4. Pitched battle
To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.
(Mardil Voronwë: Tactics of Gondorian Warfare)
Lothiriel retched and retched until there was nothing left in her stomach. Her throat was burning and the taste of bile and salt water in her mouth made her want to gag. She was feeling so miserable, it was this that convinced her she was unfortunately still alive, even before she opened her eyes to the pale sunlight. Surely being dead was more comfortable than this. Somebody was bending over her, helping her to sit up, and she gave a low moan.
"Just let me die."
There was a soft chuckle. "Too late for that now, I'm afraid, unless you want to jump back in."
She squinted up at him, the events of the past minutes slowly coming back. "King Éomer?"
"The same," he grinned, only to add more seriously, "now can you sit on your own for a moment? I have to check Firefoot."
Lothiriel nodded, careful not send her head spinning again and he let go of her and got up. There was a loud bark and then her dog jumped at her, nearly bowling her over in the process.
"Anca!" Lothiriel exclaimed and threw her arms around the wet bundle of fur, "you are all right!"
"Well, your dog is a better swimmer than yourself," Éomer remarked dryly from behind them, "whatever possessed you jump in after it? That was a silly thing to do."
"I didn't jump, I fell," she turned round and glared at him.
"Can't you swim?"
"No," she answered curtly, not wanting to go into details, for this had long been a sore point with her. Maybe now her father would finally allow her to learn, but more likely he would instead forbid her to go riding on her own again.
She rested her head in her hands, still feeling slightly nauseous, and took stock of herself. Her clothes were absolutely soaked and were clinging to her, but at least she didn't have any broken limbs, although all the little cuts and abrasion from her climb down the cliff face were stinging from the saltwater. There was one slightly deeper gash on her left leg where she must have cut herself on a submerged rock, but even that had only bled sluggishly and the blood was already clotting. All in all it could have been much worse. Just how much worse she was fully aware of, for it was rather an unwelcome thought that she owed her life to the King of Rohan.
Looking up, she realized with a sinking feeling how small their refuge was, no more than a rocky island littered with some big boulders, a couple of bushes bent by the constant wind and some grass. It was nothing short of a miracle that he had got his horse up here, quite apart from rescuing her as well. She shuddered as she looked at the angry waters now covering the whole beach and breaking against the cliffs in white foam.
Turning round she saw that Éomer was checking his stallion's legs, carefully running a hand along them. He gave a sigh when he took off the saddle and saddlecloth, both thoroughly soaked, and set them out to dry. Lothiriel could sympathize, for she knew what salt water did to leather. He then pulled up some grass and started to rub the stallion down as best as he could. After a moment Lothiriel got up, staggered over and gave him a hand, after all the gallant animal had probably saved both their lives.
When they were finished she sank down to the ground again, completely exhausted by this little exertion, and after a moment he joined her.
"Are you all right?" he asked in alarm and hunkered down next to her.
She nodded and then got her first good look at him. Like her, he was soaked to the skin, his blond hair plastered to his skull, but that was not what made her jaw drop in surprise.
The King of Rohan was sporting a black eye.
It was a beauty, the left eye swollen half shut already and she could only point at it in stupefaction. "What happened to you?"
He gave a lopsided grin. "You happened to me."
When she continued to stare at him in shock he added, "You hit me when I tried to fish you out of the water. I have to commend you, it's been a long time since anybody managed to slip under my guard. A masterful punch."
What would her father think? shot through Lothiriel's mind at once. Here she was marooned on an island with a comparative stranger, her clothes so soaked they might as well be transparent and he sported a black eye. Oh, she knew exactly what Prince Imrahil and everybody else would think. Quite without intending to, she had just landed the perfect, decisive blow in this battle and her father would never give her away to King Éomer now. She could not help an expression of sheer triumph crossing her face.
When she looked up again all amusement had been swept from the King of Rohan's face and he suddenly grabbed her by the arms.
"What are you so terribly pleased about?" he snarled, "I've had enough of your lies, woman. Is this whole thing some elaborate way to set me up?"
Beside her, Anca sat up, her hackles raised, and gave a low threatening growl. He shot a quelling look at the dog, not much impressed at all, but he did let go of her arms after a moment. Well, it wasn't as if she could run away anywhere.
"I don't know what you are talking about," she answered stoutly and rubbed her arms where he had grabbed her.
He watched her closely. "If it was any other woman I would consider this an attempt to force me to marry you."
This was too much. "Marry you?" she exclaimed and jumped up, "you stubborn, self-centred lout! How dare you intimate I tried to trap you into marriage. When all this time I've done everything I possibly could to put that idea out of your head!"
He rocked back on his heels. "You don't want to marry me?"
"No!" she shouted, "I do not." Never in her entire life had she lost her temper like this. It felt good.
He got up and stared at her. "Then all that talk of wanting an indulgent husband was a pack of lies?"
"Exactly!" she snapped, "Its sole purpose was to put you off, just like all the other things I said!"
His face darkened. "I came here in good faith, my lady, why did you set me up like this?"
She felt like spitting fire. "Maybe you should take this up with my father. I made my feelings clear from the beginning, but then nobody was ever interested in them, including you."
"That's not true," he protested.
"Oh no?" she asked, not caring for the consequences anymore, "All you tried to do last night was to dazzle me with pretty words, just like all the other men. Extraordinary eyes indeed!"
For a moment he looked taken-aback, then he took a step towards her. "And all you did was to make me as disgusted with you as possible. I never met a more conniving and deceitful woman in my entire life. You deserve a good hiding!"
By his side, his hands curled into fists. Lothiriel stared at him. He wouldn't dare, would he? It dawned on her just how small and lonely their little island was and that nobody knew where they were. Anca by her side somehow seemed a rather inadequate protector, after all the man had battled wargs and survived. And there was still his famous temper…
"I just saved your life!" she admonished him, trying not to show her growing alarm.
"I just saved yours."
He took another step closer, seeming to loom over her, and for a moment something unsettling flashed across his face, a mix of annoyance, rage and hunger? All of a sudden Lothiriel felt vulnerable and exposed in her wet clothes and it took all the courage she possessed to stand her ground. He took one look at her face and gave a nasty laugh.
"Well you needn't worry, I've never hit a woman yet and I won't start now. But the moment these damned waters recede I'm off home, let me tell you."
He stalked off to the other side of their little island and sat down with his back turned towards her, pointedly ignoring her, and after a moment drew his sword and started drying it with a handful of grass. Lothiriel flopped down ungracefully on the ground again and drew her dog into her lap. She felt thoroughly shaken by their argument and put her arms around the animal seeking comfort. Anca was shivering slightly and smelt of wet fur, but she gave a small wag of her tail and licked her mistress's hand.
Lothiriel shook her head. The King of Rohan somehow seemed to have the ability to bring out the worst in her. First those ill-advised words last night and now she'd just lost her temper like never before. What was more she had enjoyed it. It had been nice to finally vent all the anger and hurt accumulated over the last months, although the target had probably been the wrong one. Looking at things dispassionately it was really her father who deserved her anger and Éomer had just been in the wrong place at the wrong moment.
Speaking of the wrong place… She took another look around their small refuge or rather prison as it seemed to her now. The tide was still rising, although much slower by now and it would be a long while yet before they could leave it again. She tried to calculate whether Snowflake might have reached the castle yet, but even if the search was underway already they had no idea where to find her. Her stomach growled. She had left this morning without eating any breakfast, only pocketing some apples on the way, but unfortunately even those were in the saddlebags of her horse.
Now that the heat of her anger was wearing off she also once more became aware of the soaked state of her clothing and tried to wring out the sleeves of her tunic and her trousers, but without much success. Next she undid her braid and with her fingers brushed through her tangled hair in the vain hope that it would dry quicker like that. The wind was blowing steadily and she had started to shiver in her wet clothes. Why didn't I just leave the wretched man to drown, she thought and drew her knees up to her chest.
In her silent misery she had not paid any attention to what King Éomer was doing and now was considerably startled when suddenly something was dropped on her. It was a thick cloak and to her surprise it was no more than slightly damp.
"What is this?" she asked, untangling herself from its folds.
"My cloak. It was wrapped up in oilcloth for travelling. You look like you need it."
He did not seem cold at all, she noted enviously as she pulled the dark green fabric around her.
"Thank you." Even in her own ears she sounded sullen and ungrateful.
He nodded at her curt words and she stole a quick sideways look at him. He seemed to have recovered his equanimity and now stared at the shore.
"How long do you think until we can leave here?" he asked her stiffly.
Lothiriel considered the still rising waters. "At least another three to four hours," she said at last and he cursed in Rohirric as if he had feared as much.
A strained silence descended between them until he gave a sigh.
"Look here," he said, "I'm sorry I lost my temper with you."
She shrugged mutely and he seemed to feel constrained to explain himself. "Believe me, I really don't enjoy threatening defenceless women. Let me assure you, Princess Lothiriel, you have nothing to fear from me."
He touched her lightly on one shoulder, causing her to flinch involuntarily. "Please don't look so frightened."
She nodded and after a moment he went to rummage some more in his saddlebags. Lothiriel drew the folds of the cloak closer around herself and nearly jumped when her stomach rumbled loudly.
"Are you hungry?" he asked.
At Lothiriel's affirmative nod he dropped something into her lap. Beside her Anca sat up straighter. It was a short, brownish looking bar of some kind of substance and she picked it up and turned it round to examine dubiously.
"What is this?"
"Dried meat. Unfortunately the rest of the travel rations didn't survive the soaking."
He had a piece himself and started to chew it, so she followed suit, only to nearly choke on it. The meat was as hard as stone and had a faintly rancid taste. Valiantly she continued chewing, only to give up after a while and surreptitiously feed the rest to her dog. She wasn't all that hungry after all. At least Anca looked happy with her prize, which she swallowed in one bite.
Éomer had a couple of apples along as well, but those he fed to his horse. Lothiriel didn't protest, the stallion had certainly earned them and probably needed the fluids. In fact she was starting to feel thirsty herself. As if reading her thoughts Éomer produced a wine skin from among his things and wordlessly handed it to her. The wine tasted slightly sour, but after a big gulp she felt considerably better.
"You are very well equipped," she said.
The King of Rohan shrugged. "A habit of mine that has saved my life more than once."
He sat down nearby and stared morosely at the shore, so close yet quite unreachable.
"May I ask you something?" he said after a while.
Here it comes, Lothiriel thought and nodded in resignation. No doubt he would want an explanation of her abominable behaviour. His next words surprised her, however.
"Why can't you swim?"
"Swim?" she replied, "I wanted to learn, but it wasn't considered suitable for a princess."
He shook his head. "What rank stupidity! To live on the seashore and not be able to swim. You nearly drowned back there."
"I know," she said in a small voice, "And I never even thanked you for rescuing me, either. I'm sorry I snapped at you earlier on."
Éomer gave a sigh. "I'm sorry, too. As I said, I don't usually lose my temper like that, at least not with women. If it weren't for your warning I would have drowned, so it's really me who is in your debt."
He brushed a strand of damp hair out of his face and winced slightly when he accidentally touched his swollen eye.
"Does it hurt very much?" Lothiriel asked, feeling thoroughly guilty.
"Oh, don't worry, I've had much worse," he replied with a shrug, "You don't pull your punches, though, do you! And that in more than one way."
She hung her head.
"So everything was deliberate? Your talk about not wanting to learn Rohirric, the lies about not being able to ride?"
Lothiriel nodded. "I'm sorry," she said again, "I didn't enjoy lying, but it was a matter of survival. I really like the horse you gave me and go riding every day."
He sighed. "Well, that's something at least. I would hate to think of Snowflake not being properly appreciated and having to spend all her time in the stables. I trained her myself, you know."
"You did?" It seemed a strange thing to do for a king.
He seemed to read her mind. "I like doing it, it's a nice break from my royal duties, and something I'm good at for a change."
Lothiriel wasn't quite sure what to make of that. "She's got lovely manners," she offered, "but do you want her back now?"
He shook his head. "She's a gift to you."
"I feel like I don't deserve it."
"A gift is a gift." He hesitated. "May I ask you something else?"
"What exactly?" Lothiriel asked back warily.
"Is Princess Ivriniel truly your favourite aunt?"
Lothiriel was startled into a laugh. "Well, she is my only aunt," she defended herself, "but in fact we don't get along all that well. That awful gown was her birthday gift."
"The gown?" he stared at her, "Don't tell me that was part of your plan as well?"
"It was," she admitted, "you don't think I would voluntarily wear something like that, do you?"
"How should I know?" he asked, "No wonder I felt as if I was talking to two different women, only I couldn't get through to the one I liked."
The one he liked? Lothiriel wasn't sure if she cared for the direction this conversation was taking.
He shook his head in bemusement. "I still can't understand what you were thinking of to disgust me like that. Discreet arrangements on the side!"
She hung her head. "I suppose it wasn't really very seemly conduct."
"Definitely not!" he said crushingly, "Let me tell you, my Lady Princess, you sounded like a complete slut."
Her temper flared up again. "Well, it's not my fault you cannot take a hint. I just panicked!"
He gave a short bark of laughter. "And what if I had persevered? A nice start to our marriage that would have made."
"I didn't really think of that possibility. To contemplate defeat is to invite it."
He blinked; at a guess he had not had many women quoting Hyarmendacil's 'The Art of War' at him.
"Where did you learn that?" he asked.
"Do they teach that in Rohan, too?" she asked back, "I grew up with three brothers and two cousins all destined to be leaders of men, so I somehow ended up reading all their books."
"And what did your father think of this?"
She shrugged. "He didn't mind, after all I was always meant to be a warrior's wife."
He was altogether too perceptive. "Anyone in particular?"
"Boromir was the logical choice." Her heart grew heavy when she remembered her poor doomed cousin, the idol of her childhood.
"Were you in love?" his voice was soft.
She shook her head. "That doesn't matter anymore."
"And would you have put up a similar fight with him?"
Lothiriel stared at the King of Rohan at this question and tried to imagine last night's scene in Minas Tirith. The Great Hall of Feasts filled with illustrious guests, her uncle receiving them with gracious words and then catching sight of her in Ivriniel's dress – it simply boggled the imagination.
"Well with Boromir it would have been easy," she grinned, "Lord Denethor was always convinced nothing was good enough for his son anyway. The gown alone would have done the trick."
"I'm not surprised," Éomer commented dryly, "That pink monstrosity nearly bowled me over." They both burst out laughing. He really had quite a nice smile.
"You said I looked lovely," she reminded him between helpless bouts of giggles. Last night suddenly seemed absolutely hilarious, although it had felt deadly serious at the time.
"It just goes to show I'm finally learning to be diplomatic."
Lothiriel was wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. "I'm sorry I caused you to have such an uncomfortable evening."
"Uncomfortable?" he grinned, "Harrowing would be a much better description! But at least it was truly memorable and not just another insipid dance."
"You think so?"
"Well you certainly know how to stand out in a crowd."
Lothiriel had not looked at it this way before and now felt deeply chagrined to discover this weakness in her strategy. Somehow nothing had worked out quite according to plan ever since she had met the King of Rohan. Also she was not at all sure what to make of the small smile that had accompanied that last statement.
The quotation at the beginning of the chapter is from Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.