Chapter 1: Éomer
He woke with a start, the words and last images of his dream so vivid he could hear the cries of the wounded and the dying as they stumbled through the streets, their eyes wide with terror and reflecting the raging fire that raised the village of Isendras to the ground. He could even smell the smoke.
'You should not have encouraged them, my lord.'
Grima’s voice. Accusatory, faking grief. That accursed silken sound, sneaking its way into his ears and into his mind; where it had nestled in and then sprouted hooks and claws to prevent that it could ever be removed again.
Squeezing his eyes shut in a vain attempt to force the torturous memory out of his head, Éomer rolled onto his back and ran a hand over his sweat-beaded face and through his damp hair. For a while, nothing existed apart from the thunder of his own heartbeat and his suppressed rapid breaths. The dreams ought to be gone by now, he thought. Eight months had passed since his captivity, but to his dismay he found now that with the slow healing of his body, the nightmares had likewise gained strength. The hole in his shoulder had almost healed by now; good friends like Aragorn and Elfhelm had been there for him in the time of his need; Éowyn had travelled the distance from Ithilien to Edoras to help his recovery, and only four months ago, he had wedded the daughter of Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth in a ceremony which had left nothing to be desired. So much good had happened to him in the wake of his captivity, so why was he not dreaming of these events instead of screaming and bleeding people and accusations which ripped his soul apart every night?
Éomer waited a moment longer for his accelerated breathing to subside, before he turned to see whether his unconscious reactions to the dream had woken his wife. He was thankful to find Lothíriel still asleep; her breathing deep and regular, with no indication that she was sensing her husband’s distress. For a moment, the sight of her peaceful form painted a faint smile onto his gaunt face as the Rohirrim King regarded his wife with all the wonder of a man who cannot comprehend how he has deserved so much good in life. How could she be his? Was this a dream within the dream, and Lothíriel just the product of his fevered mind, gone once he woke from it?
Four months into their marriage, he was still afraid that it was so, and not even the silken sensation of her hair underneath his fingertips entirely convinced Éomer, as he moved his hand gingerly over the black, shimmering tresses on her pillow. Part of the dark flood had fallen over her face, and once again Éomer found himself gazing spellbound at Lothíriel’s delicate features, silently admiring the slightly slanted cut of her eyes, her high and noble cheekbones and the full lips, slightly parted in sleep. His wife.
When his friend Imrahil of Dol Amroth had first mentioned the possibility of a union of their two countries in such a way, Éomer had been sceptical. A political marriage was a foreign idea to the Rohirrim, who were a passionate and straightforward people. Choosing a partner for life was a matter of the heart, not of considerations regarding ones own standing or political implications. The thought of sharing a house and bed with a person one didn’t love was unknown in the Riddermark.
And yet, Éomer had not outright rejected the Prince’s suggestion. He knew how much his friend loved and cared for his children; he would take all measures possible to ensure that his daughter found happiness. And he had already made the acquaintance of Lothíriel’s brothers and had found them pleasant and enjoyable company. There was no reason for him to believe that their sister would be different. And Imrahil would never have made the suggestion had he felt that the two of them would not be a match.
The business had been of the utmost delicacy. Not wanting to insult his friend, Éomer had bided his time, even though he had felt most unsure. Marry a woman he didn’t know? A woman he had never seen or spoken with? She wasn’t even from Rohan! How could the lifestyle of the Mark suit a young woman who had spent her entire life at a noble Gondorian court? It was hard to imagine.
And yet, deep within his mind, the knowledge that his own sister would soon leave and he would be utterly alone for the first time in his life had made him susceptible to Imrahil’s proposal. Even though Éowyn had still been present at the time of his decision and his first days as ruler of his people had been filled with work, the notion of loneliness had already settled in his thoughts to taunt him at night. The truth was that nothing, not even their desperate charge against the Dark Lord’s army on the Pelennor Fields, had frightened Éomer as much as the prospects of losing Éowyn. She was the last of his kin, his little sister he had fought to protect his entire life. With her gone, who would be there to talk to, to understand his worries and needs? Who would be there for him to confide the things to he would never tell anybody else?
More than once had he cursed the Prince of Ithilien in these long hours for stealing Éowyn away from him, at the same time knowing how selfish and ungrateful he was being to think so. After all, it had been Faramir as much as Aragorn who had given his sister back to him cured from her despair, and full of life and joy again. For that deed, the Steward of Gondor could have asked anything from him, and that he would ask for the treasure he had rescued was only fair. No, as daunting as the prospects of losing Éowyn were, Éomer had decided that he would not stand between her and happiness. Somehow, he would have to succeed in finding happiness for himself, and somewhere in these long dark nights of endless pondering, he had reached his decision.
A slow, loving smile spread over Éomer’s face as he regarded Lothíriel’s peaceful futures. He had been wrong to ever doubt Imrahil. The Prince knew people well, and apparently, had seen right through him. It was a wonder how close Éomer already felt with his wife after only four months. Lothíriel had been shy when she had first arrived in Edoras on the day before their wedding. Shy, but unafraid. A creature so delicate and graceful that Éomer had at once felt the need to protect her, even though, as he found out in the course of the next weeks, she wasn’t nearly as vulnerable as her appearance had led him to believe.
Her manners had been so impeccable that Éomer himself had felt like a brute next to her, even though he had tried to be at his gallant best. And Lothíriel had honoured his efforts by granting him little smiles here and there, increasingly more often the more she felt as ease around him. Her quiet friendliness and willingness to learn about the way of Rohan life had won the people of his household over, and just before they had gone on their great journey north to Imladris to both introduce the queen to the people and cure their king of the after-effects of his captivity, Lothíriel had begun to make the first, slight rearrangements in Meduseld. It had been little things only, like having flowers brought twice a week to decorate the rooms with and lighten the grave mood in the ancient hall, but the fact that Lothíriel had undertaken them had told Éomer that she had finally begun to settle down and feel at home.
In a way, it was regrettable that they had left for Rivendell at this time, thus interrupting this process; and yet to his great joy, Éomer had found that his wife’s efforts to settle into the new situation had focussed on him in these foreign surroundings. Knowing that the reason for their visit at Lord Elrond’s domain was to cure her husband from the damage done to him both spiritually and bodily by an old enemy a few months prior to their wedding, Lothiriel was doing everything she could to help the process and be as close to him as possible.
The smile dropped from his lips. It had been a strange discovery for Éomer to find that that was where their closeness ended. To their shared frustration, he felt unable to speak to her about the events which had almost cost his life. About the guilt he felt for the death of so many people, and the shame for crimes he knew by now he hadn’t even committed. At first, he had kept it inside, the fierce warrior inside of him afraid of letting people know of his vulnerability, hoping that the memory would fade with the passing of time, as it had happened with the many horrible events in his life. The death of his parents, the decline of his uncle into madness through the poison of the White Wizard and his minion Wormtongue and even Théoden’s death. The loss of Théodred and the battles of the Hornburg, the Pelennor and the Black Gates, the intensity of all that had already faded to the point where he could talk about it.
And yet the things Gríma had whispered into his ears while he had been under the influence of his poison refused to fade to mere memory. After all these months, they were still haunting him in his sleep, and the weakness of his injured shoulder reminded him of it during the daytime. It had gotten to the point where he had no longer been able to pretend his wellbeing to the people around him, and finally Gamling had convinced him to follow the suggestion Aragorn had made about seeing Lord Elrond for help and taking his wife along. The time they were spending together away from home helped to intensify their closeness, and yet the barricade to his innermost thoughts could not be penetrated.
As if she was feeling his attention, Lothíriel stirred ever so slightly in her sleep, an involuntary and almost inaudible sigh escaping her lips, and delicately arched eyebrows were briefly drawn together in concern as if she had read his thoughts.
“Éomer?” The one hand that was already lying on his side stretched a little further in her unconscious search, and he took it and gently brushed his lips over her fingers, murmuring soothingly, for he felt that she was close to waking, but not quite awake yet. “Where are you?”
“Sssh...” he made, the words barely whispers in the silence of their room. “I am here, Lothíriel. Go back to sleep.” He kissed the tips of her fingers and saw her satisfied reaction in the slowly spreading smile on her face. His heart felt a little lighter.
“I was dreaming... you had gone away.” The smile faded and was replaced by an expression of vague sadness.
“It was only a dream, my love. I am here, and I will not leave you. Ever.” His gaze resting intently on her face, Éomer kissed her fingers again, slowly watching Lothíriel sink back into the deeper reaches of sleep. When he was certain that she would not wake, he cautiously laid her hand back onto the sheet and sat up. Finding rest any time soon was out of the question, and lying on his back staring at the ceiling with nothing to distract his mind from the awful sounds and images which had woken him was the last thing he wished for, so he stood up. The coolness of the marble floor underneath his naked feet was soothingly realistic as he silently slipped into his shirt and trousers.
At the door, he cast one last look back at Lothíriel. She seemed to be dreaming again, for her eyes were moving behind their lids, and her brow again creased. Hoping that he was not the source of his wife’s unconscious worry, Éomer slipped out of the luxurious chambers Lord Elrond had given them for their stay in Rivendell, and soundlessly closed the door behind him. For a moment, he listened into the silence. Apart from the distant sound of the river, everything remained quiet, and he turned to follow the muffled rushing of the water.
The corridor and halls he passed through seemed deserted, but the last three weeks they had spent here had taught him that elves never slept. Even though none of their hosts had mentioned his nightly forays in their conversations, Éomer’s own instincts were acute enough to tell him that they knew about them. Sensing into the darkness, the Rohirrim King silently stepped out onto the great terrace overlooking the waterfall. Its mighty voice was soothing in its monotony, and the moonlight danced on the falling water like a living thing, for a moment entrancing him as he stared into the silver sparkling.
How often had he stood here in the middle of the night since their arrival? How often had he searched for peace of mind in the falling waters of the Bruinen without finding it? And would there ever come a time when the river’s voice would drown out those of the dying people of the village of Isèndras, who had sacrificed themselves for him? Soundlessly sighing to himself, Éomer stared into the flood, suddenly feeling an unexplainable pull toward it. Down there, all worries would end. All nightmares would cease in the river’s cool embrace...
“You should speak with her,” a grave voice suddenly woke him from his reverie, and as he turned around with the speed of a man caught at a forbidden act and with a guilty conscience for his bleak thoughts, Éomer found himself looking into the ageless eyes of his mighty host. Heat crept into his face at the elf’s scrutiny, and Éomer wondered how much Elrond could read in his expression.
There was an incredible depth to the grey eyes regarding him. He felt naked under their stare. What could he possibly hide from the ancient being? For his friend Aragorn, dealings with the elves were normal, nothing out of the ordinary, but although he had fought at their side in the great battle, Éomer still felt awkward around them. Like a child in the presence of esteemed warriors with endless experience.
“You know of whom I speak.” Elrond said quietly. “You shut her out, and it is helping neither you nor her. She is desperate to help you, but you won’ let her in. Yet even the mighty King of Rohan might have to resort to means he would not have taken into consideration before to cure himself of the damage done. I can only help you to a certain degree. I can do something about your wounded shoulder. Healing your wounded spirit is something only you and the people you care for can do. Secluding yourself from them won’t do any good.”
No, there was no point in hiding. Guiltily averting his eyes to gaze once more at the water, Éomer bit his lip.
“I do not want to burden Lothíriel with these things. She knows what happened, but what good would it do if I told her about the faces of the dying people and their agonised screams? Having her share my nightmares would not be the source of comfort I seek.”
Not taking offence at his evasive stance, Elrond stepped up the young king to likewise look into the nightly valley.
“Yet these are the very things which torment you, Lord Éomer. By holding them inside, they will never cease to haunt your thoughts. Set them free, and they will gradually vanish. They will wander away like horses let out of a corral.”
Despite the bleakness of his thoughts, Éomer found himself smiling at the Elf Lord’s imagery. He turned his head.
“I appreciate your effort of choosing images a Rohir such as myself can understand, Lord Elrond, and yet I must admit that I am sceptical. These horses, to use the image you’ve created, like to stay where they’re being fed. Why should they leave?”
Elrond did not return the faint smile.
“Then you’ll have to stop feeding them,” he replied cryptically. “Or, better yet, you need to put them to work. Make them work hard, so that they want leave on their own accord.”
Éomer furrowed his brow.
“I am not sure I understand.”
“These memories which are haunting you, they thrive because of your denial. In the daytime, you lock them away and pretend they don’t exist, but each night, they escape your control, and the result is that you are out here with thoughts running through your head of drowning yourself in the river.”
Éomer frowned. So Elrond knew everything.
“And now you suggest that I tell Lothíriel of how I am responsible for the annihilation of almost an entire village and more than half an éored? I knew these men for most of my life, and they trusted me. They died freeing me from Wormtongue’s clutches. They were murdered by hideous creatures in the most gruesome ways, and part of my éored was swept from a mountain into an abyss by an avalanche. The people of Iséndras... they lost everything in the riot! They did it to free me, and for that, those monsters burnt their village to the ground and killed everyone in their path, not caring whether it was man or woman!” Involuntarily, Éomer had raised his voice at the elven lord, and only now that he was running out of words did he notice. Embarrassed of his bad conduct, he cleared his throat. “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to...”
“See, you can talk about it,” the Eldar said instead, oblivious to the sharp tone of his guest. “It is a beginning. Tell her. She wants to help you, and you need it. She believes that you don’t trust her, and it is paining her. You’d have to be blind not to see it.”
“Did she talk to you about it? Did she complain to you?” The thought that Lothíriel might have confided in someone else about this business caused a brief flash of jealousy in him, even if Éomer knew that it had been he who had driven her to this desperate measure. And yet Elrond shook his head.
“You know better than to ask me this. It would be a breach of trust Lothíriel would never commit… and yet her silence and posture gives her away regardless. Her sadness is like a beacon. Cure her of it, Éomer of Rohan, and cure yourself at the same time. This is the best advice I can give you.” He fell silent. His intense gaze still on his opposite, he added: “Here is your chance, my king, for your wife is approaching.”