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The Lion and his Lady  by Lialathuveril

Letters to Edoras

Dol Amroth, September 1st 3019

My Lord King,

I trust this letter finds you in good health. My father has informed me of your kind offer of marriage, conveyed to him during his recent visit to Rohan when he attended the funeral of your late uncle, King Théoden.

I am honoured to accept and assure you that I will endeavour to be a good wife to you and a suitable queen to your people. Please let me also express my sincere thanks for your beautiful engagement present. The goblet is a testimony to Rohirric workmanship and I am proud to use it.

With my best wishes for your good health,

Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth

***

Dol Amroth, October 20th 3019

My Lord King,

I trust this letter finds you in good health. How fares Rohan? My father has told me about the difficult times you are facing, trying to rebuild the houses and farms destroyed by Saruman’s armies. I sincerely hope the harvest has fulfilled your expectations and I am sure you will manage to bring your people safely through the coming winter.

I am reluctant to disturb you with my personal concerns when I know how busy you are, but my father is sending a message anyway so I thought I might include this letter. You see, I have a favour to beg of you: when I come to Rohan in the spring for our wedding, may I bring my dog with me? He’s a sweet little thing, very well behaved, and I assure you he will not trouble you at all. I am sorry to bother you with such a trivial request, but the matter has been preying on my mind lately.

With my best wishes for your good health,

Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth

***

Dol Amroth, November 5th

My Lord King,

Thank you very much for your kind permission to bring Draug with me when I move to Rohan. He really is a very good-natured dog and does not destroy things anymore as he did when a puppy. But I seem to have given you the misconception that he is a lapdog, which is not the case. I received him as a present for my sixteenth birthday and he hails from Harad where his kind is used for hunting gazelles because of their turn of speed. On the flat Draug can actually outrace Morwen for short distances.

But please forgive my idle chatter. I just wanted to pen a quick thank-you note for your messenger to take back with him when he leaves in the morning.

Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth

***

Dol Amroth, November 19th

My Lord King,

It was only a pair of boots that Draug chewed when he was a puppy. Unfortunately they were my brother Amrothos’s favourite pair and quite beyond repair by the time we noticed them gone. I believe it was because of the leather tassels, which looked so inviting to a dog. But anyway, nowadays the only mischief he gets up to is chasing gulls whenever we go for a ride. (Draug I mean)

Morwen is my mare. She’s the most gorgeous creature, completely black except for a white star on her forehead, which is supposed to bring luck. Another birthday present from my father, she is seven years old and has the loveliest eyes, like liquid dark honey. I wish you could see her: a delicately shaped head with flared nostrils, velvet coat, clean legs, good conformation and really fast. Also she will jump anything – she just throws her heart over it!

But I did not mean to bore you with a description of my horse, forgive me. Do you mind her being called Morwen? I have recently read that this was the name of your grandmother, but maybe I could get the horse used to another name? I can bring her with me, can’t I? I’m already looking forward to seeing the famous grey steeds of the Rohirrim and going riding across the plains.

Anyway, I only meant to write a quick reply, as I know your man is waiting to return to Rohan in the morning.

Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth

***

Dol Amroth, December 2nd

My Lord King,

Is it really impossible to bore you with horse-talk? I very much enjoyed reading about Firefoot, he sounds like a magnificent warhorse and a great character as well. Did he really race away from you when you first met him and it took you three days to catch him? I’m looking forward to making his acquaintance. (And of course also his master’s)

Also I’m relieved to hear you do not object to my mare being called Morwen. The name really suits her and it might be difficult to get her used to another one. I am including a drawing I have made of her head with this letter. Only of course in reality she’s much prettier!

My sister-in-law and I went shopping yesterday to buy fabric for my wedding gown. Miriel is my brother Elphir’s wife and has excellent taste. Also she knows all the best places to go and took me to this little shop on Market Square. The entrance is tiny, but then you go along a short corridor leading through the main part of the house and into a small courtyard ringed with half a dozen storerooms crammed full with cloth of every conceivable colour. You should have seen the silks they brought out for our inspection! Some were so thin they seemed to float on the air, others thickly encrusted with embroidery or shot through with gold thread. And the colours! Shimmering like butterfly wings. I felt like some exotic dancer from Harad when they draped them around me. However, Miriel said that I should go for a traditional dark red as it suits my colouring, so that’s what I bought.

I also got the material for your wedding shirt (linen) and I wondered if you could send me an old shirt of yours so I can use it as a pattern? Miriel reckons you’re about the same size as Elphir, but I want to get it exactly right. Would the design of a lion be agreeable to you? I understand it’s your personal emblem.

Anyway, a servant just knocked on the door to say that your courier is ready to go so I have to finish.

Lothíriel

P.S. I’ve just reread this letter and it seems to concern itself almost exclusively with clothes. I would not blame you if you decided I was too frivolous to become Queen of Rohan! But I assure you I have other things in my mind as well, in fact I’ve been reading up on my future country.

P.P.S. And I’m pleased to hear you do not own any boots with tassels. In my opinion it was my brother’s fault anyway, for leaving the door to his quarters open. The sheerest invitation to having his boots chewed, don’t you think?

***

Dol Amroth, December 14th

My Lord King,

Well I’m glad that you still have every intention of marrying me! And that you liked the picture of Morwen. As for sending one of myself, I include one I drew a couple of months ago. It is actually quite difficult to draw a picture of oneself, because you have to sit in front of a mirror to do so, but Miriel thinks it is a good likeness, especially the eyes. Just disregard the nose as I had a spot of trouble with that. Also please ignore the scribblings on the margins of my letters, it’s a bad habit of mine that I’m trying to break. Amrothos keeps teasing me about it.

Reading about your desk facing south towards the Ered Nimrais and Dol Amroth made me decide to have mine moved around so that it looks out the north window, instead of west across the sea. On a clear day I like to think that I can spot a smudge on the horizon, which are the mountains. I wonder what you are doing at this moment? Riding perhaps, or in council with your advisors? As for myself, I went for a walk along the beach at the bottom of the cliffs this morning. When the tide is out it stretches sandy and flat for miles and you can collect all sorts of interesting things like shells and seeds washed up from distant lands. When we were children we used to try and plant them in my mother’s garden, but nothing ever grew. I suppose the salt water kills them. I have a whole collection of bits of flotsam on my windowsill that I have amassed over the years.

I’m not allowed to go riding out at the moment unless one of my brothers accompanies me, because a couple of corsair ships were spotted off the coast last week. Unfortunately all three brothers are rather busy, so I’m mostly stuck inside. I’ve been running the keep since my eighteenth birthday, but recently handed that over to Miriel so she gets some practice while I’m still around. As a result I have nothing much to do anymore.

At least I started on your wedding shirt. I have to admit it was the strangest feeling holding the shirt you sent me in my hands, seeing the patches where somebody (your sister?) had mended it and smelling it. Not that it smelled! Oh dear, please forgive me, I think I’m making a hash of my letter again. Father always tells me to keep it short and simple, but somehow I never manage to. What I meant to say is that the shirt suddenly made you real. I know this is silly after all the letters going to and fro, but it’s just different to hold something you actually wore. I wish now I’d gone to Minas Tirith for King Elessar’s wedding and met you there, but at the time Dol Amroth was full of refugees and somebody had to help look after things. As poor Miriel had not seen her husband for over three months I volunteered to stay. So you see, all I know about you is from second hand information. In fact I asked my brothers about you when my father told me about the betrothal, but I have to say they weren’t very helpful, going on endlessly about your fighting prowess. But Miriel said you had a nice smile, so that cheered me up.

And now I have to finish, for it is growing late. Draug has been stretched out in front of the fireplace this hour or more, fast asleep and snoring away happily, so I think I’ll follow his example. (Sleeping I mean, not snoring. At least I don’t think I snore.)

Lothíriel

P.S. And don’t worry about me missing the sea. It’s true that the sight of it is beautiful, but what you wrote about the plains of Rohan being like a sea of grass now really makes me want to see it. Shall I let you in on an awful family secret? Here it is: I get terribly seasick. All my brothers are born sailors and I just have to look at a boat to start feeling queasy!

***

Dol Amroth, December 25th

My Lord King,

I’m afraid your letter does not find me in very good health, so please forgive me if I keep my reply short. I caught a cold and have been in bed with a fever the last two days. Now I’m aching all over in the most disagreeable manner and my head feels like it’s been stuffed with wool. And why do all possets have to taste like they’re made from - well, never mind.

Forgive me, I will have to reply another time.

Lothíriel

***

Dol Amroth, January 5th

Dear King Éomer,

I have a suspicion you are going to spoil me rotten! So many presents! I really don’t deserve them. I have the fur cloak wrapped around me as I’m writing this and it’s unbelievably soft and warm. Such a beautiful hand mirror with horses engraved on the back, and also the riding gloves are very pretty! The only thing is that I feel guilty about not having sent you any Yule gifts. I did in fact have something ready for you, but forgot to give it to the courier because of my illness. But please don’t worry about me, I’m much better now. In fact I’ve reached what Amrothos likes to call the ‘listless stage’, but your letter and presents cheered me up immeasurably.

Also don’t worry about me riding out on my own. As I wrote, I’m supposed to always have one of my brothers along and I am not so foolish as to break that rule. Anyway, my brother Erchirion and his men caught the pirates and sank their ships. Not without a fierce fight though. In fact it was probably while caring for our wounded that I caught my cold. A terrible storm blew in that night and we all got soaked to the skin whilst helping the men disembark and getting them to the infirmary. The wind blew so strongly that all our lanterns went out and we had to stumble along in the dark! That’s one thing I won’t miss about the sea, anyway.

I’m flattered that you should like my drawing. Did you really ask your courier if it was a good likeness? I have to confess I’ve been plying your men shamelessly with questions about Rohan and Rohan’s king. Most of them speak the Common Speech quite well and they don’t seem to mind my ignorant questions. And I admire them for riding so casually under the Dimholt like they do. They seem to think nothing of it, whereas I’m really not looking forward it. At least my father and brothers will be along and they’ve been that way before.

I read with great interest what you wrote about your plans for Meduseld in your last letter. I don’t mind the rooms being little furnished, most understandable with there being no queen for a long time. The ladies’ solar sounds nice, just the kind of place to sit in the winter and do some needlework, and I agree there is no need for separate bedchambers. At least my parents never had them. I really appreciate your kind words about not realizing what an arranged marriage would mean for me, but I assure you that I always knew I was destined for such a match (part of my obligation to my people I think). While I was a bit nervous at first, I’m quite willing to trust my father’s judgement now. I suppose it’s silly, but your letters make me feel like I’ve known you for a long time already and you do not sound grim and forbidding at all.

My maid insists I have to rest now, so I will finish this missive.

Lothíriel

P.S. I’m including my Yule gift with this letter.

***

Dol Amroth, January 16th

Dear Éomer,

Of course you may call me by my first name. I’m pleased to hear that Firefoot likes his new saddlecloth as I embroidered it myself - but then I always suspected he was a horse with taste! Will it make you think of me every day? I hope so, anyway.

I’m completely recovered from my cold now, thank you. As for being a healer, I’m nothing of the sort, but I perforce learnt how to patch up simple wounds during the war. It seemed so little to do when our men had to go and risk their lives to keep us safe, but what else could I do? I will never forget the sight of refugees filling the castle courtyard to bursting, despair in their eyes. You could literally smell their fear, but we had to put on a brave face in order to avoid any panic. Or the terrible day when I said my good-byes to my father and brothers, never expecting to see them again. And I wouldn’t have, if it weren’t for the Rohirrim coming to our aid. But forgive me for recalling those days to mind, I know you suffered much loss. Here you wrote that my letters cheer you up, that they bring a breath of warmth and sunshine with them and then I go and write about such distressing subjects. I will endeavour to be more frivolous in the future!

And thank you so much for your offer to meet us on the Gondorian side of the Dimholt. I have to admit it would make me feel safer to have you along and also it would be nice to get to know you without so many eyes on us. As I wrote down the date of this letter I suddenly realized that it’s less than three months until I leave here! My ladies-in-waiting have already started packing my dowry chests. I get the impression the silly women think I’m leaving civilization for a barbarian country and need to take everything with me, from linens to clothes to food.

We’ve got my aunt coming for a visit next month. Ivriniel is a darling, but I really don’t get along with her husband. He’s written a book on deportment and now thinks he can lay down the law to all and sundry as to what is permissible behaviour for a Gondorian maiden. If you don’t hear from me again it’s probably because I’m in gaol, awaiting my trial for murder! Although anybody who has actually met Belecthor couldn’t possibly fault me for putting an end to his sorry existence.

As for being grim and forbidding, that’s just the impression I got from my brothers’ tales about the great battles. But I’m sure anybody would be grim in that kind of situation, wouldn’t they? (Although to be honest I would probably be scared) You sound so nice and amusing in your letters, it’s as if the great warrior is a completely different person. I’m sorry if I did not express myself very well!

And I’m also sorry that this letter is so disjointed. Blame it on me being tired. Your courier arrived late in the evening today and is in a rush to leave again at first light, but I wanted him to take a letter back to you.

Yours,

Lothíriel

***

Dol Amroth, January 26th

Dear Éomer,

Would you really come and rescue me from Gondorian justice? I’ll keep the offer in mind, for my aunt and uncle will arrive the day after tomorrow. Fancy you having met Belecthor in Minas Tirith! But then he’s difficult to overlook in any gathering. Did he really try to ‘improve’ your barbarian manners? What a cheek - I wish I’d been there to give him a piece of my mind.

There is a gull sitting outside my window at the moment, watching me enviously, for I am nice and warm thanks to a fire and your lovely cloak. Looking at him I wondered if he would carry a message north for me in his yellow beak? It would be so much quicker than having to wait for your couriers all the time - although admittedly they’re very fast considering the distance they’re covering. I have found a place on the battlements where I can sit and wait when I know another message is due and also the guards at the gates know by now to call me at once. But I’m really looking forward to the day when I can speak to you face to face.

Winter can be a bit dismal here, today is a cold, rainy day that makes me long for spring. When I look out my window I see nothing but grey! Grey sea, grey sky, grey clouds. But I really enjoyed reading about the snow you had in Rohan and I wish I were there already. Can you truly build a house out of snow, even if only for children? It doesn’t seem possible, but then I’ve never seen more than a couple of inches of the stuff in my entire life so far. You will have to show me next year. And I’m so glad to hear about the supplies sent to you from Gondor. I did ask my father if he couldn’t do something about the situation in Rohan, but apparently King Elessar and Faramir had already thought of it.

Not much else is happening here. Your wedding shirt is finished, but since you wrote that you don’t have many shirts that aren’t mended I have started on a couple more, just less lavishly embroidered. Some king you are! My ladies are helping me with my own dress and it looks lovely. The thin undergarment of white silk is finished already and over that will go the heavier gown of dark red brocade. It fits tight at the top, but flares out into a wide skirt with a short train and there are slits in the sleeves through which you pull out bits of the undergarment. I know that sounds strange, but it will look really elegant, I assure you. At the moment we’re busy stitching on hundreds of small pearls along the hem. Not very interesting work, but you can just let your mind wander to more diverting places (say north, for example).

Did I let myself get carried away with writing about womanly fripperies again? But then you said that you like me being frivolous and you can just scan over the passages that bore you.

Many greetings from a frivolous maiden to a grim king!

Lothíriel

***

Dol Amroth, February 5th

Dear Éomer,

Your letter just came saying that you will be away from Edoras for a while to fight orcs. The courier said you will probably be gone by the time he returns, but he promised to try and catch you up, so I’m making haste with this missive.

Please take care! You tell me they will be starved and desperate and I can understand that you want to root out those evil creatures from their mountain retreats before they prey on defenceless farmers. Just don’t take any chances.

My thoughts will be with you.

Lothíriel

***

Dol Amroth, February 17th

Dear Éomer,

No news from you yet, but then you said not to expect any for a while. I’ve persuaded my father to send a messenger to Rohan though, so you will at least have a letter waiting for you when you return to Edoras. I wonder where you are and what you are doing at this moment? Here it’s been drizzling all day and I imagine camping in a tent in this weather must be pretty miserable. I hope you are in the dry somewhere, but above all, I pray that you are safe.

I tried to come up with some frivolous news, but it’s difficult when I’m worrying. My aunt and uncle are here now and yesterday I snapped at him over breakfast for something derogatory he said about the Rohirrim. But he’s such a pompous fool! He keeps insisting I ought to write to you to get permission for the simplest things, such as going for a ride along the beach. So I asked if I also needed your permission to go to the privy and what to do in the meantime and he went beet-red in the face! I suppose it was rather rude of me and I will have to apologize, but I’m out of all patience with him. Poor Aunt Ivriniel is such a sweet thing, I don’t know how she puts up with him. If he quotes one more sententious saying from his book at me I will scream!

It’s just asking too much to have to face him over the breakfast table. I’m not a morning person and like to wake up slowly. I just hope you’re not one of those people who jumps out of bed at the first hint of dawn, all bright and cheerful? Because I have to warn you, I’m not! My brothers call me downright grumpy in the mornings, although I think that’s overstating it.

Not much else is happening here. Work on my wedding dress continues apace and soon we’ll have to start thinking about organizing my farewell ball. It’s the first time Miriel will have to manage such a big occasion, with half the province invited, so I’m lending a helping hand. You probably wouldn’t believe how much thought goes into the seating arrangements alone, just so nobody feels slighted! At least this time, if one of Amrothos’s drunken friends tries to pull me behind a pillar for a slobbery kiss, I can threaten him with my grim betrothed. That should scare them off, don’t you think?

Well, that’s all the news I can think off. I just hope you will return safely and please let me know at once when you’re back in Edoras. I suppose I should be used by now to doing nothing other than sitting and waiting for news, but it never gets any easier.

Take care!

Lothíriel

***

Dol Amroth, March 1st

Dear Éomer,

You have returned! Ceorl rode in this morning, grinning over his whole face when he spotted me, and shouted “The king is back, safe and sound!” I’m afraid I did something rather unprincessly (is that a word?), I rushed up to him and hugged him. I’m just so glad you got back unhurt! It’s funny, for I had a feeling this morning that a messenger might be on his way, so I took along the basket with my needlework and sat in my favourite spot on the battlements. It’s sheltered from the wind and quite warm in the sunshine and I was able to work on one of your shirts while keeping an eye on the north road at the same time. And I was right!

Were you really thinking of disguising yourself as one of your own couriers and riding south to meet me? Unfortunately my father always talks to the riders to find out how things are in Rohan, so you would be recognized. It’s a shame, though, for I love the idea. But just think, it’s less than a month until I leave here.

And you had me in tears of laughter with the very official looking document you included. Although I have to admit at first I was worried for a moment when I saw the Great Seal of Rohan encrusted on it. The silliest notion that you were going to break off the match because of what I wrote about being grumpy in the mornings flitted through my mind. But then I read what you’d written and nearly collapsed with laughter. It’s a good thing that I always read your letters in my bedchamber, for if anybody had seen me they would have thought me mad! I can’t wait to see Belecthor’s face when I show it to him: ‘Princess Lothíriel has my permission to do whatever she pleases.’ Thinking about it, I wonder if this document could come in useful in Rohan as well? In my married life? No, no, don’t worry. I will of course always be an obedient, docile and perfectly behaved wife.

The farewell ball will be on March 25th, to celebrate both our victory over Sauron and my departure for Rohan a few days later (Oh, that sounds a bit odd, as if people were looking forward to me leaving! Although I suppose at least the merchants might celebrate, for I drive a much harder bargain than Miriel when it comes to buying supplies.) As for the drunken kiss, that was only the once at a dance last year. I just pushed the man away and later told my brothers, who dunked him in the ornamental pond in the garden. I felt a bit sorry for the fish, but it certainly worked, as he never bothered me again. So you see, I’m well looked after and you needn’t worry.

Lothíriel

***

Dol Amroth, March 11th

Dear Éomer,

What wonderful news! I had to race down and tell my father at once, but he had already read your letter to him. Mind you, it will upset all Miriel’s seating arrangements to have you come to the celebration as well, but don’t worry, I will make sure you get a seat next to me. Is it really traditional for a Rohirric bridegroom to meet his bride at her home? Or is that just a pretext for my father’s sake? You certainly never mentioned anything of the sort before! I have a niggling suspicion it has something to do with wanting to make sure I do not get what you called ‘mauled’ by my brothers’ friends. But whatever your motivation, I won’t complain if it brings you to Dol Amroth.

Just imagine, this means that in another two weeks we will see each other. In fact I took Draug for a walk down to the beach this morning and was thinking how spring had arrived without me noticing. Already the crocuses and primroses are defying the cold ocean winds and soon swallows will stop over on their journey north.

Well, Bearnulf is waiting to take my father’s reply back to you, so I have to keep this short.

Until soon!

Lothíriel

P.S. And how crafty of you to write ‘Princess’ Lothíriel in that document giving me permission to do as I please. Does that mean I will have to try and obtain a new one when I am your wife? Anyway, I’m sending my most docile, meek, biddable and submissive greetings. Will you be a very strict husband?

***

Dol Amroth, March 22nd

Dear Éomer,

Only another two days! I am so looking forward to meeting you. Amrothos teased me for wanting to send a message back to you, but Ceorl has to ride back anyway, doesn’t he, so he might as well take a letter with him.

Everything is in readiness here: I’ve made sure you get the room with the best view of the sea, the linens are freshly aired and I’ve put your new shirts in the chest at the end of the bed for you. How strange to think you are in Gondor already by this time and soon we will be able to talk face to face.

I’m so exited!

Lothíriel

P.S. And I always had the suspicion you were going to be a terribly strict and implacable husband, so that news does not shock me.

***

Dol Amroth, March 24th

Dear Éomer,

I think I’ve become so used to writing to you that I can’t stop anymore. But just think: now I can simply send a servant along with this message and you will get it at once. I’m sitting in my window seat as I’m writing this and if I crane my neck I can actually spot the yellow glow of your bedchamber window, so I know you’re still up. What a strange feeling to finally meet you in person! On one hand it seemed like I’d known you forever, like meeting an old friend again, on the other you are still a stranger to me.

I’m sorry Draug growled at you, but he can be rather possessive and gets jealous when I pay too much attention to somebody else. However, I’m sure he will soon warm to you. How clever of you to give him the leftover jerky from your saddlebags, that certainly seemed to please him.

Now I’m looking forward to showing you Morwen and going for a ride along the beach, like we’ve arranged to do for tomorrow. If we get up early we can get away from all the other guests - and I can prove to you that I’m not grumpy in the mornings. You won’t need all your guards along, will you? After all, I will be perfectly safe with just you. I’ll get a basket of food from the kitchen and then all we have to do is to be back in plenty of time so I can get changed for the evening’s entertainment. I want to put on my beautiful new necklace and earrings (how you spoil me!) and look pretty, because I have promised all my dances to a certain rider from Rohan. Don’t forget to put on one of your new shirts. Oh, that sounds downright wifely, doesn’t it!

Do you know, I have to admit I felt a little bit shy when you rode into the courtyard this afternoon surrounded by all your men, for you seemed to be so much the renowned warrior king. I hadn’t realized how tall you were and your voice sounded so serious when you exchanged greetings with my father and brothers. But then you bowed over my hand and looked up at me with a twinkle in your blue eyes and it was all right, you were the Éomer from your letters.

Until tomorrow.

Lothíriel

*

*

A/N: There will be probably be five to six different scenarios altogether. I owe the inspiration for this to Willow-41z who has written a similar series as a birthday present for me – you can find it on fanfiction.net, it’s well worth reading. Again many thanks for the present and the inspiration!

Also many thanks to my wonderful beta LadyBluejay.

Lady Owl

Minas Tirith, July 18th 3019

Something about the girl’s voice slowed his footsteps. Smooth and rich, it reminded Éomer of the cream they used to pilfer as boys from the pans of milk set out in the springhouse of Meduseld. She sat cross-legged on a rug with a small brazier in front of her and had already gathered an audience. Éomer stopped to listen. Dressed in the manner of the women from the south of Gondor, she wore loose trousers under a tunic that covered her arms and upper body snugly only to flare out at the hips. The fire in the brazier cast her shadow against the white wall behind her and called up mysterious glints from gold threads woven into her clothing.

Now the girl beckoned her listeners closer and he saw that she wore a mask across the upper half of her face in the shape of some bird. “Harken to me, people of Minas Tirith, for I have a tale to tell. A tale that has come to me from my mother and my mother’s mother before her out of the far south.” Her eyes swept the crowd and seemed to linger on him for a moment. “Hear how the good king Casim was tricked by the evil wizard Kashnur into taking the shape of a stork and how a creature of the forest,“ she smoothed back the feathers on her mask, “the owl princess Lusa, helped to release him from the spell.”

With a graceful motion she threw some wood shavings onto the brazier and as the fire flared up she lifted her hands and started to shape shadows with them. “One hot afternoon, long ago and in a far away land, King Casim was smoking a pipe and taking his rest in the palace of Balant, when his counsellor Mansoor paid him a visit. And this is what he said…” Her voice took on a wheedling note and Éomer had to suppress a snort when he recognized the exact tone his own advisors so often used with him – too often in fact. As the girl went on to tell how a strange peddler sold the two men a casket containing a black powder that would turn them into whatever animal they desired, he found himself more interested in the teller than the tale.

She was neither the first nor the best storyteller he had encountered on his aimless stroll through the streets of the White City that night, but she presented her story with none of the well-worn routine of the others. When the children at the front clapped their hands at the image of the king and his advisor turning into storks, she grinned in delight. Plainly enjoying herself, she led her audience to an enchanted forest with a ruined castle where the owl princess helped the king discover the magic word that would turn him back into a human. Unsurprisingly, the evil sorcerer was quickly disposed of. “…struck through the heart, Kashnur crumpled to the ground at the feet of the king,” the girl announced triumphantly, “and then Casim kissed the owl, just as he had agreed to do as a reward for her help, and with a mighty clap of thunder she turned into a beautiful princess.” She folded her hands in her lap. “And the two wedded and lived happily ever after.”

At the enthusiastic applause following this conclusion she bowed from the waist, but only when the crowd slowly began to drift away did she seem to remember to collect her reward. Grabbing a leather purse hanging from a belt around her waist, she jumped up and started to make the round of the spectators. Éomer hung back in the shadows as people dropped copper coins in her purse and she thanked them all prettily, no matter if they gave little or much. Only when the small space had almost completely emptied did he step forward. Spotting him, she jingled the bag invitingly and held it out to him with a smile. Holding her gaze he dropped a silver crown in it.

Her smile deepened. “Truly royal payment, my lord.”

The low purr of her voice vibrated across his senses. What would it feel like to have her say his name? He blinked. Where had that thought come from? “You know who I am?” he asked.

“I saw you enter the city this afternoon with your men,” she explained, fastening the purse to her belt again.

Not really that surprising. Half the population of Minas Tirith had assembled to watch the King of Rohan arrive to escort the body of his uncle back to the Riddermark. He inclined his head. “In that case you have the advantage of me, Lady…?”

Her eyes glittered behind the slits of her mask. “So I have,” she agreed, “…you may call me Lady Owl.”

Narrowing his eyes, Éomer stared down at her. He could recognize a challenge when he heard one! While he had originally intended to return to his quarters in the king’s palace quite soon, he now abruptly changed his mind. “May I invite you for a drink?”

Not in the least taken aback by the curt tone of his invitation, she put her head to one side to study him. “Thank you for your kind offer, my lord. You may.” She gestured to her carpet. “Let me just put my things away first.”

With a few deft motions she rolled up her rug and after a quick consultation with a man selling dumplings at a nearby stall, she deposited both brazier and carpet behind his table.

Then she turned back to Éomer. “Where shall we go?”

When he offered her his arm she laid her fingers on it with a light touch, allowing him to guide her through the crowds. Intrigued, he wondered where she had learnt to take a man’s arm in the courtly manner of Gondor. Lady Owl, indeed!

A little further down the way, he spotted a wine shop with small round tables set outside for the customers’ use, but when he suggested sitting down, the girl shook her head.

“It’s rather busy,” she said, casting a look up and down the road that could almost be called furtive, “let’s go down one of the side streets.”

At the next one they came to they saw a tavern with tables and benches, but Éomer hesitated when he caught sight of the dilapidated sign hanging on one hinge. It creaked mournfully in a gust of night air as they approached. The Drunken Donkey? That did not sound very promising. However, when he suggested moving on, she overruled him. “I’m sure it’s charmingly rustic.”

Well, the tables were certainly rustic, but charming could not be applied to the manner in which the serving wench slammed down two tankards of ale in front of them the moment they sat down.

“That makes six coppers,” she announced, holding out a hand for payment.

Her expression verging on dismay, the girl – Lady Owl – looked at the overflowing tankards. “But we didn’t order that!”

Crossing her arms across her ample bosom, the serving wench looked down at her. “We serve no other drink,” she snapped. “If you don’t like it you can move on.” Éomer tensed, ready to throw himself into the fray, but it proved unnecessary.

Lady Owl waved the serving woman back. “No, no, we’ll stay.” She took a cautious sip of ale. “Excellent,” she pronounced with a kind smile. “I’m convinced not even King Elessar’s table serves better drink.” At a neighbouring table somebody choked over his tankard.

Baffled, the serving woman stared at the girl uncertainly before she collected her payment from Éomer and moved on, but not without a last black look at them.

Lady Owl leaned forward. “It’s not too bad,” she confided in a whisper, “but I shudder to think what culinary delights they might cook up to go with this.”

Éomer felt laughter welling up within him and saw his amusement mirrored in the grin she gave him. “We will just have to look on it as an adventure!” she pronounced.

He became aware of the fact that his companion caused considerable interest amongst the other occupants of the tavern. They had managed to get seats right at the end of a table, but now the man sitting next to Lady Owl shifted a little closer and leered at her, the smell of his sour breath floating across the table. But Éomer had dealt with his like before. He cleared his throat and when the man looked over trapped his gaze, letting just a little of what he was capable of reach his eyes. It was a trick he had learnt as a young Marshal when dealing with much older riders and it always worked. The drink induced stupor drained from the Gondorian’s face and he backed away hastily, like a dog unexpectedly faced by a lion. Éomer let his eyes rake over the rest of the table, but the men were suddenly very busy attending to their drinks. Lady Owl gave him a grateful smile.

He took a draught of his beer. Bitter from too much hops, but he’d drunk worse. Much worse actually. “Is this your first time in Minas Tirith?”

“Oh no, I visited here many times when I was younger.” She looked to the entrance of the alley as if checking for something. “But the first time since the war. Father would not let me come before.”

“Is your father a storyteller, too?” Éomer asked in a deliberately offhand voice. Not that he thought so, now that he’d got a closer look at her. The rich silk of her tunic, painstakingly embroidered with gold thread, spoke of wealth and she carried herself with the assurance conferred by a privileged upbringing. A rich merchant’s daughter perhaps, or the offspring of a minor noble house?

Lady Owl shook her head. “No. But my mother used to tell us the most wonderful stories when we were little.” She gestured down at her clothes. “Mother hails from the south, near the border to Harad.”

“Who is us?”

“My brothers and me.”

“You have many brothers?”

“Three of them!” With a mischievous smile she added, “in fact three too many at times.” But then she softened her voice at once. “No, they’re wonderful brothers. I was terribly worried about them during the war.”

“Did they fight in the great battles?” Éomer wondered if he knew them, but then he’d met so many Gondorians during their march to the Black Gate. The prospect of almost certain death at the end of it had brought about an easy camaraderie between the warriors.

Lady Owl nodded. “Oh yes. All of them were here in Minas Tirith and also my father.” She hugged herself, as if cold. “They would have perished on the Pelennor if it weren’t for the coming of the Rohirrim.”

Éomer looked down, the old familiar grief filling him, for far too many friends had died that day. And the man who had been like a father to him. For a moment, before being reminded of it, he had almost forgotten his reason for coming to Gondor. Taking a big gulp of ale did not wash away the taste of ashes in his mouth.

When he looked up again he found her eyes regarding him steadily, unreadable behind the mask. What colour were they? The grey of Númenor? Her height and slender build bore witness to the blood of the ship kings running in her veins, yet her skin had a warm, golden sheen that reminded him of the people of the south. She dropped her eyes under his gaze and he realized he’d been staring.

“So who was your brothers’ captain?” he asked, taking up the conversation again.

Lady Owl studied the contents of her tankard as if some hidden truth were written in the swirls of beer there. “They fought under Prince Imrahil’s command.”

“In that case I might have met them…” Éomer let his voice trail off suggestively.

“Perhaps you did.” She took a sip of ale and he could have sworn that amusement lurked in her voice. “I have been told they fought well.”

If only she did not have that mask on, for it gave her an unfair advantage in hiding her thoughts. And where had she learnt such unusual self-possession? Somehow he knew that asking her plain out about her identity would not get him any answers. They were playing a game and for the time being he had to abide by the unspoken rules she’d laid down.

The girl had taken out her purse and started to count her takings. Mostly coppers and half-coppers, but there were a couple of quarter-crowns amongst the coins as well. He watched her arrange the money into neat piles and add it up, her lips moving in silent concentration.

“Two crowns and fourteen coppers,” she finally announced with a proud smile. “I never thought it would be that easy to earn.”

He motioned to her hair, held up by pins studded with tiny pearls. “Surely that would not even buy a single one of your hair pins?”

“I suppose not.” Self-consciously she reached up to touch one. “But it’s the first money I’ve ever earned myself.”

He pounced on that statement. “So you don’t do this for a living?”

She wagged a finger at him. “You ask too many questions, my lord!”

It was his turn to hide a smile behind his tankard. “Forgive my natural curiosity. I was just wondering what you were doing on your own at night on the streets of Minas Tirith.”

“I might ask the same of you,” she countered at once. “What brings you here without any guards or company?”

He shrugged. “I desired some time on my own, time to think.”

“That might soon be in short supply from what I’ve heard,” she said with a sympathetic nod.

“Too true.” He stared down at his ale morosely. “First the celebration tomorrow night and then the long journey back to the Mark.” With himself as chief mourner and having every eligible maiden of Gondor thrown at him, all equally tongue-tied and awkward at meeting the famous King of Rohan. But their efforts would be in vain for he had no intention of taking a wife anyway until the Riddermark was more settled and he’d spent due thought and consideration on the matter.

“Don’t you like dancing?” she interrupted his thoughts and something in her casual tone alerted him.

“That depends on my partner…”

She removed an invisible speck of lint from her sleeve. “Who knows, the celebration might turn out more pleasant than you think.”

Interesting – so she would be there? Definitely the daughter of some nobleman then. “It might,” he agreed and they exchanged a smile, understanding each other perfectly.

Then she leaned forward. “Tell me, do you know how much a room in a tavern costs for one night?”

Confused by this complete change of topic he shook his head. “I’ve never stayed in one. Why?”

But she was already waving the serving woman over, who obeyed the imperious summons with a frown, gripping three heavy tankards in each hand. “What do you want now?”

Lady Owl gave her a winning smile. “Do you rent out rooms in your establishment?”

The woman surveyed her dubiously. “Why yes–”

“How much do they cost?”

The serving woman’s eyes flicked over her rich clothing, then Éomer’s way for an instant. “Quarter crown for half an hour. Three coppers extra if you want clean sheets.”

“Half an hour?” Lady Owl stared at her. “What would I do in half an hour? I meant not just to have a rest, but for the night.”

“Two crowns.”

It was rapidly becoming clear to Éomer what kind of clientele the Drunken Donkey catered for, but he had no chance to intervene.

“Two crowns!” Lady Owl exclaimed. “That’s robbery!”

The woman shrugged. “These are busy times with the Rohirrim in town, bird girl. I’ve got plenty of takers.” And she left to deliver her burden.

Lady Owl looked after her with a perplexed frown. “Surely there must be cheaper rooms? I’d only have fourteen coppers left over for food. Eleven if I have clean sheets.” She shuddered.

Éomer did not feel up to explaining the Drunken Donkey’s pricing policy, but he’d come to a decision. “Well, I won’t have you stay here.”

This pronouncement seemed to afford her amusement if anything. The corners of her mouth twitched. “I don’t intend to anyway.”

“What do you mean, you don’t intend to?” he asked. “My lady, have you run away from home?”

Lady Owl cast another furtive look at the entrance of the alley, before reaching for her tankard and taking a slow slip. Playing for time. “Not quite.”

“Not quite? Have you or haven’t you?” When she did not reply at once, he leaned forward. “Tell me the truth.”

She lifted her chin. “My lord, I have to warn you that I won’t be pressured, not by anybody! But,” she added, suddenly softening her tone, “I can be persuaded…”

Did she know what that low voice did to a man? Éomer suspected she did. “The truth?” he repeated more softly.

“It’s all my horrible brother’s fault,” she said with some heat.

“What did he do?” An unpleasant thought struck him. “Did he try to force you to marry somebody against your will?”

“Oh, no!” Lady Owl laughed. “Anyway, my father has definite plans for me.” Why did the prospect amuse her? And did this mean that she was engaged? But before he could follow up, she continued. “You see, we quarrelled and my brother claimed that on my own I could not support myself for even a single day.” She lifted her purse. “So I decided to show him and we made a bet.”

“A bet! All this is in aid of a bet?”

“My brother probably thought that I’d try and find work in a tavern.” She nodded at the serving maid, leaving Éomer momentarily speechless. “But I remembered how my little nephew likes his bedtime stories, so I came up with a much better plan. Amro–, I mean my brother probably couldn’t do half as well. Or how about you?”

Surprised by the question, he could only repeat stupidly “Me?”

“You’re a warrior, too,” she explained. “Could you make a living on your own? Without pillaging the countryside that is,” she added, “because you can’t do that kind of thing around here.”

“I can’t?” Éomer had to fight down the urge to laugh, but she caught on, for suddenly dimples appeared in her cheeks.

“It might clash with your image as the saviour of Gondor,” she explained.

“I’ll have to cross that off my list then,” he agreed and Lady Owl broke into laughter. The men sitting at the next table stared at them curiously.

Suddenly she sobered. “My lord, I’m sorry, but I have to leave now.” Following her glance, he saw a couple of guards at the entrance of the alley, questioning somebody.

“Wait!” he said and grabbed her wrist, just as she was about to get up.

She frowned down at his hand. “Please let me go!”

He stood, too. “I won’t let a lady wander these streets alone at night. I’m coming with you.”

A measuring look, then she nodded. “Very well, but hurry up.”

As they walked further down the road Lady Owl tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “This is better anyway, for they will be looking for a woman on her own.”

“I’m always glad to be of use,” he replied gravely, surprising a chuckle out of her.

It was a pleasant sensation to have her lean into him when he helped her navigate the uneven cobbles of the alley, only dimly lit by a torch every now and again. He wasn’t sure if she had judged him completely trustworthy to go off with him on her own like this or if she simply could not envision a situation which she could not handle. Of course he had every intention of delivering her home safely eventually, but that would not keep him from enjoying her company just a little bit longer. And he still had to find out what colour eyes she had.

Lady Owl cast a look back over her shoulder and gripped his arm tighter. “Oh no! They’re at the tavern now.”

Indeed the two guards had stopped at the Drunken Donkey and were talking to the serving woman. A coin changed hands and Éomer saw her point out the way they had left. With a suppressed oath he pulled Lady Owl along and they hurried around a corner in the road.

Only to find themselves in a small open space marking the end of the alley. On a plinth in the centre reared up the statue of a horse, the rider finely balanced atop it, moonlight glinting off his raised sword. A single torch in an iron bracket fixed to the base of the statue cast its feeble light on the square and the houses fronting it stood dark, windows boarded up and gates closed. Without much hope Éomer tried a couple of doors, but they were all locked.

Lady Owl clutched his arm. “What do we do now?”

For one mad moment Éomer wondered if they could climb the statue and pose as part of it, it was so extraordinarily lifelike. His eyes were drawn to the worn inscription below it. Eorl the Young, he read, riding to the battle of Celebrant. Footsteps sounded behind them.

“They’re coming!” she exclaimed. “Can’t you think of something?”

What would his famous forebear have done? He had always been one to act decisively, snatching victory from his opponents when they least expected it. “I have an idea.” Éomer spun round and pushed her back against the base of the statue, where the torch cast a deep pool of shadow. Then he placed his hands either side of her head, leaning into her and covering her from sight with his bulk.

“What do you think you are doing?” she hissed. “This is not the time!”

“Hush!” he whispered into her ear. “Let me do the talking.” An elusive perfume clung to her and he had to stamp down on the sudden impulse to kiss her in earnest.

Behind them the footsteps rounded the corner, only to come to an abrupt halt. “My lady?” somebody called.

Éomer forced himself to turn around slowly, as if only now becoming aware of the guards’ presence. “What do you want?”

Two men stood in the entrance to the square, their livery undistinguishable in the dim light. They tried to peer around him, but he interposed himself smoothly between them and Lady Owl.

“We’re looking for a girl, a young noblewoman of Gondor,” one of them explained. “At the tavern they told us she came this way.”

Éomer deliberately thickened his accent. “No ladies around here,” he laughed. Then he nearly gave the game away when a slim arm snaked around his neck to bury itself in his hair. Covering his surprise, he scowled at the men. “Get you gone now! Can’t you see we’re busy?”

The two exchanged an uncertain look, but after a low-voiced consultation turned to go, checking the doors either side of the road as they went. Éomer turned his attention back to Lady Owl. The moment the guards disappeared round the corner she withdrew her arm, but otherwise made no attempt to move away. Instead she leaned her head back against the stone behind her and looked up at him. “That was quick thinking.”

“Thank you.” He supposed the proper thing to do now would be to escort her home, but instead his fingers wandered up to the ribbons holding her mask in place. “Do you know, I think you owe me something for my help in sending those men away.”

“Indeed?”

But she offered no resistance when he pulled her forward and gave a tug on the knot fastening the ribbons. The mask fell away and he took her chin in a gentle grip to turn her face to the light. Golden. Her eyes were the rich golden brown of autumn leaves, made translucent by the sunshine. Not the usual cool grey, the legacy of Númenor, but almond shaped and warm, hinting at the existence of hidden fires. She regarded him steadily and for a moment the thought that he had seen that look before flashed through his mind, but the memory was gone as quickly as it had arisen.

Éomer let his gaze trail over her high cheekbones, the straight nose and down to her lips: darkest red and extremely kissable. Would she slap him if he went ahead with what his impulses were urging at him to do? And should he let her?

Skin smooth as the finest silk brushed against his fingers when he cupped her face between his hands. “Well, Lady Owl,” he whispered. “If I kiss you, will you turn into a princess?”

Her eyes widened in surprise and she caught her breath. Then their lips met and things were not as they had been a moment before.

Shock ran through Éomer as the world dropped out from under him, the woman in his arms the only certainty. He was tumbling into an abyss, but he did not care, for he tasted her very essence. Nothing else mattered. With an uncontrolled movement he crushed her against him and she responded by throwing her arms around his neck like a vice. Her golden scent filled his senses. The wild drum of her heartbeat matched his own. For one glorious moment they were one, united. Complete.

It could not last. It did not last. Reality crashed down on him like an ice cold wave and he let go of her abruptly. “What was that?” With senses still sharpened almost painfully, Éomer stared down at her, his ears ringing as if he’d just been thrown from a horse.

She looked back up at him, the whites around her eyes showing, and opened her mouth, but no sound emerged. So she had felt it too. With all her carefully cultivated self-assurance torn away, he suddenly realized how young she was. Younger than he had thought. Remorse threatened to rise within him, to be instantly transmuted into anger. What was going on?

“Who are you?” he demanded to know.

She swallowed and moistened her lips. It annoyed him that he could still taste them. “Lothíriel,” she finally whispered. “Princess of Dol Amroth.”

Imrahil’s daughter! Of course he’d seen those eyes before, Prince Elphir had exactly the same. “You have your brother’s eyes.”

“My mother’s,” she corrected him numbly.

Then the political implications hit him. What would Prince Imrahil say when he heard of his behaviour? But she’d been compliant, of that he was certain. And surely she’d been kissed before – if not quite in this way. He did not need this now! New to his kingship and with winter looming over his people, just getting his uncle’s funeral procession over was strain enough. And what was she doing fooling around at night in Minas Tirith anyway? His head felt as if the statue had tumbled down on them.

“What did you do to me?” he growled. “Is this some kind of sorcery to trap me into marriage?”

The moment the words left his mouth he realized how silly he sounded. Surely he was just experiencing an excessive reaction to kissing a pretty woman.

But the spell was broken and she pushed away from him. “You think too much of your own importance!” she flared at him, her sudden fury matching his own. “I’m not some foolish girl to put a love potion into your drink in the hope of capturing a king’s fancy.”

His arms felt oddly empty, as if they’d already grown used to the feeling of holding her warm body close. Some of his rage drained away. “I’m sorry.”

She turned her face away, obviously still struggling to restore her composure. “If you hand me back my mask I will leave now,” she said. “I think I have paid my debts, over and beyond what I owed you.”

“There is still the matter of Rohan coming to Gondor’s rescue on the Pelennor Fields,” he heard himself say.

Where had those words come from he asked himself as she spun round. This was not the way to treat princesses. Surely she would slap him now, and he deserved it – twice over if he was honest.

“I always pay my debts,” she hissed.

And she stepped up to him and kissed him full on the mouth. Éomer braced himself for the reaction, but instead of the unsettling sensation of falling, a wave of warmth engulfed him. It felt so right, like two halves coming together. What a fool he’d been! He slid his hands round her back, gently this time, and she quite simply melted into his arms as if she had always belonged there. How long had he waited for her without even knowing it. Time slowed down and then stopped.

A lifetime later they separated and she stood with her lips a finger’s breadth away from his. Éomer watched her blink as if awakening from a dream, her long lashes throwing shadows across the delicate skin of her cheeks. Leaning her forehead against his chest, she took deep breaths while he stroked her back. Then she looked up at him with a shy smile, wonder filling her eyes.

He smiled back at her. “Say my name.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to hear you say it.”

“You there!”

The shout from behind him made him whirl round and his sword flew into his hand. How could he have let somebody creep up on him! With eyes blinded by the torchlight he searched the darkness for enemies, the protection of his lady his only imperative. There! At the entrance to the alley stood three men, one of them with his sword drawn.

Lothíriel grabbed his arm. “Hold! It’s my brother.”

The man stepped forward, open menace in his bearing. “What do you think you are doing with my sister?” Then he got a better look at Éomer’s face and stopped as if pole-axed. “You?”

Lothíriel held out her hand in a pacifying gesture. “Please Amrothos, I’m fine. I just went for a walk with the King of Rohan.”

“A walk? That did not look like a walk to me!” As if suddenly becoming aware of his men listening with open interest, Amrothos waved them away. “You two, get the horses. Hurry!” He sheathed his sword. “Lothíriel, what have you been up to now?”

Éomer put his sword away, too. “She’s been perfectly safe with me, I assure you.”

Her brother looked unconvinced, but that moment Lothíriel took out her leather purse and jingled it. “See Amrothos, I can earn my keep,” she said. If she meant it as a diversionary tactic, it certainly worked.

“Earn your keep?” the prince asked. “What are you talking about?”

Lothíriel smiled triumphantly. “Just think, brother of mine, the King of Rohan gave me a silver crown for my efforts.”

“What!” Amrothos’s hand went to the hilt of his sword again.

Éomer held out his hands. “It’s not what you think.” Did she know she was doing her best to get him into an early grave?

“The others also gave me money,” Lothíriel went on, blissfully unaware of the undercurrent of menace between the two men.

Her brother’s eyes popped. “The others!”

She took out a handful of coins from her purse and let them run through her hand. “Yes, look. Two crowns and fourteen coppers altogether. Not bad for half an hour’s work, is it.”

Her brother stared at the money, all in small coins. “Lothíriel, what are you talking about?”

Éomer took pity on him. “She posed as a storyteller.”

“You didn’t!”

“Yes indeed,” Lothíriel nodded. “I did the story that Alphros likes so much, with the king who turns into a stork. Which reminds me, we have to pick up a carpet on the way home. I borrowed it from Father’s study.”

Her brother groaned. “Really, Lothíriel! I’ve been scouring the streets of Minas Tirith for you all evening, fearing the worst, and you want me to pick up a carpet.”

“You’re just annoyed because you’ve lost your bet,” Lothíriel countered, “I’ve got enough for a meal and a room in a tavern. I asked back there.” She motioned up the road.

Amrothos looked horrified at the information and cast a black look at Éomer, who had listened to the bickering between the pair with growing amusement.

That moment hoof beats sounded from down the alley and the prince’s two men came riding up, leading a couple of spare horses.

Amrothos took his sister by the arm. “We have to go home now. Father will be worried.”

Lothíriel nodded and allowed him to help her mount her horse, but when he went to get his own, she urged the mare forward to where Éomer stood watching her. “My lord king, I bid you farewell. Thank you for the drink and the … walk.”

Her composure was so extraordinary, she needed no mask. He reached out to pat the horse’s neck and it gave a soft snort. A fine-bred lady, just like her owner. “Princess Lothíriel, you’re welcome,” he replied. “Will I see you tomorrow?”

“Perhaps.”

“Good.” He held her gaze. “Maybe we could continue our discussion of the political situation between our countries.”

One corner of her mouth twitched. “Perhaps.”

“I would enjoy that.” Éomer found himself reluctant to let her leave, as if she were taking a part of himself with her. Taking hold of her hand from where it rested lightly on the reins, he breathed a kiss across her knuckles and something leapt between them. A spark from a hidden fire.

Lothíriel lowered her voice so it reached his ears only. “I would too…Éomer.”

FINI

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A/N: The fairy tale is gratefully borrowed from Wilhelm Hauff: How the Caliph became a stork ('Balant' means 'gift of god', the same as 'Baghdad')

Stable Girl

The only warning I got was the creak of the stable door before a gust of cold air swept away the comfortable smells of hay and horse. Then Hlaefdige gave a soft whinny and strained forward. Annoyed at nearly being bowled over, I straightened up from grooming her, but the words of admonishment died on my lips. There he stood in the doorway: tall and broad, his wet, blond hair plastered to his head. Boots splattered with mud, tunic turned a dark grey with rain, the lamplight from the corridor glancing off a green gem on his sword hilt and piercing the early evening gloom. The Rohirrim had arrived.

Frozen like a fawn whose hiding place had been unexpectedly exposed, I could only stare at him, but he ignored me anyway, his attention focused on the mare. Too late did I remember the commotion I’d heard a little while ago from the visitors’ wing, but then guests had been pouring in all week in preparation for the wedding of the daughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth to the King of Rohan. Only the bridegroom’s party had not been expected until tomorrow.

Crooning something in Rohirric, he held out a hand and the traitorous animal went to her former master eagerly, nuzzling his hair and making him laugh. The low sound sent a shiver through me and involuntarily I shifted further back into the shadows. Surely he could hear the pounding of my heart? He ran his fingers along the elegant line of Hlaefdige’s neck, across her back, and finally bent to check her legs.

“The mare looks well. Is it you who’s in charge of her?”

Of course he would have noticed me the moment he entered the horsebox, but no doubt he had dismissed me at once as no possible threat to him. Suddenly realizing I still wore the old, floppy hat I’d borrowed earlier on from one of the grooms as protection against the rain, I simply nodded and pulled the brim lower so it concealed my face even more.

“Yes, my lord,” I mumbled and took up my work again, brushing the mare’s back with firm strokes. Just let him take me for one of the ubiquitous stable lads.

Silence. When I risked a quick glance, he had stopped stroking Hlaefdige and stood looking at my hand, an arrested expression on his face. I followed his eyes to see shapely fingers, roughened by soap water and with several nails broken, but nevertheless clearly belonging to no man. He drew in his breath, tension running through a body hardened by a lifetime of following the warrior’s way. Then he ducked under the mare’s neck in a fluid motion, like a lion closing in for the kill. I stepped away from him, only to have my back connect with the wall. No escape that way. With the horseboxes either side empty, we were completely alone.

“Well,” he purred, “and what have we here?”

His eyes travelled down my body and I was suddenly acutely conscious of my hair caught up in a dishevelled braid and my thin tunic sticky with sweat. One of his eyebrows rose when he took in the grubby trousers I used for grooming horses, still wet from the rain and clinging to my legs. Not really suitable apparel to wear before a king. Even a barbarian one.

His eyes never leaving mine, he moved closer until I was forced to lift my face to look up at him. With a flick of his wrist he took off my hat, throwing it to the ground where Hlaefdige gave it a curious huff. Nardol will be annoyed if I get his second best hat trampled, I thought distractedly. Whatever he saw on my face seemed to amuse him, for white teeth flashed into a grin. “I’ve heard that the stable girls of Dol Amroth are famous for their beauty.”

Then calloused fingers gripped my chin, tilting it up, and as I drew breath for a protest he kissed me. The world around me melted away, his firm body the only reality. Wet leather. Sweat. The sweet taste of desire. Mine or his, I did not know. The currycomb dropped from my fingers as they scrabbled up his chest to bury themselves in his hair. He gave a laugh then, low and triumphant, and his hand snaked round my back, pulling me closer. Demanding more. Getting it.

Aeons later his lips separated from mine and moved to whisper in my ear. “I’ve missed you.”

My body suddenly remembered to breathe again and I gasped for air, leaning my head against his chest. “Éomer, we shouldn’t be doing this.”

“I know,” he chuckled. Completely shameless.

But then I had always been the one holding back, trying to keep him at arm’s length, cool and reserved. Until he touched me. What would my parents say if they saw us, shot through my mind. Not to him – he was a king after all – but Father would certainly have a few pertinent words for me. As for my mother, that pained expression would cross her face…

His hands were busy behind my back, undoing my braid with practiced ease, and now he smoothed out my hair strand by careful strand until it lay in a soft curtain across my shoulders. Just as he liked it. “Don’t you have anything to say?” he asked in a low voice.

I looked up at that and tossed back my hair. “Like what?”

His eyes crinkled with laughter at my show of temper. “What about: welcome to Dol Amroth, my Lord King? I’ve missed you, too?”

Sudden anger filled me. He had no business to arrive early and surprise me in this manner! Had I known of his presence I would have stayed away from the stables even though it meant not being able to groom Hlaefdige. And to think that I had sworn to myself to greet him politely but distantly the next time I saw him, and instead I had practically fallen into his arms. Again. “What do you want?”

“What do I want?“ His fingers trailed down to follow the line of my collarbone. “Haven’t I made that abundantly clear, my pretty?” He bent to caress the hollow of my throat with his lips, calling up the memory of other illicit kisses. At first just stolen moments in the garden, then getting lost on purpose in the labyrinthine corridors of the King’s Palace in Minas Tirith. Later carefully arranged chance meetings in the stables there, the guards having been left behind.

“Pretty?” I wriggled out of his grip and motioned to my soiled clothes. “Look at me. You call this pretty?” Why could he possibly want me like this? Well, apart from the obvious reason.

Unabashed, he grinned down at me. “Is that why you were hiding from me?”

As my cheeks heated up his eyes danced with laughter. “I admit it is not the most elegant of apparel, but I think it has its compensations.”

I caught myself just in time from grinning back at him and regaled him with a cold stare instead. “Has it, my Lord King? Well, you should know.” How many women had he smiled at like that, making their bones melt? Serving wenches and highborn ladies, chamber maids, princesses … and stable girls?

A frown appeared between his brows. “What’s the matter, sweetheart? What has happened?”

I averted my face. “I’ve had time to think, that’s what has happened.”

“To think. I see.” The words sent ripples of silence across the room. A quick look at him revealed what I jokingly used to call his ‘king face’. Cold and aloof. He had worn it when I had first seen him, the day the Rohirrim left for home after the great battles. I had been just one amongst the multitude lining the road and cheering, having joined some cousins on my mother’s side for the day. Something in his bleak expression –one who had seen too many friends die – had called to me and when for some reason our eyes met I had offered him a shy smile, not thinking anything more would come of it. And nothing had, until many months later when he had sought me out at Éowyn and Faramir’s wedding. But by then he knew who and more importantly what I was.

Hlaefdige butted him with her head and now he turned to stroke her nose. “Don’t you agree it’s a bit late for thinking?”

He was right of course. It had been too late the moment I allowed him to claim my lips for the first time. As I watched his fingers caress Hlaefdige’s velvet coat, a stab of annoyance ran through me. It took me a moment to identify the reason for it. Wonderful, I was jealous of a horse now! I decided to change the subject. “Why are you here already?”

“I was impatient to get here and see a certain lady…”

“The Princess of Dol Amroth?” I challenged him. “For your much desired alliance with Gondor?”

He whirled round and gripped me by the shoulders. “The King of Rohan might be here to wed the Princess of Dol Amroth with all due pomp and ceremony,” he said, “but I just want you. Surely you know that by now?”

How I wanted to believe him – but then how could I. “So what about the dowry?” Now it was out.

His expression grew wary. “What about it?”

“It has been sent to you already and in very generous measure I have heard.”

“I needed it to feed my people during the winter!” he exclaimed and his fingers dug into my shoulders. “They would have starved else, surely you understand that. I promise to pay it back, for I do not want to be beholden to anyone.”

I gritted my teeth. “As if that made any difference!”

“What else would you have me do? I had no choice!” More than a hint of his famous temper rang in the words.

I looked down. What else indeed? “So you decided Gondor owed you a princess,” I whispered, “and took up negotiations.” In fact I had seen the messenger ride in myself, not knowing what his pouch contained, just hoping for a letter from him.

“Yes I did.” He slid his hands down to rest on my hips and pulled me closer again. “Come on, dearest. Admittedly it’s a convenient arrangement, but I did not think you would mind.”

Annoyance coursed through me at his words and I pushed him away. “A convenient arrangement!”

Éomer sighed. “My sweet, I am what I am and you are what you are, there is no way around that. So yes, I am glad that I can have it all.” Catching one of my hands he kissed the inside of my wrist, where my pulse was beating a frantic rhythm. “A princess for my country…and a ladylove for myself.” He pulled me into his arms and I could not find it in me to resist. “You know very well I don’t care about marrying the Princess of Dol Amroth, I only care about you.” A finger caressed my cheek. “Stubborn and contrary that you are.” Ah, but the man’s smile could charm a very nazgûl! “And I thought we had reached an understanding…”

Of course we had! In my world letting a man kiss me like I had carried its own consequences. “Listen, my sweet,” he said, one hand cupping my cheek, “soon we can find a more private place, with just you and me. I promise to prove my love to you then. Trust me.”

I closed my eyes and let him take my lips again. How could I deny that I wanted him to fulfil his promise? When I was with him all my doubts and reservations seemed to scuttle away as mice before a cat.

That moment Hlaefdige gave a loud snort and we both jumped. “Let me tell you, I’m sick and tired of slinking around like this,” Éomer kissed the tip of my nose. “But I promise things will be different in Rohan. I want you by my side openly, to be able to show how much I love you.”

Not quite meeting his eyes, I traced one of the horses embroidered on his tunic. “Your people might understand your taking the daughter of Dol Amroth to wife for what alliance she will bring, but won’t they resent the presence of a Gondorian intruder in their midst?”

“Nonsense!” He wrapped his fingers around mine and stilled them. “Admittedly, it might be a little difficult at first, but I am sure you will win them over. If there are any snide remarks, just remember that you will always have my backing.” He hesitated. “And then one day I want to have a child with you.”

At his words I stiffened. “Everybody knows you are the last of the House of Eorl and that Rohan needs an heir.”

He released his breath in frustration. “Didn’t you listen? I do not want an heir, I want a child. Children! Yours and mine.”

Unbidden a memory rose to my mind. Going for an evening stroll with him in the gardens of the Citadel, while the sounds of his sister’s wedding celebration floated across the still night air. And in a dry and impersonal voice that had broken my heart he had told me about finding her on the battlefield and thinking his whole family dead. How many people dear to him he had lost in his life! “Éomer,” I moistened my lips. “I–”

But I never got to finish my thought, for that moment steps sounded in the passageway outside. “Éomer King?” somebody called.

With a highly imaginative oath Éomer released me and spun round. The door to the horsebox eased open. I dived for my hat.

One of the Rohirrim stood in the doorway. Marshal Elfhelm, I identified him after a moment. His glance slid across me without recognition or interest as I bent to check Hlaefdige’s legs, crouching down in her shadow. An exchange in Rohirric followed, too quick for me to understand, but the names were easy enough to make out: Imrahil. Lothíriel. No doubt the Marshal had come to find out what kept his king and to escort him upstairs to get changed for the evening meal with the assembled Dol Amroth court.

Éomer motioned Elfhelm to precede him out of the stall, but then knelt down next to me. “Little one,” he whispered, “don’t think too much! Life is really so simple: I love you and you love me.” I nodded mutely and he bent forward to kiss me, taking his time about it, completely unrushed. Then he got up again with that feline grace particular to him, but at the door he stopped for a last look back. “By the way, you’ve got straw all over you.”

A grin flashed across his face and he was gone, leaving me flushed with heat, yet cold and shivering. I sat down heavily and reached up to find my hat covered in straw from when it had lain on the ground. I ground my teeth. No doubt I looked like Éomer had just tumbled me in the hay. And to think that I had sworn to myself to deal rationally with him!

***

Having plenty of experience by now of stealing in by the servants’ entrance I sneaked upstairs without anybody being the wiser and a short time later saw me making my way downstairs again: hair caught back into a demure bun, wearing a modest cream dress and with a hasty bath having removed the whiff of the stables. My only ornament was a hip-belt made of interlinked copper rings, studded with chips of green glass. A cheap trinket bought on a whim at a stall in Minas Tirith. Éomer’s gift, the first of many.

The Great Hall hummed with people’s voices; the stone walls echoing back laughter. Trestle tables had been brought in to accommodate the unexpected guests and I hesitated before trying to slip by them unnoticed to reach my accustomed place. However, the moment I appeared conversation amongst the Rohirrim ceased and I could feel their eyes following me as I walked the length of the hall. No doubt speculating about their king and me.

My mother’s gaze flicked my way when I joined the family, but fortunately she was occupied in talking to a courtier. Only my sister-in-law frowned at me. “You are late. Where have you been?”

I shrugged. “Making myself pretty.”

Culurien cast a disdainful look at my belt. “The Rohirrim have arrived.”

“So I see.”

“King Éomer is late, too.”

“So I see.”

Fortunately I was saved from further questioning by the entrance of the guest of honour. The hall fell quiet as Éomer made his way towards the dais, exchanging a greeting here, a nod to his riders there. I had seen it so often: men straightened up whenever he addressed them, eager for his approval and basking in the warmth of his attention. As for the women…. the man attracted them the way the proverbial honey pot attracted wasps. Or rather how a nice rotting piece of meat attracts vultures, I thought savagely as that mantrap Lady Eilinel simpered up at him. Yet half the time he did not even seem to notice and in all honesty I had to admit that he had never given me any reason for jealousy. Although I might have to share his attention while he attended to his royal duties, I knew I would never have to share his heart.

When he reached the dais he was greeted loquaciously and at length, just as protocol demanded. He had not looked my way, but somehow I knew he was as keenly aware of me as I had been of him from the moment he entered the hall.

Finally he made his way over to me and his gaze warmed when he spotted the belt around my middle. But knowing everybody’s eyes on me, I schooled my features and sank into an elegant curtsy. “Welcome to Dol Amroth, my Lord King.” I marvelled how cool and collected I sounded to my own ears, my voice not betraying the slightest hint of the turmoil within me.

He bowed over my outstretched hand, brushing a kiss across my knuckles. “My lady, I thank you for your warm welcome.” Matching my frigid tone exactly and raising an ironic eyebrow, yet suddenly I fancied I saw a hint of hurt in his eyes at my cold reception. Trust me, he had said, don’t think so much.

He straightened up and an awkward pause followed. Then he nodded and would have turned away to greet the rest of my family. All of a sudden I could stand it no longer, never mind about the consequences. “Éomer…”

When he looked back I snatched after him and a moment later I was in his arms. It took no more than a heartbeat for him to respond and as I laced my fingers in his hair, discarding years of lessons in comportment, I could hear my sister-in-law gasp. But she was drowned out almost immediately by loud whistles and cheering from the tables of the Rohirrim.

When we separated a long time later, I took a deep breath. “I’ve missed you.”

Eyes no longer cold, but blazing with warmth, Éomer smiled down at me. “Oh Lothíriel! Not as much as I’ve missed you.”

*

*

Hlaefdige - Lady

The Lion Tamer

Edoras, 15th March 3020.

***

Another one. And on this day of all days. Éomer watched the woman dismount from her horse. By now they all looked the same to him: black hair, grey eyes, a polite smile on their lips – and a spurious excuse for wanting to spend some time in the Riddermark. Be it to buy horses, to visit friends from the war or to take the mountain air. This one was taller than usual and with a better mount than most ladies from Gondor. But then you expected as much from the daughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth.

He stepped forward to greet her. “Princess Lothíriel, welcome to Edoras.”

Cool, grey eyes, nearly level with his own, surveyed him. “Thank you, King Éomer.”

“A guest house has been prepared for you. My housekeeper will show you the way.” He motioned Aethelhild over and the old woman dropped a curtsy. “No doubt you are tired and will want a rest. I’ve given orders to have your evening meal served in your quarters.” His duties as host done, Éomer turned to go.

“That won’t be necessary.”

When he looked back with a frown, the princess gave him an imperious nod. “There is no need to put your servants to extra trouble. I will see you in the hall for the evening meal.” She smiled at Aethelhild. “Please lead the way.”

Finding himself thus dismissed, Éomer stared after her slender form. So she was determined to start the siege that very evening, was she? Well the princess would find that it would not do her any good. Feeling thoroughly disgruntled he mounted the stone steps leading up to the doors of Meduseld. Inside the hall, servants had already started laying for supper and as he sat down at the high table he sent one of them running to fetch him a tankard of ale.

In small groups his riders entered to take their places. A more sombre mood than usual prevailed, but of course that was hardly surprising. With a word of greeting Marshal Elfhelm took the seat next to him.

“Has the Princess of Dol Amroth arrived yet?” he asked.

Éomer only grunted as an answer and the Marshal looked slightly dismayed at his king’s lack of enthusiasm. “I have heard she is very pretty?”

“You may judge for yourself soon.”

Elfhelm put a hand on his arm. “Éomer, you realize you will have to marry eventually, don’t you. It is your duty to your people to provide an heir for the House of Eorl.”

“I know my duty!” Éomer snapped. Heads turned at nearby tables and he lowered his voice. “But in due time and with a wife of my own choosing.”

“The princess is very well connected and also the daughter of a good friend.”

“Enough!” Éomer said. They had covered this ground dozens of times already. When Elfhelm opened his mouth to add something, he held up his hand. “Not tonight.”

As if on cue the doors to the hall opened to admit Princess Lothíriel and her party. Aethelhild showed her maids and guards to one of the servants’ tables, but the princess and her lady-in-waiting continued to the high table. Éomer noticed that the two women lifted their gowns to keep the hems clear off the rushes that covered the floor. He frowned when he realized that those were left over from the winter months and quite dirty by now. Éowyn usually had them cleaned out when spring arrived, but this year nobody had bothered to do so. Then Éomer had to welcome the ladies and introduce them to his Marshal. At least the servants chose that moment to start serving the meal, so after seating the princess to his right he could concentrate on his food.

Princess Lothíriel looked about Meduseld. “My father has told me about the magnificent carvings of your hall.”

“Has he.” Éomer waved to one of the servants to top up his tankard. He saw that the princess had not yet touched her own ale. Probably she was used to drinking wine – but she would not get it here.

“Yes, he admired them very much.” Princess Lothíriel nodded, apparently unperturbed by his curt answer. “And also your beautiful tapestries.”

“Really.”

“Do they all depict scenes from Rohan’s past?” She motioned to the one showing Eorl the Young on Felaróf.

“Yes.” Forestalling any more attempts at conversation, Éomer got up and lifted his tankard. Benches scraped as his men rose, too. “To those who have gone before us,” he called in the language of the Mark. And in his mind he named them: Théoden, Théodred, Háma, Grimbold, Guthláf, Dúnhere, Déorwine. And so many more.

“To those who have gone before us!” his riders echoed back at him.

He downed his drink in one go and then sat down again. Looking surprised the princess had followed his lead and had risen as well. Now she hastily took her seat again.

On Éomer’s other side, Elfhelm leaned forward. “A year ago the battle of the Pelennor fields took place,” he explained.

“Of course,” the princess said. “You are celebrating your victory.”

“No,” Éomer corrected her. “We are remembering the fallen.”

“Oh! I’m sorry.”

“Sorry doesn’t bring back the dead.”

She looked at him and for a moment her large grey eyes seemed to cloud over with a vision only she could see. “I know.”

That effectively put an end to the conversation. Not that Éomer minded, although the look his Marshal cast him made him feel momentarily guilty. But after all he hadn’t invited the woman, she had invited herself, or rather her father had. He nodded to a servant for a refill.

Elfhelm cleared his throat. “So tell me, Princess Lothíriel, how fares your father?”

She looked up from cutting the meat on her plate into more ladylike pieces. “Thank you, he is well.”

“And your brothers?”

“They are well, too.”

Éomer took another large gulp of ale. Brothers. Three of them and all had survived the war.

The princess gave him a cautious smile. “I saw Lady Éowyn whilst stopping over in Minas Tirith. She sends her greetings.”

Éomer stared down at her and her smile faltered. Did she think to ingratiate herself with him this way? Well she would find out differently. “So tell me,” he asked, “is your accommodation to your liking?”

Princess Lothíriel jumped at his harsh tone. “The guest house was rather small and a little draughty,” she stammered. “But fortunately it turned out there was a more suitable one available. Your housekeeper did not think you would mind.”

Éomer frowned, for he had expressly specified a guesthouse well away from the hall, but then he could not really blame Aethelhild for giving in to this confident young woman. Ever since Éowyn’s departure for Gondor the previous autumn Meduseld had lacked a mistress and the housekeeper was really too old to run the place on her own. “And no doubt you would like a tour of Edoras?” he asked.

“Well, I’m sure it would be interesting,” the princess replied, watching him warily. “But have you got the time?”

“I will make the time. Tomorrow.” He picked up a leg of chicken from his plate and took a hearty bite. She would not be the first Gondorian lady to be treated to an exhaustive inspection of the kitchen, numerous dusty storehouses and all the outbuildings up and down the hill on which Meduseld stood. He particularly enjoyed showing them the King’s Room, unchanged since his uncle’s death, dark and gloomy and dominated by the huge four-poster bed with its faded drapes. On returning from Minas Tirith he had taken one look at it and decided to sleep in his old rooms for the time being.

When he looked up again he found her examining him through narrowed eyes. Quite deliberately he put down his piece of chicken and wiped his hands on his trousers. They were dirty anyway as he had come in straight from the stables. Her eyes widened. The thought that Éowyn would have his hide, could she see him, flitted through his mind, only to be dismissed at once. This was all out war after all and he had learnt early on that the enemy gave no quarter.

The princess had chosen to wear her hair loose to dinner, no doubt to show off its glossy length. Now she tossed it back. “I’ve heard of your hospitality, my lord. Indeed tales have reached as far as Gondor.”

It took him a moment to identify the emotion glittering at the back of her eyes. Anger? Did the fool woman think to take him on in his own hall? Him, the Lion of Rohan? He bared his teeth in a smile. “Good! We have to make sure you see as much of our beautiful country as possible during your sojourn with us. Perhaps you’d like me to lay on a boar hunt in the mountains?”

She seemed to recognize the challenge in his voice, for she gave a curt nod. “That’s very kind of you. I used to go hunting in the Hills of Tarnost with my brothers, so I’ll be bound to enjoy it.”

Elfhelm leaned forward. “It’s still rather cold in the mountains this time of the year, Éomer. Perhaps you should show Lady Lothíriel the environs of Edoras instead?”

Éomer had in fact counted exactly on that particular detail making the princess’s life miserable during the hunt, but he couldn’t very well say so. Well, there were still the marshes of the Entwash –although March was a bit early for the midges – and other possibilities closer to home. He smiled. “A good idea. Maybe you’d like to see the stables tomorrow? And of course our breeding paddocks.”

On his other side Elfhelm choked on his ale. Doubtlessly he remembered the memorable occasion when Éomer had taken Lady Faelivren of Lebennin to those same paddocks last August. Firefoot had come up with a magnificent effort to ensure a fresh crop of foals for the next year and the lady had fainted at the sight. A satisfactory affair all round: Lady Faelivren had left the next day and the mare, Swiftleg, was in foal now.

The princess matched his smile. “Yes, I’ve heard of those as well and would love to see them. Do you hand breed or pasture breed your horses?”

He blinked. Of course she would have grown up amongst her father’s horses. Imrahil was renowned for the quality of his steeds. For the first time he looked at her and saw her as an individual, not just another hopeful Queen of Rohan. “Mostly we just let the stallions run with the herds,” he answered, “but we keep some of the most promising mares here in Edoras to breed to specific stallions.”

“In that case I’ve come at the right time of the year, haven’t I?” Her voice had a definite edge to it. “I understand you take a personal interest in the process.”

Éomer suddenly wondered exactly what tales had reached Gondor. Somehow he got the impression that this woman might prove to be a difficult one to get rid of, especially as he had to be careful not to offend her father. But why did she have to arrive today, intruding on his grief and forcing him to deal with the unpleasant realities of being a king? “I take a personal interest in all the aspects of running my kingdom,” he growled and reached for his tankard.

The princess cast a quick look around the hall and then smiled sweetly. “So I see.” She transferred her attention back to the meat on her plate.

Éomer glared at her and set down his tankard with a thump. “What do you mean?”

She met his eyes squarely. “I mean that your personal touch shows clearly – in the accommodation we’ve been given…the charming plans for my entertainment…and the imposing state of your hall.”

How dare she! He surged to his feet. “Nobody asked you to come here! We don’t need a pampered and spoilt princess like you to sneer down her nose at us.”

“Spoilt?” She had risen, too. “I am not the one behaving like an ill-mannered child, wanting in all common courtesies.”

In the ensuing silence they heard a mouse scuttle across the floor. Éomer gritted his teeth. Even the rodents of Meduseld seemed determined to betray him. “Tonight we are remembering those who died while coming to your country’s aid, my lady,” he hissed. “Not everybody spent the war safe behind walls, worrying about nothing more than what dress to wear the next day.”

The princess had taken a step back at his outburst, but now she balled her hands into fists. “Not worrying. When I was left running Dol Amroth on my own and my whole family was out there fighting!”

Éomer could stand it no longer. “But your family survived,” he shouted. “Whereas I lost everybody but my sister. Théodred was hacked to pieces by orcs, my uncle crushed by his own horse!”

Princess Lothíriel looked as if he had slapped her in the face. “I know.” She held out a hand. “And I am truly sorry for your loss.”

But Éomer was too angry to care. “What would you know of it?” he snapped. “You haven’t got the slightest idea what it means to lose somebody you love.”

The blood drained from her face, leaving it white as chalk. “You are wrong. I know everything about loss,” she whispered. “The refusal to believe, the anger, the guilt…”

Gathering up her skirts so they would not touch him, she brushed past him. But at the edge of the dais she paused and looked back. “Since I am not welcome here I will leave. But I give you a piece of advice, King Éomer. You need to stop drinking, have a bath and a clean change of clothes. In that order.” With that she swept out the hall, her lady-in-waiting belatedly hurrying after her, clucking like a worried hen.

As conversation slowly started up again amongst his riders, Éomer sat down heavily and turned to Elfhelm. The Marshal interpreted the question in his king’s eyes correctly. “Her mother,” he explained. “Imrahil’s wife.”

Éomer remembered now. “She died during the war?”

“I believe so.”

He stared at the great doors through which the princess had left. Maybe he had been a little harsh on the girl?

“More ale!” he called.

***

“My Lord King?”

Éomer groaned. The rhythmic pounding in his head was a familiar sensation. A hard surface lay against his cheek. Cold and unyielding. Where was he? He opened eyes puffy with sleep. Grey flagstones, the base of a wooden pillar, sunshine. When he lifted his head, the world started to spin around him. Another all too familiar sensation. He groaned again.

“Here, let me help you.”

Gentle hands took his arm, helping him sit up and lean back against the wood behind him. Something soft was stuffed behind his head as a pillow. A woman’s voice… Squinting against the bright light he looked up at her. “Where am I?”

“On the terrace of Meduseld.” Beautiful grey eyes, framed by thick lashes, and a generous mouth, the corners twitching. A nice face to wake up to. Éomer smiled up at her.

She smiled back, her eyes losing their aloofness and warming. “How are you feeling?”

Westron spoken in the elegant tones of Gondor’s nobility. He knew that voice… Realization dawned abruptly. “What are you doing here!”

At his words her smile congealed and he felt a twinge of regret, quickly repressed. The princess inclined her head. “Don’t worry. I’ve just come to take my leave of you.”

“Oh.” Éomer leaned back and tried to order his thoughts. At least the world had stopped spinning around and a quick look confirmed that he was indeed sitting on the stone terrace surrounding the Golden Hall. The snowy peaks of the White Mountains glinted in the morning sunshine and he wondered how he had ended up on the south side, just outside the royal quarters.

She knelt down beside him, offering him a cup. “Here, drink this. It should make you feel better.”

Éomer took a cautious sip. Herb tea. Gratefully he wrapped his fingers around the hot cup. Behind her he spotted two of his guards, looking rather sheepish. As well they should for letting anybody see him in this state, let alone a foreign princess. “Why am I out here?”

“I believe you evinced a desire to sleep under the stars last night.” Her voice held no expression at all.

Did she think the sight of the King of Rohan passed out from too much drink amusing? And would she enjoy telling the story to her cronies in Gondor? Well, she might have caught him at a disadvantage, but the lion still had some fight left in him. “Nothing wrong with that!” he snapped.

The princess spread her hands, palms upward. “Of course not.”

When Éomer glowered at her she shrugged. “My Lord King, as I’ve said we’re about to leave.” She sat back on her heels and he saw that she was indeed dressed for travelling, wearing an elegant buckskin riding habit that displayed her slim form to advantage. “But I have a favour to ask of you.”

“What kind of favour?” he asked suspiciously.

“My companion, Lady Eledwen, needs a few days’ rest after travelling all the way from Minas Tirith. Just the prospect of another day on horseback sent her into spasms last night.”

Éomer shuddered at the thought. “So?”

“I would like to leave her here for another week. In the meantime I will travel to Aldburg and wait for her in the inn where we stopped over on the way here.”

There was no way he could let Imrahil’s daughter stay at the Howling Hound for a week and she had to know it.

“In that case you must remain here until your companion feels better,” he said through gritted teeth. “I insist.”

She looked at him with a good imitation of astonishment on her face. “I don’t see why. To be quite blunt, I do not wish to stay another day where my presence is so clearly unwelcome.”

Did she want to shame him into apologizing? Well she would find out that those kinds of tactics did not work with him. “So you like bluntness, do you?”

Her brows drew together. “Yes I do.”

“In that case let me tell you that you must be perfectly well aware of the fact that I cannot possibly let you stay at an inn in Aldburg for a week. Not for your sake, but for your father’s.”

She stood abruptly. “What exactly are you implying, my Lord King?”

He surged to his feet too, spilling his tea and making his head swim in the process. “What I am implying, my Lady Princess, is that you’re trying to find a way to extend your stay here.”

“And why should I want to do so?” Her voice had gone dangerously low.

Did she think him too polite to spell out her reasons? Hah! “Because you think it will give you another chance to make me offer for your hand.”

“You dare!” she spat. “Well, since we’re being blunt, let me tell you that I find you an intolerable boor and I would rather marry a …. a troll than you! And to think that I had considered the stories told about you in Minas Tirith grossly exaggerated. I should have refused Éowyn then and there.”

Éomer clutched his aching head. “Éowyn? What has my sister got to do with this?”

“It was her who talked Father into sending me to Rohan for a month. Where she got the harebrained notion we’d be suited to each other I do not know. Did you think I came here of my own volition?”

“Eh… yes.”

“Well I didn’t!” He saw her brush a tear of rage from her eyes. “But I thought I owed it to Éowyn to give the idea a chance after all she had done for us in the war.”

Éomer found himself at a loss for words. This was Éowyn’s idea? “She must have lost her wits!” he groaned. “Whatever possessed her to meddle in my affairs in this manner?”

“Can’t you see your sister is worried about you!”

He stared at the princess. “Worried?”

“Yes worried. Although I can’t see why,” Princess Lothíriel added sarcastically. “After all you’re perfectly happy to drink yourself into oblivion.”

The woman was insufferable! “A little ale doesn’t hurt.” His body chose that moment to send a lance of pain through his head.

She made no reply, just regarded him steadily, those grey eyes far too perceptive. Éomer felt fresh irritation well up within him. What did she know about grief? “You haven’t got the slightest idea…” he began, only to remember that perhaps she did know.

A few unsteady strides brought him to the edge of the stone terrace and he stared out across the lawn sloping down the hill and the thatched roofs of the houses below him. His charge, entrusted to him by his uncle. The bright sunlight hurt his eyes. Turning back he spotted his guards watching him with open interest. “You two,” he barked in Rohirric, making them jump. “Fetch me another cup of tea. And one for Lady Lothíriel,” he amended his order after a moment. They went running off.

Éomer turned his attention back to the Princess of Dol Amroth, suddenly noticing that she had dark marks underneath her eyes as if she’d found little sleep that night. Her lady-in-waiting’s spasm or his unkind words? Guilt reared its ugly head. “You truly do not want to marry me?”

“No.” She leant her head back against a pillar. “I never wanted to leave my home and believe it or not, I have plenty of suitors back in Dol Amroth.”

They regarded each other warily as slowly the import of her words dawned on Éomer. “I might owe you an apology,” he conceded.

She looked away. “I did say some rather rude things myself.”

“You were provoked.”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry.”

She shrugged. “I’m sorry too.”

With a tired sigh Éomer sat down at the edge of the terrace. What a hash he’d made of things. To his surprise the princess joined him a moment later, sitting a little apart from him. “Your sister is worried about you because she loves you,” she said hesitantly. “She thinks that you dwell too much on the past.”

He had to bite down a harsh rejoinder. Always the same empty words. “I suppose you’ll tell me to move on and forget about my losses?”

Princess Lothíriel shook her head. “I would never tell you to forget. Rather you should remember the good times.” She looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. “Even though it’s difficult…”

The last words were said so low, Éomer wasn’t sure if they were meant for his ears. “Your mother?” He gentled his voice. “How did she die?”

Her hands clenched. “Corsairs.” He did not press her and after taking a deep breath she continued haltingly. “Two years ago this coming August. She was a healer and was called out to a difficult birth.” The princess made a helpless gesture. “Father always sent a couple of guards with her, but we’d not had our coast raided for many years. The village got attacked, but Mother…she refused to leave. Instead she sent one of the guards to fetch help.” Her voice broke. “It was too late. They burnt the village to the ground. We saw the smoke…”

Éomer stared at her, horrified to remember his earlier words to her. “I’m so sorry.”

The princess extracted a handkerchief from a pocket and blew her nose. “I was supposed to go with her to assist in the birth, but I had a cold so she told me to stay behind. I should have been there!”

“You’re not a warrior,” he pointed out gently, “you couldn’t have done anything.”

“I could have died with her.”

Éomer nodded. The guilt of the survivor – how well he knew it. “There is that.”

He watched as across the valley two kestrels rose in the clear air, circling each other as they climbed higher and higher. For as long as he could remember there had been a pair of them nesting in the tall pines at the base of the mountains. When they had been younger, Théodred had once told Éothain and him off for trying to steal the eggs. Perhaps not one of his fondest memories of his cousin, but better than imagining him dying under orc blades at the Fords of Isen. Remember the good times…maybe Princess Lothíriel had a point.

They remained sitting in thoughtful silence until a servant arrived carrying two mugs of tea. A quick sniff confirmed the tea as being the mint and fennel mixture the Meduseld cook brewed up in large quantities after feast days and Éomer wondered if the princess had been served the same drink.

She took a small sip. “This tastes familiar.” When she intercepted Éomer’s surprised look, she gave a crooked smile. “My brothers have been known to overindulge on drink. I’ve seen them in a similar state, especially Amrothos.”

Éomer lifted a hand to his face, wondering what he looked like. “Have you?”

A corner of her mouth twitched. “Well, maybe not this bad.”

He met her eyes and found himself forced into a reluctant grin. ”It takes considerable effort to achieve this particular effect.”

She had a nice laugh. Coming to a decision he finished his tea and got up. “I think I should be able to face breakfast now.”

The princess rose, too. “In that case I will say my good-byes. If we want to make Aldburg before sundown we have to leave now.”

“My lady, please reconsider and stay.”

Princess Lothíriel put her head to one side. “I don’t know…”

He held out his hand. “At least until your companion is recovered completely.”

“You are very kind.” A decisive nod. “But I promise to stay out of your way.”

They shook hands solemnly, then Éomer gestured towards the side entrance of the hall. “Would you like to join me for breakfast?” Seeing her look up at him rather dubiously, he hastened to reassure her. “I will have a wash first.”

She inclined her head with the dignity of a queen, but a smile lurked in her eyes. “That’s reassuring.”

***

Two months later…

“Éomer? The horses are ready.”

Éomer rose as Lothíriel entered the study, the men assembled around the council table following suit. He turned back to them. “Is there anything more we need to discuss?”

But his Marshals and advisors were already taking their leave, ready to file out the door. Elfhelm clapped him on the back. “Nothing that can’t wait for our next meeting. Enjoy your outing.” With a bow to Lothíriel he left.

Éomer stared after him as the room emptied rapidly. Never before had a council meeting broken up so quickly and painlessly. Lord Ealdred tried to add something, but Erkenbrand quite simply took him by the arm and towed him out.

“Well,” said Lothíriel as the door shut behind the last of them, “and here I thought I’d have to prise you out of their clutches.”

Struck by an awful suspicion, Éomer just shook his head. “Never mind about that.” He held the door open for her. “Did you say the horses are waiting?”

“Yes.” With easy familiarity she took his arm as they walked down the corridor and through the small gateway into the hall proper. “So where are we going? To see the herds again?”

“No.” When she raised her eyebrows quizzically, he grinned. “You’ll see. It’s a surprise.”

Through old habit he cast a quick look around Meduseld as they descended the steps from the dais and crossed the hall. Scrubbed clean, the tables stood arrayed like sentinels against the wall and the flagstones gleamed in the dim light, polished and smooth. Over to one side a group of servants under Aethelhild’s supervision were just taking down one of the tapestries from the wall.

Lothíriel stopped. “Oh! I promised to help with the cleaning.”

At her words the housekeeper looked up from carefully inspecting the state of the fabric. “You go on and enjoy yourself, my lady,” the old woman said, shooing them away. “You deserve a break for all your hard work.”

“Are you sure?” Lothíriel asked over her shoulder as Éomer pulled her towards the doors.

“We can manage,” Aethelhild nodded and the other women chorused her words, smiling broadly.

The doorwards were equally eager to see them on their way, wishing them a nice ride, and in the courtyard below Éomer could see Meduseld’s head cook personally fastening a couple of bulging bags to Firefoot’s saddle. He got the sinking feeling that everybody in Edoras knew of his plans – well except for one person.

They mounted up and rode down the hill, the guards trailing along so far behind that they hardly deserved the name. Probably they thought that they were being discreet! At least Lothíriel did not seem to notice anything amiss, showing her usual interest in the goings-on around her and cheerfully greeting any acquaintances in Rohirric. Éomer had to hide a smile at her pronunciation. The princess did not really have an ear for language, but nobody had the heart to tell her so and dampen her enthusiasm.

Once they passed the gates the crowds lessened and Lothíriel cast him a questioning look as they approached the ford over the Snowbourne. Their daily rides usually took them across to the meadows where this year’s foals and their dams were pastured. But Éomer shook his head and instead led the way along the Great West Road, which hugged the foothills of the White Mountains. To their left willows marked the course of the river and the path stretched out flat and empty, allowing them to pick up their pace to a slow canter. Soon Edoras disappeared from view behind an outcropping of the mountains and they were completely alone except for the guards still following them at a distance. Contentedly Éomer listened to the soft thudding of their horses’ hoofs on the turf and the sighing of the wind.

When he looked over at the woman riding beside him their eyes met for a moment and she gave him a warm smile, sharing her enjoyment of the ride. Éomer felt his heart lift. For some reason in her presence the sun shone brighter and the world had a sparkling edge to it, full of possibilities. He had discovered that Lothíriel was one of those rare women who did not think it necessary to assault his ears with endless chatter. Instead she had the gift of silence. Lulled by her undemanding acceptance, he had found himself telling her far more of the past than he had ever intended to. And in her turn she had allowed him a glimpse of the girl with a quirky sense of humour usually hidden behind the graceful and accomplished princess.

About an hour’s ride from Edoras he spotted the big boulder that marked their turning off point. A narrow path zigzagged up the mountain and recalled to their duties, one of his guards took the lead. While no orc would dare to venture this close to the seat of the King of the Mark, wild boars and lynx inhabited these foothills and were dangerous when surprised. However, nothing untoward happened as they slowly made their way up, dismounting and leading the horses wherever the path grew too narrow. Dense woods lined the way, providing welcome shade from the midday sun, but even so he soon started to sweat. Lothíriel of course remained as neat and cool as always, white blouse immaculate, hair caught up in a tidy braid. He had found that for some reason dirt and even horses’ slobber did not stick to her clothes like it invariably did to his own.

Then the trees suddenly opened up into a clearing and Lothíriel exclaimed with pleasure when she spotted the small waterfall at the other end. Eagerly the horses pressed forward and had to be restrained from drinking too quickly.

Once everybody had dismounted, Éomer threw the saddlebags over his shoulder and called to Lothíriel. “The rest of the way is on foot.”

She looked up from where she knelt by the small stream. “This is not your surprise?”

“Not quite.”

Leaving his men to guard the horses, he took a deer trail leading out of the clearing, the princess following along gamely. Birdsong echoed through the forest and every now and again black squirrels, disturbed by their passage, chased up the tree trunks either side. On his advice Lothíriel had donned practical clothing, a thin jerkin worn over the blouse and a pair of leather riding skirts, so they made good progress. Éomer waited for a word of complaint from her when the way grew so steep that they were forced to clamber up the mountainside like goats. However, she just laughed and did not even inquire as to how much further it was.

Finally he helped her squeeze between two boulders to reach a broad stone ledge. Ahead of them the ground dropped off steeply, affording them an unimpeded view of the plains. “Here we are,” he said proudly.

Lothíriel caught her breath, swaying slightly, and he turned at once to be able to catch her in case she suffered from vertigo. Indeed after the confinement of the forest, suddenly emerging into the wide-open space with the sky stretching limitless above them was dizzying. “Oh, Éomer,” she breathed, “I feel like I’m flying!” Stepping closer to the edge she stretched out her arms and laughed out loud in sheer delight when the wind whipped around her.

His heart missing a beat, he grabbed her and pulled her back. “Lothíriel, be careful!”

“Don’t worry. I’m used to the cliffs of Dol Amroth.”

“Maybe,” he conceded, reluctantly letting go of her again, “but I would not want to have to face your father if anything happened to you.”

Her smile was positively wicked. “Understandable. After your past behaviour he would probably suspect you of having pushed me.”

He could not help grinning back. “Really, my lady. Would I do such a thing?”

She frowned as she pretended to consider his question. “Perhaps as a last resort to get rid of me? In case I found my way out of Fangorn Forest?”

“Fangorn?” Éomer could not hide his confusion. “What do you mean?”

Lothíriel schooled her features into the demure expression that he knew meant she planned some kind of mischief. “I have been told a night spent alone in Fangorn is an indispensable part of any visit to Rohan.”

Belatedly the source of her information became clear to Éomer. “You’ve been talking to Lady Brethil,” he groaned.

She chuckled. “Poor Brethil wrote me a letter when she heard I was going to travel to Rohan, saying you had threatened to abandon her in Fangorn Forest and warning me not to go.”

“I only said that she should meet the Ents. Why, the woman drove me mad. She just wouldn’t stop talking!”

Lothíriel dissolved into laughter. “Oh Éomer! All the trouble you go to just to rid yourself of us poor, harmless Gondorian ladies,” she teased him.

“Let me assure you, I don’t want to get rid of you,” Éomer replied with a bow.

She must have caught something in his tone, for she raised her eyes to him, a question in them. Éomer bent down and busied himself with the saddlebags, which he had dumped on the ground. “Are you hungry yet? The cook has packed a veritable feast for us.” Coward, he told himself. But unexpectedly he found that asking a woman to stay proved much more difficult than getting her to leave. Lothíriel had shown she enjoyed his company, had twice agreed to extend her stay, but did her gracious and polite manner really hide a warmer feeling for him, as he hoped?

One of the saddlebags held a blanket for them and while he spread this on the stone ledge, Lothíriel silently unpacked their food. Meduseld’s cook had outdone herself: freshly baked bread, the smell of which made his mouth water, several kinds of meat pastries, a large wedge of cheese, cured ham sausages, small cakes and even a carefully wrapped punnet of strawberries. Also included were a wine skin and two goblets.

Lothíriel raised her eyebrows when she saw all these delicacies. “We never eat and drink so well when we go hunting back home. Why, the cook has even baked some of my favourite honey and nut cakes!”

Éomer forbore to mention that he didn’t usually get so well provisioned either. “Yes, it’s certainly an improvement on journey bread,” he agreed.

With a smile at his jest she sat down, clasping her slim legs, and looked out over the grasslands below them, which rippled in the wind. “You can actually see Edoras from here and there is the golden roof of Meduseld glittering in the sunshine.” Narrowing her eyes, she stared into the distance. “Are those the Misty Mountains?”

Éomer tore his gaze away from her face. “Yes. They stretch all the way north from Isengard. And the dark smudge below is Fangorn Forest.”

“It’s beautiful,” she sighed. “Thank you for showing me.”

He broke off a piece of bread and handed it to her. “I haven’t been up here for years, not since before all our troubles started.” The wind blew his hair across his face and he brushed it back. “It was my cousin who showed me this place. Théodred loved the view.” Éomer looked up to see Lothíriel watching him with compassion in her grey eyes. In anybody else, it would have offended him, but not with her. She knew.

In silence he shared out the pastries and cut off a piece of cheese for her. Already having pilfered most of the strawberries, Lothíriel now started on the meal with a good appetite while Éomer picked up a piece of bread. Only to exclaim in annoyance when a gust of wind tangled his hair again.

Lothíriel got up and crossed to his side. “Here, let me help.”

Éomer froze as she knelt down behind him and gathered up his hair in her hands. “What are you doing?”

“Plaiting it. Don’t worry, I have lots of experience in doing warrior braids for my brothers. You have the same custom here in Rohan, haven’t you?”

“Yes, but…” Éomer stopped. In the Mark only a wife or a sweetheart would render this service to her chosen, but after all there was nobody else about to see them and jump to the wrong conclusion.

Dividing his hair into even sections, her clever fingers started to plait it in a complicated pattern along one side. “What an exotic colour,” she remarked. “Just like I imagine a lion’s mane to be.”

He had to laugh at that. “Exotic? Not in Rohan. Here your black tresses seem much more striking.” And what would it feel like to tease them apart with his fingers? Éomer hastily strangled the thought.

“I suppose so,” she agreed.

Closing his eyes to better enjoy her ministrations, he was struck by a sudden realization. “I never thanked you.”

“Really, you don’t have to! It’s such a little thing.”

“No, I meant for all the work you’ve done around Meduseld,” he explained.

“Oh, that!” She gave his shoulder a quick squeeze and he caught a tantalising whiff of her perfume. Wild roses. “I enjoy it. In fact I think it kind of you to let me run wild here. It’s nice to be useful for a change.”

He didn’t miss the bitterness in her tone and remembered how she had told him of her sister-in-law resenting her presence in Dol Amroth. “Well, I am very grateful to you,” he said. “Finally Meduseld is a sight worthy of my ancestors again.”

She tied off the braid with a leather thong and started on his other side. “I’m pleased to be needed.”

Did she have any idea just how much he needed her? Éomer took a deep breath. “Lothíriel, would you consider staying here longer?” Why was finding the right words so difficult?

Her fingers did not slow. “Well, Lady Eledwen is getting a little impatient to return to Dol Amroth, but I suppose I could stay a few more weeks.”

“That’s not what I meant…”

He twisted round to face her and she looked at him in surprise. “Éomer?”

Catching hold of her hands he lifted them to his lips. “Not days… or weeks… or even months, but… indefinitely.”

Her fingers trembled. “Éomer, what exactly are you saying?” she whispered.

“Will you marry me?”

“Yes.”

He had been prepared for surprise, hesitation, doubt, but not for this immediate consent. “Yes?”

“Yes.”

“I can be a bit grumpy at times,” he warned her, taken aback.

“So I’ve noticed,” she replied, her expression grave, but her voice shaking.

“Lothíriel, are you quite sure?”

“Yes I am.”

He stared at her. Surely it couldn’t be this easy. “Why?”

Shyly she traced a finger along his lips. “Because of the way you smile at me when I catch you unawares. As you did when you woke up that morning on the terrace of Meduseld.” Her eyes met his unflinchingly. “Will you think me very forward when I say that for some time now I’ve been hoping for you to ask me this?”

Exhilaration swept through him and he laughed, feeling drunk with happiness. “Well, all I can say is that you’re a brave woman to take on the Lion of Rohan,” He slipped an arm round her waist and pulled her close. “Even though he’s quite tame really.” As laughter sprang into her eyes, Éomer leant forward and kissed her.

When he released her a good time later, he cradled her face between his hands, drinking in the sight of her. A strand of black hair had come undone and he had left a smudge on her cheek. His mark. Éomer decided not to tell her.

Looking up at him Lothíriel took a deep breath. “Tame? I don’t think so.”

*
*
*


A/N: My thanks to Gwynnyd for suggesting the 'anniversary' theme.

From Dutiful Daughter to Virtuous Wife

Following the path set out for her by wiser minds, upon her marriage the maiden will pass from the shelter of her father’s protection into the hands of her husband. Bringing with her as the most important gifts not a pretty face or a rich dowry, but rather decorous manners, a chaste heart and the willingness to let herself be guided by her new lord.

(Belecthor: The Gondorian maiden’s guide to proper deportment)

*

Freckles. They had tried everything. Cucumber extract, parsley and lemon juice applied liberally, buttermilk poultices, raw onions... Ivriniel sighed as she surveyed her niece. Lothíriel had strict instructions to stay out of the sun in order to preserve her fair skin, but although the freckles had faded they refused to go away completely. At least she no longer resembled a peasant child, running barefoot along the beach in Dol Amroth. Ivriniel shuddered at the memory of her last visit there. Why, the girl had even brought a pair of breeches with her when she came to Minas Tirith, refusing to give them up. Only her father’s intervention had persuaded her to have them locked away in her clothes chest. All her mother’s fault of course for dying early and leaving the child to be spoilt rotten by her brothers and doting father. Ivriniel had never understood why Imrahil had not remarried, especially as she had presented several very suitable candidates to him.

Lothíriel cleared her throat. “You sent for me, Aunt Ivriniel?”

Speaking before being spoken to. Typical. Ivriniel let the silence stretch a moment longer to show her displeasure before giving a sharp nod. “Yes, I did. Take a seat.”

As her niece sat down on one of the high-backed chairs provided for visitors and folded her hands in her lap, Ivriniel looked her over critically. The white woollen dress she wore was pleasingly high-cut, well suited to the maidenly modesty expected from a pupil of Belecthor’s school. Added to that, Lothíriel had a thick shawl wrapped around her shoulders, which she pulled closer when a gust of autumn wind entered through an open window. Soon they would need fires lit in the evenings, but not just yet, for Ivriniel did not believe in mollycoddling her girls. Then she frowned when she noticed a straw trailing from one of her niece’s sleeves. “Lothíriel, have you been in the stables again?” she asked sharply.

The girl lowered her eyes. “I’m not allowed to.”

That did not answer her question, as Lothíriel full well knew. Ivriniel drummed her fingers on her desk. “I have told you before that the stables are no fit place for a princess, being frequented by all sorts of lowly persons. What would your future husband think if he found out that you consorted with such riff-raff?” She did not give her niece the chance to answer, but continued at once. “He would lose all respect for you and as Belecthor writes in The Gondorian maiden’s guide to proper deportment–”

“–mutual respect is the foundation on which a successful marriage is built,” Lothíriel supplied the quotation in a colourless voice.

Ivriniel felt irritation well up within her at the silent rebellion evident in every line of her charge’s body, from the carefully lowered eyes to the stiff way she held herself. Two years of being instructed in the writings of the finest mind of Gondor and no appreciation. No doubt the girl still cherished romantic notions of being swept off her feet and falling in love with her husband. Well, the news she was about to impart would put an end to such silly ideas. “I’ve received a letter from your father,” she said.

Lothíriel looked up at that, half rising from her chair. “For me?”

“No.” Ivriniel could not help experiencing a certain satisfaction when she saw her niece’s disappointment. “He requests me to inform you regarding certain…arrangements…he has made pertaining to your future.”

Imrahil had actually asked her to sound his daughter out concerning said plans, but Ivriniel saw no reason to share that information. As Belecthor said, it was a father’s right and duty to arrange a suitable match for his daughter and such weighty matters as an alliance between two countries should certainly not be subject to some foolish girl’s whim. “Do you know the King of Rohan?” she asked.

“King Éomer?” Lothíriel stammered in obvious confusion. “I know of course that he is here in Minas Tirith to attend his sister’s wedding to Cousin Faramir, but why do you ask?”

“Rohan needs a noble born lady for its queen and Gondor needs an alliance.”

As the girl reached the obvious conclusion the blood drained from her face, making her freckles stand out even more than usual. “Me?”

“Exactly.” Ivriniel brushed a speck of dust from the bust of Belecthor holding pride of place on her desk. She could almost feel a stirring of pity in her breast at Lothíriel’s stricken face, but at least the lessons she had learnt the last two years should enable the girl to endure marriage to a barbarian with fortitude. “I know it might sound like a slightly unpleasant prospect,” Ivriniel continued in a softer voice, “but I urge you to think of it as an opportunity to bring much needed civilization to a backwater place.”

“Slightly unpleasant!” Lothíriel jumped up. “You are asking me to marry a man I have never met, to go and live in a far away country and are calling it slightly unpleasant?”

Ivriniel frowned at the unladylike tone her niece had chosen. As she had repeatedly told Imrahil, she did not really consider Lothiriel ready for polite society, although she supposed her niece might satisfy the more rustic demands of a foreign court. “That’s quite enough. Your father has made his decision and you will submit to his will as it behoves a dutiful daughter. Now sit down again!”

Lothíriel made no move to obey. “Father has no right!” she exclaimed. “King Éomer must be ten to fifteen years older than me at least. And does he even speak our language?”

“Only eight years older,” Ivriniel corrected her. “He has Gondorian blood on his grandmother’s side – is in fact related to the Princes of Dol Amroth – and so presumably has enjoyed some education. I urge you to think of the goodwill this match will engender between our countries.”

“That’s easy for you to say, it won’t be you having to share his bed!” Lothíriel clapped her hands over her mouth as if surprised at her own audacity.

The ungrateful pup! Ivriniel surged to her feet. “To your room at once, without attending dinner!” She towered over her niece, an easy thing to do, since Lothíriel had not only inherited her mother’s freckles but also her lack of inches. Ivriniel’s eyes fell on the bust of her mentor. “You will spend the rest of the evening reading and thinking on chapter eight of Belecthor’s guide: From dutiful daughter to virtuous wife. I expect you here in my study tomorrow morning with a full apology.”

Lothíriel pressed her lips together and her eyes flashed rebelliously, but she dropped a stiff curtsy before leaving. As the door slammed closed behind her niece, Ivriniel sank back in her chair again, stroking the leather armrests reflexively. It had always given her comfort to sit in the same chair as her late teacher used to. A sigh escaped her lips. Well, she would not be sorry to see the last of this particular pupil. The girl needed the firm correcting hand of a husband, but hopefully the King of Rohan would provide just that. He had quite a reputation after all.

***

Upon first meeting her intended, the lady will under no circumstances put herself forward, but rather seek to gain his respect by her modest and pleasing behaviour. Remember that this first impression is all important and nothing is more unbecoming in a maid than pertness or frivolity.

*

The flames burned merrily. Using a poker, Lothíriel pushed the book a little further into the fireplace and watched its pages turn first brown then black before the parchment crumbled to ash. The pounding of her heart drowned out the crackling of the fire, for she knew she had just done the unforgivable. There was no way back for her now. Only forward.

A creak issued from behind her and she spun round, her heart in her mouth. Slowly the door to her room eased open. “Lothíriel, are you still up?” someone whispered from the hallway. “I’ve brought you something to eat.”

Lothíriel relaxed when she recognized the voice of Arveldis, one of her few friends at the school. “Come in. But be quick about it!”

The girl tiptoed into the room and closed the door behind her. She held out a squashed piece of bread. “I’m afraid this is all I could squirrel away.”

Lothíriel snatched it up. “Thanks,” she mumbled, already munching away on the meagre food.

Arveldis looked around. “It’s nice and warm in here. I’m surprised Lady Ivriniel let you have a fire.” Then her eyes fell on the remains of the book lying in the fireplace and she let out a strangled sound of horror. “What have you done!”

Lothíriel smiled through the last crumbs of bread. “Consigned Belecthor to a fitting resting place.”

“You haven’t.” Arveldis breathed. “She will kill you when she finds out!”

“I won’t be here anymore.”

Arveldis’s eyes went wide. “You are running away?”

“Yes.” Lothíriel felt a grim kind of satisfaction. She should have done this months ago. Out of a sense of duty to her father and so as not to worry him during the difficult times of the past she had consented to stay at the school. But the war had ended more than half a year ago and still he had not come for her. Only once had she been allowed to escape the confines of the school for one evening, to attend the wedding of the King and Queen of Gondor. Dressed in one of Aunt Ivriniel’s modest white dresses as well!

Arveldis had caught her breath again. “But where are you going? Home to Dol Amroth?”

Lothíriel hesitated. Should she confide her plans to her friend? “No,” she said slowly, “to my great aunt.”

“I didn’t know you had a great aunt.”

“My grandmother’s sister,” Lothíriel explained. “Close to a hundred years old, but still hale. And more importantly, she likes me and cordially dislikes Ivriniel.” She crossed to the bed and started to shed her gown, letting it fall to the floor, and instead slipped into a woollen tunic and the pair of breeches she had liberated from her chest of drawers. They seemed to be tighter than she remembered, especially across the hips, and she realised with some dismay that the womanly curves she had acquired the last couple of years were to blame.

Arveldis watched with something close to awe on her face. “So you think she will take you in?”

“I hope so.” Lothíriel firmly pushed her doubts away. True, she hadn’t seen Aunt Morwen for over six years, but hadn’t Father once mentioned that as a young woman she had been forced into a distasteful marriage? Surely she would understand.

The wind rattled the shutters of the window and they both jumped. “But why run away?” her friend asked. “What has happened?”

“My father wrote that he has accepted an offer of marriage for me.”

“Marriage!” Arveldis exclaimed. “But surely he would not make a decision like that without consulting you.”

“He has.” It was this fact, which hurt the most. She had so looked forward to seeing her family again at Faramir’s wedding, even if only briefly, and now Father had arranged to send her away to a foreign country and not even deigned to tell her himself!

“Who to?” Arveldis asked. “Not some horrible old man?” She shivered at the idea.

“The King of Rohan.”

Arveldis opened her mouth, but no sound emerged. She sank onto the bed. “Queen of Rohan? You?” she finally croaked.

A ridiculous notion, Lothíriel had to agree. After all she was no mighty warrior woman! With a decisive motion she threw her warm cloak around herself and fastened it at the chin. “I know. And I won’t do it, not even to get away from here.”

“But just think. Queen of Rohan!” Arveldis seemed to see a vision all her own. “Beautiful jewels, rich clothes and furs, living in a palace, everybody bowing to you…”

Lothíriel snorted. “Believe me, those attractions pale quickly.”

“…and the Rohirrim so tall and handsome with their blond hair!”

“Not this one.” At her friend’s disbelieving look, Lothíriel shrugged. “Tall and blond true enough, and I suppose most women would consider him handsome, but there’s something about him….” She shuddered.

“I didn’t know you had met him.”

“I haven’t,” Lothíriel replied, “but I saw him that time when I slipped out to watch the armies returning from Cormallen.” It had meant two weeks of being confined to her room when she had been caught returning over the garden wall, but it had been well worth it for seeing her father and brothers alive and well with her own eyes.

Arveldis clapped her hands together. “Just think, a strong warrior king coming to carry you off on his horse. How romantic!”

“It’s nothing of the sort,” Lothíriel snapped. “All he wants is an alliance. I just happen to be Gondor’s highest-ranking lady young enough to bear him children. If she were fifty years younger he’d marry Ivriniel.”

They looked at each other and then simultaneously burst into laughter at the idea. But Lothíriel sobered quickly. She would not marry the King of Rohan for all the gold of Harad, not after actually seeing him. The man had ridden a great ugly beast of a horse that day and had controlled the fractious stallion with an aggressive grace, staring straight ahead and disregarding the cheering and clapping of the people of Minas Tirith. Of his eyes nothing had shown behind the slits of his horsetail helmet, with just the grim line of his mouth visible. Lothíriel swallowed. A ruthless warrior raised in a world of violence and bloodshed and with a temper to match from what she had heard. To spend the rest of her days at this man’s side, to share his bed, to have his hands move upon her body – no, he might be on their side, but the man’s raw power had frightened her. She picked up her meagre possessions from the table by the bed and stowed them away in her coat pockets. A couple of gold bangles that she hoped to sell on the way for food or shelter, a small eating knife, a comb. Unfortunately leading a horse out of the stables would wake the whole house, so she had decided to walk to Lossarnach. But perhaps she would be able beg a ride on a farm cart part of the way.

With wide eyes Arveldis watched her put up the hood of her cloak. “Are you really going to do it? All alone?”

“Yes.” Lothíriel tried to put on a brave face, even though her stomach was twisting into knots, and not from hunger. “People will take me for an errand boy, nobody bothers them.”

Arveldis nodded and for a moment Lothíriel hoped her friend might offer to accompany her, but the other girl just got up and hugged her. “Good luck!”

“Thank you.” With a last look at the bare room that had been her home for the last two years Lothíriel slipped out the door.

At first all went well. The servants had gone to bed, leaving the key to the postern gate hanging on its usual nail next to the small peephole. With night falling early this time of the year, the quiet side street outside the house was deserted, but the moon shone brightly enough to allow Lothíriel to pick out her way. Once she reached the main thoroughfare of Minas Tirith, Lothíriel cast a look up at the Citadel towering above her like some mighty ship ploughing her way through the star strewn night. Torches illuminated the walls and she fancied she could hear the faint strains of dance music. Probably their new king hosted a celebration in honour of Faramir’s upcoming nuptials – a shame she would miss the wedding and her brothers. But she would miss the King of Rohan, too.

The streets were busier now, but nobody gave her a second look, young lads on some errand or other being a common sight in Minas Tirith. Lothíriel followed the winding path down the hill, walking as quickly as possible while at the same time trying not to arouse any undue notice. She wanted to leave the city that night and put some distance between her and the inevitable searchers. They were bound to assume she had run away home and look along the South Road first, which unfortunately was also the way to Lossarnach.

On the bottommost level, the Great Gates stood wide open, but Lothíriel hesitated in the shadow of the buildings, waiting for an opportunity to slip past. Just then a party of revellers singing a bawdy song about the blacksmith’s daughter and her seven suitors came down the hill.

“And the last one was the high king’s son,” one of them sang loudly and thoroughly off key.

“But she would have none!” Lothíriel joined in the chorus as she trailed behind them to pass below the bored scrutiny of the city guards. Her back crawled and she expected to be stopped any moment, but nothing happened. She had done it!

Outside the wall, a city of tents had sprung up, colourful stalls lining the main road south and selling everything from jewellery, to clothes, to leather goods. The way was packed with people and Lothíriel made slow progress, especially as she found herself distracted by the goods on offer. One stall sold nothing but silken scarves, the delicate fabric floating on the night breeze and only the stall owner’s suspicious glare when she fingered one recalled Lothíriel to her guise as a simple errand boy. And the smells! Her stomach growled at the mouth-watering odours of roast piglet and mulled wine with cinnamon. Lunch seemed a long time ago and the small piece of bread saved by Arveldis had done nothing to blunt her hunger. Surely a short break for some sustenance would do no harm? But she would have to try and make the food last, so with some regret she passed by a stall selling her favourite roasted chestnuts and queued at a baker’s instead.

“What do you want, lad?” the baker’s wife asked her, a dumpy little woman with flour all over her apron.

Lothíriel pointed to a big loaf of brown bread, a couple of sausage rolls and some hazelnut cakes covered in ground sugar. “And may I have a piece of sacking to carry them in?” she added, taking care to deepen her voice.

The woman gave her a sharp glance. “Have you got the coin to pay for all this?”

Lothíriel handed over one of her bangles. The gold would cover the cost easily, was in fact worth more than the contents of the entire stall. The woman’s eyes widened, she called her husband over and they inspected the jewellery closely whilst Lothíriel waited with growing impatience.

“Where did you get this from?” the baker asked her.

Lothíriel frowned. “I don’t see how that concerns you,” she replied haughtily. “You won’t lose by the exchange.”

He tried to peer inside her hood. “You have a mighty insolent tongue, lad! Where would somebody like you come by real gold?”

“Perhaps he stole it from his mistress!” his wife cried.

Lothíriel snatched her bangle back. “How dare you!” Then she became aware of the farmers either side of her eyeing her suspiciously. “It belongs to my sister,” she stammered the first thing that came into her mind.

“Ha! A likely tale,” the baker exclaimed, one big beefy hand reaching for her.

Lothíriel ducked instinctively and backed away from his grasping fingers.

“Thief!” he shouted.

Panic flooded through her. She had to get away! Shoving one of the farmers into the other’s path, she twisted round and dodged between the men standing behind her. Shouts followed her as she ran along the narrow lane between tents, trying to skirt the edge of the crowd. Where to? Suddenly she stumbled over a rope hidden in the darkness and went flying. Reaching out desperately, her hands found a canvas wall and grabbed it, setting the whole structure shaking. For a moment her eyes met the horrified gaze of the stall’s owner and then the thing collapsed. Lothíriel jumped back, a display of heavy copper pots missing her feet by only inches. From under the pile of canvas and broken tent poles a howl of outrage went up. She started running again.

Behind her the sounds of pursuit intensified. Was this how the hare felt, fleeing from the hounds? The alley widened out and Lothíriel dashed between two carts. Underneath wide awnings wooden tables had been set up and they teemed with customers. She risked a quick glance behind her. Then her flight was stopped abruptly when she careened into something hard.

Strong hands steadied her. “Watch out, lad!”

The smell of leather and horse. Lothíriel realised she’d collided with a man just rising from one of the tables. “Sorry!” she gasped and tried to wriggle away. She got the jumbled impression of blond hair and piercing eyes in a stern face.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes! Please let me go!”

That moment from the entrance of the alley shrill cries of “Thief!”, “Catch him!” rose in the air. The grip on her arm tightened. Lothíriel snatched a tankard of ale from the table and threw the liquid in the man’s face. With a curse he let go of her and she twisted away, leaving her cloak in his hands. Free! Half blinded he lunged after her, but fortunately he stumbled over the tankard, which she had thrown to the ground. His friends started to rise, too. “Hey!” one of them shouted.

Lothíriel seized one of the lamps hanging from an awning and swung it in his direction, making him jump back. More shouts followed her as she whirled around, desperation lending her speed. Suddenly out of the dark loomed the shape of horses, being led by a couple of boys. The nearest one shied at her flailing the lamp about, ripping his reins out of his handler’s hand. Escape! Without thinking Lothíriel dropped the lamp, snatched the reins and pulled herself into the horse’s saddle.

With an angry neigh he reared, very nearly throwing her. Lothíriel cried out in fright and clutched the pommel. The other horses reared and bucked as well, but somebody shouted an order in a foreign language and the horses calmed down at once. For an instant she met the eyes of the man she had just run into. He looked frightened and furious at the same time. Frightened for her?

Then it happened: out of the corner of her eye Lothíriel saw a faint flare where she had dropped her lamp. A moment later the straw covering the ground went up in flames with a roar. With a mighty leap her horse took off, racing into the darkness. Oh, but he was fast! Holding on to the mane for dear life Lothíriel could do nothing to steer him, let alone slow him down. Curses trailed her as people had to jump out of the way to avoid being trampled. What had she done! In an instant they had left the fair behind them and the road flashed past below his hooves. His mane whipped across her face, but she dared not let go, not even to try and grab the reins.

In no time at all the great circling wall came into sight. “Courier!” she shouted and the guards’ faces passed by as a pale blur. The road descended into a gentle valley carved out by one of the tributaries of the Anduin here, and still her steed showed no sign of slowing down. Did this mad animal intend to run to Far Harad? A bridge led across the river, the wooden boards echoing hollowly below them and causing the horse to put on a fresh burst of speed. But that seemed to tire him, for once they reached the other side and entered the forest there, he slowed to a trot and then a walk. Lothíriel snatched at the reins and finally he stood still. Her hands shaking she slid from his back before her legs gave way and she just sat down in the dirt. It felt wonderful to touch solid ground. She was alive!

The sound of their harsh breathing filled her ears and the horse hung his head in exhaustion, his flanks heaving. Lothíriel looked up at him, amazed that she had managed to mount him. Even spent and with his chest flecked with foam he was a magnificent animal, powerfully built and at least a hand taller than her father’s warhorses. True, the irregular white marks across his head and neck gave him an ugly look, but– Lothíriel froze. She had seen those marks before.

“No!” she whispered and struggled to her feet. “It can’t be!”

He followed her tiredly when she took the reins and led him a few steps further down the path to where the moon shone through the branches of the trees. A quick inspection of his saddlecloth revealed the White Horse of Rohan and Lothíriel’s heart missed a beat. Still, it could be any rider of the Rohirrim, couldn’t it? Most of her father’s men marked their gear with a mark, so with shaking fingers she searched the saddle. There! She peered at it. A stylised animal of some kind, one paw lifted threateningly.

Her throat went dry. Only too well did she remember seeing King Éomer’s personal banner flying below the White Horse and thinking how the fierce lion suited him. Lothíriel clutched the saddle to keep from collapsing. She had just stolen the King of Rohan’s battle charger!

The horse gave a soft huff and even though her head was still spinning, she reached out and absentmindedly stroked his sweaty neck. That brought her back to the present. How often had her father’s stable master told her to always walk a horse after any exertion to keep the muscles from stiffening. “Come on, boy,” she said and led the way down the road. He followed tiredly.

Her own muscles ached from the unaccustomed exercise and her bottom and thighs were sore. She had not ridden a horse since coming to Minas Tirith two years ago, for even when they had been evacuated during the war Ivriniel had insisted they use carts. Looking at him, Lothíriel marvelled that she had ever managed to mount him unaided, for she did not think she would be able to climb back on the stallion now – not that she wanted to anyway! Slowly she became aware of forest noises. The distinctive call of an eagle owl, small rustles in the undergrowth and the branches of the trees above her sighing in the breeze. The fir trees seemed to lean into each other, following her progress and whispering to each other. A little nervously Lothíriel eyed the deep shadows either side. But surely the horse with his much keener sense of smell would give her warning? With her cloak gone, the cold wind cut right through her thin clothes and she shivered.

A little down the road they came upon a shallow stream and she stopped to let the big grey have a drink, careful not to allow him too much water all at once. A well-trained horse, he obeyed her without any fuss when she ordered him back and started to rub him down with a handful of grass. In a way she still couldn’t quite believe what she had done. As she cleaned the foam and dirt from the stallion’s chest she desperately tried to think of a way to get the horse back to the King of Rohan without anybody being the wiser. Could she sneak back to Minas Tirith and set him loose at the edge of the Rohirrim’s camp? Ask one of her brothers to take him back? But in her heart of hearts she knew what her father would expect her to do.

“I will have to return you myself,” she whispered to the grey.

And throw herself on the King of Rohan’s mercy. She closed her eyes. Would she find any? What if he took offence? Her stupid action might have endangered the very alliance between their countries that her father strove so hard to reinforce. What a fool she had been! Her bare chamber in Aunt Ivriniel’s house seemed very desirable that moment – and unreachably far away. All of a sudden she became aware that around her the forest had gone silent and distant thunder sounded, growing louder.

The stallion pricked his ears forward.

***

At all times relations between the lady and her lord will be marked by deference and impeccable manners on the lady’s side, cherishing and firm authority on the lord’s. With her presence, the lady will provide a calm and ordered haven, where her husband can forget the cares of looking after his domain.

*

Éomer seethed inside. If anything had happened to Firefoot he would hunt that piece of orc bait down and have his hide. The wretch deserved a good thrashing! He should have let Firefoot throw and trample him as Rohirric warhorses were trained to do. But the lad had looked so frightened that Éomer had instinctively given the order to desist. Now he cursed himself for it.

That moment one of his riders called out, and Éomer nudged Dapplecoat forward. A pile of horse droppings, still steaming in the cold night air. Yes! He felt the exhilaration of the hunter closing on his prey course through him. They had met no other travellers since entering the forest and the guards at the Rammas Echor had been clear in their description of the so-called ‘courier’. Silently he gave the sign to move into a canter and his men fanned out behind him. They topped a slight incline and saw the road descend towards a meadow by a small stream. A grey horse stood in the grass, head lifted, and at once Firefoot’s familiar neigh ran out. Éomer yelled and like a cresting wave they raced down the hill. Only then did he notice the small figure of the boy by the horse’s side, standing rooted to the spot. Éomer laughed. They had caught their thief.

“He’s mine!” he shouted.

As they approached the ford, he slowed Dapplecoat and Firefoot trotted forward to meet them. Relief swept through Éomer. No legs broken.

“Easy, boy,” he calmed the excited stallion, swinging down from the saddle and reaching for the trailing reins. The horse gave a pleased nicker.

Without the need for orders his riders encircled the thief, who had retreated a few steps and stood with his back against a tree. He had made no attempt to run away, no doubt realizing the futility of it. Éomer allowed himself a few moments to check the stallion’s legs and note the inexpert attempt at cleaning him up. At least the little toerag had apparently had the sense to walk Firefoot after the run to cool him down. Luck – sheer luck. How easily could the stallion have broken a leg, which would have meant his end. His friend and trusty battle companion, who had been through such a lot with him! He straightened up and turned round. A couple of steps brought him face to face with their thief.

“Please, my lord!” The boy shrank back from him. “I was going to return the horse.”

The wretch! Fresh ire rose within Éomer at the blatant lie. He grabbed the brat by the tunic and slammed him against the tree trunk, lifting him clean off his feet. “So you’re a liar as well as a thief. Do you realise you nearly foundered my horse!”

The boy clawed at his arms in panic. “I’m sorry!” he gasped. Eyes wide with terror looked up at Éomer.

He loosened his grip slightly. “You little louse! Can you give me one reason why I should let you live?”

The boy stared up at him, paralysed with fright. Let him be afraid, he deserved it! Éomer still couldn’t believe the sheer nerve of the wretch to steal Firefoot from right under his nose! He leaned in closer until their faces were only inches away.

And got a shock.

There was something pressing against his chest that shouldn’t be there. Something soft and rounded… He blinked. His whole perception changed as he took another look at the face lifted up to him. Big eyes framed by gently curved eyebrows, a small, straight nose, and the lips full and red…. In disbelief he touched a cheek. Smooth and white.

“Why,” he breathed, relaxing his hold, “we’ve caught a girl!”

With a sob of terror she brought up her knee.

Pain exploded across his vision. Ayeee! Éomer doubled over. In the distance he could hear a scuffle going on, but he paid no attention to it. Air! It was all he could do to take another breath. His groin was on fire.

“Éomer! Are you all right?” Éothain’s voice.

What a stupid question! “No!” he snarled at his captain.

Slowly the world came into focus again. Grass bleached colourless by the moonlight, the dark trunk of a tree. Éomer leaned against it, resting his cheek against the rough bark, grateful for any sensation that distracted him from the pain still coursing through his body. He told himself he had survived worse – one breath at a time was how you did it. Very, very carefully he straightened up and turned round.

The girl flinched away from his gaze. A small thing and delicate. One of his guards held her with her arms pinioned behind her back, but she did not attempt to struggle anyway. Felled by an opponent half his size and a fraction his strength! Éomer had thought himself angry before, but now found he had reached that place where rage was almost pleasant. A detached, floating sensation sweeping all other considerations before it. He smiled.

Around him his men stepped back and the girl looked ready to faint. Good. He approached her and gripped her chin, turning her face up to the moonlight. “So you want to take on the King of Rohan?”

She said nothing, but he could feel her starting to tremble. Let her realise just who exactly she had meddled with. Rage sang through his veins like a dark, seductive song. He traced her lips, his fingers rough on their silken softness. “Well, you’re quite a pretty thing.” He motioned Éothain over. “Put her on one of the spare horses, we’re taking her back to the camp with us.”

“To the camp? But…”

“Do as you’re told!” Éomer whispered.

They locked eyes for a moment, before Éothain inclined his head. “Yes, Éomer King.”

It was a bad sign to have his childhood friend call him king, but he would worry about that later. Much later. Crossing his arms across his chest he watched Éothain lead the girl over to one of their horses and boost her into the saddle. How could he have been so blind? She moved like a woman and now that he knew the truth he noticed the soft curve of her hips, the slim shape of her legs. During the struggle her hair had come undone and it fell in a tumbled mass down her back.

He stepped up to her horse and took the stirrups and reins away, enjoying the way her fingers clenched on the pommel at his actions. Éomer lowered his voice. “Do you know how the Rohirrim punish a horse thief?”

A jerky shake of her head.

“I will show you.”

He was peripherally aware of his men exchanging uneasy glances, but the lovely, blissful rage filling him left no room for any other emotion. When he motioned to his

squire to take Firefoot’s reins in order to lead the stallion behind his horse, the boy practically ran to do his bidding. Once they were ready to leave, Éomer swung himself into Dapplecoat’s saddle, lowering himself with great care. Even so he winced.

It was a long, tense ride back through the forest. Silently his men moved out into their usual formation, taking no chances even in friendly territory. The full moon starting to set behind the White Mountains threw deep shadows across the road and with the wind having died down an edged quiet seemed to lie upon the trees, every sound echoing back eerily. A couple of times Éomer cast a look back at their prisoner. She rode with her face lowered, but he could tell she was aware of him by the way she hunched her shoulders whenever he glanced her way.

Finally the trees thinned out as they approached the river. Rushing down from the slopes of the mountains to join the Anduin, it ran deep and swift, spanned only by a narrow wooden bridge. When they crossed it, the boards rang hollowly under their horses’ hooves, making their mounts uneasy. Halfway across Éomer looked back to check on their progress and frowned when he noticed the girl’s horse drifting dangerously close to the low railing. He opened his mouth to bark an order when suddenly she lifted her head, meeting his eyes squarely. Éomer knew that look, he had seen it in many a young rider facing his first battle: desperation and determination in equal measure. Then she let herself topple over the railings into the inky waters below.

Sanity returned abruptly. What had he done! With a breathless curse he hurled himself from Dapplecoat’s back and ran back along the bridge. There! A small head surfaced in the water briefly, only to be swept away. Éomer unbuckled his sword belt and shoved it into Éothain’s hands. “I’ll get her. Follow along the river bank!” Then he jumped.

The waters closed above his head like icy claws, driving the air from his lungs. Up! He needed to swim back up. Flailing his arms, he managed to thrust himself briefly above the surface, catching a desperately needed breath of air. The girl! Where was she? But the current submerged him again, tumbling him round dizzyingly until he lost all sense of up and down. Éomer had thought he could swim, but this was utterly unlike the calm pond where they had played as boys. Panic rose within him as the weight of his waterlogged clothes started to pull him down. In desperation he kicked off his boots and managed to struggle back up. A brief glimpse of the night sky above him, the trees by the shore, unreachably far away. Shouts in the distance. He drew breath to call out and swallowed water.

It filled his mouth, his ears, his nose and he started coughing. A wave swamped him, the river dragging him down like a hungry beast. Éomer reached out wildly for anything to hold on to, but to no avail, he sank under the water again, his lungs calling out for air. He realised that he might die here, in the dark and cold. Betrayed by his own temper, just like his father.

Suddenly his hand connected with something and he reached for it, but it eluded his grip almost as if it were alive. Then an arm slipped around his chest from behind and he felt himself pulled back up. Sweet, blessed air! He gasped and tried to turn round, thrashing wildly.

“Keep still! Or you’ll drown us yet.”

In his surprise Éomer nearly went under again. The girl! Seizing his head in a vicelike grip, she started to propel them towards the riverbank. After a moment he gave up trying to help, letting her tow him along. She seemed to know what she was doing.

“You can swim!” he said stunned.

“Yes. Unlike you.” She moved through the water with big, easy strokes, keeping them afloat effortlessly as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Where did you learn to do that?” he asked.

The girl snorted. “It’s easy. I grew up by the sea and–“ she stopped as if she’d given away more than she had intended to. “You can stand now,” she said instead, letting go of him.

For a heartbeat he panicked again until his feet touched solid ground and he found that indeed the water barely reached his waist. Feeling slightly foolish he straightened up. She had retreated into deeper water, her face no more than a pale blur in the darkness. “My lord, I will leave now,” she said. “You have your horse back, please let me be.”

“Wait!” he called.

When she hesitated, Éomer held out a hand. “Please do not go back in there! I’m sorry for what I said.” He swallowed. “…and did.”

Treading water, the girl regarded him uncertainly.

He took a step towards her. “My lady, my accurst temper got the better of me just now, but I give my word not to hurt you.”

And still she hesitated. “You jumped in the river after me,” she finally said, her voice so low he almost failed to make it out. “Will you tell me why?”

“To save you of course!” Although he had not exactly excelled at this task.

“Not to catch me again?”

“No!” He was torn between taking another step towards her and the fear this might scare her away for good. “I was not myself earlier on, but it will not happen again. You have my word.” Éomer willed her to believe him.

He held his breath while she considered her decision. Finally she moved in closer, taking the offered hand. “All of Gondor knows the King of Rohan’s word holds true. I accept it.” She swayed as she straightened up.

“Thank you.” He steadied her. “But let’s get out of the water.”

His clothes hung clammy and heavy on him as they staggered towards the shore and scrambled up the sandy bank, and when they stopped briefly he could see her shivering. Trying to wring the water from his shirt proved a futile attempt, so he just took it off. Where were his men? The girl sank to the ground, putting her hands under her armpits and hunching over.

He crouched down next to her. “Help will be here soon.”

Wordlessly she nodded, but he could hear her teeth chattering. Up close she seemed impossibly frail to have saved him from the river single-handedly and he realised he hadn’t even thanked her. “My lady,” he said, “I owe you my life.”

The girl shrugged. “It’s nothing. I could not stand by and do nothing while somebody drowns for lack of help, not even–“ She stopped and turned her face away.

Not even a louse like him. A man who would offer violence to a helpless woman. “You have every right to reproach me,” Éomer said, the taste of self-loathing bitter in his mouth.

“Would you have carried through with…it?” she whispered.

“No!” Or would he? Most disconcertingly, he could still remember the jolt of desire that had run through him at the touch of her smooth skin. But surely he would have come to his senses by the time they reached the camp. Or else Éothain would have hit him over the head – that was what friends were for after all.

However she seemed to accept his word, for she nodded. “I believe you. And I know I’m not blameless either.”

Éomer stared at her. How could she forgive him so easily? He knew he would take a lot longer to forgive himself. Suddenly he could hear distant shouts and jumped up. His riders! “Here!” he called out. He turned to the girl. “We have to go and meet them or they might miss us.”

She looked up at him, her face lined with exhaustion. “You go. I will wait here.”

He did not want to move himself, but he knew that they had to. “Come on,” he cajoled her, “I will give you a hand.”

Her fingers were icy when he pulled her to her feet again and she leaned into him, her whole body shaking from the cold. Clearly she would not be able to get very far. With a sigh he picked her up in his arms and began walking, careful to feel for tree roots with his bare feet. The girl gave a startled squeak and started struggling. He tightened his grip. “Hold still! I’m only trying to help.” She subsided and after a moment even slipped her arms around his neck.

The exercise soon warmed him up, but it worried him how little she weighed and how clammy her skin felt. Where were those useless riders of his? He called out again and then finally spotted them on a narrow forest path. Éothain dismounted hastily and ran to meet them.

“Éomer, you are all right!” He spotted the burden in his king’s arms. “And you managed to save her!”

Éomer did not rectify this wrong impression. His reputation as one of the greatest warriors of Middle Earth had suffered enough already that night. “Never mind,” he said, pushing past his captain. “We have to hurry.”

He considered his options. They could stop here and build a fire, but would that warm her enough? They had no way to dry her clothes and did indeed not even have the means to make tea or hot soup. Had they passed any farmhouses or inns on the way? He did not think so. Which left as the only feasible option taking her back to their camp as quickly as possible.

“Wiglaf!” he called.

One of his riders trotted forward. “My lord?”

“Ride ahead and alert the camp to heat water for a bath. Make haste!”

“Yes, my lord.” The rider turned his horse round and urged it into a gallop, disappearing into the night.

Éomer turned his attention back to the woman in his arms. He did not think she followed what was going on around her, for she had turned her face against his chest, eyes closed. She mustn’t fall asleep like this!

“Dry clothes,” he muttered to himself, then suddenly remembered the cloak she had lost at the fair. In his haste to catch up with her he had just stuffed it in a saddlebag, intending to examine it later. “Where is Dapplecoat?”

“Here,” Éothain led the gelding up. At Éomer’s direction he got the cloak out and started to wrap it around her, but Éomer stopped him.

“Wait!” He set the girl down, supporting her. It would do her no good to wear a cloak over wet clothes. “Listen,” he said, taking her cold cheeks between his hands and forcing her to look up at him. “You have to take your shirt off.”

“What! You promised!” She started to struggle weakly.

He cursed himself. If she died of exposure it would be entirely his fault. “It’s for your own good,” he tried to explain. “I’ve got your cloak here, but you must take your wet clothes off first or you’ll freeze. Please trust me.”

“Oh!” She bit her lip. “I see. Very well.” She pushed herself away from him and reached for the laces at her throat. “Close your eyes.”

Éomer held up the cloak to shelter her from his men’s gazes and turned his head away, following her orders. He could hear her fumbling with her clothes. Then she gave a low curse, almost a sob. “I can’t do it. My fingers are completely numb.”

He opened his eyes to see her tearing at the laces in frustration, a tear trickling down her cheek. She had been so brave, but now he could sense she was nearing her breaking point. “Let me help you,” he said gently. “I used to dress my sister as a child”.

Would she find it in her to trust him? She hesitated, before giving a tremulous nod. “All right.”

Look at her like you would at Éowyn, he told himself when he bent over and started to untangle her laces. His body of course had different ideas. He could not help noticing her chest rising and falling with every shallow breath or the shiver running through her when he accidentally brushed against her skin. So white and soft… He cut that thought off with brutal finality. He had done enough damage for one day.

It proved to be a matter of minutes only to undo the shirt to the point where she could slip out of it. Again he turned away while she shed her wet clothes and wrapped the cloak around herself. Unceremoniously he picked her up and lifted her onto Dapplecoat’s back, swinging into the saddle behind her and enfolding her in his arms, cloak and all. “We ride!”

With an exhausted sigh the girl leaned back against him and by the time they had reached the main road she had actually fallen asleep. Fortunately they had pitched their tents near the Harlond, not too far from the southern gate in the Rammas Echor, so it would take them no more than an hour to reach the camp. Through the thick fabric of the cloak he could feel her body warming up, but even so he urged his horse into a canter, anxious to get her home. Looking down at her, Éomer shifted her head so it rested more comfortably against his shoulder, marvelling at the trust he saw in her relaxed features. Totally undeserved, he admonished himself.

***

The most precious good a maiden possesses is her reputation, which she must safeguard at all cost. Even with her betrothed she has to maintain a proper distance at all times, making sure no idle chatter will leave her lips, no improper touch will take place and above all that she is never left alone with him.

*

Warmth. Glorious, blissful warmth. Reaching every last corner of her body. Lothíriel stretched and enjoyed the feeling of water lapping gently against her skin. Reluctantly she opened her eyes, for while she would quite happily have spent the rest of her life in the King of Rohan’s bathtub, it was the middle of the night and the servants had been especially woken to attend to her. With a sigh she got ready to get out.

One of the maids gave her a hand, a grey haired, keen eyed woman named Aescwyn, who seemed to be in charge of the rest of the servants. She had a dark red robe ready for Lothíriel, woven from soft wool and covering her so completely that only her toes peeked out.

“This belongs to the king,” Aescwyn explained. “I am afraid we have nothing else here just now, but I will find more suitable garments tomorrow morning.”

Lothíriel nodded as she wrapped the robe more tightly around her. She had borrowed everything from King Éomer anyway: his servants, his bath, his tent, she might as well borrow his clothes. The other woman regarded her curiously. Unwilling to explain the whole convoluted tale of how she had ended up wet to the skin, Lothíriel had fobbed her off with a story of her horse spooking, causing her to fall in the river.

“Would you like something to eat?” Aescwyn asked, leading the way into the main part of the tent, from which the bathing area had been divided off with a thick cloth to cut out drafts.

“Yes please,” Lothíriel replied, looking round with interest, for she had been too sleepy to take any notice of her surroundings when King Éomer had carried her in earlier on. A trestle table piled with books and papers took up most of the space while against one sloping wall stood a narrow cot with a clothes chest beside it. On the floor lay faded carpets and an oil lamp fashioned from beaten silver hung from the ceiling, the only ornament in an otherwise bare room. A thoroughly masculine place, it made her small chamber in Aunt Ivriniel’s house look opulent in comparison.

When Aescwyn left to see about food, herding the other servants before her, Lothíriel stepped up to the table, curious to find out what reading matter the King of Rohan preferred. She traced the thick spines: The Art of War by Hyarmendacil – no surprise there – and of course Mardil’s The Prince that she knew from her father’s library. Underneath that Turgon’s A brief history of Gondor, by far the biggest book of the lot, but what was he doing reading Cemendur’s philosophical treatises? And surely not a book of poetry? Sea Longings. She picked up the slim volume bound in blue vellum and leafed through it, trying to imagine King Éomer doing the same with those big, capable hands of his.

Her eyes were drawn to the charts arranged in neat rows on the table. To her surprise she found that she could read them, the words being written in Westron. Aldford, Ferndale, Langhyrst, Dunholme, Isengraef …? Then she read the annotations written in neat handwriting next to each name. Completely destroyed said the first, Burnt to the ground and well fouled, but can be rebuilt the second. Underneath that: Women/children taken to Hornburg, building supplies needed. In dismay Lothíriel lifted her hand to her throat as she continued down the list, each entry worse than the next.

“What are you doing there?”

She jumped and looked up, startled. Quite unnoticed by her King Éomer had entered the tent, a tray in his hands. As he frowned at her, Lothíriel gestured at the pile of papers. “This is terrible!”

His mouth drawn in a grim line, he balanced the tray on the edge of the table and started to roll up his charts, stowing them away in long leather tubes. “The price of war, my lady.”

“I’m sorry,” she said in a low voice. “I had no idea…”

The king sighed and seemed to relax slightly. “We survived and will prosper again one day. The Eorlingas are a hardy folk.” He picked up his books to put them underneath the table. “But yes, it makes for harrowing reading.” Pushing the tray forward, he motioned for her to sit down on the folding stool behind the table. “Beef stew and bread. I’ll leave you to it.”

“Wait!” she said and he turned at the door. “Won’t you join me?”

When he regarded her uncertainly Lothíriel asked herself why she had said those words, but for some reason she had not wanted him to walk out with such bleak thoughts on his mind. The gracious manners learnt at Ivriniel’s school came to her rescue. “Please, my Lord King, will you keep me company?”

“If you wish.” With Lothíriel occupying the only chair, after a brief hesitation he sat down on the edge of the bed. Somehow his presence made the tent shrink. She looked down, lifting the lid off her bowl, and an appetising smell rose from the thick beef stew. Breaking off a piece of bread she dipped it in the stew and started eating greedily. It tasted wonderful!

Only when she had wiped the bowl completely clean did she become aware of the rest of the world again. Without looking up she somehow knew that King Éomer was watching her and the thought passed through her mind whether she should worry. The servants had long since sought their own beds, leaving her alone with this warrior in his tent. And her wearing nothing but a robe – her aunt would throw a fit if she knew. Yet Lothíriel could not find it in her to be afraid. Oh, she had been terrified when he had caught up with her in the forest, so much so that she had completely lost her head, with disastrous results. But strangely enough her gut feeling told her that she had nothing more to fear from this man, now or ever.

More to occupy her hands than from any real hunger she picked up the apple also included on the tray. “You must excuse my table manners, my lord,” she said. “I’ve had nothing to eat since a scanty midday meal.”

“Your manners are impeccable.” Narrowing his eyes, he leaned forward. “My lady, forgive my bluntness, but has your family perished in the war?”

“Perished? No.” Lothíriel stared at him in surprise. What had given him that idea? “My father and brothers fought in the great battles, but we were lucky and all of them survived.”

King Éomer frowned. “You can read and you speak Westron like someone of obviously noble birth. So why are you starving to the extent that you are reduced to stealing food at the fair?”

Lothíriel could feel her jaw drop. “Stealing?” She jumped up and her chair went flying. “I’ve never stolen anything in my life!” Suddenly she remembered his battle charger and blushed furiously. “I mean I did steal your horse, I suppose. But nothing else! I offered to pay for the bread with a piece of jewellery, but they would not accept it and that set off the whole unfortunate affair.”

He drummed his fingers on his thigh. “Which still does not explain what you were doing at the fair in the first place. That father of yours does not seem to take very good care of you!”

“Oh!” Lothíriel bent to right her chair and sat down again. Somehow she did not relish the thought of revealing her true identity to him. “Actually I live with my aunt.” She picked up her discarded apple and took another bite. “I…eh…ran away.”

“Why?”

She squirmed. “They want to marry me off against my wishes. To somebody I’ve never met.” No, she definitely did not want him to know who she was, even though he would of course find out eventually. But hopefully not until much later.

“Against your wishes!” His hands clenched on his thigh. “How barbaric! I know it’s a common custom here in Gondor for a father to negotiate his daughter’s marriage, but in the Riddermark no betrothal would even be considered without obtaining the bride’s consent first.”

Lothíriel concentrated on her apple. “Not even your own?”

“I would never force myself on a woman!” When she looked up he reddened. “My lady, I want my wife to come to me gladly and of her own free will. Admittedly you have seen me at my worst, but believe me I only take what’s offered freely.”

She had also seen him at his best when he had jumped in the river after her, even though he could not swim. “I believe you,” she said softly, all of a sudden feeling bad about her deception. Would he despise her for lying to him when he found out? Lothíriel discovered that for some reason it mattered what he thought of her.

She put her apple down. “My lord, I have not been quite honest with you.”

He leaned forward. “In what way?”

“Like you guessed I am a noblewoman, but not just that…”

“What do you mean?”

She took a deep breath. “I am Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth.”

His eyes widened. “Imrahil’s daughter?”

“Yes.”

“I see.” He frowned.

She had expected him to show surprise, anger even at the idea that she did not want to marry him, but he seemed to take it in pretty good stead. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s nothing personal, but I will not wed a man I have never met.”

“No, of course not.” If anything he looked puzzled. “But are you sure?” he asked. “Your father spoke of you often during the ride to the Morannon, and with obvious love and affection. I find it hard to believe he would just decide your future without consulting you first.”

“Oh yes he has,” Lothíriel replied bitterly. “He informed me of his plans in a letter to my aunt.”

“How strange. For he wrote to me not long ago suggesting that you and I should meet while I’m in Minas Tirith and see if we might suit…” He would not meet her eyes. “A ridiculous notion, I know.”

Lothíriel made a strangled sound. “But Aunt Ivriniel said you had already agreed on the match between you!”

“What? Certainly not!” Then he suddenly jumped up and took a couple of paces across the room before whirling round to face her. “Are you saying you were running from me?”

She stared up at him stupidly. “Yes, of course. Who else?”

His eyes flashed. “Well, I do not know what your father wrote to your aunt, but I never made any such offer. What do you take me for?”

It looked like she had sparked off his temper again. “How was I supposed to know?” Lothíriel defended herself, refusing to be intimidated by him. “After all I only saw you the once.”

“You saw me?” he leaned across the table. “When?”

She had not meant to mention that! “When you returned from the Black Gate,” she explained reluctantly. “I sneaked out to see my father and brothers.”

His hands clenched. “And that one glimpse frightened you so much that you decided to run away from me?”

“You looked grim and forbidding!” she exclaimed. “Of course I got frightened.”

“My lady,” he said, biting off each word. “I had just buried far too many of my kinsmen and the man who stood in a father’s stead to me lay dead in your Hallows. How cheerful would you have felt under those circumstances?”

It sounded so stupid and prejudiced of her. “I’m sorry,” Lothíriel whispered.

Visibly restraining his temper, he took a step back. “Well, you needn’t fear. I did not offer for you and what is more, now that I’ve met you, I do not intend to either.”

“Why not?” she could not help asking, offended.

“Why not? First you threw ale all over me, following that up by stealing my horse.” He counted off each point on his fingers. “Then you kicked me and in the end I nearly drowned because of you”

“Oh.” Stated like that it sounded quite impressive. “But nobody forced you to jump in the river after me,” she pointed out. “As for the kick…” Lothíriel bit her lip. From her brothers she had an inkling how painful an injury to that particular part of the male anatomy was. “I suppose I shouldn’t have done it, but you deserved it really. The horse…” She looked up to see him folding his arms across his chest. “I didn’t mean to steal him, it just happened. And I would have brought him back. But I’m sorry for spilling ale over you.” When he continued staring at her, she added. “That wasn’t very nice of me.”

Suddenly one corner of his mouth curved up, then the other. An instant later he was laughing so hard, he bent over. “Not very nice!” he gasped and sat down on the bed, holding his stomach.

Lothíriel regarded him with a certain amount of irritation. She had not meant to amuse him! But he had such a nice laugh, all of a sudden she found her own sense of the ridiculous tickled and she joined him.

It took a while for their mirth to run its course, but finally he straightened up again. “I haven’t laughed like that for ages,” he smiled at her. “Thank you.”

She found herself answering his smile, struck by the thought how much younger he looked with his worry lines smoothed away – not much older than herself in fact. “My pleasure, my Lord King.”

“Oh please, just call me Éomer,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

He gave an exaggerated bow. “I know that almost drowning together does not constitute a proper introduction in Gondor, but it’s good enough for me.”

Grinning, Lothíriel recalled her teachings. “Yes, according to Belecthor a proper lady will address even her husband with ‘my lord’ in public, keeping the use of first names for strictly private occasions.” Then she blushed, thinking that surely being completely alone with a man in the middle of the night had to be classified as pretty private. Looking up she caught a strange expression flit across his face, but thankfully he did not pursue the topic.

“Who is Belecthor?” he asked instead.

“He had a school here in Minas Tirith, which my aunt took over after his death to run according to the principles outlined in his Gondorian maiden’s guide to proper deportment,” Lothíriel explained.

“No wonder you ran away. Why, I’ve never met a less ladylike lady,” he snorted. “Except maybe for my sister.”

“I can be perfectly ladylike,” she fired up only to realise that he had been teasing her. The cheek of the man! She shot him her iciest glare, but from his impudent grin that did not impress him.

Then he sobered. “Well, I don’t like to ask you to return to your aunt. However, I can’t just let you go wandering off on your own either.” He rubbed his chin. “So what shall I do with you?”

Do with her? “I don’t see how that concerns you,” she objected. “I would be grateful for the loan of a horse, but otherwise I can walk.”

“Walk!” He shook his head. “Certainly not. What kind of a man would I be to let a gently reared maiden like you walk to Dol Amroth! Besides, your father will be here in another few days. You had best return to your aunt until his arrival and I promise to talk to him.”

“But I can’t! I burnt the book.” Bread and water for a month would be the least of her punishments.

“What book?”

“Belecthor’s guide that she gave me.”

He stared at her, before covering his face with his hands, his shoulders shaking. At first Lothíriel thought she had shocked him before realising he was trying to suppress laughter! “I fail to see the reason for all this mirth,” she snapped.

“You like to take direct action, don’t you!”

Lothíriel decided to change her tactics. “Surely you can see that returning me to my aunt would not answer,” she said in her most persuasive tone. “Whereas if you lent me a horse it would take me no more than a day to reach Lossarnach where I can shelter with Great Aunt Morwen.”

That certainly seemed to catch his attention. “Morwen? Of Lossarnach?”

“Why, do you know her?”

He nodded. “You could say so – she is my grandmother. Although I’ve never met her, as she left Rohan upon the death of my grandfather.”

“What? I had no idea,” Lothíriel said, chagrined. “In that case she would probably have sent me right back.”

“I don’t know. From what I’ve heard she never warmed to Rohan.” Éomer leaned back. “Although I understand she objected to the country, not so much the king.”

“Maybe her king did not threaten her with violence on their first meeting!”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Well my beautiful horse thief, but then she did not steal his battle charger either.”

Lothíriel stared at him, as much surprised at being called beautiful as anything else. An inconsequential thought flitted through her mind. “You never told me what you do with horse thieves in Rohan.”

He met her eyes squarely. “We bind them over to the rightful owner of the horse … for a year and a day.”

“Oh!” She got the feeling her eyes had gone as big as saucers and looked away quickly. Could he hear the beating of her heart?

“But don’t worry.” The bed creaked as he got up. “You paid your wergild when you saved my life.” He stepped up to the table and picked up her hand, tracing her fingers with a gossamer touch. “Listen Lothíriel, if I have you escorted to Lossarnach, will you promise me not to run away again?”

She looked up at him, for the first time noticing how his blue eyes shaded into green at the edges. “Yes, I will.”

“Good.” His breath brushed across her knuckles. “In that case I will see you in the morning. Good night, Lothíriel.”

“Good night…Éomer.”

The flap to the tent closed behind him and she could breathe again. Tiredness crashed down on her as if only his presence had kept it at bay, and she rubbed her eyes. She was exhausted! Yawning broadly, Lothíriel extinguished the lamp and crossed to the bed, then slipped between the linen sheets. Even so sleep refused to come at first and she lay staring up at the sloping tent wall. Somewhere outside a fox bellowed hoarsely and two guards exchanged a couple of words in Rohirric. She turned on her side and pulled the coverlet up further. It still held his musky scent and reminded her of being carried in his arms. Against all rational expectation she had felt safe. Slowly her eyes dropped shut.

***

A lord will choose his wife for her noble lineage, exquisite manners and irreproachable reputation and will find nothing less pleasing than immodest, forward behaviour designed to encourage liberties.

*

Two weeks later.

At the knock on her door Morwen looked up from perusing a letter from one of her acquaintances in Minas Tirith. Lady Rían had covered no less than three sheets describing the lavish celebrations accompanying the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Ithilien, but Morwen found herself bored, so the interruption proved welcome.

One of her servants stood in the door. He bowed deeply. “The King of Rohan to see you, my lady.”

Not a completely unexpected visitor. Morwen arranged the shawl covering her shoulders more neatly and smoothed out her gown. “Show him in.”

Her first impression was one of height – and power. The man had presence and seemed to fill her generously appointed drawing room quite effortlessly. She surveyed him critically while he bowed over her hand. Clearly the consummate warrior, just like his father, and the same mane of blond hair and easy smile that had caused havoc amongst the maids of Meduseld. But the eyes were her daughter’s.

She reached out a hand, shaking despite her best effort to keep it steady, and touched his cheek. “You have Théodwyn’s eyes.”

“I know.”

At her sign he sat down on the sofa beside her and gave her a cautious smile. “We meet at last.”

“So we do.” The autumn sunlight streaming in through the high windows turned his hair to gold. “What brings you here, grandson?”

“I’m on my way to visit Lord Galion, Forlong’s son, and thought I ought to stop and pay my respects to my grandmother.”

And the addition of a certain grand niece to her household had nothing to do with it? “How kind of you to visit an old lady like me.”

He had the grace to blush. “Not at all.”

“I’ve had a lot of visitors lately,” she remarked.

“Really?”

“Yes. My nephew, young Imrahil, came to see me last week…” He nodded as if he already knew. “…and we’ve had quite a lot of the young people of the neighbourhood round. I find they cheer me up with their dances and games.”

He looked a lot less pleased at that news, but managed to hide it creditably well. “That must be nice for you.”

“Yes.” She gave him a benign smile. “In fact I’ve got a small dance planned for tonight. Perhaps you’d like to stay for it?”

He bowed politely. “Thank you. I would be honoured to do so.”

That should prove to be interesting. Morwen wondered what her neighbours’ sons would make of the presence of this lion in their midst. That moment a door banged downstairs and she winced. Then quick steps sounded on the stairs and the door to her drawing room flew open.

“Aunt Morwen! We’ve had the most wonderful ride! Oh!”

Morwen had to admit her grand niece presented a charming picture. Cheeks rosy from exertion, ebon hair framing her face loosely, and dressed in a vibrant red riding habit. The colour suited her much better than the sad white dresses that woman Ivriniel had sent for her. Her grandson seemed to think the same, for he had jumped to his feet and taken a step forward.

“What are you doing here?” Lothíriel asked, her astonishment plain.

“My grandson has come to pay me a visit,” Morwen interposed smoothly. “Éomer, let me introduce you to my grand niece, Princess Lothíriel of Dol Amroth. But I believe you’ve met?”

“I’ve had the pleasure,” he replied, bowing over Lothíriel’s hand, “but unfortunately have not been properly introduced until now.”

Morwen saw laughter spring to her niece’s eyes, but the girl sank into a graceful curtsy, exactly the right degree for a princess greeting a king.“It is never too late,” she murmured, throwing him a cheeky glance through her lashes.

How could he possibly resist this delightful mixture of manners and impudence? Lothíriel had not only inherited her mother’s pretty freckles, but also her charm and away from that dreadful woman’s influence was finally coming into her own. Morwen patted the sofa. “Come and sit down beside me, child.”

Éomer chose a chair opposite her. “I’ve been told your father’s been to see you?”

“Yes, last week,” Lothíriel answered. “He got very much annoyed with Aunt Ivriniel for making me run away and now I may stay here.” She took Morwen’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze.

Touched, Morwen smiled down at her. “I like having you here.” Certainly her life had become a lot more interesting since her niece had arrived at her doorstep under Rohirric protection and with a confusing tale – involving a lot of blushing – of fleeing from the King of Rohan. Well, said king was here now, but she did not seem to be making much of an effort to flee.

“Aunt Ivriniel has washed her hands of me,” Lothíriel told Éomer gleefully, “And she had palpitations!”

He chuckled. “Did that please you?”

“Perhaps a little bit,” Lothíriel admitted. “Apparently she felt so weak, Father even managed to persuade her to let my best friend from school come and keep me company here.”

“Where is Arveldis anyway?” Morwen asked. “Didn’t she go with you?”

“She did, but she felt tired and has retired for a rest before getting ready for the evening.” Lothíriel’s tone conveyed her lack of understanding that a vigorous morning ride should cause any tiredness. She had been out every single day since her arrival, in wind or rain, like a wild animal sprung from a cage. “Oh Éomer, the mare you’ve loaned me!” she exclaimed. “I think I’ve fallen in love with her – such a soft mouth and beautiful manners, yet spirited and loyal. But I’m afraid I cannot pronounce her name.”

Éomer laughed. “Aefenglomung?”

Morwen looked on indulgently as her niece practiced her Rohirric. To her, it still sounded like someone trying to speak with a frog in his throat, but it seemed to afford the two plenty of amusement. In fact the mare’s quality had piqued her interest from the beginning. After all she had spent enough time in Rohan to know how much a rider valued his horses.

“What does it mean, anyway?” Lothíriel asked.

“Twilight.”

Lothíriel nodded thoughtfully. “That suits her with her dark grey coat. Did you notice her legs are nearly black? It makes her look really elegant.”

“In the Mark we believe that the horse should match the rider,” he replied at once. It took Morwen a moment to work out the compliment. How utterly Rohirric!

“What about your stallion then?” Lothíriel laughed.

He winked. “There are exceptions!”

Lothíriel put her finger to her lips thoughtfully. “Well, he’s fast, powerful…”

Éomer bowed. “Thank you.”

“…headstrong and reckless.”

“Well, there you go!”

Morwen thought it time to interfere before the conversation deteriorated entirely into horse talk. “I’ve been telling my grandson that we are going to have a dance tonight,” she said to Lothíriel.

“Yes, I’ve been invited,” Éomer nodded. “Would you honour me with your hand for the first dance?”

Lothíriel shook her head regretfully. “I’m afraid I have already promised it to Lord Artamir, one of Aunt’s neighbours. We happened to meet him while out riding,” she explained.

Morwen could not help enjoying the disconcerted look on her grandson’s face; she could almost see his hackles rising. From what she’d heard, Lothíriel had told him in as many words that she did not want to marry him. Well, if that did not wake the hunter in him, nothing would. “Perhaps Éomer can have the one after,” she suggested.

“Would you like to?” Lothíriel asked with a kind smile.

He inclined his head stiffly. “You honour me.”

“I’ve got a new gown as well,” Lothíriel confided. “It makes me look like a real princess.”

That seemed to put him in a better mood again and he smiled. “You are a real princess!”

Actually Morwen was looking forward to seeing Éomer’s reaction at the sight of her niece in her new dress. She had been surprised herself at the transformation from hoyden to a poised young lady. A very desirable young lady.

“Not according to Aunt Ivriniel,” Lothíriel grinned. “Every time she caught me sneaking to the stables she made me read the chapter about what constitutes permissible behaviour for a Gondorian maiden.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Somehow I get the impression you didn’t take it to heart.” Now why did her niece blush like that? Interesting.

“Not so,” Lothíriel replied. “Not long ago you said I had impeccable manners.”

“I did?” He frowned as if to recollect the occasion.

“While watching me eat,” she reminded him.

“Oh!” He studiously avoided meeting Morwen’s eyes. “So I did.” More interesting still. Her niece never had given her a coherent account of her meeting with Éomer.

Morwen heaved herself to her feet. “Well children, I think I will have a brief rest now.” She waved Éomer’s offer of help away. “I can manage. Would you hand me my cane?” Giving them a dismissive nod, she started to cross the room with slow steps.

“May I escort you for a ride tomorrow?” she heard Éomer ask.

“I’d love to,” Lothíriel assented. “That is, if I may borrow your mare a little longer?”

A laugh. “You may. I think it’s better to give you a proper horse in the first place than have you steal mine.”

At the door Morwen stopped for a last look back. Eyes brimming over with mischief, Lothíriel had her hands folded in her lap. “Now really, would I do such a thing?”

Éomer lowered his voice. “That depends if you’re willing to pay the price.”

Lothíriel caught her breath. Noting the look exchanged between the two, Morwen softly closed the door behind her. Clearly she had already been forgotten. But then her grandson had things well in hand.

*

*

A/N: Morwen of Lossarnach was born in TA 2922, so would have been 97 years old at the time of the Ring War, not an impossible age considering both Imrahil and Elphir nearly reached a hundred.

A/N: This is the last oneshot of the series for the moment. Unfortunately real life is keeping me really busy right now and probably will continue to do so until early the next year. However, if I get any new ideas I will add them to this series.

Lia

A/N: Here’s a quadruple drabble as a small Christmas present to my readers. My shortest Éomer/Lothíriel scenario ever!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you!

Lia

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True Love Knows no Season

 

It was love at first sight. He was a warrior, proud and strong, tempered on the Fields of the Pelennor and admired by all. She was a lady, gracious and refined. Eyes like dark velvet, neck elegant as a swan’s, moving with a dancer’s natural grace. The first time they met, they exchanged nothing more than a quick glance. She held her head high, ignoring him, every line of her body bespeaking her noble lineage. But he knew the signs, knew that she had noticed him, just as he had noticed her. Others might covet her, but she was meant for him. For him alone. 

Circumstances conspired to keep them apart and he had to return to his native land. But the wide, grassy plains of the Mark brought him no peace, for he could not forget her. Just the memory of her hair falling in soft waves, the look she had cast him from under those long, dark lashes sent a fire running through his veins. So he waited, practicing a patience quite unlike his usual fiery temper. The opportunity arrived one spring night when the scent of blooming lilac filled the air. He took it.

Éomer crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“That’s all very well, Swidhelm,” he told his stable master, “but the fact remains that Firefoot broke down the dividing partition to Snowflake’s box.”

“A fact, I am afraid, that will become all too apparent in eleven months’ time,” Aragorn added, from where he stood stroking the mare’s neck. Only the slightest quiver trembled in his voice.

Swidhelm shuffled his feet. “Maybe it was meant to be?”

Éomer snorted. The man had missed his calling, he should have become a bard! Fancy stabling an unknown mare right next to Firefoot on the very day she had arrived here. Sourly he regarded his trusted steed, who looked extremely pleased with himself. Unbearably smug in fact. Not that Éomer could really blame the stallion; the snowy mare was a very pretty piece of horseflesh, the best that Gondor could offer.

Looking at Aragorn, he raked his hand through his hair. “And how shall I explain this to the Princess of Dol Amroth?”

“Explain what?” A voice enquired from behind him.

Taken by surprise, he spun round. Alabaster skin, eyes smoky grey, hair like ravens’ wings.

It was love at first sight.

 

Equine Royalty

Lothíriel hesitated in the door of the stables. She must have been mad to agree to this. Stark, raving mad!

Now where? Rows of stalls greeted her, their occupants swivelling their heads her way, ears pricked attentively. She took a step forward and the horse nearest her gave a loud snort, making her jump.

To her relief she spotted old Hallas hurrying her way, a look of surprise on his face. “Lady Lothíriel, you’re up early! May I help you?”

She gave a nervous smile. “Yes, I would like to take Míriel out.”

“Oh! I’m afraid I haven’t got her ready.” The stable master scratched his head. “I had no word that you were leaving. Will Lord Imrahil travel with you? How many guards-”

“I’m not leaving,” she interrupted him. “I just want to take her for a ride.”

“A ride?” He stared at her as if she had announced her intention to fly off the Tower of Ecthelion.

That moment the doorway darkened and Hallas’s attention abruptly switched away. “My Lord King!”

Lothíriel whirled round. Tall, blond and unfairly handsome, King Éomer stood on the threshold. He flashed her the smile that had scythed through the ladies of Minas Tirith with such devastating effect. “Princess Lothíriel, what a pleasure to see a lady who appreciates the glories of a summer morning,” he said as he bowed over her hand.

She decided not to mention the effort it had cost her maid to get her up in time. “Yes, it’s lovely,” she agreed. “I’m looking forward to a gallop across the Pelennor.”

Hallas’s eyes popped. “Lady Lothíriel! You’re going for a ride with King Éomer?”

“I’m taking a couple of guards along, Princess Lothíriel will be perfectly safe with me,” King Éomer assured him, misinterpreting the old man’s alarm.

 “Yes of course,” Hallas stammered, “but-”

“Could you get one of the lads to get my mare ready for me?” Lothíriel interrupted hurriedly. “We want to avoid the morning traffic.”

“No need for that,” King Éomer threw in. “I can saddle your horse for you. I used to be the fastest stable boy in Edoras when I was training for a rider.”

The idea of the King of Rohan saddling horses seemed to scandalize Hallas thoroughly. “Please, I -”

“It’s no bother,” King Éomer assured him. “We can manage.”

So firmly dismissed, Hallas hesitated another moment, then shrugged helplessly. “As you please, my Lord King.”

King Éomer took her hand and placed it on his arm. “So will you show me your mare? Have you had her long?”

“Er, yes,” Lothíriel stammered. “A few years.” She had no clear memory of when her father had bought Míriel. Before they had added the new library wing in Dol Amroth, or after?

“How old is she?” he asked.

“Not very old.”

If King Éomer found her answers uninformative, he gave no indication. Instead he gifted her with another of those smiles that wiped all rational thought from her mind. She had no idea how he did it, just knew that she could deny him nothing when he used it on her – as witness her presence in her father’s stables before the sun had properly cleared the horizon. Oh why hadn’t she declined his invitation? Madness!

“Will you show me your mare?” he suggested. “What’s her name?”

This at least she could supply. “Tar-Míriel.” Easy to remember as she named all her father’s horses.

“Called after the last queen of Númenor?” he asked, surprising her.

She smiled with pleasure. “Yes! Do you know her story?”

“A little,” he answered. “My uncle had Éowyn and me tutored in history, but I’m afraid most has fled my mind.” He fixed her with an intent gaze. “I’d love to have you tell me the tale sometime.”

She dropped her eyes before she did something really stupid such as flinging herself into his arms. Princesses of Dol Amroth could not do such things after only meeting a man for one evening. Well, they could not do such things full stop! Even if the evening had passed with dancing and talking as if they inhabited a bubble of enchantment that held only the two of them.

“Sometime I will,” she agreed.

“So where is Tar-Míriel stabled?”

A bolt of alarm shot through her as she realized she had not the slightest idea where to find her horse. However, the stable only had one aisle. “This way,” she said with perfect confidence.

She suddenly spotted metal plaques with the horses’ names etched on them attached to every stall and felt better. Whoever had thought up that idea deserved a reward. And progressing down the aisle slowly enough to surreptitiously read them proved no problem at all, as King Éomer was only too happy to inspect her father’s horseflesh.

Tar-Súrion, Tar-Ancalimë, Tar-Ciryatan, ... Then a grey head poked over the top of a stall. Míriel? Yes, the elegantly inscribed plaque confirmed it.

“Here we are,” she announced.

“This one?” King Éomer asked with evident astonishment.

Why was he surprised? “Yes,” she confirmed.

After a moment’s hesitation, he opened the stall and went in, whispering to the mare in Rohirric. It took Lothíriel a moment to identify the odd feeling that filled her at hearing his soft, low voice – surely she couldn’t be jealous of a horse?

He patted Míriel’s neck, then clicked his tongue and obediently the animal followed him out of the stall. The Rohirrim really had a way with horses! “So this is your mare?” he asked, lifting an eyebrow.

Since it seemed to be expected, she stroked Míriel’s nose. “Yes...” Her voice petered out as she followed his pointed gaze along the animal’s belly. There was something hanging there... She felt her mouth drop open as she realized what she was staring at. “Oh! It’s a...it’s a...” Heat rushed to her cheeks.

“...stallion,” he finished her sentence. “One of ours actually, Fréaláf. I traded him to your father.”

“Oh!” It seemed all that she was capable of saying.

Steps approached from down the aisle. “Lady Lothíriel,” Hallas called, carrying her saddle in his arms. “I’m afraid we had to shift the horses around. Míriel is down there.” He indicated another stall with his chin.

“Very good,” King Éomer answered, taking his burden from the old man. “Thank you for your help.” He nodded firmly and Hallas took the hint and withdrew.

Another soft command sent the stallion back into his box, although he whinnied a protest. “Next time perhaps,” King Éomer promised him.

Then he turned to Míriel’s stall and began to saddle the horse – a darker grey, of course! Lothíriel watched his sure, economical movements, all the while praying that the earth would rise up and swallow her. Why oh why had she agreed to this morning ride! What would he be thinking of her now? He’d been so nice and understanding last night, so easy to talk to – she had even told him a little of what it had been like in Dol Amroth during the war, left with a castle full of refugees and no men to defend them – but surely now he would despise her. Or laugh at another silly girl to lose her heart to him and try to impress him.

King Éomer pulled the cinch closed, slapped Míriel’s hindquarters and turned to her. “Finished. Shall we go?”

Lothíriel straightened up and lifted her chin. “My Lord King, there is no need to carry on with this charade.” She took a deep breath. “The truth is I don’t like getting up early, horses are animals that get me from one place to another, nothing more, and I find books far more interesting.” Recklessly she added, “I only agreed to this outing because I wanted to impress you.”

There. Now the awful truth was out. He would look at her with disdain and make some polite excuse to never see her again. She braced herself for his contempt.

Instead a slow, infectious grin spread over his face. “I have a confession to make as well: I didn’t have a clue who Tar-Míriel was. Your brother Amrothos mentioned your horse’s name and I had to look it up in the library last night.”

Thoroughly confused, Lothíriel could only stare at him. “But why?”

His mouth quirked in a smile. “Everybody told me what a notable scholar you were and I wanted to impress you.”

“Oh!” She kept saying that.

He took a step closer and by some Rohirric horse wizardry Míriel shifted neatly to block off any view of them from the entrance. “So now that we have so thoroughly impressed each other...” Without any recollection of having moved, she found herself in his arms.

Their lips met and Lothíriel forgot about the world around them. Her embarrassment and anxieties all melted away at the realization that she had found the place where she belonged. Nothing else mattered.

A long time later they separated. Lothíriel rested her forehead against his chest, relishing the warm, solid feel of him. She lifted her head. “You don’t mind that I can’t tell horses apart?”

He grinned down at her. “Lady of mine, as long as you don’t mistake one horselord for another...”

Lothíriel shook her head. There was not the least danger of that.

*

*  

A/N: Just a little fun story inspired by something Lissa said about her daughter's horse. However, within the next week or two I'll start publishing a medium length story again - not terribly serious though either.

Thank you, Lady Bluejay, for betaing!

A/N: This is just a short, fun scenario in three chapters of how Eomer and Lothiriel could have met. I'm mostly busy with original writing these days, but this particular idea just wouldn't leave me alone, so in the end I gave in and wrote it down. I hope you'll enjoy it!

Lia



Joust


Chapter 1: Challenge

Field of Cormallen, April 3019

The Rider hit the water with a splash. Éomer winced in sympathy. Not another one! There went their fifth man, but the Rohirrim were still ahead, even if their lead had narrowed dangerously. On the opposite side of the creek, Amrothos twirled his staff in his fingers and gave an exaggerated bow as his men cheered him.

“Ready to surrender yet, horse boys?” he called.

Éomer growled. “Not to a piece of bilge scum like you,” he shouted back, using one of Amrothos’s favourite insults.

While their men exchanged colourful descriptions of the opposite side’s ancestry, he and the Prince of Dol Amroth exchanged grins of perfect amity.

Éomer hadn’t enjoyed himself so much in ages. But honour demanded that he take the game seriously – it wouldn’t do to lose to a bunch of harbour rats like Amrothos’s friends. “We’ll drown you, just you wait!” he yelled across the creek.

In answer, Amrothos strutted forward onto the thin log bridging the stream between them and did a little jig. It was a mistake. The wood, carefully smoothed in preparation and by now covered in mud and water, wobbled under his weight. Amrothos threw out his arms and tried to recover his balance, but to no avail. Splash!

The Rohirrim howled with laughter when Amrothos resurfaced in the middle of the creek, which was only chest-high anyway, a stunned expression on his face. Amongst much mocking and ribbing he had to scramble up the bank of the stream and hand the Dol Amroth staff to the next man.

Éomer did a quick count of the tokens in his pocket. Five pieces left to distribute to the ‘dry’ men on the Rohirrim’s side, including himself. By his reckoning the Dol Amroth camp now had only three left, but they had more than halved the gap since the beginning of the bout.

“Let me have a go,” Éothain begged.

With a grin Éomer handed over one of the tokens to his friend. “Go get them.”

“I will!”

The log shook when the big man stepped out onto it. In the centre, a red ribbon marked the border between the Rohirrim’s and the Dol Amroth side, which was forbidden to cross.

Éothain raised the staff with its blunted end high. “Who wants to swallow water next?”

One of Amrothos’s friends took up the challenge, though looking none too happy. The Dol Amroth men were game, Éomer had to give them that. And they might even win the triad yet, though the Rohirrim had built up a lead in the riding contest. However, the men from Belfalas had held their own during the archery tournament and seemed to think that they still had a chance to triumph by carrying off the third part.

Éothain and his opponent exchanged a few blows, carefully at first. The rules were simple: if you overstepped the red ribbon in the centre or were driven back onto your bank of the stream, you lost. Otherwise anything was allowed and the bout only ended when one of the contestants fell in the water. Very cold water, as the creek, a tributary of the Anduin, carried meltwater from the Ethel Dúath.

Slowly Éothain began to step up the attack, raining blows down on his hapless opponent. Of course strength only counted for so much in this game, but Éomer got the impression that the Dol Amroth men had been rattled by the loss of their leader. The tide had turned, he thought, only to grin at such a nautical expression, picked up from Amrothos. But true enough, a moment later Éothain’s opponent slipped and tumbled into the water.

“Who’s next?” Éothain shouted amid loud cheers from the Rohirrim.

Two left. As another of Amrothos’s friends picked up the Dol Amroth staff dripping with water, a wave of contentment swept through Éomer. To have no worries but how to win a silly game!

After years of having life and death riding on his decisions, of facing each day with the knowledge that it might be his last, it seemed an incredible luxury. He stretched leisurely, revelling in the warmth of the sun, the green smell of Ithilien’s woods, the simple feeling of being alive.

On the log, Éothain faced off his new opponent and sharp raps rang across the water. “Forth, Eorlingas!” he suddenly roared out. The other man hesitated at the Rohirric war cry a moment too long. Another splash.

Only one left! His Riders surrounded Éothain, slapping him on the back and offering encouragement for the final bout.

Éomer joined in. “Looks like I won’t get to have a go after all,” he said.

“I hope so, for I could do with a drink,” Éothain shot back. “And not river water either!”

The men laughed at that, shouting their agreement. On the Dol Amroth side meanwhile, some kind of conference seemed to be going on. The men from Belfalas huddled close together with Amrothos in the centre, discussing something – probably whom to choose for the last round.

However, Éomer felt confident. True, the Rohirrim had taken a while to get the hang of this game, but they were naturally athletic and had that instinctive balance developed by years of horseback riding, which would surely carry the day. Choosing a sun-warmed boulder, he settled down to enjoy the final bout.

“Are you ready yet?” Éothain yelled across the stream. “We haven’t got all day!”

Amrothos stepped forward. “We are,” he said quietly, before motioning to one of his men.

It was a lad Éomer had not seen before and he wondered if the boy had been on the boats conveying Imrahil’s wife from Dol Amroth, which had arrived that morning. He seemed very young, with not even a trace of down on his cheeks, and strangely enough wore one of those hats with netting hanging down from its wide brim, useful in the evening against insects, but surely unnecessary in the middle of the day?

“Protecting your delicate complexion for the ladies, little one?” one of Éomer’s men called out.

“First they have to find him,” another one teased, “which they might not do unless they stumble over him.”

As a third added a taunt on the lad’s virility, Éomer winced. The boy had not reached his full growth yet and was of slender built. Did he know not to take such words spoken in jest seriously?

But in answer the boy just accepted the Dol Amroth staff from Amrothos and stepped onto the log. It seemed to Éomer that white teeth flashed in a grin for a moment, but his face was difficult to make out behind the netting. Lithe as a cat, he moved forward.

Éomer had a sudden premonition of doom. He started up from his seat to warn his friend, but the two contestants had already touched staffs in a brief salute. Éothain initiated a couple of easy exchanges, obviously intending to let the lad save face. Their staffs met with a whack, though Éothain did not put much force behind his blows.

Éomer sank down on his boulder again. Had he been mistaken? The lad had good balance and moved nimbly, yet that hadn’t caused the sinking feeling in his stomach. No, it had been something else in his bearing just now, a cool, steely confidence completely at odds with his years.

“Ouch!” Éothain exclaimed and rubbed his elbow.

The boy lowered his staff for a moment. “Can we stop playing games now,” he said in a soft voice, “and fight in earnest?”

Several of the Riders caught their breath. Éothain was known for having a temper only second to Éomer’s! He swung round his staff and brought it down in a whistling arc, no doubt intending to end the match then and there.

Somehow the lad managed to catch the blow and let it slip harmlessly past him and away. Then, while Éothain was still regaining his balance, he threw himself down on one knee and spun his staff round and up between the Rider’s legs.

Time seemed to stretch and stop. The thought flashed through Éomer’s mind whether Stanhild, Éothain’s wife, would ever forgive him for leading her husband into such danger. He doubted it.

An involuntary gasp of horrified sympathy escaped from all Éomer’s men. Yet the staff stopped an inch from its deadly target. Éothain stood frozen, not daring to move. The two looked at each other for a moment, then with a twist of his wrist the lad swept Éothain’s feet away from under him.

A howl of outrage went up from the Rohirrim’s side. Éomer mechanically handed out a token to one of Éothain’s friends, who were all clamouring for revenge. Something was niggling at him, a feeling that all was not as it seemed.

Their new man did not last longer than a few heartbeats. In a fiendishly clever move, the Dol Amroth lad feinted at his head and when the Rider brought up his staff to parry, in a flash slipped below his guard and tripped him up before he could strike a single blow. He was fast! Éomer began to wonder if it had been him playing with Éothain earlier on, rather than the other way round.

The next man fared no better and ended up in the water before his predecessor had even climbed out. On the other side of the creek, Amrothos’s friends had taken up chanting ‘Amroth! Amroth!’

Their victory was slipping away from them! This time Éomer took more time to consider whom to send into the fray next – he refused to think of it as sacrificing one of his men – and chose Beornmod, not their strongest fighter, but level-headed and agile. Beornmod approached his task warily, exchanging cautious blows with his adversary and never once lowering his guard. The lad from Dol Amroth danced forward and back with supreme confidence, making it look as if he were treading a level road instead of a wet, slippery log.

“The little wretch,” Éothain, who had come to stand next to Éomer, said. Yet there was a hint of admiration in his voice. Or perhaps he was just relieved to still be able to father more children.

Éomer had to admit that Amrothos had chosen his last man well. On a normal training field, the lad’s size, lack of strength and smaller reach would have put him at a disadvantage, but here it was speed and balance that counted. And ferocity! Éomer winced when Beornmod got hit in the side. By the time he brought his own staff to bear, his opponent had already ducked away.

Then it happened: taking a step back, the lad seemed to lose his footing as his right heel slipped. Seeing his chance, Beornmod attacked at once to loud cheers of encouragement from the Rohirrim. His staff hissed through the air, straight for the boy’s midriff.

He wasn’t there. Beornmod’s staff passed harmlessly over the lad’s head, as he had thrown himself down prone on the log. And before Beornmod could recover and bring it round again, the boy jumped up, as sure-footed on the slippery wood as a sleepwalker, and tipped him into the water.

“He did that on purpose!” Éothain exclaimed.

“Yes,” Éomer agreed grimly. Only one token left. 

Leaning on his staff, the lad was catching his breath, watching them warily. Behind him, the Dol Amroth men were jumping up and down with excitement.

“Enough is enough,” Éomer declared. Once Beornmod had climbed out of the stream, wet as a drowned rat, he held out his hand for the staff.

“Éomer Cyning!” his men began to chant as he stepped out onto the log.

The lad’s eyes widened behind the netting, but he lifted his own staff in a salute. Éomer took a cautious step forward. The wood was even narrower and more treacherous than it had looked from the shore! Suddenly he wondered if he had let his temper get the better of him. Again.

They exchanged the first few wary feints and he looked his adversary up and down. The hand on the staff was slim and tanned. Of his face, he could make out very little, just a pair of dark eyes and a hint of black hair. The boy wore loose clothing, a baggy tunic in Dol Amroth blue over trousers, but though it was plain and unadorned, the quality hinted at him being more than a simple foot soldier. Besides, his self-assurance surely marked him as noble. Could he be related to Amrothos? Éomer knew that the prince had no younger brothers, only a little sister, while Elphir’s son was still an infant, but perhaps a cousin? 

Whack! Éomer cursed. Distracted by his thoughts, he’d nearly let the little rogue land a hit, only reflexes honed by constant combat saving him. The boy was as fast as a striking snake! White teeth flashed behind the netting, as if the lad could read his thoughts. He was enjoying himself, was he? Grimly Éomer settled down to business. Let him find out what it meant to take on the King of the Mark.

So far they had mostly exchanged feints, but now Éomer began to put real force behind his blows. He had the reach of his opponent and on the training field, a single, powerful strike would soon have put an end to the bout, but on the slippery log he could not bring his whole advantage to bear. Somehow the lad always managed to deflect Éomer’s staff, skipping forwards and backwards nimbly. Also, though there seemed to be a few moments where he faltered and Éomer could have pressed an attack, Beornmod’s example was fresh in his mind as a warning.

He could not help a feeling of satisfaction though when he managed to land a blow on the lad’s left arm. Not a disabling stroke, but it had to hurt. Unfortunately he could not move forward on the log fast enough to pursue his advantage and nearly slipped when in a furious counter-attack the boy slashed at his legs. On the opposite side the Dol Amroth men had fallen silent and Amrothos hovered anxiously near the shore like a mother duck anxious for her ducklings. Really, what did the man think? He was no orc! Yet if the boy wanted to play men’s games, he had to take the consequences. Besides, losing four of his Riders to him so ignominiously still smarted.

Left, right, up, below. He nearly got caught by the regular rhythm when the lad suddenly ducked and instead of parrying the stroke let it whistle over his head. Cleverly done! Éomer began to think that perhaps he should offer the boy a place as his squire, since he’d promoted his own to a full member of his éored after the battle of the Pelennor Fields. Such cool-headedness and fighting spirit deserved to be rewarded and they would soon feed him up to a proper size.

But now it was time to make an end. The lad was getting tired, he could tell. Inexorably Éomer pressed his advantage of greater reach and power, wearing him down. Suddenly he saw his chance. The boy had barely managed to block the last stroke and when Éomer swung round his staff was a moment late responding. Shifting his grip, Éomer sent the staff whistling through the air, putting all his weight behind it and aiming low at his legs – there would be no ducking away this time! The lad cried out.

And he jumped. Like a tumbler, he twisted his body into a backward somersault, somehow still holding on to his staff. Éomer’s own weapon whizzed by harmlessly and taken by surprise, he teetered. The log rocked as the lad landed on it, unbalancing Éomer further. He threw out his arms wide to catch himself.

Kneeling on one knee, the boy swung his staff round. Once again time seemed to stretch and slow. Éomer arched his back, desperately trying to regain his balance.

A tap on his side, light as a love pat. Just enough to topple him over.

With a rush time speeded up again. Éomer met the stream face down, flailing about wildly. But at the last moment, his staff connected with something.

Cold! Éomer surfaced and spat out a mouthful of water, disgusted with himself. They had lost! He brushed back his loose hair and stood up, for the stream only came up to his chest. 

A hat floated by. 

What? That moment a splutter came from behind him. He spun round. 

“You cheated!” The lad rose from the water, eyes blazing with wrath.

He must have felled the boy without intending to! “I didn’t mean to, I’m sor–” He broke off. Soaked, the lad’s clothes stuck to his body. Éomer felt his mouth fall open.

Following his glance, the lad looked down. Blood rushed to his face and he hurriedly ducked back into the water. “What?” he – she! – snarled.

“You’re, you’re a...” Stunned, Éomer motioned at her.

“You still lost. You hit the water first!”

Her hair floated in a black tangle around her. How could he have been so blind! Dark, almond shaped eyes set over haughty cheekbones scowled at him. Suddenly he realised what he’d done. He’d struck her with his staff. Twice, in fact!

“Lady...” he stuttered, aghast at himself, “I never meant to hurt you!” A sense of grievance swept through him. “But what were you thinking of? You might have got seriously injured, had I landed a blow in earnest!” 

She sniffed in disdain. “First you’d have to hit the mark.”

The girl had a point there. But he’d walk barefoot through Mordor rather than admit as much! They glared at each other.

Suddenly she grinned. It transformed her face from haughty lady into impish rogue. “That’s not fair actually, I’m sorry. You did hit me right and proper earlier on. Few people manage to do that.” She gave him a smile. “I’m sure I’ll have quite a bruise.”

“That’s not something I’m proud of,” he exclaimed.

She put her head to one side. “No, I’m sure you’re not. But it won’t be my first bruise ever, you know. And how I enjoyed myself! Amrothos never lets me play at home, he claims I put the men off their stride.”

Éomer wasn’t surprised. He wouldn’t be able to concentrate either with such a bundle of mischief around! That moment Amrothos came splashing into the water, a borrowed shirt in his hands, which he wrapped hastily around the girl.

“Enough! Get out of here,” he commanded.

The girl obediently followed him to the other side of the stream. Éomer couldn’t help wondering in what kind of relationship she stood to Amrothos when he slipped his arm with absentminded familiarity round her waist. A very trim waist, Éomer noticed, as shapely as what other glimpses he had caught of her.

Amrothos hustled her up the bank of the creek and his men surrounded her with more offers of coverings. Yet for a moment she paused and looked back over her shoulder. A grin, inviting him to share her amusement, lit up her face.

Unexpectedly, Éomer found himself caught up in her childlike enjoyment. He saluted her gravely.  “I bow to the victor.”

She flashed him a brilliant smile. Then she was gone.

Joust


Chapter 2: Truce

In the evening, Éomer decided to visit the Dol Amroth encampment. Rumour had it that the ships that morning had brought foodstuff, musicians, jugglers and other entertainers, so it was only natural to want to go and see. It had nothing at all to do with a certain slim, dark eyed girl, he told himself.

Imrahil had set up camp near the Anduin on a meadow encircled by trees. Lanterns hung from their branches and there were tables of food and drink dotted about. One entire end of the meadow though was taken up by a newly erected stage, screened by curtains hung from trees either side. Just as they joined the crowd, the curtains were drawn back, revealing a forest scene with a woman in a long, flowing dress and a man kneeling at her feet. Another man stepped to the front of the stage and began to narrate the story of Beren and Lúthien.

Éomer had never seen anything like it and watched in fascination when the curtains were drawn closed, only to reveal the next scene at Thingol’s court a little later. As the story continued, some of the changes in scenery needed more time, so to divert the audience, a succession of musicians, boys on stilts and tumblers displayed their skills in front of the stage.

Suddenly he spotted a movement that seemed familiar. Half a dozen girls wearing feathered masks and with colourful scarves sewn onto their sleeves had come forward to much cheering of the crowd. They probably would not have needed to do much at all to garner applause, but without a pause they launched into a complicated routine of walking on their hands, turning cartwheels and somersaults. The masks showed nothing of their faces except the eyes, but Éomer honed in on one of them at once: he recognised that extra flash of exuberant confidence the little figure radiated.

Exchanging a glance with Éothain, Éomer began to move forward through the crowd towards the stage. This time he would discover more about her and at least learn her name. Could it be the girl was just a dancer and acrobat? Yet he could have sworn her accent marked her for a noblewoman. One who had fallen on hard times? He frowned, remembering Amrothos putting his arm around her waist with far too much familiarity. Yet he would have sworn his friend was not the type of man to take advantage of a woman’s hardship.

“Éomer, my friend,” somebody hailed him that moment.

Looking round, he found Imrahil beaming at him. “Have you come to admire our tableaus?” the Prince of Dol Amroth asked him.

“Tableaus?” Éomer asked, momentarily distracted. After a last round of somersaults, the dancers were disappearing behind the stage and the curtains opened again. She was getting away!

Imrahil took his arm and motioned at the stage. “Look, the Halls of Mandos. Isn’t it wonderfully done? So lifelike! My wife organises it all,” he continued, before Éomer could even think of a reply. “She believes in educating people in our history and culture.”

Éomer had to admit the home of the Judge of the Dead looked suitably dark and gloomy. “Very lifelike,” he agreed dryly.

Imrahil looked pleased at his praise. “Yes, Aglarel puts a lot of effort into it. Every year we do a different story and they tour Belfalas.”

“They do?” Éomer tried to inch away, but his friend would not let such a sympathetic audience escape.

While Imrahil explained in great detail how the scenes were changed over, Éomer discreetly craned his neck, but to his disappointment the troupe of dancers did not come on again. Very soon Lúthien and Beren reached Ossiriand and the curtains came down on the final tableau.

“My friend, you have to meet my wife and young daughter,” Imrahil said, drawing him towards the stage. “They only arrived this morning.”

“I really don’t want to intrude on your family reunion,” Éomer protested. By the time he would be able to excuse himself, the girl might be gone! Out of the corner of his eye he encountered a sardonic look from Éothain, who no doubt guessed his thoughts.

“No, no, I insist,” Imrahil told him. “They will be so pleased to get to know you. Little Lothíriel has been plaguing me with questions about you all afternoon. Ah, here’s my wife,” he exclaimed.

A slim woman in a rich, red dress that clung admiringly to her figure joined them and gave her husband a peck on the cheek.

“Aglarel, my dear,” Imrahil said, “Let me introduce you to the King of Rohan.”

For a moment Éomer was completely taken aback. The tawny skin, diminutive size, black eyes... But this woman had a maturity his dancing girl lacked.

He encountered a look of enquiry in Aglarel’s eyes and hurriedly recovered his manners. “Lady Aglarel, I’m yours to command.”

“King Éomer, it’s a pleasure meeting you,” Imrahil’s wife replied smoothly. She was probably used to men staring at her foolishly!

“And here’s my daughter,” Imrahil said at that moment, “my sweet little Lothíriel.”

For the second time in as many minutes Éomer found himself gawping stupidly at a woman. This one he knew only too well.

“Honoured to make your acquaintance,” the Princess of Dol Amroth said, sinking into a demure curtsy. “And that of your men,” she added, causing Éothain to close his open mouth with a snap.

“Lothíriel has been assisting her mother with her educational work,” Imrahil said with a fond look at his offspring.

Had she! Why did he get the impression that she wrapped her father around her little finger? “How good of her,” Éomer said.

She must have caught his sarcastic undertone, for a corner of her mouth quirked. “We all do what we can to help,” she answered modestly. A small red feather had got caught in her hair, he noticed. From her costume?

Imrahil turned to his wife. “My dear, Éomer has been admiring your work.”

“Oh, are you interested in that kind of thing?” Lady Aglarel asked, her eyes lighting up. “It is so important to keep our heritage alive, isn’t it?”

Not giving him a chance to reply, she launched into a description of past performances. With amusement, Éomer recognised a similar enthusiasm in her that his keeper of the studbook displayed when discussing horse breeding. He did not get alarmed until she looked him up and down appraisingly.

“We’re always looking for volunteers,” she said. “I wonder... perhaps you’d make a good Huor.”

“What!”

“Or of course. Eorl the Young! What more fitting story than that!” She gifted him with a dazzling smile.

Éomer’s alarm grew. “I really don’t think I have any talent in that direction.”

“Oh, everybody’s a little nervous at first, but you’ll soon get used to it,” Lady Aglarel assured him.

“Perhaps we could have straw horses, Mother, to make it more realistic,” her daughter suggested. That girl delighted in getting him into trouble!

She turned to him. “Don’t worry, King Éomer. You’d just have to stand there and look heroic.”

What a handful! He narrowed his eyes at her and she must have felt she treaded a thin line. “But, Mother,” she said, “didn’t you want to tell the legend of Isildur and the Oathbreakers at the Stone of Erech next?”

“Yes, that’s true,” Lady Aglarel said. She sighed. “With recent events there are so many stories I would like to remind people of. Never have they been more relevant! I’m afraid it might be a while until we can concentrate on Eorl the Young.”

Able to breathe again, Éomer assured her he did not mind. Then he decided to take his chance. “Your brother Amrothos has been praising Dol Amroth’s food,” he remarked to Lothíriel, “perhaps you would be so kind as to show me round the tables?”

“I would be delighted to, my lord king.” She looked at her parents for permission. “If I may?”

“Yes, of course, my sweet,” her father replied, no doubt thinking what a well-behaved, docile daughter he had. “You’ll be in the best of hands.”

A flick of the eye told Éothain to stay behind and a moment later Éomer escorted the Princess of Dol Amroth towards the tables under the trees.

Once they were out of earshot, he looked down at her. Eyes modestly lowered, she walked with just the fingers of one hand resting lightly on his proffered arm. “So tell me,” he said, “does Imrahil have any idea at all of what his sweet little girl is up to?”

She gave a gurgling laugh. “You mean dunking allied kings? No, not really.”

Her audacity took his breath away. “I wonder what he’d say if I told him of your adventure this afternoon?”

“You wouldn’t,” she declared with utter certainty. 

“What makes you think so? I have every reason to feel provoked.” He did his best to look stern and intimidating.

Apparently he failed dismally. “You’re friends with Amrothos,” Lothíriel answered as if that explained everything. “He’s infallible at finding kindred spirits.”

“I’m not sure whether to take that as a compliment.”

“I know! He calls me his favourite sibling,” she confided to him. Her eyes danced with mischief.

She was enchanting – and she probably knew it. “You’ve certainly given me a new picture of Gondorian womanhood,” he said dryly “It’s not every day you see a princess drenched in muddy water.”

“No, I suppose not. And not every day either you see a king balancing on logs and playing silly games...”

Involuntarily, he had to grin. “You’re right. There’s something very intoxicating about being alive when not long ago you never expected to see another sunrise.”

“Oh, yes, it can make you giddy,” she said in a low voice, almost as if talking to herself.

Startled that she would understand, he stared at her. They had halted underneath one of the trees and he drew her deeper into its shade. “What makes you say so?”

Lothíriel shrugged. “It’s not only the men who faced death. We always knew that if Minas Tirith fell, Dol Amroth would not be able to hold out. Naturally the women discussed what to do, whether to kill themselves before capture or try to take some of the enemy with them.”

Éomer felt stunned. She said it so matter-of-factly!

“Mother has Umbarian roots,” Lothíriel continued. “In fact we’re descended from the last lawful Lord of the Haven before the usurper Castamir took over, so the Corsairs would probably have wanted to take us there. I thought I might be able to do some damage, for example set fire to their fortress before...” Her voice stumbled. “...well, they killed me.”

They would have done much more than simply kill her! It was unbearable to consider. “I’m so sorry,” he exclaimed.

She looked at him in surprise. “But you have nothing to apologise for, you came to our rescue.”

He did not know why he felt he ought to have protected her better when he had not known her above a day. “I just wish you had never needed to face such a decision.”

Lothíriel inclined her head. “So do I. Yet it made me realise how lucky I am and that I want to live life to the full.”

“And so you shall!”

For a moment something unsettlingly intense lay between them. But Éomer was not quite ready for it. He looked away.

“You say you have Umbarian roots,” he remarked after a moment, trying for a lighter tone. “So your mother hails from the south?” He offered her his arm and they started walking again, along a path down to the river bank. It would lead them away from the tables of food, but she offered no protest.

“Yes, mother’s family is proud of being the last loyal Umbarians,” Lothíriel answered. “After the kin-strife they had to flee and settled in Tolfalas. But they brought many of their customs along and a tradition of having tumblers and acrobats.”

“Is that how you learnt your skills?”

A grin flashed across her face. “Yes. Mother let me tag along with her from when I was a little child. Of course she wanted to teach me about Gondor’s history, but I was always more interested in playing with the acrobats.” She chuckled. “Poor Mother, I must have been quite a disappointment to her, for she loves her tableaus.”

“She won’t really try to stick me in one, will she?” Éomer asked with a shudder.

Another grin. “Well, since you won’t give me away, I’ll talk her out of it. Mother can be very persuasive, but don’t worry.”

Éomer slowed his steps when they reached the river. Behind them, the lanterns still twinkled between the tree branches, but they had left the crowd behind. “Does this mean we’ve reached a truce?” He lowered his voice. “I would like that very much.”

The bright moonlight showed her blushing. So after all Lothíriel was not always quite as self-assured as she seemed. “If you wish,” she answered.

“I do.” He turned her to face him and picked the red feather from hair. “Your father mentioned you asked him lots of questions about me.”

Her flush deepened. “Perhaps I did.”

Knowing that he was playing a dangerous game, with a friend’s daughter moreover, he nevertheless could not resist the impulse to trail the feather across her cheek and down her throat. It was just too delicious to see her thus unsettled, with a blush spreading across her dusky skin, her dark eyes large and startled. Considering what she did to him, it was only fair to get his own back. “And what did your father tell you about me?”

She lifted her chin in a challenge. “That you’re honourable and brave, will make a great king to your people, unflinching in battle and dauntless in the face of the enemy.”

“Oh!” He couldn’t help feeling flattered by her words. “That’s high praise from Imrahil.”

Lothíriel gave a guileless smile. Éomer instinctively knew it boded no good. “Yes, but then that’s the same man who thinks me his sweet little girl.”

 

Joust: Alliance

Ten days later...

The early morning mist rose from the meadows in lacy swirls, swiftly dissolved by the rising sun, and on the long grass by the river, dew drops glittered like diamonds. Éomer looked down at the woman walking by his side.

“You don’t mind getting up early?”

Lothíriel suppressed what he suspected was a yawn. “It’s nice once you’re up,” she replied.

He grinned. “Why, Lothíriel, you’re getting diplomatic! Admit that you’re cursing me for dragging you out of bed at a time when all sensible people are still asleep.”

That earned him an answering grin. “I would of course never hold the King of Rohan in anything but the highest esteem.”

“Nicely said.”

She flashed him one of her urchin smiles. “I know. Father would be proud of me.”

They continued on their path along the river in contented silence. Éomer knew that she was not an early riser, but he had wanted to talk to her alone and in a busy camp that was not an easy task. At least there had not been the least danger of Amrothos trailing along at that time of the morning.

Underneath the long cloak she’d wrapped around herself, she wore her acrobat’s costume, he noticed, with the feathered mask dangling from a ribbon.

“Will you give a performance later on today?” he asked.

“Yes, this afternoon. It’s the final one before we return to Minas Tirith, so Mother is determined to have it absolutely perfect. You see, Lord Aragorn will be there.” She cast him a sideways look. “And perhaps the King of Rohan?”

“He will be,” Éomer assented. Not surprisingly, really, as he had attended most performances, but nevertheless Lothíriel looked pleased.

She took his arm with easy familiarity. “Wonderful. I promise we will try extra hard to make it spectacular.”

Éomer could not help feeling alarmed. The routines they performed changed every time and some of them had the dancers tossed high into the air or balancing on each other’s shoulders. More than once his heart had nearly stopped! However, when he said anything, Lothíriel only laughed and breezily assured him broken necks were rare.

“Are you still planning to leave tomorrow?” he asked to distract himself.

“Yes, it takes a while to take down the stage, and since Mother wants to show her tableaus in Minas Tirith, we need to get there in plenty of time before the coronation.”

“Will I see you there?” he asked.

She studied the ground. “If you wish. We have a house on the Sixth Circle, you’ll always have a welcome there.”

From her father or from her? Yet he did not voice his question. While he had made up his mind days ago, he could only guess at her feelings. For a moment doubts surfaced: did he have the right to ask what he wanted to ask? Despite her self-assurance and quick wit, she was still very young. Not Imrahil’s little girl – oh no, she knew the power of her charms – but even so with a limited knowledge of the world.

They rounded a bend of the river and came upon a meadow crossed by a creek. Empty and peaceful, with its trampled grass recovered, the place nevertheless was familiar at once.

“Look!” Lothíriel exclaimed. “Our log is still there.” She shed her cloak and thrust it at him.

Éomer regretted the loss of her warm, subtle form leaning against him, but he did watch in appreciation as she danced across the log, arms gracefully extended like a flying bird. The yellow, orange and red ribbons sewn onto the sleeves floated out behind her, while the silken top hugged her figure closely. On the other side, she twirled round and turned a cartwheel. Shapely legs flew through the air.

Remembering his dunking in icy water, he followed more cautiously across the log, but reached the other side without mishap. By unspoken consent, they sat down on some boulders by the river. The Anduin made a wide turn at this point, revealing a small, pebbly beach.

Lothíriel stared out over the water glinting in the sun and sighed. “I will be sorry to leave. It’s so informal here, quite unlike the court at Minas Tirith.”

“It must be,” Éomer agreed. He had certainly taken every opportunity to make use of that informality – although Lothíriel had seemed to enjoy being whisked away for horse rides or walks through the woods.

“Yet I think you are also looking forward to going home?” Lothíriel asked. She picked up a pebble and turned it round slowly in her hands.

“Oh yes.” He wondered if he had bored her with his talk about the Mark. “I’ve had regular couriers from Edoras, of course,” he explained, “but I’m still impatient to return.” He also wanted to find out what kept Éowyn in Minas Tirith’s Houses of Healing, though she wrote that she was recovered. More and more his brotherly instincts told him that her letters did not tell the whole story.

“So you won’t stay long in Minas Tirith?” Lothíriel interrupted his brooding. She seemed uncommonly serious for once, quite unlike her usual teasing self.

“No, not above a few days. I need to see to things at home.”

“Of course.” She tossed the pebble aside and jumped up. Skipping down to the beach, she balanced from one stone to the next.

More slowly, Éomer followed. He had noticed before how Lothíriel always liked to be in motion, though she was not usually so restless. Yet he loved to watch her slim form – would have liked even better to touch it, but that was a thought better suppressed.

He had no right. Yet.

“I suppose you will be very busy in Rohan?” Lothíriel asked.

“Oh yes. Our best farmlands lie in the West-Mark and were devastated by Saruman’s orcs,” Éomer answered, “but I also need to see to the horse herds in the East Emnet and our homesteads in the mountains.” Aragorn had promised to help with supplies, but it would still mean a lot of work to make sure the Rohirrim would face the next winter with confidence.

Lothíriel jumped onto a large boulder lying half submerged in the water, then onto another one further out. She had put her bird mask on and only her dark eyes showed, making it difficult to guess what she was thinking. “You will be doing a lot of travelling about Rohan then,” she stated flatly.

Was he missing something, Éomer wondered? Her exuberant zest for life that he liked so much was subdued and she showed none of that delightful impertinence, meant to tease him, but which just made him want to kiss her.

“Yes, I will be travelling a lot,” he said in answer to her question.

Lothíriel leapt onto another stone and looked back over her shoulder. There were a couple more boulders further out, but the distance was too big to jump. “In summer we’re usually down in Dol Amroth, but we spend the autumn in Minas Tirith,” she said, letting her voice peter out.

Was he imagining things or had Lothíriel just given him a hint she would like to see him again? He wasn’t exactly an expert at finding out what was going on in a woman’s mind and this one was as clever at sparring with words as she was at sparring with staffs! She so delighted in teasing him, he found it difficult to know when she was serious.

From the start she had treated him much as she treated her brother Amrothos – a good sign or not? For one thing was certain: she would not let any conventional considerations guide her in her choices. As she had said that first evening, she intended to live life to the full. And beneath her playful manner lay a core of inner steel. The woman who had contemplated letting herself be led into slavery in Umbar, just to strike a last blow at the enemy, would not marry to please her father or to strengthen an alliance.

Not that he wanted her to!

When he hesitated what to say, she turned away from him and looked out over the river. Something in the line of her back, the way her arms hung limply by her side, spoke of being forlorn. Forlorn? His laughing, teasing rogue, always overflowing with energy and wit?

Éomer kicked off his boots and waded into the water. He needed to know – and for that he had to put her somewhere she could not elude him, neither with her quick feet nor her clever tongue.

Hearing him splashing through the water, she turned round. “Éomer?”

He picked her up, threw her over his shoulder and strode out into deeper water. 

“Éomer! What are you doing!” Lothíriel exclaimed.

Gently he put her down on the boulder furthest out in the row. The water, coming down from the mountain slopes and decidedly chilly, came up to his knees. “I’m giving a demonstration of how to deal with superior forces,” he answered. “First you have to get them on their own and unarmed, then you put them at a disadvantage.” He grinned up at her.

The stone wobbled and she had to hold on to his shoulders, but she quickly caught her balance and straightened up. “Éomer, I’m warning you! This is my best costume and I need it this afternoon. Don’t you dare get me wet.” Yet she grinned back, the sparkle that made her his Lothíriel rekindled.

He reached up to snatch her mask. “I’ve got you now.”

Lothíriel put her hands on her hips and the costume’s silken ribbons twirled round her in a riot of yellow, orange and red. It suited her; the vibrant colours brought out the warm tone of her dusky skin and dramatic contrast of black hair. He could not wait to see her in vivid emerald green.

“Well, you’ve got me at your mercy now,” she conceded with an urchin grin. Even so she cast a measuring glance at the closest boulder, but luckily must have decided against trying to jump. “What do you want? A suitably high forfeit next time we play the water joust?”

“No more impudence from you!” Éomer exclaimed. However, he hesitated over his next words. It was disconcerting that this young girl, slim, graceful and hardly coming up to his chin, held a large part of his happiness in her hands. He cleared his throat. “Listen, Lothíriel, I want you to consider something in the next months and to think well about it.”

She went still. “What is it?”

“If...if perhaps, in due time, you might become my wife?” Éomer did not wait for an answer, but went on hurriedly: “I do not ask lightly, for I know it’s a big step for you to take, to leave your family behind and move to a strange country.” 

“Éomer–”

“But I would do all I can to help you settle in the Riddermark and be happy there,” he tried to reassure her. “Please think about it over the summer and autumn.”

She took a deep breath. “I don’t have to.”

“What!” His heart plummeted.

She held out a hand. “Éomer, I already know my answer. Yes.”

He looked at her stupidly. “Yes?”

“Yes.” She leant forward, making the stone wobble, and at once he reached up to steady her. Shyly, Lothíriel touched his face. “I had thought that you rather liked me. And had hoped... that you might...” She blushed.

Like her? How little idea she had of her allure. “Oh, I wouldn’t call it liking,” he breathed.

“No?”

“No.” Luckily he knew just how to explain. They had sparred with staffs and words, now it was time to move on to the third stage. And for once he might even get the better of her. 

He kissed her. 

Lothíriel flung her arms round him and responded enthusiastically. She pressed her body against him and wrapped her legs around his, so he found his hands full of delightful, eager woman. Soft lips, supple body, hair scented with rose perfume, warm skin burning under his touch. For a while he forgot all other sensations.

Breathing hard, they separated at last, though Éomer let his hands rest on her hips. She nestled against him and gave a sigh of contentment. “That was marvellous, just as I had imagined.”

He was surprised into a laugh. “How had you imagined it?”

Lothíriel lifted her face to him. “Well, like those moments when it all comes together, the music, the rhythm, all dancers moving as one and you’re doing a line of somersaults, feeling as light as a bird.”

She set him quite a target! “Well, I’m glad you liked it.”

Dimples appeared in her cheeks. “Oh, I wouldn’t call it liking.”

She had recovered her wits all right! With her as his wife, staid, dignified Meduseld would never be the same again. But he didn’t mind, not if she filled it with warmth and joy. He shook his head at her. “What a rogue you are!”

“Yes, but you knew that.”

He slid his hands up her back, still finding it difficult to believe the reality of her in his arms, pliant and yielding. “Lothíriel, are you quite sure?” The moment the words left his mouth, he realised it was a stupid question. That had not been the kiss of a woman who was unsure of her feelings!

Lothíriel tilted up her face for another kiss. “Really, Éomer, how could I possibly resist you?” Her eyes danced with laughter. “You swept me off my feet at our very first meeting.”

FINI



A/N: I hope you've enjoyed this story, even if it's only a short one. I'm rather busy with Real Life at the moment and writing original stuff, but quite probably I'll write some more Éomer / Lothíriel stories in the future. Thanks so much for reviewing - it's always such a pleasure to post here!

And many thanks, as always, go to my beta Lady Bluejay and the ladies of The Garden. Also thank you to Deandra for inspiring me to return to Middle-Earth, Adelie P for bringing this particular idea back to my mind and Thanwen for feeding me during the writing of it!


A/N: Finally, if you've enjoyed this story, I hope you won't mind if I plug my original novels, now available as eBooks and in print (just search for 'Lia Patterson' on Amazon/iBook/Kobo/Nook etc). I write fantasy romance and stay true to my usual spunky (and often stubborn) heroines, but the stories and the worlds are very different from my LotR fanfics.

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