Yule 3019, Edoras.
I tied up the last stitch and snipped off the remaining thread with my scissors. There! Shaking out my husband's shirt, I admired my handiwork. It would do: the rent along one sleeve where he had torn it during weapons practice was almost invisible. Then I had to suppress a grin. How pleased my aunt would be if she could see me. Not that I needed to mend Éomer's clothes - there were plenty of needlewomen in Edoras willing to do that service - but it was such a wonderfully domestic occupation. After the horrors of the war, the very ordinariness of it was a tonic for my soul.
"The wind is dropping," Ceolwen interrupted my reverie.
I stretched, and got up to join her at the window. While I had been working on Éomer's shirt, night had fallen. Snowflakes drifted past, sparkling for an instant in the golden light of our candles, before vanishing into the darkness. I shivered, for with the fires allowed to go out, my solar, usually so cosy, was getting chilly. Already frost patterns had formed on the windowpanes, unfurling their delicate fronds across the glass like icy ferns.
I peered out into the darkness. "Shouldn't the men be back by now?"
"Don't worry," Aeffe quipped from her place by the cooling fireplace, "they won't miss the feast. Not with the prospect of all that ale flowing freely."
My other ladies-in-waiting greeted this prediction with giggles, but Aescwyn's young daughter, who sat on the carpet by Aeffe's feet, playing with her baby brother and little Ermenred, looked at her with big eyes. Leofwen was a serious child, and not used to having her elders spoken about in that manner.
Her mother looked up from her embroidery frame and smiled at her reassuringly. "It's early yet. No need to worry."
"At least we are nice and dry," Ceolwen said.
We exchanged a conspiratorial grin, for the men would be half frozen when they returned from their afternoon's excursion. The Yule Hunt had been postponed due to the storm, so they had decided to just go for a ride across the plains. The women on the other hand had all elected to stay in and spend the time chatting and exchanging news. While the twins had made their home with me in Edoras for the time being, Ceolwen had only arrived the day before and had wanted a detailed description of Éowyn's wedding in Minas Tirith.
Now she took my arm and lowered her voice. "I've heard that your brother, Prince Erchirion, is still staying here?"
Involuntarily, I glanced towards Leofe, who was practicing a new ballad on her small lap harp, her brow furrowed in concentration. "Yes, he is." Had rumours reached the Hornburg already?
Ceolwen followed my eyes. "Leofe's letters have been full of him, how clever he is, and how handsome... Should Erkenbrand be concerned?"
"Only if he objects to a prince as a son-in-law."
Her eyebrows went up. "I see." Suddenly she grinned. "Princess Leofe does have a nice ring."
I chuckled. No, Leofe would not object to that at all. But actually I thought that she was honestly smitten with my brother – she had even compared him favourably to Arwen's two brothers! As for Erchirion, he had made his intentions clear in his own quiet way.
"Does that mean that we will lose her to Gondor soon?" Ceolwen asked.
I shook my head. "Not necessarily. Éomer would like Erchirion to stay on, for he has been a great help during the last few months."
My brother's extensive knowledge of Gondor had come in very useful while trading for supplies to last us through the winter, but Éomer had further plans. The three of us had spent many an afternoon discussing possible changes for the Mark, ranging from a new system of relay stations along the Great West Road to improved fortification of Edoras. Which reminded me of my own pet project.
I drew Ceolwen over to the table to show her my plans.
"What is this?" she asked when I unrolled the parchment.
"The design for my garden," I answered. "Éomer has agreed that I may have the south sloping lawn, and we will start work in the spring."
The herb garden took up most of the space, the beds arranged in terraces all down the hill and protected from the wind by low hedges and stone walls. However, I had also included a couple of small, enclosed lawns where one would be able to sit in the shade of trees and enjoy the view.
Ceolwen bent over the plan. "Thyme, rosemary and sage, chamomile, betony, feverfew, arnica…" she deciphered the tiny writing. "But where will you get all these plants?"
I shrugged. "Some already grow here, in the small garden next to the Healing House, the rest Éowyn has promised to send me from Ithilien. One of my former patients, Tondhere, trades with Gondor and has agreed to transport them for me."
She traced the paths zigzagging down the hill. "This will take a lot of time to build."
I smiled at her. "Yes, I know."
After living a day at a time for so long, it was wonderful to plan an endeavour that would take years to complete. In fact I had taken up negotiations to buy two further plots of land at the bottom of the hill with part of my dowry. For the moment rebuilding the houses destroyed in the war had priority, but eventually I wanted to erect new Houses of Healing there, more spacious than the existing ones. However, so far I had only discussed my plans with Éomer.
As if on cue, the door swung open and a gust of cold wind blew in. I turned round as deep male voices filled the room. My husband and his guests had returned. Éomer was talking to Erkenbrand, but his eyes searched the room and when he spotted me, he flashed a smile at me. Feeling momentarily dizzy, I had to lean on the table at my back. How did he do that? Surely after four months of marriage I should be used to the effect he had on me! Besides, I had only kissed him good-bye a few hours ago.
Éomer used my brief hesitation to cross the room in his usual large strides and gather me into his arms. He lifted me up and swung me round, making me clutch at him. Frozen lips, damp wool, the smell of wet man: wonderful sensations.
"We're back," he announced quite unnecessarily.
From the shelter of her own husband's arms, Ceolwen rolled her eyes at me. "And here I was saying how nicely warm and dry we were." Erkenbrand was dripping all over her.
Éomer looked down guiltily at the puddle of melted snow forming around his boots. "I'm sorry."
He started to let go of me, but I held him back. "We have to get changed for the feast anyway."
"Do you want me to send for your cloak?" he asked. "I don't want you to get cold."
"I'm fine," I replied firmly.
He seemed to recollect that he had promised not to fuss over me, for he said nothing more. Then his brow cleared. "I've got something for you," he told me.
"What is it?" I asked, intrigued. What could he possibly have found on a ride in the snow?
"Close your eyes," he ordered me.
I did as told.
"Now open your mouth."
Something to eat or drink? Not mead, I hoped. Just the smell of it made me nauseous these days. Éomer popped some kind of bread in my mouth and I took a cautious bite. Sweet and tasting of honey… it took me back a year, to a bench outside Meduseld in the moonlight. A Yule bun!
When I opened my eyes, I found Éomer smiling down at me. "I wanted to make absolutely sure to spend next Yule in the right company."
"You will," I promised, hugging him.
Ceolwen cleared her throat. "Lothíriel has been showing me the design for her garden," she said.
"Ah, yes," Éomer replied, back to his usual teasing mood. "As you can see I'm willing to do anything to keep my wife happy, even digging up half the hill." His arm settled possessively round my waist and pulled me against his side.
I relaxed against him. "If you're not careful, I'll make you do the digging yourself!" I threatened. "Remember, you still owe me restitution for Firefoot's behaviour!"
Erkenbrand grinned at our banter. "Looks like you have your work cut out for the next few years," he said, motioning at the plans.
"We have time," Éomer answered, echoing my earlier thoughts.
Then he looked down in surprise. I followed his eyes to see that little Haleth had escaped his sister and come crawling across the room, trailing his mother's embroidery silk behind him. Now he clutched Éomer's leg and smiled up at him hopefully. My husband laughed and scooped him up, making the boy shriek with laughter as he held him up in the air. Éomer took a special interest in Háma's children and Haleth had long ago learnt to look upon him as a certain provider of amusement.
Leofwen came up, carrying Ermenred in her arms, whom she handed to Ceolwen. She dropped a shy curtsy to Éomer.
"Shall I take him back, my Lord King?"
Éomer smiled at her warmly and passed the boy over. "Thank you, Leofwen. Will you be attending the feast too?"
"I don't know." She looked at her mother pleadingly.
Aescwyn picked up her embroidery basket and got up. "It will be a late night…"
"Perhaps she could stay until the dancing starts," I suggested.
"After all, Yule is a special time," Éomer put in. His voice barely trembled, but I knew he remembered using that same argument with me a year ago.
At the hopeful look in her daughter's eyes, Aescwyn relented. "Oh, very well."
The little girl clutched her brother to her chest as her mother herded her out the room. I smiled after them. Poor Leofwen had taken her father's death badly and she was always so serious anyway. It would do her good to enjoy herself for once.
My husband stepped up behind me and slipped his arms around my waist. He said nothing, but I knew in what direction his thoughts lay.
"For some families it will be a sad Yule," I whispered, leaning back against Éomer.
His hold tightened. "I know."
So many missing faces. Who would have thought a year ago that both Théoden and his son would fall in battle? Yet it was a time of rejoicing as well, for unhoped for, we had defeated the Dark Lord. And while the wounds of the war were still fresh, Éomer had worked tirelessly to get our people through the winter without further loss. As a result the Rohirrim looked to the future with more hope than they had for a long time.
Éomer sighed. "At least Háma saw his son born before he rode to Helm's Deep."
Wordlessly, I squeezed his hands that rested on my belly. The solar emptied slowly as my ladies went to get changed. With a nod at us, Erkenbrand collected his family and left. Only Aeffe lingered in the doorway to exchange a few words with Beorngar, who bent over her hand and slanted a smile up at her. Of course everybody admired her, and the cut on her cheek only added to her appeal, yet I had the feeling that she was not altogether indifferent to the newly appointed Captain of the Queen's Guard.
"We have to get ready as well," my husband reminded me.
In the hallway, the pages were already busy extinguishing the torches in buckets of sand and I caught a brief glimpse of Wuffa and his dog as Éomer escorted me past. The steward had put him to work with our newest recruit, Wulfstan's brother Wictred. Upon my return from Gondor I had gone to see the father of Gríma's former guard, a gruff and surly man. He had listened to my account of his son's last moments with a stony face, but had accepted my offer of having his youngest son trained as a page. Wuffa and Wictred had already bloodied each other's noses. I grinned to myself. From growing up with three brothers, I knew this meant that they were well on the way to becoming fast friends.
In our rooms, my maid was waiting. At once Ivorwen took charge of me and bustled me into the bedroom, shutting the door behind her firmly, for it offended her Gondorian sense of propriety to have my husband present when she attended to me. Éomer used a small closet that opened off the study for his own use, but as he dressed simply he usually finished much quicker than me. Sure enough, Ivorwen had only just brushed out my hair and helped me out of my gown and into a silk shift, when the door opened again and he strolled in.
"Please, my Lord King," Ivorwen protested. "The queen isn't ready yet."
"Oh, I don't mind waiting," Éomer replied.
He chose a place to sit on the bed from where he had a good view of me, and relaxed against the headboard. I choked down laughter. My aunt had insisted that I keep Ivorwen with me, but I got the feeling the maid might soon take up my offer of retirement in Gondor. When I cast a look over my shoulder, her mouth had tightened into a thin line.
"Which dress will you wear tonight, my lady?" she asked.
I pretended to consider the gowns laid out ready for me on the bed, although I had already made up my mind. However, I rather enjoyed the way my husband's eyes lingered on my thinly clad figure, so I smoothed down the silk over my hips while looking them over. Out the corner of my eye I saw his fingers clench. Enjoying my game, I picked up a crimson gown that I had no intention of wearing, for it would clash with his dark green tunic. Holding it out from me, I twirled round with it. As if by accident, my shift brushed against his legs.
"What do you think of this one?"
"Nice." The voice perfectly level, but his eyes promised retribution.
"Hmm…." I smiled at him sweetly and picked up another one. "The russet is very pretty, too."
I was well within grabbing distance now.
Éomer folded his hands firmly behind his head. "Yes."
I raised a finger to my mouth and nibbled at it, as if deep in thought. "Or perhaps the cream one after all…"
Something in his clipped tone told me I was treading a thin line, so I took a step back and turned to the patiently waiting maid. After all, I did not want her to return to Gondor with tales of the King of the Mark setting upon his wife in front of the servants. Besides, the room was chilly, even with my husband's eyes to warm me.
I indicated my chosen gown. "I'll wear that one tonight, Ivorwen."
"Very well, my lady," she approved my choice and helped me slip the heavy velvet over my head.
A magnificent gown: the bodice dyed a shimmering blue, and the skirts embroidered all over in a bold pattern of silver feathers. But then tonight was an important occasion, the first time I would serve the Yule cup to our guests as the Lady of Meduseld.
Ivorwen tied up the laces at the back and picked up my hairbrush. "How would you like your hair done?"
"Something easy to undo," Éomer put in from his place on the bed.
The maid drew her breath in sharply and I fought to keep my composure. How he delighted in shocking the poor woman! "Yes," I agreed with a shaking voice, "just keep it simple."
"As my lady pleases." Frost crackled on the words.
A few minutes later she had arranged my hair to her satisfaction and draped my warm blue cloak around my shoulders, the very same one that Éomer had gifted to me a year ago.
"Will there be anything else, my lady?" she asked, studiously ignoring my husband.
"No, thank you," I replied. "Why don't you go and enjoy the celebration."
"And you don't have to wait up for your mistress," Éomer drawled. "We can manage."
I bit my lip to keep from laughing. Unless I was very much mistaken, I would have a Rohirric maid by this time next year. In answer Ivorwen dropped a stiff curtsy and left, closing the door behind her with a soft click.
Éomer surged out of the bed and pounced on me.
Even though I had expected it, the sheer swiftness of his movements still startled me. He grabbed the cloak and wrapped it tightly round me, pinioning my arms to my side, then pulled me against his chest. My involuntary cry of surprise got swallowed by a ruthless kiss. I relaxed against him. About time.
"My Lady Wife, you are an unconscionable tease!" he accused me when we finally had to come up for air.
"I know," I said with a sigh of contentment.
His hold on my cloak was slipping and I managed to wriggle my hands up his chest and around his neck. The muscles of his shoulders tensed under my touch. How I loved running my fingers through his mane; it was so thick that any woman would have envied him for it.
Standing on tiptoe, I pulled him down towards me until our lips were a finger's breadth apart. "So do you regret not marrying one of the court ladies instead? A nice, biddable girl?"
Deep in his chest, a growl rose. "You know the answer to that! It would be like drinking watered wine when what I want is mead." He closed the distance between us. "Sweet and strong…and utterly intoxicating."
He tasted of the Yule bun we had shared earlier on, of cinnamon and cloves. I gave myself over to the sensation, knowing that I would never get enough of holding him close, alive and whole. Every day spent with him was a gift. As if he could read my thoughts, Éomer's touch gentled. When our lips parted, I leant against his chest and closed my eyes to listen to the steady heartbeat of the man I loved. That moment I would happily have stopped time.
But duty called. "Our guests are waiting for us, you have to light the new fire in the Hall," I reminded him reluctantly.
"Let them wait," he murmured into my hair. One hand slipped round to cradle my belly. "Lothíriel, next year…"
"… we will have a child," I finished his sentence. The thought of the new spark of life we had kindled between us was still incredible. We meant to announce the success of all those green ribbons at the feast, although most of Meduseld probably knew already with Éomer fretting over me.
"A son!" he breathed.
"Or a daughter," I put in.
"We'll see," he replied altogether too smugly.
Letting him have his satisfaction, I snuggled up closer to him and at once his arms fastened round me. The place where I belonged, my home. A safe harbour where no nightmares ever plagued me.
"Hold me tight," I begged him.
Bending over me, Éomer tilted up my face. "My beloved seabird, blown in on the wings of the storm," he whispered. "Believe me, I will never let go of you."
A/N: Many, many thanks are due to my wonderful beta, Lady Bluejay. Without her this story would never have been written, for she encouraged me to carry on with it when after the first couple of chapters I got cold feet when I realized it was a much longer tale than I had anticipated.
As always also many thanks to you, my readers and reviewers. I really appreciate the feedback I get from you, it's been wonderful meeting you all!