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Over the next few days, had Éomer been asked to describe Lothíriel, it would have been in a single word: busy.
Of course there was always plenty of work to do, but she literally threw herself into it. Cathwulf’s people ran many flocks of sheep, and since it was the middle of the shearing season, the fleeces had to be washed and carded. Much of the wool was turned into felt to use as carpets or for tents. This meant separating the fibres and spreading them out evenly in several layers on a cloth, before sprinkling them with hot water. Then the cloth was rolled around a pole, bound with string and kneaded. Sometimes this was done by dragging the roll behind a horse across the grass, but the more delicate felt had to be done by hand, which was traditionally women’s work.
Sunnild would never have expected a guest of her king, a lady from Gondor as well, to take part in this, but Lothíriel insisted that she enjoyed learning something new. And when Sunnild discovered how much she knew about natural pigments, she enlisted Lothíriel’s help with dyeing the wool prior to felting. Besides that there was all the other work necessary to keep a large camp like theirs going: cooking, baking bread, milking sheep and making cheese.
It meant that Éomer saw very little of her. She declined his invitations to go riding with him on the grounds of being too busy and in the evenings retired straight after dinner, claiming tiredness. As a result his resolve to wait patiently for her to come to him got sorely tested. He told himself that you did not catch a horse by running after it, but could not help thinking that much more of this would drive him crazy. Or at least more crazy than he was already.
The only ones to enjoy themselves unreservedly were the children. Éomer took them fishing for trout in the stream and his riders taught Tarcil how to stand on his pony’s back. Hildwyn, a shieldmaiden in the making if ever he had seen one, also got Khuri to show them some of her tricks of how to take out a bigger opponent. They loved being outside in all weathers and having a break from lessons.
Éomer too was glad to do without council meetings for a bit, though every now and again messengers arrived from Edoras, bringing letters and reports from his scouts. As arranged with his Marshals, they had stepped up patrols along their eastern border, and some of his riders had brought back rumours of orcs lurking in the Emyn Muil, though so far no sightings had been confirmed.
One afternoon he was training Flamewind, one of the younger war horses he had brought along with him from Edoras, when they spotted a rider galloping for the camp, raising a cloud of dust. Instantly alert, Éomer exchanged a look with Éothain. This boded no good.
The man drew his horse to a halt in front of them. The poor animal was exhausted and flecked with foam, while the rider looked little better. “Orcs,” he gasped and slid from the saddle, “a whole pack of them across the Anduin.”
Éomer motioned for his squire Beortulf to take care of the horse. “Where exactly?” he asked, handing the rider a flask of water.
The scout, who on closer inspection turned out to be a lad of perhaps seventeen winters, took a grateful gulp. “At the South Undeep.”
Éomer did a quick mental calculation. The South Undeep, a bend of the Anduin that afforded a shallow crossing, lay to the north-east of the Emnet, a full day’s ride away.
“Have you warned the other camps?” he asked. There would be many much closer than their own to this menace.
The rider nodded. “Yes, lord. I alerted the ones I passed through; they will spread the word.”
“Good man.” The Rohirrim had learnt from past experience to get their people and animals to safety quickly. “We need to consult the maps,” he stated.
Éothain took the lad up behind him, and they cantered back into camp. He had not wanted to alarm the women and children, but already word seemed to have spread.
In his tent, they pored over the detailed map of that part of Rohan, and Freola, the scout, pointed out the exact place where he had spotted the orcs. “I was up in the Wold, patrolling, when I saw smoke from their fires on the other side of the Anduin. It’s right on the border, not somewhere we go very often.”
“Could you tell how strong a force had assembled?” Éothain asked.
But Freola shook his head. “I’m not sure. It seemed large, a couple of hundred at least. I left my horse behind in a gully and tried to get closer, but I dared not risk capture.”
Deep in thought, Éomer tapped his fingers on the map. From his father he had inherited his hatred of orcs, but from his father’s fate – setting out with too few men and dying in an ambush – he had also learnt cold caution. Two hundred orcs or more were a considerable menace. At need his personal éored could deal with such a number, but he much preferred to have a larger force at his disposal.
He turned to Cathwulf, who had joined them. “Get a dozen of the older lads and send them out on fast horses. Have them spread word amongst all the camps that I want half of all able-bodied riders to meet me at Stánbeorg.”
Cathwulf nodded. The place was a well-known landmark, a curiously shaped rocky hill at the foot of the Downs. “And the rest?”
“They will cover the withdrawal of the women and children and deal with stragglers, in case any orcs escape our net. I don’t think they will get this far, but tell your wife to get ready to pull back closer to the Entwade as soon as possible.”
“Yes, lord.” Cathwulf strode off to start organising horses and supplies.
Éothain threw him a searching look. “And what of the que– Lady Lothíriel?”
Determined not to run the slightest risk with her, Éomer had already made up his mind about what to do with Lothíriel. “I’ll send her home to Edoras, but she can travel the first part of the way with Sunnild and the rest of the women and children.”
It would also save him having to dispatch a rider with the news. His Marshals would need to be informed, but he had enough men to deal with the incursion and no time to wait for reinforcements anyway.
By the time they had decided all the details, the sun was low in the western sky, but he intended to make full use of the long summer twilight. The excitement of riding into battle began to course through him as the familiar weight of chain mail settled on his shoulders. He belted on his sword and put on his helmet. Beortulf led up Firefoot, the stallion prancing with high spirits, while Éomer gave last minute instructions to the guards he would send with Lothíriel.
Swinging into the saddle, he searched the crowd for her, finally spotting a flash of gold from her torc. She had picked up a little boy crying for his mother and was comforting him. Tarcil stood next to her, almost bouncing up and down with excitement.
Éomer urged Firefoot over. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, bending down to them. “We’ll keep you safe.”
If anything, Tarcil seemed thrilled rather than frightened. “Éomer King, may I ride out with the other boys to carry your message? Lýtling is as fast as any of their horses.”
“Not this time. Perhaps when you’re a little older.”
“Tarcil,” his mother interrupted him. “You do not question your commander’s decisions on the eve of battle.” It was the daughter of a long line of warriors speaking.
Lothíriel cradled the little boy, one of Sunnild’s children, who hid his face against her shoulder, and looked up at Éomer. “Do not worry about us, we’ll be fine. I will help Sunnild organise the relocation of our camp to get the children out of danger.”
She sounded cool and collected. Éomer was not at all surprised to find her so level headed in a crisis, yet even so he would have liked to get a sign that she cared about his fate and hoped to see him again safe. Their eyes met for a long moment, but he found it impossible to read her thoughts. If anything her expression seemed even more guarded than usual.
Then one of his riders blew his horn, reminding him of time slipping away. “I must go.”
She stepped back. “Westu Éomer hál.” The traditional words of farewell, but she gave no indication if she meant them as more than a formality.
The rest of his men had taken up the horn call. No time. He gave a last nod and turned Firefoot round, taking his place at the head of his éored. “We ride,” he called. “Forth Eorlingas!”
“Forth Eorlingas!” his men roared back as they cantered out of the camp.
Once they had cleared the first rise, he threw a look back over his shoulder. The riders of his éored rode side by side in orderly ranks, while behind them Cathwulf and his men followed in a tight bunch: a formidable force. Pushing all thought of Lothíriel aside, he cast his mind forward to the confrontation ahead.
But when they had gone no more than a league, suddenly there was shouting from behind. Slowing Firefoot, Éomer saw a rider catching up with them at breakneck speed. The pace alone would have given her away, but also Lothíriel’s black hair was streaming out behind her.
A bolt of alarm shot through Éomer. Had something happened? But how could it in so short a time? He turned Firefoot round to meet her.
Lothíriel drew Shirram to a snorting stop. “Éomer…I…I…” She seemed to be at a loss for words.
His alarm grew. “What is it? Lothíriel, are you all right?” He bent over to take her arm.
Suddenly she dropped the reins, kicked her feet out of the stirrups and lunged for him. Reflexively Éomer grabbed her and somehow found himself with an armful of woman. A very soft and shapely armful. Stunned, he settled her in the saddle before him. “Lo–”
She flung her arms around his neck and pulled his face down for a kiss.
Éomer had imagined their first kiss many times. He would be gentle and considerate, doing his best not to stir up any bad memories, which would lead to a leisurely exploration of each other.
This was nothing like it.
He felt as if somebody had thrust a torch into a pile of logs soaked with oil. Heat raced through him. Éomer tightened his grip, crushing her, and she responded by pressing her body against him. Their lips met, frantic, desperate, starving. Lothíriel gave a sound half sigh, half sob.
He cursed the nose guard of his helmet, which got in the way, and freed one hand to claw at the chin strap. Somehow he got the helmet off and thrust it to the side, where somebody caught it. Not paying any attention, he took Lothíriel’s face between his hands and renewed his assault. In answer she clung to him and raked her fingers through his hair. Their breath came in harsh gasps.
Firefoot threw up his head and sidled away.
Éomer had to grab the reins to check the stallion and suddenly became aware of their surroundings again. What was he doing! He loosened his grip; they drew apart and stared at each other. Lothíriel looked dazed, but he was just as staggered by the hunger they had awakened.
Then she blinked her eyes as if waking from a deep sleep. A wave of scarlet rose to her cheeks. But his lady had courage. She lifted her chin, looking neither left nor right. “I did not want you to leave without showing you my true feelings.”
Well, she had certainly done that. Éomer felt a silly, happy grin spread across his face. The corners of her mouth quirked. Settling her more securely against him, he gathered Firefoot’s reins in one hand and lifted his other to brush a knuckle across her cheek, marvelling at the softness of her skin. With a sigh she leant against him, fitting into his arms as if they had waited for her alone.
But only for a moment, then she straightened up again. “Éomer, you have to go. The orcs…”
Éomer cursed them roundly. But she was right of course. He vowed to himself to deal with those vermin so quickly, they would not know what hit them. “I will be back soon,” he promised.
“Please be careful.”
She cared. He still couldn’t quite believe it. Her face was lifted up to him, and all he wanted to do was to kiss those red lips, to wind his fingers through her hair. Reading his thoughts, she blushed again, but shook her head. “Éomer…”
Next to them, Éothain cleared his throat. Reluctantly, Éomer looked up to find his friend holding Shirram’s bridle. Lothíriel slid from the saddle, leaving Éomer’s arms feeling cold and empty.
“My lady,” Éothain said, offering her the reins.
Lothíriel accepted them and mounted her horse. For a long moment they regarded each other. Her eyes locked on him as if she wanted to memorise his every feature.
“Come back safely to me,” she whispered, turned Shirram round and urged him into a gallop.
Firefoot reared and would have taken off after them, but Éomer checked him, though he would have liked nothing better than to give the stallion his rein.
However, they had a task to fulfil. He looked round at his men, who regarded him with expressions between mirth and envy. Somehow his courtship of Lothíriel had turned into an inordinately public affair.
His face carefully bland, Éothain handed him back his helmet with its white horsetail.
Éomer accepted it with a grin. “Onward,” he said and spurred Firefoot.
The men sorted themselves out again and they settled into a canter, their long shadows cast by the setting sun stretching before them. Éomer knew he rode into battle with a dangerous foe, yet he had the feeling that he still had a silly smile plastered all over his face. She has come to you, his heart sang.
That moment, he loved the whole world, even the orcs. He would still kill them though.
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