2. First passage at arms
First passage at arms
In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle,
but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.
(Mardil Voronwë: Tactics of Gondorian Warfare)
Lothiriel had to admit the King of Rohan was living up to his reputation as a hardy and tough warrior. This was the third time she had deliberately trod on his feet and apart from a slight wince he showed no other reaction. Still, that was to be expected. Compared to facing down all those orcs during the war, enduring a dance with a clumsy and bumbling girl would not tax him much. Somehow she did not think she quite measured up to a nazgûl or mûmak.
He had turned out to be a better dancer than she had expected, but not quite as accomplished as herself. Lothiriel fixed her eyes on the front of his tunic, as if hoping to find inspiration there what to do next. To her surprise he had chosen to wear blue tonight, instead of the traditional green of the Rohirrim. Not that it mattered, for the pink still clashed horribly with it, but she wondered if it was meant as a compliment to Dol Amroth. Probably just a coincidence, she decided in the end.
If the situation had been less grim she would have laughed at the picture they surely presented. He had dressed almost austerely, his tunic only sporting very modest embroidery along the hem and collar, whereas she could have supplied a whole village with fripperies. There was no doubt, however, who looked more regal. The question was if he noticed the fact.
Lothiriel had had several months to come up with a plan and had spent considerable thought on her strategy for tonight, in the end deciding on the traditional two-pronged attack. On one hand she wanted to make him see her as completely unsuitable for the role of his queen while at the same time presenting him with the most beautiful women of Gondor. The second part had met with success anyway. It was amazing what the prospect of a crown effected.
The dance had come to an end and she started fanning herself with one hand, as if that little exercise had exhausted her already. He took the hint.
"Would you care for a break?" he asked her solicitously. Was there a hint of relief in his voice?
"That would be nice," she replied, glad to have the dancing done with. Stepping on his feet was a bit like kicking an opponent that was down already and could not defend himself.
"We could go for a turn in the garden," she suggested, "but you would have to ask my aunt for permission first."
Of course just meeting Princess Ivriniel had put many a potential suitor off completely and she would never allow her niece to walk in the garden with a man she had only just met and who was a barbarian to boot. So it was with considerable hidden glee that Lothiriel introduced King Éomer to her aunt.
"My favourite aunt," she added in an aside to him, not thinking it necessary to point out that she was also the only living one.
He took one startled look at the figure facing him in her gown encrusted with silver and gold, her ample chest covered in necklaces of every precious stone imaginable, and gave a deep bow.
Ivriniel ignored him, looking over her niece in satisfaction instead. "I see you're finally wearing that gown I gave you," she said.
"I was keeping it for a special occasion," Lothiriel replied and her aunt gave her a surprised look, not used to such meekness.
"Well, niece, it's nice seeing you finally wear something so maidenly and becoming," she pronounced, causing King Éomer to suffer from a sudden coughing fit.
Ivriniel fixed him with a haughty stare. "And you are the King of Rohan?" she asked, "Aren't you rather young?"
If he was taken aback at the accusatory tone he did not show it. "I am twenty-eight years old my lady," he replied evenly, "in my country that is considered a good age."
She looked dubious. "I dare say it's different amongst barbarians, but here in Gondor a stripling like you would hardly be considered old enough to rule."
Lothiriel had watched the exchange attentively and had noticed the tension in the King of Rohan at being called a barbarian. His eyes had gone hard again and she was suddenly glad she wasn't at the receiving end of that steely glare.
"I came to my kingship on the battlefield," he bit off, "I had no choice in the matter."
Ivriniel nodded. "I suppose that's not your fault," she conceded grudgingly, somehow still managing to make it sound like carelessness on his part, "At least you speak our language well."
King Éomer had recovered his temper and gave another bow. "You flatter me," he echoed Lothiriel's own earlier words, "My grandmother hailed from Lossarnach and the language of Gondor was spoken at my uncle's court."
"I knew Lady Morwen of Lossarnach, you know," Ivriniel answered.
"You have the advantage of me then, my lady," he said, "I never met her. She moved back to Gondor after her husband's death, leaving her son behind to rule the Mark."
Aunt Ivriniel seemed to hear some hidden disapproval in his voice for she gave him that look of hers that could have withered a nazgûl on the spot. "It seems only reasonable to me that she wanted to spend her last years in her native country."
"Of course," he agreed blandly.
Lothiriel had to admit King Éomer was bearing up better than she had expected. Most men would have wilted under the icy glare Aunt Ivriniel now threw him. But then she had always known he was tough, he had to be, to survive the war unscathed.
"Éomer, my friend, I see you've made my sister's acquaintance," it was her father who had come up behind them unnoticed.
If the King of Rohan was relieved at this rescue, he did not show it. "I've just had the pleasure," he confirmed, "I was going to ask if it would be all right to take Princess Lothiriel for a walk in the garden."
"Certainly not!" Ivriniel exclaimed, but Prince Imrahil cut right across her. "Of course you may."
When his sister looked thoroughly scandalized and started to remonstrate with him, he took her by the arm and firmly led her away. Lothiriel had no doubt her father knew perfectly well what she'd had in mind when introducing the King of Rohan to this most formidable member of their family. Apparently he wasn't put off so easily, though, for before she knew it she found herself bundled through a side door and in the gardens.
This part of them was very formal, with carefully laid out flowerbeds lined with low hedges. They were not the only couple having chosen to go for a stroll and torches were set at intervals all along the gravel paths to light their way. Also the full moon had risen by now, casting its silvery light over them.
Lothiriel made no attempt to break the uncomfortable silence that had descended between her and the King of Rohan, valiantly suppressing the urge to be a good hostess. She stole a quick look at him and marked with satisfaction that he seemed ill at ease. Finally he cleared his throat.
"We do not have anything like these gardens in the Mark," he said, "they're very pretty."
"Yes," Lothiriel contented herself with saying.
He searched for another thing to say. "Do you often walk here?"
"Yes." She almost began to feel sorry for him.
"I suppose it must take a lot of gardeners to look after them?"
Another silence descended, even more strained than the one before, and only broken by the gravel crunching under their steps. They had reached a small pool glinting serenely in the moonlight and he settled her on one of the stone benches overlooking it. In the summer the water would be covered in water lilies, but now the plants were half dormant already, their leaves brown and sere in anticipation of the coming winter. There was a light breeze and Lothiriel wondered what it would be like to live in a country so far removed from the seashore that she would never again smell the tang of the ocean.
She had half expected the King of Rohan to join her on the bench, but instead he stood with one foot on the paved rim of the pool, looking out over it with a frown. Lothiriel took the opportunity to observe him covertly. His features were handsome, but seemed distant and cold in the pale moonlight, and she wondered what the ladies of Minas Tirith had seen in him, apart from his crown. A warrior born and bred, she judged him, but he also had that unconscious air of command about him that marked him as a natural leader of men. She had in fact made a study of him and his people, gathering whatever information she could find, and even sending for copies of books on Rohan from the Great Library in Minas Tirith. It always paid to know as much as possible about your opponent in advance, especially when said opponent didn't even know he was in the middle of a battle.
King Éomer turned towards her and she suddenly found her gaze caught by his blue eyes. For a long moment he looked down at her as if searching for something in her face, then he gave her a slow smile. Abruptly Lothiriel realized just what the ladies of Minas Tirith had seen in this king, for his smile was warm and open and seemed to draw her in like the lure of a light drew a moth. Not ice but rather fire! She smiled back impulsively and then belatedly cursed herself for having dropped her guard.
Still holding her eyes, he took a step towards her and her stomach flipped over in the most alarming fashion.
"You have such extraordinary eyes, Princess Lothiriel." His voice was low, almost a purr.
That was in fact the wrong thing to say, for she had been complimented on them far too often. The spell broken, Lothiriel found herself able to breathe and think again.
"Yes, I know," she replied.
He looked taken-aback. I'm not snared that easily, she thought savagely.
"Most of my admirers compare them to limpid pools of midnight black," she added, "or was it a starless night mirrored in a forest pool?"
She frowned as if trying to remember, while he stared at her nonplussed.
"Do you have many admirers?" By the tone of his voice he rather doubted it.
"Of course," she replied, "after all I'm a princess."
"Of course," he agreed, no doubt thinking she did not notice the hint of irony.
Again she had underestimated him, however, for he at once changed his approach.
"Princess Lothiriel," he began, "I am no courtier, so I hope you will forgive me my plain speaking."
She was wary by now. "What do you mean?"
He spread his hands. "Your father has told me he has spoken to you, so you know why I am here."
Surprised by this frontal attack, all she could do was nod cautiously.
"I seek a wife and a queen for the Riddermark and feel we could deal together very well."
Lothiriel was secretly fuming. Couldn't he see how completely unsuitable she was? Instead he was trying to find common ground!
"I would try to be a good husband to you," he added earnestly and gave her another smile.
It dawned on her then that here was a very dangerous opponent, indeed, a master fencer. For an instant she was again caught by his magnetic charm and was overcome with the desire to tell him the truth, but then she ruthlessly suppressed that impulse. She could not afford to throw away her only advantage. With a start she became aware of the fact that he was waiting for some kind of answer from her.
"You will?" was all she could think of and he looked slightly disappointed at her lack of enthusiasm.
"Faramir has told me that you have already shown considerable interest in the history and customs of the Mark."
Lothiriel had applied to Faramir for those copies of books from the Great Library and now silently cursed herself for not remembering that he was of course betrothed to King Éomer's sister and as such sure to be in communication with him.
"Yes, that's true," she had to admit, but tried to regain her advantage at once, "I have to say, though, that I found the histories rather confusing. I'm not much of a scholar."
He did not look surprised at this confession and she quickly hid her hands under her full skirts, lest he notice she had balled them into fists. She was by far the most well read of Prince Imrahil's children.
"Don't worry about that," he consoled her, "I'm sure one of my bards would be delighted to instruct you."
"I also can't make head nor tail of your language," she added, "but then you won't expect me to learn it, will you?"
One of the interesting points those books had mentioned was the fact that his grandmother Morwen of Lossarnach had been criticized for insisting the language of Gondor be spoken at her husband's court and Lothiriel hoped he remembered that fact.
Apparently he did, for he looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Rohirric is not all that difficult, I'm sure you would find it easy to learn."
She acted as if she hadn't heard his concern. "Well, I'm sure all the important people in Rohan speak Westron anyway, don't they."
For a moment he looked as if he had to bite back a sharp retort, but then he mastered his temper and again changed track. It looked like he was one of those people who just couldn't see when they were beaten.
"Your father has told me you are an excellent rider," he said, "you would like it in the Mark."
Her whole family seemed absolutely determined to betray her. The thing was, she would have liked to see Rohan and its famous horses, but as a visitor not as a bride.
"Father said that?" she did her best to act surprised.
"Yes, when he was in Edoras for my uncle's funeral." King Éomer hesitated, "I sent you a horse as a gift, does she suit you?"
Now he had caught her neatly. The mare her father had brought back from Rohan was simply beautiful, gentle yet spirited, and Lothiriel had fallen in love with her the moment she had set eyes on her. Thinking of Snowflake she for a moment forgot all about the role she was playing.
"Oh, she's marvellous!" she exclaimed involuntarily and then bit her lip. He was looking at her with real approval for the first time and she could have kicked herself for ruining all her previous hard work. Feeling like an animal caught in a trap and struggling against the nets inexorably tightening, she did her best to undo her careless words.
"That is … I like to pet her," she explained, "She's rather big."
"Pet her!" It looked like she had recovered all her lost ground in one fell swoop.
"She has such a soft coat," Lothiriel followed up her advantage, "but for riding I really prefer ponies."
He looked like he was sorry he had given her the horse and she could not blame him. A sudden fury at being reduced to lying and playacting in this way swept through her and she had to take a tight grip on herself to keep from simply blurting everything out. Why did these two men think they could order her life for her? She quickly lowered her eyes, lest he read her true feelings in them.
He sat down next to her on the bench and gently took hold of one of her hands, her slim fingers being completely swallowed up in his big capable warrior's hand.
"I could teach you to ride your mare," he said softly and Lothiriel stared at him. Didn't the man ever give up? This close, the force of his personality was almost overwhelming. She saw herself forced to fall back on her last line of defence.
"Oh, that's all right," she tried for her most nonchalant tone, "I don't expect my husband to dance attendance on me all the time."
The mood was broken again. "You don't?"
"Certainly not. I'm sure you will be an indulgent husband."
"Indulgent? What do you mean?" He was frowning now.
Ruthlessly she moved in for the kill. "Well, discreet arrangements on the side are quite common in Gondor. I think it's much better to have such matters cleared up before getting married, don't you?"
For the longest moment he stared down at her uncomprehendingly, then he jumped up in one violent motion, letting go of her hand as if it was something vile. Lothiriel suddenly remembered his famous temper and caught her breath.
"Not in the Riddermark, my lady," he spat out, "I expect my wife to be faithful to me."
Lothiriel was more unnerved by his reaction than she had expected, but she wasn't about to pass up an advantage.
"Such arrangements can be reciprocal," she replied innocently, secretly wondering at her own daring. Surely this was the way he looked at an orc in battle, just before running it through with his sword.
"Are you telling me I could have a mistress?" he asked in disbelief.
Lothiriel lowered her eyes and blushed furiously despite herself. This was plain speaking indeed. Well, she had just burnt all her bridges behind her, there was nothing left but to proceed with her plan. She nodded, not quite trusting her voice, and a heavy silence once more descended between them.
His voice was cold and icily polite when he asked her whether she would like to return to the Great Hall and she assented quietly. On the way back she prattled on about the history of Dol Amroth, but he did not look as if he heard a thing. Lothiriel knew she should congratulate herself on her plans having worked out so well, but instead she felt downcast and unaccountably besmirched.
The quotation at the beginning of the chapter is from Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'.
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