24. Chapter 24
Downriver, my brother's men seemed rooted to the spot while Firefoot made straight for them, splashing through the water. The horses started milling about, neighing nervously, and that finally galvanised the men into action. I saw one of them grab for Nimphelos's halter.
Screaming a challenge, the stallion bore down on him. The man jumped aside, only just avoiding flashing hooves. The other horses scattered, but Nimphelos slewed round to meet Firefoot. With foam flying through the air, they circled each other a couple of times. Then Firefoot snaked his head forward to nip the mare on the flank and she took off across the river, the stallion a heartbeat behind her.
All around us, people exclaimed in consternation when the horses climbed the opposite bank in great bounds. A last triumphant neigh from the stallion floated across to us as they disappeared into the dusk.
I gasped. "Éomer! They've run away! What shall we do?"
He looked down at me. Somehow I had ended up with my body pressed against his side, but nobody paid us any heed. The other guests all crowded near the edge of the riverbank, talking to each other and gesticulating wildly. A strange expression crossed Éomer's face.
"Come!" He grabbed my arm and started pulling me through the crowd.
I stumbled along behind him. "Éomer, where are we going?"
He did not answer as he threaded his way towards the back of the crowd, drawing me along in his wake. A moment later we burst free of the press of people, but he gave me no chance to catch my breath and demand an explanation.
He tightened his grip on my arm, pulling me across the clearing and into the shadow of the trees. A quick look back over his shoulder, then he dragged me further into the darkness. All I could manage to do was to avoid tripping over hidden tree roots and fallen branches. Where was he taking me? At least up ahead the forest seemed to thin out again.
Éomer stopped abruptly, and let go of my arm. Somehow we had circled round and reached the riverbank again, only further upstream from where we had been. As I caught my breath, I could hear faint voices, but they sounded very far away. From the river below, the croaking of myriads of frogs reached us. We were completely alone.
I turned to Éomer. "What are we doing here? My brother will be worried about me."
He crossed his arms across his chest. "Let him." In the darkness of the trees it was difficult to make out the expression on his face, but his voice sounded grim. "Lothíriel, I will tolerate no more interruptions. I want the truth!"
He started to pace to and fro. "It is as if you were two different women. One of them has a toy horse by her bed and risks her life to rescue mongrels..."
I coloured. So he had noticed Felaróf.
"...the other," Éomer continued, "tells my sister that she had nothing but a flirtation in mind and lies to me in cold blood."
He had spoken to Éowyn about me! My heart sank as I remembered what else I had said to her. I moistened my lips, trying to frame a reply.
Éomer took a step towards me. "Which woman is real? Lothíriel, when we parted you said to me that I had no idea what happened that night in Edoras. So what did happen? Why did you lie to me?" He took another step closer. "I have to know."
I hesitated. It looked as if fate had granted me what I had wished for: an opportunity to speak to Éomer on my own. But something told me that this was my only chance - if I failed to convince him now, I would not be given a second one. Where to begin? If only he was not looming over me in such a threatening manner!
Backing away from him a little, I spread my hands. "It's like this..."
The ground gave way beneath me.
I cried out in alarm as I felt myself starting to slip down the bank. Throwing himself down, Éomer lunged for me, catching me by the arm and arresting my fall for an instant. I scrabbled for purchase with my feet, but felt nothing but empty air. One of my clogs slipped off and fell down. Suddenly the whole section of the riverbank that Éomer was lying on collapsed with a loud rumble. We slid down amidst an avalanche of stones and sandy soil. Still holding my hand, he grabbed the exposed root of a tree, but it broke with a loud crack, dislodging more dirt. Coughing as earth filled my nose and mouth, I came to rest lying on my back at the bottom of the slope. Then Éomer landed on top of me, driving the air out of my lungs.
"Lothíriel!" He rolled off me. "Are you all right?"
Too winded to reply, I gasped for air. Stars danced across my vision.
Éomer bent over me, showering me with sand. "Lothíriel, did you hurt yourself?"
I moved my legs experimentally. Everywhere muscles objected to their ill-treatment, yet nothing seemed broken. But my ribs hurt! I lifted a hand to touch them. "I...I'm not sure."
He slipped an arm under my shoulders and helped me sit up. I coughed up more sand, wincing as my ribs protested. I would be black and blue tomorrow!
"Have you broken anything?" Éomer asked.
Still catching my breath, I shook my head. "I don't think so."
He brushed dirt off my cheeks, while supporting me round my back with his other hand. I found myself looking up into his eyes, only inches away from mine. In the gloom they were completely black and I knew I could so easily lose myself in them. How much I wanted to. His fingers traced the shape of my lips, then stilled.
"Oh, Lothíriel!" he whispered. And he tightened his arms around me as he bent down to kiss me.
I relaxed against him. It felt so right! So utterly and gloriously right. Here I belonged, in his arms, cherished and loved. And how I had missed him. With a touch like a feather his hand trailed down my neck, to linger for a moment in the hollow at the base of my throat. Skimming over my breasts, it settled against my ribs where my heart beat wildly. Could he feel it? His mouth pressed against mine, gentle but insistent, asking for surrender. He tasted of sand and grit, and of the wine we had drunk. Of sweet desire and unfulfilled longing.
Too soon he withdrew his lips. Breathing harshly, he stared down at me. "I hadn't meant to do that!"
His voice was rough and filled with anger. But his temper did not frighten me, for I knew that we belonged together. Couldn't he see it? Silly man! My heart overflowing with happiness, I smiled up at him.
He growled in frustration. "Lothíriel, I have by no means forgiven you."
"No, of course not," I soothed him.
"I'm still angry with you."
"You're still angry with me," I agreed. It was so wonderful to have him near.
"Don't look at me like that!"
He let go of me so abruptly that I nearly fell over. In a single, smooth movement he surged to his feet and paced down to the river. The frogs fell silent.
"I still want to know the truth of why you lied to me."
Some of the happiness drained out of me when I saw his rigid stance. And I had a stone digging into my buttocks. Suppressing a groan, I shifted my legs, dislodging the sand covering them. Fortunately it was dark, for surely I looked a complete mess. I cast a look up the slope that we had rolled down and wondered how we would make it back up and out of this forest. But perhaps we would be able to follow the bank of the river. From where I sat, I could actually see a patch of sky still bright with sunset. Unconcerned with us humans, the frogs had taken up their noisy courting again.
"Lothíriel. The truth." His voice held no compromise.
Would he believe me? Taking a deep breath, I gathered my courage. Best start with the worst part.
"Yes, I lied to you, for I never went to see Ceolwen," I began my explanation, addressing myself to Éomer's back. "That night...that night after I had retired, Wulfstan came to fetch me." I swallowed. "He said that King Théoden wanted to see me, but instead I found Gríma waiting for me in your uncle's rooms."
"Wormtongue!" Éomer hissed. "What did he want?"
"He had put something in my Yule cup, some kind of potion." I paused a moment, remembering Gríma's hands slithering across my skin, and drew up my knees to hug them. "It was like walking in a dream. I saw everything, felt everything, but I could not act. As if he had imprisoned my will. And he wanted to...to..."
Éomer froze. "I will kill him," he whispered. "I will ride to Isengard and take that tower apart stone by stone - with my fingernails if I have to. And then I will..."
"Gríma did not succeed," I interrupted him. "I managed to get away from him."
He expelled his breath explosively and turned to face me. "But Lothíriel, you must have known I would do anything to protect you. Why didn't you come to me at once?"
"I wanted to!"
"Gríma said that if I exposed him, he would accuse me of trying to poison King Théoden."
"That's ridiculous!" he exclaimed. "Why should you do such a thing?"
"So that you would be one step closer to the throne."
"That snake!" Éomer snarled. "Killing is too good for him. I will...I will..." He took a deep, calming breath. "So I suppose you went to find the one man who could protect you. My cousin." He sounded bitter.
I scrambled to my feet and took a step towards him, but dared not touch him. "Éomer, I swear to you, I never went to see Théodred that night."
"Don't lie to me! I have proof!" And he took something from a pocket of his trousers. Gold glinted in the darkness. "All this time I've carried it along with me to remind me, like an evil talisman."
The hair band Denethor had given to me. I stared down at it as I might at a serpent. How much grief it had caused me!
"Éomer, I dropped it in your uncle's rooms. Gríma must have placed it outside Théodred's chambers for you to find."
There it was: the truth. But I had no way to prove it. It was up to Éomer to believe me. Or not.
He stared down at me. Then he grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to the bank. The croaking of the frogs ceased abruptly and with little plops they all jumped in.
Cold water lapped over my bare feet as he stopped in the shallows. It was brighter here than under the trees.
"Tell me again," he commanded, taking my chin in his hand and turning my face so the light fell on it.
"I never went to see Théodred," I told him, looking up at him and willing him to believe me. "It's true that Denethor wanted me to marry your cousin, but I did nothing to further the match. I swear to you!" A sob rose in my throat. "I wanted you! Always I wanted you! Surely you know that."
His eyes bored into mine as if he intended to ascertain the truth by sheer will power. So long did he gaze down at me that the frogs took up their concert again. Suddenly the tension drained out of him.
"What a fool I was," he sighed.
My mouth dropped open. After all my anguish and heartache, to have my explanation accepted so easily. Just like that?
"You believe me?" I stammered. "I have no proof."
"I don't need proof. Do you think I cannot tell when you speak the truth?"
And with a violent motion he flung the hair band away. It sailed across the river and disappeared with loud splash. The frogs fell silent again.
"Now it all adds up at last," he said. "I should have trusted my instincts all along."
I started crying. I could not help myself, it was just too much. All the months of having to bottle up my feelings, knowing he hated me. The nightmares, the fear he would get killed! His arms went around me and he pulled me against his chest.
"My poor sweet."
At these words I clutched his shirt and gave way to tears. Violent sobs shook me as I buried my head in his chest. I had been so miserable! Patiently he stroked my back, murmuring reassurances into my hair while I purged my soul of all the accumulated misery.
He believed me.
After a while my sobs turned into hiccups and I regained a resemblance of control. "I was so unhappy," I whispered into his shirt.
"So was I," he replied. "I hated everybody. You for betraying me, myself for still caring. Théodred for taking you away. And when he got killed I felt terribly guilty for my unkind thoughts."
"I'm sorry! What a mess I made of things."
He took me by the shoulders. "Lothíriel, look at me." Blinking away tears, I raised my eyes to him. "It's not your fault," he said. "Wormtongue is the one to blame, not you. You did what you thought best." He brushed a finger across my wet cheeks. "Oh Lothíriel, how miserably I failed at protecting you from him! And to think that I promised to keep you safe. I'm sorry."
I shifted uncomfortably at being reminded of Gríma. "You didn't know."
"I knew he could not be trusted. I just wish you had come and told me that night. I would have made short work of him!"
"That's exactly why I could not tell you," I answered with a sniff. "Wormtongue wanted me to go running to you. He would have liked nothing better than to have you storming in the king's rooms, threatening to kill him. In fact he had guards ready, waiting to arrest you for attacking Théoden."
For a moment I thought Éomer would protest, but then his shoulders sagged. "It's my cursed temper, isn't it! You know, Éowyn said the same in the Houses of Healing.
She told me that I had no idea what it was like having Gríma hovering over her, watching her every move and not daring to say anything."
He gave a humourless bark of laughter. "That certainly set me to thinking. Especially since my temper had just nearly got me killed in a stupid, idiotic way." He brushed back a strand of my hair. "Remember? That's what you said to me before I left for Gondor."
"I was angry at the time."
"You were right! And I nearly took all my men into the grave with me as well. The bards are writing songs of my feats on the Pelennor Fields when really they should berate me for losing my temper. If it hadn't been for Aragorn..."
I shivered at the thought of what might have been and at once his arms closed on me. "I'm sorry. Those were desperate times. I thought I had lost everything and just wanted to take as many of the enemy with me as I could."
I hugged him. "Oh, Éomer, I was so afraid for you. I thought of you all the time."
"And I thought of you." He cradled my face between his hands. "I tried to banish you from my mind, but always you returned. And your kiss! It drove me crazy and kept me sane at the same time. I despised you," he whispered, "yet I fought for you."
His lips descended on mine. Gently this time, but no less thorough than when he had kissed me at Helm's Deep. Sliding my hands up his chest and round his neck, I stood on tiptoe and leant into his kiss. He responded with a pleased murmur. With no hard chainmail between us, I sensed the muscles of his shoulder tensing under my touch. How good that felt! I did not think I could ever get enough of him. To have his arms around me, holding me safe. To feel his body close, warm and solid. Deep inside my soul, something uncoiled, tension draining away. I had come home.
After an eternity he broke off the kiss. "Oh, Lothíriel," he whispered. "You have no idea how much I missed you."
"I missed you too." With a contented sigh, I snuggled into his chest. He was just the right height for me.
He picked a twig out of my hair. "Your scent. I'd forgotten how good you smell."
Irrational laughter bubbling up within me, I lifted my face to him. "Of soil and leaf mould?"
He grinned down at me. "Utterly ravishing." A crooked smile. "I'm sorry I let you feel my anger. And that kiss at Helm's Deep... I deserve a flogging for it!"
"It wasn't that bad," I protested.
"It was no way to kiss an innocent like you," he declared. "I wanted to punish you. To frighten you! But instead..."
"I'm not so innocent as to get frightened by a kiss from you," I replied stoutly.
That made him chuckle. "Of course you're an innocent. Or you would not be here with me, alone in the forest in the dark, and not the least bit worried."
"Don't be silly!"
He laughed out loud. Then he kissed me again. Long and lingering.
Not lingering enough. "Don't stop!" I sighed when he pulled away.
"Dear heart, I think I had better," he said. "It's getting late. We should make our way back to the camp before I give in to temptation."
"Do we have to?"
"It's not as if I wanted to." His voice shook with suppressed amusement. "But the Princess of Dol Amroth and the King of Rohan can't just disappear into the forest for half the night without people talking. Your father wouldn't like it. And we need his good opinion."
Unfortunately he was right. I was indulging in highly improper behaviour here - even if it did involve my future husband.
Reluctantly I stepped out of the circle of his arms. "Yes, I suppose so. Besides, Amrothos is probably worried about me." Suddenly all my aches and pains came rushing back. Dismay filled me at the state I was in. "I must look a mess!"
"You do," Éomer agreed with a grin. From somewhere he miraculously produced a clean handkerchief, dipped it in the stream and proceeded to wipe my face. "If I take you back like this, your brother will have my head."
I closed my eyes, enjoying the feeling of his fingers brushing across my skin.
He touched a strand of my hair. "I'm sorry about cutting it off. I didn't realize..."
"It's nothing," I shrugged. "You saved my life."
"Those silly women," he growled. "They're just jealous, knowing you would outshine them dressed in sackcloth."
That surprised me into a chuckle. "I think you're biased."
"I most certainly am. Ever since you rode up this afternoon, I wanted nothing as much as to take you in my arms and kiss you."
Somehow I had ended up squashed against his chest again. "Then why don't you?" I suggested.
Éomer was happy to oblige, but too soon he withdrew his lips. "My sweet temptress, we have to get back before your brother starts a full scale search for you. Otherwise people will talk."
"I suppose you're right," I sighed. "Only I've lost my shoes."
He looked at my bare feet, then at the massive pile of sand at the bottom of the slope we'd fallen down. "I don't think we've got any chance of finding them in there. Plus it's getting dark."
Gathering up my riding skirts, I took a cautious step across a clump of reed grass. The moist ground squelched under my feet. "Very well. I will manage somehow."
"Now you are being silly." And he gathered me up in his arms.
"Éomer!" I exclaimed. "You can't mean to carry me."
"Why not? After all, I've done it before. You don't weigh much more than my sword and armour and you're much softer." Laughter rang in his voice. "It would help though, if you stopped wriggling."
Meekly, I followed his orders and slipped my arms around his neck for good measure. With large strides he walked along the bottom of the riverbank, splashing through the water wherever necessary and ducking under overhanging branches. Soon the light ahead grew brighter.
"Lothíriel," he said, "I want you to promise me one thing."
"What is that?"
"Don't ever lie to me again, not even to save me from myself."
"I promise!" I buried my head in his chest. "I didn't want to lie to you! I just couldn't think of any other way out."
He kissed the top of my head. "Why didn't I see it? Your lips said one thing, your eyes another. I wish somebody had hit me over the head and told me I was behaving like a complete idiot."
Closing my eyes, I nestled against his neck, breathing deeply of his scent. Already it was so familiar that I would have recognized him anywhere. How nice it was to be held by him! I would quite happily have spent the rest of the night in his arms. Not really a thought a properly brought-up Gondorian lady should entertain, but after all we would soon be husband and wife and then...
"Who goes there!"
The shout made me jump.
Éomer tightened his grip on me. "The Lord of the Mark," he called.
A sentry materialized out of the darkness. "Éomer King! My lord, Captain Éothain has been looking for you." He peered at me. "Is that the princess? Prince Amrothos..."
"I know," Éomer interrupted him. "I'm on my way to see him. You may return to your duties."
With a nod of dismissal, he continued along the sandy path that led up the riverbank. We got hailed twice more on our way across the camp, but both times he only gave a curt answer. Very soon we reached the Dol Amroth encampment, which was bright with torches and full of soldiers milling about. Éomer cursed quietly. The moment they recognized us, we got surrounded by people asking questions about what was the matter.
"Leave the talking to me," Éomer whispered. Aloud he called to make way.
Then Amrothos forced his way through the crowd. "Lothíriel! Are you all right? What has happened?"
"Your sister had an accident. She's fine now, but she needs rest," Éomer answered for me. "However, it might be better to discuss this in private."
Amrothos got a closer look at him. "Éomer! It is you! An accident?"
"In private, Amrothos. The princess needs to sit down after the ordeal she's been through."
What ordeal? I tried to look suitably distressed and apparently managed so well that Amrothos at once shooed everybody away and led the way to the tent.
"Look at the state you're in, Lothíriel!" he exclaimed while holding open the tent flap for Éomer. "I let you out of my sight for one minute and this is how you return."
Loud barking greeted us inside the tent and Wulf jumped round us, wagging his tail.
"Éomer King, you have found her!" Wuffa exclaimed. "Are you all right?" he asked me.
I smiled at him reassuringly as Éomer set me down on the bed. "I'm fine. But what are you doing here?"
"Prince Amrothos wanted to use Wulf to search for you in the forest."
My brother interrupted us. "Will you stop jabbering away in that incomprehensible language! I want to know what happened."
He seemed to be in a bad mood. Now that I got a closer look at him, I noticed that his face was scratched and his fine clothes torn and stained with dirt. "Where have you been?" I asked. "You look pretty awful yourself."
"I look awful?" he exploded. "I've spent the last hour traipsing through the woods after this cursed mongrel. It's a miracle we made it out again in one piece. This animal led us from one bramble patch to the next and in the end we emerged in exactly the same spot that we had entered the forest."
I could tell Éomer was hard put to refrain from laughing. "Good dog," he murmured in Rohirric.
Amrothos cast him a suspicious look. "And now perhaps you could explain what you have been up to with my sister? The last thing I saw, you were talking to her in plain view and then suddenly you were both gone once the hubbub about that brute of a stallion died down."
"Nimphelos!" I exclaimed. I had forgotten all about her. "Has she been found?"
I started to get up. "But she's out there in the dark...alone!"
Éomer took my arm and eased me back down. "Don't worry. She's not on her own after all." The corners of his eyes crinkled with amusement. "Firefoot will protect her. And I'm sure they'll be back by morning. My stallion likes his oats too much to stay away."
"You think so?"
He patted my hand. "I'm sure. I've come to realise that Firefoot is more clever than I thought."
Amrothos watched us with narrowed eyes. "An explanation?" he prompted Éomer.
Éomer straightened up to face him. "Amrothos, you ought to take better care of your sister."
"I take better care! But..."
"You should not let her wander about all on her own," Éomer interrupted him ruthlessly and I had to admire the way he put my brother on the defensive. "You might not realise what she's been through during the war. During the Battle for Helm's Deep, Lothíriel got attacked by a group of orcs and very nearly lost her life."
"What? You never mentioned any of this before!" Amrothos turned to me. "Lothíriel, did you get hurt?"
I shook my head. "Éomer arrived just in time to rescue me."
"I had no idea!" Amrothos exclaimed. "We thought you were safe with the rest of the women. What happened?"
Not wanting to remember Gubrak, I just shrugged. Éomer put his hand on my shoulder, as if asking my forgiveness for bringing up the painful subject.
"She had wandered off in the caves and got captured by Uruks that had crept in through a secret passage at the back," he explained. "We killed them all."
"Captured by those animals!" Amrothos crouched down by the bed and put his arm around my shoulder. "How awful. Poor you!" He looked up at Éomer. "We owe you our thanks."
Éomer lifted his hand in denial. "I blame myself for not keeping a better eye on her. But it has taught me that your sister is prone to get into mischief and not to let her out of my sight for a single moment."
Amrothos heaved a sigh. "I know!"
"That's not true," I objected.
The two men regarded me with raised eyebrows, looking remarkably similar despite their different colouring. How had they ended up allied against me?
"Drúadan Forest is no place to stray," Éomer went on smoothly. "Your sister fell down a slope in the darkness. It's lucky she did not break anything..."
I opened my mouth to protest, but closed it again when Éomer shot me a look of warning. He made it sound as if I had wandered off into the woods on purpose! I did not like it - although I could not think of a better explanation on the spur of the moment.
"Really, Lothíriel," Amrothos said. "The things you get up! How lucky that Éomer noticed and rescued you."
Not sure if I could keep my countenance, I decided to borrow Éomer's tactics and shift the fight to a different ground. "Do we have to discuss this now? I'm hurting all over and urgently need another wash."
"Of course," Éomer agreed, all solicitude. "We will leave you to your rest now. I will see you in the morning, my lady." He took Amrothos by the shoulder. "No harm done after all. Just make sure you keep a better eye on her in the future."
Bemused, I watched them go. Without a single lie, Éomer had given Amrothos a completely false impression of what had happened in the woods.
At the exit of the tent, Éomer turned round. "Líthe swefnas, min heorte," he said, giving me a smile that only I could see.
"What does that mean?" I heard Amrothos ask outside the tent.
"Oh, that just means good night," Éomer answered.
"Lithasweevnas minorte," Amrothos repeated. "Lithasweevnas."
My good mood restored, I lay down on the bed and stifled my laughter in the blankets. What if Amrothos tried that out on one of the sentries!
A/N: Líthe swefnas, min heorte = sweet dreams, my heart.A/N: this is of course not the first time that Éomer and Lothíriel tumble down a slope. With her permission, I borrowed the idea from Willow-41z's 'Many Meetings'. Many thanks!