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Meduseld heaved a collective sigh of relief when Eradan was gone. Éomer saw to it that investigations into the matter of the blue horse were dropped quietly and any stained hands ignored. Yet the incident only cheered him briefly.
Once they settled back into their routine, he became increasingly dissatisfied. Lothíriel had stayed in the Mark for many weeks now, but he had made hardly any progress at all, except that he knew what exactly she thought of men who tried to take advantage of her gratitude. It was frustrating.
But perhaps they simply needed a change of scene. Many of the Rohirrim spent the summer in tents on the Emnets, the wide, grassy plains either side of the River Entwash, travelling with their horse herds. In happier times, Éomer’s parents had done the same and taken their two children along. He remembered those days filled with racing their ponies, bathing in the many streams and sitting round the fires in the evening listening to stories as the last carefree time of his childhood.
When he proposed the idea of a trip to the Eastemnet, Tarcil was delighted with the idea, for he loved horses and spending all day outdoors. His mother readily agreed, and though Eanswith, heavily pregnant by now, opted to stay behind in Edoras, Lothíriel would have a companion in Leofrun.
Despite their initial disagreements, by now Leofrun’s daughter Hildwyn and Tarcil were as thick as…horse painters. They had even begun to team up with Éothain’s twins against the older children in Meduseld, some of whom as a result apparently felt hard done by.
One of the favourite pastimes of the older boys was to re-enact the battle of the Pelennor, and they had made Tarcil be the Haradrim king. But instead of accepting his fate and losing the fight gracefully, as would have been proper, he had made an ally of Hildwyn, who had the role of Éowyn, and turned the tables on them. Éothain had laughed tears when recounting how the boys had complained about being ambushed and beaten by a Haradrim shieldmaiden in the middle of the battle. Altogether it seemed wise to take these two along and keep an eye on them before they could get into any further mischief.
It would take a few days to get everything ready though. Éomer had a meeting with his marshals and captains coming up, but they would set out soon afterwards. The latest courier from Gondor had brought another batch of reports from Aragorn’s scouts, and he wanted to go over them with his men first.
Erkenbrand and Elfhelm rode over from the Westfold and Aldburg respectively and with the rest of his captains they pored over the maps of Rohan in the library. Lothíriel had left them to it, going for a ride instead, but many of his men cast curious glances at her desk and the half finished painting lying there, a portrait of Hildwyn, meant as a gift for her mother.
The Dunlendings had been quiet ever since Saruman’s defeat and the destruction of Isengard, so they decided to step up some of the patrols in the east instead. With their horse herds out on the Emnet in summer, it made sense to add more protection to that border. And with Éomer there, he could lend some of his own men to the task as well. If anything happened – not that he considered that likely, or he would never have thought to take Lothíriel with him – he would be closer to react.
At the end of the meeting, Elfhelm and the other men took their leave, but Erkenbrand stayed for a talk over a tankard of ale. The Westfold had been hit the worst by the war, and Éomer was keen to hear how things stood. They had lost many farms, and worse, many people, to Saruman’s orcs, but Gondor had sent aid over the winter and the rebuilding was going well.
When Erkenbrand was ready to set out, Éomer walked with him as far as the courtyard below the hall. The afternoon was getting on, but Erkenbrand wanted to make a start on the journey to get home to his lady by the end of the next day.
“Thirty-two years we’ve been married now, my beautiful Aethelind and I,” he told Éomer. “You’d better hurry if you want to catch us up.”
Éomer sighed inwardly. Erkenbrand’s wife, as slim and dainty as her lord was tall and burly, was the perfect match for him. Éomer would not have minded settling into that kind of contented matrimony at all. But first he had to convince his intended bride that marrying him would not be the equivalent of locking herself up in gaol for the rest of her life. With him as her gaoler.
“I will do my best,” he said.
Just as a groom led over Erkenbrand’s horse, the clatter of hooves sounded on the cobbles. Lothíriel rode up, accompanied by her escort of riders that Éomer sent with her whenever she rode out on her own.
“Ah, Princess Lothíriel,” Erkenbrand hailed her in his loud, booming voice.
She had been introduced to him at the remembrance feast, so greeted him by name and smiled down at him.
“I owe you an apology, my lady,” Erkenbrand announced after exchanging a few pleasantries.
She raised an eyebrow. “Whatever for?”
“For my rider who pestered you at the bael-feorm. I was most displeased with him, I assure you. He’s been shovelling manure these last weeks.”
The corners of her mouth twitched. “That seems to be the universal punishment around here. It’s lucky that with all your horses, you have so much manure.”
Erkenbrand laughed heartily at that. “Yes, it’s one thing we’ll never run out of.”
She leant forward and absentmindedly stroked Shirram’s neck. “But please do not be too hard on the man. He’s spent three days in gaol here already and got thoroughly chastised by his king.”
“Not thoroughly enough! But at least it’s good to know that you can handle a knife and take care of yourself.” He poked Éomer in the ribs. “Just you wait, Éomer here will turn you into a shieldmaiden yet.”
Lothíriel looked amused. “But I have no intention of becoming one.”
“Nor do I want to turn her into one,” Éomer added.
Erkenbrand laughed. “Having one in the family is enough, eh?”
Éomer frowned at him, but Lothíriel just smiled. “Oh, I could never measure up to Lady Éowyn.”
Impatient at being kept standing round, Shirram threw up his head. Lothíriel patted him again.
Erkenbrand ran an expert eye over the stallion. “So is this the horse Éomer gave you?”
“Yes, isn’t he absolutely marvellous?”
“Indeed. Worthy of a queen.”
Éomer jumped in hastily. “Yes, as you can see, he’s got very nice conformation. And he’s fast as well.”
Lothíriel grinned down at Erkenbrand. “What he means to say is that your poor king has had to eat our dust.”
With a guffaw Erkenbrand clapped Éomer on the back. “That’s what I call true love, to give the woman you’re fancying a faster horse than yours.” He beamed at Lothíriel. “You have bedazzled him, my lady, and no wonder.”
Her smile faltered.
“Erkenbrand!” Éomer hissed.
“What, am I not supposed to mention that? But Éothain and Weynild both said you were smitten...” He faltered under Éomer’s furious gaze.
Sudden silence spread around them. The riders who had accompanied Lothíriel hastily led their horses to the stable. Éomer hardly dared look at Lothíriel. When he did, he found her staring down at him.
“Éomer?” she asked, her voice unsure, all laughter gone from it. “What does this mean?”
He opened his mouth to assure her it meant nothing at all, was just people jumping to silly conclusions. But he could not lie to her.
As he hesitated, the blood slowly drained from her face. “Éomer?” she said again. Just his name. Shirram, sensing his rider’s agitation, flicked back his ears and began to sidle.
Erkenbrand had apparently got a dim idea of what damage he had caused. “Don’t listen to an old fool like me, my lady,” he said in an artificially hearty tone. “I’m sure it’s all a mistake.” Remembering too late that he was supposed to stand by his king like a shield brother, instead of stabbing him in the back!
Lothíriel still held Éomer’s eyes. “My lord, what do you mean by this?” It seemed to him she grasped at the formality like a shield.
“Nothing dishonourable,” he blurted out, hurt by the wariness in her face. Then he suddenly worried that she might think he did not find her attractive. “That is, of course I would like to…eh, that is not to say that you’re not…but…” He realised he was making a complete hash of it.
Éomer took a deep breath. He had fought Uruk-hai, had faced the hordes of Mordor. He could do this. But for Lothíriel only the truth would serve, even if it felt like walking through fire.
He took a step forward, looking up at her. “I love you. Will you marry me?”
The last vestiges of colour left her face. Éomer winced. This was not the kind of reaction to a marriage proposal a man hoped for. She opened her mouth, closed it again. Then she wheeled Shirram round and dug her heels into his sides.
For a moment he could only stare after Lothíriel bolting out of the courtyard as if she had wolves snapping at her heels. “Lothíriel!” He snatched the reins from Erkenbrand’s hands and vaulted onto his horse in a single motion.
Shouts ahead of him showed him where Lothíriel clattered down the road at breakneck speed. He cursed Erkenbrand for giving him away, cursed Erkenbrand’s horse for not being faster, cursed himself for choosing such bald words, for letting himself be stampeded into a declaration of love.
They were halfway down the hill, people jumping out of their way, and briefly he considered taking a shortcut through one of the little side alleys or a kitchen garden. But on an unfamiliar horse that was asking for disaster. “Make way!” he shouted instead.
Ahead of them, the guards at the gate jumped aside. Lothíriel leant low over Shirram’s withers and gave the stallion his head.
Éomer had run out of curses. He had no chance of catching them up now; grimly he settled down in pursuit. Heading east, Lothíriel took the Great West Road. The cemetery flashed by on his right, then they were out on level, grassy ground, where the stallion could achieve his greatest speed.
He had been a fool to give her the fastest horse he owned. And when he got back, he would cut Erkenbrand into pieces. Very small ones.
She drew farther and farther ahead, and for a moment he worried that she intended to ride all the way to Gondor. At least Erkenbrand’s horse was willing, though Éomer sensed it starting to tire. But after what felt like an eternity, he saw Lothíriel straighten up in the saddle and slow Shirram down, first to a trot and then to a walk. With a last burst of speed, he caught up with her.
They halted and looked at each other mutely. Lothíriel’s hands clenched and unclenched on the reins. Éomer’s heart ached to see her so upset, her face white, eyes dark with distress. Once more he cursed himself for not being more quick-witted and heading Erkenbrand off; after all he had known she wasn’t ready to hear him.
Shirram gave a tired snort, and Lothíriel started. She looked down at the stallion and for the first time seemed to notice his foam flecked neck and sweaty coat. “We need to walk the horses,” she said, her voice sounding hoarse.
Éomer nodded, and together they turned back towards Edoras. He kept silent, for he felt that he had caused enough damage. For a long time they rode like that, side by side but with neither of them saying anything. Head lowered, Lothíriel stared down at her hands on the reins. Not until the burial mounds came into sight ahead of them did she raise her eyes to his.
“I can’t marry you.”
Éomer wasn’t exactly surprised. “Will you tell me why?” he asked gently.
“I just can’t do it. Not again. The last time nearly killed me.”
It wasn’t the same, he thought, how could she compare him to a Haradrim. His anger at the man grew. However, he didn’t say anything, for this was not a point that could be carried by rational argument.
Lothíriel looked away again. “You must think me a coward.”
He drew his horse to a halt. “No! Lothíriel, you’re one of the bravest people I know.”
She gave a bleak smile. “One of the most foolhardy you mean.”
“No. The bravest.”
They regarded each other silently, both at a loss.
“I will return to Dol Amroth,” Lothíriel announced abruptly. “It’s for the best.”
His heart sank like a stone. Something told him he would lose her for good then. “Pleased don’t go, not because of this.” He made a helpless gesture with his hand, taking in the two of them. “It’s all my fault, I’m such a fool.”
“No, I am the fool. I just never realised…” She bit her lip. “Éomer, I would not make you a fit wife, believe me,” she suddenly burst out. “You’re a good man, you deserve better.”
How could she think so little of herself? That man must have crushed her self-esteem. “Let me be the judge of that,” he replied. “But promise me not to let my stupid behaviour influence your decision whether to return to Dol Amroth. I know you’re still worried about Tarcil.”
“I am, but…”
Lothíriel seemed to relax very slightly. “You’re very kind.”
“So you’ll stay?”
She gave a small nod. They urged their tired horses into a walk again.
“I’m sorry to have taken you by surprise like that,” he added. Why hadn’t he been more careful with his eyes. It was all his fault.
Another small nod. “I’m sorry too,” she said in a more normal voice. “You honour me greatly. If I made you think…encouraged you in any way…it was never my intention, I assure you.”
Involuntarily he snorted. “I know that only too well. You did not encourage me in the slightest.”
“But then how? This is all so sudden.” She sounded bewildered, though the shock seemed to be wearing off slowly. As marriage proposals went, his had to be one of the more disastrous ones. Yet he could not be other than honest with her.
“It’s not sudden to me,” he said. “I loved you almost from the first moment I saw you.” It was a relief to have the truth out at last. But also frightening. He looked up to find her staring at him. “But I would never pressure you. You need time to recover after what that brute did to you. I understand.”
“All I can say is that marriage to me would be completely different. I admire your courage, I respect you for your abilities, I love you. And I would never, ever hurt you, Lothíriel. I swear.”
“Éomer, you don’t understand.”
“I think I do. I know you’ve been through anguish and pain, and though you’ve emerged from that fire unbent, it has marked you. I do not presume to ask you to tell me what happened – unless you feel it would help, of course – but I honour you for not letting him break your spirit.”
She had been hurt deeply, that much was clear. And Éomer could imagine only too well what the man had done to her, he’d seen enough cruelty during the war. Though lately he had begun to wonder if her husband had been of the sort who observed his victims closely and interspersed false kindness in between the pain, a special kind of torture.
Lothíriel had fallen silent. Now she suddenly gathered up Shirram’s reins. “I need to show you something.” She urged the stallion into a trot.
What could she mean? They passed between the burial mounds, which cast long shadows from the sinking sun, and through the gate of Edoras. The guards there threw them curious looks, though none dared hail him. It was the same along the road leading up to the hall and in the courtyard outside Meduseld. They could no doubt tell from his face how well his suit had prospered.
There was no sign of Erkenbrand, and a short inquiry yielded the information that he had borrowed a horse and departed before his king could return. Wise man.
Lothíriel had handed over Shirram with a word of thanks to one of the grooms and was already ascending the steps to the hall. Her purpose did not falter until they entered Meduseld. Abruptly the hall, full for the evening meal, fell silent.
If he had ever doubted her courage, she would have shown him her mettle that moment. For she straightened her shoulders and proceeded to walk the length of the hall, her soft footfall loud in the silence. Éomer followed her, scowling at anybody foolhardy enough to meet his eyes.
Tarcil sat with Leofrun and Hildwyn, but after stopping for a short word of reassurance with him, she continued to the door leading to the private quarters. There, to his surprise, she went straight to Tarcil’s room and started to look through the chest that held his belongings. In a moment she had found what she had been looking for: the leather bound booklet with her drawings that she had made for her son.
“Here,” she said, opening the book at the last page, the one she had stopped Tarcil from showing him.
Mystified, Éomer studied the picture. It depicted her husband, he realised at once. But unlike in the formal portrait hanging on the wall, here he was relaxed and smiling, sitting back at his ease in a garden.
Lothíriel turned over the page. “And here.” Another drawing of the same man, cradling what had to be Tarcil as a baby, an expression of tender affection on his face.
Shock ran through Éomer. The pictures were informal sketches, only coloured lightly, nothing like the elaborate portrait with its gold paint. But they had been drawn with love. And Lothíriel could not lie with her brush; the book held her heart. He raised his eyes to her face.
“Yes,” she said defiantly. “I loved Arantar. And I refuse to apologise for it.” She turned on her heel and left him there.
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