What a host! Never before had Lothíriel ridden with so many. The noise was incredible; the rumble of thousands of horses echoed all around, tumbling down the cloud-capped towers of Mt. Mindolluin like rolls of thunder.
Éowyn told her that the whole army was divided into éoreds who were to eat and sleep as one, although many traditional companies were clumped together so decimated were they after the battles. The badly injured had been left behind until King Éomer returned for Théoden's body, but those fit enough to ride travelled with them and were looked after by their comrades, each commander responsible for ensuring his éored kept together and rode at the pace of the slowest. She and Éowyn travelled in the vanguard with the King's Guard and an éored commanded by Lord Elfhelm, who also had overall charge of those from the Eastmark. Luckily all of her immediate companions spoke Westron, but behind she could hear the guttural tones of Rohirric, and overshadowed as it was by the snorting of horses and striking of hooves on the stones, she could make out nothing.
For the first few leagues Lothíriel shunned conversation and concentrated on keeping her place, slightly fearful of making a fool of herself in the highly organised procession of men and horses. But by the time they neared the Drúadan forest she had relaxed, at least until the distant beat of drums disturbed her. Éowyn had moved a little away, too far to ask, but looking around and trying to pick up on any unease she saw King Éomer glance toward the forest before obviously discussing something with Lord Elfhelm. They didn't appear bothered, and nobody else took much notice so she put the menace of the drums from her mind, happy to get away from the restricting stone walls and out into the fresh air. But soon she found herself the only woman amongst a large group of men, Éowyn having gone ahead to talk to Lord Elfhelm.
It soon became obvious that she was an object of curiosity to these fierce warriors, not only for the reason of being Prince Imrahil's daughter, but because many recognised her brother's horse. The men around her commented on Storm's fine points, wanted to know if Erchirion had bred him, and speculated on how fast he might be if given his head. Lothíriel diplomatically said that he was probably the fastest horse in Dol Amroth, but of course was sure that there were many faster horses in Rohan. That sparked an argument between them on the speeds of various horses and an enquiry to her on her thoughts on seeing Shadowfax – wonderful, indescribable, and she looked forward to meeting some of his kin in Rohan. They genuinely took an interest in a Gondorian Princess who could ride well enough so as to not disgrace herself in their company, kept asking if she was comfortable and generally showed they were happy to look after her. Seeing that Storm was keeping her busy as he tried to outpace the horses in front she received sensible advice from a couple of King Éomer's Guard– given with no hint of condescension – about keeping him up together but not on too tight a rein so as not to agitate him. However much he might wish to stretch his legs, he would soon settle and his instinct would be to stay with the herd, they told her. Stuff she knew, and was trying to do, but she was happy to show she respected their advice, there might come a time when she really did need it. King Éomer, riding a few lines in front with Lord Éothain, totally ignored her. This was probably a good thing, she admitted ruefully to herself, as she was likely to do just the opposite of anything he suggested.
At the breaks her companions advised her not to dismount unless she had too, but to let Storm crop grass on a long, loose rein and ease herself in the saddle. Much better, they said, as one would be less likely to stiffen up. Fine for them –they moved with an easy grace on their steeds as if they were reclining in a cosy chair. The truth was she was tired and generally a bit sore, not that it would do to let on to these gifted horsemen. Well, she probably would have had a tall man with tawny hair and a handsome face not been close by. At noon, as she munched on an apple, she felt the King of Rohan's eyes on her, but he never said anything, and went off to check on some of the wounded. Not all bad, she acknowledged grudgingly, his men showed him total respect and his concern for his injured Riders was obviously genuine.
On the move again, they cantered and walked in turn, covering an incredible amount of ground. By late afternoon even Storm had no wish to do other than follow the horse in front. Thankfully, as they came to a place where a stream had cut a deep valley down the mountainside, King Éomer raised his hand. They had reached their first night's camp.
Lothíriel didn't get down straight away, allowing herself time to take her feet from the stirrups and stretch her legs out, not wanting to do anything stupid like stumbling once she hit the ground. She just considered it safe to dismount when she became aware of the horses around her parting. Coming through the gap was the King of Rohan, still on his stallion and looking like he had just been out for a morning trot about.
'Lady Lothíriel, this is Bealdric.' King Éomer indicated a young man riding a grey gelding behind him. 'He will be looking after your horse on the journey.'
'There is no need, Lord, I am quite capable...'
His stallion chomped on the bit and he checked him absentmindedly, eyes still on her. 'It's not a matter for discussion, my lady, it's an order.'
The patronizing...! Lothíriel clamped her lips together; no way could she or would she have an argument in front of his men. And she knew she should be thankful to be given a groom, considering how weary she felt, but his overbearing way incensed her. Her mouth smiled; her eyes flashed fury. 'Thank you, my lord.' She nodded to Bealdric and slid down from Storm's back, immediately starting to unfasten her saddle bags. Damn, the strap had tightened.
'Leave them. They will be brought to you. Your tent is already being erected. Come, I will show you.' King Éomer sprang down from his saddle, handing the reins to a lad who had jumped down from his own horse. Bealdric had also dismounted. He was tall with a promising beard, around eighteen, she guessed. Her new groom gave her a shy smile, took Storm's reins, and spoke softly into the horse's ear.
'He likes to be rubbed down with a leather rather than anything else,' she told him. 'There are some in the saddle pocket.'
'I'll do that, my lady.' Bealdric walked away, a horse on each side of him. She felt lost without Storm to cling to, but saw Éowyn supervising the placing of a tent which she assumed was theirs. Ignoring King Éomer, which was difficult considering the size of him and the fact he stood right next to her, she took a step towards it, but was stopped by a hand on her arm.
'I don't know whether to apologize for underestimating you, my lady, or berate you for making me look a fool.'
Apologize? Now that was unexpected, but she couldn't resist a dig. 'Perhaps you made yourself look a fool, my lord.'
He dropped her arm as if it had somehow bit him; his eyes bored into her. 'You certainly don't run from a fight, do you?'
Lothíriel's shoulders went back. He would not intimidate her! 'I may not be able to wield a sword, but I come from a long line of warriors. As far as I know none have ever turned tail.'
He stared hard for a moment, but just when she thought she was going to get some cutting remark thrown at her, he smiled. In fact it was more than a smile, his whole faced lit with amusement and for the first time she could see why the ladies of Minas Tirith might have targeted him remorselessly. No doubt he could be charming when he wanted to, but Lothíriel swore to herself that after witnessing his boorish behavior there was no way she would be caught like that.
'Rest assured, Lady Lothíriel.' He moved closer, towering over her. 'I shall not make the mistake of underestimating you again.'
Resisting the urge to take a step backward, which might have been considered a retreat, Lothíriel looked up at him boldly. 'Perhaps it is a lesson learned, my lord. One should be careful before making assumptions.'
'Perhaps.' He nodded, a definite quirk on his lips. 'I shall bear your advice in mind, my lady.'
Was he making fun of her? Time to make her escape. 'I see my tent going up. Thank you, my lord, I will join Éowyn.'
King Éomer flicked his eyes around the camp taking in the sight of the men hurrying to their duties and the preparations that had already started. 'A meal will be ready soon, and someone will cut bracken for you. The ground is hard and stony, you will sleep better with a mattress.'
Did he still think she was a nothing but a pampered pet? Her chin rose. 'I am sure that will not be necessary, my lord, your men have enough to do. I...'
'Don't be stupid.'
She glared, but met an uncompromising look that caused her cheeks to flush. He was most likely right, and that annoyed her more. It had been a silly remark to make, her only excuse that she found it exceedingly difficult to accept anything from him. With nothing else to say she turned to go. Once more a hand stayed her. 'Lothíriel let me give you some advice. Do not keep fighting me, you will not win!'
The pig! And an over-familiar pig at that. Not trusting herself to be polite, she shook off his hand and marched to her tent. Luckily the men had finished, and Éowyn had disappeared inside. 'If I reach Edoras without coming to blows with your brother it will be a miracle,' she said as she ducked through the doorway.
Éowyn looked up from where she was pulling out some bedrolls from a bag, a big grin on her face. 'He had ideas about Gondorian womanhood which you have turned on their head. And he does not like to find himself wrong, or not to be in control of something. If you were of lower rank he could just boss you about...'
'I haven't noticed anything stopping him bossing me,' Lothíriel interrupted. 'In fact every time he speaks to me it's some kind of order.'
'Which you immediately comply with, I imagine.' Éowyn's voice was edged with laughter. Lothíriel realized she needed to shut up.
'I am glad you find it funny,' she grumbled. 'Which reminds me, why did you disappear and leave me alone with scores of men?'
Éowyn shrugged, not looking at all apologetic. 'I thought it would be best if you got to know them, from what I could see they became very protective of you.'
They had been, but Lothíriel decided that Éowyn and her brother shared many traits and she needed to keep on top of them both. 'Everyone seems to think they know what is good for me better than myself.'
Ignoring that, Éowyn just grinned and passed her the bedrolls. 'Shake these out to make sure there are no spiders.'
The blankets were new, so she thought it pretty safe but took them to the door of the tent. Pausing for a moment she looked out at the camp which was being put together with well-practiced ease. Already fires had been lit and horses had their noses in feed bags. She couldn't see Storm, but it would be silly of her to worry, of course he would be well looked after. But still, she would make sure she checked on him before settling down for the night. She saw that only a few tents were being erected for the commanders, so most would be sleeping in the open. She involuntarily shivered – the sun had dipped behind the ridge – and went back inside, thankful for her tent.
Lothíriel handed one of the bedrolls back to Éowyn. 'Your brother says he will be sending bracken, which is bound to be full of insects.'
With a 'give me' gesture Éowyn took the other from her and dumped them both on top of her saddle bags to keep them off the floor. 'I can cope with squashing insects under me, but I am not very good about having them crawling in my bedding.' Éowyn pointed to a bundle in the corner. 'We can put the bracken under that sheet of canvas and our bedrolls can go on top of that. It will be luxury.'
Not her idea of luxury, but she had expected worse. 'What did you do on the way here?'
'The same as the men: I wrapped my cloak around me and slept on the ground. Not very pleasant, but Faramir has ensured we are more comfortable on the way home. And anyway, we rode so hard I could have fallen asleep anywhere.'
Lothíriel stretched, trying to ease some more aching muscles. 'I am sure I will sleep. Hard ground or not.'
But it wouldn't be so hard, because moments later armfuls of bracken were delivered along with her saddlebags. No changing for dinner tonight though, she didn't have enough clothes with her, but a young lad brought a canvas bucket of warm water and they were able to have a wash. Lothíriel left her hair in its plait, too much fuss to do anything else.
A bit later they wrapped themselves in their cloaks and sat around the fire, accepting plates of hot stew gratefully. Éowyn never made a move to help in any way, so Lothíriel followed her lead, letting herself be waited on. The men had everything organized and it seemed foolish to interfere. Those near to her politely made remarks in Westron, Lord Elfhelm telling her of the muster, the mad dash to get to Minas Tirith in time and the desperation they felt when they heard the city was in flames.
'Those were the drums I heard,' she remarked when he recounted the tale of the wild men of the forest.
He nodded. 'Help unlooked for is sometimes of the most use; we would have been hard put had it been otherwise.' A man came up and said something in Rohirric, and Lord Elfhelm excused himself, going off to sort out some problem. King Éomer was across the fire from her, talking intently with a few of his guard. Beside her, Éowyn looked to be in a dream, a soft smile on her face. Not hard to guess who she was thinking about.
Full, warm and sleepy, Lothíriel put her plate down, listening to the chatter around her. Already she could pick out a few words, and would probably learn a many more over the coming weeks. But she wouldn't be in Rohan long enough to master the language. She had just decided to check on Storm and then go to bed when a group of men started singing. The song – goodness knew what about, except the deep resonance of the tune reminded her of galloping horses – grew in volume as more and more joined in from all over the camp. Within moments she was the only one making no noise as Éowyn had awoken from her stupor and even her brother was lustily singing. The two elves were humming the tune and one of them – she'd no idea which – motioned with his hand for her to do likewise. Unable to resist she joined in, which earned her a smile and a dig in the ribs from Éowyn. When she looked King Éomer's way she faltered: he had his eyes fixed right on her. But Lothíriel carried on as best she could, determined he wouldn't put her off. Risking another surreptitious glance, her gaze was caught by those dark eyes. Annoyingly, heat flushed her cheeks, getting worse when she realized he was smiling at her. She certainly wouldn't be looking his way again.
'What was that song about?' she queried Éowyn when they got back to the tent.
'Eorl the Young, it's a favorite. I always think you can hear the horses galloping as he leads them to battle on the Field of Celebrant.'
'Oh definitely,' Lothíriel agreed. 'I heard the horses straight away, very clever with no music. And there was one horse faster than the rest, I could hear him snorting. Your people can certainly sing.'
'Mmm...' Éowyn said sleepily. 'Strange though, it's said only the Rohirrim can hear Felaróf.'
Well, Éowyn had gone straight to sleep, but although Lothíriel felt warm and reasonably comfortable she lay awake for some time listening to the sounds around her. A low murmur came from the men still around the fire, and the occasional stamp of boots from the guards as they made their rounds. Horses snuffled and coughed, and somewhere an owl hooted. Such a new experience, even though she had camped with her brothers as a child, she had never thought to be in the midst of an army. And soon she would be living in the King's Hall; how would she get on there, she wondered? Would she be able to put up with such a...domineering man until September? Then she remembered Arwen and her escort, if she couldn't stand it anymore she could travel back to Minas Tirith with them.
Happier now she had made some kind of plan, Lothíriel closed her eyes.
She needed a bath. She needed a soft bed, and a day when she didn't have to get out of it. Irritably Lothíriel swatted at some fly that had landed on her neck, fed up with providing a free meal for every insect in Anórien. And since they had entered these woods it had become worse. Besides the ugly lumps she had never felt so dirty, never worn the same dress for day after day, or travelled with smelly underclothing in her saddlebags. Why ever had she agreed to this? Pampered, gently bred Gondorian – King Éomer was probably right, and perhaps the worst was having to make her way to a convenient rock or bush with all his men trying to be polite and avert their eyes. But they were polite, and although the Rohirrim around her were undoubtedly fierce and hardy, they were not as barbaric as many Gondorians seemed to believe. Certainly the majority spoke Westron, and she had found no fault with their manners. True she was travelling mostly with Rohan's nobility, but even those of lesser rank she had come across were able to express themselves so that she could understand. And one could not help but admire the way they were able to set up a comfortable camp in a very short time, not with the luxuries expected in Gondor, but certainly suitable for so many travelling together over such a distance. However she had been told that many of the Rohirrim lived all year round on the plains, following the horses and living in tented towns. They were able to pack everything up and move to new grazing grounds, birth, death and marriages going on under canvas as they did under permanent roofs. An interesting people who she had discovered she rather liked.
Cross with herself for bemoaning her present— hopefully short lived –hardships, when in fact, all in all, she was enjoying the new experiences, Lothíriel concentrated on the scenery around her. For some hours they had been traveling through a forest of mixed birch, ash and oak, although above her on the higher ground she glimpsed tall pines. The side of the road was edged with small boulders over which grew cushions of different mosses; here and there water trickled between them, forming miniature ponds. Where the sun shafted down damsel flies flitted over the stones, and bees buzzed around bright yellow king-cups. Would Rohan have such pretty places she wondered, or was it all open plains and featureless? No, the maps she had studied showed the northern faces of the Ered Nimrais clothed in forest. Hopefully she would get to see more than the immediate vicinity of Edoras. Not for a while though, she needed a bit of easier living before making any other journeys.
Lothíriel wiped the sweat from her eyes and looked longingly down into the stream that foamed around Storm's hooves. The road ran over some large slabs of rock placed in the bed to form a shallow crossing, but to her right the water flowed in many channels, widening out into large pools edged with sedges and yellow iris. Oh, how wonderful it would be to plunge into their cool depths. Others must be thinking the same as she heard various shouts and increased conversation around her. Even a burst of song from someone. Perhaps they were thinking of taking a crafty dip when she was out of sight. Oh, if she could do the same. Her hair must be grey with dust, only once on the journey had she found the energy to brush it out. At that moment she'd have given anything to release it from its over-tight braid – Éowyn would make a lousy ladies-maid – and float in one of those pools. Briefly she wondered if she could do so, her clothes would get a wash and in this heat they would soon dry and... Errgh...the itching was driving her mad! She shouldn't do it but couldn't stop herself from scratching at one of the lumps on her arm. Maybe she ought to ask to stop for a moment: the phial of basil oil was wrapped in a cloth in her saddlebags. But she had used nearly all of it, and was unlikely to get any more until she returned home. The Rohirrim must use something for insect bites, witch hazel probably; hopefully there was a good herbalist in Edoras. So absorbed was she in her discomfort that Lothíriel took no notice when the horses around her shuffled positions, not until a deep voice interrupted her deliberations.
'Welcome to Rohan, Lothíriel. We will be in Aldburg in two days; you will be able to take a bath.'
A bath! Did the King of Rohan read minds as well? His words pleased her so much she ignored the rudeness of him using her name, and thought back to the map she had studied with her father. 'Are you saying that was the Mering Stream we have just crossed?' They must have made better progress than she'd thought.
He nodded. 'We are just coming out of the Firien Woods, and into the Eastfold of the Riddermark.'
'Firien, so the mountain above us is the Halifirien, the last of the Beacon Hills?' Her curiosity overcame her antagonism, until she fixed her eyes on him. Damn the man! With an angry stab of envy Lothíriel realized he must have been one of those who had been up at dawn that morning to take advantage of the stream flowing through the last campsite. She and Éowyn had heard the raucous shouts when still tucked under their blankets. He had to have joined in, the only way of accounting for the fact that his mane of hair flowed across his shoulders like thick golden honey. He had trimmed his beard too, or someone had done it for him. If this journey had done one thing, it had made her appreciate all that her maid normally did for her comfort. Lothíriel had never thought she was particularly vain, and although she had no interest in King Éomer as a man, it irked her beyond measure that having hardly passed more than a few words with her during the journey, now she looked her worst he had decided to talk to her.
King Éomer looked up to the rocky slopes that could now be seen through the thinning trees, 'Yes, it's Halifirien.'
'Where Elendil was buried before he was moved to the Hallows?'
'The very place.' He flashed her a wry look. 'If we had time I might have taken you to see where Eorl the Young swore eternal friendship to Gondor. The way goes up from that standing stone we just passed.'
Suspicious he was being facetious, Lothíriel said nothing for a moment but then she decided to take his words for what they were. 'I hope that I get chance to learn a bit more of Rohan's history during my visit and perhaps see more than just Edoras.'
'I am sure you will. That is if you do not mind leaving Meduseld and exposing your complexion to the harsh winds of the plains.' A brow rose, inviting her to retaliate, but Lothíriel laughed.
'You deserved to be mocked, my lord. But I will not antagonize you anymore; I would not like to be at odds with my host.'
Immediately she bridled, he really was an infuriating man, but before she could snap a comment back he held up his hand.
'Truce! I should not have said that, but I cannot resist watching you fight with yourself. You would like to say something really cutting, but are too well brought up to do so.'
Lothíriel smiled her sweetest. 'Not just say, my lord. I have gone through kicking your shins to running a sword through you. My regret was that I was unable to dance in Minas Tirith, or I can assure you your toes would be black and blue.'
'One should never give away one's tactics, Lothíriel. I shall now be careful not to invite you to dance.'
'You have no need to worry, Lord: I would have to refuse anyway. My circumstances prevent me from dancing. I...'
His sardonic expression changed in an instant to one of compassion. 'I am sorry, I had forgotten Éowyn told me you lost your betrothed in the battles, please accept my sympathies.'
Lothíriel inclined her head, she knew he meant it. She couldn't like the man but appreciated the way he cared for his people, taking time each evening to make sure the wounded were managing, and Éowyn said he had been discussing endlessly with his commanders plans for feeding the populace through the coming year. He also kept total sway over everyone, whilst being on friendly terms with his men. And she had seen that he listened to others, allowing them to offer forthright opinions even if he overruled them. Definitely a leader, and as Prince Imrahil's daughter she could only respect that.
'Thank you, my lord. I am sad but not heartbroken. I can only say that there is no comparison with the ending of a betrothal that was arranged for me, to the anguish of those that have lost members of their families.'
His eyes on her speculatively, he nodded. 'There will be sadness when we get to Aldburg, it is always worse for the widows and mothers. But there will be many less than I once thought. In fact I don't suppose I expected any of us to return...'
At that moment a small flock of pigeons left a tree at the side of the road, the clapping of their wings rising above the rumble of hooves. Lothíriel instinctively checked Storm as he started slightly. The horse resumed its pace and she ran a gloved hand down his neck. 'No need for that, you must have faced worse than a few birds on your way to the Morannon.'
'He certainly did.' King Éomer smiled at her, his own stallion had not moved. 'But forget talking about the war; tell me how you persuaded Erchirion to lend his favored horse to you.'
How did he know it needed persuasion! But she might enjoy telling him. 'You really want to know, my lord?'
'I do, Lothíriel, and I would also like you to call me by my name, it might make for friendlier relations.'
Well, who was to blame for the unfriendliness! Tempted to stick her nose in the air and reprimand him for his informality with her, she suddenly decided against it. She did have to live under his roof for the next four months. But sure she could get her own back, Lothíriel smiled.
'I shall be glad to be on better terms...Éomer, after all my brothers count themselves amongst your friends. Which is one reason Erchirion decided to lend me Storm.'
He looked surprised. 'Because he thought he was doing me a favor?
'Oh no, Erchirion was not at all keen at first as you might have guessed, but he wavered when I reminded him I had helped him break in Storm. He didn't actually capitulate however until I told him you couldn't find a palfrey for me to ride. After all, Erchirion taught me to ride and as Amrothos said, the honor of Dol Amroth was at stake.'
Éomer frowned. 'So he didn't want me to think he had made a bad job of teaching you?'
'Yes, but more than that' – now for the good part— 'they both, but especially Amrothos, wanted to see your face when I turned up on Storm... after your rude assumptions, that is.' Lothíriel waited for the explosion, but instead the royal lips twitched.
'I imagine they were amply rewarded.'
'I think you acted as expected, Éomer.'
'I am making no excuses for my ill temper, but as I have said, I will not underestimate you again, Lothíriel. And I wish to congratulate you, the journey has been long and tiring and you have coped admirably, with the riding and with the conditions.'
Lothíriel scratched at her arm before swiftly pulling her hand away and using it to push back some escaped strands of damp hair from her face. 'I find the riding a lot easier than the conditions, Éomer. When you mentioned a bath I could almost have hugged you.'
That mobile brow rose again, and heat rushed to her cheeks. Too handsome for any woman's peace of mind. But no, if he was expecting her to fawn over him like half the females in Gondor, he was mistaken. 'Be assured, I would hug a warg who offered me a bath at this moment.'
He let out a guffaw of laughter that had the guard in front turn around to look. 'Lothíriel I am sure that if you so much as looked at a warg it would run off with its tail between its legs.'
She couldn't help but laugh with him, and anyway he looked much younger and less a dour king when he laughed. Who'd have thought he possessed such a sense of humor.
To be continued
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.