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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.
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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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
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