Warning: Character Death
A/N: This story is a lot darker than what I usually write, so if you don't feel up to reading it, I quite understand. Hopefully in another week or so, I will have the first chapter of another, more cheerful tale for you.
The couple in this oneshot are the Éomer and Lothíriel from 'On the Wings of the Storm', however prior reading is not required to make sense of the story.
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
(The Two Towers)
Edoras, October Fourth Age 63
The sun was my enemy. Uncaring, implacable, pitiless. Racing up to take from me what was dearest in the world. If I could have stopped it from rising, I would have, even at the price of casting the whole world into darkness. But I did not have that kind of power. I was only a queen after all.
"Curse you," I whispered.
I turned away from the window, where the first rosy fingers of the dawn touched the snow shrouded peaks of the Ered Nimrais. Winter had come early this year. As it would now come to my heart.
"I think he's waking up," Elfwine said.
Of course he would wake up, with the sun rising over the mountains. After all, he always kept his promises. A promise first made on a winter morning, so many years ago, and then renewed every time we had to part. How well I remembered that day, a few months after our wedding, when he had ridden out with his men. Only to rid the West Mark of a band of marauding orcs, but you could die as easily a spear throw from home as you could in front of the Black Gates.
"Every morning I will watch the rising sun and my thoughts will wing their way across the empty leagues to you," he had said, tightening Firefoot's girth. "I promise."
The stallion's breath hung in the cold air like mist and all around us the last hurried preparations were made. Tack jingled and impatient hooves struck the cobbles, as the horses picked up their riders' mood.
Éomer took my chin in his hand. "Lothíriel, do not worry. I will come home to you safely," he said, his teeth flashing in a confident grin. His other hand settled on my rounded belly possessively. "After all, I wouldn't want to miss the birth of my heir."
I leant into him, as much as my condition would allow. "You had better not!" Briefly I considered pleading with him to stay, to leave this dangerous business of hunting down cornered creatures to his Marshals. But then how could I tie him to my apron strings in such a manner? His need to protect those under his care ran deep – nobody knew that better than myself.
Éomer kissed me with his usual thoroughness and taking his time about it. Still, his men could hardly leave without him. Finally, he gently disengaged my arms from around his neck. "You have to let go now, Lothíriel."
I blushed, though most of his men had discretely turned their backs on us, and beckoned to Aescwyn, one of my ladies-in-waiting. With the other women of the household, she stood in the shadow of the gate to Edoras, holding a tray of drinking horns in her hands. I took one of them and held it out to a serving girl to fill it with mead. While the other women dispersed through the crowd, offering the stirrup cup to the riders, I turned back to my husband. He had mounted Firefoot and the stallion chewed on his bit, eager for a run, but Éomer curbed him effortlessly.
"Ferthu Éomer hál," I said, reaching up to hand him the horn. "Health be with you at your going and your coming." Our fingers touched briefly as he lifted the horn to his lips. I stroked the stallion's grey coat, rough with his winter growth. "Bear your lord safely back to me." Firefoot snorted as if to reproach me for my doubts. Of course he would.
Éomer bent down to hand me back the empty horn. "Remember my promise, Lothíriel, and think of me at sunrise."
Swallowing down the fear in my throat, I nodded and gave him my best smile. "I will."
He lifted his helmet from where it hung on his saddle and slid it over his head. "We ride, Eorlingas!" he shouted. The white horsetail streamed out behind him as he spurred his stallion.
With the clatter of hooves and the excited neighing of horses, the éored strung itself out behind him, heading at a canter for the fords over the Snowbourne. By the time I had climbed the hill to Meduseld and stood on the terrace, they had reached the Great West Road, and raced the shadows that the sun threw before them.
The soft question called me back to the present. Elfwine had been no more than a bump in my belly then, keeping me awake with his kicks at night. Now he was a man grown, a king-to-be, tempered in Aragorn's wars in the east. Oh, how the time had raced us by! Too quickly, far too quickly.
A cough from the big bed that dominated the room sent me rushing over. I sat down on the side of it and bent to examine my husband. Éomer still slept, but just as Elfwine had said, he was getting restless in his slumber. His skin was hot and dry to the touch when I felt his forehead. After dipping a cloth in a ewer of water, I wrung it out and wiped it gently across his face. Still a strong, purposeful face, even after losing weight these last few weeks. And immeasurably dear. I traced a scar high on his cheek, left by a Southron blade. We had been lucky that day.
After all these years, I knew every expression that could chase across his features. His famous anger of course, quick to flare and feared by his enemies, but with me ending more often in a heated kiss than not. Fear for those under his care and grief at the passing of friends, but mostly I remembered laughter and joy. I smiled through the tears that gathered at the corners of my eyes and blurred my vision. How much joy we'd had.
A hand closed on mine and squeezed it. Startled I looked up to meet Éomer's dark eyes. Their keen gaze had not faded with the years; he could still seize up a man in an instant. Or a woman.
He struggled up against his cushions and it hurt to see the effort it took him. "And where..."
Elfwine leant forward and assisted him. "I'm here, Father," he said.
Éomer relaxed against his cushions again. "Good."
Taking a flagon of water, I poured a small measure in a cup and held it to his lips. He took a couple of swallows, but that was all. Probably more to please me than anything else. His eyes moved to the window, where the sky had turned a light blue, the colour of duck eggs. "Dawn is coming."
"It's still far off," I protested.
"It is coming."
I bent my head, letting my hair fall forward so it would hide my face. His last sunrise. I had known of course, ever since he had insisted last night on seeing all his children and grandchildren, down to the youngest of them, Oswy, no more than a babe-in-arms, carried in by his mother. Éomer had stroked a finger across the baby's downy cheek and I had seen in his eyes that he did not expect to ever do so again.
The same with his few remaining childhood friends and with the two hobbits he had met in the war and who were sojourning with us for a while on their journey to Gondor. Was it my turn now to bid good-bye?
"Dear heart, you're still so beautiful," he said, his breath laboured. "No white in your hair."
I grasped his hand. "Please, Éomer, you must save your strength."
He ignored my admonition. "I remember... the first time I saw you...emerging out of the mist." A cough racked him. "Knew it then...you were the one." A weak grin. "Just took me a while...to convince you."
I fought down the tears that threatened to spoil my composure. How like Éomer to tease me even now. "It did not take you long to convince me," I corrected him, "it just took a long time for me to admit as much."
We shared a smile. I had found that of late my memories of recent happenings faded quickly, but those long ago events were jewel bright in my mind as if the sun had shone brighter then. Being escorted to Edoras by him on a golden autumn day and stopping over in one of the villages, that fateful Yule feast, meeting him again outside Drúadan Forest, and of course our wedding that same summer.
Éomer beckoned Elfwine closer. "Promise me...take care of your mother."
Elfwine gripped his other hand and I saw his jaw working. "I promise, Father." His voice was steady and true, though.
Another cough shook Éomer. "Sword," he whispered.
What was he talking about? But Elfwine, being a warrior too, understood better than I. He rose and fetched Éomer's sword from where it hung in its customary place on his weapons stand. Kneeling by the bed, he held the scabbard out flat on his hands and presented it to his father.
Éomer's fingers closed on the hilt and for a moment he gripped it with his old strength. "Gúthwinë." His hold relaxed. "Yours now. Take it."
Elfwine hesitated. The sword had been Éomer's constant companion, his battle friend, wielded on the Pelennor and many other battlefields. A legend in itself.
"Yours," Éomer insisted, "I leave the Mark in good hands."
At that Elfwine bent his head and rising, fastened the scabbard to his belt. "I will honour your trust."
Éomer closed his eyes, his chest rising and falling rapidly, as if the brief conversation had exhausted him. Around his eyes, lines of pain cut deep, but he had never been one to complain. Another glance at the window showed a few high clouds rimmed with gold already. Halt your course, I wailed at the sun. But I had no power to stop time, measured out by one rasping breath after another. The only thing worse than having to listen to them was to imagine them ceased.
He must have felt my hand trembling in his. "Come here," he whispered and reached out for me.
I flew into his arms, laying my head on his chest, but careful not to put too much weight on him. My home, my shelter from the storms of the world. He smelt of the camphor I had rubbed on to ease his breathing, but below that lingered a trace of that particular Éomer-smell, a mixture of horse, sweat and the oil used to keep his chainmail from rusting. A smell that had meant safety to me all my adult life.
His hands stroked across my back in a caress. "We've had a good share..." he said slowly, "...lived a full life."
My face hidden against his chest, I nodded. But in my heart I knew that a thousand years would not have been enough. Not enough! Yet I also knew how blessed I'd been. How often had I stood on that terrace, watching him ride away, my heart fearing an orc axe or a Southron spear. Others might think him invulnerable, but I knew better, for I'd seen the pain and the blood. Yet always he had come home to me, sometimes crawling into my bed in the middle of the night after riding ahead with a few picked men. Injured more than once, but making light of it so as not to worry me. As if worry had not been my constant companion anyway.
As usual Éomer read my thoughts. "I never expected...die in my bed," he murmured into my hair.
He sensed that, too. "I'm sorry...grieving you so, my love," he said, his hand moving up to caress my head. Lying on his chest, I could hear the wheeze in his lungs and the healer in me knew what that meant. He coughed again, a dry, racking sound that rent my heart. "But we have always looked facts in the face," he whispered.
Éomer was right. And I would not break down and rob him of his peace at the last. I had faced down orcs and Haradrim, had given birth to four children; somewhere I would find the strength to do this for him.
So I straightened up and tried to smile at him. "I love you."
He touched the traitorous wetness on my cheeks. "I love you, too." His hand sank to the coverlet and his eyes went to his son. "Want to...sit up."
Elfwine bent forward to help him into a more upright position. Tears glistened in the corners of his eyes, too. At Éomer's weak sign, he pulled back the curtains of the bed so his father would have an unobstructed view of the window. Refusing to acknowledge the rising sun, I turned my back to it and picked up Éomer's hand to hold it against my cheek.
His fingers moved in a weak caress. "Lothíriel...we will meet again." Another strained breath. "I will wait. Promise."
I could not speak past the lump in my throat, so I nodded. We sat like that while behind me the light grew steadily brighter as the sun raced up to the horizon. It would be one of those beautiful autumn days, perfect for going for a ride, with the frost-rimmed leaves crackling under our horses' hooves and a blue sky resplendent above us. We would take the familiar path into the mountains, up to the lake where he had taught me to glide across the ice like a bird. Where he had taught me to love.
Still one torturous breath followed the other. Then suddenly his grip tightened on me. "Lothíriel," he gasped. "The light!"
His hand slackened in mine and the room went silent.
A year later...
The setting sun turned the roof of Meduseld to molten gold. I well remembered how for a moment, on my first sight of it, I had thought it was burning. But that had been many years ago, now the familiar silhouette just meant one thing: home.
I loosened Cwén's reins and stretched my back. Nearly there.
"My lady, do you need a rest?" Breca, the captain of my guard, asked.
"I'm fine," I assured him.
Breca had hovered over me like a mother hen for the whole journey to Dol Amroth and back. I don't know what Elfwine had said to him when he had charged him with my safety, but the young man had taken his assignment extremely seriously. I suppose it was a family trait, for his grandfather, Beorngar, had held the position before him.
A line of willows, with their yellow leaves trailing in the water, marked the course of the Snowbourne as we approached the ford. And beyond that... I had known of course, but I still had to steel myself for the sight. Simbelmynë dotted a great burial mound, the first of the Third Line, erected at the fords, so Éomer would forever guard the approach to his beloved Edoras, just as he had wished.
Water rushed around our horses' fetlocks, then we were across. I drew rein and around me the men of my escort dipped their heads in respect. Even though they must have been eager to return home to their families, they waited patiently while I closed my eyes and let the smell of the good moist earth soak into me. Behind me, the Snowbourne gurgled over the pebbles of the streambed and the wind brought a hint of wood smoke from the city. Homely smells and sounds. But if there was any presence of Éomer here, I could not sense it. After a while I opened my eyes and gave the signal to continue.
A strong stone wall now encircled Edoras, built with the dwarves' help, to replace the old dike, but more houses had long since spilled past it and clustered around the base of the hill. Rohan had prospered under Éomer's reign and no enemy had set foot inside her borders for many years, for he believed in meeting trouble before it ever got that far.
When they spotted the royal banner, borne by one of my guards, children came running and those people who were about ceased their tasks. I had to reply to many greetings and my heart lightened at the genuine pleasure in their faces. The Rohirrim had long ago embraced me as one of their own and many I knew personally from helping at the Houses of Healing. Our journey past the guard towers and up the hill turned into a small procession, with flowers and gifts of food pressed into my hands. Children ran past our horses, laughing and calling out the news of the queen's return, but fortunately Cwén had a gentle temper, inherited from her distant dam Nimphelos.
In the square at the foot of the steps to Meduseld, my family awaited me. Elfwine himself solicitously helped me dismount and gently set me on my feet. How unlike past homecomings, when Éomer had just plucked me off my horse!
But then Elfwine enveloped me in a bear hug. "At last! You're back," he exclaimed.
Eager arms reached out for me and I found myself passed from one to the other, till I was breathless: my second son Elfbeorn and his wife Aelfswith, daughter of Erkenbrand and my dear friend Ceolwen, and my eldest daughter Elfrith, here on a visit from Dunland. Only now did I realize how much I had missed them. And how my grandchildren had grown in the months away! Little Oswy was already toddling after his older siblings.
Finally Elfwine took charge again. "You will want to have a bath and a rest," he said, slipping an arm around my shoulder and rescuing me from his eager brood.
His deerhounds jumped around us as we ascended the steps, infected by the excitement, then the guards swung open the doors and Meduseld's warm darkness enveloped me. The servants were just laying the tables for the evening meal, but they came to greet me, along with those riders who had already assembled. Again I was touched by the sincerity of their welcome.
As we passed the central hearth, something caught my eye and I stopped. "Oh, you've replaced the hunting tapestry," I observed. The piece depicting some long ago king and his men hunting wild boar had hung on one wall as long as I could remember, but now a new tapestry glowing with the warm colours of autumn had taken its place.
Elfwine had the look of a boy surprised at some mischief. "Do you mind?" he asked and behind him I caught a glimpse of his wife Leofgifu's anxious face.
I smiled at them in reassurance. "Of course not! It is your hall now."
It had been partly to give Elfwine and Leofgifu time and space to grow into their role of King and Queen of the Mark, that I had decided last winter to travel to Gondor for a while. Éomer and I had reigned for so long that we had simply become 'the king and queen' and people could not remember a time when he had not sat on the throne of Rohan. It would not be easy for Elfwine to be measured against such a father, a legend already in his lifetime, but fortunately he had his own qualities, if different from Éomer's.
Up the steps to the dais we went and then through the door leading to the royal quarters. My mind already on a hot bath, I turned right without thinking, only to stop after a couple of steps. That way led to the king and queen's apartments.
I turned to Leofgifu. "I'm sorry. Where have you put me?"
"Over here," she said, her voice gentle and pity in her eyes. "We've readied Elfwyn's old room for you."
I nodded and followed her. My youngest daughter had vacated her room upon marrying the Crown Prince of Gondor and moving to Minas Tirith. Since then we had used it for guests. Leofgifu shot me another anxious glance, but in fact I was quite happy with her choice. I would not have wanted to occupy our old apartments without Éomer anyway, or sleep in the big bed, knowing he would never now join me there.
The small room at the other end of the corridor had been freshly aired, thick carpets lay on the floor and a fire burnt in the grate to keep out the autumn chill. I thanked Leofgifu and she left me with the pledge to send servants to fill the tub standing in one corner.
When the door closed behind her, I sank down on the bed. What she could not know was the fact that this room had been mine once before, when first I came to Edoras and held bittersweet memories. It had been here that I had tied up Éomer's arrow wound that he had received from one of Gríma's men who had lain hidden along the way from Aldburg. I knew the exact place he had sat while I bandaged his neck and when I closed my eyes, I could feel the firm texture of his skin under my fingers.
Tears pricked my eyes as a hot wave of loss swept through me. A year, a whole year, and still a simple memory could tear away all my hard earned composure in a single heartbeat. Would it ever get any easier? For a while after his death, I had wanted nothing but to join Éomer in his grave. To lie down and stop my heart, to let go of this mortal shell as the kings of Númenor had been able to do – but that grace was not given to me.
And in my darkest hours I had even blamed him for leaving me alone, even though I knew it had not been by choice. It was then that I had decided to travel to Dol Amroth for a few months, where fewer memories of our life together lurked. A fallacy as it turned out, with his absence still a constant ache in my soul, but even so the soothing presence of the sea had given me back a little measure of peace.
I sighed and opened my eyes. Sometimes it took as little as a kind word to send me spinning into a downward spiral of grief. But as Aragorn had said when I had broken down and cried my heart out on his shoulder, there was no shame in loving. Éomer had been right, we had been lucky and lived a full life, our love strong and constant till the end. If this was the price I had to pay for those years of happiness, so be it.
I dreamt of him that night. Not of the great events we had witnessed in our lifetime, like the destruction of the ring, or the wars to the east, but of the first summer we spent living in tents on the Emnet, following the horse herds. Elfwine had only been a toddler then, but Éomer had wanted him to experience the life of his forefathers. It had been such a carefree time, lived under a sky that seemed to stretch into eternity at night, and only occasionally interrupted by a courier from Edoras.
I woke from a vision of sitting round the fireplace at night, safely gathered in Éomer's arms, to the reality of my narrow bed and the cold grey dawn outside my window. When I closed my eyes again, eager to escape back into my dreams, I could almost feel his phantom touch around my waist. Pressing my eyes shut, I built up his picture in my mind. The way he would nuzzle into my hair, his warm breath playing across the nape of my neck. And how always in the mornings he would be snuggled up against my back, a heavy arm or leg thrown across me possessively.
It would be a lie to say that I did not miss his lovemaking, but more than that I missed his simple presence. Perhaps it was foolish, but I had always felt that within the circle of his arms nothing bad could touch me, no harm, no illness, not even death.
That moment a cockerel crowed somewhere and dragged me back to the present. I buried into my pillow, wanting to shut out the world, but it was no use. Éomer's presence vanished like cobwebs torn by the wind. Another cockerel joined the first one, greeting the dawn exuberantly, and I wanted nothing as much as to wring their necks.
With a sigh, I let go of my anger and sat up. At first I had dreaded the dreams that reminded me nightly of my loss, but lately I had found a little solace in them. There I could still speak to Éomer, could still touch him, an Éomer unaffected by age and sickness, in the prime of his life. Like a woman reduced to subsisting on scraps falling from a rich table where once she had feasted, I was willing to accept whatever traces of him I could find.
My muscles still ached from the long journey, but sleep had fled, so I decided to get up. A look in the wardrobe revealed all my old clothes neatly hung up, but all I wanted was a warm cloak to keep out the cold. My hands fell on a soft pile of fabric with a familiar feel and I picked it up: my winter cloak of midnight blue, lined with silver fur. The first gift Éomer had ever given me, renewed whenever it got worn. I wrapped it round me and went over to the window.
Curling up in the cushioned window seat, I looked out to where the peaks of Éomer's beloved Ered Nimrais glowed rosy in the dawn. When I pushed open the casement, a gust of mountain air entered, straight from those clear and pure snowfields, untrodden by any human feet. I took a deep breath, all of a sudden realizing how much I had missed the bracing air and familiar view.
Down the hill on which Meduseld stood spread my garden, begun all those year ago and tended faithfully since. The young oak tree that Legolas himself had brought from the Greenwood raised limbs cloaked in yellow leaves to the sky and the herb beds were already covered with straw to protect the precious plants. I would go for a closer inspection later that day.
Suddenly I heard the scuffing of boots on stone. One of the guards? A whispered question, hushed by another voice. I leant out the window, which creaked a protest at my movement.
Startled eyes met mine. Below me, on the terrace outside the hall, crouched a boy, bundled up in a voluminous cloak.
"What are you doing here?" I asked. Then I recognized him as my grandson. "Éoric?"
It was indeed Elfwine's eleven year old son. He straightened up and as he did so, the cloak fell away. Another tousled head looked out. I might have known: Cynefrid, his cousin and best friend, eldest son of my daughter Elfrith. What mischief were they up to now?
"Well?" I asked.
They lined up in front of me with an identical guilty look on their faces, one fair with the blue eyes and blond hair of the Rohirrim, the other's darker skin showing his Dunlendish blood. As their fathers' heirs they might one day rule a combined area from the western sea to the Anduin, but that concerned me little at the moment.
"We are sorry for waking you, Grandmother," Éoric said, taking the lead as usual.
Heavy steps sounded as one of the guards posted along the side of Meduseld decided to come and investigate. He raised his eyebrows at the two boys. "Is this rabble disturbing your rest, Lothíriel Queen?" he asked, but the words held no threat.
"Good morning, Godwulf," I greeted him, for I knew him from assisting at the birth of his youngest child, a couple of years ago. "They did not disturb me, for I was awake already. However, I wonder what they are doing, out and about at this early hour."
The sky had turned a light blue by now, lustrous as a pearl, which enabled me to observe the quick look exchanged between the boys.
"We wanted to go and check on our ponies," Éoric explained.
"I thought mine had developed a strain yesterday," Cynefrid chimed in, "so we wanted to make sure he was all right."
Limpid blue and brown eyes regarded me, guileless and innocent. Definitely up to no good! Then I remembered something my daughter had mentioned the evening before.
"The royal seamstress is coming today, isn't she," I asked, "to fit you for your Yule clothes." Why did I feel that checking up on their ponies might quickly turn into scarpering off for the day?
The two boys groaned. "Please, Grandmother," Éoric pleaded, "they will make us stand around until the whole beautiful day is gone, and argue for hours about which fabric to choose."
"And stick pins in us!" Cynefrid added.
Behind him, Godwulf snorted, and I had a hard time keeping a straight face myself.
"Princes have to look their part," I pointed out. But it was no good, they heard the laughter in my voice.
Éoric relaxed. "You won't betray us, will you?" His teeth flashed in a white smile.
I caught my breath. That smile! How often had I had it directed at me and been unable to resist.
He must have sensed something, for his face sobered. "Grandmother, are you all right?" Suddenly he looked older than his years.
I smiled through the moistness in my eyes. "Yes, I am. You go and check on your ponies, and neither Godwulf nor I have seen you."
"Thank you!" they both shouted, already turning to run down the hill.
"But don't step on my herbs, or I'll stick pins in you myself," I called after them.
However, at the edge of the terrace Cynefrid stopped and looked back. "Grandmother, can we come along later and visit you?"
"Oh, yes please," Éoric agreed. "I want to hear the story again how grandfather rescued you from those orcs in the caverns of Helm's Deep!"
"And about the battle on the Pelennor!" Cynefrid added. He seemed undisturbed by the fact that it had been his father's people who had fought us at the Hornburg.
"And how he vanquished Harad and captured Umbar!" Éoric's eyes shone.
I laughed. They made it sound as if Éomer had won all his battles singlehandedly. "Come along later," I told them, "and I will tell you how it really was."
Another smile that could have charmed anything out of me. They both had it! Then they jumped down the hill with a yell and vanished out of sight. I doubted there was anybody left in Meduseld still asleep.
Godwulf cleared his throat. "The wife wondered if you would honour us with a visit, my lady. Only if you have the time, of course."
Touched by the request, I nodded. "Gladly."
"Thank you." He paused a moment before going to resume his post. "If I may say so, my lady, it's good to have you back. Meduseld was not the same with you gone." He gave me no chance to answer, but took his leave with a respectful nod of the head.
I leant back against the wall behind me and gazed out at the mountains again. Suddenly the sun cleared their summits and poured its rich golden light onto Meduseld. The leaves on the oak tree flamed with colour and the dew caught in the high grasses sparkled like crystal. A wind sprung up, streaming out the white horse banners placed along the city wall below me.
I wrapped my cloak closer around me. "I'm back, love," I whispered. Warmth enveloped me.
How foolish I had been not to see that Éomer was still with me. He lived on, not only in the memory of his people, but also in his sons and daughters and their children. As for myself, while there were loved ones who needed me, I would bide here a little longer. After all there was no rush. Éomer would wait for me, even beyond the circles of this world.
He had promised.