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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.”
“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.
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.
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