A/N: I wrote this for a challenge at another site, and decided to post it here as well.
Both Ends and the Middle
"You're not being fair. You haven't given her a real chance."
Eomer forced patience into his voice. "It doesn't have anything to do with fairness. I just decided—"
"Do you trust Aragorn?"
He looked startled at Eowyn's question. "Of course. You know that."
"Then why not at least try to get to know Lothiriel?" Her voice was the epitome of reason. "He would not have suggested a match between the two of you if he did not believe you could be happy together."
Eomer turned to her. "Is it so wrong for me to have wanted to be able to control this one area of my life? To have a bride I chose for myself, and not one chosen by someone else, even a well-meaning friend?"
"Of course not. But if the friend is Aragorn, someone who knows you well, is it not possible you should trust him – at least enough to make a real effort to get to know the lady?"
"Oh, very well," he growled the words. "I'll do my best to find time to sit down and make her acquaintance once the Dol Amroth party arrives for your wedding. But after that, I expect to be left alone. Is that clear?"
Three weeks later
"I do not know why you couldn't find someone else to help you. Where is Faramir?" Eomer asked the question as he followed Eowyn to the storage area behind his study.
"I needed someone tall, you already know where the crate is, and I want it to be a surprise for Faramir."
He grunted. "Which still doesn't explain why you picked now to decide to show him your early attempts at sword-making. The rest of the court has already headed out for the ride and picnic you arranged."
They reached the door of the storage area and he frowned, surprised to see the door was slightly open. "This should be locked."
As he stepped in front of her, Faramir stepped out, and he paused, confused. "Faramir?"
Instead of an answer from the other man, he felt his sister give him a none-too-gentle shove from behind, and found himself inside the storage room.
Even more confused, he turned, saw Lothiriel standing there, looking equally baffled, a pile of linens in her arms. Linens? Linens weren't even kept here.
"Eowyn! What—" he turned as the door slammed shut behind him. "Eowyn!" He tried the door, found it locked. "What's the meaning of this? Eowyn!" he shouted. "Answer me!"
"You made me a promise which you've been none too eager to keep. I'm helping you be a man of your word."
"What are you talking about?" As soon as he asked the question, he regretted it.
"You promised me you'd spend some time with Lothiriel. That you'd give her a real chance."
Aware that the lady in discussion was standing behind him, he felt his face turn red. "Eowyn. Open this door. Right now."
"No," came the voice of one of the very few people who would disobey the King of Rohan without a qualm. "She was prepared to give you a fair chance, and all you've done is demonstrate that you have the manners of an orc. You promised me you'd try, now you're going to have the opportunity."
He was even more embarrassed by the orc comment. He hadn't behaved that badly. "Eowyn," he shouted. "Let us out of here!"
"No. We'll be back to let you out after we return from the ride and picnic. We'll make your excuses to the rest of the court."
The only sound was of his sister and her husband-to-be's voices dying away. Disbelieving, he tried the door. Still locked. A very solid door.
He leaned his head against it, swore softly. Then he turned, looked at the woman he was imprisoned with. For the first time, realized there was a candle in the room, and at their feet, a picnic basket. Wonderful. At least his sister wasn't going to let them go hungry.
Lothiriel looked at him, a frustrated expression on her face. Then she turned, placed the linens she'd been holding on a nearby shelf. With her back still to him, she finally spoke. "I'm sorry for this." Her voice was stiff. "Faramir asked me to help him bring these linens out for the picnic. They'd apparently placed them here in advance."
"Oh, I'm not blaming you," he said grimly.
"Thank you for that, at least." There was unexpected sarcasm in her voice, then she turned back to him, and her tone turned weary. "Is an alliance with Dol Amroth really so abhorrent to you?"
Looking at her, it was hard to recall exactly why he'd been reluctant to further his acquaintance with her. The Princess of Dol Amroth was stunningly lovely, with long, glossy, dark hair and big grey eyes. Eyes that were looking at him with a mixture of contempt and insult. But it was the glimmer of hurt shining there that allowed guilt to trickle in.
"What?" He shook his head, rubbed his face. Had to work to remember her question. "No, no. No. There's nothing abhorrent about Dol Amroth."
He looked around, sighed. Then walked over, picked up one of the blankets she'd been carrying, spread it on the floor. Looked back at her. "We might as well sit down. I expect we're going to be here for a while."
She turned her back on him, stared at the crates on the shelves. "You go ahead. I'll stand for awhile."
Eomer winced at her tone. She certainly knew how to put him in his place. He couldn't sit, not while the lady stood.
Aware that he was staring at her back – a very nice back – he looked away. "My lady, it was nothing personal. Really. I just…" his voice faded. "I just wanted to feel free to make my own choice of bride. That's all."
"And by definition, you wouldn't choose me."
Her tone was flat, and it confused him. He was missing something here.
"No. I mean yes." He grimaced, wondered when he'd lost the ability to speak in plain sentences. "It wasn't that I wouldn't choose you." Opting for honesty, he finally finished quietly, "I just didn't want something arranged."
"There is someone else then?"
Her voice was soft, with a bitter edge to it he didn't understand. He wished she'd turn, look at him.
"No. There's no one else. If you want the truth, I might never have married at all if I'd remained Third Marshal. I was too busy defending our borders. But now I'm king, and…"
"Kings must have heirs."
"It's more than that." He paused for a moment. "I didn't understand this at first. But Meduseld would run better if I had…a mate. A queen. A companion. Someone to…" he winced, appalled at how lonely he sounded. He'd nearly said, "someone to be with me."
He doubted it, as he wasn't seeing things too clearly himself.
"So when you realized that your life would be easier with a queen, you rejected the idea of an alliance with Dol Amroth to seek a queen of your own choosing." Somehow, her twist on his words appalled him.
"I didn't reject the idea." Honesty prompted him again. "Well, yes, I did. But I wasn't rejecting the idea of Dol Amroth. I wasn't rejecting you. I was rejecting the idea of my marriage feeling like a political match."
"So how did your search go?" She finally turned back to him, her face calm but for a detached curiosity. He sensed something underlying it, but was clueless as to what it might be. She was a puzzle to him, becoming more so by the moment.
"Not well," he admitted. "I discovered there are two types of women in Rohan. Those whose mothers would very much like to see their daughters married to me, and those who were horrified by the idea of being queen. Neither was what I wanted."
Tired of being on the defense, he turned the conversation back to her. "Do not tell me you wanted to be married to someone you didn't know?"
She stared at him for a long moment, and something in her expressive eyes told him he wasn't going to like her reply. "No. But I didn't mind the idea of getting to know a man I quite admired – until it became clear he was, in fact, a king of a horse's behind."
Turning, she finally settled on the floor, as far away from him as she could get, a closed expression on her face. Crossed her arms over her chest.
Eomer was speechless. It felt sort of like when the wind was knocked out of him by a fall off a horse. She'd admired him? Had looked forward to getting to know him? Shame moved in, replaced the shock.
He sat down next to her, tried not to notice the way she edged away from him.
Silence fell again. It was becoming harder for him to remember exactly why he'd wanted to avoid getting to know her. She was lovely, his sister liked her, she wouldn't be intimidated by royal duties…
"Would you have been happy here, so far from your home, your family, the sea?" he finally asked.
He wasn't sure she'd answer.
When she did, her voice was soft. "Would I have been happy here? That depends to a certain extent on the man I was married to. Would I have missed my home and family? Certainly. But Eowyn will miss you," her voice suggested she wasn't at all sure of why that was, "and yet she is eager to relocate to Ithilien."
"And as for the sea…" her tone turned thoughtful. "Yes, I suppose I would have missed it. But Rohan has its own beauty, particularly in the fields and mountains. In some ways, the plains remind me of the sea. They seem to always be in motion." She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice was tight. "Forgive me. I must sound like a fool."
"No. No, you don't." He turned toward her, moved a little closer.
She was looking away from him, and he boldly reached over, turned her face toward him. "No, you don't sound foolish at all," he repeated. "In fact, the one time I've been in your city, I thought the sea reminded me a little of the plains of Rohan."
Her eyes lit. "Really?"
He smiled, stroked her cheek. "Really."
Suddenly realizing how intimate the touch was, he pulled back. Watched her blush, look away.
After a long moment, he said, "You know, there's one trait I'll need in a queen, probably more than any other."
"What is that?"
"The ability to forgive me and be gracious when I've done a particularly fine job of being a horse's ass."
She stared at him, looked away, and his heart fell.
Then she glanced back at him, and he saw humor in her eyes. "If that's a Rohirrim apology, then I'll respond by saying it's a good thing I like horses…both ends of them."
He stared at her in astonishment for a long moment, then burst out laughing, relieved when she joined him.
When their laughter subsided, he turned to her again, a serious look returning to his face. "It was a Rohirrim apology," he said quietly. "I'm sorry I dismissed you without giving you a chance. I know it's inadequate, but there really wasn't anything personal about it. I was having a hard time readjusting a lot of my thinking to the realities of being king, and resented the thought of one more area of my life feeling out of my control. I should have trusted Aragorn more," he finished, gazing at her. Then he added, "will you forgive me?"
She nodded, and something eased inside him. "That was a very gracious apology, it would be churlish of me to hold a grudge," she said smiling.
"I was hoping for a bit more than just your not holding a grudge."
Her expression turned cautious. "What?"
"I was hoping for a second chance."
She leaned back against the wall, stared at him for a long moment, then finally nodded, a slight blush coming into her cheeks. "I would like that as well."
Silence fell again, but this time it had a companionable edge to it.
As the quiet stretched out, Lothiriel looked back over at him, only to discover he'd fallen asleep, his head resting on the wall he was sitting against.
A smile curved her lips, as she imagined being able to tease him for having insulted her in such a fashion, then her humor faded. He worked hard, particularly now, when he was continuing to do all the daily tasks necessary to keep Rohan safe and well, in addition to seeing to the needs of a great many guests. No wonder he was tired.
She scooted around, wished for more than just one candle. It had seemed adequate when they were talking earlier, but now that she had this unparalleled opportunity to study him while he slept, she wished it would burn brighter.
He was an extremely handsome man. She'd been born into a family of dark hair, and thus the light reflecting off his hair fascinated her. Such a lovely color of gold, with hints of bronze, brown, and red. She would very much like to touch it. The thought made her blush, and she looked away.
She'd first encountered him in Minas Tirith, after the war. Once the danger was over, she'd relocated there from Dol Amroth to offer her assistance however she could in the Houses of Healing. That's where she'd met Eowyn, had watched the romance bloom between her cousin and the king's sister.
And that's where she'd first heard of the young King of Rohan. Stories of his valor and exploits on the field of battle were being told all over the city, only matched by talk of the returned king of Gondor and his friends. And Eowyn obviously loved him, and he, her.
She'd been half in love with him before she ever laid eyes on him.
But there'd been no time for a proper introduction. Before she and her family had returned to Dol Amroth, the King and Queen of Gondor had arranged a farewell dinner for them…but the King of Rohan had wound up sending his regrets. Something about his horse.
Only later had rumors reached her ears that he'd primarily wanted to avoid a meeting with her, and the hurt and insult had gone deep. Deep enough that she'd entertained the idea of staying in Dol Amroth rather than coming north for Faramir and Eowyn's wedding. But eventually, the desire to find a way to put the king in his place – not to mention her affection for her cousin and his bride-to-be – had overruled her hesitation.
Now that she'd been here for over a week, two things had become obvious. The first was that she had indeed lost her heart to him, albeit mostly from a distance, and the second was that he clearly had wanted nothing to do with her. Oh, he'd been polite enough on the few occasions he could not escape encountering her. But he'd shown more true warmth to the servants who were traveling with them than he had her. And that had stung, unbearably.
She'd tried to dislike him for it, but watching him with others had only emphasized what a good man he was, even if he'd wanted nothing to do with her.
He twisted his head, sighed, and it occurred to her that he was going to awaken with a sore neck. She turned, reached for another of the linens, then moved closer to him, eased the folded cloth between his head and the wall. Tried not to notice the hair brushing her hand as she attempted to tuck the material in without waking him.
He was apparently a light sleeper.
With lightening speed, he grabbed her wrist, sat straight up. "What are you doing?" he asked in a harsh voice.
She stared at him, frozen. "I-I-" His eyes cleared, and she found her voice. "I was trying to prevent you from waking up with a stiff neck," she answered quietly. "You're hurting me."
He looked down at her wrist, immediately loosened his grip. Groaning, he let go of her, scrubbed his face with his hands, then looked back up at her, chagrined. "I'm sorry, Lothiriel. First I fall asleep on you, then I attack you when you try to help me."
"I did not mind you sleeping. I know the hours you've been keeping." Too late she realized that the comment would reveal more of her interest in him than she'd intended. Stifling a blush, she continued, "I only thought to prop one of the linens next to you." She looked down, rubbed at her wrist.
He reached over, took her hand, gently touched the marks his fingers had left. His eyes were troubled when he looked back up at her. "I'm a light sleeper, and too much a warrior, I'm afraid. I grabbed you before I was even completely awake."
She tugged her hand away. "I'm fine. You just startled me, that's all." Uneasy with the look of self-reproach she saw in his eyes, she smiled at him. "Though perhaps that's the best reason yet for you to find a Rohirrim shieldmaiden to wed – she'll be able to defend herself if she accidentally startles you awake in the middle of the night," she said in a light voice.
She'd expected him to laugh, but instead he gave her a steady look. "I'm finding the appeal of a Rohirrim woman to be fading the longer I sit next to the Princess the Dol Amroth," he said softly.
A blush rose in her cheeks at his words, and she ducked her head, uncertain of how to respond. Spying the picnic basket, she asked, "are you hungry?"
He helped her to unpack the food, and seeing the amount Eowyn had provided for them, she looked up at him. "They are returning this afternoon, are they not?"
"There's enough food here to last several days!"
He chuckled. "We'll give her the benefit of the doubt on that, at least, and assume she wanted us to have plenty of choices."
They ate in silence. Lothiriel was suddenly feeling unnaturally shy. She'd been raised at the court of Dol Amroth, could hold her own in any conversation. But something about this situation, this man, unnerved her. Completely.
The court of Dol Amroth. A new thought occurred to her, and she suddenly paused, then slowly put down the apple she'd been about to bite into, without tasting it, as her stomach rolled. What had she been thinking? What had Faramir and Eowyn been thinking?
"Lothiriel? What is it? What's wrong?"
She looked up at him, then picked the apple back up. Tried unsucessfully to still the tremble that wanted to come. "Nothing. It's nothing."
Eomer frowned, then reached over, took the apple. Forced her chin up. "Tell me."
She stared at him for a long moment, then shook her head again. "You don't really want to know. Trust me."
"Yes, I do. Something upset you, and I would have you tell me what it is."
His tone warned her that he wasn't going to drop it, and maybe that was for the best. He was going to find out anyway. It might as well come from her.
"Some things are different here than in Dol Amroth," she finally said quietly. She didn't want to say the rest of it. She knew what his response would be, and her own hopes would shatter.
"Yes…many things, actually," he prompted.
Tired of the delay, she looked up at him, sighed. "My lord, I don't know why this didn't occur to me earlier. It should have. I don't know what Eowyn was thinking – perhaps she just didn't realize. But Faramir should have known. I don't understand it."
"Known what?" But then she saw the understanding come into his eyes, watched them go flat with anger.
"Being here with me has completely compromised you." He swore, stood up, paced over to the door. Leaned against it.
She fought and won a battle against tears. Now he would he feel compelled to offer for her, and if she agreed, they'd both go into marriage unhappy – she sure that he could never learn to love her, he, angry at having been manipulated. And if she didn't agree, she would leave Rohan, would probably never see him again. She took a breath. That, at least, could still possibly protect him.
"It doesn't have to mean anything," she said slowly. "We're in Rohan. It won't matter here, and it's possible rumors won't travel back to Dol Amroth. And if they do," she managed a shrug, "it would only mean I'd be unlikely to be considered for marriage by anyone else." And since I don't want to marry anyone else…no problem.
He turned, looked at her.
"I only mentioned it because I did not want you to be taken by surprise if someone mentions it." Like my father, or my brothers…even in this situation, her father wouldn't force her to marry against her will. But depending on exactly what Faramir and Eowyn had told him, it was possible he wasn't going to be a happy man.
"Do you think I'd let that happen to you? I know I hurt you, was rude to you…but do you think me that dishonorable?"
Her head snapped up. "No! No, of course not. But the reason you were rude is because you did not want a marriage of politics. And there's little difference between that and winding up offering for me out of obligation." Resignation crept into her tone. "And if you did not want a marriage of politics, I did not want to be in a marriage where I wasn't valued for myself. I wanted to be …" Her voice trailed off and she ducked her head, mortified by what she'd nearly revealed. "Nevermind."
He came over, sat down next to her. Took her hand, gently rubbed the bruises he'd placed on her wrist. Lothiriel trembled in response, tried to pull away. But he held on.
"Loved? Was that what you were about to say? Why be ashamed of it? Was that not what I was wanting?" He laced their fingers together. "But perhaps we will find love," he added softly. "I would not want to lessen the chances of that by either allowing ourselves to be forced into a betrothal because of my sister and Faramir's machinations, or by walking away from my responsibilities to you. I will not allow you to be shamed by this."
She looked up at him, saw nothing but sincerity in his gaze. Would it be enough, she wondered? If he never did come to love her the way she desired? Maybe. Had she not already determined that she would marry no one else?
Pulling her hand away from him, she said again, "We're in Rohan. Maybe it won't be the issue it would have been in Dol Amroth." She offered him a nervous smile. "My father likes, respects, and trusts you. And it's obvious this is not our doing."
Eomer stared at her for a long moment, a gleam in his eye she did not quite understand.
"Do you know the difference that will make?" he finally asked.
"Between whether this causes an uproar and your father believes you to have been compromised, or not?"
Confused, she just stared at him.
He reached out, stroked her cheek. "If there is an uproar, it means I will do my courting of you while we're betrothed. If there is no uproar, it means we will have the luxury of my doing my courting of you in a more relaxed setting."
Lothiriel stared at him, felt her heart jerk, and then begin a hard pounding. He couldn't mean…he hadn't just said…
She finally found her breath. "That's the point. It might not be necessary," she whispered.
He reached out, cupped her cheek. His hand was warm and calloused against her skin. Resting his forehead against hers, he murmured, "I think my heart is going to make it so, no matter how your father reacts." he responded softly.
Her heart leaped again, and its beat was so fierce, she wondered if he could hear it. Tears wanted to come, but she pushed them back.
"And now…" he raised his head a little, looked at her. "Now…" his voice was still very soft, "I think I'm going to have to actually compromise you a little, since I doubt I'll have such an opportunity again once we're released from here. Might as well increase the odds in my favor, so if your father asks if I did anything inappropriate, you can tell him yes."
His lips were warm and firm when they touched hers, his moustache and beard rubbing lightly against her skin. His hand slipped around, to cup her neck, as he angled his head, deepened the kiss.
A shiver moved through her, and she brought her hands up, placed them on his shoulders, felt the muscles beneath his velvet tunic. He tasted of wine and warrior, and she thought it was a flavor she wouldn't mind tasting on a regular basis.
The kiss didn't last long, not nearly as long as she'd wanted it to. But then he drew away, rested his chin on top of her head. His hand slid down, rubbed her back.
Lothiriel tried to find the right words, but none would come. He was no doubt still acting out of a sense of honor, but perhaps they could yet make a happy life together.
She pulled away, stared at him for a long moment in the candlelight. "You are a good man."
He kissed her forehead, then reluctantly moved away, obviously deciding – somewhat to her disappointment – that there were limits to how much "compromising" of her he was willing to risk.
And then he looked at her, smiled a bit grimly. "I'm a man who's going to strangle his sister. I can't imagine why she did this." As if guessing she might misinterpret his meaning, he reached out, touched her hand. "Make no mistake. It may be the greatest favor she's ever done me. But I still don't like the fact that she didn't take into account your reputation."
"Perhaps she really did not think about it. Rohan is not concerned with such things in quite the way Gondor is. It wouldn't be a problem here."
He frowned. "Possibly. But she's spent enough time in Gondor lately to have been aware it might make things difficult for you. And Faramir should certainly have known."
She was startled to see a mischieveous look came into his eyes, a look she hadn't seen before.
"As I said, I owe them thanks, of course, but we cannot let them off with no retaliation."
She responded with a raised eyebrow. We?
"I will have to consider how and when we can best take our revenge," he decided. Then he looked back at her, an amused look on his face. "The fact that she was right doesn't give her the freedom to go around locking the King of Rohan in storage rooms anytime she feels like it."
Lothiriel grinned back at him. No matter what the future brought, she was going to enjoy getting to know him better.
Later that afternoon
"Perhaps you'd better bring your sword, just in case." Faramir's tone was full of humor, but edged with genuine nervousness, as they walked back to the locked storage room. He was absolutely certain Eomer would never strike Eowyn. He was much less sure of his own safetly.
Eowyn looked at Faramir, scoffed. "By now, he knows I was right. They belong together. I'm sure he'll act annoyed with me, but he's a fair man, and will eventually have to admit I was right."
Her voice turned more sober. "And if he remains difficult, I'll tell him I could not bear to leave Rohan, knowing how lonely he would be. It's been hard for him, adjusting to being king. Harder than either of us anticipated. All of his relationships changed, even with those of his friends who survived the war. He needs her. And she—"
She stopped, as if thinking twice about what she was going to say, even to him. But he knew, nonetheless. He'd been aware of his cousin's growing attraction to the king.
They stopped before the door, listened. Heard nothing. Looking down, he realized that Eowyn was a bit apphrensive, inspite of her earlier bold words. She took the key out, slowly opened the door and peeked in. Then looked back at Faramir, a delighted look on her face.
Pushing open the door a little further, he glanced inside, and could not help a grin himself.
The King of Rohan was asleep against the wall, his arm around the Princess of Dol Amroth, who was also asleep, her head upon his shoulder.