It is the lord's duty to introduce himself to the lady on their first meeting. She will curtsey to him according to their rank, and should then introduce the first topic of conversation, usually the weather. Other unobjectionable topics include the harvest (unless that is likely to be poor), points of interest in their natural surroundings, or the degree of relationship between them. At all times the lady will be gracious and polite, deferring to those exceeding her in rank, age or experience.
(Belecthor: The Gondorian maiden's guide to proper deportment)
The young woman was sitting in one of the embrasures of the wall encircling the small garden. She was leaning her head back against the merlon behind her, looking out over the Pelennor.
"I'll introduce myself," Éomer said to the servant hovering at his side before nodding a dismissal.
"But, my Lord King..."
Maybe it was Éomer's imagination, but it seemed to him that the servant looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"All I need is a quick word with the princess, it won't take long," he said and waited until the elderly man had bowed and hesitantly taken his leave.
Like many dwellings in Minas Tirith, Prince Imrahil's house had a small garden at the back of the main building, well hidden from view from the street. And as befitted the home of the Princes of Dol Amroth, it was kept up beautifully, with gravel paths bordered by low privet hedges winding between a number of small apple and cherry trees. Suspended from the branches of the trees on thin chains were several small oil lamps that were already lit against the coming of the night.
Éomer made his way towards the small flight of steps leading up to the wall-walk and took them slowly, his gaze still trained on the figure of the princess. She hadn't noticed him yet, perhaps being too deep in thought, and was still staring out over the view of the fields below her. Her clothing was a dull brown colour, quite unlike the bright, colourful dresses the ladies of Minas Tirith favoured in this warm weather, and sported no adornment at all.
His boots scuffed against the stone floor and she looked up at last, alerted to his presence. Hastily smoothing out her skirts, she got up and faced him.
"Who is it?" she asked and put her head to one side.
"Princess Lothíriel?" he said.
She held out a slim hand. "Yes?"
The face she lifted up to him did not confirm to the traditional Gondorian ideal of beauty. While her skin was smooth and fair and she sported the high cheekbones of the Numenoreans, the mouth was too full, the nose turned up rebelliously at the tip and the chin hinted at obstinacy. Yet he hardly noticed that, for she had the most arresting pair of eyes he had ever seen. Large and grey and framed by thick dark lashes, they looked out at the world with a slightly dreamy expression.
"May I introduce myself?" He bowed over her hand and spoke the greeting words traditional here in Gondor. "I am King Éomer of Rohan, yours to command."
Her brows drew together and she withdrew her hand. "Right," she snapped, "and I'm the Queen of Rohan."
For a moment he just stared at her in complete astonishment. Then he suddenly remembered the conversation he had had with Faramir the previous summer. Hadn't his prospective brother-in-law hinted that there was something wrong with the Princess of Dol Amroth? Did she suffer from delusions?
"I beg your pardon?" he said, still dumbfounded.
"So you should!" she exclaimed. "I'm not fooled that easily. Are you one of Amrothos's friends?"
"Well, in a way," Éomer replied, for he had met Prince Amrothos during the war. "I do know him of course, but I don't see..." He never got the chance to finish his sentence.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," she declared in an accusing tone, "trying to trick me that way. King of Rohan indeed! Did my brother put you up to this charade?"
The girl was still frowning at him fiercely and it finally dawned on him that she doubted his identity.
"I'm sorry, my lady, but I really am King Éomer," he replied, not sure if he should be amused or affronted at being taken for an impostor.
The princess made a gesture of denial. "Nonsense," she replied sharply, "you sound nothing like one of the Rohirrim. My father's stable master is from Rohan, so you needn't think I don't know how they speak Westron. You're clearly from somewhere around here."
"My grandmother hailed from Lossarnach," he explained, "and I grew up speaking Westron as well as Rohirric."
The princess hesitated. For the first time since the start of their conversation, she looked uncertain of her ground.
"Can you prove who you are?" she asked and crossed her arms in front of her chest.
"How?" Éomer was starting to be amused. It was a novel situation to have to prove he was a king. "I haven't got my crown with me," he added.
"Say something in Rohirric," she ordered him.
"Westu hal, Hlaefdige min," he obeyed and obliged with a translation at the same time. "Which is the polite way to greet strangers in my country."
She bit her lip. "That sounded quite authentic."
"Thank you," he replied gravely.
Silence descended. The princess chewed her lip and absentmindedly twisted one of the sleeves of her dress.
"You truly are King Éomer?" she finally asked in a changed tone.
More silence. A slight breeze rustled the leaves of the trees and teased a strand of hair from the braid the princess had wound around her head like a crown. Deepest black, he noticed, as she brushed it out of her face. She was staring at nothing in particular, expressions of denial, consternation and then alarm chasing across her face in quick succession. He could feel one corner of his mouth starting to twitch.
"Oh no!" she suddenly exclaimed in horror. "What have I done! My father will send me back to Dol Amroth on the next ship. And I'll never hear the end of it, once Elphir learns what I've said."
The look of dismay on her face was so comical that he couldn't help laughing.
"It's not funny!" she snapped, only to put her hands to her mouth. "Oh no, I've done it again," she said contritely. "Please forgive my rash words, my Lord King, I'm truly sorry."
"Which ones?" he asked, "Accusing me of being an impostor or implying I should shut up?"
She opened her mouth and closed it again, looking distressed, and he took pity on her.
"Your apologies are accepted, my lady, and we need not mention anything to your father," he assured her.
She rewarded him with a smile of childlike delight, warm and open.
"Oh, thank you! I would have been devastated to have to leave Minas Tirith again so soon."
He smiled back warmly. "It's my fault anyway, I just have to remember to dress more impressively in the future."
"Well, obviously that would not have helped anyway," she said matter-of-factly, "but maybe we could just start at the beginning again?"
"The beginning? What do you mean?" From the start his conversation with the Princess of Dol Amroth had had the tendency to confuse him.
"Why yes," she explained patiently. "Just act as if you'd just entered the garden and we'll take it from there."
She smiled up at him again, obviously expecting him to fall in willingly with her brilliant plan. He was beginning to see why Faramir had called her unusual.
After a moment he cleared his throat. "Very well. May I introduce myself? King Éomer of Rohan, yours to command."
She sank into a graceful curtsey. "Princess Lothíriel of Dol Amroth, honoured to make your acquaintance."
He bowed over her hand once more. "My pleasure entirely."
"Isn't it a lovely evening," she observed. "Such a relief after the heat of the day, don't you think?"
"It is indeed," he agreed.
This was more like the kind of conversation he was used to from Gondor's ladies. Next they would probably talk about the prettily laid out garden, discuss the harvest, which was expected to be exceptionally good this year, and review the entertainments planned for the forthcoming wedding.
She sat down in the embrasure again and motioned him to take a seat as well. The sun had set behind Mount Mindolluin by now and the Pelennor below them was cast in shadows. The tents of the fair dotted the fields like small colourful mushrooms and the smoke from the many cooking fires rose in the air, only to be blown away towards the east. The princess settled herself more comfortably against the hard stone, not at all disturbed by the sheer drop of several hundred feet to her right.
"Did you come to see my father?" she enquired, still looking out over the view. "I've been told he's with King Elessar at the moment, but he's expected back for dinner, and so are my brothers. If it's them you wanted."
He shook his head, "I know. I saw Prince Imrahil earlier on and he mentioned that you were expected today, so I decided to visit you."
"You came to see me?" The princess was plainly surprised. Then she froze. "She's changed her mind, hasn't she," she said flatly.
"Who has changed her mind?" Bafflement seemed to have become a constant companion lately.
"Your sister of course. Please believe me, I do understand if she doesn't want me as her witness anymore." The princess had taken to twisting her sleeves again. "It's all right," she said.
Éomer stared at her. "Has nobody ever told you that you are too quick to jump to conclusions?"
"My brother Amrothos," she admitted, "but he's always nagging me, so..." She stopped in mid-sentence. "Are you telling me your sister hasn't changed her mind?"
"She hasn't," he confirmed. "In fact she would like to meet you and has charged me to arrange for a visit to our camp, perhaps tomorrow."
"Oh, I'd like that," she exclaimed and clapped her hands, but then her face fell. "I will have to talk to my brothers first, to see if any of them are free to take me."
"I can come and collect you," he found himself offering, but she shook her head.
"My father won't allow me to ride with anybody but my brothers," she explained. "It wouldn't be seemly."
Éomer was rather startled to hear that his friend Imrahil was so strict with his daughter. He also began to suspect why his sister had chosen the Princess of Dol Amroth for a witness. Did she think here was a kindred spirit in need of rescue from a golden cage?
"I'll talk to your father and arrange something," he promised and was rewarded by another smile.
"That's very kind," she said, "and I have to say, you have such a nice voice. Do you sing?"
Éomer blinked. He had never been complimented on his voice before, and especially not by gently-reared Gondorian maidens, who were more likely to be bashful and tongue-tied in his presence. His mere name often awed them into complete silence, for there was only so much you could say about the weather.
"I do," he laughed, "but only when riding in the safe anonymity of my éored. So I'm afraid you're not likely to hear it."
"That's a shame," she smiled. "I would have liked to."
"Do you sing yourself?" he asked back.
The princess shook her head. "Not really, but I play the harp - at least a little."
"Perhaps one day, you'll do me the honour of playing for me," he said politely.
She looked dubious. "Perhaps," she agreed, "but I'm sure you have your own bards with you. Will they perform at the wedding?"
He nodded. "My uncle's bard has retired, but my own bard Cadda has accompanied us and will do the honours."
Her eyes lit up. "That's wonderful," she said. "I'm really looking forward to it."
He had to smile at her enthusiasm, but at that moment there was loud barking from the direction of the house and somebody shouted her name. He was on his feet and had spun towards this possible threat, his hand at the hilt of his sword, before she had done more than straighten up. It seemed his reflexes were still as sharp as they had ever been.
A big, grey, shaggy dog was loping across the garden, followed close behind by the figure of a young boy. He relaxed as he recognised Alphros, Prince Elphir's son, but did take a step forward in concern when the dog raced up the steps to the wall-walk and jumped up at the princess, nearly toppling her off her seat on the wall. She just laughed and gently fended off the dog's affectionate advances.
"Is that you, Ernil?" she asked, "I think you've grown again!"
Then the boy reached them and threw himself into her arms as well.
"Aunt Lothíriel," he shouted, "you've arrived at last! I've got something really important to tell you."
She knelt down to embrace him warmly and ruffled his hair. "You've grown as well," she smiled. "Let me have a look at you."
The dog had settled down next to them, his tail still wagging excitedly, and the boy stood still, visibly restraining his impatience, as she ran light fingers across the planes of his face. She started at the top of his head, lightly brushing across his brow, then traced the outline of his eyes and cheeks. He laughed and wrinkled his nose when she shaped it with her fingers, but he held still until her hands came to rest on his shoulders.
"As handsome as ever," she commented, "I couldn't even feel any freckles".
"Don't be silly. You can't feel freckles," he protested.
Then he reached up and gave her hand an impatient tug. "Please, aunt Lothíriel, I need your help," he said, "let me show you. Where's your cane?"
He looked around as if searching for something and only then spotted the King of Rohan.
"Oh!" he stammered. "My Lord King. Please forgive me, I didn't notice you before."
He gave a very creditable bow for a six year old and Éomer nodded back automatically, his mind still reeling with the realization of just what was wrong with the Princess of Dol Amroth. Her eyes might be the most beautiful smoky grey he had ever seen, but they were no use to her at all.
She was blind.
He watched in stupefaction as Alphros took her by the hand, obviously quite used to helping her about, and herded her towards the stairs leading down into the garden. She laughed at his impatience and only reminded him to look out for low-hanging branches. When the boy warned her they had reached the top of the steps, she stopped and turned back.
"Won't you join us as well, King Éomer?" she asked. "I believe my brothers should be back by now."
That galvanised him into action. "Yes, of course," he said and with a couple of strides caught up with them. "Please, let me offer you my arm. Those steps are very steep."
She stood very still, a hand still resting on her nephew's shoulder.
"You didn't know before." It was a statement, not a question.
He hesitated for the length of a heartbeat, but it was no use prevaricating. "No," he admitted.
A wistful expression passed across her face, but was gone so quickly he wasn't sure he had seen it there.
"And now you're feeling sorry for me," she said.
He didn't know what to answer, but didn't get a chance to do so anyway.
"Well, don't," she said fiercely, "because I don't want your pity, or indeed any man's."
She turned to Alphros. "Lead the way," she ordered him. He did as he was told, telling her when she had reached the last step and taking her by the hand to lead her along the gravel paths. Éomer followed behind quietly. It was very nearly dark by now and the first stars had blossomed in the sky above them. But she would never see them, nor the full moon that had just risen above the Ephel Dúath, either. He wondered what it would feel like - to walk your entire life in darkness.
When they reached the door to the house, the princess sent the boy ahead and turned to face him. The birds in the garden had fallen silent, but there were faint rustling sounds in the undergrowth as the small denizens of the night came out of their hiding places and went about the serious business of finding food. The lamps in the branches of the apple and cherry trees above them cast their soft light on the face lifted up to him.
"King Éomer," the princess said hesitantly. "Please excuse my outspoken words just now. I did not intend to offend you. You've been very kind to me."
He shook his head and then realized she could not see him do so. "You didn't offend me," he assured her, "and I'm sorry if I upset you."
The princess inclined her head. "That was entirely my own fault. You see, I consider myself lucky, really."
"Lucky?" He could not keep the incredulity out of his voice.
"Yes, lucky," she said quietly. "My father and three brothers, warriors all, survived the war unscathed. Our lands weren't ravaged and the people are at peace. If that isn't luck, what is?"
He stared down at her, feeling much as if he had been unexpectedly punched in the stomach. Too well did he remember the devastation in the Riddermark, the look on women and children's faces when he had to tell them their husbands and fathers would never return to them again. Most of all, he remembered the mound at the Fords of the Isen, with the spears rotting away slowly over Théodred's grave.
She must have sensed something, for she suddenly reached out a hand. "Forgive me," she whispered, "you lost your uncle in the battle for Minas Tirith, didn't you? And very nearly your sister as well..."
He sighed, trying to let go of his grief. "No, you are right. It is I who has to beg your forgiveness for my assumptions."
The princess looked up at him for a long moment, her eyes unseeing but enormous in the fading light. Then she gave him a shy smile.
"And now that we've both said how sorry we are, shall we go inside?"
"Yes, let's do so," he agreed.
A/N: I took the liberty of making Alphros slightly older than his cannon birth of 3017.
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