An Offer Not To Be Refused
If his chair had suddenly bitten him on the behind Éomer couldn't have been more stunned. Everything froze; and even his eyelids stopped blinking whilst he stared at the Prince of Dol Amroth.
He had expected Imrahil to approach him about the quarrel he had provoked with Lothíriel - in the midst of an increasingly interested crowd - demanding an explanation and an apology for his behaviour. He had presumed the Prince would do so the next day, or at the latest, on one of the first days on their journey to Edoras. But nothing had happened. Imrahil had not given any indication that he even recalled that particular incident or placed any importance on it. Éomer had begun to think that Lothíriel had probably misjudged the significance her father had attached to the event, wretched as it may have been; and that he had accepted the explanation she had given to her brothers, who very likely had passed it on to their father.
Éomer tried to collect his thoughts.
The Prince hadn't mentioned Lothíriel in a single word since the moment he had officially introduced her to him at the welcoming feast in Merethrond. Why had he waited nearly a month to bring up her name again?
Éomer became aware that he had still the lump of porridge in his mouth, and that his throat felt somehow quite tight. He harboured the suspicion that if he tried to swallow it he would most likely choke on the stuff. But he could hardly spit it back out into the bowl in the presence of a king and a prince. That would have to be considered bad manners. And as long as he had this oat grain mixture between his teeth he couldn't speak. That would also have to be considered bad manners. Not that he would have known what to say, anyway.
On the other hand, he could hardly sit here this way indefinitely. He had to do something. So he separated a tiny bit from the lump with his tongue and swallowed it as a trial. It worked! He repeated it a couple of times and finally emptied his mouth without having had to go through the coughing fit he had feared.
Aragorn and Imrahil had watched this careful manoeuvre with interest but without commenting on it. Éomer rinsed his mouth by taking a sip of tea. Hopefully his voice would work. He cleared his throat. "Your daughter?" he finally asked. Unoriginal, but at least it was in a fairly normal tone.
"That is the only Lothíriel I personally know about," Imrahil remarked absolutely straight-faced, an answer quite worthy of one of his sons.
Éomer opened his mouth to make a reply but couldn't think of anything remotely intelligent to say. He simply needed a few more moments to gather his thoughts. So he closed his mouth again with an audible click of his teeth. At least he had the presence of mind to arch his brows inquisitively, indicating to Imrahil that he wished him to elaborate.
"Much to my regret, you were not given the opportunity to deepen the acquaintance you made with my daughter." Imrahil's expression gave nothing away. "It would have pleased me if you had gotten to know her better."
Inside Éomer something went into alarm mode. They were moving into dangerous territory. How much better would the Prince have liked him to have become acquainted with Lothíriel? Not that he could have known how well Éomer actually had become acquainted with the Princess! Or was there some ambiguity behind his words? If anything had come to his ears about what had happened in the Houses of Healing, or even just that his daughter had been thoughtless enough to seek him, Éomer, out in his bedchamber, her father surely would have confronted him right away, without the delay of twenty six days?
No, twenty five days! It had been twenty five days since he had kissed her. It had been in the afternoon, and after they had been caught by Elfhelm and she had left – or rather fled – the treatment chamber, he hadn't seen her again. She hadn't been with her family at the feast in the evening, she hadn't been able to be found when they had collected the herdsmen and he couldn't make her out among all the healers who had stepped out from their domain onto the street to pay their respects when Théoden's funeral procession had passed the Houses of Healing on its way from Fen Hallen.
". . . suit you quite well."
Éomer came out of his reverie. He must have missed something of what Imrahil had been saying. Suit him? What would suit him? What had his friend been talking about?
It had happened once again. As soon as something triggered thoughts of Lothíriel, those thoughts were pushed into the forefront of his mind and his usually well developed ability to pay attention to various things at the same time and think on several levels at once, suffered from worrying lapses.
"Indeed?" he said politely. What had seemed to him as a sensible, non-committal remark appeared not to be what Imrahil had expected. He looked at Éomer with a certain lack of understanding and a hint of impatience.
"I fear Éomer has not been giving this matter his full attention," Aragorn interjected helpfully. There was something strange in his tone, something hidden, and something unnervingly amused. Éomer looked up sharply to search the other man's face for hints of what was going on. 'What' had he missed?
"Indeed," Éomer repeated slowly, getting gradually more suspicious. "I am afraid that is so. I apologize for this lack of courtesy, Imrahil. In what respect do you feel . . . something . . . suits me well?"
A short glance was exchanged between Aragorn and Imrahil and he could have sworn the shoulders of the former ranger were trembling slightly.
"As I know you do not like to mince words, Éomer," the Prince said with poorly concealed impatience, "I will sum up my earlier exposition into a single sentence." He made a short pause, watching the young King sharply. "I feel Lothíriel will make a very suitable wife and consort of a king."
The first thought that came to Éomer's mind was a question: was it possible to choke on pure air? The second thought was, that he had actually a pretty good reason to get seriously annoyed . . . to put it mildly. This was a conspiracy, and worse: it was not a conspiracy by an enemy but by his friends; friends who obviously couldn't accept a decision he had made.
He carefully put the spoon down into the bowl and even more carefully he pushed the bowl back. Hunger or even appetite had flown his presence. An epitome of self-control, he sat back, propped his elbows on the arms of his chair and put the tips of his fingers together.
"If I understand this correctly, you wish me to wed your daughter?" Éomer listened to his voice. He was proud of himself. Nothing in his tone betrayed the utter shock he felt, interspersed with anger because a certain feeling was creeping up on him; the feeling that he was going to have his back up against the wall in this matter.
"Indeed." Imrahil smiled satisfied, probably relieved that he had finally gotten through.
"Why?" That one word came out sharp and hard.
"Why?" Imrahil now looked genuinely taken aback. "Éomer, did you not hear a single word I said?"
A rather unkingly snort came from Aragorn's direction, which both other men chose to ignore. Éomer also ignored Imrahil's inquiry about his lack of attention because suddenly something else seemed more important.
"And what is your daughter's opinion on this intention of yours?"
"Well, yes. As I understand, she is the only daughter you have . . . at least officially." The sarcasm fell heavy as a rock, one which had ore running through it.
Aragorn looked at him obviously baffled by this rudeness and Éomer winced inwardly, surprised by himself, but Imrahil passed over a remark that could clearly have been considered an insult.
"I have not talked to Lothíriel about this yet," he replied in a tone indicating that that was nothing out of the ordinary.
"What?" Éomer said, the unexpectedness of the statement making his voice loud and forceful. "You plan to bind her to a man without asking her opinion? Should not the final decision be hers?"
"We are talking about Lothíriel here."
Of course they were talking about Lothíriel! Otherwise they wouldn't be talking at all and he would have already given into the lure that the doorway held for him. Actually, the door had never looked so good.
"So what?" he asked, his gaze fixed across the room on the dark panel of carved oak.
"There is no point in talking about a prospective husband with Lothíriel," Imrahil explained, using the same annoying tone of reason that Éomer recognised from his daughter. "I doubt she would be able to recognize the right sort for her if he arrived riding a mûmak."
"Do you not think the mûmak would be a fairly good indication that she ought to look elsewhere?" he shot back unthinkingly.
At this point Gondor's King no longer tried to conceal his laughter. Éomer turned his head to look at Aragorn who just cocked a brow when he found himself pinned by a fierce glare.
"Traitor," Éomer hissed in his own tongue.
"Do not exaggerate," Aragorn replied with a vexing calmness. "Perhaps you should let Imrahil explain – again! – the reasons why he feels a union between the King of Rohan and the Princess of Dol Amroth is for the best of all involved."
A muscle jumping in his cheek, Éomer stared at them alternately. "So we are talking about Rohan and Dol Amroth – which in the end comes down to Gondor. You are talking about a political arrangement. Lothíriel was right; she is just a pledge to you."
"A pledge?" Imrahil's expression showed a considerable lack of comprehension.
"She considers herself a pledge for an alliance in favour of Gondor. And I thought she was exaggerating."
"She is not exaggerating; she is over-simplifying. Éomer," again this highly annoying reasonable tone of voice, "if I wanted to bring Lothíriel into a political bargain, I would not be talking to you but to one of the southern vassals. Since the war has ended I have received offers for my daughter from two of them."
Éomer stared at him in disbelief. It was as if something had slammed into his chest. Lothíriel had a couple of suitors? She hadn't mentioned anything. On the other hand, how had Imrahil put it? 'He' had received the offers.
"And how does the Princess feel about those proposals?"
"I have not told her."
"Of course not! Why should she be interested in hearing that somebody wishes to wed her?" Again his sarcasm bypassed the Prince.
"Those men are not suitable. You see, for them the idea of a woman with a brain and a purpose in life is one that has never occurred to them. Although I find some of my daughter's aspirations rather peculiar, contrary to her belief, I do not want to see them squashed."
"And you feel in that respect I am more worthwhile as a husband?"
A change of expression, one that Éomer wasn't sure how to interpret, crossed Imrahil's face.
"Yes, indeed I do. I have watched you connecting with your sister. I have seen the way you treat her, care for her. A woman of strength, who has a mind of her own, does not bother you. You can accept somebody strong at your side."
"Strong is not the expression that comes to my mind when I look at your daughter." Having said that, Éomer just hoped the Prince wouldn't ask him to elaborate what actually did come into his mind when he looked at Lothíriel.
"Do not underestimate her just because she looks like a fawn. She may not be the quintessential rock to withstand the breakers but she is the reed which in the end will always stand upright." He took a short pause to reminisce and added, "In any quarrel between my children that I can remember, she was always the last one standing."
In the small silence that followed Aragorn remarked to no-one in particular: "That definitely holds promise."
Éomer sent him another glare but Imrahil just ignored it whilst he continued.
"I love my daughter. She is 'not' some kind of pawn to me. I want the best for her. You are a good and noble man. You will make her a good and noble husband. I know you have repeatedly announced that, in your opinion, this is not the right time to take a wife. But Rohan needs an heir. And you need somebody at your side while rebuilding your land. One who will support you and be with you as a companion of equal standing. And I am convinced that you will find no other woman in the whole of Middle-earth who will throw herself with so much enthusiasm into such a challenge. She needs a purpose and she will take to the role like a duck to water."
Éomer was still cocooned by the feeling of being cornered and tired of being on the defensive. He felt like he was being drawn under water without having had a chance to take a breath first. Had Imrahil any idea what this was doing to him? How tempting . . . No! He wouldn't go there!
Éomer took a slow calming breath. This required some diplomacy, meaning: this was going to be difficult.
"Imrahil, I am truly honoured by your offer," he began, trying not to feel discouraged by the open irony he saw on his friend's face. "The Princess is without a doubt . . . she is certainly a . . ." He made himself stop because some fog must have invaded his brain making it difficult to locate suitable words. He frowned as he fought to concentrate.
A desirable woman? No, that was not something you could tell the father of the lady in question. Alluring? Worse! Irresistible? Tempting? Bema! When did he lose the ability to pick out a simple proper word?
"Lovely?" Aragorn offered helpfully.
"Thank you," Éomer murmured between his teeth.
"You are welcome," Gondor's King returned smoothly. He was obviously having a good time.
Éomer eyed the doorway again, asking himself silently what the chances were of passing through it very shortly. He tried another deep breath.
"Lothíriel is a beautiful and intelligent woman, and I certainly would have enjoyed becoming more closely acquainted with her. We might have taken a liking to one another, and perhaps we even would have discussed a possible union between us. But as it is, we hardly know each other and I got the impression that your daughter is very content with her current life and her occupation as a healer."
There! He was still able to put together complete sentences.
"But she cannot live that life indefinitely. Sooner or later she must wed, and as I explained before, I feel you are the right husband for her."
Éomer gave the Prince a look of mingled irritation and incredulity. "Does Lothíriel feel the same? . . . I mean, not about that I may be the right sort of husband. On that she cannot have an opinion, as she has, so far, not been told about the good fortune you intend for her. . . . I mean: does she want to wed at all?"
"Every woman in her right mind must be in want of a husband. But why do you not ask her?"
"It is very unlikely that I shall return to Minas Tirith within the next few months. I may not even be able to attend Éowyn's wedding."
"Write her a letter," Imrahil suggested unmoved.
"The messenger will return to Minas Tirith tomorrow morning. He will carry your letter."
"Do you not think your daughter might be slightly surprised if she suddenly receives a letter from a man she barely knows, asking her about her opinion if women in general are in want of a husband?"
"The same messenger will also carry a letter from me, informing her about our agreement," Imrahil continued as if he hadn't spoken.
"What agreement?" Éomer flexed his fingers around the arms of his chair.
"Éomer, I do not expect you to accept my proposal without giving it considerable thought. Perhaps this is the moment where you would like to take some time to think everything through," Imrahil advised, his gaze faintly amused, but mainly determined. "We can discuss the details and terms of the eventual settlement later. And now I must take care of some affairs of state."
Éomer stared at him with outraged disbelief. He began to fear that his command of Westron must have suffered. He didn't seem to be any longer able to express himself intelligibly. He looked at Aragorn, something close to desperation in his eyes, but his friend only returned his gaze with a steady one of his own.
Imrahil turned to his King.
"I will make sure your correspondence for Minas Tirith is prepared so that you can put your seal on the various letters before you leave later, my Lord."
Éomer shot up from behind his desk, sending the chair backwards scraping over the floor of paved stone. He didn't need to think about any of these things. Imrahil could have his answer right away and it wouldn't be necessary to discuss any settlement. But before he could even open his mouth, Aragorn had gotten to his feet as well, addressing the Prince.
"Thank you, Imrahil. I will be with you shortly."
"You will find me in the council chamber." The Prince of Dol Amroth bowed his farewell. "My Liege-lord. Éomer King."
The only reason Éomer let him go without protest was that Aragorn's gaze had locked with his, clearly communicating that he wished his Rohirric friend to remain silent. And Éomer complied, gritting his teeth, but only until the door had barely shut behind the retreating Dúnadan.
"That was a bloody ambush," he growled, "and I cannot believe that you are party to this ridiculous scheme."
"Éomer, neither was this meeting supposed to be an ambush nor is Imrahil's proposal ridiculous." Aragorn declared, all reason and calmness.
"Well, what would you call it then?" The Rohír's eyes glowed hotly.
"Sensible?" Aragorn's mouth quirked slightly at one corner. "Will you listen to one last piece of advice that I wish to give you?"
"As if I had any option," Éomer replied disagreeably.
"Indeed. Think about Imrahil's offer and refuse it if you feel it is not the right thing to do or truly not what you want for yourself. But do not refuse for the wrong reason; do not reject it because you feel ambushed or pressured by the way the offer was made." Aragorn laid his hand on Éomer's shoulder. "I will see you before my company departs." With those words he left the room.
Once alone in his study, Éomer had that sinking sensation, the one that told him that his fate had just been sealed. He let himself fall back into his chair, nearly missing it.
He buried his face in his palms, but somehow that gesture didn't feel dramatic enough and so he let his head sink down onto his desk, wishing he could stay there that way for the rest of the day - well, if Bema would grant him mercy, the rest of his life and, what's more, with every single thought banished from his brain.
Of course, this was not the day Bema felt particularly merciful towards him. Within a dozen heart beats the door was slammed open unceremoniously and Éowyn blasted into the room with the force of a small volcano. He had not exaggerated when he had told Faramir that his sister shared quite a few of his traits. She moved with the same aggressive grace, the same unexpected and abrupt momentum that tended to startle and irritate people who were not used to it. Éomer, on the other hand, was used to it and therefore didn't even flinch or raise his head from its resting position.
"Éomer! Why are you lazing around here? You have to change. Make haste!"
Their blunt mode of expression was another trait they had in common. Éowyn was certainly likely to become a great success in Gondor!
Her brother straightened up and threw an absent-minded glance at the bundle she was carrying under her arm. "What is that?" he asked without any display of real interest.
"These are your clothes." Éowyn held up a tunic made of dark green velvet, golden embroidery adorning the high collar and the cuffs. Getting no obvious reaction, she shook the garment impatiently. "You have to bid our guests farewell. You cannot do that in a shirt and breeches you have apparently slept in." She laid out the several pieces of clothing across his desk: the tunic, a matching shirt and clean breeches. Éomer eyed them without enthusiasm whilst his sister threw a look underneath the desk. "Could you not at least have found someone to polish your boots?" she sighed with exasperation. When he showed no intention of getting up from his chair, she slapped the top of the desk with the flat of her hand. "Move!" she commanded irritably. "Lady Galadriel's and Lord Celeborn's company have broken camp. They will be leaving in a short while."
"Éomer!" She stared at him in disbelief. "What has gotten into you? How can you say such a thing? What is the matter? You have agreed to honour Merry before he leaves with them."
Éomer just muttered something incomprehensible. Gradually Éowyn's gaze turned worried and she walked around the desk ending up beside his chair. She placed her palm against his forehead. "Do you feel ill?"
He swatted at her hand. "Don't be ridiculous," he dismissed her peevishly.
She contemplated him for a moment. Knowing better than to touch him again, "Is everything all right?" she asked
Éomer looked up at his sister. She was the one person whom he had always trusted. She had never had to do anything to gain this trust. It had always been there. It was inbred. He trusted her with his soul, because she was part of his soul. She was part of him. If he couldn't trust Éowyn, he couldn't trust himself. If he couldn't tell Éowyn, there was nothing to tell.
Her next words were like an echo to his thoughts.
She hopped onto his desk, folding her hands in her lap. Now his desk was cluttered with not only dishes of uneaten food and various pieces of clothing but also with a very determined sister. Éomer exhaled and cleared his throat.
"Prince Imrahil proposed marriage."
Éowyn straightened and her eyebrows shot upward as if attempting to make close acquaintance with her hairline. She gave a rather unladylike sort of snort. "I could have sworn I did not see you drinking last night."
"His daughter," Éomer clarified with a hint of impatience to his voice. "He wants me to wed his daughter."
Somehow it felt good that Éowyn looked at least slightly flabbergasted. That piece of information was something to be absorbed even for her. She swallowed and raised the forefinger of her right hand. "Just give me a moment to digest that," she muttered.
Well, if her digestive process needed only half of the time that his was obviously going to take in this case, then he would have to give her more than just a moment. But Éowyn recovered quickly and she shot him a look of mingled amusement and disbelief.
"Is there any particular reason why Prince Imrahil would like to see his daughter bonded to 'you'?"
"No need to be insulting," her brother mumbled, but then grinned despite himself. "You mean it should be more than enough that one of his kin will be tied up until his dying day to one of our lot?"
"In comparison to you I am perfectly amiable."
"But only in comparison to me!"
Having cast those affectionate aspersions upon each other, brother and sister fell silent, both lost in thought. It was Éowyn who broke their reverie. "Faramir told me about his cousin. It is Lothíriel, is it not?"
Éomer just nodded.
"She is a healer. Faramir mentioned that within the Houses of Healing her title is ignored and that nobody realizes that they are being treated by a Princess of Gondor."
"True. I had not realized whom I was dealing with."
"She treated you?"
Again just a nod.
"You have never told me that you were injured."
"It was not worth mentioning." He shrugged his shoulder dismissively
"Treat 'em rough, make 'em tough!" Éowyn remarked ironically, but otherwise passed over this information. "I do not think that I ever met her when I stayed at the Houses of Healing. At least I am not aware of it. Those healers do look all very much alike in that ghastly garb."
"I do not think that garb is meant for adornment," Éomer pointed out.
Éowyn gave him a bleak look. "Whatsoever! Now tell me! What is she like?"
"I thought your betrothed told you about her," he attempted to stall.
Éowyn's eyes narrowed. "But I want to hear what you think of Lothíriel of Dol Amroth," she demanded.
Her intense scrutiny made him uncomfortable. At times it was highly inconvenient to have a sister who knew him just too well.
"She is vexing." Éomer said evasively after a hesitant pause. How could he tell her – or anybody else for that matter – what he felt or thought about Lothíriel, if he didn't know it himself? Vexing was a fitting description, after all. She was a constant and therefore vexing disturbance to his mind.
"Vexing?" Éowyn looked slightly confused. "Neither complimentary nor meaningful, and that is all you have to say about your bride-to-be?"
He gave a self-conscious grimace at this expression. He had yet to agree to Imrahil's offer, but could he actually refuse it? But if Éowyn wished to know what he had to say about the Prince's daughter, there were quite a few attributes to be assigned to her.
"Well, she is the most vexing, aggravating and disconcerting woman I have ever encountered." He growled the words. "She is patronizing, single-minded, headstrong and you never know what she is going to do or say next."
For a short moment Éowyn appeared thoroughly stunned by this tirade. She cleared her throat. "That is a meaningful list indeed, though not necessarily complimentary. But it sounds as if this is going to be a match well made," she added, giving him a sly look.
Éomer confined his reply to a glare accompanied by a snort of chagrin.
"Is there anything nice you have to say about her?" his sister probed.
Anything nice to say? Éomer didn't even notice his own fleeting smile. There were many nice things to say about Lothíriel, none of which he wished to share with Éowyn. One certainly didn't tell one's sister how the body of a woman had felt in one's arms or what one had wished to do to that body.
But beside the pull she had on him, there was much more to the Princess of Dol Amroth. There was her compassion for others; her sympathy for those who suffered; her sense of responsibility towards her patients which went beyond the simple care for their physical well-being; her desire to be useful and not just some embellishment. She was also full of lively curiosity and had a rather naive faith in the basic goodness of the world.
That was something he was able pass on to Éowyn. "She is very compassionate, caring and empathetic; and always composed"
"That is definitely more revealing," Éowyn said contentedly. "And?"
Éowyn harrumphed. "Well, what does she look like?"
Éomer folded his hands on the desk and regarded her with a resigned gaze. His sister had always had something about her which reminded him of those tiny nasty burrs which stuck to one indefinitely wherever they got their prickles in.
"She looks like Imrahil . . . and Faramir."
He picked up the porridge bowl, poking in it with the spoon. The cooled mixture had taken on the consistency of dried loam. Only a starving man would be tempted to eat any of it now, but it reminded him that he wanted to discuss the possibility of using clay bricks for the reconstruction of the villages at the next council meeting. They were not common building material in Rohan, but he had seen them used quite effectively in settlements along the banks of the Anduin.
He came out of his short reverie when Éowyn rapped her knuckles against his forehead. "Éomer, are you still in there?"
"What?" he demanded crossly.
"I asked you a question."
"In what way does Lothíriel resemble Faramir?"
"She shares his colouring. The dark hair and the grey eyes."
Éomer ask himself if he would get rid of her if he reminded her why she had come to his study in the first place. But one look at her determined face and he knew there was no way out. He made a sound caught between a hiss of irritation and a groan of disbelief and surrendered with something approaching grace.
"What do you want to know?"
"Is she pretty?"
That answer made her lose her thread for a moment. "Not pretty?" Disbelief echoed in her voice.
"Definitely not pretty." He enjoyed her flabbergasted expression immensely.
"Oh!" Éowyn was obviously trying to gather her thoughts after this seemingly unexpected revelation. "She cannot be worse than Eormenhild."
"Eormenhild of the Westfold Vale. Erkenbrand's daughter."
"What does one of Erkenbrand's daughters has to do with this?"
Éowyn slanted him a strange look. "Last night I overheard something at Aldhelm's."
"You were eavesdropping on the head of my Council?" Éomer asked mildly, not surprised at all.
"Ehhh . . . yes," his sister confessed without showing any obvious awkwardness. "You should try that from time to time," she advised. "You will learn the most interesting things."
"That Aldhelm feels Eormenhild will make a very fine queen."
One blow of this kind a day was hard enough to get over, the second, even more brutal one, felt somehow deadly. Éomer once more froze in his chair, watched by his sister who finally said, slightly worried: "Breathe, Éomer!"
He took her advice, but his breath was somehow coming in wheezes. "Have they all gone mad? Why is everybody suddenly picking out women for me?"
"They are not picking out women," Éowyn explained patiently. "They are picking out wives!"
"Well, I do not want either," he stated, ignoring his sister's rising eyebrows. "And certainly not one of Erkenbrand's daughters. They all look like their father . . . except for the beard," he added. Picture it! Having to go to bed with a spitting image of the Marshal of the Westmark. Bema! Never!
"Poor brother!" Éowyn didn't look sympathetic at all. "Only ugly ducklings on offer."
He toyed with the idea of letting that stand, but somehow he simply couldn't. "Lothíriel is not an ugly duckling." He expelled a deep breath. "She is beautiful."
"But you said . . . "
"I said she is not pretty. That is the wrong word. She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever laid eyes upon."
For a couple of heartbeats Éowyn look baffled but then she smiled at him sweetly. "Is that so?"
Éomer just knew from experience that this tone of her voice mingled with this sublimely innocent smile should make him highly suspicious about what there was to come. All he could do now was wait and study his fingernails which were in need of a good scrubbing. Grooming your horse did that to your nails.
"So, a beautiful woman and she annoys you?" Éowyn pondered. "Finally one who gets through, hmm? That must be a rather unsettling feeling, especially for a man who values his self-control . . . at least when it comes to women."
Éomer groaned inwardly. It seemed his sister had become even more efficient in reading him. There were certain benefits in that she would soon be relocating to Gondor.
Unexpectedly Éowyn gave a squeal of pleasure, so high pitched that even her not easily startled brother jumped. When had Éowyn started squealing? "Oh, brother! You are in love!"
"What?" Éomer's lashes shot up. And when had she started talking nonsense? "No! I am certainly not!" Éomer insisted firmly, suddenly being ambushed by the uneasy feeling that his denial might come close to a lie, but refusing to examine his emotions thoroughly enough to be sure.
"Certainly not?" his sister echoed, scepticism woven around every single letter.
"Certainly not!" Éomer confirmed once more. "Do you not think that I would be the first to know if I were in love with . . . whomsoever?"
Éowyn gave another snort.
"You should not make that a habit," her brother warned. "I am quite certain that if a female makes that kind of noise, then it is likely to be considered very bad manners in Gondor."
"Do not try to change the subject." She smiled indulgently. "And I am quite certain that you would be the very last to know if you were in love."
"That coming from you . . ." he let his voice trail off into a meaningful silence.
Éowyn sucked in an outraged breath. "Now, who is getting insulting?"
"I do not wish to be insulting; I wish to be left alone. I spent last night in a bloody horse stall instead of a bed in order to avoid having Aldhelm once more go into the subject of the necessity to produce an heir. This morning I was woken by Aragorn who brought up the same matter, admittedly more subtly but not less insistently. Led by him here, to my study like an unsuspecting sheep to the slaughter-house, I found Imrahil, who announced with a cheerfulness I would, under these circumstances, have rather expected from one of his irksome sons, that he feels a bond between his daughter and myself would be an excellent idea. And now you are telling me there is another hopeful to be talked about."
He ran a weary hand down his face. "I have enough. I am sickened by the whole matter. Why not line up half a dozen females whom my Council, my friends, my sister or whosoever do approve of? Then blindfold me and I can pick out one at random." He slid forward on his chair until his neck came to rest on the upholstered back of it. He stared at the ceiling.
All the teasing gleam in Éowyn's eyes had vanished, to be replaced by a more sober look.
"Brother, if the thought of taking a wife is at the moment so abhorrent to you, then you have to tell Prince Imrahil." She batted the air with one hand. "Forget about Eormenhild. That is only the latest of Aldhelm's mule-headed pursuits. More importantly: how did you answer the Prince?"
"I didn't. I would not have known what to answer."
She watched him thoughtfully. "Do you not want to affront a friend by refusing his offer, or are you considering accepting this proposal?"
Éomer took a deep breath, trying not to think before he answered. "The last, I am afraid." He listened to his own words self-consciously and then pulled a face.
Éowyn made an attempt not to laugh. "Have you ever thought about putting a name to your emotions? Éomer, I know you rarely confide your feelings to others, but I always thought you were bluntly honest with yourself."
"You can have blunt honesty. I want her as a woman. That I know. And I also know I can only have her as a wife. What I do not know is, if that is right or if it is enough." He sat up abruptly and threw her a challenging glance.
""Well, that was honest enough," Éowyn noted. "So, you do have feelings for her?"
"I suppose, I do" he said succinctly, and then added: "In a way."
Éowyn tilted her head slightly to the side as she contemplated that information and kept staring at him unwaveringly.
"Éowyn," he groaned, his tone a mixture of exasperation and resignation. "I have met her only four times."
He held up a hand, thumb drawn in, four fingers raised. His sister inspected them with a frown.
"You need to scrub your fingernails," she pointed out.
Her brother curled in his fingers and put the fist back in his lap. "I groomed Firefoot before I came here."
"And after having met her four times, do you not have the slightest inkling regarding the nature of your emotions?"
"Our encounters were not all thoroughly amiable." He raised his hand again, fingers bunched into a loose fist. "Once I nearly throttled her." He extended one finger. "Twice I was highly tempted." Two more fingers came up. "And at the fourth meeting . . . "
"You throttled her?" Éowyn interrupted with a gasp, and that was probably for the best. Otherwise what should he have told her about his fourth encounter with Lothíriel of Dol Amroth?
"You mean literally?"
"It was a misunderstanding; an accident," he answered, matching her vexed tone.
"How can one accidentally throttle a princess?" Éowyn asked, eyeing him with disapproval.
"When she treated me at the Houses of Healing, she left the treatment chamber for a short while and I fell asleep. When she returned she startled me, and the next thing I knew was that I had my arm across her throat."
That definitely was a revised version of the event.
"And she escaped unscarred? I remember you putting black and blue marks on me in a friendly tussle. If you grabbed her seriously in a defence reflex you must have nearly broken her neck."
Éomer groaned, not happy having to deal again with the self-disgust and mortification he had felt the moment he had realized whom he had in a death grip.
"Bema! Éomer! And she is still willing to become your wife?"
"She does not know anything about her blessed future yet." He rubbed his nose with his forefinger. "Imrahil has not found it necessary to advise her about his plans."
"But then it is not your decision alone. She must have her say first." said Éowyn irritably.
"She once related to me that she was bred for an arranged union in favour of Gondor and that in the end she would accept any choice her father would make for her," he said, noticing an odd roughness to his voice.
"That is strange," she declared, outrage in her voice.
"No, that is politics," Éomer grimaced, "or so I have been told. And we do have our share of arranged bonding here in Rohan. Otherwise we would not have talked about Eormenhild earlier."
"You are right," his sister admitted. "But Lothíriel cannot be truly unaffected by such an arrangement."
"She is not. She does not want anything like this any more than . . . I do not know who. Do not get any romantic notions," he added dispassionately, studying her changing expression. "She does not want love. She wants to keep on working as a healer."
It appeared there was nothing else to say
"You mentioned that twice you were tempted to throttle her," Éowyn said, when the silence had gone on for some time.
"It is quite easy to get into an argument with her. She has decided opinions," he said without any further elaboration.
She seemed to consider that for a moment, but, for reasons of her own, refrained from asking about the nature of the arguments they had gotten into.
"And what about the fourth time you encountered her?"
In a rather involuntary reflex he folded his arms defensively across his chest. "We did not argue," he answered and then added, against his better judgment, "I kissed her."
He watched Éowyn's eyes getting bigger and bigger and her pearl-like teeth visible in a wide grin. He pointed a finger at her face. "No squealing," he ordered gruffly. "And again: do not get any romantic notions. On that occasion I was told that a tongue in another person's mouth is something to be considered unappetizing."
For a couple of heartbeats Éowyn looked taken aback. Then she started to smile. The smile turned into a grin, and then, without warning, she started laughing. She laughed so hard that Éomer considered the fact that she did not fall off the desk a veritable miracle. He watched her trying to wipe off her tears of mirth with the back of her hands, rather unsuccessfully. He reached for the napkin from his food tray and held it out for her.
"There is no mercy in you," he noted, sounding unsurprised.
"None at all," she confirmed cheerfully between hiccups and gasps for air, dabbing her eyes and cheeks with the crinkled cloth.
"I thought you might find that amusing," he murmured, smiling wryly.
"She must . . . Of course; you must have done something wrong!" Éowyn was still short of breath and giggles erupted from her mouth in irregular intervals.
"Of course! I had done something wrong," Éomer said with resignation. "Well, this is the point were we will put a halt on this little talk." He got to his feet. "After all, you came here to make me change."
Éowyn waved the napkin at him. "Brother, I am afraid nothing is ever going to change you." She hopped off the desk. "Not that I think you should . . . at least not too much." She began to rummage around in one of the pockets hidden in the folds of her wide skirts, finally producing a comb. "But we need to do something with your hair. Sit!" She pointed at the chair he had just vacated. Obediently Éomer moved back into it. It was not the first time she had combed his hair but very likely one of the last.
Gently she began to disentangle the thick strands.
"Éomer, if it is not the woman who is wrong - at least not in principle - why do you put up such a fight against this union?"
He groaned. "You cannot let it go, can you? You are just another dog with a bone."
"It is such a nice fleshy bone."
He cast about briefly for the words he needed, but he could not find them. He toyed with the idea of lapsing into another silence. It would have been easier. And when he started to speak he could not be certain what would come out of his mouth.
"I have never made any plans to take a wife. It is not that I have never wanted one. I guess I have always thought it would just happen when the time was right. Not that it seemed as if the time would ever be right as far as I can remember. And suddenly there is such a rush, pressure actually, to wed and beget an heir. And the emphasis is on the heir. This is not about finding a companion to share my life with. This is about putting a mare to her intended use of breeding."
"Is that assessment not a bit harsh?" Éowyn asked, seemingly focused on his hair.
"Currently I am not overly concerned about the balance of my assessments." He sighed. "I will do anything for Rohan and our people. There will be an heir, but all in good time. And this is not a good time. I have so many things to consider, so many things to take care of. When I let another human being into my life, do you not think I should have at least the courtesy to share some of that life with her? But at the moment there is nothing left to share. All of what I am is in service to Rohan."
"Éomer?" There was a great deal of hesitancy in Éowyn's voice. She separated a strand of his hair and began to braid it out of his face. "Do you feel anger at me because I leave you behind, alone with all these problems?"
"What?" He shot around, his skull nearly colliding with her chin. "What kind of harebrained question is that? There is nothing in the world I want more than your happiness. I wish you could have found it here in the Riddermark. But if it lies in Gondor, so be it."
"I could defer my wedding for some time," Éowyn offered, "and stay with you and help you in the rebuilding of Rohan. The burden of responsibility should not weigh upon your shoulders alone."
Éomer put his hand rather roughly around the back of her neck and pulled her face down to him so he could look directly into her clear blue eyes. Eyes which were so unlike his.
"If you wish to take a weight from my shoulders, then go to Faramir and be happy." He raised himself slightly and put his lips briefly against her forehead. "And besides, I have given the Steward my word of honour to ship you off to Gondor by early Súlimë."
Éowyn smiled, caressing his cheek with the back of her fingers. "I love you, Éomer."
"I should bloody well hope so. That is the least you can do. You have been trouble since the day you were born."
She shoved him back into his seat and again took on the task of bringing some semblance of neatness to his hair. "How will you answer Prince Imrahil?"
"I do not know yet," he said apprehensively. He got up again and went to stand at the windows that looked out west toward the Snowbourn making its way out of Harrowdale. "Even without the devastation of the war, life here in the Riddermark is more austere and rougher than it is in Gondor. Our life is not the one she was brought up to live. She is such an unearthly and delicate kind of woman. She has not been made for Rohan."
"Why should Prince Imrahil, who certainly knows his daughter better than you do, be determined to give her to you as a wife if he had doubts that she would not be content at your side?"
He just shrugged his shoulders, keeping his eyes on the landscape outside.
"I advise you to consider that somebody who can aggravate you and whom you describe as headstrong cannot be weak. Somebody who stands up to you and gets into an argument with you is certainly not some shy squeamish girl. Somebody who can take being assaulted by you must have considerable strength. And who says that I have been made for Gondor?"
"But you will go to a man who loves you. And Lothíriel does not deserve less." He turned his head. "She is unique, Éowyn. She deserves a husband who truly loves her. Not somebody who, whenever he lays eyes upon her, is tempted to throw her into his bed and jump on her."
With the last words out of his mouth he immediately regretted having spoken them. How could he have confessed something like that to his sister? He groaned in embarrassment and pressed his forehead against the window pane.
Éowyn made no attempt to hide her amusement.
"I would not recommend that if she is indeed such a delicate creature," she taunted. "You are definitely not a light-weight. Any woman who shares your bed is going to remember the occasion anyway."
Éomer's head shot around. His lips twisted into a disbelieving expression. "You do not know what you are talking about! . . . At least you should not know what you are talking about." His gaze became suspicious, and then threatening. "But if you indeed do know what you are talking about, then perhaps I had better have a talk with your betrothed?"
"Leave Faramir out of this!" Éowyn folded her arms beneath her breasts and regarded him with belligerent challenge. "Or I may have to talk to him about you kissing his cousin!"
At the moment Éomer was not up to another challenge. "Go away," he said resignedly.
"Only if you answer me one last question. In comparison to all the other women you have thrown into your bed," she ignored a pained growl from her brother, "is the feeling the same with Lothíriel, or is it different?"
Éomer came around slowly, clearly mystified by the question.
Something deep inside himself responded to Lothíriel almost on sight. He reacted to everything about her, from her big grey eyes to her cool clear voice. He had never been touched like this by any other woman, he thought baffled and bemused. He could not seem to wrap his mind around this sensation. It was not just lust. He was old enough and sufficiently experienced to take the effects of lust in stride. There was something else going on here. He'd been trying to ignore it, work around it, deny it, but there was no possibility of avoiding the reality.
Lothíriel was different.
A warm feeling closed in on him. His mouth curved into a smile. He looked directly at his sister. "Go away," he repeated gently. "You can torment me again later today."
Éowyn had watched the flow of emotions passing over his face. Now she gave him a small smile of satisfaction. "You can depend on that," she grinned. She gestured towards the desk. "And do not forget to change. And cease shoving your hands through your hair."
With that she left him on his own.
Once again Éomer looked out of the window, letting his eyes roam across the familiar landscape. As he stood there, a strange sense of satisfaction washed over him.
He wanted Lothíriel. He wanted her desperately. He would not have allowed himself to choose her as a wife. He still felt it was not right to separate her from a life she was so content with and remove her to Rohan, to a life she knew nothing about. He had no idea how his kinsmen would feel about this young princess from Gondor, who would be as foreign to them as they would be foreign to her. And he found it extremely unsettling still not to know exactly what his feelings for her were; only that she was far, far too dangerous for his peace of mind.
He would have liked to have more time.
But fate – or rather her father – had intervened, and now that it looked like he had to marry her . . . well, there didn't seem much sense in putting up a big fuss. There were worse fates than finding oneself bound to an intelligent beautiful woman whom one happened to lust after.
It appeared he had to consider himself betrothed.