Minas Tirith, 15th March, 3019
He reeked of death. Éomer pushed open a window and stared out into the night. Below him, campfires dotted the Pelennor, mirroring the star-strewn sky above him. Acrid smoke hung in the air and the sickly sweet smell of carrion filled his nose. From below or from his clothes? He wondered if he would ever get rid of the stink. The harsh cawing of crows carried up from the battlefield, for not even the darkness put the birds off their feast.
Éomer was beyond exhaustion, yet he did not think he would be able to sleep. He cast a look over his shoulder. The old woman – Ioreth – who sat beside Éowyn's bed, watching over her, gave him a reassuring smile. At least Éowyn had finally slipped into much needed slumber and he felt confident about leaving her in good hands here at the Houses of Healing. Now he just had to wait for Prince Imrahil to find him a room in the Citadel, as he had promised earlier on.
Yet though he was bone weary, he could not calm his thoughts. Like the waters of a stream swollen with snowmelt, they churned through his mind. He could not shake the picture of Éowyn's still face as she lay amongst the trampled grass. Of the mad charge that had followed, only fragments remained in his mind: the rising sun glinting on a curved blade, a young Haradrim, his eyes wide with terror, blood flecking Firefoot's coat. Éomer shook his head. His mind had not become clear again until the black ships had sailed up the river.
And now his uncle lay in state in the Citadel and he was King of the Mark. The last one? Éomer sighed and turned his back on the view below. Time to find the Prince of Dol Amroth and take him up on his offer. Tomorrow would bring many decisions and he needed to get what rest he could.
After a last lingering glance at his sister's slumbering form and a nod to Ioreth, Éomer left the room and softly closed the door behind him, finding the hallway deserted and only lit by a few struggling lamps. It felt as if he was the only person left awake and the whole Houses of Healing had succumbed to the sleep of exhaustion. Now where had Prince Imrahil disappeared to?
Choosing the general direction of the exit, he walked along the corridor and turned a corner. Suddenly a muffled noise reached his ears. Éomer paused. Was that somebody crying? Yet the rooms on both sides all had their doors closed. He shrugged: probably a patient waking from a nightmare, hardly surprising after the events of the past day.
The sound came again. And then he noticed that one door stood slightly ajar. It was so small that he had taken it for a cupboard door, but when he took a step closer he definitely heard stifled sobs emanating from it.
Éomer hesitated. He was tired and had just fought from dawn to dusk – and that after riding over a hundred leagues in five days. His mind might still be wide awake, but his whole body ached and longed for rest. He only wanted a bath and a bed. No, make that simply a bed. It was none of his business if somebody had sought a quiet corner to cry. He began to walk down the corridor again.
Something in the choked off sound stopped him as if he had hit a wall. A note of desperation, of some poor creature reaching its breaking point. Éomer closed his eyes. He did not need this. Not now.
A smothered sniffle.
With a sigh Éomer turned back to the door and pulled it open. Ducking low under the lintel he stuck his head in. At first he could not make out anything, but as he pulled the door open wider, the light from one of the lamps in the corridor lit up the small space. He had been right; it was just an airing cupboard containing shelves of folded linen sheets. In one corner sat a huddled figure. One of the young lads assisting the healers? He perched on an overturned bucket, face buried in a crumpled sheet of linen, so that nothing showed but a few strands of black hair escaping from under the hood of his shapeless brown robe. The lad hadn't noticed Éomer's presence yet and his shoulders shook with suppressed sobs.
Éomer reached out a hand and touched him lightly on the arm. "What's the matter?"
With a shriek the lad fell backwards, to end up sprawled on the floor. Éomer winced as the metallic bucket clattered against the wall. Frightened grey eyes stared up at him.
"Easy!" he exclaimed and crouched down by the boy's side. "I mean you no harm."
The lad scrambled back to his feet, all long legs and awkward grace, reminding him of a nervous colt being handled for the first time. Then the hood fell back and black hair tumbled across his shoulders.
Oh! Not a colt. A filly.
Éomer slowly straightened up and held his hands out before him. "My apologies. I did not mean to frighten you."
The girl drew a shuddering breath. "I...I didn't hear you come in. You startled me."
Obviously. She was a small thing, barely reaching his shoulders, with her face red and blotched from weeping. But her voice held the pure accent of Gondor's nobility.
"I'm sorry," he said. Taking a step back, he hit his head on the lintel and winced.
She peered up at him and he realized that to her he was probably just a tall silhouette outlined against the light from the corridor behind him, so he moved aside to let her get better view of him.
"You are one of the Rohirrim?" she asked.
The girl straightened up and pulled herself together with obvious effort. "Do you need assistance?" She pushed her tangled hair out of her face. "I'm afraid I'm not a healer myself, but I can take you to them. Where are you hurt?"
"But..." she motioned at his clothes.
Éomer looked down at himself. His squire had collected his hauberk for cleaning earlier on, so he only wore the shirt that went underneath it. Everywhere large rusty stains dotted it, witnesses to the battle just fought. He shrugged. "That's not my blood."
"Oh!" Her eyes went wide. "I see." Uncertainly, she smoothed down the front of her brown smock, which had its own share of stains. "So what are you doing here?"
"I was actually on my way out," he explained, "for a friend has promised to find me a bed for tonight." Éomer gentled his voice. "Then I heard you crying."
She wrapped her arms around herself. "I'm sorry," she answered, looking utterly forlorn. "I didn't want to disturb anybody. That's why I chose this cupboard. Nobody ever comes here."
"Please," Éomer interrupted her, "you weren't disturbing me. I just wanted to help."
She tried to smile, but it came out all shaky. "You already have. You and your countrymen saved us all, didn't you." Her voice fell to a whisper. "This morning I was certain we would not see another dawn." She closed her eyes. "The First Circle was burning and you could hear the orcs singing and laughing. Smoke everywhere. And then suddenly the horns..." A single tear escaped from under long lashes and ran down her cheek. "The great horns of the North!" She bit her lips, but a choked off sob emerged anyway.
Somehow it was the most natural thing in the world to gather her close. For a moment she resisted, but then she clutched his shirt. "It was so horrible," she whimpered. "All night the wounded arrived, burnt or hacked to pieces. And we could do so little to help them!"
Feeling her tremble with suppressed anguish at the memory, he rubbed her back. "I'm sorry, little one." If only he could do something to comfort her.
She didn't seem to hear. "We ran out of poppy syrup by midmorning," she whispered. "There was a boy...one of the lads who had stayed behind to help run errands for the healer. He had joked with me earlier on." Her fingers tightened their grip. "And then he got trapped in a burning house. The entire left side of his face... it was gone. But he still breathed!" She leant her head against his chest, her whole body cold and stiff. "I was glad when he died."
Hesitantly Éomer brushed back a strand of hair. "The pain can no longer touch him. He's safe now." Not the most eloquent words, but it seemed to be the right thing, for some of that awful tension left her. "It's all right to grieve," he added.
Suddenly she started crying again. Violent, choking sobs, like those of a hurt and bewildered child. Éomer held her patiently while she hid her head against his chest and let her tears flow. He had not before considered the situation of the people of Minas Tirith, for in his mind they had just been a faceless mass. Besides fulfilling their oaths of assistance, it had also made sense to meet the evil tide out of Mordor before it could reach the borders of the Mark.
Now suddenly the people of Gondor had a face. A small, tear-splotched one. What if they had arrived too late? The thought sickened him. She would have been lucky to find a quick death. Far more likely was a life of slavery amongst the Haradrim, and if the orcs had captured her... He could not finish that thought. And it might yet happen. Rage swept through him and he tightened his grip on her. No it wouldn't! Not while he drew breath.
Her sobs had slowly quietened, but she still had her head buried in his shirt. "I'm sorry," she said, her words muffled.
"For breaking down like that. You must despise me for being so weak."
He looked down at the crown of black hair pressed against his chest and had to suppress the impulse to stroke it. "No, I don't," he answered gently. "There is no shame in crying." He had done so himself at the knowledge of how many of his men would not ride home to their wives and children. So many deaths! His responsibility now.
A defiant sniff. "But your own women fight!"
The words were like a stab straight into the gut. "Only one," he answered, trying to keep his voice level. "And with all my heart I wish she hadn't."
She must have heard something in his tone, for she raised her head. "Oh! I didn't realize. You know Lady Éowyn?"
Her mouth dropped open. Then she pushed herself away from his chest. "You're the King of Rohan!"
"Yes." The words tasted like a draft of bitter poison. What wouldn't he have given to have his uncle back. And Théodred!
The girl seemed to have an instinctive understanding of what he had left unsaid. Hesitantly she reached out a hand. "I heard of your loss, my lord. I'm so sorry."
His throat tight, he nodded. "Are you all right now?" he asked, his voice harsher than intended. "If so–"
That moment steps sounded in the passage outside. "King Éomer?" somebody called. It sounded like Prince Imrahil.
Éomer turned to answer, but the girl was quicker. With a gasp she darted past him and pulled the door closed. Darkness enveloped them.
Éomer grabbed her. "What–"
"Shhh!" she hissed.
"Is something the matter?"
The girl pulled him back from the door. "Please!"
"Shhh!" She reached up and pulled his mouth down on hers, extinguishing his protest before it could form properly. Soft curves pressed against him, barely disguised by the thin fabric of her robe. His mind was taken by surprise.
But his body knew exactly what to do. Of their own volition his arms went round her, drawing her to him. Sweet as honey, warm as a hearth fire in the depth of winter, vibrant and alive in the midst of so much death. He wanted her as he had never wanted anything before. In her arms he might forget for a moment the heartbreak and carnage of the day. It would be a gift beyond compare.
Seizing the nape of her neck with one hand, he deepened the kiss, devouring her. In response a quiver ran through her and she clutched his shoulders. At the back of his mind Éomer knew that he should stop, that she was nothing but an innocent, yet he just couldn't. Outside the city, men he had known all his life lay cold and lifeless, the crows feasting upon them. Knowing that they had been right to come did not make it any easier to bear.
"Please make me forget," he whispered, taking a quick breath, before claiming her lips again.
And by some leap of understanding she grasped his need, or perhaps she felt the same, for she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him back. His hands traced the gentle curve of her back and her hair whispered through his fingers, silky and scented with soap. Such a wonderful everyday smell, far removed from the field of battle. If only he could lose himself in this pliant, yielding body.
Hungrily, he began to explore the silken softness of her skin with a series of kisses trailing down the arc of her throat. Darkness surrounded them and only the sound of their fast breathing broke the silence. It was as if they had stepped out of the ordinary world they inhabited into a space where only the needs of the heart ruled. Where between them they might soothe each other's hurts, at least for a brief moment.
Refusing to consider what he was doing, he tugged at the laces at the back of her robe. The girl trembled, but surrendered into his embrace. As he sought her lips again, he tasted the salty remnants of tears.
"Lady," he breathed, "I want you so much."
At their movements a broom fell over with a loud clatter and she jumped in his arms. Yet still she did not pull away. Her warm breath ghosted across his cheek as she exhaled shakily. He hesitated.
"Who's in there?"
The girl started violently at the muffled call from outside the door. "Oh, no," she whispered. "He mustn't find me, please!"
"Hello?" the enquiry came again, closer this time.
Maybe the Valar were sending him a sign. Éomer sighed as he came to a quick decision. "Stay in here," he said and pushed her to the back of the linen cupboard.
Then he whirled round and ducked outside, quickly pulling the door closed behind him. The lintel not having moved, he hit his head again. Éomer swore. He should have kept his helmet on!
Prince Imrahil jumped back in surprise. "My Lord King," he exclaimed, "what were you doing in there?"
Rubbing his aching forehead, Éomer bowed to the older man. "My apologies, Prince. I needed a quiet moment to compose myself. The cupboard seemed as good a place as any."
With a compassionate smile, Imrahil clapped him on the back. "I understand. But you must be dead tired; let me offer you a bed in my town house and whatever hospitality Dol Amroth can provide to ease you." He lowered his voice. "Do not worry about your sister, she is in the best of hands here."
To his shame he had to admit that he had forgotten Éowyn for a moment. "You are most kind," he murmured.
Prince Imrahil led the way towards the exit. "Believe me, I understand your concern for her only too well. This is no place for women. In fact I thank Elbereth every day that my daughter is safe and sound in Dol Amroth."
Only listening with half an ear, Éomer nodded politely. He could not help himself, as they reached the end of the hallway, he cast a look back over his shoulder. The door to the airing cupboard stood open a crack and he could almost imagine a pair of large grey eyes watching him from within.
Was it so very wrong to hope that she might still come looking for him?
A/N: Well, here we go again. Many thanks to my beta Lady Bluejay and the people at the Garden for their comments!
And if you want to keep up with what I'm doing writing wise, I've got my own website now: liapatterson . com.