”
“They are indeed desperate. But they won’t flee to Gondor.” She touched the golden torc at her throat. “A King of Harad does not allow failure in his servants. Nothing you can do to them is worse than what awaits them, should they return to Harad empty handed. It is succeed or perish for them.”
His hands forming into fists, Éomer stared down at the map. “You think they will try again?”
“They will not succeed,” Éomer vowed. He looked at Éothain. “Send out our best scouts tomorrow. And alert our people to look out for signs of intruders.”
Éomer clapped him on the back. “But catch some sleep first, my friend.”
Éothain grimaced and gave a tired nod before retiring. As the door closed behind him, Éomer turned to Lothíriel. “Do not fear. I swear I’ll protect you.”
She looked at him with eyes dark and hopeless. Then she walked into his arms. “You don’t understand.”
Surprised, he gathered her to him. “Lothíriel–”
She buried her head against his chest. “It will never end, Éomer! Not until Tarcil is dead. This time you’ve rescued us, but there will be another. And another. We will never be safe.”
It was the first time that he had seen her close to breaking, and it hurt him more than anything. His beautiful, brave lady. But he knew the signs, had seen them before. She had been strong while Tarcil needed her, but now the shock was catching up with her.
“Shush, dear heart,” he said, stroking her back. “We’ll find these men, I promise.” And then they would pay.
She clutched at him. “But it’s no use. You can kill them, but the Harad King will just send more assassins.”
He did not think the Harad King would find it quite so easy, but sensed that Lothíriel was beyond such cool reasoning. So he just held her close, offering the shelter of his arms. “You do not have to shoulder this burden alone, Lothíriel. We’ll think of something.”
“But what can we do?” Her voice rose. “The Harad King won’t give up, not until his men succeed.”
Éomer caught his breath, struck by a sudden idea. “Or until they think they’ve succeeded?”
Lothíriel looked up at him, shaken out of her despondent mood. “What do you mean?”
“I think that I might countermand my orders to Éothain. An assassin alive might be more useful to us than an assassin dead.” His mind working furiously, he caught her face between his hands. “Tell me, Lothíriel, how good an actress are you?”
They held the funeral on the afternoon of the next day. Éomer, Éothain and two of his riders carried the small coffin on their shoulders, with Lothíriel and Leofrun following behind. He was touched to see that as they passed through Edoras, its people payed their respect and joined the procession. Many of the women nodded at Lothíriel, having got to know her through her interest in weaving and carpet making.
Even though the coffin held half a side of pork and not Tarcil’s body, Éomer worried about Lothíriel. They had discussed the plan at length, but it placed a heavy burden on her. That very moment Khuri and some trusted riders were spiriting Tarcil and Healer Brictwen out of Meduseld to lend verity to the tale that the boy had died.
They had decided to send him to the Hornburg, where he could recover in safety. Lothíriel would follow as soon as possible, but it meant that she would not see her son for a couple of days, at a time when surely she least wanted to be parted from him.
Soon they reached the burial grounds, a field at the bottom of the foothills, enclosed by a stone wall and shaded by tall, graceful trees. The white flowers of simbelmynë dotted the grass around them. It was another hot summer’s day, and the shade filled with birdsong was peaceful.
They gathered at the side of the grave, which was sheltered by a majestic ash tree, and lowered the coffin into the hole awaiting it, where it looked lost and heartbreakingly small. As the rich, moist scent of the freshly turned earth hit him, Éomer’s throat closed. He had buried far too many people dear to him, family, friends, men that had looked to him to lead them. But not Tarcil, he vowed, and not Lothíriel.
When the women started to sing a low dirge, he went to stand beside her. She held herself rigid, her face mask-like, eyes unfocused. His concern grew. Either she was a consummate actress or she saw a vision all her own. In her hands she clutched Tarcil’s golden torc, identical to her own, but twisted and bent out of shape.
People filed past the grave and threw in flowers and handfuls of earth, slowly covering the coffin. Finally it was their turn.
“Lothíriel,” he said very gently when she made no motion to step forward.
She started. “Éomer…”
“I’m here.” He slipped his arm around her waist in support, and she leant her head against him for a moment.
Then they stepped up to the open grave, and Lothíriel stared down at it for a long time. Slowly she lifted her hands and cast the torc in. It landed with a dull clunk, the gold glinting against the dark soil.
Suddenly Lothíriel twisted round and buried her face against his shoulder. Great, racking sobs began to shake her. Truly anxious now, Éomer pulled her against him. Surely this was no playacting.
As the men began to fill in the grave, he picked her up in his arms and carried her through the crowd that quickly made way for him. One of his riders led up Firefoot, and Éothain lifted Lothíriel up to him when he had mounted. Still weeping, she clung to him. Gathering her close, he pushed the stallion into a fast trot, making for the path back to Edoras.
It was as if a dam had broken, shattering her usual control. Feeling completely helpless, Éomer made soothing noises and patted her back. What had set this off? Was it just the strain of the Haradrim’s attack and Tarcil’s injury? She had been so strong, but everybody had their breaking point. He knew only too well what his own was.
Yet little by little her sobs subsided until she leant limp and exhausted against him. Éomer stroked her soft black hair, which hung in a silky curtain around her. Gradually he sensed her relaxing.
When they reached the courtyard outside Meduseld, she straightened up and rubbed her sleeve across her face. “Thank you for holding me,” she whispered hoarsely.
Éomer had seldom felt more useless. “I wish I could do more.”
“It means a lot to me.”
He stroked a cheek damp with tears. “Do you want me to stay with you? I can send Éothain to –”
But she shook her head. “No, let’s not change the plan. I’ll be fine.”
Reluctantly he helped her slide down from Firefoot’s back and watched her disappear inside Meduseld, Leofrun and Eanswith at either side and greeted by a gaggle of anxious women. His lady was strong, he told himself, but still his heart ached for her and his arms felt empty.
However, he had a task to fulfil.
Shedding most of his guards, Éomer, Éothain and his two best scouts left Edoras by a side gate and headed for the hills. The sun was sinking, sending their shadows before them as they entered the woods stretching behind the town.
Éomer knew this forest like the back of his hand, having spent a large part of his childhood in Edoras. Despite the gravity of the situation, he exchanged a grin with Éothain. More than once they had played truant and disappeared into the woods for the day instead of attending lessons.
They followed a narrow path that cut across the hillside, slowly rising, until they caught a brief glimpse of the Great West Road below them through the trunks of the trees. Leaving one of the scouts with the horses, they continued on foot along a deer trail, careful to cause as little disturbance as possible. The forest was full of life; squirrels jumped from branch to branch, a woodpecker was hammering away somewhere and in the distance a fox yipped.
At last they reached the place Éomer had been aiming for: a rocky outcrop overlooking the burial grounds. The three of them stretched out on the slab of rock, which was a lot smaller somehow than Éomer remembered, and surveyed the view. Would the Haradrim take the bait?
The field with the graves lay below them, the spot where they had buried Tarcil’s coffin easily visible, just as he had planned. A few people still lingered, tending the plots of their loved ones, but as twilight descended they packed up and left.
For a long time nothing happened. Soundlessly a barn owl glided low over the grass and alighted on a tree branch. A badger emerged from the undergrowth and rooted around amongst the bushes, but nothing else moved. However, Éomer was too experienced a hunter to give up easily.
Suddenly the scout touched Éomer’s arm and pointed to a thicket of alder trees growing at the back of the wall encircling the burial ground. Éomer narrowed his eyes to see what Aelred had spotted. Was there movement there? A moment later a man wriggled out from underneath the low branches, crouched down to run the few steps to the wall and slipped over.
Keeping to the cover of the trees dotted about, he approached Tarcil’s grave and paused to look around. Apparently reassured, he made a beckoning motion, whereupon a second man emerged from the alder trees and joined him. Hacking at the earth with their daggers and using their hands, they began to dig.
Satisfied that it had to be the two surviving Haradrim, Éomer settled down to watch them work. This was Lothíriel’s refinement to their plan. When he had proposed a very public funeral to make sure the Haradrim would carry word of Tarcil’s death back to their king, she had suggested this added twist.
By his orders the earth had only been packed down lightly at the top of the grave, and the two men made good progress. Suddenly one of them pounced on something. The two huddled together to inspect it. Éomer did not need to see the glint of gold to know they had found Tarcil’s twisted torc.
Would that satisfy them? Lothíriel had thought that once they had this tangible proof of the success of their mission, they would want to leave Rohan as quickly as possible. The only danger lay in them deciding to check inside the coffin, but Éomer had tried to forestall that by having it nailed down so thoroughly that they would need a crowbar to open it.
He watched tensely as down below the two men examined their find. Heads close together, they seemed to be discussing something. Éomer released his breath when they began to fill in the grave again and smoothed out the earth, erasing all signs of their presence. Very soon they straightened up and flitting from shadow to shadow made their way out of the burial grounds.
He turned to Aelred, who gave a curt nod, wriggled out of their hiding place and disappeared into the undergrowth without making a sound. They knew where the Haradrim had hidden their horses, so the scout would meet up with the men watching them and pick up the trail from there.
Éomer and Éothain meanwhile retraced their steps. It was slow going in the dark to descend the hill, but when they emerged from the forest, as arranged ten riders of Éomer’s éored awaited them.
He cast a longing look up at Meduseld, lit by torches, and wondered what Lothíriel was doing. Briefly he was tempted to pass the whole undertaking over to Éothain and seek her out. That one kiss had been far too little to slake his hunger. However, it was his plan and he could not rest easy with enemies within the bounds of the Riddermark.
“Let’s go,” he said with a sigh, not looking forward to yet another night’s ride. When this was finally over, he intended to spend a lot of time in his bed.
And not alone either.
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