10. Epilogue: peace settlement
Epilogue: Peace settlement
He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
(Hyarmendacil: The Art of War)
Minas Tirith, Third Age 3020.
It was a mild night and the windows of Merethrond, the Great Hall of Feasts, had been thrown wide open. Éomer stood near one of the doors leading into the gardens and enjoyed the slight breeze that brought with it the smell of spring flowers and damp earth. He surveyed the crowd of elegantly attired lords and ladies and sighed inwardly when he noticed the many green gowns worn by the female guests. It seemed rather fitting that the colour should be associated with hunting. They did not know that he much preferred being the hunter to being the prey.
Well, the spot he had chosen had two strategic advantages, one of them being a quick means of escape into the gardens. The other was that it afforded an unimpeded view of the great double doors leading into the hall through which new arrivals were still streaming all the time. In the middle of the floor the King and Queen of Gondor were holding court and greeting their many guests. Éomer had exchanged a few words with his friend Aragorn when he had first arrived, but had not lingered long. Polite and absolutely meaningless conversation with the many courtiers seeking his attention was not really to his taste. In fact there was only one person he was looking forward to meeting tonight, but she wasn't here. Yet, he hoped.
The musicians struck up a lively tune and over at the other end of the hall couples lined up for the first dance. Éomer saw his sister being led onto the floor by Faramir, the two having eyes for nobody else but each other. Marriage seemed to suit Éowyn, she was positively glowing with happiness.
Resolutely ignoring the hopeful damsels lingering about in his vicinity and throwing him covert glances he turned back to his surveillance of the arriving guests. On the wall facing the main entrance were displayed the banners of all the nobles expected tonight and next to his own white horse on a green field was the swan and ship of Dol Amroth. What he hadn't been able to discover, however, was who exactly of the family would attend the celebrations.
Éomer's mind went back to last autumn and his leave-taking of the princess and once again he wondered if he had been too bold to kiss her like he had. Even though Lothiriel had responded in kind, he had started to worry since that he might have frightened her with his passionate demands. The innocent way in which she returned his kisses should have been enough to tell him how little experience she had with men, but at the time he had simply let his impulses rule his actions.
Like so often, Éomer ruefully thought to himself. He would really have to learn to master his temper instead of being mastered by it. There was just something about the Princess of Dol Amroth and the enticing challenge she represented that made him want to take her in his arms and not let go again. Maybe it was the way she did not care in the least about his crown, unlike almost every other woman he had met, or maybe it was simply the melting look he had surprised a couple of times in those fathomless black eyes. He was convinced that a minute in her presence would suffice to tell him what her feelings were for him, but what if she didn't come tonight?
The first dance had come to an end and there was a lull in the steady stream of arrivals when the herald loudly announced some new guests.
"His Highness, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth," his voice rang out, "and her Highness Princess Lothiriel of Dol Amroth."
Involuntarily Éomer took a step forward and for some reason, perhaps his sudden movement or uncommon height and blond hair, she looked over and their eyes met for the briefest moment. It was enough.
Her steps faltered momentarily, but she quickly recovered her poise and took her father's arm to be introduced to the King and Queen of Gondor. Éomer made his way across the hall towards them, and although she kept her eyes lowered he knew she was as keenly aware of him as he was of her. Her gown tonight was of the deepest crimson, its long flowing lines and lack of adornment emphasizing the wearer's curves in the most pleasing manner and making her golden skin glow in the candlelight. He would have to be careful with the compliments he paid her, Éomer thought with a grin, to avoid being cut down to size with a few sharp words.
Just as he reached Aragorn's side she sank into a deep curtsy, somehow managing to gracefully include him as well. The King of Gondor shot him an amused glance, but refrained from making any comments and instead bid Imrahil and his daughter welcome.
"Éomer my friend," Aragorn turned to him with an innocent expression on his face, "I believe you've met the Princess of Dol Amroth?"
Éomer bowed over the slim hand she extended to him. "I have indeed. You look lovely, Princess Lothiriel."
The corners of her eyes crinkled as she had to suppress laughter. "Thank you King Éomer, you flatter me."
"Not at all," he assured her, "Will you dance with me?"
Prince Imrahil looked slightly bemused at this forthright approach, but his daughter just took it in her stride.
"With pleasure," she replied and accepted his proffered arm.
"To strike boldly and unexpectedly is to win half the battle," he quoted as he whisked her away towards the dance floor.
"Don't tell me you've been studying Hyarmendacil!" She really had the most enchanting laugh.
"I have indeed," he replied, "and what is more have found it excellent advice, to be put into practice at once."
"So I see," she shot back. Her red dress made her look like a bold poppy in a field of grass and he wondered if she had suspected that everybody else would be wearing green. Quite possibly, Éomer mused, after all she was a seasoned campaigner.
"I'm relieved to see your aunt has not inflicted another gown on you," he remarked.
"Actually she has," Lothiriel said with a grin, "but it got mislaid somehow on the way to Minas Tirith."
"Another pink monstrosity?" Éomer asked with a shudder.
She laughed outright. "Deepest purple with silver stripes," she confessed. He tried to imagine her wearing it but failed utterly, although with her unconscious grace she had even managed to carry the pink dress off.
The current dance was still in full swing, a complicated affair with the couples passing down the line and back up repeatedly, so by silent consent they decided to wait for it to end. He felt absurdly pleased at seeing her again and watched her covertly, the shiny black hair, the slightly slanted eyes with their exotic cast, those red lips smiling up at him invitingly. It took a firm act of will to quash the desire to kiss her. Lothiriel lowered her eyes and a slight blush spread across her cheeks. Were his thoughts so obvious? He frantically searched for something innocuous to talk about.
"I haven't thanked you yet for all your help over the winter," he said and felt her relax again slightly.
"I promised, didn't I," she replied.
"So you did," he agreed, "but I never expected you to deliver so much so quickly."
In fact the first shipment had arrived a week after he got back to Edoras himself, it having been dispatched the same day that he had left Dol Amroth and from then on his men had been kept busy without a pause. Not that it had all gone without a hitch, but they had made it through the winter without a famine, especially when Aragorn and Faramir had sent supplies as well. Of course he had a pretty good idea who had put the King of Gondor up to that.
"We owe you a great deal," he told her and he meant it.
Lothiriel gave a graceful shrug of her shoulders. "It is an honour. After all if it weren't for the Rohirrim we would not be here today to celebrate this victory."
"It must have been a lot of work," Éomer remarked, "I don't know how you managed to organize it all."
"Practice," she replied, "and my sister-in-law was so kind as to take over some of my duties in Dol Amroth. She will have to run the household eventually anyway when I get married."
Éomer had some plans as to that himself, but judged it too early to say anything. He was determined to take things slowly this time, after all he was planning to stay in Minas Tirith for a couple of weeks. At the same time just having her so near to him already threatened to overturn his resolve not to rush her. Maybe he would allow himself to ask for one chaste kiss tonight?
"Dol Amroth is extremely popular in the Mark," he said and she gave him a pleased smile. "Especially amongst my pig-herders," he couldn't resist adding.
"Pig-herders?" Lothiriel looked confused, "What do you mean?"
"All those pigs we got sent from some lady in Lamedon," he explained.
Understanding dawned in her eyes. "Are you telling me Lady Nenar sent you live pigs? It was supposed to be barrels of salted pork."
"They were very much alive when I saw them," he laughed, "and my men had a lot of trouble to get them through the passage under the Dwimorberg. It's a good thing the ghosts were laid to rest by Aragorn or they would surely have been woken up by all that frantic squealing!"
Lothiriel's expression flowed from disconcerted to annoyed to amused. "That scatterbrain!" she exclaimed, "She owed me a favour, so I thought it easiest if she sent you the pigs directly. Still, that must have been quite a sight to behold."
"It certainly was," he said with a reminiscent smile, "Éothain complained for days afterwards that he was smelling like a pig."
They shared a grin and he thought how pretty she looked with her black eyes dancing with laughter. Her manners might have been cold and formal at their first meeting, but not her eyes, never her eyes. They had bewitched him from the start.
"I've missed you Lothiriel," he said abruptly.
Her hand trembled on his arm, but she was saved from having to answer by the music ending at that moment. There was a general clapping of hands before the couples lined up for one of the more formal Gondorian court dances and they took their place amongst the other dancers.
The musicians started playing again and the ladies sank into deep curtsies while the men bowed. On the third count they met in the middle and executed a series of complicated turns and steps. There was some laughing confusion down the line as some of his riders found this too much to master and dropped out of the dance with their partners. For once in his life Éomer was glad of the tutoring his uncle had insisted on, although he had been bored to death at the time. While he had to concentrate on his steps at first, he at least did not embarrass himself by tripping over his partner or colliding with the couples on either side.
It was rather a frustrating experience however, when the dance kept separating them and he hardly had any opportunity to exchange a word with Lothiriel. She would not quite meet his eyes and did not venture a reply to his last statement.
"Have I offended you with my directness?" he whispered when they next met for a quick turn around each other, only their fingertips touching each other. She moved with the unconscious assurance and grace imparted by years of dancing lessons.
Three steps forward, turn around and clap your hands, three steps forward again to pass your partner on the other side.
She shook her head. "You haven't."
"Then what's the matter?" As a means of holding a conversation this dance really left a lot to desire.
They met again. "When dancing, you're supposed to talk about the weather or the other guests," she pointed out.
Three steps forward, turn around and bow to your partner, three steps forward again to have her pass under your arm.
"The weather is fine and the other guests are uninteresting," he complied with her request.
The glance she threw him was half exasperated, half amused.
"Now you could ask if I had a pleasant journey," she instructed him at their next pass.
Three steps forward, turn around and pause a moment, three steps forward again.
"So tell me, Princess Lothiriel," he said at the next opportunity, "how was your journey from Dol Amroth?" At least it wasn't one of those dances where you changed partners all the time.
"Completely uneventful. How was yours?" she answered with a grin and he rolled his eyes, only to be parted from her again.
The dancers now formed a line facing each other and in its turn each couple passed down it. When it was their turn, Éomer saw his sister watching them speculatively and turn to the lady next to her to whisper a question to her. He did not hear the answer, but knew exactly what it would be and wondered if any rumours had reached Éowyn's ears regarding last autumn's visit to Dol Amroth.
The dance ended at that point and he found himself quite close to where the musicians were seated. Struck by a sudden idea he pulled Lothiriel over towards them.
"Éomer, what are you doing?" she protested laughingly, but he hushed her.
"I've got an idea," he explained and went to talk to the leader of the group.
When he turned back to Lothiriel, he saw that a Gondorian courtier was bowing to her, obviously in the process of asking her for a dance. Fortunately a single black look on his part sent the man scurrying away again. The princess looked rather startled at his quick disappearance.
"You shouldn't do that," she chided, "people will start talking."
"I wasn't going to let him steal this dance," Éomer replied, "This is the closest you will get to Rohirric music."
The musicians struck up a lively and energetic tune and as he put one hand lightly on her waist her loose hair brushed across his skin and he became achingly aware of her lithe body under the thin silk. Firmly disciplining his thoughts he showed her the simple steps and off they were.
"This is fun!" Lothiriel laughed as he whirled her around, her skirts brushing against his legs.
"It also has the advantage that one can hold a conversation without being interrupted all the time," he pointed out. The other advantage being of course that you held your partner so close she could not evade your questions.
"Did you miss me too?" he asked her.
Her steps faltered briefly, but she was far too consummate a dancer to trip. "Is this the kind of topic the Rohirrim like to talk about while dancing?" she countered smoothly.
"No, that's my personal preference," he admitted, "So did you?"
She was forced into a laugh. "You don't give up easily, do you! Can you miss somebody when you've only met him for a day?"
"It was rather an intense day, or am I mistaken?"
She blushed adoringly. "Yes it was and I did miss you…a little," she amended.
He could not suppress a grin of triumph and Lothiriel shot him an annoyed look. "Do you always corner your opponents like this?" she asked.
"I don't really think of you as an opponent." He let his hand slide up her back very slightly.
"What do you take me for then?" She suddenly chose to concentrate on her steps again.
"An ally I hope?" The question hung in the air between them for a long moment.
"It is my father who is responsible for forging alliances between Dol Amroth and Rohan, not me," she replied demurely.
"I was thinking of approaching Prince Imrahil with a proposition for this particular alliance, but after my previous experience I wanted to test the ground first."
"That's always a good idea," she agreed and he half expected her to add one of her quotations.
"Last time I encountered rather unexpected resistance to the idea. Do you think the same would happen again?"
"That depends on your motives," she looked up at last and fixed him with a challenging stare, "Do you propose this alliance out of gratitude for my help last winter?"
Éomer knew instinctively he would have to tread very carefully. What had happened to his resolve to take things slowly?
"Lothiriel," he said cautiously, "although I am very much indebted to you, gratitude is actually not the first thing that springs to mind when I think of you."
He hesitated. Love? Desire? Need? "Longing," he whispered at last.
"What for?" Her voice was soft.
"For somebody to share my life with me, to bring warmth and light back to Meduseld, to laugh at me with her black eyes…"
The music had ended and they stood facing each other, completely oblivious of the other guests.
"Will you marry me?" he asked.
It was so simple in the end. "Yes," she smiled.
His hand tightened on her waist, but he was aware of the many curious glances directed their way already. Looking around he spotted one of the exits leading out of the hall.
"Shall we discuss the details in the garden?" he asked politely.
"What details?" she laughed, but followed him willingly when he led her out the door.
Once they were out of sight of the other guests he pulled her into one of the conveniently placed alcoves along the wall and kissed her soundly. She melted into his arms in the most satisfactory manner. Her golden skin was as soft and silken as he remembered and she tasted of the mint sprigs the ladies here in Gondor chewed to freshen their breath. Desire ran through him in a red-hot tide and he pulled her closer still, wanting to have nothing between them. To his delight she responded by pressing against him and running her fingers through his long hair.
"You have not learnt this from your books," he whispered in her ear and bent to kiss the sensitive skin of her throat where her pulse beat rapidly.
Lothiriel gave a surprised gasp and stood on tiptoe to allow him better access. It was an offer he could not refuse and it took considerable willpower to keep his hands from straying to her laces when she trembled in his arms tantalizingly, her eyes closed, her breathing ragged. So deliciously herself, completely innocent, utterly desirable.
"I'd forgotten what it feels like," she said in wonder.
Éomer laughed. "I won't let you forget again, love," he assured her, "not as long as I live."
"Oh Éomer," she exclaimed softly, "I've missed you so much, it didn't seem possible."
"And I've been thinking of you all winter," he confessed before claiming those sweet tasting red lips for another kiss.
"One last thing," he remarked after they had in this way thoroughly reassured each other of their feelings.
"Yes?" She sounded so delightfully breathless that he absolutely knew he would have to kiss her again in the near future.
"If I ever again catch you treading on my feet deliberately while dancing, I will be most displeased."
She looked first startled then intensely guilty at her perfidy thus revealed. "You noticed?"
"Almost at once. You really deserve some punishment!"
Black eyes met blue.
"Now?" she asked sweetly and tilted up her face.
The quotation at the beginning of the chapter is from Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'
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