The year before the Ring War, Princess Lothiriel of Dol Amroth is sent to Rohan by her father to seek shelter from the storm brewing in Mordor. There she meets omer, Third Marshal of the Riddermark.
The only thing that kept me sane during the next few days was working myself into a stupor. I would rise in the late afternoon, and after a hasty meal head down to the caverns to tend the wounded. Aethelstan had conferred the supervision of the night shift to me, and as I only had a couple of women helping me, that kept me busy until the morning. Then I would take Nimphelos to the practice ring behind the keep for a ride, finishing by giving her a good grooming. The physical exertion of that helped me to fall asleep quickly, into the deep, dreamless sleep of exhaustion.
One morning, about four days after the King had left, I emerged from the caves into a dark world. An all-enveloping blanket of cloud covered the heavens, hanging low above our heads. Only in the far west did a little clear sky still show. People stared up anxiously, but instead of getting brighter the morning seemed to darken with every moment.
I climbed the stairs leading up to the Deeping Wall for a better look and found Ceolwen conferring with Gamling there. The old warrior had been left in charge of the Hornburg in Erkenbrand's absence.
"My guards report that it moved in from the east during the night," I heard him say.
Ceolwen cradled her belly protectively. "It's the day the King set for the weapontake, do you think there is some kind of connection?"
He shrugged uneasily. "Who can say? I have never seen its like before."
No breath of wind stirred as I stared up at the gloom covering us. I had often witnessed Mount Doom belch forth clouds of smoke, but never so thick.
"Some devilry out of Mordor," I told them.
I did not have to add that the darkness would embolden the creatures fighting for the Enemy and weaken the resolve of our own forces. Would we ever see the sun again, or was this the shape of things to come: a world shrouded in shadow? How could you fight a foe that swallowed up the very heavens!
But we had to put on a brave face to reassure the people looking to us. Gamling passed amongst his warriors, telling them they had weathered Saruman's attack, they would weather this as well. And so everybody went on with their tasks, trying to ignore the stifling blanket of cloud above us. The Rohirrim were a valiant people. Or perhaps just very stubborn.
The darkness made it difficult to keep track of the days, yet as no news reached us, each one seemed to stretch on longer than the one before. Fears hovered at the edge of my mind like crows over a battlefield. Only by filling every single waking moment could I hope to keep them at bay. But of course it did not work. Inevitably there were quiet moments at night, when all the men were asleep for a short while, or when I was brewing up a fresh kettle of tea, that I had idle time. And inevitably my thoughts would wing their way east. Where were they? Had there been more fighting? And always: was he thinking of me?
Or rather, what did he think of me! I could still not quite believe that I had kissed him the way I had. Surely no properly brought up lady should have responded to his advances with such abandon. Worse, I had instigated it by kissing him first. But propriety had seemed pretty irrelevant at that moment and in my heart I knew that I would act the same again if given the slightest chance. That thought made me blush - as did the memory of Éomer running his hands over my body. As for his lips...
And would I even get another chance? What if he came to the conclusion that it had all been an attempt to try and trap him into a compromising situation in my bid to become Queen of Rohan! His words had left no doubt as to his low opinion of me, yet there had been something in his eyes as he touched my lips that last time that made me cling on to hope. And I'd had my kiss from him. A proper one.
So my thoughts chased round in circles whenever I could not find enough tasks to occupy myself. And always at the back of my mind there was, of course, the knowledge that he had ridden off into certain battle. If indeed the doom of our time was at hand, all my worries became meaningless beside that.
The people in the caves, mostly farmers' wives, worried about being away from their homes and the many animals that had been left to fend for themselves in the middle of the lambing and foaling season. Spring brought many chores to attend to and was a bad time to sit around idly, far from the fields that needed to be tilled and planted. Moreover, with the winter wheat trampled by orcs, sowing spring grains was even more important. The men might return victorious from their fight in far off Gondor, but unless those staying behind did their part, we would all go hungry the next winter.
And then one morning I was woken from a doze by a shout from one of the sentries on the wall.
"It's lifting! The darkness is lifting!"
We all crowded into the courtyard of the keep and lifted up our faces to the sky. Wind! A warm southerly wind, which teased apart the clouds that covered us like a shroud, and turned them into harmless puffs of smoke, soon blown away. The sun broke through, blinding eyes that had not seen it for what seemed like an eternity. Everybody started cheering. I hugged the woman standing next me, not caring that she smelled strongly of cabbage. Surely it had to be a good sign to have the darkness break up.
But later that day I stood on my walkway, looking east, and wondered whether the sun shone on Éomer, wherever he was. Had they reached Minas Tirith yet? Suddenly the totally irrational impulse to saddle up Nimphelos that very instant and ride after him shot through me. I had to grip the balustrade to keep from running down the stairs, the need was so strong. But what possible good would that do? For all I knew they might be in the midst of battle that very moment. I had nearly managed to get myself killed during the siege of the Hornburg, I would not do anything so foolish again.
But I stood on that balcony a long, long time, straining east.
Once the darkness lifted, Gamling allowed the farmers' wives living in the Westfold Vale to return to their homes. However, he cautioned them to keep their horses ready, in case they had to flee to the Hornburg again. He also sent out scouts and they reported nothing untoward as far as a day's ride away. Further they dared not go, not because of orcs, but because they sighted more of the uncanny trees from Fangorn moving across the Wold to the north. They made for uneasy allies.
At least the wounded in our care slowly improved. By and by we moved them all up to the Hornburg, to the empty barracks where usually the unmarried riders were lodged. They reacted to their fate in different ways. Some of them we had to stop from overtaxing their recovering bodies by doing too much too early, others despaired of ever being useful again and just turned their faces to the wall. Those were the ones that would slip away in the early hours of the morning, when the body's hold on life was most tenuous.
Fortunately many of the Westfold riders had family to look after them and cheer them up, but there was little we could do for the others. It seemed to me that letting them voice their fears and worries out loud made them easier to bear, and so I listened patiently. I had many a heart poured out to me late at night, from youngsters barely growing a beard, to veteran soldiers old enough to be my father.
The waiting weighed heavily on all of us and inevitably tempers flared. We tried to keep up a semblance of normal life, and about nine days after the darkness had lifted I was up in Ceolwen's study, assisting her with her accounts once more. Working out such details helped us pretend that we actually had a future to look forward to. I had got up early especially to help her, but that afternoon, Ceolwen kept adding up the figures incorrectly.
"You're not concentrating!" I snapped at her after she had got it wrong for the third time.
Ceolwen burst into tears. "Oh Lothíriel, I keep thinking of Erkenbrand and I'm so afraid!"
Compassion swallowed up my irritation. "I'm sorry," I said, sitting down beside her and hugging her.
Tears running down her face, she clung to me, her belly big and awkward between us. "I've had the most horrible dreams of orcs cutting him down," she sobbed.
I stroked her back, remembering the time when she had comforted me the same way. "Erkenbrand is a great warrior," I reminded her.
"But he's not young anymore! And I am sure that he will insist on fighting at the front."
What could I say to that? When I had my own nightmares to contend with every time I closed my eyes. Being an accomplished warrior had saved neither Théodred nor Boromir from their fate.
Ceolwen lifted a wet face to me. "What if he never sees our child?" she wailed.
"He will," I told her firmly. "If it's a boy he will strut around, bursting with pride. And if it's a girl he will spoil her rotten."
That actually elicited a tiny chuckle from her. "He will, won't he," she said with a watery grin. "The first thing he did when we found out that I was pregnant was to start looking for a suitable pony. Only the best would do."
I squeezed her hand. "There you go. And one day you will watch him teach your little one to ride."
"You think so?"
I tried to put complete confidence into my voice. "I'm sure."
Ceolwen wiped her eyes. "Thank you, Lothíriel," she said suddenly and hugged me. "I know you must be worried, too."
"Well, probably nearly all my family is in Minas Tirith," I replied, "and Cousin Faramir, and my father's Swan Knights that I've known all my life..."
"And Éomer?" Ceolwen put in gently.
I looked away, unable to answer. She slipped an arm around my waist. "We'll just have to hope for the best. At least you've settled your quarrel. Éomer gets angry quickly, but he's just as quick to forgive."
Picking up a quill, I started to tidy away our writing implements. "I think we'll continue with the accounts another time."
Ceolwen refused to be distracted. "You know, I told Éomer he would be a fool to let you slip through his fingers."
"Really?" I asked in surprise.
She rolled her eyes. "I've never seen two people who are more obviously made for each other, yet you are so stubborn in refusing to acknowledge it."
"It's not that easy."
"Well it should be now," she said, getting up and stretching her stiff back. "You've made up, haven't you?"
I screwed the lid of the inkpot on tightly. "What makes you think so?"
Ceolwen grinned at me. "After all, he's kissed you."
"What!" I nearly dropped the inkpot.
She started to giggle. "Really, Lothíriel, you cannot kiss the future King of the Mark in full view and expect people not to notice!"
"In full view? I did nothing of the sort."
That made her laugh. "Well, in full view of the guards on the battlement."
I stared at her in horror. Did everybody know?
The expression on my face made her laugh even harder. "Oh Lothíriel, it's only natural to want to give the man you love something to remember you by when he rides off to war." She took my hand and squeezed it. "People here like you. They would not mind seeing you as their queen one day."
If it ever came to that. I sighed, but decided not explain to Ceolwen that Éomer was very well able to kiss me and be angry with me at the same time. If only I'd had a chance to explain things to him properly, but events had overtaken me like the rising tide catching an unwary fisherman out on the flats.
When we assembled in the great hall for the evening meal later that day, I could not help wondering if people were talking about Éomer and me. Growing up as the Princess of Dol Amroth had inured me at an early age to always having eyes on me and having to behave accordingly. However, I did not relish the thought of my private affairs being discussed at large. But when I looked around surreptitiously, people seemed to be far more interested in their food than in me.
Because of her advanced pregnancy, Ceolwen found the narrow chairs uncomfortable to sit in, but she always made a point of attending the evening meal, if only for a short while. She had just got up to retire when the doors to the hall were flung open and a messenger strode in.
It had been raining outside and the man left a trail of wet footprints behind him. Where before the low hum of conversation had filled the hall, now silence spread to the furthest corner until you could hear the water dripping off his cloak to the floor when he halted before the dais.
"My lady," he bowed to Ceolwen. "My name is Redwald. I have come from Gondor."
He looked tired and travel worn, but unhurt apart from a dirty bandage on one hand. Surely that had to be a good sign?
Ceolwen clutched the back of her chair. "What news do you bring?" She motioned to one of the servitors to offer the man a cup of ale. Now that I got a closer look at him, it seemed to me that I had seen him serving under Marshal Elfhelm at Edoras.
"Of a great battle fought before the gates of Mundburg," Redwald answered and launched into his tale in a deep sonorous voice like a bard's.
"We left Edoras the day that the darkness began seeping out of Mordor. League upon weary league we rode into the East, reaching the White City at cockcrow nine days ago. Burning it was, and beleaguered by many foes: orcs out of Mordor and men from the South who rode fell beasts the size of houses with long sharp tusks."
A whisper of fear went round the hall as he paused to take a deep draught of ale. I closed my eyes. Minas Tirith burning! And those beasts had to be the legendary mûmakil of the Haradrim.
It was obviously not the first time that the man had told his story, for he went on smoothly. "Then Théoden King let blow the horns. They cast dismay into the hearts of our foes and the darkness lifted. We charged, singing while we rode the Southrons to ruin, and Théoden, outpacing us all, slew their king. Mighty he was that day and strong of arm! But at the very moment of his triumph a dark shadow descended from above." Redwald's voice fell. "It was the Lord of the Nazgûl, most dreadful of all the Enemy's servants. Terror took the horses and we were scattered. And the King's steed, brave Snowmane, slain by a dart from above, buried Théoden King beneath him."
The news caused exclamations of dismay throughout the hall. The King dead! Théoden, who had only just emerged from his own personal darkness.
Ceolwen sank down onto her chair. "What happened?"
"One knight only of Théoden's household was left standing," Redwald took up the tale again. "He fought the evil dwimmer-laik and with the Halfling's aid slew him, even though both took grievous wounds. Only it was no man, it was a maid! Éowyn, sister-daughter to the king, had ridden with us in disguise."
The hall erupted into chaos as everybody began talking at once. Éowyn! How had she got there! I shook my head, unable to believe it. The way the man told his story, it sounded like something out of an old ballad, not something actually happening to people I knew.
Redwald held up his hand and at once people hushed. "Théoden King lived long enough to pass the White Horse on Green to his sister-son, Marshal Éomer, and hail him as his heir before he died. Long may Théoden feast in the hall of his fathers, sharing their glory!" He downed the last of his ale and throughout the hall the Rohirrim followed his example.
"But Éomer," Redwald continued, "finding his sister's broken body upon the battlefield and believing her dead, was taken by wrath such as few have ever witnessed. He rode to the fore of the host, and blowing his horn led the Eorlingas back into battle. Fell he was, dealing death to all standing in his path, and few dared to look on his face. Yet in the end his fury betrayed him, for fresh foes crossed the Anduin behind us, cutting us off from Mundburg." Redwald lowered his voice. "And then a mighty fleet of black-sailed ships came up the river and all hope died in our hearts."
I gripped the edge of the table, fear constricting my chest until I could hardly breathe. What if Éomer had been slain!
With a ringing noise, Redwald drew his sword and held it high in the air. "But it was Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and he flew the standard of the Kings of Gondor. Under the Dimholt he had passed, summoning the dead who owed him fealty, and freed the fiefs of the South. Then up flew Éomer's sword and he laughed with mirth. But the enemy was utterly confounded, and though they fought long and desperately, as the day died, victory was ours. And so ended the great Battle of the fields of Gondor."
I released a great, shuddering breath and so did many others in the hall. Why couldn't the man have said straight away that they had won!
Ceolwen leaned forward. "What of my husband?"
"He lives, my lady," Redwald answered, "but his nephew Dúnhere, Lord of Harrowdale, was slain."
I remembered talking to Aeffe and her cousin on the day that Théodred left for the Fords. When I looked at her, I saw tears well up in her eyes. Wordlessly, I reached over to squeeze her hand.
All through the hall the hum of conversation started up again, as people discussed the momentous news they had just received.
I beckoned the man closer to the dais. "Have you got news of my father, Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth?"
He inclined his head respectfully and sheathed his sword. "I did not see him myself, my lady, but heard that he attended the debate of the commanders after the battle."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "And my brothers? Cousin Faramir?"
"Unfortunately I do not know about your brothers," Redwald answered. "Lord Faramir lies in the Houses of Healing, but is recovering, as is the Lady Éowyn." He hesitated. "But I am sorry to have to tell you that Steward Denethor passed away."
My uncle dead! Denethor who had always seemed as strong as a steel blade. While I stared at Redwald in stupefaction, trying to assimilate his news, Gamling stepped forward and addressed him.
"You say this was nine days ago?"
Redwald nodded. "On the day the darkness broke."
"So what happens now?" Gamling asked. "Are they coming home again?"
I hadn't even thought that far. We all fastened our eyes on Redwald.
He shook his head. "The commanders decided to take the war to the Enemy. Even as we speak they are marching to the Black Gate."
"What!" we all exclaimed at the same time.
"They left Mundburg three days after the battle," Redwald went on. "I was with Marshal Elfhelm, fighting a host of orcs still lingering in Anórien. Once the way was clear, the Marshal decided to send messengers home, to give news of the battle."
"But why are they doing that?" I asked. "Surely the sensible thing would be to stay in Minas Tirith."
Redwald spread his hands. "My lady, I do not know. But there has to be a reason why Éomer King would take this course."
Éomer King. Hearing his title for the first time brought home the fact that fate had just taken a hand again. He was his own master now, free to do whatever he wanted.
I started to ask more questions, but then I noticed the women crowding near the dais, too polite to interrupt, but with anxious expressions on their faces. Of course, just like me they would want news of their loved ones. So I dismissed Redwald with a word of thanks and leant back in my chair, thinking furiously.
Why would they leave the safe haven of Minas Tirith? Why not fortify it and wait for the Enemy to make the next move? It seemed so utterly foolhardy to risk an open battle with what few forces they had.
My thoughts got interrupted by Ceolwen grabbing my arm. She had a strange expression on her face, half worry, and half anticipation.
"Lothíriel," she gasped, "I think my waters have broken."