Edoras, five years later…
Up the corridor and back again. Thirty-two steps one way, thirty-two back. He knew every hairline crack in the flagstones, every variation of colouration of the dark grey slate. What was taking so long? Surely last time–
The door to their bedroom opened and he spun round. Ivriniel emerged, carrying a pile of linen, which she deposited on the floor. He detained her before she could go back inside. "How is she?"
"Éomer, these things take their proper time, you cannot hurry them," Ivriniel answered. "So why don't you go and have a tankard of ale. You look as if you need it." She shut the door firmly in his face.
Ale! When his wife was fighting a battle as fierce as any he had ever faced. His eyes fell on the pile of linen, stained with streaks of red. Blood. Gliwen's blood.
He took up his pacing again, cursing inside. How he hated waiting, not being able to do anything! It would have been much better to battle a pack of orcs single-handedly, only none were so obliging as to attack Meduseld just now. As he strode up and down the corridor, he was dimly aware of the worried faces of Éothain and Ealdred, then a maid scurrying by with the dirty linens, yet he dismissed everything from his consideration. Nothing mattered except the struggle behind that closed door.
A muffled moan resounded through the thick oak, cutting him like a steel blade. Bunching his hands into fists, he closed his eyes. Last time he had sworn eternal celibacy at this point – a vow from which his wife had eventually dissuaded him.
He opened his eyes in surprise as small fingers tugged at his sleeve, to find Elfwine gazing up at him.
One of the maids hovered behind him apologetically. "I'm sorry, Éomer King," she stammered. "The boy refuses to go to bed. He just won't settle down."
Éomer scooped his son up into his arms, utterly grateful to have something to do. "That's fine, Beornwyn, I'll look after him." The girl, one of Hild's sister-daughters, dropped a curtsy and left.
Elfwine wound his arms around his neck. "Why can't I see Mummy?" he sniffed. "I've been good all day, but Auntie Ivriniel won't let me in. She says I have to go to bed now."
A wave of male solidarity swept through Éomer. "I know, it isn't fair," he agreed. "Tell you what, why don't you stay up and keep me company for a while." He swallowed. Surely it had to be over soon!
The boy perked up. "May I?"
"I would consider it a great favour." Nothing but the truth.
Elfwine wriggled down. "We can play with my horses," he exclaimed, cheerful again.
The boy ran off, only to reappear a moment later, clutching his collection of wooden horses in his shirt. He would have been quite happy to sit on the floor in front of his parents' bedroom, but Éomer bundled him up and carried him into the study.
A bright fire burnt in the hearth against the autumn chill and Elfwine settled down on a rug to arrange his toys. Éomer's heart gave a pang when he saw the book lying open on the chair next to it. He picked it up and turned it over: An Introduction to the Natural History and Classification of Spiders. Carefully he marked the page and put it away on a bookshelf. She must have been surprised by the first birth pangs right in the middle of reading. The news of the queen coming to her time early had reached him in the training grounds, and though he had hurried back at once, they had only allowed him a brief glimpse of her before ushering him out. Gliwen had smiled at him, but she'd already had that abstracted, inward facing look, bracing herself for what was to come.
With a sigh he sat down cross-legged on the rug and admired Elfwine's horses, which the boy held out to him. He'd carved the first ones himself, but the boy had since acquired many more from the riders. However, the first two horses, Firefoot and Aémette, remained his favourites.
Elfwine gave him the grey stallion. "Here, you can be Firefoot."
"And what do you want to play?"
"The Battle of the Camp," his son and heir declared proudly.
Éomer rolled his eyes. Ever since Ivriniel had told him that tale as a bedtime story and as a result kept him up all night, the boy had talked of nothing else. "Very well," he agreed.
The battle took considerable time to set up – the Wainriders had to be positioned properly after all and Elfwine knew down to the last wagon what their camp had looked like. He requisitioned a diverse array of objects from his mother's table to become the Wainriders' carts: pieces of rock crystal from an excursion to the White Mountains, strange stones with the curling imprints of long dead sea creatures found in a river bed in the East Emnet, lustrous shells picked up on a beach in Tolfalas during their last visit to Amrothos in his self chosen retreat. For the commander's wain he used a sunstone from the North, light shimmering mysteriously in its depths.
Involuntarily Éomer had to grin. Hild no longer complained about the lack of clutter in his rooms. And for himself, he no longer complained about the inevitable paperwork, not if he could watch his wife puttering about her workshop while he read his reports. They usually ended up discussing anything from army tactics to her newest project: sewers for Edoras. Éomer enjoyed her insights, her different view of the way things had always been done in the Mark. Though she considered them rather tedious, she had started to attend council meetings and his councillors had fast learnt to be afraid of the words 'well, if you look at it logically…'.
His smile faded. His logical wife, so absolutely desirable with her thoughts scattered and confused by his touch. He still vividly remembered their wedding night and Gliwen's innocent enumeration of the research on the subject that she had attempted – luckily all theoretical and mostly confined to the insect world. Although she had complained that most of her books were not very informative, almost deliberately vague! She had been a fast learner though, once he had supplied the practical skills… Tiredly he rubbed his eyes. Nine months later Elfwine had been born, a quick delivery with no difficulty. So what was taking so long this time?
A knock on the door brought him to his feet, but it was only Ealdred with a tray of honey cakes and a mug of ale.
"Any news?" Éomer asked.
The man shook his head. "None yet, my friend. But Ivriniel sent word not to worry."
Not to worry! Easy to say when it wasn't his wife in there, suffering and in pain. Oh, how he wished for that band of orcs to attack Meduseld! And there had been no sightings of wargs in the White Mountains for three years, so there was little hope that way either.
The small, worried face lifted up to him gave him a jolt. He sat down again and drew Elfwine into his lap. "It's all right, Elfwine. Your new brother or sister is just taking a little longer to arrive." He offered the boy a cake, which was accepted graciously. "Are you looking forward to seeing the baby?"
Elfwine gave a doubtful sniff. "Babies are boring," he declared and shoved a sticky hand through his honey coloured mop of hair. "Can we play now?"
The battle was duly joined and Éomer, as usual being assigned the role of the enemy, did his best in a brilliant and highly innovative defence of the Wainriders' camp, which faltered however before the relentless advance of Elfwine's cavalry. However, it did not really succeed in taking his mind off what was happening in the bedroom nearby – surely those were more muffled cries?
As the night drew on, the fire slowly died down to embers and only the flickering light of one of Gliwen's big beeswax candles lit the room. Elfwine yawned mightily and snuggled into his chest. Éomer gathered him close, revelling in the feeling of that small, warm body. So utterly precious. And trusting him to make the world a safe, happy place… An icy hand tightened around Éomer's heart. What if anything happened to Gliwen? Giving birth was a risky business – the last queen to reign over Meduseld had died in that same bed. What if…
He refused to finish the thought. Gliwen would be all right, she had to be! He could no longer imagine waking up without her sleep-tousled form beside him. Meduseld would be cold and empty without her pressing her newest mead experiments on his riders or waxing enthusiastically about some fresh scheme. She had filled his life with love and laughter, and without her…
The door creaked open and he froze where he sat with his sleeping son in his lap, suddenly convinced that all his worst fears had come to pass. He clutched Elfwine, willing the door to remain shut, the news to stay unannounced. In the draft the candle guttered and went out.
Ivriniel stuck her head inside and peered at him. "Éomer? What are you doing sitting in the dark?"
"Gliwen?" he croaked, unable to form a coherent sentence.
"Tired, exhausted, completely spent. And very, very happy."
He felt as if he could breathe again. "She is fine?"
"I'm sure she will be. After all she's young and healthy. But don't you want to see her?"
Elfwine still in his arms, he surged to his feet. "Of course!"
The boy roused from sleep and his eyes fluttered open. "Mummy?"
"Yes, Sweeting, we can go and see her now."
With large strides he hurried out the room and down the corridor – so blessedly silent! At the door to their bedroom he took a deep breath and then gently pushed it open. Through the ante-room and then…
His wife lay in their big bed, small and lost against the wide expanse of white sheets, her black hair spread across the pillows. Hild was just wiping her face with a damp cloth. At his entrance, Gliwen's eyes flew up to him and she gave him a tired smile.
Elfwine stirred in his arms. "Mummy!" He yawned hugely. "They wouldn't let me see you."
Hild vacated her place and he sat down on the side of the bed so Gliwen could kiss their son. "I'm sorry," she said. "I missed you, too."
Soothed, the boy wriggled out of Éomer's arms and nestled against his mother. "We played Battle of the Camp. I won," he mumbled.
She kissed the crown of his head. "That's nice." However, Elfwine gave no reply, he had already fallen asleep again.
Ivriniel bustled up. "Do you want me to put him to bed?"
But Gliwen shook her head. "Let him stay."
She looked so worn and pale! Gently Éomer took her hand, seeming almost translucent, and brought it to his cheek. "Dear heart, how are you feeling?"
A glimmer of a smile flitted across her face. "As if a mûmak had sat on me." The smile deepened. "Éomer, don't you want to know?"
From the other side of the room came a snort. "What your wife laboured so hard to bring into the world, you dolt!" Hild stepped forward, a white bundle in her arms, from which soft mewling issued. "You have a daughter, Éomer King. And unless I'm mistaken, she'll be a stubborn one, for she wanted to come her own way: feet first."
Reverently he rose to receive the bundle. Grey eyes, framed by a wisp of blond hair gazed up at him, and when he touched a tiny hand, the small fingers closed around his thumb in a firm grip. "A daughter!" Delight bubbled up within him.
That moment the midwife straightened up from where she bent over something by a basin of water and handed Ivriniel, who was hovering over her, another bundle of cloth. The old woman chuckled. "Two, actually." Carefully she pushed back the linen to reveal another tiny, wrinkled face.
Éomer stood as if pole-axed. "What?" he stammered.
The women broke into giggles. Gliwen clutched her stomach. "Oh, that hurts!"
"You have two beautiful, healthy daughters," Hild said with a huge smile.
"Two?" he repeated, still stupefied. Then suddenly he had his arms full as Ivriniel passed him the second child to hold as well. Two identical pairs of eyes regarded him critically. "But how!"
Ivriniel gave an amused snort. "You are asking us, young man?" That produced a fresh burst of mirth, so loud that Elfwine stirred in his sleep, though he did not wake.
Lowering her voice, Hild motioned at the babies. "So what will you name them, Éomer King?"
He gathered his scattered wits. In the Mark, it fell to the father to name his children and thus accept them for his own. He had discussed his choice with Gliwen beforehand, but now he suddenly had to think of another one.
"A daughter I wanted to call after her mother," he said slowly, regarding the baby in his right arm. Just then she wrinkled up her nose and gave a delicate sneeze. He had forgotten how small a newborn was! "I name you Béocwen," he declared.
Then he hesitated as he gazed down at the other baby. To call them after their mother… Suddenly he knew. "I name you Hunigswéte!"
Hild sighed with satisfaction. "Good, auspicious names."
Simultaneously his two daughters chose that moment to crease their face into a scowl, turn red and start to cry. "See, they've got your lungs," the old housekeeper pointed out, pleased.
Gliwen held out her arms and the midwife helped the babies to latch onto her breasts. As they began to suckle, soft sniffles of contentment filled the room.
"Will I have enough milk?" Gliwen asked with an anxious frown, stroking their downy heads.
"Don't you worry, my lady," the woman soothed her. "Nature will take care of that. You're experienced at nursing, you'll cope fine."
Twins! Éomer still couldn't quite believe it, though the evidence was right before his eyes. He sat down on the side of the bed, drinking in the sight of his wife feeding their daughters.
"You still look dumbfounded," she said with a smile. "Are you pleased?"
"Pleased? I'm elated!" He rubbed his temples. "I just find it difficult to believe."
"So did I when they told me," she agreed.
"You didn't know?"
"Not until I was right in the middle of birthing them!" She nodded at the midwife. "Apparently Mildburh suspected."
He rounded on the woman. "Why didn't you tell us earlier! We had a right to know."
But Mildburh, who'd assisted in bringing most of the babies of Edoras into the world, was unimpressed. "And what would you have done except worrying your poor wife endlessly?" She harrumphed. "You should have thought of that earlier and gone easy on the mead."
Éomer blinked. Did the woman really believe in that old tale? If so, the reputation of Gliwen's mead making skills would go up another notch with this double birth!
Gliwen sighed. "Maybe it was for the better. I tell you, Éomer, sometimes I wish I could just lay an egg." Her forehead creased into a frown. "It seems such an eminently more sensible way to go about the business of reproduction."
Éomer, who thanks to his wife knew all about the curious habits of a wide variety of insects, grinned. "As long as you don't intend to imitate the mating habits of the praying mantis?"
She laughed. "Oh, don't worry, I prefer my husband with his head on."
Mildburh gave them a confused look, but contented herself with muttering something about fanciful notions. After she offered Gliwen a tea of meadowsweet and raspberry leaf to ease the after pains, she excused herself. For the rest of the night she would bed down in the anteroom.
Ivriniel and Hild also approached to inspect the babies with possessive pride. After a few initial skirmishes for position, the two women had become firm friends over the past years, united in their belief that he and Gliwen could not be left to manage their affairs on their own.
"I think this calls for a bit of a celebration," Ivriniel remarked to the housekeeper. "Will you join me?"
The other woman nodded. "Yes, why not."
"Good." Ivriniel took her arm. "As it happens, Ealdred told me that a delivery of my special arrived from Morion in Dol Amroth this afternoon. I think we've earned a drop or two."
Hild's eyes widened. "Oh, definitely!" With that the joint rulers of Edoras retired, leaving their king and queen to enjoy the quiet.
Alone with his family at last, Éomer relaxed. His family! A few years ago he'd felt that he had no proper home, and now he had a beautiful wife, a wonderful son and two precious daughters. What a change! He bent forward to stroke Gliwen's cheek and she leant into his hand with a sigh. Up close he noticed the lines of exhaustion around her eyes, the pallor of her skin.
"My poor sweet," he murmured.
A wry smile. "Yes, you men have the easier part."
"I don't know about that," he answered, remembering the wait. "I was so afraid for you. How I hate not being able to do anything!"
She sobered. "I know, I hate being helpless, too."
Her skin was warm and soft under his touch. So alive! Suddenly his earlier fear resurfaced, choking him. "Oh Gliwen, don't ever leave me," he whispered.
She covered his hand with hers and hesitated. "Éomer, I can only offer you the same promise you gave me when you left to campaign in Rhûn last year: if death tries to gather me in, I'll fight for all that I'm worth."
Éomer bowed his head. "I know." Even though they had agreed at the time that it would be much better to deal with that self-styled 'Heir of Sauron' before he raided the borders of the Mark, she had not liked to see him go.
"You said that the home coming would be all the sweeter," she reminded him.
"And so it was." He kissed her lightly on the forehead.
Gliwen smiled. "And next time you'll have even more females greeting you enthusiastically." The two babies had fallen asleep while nursing and Éomer helped her to settle them more comfortably. Luckily the fourposter bed was wide enough to hold them all, even with Elfwine curled up against Gliwen on her other side. Whatever former King of the Mark had commissioned it, had obviously planned for a large family – Éomer could only approve.
Gliwen yawned and slipped down on the pillow, one arm thrown protectively over her daughters. "I suppose I ought to try to catch some sleep."
Éomer nodded. "Yes, why don't you." For himself, he would stay up a little longer and watch over his family.
He studied the two tiny faces, identical in all respects. Blond hair stood out in small tufts and he wondered if they would later sport the same honey coloured curls as Elfwine. One of them – Béocwen – scrunched up her mouth in her sleep while Hunigswéte sighed, as if in reply. Their eyebrows were dark and already curved in the same delicate arch as their mother's.
Gliwen was watching him through half closed eyes and involuntarily his gaze was drawn to where her nightgown gaped open, showing ivory skin. His utterly desirable Gliwen, so different from the frigid princess of his visit to Dol Amroth. He still could not think of her of by anything but her nickname and 'Queen Lothíriel' only appeared in dry, official documents. If their daughters were anything like her… Oh surely the Valar were laughing at him!
"Why are you grinning?" she asked.
"I just had a vision of the havoc our daughters will wreak when they're a little older," he answered. "Unless I'm very much mistaken, in twenty years' time they'll cut a swathe of destruction through Middle-earth's manhood!"
She chuckled. "You'll just have to keep them out of cupboards. That's what fathers do after all."
"Like yours did?"
A sleepy grin was his only answer. Poor Imrahil still didn't have a clue how they had met.
He tucked her up more securely, but couldn't resist the temptation to run a finger down the elegant line of her throat. "You know, you can find all kinds of interesting things in linen cupboards."
"Hmm," his wife agreed with a definite gleam of mischief in her eyes. "Spiders for example."
Béocwen - bee queen
Hunigswéte - honeysweet
A/N: And we've reached the end of another adventure. As always many thanks to all my readers and reviewers! Special thanks go to Lady Bluejay, my wonderful beta, and all the folks at The Garden offering encouragement and good advice.
Some of you have asked what will be next, the answer to which is that I started on an original story not long ago. However, I like this couple so much that I might well return to Middle-earth at some point in the future. Until then, take care of yourselves and go easy on the mead!