The Lion and his Lady: 5. From Dutiful Daughter to Virtuous Wife

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5. From Dutiful Daughter to Virtuous Wife

From Dutiful Daughter to Virtuous Wife

Following the path set out for her by wiser minds, upon her marriage the maiden will pass from the shelter of her father's protection into the hands of her husband. Bringing with her as the most important gifts not a pretty face or a rich dowry, but rather decorous manners, a chaste heart and the willingness to let herself be guided by her new lord.

(Belecthor: The Gondorian maiden's guide to proper deportment)

*

Freckles. They had tried everything. Cucumber extract, parsley and lemon juice applied liberally, buttermilk poultices, raw onions... Ivriniel sighed as she surveyed her niece. Lothíriel had strict instructions to stay out of the sun in order to preserve her fair skin, but although the freckles had faded they refused to go away completely. At least she no longer resembled a peasant child, running barefoot along the beach in Dol Amroth. Ivriniel shuddered at the memory of her last visit there. Why, the girl had even brought a pair of breeches with her when she came to Minas Tirith, refusing to give them up. Only her father's intervention had persuaded her to have them locked away in her clothes chest. All her mother's fault of course for dying early and leaving the child to be spoilt rotten by her brothers and doting father. Ivriniel had never understood why Imrahil had not remarried, especially as she had presented several very suitable candidates to him.

Lothíriel cleared her throat. "You sent for me, Aunt Ivriniel?"

Speaking before being spoken to. Typical. Ivriniel let the silence stretch a moment longer to show her displeasure before giving a sharp nod. "Yes, I did. Take a seat."

As her niece sat down on one of the high-backed chairs provided for visitors and folded her hands in her lap, Ivriniel looked her over critically. The white woollen dress she wore was pleasingly high-cut, well suited to the maidenly modesty expected from a pupil of Belecthor's school. Added to that, Lothíriel had a thick shawl wrapped around her shoulders, which she pulled closer when a gust of autumn wind entered through an open window. Soon they would need fires lit in the evenings, but not just yet, for Ivriniel did not believe in mollycoddling her girls. Then she frowned when she noticed a straw trailing from one of her niece's sleeves. "Lothíriel, have you been in the stables again?" she asked sharply.

The girl lowered her eyes. "I'm not allowed to."

That did not answer her question, as Lothíriel full well knew. Ivriniel drummed her fingers on her desk. "I have told you before that the stables are no fit place for a princess, being frequented by all sorts of lowly persons. What would your future husband think if he found out that you consorted with such riff-raff?" She did not give her niece the chance to answer, but continued at once. "He would lose all respect for you and as Belecthor writes in The Gondorian maiden's guide to proper deportment-"

"-mutual respect is the foundation on which a successful marriage is built," Lothíriel supplied the quotation in a colourless voice.

Ivriniel felt irritation well up within her at the silent rebellion evident in every line of her charge's body, from the carefully lowered eyes to the stiff way she held herself. Two years of being instructed in the writings of the finest mind of Gondor and no appreciation. No doubt the girl still cherished romantic notions of being swept off her feet and falling in love with her husband. Well, the news she was about to impart would put an end to such silly ideas. "I've received a letter from your father," she said.

Lothíriel looked up at that, half rising from her chair. "For me?"

"No." Ivriniel could not help experiencing a certain satisfaction when she saw her niece's disappointment. "He requests me to inform you regarding certain...arrangements...he has made pertaining to your future."

Imrahil had actually asked her to sound his daughter out concerning said plans, but Ivriniel saw no reason to share that information. As Belecthor said, it was a father's right and duty to arrange a suitable match for his daughter and such weighty matters as an alliance between two countries should certainly not be subject to some foolish girl's whim. "Do you know the King of Rohan?" she asked.

"King Éomer?" Lothíriel stammered in obvious confusion. "I know of course that he is here in Minas Tirith to attend his sister's wedding to Cousin Faramir, but why do you ask?"

"Rohan needs a noble born lady for its queen and Gondor needs an alliance."

As the girl reached the obvious conclusion the blood drained from her face, making her freckles stand out even more than usual. "Me?"

"Exactly." Ivriniel brushed a speck of dust from the bust of Belecthor holding pride of place on her desk. She could almost feel a stirring of pity in her breast at Lothíriel's stricken face, but at least the lessons she had learnt the last two years should enable the girl to endure marriage to a barbarian with fortitude. "I know it might sound like a slightly unpleasant prospect," Ivriniel continued in a softer voice, "but I urge you to think of it as an opportunity to bring much needed civilization to a backwater place."

"Slightly unpleasant!" Lothíriel jumped up. "You are asking me to marry a man I have never met, to go and live in a far away country and are calling it slightly unpleasant?"

Ivriniel frowned at the unladylike tone her niece had chosen. As she had repeatedly told Imrahil, she did not really consider Lothiriel ready for polite society, although she supposed her niece might satisfy the more rustic demands of a foreign court. "That's quite enough. Your father has made his decision and you will submit to his will as it behoves a dutiful daughter. Now sit down again!"

Lothíriel made no move to obey. "Father has no right!" she exclaimed. "King Éomer must be ten to fifteen years older than me at least. And does he even speak our language?"

"Only eight years older," Ivriniel corrected her. "He has Gondorian blood on his grandmother's side - is in fact related to the Princes of Dol Amroth - and so presumably has enjoyed some education. I urge you to think of the goodwill this match will engender between our countries."

"That's easy for you to say, it won't be you having to share his bed!" Lothíriel clapped her hands over her mouth as if surprised at her own audacity.

The ungrateful pup! Ivriniel surged to her feet. "To your room at once, without attending dinner!" She towered over her niece, an easy thing to do, since Lothíriel had not only inherited her mother's freckles but also her lack of inches. Ivriniel's eyes fell on the bust of her mentor. "You will spend the rest of the evening reading and thinking on chapter eight of Belecthor's guide: From dutiful daughter to virtuous wife. I expect you here in my study tomorrow morning with a full apology."

Lothíriel pressed her lips together and her eyes flashed rebelliously, but she dropped a stiff curtsy before leaving. As the door slammed closed behind her niece, Ivriniel sank back in her chair again, stroking the leather armrests reflexively. It had always given her comfort to sit in the same chair as her late teacher used to. A sigh escaped her lips. Well, she would not be sorry to see the last of this particular pupil. The girl needed the firm correcting hand of a husband, but hopefully the King of Rohan would provide just that. He had quite a reputation after all.

***

 

Upon first meeting her intended, the lady will under no circumstances put herself forward, but rather seek to gain his respect by her modest and pleasing behaviour. Remember that this first impression is all important and nothing is more unbecoming in a maid than pertness or frivolity.

*

The flames burned merrily. Using a poker, Lothíriel pushed the book a little further into the fireplace and watched its pages turn first brown then black before the parchment crumbled to ash. The pounding of her heart drowned out the crackling of the fire, for she knew she had just done the unforgivable. There was no way back for her now. Only forward.

A creak issued from behind her and she spun round, her heart in her mouth. Slowly the door to her room eased open. "Lothíriel, are you still up?" someone whispered from the hallway. "I've brought you something to eat."

Lothíriel relaxed when she recognized the voice of Arveldis, one of her few friends at the school. "Come in. But be quick about it!"

The girl tiptoed into the room and closed the door behind her. She held out a squashed piece of bread. "I'm afraid this is all I could squirrel away."

Lothíriel snatched it up. "Thanks," she mumbled, already munching away on the meagre food.

Arveldis looked around. "It's nice and warm in here. I'm surprised Lady Ivriniel let you have a fire." Then her eyes fell on the remains of the book lying in the fireplace and she let out a strangled sound of horror. "What have you done!"

Lothíriel smiled through the last crumbs of bread. "Consigned Belecthor to a fitting resting place."

"You haven't." Arveldis breathed. "She will kill you when she finds out!"

"I won't be here anymore."

Arveldis's eyes went wide. "You are running away?"

"Yes." Lothíriel felt a grim kind of satisfaction. She should have done this months ago. Out of a sense of duty to her father and so as not to worry him during the difficult times of the past she had consented to stay at the school. But the war had ended more than half a year ago and still he had not come for her. Only once had she been allowed to escape the confines of the school for one evening, to attend the wedding of the King and Queen of Gondor. Dressed in one of Aunt Ivriniel's modest white dresses as well!

Arveldis had caught her breath again. "But where are you going? Home to Dol Amroth?"

Lothíriel hesitated. Should she confide her plans to her friend? "No," she said slowly, "to my great aunt."

"I didn't know you had a great aunt."

"My grandmother's sister," Lothíriel explained. "Close to a hundred years old, but still hale. And more importantly, she likes me and cordially dislikes Ivriniel." She crossed to the bed and started to shed her gown, letting it fall to the floor, and instead slipped into a woollen tunic and the pair of breeches she had liberated from her chest of drawers. They seemed to be tighter than she remembered, especially across the hips, and she realised with some dismay that the womanly curves she had acquired the last couple of years were to blame.

Arveldis watched with something close to awe on her face. "So you think she will take you in?"

"I hope so." Lothíriel firmly pushed her doubts away. True, she hadn't seen Aunt Morwen for over six years, but hadn't Father once mentioned that as a young woman she had been forced into a distasteful marriage? Surely she would understand.

The wind rattled the shutters of the window and they both jumped. "But why run away?" her friend asked. "What has happened?"

"My father wrote that he has accepted an offer of marriage for me."

"Marriage!" Arveldis exclaimed. "But surely he would not make a decision like that without consulting you."

"He has." It was this fact, which hurt the most. She had so looked forward to seeing her family again at Faramir's wedding, even if only briefly, and now Father had arranged to send her away to a foreign country and not even deigned to tell her himself!

"Who to?" Arveldis asked. "Not some horrible old man?" She shivered at the idea.

"The King of Rohan."

Arveldis opened her mouth, but no sound emerged. She sank onto the bed. "Queen of Rohan? You?" she finally croaked.

A ridiculous notion, Lothíriel had to agree. After all she was no mighty warrior woman! With a decisive motion she threw her warm cloak around herself and fastened it at the chin. "I know. And I won't do it, not even to get away from here."

"But just think. Queen of Rohan!" Arveldis seemed to see a vision all her own. "Beautiful jewels, rich clothes and furs, living in a palace, everybody bowing to you..."

Lothíriel snorted. "Believe me, those attractions pale quickly."

"...and the Rohirrim so tall and handsome with their blond hair!"

"Not this one." At her friend's disbelieving look, Lothíriel shrugged. "Tall and blond true enough, and I suppose most women would consider him handsome, but there's something about him...." She shuddered.

"I didn't know you had met him."

"I haven't," Lothíriel replied, "but I saw him that time when I slipped out to watch the armies returning from Cormallen." It had meant two weeks of being confined to her room when she had been caught returning over the garden wall, but it had been well worth it for seeing her father and brothers alive and well with her own eyes.

Arveldis clapped her hands together. "Just think, a strong warrior king coming to carry you off on his horse. How romantic!"

"It's nothing of the sort," Lothíriel snapped. "All he wants is an alliance. I just happen to be Gondor's highest-ranking lady young enough to bear him children. If she were fifty years younger he'd marry Ivriniel."

They looked at each other and then simultaneously burst into laughter at the idea. But Lothíriel sobered quickly. She would not marry the King of Rohan for all the gold of Harad, not after actually seeing him. The man had ridden a great ugly beast of a horse that day and had controlled the fractious stallion with an aggressive grace, staring straight ahead and disregarding the cheering and clapping of the people of Minas Tirith. Of his eyes nothing had shown behind the slits of his horsetail helmet, with just the grim line of his mouth visible. Lothíriel swallowed. A ruthless warrior raised in a world of violence and bloodshed and with a temper to match from what she had heard. To spend the rest of her days at this man's side, to share his bed, to have his hands move upon her body - no, he might be on their side, but the man's raw power had frightened her. She picked up her meagre possessions from the table by the bed and stowed them away in her coat pockets. A couple of gold bangles that she hoped to sell on the way for food or shelter, a small eating knife, a comb. Unfortunately leading a horse out of the stables would wake the whole house, so she had decided to walk to Lossarnach. But perhaps she would be able beg a ride on a farm cart part of the way.

With wide eyes Arveldis watched her put up the hood of her cloak. "Are you really going to do it? All alone?"

"Yes." Lothíriel tried to put on a brave face, even though her stomach was twisting into knots, and not from hunger. "People will take me for an errand boy, nobody bothers them."

Arveldis nodded and for a moment Lothíriel hoped her friend might offer to accompany her, but the other girl just got up and hugged her. "Good luck!"

"Thank you." With a last look at the bare room that had been her home for the last two years Lothíriel slipped out the door.

At first all went well. The servants had gone to bed, leaving the key to the postern gate hanging on its usual nail next to the small peephole. With night falling early this time of the year, the quiet side street outside the house was deserted, but the moon shone brightly enough to allow Lothíriel to pick out her way. Once she reached the main thoroughfare of Minas Tirith, Lothíriel cast a look up at the Citadel towering above her like some mighty ship ploughing her way through the star strewn night. Torches illuminated the walls and she fancied she could hear the faint strains of dance music. Probably their new king hosted a celebration in honour of Faramir's upcoming nuptials - a shame she would miss the wedding and her brothers. But she would miss the King of Rohan, too.

The streets were busier now, but nobody gave her a second look, young lads on some errand or other being a common sight in Minas Tirith. Lothíriel followed the winding path down the hill, walking as quickly as possible while at the same time trying not to arouse any undue notice. She wanted to leave the city that night and put some distance between her and the inevitable searchers. They were bound to assume she had run away home and look along the South Road first, which unfortunately was also the way to Lossarnach.

On the bottommost level, the Great Gates stood wide open, but Lothíriel hesitated in the shadow of the buildings, waiting for an opportunity to slip past. Just then a party of revellers singing a bawdy song about the blacksmith's daughter and her seven suitors came down the hill.

"And the last one was the high king's son," one of them sang loudly and thoroughly off key.

"But she would have none!" Lothíriel joined in the chorus as she trailed behind them to pass below the bored scrutiny of the city guards. Her back crawled and she expected to be stopped any moment, but nothing happened. She had done it!

Outside the wall, a city of tents had sprung up, colourful stalls lining the main road south and selling everything from jewellery, to clothes, to leather goods. The way was packed with people and Lothíriel made slow progress, especially as she found herself distracted by the goods on offer. One stall sold nothing but silken scarves, the delicate fabric floating on the night breeze and only the stall owner's suspicious glare when she fingered one recalled Lothíriel to her guise as a simple errand boy. And the smells! Her stomach growled at the mouth-watering odours of roast piglet and mulled wine with cinnamon. Lunch seemed a long time ago and the small piece of bread saved by Arveldis had done nothing to blunt her hunger. Surely a short break for some sustenance would do no harm? But she would have to try and make the food last, so with some regret she passed by a stall selling her favourite roasted chestnuts and queued at a baker's instead.

"What do you want, lad?" the baker's wife asked her, a dumpy little woman with flour all over her apron.

Lothíriel pointed to a big loaf of brown bread, a couple of sausage rolls and some hazelnut cakes covered in ground sugar. "And may I have a piece of sacking to carry them in?" she added, taking care to deepen her voice.

The woman gave her a sharp glance. "Have you got the coin to pay for all this?"

Lothíriel handed over one of her bangles. The gold would cover the cost easily, was in fact worth more than the contents of the entire stall. The woman's eyes widened, she called her husband over and they inspected the jewellery closely whilst Lothíriel waited with growing impatience.

"Where did you get this from?" the baker asked her.

Lothíriel frowned. "I don't see how that concerns you," she replied haughtily. "You won't lose by the exchange."

He tried to peer inside her hood. "You have a mighty insolent tongue, lad! Where would somebody like you come by real gold?"

"Perhaps he stole it from his mistress!" his wife cried.

Lothíriel snatched her bangle back. "How dare you!" Then she became aware of the farmers either side of her eyeing her suspiciously. "It belongs to my sister," she stammered the first thing that came into her mind.

"Ha! A likely tale," the baker exclaimed, one big beefy hand reaching for her.

Lothíriel ducked instinctively and backed away from his grasping fingers.

"Thief!" he shouted.

Panic flooded through her. She had to get away! Shoving one of the farmers into the other's path, she twisted round and dodged between the men standing behind her. Shouts followed her as she ran along the narrow lane between tents, trying to skirt the edge of the crowd. Where to? Suddenly she stumbled over a rope hidden in the darkness and went flying. Reaching out desperately, her hands found a canvas wall and grabbed it, setting the whole structure shaking. For a moment her eyes met the horrified gaze of the stall's owner and then the thing collapsed. Lothíriel jumped back, a display of heavy copper pots missing her feet by only inches. From under the pile of canvas and broken tent poles a howl of outrage went up. She started running again.

Behind her the sounds of pursuit intensified. Was this how the hare felt, fleeing from the hounds? The alley widened out and Lothíriel dashed between two carts. Underneath wide awnings wooden tables had been set up and they teemed with customers. She risked a quick glance behind her. Then her flight was stopped abruptly when she careened into something hard.

Strong hands steadied her. "Watch out, lad!"

The smell of leather and horse. Lothíriel realised she'd collided with a man just rising from one of the tables. "Sorry!" she gasped and tried to wriggle away. She got the jumbled impression of blond hair and piercing eyes in a stern face.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes! Please let me go!"

That moment from the entrance of the alley shrill cries of "Thief!", "Catch him!" rose in the air. The grip on her arm tightened. Lothíriel snatched a tankard of ale from the table and threw the liquid in the man's face. With a curse he let go of her and she twisted away, leaving her cloak in his hands. Free! Half blinded he lunged after her, but fortunately he stumbled over the tankard, which she had thrown to the ground. His friends started to rise, too. "Hey!" one of them shouted.

Lothíriel seized one of the lamps hanging from an awning and swung it in his direction, making him jump back. More shouts followed her as she whirled around, desperation lending her speed. Suddenly out of the dark loomed the shape of horses, being led by a couple of boys. The nearest one shied at her flailing the lamp about, ripping his reins out of his handler's hand. Escape! Without thinking Lothíriel dropped the lamp, snatched the reins and pulled herself into the horse's saddle.

With an angry neigh he reared, very nearly throwing her. Lothíriel cried out in fright and clutched the pommel. The other horses reared and bucked as well, but somebody shouted an order in a foreign language and the horses calmed down at once. For an instant she met the eyes of the man she had just run into. He looked frightened and furious at the same time. Frightened for her?

Then it happened: out of the corner of her eye Lothíriel saw a faint flare where she had dropped her lamp. A moment later the straw covering the ground went up in flames with a roar. With a mighty leap her horse took off, racing into the darkness. Oh, but he was fast! Holding on to the mane for dear life Lothíriel could do nothing to steer him, let alone slow him down. Curses trailed her as people had to jump out of the way to avoid being trampled. What had she done! In an instant they had left the fair behind them and the road flashed past below his hooves. His mane whipped across her face, but she dared not let go, not even to try and grab the reins.

In no time at all the great circling wall came into sight. "Courier!" she shouted and the guards' faces passed by as a pale blur. The road descended into a gentle valley carved out by one of the tributaries of the Anduin here, and still her steed showed no sign of slowing down. Did this mad animal intend to run to Far Harad? A bridge led across the river, the wooden boards echoing hollowly below them and causing the horse to put on a fresh burst of speed. But that seemed to tire him, for once they reached the other side and entered the forest there, he slowed to a trot and then a walk. Lothíriel snatched at the reins and finally he stood still. Her hands shaking she slid from his back before her legs gave way and she just sat down in the dirt. It felt wonderful to touch solid ground. She was alive!

The sound of their harsh breathing filled her ears and the horse hung his head in exhaustion, his flanks heaving. Lothíriel looked up at him, amazed that she had managed to mount him. Even spent and with his chest flecked with foam he was a magnificent animal, powerfully built and at least a hand taller than her father's warhorses. True, the irregular white marks across his head and neck gave him an ugly look, but- Lothíriel froze. She had seen those marks before.

"No!" she whispered and struggled to her feet. "It can't be!"

He followed her tiredly when she took the reins and led him a few steps further down the path to where the moon shone through the branches of the trees. A quick inspection of his saddlecloth revealed the White Horse of Rohan and Lothíriel's heart missed a beat. Still, it could be any rider of the Rohirrim, couldn't it? Most of her father's men marked their gear with a mark, so with shaking fingers she searched the saddle. There! She peered at it. A stylised animal of some kind, one paw lifted threateningly.

Her throat went dry. Only too well did she remember seeing King Éomer's personal banner flying below the White Horse and thinking how the fierce lion suited him. Lothíriel clutched the saddle to keep from collapsing. She had just stolen the King of Rohan's battle charger!

The horse gave a soft huff and even though her head was still spinning, she reached out and absentmindedly stroked his sweaty neck. That brought her back to the present. How often had her father's stable master told her to always walk a horse after any exertion to keep the muscles from stiffening. "Come on, boy," she said and led the way down the road. He followed tiredly.

Her own muscles ached from the unaccustomed exercise and her bottom and thighs were sore. She had not ridden a horse since coming to Minas Tirith two years ago, for even when they had been evacuated during the war Ivriniel had insisted they use carts. Looking at him, Lothíriel marvelled that she had ever managed to mount him unaided, for she did not think she would be able to climb back on the stallion now - not that she wanted to anyway! Slowly she became aware of forest noises. The distinctive call of an eagle owl, small rustles in the undergrowth and the branches of the trees above her sighing in the breeze. The fir trees seemed to lean into each other, following her progress and whispering to each other. A little nervously Lothíriel eyed the deep shadows either side. But surely the horse with his much keener sense of smell would give her warning? With her cloak gone, the cold wind cut right through her thin clothes and she shivered.

A little down the road they came upon a shallow stream and she stopped to let the big grey have a drink, careful not to allow him too much water all at once. A well-trained horse, he obeyed her without any fuss when she ordered him back and started to rub him down with a handful of grass. In a way she still couldn't quite believe what she had done. As she cleaned the foam and dirt from the stallion's chest she desperately tried to think of a way to get the horse back to the King of Rohan without anybody being the wiser. Could she sneak back to Minas Tirith and set him loose at the edge of the Rohirrim's camp? Ask one of her brothers to take him back? But in her heart of hearts she knew what her father would expect her to do.

"I will have to return you myself," she whispered to the grey.

And throw herself on the King of Rohan's mercy. She closed her eyes. Would she find any? What if he took offence? Her stupid action might have endangered the very alliance between their countries that her father strove so hard to reinforce. What a fool she had been! Her bare chamber in Aunt Ivriniel's house seemed very desirable that moment - and unreachably far away. All of a sudden she became aware that around her the forest had gone silent and distant thunder sounded, growing louder.

The stallion pricked his ears forward.

***

At all times relations between the lady and her lord will be marked by deference and impeccable manners on the lady's side, cherishing and firm authority on the lord's. With her presence, the lady will provide a calm and ordered haven, where her husband can forget the cares of looking after his domain.

*

Éomer seethed inside. If anything had happened to Firefoot he would hunt that piece of orc bait down and have his hide. The wretch deserved a good thrashing! He should have let Firefoot throw and trample him as Rohirric warhorses were trained to do. But the lad had looked so frightened that Éomer had instinctively given the order to desist. Now he cursed himself for it.

That moment one of his riders called out, and Éomer nudged Dapplecoat forward. A pile of horse droppings, still steaming in the cold night air. Yes! He felt the exhilaration of the hunter closing on his prey course through him. They had met no other travellers since entering the forest and the guards at the Rammas Echor had been clear in their description of the so-called 'courier'. Silently he gave the sign to move into a canter and his men fanned out behind him. They topped a slight incline and saw the road descend towards a meadow by a small stream. A grey horse stood in the grass, head lifted, and at once Firefoot's familiar neigh ran out. Éomer yelled and like a cresting wave they raced down the hill. Only then did he notice the small figure of the boy by the horse's side, standing rooted to the spot. Éomer laughed. They had caught their thief.

"He's mine!" he shouted.

As they approached the ford, he slowed Dapplecoat and Firefoot trotted forward to meet them. Relief swept through Éomer. No legs broken.

"Easy, boy," he calmed the excited stallion, swinging down from the saddle and reaching for the trailing reins. The horse gave a pleased nicker.

Without the need for orders his riders encircled the thief, who had retreated a few steps and stood with his back against a tree. He had made no attempt to run away, no doubt realizing the futility of it. Éomer allowed himself a few moments to check the stallion's legs and note the inexpert attempt at cleaning him up. At least the little toerag had apparently had the sense to walk Firefoot after the run to cool him down. Luck - sheer luck. How easily could the stallion have broken a leg, which would have meant his end. His friend and trusty battle companion, who had been through such a lot with him! He straightened up and turned round. A couple of steps brought him face to face with their thief.

"Please, my lord!" The boy shrank back from him. "I was going to return the horse."

The wretch! Fresh ire rose within Éomer at the blatant lie. He grabbed the brat by the tunic and slammed him against the tree trunk, lifting him clean off his feet. "So you're a liar as well as a thief. Do you realise you nearly foundered my horse!"

The boy clawed at his arms in panic. "I'm sorry!" he gasped. Eyes wide with terror looked up at Éomer.

He loosened his grip slightly. "You little louse! Can you give me one reason why I should let you live?"

The boy stared up at him, paralysed with fright. Let him be afraid, he deserved it! Éomer still couldn't believe the sheer nerve of the wretch to steal Firefoot from right under his nose! He leaned in closer until their faces were only inches away.

And got a shock.

There was something pressing against his chest that shouldn't be there. Something soft and rounded... He blinked. His whole perception changed as he took another look at the face lifted up to him. Big eyes framed by gently curved eyebrows, a small, straight nose, and the lips full and red.... In disbelief he touched a cheek. Smooth and white.

"Why," he breathed, relaxing his hold, "we've caught a girl!"

With a sob of terror she brought up her knee.

Pain exploded across his vision. Ayeee! Éomer doubled over. In the distance he could hear a scuffle going on, but he paid no attention to it. Air! It was all he could do to take another breath. His groin was on fire.

"Éomer! Are you all right?" Éothain's voice.

What a stupid question! "No!" he snarled at his captain.

Slowly the world came into focus again. Grass bleached colourless by the moonlight, the dark trunk of a tree. Éomer leaned against it, resting his cheek against the rough bark, grateful for any sensation that distracted him from the pain still coursing through his body. He told himself he had survived worse - one breath at a time was how you did it. Very, very carefully he straightened up and turned round.

The girl flinched away from his gaze. A small thing and delicate. One of his guards held her with her arms pinioned behind her back, but she did not attempt to struggle anyway. Felled by an opponent half his size and a fraction his strength! Éomer had thought himself angry before, but now found he had reached that place where rage was almost pleasant. A detached, floating sensation sweeping all other considerations before it. He smiled.

Around him his men stepped back and the girl looked ready to faint. Good. He approached her and gripped her chin, turning her face up to the moonlight. "So you want to take on the King of Rohan?"

She said nothing, but he could feel her starting to tremble. Let her realise just who exactly she had meddled with. Rage sang through his veins like a dark, seductive song. He traced her lips, his fingers rough on their silken softness. "Well, you're quite a pretty thing." He motioned Éothain over. "Put her on one of the spare horses, we're taking her back to the camp with us."

"To the camp? But..."

"Do as you're told!" Éomer whispered.

They locked eyes for a moment, before Éothain inclined his head. "Yes, Éomer King."

It was a bad sign to have his childhood friend call him king, but he would worry about that later. Much later. Crossing his arms across his chest he watched Éothain lead the girl over to one of their horses and boost her into the saddle. How could he have been so blind? She moved like a woman and now that he knew the truth he noticed the soft curve of her hips, the slim shape of her legs. During the struggle her hair had come undone and it fell in a tumbled mass down her back.

He stepped up to her horse and took the stirrups and reins away, enjoying the way her fingers clenched on the pommel at his actions. Éomer lowered his voice. "Do you know how the Rohirrim punish a horse thief?"

A jerky shake of her head.

"I will show you."

He was peripherally aware of his men exchanging uneasy glances, but the lovely, blissful rage filling him left no room for any other emotion. When he motioned to his

squire to take Firefoot's reins in order to lead the stallion behind his horse, the boy practically ran to do his bidding. Once they were ready to leave, Éomer swung himself into Dapplecoat's saddle, lowering himself with great care. Even so he winced.

It was a long, tense ride back through the forest. Silently his men moved out into their usual formation, taking no chances even in friendly territory. The full moon starting to set behind the White Mountains threw deep shadows across the road and with the wind having died down an edged quiet seemed to lie upon the trees, every sound echoing back eerily. A couple of times Éomer cast a look back at their prisoner. She rode with her face lowered, but he could tell she was aware of him by the way she hunched her shoulders whenever he glanced her way.

Finally the trees thinned out as they approached the river. Rushing down from the slopes of the mountains to join the Anduin, it ran deep and swift, spanned only by a narrow wooden bridge. When they crossed it, the boards rang hollowly under their horses' hooves, making their mounts uneasy. Halfway across Éomer looked back to check on their progress and frowned when he noticed the girl's horse drifting dangerously close to the low railing. He opened his mouth to bark an order when suddenly she lifted her head, meeting his eyes squarely. Éomer knew that look, he had seen it in many a young rider facing his first battle: desperation and determination in equal measure. Then she let herself topple over the railings into the inky waters below.

Sanity returned abruptly. What had he done! With a breathless curse he hurled himself from Dapplecoat's back and ran back along the bridge. There! A small head surfaced in the water briefly, only to be swept away. Éomer unbuckled his sword belt and shoved it into Éothain's hands. "I'll get her. Follow along the river bank!" Then he jumped.

The waters closed above his head like icy claws, driving the air from his lungs. Up! He needed to swim back up. Flailing his arms, he managed to thrust himself briefly above the surface, catching a desperately needed breath of air. The girl! Where was she? But the current submerged him again, tumbling him round dizzyingly until he lost all sense of up and down. Éomer had thought he could swim, but this was utterly unlike the calm pond where they had played as boys. Panic rose within him as the weight of his waterlogged clothes started to pull him down. In desperation he kicked off his boots and managed to struggle back up. A brief glimpse of the night sky above him, the trees by the shore, unreachably far away. Shouts in the distance. He drew breath to call out and swallowed water.

It filled his mouth, his ears, his nose and he started coughing. A wave swamped him, the river dragging him down like a hungry beast. Éomer reached out wildly for anything to hold on to, but to no avail, he sank under the water again, his lungs calling out for air. He realised that he might die here, in the dark and cold. Betrayed by his own temper, just like his father.

Suddenly his hand connected with something and he reached for it, but it eluded his grip almost as if it were alive. Then an arm slipped around his chest from behind and he felt himself pulled back up. Sweet, blessed air! He gasped and tried to turn round, thrashing wildly.

"Keep still! Or you'll drown us yet."

In his surprise Éomer nearly went under again. The girl! Seizing his head in a vicelike grip, she started to propel them towards the riverbank. After a moment he gave up trying to help, letting her tow him along. She seemed to know what she was doing.

"You can swim!" he said stunned.

"Yes. Unlike you." She moved through the water with big, easy strokes, keeping them afloat effortlessly as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

"Where did you learn to do that?" he asked.

The girl snorted. "It's easy. I grew up by the sea and-" she stopped as if she'd given away more than she had intended to. "You can stand now," she said instead, letting go of him.

For a heartbeat he panicked again until his feet touched solid ground and he found that indeed the water barely reached his waist. Feeling slightly foolish he straightened up. She had retreated into deeper water, her face no more than a pale blur in the darkness. "My lord, I will leave now," she said. "You have your horse back, please let me be."

"Wait!" he called.

When she hesitated, Éomer held out a hand. "Please do not go back in there! I'm sorry for what I said." He swallowed. "...and did."

Treading water, the girl regarded him uncertainly.

He took a step towards her. "My lady, my accurst temper got the better of me just now, but I give my word not to hurt you."

And still she hesitated. "You jumped in the river after me," she finally said, her voice so low he almost failed to make it out. "Will you tell me why?"

"To save you of course!" Although he had not exactly excelled at this task.

"Not to catch me again?"

"No!" He was torn between taking another step towards her and the fear this might scare her away for good. "I was not myself earlier on, but it will not happen again. You have my word." Éomer willed her to believe him.

He held his breath while she considered her decision. Finally she moved in closer, taking the offered hand. "All of Gondor knows the King of Rohan's word holds true. I accept it." She swayed as she straightened up.

"Thank you." He steadied her. "But let's get out of the water."

His clothes hung clammy and heavy on him as they staggered towards the shore and scrambled up the sandy bank, and when they stopped briefly he could see her shivering. Trying to wring the water from his shirt proved a futile attempt, so he just took it off. Where were his men? The girl sank to the ground, putting her hands under her armpits and hunching over.

He crouched down next to her. "Help will be here soon."

Wordlessly she nodded, but he could hear her teeth chattering. Up close she seemed impossibly frail to have saved him from the river single-handedly and he realised he hadn't even thanked her. "My lady," he said, "I owe you my life."

The girl shrugged. "It's nothing. I could not stand by and do nothing while somebody drowns for lack of help, not even-" She stopped and turned her face away.

Not even a louse like him. A man who would offer violence to a helpless woman. "You have every right to reproach me," Éomer said, the taste of self-loathing bitter in his mouth.

"Would you have carried through with...it?" she whispered.

"No!" Or would he? Most disconcertingly, he could still remember the jolt of desire that had run through him at the touch of her smooth skin. But surely he would have come to his senses by the time they reached the camp. Or else Éothain would have hit him over the head - that was what friends were for after all.

However she seemed to accept his word, for she nodded. "I believe you. And I know I'm not blameless either."

Éomer stared at her. How could she forgive him so easily? He knew he would take a lot longer to forgive himself. Suddenly he could hear distant shouts and jumped up. His riders! "Here!" he called out. He turned to the girl. "We have to go and meet them or they might miss us."

She looked up at him, her face lined with exhaustion. "You go. I will wait here."

He did not want to move himself, but he knew that they had to. "Come on," he cajoled her, "I will give you a hand."

Her fingers were icy when he pulled her to her feet again and she leaned into him, her whole body shaking from the cold. Clearly she would not be able to get very far. With a sigh he picked her up in his arms and began walking, careful to feel for tree roots with his bare feet. The girl gave a startled squeak and started struggling. He tightened his grip. "Hold still! I'm only trying to help." She subsided and after a moment even slipped her arms around his neck.

The exercise soon warmed him up, but it worried him how little she weighed and how clammy her skin felt. Where were those useless riders of his? He called out again and then finally spotted them on a narrow forest path. Éothain dismounted hastily and ran to meet them.

"Éomer, you are all right!" He spotted the burden in his king's arms. "And you managed to save her!"

Éomer did not rectify this wrong impression. His reputation as one of the greatest warriors of Middle Earth had suffered enough already that night. "Never mind," he said, pushing past his captain. "We have to hurry."

He considered his options. They could stop here and build a fire, but would that warm her enough? They had no way to dry her clothes and did indeed not even have the means to make tea or hot soup. Had they passed any farmhouses or inns on the way? He did not think so. Which left as the only feasible option taking her back to their camp as quickly as possible.

"Wiglaf!" he called.

One of his riders trotted forward. "My lord?"

"Ride ahead and alert the camp to heat water for a bath. Make haste!"

"Yes, my lord." The rider turned his horse round and urged it into a gallop, disappearing into the night.

Éomer turned his attention back to the woman in his arms. He did not think she followed what was going on around her, for she had turned her face against his chest, eyes closed. She mustn't fall asleep like this!

"Dry clothes," he muttered to himself, then suddenly remembered the cloak she had lost at the fair. In his haste to catch up with her he had just stuffed it in a saddlebag, intending to examine it later. "Where is Dapplecoat?"

"Here," Éothain led the gelding up. At Éomer's direction he got the cloak out and started to wrap it around her, but Éomer stopped him.

"Wait!" He set the girl down, supporting her. It would do her no good to wear a cloak over wet clothes. "Listen," he said, taking her cold cheeks between his hands and forcing her to look up at him. "You have to take your shirt off."

"What! You promised!" She started to struggle weakly.

He cursed himself. If she died of exposure it would be entirely his fault. "It's for your own good," he tried to explain. "I've got your cloak here, but you must take your wet clothes off first or you'll freeze. Please trust me."

"Oh!" She bit her lip. "I see. Very well." She pushed herself away from him and reached for the laces at her throat. "Close your eyes."

Éomer held up the cloak to shelter her from his men's gazes and turned his head away, following her orders. He could hear her fumbling with her clothes. Then she gave a low curse, almost a sob. "I can't do it. My fingers are completely numb."

He opened his eyes to see her tearing at the laces in frustration, a tear trickling down her cheek. She had been so brave, but now he could sense she was nearing her breaking point. "Let me help you," he said gently. "I used to dress my sister as a child".

Would she find it in her to trust him? She hesitated, before giving a tremulous nod. "All right."

Look at her like you would at Éowyn, he told himself when he bent over and started to untangle her laces. His body of course had different ideas. He could not help noticing her chest rising and falling with every shallow breath or the shiver running through her when he accidentally brushed against her skin. So white and soft... He cut that thought off with brutal finality. He had done enough damage for one day.

It proved to be a matter of minutes only to undo the shirt to the point where she could slip out of it. Again he turned away while she shed her wet clothes and wrapped the cloak around herself. Unceremoniously he picked her up and lifted her onto Dapplecoat's back, swinging into the saddle behind her and enfolding her in his arms, cloak and all. "We ride!"

With an exhausted sigh the girl leaned back against him and by the time they had reached the main road she had actually fallen asleep. Fortunately they had pitched their tents near the Harlond, not too far from the southern gate in the Rammas Echor, so it would take them no more than an hour to reach the camp. Through the thick fabric of the cloak he could feel her body warming up, but even so he urged his horse into a canter, anxious to get her home. Looking down at her, Éomer shifted her head so it rested more comfortably against his shoulder, marvelling at the trust he saw in her relaxed features. Totally undeserved, he admonished himself.

***

The most precious good a maiden possesses is her reputation, which she must safeguard at all cost. Even with her betrothed she has to maintain a proper distance at all times, making sure no idle chatter will leave her lips, no improper touch will take place and above all that she is never left alone with him.

*

Warmth. Glorious, blissful warmth. Reaching every last corner of her body. Lothíriel stretched and enjoyed the feeling of water lapping gently against her skin. Reluctantly she opened her eyes, for while she would quite happily have spent the rest of her life in the King of Rohan's bathtub, it was the middle of the night and the servants had been especially woken to attend to her. With a sigh she got ready to get out.

One of the maids gave her a hand, a grey haired, keen eyed woman named Aescwyn, who seemed to be in charge of the rest of the servants. She had a dark red robe ready for Lothíriel, woven from soft wool and covering her so completely that only her toes peeked out.

"This belongs to the king," Aescwyn explained. "I am afraid we have nothing else here just now, but I will find more suitable garments tomorrow morning."

Lothíriel nodded as she wrapped the robe more tightly around her. She had borrowed everything from King Éomer anyway: his servants, his bath, his tent, she might as well borrow his clothes. The other woman regarded her curiously. Unwilling to explain the whole convoluted tale of how she had ended up wet to the skin, Lothíriel had fobbed her off with a story of her horse spooking, causing her to fall in the river.

"Would you like something to eat?" Aescwyn asked, leading the way into the main part of the tent, from which the bathing area had been divided off with a thick cloth to cut out drafts.

"Yes please," Lothíriel replied, looking round with interest, for she had been too sleepy to take any notice of her surroundings when King Éomer had carried her in earlier on. A trestle table piled with books and papers took up most of the space while against one sloping wall stood a narrow cot with a clothes chest beside it. On the floor lay faded carpets and an oil lamp fashioned from beaten silver hung from the ceiling, the only ornament in an otherwise bare room. A thoroughly masculine place, it made her small chamber in Aunt Ivriniel's house look opulent in comparison.

When Aescwyn left to see about food, herding the other servants before her, Lothíriel stepped up to the table, curious to find out what reading matter the King of Rohan preferred. She traced the thick spines: The Art of War by Hyarmendacil - no surprise there - and of course Mardil's The Prince that she knew from her father's library. Underneath that Turgon's A brief history of Gondor, by far the biggest book of the lot, but what was he doing reading Cemendur's philosophical treatises? And surely not a book of poetry? Sea Longings. She picked up the slim volume bound in blue vellum and leafed through it, trying to imagine King Éomer doing the same with those big, capable hands of his.

Her eyes were drawn to the charts arranged in neat rows on the table. To her surprise she found that she could read them, the words being written in Westron. Aldford, Ferndale, Langhyrst, Dunholme, Isengraef ...? Then she read the annotations written in neat handwriting next to each name. Completely Destroyed said the first, Burnt to the ground and well fouled, but can be rebuilt the second. Underneath that: Women/children taken to Hornburg, building supplies needed. In dismay Lothíriel lifted her hand to her throat as she continued down the list, each entry worse than the next.

"What are you doing there?"

She jumped and looked up, startled. Quite unnoticed by her King Éomer had entered the tent, a tray in his hands. As he frowned at her, Lothíriel gestured at the pile of papers. "This is terrible!"

His mouth drawn in a grim line, he balanced the tray on the edge of the table and started to roll up his charts, stowing them away in long leather tubes. "The price of war, my lady."

"I'm sorry," she said in a low voice. "I had no idea..."

The king sighed and seemed to relax slightly. "We survived and will prosper again one day. The Eorlingas are a hardy folk." He picked up his books to put them underneath the table. "But yes, it makes for harrowing reading." Pushing the tray forward, he motioned for her to sit down on the folding stool behind the table. "Beef stew and bread. I'll leave you to it."

"Wait!" she said and he turned at the door. "Won't you join me?"

When he regarded her uncertainly Lothíriel asked herself why she had said those words, but for some reason she had not wanted him to walk out with such bleak thoughts on his mind. The gracious manners learnt at Ivriniel's school came to her rescue. "Please, my Lord King, will you keep me company?"

"If you wish." With Lothíriel occupying the only chair, after a brief hesitation he sat down on the edge of the bed. Somehow his presence made the tent shrink. She looked down, lifting the lid off her bowl, and an appetising smell rose from the thick beef stew. Breaking off a piece of bread she dipped it in the stew and started eating greedily. It tasted wonderful!

Only when she had wiped the bowl completely clean did she become aware of the rest of the world again. Without looking up she somehow knew that King Éomer was watching her and the thought passed through her mind whether she should worry. The servants had long since sought their own beds, leaving her alone with this warrior in his tent. And her wearing nothing but a robe - her aunt would throw a fit if she knew. Yet Lothíriel could not find it in her to be afraid. Oh, she had been terrified when he had caught up with her in the forest, so much so that she had completely lost her head, with disastrous results. But strangely enough her gut feeling told her that she had nothing more to fear from this man, now or ever.

More to occupy her hands than from any real hunger she picked up the apple also included on the tray. "You must excuse my table manners, my lord," she said. "I've had nothing to eat since a scanty midday meal."

"Your manners are impeccable." Narrowing his eyes, he leaned forward. "My lady, forgive my bluntness, but has your family perished in the war?"

"Perished? No." Lothíriel stared at him in surprise. What had given him that idea? "My father and brothers fought in the great battles, but we were lucky and all of them survived."

King Éomer frowned. "You can read and you speak Westron like someone of obviously noble birth. So why are you starving to the extent that you are reduced to stealing food at the fair?"

Lothíriel could feel her jaw drop. "Stealing?" She jumped up and her chair went flying. "I've never stolen anything in my life!" Suddenly she remembered his battle charger and blushed furiously. "I mean I did steal your horse, I suppose. But nothing else! I offered to pay for the bread with a piece of jewellery, but they would not accept it and that set off the whole unfortunate affair."

He drummed his fingers on his thigh. "Which still does not explain what you were doing at the fair in the first place. That father of yours does not seem to take very good care of you!"

"Oh!" Lothíriel bent to right her chair and sat down again. Somehow she did not relish the thought of revealing her true identity to him. "Actually I live with my aunt." She picked up her discarded apple and took another bite. "I...eh...ran away."

"Why?"

She squirmed. "They want to marry me off against my wishes. To somebody I've never met." No, she definitely did not want him to know who she was, even though he would of course find out eventually. But hopefully not until much later.

"Against your wishes!" His hands clenched on his thigh. "How barbaric! I know it's a common custom here in Gondor for a father to negotiate his daughter's marriage, but in the Riddermark no betrothal would even be considered without obtaining the bride's consent first."

Lothíriel concentrated on her apple. "Not even your own?"

"I would never force myself on a woman!" When she looked up he reddened. "My lady, I want my wife to come to me gladly and of her own free will. Admittedly you have seen me at my worst, but believe me I only take what's offered freely."

She had also seen him at his best when he had jumped in the river after her, even though he could not swim. "I believe you," she said softly, all of a sudden feeling bad about her deception. Would he despise her for lying to him when he found out? Lothíriel discovered that for some reason it mattered what he thought of her.

She put her apple down. "My lord, I have not been quite honest with you."

He leaned forward. "In what way?"

"Like you guessed I am a noblewoman, but not just that..."

"What do you mean?"

She took a deep breath. "I am Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth."

His eyes widened. "Imrahil's daughter?"

"Yes."

"I see." He frowned.

She had expected him to show surprise, anger even at the idea that she did not want to marry him, but he seemed to take it in pretty good stead. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's nothing personal, but I will not wed a man I have never met."

"No, of course not." If anything he looked puzzled. "But are you sure?" he asked. "Your father spoke of you often during the ride to the Morannon, and with obvious love and affection. I find it hard to believe he would just decide your future without consulting you first."

"Oh yes he has," Lothíriel replied bitterly. "He informed me of his plans in a letter to my aunt."

"How strange. For he wrote to me not long ago suggesting that you and I should meet while I'm in Minas Tirith and see if we might suit..." He would not meet her eyes. "A ridiculous notion, I know."

Lothíriel made a strangled sound. "But Aunt Ivriniel said you had already agreed on the match between you!"

"What? Certainly not!" Then he suddenly jumped up and took a couple of paces across the room before whirling round to face her. "Are you saying you were running from me?"

She stared up at him stupidly. "Yes, of course. Who else?"

His eyes flashed. "Well, I do not know what your father wrote to your aunt, but I never made any such offer. What do you take me for?"

It looked like she had sparked off his temper again. "How was I supposed to know?" Lothíriel defended herself, refusing to be intimidated by him. "After all I only saw you the once."

"You saw me?" he leaned across the table. "When?"

She had not meant to mention that! "When you returned from the Black Gate," she explained reluctantly. "I sneaked out to see my father and brothers."

His hands clenched. "And that one glimpse frightened you so much that you decided to run away from me?"

"You looked grim and forbidding!" she exclaimed. "Of course I got frightened."

"My lady," he said, biting off each word. "I had just buried far too many of my kinsmen and the man who stood in a father's stead to me lay dead in your Hallows. How cheerful would you have felt under those circumstances?"

It sounded so stupid and prejudiced of her. "I'm sorry," Lothíriel whispered.

Visibly restraining his temper, he took a step back. "Well, you needn't fear. I did not offer for you and what is more, now that I've met you, I do not intend to either."

"Why not?" she could not help asking, offended.

"Why not? First you threw ale all over me, following that up by stealing my horse." He counted off each point on his fingers. "Then you kicked me and in the end I nearly drowned because of you"

"Oh." Stated like that it sounded quite impressive. "But nobody forced you to jump in the river after me," she pointed out. "As for the kick..." Lothíriel bit her lip. From her brothers she had an inkling how painful an injury to that particular part of the male anatomy was. "I suppose I shouldn't have done it, but you deserved it really. The horse..." She looked up to see him folding his arms across his chest. "I didn't mean to steal him, it just happened. And I would have brought him back. But I'm sorry for spilling ale over you." When he continued staring at her, she added. "That wasn't very nice of me."

Suddenly one corner of his mouth curved up, then the other. An instant later he was laughing so hard, he bent over. "Not very nice!" he gasped and sat down on the bed, holding his stomach.

Lothíriel regarded him with a certain amount of irritation. She had not meant to amuse him! But he had such a nice laugh, all of a sudden she found her own sense of the ridiculous tickled and she joined him.

It took a while for their mirth to run its course, but finally he straightened up again. "I haven't laughed like that for ages," he smiled at her. "Thank you."

She found herself answering his smile, struck by the thought how much younger he looked with his worry lines smoothed away - not much older than herself in fact. "My pleasure, my Lord King."

"Oh please, just call me Éomer," he said.

"Are you sure?"

He gave an exaggerated bow. "I know that almost drowning together does not constitute a proper introduction in Gondor, but it's good enough for me."

Grinning, Lothíriel recalled her teachings. "Yes, according to Belecthor a proper lady will address even her husband with 'my lord' in public, keeping the use of first names for strictly private occasions." Then she blushed, thinking that surely being completely alone with a man in the middle of the night had to be classified as pretty private. Looking up she caught a strange expression flit across his face, but thankfully he did not pursue the topic.

"Who is Belecthor?" he asked instead.

"He had a school here in Minas Tirith, which my aunt took over after his death to run according to the principles outlined in his Gondorian maiden's guide to proper deportment," Lothíriel explained.

"No wonder you ran away. Why, I've never met a less ladylike lady," he snorted. "Except maybe for my sister."

"I can be perfectly ladylike," she fired up only to realise that he had been teasing her. The cheek of the man! She shot him her iciest glare, but from his impudent grin that did not impress him.

Then he sobered. "Well, I don't like to ask you to return to your aunt. However, I can't just let you go wandering off on your own either." He rubbed his chin. "So what shall I do with you?"

Do with her? "I don't see how that concerns you," she objected. "I would be grateful for the loan of a horse, but otherwise I can walk."

"Walk!" He shook his head. "Certainly not. What kind of a man would I be to let a gently reared maiden like you walk to Dol Amroth! Besides, your father will be here in another few days. You had best return to your aunt until his arrival and I promise to talk to him."

"But I can't! I burnt the book." Bread and water for a month would be the least of her punishments.

"What book?"

"Belecthor's guide that she gave me."

He stared at her, before covering his face with his hands, his shoulders shaking. At first Lothíriel thought she had shocked him before realising he was trying to suppress laughter! "I fail to see the reason for all this mirth," she snapped.

"You like to take direct action, don't you!"

Lothíriel decided to change her tactics. "Surely you can see that returning me to my aunt would not answer," she said in her most persuasive tone. "Whereas if you lent me a horse it would take me no more than a day to reach Lossarnach where I can shelter with Great Aunt Morwen."

That certainly seemed to catch his attention. "Morwen? Of Lossarnach?"

"Why, do you know her?"

He nodded. "You could say so - she is my grandmother. Although I've never met her, as she left Rohan upon the death of my grandfather."

"What? I had no idea," Lothíriel said, chagrined. "In that case she would probably have sent me right back."

"I don't know. From what I've heard she never warmed to Rohan." Éomer leaned back. "Although I understand she objected to the country, not so much the king."

"Maybe her king did not threaten her with violence on their first meeting!"

He lifted an eyebrow. "Well my beautiful horse thief, but then she did not steal his battle charger either."

Lothíriel stared at him, as much surprised at being called beautiful as anything else. An inconsequential thought flitted through her mind. "You never told me what you do with horse thieves in Rohan."

He met her eyes squarely. "We bind them over to the rightful owner of the horse ... for a year and a day."

"Oh!" She got the feeling her eyes had gone as big as saucers and looked away quickly. Could he hear the beating of her heart?

"But don't worry." The bed creaked as he got up. "You paid your wergild when you saved my life." He stepped up to the table and picked up her hand, tracing her fingers with a gossamer touch. "Listen Lothíriel, if I have you escorted to Lossarnach, will you promise me not to run away again?"

She looked up at him, for the first time noticing how his blue eyes shaded into green at the edges. "Yes, I will."

"Good." His breath brushed across her knuckles. "In that case I will see you in the morning. Good night, Lothíriel."

"Good night...Éomer."

The flap to the tent closed behind him and she could breathe again. Tiredness crashed down on her as if only his presence had kept it at bay, and she rubbed her eyes. She was exhausted! Yawning broadly, Lothíriel extinguished the lamp and crossed to the bed, then slipped between the linen sheets. Even so sleep refused to come at first and she lay staring up at the sloping tent wall. Somewhere outside a fox bellowed hoarsely and two guards exchanged a couple of words in Rohirric. She turned on her side and pulled the coverlet up further. It still held his musky scent and reminded her of being carried in his arms. Against all rational expectation she had felt safe. Slowly her eyes dropped shut.

***

A lord will choose his wife for her noble lineage, exquisite manners and irreproachable reputation and will find nothing less pleasing than immodest, forward behaviour designed to encourage liberties.

*

Two weeks later.

At the knock on her door Morwen looked up from perusing a letter from one of her acquaintances in Minas Tirith. Lady Rían had covered no less than three sheets describing the lavish celebrations accompanying the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Ithilien, but Morwen found herself bored, so the interruption proved welcome.

One of her servants stood in the door. He bowed deeply. "The King of Rohan to see you, my lady."

Not a completely unexpected visitor. Morwen arranged the shawl covering her shoulders more neatly and smoothed out her gown. "Show him in."

Her first impression was one of height - and power. The man had presence and seemed to fill her generously appointed drawing room quite effortlessly. She surveyed him critically while he bowed over her hand. Clearly the consummate warrior, just like his father, and the same mane of blond hair and easy smile that had caused havoc amongst the maids of Meduseld. But the eyes were her daughter's.

She reached out a hand, shaking despite her best effort to keep it steady, and touched his cheek. "You have Théodwyn's eyes."

"I know."

At her sign he sat down on the sofa beside her and gave her a cautious smile. "We meet at last."

"So we do." The autumn sunlight streaming in through the high windows turned his hair to gold. "What brings you here, grandson?"

"I'm on my way to visit Lord Galion, Forlong's son, and thought I ought to stop and pay my respects to my grandmother."

And the addition of a certain grand niece to her household had nothing to do with it? "How kind of you to visit an old lady like me."

He had the grace to blush. "Not at all."

"I've had a lot of visitors lately," she remarked.

"Really?"

"Yes. My nephew, young Imrahil, came to see me last week..." He nodded as if he already knew. "...and we've had quite a lot of the young people of the neighbourhood round. I find they cheer me up with their dances and games."

He looked a lot less pleased at that news, but managed to hide it creditably well. "That must be nice for you."

"Yes." She gave him a benign smile. "In fact I've got a small dance planned for tonight. Perhaps you'd like to stay for it?"

He bowed politely. "Thank you. I would be honoured to do so."

That should prove to be interesting. Morwen wondered what her neighbours' sons would make of the presence of this lion in their midst. That moment a door banged downstairs and she winced. Then quick steps sounded on the stairs and the door to her drawing room flew open.

"Aunt Morwen! We've had the most wonderful ride! Oh!"

Morwen had to admit her grand niece presented a charming picture. Cheeks rosy from exertion, ebon hair framing her face loosely, and dressed in a vibrant red riding habit. The colour suited her much better than the sad white dresses that woman Ivriniel had sent for her. Her grandson seemed to think the same, for he had jumped to his feet and taken a step forward.

"What are you doing here?" Lothíriel asked, her astonishment plain.

"My grandson has come to pay me a visit," Morwen interposed smoothly. "Éomer, let me introduce you to my grand niece, Princess Lothíriel of Dol Amroth. But I believe you've met?"

"I've had the pleasure," he replied, bowing over Lothíriel's hand, "but unfortunately have not been properly introduced until now."

Morwen saw laughter spring to her niece's eyes, but the girl sank into a graceful curtsy, exactly the right degree for a princess greeting a king. "It is never too late," she murmured, throwing him a cheeky glance through her lashes.

How could he possibly resist this delightful mixture of manners and impudence? Lothíriel had not only inherited her mother's pretty freckles, but also her charm and away from that dreadful woman's influence was finally coming into her own. Morwen patted the sofa. "Come and sit down beside me, child."

Éomer chose a chair opposite her. "I've been told your father's been to see you?"

"Yes, last week," Lothíriel answered. "He got very much annoyed with Aunt Ivriniel for making me run away and now I may stay here." She took Morwen's hand and gave it a quick squeeze.

Touched, Morwen smiled down at her. "I like having you here." Certainly her life had become a lot more interesting since her niece had arrived at her doorstep under Rohirric protection and with a confusing tale - involving a lot of blushing - of fleeing from the King of Rohan. Well, said king was here now, but she did not seem to be making much of an effort to flee.

"Aunt Ivriniel has washed her hands of me," Lothíriel told Éomer gleefully, "And she had palpitations!"

He chuckled. "Did that please you?"

"Perhaps a little bit," Lothíriel admitted. "Apparently she felt so weak, Father even managed to persuade her to let my best friend from school come and keep me company here."

"Where is Arveldis anyway?" Morwen asked. "Didn't she go with you?"

"She did, but she felt tired and has retired for a rest before getting ready for the evening." Lothíriel's tone conveyed her lack of understanding that a vigorous morning ride should cause any tiredness. She had been out every single day since her arrival, in wind or rain, like a wild animal sprung from a cage. "Oh Éomer, the mare you've loaned me!" she exclaimed. "I think I've fallen in love with her - such a soft mouth and beautiful manners, yet spirited and loyal. But I'm afraid I cannot pronounce her name."

Éomer laughed. "Aefenglomung?"

Morwen looked on indulgently as her niece practiced her Rohirric. To her, it still sounded like someone trying to speak with a frog in his throat, but it seemed to afford the two plenty of amusement. In fact the mare's quality had piqued her interest from the beginning. After all she had spent enough time in Rohan to know how much a rider valued his horses.

"What does it mean, anyway?" Lothíriel asked.

"Twilight."

Lothíriel nodded thoughtfully. "That suits her with her dark grey coat. Did you notice her legs are nearly black? It makes her look really elegant."

"In the Mark we believe that the horse should match the rider," he replied at once. It took Morwen a moment to work out the compliment. How utterly Rohirric!

"What about your stallion then?" Lothíriel laughed.

He winked. "There are exceptions!"

Lothíriel put her finger to her lips thoughtfully. "Well, he's fast, powerful..."

Éomer bowed. "Thank you."

"...headstrong and reckless."

"Well, there you go!"

Morwen thought it time to interfere before the conversation deteriorated entirely into horse talk. "I've been telling my grandson that we are going to have a dance tonight," she said to Lothíriel.

"Yes, I've been invited," Éomer nodded. "Would you honour me with your hand for the first dance?"

Lothíriel shook her head regretfully. "I'm afraid I have already promised it to Lord Artamir, one of Aunt's neighbours. We happened to meet him while out riding," she explained.

Morwen could not help enjoying the disconcerted look on her grandson's face; she could almost see his hackles rising. From what she'd heard, Lothíriel had told him in as many words that she did not want to marry him. Well, if that did not wake the hunter in him, nothing would. "Perhaps Éomer can have the one after," she suggested.

"Would you like to?" Lothíriel asked with a kind smile.

He inclined his head stiffly. "You honour me."

"I've got a new gown as well," Lothíriel confided. "It makes me look like a real princess."

That seemed to put him in a better mood again and he smiled. "You are a real princess!"

Actually Morwen was looking forward to seeing Éomer's reaction at the sight of her niece in her new dress. She had been surprised herself at the transformation from hoyden to a poised young lady. A very desirable young lady.

"Not according to Aunt Ivriniel," Lothíriel grinned. "Every time she caught me sneaking to the stables she made me read the chapter about what constitutes permissible behaviour for a Gondorian maiden."

He raised an eyebrow. "Somehow I get the impression you didn't take it to heart." Now why did her niece blush like that? Interesting.

"Not so," Lothíriel replied. "Not long ago you said I had impeccable manners."

"I did?" He frowned as if to recollect the occasion.

"While watching me eat," she reminded him.

"Oh!" He studiously avoided meeting Morwen's eyes. "So I did." More interesting still. Her niece never had given her a coherent account of her meeting with Éomer.

Morwen heaved herself to her feet. "Well children, I think I will have a brief rest now." She waved Éomer's offer of help away. "I can manage. Would you hand me my cane?" Giving them a dismissive nod, she started to cross the room with slow steps.

"May I escort you for a ride tomorrow?" she heard Éomer ask.

"I'd love to," Lothíriel assented. "That is, if I may borrow your mare a little longer?"

A laugh. "You may. I think it's better to give you a proper horse in the first place than have you steal mine."

At the door Morwen stopped for a last look back. Eyes brimming over with mischief, Lothíriel had her hands folded in her lap. "Now really, would I do such a thing?"

Éomer lowered his voice. "That depends if you're willing to pay the price."

Lothíriel caught her breath. Noting the look exchanged between the two, Morwen softly closed the door behind her. Clearly she had already been forgotten. But then her grandson had things well in hand.

*

*

*

A/N: Morwen of Lossarnach was born in TA 2922, so would have been 97 years old at the time of the Ring War, not an impossible age considering both Imrahil and Elphir nearly reached a hundred.

A/N: This is the last oneshot of the series for the moment. Unfortunately real life is keeping me really busy right now and probably will continue to do so until early the next year. However, if I get any new ideas I will add them to this series.

Lia


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.

Story Information

Author: Lialathuveril

Status: General

Completion: Work in Progress

Era: 3rd Age - Post-Ring War

Genre: Romance

Rating: General

Last Updated: 08/27/12

Original Post: 10/22/07

Go to The Lion and his Lady overview

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