An Offer Not To Be Refused

Chapter 1


A warm breath caressed his neck, its gentle breeze parting his hair, and velvet lips found their way to his skin. Tenderly they nibbled their way to his ear, then to his cheek and all the way down to his shoulder.

Éomer just shrugged his blanket higher, hoping for a few more moments of sleep. But the lips stayed insistent, pressing again against his neck, the breath becoming hotter and moist.

"Go away," he muttered, refusing to open his eyes and to respond to the touch, which grew even more demanding. The lips moved to the side of his face, leaving a damp trail and coming to rest at his cheekbone. He growled a warning but was met by no compliance. His companion just nudged him playfully in the back and started to pull the blanket from his body.

"Leave me alone," Éomer commanded and rolled onto his back. The lips were hovering closely above his face now, and then Firefoot snorted, spraying his master's face with the contents of his large nostrils.

"Bloody horse!"

"So you finally have come to agree with the rest of mankind?"

The stallion brought up his head quickly and turned it, ears flattened into his mane, towards the speaker who leaned from outside the stall over the carved gate.

"Peace, friend," Aragorn offered the big grey in the soothing language of the elves. "I have no intention of harming your master."

Firefoot remained unimpressed by the declaration. He bared his big yellow teeth. The flexing of the hard muscles under his shining coat revealed that he was about to charge.

"Back!"

The single word in Rohirric led the stallion to give a disbelieving snort, but with a last warning look shot in the direction of the King of Gondor, he complied, and then he backed up into a corner of his stall.

"I swear," Aragorn declared, "that he is the only horse I have ever come across who is actually able to glare."

"I trained him myself," Éomer murmured, uncoiling from the blankets of his makeshift bed underneath the hay rack and getting up to his feet in one fluid movement. He brushed down a few straws from his loose hanging linen shirt and shoved his fingers through his messed up hair. Finding more straw there, he bent over forward, shaking himself like a wet dog. When he straightened up he saw Aragorn chuckling.

Éomer made a noise which sounded suspiciously like the snort of his stallion. "What?"

"Is there a particular reason why the King of Rohan sleeps in his horse's stall?"

"Yes, indeed, there is. The King of Gondor has been sleeping in his bed for the past seven days."

"Why, could it be that I have turned you out?"

"Anything to oblige a friend." Éomer picked up the blankets and shook them out; making sure Aragorn became shrouded in clouds of dust and flying straw. "Strictly speaking, I did not give up the most comfortable bed in Meduseld for you, but for the comfort of your wife. You are just a beneficiary."

"And there is, in the whole of Edoras, no bed left for the Lord of the Mark?" Aragorn asked, trying to suppress a cough.

"It may have escaped your attention, dear friend, that at the moment quarters are in rather short supply."

It would have gotten nearer to the truth to say that there was no quarter left unoccupied in the whole of Edoras. Never, since having being founded by Eorl, and built by Brego, had the capital of Rohan seen such a crowd as now gathered for the funeral of Théoden, the king who had been lured into darkness but who had risen above it in time to lead his people to their final and victorious battle. From all over Middle-earth they had come to pay their respects and to witness Théoden King's admission into the Eternal Halls of his forebears.

And the Gondorians had come, in the retinue of their newly crowned High King, to show their gratitude towards a man who had fulfilled his forefather's oath without hesitation, and through this, had saved the White City from devastation and its people from slaughter. Added to that the Elves of Lothlórien and Rivendell joined them to acknowledge this man's sacrifices as a symbol that the time of the Dominion of Men had dawned and the Elder Kindred would fade or depart.

The Rohirrim had come to attend the burial of their Lord, in whose reign they had seen deepest despair flooding their land and their people. They had come to bid farewell to their King, who had overcome the shackles with which darkness had tied his mind, and had risen from his downfall to lead his people to triumph over evil. But, perhaps even more, they had come to hail their new Lord, the King, whose inauguration symbolized a new beginning: the prospect of renewal and healing. They had come to pledge allegiance to the King who was their hope and their trust in the future.

Said king had folded up his blankets into an untidy bundle and thrown it over the stall's gate. Now he clasped his hands high above his head and stretched himself like a big, sleek cat, not even trying to conceal his wide yawn.

"Be careful," his Gondorian counterpart warned, "or your jaw will fall off."

Éomer gave him one of the unguarded grins he saved for his friends. Then he looked up at one of the half circular windows set high above the partitions of the stalls. The bull's eyes panes caught the first shafts of light of the rising sun.

"You are up and around early," he stated.

"As my company will leave today, together with those of Lórien and Rivendell, I thought I would seek you out so we can have a last talk." Aragorn opened the gate to let the younger man step out of the stall. "You know, Éomer, your habit of not telling anybody most of the time where you are heading, or – in this case - where you plan to spend the night, makes it difficult to track you down."

"For a ranger?" Éomer said, trying deliberately to sound casual. Somehow he had a bad feeling about what there was to come. "If I had left Edoras somebody would have known." He felt Aragorn casting him a sidelong glance.

"It would be helpful – and reassuring – if one knew the King's whereabouts even within the boundaries of the city."

Éomer thought about it for a short moment. One shoulder rose in a negligent motion. "Is this going to be a lecture on 'how to behave as a King' by somebody who has, oh, so many years of experience?"

He took a couple of apples out of a bucket at his feet and gestured Firefoot to come closer to get them. Aragorn stepped aside and made sure he moved out of reach. The King of Rohan's steed was the only horse he seemed unable to befriend, and with the big grey,you could never be certain if he would not prefer a chunk of flesh from your body instead of an apple.

"Would you listen to any counsel I may wish to give to you?"

Éomer's smile took on a thin edge. "For months and months mountains of well-meant pieces of advice have been deposited over me and they are threatening to smother me." Before Aragorn could interrupt him, as he obviously intended to, Éomer continued, turning around to prop himself against the gate. "But your counsel will always be the one I am eager to listen to and willing to consider."

"It is an honour that I am in your confidence." There was a subliminal hint of irony in Aragorn's tone

"I am certain this would be the time for me to reply in the same manner but are there really still preliminaries necessary between us?"

"Of course, you are right, brother. There are not any preliminaries necessary; and therefore you will listen to me and not jump out of your skin . . . at least not before I have finished."

Éomer gave proof that he was capable of groaning and grinding his teeth at the same time, but by a visible effort of will bit back any reply that might have been on the tip of his tongue. These tickings-off, which he had been receiving on a permanent basis over the past months, were shattering his nerves and putting him under additional pressure. Aragorn was indeed the only person left in the whole of Middle-earth that he was willing to listen to, whatever he might have to say.

"Éomer, you have to reform your conduct. You are no longer just a warrior or even a Marshal of the Mark. You are the King and you have to bring your comportment into line with your station."

Éomer looked down his body, taking in his crinkled shirt and dusty breeches. His friend couldn't possibly care about his appearance. There had been times when he himself had looked worse.

Aragorn saw where the younger man's glance went and his mouth curved wryly. "No, I am not talking about the total lack of importance you attach to your outward appearance."

"I am much obliged. It is bad enough having Éowyn nagging me about it."

"I am going to nag you about this bad habit of yours of disappearing without letting anybody know where you are going."

Éomer pulled a face. "So you have already said."

"This is not about finding you in a horse stall instead of your bed in Lord Aldhelm's house. This is about the occurrence three days into our journey from Minas Tirith to Edoras when you just went off for half a day on your own and nobody knew what had happened to you."

"I needed to think," Éomer said without hesitation.

"This is about finding your tent empty one morning," Aragorn continued, "and you having wandered around the woods most the night."

"I could not sleep."

"And this is about the day after the burial when you took your horse and disappeared from dawn till dusk and only the guards at the gate had seen you in passing."

Éomer turned his head to look at his steed. "I needed to be alone."

Aragorn regarded him thoughtfully. "Believe me, I understand that very well. I am the first to admit that sometimes running away from duties and demands which threaten to suffocate you, even if it is only for a short while, has quite an appeal. But I also understand why a man like Elfhelm, who usually is calmness itself, suddenly radiates panic because his king vanishes without leaving a word."

Éomer narrowed his eyes to mask his reaction. "So my Marshal, or probably all of them, and, of course, my Council have urged you to have this little chat with me?" he asked, not quite succeeding in eliminating the irritability from his voice.

"Yes, indeed. All your Marshals and your Council approached me because they fear you will not listen to them."

Éomer became aware of a faint, unfamilar staccato sound. He looked down and discovered that he was drumming his fingers against the carved planks of the gate to Firefoot's stall. With an effort of will he made himself stop, folding his arms across his chest. "If they talked less I would be willing to listen more."

"That is beside the point." Aragorn studied the other man, probably easily recognizing the signs of a slowly slipping temper. He kept his voice even. "Éomer, do I really have to tell you what the consequences would be if something happened to you? If you should die? You are the last of the House of Eorl. Do I have to tell you what it would mean to your people if their ruling house were no more? Since the Éothéod came to Calenardhon, the Rohirrim have known their kings only to be of Eorl's descent. There is no other who can claim the throne. This is not Gondor where the Stewards have ruled for centuries. This is Rohan, where everything is focused on the King. Without you there will be no King; without the King there will be no Rohan."

"I have no intention of an early demise."

Éomer knew quite well how stupid that statement sounded. Aragorn had the grace to ignore it.

"I have known many men who had no intention of passing away before their time had come and who died too early anyway. You are taking a risk when you go out alone without anybody to back you. We may have won the war; we may have peace; but not all our enemies have perished. You are a very noticeable figure, easily recognisable. You went out onto the plains on your own only the day after we had word from Treebeard that he let Saruman and Wormtongue go. They could be anywhere; they could be out for vengeance."

Éomer found himself in a mood in which he would have contradicted somebody if they had pronounced the colour of grass to be green. "They may dream of vengeance, but they would not dare to venture into the vicinity of Edoras. And what could they actually do to me?"

No doubt, Aragorn was also getting close to the end of his patience. "It appears you do not understand the essential point of this dilemma. No! I take that back! You understand it quite well, but you have decided to ignore it."

Éomer's eyebrows drew together. "Nonsense," he said with authority. "I do not ignore the problem, I merely judge it differently. And from my judgement I draw conclusions, which decide my actions. That may not always conform to what my Marshals or my Council would like me to do, but the final decision is mine. King's prerogative," he added with defiant sarcasm. "There must be some positive thing to be got out of this position."

Aragorn leant back against the opposite partition and studied the younger man beneath half-lowered lashes. "There are times, Éomer, when I feel you were not slapped enough as a child," he snapped with surprising asperity.

Éomer looked briefly startled. Then he felt something boil up inside him. Aragorn was the last he had expected to dress him down as if he were an unruly brat. His jaw muscles contracted and his eyes turned a blazing amber. The tethers he kept on his temper threatened to snap. He lowered his gaze to the floor, fighting for control. Fighting not to do or say something he would later regret.

There was nothing in the world he cherished more than Aragorn's friendship, nobody he held in greater esteem than the King of Gondor. From the very first moment of their acquaintance, the Dúnadan had begun to fill a void in his life he hadn't even known existed. Without him, the loss of Théodred and his uncle would have been unbearable. He was his friend, his brother, his father. But his words had poured oil onto a fire burning inside him and his self-protection reflexes had kicked in. And that meant his temper flared. Any other he would have probably jumped. But this was Aragorn, and so he battled for control . . . and won.

Éomer raised his eyes from the floor and glanced at his folded arms and then further up, wordlessly meeting his friend's steady gaze. Aragorn studied him for a long moment. Finally his mouth curved faintly. "I apologize, Éomer. Those words were uncalled for."

"You apologize?" Rohan's King rubbed the back of his neck. "If one behaves like an obstinate child, one has to be treated as such."

For a while neither of them felt the urge to break the following silence. It was not an awkward one, rather the stillness of contemplation. Éomer picked up a brush and went back into Firefoot's stall. He began to curry his steed's already shining coat.

"You are, of course, right," he said, his voice seeming to come from a distant place. "I am conscious of the fact of how closely my people's fate is bound to the House of Eorl. And as I am the last male descendant . . ." He left the rest of the sentence open and squatted down to brush his horse's forelegs. "This is not Gondor, where several different peoples became united under one ruler. These are the Rohirrim, the Éorlingas. We are one. We are not just riding under one banner, we are true kinsmen. The greatest virtue of the Rohirrim is their loyalty towards the House of Eorl; their greatest weakness their dependence upon it." He moved to Firefoot's hind legs, pushing the big steed aside with his shoulder. "Théodred and I . . . there were times when we had to defy the orders of the King. And even though we knew they were not his orders; and even though we knew it was for the best of the land, we felt like traitors; traitors to our King."

He straightened up and refocused, to find Aragorn watching him closely.

"I have been brought up as a warrior, to be able to defend my people. I will always fight for their well-being, with or without my sword in my hand. I have never feared death. Dying, certainly, but never death. And now I have to comprehend that my death could mean the beginning of the end of Rohan, the end of the ways of the Rohirrim." Amusement briefly replaced the sombreness in Éomer's eyes. "That is, should my demise happen before Éowyn produces a son."

"I do not think your kinsmen expect Éowyn to provide the heir of Rohan."

"Yes, I know. Elfhelm has reminded me already not to shift the responsibility onto her. She does not respond well to that kind of pressure. I just want her to wed Faramir, to go to Gondor and to be happy. To be able to forget about the last years." He stifled a small laugh. "Do you remember what Gandalf said at the Houses of Healing at Éowyn's bedside? That I had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields. It appears that the days of the free fields are over and now I am the one who is going to get locked up in Meduseld."

"Nobody is going to lock you up anywhere. The King of Rohan is still a Marshal of the Mark. You will continue to ride over the land and see your kinsmen, and more importantly - they will see you. But you do have the Royal Guard. You have made Éothain their Marshal. Those men will go through fire and into death for you. Do not leave them behind. Let them guard you."

"Hand me the hoof pick." Éomer pointed a finger at a leather satchel hanging over a hook outside the stall. Aragorn searched it, found the pick and swapped it for the brush the Rohír held out towards him.

"You feel chained down, do you? Deprived of your freedom . . . not only of movement?"

"That feeling is not unfamiliar. Only the circumstances have changed." Éomer slapped gently with the back of his hand against Firefoot's jowl and the steed raised obligingly his leg. Taking a firm hold around the pastern, his master started picking his hoof. "And this is how you feel, too?"

"In a way we both have to adjust, Éomer. Imrahil and Faramir are a great help to me. But without Arwen . . . without her, it would be infinitely harder."

Another surprisingly comfortable silence followed. Éomer moved around his horse, picking up and checking all four hoofs thoroughly. Why should the Dúnadan ranger feel any less burdened by his new station than he did? For decades he had roamed the lands freely, had taken on only those responsibilities he chose. Now he dwelled in the White City, surrounded by high walls and people with whom he first had to become acquainted. In that he, Éomer, was more fortunate, living amongst old comrades in arms and friends. Many of them had known him since he moved to Edoras as a young boy. Which, on the other hand, didn't necessarily make things easier. Some, like Elfhelm, had witnessed a few of the more embarrassing moments in his life - the last one not that long ago.

Suddenly he became conscious of the hidden meaning behind Aragorn's last words and it gradually dawned on him where they must be heading with this debate. He growled deeply in frustration whereupon Firefoot, who took that noise personally, looked quite insulted.

"Was that your stomach?" Aragorn asked, a gleam of amusement in his eyes.

"No, that was my throat. And in case my Marshals and advisers have been able to persuade you to bring up another point from their list of my misdemeanours and omissions, then let me tell you: this talk comes to a halt right here!"

Éomer swept out of the stall, throwing the hoof pick in the general direction of the open satchel and missing it by at least a foot. Clattering, it fell to the floor, its thrower disappearing inside the fodder store. Sensing his master's foul mood and guessing the party responsible, Firefoot glared at Aragorn, ears back. Gondor's King returned the look.

"You two are quite a pair." He bent down to collect the hoof pick and put it back into the satchel. "I suppose he talks to you most of the time because you usually side with him?"

The stallion gave him the superior look of one who inspires confidence, but then focused his attention on the noises coming from the fodder store. Éomer reappeared carrying a small bucket filled with forage cereal. Ignoring the longing glances of the other horses, including Aragorn's steed Roheryn, he nudged Firefoot aside and stepped inside his stall once again to fill the manger. The horse dug in with enthusiasm. His master took his leave with a friendly pat on his neck.

Closing the stall gate resolutely from the outside the Rohír turned toward the other man, looking less than friendly.

"Do not throw the bucket at me," Aragorn pleaded.

Éomer's expression thawed, as yet again his sense of humour came to the rescue. He put the bucket down with deliberate carefulness.

"Believe me, Aragorn; I am aware of the fact that what you are doing here is neither intended to nag nor to annoy me. I know it is out of concern for my safety and the well-being of my people, and I appreciate that very much indeed. I appreciate your friendship and all the support and aid you have already given to Rohan. I can assure you of my intent to change my conduct. I will not leave Edoras any more without a guard at my side and I will leave it to my Marshals – as they have demanded repeatedly – to chase any remaining Orcs and to secure the land. But . . ."

"I knew this speech of yours was too good to get by without reservations," Aragorn interrupted.

"But I will not be badgered any more into producing an heir at short notice. And that includes any preliminary necessities."

"Meaning: taking a wife."

"Someone caught on at last!" Éomer gestured along the wide aisle between the horse stalls towards the richly carved entrance gate. "Shall we go and find us something to eat?"

Éomer started to walk towards the exit and Aragorn fell into step beside him.

"When will you be leaving today?" the younger man asked.

"When I came down from Meduseld I saw that the parties from Rivendell and Lórien had begun to dismantle their tents. As soon as they announce that they are ready for the journey, we will leave."

It had been a great convenience that the Elves of Rivendell and Lórien had carried with them splendid tents, of an unusual sliver-grey canvas, which they had set up outside the walls of the city in a dale sheltered from the winds by the hill of Edoras. With the guest houses and Meduseld itself now filled with the nobles of Gondor and dignitaries of the Mark, it would have been a close to impossible undertaking to find appropriate accommodation for even more high-ranking guests.

Without consulting her brother, Éowyn had decided without further ado to put the Royal Bedchambers at the disposal of the Royal couple of Gondor and let Faramir have hers. An interesting arrangement, no doubt, but as long as she kept out of it for the time being, Éomer saw no reason to object. He also hadn't had any objections to sleeping somewhere else. Having spent uncountable nights on the bare ground wrapped only in a blanket or his cloak, he was able to sleep virtually anywhere in any position.

He only disagreed about his sister's choice of their short term quarters. On behalf of both of them, she had accepted an invitation from Aldhelm, the head of the Royal Council, and his wife Heregyth to stay at their house which was only a short distance downhill from the Golden Hall. As convenient as the close vicinity to Meduseld was, finding himself in the mornings and the evenings in the path of Aldhelm, was anything but convenient.

The shrewd man had used to be a member of Théoden's council in the old days. His loyalty had always belonged first and foremost to Rohan and its ruling House. And he had been almost the only of the former advisers who had opposed Wormtongue insistently and without compromise. Soon his integrity had led to his expulsion from Théoden's council and he had spent the past half dozen years in seclusion. That had given him more than enough time to form very decided opinions on what was for the good of Rohan and how a King had to be. Now he showered his ideas, requests and views without mercy - or the need of a breather from time to time - upon Éomer. His most insistent demand was the one for an heir. That he had escaped any bodily harm so far he owed alone to the fact that his King's code of honour did not allow him to use force against children, women, the old and small animals.

Trying to avoid Aldhelm, by getting up as early as possible and returning to his temporary quarters very late, hadn't been granted success and so Éomer had decided to take up Firefoot's hospitality. The steed had proved himself more than once before to be an agreeable sleeping companion, fulfilling two simple requirements: he did not snore; he did not talk. Perhaps something should be done about his wake-up calls.

The two Kings had reached the wide gate to the stables. Éomer put his hand on the heavy bronze bar, but instead of lifting it he turned around to face Aragorn. His gaze intense, his green and gold eyes locked with the silver-grey of the Dúnadan.

"If anything happens to me, will you take care of my people?"

There was a calm watchfulness in Aragorn's gaze that Éomer had always found comforting. And his very own smile, that showed more in those clear eyes than it did on his features. He laid the battle-hard hand of a warrior on the younger man's shoulder.

"Whenever you need me, Éomer, I will be here. But have you already forgotten what the Lady of the Woods has told you? It is you who will take care of your people. Very good care."

"Bema willing," Éomer murmured, still not comfortable with what he considered riddles. But then his look became shrewd and his eyes narrowed. "If you are so convinced that what the Lady Galadriel has maintained comes true, why do you insist upon me taking special care with my safety? I mean, with such a kind of prophecy or – as your wife put it – a stated fact, what could actually happen to me?"

Now it was Aragorn's turn to groan, combined with a heavenward tilt of his eyes. "You are a genuine pain in the neck, Éomer. Get out of here."

He lifted the heavy bar, pushed open the gate and gave Rohan's King a not exactly gentle shove that sent him out into the open. Éomer quickly regained his footing but stopped in his tracks at the scene that presented itself to him. It showed the backside of a man, clad only in breeches, bent forward over a drinking trough, dipping his head into the water well up to his broad shoulders.

Aragorn walked up to him. "Who is that?"

"That is the man responsible for my safety and the guarding of the Golden Hall," Éomer answered straight-faced. "I think you have met Éothain, Marshal of the Royal Guard."

Even with his head under water Éothain must have heard something. He came up, wheat-coloured hair dripping, and looked at them over his shoulder with blood-shot eyes.

"Greetings, Éothain. Long night, big barrel?" Éomer kept his voice low, knowing that the hearing of his childhood companion tended to be rather sensitive in the mornings after a night with too many spirits.

"Greetings, my Lords." The man winced at his own voice, which sounded as if his tongue were bloated. He did not straighten up but had to support himself with both arms on the edge of the trough.

"You look awful," his King informed him.

"You should see the loser."

"There was a loser?"

Éothain gestured vaguely with his chin in an indeterminable direction. "Over there . . . somewhere."

"And who was the loser?"

"Ochadrion."

"Ochadrion?" Until now Aragorn had followed the exchange with amusement and only mild interest. Now he had the distinctive look of a man who had bad forebodings. "The captain of my guard?"

Éothain gave a very careful nod.

"I suppose the man is expected to leave with you later this morning?" Éomer glanced at Aragorn, who grimaced. He turned back to the Marshal. "Éothain, where is Captain Ochadrion?"

"He fell off the wall behind the great barn. He should be still there."

"I do not want to know why he fell off the wall, but why did you let him lie there?"

"The wall is just three feet high and the ground is overgrown with moss. The place is as comfortable as any other to sleep on."

"Perfectly good reason." Éomer muttered and slanted Gondor's King a questioning look. "You have the choice. Are you going to get mad or are you going to get a laugh out of this?

"Can that decision wait until after I have seen my captain?" Aragorn didn't sound mad at all, not even close; merely resigned.

At that moment another man turned around a corner, obviously on his way to the stables. It was Ceorl, Éomer's standard-bearer. When he saw the two kings he slowed his steps and bowed.

"My Lords."

"Ceorl! Have you been drinking lately?" Éomer asked the young Rohír instead of a greeting.

"Not overly so, my Lord." Ceorl answered without any delay or being in the slightest dumbfounded by the question. "I am sober," he added for clarification.

"Good news indeed." His king pointed in the direction of the great barn. "Somewhere behind there you will find Captain Ochadrion."

"Of the Royal Gondorian Guard?"

"The very same. He should be in the same condition as Éothain here. You will retrieve him and have him presentable by the time King Elessar and his company depart from Edoras later today."

"Ay, my Lord." Ceorl walked off to carry out the appointed task.

Éomer turned towards the Marshal of his own Royal Guard. "From now on you will drink only with men who are not supposed to take on duties the following day."

"Sorry about that," Éothain said with no visible sign of repentance and dipped his head back into the water.

By now several of the stable lads had arrived to feed the horses and prepare those which would leave today.

"Make certain he does not drown," Éomer ordered, addressing no-one in particular, waving his hand towards his Marshal.

The Kings of Rohan and Gondor continued their way uphill towards the Golden Hall.

"Now I know why you are so keen on keeping me alive," Éomer observed. "In case anything should happen to me, you may have to deal with those cork-brains."

"One of those cork-brains was one of mine anyway,"

"As long as they bond and renew the friendship between their lands we should not feel too much bothered by small troubles like these," the Rohír declared.

"Well said, Éomer King, but it is not the captain of your guard who is going to ride beside you with a beastly hangover," Aragorn reminded him dryly.

"Not to mention the reek of spirits." His younger friend made no attempt to hide his mirth.

"Why do I have this feeling that it was not a coincidence that your Marshal went on a drinking bout with my captain the night before said captain is supposed to take command of my guard on our forthcoming journey?"

"Probably because nothing within ten yards of Éothain has ever been a coincidence," Éomer explained with the knowledge of long years of experience.

Aragorn absorbed that. "And you are certain that this was about the renewal of friendship and not about embarrassing another man?"

"Quite certain. It is just Éothain's way of expressing that he has taken a liking to somebody."

"Indeed?" The Dúnadan raised his brows and after a short pause asked: "Then how does he express the taking of a dislike to somebody?" The only answer he received was a grin. "But you are right, Éomer. We need this renewal of our friendship. Over the years Rohan and Gondor have drifted apart. Hardly any news from the Mark reached Minas Tirith and beyond the White City, in the southern feoffs, they may well have forgotten the existence of the Rohirrim. This is now in the past. We will not slide again into mutual isolation. There shall be a constant exchange, not only between us, you and me, but between every level of our societies. All folk shall bond, and if your riders and my knights begin it by drinking their heads off together, then they have my blessing."

"My riders already hold you in the highest regard. Tell them that and they will worship you."

"The strongest symbol of the fresh bond, in which our lands can rejoice, is most certainly the betrothal between Éowyn and Faramir. You have granted my Steward a great treasure." Aragorn gave the younger man a sidelong glance. "Perhaps you would like to ask for something in return?"

"What more can I ask other than the provisions you have already granted Rohan for the winter," Éomer answered, blissfully indifferent to the other man's look of amused resignation. "And my sister a treasure? That remains to be seen. I am not quite certain how Éowyn is going to relate to Gondor, and - more important – how Gondor is going to relate to Éowyn."

"The future Princess of Ithilien will be greatly admired in her new home."

"That would be a welcome change from the last union between the House of Eorl and a Gondorian," Éomer muttered, more to himself.

"You are referring to your grandmother."

"Indeed, I was thinking about Morwen of Lossarnach." He frowned in recollection. "You must have known her."

"Yes, I did. I met the then Queen of the Mark when I rode with Thengel, your grandfather." Gondor's King paused as if hesitating to continue. "You know, Éomer, in some respects, you are very much like her."

Éomer came to a halt as abruptly as if he had been pole-axed. "I beg your pardon?"

Aragorn, too, had stopped and turned to face his friend. "Do not look so affronted. The Lady Morwen may have had many shortcomings, but she was also a formidable woman. Actually, you have her eyes . . . and her cheekbones, I think. And her strong will." Aragorn received an irritated and incredulous gaze from fierce green-gold eyes and chuckled. "Yes, definitely her eyes."

"I have been always told I am a reproduction of my father," Éomer pointed out. He had lived with this comparison all his life . . . well, at least all his life in Edoras. He suspected his Marshals had permanently advised him to be cautious because they always expected him to follow his father's fate by doing something rash and deadly.

"Often people only see what is on the surface. You have Éomund's frame."

"Not to mention his ill temper."

"Perhaps you have his temper, but you are able to control it. Earlier, in the stables, if I had confronted your father in the way I have confronted you this morning, I would not have escaped unscarred. I have seen eruptions of your temper, but I have never seen you lose it completely, so that you were unable to think or not open for reason."

Éomer gave the faintest of smiles. "I had the impulse to punch you."

"I know. I saw it in your eyes. But the flame died down as quickly as it had flared up. If you hit back, you usually do it with words. You like arguments. Sometimes I feel as if we are having one only for the sake of it."

"Are you telling me I am not just ill-tempered but quarrelsome?"

"In a way. At the risk at getting punched after all: that is a trait which also reminds me of your grandmother."

"I must be a much more awful person than I had realized," Éomer observed with a lopsided grin, continuing his way up the path. "Being reminded how many congenital deficiencies we carry thanks to our ancestry," he mused, "makes me think what our own poor children will have to live with."

"I am glad to hear you are thinking about children, after all." Aragorn taunted.

"This not going to leave me alone, is it?" Éomer gave an exaggerated sigh. "Why do not set an example yourself. After all, you already have a wife and also a kingdom in want of an heir."

Aragorn murmured something.

Éomer's gaze swung back to him, his eyes sparkling. "What was that?" he asked.

Gondor's King looked at him with a surprised frown. "You understand Sindarin?"

"Very little. But I think I understood what you just mumbled." Éomer's eyes gleamed with unsuppressed amusement.

Aragorn decided to try and let that pass. "Where did you learn the language of the Elves?"

"From my mother, who learnt it from Morwen. She insisted teaching it to Éowyn and me, but since her death I have not spoken a single word. It is not as if it is of any use in the Riddermark. But when I was at Minas Tirith I found that I can still read it quite well."

"Are you telling me you spent time in a library?" Aragorn looked at him calculatingly. "You never cease to amaze me."

"Why? Because a Horselord – one of the Middle-men – is able to understand the language of the First Born?" He deliberately sounded affronted. "Hard to comprehend for a descendant of the Númenóreans?"

"I was right," Aragorn growled. "You were not slapped enough as a child."

"I really begin to pity that child you are . . . "

"Éomer! You are not going to repeat aloud what I said."

"As it involves your wife, of course not! Even I am not that tactless."

Having reached the high stair of stone leading up to the Golden Hall and hearing his friend's threatening growl, Éomer took three steps at a time to pull ahead. At the stair's head he turned and, waiting for Aragorn to reach the paved terrace, he let his gaze roam over the city which spread out below the high platform on which Meduseld stood.

During those years of darkness the people of Edoras had neglected their city as they had been neglected by their King. Every time Éomer had ridden through the gates, something else had been broken down, had been in need of repair or just thrown aside to clutter the yards. Weeds and moss had overgrown the paved path and the steps of hewn stone leading uphill from the city gate to the Golden Hall, which had been the only building, beside the stables, that gave the impression that someone actually attended to it.

In the short months since Saruman had been defeated, much had changed. The view he was looking at now was the city he had known most of his life: well-cared-for houses with freshly painted doors and window-frames and neatly kept yards with flowers and herbs instead of weeds and clutter. And most important: he looked down at a city, where inside its boundaries, people dared to laugh again.

The King of Gondor had decided to ascend the stairs of Meduseld with more dignity. He came to a halt next to the Lord of the Mark. He did not look down over the city but at his friend. Éomer sensed one of those looks which seemed to pierce into his mind. From time to time, when he rather wished to keep his thoughts to himself, they made him uncomfortable. But this was something good to be shared. He smiled.

Aragorn understood. "It is a good feeling to see that it has changed back to what it once was."

"A very good feeling, indeed."

When both men turned around towards the hall, the Doorwards guarding the entrance took a step forward and bowed to the Lords of Rohan and Gondor, turning the hilts of their swords towards them in a customary greeting. Both Kings acknowledged them and stepped past the guards into the hall. This early in the morning no artificial light was used. From the east the sun fell through the high set windows with their panes of coloured glass, adorning the long hall with a multitude of rainbow-like reflections.

The remnants of last night's feast had been removed, the hall cleaned and aired. Doors and shutters had been opened and a breeze blew through, gently moving the tapestries that decorated the walls and the banners of Rohan and Gondor, of Lórien and Rivendell and one especially made for the Shire to honour the Hobbits.

The beautifully carved tables were already laid for the guest's morning meal, but only a few servants, occupied with some last preparations, inhabited the hall. A middle-aged woman, the quintessential Rohír – tall and lean, with a thick wheat-coloured braid and bright blue eyes – approached them. She bowed her greetings.

"My Lord Kings."

"Greetings, Ælfgyth," Éomer replied. "It appears that as an effect of the farewell gathering last night most of our guests are reluctant to leave their beds."

"So it seems, my Lords. So far I have only seen Prince Imrahil, who is at present in your study. He asked me earlier to take him in a tray of food."

"Then King Elessar and I will join him. Bring us some food, too."

"Very well, my Lord."

Ælfgyth, the unshakeable and inexhaustible housekeeper of the Golden Hall, left them to see to their nourishment.

Éomer led the way to the King's study, past the Council chamber, to where it was located at the rear of the hall, adjoining the Royal chambers in the western corner tower. He had put it at Aragorn's disposal for the duration of his visit, so that he would find some privacy for meetings with Imrahil and Faramir or his elven kin.

They found Prince Imrahil standing next to one of the high set windows, both elegant hands wrapped around a mug of steaming tea, looking out towards the north-western foothills of the Ered Nimrais. When the two kings entered the room he turned his head and smiled in greeting.

"This study is a pleasant room but it should be located on the eastern side of the hall so it would gain from the morning sun," he remarked.

"I thought you preferred the evening sun," Éomer replied without thinking.

"Do I?" Imrahil raised an eyebrow. He took in the younger man's rumpled appearance and his lips curved into an amused smile. He was, of course, as always immaculately groomed. "Pray tell, my Liege-lord, where did you find our host?"

"As I predicted, in the stables. Strictly speaking in his horse's stall."

Éomer shrugged and walked around his desk, dropping into the chair behind it. "Safest place in the whole of Edoras. Nobody gets past Firefoot."

"From that I gather it is quite common for you to share with your horse?" Imrahil asked, sounding perhaps a bit disbelieving. No doubt, a horse stall was probably one of the last locations he would consider an agreeable place for the night

"There was a time when I felt much better knowing Firefoot was guarding my sleep."

The Dúnedain knew he was referring to those years, when in Edoras, Wormtongue had held the reins in his hand. And, if he had seen a chance to get away with it, he would have had Rohan's heirs murdered without a second thought.

A knock at the door announced Ælfgyth, a cast-iron tea kettle in her hands, followed by two young women, each carrying a tray covered with a napkin. With just a gesture she had one girl place the tray in front of their King, where he sat behind his desk. Aragorn settled down at the table in the centre of the room where Imrahil had eaten his meal. Whilst one servant cleaned away the leftovers, Ælfgyth served tea to the kings and refilled the prince's mug.

"By the way," Imrahil addressed her in a friendly tone. "The honey-smoked ham was excellent."

"You should not be surprised, my Lord," came the dry answer from the housekeeper, "It is from Gondor."

She ushered the two other women out of the room and then left herself with a bow of her head.

"Over the past days," declared Imrahil, "I found that your people are unable to take a non-committal remark simply as it is."

"True," Éomer answered, soaking his porridge with thick cream. "Meaningless conversation is not one of their stronger points. And the ham is part of the foodstuff you brought along from Minas Tirith. Without it, the feeding of our guests would have been a very unbalanced and dull affair."

"Speaking of food." Imrahil pulled out a parchment from where it stuck in his belt. "I suppose you heard that late last night a messenger from Minas Tirith arrived."

"I actually saw him handing over several scrolls to Faramir." Éomer added a generous portion of honey to his porridge. He stirred the glutinous mixture of obscure colour, ignoring Aragorn's slightly disgusted gaze.

"One of them was a letter from Erchirion," Imrahil held up the folded parchment, "informing us that a first supply of provisions has been put together at Dol Amroth. Three cogs carrying grain are going to leave the harbour the day after tomorrow and arrive in Harlond about five days later. There it will be reloaded onto wagons, which will take around fifteen days to reach Edoras. Rohan should receive the first winter provisions within a month from now."

"That is at least half a month faster than I hoped for."

"As I said before, if Erchirion chooses so, he is quite well organized and efficient," Imrahil pointed out.

Éomer absently took a mouthful of the glue-like porridge. He took his time to chew and then swallow.

"We will have to take everything west as soon as it arrives. I had a long meeting with Erkenbrand before he left to return to the Hornburg. The reconstruction of the villages proceeds too slowly. Not only do we have still problems with the building materials. One does not work well with an empty stomach, weakened by malnutrition. They are in desperate need of the food supplies."

"You can send the wagons on as they arrive here," Aragorn assured him.

"Beyond Helms Deep the Great West Road is only passable for wagons as far as the Fords of the Isen. Anything sent to the land between the Isen and the Adorn must be moved by packhorses. We need to inform Elfhelm. He left for Aldburg the other day. He has to assemble a sufficient number of horses and have them ready when needed."

"You have a month to make arrangements before the first transport arrives." Aragorn tasted a bite of the praised ham. "From then on wagons will arrive at short intervals as long as the roads are open. After the winter we will continue until the new harvest has been gathered in."

Éomer stared at the bowl in front of him. "I will feel much better eating as soon as I know that all my kinsmen can do so as well."

Sunk in his own thoughts for a moment, he didn't see the questioning look Imrahil cast his King or Aragorn's answer, a resigned shrug with his shoulder and an amused grin. The Prince eyed Rohan's young king with some hesitancy, but when he spoke none of it was betrayed in his voice.

"Éomer, there is something else I would like to discuss with you. Would you mind if we do so while you are eating?"

"Not at all." Éomer replied amiably as he tucked into his porridge. "What is it about?" he asked and took another mouthful of the hot dish.

"Lothíriel."

TBC