One Mug too Many
Edoras – Yuletide 3020
Éomer caught his wife's hand, pulling her to his side. She didn't stop singing but looked up into his face, eyes sparkling. But when the main candles were dowsed as the huge ash log began its journey from the doors of Meduseld to the hearth, they dropped hands. Clapping now and stamping their feet in time with the fiddler, and joining all the other merrymakers to welcome the log with gusto. Once it reached the centre of the hall, and the four bearers had carefully lowered the mighty piece of trunk onto the hot embers, Éomer grabbed her hand again and, as the hall hushed, together they added the rowan twigs and dry beech leaves that would kindle the log into life. Not once faltering, Lothíriel spoke the traditional words to signal the start of Yuletide. Pride swelled in Éomer's chest. How well she had adapted to a new land, a new people and a new husband. Well, not so new now, but sometimes he still couldn't believe she was his. And he loved her more each day.
Twigs and leaves sparked and crackled, light and sound invading the silent space. Everyone held their breath as flames licked up the sides of the seasoned ash and then a great cheer went up as Éomer raised his hand – the log had caught. The ash burned bright and would be kept smouldering for the whole twelve days.
Lothíriel turned at the new commotion coming from the doors. "Éomer, here comes your boar." The wonderful smell of roasted hog wafted over them and she stood on tip-toe to see. "Oh, it's huge! Did you really kill it on your own?"
Did his wife doubt him? But she grinned and started clapping again as men struggled in with supper. He leant down, whispering in her lovely little ear. "I might spend a lot of time at my desk but I have not entirely lost my skills, you know. Although Éothain might tell you he had a hand in the hunt."
"Well, I doubt he let you out of his sight so he must have been there." They both laughed, sharing a private joke between them.
As if on cue Éothain appeared with a tankard of cider, passing it to his king. "Where's my wife's?" Éomer asked him.
"Cider! Surely not. I will get some wine."
"Éothain," Lothíriel poked him in the side with a long slim finger, "I am perfectly happy to drink cider, and anyway I understand it is traditional to have it mulled at Yuletide."
"It is my lady, but I thought it may be a bit rough for you."
Éomer laughed and pushed his friend and captain towards the cider barrel. For some reason Éothain had never quite got over him marrying Imrahil's daughter and thought a Gondorian princess would be far too gently bred to settle well in the Riddermark, but he had been mistaken. Lothíriel might be well mannered and cultured, but she was also down- to-earth, practical and fun. A surge of love welled up in him for his wife and he had to stop from sweeping her into his arms. Instead he reached into the hearth for the hot poker. "Here, this is what you do. The cider has spices added and we heat it up like this." He plunged the poker into the overfull tankard.
With a hiss hot cider splashed over his wife's dress. But typically, Lothíriel laughed, shaking her head at him. "How many did you have before I appeared in the hall?" she accused him jokingly.
He grinned, passing her the tankard. "Only a few; it's a special time. And I had to keep my men company."
Lothíriel took a sip of her cider, and then another, larger one. "It's lovely, very warming. And Éomer, you deserve some relaxation. I know full well that last Yule was very different from this one."
True. And that was another reason he felt so happy this night. A good harvest; a peaceful realm; a beautiful wife. What more could a man want? A mugful of cider! Éothain returned with another mug and once again Éomer plunged in the poker, this time keeping well away from his wife. "Here's to good friends and good cheer!" He downed half the mug, wiping the warm liquid from his beard. Lothíriel still sipped at hers, but she seemed to be looking indulgently at him so he finished his and made no protest when Éothain took the empty tankard, replacing it with a full one.
"They're carving the boar." Éothain told him. "Finish that, because as the hunter you will have to down the mead-cup." Oh, he'd forgotten he had to drink the mead. But no matter, it would be well within his capabilities. He might not imbibe much now, but in his younger days…
Éomer tucked in heartily to the boar, the cider and mead had given him an appetite. But beside him Lothíriel picked at her food. "Is that all you're going to eat?" He was used to his wife's small appetite but even so, one tiny piece of pork, a slice of bread and an apple could hardly be called a meal.
"Just not very hungry tonight," she replied. "The cider filled me. And the boar is so big it won't all get eaten. I will be able to have some tomorrow."
"Then if you've finished, let's dance," he said standing up and dragging her with him. "The fiddlers are about to start." He loved dancing with her. She had such wonderful rhythm and was so light on her feet he could whirl her round and round.
By the third dance his head spun faster than the fiddlers played, but his wife laughed in his arms and kept pace with the wild Rohirric tune that built into a crescendo, mimicking the coming together of the herds as they raced across the plain. The music slowed as two stallions met and fought, building again as they battled each other until ending in a climax of victory. Coming to a sudden halt, Lothíriel stumbled against him, a perfect excuse to hug her. "Look where we've stopped," he whispered, jerking his head upwards to indicate the huge bunch of mistletoe that hung from the beam above their heads.
Giving her no time to protest, he swooped down. First feeling her surprise in the stiffness of her body but an instant later she relaxed and leant into him. Maybe he should have just kissed her chastely, after all they were in the middle of the hall, but unable to stop himself he crushed her against him. Éomer devoured her lips with his until he became aware of the cheers going on around them and the stamping of feet from his men. Reluctantly, he pulled away, holding on to her until she steadied on her feet. Gradually the stamping stopped and the fiddlers wisely struck another tune.
"Well, I think we've provided enough entertainment for tonight," she remarked. But although red faced, to his relief, she looked amused not mad.
Éomer took her arm and led her to the side. "Sorry, perhaps I should not have done that."
"Not kissed me? Or not kissed me quite like that?" She didn't give him time to answer but sat down on the nearest bench next to Bryde, the wife of one of his guards. "Éomer, I am hot. Could you please get me a cool drink?"
When he returned she and Bryde were talking avidly together. Lothíriel looked up, took the lemonade, thanked him, smiled and returned to her conversation. He sat down next to her, only to be joined a moment later by Éothain and a few of his men. Pulling up chairs one passed him a tankard, but he sipped it slowly, his head already thick and woolly. Then, as often happened he became embroiled in a friendly argument over hunting techniques. His could hardly be at fault – he had got the boar! A bit later a movement to his right alerted him to his wife getting up. He went to rise also, but she waved him down."
"I will be back shortly," she murmured before heading towards the door to their private quarters.
Éomer watched her slip behind the curtain, wondering if he should follow.
"You've upset her!" Éothain announced.
"Upset her? How have I upset her?"
"Embarrassed her, haven't you? With that display in the middle of the floor. They don't do that sort of thing in Gondor."
"A fatuous argument, Éothain. We're not in Gondor, are we?"
"That's the point, isn't it? She probably misses it. Especially tonight. It's her first Yule away from her family, you've had one mug too many and slobber kisses all over her."
Éomer didn't hear what else Éothain had to say as his heart gave a great big lurch. What if Éothain were right. She'd certainly seemed to enjoy herself tonight, at least until his lapse of conduct, but come to think of it she'd been quiet the last few days. What if their love did not compensate for being torn away from her home by the sea? Strange customs: strange language. Looking around his hall, he noticed how after her ministrations all the woodwork glowed in the candlelight. He loved his home but compared with the palaces of Gondor it must seem small and cramped. Then he saw that the gold on the pillars caught the gleam of the fire and in it he could see shadowy shapes of his warriors and their families, drinking, talking and laughing. Maybe she didn't like it that they all lived so closely together. She had never said anything and always joined in with the women when there were communal tasks to be done. But she was not yet fluent in Rohirric. And tonight, as more cider and mead went down and everyone, including him, got louder and louder, she might have felt an outsider, in spite of being queen. Then perhaps he really had embarrassed her— kissing her under the mistletoe like that and setting the whole hall cheering. True, he might have been a little inebriated, but it was more because he loved her so and wanted everyone to know it. A gush of pure anguish surged through him; he couldn't bear the thought of her being unhappy, of not telling him she didn't really like it here. Suddenly he had to go and find out.
As soon as Éomer entered the passage, a draft of icy air whipped around his legs. Lothíriel must have gone outside and left the outer door open. She had! It stood ajar, a shaft of moonlight falling on the slate floor.
His wife hadn't even collected her cloak. She would freeze out there. He stood in the doorway for a moment, looking out and letting the cold air clear his head. While they celebrated everything had been covered in a thick white frost. He loved nights like this when the moonlight sparkled on glistening branches and the stars covered the world with a net of gleaming jewels. But just now all his concern was for his wife. Looking around the small garden he saw Lothíriel standing by the low wall. She had not noticed him and remained gazing up to the snow-topped peaks of the Ered Nimrais. High above Harrowdale, their jagged teeth stood out stark against the night sky. And beyond them Gondor swept down to the sea. She was looking towards Dol Amroth.
Lothíriel didn't even move when Éomer stepped out onto the stone terrace. Nor when he crossed the lawn with a few quick strides, coming up behind her and slipping his arms around her waist. "Whatever are you doing, my sweet?" He gently turned her to face him, dreading to see the shimmer of tears in her eyes.
But her grey eyes shone silver, rivalling the moonlight with their brilliance. Chilly arms wound around his neck as he hugged her to him, intent on sharing his warmth.
"Oh, Éomer, it is so beautiful. We hardly ever had frost because of the salt air…"
The relief must have shown on his face because she stopped, and raised her hand to his cheek. "What's the matter, my love?"
"I thought you had left the hall because you were mad at me for kissing you. Éothain said I embarrassed you."
Lifting her head, she let her lips brush his. "I like you kissing me, Éomer. In private is better, but anywhere will do."
"Well, I am sorry if I slobbered over you. I know I had one mug too many, but I didn't mean to upset you."
"Éomer, you didn't! As I said before, you deserve tonight. I know how hard you have worked since the war. And with three brothers it is not as though I am not used to seeing men a little worse for drink."
"That's another thing, Lothíriel. Éothain says you will be missing your family. And I have been thinking, do you really like it here? We live so differently than you are used to…"
"Éomer! Will you stop repeating what Éothain said. The drink is making you unusually maudlin. I left the hall because I felt hot and wanted some fresh air. No other reason. I love it here. It's so wild and free. Everyone likes to enjoy themselves and children have such a wonderful time, especially in winter. I have just been thinking that our child will be able to make snowballs and go sledging on the slopes…"
"Whoa…Lothíriel! What did you say? What child?" His head was not so thick that he misread that remark. Pushing her away slightly, he searched her face, wanting to see her lips frame the answer. But his jaw dropped, for already his shock had lit joyous laughter in her eyes.