The Salt in the Soup
Edoras, December of Third Age 3020.
The snowball hit the window with a thump. Éomer looked up to see the soggy remains slide down the glass and out of sight. Laughing shrieks sounded from outside and a shadowy figure flitted past the window, pursued by another. More laughter followed and a boy shouted, "Get him, Odda!"
With a sigh Éomer turned back to the pile of papers on his desk. The first proper snow of the winter, just two days before Yule, and what was he doing? Stuck inside reviewing reports on the wool production of their eastern dales. That moment the door of his study opened and one of his councillors entered with measured tread. Éomer saw with dismay that Eadred carried another armful of scrolls.
"I found these in the archives," the old man beamed at him. "A list of all the villages in the West Mark with the number of sheep fleeces they produce. Ten years old, but it should give you an idea of the amount."
Éomer forced a smile to his lips. "Wonderful."
Eadred deposited the scrolls on his desk. "One of the servants is bringing the rest."
The rest! Éomer stared down at the pile of yellowing parchment, his heart sinking. Just looking through this lot would keep him busy for the remainder of the afternoon. Once again he asked himself why he had decided to make such a detailed survey of his realm. But the reason was clear, of course. While he knew exactly how many fighting men each village or hamlet could supply in case of war, he had only a hazy idea of what those same places produced in tradeable goods. And they needed trade with Gondor to get back on their feet.
As Eadred bustled out to see about the rest of the documents, Éomer got up and crossed to the window. Another thump. And surely he could hear the deeper voices of his guards mixed in with the children's squeals of laughter? Stretching legs stiff from sitting still too long, he frowned. Over breakfast he had promised Lothíriel that he would take her out for a ride in the snow, but at this rate he would not get to see his wife until the evening. Again. Only last night he had gone to bed so late that she had been fast asleep despite saying she would wait up for him. An all too common occurrence lately.
Not that she would complain. The daughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth understood about duty and was modest in her demands on her newly wedded husband's time. Too modest, Éomer thought. He leaned on the windowsill and stared out towards the mountains behind Edoras. Fir trees dotted the foothills, their sloping branches bending under the weight of the snow. Every now and again, one of them would shed its white burden, the boughs whipping upwards when released from the heavy load. He had wanted to show Lothíriel that hushed silence after each rumble, had wanted her to experience the feeling of a cloud of fine snow crystals enveloping her.
And why shouldn't he? Married less than four months, surely they deserved some time by their own. Suddenly a memory came to him from before the war, when he had hunted these same woods with Théodred and he recalled the small foresters' hut they had often stayed in. Situated above the road to Dunharrow, only a couple of hours' ride away, it would be standing empty this time of the year. Not much longer, he decided.
In an instant he had slipped on his warm boots and thrown a cloak around himself. When he headed out of the door he met Eadred coming back, two servants laden with papers trailing in his wake.
"My lord, where are you going?" the councillor exclaimed.
"To keep a promise."
He sent one of the pages waiting in the corridor to have Firefoot saddled and another one to collect a bag of food from the kitchen. Then he went to get his wife. The door to the queen's solar opened silently under his touch and for a moment he just stood observing. As always a warm fire blazed in the hearth. His wife and her ladies were sitting on the window seats and in comfortable chairs, forming a rough circle around a pile of fabric lying on a rug. At once his eyes sought the one black head amongst all the blond ones bent over their work.
As if he had called her name, Lothíriel turned towards the door and put her head to one side. "Is that you, Éomer?"
The low voiced conversations amongst her ladies stopped abruptly and they looked round in surprise. When they would have got up, he waved them down and crossed the room to take his wife's hands, which she held out to him.
"Yes, it's me. How did you know?"
She smiled in triumph. "I felt the draught from the door opening."
"But it could have been a servant."
"They knock before they enter," she pointed out with impeccable logic. "You're the only one who doesn't."
He laughed and kissed her fingers. "You've caught me again." It always amazed him how Lothíriel, blind from a childhood accident, used her other senses to make up for the one she lacked. "What are you doing?" he asked.
She motioned to the pile of fabric. "The Yule presents for my girls arrived from Dol Amroth today, only just in time. Now we have to wrap them all up."
Éomer saw that the pile consisted of colourful headscarves and picked one up. Edged with embroidery, tiny shells decorated its four corners. He remembered now that Lothíriel had sent to her sister-in-law for presents for 'her girls' – all fifty-seven of them. They belonged to the orphanage that she had acquired somehow within a week of marrying him. The boys would get a carefully tooled leather belt each and all the children would receive a new set of clothes for Yule.
"Can your ladies manage on their own?" he asked. When she hesitated, he turned to the circle of women who were watching them discreetly. "Ladies, may I abduct the queen for the rest of the day?"
Some of the younger ones looked at him with wide eyes, but the older women exchanged knowing glances.
"Of course, Éomer King," Éothain's wife answered. "We will finish here."
Éomer snaked his arm around his wife's waist and pulled her along. "Let's get your warm cloak."
By some mysterious means Lothíriel's maid had already been alerted and was waiting for them in their chambers.
"Pack an overnight bag for your mistress," Éomer instructed Hareth and once the door to their bedroom had shut behind the maid, he pulled Lothíriel close and stole a quick kiss.
"Éomer!" she protested. "Hareth will be back anytime."
"I promise to hurry."
Lothíriel laughed and slipped her arms around his neck. "That's not what I meant."
He ran his fingers through the silken length of her hair. "Anyway, I'm sure Hareth knows by now that I'm desperately in love with my cruel wife."
Playfully she pushed him away. "I'm not cruel!"
"You are if you won't let me kiss you."
That seemed to convince her, for she did her very best to prove him wrong. Holding her in his arms proved as intoxicating as ever and she had learnt a lot since that first surprising kiss in Éowyn's fountain. It took an act of will for Éomer to resume his plan.Later, he promised himself. "Your cloak," he said.
"As you wish," Lothíriel replied, the picture of wifely obedience only spoilt by the way she let her fingers trail slowly along his neck.
Éomer groaned and released her. How she delighted in tormenting him! But he could not imagine life without her anymore, it did not bear thinking about.
A discreet cough announced Hareth returning, carrying a bag and Lothíriel's warmest boots. For once his independent wife, who always wanted to do everything for herself, submitted meekly to being helped into her clothes.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"It's a surprise."
She did not press him, just nodded and held out her hand. Éomer wrapped the cloak more tightly around her, suppressed the desire to kiss her again – or they would never get under way – and settled her hand in the crook of his arm. "Let's go."
Cold air met them outside the doors of Meduseld, bracing after the smoky warmth of the hall. In the courtyard at the bottom of the steps his squire Oswyn was leading Firefoot to and fro to keep him warm. Also waiting for them was Éothain, the captain of his guard. Unsurprisingly he looked unhappy at the prospect of his king and queen riding out on their own, even though this happened quite frequently and he knew better than to protest.
After greeting Firefoot, Éomer swung into the saddle and motioned to his captain to lift Lothíriel onto the pillion behind him. She settled herself comfortably before slipping an arm around his waist.
"Where are you heading, Éomer King?" Éothain asked.
Éomer hesitated for a moment, but relented at the anxious look on his captain's face. "The hunting lodge above Upbourn. We will be back by midday tomorrow."
Éothain nodded and stepped back, still not looking happy, but obviously resigning himself to the inevitable. Firefoot pulled eagerly on the reins and Éomer turned him towards the winding road down to the gates. The houses along the way had their lintels decorated with wreaths of holly and fir branches, wrapped around with red and green ribbons and a festive air seemed to hang over the town. He knew that the past year had treated his people well and their larders were full, the ravages of the war not forgotten, but eased. Those inhabitants of Edoras who had ventured out in the snow called cheerful greetings. Despite initial misgivings about her blindness, Lothíriel had been accepted as one of them, her marriage to their king another sign of fresh hope for the future.
Once past the great gates they turned left and took the Dunharrow road. The stallion chomped on his bit, eager for a run, but Éomer held him back to a slow trot, wanting him to warm up first. Soon they entered the narrow valley of Harrowdale and the mountains closed in on both sides, the Starkhorn looming ahead of them. Lothíriel nestled against his back, her warm breath tickling his neck, and sighed contentedly.
"Happy?" he asked.
The road stretched flat and empty before them. "Fancy a gallop?"
She tightened her grip on him. "Need you ask?"
Firefoot needed no urging. At Éomer's signal the grey leapt forward, snow rising in a great cloud behind him until they seemed to fly across the ground. Lothíriel's cloak billowed out with a snap, her delighted laughter snatched up by the wind of their passage. He had found out long ago that she was absolutely fearless on a horse, the accident that had robbed her of her sight at the age of twelve teaching her not caution, but rather courage.
"Faster!" She laughed and Firefoot responded gallantly.
They did not slow down until ahead of them Upbourn came into sight. A bridle path turned off just before the village, leading into a smaller valley with a lonely farmhouse and then dwindling into a steep switchback track when it entered the forest. Underneath the trees the ground was only lightly covered with snow, the only tracks those of wild animals. Éomer spotted the straight spoor of a fox wandering in search of prey, the triangular imprint of hares and many deer crossing their path. This close to human habitation he did not expect the presence of wolves, but he kept an eye out for their paw prints anyway.
The branches of the trees hung low over their heads, bent down by the snow, and Lothíriel made a game of reaching out a gloved hand for them.
"Hey!" he protested after having snow dumped on him for the third time. Firefoot gave an indignant snort, agreeing with his master for once.
"I'm sorry," she said not at all contritely. "I still can't get over how much there is of the stuff. It's so soft!"
Éomer felt an icy trickle run down his back. "And cold and wet!"
"I'll keep you warm," she promised and snuggled closer, slipping both arms around his waist and resting her cheek against his back. They rode on in silence through the gathering twilight and Éomer almost wished they would never arrive at their destination. He had his heart's desire right here, he needed nothing more.
Too soon they reached the little clearing high above the valley floor where the hunting lodge stood. It seemed smaller than what he remembered and had a sad, abandoned air to it. When Firefoot drew to a stop, Lothíriel straightened up with a sigh. "Are we here already?"
"Yes." He slid from the stallion's back and lifted her down.
"And where is here?" she asked.
Éomer looked down into the clear grey eyes raised to him. "Just a hunting lodge. More of a hut really." Not quite like the hunting cabins of the Prince of Dol Amroth he guessed and suddenly wondered if she would mind very much.
Lothíriel smiled. "Sounds nice."
First things first. Firefoot needed to get in the dry and have the snow brushed from his legs. "Wait here a moment," he told Lothíriel.
Built wall to wall with the hut was a small stable. Éomer pushed open the door and saw with some relief that all along one side were stacked bales of straw. His stallion at least would have comfortable quarters. After giving the place a quick sweep with a broom and putting down fresh bedding he went to get the horse.
"I have to see to Firefoot first," he apologized to Lothíriel.
She held onto one stirrup, following them into the stable. "Of course. I'll give you a hand."
"After all," she teased him while brushing down the stallion's legs, "I married a horselord."
Éomer straightened up from where he had bent over, scraping the hard packed snow from Firefoot's hind hooves. "What do you mean?"
Her hair caught up in an untidy knot at the base of her neck, a smudge of dirt on her temple, she grinned at him. "That I have to learn to take second place."
"Ladylove, you will never take second place," he told her and she flushed with pleasure.
By the time they had finished grooming Firefoot the sun had set. Éomer fetched fresh water from the stream across the clearing and filled the manger with the oats and hay he had brought, while Lothíriel cleaned and tidied away the brushes. Then they left the grey munching away on his well-earned fodder while they went to have a look at their own quarters.
The door to the hut creaked open at Éomer's touch and musty air met them. For some reason it seemed to be colder inside the hut than out. He dropped the saddlebags on the threshold and took a couple of steps into the room, only to hit his shin on a chair. Suppressing a curse, he peered into the gloom, trying to locate the fireplace. Over there. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he saw that whoever had used the hut last had had the courtesy to clear the hearth out and stack a small pile of kindling by it.
Taking out his tinderbox, he struck sparks into the tinder until it started glowing and then blew on it carefully. Soon the first flames burst forth, but when he started to feed the fire with twigs they refused to catch, only smoking sullenly. Damp! Behind him he heard Lothíriel coughing. Eyes running from the acrid smoke, he tried again. And again. Only his experience at lighting fires in the rain and snow while on patrol enabled him to finally get a blaze going. At least he would be able to offer his lady a warm place to sleep. When he looked round he saw that Lothíriel had started to explore the contents of the hut. Not that there was very much to find: a table with a corner seat, a small kitchen cupboard and against the other wall a couple of narrow beds, sagging in the middle. He bit his lip. Not exactly accommodation suitable to a princess raised in Gondor's graceful courts.
Well, it could not be helped. The fire crackling behind him reminded him that he needed to get more fuel. He picked up the saddlebags from where they lay by the door and dumped them on the table.
"I have to fetch more wood," he said, the words coming out more harshly than he had intended.
Lothíriel jumped at his tone and nodded mutely. He hesitated at the door for a moment, looking back at her, and saw her shivering despite her warm cloak lined with fur. Was she cursing him for bringing her to this bleak place? Briefly he considered saddling up Firefoot again and riding back to Edoras. But with a waning moon they would have little light in the woods and he did not really like the idea of chancing the treacherous path down to the valley in the dark.
At least he found a pile of logs stacked up neatly round the back of the hut and taking the driest ones, he chopped them up into smaller bits. Returning inside he found Lothíriel struggling with trying to heft a large black pot.
Éomer dropped the wood he carried and steadied her. "What are you doing with that?"
"I wanted to fill it with snow to melt over the fire."
He frowned. "I can get you water from the stream. Isn't there a smaller pot you could use for tea?"
"Not tea." She motioned at the table. "Soup."
He peered round her. Arranged in an orderly row on the table lay a motley assortment of vegetables: white and yellow carrots, a parsnip, some onions, a couple of wilting leeks and a wizened turnip.
"Where did you find all that?" he asked in surprise.
"What do you mean? In the saddlebags of course."
"The saddlebags!" He had sent a page to fetch food from the kitchen, thinking of bread, cheese and meats or perhaps those savoury pastries that the cook usually included for Lothíriel. What had that unlucky boy packed for them? Quickly he checked the bags, but they held nothing else. Éomer closed his eyes. What a disaster his idea of an outing was turning into!
Lothíriel plucked at his sleeve. "I thought to cook vegetable soup, but it might take a while." When he did not answer at once, she swallowed. "Only I'm afraid there is no salt, so I don't know how it will end up tasting…I'm sorry."
"You are sorry!" He grabbed her by the shoulders. "Lothíriel, this is all my fault. I drag you up here in the cold, force you to stay in this rickety, smoke filled hut and now we haven't even got proper food. I promise we'll return home first thing in the morning."
"But I like it here!"
She reached up and squeezed his hand. "Truly, I don't mind. Only I know I'm not much help. And I'm sorry that you have to do all the hard work like chopping wood and fetching water."
Éomer stared down at her, thinking how his wife never ceased to amaze him. "How can you worry about that! And you really don't hate me for dragging you up here?"
"Of course not. It's an adventure!" she laughed.
He rested his forehead against hers. "Dear heart, have I told you yet that you are wonderful?"
"This morning." And she twisted her face up so their lips met. It was an invitation that Éomer found impossible to resist. Indeed he would have been quite happy to forgo dinner indefinitely, but after a while Lothíriel gently pushed him away.
"Éomer, the water," she reminded him.
He sighed. "I know."
Having built up the fire again, he filled the pot with water at the stream and then hung it up on a hook suspended above the hearth. Lothíriel had unearthed a knife and busied herself cutting up the vegetables. She took it slowly and carefully, but Éomer could not help feeling apprehensive about the sharp blade so close to her slim fingers. However, he knew better than to say anything and just breathed a silent sigh of relief when she had finished and the chunks of vegetable all went in the pot, where they floated forlornly in the water. Now they just had to wait. At least the fire had started to warm up the room. Seeing the rapidly shrinking pile of logs, he picked up the axe.
"I'll chop up more wood to lay in as a supply for the night."
With a soft thud the door closed behind Éomer. Lothíriel stirred the soup, but she could hear no sound of boiling or feel steam rising from it. It would take a while to cook, so she might as well give the kitchen cupboard another search. Perhaps she could find something to eke out their meagre fare? However, she soon discovered that it held nothing but crockery and half a dozen linen sheets, all neatly folded up. Even the musty smelling tea she came across in a tin on the top shelf crumbled to dust under her touch, leaving nothing but a hint of mint in the air. Ah well, they would just have to drink water. She turned her attention to the beds standing against one wall. Long and narrow and covered with thin straw mattresses, they did not feel particularly inviting. Above all, they only offered room for a single person and she did not intend to sleep alone that night – not that there was any chance of that anyway. She grinned, recalling the way Éomer had just kissed her.
So while the sound of axe on wood rang from the back of the hut and the soup started to bubble away in the pot, she dragged the mattresses over towards the fireplace and laid them out side by side. Remembering the linens, she fetched some from the cupboard to use as bed sheets and then rolled up her cloak for a pillow.
"There," she said, sitting back on her heels. "You're quite the little housewife, aren't you."
By now the soup filled the hut with an appetizing smell and she got up to make sure it would not burn. Was it ready yet? Her cooking experience being rather limited she had no idea how long it would take for the vegetables to soften sufficiently. A quick taste showed the liquid to be rather bland, but she had nothing to season it with. No salt, let alone herbs or spices.
A draft of cold air from the door announced Éomer's return. He deposited his load of wood on the other side of the fireplace and then came to stand behind her, slipping his arms round her waist.
"That smells nice."
She leaned back against him. "Are you hungry?"
He brushed her hair to one side and dropped a kiss on the nape of her neck. "Very much so," he said, his voice low and intimate, the way nobody but her ever heard it.
A delicious trickle of warmth pooled in her stomach, but feigning nonchalance she reached for one of the earthenware bowls she had put out earlier. "I think it's ready now."
Éomer nuzzled her shoulder. "If you say so."
It took all her willpower to fill the bowl with soup instead of turning round and simply losing herself in his arms. But she did not want any of their small supply of food to go to waste.
"You've worked hard, Éomer, you need something to eat," she reminded him.
It was perhaps a measure of his hunger that he did indeed let go of her, if with obvious reluctance. When she had filled both bowls and set them on the table, Éomer pulled her down to sit beside him on the bench.
He slipped an arm around her waist. "Why do I get the impression that of the three of us, Firefoot has the best food?"
Lothíriel grinned. "It's the company that matters. Besides I'm sure you've had worse meals, haven't you?"
"True enough. On the ride to Minas Tirith we had nothing but meal and water for five days."
"See." She took a spoonful of soup and grimaced. Bland! "Next time I will bring salt, though."
He squeezed her waist. "Will there be a next time?" Was there a trace of anxiety in his voice?
"I hope so!" she replied at once.
"You don't mind missing out on the comforts of Meduseld?"
Lothíriel settled more closely against him. "Not if I can have you for myself alone." Lifting one hand to his face, she traced the line of his eyebrows and across his cheek to his mouth. She would never get enough of doing so. "I know it's selfish, but sometimes I just do not want to share."
He kissed her fingertips as they brushed across his lips. "That's not selfish. You are my wife!"
"Please don't think that I'm complaining," Lothíriel hastened to explain. "But for tonight let's pretend that we're not the King and Queen of Rohan, but just a simple newly wedded couple living here."
Éomer started eating his soup. "That shouldn't be too difficult. I don't feel particularly royal at the moment." She heard him sniff his sleeve, which reeked of smoke. "In fact I smell like a charburner. Probably look like one as well."
She chuckled. "If you don't like that idea you can always make a living as a woodcutter."
"Would you marry a simple woodcutter?"
"Of course I would."
"Your father might refuse to give his consent," he pointed out.
Lothíriel lifted the bowl to her lips to drink the rest of the soup and paused. "Yes, I think he did. That's why we've run away and are hiding in the mountains." She smiled at the idea. "Just the two of us living in this hut. And in the spring I'll plant a small garden outside with vegetables and nice smelling flowers."
In her mind's eye she saw a cottage overgrown with roses, the garden a riot of flowers, just like in the villages near her father's castle in Dol Amroth. And herself standing in the doorway, welcoming Éomer home from a hard day's work.
"Chickens," she decided. "I've heard they're easy to care for and they give both eggs and meat. And we could have one of those large shaggy dogs to keep the fox away."
Éomer laughed. "My wife, the champion of all living things, to raise chickens? Well, you might raise them, but I doubt they will ever make it into the cooking pot."
"True." She mulled his words over. Her father's cook had always claimed it took a special knack to wring a chicken's neck and she did not fancy trying. "Maybe when they've died of old age?" she suggested.
A choking sound. "Yes, perhaps," he agreed.
Lothíriel did not need him to point out that the chickens were more likely to receive an honourable burial. Would he mind living on eggs and vegetables alone?
His arm slipped up her back. "So you want to be a simple woodcutter's wife?"
Something in his tone alerted her. "Why?"
"In that case all these rich velvets won't do." He pulled her to her feet. "It's not the sort of thing woodcutters' wives wear, you know."
She had to bite back laughter when his clever hands found the laces of her gown and started to undo them. He'd had plenty of practise at that now. "Truly?"
"Definitely. They would give the game away at once." His fingers brushing against her back sent a shiver running down her spine.
"If you say so." And she helped him pull her dress over her head, leaving her wearing nothing but a thin silken shift.
He caught his breath. "Oh, Lothíriel, I love you."
How ever many times she heard them, the words still amazed her. That he should need her as much as she needed him! "I love you too." Hungrily she sought his lips.
Rough hands drew a trail of fire across her skin, making her pulse pound in her ears like a galloping horse. But when he bunched his fingers in her shift and started to pull it up, she pushed him back. "Not so fast, my lord! What about yourself?"
She plucked at his shirt. "Finest linen and no doubt embroidered with gold thread as well. This has to come off!"
Éomer laughed breathlessly. "With pleasure, my lady wife." He wriggled out of his shirt and a moment later she felt bare skin under her hands. "Better?"
"Much better." Lothíriel loved to touch him, to reaffirm the picture she had formed of him in her mind. Following the line of his shoulder down to his chest, sculpting every muscle, tracing every scar. And he had plenty of those. But she squashed that thought and pushed away the knowledge always hovering in the back of her mind that one day he would have to ride off and risk himself in battle again. Sometimes it terrified her how all the light and warmth in her life would go out without him.
"I need you so much," she whispered.
With a laugh he picked her up in his arms, making her feel completely helpless. A delightful sensation. "How much?" he asked as he laid her down on their makeshift bed.
How much? She tried to find words, but his lips wreaking sweet havoc along the line of her jaw made thinking impossible. Her husband. Her love. Her life.
When she did not answer at once he prompted her. "Like the air you breathe? Like the fire that keeps you warm?" And he lowered his voice. "For that is how much I need you."
She wound her arms round his neck and pulled him down to join her. "More. Like the salt in my soup."
A/N: This story was inspired by a beautiful Christmas card from Greywing. You can find the link to the picture on my profile page. Many, many thanks to her for the card and the inspiration. Also thank you to the ladies at GoI for comments and Lady Bluejay for her beta work.
A Merry Christmas to you all and health and happiness for the New Year!