My love has claimed a ribbon from me,
so tied to each other forever we'll be.
To a far off land he had to go,
to face a dark and mighty foe.
I wait for the day of his return
when his reward at last he'll earn.
(Popular ballad from Rohan)
Back at the camp, they found organized activity. Éomer's men had fenced off a big field to the south to use for the archery competition and a couple of smaller ones for riding displays. Also they had set out a rough racing course that led to the Northern gate of the Rammas Echor and back. Small awnings provided shade for the visitors, and in the centre a raised platform with a large pavilion had been erected for Éomer and his guests. The white horse flew above it, fluttering in the slight breeze.
Once their horses had been taken care of, they made their way over to where Elfhelm stood directing the preparations. Éomer had put the Marshall of the East Mark in charge of organizing the event as he had a talent for this kind of thing and an able assistant in his wife.
"Éomer King," Elfhelm greeted him. "We're all set up. The first races will start any moment."
Éomer had no doubt that his Marshall had things well in hand. As a young rider, Éomer had gained his first experience of fighting orcs under Elfhelm's command and had seen the single-minded determination the man applied to any task he was given.
He nodded his thanks. "Have any of our guests arrived yet?"
Elfhelm led the way over to the pavilion. "A few of them, yes."
The first to meet them was Lady Wilwarin. She stood talking to a young man and looked up with a pleased smile at their arrival. Her companion bowed deeply and Éomer recognized him as the elder of the two noblemen who had disturbed the warg the day before. From what his sentries had told him, the two brothers had not made it back until the early hours of the morning, but they had delivered the warg pelt all in one piece. Éomer answered the man's look of trepidation with a cool nod. He hoped the young nobleman had learnt something from the whole affair.
Lady Wilwarin held out her hand. "King Éomer, how nice to meet you again."
"My pleasure," he assured her.
Elfhelm beamed at her. "Lady Wilwarin has been so kind as to agree to hand out some of the prizes later on."
She gave a gentle smile. "Please, it's an honour."
Éomer could feel his sister bristling next to him. "An excellent idea," he intervened hastily before Éowyn could say anything. It seemed to him that his sister had taken an unreasonable dislike to any of the ladies of the court of Gondor in whom he had shown the slightest interest, but especially to Lady Wilwarin. Perhaps Éowyn still hoped for that mythical woman to show up and capture his heart, but he had to be realistic. The Riddermark needed a queen, and soon. He had no delusions of being immortal. A single orc arrow, a poisoned Southron blade, could deprive his country of her king, throwing the Mark into disarray with no clear heir defined.
Observing the look of animosity Éowyn shot at Lady Wilwarin, he thought it better to distract his sister, before unkind words were exchanged.
He turned to Lothíriel. "I'm to judge the archery competition now. Perhaps in the meantime, Éowyn can show you around." He thought that for the princess, the event would be supremely boring, anyway.
She withdrew her hand from his arm and some of the previous animation left her face. "Of course. I'm afraid I've taken up too much of your time as it is."
That was not what he had meant. But before he could utter a protest, Lady Wilwarin had taken his other arm. "I've heard so much about the fabulous skill of the Rohirrim on horseback. How exciting to see them for myself, at last!"
His sister gave him a hard look, but linked her arms with Lothíriel and Faramir. When they turned to go, Éomer felt strangely regretful. However, soon he was too busy greeting the rest of his guests to spare any further thought on it.
Éomer had put up the prize for the archery contest himself, a fine gelding from the royal herd at Edoras and he was curious to see how the famous bowmen of Gondor would fare on horseback, compared to the Rohirrim. An oblong area had been marked off and straw butts put up at one end. The rules were simple: the contestants had to canter across the field, shooting three arrows at the butts, which would be moved ten paces further back after each round.
Anybody had the right to take part and the afternoon dragged on as the hopeless archers were gradually weeded out. His men had to catch no less than three horses that threw their riders and bolted. Éomer could only shake his head when one man could not even get his nag to move into a canter. At least his own riders did not disappoint him, the best of them quite plainly astonishing the crowd with the ease with which they placed their arrows dead centre. Even so, he could see some of Faramir's rangers and the men of the Tower Guard would not be easily defeated.
Lady Wilwarin handed out the prizes for the races, silver cups engraved with stylised horses. Éomer had to admit she did it very prettily, yet he found his attention wandering after a while, searching the crowd for Éowyn and Lothíriel. Unfortunately, with the popularity of his riders there were rather a lot of blond and black haired couples. Loud cheering and laughter drifted over from the other enclosures and he had the niggling suspicion that they were enjoying themselves rather better than he was.
Éomer felt some relief when after a while Aragorn and Imrahil joined him. Aragorn winced when he saw a young soldier ride by, wobbling dangerously in the saddle and missing the target completely.
"How is the contest going?" he asked.
Éomer shrugged. "That was the last of them. Twenty-three Rohirrim have made it to the second round and thirty-one Gondorians."
After a polite bow to Lady Wilwarin, Imrahil looked round searchingly. "Where is my daughter?"
"She's having a look around with Éowyn. Faramir is with them."
Imrahil frowned. "When your sister picked her up this morning, I did not realize she meant Lothíriel to accompany her the whole day."
Éomer put on his blandest face. "A regretful misunderstanding. I think my sister is very pleased to have made a new friend in Lothíriel."
Imrahil gave a stiff bow. "We're honoured, of course."
Aragorn held a twinkle in his eye. "I think I can see them now, they're making their way through the crowd."
Éomer turned round quickly and spotted the two women almost at once. He also noticed that Cadda had joined the group as well. The women were laughing at something the bard said and he gave Lothíriel a hand ascending the steps leading up to the wooden platform, from which the guests could observe the archery contest.
Imrahil stepped forward. "Lothíriel!"
The princess stumbled slightly, but caught herself quickly. "Father? Have you been here long?"
"No, I only just arrived. I've been looking for you."
Lothíriel gave a vague wave at the crowd. "Éowyn showed me around." She smoothed down her hair. Éomer suddenly spotted a blue, satiny ribbon twined around the long plait she wore falling down her back. A quick glance at his sister showed a similar green one woven into her blond hair. Then he remembered Éowyn buying a whole bunch of them at the fair.
"Éowyn, a quick word," he said in Rohirric and beckoned to his sister.
Pulling her to the back of the pavilion, out of earshot of the others, he jerked his head at the princess. "What do you think you're doing?"
Éowyn gave him her haughtiest stare, letting him know she hadn't yet forgiven him for his earlier attempt to get rid of her. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Éowyn, you know perfectly well I'm talking about the ribbon," he said, his irritation rising.
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. "What about it?"
"Have you been playing ribbon snatching?"
"What if we have?" she asked, lifting her chin.
A popular pastime in the Mark at gatherings and fairs, it consisted of riders picking up scarves or lengths of ribbon from a woman's hand while riding by at high speed. The more daring ones actually snatched them right from their chosen lady's hair.
"She's our guest. You should not encourage her in such dangerous activities."
Éowyn threw back her hair in defiance. "There is no danger involved. Elfhelm's men have put up a fence to prevent any accidents. You stand behind it and just hold out the ribbon to whichever rider you favour."
"Well, it's undignified," Éomer protested.
Éowyn snorted. "You've become very staid all of a sudden, brother. I seem to remember you used to be pretty adept at it. Also at claiming your reward after..."
Éomer took a deep breath, reminding himself how much he really loved his sister. Besides, Faramir might object to him strangling her just before the wedding. A quick look at his guests showed them politely ignoring the altercation between brother and sister going on behind them. Fortunately most of them would not be able to understand it anyway, as they were speaking in Rohirric. Even so, he lowered his voice. "You're making her the talk of the camp."
"I am?" she raised an eyebrow. "Last night you disappeared into the gardens with her for half the evening, came back covered in dust and spider webs and then spent the rest of the evening dancing with her!"
"I have already told you that I followed her because I was worried something had happened to her. She showed me the maze, that is all."
Éowyn shrugged. "I'm just saying that thanks to you, there is considerable talk involving Lothíriel already. A bit of ribbon snatching won't harm her. In fact she enjoyed it." She held out a placatory hand. "Come on, brother. It's simply that the story of her bravery in standing up to that warg has grown with the telling and our riders think a token from her hand will bring them luck in the races."
Éomer knew how superstitious his countrymen could be. Thinking of Guthlaf, he sighed. "That's the only good luck to come out of that."
Éowyn's face softened and she linked her arm with his. "Oh Éomer, let's not quarrel. And I believe the second round of the archery contest is about to start."
They moved to rejoin their guests. "Anyway," Éowyn whispered in his ear, "you needn't worry about any of your riders having the temerity to collect the traditional forfeit. One look at you and they will not dare."
Unfortunately, Éomer did not have the time to think of a suitably crushing reply to that statement before his guests claimed his attention again.
The second round was in fact well under way, and already some more contestants had been forced to retire. Faramir slid a possessive arm around Éowyn's waist when they joined him.
"No," both of them replied at the same time. They exchanged a grin.
"Just a small difference of opinion," Éomer explained.
Just then he encountered a mirthful look from Aragorn, who stood talking to Imrahil nearby. He suddenly remembered the fabled keen ears of the ranger and that he spoke Rohirric. But how well did he know the customs of the Mark? Pretty well, Éomer suspected all of a sudden.
Faramir nodded at a rider cantering by, placing his arrows in the centre of the targets with deceptive ease. "That one's pretty good."
Éomer recognized Beow, the best archer of his éored. "He is. But I think some of your rangers will be hard to beat."
"Maybe if they could use their longbows," Faramir agreed, "but on horseback I believe the Rohirrim have the edge."
Indeed, by the end of the second round more contestants from Rohan than from Gondor were left. Two of the butts were removed, the other one was shifted further back and the remaining twenty men got ready to shoot again. At eighty paces, only the best of them could hope to make it to the next round. Éomer's own expertise lay with the sword, not the bow, but he knew enough to make out which archers had merely been lucky and which had true skill - the lucky ones did not make it this time.
The races had finished by now, the last prizes handed over gracefully by Lady Wilwarin. Éomer noted grimly that a considerable number of the winners sported green or blue ribbons. There seemed to be a positive glut of them.
One by one the remaining bowmen dropped out, until by a hundred paces only three were left. When much to Aragorn's chagrin one of the Tower Guard missed his next shot, that left just Beow and one of Faramir's rangers. The crowd cheered wildly when both of them managed to hit their targets. Éomer had to admit that he had not seen archery at this level for a long time.
"What is happening?" a voice asked at his elbow. Lothíriel had joined them, Cadda at her side.
"There are only two contestants left now," Éomer explained. "But I'm afraid you have had rather a boring afternoon."
She shook her head. "Oh, not at all. Cadda has been so kind as to keep me amused with stories from Rohan."
"It's a pleasure with such an enthusiastic audience," the bard said with a smile. Éomer could not help frowning when he saw the blue ribbon he had tied round one of his wrists. Another one.
"Who is left?" Lothíriel asked. "Anybody from Dol Amroth?"
Éomer shook his head. "I'm sorry, but no. A rider from my own éored and a ranger of Ithilien are the last two."
The crowd gasped when Beow again managed to place his arrow dead centre. Lothíriel grabbed for his arm. "And now?"
"Beow has qualified for the next round." Éomer could not keep the pride out of his voice.
Faramir's ranger rode in next, sitting easily in the saddle, and took aim. The crowd had gone quiet in anticipation and Éomer noticed one pretty redhead especially, watching the rider intently, a look of fierce concentration on her face, as if it were her shooting. A sweetheart or wife perhaps? The whir of an arrow broke the expectant silence and then the crowd started cheering.
Éomer exclaimed in surprise. "I don't believe it, another hit! We'll have to move the targets even further back."
He cast a look at the sky. The sun had just set behind Mount Mindolluin and the light was fading fast.
Lothíriel clapped her hands. "Oh, I'm pleased for Faramir. Although I'm sure your rider is very good as well," she added, putting a consoling hand on his arm. "In fact it's a shame they can't both win. It would be so nice - one man from Rohan and one from Gondor."
Éomer stared at her for a moment. Why hadn't he thought of that himself? "But they can," he said slowly, "You are right. It would be a fitting reminder of the friendship between our countries." He looked over to where Faramir and Éowyn stood together. "And also of the marriage soon to forge closer ties between us."
Lothíriel removed her hand from his arm. "Yes of course."
He frowned for a moment. Had he said something to upset her? But at that moment he caught sight of Elfhelm and waved his Marshall over. Explaining the change of plans only took a minute and then his squire was sent off at a run to their camp. By the time Oswyn returned, leading another fine gelding from Éomer's personal herd, the two winners were already lined up facing the pavilion.
Éomer turned to Éowyn, who had always been meant to present the prizes in this contest. "Will you do the honours?"
She nodded. "Yes of course. But why don't you let Lothíriel hand over one of the horses. After all, it was her idea."
"Me?" the princess stammered. "Oh no, I couldn't."
Éomer took her hand. "Please do."
She hesitated for a moment, but then gave him a shy smile. "If you wish me to."
He helped her down the steps and led her over to the two horses. "You choose one for Beow. That way, nobody can accuse me of favouring my own rider."
"What are they called?"
Éomer took the first gelding by the bridle and guided her hand to stroke his head. "This is Nimblefoot."
The horse snorted softly when she stroked him. Curious or perhaps hoping for a treat, the other gelding also extended his neck.
"And here comes Greymane," Éomer added.
Lothíriel ran her hand along his nose. "I think I can guess what colour he is, so I won't ask," she said with a cheeky grin. "And I will choose him."
He laughed and helped her lead Greymane over to where Beow and Faramir's ranger stood, awaiting their prizes. Éowyn followed them, leading Nimblefoot by the bridle. A crowd had gathered around them and silence fell, as he got ready to announce the winners.
"Your name?" he asked the ranger.
"Damrod, my lord."
The man had the look of Numenor - black hair and grey eyes that met his gaze squarely. Éomer remembered seeing him on the march to the Black Gate.
He mounted the platform and raised his voice. "Hear me, people of Gondor and Rohan! Before you stand Damrod of Ithilien and Beow of the East Mark. Neither one was able to best the other today, so I declare them joint winners."
The crowd cheered and the two men shook hands, the respect they bore each other evident.
"Let it be a sign of the eternal friendship between our countries," Éomer continued, "either of us ready to come to the other's aid in time of need."
He did not believe in long speeches, so when the renewed clapping and cheering died down again, he jumped down from the platform and nodded to Éowyn to carry on.
She held out the reins to Damrod and the ranger bowed to his lord's wife-to-be and thanked her. By his side stood the red-haired woman Éomer had seen earlier on, a baby on her hip.
He turned to help Lothíriel, but hearing her cue, she had already handed over Greymane's reins to Beow.
"May he bear you to good fortune," she said gravely.
"Thank you, my lady." The rider touched his arm, where he had fastened a blue ribbon. "Your token has brought me luck."
Lothíriel put her head to one side. "Oh, you're one of those," she laughed. "I'm pleased to hear it works, although your skill might have rather more to do with your success."
Éomer stepped up to them and took her arm. Somehow he did not think Imrahil would be amused to hear of his daughter's activities that afternoon. "Princess Lothíriel," he said, emphasizing her title, "we have to get ready to ride down to the Anduin soon."
His rider took the hint and excused himself with another word of thanks. Lothíriel smiled up at Éomer. "Of course, the fireboats! I wouldn't want to miss them. Do we have to hurry?"
"Well, there's still plenty of time, but the archery contest took longer than I anticipated."
Faramir waved them over. "Lothíriel! Do you remember Damrod from my visit to Dol Amroth last winter?"
She held out her hand. "Yes, of course I remember. Congratulations on your win."
"Thank you, my lady." The ranger bowed over her hand. "May I introduce my wife, Noerwen?"
The woman passed the infant to her husband and gave a graceful curtsey. "Pleased to meet you, Princess Lothíriel."
The baby chose that moment to protest at being relocated so suddenly. "Is that yours, Damrod?" Lothíriel asked. "You mentioned Noerwen was expecting your first child."
"Yes she is," the man replied proudly. "Her name is Lírulin."
"May I hold her?"
Damrod passed the baby over, and as if only waiting for this signal, most of the other ladies present also crowded round. Éomer suddenly found himself in the centre of a gaggle of women cooing and exclaiming over the tiny being in Lothíriel's arms. Watching the baby giving a happy, toothless smile, he wondered if he would ever have a wife by his side and a child of his own. An eager son or a spirited daughter to teach how to race the wind across the Riddermark.
He looked down at Lothíriel softly stroking the infant's downy hair and caught a wistful expression on her face. For a moment he could almost believe her to be cradling their own child in her arms. She looked beautiful.
He shook his head at these fanciful imaginings and then got distracted by his men leading up their horses.
"We'll have to go now," he reminded Lothíriel.
She reluctantly handed the little girl back to her parents and took her leave of them. Éomer gave her a boost onto Winterbreath's back and turned to mount Firefoot. As he did so, his eyes fell on Oswyn holding the bridle. His squire had a blue ribbon twined round his upper arm.
A bolt of irritation shot through him. Was there anybody left who didn't have one of those?