8. The Wild Rider
The Wild Rider
Four white stockings, a child will ride you,
Three white stockings, a maid will ride you,
Two white stockings, a bride will ride you,
One white stocking, a queen will ride you.
(Rohirric children's rhyme)
Princess Lothíriel concentrated on her horse, moving from a walk to a gentle trot, and talking to the mare in a soft voice. Éomer felt relieved to see that she had a good seat and held the reins firmly but lightly. Winterbreath listened to her new rider attentively and responded willingly to whatever aid she was given. At first, the princess had almost tried too hard, but after a while she had relaxed and her old reflexes had taken over.
She looked completely different in Rohirric dress. Éomer wondered who normally helped her choose her clothes, since she couldn't see the colours for herself. Éowyn had lent the princess a white linen blouse; it was of a style his sister particularly favoured. A sleeveless tunic embroidered with small white flowers and a pair of tight-fitting buckskin trousers went with it. In Éomer's view, the vibrant red of the tunic suited Princess Lothíriel much better than the dull brown dresses she had worn so far.
They had decided to go for a ride to the northern gate of the Rammas Echor, the great wall encircling the Pelennor, and possibly beyond that and along the Great West Road a little way. Not too far, though, as they had to be back in plenty of time for the betrothal dinner later on that evening. Princess Lothíriel's brothers had been less than thrilled when they had found out about the present given to their sister, but they had both decided to come along. Now they rode on either side of Éowyn and Princess Lothíriel, eyeing their sister almost warily. As for the princess, Éomer did not think she was aware of anything except her horse.
Firefoot snorted impatiently and he leant forward to pat the grey's neck. The stallion was spoiling for a run, but they were forced to keep to a sedate pace by the sheer size of their party. Not only Lady Annarima and her entire family had decided to come along, but also the two young Gondorian noblemen and rather to his amusement a large contingent of his own riders. He got the impression that they had come mostly to catch a glimpse of the Princess of Dol Amroth. The tale of how he had ended up with an additional packhorse had made the rounds of the camp in no time at all last night. Even his bard had chosen to join their outing.
Éomer watched the two women riding ahead of him, talking animatedly to each other. They might be clad alike, but there the resemblance ended. Éowyn wore her blond hair loose, flowing down her back, whereas the princess had her dark tresses bound into a tight bun at the back of her head. Of course here in Gondor, people associated loose hair with similar behaviour, although the more daring ladies were starting to let a strand of hair escape every now and again. No doubt they felt encouraged by the example set by their beautiful Elven queen.
In fact, one of those more daring ladies rode next to him right at that very moment. As if feeling his eyes on her, Lady Wilwarin looked up and smiled at him.
"What a charming idea to go for a ride, my Lord King," she said in a soft voice. The white palfrey she rode was gentle and well behaved and as pretty as its mistress.
"It is nice to get out a bit, isn't it?"
"Especially as the weather is so spring like," Lady Wilwarin nodded. Her riding habit clung tightly to her curves, leaving her long, slender arms bare.
"And such a lovely horse you have given dear Princess Lothíriel," she said with a gracious indication of her hand.
"Well, actually it's Éowyn's gift," he had to admit in all honesty.
"How kind of her. The poor princess, she gets about so little." Lady Wilwarin lowered her voice. "So terribly sad, don't you think?"
Éomer had long ago learnt not to discuss one woman with another, so he only nodded noncommittally.
Ahead of them, Éowyn laughed. "Are you sure you're up to it?" she asked her companion.
It pleased him to see that his sister had formed a first tentative friendship in her new homeland. Observing her with the other ladies of the court, he had often been reminded of a hawk amongst a flock of songbirds. Granted, she would probably spend most of her time in Emyn Arnen, helping Faramir rebuild Ithilien, but even so, it was good to see her make new friends.
Princess Lothíriel nodded eagerly. "I'm sure I can manage."
Elphir drew in a sharp breath. "Lothíriel, I really do not think it a good idea."
Éomer politely excused himself to Lady Wilwarin for a moment and urged Firefoot forward to join the group. "What idea?"
"Lothíriel would like to go for a short gallop," Éowyn explained.
Éomer considered the matter while the princess lifted her face to him, a silent look of entreaty on it. Her grey eyes had that slightly unfocused gaze, that seemed to make them even larger and more melting.
Only little-travelled, their road led from the eastern gate near Osgiliath to the northern gate leading onto the Great West Road. From where they were, it ran straight for about two leagues before turning north towards the gate, and he could see no one else on it. Firefoot shifted impatiently, as if sensing his rider's mood.
"I don't see why not," Éomer said slowly, "as long as you're careful. After all, we'll be with you."
Lady Wilwarin had followed him and now leant over towards the princess. "I'm sure it is a delightful idea, but are you certain you are up to it, dear Lothíriel?"
"Oh, don't worry," the princess replied at once. "I promise to take care."
Elphir made another sound of protest while Amrothos looked dubious. "I'm not sure you know how to be careful," he began, only to be interrupted at once by Princess Lothíriel.
"Nonsense! You're just afraid you'll be left behind on your slow nag."
With a grin, she urged her horse to a faster pace and Éowyn joined her, lifting Windfola into a gentle canter. Éomer matched her on Princess Lothíriel's other side, keeping a close eye on her. Whilst Winterbreath was known for her even temper, horse and rider were still in the process of getting accustomed to each other and he did not want to risk anything.
The princess laughed with sheer delight. "Oh, can we go faster?"
Éomer shot a look back over his shoulder. They had drawn well ahead of the rest of the party, only her two brothers having chosen to follow them.
The princess leant down over Winterbreath's neck, dug her heels into her sides and was off like an arrow shot from a bow. Firefoot neighed and would have followed her, if Éomer hadn't automatically checked him. For one frozen heartbeat he met Éowyn's startled glance, then they both urged their horses after the princess. Behind him, he could hear Amrothos swearing furiously.
The princess rode as if wild wolves out of Mordor were after her. A warhorse, Firefoot had been selected primarily for strength and endurance, and although he had considerable speed, the princess had a head start and her horse carried a much lighter burden. Éomer hung on grimly and urged his stallion to greater effort, but he knew he had little hope of catching up with her. Had the horse bolted with her after all?
After a harrowing couple of minutes, Princess Lothíriel straightened up in the saddle and slowed her horse down again. When he drew level with her, she turned a face glowing with happiness towards him.
"Oh, Éowyn!" she exclaimed. "How absolutely wonderful. You have no idea how much I've missed having a good run on a horse."
Éomer bit back the first words rising to his lips. "Princess Lothíriel," he said, enunciating each word very carefully, "let me make one thing clear to you, …"
She gave him a kind smile. "Oh, it's you, King Éomer. Wasn't that fun? Do you know, it's been over eight years since my last proper ride!"
Éowyn had reached them now, the two princes still trailing behind her. She took just one look at his face, before addressing the princess herself.
"What were you thinking of, Lothíriel? We said to go for a controlled gallop!"
"Not a race across half the Pelennor!" Amrothos put in indignantly.
With a twinge Éomer saw the happiness drain out of the princess's face, as it finally dawned on her that her companions were displeased with her. Éowyn was right to reprimand her, though. It had been a dangerous and foolish thing to do.
"But you said the road ran straight and clear!" the princess protested. "I fail to see the problem."
Éowyn exchanged an agonised look with him, obviously unwilling to point out to her new friend that the problem was her being blind. Her two brothers also didn't quite meet his eyes and let their horses fall back a little, leaving him facing the princess.
He cleared his throat. "Princess Lothíriel, you could easily have fallen and done yourself an injury."
She twisted the reins in her hands. "I suppose I was a little bit reckless…"
"A little bit?"
She hung her head. "I didn't mean to worry you." But then she straightened back up. "However, my brothers can confirm that I'm a good rider." She turned back in the saddle, as if searching for her brothers. "Can't you?"
"Well, that's true enough…" Amrothos got neatly caught between his sister's confident smile and his brother's indignant glare.
The princess turned back to Éomer. "See?" she said happily. "But I promise to be careful with my wonderful new horse."
She leant forward to pat the mare's neck and Éomer gave up trying to remonstrate with the princess. He would just have to make sure it did not happen again.
As if reading his thoughts, she looked up at him. "I promise to give you warning next time," she said with an impish smile, "or better still, I'll give you a head start."
Éomer was left speechless by this generous offer.
Once they had passed the gate in the Rammas Echor, they took a little travelled side path that led them along a stream flowing down from the White Mountains into the Anduin east of them. The area was heavily wooded and as they passed below the forest giants with their low hanging branches, a definite chill in the air reminded them that it was still only spring.
After a while, they reached a large forest glade, where the stream flowed in a gentle curve around a pebbly beach. The opposite bank was steep and thickly covered in ferns and bramble bushes, but on the nearside an expanse of green grass lay like a giant emerald set in the break between the trees. At their arrival, a couple of pheasants were startled into flight and hurriedly took to the cover of the trees.
By common consent, everybody stopped for a break and dismounted. With approval Éomer noticed that Éothain wasted no time in posting sentries all around the clearing. Even in peacetime, you could never be too careful. There had been rumours of occasional orc bands still roaming these forests.
He stretched his arms out contentedly, enjoying the spring air, and watched the ladies choose a sunny spot and settle down on a blanket that a servant had brought along for their use. The meadow was dotted with wild flowers, and in their bright red and blue dresses, they seemed like exotic blooms themselves. Lady Wilwarin's two young noblemen had disappeared into the forest, mentioning something about looking for game, but she didn't lack for admirers.
She smiled graciously at a remark Elfhelm had just addressed to her, looking almost like a queen holding court. Éomer had been so busy with his guests – and particularly with the princess – that he had unfortunately not had the opportunity to exchange more than a few words with her.
His squire came up to him to take Firefoot's reins and lead the stallion over to where his riders were watering their horses. With an amused smile, Éomer noticed that Oswyn had first helped the princess take care of Winterbreath. Apparently his own importance in his squire's eyes had dropped considerably.
Just as he intended to join the ladies in the warm spring sunshine, Elphir came up to him. "May I have a quick word with you?"
"Yes, of course," Éomer nodded.
The prince drew him a bit aside. "It concerns that pony," Elphir explained. "My father would like you to know that we are quite willing to take care of it ourselves. You need not burden yourself with it."
Éomer shook his head. It continued to amaze him what importance the family of Dol Amroth seemed to attach to the whole affair. As if it mattered that he had another packhorse in his train.
"It's no trouble at all. Anyway, I promised the princess I'd take care of Galador."
Elphir shuddered at the name. "If you say so. But please do not get rid of the pony, at least not whilst you are in Gondor."
Hadn't the man heard that he had given his word? And moreover, he had the distinct impression that the princess would think nothing of pursuing him all the way to the Riddermark to demand an explanation, if she ever heard of it. He did not think that the prospect of having to face down the King of the Mark in his own hall would deter her at all.
"I won't," he said brusquely.
Amrothos had joined them as well. "You see, a nobleman from Dol Amroth adopted a couple of her strays," he explained, "and afterwards it turned out he had the dogs put down, because they were too much trouble."
Elphir sighed at the memory. "Lothíriel took Lord Pelendur to task in front of the assembled court, calling him a dishonourable, contemptible scoundrel."
Éomer gave a curt laugh. "I'm not surprised. In my opinion he deserved it, if he broke his word."
"I suppose so," Elphir said, "but let me tell you, it caused quite a stir. Father was upset with her. The way she said it, everybody thought at first that he had, well you know what…" He gave a meaningful look.
Amrothos grinned. "Elphir here threatened to feed him to the fishes. Poor Pelendur still rarely dares to show his face at court, even though nowadays she's just icily polite to him."
"Anyway," he added with a sly grin, "I think we were lucky last night to only end up with a pony."
"Why?" his brother asked.
"Well, you know, she might instead have decided that the ladies working in the tavern needed rescuing…"
For a moment the three men looked at each other, then they simultaneously burst into laughter.
"I would have liked to see your father's face at that," Éomer remarked, sending them into fresh bouts of hilarity.
"What's so funny?" Éowyn asked from behind them. They stopped laughing abruptly
"It's rather a complicated joke," Éomer prevaricated. It sounded lame even to his own ears.
His sister put her hands on her hips and regarded them with narrowed eyes. "Too complicated for me to understand, I suppose," she said with a lift of her eyebrows.
When they didn't answer, she turned to Elphir. "I came to ask if you've seen your sister?"
Éomer looked over towards where the ladies sat on their blanket and noticed that indeed, the Princess of Dol Amroth was missing. A bolt of alarm shot through him. What had happened? That girl needed a constant minder.
Amrothos waved towards the stream. "I think she took Alphros to have a look at the river."
When he turned to look, he did in fact see the slim figure of the princess standing on the pebbled beach with her nephew. She had taken her boots off and rolled up the ends of her trousers. Now she stood with her bare feet in the water, laughing at something the boy had said.
"Is it safe?" he asked involuntarily.
Amrothos gave a shrug. "Oh, I don't think it's deep there and anyway, she grew up in Dol Amroth and swims like a fish."
The two bent down now, collecting some of the larger stones. They took turns to balance them atop each other in two piles. Alphros's laughter rang across the clearing when his aunt's pile kept falling over. Éomer smiled when he recognised the game as one he had played himself as a boy, called 'toppling the two towers' in the Mark. With an unexpected pang of envy he wondered what it would be like to have a wife and son, a family of his own?
That moment, a sudden loud snapping sound from the forest caught their attention. The three men whirled round. It sounded as if something was forcing itself through the undergrowth. Behind them, a horse neighed in alarm.
"What's that?" Amrothos exclaimed.
The sentries at the edge of the glade had come instantly alert and were scanning the trees. Over on the grass, the captain of his guard, Éothain, exchanged an anxious glance with his king. What was happening?
Then two men stumbled out from between the trees, forcing their way through the thick bushes at a run. Their clothes were torn in places and they were waving their arms about wildly. With a shock, Éomer recognised the two young noblemen who had accompanied Lady Wilwarin.
"Let them through," Éomer called in Rohirric, when his guards barred their way. With a frightened look over his shoulder, one of the two stumbled towards them.
"King Éomer!" he gasped.
"What's the matter?" Éomer asked sharply.
His face scratched and bloody, his eyes wide with fear, the man pointed to the forest. "Some sort of animal," he stammered. "It came after us."
The horses were neighing and pulling at their reins and several of his men ran to calm them. Something was definitely wrong. At that moment a woman screamed. Éomer looked up to see Lady Annarima pointing in the direction of the river, one hand pressed to her mouth in fright. Then she fainted. Beside him, Amrothos drew his breath in sharply.
His heart plummeting, Éomer looked towards the river.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.