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Like a Blade Forged in Fire  by Lialathuveril

A/N: We know so little about Lothíriel, only her date of birth and the fact that she married Éomer of Rohan. So strictly speaking the only AU element in this story is that I’ve made her a few years older. However, I’m sure this is not what Tolkien had in mind of how the two met - but then the same can be said about my other scenarios ;-)

Anyway, I hope you’ll enjoy this ride and that it will cheer you up in these difficult times. The story is finished and just needs a final revision, so I promise to post faithfully.

Keep safe!

 


Prologue

City of Serpents, 3012 Third Age

Even the stars were strange. Lothíriel caught a brief glimpse of the night sky as they were escorted from one courtyard to the next, deeper into the sprawling palace. This far south, Eärrámë, called after Tuor’s legendary ship, sailed high above the horizon, its keel glittering with a bright white star. In Gondor only the prow was visible.

Like nothing else it made her realise how far they were from all that was familiar: her country, her family, her home. Hundreds of leagues lay between her and the mist-wreathed shores of Belfalas. Shores she would never see again.

A hand touched her lightly on the arm. Looking up, she found her brother Erchirion regarding her gravely. She tried to smile at him, but did not succeed too well to judge from his deepening frown.

“Just think,” she said in an effort to distract him. “We must be the first Gondorians in centuries to set foot in the City of Serpents.” Except for captured slaves, of course.

Her brother refused to take the bait. “Lothíriel,” he said, “you can still change your mind.”

Yes, and have him and his men die for nothing. It was no coincidence that their father had only included unmarried swan knights, all volunteers, in her escort. But she would not let them throw their lives away.

“I know what I’m doing,” she answered him, trying hard to believe her own words. “All will be well.”

How fine it had sounded in Denethor’s study in Minas Tirith, such a brave and gallant thing to do for Gondor. Discussed over a glass of mulled wine, with her uncle’s rare approval warming her as much as the cosy fire burning in the hearth, she had only seen the opportunity to do something to aid her beloved country. Not even her father’s horrified reaction had made a dent in that confidence, not when the Steward himself threw his weight behind the plan.

A warrior for Gondor, like a blade forged from grace and beauty, her uncle had called her, making Lothíriel feel flattered not to be treated like a child anymore. Now that warrior faced her first battle. And she would not bring shame on her ancestors, Lothíriel vowed, though so poorly armed. One additional weapon she still had: her wits. Perhaps she would need those most of all.

Ahead of them a massive pair of doors was thrown open. They entered a big hall lit by golden lamps hanging from the ceiling. Courtiers in richly coloured robes, emerald, sapphire and topaz, filled the room, eyeing them curiously. Their escort of guards stayed behind, leaving them to cross the floor on their own, their steps sounding loudly on the polished marble.

Lothíriel found her gaze drawn to the other end of the hall, where a throne stood on a raised dais, sheltered by a canopy shaped in the form of a snake’s head, its hood spread wide and fangs exposed. Men there, one sitting on the throne and three standing beside it, all wore scarlet. At another time she might have enjoyed the riot of rich colours and tried to capture it in a drawing, but now her throat went dry. She was suddenly glad that she would not be required to say much or she might have disgraced herself.

They came to a halt ten steps from the throne, as instructed by the courtier who had brought their invitation to the audience. Erchirion and his knights bowed, and she sank into a deep curtsy. A whisper ran through the crowd as it became clear they would not give the prostration on the floor demanded by royal protocol. Lothíriel held her breath. Her brother had been adamant not to taint Gondor’s honour in that way. She wasn’t quite sure if it was foolish or wise when they dealt from such a position of weakness. On the other hand they had very little to lose: only their lives.

“Welcome to Harad,” a gruff voice said. “We are pleased to receive visitors from so far away.”

She exhaled her breath and straightened up.

“You are most gracious, my lord king,” Erchirion answered. “It is an honour to be here.”

King Hyarmendacil studied them, hair greying but eyes shrewd. It seemed bizarre that they all had names of Númenórean kings of old, especially since the first king of that name had fought and subjugated the Haradrim. However, they traced their lineage back to Castamir, instigator of the kin-strife more than a thousand years ago. Considered a usurper in Gondor, here he was held to have been the true king and they themselves his heirs and rightful rulers of Gondor. Not that Denethor would ever acknowledge their claim of course.

While her brother exchanged more courtly pleasantries, she surreptitiously studied the three men to the right of the throne, who all wore heavy golden torcs. King Hyarmendacil’s sons had the reputation of being great warriors and they looked it: powerfully built, hands on the curved scimitars by their sides, their attention on the threat offered by Erchirion and his knights. Her they disregarded for the moment. Involuntarily, Lothíriel’s palms grew damp with sweat. Which of them was the crown prince?

Her brother waved forward two of his men to present the chest of gifts they had brought with them, pearls and amber from Belfalas, a set of finely crafted daggers traded from the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain and lavishly embroidered robes of brocade and velvet. Last and finest was a gyrfalcon from the north, its plumage silvery white, the hood and jesses dyed scarlet. It gave a piercing cry when handed over to one of the king’s servants; a murmur of appreciation ran through the crowd.

When King Hyarmendacil leaned forward eagerly to inspect this exotic addition to his mews, Lothíriel could not help feeling a certain kinship with the bird. Her father’s head falconer had trained it exhaustively to make sure it would return to its master’s hand and not embarrass the king, but it at least had a chance of escaping captivity.

In return King Hyarmendacil had his slaves bring in a set of enormous mûmak tusks, caskets of precious stones and bags of cloves, nutmeg and other spices. Lothíriel wondered how her brother would ever manage to bring the tusks home. She wasn’t quite sure either whether they were meant as a gift or a threat.

These were only the preliminaries anyway. The biggest gift was still to be exchanged.

As if on cue, the king clapped his hands. A richly dressed adviser carrying a parchment with bright scarlet seals affixed to it stepped forward and proceeded to read it out in a sonorous voice. This was it, the pledge of peace between Harad and Gondor that Denethor had spent more than a year negotiating. It might not last forever, but it would give her country a breather, time to build up her defences. A reprieve needed so badly that her uncle had been willing to trade his most valuable bargaining piece for it.

A sudden wave of longing for her father rushed through her. If only she could run to him and be caught up in his embrace, like she used to as a child. Then, he had possessed the power to make everything right in her world. But not anymore, now she just had herself. By her own choice, she reminded herself.

The adviser had reached the last clause of the treaty. “And as a sign of the eternal friendship binding mighty Gondor and glorious Harad, an alliance by marriage shall be forged between Crown Prince Arantar, known as the blade of Harad, scourge of its enemies, lion of the desert, and the daughter of Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, Lord of Belfalas, high lord of Gondor.” Lothíriel could not help noticing that her name wasn’t even mentioned.

Nevertheless, if one day a grandson of the Prince of Dol Amroth sat on the serpent throne, more favourably inclined towards Gondor, that would be her doing.

Erchirion offered her his arm. Taking a deep breath, she placed her fingers on it and stepped forward. Their eyes met for a single moment, and in his she read the willingness to die here for her. With her, for none of them would make it home. But the time to change her mind was long past.

Deliberately she turned to face the man descending from the raised dais: black haired and dark skinned, moving with a swordsman’s grace. Had she drawn a picture of him, she would have titled it ‘son of the desert’, for he was all sharp angles, like a rock scoured by wind and sand to expose razor thin edges.

His eyes examined her sharply, but after a moment he smiled. Pleased with what he saw?

He accepted her hand from Erchirion, her brother stepping back with a bow, and with a gesture invited her to kneel with him before his father, who would preside over their marriage vows. His skin was warm and dry under her touch. Could he feel the tremble running through her?

Luckily the vows were all read out for them by the adviser and all she had to do was assent, which she managed to do in a calm voice that did not seem to belong to her. At the end Prince Arantar placed a golden torc, identical to his own, around her neck, where it settled like a heavy yoke. It took all her willpower not to flinch when his fingers briefly brushed across her collar bone.

She was a princess of Harad now. A feeling of disbelief filled her. How had a discussion in her uncle’s snug, fire-lit study, its walls panelled in warm brown oak, led to this man in scarlet and black in a hall of pale marble?

All through the flowery speeches that followed, wishing them marital happiness and many children, she stood in a daze, watching herself smile and nod at the right places as if from outside. To her relief the prince took it upon himself to thank their well-wishers, which he did in a deep, firm voice.

He still held her hand in a light clasp, the only warm spot in a body whose veins were slowly filling with ice. Dispassionately she wondered why nobody spotted the transformation from living, breathing woman to a creature of chill frost. She would not have been surprised to see ice flowers form on the smooth floor around her feet.

Suddenly she became aware that silence had descended on the hall. The prince turned to her. “Time to retire, my lady.”

Her armour of ice shattered abruptly. Retire? So soon? Hot panic swept through her.

Prince Arantar must have read some of her feelings on her face, for he squeezed her hand as if in warning. “It is customary for husband and wife to share a light repast together. Come.”

He took her arm and gently led her towards the door. The wedding guests clapped their hands, and slaves threw rose petals on the floor for them to tread on. Recalled to her senses, she did her best to stamp down on her alarm and walked at his side meekly. She was the daughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth, descended from warriors, she would not break in front of all these strangers.

At the door she cast a last look back over her shoulder. Would she ever see her brother again? Erchirion’s face was bored and distant, a sure sign that he was struggling with his composure. Suddenly she was glad that Amrothos was not along. Her twin, who always knew what she was thinking, would never have held back.

But they had their treaty and a safe conduct from King Hyarmendacil. She had bought them that. Now it was time to face her own personal battle. She would fight it bravely and conduct herself honourably, even if nobody in Gondor would ever learn of it.

 ***

Outside the door, a dozen guards dressed all in black fell in around them, eyes cold and vigilant. The prince ignored them as if he was so used to them he did not even see them anymore and guided her down a hallway. They all moved in utter silence, the only sound the soft swish of her sandals on the stone floor. Had she closed her eyes, she might have imagined herself alone – if it hadn’t been for her husband’s grip on her arm, gentle but ready to turn to iron at a wrong movement from her. Her husband… she considered the concept in her mind, but could not really believe it applied to her.

After a while they came to a door made of wrought iron, decorated with golden snakes and guarded by four of the biggest Haradrim she had seen yet.

“The royal apartments,” Prince Arantar announced. “The only men allowed beyond these doors are the king and his sons.”

Lothíriel jumped at finding herself addressed. “Is that so, my lord,” she answered, awkwardly groping for commonplaces. They had not exchanged any words except their wedding vows.

The doors swung open, and they stepped through, leaving their black clad escort behind. To her surprise the guards on the other side all were women, armed with twin swords riding on their backs.

Recognising the prince, their leader saluted him by placing a fist on her heart. “Your royal highness. Be welcome.”

He nodded at her. “Khuri, this is my wife. Make sure you guard her well.”

Lothíriel found herself seized up from top to toe. The woman looked immensely capable, strong but supple, with the balance and skill earned by countless hours in the practice ring.

“Yes, my lord,” she answered. “I will guard what is yours with my life.” It did not sound like empty words.

Which presumably also included making sure Lothíriel did not leave the royal apartments without her husband’s consent. Well, she had never planned on any such stupid escapades as trying to run away. That would have defeated the purpose of forging a peace treaty.

With Khuri leading the way, Prince Arantar turned down another corridor. Yet here there lingered a hint of perfume in the air, and Lothíriel fancied she could hear women’s voices and music. Then Khuri pushed open another door for them and took up a guarding stance next to it. With a brief nod of acknowledgement the prince stepped through.

Lothíriel felt Prince Arantar relax almost imperceptibly as Khuri closed the door behind them. If she hadn’t been so tightly strung herself, she might not have noticed.

“These are your chambers, my lady,” he said.

Hers? Not his? A lofty suite met her eyes, lit by ornamental lamps hanging from the ceiling, its walls covered in gauzy drapes in cream and pale gold. Doorways gave glimpses of further rooms leading off from the entrance.

Facing them knelt three servant girls, who blended into the marble in their plain white dresses, their foreheads touching the floor.

“They are yours too,” the prince said, dropping her arm. He gave her a courtly bow. “I am sure you will want to freshen up. Excuse me while I too change into something more comfortable. I will see you in the garden, my lady.”

He added a few words in Haradric that sounded like an order, addressed in the direction of the women kneeling on the floor, and strode out one of the doorways.

Off balance, Lothíriel stared after him. She could not help feeling like a parcel delivered to the servants to be neatened up. On the other hand, she told herself, it beat being ravished on the spot.

Bowing deeply, the three girls conducted her through a couple more chambers into what seemed to be a changing room with dresses laid ready and an array of perfume bottles and jewellery caskets on a low table. In an adjoining chamber she caught a glimpse of a large bed, covered in a scarlet bedspread, and went cold. But no, he had said he would see her in the garden. She would not have to nerve herself to face that quite yet.

One of the girls began to undo the braids Lothíriel had arranged her hair in, another knelt to take off her sandals and the third loosened the laces of her dress and slipped it off her shoulders. She was used to being attended by maids, but these three were like timid little mice.

They had gentle hands, sponging her down with scented water and brushing out her hair. She had worn a dress in her favourite smoky blue, matching the colour of her eyes, but it and every stitch of her clothing got whisked away to be replaced by a robe of scarlet silk. The strings of pearls wound into her braids, her bracelets, the little jewelled knife for cutting her food all had to go too. It was as if they wanted to erase her past.

Lothíriel did not protest. She knew she would have to pick her battles carefully, and what colour clothes she wore did not define her. It was a good thing she had the traditional Númenórean colouring of black hair and pale skin though. Elphir’s wife Aerin with her glorious copper hair would have looked ghastly in scarlet. The thought of her elegant sister-in-law’s horror at such an idea almost made her smile.

Only one piece of jewellery she refused to give up, a silver ring with a single lustrous pearl that had been her mother’s. “This I keep,” she told the maid who wanted to slip it off her finger.

Though the woman hesitated, she did not insist. Instead they decked her out in gold: gossamer chains woven into her hair, earrings, armlets and ankle bracelets. Together with the heavy torc at her throat it would have been enough to buy and provision one of her father’s war galleys. She felt rather ostentatious, but the maids seemed satisfied, even relaxing and smiling at her as they dabbed an exotic scent on her wrists. Did they think their master would be pleased with their efforts? Finally they stepped back and bowed again.

“Thank you,” Lothíriel said, forcing a smile. “How do I say that in Haradric?”

“You would say Kah-set-rah, my lady,” one of them answered in a shy voice.

Kah-set-rah, Lothíriel repeated, and they bowed even deeper. She squared her shoulders. “Where do I find the garden?”

They showed her the way through another large chamber and out a doorway curtained with more gauzy drapes. If she wasn’t careful, she would get lost in her own rooms.

The palace gardens were like nothing she had ever seen, arranged on several levels in a riot of different shapes and with lamps dotted about everywhere. Pale, night blooming flowers hung down from small trees, and the path winding through this carefully tended jungle offered a series of different textures to her bare feet.

She rounded a corner to find a small pool with a fountain in the centre, surrounded by a mosaic floor. Cushions were scattered about on thick carpets, and on a low table stood dozens of dishes of fruit, pastry and other food. Was this the light repast the prince had mentioned? Yet there was no sign of him.

Several paths converged on the courtyard, and curious as to where they led, she took the widest one. From the trees either side hung ornate cages, each one a work of art, holding different birds, some of them asleep, others hopping about. Nightingales were pouring out their song, but fell silent when she approached.

The path ended at a closed gate in the encircling wall. Lothíriel hesitated, her hand on the bar securing the door, and traced the pattern of entwined snakes carved into the wood. She was probably not supposed to go any farther.

“That leads into the main garden,” Prince Arantar said behind her.

With a gasp she spun round, her heart in her mouth. “Don’t creep up on me like that,” she snapped. Then she froze, appalled at her words. “My apologies, my lord prince,” she said quickly. “You startled me, being so silent.”

The prince looked taken aback. “I didn’t mean to.” He gave a stiff bow. “My lady, do not be afraid. Only my enemies need fear me.”

“And being Gondorian, I am not an enemy anymore?” She could not help wondering how long the peace treaty would hold.

“Marrying me makes you Haradrim,” he answered. “You’re mine.” He said it quite simply, as if that was the only thing that mattered. And perhaps to him it was.

Lothíriel looked away. How easily he brushed away everything that had defined her as being of no consequence. But she was her own and always would be. However, she did not say so aloud. Not being counted as a Gondorian was probably for the best.

Searching for something to give their conversation a different turn, she motioned at the gate. “Did you say there is another garden?”

“Yes, it’s shared amongst all the royal ladies. You can have a look tomorrow. They will be pleased to meet you.”

And would they make her welcome, Lothíriel wondered. She hoped so, or hers would be a lonely existence.

They turned back towards the courtyard with the fountain, past the trees holding the cages, where one of the nightingales had taken up its song again, heartbreakingly beautiful. Of course the royal apartments were themselves one big cage, just built to hold different creatures.

The prince walked at her side silent and sleek as big cat on the prowl, but not touching her. She stole a look at him out of the corner of her eye. He had changed into a light robe and discarded his scimitar, though he still wore a knife at his belt. His black hair was caught up with a golden clasp at the nape of his neck, and the lamps threw his profile into sharp relief. A strong face that would be interesting to draw, she thought, the dark eyes watchful and guarded.

Lothíriel could well believe his words that his enemies need fear him. And his wife? She had seen his gaze snag on the pearl ring on her finger, though he had said nothing. Her small act of disobedience had apparently been allowed to pass, at least for the moment.

At the pool they settled on the cushions, him lounging comfortably, her more stiff, not being used to sitting on the floor. Lotus blossoms floated on the water, some natural, some carved from ivory and holding candles. She eyed the food, her stomach reminding her that she had hardly eaten a thing all day. Since he did not seem in any immediate rush to ravish her, could she at least fill her belly first? Those grapes really looked delicious.

However, Prince Arantar did not help himself to anything, so she folded her hands in her lap, unsure if she would offend him if she ate while he didn’t. An awkward silence descended.

He cleared his throat. “You are the hostess, my lady. I’m merely your guest.”

It took her a moment to understand. “May I offer you something to eat and drink?” she asked.

He inclined his head. “You are most gracious. I will have some wine.”

She poured two glasses of red wine from an earthenware pot cooling in the water and handed him one. Then she gestured to the dishes, feeling a bit silly to playact in such a manner. “Would you like to partake of the food?”

“Thank you, the shashrani look delicious,” he answered.

The what? At her baffled look, he took pity on her and indicated a plate of skewers of meat and vegetables. Under his subtle guidance she assembled a platter of his favourite foods. Would she be expected to do this always? What if she served him something he disliked? Although the cooks probably knew his preferences.

Her husband being provided for, she took a sip of the wine, a light sweet vintage, and nibbled a saffron cake. There were so many blunders she could make, being a stranger. If she was to survive and prosper, she needed allies, and this man was the most valuable one. And she meant to carve out a place for herself. A blade for Gondor her uncle had called her. She intended to prove him true.

So she smiled at her husband. “You must forgive me my ignorance of your customs, my lord. I would be grateful if you helped me understand them.”

His eyes warmed with approval. “Of course you are a stranger to our ways. I would be happy to instruct you.”

“You are very kind. Would you mind explaining what it means when you say you are my guest?” she asked, choosing her words carefully. It felt a bit as if she was petting a tiger.

“The City of Serpents lies at the heart of Harad. And in its turn the palace lies at the heart of the city. And this place…” He gestured at the garden. “… lies at the heart of the palace. Here we keep our most precious treasures: the royal wives and children. My task is to keep you safe.” From what, Lothíriel wondered. But he wasn’t finished yet. “The world outside is my responsibility, to rule wisely and protect from enemies. This world within is yours to order, to make into a space of peace and beauty. That’s why I have my own rooms in another wing of the palace. Here I merely visit, a guest of yours.”

That surprised her into a question. “So could I have thrown you out?” A moment later she wished the words back.

But he laughed. It transformed him, making him look younger and carefree. She got the impression it was not something he did often.

He took her hand and breathed a kiss on her fingers. “Surely my lovely wife would not break her husband’s heart?” The words came smoothly, but there was an undercurrent of heat in them.

Lothíriel looked away, her pulse beating faster. “Of course not.” Casting about for something to say, she freed her fingers under the pretence of smoothing out her robe. “What an extraordinarily rich colour. I’ve never seen its like before, do you know how it’s made?”

He leant back on his cushions, apparently willing to bide his time. “Royal scarlet is made from some kind of insect, I believe.”

Genuinely intrigued, she straightened up. “An insect, really? I wonder if you could make paint from it?”

“I have no idea.” He seemed surprised at her sudden enthusiasm.

“Do you think I could visit a dyer to find out?”

He hesitated. “The royal ladies do not usually leave the palace.”

“Never?”

At her dismay he spread his hands. “Only to travel to our summer residences in the country. The city is a place fraught with danger, full of thieves and beggars, not fitting for a gently bred lady like you.”

She remembered the many poor people they had seen on their journey south, swept aside by their escort. The contrast to the riches of the court had been stark. “So what do royal ladies do all day?”

He took a sip of wine. “I don’t rightly know. Make themselves beautiful? Some play musical instruments or dance.”

It sounded suffocating. At home she was out riding or hunting most days. Surely it could not be all that dangerous to leave the palace, not with guards along? However, she did not voice her thoughts. Perhaps in time she could persuade him to take her on an outing.

“I’m looking forward to meeting the other ladies,” she said.

The prince popped a grape in his mouth. “They will be honoured. But make sure to remember your rank.”

“What do you mean?” Navigating this court felt a lot like travelling in unchartered waters.

“One day your sons will rule Harad. You defer to the queen, but to nobody else.”

 Lothíriel’s throat went dry. First she would have to produce those sons. “Very well.”

“The king’s secondary wives do not wear the royal torc,” he added. “You outrank them.”

Secondary wives? “Does your father have many?” she blurted out.

“Six of them.”

That was an entirely new concept. “Doesn’t your mother mind?” she asked.

His eyes grew hooded. “My mother died giving birth to me. Queen Malirasha is my father’s second wife.”

“Oh. I’m so sorry.” She felt a sudden kinship, for she hardly remembered her own mother, who had succumbed to a fever when she was a small child.

However, he waved her sympathy away. “It doesn’t matter. You do not miss what you’ve never known.”

Did he believe that? But she did not want to press a sore point. “So how many do you have yourself?” she asked diffidently.

“How many of what?”

“Wives.”

“Ah.” He considered her for a moment. “Just one very beautiful wife. She’s all I need.”

Trying not to show him how much he flustered her, Lothíriel inclined her head at the compliment. “You are very kind.” Apparently she would have his undivided attention. Was that a good thing or not?

Her cool response seemed to amuse him. He leant back on his elbow, picked up a tiny tartlet filled with pomegranate seeds and offered it to her. “Have you tried one of these yet, my lady?”

Accepting it brought her close enough that her loose hair brushed his arm. She tensed, half expecting him to seize her. However, he just followed her every move with his dark eyes.

Hastily she sat back down on her cushion. “Kah-set-rah, my lord,” she thanked him, using her newly acquired Haradric.

He choked on his food. “What?”

Startled, Lothíriel dropped the tartlet. “Isn’t that right? I’ve been meaning to learn your language. Did I mispronounce the words?”

Prince Arantar was frowning at her. “Haradric is difficult to learn. It has many different modes of address, depending on who is speaking to whom, woman to man, inferior to superior, and whether the situation is formal or relaxed.”

Her heart sinking, she bit her lip. “So what did I just use?”

“The mode of a noblewoman talking to a female slave.”

“Oh.”

“It is proper that you should learn our language, and I will arrange for a tutor, perhaps one of the many younger princesses,” he said in a milder voice. “But until you’ve mastered the finer points of Haradric, I ask that you will confine yourself to speaking it in your quarters only.”

It seemed she had blundered badly. Vowing to be more careful in the future, she bowed her head. “I’m sorry, my lord. I did not mean to offend you.”

“It is for your own sake, for not everybody is as forbearing as me. Had you spoken thus to my father or brothers…” He hesitated. “… they would have taken deep insult.”

“I won’t,” she promised. What would they have done?

He must have heard the alarm in her voice. “Do not worry, my lady. I protect what is mine,” he said. “And I’m sure you will pick up Haradric quickly.”

She moistened her lips. “So what would be the proper way to say thank you?”

“It depends on the occasion. In a formal setting at court, as a noblewoman addressing the crown prince of Harad, you would say ‘Kah-tar-murakha’. As a wife speaking to your husband, the head of the household, the proper form would be ‘Kah-tar-arat’.” He lowered his voice. “And in a more intimate setting, just the two of us in private, you would use ‘Kah-resh-minoo’.” Casually he offered her another of the small tartlets.

She accepted both the food and the implied challenge, their fingers touching briefly. Sweet and juicy, the pomegranate seeds left a refreshingly tangy aftertaste on her tongue. “Kah-resh-minoo, my lord.”

His eyes glinted, and she felt her cheeks heat at the way his glance lingered on her. He had loosened his belt, allowing his robe to gape open, showing a heavily muscled chest. Her own silken dressing gown seemed about as flimsy a covering as sea foam.

“You’re an apt pupil. It’s a pleasure to teach you.”

She couldn’t help it, she blushed further. “More wine?” she asked in an effort to distract him.

“Please.” He held out his glass for her to refill it. “Kah-resh-minay, Lothíriel.”

It was the first time he had used her name, and he seemed to savour it as if drinking a fine vintage. Somehow he had also ended up sitting much closer to her, within touching distance. She made herself relax. There were worse situations than being showered with compliments by a husband bent on seducing her.

And anyway, she had always known she was destined for an arranged marriage, even if she had imagined something closer to home. There was not all that much difference to some of the other possible aspirants to her hand: Forlong the Fat, who had recently buried his third wife, Lord Minardil of Pelargir, hailing from her grandfather’s generation, or that crown prince of the Rohirrim, who surely also had to be getting a bit long in the tooth by now.

So when he reached over to twine his fingers in her hair, she did not flinch. And yet he must have felt her tense.

With a smile he traced a gentle finger across her cheek. “Do not be afraid, Lothíriel. It’s natural for a bride to be nervous on her wedding night, knowing she will have to submit to her husband. But I swear you have nothing to fear from me.”

Lothíriel lifted her chin. She did not like him to think her weak. “I’m not afraid. I’m the daughter of warriors.” And in truth, though she still felt wary of offending him, her earlier alarm was gone.

He chuckled. “Spoken bravely. However, I do not intend to do battle with you.”

The man enjoyed to make her blush. And before she could come up with a suitable answer, he bent forward and captured her lips in a kiss.

Lothíriel’s pulse sped up. He tasted of spices and wine, sending her senses into a whirl. It was all so new and unfamiliar, being caught against a hard chest, his musky male scent, the possessive hand sliding inside her robe, hot like a brand on her bare skin.

After a moment he drew back. Looking down at her, he seemed satisfied with what he saw. “My father was pleased with his gyrfalcon,” he murmured, “but I think I have caught by far the rarer bird.”

Breathless, Lothíriel matched his gaze. “Yet sooner or later a falconer has to let his bird fly free.”

His mouth curved into a smile. “If I did, would she come back to my hand?”

“Perhaps,” she conceded.




A/N: Eärrámë is the constellation Argo Navis (nowadays divided into three pieces) with Canopus on its keel, the second brightest star in the heavens

 

 

Chapter 1

Dol Amroth, 3020 Third Age eight years later

The ocean stretched below him, vast and empty except for a few fishing boats bringing home the day’s catch. Éomer paused on the ramparts of the castle, contemplating the blue immensity of the Bay of Belfalas, its colour slowly changing to gold in the light of the setting sun.

Seeing it for the first time that morning had taken his breath away, like a bodily shock running through him. Gulls swooped past him with raucous cries, and as he watched them dive off the cliff something tugged at his soul. At last he understood his friend Legolas’s sea-longing.

But he wanted to see the sea up close. Where was that gate Amrothos had mentioned? A moment later he spotted it at the foot of one of the sentry towers. Recognising him, two guards saluted as he approached. A third man sitting in one of the embrasures giving a view of the ocean looked up. He had been polishing his sword, but now lowered it to his lap, where rested another blade, and regarded him piercingly.

Éomer nearly stumbled. Not a man but a woman. And one who handled the long, curved scimitar as if she knew how to use it. A shieldmaiden here in Gondor? He had never heard of any, and this one, all dressed in black, had the look of a veteran, tough and sinewy. Her eyes assessed him, no friendliness in them at all. Instinctively he sought the hilt of his own sword. However, after a moment she bent back to her task, ignoring him.

“You’ll be wanting to go down to the beach, my lord?” one of the men asked, swinging the gate open. “Just be careful, the path is steep.”

Éomer thanked him, half his attention still on the woman. Not until he was on the steps leading down to the seashore did he relax again. Which was ridiculous. To be allowed to bear weapons inside the castle of Dol Amroth, she had to be one of Imrahil’s guards, an ally. And yet he knew a threat when he encountered it.

Shaking his head at such wild fancies, he concentrated on the stairs instead. They were steep indeed, but a rope had been strung to serve as a handrail, anchored to the rock every few steps. Below, a strip of sand beckoned, sheltered by a breakwater stretching out into the sea. Amrothos had told him the beach was fairly private, overlooked by the sentries above, but accessible only from the castle or by boat.

Soon he stepped out onto the beach, the unfamiliar tang of salt in the air even stronger here, while sand stretched out before him, washed clean by the sea. The water lapped the shore gently, each wave receding with a soft sigh, but seeing the way the ocean had gnawed at the rock on which the castle stood, he could well believe it wasn’t always so.

He didn’t have the beach completely to himself though. Out on the breakwater stood a woman, watching the setting sun. To Éomer she was nothing but a slim, graceful silhouette against the darkening sky, the wind teasing her long black hair. She hadn’t noticed him, and he enjoyed the sight for a moment, but then strolled along the seashore the other way to give her privacy.

Clumps of seaweed dotted the beach, and crabs scuttled away at his approach. After a few steps Éomer took off his boots and wriggled his toes in the sand, still warm from the sun. Back home in the Riddermark winter still ruled, but in this southern land spring had already arrived. The water was cold though he found when he waded through the surf.

From up ahead he suddenly heard voices. Passing a rocky outcropping, he came upon another crescent shaped beach with a small stream trickling down the steep cliff face and into the sea. Two young boys were busy piling up stones to dam the water and redirect it into the moat of their sandcastle.

At his approach they looked up. Éomer recognised Alphros, Prince Elphir’s son. He had met the whole family the year before at the celebrations on the Fields of Cormallen. There the boy had been impeccably turned out, but now he looked like an urchin, his clothes full of sand and hair in a wild tangle. As for his companion, who seemed to be about the same age, he was wet and muddy all over, as if he had fallen in a puddle.

“King Éomer,” Alphros exclaimed. As one who had been drilled in manners from the moment he could walk, he executed a very creditable bow.

“Don’t let me interrupt you,” Éomer told him. “That’s a splendid castle you’re building.”

“Thank you,” Alphros answered. “It’s Minas Tirith, but better, with a moat.” He pointed to a stick with some desiccated seaweed on top. “And that’s King Elessar.”

Suppressing a grin, Éomer duly admired his friend’s likeness. Straightening up, he found the other boy regarding him critically. Darker skinned than Alphros, he had the same easy self-assurance as his friend. The son of one of Imrahil’s knights?

“I’m a king too,” the boy suddenly announced

Alphros elbowed him in the side. “Tarcil, you’re not supposed to say that.”

Tarcil lifted his chin. “I am though. Mother says I shouldn’t tell people, but since you’re a king too, I can tell you.”

Éomer smiled. It seemed a harmless enough fantasy. “In that case I’m honoured to meet a fellow ruler.”

The boy gave him a brilliant smile. “Me too.” He put his head to one side. “Mother also says that it’s boring being a king, that you have to sit around all day, listening to advisers.”

Éomer had to grimace, thinking of the hours spent in the council chamber. Especially lately there had been no getting away from having to discuss the virtues of the many candidates to his hand. “Your mother is wise.”

“When I grow up,” Alphros declared, “I will be the Prince of Dol Amroth. That’s much better. Then I can stay up as long as I want to.”

His friend looked envious. It seemed being a Prince of Dol Amroth trumped being a king.

That moment the sound of a trumpet rang out from the ramparts above. The boys looked with regret at their unfinished castle.

“We have to go back,” Alphros said. “That’s the sign to get ready for the evening meal.”

“Mother promised there will be custard pies for afters if we’re good,” Tarcil reminded him.

His mother seemed to be not only wise, but also well versed in the art of bribery, for the two picked up their discarded shoes and headed back towards the path up to the castle. Éomer accompanied them, amused at their chatter. They reminded him of his friend Éothain’s lively brood of children.

When they got back to the main beach, they found the woman who had stood on the breakwater making her way back towards the shore. He didn’t think she had seen them yet, for she was concentrating on hopping from one rock to the next. Éomer had thought he had been introduced to all Gondor’s womanhood, at least the marriageable part, but he had never met her before. A shame, he thought, when he got a glimpse of a shapely leg.

As if she had felt his eyes on her, she froze and looked up, wary as a deer hearing a hunter’s step. But it was only for a moment, then she lightly ran the last few yards and jumped down on the sand.

Turning to face them, her face lit up with a beautiful smile, eyes sparkling and full of joy. For the second time that day Éomer’s breath caught in amazement and wonder. He felt as if somebody had hit him in the chest.

Tarcil went running. “Alphros and I built a castle,” he called. “And we caught a big crab.”

Still smiling, the woman knelt down and spread out her arms. “Did you let it go again?”

“Of course, Mummy. We put it back where we found it, like you always tell us to.”

Mummy?

The words were like a punch to the stomach. This was Tarcil’s mother, who thought kings led boring lives. She was married. He was too late.

Éomer shook his head, which was ringing as if he had fallen from a horse. What had got into him?

She straightened up and took the boy by the hand, holding out the other to Alphros. “Look at the two of you. What have you done, wallowed in the mud like piglets?”

The boys grinned at her, not the least fooled by her stern tone.

Tarcil tugged at her arm. “He’s a king too,” he confided in a loud whisper, nodding at Éomer.

“Ah.” Her eyes measured Éomer thoughtfully. She was elegantly but sombrely dressed in dark grey, and at her throat gold glinted, a heavy torc the like of which he had never seen before. It seemed an unusual adornment for a Gondorian lady, but he had to admit it accentuated the graceful line of her neck.

Sinking into a quick curtsy, she gave him a polite smile. It had none of the radiance and love lavished on her son in it, and Éomer felt a pang at the lack.

“King Éomer of Rohan?” she asked. “I’m honoured to meet you.”

His manners belatedly caught up with him; he bowed. “The honour is mine, Lady…?”

“I’m Lothíriel of…” She paused a moment. “… of Dol Amroth.”

What did that make her? A relative of Imrahil’s herself or the wife of one? She had the easy self-assurance that came with high rank, strangely at odds with the wariness she had displayed upon first catching sight of him. But perhaps he had imagined that.

“It’s a lucky chance I should meet you here,” she now said. “I had meant to talk to you.”

He realised he was still staring at her and berated himself. He had no business ogling another man’s wife. “Yes?” he asked. What could she want from him?

She hesitated. “We will be expected at dinner, but perhaps I might have a few moments of your time later.” She straightened her shoulders. “I have a favour to ask.”

“Anything you wish.”

She gave him a startled look.

Éomer tried to gather his scattered wits. “Eh, I mean I’m happy to assist any friend of Imrahil’s.”

She inclined her head. “You are very kind, my lord. It’s not urgent, but if I may, I will seek you out sometime before you leave.”

“Please do. I’m here for a week.”

A moment later Éomer thought that she surely knew as much, since Imrahil had planned a series of entertainments. She would think him a dimwit. However, she just inclined her head again and while leading the way back up to the castle engaged him in the kind of polite conversation Gondorian ladies excelled at, asking about his journey from Emyn Arnen, the weather and enquiring after fellow acquaintances.

Usually that sort of talk drove him to distraction, but for once he was grateful. Hopefully it would give him the time to regain his wits.

***

In all the time he’d known his friend, Éomer had never seen Imrahil flustered. The man was as much at home on the battlefield, gallantly facing down an orc horde, as in the Hall of Feasts in Minas Tirith, making polite conversation to an elf lord. Yet when he turned up in the dining room in Lady Lothíriel’s company, his friend looked distinctly put out.

To Éomer’s surprise the two boys had been whisked away to a bath and their own meal by the woman warrior waiting at the top of the stairs to the beach. This unlikely nursemaid had exchanged a nod with Lady Lothíriel and taken them in charge. Wisely neither of the boys had protested, though Tarcil had secured the promise of a bedtime story from his mother.

Éomer had already got to know Imrahil’s family at Cormallen, including the wives of Elphir and Erchirion, so it was all familiar faces that gathered in the dining room.

“I see you’ve met Lothíriel,” his host said, handing him a glass of wine.

Éomer took an appreciative sip, Imrahil’s wine cellar being legendary. “Yes,” he said, feeling more like himself again. “I wanted to have a closer look at the sea. She was down on the beach too, so I had the pleasure of making her acquaintance.”

Lady Lothíriel had gone to greet Amrothos and was speaking to him with some animation. She couldn’t be married to him though surely? Not once had his friend mentioned a wife, let alone a young son. But no, that peck on the cheek she bestowed on Amrothos, though affectionate enough, had nothing wifely about it.

Éomer realised that he was ogling her again and forced himself to look away. This had to stop. “She had two lively boys with her,” he remarked to Imrahil.

“Ah yes, my grandsons.” Imrahil smiled affectionately. “Scamps, both of them.”

Grandsons? So she was Amrothos’s wife after all. With sudden anger he remembered Amrothos flirting with every pretty woman that crossed his path at Cormallen. Was that why she had such a reserved manner?

Imrahil cleared his throat. “You’re probably wondering why we’ve never mentioned her before.”

Éomer tried hard to keep any trace of his anger out of his voice. “Not at all. It’s none of my business.”

His friend sighed. “The thing is, ever since her husband’s death, my daughter has been living a very quiet life with her aunt.”

Éomer choked on his wine. She was Imrahil’s daughter?

“My friend, are you all right?” Imrahil asked anxiously.

“I’m fine,” Éomer coughed. “Just something going down the wrong pipe.” It seemed to be a day of one shock after another. He really hoped this was the last one.

She was a widow. Of course, her grey clothes should have told him as much, dolt that he was. A sudden spark of joy ran through him, just as instantly followed by guilt. He should not rejoice at another man’s death, perhaps a brave swan knight, a brother in arms.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Did I ever meet her husband?” He had got to know many of Imrahil’s men on their march to the Black Gate.

A shadow passed across his friend’s face. “No. It’s a long story, better told another time. But I think dinner is ready.”

At the table, Éomer was seated to Imrahil’s right, in the place of honour. Even though it was only a family meal, the occasion had a formal air, with a host of servants attending and guests sorting themselves out according to precedence. All except Lady Lothíriel, who took the seat opposite him, on her father’s other side, reserved for the highest ranking lady.

Éomer shot a quick look at Elphir’s wife. He had found that Gondorians set ridiculously great store by that kind of thing, so much so that sitting in the wrong chair could be the start of a life-long feud. However, Lady Aerin ignored this usurpation of her rightful place and instead sat next to him with a polite smile.

Imrahil was a genial host and the food excellent, as always. Conversation flowed easily, with Lady Aerin detailing some of the planned entertainments, Imrahil holding forth on the current political situation and Elphir promising a visit to one of the Dol Amroth galleys currently in port. At this point Amrothos chimed in with trying to entice him to go sailing with him, but Éomer wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to take his friend up on this offer.

Lady Lothíriel, he noticed, kept her contributions to the bare polite minimum. She had a standoffish air, holding the world at arm’s length. It was as if she didn’t quite fit into the family circle, and they all knew, but refused to acknowledge it.

Her muted grey clothes set her apart from Erchirion’s wife in bright primrose and Lady Aerin in a fresh spring green that made her copper ringlets shine. And while the other ladies had adorned themselves with beautiful but very delicate jewellery, she just wore that single massive golden torc. Even their eating knives were different: hers sharp and utilitarian, those of the other two prettily jewelled.

But it wasn’t just that, Éomer thought, observing her surreptitiously. Unlike her sisters-in-law and even her father and brothers, she stayed aware of her surroundings always. A reflexive vigilance that made her glance up when a servant entered the room and tense imperceptibly when one passed behind her chair. He wasn’t even sure if she was conscious of it herself or just did it instinctively.

He remembered the way she had frozen upon first catching sight of him. That had not been surprise, he realised in retrospect, she had checked if he constituted a threat. Then it hit him: she did not feel safe, even though this was her home.

The sudden mad impulse to assure her that nothing bad would ever happen to her, that he would protect her always, rushed through him. Éomer looked down at his plate. What had got into him? He really needed to get a grip on himself. He didn’t even know the woman, had not exchanged more than a few polite words with her. For the rest of the meal he grimly concentrated on his food and on talking to his host.

After dinner, they moved into an adjoining room, as was the custom in Gondor. Lady Aerin sat down at a harp and began to play softly, while the others settled in comfortable chairs and chatted. Éomer had resolved to sit as far away as possible from Lady Lothíriel, but that turned out to be unnecessary, as she slipped out quietly, presumably to redeem her promise to her son of a bedtime story.

Imrahil followed her with his eyes. “Éomer, my friend,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to discuss something with you. Could I have a moment of your time?”

“Of course,” Éomer agreed.

“Let’s go to the library,” his friend suggested.

This was a cosy room overlooking the Bay of Belfalas, with bookshelves lining the walls floor to ceiling. Of course no open flames were allowed near the precious books, but a brazier warmed the air and lamps shed their mellow light. On one of the walls hung a row of family portraits, the former Princes of Dol Amroth all looking very serious and staid. A single picture was different, a view of the castle from afar, fresh and bold, drawn in light colours instead of the dark oils.

Imrahil settled down in an enormous worn leather chair and waved him to another, then waited while a servant set down a tray with more wine and retired, softly closing the door behind him. Éomer found that somehow all three of Imrahil’s sons had chosen to come along as well, Elphir taking another chair and Erchirion and Amrothos leaning against the wall. What was this all about?

Imrahil handed him a glass of wine. “It concerns Lothíriel,” he said abruptly.

Éomer tensed. Had they noticed him staring at her? “Yes?”

“I have a favour to ask.”

On his guard, Éomer did not rush into any promises. “What is it?” Was this the same favour Lady Lothíriel had mentioned earlier?

Imrahil studied his glass. “In order to explain, it will be necessary for me to go into some painful family history. Please bear with me.” He took a deep breath. “You asked about Lothíriel’s husband earlier on. He was the King of Harad.”

“What?” Éomer was glad he had not tried the wine yet, or he would have choked again. Surely he had misheard. “Did you say…?”

His face grim, Imrahil nodded. “Yes. The King of Harad.”

Éomer could only stare at him stupidly as the words sank in. It was one shock too many. “How?” he croaked.

“Denethor,” Amrothos spat.

His father sent him a frown. “Yes, it was the Steward’s doing, but we all have our share of the guilt.” He turned to Éomer again. “Nine years ago the Haradrim sent an ambassador to Gondor, offering a peace treaty in exchange for a high-born bride for their crown prince. Denethor agreed.”

Anger flashed through Éomer. “You forced her to marry one of those fiends?” He could not believe it.

Imrahil’s mouth twisted into a thin line. “We did no such thing. I tried to stop her, but Lothíriel was absolutely determined to go through with it.”

At his look of disbelief, Amrothos gave a bitter laugh. “You’ve never met our dear Steward. The man could have convinced you that jumping off the Tower of Ecthelion was for your own good.”

“It was all settled before I even knew of it.” Imrahil sighed. “Oh, not all the details, but the choice of bride. Lothíriel was afire with the idea of buying peace for her country.”

“You’re her father, you could have refused the match,” Éomer shot back.

Imrahil lowered his head. “Yes. But breaking our word would have meant immediate war with Harad. We could not afford that.”

And so he had sold his daughter into virtual slavery. Éomer felt sick. No wonder she was so wary after what had to be years of abuse. He yearned to kill somebody, with the Harad King his first choice, but Denethor close behind. Unfortunately they were both dead. He was too late – years too late.

Imrahil took up the story again. “Erchirion travelled with her to the City of Serpents and saw her married, and then she just disappeared. The Haradrim do not allow their royal ladies any outside contact. Only once did we receive a letter, informing us of the birth of Tarcil.” His voice cracked. “A single sign of life in six years and that a formal announcement from her husband.”

“So how did you rescue her?” It had to be hundreds of leagues to the City of Serpents, how had they ever managed that?

“We didn’t,” Amrothos answered.

“In the summer two years ago, we got a message that she was in Pelargir,” Imrahil explained with a frown. “Lothíriel was not very clear how she had escaped, and of course it’s understandable that she doesn’t want to talk about it. Her husband succeeded to the crown after the old king’s death, but he actually held it only very briefly, less than a year, before he was assassinated on the orders of his own brother.”

A fitting end for the brute. Éomer only regretted that this had robbed him of the opportunity to cut down the man on the Pelennor Fields himself.

“After her husband’s death, Lothíriel took her son and fled north, managing to somehow make it to safety by sheer luck. She had help from one of her husband’s retainers.” Imrahil hesitated. “A woman warrior actually. I have to admit she makes my men nervous, but what can I do, Lothíriel insists we owe her Tarcil’s life.”

Éomer gave a curt nod. “I’ve met her.” The woman would make anybody nervous.

“Soon after that the war started and we were called to Minas Tirith,” Imrahil continued. He sighed. “I did not have as much time to devote to my daughter as I wished. She’s found it difficult to settle back in here, to take up her old life.”

Éomer bit down on a sharp reply. The Haradrim had a reputation for cruelty. Her family could hardly expect her to simply forget years of having to endure that. But it was pointless saying so and would only add to his friend’s guilt.

“My aunt Ivriniel convinced her to go and live with her up the coast in Edhellond, for a bit,” Elphir put in. “It’s quieter there, and we thought female company would be good for her.”

“Did it work?”

 “No,” Amrothos snapped. “Nothing works. She just won’t talk, won’t tell us what that fiend of a husband did to her.”

“Peace, Amrothos,” Imrahil intervened. “Lothíriel and him are twins, they used to be very close,” he explained to Éomer. “But her time amongst the Haradrim has changed her.” He made a helpless gesture. “At times I feel like I do not know her anymore. I understand that she will not talk disparagingly of her husband in front of Tarcil. After all it would be cruel to shatter the boy’s rather idealistic image of his father. But also when it’s just the two of us, she doesn’t open up. Why, at first she even used to defend the man.”

“And she refuses to take off that golden torc the man yoked her with,” Amrothos said.

Grim silence descended.

“What is the favour you want from me?” Éomer asked abruptly. Did they want Rohan’s assistance in a war against Harad? That he would give with pleasure. Let those beasts learn to fear the thunder of the cavalry of the Mark.

“We would like you to offer her your protection in Edoras for a while,” Imrahil answered.

“What? Why do you want that?”

“The whole situation is highly problematic,” Imrahil said. “You see, with his father’s death Tarcil has become the rightful King of Harad, and Lothíriel of course would be the Queen Dowager.”

Éomer lifted an eyebrow. “Surely those are empty titles?”

Elphir took a sip of his wine. “Not so empty. Technically my sister outranks every other lady in Gondor except for Queen Arwen. It’s rather awkward.”

Éomer wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. They worried about that kind of thing? “That’s why you want me to take her away?” He was tempted to carry her off that very moment.

Imrahil frowned at his eldest son. “Of course not. Anyway, Lothíriel has no wish to join the court at Minas Tirith. But the fact remains that when he comes of age, Tarcil will by right be the absolute ruler of Harad.”

Amrothos sighed. “She’s been worrying that the Haradrim might suddenly take an interest in him again.”

An interest presumably meaning an attempt to kidnap or get rid of the boy. “Does she have any grounds for worry?”

Imrahil shrugged. “We still occasionally trade with them, and there have been reports of a new ruler there. However, personally I feel that she’s overreacting. Not surprising, really, after the ordeal she’s been through.” He rubbed his eyes, suddenly looking old and tired. “I was hoping it might ease her mind to be in different surroundings, a place that holds no painful memories of happier times. Somewhere she can forget everything and become her old self again.”

It seemed a futile hope to Éomer. Some things, once broken, could not be made whole again, only mended as best as possible. But for friendship’s sake, he was willing to help in any way he could.

He opened his mouth to say as much when there came a knock on the door to the library.

A moment later Lady Lothíriel entered. Her cool grey eyes took them all in. Éomer wondered if he looked as guilty as the others at being caught discussing her.

“Deciding my future, Father?” she asked in a mild voice and swept across the room to the table to pour herself a glass of wine. Again, hung in the air.

“Of course not, dearest,” Imrahil stuttered. “I was just setting out the situation.”

Her mouth tightened. “I see.”

Éomer belatedly remembered his manners and jumped up to offer her his chair. However, she shook her head.

“My lord,” she said, “as I mentioned earlier on, I meant to talk to you. But it seems my family has forestalled me.”

“Only to spare you painful explanations,” Imrahil interjected.

Éomer had never seen his friend so rattled before. At another time it might have been amusing, but he could fully sympathise. She really had the manner of a queen, holding herself straight as a drawn blade.

He cleared his throat, determined to prove that he could lead a rational conversation with her and not sound like a simpleton. “My lady, your father was saying that you wished to visit Rohan for a while?”

The look she turned upon him was a lot more friendly than that she had bestowed upon her family. “Yes, that is so, my lord king. You would oblige me very much if you extended your hospitality to Tarcil and me. But I assure you that otherwise you need not concern yourself with us at all, I just want to…” She hesitated. “…to get away from this coast and its traders.”

“You are worried about your boy?”

“Yes. Some people might call me fanciful.” She shot a look at her father and brothers. “But my aunt is no fool and she keeps her ears open. She says there have been questions asked in the harbour, both here and up the coast in Edhellond, where we live. That’s why I believe it would be best for us to disappear from sight for a while.”

Éomer made up his mind. “My lady, you’re welcome to stay in the Mark for as long as you wish.”

That earned him a warm smile. “You’re very kind. When would it be convenient for me to come?”

“Any time,” he answered reflexively. Why, for that smile he would have set out with her that very moment.

She blinked. “Oh. In that case, if you don’t mind, I will join you when you return to Rohan at the end of the week.”

He was surprised, but gave a polite bow. “If you wish so, of course.”

“So soon?” Imrahil asked, startled. “Dearest, I thought that perhaps Amrothos could take you there later in the year. Remember, it will still be chilly in the mountains and also you have to pack your things.”

“I can extend my stay here a few days if you need more time to get ready,” Éomer offered.

 “Not at all,” she answered. “And in fact I would appreciate your and your men’s company on the journey.” She looked towards Amrothos and they seemed to understand each other without any words exchanged.

Her brother inclined his head. “I’ll sail you to Edhellond on the morning tide.”

“Good.” She nodded decisively and turned to her father. “May I leave Tarcil here while I go and collect our things? You’ll keep an eye on him?”

“Of course, dearest, but–”

“That’s settled then.” She swept Éomer a deep curtsy. “Thank you very much, my lord king. I assure you, we will be no burden to you. All I want is to live quietly; we will not disturb you in the least.”

He wasn’t so sure about the last, she had disturbed him plenty already. But he gave another bow. “You could never be a burden, my lady.”

Another dazzling smile, this time even spilling over onto her family, and she left. Éomer slowly released his breath, feeling a bit stunned. He sincerely hoped that the effect she had on him would fade with time and exposure.

Silence descended, only broken by a soft crackle from the brazier.

Erchirion, who had said nothing all this time and just stood leaning against a bookcase, looking indifferent and aloof, suddenly smashed his fist against the wall. They all jumped.

“Six years,” he ground out. “Six years she bought us. Three more than Denethor had reckoned on.”

 

Chapter 2

Lady Lothíriel proved true to her word. On the day set for their departure, she awaited them in the courtyard at dawn, all ready and with a yawning Tarcil sitting before her on her horse. Éomer was surprised to see that her tent and all her belongings fitted on only two pack horses. She brought no servants along either, except for the Haradric woman warrior, who stood by her own horse, watching their preparations closely.

They had another addition to their party however, a grumpy Amrothos. He had been ordered by Imrahil to escort his sister to Rohan, though neither of the siblings thought this necessary.

Éomer had seen nothing more of the princess during his time in Dol Amroth and was glad to find, when exchanging a few polite words with her, that he could do so perfectly easily. The unsettling influence she’d had on him seemed to have worn off. But even so he decided to keep his distance.

Though he had enjoyed his stay with Imrahil, he was looking forward to going home again, for he had been away for nearly two months, first visiting Aragorn in Minas Tirith, then Éowyn and Faramir in Emyn Arnen. On the way back home they would pass under the mountains, the quickest route now that the dead had been laid to rest by Aragorn. His couriers already used it regularly, and he had plans to improve the road and promote it as a trade route.

Lady Lothíriel was saying her good-byes to her family, who had come to see them off. Imrahil wore a pinched look of worry, though he valiantly tried to suppress it, while Elphir was grave and Erchirion impassive as always.

Éomer clasped his friend’s arm. “She’ll be fine. I’ll look after her.”

Imrahil forced a smile. “My thanks.”

Amongst many good wishes they rode out the castle gate, the jingle of their tack and clop of the horses’ hooves echoing back from the stone. Winter had made a return, and fog enveloped them like a grey, damp blanket as they made their way across the salt marshes bordering the coast.

Dol Amroth was situated on a peninsula, so at first they followed the shore of the Bay of Cobas Haven in a semicircle towards the north. Lady Lothíriel had wrapped a big, shapeless cloak around herself and Tarcil, drawing up the hood. They passed a few fishing villages where Amrothos was greeted by name, but Éomer doubted that anybody recognised her.

Towards noon, the wind suddenly picked up, blowing away the mist in large swathes like torn banners, and a weak sun broke through. They were going at an easy trot, but he noticed her slowing her horse and turning in the saddle to look across the bay. Following her eyes, he saw far behind them the castle of Dol Amroth emerging on its rocky outcrop as if floating above the waves. It was a brave sight. Éomer had the feeling he had seen it before somewhere – of course, the picture in Imrahil’s library. Lady Lothíriel looked at it for a long moment, but then resolutely turned away and urged her horse forward to catch up with her brother.

After that the road turned inland along the foot of the hills of Tarnost. The trees clothing them, mostly beech and chestnut, were still bare, but at their feet snowdrops and wood anemones were putting forth fresh green leaves. When they stopped for their midday meal in a sheltered spot, it was warm enough to dispense with their cloaks and sit on the ground.

Imrahil’s kitchen had provided them generously with fresh bread, cheese and meats, enough to last them to the next major town, so they ate well. Éomer also welcomed the opportunity to stretch his legs. Catching sight of Lady Lothíriel dismounting, he frowned. She was an excellent rider, obviously schooled from childhood and sensibly dressed in leggings and a riding skirt split down the middle, but she moved stiffly, as if she ached. Holding on to the boy the whole time had to be a bit of a strain too.

Tarcil scampered off to explore the banks of a small stream, closely supervised by the watchful woman warrior, Khuri. His mother strolled after them more slowly and leant against a tree to watch them and have her meal. When Éomer joined her, she looked up in surprise, but gave a polite smile. She had thrown back the hood of her cloak, and the torc at her throat gleamed golden in the sunshine.

“How are you doing?” Éomer asked. “Are we going too fast? Please do not hesitate to tell me if you need more breaks.”

“You are kind, my lord,” she answered. “I used to ride a lot, but I admit I’m a bit out of practice. My aunt is elderly and does not enjoy horses, so since moving to Edhellond I’ve led rather a restricted life. But do not worry, I’m sure I’ll manage. After all it’s not a very long journey.”

Éomer could not help feeling uneasy at her words. Did she realise what she had let herself in for? “It is quite a way, I’m afraid,” he said. “But perhaps we can stop over for a break somewhere for a couple of days, for you to recover.” His heart sank at the thought of more delay though.

Lady Lothíriel frowned. “But I thought it only takes a week or so to get to Rohan? Surely it can’t be much more than that?”

Éomer blinked in surprise. She considered that a short journey? Suddenly he realised that she had travelled much farther than him. How long did it take to reach the City of Serpents? Hard travelling as well, he would have thought.

“A week will see us to the entrance of the Paths of the Dead,” he answered. “And from there it’s only one more day to Edoras.”

“Ah, that’s fine then.” Amrothos had come up on her other side, and she smiled her thanks at him when he handed her a wineskin.

A shriek of laughter made them look towards the creek, where Tarcil was launching a boat made from a piece of bark. Khuri only just saved him from falling in the water.

Reminded of exploring the hills behind Aldburg as a boy, Éomer chuckled. “Éothain and I used to do the same. In our imagination every stream turned into the mighty Anduin and every cave had a dragon dwelling in it.”

Lady Lothíriel’s smile grew warmer, as if she considered him for himself for the first time, instead of just being polite to a friend of her father’s. She had beautiful grey eyes, he noticed. “With us it was pretending to be pirates from Umbar.”

Amrothos grinned reminiscently. “Remember that time we sank Elphir’s boat? He was absolutely furious, since he was supposed to be Thorongil raiding Umbar.”

The princess’s smile faded. “Strange to think that a few years later I’d actually see the place in person.”

An awkward silence fell.

“How old is Tarcil?” Éomer broke it, searching for something to say.

“Six years old.”

“He’ll need a pony of his own then, once we’re in Edoras,” Éomer said. “I’ll get him one.”

“Indeed, my lord, you don’t need to put yourself to any trouble,” Lady Lothíriel protested.

“You’re my guest,” he pointed out. “Besides, it’s no trouble. I’m a king of horse lords; the royal stables hold a large selection of mounts.” He considered her own horse, which was being watered by his squire Beortulf. A bit elderly, placid and reliable, it was a good choice for a long journey, but lacked fire. She deserved better really. “I could also sort you out with a new horse,” he mused. “Something a bit more lively and fun.”

She followed his glance. “I borrowed Mellon from my aunt, but I intend to send him back with Amrothos.”

Her brother groaned. “Really, Lothíriel, why didn’t you get a proper horse from Father, one you could keep?”

“I didn’t think I’d need one.”

“In that case feel free to use a horse from the royal stables,” Éomer put in. “I’m sure you’ll find one to suit you.”

“You’re very kind, King Éomer, but that won’t be necessary,” Lady Lothíriel replied. He got the feeling she did not want to be beholden to him more than necessary. “If needed, I suppose I could buy one. You see, I lost my favourite horse a couple of years ago and have been reluctant to replace her.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Éomer exclaimed. He had felt the same when losing Swiftleg, his first warhorse, but as a warrior had needed a replacement at once. “Was it an accident?” he asked impulsively. “That’s always hard.”

“I had to sell her.”

“Sell her?”

She must have heard the astonishment in his voice. “I took her along to Harad and kept her on my husband’s summer estates, because that was the only place where I could ride her,” she explained, then hesitated. “When we had to flee, Celebrin got us across the River Harnen – we had to swim – but she was too fine, too eye-catching a horse, and we still had to cross the whole of Harondor to reach safety.” Lady Lothíriel looked away. “So I told Khuri to sell her.”

“I’m sorry,” Éomer said quietly, and he meant not just for the pain of having to sell her beloved horse. If only he could make it all undone. She’d had to flee Harad and swim a river? What else had she gone through?

“They’re good to horses in Harad,” she replied. “Hopefully Celebrin found a kind master.” It sounded like something she had been telling herself repeatedly.

“I’m sure she has,” he replied, hoping the Haradrim treated their horses better than they treated their women.

Lady Lothíriel sighed, as if she could read his thoughts. “I had no choice. To keep Tarcil safe I would have done anything… even sold myself if necessary.”

Amrothos choked on a gulp from his wineskin. “Lothíriel!” he spluttered. Éomer was glad he hadn’t been drinking anything or he would likely have done the same.

“Don’t worry, Brother. It didn’t come to that.”

“You shouldn’t say things like that. What will the King of Rohan think of you? And Father would throw a fit if he heard you.”

She shrugged. Éomer got the distinct impression she didn’t care a fig what he thought of her. “But he won’t hear, will he. Anyway, I’m a dowager now, like Ivriniel. I can speak my mind.”

“Our aunt is over seventy. You make yourself sound as if you’re in your dotage,” Amrothos said, disgusted. “What is next, wearing a knitted cap, like she does?”

“Do you think it would suit me?”

“Really, Lothíriel, sometimes there’s no talking to you.” Amrothos stomped away.

Éomer said nothing, knowing better than to interfere in a siblings’ spat.

The princess sighed and apparently felt that some explanation was called for. “He was born a few minutes before me, so he thinks of me as his little sister and feels responsible for me.” Her mouth twisted into a sardonic smile. “And it seems he’s getting staid and respectable in his old age.”

“Amrothos, respectable?” Éomer blurted out, thinking of his friend’s behaviour in Cormallen. “Isn’t that about as likely as a nazgûl taking up flower arranging?”

That surprised a loud, gurgling laughter out of her. It was a lovely sound.

They grinned at each other. “I think he’s annoyed that I outrank him now,” she confided. “And that he can no longer order me about.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed they take titles seriously here in Gondor.”

She nodded. “Titles hold power.” Suddenly she sounded bitter. “Even if they’re completely empty.”

“Is that what you want, power?” he asked, curious.

“Oh no, I’ve seen what the weight of it does to people. Not that I ever had any, mind you.” She frowned, thinking. “Except a little over my household, I suppose. Some of the other women enjoyed that, having the mastery over the lives and deaths of their slaves, those poor wretches. It only made me feel even more powerless.”

She needed to have had considerable influence, he thought suddenly, to buy Gondor all that time. Even if she didn’t realise her own strength. “So what is it you want?” he asked gently.

“Other people not having power over me,” she answered at once. “That’s why my title is so useful. Even Father hesitates to tell a queen dowager what to do.” All at once she stopped and frowned. “You’re easy to talk to.” He wasn’t sure she considered it a good trait. Straightening her shoulders, she took a step away from him. “Shouldn’t we get going again, my lord? I’ll fetch Tarcil.”

He agreed and gave the command to get ready to set out. Yet when she had mounted her horse and held out her arms for Khuri to lift Tarcil up to her, he led his horse over.

“Would you like to ride on Firefoot with me for a while?” he asked the boy. “The last person to do so was the dwarf Gimli, Glóin’s son, one of the Fellowship.”

Tarcil’s eyes lit up. “Really? You’ve met a real dwarf?”

“I’ll tell you all about it,” Éomer promised and tossed him up into the saddle. “Also how he threatened to cut off my head and his companion Legolas wanted to shoot me on our very first meeting. They’re some of my best friends now.”

A snort came from Lady Lothíriel’s direction. “Men,” he heard her mutter to Khuri.

Tarcil however saw nothing strange in his declaration. So while they continued their journey, Éomer told the boy about meeting three strangers on the plains of the Riddermark, the battle of Helm’s Deep and the ride of the Rohirrim.

Not much about the Fields of the Pelennor though, the boy would hardly enjoy hearing about the slaughter of his father’s people. It was a bard’s tale he told anyway, almost that of a stranger. The heartbreak and pain he left out: Háma’s body hacked to pieces by the Uruk-hai, Théodred falling at the Fords of the Isen, finding Éowyn lying cold and lifeless on the Pelennor, so many friends slain.

The boy had a quick intelligence and unslakeable thirst for tales of great doings, wanting to know all the details about the layout of the Hornburg, what Ents looked like and how they had hunted the Uruk-hai to the edge of Fangorn Forest and surrounded them there. But while Tarcil peppered him with questions, his mother rode at their side silent, just casting him a glance every now and again. She probably heard his omissions as if he had shouted them out. Those who had experienced pain recognised it in others.

“When I grow up, I will be a great warrior, too” Tarcil suddenly announced. “Like grandfather and you.”

Lady Lothíriel’s hands clenched on her reins, but she gave no other sign of her thoughts.

“There are many different ways to serve your country,” Éomer told the boy, then suddenly remembered how she had served hers. “Eh…” he hurried on, “for example you could captain a warship or breed horses.”

Tarcil wrinkled his nose, clearly not finding these alternatives particularly exciting. “But you fight,” he pointed out.

“It was that or die,” Éomer answered. “I’m hoping that you however will have a choice. Becoming a warrior is an honourable path, but if you decide to tread it, you must know why.”

“To be the best fighter?” Tarcil said, stating what was the obvious reason to him.

Éomer inclined his head. “That’s what I used to think. I loved the idea of doing deeds of great valour, craved the excitement of measuring myself against others.” And sometimes still did, he admitted to himself. There was nothing so heady as knowing your life depended on the next strike of your blade. “But nowadays I take up arms to defend what I love. It’s the better reason. And it makes you more dangerous.”

“Why dangerous?” Tarcil asked.

“Because you care. I’ve seen lads in their teens take down Uruks twice their size, simply because they were fighting for their family. Never underestimate a desperate opponent.”

The boy looked thoughtful. “I would fight to defend my mother,” he said.

“So would I,” Éomer said, then quickly amended his words. “And all women who are under my care.”

Tarcil threw a dubious glance at Khuri, who rode like a silent shadow at Lady Lothíriel’s side, looking as much in need of protection as a hawk with sharp talons. He opened his mouth to ask another question.

“Tarcil,” his mother interrupted gently but firmly. “That’s enough. You must not impose on the King of Rohan’s time any longer. Ride with me again.”

Éomer protested politely, but in truth he was not altogether loath to pass the boy back. His throat was dry from talking; he had never before realised how much work it was to look after a child. Giving Lady Lothíriel a courteous nod, he rode forward to consult with Éothain, hearing her starting to tell her son a story of Elves.

All that afternoon they cut across fertile meadows towards the River Ringló. The people of these lands lived in scattered villages, looking to the Prince of Dol Amroth for protection, and kept cattle and sheep. And as the haze cleared towards evening, far away on the horizon a line of white peaks floated in the darkening sky. Éomer felt his heart lift.

Tha Hwitan Beorgas,” the men sighed with satisfaction. The White Mountains.

With the sun setting, they started to look for a place to camp. He had considered stopping near one of the villages, so the princess could sleep under a roof. But since the weather looked to remain dry and the wind had dropped, he thought that she would be more comfortable in a tent than staying in a small, smoke-filled house.

Finally they settled on a clearing sheltered by a copse of trees and near a small stream. By now his men had lots of practice in setting up camp; some lit fires, others sorted out tents, the rest watered and picketed the horses. Éomer and Éothain meanwhile arranged the disposition of guards. They might be in friendly territory, but Éomer did not intend to run any risks, not while escorting Lady Lothíriel and her son.

To his surprise they were not the only ones to make a round of the camp. Khuri, the Haradric woman warrior, inspected the set-up personally, checking that there were no gaps between guard posts. She moved with a silent, intense efficiency that put the men on edge – but also made them more alert, Éomer mused.

By the time they had arranged everything to their satisfaction, the mouthwatering smell of meat stew was drifting across the camp. Also a few of his men had brought down game birds and were roasting them over the fire. Éomer sought his tent, which stood in the centre of the clearing, a simple structure of green canvas, quick to erect and just of a size to hold a cot and a light, collapsible table for his maps and papers.

But where was Lady Lothíriel’s tent? He had given orders for it to be set up in a place of safety next to his. To his horrified surprise he spotted her sitting cross-legged at the entrance of a tiny shelter hardly big enough for her and Tarcil to squeeze into.

“You can’t sleep in that,” he exclaimed.

Startled, she looked up at him. “What? Why not?”

“My lady, it’s not suitable to your station.”

Amrothos came over from a nearby campfire. “That’s what I said too. And mine is even smaller.” He sounded annoyed.

“You could have organised your own,” his sister pointed out, unmoved. She smiled at Éomer. “Please do not worry, my lord. I’ve had much worse accommodation. Why, for several weeks I slept by the side of the road or in ditches, so by comparison a tent is a real luxury.”

“You did what?” He had the feeling his eyes popped.

“Really, it sounds worse than it was,” she answered in a soothing voice. “We were lucky and had mostly dry weather.”

What was wrong with Imrahil, hadn’t he taken proper care of his daughter at all? Éomer’s indignation got the better of him. “Are you telling me they dragged you down to Harad and didn’t even look after you properly?”

“It was on the way back,” she answered dryly.

“Oh.” He came to a decision. “Well, I won’t have you sleeping in that. You may have my tent and I’ll share with Éothain.”

“Certainly not,” she protested.

“If my sister doesn’t want it, I’ll take it,” Amrothos put in, only to get glared at by both of them.

“Lady Lothíriel,” Éomer said, “I can’t possibly have a guest of mine staying in such a thing.” He gestured at her tent.

“My lord king, you’re very kind, but there is no way I will impose on you in such a manner.” Suddenly there was a hint of steel in her voice. Amrothos seemed to recognise the note of finality, for he shrugged and turned away.

Éomer locked eyes with the princess. She met him like a blade unsheathed: adamant and unyielding. Pressing her would not move her at all.

Clearly it was time for a change of tactics.

“But you’d do me a favour,” he said. “Please, my lady, just think what my men will think of me else.”

“Nonsense,” she answered, but sounded flustered by this unexpected angle of attack.

“Me in a soft bed and you on the hard ground? I’d never live it down and lose all their respect.”

“Now you’re being absurd.”

“I’ll be forever known as Éomer the feeble,” he said in a plaintive voice. “And it will all be your fault. From the Misty Mountains to the Sea of Rhûn, orcs will laugh at me.”

The corners of her mouth twitched.

“I’ll go down in the annals of the Mark as Éomer the effete, Éomer the faint-hearted, Éomer the lily-livered…”

“Enough,” she laughed and threw up her hands.

“Please, my lady? I grovel at your feet.”

“Oh, very well,” the princess capitulated. “I suppose Amrothos can then have my tent,” she added maliciously.

“Thank you.” He swept her a bow and grinned at her. “I’ll be forever in your debt for saving my reputation. You have no idea how happy you’ve made me.”

She rose to her feet and put her hands on her hips, regarding him thoughtfully. “Tell me, King Éomer, do you always get what you want?”

“Usually,” he answered.

***

The next few days passed in much the same manner. They continued to make for the River Ringló, and once they had crossed it, followed the Ciril up to Calembel, where they hit the road to Erech. In Calembel Éomer would have been welcome to stay with Angbor, Lord of Lamedon, for he had made the man’s acquaintance during the Ring War. However, Lady Lothíriel did not wish to make herself known, so they just passed through. He would not have felt easy to leave her alone at the camp, not when charged with her protection.

As they approached the mountains the country became more hilly, until the wooded slopes and wide, grassy valleys reminded him of the Folde, where he had spent his childhood. And while it grew chilly at night, the weather stayed dry, so they spent the evenings sitting around the campfire and talking or telling stories. It was relaxing not to have to worry about the business of ruling, and Éomer found he enjoyed himself. Almost he could have wished that the journey would take longer.

Lady Lothíriel had become friendly with many of his riders, especially those who had children of their own like Éothain. After the first day they took turns to have Tarcil ride with them and tell him stories. The boy had a quick mind and was eager to learn Rohirric, and it pleased his men to teach him children’s verses and the songs of their homeland.

While it was known that Lady Lothíriel was the daughter of Imrahil, he had not given more details than necessary about the reason why she was coming to stay in the Mark, but he suspected that his men had picked up plenty of gossip in Dol Amroth. Yet whatever the rumours, he made sure everybody treated her with the respect she deserved and did not pry into her private affairs.

In the late afternoon of their sixth day of travelling, they passed Tarlang’s Neck, a gap in a row of hills striking south from the White Mountains. The Blackroot Valley opened up before them, with the hill of Erech brooding in the distance. Éomer was talking to Éothain and Amrothos, idly discussing the merit of the ale at their favourite taverns in Dol Amroth and Edoras respectively, while Lady Lothíriel was riding somewhere to the front of them, as always shadowed by the silent Khuri.

Suddenly out of the corner of his eye he saw the woman tense. Looking up, he found that one of his younger riders had sidled up to Lady Lothíriel close enough for their legs to touch. Unferth had the reputation of being popular with the ladies, though Éomer had never understood what they saw in him, apart from his good looks and dashing manner. The man fought well enough, but would never have the brains to lead an éored.

Urging his horse forward, Éomer saw that Khuri too was closing the distance, intent on cutting the poor fool off. However, that moment Lady Lothíriel without turning round lifted her fingers very slightly, making Khuri back down again. Reluctantly so did Éomer, at least for the moment. Surely Lady Lothíriel could not enjoy that young cockerel’s attention?

He caught a few words of the man’s speech, something about her hair glinting like a raven’s wing and being far too youthful to be a mother. His annoyance grew. Unferth might mistake her natural friendliness for an invitation to make a pass at her. If the man distressed her in any way, he would pay.

Lady Lothíriel meanwhile did not reply at all, she just put her head to one side, as if considering the value of Unferth’s sentiments. Under her cool regard slowly the young rider’s voice petered out into a series of incoherent phrases.

“These are fine words,” she finally said. “And I’m sure many a maiden in Rohan would appreciate them, Unferth. However, I do not play that game anymore.” Her voice was gentle, but it cut through the rider’s cockiness like a honed blade. There was no softness in it, just an iron determination that there was no standing against.

It was almost laughable to see the man’s confidence shrivel. He stuttered an apology and spurred his horse forward, looking like a whipped dog with his tail between his legs. Éomer actually felt sorry for him, though he deserved what he had got.

But when a little later they set up camp in a meadow overlooking the valley, and she strolled off with Tarcil to have a look at the view, he sought her out once he had settled the guard rotation.

He found her sitting in the grass, Tarcil asleep in her lap, with Khuri standing a little apart, keeping watch over them. Éomer sat down next to her, by habit choosing a position where he could keep an eye on the Haradrim woman at the same time. It never paid to disregard a threat.

The princess gave him a distracted smile. “Just look at the colours,” she said. “I wish I could capture them somehow.”

Éomer followed her glance over the valley. Twilight filled it like a clear liquid, turning the woods and pastures to shadows of deep blue and green, while high above them the peaks of the mountains still caught the light of the setting sun, the snow gleaming like gold.

“It’s a beautiful country,” he acknowledged. “Reminds me of the Riddermark.”

“Then I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

A sudden longing for home swept through Éomer. He had been away too long. “It won’t be much longer now. Tomorrow we’ll reach the entrance to the Paths of the Dead and the next day we’ll tackle the passage.” He nodded at the sleeping boy. “Do you want me to carry him back for you?”

However, she declined. “I like holding him,” she said with a smile. “But thank you, my lord.”

“Tell me if you need any assistance…also if anybody should bother you in any way.”

Her eyebrows climbed up. “Oh, you heard me talking to poor Unferth. But really, he’s quite harmless.”

“Even so, next time just let me know and I’ll deal with it.” He would enjoy it too.

However, his words seemed to amuse Lady Lothíriel. She chuckled. “I’m not completely helpless, you know. I just tried to let the lad down gently.”

“Gently?” That had been as crushing a set-down as any he had ever witnessed.

“Well, it’s better than being turned into Shashrani by Khuri. She would have made short work of him.”

“Into what?”

The mirth faded from her face. For a moment her eyes looked into nothing. “Oh, it’s a kind of beef skewer popular in Harad. You cut the meat up small, pound it and then grill it.”

It sounded painful. He looked up to find Khuri regarding him impassively. Perhaps the princess did not need his assistance after all to deal with tiresome admirers.

“Anyway,” Lady Lothíriel added. “Unferth is so young, I didn’t want to be cruel.”

“Young?” Éomer asked back. “As Amrothos would say, you make yourself sound like an old matron. Surely Unferth is about the same age as you.”

“Perhaps. But Unferth still thinks the world lies at his feet, that it cares what happens to him. I know better.” Her voice sank as if she was speaking to herself. “I might be young in years, but I’m old in experience.”

Éomer was silenced. Rage filled him. If only he could call Denethor back to life and then slice him into small pieces. And afterwards do the same thing all over again.

After a moment the princess sighed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t complain really, not when so many people paid with their lives during the war. Compared to them, I’ve been lucky. And I know that you too have lost those dear to you.”

“Nobody has come through the war unscathed,” he agreed. He ached to ease her pain, but found nothing else to say.

“True.” She stroked Tarcil’s hair. “At least I have a wonderful son. And my independence, that’s worth something.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, that useful dowager title. I never thought that there were advantages to being a widow, but I’m my own mistress now. It’s probably difficult to understand for you – I’m sure nobody dares to tell you what to do – but it makes a difference to me.”

He could readily believe that anything was better than being wedded to the King of Harad, but she did not intend to stay a widow forever, did she?

“Surely you will get married again one day?” he exclaimed. “You’re so young.” Lady Lothíriel lifted an eyebrow and he recalled what she had just said about being old in experience. “I mean,” he stuttered, “don’t all women wish for marriage?”

It had certainly been the impression he had got during his stay in Minas Tirith. Even in the Mark the siege of its unmarried king had been intensifying lately.

“I suppose young maidens who do not have any children yet might wish for it,” she answered with a shrug. “But why should I give my freedom away again? Indeed, why should any woman marry when she doesn’t need to?”

Éomer opened his mouth, but nothing came out. The princess looked out over the view again. With the sun’s fire quenched, the mountain tops high above the valley were fading into twilight.

“To have a home?” she answered her own question. “But I can stay with my aunt. And later I might buy a small property near Edhellond to retire to.” He made a strangled sound, but she disregarded him anyway. “For protection from other men?” she added. “But luckily my family provides that.”

The thought of all that loveliness and spirit shut away, slowly withering into old age, closed like a fist around his heart. She should be laughing, dancing, enjoying life. And suddenly he realised that he did not wish her to do so with just any man.

Betrayed by her liege, failed by her family, brutalised by her husband, all of whom should have protected her, she had come out the other side not untouched – but unbent, like a fine blade forged in fire. She was magnificent and beautiful, and he wanted her for his own.

And if he spoke one word of love to her, she would probably call Khuri over and have him skewered. Or do it herself.

He cleared his throat. “To spend her life with a man of her choosing?” he offered his own answer to her question.

“Perhaps.” She brooded for a moment. “But even then it would be like a bird flying back into its cage. I for one won’t make that mistake again.”

Éomer smiled feebly, his mind in an uproar. Since becoming king, he’d had so many young women throw themselves in his way, yet this one obviously cared nothing for his crown. A sinking feeling told him he might have fallen for the only Gondorian lady who had no interest in him at all.

Chapter 3

Having made good time, the next day they stopped early to set up camp where the path to the passage under the mountains branched off from the main road. A bridge spanned the Blackroot River, here no more than a fast running stream, and beyond it the road began to rise in a series of sharp bends. It led up to the ravine that led to the Paths of the Dead, which was so narrow, it looked as if a giant had hewn the mountain with a sword.

By now every man knew his tasks, and the tents went up quickly on a wide field by the side of the road. The women disappeared for a wash, dragging a less than enthusiastic Tarcil along, and with Amrothos as a discreet guard, as usual. Éomer and his men also took the opportunity for a dip in the stream, but kept it brief, as the water was fresh from the mountains and icy. He had a suspicion he needed it though, unlike Lothíriel who managed to look neat and poised even when covered in dust.

Earlier on they had bought a freshly slaughtered pig from a farmer, along with some ale, and now the smell of roasting pork began to waft through the air. A cheerful feeling filled the camp: the men were looking forward to a good meal and even more to returning home the next day. Éothain had a decidedly anticipatory gleam in his eyes.

And himself? He missed the Mark, but Meduseld didn’t really feel like home yet, not after living in Aldburg as Third Marshal for all those years. During the winter he had not spent a lot of time in Edoras either, being too busy travelling around Rohan to get an idea of the damage inflicted by Saruman. And since Éowyn had left to get married in the autumn, Meduseld had seemed even more lonely.

After a habitual round of the camp, noting with approval that Unferth had been assigned latrine digging duty, he went to observe Éothain giving Tarcil a riding lesson. The boy loved horses and showed considerable aptitude. After a few months in the Mark he would probably be as much at home on horseback as a Rohirric child.

Amrothos and Khuri were watching too, but suddenly he noticed Lothíriel was absent. “Where is your sister?” he asked Amrothos.

His friend motioned vaguely in the direction of the mountain behind them. “Up there somewhere.”

Squinting his eyes, Éomer searched the hillside with some alarm. However, he soon spotted her sitting on a ledge overlooking the camp, up several turns of the road, which wound its way to and fro across the slope. Was that quite safe? It looked rather precarious. He decided he had better make sure.

Leaving the others to their devices, he walked up the steep path. As he got closer, he saw that she had a kind of collapsible desk on her lap and was writing in a small book.

However, when he approached she put down her quill, closed the book and leant back against the rock behind her.

“Enjoying the view?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s like that of a bird.”

Turning round, he had to agree. As far as the eye could see, the mountains marched west, while the green valley spread at their feet, watered by little rills that would eventually form the Blackroot River and empty into the Bay of Belfalas.

“The way the meadows rise towards the mountains reminds me of the sea running up against a shore,” Lothíriel mused. “Like a wave at its highest point, just before it recedes.”

Éomer nodded. It was an apt description. “May I sit with you for a moment?” he asked. “I won’t disturb you.” He got out a couple of apples, wrinkled at the end of winter but still sound, which he had pilfered from the kitchen tent. “Look, I’ve even brought gifts to ingratiate myself.”

She laughed and accepted them. “Do join me. But I’m afraid I can offer you nothing but a seat on the hard ground in return.”

With a sigh of contentment he stretched out on the turf beside her. “And the view,” he reminded her. Which was very nice, he thought, observing her through half-closed lids. Still a little damp, her hair fell loose down her back, giving her a delightfully dishevelled look.

“You can’t see it properly,” she protested.

He gave a vague wave of the hand. “I’ll imagine it.”

Sheltered from the wind and with the late afternoon sun warming the rock behind them, their ledge was a pleasant place to be. After a moment Lothíriel took up her quill again, dipped it in the inkwell built into a compartment at the top of her desk and continued writing.

Éomer felt himself relax. He could get used to this: lying in the grass, sunshine on his face, his lady by his side. “Is that a letter to your family?” he asked. “If you wish, I can send a courier south with it.”

“That would not make me very popular with your men, they are looking forward to returning home.”

He shrugged. “I’ll call for volunteers. As Amrothos always claims, Dol Amroth has the prettiest women of Gondor.” And the most difficult to woo, he feared.

Lothíriel chuckled. “My brother would know, he’s made a study of it. But it won’t be necessary, I’m not writing a letter, just working on some small drawings. Scribblings, Amrothos calls them, but it keeps me amused.”

“You draw?” Éomer sat up, intrigued. “May I have a look?”

“No.” For an instant the steel was back. Yet at once she added a more diplomatic refusal. “It would not interest you, my lord.”

It would have, but he had no intention of pushing his luck. “A shame.” He lay back down again. Suddenly he remembered the painting hanging in Imrahil’s library. “The picture of the castle of Dol Amroth in your father’s library, did you draw that?”

Surprised, she looked up. “You noticed? Yes, that’s mine.”

“I liked it.”

She concentrated on her work again. “Of course it’s not a proper oil painting, just a coloured sketch, but I love the view from that point along the beach.”

He thought back to it. “It seemed to me you somehow caught the…well…the way the castle stands there bravely and alone. I don’t know, kind of saying it’s ready to defend its people, but not certain of victory…” His voice petered out. “I’m not expressing myself very clearly.”

She was resting her chin on her hand, considering him. “No, you are.” Suddenly she smiled. “Thank you.”

Not quite sure how his clumsy words had earned her approval, he was nevertheless quite willing to bask in it. Crossing his arms behind his head, he smiled back at her.

Lothíriel dipped her pen in the ink and continued her drawing, casting a quick look out over the view every now and again. She was more relaxed than she had been in Dol Amroth, he thought, not as tightly strung. It was too much to hope that it was his presence that made her feel at ease, but it pleased him nonetheless. She should not have to worry about her and her son’s safety.

After a while she put down the quill, set the desk aside and stretched her arms. Reaching over, she picked up one of the apples Éomer had brought with him and took a bite. “Tell me,” she said, “have you been through the Paths of the Dead before? I’m not in the least worried myself, of course,” she added quickly, “but Tarcil asked me.”

He suppressed a grin at this little bit of bravado. If anything the boy was probably the one member of their party looking forward to the passage under the mountains the most, as it would give him something to boast about to his friend Alphros.

“Once I would not have taken them, even if all the hosts of Mordor stood before me,” he said. “But the dead are gone. I couldn’t very well ask my men to ride that way without first making sure that it was safe, so a few months ago I crossed through and back again.”

“All alone?” she asked, surprised.

“Éothain insisted on coming along, and in the end my entire personal guard did as well.” It had been quite an argument in fact.

“That was brave.”

This was more praise than he deserved. “Not really, Aragorn had said it was safe.”

“You trust him so much?”

“We’re brothers,” he said simply.

She nibbled her apple. “It seems to me the land still remembers the dead, but it feels sad rather than menacing.”

“Yes, and now couriers use the passage to reach your father all the time.” He turned onto his side and propped his head on his hand. “In winter it’s safer than the passes across the mountains. They might look peaceful, but the weather up there can change from a balmy spring day to a blizzard in a blink.” He grimaced. “Mind you, I’m not sure the passage will ever be very popular. Many people are still afraid of the dead.”

She turned to look out over the view. “You’re not?”

He thought of the many men and orcs he had killed, most of them faceless – but he preferred it that way. And then he thought of his other dead: father, mother, Théoden, Théodred, so many friends.

“Why should I fear them?” he asked roughly. “I have more family amongst the dead than the living.”

At his harsh tone her head slewed round. Startled, she stared at him.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “That wasn’t a very good joke.” He had not meant to be so blunt, to bare his soul in this way.

And he did not think she was fooled by his words. Her eyes searched his face. “You said that Lord Aragorn was your brother,” she offered hesitantly. “So you do have more family.”

Éomer had not thought of that before. “You’re right.”

And there was Faramir as well, whom he had got to know and like on his visit to Emyn Arnen, another brother in the making. And perhaps, who knew, one day a family of his own? He smiled crookedly. But first he would have to persuade the lady of his choosing not to renounce all men.

That moment a squeal of triumph wafted up to them from below. When they looked down, they saw that Tarcil had progressed to hitting targets with a wooden sword carved for him by one of the men.

“That boy has unlimited energy,” he remarked to Lothíriel. “It takes half an éored just to keep him busy.”

She chuckled. “I know. And he’s all excited about going under the mountain. It’s best if he rides with Khuri, I thought.”

“To make him feel safe? But he hasn’t got a shred of fear in him.”

“I know.” She smiled down at her son, her face full of love. Now if she ever looked at him that way, Éomer thought, he’d just roll over onto his back and surrender. “It’s for Khuri’s sake,” she said. “Tarcil will keep her busy. She’s very nervous about the Paths of the Dead. But don’t let on I’ve told you that.”

“She hides it well behind that impassive face.” He grinned. “It unnerves my men.”

“Oh yes, she unnerved me when I first met her.” The apple finished, she tossed the core away and picked up her desk again. “Khuri used to be my personal guard, around me every day, but it took years for her to open up, let alone to elicit a smile from her. And that was all Tarcil’s doing.”

“And now?”

“We’ve come to respect each other, though we don’t always agree that I can look after myself. But she knows that her first priority is Tarcil’s safety.” Lothíriel hesitated, looking down at her drawing with eyes unseeing. “We would not have made it out of Harad without her, you know. She spoke the language and knew the customs. I just had my useless, elaborate court Haradric that would have given me away in an instant and knew nothing about the lives of the common people.”

“We owe her a great debt then,” Éomer said quietly. What would have happened to her, had she stayed in Harad? He did not even want to contemplate the idea.

“I certainly do,” Lothíriel agreed.

“And she never wanted to return to Harad, to her family?”

“She can’t. Khuri is dead.”

Éomer stared at her. “What?”

“Khuri was one of my husband’s body servants. Only the best fighters are chosen, it’s a great honour for the family, which is richly rewarded. But it means that her life was bound to his. Body servants cannot be released, they die with their master.”

“That must be a great incentive to keep him alive.”

“Yes, that’s the idea,” she agreed dryly.

“So why wasn’t she killed?”

“The others all died with him, but he sent her to bring me the news.” Her voice held no emotion whatsoever. “She could have killed herself then, it would have been the honourable thing to do. But she chose differently, she helped us get back to Gondor. And now her life is forfeit and she is far from home.”

And Lothíriel knew exactly how that felt, for she had experienced the same? Well, he had been unable to help her, but perhaps he could do something about Khuri.

“She could train with my men,” he suggested. “There’s nothing like beating each other up to make friends. I’m sure she’d be up to it.”

Lothíriel snorted. “Oh yes. But she might not want to give away how good she is.”

“But you need to practise to stay in shape. She doesn’t have to show us all her tricks, after all we won’t show her all of ours.”

“It’s an idea,” Lothíriel said. “I’ll suggest it to her. You’re very kind to go to so much trouble for us.”

“Please,” he said, “you’re the daughter of one of my best friends.”

At that she gave him a warm smile. “Almost family then, like Lord Aragorn?”

“Exactly.”

Except his feelings were anything but brotherly. 

***

Next day they struck their camp and began their ascent in predawn light, for it would be a long day, taking many hours to pass under the mountains and make it all the way to Edoras. There were groans and some aching heads amongst those men who had sat up late talking and drinking, but everybody was looking forward to the end of their journey.

A narrow ravine with a stream running through it led to the gate to the Paths of the Dead, the cliffs either side high and sheer. They had to go in single file until they came to the gateway, a high arch leading into darkness, where they lit their torches and then continued riding two abreast. The path was level and smooth, Gimli’s people having mended it where necessary, but even so the going was slow and they had to concentrate on their footing.

All sound of the outside world died away, but the horses’ snorting and clop of their hooves echoed back eerily. One of the riders tried to lift his voice in song, as they liked to do while riding along, but it sounded so ghastly, he quickly fell silent again.

After a while the weight of the mountain began to press down on Éomer, making him long for the open sky. It was difficult to keep track of time as well, but after what he judged to be a few hours, he called a halt to have a quick bite to eat. He passed Firefoot’s reins to his squire Beortulf and walked back amongst his riders, pausing for a word of encouragement every now and again.

They had put the women and Tarcil in the middle of their group, and he found the boy asleep, Khuri holding him in her arms, her face even more impassive than usual.

Lothíriel gave him a tired smile when he stopped to pat Mellon’s neck. She had dismounted to give her horse a rest and was feeding it an apple, but even so it looked to be flagging.

“How are you doing?” Éomer asked. He really needed to get her a better, younger mount.

“I’m fine. It’s just difficult to believe that the sun is shining out there.”

He nodded. The mountain seemed to swallow the memory of light, open sky and wind in your face. “We must be halfway there by now.”

By common consent they did not pause long, but soon pressed on and after more uncounted time finally reached Baldor’s Cavern. Their torches could not light the great empty space, but his men knew it was not much further to the exit, and the mood lifted. He was glad they had removed Baldor’s bones, for that would not have been a pleasant sight for Lothíriel and Tarcil. Brego’s son now lay under a mound on the Firienfeld. Finally after all these years the white flowers of simbelmynë bloomed on his grave.

And at last a light began to grow ahead of them, faint at first, then ever brighter. They passed through the Dark Door, past the sentinel stone and into the Dimholt, a forest of dark fir trees that seemed almost an extension of the Paths of the Dead. Yet finally they emerged onto the Firienfeld and into the late afternoon sun, blinding to eyes used to the darkness for so long.

Éomer took a deep breath of the air, incredibly sweet after the musky smell of the passage under the mountains. Then he lifted his horn to his lips and blew it hard. The sound echoed back from the mountainside around them, celebrating their passage and safe return.

“Éomer Cyning,” the men stationed to guard the entrance to the Dimholt called. “The Lord of the Mark has returned!”

He looked round for Lothíriel, finding her blinking her eyes, taking in the steep rocky slopes behind them, the green field of grass and the row of standing stones dividing it.

Seeking her out, he bowed to her from the saddle. “Welcome to the Riddermark.”

He got a dazzling smile in return. “Thank you. It’s as beautiful as you said. Just look at those colours, they’re so fresh and vibrant. I feel as if I’d been reborn into a new world. I can hardly believe this is still the same day.”

“Yes, and tonight you’ll rest at Edoras. I can even promise hot baths all round. In fact I’m very much looking forward to one myself.”

The corners of her eyes crinkled. “But what will your men think of you? Won’t your reputation suffer?”

He threw back his head and laughed. “I’ll have to risk it. After all I don’t want to be known as Éomer the foul-smelling either.”

“I wouldn’t mind that,” Tarcil, who had woken up a while back, put in. “Baths are boring.”

“Then you should stop jumping in every dirty puddle that presents itself,” his mother pointed out mock-seriously.

Éomer leant forward. “It’s one of those things we men just have to bear bravely,” he told the boy.

After a brief break to water the horses, they got ready to tackle the last leg of the journey. From the Firienfeld a steep switchback road led down into the valley of the Snowbourne. There Déormund, Dúnhere’s son, Lord of Harrowdale, came to greet them and offer his hospitality. They accepted some food gladly, but did not stay to talk for long, for Éomer wanted to get home to Edoras.

Dusk had descended by the time they took the road again; the sky clouded over. And before they had even passed the next village, rain began to fall, a light drizzle at first, but rapidly turning into a chilly and persistent downpour. What a welcome to the Mark. All the time in Gondor it had been dry and now this. He knew it was an irrational feeling, but he could not help worrying that Lothíriel would hate the place.

The horses were tired and stumbling, and the riders felt no better by the time they finally approached Edoras. The barrows were dark shapes either side of the road, but he had sent a messenger ahead, so torches lit the gate and the wall, hissing in the rain. Horn calls greeted their homecoming, and despite the late hour and foul weather many of the townspeople came out to greet him and his men.

While most of the riders peeled off to find their own homes, his small party continued up the path to the courtyard in front of the hall, where grooms from the royal stables ran to take charge of the horses. When Éomer went to lift Tarcil down from where he sat in front of his mother, a big, soggy cloak wrapped around the two of them, he saw that Lothíriel looked exhausted. The boy had been fretful, complaining about the wet and insisting he wanted to ride with his mother.

“Nearly there,” he said, looking up at her. “Think of that bath.”

She snorted and dismounted stiffly. “It’s the only thing that kept me going the last few miles.”

With Éomer carrying the boy and Lothíriel taking Amrothos’s arm, they ascended the steps to the hall. Hailing him, the doorwardens threw the doors open. Meduseld stretched before them, sparely lit by the long hearth in the middle.

As they walked down the hall, despite her tiredness Lothíriel looked around her with interest at the richly carved pillars, the intricate patterns on the floor and the tapestries hanging on the walls. He wondered what she made of it. Did she compare it to her father’s castle by the sea? Or even Harad’s royal palace?

On the dais at the other end of the hall stood the king’s chair – his now, though sometimes he still half expected to find his uncle sitting in it. Beyond that a door flanked by two guards led into the private quarters. There Weynild, Meduseld’s housekeeper, awaited them. Her grey hair caught up in a severe bun, back ramrod straight, clothes spotless, she made them all look even more bedraggled by contrast.

“Welcome home, Éomer King,” she said, bobbing a curtsy.

“Thank you.” He turned to Lothíriel. “This is Weynild, who looks after us all.”

The princess smiled politely and got another curtsy and a sharp, appraising look, though quickly hidden. Éomer had sent a courier ahead with instructions while still in Dol Amroth, but suddenly he wondered what rumours might have got started. He frowned and hurried through the rest of the introductions, resolving to have a word with the woman later.

Weynild led them down the corridor and pushed open one of the doors. “I’ve made the Queen’s Rooms ready for Lady Lothíriel, as instructed.”

“The Queen’s Rooms?” Lothíriel asked, faltering. “Please, my lord, I would not want to impose on you. You do me great honour, but a modest guest room somewhere is all I require.”

“It’s the most convenient,” Éomer replied. “There’s a connecting door to Tarcil’s room next-door, which used to be the nursery. And it has its own bathroom.”

When she still hesitated, he explained further. “It’s also the most secure. There’s only a single entrance to the royal quarters, guarded all the time as you saw, and more men are within call. Also my own rooms are adjoining if anything should happen.”

That had actually been his original thought when he had arranged matters, but he might not have set it out in his letter quite clearly enough, to judge by the interested way that Weynild followed their conversation.

“Oh,” Lothíriel said, then gave a decisive nod. “Yes, that would be good. Thank you so much, my lord.”

Khuri, who had already inspected the corridor, went inside first and checked the windows, nodding approval when she saw they were more than a man’s height above the ground on this side of the hall, with guards patrolling outside. The room itself looked warm and inviting. A fire burnt in the hearth, on a table a plate of food and a jug of wine stood ready and new tapestries graced the walls. Weynild had done wonders, Éomer thought, for the room had stood empty for many years, ever since Queen Elfhild’s death.

“This used to be the queen’s solar,” she told Lothíriel, “but we’ve installed a bed and freshened up both rooms. And by now the bathwater should be ready.”

The princess gave her a warm smile. “It’s lovely. You have no idea how much I’m looking forward to a bath. Thank you so much, it must have been a lot of work getting the rooms ready on such short notice.”

Weynild unbent visibly. “Not at all, it’s a pleasure. I will leave you to it now.” She turned to Éomer. “Your bath is ready too, Éomer King. And I’ve had the guest chamber down the hall prepared for Prince Amrothos.”

With another curtsy she withdrew. The woman’s efficiency had something oppressive at times. Éomer fully understood why not even Wormtongue had dared interfere with her ordering of the household.

A revived Tarcil wriggled out of his arms and went to investigate first the food and then his rooms, followed by Khuri. Amrothos meanwhile had a look around and tried the connecting door to the King’s Rooms, only to find it locked.

“That leads into my quarters,” Éomer said.

“What?” Amrothos sounded startled.

“As Weynild explained, these are the rooms traditionally belonging to the queen. But we’ll just keep the door locked, with the key on this side.”

Amrothos frowned. “I’m not sure my father would approve. People might think…”

Lothíriel, who had just poured herself a glass of wine, lifted an eyebrow. “Really, Brother, you are getting more like Elphir every day. Do you suspect me of wanting to hop into the King of Rohan’s bed?”

“No, of course not, but–”

“Good, because if I wanted to, I could just as easily take the main door.” She turned to Éomer. “Don’t worry, I have no intention of doing so. The only place I want to hop into at the moment is a bath.”

He very nearly assured her reflexively that she was welcome in his bed any time, but settled for a gurgling sound instead.

“See, now you’ve embarrassed the King of Rohan,” Lothíriel said to her brother.

“Sister!” Amrothos protested.

Éomer knew only too well whom Amrothos suspected of wanting to seek a different bed. “I can have a bar fitted,” he offered stiffly.

“Certainly not,” Lothíriel exclaimed. “That would be insulting. In fact I’m perfectly fine with leaving it unlocked, and I don’t need a key.”

Speak of temptation… “No, better keep it the way it is,” he said.

“That’s settled then.” She turned to Amrothos and made a shooing motion. “See, I’m old enough to mind my own business. Now go and find your room, I want my bath.”

Éomer would have withdrawn too, but she stopped him a moment. “My lord, you really are exceedingly kind. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Not at all.”

“I’m afraid I’m not sure how long we have to stay here, but if at any time you need these chambers, you will tell me?” She sounded anxious.

“Please don’t worry about that.”

“But should you want to marry…”

Inwardly Éomer sighed. It did not look as if that would happen anytime soon. “I promise you’ll be the first to know,” he said.

 

Chapter 4

During the next days it was as he had feared, all his time got taken up with matters that had accumulated during his long absence, and as a result he hardly saw Lothíriel at all. Both Erkenbrand and Elfhelm came to visit once they heard of his return. Meanwhile his council had been busy with schemes for rebuilding the villages in the West-mark. Saruman’s orcs had wrought great devastation there and he took a personal interest in making sure everything possible was done to ease his people’s hardship. He also held a grievance day to settle disputes and saw Lothíriel with her brother amongst the attending crowd, but was too busy to talk to her.

For the evening meal, she seemed to consider her place to be amongst the elderly matrons. Meduseld stood open to the families of all current or former riders of the king’s personal éored, and many widows of Théoden’s knights came every day. He saw her talking to Leofrun, whose husband Háma, chief of the doorwardens, had fallen at Helm’s Deep, but also to Éothain’s wife Eanswith. One evening he stopped by to ask how she was settling in, conscious of a great many eyes on them. Not that she seemed to notice anything, smiling at him as serenely as always, answering that she had all she needed.

Well, he didn’t, but still had no idea how to woo this woman who had forsworn the world. And cheerfully so too. Often at night he heard her next-door, talking to Khuri or laughing with Tarcil, while he got ready for his cold, lonely bed. It made him want to gnash his teeth.

He had not forgotten his promises though. So when one day he encountered Khuri in the corridor outside his rooms, he invited her down to the training grounds. The woman gave him an unreadable look in answer.

“If you want to keep your edge, you need to practise with real opponents,” he pointed out to her.

She only gave a curt nod, and he wasn’t sure if she would take him up on his offer, but a few days later she turned up at the training fields outside Edoras, accompanied by Lothíriel and Tarcil. Éomer was in the middle of a bout with Amrothos, but they broke it off to go and greet them.

 The boy was sitting proudly atop his new pony, a sturdy, well-bred animal from the royal herds, but Éomer noticed that Lothíriel was still riding her aunt’s horse Mellon, even though he had encouraged her to borrow one from his stables. He sighed inwardly. She was willing to be beholden to him for her son’s sake, but not for her own. Unless he could persuade her that she was doing him a favour by exercising one of his horses, he would probably never see her suitably mounted.

He would have liked to give her dresses in rich, bright colours and jewellery worthy of her beauty, horses and furs, all the traditional courting gifts of a rider of the Mark, but he knew they would not be welcome. Éomer sighed again. The only thing in his power to give her was time.

When he introduced Khuri to Tunfrith, his master-at-arms, and showed her the protective gear and blunted weapons they practised with, a murmur of ‘scildmaegden’ went up amongst his men. She ignored it and after a quick inspection settled on a pair of short swords that were the most similar to the curved scimitars she wore on her back.

Tunfrith set her up against one of his smaller fighters first. The man regarded her warily as they saluted each other. None of Éomer’s riders took a woman warrior lightly – Éowyn had taught them that.

A wooden fence surrounded the training fields, which was a popular place for the female population of Edoras, as well as fellow warriors, to watch the fights. Lothíriel helped Tarcil sit on one of the bars, then climbed up herself. She gave her brother and Éomer a friendly smile when they joined her.

“Now this should be interesting,” Amrothos said. “I’ve never seen her fight.”

“I have,” Lothíriel said, then suddenly pressed her lips together.

During their flight from Harad? Éomer wondered. But her expression forbade any questions.

The two opponents began to circle each other, then the rider tried a feint, smoothly blocked by Khuri, followed by a few more tentative exchanges. Using twin blades was not a technique usually seen in the Mark. Éomer was curious to observe how she handled them.

He himself preferred the long sword, as it gave him more reach from horseback. And even on foot, when wielded double-handed by a man of his size and strength, it had devastating power. As he had proved more than once on the battlefield.

However, he could see what advantages the use of double swords conferred on Khuri. They were like extensions of herself. Equally dexterous with either hand, she used one blade to block while attacking with the other one, much like some men used sword and dagger. And she was playing with his rider, he suddenly realised, and could have ended it several times already. Why, she wasn’t even breathing hard.

Amrothos had come to the same conclusion. “She’s holding back.”

Éomer frowned. That was a dangerous habit to get into, one that could get you killed.

Khuri was not wearing armour, so he slipped out of his hauberk and gave it into his squire Beortulf’s care, leaving only the padded jacket underneath for protection. Putting on his horsetail helmet and hefting his practise sword, he stepped into the sparring circle marked out on the ground with sawdust and motioned his rider to back away.

Khuri’s eyes behind the slits of her visor widened. Éomer stepped to the right and she mirrored him, on her guard.

“You’re not fighting all out,” he said.

She inclined her head in cautious agreement.

“But you need to, or you won’t be ready when it really counts.” And he attacked.

She countered the blow, but just barely, catching it on one of her swords and sliding it away. At once she spun round to attack with the other, but Éomer had expected it and was ready. Khuri had to jump back sharply to avoid his blade. Éomer gave her no chance to recover, but drove her before him with the kind of powerful strokes that on a battlefield maimed or killed the enemy.

 She was quick though. And she began to fight him in earnest. Good, he thought, only to have to jump back himself at a fiendishly fast counter. The fight was even now, her quickness and dexterity against his superior strength and reach, both of them breathing hard.

Strike, block, strike again, try to find a way through the barrier of shining steel she put up with her twin swords while not having his own blade caught. Attack high, attack low, build up a rhythm, break it deliberately. But she was ready for it all and quick as a striking snake to take any opportunity to counter-attack.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw that they had attracted quite an audience, but he had no time to concentrate on anything but his opponent. Was she slowing down? He thought so, but when he tried to take advantage of it, only an extremely unorthodox move saved him from being skewered. His admiration rose another notch.

“Cleverly done,” he panted.

Khuri just smiled grimly.

However, he could tell that having to counter his constant blows was beginning to tire her out. She had already held out longer than most of his men could have managed.

Suddenly he saw his chance. Her response to his strikes lagged just a little, not much, but it was enough. He let her parry with her right hand sword, then, while she was moving her other blade round to attack, swept his own sword up and caught her on the wrong foot.

She jumped back and he followed – he could be fast too – and closed the distance between them. Letting go of his grip with his left hand, he clipped her under the chin hard.

Khuri tripped and went down, dropping her blades, to lie stunned on the ground. But only a moment, then she reached for something up her sleeve.

However, Éomer already had the tip of his sword at her throat. “Don’t.”

She relaxed and let her arms sink down again. Slowly he withdrew his blade, then held out a hand to help her up. “That was well fought, Khuri.”

After a brief hesitation she accepted it. Standing up, she rubbed her jaw; Éomer thought guiltily that she would have a bruise the next day.

“You have to be careful not to let anybody get close to you,” he told her. “A strike like that with an armoured gauntlet can break bones.” He knew, for he had done it before. “The best way to counter it is to duck and sweep at your opponent’s groin.”

He motioned one of his riders over and demonstrated the move. “No man wants to be hit there, it’s instinctive.” In fact that particular counter had been one of Éowyn’s favourite ones. She had not hesitated to use it against her own brother either.

“Why are you showing me?” Khuri asked.

While he had heard her speak to Lothíriel before, this was the first time she addressed him directly. However, he pretended it was nothing unusual.

“So next time you won’t be taken by surprise and know how to counter.” He fixed her with his eyes. “You protect Tarcil and Lothíriel, stand between them and harm’s way. I want you to be the best and deadliest that is possible.”

She measured him carefully before giving a small nod.

“Will you train with us again?” he asked.

Another curt nod.

“Good. I’m looking forward to it.”

She bared her teeth in a smile. “I am too.”

He suddenly wondered what he had let himself and his men in for. But he still had a few more tricks up his sleeve. “Sorry about the jaw,” he added impulsively.

Khuri grimaced. “I’ve had worse.”

“By the way, how many knives have you got hidden on your person?”

Her eyes grew hooded. “I don’t understand.”

“I think you do. But remember, knives are no use unless you can reach them quickly.”

Leaving the training ring, he took off his helmet and handed it to Beortulf.

“An interesting bout indeed,” Amrothos commented.

Tarcil, sitting on top of the fence next to his mother, regarded him with big eyes. “You hit Khuri.”

“I didn’t strike her hard,” Éomer protested.

“Mummy says no real man hits a woman.”

“No, of course not,” Éomer agreed, flustered. Then suddenly he felt as if he had been punched himself. No real man? Had that brute of a husband beaten her? But why should that surprise him, the man had no doubt done much worse to her. It was a miracle she had come through with her mind and spirit intact.

He took a deep breath. “Your mother is right, Tarcil. However, Khuri is what we call a shieldmaiden. She fights. This means that she has to learn to defend herself against such an attack. Next time she will know how to block that particular move.”

This seemed to be a bit too complicated for a six year old. “So it’s all right to hit a shieldmaiden?” the boy asked after a moment’s consideration.

Éomer thought of his sister. “If you’re willing to take the return blow.”

“Oh.”

While he took off his padded jacket, he noticed with satisfaction that on the training field the man who had first fought Khuri offered her a cup of water. And another of his riders asked her to demonstrate how she used her two swords to block a particular type of attack.

“It seems you were right,” Lothíriel said to him. “There’s nothing like beating each other up to make friends.” Her eyes flicked over him, and he became aware of the fact that his shirt stuck to him and he probably smelt of sweat and man. “But I have to admit I did not expect you to do the beating up,” she added lightly.

“You know I would never hurt a woman, don’t you,” he exclaimed. “Never!” He realised that he had just done so. “I mean outside the practice ring–”

“Of course I know.” She regarded him with surprise at his vehemence. “I did not mean to impugn your honour, my lord. And I’ll explain to Tarcil the difference between a strike in anger and a training bout.” A frown creased her brow. “It’s just a rule I wanted to make very clear: being stronger does not give you the right to use that strength against those weaker than you. I’ve seen too much of such casual violence in Harad, from master to slave, but even between husband and wife.” She sighed. “Some of those poor women…”

Those poor women? “Not you then?” he blurted out in his relief.

“What?” Her eyes blazed with sudden fire. “Certainly not. How dare you! Arantar would never have lifted his hand against me.” She jumped off the stile and stalked off.

“It’s useless,” Amrothos said next to him. “I don’t know what that man did to her, but she won’t hear a word said against him.” He shrugged. “We’ve found it’s better not to touch on the subject.”

Éomer watched Lothíriel busy herself with her horse, patting Mellon’s neck, then leaning against him as if for comfort. She looked so forlorn, all he wanted to do was to gather her up in his arms and make her forget the past.

Finding herself completely at her husband’s mercy, it had probably been a matter of pure survival for her to efface all her personality and turn herself into the obedient, biddable wife he wanted. Deep inside she still had to learn that she was free now.

And yet, he suddenly thought. This was the woman who had bought Gondor six years of desperately needed time. That was not the work of a downtrodden wife, that took power of a special sort.

He frowned.

***

The next few days he again saw very little of Lothíriel. One thing he was determined to do though: to see her properly mounted. So on a morning when the Mark showed herself in the best light, bright with sunshine, he sought her out. He found her in the gardens that covered part of the southern slope of Meduseld’s hill. Designed by his grandmother Morwen of Lossarnach, they held many useful plants for both kitchen and infirmary, but also had sheltered corners to sit and enjoy the view.

Following the sound of children laughing, he discovered her sitting on a bench with her little desk on her lap, drawing in her book. Tarcil was playing hide-and-seek with some of the children of Edoras, amongst them Éothain’s twins and Háma’s daughter, who were about the same age.

When they spotted Éomer, they swarmed him, demanding that he pretend to be a warg. He had done so once when invited round Éothain’s. Ever since it had become their favourite game, though Eanswith, Éothain’s wife, had threatened to forbid him from visiting around bedtime.

Pestered mercilessly, he did indulge the children by chasing them up and down the hill a couple of times amongst much squealing and shrieking, but then sank down on the bench by Lothíriel’s side, out of breath from laughing.

She grinned at him. “That was a terrifying sight. I nearly ran away in fright myself.”

“Please don’t,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m up to any more exertion.” Although privately he thought he would not mind chasing and catching her at all.

Her beautiful grey eyes sparkled with mirth, and her hair fell in a rich, shining curtain down her back. Also, though still dressed in sombre colours, she had wrapped a lacy blue scarf around her shoulders, providing a splash of colour.

Their corner of the garden was sheltered from the breeze and warmed by the spring sun, with early flowers attracting the first intrepid bees and the scent of herbs filling the air. He indicated the sketch book on her lap. “Have you been drawing?”

“Yes, indeed. The view from here is lovely.”

He remembered the formal gardens of Dol Amroth with their rows of carefully trimmed box hedges. “I’m afraid it’s only a small, simple garden, compared to what you’re used to.”

“Not at all. I love how it’s so open, that you can watch the mountains change with the weather, and the birds are free to come and go as they please. As you said, Rohan is a beautiful country.”

He beamed at her. “Oh yes. Now that spring has truly arrived, the meadows will soon be covered in wild flowers. And then in the summer I’ll take you to the Eastemnet, where the grass ripples in the breeze like waves on the sea, with the blue sky enormous above it.” He smiled at the mental picture of them racing across the plains. “As for autumn, that’s both beautiful and exhilarating with the woods turning to gold and storms sweeping across the land. But I love winter too, the land dormant under the snow. When it gets really cold, we can ride to Aldburg and I’ll show you the waterfalls in the mountains turned to sculptures of ice.”

She gave him a warm smile. “I’d love to see them, only by then I might not be here anymore. I’m not sure when it will be safe for me to return to my father’s.”

He looked down, his pleasing picture of the future fading. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry I got carried away.”

“Not at all. You love your country very much, don’t you.”

“Yes,” he said simply. “I would do anything for the Mark.”

“I think Rohan is lucky to have you for its king.”

“I’m only doing what every proper king would do for his country,” he answered, though secretly pleased. “To make sure his people can live in peace and prosperity.”

“Yes, but it makes a big difference whether the king serves his country or the country serves its king,” she said, looking out over the view again. “Escaping from Harad taught me that. The lowliest crofter in Gondor or Rohan is a prince in comparison to a Haradric farmer.” She bit her lips and touched her golden torc. “The court there is so opulent, I didn’t realise until I had to hide amongst the common people how desperately poor they are.”

His curiosity had been piqued before by the mention of her flight. Since the topic did not seem to distress her, he chanced a question. “Did you have to flee from your husband’s brother?”

“Yes, Prince Narmacil would have had Tarcil killed too. He was the son of King Hyarmendacil’s second wife, and both he and his younger brother were seduced by Sauron’s promises.” Her brows drew down into an angry frown. “It is fitting he should have paid with his life.”

“Was he the King of the Haradrim slain on the Pelennor Fields?”

“Yes indeed. Your uncle did me a great service.”

“I only wish I could have killed him myself,” Éomer muttered.

“Yes, me too.” She was staring into nothing. “Now I just hope that they’ll leave us alone, even though Tarcil is Harad’s rightful king.”

“Is that what you want for him, to rule Harad?” he asked, curious.

“Not at all,” she exclaimed. “That court is like a snake pit, it destroys a man’s honour and soul. However, it is not for me to decide Tarcil’s future. I won’t let anybody use him, but if one day he wants to fight for his inheritance, I will support him.” She sighed. “I had hoped he might take to seafaring and become a mariner like Amrothos. However, he was terribly seasick on the journey home from Pelargir.”

“He likes horses,” Éomer pointed out.

“Yes, that’s true.” She pondered the idea for a moment. “I suppose my father might find him a place amongst his knights. But anyway, that won’t be for a long time yet.”

Quite obviously she considered herself only a guest passing through, Éomer thought, feeling frustrated. But as the saying went: pulling on grass did not make it grow faster. “Speaking of horses, I wanted to invite you to come on a ride to see the royal herds,” he said, changing the subject. “It would be a good opportunity for you to try out a new mount.”

“You’re very kind, but indeed, that’s not necessary.”

“When Amrothos returns to Dol Amroth, he will take Mellon back to your aunt,” he pointed out. “You’ll need a horse.” In fact her brother planned to leave the next day, heading for Minas Tirith first and then home.

“Yes, but any horse will do,” she assured him. “You need not trouble yourself with me.”

Any horse would not do, not for her, he thought, but kept his opinion to himself. “Please,” he said. “It’s an excellent excuse to get away from my council. If they catch me, I’ll have to spend the rest of the day cooped up in a stuffy room, listening to them drone on endlessly.”

She rested her chin on her hand and studied him. “Poor, helpless King Éomer, at his advisers’ mercy. My heart is bleeding for you.”

“You have no idea of the horrors I endure,” he sighed. “A ride in the open air would be a balm for my tortured soul.”

“In other words, I would be doing you a favour.”

He grinned. “Absolutely.”

“And you would be forever in my debt.”

“I would kiss your feet.” And elsewhere too, if she would let him.

Lothíriel broke into laughter. “That won’t be necessary. A ride sounds lovely, thank you very much, my lord.”

“Won’t you call me Éomer?” he asked impulsively. When she hesitated, he gave her his best smile. “We’re less formal here than in Gondor, as you might have noticed.”

“Your men don’t call you by your first name,” she pointed out dryly.

“My men take orders from me, you don’t. Between a king and a queen, so to speak?” His queen one day, if he had anything to say about it.

“Very well…Éomer.” She chuckled. “No doubt it will scandalise Amrothos. He’s become quite stuffy lately.”

He took her hand and breathed a kiss on it. “Thank you…Lothíriel.”

Startled, she regarded him with a sudden crease between her brows.

Éomer jumped up. “So, shall we make our escape?”

 

Chapter 5

Lothíriel might have agreed to come on an outing with him, but she refused to ride any of the pretty mares that Éomer had added to the royal stables in the hope of tempting her, and instead chose her trusty Mellon. He would have loved to see her on something more high-spirited, but knew better than to push his luck.

They ended up with a whole pack of children along as well. Once Tarcil heard they were going to see horses, he announced he was coming too, which made Éothain’s twin boys pester their father mercilessly. As for Hildwyn, Háma’s daughter, she simply turned up with her pony in tow.

This meant that the children’s mothers decided their presence was needed to keep an eye on things, since apparently two dozen of the king’s best riders could not be trusted to bring their offspring back safely. At least Eanswith left the rest of her brood of children in her mother-in-law’s care. The only one who decided to give their outing a pass was Amrothos, who had the long ride to Minas Tirith ahead of him the next day.

It took a while to sort everybody out, but finally they rode down the cobbled road leading to the gates. The town was busy, for it was a market day. Most of the stalls sold food, clothes or leather wares from the farms around Edoras, but there were some traders from farther afield in the Mark and even a few Gondorians. It pleased him to see signs of prosperity everywhere, houses freshly thatched, gardens planted with orderly rows of vegetables and the people greeting him with confidence and good cheer.

Rohirric children learnt to ride as soon as they could walk. The moment they passed the gates, Hildwyn and Éothain’s boys raced ahead on their ponies, followed by Tarcil grimly determined to keep up. They took the Great West Road with the River Snowbourn on their left, bordered by willows.

On their right, at the bottom of the foothills, stretched the burial grounds of Edoras, encircled by a low, mossy stone wall and shaded by ash and yew trees. A few women were busy amongst the graves and memorial stones set up for those fallen at the Hornburg and in Gondor, raking away dead leaves and lovingly cleaning the stones. Simbelmynë threw thick amongst the grass.

Éomer looked away. This time a year ago he had been in Gondor on the way to the Black Gates, the new king of the Rohirrim and quite possibly also the last.

He had been aware of course of the dates coming one after the other: the battle at the Fords of the Isen where Théodred had fallen, Helm’s Deep, the Fields of the Pelennor. They had not celebrated the anniversaries of any of the battles, their losses were still too raw for that. However, there would be a feast held on the day of Sauron’s downfall. Weynild’s staff was already busy hauling up casks of ale.

“What are you thinking about?” Lothíriel’s soft voice interrupted his brooding.

He realised he had been frowning. “Just how much my life has changed in a year, all unlooked-for.”

 She nodded. “I know. You think that your life is set on a certain course and suddenly it’s all different.”

“I thought I’d serve my cousin as Third Marshal and settle down in Aldburg, like my father before me.” He motioned towards their guard of riders. “Now I’m King of the Mark, Sauron has fallen and Éowyn has moved to far-away Ithilien, none of which I’d ever envisioned.”

She gave him a measuring look. “Do you enjoy being king?”

“I never sought it.” He hesitated. “And yet, it gives me the means of making a difference, of keeping my people safe and shaping a better future for them.” He tried for a lighter tone. “And I like getting my own way.”

“Really?” she quipped, following his lead. “I never would have guessed.” Éothain riding beside him snorted audibly.

Up ahead the children squealed with delight as they splashed through the stream and back again. He noticed Lothíriel looking worried. “They’ll be fine,” he assured her.

Éothain’s wife Eanswith had come riding up on her husband’s other side and leant forward. “There are hardly ever any broken bones.”

These words, spoken in a hearty tone, did not seem to reassure Lothíriel. Khuri, riding ahead of them, turned round and gave her a questioning look, as if to ask if she should interfere, but after a moment’s hesitation the princess shook her head.

Eanswith, a voluble woman, began to regale Lothíriel with an account of some of the antics her children had been up to, making all of them laugh, and even Háma’s widow Leofrun chimed in shyly with a story. His mood lifted. The very ordinariness of going for a ride with friends, talking about nothing in particular and just enjoying the spring sunshine cheered him.

Since the age of eleven, when his father had been slain by orcs, Éomer had dedicated his life to fighting anybody who threatened his family. Even in the dark days of Wormtongue’s rule of Meduseld, when it seemed a losing battle, he had never given up, as much out of stubbornness as anything else. But after years of constant warfare, he needed such moments of peace to remember that killing orcs was not an end in itself and what he was really fighting for.

Sometimes he still found it difficult to believe that they had survived and even triumphed. Watching Lothíriel grin at something Éothain said, he decided that perhaps with the right woman in his life, sharing his laughter and teasing him, it would start to feel real. Unfortunately he still did not know how to make that happen.

The three women suddenly looked up, as if alerted by some common maternal instinct. He realised the quality of the children’s voices had changed and there seemed to be some kind of melee going on amongst them.

“What are those boys up to now?” Éothain sighed and spurred his horse forward.

However, when they caught up with the group, they found that it was Hildwyn and Tarcil who glowered at each other, both of them sporting red marks on their faces.

“Tarcil,” Lothíriel said sharply. “What is this? Have you hit Hildwyn?”

“Yes,” the boy answered. “But I’m allowed to. She’s a shieldmaiden and I took the return blow.” Éomer winced at having his lesson repeated so concisely. “She called me names,” Tarcil added.

Poor Leofrun, thoroughly flustered, turned to her daughter. “Is this true, what did you call the prince? Remember, he’s a guest here.” She was such a gentle creature, it constantly amazed Éomer how she had produced a daughter like Hildwyn.

The girl sniffed. “I called him a sláwyrm, because that is what he is. He can’t expect us to wait for him all the time.”

Éomer translated her words. “Apparently she considers him as slow as a worm.”

“I’m not,” the boy fired up. “And she’s a stupid garrash-akar.”

“Tarcil!” There was a definite note of warning in Lothíriel’s voice, but it shook slightly. Khuri turned her face away as if to hide laughter.

Éomer turned to Hildwyn. “Tarcil is a stranger here, so he doesn’t know the terrain as well as you do,” he said diplomatically. “It would be polite to help him. In his turn, he’s better at other things.”

The girl looked unconvinced. “At what?”

Momentarily stymied, Éomer searched for something to say.

“Riding mûmakil,” Lothíriel put in.

The children’s eyes grew big. “He has ridden one of those beasts?” Hildwyn asked. “Really?”

“Oh yes, and so have I. But only once.”

“Oh!” the girl breathed. Éomer got the feeling Tarcil’s credit had just risen enormously.

Hildwyn considered Tarcil, then held out her hand. “You ride well for foreigner. Friends again?”

The boy took her hand. “Friends. You fight well for a girl,” he added grudgingly.

She laughed. “Race you to that tree up the road, garrash-akar.”

He took off after her, followed by Éothain’s boys. “Sláwyrm yourself!”

Lothíriel exchanged a wry look with Khuri. “My son is picking up some useful Rohirric words by the looks of it.”

“What did he call her?” Éomer asked, curious.

She grinned. “A eunuch.”

“What?” Surely he had misunderstood?

“A man who has been gelded,” she explained. “But Tarcil wouldn’t know what it means.”

When Éomer and Éothain looked at her in instinctive horror, she shrugged. “There were many of them at the Harad court, some very powerful, which made them disliked. Tarcil probably picked it up from my husband’s guards.”

Éomer shook his head. She said it so matter-of-factly. It made him realise anew what a very different world she had inhabited.

With peace restored, or at least a ceasefire established, the women dropped back a little. Eanswith had started to teach Lothíriel some Rohirric and was naming different plants and objects at the farmsteads they were passing. While the princess had a quick mind and good memory, she kept getting the word order wrong, which caused lots of laughter. She also teased Eanswith for making her learn the language of a country where she would only stay a few months, but promised to humour her.

After a while the talk turned to the topic of childbirth, natural enough since Eanswith was pregnant again. But Éomer exchanged a single glance with Éothain and then as one they urged their horses forward. He shuddered. Some things he did not have a strong enough stomach for.

“Lady Lothíriel seems to like it here in the Mark,” Éothain remarked when they slowed their horses down again out of earshot of the women.

“She’s our guest, I’m trying to make her welcome,” Éomer answered guardedly. What was his friend up to?

“A very attractive woman…”

He suddenly wondered what rumours were going round and had the sinking feeling he might find out shortly. “I suppose so.”

“You suppose so?” Éothain chuckled. “Come on, I know that look in your eyes.”

“Nonsense. She’s simply the daughter of a good friend.”

Éothain raised his eyebrows. “But you want Lady Lothíriel to choose a mount for herself. Isn’t that why we’re riding out to see the royal herds?”

To a woman of the Riddermark such a gift would have been as good as a declaration of love, especially when offered her choice of a man’s best horses.

“Amrothos is taking hers back to Dol Amroth, so she needs a horse to ride, that’s all,” Éomer said, hoping to put an end to the conversation. “You’re reading far too much into it.”

However, he had not managed to convince his friend. “Rubbish,” Éothain declared. “You look at her as if she was a tasty morsel and you a starving man.”

“What? I am not.” At least he hoped not. Drat Éothain and his interfering ways.

“Well, perhaps not starving,” Éothain allowed. “But very hungry.” He mulled over his choice of words. “Definitely more than just peckish.”

Éomer held up a hand. “That’s enough. Éothain, I will not have any gossip spread about Lady Lothíriel, is that clear?”

“Well, if there is, it won’t be my fault. But I don’t see what’s the problem. You like her, she likes you…”

Sometimes he envied Éothain his simple view of the world. “If only it were that easy,” he muttered.

Éothain shrugged. “But it is easy: you’re a king and need a wife.”

“I am aware of that fact,” Éomer growled. “My advisers have been telling me for the last year that the House of Eorl needs an heir.”

“Well, there you go. She’s pretty, a princess, you fancy her. Surely that makes her perfect.” Éothain frowned. “She hasn’t refused you, surely? Why, you’re the King of the Mark.” He sounded offended.

“No she hasn’t.”

“Then why–”

“I haven’t asked her.”

Éothain stared at him. “But why not? If you’re not careful somebody else might snatch her up. I’m telling you, when I was courting Eanswith I had to be quick.” He puffed out his chest. “But I pulled it off. What works wonders with women is to–”

“Éothain, my friend,” Éomer interrupted with a shudder. “If I’m ever in the extremely unlikely position of wanting your advice on how to court a woman, I’ll let you know.”

Éothain grinned. “You never had any problems before.”

“And I’m not having any problems now,” Éomer snapped. When Éothain opened his mouth, he decided to pull rank. “Captain,” he said, “this conversation is finished.”

His friend shrugged. “As you please.”

Éomer fixed him with a stern glare. “And I meant it when I said I will not have any gossip.”

“In that case you ought to be more careful with your eyes.”

Éomer noticed that the children had got rather far ahead. “Let’s catch up,” he said and urged Firefoot into a canter.

 

***

During the winter and spring months, the Rohirrim kept their horse herds in the sheltered valleys at the foot of the White Mountains, before heading out onto the green plains of the Eastemnet in early summer. It was a busy time, filled with training the yearlings, followed by the foaling and breeding season.

Éomer took a keen interest in all aspects of managing his herds, though to his regret he could no longer spend as much time on it as he used to. The place he wanted to visit was where they kept some of their most promising horses. Askdale Vale wound its way into the mountains, its sides covered by dark pine forests, with waterfalls frothing down and joining the silvery stream running along the valley floor.

They soon came upon the horse farm, made up of foaling stables surrounded by pastures. Wiglaf, who ran the place together with his wife, came out to greet them. Éomer noticed that many grooms clustered at the stable doors or sat on the railings of the nearby practice ring, watching them curiously. Was there anybody left to mind the horses?

The children at once clamoured to see the newborn foals, and Wiglaf was only too happy to show them round. Inspecting the boxes holding the dams with their foals, Éomer was pleased to see that they held a good crop, though it would take a long time to make up their losses in the war. And it was not only horses they had lost. Wiglaf was new to his task, his predecessor having fallen before the walls of Minas Tirith. However, he was young and full of enthusiasm, determined to know all the pedigrees off by heart.

His Westron was limited though, so Éomer had to translate. He wondered if Lothíriel noticed that the man called her ‘cwén’ several times. Although strictly speaking of course she was a queen, even if not Wiglaf’s.

Yet.

Lothíriel admired the horses, saying all the right things, and with the other women cooed over the newborn foals standing shakily by their dam’s side on long legs. The foaling boxes having been inspected, they moved outside to the paddocks, where the older foals raced each other much like equine versions of Tarcil and the other children.

Éomer’s personal interest was with the yearlings and older horses in training however. He intended to bring a few of the best back with him to Edoras, for the royal stable master to take in hand. Deep in discussion with Wiglaf on the merits of Flamewind, descended from the same sire as Firefoot, he suddenly realised that Lothíriel standing next to him probably did not understand a word.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I did not mean to bore you.”

“Not at all.” She patted the stallion’s neck. “It’s a great honour to be shown the famous steeds of the Rohirrim. Will he be one of yours one day?”

“Possibly. Flamewind is still green, but shows great promise. I intend to take him along to Edoras and start training him for war in earnest.” He unearthed a carrot from his pocket. “Here, this will turn him into your willing slave. He’s a glutton.”

With a grin she held out her hand to the stallion. Flamewind slurped up the carrot in one go, his velvety lips hardly brushing her skin. “You do the training yourself?” she asked.

“As much as possible. There’s no better way to build the necessary trust between horse and rider, to find out what I can ask of him.” He sighed. “I used to school all my horses from yearling to full-grown warhorse, but I just don’t have the time for that anymore.”

She nodded sympathetically. “At what age do you start them?”

“We let the young horses run wild on the plains for two summers first. They should know what it means to be free, what we’re fighting for.”

She gave him a warm smile. “I like that. But doesn’t it make it difficult to get them used to the saddle?”

“We do it slowly.” He grinned reminiscently. “Mind you, Firefoot nearly kicked in my teeth when I first tried to catch him.”

Her eyes danced with laughter. “All your friendships seem to start out in a combative way.”

Puzzled, Éomer stared down at her, then remembered what he had told her about meeting Gimli and Legolas. He chuckled. “Very true, even Aragorn got threatened on our first meeting. Only your father was spared.”

“Oh, nobody would dare to treat him with anything but complete courtesy,” she answered lightly.

Éomer could only agree. “He does have a stern countenance at times.”

“I doubt you’ve ever seen him at his most quelling. Many are the times Amrothos and I got dragged before him for some misdemeanour.” She looked pensive. “Poor father. We must have given him a hard time, with both of us such handfuls. My aunt Ivriniel did her best, but she had her own children to look after. No wonder we ran wild.”

She was so controlled now, it was difficult to imagine her as an unruly child. The wildness had been transformed into a sharp-edged determination, like a blade forged in fire. He admired her for it, yet at the same time he wished her to regain some of that light-hearted freedom. And he had been staring at her too long, he realised, not being careful enough with his eyes.

He tore his gaze away. “You haven’t tried to find a horse for yourself yet, even though that’s why we’re here.”

“No, but like I said, I don’t really need one.”

“Yes you do. You mustn’t contradict a king in his own land, you know.”

Lothíriel smiled, humouring him. “Ah yes, I forgot. You always get your own way.”

“Not nearly often enough.”

She laughed. “You mean when faced with your council?”

Little did she know. But when he offered her his arm, she took it and let him lead her back to the paddock, where Wiglaf had assembled some of the finest horses he had in training. It was a pleasant feeling to have her walking by his side, her hand tucked into the crook of his elbow. He glanced down at her. She had caught up her riding skirts with the other hand to keep them off the muddy ground, and he got a glimpse of long legs clad in leggings.

A curl had escaped the braid falling down her back and involuntarily he imagined teasing those heavy tresses apart and running his fingers through that luxurious, shiny wealth of hair. And elsewhere too. Careful with your eyes, he reminded himself, aware of a stable yard full of his riders. There was already more gossip going around than he cared for.

Yet when they reached the enclosure, he could not resist the temptation. “Allow me,” he said.

And he seized her round the waist and lifted her up onto the railings. Surprised, she rested her hands on his shoulders for a moment. He grinned a challenge up at her.

“I’m quite capable of climbing a fence, you know,” she said mildly, but there was a tinge of red in her cheeks.

Was it too much to hope she was not altogether indifferent to him? She seemed to enjoy his company anyway. Or was she simply too polite to give him the kind of crushing set-down Unferth had suffered? Now that was a lowering thought.

Wiglaf led up the first of the horses, a pretty dapple-grey mare. They had acquired quite a crowd of onlookers, though Éomer wasn’t sure if they came to see the horses or their king. However, at once a lively discussion regarding the mare’s finer points started, her proud carriage, the clean line of her back, the neat way she flicked her hooves while trotting around the ring.

Lothíriel nodded to it all when he translated the comments and admired the mare, but there was none of that instant attraction between rider and mount, that exchange of a piece of your heart. Éomer considered riding a young, spirited horse and getting to know each other one of the great joys in life and wanted her to experience it. But it was the same with all the other horses, none of them called forth a spark, even though he himself had chosen them, thinking they might suit her.

“So which one do you like the best?” he asked when they had inspected the full two dozen.

“Oh, they’re all lovely,” she said. “Really, any one will do.”

He felt like grinding his teeth. Lothíriel must have sensed his frustration, for she regarded him uncertainly. “It’s a difficult choice. Which one do you think the nicest?”

She should be the one to choose. But how could she do that if she refused to open her heart to even a horse.

That moment a loud neigh rang out. Éomer looked a question at Wiglaf.

“It’s that black demon you brought back from Mundburg,” the man said. When Éomer looked blank, he explained further. “Part of the loot from the battle of the Pelennor Fields.”

Another angry neigh sounded. “Excuse me,” Wiglaf said.

Lothíriel jumped down from the fence. “Shall we have a look?” He got the impression she was grateful for the interruption. Had he pressed her too hard?

They followed Wiglaf round the back of the barn, where the breeding pens were situated, though standing empty at the moment. In an adjacent field two grooms clustered around a horse. It had a rope thrown around its neck, but was straining against it. Éomer frowned. Didn’t they know how to handle a nervous horse? But getting closer he saw that they were only a couple of young lads. The loss of so many men in Gondor meant everybody had to pitch in to keep things going.

He recognised the horse now. The stallion had been part of the spoils brought back from Minas Tirith, small, but with a nice conformation and of a deep black colour. Since they had lost so many of their black horses to orc raids, he had thought to breed him to a couple of their mares to see what foals he might produce.

“What’s the matter with him?” he asked.

“He’s wild and dislikes being ridden,” Wiglaf said. “Not vicious, but high strung. We employ him as a teaser stallion.”

Éomer nodded. A teaser stallion was used to test a mare’s reaction, to see if she was ready to breed. He did not translate that last bit to the princess though.

Made nervous by the crowd, the horse backed farther away, and the lads had to let out the rope.

“We picked him up in Gondor,” Éomer said to Lothíriel. “He might actually be Haradric.”

“He could be,” she agreed. “I thought I recognised the breed.” She ducked under the fence.

At once he followed her. “What are you doing?”

“I might be able to talk to him.”

Talk? He felt doubtful that would work, but took the rope from the handlers and waved them back. “Be careful,” he said to Lothíriel, ready to jump forward if necessary. Behind them, the crowd had gone quiet, for they knew not to startle a horse.

“He won’t attack, he’s not a warhorse.”

“How do you know?”

“He’s of a breed used for hunting down in Harad.” Lothíriel began to talk to the stallion in a kind, gentle voice. He couldn’t understand a word, but the horse flicked an ear forward and seemed to calm down. If she ever talked to him in that tone, Éomer thought, he’d yield too. Very slowly she took a step forward, but halted when the stallion jerked back.

“Don’t look at him,” Éomer whispered. “Pretend you’re ignoring him.”

She nodded, all the while continuing to talk to the stallion in that soft, seducing voice. Telling him she was his friend, Éomer guessed, and not to be afraid. The rope in his hand went slack as the horse took a step towards them. Then another one. Taking his advice, Lothíriel paid the stallion no heed.

“Yes, that’s how to do it,” Éomer murmured. “Let him come to you.”

Another step. Still not looking directly at him, Lothíriel held out her hand to the stallion. A pity he had not had the time to give her one of the carrots in his pocket. Moving slowly, Éomer rolled up the rope, still ready to let it out again or jump between the horse and Lothíriel.

All the stallion’s attention was on the princess now. He hesitated briefly, then lowered his head to snort in her hand. Her voice dropped further while the other hand crept up to stroke his neck and scratch him under the poll. The horse relaxed visibly.

“What a beauty he is,” she breathed.

Éomer recognised the tone of her voice: she was smitten. How ironic that he had wanted her to have the best of the Riddermark’s horses, only to have her fall for one from Harad instead.

Doing his best to project being harmless, he slowly approached the pair. The stallion briefly flicked an ear back, but bewitched by her whispering stayed put. Éomer ran a hand across his back, noting the well muscled hindquarters, built for speed. With his gracefully arched neck, the refined head and his liquid eyes, he was indeed a beauty. And those large nostrils longed to drink the wind.

While he was too lightly built to carry a fully armoured knight, he would suit Lothíriel perfectly. But a stallion? They needed a firm hand, could she provide that? Éomer was determined not to have her endanger herself.

“Wiglaf,” he said quietly.

“Yes, lord?” the man answered from where he stood by the fence.

“You say he dislikes being ridden?”

“We gave up after a few tries. There are plenty of other horses we need to train, useful ones that can carry a warrior.” Wiglaf sounded defensive.

“I know how shorthanded you are,” Éomer said. “You’re doing a fine job here.”

“Thank you, lord. We just had no time to spare, I’m afraid.”

Lothíriel had continued patting and stroking the stallion. “Look, Éomer,” she said and pointed out a faded brand on his haunches, a complicated wriggling shape. “The sign of the Serpent’s royal stud.”

“Was he your husband’s?” he exclaimed.

At his voice, the stallion started, but she soothed him at once. “I don’t know, he could equally well have been Prince Narmacil’s. You’ve captured a pure bred Desert Wind horse. Few have ever been seen outside Harad.”

“You say they use them for hunting? He certainly looks fast.”

She nodded. “Yes, he’s built for speed. You need that when hunting with cheetahs.”

“What is a cheetah?”

“Oh, a kind of cat.”

The answer left Éomer puzzled. They used cats for hunting? But she’d have to explain another time. “Wiglaf says he won’t be ridden,” he said, coming back to the problem at hand.

“He would be trained to different aids.” Lothíriel looked up eagerly. “But I’ve ridden Haradric horses. If you get me a saddle–”

“Not so fast,” Éomer interrupted. “You will get him used to you first, groom him, lead him round, spoil him rotten no doubt, and then after a couple of days we’ll start getting him accustomed to a saddle.”

Her eyes flew up to him. “We take him back to Edoras with us?”

“Of course, he’s yours.” When her face lit up, he held up a hand. “But you’ll let me judge if it’s safe for you to ride him. I would never forgive myself if you had an accident.”

“He won’t throw me,” she said with absolute confidence. But then she bit her lip. “However, I can’t possibly accept him. He’s far too valuable.”

“It’s a case of him accepting you, not the other way round.” He remembered the day he had first set eyes on Firefoot and let go of any lingering resentment. The heart had its own rules and could not be commanded. He just wanted her to be happy.

But despite his words, she still hesitated. “I shouldn’t.”

“But you want to.”

“Yes, very much so.”

“Then he’s yours.”

“Thank you,” she said simply and leant against the stallion’s neck. “I wish I could repay you somehow for all your kindness. In any way at all.”

At once Éomer’s unruly mind threw up pictures of how she could do so.

She really shouldn’t say things like that.

Chapter 6

The next day Amrothos left for Gondor, but got off to a late start. Which was not surprising, considering the tankards of ale they had emptied the night before, Éomer thought when they assembled in the courtyard below Meduseld to send him off. The furry feeling in his mouth and an insistent throbbing behind his temples brought back memories of Cormallen.

Meduseld’s cook Freawaru had served her evil tasting mint and fennel tea at the breakfast table, which was supposed to make you feel better, but at first just made death seem all the more attractive by comparison. The only concession to him being the lord of the hall was a jar of honey to sweeten the foul brew.

The corners of Lothíriel’s mouth quirked when she spotted the two of them. Éomer just hoped he did not look quite as seedy as Amrothos. At least the chilly wind had a reviving effect.

A groom from the royal stable led up Mellon and Amrothos’s own horse. Éomer had also organised a couple of riders to escort his friend as far as Minas Tirith, where he was heading to take part in the celebration of the victory over Sauron. Most of the nobility of Gondor would be there, and Éomer had been invited too, but he preferred to spend the day with his own people.

While Lothíriel fussed over Mellon one last time, feeding him carrots and stroking him, Tarcil inundated his uncle with messages to his cousin Alphros.

“Make sure to tell him about Lýtling,” he said, “that I have my own real Rohirric war pony. And that we took the Paths of the Dead. And that Éothain has taught me how to hit a target from horseback. And–”

“Enough,” Amrothos laughed, then winced. “I promise to deliver a full report of all your doings. But if you want to make sure Alphros hears about all your exploits, you just have to get your mother to write to Dol Amroth regularly.”

He took Éomer’s arm and pulled him a little apart. “My friend, a quick word with you.” He cast a glance over his shoulder at Lothíriel and lowered his voice. “You’ll look after her.” It was a command, not a question.

Éomer inclined his head. “I will defend her with my life if necessary.”

Amrothos measured him with his eyes, but did not look surprised. What rumours had he heard? “Do I need to ask you about your intentions?”

“I hold your sister in the highest respect,” Éomer said stiffly. “If you think I would offer her the insult of–”

“No, no.” Amrothos held up his hand. “I trust your honour, my friend.” He watched his sister for a moment longer. “She seems happy enough here, more relaxed than at home at least, if not her former self. Perhaps that is what she needs: a fresh start far away from home. So I wish you luck.” He sighed. “Ever since she returned from Harad, she’s been like a woman carrying a heavy weight of stone.” His voice sank. “But if you add as much as a pebble to that load, know that I will call you to account, king or not.”

“You’d have every right.” Éomer caught sight of Khuri standing on the stairs above them, her arms crossed on her chest, watching them through narrowed eyes. “You might have to wait in line though.”

Amrothos suddenly grinned and clapped him on the back. “True. But I could always mop up the pieces after she’s through with you.”

Éomer grinned back. “How kind of you.”

Amrothos took hold of his horse’s reins, ruffled Tarcil’s hair one last time and finally turned to say good-by to his sister. They looked at each other for a long moment, then she threw her arms around him.

“Take care, little one,” Amrothos whispered into her hair. “Don’t do anything foolish.”

“You’re a right one to talk.” She gave him a wobbly smile. “Don’t take any risks chasing pirates. Remember, there’s always more of them to be had.”

He nodded. “I’ll be careful. And if you need us, send a courier. I will come.”

“I know. But I’m in good hands.”

They hugged one more time, before Amrothos mounted his horse.

Lothíriel took a step back and drew Tarcil to her side. “And stay away from strong drink,” she quipped. Her voice was light, but her arms went around her son as if for support.

Amrothos grimaced. “Good advice, but a little too late.” After a last, lingering look he spurred his horse and trotted out the courtyard.

Lothíriel hugged her son closer, but the boy wriggled out of her grip. “Mummy, let go. People will think I’m a baby.”

She loosened her hold. “I’m sorry.”

“May I go and play with Éoric and Éormenred?” Tarcil asked. “They’ve got a puppy. Mistress Eanswith said it was all right.”

“Yes, of course,” she agreed. “As long as Khuri goes with you.”

The boy skipped away, his uncle half forgotten already. Lothíriel straightened her shoulders and gave a small sigh. She started when Éomer offered her his arm. “Shall we go back inside?” he asked gently. “You look cold.” And lonely, but he didn’t say that.

“Thank you.” She took his arm and they ascended the steps. “What were you talking about to my brother?”

“Oh, he just worries about you.” There was no need to go into the details.

“I worry about him too.” They stopped outside Meduseld and turned to watch the view. “About all of my brothers of course, but he’s the most reckless. He offered to put off his departure, you know, but I told him to return home.”

“You didn’t want him to stay?”

“I did, but he doesn’t belong here, he misses the sea.” Below them, they saw her brother’s party pass the gate. “Also he’s our best captain. Amrothos can read wind and current as if it were an open book; he’s nowhere as much at home as on the deck of a ship.”

Éomer could well believe that. During his visit to Dol Amroth, Amrothos had dragged him all over the Sea Hawk, his war galley, and Éomer had learnt far more than he had ever wanted about oars, ship’s rigging, the effect of different hull shapes on speed and other nautical mysteries.

The riders struck the Great West Road and headed east, towards Gondor. Lothíriel sighed again. “Father needs him. So really it’s best if he goes. It will make me less noticeable too, I suppose.”

“What do you mean by that?” Éomer asked, surprised.

“He’s rather flamboyant, isn’t he? But I just want to live quietly, causing as little talk as possible.”

Éomer looked at her standing there, dressed in her usual muted colours, it was true, but with her golden torc glinting at her throat. Tall and slim, her pale skin in dramatic contrast to her black hair, grey eyes large and beautiful… She had as much chance of going unnoticed as one of the Mearas amongst a herd of goats.

Lothíriel was still staring into the distance. “Sometimes I feel like a ship adrift,” she said in a low voice, as if to herself, “with Tarcil and my family being my only anchors.”

Éomer would have been happy to offer himself as her anchor, her harbour, anything at all, however nautical. But he felt that she would not accept more than his silent support at the moment.

They stood in this way until the riders passed out of sight behind one of the foothills, then she turned away. “I think I’ll retire to my room for a bit,” she said. “Excuse me.”

The doorwardens threw open the doors of Meduseld as she approached, but on the threshold she paused and looked back over her shoulder. “Thank you.”

 ***

Yet that afternoon she came down to the training grounds poised and serene, as if that moment of vulnerability had never happened. For the time being, Éomer had put her stallion in a paddock on his own, thinking he would be more relaxed there than in a stable. Lothíriel had brought some carrots along and proceeded to fulfil Éomer’s prediction that she would spoil the horse rotten.

Over the next days they fell into an easy routine. She trained the stallion, grooming him, getting him used to her presence, leading him around on a halter, while Éomer worked out with his men or schooled his own young horses. Tarcil too came along most of the time, learning to jump his pony over small obstacles, often accompanied by the other children.

Khuri meanwhile showed his men a few of her tricks, making Éomer’s opinion of her abilities rise another notch. She would have made a good assassin, he could not help thinking. The men promptly used the skills she had taught them to good effect in the next tavern brawl.

Éothain put the whole lot of them on stable cleaning duty when they showed up the next morning very much worse for wear, but they were so proud of their resounding success, they did not mind shovelling manure. An impassive Khuri got a blow by blow account of the fight, including a demonstration how one of the lads had got out of a stranglehold by an opponent twice his size. Her sudden popularity did not seem to impress her, but she did show them a dozen novel ways to turn a tankard of ale into a deadly weapon.

Lothíriel’s stallion – whom she named Shirram after a seasonal desert wind – soon followed her about like a faithful dog. Once the two established a bond of trust between them, he proved well-schooled. Within a few days Lothíriel progressed to riding on a lunge line under Éomer’s supervision, teaching the stallion to listen to her and keep his focus.

He knew she was itching to try out Shirram’s pace, but he wanted her to establish her authority first. With a stallion, you had to be very firm who was in charge and alert to his every mood. Éomer wanted to make sure she would be able to handle him around other stallions, or worse, mares in heat.

Only if she managed to make Shirram think of her as the lead mare of his little herd, kind but in charge, would he do as she asked of him. But once he had accepted her, he would be her willing slave. A position Éomer would have been perfectly happy to occupy too, he thought whenever he saw her whisper endearments in the stallion’s ears or stroke his coat.

One afternoon, he rode over after training Firefoot to find her sitting on the ground, leaning back against a fence post. When Éomer unsaddled Firefoot and let him into the paddock, Shirram, who had been cropping the grass near her, looked up alertly. The two stallions had got used to each other. After some posturing, a few kicks and some impressive squealing, the older and more powerful Firefoot had established his dominance.

The Rohirrim were used to running stallions together, but even so Éomer watched them carefully for a bit. Once he was satisfied they would not get into a biting match just then, he crouched down next to Lothíriel where he could keep an eye on the horses at the same time.

Sitting there on the ground, her hair escaping from its simple braid, blotches of dried horse slobber on her shirt and a smudge of dirt on her cheek, she looked as relaxed as he had ever seen her. And as kissable.

Spotting her little desk on her lap, he grinned. “Drawing your black demon?” Had he been a jealous man, he would have resented the love she lavished on that horse.

“He’s very well behaved,” she protested. “But actually I’m drawing a picture of Tarcil and Lýtling. He wants to send it to Alphros.”

Éomer chuckled. “To show off his Rohirric war pony?”

“Yes, his pride and joy.” She gave him a warm smile.

“May I have a look?” he asked impulsively.

She hesitated, and he was about to apologise for the question, when she showed him the open page of her sketchbook.

“Just a few preliminary sketches of horses,” she said, sounding shy. “Nothing special really, but I want to get the details right.”

There was an ink drawing of Lýtling’s head, unfinished yet, and horses in different postures. She turned the page to show him a collection of rough sketches of hoofs, eyes and nostrils. Shirram, his ears flicked forward, was on the opposite side, obviously drawn with love.

Éomer did not touch the book, but let her choose what to show him. He had the feeling she was like a young filly being handled for the first time, not sure she could trust him and easily startled by a wrong move.

Suddenly he spotted a familiar line of mountains, nothing but a few strokes of the pen, a bit of ink, yet it somehow captured the view he had known all his life. “That’s Irensaga with the Starkhorn in the distance,” he exclaimed.

“Yes, we saw it on the ride back from the stud farm the other day.”

“It’s really good.”

She coloured. “Thank you. I’ve enjoyed drawing ever since I was a child, though of course there’s no comparison to my father’s court painters.”

He was still regarding the sketch, thinking how Éowyn used to love that particular view. In fact she had a favourite place, a small knoll out on the plains, from where you could see the whole mountain chain, crowned in eternal snow, as well as the green hill of Edoras with Meduseld glittering on top.

“Tell me, do you take commissions?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I was just thinking how much it would please my sister to have a drawing of that particular view, to remind her of the Riddermark.”

She hesitated. “Are you sure…?”

“Éowyn would love it. She’s happy in Ithilien with Faramir, of course, but from her letters I think she does miss the mountains and the wide plains at times.”

Lothíriel took a deep breath. “In that case I’d be honoured to make a drawing for her.”

“Thank you.” It was his turn to hesitate. “Is there any way I can repay you?”

“Please, you house and protect us, to say nothing of giving me Shirram.” She smiled at him. “I will never be able to thank you enough for your kindness to me and Tarcil. You may ask for anything from me.”

If she kept saying things like that, one day he would not be answerable for his actions! And she was completely sincere as well, with only gratitude and not the least hint of teasing in her voice. Did she place him in the category of older brother and thus safe? Or as a widow with a child, did she consider herself beyond the age of being courted? It made him want to bash his head against the fence post.

To distract himself Éomer looked out over the paddock, where the two stallions had settled down to grazing, though still keeping an eye on each other. How much easier a horse’s life was.

“Splendid,” he said. “There’s a place on the plains that Éowyn loves for its view. I’ll take you there sometime.”

“Will we ride there?” Her eyes sparkled.

“Of course. And yes, you can try out Shirram’s pace.”

“When shall we go?” She sounded as if she would have liked to set out that very instant.  

Éomer considered her progress with the stallion. “Soon. But tomorrow is the victory celebration, and I’ve got guests arriving already, so we’ll have to wait until that’s past. Not much longer though.”

“Good.” She flashed him a grin. “Well, horse lord, you and Firefoot had better get ready to eat our dust.”

It took all Éomer’s self-control not to grab her for a kiss then and there.

Chapter 7

The influx of guests kept Éomer busy. Erkenbrand rode over from the Westfold and Déormund from Harrowdale, both accompanied by many men. Elfhelm meanwhile brought his whole family with him from Aldburg. Some of the riders were put up at one of Meduseld’s guest-houses but most stayed with family or friends in Edoras.

Weynild and her staff managed all the details, but everybody seemed to want to have a word with him. Also, ever since Éowyn had left, Meduseld had no lady to make guests feel welcome, smooth the way and take the myriad small decisions involved, and so all that work fell to him too.

Not that there was a shortage of candidates to fill that role. Thankfully Erkenbrand’s granddaughters were far too young, but Elfhelm and Déormund had each brought their daughters, as had every other lord with offspring of marriageable age. Éomer couldn’t make up his mind if they had not heard the rumours making the rounds in Edoras, or if they had decided on a last, desperate, all-out assault.

This did not improve his mood in any way. The year before, he had been drunk with their unexpected victory, the sheer surprise of still being alive when he had thought himself the last Lord of the Mark. But by now the realisation of how many men they had lost and the extent of the destruction wrought by Saruman’s orcs had sunk in. So many missing faces: Háma, who had stayed true to his ailing king, good-natured Dúnhere, brave Grimbold. He would never again see his uncle’s kind smile, never again play fox and hounds with Théodred and hear his booming laugh. They had won, true, but at what a cost.

Yet when at sunset he stepped out onto the platform outside Meduseld’s doors and looked down on the courtyard where the people of Edoras were assembling, he also reminded himself that they should celebrate the lives of those they had lost and thank them for their sacrifice. To himself he vowed that he would not squander their gift.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, just the heavens stretching enormous above them, darkening into night. In the west the sun slipped behind the mountains reaching up towards the Gap of Rohan, their icy peaks afire. Éomer waited until the last ray of light was quenched and shadows started to wrap around them, then he stepped to the edge of the platform and lifted his horn to his lips.

He blew with all his might, and after a moment his men joined in. The sound rang out over town and plain, rising brave and defiant, as it had done on the battlefields of the Mark and Gondor: the great horns of the North, calling home their dead.

Slowly the sound faded, leaving behind a resonating silence. Nobody talked, there was no coughing, not even the whisper of cloth as somebody moved. Éomer turned round and motioned for one of his guards to step forward and hand him the burning torch he carried.

He descended the stairs; silent as ghosts the crowd parted before him. Holding the torch high he took the road leading down to the gates, which was lined with people. All the lights in the houses had been extinguished, the windows thrown open to the night air. As he walked out between the barrows, followed by the silent crowd, the simbelmynë on the mounds glimmered like fallen snow in the twilight.

In the field between Théoden’s barrow, the last of the line, and the River Snowbourn logs soaked in oil had been stacked high. When he thrust the torch into the kindling, the fire caught at once. Sparks rose up into the sky like stars to wink out over their heads. The crowd sighed.

Éomer watched the flames for a moment, then stepped back, signalling for those around him to approach. First was an old woman with a younger one beside her, who carried a child in her arms. Both of them cast a piece of wood on the fire, silently mouthing a name. Tears ran down their cheeks.

One by one slowly other people came up. Werhard, the landlord of the Boar and Hounds, whose youngest son had fallen at the Hornburg, Leofrun with a solemn looking Hildwyn by her side. One man, his face carved with deep lines, added no less than four pieces of wood to the flames. The bonfire would be well fed tonight.

There was a pile of wood nearby, chopped up already, but most people brought theirs with them. Some had elaborate carvings, others just boughs from a favourite tree. Éomer went to find his squire Beortulf, in whose care he had left his own remembrance tokens, cut from an apple tree in his mother’s garden in Aldburg, where she had loved to sit and read.

Having retrieved them, suddenly in the shadows at the edge of the crowd he spotted Lothíriel, standing there with her arms wrapped round Tarcil, watching the scene. Something in her face called to him.

On impulse he went over to her. “Anybody can join in, you know.”

She jumped. “Éomer! What do you mean?”

“While it’s traditional in the Mark to remember the dead a year after they parted, there is no time limit set on grief.” For years after his parents had passed away, he had lit a fire in their memory. And she too had lost her mother at a young age, her cousin Boromir only recently in the war and perhaps others too. “If you feel like it, choose a piece of wood and add it to the fire for a loved one.”

Tarcil stirred. “Hildwyn says that the fire will carry a message to her father. Is that true?”

He crouched down next to the boy. “We believe so. Not a message exactly, but they will feel our love and know that we think of them and miss them.”

Tarcil looked up at his mother. “May I put a stick on the fire for Father?”

She sent an uncertain glance at Éomer. A Harad king to be remembered in a Rohirric bael-fýr? But why not? He doubted very much the dead cared about that kind of distinction.

“Yes of course,” he answered.

Lothíriel took one of her son’s hands, Éomer the other, and together they walked over to the pile of kindling, where Tarcil very carefully chose a piece of dark cherry wood. Hesitating a moment, Lothíriel too picked up two tokens. At the fire, people respectfully made room for them. Éomer motioned for them to go first.

Eyes closed and face screwed up in concentration, Tarcil threw his piece into the flames. Trying to send a message to his father? Éomer had hardly ever heard Tarcil mention him. Did he realise he had been the enemy of his mother’s people? And here they stood beside the barrow of Théoden, who had slain the King of Harad, the boy’s uncle.

Lothíriel stepped up next. The warm light played across her face as she stared into the flames, eyes large and dark. Who did she think of as she slowly placed her pieces of wood in the fire, one after the other? But that was between her and her dead, not a question ever asked.

He had polished his tokens, but otherwise left them in their natural shape and just carved a rune on each. Éomer tossed the first piece into the heart of the fire. “Uncle,” he whispered under his breath, “long may you feast in the company our ancestors. Rest easy, knowing that you led our people to victory and that they have peace now. I swear I will do all to keep them safe and be worthy of your trust.”

Taking a deep breath, he cast in the second token. “Théodred.” His voice caught. “You were like an older brother to me. Know that you held the fords and your sacrifice was not for nothing, for we avenged you and our people came through darkness into light. I swear that while I live, your memory will not be forgotten.” A wave of loss coursed through him, old grief and new. “May the earth rest lightly on you.”

Staring into the flames, he reflected upon the many men he had led into battle, the friends and comrades he had lost over the years, as marshal, as king. He could have tossed a whole tree into the remembrance fire, he thought bitterly.

A light touch on his arm recalled him to the present. He found Lothíriel regarding him, not with pity – he could not have born that – but with understanding, as one who had walked the same path.

“Éomer,” she said, gently pulling him away from the fire. “You are not alone. You have friends.”

He nodded and took a step back. If only he could gather her up in his arms, hold her and be held. The certain knowledge of how much he needed her filled him, how empty and cold his life would be without her. But she wasn’t ready to hear that yet.

They stood and watched the fire for a while longer. It would not be the only bael-fýr in the Mark that night, there would be many more throughout the land, in the dales and on the plains.

Suddenly he noticed that Lothíriel was shivering. A breeze had sprung up, and she was only wearing a light shawl over her gown. “Let’s go back,” he said and offered her his arm.

With Tarcil skipping along on her other side and Khuri melting out of the shadows to follow them, they took the road back up to Meduseld. The hall stood open to everyone, but many would choose to spend the night sitting round the bael-fýr instead, talking, drinking and remembering the fallen, so he had donated some casks of ale. Already the first had been breached, he noticed. Oblivion would be in high demand tonight, even though it was only temporary.

With the resilience of youth, Tarcil had turned his mind to other things and started to bargain with his mother how long he would be allowed to stay up.

“Hildwyn says there will be songs after the food. May I listen for a while?”

Lothíriel frowned. “It might be too rowdy.” She cast Éomer a questioning look.

“Maybe later,” he said. “But not while a bard performs.”

“May I?” Tarcil begged. “It might be educational.” He pronounced the word carefully.

“Who told you so?” his mother asked, amused.

“Hildwyn’s mother. She explained some of the stories to us.”

“That’s very nice of Leofrun.” But still Lothíriel hesitated.

“Please, Mummy? Just for three songs.”

Éomer opened his mouth, but encountered an entreating look from Tarcil. He closed it again.

“All right,” Lothíriel said. When Éomer and Tarcil both grinned, her eyes narrowed. “What?”

“The first song at a remembrance feast traditionally tells the tale of Eorl the Young and the Battle of Celebrant,” Éomer explained.

“Let me guess,” Lothíriel said. “It’s very long.”

“Yes.”

“I should have known.” She shook her head in loving exasperation at her son. “But you, my lord king, disappoint me. You should have warned me. What kind of misguided male solidarity is this?”

Éomer’s mood lifted at her light-hearted banter. He tucked her hand more safely into the crook of his arm. “I too was young once.”

“Young and foolish?”

“Yes, now I’m just old and foolish.” Especially where a certain princess from Gondor was concerned.

Oblivious to his thoughts, Lothíriel chuckled.

However, at the doors to Meduseld, she disengaged her hand. “I mustn’t keep you from your guests any longer.”

“But aren’t you eating at the high table?” He had counted on having her protection.

“No, I’ve promised Leofrun I’d sit with her.”

“But you’re a princess,” he protested. “A queen. My honoured guest.”

“And trying to live quietly, remember? You’re very kind, but my mind is made up.”

The steel in her voice was no less keen for being wrapped in velvet. She swept him a curtsy, took Tarcil’s hand and slipped away into the crowd.

Éomer looked after her in frustration, but had his attention claimed by Déormund of Harrowdale coming up just then, accompanied by his daughter Déorwenna. Out of politeness to his old friend, he ended up ascending the dais with a lady on his arm after all, albeit the wrong one. And not only that: he noticed with dismay that Elfhelm’s eldest daughter had been placed next to him, with her younger sister on her father’s other side. The chase had commenced, and the only huntress he would have liked to surrender to had quit the field.

Since there was no lady of the hall to greet their guests and address a few words to them, Éomer opened the bael-feorm, the remembrance feast, himself. The servants had poured the traditional mead, so he raised his cup and bid all welcome. He kept his speech short though, and once everybody had shared the first drink in memory of the fallen, he sat down for the food to be served.

Erkenbrand leant forward from his seat. “So tell me, Éomer, when are you finally going to find a queen to do the honours of your hall?” he asked with the good cheer of a spectator who had no horse in the race, his daughters being married already. His booming voice carried to all the nearby tables and caused a distinct hush.

Éomer studiously avoided looking towards Lothíriel sitting with Leofrun and the other widows. “All in good time.”

“Well, don’t wait too long,” Erkenbrand said. “It would please our people to see the House of Eorl renewed.”

Éomer winced. Wonderful. Now if he asked Lothíriel to marry him, she would think he saw her in the manner of a broodmare. “Thank you, my friend.” A distraction was clearly in order. Luckily he knew the other man well. “By the way, do you still have that stallion by Thundercloud out of Brightcoat, the one with the two white socks?”

His ploy worked a treat. All thoughts of finding his king a bride gone from his mind, Erkenbrand launched into a discussion of horses, in which soon everybody took part.

Wanting to be good host, Éomer turned his attention to the women sitting beside him. Since he had served in Elfhelm’s éored as a young rider, he had known his daughters from the time they were children. But his elevation to king seemed to awe them so much that they answered his questions about life in Aldburg only shyly, with much blushing.

By contrast Déorwenna, who had taken the seat on his other side with complete self-assurance, sent him glances from under her lashes and smiled invitingly. The youngest child and only daughter of a doting father, she had probably never been gainsaid in her entire life. Éomer had not seen her for a while and had been surprised to find her grown into a beauty with hair the colour of ripe wheat and cornflower blue eyes.

She seemed keen to try out her newly discovered power over men, and in the past he might have enjoyed exchanging banter with her. The girl had a quick wit, sometimes bordering on the impertinent, but so charmingly delivered that everybody forgave her. Whoever married her would have his hands full, Éomer thought. He found it amusing enough talking to her, yet he could not help thinking that next to Lothíriel all these girls looked immature.

He wanted an equal, a woman knowing her mind and able to hold her own against him, yet above all somebody who saw him for himself. A queen but also a wife, a friend, a lover.

 Repeatedly he caught himself looking towards Lothíriel, who was talking animatedly to Leofrun and her other friends. She wore an unadorned, dark blue dress that she probably thought suitable to her widowhood, unlike the bright dresses of the young girls around him, but its simple lines only served to highlight her soft curves. The hall being warm, she had put her shawl away, baring white shoulders and the golden torc around her graceful neck, which did not exactly help to make her inconspicuous either.

He would have liked to catch her eye, but the only time she glanced his way, she quickly looked away again. Why couldn’t she have sat at the high table, the evening would have been so much more bearable.

It was a relief to have the bard step forward. He would be able to lean back and listen to the music, instead of having to make conversation, although Déorwenna bent over to whisper observations in his ears as the hall hushed.

King Théoden’s bard had retired, but his son Gléowaerd had inherited his father’s talent. He sat down at his harp and told the story of Eorl, followed by a new composition of his own about the ride of the Rohirrim. Éomer had not heard the lay before and found himself gripping the arms of his chair when the bard sang of how Éowyn faced the nazgûl king. It made a splendid tale, but finding her lying on the battlefield and thinking her dead had been the worst moment of his life.

A movement caught his attention: Lothíriel leant forward. He had no idea how much of the Rohirric she understood, but her eyes seeking his own felt like a lifeline. Nobody else noticed as Gléowaerd went on to sing of the Rohirrim’s onslaught sweeping across the battlefield to be checked by the arrival of the corsair ships.

Éomer remembered the lust of battle gripping him as he had raised his sword in defiance, then laughing with incredulous joy when Aragorn unfurled Elendil’s standard. He had thought to make a worthy end there, though nobody would ever know of the last King of the Mark, and instead now he sat in Meduseld, listening to his bard telling the tale.

Thunderous applause shook the hall when Gléowaerd finished. With a bow the bard made room for a couple of fiddlers and drummers playing traditional ballads while he took a break.

After the third song, Éomer saw Khuri shepherd a yawning Tarcil away to his bed, but Lothíriel stayed, looking entranced by the music. Throughout the evening Gléowaerd took turns with the other musicians to play more tunes, some slow and sorrowful, some quick and lively. At another occasion there might have been dancing as well, but not at a bael-feorm.

In one of the breaks, Éomer got up in order to stretch his legs and walk around the hall to talk to his guests. Déorwenna rose at the same time and took his arm with a pert smile.

“May I come with you?” she asked.

Short of shaking her off roughly, there did not seem to be anything he could do, so he nodded, though he did not like to look so particular. If only Lothíriel married him, that would put an end to such unwanted attentions.

Making the round of the hall, he stopped at every table for a short word with his men. When he got to where Lothíriel sat with her friends, he had the distinct impression that the other women looked at him with reproach for having Déorwenna on his arm. But really, what was he supposed to do? Even Eanswith, ever cheerful, regarded him with a frown. The only person who showed not the least trace of resentment was Lothíriel herself, who gave him a polite smile.

“Are you enjoying the music?” he asked, trying to break the ice.

“Yes indeed. I wish I spoke more of the language, but even so I find the songs moving.”

He smiled at her in approval. “In time you’ll start to understand better.”

“Perhaps.” Her eyes moved to Déorwenna. “Will you introduce your companion?”

“Of course. Princess Lothíriel, this is Déorwenna, daughter of Déormund, Lord of Harrowdale. If you remember, we passed it on the way from Dunharrow.”

“I do.” She rose and inclined her head. “Well met, Déorwenna.”

Faced with such a regal manner, Déorwenna instinctively dropped into a curtsy. “Thank you, my lady.”

Lothíriel gave a cool nod of acknowledgement. “Your father very kindly offered us refreshments.”

“It was an honour,” Déorwenna stammered.

Éomer could sympathise with her confusion. He had forgotten how imposing Lothíriel could be, descended from the tall ship kings of Númenor and with a thousand years of princes of Dol Amroth in her bearing. Far from home amongst strangers she was impressive; if she ever came into her own she would be absolutely magnificent. He wanted her for his queen.

Déorwenna had caught herself again. “The sweet little boy sitting with you earlier on, is he yours? How old is he?” she asked.

Lothíriel’s eyes softened at the mention of Tarcil. “Yes, he’s my son. Tarcil is six.”

“So old?” Déorwenna exclaimed. “Really?”

Éomer frowned. What was she trying to imply? But Lothíriel seemed unperturbed. “Yes, really,” she said, her voice even more gentle. The nod she gave them was very much a dismissal though. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Déorwenna.”

“The pleasure was mine,” the girl answered.

They moved on, but before they were out of earshot Déorwenna leant over. “Is that Haradric woman, the one which was skulking around in the shadows, with Lady Lothíriel also?”

Éomer came to a halt. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh just because my father was saying how strange it is to see a Haradrim, one of our enemies, in Meduseld.” She tittered. “But then Lady Lothíriel was married to their king, wasn’t she? With that torc, she looks like one of them herself.”

Enough was enough. Éomer dropped her arm. “When you are a little older and have seen a bit more of the world, you’ll find that it holds many strange things.” At a nearby table he spotted Éothain and waved him over. “Lady Déorwenna is tired, I think. Could you take her back to her seat so she can rest?”

“Of course, Éomer King,” Éothain answered at once. He seemed to relish his task.

Warning: this chapter contains discussion of still birth. 


Chapter 8

Cheered to be unencumbered at last, Éomer continued his round of the hall, for he wanted to have a word with every guest, even if only a quick one. It would have been more pleasant with Lothíriel at his side, but after his frosty reception earlier on he didn’t fancy trying his luck again.

The doors to Meduseld stood open. When he went outside to catch some fresh air, he saw the bael-fýr in the fields below still burning bright. The distant sound of singing floated up on the air. Inside the hall, one of the fiddlers launched into a popular drinking song and many of the men joined in, some decidedly off-key. Freawaru, Meduseld’s cook, would be busy next day brewing her special tea.

When he went back inside, he saw that Elfhelm’s wife had already left, taking her daughters with her, though a pouting Déorwenna still sat at the high table. Lothíriel and her friends seemed to have retired too, which was probably wise. He did not begrudge his guests the ale or the oblivion it brought, but he did not intend to stay to the bitter end either.

Hailed by Gamling, one of the men who had been driven back to the caverns with him at the battle of Helm’s Deep, he stopped to have a word with the old rider. The man was still as spry as ever and never tired of telling the tale how he fought at the side of Gimli the dwarf.

But suddenly through the press of people he spotted a dark head amongst all the blond. What was Lothíriel doing still in the hall? Half hidden behind some pillars, she was standing with the other women in front of the tapestry of Eorl the Young on his horse Fréaláf, discussing something.

Excusing himself, he made his way towards her and saw her gesturing at the picture, bending forward to trace the interlaced patterns forming a frame around the tapestry.

He had nearly reached her when a group of riders staggered by drunkenly, Westfold men by their accent. Unaware of them, Lothíriel straightened up and took a step back. That moment one of them reached out and grabbed her round the waist.

“Come here, my pretty,” he called.

With a curse Éomer sprang forward.

He was too late.

In one smooth motion Lothíriel hammered her elbow into the rider’s throat. The man’s head snapped back. She spun, kicked the man’s feet out from under him and when he fell to his knees grabbed him by the hair and bared his throat. Steel glittered in her hand.

It happened so quickly, Éomer was still a few steps away. Everybody froze in disbelief.

Breathing fast, Lothíriel stared down at the man, who looked back, eyes rimmed with white. Instantly sober, he knew that if he made one wrong move, he was dead.

The hackles on Éomer’s neck rose, as if in the presence of a wild animal. Lothíriel did not see them, she was caught in some vision all her own.

“Lothíriel,” he said very gently.

She did not react.

“Lothíriel,” he said again.

The blade at the man’s throat trembled. She lifted her eyes, dark and enormous, to him. He knew that look, had encountered it before in men who had seen things that haunted their dreams.

He took a slow step forward and held out his hand. “Lothíriel, you are safe.”

At the back of the motionless crowd Éothain made as if to interpose himself – he too knew how volatile the situation was, how unpredictable Lothíriel’s reaction might be. Without looking at him Éomer shook his head and advanced another step. He was within reach of her knife now.

“Lothíriel, you are safe,” he repeated. “I swear I’ll protect you.”

She blinked and returned to the present. “Éomer?”

He released his breath in relief. “Yes. Can you please let the man go?”

Only now did she seem to notice the rider she held at knife point. With a conscious effort she released her grip and took a step back. The man sagged at her feet. He had to know he had come as close to death as he had ever been in battle.

At Lothíriel’s white face and shaking hands, sudden fury took Éomer. “Éothain,” he said. “Throw this man in gaol.”

“Yes, lord.” Éothain shouldered his way through the crowd, collecting a couple of guards along the way. “At once.”

“But Éomer King…” the man’s friends protested.

“Lock them all up. How dare you molest the princess,” he snarled.

Faced with his wrath, they recoiled. He very much wanted to kill somebody, anybody at all. Lothíriel had been accosted in his own hall, and he had been unable to prevent it. And who had taught her to fight like that? As for the knife she still held in trembling hands, where had that come from?

Leofrun and Eanswith had gathered round her, shielding her from the many curious glances of the crowd. He would have liked to take her in his arms and comfort her, but that might not be welcome. Having another man thrust himself at her against her will was the last thing she needed right now.

Lothíriel drew herself up, regaining some of her remarkable self-control. The knife had vanished again. “If you don’t mind, I will retire now.”

“Of course.” He offered her his arm.

As he escorted her across the hall and up onto the dais, whispers sprang up around them. So much for being inconspicuous. He ignored everybody and led her through to the corridor outside the private quarters. Once the door had closed behind them, she let go of his arm and sagged against the wall.

“Lothíriel, are you all right?” Éomer asked, then cursed himself for such a inane question. Of course she wasn’t all right.

She waved his concern away. “I’m fine, don’t mind me.”

“Shall I get Khuri for you?” He had a vague idea the presence of another woman might help, though he didn’t quite know how.

“Please don’t. She’ll only feel guilty. I will be better in a moment.” Lothíriel made a helpless gesture with a hand. “It was just the remembrance fire…and then that rider…it brought it all back, I suppose. I’m not usually that easily startled.”

What did the fire have to do with it? She didn’t make a lot of sense. “Do you want to lie down in your rooms?” he asked.

Lothíriel shook her head. “I just need a moment to compose myself first. Khuri will come to check on me, and I don’t want to upset her. But I’m fine here, you don’t have to dance attendance on me. Your guests will want you.”

“Nonsense.” How could she think he would just abandon her here in this state. “The only thing they want tonight is enough ale.” He opened the door to his own rooms. “Come and sit down for a moment until you feel better.”

She hesitated briefly, but followed his invitation. The servants had left a lamp burning, so he went round the chamber and lit some candles before kneeling by the banked fire in the fireplace. Lothíriel took one of comfortable chairs there, while he stirred the embers with a poker and put on fresh wood.

Éomer sat back on his heels and frowned at her. “You’re cold.”

“Please, I’ll be fine.” However, he could see her shivering. From delayed reaction?

She had left her shawl behind in the hall, so he looked round for a covering for her bare shoulders, but apart from an old sheet that he used when oiling and sharpening his sword, he had nothing to offer her.

On the spur of the moment, he pulled the coverlet off the bed and wrapped it around her. It was far too big and heavy, but she burrowed into the thick wool gratefully. The dark green decorated with gold thread suited her, he thought. His colours.

In order that she would not feel uncomfortable, he had left the door ajar. Now there came a soft knock, and Weynild entered with a tray. “I’ve brought the princess some tea.”

“You are best of housekeepers,” he exclaimed.

Lothíriel gave her a shaky smile. “Yes indeed. And you’re all so kind to me.”

Weynild poured her a mug; the refreshing scent of lemon balm filled the air. “Please, you’re our guest. And you’ve been treated abominably.” She sounded personally offended. “I assure you, those louts in gaol will get nothing but thin gruel while they’re there.”

With sudden amusement Éomer recalled the time he had occupied that very same cell at Wormtongue’s instigation. Weynild had brought him his meals personally and the cook had prepared all his favourite dishes to keep up his spirits.

Wriggling her hands free of the coverlet, Lothíriel wrapped her fingers around the mug. “What will happen to the man? He was drunk after all.”

Éomer frowned. “That is no excuse. Do you demand wergild for the assault on your person?”

“What? No, that won’t be necessary. And anyway, I don’t want to cause more talking.”

He would have liked to take the man to task himself, but she was probably right to let it go. Even so he resolved to let the rider stew in gaol for a while, to make him grovel.

“Very thin gruel,” Weynild muttered to herself, apparently thinking along similar lines.

Lothíriel cradled her mug. “I feel better already, thank you.” Some colour had returned to her face.

The housekeeper put the teapot on a low table by the window. She had also brought a plate of small nut cakes, Éomer saw.

Weynild hesitated for a moment. “Do you want me to stay, my lady?”

“Oh no, please don’t let me keep you from your duties, I’ll be fine now,” Lothíriel assured her.

She did not seem to be the least bothered by being in his rooms late at night. Éomer by contrast was very much aware of his massive fourposter bed standing in the shadows, the sheets all awry from when he had pulled the bedspread off. On the other hand she had just given a demonstration of what would happen to any man who took liberties with her.

The housekeeper dropped a curtsy. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Thank you, Weynild,” Éomer said.

“My lord king.” She left, softly closing the door behind her.

While Lothíriel curled up in her chair, he sat down cross-legged on the rug in front of the hearth. Giving her enough space and time to regain her composure was the only thing he could do for her, Éomer felt. She stared into the fire, absentmindedly sipping her tea, and he was content to watch her.

All they could hear was the faint sound of music from the hall and the crackle of the fire. Éomer could almost imagine that he shared a quiet drink with his wife before retiring to bed. In his mind’s eye he pictured leaning back against her chair, and when she bent down for a kiss, pulling her into his lap. Then he would undo the braids tightly wound around her head and run his fingers through that luxurious mass of black hair. And she would give him a smile that was only meant for him.

He forced himself to look away, lest she see the naked need in his eyes. 

“I don’t even know if it was a girl or a boy,” she whispered suddenly. Gazing at the embers, she looked fragile, caught up in a world of her own.

Éomer felt instinctively that he had to tread lightly. “What do you mean?” he asked in a gentle voice.

“I cast a piece of wood on the remembrance fire for it. My little one that I didn’t even feel quickening. It never got a chance at life, but I hope it is comforted.”

He caught his breath. She had lost an unborn child? Feeling utterly out of his depth, he didn’t know what to say.

“They nearly got me too,” she went on in that sleepwalker’s voice. “For they were trained assassins, not drink-sodden riders.” She looked up at last, her eyes bleak. “They did not think a soft northerner would know how to defend herself, but Khuri had begun to teach me after that first time.”

His mind was still trying to make sense of what she’d said. “You got attacked by assassins?”

“Three of them. I got one.” She frowned in recollection. “By sheer surprise, I think.”

“Didn’t you have guards?”

“Oh yes. They killed the other two, but not fast enough.”

With every word she said, his outrage was growing. “What about your husband? Didn’t he take care of you at all?”

“He tried.” She sounded tired. “The first attack happened while we were out, just the two of us and a couple of guards. He was showing me the market, for he knew how much I disliked being cooped up in the palace all the time. After that he refused to take me anywhere without a full company of guards.” She rolled up her left sleeve and showed him a thin blade in a leather sheath. “And I got Khuri to teach me how to handle a knife, so I could defend Tarcil and myself.”

So that was where she had got the knife from. He had never before noticed how she always wore garments with loose sleeves. The thought of her needing such a device sickened him. He lowered his head. “I’m sorry you were reminded of that in Meduseld, under my protection, where you should have been safe. I failed you.”

“No! It is I who is sorry. I broke the peace of your hall, ruined the feast.”

“That’s the last thing you should worry about. Anyway, they’re still drinking and laughing. They will have lots to talk about.”

She frowned. “Khuri won’t be pleased. She always says my best defence is how harmless I look. As it is, she feels guilty.”

“Why is that?”

“When the assassins attacked, she grabbed Tarcil and ran. Luckily he was so small that he doesn’t remember.” Lothíriel shrugged. “Khuri wonders if she could have made a difference. But she had her orders: Tarcil’s life was the most important.”

“I suppose your husband wanted to save his son and heir.” Éomer felt bitter. The man had not valued his wife; no surprise there.

“Oh no, it was me who had given those orders.” She stared down at her cup of tea, brooding. “But I never thought to be attacked in my own rooms; the royal quarters were supposed to be impregnable. After that I did not feel safe anywhere anymore.” She looked up. “Arantar was furious. Furious and grieved for our baby. I was just afraid. It couldn’t have happened without somebody in his family complicit.”

“It must have been like living in a snake pit.” Thank the Valar she had escaped from that.

“Yes.” She sounded desolate. “I was ill for a long time afterwards. I think that was when I started to hate Harad.”

Only then? He would never understand her. Lothíriel took another sip of tea, and he would have liked a drink too, only something considerably stronger. He picked up the poker and thrust it into the embers of the fire, wishing he could have used it on those assassins instead.

“I’m sorry to bother you with my troubles when you have so much on your mind already,” she said, “but I felt that I owed you an explanation. I drew steel in your hall.”

“Lothíriel, if in any way I can lighten the heavy burdens you carry, even only a little bit, I would consider myself privileged.”

“You do lighten them, just by listening. I’ve never told the whole story to anybody else.” She gave him a shy smile. “Everybody is so kind here. It’s good to have friends.”

Just a friend. But he would be whatever his lady needed from him.

“You may call on me whenever you wish.” He hesitated. “You say you’ve never told anybody. But what about your family, don’t they support you? Your father and brothers love you.”

“I know,” she sighed. “And I love them dearly too. But my father would like me to forget everything that happened, to be the flower-garlanded maiden he named me, carefree and happy. But I cannot unmake myself, cannot unlearn my experiences. And I wouldn’t want to.” There it was again, the hidden steel. She fixed him with a sudden sharp glance. “I bear no grudge towards Denethor, you know.”

“He used you,” Éomer protested.

“Of course he did. It was his right as my liege. And he used himself and his sons just as hard. It was a sad ending for a great man.”

“How can you say that after what he did to you?”

Lothíriel rubbed her forehead. “Oh, I admit I was lucky. My fate could have turned out very differently.”

She could have spent the rest of her life in Harad, certainly. The thought did not bear thinking about.

“And yet,” she said, “Denethor just did what was necessary. I’m sure you too have sent young riders into battle.”

“That’s not the same!”

“It was simply a different sort of battle. My uncle knew, and so did I.” She drew the bedspread more tightly around herself. “Though I admit there were moments when I cursed him, when I was afraid.”

And him all unaware of it. Éomer could not help thinking that he should have known, ought to have felt her distress somehow. “It should never have been necessary.”

“No. Just as it should not be necessary to send young riders into battle.” She sighed. “If only we lived in a world where men have peace who wish for it.”

Éomer vowed he would do everything in his power to make it so. “One day we will.”

She smiled down at him. “I hope so. But in the meanwhile do not feel sorry for me. I want respect for what I did, not pity. After all I was lucky. Others the same age as me, young boys, have paid the ultimate price: their lives.”

He still could not see it that way. “They had chosen their path, they were warriors.”

“I considered myself one too. A fine blade in my uncle’s hand.” She shook her head, a wry, inward-looking expression on her face. “I can’t believe how young and naive I was. The world is so much more complicated than what you think at eighteen.”

“I wish I could have spared you the experience.”

She put her head to one side. “Of course you do. You’re just like my father.”

First a friend, now her father? This was getting worse and worse. “In what way?”

“You carry the world on your shoulders, think yourself responsible for all under your care.”

“I am.” The bonds of command ran both ways. He demanded obedience from his men, but in return they had the right to expect him to look to their welfare, whatever the cost to him.

“Yet there are things you cannot protect your people from,” Lothíriel pointed out gently.

“Do you think I do not know?” He remembered his mother’s illness, how she had wasted away despite the healers’ best efforts. “Believe me, I know all about being powerless. Why, I haven’t even been able to keep my own sister away from the battlefield.”

“But still you fight.”

“Of course,” he answered simply.

She nodded. “You’ve been so good listening to me. But tell me, do you have anybody yourself, to talk to?”

He felt caught. In the past, if anything troubled him, he would have gone to Théodred for advice or talked it over with Éowyn. Now he might discuss military matters with Éothain or his Marshals, yet always there remained the fact that he was their king and the ultimate responsibility lay with him.

“You have nobody, do you,” Lothíriel said in a soft voice, regarding him closely.

“I…I suppose not.”

“It is as I had thought.” She leant forward in her chair. “I don’t want to impose, but if ever you need somebody to simply listen, or to talk things over with, I would be happy to help.”

Éomer inclined his head. “Thank you.” And he might even take her up on her offer. Not to confide his biggest headache, though.

“Good.” Lothíriel put down her mug and wriggled out of the bedspread. “It’s getting late, Khuri will be wondering where I am.” When he started to rise, she waved at him to stay seated. “Please don’t bother, I can let myself out.”

After a few steps, she paused and looked back. “And thank you again, I feel much better now.”

He bowed to her from the waist. “At your service, always.”

Lothíriel smiled. “Good night.” She opened the connecting door between their rooms.

Éomer made a strangled sound. “Lothíriel, the door.”

She paused on the threshold. “Oh. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Mind?” he croaked.

“I didn’t want Amrothos to make a fuss, but I feel safer having you within call, so I left it unlocked. In an attack every second counts.”

Éomer found his voice again. “Of course. You honour me with your trust.”

“Nonsense. I for one don’t pay the least attention to my brother’s silly fancies.”

“Thank you,” Éomer answered. However, he wasn’t quite sure if he should be flattered by her words or insulted by how harmless she thought him.

Lothíriel hesitated a moment longer. “Éomer,” she said suddenly, “do you intend to marry Lady Déorwenna?”

Taken by surprise, he stared at her. “What? Certainly not.”

“Good.”

He couldn’t help being pleased that she cared. Surely that was a positive sign?

Lothíriel went into her own chambers. “I don’t think she would make you a good queen. And as a king you have to use your head.” She swung the door closed. “Though I understand of course why you find her attractive.”

What? Éomer jumped up. “No!”

Too late. She was gone. With a groan he crossed the room and leant his head against the door. It had been unlocked all this time? Did the servants know? But they had to, after all they cleaned the rooms. Which meant that he was probably the last person in Meduseld to find out.

The wood was smooth and polished under his touch. He closed his eyes for a moment. His lady. Worldly-wise and innocent at the same time. Hard as steel one moment, fragile like glass the next. Seeing the man behind the king and yet so blind.

But at all times: driving him crazy.

Chapter 9

Éomer kept the rider who had pestered Lothíriel locked up for three days before making him apologise. He would have liked for that to have happened in the hall, but Lothíriel insisted she wanted to cause as little talk as possible, so they compromised on the library.

However, he made his feelings known by taking a position behind Lothíriel’s chair and glowering at the man throughout the short interview. With Khuri standing to the other side with her arms crossed on her chest and watching the proceedings through narrowed eyes, the only person who treated the rider with any kindness was Lothíriel herself.

The man knelt to offer his apologies, which were graciously accepted, and then beat a hasty retreat. Éomer hoped he realised how lucky he was to escape with his life and hide intact. Erkenbrand had shown his displeasure by taking the man’s horse back with him, so he would have to walk home to the Hornburg, the ultimate punishment for a rider.

It still rankled him that Lothíriel had been molested in his own hall. But at least the incident meant that no man would ever dare treat Lothíriel with such insolence again, knowing that even if she let him live, he would have to answer to their king afterwards.

Once the man had gone, Éomer went to look out the window. Rain pattered on the glass, brought from the western sea by a steady wind that had been blowing for a couple of days now. It would be a long, damp walk home for the rider. Good.

Khuri had excused herself to go and check on what Tarcil was up to, but Lothíriel lingered, browsing the books on the shelves. “I’ve not been in here before,” she remarked.

“Feel free to use the library whenever you wish,” Éomer said.

She glanced at his desk standing near the window. “But I wouldn’t want to disturb you at your work.”

“You won’t,” he assured her. Strictly speaking not quite true, though not in the way she meant.

“Thank you,” she said, turning back to the shelves. “Is there any particular system you use with your books? They do not seem to be arranged alphabetically, nor by topic.” She sounded puzzled. “Or do you go by acquisition?”

Éomer felt caught. He usually put books back wherever there was an empty space and had a whole pile lying around in his own rooms as well. While there was no dust on the shelves – Weynild would never have countenanced that – nobody looked after the library properly.

“I’m afraid I’ve not had time yet to take care of that,” he said. “It should have been Wormtongue’s task, but he must have neglected it.”

“Would you like me to sort them out for you? I could make a catalogue, if there isn’t one already.”

“But you’re my guest.”

Lothíriel smiled. “Don’t worry, you’re not forcing me to work. I like to be useful.” She traced the leather spine of a book. “Tarcil is so busy with his new friends these days, he doesn’t need me as much as he used to. So I have free time on my hands.”

Despite her deliberately cheerful voice, she sounded adrift. He sometimes thought that she kept her son too close, forcing him to always be within sight of her or Khuri. When he had been a boy, he and his friends used to disappear into the woods above Aldburg for the whole day and not come back until hunger called them home. Though after what she had told him about being attacked, he found her worry much easier to understand.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” he said. “What will you do when he’s a bit older? One day soon he’ll take up weapons training and spend more and more time with boys of his own age.” Unspoken were the words that she would have to let go then.

Lothíriel forced a smile. “I know. But I will just have to cross that bridge when I come to it. It won’t be easy. Tarcil is all I’ve got.”

“Of course.” His heart ached for her. He couldn’t help thinking that what she really needed was a whole brood of children to mother. And personally, he would have been happy to do his part towards such an end.

Lothíriel took out a couple of books and leafed through them. “So you see, I enjoy being of use.”

“In that case I’d be happy to accept your assistance.” He was warming to the idea, taking it as a sign that she planned to stay for a while. “You’ll need a desk of your own, also for your painting.”

She looked up, startled. “Do you think so?”

Reading his endless reports would be so much more pleasant with her for company, he thought. “Absolutely. I’ll ask Weynild to organise one.”

While he sent one of the servants to fetch the housekeeper, Lothíriel started to survey the contents of the library.

“I see you have The Prince by Mardil Voronwë,” she murmured. “That’s one of my father’s favourites. Oh, and Hyarmendacil’s Art of War.” She hefted a heavy volume. “Land of the Horselords: a brief history of Rohan? That’s not one I know. Oh, look, it’s got illustrations, how wonderful.”

Guiltily Éomer thought that he would have to smuggle the books from his room back in unobserved. Otherwise she might notice what topic they all had in common, from a history of Gondor’s kinstrife over an account of the battle at the crossings of the River Poros, where the two eldest sons of King Folcwine had been slain, to Thorongil’s popular Midnight Raid on Umbar – they all told of strife with the Haradrim.

He believed in knowing his enemy. Even if the man was dead.

A knock on the door heralded the arrival of the housekeeper. “Ah, Weynild,” he said. “Lady Lothíriel will do some work in the library and needs a desk. Do we have anything?”

Weynild pursed her lips. “We have one in storage that was used by your grandmother Queen Morwen, I believe.” As always, Éomer was amazed how she knew every last detail of the household, from the contents of the larder and wine cellar to the disposition of linens. She had a bard’s memory.

“It’s a very nice piece of furniture,” Weynild added, “originally from Gondor.”

“Please,” Lothíriel protested, “that won’t be necessary. Any old trestle table will do for me.”

Weynild huffed with outrage. “I will not have the Mark’s future–” She broke off. “That is, no honoured guest of Éomer King will sit at ‘any old trestle table’ while I am housekeeper of Meduseld.”

Éomer held his breath, but Lothíriel had noticed nothing. “You are most kind,” she said. “I hope it’s not too much trouble for you.”

“None at all. I’ll get two of the menservants to carry it over.”

“See to it,” Éomer ordered. “Thank you, Weynild.”

Once the housekeeper had withdrawn, Lothíriel grinned. “I think I had better not tell her that I need an old sheet to cover the desk for when I’m mixing my paints. I’ll ask Alfwen, the girl who changes our linens, to get me one, so as not to offend Weynild’s sensibilities.”

“She takes her responsibilities very seriously,” Éomer agreed. He was glad to see the two got along though, for the rest of the household would follow Weynild’s lead.

“Is it all right that I’ll do my painting in here? I was thinking just now that I would rather keep my pigments in a place where Tarcil cannot help himself unsupervised.” She sent him an anxious look. “That is, if you still want a picture for your sister?”

“Yes, of course.” He crossed over to look out the window. “However, with this wet weather it’s useless, you wouldn’t be able to see the mountains at all. And I wanted to show you the view.”

She sighed. “You’re right. But I’d love to take Shirram for a ride.”

“It will pass.” For some reason he felt personally responsible for the weather in the Mark. “It’s good for the crops,” he pointed out.

Lothíriel seemed to read his mind, for the corners of her eyes crinkled. “Remember what I said, that you’re not to blame for everything that happens in Rohan? I won’t ask weregild for the rain.”

Éomer snorted. “A good thing too, or I’d never be able to clear my debt.” He pondered the matter for a moment. “Except the traditional way, of course.”

“How is that done?”

He leant back against the window behind him. “By binding the debtor over to make good his obligation, in any way you please.”

She chuckled. “I would have the King of Rohan at my mercy? Don’t tempt me.”

He lowered his voice. “Would it be a great temptation?”

Her smile grew uncertain. “Why, yes, of course,” she answered lightly. “What woman wouldn’t want to have a king at her beck and call?”

She wouldn’t, it appeared.

Not wanting to make her feel uncomfortable, he smiled and led the conversation back to the ordering of the library. It did not surprise him though when soon afterwards she excused herself to have her midday meal with Tarcil and Khuri.

Éomer cursed himself for a fool. He should know by now that every time he as much as hinted at his interest she grew all wary, like a filly spooked by cruel handling. And yet she trusted him and enjoyed his company, as long as he did not cross that invisible line, of that he was sure.

Looking out the window, he watched curtains of rain sweeping across the entrance to Harrowdale Vale, concealing and revealing the mist-wreathed heights in turn. Deep rooted and ancient, the mountains changed only slowly, the snow melting as the seasons advanced. Nothing could speed that process.

He hoped Lothíriel just needed more time. The alternative was too bleak to consider. 


***


A couple of days later the weather did clear up, a warm southerly wind drying out the grass, and Éomer took the first opportunity to suggest going for a ride. Lothíriel accepted the offer eagerly. When he heard they just wanted to look at the view of the mountains, Tarcil however chose not to come along, opting instead to accompany Khuri down to the training grounds.

Éomer’s riders had set up a small practise course there for him and the other children, which involved jumping over low obstacles, weaving between sticks driven into the ground and collecting rings hanging from poles. By far the most popular obstacle though was a moat to splash through.

He wondered whether Lothíriel minded that Tarcil did not want to come along, but she made no effort to persuade the boy. Once they were past the gates and had waved good-bye to the children’s party, she leant over.

“I’m really looking forward to racing Shirram and seeing how fast he is. But don’t tell Tarcil. I’m always admonishing him to be sensible.”

He grinned down at her. “Still thinking you’ll make me eat your dust?” They had regained their easy companionship, and he did not intend to endanger it again by pushing too hard.

“Absolutely. Although it’s been so wet, I’ll settle for splattering clods of mud all over you.”

Éomer laughed. However, he had no illusions about winning a race between them. Quite apart from carrying more weight, Firefoot was built for endurance. He could go all day and fight in a battle at the end of it, as he had proved during the war, besides being agile and quick to learn, qualities that mattered much more in a war horse than mere speed.

Sensing his rider’s excitement, Shirram threw up his head and pranced. But Lothíriel checked him easily, sitting deep in the saddle and demanding his attention, which made the stallion swivel back his ears, eager to please her. She had dispensed with her riding skirts and wore trousers like the women of the Rohirrim, displaying her long legs to advantage, Éomer could not help noticing. The finely built horse and elegant woman matched each other well.

Heading west, they crossed the Snowbourne at the ford outside Edoras. With the stream swollen from rain and snow melt, the water frothed around their horses’ legs up to the hocks. From there they followed the Great West Road, which crossed the plains, leading to the Gap of Rohan.

Lothíriel kept sending him sideways glances, and finally he laughed. “Very well. Go ahead and show us how fast the pair of you are.”

“What about a race?” She sent him a cheeky smile. “I’d even give you a head start.”

Éomer chuckled. “No thanks. Unless we make it a longer distance of course.”

“Then you would run us into the ground,” she conceded.

He lifted Firefoot into a canter; the others followed suit, his riders fanning out either side behind them. Their horses’ hooves pounded on the turf and the wind tugged at his hair, making him laugh with exhilaration.

“Go,” he shouted, leaning low over the stallion’s withers.

At first they galloped head to head, then Lothíriel gave an ululating cry and Shirram took off like an arrow from a bow. The horse was incredibly fast. With every stride he opened up the gap further, literally leaving them standing. Lothíriel’s laughter floated back to him on the wind.

They flew along like that for perhaps a mile or two, before she straightened up and drew Shirram in, allowing them to catch up. As they slowed to a walk, she bent forward and hugged the stallion’s foam-flecked neck.

“Oh, Éomer, isn’t he wonderful?” she asked, eyes sparkling, cheeks flushed from exertion.

“That was impressive.”

She grinned. “Do you regret giving him away?”

“I didn’t give him away,” he retorted. “He was stolen from under my nose.”

Lothíriel broke into laughter. “I plead guilty…” She shot him a look brimful of mischief. “… Éomer Sláwyrm.”

“Now that, my lady princess, is adding insult to injury,” he said in a stern tone that fooled nobody, least of all his riders, who were listening with identical grins on their faces.

Secretly he was delighted to see her in such high spirits. This was the highly desirable woman he wanted for his wife  – but how to persuade her to want him too? However, he decided to put that thorny problem aside for the moment and to just enjoy her company.

Up ahead, the knoll that marked Éowyn’s favourite vantage point came into sight, so they left the road. The last of a number of small hillocks that ran out from the foothills of the White Mountains, it afforded a sweeping view of the whole mountain chain from distant Thrihyrne to mighty Irensaga rising behind Edoras.

A small stream skirted the foot of the knoll, bordered by willows and alder trees, and they stopped to water the horses and rub them down with bundles of grass. Lothíriel pitched in as a matter of course, though Éomer’s squire Beortulf would have been happy to do it for her. And all the while she showered Shirram with endearments, telling him how marvellous he was, making Éomer wish she would lavish the same love on him. He would not be jealous of a horse, he told himself.

Their mounts provided for, Éomer and Lothíriel climbed the hillock. His men meanwhile settled down in the shade of a tree. More from a sense of duty than real necessity, Éothain also posted a couple of guards. Since the end of the war, no enemies had been seen this close to Edoras, but he took his position as captain of the king’s guard very seriously. Éomer fully approved. Having Lothíriel along, he was determined not to run any risks.

She had brought her collapsible desk with her and settled down in the grass at the top of the knoll. “I can understand why your sister loves the view.”

He nodded. It was one of those days when the air was clear as crystal, making the snowy tops of the mountains seem close enough to touch. A flash of gold marked Meduseld standing on its lonely height, with tall Starkhorn further back from it.

Lothíriel got out her book and started to sketch the line of peaks marking the horizon. “I’ll do the proper painting back in Meduseld, but I want to get it exactly right for Lady Éowyn.” Pausing a moment, she tapped the quill on the paper. “It needs something more though, just the view on its own is a bit boring.”

“No, it’s not,” he protested, stung by this criticism of his homeland.

She chuckled. “I meant no offence. Just that the composition needs something in the foreground, to add interest and lead the eye along.” She put her desk aside and jumped up. “I know: you stand there and look out over the view.” She pointed to a place in front and to the right of her, near the edge of the hilltop.

Feeling slightly foolish, he did as told. “But what’s the point? You can only see my back.”

“Trust me, it will make the picture more interesting.” She studied the effect for a moment. “Have you got your helmet along?”

“Yes, down below with Firefoot. Why?” he asked, bewildered.

“I don’t suppose you could put it on? A cloak would look good too, if you have one.”

Anything to please his lady. He whistled, and at the call Firefoot threw up his head. When his men let him loose, he scrambled up the slope in big bounds.

“Oh, you have to teach me how to do that,” Lothíriel exclaimed.

Éomer put on the helmet hanging from the saddle horn and unrolled his cloak, which he’d fastened behind the saddle.

“Let me do that,” she said and draped it round his shoulders. Standing on tiptoe, she brushed out the white horsetail on his helmet. “Oh yes, this is just the thing.”

Very much aware of her closeness and his men observing the goings-on with great interest, he tried to ignore her soft touch and the hint of flowery perfume that clung to her. As she studied him critically, she provided him with a perfect view of flawless skin and soft red lips. All he’d have to do for a kiss would be to extend an arm and pull her to him. Éomer squashed the impulse. But one day soon…

Curious as to his master’s doing, Firefoot ambled over and gave a loud snort. Lothíriel grabbed his reins and handed them to Éomer. “That’s even better. See if he’ll hold still.”

The stallion got placed by Éomer’s side and had his mane combed out. Then she took a step back and examined them. “Perfect: The Lord of the Mark surveys his domain,” she declared. “I like to title my pictures, you see.”

Not waiting for an answer, she picked up her desk and sat down again. Feeling self-conscious Éomer stared out over the view. At least he had Firefoot’s company.

It took a while for her to fill several pages of her book with sketches, before he was allowed to move once more. As a reward she granted him a quick peek at the rough outline of her composition. There was the familiar silhouette of the mountains, with Edoras like a lonely sentinel standing guard. In the foreground to one side she had drawn him standing with Firefoot next to him. Finally he saw what she had meant: his figure added scale to the whole design.

The other pages held more sketches of various details, his helmet on its own, Firefoot’s head, the line of mountains half a dozen times. Since the drawings were all in ink, she had added notes on the colours in tiny script next to them.

“I need to do a few more,” she said, regarding her work critically, “but it’s a start.”

“Haven’t we earned a break yet?” Éomer asked. “Posing for paintings is hungry work.”

Lothíriel laughed at his plaintive tone, but agreed to put aside her desk to have a meal. He spread his cloak for her to sit on and fetched the saddle bags. These disgorged a surprising variety of food: freshly baked buns, ham sausages, three different kinds of cheese, nuts and dried fruit, vegetable pastries and Lothíriel’s favourite glazed cinnamon cakes carefully wrapped in waxed paper. Freawaru, Meduseld’s cook, had even included a wine skin and two cups to drink from.

Éomer frowned down at the unexpected bounty. The kitchen had been most generous with them; bread, cheese and small-beer was the standard fare for a day’s excursion, all he had asked for. Also though the hilltop would have been the best place for a lookout, Éothain had placed them further down, so he and Lothíriel were actually out of sight of his men.

He got a sinking feeling in his stomach. Were they trying to assist him in wooing Lothíriel? Come to think of it, at the last council meeting he had not once been pestered about finding a wife, a most ominous development. Why did he get the feeling everybody but the woman he wanted for his bride knew about his intentions?

“Is something the matter with the food?” Lothíriel interrupted his brooding. “It didn’t get squashed, did it?”

“What? Eh, no, everything is fine.” He started to cut the cheese.

She poured the wine and handed him one of the cups. Her eyebrows rose when she took the first sip. “That’s a good vintage. A bit of a waste to transport it in a wineskin.”

The cook had probably considered such a sacrifice worth it, Éomer thought, but did not enlighten her. “My household seems to mean us well. Perhaps they’re relieved to have us out from underfoot.”

Lothíriel chuckled. “True. The hall has been rather full of damp, bored men lately.”

“They haven’t dared to–”

“No, no,” she interrupted. “Everybody’s been scrupulously polite. But Freawaru has been complaining about the amount of ale consumed and threatened to make them carry up the barrels themselves.”

He stared at her. “You know the cook?”

“Oh yes.” She popped some raisins in her mouth. “Weynild gave me a tour of Meduseld and introduced me to all the staff. I often sit in the kitchen; they always have a treat for Tarcil.”

Éomer could not help feeling alarmed. Yet Lothíriel seemed to be completely unaware of the reason why Weynild wanted to show her round. She grinned at him. “And Freawaru has the most fascinating stories about you.”

He groaned. The old cook had known him since he had come to live at Edoras at the age of eleven. She still treated him like a little boy. “Don’t believe everything she tells you.”

“Oh, if you were anything like Amrothos and me, she probably doesn’t know half of what you were up to.”

That made him chuckle. “True. In fact Éothain and I often played truant. And Éowyn used to tag along, grimly determined not to be left behind.” He could still remember his sister with her hair in pigtails, riding her favourite pony, that dark grey one with the snappy temper, her clothes stained with grass and mud. Not the White Lady then.

“Don’t tell Tarcil,” Lothíriel said, “but we sometimes skipped lessons to go sailing.” She smiled reminiscently. “Elphir used to be livid whenever we stole his skiff, but it was the fastest one.”

Éomer lifted his cup of wine. “To absconding,” he proposed a toast.

She followed suit. “May we never get caught.”

They grinned at each other, then started on the food. She had a healthy appetite, he was pleased to see, and the fresh air brought colour to her cheeks. It seemed to him that since coming to Rohan she had opened up and was more at ease than before, though still at times a hint of sadness passed across her face. If only she would let him kiss that away.

Unaware of his thoughts, she gave a happy sigh. “I love these wide open spaces, it makes you feel free. I just hope I’ll manage to capture that in my painting for Lady Éowyn.”

“I’m sure she’ll be thrilled.” In his opinion Lothíriel thought too little of her talents.

“You and your sister are very close, I believe?”

He cut himself a slice of ham sausage. “We are. Though once I joined Elfhelm’s éored, I lived in Aldburg and only saw her infrequently. And of course after I was made marshal myself, I had my home there permanently, while Éowyn chose to look after our uncle.”

Later he had blamed himself for being too caught up in the warrior’s world, yet his sister would have been the first to tell him he had to keep their people safe from orc raids.

“The shadow fell on Meduseld so gradually, I took a long time to notice how withdrawn she had become,” he added. “Later I realised that she did not want to tell me about Wormtongue hounding her because she worried what I would do. I have a bit of a temper, you see.”

At his rueful tone, she smiled. “I’ve heard it mentioned, yes. Do you miss her very much?”

“I do, but I want what is best for her.” He stared out over the view, not seeing it. “Though I never imagined she would leave the Mark. I always assumed that when Éowyn married she would settle down somewhere close by.” He forced a smile. “But I will not complain, for she is happy with Faramir. And she likes being lady of her own hall.”

Lothíriel nodded, pensively nibbling a cinnamon cake. “After living in my aunt’s household, I can sympathise. Don’t misunderstand me, Aunt Ivriniel has always been very kind to me. I am grateful to her, but it must be nice to be your own mistress.”

Well, he could offer her that, but doubted the prospect would sway her. His lady-love, completely oblivious of his thoughts, expounded the topic. “Weynild mentioned how important the lady of the hall is here in Rohan. She said your grandmother, Morwen of Lossarnach, had quite a reputation.”

And just happened to be a Gondorian too. “Yes, she was a power to be reckoned with,” Éomer agreed. “A true Queen of the Eorlingas.”

Lothíriel sighed. “How different it was in Harad. A royal lady there hardly ever leaves the palace and does no useful work. If I hadn’t had my painting, I think I would have gone crazy.” She sounded bitter. “But what can you expect when you put all those women together with nothing to do, no purpose in their life except to make themselves beautiful to please their husband? Of course they gossip and intrigue against each other and lord it over the secondary wives.”

He had listened attentively, for she hardly ever spoke of her life in Harad, but now he choked on his wine. “The what?”

“Oh, secondary wives are perfectly respectable there. A man can keep as many as he wants – or as he can afford rather.”

Anger ignited inside Éomer. “Did your husband have many?” What fool wanted other women when he had her?

“He used to have some, but it’s customary to pension them off upon marrying your proper wife, and he never got new ones. So it was just him and me. I never had to worry about falling out of favour.” She frowned, absentmindedly running her finger over the golden torc at her throat. “You know, sometimes I wondered whether they might have been company or even allies, but I don’t think I would have liked it.”

Slowly he released his breath. It seemed the man might have had a dim sense of what priceless jewel fate had handed him. Even if he did not deserve the gift.

Lothíriel shrugged and finished her cake. “So that was my life: supremely boring most of the time, interspersed with a few moments of sheer terror.”

When she had been attacked? “I’m sorry,” he said.

She raised an eyebrow. “What for? Remember what I said, you are not responsible for all the world’s ills.”

He knew that and yet he had the irrational feeling that he had failed her somehow by not being there.

Setting down her cup of wine, she smiled at him. “Indeed, I’m grateful to you for giving me meaningful work. Speaking of which, I need to do a few more sketches. But don’t worry about having to pose again, I just want to get the mountains right, so we won’t have to return. I know how many demands on your time you have.”

“I would not mind coming again.”

“Am I doing you a favour by helping you escape from your council meetings?” she teased him.

His council probably thought he was working on his most pressing task. “Oh yes,” he said, falling in with her lighter tone. “Words cannot express my gratitude.”

They began to pack away the remains of their meal; Freawaru would be pleased to see that most of it had gone. There was one cinnamon cake left and they both reached for it at the same time, then laughed.

“You have it,” Éomer said.

Lothíriel shook her head. “No, please, you do. I’ve had more than my fair share.”

He broke it in half and offered her a piece. She accepted and briefly their fingers touched. It would have been so easy, so natural, to reach out and caress her face, to pull her into a kiss. But he knew that was not the way. The last thing he wanted to be was another man who touched her against her wishes. She had to come to him. And she wasn’t ready. Not yet.

And so the moment was lost. While he packed away the saddle bags, she shook out his cloak. But when she wanted to roll it up, he took it away from her and spread it on the ground for her to sit on while drawing.

Lothíriel settled down with her desk on her lap and he lay down in the grass nearby, content to just enjoy her company. After so many years of constant fighting, he sometimes found it hard to believe that they were finally at peace. Yet though there were still foes out there and plenty of old griefs, he held hope for the future.

He took a deep breath of the air that smelled of growing things, of flowers, moist soil and fresh leaves. The ground lay firm beneath him, this land that he had sworn to protect. No orc feet trampled its green grass, no blood stained its clear streams, no fires from burning homes blackened the sky.

Éomer relaxed. Through half-closed eyes he watched Lothíriel dip her quill in the ink and draw, looking up every now and again to check the view. She was completely focused on her work, lost in a world of colours and lines, and not aware of him at all.

Perhaps in another month or two he could take her along to see the horse herds in the Eastemnet. She would like that, he thought, the wide open plains framed by mountains and the gently rippling downs.

He yawned. By then it would be hot, but at the moment it was still pleasant to lie in the sun, his belly full of good food and wine. While imperceptibly his eyes dropped shut, he idly pondered the question of how to woo a woman without her noticing…

Warm breath chased across his temples.

Hair tickled his nose, then velvety lips brushed against his.

“Mmh?” he murmured sleepily.

A loud snort sounded in his ears.

Éomer surged up. “What?”

Startled, Firefoot threw up his head and stepped back.

Éomer realised he must have fallen asleep. A quick glance at the sky revealed the sun having advanced considerably. When he looked over towards Lothíriel, he found her grinning at him, her desk set at her side.

“Have I been asleep long?” he asked.

“Quite a while, but I didn’t have the heart to wake you.” She chuckled. “Firefoot was less considerate, I’m afraid.”

He could not help feeling embarrassed. “I hope I didn’t snore.”

“Oh no, don’t worry. And you didn’t talk in your sleep either.”

Horrified by the idea, he could only stare at her.

Lothíriel laughed. “Are you afraid you might give away state secrets?”

“Worse,” he said reflexively, making her laugh again.

Little did she know.

Chapter 10

The next day, Lothíriel brought her painting materials with her to the library. As promised, Weynild had located Queen Morwen’s desk for her, a beautiful piece of furniture, light and elegant, its wood polished to perfection until it gleamed with a warm, golden sheen. The housekeeper had it positioned near the window, where the light was best, at an angle to Éomer’s own desk.

Lothíriel started reordering the library, but did not progress very quickly. To Éomer’s secret amusement and her own mortification, she kept getting distracted and ended up reading the books instead of cataloguing their content and putting them away. Éomer very cannily added to this temptation by having the window seat fitted with comfortable cushions. He liked her company and had no interest in having her finish her self-appointed task anytime soon. Perhaps he should write to Aragorn for copies of more volumes from Minas Tirith’s famous archives?

He was sitting in the library, going through a packet of letters delivered that morning by the weekly courier from Gondor, when Lothíriel opened the door, a piece of cloth tucked under her arm and carrying a flat wooden box with a satchel balancing on top of it.

Upon spotting him, she hesitated in the doorway. “I’m sorry, I hope we’re not disturbing you?”

He smiled an invitation to her. “Not at all, please come in.”

Reassured, she entered the room. Tarcil followed her, carrying a tray with a jug of water and a couple of glasses, a look of concentration on his face.

Éomer jumped up. “Let me give you a hand.”

But she shook her head. “Please do not let me keep you from your work. Is it all right if Tarcil stays? He has promised to be quiet.”

“Yes, of course.”

No matter how often he told her that she was welcome in the library, she still apologised for interrupting him at his duties. Which was ironic, considering that most of the household probably thought it his foremost kingly duty to spend more time with her and finally get to the point.

If only it were that easy.

He smiled at Tarcil. “Are you helping your mother?”

The boy nodded. “I’m good at drawing, too,” he announced.

The tray wobbled dangerously, and Éomer relieved him of his burden. “Really? You have to show me.”

“I will.”

Under Lothíriel’s direction the boy helped to spread the cloth, an old linen sheet by the looks of it, on her desk. Éomer set down the tray and watched with interest as she began to unpack her drawing implements from the satchel: a set of paintbrushes rolled up in a leather case, several small knives with fine blades and a pestle and mortar. Finally she got out a long leather tube of the type to keep maps in.

“Paper from Pelargir,” she explained. “They make the very best quality, so I always get my supplies from there.”

“And what’s in there?” Éomer asked, pointing at the wooden box.

Flat and about the size of a large book, it was a work of art in itself, with its lid beautifully inlaid in an abstract pattern of different coloured woods.

Lothíriel stroked the box lovingly. “My pigments.”

She slid open the latch and carefully folded back the lid. The inside held four rows of small jewellery boxes nestled close together and further cushioned by red velvet lining the top and sides. The boxes themselves were worked from chased gold and decorated with fine patterns.

She opened one to show him a bright scarlet powder. “The Haradrim call this Kermes, it’s actually made from insects, I’ve seen it prepared.” Other boxes held ground malachite, several shades of ochre and a different, much darker red.

“That’s dragon’s blood,” Tarcil put in. “From when one of them fought with a mûmak.”

Lothíriel chuckled. “Don’t believe him, it’s the sap of a shrub.” She warmed to her subject. “But some of these pigments are produced from the most amazing sources. Back home in Dol Amroth they make a deep purple from whelks of all things.” She showed him.

“And there’s a whole box full of gold powder,” Tarcil added.

Lothíriel fended off her son’s curious fingers. “Yes, but this is the really precious stuff.” She opened another box, which held a dark blue powder, very finely ground. “It’s my favourite, made from a rare stone only found in the mountains of Eastern Khand. Weight by weight this is twice as expensive as gold. But it’s wonderful for painting sea or sky.” She gave a twisted smile. “I must have cost my husband an absolute fortune in ultramarine.”

Éomer mentally added pigments to his list of courting gifts. “So this is Haradric work?” he asked, pointing at the box. It surprised him to have them produce such a thing of beauty.

Lothíriel stroked the satiny wood. “Yes, one of the few things I managed to bring with me. I’ve since had to replace some of the pigments, but my father bought more supplies from the archives of Minas Tirith. The scribes there use them to illustrate their manuscripts. My family likes to indulge me, you see,” she added lightly.

To allay their guilty conscience? If so, he doubted it worked. “How do you use these pigments?” he asked. “Do you mix them with water?”

“Not quite.” She opened another, bigger box. This one held what at first glance looked like raisins, but turned out to be pebbles of a strange substance.

“Gum haradric,” Lothíriel explained. “It’s the dried sap of a special tree. You grind it up with the pigments and only then add water and a drop of honey.” With a tiny spoon she scooped up some of the ultramarine and placed it in the mortar, before adding a piece of the gum. “It will take me a while to prepare all the paints, but once they’re mixed up, even if they dry out, I can simply add a little water to them.”

Tarcil reached for the pestle, but she intercepted his hand. “You can have a go later. Remember, you’ve promised to finish your assignments from today’s lessons first.”

The boy grumbled a bit, more for form’s sake Éomer felt, but then borrowed his mother’s portable desk and settled down in the window seat.

“What does he have to do?” Éomer asked.

“Khuri is giving him lessons in Haradric.” She picked up the pestle and began to grind up the ultramarine in small, measured motions. “Some of the finer details are difficult to master, and I want him to be able to speak his father’s language well.”

She kept her voice level, but there was tension in her shoulders. Had she been criticised for keeping her husband’s memory alive for Tarcil’s sake?

“That’s good of you,” he said. Lothíriel just shrugged, but she seemed to relax imperceptibly.

Éomer watched her at her work a moment longer, then went back to his letters. The courier’s packet had included a missive in Éowyn’s sprawling hand, which he picked up to reread. It was full of the small news of her new home. He couldn’t help thinking that like him, she found joy in ordinary things. He had the suspicion he was not his sister’s only correspondent in Edoras though.

I hear you have the Princess of Dol Amroth staying with you, she wrote near the end. Faramir introduced me to her brother Amrothos at the festivities in Minas Tirith and we had a little talk. Éomer groaned inwardly. That sounded ominous. Will I meet her? You have hardly mentioned the princess at all in your letters, do tell me more about her.

What did Éowyn expect, a blow by blow account of his wooing? So far that would make for a sorry tale. A quick mental calculation made him wonder if she’d had a report of the incident at the remembrance feast yet. What would his shieldmaiden sister make of that?

He resolved to include a bland description of Lothíriel doing her commission for him in his next letter, sufficiently short not to give his heart away, but long enough to satisfy his sister. The last thing he wanted was for her to decide to come to Edoras and support him. He shuddered at the thought. Éowyn with his best interest at heart was a formidable force, but so in her own way was Lothíriel. It would be like a meeting of two steel blades.

He turned to the rest of his letters. Aragorn’s news was far less pleasant. Sauron might have been defeated, but there were still many of their foes out there, men who had no love for Gondor and Rohan. His friend liked to be prepared and had included reports by his scouts on the movements of their enemies to the south and east.

Éomer drummed his fingers on his desk. They would have to step up their patrols along the East Wall of Rohan and in the Wold, yet they were still short-handed from the loss of so many riders. Also, though the Dunlendings had been quiet lately, he did not like to leave that border unprotected either. Perhaps he ought to call a conference of his Marshals and captains to discuss the matter. He fetched a map from the library’s shelves and settled down to pore over the reports in more detail.

After a while he straightened up and stretched. Lothíriel and Tarcil were both bent over their tasks, an identical look of concentration on their faces, the resemblance between mother and son pronounced. It was rare to see the boy sitting so still, usually he was constantly in motion. Catching a glimpse of his work though, Éomer had the suspicion that Tarcil was drawing something, not doing his Haradric lessons. Not that he would give the boy away.

Noticing his eyes on them, Lothíriel gave him an absentminded smile as she brushed a wisp of hair out of her face, then went back to scraping the finished paint out of the mortar and into a set of shells she kept for that purpose. It was the kind of moment at which Éomer would have liked to stop time.

He desired this woman, wanted her to share his bed, but even more he wanted her to share his life. To work in the library while she read a book, to go for rides together, for her to be the lady of his hall and stand at his side as they greeted their guests. To possess that beauty, that grace, that strength paired with odd vulnerability. And to protect her. Always.

Éomer looked back down at his letters. Unfortunately his lady showed no desire to possess him back in her own turn. The thought had probably not even crossed her mind. It was as if she had walled up that part of herself, determined never to be hurt again. Young in years and old in experience she had called herself…

Having cleaned the mortar in readiness of mixing a new batch of paint, Lothíriel studied her selection of pigments, fingers hovering first over one box, then another.

Éomer got up and strolled over. “Do you want me to give you a hand?”

“Oh no, I’m fine. I’m just trying to decide which greens to make up, for I will need several.” She nodded at her sketch book lying open on the desk.

He saw that she had made an outline of the picture, with lots of notes on which colour to use. When he drew the book over, the pebbles holding the page open rolled away, and he caught a glimpse of other drawings.

He looked at Lothíriel for permission. “May I?”

“Of course.” She smiled, and it heartened Éomer how much she was at ease with him. Leaning across the desk, she flipped the book open at another page. “I had meant to ask you for your opinion actually.”

He got a whiff of her perfume; the sleeve of her dress trailed across his hand. Tantalisingly aware of her closeness, he forced himself to turn his head away, lest she read his thoughts on his face. He could hardly start kissing her with her young son looking on! Besides, she had a whole selection of sharp little knives laid out ready within reach.

“So what do you think?” Lothíriel asked.

He started guiltily, then realised she meant her sketch book. This showed a number of drawings of entwined patterns very much in the traditional Rohirric style, similar to those found on the flagstones and pillars of Meduseld. Caught up in the fold of the page were some strands of different coloured wool in blue and green.

Lothíriel tapped a finger on the patterns. “I meant to do a frame around the picture in the same style, like the borders of your tapestries.”

“And what are these for?” he asked, picking up the bits of wool.

She hesitated. “That’s just an idea I’ve had. You know that I’m often sitting with Leofrun and the other widows?”

He nodded. She seemed to consider her place to be amongst the matrons, even though he would gladly have had her at his side at the high table.

“Well, some of them have been showing me their work, woven carpets. So I’ve commissioned one to send to my sister-in-law.” She pointed at the wool. “These colours will set off her copper hair to perfection. I’m sure Aerin will place the carpet in her solar and then the other ladies in Dol Amroth are bound to want similar ones. The patterns are unusual, unlike anything you can get in Gondor.” She gave him an uncertain look. “I don’t want to meddle, but some of those widows are hard up, and I wanted to help. Weynild thought you would not mind?”

 “Of course not. In fact you’re very kind.” And doing exactly the sort of thing a good queen would do. Though the traditional way would have been to find those widows new husbands. Trust Lothíriel to go for a different solution.

“I know how privileged I am,” she said. “And this way, even when I’ve returned to Dol Amroth, I’ll leave something behind.” She looked wistful at the thought.

Dared he hope that she wanted to stay? In any other woman he would have taken her words for a hint, but he knew better.

Tarcil, who had jumped down from the window seat to see what they were looking at, must have got bored. He poked a finger at the sketch book. “You’re in there too, you know,” he said to Éomer. “I saw your picture.”

“Mine?” Éomer asked in surprise.

“Tarcil,” Lothíriel protested. “It’s nothing really,” she said to Éomer. “Just a little sketch.”

The boy was already turning the pages. “Here.”

Éomer found a picture of himself lying asleep in the grass, with Firefoot bending over him. “That was the other day!”

She had made quite a detailed drawing of the whole scene and another one just of his face. At least he didn’t have his mouth open in his sleep, he was relieved to see.

“I thought I might draw a fair copy of it for Lady Éowyn,” Lothíriel said. She was blushing. “Your sister might find it amusing.” Taking possession of the sketch book, she snapped it shut and turned to her son. “So are you finished with your assignment, Tarcil? Let me have a look.”

Obediently the boy fetched his work, a page of writing embellished with lots of drawings of some kind of animal. His mother ignored his artistic attempts for the moment and read through it.

Éomer, looking over her shoulder, did not understand a word, not surprising since it was Haradric. “What does it say?”

“These are all greetings. Haradric has many different modes, depending on who is speaking to whom and how formal the setting is.”

“You had to learn all that?” No wonder she was quick to pick up Rohirric.

“Oh yes. Nothing gives you away as a foreigner faster than using the wrong inflection. And it’s very easy to cause offence without meaning to.” Suddenly she chuckled. “Mind you, it’s also great for subtle insults.” She turned to Tarcil. “So how would you greet a prince of the blood at a formal reception?”

Rangat-met-murakha,” Tarcil answered at once.

“What would the prince answer?”

Rangat-tar-shahan.

“Very good. And how would you address King Éomer here?”

The boy flashed them a cheeky grin. “That’s easy: Westu Éomer Cyning hál.”

Éomer laughed out loud, and Lothíriel shook her head in loving exasperation.

“He’s learning Rohirric fast,” Éomer said. He nodded towards the boy’s drawings. “So what are these? Horses?”

Tarcil frowned. “Of course not. Horses don’t have whiskers.” He pointed to some lines that Éomer had taken for hair, his tone of voice making clear that he did not think much of Éomer’s intelligence. “These are cheetahs.”

Cheetahs? Hadn’t Lothíriel mentioned them once? “A kind of cat, I think?” Éomer hazarded.

“Yes, my father hunted with them.”

“With them?” Éomer asked back. “Don’t you mean he hunted them?” He took another look at the picture. “Ah, I know. It must be another name for a lion.” He’d seen pelts of those in Gondor, imported from the south.

Lothíriel shook her head. “No, cheetahs are smaller and have spotted fur, but no mane. And they’re very fast. The nobles in Harad train them to chase gazelles. My husband had several cheetahs in his kennels, and Tarcil was allowed to go along on a hunt once.”

“I’ve got another picture,” Tarcil put in. “A proper one that mummy drew. Want to have a look?”

“Certainly.”

Éomer thought that Tarcil would go and fetch it, but instead the boy took him by the hand and dragged him towards the door. With a shrug Lothíriel put down Tarcil’s page of writing and followed them. Outside in the hallway, Khuri was standing guard. She gave them a surprised look as they trooped past.

Tarcil led them straight to his room, the old nursery. “In here.”

Éomer hesitated at the door, for he did not want to intrude on Lothíriel’s privacy. But when he shot her a look, she nodded her permission. Inside, he got a surprise: the room was very different to how he remembered it. A thick carpet covered the floor, cushions in bright scarlet silk were scattered across it, and one corner had been turned into a sort of tent with gauzy drapes hanging down.

“I wanted to make it as homelike as possible for Tarcil,” Lothíriel explained. Suddenly she looked anxious. “You don’t mind?”

He wondered what expression had been on his face at finding this little corner of Harad right in the heart of Meduseld. But how could he object when she only thought of her son’s wellbeing. “They’re your rooms. Please make yourself at home.” And he had to admit that it looked comfortable.

Tarcil had been rummaging around in a chest and now drew out a leather bound booklet. “Found it.” He leafed through the book and showed Éomer a page triumphantly. “See, this is a cheetah.”

The drawing depicted the animal staring at the observer, crouched behind the bars of a cage. The curious markings on the face made its gaze even more compelling, as if reproaching its captors.

“Father also had many falcons and hawks,” Tarcil went on happily. “And his own mûmakil of course.” He turned the page to show several ink sketches of those fearsome beasts. “Aren’t they amazing?”

“Yes, I’ve seen them,” Éomer said.

Lothíriel shot him a look at his dry tone. “Tarcil, they killed many men on the Pelennor Fields,” she said to her son.

“I know, but that’s not the fault of the mûmakil, is it? When they’re your own, it’s different.”

Éomer had to snort at the boy’s logic. “True.” The mûmakil all wore heavy chains, he noticed. The man seemed to have liked caging wild things. Including a princess of Gondor? “What else have you got in there?” he asked, curious.

“It’s all about Harad. Mummy made it for me.”

“I want Tarcil to remember his heritage,” Lothíriel said, sounding defensive.

The boy flicked through the pages quickly. Éomer caught a glimpse of sumptuous gardens, a couple of landscapes, one page dark blue with star constellations marked out, a market scene quickly sketched, a younger Tarcil playing in a fountain…

At one picture he stopped Tarcil from turning the page. It depicted a city sprawling across a hill, ringed with thick fortifications. “Is that the City of Serpents?”

Lothíriel nodded. “Yes, my husband took me outside once to show me the view.”

The wall seemed to be built from some kind of brown sandstone, not very high, but thick and massive. If they ever wanted to take it, they would need siege-engines. She had even included small details like the arrow slits on the watchtowers overlooking the approach to the main gates. Of course they’d have to get that far first.

“I’ve got a picture of my father too,” the boy threw in. “Here, at the back–”

Gently Lothíriel took the book away from him. “That won’t interest King Éomer, Tarcil. We mustn’t impose on his time any further.”

It would have interested Éomer very much indeed, but he did not want to upset her by abusing her trust. She was slowly opening up around him, he would not jeopardise that.

Tarcil however pouted. But suddenly he brightened up. “There’s one of him over there as well.” He pointed at the wall behind his bed. “It’s even in colour. May I show King Éomer that?”

Éomer saw that the boy had two pictures hanging up. One of them was of Lýtling, his pony, the other one of a man dressed in scarlet. He cast a glance at Lothíriel.

She shrugged with resignation. “Very well.”

The portrait showed a man looking into the distance, his face cast into sharp relief. Black haired and dark skinned, he wore a stern, formal expression with no softness in it at all. Had he forced Lothíriel to paint him? It must have taken her many hours of work. Éomer remembered what she had said about giving a title to all her works. “So what did you call this picture?”

She regarded it, her eyes unreadable. “Son of the Desert.”

The torc at the man’s throat had highlights glinting with gold dust. Éomer lifted his hand to it, but did not touch the paper.

“Father’s torc is mine now,” Tarcil said. “But Mummy keeps it for me until I become a man.” He sounded slightly unsure when that would be. “Want to see it?”

“That’s enough, Tarcil. It looks exactly the same as mine anyway,” Lothíriel put in firmly. But she seemed to think that Éomer was owed an explanation. “Usually a prince receives his torc from his father when he proves himself in his first battle. He will wear it always, until he dies, when it’s twisted and buried with its owner. However, my husband charged Khuri to give me his torc to keep in trust for Tarcil.” She gazed at the picture, a finger tracing her own torc. “I knew then that he was dead.” Her voice held no emotion at all.

But didn’t she mind having to look upon that man every day? What memories went through her head when she saw those dark, piercing eyes? The face of his enemy: all angles, aloof and forbidding. And yet…

There was one thing missing, Éomer thought suddenly. It was the portrait of a watchful, reserved man, yes. But not of a cruel one. Had she flattered him?

He frowned, not liking the thought. The rich scarlet of the man’s robes, the blue of the sky behind him reminded him of Lothíriel’s box of pigments. Had that been a gift from him? With all that gold it was certainly rich and ostentatious enough, but also … thoughtful. As if the man valued her.

The idea staggered him.

Chapter 11

Every now and again for the next few days, Éomer pondered the puzzle that Lothíriel had handed him, but without finding a resolution. It was as if the ground he was standing on, which had seemed to firm, had subtly shifted.

Lothíriel herself was completely unaware of his thoughts. She was far too busy, first mixing her paints, being very particular about the exact shades she wanted, then starting on the painting proper. At least she was enjoying herself, often humming under her breath. It made him grin how she would stop guiltily, even though he had assured her it did not disturb him, only to fall back into the habit when she got caught up in her work again.

Gradually they settled into a routine, spending the mornings in the library and sharing a light midday meal before he headed down to the training grounds in the afternoon. Occasionally they would go for rides, often with the children, but sometimes just with a small escort along. Lothíriel loved it when she could let Shirram have his head.

Even after she had finished her painting and Éomer had it framed, packed very carefully and dispatched to Éowyn at Emyn Arnen, she continued to keep him company in the library. The books still needed sorting and she would write letters, teach Tarcil or work on her drawings. Often he would look up from his own papers, catch her eye and exchange a smile.

Yes, she was happy to be in the Mark and spend her days with him. Now if only she would spend her nights with him too. But always there was that reserve she retreated into when pushed too far. And he remembered all too clearly what she had said about marrying again, comparing it to a bird flying back into its cage.

Whatever had happened in Harad had marked her deeply. From what her family had told him, he had assumed she had suffered from her husband’s brutality – straightforward in its own way. Now he began to wonder if she had been more subtly abused. The hurts of the spirit could be more difficult to heal than the hurts of the body.

But all he could do was to give her time. So he talked of simple things, making plans for seeing other parts of the Mark and visiting the Eastemnet once the horse herds headed out there. He was content to see her relax, be at ease around him and make new friends, counting her smiles as his reward. Yet in the evenings, when he lay in his big, empty bed, he would often stare at the connecting door, so tantalisingly unlocked, and bury his head in the cushions with a groan.

As such it almost came as a relief to be away for a couple of days when he was invited to attend a wedding in Harrowdale, one of Déormund’s nieces marrying a local farmer. He had long talks with his old friend, managed to mostly avoid Déorwenna’s company and enjoyed the music and food. Even so, at odd moments, he found himself missing Lothíriel, and Tarcil too. It was worrying how those two had stolen their way into his heart and yet he had no idea how they felt about him. Or at least how Lothíriel felt. Tarcil had long ago adopted the attitude of Éothain’s twins and regarded him as a source of entertainment and an ally against maternal oppression.

It was a warm, early summer’s day when Éomer rode back to Edoras. High overhead swifts dived and soared, their shrill cries filling the air. In the small hamlets lining the road farmers tended their kitchen gardens and on the hillside sheep grazed, the lambs like little white dots against the fresh green grass.

As always his heart rose upon seeing the Golden Hall glinting in the afternoon sun, though it would have been even nicer to have a certain black-haired lady of Gondor awaiting his return. For a moment he indulged himself with the picture of Lothíriel rushing down the steps and flinging herself into his arms. However, the horns announcing the arrival of the Lord of the Mark only brought the stable lads running.

Éomer preferred to look after Firefoot himself, so he waved them away. In the stables he noticed some horses he had not seen before, but before he could ask about them, his attention was claimed by Shirram, the stallion kicking the walls of his box, looking restless.

“Hasn’t Lady Lothíriel taken him out lately?” he asked the stable master. It was perfect weather for a ride.

But old Mearcred shook his head. “I haven’t seen her the last two days.”

Éomer frowned. Was she ill? Lothíriel and that black demon of hers were usually inseparable. Feeling disquieted, he let his squire Beortulf finish grooming Firefoot and hastened up the steps to Meduseld.

Westu Éomer Cyning hál,” the doorwardens greeted him. “My lord,” one of them added, “Weynild has been looking for you, she wanted a word.”

Éomer motioned for them to throw the door open. “Later.” Still intent on finding Lothíriel, he stepped inside.

The hall was full of Gondorians.

Or at least it seemed so. He rocked to a halt. It was the time of day when the household would slowly get ready to lay the tables for the evening meal, but his riders had not assembled yet. However, two tables were occupied already, and boisterous voices talking Westron echoed around the hall.

Who were they? He had not expected any visitors, neither Aragorn nor Imrahil having mentioned anything in their recent letters. As Éomer walked forward, he recognised the blue and yellow coat of arms depicting a boat on a river: the men had to come from Pelargir, one of Gondor’s richest fiefs. He had met its lord on the march to the Black Gates. What had been the man’s name again? Ah yes, Eradan, son of Minardil.

He was in fact sitting at one of the tables and jumped up upon spotting Éomer. “My lord king,” Eradan exclaimed and came forward to grasp Éomer’s hand. “What a pleasure to see you.”

“The pleasure is mine,” Éomer answered politely. “What brings you here?” For a moment he wondered whether Eradan was the harbinger of bad news, but the man had the look of a well-fed cat, sleek and contented.

Eradan gave an elegant little bow. “Oh, I have long wanted to see the famed plains of Rohan. So now that peace is finally established, I thought to take the opportunity and come for a visit. I hope you do not mind the intrusion?”

“Of course not, you are welcome.” Éomer would have preferred to get advance notice of their arrival, but the Rohirrim prided themselves on their hospitality. “I’m sorry to have been away. Will you join me at the high table tonight?”

Another bow. “You honour me, my lord.”

Aware that he looked a bit worse for wear, his clothing covered in horse hair from grooming Firefoot, Éomer soon excused himself to get changed. By contrast Eradan was impeccably dressed in a silk tunic in his blue and yellow colours, matched by black trousers and shiny boots.

Still puzzled by the man’s presence, he resolved to deal with him later. First he needed to find out what ailed Lothíriel. But at the door to the private quarters, Weynild hovered.

“When did they arrive?” Éomer asked, jerking his head in Eradan’s direction.

“The day before yesterday. I’ve put them up in some of our guest-houses, but it would have been easier, had I been forewarned of their coming.” The housekeeper did not look very happy.

“I had no notice either. What does he want here anyway?”

“Oh.” Weynild shot him a sharp glance. “Lord Eradan said something about fostering trade, I believe.” She dropped him a curtsy. “If you’ll excuse me, my lord, I need to supervise the servants.” Suddenly she seemed eager to get away.

Éomer frowned after her. What was going on?

In the corridor behind the hall, Tarcil looked round the door of his room. “King Éomer? I thought I heard your voice.”

Éomer was surprised to find the boy indoors. “Hello Tarcil, you’re not out riding? Where’s your mother?”

“She’s in the library.” The boy had a face like a thundercloud. “King Éomer, now that you’re back, can you send that stupid Eradan away?”

“Why, what’s happened?”

“He wants to marry Mummy.”

On his way to the library, Éomer stopped as if poleaxed. “What!”

“Hildwyn says her mother told her so. But I don’t want Mummy to marry. I like it here.”

Black fury rushed through him. While he had been away, that dog had wormed his way into Lothíriel’s affections? How dare he. But a moment later reason asserted itself. What she had said about not wanting to marry also had to go for that peacock. Or did she know him from before? Had perhaps even invited him to Rohan? She had mentioned that Pelargir made the best paper in Gondor, but surely not even Lothíriel would take that as a reason for marrying somebody. Or would she?

He tried to keep the wrath out of his voice. “So what does your mother say?”

Caught up in his own emotions, Tarcil noticed nothing. “She says I mustn’t be rude to him. That he’s an ally of my grandfather’s.”

Well, that hardly sounded like an enthusiastic endorsement. Éomer slowly released his breath. “Not bad advice actually,” he said. “In situations like this, it’s best to be friendly, observe your opponent and discover his weak spot. Then, when he least expects it, you strike.”

Tarcil cheered up visibly. “You think so?”

“Oh yes, I have long experience.” It was in fact the tactic he was going to apply himself.

Mollified, the boy skipped along at his side as Éomer continued on his way to the library. Suddenly he wondered what he had set in motion. He cleared his throat. “You do realise that the first rule in this game is not to be caught?”

Tarcil nodded earnestly. “Oh, yes.”

Éomer did not find that altogether reassuring. Still, what could the boy possibly do?

In the library, Lothíriel was sitting in the window seat, reading a book. Upon the opening of the door, she looked up. “Éomer, you’re back!” He got a blinding smile, but at once she controlled her expression. “Did you have a nice time in Harrowdale?”

He could not help feeling slightly dazzled. “Yes, thank you–”

“Mummy,” Tarcil jumped in, sounding triumphant, “King Éomer doesn’t like Eradan either.”

“What?” Éomer protested. “Now wait a minute, I didn’t say that.”

“I could tell.”

Lothíriel gave a long-suffering sigh. “Tarcil, all I said was to be polite to the man.”

“I am polite.” He winked at Éomer. “I will go and observe him now.”

Lothíriel stared after her son. “Why would he want to observe Lord Eradan?”

Closing the door behind the boy, Éomer chose not to answer that. “Did you know he was coming for a visit?” he asked, striving for a disinterested tone.

“Lord Eradan? No, he just turned up here two days ago.” She put her book aside, a frown on her face. “Éomer, I had meant to talk to you about him.”

“Yes?” Did she by any chance want him to chase the man back to Gondor? He would have been only too delighted to oblige.

“He says he attended the celebrations in Minas Tirith and heard of my whereabouts there. Apparently Aerin mentioned that I’m in Rohan. I’m sure she meant no harm, but…”

Éomer understood at once. All thoughts of Eradan fled his mind. “You’re worried who else might hear?”

“Yes, exactly.” Lothíriel gave him a strained smile. “My father thinks that the danger has passed, and even my aunt has written to say no new enquiries have been made in Dol Amroth’s ports, but I’m not easy in my mind.” She bit her lip. “Would you mind if I stayed here a little longer?”

“No! That is, I don’t mind. You may stay for as long as you wish.” To himself he thought: forever.

She relaxed. “Thank you. I’m so lucky to have you for a friend.”

“Not at all.” Was that all she considered him, a friend? He wanted her to marry him, but not out of gratitude.

Unaware of his thoughts, Lothíriel leant back in the window seat. She tilted her head. “It will be good to have you round again. Lord Eradan said something about trade talks, surely that should keep him busy.”

Fresh wrath bubbled up in Éomer. “Has that man been pestering you?”

She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh, nothing I can’t deal with. But he keeps wanting to go out for a ride with me. You see, he’s got this showy gelding, completely white, that he’s very proud of. Pretty enough, but with a weak back in my opinion. His poor squire has to spend hours grooming the horse, keeping it spotless. He’s even brought his own soap with him from Gondor. But Lord Eradan is such a bore, going for a ride with him would be torture. And of course Tarcil’s taken an unreasonable dislike of him.”

“Not unreasonable.”

She chuckled. “Perhaps not.” Her faced darkened. “He had the impertinence to tell me that the boy needs a father.”

Involuntarily, Éomer’s hands curled into fists. “Do you want me to send him packing?”

“What? No, of course not. I don’t want to offend him.”

“I, on the other hand, would not mind doing so in the least.” For a woman who habitually carried a blade up her sleeve, she had a surprising amount of scruples. “You don’t have to put up with that kind of thing, you know.”

“It doesn’t matter. Besides, it’s hardly a new sentiment. Even my father has voiced the same opinion.” She shrugged. “My family has long thought that I should remarry, preferably a lord with a holding near Dol Amroth, so they can keep an eye on me.”

Éomer’s throat went dry. “Is that what you want?”

“No.” She looked away. “I will not let my family dictate whom I marry. Or anybody else. I have done my duty by Gondor, I don’t owe her anything anymore. And I certainly would not marry to provide Tarcil with a father.”

“Actually I’m not sure Eradan would make him a good father anyway. They do not seem to have hit it off.”

She snorted. “Hardly. Not that Lord Eradan would care, as long as he gets his alliance with Dol Amroth.”

“Is that what you think Eradan wants?” In his opinion she underestimated her personal charms. Men might go to great lengths to have this woman in their bed. He would.

Luckily Lothíriel could not read his thoughts. She shrugged. “Oh, I’m tainted by my association with Harad, but my bloodlines still make me a good match.”

“Tainted? Did that man dare to call you so?”

“No, but I can read between the lines. He did of course assure me of his undying love.”

Éomer bristled. “Under my roof?” He was willing to bide his time with her, but would not stand by and let her be snatched away from under his nose.

“Oh no, nobody has pestered me with marriage proposals here in Rohan.” She stared into nothing, a sharp crease between her brows. “I stayed with Lord Eradan in Pelargir after my escape from Harad, waiting for my family to pick us up, and he had nothing better to do than to propose. I had just been made a widow, was his guest, grateful for his hospitality, dependent on his aid.” Her voice shook with remembered indignation. “What kind of man would try to take advantage of a woman in such a situation?”

“What kind of man indeed,” Éomer agreed, a sinking feeling in his stomach.

***

At the evening meal, Eradan was visibly disappointed that Lothíriel did not sit at the high table, but bragged of his fief’s riches in a carrying voice, either for her benefit or simply out of habit. Éomer doubted Lothíriel would be impressed. Now if the man had boasted of the quality of his paper or mentioned pigments, it might have been a different matter. As it was, Éomer found it easy to keep his equanimity; after what Lothíriel had said about Eradan, he did not think him a serious rival anymore.

She sat at her usual table, but while Tarcil kept watching Eradan closely, she paid him no notice at all, talking to her friends and retiring early. Eradan marked her go with a certain frustration. Éomer had wondered why Weynild had put him up in one of Meduseld’s guest-houses instead of a room in the private quarters. Now it dawned on him that perhaps his household had been quicker on the uptake than him. There would be no chance of Eradan happening upon Lothíriel in the corridor or the library.

The next couple of days he kept the man busy, taking him down to the training grounds, where Eradan actually acquitted himself better than expected. Not on horseback though. Lothíriel had been right, his white gelding might be pretty, but had a weak back, and the Rohirrim could not respect somebody who chose a horse for its looks.

Éomer’s riders meanwhile enjoyed showing off their skill in front of the Gondorians. One evening they even got into a brawl with some of them in the Boar and Hounds, putting the tricks learnt from Khuri to good account. The next day Éothain handed out stable duty to the miscreants and apologised to Eradan. However, since he did so in the hall at dinner time, recounting in great detail how the Gondorians had got thoroughly trounced to comments and giggles from an appreciative audience, Eradan wore a fierce scowl by the end of it.

Lothíriel avoided him mostly, which meant that as a consequence Éomer did not see as much of her as he would have liked either. Tarcil by contrast was always underfoot, Khuri trailing him silent as a ghost, with Hildwyn and Éothain’s twins his constant companions. The boy made no secret of the fact that he wanted Eradan gone, though he kept his promise of being polite, but only just barely. Altogether Éomer considered it an unsatisfactory state of affairs, but Eradan showed no sign of giving up.

He kept asking Lothíriel to go for a ride with him, until she finally accepted, though she invited Éomer to come along too. Eradan looked less than pleased at this addition to his party, for he probably intended to impress her with his equestrian skill. Little did he know that Lothíriel and Shirram could leave him standing anytime they chose to.

On the morning designated for the ride, Eradan awaited them in the courtyard outside Meduseld, beautifully turned out, with his boots absolutely gleaming. His eyes boggled when he spotted Lothíriel in her usual attire of Rohirric trousers, only to then linger on her legs for what Éomer considered entirely too long.

He waved one of his men, who carried a voluminous parcel, forward. “My lady, allow me to present you a small gift.”

Lothíriel accepted it reluctantly, while beside her Tarcil looked on with a scowl.

Eradan smiled at her. “Please open it.”

It turned out to be a summer mantle made of very fine cloth, blue on the outside with a lining of yellow silk. Éomer was instantly annoyed. Those were Pelargir’s colours.

Lothíriel shook it out, her face unreadable. “My lord, it’s beautiful, but–”

“Not as beautiful as the lady for whom it is meant.” Eradan gave her a little bow.

“You are too kind. However, I cannot possibly accept it.” She handed the mantle back to the servant. “As you know I’m a widow, Lord Eradan, it would not be suitable.” Her voice was gentle, but implacable.

He frowned. “But it’s been what, two years?”

There was a flash of anger in her eyes, but she lowered them at once. “Twenty-three months. However, in Dol Amroth we put great store in proprieties.” And she stood there, daring him to comment on her less than traditional attire. Éomer could almost have felt sorry for the man. Almost.

Eradan tried a different angle. “But you need not stay a widow forever.” His suave smile had a forced edge to it. “When you meet the right man…”

His patience fraying, Éomer crossed his arms on his chest. Couldn’t the man take a hint?

Lothíriel inclined her head to Eradan. “When I do, I will let you know.”

Éomer winced. She really had a gift for cutting off a man at the knees with a few softly spoken words. Eradan’s smile congealed. Clearly he wasn’t used to not getting whatever he wanted. It didn’t help either that Tarcil chortled audibly.

Hastily Éomer offered Lothíriel his arm. “Shall we go for that ride now?”

Throwing him a grateful look, she accepted it. “Yes, let’s.”

That moment a commotion arose from the entrance to the stables. One of Eradan’s men, looking decidedly anxious, pushed through to his master’s side and whispered something in his ear.

“What?” Eradan exclaimed. “Have you taken leave of your senses?”

“My lord, I swear it’s true. We’ve tried everything.”

“What’s the matter?” Éomer interjected.

“It’s my lord’s horse, Galad is in a terrible state.” The man seemed to almost be in tears.

The showy gelding? Éomer frowned. Was he ill or had suffered an accident? A colic could come on very suddenly. Yet when he caught sight of old Mearcred, the stable master was rolling his eyes, looking more exasperated than worried.

Eradan was already pushing through the crowd, so Éomer decided to follow him. Inside the stables, they found the grooms clustered at the door to one of the stalls, but they made way for him and Lothíriel. He looked inside.

The horse was blue.

Éomer felt his jaw drop.

Big, irregular blotches of colour covered the gelding’s entire neck and back, running down the legs and his belly, while the mane hung down lankly, an even deeper blue. Only the head had been left white, giving the unfortunate impression of it being severed. Two grooms stood beside the horse holding brushes, a bucket of soapy water at their feet.

Eradan took a few staggering steps into the stall. “What have you done?”

“Nothing, my lord, I swear,” one of the grooms exclaimed. “Galad was like this when we came in this morning. We’ve been trying to clean him, but it just won’t come off.” There was suppressed laughter from the back of the crowd.

Lothíriel had caught her breath at first, but now she slipped into the stall too and ran a hand along the horse’s back. Éomer had a sudden vision of her showing him her precious ultramarine powder. It couldn’t be that, surely?

The gelding turned his head round towards her, and she patted his neck. “It’s woad.”

Eradan stared at her. “What?”

“A plant used to dye fabric. Probably somebody simply boiled up some leaves and then spread the resulting mush on Galad.” Her voice shook slightly.

“Oh, just a prank then.” Éomer very carefully avoided looking at Tarcil.

Eradan’s face flushed with anger. “A prank? You call this assault on my dignity a prank?”

“It’s unfortunate,” Lothíriel tried to soothe him, “but it will eventually wash out, or at the worst grow out.”

“Eventually?”

Éomer was hard pressed not to laugh at the outrage in Eradan’s voice. He exchanged a look with Éothain. “My captain will look into it. In the meantime feel free to borrow one of my horses.”

“I can tell you who did this.” Eradan spun round towards Tarcil, who was leaning against the door of the stall, a suspiciously innocent expression on his face. “That boy has been a thorn in my side for days. I bet it was him.”

Éomer secretly agreed. If there had ever been a child who knew everything about paints and dyes, it surely had to be Lothíriel’s son. Even so, he readied himself to interfere. “Come on, Eradan,” he said. “It’s just a little joke.”

“Tarcil, show your hands,” Lothíriel commanded.

At once the boy stretched out his hands for inspection, unmarked except for a few smudges of dirt. But then Lothíriel had known as much, Éomer thought with amusement, she would surely have noticed any stains earlier on. He’d had no idea she could be this devious.

“There,” Lothíriel said. “Had it been him, his hands would be stained blue too. Woad is very difficult to wash out.” However, she did not draw attention to the fact that the other children were nowhere to be seen.

Her words did nothing to soothe Eradan. “You know it was him.” He pointed an accusatory finger at Tarcil. “That boy deserves a thrashing. Him and his friends.”

Éomer felt sorry for the man being made to look ridiculous, but he would not stand by while he threatened Tarcil.

But Lothíriel beat him to it. “My lord, I assure you that if Tarcil is involved, he will be called to account,” she told Eradan, drawing her son to her side, “but only I will be the judge of his punishment.”

That only inflamed Eradan further. “You’re far too soft on him and have no control over that child. What that little snake needs is a father to teach him manners.”

“I am fully capable of dealing with my son myself,” Lothíriel snapped. “We can do without you very well,” she added, her tone cool and dismissive again.

It was the last straw. “Playing the high and mighty Princess of Dol Amroth?” Eradan spat. “You should be grateful that any decent man will still have you, when you’ve come home with a Haradric brat, the get of the Serpent King himself, clinging to your skirts!”

All of a sudden the situation wasn’t funny anymore. A wave of rage swept through Éomer at seeing Lothíriel’s stricken face, her arms going around Tarcil. He stepped forward. “Lothíriel, do you want me to kill this man for his insolence?”

Everybody stared at him. Eradan froze.

“Are you serious?” Lothíriel stammered.

“Deadly serious. Just say the word.”

She swallowed. “No, of course not. He’s not worth it.”

“As you please. Will you excuse me for a moment?”

He grabbed Eradan by the tunic and pulled him along. The crowd hastily made way, and the men at the stable doors threw them open. Eradan began to claw at his grip ineffectually, his shock wearing off, but Éomer simply cast him to the ground in the yard.

“I want you out,” he snarled. “Out of Meduseld, out of Edoras, out of Rohan. I revoke your guest rights.”

Eradan stared up at him. “But…but–”

“If you’re still here by sunset, I’ll run you through like the pig you are. You’re not welcome anymore. Éothain, see to it that he is gone within the hour.”

“Yes, lord,” his captain snapped, eyes hard.

Lothíriel and Tarcil had followed the crowd into the courtyard. He bowed to them. “My apologies, I had to get rid of some vermin. But I think you won’t get pestered again.”

They looked at him with wide eyes. Suddenly Lothíriel gave a shaky smile. “No, I don’t think so either.”

“Would you like me to make him apologise?”

She sighed. “No, it would hardly be sincere, would it.”

True, but he would have enjoyed making the man grovel. Fresh wrath coursed through him at the hidden pain in Lothíriel’s eyes. She still had her arms around Tarcil. “Don’t listen to a word that oaf says. Remember, you and Tarcil are worth a dozen of him.”

That earned him a genuine smile. She inclined her head, and Tarcil straightened up from his hunched posture.

Éomer mounted the steps to Meduseld to watch while the shocked Gondorians got rounded up and put on their horses, servants having hurriedly packed their belongings. Lothíriel meanwhile retired to have a word with a chastised looking Tarcil.

In a surprisingly short time Eradan and his men, deflated and scared, rode out under the guard of half of Éomer’s personal éored. One of the servants was leading the gelding, covered by a blanket, but with his blue mane and tail still showing.

From the terrace outside the hall, Éomer and Éothain followed their progress out of Edoras and along the Great West Road until they disappeared out of sight.

Éomer felt his mood improve. He should have done this days ago. “Éothain,” he said.

“Lord?”

“Do you know, I don’t think you need to look at your sons’ hands too closely tonight.”

There was just the barest hint of a snigger from his friend. “I hadn’t planned to.”

Chapter 12

Meduseld heaved a collective sigh of relief when Eradan was gone. Éomer saw to it that investigations into the matter of the blue horse were dropped quietly and any stained hands ignored. Yet the incident only cheered him briefly.

Once they settled back into their routine, he became increasingly dissatisfied. Lothíriel had stayed in the Mark for many weeks now, but he had made hardly any progress at all, except that he knew what exactly she thought of men who tried to take advantage of her gratitude. It was frustrating.

But perhaps they simply needed a change of scene. Many of the Rohirrim spent the summer in tents on the Emnets, the wide, grassy plains either side of the River Entwash, travelling with their horse herds. In happier times, Éomer’s parents had done the same and taken their two children along. He remembered those days filled with racing their ponies, bathing in the many streams and sitting round the fires in the evening listening to stories as the last carefree time of his childhood.

When he proposed the idea of a trip to the Eastemnet, Tarcil was delighted with the idea, for he loved horses and spending all day outdoors. His mother readily agreed, and though Eanswith, heavily pregnant by now, opted to stay behind in Edoras, Lothíriel would have a companion in Leofrun.

Despite their initial disagreements, by now Leofrun’s daughter Hildwyn and Tarcil were as thick as…horse painters. They had even begun to team up with Éothain’s twins against the older children in Meduseld, some of whom as a result apparently felt hard done by.

One of the favourite pastimes of the older boys was to re-enact the battle of the Pelennor, and they had made Tarcil be the Haradrim king. But instead of accepting his fate and losing the fight gracefully, as would have been proper, he had made an ally of Hildwyn, who had the role of Éowyn, and turned the tables on them. Éothain had laughed tears when recounting how the boys had complained about being ambushed and beaten by a Haradrim shieldmaiden in the middle of the battle. Altogether it seemed wise to take these two along and keep an eye on them before they could get into any further mischief.

It would take a few days to get everything ready though. Éomer had a meeting with his marshals and captains coming up, but they would set out soon afterwards. The latest courier from Gondor had brought another batch of reports from Aragorn’s scouts, and he wanted to go over them with his men first.

Erkenbrand and Elfhelm rode over from the Westfold and Aldburg respectively and with the rest of his captains they pored over the maps of Rohan in the library. Lothíriel had left them to it, going for a ride instead, but many of his men cast curious glances at her desk and the half finished painting lying there, a portrait of Hildwyn, meant as a gift for her mother.

The Dunlendings had been quiet ever since Saruman’s defeat and the destruction of Isengard, so they decided to step up some of the patrols in the east instead. With their horse herds out on the Emnet in summer, it made sense to add more protection to that border. And with Éomer there, he could lend some of his own men to the task as well. If anything happened – not that he considered that likely, or he would never have thought to take Lothíriel with him – he would be closer to react.

At the end of the meeting, Elfhelm and the other men took their leave, but Erkenbrand stayed for a talk over a tankard of ale. The Westfold had been hit the worst by the war, and Éomer was keen to hear how things stood. They had lost many farms, and worse, many people, to Saruman’s orcs, but Gondor had sent aid over the winter and the rebuilding was going well.

When Erkenbrand was ready to set out, Éomer walked with him as far as the courtyard below the hall. The afternoon was getting on, but Erkenbrand wanted to make a start on the journey to get home to his lady by the end of the next day.

“Thirty-two years we’ve been married now, my beautiful Aethelind and I,” he told Éomer. “You’d better hurry if you want to catch us up.”

Éomer sighed inwardly. Erkenbrand’s wife, as slim and dainty as her lord was tall and burly, was the perfect match for him. Éomer would not have minded settling into that kind of contented matrimony at all. But first he had to convince his intended bride that marrying him would not be the equivalent of locking herself up in gaol for the rest of her life. With him as her gaoler.

“I will do my best,” he said.

 Just as a groom led over Erkenbrand’s horse, the clatter of hooves sounded on the cobbles. Lothíriel rode up, accompanied by her escort of riders that Éomer sent with her whenever she rode out on her own.

“Ah, Princess Lothíriel,” Erkenbrand hailed her in his loud, booming voice.

She had been introduced to him at the remembrance feast, so greeted him by name and smiled down at him.

“I owe you an apology, my lady,” Erkenbrand announced after exchanging a few pleasantries.

She raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”

“For my rider who pestered you at the bael-feorm. I was most displeased with him, I assure you. He’s been shovelling manure these last weeks.”

The corners of her mouth twitched. “That seems to be the universal punishment around here. It’s lucky that with all your horses, you have so much manure.”

Erkenbrand laughed heartily at that. “Yes, it’s one thing we’ll never run out of.”

She leant forward and absentmindedly stroked Shirram’s neck. “But please do not be too hard on the man. He’s spent three days in gaol here already and got thoroughly chastised by his king.”

“Not thoroughly enough! But at least it’s good to know that you can handle a knife and take care of yourself.” He poked Éomer in the ribs. “Just you wait, Éomer here will turn you into a shieldmaiden yet.”

Lothíriel looked amused. “But I have no intention of becoming one.”

“Nor do I want to turn her into one,” Éomer added.

Erkenbrand laughed. “Having one in the family is enough, eh?”

Éomer frowned at him, but Lothíriel just smiled. “Oh, I could never measure up to Lady Éowyn.”

Impatient at being kept standing round, Shirram threw up his head. Lothíriel patted him again.

Erkenbrand ran an expert eye over the stallion. “So is this the horse Éomer gave you?”

“Yes, isn’t he absolutely marvellous?”

“Indeed. Worthy of a queen.”

Éomer jumped in hastily. “Yes, as you can see, he’s got very nice conformation. And he’s fast as well.”

Lothíriel grinned down at Erkenbrand. “What he means to say is that your poor king has had to eat our dust.”

With a guffaw Erkenbrand clapped Éomer on the back. “That’s what I call true love, to give the woman you’re fancying a faster horse than yours.” He beamed at Lothíriel. “You have bedazzled him, my lady, and no wonder.”

Her smile faltered.

“Erkenbrand!” Éomer hissed.

“What, am I not supposed to mention that? But Éothain and Weynild both said you were smitten...” He faltered under Éomer’s furious gaze.

Sudden silence spread around them. The riders who had accompanied Lothíriel hastily led their horses to the stable. Éomer hardly dared look at Lothíriel. When he did, he found her staring down at him.

“Éomer?” she asked, her voice unsure, all laughter gone from it. “What does this mean?”

He opened his mouth to assure her it meant nothing at all, was just people jumping to silly conclusions. But he could not lie to her.

As he hesitated, the blood slowly drained from her face. “Éomer?” she said again. Just his name. Shirram, sensing his rider’s agitation, flicked back his ears and began to sidle.

Erkenbrand had apparently got a dim idea of what damage he had caused. “Don’t listen to an old fool like me, my lady,” he said in an artificially hearty tone. “I’m sure it’s all a mistake.” Remembering too late that he was supposed to stand by his king like a shield brother, instead of stabbing him in the back!

Lothíriel still held Éomer’s eyes. “My lord, what do you mean by this?” It seemed to him she grasped at the formality like a shield.

“Nothing dishonourable,” he blurted out, hurt by the wariness in her face. Then he suddenly worried that she might think he did not find her attractive. “That is, of course I would like to…eh, that is not to say that you’re not…but…” He realised he was making a complete hash of it.

Éomer took a deep breath. He had fought Uruk-hai, had faced the hordes of Mordor. He could do this. But for Lothíriel only the truth would serve, even if it felt like walking through fire.

He took a step forward, looking up at her. “I love you. Will you marry me?”

The last vestiges of colour left her face. Éomer winced. This was not the kind of reaction to a marriage proposal a man hoped for. She opened her mouth, closed it again. Then she wheeled Shirram round and dug her heels into his sides.

For a moment he could only stare after Lothíriel bolting out of the courtyard as if she had wolves snapping at her heels. “Lothíriel!” He snatched the reins from Erkenbrand’s hands and vaulted onto his horse in a single motion.

Shouts ahead of him showed him where Lothíriel clattered down the road at breakneck speed. He cursed Erkenbrand for giving him away, cursed Erkenbrand’s horse for not being faster, cursed himself for choosing such bald words, for letting himself be stampeded into a declaration of love.

 They were halfway down the hill, people jumping out of their way, and briefly he considered taking a shortcut through one of the little side alleys or a kitchen garden. But on an unfamiliar horse that was asking for disaster. “Make way!” he shouted instead.

Ahead of them, the guards at the gate jumped aside. Lothíriel leant low over Shirram’s withers and gave the stallion his head.

Éomer had run out of curses. He had no chance of catching them up now; grimly he settled down in pursuit. Heading east, Lothíriel took the Great West Road. The cemetery flashed by on his right, then they were out on level, grassy ground, where the stallion could achieve his greatest speed.

He had been a fool to give her the fastest horse he owned. And when he got back, he would cut Erkenbrand into pieces. Very small ones.

 She drew farther and farther ahead, and for a moment he worried that she intended to ride all the way to Gondor. At least Erkenbrand’s horse was willing, though Éomer sensed it starting to tire. But after what felt like an eternity, he saw Lothíriel straighten up in the saddle and slow Shirram down, first to a trot and then to a walk. With a last burst of speed, he caught up with her.

They halted and looked at each other mutely. Lothíriel’s hands clenched and unclenched on the reins. Éomer’s heart ached to see her so upset, her face white, eyes dark with distress. Once more he cursed himself for not being more quick-witted and heading Erkenbrand off; after all he had known she wasn’t ready to hear him.

Shirram gave a tired snort, and Lothíriel started. She looked down at the stallion and for the first time seemed to notice his foam flecked neck and sweaty coat. “We need to walk the horses,” she said, her voice sounding hoarse.

Éomer nodded, and together they turned back towards Edoras. He kept silent, for he felt that he had caused enough damage. For a long time they rode like that, side by side but with neither of them saying anything. Head lowered, Lothíriel stared down at her hands on the reins. Not until the burial mounds came into sight ahead of them did she raise her eyes to his.

“I can’t marry you.”

Éomer wasn’t exactly surprised. “Will you tell me why?” he asked gently.

“I just can’t do it. Not again. The last time nearly killed me.”

It wasn’t the same, he thought, how could she compare him to a Haradrim. His anger at the man grew. However, he didn’t say anything, for this was not a point that could be carried by rational argument.

Lothíriel looked away again. “You must think me a coward.”

He drew his horse to a halt. “No! Lothíriel, you’re one of the bravest people I know.”

She gave a bleak smile. “One of the most foolhardy you mean.”

“No. The bravest.”

They regarded each other silently, both at a loss.

“I will return to Dol Amroth,” Lothíriel announced abruptly. “It’s for the best.”

His heart sank like a stone. Something told him he would lose her for good then. “Pleased don’t go, not because of this.” He made a helpless gesture with his hand, taking in the two of them. “It’s all my fault, I’m such a fool.”

“No, I am the fool. I just never realised…” She bit her lip. “Éomer, I would not make you a fit wife, believe me,” she suddenly burst out. “You’re a good man, you deserve better.”

How could she think so little of herself? That man must have crushed her self-esteem. “Let me be the judge of that,” he replied. “But promise me not to let my stupid behaviour influence your decision whether to return to Dol Amroth. I know you’re still worried about Tarcil.”

“I am, but…”

“Please.”

Lothíriel seemed to relax very slightly. “You’re very kind.”

“So you’ll stay?”

She gave a small nod. They urged their tired horses into a walk again.

“I’m sorry to have taken you by surprise like that,” he added. Why hadn’t he been more careful with his eyes. It was all his fault.

Another small nod. “I’m sorry too,” she said in a more normal voice. “You honour me greatly. If I made you think…encouraged you in any way…it was never my intention, I assure you.”

Involuntarily he snorted. “I know that only too well. You did not encourage me in the slightest.”

“But then how? This is all so sudden.” She sounded bewildered, though the shock seemed to be wearing off slowly. As marriage proposals went, his had to be one of the more disastrous ones. Yet he could not be other than honest with her.

“It’s not sudden to me,” he said. “I loved you almost from the first moment I saw you.” It was a relief to have the truth out at last. But also frightening. He looked up to find her staring at him. “But I would never pressure you. You need time to recover after what that brute did to you. I understand.”

“What?”

“All I can say is that marriage to me would be completely different. I admire your courage, I respect you for your abilities, I love you. And I would never, ever hurt you, Lothíriel. I swear.”

“Éomer, you don’t understand.”

“I think I do. I know you’ve been through anguish and pain, and though you’ve emerged from that fire unbent, it has marked you. I do not presume to ask you to tell me what happened – unless you feel it would help, of course – but I honour you for not letting him break your spirit.”

She had been hurt deeply, that much was clear. And Éomer could imagine only too well what the man had done to her, he’d seen enough cruelty during the war. Though lately he had begun to wonder if her husband had been of the sort who observed his victims closely and interspersed false kindness in between the pain, a special kind of torture.

Lothíriel had fallen silent. Now she suddenly gathered up Shirram’s reins. “I need to show you something.” She urged the stallion into a trot.

What could she mean? They passed between the burial mounds, which cast long shadows from the sinking sun, and through the gate of Edoras. The guards there threw them curious looks, though none dared hail him. It was the same along the road leading up to the hall and in the courtyard outside Meduseld. They could no doubt tell from his face how well his suit had prospered.

There was no sign of Erkenbrand, and a short inquiry yielded the information that he had borrowed a horse and departed before his king could return. Wise man.

Lothíriel had handed over Shirram with a word of thanks to one of the grooms and was already ascending the steps to the hall. Her purpose did not falter until they entered Meduseld. Abruptly the hall, full for the evening meal, fell silent.

If he had ever doubted her courage, she would have shown him her mettle that moment. For she straightened her shoulders and proceeded to walk the length of the hall, her soft footfall loud in the silence. Éomer followed her, scowling at anybody foolhardy enough to meet his eyes.

Tarcil sat with Leofrun and Hildwyn, but after stopping for a short word of reassurance with him, she continued to the door leading to the private quarters. There, to his surprise, she went straight to Tarcil’s room and started to look through the chest that held his belongings. In a moment she had found what she had been looking for: the leather bound booklet with her drawings that she had made for her son.

“Here,” she said, opening the book at the last page, the one she had stopped Tarcil from showing him.

Mystified, Éomer studied the picture. It depicted her husband, he realised at once. But unlike in the formal portrait hanging on the wall, here he was relaxed and smiling, sitting back at his ease in a garden.

Lothíriel turned over the page. “And here.” Another drawing of the same man, cradling what had to be Tarcil as a baby, an expression of tender affection on his face.

Shock ran through Éomer. The pictures were informal sketches, only coloured lightly, nothing like the elaborate portrait with its gold paint. But they had been drawn with love. And Lothíriel could not lie with her brush; the book held her heart. He raised his eyes to her face.

“Yes,” she said defiantly. “I loved Arantar. And I refuse to apologise for it.” She turned on her heel and left him there.

Chapter 13

After that day, Lothíriel avoided him. There was no more working in the library together in companionable silence; she only sat there when he was busy elsewhere. Their rides together ceased, as did her visits to the training grounds. And if she encountered him in the hallway, she would avert her eyes and pass him quickly, just giving a polite nod.

He only saw her at meal times, when she was barricaded by the other women, and even then she never lingered. It hurt him to see her so subdued, and he blamed himself for making her unhappy. But he had learnt his lesson: the next time he spoke to her, it would be in private.

The problem was, he didn’t know what to say. Éomer felt torn and confused at the realisation that she had loved her husband. For a bit he tried to tell himself that she had only done it because of being completely in the man’s power. But it didn’t work. The way she had drawn him, each stroke of the pen affectionate, gave lie to that idea.

Éomer could almost have wished that his suspicions were true and her husband had abused her. It would have been easier. Yet he immediately felt ashamed of his thoughts.

He was not such a fool as to deny his enemies their humanity. They dreamt, they hoped, they hurt like any of the Rohirrim. Their mothers loved them and grieved at their death. But a Haradrim king? Men who had been bent on Gondor and Rohan’s destruction for centuries, a byword for oppression and cruelty.

What had she seen in the man to make him worthy of her love? He hated the thought of Lothíriel in the Harad king’s bed, but even more he hated the idea of her going to him willingly. And then he hated himself for wanting her to suffer. It drove him crazy.

Under the circumstances, it was a welcome relief to keep himself busy with preparations for their visit to the Eastemnet. Lothíriel had at first wanted to stay behind, but Tarcil was set on going. In the end she agreed to come, perhaps as much to get away from Edoras and the constant whispers behind her back as anything.

They set out early one morning. He was reminded of another dawn, three months ago, on the shores of the Bay of Belfalas. Little had he known then how much Lothíriel would come to disturb his peace of mind.

It would be a much shorter journey this time though, even travelling slowly. One day would get them to the Entwade, where they would ford the River Entwash, and another to the camp of horse herders with whom he had arranged to stay. He knew the two dozen families from his time as Third Marshal, since they usually overwintered in the Fold near Aldburg after spending the summer out on the Emnet.

Lothíriel kept company with Leofrun, while he rode at the front. His riders had been cautious around him lately, speaking little and being careful not to draw down his ire on them. Indeed, for once even Éothain held back on offering unwanted advice. Éomer noticed, of course, but a man had a right to be grumpy when crossed in love.

Only the children were unaffected by the tension. Tarcil and Hildwyn raced ahead on their ponies, excited to be going somewhere new. Wearing Rohirrim clothes and completely at home on horseback, Tarcil looked like a child of the Eorlingas, only his dark hair distinguishing him from the other children. And once they reached the Emnet and played in the muddy ponds there, probably even that distinction would be gone.

The boy had surprised Éomer by informing him that he considered it a good idea that he wanted to marry his mother. Éomer had been briefly flattered, until it emerged that he owed this endorsement to being favourably compared to Eradan. Tarcil seemed to consider him a convenient stopgap to prevent his mother marrying a man like the Gondorian lord.

Khuri, who had been present when the boy innocently explained his reasoning, knew better than to smirk, but had worn a distinctly stuffed expression. At least she was one of the few who still faced him at the practise grounds without flinching. After a strenuous bout with her, he usually felt marginally better.

The journey went without a hitch, the weather having settled into a hot, dry spell only broken by occasional thunderstorms, typical for the Mark in summer. When they reached the camp of the horse herders, their headman Cathwulf made them welcome, glad for the additional protection. Éomer had brought his personal éored with him, more than enough to wipe out any orcs foolish enough to raid them. Though in his present mood Éomer would gladly have faced an orc horde single-handedly anyway.

They wasted no time in setting up their tents. Lothíriel and Leofrun shared one with the children in the centre of the camp, while Éomer’s big tent went up opposite. It had been a hot day, so the men headed down to the river that flowed past the camp on its way to join the Entwash. While it wasn’t very deep, the water was cool and refreshing. He thought they had the better deal than the women making do with buckets of water in their tents.

Gradually he relaxed. It was impossible to feel dejected with the sky stretching blue and enormous above him, the smell of roasting boar drifting over from the fire pits on the river bank and no immediate care on his mind except how to allocate sentry duty, so every man got to take part in the feast planned for later that evening.

In a better mood than he had been since Erkenbrand’s disastrous visit, he returned to the camp. He hadn’t bothered with putting his boots back on and enjoyed the sensation of the grass soft and springy under his feet.

As he reached the open space in front of his tent, he heard Tarcil’s voice.

“Mummy, I’m clean,” the boy protested. “I want to go and play with Hildwyn now.”

Éomer grinned to himself. Some things never changed. Tarcil and his mother had very different ideas of the definition of cleanliness. He didn’t catch Lothíriel’s answer, but suddenly the tent flat opened and Tarcil came careening out, wearing nothing but a pair of trousers.

“Tarcil, wait, your shirt!” Holding the garment in question, Lothíriel rushed after her son.

However, the boy had already dodged around Éomer and away. Spotting Éomer, she came to an abrupt halt, then took a step back and stumbled over one of the ropes holding the tent down.

Dropping his boots, Éomer jumped forward. “Lothíriel, watch out!”

He grabbed her round the waist and caught her. Unbalanced, Lothíriel leant against him, hands squashed against his chest. She was damp from her own bath and smelled alluringly of orange blossoms. Involuntarily Éomer slipped his arms around her. It felt so right.

For a moment she relaxed against him, all soft and warm. Lips parted, she lifted her face to him; a deep sigh escaped her, as if she had set down a heavy load. But then a shudder ran through her.

“Éomer…I…” Blushing scarlet, she pushed herself off. Éomer reluctantly let go of her. “I…what was I…” She retreated a step, nearly falling over the rope again. “I didn’t mean to…” Abandoning all attempts at coherence, she spun round and beat a hasty retreat, slipping inside the tent.

He had never seen her so rattled before. It cheered him enormously to find that he apparently had the power to fluster her too, and not only the other way round. He could not help a grin spreading over his face at this pleasant surprise. That had been no indifferent woman in his arms. Whistling softly under his breath, he picked up his boots and made his way to his own tent.

Perhaps all hope wasn’t lost. 

***

That evening there was a celebration to welcome Éomer and his riders. They sat round the fires, sharing food and drink, and later tales and music. Amongst Cathwulf’s people were a fiddler and some drummers, and some of his own men had reed pipes along. In any case all the Rohirrim liked singing. Éomer saw with approval that Lothíriel took part too, having learnt some of the most popular songs on their ride from Gondor.

Tarcil and Hildwyn loved it. They had already made friends, and Éomer had the feeling that they would soon be in charge of the mob of children running through the camp. Those two were born to command. As the dusk deepened they played a game of tag on the riverbank, which involved much squealing and ended up with all of them soaked to the skin. Probably there would be no getting them to bed until they were totally exhausted.

As he sat there, leaning back against a log and cradling his mug of ale, a sense of deep contentment filled him. This was what he was fighting for: his people living in peace, the children safe and carefree. It was a simple life, but he had all he wanted. Well, not quite all, he amended his thoughts.

Lothíriel sat with Leofrun and Cathwulf’s wife Sunnild, the three women talking together animatedly. Sunnild had fetched a piece of woven cloth and was explaining something. Knowing Lothíriel, it probably concerned the dyeing of the yarn, Éomer thought. Cathwulf’s family ran several flocks of sheep on the Emnet and processed most of the wool themselves.

Her usual composed self again, Lothíriel had graciously thanked Cathwulf for his hospitality to her and Tarcil. And when he had encountered her amongst the crowd, she had remarked how pleasant the evening was and how tasty the food, a princess through and through. He could almost have believed he had imagined their earlier encounter. But he still remembered the feeling of holding her in his arms.

When the children finally succumbed to tiredness, their mothers shepherded them off to bed, though Tarcil was protesting in between yawns. Éomer rose and stretched. His men looked set for some serious drinking, but he fancied a stroll.

He headed for the small hill overlooking the camp and sat down in the grass. Crickets chirped, while from below a nightjar’s curious churring song rose and fell. It was a lovely night, bringing a cool breeze after the heat of the day.

After a while he idly considered seeking his own bed, but just as he had made up his mind to turn in, a figure emerged from between the tents and began to ascend the hill. He only caught a glimpse, but somehow he knew instinctively who it was seeking solitude.

Éomer did not think she had seen him, for she walked slowly as if deep in thought. He did not want to startle her, so as she approached he cleared his throat. Lothíriel jumped, her hand moving to her sleeve.

He leant forward. “It’s me.”

“Éomer?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. I had no idea you were here.”

Or she would not have come? “I’m just enjoying the cool night air up here. Won’t you join me?”

But she took a step back. “I don’t want to disturb you.”

“You don’t.” When she hesitated, he added, “please?”

“Just for a moment,” she finally agreed and sat down a good distance away.

For a long time neither of them said anything. It should have been awkward, but instead he felt at ease, soothed by her silent company. With a contented sigh he stretched out on the grass. He had missed her.

Lothíriel looked up at the sky, at the river of stars left behind from when Elbereth had trailed the train of her robe across the heavens.

“In Harad, I would lie in my garden sometimes, extinguish all the lamps and watch the night sky,” she said suddenly. “That way I could almost pretend that I was free.” She sighed. “But the stars were wrong.”

“Here you are free,” he said softly. “And, should you choose to stay, always would be.”

There was a short silence. “So you…you don’t despise me?” she said softly.

“What?” He sat back up. “What are you talking about, Lothíriel, why should I despise you?”

“For loving one of the enemy?”

“No!” He took a deep breath. “It’s true, the idea astonished me. And I didn’t like it and told myself it was only because you were at your husband’s mercy. But you are strong and fearless.” She made a sound of protest at that, but Éomer shook his head. “Lothíriel, you are. Don’t ever let anybody tell you different. I do not think you could have loved an evil man.”

Lothíriel was silent for a long time. “Do you know,” she said, “you are the first person to trust my judgement. None of my family have ever asked me what I thought of Arantar.”

“Surely they just didn’t want to hurt you?”

She turned towards him. “Yes, I suppose so. And I’ll admit that perhaps there is some truth in what you said about being at his mercy. But I was sent to a foreign country, expecting to spend the rest of my life there, so I tried to adapt and be a good wife, to learn the language and customs.”

The words came pouring out as if a dam had broken, now that she was able to talk about her marriage for the first time. “I was often lonely. His visits were the only change, a reminder there existed a world outside. And he took care of me, was the only friend I had there really.”

Éomer’s heart ached for the young girl she had been. He would never have thought it possible to be grateful to one of the Haradrim, but that moment he was. “I’m glad you weren’t completely alone and found some consolation.”

“I think we both did,” she said slowly. “He couldn’t trust his brothers and learnt from childhood to rely only on himself, to always keep his emotions hidden. But with me he slowly opened up and let down his guard, especially once Tarcil was born and we had a common bond.” There was a smile in her voice. “He used to say that I was the only person who could make him laugh.” In his mind, Éomer saw the proud son of the desert fall for her charm. But then who wouldn’t.

Lothíriel was still lost in her memories. “Yet my life was so restricted. It was like living inside a treasure box, all gold and precious stones. And I was another piece of jewellery, prized and guarded, but locked up tightly.”

She gestured at the view, the stream glinting faintly in the moonlight. “Sometimes I felt like the world outside had ceased to exist. Arantar knew I hated it, and to please me he took me outside a few times, but it was dangerous. After the attack… we could not risk it again… I could not leave Tarcil behind on his own. Although I don’t know what I could have done anyway, I was totally dependent on Arantar. The only power a woman has there is through her husband or her sons, if they are grown men.” She sounded bitter.

He thought of her joy in racing Shirram, how she liked the open vistas of the plains and the wind in her hair. It would have been like binding a falcon with jesses and hood, when it was meant to fly free.

“No wonder you compare marriage to a cage,” he said. “But it need not be that way.” Couldn’t she see that he would never constrain her? That you could join yourself to another person, yet not give up your self?

“Perhaps it need not,” she agreed. From her words he could almost have drawn fresh hope, if only her voice had not been so bleak. She looked up at the heavens again, her face pale in the starlight. “Éomer, I will be honest with you: taking you into my bed would be easy.”

Involuntarily he choked. “What?”

“I have to admit I hadn’t realised it before. But surely you could tell as well, earlier on.”

One moment she acted the perfect Gondorian lady and the next she floored him with statements like that. But he owed her truth for truth. “I’ve felt that way about you for a long time.”

Lothíriel still would not look at him. “I hadn’t… at least I don’t think so… that is...” She took a deep breath. “But as I said, that would be the easy part. However, marrying you…” Her voice sank. “Éomer, I’m not sure I have the courage for that.”

“Is it so difficult?”

“To be your queen, no. I’ve been brought up to fill that kind of role and I’ve come to like the Rohirrim very much. But to be your wife, to give you my heart?”

“Would that be such a terrible thing?” As for his own heart, he knew he had long ago given it into her keeping.

“You don’t understand,” she whispered.

“Will you tell me?” he asked in his gentlest voice, for he felt they were getting to the core of it, some secret pain she kept clenched deep inside her.

“I can’t.” Suddenly she scrambled to her feet. “I’m sorry.”

 Éomer rose too. He would have liked to take her in his arms, she sounded so sad. “You don’t have to apologise to me.” The last thing he wanted to do was to force her into another marriage against her will.

“Oh, Éomer, you’re a good man,” she exclaimed. “You’re kind, honourable, generous. But you would do much better to chose somebody unencumbered, somebody like Déorwenna. I’m like a ship with lots of hidden ballast, whereas she’s a light barge, quick and nimble, that will go where you tell her to.”

He snorted. “I’m not so sure about that.”

“Yes, but a young girl like her is unburdened. Not like me.”

“But what if I don’t want a nimble, shallow barge?” He had plenty of ballast himself, after all. Suddenly he remembered the exhaustive tour of the Sea Hawk that Amrothos had given him in Dol Amroth. “Your brother said that a ship needs a certain amount of weight to keep it straight in the water.” He wrinkled his nose at the memory. “In fact he showed me.”

“Amrothos took you to the bilge? How typical.”

“He said the weight kept the ship from capsizing in heavy weather.” Éomer was rather proud of remembering the correct terminology.

“That’s true,” she conceded. “Yet the bilge is the filthiest place of a ship, you don’t want to go there.”

“But it’s necessary.”

All of a sudden she laughed out loud, an unexpectedly carefree sound.

“What?” he asked with a smile.

“It’s such a nautical picture. You sound like Amrothos.”

“Your family might make a mariner out of me yet,” he joked, but turned serious at once. “Look, Lothíriel, I do not seek to harry and cage you.” He wanted a wife and lover, not a captive. “Nor will I try to simply talk you into marrying me. But neither will I change my mind.”

“You don’t give up easily, do you?”

He took a step closer, gently reached for her hand and raised it to his lips. A tremble ran through her as he breathed a kiss on her fingers. “The Rohirrim don’t. Not if something’s worth waiting for.”

He would offer her a harbour and hope his lady love would choose to come home to it.

Chapter 14

Over the next few days, had Éomer been asked to describe Lothíriel, it would have been in a single word: busy.

Of course there was always plenty of work to do, but she literally threw herself into it. Cathwulf’s people ran many flocks of sheep, and since it was the middle of the shearing season, the fleeces had to be washed and carded. Much of the wool was turned into felt to use as carpets or for tents. This meant separating the fibres and spreading them out evenly in several layers on a cloth, before sprinkling them with hot water. Then the cloth was rolled around a pole, bound with string and kneaded. Sometimes this was done by dragging the roll behind a horse across the grass, but the more delicate felt had to be done by hand, which was traditionally women’s work.

Sunnild would never have expected a guest of her king, a lady from Gondor as well, to take part in this, but Lothíriel insisted that she enjoyed learning something new. And when Sunnild discovered how much she knew about natural pigments, she enlisted Lothíriel’s help with dyeing the wool prior to felting. Besides that there was all the other work necessary to keep a large camp like theirs going: cooking, baking bread, milking sheep and making cheese.

It meant that Éomer saw very little of her. She declined his invitations to go riding with him on the grounds of being too busy and in the evenings retired straight after dinner, claiming tiredness. As a result his resolve to wait patiently for her to come to him got sorely tested. He told himself that you did not catch a horse by running after it, but could not help thinking that much more of this would drive him crazy. Or at least more crazy than he was already.

The only ones to enjoy themselves unreservedly were the children. Éomer took them fishing for trout in the stream and his riders taught Tarcil how to stand on his pony’s back. Hildwyn, a shieldmaiden in the making if ever he had seen one, also got Khuri to show them some of her tricks of how to take out a bigger opponent. They loved being outside in all weathers and having a break from lessons.

Éomer too was glad to do without council meetings for a bit, though every now and again messengers arrived from Edoras, bringing letters and reports from his scouts. As arranged with his Marshals, they had stepped up patrols along their eastern border, and some of his riders had brought back rumours of orcs lurking in the Emyn Muil, though so far no sightings had been confirmed.

One afternoon he was training Flamewind, one of the younger war horses he had brought along with him from Edoras, when they spotted a rider galloping for the camp, raising a cloud of dust. Instantly alert, Éomer exchanged a look with Éothain. This boded no good.

The man drew his horse to a halt in front of them. The poor animal was exhausted and flecked with foam, while the rider looked little better. “Orcs,” he gasped and slid from the saddle, “a whole pack of them across the Anduin.”

Éomer motioned for his squire Beortulf to take care of the horse. “Where exactly?” he asked, handing the rider a flask of water.

The scout, who on closer inspection turned out to be a lad of perhaps seventeen winters, took a grateful gulp. “At the South Undeep.”

Éomer did a quick mental calculation. The South Undeep, a bend of the Anduin that afforded a shallow crossing, lay to the north-east of the Emnet, a full day’s ride away.

“Have you warned the other camps?” he asked. There would be many much closer than their own to this menace.

The rider nodded. “Yes, lord. I alerted the ones I passed through; they will spread the word.”

“Good man.” The Rohirrim had learnt from past experience to get their people and animals to safety quickly. “We need to consult the maps,” he stated.

Éothain took the lad up behind him, and they cantered back into camp. He had not wanted to alarm the women and children, but already word seemed to have spread.

In his tent, they pored over the detailed map of that part of Rohan, and Freola, the scout, pointed out the exact place where he had spotted the orcs. “I was up in the Wold, patrolling, when I saw smoke from their fires on the other side of the Anduin. It’s right on the border, not somewhere we go very often.”

“Could you tell how strong a force had assembled?” Éothain asked.

But Freola shook his head. “I’m not sure. It seemed large, a couple of hundred at least. I left my horse behind in a gully and tried to get closer, but I dared not risk capture.”

Deep in thought, Éomer tapped his fingers on the map. From his father he had inherited his hatred of orcs, but from his father’s fate – setting out with too few men and dying in an ambush – he had also learnt cold caution. Two hundred orcs or more were a considerable menace. At need his personal éored could deal with such a number, but he much preferred to have a larger force at his disposal.

He turned to Cathwulf, who had joined them. “Get a dozen of the older lads and send them out on fast horses. Have them spread word amongst all the camps that I want half of all able-bodied riders to meet me at Stánbeorg.”

Cathwulf nodded. The place was a well-known landmark, a curiously shaped rocky hill at the foot of the Downs. “And the rest?”

“They will cover the withdrawal of the women and children and deal with stragglers, in case any orcs escape our net. I don’t think they will get this far, but tell your wife to get ready to pull back closer to the Entwade as soon as possible.”

“Yes, lord.” Cathwulf strode off to start organising horses and supplies.

Éothain threw him a searching look. “And what of the que– Lady Lothíriel?”

Determined not to run the slightest risk with her, Éomer had already made up his mind about what to do with Lothíriel. “I’ll send her home to Edoras, but she can travel the first part of the way with Sunnild and the rest of the women and children.”

It would also save him having to dispatch a rider with the news. His Marshals would need to be informed, but he had enough men to deal with the incursion and no time to wait for reinforcements anyway.

By the time they had decided all the details, the sun was low in the western sky, but he intended to make full use of the long summer twilight. The excitement of riding into battle began to course through him as the familiar weight of chain mail settled on his shoulders. He belted on his sword and put on his helmet. Beortulf led up Firefoot, the stallion prancing with high spirits, while Éomer gave last minute instructions to the guards he would send with Lothíriel.

Swinging into the saddle, he searched the crowd for her, finally spotting a flash of gold from her torc. She had picked up a little boy crying for his mother and was comforting him. Tarcil stood next to her, almost bouncing up and down with excitement.

Éomer urged Firefoot over. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, bending down to them. “We’ll keep you safe.”

If anything, Tarcil seemed thrilled rather than frightened. “Éomer King, may I ride out with the other boys to carry your message? Lýtling is as fast as any of their horses.”

“Not this time. Perhaps when you’re a little older.”

“But–”

“Tarcil,” his mother interrupted him. “You do not question your commander’s decisions on the eve of battle.” It was the daughter of a long line of warriors speaking.

Lothíriel cradled the little boy, one of Sunnild’s children, who hid his face against her shoulder, and looked up at Éomer. “Do not worry about us, we’ll be fine. I will help Sunnild organise the relocation of our camp to get the children out of danger.”

She sounded cool and collected. Éomer was not at all surprised to find her so level headed in a crisis, yet even so he would have liked to get a sign that she cared about his fate and hoped to see him again safe. Their eyes met for a long moment, but he found it impossible to read her thoughts. If anything her expression seemed even more guarded than usual.

Then one of his riders blew his horn, reminding him of time slipping away. “I must go.”

She stepped back. “Westu Éomer hál.” The traditional words of farewell, but she gave no indication if she meant them as more than a formality.

The rest of his men had taken up the horn call. No time. He gave a last nod and turned Firefoot round, taking his place at the head of his éored. “We ride,” he called. “Forth Eorlingas!”

“Forth Eorlingas!” his men roared back as they cantered out of the camp.

Once they had cleared the first rise, he threw a look back over his shoulder. The riders of his éored rode side by side in orderly ranks, while behind them Cathwulf and his men followed in a tight bunch: a formidable force. Pushing all thought of Lothíriel aside, he cast his mind forward to the confrontation ahead.

But when they had gone no more than a league, suddenly there was shouting from behind. Slowing Firefoot, Éomer saw a rider catching up with them at breakneck speed. The pace alone would have given her away, but also Lothíriel’s black hair was streaming out behind her.

A bolt of alarm shot through Éomer. Had something happened? But how could it in so short a time? He turned Firefoot round to meet her.

Lothíriel drew Shirram to a snorting stop. “Éomer…I…I…” She seemed to be at a loss for words.

His alarm grew. “What is it? Lothíriel, are you all right?” He bent over to take her arm.

Suddenly she dropped the reins, kicked her feet out of the stirrups and lunged for him. Reflexively Éomer grabbed her and somehow found himself with an armful of woman. A very soft and shapely armful. Stunned, he settled her in the saddle before him. “Lo–”

She flung her arms around his neck and pulled his face down for a kiss.

Éomer had imagined their first kiss many times. He would be gentle and considerate, doing his best not to stir up any bad memories, which would lead to a leisurely exploration of each other.

This was nothing like it.

He felt as if somebody had thrust a torch into a pile of logs soaked with oil. Heat raced through him. Éomer tightened his grip, crushing her, and she responded by pressing her body against him. Their lips met, frantic, desperate, starving. Lothíriel gave a sound half sigh, half sob.

He cursed the nose guard of his helmet, which got in the way, and freed one hand to claw at the chin strap. Somehow he got the helmet off and thrust it to the side, where somebody caught it. Not paying any attention, he took Lothíriel’s face between his hands and renewed his assault. In answer she clung to him and raked her fingers through his hair. Their breath came in harsh gasps.

Firefoot threw up his head and sidled away.

Éomer had to grab the reins to check the stallion and suddenly became aware of their surroundings again. What was he doing! He loosened his grip; they drew apart and stared at each other. Lothíriel looked dazed, but he was just as staggered by the hunger they had awakened.

Then she blinked her eyes as if waking from a deep sleep. A wave of scarlet rose to her cheeks. But his lady had courage. She lifted her chin, looking neither left nor right. “I did not want you to leave without showing you my true feelings.”

Well, she had certainly done that. Éomer felt a silly, happy grin spread across his face. The corners of her mouth quirked. Settling her more securely against him, he gathered Firefoot’s reins in one hand and lifted his other to brush a knuckle across her cheek, marvelling at the softness of her skin. With a sigh she leant against him, fitting into his arms as if they had waited for her alone.

But only for a moment, then she straightened up again. “Éomer, you have to go. The orcs…”

Éomer cursed them roundly. But she was right of course. He vowed to himself to deal with those vermin so quickly, they would not know what hit them. “I will be back soon,” he promised.

“Please be careful.”

She cared. He still couldn’t quite believe it. Her face was lifted up to him, and all he wanted to do was to kiss those red lips, to wind his fingers through her hair. Reading his thoughts, she blushed again, but shook her head. “Éomer…”

Next to them, Éothain cleared his throat. Reluctantly, Éomer looked up to find his friend holding Shirram’s bridle. Lothíriel slid from the saddle, leaving Éomer’s arms feeling cold and empty.

“My lady,” Éothain said, offering her the reins.

Lothíriel accepted them and mounted her horse. For a long moment they regarded each other. Her eyes locked on him as if she wanted to memorise his every feature.

“Come back safely to me,” she whispered, turned Shirram round and urged him into a gallop.

Firefoot reared and would have taken off after them, but Éomer checked him, though he would have liked nothing better than to give the stallion his rein.

However, they had a task to fulfil. He looked round at his men, who regarded him with expressions between mirth and envy. Somehow his courtship of Lothíriel had turned into an inordinately public affair.

His face carefully bland, Éothain handed him back his helmet with its white horsetail.

Éomer accepted it with a grin. “Onward,” he said and spurred Firefoot.

The men sorted themselves out again and they settled into a canter, their long shadows cast by the setting sun stretching before them. Éomer knew he rode into battle with a dangerous foe, yet he had the feeling that he still had a silly smile plastered all over his face. She has come to you, his heart sang.

That moment, he loved the whole world, even the orcs. He would still kill them though.

Chapter 15

There was no moon that night, and though the Rohirrim had better night vision than most, they had to stop for a couple of hours when the horses were stumbling too badly. It was no surprise that the orcs had chosen such a time to attack, they liked the darkness. Éomer just hoped his people had heeded the warning of the scout and retreated westward.

As soon as the faintest blush of dawn appeared in the east, they set out again and by early morning reached Stánbeorg, the rocky hill at the foot of the Downs he had designated as a meeting point. Here the plains of Rohan rose towards the Wold in gentle waves, but in places the bedrock thrust through the carpet of grass and wild flowers covering it. A stream rose at the foot of the hill, bordered by reeds and sedges, and meandered away towards the east. Éomer’s men took the opportunity to water their horses, feed them some of the oats they had brought along and have a brief rest themselves.

From groups of herders they had passed during the night Éomer had discovered that no attack seemed to have taken place yet, so he sent out more scouts. The messages he had dispatched the day before now began to bear fruit, as more and more riders from other camps started to trickle in. Éothain at once set about organising them into small companies, each with a captain.

As he surveyed his growing force from the viewpoint on Stánbeorg, Éomer considered his options. It was a delicate balance between waiting for reinforcements and striking as quickly as possible. First they needed up-to-date information though.

They got it at noon when another scout rode in on a lathered horse. To Éomer’s surprise this was a girl, surely no more than fifteen winters old. Freola, the rider who had brought them the news of the orc invasion, hugged her.

“My sister Goldrun,” he introduced her proudly.

Éomer was forcibly reminded of Éowyn at that age. The girl had gathered up her blond hair in a braid and kept herself ramrod straight while she delivered her report in a clipped voice, including precise details about the location of the enemy and their number.

He shuddered inwardly at how close she must have been to gather such extensive information. Her brother realised as much too, for his face lost all colour as her tale emerged. A true daughter of Eorl this. It was not only the men of the Mark the orcs would learn to fear.

As anticipated, the enemy had crossed the Anduin at the South Undeep, where the river grew broad and shallow, and was now camped on the western shore. Goldrun was able to point out their exact location on the map.

Éomer came to a quick decision. “We ride at once.”

If they waited longer, he would have more men, but would lose the opportunity to surprise the orcs and cut them off before they could do any harm to his people.

They ate a hasty meal, then set out. As they drew closer to the uplands of the Wold, the land became more hilly. This part of the Emnet was sparsely populated with only a few temporary camps. If Éomer and his Marshals hadn’t decided to deploy additional scouts, they might not have known of the orcs for another day or two.

Towards the middle of the afternoon, Éomer suddenly spotted black smoke rising into the air ahead of them. He exchanged a grim look with Éothain.

“What is there?” he ask Freola and his sister, who were riding at his side.

“It’s a small camp of herders,” Freola answered. “But I warned them yesterday.”

“They had all left when I passed through this morning,” Goldrun confirmed.

Éomer frowned. It seemed stupid of the orcs to set fire to the place and risk attracting the attention of the Rohirrim. Of course they might have been angry at not finding anybody there, but it could equally well be a trap. Orcs were quarrelsome amongst each other and cowardly when faced with superior force, but possessed surprising cunning.

So they approached the camp, a ring of burning tents set in a little dell, with caution, arrows nocked and swords drawn. However, the alarm of the orcs they found there was not feigned, and when the Rohirrim charged, they fled in terror.

Éomer passed through the tents hardly stopping at all, weaving through the smoke and striking right and left with his sword. It was over in a matter of minutes, the last orc shot as he tried to escape into the hills. Éomer drew up Firefoot and surveyed the bodies lying trampled on the ground amongst the smoldering wreckage of the camp. There couldn’t be more than two dozen, so where was the rest of the filthy creatures? They had to be getting near the Anduin.

He waved Freola and his sister forward, who both looked queasy at the carnage. “How much further is it to the river?”

“No more than three miles or so, lord,” Goldrun answered. “The path narrows into a gully, then opens up again near the shore. That was where I saw them early this morning.”

Éomer considered the situation. The orcs must have crossed over during the night, but had not got very far. Since they preferred moving during the dark, likely they had sheltered somewhere. He cast a look at the sky; there were several hours of daylight left. It would be much better to fight them while the sun was up, but he did not want to lead his men into a trap.

Goldrun seemed to read his thoughts. “We will scout ahead,” she announced.

Éomer nodded reluctantly. “But take care not to risk yourselves.”

And despite Goldrun’s protests, he sent a small company of riders with them, while the main body of his force followed behind more slowly. However, very soon they came cantering back.

“We’ve found them,” Freola called. “They are starting to dig a ditch in the gully, but it isn’t deep yet.”

Éomer looked at the captain of his riders for confirmation.

The man nodded. “I’ve seen it, we’ll clear it easily. They haven’t done much work on it.”

As the hills rose on either side, they broke into a trot. Gradually the path narrowed until they could only ride two abreast. Then they rounded a corner and spotted the orcs ahead. Éomer urged Firefoot into a gallop. The orcs’ shouts of alarm turned into screams as the first arrows landed amongst them.

A moment later they were upon the enemy. Firefoot jumped the trench, which was no more than a narrow trough in the earth, and Éomer leant down to dispatch an orc in passing. He carried right on though; his men would account for any orcs he had missed.

Heady as wine, the familiar excitement of battle rushed through him. How bright the sunshine sparkled, how keen was the wind in his face. The world was beautiful. Éomer laughed out loud as behind him his riders burst into song. The sound of their horses’ hooves echoed back from the hills either side like thunder

Within another half a mile the path widened out. He spotted a glimpse of the river glittering in the afternoon sun. Ahead lay a wide beach, the greensward trampled into brown earth, and finally they found themselves faced with the main force of the enemy.

The large horde, a couple of hundred orcs or even more, must have rested in the shelter of the hill, but was milling about in the open, alerted by the sound of the Rohirrim’s approach. Éomer knew he had to keep the initiative. Snatching up his horn, he blew the call for the attack, the clear notes rising and rising.

His éored fanning out behind him, he led the charge. A few arrows whistled by, but the orcs were so rattled by the sudden attack that most missed. Not so his own riders, who were expert at shooting from horseback.

The orcs tried to form a hasty shield wall, but the Rohirrim crashed right through it with jarring impact. Éomer slashed and parried; Firefoot’s iron clad hooves flashed out: they moved as one deadly creature. Fury rose within him at the thought of the orcs’ filthy feet despoiling the green grass of the Mark. These foul beasts had no place in his lands.

Knowing they must not get bogged down, they passed right through the main mass of the enemy, then turned and reformed for a second charge. At that, some of the orcs broke and tried to escape across the river, but the Rohirrim hunted them down and speared them in the shallows.

In the middle of the battle a knot had formed around the orc chief and the largest of his followers. Urging Firefoot forward, Éomer fought his way towards them. The orc chief turned to face him and shouted something in his ugly language, lifting his scimitar in a challenge. His helmet was decorated by two tusks like those of a charging boar.

Éomer gave him no chance. His blade came singing down with all the weight of his wrath behind it. The orc chief tried to block it, but simply crumpled before Éomer’s onslaught. Gúthwinë bit deep, cleaving the helmet in two.

After that the battle turned into a rout. Dismayed by the death of their leader, the orcs tried to save themselves in any way. However, the Rohirrim showed no mercy: their women and children would have received none either, had they fallen into the hands of the orcs.

When all their foes had been accounted for, Éothain led a detachment across the river to the other side, to make sure no more enemies lurked there. The Anduin was wide but shallow at this place, with gravel-shoals in the water that meant the horses could wade across.

Surveying the aftermath of the battle, Éomer exchanged a word of praise with all his men. Those riders who knew a little leechcraft looked to their wounded comrades, but they had come off lightly, thanks to surprising the orcs. In another day or so, the ditch in the gully could have been turned into a deadly trap, had they been lured into it after investigating the burning camp, but that plan had come to nothing. He would have to commend Freola for bringing word so quickly.

Suddenly he saw Éothain hurrying back across the river, his horse plunging through the water. Instantly alert, he urged Firefoot forward to meet him. “What’s the matter?” He had heard no sound of more fighting.

His friend held out a broken bridle. “Éomer, we’ve found traces of horses on the other side.”

“They had the time to steal horses?” Éomer asked with a frown. “Why didn’t we hear of it?”

But Éothain shook his head. “No, it looks as if they were over there for a while.” He hesitated. “I think whoever it was, they brought them with them.”

Éomer’s hand closed on the leather strap. Both of them knew that orcs didn’t ride horses, only men did. But there had been no men amongst the slain. And neither had they found horses not their own. So where were they? A trickle of fear ran down his spine. There might be a perfectly harmless answer, he told himself.

There might not.

“Where is Freola?” he asked.

They found the scout sitting with his sister, a little away from the carnage. The two youngsters jumped up at his approach.

“Freola, when you brought us the news, did you seen any strangers? “ Éomer asked without preamble.

“No, lord. All I met were the people from the camps I passed.”

That meant nothing, though on the open plains it was not so easy to slip by unnoticed. “Are you sure?” he asked. “There are signs the orcs might have been accompanied by men.”

Freola shook his head. “I saw no strangers, lord.”

“There were those Gondorians,” Goldrun said hesitantly.

She jumped as Éomer whirled round towards her. “What Gondorians?” he snapped.

“Some wool traders. But they came from Edoras.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw them arrive,” she stuttered. “Well, at least one of them, he had a horse bred in Rohan. The others came from another camp.” She frowned. “Or so they said.”

Éomer had to keep himself from shaking her for more details. “When was that?”

Goldrun bit her lip. “The one from Edoras, a few days ago, the others yesterday. I didn’t pay them much attention, we had got word from Freola and I was getting ready to ride out.”

“Where are they now?” Éothain threw in.

“I don’t know. They wanted to get back to Edoras when they heard of the attack. Our father, the headman, thought them chicken-hearted, for we could have used another dozen warriors to defend the women and children.” She sounded indignant at the memory. “Father told them Rohan had come to Gondor’s aid, but they laughed at him. So he said we didn’t need friends like them.”

“How do you know they were Gondorian?” Éomer asked.

She looked surprised. “They had black hair.”

So there were a dozen enemy warriors on the loose out there. The trickle of fear became a torrent of ice running through his veins. What if the aim of the orc incursion had been to draw him away and ambush him? Had they succeeded, the Mark would have been left in confusion. What better time to slip into Edoras unnoticed? It spoke of long planning. There could only be one purpose behind it. Only one goal.

And he had practically handed them over.

In Edoras, at least his guards kept watch, but now Lothíriel and Tarcil were with a slow group of women and children. Suspecting nothing.

For a moment Éomer felt like he could not breathe. He wanted to scream, to spur Firefoot after them at once. With iron control he clamped down on his impulses. Lothíriel needed him to keep his head.

“Éothain,” he said, “I want thirty of our fastest riders. Choose only men who have taken no hurt. Each is to take two spare horses and sufficient bags of oats to last the journey.” Speed, not numbers was of the utmost importance.

“Yes, lord!”

“You will stay here to wrap things up.”

“I’m coming with you.”

They locked eyes, but he had no time to argue. “All right, leave your second-in-command in charge.”

He too chose two spare horses and quickly saddled and tacked them up, so they could change over without stopping. Word had spread amongst his men, and the mood was grim.

At first they had to keep to a trot following the winding path up the gully, past orc carcasses, but once they cleared it, they settled into a canter that would eat the miles.

Ahead of them the sun was sinking behind the rolling downs in a blaze of crimson glory.

Chapter 16

The Haradrim would not have taken the most direct route. Éomer held onto that thought throughout the long night and endless day that followed. At first Éothain tried to cheer him up by reminding him that the men might indeed be harmless Gondorian wool traders, but his reassurances rang false. As for Éomer, he knew with absolute certainty that enemies had entered the Mark and were closing in on their unsuspecting prey.

They had to pace themselves, stopping every now and again for a rest, but though he knew it would do no good to push the horses to foundering, pausing for a break was almost impossible to bear. It felt as if his whole being was concentrated on reaching Lothíriel, the need for speed crowding out every other consideration.

By mid morning they passed the site of the herders’ camp and picked up the trail leading southwest, marked not only by the hoof marks of many horses and sheep, but also by the wheels of the waggons used to transport the tents and other gear. Éomer could have howled aloud when he envisioned their slow pace. Why hadn’t he sent Lothíriel and Tarcil home to Edoras at the first hint of trouble? Or not taken her to the Emnet in the first place. When he thought of his promise to keep her safe, he tasted ashes in his mouth.

One of his scouts tried to discover if anybody else had come that way since, but it proved impossible to be sure. Grimly they settled into the pursuit again. From overhead the summer sun burnt down on them, inexorably slipping into the west, reminding him of time passing away, more precious than gold.

In the afternoon they reached what had to be last night’s camp. A couple of hours later the trail split where the herders had turned south, while the main track continued towards the Entwade. And here for the first time they found traces of more than one group of riders ahead of them. Aelred, his best scout, pointed out the smaller hoof prints of a pony in a muddy patch of grass, overlaid by the marks of shod horses. The icy fist gripping Éomer’s heart tightened further.

They changed between their spare horses regularly, but even so it felt as if they advanced at a snail’s pace across the wide, flat grassland. Involuntarily he was reminded of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli traversing these same plains on foot, in pursuit of Saruman’s orcs. At least they were on horseback. Unfortunately, so was their quarry.

None of the men spoke much anymore, husbanding their strength against the fight to come. As twilight deepened into the third night of racing across the plains of the Riddermark, Éomer felt as if his will alone kept them going.

Shortly before midnight, they got to the Entwade. The sky had clouded over, robbing them of even the faint starlight, so they decided to call a brief halt for the darkest hours of the night. Éomer knew it made sense to rest the horses and let them eat the supply of oats they had brought with them. The men too would be better for a couple of hours of sleep.

But as he lay in the soft grass, listening to the frogs croaking in the nearby river, Éomer could find no rest. Before his mental eye he saw a picture of Lothíriel struggling in her captors’ hold, of Tarcil lifeless and cold. The Haradrim would not bother to abduct them. Surely they knew they had no chance to smuggle such valuable prisoners through most of Rohan and Gondor. No, their intention had to be to simply kill the boy, making sure he would never assert his claim as rightful king of Harad. As for what they might do to Lothíriel…

He jumped up, unable to bear his thoughts any longer. Seeking out Unferth, who was standing watch, he told the man to catch some sleep. Pacing the bounds of the camp, alert to any suspicious noise or movement, at least kept his mind focused.

As soon as the brief summer’s night lightened enough so they could make out the path, he woke his men. There were a few groans, but nobody protested. They were no more than a day’s ride from Edoras, and it enraged all of them that their enemies dared to cross their land with impunity. In grim silence they took up the pursuit again, alternately walking and pushing their weary horses into a trot.

Dawn was still only a faint promise to the east when Aelred, who was riding at the head of their company, gave a muted exclamation and veered off the path. Éomer urged his horse forward and found the scout examining the ground under a copse of trees.

“What have you discovered?”

“A group of horsemen must have rested here for a while. Look, my lord, there’s the imprint of many hooves and the grass is crushed where they lay down. Yet they lit no fire.”

“The Haradrim?”

The scout nodded. “Has to be.”

“Any idea how long ago they left?”

With a stick Aelred poked a pile of horse droppings lying nearby. “Not long, I don’t think.”

They went forward with fresh purpose after that, but also with increased caution. Here the land rose from the valley of the Entwash towards the mountains in a series of gently rolling downs, swathed in thin bands of mist.

When they neared the top of one, to their left, league upon league away, the sun came racing up over the rim of the world, turning the mist to gold and lighting up the dew in the grass like sparkling diamonds. Despite their urgency, Éomer paused a moment, struck by the beauty of his land.

Then he heard it: the faint metallic clash of swords. A moment later a horse neighed somewhere in the distance. His heart plummeting, he urged Firefoot forward and they crested the rise.

A wide valley spread before him. Smoke rose from a campfire set beside a couple of tents near a small stream. He saw figures milling about, several of them on horseback. It was too far away to make out individual faces, but he spotted ominous bundles lying on the ground, unmoving. Shouts rang out dimly.

Éomer perceived it all in a heartbeat. He spurred Firefoot into a gallop, his riders close behind. The horsemen were surrounding Lothíriel’s party, which had rallied around the children, and he made out Khuri wielding her double blades. They flashed in the light of the rising sun.

That moment Shirram’s dark form broke through the press of attackers. He saw Lothíriel clamber onto the stallion’s back and bend down as somebody threw up Tarcil. Nearly there! They had not been noticed yet, but suddenly one of the Haradrim shouted and pointed their way.

The horsemen bunched together and pressed closer. Lothíriel turned towards him and hesitated. But the main force of the Haradrim was between them. His heart faltered – he was still too far away, he could not reach her in time. One of the horsemen lifted his scimitar.

“Run!” he shouted in the voice that carried across a battlefield.

And Lothíriel obeyed. Just as the scimitar descended, Shirram sprang away. The other Haradrim reached for her, a blade flashed, but the stallion wove between the tents and raced away.

As one, the horsemen took off after her. Éomer swore. In order to save Firefoot’s strength, he had ridden his two spare horses in their dash across the plains, but even so the stallion was tired, while the Haradrim’s horses were comparatively fresh. He had little chance of catching them up.

Without stopping he thundered through the camp, catching a brief glimpse of Khuri running to get her own horse. Ahead of them, Lothíriel had outdistanced her pursuers, yet how long could Shirram keep up this speed? Éomer leant forward and urged Firefoot to greater effort, outpacing his men. They pounded across the ground, clods of earth flying from the horses’ hooves.

The Haradrim kept glancing back, and suddenly two of them peeled off and veered to face him. No doubt they recognised him from the white horsetail on his helmet. Did they think to kill the King of Rohan? Let them try!

As they cantered up, the distance between them diminishing rapidly, his focus narrowed. They thought to take him in a pincer movement, both of them closing in at the same time. From behind him Éothain shouted a warning, but he did not need it.

At the last moment he ducked and swerved, Firefoot responding as fast as if they were part of each other. Éomer cut at one of the riders, and when the man’s horse recoiled instinctively, in the same movement leant over and slashed the other one across the side. It took no more than a heartbeat.

The man crumpled in his saddle, but Éomer kept right on without breaking stride, leaving the other rider behind him. Éothain and the rest of his éored would take care of him.

Far ahead of him, he saw Lothíriel turn her head and look back. How much longer could Shirram stay the pace? Despite Firefoot’s best efforts, they were slowly falling farther behind the Haradrim. And there was no place for her to hide, no help to be had until they got closer to Edoras, which still lay half a day’s journey away.

Feeling helpless, Éomer started to curse inwardly. If they were clever, the Haradrim would simply settle into running her down, exhausting Shirram’s stamina. It would take no more than a moment to kill the two of them. Éomer would avenge her, but the Haradrim’s purpose would still be fulfilled.

And his own world shattered.

All at once he saw Shirram leave the well trodden path and begin to head to one side. What was Lothíriel doing? Didn’t she realise she would lose her lead that way, since the Haradrim would be able to cut across the diagonal? Already they too had left the path, whipping their horses to greater speed.

In desperation he too veered to the side, motioning to his men to follow. Her black hair streaming out behind her, Lothíriel rode bent low over Shirram’s neck, cradling Tarcil to her; Éomer had never seen the stallion go faster. Suddenly he understood her intent: she was going in a large circle that would eventually bring her back to him. But only if she managed to stay ahead of the Haradrim who were closing in on her.

Luckily the Haradrim seemed slow to realise what Lothíriel was doing, too focused on catching her. The distance between them and their prey narrowed constantly, but the circle she set was so large that they did not at first perceive that their course would slowly bring them closer to the Rohirrim.

Then one of them shouted to the others; they redoubled their effort, whipping their horses without mercy. They would cut her off! Éomer too urged Firefoot to greater speed. The stallion responded gallantly, though he had to be almost spent. So close.

The Haradrim had nearly reached Lothíriel and drew their scimitars, when she called out something to Shirram in Haradric. And somewhere the stallion found hidden reserves; it was as if he grew wings for a heartbeat, he went so fast. The foremost of the Haradrim was literally left standing as Lothíriel slipped past them.

And then she galloped straight for Éomer, was past him, and he met the Haradrim head on. Éomer realised two things that moment: he had outdistanced his own men, and the Haradrim had just changed their target.

They surrounded him, cutting at him with their curved scimitars. He set Firefoot to kicking out, making their horses flinch back. The stallion screamed a challenge while Éomer hacked and slashed, trying to fight his way out of this deadly fray.

Then suddenly Éothain was by his side, and an instant later the rest of his riders.

“Éomer Cyning!” the cry went up.

The Haradrim broke. Outnumbered and faced with the anger of men defending the land they loved, they turned to flee. Most of his riders took after them, but Éomer had other concerns.

Looking round, he spotted Lothíriel a little way away. She had slowed Shirram down. The stallion stood heaving, his head lowered in exhaustion. Lothíriel herself sat bent over in the saddle, cradling Tarcil in her arms. His breath caught. Her blue tunic was splattered with blood.

Alarmed, he urged Firefoot over to her side. “Lothíriel, are you hurt?”

She looked up at him, her face white as chalk. “Tarcil,” she whispered. Just the single word.

No! He dismounted and helped her slide down from her horse, still holding her son. Éomer spread his cloak on the grass and they laid Tarcil on it. The boy was unconscious and bleeding profusely from a cut on his head. But alive!

Lothíriel sank to the ground next to her son and tried to staunch the bleeding with the sleeve of her tunic. Feeling helpless, Éomer searched around for something better. He bunched up one corner of his cloak and pressed it to Tarcil’s head. The boy looked terrible, unnaturally pale and with blood smeared all over him. Without the usual animation on his face, he seemed younger and very fragile.

Her hands shaking, Lothíriel brushed back a strand of hair from Tarcil’s forehead. “He will be all right,” she said fiercely. “He has to be.”

If only he had been quicker, Éomer thought. To ride so far and be late by so little. That moment the thunder of hooves announced the arrival of Khuri. She jumped from the saddle and threw herself down next to Tarcil.

“I tried to protect him, but there were so many,” she said, anguish in her voice. “How is he?”

“He will be all right,” Lothíriel repeated, half order, half plea.

“Did you see what happened?” Éomer asked.

Khuri nodded. “I was eating breakfast when they attacked. They went straight for the children, those cowards.” She spat a curse in Haradric. “One of them struck Tarcil, and he fell and hit his head.”

Éomer saw she had blood splattered all over her too. Not her own though presumably.

Khuri noticed the direction of his glance. “I got two. But we wouldn’t have lasted much longer. I never thought I would be pleased to see the Rohirric cavalry arrive.”

Then Tarcil stirred and opened his eyes. “Mummy?” he moaned.

At once Lothíriel bent forward and took his hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “I’m here, Sweeting.”

He blinked at her. “My head hurts.”

“I know. You’ve got a cut and had a nasty knock. But you’ll be fine, I promise.”

Her firm voice seemed to reassure the boy, but Éomer saw that her hands were still shaking.

“There were some men,” Tarcil added in a reedy voice. Suddenly he became agitated and tried to sit up. “One of them went for me with a sword.”

Lothíriel pressed him back down. “Don’t move, Sweeting, you’ll make the bleeding worse. We’re safe, Éomer is here.”

The boy subsided. “Oh, that’s all right then.”

But Lothíriel looked at Éomer with a sudden frown. Her eyes lifted to take in his riders standing guard around them. “Éomer, what happened, I thought you were on your way to the South Undeep? What about those orcs?”

“We dealt with them. But then I got word that a group of Haradrim had slipped by, so we returned.”

Lothíriel’s eyes widened in amazement. “All the way from the Anduin?”

Éomer gave a curt nod. “Yes.” He knew it was a ride that few could have accomplished and he was proud of his men, but he still wished they had arrived just that little bit earlier.

By now the rest of Lothíriel’s party had ridden up. At once Leofrun came over. “I have a little knowledge of heal craft,” she offered hesitantly.

Lothíriel looked up with fresh hope. “Leofrun, can you do something to stop the bleeding?”

The two women examined the wound, a deep gash from a scimitar.

“It will need stitching,” Leofrun decided. “We have to get him to Healer Brictwen in Edoras. Head wounds always bleed a lot.” She took off her scarf, a length of gauzy fabric dyed a pretty pink, and began to wrap it around the boy’s head, applying as much pressure as possible. Tarcil protested weakly, but got coaxed into holding still by his mother.

Hildwyn had come to hover over them, an anxious expression on her face. “They went straight for Tarcil. I tried to stab one of them, but he kicked me aside.”

Éomer closed his eyes for a moment. Did she realise how lucky she had been to escape unscathed? Fresh anger coursed through him. How dared they attack his people.

He jumped to his feet as Éothain trotted up, back from the pursuit of the Haradrim. “Did you catch them?”

His captain shook his head. “Two of them escaped, I’m sorry to report. I’ve set some of our men to track them though.”

That was disappointing, but not really a surprise with their horses exhausted from the long chase.

“We have to get going,” he decided. None of them looked forward to more hours in the saddle, but at least the men would be able to sleep in their own beds that night.

He helped Lothíriel back on her horse, giving Shirram a pat of appreciation, then very gently lifted Tarcil up to her and wrapped his cloak around the boy. With a sigh of exhaustion Tarcil snuggled into his mother’s arms and closed his eyes.

Éomer rested his hand on Lothíriel’s leg for a moment. “Try not to worry too much, dear heart.”

She gave him a shaky smile. “I’m telling myself that Tarcil has a hard head. Just like his mother.”

His brave lady. Éomer’s chest contracted at the thought of how close he had come to losing her. He took a deep breath. He would keep her safe from now on.

Always.

Chapter 17

They arrived back in Edoras early in the afternoon. Éomer heaved a sigh of relief when the familiar hill came into view, Meduseld perched on the top, its roof glittering golden in the sun. Home. He still stayed alert though, for the feeling of having hostile eyes observing them had never quite left him. He would not be completely at ease until the remaining Haradrim had all been caught.

Tarcil had dozed for most of the time, complaining every now and again that his head hurt and refusing to ride with anybody but his mother. They had given him sips of water to make up for the loss of blood, but it worried Éomer how little like his usual cheerful self the boy was.

When they reached the town, they caused a stir. The guards at the gate had announced his arrival by blowing their horns; many people came running to see what had caused this unexpected early return.

They must have looked a sight, all of them splattered with gore, and him and his men worse for wear after their long ride, their horses exhausted. Tarcil lay in Lothíriel’s arms with his eyes closed, his face pale and head bandaged. Fresh blood had started to seep through Leofrun’s scarf, staining Lothíriel’s tunic.

Éomer fended off all questions, just giving curt reassurances that the threat had been dealt with. He had sent one of his riders ahead to alert Healer Brictwen, and the woman awaited them on the steps to Meduseld. While the stable lads led the horses off to mangers full of well-earned oats, Éomer carried Tarcil to his room and laid him on the bed there.

At once a flock of women gathered round the boy. Weynild bustled in with a jug of warm water to wash the blood off and Freawaru, the cook, hovered anxiously in the doorway, offering to fetch a bowl of soup.

Finding himself completely forgotten, Éomer retreated to his own room. The bed beckoned temptingly, but after changing out of his mail and having a quick wash, he went back to check on Tarcil. The room was quiet and dim now, with the shutters closed and only a couple of lamps burning. All the women had left, except for Lothíriel and Khuri sitting by the bed and Brictwen busy with a brew at the fireplace.

Éomer tiptoed over to peer at Tarcil. The boy was asleep. His face was clean and his head freshly bandaged, but he seemed so unnaturally tidy and still that Éomer’s heart contracted. He looked like a corpse laid out for burial.

“How is he?” he whispered.

“Healer Brictwen has given him poppy syrup and stitched the wound,” Lothíriel answered, gently stroking her son’s hand. “Now he needs to sleep.”

“I’m brewing a tea to give him when he wakes up,” Brictwen added from the fireplace. “He’s lost a lot of blood.”

Éomer looked at Lothíriel, who still wore the blood splattered trousers and tunic from earlier on, with her hair in disarray. Her voice had been firm and collected just now, but he could see the strain in her eyes.

He wanted nothing so much as to seek his bed, but he couldn’t leave her to face this alone. “I’ll keep you company for a while.”

Lothíriel flashed him a grateful smile, but at once turned her attention back to Tarcil. Glancing round for a place to sit, Éomer’s eyes fell on the corner of the room that had been turned into a kind of Haradric tent. The thick carpet with cushions scattered across it looked very inviting.

As he lowered himself onto a heap of bright scarlet cushions, a wave of tiredness crashed over him. He yawned. Three days and nights spent racing across the Mark were beginning to take their toll. But hopefully a short rest would set him right.

***

Éomer woke to the smell of food. His belly rumbled as he stirred. Had he fallen asleep? Blinking, he sat up, his muscles protesting from the abuse they had suffered over the last days. He found that he had a blanket thrown over him, Lothíriel’s elusive flowery scent clinging to it, and somebody had taken off his boots.

Outside, night had fallen, and only the fire in the hearth lit the room. He must have slept longer than he thought, for the room had that hushed quality of the late hour when only the guards on their rounds were awake. He winced. So much for keeping Lothíriel company in her distress. Unless she found his snoring comforting, of course.

The low murmur of voices reached his ears. Lothíriel was sitting by the bed talking to the healer, who was bending over Tarcil. When the woman stepped back, Éomer saw that the boy was sitting up, a tray of food on his lap. Surely that was a good sign?

He got up and padded over. “How are you feeling?”

“My head still hurts,” Tarcil complained. He sounded querulous, but some colour had returned to his face.

When Éomer glanced at Lothíriel, she gave him a tired smile, but even so looked more relaxed. She must also have found the time to change her clothes, for she wore a simple, dove-grey gown instead of her blood stained tunic and had braided her hair.

“Finish your broth, young man, and you’ll feel better tomorrow,” Brictwen declared.

Éomer felt heartened by her calm manner. The healer had dealt with many injuries over the course of the years and did not seem to be overly concerned.

“Hildwyn’s been asking after you,” Lothíriel told her son. “Maybe she can come for a visit in the morning.”

“And you can tell Éothain’s boys all about your adventure,” Éomer added.

That visibly cheered Tarcil up. “I will.”

Éomer smiled at him. He would not be surprised if the boy got nightmares, but perhaps it would help to frame it as an adventure rather than being the victim of an attack.

As Tarcil ladled up his broth without much enthusiasm, Éomer’s stomach rumbled loudly. He had not had anything to eat since setting out in the early hours of the morning, nearly a full day ago.

Lothíriel jumped up. “Oh, I forgot, we saved dinner for you.” She pressed Éomer into her chair and brought over a tray of bread, cheese and meat pastries, then poured him a glass of red wine, before sitting down on Tarcil’s bed. Éomer could not help thinking that it was rather pleasant to have her fussing over him.

He fell to with a will, not pausing until he had wolfed down three of the pastries. Lothíriel grinned at him. He returned a lop-sided smile. “It’s been a long day.”

“I know.” She turned serious. “Éomer, I will never be able to thank you enough–”

“Then don’t,” he interrupted her. “There is no need for gratitude between us. You know that’s not what I want from you.”

A slow blush rose to her cheeks, but that moment Tarcil claimed her attention. “Mummy, will you tell me a story?”

Éomer finished his meal in a more leisurely manner while Lothíriel told the tale of how Túrin Turambar slew Glaurung, reducing it to what the boy called the ‘interesting bits’, by which he meant how Túrin had tracked down and battled the dragon. It seemed to be a favourite story. Tarcil’s eyes slowly drifted closed as it reached its gory end.

Lothíriel’s voice stilled, and for a long time she just sat there watching the slow rise and fall of her son’s chest. With his hair rumpled and a few stains of broth on his nightshirt, the boy looked a lot more like his normal self.

Éomer leant back in his chair and sipped his wine, content to simply know they were safe and enjoy their presence: his little family, soon to be so in name as well, he hoped. Involuntarily his gaze lingered on Lothíriel’s lips. After a kiss like that he would not let her slip through his fingers, he vowed to himself. Then he had to grin. There seemed little danger of that happening. His lady had made her mind very clear.

A soft knock on the door interrupted these pleasant thoughts. Éothain peered in. Seeing Éomer awake, he came in, nodding a greeting to Healer Brictwen sitting by the hearth.

Éomer leant forward. “Any news?”

“Some, but nothing definite yet.”

Éomer cast a look at Tarcil asleep in his bed. “Let’s go in the library.” He didn’t want to risk waking the boy, and perhaps it was better not to worry Lothíriel either. She had gone tense again.

However, she was having none of that. “I’m coming too. I want to know what’s going on.”

Outside in the corridor, Khuri was standing guard. At a soft word from Lothíriel, she went in to keep watch over Tarcil, a familiar face in case he woke up.

In the library they found their two desks just as they had left them when they departed for the Eastemnet. It seemed like a lifetime ago. Lothíriel fingered the box of pigments and traced an unfinished sketch lying on the polished wood of her desk.

Lighting a couple of extra lamps, Éomer noticed that grooves of tiredness marked Éothain’s face. Had he rested at all? Involuntarily he felt guilty for the hours of uninterrupted sleep snatched that afternoon.

“What have you discovered?” he asked.

“Several things. First of all, we traced the assassin who stayed in Edoras. He claimed to be a wool merchant and travelled here from Gondor. It seems he knew that Lady Lothíriel and Tarcil were your guests.”

Éomer nodded thoughtfully. So Lothíriel had been right to worry about word of their whereabouts getting out, whether it was through her family or even through Eradan. “What else?”

“We found the Haradrim’s horses, hidden in some woods near Askdale Vale. I’ve posted some men to watch them.” When Éomer unrolled a map, Éothain showed them the exact location.

So close to Edoras? Fresh rage boiled up within Éomer. The Haradrim seemed to think they could move within the Mark with impunity, threatening those under his protection. But they would learn differently.

He studied the lay of the land. The area was densely wooded, so would make a good hiding place. “We must try to track them. However, from Askdale they might have taken to the mountain paths into Lamedon.”

Éothain nodded. “That’s what I fear. They must be desperate and might capture a shepherd or woodsman to show them the way across the passes.”

“I will send a rider by the Paths of the Dead and alert Angbor of Lamedon,” Éomer decided.

“That won’t be necessary,” Lothíriel interrupted.

Éomer frowned at the bleak tone of her voice. “What do you mean?”

“They are indeed desperate. But they won’t flee to Gondor.” She touched the golden torc at her throat. “A King of Harad does not allow failure in his servants. Nothing you can do to them is worse than what awaits them, should they return to Harad empty handed. It is succeed or perish for them.”

His hands forming into fists, Éomer stared down at the map. “You think they will try again?”

“Yes.”

“They will not succeed,” Éomer vowed. He looked at Éothain. “Send out our best scouts tomorrow. And alert our people to look out for signs of intruders.”

“Yes, lord.”

Éomer clapped him on the back. “But catch some sleep first, my friend.”

Éothain grimaced and gave a tired nod before retiring. As the door closed behind him, Éomer turned to Lothíriel. “Do not fear. I swear I’ll protect you.”

She looked at him with eyes dark and hopeless. Then she walked into his arms. “You don’t understand.”

Surprised, he gathered her to him. “Lothíriel–”

She buried her head against his chest. “It will never end, Éomer! Not until Tarcil is dead. This time you’ve rescued us, but there will be another. And another. We will never be safe.”

It was the first time that he had seen her close to breaking, and it hurt him more than anything. His beautiful, brave lady. But he knew the signs, had seen them before. She had been strong while Tarcil needed her, but now the shock was catching up with her.

“Shush, dear heart,” he said, stroking her back. “We’ll find these men, I promise.” And then they would pay.

She clutched at him. “But it’s no use. You can kill them, but the Harad King will just send more assassins.”

He did not think the Harad King would find it quite so easy, but sensed that Lothíriel was beyond such cool reasoning. So he just held her close, offering the shelter of his arms. “You do not have to shoulder this burden alone, Lothíriel. We’ll think of something.”

“But what can we do?” Her voice rose. “The Harad King won’t give up, not until his men succeed.”

Éomer caught his breath, struck by a sudden idea. “Or until they think they’ve succeeded?”

Lothíriel looked up at him, shaken out of her despondent mood. “What do you mean?”

“I think that I might countermand my orders to Éothain. An assassin alive might be more useful to us than an assassin dead.” His mind working furiously, he caught her face between his hands. “Tell me, Lothíriel, how good an actress are you?”

***

They held the funeral on the afternoon of the next day. Éomer, Éothain and two of his riders carried the small coffin on their shoulders, with Lothíriel and Leofrun following behind. He was touched to see that as they passed through Edoras, its people payed their respect and joined the procession. Many of the women nodded at Lothíriel, having got to know her through her interest in weaving and carpet making.

Even though the coffin held half a side of pork and not Tarcil’s body, Éomer worried about Lothíriel. They had discussed the plan at length, but it placed a heavy burden on her. That very moment Khuri and some trusted riders were spiriting Tarcil and Healer Brictwen out of Meduseld to lend verity to the tale that the boy had died.

They had decided to send him to the Hornburg, where he could recover in safety. Lothíriel would follow as soon as possible, but it meant that she would not see her son for a couple of days, at a time when surely she least wanted to be parted from him.

Soon they reached the burial grounds, a field at the bottom of the foothills, enclosed by a stone wall and shaded by tall, graceful trees. The white flowers of simbelmynë dotted the grass around them. It was another hot summer’s day, and the shade filled with birdsong was peaceful.

They gathered at the side of the grave, which was sheltered by a majestic ash tree, and lowered the coffin into the hole awaiting it, where it looked lost and heartbreakingly small. As the rich, moist scent of the freshly turned earth hit him, Éomer’s throat closed. He had buried far too many people dear to him, family, friends, men that had looked to him to lead them. But not Tarcil, he vowed, and not Lothíriel.

When the women started to sing a low dirge, he went to stand beside her. She held herself rigid, her face mask-like, eyes unfocused. His concern grew. Either she was a consummate actress or she saw a vision all her own. In her hands she clutched Tarcil’s golden torc, identical to her own, but twisted and bent out of shape.

People filed past the grave and threw in flowers and handfuls of earth, slowly covering the coffin. Finally it was their turn.

“Lothíriel,” he said very gently when she made no motion to step forward.

She started. “Éomer…”

“I’m here.” He slipped his arm around her waist in support, and she leant her head against him for a moment.

Then they stepped up to the open grave, and Lothíriel stared down at it for a long time. Slowly she lifted her hands and cast the torc in. It landed with a dull clunk, the gold glinting against the dark soil.

Suddenly Lothíriel twisted round and buried her face against his shoulder. Great, racking sobs began to shake her. Truly anxious now, Éomer pulled her against him. Surely this was no playacting.

As the men began to fill in the grave, he picked her up in his arms and carried her through the crowd that quickly made way for him. One of his riders led up Firefoot, and Éothain lifted Lothíriel up to him when he had mounted. Still weeping, she clung to him. Gathering her close, he pushed the stallion into a fast trot, making for the path back to Edoras.

It was as if a dam had broken, shattering her usual control. Feeling completely helpless, Éomer made soothing noises and patted her back. What had set this off? Was it just the strain of the Haradrim’s attack and Tarcil’s injury? She had been so strong, but everybody had their breaking point. He knew only too well what his own was.

Yet little by little her sobs subsided until she leant limp and exhausted against him. Éomer stroked her soft black hair, which hung in a silky curtain around her. Gradually he sensed her relaxing.

When they reached the courtyard outside Meduseld, she straightened up and rubbed her sleeve across her face. “Thank you for holding me,” she whispered hoarsely.

Éomer had seldom felt more useless. “I wish I could do more.”

“It means a lot to me.”

He stroked a cheek damp with tears. “Do you want me to stay with you? I can send Éothain to –”

But she shook her head. “No, let’s not change the plan. I’ll be fine.”

Reluctantly he helped her slide down from Firefoot’s back and watched her disappear inside Meduseld, Leofrun and Eanswith at either side and greeted by a gaggle of anxious women. His lady was strong, he told himself, but still his heart ached for her and his arms felt empty.

However, he had a task to fulfil.

***

Shedding most of his guards, Éomer, Éothain and his two best scouts left Edoras by a side gate and headed for the hills. The sun was sinking, sending their shadows before them as they entered the woods stretching behind the town.

Éomer knew this forest like the back of his hand, having spent a large part of his childhood in Edoras. Despite the gravity of the situation, he exchanged a grin with Éothain. More than once they had played truant and disappeared into the woods for the day instead of attending lessons.

They followed a narrow path that cut across the hillside, slowly rising, until they caught a brief glimpse of the Great West Road below them through the trunks of the trees. Leaving one of the scouts with the horses, they continued on foot along a deer trail, careful to cause as little disturbance as possible. The forest was full of life; squirrels jumped from branch to branch, a woodpecker was hammering away somewhere and in the distance a fox yipped.

At last they reached the place Éomer had been aiming for: a rocky outcrop overlooking the burial grounds. The three of them stretched out on the slab of rock, which was a lot smaller somehow than Éomer remembered, and surveyed the view. Would the Haradrim take the bait?

The field with the graves lay below them, the spot where they had buried Tarcil’s coffin easily visible, just as he had planned. A few people still lingered, tending the plots of their loved ones, but as twilight descended they packed up and left.

For a long time nothing happened. Soundlessly a barn owl glided low over the grass and alighted on a tree branch. A badger emerged from the undergrowth and rooted around amongst the bushes, but nothing else moved. However, Éomer was too experienced a hunter to give up easily.

Suddenly the scout touched Éomer’s arm and pointed to a thicket of alder trees growing at the back of the wall encircling the burial ground. Éomer narrowed his eyes to see what Aelred had spotted. Was there movement there? A moment later a man wriggled out from underneath the low branches, crouched down to run the few steps to the wall and slipped over.

Keeping to the cover of the trees dotted about, he approached Tarcil’s grave and paused to look around. Apparently reassured, he made a beckoning motion, whereupon a second man emerged from the alder trees and joined him. Hacking at the earth with their daggers and using their hands, they began to dig.

Satisfied that it had to be the two surviving Haradrim, Éomer settled down to watch them work. This was Lothíriel’s refinement to their plan. When he had proposed a very public funeral to make sure the Haradrim would carry word of Tarcil’s death back to their king, she had suggested this added twist.

By his orders the earth had only been packed down lightly at the top of the grave, and the two men made good progress. Suddenly one of them pounced on something. The two huddled together to inspect it. Éomer did not need to see the glint of gold to know they had found Tarcil’s twisted torc.

Would that satisfy them? Lothíriel had thought that once they had this tangible proof of the success of their mission, they would want to leave Rohan as quickly as possible. The only danger lay in them deciding to check inside the coffin, but Éomer had tried to forestall that by having it nailed down so thoroughly that they would need a crowbar to open it.

He watched tensely as down below the two men examined their find. Heads close together, they seemed to be discussing something. Éomer released his breath when they began to fill in the grave again and smoothed out the earth, erasing all signs of their presence. Very soon they straightened up and flitting from shadow to shadow made their way out of the burial grounds.

He turned to Aelred, who gave a curt nod, wriggled out of their hiding place and disappeared into the undergrowth without making a sound. They knew where the Haradrim had hidden their horses, so the scout would meet up with the men watching them and pick up the trail from there.

Éomer and Éothain meanwhile retraced their steps. It was slow going in the dark to descend the hill, but when they emerged from the forest, as arranged ten riders of Éomer’s éored awaited them.

He cast a longing look up at Meduseld, lit by torches, and wondered what Lothíriel was doing. Briefly he was tempted to pass the whole undertaking over to Éothain and seek her out. That one kiss had been far too little to slake his hunger. However, it was his plan and he could not rest easy with enemies within the bounds of the Riddermark.

“Let’s go,” he said with a sigh, not looking forward to yet another night’s ride. When this was finally over, he intended to spend a lot of time in his bed.

And not alone either.

Chapter 18

They arrived in Aldburg at dawn the next day. Éomer had sent a message ahead to Elfhelm, so they were expected. He had a quick talk with his Marshal over breakfast, but then retired to catch up on his sleep, for he did not think he would get any news soon.

Indeed it did not come until the next day, when one of his scouts rode in. It was as he had thought, the Haradrim had not attempted the difficult crossing of the mountains, but instead took little travelled paths in the foothills above the Great West Road.

The next day, he too took to the road, slow enough not to catch up with the Haradrim, but making it easier for his men to report. They reached the border with Gondor the next afternoon. Here the Mering Stream flowed down from the White Mountains to join the Entwash, and a small forest of oaks grew at the foot of Halifirien, the first of the beacon hills.

After watering the horses they camped in the shade of the trees, for it was another hot summer’s day. They had passed a fair amount of traders on the road, carts of food and wine coming from Gondor and bales of wool and cloth going the other way. At another time he would have been pleased at this sign of prosperity, but now he was preoccupied.

Dusk was falling when the call of one of his men alerted Éomer to Aelred, who was fording the stream and riding up to the camp. He clasped arms with the scout.

“What news have you got?” he asked as they sat down by the fire.

With a word of thanks Aelred accepted a bowl of stew from Éothain. “I’ve been following the Haradrim. They crossed here yesterday.”

Éomer nodded. He had expected as much. “Any problems tracking them?”

The scout shook his head. “They had the gall to take the Great West Road.” He spat on the ground. “Bought a packhorse at a village in the hills and were posing as traders.”

“That’s a good sign. It means they want to attract as little attention as possible,” Éothain pointed out.

“Yes, but it goes against the grain, letting them go when they attacked the qu–” Aelred paused. “Lady Lothíriel and her son.”

Éomer stared into the fire, the anger he had long suppressed bubbling to the surface. “It goes against mine, too.” He looked up and fixed Aelred with his eyes. “Believe me, I will not forget this. One day the Harad King will pay the price for his actions. This is a debt deferred, not voided.”

Aelred straightened up. “Yes, lord.”

“Did you get in contact with King Elessar’s rangers?” Éothain asked.

Aragorn had set up a small camp of rangers half a day’s ride from the border, to patrol the valleys of Anórien. Trained by Faramir, they were some of the best woodsmen in Gondor.

The scout nodded. “Yes, captain. I told them about the Haradrim, they will keep an eye on them.”

“Well done,” Éomer said.

On the first night of getting back to Edoras, he had sent a fast courier to Aragorn, outlining his plan. His friend would make sure that the Haradrim were closely observed, but could travel through Gondor unimpeded.

Relieved of that care, his mind turned to other matters as he watched the flames dance across the logs. They would set off for Edoras tomorrow.

And then… 

***

Four days later Éomer rode up the ramp to the Hornburg. He had stopped over in Edoras for one night to catch up on reports and change his escort, so his riders could see their families again. However, Éothain had insisted on accompanying him to the Westfold. When Éomer had felt guilty for keeping his captain away from his pregnant wife, Eanswith had cheerfully insisted that her husband would only be underfoot anyway.

The sun had just set behind the mountains, and clouds shaped like anvils towered high overhead, warning of thunderstorms later on. Sheer cliffs lined the Coomb either side, making it a grim place in winter, but providing welcome relief from the heat of the open plains in summer. Above all though, it was the safest place in the Mark.

In the inner courtyard, Erkenbrand awaited him. At first the meeting felt awkward, the words of welcome stilted, both of them remembering the last time they had spoken. Éomer would not forget that disastrous marriage proposal anytime soon, yet he felt a lot more charitable towards his Marshal.

Erkenbrand’s wife Aethelind proffered the welcome cup. “Have you eaten, my lord king? We have already risen from the evening meal, but it won’t take long to prepare something for you and your riders.”

Éomer accepted the cup of mead. “Thank you, not for me. But could you look after my men?”

“Of course.” Slim and diminutive, Lady Aethelind was dwarfed by her husband, but Éomer knew that she took as much part in the running of the Hornburg as Erkenbrand. In fact during the war with Saruman, it had been her who had organised the retreat of the Westfold villagers to the caves of Helm’s Deep.

Her eyes crinkled as he handed back the cup. “Princess Lothíriel has already retired, but I’m sure she will be pleased to see you. I believe she’s reading a bedtime story to her son.”

Had he been so transparent? Éomer cleared his throat. “How is Tarcil?”

Erkenbrand gave a hearty laugh. “Restless to be allowed out racing on his pony, the little scamp.”

Éomer had to smile. “That sounds just like him. Thank you for taking care of Lady Lothíriel and her son. I knew I could rely on you.”

“Anything to keep our future qu–” Erkenbrand drew to an abrupt halt. “That is… I mean to say…”

His wife rescued him. “You’ll find your lady in the guest chamber at the top of the Burg,” she told Éomer. “Do not let us keep you.”

Éomer coloured, but did not hesitate to avail himself of her invitation, mounting the stairs two steps at a time. He knew the way, for Lady Aethelind had given Lothíriel the rooms where he stayed whenever he visited the Hornburg. Generously appointed, they offered a sweeping view of the valley.

Outside the door, he paused for a moment. He meant to ask Lothíriel a certain question – again – and though he was pretty certain of her answer, his lady love was unpredictable. Taking a deep breath, he knocked.

“Come in,” he heard her call.

An involuntary frisson of pleasure ran through him at her voice. He opened the door.

“Is that you, Leofrun?” Wearing a bed robe and towelling her wet hair, Lothíriel was standing at the window, her back to him. “I’ll be along in a moment to tell Tarcil his bedtime story.” She turned round.

“Éomer!” Dropping the towel, she ran to him.

He met her halfway and drew her into his arms. Warm and damp from her bath, her hair fragrant with her favourite orange blossom scent, she felt wonderful. Éomer claimed her mouth, wanted to claim all of her. Pressing her body against him, she raked her fingers through his hair and kissed him back. A wave of heat rushed through him.

Yes!

With one hand he tightened his grip, while the other slipped inside her robe to find soft, silken skin. Lothíriel gasped and pulled up his shirt. He had waited so long for this, wanted her so much, needed her so much.

But…

They stopped at the same moment and looked at each other. With a sound half sigh, half whimper, Lothíriel leant her head against his chest. This was not the proper time, and they both knew it.

Éomer stroked her hair, fighting down his frustration. “Will you greet me this way every time I’ve been away?” he asked, striving for lightness.

That earned him a chuckle. “You always seem to catch me when I’ve had a bath. You shouldn’t surprise me like that.”

“On the contrary, I’m planning to do it more often.”

With another chuckle she pushed herself away, and reluctantly Éomer let her go. Lothíriel tightened the belt of her robe. The garment, made of flowing blue silk, was no doubt refreshingly cool on a summer’s evening, but also quite revealing, especially when pulled tight.

A flush rose to her cheeks at his appreciative regard. She lifted her chin. “I’m not in a fit state to receive you, my lord king. If you wait outside and give me a minute, I’ll get dressed.”

He grinned at her regal manner. “I disagree, my lady. In my opinion you’re in an extremely fit state to receive me.” And he pulled her into his arms again.

“Éomer,” she spluttered. But her lips spoke a different message.

After a lengthy, very satisfactory interval she gently withdrew again. “I’ve promised to tell Tarcil a story; he’ll be along any minute.”

As if on cue, they heard the boy’s voice outside in the hallway. Exchanging a guilty look, they hurriedly put some space between them. Éomer tucked in his shirt, just as Tarcil burst in, followed by Khuri.

“Mummy, are you coming–” He spotted Éomer. “Oh, Éomer King, you’re here.”

He seemed to notice nothing, but Khuri cast them a sharp glance. Éomer could have sworn he surprised an amused smile, fleetingly gone, on her usually impassive face.

“Éomer has just been telling me about those Haradrim who attacked us,” Lothíriel told her son, surreptitiously straightening her robe.

Answering this prompt, he cleared his throat. “Eh…yes, they’ve left the Mark and are on their way home. You have nothing more to fear from them, I promise.” He smiled at the boy. “How are you feeling?”

“Oh, I’m fine.”

Tarcil did in fact look amazingly better. Only a bald patch on his head showed where Healer Brictwen had shaved his hair and stitched the wound. And his eyes sparkled with his usual enthusiasm again, Éomer was heartened to see.

“Mummy won’t let me ride out yet, but one of Lord Erkenbrand’s men, Gamling, showed us the caves behind the Deep,” Tarcil told him, “Have you seen them?”

“I have. We had to retreat there during the battle. In fact Gamling was with me.”

“Really? Oh, will you tell me about it?”

“He will, but not here and now,” Lothíriel interrupted, making a shooing motion. “I want to get changed. And you ought to be off to bed.”

Tarcil looked at Éomer, an unspoken plea in his eyes.

“Very well, I’ll come along and tell you about the battle,” Éomer agreed. He captured Lothíriel’s hand and breathed a kiss on it. “But I’ll see you later, my lady. We have much to…discuss.”

Her fingers curled around his. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Tarcil’s room was just next door, with a view over the Deep, the narrow gorge leading to the entrance of the caves. The boy slipped between the sheets, while Khuri rolled out a pallet by the door.

When Éomer took the chair by the bed, Tarcil suddenly shot him a sharp glance. “Will you marry my mother?”

Éomer hesitated. It seemed the boy was more observant than he had thought – or else he and Lothíriel more obvious. In the past, he’d had the impression that Tarcil wasn’t opposed to the idea. Though he might only owe that favourable opinion to the comparison with Eradan.

“Yes, I want to,” he said slowly. “Would you like to stay here in the Mark?” Or would he wake up one morning to find Firefoot dyed blue?

“Hmm.” Tarcil considered the question for a moment. “I have many friends here now. And there’s Lýtling.” He turned an innocent look on Éomer. “And maybe I can have a puppy like Éoric and Éormenred?”

“I don’t see why not,” Éomer committed himself recklessly. He just hoped Lothíriel didn’t dislike dogs.

Satisfied, Tarcil settled down on his pillow. “When will we return to Edoras?”

“Not quite yet. I want matters to settle down a bit more.” Besides, he’d done enough riding for a while.

Tarcil nodded, then shifted around restlessly in his bed. “Is it true I’ve got a grave there?” he burst out suddenly.

Did that bother him? Éomer couldn’t blame the boy, many grown men would have felt the same. “Yes, it’s true,” he answered, thinking hard of how to reassure Tarcil, “but you might never lie there. And anyway, it’s not such a terrible thing to know your final resting place. I know mine.”

Tarcil sat up. “Really? Where?”

“You’ve seen the two lines of barrows either side of the road outside Edoras?”

“Yes.”

“On one side are buried Eorl the Young to Helm Hammerhand, who was besieged here in the Hornburg,” Éomer explained. “On the other side lie Fréaláf Hildeson to Théoden, my uncle. When I die, they will start a new line of barrows.”

“Oh.” Tarcil digested his words for a moment. “I didn’t know.”

“That grave was necessary to keep you safe. Think of it as a feint in a fight, meant to deceive your opponent and get the better of him.”

Tarcil frowned. “Mummy said those men were sent by the King of Harad?”

“Yes.”

“They made her cry,” the boy said hesitantly. “I woke one night. She doesn’t know, but I heard her. I don’t want anybody to make her unhappy.” He sounded serious and more grownup somehow.

“Me neither,” Éomer said quietly. “I promise that one day the King of Harad will pay.”

Tarcil nodded at him, equal to equal, giving a brief glimpse of the man he would become. But just as quickly he turned into a boy again. “Can you tell me about the battle of Helm’s Deep now? And also how Helm Hammerhand died in the long winter and was frozen standing upright?”

Éomer grinned. As a boy that had been one of his favourite parts, too. He settled down to tell a suitably grizzly tale.

Lothíriel came in halfway through and sat down at the foot of Tarcil’s bed. Cool and collected again, dressed in a dark blue gown and with her hair caught up in a braid, she showed no sign of the passionate woman who had run into his arms. But Éomer’s doubts had left him; he finally knew where he stood.

She looked different though, he mused, and then realised with a jolt of surprise that she wasn’t wearing her torc. He had become so used to seeing the gold glint at her throat that her neck seemed bare and exposed without it.

However, Tarcil recalled his attention by demanding to be told how Fréaláf had led his famous raid on the Dunlendings, who had invaded Rohan during the long winter, and how he slew their leader Wulf in the great hall of Meduseld.

The boy would probably have kept him up all night, telling stories, but Lothíriel gently but firmly intervened. “Another time,” she said. “You, young man, ought to go to sleep now.”

Tarcil yawned. “Oh, all right.” He snuggled deeper into his bed. “Mummy, are you going to marry King Éomer?” he asked, his eyes falling closed. “He says if you do, I can have a puppy.”

Éomer winced, and Lothíriel’s eyebrows went up. However, she seemed amused. “That’s between Éomer and me. Good night.” She kissed Tarcil on the brow and rose.

As Éomer opened the door for her to pass through, she shot him a quizzical look. “A puppy? Was that his idea or yours?”

“Tarcil’s,” he admitted. “But I laid myself wide open to that kind of blackmail.” His rueful tone made her laugh. “Do you mind?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I would have got him a dog of his own long ago, but our lives always seemed so unsettled.”

Éomer beamed down at her, feeling inordinately pleased at this sign that she wanted to make her home with him.

Lothíriel smiled back. “After putting Tarcil to bed, I usually go for a walk along the wall to enjoy the evening air. Would you like to join me?”

He offered her his arm with alacrity. “Very much so.”

A flight of stairs led down from the outer court of the Hornburg to the Deeping Wall, which stretched across the gorge to a tower on the other side. The door was guarded, but otherwise the walkway lay empty before them. With the breach in the culvert made by Saruman’s wizardry long since mended, the place was as unassailable as ever.

They strolled along slowly. The sky high above them was still light, the clouds having dispersed except for a few feathery wisps, but the valley had long since been cast in shadow. A cool breeze blew from the high cliffs, and when he raised his eyes he caught a glimpse of the moon cresting the hills to the east.

Stopping by one of the embrasures set into the parapet, they looked out over the view. Of the great battle fought here over a year ago only the green mounds of the slain, dotted with simbelmynë, and the bare hill where the Huorns had buried the orcs bore witness. A waggon piled high with hay was creaking up the ramp to the gates, while behind it Erkenbrand’s men were bringing in the horses put out to pasture for the day. Éomer spotted Shirram’s black shape amongst the grey.

Her brow creased in thought, Lothíriel leant against the stone. “What you said to Tarcil about the Haradrim being gone, was that true?”

“Oh yes, I wouldn’t lie to the boy. By now they should be in Minas Tirith.”

“Do you think our plan will work?”

“I think so, yes. The Haradrim assassins have every interest to paint their mission as a success and not an expensive failure, costing the lives of all their allies,” he reminded her. “And even if word eventually comes out, Tarcil will be older and better able to take care of himself.” Between Khuri and himself, they would make sure the boy got the best training possible.

She sighed. “That’s what I keep telling myself: time is on our side.”

“It is,” he said firmly. “And anyway, I’ve written to Aragorn. Once our plans come to fruition, the Harad King will have more pressing problems than to pursue Tarcil.”

“You will go to war again.” Lothíriel sounded troubled.

“One day I will. But you know that.” It would mean being separated from her, but he could not send his men into a danger he wasn’t willing to face himself.

She looked back out over the valley. “Yes.”

Éomer regarded her silently, tracing the curve of her waist and the graceful line of her back with his eyes. Her rich black hair, caught up in a braid, called to him to slide his fingers through its silky length. His lady: quick thinking and resourceful in a crisis, strong as a steel blade at need, yet at the same time so vulnerable that all he wanted to do was to take her in his arms and protect her.

Deep in thought, she lifted her hand to her throat in a habitual gesture, only to check herself.

“You’re not wearing your torc?” he asked.

Lothíriel lowered her hand. “It’s gone. I threw mine in that grave for the Haradrim to take with them as proof of their success. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, for they were identical, but I wanted to keep Arantar’s for Tarcil.” She looked up at him. “The torc marked the beginning of that part of my life and now it marks the ending.” Her voice was sad but firm.

He remembered how she had wept when she threw it in the grave and made a sudden leap of understanding. “Did you cry for your husband? I’m sorry for your loss.”

She caught her breath. “Do you know, you’re the first person to say that? At the time I never got a chance to mourn him, all my energy was focused on getting Tarcil out of Harad alive. And once we were safe with my father, none of them would listen.” The words came out in a rush. “But how can I regret loving him? How can I regret having my son?”

“You do not need to apologise to me.” Éomer had the feeling that she clutched some great hurt to herself. “Do you want to tell me about him?” he asked gently.

For a long time she did not reply, and he wondered if he should have kept silent. But it was better to lance a wound than to let it fester.

“The last time I saw him,” she began haltingly, “we…we quarrelled. Arantar wanted to send us to his country estate in the north, but I didn’t want to go, so in the end he ordered me to leave. Later I found out that the court had pressed him to repudiate me and he refused. I think that he must have suspected that his brother plotted against him. It was for our own safety.”

She bit her lip. “But at the time I thought he was sending me away because he had become bored with me.” When Éomer made an inarticulate sound of protest, she looked up. “He was so distant and cold, said I owed him a wife’s obedience. Oh, now I comprehend what he had in mind. It just hurts that he did not trust me enough to share his plans with me. He always had before.”

“Would you have left him, had you known his true reasons?”

“Of course not,” she said at once. Her eyes opened wide. “Oh!”

Éomer nodded. “That’s why he did it.” Who would have thought that one day he would feel sorry for the King of Harad. The man had never had a chance to say a proper goodbye. Suddenly Éomer wondered how he would have turned out, had he been born in Harad. It was an uncomfortable thought how much they had in common, how well he understood the man.

“I’ve been so blind,” Lothíriel whispered. “For so long I wondered what I had done, if perhaps he blamed me for weakening him.”

“What? Why should you have weakened him?”

“I urged him to go against tradition more than once, to be a different kind of king. And I think he paid some heed to my warnings against Sauron’s messengers; his court certainly seemed to think he listened to me far too much.” Her shoulders sagged. “If it weren’t for me, he might even still be alive.”

And a formidable enemy of Gondor. But Éomer didn’t say so. He took her hands. “Don’t ever blame yourself for his death, Lothíriel. It was your husband’s brother who killed him, not you. On the contrary, you made him stronger.”

“You think so?”

“I know. You gave him something to fight for, you and Tarcil.” And their survival was the man’s final victory.

She released her breath like a woman setting down a heavy burden. “Thank you. You’ve given me a great gift today.” Lifting her face to Éomer, she smiled at him.

“There is no need to thank me, you don’t owe me anything.” He changed to a lighter tone. “Anyway, as I’ve said before, it’s not your gratitude I want…”

She tilted her head. “Oh? What is it you want from me then?” There was a spark of mirth in her eyes.

“You know perfectly well.” He cupped her cheek. “Lothíriel, the Haradrim are gone, and you are free. If you wished to, you could return to Dol Amroth.” Was he a fool to point that out? But this was the woman who had told him marriage was a cage. He wanted her to choose him freely – and he thought he knew her answer.

“Really, Éomer.” She sounded amused. “You can’t barge into my room, kiss me like that and then jilt me.”

Jilt her? How she liked to tease him. However, he refused to be distracted. “So will you marry me?”

“Yes of course.”

He closed his eyes for a moment. Then he reached for her.

Like two dancers moving in perfect harmony they came together, lips meeting, breath mixing, arms going around each other. He didn’t care that they were in full sight of the guards and the people below, all that mattered was that his lady had chosen to come home to the harbour he offered her.

It felt so good to hold her, to know she would stay and share her life with him. With a contented murmur she nestled closer, gently slipping her hands up his chest. Giving in to temptation, he untied the ribbon securing her braid and began to undo her heavy tresses. Loosened from its bounds, her hair slid through his fingers like skeins of smooth, fragrant silk. Raven black and dark gold mingled as a sudden gust of wind played around them.

After a long and most satisfactory time they separated again, but only for her to settle in his arms more securely and rest her head against his shoulder. His own at last. He still found it difficult to believe.

He squeezed her waist gently. “What a chase you’ve led me, dear heart. For a while I was despairing of ever winning your love.”

“And I never even knew,” she marvelled, shaking her head. “Mind you, there were a couple of times when I wondered if you might be interested in me. But they were so fleeting and you always drew back, so I told myself I was imagining things.”

“Because every time I gave a hint, you turned into a statue of ice. And I had no wish to suffer the fate of Unferth or Eradan and be cut off at the knees.”

That made her chuckle. “As if I would have done such a thing. You’re nothing like them.”

“Yet you told me you could not marry me.”

Slowly she traced the embroidery on his tunic with her fingers. At her light touch Éomer could not help a shiver of pleasure and anticipation running through him. Soon…

“I think I was afraid,” Lothíriel mused. “Afraid of being hurt again, of losing another man I loved. So I denied my feelings even to myself.”

“What made you change your mind?”

She lifted up her face to him. In the gathering dusk it was pale and delicate, framed by a cloud of midnight hair, the eyes enormous. “It was only when you rode off to fight those orcs that I realised it was too late, that I had long since given my heart into your keeping. Even if I left Rohan and returned to Dol Amroth, if you were happily married with two dozen children and I never saw you again… if something happened to you, my world would still shatter.”

She took a deep breath. “It was like one of those moments in a storm when a strike of lighting illuminates everything for a heartbeat. Suddenly I saw how I had cut myself off from life and loving, how much I needed you. So I decided to grab happiness while I could.”

It still seemed like a dream to Éomer to hear her declare her love so openly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. A feeling of giddy joy swept through him.

He grinned down at her. “Well, I can’t guarantee two dozen children, but I’m certainly willing to do my best.”

She chuckled. “Do you know, probably the first gift you gave me was to make me laugh again. That was worth a lot.”

“That seems a bit of an odd reason to marry me, but I won’t complain as long as you do. I suppose it’s better than marrying me for my horses.”

“I don’t have to, I’ve got the fastest of them already,” she teased him.

“True.” With a shudder he remembered his botched marriage proposal. “As Erkenbrand pointed out on that memorable occasion. What a mess I made of it. I’m sorry, dear heart.”

Lothíriel frowned. “I think I needed to be hit over the head like that, I was so blind to my own feelings.” Suddenly her voice quivered with laughter. “But I have to say Erkenbrand has been most solicitous.”

“He had better be.” After all the man was hosting his future queen and knew it. “I might let him begin to earn my forgiveness by holding the handfasting tomorrow evening. Aethelind probably has it all prepared already and messengers waiting to go out with the wedding invitations.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. We’ve not been altogether discreet.”

Éomer suspected that half the Hornburg was watching them. Quite likely Éothain and Erkenbrand were jostling each other at a window somewhere, straining their eyes to pierce the gathering dusk.

“It’s been such a public affair, they will be jaded by now.” He grinned down at her. “After all it’s not every day a King of the Mark gets chased down and kissed in front of his entire éored.”

Lothíriel laughed out loud. “It’s your own fault, for letting me have Shirram.”

Éomer had long considered giving her the horse to be one of the best decisions he had ever made. “I know,” he agreed with a heavy sigh.

She gave him a pitying look. “I suppose you’ll go down in the annals of the Mark as Éomer Sláwyrm.”

He drew her closer. “Oh no,” he breathed. “As Éomer the Blessed.”

 

Epilogue

The Eastemnet, a year later

“You’re not drawing my brother again, are you?”

Lothíriel looked up to meet Éowyn’s amused eyes and felt a flush rise to her cheeks. “Just a sketch for my next painting. It’s important to get the composition exactly right.” It was her newest project, showing the meeting between Éomer and Aragorn on the plains of the Riddermark.

“You’ve already done a dozen drafts for that,” Éowyn pointed out. “You can’t possibly need any more.”

“It’s not so easy, depicting the line of mountains correctly and the different greys for the horses.”

Éowyn peered over her shoulder. “That doesn’t look like mountains to me.”

Lothíriel resisted the urge to snap her sketch book shut. “I’m simply practising to get his hair right, to make it fall naturally.” And the colour would be difficult too, ranging from pale wheat to a deep, rich gold. She loved running her hands through it.

Éowyn chuckled. “Of course, just practising.”

Lothíriel bent over her work again. “Exactly.”

“I bet that book is full of sketches of my brother and nothing else. Admit it, Lothíriel.”

“Not at all. Tarcil’s in there and…and Shirram.”

Éowyn ignored her. “It’s a mystery to me what you see in him. Doesn’t it get boring to draw the same person over and over again? Why not try somebody with dark hair, Faramir for example?”

Lothíriel was in fact working on a portrait of her cousin, meant as a surprise for her sister-in-law, but she wasn’t going to tell her so. “Oh, but I like a subject with some expression on his face. Faramir always looks so reserved.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Éowyn fired up, only to break into laughter. “I suppose I deserved that for teasing you.”

Lothíriel grinned back. “You did.”

She straightened up and stretched, only then realising how much time she had spent bent over her work. It was very easy to get lost in her drawings, especially with such an engrossing subject. Ruefully she smiled to herself. Éomer had indeed taken over her sketch books, but it seemed as if every day she discovered a new facet to him that she wanted to record.

Only that morning he had discussed the finer points of horseback archery with Faramir at the camp fire, waving his spoon of porridge about, eyes alight with enthusiasm, that particular crease of concentration on his brow…

“Oh, Lothíriel, you’re so smitten,” Éowyn interrupted her train of thought in a pitying voice.

Following the other woman’s eyes, Lothíriel found that she had begun to sketch out the scene on the margins of her page. She coloured.

Éowyn shook her head. “But then I knew as much when I saw that very first picture you sent me, of Éomer sleeping in the grass. I said to Faramir at the time that all we had to do was to wait for the invitation to the wedding.”

Sometimes it seemed to Lothíriel that the only person unaware of her feelings had been herself. Well, and Éomer. What a spectacle they had made of themselves – apparently Éowyn had received a running commentary from her correspondents in Edoras.

But who cared. She went back to drawing. “As Éomer has told me, I cannot dissimulate with my pen.”

Éowyn dragged over a chair, sat down and stretched out her legs. Lothíriel had set up her table under the awning of their tent, where she was out of the sun, but could still observe the goings-on of the camp. The others had gone riding that afternoon, but feeling unusually tired, she had excused herself.

“I’m glad you cannot lie with your pictures,” Éowyn said suddenly. “I was so pleased that he had found somebody who saw him for himself, not just as King of the Mark.” She leant back in her chair and grinned. “With his mouth open and probably snoring as well.”

“Éomer does not snore,” Lothíriel shot back. “I should know.” She pointed her pen at Éowyn. “And if you’re not careful, I’m going to draw a picture of you covered in mud, hair lanky and stinking of sweat so much that flies follow you everywhere.” By illustration she sketched a tiny fly, complete to its six legs. “And then I’ll present it to your doting husband.”

The threat left Éowyn unmoved. “Oh, Faramir’s seen me like that after a day’s hunting. As long as he’s the one washing off the mud, he doesn’t mind in the least. You should try it sometime.”

Lothíriel grinned. “I’ll take it into consideration.” Not the flies though.

“You should,” Éowyn agreed. They settled into a companionable silence.

Idly Lothíriel sneaked a peak at her sister-in-law’s profile. There were in fact quite a few drawings of Éowyn in her sketch book as well, and she meant to make fair copies of some of them for both Éomer and Faramir. One in particular she was proud of, depicting Éowyn and Khuri leaning on the fence of the practice ring, one fair and slender, the other dark and wiry, but both with an identical expression of fierce concentration.

Upon meeting, the two women had taken a measuring look at each other, like a pair of strange cats sizing each other up, but then established an unlikely friendship. Some of Éomer’s riders had conceived the bright idea of setting them up in a fight, one shieldmaiden against another. But instead the two had joined forces and offered to take on all comers.

Remembering the bout, Lothíriel had to hide a smile. Éomer had taken the two women aside and asked them not to damage his men too badly, but they had interpreted his instructions liberally. Healer Brictwen had been busy with strains, lots of bruises and even one broken arm. And poor Unferth had limped about Meduseld for several days afterwards, having been struck in a very sensitive spot.

The sound of deep voices caught her attention. Éomer and Faramir were walking up, Tarcil between them, back from their evening wash in the river. In the light of the setting sun, droplets of water in their hair sparkled like diamonds. The two men were laughing at something the boy had said, making Tarcil grin up at Éomer.

Lothíriel’s heart contracted, reminding her how much her happiness depended on these two. Loving Éomer and being loved by him was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. Sometimes she wondered where she had found the courage to lay herself open to hurt and loss again. Yet how could she not do so?

Then Éomer, spotting her sitting under the awning, smiled at her, and all her misgiving fled like the night’s shadows before the rising sun.

“Mummy,” Tarcil exclaimed, “Father is going to show me how to catch fish with my bare hands.”

“It will take patience though, and the water is cold,” Éomer warned him.

Tarcil’s eyes shone with excitement. “I don’t mind.”

Large, shaggy and inseparable from his master, his dog Rakash trotted at his side, tongue lolling. He had started out called Déorling, but after Khuri had found him chewing her boots, he had acquired his new name of ‘hell-hound’, which had stuck.

Reaching them, Éomer pulled her into his arms for a brief but not at all perfunctory kiss. As always Lothíriel marvelled how her senses came alive in his presence: the firm muscles of his chest under her fingers, the clean green smell of river water mixed with a hint of horse and leather, the heat in her belly.

Separating again, Éomer looked down at her. There was a satisfied smile in his eyes at what he saw in her face. The man enjoyed the effect he had on her.

Lothíriel lifted her chin and if by chance ran her fingers up his back in a light touch. His smile turned rueful. They both knew she had ways to get her own back.

“Mummy, Father.” Impatient, Tarcil tugged at her sleeve. “Can we go fishing tomorrow?”

“Yes, why not,” Éomer agreed good-naturedly. He tousled the boy’s hair. “We’ll take some food along and build a fire, so we can grill our catch on the spot.”

It warmed Lothíriel’s heart to see how well the two got along and the genuine liking between them. Very carefully she had never pressed Tarcil to call Éomer his father, but the boy had started to do so of his own accord. Sometimes she wondered if Arantar would have minded her marrying again; he had been fiercely possessive in his love for them. Yet surely he would not have wanted her to spend the rest of her life unloved and unloving.

“You seem very confident of your success, brother,” Éowyn put in from the circle of her own husband’s arms.

“As boys, Éothain and I spent days freezing our…fingers off crouching in cold water until we had mastered the technique of tickling trouts, so I’m sure it will come back to me.”

Faramir cleared his throat. “As a ranger I too know a trick or two of how to catch fish.”

That earned him a fond look from his wife. “We won’t starve then. Excellent, Lothíriel and I can watch from the bank and admire your skill.” She chuckled. “Lothíriel can draw the scene and I will supervise.”

Her brother gave a long suffering sigh at that, but Lothíriel knew how pleased he was to have Éowyn and Faramir staying with them. They had come for the wedding last summer of course, along with Lothíriel’s family and Arwen and Aragorn. However, due to the short notice that had only been a brief visit.

As for herself, she had found that by marrying Éomer she had also acquired a sister, an unlooked-for gift and pure delight. Éomer on his part seemed pleased with his three new brothers, even with Amrothos.

“Speaking of starving,” he now said, “I believe that Sunnild mentioned there will be meat skewers for the evening meal.”

Shashrani,” Tarcil exclaimed. “Let’s hurry.” The boy had long ago wrapped the headwoman around his little finger and got her to cook all his favourite foods.

He led the way down to the river bank where there were several campfires. What with Éomer’s éored, her own Queen’s Guard and Faramir’s rangers, there were a lot of mouths to feed  – at times it felt as if they were living in an army camp. Sunnild was pleased to host her king’s family, but Lothíriel had organised a steady flow of supplies from Edoras to ease the burden.

Tarcil ran off to confer with Hildwyn, returning to beg for the girl to be included in their expedition the next day, which was readily granted.

“Those two are born leaders,” Faramir observed, watching the pair commandeer a campfire for themselves and the rest of the children.

Éomer snorted. “Yes, I think I’ll have to watch out not to be deposed in another twenty years’ time or so.”

His sister laughed. “You’ll always have a place with us in Ithilien, if ever you have to go into exile.”

“Thank you. That’s a great comfort to know.” He settled Lothíriel on a log by one of the fires and sat down cross-legged at her feet. “That way I won’t have to see the blue horse upon green fly above Meduseld.”

They all chuckled. The children had their own makeshift camp downriver, where they spent their days playing and plotting mischief, and Tarcil had got Leofrun to sew them their own banner, depicting the infamous blue horse, to mark the commanders’ tent.

By and by more people joined them. Khuri appeared out of the shadows in her usual stealthy way – Lothíriel suspected she did it mostly to keep Éomer’s riders on their toes. His master-at-arms, Tunfrith, had taken her on as an assistant and possible successor, her teaching methods, though unorthodox, having proved highly successful. She positioned herself where she could keep an eye on Tarcil. They had agreed to give the boy some space away from adult supervision, but old habits were hard to break.

Lothíriel too was only slowly learning to relax and let go of the wariness and reserve acquired over long years in Harad. It was easier in Éomer’s presence. He had a gift for making you feel safe. As if he had sensed her thoughts, that moment he paused in his conversation with Faramir, turned his head to look up at her and gave her the smile that he kept for her alone. She hadn’t managed to capture it on paper yet, though not for lack of trying.

Smiling back at him, she squeezed his shoulder. Satisfied, he continued his discussion of different ways of combining cavalry with troops on foot. Lothíriel was content for the moment to just listen to the low timbre of his voice, not even taking in the words properly.

In the sky above them, the first stars blossomed, all the familiar constellations her father had taught her as a child. Over in the west Eärendil sailed his ship after the sun, while overhead Valacirca glimmered like a set of diamonds spread on velvet so dark and blue that not even her most precious ultramarine could do the colour justice. She loved the vastness of the plains of the Mark, that feeling of being close to the heavens only experienced out on the ocean or in the desert.

Leofrun and Eanswith had helped Sunnild with cooking and brought over plates of food. At the smell of roasted mutton a wave of nausea swept through her, confirming what she had suspected for a few days. She declined the meat skewers, opting for bread and some fresh greens instead.

Leofrun shot her a sharp glance, but said nothing. Yet a little later she brought a large mug of peppermint and lemon balm tea and handed it over with a conspiratorial smile. Had she guessed? Yet Lothíriel did not worry that Leofrun might gossip, spreading the news before she was ready.

That was another new experience: having women friends. In Harad, the other wives had been rivals, advancing their own husbands’ interests and spying on her, while the servants were so totally dependant on her goodwill that no true intimacy could form.

As for the friendships of her youth in Dol Amroth, none had survived her long absence and very different experience. It was her own fault too, of course, for how could you get close to somebody who kept all her true feelings walled off? At least she had mended relations with her family when they had come for the wedding. Ironically enough, they had accepted Éomer’s word that Arantar hadn’t been a bad man. Luckily for them she had been too happy at the time to give them a piece of her mind. Men!

As the evening advanced, their bard entertained the company with a ballad, stories were told – Faramir had a knack for keeping his audience spellbound – and Éomer’s riders sang some of their favourite songs. When a lively riddle game got going at a nearby campfire, she decided it was time to put Tarcil and the other children to bed.

It needed a common effort by all the mothers, but they herded them into their tents. Since Tarcil’s protests were punctuated by heavy yawns, she did not think they would lie awake for hours as predicted by her son. She was touched to receive a tight hug when she put him to bed.

“Today was a wonderful day,” he murmured, half asleep already. “And tomorrow will be even better with you along.”

She kissed him on the brow. “Yes, it will be.”

The summer before, she had been too torn and confused to really enjoy her time on the Emnet, but now the days stretched ahead of her like a string of perfect pearls. While she loved Edoras and its view of the mountains, ever changing with the weather, both she and Éomer had many duties there. Conferring with Weynild and Freawaru, running Meduseld to the high standard she set herself and hosting their many guests kept her busy. Here they had more time for each other.

Their own tent stood nearby, guarded by two riders, who lit a lantern for her. Éomer wasn’t there yet, but she did not think she would have to wait long for him. Ever since their marriage, late night conferences with his friends or councillors had become rare.

The tent was divided into separate parts by a canvas wall, with their two desks taking up most of the space in the main room. Out of habit, she quickly checked that all her pigments were tidied away safely. The ornamental box took pride of place on the collapsible table she used for drawing.

She smiled to herself. Éomer had suggested bringing Queen Morwen’s desk with them from the library at home, but she had declined the offer, much to Weynild’s relief. He really did his utmost to spoil her. Just witness the reams of different kinds of paper imported from Pelargir and how he made sure she never ran out of paints. Her smile deepened. A man who knew the way to his wife’s heart.

Setting down the lantern, she examined her newest wool samples, dyed a delicate pink from the bulb of a plant that Sunnild had pointed out to her. It was just one of many projects, for she was thinking of encouraging the selling of finished goods like cloth or carpets, rather than just raw wool, as a way to bring more prosperity to their people.

Éomer’s desk by contrast was covered in maps, with notes on his scouts’ findings stacked neatly by one side. Every day several of them rode in to report, for he was determined to get ample warning of any enemies. Not that he thought that there was much danger of a fresh orc incursion after the utter annihilation the last one had suffered. That did not mean he would lower his guard though.

She let her fingers linger on a second map, which had been brought by Faramir from Minas Tirith. Though it wasn’t widely known yet, Aragorn and Éomer had plans to take back Harondor, the disputed area lying to the south of Ithilien. She, Tarcil and Khuri had crossed it during their escape from Harad, so Faramir had asked them to fill in all the details they remembered.

One day the King of Harad would discover what a formidable foe he had made. The campaign would not take place for several months, but one thing was certain: whenever Aragorn went to war, Éomer would fulfil the oath of Eorl and go with him. Sometimes her heart quailed at the thought. But she had known she married a warrior. And in truth Éomer’s zest for life, born from the knowledge that it could be cut short at any moment, was part of what attracted her to him.

Pushing the thought aside, she went into their bedroom. Most of the space was taken up by their bed, but she had brought carpets along to make it more cosy. There was also a small dressing table, so after changing into a nightgown, she sat down to brush out her hair, finishing by braiding it loosely, so it would be easy to undo.

Dabbing on her favourite orange blossom scent, she smiled at her reflection in the mirror. She too knew what her husband liked. The nightgown, a present from Elphir’s wife Aerin, flowed around her like a blue-green wave, edged by a froth of lace. She smoothed out the shimmering silk. It was almost a shame that she never got to wear it for very long. Almost.

Lightly she rested a hand on her stomach. Nothing showed yet, but she had begun to feel her body changing in familiar ways. A brief stab of grief struck her when she remembered the last time. Her little one, lost to its enemies before it even had a chance at life. But though she would never forget, neither would she let those sorrows mar her joy. Or that of Éomer. What would he say?

She slipped between the sheets just as there came a sound from the main room, then heard him dismiss the guards after exchanging a few words with them. Unlike her, Éomer did not linger at the desks, but came straight through.

“So did you manage to put that little scamp of ours to bed?” he asked, ducking under the flap that led into their bedroom. “I swear I don’t know how you do it.”

Lothíriel grinned. The last time Éomer had tried, the children had got him to tell them stories until she had been forced to intervene. By himself, he would probably have sat up until the early hours of the morning. “Tarcil got distracted by the treat promised for tomorrow.”

“I hope I’ll remember how to tickle trout,” he said, starting to divest himself of his clothes. “Otherwise we’ll have to sacrifice Faramir and make him step into the breach.”

“Into the cold water, you mean.”

“Exactly. You wouldn’t want your husband to freeze off any valuable body parts, would you?”

“Probably not,” she conceded, watching with appreciation as he took off his shirt. Purely from an artist’s perspective of course, as an exercise how to depict muscles on a well-built male subject. There were some pictures in her book that she definitely would not copy out for Éowyn.

“That’s kind of you.”

He placed his sword by the side of the bed within easy reach and slipped a knife underneath the pillow to match the one she still carried concealed up the sleeves of her clothes. Old habits were difficult to change indeed. But while between them Éomer joked about his well-armed wife, she knew he had sworn that she would never again need to use it. And this was a man who could be very determined indeed. As she had found to her good fortune.

He sat down on the side of the bed and picked up her hand, slowly stroking her palm. A thrill of pure pleasure ran through her. She couldn’t believe it had taken her all those months to realise how attractive she found him. That first time she had stumbled into his arms by mistake had come as a complete shock. And yet at the same time, deep down a part of her had not been surprised at all.

Now she did not want to take her eyes off him. Or her hands. Her whole being seemed to concentrate on the spot where he touched her, his fingers strong and calloused, but infinitely gentle. Such a simple thing really: skin against skin. But she had denied herself its pleasure, as she had denied herself so much. Only now did she truly see how in her grief over Arantar’s death she had cut herself off from all human contact except for Tarcil.

She looked up to find Éomer watching her with a slight frown. “Lothíriel,” he said hesitantly, “you hardly ever miss the opportunity for a ride on Shirram.” He leant forward to feel her forehead. “And you didn’t have much of an appetite at the evening meal. Are you feeling all right?”

It was just like him to notice that kind of thing. With a smile she reached up to caress his cheek. “I’m fine. Very much so. There’s a perfectly natural reason why I’m tired. And soon I will eat a lot more, I assure you.”

He caught his breath. “Lothíriel, are you saying…”

“Yes. I’m with child.”

For a long moment Éomer looked as stunned as if she had hit him over the head, then he caught her up in his arms and pulled her to him. “Lothíriel!” But he let go again at once. “I’m sorry,” he stammered, “I didn’t mean to crush you.”

Breathless, she smiled up at him. “You’re pleased?”

“Pleased? That’s much too mild an expression. I’m thrilled, elated, amazed…” He gazed at her as if he still couldn’t quite believe it. “A child.” Suddenly he frowned again. “Lothíriel, should we move back to Edoras? Surely living in a tent is not at all the thing for you.”

She laughed at that. “Éomer, there are probably a dozen women in this camp who are further along with their pregnancies and are managing just fine.”

He had the grace to look sheepish. “Yes, but it’s different when it’s my wife. Are you sure?”

“I am. Though the night is growing chilly...” She lifted the edge of the coverlet in invitation.

Her husband was quick to understand. And deliciously warm. He gathered her to him and put his hand on her belly, as gently as if he feared to squash the new life awakening there. “I wonder if it’s a boy or a girl?” he mused. “Oh, and did you know that the line Tarcil’s Lýtling comes from also has some smaller ponies? They have an excellent reputation.”

“Éomer, you can’t possibly think about mounting our child before it’s even born,” Lothíriel protested with a laugh.

He grinned at her. “Remember, I’m a horse lord. Our children learn to ride before they can walk. Besides, it takes time to train a pony properly.”

Lothíriel shook her head at him. “You’re impossible.” She got the feeling their child would get thoroughly spoilt.

However, his thoughts had already run on. “I have to tell Éowyn.”

She grabbed him as he made a move to get up. “Not now.” From the way her sister-in-law had eyed Faramir over dinner, she did not think the moment would be propitious. “Tomorrow is soon enough.”

Éomer subsisted. Yet suddenly he gave her a sharp glance. “Lothíriel, you’re pleased too, aren’t you?”

“Of course.” She hesitated, for she did not want to spoil his joy. Yet she owed him the truth. “I’m deliriously happy. But at the same time I’m terrified.”

Being her wonderful, thoughtful husband, who often knew her better than she knew herself, he understood at once. “Oh Lothíriel, this time it will be different,” he said, drawing her closer. “You’re safe here with me. I promise.”

“I know.” She rested her hand against his chest, where his heart beat strong and true. “It’s just that I’m so happy that sometimes I’m convinced that it can’t possibly last, that something bad will happen.” It wasn’t rational, but she had been scarred by her time in Harad, though not in the way people thought. Éomer was the only one she had fully confided in.

He did not reply at once. Hesitantly he cupped her face. “Dear heart, to love means to risk loss. Yet not to love…”

“…means not to live at all,” she sighed. “I know. But it takes such courage.”

In answer he placed a light kiss on her forehead. “Lothíriel, I still think you’re one of the bravest women I know.”

She shook her head in denial. “You’ve told me so before, and it’s flattering, but truly I think you’re exaggerating.”

“Let me be the judge of that.” Suddenly the corners of his eyes crinkled in a smile. “After all you agreed to marry me. If that’s not courage, what is? No wonder it took me so long to persuade you.”

She was surprised into a chuckle. Yet in a way it was true. It had taken as much courage to marry him as to marry Arantar, just a very different kind. “I’m glad you persevered,” she murmured, tracing a slow spiral on his chest with her fingers.

Éomer had somehow slid his hands inside her nightgown. When had that happened? “I can tell you, it wasn’t easy. Courting you often felt like handling a naked blade. A very sharp one.”

Lothíriel grinned at him. “Really, my warrior king? Is that what you wanted in your bed, a blade?”

His eyes lit up with amusement. “Not exactly, though I wouldn’t have minded the naked part.”

She laughed. And then he captured her mouth in a kiss and all thoughts of the future fled from her mind. Her husband with his great heart. When she was in Éomer’s arms, the world was a wonderful place, full of warmth and joy. With a happy sigh, she let him sweep her away with him.

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A/N: A big thank-you, as always, goes to my wonderful beta Lady Bluejay and the ladies at the Garden for their encouragement throughout the years. Many thanks also to you, my readers, for coming on this journey with me, for your comments and the discussions we had along the way. I hope you enjoyed this tale!

If you want to read more of my writing, there are other Éomer & Lothíriel stories of mine on this site, or you can find my original stories on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Scribd, etc. by searching for ‘Lia Patterson’.

And for those of you who asked what would be next: I’ll add a oneshot to my ‘The Lion and his Lady’ series soon and hopefully by the end of the year will have another original story published.

As the Rohirrim would say: Wesath ye hál!





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