Lothíriel could hear the whispering in the doorway but kept her eyes shut and her breathing regular. After a few more muffled words the door closed and she was alone again. She breathed a sigh of relief, strangely thankful for the feverish chill and injured ankle which had given her a good excuse to keep to her bed. She was even more thankful for the elderly dragon Brythwyn had supplied to tend to her. Edyth had fielded visitors who might disturb her patient's rest with no regard for rank, and so had foiled Éomer's previous attempt to talk to her. He certainly would have stood no chance this time if Edyth thought her asleep. But just to be sure Lothíriel lay still for ages afterwards, not relaxing until she heard the sound of hooves clattering over the causeway. Heart thumping she jumped up, limping over to the narrow window. By straining her neck she could glimpse the small column of riders, and the tall man in front of them. Éomer looked back over his shoulder as though aware he was being observed, his eyes roving over the face of the Hornburg. Lothíriel ducked behind the curtain, although the likelihood of him spotting her was small.
When she looked again the group was out of sight, probably already cantering down to the dike. She wouldn't now see him until he returned from Minas Tirith. Perhaps by then she would be able to face him without opening up the painful rent he had made in her heart. Without wishing things had been different. As it was, the sooner she returned home the better, although in truth she couldn't expect her father to take her straight back after many days of travel, could she? But perhaps he would provide an escort. Yes, of course he would. She would see Éowyn betrothed and then go home. The faint fear that Éomer would talk to her father about marrying her she pushed aside, knowing he was too honest to do anything so underhand. And anyway, why would he want to marry her if he didn't have to. For her dowry? She dismissed that straightaway, after all he would have made an effort when they first met in Minas Tirith had that been the case, but he had been totally opposed to the idea of making any Gondorian his wife. No, he had only suggested a union after their night on the mountain because he felt duty-bound to do so, and she had no intention of marrying because of anyone's duty. A soft tap on the door disturbed her thoughts and before she could get back in the bed, Osythe came in.
'Ahh...I see you're awake now. Éomer wanted to talk to you but he couldn't wait. He's tried to see you a few times.' Osythe looked at her as if she knew her sleep had been feigned, but Lothíriel shrugged nonchalantly, not giving anything away.
'I have been sleeping a lot. It took a few days to get over that cold night on the mountain. Edyth said sleep was good for me, and of course I needed to rest my ankle.' She made a show of walking across the room. 'It's almost healed and I feel more like myself. I do want to get back to Meduseld as soon as possible.'
'Hmmm...' Osythe studied the offending foot for a moment. 'You do look to be walking better. Éomer has arranged for Erkenbrand to escort us as soon as you are fit to ride. Perhaps in a couple of days' time, if we take it slowly.'
Lothíriel nodded; even had she wanted to she could never have endured a fast ride with Éomer and his men.
'Anyway, Éomer asked me to give you this.' Osythe held out the pendant she had last seen in Carch's hand. 'I've washed it in vinegar,' she said, as Lothíriel hesitated to take it.
'Thank you.' Her fingers clasped around the golden swan-ship, the necklace bringing back hideous memories. 'I haven't asked, Osythe, but what has happened to them?'
Osythe pursed her lips, reluctant to answer. 'Are you sure you want to know?'
'Yes.' Lothíriel swallowed. 'I've been going over it in my mind, but I don't think I could have done anything else.' She sighed unhappily. 'Except not getting lost in the first place, of course.'
'I'm not sure that was all your doing, Alwunn's story sounds a little weak to me.'
Lothíriel said nothing under the older woman's scrutiny. Osythe waited, and then nodded her head. 'Very well, we will pass over that for a moment.' She dithered for a second longer, but then took a breath. 'I suppose you need to know what happened. I can tell you that none but the leader died as a result of the fibrecaps. A shame, as the others swore he was the only one who knew exactly where they were going and who was hiring them. Éomer wasn't pleased about that.'
Lothíriel sighed again. Another mistake chalked up to her, but then Thanger had gulped down a huge portion of the stew. But she didn't feel any remorse about his death, only a cold numbness. 'And the others?'
'Oh...' The numbness deepened to an icy chill.
'It was a just outcome,' Osythe responded, confirming her agreement to this decision with a decisive nod. 'All of us need to be safe in our own land if this war has meant anything. Éomer is determined on that.'
He would be – caring, noble, infuriating man that he was. 'Yes, I suppose you are right. I just wish none of it had happened.'
Osythe stared at her thoughtfully, as though deciding whether to voice what was in her mind. 'Lothíriel, I may be speaking out of turn, but whatever you might say it is obvious to me that you have been avoiding Éomer. I am hoping that he did not...offend you during your night on the mountainside.'
Heat rushed to her cheeks, so she busied herself fixing the chain around her neck to avoid Osythe's penetrating gaze. 'No, of course not.' Her mind flashed back to the way he had given up his shirt and made sure she was as comfortable as possible. To the wonderful thrill she had experienced when pressed against his hard body and the indescribable longing she had felt deep inside her. It was afterwards the problem arose, but she was not going to say anything about that. A feeling of utter loss washed over her, but with a great effort she succeeded in keeping her voice level. 'He behaved completely honourably and I was very grateful to have him with me. Nobody thinks any different, do they?'
'There's bound to be some who'll snigger behind their hands, but that will pass. It may be best if you are seen to be on friendly terms when he returns from Gondor.'
Lothíriel wondered if it had been a good idea for her to insist that Éothain carry her down the mountain, but too late to change that now. At the time she had not been thinking straight. Trying to make light of it, she laughed. 'We weren't always on good terms before, but I shall make a special effort.'
Before Osythe could reply there was another tap on the door. This time Alwunn stood there, but coming face to face with Osythe she did not venture in.
'I'll... come another time,' she stammered, taking a step backwards.
'No.' Osythe held the door open wider, a scowl on her face. 'If you've come to say your piece then it's a good job. Sooner would have been better.'
'I didn't want to disturb Lady Lothíriel when she was unwell,' the girl excused herself.
'I'm much better now,' Lothíriel intervened, seeing the firm set of Osythe's jaw. 'And I am happy to talk to you.' She resisted the urge to sit down on the bed not wanting to put herself at a disadvantage, Alwunn was taller than her as it was.
Head down, Erkenbrand's daughter scuffed her feet for a moment after Osythe had gone, but when she did speak the words coming out of her mouth were at odds with the defiance in her eyes. 'I apologise, I should not have left you on your own.'
'No, you shouldn't,' Lothíriel said, sharply. 'It was a thoughtless action that had immense repercussions. If any worse had happened to me, then it would have put your king in a very difficult position. Relations between our two countries could even have been compromised. In fact it could have...'
'You don't need to say any more.' Alwunn flushed red, interrupting rudely. 'Éomer gave me the worst telling off of my life. He treated me like a naughty child, and since then he can hardly bear to speak to me. But I didn't mean for anything bad to happen to you. I just got mad and walked off. It wasn't my fault there were brigands about.'
Realising Éomer had probably said everything needed – and she imagined a tongue-lashing from him had been extremely unpleasant – Lothíriel toned down what she had been intending to say. 'We can't always see what's ahead, Alwunn. You need to remember that all actions have consequences. If we had been together then those ruffians might have hesitated to attack the two of us, but besides that, I would not have got lost. Your silly behaviour resulted in the deaths of seven men.'
Not at all bothered by that, Alwunn tossed her head contemptuously. 'They deserved it, and anyway they were likely to commit some other awful deed. It's good they have been stopped.'
'Maybe, but don't you think that being held hostage was pretty awful for me?' Lothíriel wondered if Alwunn was at all likely to learn anything from this. The only thing she seemed bothered about was Éomer's reaction. 'I spent hours frightened out of my wits. It sounds like you have forgotten that.'
'No, not really,' Alwunn countered. 'But you got yourself out of it and must enjoy the fact that everyone is singing your praises. Before it was for your home keeping skills, now it's for your courage. I am sorry you were captured, and I am grateful that you never let on how I left you alone deliberately.' She hesitated and then the rest came out in a rush. 'But...I wish you'd never come here.'
Lothíriel sighed at the venom in her voice; the girl would probably have been pleased if she had not managed to escape her captors and been spirited far away. Well, let her put her hostility into words. 'Alwunn, why are you so angry with me?'
'Isn't it obvious?' Alwunn retorted. But with a catch of her breath the antagonism left her eyes to be replaced by desolation. 'Before you came I at least had a chance with Éomer. Now he's so mad he will never consider me. But anyway, even before all this happened he made it pretty plain that he has set you up to be his queen.'
'How did he?' Lothíriel interrupted sharply. He had better not been saying anything to all and sundry!
Alwunn stared as if she thought Lothíriel was stupid. But when she continued to look steadily at her, the girl shrugged her pretty shoulders. 'Well right from the beginning when he escorted you into the Hornburg here. Everyone was talking about it. It came as a bit of a shock because we had heard nothing.'
Lothíriel tried to maintain an outward facade of calm, inside she seethed. How dare he put her in that position! Well, she would scupper that idea right away. Alwunn was welcome to him – if she ever managed to persuade him she'd grown up. Hopefully if she did her housekeeping skills would pass muster.
'I think everyone has jumped to conclusions,' Lothíriel said with a hard edge to her voice. 'My father is a good friend of King Éomer's and my rank dictates the way he treats me. He is grateful because I have been helping Éowyn, but there is nothing more.'
'Well, if you believe that.' Alwunn looked totally sceptical.
'Perhaps you will learn from this Alwunn. Behave like a child then you will be treated as one.'
Alwunn obviously didn't like that because her lips firmed into a thin line. Lothíriel suddenly felt very tired. She'd had enough of the stupid girl and wanted to nurse her bruised heart in private. 'I think we have said everything, Alwunn. Please tell your mother I am recovered and will be eating with everyone else in the hall again.'
Lothíriel sank down onto the bed as soon as Alwunn had gone, but almost immediately sat up with a jolt as a thought struck her. What had the girl said –Éomer had made his intentions clear the day they had arrived at the Hornburg. Well before she had been captured and they'd spent the night together! If that was true, and the significance had been read correctly by his people...then that put his subsequent action in an entirely new light. Indignation made her jump to her feet, stamping over to the window. The arrogant pig! If he hadn't already gone, she would have told him exactly what she thought of such high-handed behaviour. Had he really selected her as his wife with no reference to her at all? A moment's thought told her that after the journey to get to Rohan he had probably come to the conclusion she was not the soft Gondorian he had originally assumed her to be, and with her background and her housekeeping prowess - which had obviously impressed him, judging by his comment on the mountain –he might well have decided she was suitable queen material. Lothíriel clenched her hands, angrily pacing back across the room – well, that could be true, but he might as well whistle in the wind if he expected her to conform to such a plan just because it suddenly suited him.
By the time they were ready to return to Edoras, Lothíriel's anger had eased somewhat, to leave only a wretched gloom. But as they rode out in the cool of dawn and left Helm's Deep farther and farther behind and the plain opened up before them, her heart lightened. The Ered Nimrais marched on their flank, tall and commanding, but far ahead, grass and sky merged into an endless vista of soft shadow and mist. She breathed in the early morning air joyfully; being incarcerated behind stone walls had not suited her and she looked forward to the freshness and open outlook of Edoras, and especially the homeliness of Meduseld.
By the second day however Lothíriel realised that the change of location did nothing to lessen her deep down despondency. If anything her misery was increased by the memories of their outward journey and how Éomer had been so kind and friendly, explaining the significance of the landscape, pointing out the various places of interest and beguiling her with tales of past kings. He had certainly enjoyed her company then and she had relished the new friendliness between them. It had continued that morning before she went mushroom hunting, and through the night on the mountain. She could only regret that his ensuing words had changed it all. Cantering for hour after hour with nothing to do except follow Erkenbrand and his riders gave her time to think and Lothíriel found herself going over every moment of their ill-fated conversation during that cold dawn– considering every nuance in his voice and every likely interpretation of his actions. Trying to see if she had missed something significant.
He had said he was joking about wanting her for her housekeeping abilities, but she had dismissed that out of hand, losing her temper immediately. Possibly, she now admitted to herself, because she had been weary and uncomfortable, so not receptive to any fooling about and certainly not to being teased. But Éomer did like to tease; she had found that out many times. Was it possible that she had mistaken him, and had they had more time he might have declared himself? Or was that just wishful thinking? The thoughts churned around in her head as Storm's hooves steadily pounded the road, until one notion surfaced above the others – Éowyn had not fallen for Faramir right away. Love had come to Rohan's White Lady slowly, as she discovered Faramir's worth. Might her brother be the same? She pondered on that for a while and could come to no sensible conclusion. Thinking back to his behaviour that wild night however confused her even more – he had conducted himself with honour and compassion. But if he had fallen for her and wanted to make her his wife would he have been quite so resistant to her nearness, kept his feelings so well in check. It seemed unlikely considering the difficulty she'd had hiding any reaction to being cuddled up against him. Sifting through everything that had happened made her realise that in spite of her previous anger, if she discovered Éomer had genuine feelings for her, then even though he would be likely to get a piece of her mind over his presumptuousness, she would like nothing better than to be his wife and queen. If he didn't – well, however hard, she was still determined that she would go home and try and forget him.
A shout woke her from her reverie and glancing up she saw a hill in the distance, the top of which looked to be ablaze with fire – Meduseld. The Golden Hall, flamed with the red of the setting sun. Lothíriel stretched herself in the saddle, easing aching muscles. At last – they had taken two long days to get here, but the slower ride had still been hot and tiring. She looked forward to feeling the ground beneath her feet, a simple supper, and bed. But Éowyn would be waiting for her, and although she longed to see her friend, Éowyn would want a detailed account of her captivity. She would be happy to do that of course, but after all her deliberations Lothíriel realised she wanted someone she could talk through her uncertainties with. Someone who might give her an insight into the behaviour of men, and one man in particular. Not Éowyn for that – she had long harboured a suspicion Éowyn would like her for a sister. No, Lothíriel wanted her mother – always so loving and sensible. And her mother would not take into account any political implications; she would give her honest opinion. However it would be a good three senninghts until the funeral cortège arrived and then, probably before she could talk to her mother, she would have to face Éomer, still confused and undecided. But she entered Edoras in a much better frame of mind than she had left the Hornburg – perhaps she should not give up quite yet.
Éowyn ran down the steps as Lothíriel prepared to dismount, hardly giving her time to take her feet from the stirrups before she welcomed her with outstretched arms, hugging her against her chest as soon as she had slid from Storm's back. 'Poor you, tell me all about it,' Éowyn said taking her arm.
'In a moment,' Lothíriel replied, laughing. 'I need a drink before I start recounting tales.'
Éowyn called out to one of the guards as they started the climb up towards the hall and by the time they reached the platform a servant appeared bearing a tray of pottery mugs.
Even though she knew the next weeks would be busy, Lothíriel felt a deep sense of peace and homecoming when she saw the open doors that gave a glimpse of the dark, cool interior of the hall.
'I should really welcome you back with mead,' Éowyn said, passing her and Osythe a cup, 'but this will be more refreshing.'
Gratefully Lothíriel gulped down the elderflower cordial, allowing herself to be led to one of the tables.
'Now tell me,' Éowyn whispered when they sat down and the servant had refilled Lothíriel's mug, 'before Erkenbrand comes up from the stables and supper is served. Éomer wouldn't say much except to praise your actions. I had to rely on Éothain for any details as my brother was unusually mute and bad-tempered about the whole episode. But I did gather he was extremely angry with Alwunn.' Éowyn went on, barely pausing for breath, 'Did you really get separated accidently, or did the little minx leave you alone on purpose?'
Lothíriel averted her eyes, wondering how Éowyn knew and unwilling to confirm the Shield-maiden's suspicions. It seemed that both Éowyn and Osythe were distrustful of Alwunn, possibly because they had been long acquainted with her.
'You don't have to answer; your face says it all.' Éowyn nodded knowingly. 'Alwunn has always looked out for her own interests and thought too much of herself. She had her sights set on Éomer even before he became king, but it never did her any good.'
'I'd rather you didn't say any more to Éomer about her part,' Lothíriel said. 'The matter is finished with. Éomer thinks it was accidental and that's fine by me.'
'I doubt he does,' Éowyn said with a rise of her brow. 'He's always been able to see right through those trying to hide the truth. But I imagine he will respect you for not giving Alwunn's guilt away, nobody likes a tell-tale.'
Respect her? Yes, she wanted him to respect her, but she wanted him to love her also. Giving herself a mental shake – brooding would do no good – Lothíriel changed the subject. 'Have any letters come from my father?' After discovering how many intended to follow King Théoden's cortège, she had written to him a time ago, hinting that it would be a good idea if those coming for a protracted stay contributed to the larder.
'Yes,' Éowyn replied. 'You have a few letters and one has your father's seal. They are in your room.'
Lothíriel drained her mug and stood up, stretching out her stiffness. 'Then if you want to know what happened, come with me, and I will tell you of my adventure.'
No time to brood, Lothíriel had been busy before the trip to Helm's Deep, but she, and all the other women in the hall, worked tirelessly to prepare for the funeral and the huge influx of guests. Luckily Faramir had sent Éowyn a complete list of those expected to come with the cortège so they were able to plan. But even though the elves would be sleeping in their silken tents it became obvious that finding beds for the rest of the visitors meant clearing out rooms that they had hitherto left untouched.
Éowyn suggested Éomer give up his chamber for Aragorn and Arwen, and Lothíriel, who had been using Théodred's old room, gladly agreed to give it up for her parents and go back to sharing with Éowyn. Faramir and the members of the Fellowship needed to be housed in Meduseld or in the guesthouses nearby, but other lords and ladies coming from Gondor would have to be billeted wherever there was room.
With all the sleeping arrangements decided, Lothíriel concentrated on the food. Her father had responded brilliantly – as she knew he would – to her plea, and wagons bearing smoked hams and other preserved meat, salted fish, fresh and bottled fruit and vegetables arrived a week before the guests were due. But there were still huge amounts of cooking to be undertaken and the task of preserving food for the winter had to carry on. Lothíriel spent most of her time directing operations and answering endless questions from anything as to what sauce to serve with fish to how many covers an elf might need. By the night before the cortège was due to arrive she felt exhausted and determined to bathe, wash her hair and go to bed early. She would have to face Éomer before noon the next day and no way did she wish to look anything other than serene and in control.
Six men – two the only survivors of Théoden's Royal guard, the rest sons of those hewn down on the Pelennor – carried their dead king's bier up the steps and into the hall. But Lothíriel let the coffin pass with barely a glance, concealing herself behind Éowyn as the Lady of Rohan waited to one side to offer the welcome cups. Lothíriel's eyes were for Éomer, and she thought she would be able to observe him unseen, taking the opportunity to test her feelings. But as he came up the steps with his easy stride – tall, golden from the summer sun – Éowyn moved and their eyes met in an explosion of awareness. Suddenly she was under the scrutiny of his intense gaze – searching and questioning. Her stomach flipped and a rush of heat shot up to her face. How could she ever have thought she could deal with this sensibly?
'Help me hand these out, would you, Lothíriel.' Éowyn's voice penetrated her dazed senses. Wordlessly Lothíriel took one of the cups. She intended to wait and pass it to her father, but somehow Éomer put himself right in front of her. 'Westu Éomer hál...,' she said, her voice fading as he took the cup from her. Their fingers touched, setting her blood fizzing like fermenting wine. Éomer drained his cup and handed it back, brushing her wrist with his thumb before she could pull her hand away.
'Lothíriel, we need to talk. Very soon.'
His low voice purred in her ear. But a slight nod was all the response she made – they were on view to all those coming up behind – her mother and father included. And not surprisingly the exchange had been observed – Lothíriel could tell by the twitch of her mother's lips. Her father looked his usual enigmatic self, until he reached her and she caught the knowing look in his eyes. He tossed back his drink and then put his arm round her, hugging her tightly against him. Something he rarely did in public. 'You look very much at home here, my dear. I am glad to see you none the worse for your experiences. You must come and tell your mother and me all about it.'
Once all the guests had been given refreshment and shown to their different accommodations, Lothíriel was able to slip away and join her mother and father in their chamber. Her mother had changed out of her travel clothes and sat in one of the chairs, looking cool and elegant as she always did. Lothíriel went over and kissed her cheek, breathing in the sweet fragrance of jasmine. All through her childhood, in illness and health, the perfume had given reassuring comfort of her mother's presence.
'It's so good to see you, Mother. And you look to have dealt with the long journey well.'
'And good to see you safe and well, my love. We heard such awful tales.' Her mother kissed her back and Lothíriel squeezed her hand before turning to her father. Immediately she was drawn into another hug, this time smelling the aroma of leather and horse, mixed with the scent of the bergamot soap he favoured. Her father looked much younger than when she had last seen him, as though the cares of the dark years had been gradually washed away. 'I've heard about your abduction from Éomer, of course. But come and tell me the full story.' He led her to the other chair, perching himself on the edge of the bed.
Lothíriel started hesitantly, but soon found herself recounting everything that had happened to her parents, not even hiding the slight unease she still had with her deadly solution. The Lord of Dol Amroth listened quietly to her story, only making the odd comment and asking one or two questions to be clear where all this had taken place. At the end he sat silently for a moment before giving his thoughts. 'With hindsight, Lothíriel, I do not think you should have been in that forest at all, not without a proper guard. Éomer did as much as admit that, but I think we might all have been lulled into a false sense of security. There will always be those of malevolent disposition, we cannot eradicate evil entirely. It will be as well for us to remember that.'
'Elswite had been foraging there all her life,' Lothíriel said. 'Only when Saruman started his attacks did she cease.'
'Well, I am sure that Éomer will soon make Rohan safe again, but in the meantime it is a lesson for us all.' He stood up and dropped a hand on her shoulder. 'You did well, my love. I am proud of you. And give no more thought to the consequences of your escape plan – those that seek to do mischief have to accept the penalty of failure.'
Lothíriel smiled up at him. He had said nothing about her night spent on the mountain with Éomer, nor questioned her in any way about it, only expressing relief she had not been alone. He trusted her, and with a little thought Lothíriel realised he trusted Éomer to behave honourably because in a similar situation he would have behaved honourably himself.
'I must go to the stable and check that Legrin is comfortable. It's liable to be crowded in there. And anyway, I expect you have lots to talk about with your mother.'
Sure that her father's horse had been well cared for, Lothíriel just nodded agreement. In spite, or perhaps because of the encounter with Éomer on the steps, she still wanted to discuss things with her mother.
'Well, dear,' her mother said as the door closed. 'I have to say that the hall looked wonderful, everything sparkled and the colours in the tapestries fairly glowed. I had a quick word with Éowyn and she says that it's all down to you. I am so glad that my tuition was not wasted, you have a knack when it comes to homemaking...'
'Mother!' Lothíriel jumped up and paced to the window. 'If anyone else mentions my housekeeping abilities I am liable to scream!'
'Ah...' Her mother sounded slightly confused. 'But wasn't that why you came here?'
'Of course it was...but...' She shook her head, not being able to get the words out.
'Perhaps, then,' her mother said thoughtfully, 'it was something to do with the encounter I witnessed with Éomer outside the hall that is the reason for your agitation?'
Lothíriel stared at the clouds gathering overhead. It looked like it might rain, just like that night on the mountain.
'Lothíriel?' Her mother prompted when she didn't answer. 'Is there something you wish to tell me?'
'Éomer said we should get married,' she got out finally, managing to look her mother in the eye. 'After that night we spent together, he said we needed to.'
Her mother took an inward breath, but nothing showed on her face. 'And is it necessary that you do so, my dear?'
'No!' Lothíriel shook her head vehemently. 'No one could fault his conduct. But he said my father would expect it and being alone with him all that time would cause talk. I told him that there was absolutely no need and my father would believe me if I said nothing had happened.' She hesitated. 'When he tried to insist, I reminded him that he had been totally opposed to marrying a Gondorian...'
'And what did he say to that?' her mother asked when she stalled again.
'He said that had been before he found out what a good housekeeper I was. And since I'd come to Meduseld his life had never been so comfortable.'
A frown appeared on her mother's forehead. 'Oh, I see.'
'I told him I would rather marry an orc!'
Her mother stared for a moment and then started to laugh. 'The idiot, he well deserved that.'
Tears welled in Lothíriel's eyes. 'He said he'd been joking, but I wouldn't listen and then his men arrived. I wouldn't let him near me to explain when we got back to the Hornburg, but since then I have started to wonder if he had been joking as he said. It would be just like him. I'd decided I wanted to go home straight after the funeral. But now I don't know what to do.'
'What did he say to you on the steps? The pair of you looked as though you'd been hit by a thunderbolt.'
A good description for it. 'Only that we needed to talk soon, he could hardly have said any more. But I felt so strange. As soon as I saw him it was like all my senses reacted at once. I couldn't think straight.'
'Are you in love with him, Lothíriel?'
She nodded, swallowing down a sob.
'And do you want to marry him?'
'Only if he loves me. Not if it's because of who I am or how good a Hlafdige I will make. I don't want a polite marriage where the only thing we have for each other is respect.'
Her mother's lips held a wry grin. 'I have come to know and like Éomer very much. He is an honest man who will make a good king and do the best for his people. But I don't think you'd ever get a polite marriage from him.'
Lothíriel wiped her hand across her wet eyes, not able to stop a small chuckle escaping. 'No, I don't suppose I would. But you know what I mean – I want more than a suitable alliance. And I need to be sure of that.'
Her mother got up and took her hand, squeezing it gently. She led her back to the chair. 'Lothíriel, sit down and let me tell you something.' Her mother took a seat on the bed, keeping hold of her hand.
'Your father and I obviously discussed the invitation for you to come here and for some reason it amused your father greatly.'
'Oh?' Lothíriel looked up.
'He eventually admitted that when the armies were resting in Cormallen Éomer came in for a lot of teasing from Aragorn and others that the first job required of him as king was to find a wife. During a later conversation your father mentioned you, quite innocently, but was treated to a tirade from Éomer about how he would not even consider "one of Gondor's showy hothouse flowers." So when Éowyn asked you to go to Rohan, your father rather hoped Éomer would be made to eat his words. Of course.' Her mother smiled mischievously. 'I would be lying if I tried to deny that your father thought a marriage between you would be good, for you and Gondor. But he also made it plain to me that he wanted to leave the outcome to providence and it would be for you and Éomer to decide.'
'Éomer was very antagonistic when we first met,' Lothíriel mused. 'More than I thought he had any right to be. But if he suspected we were somehow being forced together...I suppose I can understand his reaction. But we had started to get on well, and he was so caring during that night. But it made me mad when I thought he saw me as no more than a suitable queen for him.'
'I cannot totally reassure you, of course. But my guess is that he found it difficult to admit to his feelings, men often do. And so he covered it with a joke. I think you ought to give him another chance.'
Lothíriel nodded, she owed it to him after her show of temper. Although she still wasn't happy about him dragging her into the Hornburg and giving everyone ideas. 'I will, but finding any way to have a private conversation will be difficult, there are people everywhere.'
Her mother laughed. 'I am sure he is resourceful enough to work something out. But Lothíriel, I think whatever happens you should keep to your plan of going home soon. Don't forget that even if you and Éomer come to an agreement, you cannot announce a betrothal for another month at least, and would need to wait a little while after that to get married. Your father and I are staying for a prolonged visit, but most are leaving a few days after the funeral. You have not seen your home in peace and it would be a good idea to enjoy it before winter sets in. Erchirion will be leaving then, and maybe Amrothos as well, it will be a much faster ride for you than if you wait for me.'
'Yes,' she said coming quickly to a decision. 'I will go with Erchirion.'
Éowyn's face fell when she heard later that Lothíriel would be going home when the party broke up.
'I have done all I can, Éowyn. It's months since I saw my home, and I will meet up with you when you come to Gondor to marry Faramir. That will be in less than three months. '
'I know, but Éomer will be alone here all winter with just Osythe to look after him. Sometimes I feel torn...'
'Don't. I cannot believe your brother would want you to forsake your chance of happiness...'
'I know, but if you stayed...'
'Éowyn.' Lothíriel shook her head laughing, resolutely pushing down any feelings of regret. 'Even if I felt so inclined, it would be totally improper to be here without you. Osythe will look after Éomer.'
Éowyn let out a deep sigh. 'I suppose so, but I have so enjoyed you being here. How we are going to thank you I don't know.'
'There is no need. There are some experiences I would not like to repeat, but in spite of that I have enjoyed myself immensely. I suspect I will miss the freedom; at home I am dogged with servants whichever way I turn. You have no idea how difficult it is to escape on one's own sometimes.'
The supper gong stopped their conversation and in moments the hall started to fill. It would be even more crowded for the funeral feast and the celebration planned for the evening before the guests departed. A whole week of organizing and providing – the journey home would seem like a rest. But later, when the meal was being cleared, Lothíriel felt a deep sense of pride at the way the evening went so smoothly, everyone well fed and entertained. Osythe would cope as she now had helpers and servants with both the knowledge and the inclination to make sure Meduseld was a fitting home for their king. She knew said king really appreciated the change she had wrought, but wished he'd appreciate other things about her. And were they really going to have a conversation? She couldn't see how as he was continuously surrounded by friends and advisors.
'Deep in thought, Lothíriel?'
'Oh!' She jumped, spilling a little of her drink. Elves could certainly move quietly, Elladan in particular. 'I was thinking about going home,' she said as she mopped at her dress. 'I have been here too long.'
'Really?' A dark brow rose in mockery. 'I would have thought that you have been here not nearly long enough.'
'Don't talk in riddles, Elladan. I am too tired to appreciate it.'
'Then come and sit comfortably and listen to the music. I won't notice if you fall asleep. You can even put your head on my shoulder if you like.'
'Don't be silly!' She made a face at him, but got up and allowed him to lead her to one of the padded chairs that had been put around the wall, in the shadow of the pillars. The minstrel was singing a gentle ballad that she knew told the story of a group of herders following their horses over the lush plains in summer. She could even recognise some of the words now. When it was finished the melody changed to something a little livelier, but no dancing tonight, not with a coffin flanked by four guards taking centre place in the hall. Dancing would be kept for the farewell feast. A shame that she would be unable to dance, she reflected. She would have liked one Rohirric dance before she left. Perhaps they'd have some at Éowyn's wedding.
'Why are you going home, Lothíriel?' Elladan suddenly asked.
'For the very reason it is my home and I wish to see it again. I want to enjoy that warm water we spoke about before the weather turns. What about you, are you leaving with your father or staying a while?'
'Leaving. But I imagine I will visit again in the not too distant future. I am sure there will be something to draw me here.'
Too weary to even start to think what that might be, Lothíriel stood up. 'As much as I enjoy your company, I think it's time I retired. There are busy days ahead, so if you'll excuse me.'
Elladan got to his feet, bowing over her hand. 'I'd slip away down the side of the hall if I were you, just in case anyone wants a warming-pan or something.'
Warming-pan! In this heat? Lothíriel laughed as she caught his joke – she had been asked more ridiculous things that day. 'Goodnight, Elladan.'
But she took his advice and kept close to the wall as she made her way to the door leading to the east tower, saying goodnight to a few guests who had sought quiet away from the main part of the hall. Then, only yards from the door, her progress was stopped by the simple reason of Éomer placing his large body right in front of her.
Hastily she bowed, her heart thumping wildly against her chest, and managed to get out a muffled, 'Good night, my lord.'
He took her hand, bending over it just as though he was going to say a courteous good night. But his words came out low, and in a rush. 'Lothíriel, will you meet me in the garden?'
'Garden? When?' Had she heard right – all her senses were jangling.
'Now. If you go straight there I will come as soon as I can.'
She hesitated, eager to speak to him alone, but fearful of what she might hear.
Getting her emotions under control, she inclined her head as though responding to a politeness. 'Don't keep me waiting.' She had no intention of hanging around on his convenience.
To be concluded.
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.