Several days later, Lisswyn sat in a small room off her and Eomer's chamber, staring at the parchment in front of her, mildly horrified. "You mean the letters change, and look different sometimes?"
Ceolwyn's lips twitched, and Lisswyn scowled at her. Eomer was in the stables with Hereward while Eowyn was in the caves with Gimli, Brynwyn and Jocosa. With Hengest and Denulf napping, Lisswyn had asked Ceolwyn to begin showing her the basics of writing the letters of the alphabet.
"My apologies," Ceolwyn said in response to the scowl, humor still visible in her eyes. "I'm not laughing at you, but rather remembering my similar response when I first encountered letters. They actually only change in specific circumstances, such as the beginning of a sentence, and are helpful in that respect."
"But that means there are twice as many to learn!"
"Yes, but you can do it." She pointed to the parchment, where she'd written out both versions of the letters.
Lisswyn took the quill, and on a different parchment, began to copy the letters.
A light knock at the door interrupted her. "Come," she said.
Eothain came in, shut the door behind him. "Ceolwyn told me you were hoping to start working on learning your letters today, and I thought I'd offer my assistance, as I'm not needed elsewhere."
There was a discouraged note to his voice, and Lisswyn understood why. He and Eomer still hadn't spoken, and Ceolwyn had told her that Eothain felt it wisest to stay out of Eomer's way until they did. But that the rift in their relationship was taking a toll was obvious in the weariness visible in the other man's eyes, and Lisswyn suppressed a sigh, wondering again if there was something else she could be doing. Eomer was unhappy as well, though he was making every effort to hide it.
"Certainly," she said in response to his implied question. "Ceolwyn has just been explaining that the letters change their appearance when it suits them. Deceitful little things they are."
As intended, he grinned in response to her tone, then came over and settled in a chair next to her, began looking at the letters she'd been copying onto the parchment. "These are very well done," he murmured. "You have a neat hand." Then he paused, reached out to touch one of the dried characters. "Have you seen much of Eomer's writing?"
"No, not really. Why?"
"He makes his E in the same way, with that little curl at the end." He pushed the parchment away, stared off into space. "We learned our letters together," he murmured. "And he did not start out the best pupil. He hated being away from the horses, resented time spent learning to read and write rather than ride and fight. It was finally Breghelm, I believe, who pointed out that if he'd devote the same amount of time to learning his letters as he did complaining about it, he'd have it over and done with. To our tutors' relief, Eomer then learned more quickly than all the rest of us put together."
Lisswyn could not help but grin at the thought of Eomer as a stubborn young boy. Then the smile faded as she watched Eothain stand, move restlessly around the room. It was clear his thoughts were in the past, and again she struggled to find the words to help.
"Was it so wrong of me to want him safe?" he blurted out, turning to stare at her.
Ah. Here it was. "Of course not." She measured her words carefully, kept her tone utterly neutral. "But was a race with his sister so dangerous?"
He scowled. "Anyone could have been out there. The plains are deceptive, with hidden depressions in the ground, small hills to hide behind."
Lisswyn looked at him steadily.
"It could have been dangerous," he insisted. "You think there are brigands who would not hesitate to try and take the king for ransom?"
"Then more fools are they not to realize how fast and final the penalty would be," she said almost absently, her mind focused on how to make him understand. "But there are dangers other than to his body."
"What do you mean?"
"The danger to his heart if he thinks he is never again to be allowed to ride across the plains simply for the joy of it." He gave her a sharp look, but before he could speak, she continued. "He knows there is more at stake than just him, Eothain. He knows that to risk himself unnecessarily is also to risk you, all your men, and indeed, the Riddermark. You are not the only one who still has nightmares of the orc attack last fall," she said more gently. "Yours are of being separated from him, watching him fall to the arrow, the memory of feeling you'd failed both him and the Mark. His are of seeing some of your men – such as Hereward's son – killed, and then assuming all of you – including you, the brother of his childhood – were dead on his account."
He opened his mouth, shut it with a snap.
"Both of you are going to pay for that day in dreams for the rest of your lives. But how much higher must the cost be? Must he spend all the rest of his life locked in Meduseld because of Hunlaf's orcs?" She thought of Maegwen and finished on a bitter note, "Have they not already stolen much from us? Must they take all pleasure out of the rest of his life?"
There was long silence, and when he spoke again, there was uncertainty and confusion in his voice. "He is not as free as other men."
"No. And he knows that. Duty alone will keep him in Meduseld much of the time. And beyond knowing that to risk himself is to risk the Mark, he would never want to do anything that would place you or the rest of his guard in danger. But…" she hesitated, wondered if she was going to offend him.
"If perhaps the two of you could work together to determine what is truly dangerous, and what acceptable risks might be…you might both be happier."
"There may come a time when we disagree, when I think something is too dangerous."
"Yes. But if you've established a pattern where he knows you won't limit him needlessly, he'll question you less – particularly if you explain why you think it's unwise."
He said nothing, stared hard at the floor, frowning. Then he looked up, and regret, even shame, was in his eyes. "I called him irresponsible, a fool."
Without a word, he turned and walked out, and remembering the baffled hurt in Eomer's voice, Lisswyn could only hope he was on his way to put things right.
It took Eothain some time to locate Eomer and Hereward, as they'd moved from the stables to where the base of the wall was being repaired. He didn't mind, as it gave him a chance to think over the queen's words. Wise words, at that. When had he stopped seeing his friend, started seeing nothing but the king when he looked at Eomer? Why had he not realized how Eomer had suffered over the events of last fall, of knowing that men had died trying to protect him?
Because he'd been unable to see past his own memories of that day. And they'd both suffered for that.
He hesitated a short distance from where Eomer and Hereward had their backs to him, examining the stones that were being used to rebuild the wall. What to say? How to say it?
Eomer finally turned, saw him, and his eyes went cool. Eothain met his gaze, simply waited. After a moment, Eomer turned, spoke quietly to Hereward. The other man nodded, then turned, headed away from them to check the rest of the wall. Without looking to see if Eothain was following, Eomer jerked his shoulder that he should follow, then started up the steps that would lead them to the lookout over the deep.
Would give them a chance at privacy.
When he got to the top, he found Eomer resting his elbows against the wall, staring out over top of it, as if he neither knew nor cared whether Eothain had followed him.
Silence grew between them, stretched. "You are neither irresponsible nor a fool."
Eomer looked at him, a wary look on his face. "Oh?"
"No. But at least one of those terms applies to the captain of your guard – if he indeed still holds that position."
"When did you come to this conclusion?" The words were casually, almost off-handedly said, but his eyes were now sharp, hard. And only a man who'd known him all his life would have seen what was behind that look. Apprehension. Hurt. Betrayal. Knowledge that he'd caused it made him nearly ill.
"When your lady wife drove home some uncomfortable truths in her usual kind manner."
Wordlessly, Eomer turned, stared back over the wall.
"I never thought you irresponsible, nor a fool. Never. She did not have to help me see that. When I spoke thusly to you, it was due to my own fear, my own memories of the day of the orc attack. Rather, the queen merely pointed out something I should have seen for myself, understood on my own – and would have, if I hadn't been so trapped by my own memories of that day."
"And what is that?' He didn't turn.
"What it would be like to be you. To have watched men fall that day. Eomer, I'm sorry."
At that, Eomer finally did turn, looked at him again. "I cannot be the king my uncle was, or the one my cousin would have been, Eothain," he said quietly. "I want you beside me, as a friend, as an advisor, and helping to keep me safe. But I cannot spend my life tethered to Meduseld, would not be an effective king if I tried to do so – not even for you."
The words were mildly spoken, but they stung, because he knew that that was what he'd wanted. He'd wanted Eomer to make choices based on what would be easiest for himself, not what would be best for the Riddermark – or for her king.
"I should not have asked you to do so."
Eomer looked at him, cocked his head. "There may still be times when I disagree with you concerning whether something is safe or not."
He nodded, felt something click back into place. Their friendship. "Then we'll discuss it. One thing, though."
"Will you trust me enough to yield to me on matters concerning your safety about which we disagree?"
His oldest friend stared at him for a long moment, then gave a short nod. "You are the captain of the king's guard," he said firmly. Then he motioned out over the wall, invited Eothain to join him.
Eothain walked over, leaned against it, looked out over the deep, and the plains beyond. Their silence now was companionable, and they stood there together, shoulder to shoulder, for a long while before Eothain finally said, "You chose a fine queen for us."
Eomer gave him a quick, amused grin. "Pulled you in line, did she?"
"Carefully sliced me open before I even saw her knife, and did it so gently I had no idea what was happening."
"I'm rather acquainted with that talent of hers, myself."
"I'll bet you are."
Lisswyn frowned at the parchment. Before taking her sons off to find Jocosa and Brynwyn, Ceolwyn had written some simple words for her to begin copying. She understood the point of writing them over and over, but recognizing whether she was doing it right or not, simply by comparing her attempts with Ceolwyn's, wasn't proving as easy as it seemed it should have been.
There were so many words she'd have to learn. The number was overwhelming – how did you ever get to the point of knowing them all? How many did you have to learn before you could consider yourself able to read?
The door opened, and she started, then stared at Eomer in dismay. It was nearly time for the evening meal – she should have realized he would be looking for her, should have already put the parchment away. Too late now.
"What? Why are you looking at me that way?" The pleased look he'd been wearing when he opened the door had slipped to a frown of confusion.
She forced a smile, wished she'd had time to become a little more proficient before showing him what she learning. "Nothing. I just wasn't expecting you to return so soon." Had Eothain found him? Was that what was behind the smile he'd been wearing?
"What are you doing?" He walked over to where she sat at the desk, stared down at the parchment.
She struggled briefly with how to answer, then looked up, met his gaze. "The queen must be able to read and write."
Understanding registered in his eyes, followed by regret. "I'm sorry, Lisswyn. I should have realized, should have made arrangements for someone to teach you. I just didn't think of it." He reached for one of the parchments, pulled it toward him, examined the letters. "These are very good."
"Some of the letters are easier than others."
"I remember that from when I was learning." He dropped the parchment, turned, and before she quite knew what was happening, had scooped her up, settling back into the chair with her on his lap. "Let's try it this way." He handed her the quill, then placed his hand on top of hers as she first dipped it into the inkwell, tapped the excess off, then placed it on the parchment.
Carefully, he began guiding her through some of the letters she'd been having trouble with, helping her to get in the habit of forming them.
After they'd done that a few times, he helped her to write a word she recognized, indeed had been practicing earlier: E-O-M-E-R. She grinned at him, then turned her attention back to where he was helping her write her own name. In such a way, they practiced a number of other words Ceolwyn had written out for her: horse, foal, sun, him, her, as, also, run.
Then, his hand still on hers, he wrote his name again, followed by a word she didn't know, followed by her name.
Puzzled, she stared at the middle word.
"Sound it out."
With a frown, she did so, then felt something soft shift inside her. Grinning in response, she tugged a new piece of parchment toward her, and pulling her hand away from him, by herself she wrote: 'Lisswyn loves Eomer also."
In answer, he brought his hand up, cupped her cheek and turned her to face him. She dropped the quill, slid her hand behind his neck, and met his lips with her own.
They took their time with the kiss, a slow mingling of breaths, intimacy the goal rather than passion. Then he lifted his head, pressed a kiss against her forehead.
"Did Eothain find you?"
"He did." He tilted her chin up so he could see her. "He says I chose my queen well."
"All I did was remind him of what he would have known himself, had he been able to look beyond the orc attack."
"But that is something neither of us was doing." He brought his hand up, began rubbing her back as he once more pulled the parchment toward him with his other hand. "Eomer loves Lisswyn very much," he said softly, looking down at the words they'd written.
A/N: As always, many thanks to those who've read and reviewed this. I'm glad you've enjoyed it! I'm toying with ideas for other sequels, one of which will hopefully be along before the new year.