4. The Lion Tamer
The Lion Tamer
Edoras, 15th March 3020.
Another one. And on this day of all days. Éomer watched the woman dismount from her horse. By now they all looked the same to him: black hair, grey eyes, a polite smile on their lips - and a spurious excuse for wanting to spend some time in the Riddermark. Be it to buy horses, to visit friends from the war or to take the mountain air. This one was taller than usual and with a better mount than most ladies from Gondor. But then you expected as much from the daughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth.
He stepped forward to greet her. "Princess Lothíriel, welcome to Edoras."
Cool, grey eyes, nearly level with his own, surveyed him. "Thank you, King Éomer."
"A guest house has been prepared for you. My housekeeper will show you the way." He motioned Aethelhild over and the old woman dropped a curtsy. "No doubt you are tired and will want a rest. I've given orders to have your evening meal served in your quarters." His duties as host done, Éomer turned to go.
"That won't be necessary."
When he looked back with a frown, the princess gave him an imperious nod. "There is no need to put your servants to extra trouble. I will see you in the hall for the evening meal." She smiled at Aethelhild. "Please lead the way."
Finding himself thus dismissed, Éomer stared after her slender form. So she was determined to start the siege that very evening, was she? Well the princess would find that it would not do her any good. Feeling thoroughly disgruntled he mounted the stone steps leading up to the doors of Meduseld. Inside the hall, servants had already started laying for supper and as he sat down at the high table he sent one of them running to fetch him a tankard of ale.
In small groups his riders entered to take their places. A more sombre mood than usual prevailed, but of course that was hardly surprising. With a word of greeting Marshal Elfhelm took the seat next to him.
"Has the Princess of Dol Amroth arrived yet?" he asked.
Éomer only grunted as an answer and the Marshal looked slightly dismayed at his king's lack of enthusiasm. "I have heard she is very pretty?"
"You may judge for yourself soon."
Elfhelm put a hand on his arm. "Éomer, you realize you will have to marry eventually, don't you. It is your duty to your people to provide an heir for the House of Eorl."
"I know my duty!" Éomer snapped. Heads turned at nearby tables and he lowered his voice. "But in due time and with a wife of my own choosing."
"The princess is very well connected and also the daughter of a good friend."
"Enough!" Éomer said. They had covered this ground dozens of times already. When Elfhelm opened his mouth to add something, he held up his hand. "Not tonight."
As if on cue the doors to the hall opened to admit Princess Lothíriel and her party. Aethelhild showed her maids and guards to one of the servants' tables, but the princess and her lady-in-waiting continued to the high table. Éomer noticed that the two women lifted their gowns to keep the hems clear off the rushes that covered the floor. He frowned when he realized that those were left over from the winter months and quite dirty by now. Éowyn usually had them cleaned out when spring arrived, but this year nobody had bothered to do so. Then Éomer had to welcome the ladies and introduce them to his Marshal. At least the servants chose that moment to start serving the meal, so after seating the princess to his right he could concentrate on his food.
Princess Lothíriel looked about Meduseld. "My father has told me about the magnificent carvings of your hall."
"Has he." Éomer waved to one of the servants to top up his tankard. He saw that the princess had not yet touched her own ale. Probably she was used to drinking wine - but she would not get it here.
"Yes, he admired them very much." Princess Lothíriel nodded, apparently unperturbed by his curt answer. "And also your beautiful tapestries."
"Do they all depict scenes from Rohan's past?" She motioned to the one showing Eorl the Young on Felaróf.
"Yes." Forestalling any more attempts at conversation, Éomer got up and lifted his tankard. Benches scraped as his men rose, too. "To those who have gone before us," he called in the language of the Mark. And in his mind he named them: Théoden, Théodred, Háma, Grimbold, Guthláf, Dúnhere, Déorwine. And so many more.
"To those who have gone before us!" his riders echoed back at him.
He downed his drink in one go and then sat down again. Looking surprised the princess had followed his lead and had risen as well. Now she hastily took her seat again.
On Éomer's other side, Elfhelm leaned forward. "A year ago the battle of the Pelennor fields took place," he explained.
"Of course," the princess said. "You are celebrating your victory."
"No," Éomer corrected her. "We are remembering the fallen."
"Oh! I'm sorry."
"Sorry doesn't bring back the dead."
She looked at him and for a moment her large grey eyes seemed to cloud over with a vision only she could see. "I know."
That effectively put an end to the conversation. Not that Éomer minded, although the look his Marshal cast him made him feel momentarily guilty. But after all he hadn't invited the woman, she had invited herself, or rather her father had. He nodded to a servant for a refill.
Elfhelm cleared his throat. "So tell me, Princess Lothíriel, how fares your father?"
She looked up from cutting the meat on her plate into more ladylike pieces. "Thank you, he is well."
"And your brothers?"
"They are well, too."
Éomer took another large gulp of ale. Brothers. Three of them and all had survived the war.
The princess gave him a cautious smile. "I saw Lady Éowyn whilst stopping over in Minas Tirith. She sends her greetings."
Éomer stared down at her and her smile faltered. Did she think to ingratiate herself with him this way? Well she would find out differently. "So tell me," he asked, "is your accommodation to your liking?"
Princess Lothíriel jumped at his harsh tone. "The guest house was rather small and a little draughty," she stammered. "But fortunately it turned out there was a more suitable one available. Your housekeeper did not think you would mind."
Éomer frowned, for he had expressly specified a guesthouse well away from the hall, but then he could not really blame Aethelhild for giving in to this confident young woman. Ever since Éowyn's departure for Gondor the previous autumn Meduseld had lacked a mistress and the housekeeper was really too old to run the place on her own. "And no doubt you would like a tour of Edoras?" he asked.
"Well, I'm sure it would be interesting," the princess replied, watching him warily. "But have you got the time?"
"I will make the time. Tomorrow." He picked up a leg of chicken from his plate and took a hearty bite. She would not be the first Gondorian lady to be treated to an exhaustive inspection of the kitchen, numerous dusty storehouses and all the outbuildings up and down the hill on which Meduseld stood. He particularly enjoyed showing them the King's Room, unchanged since his uncle's death, dark and gloomy and dominated by the huge four-poster bed with its faded drapes. On returning from Minas Tirith he had taken one look at it and decided to sleep in his old rooms for the time being.
When he looked up again he found her examining him through narrowed eyes. Quite deliberately he put down his piece of chicken and wiped his hands on his trousers. They were dirty anyway as he had come in straight from the stables. Her eyes widened. The thought that Éowyn would have his hide, could she see him, flitted through his mind, only to be dismissed at once. This was all out war after all and he had learnt early on that the enemy gave no quarter.
The princess had chosen to wear her hair loose to dinner, no doubt to show off its glossy length. Now she tossed it back. "I've heard of your hospitality, my lord. Indeed tales have reached as far as Gondor."
It took him a moment to identify the emotion glittering at the back of her eyes. Anger? Did the fool woman think to take him on in his own hall? Him, the Lion of Rohan? He bared his teeth in a smile. "Good! We have to make sure you see as much of our beautiful country as possible during your sojourn with us. Perhaps you'd like me to lay on a boar hunt in the mountains?"
She seemed to recognize the challenge in his voice, for she gave a curt nod. "That's very kind of you. I used to go hunting in the Hills of Tarnost with my brothers, so I'll be bound to enjoy it."
Elfhelm leaned forward. "It's still rather cold in the mountains this time of the year, Éomer. Perhaps you should show Lady Lothíriel the environs of Edoras instead?"
Éomer had in fact counted exactly on that particular detail making the princess's life miserable during the hunt, but he couldn't very well say so. Well, there were still the marshes of the Entwash -although March was a bit early for the midges - and other possibilities closer to home. He smiled. "A good idea. Maybe you'd like to see the stables tomorrow? And of course our breeding paddocks."
On his other side Elfhelm choked on his ale. Doubtlessly he remembered the memorable occasion when Éomer had taken Lady Faelivren of Lebennin to those same paddocks last August. Firefoot had come up with a magnificent effort to ensure a fresh crop of foals for the next year and the lady had fainted at the sight. A satisfactory affair all round: Lady Faelivren had left the next day and the mare, Swiftleg, was in foal now.
The princess matched his smile. "Yes, I've heard of those as well and would love to see them. Do you hand breed or pasture breed your horses?"
He blinked. Of course she would have grown up amongst her father's horses. Imrahil was renowned for the quality of his steeds. For the first time he looked at her and saw her as an individual, not just another hopeful Queen of Rohan. "Mostly we just let the stallions run with the herds," he answered, "but we keep some of the most promising mares here in Edoras to breed to specific stallions."
"In that case I've come at the right time of the year, haven't I?" Her voice had a definite edge to it. "I understand you take a personal interest in the process."
Éomer suddenly wondered exactly what tales had reached Gondor. Somehow he got the impression that this woman might prove to be a difficult one to get rid of, especially as he had to be careful not to offend her father. But why did she have to arrive today, intruding on his grief and forcing him to deal with the unpleasant realities of being a king? "I take a personal interest in all the aspects of running my kingdom," he growled and reached for his tankard.
The princess cast a quick look around the hall and then smiled sweetly. "So I see." She transferred her attention back to the meat on her plate.
Éomer glared at her and set down his tankard with a thump. "What do you mean?"
She met his eyes squarely. "I mean that your personal touch shows clearly - in the accommodation we've been given...the charming plans for my entertainment...and the imposing state of your hall."
How dare she! He surged to his feet. "Nobody asked you to come here! We don't need a pampered and spoilt princess like you to sneer down her nose at us."
"Spoilt?" She had risen, too. "I am not the one behaving like an ill-mannered child, wanting in all common courtesies."
In the ensuing silence they heard a mouse scuttle across the floor. Éomer gritted his teeth. Even the rodents of Meduseld seemed determined to betray him. "Tonight we are remembering those who died while coming to your country's aid, my lady," he hissed. "Not everybody spent the war safe behind walls, worrying about nothing more than what dress to wear the next day."
The princess had taken a step back at his outburst, but now she balled her hands into fists. "Not worrying. When I was left running Dol Amroth on my own and my whole family was out there fighting!"
Éomer could stand it no longer. "But your family survived," he shouted. "Whereas I lost everybody but my sister. Théodred was hacked to pieces by orcs, my uncle crushed by his own horse!"
Princess Lothíriel looked as if he had slapped her in the face. "I know." She held out a hand. "And I am truly sorry for your loss."
But Éomer was too angry to care. "What would you know of it?" he snapped. "You haven't got the slightest idea what it means to lose somebody you love."
The blood drained from her face, leaving it white as chalk. "You are wrong. I know everything about loss," she whispered. "The refusal to believe, the anger, the guilt..."
Gathering up her skirts so they would not touch him, she brushed past him. But at the edge of the dais she paused and looked back. "Since I am not welcome here I will leave. But I give you a piece of advice, King Éomer. You need to stop drinking, have a bath and a clean change of clothes. In that order." With that she swept out the hall, her lady-in-waiting belatedly hurrying after her, clucking like a worried hen.
As conversation slowly started up again amongst his riders, Éomer sat down heavily and turned to Elfhelm. The Marshal interpreted the question in his king's eyes correctly. "Her mother," he explained. "Imrahil's wife."
Éomer remembered now. "She died during the war?"
"I believe so."
He stared at the great doors through which the princess had left. Maybe he had been a little harsh on the girl?
"More ale!" he called.
"My Lord King?"
Éomer groaned. The rhythmic pounding in his head was a familiar sensation. A hard surface lay against his cheek. Cold and unyielding. Where was he? He opened eyes puffy with sleep. Grey flagstones, the base of a wooden pillar, sunshine. When he lifted his head, the world started to spin around him. Another all too familiar sensation. He groaned again.
"Here, let me help you."
Gentle hands took his arm, helping him sit up and lean back against the wood behind him. Something soft was stuffed behind his head as a pillow. A woman's voice... Squinting against the bright light he looked up at her. "Where am I?"
"On the terrace of Meduseld." Beautiful grey eyes, framed by thick lashes, and a generous mouth, the corners twitching. A nice face to wake up to. Éomer smiled up at her.
She smiled back, her eyes losing their aloofness and warming. "How are you feeling?"
Westron spoken in the elegant tones of Gondor's nobility. He knew that voice... Realization dawned abruptly. "What are you doing here!"
At his words her smile congealed and he felt a twinge of regret, quickly repressed. The princess inclined her head. "Don't worry. I've just come to take my leave of you."
"Oh." Éomer leaned back and tried to order his thoughts. At least the world had stopped spinning around and a quick look confirmed that he was indeed sitting on the stone terrace surrounding the Golden Hall. The snowy peaks of the White Mountains glinted in the morning sunshine and he wondered how he had ended up on the south side, just outside the royal quarters.
She knelt down beside him, offering him a cup. "Here, drink this. It should make you feel better."
Éomer took a cautious sip. Herb tea. Gratefully he wrapped his fingers around the hot cup. Behind her he spotted two of his guards, looking rather sheepish. As well they should for letting anybody see him in this state, let alone a foreign princess. "Why am I out here?"
"I believe you evinced a desire to sleep under the stars last night." Her voice held no expression at all.
Did she think the sight of the King of Rohan passed out from too much drink amusing? And would she enjoy telling the story to her cronies in Gondor? Well, she might have caught him at a disadvantage, but the lion still had some fight left in him. "Nothing wrong with that!" he snapped.
The princess spread her hands, palms upward. "Of course not."
When Éomer glowered at her she shrugged. "My Lord King, as I've said we're about to leave." She sat back on her heels and he saw that she was indeed dressed for travelling, wearing an elegant buckskin riding habit that displayed her slim form to advantage. "But I have a favour to ask of you."
"What kind of favour?" he asked suspiciously.
"My companion, Lady Eledwen, needs a few days' rest after travelling all the way from Minas Tirith. Just the prospect of another day on horseback sent her into spasms last night."
Éomer shuddered at the thought. "So?"
"I would like to leave her here for another week. In the meantime I will travel to Aldburg and wait for her in the inn where we stopped over on the way here."
There was no way he could let Imrahil's daughter stay at the Howling Hound for a week and she had to know it.
"In that case you must remain here until your companion feels better," he said through gritted teeth. "I insist."
She looked at him with a good imitation of astonishment on her face. "I don't see why. To be quite blunt, I do not wish to stay another day where my presence is so clearly unwelcome."
Did she want to shame him into apologizing? Well she would find out that those kinds of tactics did not work with him. "So you like bluntness, do you?"
Her brows drew together. "Yes I do."
"In that case let me tell you that you must be perfectly well aware of the fact that I cannot possibly let you stay at an inn in Aldburg for a week. Not for your sake, but for your father's."
She stood abruptly. "What exactly are you implying, my Lord King?"
He surged to his feet too, spilling his tea and making his head swim in the process. "What I am implying, my Lady Princess, is that you're trying to find a way to extend your stay here."
"And why should I want to do so?" Her voice had gone dangerously low.
Did she think him too polite to spell out her reasons? Hah! "Because you think it will give you another chance to make me offer for your hand."
"You dare!" she spat. "Well, since we're being blunt, let me tell you that I find you an intolerable boor and I would rather marry a .... a troll than you! And to think that I had considered the stories told about you in Minas Tirith grossly exaggerated. I should have refused Éowyn then and there."
Éomer clutched his aching head. "Éowyn? What has my sister got to do with this?"
"It was her who talked Father into sending me to Rohan for a month. Where she got the harebrained notion we'd be suited to each other I do not know. Did you think I came here of my own volition?"
"Well I didn't!" He saw her brush a tear of rage from her eyes. "But I thought I owed it to Éowyn to give the idea a chance after all she had done for us in the war."
Éomer found himself at a loss for words. This was Éowyn's idea? "She must have lost her wits!" he groaned. "Whatever possessed her to meddle in my affairs in this manner?"
"Can't you see your sister is worried about you!"
He stared at the princess. "Worried?"
"Yes worried. Although I can't see why," Princess Lothíriel added sarcastically. "After all you're perfectly happy to drink yourself into oblivion."
The woman was insufferable! "A little ale doesn't hurt." His body chose that moment to send a lance of pain through his head.
She made no reply, just regarded him steadily, those grey eyes far too perceptive. Éomer felt fresh irritation well up within him. What did she know about grief? "You haven't got the slightest idea..." he began, only to remember that perhaps she did know.
A few unsteady strides brought him to the edge of the stone terrace and he stared out across the lawn sloping down the hill and the thatched roofs of the houses below him. His charge, entrusted to him by his uncle. The bright sunlight hurt his eyes. Turning back he spotted his guards watching him with open interest. "You two," he barked in Rohirric, making them jump. "Fetch me another cup of tea. And one for Lady Lothíriel," he amended his order after a moment. They went running off.
Éomer turned his attention back to the Princess of Dol Amroth, suddenly noticing that she had dark marks underneath her eyes as if she'd found little sleep that night. Her lady-in-waiting's spasm or his unkind words? Guilt reared its ugly head. "You truly do not want to marry me?"
"No." She leant her head back against a pillar. "I never wanted to leave my home and believe it or not, I have plenty of suitors back in Dol Amroth."
They regarded each other warily as slowly the import of her words dawned on Éomer. "I might owe you an apology," he conceded.
She looked away. "I did say some rather rude things myself."
"You were provoked."
She shrugged. "I'm sorry too."
With a tired sigh Éomer sat down at the edge of the terrace. What a hash he'd made of things. To his surprise the princess joined him a moment later, sitting a little apart from him. "Your sister is worried about you because she loves you," she said hesitantly. "She thinks that you dwell too much on the past."
He had to bite down a harsh rejoinder. Always the same empty words. "I suppose you'll tell me to move on and forget about my losses?"
Princess Lothíriel shook her head. "I would never tell you to forget. Rather you should remember the good times." She looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. "Even though it's difficult..."
The last words were said so low, Éomer wasn't sure if they were meant for his ears. "Your mother?" He gentled his voice. "How did she die?"
Her hands clenched. "Corsairs." He did not press her and after taking a deep breath she continued haltingly. "Two years ago this coming August. She was a healer and was called out to a difficult birth." The princess made a helpless gesture. "Father always sent a couple of guards with her, but we'd not had our coast raided for many years. The village got attacked, but Mother...she refused to leave. Instead she sent one of the guards to fetch help." Her voice broke. "It was too late. They burnt the village to the ground. We saw the smoke..."
Éomer stared at her, horrified to remember his earlier words to her. "I'm so sorry."
The princess extracted a handkerchief from a pocket and blew her nose. "I was supposed to go with her to assist in the birth, but I had a cold so she told me to stay behind. I should have been there!"
"You're not a warrior," he pointed out gently, "you couldn't have done anything."
"I could have died with her."
Éomer nodded. The guilt of the survivor - how well he knew it. "There is that."
He watched as across the valley two kestrels rose in the clear air, circling each other as they climbed higher and higher. For as long as he could remember there had been a pair of them nesting in the tall pines at the base of the mountains. When they had been younger, Théodred had once told Éothain and him off for trying to steal the eggs. Perhaps not one of his fondest memories of his cousin, but better than imagining him dying under orc blades at the Fords of Isen. Remember the good times...maybe Princess Lothíriel had a point.
They remained sitting in thoughtful silence until a servant arrived carrying two mugs of tea. A quick sniff confirmed the tea as being the mint and fennel mixture the Meduseld cook brewed up in large quantities after feast days and Éomer wondered if the princess had been served the same drink.
She took a small sip. "This tastes familiar." When she intercepted Éomer's surprised look, she gave a crooked smile. "My brothers have been known to overindulge on drink. I've seen them in a similar state, especially Amrothos."
Éomer lifted a hand to his face, wondering what he looked like. "Have you?"
A corner of her mouth twitched. "Well, maybe not this bad."
He met her eyes and found himself forced into a reluctant grin. "It takes considerable effort to achieve this particular effect."
She had a nice laugh. Coming to a decision he finished his tea and got up. "I think I should be able to face breakfast now."
The princess rose, too. "In that case I will say my good-byes. If we want to make Aldburg before sundown we have to leave now."
"My lady, please reconsider and stay."
Princess Lothíriel put her head to one side. "I don't know..."
He held out his hand. "At least until your companion is recovered completely."
"You are very kind." A decisive nod. "But I promise to stay out of your way."
They shook hands solemnly, then Éomer gestured towards the side entrance of the hall. "Would you like to join me for breakfast?" Seeing her look up at him rather dubiously, he hastened to reassure her. "I will have a wash first."
She inclined her head with the dignity of a queen, but a smile lurked in her eyes. "That's reassuring."
Two months later...
"Éomer? The horses are ready."
Éomer rose as Lothíriel entered the study, the men assembled around the council table following suit. He turned back to them. "Is there anything more we need to discuss?"
But his Marshals and advisors were already taking their leave, ready to file out the door. Elfhelm clapped him on the back. "Nothing that can't wait for our next meeting. Enjoy your outing." With a bow to Lothíriel he left.
Éomer stared after him as the room emptied rapidly. Never before had a council meeting broken up so quickly and painlessly. Lord Ealdred tried to add something, but Erkenbrand quite simply took him by the arm and towed him out.
"Well," said Lothíriel as the door shut behind the last of them, "and here I thought I'd have to prise you out of their clutches."
Struck by an awful suspicion, Éomer just shook his head. "Never mind about that." He held the door open for her. "Did you say the horses are waiting?"
"Yes." With easy familiarity she took his arm as they walked down the corridor and through the small gateway into the hall proper. "So where are we going? To see the herds again?"
"No." When she raised her eyebrows quizzically, he grinned. "You'll see. It's a surprise."
Through old habit he cast a quick look around Meduseld as they descended the steps from the dais and crossed the hall. Scrubbed clean, the tables stood arrayed like sentinels against the wall and the flagstones gleamed in the dim light, polished and smooth. Over to one side a group of servants under Aethelhild's supervision were just taking down one of the tapestries from the wall.
Lothíriel stopped. "Oh! I promised to help with the cleaning."
At her words the housekeeper looked up from carefully inspecting the state of the fabric. "You go on and enjoy yourself, my lady," the old woman said, shooing them away. "You deserve a break for all your hard work."
"Are you sure?" Lothíriel asked over her shoulder as Éomer pulled her towards the doors.
"We can manage," Aethelhild nodded and the other women chorused her words, smiling broadly.
The doorwards were equally eager to see them on their way, wishing them a nice ride, and in the courtyard below Éomer could see Meduseld's head cook personally fastening a couple of bulging bags to Firefoot's saddle. He got the sinking feeling that everybody in Edoras knew of his plans - well except for one person.
They mounted up and rode down the hill, the guards trailing along so far behind that they hardly deserved the name. Probably they thought that they were being discreet! At least Lothíriel did not seem to notice anything amiss, showing her usual interest in the goings-on around her and cheerfully greeting any acquaintances in Rohirric. Éomer had to hide a smile at her pronunciation. The princess did not really have an ear for language, but nobody had the heart to tell her so and dampen her enthusiasm.
Once they passed the gates the crowds lessened and Lothíriel cast him a questioning look as they approached the ford over the Snowbourne. Their daily rides usually took them across to the meadows where this year's foals and their dams were pastured. But Éomer shook his head and instead led the way along the Great West Road, which hugged the foothills of the White Mountains. To their left willows marked the course of the river and the path stretched out flat and empty, allowing them to pick up their pace to a slow canter. Soon Edoras disappeared from view behind an outcropping of the mountains and they were completely alone except for the guards still following them at a distance. Contentedly Éomer listened to the soft thudding of their horses' hoofs on the turf and the sighing of the wind.
When he looked over at the woman riding beside him their eyes met for a moment and she gave him a warm smile, sharing her enjoyment of the ride. Éomer felt his heart lift. For some reason in her presence the sun shone brighter and the world had a sparkling edge to it, full of possibilities. He had discovered that Lothíriel was one of those rare women who did not think it necessary to assault his ears with endless chatter. Instead she had the gift of silence. Lulled by her undemanding acceptance, he had found himself telling her far more of the past than he had ever intended to. And in her turn she had allowed him a glimpse of the girl with a quirky sense of humour usually hidden behind the graceful and accomplished princess.
About an hour's ride from Edoras he spotted the big boulder that marked their turning off point. A narrow path zigzagged up the mountain and recalled to their duties, one of his guards took the lead. While no orc would dare to venture this close to the seat of the King of the Mark, wild boars and lynx inhabited these foothills and were dangerous when surprised. However, nothing untoward happened as they slowly made their way up, dismounting and leading the horses wherever the path grew too narrow. Dense woods lined the way, providing welcome shade from the midday sun, but even so he soon started to sweat. Lothíriel of course remained as neat and cool as always, white blouse immaculate, hair caught up in a tidy braid. He had found that for some reason dirt and even horses' slobber did not stick to her clothes like it invariably did to his own.
Then the trees suddenly opened up into a clearing and Lothíriel exclaimed with pleasure when she spotted the small waterfall at the other end. Eagerly the horses pressed forward and had to be restrained from drinking too quickly.
Once everybody had dismounted, Éomer threw the saddlebags over his shoulder and called to Lothíriel. "The rest of the way is on foot."
She looked up from where she knelt by the small stream. "This is not your surprise?"
Leaving his men to guard the horses, he took a deer trail leading out of the clearing, the princess following along gamely. Birdsong echoed through the forest and every now and again black squirrels, disturbed by their passage, chased up the tree trunks either side. On his advice Lothíriel had donned practical clothing, a thin jerkin worn over the blouse and a pair of leather riding skirts, so they made good progress. Éomer waited for a word of complaint from her when the way grew so steep that they were forced to clamber up the mountainside like goats. However, she just laughed and did not even inquire as to how much further it was.
Finally he helped her squeeze between two boulders to reach a broad stone ledge. Ahead of them the ground dropped off steeply, affording them an unimpeded view of the plains. "Here we are," he said proudly.
Lothíriel caught her breath, swaying slightly, and he turned at once to be able to catch her in case she suffered from vertigo. Indeed after the confinement of the forest, suddenly emerging into the wide-open space with the sky stretching limitless above them was dizzying. "Oh, Éomer," she breathed, "I feel like I'm flying!" Stepping closer to the edge she stretched out her arms and laughed out loud in sheer delight when the wind whipped around her.
His heart missing a beat, he grabbed her and pulled her back. "Lothíriel, be careful!"
"Don't worry. I'm used to the cliffs of Dol Amroth."
"Maybe," he conceded, reluctantly letting go of her again, "but I would not want to have to face your father if anything happened to you."
Her smile was positively wicked. "Understandable. After your past behaviour he would probably suspect you of having pushed me."
He could not help grinning back. "Really, my lady. Would I do such a thing?"
She frowned as she pretended to consider his question. "Perhaps as a last resort to get rid of me? In case I found my way out of Fangorn Forest?"
"Fangorn?" Éomer could not hide his confusion. "What do you mean?"
Lothíriel schooled her features into the demure expression that he knew meant she planned some kind of mischief. "I have been told a night spent alone in Fangorn is an indispensable part of any visit to Rohan."
Belatedly the source of her information became clear to Éomer. "You've been talking to Lady Brethil," he groaned.
She chuckled. "Poor Brethil wrote me a letter when she heard I was going to travel to Rohan, saying you had threatened to abandon her in Fangorn Forest and warning me not to go."
"I only said that she should meet the Ents. Why, the woman drove me mad. She just wouldn't stop talking!"
Lothíriel dissolved into laughter. "Oh Éomer! All the trouble you go to just to rid yourself of us poor, harmless Gondorian ladies," she teased him.
"Let me assure you, I don't want to get rid of you," Éomer replied with a bow.
She must have caught something in his tone, for she raised her eyes to him, a question in them. Éomer bent down and busied himself with the saddlebags, which he had dumped on the ground. "Are you hungry yet? The cook has packed a veritable feast for us." Coward, he told himself. But unexpectedly he found that asking a woman to stay proved much more difficult than getting her to leave. Lothíriel had shown she enjoyed his company, had twice agreed to extend her stay, but did her gracious and polite manner really hide a warmer feeling for him, as he hoped?
One of the saddlebags held a blanket for them and while he spread this on the stone ledge, Lothíriel silently unpacked their food. Meduseld's cook had outdone herself: freshly baked bread, the smell of which made his mouth water, several kinds of meat pastries, a large wedge of cheese, cured ham sausages, small cakes and even a carefully wrapped punnet of strawberries. Also included were a wine skin and two goblets.
Lothíriel raised her eyebrows when she saw all these delicacies. "We never eat and drink so well when we go hunting back home. Why, the cook has even baked some of my favourite honey and nut cakes!"
Éomer forbore to mention that he didn't usually get so well provisioned either. "Yes, it's certainly an improvement on journey bread," he agreed.
With a smile at his jest she sat down, clasping her slim legs, and looked out over the grasslands below them, which rippled in the wind. "You can actually see Edoras from here and there is the golden roof of Meduseld glittering in the sunshine." Narrowing her eyes, she stared into the distance. "Are those the Misty Mountains?"
Éomer tore his gaze away from her face. "Yes. They stretch all the way north from Isengard. And the dark smudge below is Fangorn Forest."
"It's beautiful," she sighed. "Thank you for showing me."
He broke off a piece of bread and handed it to her. "I haven't been up here for years, not since before all our troubles started." The wind blew his hair across his face and he brushed it back. "It was my cousin who showed me this place. Théodred loved the view." Éomer looked up to see Lothíriel watching him with compassion in her grey eyes. In anybody else, it would have offended him, but not with her. She knew.
In silence he shared out the pastries and cut off a piece of cheese for her. Already having pilfered most of the strawberries, Lothíriel now started on the meal with a good appetite while Éomer picked up a piece of bread. Only to exclaim in annoyance when a gust of wind tangled his hair again.
Lothíriel got up and crossed to his side. "Here, let me help."
Éomer froze as she knelt down behind him and gathered up his hair in her hands. "What are you doing?"
"Plaiting it. Don't worry, I have lots of experience in doing warrior braids for my brothers. You have the same custom here in Rohan, haven't you?"
"Yes, but..." Éomer stopped. In the Mark only a wife or a sweetheart would render this service to her chosen, but after all there was nobody else about to see them and jump to the wrong conclusion.
Dividing his hair into even sections, her clever fingers started to plait it in a complicated pattern along one side. "What an exotic colour," she remarked. "Just like I imagine a lion's mane to be."
He had to laugh at that. "Exotic? Not in Rohan. Here your black tresses seem much more striking." And what would it feel like to tease them apart with his fingers? Éomer hastily strangled the thought.
"I suppose so," she agreed.
Closing his eyes to better enjoy her ministrations, he was struck by a sudden realization. "I never thanked you."
"Really, you don't have to! It's such a little thing."
"No, I meant for all the work you've done around Meduseld," he explained.
"Oh, that!" She gave his shoulder a quick squeeze and he caught a tantalising whiff of her perfume. Wild roses. "I enjoy it. In fact I think it kind of you to let me run wild here. It's nice to be useful for a change."
He didn't miss the bitterness in her tone and remembered how she had told him of her sister-in-law resenting her presence in Dol Amroth. "Well, I am very grateful to you," he said. "Finally Meduseld is a sight worthy of my ancestors again."
She tied off the braid with a leather thong and started on his other side. "I'm pleased to be needed."
Did she have any idea just how much he needed her? Éomer took a deep breath. "Lothíriel, would you consider staying here longer?" Why was finding the right words so difficult?
Her fingers did not slow. "Well, Lady Eledwen is getting a little impatient to return to Dol Amroth, but I suppose I could stay a few more weeks."
"That's not what I meant..."
He twisted round to face her and she looked at him in surprise. "Éomer?"
Catching hold of her hands he lifted them to his lips. "Not days... or weeks... or even months, but... indefinitely."
Her fingers trembled. "Éomer, what exactly are you saying?" she whispered.
"Will you marry me?"
He had been prepared for surprise, hesitation, doubt, but not for this immediate consent. "Yes?"
"I can be a bit grumpy at times," he warned her, taken aback.
"So I've noticed," she replied, her expression grave, but her voice shaking.
"Lothíriel, are you quite sure?"
"Yes I am."
He stared at her. Surely it couldn't be this easy. "Why?"
Shyly she traced a finger along his lips. "Because of the way you smile at me when I catch you unawares. As you did when you woke up that morning on the terrace of Meduseld." Her eyes met his unflinchingly. "Will you think me very forward when I say that for some time now I've been hoping for you to ask me this?"
Exhilaration swept through him and he laughed, feeling drunk with happiness. "Well, all I can say is that you're a brave woman to take on the Lion of Rohan," He slipped an arm round her waist and pulled her close. "Even though he's quite tame really." As laughter sprang into her eyes, Éomer leant forward and kissed her.
When he released her a good time later, he cradled her face between his hands, drinking in the sight of her. A strand of black hair had come undone and he had left a smudge on her cheek. His mark. Éomer decided not to tell her.
Looking up at him Lothíriel took a deep breath. "Tame? I don't think so."
A/N: My thanks to Gwynnyd for suggesting the 'anniversary' theme.
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.