Minas Tirith, April 3020

Éomer frowned. Moonlight flooded the garden, turning the water of the pond into molten silver and softening the rather formal shapes of the hedges. A warm, southern breeze whispered through the leaves of the cherry trees bordering the paths, sending down drifts of snowy petals, while from the open windows of the house behind him came floating the soft strains of music.

Maybe he should have chosen a different time? An overcast day perhaps, with the threat of rain? Unfortunately the chill of winter was long gone from these southern lands. Still, it couldn't be helped. He just hoped the princess would not get the wrong idea.

He descended the steps leading down from the terrace to the garden proper. Imrahil's town house in Minas Tirith faced south west toward Dol Amroth and the sheltered situation allowed peach trees and other exotic fruit to flourish. Involuntarily he wondered if the princess was very fond of them. He had better mention that the winters of the Mark killed off all but the hardiest shrubs, as his grandmother, Queen Morwen, had found out to her chagrin. As for the sea food, he didn't really have to point out the obvious, that Rohan was more than a week's travel from the Bay of Belfalas, did he? While he had caught some fine trout in the Snowbourne, it rather paled next to the enormous tunny that had been served at one of the banquets here in Minas Tirith.

As if in reply to his misgivings, a nightingale burst into song in a tree ahead. Stupid bird. Even treading along the pebbly path with deliberately heavy steps did not shut it up. It was as if all nature had conspired against him!

"Now you are being silly," he muttered to himself. But a man had a right to be nervous on such an occasion, didn't he?

He turned a corner and there, on the rim of the pool, sat Princess Lothíriel, just as promised. For a moment, before she turned to him, he caught her staring into the water and was startled at the expression on her face. Yet a heartbeat later she greeted him with a practised smile and he wondered if he had only imagined the hint of deep sadness.

She rose and in a single, graceful motion sank into a curtsy. "King Éomer, what a pleasure to meet you."

"The pleasure is all mine," he assured her with a bow.

An awkward silence descended, but only for a moment, before the princess motioned to one of the paths. "Shall we go for a walk?"

"What a splendid idea," Éomer said, then cursed himself for the banal words. She would think him a nitwit!

However, she lightly took his offered arm and started chatting about the evening's entertainment. Nothing consequential, just remarks on the songs performed by his bard, how beautiful Queen Arwen had looked – as usual – and the high hopes her father had expressed for this spring's foals. Éomer felt himself slowly relaxing, soothed by her warm, low voice.

Ruefully he thought that she handled him as skilfully as he might handle a nervous horse. But then Imrahil had said that Princess Lothíriel had learnt her social graces at her mother's knee, and he understood that Lady Arodwen had been renowned throughout Gondor for her faultless hospitality.

They ascended the steps to the walkway leading along the wall overlooking the Pelennor and by mutual consent paused by one of the embrasures. The fields lay quiescent below them, only a few flickers of light showing where the farmhouses stood. How different it had been a year ago, the whole plain churned up and trampled by orc feet!

He grabbed the rough stone of the wall in an effort to push away the memories that threatened to rise to the surface of his mind: horns blowing, glinting steel dulled by blood, the stench of carrion. Éowyn's still face as she lay in the trampled grass. The Rage rising up and claiming him. He closed his eyes. Fresh green now covered the fields of the Pelennor, healing the wounds of the war, surely time would do the same for him?

When he opened his eyes again, he found that the princess had fallen silent and regarded him with grave consideration.

"You know why I'm here," he said more roughly than he had intended.

Unruffled, she nodded. "Yes, my father informed me of your...request."

"And what do you say to it?"

A tiny frown appeared on her forehead, to be smoothed away at once. "My lord, I do not want there to be any misunderstandings between us, so will you forgive me for plain speaking?"

"Of course. We Rohirrim pride ourselves on always speaking our mind." In fact there was more than one joke about mealy-mouthed Gondorians making the rounds in the camp.

Cool grey eyes searched his face. "Very well. Father has informed me that you're in Gondor to seek a queen, an able administrator to run Meduseld for you, keep the peace between your councillors while you're away campaigning and of course to..." For the first time her voice wobbled, but she regained her poise at once. " bear you an heir. And that you were thinking of offering me the position. Is that correct?"

Almost exactly his words. He was obscurely shocked to find that Imrahil had not couched his proposal in softer terms to his daughter. "I would treat you with all honour," he rushed to assure her.

"But not love?"

He hesitated, then decided he owed her the truth. "No, not love. I will not pretend to feelings I do not have." And did not plan to ever develop either.

She nodded decisively. "In that case I accept."

A/N: As you can see, I've taken a break from original writing and returned to Middle Earth for a bit. I hope you'll enjoy the ride (there will be 15 chapters or so) and if you want to know what else I'm up to, I've got my own website now: liapatterson . com. Feel free to drop in :-)