You will recognise the true leader in the way he will take whatever circumstances are accorded to him and turn them to his advantage.
(Hyarmendacil: The Art of War)
Éomer hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, suddenly realizing he had no idea where to find Lothíriel's room. A servant carrying a pile of clean linen passed him, giving him a curious glance, but he held back from asking her for directions, not wanting to fuel the gossip about him and the Princess of Dol Amroth even further. And what if Lothíriel had retired to bed already?
More servants went by on their errands and he was starting to feel rather conspicuous when behind him one of the side doors opened. A grey-haired woman entered. He recognized her as the maid who had looked after Lothíriel in the courtyard earlier on. She recognized him as well, for when he held out a hand she stopped and gave him a respectful curtsy.
What had Lothíriel called her again? "Hareth, isn't it?"
"Yes, my Lord King."
"Hareth, would you carry a message to your mistress to ask if I may have a word with her?"
She put her head to one side and regarded him shrewdly. "The princess has already retired."
He put on his best smile. "I know, but I would still like to speak to her. It won't take long."
Under her steady gaze his smile faltered. She really had a gift to make him feel like a little boy.
"It's important," he added quietly.
Her eyes seemed to bore into him. "Lothíriel has had two difficult days. She deserves not to be upset any further."
"I never intended to upset her," he exclaimed, then hurriedly lowered his voice. "That's why I need to speak to her... please."
Hareth examined his face closely, then she seemed to come to some kind of decision. "The princess claimed she had a headache." She gestured back the way she'd come. "Lothíriel wanted some fresh air and has gone for a walk."
"In the garden?"
The maid nodded. "There's a small secluded kitchen garden just round the corner." She grinned suddenly. "Perhaps somebody should check on her?"
"I think so, too." He squeezed her hands for a moment. "Thank you!"
The cold water felt good on her aching feet. Lothíriel settled down on the low rim of the fountain and hitched up her skirts a bit more. While she had changed into a more comfortable gown before coming out, she still did not want to get it wet. She took a deep breath, enjoying the cool night air caressing her face and the solitude at last after a long day of feeling everyone's eyes fixed on her. Crickets filled the garden with their chirps and rustlings told of small creatures going about their business in the tall grass. Before leaving her, Hareth had remarked that this part of the garden still looked a bit neglected, but that suited Lothíriel fine. She just wanted to be left to her thoughts for a while.
She wriggled her toes and the water lapped gently against her calves. From beyond the walls, the faint sounds of celebration reached her ears: laughter and singing and every now and again a horn being blown. Music drifted through the air from the direction of the hall, a lively Rohirric dance tune, and she frowned. Earlier on, King Elessar had asked her for a turn on the dance floor and she could not forget his words. I know Éomer well, he had said, his voice kind and sure, and believe me, there exists no man more honourable than him. She had been at a loss what to answer and had just smiled noncommittally. Fortunately, the king had not pressed her any further and the dance had ended soon after. A good thing, because for a moment she had been tempted to spill all her troubles into King Elessar's sympathetic ears.
The crunch of slow steps on the gravel path made her freeze. She knew with an almost frightening certainty that this was no guard making his rounds, it was him.
The soft voice sent shivers through her and she wanted to jump up and run to him. Lothíriel gripped the stone rim of the fountain more tightly.
"What do you want?" Her words sounded harsh even to her own ears.
"May I talk to you for a moment?"
"I can't stop you, can I."
"Lothíriel, you can stop me with a single word."
She mulled this over. Éomer had always seemed so sure of himself, the King of Rohan, master of his fate, yet now she heard a strange vulnerability in his voice.
"For a moment then," she conceded, inclining her head.
He did not approach her any closer, but kept a couple of steps away. "You know that I am no poet or diplomat. Please forgive me if I offend you, but the Rohirrim favour plain speaking. I have always felt that you preferred to do so, too."
She swallowed. "I do."
He started to pace. "Lothíriel, I know I asked of you what I had no right to ask. You are so young and inexperienced..."
Inexperienced? Did he mean to imply she might have acceded to his dishonourable proposal if she'd been more experienced? She opened her mouth to utter a sharp reply when King Elessar's words flitted through her mind again. There exists no man more honourable than him. How could she be so terribly confused? It felt as if her mind and her heart were pulling her in two different directions, tearing her apart.
Lothíriel buried her head in her hands. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that when I touch you, my reason seems to flee. Can you honestly tell me you don't feel the same?"
"There can be nothing between us!" To her shame, it was more a sob than a denial.
"Because..." Her heart felt as if it was being cut into small pieces. She took a deep breath and went on stumblingly, "Because you're-"
All of a sudden she felt a horrible crawling sensation in her hair. "What's that!" She lifted a hand to wipe away whatever insect had landed on her head when another bumped into her shoulder. Then some more got tangled in her hair, writhing madly, and one nearly flew into her mouth. Where had they all come from?
"Lothíriel, let me..."
Panicking, she jumped up and waved her hands at her tiny attackers, not caring that her gown would get wet. "Go away!" Suddenly she could feel herself starting to slip on the slimy bottom of the fountain.
A splash and strong arms caught her. "Lothíriel, they're only fireflies! Hold still and I will remove them."
She grabbed at him. "Fireflies?"
"A whole swarm of them. In fact they look very pretty in your hair, like small glowing jewels."
She shuddered. "It's a horrible feeling. Please just get rid of them."
Taking her chin in one hand, he tilted up her face. Deftly, his other hand picked out her small harassers. "My poor love, you need rescuing all the time, don't you," he said tenderly. The warmth in his voice sent a tremor right through her.
Finally the last firefly was set free and the crawling sensation ceased. He did not let go of her, though. Instead his fingers traced the line of her cheekbones, calloused hands sliding round to cup her cheeks. Warm and sure.
"You still owe me the forfeit for my ribbon," he whispered.
She opened her mouth to deny his words when he planted a gentle kiss on her lips. Her mind shouted at her to push him away, to slap him. Her heart told her to melt into his arms. Paralysed by indecision, she let him have his way.
Éomer filled her senses. The taste of sweet wine on his breath. His musky male scent overlaid with that of horse and a hint of smoke from the bonfire. A strong hand cradling the back of her head, exerting gentle pressure. He deepened his kiss and she forgot everything except the simple pleasure singing through her body at his touch. Throwing her pride, her qualms, her doubts away, she slid her arms around his neck and clung to him like a drowning woman. Here she belonged. She had come home.
Deep within her, at the very bottom of her soul, something woke. It stirred and lifted its head, slowly stretching curled-up wings, and then with a mighty leap took off into the air. The dragon's deafening roar filled her ears, its fire flooded her veins, running like a wildfire through her, burning away all rational thought. Hunger. Need. Desire. She pressed her body against Éomer and buried her hands in his hair, roughly pulling his head down, demanding more. For a heartbeat he froze, then his arms clamped around her with the strength of a battle-hardened warrior, one hand holding the nape of her neck like a vice. His kiss neither gentle nor restrained, but scalding hot and insistent. The dragon within her rejoiced, matching him passion for passion, and she let herself slip into a spinning vortex of colour, a vibrant swirling of red and gold.
It was Éomer who regained his senses first. Breathing raggedly, he broke off the kiss. Lothíriel's bones had decided to liquefy and she would have collapsed into the water if he hadn't still held her.
"Oh, Lothíriel!" Éomer whispered.
Her head was spinning dizzily as she leant against his chest, her heart hammering madly. Gradually it slowed down again and inside her, the dragon curled up contentedly, going back to sleep. Not quite so deeply anymore, though. Ready to wake up at any time.
Hesitantly Éomer stroked her hair. "I need you," he breathed. "I can't help it, I just want you so much."
"I want you too," she mumbled into his tunic. Shame filled her at the realization how desperately she ached to take whatever he'd choose to offer her.
He took her by the shoulders. "I know I should not have done as I did just now. But will you grant me the right? Lothíriel, will you share your life with me and marry me?"
"We can't!" she whispered.
"Why not? I want no other woman by my side."
She thought of the scandal that would ensue. The King of Rohan to promise marriage to a highborn lady of Gondor and then change his mind and marry someone else? And what would his own people think, the Rohirrim who valued honour above all else? They had paid a bloody price for their own vows.
She shook her head. "Impossible. Here in Gondor breaking an engagement promise is unthinkable."
His hands tightened on her shoulders painfully. "An engagement? Then we will elope."
Had he lost his mind? "You know we can't. And what would my father say?"
"In that case I will call him out." His voice had gone grim and deathly serious.
Remembering his legendary temper, she grabbed his arm. "Éomer! You can't be serious. Call my father out?"
"Not your father! Him! Is it someone from Dol Amroth?"
Lothíriel's head was spinning. "What are you talking about? Of course he's from Dol Amroth. After all, he's the Prince of Dol Amroth!"
"Not Imrahil! The man you're supposed to marry."
He took a deep breath. "Lothíriel, you just said you're engaged to be married. If not to someone from Dol Amroth, who to?"
Lothíriel felt her jaw drop. "I am not engaged!" she exclaimed.
"Well, in that case, what's the problem?" In the most distracting manner, his hands started to slide round her back, pulling her close again.
"Éomer... I'm talking about your ... alliance." Every word hurt when all she wanted to do was to get lost in the sensation of another kiss.
"The alliance between Rohan and Gondor you keep mentioning. The worthy queen for your people." She tried to keep the bitterness out of her words.
His hands stilled. "Is that what you're worried about?"
"Yes of course!"
He sighed. "Lothíriel, I know I'm asking a lot. But I'm sure we can work something out."
When she wanted to protest, he laid a finger on her lips. "No, listen. I'll think of a way for you to cope when I'm away, perhaps have one of my Marshals as underking. And I'm sure once they get to know you, my people will love you."
She shook her head. "That's not what I meant!"
"Lothíriel." He put a finger under her chin and tilted up her face. "Why do I get the impression I'm missing something? Just tell me outright why you think you can't marry me."
"Because you are engaged to marry Wilwarin," she whispered, the words like shards of broken glass in her mouth.
"What! Who told you so?"
Silence except for the crickets chirping in the grass. Then he exhaled his breath sharply and said something in Rohirric. Lothíriel did not need a translation to recognise a curse.
"Is that what made you so unhappy?"
She nodded mutely.
"Well, Lady Wilwarin is mistaken. I admit I went for a walk with her around the Citadel gardens. But it was only the once and I swear to you that I never asked her to marry me."
It took several seconds for Éomer's words to sink in. "But she told me!" Lothíriel stammered. "She said you accompanied her home after the fireboat ceremony and asked her to become your wife."
"In that case she lied," he said, his voice flat and cold with anger. "We rode straight back to our camp. I don't know who escorted her back to Minas Tirith, but it certainly wasn't me."
Wilwarin lied. She lied! The words tumbled over and over in her mind, too much to take in all at once. Lothíriel shook her head slowly. "I can't believe it!" Her legs gave way and he grabbed her hurriedly.
"But why?" she asked stupidly, only to realize at once that of course Wilwarin had wanted to make sure she would marry Éomer herself. The sheer magnitude and boldness of the lie staggered her.
"I think I'm beginning to see," he said grimly. "What a conniving little liar! I should have trusted in Éowyn's instincts."
Lothíriel made a small gesture of denial. "But you admitted it yourself!"
"I did no such thing!"
She tried to cast her mind back to what he'd said during that disastrous quarrel. "You said you deserved censure," she reminded him, "that you didn't know what had got into you."
"I thought that you objected to my...actions at the fireboat ceremony. That perhaps I had overwhelmed you."
"Oh!" She had never even considered this. "But I liked it," she pointed out and then blushed.
His chest rumbled with laughter. "I'm glad to hear it. But you looked so unhappy the next day." Éomer paused. "I see," he breathed. "That was when Wilwarin told you I was going to marry her! Did you believe I was merely playing with your affections?" He fell silent and she got the impression that his mind was working furiously.
"Lady love, what did you think I proposed to you at Lord Girion's?" he asked, lifting up her face.
She squirmed in his arms and felt heat flood her cheeks.
"Oh Lothíriel!" he said, "you didn't! No wonder you got so angry with me."
She felt ready to sink into the ground at the memory of the things she had called him. And what did her father think of him? And the rest of the court of Gondor?
"I'm sorry!" she exclaimed.
He tightened his hold on her. "You're sorry? Lothíriel, you have no reason to apologize! It's all that vixen's fault. It makes my blood boil to think how unhappy she made you. I wish I could turn her into warg bait!"
She did not for one moment doubt the seriousness of his threat, there was such a wealth of murderous rage in his voice. Yet she had other concerns. Wilwarin had lied! Éomer had no intention of marrying her! Suddenly feeling as light as a feather, Lothíriel closed her eyes. She hadn't been mistaken in Éomer, he was the honourable and kind man she had thought him to be.
He was still muttering curses under his breath, instead of doing something useful like kissing her. Lothíriel reached up to pull his mouth down to cover hers. Surprised, he drew his breath in, but recovered quickly and cooperated in the most gratifying manner. This time their touch held less frenzied haste and more tender pleasure.
As far as Lothíriel was concerned, she would have been quite happy to spend the rest of her days standing with him in the fountain in the middle of Éowyn's kitchen garden, but they had to come up for air eventually. With a deep, contented sigh she leant against him. Home at last. Though storms might rage around them, she knew that from now on she would always find peace and refuge in his arms. He rested his chin on her head and gently stroked her hair.
"Lothíriel?" he said after a long pause.
"Is there any particular reason why we're standing in the water?" His voice held a trace of laughter.
"Oh! It's my feet," she explained.
"Lord Girion trod on them while dancing, so I thought I'd bathe them in the cool water."
"I see." He was definitely laughing now. "Would you like me to call him to account?"
She felt mirth bubbling up inside her, too. "And what would you do if I said yes?"
"I would do as my lady tells me to, of course. Although I might use my wet boots as a pretext for the challenge."
When she started laughing, he picked her up, soaked gown and all, and with effortless ease carried her across to a nearby bench. Gently, he set her down and then remained kneeling at her side.
"Lothíriel," he said, taking hold of her hands. "You never answered my earlier question. Will you marry me?"
All her doubts had melted away. "Yes."
He kissed the palm of her hand. "That's good, for I love you madly." He kissed her bare arm. "Dementedly." The hollow of her throat. "Insanely." Lothíriel had to smile, yet at the same time her heart was beating as fast as a galloping horse and she wondered if he could hear it. His warm breath caressed her face and his lips hovered just above hers. "Desperately," he whispered hoarsely and claimed them.
Like a fireboat taken by the river in its firm embrace, Lothíriel let herself be swept away, losing all feeling of space of time. She protested incoherently when Éomer finally let go again.
"Dear heart," he sighed, "I think we'd better stop while we still can."
She blushed and nodded.
"I'll get your shoes."
His boots made a squelching sound as he walked and though she made an attempt to wring out her dress, the fabric clung to her legs, heavy and clammy. She hoped devoutly that nobody would see them on the way back to the house.
"Here they are." Éomer knelt down and helped her slip on her light dancing shoes, his warm hands lingering for a moment on her calves. Just that brief contact sent a delightful thrill all through her.
Then he reached out a hand to pull her to her feet and arm in arm they walked back through the garden. Lothíriel felt a bit like a burglar, the way they carefully opened the back door to the house to check if the coast was clear.
"Nobody about," Éomer whispered, "but we'll have to hurry."
They stole up the stairs and paused at the top. "Do you know which is your room?" he asked.
She nodded. "The fifth door to the right."
"I had better leave you then. But I will speak to your father first thing in the morning, I promise."
A far too brief caress across her cheek and he was gone. Her skirt dragged at her heavy and cold as she made her way back to her room, feeling bereft as if he'd taken all warmth and comfort with him. She counted the doors as she walked along the passageway. One. Two. Three. The fourth door opened under her fingers just as she passed. She froze.
"Lothíriel!" Her father's voice. "What are you doing still up?"
She slowly turned towards him, uncomfortably aware of her dripping clothes and her dishevelled hair. Even more aware of the fact that the truth of what she'd been up to in the garden was probably written large all across her face. She had never been any good at hiding things from her father.
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.