14. Chapter 14
After a brief struggle with the heavy cloak, I managed to wriggle free and crawled out from under it. Gasping for air, I found myself face to face with a wilted cabbage. As I had thought: I was on board Cawelcwén! When I twisted round I saw that Éomer had already opened up a wide gap between us and the pier. Then I became aware of shouting.
"Éomer!" Amrothos was yelling. "Are you mad? What are you doing?"
"Can't you see?" Éomer shouted back, sitting on the rowing bench and ploughing the oars through the water. "I'm abducting your sister." Already we were near the open river.
Amrothos ran along the pier. "You can't do that to me," he wailed. "I've just spent the last week chasing her up and down the Anduin!"
One of Éomer's riders nudged his horse forward and called out something. Éomer shook his head and shouted what sounded like orders. The rider saluted and turned back.
I sat frozen with surprise. This couldn't be happening!
"Lothíriel!" my brother shouted, waving frantically. "Swim over here!"
I looked over the gunwale and hesitated. Streaked with swirls of mud, the water did not look particularly inviting.
"I wouldn't, if I were you," Éomer said in a conversational tone. "It's mucky and cold. Believe me, I know." As if to emphasize his words, a dead fish floated by.
"Have you lost your mind?" I asked, still stupefied. "Father will be livid."
"I will deal with that when I have to. First I want to talk with you. And you will listen!"
I cast a look at the receding shore. Not too far away to swim yet for a daughter of Dol Amroth. Should I chance it? Meanwhile Bane resembled an anthill that somebody had poked a stick in.
"We will lose them in the traffic on the river," Éomer said, following my eyes.
"You are mad," I declared.
Yet I could not help feeling a grudging sort of admiration for his bold action – it was the kind of thing a pirate princess might have done.
Despite his words, Éomer seemed to be in no hurry to talk. Threading his way between the many small boats that dotted the Anduin, he steadily made for the opposite shore and let the current sweep us along. Soon the docks dropped out of sight behind us. I settled down in my usual place in the stern and wrapped the cloak around me, for the early morning chill still hung in the air. Almost I could believe that the last couple of days had never happened.
The hills of Emyn Arnen rose ahead of us, sloping down through open meadows dotted with birches. In one place a small stream emptied into the Anduin and the trees formed an arch over it with their branches clad in fresh green. When Éomer beached the boat on the shingles, a pair of white egrets took off with a rush of wings and circled over us before heading off upstream.
He held out his hand to help me get out of the boat. "Are you cold? Shall I light a fire?"
I shook my head. "I'm fine." Wrapping his cloak around myself, I sat down on a boulder warmed by the morning sun.
Éomer – I would have to get used to thinking of him by that name – pulled Cawelcwén further up onto the shore. Next he tidied the oars away and threw the last few cabbages in the water, where they bobbed up and down for a moment before the current took them. I watched him in silence. After all he was the one who had wanted to talk.
All possible chores done, he picked up a stone and tossed it in the water. Then another one. And another one.
"It seemed like such a clever idea at the time," he finally said. "I would meet you away from Gondor's court, with nobody the wiser."
I kept silent.
Another splash. "That way I would see you for who you really were..." He shifted uncomfortably. "The servants thought highly of you, how you had run the castle during the war. And you rode well..." Suddenly he looked up. "I liked your spirit. I liked you."
I said nothing, just let my silence speak for me.
He looked back down. "And then I suppose I got greedy and impatient. I wanted to make absolutely sure nobody else would have you, so I opened up negotiations with Imrahil." He tossed in another stone. "It would have been better to have waited."
I got the feeling that was probably as much of an apology as I was ever likely to get from this proud King of Rohan, and still the admission cost him dearly.
"You admired my spirit, yet you thought I would just agree to this arrangement meekly?" I asked.
"I did think of that. Just a little too late." He cast me a rueful smile. "In fact that was what I wanted to consult Amrothos about, that evening in his tent. Only I never got round to it."
Out on the river, Bane hove into view, all her sails up and the oars rising and falling rapidly. Surrounded by the little boats bringing their wares in for the markets of the Harlond, she looked like an eagle in a flock of starlings. Fast, powerful, deadly – and utterly inefficient for the task set her. Unless I started waving and shouting they would never spot us.
"All very well," I took up the conversation again, "but that still does not explain why you did not tell me your true identity later on."
"Well, that's where my temper comes in. You might have noticed that it sometimes runs away with me."
Absentmindedly Éomer watched Bane sail by. "When you dumped me in the water in that memorable carpet, it got the better of me." He sighed. "I decided that I wanted nothing more to do with such a wildcat. While I felt honour bound to get you safely to Minas Tirith, my plan was to melt into the crowd there. I truly meant it when I promised you need never look on my face again."
Bane had rounded the next bend of the river by now. "Ah yes," I said, "the King of Rohan who likes his women docile."
"It's not exactly nice to abduct people," he snapped, then stumbled to a halt.
"No, it's not, is it," I agreed.
"Or throw them in the water!" he added gamely.
"I did not do it deliberately. The first time." And that was all the apology he would get!
He snorted. "Anyway, I decided to keep my true identity hidden. And when you fell asleep later that morning, I turned back and found somebody willing to carry a message to the captain of my guard."
Suddenly I saw his plan emerge. "That you were ill!"
"Exactly. Éothain was to keep everybody away and send an escort to wait for me at the Harlond."
How crafty! "And nobody found out?" I asked. His men had to be devoted to him!
"Aragorn eventually bullied his way in and had to be told the truth, but nobody else knew." He grinned reminiscently. "Fortunately your father left almost immediately, or he might have put two and two together." Slowly the grin faded away. "But then I found that I enjoyed your company far more than I should have...the way you accepted the hardships of the journey with no complaining...your infectious spirit of adventure...and how you would sit in the boat, hat askew and hair all tangled up, and smile at me."
I blushed at the picture he painted. Had my feelings been so transparent?
Éomer took a step towards me. "You trusted me instinctively to keep you safe, though you knew nothing about me, and I did not want to lose that trust." He sighed. "So every time I opened my mouth, I ensnared myself even more thoroughly in my web of lies. And if I as much as mentioned the King of Rohan, you got mad."
"Of course I did!" I jumped up. "Can't you see? I thought you were a simple courier and you and I... we could never..."
"I'm sorry!" He lifted a hand, but didn't quite touch me. "I should have told you."
I sniffed defiantly. "Yes, you should have."
His hand ghosted across my cheek. "I think I was scared."
He gave a crooked smile at the disbelief in my voice. "Yes. It's ridiculous, isn't it? The King of the Mark, survivor of all three great battles of the Ring War, afraid of what a slip of a girl might do." Éomer took me by the shoulders and stared down at me. "But I thought you might do something stupid and dangerous, like running away on your own and getting into trouble without my protection."
Remembering my consideration of exactly such a course of action, I blushed. "I might have done." I struggled with my pride for a moment, but the truth won. "You're right, it would have been stupid."
He slipped a hand round my back and pulled me closer. "I cannot bear the thought of something happening to the woman I love."
The woman he loved! To have him state it in such plain words sent a thrill of excitement racing through my veins. With unsteady hands I traced the embroidery of his shirt, half afraid of what I might see in his eyes if I looked up at him.
He covered my hand with his. "But do you know what I feared most?" he whispered.
Not trusting my voice, I shook my head.
"I feared that you would hate me. That I would lose you when I had only just found you."
I let go of the last remnants of resentment. "Oh Éomer," I sighed, "I tried to hate you, but..."
"But?" he prompted.
"...but my efforts were pretty poor."
Sudden laughter rumbled in his chest. "Pretty poor?"
"Dismal," I admitted and yielded into him.
He needed no further encouragement to bring his lips down on mine and continue where he had left off two days ago. The need to hold him rushed through me, to make sure it was truly him and not a dream. A sob rose in my throat as I flung my arms around his neck. Éomer! Muscles tightened under my touch and suddenly his arms closed around me like bands of iron, crushing me against him. My skin came alive wherever he touched me. Yes! I buried my fingers in his hair. Breathed in his scent. Tasted him. Like a howling gale rising out of nowhere, desire mounted within me, and I felt an answering tremble run through him. We were caught up in the eye of the storm, about to be swept away.
But then his touch stilled. I whimpered a protest. Warm breath brushed across my cheek as he gave a big, shuddering sigh. "Lothíriel," he whispered, "you have no idea how much I want you, but..."
Blood rushed to my cheeks and I buried my face in his shirt. He was right of course. A Princess of Dol Amroth and King of Rohan could not just abandon themselves to their passions. And no gently bred maiden of Gondor should feel such disappointment.
Éomer placed a kiss on my temple. "Anyway, I still owe you a proper wooing."
As he trailed a gentle hand along the hollow of my back, I relaxed against him. We could wait. After all, we'd have our whole lives together. The thought made me giddy. Tracing light kisses across my skin, Éomer explored the curve of my brows and I lifted my face to him. As far as wooing went, I had to admit that his was exceptionally nice. And thorough. Yes, we could wait.
When we separated an eternity later, I leant my head against his chest, content to simply listen to the sound of his steady heartbeat. He slipped his arms protectively around me, holding me close. Home at last. Happiness welled up in my heart and spilled over until it filled my whole being.
"I could get used to this," I whispered.
He sighed with satisfaction. "Believe me, dear heart, you will."
My stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly. Éomer chuckled. "Not thinking of food again?"
I pushed him playfully in the chest. "It's all your fault for snatching me away before I had my breakfast."
"No breakfast! We will have to remedy the situation at once." He picked up his cloak, which had fallen to the ground quite unnoticed and wrapped it round me. "Will my lady be seated again? All the Riddermark's resources are at her service."
With a grin I settled down on the boulder, while he went to rummage through our belongings in the boat. Triumphantly he held up the bag of flour. "We should be able to hold off starvation for another day."
Above the beach there was a stretch of turf, turned a rich spring green by the morning sun and dotted with yellow buttercups. Éomer cleared off a circle of grass, then collected deadwood from amongst the trees and soon had a small fire going. He was humming under his breath as he worked.
Wanting to be closer, I spread the cloak on the grass and sat down beside him, where I would have the sun warm my back. A woodlark launched into its chirping song, and I felt as light as a feather, as if a great weight had been lifted from my soul. Later we would have to make explanations to my father and face down the gossips, but here and now none of that mattered. As if he had heard my thoughts, Éomer looked up suddenly and exchanged a smile with me. Life was good.
Then he filled our kettle with water and fetched a thin slab of stone to knead the dough on. However, I would not have him do all the work, so I took over that part of the preparations. Soon I had the first batch of trailbread ready and handed him the flat loaves to place near the fire. But when he rolled back his sleeves, I suddenly spotted a bandage on his left arm. Of course, the wound he had taken in the fight with Corethir's men!
"Your arm!" I exclaimed.
He glanced down at it. "Oh, that. Don't worry, my sweet, it's a lot better already."
I bit my lip. And to think that I had shoved him in the water when he had been hurt defending me! "I've behaved abominably," I burst out, "can you forgive me for what I did at the Harlond?"
He cocked his head to one side. "Well, it helps that I behaved abominably myself, so I think we're even." The corners of his mouth twitched. "It certainly impressed my men. They've taken to calling you the Lioness of Rohan."
My mouth dropped open. "Of Rohan?"
Éomer cast me one of those looks that was as intimate as a caress. "I made it clear I intended to make you my queen."
"And I suppose that settled the matter in their minds?"
"They don't know you yet," he quipped, "that's why." He turned over one of the breads to make it brown evenly and sobered. "I knew better. The idea that you would go home to Dol Amroth, hating me, perhaps being pressurized into agreeing to a match that was utterly loathsome to you..." He shook his head. "I had to talk to you!"
"I'm glad you came." What a miserable journey that would have been. Where was Bane now, I wondered. Probably halfway to Pelargir! Suddenly the memory of my brother's face as we pulled away from the quay came back to me and I started chuckling. "But Amrothos will never forgive you!"
Éomer grinned back. "It's his own fault. He should have listened to Éothain."
"The captain of your guard? Why?"
"I shouted to him that I'd bring you back before nightfall, and to tell your brother so once we'd got away. Obviously Amrothos didn't believe him."
Really! Of all the high-handed things he had done, surely this was the most outrageous. "What do you mean, before nightfall!" I demanded to know.
My ire did not impress him. "I just thought I'd better give myself ample time to persuade you," he answered with a quiver in his voice, "in case you turned out recalcitrant."
"Oh! Are you telling me you came with the sole purpose to abduct me in the basest way-"
"No, no," he interrupted me. "It was one of those spur of the moment decisions one has to make in the heat of battle. Not like drugging an unsuspecting victim, rolling him down a hill in a carpet and then dumping him in the water – now that's what I'd call truly base behaviour."
There was no arguing with the man! "Do your riders know the details of that?" I inquired sweetly.
Éomer threw up his hand as if to concede a point. "No. And I beg you not to tell them how I was overcome by such a puny foe. It would destroy all their faith in me!"
That moment a burning smell tickled my nose. "Éomer! The breads." Unnoticed by him, they had slipped onto the embers.
"Oh!" He snatched the loaves out of the fire and flipped them onto the grass, where they smouldered a moment longer. I regarded the black lumps dubiously, suddenly not feeling particularly hungry any more.
"I'll make more," he offered.
Two more loaves went onto the stones by the fire and the unsuccessful first batch he threw into the woods. A crow dived down to snatch one of the breads, but dropped it again after one peck.
My eyes met Éomer's, brimful with laughter. "You're a distracting presence," he sighed.
I blushed and drew my legs up to my chest. "Sorry!"
He poked the breads with a stick. "You have no idea how many times I was tempted to head the boat upriver and continue all the way to the Mark. We could be in Edoras by now, getting married."
I must have looked at him with big eyes, for he smiled. "I know. It's a crazy idea."
Not crazy, no. "If only I weren't a princess!" I exclaimed.
He laughed. "Would you come with me then?"
Éomer caught his breath. "Don't tempt me." He picked up my hand and traced my fingers. "Lothíriel, I want to show you my home. At this time of the year, the Mark briefly turns yellow, pink and white with wild flowers and in the mountains the air smells of spring. We could ride out to check on the new foals, or simply race the wind across the plains..."
The longing to see this distant land rose in me. "I'd love to," I sighed.
"You will," he told me. "And soon."
I hoped so, too, but at the same time I wondered what my father would have to say about this newest escapade. The thought put a damper on my happiness. "Do you think Father will be very annoyed with us?" I asked Éomer.
A wry grin. "Probably."
I bit my lip. "What a tangle I've caused!"
"Well, I'm hardly blameless either." He smiled down at me. "Don't worry, dear heart. We'll disentangle the whole affair. Together."
Together. Warmth spread through me, driving out the chill of apprehension. We would succeed. "If Father is unreasonable you can simply abduct me again," I suggested.
Éomer gave a grim smile. "The thought has crossed my mind." He tucked a lock of hair behind my ear and his fingers lingered on my cheek. "I swear I will claim you for my wife. And with you there, Meduseld will finally feel like home."
"Oh, Éomer." As I leant my head against his chest, I knew I'd found my home in him. To think that I had nearly thrown it away! What a fool I'd been.
He nuzzled my hair. "Finally I'm able to kiss you with a clean conscience."
I liked the sound of that! Smiling in anticipation, I lifted my face to him.
That moment one of the branches in the fire broke with a loud crack.
Éomer hurriedly let go of me. "Not again!" he exclaimed as he bent over the fire. Two more blackened loaves got flipped onto the grass.
I poked them gingerly. "Do you want to try again?" My stomach protested at the thought.
He sighed. "I don't think it's any use. Not unless you go and sit in the boat."
At the chagrin in his voice, mirth bubbled up within me. I picked up a stick and scraped off the worst of the burnt crust. "We will just have to pretend."
"That these are tasty pastries." I handed him one. "Just tell yourself that we're in the gardens of the Citadel, enjoying a light repast."
Falling in with my game, he inclined his head to me. "Thank you, my lady."
"The servants are handing out glasses of wine," I elaborated, "while one of the bards is playing on his harp."
"Hmm, yes, he's very talented."
"And the cook has baked these delicious little breads, which melt on your tongue." I took a cautious nibble, not wanting to risk a tooth. Hard as stone!
Éomer regarded his piece dubiously. "May I pretend that I have a full stomach?"
I ignored him. "We've only just been introduced to each other by my father," I went on and held out my hand to him.
He recognized his cue and placed a kiss on it. "Princess Lothíriel, I'm delighted to meet you."
"I'm honoured, my Lord King," I replied.
But instead of letting go of my hand, he pulled me into his arms. "Fine, now that is sorted, let me kiss you again." His bread went flying into the bushes.
"I don't kiss strangers!"
With a laugh Éomer closed the distance between us. "Really, my pirate princess," he said, "what happened to your spirit of adventure!"
A/N: I'm going away on holiday in a couple of days' time, so I probably won't have time to answer any reviews. However, I'd like to say a general thank you to all my reviewers for their enthusiasm and good wishes. When I get back, there will be a short epilogue added to this story. Until then, take care!
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