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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.”
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.”
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.”
“Because I want to hear you say it.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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')
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