Prologue: Of Kings and Queens
3019. This year died Théoden, King of the Mark, who was the son of King Thengel and the last of his line. On the Fields of the Pelennor he named his sister-son Éomer his heir and hailed him King of the Eorlingas.
(The Chronicle of the Riddermark)
Edoras, August of Third Age 3019.
There were no rats in the dungeons of Meduseld. Indeed there were no proper dungeons in Meduseld at all, just a small guardhouse set a little apart halfway down the hill from the Golden Hall. All it boasted were a couple of rooms where prisoners could be kept and when there were none of those, as now, it just stood empty. Justice in the Mark was swift and whatever malefactors were caught, were not kept up locked for long.
Éomer regarded the bare little room that had served as his cell a mere five months ago. The pale moonlight streaming through the small window high up one wall let him pick out its sparse furnishings. Not that he needed any light anyway, for he knew intimately every last unevenness of the earthen floor, having paced the length of his cell innumerable times. He took a step into the room and reached out a hand to touch the wall. It was rough and cold under his fingers.
His guards had been deeply uneasy at having to keep him prisoner and had apologized profusely for the thin straw pallet on the floor and the meagre rations. Éomer could probably have talked them into letting him escape, but something had told him to stay and bide his time. He had been proven right by events eventually, but those had been dark and desperate times.
When he had been released, he had expected to lay down his life for his king in one of the many battles to come. It was ironic that instead he had survived the war without a scratch and the mantle of kingship had passed to him.
Behind him the door creaked and he spun round, his reflexes honed by years of living with the constant threat of having an assassin's knife planted in his back. He relaxed again almost immediately, though, when he recognized his sister's slender figure. She was holding an oil lamp aloft and peered at him worriedly.
"Éomer?" she asked. "Éothain said you had come this way. What are you doing here?"
He shrugged. "Just thinking."
Behind her, he could make out Faramir, his black hair blending into the shadows, and he exchanged a curt nod of acknowledgement with the Prince of Ithilien.
"So what were you thinking about?" Éowyn enquired, not one to give up easily.
He spread his hands. "The past and the future."
When Éowyn kept on frowning at him, he elaborated. "Less than half a year ago I was a prisoner here and now I am King of the Mark."
Faramir's eyes widened at this revelation, but apart from surveying the room with renewed interest, he showed no other reaction. Éomer wondered idly if there were rats in the dungeons of Minas Tirith. Then he noticed the worry in his sister's eyes and felt remorse sweep through him. They had buried their uncle today, yet this was also supposed to be a happy day for Éowyn, with her betrothal to Faramir formally announced.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I dwell on the past too much."
Especially when he had no way to change it. Resolutely he turned his back on the room and motioned to the door.
"Let's go somewhere else and talk about the future. Your future," he said, smiling down at Éowyn.
She smiled back gratefully and together they made their way out of the silent guardhouse. Outside he paused for a moment, surveying the houses spread out below them. There was hardly any breeze and he could feel the stones under his thin-soled shoes radiating the heat they had stored during the day. Over the mountains to the south there were a few clouds, but overhead the stars sparkled like a wealth of diamonds scattered across the sky by a careless child.
The distant sounds of revelry carried on the tepid night air, singing and music, and the narrow streets of Edoras were alight with torches. Automatically he checked for any fires that were too close to the thatched roofs of houses, but all was well. Anyway, there were wooden butts filled with water placed at every crossroad in case of fire - in the past they had also come in useful for cooling tempers if a fight erupted.
However, tonight all was peaceful and after a last glance around he led the way further up the hill towards the Golden Hall. It too was ablaze with lights, and Éomer knew that inside was assembled a company the like of which had never been seen since the days it had been built by Brego, son of Eorl. Nevertheless he hesitated at the bottom of the last flight of stairs, and then turned left along a narrow path that led to the kitchen building.
It had been busy with the preparation of food earlier on, but now lay quiet, the servants having joined the celebrations below. Ale and beer would be flowing freely in Meduseld tonight, but the big casks had been brought up some days ago and had been placed right in the hall.
Outside the kitchen was a large trestle table, and Éomer and Faramir sat down at one end while Éowyn went inside. She reappeared a short time later with three cups filled with wine, which she placed on the rough wooden boards. By habit Éomer had taken a seat on the bench facing the view, with the wall behind him. He met his sister's eyes and saw reflected there the shared memory of the many times they had sat here with their cousin. Never again, though, for Théodred had fallen at the Fords of the Isen, defending his people against the armies of Saruman.
Éomer lifted his pewter cup, and noticed it was the one with the dent from when Théodred had thrown it on the floor in a fit of disgust at one of Gríma Wormtongue's machinations. A sudden jolt of rage ran though him. Over half a year ago, yet somehow the memory never got any easier to bear.
"To absent friends," he said and drank deeply.
There was a brief flash of grief across Faramir's face as he echoed his words and Éomer reminded himself that he was not the only one to lose loved ones in the war. The wine was so dark it was almost black and Faramir lifted his eyebrows in surprise.
"Where did you get this vintage?" he asked Éowyn. "Surely this is finest Moragar from Dol Amroth."
"It's one of the wines Prince Imrahil brought with him," Éowyn explained. "I thought it fitting for the occasion."
"Well, it's not every day you bury a king," Éomer remarked, "at least I hope so."
Then he intercepted an annoyed look by his sister and chided himself for brooding once more.
"I'm sorry," he apologized. "Let's talk of happier things."
Éowyn had settled down next to Faramir and now nestled closer to him. With a slightly wary glance towards him, Faramir put his arm around her waist and Éomer had to suppress a grin. Was the man afraid he would take exception to how he treated his sister? They were in the Riddermark and it was entirely up to Éowyn how many liberties she granted her betrothed.
Slightly cheered, he swirled the wine round in his cup and took another sip of the rich, red liquid.
"I know it's early, " he said, "but have you thought of a date and place for your wedding yet?"
The two exchanged a look, and Éomer was unsurprised when Faramir nodded.
"As a matter of fact we have," the Prince of Ithilien answered. "We were thinking of Emyn Arnen in spring."
"Spring?" Éomer asked. "Not before? You are aware of the fact that the Rohirrim do not insist on the lengthy betrothal period customary in Gondor?"
"I know," Faramir said, "and I wish we could get married sooner."
He took one of Éowyn's hands in his own. "But I have no home to offer to my lady. The house in Emyn Arnen was burnt down by orcs, and it will take several months to rebuild."
"Besides which," Éowyn put in, "I am not going to leave you to cope with the coming winter all on your own."
Éomer could not help but feel grateful for this news. He had not looked forward to long winter evenings in Meduseld, spent all on his own except for the company of his riders. Nevertheless he did not want to stand in the way of his sister's happiness.
"I can manage," he protested. "You do not have to delay your wedding for my sake."
Éowyn shook her head, the stubborn expression that he knew of old on her face.
"Spring it is. We can wait."
"Barely," Faramir threw in and the two exchanged a grin.
"Well, I can't deny that I'll be grateful for your help," Éomer admitted. "I have to own that being a king is more work than I anticipated."
"Considering that with your travelling all over the Riddermark, you've not really spent any time here in Edoras, that's hardly surprising," Éowyn pointed out.
"I had to see for myself what damage we sustained," he explained.
Faramir leaned forward with concern. "Is it very bad?" he asked.
Éomer nodded grimly. "Most of the wheat fields in the West Mark were burnt down or trampled by orcs. Come harvest time we will see how much we can salvage."
The traitor Saruman had of course known that this was their most fertile country, supplying much of the rest of the Mark with grain. Éomer did not relish the thought of having to beg Aragorn for aid to survive the winter, although he knew that the King of Gondor would be more than willing to help. Still, it might not come to that.
"We defeated Saruman against all the odds, we will manage somehow," he vowed.
Faramir looked down at his wine guiltily. "I didn't realize it was that bad," he said. "I'm sorry to come here and further diminish your meagre supplies."
Éomer shook his head. "Don't feel guilty. After all the hardships we have endured, my people can do with something to celebrate."
Besides, the Gondorians had brought a lot of supplies with them. Éomer suspected that Aragorn had a pretty good idea of how things stood in the Mark. He smiled at his sister.
"The Eorlingas are well pleased to see their White Lady find a husband so much to her liking, even if it means her moving away."
Éowyn blushed. "That might be so. But they would be even more pleased to have their king find a wife."
He sighed. They had covered this ground more than once in the past months.
"I know," he said, "and I will do my duty."
"Your duty?" she leaned forward. "Éomer, in your travels over the Riddermark haven't you met anybody you could give your heart to?"
"You know it's not that easy," he frowned. "There are the political considerations to take into account as well."
"What political considerations?" asked Faramir, and Éowyn made an impatient gesture.
"The last queen hailed from the West Mark, so the people of the East Mark insist the next one should be one of them. On the other hand our father's family comes from there, so that isn't entirely fair either."
"But," she insisted, "we all know, should Éomer make up his mind as to whom to marry, nobody will gainsay him."
"That might well be so," he conceded, "but the point is that I haven't made up my mind. Anyway, I've recently come to the conclusion it is better to marry a Gondorian."
"A Gondorian?" his sister straightened up. "Éomer, did you meet someone in Minas Tirith during the war?"
"How could I? The women were all sent to safety," he explained patiently.
"From what I've heard, they all came back well in time for the celebrations in Cormallen," his sister retorted acidly and beside her Faramir gave a snort of amusement.
Éomer shrugged. "I was simply too busy organizing our journey back to notice much."
Éowyn looked disappointed. "So you do not have any particular lady in mind?"
"None at all," he shook his head. "I just think that we need closer ties to Gondor in the future, to strengthen our alliance. Besides," he added with a grin, "I like black hair."
Éowyn ignored that last sally. "Closer ties with Gondor!" she exclaimed. "Is that all you can think of?"
"What else should I think of?" he snapped back, only to feel sorry at once for his spark of temper. He knew his sister meant well and worried about him.
Anyway, Éowyn was unimpressed by his outburst. "Perhaps your heart," she replied tartly. "After all, here we are talking about the woman that you are going to spend the rest of your life with."
She cast a look of appeal for help at her betrothed, but Faramir hesitated.
"Your brother is King of Rohan now, Éowyn," he said, "and he does have to marry for reasons of state. But that does not necessarily mean an unhappy marriage."
Éowyn looked unconvinced. Éomer knew she was still stubbornly hoping for him to make the same kind of love match as herself, unlikely though that was.
Faramir took another appreciative sip of wine. "What kind of qualities are you looking for in your queen exactly?" he asked.
"Besides black hair, that is," Éowyn grumbled.
Éomer frowned. "I have given the matter some thought," he explained, "for I want a queen worthy of my country, someone who understands the duties and burdens of being a ruler."
He could see Éowyn rolling her eyes in exasperation, but ploughed on determinedly. "She should be able to run Meduseld smoothly, be dignified yet diplomatic, and have the necessary firmness to rule in my stead when I'm away: a gracious hostess and always courteous in her dealings with my people."
His mental vision of a tall and regal figure was interrupted rudely by a disgusted snort of Éowyn's. "And I suppose this flower of Gondorian womanhood should be beautiful, graceful and versed in all the womanly arts as well?"
Éomer could feel irritation rising again. "Well and what's wrong with that?" he asked. "I need a queen and mother for my heir, so why not select a suitably brought up Gondorian lady?"
"Oh, Éomer!" Éowyn exclaimed. "That sounds so cold-blooded and mercenary, it's utterly unlike you."
Éomer felt a wave of sadness pour through him. "I am king now, whether I want it or not," he pointed out. "I have to put the good of the Riddermark first. Anyway, I'm nearly thirty and I simply cannot afford to sit around another ten years, waiting for the woman of my dreams to show up."
Éowyn looked distressed. "I know," she conceded. "But I'm warning you," she added, "if this paragon is even expert at sewing, I won't attend your wedding."
Beside her, Faramir gave a laugh. "I'm afraid all the Gondorian ladies are expert at that," he said apologetically and Éowyn looked thoroughly disgusted. Her embroidery samplers were legendary. Éomer wondered what Gondor's court ladies, who never wielded anything sharper than a needle, would make of the slayer of the Witch King.
Faramir turned his cup round in his hands thoughtfully. "Have you spoken to my uncle about your plans?" he asked Éomer.
"As a matter of fact, I have spoken to Imrahil," Éomer nodded, "but I was rather puzzled by his reaction."
"In what way?" asked the other man.
Éomer thought back to his conversation with the Prince of Dol Amroth. "Well, I remembered he had once mentioned having a daughter, and I asked if she was of marriageable age. After all, she might well be a suitable candidate for an alliance, but he seemed rather put out by my question."
"Oh, you mean Lothíriel," Faramir said, as if that explained everything. "No, what I wanted to say was that he knows the court well and might be able to advise you."
Éowyn, who had sat brooding over her wine, looked up at that. "What's wrong with the Princess of Dol Amroth?" she asked. "Surely she's very well connected?"
Faramir hesitated. "That's true, of course, none better, but…What did my uncle tell you?" he asked.
"Only that she never leaves Dol Amroth," Éomer replied, his own curiosity stirring.
Faramir stared down at his wine. "That's quite true, although I suppose she could do so now. Imrahil is very protective of her."
"Why?" Éowyn asked, but Faramir shook his head.
"It's for her own good, but that is not for me to tell," her betrothed replied firmly. "However, she would certainly not make a suitable queen for your brother."
"Why not?" Éowyn insisted and Éomer privately wondered if the princess was ugly and deformed, or mentally deranged.
"Lothíriel is a sweet girl, but she is rather…unusual. Let's just say that she's not what your brother is looking for. If you ever meet her, you will understand."
"Well, I'm hardly likely to, if she never leaves Dol Amroth," Éowyn pointed out acerbically and Faramir could only shrug for a reply. She gave him a searching look and Éomer rather suspected that she would worm the truth out of her betrothed eventually. There wasn't much that could stop his sister, once her curiosity was aroused. For himself, Éomer had rather lost interest in the subject. After all it was none of his business how Imrahil ordered the affairs of his family. He had more pressing concerns.
"I will talk to Imrahil again and ask him his opinion," he nodded at Faramir. "Anyway, I'm sure all the suitable ladies will be in attendance when you get married in spring."
"And all the unsuitable ones," he heard Éowyn mutter under her breath, but aloud she only said, "Just make sure it's someone who would be comfortable sitting here and sharing a cup of Moragar wine with us."
Éomer let his hands rest for a moment on the rough wooden boards of their makeshift table. Somehow he couldn't quite picture the kind of woman he was considering as a queen sitting here outside the lowly kitchen, drinking from an old dented cup. Even if was the finest wine Gondor had to offer. He felt a slight shiver of unease, but dismissed it as fanciful. He was king now; he just had to accept that his life had changed irrevocably. There was no use in looking back at the past in regret all the time.
To the west, the moon was setting behind the gathering clouds. They had started to pile up above the mountains, threatening rain, but by the time the first fat drops started to fall on Edoras the celebration was over. By then the King of Rohan had long ago sought the comfort of his lonely bed. But later, the sound of rivulets of rain running off the eves of Meduseld woke him from his dreams, and it was a long time before sleep claimed him again.
A/N: So here we go again! Many thanks to Lady Bluejay and Willow-41z for their comments and looking through this for me.