One final check that all was well in the stables and then to bed, Galwyn promised himself. The hour was already late, and a busy day lay ahead. Not that there was anything unusual about that. He really needed to find the time to ask Eomer-King if he could employ more help with the horses.

Yawning, he stepped into the stables and was instantly alert. Something wasn't right. The air was rich with the sweet aroma of hay and the warm tang of horse, but his sharp senses noted an acidic undercurrent. Annoyance made him click his tongue. If the stable boys had been in here drinking again, he would be waking them with buckets of ice-cold water in the morning.

His gaze swept down the stalls as he set about checking the occupants were settled for the night, and immediately his attention was captured by Firefoot, the king's horse. The animal was tossing his head and snorting warm breaths over the door of his stall, a sure sign that he was less than happy.

"What's the matter boy?" he said softly as he approached the stallion. He raised a hand and Firefoot dipped his head as though to allow him to scratch his nose. However, before he could make contact, the horse knocked his hand away, then backed up, whinnying softly.

Concerned now, Galwyn unlatched the stall door, intent on examining the horse and finding whatever it was that ailed him. However, the moment he pushed the door open the reason for the animal's distress was obvious. The king was sitting in the far corner of the stall, a horse blanket wrapped around his shoulders and an expression of utter misery on his face.

"Eomer!" Galwyn exclaimed, his long friendship with the younger man making him forget protocol. "Are you unwell?"

Eomer didn't answer Galwyn, but instead addressed his horse in an aggrieved tone. "You would betray me despite my promise of apples?"

Firefoot turned and nuzzled at Eomer's cheek as though in apology, but the king pushed him away.

"Your horse cares deeply for you, Eomer," Galwyn said. "Do not be hard on him." He stood awkwardly in the doorway. "Pray, tell me why you are here?"

Eomer gave a bitter laugh. "You have already answered that question, my friend. Firefoot cares for me. Therefore I sought to spend the night in his company rather than elsewhere. Now it seems even he is not to be trusted."

Unease pricked at the back of Galwyn's neck. The king was newly married – indeed, the court of Rohan had barely recovered from the festivities of the previous month – it did not bode well, then, that he preferred the stable to the bed of his beautiful young wife. Concern made him bold enough to voice his thoughts. "Have you quarrelled with Lothiriel?"

"It is difficult to quarrel with one who seems barely able to tolerate your presence," Eomer replied softly, looking at the ground.

"Come, my Lord. Your wife clearly adores you. All have commented how yours is not just a marriage of convenience despite the hand of the King of Gondor in its arrangement."

"Would that I believed that still to be true," Eomer replied sadly. He finally looked up at Galwyn. "You look cold. Here, I have a bottle of finest Gondorian brandy. Warm yourself with some."

Galwyn frowned at the half-empty bottle Eomer produced from beneath the blanket. "It would seem it is not only the company of your horse that you sought." Despite his disapproval he accepted the bottle, swallowed a mouthful and then handed it back. He hesitated for a moment, not wanting to meddle in issues that were not his concern. However, though Eomer was king now, to Galwyn he was still the same lad who had arrived orphaned and distressed in Edoras, and in need of someone with the time to teach him to ride and the patience to wipe away his tears of anger and hurt. Now, of course, he was taller and broader across the shoulders, and these days much more in control of his hot temper and reckless ways. But, judging by the look of misery on his face, he was as much in need of companionship now as then.

He dropped next to the king, and watched as Eomer swallowed another mouthful of brandy. "You'll not find any answers in liquor, lad," he chided softly.

"I know," Eomer replied, accepting the rebuke with an indifferent shrug. "But since I am apparently unable to find answers elsewhere, it does at least dull the pain."

"It seems the queen has succeeded in wounding you more deeply than any orc blade has ever managed," he said carefully, hoping to draw Eomer into conversation.

The king sighed heavily. "I don't understand, Galwyn. I was gone but a week in the Westfold, and before that I believed we were the two happiest people in Rohan - perhaps even in the whole of Middle Earth. But since my return..." He lifted the bottle as though to drink again, then apparently changed his mind, instead pinning Galwyn with an intense gaze. "Is there something about me that a woman would find repellent, Galwyn?"

"No, my Lord." Galwyn laughed. "Are you not aware how many hearts were broken on your wedding day?"

Eomer peered at the contents of the bottle as though he would find the answer to his own question reflected in its golden light. "If I am not repellent, why then does my wife recoil from my touch?"

Galwyn's jaw fell open, but he quickly regained his composure. His heart pounding at his impudence he forced himself to ask, "My Lord, are you saying that you and the queen haven't..."

"Not since I returned from the Westfold." Eomer tilted his head against the stable wall and squeezed his eyes shut. "Do you know what it's like, Galwyn? To be in love with a beautiful woman who first seems to delight in you, but then suddenly rebuffs your every approach? I swear I shall go mad 'ere the week ends."

Relieved to discover that the problem was not one of an unconsummated marriage, but merely short-term frustration, Galwyn relaxed.

"Perhaps you are reading too much into her reluctance?" He gave an embarrassed cough. "Perhaps the queen is simply passing through her days of flux?"

Eomer's eyes jerked open. "Do you think me that much a fool?"

"No, of course not, but it is easy to forget such things when spending days in the saddle with nought but men for company."

Eomer snorted. "I am well aware of a woman's cycle. Eowyn gave me bruises enough when she came of age that I learnt to read the signs and tread warily. Trust me, that is not the problem here."

Galwyn considered a moment. "Since we have established you are no fool, I presume you have intelligence enough to wash the smell of Firefoot from your skin before entering her chamber?"

"My bathing habits are beyond reproach," Eomer replied tartly.

"And you definitely haven't quarrelled?"

"No," Eomer said vehemently. "Quite the opposite. In all ways, save this one, Lothiriel is just as she was before I departed for the Westfold. I don't understand it. How can she profess with her lips that she loves me and yet keep me at arms length with poorly conceived excuses?" He groaned. "I swear she is deliberately trying to drive me mad."

"Well, clearly you have done something to vex her," Galwyn said, thinking of his own wife. "Probably something quite trivial."

Eomer sighed again. "I have considered every word - every deed - since my return but not one thing can I bring to mind that might cause her to treat me so."

"Then, my dear king, you must go and ask her what it is that you have done to earn her displeasure."

Eomer shook his head. "I fear I have simply been a fool."

"My Lord?"

"Did you never wonder why we were betrothed for a full year?"

"It is not my place to ask such questions," Galwyn replied softly, even though he knew much of the court gossip.

"It was my idea," Eomer said. "I loved her from the moment I first saw her – as I believe Aragorn knew I would."

"I don't understand. If you loved her, why would you delay the wedding?"

"To give her time to get to know me. To give her time to decide if she could be happy as my wife. I promised her I would release her from her troth at any time if she could not."

Galwyn drew in a deep breath. "That was quite a gamble."

"Yes," Eomer said softly. "But one I believed I had won when she told me – just three months after our first meeting – that she loved me and would gladly marry me whether I was King of Rohan or a stable hand in her father's court. Now I wonder if she did not simply speak words that she knew I longed to hear, and if her early enthusiasm for my love-making was simply an act – that she was merely doing what she believed was expected of her."

"I cannot believe that," Galwyn protested. "We have all seen you together. Her affection for you is not false."

"Then why does she now grow awkward the moment I enter her bedchamber?"

"Speak with her, Eomer," Galwyn repeated. "I am sure you will find it is something trivial that has vexed her. That is the way of women."

Eomer shook his head. "It is not Lothiriel's way." Their conversation halted. Eomer pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders, then curled up in the hay.

Galwyn was horrified. "Surely you are not planning to sleep here all night?"

"Go to bed, Galwyn. The hour is late."

"And leave you here for the stable boys to trip over in the morning? I do not think so."

"Galwyn..."

"You may be king, but I am the stable master and I will not have you disturbing my horses with your drunken snoring."

"Drunken snoring?" Eomer repeated, rolling onto his back to glare up at Galwyn.

In response the older man simply picked up the nearly empty brandy bottle. "Pray tell me – how full was this bottle when you came in here?"

"I don't snore," Eomer muttered, apparently content to accept the accusation of drunkenness.

"I mean no disrespect, my king. And I would consider it an honour if you spend the night beneath the roof of my house rather than in my stable." He hesitated then added. "Should any one question your absence in the Golden Hall I will tell them that you feared Firefoot had colic and so you stayed with me in order to be closer to him." He thrust out a hand. "Come!"

The king stared at the proffered hand for a long moment, then reached out and allowed Galwyn to pull him to his feet. He glanced at Firefoot. "Colic?" The horse nuzzled his face as though agreeing to his role in the subterfuge. Eomer sighed. "Very well." He turned to Galwyn. "I thank you. Both for the offer of a bed, and for your council."

Galwyn snorted and, noting that the king was none to steady on his feet, slid an arm round Eomer's waist. "You may not be so grateful in the morning."

"And why would that be, my friend," Eomer asked.

"If my stable boys sleep too late because they've spent the previous evening drinking, I've found a bucket of ice water is an efficient cure for what ails them." He half turned in order to check Firefoot's stall was secured behind them. "Do not think that being king will save you from a similar fate."

***

Eomer had learnt much about diplomacy since becoming King of Rohan. So why did the prospect of talking with his wife fill him with dread? He told himself he was being foolish as he headed towards her chamber. Yet he could not deny the truth. If Lothiriel's love for him had truly grown cold, his heart would be pierced as painfully as with any sword.

He ran a hand across his freshly washed and combed hair, and tugged self- consciously at his richly embroidered tunic as he reached the door of his wife's chamber. He'd delayed seeking her until the early evening, but now the task could no longer be set aside. He had settled upon a course of action, and knew exactly what he would say. Taking a deep breath, he knocked, then entered. It was time to set aside hope for truth.

"Eomer," she said, looking up from her needlework. "I've been worried all day. How is Firefoot?"

"Firefoot?" he asked, the question knocking him off his carefully prepared speech.

A puzzled frown crossed her face. "I heard you spent the night with the stable master because you feared your horse had colic."

"Oh, yes." He closed the door behind him. "A false alarm. He's fine." He paced to the window, gazed out at the orchard below, took a deep breath and then turned to her. "Lothiriel, there is something I must ask you. Have I done something that has earned your disfavour?"

"My disfavour?" she echoed, her face confused.

"Yes, because whatever it is I have done, I would seek to make amends."

She shook her head. "Eomer, I have no idea of what you speak. You have done nothing."

"Nothing?" he repeated dully. His heart sank. How could he repair that which he had not damaged? "I see." His gaze slid to her bed, then back again. "Very well. Then if this is the way things are to continue between us, I would ask but one thing of you, then I promise I will not trouble you again."

"Eomer..." she began.

"Hear me out," he said, halting her with a raised hand. "Distasteful though it may be to you, I would ask that you give me access to your bed until you are with child. Whatever your personal feelings for me, I beg you not to deny Rohan an heir."

There. He'd said what needed to be said as king. That the heart of the man was broken was something he would have to find a way to live with.

The blood drained from her face, and her needlework fell unheeded to the floor as she stared at him.

"Oh Eomer," she whispered, tears sparkling in her eyes.

He stiffened his shoulders, ready to take the body blow of her reply. "What is your answer, my queen?"

She rose and to his amazement crossed the room and wrapped her arms around him, burying her face in his chest. "I'm so sorry," she said. "So very sorry."

The scent of her hair and the warmth of her body pressed against him was more than he could bear. Anger suddenly cut through him. He folded his hands around her arms and pushed her away. "I do not want your pity." He spat the words, turned towards the door, then stopped and wheeled around. All his carefully prepared words were forgotten as anguish and hurt crashed over him. "All I ever wanted was your love. You did me ill by pretending it was freely given. I hope you will at least have the grace to respect me by fulfilling your duty as queen." He spun away again.

"Eomer! Wait!" Despite himself, he froze, his back to her, one hand on the door handle. Her voice softened as she continued. "Please don't leave like this. Let me explain myself. There is something you must know. Something I foolishly tried to hide from you."

He stiffened. His temper told him to leave, slamming the door behind him. But there was something in the catch of her voice that restrained him. A rustle of fabric reached his ears and he turned slowly, his eyes widening at the sight that met him. Lothiriel was stark naked, her dress puddled around her feet. If she thought to make him stay with such a blatent act... The thought died as his gaze moved up her body. In place of the hot temper of a moment earlier a cold fury pooled in the pit of his stomach. The pale skin of her ribs and arms was marred with swirls of yellow and purple bruises. His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. "The name of the person who did this to you?" he demanded hoarsely, barely able to force the words past this new raw anger. "I swear who ever it was will not live to see the sunrise!"

She met his gaze with sadness. "Then you must take your blade to me, Eomer. For the bruises are entirely my doing."

"What?" He felt sick and dizzy as too many conflicting emotions assailed him. Was life with him so repellent she had tried to harm herself? How else could she have been so hurt when her days were filled with nothing more treacherous than the risk of a pricked finger on a sewing needle?

She stooped and retrieved her gown, pulling the soft, green Gondorian silk over her abused skin. "Eomer, there are few who do not know that the women of Rohan are skilled in more than just needlework. While you were in the Westfold I sought out the Master of Swords and begged him to teach me how to fight with a blade."

"Sword lessons?" Eomer said, desperately trying to grasp what she was talking about.

Colour crept up her neck and into her cheeks. "It seems I am not the most adept student."

His anger was not abated. "He had no right to hurt you so."

"The fault was mine, Eomer. I insisted that he did not spare me. Nay, I ordered him as queen. The poor man had no choice, though he said you would flay him if you found out." She lowered her eyes. "I wanted to surprise you with my new skills and so I tried to learn too much to quickly." She gave a bitter laugh. "Patience has never been a virtue I've mastered." She met his gaze again. "I wanted you to be proud of me. Instead I merely shamed myself. But far worse, I tried to hide my shame with deceit. I kept hoping the bruises would fade. That you would not need to know. And instead..." A tear tracked down her left cheek. "Instead, I made you think that I do not desire you. Can you ever forgive me?"

He crossed the space between them in two strides, gently wrapped her in his arms and buried his face in her hair. "My most precious love," he murmured. "There is nothing to forgive."

"Yes, there is," she insisted, drawing away from him. She reached up and cupped his cheek in her hand. "I have caused you much hurt with my foolish pride." Her eyes scanned his face. "It was not Firefoot that drove you from the Golden Hall last night, was it?" Much as he wanted to spare her more hurt, he couldn't lie to her. Pain darkened her eyes, and she pressed herself to his chest again. "I am so sorry."

"And I am sorry that I had so little faith in your love."

She looked up at him again. "Do you truly not know how much I love you?"

He smoothed back her hair and pressed his lips to her forehead. "I hoped..." he began, but his words were cut off by the pressure of her lips against his own. Conscious of her bruised ribs he responded with an eager gentleness, even though he knew their lovemaking could go no further tonight. To his surprise, though, when finally they broke apart, she took his hand and drew him towards the bed.

"Lothiriel," he protested. "You are hurt."

She gave him a provocative smile and let her dress fall from her shoulders once again. "I may not be skilled with a blade, but I do know how to ride a stallion."

For one long moment, he didn't believe what he'd just heard. Then he gave a roar of laughter. "My dear wife, where did you learn such language?"

Her nimble fingers were busy removing his clothes from him as she answered. "Do you think I do not hear what the kitchen maids say of the handsome king of Rohan? Or of what they would do with you given half a chance?"

Eomer felt himself blush at the thought of being discussed in such terms, but he couldn't help but ask. "And what exactly do they wish to do with me?"

Lothiriel smiled wantonly and pushed him gently so he had no choice but to tumble backwards onto her bed. "Since I have learnt you prefer action to words, I think it best that I show you."

"We'll be late for dinner," Eomer murmured as she removed the last item of his clothing, and smiled down at him with obvious appreciation. "People will talk."

"Let them talk," Lothiriel replied, and then proceeded to make sure that he, at least, wasn't capable of doing so.

fin