2 May 3019 T.A., Minas Tirith
When Lothíriel entered the city amidst cheers and waving handkerchiefs, she just felt tired.
She could not remember the last time she had slept through an entire night; she could not recall the peace of solitude nor the relief of not having war hang over her head day and night. The sounds of cannons from Corsair ships still haunted her dreams, though she was at least certain she had not heard those since leaving Dol Amroth.
Minas Tirith did not look as she remembered from her childhood. The gate was broken and skewed on its side, buildings were destroyed, and the stink of fire and blood and dead was overwhelming when the wind blew precisely right. Still, it had been weeks since the siege, and if nothing else, Lothíriel pragmatically decided the city could certainly be in worse condition.
One thing she did not understand was the greeting she and her guard of a dozen Swan Knights had apparently warranted upon their arrival in the city. They were not heroes; they had been travelling on the road for many days, and she had not bathed since Dol Amroth. She could barely suppress the shame of wearing dirty old trousers instead of the more attractive, feminine riding habits she preferred. Still, Lothíriel forced a smile and waved. It was not lost on her that were there fewer people in the streets wishing to hail them, she might have arrived at her father’s house all the sooner. It was a slow trek, but at least there would be a clean bed at the end of it.
Her poor pony was as exhausted as she, and she dismounted as soon as they passed through the Sixth Gate to stretch her wobbly legs. Her father’s house was near enough to see now, and—
Startled, she strained her eyes to the street ahead, and a figure came running into sight, one hand raised in greeting—Amrothos! Her eyes stung with relief; it had been too long since she had last received word from her father. Though he had assured her that they were all well, to see her brother healthy and smiling for her was a far cry from reading it in a letter. He was rushing towards her, and with a strangled cry of relief she was swept into her brother’s arms.
“We were worried!” he said into her hair. “We thought you would be here two days past!”
Lothíriel pulled away, his face blurred for her tears but smiling all the same. “The roads are broken in many places, and so we were forced to take different routes.”
“Don’t we know it! Father will be glad to see you. Come on!” And winding his arm through hers, Amrothos marched her forward. To be with her family again brought Lothíriel new life and new energy, and a smile grew on her face. It felt strange, utterly foreign to smile—but it was wonderful.
“There will be room enough in the stables for your mounts,” Amrothos explained loudly, for the benefit of her guards as well. “Many horses have died...but the Rohirrim have brought more with them than we have lost. The King’s stables are full, and Father has graciously given our stables to Éomer and his company.”
“The King? Our new king? You have met him, then?” Lothíriel asked curiously as they passed into the dim light. She had heard of this new king, of course, but knew as little of him as anyone else in Belfalas. Rumors had abounded, but she was not quite sure what to believe.
“Elessar? Of course! He seeks Father’s council often. Here you are!” There were, indeed, stalls left open. Lothíriel glanced around, curious of these Rohirric horses which she had heard stories of in her childhood. There were many huffs and snorts around as the chaos of their party entered, but really, if she had to describe these horses in one word, it would be large. The second word would be alarming.
She chose a stall for her pony, and with Amrothos’s help began to unsaddle him. There were fresh water and oats to be had, and Lothíriel achingly thought of her own bedchamber and supper approaching…
“How is Dol Amroth?” Amrothos asked. His voice was low now, and as she glanced at her brother she saw the strain in his expression.
“Dol Amroth is well,” she assured him. “Not so decrepit as Minas Tirith, to be sure. The city walls are in the process of reparations; Elphir estimates they will be complete by Midsummer. And we have not seen a Corsair ship in many weeks, though many villages still stand empty for fear.”
“Hmm. You have done well, sister; Father has been praising you for every ear to hear!”
Lothíriel gave a hollow laugh, shouldering through the stall door with Amrothos close behind. “I deserve no such praise. I am not made for war, I am afraid—I never wish to see another sword again!”
She turned to walk forward, and bumped straight into a broad wall of—chest. A man’s chest. She blinked upwards in the dim light, momentarily baffled to see an extraordinarily tall man, blond of hair and bearded, gazing down at her with a hard expression in his eyes. Lothíriel did not miss the scabbarded sword on his waist, though she did refrain from rolling her eyes in exasperation.
“Ah, Lothíriel, this is, er—” Amrothos stepped forward, clearing his throat. “This is Éomer, King of Rohan. Éomer, this is my sister, Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth, Lady of Belfalas, etc.”
“I suspected as much.” The King of Rohan’s voice was deep and carried easily, coming from that broad chest. Lothíriel held his gaze, uncomfortable as it made her—was he trying to intimidate her? Or did he simply not realize his own effect? After a moment, he picked up her limp hand, holding it tightly. “My lady, I am pleased to meet you at last.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Lothíriel forced through numb lips. “I—I am gratified to hear that. I suppose. And I am more than fortunate to meet yet another warrior who has helped to bring peace to our lands once more.” Her tone was dry; would he notice her derision? She rather hoped not, as he did not seem the sort of man who cared to be mocked. The King was blinking in confusion, his brows creased and lending a rather frightening quality to his overall mein.
“But you are no more than a child,” he growled.
Lothíriel felt a snarl curl her lips. Amrothos was shifting his weight uncomfortably beside her, and he tried to grasp her arm, perhaps to lead her away from the King. But she wrenched her arm out of his grip, drawing herself to her full height, which compared to this King’s enormity, was not even to his shoulders.
“I beg your pardon,” she said stiffly. “Perhaps to the aged I am a child, but I assure you I am both full-grown and fully trusted by my father as the equal of any of his sons. I think that you will not find another woman of my tender years who has been forced to defend the land of her home during this war! My lord.”
And with her nose in the air, Lothíriel swept past the now-astonished King, striding out of the stables with righteous indignation burning in her veins. The gall of him! Poor diplomacy at best; as recent as she knew his ascent to kingship was, she was sure that he was going to make a complete muddle of it.
Éomer watched as Amrothos gave a shrug before hurrying after his sister. The princess, even with her rather short figure, was full of more pride than he expected. He blinked for a moment more, remembering the smoldering fire in her eyes… Éomer gave a bark of laughter, and left the stables as well.
Imrahil was right. Lothíriel would make an excellent Queen of Rohan.
3 May 3019 T.A., Minas Tirith
Lothíriel lingered in bed the following morning long past dawn. She was all too happy to relinquish the running of her father’s house to him, to slip into the easy life of a privileged princess… The war was over. Her family was whole. And she was released from her premature responsibilities. She could dream away the morning, if she wished. And she certainly wished to.
A knock on the door late in the morning brought Lothíriel to the present at last. Her breakfast was brought by a maid, who, after depositing the tray on a side table, curtseyed and said, “Prince Imrahil wishes to see you in the gardens when you are ready, my lady.”
“Thank you. I will go.”
It was most likely that he was wishing to exchange pleasantries. They had only had a few moments to speak the day before—her father was often busy at the new king’s bequests. She herself would meet King Elessar that night; there was to be a feast in Merethrond honoring the soldiers who had fought in the war. Though Lothíriel had little desire to meet even more soldiers, the festivities were too important to miss.
She dressed in a plain day dress, reveling in clean clothing on clean skin, and brushed out her hair until it hung in clean, silky waves. There was an unfamiliar bounce in her steps as she made for the gardens; the sun was arm on her face, and she felt…well, she felt herself again. Her father was easily found upon a stone bench beneath a budding magnolia tree. He glanced up at her with a smile, closing a book before standing to welcome her.
“Daughter,” he said, and opened his arms to her. Oh, the comfort of her father’s embrace! How she had missed him! They stood thusly for several moments before Imrahil released her, kissing the top of her head with a fond smile.
“You have done wonderfully, Lothíriel,” he said. “Come walk; there is much to discuss.”
There was? But she had given Dol Amroth over to Elphir. She was free. The only conversations they should be having were inanities.
“It is a relief to have peace in the land once more.” Imrahil’s eyes were on the gardens around them; just beginning to bloom in the early spring. Lothíriel grew anxious as they strolled—her father was acting very strange. But she shook it off, determined not to spoil their walk in the sunshine.
“Yes, it is,” she told him firmly. “Because it was hard won, it shall be all the sweeter.”
“Hmm. So it shall be, so it shall be.” He glanced down at her with a grin, patting her hand. “Now we may give our attentions to other matters. Your future, even.”
“Your marriage, to be precise.”
Oh, dear! Lothíriel felt quite a blow from this unexpected quarter. Of course, she had always known she would marry, but it had always been too distant to even consider. Her hand tightening on Imrahil’s arm, she forced a smile and said in a level voice, “I would be pleased to do my duty, Father.”
“Duty, hmm.” Again he gazed around them, and after a silent moment continued, “You met the King of Rohan yesterday, Amrothos told me.”
“Er—yes. I did.”
“What did you think of him?”
It was such a sudden change of topic that only a fool would miss Imrahil’s insinuation. Lothíriel gathered her thoughts carefully. She knew her father already admired the King of Rohan quite a lot, but her opinion was likely meant for other reasons entirely.
“He is tall as a hill and broad as a gate,” she said at last. “But not particularly remarkable in most aspects. He is simply another soldier, Father, and I am quite tired of soldiers.”
“If you are wishing me to marry, are there no other men than soldiers?” Lothíriel’s voice was a plea, and her father’s expression softened upon her face.
“Oh, my daughter, Éomer is not simply another soldier. I understand that you do not know him yet, but I assure you there is far more to the man than his armor.”
She scoffed to herself, though careful not to let her skepticism become apparent.
“Éomer needs a queen, Lothíriel. He needs a partner who can assist him in rebuilding his land. I know of no other woman who might rise to the occasion as you would.”
So much for a life free of responsibilities!
“And he is willing,” Imrahil continued. “He has heard much of you, from myself and your brothers as well as others. We watched your arrival in the city together from Merethrond, and he decided he could not wait to meet you.” There was a tinge of annoyance in her father’s voice, and Lothíriel could not help a small smile from forming. “The two of you were to be introduced tonight, but Éomer...is an impatient man. Impulsive, even. Very little controls him. But—” Here Imrahil gave her a steely glance. “A wife could, in time.”
“And you are wishing me to be that wife.”
There was laughter twitching her father’s lips, though she could think of nothing humorous in that moment. “Éomer values plain speaking,” he told her good-naturedly. “But you had best think before you use that sharp tongue of yours, my daughter.”
Lothíriel recalled their encounter in the stable. She had already whetted her sharp tongue on him, though she had not waited to see his reaction. Perhaps she ought to have. Or perhaps it did not matter; had her father already decided her fate then? Or was she to give him permission to give her hand to this King of Rohan?
“I will see him tonight, then,” she said at last, not blind to Imrahil’s visible relief. “But if we do not suit, Father, I will not marry him.”
“That is quite fair. All I ask is that you gauge his measure.”
Lothíriel dearly hoped that they would not suit.
3 May 3019 T.A., Merethrond
Éomer was more than eager to meet the princess again. If his men were trying to be kind, they might observe him as simply being distracted—but they did not have a reason to be kind. Their liege was acting in a way they found mightily amusing, and tucked away behind a towering statue of King Who-sit or Whomever—they took full advantage.
“Are ye looking for anyone in particular?” Elfhelm said loudly, above the din of Merethrond being fit to burst for guests.
“Yes.” Éomer spoke with his characteristic shortness. He continued to gaze at the crowd; surely she would be there soon. Her father was nothing if not punctual, and he could guess that any child of Imrahil’s would be just as particular.
“The harder you stare, the more likely she’ll pop up out of nowhere.” Aldred’s teasing was met with snickers from the rest of the men. Éomer favored Aldred with a beady glare, but the man was nonplussed, merely drinking from his goblet with a hidden smile.
“She who?” Éomer snapped, daring them to continue.
“Imrahil’s daughter, of course!” Elfhelm said, as if in surprise. “Do not tell me the gossip about ye and the princess of Dol Amroth making a match of it could be wrong?”
Éomer grit his teeth together, but said no more. He supposed he should not have been surprised that word had gotten ‘round; soldiers were notorious gossips, especially when drink and dice were involved, and he knew his men enjoyed no shortage of either.
“I should like the gossip to be true,” the eldest of his companions, Éothain with his steel-grey hair, was not smiling. “I have heard that the lady defended Dol Amroth from Corsair raiders while her father and brothers fought on Pelennor and at the Black Gate. Any lady capable of such a feat will no doubt keep our king under her thumb, as he so needs.”
This led to outright laughs, but Éomer shook his head. “I do not need to be under any woman’s thumb,” he said firmly. “I only need a queen who might rule wisely when I am called away.”
“Noble sentiments, indeed,” Éothain said dryly. “But the famed beauty of the princess has little to do with it, eh?”
“I saw her yesterday when she entered the city,” Aldred cut in. “She was dressed more like a waif than a princess, but her face was pretty from a distance.”
“Pretty from a distance! That might make the production of an heir a difficult task indeed!” There was more sniggering at Elfhelm’s quip, but Éomer only frowned.
“I have seen her at close quarters,” he told them solemnly. “Éothain has the right of it more than you, Aldred. She may have been dressed as a waif, but she had just travelled from Dol Amroth for several days. Even you could not end such a journey looking impeccable.”
Aldred was the youngest of the lot, barely out of his youth and still clinging to a measure of vanity. He flushed red as Elfhelm laughed. “If she be anything like our Lady Éowyn, ye may wish to keep such thoughts to yourself, my friend, or ye’ll be held at knifepoint. Isn’t that so, Éomer? Éomer?”
But Éomer was no longer listening. He had caught sight of Imrahil at last, and on Imrahil’s arm an elegant and unfamiliar young woman. Imrahil caught Éomer’s eye and grinned broadly, steering their course towards Éomer.
“But where is Lothíriel?” Éomer muttered under his breath. His companions fell silent as they noticed the prince’s approach, and it was Éothain who spoke first.
“Elfhelm was wrong,” he said simply. “She be nothing like our Lady Éowyn.”
Éomer blinked. But—oh, Béma. It was Lothíriel upon her father’s arm. But she appeared a different woman entirely! When Éomer had first met her, she had been dirty from days of travel; her eyes tired and her face wan, dressed in dirty riding clothes not dissimilar to what a stableboy might wear. But this...this vision approaching him was a real lady.
From the blazing pride in her eyes to the swell of breasts peeking from her immaculately-cut gown, she was elegance itself. The dark blue she wore flattered her skin more what should be allowed, and in the candlelight she seemed to glow with life and vitality. And her hair…Éomer had never seen such beautiful hair. It was rich black, hanging down past her waist in perfectly coiffed curls. Nothing about her suggested anything in common with the girl from the stables.
She lifted a brow at him, and Éomer realized he was staring. He cleared his throat, setting his goblet of wine down at the pedestal of the statue. Had Imrahil discussed with his daughter of their potential match? He had to guess so—
“Shut yer mouth, ye daft idiot!”
He immediately thought the reprimand was for him, but a moment later he heard the unmistakable sound of an elbow meeting a gut, and Aldred’s grunt of pain.
“Éomer! Is it good to see you again.” Imrahil’s exuberance was a tad contrived, and it irritated Lothíriel more than she showed. She waited patiently as the two men clasped arms, gazing instead over the King’s companions. They turned away quickly, muttering under their breaths. Soldiers, she thought scathingly.
“And you have, of course, already met my daughter.”
Lothíriel forced a pleasant smile for Éomer as he bowed low to her, noticing the tips of his ears had turned red. It seemed so incongruous with the rest of his image of kingly stature—his sheer size and grim mouth, to be precise—that she was forced to bite back a laugh. “My lord,” she said in a trembling voice. He blinked up at her, perhaps confused at her tone.
“My lady,” he said cautiously. Feeling not a little foolish, Éomer straightened, resting a hand on the pommel of his sword to orient himself despite this abrupt deviation from his expectations. He did not notice Lothíriel’s eyes flickering to his sword, nor the annoyance that caused her lips to press together tightly.
“Er...may I escort you to supper?” This was what Imrahil had advised him to do. Éomer trusted in his friend in that moment, for he did not trust himself one bit. His mind had evidently taken its leave of him, and left his heart thumping oddly and his legs half-numb.
“You may.” Lothíriel’s eyes lowered demurely.
Éomer took her arm, leading her away from the statue and towards the tables set for the feast. He glanced back over his shoulder towards him men in desperation, but he wished he had not—there was no comfort for him. Aldred’s eyes were wide, Éothain smirked, and Elfhelm looked nearly ready to laugh aloud at his sovereign then and there! And Imrahil, of course, was smiling with all the satisfaction of a proud parent.
A woman like his sister he might have found common ground with. He had thought to engage Lothíriel on the topic of her defense of Dol Amroth, but now she was an elegant Gondorian princess; no warrior nor even a brave waif who fought in defense of her city. Although now that he considered it...no one had said Lothíriel had ever wielded a blade. Oh, no—now he definitely had nothing to speak of with her.
Lothíriel was similarly afflicted. Usually for her, she was unsure of how to go on. Ought she encourage him? Did she dare attempt repulsing him? Would he be a better husband than any other man her father might consider, or a worse one? It hurt her head to even try to think about, and for the present she decided simply to keep her wits.
The King held out a chair for her to sit at the high table, and Lothíriel sat delicately, pulling a fan from her reticule to cool herself. It was already quite warm in the hall, though guests were only now beginning to enter. They were among the first to be seated.
“Do you like riding, princess?” His question was brusque, and she waited a moment before answering, her eyes remaining on the entrance.
“For pleasure, on occasion,” she said. “In cases of necessity, it loses some charm.”
Truthfully Éomer did not see. He could not fathom anyone disliking riding for any reason. Even when riding was necessary, he found pleasure in it. But it was hardly a mark against the princess—he surveyed her with interest, despite her determinedly looking away. She was nice to survey, anyway. Her dark hair betrayed glints of red in the dim light, which flickering cast an alluring shadow across the hollow of her throat. The strange thumping of his heart picked up again, and suddenly nervous, Éomer cleared his throat, fiddling with a cloth napkin on his lap.
“Do you like to ride, my lord?”
He thought he heard amusement in the lady’s voice, and he bristled. “Aye,” Éomer growled. “Very much.”
“I see.” Lothíriel’s lips were pressed close together, and after a moment she glanced at him. Nay, ‘twas not amusement—it was genuine hilarity! She was about to laugh, he was sure—and at him! What had he done?
“Does something...amuse you, princess?” Éomer fought to keep his voice level.
“Yes,” she said at once. “You amuse me.”
Béma. Carefully reining in his temper, he asked, “And why is that?”
“Well!” Lothíriel straightened her shoulders, and to his surprise—appeared to relax as she turned slightly towards him. Her gaze was direct, though softened by the smile on her lovely lips. “When we met yesterday, my lord, you were, ah—let us say, forthright. But since meeting again tonight you have been ill at ease. I cannot understand why! Are you more comfortable in stables than in the mighty Merethrond? Does a woman in a skirt frighten you more than a woman in trousers?”
Yes, he thought. Éomer cleared his throat, deciding not to be offended by her plain-speaking. It was easier for him to respond to, anyway. “It is only that I hardly recognized you,” he said stiffly.
“Hmm. Well, I am sorry—I do not try to intimidate, although I often do.” Humor was twitching her lips. It was well that the princess had a sense of humor. In fact, she would be a better wife and queen for it. Almost against his will, Éomer grinned back at her.
His sudden smile nearly stopped Lothíriel’s heart. Hastily she waved the fan more briskly at her face, hoping that she would not flush. She had never seen a more handsome smile in her life! And the King, moderately attractive when he frowned, was utterly transformed by the simple act. Their stilted and awkward conversation, betraying his lack of wit, had done him no favors. But his smile certainly did, and she tried to keep her breathing calm. It was fortunate he did not address her again for some time.
Presently all the guests were all seated. They stood as one for King Elessar, who was toasted in water and wine, and Éomer, who was toasted as well. Then there was general astonishment as the new King of Gondor stayed standing afterwards, raising his wine glass once more.
“Tonight we honor our allies, and those who defended our coasts. The war and destruction there has taken many lives, and many were given to preserve our precious land. Yesterday we heralded the arrival of Princess Lothíriel of Dol Amroth, who as regent defended her great city. To her and all of the Swan Knights—” And he drank deeply. Many curious eyes turned to Lothíriel, and she forced a wan smile, fumbling and nearly upsetting her glass. It was a relief to sit once more, and to hear the babble of voices break out around them which disguised her agitation.
Éomer was bemused to witness her reaction. He had drunk from his glass in her honor, smiling to himself. Lothíriel’s elegant frontage was cracked at her apparent embarrassment of recognition…
They were served the first course; poached hare in a wine sauce and roasted vegetables. There was also honey wine, and a dark, crusty rye bread which cracked appetizingly when it was cut into. Lothíriel partook sparingly, readying herself for the King’s next attempt at conversing, which was quick to come.
“What else do you do for pleasure, princess, apart from riding?” he asked as he applied himself to the hare.
“I do like to read,” she informed him. “I find great pleasure in it.”
“Ah. How nice. I—er, only read for necessity.”
Lothíriel held back a laugh; the King had answered exactly as she had expected. Unable to keep from teasing, she added, “I especially enjoy novels which portray caricature personalities of individuals in uncertain circumstances. They are most diverting, especially when one grows weary of the world and wishes to escape into fanciful imaginings.”
“Ah—oh?” Éomer felt as though he was losing his tenuous grip upon the conversation. He had only a faint idea of what the princess was even speaking about, and it was not enough to give a clever response. She did not appear to mind, however, for she continued speaking with a wry smile cast in his direction.
“I also find great comfort in the company of noblewomen,” she said. “We often speak of light-hearted topics, ignoring the trials and tribulations in which we often find ourselves while commiserating in the petty nuisances of each day.”
“My lord, how do you fill your empty time?” Her eyes were twinkling as she surveyed him, sipping from her goblet. Éomer felt a strange twisting in his stomach (not of pain), as he attempted to gather his scattered wits.
“I have had little empty time, of late,” Éomer said. “I suppose...when I find myself unengaged I ride, or train with my men.”
“I see.” There was a stiffness in her voice that he did not like. But when he glanced sharply at Lothíriel, her expression was cool, nodding to a servant to be served from a steaming dish.
“What is this?” he asked, as he, too, was given the next course.
“It is soup,” Lothíriel said dryly. She picked up a spoon, and tasting it with amazing elegance of motion (Éomer could hardly take his eyes from her), she pronounced, “It is an asparagus soup, my lord. Quite nice, with herbs and cream.”
He wished for more hare. Almost before he could stop himself, he asked, “But where is the meat?”
“The meat?” She blinked up at him, and he saw irritated humor around her mouth. He tried not to look at her mouth. “There will be more meat served, my lord; I assure you. Fear not.”
“I am not a-feared,” Éomer said crossly. The soup was flavorful, more than he expected—but he cared little for such unsubstantial foods. Had Aragorn not overseen the feast? Why was it so thin and unsatisfying? He glanced around—he saw Imrahil and his sons, he saw Aragorn—but all appeared to be enjoying the soup. Béma!
His men, some tables away, mirrored his own disbelieving reaction more accurately, and Éomer felt a bit better.
Truthfully, he was more than a little out of place in this great hall; the elegance, the coyness of the women, the soft gentleness and subtleties were beyond him. This, in part, had contributed to his enthusiasm to meet Imrahil’s daughter as a potential wife and queen. She has defended Dol Amroth with courage and nobility, her father had said. You will find no other woman her equal.
Still, Éomer admitted that Imrahil had spoken truth. Lothíriel was the superior of every other woman he had seen...though he could not quite decide why.
The soup was thankfully removed, and to Éomer’s astonishment a towering construction of—of pastry, he thought, was brought out next, borne by several footmen. It was meant to resemble a fortress, complete with small flags stuck into the battlements. How absurd! How opulent! Why could these Gondorians not simply satiate their appetites as nature intended? Why must such artistry be involved?
The pastry was revealed to be pork and egg pies, and some of Éomer’s annoyance disappeared. And as soon as he took his first bite, he decided that artistry was not such a bad thing, after all.
Lothíriel, not caring for pies in a general way, had taken only the side of fresh greens tossed in vinegar and oil with nutmeats and fruit, which the King had refused. Already she was tired of eating, and the feast would continue for many hours yet…
“My lord, you had best tell me of your home in Rohan,” she told him. “For we are threatening each other with utter boredom.”
He paused before speaking. “Er—well, I have lived in Aldburg for many years. My childhood was spent there, and when my parents passed I lived in Edoras with my uncle. When I was given the rank of Marshal, I returned to Aldburg. And... now I shall live in Edoras once more.”
Lothíriel met his eyes, and was surprised to see a hint of pain in those startlingly green depths. Instinctively she reached over to lay a hand on his arm, and he flinched from her touch. But she held true, and the expression on his face softened into a slight, but still very handsome smile.
“Rohan is fortunate to have leader such as you,” she pronounced, and then promptly flushed. Where had such a thought come from, and why had she said it? The King placed a very large hand over hers, and she felt her flush deepen.
“You are kind, princess,” he drawled. “I might have thought you would feel more pity for my land.”
“I prefer not to waste my pity.”
The main course arrived. Upon an enormous silver platter was brought in an entire roast boar. Éomer’s mouth began to water—it smelled divine. Along with the boar were brought roasted chickens and large dishes of savory rice porridge topped with poached eggs and herbs. He filled his plate; now this was a proper feast. After several satisfying moments, Éomer returned his attention the woman beside him, and tried again to engage her.
“I did not know that your father named you regent of Dol Amroth in his absence.”
Lothíriel stiffened, nearly splashing her frock with the wine sauce she was pouring on her serving of chicken. Calmly she replaced the pitcher. “Yes, indeed,” she said. “It was...necessary.”
There was a pause. Then the King said in a soft voice, the softest she had yet heard him speak, “You have been praised throughout the city, princess. Why do you not enjoy it?”
“I did not enjoy the task I was given,” she said sharply. “And I do not enjoy recalling it to any degree. I wish—I wish King Elessar had not seen fit to announce it!” Lothíriel choked on the last words, and her eyes burned with tears. Would she always be remembered for that horrible duty? For watching men die whom she had known all her life? For being unable to stop the faraway flames of villages as they were attacked, for the fear of death in every waking moment?
She straightened her back, unable to look at the King, whose gaze she felt upon her and was ashamed. “Of all the titles I have borne in my life, regent was the most difficult,” Lothíriel said resolutely. “I do not wish to be regent again.”
Éomer felt distinctly awkward at this. Was she expressing her desire not to be queen? For he needed a queen who could be a regent as well… Béma! He could not handle these subtle words. He leaned on the arm of his chair, startling the princess into turning towards him.
“Did your father speak to you about a marriage between you and I?” he asked bluntly.
Lothíriel blinked. “Y—yes. He did.”
“And? What say you to such a prospect?”
She lifted her chin, and her smile was back. Wry, and unfathomable. Éomer wanted to understand it. “My lord,” she said. “I simply cannot marry a man who thinks me a child.”
He felt his ears burn hotly. He had forgotten that part of their encounter in the stables…evidently the princess had not. “Ah,” Éomer said, feeling foolish for nothing else to say.
They ate the dessert course in silence, and the honey pastries and white cake, which might have been delicious another time, tasted of ash in Éomer’s mouth. He did not quite know what to think of the woman beside him, though as he stole glances at her, he wanted to think of her. As much as necessary.
The hour grew late. All around them guests were rising to their feet, yawning and stretching. The mood in the hall had grown lazy and languid, the noise dimming around them. Lothíriel glanced around quickly, hoping to see her father making ready to leave—at last! Fortunate smiled upon her, and she stood abruptly with relief flooding her limbs.
“I bid you farewell, my lord.” And without waiting for a response she fled with as much composure as she could manage.
Which was not a lot.
4 May 3019 T.A., Minas Tirith
Éomer could not shake the princess from his thoughts, even as he laid awake most of the night in both delight and confusion of the evening.
And frankly, he had no wish to think of aught else. He liked that she did not fear speaking to him (as some women did), and he admired her ladylike poise. Though he had admittedly been shaken that she was not the warrior-princess he had expected, he began to wonder if that was for the better. Lothíriel had many qualities that he did not. While she might not enjoy the necessities of warfare and defense, Éomer felt he could deal with those matters quite well. And Lothíriel, as Queen of Rohan, would manage diplomacy and politics better than he would. They were an excellent match, just as Imrahil had said.
He made up his mind not to be deterred by her reluctance, not until he presented himself as a better suitor than that disastrous first meeting.
When a page knocked on the door to announce that the King of Rohan was waiting for her in the courtyard, Lothíriel was thoroughly startled. Even after a half-hearted reply, she could do no more than sit stupidly at the vanity in her bedchamber as her thoughts whirled around in confusion. She had not expected to see him at all, let alone so early in the morning! After choosing a pair of silver earrings, she walked slowly out of her chamber, as if in a fog.
She had not expected him to persist. Not really.
The sight of him, standing tall with his arms crossed across his barrel-wide chest as he admired the carved stone fountain which one of her ancestors had installed in the courtyard, was enough to send flutters through her breast once more. Annoyingly tall and broad as he was, even Lothíriel could not find fault in his form. There was hidden power and visible strength in the set of his shoulders, and as he turned at the sound of her approach she felt her heart lodge in her throat.
“Princess,” the King said, and he swept into a low bow, his sword sticking out awkwardly. Lothíriel managed a smile and curtsey. “Good morning,” he added after a moment, a flash of insecurity in his green eyes as he belatedly lifted her hand in courtesy.
“Good morning, my lord. I apologize for keeping you waiting.”
“You are worth the wait.” Éomer was not sure where this particular compliment came from, but it was the complete truth. She was looking very fine in yet another blue frock, and her hair pinned back in a mass of braids. He suppressed the urge to reach out and touch the jaunty curl which escaped behind her ear, which gave to her an endearing quality. Lothíriel was flushing—perhaps at his compliment, perhaps at his scrutiny—and she drew her hand away.
“May I ask for what business you have come to my father’s house this morn?” she asked, lifting her chin. Béma, her eyes shone with the reflection of the blue sky above, and Éomer was speechless for a moment before he could say,
“I have come to see you, princess.”
A pause. “Oh?” Her brows tilted upwards, though her flush remained. “I must apologize again, my lord, for I am engaged to go into the city today. I have purchases to make at the market.”
“If you have no other companion, I would offer myself.”
Lothíriel wanted to refuse. This man seemed to diminish her sense in every way, and she preferred to keep her sense. But her father’s face suddenly came to mind; his earnest expression, his eagerness to promote a match between herself and the King. Her stomach twisted with nerves. Coolly she nodded her head, unable to trust herself to speak.
“Are you ready, princess? We need not delay.” There was a smile about his lips, and even the hint of his heart-stopping attraction was enough to cause her to flush anew.
“I am ready, my lord.”
The King picked up her hand once more, the rough pad of his thumb stroking across her knuckles. “If you would like, you may call me Éomer, princess.”
She hesitated, remembered her father, and said, “Thank you, er—ah, Éomer.”
“You are most welcome, Lothíriel.” Her name tasted wonderful on his tongue; beautiful and unique and graceful and utterly her. Lothíriel. Éomer’s heart did a strange leap as she offered him a tremulous smile, and he cleared his throat.
“Let us go,” he said gruffly.
The streets were crowded; the city being filled to burst with so many people celebrating the end of the war made for slow progress to the markets. Bodies shuffled past, bumping and trodding into each other, shouting and complaining and generally causing a ruckus. Lothíriel kept her patience, but she could feel Éomer’s tenseness beside her. This clearly was a man unused to waiting, and she beheld curiously a tick in his jaw.
“Do you have anywhere to be?” she asked him.
“Nay,” he said after a moment.
“Neither do I. And it is a lovely day.”
The gentle reminder seemed to help—the muscles of his arm were less tight under her hand, anyway, and the line of his mouth softened.
They passed through the gate to the Fourth Circle at last, the busiest street of all. It certainly did not help that there were three taverns lined door-to-door, Lothíriel thought disparagingly. The sounds coming from them were vulgar and loud, and she shied away from taverns, bumping awkwardly into the stone wall opposite.
At once several shouts sounded, and from the middle tavern fell two men, arms failing and fists flying. A crowd hurried after them, chanting at the fighters as they tumbled into the street.
Éomer instinctively put out his arm in front of Lothíriel, as if to shield her, turning her slightly away. He noticed how pale she had gotten, and how irritated those lovely eyes were. There were more shouts and whistles as several men rushed into the street to break up the fight. Mostly they just got hit as well, and Éomer could not help his fists from itching, for wanting to stop the fight himself. He could do it, he thought.
For the moment, they were stopped by the chaos. Chewing on his words only briefly, Éomer said, “I suppose you have little care for a man who takes interest in tavern brawls.”
Her glance was sharp, but her words sweet. “You learn quickly, my lord.”
“Éomer,” he reminded her.
“Éomer, then. Of course I do not wish to marry a man who get involved these—these—” She waved her hand dismissively at the mess of bodies, her cheeks red. “Ridiculous! Why would I wish to nurse his bumps and bruises every night? A hassle if there ever was one!”
“And what if bumps and bruises were his occupation?” Éomer asked quietly. They were pushed together against the sidewall as more people rushed here-and-thereabouts, and she was staring up at him, her eyes growing wide.
“Well—if they were a product of his duty and not his stupidity—I suppose I would not mind. Providing they are not serious injuries.”
“Then you will be happy to learn that I have never taken serious injury in my life.”
Lothíriel did not understand him one whit. Why he was quizzing her in such a way, why he was gazing into her eyes with such fierce…warmth. Why he was standing so close to her, overwhelming her with his breadth. Why his hand was still on her arm, large and causing pleasant tingles to crawl up her skin. “Yes, I am very happy,” she said sardonically, and to remove herself from his scrutiny she glanced quickly back up the street. “Oh, good—they have stopped. May we continue?”
His response was a growl. “Aye.”
It was fortunately a short walk on to the markets—Lothíriel delicately sidestepped the smears of blood, but breathed more freely when the taverns faded from earshot and she saw the familiar overhanging tents of the market stalls. Éomer’s steps slowed here, perhaps repulsed by the piles of fabrics and clothing, jewels and trinkets and books—but Lothíriel held tight upon his arm. If he was to make her uncomfortable with his talk of brawls and bruises and nursing; inferring her nursing him, she would certainly insist he suffer through a bit of perusing.
Éomer was bored in a matter of moments. Restlessly he stayed beside Lothíriel, his eyes straying to her elegant figure more often than the fabrics she was rifling through. Part of him wished to explore one of those promising-looking taverns, but he reminded himself sternly that his duty was to convince this woman to be his wife. And anyway, she was prettier than any serving maid at any tavern…her slender wrists peeping from the sleeve of her frock, the way her stray hair curled around her pretty ears—
Absently he picked up a few swatches of fabric, gave them a cursory glance, and threw them back down. A sigh of frustration escaped him, and he immediately regretted it, for the princess turned to him with an arched brow.
“Is something the matter?” she asked sweetly.
“No. Continue on."
Lothíriel bought several fabrics, he did not know what for. Then she wandered forward to a stall of books, and Éomer bit his tongue. He was beginning to feel pangs of hunger. She was awfully slow at making choices! Was this usual for her? Béma!
Eventually she had all she wished for, packaged nicely. Éomer took them from her without a word, tucking them under one arm, and offered her his empty one.
“Why, thank you,” Lothíriel said with a smile, taking it. The smile hit him in the gut, and he blinked stupidly at her.
“You are quite welcome,” he said gruffly. “Are you finished, then?”
“I am. I thank you for your patience.” For Lothíriel knew exactly how it had taxed him to wait there for her. Was it cruel of her, to insist that he do so? Perhaps. But he had risen to the task, and despite her searching for his faults, she was impressed. She wondered if she was being unfair… Without thinking, she matched Éomer’s brisk pace, her thoughts elsewhere.
The remainder of the walk back to Imrahil’s house was mostly silent. For once, the lack of conversation from her companion did not bother her, and strangely—when they stopped at the gate, she was feeling shy as she accepted her purchases from Éomer.
“Thank you,” she said, remembering her manners after an awkward pause.
He was at a loss, staring down at her lovely flush, her hesitant gaze. To his mind he recalled a snatch of her words the night previous: “I simply cannot marry a man who thinks me a child.” Suddenly he was entirely sure, surer than he had ever been of anything, perhaps, that the discomfort of humbling himself to apologize would further his suit more than nearly anything. And he wanted his suit to succeed. He wanted this woman to be his queen, and not merely because her father recommended it.
Éomer was unsure how to phrase an apology worth of such an elegant lady, but he gave it his best effort. He took a deep breath as she blinked up at him, and said, “Lothíriel, I am sorry for—for our first meeting in the stables. I should not have called you a child. I...was thinking only of your, ahem, height.” And he picked up her empty hand, covering it with both of his.
Lothíriel tried to tug her hand away, flushing at his touch, but he held fast. She swallowed. “I accept your apology, my lord,” she said primly. “Now—” She tugged her hand again. No luck.
“Will you consider marriage, then? I would be very honored to have you as my queen.” His voice was low. Almost...husky. Good heavens! Her heart was fluttering. But why? This was hardly a speech fit for a lover!
“I am flattered that you feel so,” she tried to snap, but her voice only trembled.
“Then why do you not agree?”
Curse his bluntness! Lothíriel was given a brief reprieve from responding by the resounding creaks from the gate to the courtyard as a guard opened it, and then stood back to allow entrance. But Éomer’s eyes held hers captive, and the intensity she saw there nearly frightened her. Not for fear of harm...but for fear of the unfamiliar sensations which were wracking her body.
“My lord,” she said, steeling herself. “I cannot marry a man who must always wear his sword.”
Éomer was truly astonished by this, for his grip on her hand slackened. Lothíriel wrung her now-free hand into her skirt, willing the heat and tingling to fade away. Then she clasped it upon her wrapped fabric, so that he could not take it again.
“Good day,” she said, and turned, hoping he would not follow her into her father’s house.
He did not. But the relief she felt was bittersweet.
Lothíriel’s thoughts remained troubled the remainder of the day. In her abstraction, she wandered restlessly from one room to the next, spoke tersely to her brothers and father, and ate little at supper. And when she was laid in her bed for the night, she stared at the canopy of her bed for what felt like hours before exhaustion at last closed her eyes.
But with sleep came nightmares.
The scenes were all too familiar; the blackened and scorched marble of her father’s palace by the seaside, the acrid scent of smoke burning her nostrils and sending plumes of ominous grey into the sunless sky. Sharp cries and weeping filled her ears, and she choked past her dry throat, wishing for water.
The sea was a battlefield. As far as she could see, the water churned with ships racing to and fro, crashing and creaking, some sinking or sunk with the billowy sails frighteningly white against the black of the sea. Even from her distance, she could see bodies floating, lifeless and carried to the shore by the lapping waves. But the violence was brought to the walls as well, and the silver-armored knights defended their city from the corsairs, screams echoing in the sky.
She did not know which way to go, only that she was needed. Where? On the walls? In the makeshift sick houses? Should she board a sloop and go to sea?
Her feet carried her onward, and she did not know where to. Down the steps, seemingly endless, and at last, limp with tiredness and ill to her stomach, Lothíriel was in the outer keep of the palace. Bloodshed had come here, too, for bodies littered the stone-flagged ground so thick that she could scarce step anywhere without defiling the dead. Crows bleated their awful screeches as they circled above, and she picked up her skirts—why was she wearing skirts?—as she delicately stepped through the horror.
Lothíriel paused as a golden glint near her knee caught her eye—one of the bodies was different than the rest. Her stomach began to churn with nausea as she knelt beside it, pushing upon the bloodied shoulder with all her might to turn the dead man’s face upwards—
A cry of terror strangled in her throat; she could not breathe, she could not think—why was Éomer there, among the dead that defended Dol Amroth? Why, why—
She half-choked as she woke, almost surprised to find that she could breathe again. Lothíriel blinked at the single candle left lit on a bedside table, trying to orient herself. Her nightmares were common enough that she knew what to do—and after her thumping heart began to steady, she peeled back the blankets from her damp skin, swinging her shaking legs out of the bed.
Cool night air beckoned through a window, and she threw back the shutter and drank in the sight of twinkling stars above the city, and the comforting golden lights of the city below. She was not in Dol Amroth. The war was over, her home was safe…
And Éomer was certainly not dead. Her heart skipped a beat as she thought of this—why had she dreamt of him? Often the faces of her father, brothers and cousin were among the dead in her nightmares, but why now Éomer? Lothíriel could barely think about him without feeling equal parts annoyed and disturbed at her own physical response to him.
He had no right to appear in her dreams.
But somehow, she was not surprised to learn that it did not stop him.
5 May 3019 T.A., Minas Tirith
“You wish me to do what?”
“Cha—per—one,” Éowyn said slowly, fearless and a mite exasperated as she met her brother’s fierce gaze. She stood tall beside the chair where he was sitting, boot and rag in hand, in a solar they shared in Merethrond at Faramir’s hospitality. She was dressed for riding, evidently in premature assumption of his graciousness.
“Whatever sort of ridiculous custom—” Éomer began, but she interrupted.
“It hardly matters if you think it ridiculous or not!” she said sharply. “It is only that I thought you might appreciate a ride into the mountains and away from the city, and as Faramir and I should have a member of one of our families with us to keep things decorous, if you will, I was fool enough to think you would agree.”
Éomer’s jaw was clenched. The offer was tempting, but he had a princess to woo. And from the derisive way she had spoken of riding on the night of the feast, he guessed that his best chance was to stay in the city.
“I am not your nursemaid, Éowyn,” he said dryly, and returned to polishing his boot. “Go on without a chaperone; I do not doubt your ability to keep Faramir in line should he get handsy, anyway.”
“Éomer!” she said sharply, her cheeks pinking. “Really!”
But Éomer merely smiled benignly, giving his boot a final rub with the cloth before pulling it on.
“You smug little brute,” Éowyn muttered. “Fine. We shall have to ask Lothíriel, then. For she is not like to refuse, having a heart, unlike you.”
“Lothíriel? You would ask her?” he asked in surprise.
“Yes, Lothíriel. Faramir’s cousin; you do know of her?” Éowyn’s eyes were glinting, and at once Éomer knew that his sister was aware of the intended match between himself and the princess. So much for the delicacy Imrahil had promised! He forced a smile, carefully capping the bottle of polish he used.
“If Lothíriel accompanies you, then so will I,” he said. “For in asking me, you forgot my own selfish interest. I do not wish to go riding with you and Faramir to listen to your sweet inanities. Should I have a companion to speak to, I would be satisfied.”
“Selfish interest indeed!” Éowyn said with a laugh, though there was no mocking in her tone. “Very well! I will send a note ‘round to Lothíriel. You had best dress smartly, then.”
Éomer gave his clothing a cursory glance. “Whatever is wrong with what I am already wearing?” he asked indignantly.
“You look like a common foot soldier,” she told him bluntly. “And between you and I—I should think Lothíriel might be more interested in one who dresses according to his rank.” And Éowyn turned on her booted heel, off to make her arrangements as her brother stewed in this unexpected admonishment.
He could not deny feeling annoyed by Éowyn’s interference. Really, he should hope Lothíriel’s affections might be won no matter his appearance! Based more upon his character and the sense of their match, more like. But then again, likely a better appearance would likely impress such a princess all the more.
So Éomer dragged himself to his feet and to his private chamber, foregoing the plain linen tunic he was wearing for one of fine wool, embroidered around the neck and sleeves. It was fancier than he was accustomed to, but many such tunics had been provided for him by the servants of the Citadel. A gilded belt accompanied it. There was a hesitating moment as he gazed longingly at his sword, lying upon a wooden trunk. But he heard the echo of Lothíriel’s lovely voice, I cannot marry a man who must always wear his sword. Regretfully he turned away.
His breeches hardly mattered and his boots were already polished, and so with a base attempt to tame his hair into something neater, he decided he was fair enough.
Walking through the corridors to seek out his sister, Éomer wondered if ‘fair enough’ would meet Lothíriel’s standards. Béma! Wooing a princess was more involved than he had expected.
He did pass Éowyn’s inspection (though only after she forced him to sit down so that she could comb his hair properly), and soon they were walking out of the Citadel and toward the Sixth Circle and Imrahil’s stables, where their horses were housed. It was a sunny morning and a pleasant stroll; the streets were busy with the activity of guards and servants and nobles.
“Faramir is not yet here,” Éowyn said upon their entrance to the stables, glancing around quickly. “Let us saddle his horse for him, and Lothíriel’s as well. She may take longer, but I am sure she will be here.”
“Did you tell her that I would be joining you?” Éomer asked, unlatching Firefoot’s stall door.
“Nay, I did not think it important.”
He smiled to himself as he smoothed a blanket upon Firefoot’s back. Éowyn’s tone of voice suggested she thought, as he did, that perhaps Lothíriel might rather avoid him. He wondered what his sister thought of the match, and nearly asked her, too—but several stablehands entered, and the words stayed in his throat.
Within a few moments their horses were ready and tethered outside the stables. Just as Éomer was scolding Firefoot for eating the blossoms of an unfortunately-close apple tree, Faramir approached, resplendent in black.
“Good morning, Éomer!” he said. “I am glad that you were able to accompany us.”
Éomer refrained from snorting; surely Faramir knew how Éowyn had beleaguered him! But he held his tongue, returning the greeting. “She is inside,” he told the steward. “You may wish to saddle your mount before Éowyn does.” Faramir hurried on.
Whistling to himself, Éomer strode back into the stables a moment later. Faramir did not appear offended by Éowyn’s saddling his horse, in fact, they jumped apart guiltily when Éomer entered.
“Now, which horse is Lothíriel’s?” he asked cheerily. “I would do her the same courtesy.”
“Lothíriel?” Faramir said, taken aback. “She is joining us?”
“Oh, yes,” Éowyn warbled happily. “Éomer said that he would be lonely without anyone to speak to, so I sent a note to Lothíriel in invitation. I do not doubt she will come.”
“Does she know Éomer will be with us as well?”
Éomer tried not to be offended by this, and forced a painful smile. Why did everyone seem to think Lothíriel did not care for him? Well—perhaps that was true—but why must they think that she could not care for him? He was not such a brute, no matter what Éowyn said!
But giving a shrug, Faramir gestured to a nearby stall. “That one is hers,” he pronounced.
Éomer remembered the nag she had ridden into Minas Tirith upon, and peeking into the stall—indeed, it was the same. An old fellow; knock-kneed and lanky-maned. Not the sort of horse a princess ought to be riding. He chewed his lip in thought for a moment, and then turned to say to his companions,
“If she rides this nag, she shan’t be able to keep pace with us.”
Two pairs of eyes blinked at him. “Perhaps,” Faramir said at last. “But that is her horse.”
“It shouldn’t be anyone’s,” Éomer growled. “It should be put out to pasture.”
“We will not leave Lothíriel alone in the forest with her plodding horse,” Éowyn said. “Really, Éomer—”
But he ignored whatever his sister was saying, instead lifting down the nag’s saddle and striding away. He glanced into one or two other stalls before deciding upon a middle-sized gelding, whose ears picked up at his approach. Éomer was mildly surprised that neither Éowyn nor Faramir commented upon this, and he saddled the gelding in silence, leading him from the stall a short time later.
“I should think Lothíriel will be pleased with this one,” he said proudly to the bemused pair. Silence followed this for the briefest moment.
Éomer started—he had not looked beyond Éowyn and Faramir—and glanced towards the door of the stables, Lothíriel was standing alone, seeming very small and her eyes rimmed with red as if she had not slept well. The expression in them was utterly confused.
“Ah…” he began, and his ears feeling warm as he noticed how attractive her riding habit was, tried, “I have for you a better mount.”
“But what is wrong with my horse?” she asked with a frown. Éowyn had taken Faramir’s hand, and at a brisk pace they departed the stables with his mount. Lothíriel stepped aside to let them pass, her eyes never leaving Éomer. She did not know what to say—or what to think. Partly because Éomer was there, which she had not expected, and partly because he was looking very fine. That is, he was not looking like a man that would eagerly begin a brawl in a tavern. More like…a lord. And his belt was empty of his sword.
No, she did not know what to think, and her heart lodged in her throat.
“Your nag is not fit for riding in the mountains,” he told her, his voice quiet though still thrumming through the soles of her feet. Then Éomer offered a small sort of smile, and she felt a flush rise in her cheeks.
“But I cannot take another’s horse!” Lothíriel protested.
“Æled does not belong to another,” Éomer said. “His rider was killed on the Pelennor. I think he would rather like to be taken out by a gentle rider than remained confined in the stables.”
Truthfully, she was surprised and not a little touched by his consideration. There were times when she had thought him too brusque to think of her so…so kindly. His manners were always abrupt, his words too plain to endear her, and yet…Her lips twitched into a smile, despite herself, and Éomer blinked at her.
“Then I thank you,” she said politely. “I would be pleased to ride him.”
His steps were bounding as he strode to the door, his heart light. Lothíriel stumbled back a pace as he approached, but he offered her his arm and she took it without hesitation—a success! Éomer was grinning when he gave to her the reins in the courtyard.
“May I help you mount?” he asked.
“Oh—yes, yes; thank you.” Her hands were on the saddle, ready to step into his hand (as he presumed she was usually assisted), but he had no such intentions. Grasping her slender waist, he swung her into the air and set her upon the saddle. She gave a rather unladylike squawk of surprise, but composed herself quickly with her cheeks flushing red. He adjusted the stirrups for her without a word, and in similar silence she gathered up the reins.
Éomer did see, when he went to fetch Firefoot, that Éowyn was hiding a laugh behind her gloved hand. She and Faramir were already mounted, and she looked away from her brother, clearing her throat.
“The morning is waning,” Éowyn said, and led the party onwards. There was a gate, quickly opened for them, and they turned north in the street towards a side-gate which led to the mountains.
Éowyn and Faramir were in jolly spirits, laughing and talking as the tall trees swallowed them, hiding the city to their backs. The sun shone through the leaves, dappling the dirt path. Éomer did not feel inclined to contribute to the chatter, his eyes instead upon the princess, who rode slightly ahead of him as if wishing she could escape him but unable to. The pair ahead of them took up the entire path.
Éomer was astonished now, to remember how she had spoken little of riding. Her form was excellent, her guidance of the gelding flawless. She appeared to be a perfect rider, apart from the stiffness of her shoulders. Did she still frown? Should he not have lifted her into her saddle in such a manner? He did not think that such a thing would have offended her, but Béma! He felt so blasted ignorant of how he should go on.
“It is a lovely view!” Éowyn called back to him. “Do you see the fields below, Éomer? It is not quite so stirring as around Edoras, as the vista is not so expansive—but I will give it credit!” This last bit of teasing was for Faramir’s benefit, who shook his head with a smile.
“You might not see so far around you, but you may see leagues further. Behold the Anduin!”
The pair had paused at a break in the trees, where the mountainside sloped steeply downwards, and ahead they could see, indeed, as far as the distant Anduin, a silver snake against the green fields of the Pelennor. Éomer gave it a glance, deemed it satisfactory, and when Lothíriel’s opinion was sought for, she merely said,
“I cannot prefer it to the sea at sunrise.”
“If we determine to choose the finest view, then we shall be arguing all the day long!” Faramir said with a laugh. “Let us each decide what we like best to see, foregoing the convincing of others, and we shall all be correct.”
“You are merely saying that to retain your pride of Gondor!” Éowyn teased.
“Well—” And the pair took to the path again at a smart pace, and Éomer nudged Firefoot to ride beside the princess, determined that she would not avoid him. She did not look away from the path, but did not pick up her pace, either.
“My lo—Éomer,” Lothíriel said after a few quiet moments, her voice breaking slightly. “I owe you an apology. Well—several, probably.”
“Oh?” He could not think of any way she had offended him, but decided to listen to her rather than argue. Her sweet voice was nice to listen to, anyway.
“I have given you too little of my regard.” She spoke softly, and he strained to hear her. “Our first meeting was…unfavorable, and I was disinclined to change my opinion of you, even after my father declared to me that he wishes us to marry. I—” Lothíriel swallowed, her eyes flitting briefly to him with a lovely pinking in her cheeks before returning her gaze to the path. “I teased you, that first night—nay, I was mocking you, and it was wrong of me. For all the faults I was determined to see in you…you have treated me better than I deserve.
“Yesterday you accompanied me to the market, and I taunted you by prolonging your suffering. Yet you carried my packages for me to my house and did not speak a word of complaint. You freely offered an apology for giving offense, and I did not even give you the courtesy of believing your sincerity! And now…you have thought of me enough to provide a horse, a better horse in your opinion (which I shall not dispute), and that you forwent your sword this day has pierced my heart, that you heed my whims so—”
“That is quite enough!” Éomer interrupted. Then he gave a booming laugh, and Lothíriel flinched in her saddle. How terrible of him! That she bear her soul so vulnerably and he respond by laughing! Her face felt hot, and she nearly spurred the gelding into a faster pace to leave him behind.
“Wait—” he said, all laughter ceasing as he held out an arm to deter her. “I should not have laughed, princess.”
“No,” she agreed stiffly.
“I accept your apology.”
Lothíriel inclined her head, unsure how to respond, and her throat feeling tight with strange emotions. She looked away from his handsome smile, her stomach in knots.
“Why do you dislike swords?” Éomer’s question was rather quiet, for him, and she was careful to phrase her answer before speaking.
“Because I dislike all reminders of war. I have seen too many swords—bloodied, broken, or…or—” her voice caught, “—sheathed in flesh to ever wish to see any again.”
He was stunned by this response. But more stunned at the welling tears which illuminated her grey eyes before she blinked them away.
“I am sorry,” Lothíriel said in a choking voice. “You ask why I dislike swords; they are difficult to like when they form both living and sleeping nightmares in front of my eyes against my will and every caution.”
“Of course!” And her voice was a snap—more normal for her, and Éomer could not decide how to continue this conversation. Ought he to question her further? Press inquiries upon the nature of her nightmares, how she came by them, if she was healing—
Well, some of those questions were rather stupid, he reflected. Obviously she came by them during the war, and they were likely of the war, and if she still suffered them then she was not yet healed—
Faramir and Éowyn had ridden far ahead; black and white specks against the lush trees. Éomer was forced to dismount as a massive, fallen tree obstructed the path (their companions had given no warning of this), and he led Firefoot over before returning to assist Lothíriel.
She allowed his help to dismount, placing her small hands upon his shoulders. She weighed nearly nothing to him, even with her riding costume, and though she looked away from him, her cheeks were pink as she was put upon the ground. Éomer picked up the gelding’s reins in one hand, and her hand in his other. Æled did not hesitate to step over the fallen tree, but Lothíriel took more convincing, visibly stalling in front of it. It was rather tall for her, and smiling to himself, Éomer lifted her by the waist and set her upon the tree as she hissed in surprise.
“Swing your legs over,” he suggested.
“Why—you!” Lothíriel said indignantly, scowling darkly at him. “Assistance to mount and dismount a steed I can accept—but I am perfectly capable of climbing over a log!”
“Then do.” And that overwhelmingly handsome smile quirked his mouth.
Oh, his insufferable overhand arrogance! She grit her teeth together and, as he had said, swung her legs over the fallen tree. But her voluptuous skirts caught upon a branch as she tried to alight, and with a not-very dignified cry of alarm, she lost her balance and fell quite on her face upon the dirt path.
Thankfully, Éomer did not laugh, thought she expected him to. Instead he rushed to scramble over the tree himself, crouching beside her and drawing her gently to her feet. His face was a blur for the tears in her eyes. Shame rent through her already fragile heart, and tears began to flood from her eyes in earnest.
Éomer was at a loss. He had little enough experience with females, and even less with weeping females—he was sure Éowyn had not cried since she was eleven years of age, and then only from a sore wound from training with the weapons-master in Edoras. But Éowyn was not a part of this—quickly he thought, how can I best comfort Lothíriel?
He drew her gently to sit upon the tree once more, and she did not resist. Her gloved hands covered her face, and rather than trying to pry them away as he might have done, Éomer simply sat beside her and gathered her slight form into his arms as he had often seen husbands do. He hardly noticed that the tears leaking from between her fingers were wetting his fine wool tunic. Resting his chin upon her head, he wondered if she cried for the nightmares which troubled her, or for falling upon the ground—the latter he did not think worth weeping for, but then again, Lothíriel felt differently than him. He held his tongue.
After a few moments her sobs subsided into sniffles, and then into a long, shuddering sigh. Éomer suddenly became very aware of her warmth through her frock, and a feminine, flowery scent filling his nose. He shifted awkwardly.
“I am sorry,” she murmured, so softly that he nearly did not hear it.
“Ahem, it quite alright—no harm taken. On my part, I mean—what of you? Are you well? Did you injure yourself?”
Lothíriel was tempted to giggle to hear the discomfort in Éomer’s voice, his hasty stumbling over his words. She lifted her head from his chest, the air suddenly very cool against her cheek. But she smiled up him all the same, wondering at his awkward smile. After a moment Éomer pulled down one sleeve of his tunic, and began to dab at the moisture on her cheeks.
“I have no handkerchief,” he confessed, his green eyes rueful.
“Of course you do not,” Lothíriel said with a weak laugh, but instead of scorn, she felt fondness for this man. This realization startled her, but not too much—she caught his hand, and impulsively pressed a kiss to it. “I thank you for your kindness, my lord. The recalling of my nightmares overset me, and when I fell…I was—”
“It is of no matter,” Éomer muttered. His skin was burning where she kissed it, and tentatively he touched the soft flesh of her cheek with his fingers. The skin flushed pink, and her eyes were wide as she gazed up at him. Forgetting where they were—forgetting whose daughter she was, forgetting his own station—Éomer thought only of the woman so near to him and his own yearnings—he leaned forward and kissed her.
Lothíriel jolted as soon as his lips touched hers. He pulled away at once, his face hot. Bema! He was damned to always blunder and act wrongly in front of the princess! Would he ever learn how to properly woo a Gondorian woman? Éomer could not tear his eyes away from her lips, so recently kissed, the feel of them still on his mouth—she was staring at him, he knew, but he only saw as she licked her lips, her breathing catching.
Oh? Well, perhaps he had not done so wrong after all. He lifted her chin to gaze into her eyes—there was no anger, no offense—his heart swelled with relief—but he did see hesitancy. Not unwillingness; but hesitancy…that could be overcome, given time. Éomer threw caution to the wind once more, and kissed her again, this time lingering.
Her head was swimming. Lothíriel’s heart was beating wildly, liable to burst from her breast—her hands were shaking, she was hot from the top of her head to her toes, and yet all she could feel were Éomer’s lips, pressed to hers with the decisive firmness she had come to expect of him. Her eyes fluttered shut, and her stomach turned with delicious nerves and pleasure— His hands cradled her face, slanting it upwards as her lips parted of their own volition. She could hear a growl building in his broad chest, near enough to hers that she felt a hot shudder rush through her veins. But not of fear. Her trembling fingers clenched around his thick wrists, to hold onto something, else she might lose her tenuous hold on reality altogether.
Éomer pulled away from her several moments later, and she dared not open her eyes, fearing dizziness. But she felt his lips press to her forehead before he leaned his head against hers, letting loose a deep breath.
“Lothíriel,” he said softly, causing her heart to pound with the deep tones of his voice. “I want you to marry me. Truly, I do.”
A spasm overtook her, and with great self-control Lothíriel opened her eyes, blinking against the brightness of the sun filtering through the tall trees around them. Éomer was gazing at her with an expression she had never seen of him: did she interpret it correctly as tenderness? He could be tender?
“No,” she murmured, and her fingers curled tighter around his wrist to draw his hands from her face, placing them upon his own lap. “No, Éomer. I cannot marry a soldier.”
He blinked stupidly at her, uncomprehending. “Why?” Éomer’s voice was harsh, guttural, and Lothíriel stiffened, shifting away from him on the fallen tree as she dug her fingers into the rotting bark.
“Because soldiers die,” she told him blandly.
“Everyone dies!” he challenged.
“But soldiers most often, and most violently. You wonder at my nightmares, I presume, and I shall tell you!” Her voice was wavering, and she spoke louder, the fire of Éomer’s touch still heating her veins, and she tried to suppress it.
“I watched hundreds of men die, Éomer, fighting for Dol Amroth! Does this surprise you? My father named me his regent, and I defended my city. I saw—I saw men, boys, soldiers I had known all my life brought back dead or nearly so—decrepit, cripple, lame, bloodied, screaming in horror for threats only they could see! I beheld when only shells were returned; parts or only a broken weapon or burned piece of clothing for proof of death. I saw their wives, their sisters, their mothers fall upon their bodies and weep as if they would die themselves! Do you really wonder, my lord, that I do not wish to marry a soldier? No one with any sense would wish such a fate upon themselves or one that they would love.” Lothíriel’s eyes were filling with tears again, but she blinked them away angrily, leaping to her feet and pacing upon the path in her passion, feeling Éomer’s eyes following her.
“I could scarce bear watching it; I know I have not the heart to bear the burdens firsthand. Call me a coward, if you will, but I can only see it as self-preservation. I treasure peace and happiness too much to willingly compromise it by inviting the threat of near-constant death into my life.” In agony, she clasped her hands together, placing herself in front of where Éomer sat, her full height against his sitting height nearly equal. Lothíriel lifted her chin, and forced her voice to be cool. “My father wishes this match, and I trust him and his wisdom—but he does not know what it would cost of my soul to accept it.”
Éomer could not speak for several moments. He was astonished at Lothíriel’s words. Passion shone in her face like the sun—her grey eyes glittered, her color was high, and her chest heaved as she breathed heavily. The cool, collected princess was gone, and he was glad of it. This he could respond to. He could understand her reluctance towards his suit, framed in her earlier apology, and he was not offended by it. Tentatively he reached out and clasped her shaking hands tightly in his own, willing her to calm.
“Dear Lothíriel,” he said, and despite everything he smiled. “Much I have to say to you!”
“Oh, no,” she breathed, shaking her head as she tried to tug her hands away. “I said too much, I should not have—”
“Hush!” Éomer commanded. She obeyed, and ceased struggling in surprise. “Little princess, if you think you have a chance of marrying any man in this age who is not a soldier, you are a fool, but I know you are not a fool. You have nightmares of death—you are not the only one. Nor are you the only one who has seen the sights you have.” A hardness crept had crept into his voice, and quickly he softened his tone. “Whether you wed a soldier or a goat-herder, there will always be danger as long as evil exists in the world. Whether you wed at all or live with your father alone the remainder of your life—you will not always have peace and happiness. Anyone with sense knows that.” As soon as he spoke that final jibe, he regretted it, for a frown formed upon her brow.
“I am not stupid,” Lothíriel snapped. “I do know it!”
“Well, there is no promise that you will have more peace and happiness with your father than with me. After all, he has three other children to dote upon, who are beginning families of their own—but you will be my only wife. I can devote far more of myself to your happiness.” And this reasonable argument was finished with a jaunty grin, which weakened her resolve more than she would let him know.
“I can protect you if there is danger, you know,” Éomer added. “A goat-herd is unlikely to wield a sword.”
“Pah!” she said, her face feeling hot. “I detest swords, as I have already explained.”
“With his fists, then. But do we truly need this philosophical debate, Lothíriel? I weary of hypotheticals.”
Lothíriel gave a base nod, and Éomer stood, towering over her for a moment before striding to fetch the horses, who had wandered in the last minutes. She hurriedly smoothed down her hair, straightening her riding gloves and brushing dirt from her skirt. It disguised her uncertainty; she had not realized Éomer could hold such a deliberation. She had given him little credit for wit since their meeting, and this appeared to be the first day she was forced to rethink her prejudice. What had her father said? Éomer is not simply another soldier. I understand that you do not know him yet, but I assure you there is far more to the man than his armor.
She kept her eyes lowered as he brought the gelding to her, her heart suddenly lodging in her throat as she anticipated his lifting her into the saddle again. There was a pause, and his warm fingers crept around her waist. Lothíriel glanced up, her breath catching at the intensity in his eyes. Then she felt weightless, and she was sat upon the saddle with her face flushed. Éomer turned away without a word to his own steed.
She did not know what effort it cost him to leave her side; for within the expanse of his chest, Éomer was feeling the oddest sensation: the forming of an intangible, unbreakable cord, which led directly to the princess and seemed to wind about her littlest finger.
They spoke little the reminder of the day, each being absorbed in their own wonderings, and when they had rejoined Éowyn and Faramir the silence was noticed, but not commented upon.
5 May 3019 T.A., Minas Tirith
Lothíriel collapsed onto the settee in her father’s receiving room with a huff of withheld emotions, her skirts billowing around her. The dramatic action caught the attention of Imrahil, sitting at a desk in the corner, and he turned to observe her features. There was a great deal of emotion in them, but which he could not interpret.
“Was your ride pleasant?” he decided to ask.
“And the company?”
A pause. “Companionable enough.”
“Was Éomer in the company?”
This earned him a reproachful look from his daughter, but he was accustomed enough to those, and merely smiled in return. “Yes,” Lothíriel said at long last.
“What do you think of him? It has been a few days, Lothíriel. I would know your opinion of him.”
She was silent, resting her head against the back of the settee to stare up at the ceiling. Imrahil tapped his fingers against his knee, his patience sorely tested. Mildly he prompted,
“I do not know, Father.”
“Is he kind? Attentive? Do you get along?”
“Yes. I suppose. I do not know.”
“Would you be content being his wife?”
“I do not know.”
For all the years since Imrahil had become a prince upon the death of his father; for all the nobles and lords he had been acquainted with, for all his experience in managing captains and commanders and soldiers—his sole daughter was a different matter entirely. He did not quite know what to do, and hesitated.
“Father, I—” she started to say, and her voice was thick with tears. “I do not know if I can marry him. I do not wish to be another widow.”
“That is rather unlikely, my sweet; the war is done for now, and Éomer is a doughty fighter.”
“I do not doubt that,” Lothíriel said with uncharacteristic bitterness.
“Hmm. Well...” Imrahil decided upon a blend of plain-speaking and thinly-veiled prompting, which worked often for his under-lords. He cleared his throat, picking up once more his quill to continue his work. “Éomer is to leave Gondor in less than two days’ time. Make up your mind quickly, my daughter. I trust in your sense; you will choose the right path.”
You will choose the right path. Lothíriel could sense her father’s wishes in his words, and she grimaced as she rose to retire to her own chambers. Her heart was throbbing and raw, her thoughts a jumble of confusion as she changed into a simple frock and combed out her hair. Unusually restless, she sorted through her embroidery for something to do—and found nothing. None of her collection of books interested her, and with a deep sigh Lothíriel finally sat upon her bed, wondering at her own agitation.
Something struck the door to her terrace—she jolted, then leapt to her feet to investigate and glad of something to do. Another sound hit it just as she was opening the door, and a small pebble fell to the floor.
Her terrace overlooked the street, and Lothíriel leaned over the stone railing to look below. A breath caught in her throat: it was Éomer! He was looking a strange blend of uncertain and smug, and a third stone fell from his hand to the street. In his other hand was a bundle of flowers, and she nearly laughed—they had not been trimmed from their roots, and were dropping clods of dirt upon the street.
“Ah, hello,” he said after a moment. “Good afternoon, princess.”
“Whyever are you here?” Lothíriel asked, curious and flattered and confused, all at once. They had parted at her father’s stables not an hour earlier!
“I—” Éomer started, then stopped. How could he explain to her his not wishing to be apart from her? The urge to be in her presence, the draw in her direction. She would laugh at him! Or disbelieve him. “I wanted to ensure that you are recovering from the ride this morning,” he finished lamely.
“I am quite well, thank you.”
Was he mistaking the small smile upon her lips? He gazed up, unheeding as a group of young nobles passed close behind him. Then he remembered—and brandished the flowers up to her. “I brought these for you,” Éomer said. Lothíriel bent down to reach through pillars to accept he flowers; were he even an inch shorter, he could not have reached her. She put the flowers to her nose, and Éomer swallowed.
“Lothíriel, I—I do not know if you have had a chance to think about, ah—us since this morning, but I still wish to present myself as, er, a potential husband. I would—no! Béma!” The tips of his ears were bright red as he rushed on to say brusquely, “I cannot make speeches, princess; will you consider marrying me yet?”
She flicked a bug from the petals of a flower, hoping that the anguish in her heart was not visible to him. Then she lifted her eyes, trying to ignore the flutters in her stomach as she met Éomer’s, and said, “I cannot marry a man who—” Lothíriel paused, feeling warmth flood to her cheeks. Who what? Where were all her reasons not to marry Éomer? She’d had so many prepared!
“Well,” she said at last, “Never mind. I shall think of something.”
His brow furrowed. “I would rather you not,” he said dryly. “But by all means, sort through your qualms. I will wait.”
He would? Lothíriel stared at him uncertainly—until their vigil was interrupted as a group of men turned the corner from the citadel, dressed in the rough clothing of the Rohirrim. At once they hailed their king in their tongue, and she hastily rose to her feet. Éomer was slow to remove his eyes from her, but turned to his men as they approached.
“We are going to the Guard’s Rest to wet our throats,” Elfhelm said, clasping Éomer upon the shoulder though his eyes drifted curiously to the terrace, where Lothíriel was turning away. “Will ye join us, sire?”
Éomer hesitated; he would rather be with the princess, but he doubted he could press her. Perhaps it was best if he left her to her thoughts. “Aye,” he said at last. “I will.” And turning to Lothíriel, he gave a smart bow in farewell, which she returned with an inclination of her head.
“Good day, my lord,” she said civilly.
“My lady princess.” And Éomer allowed himself to be jostled in between Aldred and Éothain and led down the winding street towards the gate. He did cast a final glance over his shoulder, just to see the last flicker of Lothíriel’s blue skirt as she disappeared through the door. His heart wrenched, begging him to turn back—what use did he have for ale when Lothíriel might be had?
“If Gondorian women be won by foolish foppishness, then ye’ll have her in no time,” Elfhelm muttered. “I thought I did not recognize ye at first, standing there looking completely heartsick!”
“I do not care a whit!” Éomer said sharply. “I am not a fool, and I do not care if I look one—she is the most wonderful woman I have ever met, and I will take whatever course of action I must to win her hand.”
A silence met this, and realizing that he did sound a fool, Éomer loosened his clenched fist. Éothain was first to speak.
“I could not believe it at first, lads—but our king really is in love!”
“As well he should be!” Aldred said, and Éomer welcomed the bickering. He tried to will the hotness from his face—he should not be blushing like some boy! Aldred continued in a sage voice, “Princess Lothíriel is a beauty; I did not credit it at first, but she is truly remarkable. Half the soldiers in the barracks have agreed she is the finest woman in Minas Tirith, if not all of Gondor.”
“What of the other half?” Elfhelm asked, his voice filled with amusement.
“Well—they favor Lady Éowyn, of course.”
“And who did ye cast your lots with?”
Aldred’s face went bright red, and Éomer was able to laugh away his discomfort. He clasped the younger man upon the shoulder, noting his stiffness, and coerced, “Come now, you must tell us! The sister of your king? Or the woman that may become your queen?”
“I would rather not say—”
“I would choose Lady Éowyn,” Elfhelm said, though no one asked.
“Princess Lothíriel is more a fine woman, if that is the argument,” Éothain put in. “Lady Éowyn is accomplished in many ways, but the princess has more elegance.” He turned to Éomer then. “And who would you choose, sire?”
“I could not,” Éomer said after a moment. “Familial loyalty declares Éowyn; my heart yearns in favor of Lothíriel. They may be equally fine, though different.”
“How very diplomatic!” Elfhelm laughed. “Ye’ll learn to be king sometime, sire! You may wish to hold back on the lovesickness, however.”
And on that remarkable revelation, they arrived at the Guard’s Rest, and Éomer tried to put the princess from his mind. But she lingered in the corners, refusing to be forgotten.
6 May 3019 T.A., Minas Tirith
The next morning was bright and far earlier than Lothíriel wished, for just as the day before, she was hustled out of her bed early—but instead of on behalf of Éowyn and Faramir, this was quite against her will. Amrothos was there, hurrying her on as she dressed.
“It will be a treat! The best swordsmen, the best archers, the best wrestlers, the best horsemen—and you will not be the only noblewoman there, I promise! They are all coming. You shan’t ever see such a company assembled again in your life, Lothíriel.”
“I should hope not,” she said crossly, and gave up arranging her hair nicely and settling for a half-plaited crown. She had donned a summer dress, as it was quite warm in her chamber already, and chose a pair of light slippers before Amrothos clasped her hand and hauled her away.
The tournament, as he had called it, was to take place in the lawns of the Citadel. Elessar must have relaxed the rules that no horse enter the First Circle, for there were many saddled and restlessly prancing around inside a makeshift fence of ropes. The noise of so many soldiers and men made Lothíriel wince, and she was half-limp as Amrothos dragged her to where a canopy stood to overlook the main portion, roped off for the competitions, she guessed. It had all been arranged so suddenly, he told her as they hurried on, but the enthusiasm for such an event had brought it to pass.
“There,” he said, and sat her upon a chair between a few other ladies. “Watch for me! I will be amongst the swordsmen.”
Lothíriel’s mood was decidedly sour. She had not known of the tournament before Amrothos had declared she should accompany him, and if she had—she would have exerted herself to refuse him. The sun was too bright, the air too warm, and to watch needless violence? Eugh! But wait—she strained her eyes, leaning forward in her chair as her fingers clenched the armrest—
Éomer! Of course! She could not really be surprised that he was there. Her heart was beating out of her breast, and she forced herself to be calm. He was quite a distance away, near the horses. Was he to compete, then? She had to surmise it to be. But she could not see his sword upon his belt; was he to be among the archers? The wrestlers? Or was he simply there to ride? Oh, she hoped so! She did not think she could bear it if she was forced to watch harm come to him, or any of her brothers. Were Elphir and Erchirion there? And where was her father?
A lady beside her leaned over to begin a conversation, and Lothíriel welcomed the distraction as she tore her eyes away from Éomer.
Éomer, for his part, would have been gratified to know of the princess’s worry for him. He had seen her entrance with Amrothos, and he wondered that she had come to such an event. But he would surely ask her later; for now, he was aware of her sitting in the stands with the ladies, for his arm, the closest limb to her, was tingling strangely.
Éothain approached, his hand upon his sword and his brow pinched. “Sire, Faramir has given the order that the horse-riding is to occur first. We had best ready.”
“Not wrestling?” Éomer asked in surprise; they had been told a schedule the evening before. Was the Steward changing it already?
“No; Elessar wants the horses from the citadel first, before they create too much mess.” There was a glint of amusement in Éothain’s eyes, and Éomer laughed. “Very well, then! Jumping?”
“Aye; we will be last. Are the steeds saddled?”
Lothíriel glanced over every so often to observe Éomer; she did not precisely what he was doing, apart from adjusting the saddles of a few horses. Why? What was he to do? The first event was horse jumping, which she had far less interest in, though many of the spectators were cheering or sighing, depending on the skill of the rider. Then with many helpers the makeshift obstacles were removed, and the crowd began to grow restless. Even as several archery targets were brought in, Lothíriel could not help but see Éomer and one of his men bringing forth four horses.
“Oh, good,” commented one lady in the stand. “It has been nigh on twenty minutes they have been arranging things for the horseback archery; if they are this slow all day, I am sure to perish of heat before noon. Now, what is that king from the north going to do?”
Lothíriel was wondering precisely the same thing. She tried to appear collected, but nerves were fluttering in her breast and her stomach was turning with discomfort. When she saw Éomer mount his steed, she clenched her hands together—when she saw him place his foot upon the seat and draw upwards, slowly to keep his balance, her heart leapt into her throat—and when he accepted the reins of a second horse tethered to his, and planted one booted foot upon the saddle of that second—she grew dizzy with fright.
She saw flurries of colors around her as the ladies clapped appreciatively—likely they were discussing the feat, but Lothíriel could not hear; her hearing was dampened somehow, and she only saw Éomer. His man had mounted the second pair of horses in a similar way, and with no visible command the horses began to break into an even trot.
The men and their horses first sauntered over to the stands. There was no word to describe Éomer’s smile other than plain jaunty; Lothíriel could not return it though his eyes bore intensely into hers even at a distance. The horses turned and continued on around the grounds of the citadel amongst great cheering from the soldiers and men spectating.
She felt as though she might be ill. How could he be so…so foolhardy? Impressive as others found the feat, Lothíriel thought it stupid beyond measure. Éomer could be seriously injured! Did he hold his life in such little esteem? Tears were springing to her eyes as her heart continued to race, and to try to calm herself she lifted her fingers to shield her vision, hating that Amrothos had brought her—why, oh why had she come? She could not bear watching! If one of the horses stumbled, or his footing slipped—she could not watch any harm come to Éomer. Lothíriel surged to her feet, desperate to get away.
Éomer, with his wide view standing atop the horses and turning them back ‘round to take another turn of the grounds, saw when Lothíriel covered her eyes. He felt as though he had been struck in the stomach—was she so upset? By him?
“Go ‘round again,” he called to Éothain. “Firefoot’s saddle is loosening.” And drawing the reins, the horses trotted back to the stables at Éomer’s brisk command. He leapt down with a flash, barking at a boy nearby the check Firefoot’s saddle. Truthfully it was not loose enough to cause him to lose his nerve, but his enjoyment of the trick had dissipated entirely. Éomer barely caught sight of Lothíriel’s pale blue frock as it whipped around the corner of the stands, and disregarding someone calling for him, he hastened after her.
But she did not hear, and he quickened his steps as she half-ran towards the shade of the Citadel, a pale, lonely blue form against the white marble of the walkway and the lush green of the lawns. The noise of the tournament was dying behind them.
She disappeared through the great oaken doors, the darkness of the interior swallowing her completely. Éomer was there a moment later, mounting the steps three at a time, searching for her to appear to his eyes again—
Lothíriel had sagged against the wall, spent from her hurried escape and the emotions painfully wringing her heart. She had scarce noticed that she had been followed, and when Éomer clasped her arm gently to turn her to him, she could only blink up at him, confused and weary.
There was a smolder of something in his green eyes, and his hands lifted to her face, gently stroking her damp cheeks. “Oh, Lothíriel—what is this? Did I cause these tears?”
“N—not you, precisely,” she said, her voice wavering. “It is merely…my reaction to you. To your riding.” He said nothing straightaway, and the words continued to fall from her lips without thought. “What if you had fallen, Éomer? I could not have seen such a thing and forgotten it easily! Think you so little of your life that you endanger it without thinking?” Lothíriel paused, and then pressed her lips together in a frown. “I—I cannot marry a reckless man.”
“Reckless?” A flash of something less-than tender was in his expression.
“Yes, reckless,” she said stoutly. “And arrogant to boot—evidently you have no thought for me if I were to be your wife—what would I do if your body was brought back to me upon a bier, dead from some impulsive feat that turned foul?”
“I have never before—”
“That is obvious!” Lothíriel snapped. “You have only to land on your neck once.”
Silence. His hands still cupped her face gently, and the heat from them and her passionate words were making her quite warm. And Éomer was standing very close—she could feel heat from his broad form, towering over her and disconcerting her with a rush of feelings she did not understand.
“You care for me,” he murmured, and the light in his eyes brightened.
“Well—well—” Her face flushed hot as she stammered. “I shall tell you; there was an incident several years ago in Belfalas. A lord was hunting with his men when his horse bolted from a snake. The lord was unseated—despite having ridden since he was a child—and struck his head upon a rock. He was feverish for several days before he died, leaving a wife and five children alone. I care for you?” And Lothíriel laughed nervously. “I would rather not be a widow, which I am trying to impress upon you.”
“I do not wish you to be a widow,” Éomer said with a wry smile. “Lothíriel, I must be honest with you—I am unsure how to proceed.” His gaze flittered over her face; her pert nose, her widening eyes. “Should I let a woman I hope to be my bride determine my actions? Or ought I to exert my independence? I could ask everyone in Arda, and I am certain I would receive a unique answer from each person.”
“Oh.” Her voice was small, and her skin flushed.
“What is more important to me, princess? My pride? Or my hope that you will be my queen?”
“If you are so torn, you ought to find a woman who cares not whether you risk your life,” Lothíriel said thickly. “Really, Éomer, if you do not wish, I—”
“Stop!” His harsh interruption ceased her words, but were softened as he smiled. “I think I would prefer a wife that cares about my life, rather than not. Lothíriel…I say to you this: you have only to advise me, and I shall listen. Perhaps I may not always heed your warnings—” his mouth twitched as he said this, “—but I will listen. I would rather you are at peace than nearly aught else.”
Lothíriel could not speak for three full minutes, her astonishment was so great. She stared up at Éomer, awaiting her response. But she could think of nothing to say, and her wits seemed to be slow and scattered. He was…he was willing to do such a thing? For her? He would, for her, sacrifice his habits, his doings, his pride?
Suddenly her father came to her mind, and the words he had spoken to her just a few days earlier, “Éomer is an impatient man. Impulsive, even. Very little controls him. But a wife could, in time.”
Her first thought was of enormous responsibility and burgeoning fright that Éomer was devoted enough to their match to allow her such control. How had her father known he would respond this way? The second was that she had, indeed, given him far less regard than he deserved; her impressions of soldiers were that they were unyielding and brutish; he was none of those things at this moment. Her third thought was that she had shown no such loyalty nor disposition to him in turn. Her fourth and final thought was no more or less a wish that he would kiss her again.
“Will you marry me then, Lothíriel? If I promise to do such a thing?” His eyes were beseeching, and she felt tremors of weakness come to her limbs and she bit her lip.
“I—I do not know.”
Disappointment twisted his face, and Lothíriel felt a blow somewhere in the region of her stomach. But he merely nodded, lowering his hands regretfully from her face.
“But I will think on it,” she blurted, and promptly flushed pink. Éomer smiled to see this—he supposed it was an improvement, rather than a flat-out refusal or an ‘I cannot marry a man who does this or that.’ Was he right to influence her towards his own desires? He had Imrahil’s support, so he supposed so. And anyway, he was not going to allow the first woman he’d ever fallen in love with to slip from his fingers so easily.
“Good,” he said at last. “Until then—I shall not perform any more dangerous tasks in the tournament today, to prove to you my constancy and that I hold your peace of mind in high esteem.”
“A tournament is, by its very nature, dangerous,” Lothíriel retorted. “A wooden sword can cause a concussion as sure as falling from a horse. Stay if you like—” Éomer tried not to hear the challenge in her voice, “But I am going home. It is too warm, and I find little enjoyment in watching men try to harm each other.”
“Then I will escort you,” he said mildly, and without waiting he picked up one of her shaking hands and tucked it through her arm.
Without a word, without further questioning, Éomer led her from the Citadel the back way, so that they would not have to pass the tournament again. He felt Lothíriel let out a sigh beside him. Relief? Worry? He could not begin to guess.
There was no doubt she was benefit from staying indoors; he noticed that her face was pale though her jaw set and determined. What were her thoughts? Éomer released her at the gate to her father’s house, and she hesitated a moment before passing through.
“Thank you,” she said at last, unable to think of anything else to say.
“The pleasure is mine,” Éomer replied, and it was true. She gave him a flitting, shallow smile, and disappeared.
6 May 3019 T.A., Minas Tirith
The farewell feast for the men of Rohan was given that night, but Lothíriel’s heart was not quite in it. The few hours she had slept in the afternoon had restored her strength, but not her spirits. She was sat beside Éomer in Merethrond once more, of course—she was not blind to the expectation in her father’s gaze from a nearby table, nor the curiosity. How she wished she had an answer to give! Then at least her agonizing considerations would be over, and neither her father nor Éomer need question her again. It would be done and over with.
To keep from meeting Éomer’s eyes, which she expected he rather wanted to, she pretended to be engrossed in the meal. Lothíriel had little appetite, but to her surprise, Éomer did to appear to, either. A tense silence formed between them after a bare exchange of pleasantries, and she gathered he was as distracted as herself. During the final sweet course, sure that the feast had lasted an entire year and a day, Lothíriel halfheartedly chased a green grape around her plate with her knife.
The gritting clatter of metal against metal was harsh in Éomer’s ears; he ignored it as long as he could before he felt his muscles twitching in response. He glanced over at Lothíriel, saw her distant expression, and reached over to tug the knife from her fingers. She blinked at him, utterly confused with her lovely eyes reflecting candlelight. With a tight smile he stabbed the grape, turning the knife in his hand to offer her the handle.
“Your enemy, madam,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” Lothíriel said stiffly, and accepted the knife with a tremble in her fingers. “A rather brutal reaction to something that has never harmed you, I think.”
“You were fighting a losing battle, princess. I merely thought to take your side.” Even as he spoke, Éomer felt the tenseness leave him, and a smile grew on his face. “I apologize for my bad humor—I have been preoccupied.”
“And you are the same.”
She lifted her chin, her eyes level. “I am perfectly aware.”
“Come now—let us keep each other’s company instead of sulking. This is the last time we shall see each other for quite some time.” Éomer’s smile faded on his face to think of leaving Lothíriel. Her lips were compressed as she met his eyes, and he did not understand her expression. It was carefully shielded; there was no sign nor indication of the passionate woman from their ride in the forest, nor even their confrontation after the tournament that morning.
Impulsively he reached out to grasp her hand, which was limp upon the armrest of her chair. It twitched under his, but she did not move away. She managed a smile, and looked away; pretending to find the servants clearing the tables more interesting than it was. Éomer said nothing for some time, and she was grateful for the chance to gather her wits—still it seemed he could discompose her so easily!
The nights’ entertainment was to be music; several bards and minstrels were ushered into the hall, bearing a variety of instruments. Lothíriel was faintly interested, if only to be distracted. Her eyes were drawn to where her father sat, and with warmth rushing to her face, she saw Imrahil’s keen expression upon her and Éomer—Éomer still held her hand. She winced, unsure what she wished her father to think.
The music provided cover for her troubled thoughts; she was not required to speak nor even to do anything but sit and look interested. This was done easily, for the first several performances, at least—until a woman with braids of chestnut stepped forward, a strange-looking lyre under her arm.
“Is she from Rohan?” Lothíriel asked in surprise.
“Aye,” Éomer replied. “The wife of one of my soldiers.”
“But—she is here?”
“Some women travel with their men to war.”
Lothíriel was distinctly disturbed at this idea. She said no more, though she felt Éomer’s intensely green eyes upon her face for a moment before he turned to watch the singer. The woman had a lovely voice, to be sure, but she sang in Rohirric—the words sounded strange in Lothíriel’s ear, but not unpleasant. As she stared, she suddenly felt Éomer lean nearer to her, and she stiffened at the warmth steeling across her body.
“May I translate for you?” he whispered into her ear. Shivers broke out across her skin there and spread downwards on her neck. Mutely, her cheeks surely red—Lothíriel nodded.
“She sings of young girl,” Éomer said softly. “Gone out one day to watch the soldiers parade in the city. She—ahem—thinks they are very handsome.”
Lothíriel refrained from rolling her eyes.
“She wants to marry one, of course—but her parents are against the match. The soldier encourages her to listen to them; he is going to war and believes she should stay home and be safe. She says she would rather leave everything and go with him. He, ah, protests. But the girl is fearless; this is her general speech: I have fifty coins in bright gold, likewise a heart that is bolder. But I’ll leave them all and go with you, my bold undaunted soldier. I will face the daring foe; we’ll march together to and fro…” Éomer paused, listened for a moment, and then continued. “When he sees her loyalty, he replies: My darling, married we’ll be, and nothing but death will part us. And when we’re in a foreign land, I’ll guard you, darling, with my right hand—”
He broke off abruptly, though the singing continued. He had caught sight of Lothíriel’s expression, which was unguarded in the flickering light. Éomer did not understand her expression, but it made him wish to gather her in his arms and protect her forever. Frustrated, he quenched this desire, and sat back in his chair with a sigh.
Lothíriel barely noticed. Her ears were ringing, the entirety of hall seeming to disappear around her as her heart began to race. Well! Did she trust Éomer’s translation, or was he mocking her? No…she did not believe him to be capable of mocking. What a song to be sung that night! That she be so troubled in her heart, to be torn between accepting Éomer and refusing him, if she could bear the difficulties of wedding a soldier…
Surely—surely she would not be expected to march to war, when Éomer was required to.
When the singing ended some time later, she was jolted away from her thoughts. She had not realized it was so late, and when Éomer drew her to her feet she did not resist.
“May I escort you home?” he asked after an awkward moment. Lothíriel glanced around, but her father was already leaving the hall—she saw the back of his silver and blue doublet disappear out of the doors. Nor were her brothers visible, and she was not surprised. What a trick!
“It seems you are supposed to,” she said, but wondered that she was not more upset. Such a maneuver to keep her in Éomer’s company might have bothered her a few days earlier, but now…
The night air was cool, and the streets silent after the feast in Merethrond, full of soldiers and music and life. Only a few people were wandering about in the torchlight, hastily making for their own homes before the gates were closed at midnight. They meandered on at a leisurely pace, Lothíriel biting her lip with nerves and Éomer meditative. They paused at the gate to her father’s house, and a pair of guards opened the gate and stepped back discreetly.
Éomer, believing he could make no further argument that might convince this woman to wed him, which he so desperately wanted, picked up her hands and brought them to his lips. Her grey eyes swam with emotion.
“Lothíriel,” he said at last. “I love you.” She blinked up at him for a moment, and the silence around them was deafening.
“What?” Lothíriel said hoarsely. “I think I misheard you.”
“I love you.”
“Wh—no, surely not! I—my hearing quite bad tonight, I suppose, I—”
“I love you, Lothíriel.” Éomer would not be deterred, and his eyes fastened on hers with fiery intensity. “You need not speak your skepticism, for I see it in your face—but I do not lie. I cannot quite fathom how I’ve come to love you so deeply in a matter of days, but it does not matter. I…am not in the habit of questioning my emotions.”
“Of course not,” she said dryly, trying to disguise that her limbs were quivering with nerves and heart liable to burst.
“If you will not be my wife, so be it. But it will not change that I love you with all my heart.”
Lothíriel let out an even breath, and broke away from his gaze. “That may provide some difficulties, I think,” she murmured, and took her hands away. “Good night, my lord.”
She did not see his shattered expression as she turned away, but his strident bootsteps seemed to echo in the street as she escaped into the safety of her father’s house.
There was no sleep to be had that night—she tossed and turned, rose to pace in front of the hearth, finally threw open the window to breathe in the night air—witchy air, her aunt Ivriniel always called it. But Lothíriel felt no more disturbed with the night air than without it, for her troubles were in her heart.
Could she marry Éomer? A soldier? Her father believed she should, and he had proven himself quite wise in this matter in recent days. He had spoken of the influence she might have, of the work she might do…neither of those disturbed her quite as much as the idea of Éomer dying somehow and her floundering alone in Rohan.
But…he loved her. Did that not change things?
Lothíriel could refuse to marry him on account of avoiding warfare in favor of a more peaceful life—but for love? Could she turn her back on peace in Dol Amroth for love, for the unknown of Rohan and its people, for the passion Éomer offered her? There would be less peace, perhaps, as she knew Rohan would struggle to rebuild, but…there would be love. And if she understood the glint in his eyes when he looked at her, there would be a great deal of that love.
Her cheeks warmed to even think about him. To be wed to him…Lothíriel returned to her bed, embarrassed to be out in only her nightgown, but she left the window open. It was easy to give into lazy dreaming about being Éomer’s wife, and she did so with a smile forming on her face. To have his handsome smile in her life, and the way he had kissed her…to have fulfilled by him those shivery yearnings which hummed her veins whenever they touched.
Well, perhaps it would not be so bad. At least, perhaps the wonderful love Éomer was offering would be worth it. It would be worth everything.
Lothíriel was awake to greet the dawn, her heart pounding fast as she rose and dressed quickly. A cloak to ward off the morning’s dew, and she did not bother combing her hair—it hardly mattered! She rushed from her chambers with nary a thought for breakfast, instead slipping out through the gate after a guard informed her that her father and brothers were already gone to farewell the armies.
The path to her father’s stables was lively enough, for the morning, but servants and soldiers parted easily for her to hurry by—down the marble steps and into the courtyard to see hundreds of soldiers, mounted upon their steeds or leading them by the reins. Anxiously she glanced around—Éomer should be easy to see, as he was the tallest of the men of Rohan. She even caught a glimpse of her father’s back, speaking to a captain, but she hurried on. She had nothing to tell her father—not yet, anyway.
Where was Éomer, if not with his men? Lothíriel bit her lip in thought, pausing as a sense of hopelessness began to beat in her chest. He had to be there! Her eyes drifted towards the stables…and hope returned.
The stables were nearly empty with the horses of Rohan mostly readied and waiting outside. She was breathing heavily in her haste, glancing quickly into each stall. How was Éomer always there when she did not wish him, and when she was actively seeking him he seemed to disappear?
She jumped back from an empty stall, turning around to see—Éomer! At last!—standing by the stable door with his stallion’s reins in hand and a saddle flung across his shoulder. His face was tight with confusion, and for a moment she could not speak. She did not much like the sight of him in his armor.
“Hello,” she said lamely.
He gave a curt nod. Éomer truthfully did not understand why she was there, nor looking so flustered. But it was none of his concern; he gave a flitting smile and turned to lead Firefoot outside.
To his surprise, she followed.
“Éomer,” she started to say. He swung the saddle over the blanket on Firefoot’s back, unwilling to meet her eyes. Had she come to cause more pain?
“Are you here to say farewell?” Éomer asked blandly. “I do not doubt you are pleased to see me depart.”
“Oh! Not at all!” Her words were twisted with emotion, and briefly he did look up, and he saw that her face was pinched with concern. He shrugged, despite the flurry of emotion in his chest. Lothíriel had come—he did not know why. For him? He would not have thought so, not after last night. But throwing his last shreds of dignity to the wind, Éomer decided to ask her, one last time, however little his hope.
“I do not suppose you would care to marry me,” he said gruffly, his eyes on the saddle as he wrenched it tightly.
Relief flooded Lothíriel, and she cried aloud, “Oh, yes, I would!”
But he did not look up, continuing dully, “I am sorry I could not satisfy you, princess. I had hoped you might reconsider—” Then he paused, his eyes flickering upwards in unmistakable surprise. And hope.
“Lothíriel…?” Éomer’s voice was hesitant.
“I would very much like to marry you,” she told him, unable to keep a smile from beaming on her face. “You see, I could only marry a man who goes beyond common sense to have me as his wife.”
The belt of the saddle was dropped as he strode around Firefoot, his eyes blazing and holding her captive. Then he was pulling her close, his strong arms around her waist and her heart hammering—his lips descended on hers with all the yearning and passion she felt heating her veins. Lothíriel clung to him, hating the feel of his vambraces but able to feel the strength of the arms which wore them. Her warrior, her king—so he would always be, but for her…he was more.
“Lothíriel…” Éomer said hoarsely, pulling away. He lifted his hands to touch her face, and kissed her again, and he kissed her nose, her cheeks, her forehead, and she began to giggle.
“Oh, Éomer! Your men shall tease you for this your entire journey back to Edoras.”
“Let them. For I am the happiest man in Arda, I am sure of it.”
Her knees went weak, and he claimed her lips once more.
There were distant calls and whistles—well, there probably better places to do this than a public courtyard with all his men in plain view, and her family as well. With difficulty Éomer pulled away, cradling her face in his hands as she tried to steady her breath.
“Tell me,” he said roughly. “Why now?”
Lothíriel gazed up at him, brimming with happiness. “It was some time coming,” she admitted in a low voice. “I apologize for the difficulties I have caused both of us—but there were some…things I needed to understand.”
“Well—I am not the first woman to fear her husband—or would-be husband—dying. Whether you will or not is uncertain, but what is certain is that you are offering me love now. I could lose you, but I would first be happier than I could ever be otherwise.”
His lips curled into a smile.
“And…” Lothíriel swallowed. “You are willing to change for me. You wish to make me happy…and I think a man that will do such a thing is one to be treasured. You will likely make a better husband than a man who would do no such thing, even if he is not a soldier.”
His brow quirked upwards. “I am flattered, to be sure,” Éomer said dryly.
“As you should be!” she cried, her brows pinching now. “If you dare take back anything you have said—”
But he laughed, and kissed her quickly on the lips, effectively silencing her. “I do not,” he assured her.
“Good,” Lothíriel said, her expression relaxing. “For I have determined to give you the same courtesy you have me. I can…forgive your tendencies.” I hope, she added to herself, unwilling to damper her declaration. But it did not matter; Éomer was beaming at her with the full force of his handsome smile.
“I love you, Lothíriel of Dol Amroth,” he said.
She returned his smile, feeling warmth rush to her face. “And I you, Éomer of Rohan.”
His attention was drawn away then by an approaching figure, which even from this distance was looking equal parts relieved and satisfied. Éomer grinned and said softly into Lothíriel’s ear,
“Your father is coming.”
“Oh—oh, dear,” she bit her bottom lip as she shifted in his embrace. “I suppose he is going to be terribly smug about all this.”
“Though in my father’s defense—he was perfectly correct about you in every way.”
Éomer paused, blinking down at her. “In every way? In what way, madam? What did your father tell you about me?”
But Lothíriel only smiled benignly up at him, before turning to greet her father with flushed cheeks.