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Part 2 - In which Éomer is not mistaken for Théodred and goes from the frying pan to the fire.
Note. In “HoME, The Peoples of Middle Earth,” JRRT wrote that Lothíriel was the youngest child of Imrahil, with three older brothers. I made her the firstborn. My apologies to the Guardians. The Hobbit, LotR, and the Silmarillion are silent on this matter.
The cousins Éomer and Théodred parted with affection. The year was 3014 of the Third Age.
Now the oldest child of the Prince of Dol Amroth was fifteen in that year, and the Prince sent her to fostering in the north of his fiefdom.
“You have said I am both dutiful and willful, Father,” Lothíriel told him.
“Both are necessary if you are to help rule an estate - or a realm. But in this matter of fostering your willfulness achieves nothing but an angry parting. Come,” he said, softening his looks, “You love riding, and you know your education requires this.”
“Fostering, yes. But I would learn more in the Steward's house in Minas Tirith than our steward's house in the country.”
“Different but not more,” he answered, thinking, The East grows darker and Minas Tirith is far to the East.
“It is not like you to hold back the truth from me,” she said and then put her hand over her lips in surprise. But Imrahil laughed at her pertness.
“It is like you to read my thoughts. The Elvish blood is strong in you.” It was an old family joke.
He continued, “The truth is, war is gathering. If the Enemy moves, neither Minas Tirith nor Dol Amroth will be safe. So your brothers are going to fostering with Lord Angbor in Lamedon, and you to my steward at Erech.”
Lothíriel gave her father a most dutiful curtsey and then an entrancing smile. “For such a long journey I should have the pick of the stables, don't you think?”
That is how she found herself in the stables the next day with Rianné her lady in waiting and companion, making ready to ride two hundred miles to the north. They took a serving man and a baggage pony. They managed twenty miles a day or more, picnicked every midday under blue spring skies, rested at inns or households at night, and so came to the settlement of Erech-on-Morthond where the steward and his wife gave them a warm welcome to their country estate.
The only part of Éomer's journey that went well was the road from Edoras to Dunharrow. The next sixty miles paid him back with the hardest traveling he had ever experienced. The White Mountains closed in quickly past Dunharrow, and not for nothing did folk call them white. The snowmelt washed down the forested slopes and turned the one trail into a sticky avenue of mud and flowing water. Often Éomer had to walk the horse instead of riding. He was lucky to make ten miles a day.
Worse, winter had not yet left the mountains. Two days past Dunharrow, rain began to fall, drenching Éomer before turning to sleet at sundown. Now he had no fire, for nothing would burn in the soaked and frozen woods. In the black nights, all Éomer could do was huddle in the cold hollow of a tree and think black thoughts about untimely journeys.
Drenched, chilled, without hot food or sound rest, he began to sicken. It began like a sack of rusty nails scratching his throat raw. His head became stopped. Every touch of the cold air was a misery. The next day the top of his chest started to hurt inside. He hated to cough for the pain it caused him. But he thought, I am almost through the mountains. Gondor is enjoying full spring, and I can get warm there. One more day and night.
He kept going. He led Cloud and put one foot in front of the other. But fever took him, and he burned and shivered. Then he became dangerously hot. By the time Éomer staggered out of the hills and down the trail that had become a real road, he was out of his head.
It was in this condition that he passed beneath the ledge that concealed the Onion Man.
Some persons, and Éomer was one of them, are fated to be at the right place in the right time, regardless of the knocks that ordinary living can deliver. The Onion Man had to search for his niche. It was surely not in the military structure of Minas Tirith. That whole business horrified him to the point that, his first year, he knocked out his commanding officer – with a blow from behind – and deserted, efficiently burning his bridges. His parents were mortified.
But in the Onion Man’s view, he had just been saving his own life. He did not favor ambushes as a standard practice. He even appreciated the combat knowledge he had gotten in the Guards, as long as he did not have to practice it in the army. So he fled across Gondor by begging a ride with a troop of traveling performers and added stagecraft to his set of skills in the process. It served him well when he finally came to rest in the vales around Erech, which was about as far from Minas Tirith as you could get and still be in Gondor.
At Erech he took the name “Onion Man” when he found a tiny, deserted farm with a field of onions growing nicely. Through discreet inquiries he learned that the farmer had been an old man with no known kin. He had been a good farmer, planting the bulbs near a shallow creek that overflowed sometimes, and also planting many clumps of smelly, colorful flybane to keep away insects. So the onions practically grew themselves. Local people used quantities of them in their cooking and were very healthy as a result, because they bathed a lot and because of the tonic properties of the onions.
The Onion Man called himself the farmer’s cousin and began to peddle onions, taking them in a cart right to the kitchen doors. The cooks loved the convenience and gave him bartered goods and even enough coins to keep him in ale at the tavern.
By nights the Onion Man dressed in other disguises and fell to living exactly as he pleased. He became a man of all work, and then a sometime rogue. He was no outlaw, but he knew several. It was one of these ruffians that paid him to keep a watch on the road from Rohan.
“Look for a gentleman's party,” the ruffian said. “All these strawheads look alike to me, but the one I'm interested in may be taller than most, maybe thirty-five in years, and may be carrying some royal emblem from the court of Edoras.” The ruffian had no idea what such a symbol looked like and hoped the Onion Man would know. The Onion Man did not know either, but he would not admit it to the unlettered bully, who lacked good sense in the Onion Man’s opinion.
“When you see him, tell me his rate of travel and the number of his party. He will head for the steward’s house. I will be in the hills.”
“You are planning a royal welcome, no doubt?”
The ruffian grinned and jingled coins in a handsome leather pouch. On it there was stitched in white the emblem of a small hand. “His welcome is bought and paid for. Now look sharp. If he reaches the steward's house before I know of it, I will bury you among your onions.”
At least the smell will be better, the Onion Man thought, but he said nothing, being wise in the ways of silence. Then he picked his favorite overlook on the Rohan road and settled in to wait.
He saw no sign of a royal party. Only a single soaked, besmirched, stumbling, shivering tramp of a young man who was a strawhead to be sure, and tall, but not a day over twenty-five if that.
The Onion Man watched with interest. Here is an opportunity, he thought. Perhaps he is a drunk. Or a scout for the gentlemen’s party. His gear is well made.
The young man started to sing in a language the Onion Man did not understand. It sounded like a barracks drinking song, which did not endear itself to the Onion Man. But the singer by his voice was very sick. He seemed to lack the energy to mount his horse. Then, as the Onion Man watched the young man collapsed.
If he speaks Westron I will question him, thought the Onion Man. And perhaps I will try healing him. He may have loving, rich kin who like to reward their boy's helper.
So the Onion Man scrambled down the bank, loaded Éomer over his horse, and led them both to his farmhouse as the evening deepened into dark night.
The next two days and nights were mostly lost to Éomer. He lay on a straw pallet, throwing off heat like a cookstove. The Onion Man bathed him with cool water. He kept a cool cloth on his forehead, as best he could, for the young man tossed about with the fever. Sometimes he would approach consciousness and the Onion Man would question him.
“What do you know about a royal visitor?” he tried. “A visitor to the steward?”
The young man’s eyes cleared for a moment and he muttered some words hoarsely.
“Who are your kin? Tell me!”
♪ ”Þæt mon eaÞe tosliteþ þætte næfre gesomnad wæs, uncer gied --- ”♪
“Useless!” The Onion Man stood up. He said to the room at large, “Why is a third-rate ruffian laying for the steward’s visitors? Oh, well. I suppose I must report this one’s arrival, unless he dies first.” It was deep in the middle of the second night and Éomer shook so hard with chills that he rattled the bed. The Onion Man saw the patient was conscious, but hardly sane.
“My boy, I think you are dying,” he said. He tossed some kindling onto the embers of the fire and fetched another blanket.
In the dark farmhouse the young man croaked, “Who are you? Where am I?” To the Onion Man's delight, he spoke in Westron this time.
“You can call me the Onion Man. Now I have something that will cure the chills and save your life, I think. But when you come to your senses, you will owe me. Do you promise?”
♪ “Trip no further, pretty sweeting! Journeys end in lovers --- ”♪
“Quiet! I heard enough bawdy songs in the army.” The Onion Man went to a cupboard and took out a clay cup and a stout clay jug with a stopper. On the jug was emblazed the likeness of an onion, and the word “Reserved” although Éomer was in no condition to notice this.
The Onion Man unstoppered the jug and carefully poured a clear liquid into the cup. He took the cup to Éomer, set it down on the keg that served as a bedside table, and then picked up a knife with a very long blade. “Observe!” he said.
Éomer obligingly tried to focus.
The Onion Man reached over and plucked a hair from Éomer's head, ignoring the yelp. He raised the long knife so that its blade shone in the firelight. “See this?” he said, and split the golden hair easily in one swipe. “Now, my boy, you are going to take your medicine, or this knife will put you out of both our miseries. Drink!”
Éomer raised the cup with shaking hands. “I never said I wouldn't,” he said plaintively. Then he opened his mouth, poured the liquid down his throat, and drank without stopping.
Many people can tell a tale of a life-changing physical shock. Perhaps the ordeal of birth, or the grievous wound on a battle field. This was like that for Éomer, except the insult was in his head, close to all his senses, and it had a dimension that was something other than pain.
Grotesque, horrible, indescribable! The clear liquid in his mouth was the most awful taste he had ever experienced. He thought of liqueur gone bad, of rotten vegetables steeped in vinegar. He swallowed involuntarily and his arms and the back of his neck broke out in goose bumps. For the rest of his days all he had to do was recall the taste and he could conjure up gooseflesh instantly.
The clear liquid was volatile. Its vapor clung to his throat, rose to his nose, and filled the cavities behind his eyes. Éomer began to weep without volition. The odor of a privy would have been wholesome compared to this; so would boiled knuckle bones. Dead animals smelled better.
Éomer began to feel warmth spreading out from his belly. His chills stopped. He gave a great sneeze, almost rocking his head off his shoulders, and was able to take a deep, unpolluted breath. The fresh air cleared his fogged head, and then, Éomer was a mad man.
With a mighty shout he leaped up, knocked the knife away, picked up the Onion Man, and threw him bodily across the room. He went over, found the knife, and stood astride him, raging.
“In the name of all the powers that be - what was that drink?”
“Fermented onion juice. And a secret – “
“I’ll kill you!” Éomer roared. “Your sniveling spirit will be my slave in the afterworld!” He pulled up the Onion Man by his tunic, but the Onion Man seemed not disconcerted at all. In fact, Éomer saw he was laughing. “What is funny, you lout? Do you see this knife at your throat?”
“Yes, very good!” said the Onion Man, chortling. “Now – make me drink it!”
Éomer gave him one unbelieving look, and then the powerful liquor hit his brain and felled him like a poleax. The Onion Man smiled.“ Rest easy, Fair Hair, while I make us ready to depart. You cannot stay here when I go to find the ruffian.” And he went to saddle the fine grey horse.
1. Fostering. It had little to do with whether you had your own family. Well-born children were sent to fostering for their education, or to get them away from the flatteries of court, or to keep them safe during times of war or civil unrest.
2. Éomer’s Rohirric (Old English) song says “What never was united is easily torn asunder -- our song…” from “Wulf and Eadwacer,” translated by W.S.Mackie (The Exeter Book. London 1934)
3. Éomer’s Westron song, “Trip no further” is from “Carpe Diem” by William Shakespeare.
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