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The next day Amrothos left for Gondor, but got off to a late start. Which was not surprising, considering the tankards of ale they had emptied the night before, Éomer thought when they assembled in the courtyard below Meduseld to send him off. The furry feeling in his mouth and an insistent throbbing behind his temples brought back memories of Cormallen.
Meduseld’s cook Freawaru had served her evil tasting mint and fennel tea at the breakfast table, which was supposed to make you feel better, but at first just made death seem all the more attractive by comparison. The only concession to him being the lord of the hall was a jar of honey to sweeten the foul brew.
The corners of Lothíriel’s mouth quirked when she spotted the two of them. Éomer just hoped he did not look quite as seedy as Amrothos. At least the chilly wind had a reviving effect.
A groom from the royal stable led up Mellon and Amrothos’s own horse. Éomer had also organised a couple of riders to escort his friend as far as Minas Tirith, where he was heading to take part in the celebration of the victory over Sauron. Most of the nobility of Gondor would be there, and Éomer had been invited too, but he preferred to spend the day with his own people.
While Lothíriel fussed over Mellon one last time, feeding him carrots and stroking him, Tarcil inundated his uncle with messages to his cousin Alphros.
“Make sure to tell him about Lýtling,” he said, “that I have my own real Rohirric war pony. And that we took the Paths of the Dead. And that Éothain has taught me how to hit a target from horseback. And–”
“Enough,” Amrothos laughed, then winced. “I promise to deliver a full report of all your doings. But if you want to make sure Alphros hears about all your exploits, you just have to get your mother to write to Dol Amroth regularly.”
He took Éomer’s arm and pulled him a little apart. “My friend, a quick word with you.” He cast a glance over his shoulder at Lothíriel and lowered his voice. “You’ll look after her.” It was a command, not a question.
Éomer inclined his head. “I will defend her with my life if necessary.”
Amrothos measured him with his eyes, but did not look surprised. What rumours had he heard? “Do I need to ask you about your intentions?”
“I hold your sister in the highest respect,” Éomer said stiffly. “If you think I would offer her the insult of–”
“No, no.” Amrothos held up his hand. “I trust your honour, my friend.” He watched his sister for a moment longer. “She seems happy enough here, more relaxed than at home at least, if not her former self. Perhaps that is what she needs: a fresh start far away from home. So I wish you luck.” He sighed. “Ever since she returned from Harad, she’s been like a woman carrying a heavy weight of stone.” His voice sank. “But if you add as much as a pebble to that load, know that I will call you to account, king or not.”
“You’d have every right.” Éomer caught sight of Khuri standing on the stairs above them, her arms crossed on her chest, watching them through narrowed eyes. “You might have to wait in line though.”
Amrothos suddenly grinned and clapped him on the back. “True. But I could always mop up the pieces after she’s through with you.”
Éomer grinned back. “How kind of you.”
Amrothos took hold of his horse’s reins, ruffled Tarcil’s hair one last time and finally turned to say good-by to his sister. They looked at each other for a long moment, then she threw her arms around him.
“Take care, little one,” Amrothos whispered into her hair. “Don’t do anything foolish.”
“You’re a right one to talk.” She gave him a wobbly smile. “Don’t take any risks chasing pirates. Remember, there’s always more of them to be had.”
He nodded. “I’ll be careful. And if you need us, send a courier. I will come.”
“I know. But I’m in good hands.”
They hugged one more time, before Amrothos mounted his horse.
Lothíriel took a step back and drew Tarcil to her side. “And stay away from strong drink,” she quipped. Her voice was light, but her arms went around her son as if for support.
Amrothos grimaced. “Good advice, but a little too late.” After a last, lingering look he spurred his horse and trotted out the courtyard.
Lothíriel hugged her son closer, but the boy wriggled out of her grip. “Mummy, let go. People will think I’m a baby.”
She loosened her hold. “I’m sorry.”
“May I go and play with Éoric and Éormenred?” Tarcil asked. “They’ve got a puppy. Mistress Eanswith said it was all right.”
“Yes, of course,” she agreed. “As long as Khuri goes with you.”
The boy skipped away, his uncle half forgotten already. Lothíriel straightened her shoulders and gave a small sigh. She started when Éomer offered her his arm. “Shall we go back inside?” he asked gently. “You look cold.” And lonely, but he didn’t say that.
“Thank you.” She took his arm and they ascended the steps. “What were you talking about to my brother?”
“Oh, he just worries about you.” There was no need to go into the details.
“I worry about him too.” They stopped outside Meduseld and turned to watch the view. “About all of my brothers of course, but he’s the most reckless. He offered to put off his departure, you know, but I told him to return home.”
“You didn’t want him to stay?”
“I did, but he doesn’t belong here, he misses the sea.” Below them, they saw her brother’s party pass the gate. “Also he’s our best captain. Amrothos can read wind and current as if it were an open book; he’s nowhere as much at home as on the deck of a ship.”
Éomer could well believe that. During his visit to Dol Amroth, Amrothos had dragged him all over the Sea Hawk, his war galley, and Éomer had learnt far more than he had ever wanted about oars, ship’s rigging, the effect of different hull shapes on speed and other nautical mysteries.
The riders struck the Great West Road and headed east, towards Gondor. Lothíriel sighed again. “Father needs him. So really it’s best if he goes. It will make me less noticeable too, I suppose.”
“What do you mean by that?” Éomer asked, surprised.
“He’s rather flamboyant, isn’t he? But I just want to live quietly, causing as little talk as possible.”
Éomer looked at her standing there, dressed in her usual muted colours, it was true, but with her golden torc glinting at her throat. Tall and slim, her pale skin in dramatic contrast to her black hair, grey eyes large and beautiful… She had as much chance of going unnoticed as one of the Mearas amongst a herd of goats.
Lothíriel was still staring into the distance. “Sometimes I feel like a ship adrift,” she said in a low voice, as if to herself, “with Tarcil and my family being my only anchors.”
Éomer would have been happy to offer himself as her anchor, her harbour, anything at all, however nautical. But he felt that she would not accept more than his silent support at the moment.
They stood in this way until the riders passed out of sight behind one of the foothills, then she turned away. “I think I’ll retire to my room for a bit,” she said. “Excuse me.”
The doorwardens threw open the doors of Meduseld as she approached, but on the threshold she paused and looked back over her shoulder. “Thank you.”
Yet that afternoon she came down to the training grounds poised and serene, as if that moment of vulnerability had never happened. For the time being, Éomer had put her stallion in a paddock on his own, thinking he would be more relaxed there than in a stable. Lothíriel had brought some carrots along and proceeded to fulfil Éomer’s prediction that she would spoil the horse rotten.
Over the next days they fell into an easy routine. She trained the stallion, grooming him, getting him used to her presence, leading him around on a halter, while Éomer worked out with his men or schooled his own young horses. Tarcil too came along most of the time, learning to jump his pony over small obstacles, often accompanied by the other children.
Khuri meanwhile showed his men a few of her tricks, making Éomer’s opinion of her abilities rise another notch. She would have made a good assassin, he could not help thinking. The men promptly used the skills she had taught them to good effect in the next tavern brawl.
Éothain put the whole lot of them on stable cleaning duty when they showed up the next morning very much worse for wear, but they were so proud of their resounding success, they did not mind shovelling manure. An impassive Khuri got a blow by blow account of the fight, including a demonstration how one of the lads had got out of a stranglehold by an opponent twice his size. Her sudden popularity did not seem to impress her, but she did show them a dozen novel ways to turn a tankard of ale into a deadly weapon.
Lothíriel’s stallion – whom she named Shirram after a seasonal desert wind – soon followed her about like a faithful dog. Once the two established a bond of trust between them, he proved well-schooled. Within a few days Lothíriel progressed to riding on a lunge line under Éomer’s supervision, teaching the stallion to listen to her and keep his focus.
He knew she was itching to try out Shirram’s pace, but he wanted her to establish her authority first. With a stallion, you had to be very firm who was in charge and alert to his every mood. Éomer wanted to make sure she would be able to handle him around other stallions, or worse, mares in heat.
Only if she managed to make Shirram think of her as the lead mare of his little herd, kind but in charge, would he do as she asked of him. But once he had accepted her, he would be her willing slave. A position Éomer would have been perfectly happy to occupy too, he thought whenever he saw her whisper endearments in the stallion’s ears or stroke his coat.
One afternoon, he rode over after training Firefoot to find her sitting on the ground, leaning back against a fence post. When Éomer unsaddled Firefoot and let him into the paddock, Shirram, who had been cropping the grass near her, looked up alertly. The two stallions had got used to each other. After some posturing, a few kicks and some impressive squealing, the older and more powerful Firefoot had established his dominance.
The Rohirrim were used to running stallions together, but even so Éomer watched them carefully for a bit. Once he was satisfied they would not get into a biting match just then, he crouched down next to Lothíriel where he could keep an eye on the horses at the same time.
Sitting there on the ground, her hair escaping from its simple braid, blotches of dried horse slobber on her shirt and a smudge of dirt on her cheek, she looked as relaxed as he had ever seen her. And as kissable.
Spotting her little desk on her lap, he grinned. “Drawing your black demon?” Had he been a jealous man, he would have resented the love she lavished on that horse.
“He’s very well behaved,” she protested. “But actually I’m drawing a picture of Tarcil and Lýtling. He wants to send it to Alphros.”
Éomer chuckled. “To show off his Rohirric war pony?”
“Yes, his pride and joy.” She gave him a warm smile.
“May I have a look?” he asked impulsively.
She hesitated, and he was about to apologise for the question, when she showed him the open page of her sketchbook.
“Just a few preliminary sketches of horses,” she said, sounding shy. “Nothing special really, but I want to get the details right.”
There was an ink drawing of Lýtling’s head, unfinished yet, and horses in different postures. She turned the page to show him a collection of rough sketches of hoofs, eyes and nostrils. Shirram, his ears flicked forward, was on the opposite side, obviously drawn with love.
Éomer did not touch the book, but let her choose what to show him. He had the feeling she was like a young filly being handled for the first time, not sure she could trust him and easily startled by a wrong move.
Suddenly he spotted a familiar line of mountains, nothing but a few strokes of the pen, a bit of ink, yet it somehow captured the view he had known all his life. “That’s Irensaga with the Starkhorn in the distance,” he exclaimed.
“Yes, we saw it on the ride back from the stud farm the other day.”
“It’s really good.”
She coloured. “Thank you. I’ve enjoyed drawing ever since I was a child, though of course there’s no comparison to my father’s court painters.”
He was still regarding the sketch, thinking how Éowyn used to love that particular view. In fact she had a favourite place, a small knoll out on the plains, from where you could see the whole mountain chain, crowned in eternal snow, as well as the green hill of Edoras with Meduseld glittering on top.
“Tell me, do you take commissions?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I was just thinking how much it would please my sister to have a drawing of that particular view, to remind her of the Riddermark.”
She hesitated. “Are you sure…?”
“Éowyn would love it. She’s happy in Ithilien with Faramir, of course, but from her letters I think she does miss the mountains and the wide plains at times.”
Lothíriel took a deep breath. “In that case I’d be honoured to make a drawing for her.”
“Thank you.” It was his turn to hesitate. “Is there any way I can repay you?”
“Please, you house and protect us, to say nothing of giving me Shirram.” She smiled at him. “I will never be able to thank you enough for your kindness to me and Tarcil. You may ask for anything from me.”
If she kept saying things like that, one day he would not be answerable for his actions! And she was completely sincere as well, with only gratitude and not the least hint of teasing in her voice. Did she place him in the category of older brother and thus safe? Or as a widow with a child, did she consider herself beyond the age of being courted? It made him want to bash his head against the fence post.
To distract himself Éomer looked out over the paddock, where the two stallions had settled down to grazing, though still keeping an eye on each other. How much easier a horse’s life was.
“Splendid,” he said. “There’s a place on the plains that Éowyn loves for its view. I’ll take you there sometime.”
“Will we ride there?” Her eyes sparkled.
“Of course. And yes, you can try out Shirram’s pace.”
“When shall we go?” She sounded as if she would have liked to set out that very instant.
Éomer considered her progress with the stallion. “Soon. But tomorrow is the victory celebration, and I’ve got guests arriving already, so we’ll have to wait until that’s past. Not much longer though.”
“Good.” She flashed him a grin. “Well, horse lord, you and Firefoot had better get ready to eat our dust.”
It took all Éomer’s self-control not to grab her for a kiss then and there.
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