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After that day, Lothíriel avoided him. There was no more working in the library together in companionable silence; she only sat there when he was busy elsewhere. Their rides together ceased, as did her visits to the training grounds. And if she encountered him in the hallway, she would avert her eyes and pass him quickly, just giving a polite nod.
He only saw her at meal times, when she was barricaded by the other women, and even then she never lingered. It hurt him to see her so subdued, and he blamed himself for making her unhappy. But he had learnt his lesson: the next time he spoke to her, it would be in private.
The problem was, he didn’t know what to say. Éomer felt torn and confused at the realisation that she had loved her husband. For a bit he tried to tell himself that she had only done it because of being completely in the man’s power. But it didn’t work. The way she had drawn him, each stroke of the pen affectionate, gave lie to that idea.
Éomer could almost have wished that his suspicions were true and her husband had abused her. It would have been easier. Yet he immediately felt ashamed of his thoughts.
He was not such a fool as to deny his enemies their humanity. They dreamt, they hoped, they hurt like any of the Rohirrim. Their mothers loved them and grieved at their death. But a Haradrim king? Men who had been bent on Gondor and Rohan’s destruction for centuries, a byword for oppression and cruelty.
What had she seen in the man to make him worthy of her love? He hated the thought of Lothíriel in the Harad king’s bed, but even more he hated the idea of her going to him willingly. And then he hated himself for wanting her to suffer. It drove him crazy.
Under the circumstances, it was a welcome relief to keep himself busy with preparations for their visit to the Eastemnet. Lothíriel had at first wanted to stay behind, but Tarcil was set on going. In the end she agreed to come, perhaps as much to get away from Edoras and the constant whispers behind her back as anything.
They set out early one morning. He was reminded of another dawn, three months ago, on the shores of the Bay of Belfalas. Little had he known then how much Lothíriel would come to disturb his peace of mind.
It would be a much shorter journey this time though, even travelling slowly. One day would get them to the Entwade, where they would ford the River Entwash, and another to the camp of horse herders with whom he had arranged to stay. He knew the two dozen families from his time as Third Marshal, since they usually overwintered in the Fold near Aldburg after spending the summer out on the Emnet.
Lothíriel kept company with Leofrun, while he rode at the front. His riders had been cautious around him lately, speaking little and being careful not to draw down his ire on them. Indeed, for once even Éothain held back on offering unwanted advice. Éomer noticed, of course, but a man had a right to be grumpy when crossed in love.
Only the children were unaffected by the tension. Tarcil and Hildwyn raced ahead on their ponies, excited to be going somewhere new. Wearing Rohirrim clothes and completely at home on horseback, Tarcil looked like a child of the Eorlingas, only his dark hair distinguishing him from the other children. And once they reached the Emnet and played in the muddy ponds there, probably even that distinction would be gone.
The boy had surprised Éomer by informing him that he considered it a good idea that he wanted to marry his mother. Éomer had been briefly flattered, until it emerged that he owed this endorsement to being favourably compared to Eradan. Tarcil seemed to consider him a convenient stopgap to prevent his mother marrying a man like the Gondorian lord.
Khuri, who had been present when the boy innocently explained his reasoning, knew better than to smirk, but had worn a distinctly stuffed expression. At least she was one of the few who still faced him at the practise grounds without flinching. After a strenuous bout with her, he usually felt marginally better.
The journey went without a hitch, the weather having settled into a hot, dry spell only broken by occasional thunderstorms, typical for the Mark in summer. When they reached the camp of the horse herders, their headman Cathwulf made them welcome, glad for the additional protection. Éomer had brought his personal éored with him, more than enough to wipe out any orcs foolish enough to raid them. Though in his present mood Éomer would gladly have faced an orc horde single-handedly anyway.
They wasted no time in setting up their tents. Lothíriel and Leofrun shared one with the children in the centre of the camp, while Éomer’s big tent went up opposite. It had been a hot day, so the men headed down to the river that flowed past the camp on its way to join the Entwash. While it wasn’t very deep, the water was cool and refreshing. He thought they had the better deal than the women making do with buckets of water in their tents.
Gradually he relaxed. It was impossible to feel dejected with the sky stretching blue and enormous above him, the smell of roasting boar drifting over from the fire pits on the river bank and no immediate care on his mind except how to allocate sentry duty, so every man got to take part in the feast planned for later that evening.
In a better mood than he had been since Erkenbrand’s disastrous visit, he returned to the camp. He hadn’t bothered with putting his boots back on and enjoyed the sensation of the grass soft and springy under his feet.
As he reached the open space in front of his tent, he heard Tarcil’s voice.
“Mummy, I’m clean,” the boy protested. “I want to go and play with Hildwyn now.”
Éomer grinned to himself. Some things never changed. Tarcil and his mother had very different ideas of the definition of cleanliness. He didn’t catch Lothíriel’s answer, but suddenly the tent flat opened and Tarcil came careening out, wearing nothing but a pair of trousers.
“Tarcil, wait, your shirt!” Holding the garment in question, Lothíriel rushed after her son.
However, the boy had already dodged around Éomer and away. Spotting Éomer, she came to an abrupt halt, then took a step back and stumbled over one of the ropes holding the tent down.
Dropping his boots, Éomer jumped forward. “Lothíriel, watch out!”
He grabbed her round the waist and caught her. Unbalanced, Lothíriel leant against him, hands squashed against his chest. She was damp from her own bath and smelled alluringly of orange blossoms. Involuntarily Éomer slipped his arms around her. It felt so right.
For a moment she relaxed against him, all soft and warm. Lips parted, she lifted her face to him; a deep sigh escaped her, as if she had set down a heavy load. But then a shudder ran through her.
“Éomer…I…” Blushing scarlet, she pushed herself off. Éomer reluctantly let go of her. “I…what was I…” She retreated a step, nearly falling over the rope again. “I didn’t mean to…” Abandoning all attempts at coherence, she spun round and beat a hasty retreat, slipping inside the tent.
He had never seen her so rattled before. It cheered him enormously to find that he apparently had the power to fluster her too, and not only the other way round. He could not help a grin spreading over his face at this pleasant surprise. That had been no indifferent woman in his arms. Whistling softly under his breath, he picked up his boots and made his way to his own tent.
Perhaps all hope wasn’t lost.
That evening there was a celebration to welcome Éomer and his riders. They sat round the fires, sharing food and drink, and later tales and music. Amongst Cathwulf’s people were a fiddler and some drummers, and some of his own men had reed pipes along. In any case all the Rohirrim liked singing. Éomer saw with approval that Lothíriel took part too, having learnt some of the most popular songs on their ride from Gondor.
Tarcil and Hildwyn loved it. They had already made friends, and Éomer had the feeling that they would soon be in charge of the mob of children running through the camp. Those two were born to command. As the dusk deepened they played a game of tag on the riverbank, which involved much squealing and ended up with all of them soaked to the skin. Probably there would be no getting them to bed until they were totally exhausted.
As he sat there, leaning back against a log and cradling his mug of ale, a sense of deep contentment filled him. This was what he was fighting for: his people living in peace, the children safe and carefree. It was a simple life, but he had all he wanted. Well, not quite all, he amended his thoughts.
Lothíriel sat with Leofrun and Cathwulf’s wife Sunnild, the three women talking together animatedly. Sunnild had fetched a piece of woven cloth and was explaining something. Knowing Lothíriel, it probably concerned the dyeing of the yarn, Éomer thought. Cathwulf’s family ran several flocks of sheep on the Emnet and processed most of the wool themselves.
Her usual composed self again, Lothíriel had graciously thanked Cathwulf for his hospitality to her and Tarcil. And when he had encountered her amongst the crowd, she had remarked how pleasant the evening was and how tasty the food, a princess through and through. He could almost have believed he had imagined their earlier encounter. But he still remembered the feeling of holding her in his arms.
When the children finally succumbed to tiredness, their mothers shepherded them off to bed, though Tarcil was protesting in between yawns. Éomer rose and stretched. His men looked set for some serious drinking, but he fancied a stroll.
He headed for the small hill overlooking the camp and sat down in the grass. Crickets chirped, while from below a nightjar’s curious churring song rose and fell. It was a lovely night, bringing a cool breeze after the heat of the day.
After a while he idly considered seeking his own bed, but just as he had made up his mind to turn in, a figure emerged from between the tents and began to ascend the hill. He only caught a glimpse, but somehow he knew instinctively who it was seeking solitude.
Éomer did not think she had seen him, for she walked slowly as if deep in thought. He did not want to startle her, so as she approached he cleared his throat. Lothíriel jumped, her hand moving to her sleeve.
He leant forward. “It’s me.”
“Oh. I had no idea you were here.”
Or she would not have come? “I’m just enjoying the cool night air up here. Won’t you join me?”
But she took a step back. “I don’t want to disturb you.”
“You don’t.” When she hesitated, he added, “please?”
“Just for a moment,” she finally agreed and sat down a good distance away.
For a long time neither of them said anything. It should have been awkward, but instead he felt at ease, soothed by her silent company. With a contented sigh he stretched out on the grass. He had missed her.
Lothíriel looked up at the sky, at the river of stars left behind from when Elbereth had trailed the train of her robe across the heavens.
“In Harad, I would lie in my garden sometimes, extinguish all the lamps and watch the night sky,” she said suddenly. “That way I could almost pretend that I was free.” She sighed. “But the stars were wrong.”
“Here you are free,” he said softly. “And, should you choose to stay, always would be.”
There was a short silence. “So you…you don’t despise me?” she said softly.
“What?” He sat back up. “What are you talking about, Lothíriel, why should I despise you?”
“For loving one of the enemy?”
“No!” He took a deep breath. “It’s true, the idea astonished me. And I didn’t like it and told myself it was only because you were at your husband’s mercy. But you are strong and fearless.” She made a sound of protest at that, but Éomer shook his head. “Lothíriel, you are. Don’t ever let anybody tell you different. I do not think you could have loved an evil man.”
Lothíriel was silent for a long time. “Do you know,” she said, “you are the first person to trust my judgement. None of my family have ever asked me what I thought of Arantar.”
“Surely they just didn’t want to hurt you?”
She turned towards him. “Yes, I suppose so. And I’ll admit that perhaps there is some truth in what you said about being at his mercy. But I was sent to a foreign country, expecting to spend the rest of my life there, so I tried to adapt and be a good wife, to learn the language and customs.”
The words came pouring out as if a dam had broken, now that she was able to talk about her marriage for the first time. “I was often lonely. His visits were the only change, a reminder there existed a world outside. And he took care of me, was the only friend I had there really.”
Éomer’s heart ached for the young girl she had been. He would never have thought it possible to be grateful to one of the Haradrim, but that moment he was. “I’m glad you weren’t completely alone and found some consolation.”
“I think we both did,” she said slowly. “He couldn’t trust his brothers and learnt from childhood to rely only on himself, to always keep his emotions hidden. But with me he slowly opened up and let down his guard, especially once Tarcil was born and we had a common bond.” There was a smile in her voice. “He used to say that I was the only person who could make him laugh.” In his mind, Éomer saw the proud son of the desert fall for her charm. But then who wouldn’t.
Lothíriel was still lost in her memories. “Yet my life was so restricted. It was like living inside a treasure box, all gold and precious stones. And I was another piece of jewellery, prized and guarded, but locked up tightly.”
She gestured at the view, the stream glinting faintly in the moonlight. “Sometimes I felt like the world outside had ceased to exist. Arantar knew I hated it, and to please me he took me outside a few times, but it was dangerous. After the attack… we could not risk it again… I could not leave Tarcil behind on his own. Although I don’t know what I could have done anyway, I was totally dependent on Arantar. The only power a woman has there is through her husband or her sons, if they are grown men.” She sounded bitter.
He thought of her joy in racing Shirram, how she liked the open vistas of the plains and the wind in her hair. It would have been like binding a falcon with jesses and hood, when it was meant to fly free.
“No wonder you compare marriage to a cage,” he said. “But it need not be that way.” Couldn’t she see that he would never constrain her? That you could join yourself to another person, yet not give up your self?
“Perhaps it need not,” she agreed. From her words he could almost have drawn fresh hope, if only her voice had not been so bleak. She looked up at the heavens again, her face pale in the starlight. “Éomer, I will be honest with you: taking you into my bed would be easy.”
Involuntarily he choked. “What?”
“I have to admit I hadn’t realised it before. But surely you could tell as well, earlier on.”
One moment she acted the perfect Gondorian lady and the next she floored him with statements like that. But he owed her truth for truth. “I’ve felt that way about you for a long time.”
Lothíriel still would not look at him. “I hadn’t… at least I don’t think so… that is...” She took a deep breath. “But as I said, that would be the easy part. However, marrying you…” Her voice sank. “Éomer, I’m not sure I have the courage for that.”
“Is it so difficult?”
“To be your queen, no. I’ve been brought up to fill that kind of role and I’ve come to like the Rohirrim very much. But to be your wife, to give you my heart?”
“Would that be such a terrible thing?” As for his own heart, he knew he had long ago given it into her keeping.
“You don’t understand,” she whispered.
“Will you tell me?” he asked in his gentlest voice, for he felt they were getting to the core of it, some secret pain she kept clenched deep inside her.
“I can’t.” Suddenly she scrambled to her feet. “I’m sorry.”
Éomer rose too. He would have liked to take her in his arms, she sounded so sad. “You don’t have to apologise to me.” The last thing he wanted to do was to force her into another marriage against her will.
“Oh, Éomer, you’re a good man,” she exclaimed. “You’re kind, honourable, generous. But you would do much better to chose somebody unencumbered, somebody like Déorwenna. I’m like a ship with lots of hidden ballast, whereas she’s a light barge, quick and nimble, that will go where you tell her to.”
He snorted. “I’m not so sure about that.”
“Yes, but a young girl like her is unburdened. Not like me.”
“But what if I don’t want a nimble, shallow barge?” He had plenty of ballast himself, after all. Suddenly he remembered the exhaustive tour of the Sea Hawk that Amrothos had given him in Dol Amroth. “Your brother said that a ship needs a certain amount of weight to keep it straight in the water.” He wrinkled his nose at the memory. “In fact he showed me.”
“Amrothos took you to the bilge? How typical.”
“He said the weight kept the ship from capsizing in heavy weather.” Éomer was rather proud of remembering the correct terminology.
“That’s true,” she conceded. “Yet the bilge is the filthiest place of a ship, you don’t want to go there.”
“But it’s necessary.”
All of a sudden she laughed out loud, an unexpectedly carefree sound.
“What?” he asked with a smile.
“It’s such a nautical picture. You sound like Amrothos.”
“Your family might make a mariner out of me yet,” he joked, but turned serious at once. “Look, Lothíriel, I do not seek to harry and cage you.” He wanted a wife and lover, not a captive. “Nor will I try to simply talk you into marrying me. But neither will I change my mind.”
“You don’t give up easily, do you?”
He took a step closer, gently reached for her hand and raised it to his lips. A tremble ran through her as he breathed a kiss on her fingers. “The Rohirrim don’t. Not if something’s worth waiting for.”
He would offer her a harbour and hope his lady love would choose to come home to it.
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