The snow crunched under my feet as I pulled the door closed behind me. Only a few flakes were falling now, but the cold air bit spitefully at my face. I pulled my cloak tighter, tucking my hands underneath, and into the soft fur.
"I'm told you can see them," I addressed the nearest Doorward. The poor man looked frozen: his braids were stiff, snow crusted in his beard and his nose glowed red. But he gave me a big smile and pointed in the direction of Harrowdale.
"Yes, my lady, they are on their way along the road. Every now and again you can glimpse the faint glow of a torch."
Not believing I would see anything, I gazed towards the mountains. The solid wall of the Dwimorberg stood out black against the lighter sky, but dusk had long hidden the northern slopes below. Only when the moon struggled through gaps in the heavy clouds did I see the gleaming expanse of white. I brought my gaze right down to where I thought the road would be. Sweet Elbereth, where was it? I stared until my eyes hurt, but could see nothing. About to give up, I blinked – was that a light? Yes, one…two…three – pinpricks of light. They flared momentarily, only to disappear again as the party must have been hidden behind one of the rocky outcrops.
"They are later than we expected," I remarked, not wanting to admit to my relief. But the tough men and the gallant horses of the Riddermark took travelling through such conditions in their long, easy strides.
"The snow would have held them up a bit, my lady. But don't you worry: Éomer King knows the road well. I suggest you go back in the warm. It will be a while before they get here."
At least another hour in the bitter cold, but at least the snow had stopped. Edoras only had a light dusting: a pretty sprinkling of white that crusted the thatched roofs of the houses. Although everyone forecast more before the night was out. I shivered under my cloak – I could understand why the citizens celebrated Yule with such glee, the desire to light so many fires understandable when winter blew its icy breath down the mountainside.
"I will. Thank you. And why don't you light the braziers early tonight, or you will freeze at your posts."
His grin widened. "Aye, we'll do that, my lady."
I nodded. "And please call me when they reach the barrows."
The man was already putting a torch to the first brazier. They would light up Meduseld like a giant beacon, a comforting guiding light to those heading home through the coming darkness. I went back inside, going straight to the kitchen to make sure hot stew and mulled cider would be waiting when my husband returned.
The next time I went out, the high, stone platform had lost all its snow – the braziers giving out an awesome heat. Two glowed near the doors, and one blazed each side of the wide steps. The crackling wood was the loudest noise in an otherwise muffled world. I waited, hearing and seeing nothing beyond the spikes of the palisade way below me, but then, suddenly, sharp and clear, the call of a horn pierced the still night.
"That's your father coming home," I whispered to the warm bundle I held in my arms. Elfwine gurgled, as though he understood what I said. His sweet face peeked out from the soft blankets, smiling as always. A happy baby, whose birth had brought joy, not just to his doting parents, but to a whole people. He should be snug in his crib, but it would be cruel to keep him hidden until morning.
Soon I heard the sound of the great gates opening. Voices wafted up on the frozen air, and then the unmistakable jingle of tack as tired horses eagerly sought their stable. The moon chose that moment to assert its power and captured all of Edoras in a broad band of light. Picked out clearly, I saw two men dismounting at the bottom of the steps. Their horses led away, my husband and my father hurried up, a proud smile on each face. One fair, one dark, so different they might look, but both were loved by me.
Éomer hung back a little – he had kissed his son goodbye early that morning, a soft brush of lips on a sleeping forehead. For my father this would be the first meeting with his newest grandson. Already wet gauntlets had been removed and cold fingers fumbled with the fastenings of the dark blue cloak. Impatiently, he flung off sodden wool, bunching it in his hands until Éomer took it from him. The Lord of the Mark happily deputising for the squire dispatched with the horses.
"Lothíriel," my father's arms enfolded me and my son, "should you be out here?"
His frozen lips connected with me in the vicinity of my ear, but in fact I was quite warm, the fur-lined cloak and the braziers keeping the chill away.
"We are both well wrapped."
But he had already stepped back from me, his fingers pulling gently at the blanket snuggling Elfwine's face. I helped him, easing it away from the downy cheeks. In the short time I had been waiting, Elfwine had gone back to sleep.
"What a lot of hair!"
I knew why he was so surprised: both of Elphir's sons had been born bald, but Elfwine had thick, black hair at birth and in spite of the midwife's predictions, he had lost none of it.
"Everyone says he looks like you, and not only the hair."
My father smiled. "May I?"
I nodded, and he slipped his arms under the bulky bundle, relieving me of the weight of my most precious possession.
"I think we'd better get him inside."
With Elfwine cradled against him, my father strode towards the doors. The Doorward had already started pushing on the studded wood, and without checking his step, the Lord of Dol Amroth marched his royal grandson through into the warmth of the hall. I let him go, content to walk with my husband whose heavy, wet arm now draped across my shoulders. Frozen he might be, but I leaned into him, thankful to have him back safely.
"Father should not have come at this time. He will probably be stuck here for weeks."
Éomer laughed, and an icy nose rubbed against my cheek as he hugged me to him. "He can stay all winter if he wishes, and anyway, I don't think we could have kept him away. If necessary he would have abandoned his horse and sledged down the mountain for a glimpse of his grandson."
"I am sure he would, my father has always been a very determined man." Gratefully we passed through the door, and it swung closed behind us, shutting out the bitter night. Soon my husband would be warm and fed, and my son tucked cosily in his crib. Tomorrow the Yule log would be lit and the twelve days of festivities that celebrated the turn of winter and the lengthening of the days would begin.
Faster and faster the fiddlers played, the dancers whirling around the hall in a swirl of colour and noise. With Éomer's hand holding me firm we spun around and around, until laughing outrageously as my feet tangled together, I collapsed against his chest, unable to dance one more step.
He pulled me out of the way of another couple, holding on to me as I fought to get my breath.
"You're not giving up?" he teased, his eyes alight with laughter.
"I am." Although I was quite happy to stay where I was, cocooned in his arms and shielded from the rest of the dancers who romped around us with increasing frenzy. Until with a final flurry of sound the music stopped.
The noise of excited chatter replaced the fiddles, so I stood up on tiptoe and spoke into his ear, deliberately tickling with the tip of my tongue, sure no one would notice in the crush. "I will have to leave. Elfwine will want his last feed, and if I dance anymore he will only get butter."
"Oh…I suppose you have to," in spite of the grin, disappointment dragged at his words. "I had better stay a bit longer: there are a few duty dances to be done." His voice dropped seductively, "But before you go, Lothíriel, a kiss for Yule under the mistletoe is traditional."
Laughing, I looked up at the high roof. "I don't see any."
One hand cradled my face, the other possessively pulled me against him. "I am sure there is plenty around."
Willingly, I surrendered to the hot lips, and without a care I snaked my arms around his neck, burying my fingers in his thick mane. Someone nudged us out of the way, the dancing was about to start again and they neither noticed nor cared that their king and queen were locked in a passionate embrace.
We broke apart, and Éomer's arm tightened on my waist, his voice coming out in a low growl. "I won't be very long, try not to fall asleep."
A giggle erupted, we had both been counting the days since our son's birth, but men could easily be distracted by ale. "I am not tired, but it wouldn't surprise me if you become waylaid by your Riders and a barrel."
"Definitely not tonight," he murmured, reluctant to let me go.
I didn't believe that! Still giggling, and tingling from his kiss, I pushed him into the set that was forming and threaded my way to the side of the hall. A glance back showed me he had been grabbed by Éothain's wife, her own husband no doubt already propping up the barrel.
About to dodge behind a pillar, I came almost nose to nose with my father. Leaning against it, he had a goblet in his hand and a look of satisfaction on his face.
"I rather think that I am forgiven, Lothíriel."
So, our stolen kiss had not gone unnoticed. I might love my father, but that particular look of superiority and the – I told you so – expression, never ceased to irritate me.
"Forgiven father? For what?" He would not get it easily.
But his eyes sparkled with amusement. Infuriating man!
"Lothíriel, I don't believe you have so readily forgotten all the accusations you threw at me – selling you to a stranger … banishing you to a foreign land…loving duty more than my own daughter…"
"There is one more accusation!" I hissed though my teeth. "It is being so utterly insufferable when you are proved right!"
I whirled away, indignation stopping me from even wishing him goodnight. Did he really think I had forgotten the anguish and the fright of coming to a strange land to marry a man I barely knew?
But immediately the nursemaid put my son into my arms all resentment disappeared in an upwelling of love. With a deep sigh, I decided that in the morning I would have to tell my father I had forgiven him.
Once Elfwine was tucked into his warm crib, I went to the window and pulled back the heavy curtain. I could see nothing of my adopted land: snow piled up against the panes, huge soft flakes obliterating the view of the mountains. I would have to properly make it up with my father, since it looked as if he might be here a long time. I knew Éomer would welcome his counsel as much as he valued his friendship.
I heard the door click and my husband's heavy tread as he crossed the room towards me. But I didn't look around. Gentle fingers pushed away the hair from the back of my neck, warm lips brushing the hidden skin. Already my flesh trembled at his touch. One hand encircled my throat, tipping my chin upwards as he eased me around to face him. I met eyes that gleamed in the half light – desire, longing and love reflected back at me.
"My wife's veiled promises pushed all thoughts of ale from my mind."
I sank my head against his chest, the strong beat of his heart confirming the loyalty and steadfastness I knew to be there. But I could not hold back.
"Éomer, promise me our children will have free choice. You will not betroth them to a stranger for the sake of friendship or alliance."
Fleetingly, his body stiffened, but he did not let me go; only dropping his lips to nibble the top of my ear. I felt his smile.
"Children? That sounds promising, my sweet. But, rest assured, I will trust them to choose their own partners. I could never be sure of being as good a matchmaker as your father."
A peaceful and joyful Christmas to all my readers. The next chapter of Tide of Destiny will be along soon. LBJ