6. Chapter 5
Amrothos put his head in his hands. "All right," he groaned, "let me see if I got this right: you are Lothíriel, who's pretending to be Gliwen, who's pretending to be Lothíriel?"
"Yes, that sums it up pretty well," Lothíriel had to admit. When had life got so complicated?
They were back to holding a council of war – the second one of the day. She stared out her window at the setting sun. Had it really only been twenty-four hours ago that she'd stood in this same place, confident of the success of her wonderful plan? How badly she had underestimated her opponent! She might as well have tried to drive away a mûmak with a toothpick.
Amrothos slumped down in a chair, making it creak alarmingly. "Scrubbing floors in Tolfalas," he moaned. "Ten years at least."
Lothíriel frowned. Miscreants in Dol Amroth were often sent on guard duty to the barren island at the mouth of the Anduin, yet surely Amrothos was exaggerating. "All's not lost yet," she said. "And anyway, nobody need ever find out your part in all this. I won't give you away."
"You won't have to. I believe Father is astute enough to be able to put two and two together, don't you think?"
Ivriniel patted his arm reassuringly. "Have a cup of tea, my dear," she advised. "I thought it went rather well. Do you think he noticed the garlic?"
Lothíriel gave her a weak smile. "I'm sure he did. It was a splendid idea, Aunt." Although it hadn't seemed to put the man off – she wondered if anything could.
"Well, if I am to wither away my poor life far from home," Amrothos interjected, sarcasm dripping from his voice, "Can you at least tell me why?"
"Why what?" Lothíriel snapped. They might have suffered a setback in their plans, but surely her brother didn't have to overreact in such a way?
"Why did you do it? You said yourself you wanted to keep his conversation with Gliwen as brief as possible!"
"I did." Trying to gain time to order her thoughts, Lothíriel crossed to the wardrobe and opened it. Why had she agreed to King Éomer's suggestion? She wasn't sure herself. Part of it was his strong personality, but beyond that? "I just felt so bad about lying to him, when he was so unexpectedly nice about me being in Minas Tirith," she sought to explain.
In fact it had been a relief to talk to somebody about her experiences. And to somebody who knew, who'd been there! His kindness had taken her by surprise and disarmed her defences. It was as if he were a different man with Gliwen. When he had approached her in the garden later to apologise for doubting a princess's word, the abrupt, cool king had been back with none of his former warmth.
"I know it wasn't very wise," she admitted, "but we'll just have to make the best of it." Then she brightened up. "Think of it this way: perhaps it will distract him from pursuing his match with the Princess of Dol Amroth?"
Amrothos stared at her so long, Lothíriel began to fidget. "That," he finally said, "doesn't even make sense by your twisted standards of logic." Then he frowned at her still standing in front of the open wardrobe. "What are you doing there anyway?"
"Trying to decide what to wear," she snapped. Why did he always have to be so negative about her plans!
"My sister is thinking about what to wear!" he exclaimed. "Oh, that I've lived to see this day."
She gritted her teeth. "It's not easy," she pointed out. "I need something that I – that is Lothíriel – would lend to me – I mean Gliwen."
He rolled his eyes. "Are you sure you still know who you are?"
"Peace, children!" Ivriniel intervened as Lothíriel reached for a brush to throw at her brother. "I for one am looking forward to going to the spring festival. I haven't been for ages." Her eyes twinkled with amusement. "How kind of your King Éomer to include me in his party."
"He's not my King Éomer," Lothíriel protested.
"And kindness had nothing to do with it," her brother added.
Their aunt frowned. "Gliwen will be safe with him, won't she? You don't think he'll try to..."
"Of course not!" Lothíriel and Amrothos said at the same time.
Amrothos shrugged. "He'll take care of her, I'm sure." Then he pointed an accusatory finger at his sister. "What I'm worried about is whether you can take care of yourself and your loose tongue!"
Lothíriel finally chose a gown, an unadorned dark red dress with a matching cloak. "Don't worry, everything is under control," she assured them. "I've got a plan."
Amrothos groaned again. "Tolfalas. Twenty years," he predicted gloomily.
The King of Rohan awaited them in the courtyard and bowed over her hand with practised courtesy. "Princess Lothíriel, you honour me."
His eyes danced, inviting her to share the joke, but she could only think of what he would say and do if he ever found out the truth. He must have sensed her nervousness, for he gave her fingers a quick squeeze. "You're doing fine," he whispered. "Shall we go?"
Lothíriel hesitated. Whenever she visited the town, she went on foot along the servants' shortcut, but she could hardly drag him along there. But just then his men led up the horses and she spotted the pillion seat behind his saddle.
"Meet Firefoot," King Éomer introduced his stallion, a big grey fellow.
Since it seemed to be expected, Lothíriel extended a hand to stroke his neck. However, Firefoot laid back his ears and showed a formidable array of yellow teeth. Hastily she withdrew her hand.
"Never mind him. He can be a bit jealous," King Éomer explained and scratched the animal fondly under his quiff. The stallion somehow managed to bare his teeth at her at the same time that he nudged his master for more caresses. "Stupid animal," King Éomer said.
Lothíriel held her peace. Stupid or far too perceptive?
Then King Éomer mounted the stallion and motioned to one of his men. "Éothain, would you be so kind as to assist the lady?"
The man nodded and a moment later she found herself hoisted up behind King Éomer and had to grab his waist to keep her balance. Wasn't she going to be given any choice? "I can ride, you know," she pointed out, piqued by his high-handedness.
"Ah, I wasn't quite sure," he replied, sounding annoyingly placid. "Still, now that you're up here, you might as well stay. Your aunt can ride with my captain Éothain."
However, Ivriniel proved a tougher nut to crack. "Nonsense," she said when Éothain offered his services. "I will take my donkey cart."
Anticipating her wishes, the stable master had already readied the small cart varnished in pink that Ivriniel used whenever she wished to make any purchases in town. Her aunt climbed on, huffing a little, but then grabbed the reins and clicked her tongue. Recognising his mistress, the little donkey stepped out smartly, leaving the surprised Rohirrim behind.
Belatedly King Éomer urged his stallion forward to fall into place behind the old lady. Lothíriel had to smother a grin at the picture they had to present. As if reading her mind, King Éomer threw her a wink over his shoulder. "With a vanguard like that, I would have felt a lot more confident on the march to the Black Gate."
Lothíriel chuckled and settled more comfortably on her saddle. "My father once said that Aunt Ivriniel is unstoppable as the tide, but a lot less predictable."
Laughter rumbled in his chest. The evening being mild, he only wore a linen shirt and as she rested her hand on his waist she felt a warrior's firm muscles. Since she was no great horse rider, she had ridden pillion behind her brothers before, yet it was slightly disconcerting to be so close to a strange man. Although she'd been much closer... She pushed that memory firmly from her mind.
"Do any of your men know about me?" she asked, lowering her voice.
King Éomer shrugged. "They don't need to know, it's none of their business. Although I've told Éothain, as I wouldn't want to deceive him." He sounded apologetic.
"Of course not," she agreed. Why did he have to make her feel like the lowest worm!
The sun had set, but the memory of its glory still lingered above them in streaks of orange and red, and was reflected back by the sea. Some of the Rohirrim had torches along and one of them urged his horse forward to light the way for Ivriniel. Since King Éomer seemed to be quite happy to ride along in silence, Lothíriel turned her mind to the problem at hand. She had dissembled when she had told Amrothos that she had a plan. But as her plans so far had disintegrated at the first contact with the King of Rohan anyway, perhaps the time had come to improvise?
They passed one of the watchtowers that an earlier Prince of Dol Amroth had built and her aunt's words about being a sad bore came back to her. Could that be the key to putting King Éomer off? Well, she didn't know anything about ancient battles, but where her family's heritage was concerned her tutors had drilled her mercilessly.
Heroically she launched into a history of the building of the keep and how the town had later grown around it. He listened patiently, but to her dismay a few pertinent questions distracted her and suddenly she found herself telling him about her grandfather letting his daughters name his ships for him. King Éomer laughed out loud at the story of how Dol Amroth's sailors had refused to serve on the Pink Primrose.
"I can guess who proposed that name," he said.
"Actually that was my aunt Finduilas," she replied. "Ivriniel suggested The Scourge of Umbar, so Grandfather settled on Pink Scourge in the end. The sailors actually vied to serve on her and wore pink bandannas to show their allegiance."
He guffawed. "I think I would have liked your grandfather."
She smiled reminiscently. "He was a wonderful man. My tower used to belong to him."
Lothíriel bit her lip at letting too much information slip. "Just a place where I keep my books." She thought longingly of the peace and solitude found there, uncomplicated by having to be two different people at the same time. Ever since the Rohirrim had arrived, she had spent hardly any time there at all and needed to slip out early in the mornings in order to keep all her babies fed.
He didn't notice her preoccupation and asked another question about her grandfather, so she told him about the old man's inventions, the most famous of which was of course Dol Amroth's harbour chain. One thing led to another and before she knew it, they had reached the town and threaded their way through the narrow streets down to the harbour.
The whole population seemed to be about, but Ivriniel's cart was a well-known sight and people made way for it readily. All along the quay, merchants had set up temporary stands selling exotic wares and food, but Ivriniel ignored them and headed for her favourite tavern, where she usually refreshed herself after strenuous sessions of haggling for the keep's supplies. King Éomer watched with bemusement as the staff swarmed around the cart to help Ivriniel down and unhitch the donkey.
"I take it your aunt has been here before?"
"The Jolly Jellyfish is famous for its delicate blends of tea," she murmured.
"I'm sure it is."
With a laugh, King Éomer swung his leg over the stallion's withers and slid down. In the same smooth motion he turned round and simply plucked her off the saddle. She yelped with surprise as he seized her round the waist and swung her down as if she weighed no more than swan's down. Caught off balance, she stumbled and ended up with her face squashed against his chest.
"I'm perfectly able to dismount on my own!" she hissed as she pushed herself off.
"No harm done," he soothed her, but amusement coloured his voice.
A strand of her hair had got tangled around a button on his shirt and she had to yank it free. The man was insufferable with his domineering ways!
"Do you always do whatever you want?" she snapped.
"It comes with being a king."
"Well, I might only be a..." she stopped abruptly when she remembered that she was supposed to be a simple beekeeper. But playing at being her royal sister! "... I'm only a princess," she continued, "but let me tell you that I will not let you manhandle me as you please." She swept past him towards the door of the inn.
Out of the corner of her eye she caught his riders exchanging amused grins, which only annoyed her further. At least the innkeeper, Morion, bowed most obsequiously and showed the way to a table outside on the terrace overlooking the harbour. She joined Ivriniel there, who had already been installed with extra cushions and the best view.
King Éomer had caught up with her by then and settled her in her chair. "Very well," he whispered in her ear as he did so, "next time I will let you manhandle me again."
For a moment she stared at him in confusion, until it dawned on her that he was referring to their encounter in that infamous linen closet. Blood rushed to her cheeks. He dared! She caught her breath to give him a scathing reply, but one of his men joined their table just then, so she had to content herself with looking daggers at him.
"Ealdred of Norweald," King Éomer introduced the man, a grey haired warrior with a faded scar along one temple. "One of my advisors."
The man looked rather uncertainly at the teapot decorated with flowers that Morion himself set down reverently in the middle of the table. Recognising her aunt's favourite beverage, Lothíriel declined a cup, as to her regret did King Éomer. Ealdred however was too polite to do the same, so Ivriniel poured him a glass of colourless liquid. "A speciality imported from Harad," she told him, then added some water from a jug one of the servants offered her. The liquid turned milky white.
Before Lothíriel could warn him, Ealdred took a large swig. His eyes widened and he exhaled his breath in a strangled gasp. Water rose to his eyes.
"The Haradrim call this beverage 'lion's milk', because only people strong as lion will drink it," Ivriniel informed him.
"I can see why," Ealdred said with a raspy voice. Then he extended his glass. "May I trouble you for another helping, my lady?"
"Of course you may!" With obvious approval her aunt poured him a generous measure, before leaning back in her seat and sipping contentedly at her own glass. It quickly became clear to Lothíriel why the man had been included in their party, for he at once engaged Ivriniel in conversation. Amrothos had disappeared during the ride through the town, presumably to spend the evening in the more congenial company of his friends, which left her with the King of Rohan as sole companion – which was probably exactly what he had intended. Grudgingly she had to admit that as far as executing battle plans went, he had got the better of her so far. Probably all that practice against orcs!
But she was not completely defenceless. King Éomer might have escaped the arak, but there were other culinary weapons in her arsenal. "A plate of your famous seafood for our guests," she told Morion who was hovering about, "and a bowl of your special for my aunt and myself."
"At once, my lady," he assured her and disappeared.
The servants had brought wine for them and now King Éomer clinked his glass to hers. "To our little escape from duty," he said. "May it prove to be enjoyable, my Lady Princess."
Still miffed with him for his cavalier treatment, she inclined her head in her most dignified manner. "My Lord King."
He captured her free hand and raised it to his lips. "And will you forgive me for my teasing, Gliwen?" he whispered.
His eyes held hers, crinkling with laughter at the corners, but filled with warmth. Suddenly the awareness of him flooded her senses: the hairs of his moustache tickling her skin, fingers calloused from wielding a sword curling gently against her palm, soft breath brushing across the back of her hand. A jolt ran through her, leaving her tingling deep inside her belly. When she stole a quick glance at King Éomer, the amusement had drained from his face. For a fleeting moment it seemed to her that she saw a shadow of that overwhelming need which had driven him in Minas Tirith, but the expression was gone as quickly as it had appeared. Confused she looked away.
What was happening to her?
With a loud clatter Morion set down a plate of seafood on their table, pricking the bubble of silence that surrounded them. "Dol Amroth's best," he announced proudly.
Ealdred gave a startled grunt at the forest of lobster claws facing him.
A/N: Sorry for the long wait for this chapter, but I really needed that holiday. We actually went to Dol Amroth - or rather the Camargue, the place that inspired the Dol Amroth of this story with its wetlands, white horses, black bulls and pink salt pans.