As evening fell that day Birte stood outside watching the sunset for a while: the sky was blazing with brilliant shades of red and orange. She heard some saying that it was a sign of blood and of great victory, but to herself she thought: whose victory?
She didn't ask that out loud, though, but rather chose to return to the tent. As far as she could tell, the princess seemed to be faring better; Elric too had taken note of that and there was something resembling hope on his face. She really didn't have the heart to tell him what it would mean for the poor young woman if she did recover and Áed got his victory. But then, the boy firmly believed that his father would come sooner or later.
"She was awake for a bit", said Elric when Birte began preparing some tea for them. "She didn't seem so ill, but she kept asking for Father."
He fell silent for a moment and suddenly looked troubled. He said, "I wonder when he does come. He should be on his way by now, shouldn't he? Don't worry about it, though – he or his men won't hurt you. I'll tell you only ever helped us."
"I'm glad to hear that", Birte said softly. Elric hadn't seen the force that had left the camp, their sole purpose to take down the Marshal... but perhaps it wasn't so cruel to let the poor boy hope for a little while more. Elric looked at her thoughtfully.
"What do you think of this all, Birte?" he asked. "Did you... do you agree with what Áed does?"
"I'm just a healer. What I think doesn't really matter", she said awkwardly at length. She sighed then and looked down on her hands. "The only thing I've ever seen to come out of war is death and suffering. Sometimes I hope we could live with you Rohirrim more peacefully. To be honest, I don't think we're so different from each other in the end."
She expected him to argue, but the Rohir boy nodded solemnly at that.
"That is true. Surely most of Dunlendings are more like you than your chief? I think we could be friends, some day..." he said. He frowned then, "Why do your people hate us so much?"
Birte sighed at that, wondering what she should tell the boy.
"What does your father say about us, Elric?" she asked, approaching the matter from a slightly different angle. It made him frown again.
"Well, he once said that the Dunlendings are bitter because the Steward of Gondor gave these lands to the Rohirrim", he answered.
"Among our people, it is considered that we were treated unfairly. We should have liked to live on these lands, but then your people came from the north and settled here and took what we had considered ours – even if we didn't have the Steward's leave. It's a good and fertile land, and our people could have prospered here", Birte said.
"But it wasn't yours to claim. Rohan was once a part of Gondor, and Steward Cirion gave it to Eorl the Young and his people because they rode to fight for Gondor on the Fields of Celebrant", Elric argued heatedly.
"I know that, Elric. I'm just telling you what most of Dunlendings think", she answered gently.
"I'm sure Eorlingas would be happy to share, if we just were friends. Father said so once. If he were the king..." mumbled the boy, but he didn't finish his thought – not at least in words spoken out loud.
"Perhaps such a friendship could come to be", agreed Birte then. "I would like that, at least. It would be nice to see Edoras, and travel beyond... even as far as the fabled White City. Here in the north we only hear murmurs of it, and stories you dare not believe true."
That made the boy smile again. He nodded enthusiastically.
"I'd like to see Mundburg too. Father has been there once – that was when he and Lothíriel were married. I don't think he really liked that place, though", he said, and then proceeded to explain Birte all that he had heard of the fabled city of kings in the south, and she listened eagerly. For the White City was the place of her dreams, though she doubted she'd ever see it.
The conversation with Birte came to an abrupt end before nightfall when suddenly, noises of alarm rose outside the tent. Those noises – shouting and something like an unravelling chaos – had words dying on Birte's lips as she fell silent to listen. Her expression became concerned, but Elric didn't feel any particular fear... perhaps this sudden outcry meant that Father was coming?
Yet even if it was because he was on his way, Birte didn't appear too relieved. She looked at Elric anxiously.
"I'll go out and see what this is about. You stay here", she told him and wasted no time in exiting the tent. A part of him would have rather liked to go with the healer and see what was going on outside, but that would have meant leaving Lothíriel alone. So, restlessly he remained by her side and fidgeted, wondering what was about to happen. Two emotions fought in him: a wild hope that perhaps his father was about to arrive at last, and fear that something evil was taking place outside.
Fortunately, it didn't take too long for Birte to find out the reason for the outburst. She came half-running back to the tent, looking very pale and grave.
"What is it? What's happening?" he demanded to know.
"You were right, Elric. Your father is coming – I don't know how he prevailed, because only a handful of men who went against him have returned and none of them seem capable of many coherent words", she said, speaking fast as if something important depended on her speed. "Áed has fallen and the camp is in chaos. You must stay here and be very quiet. Don't draw any attention to yourselves, not before the Marshal comes."
"What of you, then?" Elric asked, his heart beating fast with the rush of his joy and relief. Why had he ever doubted Father? He should know that he would never abandon them!
"I'll go out and see if I can keep Áed's surviving men out. I do not think they would wish well for you now that your father has beaten our chief. Once the Marshal comes, I'll bring him here", Birte answered. She turned then and rushed back outside, and Elric held Lothíriel's hand tightly.
"He's coming. Just like you said he would", he told her, though she was asleep and couldn't hear. "He'll bring us home and we'll see Elfhild again. And you'll get better and everything will be all right."
He was so in the middle of these comforting thoughts that at first he didn't take note of Birte's voice arguing with someone. But then the threatening, growling sound alarmed him and he sat up tense, listening...
Elric couldn't understand what was spoken, as the argument was carried out in the language of Dunlendings. Then again, he didn't need to understand the words to pick up panic and urgency in Birte's voice, and the threat and danger in that of the male voice. He recognised it as belonging to Turi.
Birte cried out then, and Elric guessed it was because Turi had done something to harm her; there was a sound of stumbling outside and he knew he and Lothíriel were in grave danger now. Just as Birte had guessed, Turi had not taken Áed's death too well.
Elric sprang up on his feet and quickly he scanned his surroundings to see if there was anything he could use as a weapon. But all he could see was healer's supplies, and then Turi entered, a sword in hand and a murder in his eyes.
The boy leapt in between the blissfully unaware figure of his father's wife and the Dunlending man. In a desperate attempt of appearing like a serious threat, he lifted up his fists and glared at Turi, though inside he was shaking in terror.
No. It can't end like this – not now when Father is so near.
"Make way, boy. Don't make me hurt you any more than is necessary", growled the man, this time speaking in Common Speech.
"You can't touch her", Elric announced in a clear, loud voice. But evidently all of this was just funny to the man on the front of him, for he laughed out loud.
"Foolish boy! How do you propose you'll stop me? While I do rather admire your attitude, it won't save you now... not you, nor that wench you're trying to protect", Turi said, wearing a terrible grim smile. "Actually, you should blame your father for this. Hadn't he come, you two could have lived – Áed had plans for you, after all. But the accursed straw-head came sooner than we expected, and he knew we were there. He even had more men than he was supposed to, and all fighting like demons. Damn it! Someone must have told him to expect a trap. One can never trust Rohir, can you?"
"No, you don't have to do this – you don't have to hurt her-" Elric tried, but then the dark-haired man slapped at him once again, so hard that he fell aside. He cried out as he hit the ground.
"Now, if you would kindly shut up until I'm finished with the Gondorian here. I'm just carrying out Áed's last command, and seeing that we will have our revenge one way or another. I promise I'll show you all the attention afterwards... you don't mind me cutting your throat, do you? As a matter of fact, I think I'll save it for when the Marshal comes. I'd like to see his face when he sees your little neck slit open", Turi growled. He was far beyond any mercy now; rather, he had entered a place of mindless bloodlust where right and wrong did not exist anymore.
But his words also had the effect of pushing away Elric's terror, replacing it with a fierce will to live and fight, and to make sure this beast of a man would never lay a finger on an innocent again.
"I swear, if you don't leave now, I will kill you!" he barked as he got up again, and he might be small compared to this man and perhaps he was weaker too, but he was Marshal Éomer's son, of the blood of Eorl, and of the people of the Mark. And he wouldn't just sit by when his family was threatened.
"So your father taught you how to roar. Nice, but it is not going to save you", said Turi in contempt, and he lifted up his sword... Without hesitation or fear, Elric grabbed at the small blade that hung from the man's belt. Turi changed the way of his weapon's stroke, trying for the boy, but as lightly as he had been taught he stepped aside and dodged the strike.
Now was his moment.
"You know what else my father taught me? To bite", Elric snarled, and fast and precise was his hand as he stabbed the villain in neck. He stabbed once, and twice, and one more time; a gurgling sound came from Turi's mouth, and then he coughed blood. The sword fell from his hand and his feet buckled under him. He fell, let out one last gasp, and died.
Elric's breath came as gasps as he stood over the body of a man he had just killed. Father had once said that the first time he had killed a living thing he had felt cold and evil, and Elric expected to feel like that as well... but instead, all he could think of was we're safe.
He said that out loud.
"We're safe, Lothíriel. I'm not going to let anyone touch you", he announced.
Quietly, he picked up Turi's sword and rested the tip of it on ground. Placing hands on the hilt, he stood guard and waited for his father to arrive.
The captives they had taken from the battle-field revealed the location of the Dunlending camp readily. Their chief slain and their war party broken, the foes had no more reason to fight against the joined forces of the Marshal and the Prince. Only one rider and a knight had fallen, whereas the Dunlending band was utterly defeated, and Áed lay dead, brought down by the wrath of Marshal himself. Questioning one survivor had confirmed what the Marshal had suspected before: Éomer and his men had arrived sooner than expected. This was probably yet another reason for their victory over the Dunlending party.
Whatever had been Dreda's original intention, she had helped him more than she had realised. For if she had not told him where to ride and what to expect, Éomer wasn't so sure they would have got to Áed's war party before they were ready... or that they would have even been able to win today.
It was nightfall when they at last came to the camp: seeing to the dead had taken some time, but Eorlingas were not men who left dead, friend or enemy, for the mercy of winds and beasts.
By the time Éomer and his men along with Prince Amrothos' knights arrived, the camp was already in chaos. Some of Áed's men had escaped from the battle and slaughter and come to bear a word of defeat. Quick scan about the are suggested there was no fighting men left, not at least those who would have still continued the struggle of arms. Though it was obviously a camp of raiders, he could still see a handful of women covering in fear, watching the Rohirric riders in terror as if they were some murderers of the innocent...
The Marshal dismounted and gave his orders. Half of the men were instructed to look for his wife and son, while the rest would gather together all the remaining inhabitants of the camp.
But then as the men rushed forward to take the settlement under control, a woman suddenly approached Éomer. She was dark-haired and -eyed after the manner of Dunlendings, her skin tanned and weather-beaten. She wasn't exactly pretty, but her eyes were bright as stars and there was kindness embedded in her features that instantly made him feel she was someone he could trust.
"My lord Marshal", she called and bowed clumsily at him, "I can take you to your family."
"They are safe?" he asked urgently, and fear hammered in the place of his heart. All the way here, he had tried not to think of things like what if he came too late, and if his wife and son were dead. But now it was getting all the more difficult, and there was a grim little voice telling him it was the only thing he could really expect, especially after the news Amrothos had brought from Edoras.
Prince Théodred is dead. How horrifyingly fitting would it be, if Lothíriel and Elric had perished as well!
"Come and see for yourself", she just said and turned, and he hurried after her. Briefly he wondered if this was yet another trap... if she was taking him to some yet unrevealed band of villains who were just waiting for him to walk into their midst. But then, a thought of his wife and son filled his mind again, and all he could think of was how badly he wanted to believe they were uninjured and to see them, to hold them close and make sure no harm ever came to them again...
And at last the Dunlending woman halted before a tent, and she gestured a hand towards it.
"There", was all she said, and it was everything he needed anyway. Éomer ran like he had never run before in his life... what he'd find in that tent, he didn't know. But it scared him senseless in any case. He unsheathed his sword, half expecting to have a bunch of men jump at him.
It was not swordsmen that he saw when he entered.
There in the middle of it stood his son. Battered and bruised, he looked like he had battled a band of orcs; at his feet, a dead man lay in a pool of blood. Elric's face was that of intense determination and in his hands he held a sword, which he raised as Éomer entered. However, when his son saw it was him, the weapon fell from his hands and he ran to the Marshal.
"Father!" he exclaimed and burst into tears of relief as he threw his arms about his father's armour-clad shape, and Éomer himself let his sword fall as he grabbed his child. Elric was alive! His brave, fierce son was alive, and the dead man on the ground was all proof the Marshal needed of his boy's courage.
"It's all right, son. You're safe now", he said emphatically, but then...
Then his eyes fell on the figure of his wife.
Lothíriel lay quiet and still, looking like she too had been through fire and shadow. Her lips were dry and chapped, her hair that usually was so beautiful was glued to her scalp, and her face was aglow with fever.
"Lothíriel!" he exclaimed in terror as he let go of his son, rushed to her side and grabbed her limp form into his arms as he fell on his knees.
Even as he called her name in broken whispers, she opened her eyes and looked up at him, and an incredulous little smile came to her face.
"You came", she murmured softly. "I knew you would find us."
He couldn't answer, not in words at least, so he just let out a muffled sob of relief. For the moment, all he could do was just to hold her close. He had meant to tell her so many things once he saw her again, but now that he had her in his arms again his voice failed him, and he never wanted to let go of her...
"Is Elric fine? I thought I heard him fighting..." she mumbled, resting her head against her husband's shoulder. She apparently thought nothing of the fact he was way-worn and weathered.
"I'm all right", came the boy's voice then, and Éomer's son stopped just by his shoulder. "There was a man who wanted to hurt us, but he won't do harm to anyone ever again."
He touched his father's shoulder then, and the Marshal took his son's hand in his own. He looked gravely up at him.
"You did well, Elric. I am proud of you", he said solemnly, which brought a smile to the boy's face. He'd have to ask his son what precisely had taken place here, but that could wait for later.
Then at last, having seen that his family was safe, his more practical side began to work again.
"Son, could you perhaps go and find Prince Amrothos? He would probably like to know his sister is all right", he said, and Elric hurried out to find the prince.
"Amrothos is here? How is it possible?" asked Lothíriel. Though she obviously was ill, she wasn't delirious at least.
"He came back, the stubborn thing he is... I'd explain everything but I should think he wants to do that himself", said the Marshal. He gathered her against him more steadily. "Now, let us get you out of this place..."
He was about to rise up on his feet, but then she moved suddenly.
"Wait", Lothíriel said quietly. "There is something... I need to tell you before..."
"What is it?" he asked and sudden dread came to him. Dozen terrible scenes instantly filled his imagination, and he trembled.
None of them, however, was what she did say.
"I lost the baby."
The world was evil dreams and shadows. That was most of Lothíriel's recollection of their captivity afterwards. The first hours were the most terrible: the pain, blood on her hands, the horrible realisation of what it meant, and Elric's helpless terror when he couldn't help her...
But somehow, she lived, though she wouldn't have expected it. Lothíriel was quite certain this was where and when her life would end, and she mourned not only her two children, one of whom would never be born and the other who would not know her mother, but also all the years she could have lived otherwise... she mourned being parted from the man who had brought her into this land and to whom she had never told how much he... and yet death did not come.
She lived, but time was a concept of little meaning. Hours merged to one another, and most of it she wasn't even sure if she was awake or dreaming. Sometimes, she'd see Elric's face above her and he seemed to be telling her something important. Other times, there was the face of a woman she didn't recognise, but the stranger didn't seem like she meant evil.
There were dreams of war and pain and sorrow, loved ones leaving and never returning, and the hopeless faces of those who had no home any longer, the faces looking up at her and expecting her to fix everything, and a pale-eyed man who regarded her and her little daughter with hatred. Elric battling a faceless man above her, the shouts of alarm, the certainty that Éomer would not get to them before it was too late. And war, Rohan burning, her home destroyed, and all the people she knew put to sword...
But not all dreams were too dark, for there were few lighter instances, of a life back in Dol Amroth and long afternoons by the sea, and then nights of gold and silver in the Marshal's Hall, voices speaking and voices singing, a little fair-haired girl calling her Nana, and finding her heart in the hands of one she had thought stranger.
She was taken back to a night that seemed so long ago now, back in the stables of the royal palace of Minas Tirith. The tall golden-haired man, so vivacious and full of life in the middle of all that white stone; he had found her attempting to steal horses and yet had wedded her... and the feel of his hands when he touched her, the way his sharp eyes could turn so soft, and how he would look like when he'd laugh or frown or smile, or when they made love and he'd murmur her name, and everything, the very vastness and insanity and sorrow of Arda, seemed to make sense for one moment before it all fell apart once again.
Eventually she emerged from this tangle of dream and nightmare. When she did, it was to a voice calling her, pleading her to return through the darkness.
And for him she did.
Elric was the one to bring Prince Amrothos to that tent where his sister was. He had anxiously waited for the moment he'd see her, and be able to make sure that she would be fine.
However, he wasn't prepared for what he saw when he peeked in that tent. His sister was there, yes, and so was the Marshal... but Amrothos instantly wondered why both of them appeared to be in tears. Surely the fact that she and Elric were alive and reunited with Lord Éomer was a happy thing?
The boy lightly touched his arm then, having sensed his confusion. Amrothos looked at Elric; he too had seen the scene inside, and his brow was knit.
"She lost her baby", Elric said very quietly.
"Oh", was all Amrothos was able to produce, and he pulled back from the tent, though he felt bangs of regret for not being there for his sister when she had needed him. He'd have liked to go to his sister and tell how sorry he was, but there was time for that later. For the moment the two had to share their grief alone. Amrothos knew Lothíriel's was not entirely untroubled as far as child-bearing went, but that didn't mean a loss of a child would not hurt her... and her husband appeared to take it just as heavily as she did.
"I think we should maybe give them a moment", he decided, and the Marshal's son nodded solemnly in agreement. The Prince sighed and shook his head, and gave Elric what he hoped was a comforting smile, "Walk with me for a bit?"
"Aye", said the boy and they turned, to make their way back where they had come from. Couple of Marshal's men passed by, apparently still in the search of more Dunlendings. But as far as Amrothos could tell, the surviving warriors had probably deserted the camp already, leaving behind only those who couldn't escape or didn't dare to face the dangers of plains so close to Isengard.
"How did you find us?" asked Elric then. "And how did you beat the Dunlendings?"
"Well, to answer your first question I should probably start with the second", Amrothos answered. "You see, myself and my men have been riding all over these lands in the search of your father and his men. I don't know if it was luck or just because they took some time to rest their horses, and then spent some more time in burying those two men your captors killed, but eventually we were able to catch up with the Marshal. As soon as we got sight of that abandoned wagon, it was not too difficult to find him and his riders."
"We got to your father when he was trying to come up with a way to win against the Dunlending war party. Joining our forces evened the odds enough, and we attacked the enemy from both sides. Lord Éomer's men happened to have bows, which certainly helped... I've never seen anyone ride and shoot arrows at the same time like that before. Our attack came as a complete surprise to the Dunlendings and they went into something of a chaos. After that, it was just really a matter of finishing up. Your father took down their leader, and survivors gave in easily enough", Amrothos explained. "One of them gave us the directions here, and as soon as we had seen to the fallen, we rode to find you."
He had just finished the explanation when Captain Éothain strode swiftly to them. Much like the Marshal himself, Éothain too seemed to function by endless energy.
"Prince Amrothos, where is Lord Éomer?" he asked, "I'd like to speak with him."
"He is with his wife", Amrothos answered, lowering his voice. How much should he say? But then, it seemed to him that his brother-in-law very much trusted this man, "There was... she gave him some ill news. They seemed to need a moment."
"I see", Éothain answered; what he thought didn't show on his face, but he appeared to appreciate Amrothos' judgement. He noticed Elric then, and smiled, "Good to see you, laddie. You all right?"
"Aye. I got some bruises but the other man fares far worse", said the boy. Amrothos remembered seeing a body in the tent and looked at the boy in surprise.
"You killed that man?" he asked.
"He tried to hurt Lothíriel", Elric said, frowning as he spoke. "And he would have killed me too, on the front of Father's eyes."
"What beast! You did well, my boy", Amrothos told him. He looked at Éothain then, "Is everything under control? Or should I go and get the Marshal?"
"No. Perhaps the Lady needs him more at the moment... and the other way around, too. I can supervise everything here, though I must say there's not much to supervise. The fighters appear to mostly have escaped before we came and I don't see the point of chasing them... it's probably more important to get the Princess safely back home. There can't be too many Dunlending warriors left anyway. As for their womenfolk, we've gathered them together and there's so few of them we should be able to escort them all to Edoras", said the Captain.
"We can't let them go? It's not like they took part in fighting", Amrothos pointed out.
"Aye, they didn't. But they're still a part of a hostile Dunlending party that caused serious mischief. We'll have to bring them to the King so that he can decide how to judge them", said Éothain.
"Did you come across a healer woman? She should be treated kindly – she helped Lady Lothíriel, and was very nice to me", Elric put in.
"No worries, lad. We don't treat our prisoners cruelly", Éothain reassured the boy.
Two Riders returned then to report. They spoke in Rohirric so Amrothos couldn't tell what was said, but the calm tones at least suggested everything was under control. The captain affirmed this as he turned to speak to the prince again.
"They say the camp is secured. They couldn't find any more of members of the war party. All in all there's thirteen Dunlendings – two injured warriors and the rest are women", Éothain explained. "I suggest we stay here for the night. It's quite late and I think we all could use some rest. And there's certainly more shelter here than on the plains."
"I agree. But perhaps we should ask the Marshal what he thinks..." Amrothos answered, though his voice was uncertain. He didn't think his sister and her husband would really appreciate outsiders barging in right now.
Éothain looked like he would have said something, but his gaze fixed then on something behind the Prince. Amrothos turned around to see what it was, and saw Lord Éomer quietly approaching them. He carried his wife, whom he had wrapped in his cloak. She looked pale and weak, but she held on tightly to her husband and appeared to be talking to him very quietly.
"Sister!" Amrothos called out then. Oh, Father would be furious once he heard of this!
Lothíriel lifted up her head at the sound of his voice and gave him a tired little smile.
"Brother. I'm glad to see you", she said; her lack of surprise probably meant her husband had already explained what had happened.
"Likewise. I was already fearing I wouldn't find you alive", he answered.
"My lord, the camp is secure and we have gathered together all survivors. How should we proceed?" asked Éothain.
"We'll stay here for the night. The men and the horses could use some rest", answered the Marshal. His voice was clear and determined, but Amrothos didn't miss the look of grief and loss in the man's dark eyes. He loved all his children, even the unborn one... and what had happened to Lothíriel was his deprivation as well.
"Aye. I'll organise the watch turns right away", Éothain said, bowing his head.
"Prince Amrothos, may I ask you to see to your sister? I should speak with my captain", Éomer said then.
"Of course. I'll find a tent for her", Amrothos answered readily. He cast a look at Elric, "Would you like to help?"
The boy nodded quietly. He looked kind of concerned, but there was also something similar in his face that was to be seen on his father's. Both were people to do what needed to be done.
It was getting late when Amrothos and Elric had finally found an adequate tent for his sister; he sent the boy on his way to get some sleep as well. The prince himself would have liked some rest too, but first he wanted to speak with Lothíriel.
She already knew most of what had happened, and what remained was explaining Amrothos' return and her telling how she and Elric had been taken here. He listened to quietly, gritting his teeth in frustrated anger. Now it was clear as day: how he had been played too, and sent away so that he couldn't intervene with the plan to ensnare his sister and Elric.
"So it's all because of that Dreda", he declared when Lothíriel had finished her story.
"Her and Wormtongue", she said quietly and sighed. "The plan was probably his, but she helped to achieve it."
"Oh, I think I just might strangle her when we get back to Edoras, even if she's a woman! Have you already told your husband?" Amrothos asked.
"I have. He was... he took it rather heavily, though he had already knew she played some greater part in this. She was his friend, after all", said his sister.
"Some friend she was!" muttered the prince. "To send you and Elric to such a danger... but worry not, sister. She'll have her punishment, one way or the other."
"Perhaps she will", said Lothíriel quietly. "But it will not bring back the baby."
"I'm sorry, Lothíriel", Amrothos said, his voice heavy with regret. He'd have liked to tell her something more, something to take away that sorrowing look in her eyes. But nothing seemed adequate. All words were hollow at the face of such a loss.
"I'm glad that you came, though", she said, sounding like she was trying to distract them both. "We probably owe our survival to you. Thank you, brother."
"Don't mention it. You're my sister, after all. And I have a feeling a lot of people would be very cross with me if I just happily rode away and let those scheming villains get your husband killed", he said, trying for a bit lighter tone.
"Yes", she said and her brow furrowed, "His life is all the more precious now..."
"You heard of Prince Théodred?" Amrothos asked, at which his sister nodded quietly. The frown on her face deepened and she gave him a pointed look.
"And you understand what it means, don't you?" she asked.
"Sweet Elbereth", he breathed. "It means your husband is the heir apparent. And you... that would make you a queen some point in future."
"So it would seem", she sighed. "But only if... if all turns out well when we return. I don't think Wormtongue will let Éomer take that position if he can somehow prevent it."
"Well, aside from the King himself, Éomer is the last living male of the House of Eorl, and Wormtongue is just an overly power-hungry adviser. Surely that has to count for something?" Amrothos tried.
"Let us hope you're right about that", Lothíriel said, not sounding too convinced.
Her brother decided this was a topic too heavy to be conversed now, especially since she looked like she could use rest. He patted her arm then, "Don't worry about it too much, sister. You should concentrate on getting better, and try to sleep. We have a long way ahead tomorrow."
"Of course", she said quietly.
"I'll get someone to guard the tent. You'll be completely safe here", he promised her and she gave him a weak little smile. Amrothos kissed his sister's brow, touched her hand gently, and stood up. She closed her eyes and mumbled a soft "good night".
She had dozed off, but she woke up when her husband settled down beside her.
"Shh, déor min. It's just me", he said quietly when Lothíriel opened her eyes and shifted anxiously.
She'd rather liked to curl against his side, but moving about seemed burdensome, and she was so warm under the cloak and the blankets. He shuffled closer and she placed her chin on his shoulder.
"I missed you", she mumbled softly.
"Likewise", he answered, turning so that he could kiss her forehead. "How do you feel?"
"Just tired. Don't worry about me", she told him, though she knew he'd do so anyway.
"Hmm. We should rest. I have a feeling tomorrow will be a very long day", Éomer said quietly, letting out a sigh. He was probably thinking of what awaited them in Edoras, and she'd have asked what he thought would happen... but Lothíriel found she was too tired for a conversation like that. For the moment, she wanted to just be there next to him, relish his presence, and this feeling of being safe. Strange, how he could make her feel like that just by being there with her... as long as Éomer was near, she knew nothing could ever harm her.
She thought about going back to sleep, but then decided that could wait for a little while more.
"You know that I'm sorry, don't you? I know I made an enormous mistake in trusting Dreda. I should have known she planned something like that. Silfbár and Wigmund and the baby are dead because of me", she said quietly, but he lifted her chin gently so that he could see her eyes.
"Lothíriel, I don't blame you for what happened and you should not think like that either. Neither of us had any reason to believe that she would trick you in such a way. And even if you had somehow known not to trust her, I do not believe Wormtongue would just have let you escape his trap. One way or other, he'd have made sure you and Elric ended up in his web, because he knows how much you mean to me. It was beyond your control", he told her firmly.
He kissed her forehead again then, and sighed. He continued, "But if you want to place fault on anyone, I should be counted guilty as well. I should have guarded and protected you better. Just... don't be too hard on yourself, my dear wife. This is a game you were not prepared for."
"I just wish I could have done something to prevent it", she said, worrying her lip.
"I know. I feel the same... but I promise Dreda won't come near you again. She'll be dealt with, sooner or later", he promised her; briefly, an angry note appeared in his voice. She trembled.
"We'll survive this, won't we? We'll be happy again", Lothíriel said quietly, closing her eyes.
"Aye. We will."
The exhaustion finally settled on her and she allowed it to take over. But then, just as she was on the brink of falling asleep, she heard him speak again: "Lothíriel, I..."
"Mm?" she mumbled sleepily.
"... never mind. It can wait", he said softly. "Sleep well, dear heart."
In the dark, his hand found hers.
On the morrow before first light they started for Edoras. It felt good to leave behind this setting of the nightmare, though the pace was not as fast as one might have hoped for. After all, Lothíriel was not fit for riding and the bier carried between two horses demanded a steady gait. The horses were of Rohirric stock of course, and they knew to keep their walk stable as soon the company started for the road. It was surprisingly comfortable and the princess found herself dozing off more often than not. Though it was frustrating to make travel like this, she did know very well she had no strength now for much else than lying down.
"I'm going to be very angry with you if you strain yourself now", said her husband firmly and told her to rest as he pulled the blankets tighter about her.
Another reason for the slow pace was the Dunlendings. Éomer himself had said he'd let them go as there were few fighting men left, and the women in the camp were not a threat to anyone. But after the trouble they had caused Théoden King's judgement was needed. So they had taken what they could of their camp and followed the riders. There were some mules and even couple of horses – stolen from Rohirric herds it looked like – which helped with transportation.
The princess herself dozed off much of the journey. There was something consoling in the voices of men and horses, and also in the sound of Rohirric. Those were the sounds of home, and she was comforted. It felt like she and Elric had left Aldburg years ago and she wondered how soon they'd be able to go there after arriving to Edoras. She thought of Elfhild as well and felt curious kind of ache; the need to see her child and hold her close was painful.
Hrodgar promised to look after her...
Oh, if only there had been some way to go back in time, so that she could prevent herself from ever leaving Aldburg!
She sighed to herself and closed her eyes again, hoping for a moment of release in dreams, for though she was eager to go home she also had a feeling it wouldn't be quite so easily done.
They made a stop at midday to give a moment of rest for those on foot, and the women lead by Birte quickly fixed food for all the company. Though they were technically prisoners, they appeared to not be above co-operating with the Riders. Amrothos came to sit by Lothíriel; his spirits returned, he sounded more like his usual self again.
"I must say", he said after a while, "I'm really impressed by the actions of young Elric. I don't know if many a boy of his age could stay so calm or single-minded through such an experience."
"He's an extraordinary boy", Lothíriel said softly. "I believe I owe my life to him, in more than just one way. I'm worried, though... he did kill a man, after all. Éomer said he'd talk with Elric about it, but still."
"I think he's going to be fine. He was fighting for a just cause", Amrothos mused. She let out a non-committal sound and fell silent for a while. Then she looked at him again.
"You don't seem too concerned about what will happen once we get to Edoras, brother", she noted.
"Why should I be? You're safe, and that's what this all was about", he said, shrugging.
"But you did disobey the King's order and punch Wormtongue. He's not just going to let it pass", she pointed out.
"What can they do to me? Wormtongue may be a villain but he wouldn't harm Lord Denethor's kin", Amrothos said, sounding completely unaffected.
"Yes, he is a villain, and that's why you can't trust what he will do. The Steward is my uncle too, but that certainly didn't prevent the snake from sending me and Elric to what could have been death", Lothíriel pointed out. However, her brother still seemed unconcerned.
"I'm sure it'll be all right. Don't worry so much, sister. And anyway you should be resting. I believe that husband of yours might just push me into a bog if he thinks I've let you wear yourself down", he said lightly, patted her shoulder, and went off to get some more stew.
It was strange to be back in Edoras, but also very unpleasant. For one, there was the knowledge of just how much Wormtongue wanted them dead... and the atmosphere was more grim than ever. But that was no wonder. The death of Prince Théodred had been a severe blow, and perhaps the full consequences of his loss were not even realised yet.
Éowyn practically ran to meet them as soon as they reached the courtyard of Meduseld. There were tears in her eyes that she wouldn't let fall, and for a long time she hugged her brother and nephew. She looked like she'd have hugged Lothíriel as well, but seemed like she thought she might accidentally break the younger woman. As soon as Hafoc and Wíglic had unfastened the stretcher from between the two horses, Éomer turned to look at them and was evidently about to give orders, but then Háma, the Doorward of Théoden King, came down the steps.
"Marshal Éomer. The King wants to see you right away", he said, and then glanced at Amrothos, "and you should come as well, Prince."
"Aye", said the Marshal. He looked at his sister, "You'll look after my wife?"
"Of course. Go ahead", said Éowyn gravely; her relief had faded away into some dark thought. As her brother and Amrothos started up the stairs, she looked at the two men holding up the stretcher. "Follow me."
They carried Lothíriel to her husband's chamber and carefully lifted her to rest on the bed. Elric had followed and hovered at the door, looking like he was hoping he could help somehow. Éowyn noticed of course.
"Elric, would you go and call for Master Cyneric? I think he should take a look at the princess", she said. Readily the boy dashed away, and Éowyn sat on the edge of bed.
"You lost the baby", she observed quietly. "I am very sorry."
The princess did not really find it in herself to answer that, not in words at least. She merely nodded and looked away for a moment in an attempt to gather her calm again.
"But at least you have returned to us safely. I feared what would happen if you did not... while you were gone, evil things have happened in the realm", Éowyn said. She hesitated, like it was difficult for her to speak of this.
"Yes, I heard. Prince Théodred has... I'm very sorry", said the princess and sighed.
"I am too – especially now that Wormtongue is more powerful than ever before. It is an ill time for men such as him to fall..." said her sister-in-law heavily, "but he saw it coming. Ever since Ethelgifu gave you those words, Théodred was certain he'd die sooner or later. And what it means..."
"Your brother is the only one left", Lothíriel said. Her voice was weak and the weight of fate was heavy.
"Aye. He is now the only male of the House of Eorl save for our uncle. He will have to take Théodred's place", Éowyn answered. "But that is only if he can reach the King, and have our uncle listen."
Éomer, the heir to the throne of the Mark... or the traitor.
Somehow, both outcomes were just as scary. Lothíriel gripped Éowyn's hand tight and her sister-in-law seemed to understand. Same doubt and fear were reflected in her cool blue eyes.
Briefly Éowyn looked away, but as she was about to speak again, noises from outside distracted them and the angry notes of Rohirric filled the corridor...
"Wait a minute. I will go and see what this is about", she said and got up, hurrying to the door and exiting as quietly as if she were a ghost. Lothíriel held back her breath, wondering what was happening. She had no doubt it was something bad.
"Don't you dare touch me! You may call me a traitor all you want but you're not going to prevent me from saying goodbye to my wife!"
The door was thrown open.
He stood there at the doorway for a split second, and the look on Éomer's face was of great grief mixed with helpless anger. He flew to the side of his wife and she knew something was very, very wrong.
"What has happened?" she asked.
"I have been banished from the kingdom under the pain of death", he said, and his voice was that of a man trying to fight terrible despair.
"No!" she gasped, grasping his hand. "How could the King decide such thing? Why did he do that?"
"I don't think it was his decision, my dear wife", said the Marshal quietly, his eyes sorrowful, "but apparently it is because of my defiance of his orders to stay here, because I'm too hungry for power and war, and that I mean to usurp the throne... evidently Théodred's death and Ethelgifu's words prove this. And so I have been commanded to leave the realm."
"But where will you go?" Lothíriel asked, trying to fight back her tears. She should have known something like this would happen... that the troubles were quite not ended yet. But this? This was something she wouldn't have expected. Éomer, the most faithful of men, banished from Rohan!
"I don't know yet. Perhaps North, and try to figure out something..." he mumbled and cast down his eyes, and she understood he had hard time finding his resolve. She felt the same way: the possibility of being parted from him again terrified her more than she would ever have expected.
"Take us with you. Please, my dear, you can't leave us now", she begged in a moment of weakness. She couldn't see him gone, not after what had happened!
"You're in no condition for the kind of road I'll have to take, Lothíriel", he pointed out. "It will be dangerous, perhaps even more so than I can see now. And you have to stay and look after Elfhild – she'll need at least one of her parents. You need to stay and heal."
He was right. He had to go... go, and leave his family. And more importantly, she had to let him leave, and make sure he did so with as light heart as it was possible now. For how would he survive if the only thing he could do was to worry for his family?
"Aye", she said softly, though she knew it would be a hard thing, to do this without him...
But she had to be strong. She had to endure, for him and for Elfhild. As gently as she could she kissed the palm of his hand, taking these last moments before they would be parted again Valar knew for how long.
"It's all right, my dearest husband. We'll be fine. I'll get better and we'll... we'll survive, somehow. I'll take care of Elfhild and Elric. Éowyn will be here with us", she told him. But then he let out an unhappy moan, and leant closer towards her.
"I can't leave you, Lothíriel. I can't just go when you're so ill, and..." he whispered in despair as he rested his forehead against hers. In Rohirric, he whispered, "I've only just found you and there is so much I..."
"You have to, Éomer. They'll kill you if you stay. You need to go now and survive. So that you can return to us", she answered, resting a hand on his cheek until strength left her arm and it fell down on the mattress. A quiet sob that was laden with so much agony escaped his lips. He caught her hand and kissed her fingers.
"Just... don't give in. Don't die while I'm gone. I can't lose you too", he mumbled against the palm of her hand.
"I'll never stop fighting", she promised him, even managed a smile to encourage him. And she asked: "Kiss me hard before you go."
With his hands, he cradled her face and leant down to kiss her, and it was as she had hoped; all the need and despair and determination to fight was there, and it wasn't perhaps gentle but it was everything else. There was the urgency you could only share in the face of an unwilling parting, and she held tight on to him with what strength there was left in her... deep inside, she knew it could very well be the last time he'd ever kiss her – she needed to make it count.
And she needed to remember how it had felt like to kiss him, how he had tasted, how his beard scratched at her skin, and how he had made her feel so alive.
But even the most desperate kiss must end, and at last he pulled back. He took some long breaths and then looked at her again, more concentrated now.
"Once you can, travel to Dol Amroth. Take Elfhild with you when you go. Elric too, if you're able. Stay there and wait for me – your father will keep you all safe until the day comes I can take up that task myself", he told her quickly.
"Of course. I'm going to wait for you", she said, holding tight to his had.
"I will find you, my Lothíriel. I will come back", he said and kissed her, and while his lips were still inches from hers, he spoke: "I love you. I love you."
"I love you too, Éomer", she answered, tracing his cheek for one last time. "I will see you again."
But then there were men behind him and he was torn away from her, and he was pulled towards the door, but his eyes never left her. There was a promise in his eyes, fierce and desperate and true; somehow she was able to give him an encouraging smile. They shared one more look, but then he was gone, and his absence felt like night had fallen.
A/N: I know there wasn't supposed to be a new chapter this week but let's be honest - when have I ever showed any consistency in my updating pace? :D Well, this will likely mean the next chapter will have to wait for a bit, especially since I've got some problems in figuring out some things and how some matters should turn out. Anyway, even if I'm not writing I'll keep on thinking about the story and making notes. As usual, I'd like to know if you, my dear readers, have spotted any inconsistencies in the story!
So, we finally have a love confession. I know it's not something grand and great, but I thought this urgent and kind of minimalistic sort of thing was more realistic in the scene. First, when Éomer finds Lothíriel, it's that kind of situation you keep thinking of all the things you'll say, but when you actually get there you just can't utter a word. I believe he almost does tell her how he feels about her a bit later when he comes to rest beside her, but then changes his mind when he sees she's about to fall asleep. But in the end he does confess his love to her, because he simply can't leave without her knowing that he loves her.
Speaking of his departure, here I chose to go along the movie canon, like I hinted in some previous chapter's author's note. There's actually two reasons for this. First one is that in "Heart's Desire" I already wrote a version where Éomer is imprisoned (like happens in the book canon). So it would have felt a bit like writing the same scene all over again. The second reason is that his banishment seems - at least to me - more poignant in this situation than if he was imprisoned. It's a more painful and difficult situation for both him and Lothíriel.
In case you're wondering what has happened to Birte, Amrothos and Dreda, here's bit of a clarification. Birte is among the Dunlendings that were captured in the camp and they have been brought to Edoras. But what this situation will mean to Amrothos and Dreda is a question that will be answered in the next chapter.
A bit of history: the feud between the Rohirrim and Dunlendings does indeed stem from the ownership of the lands that, when the story takes place, make up Rohan. Like Elric says, Steward Cirion of Gondor gave this land to Eorl the Young and his people, who were then called Éothéod. This was in the year 2510 Third Age, after Eorl and his riders came to help Gondorian forces in the Battle of the Field of Celebrant. Eorl's cavalry effectively destroyed the enemy (a hostile Easterling clan), thus saving the Gondorian army. As thanks Steward Cirion gave them the lands of Calenardhon which were a part of Gondor. Eorl and his people settled there and renamed it Riddermark. But about ever since establishing the kingdom, the Rohirrim have had hostile relations with the Dunlendings who would too have liked to claim Calenardhon for their own.
As usual, thanks for your comments!
1607hannah - Thanks for your comments!
Amrothos certainly was in the right place in the right time! Here's not quite the love confession you might have hoped for, but at least truth is now in the open.
Sandy-wmd - Yes, that is (partly) the reasoning he was able to get to Éomer and his men in time.
A Light in the Night - I don't think his fear for Lothíriel and wish to protect one he considers a part of his family warrants calling him a dog. :S
Borys68 - Now that you've pointed it out, I do agree. It's not really the best wording.
You're right that the conversation was probably carried out in the language of Dunlendings. But I'd imagine his tone and look was unpleasant enough for Elric to understand he's not a nice fellow.
Talia119 - Thanks for all your comments! They're always very much appreciated.
You make good points about Birte and Dreda. I hadn't really thought of it from that angle but I definitely support that notion and wish I had thought of it before. As for what will happen to Birte, I suppose that will have to wait for now...
I hope that you're not too disappointed there was no scene of Amrothos telling Éomer what has happened to Théodred. I considered writing that at first, but then found I really couldn't. The way this chapter turned out was really the only one that made sense to me.
lurkspur-ruby73 - Thanks for the compliments! Really warms my heart to know you like this story. :) I actually make a lot of mistakes and then I just want to tear my hair off afterwards when I notice some stupid typo or grammar mistake. Anyway, I hope you like this update!