Heart banging against her chest, Lothíriel ran for all she was worth. Behind her she heard shouts and crashing of the vegetation as whoever was following her must have stumbled into the undergrowth. She heard another shout and thought it was Aglon's voice. Maybe because he had vomited first, he was in a better state than his friends. Would she be strong enough to fight him off if he caught up with her? She couldn't take the chance. Making a quick decision she dived off the path onto a small animal track that went steeply upwards. Darn! Her skirt caught on a thorn. Desperate to get out of sight of her pursuer, she frantically tugged at it until it tore away, allowing her to plunge into the darkness of the forest.
With luck he wouldn't see where she had left the main path. A few yards on Lothíriel stopped, listening intently for any sound that told her the lout was still on her trail. She heard nothing and breathed a sigh of relief. Now she had to decide what to do. Beneath the canopy night had fallen, but if she could get above the tree line there would still be some light and she would be able to head in the general direction of Helm's Deep. Surely she would see where the Deep cut into the mountain and could somehow make her way down to safety.
Lothíriel forged on, climbing higher and higher, her breath coming in rasps. She wanted to get out into the open before total darkness fell so forced herself to keep going. After what seemed an interminable age she saw a lessening of the gloom ahead. Within minutes she emerged onto a rocky slope, pausing to search for a path that would take her towards where she thought Helm's Deep to be. But whatever animals had made their mark through the forest had left little impression on hard rocks and stones. After a few moments staring at the slope she thought she could make out a slight track that wound its way between some straggly bushes. It was going in the right direction so she set off, thankful that there was still a glimmer of light in the sky.
Ow! She stepped on a sharp stone. Traversing a rough track on the side of a mountain wearing riding boots was not to be recommended. Her feet hurt through the thin soles. Lothíriel scrambled up the uncertain path, using her hands as well as her feet in an attempt to reach a vantage point before all light left the sky. It looked as if clouds were gathering on the top of the mountain, adding to the gloom. She needed to keep going. Ahh... a stone slipped from under her foot; she clutched at a piece of rock to try and save herself but her ankle gave way. Down she went with a thump. Cautiously she heaved herself to her feet only just realising that her hand was bleeding. She could put her foot to the ground so it wasn't broken; hopefully it was just a strain. She would be better going on.
It was no good she decided after making slow progress for a few yards –the clouds were thicker now with the smell of rain on the air. No way would she make it to Helm's Deep that night – the only option was to rest up, try and bind her ankle and move off at first light. Spending the night on the side of a mountain alone was pretty daunting, but she had no choice. Hopefully bears, or anything else threatening, had gone to sleep; nevertheless she would need to keep vigilant.
She hobbled a little further until she reached a large rock with a deep undercut; it would give good shelter. Shivering, Lothíriel tucked herself as far back under the overhang as she could; it had got considerably colder, a sure sign rain was on the way. It might be the middle of summer, but this high up it was likely to get dangerously cold, especially if she got wet. She could only hope she was in the lee of any storm. Settling down as comfortably as the stony ground would allow, she listened in trepidation for a moment, straining her ears for any indication she had been followed. Nothing! Good news, but what a predicament to be in – alone on a darkening mountainside with an injured ankle. Now she had time to think she decided it would be stupid to remove her boot to examine her ankle. Her riding boot fitted tightly so would probably act as a binding. Remove it and it might not go on again. She certainly wouldn't be able to walk far with nothing on her foot. Hopefully the pain would ease with rest, and anyway things always seemed better in the light of day.
Lothíriel dropped her head into her hands; now she had stopped moving a deep weariness had come over her. Not surprising really with all that had happened. But she mustn't fall asleep; goodness knew what was out there. She had no weapon to defend herself and no strength left anyway. By her feet was a large flat stone shaped very like an axe head; she picked it up, nestling it into her hand. It probably wouldn't do any good if she was attacked, but holding it made her easier.
The forest closed around her, branches flicking painfully across her face as she ran for her life. She had to get away; but as if she was wearing boots of lead, tired legs moved slower and slower. Eager hands grabbed at her, vile insults echoed in her ears. She stumbled, fell; felt hot breath on her face. Noooo...Lothíriel instinctively lashed out.
'Ahhh...' A heavy weight landed on top of her. She screamed, pushing frantically at the body that pinned her down. It lifted slightly, emitting a stifled groan before flopping down again.
Her senses returning Lothíriel stared at the mass of light-coloured hair strewn across her chest and the blood seeping into her dress. No! It couldn't be...'Éomer...Éomer!' she screamed to herself. Sweet Elbereth what had she done!
Totally dismayed by her mistake, she wriggled from under him, causing him to groan more. Ignoring the pain that shot through her ankle, Lothíriel struggled onto her knees. 'Éomer, Éomer,' she whispered desperately. Sick with fright she pushed back his blood-matted hair – the hastily-wielded stone had made a nasty gash on the side of his forehead. 'Oh, thank the Valar,' she muttered as what sounded like an oath left his lips. He blinked a few times, looking dazed. At least she hadn't knocked him out, or worse, killed him.
'Are you all right?' Stupid really, of course he was not all right – she had just hit him across the head with a stone. And done damage, judging by the amount of blood.
Éomer shook his head as though to clear it, wincing at the movement. 'I've been better.' Cautiously he put a hand up to his wound; it came away wet with blood. Without saying anything he tugged a scrunched-up kerchief from an inner pocket and held it against his forehead. 'I thought we'd negotiated a truce.'
'I'm sorry,' she said, guilt making her mulish, 'but you shouldn't have sneaked up on me.'
He grimaced, sitting himself up. 'Obviously. But I didn't sneak, you were asleep and I was only trying to wake you.'
Suddenly tears formed in her eyes, angrily she wiped them away. 'I had a horrible dream. Those awful men were chasing me and...I fell over. Then it seemed that hands were all over me. I didn't know it was you. I've been waiting for you to rescue me for hours and hours...' Lothíriel burst into tears.
Immediately an arm went around her and she found herself sobbing into a hard chest. 'No...' she pulled away mortified by her weakness. Gulping, Lothíriel swallowed her tears, dashing them away with her sleeve. 'I'm sorry; I'm not usually such a wet weed. And we must do something about your wound.'
'Lothíriel, don't be silly.' He stroked a rough hand down her face reassuringly as though she were a child. 'I'm fine; head wounds always bleed profusely.' He took the piece of cloth away gingerly and looked hard at it. 'Anyway, it's almost stopped now. And there's no need to be embarrassed about crying,' he went on, 'you've had a horrible experience. I can only apologise for not getting here earlier.'
She nodded, surreptitiously sniffing; somewhere along the way her handkerchief had been lost. Well, she couldn't really ask to borrow his, so her sleeve would have to do if necessary. Looking down at the front of her dress she saw a dark stain spread across it – Éomer's blood! Shuddering, Lothíriel put the thought of what could have happened from her mind, no point in dwelling on it. He would recover, but her dress might not. Luckily she had bespoken some more riding dresses from the seamstress in Edoras. And she shouldn't get in trouble over the payment this time, having asked Osythe to negotiate the price... Lothíriel started, suddenly becoming aware that Éomer was waiting patiently for her to say something. Probably giving her time to compose herself, and here she was gabbling to herself about dresses. She gave him an apologetic smile. 'I did expect you to turn up rather sooner; I kept trying to work out how long it would take you ...'
He shook his head, looking remorseful. 'I wasn't at Helm's Deep, so it took them a while to find me. I intended to be there all day, but instead went out to look at some crops...to be honest I was fed up of being indoors. Now I wish I hadn't been so irresponsible.'
How could she blame him – she would have hated to be stuck inside all day. Although it would have been better had she never gone picking mushrooms and hadn't had to be rescued at all. 'How did you find me?' she asked to cover her discomfort.
'Well, it was not by paying that goon who came to negotiate with me any kind of ransom.'
She couldn't help letting out a little giggle. 'I never thought you would. What happened? Did you find the one they sent after him?'
'Of course.' Éomer's voice was deceptively meek. 'But look', he said, struggling onto his feet. 'We need to get off this mountain before the storm comes in. There's still some moonlight at the moment, but I don't think it will last long. I'll tell you everything on the way.'
He was right – the wind had risen, she could hear it in the tops of the pines, a sure sign of a squall. Pity, now she was safe, lethargy had taken over and she didn't want to move. But she nodded. 'Let's go then.'
He couldn't stand up under the overhang so backed out, almost bent double, holding out a hand to help her to her feet. 'Mind your head.'
Lothíriel took hold of his hand and tried to get up. 'Oww!' Her ankle gave out. It had stiffened up since she had stopped walking.
'What is it?' Éomer looked down to where she was rubbing it through her riding boot.
'I twisted my ankle climbing up here. But it's much worse now than when I did it.' She made a big effort, managing to hobble a few yards whilst sucking air through her teeth to stop from crying out.
'Hmmm...You won't get very far like that. I'll have to carry you.'
Heat flushed her cheeks at the thought; she turned away, hoping he wouldn't see. 'It's a long way,' she said uncertainly. 'Can you carry me that distance?'
Chuckling, he took hold of her arm. 'Oh, I think I can manage. But no doubt Éothain will be along soon and I'm sure he'll take over if I have trouble.'
No, they wouldn't leave their king alone for long. A surge of disappointment rocked her, she had been enjoying their intimacy, and the prospect of him carrying her had sounded dangerously alluring. Hastily she pushed such a reckless idea aside, horrified by her wayward thoughts. As she prevaricated, the moon disappeared behind a black cloud, taking away the last of the light. 'But it's so dark, she protested when he made to lift her, although she had no idea what else they could do. Whilst they had been talking the clouds had gathered thickly together, heralding the coming storm. 'The moon's hidden now. It won't be easy.'
'No.' He looked up at the sky, studying the enveloping blackness. 'I can deal with the dark, we Rohirrim have night-eyes, but I am afraid we are in for a downpour.' The words had hardly left his lips when there was a crack of thunder from the direction of Helm's Deep. Moments later big raindrops started to splash down on them. 'Right,' he said, coming to a decision. 'It's not a good idea to go anywhere until this weather passes. Our summer storms are usually soon over, but violent for the time they last. We'll shelter for now and move out when it eases off. Come on.'
Éomer helped her back to the rock. Lothíriel sat down and shuffled herself into the shelter of the overhang. Just in time; as he ducked under, the heavens opened.
Lothíriel shivered; the temperature had dropped drastically and it was pitch black under the overhang. Éomer sat down beside her and immediately his arm went round her, drawing her against him.
Stiffening, she tried to pull away. What a position to find herself in...
'Don't be stupid. I need to keep you warm. I wish now that I'd brought my cloak but I rode out into sunshine.'
Knowing he was right and she was being ridiculous – blame her own confused feelings – Lothíriel forced herself to relax and leant back against him. His heat permeated right through his linen tunic. And in spite of their dank shelter, he had brought the warmth of summer with him. He smelt of greenery and fresh air, of wild rides over scorching, sunburnt plains. After the company she had been keeping that day, he smelt wholesome and healthy.
'I think it would be better if I took off my shirt for you to wear,' he said after a moment. 'That dress of yours is pretty thin.'
Lothíriel shook her head, already self-conscious from being held so intimately by such a man; the last thing she wanted was for him to take anything off. 'No, I'm quite warm, thank you.' In fact her whole body felt as though it was on fire and she could only hope he couldn't sense it. Sure her face was bright red, she was thankful for the blackness – at least he couldn't see her embarrassment.
But typically he took no notice, squirming around beside her to remove his tunic. Knowing she hadn't a chance of stopping him, she moved over as far as she could to give him space. Then she felt the brush of bare skin against her arm – Sweet Elbereth, she was sitting next to a semi-naked man. Images of a shirtless Éomer flashed through her mind, hastily forced out by telling herself she was behaving like a love-struck fool. Something she definitely didn't want to be. Moments later a warm piece of linen was pushed into her hands.
'Put it on over your dress.'
Well, dark or not, she certainly wasn't going to put it on under her dress! Lothíriel slid her arms into the sleeves, they came down over her hands but she didn't roll them up –the cuffs would double as gloves. The shirt got wrapped round her – making her much cosier – and she underwent a stab of guilt at the thought of him with nothing on his arms.
He was struggling to get dressed beside her, it couldn't be easy. 'Will you be all right with just a tunic?'
'I'll be perfectly fine. I am used to being out in all weathers.' She heard a slight chuckle. 'At least I used to be, but like many things in my life that has changed somewhat.'
Did he mind the loss of freedom, she wondered. Perhaps he relished a few hours away from the cloying protection he had to put up with. He certainly had done nothing to call his men to them. There was some more shuffling about and his arm knocked into her side.
'Sorry, there's not much room.' He must have finished, because he went still for a moment. 'We might be here for some time, so we'd better make ourselves as comfortable as possible and get right back out of the rain. I'll lean against the rock and you lean against me,' he suggested. Before she could protest he had somehow wriggled round behind, and put one leg each side of her. 'Just forget how unconventional this is. My aim is to keep you warm and dry, nothing else.'
Her face aflame, Lothíriel nodded. 'I know. Thank you.' He had made his body into a comfy chair and must have neglected to put his sword back on, although she had no doubt he had put it within easy reach. She had been hesitant about being alone with him after he had flirted with her so outrageously but she unerringly knew he would never take advantage of her, or any other woman, in this situation. The thought was extremely comforting.
Suddenly there was a flash of light, quickly followed by a loud roll of thunder. 'Hmm...I hope Éothain has the sense to stay where he is and not try and follow me up here until this passes.' Éomer sounded doubtful, and probably rightly so; from what she had seen of his men they were likely to be scouring a rain-lashed mountainside for him.
'Why were you alone?' she asked.
He ignored her question. 'Let's start at the beginning, you tell me why you were on your own in the forest and how you were captured. I got a garbled account from Alwunn, who evidently was supposed to be with you. I didn't have time to question her more as I wanted to find you with all haste.'
Now what did she say? Alwunn was a pest, but she did have some sympathy for her. Hopefully she had learnt a lesson and got a big fright. Lothíriel had never been one to hold a grudge, but she vowed to speak strongly to the girl when they got back to Helm's Deep. 'We were picking mushrooms,' she said slowly, 'high up in the forest and got separated. I took a wrong path.'
'Separated?' His voice hardened. 'Be assured that I will be talking to Alwunn as soon as we get back, and if she was lax in any way, then she will be sorry.'
It sounded as though Alwunn would get a scolding from Éomer as well as her so she didn't say anymore about that but explained her difficulty with finding the right path.
'These forest trails do all look pretty similar,' Éomer agreed. 'So, when were you attacked?'
'Just as somebody – Aldred, I imagine – blew his horn to guide me in. I headed towards the sound but those foul men got hold of me.'
'Did you tell them who you were immediately?'
'No, because they gagged me.' The memory of that horror invoked a cold chill that ran down her spine. 'More because I bit one of the louts' finger quite hard than anything else. Then they dragged me up to their lair.'
'I always said I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of you.' Éomer made a sound of approval. 'Attacking me, biting fingers, poisoning...' A hand stroked her hair. 'But you must have been terrified.'
Tears welled in her eyes and she blinked them back angrily – no point in crying now it was over. Having felt so safe since Éomer had turned up, she had almost forgotten how petrified she'd been. 'I was; I couldn't think what to do. In some ways it was lucky the ones that captured me weren't alone or they might have...attacked me straightaway.'
'They didn't touch you, did they? That lout Aldred got hold of swore they hadn't...'
'No...no, not really,' she said, remembering the groping hands with distaste. 'Their leader, Thanger, had a bit more about him. He realised I wasn't a Dunlending skivvy as they first thought.'
'Oh, of course, your hair. But we don't have skivvies, Dunlending or anyone else, who we don't care about.' He sounded rather affronted.
No, she had never seen a people as proud as the Rohirrim. They all had a place, and servant or not, that place was respected. It was one thing she liked about them very much. 'I certainly made sure that they knew I was no skivvy, and called on all my heritage to talk down to them.' She chuckled. 'My parents would have been mortified had I ever spoken to a servant, or anyone else, like that at home.' An image of her first meeting with Éomer flashed through her mind; he must have remembered it too because he said a little contritely.
'I did take your lessons to heart.'
She laughed, not believing a word of it. But although she did think him proud, and sometimes a little arrogant, she knew he cared for his people and had actually never heard him being rude to servants since.
'So what happened when this Thanger realised you weren't a Dunlending?' Éomer went on.
'I had to persuade them I was worth more alive and untouched,' she said quietly, slightly embarrassed by talking about it.
A hand squeezed her shoulder sympathetically. 'You obviously did. Tell me what happened next.'
After those initial words it became easier to talk – especially as it was so dark, and with the rain and the wind howling outside their shelter. Somehow it made things seem less awkward when facial expression couldn't be seen. They had to huddle together to keep dry and that formed an unspoken bond between them. She found herself telling him everything that had happened, even some of the horrible things the thugs had said to her and how frightened and revolted she had been.
He listened quietly, only swearing under his breath occasionally – vowing retribution. Lothíriel hadn't heard about the fate of her abductors yet. She'd been putting off asking, afraid she had actually killed one or more of them, but by the sound of his threats they would be lucky to live anyway. When she got to the bit about the effect of the mushrooms she stopped... her voice trailing off, dreading to put the question to him.
But he must have been attuned to her distress, as he found her hand and gently stroked her fingers. 'If they did die, Lothíriel, then it is no one's fault but their own. But I understand that it might be better for you that they survive to face justice.'
'So you don't actually know if they have?' she queried, surprised.
'Well, I know one of those who ate the mushrooms is still alive. At least he was when I rushed up here after you. Although I left him with Éothain, and he's not known for his gentle ways.'
She supposed not, although Éothain had always been very nice to her. 'How did you know where I'd gone?' Now she had given it thought, it seemed strange he had found her so easily.
He hesitated a moment before saying, 'Don't forget we already had a captive, that half-wit sent to negotiate the ransom.'
'You mean Carch, but what about the one sent to keep an eye on him?'
'Aldred killed him. When Carch demanded Aldred send a message to me, Aldred tied him up and set Alwunn to watch him. Elswite had already ridden to inform me you were missing anyway. His friend tried to sneak in to set him free, but Aldred shafted him.' Éomer laughed mirthlessly. 'The fools didn't know who they'd taken on. Aldred might be old, but he's been a warrior all his life.'
Having become well acquainted with the Rohirrim, it didn't surprise her that Aldred had had no trouble dealing with two ruffians, and Éomer could have no doubt taken on the whole lot of them single-handed. 'So how did you know where they were camped?'
Silence for a moment, but eventually Éomer answered. 'Éothain...asked...Carch. My captain can be...let's say...extremely persuasive.'
'Oh, I see.' She wondered if Carch was still alive, but decided not to enquire further.
'We were going to surround the camp and rescue you, but you had already freed yourself. Quite impressively, I might say.'
She tried to work out what had happened. 'You must have found Aglon on the path.'
'We did; writhing around in agony he was, but he...managed to tell us what had happened. He said you'd escaped and he'd been chasing you. But we hadn't passed you, so we guessed you had turned off somewhere. It didn't take much to work out the general area where you had left the path and then I found a scrap of material on a thorn bush.'
'Oh, yes. My dress ripped, I'd forgotten that. So you came after me on your own.'
Lothíriel sensed a hesitancy or embarrassment and she waited to see what he would say.
'I wanted to reach you before it got dark, but we still had to secure the camp in case they recovered enough to escape. I sent the others to see to that and rushed up here. There was only one track, so it seemed pretty certain which way you'd gone. I couldn't think you'd do other than head towards Helm's Deep. Of course the idea was for Éothain to follow on, but the storm has put pay to that.'
'I am glad you did. I was prepared for a night alone on the mountain, but thankful it hasn't happened.' Suddenly there was a loud gurgle as her stomach voiced the need for food. 'Oh, I apologise...'
'Don't. I'm only sorry that I never thought to bring something to eat,' he said immediately. 'To be honest, Lothíriel, all I could think of was reaching you as quickly as possible. All else went from my mind. It was bad enough when I thought you just lost, but when I heard you had been abducted...' She heard an intake of breath. 'I couldn't imagine what I'd tell your father.'
Of course...he would be worried about her father. Good job he couldn't see the disappointment on her face. For a moment she'd thought...
A loud crashing noise came from somewhere outside. Lothíriel jumped, and Éomer's arms tightened around her. 'That sounds like a tree going over, it doesn't look as though the storm will end anytime soon. Now we've told all, why don't you try and sleep. I'm sure it will blow itself out before morning.'
But there was something she wanted to know. 'If I didn't poison them to death, what will you do with them?'
'There's a strict law in the Riddermark, Lothíriel – no man lays a hand on a woman. They are the providers of home and hearth, and the penalty for abducting and ill-treating a woman, lady or commoner, is likely to be death. But we are in the Westmark and I will let Erkenbrand try them. If it were left to me...' He stopped, sighing. 'I just hope Éothain hasn't already obliged, I'd like to find out where they were going. They said nothing more than they were heading north?'
'No.' Lothíriel thought back, but could not remember much. 'I got the impression that good pay was being offered to those prepared not to ask questions.'
'Hmmm...' Éomer pondered. 'I think I will speak to Gandalf about that when I see him.'
'You think it could be important? '
'I've no idea, but there's nothing we can do about it now and I suggest you sleep. If you lie on the ground the cold will seep into you; you need a mattress.' Gently he pulled her on top of him. 'Just pretend I am one of your brothers, it's vital I keep you warm.'
Brother! Warm waves of something she recognised as desire washed through her body. How could she ever think of him as a brother? She hesitated, not wanting to give her feelings away and well aware that further intimacy would stir up more unruly thoughts.
'Please, Lothíriel, I can't bear to risk anything else happening to you. Put your head on my chest and forget it's me you're sleeping on. '
Lothíriel swallowed, hoping no one ever got to hear of this. But she did as she was told and tried to distance her mind from her predicament—everything ached and she felt so bone weary she could probably sleep for a week. His heart beat in steady rhythm, reassuring and comforting. She moved slightly as a few wisps of his hair tickled her nose. He must have realised because he pulled his hair away and pushed a strand or two of hers from her eyes.
'Go to sleep,' he whispered.
Would he sleep, she wondered as she settled down with her head against him. Instinctively she knew he would not. He would be on guard all night, protecting her, caring for her. His arm was around her, muscular and strong, but he held her against him gently, probably trying to make her at ease in such a strange situation. He seemed relaxed, but she guessed he was alert to any noise, any hint of danger. Other than behind the thick walls of her father's castle, never in her life had she experienced such a feeling of security. She trusted him, she decided, with her life and her honour. They might fight and spark each other off but deep down she knew how fine a man he was -- on a par with her father, her brothers, Faramir...
Lothíriel's deliberations stopped there, and she faced something within herself she had been reluctant to admit...something she had suspected when her captors had threatened her and she knew without doubt he would come for her himself – she had fallen in love with him. No! She quickly contradicted herself, as her heart speeded up even thinking about the consequences of such a happening. Surely it was just he was so attractive – after all she had witnessed the effect he'd had on the ladies of Minas Tirith. Having decided that, she made a real effort to go to sleep, but little nagging thoughts kept intruding – how she had actually enjoyed their spats, they had made her feel vibrant and alive. But she had enjoyed their truces more – like when she had taken him the tisane and they had laughed about elves together, also when they had ridden west and he had been so patient with her, telling her himself of the history of the land. She had certainly started to think differently about him when she had seen how he truly cared for his people. Then she remembered how frightened she had been that she would never see him again, and how she had told herself he would get to her in time...
She moved, and instantly his arms tightened round her protectively, and that was when she knew without a doubt – her heart had been caught and nothing would ever be the same again. Now what should she do?
With no immediate answer, and dozing but not asleep, she let her mind wander – he had said he would never marry a Gondorian. She mused on that, wondering if he had made that vow in the heat of the moment or if marrying one of his own people was really important to him. There was no doubt that the King of Rohan and a princess of Gondor would be a fine match – and possibly it had already been talked about in the high places of Minas Tirith, especially with her prolonged visit here. Her father would support such a move she was sure. But Lothíriel didn't have to think hard – she knew with utter certainty that she would never wed Éomer if he did not love her. That would lead to heartache. Having witnessed Éowyn's happiness, she'd rather retreat to the Healing Houses than live a life with no more than polite affection between them. But if he loved her...! Lothíriel sighed inwardly and tried to sort the facts out in a very tired brain. So far he had flirted with her – when he wasn't shouting at her – did that mean anything, or had he merely been amusing himself? He had taken her arm possessively when they entered the Hornburg, but that could have been in deference to her rank. But he had rushed up here in a panic to find her, leaving his men behind, and he had sounded embarrassed about it. All was certainly not lost, and a warm glow spread through her body as she drifted off.
'Lothíriel, wake up.'
She heard his voice through a fog of sleep. Nooo..., she didn't want to move, she was comfortable and warm – at least the half of her that had been lying on him and not exposed to the air was warm. And her dream had been interrupted – she had been riding with Éomer over the plains, racing, and she had been winning...
'Lothíriel, the storm's passed and dawn's not far off.'
Dawn! She sat up suddenly; she must have been asleep for hours.
'I heard a horn call, they will be here soon.'
'Oh, of course.' Fully awake now, she tried not to let regret creep into her voice – their little idyll would be over. However, she was ravenous and started to struggle to her feet. She put a hand on his bare arm and gasped. 'You're freezing; you gave me all your warmth.'
'I'll survive. As I said, I am used to it. Now let's make a move, the sooner we do the sooner you can be cared for properly.'
He had done a good job of caring for her, but she nodded acquiescently, and pushed herself up. Oh...she was so stiff.
Éomer held her round the waist to support her as she tried to stand. 'How's your ankle?'
She tentatively put some weight on it. 'Not good, I can put in on the ground but I don't think it will carry me far.'
'Hold on then.' Éomer got himself up, being careful not to bang his head, and picked up his sword. 'Can you wriggle out?'
She nodded, and ducking under the overhang, started to hop and hobble until she sat on a rock just outside, shivering in the cold of dawn, to survey a grey world. The clouds had mostly gone, but the sun not yet risen over the tops of the trees.
Éomer extricated himself from their overnight shelter and came to stand in front of her, buckling on his sword. He looked in no discomfort in spite of his bare arms. Lothíriel wrapped his shirt round herself tightly trying to draw more warmth from it. Looking up she found him staring at her.
'What's that bruise on your face? I thought it was dirt last night.'
'Oh.' She put her finger up finding the tender spot. 'One of them hit me, when I bit his finger.'
'Which one?' Éomer snarled.
'Carch, the one they sent to treat with you.' The look on Éomer's face made her almost sorry for the man.
'Right,' he said as if he had come to a decision. 'There is a great deal for us to discuss, but now is not the time. We will have to wait for some privacy. But I want to assure you that I will be seeing your father within two sennights and will talk to him then.' He smiled. 'I can't believe he will not give his permission.'
'Permission?' Lothíriel frowned, not having understood – she had been thinking of a bath and some food. 'What are you talking about? I realise you will have to tell him of this, but...'
'Lothíriel,' he interrupted, touching her cheek with a gentle finger and looking deep into her eyes, 'we need to get married.'
'What!' Her heart thumped so loudly she was sure he must be able to hear it. 'Why do we need to get married?'
'You have been abducted by brigands whilst in my care,' Éomer answered with an encouraging smile. 'That alone would make it necessary for me to talk to your father. But besides, we have just spent the night together.'
'The brigands did no more than frighten me and assault me a little, and nothing happened between us,' she babbled, playing for time. This was all coming too fast for her, she needed to think. But her mind was jumbled by the prospect of marrying him.
He sighed. 'Lothíriel I hoped you wouldn't see it as such a terrible prospect. And I know your father will only be thankful you are safe, but others might not see it so simply as that. Your reputation...'
'My reputation will be fine,' she shot back. 'I will tell my father all, he will believe me and that's all that matters.' It wasn't a terrible prospect, far from it, if he really wanted this. But his momentous words came back to her like a returning affliction – standing between them, needing to be purged. She had to be sure. 'Don't forget, you said you were determined not to marry a Gondorian.' Hardly daring to breathe, she waited for him to tell her he had fallen in love with her.
'Ah, but that was before I found out what a good housekeeper you were. My life has never been so comfortable.' Only his lips twitched, the rest of his face stayed provokingly straight.
All her hopes came tumbling down; instead anger rose as fast as a spring tide. 'Housekeeper!' she spat at him, her heart pounding wildly. 'How dare you! If you think I'd marry you to keep you in clean clothes and hot meals you are sadly mistaken.' Her hands clenched in fury. 'I'd...I'd rather marry...an...orc.'
A look of pure amusement passed across his face. 'No, you wouldn't. They stink.'
She was lost for words for a moment, and Éomer put out his hand to touch her on the arm. 'Lothíriel please, I was joking...'
'Don't touch me!' She shook him off angrily. 'And if you speak to my father without my permission, I'll...I'll feed you hemlock!'
With that they heard a shout, Lothíriel turned and saw Éothain and a few others winding their way along the track.
'Damn!' He turned to her, looking totality mortified. 'Look,' he said quickly, 'I've made a right mess of this and we need to sort it out. I didn't mean...' He sighed as another raucous shout hailed him. 'We will have to talk later.'
Lothíriel glared at him, despair and anger making it difficult for her to think straight. But she had said she would not marry him if he did not love her and however hard, she would keep to that. I would be better in the end than a union where adoration was one-sided. 'Don't bother,' she retorted bitterly. 'I have nothing to say to you.'
To be continued.