Imrahil's Daughter

Chapter 1


Éomer King?

No, not yet! First he had to escort Théoden King's cortege home to Edoras and to see to it that the Lord of the Mark was laid to rest in honour, to enter the halls of his forefathers in dignity.

Éomer stood alone on top of one of the fortified towers which were integrated into the great wall protecting the seventh level of the White City. It faced Mount Mindolluin and from here he could see the domes of Rath Dínen. His uncle had been lying in state inside the Tombs of Kings ever since the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Éomer had only returned last night, with the Royal Guard of Edoras, to claim the body of their Lord and escort him home.

Théoden King.

He had not known another liege. His loyalty, his devotion and his love had always belonged to this King, even when Théoden had been reduced to being the Ghost of Meduseld. Often he asked himself if he and Théodred should have broken free earlier. Broken free from their love for their father and uncle, broken free from their oath to their Lord. The Lord who had not been any longer in control of his own free will. Too long had they neglected the oath they had taken to the Land and their responsibility towards their people. When they had realized that they had to stay true to Rohan and Rohan alone; it had been almost too late. The Wizard of Isengard had already unleashed his forces. His creatures were already hard on the hunt. To slay Théodred and Éomer, that was what Saruman had most desired. To destroy the House of Eorl; and then the people of Rohan would perish.

And now here he was; the last of the male descendants of Eorl. The first of a new line of kings. Now the responsibility for the Rohirrim was his. It was his fate, his destiny, to rebuild his tortured land and to lead his suffering people. It wasn't something he had expected or wanted. It was not a matter of choice. It was his duty and he couldn't ever imagine shying away from duty. If he had learnt one thing from his uncle, then it was that being king was not a privilege. Being king meant to be first a servant to the land and to the people.

Being a marshal, a captain of an éored meant that an error of judgment, a wrong decision, could endanger the life of many riders. An error of judgment by a king, a king's wrong decision, meant the suffering and possible death of many thousands. He did not fear, he did not loath what fate had bestowed upon him. It was his belief that certain things in life simply had to be accepted as facts. Whatever task, whatever responsibility would be imposed upon him, he had to do his best to take it on. He had been born with the blood of warriors in his veins. He had been brought up to be a warrior. He would lead his people as he had led his riders: focused on what lay before them.

Éomer turned his gaze from the resting places of the Kings and Stewards of Gondor, leaning his back against the pillar which supported the roof of the tower. He crossed his arms over his chest and let his eyes wander over the lush gardens of the Citadel towards Merethrond where a feast was about to begin, a feast in honour of the departed and of the future King of Rohan. An honour he could do without.

Dusk had barely begun to fall, but the great feast hall had already been lit by hundreds of candles and torches. It had been a hot day, and it was going to be a warm night. This bright lighting would turn the great hall into an oven. Being used all year around to the changeable weather and cooling winds on the plains, Éomer was not particularly fond of the heat. What made it worse was the Gondorians' habit of dousing themselves with all kind of scents. If it were just one fragrance used by all. But no, everybody seemed to pride themselves of having their very own perfume. It would make an awful mixture, and in the overheated hall, it would give him a splitting headache. Bema, these nobles hardly worked up any sweat. Could they not just bathe in clear water?

Suddenly he heard footsteps coming closer. He saw a tall, lean man walking through the gardens. Dark, formal clothing; dark, well-groomed hair; a confident, easy stride: his soon-to-be brother, Faramir, Steward of Gondor.

Éomer crossed his legs at his ankles and kept his stance. Putting his trademark frown on his face, he watched motionless as the other man climbed up the narrow steps to the platform. Coming face to face with the Gondorian, he saw Faramir hesitate. It had worked again! For some reason he could not for his life understand, he seemed to have the ability to intimidate the Steward without any effort. Did Faramir fear he would reverse his consent to the bond with Éowyn? He could do so easily as long as the betrothal had not been made official. As if he would! As if he could! Éowyn would have his head, or at least make his life no longer worth living. And there was no reason why this noble man should not wed his sister. If he had any doubt about this union, then he only had to look at the difference in Éowyn. He loved his sister more than any other being alive, or anything else including his own life, but he was not blind to her shortcomings. Steadiness had never been one of Éowyn's stronger traits.

Approaching him, Faramir bowed his head in greeting.

"Éomer King."

Not yet! The two words nearly escaped his mouth, but he recovered and answered with a slight bow of his own head. "Steward."

Saying nothing else, he retained his rigid posture, directing an inscrutable gaze towards the other man. He saw uncertainty creep into those honest grey eyes. Good! He was forced to spend an unpleasant evening in the company of all those nobles of Gondor. It was only justified to have his retaliation by torturing this one, at least a little bit.

Éomer raised his eyebrows, indicating that he was waiting for the Steward to state his business. Lord Faramir cleared his throat.

"King Elessar asked me to inform you, my Lord, that soon he and his Queen will make their way to Merethrond, where they wish to greet you as their guest of honour."

"In other words, Aragorn sent you as my chaperon. To escort me, because he fears that otherwise I may not turn up."

"Ahhh . . ." The Steward of Gondor was not somebody to contradict truth when it was spoken.

With one of his abrupt movements that tended to startle people, Éomer pushed himself from the pillar and headed towards the stairs.

"Well, in that case, what are you waiting for?" he barked back over his shoulder, still happily venting his grumpy mood on his victim.

The Rohír descended from the tower, the Steward following him as he led the way through the gardens. The two men moved very differently. The rider displayed the same direct aggressiveness and powerful grace that could be found in one of Rohan's great stallions: a creature of the wide plains. Nobody would want to get into his way. The stealthy strides of the ranger were light-footed and fluid, showing the elegance of a born dancer.

Complying with Gondorian customs, Faramir strode a couple of steps behind the King. They hadn't made it fifty yards when Éomer beckoned him to walk up.

"Walk beside me," he ordered gruffly. "I do not like others than my own riders moving behind my back."

"Are you afraid I may stab you in the back or hit you over the head?"

At last! There was more than a hint of annoyance in the Steward's usually even tone.

Éomer stopped so abruptly that it took Faramir another three steps before he came to a halt and had to turn around to face his companion.

"I would not recommend either." The King's voice was suspiciously friendly. "No matter how much my sister may love you, I have considerable doubt that she would forgive you for bringing any harm upon her dear brother."

He continued his pace and this time Faramir caught up with him. From the corner of his eyes Éomer could see a smile tugging at his chaperon's mouth. Well, he didn't want him to become too comfortable yet. He had to keep him on his toes for a while. Again he halted his steps, forcing the Steward to another stop and turn. Éomer cherished the fact that his habit of moving unexpectedly and abruptly seemed to irritate the people around here. Just as his direct speech seemed to irritate them.

"Do you love my sister?"

Faramir didn't have the chance to get out more than a baffled "Ehhh" before the King carried on.

"Well, you had better. My sister is someone very special. You should always remember that, and if you value your skin, you will treat her as the treasure she is."

Faramir looked thoroughly stunned for the moment and blinked twice. Where had he seen that habit before? Éomer shoved that thought back where it came from and continued his speech with some force.

"But while Éowyn may be a treasure, she is not easy. I will be the first one to admit this. There are not many men who can match with her, and if she is trapped into a bond with someone who does not appreciate her . . . unique personality, she will be miserable." His tone became low and threatening. "If you do not make my sister happy and content, then you will not be happy. I will see to it myself."

Finally Faramir gathered his wits.

"If the Lady Éowyn were not happy at my side then I would never be able to forgive myself. I do love her. Unconditionally."

"Good!" Éomer replied, all friendliness and good cheer. "I have never had any doubts about it."

It was easy to read the older man's face. At the moment he harboured not just a few doubts of his own regarding the King's sanity. Éomer laughed out loud. It was something he very rarely did, but when he did, the sound carried far and made people jump.

"Faramir, believe me, I am very glad my sister found you. It is a great relief to know that you will take care of her. She would dispute that she needs somebody to take care of her, but she does so, very badly. And I am satisfied that it will be you." He laid his hand on the other man's shoulder. "I have given you my consent and I am not going to take it back. So stop looking at me as if I might explode. I do occasionally, but so far you have not given me any reason to. – And now let us join this fair assembly."

He turned once more towards the great hall.

"Éomer!" Faramir stopped him. He grinned the grin of a very happy man. "Thank you for letting me have her."

"Thank you, brother!" the King replied. "For loving her." And then he added in a wry tone: "And relieving Rohan of at least one problem."

The two men chuckled comradely together and headed across the wide terrace surrounding Merethrond towards one of the wide open doors along the side of the building. They stopped just outside and threw a glance at the spectacle in front of them. Uncountable people, men and women, most of them dressed up in ridiculously lavish garments, moved without any goal or purpose up and down the hall between the tables already set for the feast.

The Great Feast Hall of Minas Tirith was a huge and impressive construction of white stone and marble. It had an almost skeletal structure, vertically emphasizing its extreme height. On the inside, along each of both long sides of the hall, cluster pillars supported a high, ribbed vault. Between the pillars three steps led up from the main floor to a walkway, and from there high and wide doors gave access to the terraces and gardens. Even decorated with the banners of Gondor and Rohan, lit by hundreds of candles and torches and filled with a chattering crowd, the hall was not welcoming but off-putting. At least that was what Rohan's King felt.

"Fair assembly, indeed," Éomer muttered. "How many are there?"

"About five hundred. Just the nearest and dearest," Faramir answered highly amused by the open disdain written all over his companion's face.

"Bema," the young king groaned and took a step back. "Give me Orcs."

Over Faramir's laughter they didn't hear another man approaching.

"Greetings to the King. Are you two trying to creep in or out?"

Éomer turned his head towards the lazy voice. Out of the blue a young man had appeared at their side: Prince Amrothos of Dol Amroth. Or at least he thought that it was him. Imrahil's sons all looked vexingly alike, and he couldn't be sure. From a distance they were practically indistinguishable. All three were the same height, the same build and had the same bone structure. They had the same olive skin, the same dark brown hair and the same dark brown eyes, but their individual expressions were different. It was easier to tell them apart when they were lined up. Elphir, the eldest, whom he had met only once, looked deadly serious, even a bit pompous. Erchirion always looked as if he were amused by everything and everyone, and the youngest, Amrothos, had this deliberate look of innocence plastered all over his handsome features. Yes, this one must be Amrothos.

"Prince Amrothos," he greeted with a slight delay.

"Ah!" The prince grinned winningly. "You did figure it out!" He tilted his head to the side. "Cousin."

Faramir answered with a friendly smile: "Cousin."

"As much as I regret having to sever this pleasant togetherness, when I arrived I met Mablung looking for you, cousin dearest."

Faramir seemed to be used to the speech pattern of the youngest of the Princes of Dol Amroth. "Did he mention what he needs me for?"

"He only said he wishes to speak to you before he sets out for Ithilien before next dawn."

"Where will I find him?"

"He is lurking around the fountain, eyeing the sapling suspiciously."

At this Faramir actually rolled his eyes, but his face sported a grin when he turned towards Éomer. "I hope you do not mind, if I leave you on your own."

"Not at all." Éomer waved a hand at him and added generously: "Go and make your escape."

"Oh, he is not going to be on his own," Amrothos assured his cousin. "I will stay with Éomer King."

"Now, that is a threat if I have ever heard one," was Faramir's wry comment before he left to find the Captain of his Rangers.

"Would you like to get some wine?" the Prince asked conversationally, leaning against the door panel.

"Not if it means I have to go inside."

"Well, you cannot skulk around the threshold all the time."

"At least as long as possible."

Amrothos let his eye fall on the heaving crowd in front of them.

"Good notion, probably," he said jovially. "It is rather hot and smelly in there."

Éomer didn't see any reason for an additional confirmation, but he turned his head slightly towards the Dol Amroth Prince and took a deep breath through his nose. No abominable scent here.

"I do not use any fragrances myself." The young prince bestowed one of his cocky smiles upon him. "I do not wish to compromise certain ladies by leaving anything which might make spouses suspicious."

"How considerate," Éomer murmured.

"And while we are talking about certain ladies," the Prince went on, ignoring the King's gaze, which should have told him that the Rohír had no intention in expanding on this subject, "I would like to take the opportunity to mention the Lady Cuillwen."

"I beg your pardon?"

Anybody who knew the King of Rohan well would have balked at his tone and certainly ceased to pursue that particular subject. Éomer was certainly not willing to discuss a past liaison in the middle of a feast hall. The Prince, however, went on, blissfully unaware that his health was in acute danger.

"Are you still interested?"

"What makes you ask?" Éomer's voice had dropped to a low growl, which didn't seem to impress the Prince at all.

"Well, I am quite partial to that lady myself, but I would not dream of getting into the way of a king."

That earned him no answer but a dark frown. But Amrothos of Dol Amroth was not somebody who gave up easily.

"So, is she still of any concern to you?"

"No!"

"No?"

"Are you deaf?"

"No."

How Imrahil had managed to beget this son was beyond him. On the other hand, Éomer had seen him fight at Morannon. He was skilled, he was ruthless, he was a fierce warrior. Why he chose to camouflage it behind this annoying and ever-jovial facade was hard to comprehend. Fortunately, he had very few dealings with this Prince.

"I will inform her," Amrothos said with a pleased tone in his voice.

"Do that," Éomer encouraged. "And do it without delay."

"Are you trying to get rid of me?"

"Yes!"

"You are not exactly subtle."

"No," Éomer admitted, "but then I rarely am. It is a skill one must be born with, and I am afraid the Rohirrim are not."

"That is what I do, too."

"Do what?"

"Blame any of my shortcomings on my heritage."

"Do they have dungeons at Minas Tirith?"

"Yes, very extensive ones. Not very comfortable. Why do you ask?"

"I am thinking about begging Aragorn to throw you into one until after I have left."

"How very unkind of you."

"Right now I am not inclined to be kind."

And he was contemplating becoming even more unkind. How far could he go without seriously damaging his friendship with Prince Imrahil? If he were the Prince he wouldn't mind somebody smothering this particular offspring and burying the remains someplace remote. He had expected the feast to become rather displeasing; he hadn't expected additional torture in form of this pain in the neck.

Before Amrothos could go on prattling inanities, Éomer's saviour came in sight, in the form of Lord Elfhelm. The Marshal, as tall and broad-shouldered as his King, made his way through the overcrowded feast hall without any delays. Before his focused, direct stride everybody just moved out of his path. Since he had been placed into his care at the age of sixteen, Éomer had admired this humble man with his quiet humour and held him in high esteem. Ten years his senior, the young captain of an éored had never hesitated to grab the King's nephew by his neck and shake some sense into him, whenever he had felt it was necessary. Whatever skill Éomer had on horseback or with his sword and spear, in his opinion he owed it to Elfhelm. There was hardly a man in Rohan he trusted or respected more.

And though the Marshal knew quite well how his King felt towards him, he would have been more than surprised had Éomer, at his approach, given in to the urge to throw his arms around him in relief. But it must have shown quite clearly on his face, because Amrothos shot him a lopsided grin.

"The Marshal to the rescue."

"That is what marshals do: rescue their kings."

Hearing this last comment of his liege, Elfhelm looked slightly confused. The Prince just giggled – were grown men suppose to giggle? – bowed his greetings and left. The Marshal looked after him.

"Did I drive him away?"

"Yes. Thank you."

"He is a bit nerve-racking," the Marshal offered.

"A bit nerve-racking?" Éomer snorted in a very un-kingly way. "Your arrival saved him. My fist was just about to lose its battle with my brain, with his Highness' face emerging as the conflict's primary casualty."

"You know, Éomer . . . King." Éomer grinned at his friend's late addition of his title. "There was a time when you spoke in plain sentences."

"Well, if you wish so, I can do that now. What do you want?"

The eyes of the two men met amicably. Had somebody listened to their gruff tones, they would have assumed they were at odds. But then again, the Gondorians regarded the gutturally-pronounced Rohirric as a rough tongue anyway.

"I went to a meeting with the Warden of the Houses of Healing earlier today," Elfhelm began, throwing a glance at the assembled nobility of Gondor. "How can they bear wearing all those velvets and brocades in a temperature like this?" he murmured absently-mindedly.

"Perhaps they are used to the heat," Éomer suggested, "and do not feel it as badly as we do."

"And why do they use scented candles?" the Marshal went on, taking a sniff with obvious disdain.

His King saw no reason to explain exactly what or rather who was scented. His friend would find out soon enough.

"Elfhelm, you were going to tell me about your meeting with the Healers' Warden. Is there a problem? Can we not take the last of our wounded home with us?"

"No, all sixty one are going to come with us, but about two dozen will not be able to go on horseback."

"Then we shall provide other means of transport," Éomer decided. "That should easily be achieved. I will talk to . . ." Something on his friend's face made the King pause in mid-sentence. "Elfhelm, what is it?"

There was no doubt that the Marshal didn't like what he was going to say. "These men . . . these twenty three men . . . They will never be able to ride again. They are cripples."

Éomer flinched at this word. That was what a rider feared most. Not death, but being crippled. He turned on his heel and stepped out onto the terrace, looking towards the darkened gardens. In the back of his mind he could hear a clear voice: ". . . permanently disabled in battle." His beautiful, big-eyed healer had used a much more elegant description. But the fact remained. These twenty three men would never ride again. Only the Rohirrim were able to comprehend what that meant.

Elfhelm had followed his King, watching him with some concern. Éomer turned his head towards the older man.

"Have you seen them?"

"Yes, I have. Considering the situation and the future they may face, they are in amazingly good spirits. I say it is thanks to the healer in whose care they have been placed. She is a lady of strong convictions, who feels every life is worth living."

"As long as there is something in it worth living for," Éomer put in a tight voice. "Who are these men?"

"All of them are herdsmen. They belong to the éoreds from the East-Emnet, which attacked the right flank of the mûmakil. They were virtually trampled into the ground. From 240 men, only eleven came back more or less unharmed. Twenty three are crippled, the rest are dead. None of their horses survived."

"Many of them must have had families."

"Yes, indeed, they must. But I haven't had the time to go and see them. I know it is my duty as the Marshal of the Eastmark." Elfhelm eyed his King warily. He had seen this unreadable expression more than once over the past months, and it still made him uneasy.

"Do not apologize, Elfhelm, because there is nothing to apologize for. I know you do more than your best. Nobody can be in the saddle all day and night. - I should not be here."

"My Lord Éomer?"

"I should be in Rohan doing my duty to my kinsmen."

"Soon we will be back at Edoras, my Lord. After we have laid Théoden King to rest, we will do . . . whatever is necessary."

When his King didn't give him any reply, Elfhelm tried again, concern in his tone. "My Lord?"

Éomer just shook his head defensively and kept staring towards the gardens. How could he explain it to Elfhelm? That straightforward warrior wouldn't understand. He could hardly understand his own feelings; felt ashamed of them, but couldn't help them nevertheless. He felt he was wasting time in getting a dead man home, instead of being at home and caring and providing for the living. Théoden had died an honourable death and deserved to be laid to rest in honour. Hail the victorious dead! But what about the survivors, the living? What did they deserve? Shouldn't they come first?

Four more months before winter would claim the plains and valleys of the Mark. Villages in the Westfold and between Isen and Adorn were burnt down, livestock slaughtered, harvest and provisions destroyed. Last autumn he had ordered the herds to be moved out of the East-Emnet, across the Entwash, trying to bring them to safety from the raids of Mordor. Now grass and forage cereal were in short supply in the Eastfold and they had to be moved back. But who was going to do that? The herdsmen had suffered great losses. Who would be caring for their herds in the future, the cherished horses without which the Rohirrim couldn't exist?

He had to find a way to rebuild the villages, but Rohan was short of woods and therefore short of timber. And no harvest meant no straw for thatching. No harvest and no livestock meant no food. He had to find a solution; he had to find a way to secure the survival of his people over the coming winter. But he wouldn't find this solution at a feast in Minas Tirith or beside a caisson with a coffin on the road to Edoras.

He blamed Théoden! He blamed his uncle for, even in death, keeping him once again from doing what he felt was the right and urgent deed. And yet, what he did was what was expected of him: taking Théoden King home. It was important for his people, an act of great symbolism. The end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Right now they might need this, but, when the winter came, they would need food and shelter even more. And then their new King would have wasted time, even though he had known better. A king had to serve first and foremost his land and his people; if necessary against their inclinations. And here he had already failed: he was not doing what he knew was right, but what was expected of him. Therefore, it was not Théoden who was to blame, but him. If he failed, he alone was to blame.

For someone who knew Éomer as a man always in motion, it was a rather worrying sight, watching him standing for such a long time on one spot, immobile, staring out into the gardens, seeing obviously nothing.

Elfhelm cleared his throat several times. Finally his King turned around, his eyes only slowly recovering from their empty vacant look.

"Is there anything else, Elfhelm?" There was an echo of resignation in his voice, as if he expected another axe to fall.

The Marshal began to wish somebody else had been sent to the Houses of Healing. This could become a bit embarrassing, and he was not sure how the King was going to take it.

"As you may know, the Warden is not only in charge of the healers but also of the midwives of Minas Tirith."

"I did not know, but how does it concern us anyway?" Éomer looked a bit puzzled.

Elfhelm decided to try the direct approach. "I do not know how to tell you this, but the healer present at our meeting had found a rather simple way to put it: early next year there will be quite a few blond children born." When he had no immediate response, he added: "Here in Minas Tirith."

When it finally hit him, Éomer groaned. This was not his day. "How many are quite a few?"

"So far, less than a hundred. The healer feels that, considering that there were around three thousand Rohirrim in Anorien and Minas Tirith, the number is not that outrageous. And that, with all the lives lost, one should feel blessed for every new life born."

"That Lady seems to have a very cheerful approach towards life."

"Well, that is something not to be disputed. And she took very good care of our kinsmen."

"She took care of our kinsmen?" Éomer stepped closer towards his Marshal. A special memory, always in the fore of his mind, surfaced. "This healer, is she a young woman? About this size?" He held up his hand to the tip of his nose. "Big grey eyes, looks like a breeze could blow her over?"

"The description fits," Elfhelm answered. "But I have doubts about the breeze. I had my dealings with her when you left me in charge of securing the City. If she sets her mind on something and digs in her heels, not even a mountain troll could move her."

"I noticed." Éomer couldn't suppress a smile.

"You have met her, too?"

"Yes. She makes quite an impression, does she not?"

That was an understatement. Since that peculiar night at the Houses of Healing, hardly a day had gone by without him thinking of that aggravating and enchanting young healer. Now and then his thoughts about her weren't exactly chaste; the reason why he hadn't and wouldn't seek her out again. And anyway, another obstacle to overcome had just dropped into his path.

"About these children; I will talk to Aragorn. I want to know how the Gondorians will think about Rohirric . . . bastards running around in their city. I do not want them growing up stigmatized. We have to look after them." He ran both hands over his face. "And I want you, Elfhelm, to try to find out who the fathers are."

Suddenly a thought hit him. "Bema, I hope none of these children were conceived without consent!"

"The Warden didn't mention any violations."

"Nowadays I am grateful for small favours."

The Marshal wasn't given the chance of a reply because a booming voice bellowed across the terrace. Anybody who had already gone to sleep in the White City should be awake again. A short, square figure with enough facial hair to provide for at least two Mearas shot towards the men and threw both arms around the King's mid-section, pressing the air out of his lungs with a loud gasp.

"There you are, lad. Feared you might have beaten it."

With some effort Éomer was able to free one of his arms and patted the Dwarf on his shoulder. "Gimli, it is good to see you again."

"And you! And you!"

Gimli set Éomer free and grabbed the hand of the Marshal, pumping his arm. "Marshal Elfhelm! Good to see you, too."

"The pleasure is on my side, Master Gimli," the Rohír replied with a deep, honest smile on his face. "And when can we expect you at Glaemscrafu?"

"Soon, soon!" the Dwarf droned, turning back to Éomer. "But first you have to come with me, lad." With these words he grabbed the King's wrist and dragged the man behind him. That was certainly a sight to behold. The short Dwarf pulling the tall Rohír along, having him stumbling over his feet, his entire body pulled into a diagonal line with his shoulders decidedly in front of the rest of him.

"Gimli, what is it?" he called out, annoyed, over his Marshal's loud laughter. With some difficulty he regained his footing and thanks to his much longer legs caught up with his friend's pace. "Should we not at least try to enter the hall with some dignity?"

"Aragorn is on his way with his Queen, who you have yet to meet. Also in their company is the Lady of the Light, the incomparable Lady of the Golden Wood."

"Ah, that explains the enthusiasm," Éomer muttered.

Fighting beside the Elves had eased his suspicions towards these enigmatic beings. But, even though they were the First Born, he saw absolutely no reason to regard them any differently than the other inhabitants of Middle-earth. Truth be told, this down-to-earth Dwarf or the boisterous Hobbits were more to his liking.

They stopped their lively antics at the top of the three steps down to the hall. At that very moment the Grand Gate on the opposite side of the hall opened and the sound of silver trumpets announced the entrance of King Elessar and his entourage into Merethrond. Five hundred guests bowed reverently. Éomer and Gimli were the only ones remaining standing.

"Do I have to do that, too?" the Dwarf mumbled inside his beard.

"Bow your head when he catches your eye," Éomer advised. "And you can let go of my hand!"

His wrist was set free. In its place he received an elbow in his ribs.

"What do you think?" Gimli urged. "What do you say?"

"Let me have a moment to observe."

King Elessar and his dark-haired Queen made their way down the aisle, nodding and smiling their greetings to the nobles curtseying to their liege. They were followed by three elves, a tall ageless female flanked by two males.

In the face of these two woman, one as dark as the other was light, everything else around Éomer went out of focus. Their beauty was too celestial to comprehend, captivating and detached at the same time. It was a beauty one would allow oneself to admire only; to admire as one had to admire a sunset, or a rainbow, or the high and endless starry sky at night. A beauty far removed from one's reach, inconceivable to touch.

The King of Rohan preferred women to be touchable.

Suddenly he realized that Aragorn had spotted him and Gimli standing on top of the walkway. The High King gave him a smile that was more in his eyes than it was on his features and bowed his head slightly. Éomer answered with a smile and a bow of his own. When Aragorn left his entourage and came towards him, he walked down the three steps to the hall to meet his friends. Not caring about all the eyes watching, they embraced.

"Éomer, brother. It is good to have you back in Minas Tirith, even though this visit is a brief one and caused by a sad event."

"To see you indeed lessens the ill-feeling I carry for leaving Rohan in this time of its greatest need."

The former Ranger leaned back and his sharp grey eyes pierced into the multicoloured ones of the younger man. He nodded his grim understanding.

"We will talk tomorrow. Tonight let us enjoy each others company and that of our friends."

Éomer smiled in agreement.

"Come," Aragorn said. "Meet my Lady Arwen. Meet my wife."

With an arm around the Rohír's shoulders, he guided him to where the other members of his company were waiting. He shoved him, more or less, in front of this heavenly beautiful creature, with a cascade of dark hair down to her waist, eyes the bottomless blue of a mountain lake and the warmest and kindest smile ever bestowed upon him.

"Arwen, I do not have to tell you who this is, for I have spoken of him every day. Meet my brother-in-arms, the Lord of the Mark."

The Elven Queen of Gondor held out one hand, soft and cool, and Éomer took it and bowed over it.

"Éomer King, at last we meet."

"My Lady Queen, it fills my heart with a deep joy that my friend's greatest desire has been fulfilled."

"That joy we share, Lord of the Mark. And now allow me the honour of introducing you to my kin. Meet my grandparents and my father."

It was a rather strange concept for Éomer to have three generations of one family looking all the same age. After having bowed over the hand of the Lady of the Golden Wood, he looked up to study her face with the same scrutiny he gave all new faces. Her features were youthful, but her eyes were old and wise and knowledgeable . . . and mischievous?

After having exchanged respectful and wordless greetings with the Lords Celeborn and Elrond, he was about to turn back towards the King and Queen of Gondor when someone spoke to him.

"Do not fear. You will take good care of your people, Éomer King."

The voice was in his head. And even though he had never before heard it, he just knew it was the Lady of the Golden Wood speaking to him. He looked at her sharply. Did this work the other way around?

"Indeed, it does." The voice answered, the amusement not hidden. "I can hear your thoughts as clearly as you can hear me."

Éomer couldn't avoid the next thought shooting through his head. "A very adept form of communication."

Galadriel gave a laugh. It was a sound Éomer had never experienced before. He had the feeling that he didn't hear this laugh with his ears, but it was taken in by his entire body. It was at the same time light and dark, cheerful and grave, airy and heavy, enchanting and sad. It let him feel warm and made him freeze. And then, once more, those age-old, sparkling eyes were on him. This time she spoke out aloud.

"Your future will be wise and blessed, young King."

He had never felt comfortable with riddles, and he simply couldn't help his reply.

"That is some prediction to live up to, my Lady. But many years ago I was told that a man will behave wisely once he has exhausted all other alternatives. Does this mean I have already reached that point?"

Galadriel just gave him a friendly and enigmatic smile. "You are still far from all those things you will achieve."

With that she left, the two Elven Lords following her, taking their leave with a polite nod.

Éomer looked thoroughly puzzled. "Was that some kind of prophecy?"

Arwen just gave him an enigmatic smile of her own. "I think my grandmother was just stating facts."

"Now I know for sure I am getting a headache," he groaned.

Both King and Queen laughed. The next moment Éomer received a shove that nearly send him knocking into Aragorn.

"So, now! What do you think?"

"What do I think about what, Gimli?" Éomer rubbed the small of his back. The Dwarf must have hit him with his fist! Now he had not only a good prospect of a headache, but of a backache, too.

"Well, what do you think about my Lady of Light?" Gimli clarified impatiently. "Is she not incomparable? Is she not the most beautiful woman you have ever seen?"

Éomer gazed at the Elf, who was pressing her lips together to conceal her . . . smile. – Did elves grin? – And then he looked at Aragorn, who was definitely grinning, raising his eyebrows, obviously looking forward to seeing how the Rohír was going to get out of this.

The King of Rohan eyed his shorter friend with fake surprise. "Gimli, are you expecting me in all seriousness to praise the beauty of one woman, while another beautiful woman is standing within earshot?"

The Dwarf looked dumbfounded at the Queen, as if he had just become aware of her presence. He made a strangled sort of sound that might have metamorphosed into an actual word, but Éomer went on:

"Nevertheless, I must admit, having been surrounded all my life by lighter-haired females, I feel more touched by dark beauty and therefore must declare that Queen Arwen is the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes upon and her beauty is beyond compare." He looked down to his, for a change, speechless friend with a mocking challenge in his eyes. "Does this mean, Master Dwarf, that you will send for your axe now and I have to send for my sword?"

Gimli kept staring at Arwen. Then his eyes wandered to Aragorn, then to Éomer, then back to the Queen.

"Well," he finally rumbled. "Everybody is entitled to his own opinion."

With that he turned on his heels and marched towards the other end of the hall, probably in search of some ale. The three others tried hard not to laugh as long as he was within earshot.

"He is lovely," the Queen declared.

"Lovely?" both men asked with one voice, sounding equally perplexed.

"I have never thought I would ever hear a dwarf described as lovely." Éomer looked at Aragorn, seeking his support, but the King of Gondor just shrugged his shoulders.

"If my wife considers our friend Gimli to be lovely, then he is lovely," he said with a straight face.

Éomer laughed. "You do have a very good husband, my Lady."

"I think you are right." Elves did grin. At least, this one did.

The two Kings and the Queen began chatting about lighter topics, the men trading news of mutual acquaintances. Suddenly Éomer saw Aragorn's gaze lock on something behind his back. The High King smiled in greeting.

"Prince Imrahil, be welcomed."

And while the Rohír turned around to make his own greetings, Aragorn went on: "And we are very glad this time you were able to persuade your lovely daughter to join us."

TBC


Just in case someone is wondering why I was keeping on about the Gondorians having an excessive preference for fragrances: that can be put down to something our Chemistry teacher used to tell us. He insisted that a person of the 20th Century (Yes, I know we are in the 21st Century, but I left school in 1999) wouldn't be able to stand the smells of the 11th Century, while some poor chap from the Middle Ages dropped into our time would probably get seriously ill from all the chemical smells surrounding us.

That reminded me of something I read in Sir Stephen Runciman's "History of the Crusades". When the northern knights of the 1st Crusade arrived in Byzantium, they feared they would suffocate when in company of the heavily scented Byzantines, while the Byzantines felt that the North Europeans simply stank.

Keeping in mind that Tolkien thought about Byzantium (and probably Egypt) when he created the Gondorian society, and that the Rohirrim are often referred to as "Vikings on Horseback" (which I personally like even better than Anglo-Saxons with cavalry) the idea of dropping a "Viking" into "Byzantium" and letting him have a good sniff was just too tempting.