I truly did not see this one coming! I had no idea I would ever finish this little piece, but somehow, it suddenly started talking to me again. Which is all the stranger as it is a very atypical piece for me (I usually prefer dark action pieces to romance). Still I'm happy that I got another story finished and I hope you will enjoy this final chapter about the royal couple's beginnings.
Chapter 3: Together
Morning was already approaching when finally, Éomer finished telling his tale. The moon had wandered far over to the west while he had talked, and while the stars were still visible, their brightness was already lessened by the approaching daylight. Slowly the mountains that surrounded the ancient city of Elves were gaining contrast against the sky, and the swelling concert of bird songs around them announced to the lonely couple on the terrace the beginning dawn.
He should have been dead-tired, Éomer briefly wondered as he woke from his reverie long enough to acknowledge those first messengers of the new day, but it wasn't so. Instead, the way he felt was hard to describe. He had talked for a long time, hesitant at first, and still sparing Lothíriel the most gruesome detail of his captivity, unless she had asked for them... which she had done repeatedly. It had struck Éomer as uncanny how his wife had interrupted him whenever he had left something out for fear of confronting the pain the images evoked in his mind.
The great pastures of the Méara-valley, saturated with the blood of their precious horses. His last eye-contact with his best friend Èothain, just before the deadly bolt had found him. How the Uruks had thrown his marshal's bloodied, broken cuirass in his path the next day and laughed at the sight of his anguish. There was so much. But nothing like the memory of those people at Isendras, how they stood in the way of Grima's army with their pitchforks and clubs, and only few with bows, spears or swords; behind them the raging fire. They knew that it meant their death if they didn't let that army pass, and yet their outrage at his treatment had swept all considerations for their own safety aside. The Uruk-hai had slaughtered them, and while they had bought him this precious chance, he had attempted to flee.
Burning shame accompanied that memory whenever his mind swept up the images. Dozens had died brutally, so that he could escape. Heat was flushing his face even now at the thought. Sending others to their death to save one's own hide was the ultimate act of cowardice, and had he been in his right mind then, he would sooner have died in the most horrible way than living with the knowledge that his life had been bought with those of his people.
"Éomer?" Lothíriel's voice woke him from his dark thoughts. He turned his head, aware by her tone that she had said something to him before.
"You were not listening to me, were you?"
"I am sorry, Lothíriel. I was just…."
"You do not need to apologise, leofa. I understand how difficult this is for you. And I cannot begin to tell you how honoured I feel that you finally trust me enough to tell me." Her hand, which was tightly entwined with his, gently squeezed his fingers in affirmation, her expression through all the compassion and sorrow she felt at his recollection encouraging. With a sigh, she leaned back against the bench. "Through the messenger and through your letter, I knew of course about your captivity, but only now can I begin to fully comprehend what you went through last fall. How horrible it must have been. Yet I wonder…." She interrupted herself, suddenly not sure whether she should continue. He furrowed his brow.
"Please, do not take this the wrong way, Éomer. But I can't help wondering… what you have just told me sounds horrible. Horrible enough to give any man nightmares. Yet you must have seen so many horrible things in your life… so much death, and destruction, and blood… and yet it was only now that you broke. Was it the mass of things? Or… I don't know, the way my father described the battles for Minas Tirith and at the Black Gate to me, it sounded like something that would have given me nightmares for all eternity, and yet apparently, those were not a problem for you. But now—"
"Oh, they did give me nightmares," Éomer confessed. Now that he had begun to open up to her, talking about such things was suddenly easier. "I do not know how often I saw Éowyn lifelessly strewn on the battlefield, or how that demon dropped from the sky to kill my uncle. But those dreams faded. Seeing Éowyn alive and truly happy for the first time since our parents died healed us both, I suppose. I cannot thank your cousin enough for this gift. As for Théoden-King… even if his end was violent, it was an honourable death... a warrior's death. It was what every man of the Mark would wish for himself even if dying in one's bed at home might be easier."
"And you would be no exception, of course," Lothíriel said with the faintest hint of a smile. "You also would rather be eaten by a dragon than simply not wake up from your sleep, I presume."
Éomer knitted his eyebrows. Was that even a question?
"Of course! Would it be different in Gondor? I believe not."
Lothiriel nodded, satisfied that the picture of her husband that she had in her mind was becoming clearer and clearer... and at the same time, she felt her respect and affirmation for their union grow. Her father had been right to give her to this man of such strong principles.
"Then tell me one thing, my mighty warrior-king: If the battles against the Dark Lord faded away, what is it that gives you no rest about your own captivity?"
Staring at her, Éomer considered her question. The answer, once he thought it through, was astonishingly simple.
"That others suffered because of me. They lost everything – their home, their limbs or even their lives, because I let myself be fooled by our enemy."
"They died to protect their king. But wasn't that, too, a worthy cause? Would not you have been content to die in protection of your ruler, as well, before you became king yourself, Éomer? If death in battle for a noble cause is what every warrior wishes for himself, why should not the same hold true for the simple people? Do they not have the right to choose what they die for?"
"But it is not right!" Éomer argued, and he jumped to his feet, too restless to remain seated. For a moment, he stared at the waters below, before he turned around to face his wife. "They should not have been the ones to bear the brunt of Wormtongue's fury, when his business was with me."
"No, I agree." Lothiriel did not shrink from his angry gaze. Slowly but firmly, she shook her head. "But this was your foe's doing, not yours. And you punished him for it. You avenged your people, my Lord. If there ever was a debt to be paid to your people – which I'm sure they see differently – you already paid it by killing the man who made them suffer. I am sure those people who died defending you are looking down on you from wherever they are with a glad heart. Could there be a better cause to give one's life for than the rescue of one's king? You protected those people for so many years as a rider and marshal; could it not be, in fact, that by protecting you, they were paying their debt to you?"
Her words left Éomer speechless for a moment. Where in Eorl's name had that young woman gathered such wisdom over the finer aspects of warfare? As a protected princess at a Gondorian court, how could Lothiriel know what violence and fear did to the human mind, and how the thought of retaining one's honour made it all bearable? He gave her a little appreciative nod.
"The simple folk already pay their debt by feeding our people. It is not their business to take up arms against an enemy; that is what the oath between the Armed Forces and them is about. They do their share for the good of the Mark, which is the hard work on the fields; the riders' responsibility is to protect them."
"And yet it would appear to me that the two cannot always be separated, my Lord." Lothiriel inclined her head. "Sometimes, those who provide protection need protection themselves. It is nothing to be ashamed of."
A long pause ensued, neither of the couple knowing where to go from here. And yet it felt good to finally be able to speak about such delicate things, and somehow it seemed to Éomer as if at last, a burden was being lifted from his soul.
"It appears to me that I should apologise to you, Lothiriel," he quietly continued, his gaze on the waterfall before he turned his head to look his young wife deep in the eye. His words were accompanied by a smile, but it was a sad smile. "All I wanted was to protect you from the ugliness of war, when you already know so much about it."
Lothiriel rose to her feet, and the expression on her face was one of relief? Was the crisis over then? After months of silence and anguish, was this the breakthrough they had needed? With a warm smile, she took the step that separated her from her husband and embraced, then kissed him, before she rested her head against his good shoulder. How good this felt!
"There was no way you could have known, Éomer, and I do realise that other daughters of noble houses may not have shared my experiences. Please, let us end our quarrel, and let me help you. Do not become the third man I lose, for I could not take it." She bit her tongue, but the damage had already been done, for she could felt him recoil from her embrace. "I am sorry. I did not mean to-"
He looked thunderstruck as he stood before her, hand working by his sides in sudden anxiety without their owner being aware of it.
"What do you mean, 'the third man' you lose? Were you married before?"
Now it was she who could not stand his inquisitive gaze. Hastily, Lothiriel turned away from him and laid her arms onto the stone embrasure, while she stared at the sparkling water below. Oh why had she said that? How was she supposed to make him understand?
"Lothíriel? Answer me!"
She felt his proximity, but didn't dare turn around. The words seemed too big for her throat to utter them aloud, and when she finally managed to squeeze them through, what reached her ears did not sound like her voice at all.
"I was betrothed twice before. But not married. Both men left me before anything could have happened." Gathering all her courage, she looked over her shoulder. Éomer looked devastated. "I am sorry, Éomer. I should have told you, but I thought that it was of no importance. Years have passed since then, and I haven't been with any other man afterwards. I was also untouched before I married you, so why should it matter? Have you not been with anyone before me? Am I truly your first woman, if not your first love?"
He was stunned.
"You should know by now that I love you, Lothíriel. If nothing else, you should know this much at least."
"But you did not love me enough to trust me with your feelings."
"I loved you so much that I did not want to burden you. But you not telling me about this-"
"But I want to be burdened!" she shouted, no longer caring whether anyone heard them. "I want to be able to understand you; I want to be able to lift those sorrows off your soul; I want you to trust me, Éomer! Is that so hard to understand?" She all but screamed at him, no longer worrying what their hosts would think if they overheard their quarrel.
Now her husband turned away brusquely, and Lothíriel silently cursed the man's stubbornness.
With a deep breath, Éomer forced himself to ask: "What happened? Why did these men not marry you? You want me to trust you, then you should tell me the truth, as well."
A shadow travelled over Lothíriel's face. He was right. It was only fair that she told her husband the truth about her past, even if recounting the dreadful events would rip open the poorly healed wound in her heart again. She began anyway, her voice sounding thick and raspy with remembrance.
"My first betrothed fell in battle. He was a young Gondorian nobleman, and I was very much in love with him. I was sixteen, and our wedding was supposed to take place after his return." She inhaled deeply, and her expression hardened. "But he didnot return. He died defending Anfalas from the corsairs, along with many others. It was a massacre, and our foes penetrated far into the land before they could be stopped at last. His body was never found, but Erchirion saw him fall. As future brothers-in-law, they were fighting side by side when it happened. They were holding the city gates when the corsair reinforcements arrived and swept through their defences. After the battle, Erchirion tried to find him and bring home his body, but the battle had raged so severely, there was nothing left for him to take home."
She fell silent, even though Éomer had done nothing to interrupt her. The years had dulled the pain of the memories, but they were still there. Only vaguely did she feel her husband's gaze on herself while she struggled to tell him more. "The other man I loved… he truly left me. He was a prince of a southern Gondorian providence, twelve summers older than I. He was handsome and charming, every inch a lady's man. He had the whole court enamoured to him. My father would have gladly granted him my hand, and I felt fortunate to have been chosen by him… but as it turned out, he had not chosen me at all, because he never returned from one of his travels."
"Another battle?" Éomer's former harsh tone had softened, but Lothiriel barely noticed.
"No," she said flatly, only barely succeeding in holding back the flood of emotions which threatened to overcome her at the thought. "Another woman. He married someone else, only months after our betrothal. We only found out when one of our captains saw them together in Anfalas." With betrayal in her eyes, she stared at Éomer, who was at a loss for words. "I do not know whether you are familiar with that feeling yourself, Éomer, but if you are not, trust me, you do not ever want to feel this way. It was like an arrow through my heart. I thought I could never love again."
He knew that his question was of the utmost insensitivity, but he had to know.
"And then you married me. Why, Lothíriel? Surely it can't have been for love." He had avoided this discussion for months, but everything seemed to be called into question tonight. Where would they stand with the first light of the morning? "Was it…." He did not have to say it aloud, and yet she understood.
"The fear of being left behind while all my friends were wedded off at an earlier age? The fear of being looked down upon by others? Of growing too old for any man to want me? I do not know, Éomer. I think it could have been one of these reasons. Or-"
His expression hardened again.
"I am not certain I want to hear the others."
The slightest hint of a smile played around the corners of her mouth.
"But I believe that you should. How could I love you, when I didn't know you, Éomer? Of course I was afraid to take that gamble. But in the end, I decided to trust my father. He would have never allowed for me to be married to a man who would make me unhappy. After that last failure, he didn't pressure me. He allowed me to take my time, and when I could not find it in me to look for another suitable husband, he claimed that task for himself. When he returned from the Great Battle of Minas Tirith, he told me of a brave young man whom he had come to know. That man had become the king of a fierce people in that fight, he told me. Against impossible odds, they had selflessly charged against the enemy to rescue an ally who had all but forgotten about them, knowing that they were riding to almost certain death. Yet victory was theirs, but at a great price. And my father saw that fearsome warrior-king, who had sent his enemies running with a mere look, break down on the battlefield to cradle his sister whom he believed dead in his arms, crying to the heavens. And he saw him sit by her side despite his own fatigue until she had been rescued from the shadow. He saw him taking care of his fallen uncle in a respectful and solemn manner, and he saw the respect and love of the foreign soldiers for this man, and he heard the words King Elessar had to say about him. At last, he spoke with him himself. And he told me that he had found a man for me who was both powerful and respected by his men and allies, and feared by his foes, and at the same time, capable of great love and compassion for those of his kin and under his care. He knew that this man would never disappoint me… if he agreed to his proposal. My father knows people, Éomer… and I trusted in his verdict." Lothíriel fell silent, and for the longest moment, the King and Queen of Rohan just gazed at each other as if they were seeing the other for the very first time.
Thunderstruck by Lothíriel's words, Éomer felt for a moment that he could not speak. All this Imrahil had seen in those dark days in Minas Tirith? They had depended on each other in battle, but not for a moment had Èomer been thinking of possible implications to his actions. How could it be that this perceptive man had such a high opinion of him, who always deemed himself unrefined and rustic in the presence of Gondorian noblemen? An opinion high enough that he would even trust him with the happiness of his daughter?
Inhaling deeply, he tried to focus on the task at hand. Lothíriel had been utterly sincere in her answer to him, and she deserved to be treated with the same honesty.
"When your father first made that suggestion…" he inhaled deeply, knowing how unflattering his words would sound. "… I was taken aback." He studied his wife's expression, yet could not read anything out of it. If Lothíriel felt insulted, she was hiding it well. "Do not misunderstand me; it had nothing to do with you. It is a foreign idea to a Rohir to marry a person one has never met, solely for political implications. We are a simple people; we do not like complicated things. The nobles marry the nobles, and the ordinary folk remain among themselves, but apart from that, there are no further considerations."
"I understand. And I can see how the Gondorian way of arranged marriages can seem strange to someone from a different culture. But I like the Rohirric way. It sounds more romantic."
He lifted an eyebrow.
"I do not know about that, but it is the only way I know, and the only acceptable way, too."
"And yet you agreed to marry me. Why, Éomer? Because you felt a duty to my father and did not want to insult him?"
What he had to say was hard to tell. He not even fully comprehended his decision himself, so how was he supposed to make her understand? There had not been a fervent counsellor pushing him to that decision. Yet why had he agreed to the greatest gamble in his life? The truth, he realised, would not be flattering to Lothíriel, but she had a right to know.
"This may also have played a part in it, aye, but rest assured that I would not have agreed had I not felt that I could trust your father's intuition. The main reason, however…" he inhaled and shook his head helplessly. "I am sorry, I do not know how to say this..."
"You were afraid of being alone after your sister left for Ithilien."
Lothíriel's guess pierced his heart, although her voice had not sounded bitter. How could she know this? Éomer did not know what to answer. He could hardly deny the truth. Yet to his surprise, his wife smiled as she stepped up to him once more, her gaze dreamily on the water as if she remembered something.
"Please, do not take this the wrong way. I did not know you then."
"I am not insulted, Éomer, and I do not blame you. As you might remember, I spent quite some time with your sister before she left. She often told me how hesitant she was about leaving you behind. She told me how close the two of you were, and that the separation would be painful for the both of you. She needn't have told me, for I already knew that from the way you were treating each other. I know that she is the only family left to you, and losing someone so dear must leave a hole in one's soul. You were looking for someone to fill that hole, and when my father made his proposal, you were ready for it." Her gaze pinned him, and in her eyes, confidence in her observation was written. She knew that her words were the truth. "So if you chose me out of desperation, my lord, I will expect from you in the future that you confide in me when you are being desperate." She raised her delicate chin.
Éomer could not help but smile as he took her hands and gently kissed them. Béma, what a woman he had wedded!
"My beautiful Gondorian flower. At first sight, she would appear to be such a fragile flower, and yet her stem seems to be made of steel. I truly apologise, Lothiriel. I grew up with a strong sister, and yet I failed to recognise the same strength in my wife. Truly your father knew exactly what he was doing when he suggested our union."
There was a sparkle of joy and pride in Lothiriel's eyes as she rose to the tips of her feet to throw her arms around her husband and kiss him.
"My father always knows what he is doing. So, let us now make a treaty, my lord," she said with a smile, but her tone left no question that she meant those words. "A treaty between the King and the Queen of the Mark."
Éomer's smile widened with expectation.
"Stating what exactly?"
"That from this day on, there will be no more secrets among us. That from this day on, we will tell each other only the truth, no matter in what regard, be it affairs of the state or our emotions. The King of Rohan will trust in his queen and consult with her so that she is granted the opportunity to speak her mind in these affairs, and in return, the King shall be granted the same right. What say you?" Lothiriel leaned back as far as Éomer's arms would allow her to examine her husband's expression, for a moment afraid that her proposal would anger him. She needn't have worried.
"It sounds like a fair arrangement to my ears," Éomer admitted. "And I vow to honour it as long as I live."
"I do." How happy she looked! Gently, he brushed a strand of her raven-black hair out of her face.
"And I will honour it, as well."
From the corner of his eye, Éomer beheld the silent figure further behind on the terrace that was watching them. Lord Elrond was satisfied with himself, no doubt. And why shouldn't he be? Reconciling a descendant of Eorl's bloodline with his wife against the legendary stubbornness of the men of the Mark was a deed few could hope to achieve, and Éomer felt an enormous wave of gratitude toward his host. Surely now, everything would take a turn for the better.
To confirm his victory to Elrond, the King of the Mark looked deeply into his queen's eyes as he crushed her against his chest. "Then let us seal this treaty as it should be sealed!"
The kiss that followed stole their breath...