This will be the final part of my Tide of Destiny series – it will hopefully pull together all the unanswered questions left from the previous stories. The characters will be known to those who have read the earlier novels, but I have included a list at the end of each chapter to remind you.
The other stories in the series are, in order: Tide of Destiny; Drummer; The Sell-sword and the Prince.
Prophesy Part 1
'Nooo...! Éomer, no!
I stood up; my hands over my eyes, trying to shut out the awful sight of my husband slumped over his horse, of his men clustering around with fear grey on their faces. Not since the vision that had warned me of Boromir's fate had I seen so clearly. Fright made me gulp for air – I had tried to tell them back then, but no one had listened.
'My lady, I heard you call out.' Hulde burst into the room, closely followed by Byrde.
'Lothíriel, what is it?'
The scenes that flashed before my eyes, and my labouring breath, stopped me from answering. But as the ghastly pictures faded, an icy calm stilled my shaking body: Éomer would not die far from home, not whilst I could prevent it.
'I have to ride for Minas Tirith, Byrde. Éomer needs me.'
'Ride for Minas Tirith...'
Her pretty face paled with shock. I clutched at her arm. Surely she would understand: it was no secret that her queen had brought not only a massive dowry, but healing hands and the gift of sight from a distant land.
'Long have I known I would be called. Mithrandir warned me that Éomer would one day need my skills.' A pledge made on a bleak hillside so many years ago, to save the one I loved above all others. But at what cost? Now I understood the compassion in the Istari's eyes when he'd bid me farewell for the last time. My racing heart thumped loud in my chest as I made my choice.
'Tell Déor to make ready for a fast trip, we depart in an hour.'
'But Lothíriel,' Byrde protested, 'you might be away for weeks. What about Elfwine?'
My son, my beautiful son, we had not been apart for more than a few hours. But if I did not leave him now, he'd grow up without a father.
'Elfwine will be safe with you. And you play his games better than me.'
Dear Byrde, she loved him as her own, her desperate yearning for motherhood focused into caring for my child. 'Please Byrde, I have to do this. Rohan does not deserve to lose another king. Find Déor and tell him, whilst I say goodbye to Elfwine.'
With a wordless nod she rushed out of the door. I turned to confront my maid's stricken face.
'My lady, what are you thinking of? You cannot ride all that way...'
My eyes bored into her. 'Hulde, you will say nothing. You understand!' I held her gaze until she too reluctantly nodded assent...
Edoras FA 53
The memory invaded my mind and I gasped as anguish coursed through me – a shaft of despair which robbed me of breath. Just as it had done all those years ago. But I knew why it had come now – in my fragile state the very act of Déor carrying me had reawakened grief long buried.
Shuddering, I shook aside the past. But Déor sensed my distress and his arms tightened around me. 'What is it, my Queen?' He stopped, full of concern. 'Are you sure you are well enough to go outside?'
'Yes. Yes, of course. It was nothing, merely a memory.'
After a moment Déor continued his march down the hall. I could only be thankful, as my own legs would not have carried me out into the sunshine.
'When I asked for a guard to help me outside, I was not expecting my favoured captain to sweep me off my feet...' my voice broke with emotion, and I blinked back a tear.
Déor's blue eyes were bright with concern. 'With Éomer not here you are my responsibility, and I am neither too old nor too feeble to have to pass it to another.'
Loyal and steadfast, he had never let me down. I laughed to chase away the ghosts.
The great doors opened and the rush of daylight made me blink. I looked up into his face. Like Éomer, Déor carried his age well— standing straight and tall, he made light of his frail burden. Éomer, had he been here, would doubtless have as easily carried an ailing queen. I looked into the far distance, willing him to be on his way home. But here I would wait, for I would not miss the sight of my fair-haired warrior galloping across the plain towards me.
'He will surely be back by nightfall,' I ventured.
'Dependant on where the messenger found him. He could have been deep in The Wold,' Déor replied, his voice soft with sympathy.
The guard put down the chair; Byrde bustled around with blankets. My illness had frightened them, the rapid descent of strength to frailty surprising all but me. Did they think that I had already paid the price for saving a king? I knew better: one toll for the Valar's grace had been taken; the other loomed close.
At last they left me, wrapped and cocooned like a baby taking its first outing. For the moment I only had the silent doorwards for company, but as the day unfolded the rhythm of life in Edoras would dictate that many would climb the wide steps to Meduseld. Sounds floated up on the still air: the laughter of children at play; the chatter of the women as they pounded their washing; the excited whickering of the horses being led down to the meadows; the ring of the blacksmith's hammer. I sighed at the harmony of it all. Rohan had changed since I first came here as a young bride. Over the long years of my husband's steady reign the Mark had embraced the shifting of power in Middle-earth with enthusiasm, as its people realised those who wished could at last live in peace. To maintain our freedom, their warrior-king had led his eager riders deep into southern lands and chased back the invaders that marched from the East. But the farmers continued to plough, the plainsmen bred their horses and the women weaved their colourful cloths in safety.
Éomer had achieved this, and although I had stood by his side for over fifty years it was Éomer Éadig, the blessed king, who had led his people from dark days to days of abundance and joy. Not now, not then, did I regret the choice I had made.
'Grandmother, should you be out here?' The voice of Éadwig, my eldest grandson broke into my thoughts. His very presence eased the memories of my years of despair. I reached up to feel the warmth of the strong hand that landed on my shoulder. Twenty-four years old, Éadwig looked much like Éomer when I first knew him: tall, with his dark-gold hair falling loose to his shoulders. But no lines of worry and responsibility marred this young prince's handsome face – he had not battled devastating evil for Rohan's very survival. But who knew what demons he'd have to face by the time his turn came to rule this land.
'I am fine out here, Éadwig, the air is mild.' I took in the padded leather jacket he wore and the long sword at his side. 'You get off; it looks like you are on your way to the training grounds.'
'I am, but if you need me grandmother...'
'No.' I waved him away. He dropped a kiss on my head before he strode across the platform and bounded down the steps with the agile grace that marked him as a warrior.
Éomer had passed more than his good looks to his grandson – I had no doubt that if necessary Éadwig would ride off to battle just as eagerly...
I sighed. If I closed my eyes, it was so easy to remember that day – the first time Éomer had ridden to war since we'd wed. I could still feel the exhilaration of the men around me; still hear the snorting of the warhorses as they made ready to depart.
I will not always be there, Lothíriel. You do understand that, don't you? I'd agreed so readily to those words before our marriage, but as a wife and mother Harad seemed so far. I'd wanted to cry out, scream my denial, hammer my fists into his chest and plead with him to let someone else take his place. Tell him that he needn't go, that the Gondorian troops were closer and anyway my father would be sending my brothers with their companies of highly-trained knights and men – but I was a queen, and I held my breath.
Instead, I'd passed our son into my husband's arms and leant against his shoulder, breathing in the familiar smell of pine mixed with leather and horse. Éomer kissed Elfwine's downy cheek and blew in his ear, making him giggle. 'Would you like to ride with me to the bottom of the hill?'
Elfwine's face lit up, only three he might be, but no treat could be more welcome to a young Horse-lord.
Knowing someone would bring my son back, I'd stayed on the platform, my eyes inevitably drawn to the road. Praying that my husband would also come back to me.
Near Harad FA5
Why did they have to sit cross-legged on the floor? It was not comfortable for someone with such long shanks. Éomershifted his weight on the plump, embroidered cushion. To take his mind off the cramp in his calf, he studied the dancers, although what they were doing was like no dance he'd ever seen.
'What I want to know is why they wrap their wives from head to foot in black and one is barely allowed to speak to them, yet these beauties cover only the bare essentials. And no doubt one would be able to do much more than converse.' Amrothos raised a black brow, smirking over the top of his gold encrusted goblet.
Éomer didn't answer as the nearest girl moved purposefully towards him. She wore a yellow skirt so delicate it could have been made from spider silk and through which he could see her legs. Long and shapely, they were clothed only by a tracery of net. Tantalisingly she flicked a wisp of sparkling material in front of her breasts which were held tight in a gossamer thin bodice that ended well above her midriff. Her brown belly undulated in time to the music. As she came close, the low seat ensured that his eyes ended up directly in line with her navel. Lodged in the secret crevice was a dark stone, which picked up the light from the myriad of lamps around the tent, to wink at him. Éomer dragged his gaze away from the fascinating sight of velvet flesh that rolled and rippled in two directions at once and looked up into her face. Red lips showed through her scant veil; above the scrap of translucent fabric black eyes glittered in unmistakeable invitation.
'Amroth is right,' Prince Amal's smooth voice jerked Éomer's attention from the dancer, 'but there are many beautiful girls, you may wish to choose another. And you, Amroth, I am sure we can find one to your taste.' The prince moved on, sitting himself down next to Aragorn; Éomer met Amroth's eyes and encountered an amused, sardonic look, which he interpreted as – I will if you will.
Certainly tempting. Éomer took a gulp of his wine, playing for time, but before he could decide if the customs of the country justified him breaking a trust with his wife, Amroth cut into his thoughts.
'A difficult decision, don't you think? And one of us can't succumb without the other.'
'Why do you say that?' It always paid to weigh Amroth's words carefully.
Amroth made a show of considering his answer. 'Well, you are married to my sister, who has become a great friend of my wife. We would have to agree to collaborate.' He stifled a grin when Éomer didn't respond. 'For myself I'm not bothered. Such is my vast experience of women, I am doubtful I will find anything new. You, on the other hand, coming from a country where the ladies are not so free with their favours, may wish to avail yourself of any opportunity.'
Éomer stared at him, wondering whether to laugh, or punch him on the nose. 'Well, I don't.' Temptation conquered; decision made. The mischievous mud-stirrer had just wanted to see how he'd react.
'Very wise.' Amroth's lips twitched. 'Neither would I in your position. It must be inhibiting being married to a lady as fey as Lothíriel.'
'I am here to fight, and far as I am concerned the sooner that happens and I get back to her the better.'
'Yes, and I imagine fighting those red-tongued devils will take our mind from thinking of other forms of exertion.' Amroth mused for a moment before some thought flashed a smile across his face. He leaned closer. 'Besides, Erchi says their hair smells of mutton fat.'
Éomer spluttered into his wine. 'He's already sampled the goods?'
'Of course. Don't forget we arrived a few days ago. My brother is never one to waste time.' Amroth looked over to where Erchi lounged on the other side of Amal and Aragorn, paying the dancers rapt attention. Aragorn, on the other hand, was deep in conversation with the Harad prince seeming barely to notice the swirling girl trying to rouse his interest.
'I think she's wasting her time,' Amroth murmured. 'I have a feeling our high-king is above such carnal considerations.'
'Or being married to an elf gives him the same trouble as me,' Éomer shot back. But he knew it wasn't the fact that Lothíriel was fey that stopped him from succumbing, any more than Arwen being an elf stopped Aragorn. It was that having sworn loyalty and love, he would try his damndest not to break his vows. As he had once told Lothíriel, risking their relationship for a moment's stolen pleasure made no sense. He also had a sneaking suspicion that Amroth, in spite of his light-hearted remarks, felt the same
'Your wife has no second sight, Amroth, and I'll look the other way.'
Ebony eyes glinted. 'I don't think so, perhaps Devoran might not guess, but Drummer would certainly be suspicious. Dogs are so perceptive.'
Éomer laughed. As he'd thought! 'Perhaps it's a good job I left Firefoot at home. He always likes to know what's going on; Firebrand doesn't care what I get up to.' A surge of regret choked him for a moment – all horses were special, but some would always be more special than others. It had been hard not to bring Firefoot on this trip, but the horse had given his best during the Ring-war and sense dictated that a long ride south to be followed by days of hard battle on the edge of a desert would not be likely to prolong his life. But however much he missed his old friend now, at least Firefoot would be there when he got back.
In the days that followed, Éomer had cause to be thankful that Firefoot was peacefully grazing in the meadows outside Edoras – the heat was like nothing he had ever experienced. And the flies! They buzzed continually around the horses, driving them mad. Even allowing manes and tails to fly loose and covering their heads with makeshift hoods to keep the pests from eyes and ears brought the poor beasts little relief. The thin-skinned Harad war-horses seemed to have some immunity and dealt with them better, flicking their large ears constantly.
For three days they rode south, towards the barren borderlands of Near Harad. Here the dwellings they came across appeared to rise out of the sand and stone of the desert landscape – except for a few trees around the watering holes everything was the same colour. But somewhere here, if the reports were correct, an army waited to attack.
Éomer shielded the sun from his eyes and scanned the vast expanse of scrub and sand; halfway through the morning and already sweat trickled down his face and dripped onto his collar. He could see nothing moving. If this campaign hadn't been so important he'd have led his men back to the cool fields of the Riddermark. But Prince Amal's territory stood as a buffer between Gondor and the war-loving tribes of the far south, and a threat to Amal was a threat to the whole west. If they wanted Amal as an ally, then they could not let the present incursion go unanswered, and had to help him push the invaders back from his borders. Also they had to show that seven years on from the Ring-war, Gondor was willing, and strong enough, to aid and protect its new friends.
'They must be out there somewhere.' Éothain swatted a fly against his cheek and wiped his sleeve across his face, studying the resulting stain. 'The bugger's had my blood.'
Éomer squirmed in his saddle. When the damn things bit they left great itchy lumps. And they got everywhere. He turned to the Harad scout. 'You're sure. I don't see a thing.'
The man grinned, white teeth gleaming against his brown skin. 'They don't want you to see them, lord. They are waiting for you to get nearer before they attack. Farther on the sand is softer, so they will have the advantage.'
'But where are they hiding?' Éomer squinted into the haze. 'I see nothing but a few bushes and humps of sand.'
'A wise man, lord, hides a date amongst a bunch on a tree.'
'Or a blade of grass on the plains of the Mark,' Éomer murmured under his breath as realisation hit him. He stared hard at the humps scattered over the landscape. At first he'd thought them some trick of the wind...
'They're bloody camels!' Éothain expelled air through his teeth. 'Hundreds of them, crouching down.'
'And hundreds of camels mean hundreds of warriors; they must have covered themselves and their beasts with sand.' Days of Dearth! They were in for full scale mounted warfare! But then that was why he'd been given this section to clear. Éomer gave his attention back to the scout. 'You say the sand gets softer farther on.'
'It does, lord.'
'Then we'll have to get them to come to us.' Éomer gave orders for a fake retreat, a pretence to show that not having found the invaders they'd given up. Some of his men dismounted, managing a fair depiction of a force given over to exhaustion and apathy. The men of the far southlands were still under the evil influence bred by Sauron and had sworn destruction to Gondor and her supporters; as such he was counting on the devils not being able to resist the lure of battle and the chance to strike a blow against their hated enemies.
'Pass the word to be ready. If they come, they'll come fast to try to take us unawares.'
'And if they don't?' Éothain muttered.
'Then we'll go after them and take our chances with the desert.'
But they came. Silently at first; fooled, perhaps, by the display of lethargy. Only when Éomer gave the order to mount and turn to face them did they charge – red-tipped spears punching the air as they screamed their fury and their hate.
To be continued
Original characters appearing in this chapter.
Hulde Lothíriel's maid. Originally from the Eastfold.
Déor Friend of Éomer, brought up in Aldburg. Appointed Captain of the
Queen's Guard after Éomer and Lothíriel's marriage.
Byrde Hama's youngest daughter, married to Déor.
Prince Amal Ruler of Near Harad. Made treaty with King Elessar after the Ring- war