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Like a Blade Forged in Fire  by Lialathuveril

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.

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