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They arrived in Aldburg at dawn the next day. Éomer had sent a message ahead to Elfhelm, so they were expected. He had a quick talk with his Marshal over breakfast, but then retired to catch up on his sleep, for he did not think he would get any news soon.
Indeed it did not come until the next day, when one of his scouts rode in. It was as he had thought, the Haradrim had not attempted the difficult crossing of the mountains, but instead took little travelled paths in the foothills above the Great West Road.
The next day, he too took to the road, slow enough not to catch up with the Haradrim, but making it easier for his men to report. They reached the border with Gondor the next afternoon. Here the Mering Stream flowed down from the White Mountains to join the Entwash, and a small forest of oaks grew at the foot of Halifirien, the first of the beacon hills.
After watering the horses they camped in the shade of the trees, for it was another hot summer’s day. They had passed a fair amount of traders on the road, carts of food and wine coming from Gondor and bales of wool and cloth going the other way. At another time he would have been pleased at this sign of prosperity, but now he was preoccupied.
Dusk was falling when the call of one of his men alerted Éomer to Aelred, who was fording the stream and riding up to the camp. He clasped arms with the scout.
“What news have you got?” he asked as they sat down by the fire.
With a word of thanks Aelred accepted a bowl of stew from Éothain. “I’ve been following the Haradrim. They crossed here yesterday.”
Éomer nodded. He had expected as much. “Any problems tracking them?”
The scout shook his head. “They had the gall to take the Great West Road.” He spat on the ground. “Bought a packhorse at a village in the hills and were posing as traders.”
“That’s a good sign. It means they want to attract as little attention as possible,” Éothain pointed out.
“Yes, but it goes against the grain, letting them go when they attacked the qu–” Aelred paused. “Lady Lothíriel and her son.”
Éomer stared into the fire, the anger he had long suppressed bubbling to the surface. “It goes against mine, too.” He looked up and fixed Aelred with his eyes. “Believe me, I will not forget this. One day the Harad King will pay the price for his actions. This is a debt deferred, not voided.”
Aelred straightened up. “Yes, lord.”
“Did you get in contact with King Elessar’s rangers?” Éothain asked.
Aragorn had set up a small camp of rangers half a day’s ride from the border, to patrol the valleys of Anórien. Trained by Faramir, they were some of the best woodsmen in Gondor.
The scout nodded. “Yes, captain. I told them about the Haradrim, they will keep an eye on them.”
“Well done,” Éomer said.
On the first night of getting back to Edoras, he had sent a fast courier to Aragorn, outlining his plan. His friend would make sure that the Haradrim were closely observed, but could travel through Gondor unimpeded.
Relieved of that care, his mind turned to other matters as he watched the flames dance across the logs. They would set off for Edoras tomorrow.
Four days later Éomer rode up the ramp to the Hornburg. He had stopped over in Edoras for one night to catch up on reports and change his escort, so his riders could see their families again. However, Éothain had insisted on accompanying him to the Westfold. When Éomer had felt guilty for keeping his captain away from his pregnant wife, Eanswith had cheerfully insisted that her husband would only be underfoot anyway.
The sun had just set behind the mountains, and clouds shaped like anvils towered high overhead, warning of thunderstorms later on. Sheer cliffs lined the Coomb either side, making it a grim place in winter, but providing welcome relief from the heat of the open plains in summer. Above all though, it was the safest place in the Mark.
In the inner courtyard, Erkenbrand awaited him. At first the meeting felt awkward, the words of welcome stilted, both of them remembering the last time they had spoken. Éomer would not forget that disastrous marriage proposal anytime soon, yet he felt a lot more charitable towards his Marshal.
Erkenbrand’s wife Aethelind proffered the welcome cup. “Have you eaten, my lord king? We have already risen from the evening meal, but it won’t take long to prepare something for you and your riders.”
Éomer accepted the cup of mead. “Thank you, not for me. But could you look after my men?”
“Of course.” Slim and diminutive, Lady Aethelind was dwarfed by her husband, but Éomer knew that she took as much part in the running of the Hornburg as Erkenbrand. In fact during the war with Saruman, it had been her who had organised the retreat of the Westfold villagers to the caves of Helm’s Deep.
Her eyes crinkled as he handed back the cup. “Princess Lothíriel has already retired, but I’m sure she will be pleased to see you. I believe she’s reading a bedtime story to her son.”
Had he been so transparent? Éomer cleared his throat. “How is Tarcil?”
Erkenbrand gave a hearty laugh. “Restless to be allowed out racing on his pony, the little scamp.”
Éomer had to smile. “That sounds just like him. Thank you for taking care of Lady Lothíriel and her son. I knew I could rely on you.”
“Anything to keep our future qu–” Erkenbrand drew to an abrupt halt. “That is… I mean to say…”
His wife rescued him. “You’ll find your lady in the guest chamber at the top of the Burg,” she told Éomer. “Do not let us keep you.”
Éomer coloured, but did not hesitate to avail himself of her invitation, mounting the stairs two steps at a time. He knew the way, for Lady Aethelind had given Lothíriel the rooms where he stayed whenever he visited the Hornburg. Generously appointed, they offered a sweeping view of the valley.
Outside the door, he paused for a moment. He meant to ask Lothíriel a certain question – again – and though he was pretty certain of her answer, his lady love was unpredictable. Taking a deep breath, he knocked.
“Come in,” he heard her call.
An involuntary frisson of pleasure ran through him at her voice. He opened the door.
“Is that you, Leofrun?” Wearing a bed robe and towelling her wet hair, Lothíriel was standing at the window, her back to him. “I’ll be along in a moment to tell Tarcil his bedtime story.” She turned round.
“Éomer!” Dropping the towel, she ran to him.
He met her halfway and drew her into his arms. Warm and damp from her bath, her hair fragrant with her favourite orange blossom scent, she felt wonderful. Éomer claimed her mouth, wanted to claim all of her. Pressing her body against him, she raked her fingers through his hair and kissed him back. A wave of heat rushed through him.
With one hand he tightened his grip, while the other slipped inside her robe to find soft, silken skin. Lothíriel gasped and pulled up his shirt. He had waited so long for this, wanted her so much, needed her so much.
They stopped at the same moment and looked at each other. With a sound half sigh, half whimper, Lothíriel leant her head against his chest. This was not the proper time, and they both knew it.
Éomer stroked her hair, fighting down his frustration. “Will you greet me this way every time I’ve been away?” he asked, striving for lightness.
That earned him a chuckle. “You always seem to catch me when I’ve had a bath. You shouldn’t surprise me like that.”
“On the contrary, I’m planning to do it more often.”
With another chuckle she pushed herself away, and reluctantly Éomer let her go. Lothíriel tightened the belt of her robe. The garment, made of flowing blue silk, was no doubt refreshingly cool on a summer’s evening, but also quite revealing, especially when pulled tight.
A flush rose to her cheeks at his appreciative regard. She lifted her chin. “I’m not in a fit state to receive you, my lord king. If you wait outside and give me a minute, I’ll get dressed.”
He grinned at her regal manner. “I disagree, my lady. In my opinion you’re in an extremely fit state to receive me.” And he pulled her into his arms again.
“Éomer,” she spluttered. But her lips spoke a different message.
After a lengthy, very satisfactory interval she gently withdrew again. “I’ve promised to tell Tarcil a story; he’ll be along any minute.”
As if on cue, they heard the boy’s voice outside in the hallway. Exchanging a guilty look, they hurriedly put some space between them. Éomer tucked in his shirt, just as Tarcil burst in, followed by Khuri.
“Mummy, are you coming–” He spotted Éomer. “Oh, Éomer King, you’re here.”
He seemed to notice nothing, but Khuri cast them a sharp glance. Éomer could have sworn he surprised an amused smile, fleetingly gone, on her usually impassive face.
“Éomer has just been telling me about those Haradrim who attacked us,” Lothíriel told her son, surreptitiously straightening her robe.
Answering this prompt, he cleared his throat. “Eh…yes, they’ve left the Mark and are on their way home. You have nothing more to fear from them, I promise.” He smiled at the boy. “How are you feeling?”
“Oh, I’m fine.”
Tarcil did in fact look amazingly better. Only a bald patch on his head showed where Healer Brictwen had shaved his hair and stitched the wound. And his eyes sparkled with his usual enthusiasm again, Éomer was heartened to see.
“Mummy won’t let me ride out yet, but one of Lord Erkenbrand’s men, Gamling, showed us the caves behind the Deep,” Tarcil told him, “Have you seen them?”
“I have. We had to retreat there during the battle. In fact Gamling was with me.”
“Really? Oh, will you tell me about it?”
“He will, but not here and now,” Lothíriel interrupted, making a shooing motion. “I want to get changed. And you ought to be off to bed.”
Tarcil looked at Éomer, an unspoken plea in his eyes.
“Very well, I’ll come along and tell you about the battle,” Éomer agreed. He captured Lothíriel’s hand and breathed a kiss on it. “But I’ll see you later, my lady. We have much to…discuss.”
Her fingers curled around his. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Tarcil’s room was just next door, with a view over the Deep, the narrow gorge leading to the entrance of the caves. The boy slipped between the sheets, while Khuri rolled out a pallet by the door.
When Éomer took the chair by the bed, Tarcil suddenly shot him a sharp glance. “Will you marry my mother?”
Éomer hesitated. It seemed the boy was more observant than he had thought – or else he and Lothíriel more obvious. In the past, he’d had the impression that Tarcil wasn’t opposed to the idea. Though he might only owe that favourable opinion to the comparison with Eradan.
“Yes, I want to,” he said slowly. “Would you like to stay here in the Mark?” Or would he wake up one morning to find Firefoot dyed blue?
“Hmm.” Tarcil considered the question for a moment. “I have many friends here now. And there’s Lýtling.” He turned an innocent look on Éomer. “And maybe I can have a puppy like Éoric and Éormenred?”
“I don’t see why not,” Éomer committed himself recklessly. He just hoped Lothíriel didn’t dislike dogs.
Satisfied, Tarcil settled down on his pillow. “When will we return to Edoras?”
“Not quite yet. I want matters to settle down a bit more.” Besides, he’d done enough riding for a while.
Tarcil nodded, then shifted around restlessly in his bed. “Is it true I’ve got a grave there?” he burst out suddenly.
Did that bother him? Éomer couldn’t blame the boy, many grown men would have felt the same. “Yes, it’s true,” he answered, thinking hard of how to reassure Tarcil, “but you might never lie there. And anyway, it’s not such a terrible thing to know your final resting place. I know mine.”
Tarcil sat up. “Really? Where?”
“You’ve seen the two lines of barrows either side of the road outside Edoras?”
“On one side are buried Eorl the Young to Helm Hammerhand, who was besieged here in the Hornburg,” Éomer explained. “On the other side lie Fréaláf Hildeson to Théoden, my uncle. When I die, they will start a new line of barrows.”
“Oh.” Tarcil digested his words for a moment. “I didn’t know.”
“That grave was necessary to keep you safe. Think of it as a feint in a fight, meant to deceive your opponent and get the better of him.”
Tarcil frowned. “Mummy said those men were sent by the King of Harad?”
“They made her cry,” the boy said hesitantly. “I woke one night. She doesn’t know, but I heard her. I don’t want anybody to make her unhappy.” He sounded serious and more grownup somehow.
“Me neither,” Éomer said quietly. “I promise that one day the King of Harad will pay.”
Tarcil nodded at him, equal to equal, giving a brief glimpse of the man he would become. But just as quickly he turned into a boy again. “Can you tell me about the battle of Helm’s Deep now? And also how Helm Hammerhand died in the long winter and was frozen standing upright?”
Éomer grinned. As a boy that had been one of his favourite parts, too. He settled down to tell a suitably grizzly tale.
Lothíriel came in halfway through and sat down at the foot of Tarcil’s bed. Cool and collected again, dressed in a dark blue gown and with her hair caught up in a braid, she showed no sign of the passionate woman who had run into his arms. But Éomer’s doubts had left him; he finally knew where he stood.
She looked different though, he mused, and then realised with a jolt of surprise that she wasn’t wearing her torc. He had become so used to seeing the gold glint at her throat that her neck seemed bare and exposed without it.
However, Tarcil recalled his attention by demanding to be told how Fréaláf had led his famous raid on the Dunlendings, who had invaded Rohan during the long winter, and how he slew their leader Wulf in the great hall of Meduseld.
The boy would probably have kept him up all night, telling stories, but Lothíriel gently but firmly intervened. “Another time,” she said. “You, young man, ought to go to sleep now.”
Tarcil yawned. “Oh, all right.” He snuggled deeper into his bed. “Mummy, are you going to marry King Éomer?” he asked, his eyes falling closed. “He says if you do, I can have a puppy.”
Éomer winced, and Lothíriel’s eyebrows went up. However, she seemed amused. “That’s between Éomer and me. Good night.” She kissed Tarcil on the brow and rose.
As Éomer opened the door for her to pass through, she shot him a quizzical look. “A puppy? Was that his idea or yours?”
“Tarcil’s,” he admitted. “But I laid myself wide open to that kind of blackmail.” His rueful tone made her laugh. “Do you mind?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I would have got him a dog of his own long ago, but our lives always seemed so unsettled.”
Éomer beamed down at her, feeling inordinately pleased at this sign that she wanted to make her home with him.
Lothíriel smiled back. “After putting Tarcil to bed, I usually go for a walk along the wall to enjoy the evening air. Would you like to join me?”
He offered her his arm with alacrity. “Very much so.”
A flight of stairs led down from the outer court of the Hornburg to the Deeping Wall, which stretched across the gorge to a tower on the other side. The door was guarded, but otherwise the walkway lay empty before them. With the breach in the culvert made by Saruman’s wizardry long since mended, the place was as unassailable as ever.
They strolled along slowly. The sky high above them was still light, the clouds having dispersed except for a few feathery wisps, but the valley had long since been cast in shadow. A cool breeze blew from the high cliffs, and when he raised his eyes he caught a glimpse of the moon cresting the hills to the east.
Stopping by one of the embrasures set into the parapet, they looked out over the view. Of the great battle fought here over a year ago only the green mounds of the slain, dotted with simbelmynë, and the bare hill where the Huorns had buried the orcs bore witness. A waggon piled high with hay was creaking up the ramp to the gates, while behind it Erkenbrand’s men were bringing in the horses put out to pasture for the day. Éomer spotted Shirram’s black shape amongst the grey.
Her brow creased in thought, Lothíriel leant against the stone. “What you said to Tarcil about the Haradrim being gone, was that true?”
“Oh yes, I wouldn’t lie to the boy. By now they should be in Minas Tirith.”
“Do you think our plan will work?”
“I think so, yes. The Haradrim assassins have every interest to paint their mission as a success and not an expensive failure, costing the lives of all their allies,” he reminded her. “And even if word eventually comes out, Tarcil will be older and better able to take care of himself.” Between Khuri and himself, they would make sure the boy got the best training possible.
She sighed. “That’s what I keep telling myself: time is on our side.”
“It is,” he said firmly. “And anyway, I’ve written to Aragorn. Once our plans come to fruition, the Harad King will have more pressing problems than to pursue Tarcil.”
“You will go to war again.” Lothíriel sounded troubled.
“One day I will. But you know that.” It would mean being separated from her, but he could not send his men into a danger he wasn’t willing to face himself.
She looked back out over the valley. “Yes.”
Éomer regarded her silently, tracing the curve of her waist and the graceful line of her back with his eyes. Her rich black hair, caught up in a braid, called to him to slide his fingers through its silky length. His lady: quick thinking and resourceful in a crisis, strong as a steel blade at need, yet at the same time so vulnerable that all he wanted to do was to take her in his arms and protect her.
Deep in thought, she lifted her hand to her throat in a habitual gesture, only to check herself.
“You’re not wearing your torc?” he asked.
Lothíriel lowered her hand. “It’s gone. I threw mine in that grave for the Haradrim to take with them as proof of their success. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, for they were identical, but I wanted to keep Arantar’s for Tarcil.” She looked up at him. “The torc marked the beginning of that part of my life and now it marks the ending.” Her voice was sad but firm.
He remembered how she had wept when she threw it in the grave and made a sudden leap of understanding. “Did you cry for your husband? I’m sorry for your loss.”
She caught her breath. “Do you know, you’re the first person to say that? At the time I never got a chance to mourn him, all my energy was focused on getting Tarcil out of Harad alive. And once we were safe with my father, none of them would listen.” The words came out in a rush. “But how can I regret loving him? How can I regret having my son?”
“You do not need to apologise to me.” Éomer had the feeling that she clutched some great hurt to herself. “Do you want to tell me about him?” he asked gently.
For a long time she did not reply, and he wondered if he should have kept silent. But it was better to lance a wound than to let it fester.
“The last time I saw him,” she began haltingly, “we…we quarrelled. Arantar wanted to send us to his country estate in the north, but I didn’t want to go, so in the end he ordered me to leave. Later I found out that the court had pressed him to repudiate me and he refused. I think that he must have suspected that his brother plotted against him. It was for our own safety.”
She bit her lip. “But at the time I thought he was sending me away because he had become bored with me.” When Éomer made an inarticulate sound of protest, she looked up. “He was so distant and cold, said I owed him a wife’s obedience. Oh, now I comprehend what he had in mind. It just hurts that he did not trust me enough to share his plans with me. He always had before.”
“Would you have left him, had you known his true reasons?”
“Of course not,” she said at once. Her eyes opened wide. “Oh!”
Éomer nodded. “That’s why he did it.” Who would have thought that one day he would feel sorry for the King of Harad. The man had never had a chance to say a proper goodbye. Suddenly Éomer wondered how he would have turned out, had he been born in Harad. It was an uncomfortable thought how much they had in common, how well he understood the man.
“I’ve been so blind,” Lothíriel whispered. “For so long I wondered what I had done, if perhaps he blamed me for weakening him.”
“What? Why should you have weakened him?”
“I urged him to go against tradition more than once, to be a different kind of king. And I think he paid some heed to my warnings against Sauron’s messengers; his court certainly seemed to think he listened to me far too much.” Her shoulders sagged. “If it weren’t for me, he might even still be alive.”
And a formidable enemy of Gondor. But Éomer didn’t say so. He took her hands. “Don’t ever blame yourself for his death, Lothíriel. It was your husband’s brother who killed him, not you. On the contrary, you made him stronger.”
“You think so?”
“I know. You gave him something to fight for, you and Tarcil.” And their survival was the man’s final victory.
She released her breath like a woman setting down a heavy burden. “Thank you. You’ve given me a great gift today.” Lifting her face to Éomer, she smiled at him.
“There is no need to thank me, you don’t owe me anything.” He changed to a lighter tone. “Anyway, as I’ve said before, it’s not your gratitude I want…”
She tilted her head. “Oh? What is it you want from me then?” There was a spark of mirth in her eyes.
“You know perfectly well.” He cupped her cheek. “Lothíriel, the Haradrim are gone, and you are free. If you wished to, you could return to Dol Amroth.” Was he a fool to point that out? But this was the woman who had told him marriage was a cage. He wanted her to choose him freely – and he thought he knew her answer.
“Really, Éomer.” She sounded amused. “You can’t barge into my room, kiss me like that and then jilt me.”
Jilt her? How she liked to tease him. However, he refused to be distracted. “So will you marry me?”
“Yes of course.”
He closed his eyes for a moment. Then he reached for her.
Like two dancers moving in perfect harmony they came together, lips meeting, breath mixing, arms going around each other. He didn’t care that they were in full sight of the guards and the people below, all that mattered was that his lady had chosen to come home to the harbour he offered her.
It felt so good to hold her, to know she would stay and share her life with him. With a contented murmur she nestled closer, gently slipping her hands up his chest. Giving in to temptation, he untied the ribbon securing her braid and began to undo her heavy tresses. Loosened from its bounds, her hair slid through his fingers like skeins of smooth, fragrant silk. Raven black and dark gold mingled as a sudden gust of wind played around them.
After a long and most satisfactory time they separated again, but only for her to settle in his arms more securely and rest her head against his shoulder. His own at last. He still found it difficult to believe.
He squeezed her waist gently. “What a chase you’ve led me, dear heart. For a while I was despairing of ever winning your love.”
“And I never even knew,” she marvelled, shaking her head. “Mind you, there were a couple of times when I wondered if you might be interested in me. But they were so fleeting and you always drew back, so I told myself I was imagining things.”
“Because every time I gave a hint, you turned into a statue of ice. And I had no wish to suffer the fate of Unferth or Eradan and be cut off at the knees.”
That made her chuckle. “As if I would have done such a thing. You’re nothing like them.”
“Yet you told me you could not marry me.”
Slowly she traced the embroidery on his tunic with her fingers. At her light touch Éomer could not help a shiver of pleasure and anticipation running through him. Soon…
“I think I was afraid,” Lothíriel mused. “Afraid of being hurt again, of losing another man I loved. So I denied my feelings even to myself.”
“What made you change your mind?”
She lifted up her face to him. In the gathering dusk it was pale and delicate, framed by a cloud of midnight hair, the eyes enormous. “It was only when you rode off to fight those orcs that I realised it was too late, that I had long since given my heart into your keeping. Even if I left Rohan and returned to Dol Amroth, if you were happily married with two dozen children and I never saw you again… if something happened to you, my world would still shatter.”
She took a deep breath. “It was like one of those moments in a storm when a strike of lighting illuminates everything for a heartbeat. Suddenly I saw how I had cut myself off from life and loving, how much I needed you. So I decided to grab happiness while I could.”
It still seemed like a dream to Éomer to hear her declare her love so openly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. A feeling of giddy joy swept through him.
He grinned down at her. “Well, I can’t guarantee two dozen children, but I’m certainly willing to do my best.”
She chuckled. “Do you know, probably the first gift you gave me was to make me laugh again. That was worth a lot.”
“That seems a bit of an odd reason to marry me, but I won’t complain as long as you do. I suppose it’s better than marrying me for my horses.”
“I don’t have to, I’ve got the fastest of them already,” she teased him.
“True.” With a shudder he remembered his botched marriage proposal. “As Erkenbrand pointed out on that memorable occasion. What a mess I made of it. I’m sorry, dear heart.”
Lothíriel frowned. “I think I needed to be hit over the head like that, I was so blind to my own feelings.” Suddenly her voice quivered with laughter. “But I have to say Erkenbrand has been most solicitous.”
“He had better be.” After all the man was hosting his future queen and knew it. “I might let him begin to earn my forgiveness by holding the handfasting tomorrow evening. Aethelind probably has it all prepared already and messengers waiting to go out with the wedding invitations.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. We’ve not been altogether discreet.”
Éomer suspected that half the Hornburg was watching them. Quite likely Éothain and Erkenbrand were jostling each other at a window somewhere, straining their eyes to pierce the gathering dusk.
“It’s been such a public affair, they will be jaded by now.” He grinned down at her. “After all it’s not every day a King of the Mark gets chased down and kissed in front of his entire éored.”
Lothíriel laughed out loud. “It’s your own fault, for letting me have Shirram.”
Éomer had long considered giving her the horse to be one of the best decisions he had ever made. “I know,” he agreed with a heavy sigh.
She gave him a pitying look. “I suppose you’ll go down in the annals of the Mark as Éomer Sláwyrm.”
He drew her closer. “Oh no,” he breathed. “As Éomer the Blessed.”
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