10. 10. Rides and Surprises
Author's Note: Thanks to Curiouswombat for taking over beta'ing!! And as always, feedback and reviews are always appreciated!
Elfhelm went immediately to the stables and learned that Arathea did intend to take a morning ride and a guard had been assigned to her. He dismissed the guard and instructed the stable hand to hold Arathea should she arrive before him. He quickly made for his quarters, changed into riding clothes and cinched on his sword, just to be safe. Soon he returned to the stables to find Arathea already mounted.
The woman looked stunning atop her chestnut mare. She wore snug tan leggings; under her dark brown jerkin she wore a blue shirt, the top three buttons open exposing her creamy neck. Her long hair was out of its usual single braid, the sides were pulled to the back in a thin braid while the rest hung down her back in soft waves.
"Ah, Mistress, forgive my tardiness." The Marshal said with a smile.
"My lord," Thea replied, "I had not expected you. Surely you have more important things to do than be nursemaid to me." There was that sweet blush again.
"I find myself with some time on my hands and thought to accompany you on your ride, if my lady does not object." There, he would give her the choice. "If you would prefer another escort…" he let his sentence drop.
"Yes, I mean no…that is, it is all right, I would enjoy your company." Suddenly, Thea felt like a bumbling youth again, stumbling over her words like a fool. What was wrong with her? She was almost a hundred years old. They were friends, his offer nothing but a kind gesture.
"Wonderful. I will saddle up and we will ride like the wind."
Thea had not known which horse belonged to the marshal, however, she should have guessed as the horse was as powerful as the man--a stunning black stallion. As they emerged from the stall, horse and rider stole her breath away and perhaps a part of her heart, too.
With a kick to its flank, the Marshal bolted past her, "Keep up if you can!" he called. The challenge was on. In a blur of hooves and hair, Arathea's mare gave chase.
The two rode hard for several miles, letting their horses set the pace. Elfhelm's stallion made sure he did not get too far ahead of the pretty mare; he fancied her. As for Thea's mare, she pushed herself to the limit, showing her strength and fine breeding and while she could not catch the stallion, the little chestnut made a good showing. Finally, the Marshal reined in his mount and allowed Thea to catch up.
"She is a remarkable steed," the man said as he dismounted. He stood next to the mare and patted her neck. Ever the gentleman, he extended his hand to Arathea as she swung her leg over the horse's neck and hopped down. The Marshal decided to take a little gamble. Holding her gaze and her hand, Elfhelm brought it to his lips, delivering a gentle kiss. His soft beard tickled the back of her hand and his lips left a lingering heat that caused butterflies to hatch in Thea's stomach. Was he aware of the effect he had on her? She could not let her emotions run away.
"Let us give them a rest;" he said softly, relinquishing her hand. "I was able to acquire a morning snack from the kitchens." The Marshal pulled a cloak from his saddle and laid it on the ground. Next, he pulled out a small sack of hard cheese and apples. He grabbed his water skin as well and dropped to the ground. He looked up expectantly; Thea did not know what to make of the situation. Rather cautiously, she joined him. The horses wandered off, enjoying the sweet, fresh grass. Pulling a small knife from his belt, Elfhelm split an apple and offered half to his companion. Thea accepted it and a slice of cheese. She turned her head to the sun and closed her eyes. This is what she sought; a life of her own, a place to call home, good friends, and—she stole glanced at the man resting on his elbow next to her—perhaps something more.
The two talked easily, sharing bits and pieces of their lives, although each kept their secrets. They talked of Rohan and its people and culture. When the sun had past its highpoint, they mounted their steeds and returned to Edoras. As they exited the stable, the Marshal, once again took Thea's hand and kissed it; he looked deep into her eyes.
"I had a most pleasant morning, Mistress. Perhaps you will gift me with another ride sometime?"
Thea all but giggled and ordered her voice calm as she responded, "I would welcome that." She gave a small curtsy.
"Who is that girl with Elfhelm?" a woman dressed in fine gown asked Advisor Eadwald from the top of the stair.
"That, Auntie, is the scribe King Éomer brought from Gondor." His voice was laced with contempt. He did not like Arathea for she held the King's ear. "She seems to spend much time with the Marshal."
"A scribe you say? Well, she will just have to learn her place." With that, the woman hurried down the front steps. "Ah, Elfhelm!" she called enthusiastically as she approached the couple. "I have missed you so." She rushed to the stunned man and kissed both his cheeks as she gave him a hug. Instinctively, the Marshal completed the embrace, a look of confusion on his face.
"Lady Ethelfled," he stammered, "What are you doing here?"
"Why I missed you. You have been away from me for too long." She linked her arms about his waist in his. "I could not stand it any longer, my days are so lonely." Thea stood there lost. "Oh dear, my manners! And who is this *child*?" Arathea cringed at the term and how it was delivered.
Elfhelm made a hasty introduction that left Thea wondering at his odd behavior. "Lady Ethelfled this is Mistress Arathea. She works with Master Aldhere." Ethelfled, Thea knew that name. That was the name of Eadwald's aunt. Strange that the Marshal had not mentioned he knew her 'personally.'
"Oh this is the scribe from Gondor I have heard about. A pleasure I am sure." The woman gave sickeningly sweet smile. "Well, if you will excuse us, we have much catching up to do," she said with a wink as she led the Marshal back towards the main building. Elfhelm made no move to object, although he still looked rather stunned. Thea watched them go, uncertain as to what to think. She quickly looked about, wondering if anyone saw what transpired and feeling slightly embarrassed. It seemed, much to her disappointment, that she had misread the Marshal's intentions. She felt very foolish as she returned to her rooms to clean up. She then retreated to the safety of the library.
Her peace was short lived as she discovered Councilor Eadwald perusing the shelves. "Ah, you are back, good. There is still much work for you to complete. The sooner you are done, the sooner you can return to Gondor or wherever you came from," he said with a lazy drawl. "I suppose the Lady Ethelfled has found her Lord? He must have been overjoyed to see her. How romantic of her to surprise him." He turned to see her reaction and was not disappointed as he saw a flash of sadness in her eyes.
"They are a couple, then?" she asked, trying to sound indifferent.
"Well, nothing official, however she does reside at Aldburg and has been in his company for quite some time now. Of course, as a gentleman he keeps his personal affairs quite discrete."
"Gentleman… of course." Thea's heart sank. So now she knew, as she had suspected all along-- if she had listened to her head-- the Marshal had a Lady.
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