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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.”
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.
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?”
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