Dol Amroth 3019.
The odd request from her cousin Faramir had played on her mind all day, but she was no nearer to coming to any conclusion as to whether she would be of use in her present depressed state. Trying to get her thoughts in order – they had been totally skewed with all the upset of the war – Lothíriel clasped her hands around her knees and stared out to sea. The daily fight between the black-backed gulls and the terns grabbed her attention, anything to put off the decision she needed to make soon. The small terns were trying desperately to avoid the attacking gulls and get back to their nests with their prey intact. One victim headed straight towards her, but again and again a gull dived from above, harassing the sleek little bird which jinked and twisted desperately to get away. But the next time the big gull attacked, the tern gave in, opening its bill and dropping the fish that would have fed its chicks. The gull snatched it before it hit the sand and wheeled away triumphantly, leaving the impoverished tern to head back out over the waves.
Lothíriel sighed; the brutal encounters above her were so much like the recent terrible battles of the Ring-war: where the West had fought against such overwhelming odds. But against all hope they had triumphed, and so would the terns in the end. Some chicks would die, but the little birds would bravely keep on and on, ensuring a new generation would skim elegantly across the endless seas in the coming years. A bit happier now that she had rationalized the struggle between life and death going on in front of her eyes, Lothíriel's thoughts went back to her cousin's letter: it was such a strange appeal. Why would the Lady Éowyn, heroine, slayer of the Witch King, need a Gondorian princess to steer her through the complexities of dealing with the returning court? Surely such a brave lady would scythe her way through any pretensions with a swipe of her sharp sword.
Another tern dropped its fish, but she didn't want to watch anymore and thumped down onto her back, digging her hand into the warm sand. She had always loved trickling it through her fingers, picking out the different pieces of shells and quartz that blended together to form the sparkling white beach. The wide sickle of sand that swept below the cliffs of Dol Amroth always drew her, whether for fun or contemplation, and this was a favoured spot, especially today when she felt like being alone. The dunes hid her from all but the birds and the odd butterfly feasting on the purple-flowered orchids. Not being watched was a luxury she could rarely indulge in. Even the fishermen couldn't see her. They were spread out along the edge of the water preparing to cast their nets into the shallows, taking advantage of the bounty of fish coming in with the tide. Good fishing meant full bellies, enough salted fish for the people of the port as well as Gondor's victorious armies. Dol Amroth was eager to make its contribution to those that had saved them from the Dark Lord's loathsome hordes.
She ought to go and help, and didn't really mind rolling bandages for the Healing Houses or packing up spare garments. So many had had their clothes cut from their bloodied bodies or ridden to the relief of the White City with nothing but what they wore on their backs. If only everyone would stop looking at her so sympathetically. She needed to be left alone to grieve in her own way. After all, just because she was the Lord's daughter didn't make her anguish any more than that of the common people. So many had lost husbands and sons, how terrible was that? But nobody was tiptoeing around them.
With another sigh, Lothíriel levered herself off the sand and got to her feet, brushing off the grains that had stuck to her dress. She'd enjoyed a few free hours and it wasn't fair to let her mother to do all the work, especially as Mildis would be busy with young Alphros. He had got even more mischievous since his father and grandfather had ridden to war. But eventually they would be back, so would Erchirion and Amrothos. It was Berenor who wasn't coming home: chopped into pieces on the Pelennor, the parts they could find buried under a mound with a hundred others. Horrible. That was why nobody knew what to say to her. They probably didn't know what to call her either – if she'd lost a husband she'd be a widow, but what name did you give to someone who'd lost their betrothed? No special name. She was still Lothíriel of Dol Amroth, Prince Imrahil's daughter. So much, yet so little, had changed.
The road up to the castle was teeming with carts making their way back and forth to the port, so she decided to take the narrow path that weaved up the cliffs. Such a pretty way to go, especially in the spring, and Lothíriel bent down, unable to resist a closer look at a bright blue sheep's-bit growing in a crevice. Standing up again she scanned the slopes, confirming to herself that her favorite sea-thrift was on the verge of flowering. The little plant grew in big drifts across the salt-lashed rocks; soon the cliffs would be clothed in vibrant pink, always a wonderful sight.
The steep climb made her puff slightly, but when she reached the gate she acknowledged the salute of the guards with a wave and increased her pace, hurrying up the long paved street that led to the keep. Lothíriel knew her mother would be in the hall, the heart of the castle where the household feasted and celebrated. But it was difficult to forget it had been more usual these past few years for the Great Hall to house refugees driven from their homes by the frequent corsair raids, or act as an extra ward when the wounded overflowed from the Healing House. Today, she knew, all the goods to be packed had been laid out on long tables; soon though, as spring had returned to the cliffs, the household would be able to sit in peace and companionship, her family all together at last.
Deciding not to stop and change, Lothíriel went straight to the hall, immediately picking out her mother's upright, elegant figure amongst a group of ladies who were folding tunics and hose donated by farmers, farriers, fishermen and lords. All so thankful that Rohan had come to their aid they wanted to show their gratitude in any way they could. Surely she should be able to push her own worries aside and be happy to go to the White City and support the Lady Éowyn.
Hearing footsteps her mother looked up, pushing back some strands of her glossy black hair that had escaped from the knot at the back of her head. She smiled when she saw it was her daughter approaching. The other ladies smiled too, that slightly embarrassed, concerned smile that she had come to hate, and the lift Lothíriel had felt at the sight of the flowers evaporated like salt-spray on a sun drenched rock.
'I am sorry, Mother.' Lothíriel kissed her smooth cheek. 'I needed to get away for a while.'
'Nonsense,' her mother answered in her kind way. 'I have lots of help and you have worked hard organizing food to go to the city. Everyone understands that you might want a little quiet time on your own.'
Lothíriel swallowed down a sob and dropped her eyes, quickly picking up a garment and folding it to fit inside the bags they were packing. Her mother's gaze stayed on her, and she blinked rapidly, determined not to let a tear fall. But a soft hand, slim and manicured, landed on her arm.
'Lothíriel, I could do with some refreshment, and if you have been on the beach I am sure you would welcome a cool drink too.' Her mother kept hold of her arm, nodding her head to the other ladies. 'Perhaps you could carry on without me for a while.'
'Of course, Lady Arneth,' they murmured, dipping their heads politely as her mother ushered her away.
'Some orange juice would be nice, or would you like pomegranate, my love?' Her mother beckoned to a servant.
'Orange will be fine, Mother, thank you.' Lothíriel followed her into the solar and went straight to the window, staring out at the sea. Clouds were forming on the horizon; it looked like rain coming in, but hopefully the winds would stay light or those travelling to and from the Harlond would have an unpleasant journey. She heard the door open and close, the sound of liquid being poured and then her mother's soft voice interrupted irrelevant thoughts.
'Drink this, my dear, and let us have a little talk.'
Obediently Lothíriel put the cup to her lips; the juice was sweet and cool, stored in the caves beneath the castle. Her mother sipped hers and then sat down on the padded couch, patting the empty space beside her.
For a moment Lothíriel looked down into her mother's wise grey eyes that surveyed her with compassion and understanding. Then she fell on to the couch with a little cry of anguish, to be gathered up into comforting arms. Gratefully Lothíriel buried her head into the soft linen of her mother's day dress. The smell of jasmine lingered, overpowering the musty smell of the garments they had been sorting for days. 'Now, my little one,' her mother murmured close to her ear, 'tell me what is really bothering you, for I know it is not just grief.'
Lothíriel could hold back no longer. 'I feel so guilty, Mother,' she whispered, fearful of the consequences of what she was about to say. 'Everyone is sorry for me and thinking that I am broken-hearted, but although I am sorry Berenor died, and so sad for his parents...I can only feel...relief.' There, she had said it...but instead of the expected gasp of shock, her mother held her tighter.
'I thought that was it, Lothíriel. I have suspected for a long time that your love had waned.'
'I don't think there ever was real love, Mother.' Lothíriel gulped, wiping a hand across her eyes. Already she felt better for confessing.
Her mother frowned. 'Then why did you not tell your father that when he arranged the match.'
Youthful folly! And because duty and the demands of her position had been drummed into her since birth. But she must have been mad to consent to her father's suggestion. 'I suppose I was infatuated because a handsome, well thought of man took an interest in me. And Father was so pleased.'
'Yes, because he thought he had found someone appropriate you would be happy with. But I suppose we should have waited, you were so young when Berenor offered for you. Be assured, my dear, that although your choices have always been limited, your father would not pledge you to someone he thought you would dislike.'
'I don't...didn't dislike Berenor, it's just that lately I realised how utterly boring and pernickety he'd become. In a few years he would have grown to be just like his father: fussy and dreary. I don't think I could have stood that for the rest of my life.'
Her mother let out a sigh, her hand smoothing across Lothíriel's hair. 'I understand you perfectly, my love. But the trouble is that eventually, once all the grieving and the celebrating is over, your father will look around for someone else. He will not force you, Lothíriel, but he will expect you to agree to sensible suggestions. If you want a real choice of husband, you will have to find someone suitable you want to marry and hope he will agree.'
'How am I going to do that? There is no one in Dol Amroth that stirs my heart. All the unmarried ladies are looking forward to heading for Minas Tirith for the coronation and the celebrations, hoping to meet eligible men, but I am in mourning and even if I go, like Faramir suggests, surely I cannot attend such feasts.'
'Normally it would be frowned upon,' her mother agreed. 'But the Steward has specially requested your presence; I think that makes a big difference. Anyway, your father will want me to meet him when he enters the City and I am not happy leaving you here when you are so restless. I think as long as it is known you are there to keep the Lady Éowyn company, and do not dance yourself, there is nothing to stop you attending the formal celebrations. Your father certainly has shown in his letters that he expects you to be there to meet our new king.'
The decision taken out of her hands, Lothíriel felt immediately better. No one could accuse her of taking Berenor's death lightly if she was responding to a request from the Steward and her father.
Mildis was still dressing for supper when Lothíriel found chance to talk to her. It had taken moments to wash her own face and shrug into a clean dress, but even when only ladies graced the table Mildis liked to make the most of her brown curls and fair complexion. She was pretty enough anyway and Lothíriel couldn't really see why she wasted time with kohl and powder. But Mildis put down her brush and pulled a face when Lothíriel divulged to her the contents of Faramir's letter.
'And you're going to do it? Surely this Éowyn must be a bit barbaric to ride to war with a load of men. But I suppose that's why he wants you there, to smooth the edges so to speak.'
Lothíriel shrugged. 'I didn't get that impression; in fact it sounds as if it is because he doesn't want anything to upset her.'
'There we are, and rather you than me. I expect she gets aggressive if anyone crosses her and you will be expected to sweeten things. Elphir says that your father has made a great friend of King Éomer, but whilst Elphir admires him greatly, he finds all the Rohirrim a little testy and their king rather terse and proud.'
'What does he say about our new king?' Lothíriel asked. Her eldest brother always had high standards.
Mildis laughed. 'I think even Elphir cannot find much to criticize. A natural nobility, he said, that overrides the years of living in the wilds.'
'But Father wrote in his letters that Lord Aragorn had been brought up in Imladris, surely that is not counted as wild?'
'I don't know, but Elphir said he arrived on the Pelennor looking as if he had been sleeping under hedges and with nothing to his name but a rough looking horse and a long sword. They've had to supply everything he needs.'
Lothíriel thought that a sword was far more use when arriving in the middle of a battle than fine clothes, but held her tongue, Mildis being rather keen on decency and decorum. Suddenly she felt optimistic about going to Minas Tirith. It would be exciting to meet so many new and famous people and it would get her away from Narhel. Berenor's mother tended to sob over her every time they met. Not for one moment would she give away her true feelings which would hurt Berenor's parents terribly, but the continual outpouring of grief was beginning to wear her down. Yes, it would be good to get away.
Feeling better about the whole plan she smiled at Mildis. 'I won't be able to dance, but the celebrations are bound to be interesting, we have never seen an Elf or a Dwarf.'
'No, that should be exciting. But think, Lothíriel, lords from all over Gondor will be there, you will never have such an excellent opportunity to pick one out. We can have a good look, and find you someone really nice. And rich and handsome, of course.'
'Mildis!' Honestly, her sister-in-law was incorrigible. 'I am in mourning and cannot pick one out. That kind of behavior would certainly be frowned upon.'
'Oh. I agree, you can't do it openly. But if there's anyone that takes your fancy you only have to mention it to your father. He will be pleased and able to start negotiations quietly. That's providing the one you want is a fine match, of course. Which he will be, because it's not a sensible idea to marry a nobody. But I suppose he doesn't have to be really rich, not with your dowry…'
'No more!' Lothíriel held up her hand, finding it difficult to stop laughing. Mildis had certainly cheered her up. 'I have no wish to choose a husband at the moment, in fact it's something I don't want to think about for a very long time.'
But Mildis wouldn't be swayed. 'You wait till you see all those heroes, there's nothing as attractive as a brave man. I think that's what drew me to Elphir, swords and armour seem to make men very desirable. You need to stake your claim, Lothíriel; it will be like wasps around a honey pot.'
Lothíriel couldn't be bothered to argue, and instead turned the conversation to what they needed to take with them.
There was so much to organize and pack in a short time. Lothíriel had no idea how long she was expected to stay in the City. Almost four weeks before the new King was to be crowned and the Rohirrim definitely would not leave for home before that ceremony. But how long would they stay after? How long before she could wave the Lady Éowyn goodbye and return to her own life? Whatever that was going to be. She would need plenty of fine gowns for the celebrations, but what else would she be required to do? Ride? Possibly, so best to take a few riding dresses. But not her mare – Starburst was growing too old to compete with whatever horse a high-born lady from Rohan chose to ride, and Starburst hated sea journeys anyway. All the other decent horses in the stables had gone to war. Maybe Faramir could find her a mount if she needed one. After all, this was his idea.
By the time they left even her mother looked tense and strained, tiredness showing in her eyes. So many wounded had come home and they all had to be succored and the families offered help before the ladies of Dol Amroth could leave with a light heart. 'Someone is going to have to come back soon,' her mother muttered as they waited to board the ship. 'Leaving the castle in the hands of servants is not ideal.'
'It won't be for long,' Lothíriel tried to soothe her. 'Surely Father will want to come home as soon as the new king is crowned.'
'Elphir certainly will,' Mildis chirped. Alphros had gone with one of the sailors to help untie the mooring lines, so she was free for a moment. 'He doesn't like Minas Tirith in warm weather very much anyway, and it will be exceptionally crowded and smelly now.'
Lothíriel had never noticed it smelly on the upper levels, but perhaps with all the warriors around it wouldn't be as fresh as Dol Amroth. But Minas Tirith was not the only crowded place; the ship had been loaded to bursting. Musicians, dancers – it would be a lively passage.
Thank goodness the weather remained calm, at least until they entered the Anduin. Luckily the stiff breeze that had sprung up blew from the west, easing their journey up the great river. Seeing the destruction that had been wrought on the fertile fields and homesteads of the Pelennor made Lothíriel close her eyes in horror. No wonder requests of food had come to the Southern Fiefs.
'Look at the burial mounds.' Her mother clutched at her hand. Lothíriel didn't want to open her eyes and had to force herself. But she grasped at the rail when the great piles of new earth came into view. No, she couldn't look, not at where Berenor might be buried, so let her gaze wander far away from them, squinting at shapes she saw in the distance. What were they? Suddenly they showed up clearly as the sun appeared from behind a cloud. Horses! Hundreds and hundreds of horses, grazing peacefully.
Horses everywhere! In paddocks outside the gates and being led up through the steep streets. Horses and bearded blond men had invaded the City. 'Thank goodness they have,' her mother remarked in response to Mildis' little sniff of disdain at their rough accents and un-groomed appearance. 'And there will be many more when the army returns from Cormallen,' she said to emphasize the point.
Lothíriel liked Mildis, she really did, but sometimes she had to bite her tongue.
Later, she stood on the balcony of her father's house, looking towards the mountains of the Ephel Dúath. Last time she had stood here the Land of Shadow had been wreathed by noisome smokes and black clouds had rolled down the mountainsides obliterating the view of the river. But this evening all the sky was clear, the mountains looked benign, and the setting sun flamed the river red.
So much to be thankful for, and tomorrow she would meet the lady who had contributed so greatly to Gondor's victory. She just hoped they would get on.
'Lothíriel! You look wonderful. I didn't realize I had such a beautiful cousin.' Faramir held out his arms and she ran into them. She wasn't beautiful, and shared her colouring – black hair, grey eyes – with Faramir and all those with a fair proportion of Númenorean blood. And most admired tall elegance, so her average height and elfin looks were not likely to set the court alight. He always made a fuss of her though, and it seemed ages since she had seen him. So much had happened in that time, but he brushed aside her sympathies on the loss of his father and brother, instead concentrating on her.
'Somehow you don't seem as sad as I thought you might. Perhaps I see slight shadows, but nothing that will not pass.'
Those far-seeing eyes of his always did get to the truth and Lothíriel didn't try to hide anything. 'I am not heartbroken, Faramir. Sad that Berenor died yes, sad that so many others had to die. But I will not pretend to you that I don't feel some relief that I'm not getting married in the summer. I may get the chance of having a husband I will be really happy with, and am hanging on to that.'
Faramir hugged her against him. 'War has changed many things, Lothíriel; I feel that your father will not want you to be unhappy and will countenance any sensible choice you make.'
Finding someone to choose would be the first thing to do! But at least being in mourning meant there was plenty of time, and the longer it took the better. Having just been released from one betrothal, there was no need to rush into another. It would be nice to just be herself for a while. But before that a task loomed, one that hopefully would not be too onerous.
'Enough about me, tell me about the Lady Éowyn, and what exactly you want me to do.' Did Faramir's eyes soften at the mention of Lady Éowyn's name? Sure they had, Lothíriel listened intrigued as her cousin started to explain.
'We all owe much to Lady Éowyn, and as you probably know she lay in our Healing Houses, gravely wounded from her confrontation with that evil wraith. Our king coaxed her back from shadow and death, as he did me. But she is in a strange place amongst unfamiliar people.'
'There seems a great many of her kinsfolk around, 'Lothíriel pointed out.
Faramir shrugged; 'Her brother has asked her to join him in Cormallen, but she does not wish to go. She prefers to stay in the Healing Houses until King Éomer returns. The Houses have become her refuge in the city, although she will probably not admit that.'
Lothíriel had the distinct feeling that Faramir had not told her the complete reason Éowyn would not go to Cormallen, but he went on before she could query his words.
'The ladies of the court are gradually returning, the merchants are opening their shops, and the city preparing for celebration. Since I resumed my duties I have not been able to spend much time with her, but besides that I feel she needs a woman to show her the way of things here. The customs of Rohan and those of Gondor differ in many ways. Éowyn is outspoken and ...unlike many ladies. I would not have her embarrassed or looked upon with derision.'
'I would have thought any lady would be grateful for her part in saving us and not even think of deriding her,' Lothíriel retorted. But then she thought of Mildis and realized that some ladies could probably be spiteful when they gossiped together.
Faramir smiled. 'I knew you would feel that way. And you have entry everywhere besides commanding respect for the position you hold, which is why I thought you were the person to steer her through these next few weeks. Once King Éomer joins her I'm sure she will be confident of her position here.'
Lady Éowyn's comfort certainly seemed important to him. Lothíriel squeezed his arm affectionately. 'If you think that a shield-maiden of Rohan and a Gondorian princess are likely to get on, then I will be happy to do my best to make her feel at ease in the city.'
'Good, I had no doubt you would, Lothíriel. Thank you. Shall we go now?'
Lothíriel nodded, but at that moment there was a knock at the door. 'Lord Húrin wishes to speak to you urgently, lord,' the scribe said as he poked his head around the door.
Faramir sighed, his lips clamping together in annoyance. Lothíriel put her hand over his. 'I can find Lady Éowyn. I am sure she knows I am coming.'
'Yes, of course. I told her when your message came. You will probably find her in the garden at this hour.'
'Then I will not take you from your duties, Cousin. I will see you at supper tonight.' Her mother had invited him and she would be able to report on her meeting with Lady Éowyn.
Faramir kissed her on the cheek, and Lothíriel gave him a quick hug before she turned to go out the door. She passed Lord Húrin, who nodded a greeting before he flew into Faramir's room. She heard him launch into some complaint to do with horse-dung before she hurried away down the passage.
Once she left Faramir's study, Lothíriel went down the back stairs to avoid passing through the Hall of Kings, for she always thought it a cold, somber place. Crossing the Place of the Fountain she let her thoughts linger on the conversation with her cousin – surely she was not imagining Faramir's excessive interest in the Lady Éowyn's welfare. Why this should be she had no idea. Was the lady so difficult that he needed to make such extreme efforts to keep her happy? Lothíriel sighed; whatever had she let herself in for? Well, she would soon know as once she left the tunnel it only took a few minutes to reach the main door of the Healing Houses. Her enquiries told her, as Faramir had said, that Lady Éowyn had gone out to walk in the garden.
There were not many green places in the City of Stone; unusually her father's house had a spreading tree in the courtyard and room for a few flowers and herbs. But large open spaces spread around the Healing Houses and had been tended devotedly for years uncounted. The gardens offered a retreat for those recuperating from illness or injury as well as providing herbs and flowers for the making of medicines and salves.
Lothíriel took a deep breath as she left the dim interior of the central passage and stepped out into the bright light. The fragrance made her nose twitch, so many perfumes joined to produce a heady scent of foliage and flowers. Now – she looked around – where would the Lady Éowyn be? On impulse she headed along the rose walk, where there were no blooms yet, but the glossy leaves arched over her head, hiding her from the sun that had elbowed its way between the scurrying clouds. Beyond the rose walk a greensward sloped down to the wall, and as she had hoped a woman stood in one of the embrasures looking out towards the Ephel Dúath.
Tall, she could see immediately, and of course blond, her hair hung down her back like a cascade of molten gold. But Lothíriel had not been expecting Lady Éowyn to be so slim. Somehow she had imagined her to be...brawny. After all, one needed strength to wield a sword, and as for chopping off the head of a monstrous bird... At that moment, although surely she had not made a sound, Lady Éowyn turned abruptly and Lothíriel almost gasped. Wan and sad she looked, but beautiful. Lady Éowyn was utterly beautiful, her fine bone structure and proud carriage a witness to the Númenorean heritage of her grandmother.
Lothíriel bowed her head. 'Lady Éowyn, I am pleased to meet you. I am...'
'I know who you are,' Lady Éowyn interrupted. 'You have the look of Faramir.' Cold grey eyes surveyed her critically. 'I told him I didn't need you here, and I don't.'
'I don't care what he said. I am staying here until my brother comes and I don't require an escort to show me around the city.'
Rude woman! When she had come all this way. Lady Éowyn might be a heroine, but that did not give her the right to be so discourteous. Batting down the sharp rejoinders that came to mind, Lothíriel merely nodded. 'Then I will bid you good morning, Lady Éowyn. I have no wish to force my presence on you.'
Pivoting swiftly on her heel, Lothíriel headed back across the grass.
To be continued
With grateful thanks to Lialathuveril for her expert beta. And also to the ladies of the Garden of Ithilien workshop for their helpful comments. LBJ