To be precise: it hurt everywhere.
Lothíriel had, long ago, given up trying to distinguish the different body parts that hurt most. It would have been much easier anyway - and less time-consuming - to name the few which felt fit and healthy. Her nose, for example, seemed to be doing quite well; also her earlobes. Anything else . . . She couldn't remember a time when she had felt more uncomfortable.
This was the tenth day on horseback; travelling 30 to 35 miles each day. They broke camp every morning at dawn, made a halt around midday and then continued their journey until the sun touched the western horizon.
It wasn't only the physical strain - which should really not have come as a big surprise; for although she had been a fairly good rider as a child, she hadn't been in the saddle for nearly seven years – it was also the inconveniences any travel had the misfortune to involve. A tent was a tent and a cot was a cot and neither were good substitutes for a warm and quiet room and a comfortable bed. As tired as she was every evening, she simply couldn't find a deep restful sleep.
That was not an unknown phenomenon to her. The more exhausted she was, the harder she found rest. She had discovered that a year ago, after the great battles. She, and all the other healers, had worked themselves into a stupor whilst trying desperately to care for all those wounded brought to the Houses of Healing.
But then at least her muscles hadn't hurt so badly. Her bottom and the inside of her legs hadn't felt as if they had been worked on with some coarse-grained sandpaper. And never had her legs felt so . . . bendy. Every time she dismounted she had the impression that it took her legs longer to straighten and she feared, one day, they would just stay sickle-shaped.
She was on her way to Edoras. Not on her own, of course. Besides an honour guard of 25 Swan Knights and a swarm of servants she hadn't taken the trouble to count, she was accompanied by her father and all three of her brothers. Also, King Elessar had bestowed an exceptional honour upon her – probably rather upon her father and Éomer - by having joined the wedding procession – together with 50 knights of the Royal Gondorian Guard.
Yet her father had announced that the wedding would be a subdued affair, due to the fact that Rohan was far from having recovered from the after-effects of the war. The Rohirrim still depended greatly on the food aid from Gondor. Last year's planting had been more or less entirely destroyed by Isengard and it would be later this year before the new crops were ready to harvest.
This restraint was just fine with Lothíriel. The last months had been bad enough. Her life had begun to change the moment her betrothal to the King of Rohan had been made public knowledge. The morning after the official announcement the Warden had sought her out instead of summoning her, as he would have done with any of the other healers. He had explained that it would be an awkward situation for her fellow healers to work side by side with the betrothed of a king. The difference in rank could no longer be ignored and, as there wasn't that much work at present, it would be for the best if she left the Houses of Healing without any delay.
Although she had assumed that she would have to give up her work as a healer at some point, being unceremoniously booted out had come as a shock. From one moment to the other the central purpose of her life, as she had known it for over four years, had been taken away from her. She had sat in her chamber at the citadel, her mind numb. Unable to think about what to do next. Since she had been with the healers, her hours had been filled with study and work – and suddenly there was only emptiness. The first reaction she had felt, had been resentment; resentment against her father as well as against Éomer, whose doings had pushed her into this gaping void. For the first time in her life she had stayed passive and had waited for somebody to tell her what to do next.
She had spent the better part of two days starring out of the window, westwards across the Pelennor towards the foothills of the Ered Nimrais. Somewhere beyond that horizon lay her new life. A new life that had not yet started even though her old life had already come to a halt. Her common sense had been overwhelmed by the irrational, but nonetheless overpowering wish, that something . . . anything would happen, so that her life would be what it had been before.
But somewhere in her darkened mind there was a tiny little flame. It was more than just hope, more than just belief. There was the conviction that something special was waiting for her, something more than she had had before. She only needed to hold out and get through the next few months.
Presumably she would have sat spiritlessly on her window seat for quite some time longer had not Arwen summoned her and forced her out of her languor. Gondor's elf queen had very rigid ideas how Lothíriel should occupy her time. She had been supposed to learn how to become a queen: more precisely, to become the Queen of the Riddermark. To her shame she had had to admit that she had been so occupied by the events, which had come thick and fast, and her somersaulting emotions about them, that she had somehow closed her eyes to the fact that she would not simply become a wife but the wife of a king. She was expected to fulfil her obligations from the very first day.
At first she had accompanied Arwen on her daily routine, which – to Lothíriel's surprise - had not just consisted of amusement and idle ways of passing the time. The Queen of Gondor kept herself well informed about all political events, although she was very cautious about expressing her opinions in public. It would take some time for the Gondorians to become used to the idea that they had a King again, let alone becoming comfortable, not only with having an elf as their queen, but also with a queen who had an influence on politics.
It had to be expected that the Rohirrim would react similarly to a queen from Gondor. Therefore it had been a valuable experience for Lothíriel to watch Arwen navigating the cliffs of political sensitivities. But she had been assured by the elf that domestic politics in Rohan were a less complicated affair, as the Rohirrim had the tendency to state their opinions and raise their objections about anything at any time in a rather blunt manner. Dealing with them would require less tact and a thick skin. That prospect did not bother Lothíriel at all. She had felt very comfortable in her dealings with the wounded riders from Rohan who had been in her care for several months. She couldn't believe that their kinsmen would turn out to be that much different.
She had learnt a lot from them. They had talked about their home and described their land and their customs. She had listened to their songs and ballads sung in their guttural language. Some who had mastered Westron well enough had translated the words for her. They were of battle and honour, of heroism and sacrifice, but also of love and joy . . . and of horses, of course.
Lothíriel had decided to write down everything she remembered from the tales of the Rohirrim and then go to the Great Library to complete her knowledge. Unfortunately she found that her tried and tested approach to a subject was not much of a success in this case. There was simply not enough written down about the Rohirrim.
There had been piles of old maps. Records from the time when Cirion, Steward of Gondor, had ceded the province of Calenardhon to the Eothéod as reward for their help against the Balchoth were filed on the shelves. The wording of the Oath of Eorl could be found, together with descriptions of some political events, invasions, battles. There was also a list of all kings of the Mark up to Thengel, Éomer's grandfather, who had lived for many years in Gondor and had wed a Gondorian noblewoman, somehow kin to the Princes of Dol Amroth.
But nowhere could she find anything written on the way of life of the Rohirrim and their customs and traditions. It would appear that those were of no significance to the Gondorians. Their interest in the Horselords was only in their capacity as a military ally. And all that had been written down had the unpleasant taste of superciliousness.
To her surprise she had found a large tome in the language of the Mark. Not that finding it had taken her any further. Neither did she understand the Rohirric tongue, nor was she able to read this particular form of Cirth. Even the archivists of the Great Library hadn't been able to decipher the runic characters. One of them had mentioned that the mound over the grave of Théoden King's horse bore an inscription in the language of the Mark. A few weeks later she had gone out to the Pelennor with Amrothos to have a look at it. A mound for a horse, as such, was a rather strange concept for any Gondorian.
After her failure at the Great Library Lothíriel had first felt at a loss. She had shied away from writing to Éomer. After her letter, in which she had conveyed her consent, she had received another from him – or rather a short note, brusquely acknowledging that they now had to be considered betrothed. Perhaps she should have worded her reply to his proposal in a way that was less subdued and pretentious. It seemed he hadn't taken it very well, although he had set the original tone. Since then, he hadn't written to her directly, and had only sent his compliments with the frequent letters to her father. She, in return, had asked him to return those greetings on her behalf, with his replies. Imrahil had refrained from inquiring about the perceptible silence between them.
After she had pondered about her possibilities for some days, not wanting to discuss her dilemma with either the Queen or any member of her family, she had finally decided to ask Lord Elfhelm for advice. Although she felt still highly embarrassed about the situation the Marshal of the Eastmark had discovered her in, she believed him to be judicious and now – as she was betrothed to the other party of that indiscretion – hopefully understanding. Messengers left regularly for Edoras, and the next to do so had taken her letter. To her great delight – and relief - she had not only received an answer from Lord Elfhelm but also from his wife, Lady Cynewyn, whom he believed better suited to correspond with her. Over the past months the lady had written to her regularly, answering many of her questions and giving her lots of advice regarding Rohirric customs, especially about what was expected from a bride.
Acting on her suggestions Lothíriel had – inter alia - acquired a new wardrobe suitable for the colder climate of the north and the different life style at Meduseld. In this matter Queen Arwen had a few ideas of her own to contribute and so Lothíriel found herself spending much too much time on a small pedestal with seamstresses pricking needles into her. One gown after the other made its way into the chests, and the chests increased day by day. She could only hope that there was plenty of space at Meduseld to store them all and, if she avoided gaining too much weight over the next decades, she should have enough gowns to wear until her dying day.
The more interesting items of clothing to be made for her were the riding habits. As a girl she had ridden astride, wearing leggings and bootees under wide skirts. Usually, when about thirteen or fourteen years, a girl approaching womanhood would change to riding side-saddle. But at that age Lothíriel had spent most of her days at her ailing mother's side in the Houses of Healing, and when travelling they had used carriages or ships between the Harlond and Dol Amroth. She hadn't been on horseback since before her fourteenth birthday and never been instructed how to ride side-saddle.
Queen Arwen had declared that there was absolutely no need for her to learn now as the Rohirric women all rode astride. To Lothíriel's relief her brothers – at least Erchirion and Amrothos – and, more importantly, her father had agreed. Those side-saddles had never inspired great confidence in her. After her first riding habit had been ready – suede breeches, sturdy boots and a dress with an ankle-length split skirt, Erchirion and Amrothos had insisted of dragging her out at least every other day to ride. Both had thought it rather ludicrous that the King of the Horselords had – of all women – chosen one who preferred horses from a distance - from a rather far distance -to be his bride. That was not entirely true. Lothíriel thought horses to be very beautiful animals and she had really loved her pony. But these big horses had also rather big teeth and four hooves and were better not trusted.
Of course her brothers had been right. She needed to revive her riding skills, or even better, she had to improve them. And as with everything Lothíriel took into her head to do she had put her utmost effort into it. But those rides with her brothers across the Pelennor and along the Anduin could not have prepared her for entire days and day after day on horseback. For the past three mornings it had required all of her self-control not to whine but to climb into the saddle. The daily sections of their journey seemed to drag on longer and longer and she couldn't find anything that would take her mind from her aching body. Long had the glorious landscape lost its ability to distract her.
On her left, since they had left the Drúadan Forest behind them and followed the Great West Road, were the peaks of the Ered Nimrais. They were strung together like a massive, seemingly boundless chain. Nothing but ridges, jagged peaks, ravines, steep slopes, snowfields and glaciers. Wild and untamed beauty as far as the eye could see; one of the great mountain barriers dividing Middle-Earth.
If her eyes needed a rest from this curt and savage sight she could turn to the right, which presented the view of gently rolling hills running into the green ocean of an endless plain. From that direction two riders approached in a checked gallop, slowing down to a canter when they drew nearer to the travellers. Erchirion and Amrothos found their pace much too slow and whiled away the time with short reconnaissance expeditions along their route. Now they rode up to their sister and put her between them.
Trying to avoid any unnecessary movement Lothíriel just turned her head once to her right and then to her left to acknowledge them.
Erchirion looked her up and down with a pitying smile. "How are you faring, dearest?"
"I do not know." Lothíriel answered irritably. "I have no possibility of comparison."
Her brothers chuckled.
"That bad?" Erchirion inquired, and of course Amrothos had to shove his oar in. "Or maybe even worse?" he asked.
"Worse!" She spat out that one word with emphasis.
"Worse than worse would be worst," Amrothos pondered. "Can there anything be worse than worst?"
His siblings considered that a pure rhetorical musing and therefore chose to refrain from responding to it in any way.
"I am afraid we have all misjudged the strain so many days spent on horseback would inflict on you." Erchirion's smile had faded to a concerned frown. "It would have had been better had we accepted a longer time of travel so that you could have used a carriage."
"It is much too late for considerations of that kind," Amrothos interjected. "And I doubt that a journey in a carriage would have been much more comfortable." He gestured towards the road in front of them. "The treks of wains with the provisions have done great damage over the cold months. A carriage would have just bumped from one pothole into the next."
"And it really does not matter any more." Lothíriel didn't feel she had the patience for the pointless discussion that threatened to arise. "Hopefully we will have reached Aldburg by early afternoon."
It had been agreed that they would be met by Éomer King and the Royal Guard at Aldburg, the seat of the Marshals of the Eastmark, which lay only less than a day's journey from Edoras. From there, the Lord of the Mark would accompany his chosen bride and present her to the citizens of Rohan's capital.
At this very moment Lothíriel had reached a state where the prospect of meeting Éomer again had taken second place, on her personal scale of important issues, behind the prospect of a long soak in a big tub filled with very hot water enriched by a cup of oil from the laurel fruit. She was just glad that she had thought to add the muscle relaxing oil and a pain-relieving thyme salve to the few remedies she had with her, although she could not have even guessed how badly she would be in need of them.
All her possessions had been sent to Edoras two weeks prior to their own departure from Minas Tirith. The dowry of the future Queen of Rohan had taken up four heavy wains. Two of them alone for the healing equipment Lothíriel had put together and paid for, with the permission of her father, of course, with a relatively small sum from her dowry money that Éomer had refused to accept.
From some remarks Queen Arwen had made she had gathered that, although there were healers in Rohan, their standard of knowledge could not be compared to those at the Houses of Healing. On her careful enquiry Lady Cynewyn had confirmed that the Rohirric healers concentrated mainly on the treatment of wounds and injuries but were rarely consulted or competent when it came to common illnesses. Also there was no central setting – not even in Edoras - to take in patients. Treatment was administered at their homes or wherever they found shelter.
That was a situation Lothíriel intended to change. The healers had to become better educated. The basic training she would be able do herself. But then there had to be several chosen from among the most promising to be sent to the Houses of Healing for a thorough education. She was certain that King Elessar would permit such a scheme; she had just to convince the Rohirric healers . . . and their king.
Of course, she could not blurt out her plans as soon as she entered Edoras. People would certainly not appreciate a foreign queen who came to them with the intention of pushing through changes from the very first day. But she carried the conviction that, in the course of some time, she would be able to make the relevant people see that it would be beneficial if the Rohirrim adopted certain skills from the Gondorians. She was also convinced that it would do the Gondorians some good if they took up a few traits from the Horselords. But that should not be her concern. Her sole concern was, from now on, her own people, the people of Rohan.
While trying to ignore her brothers' bickering, Lothíriel failed to give her attention to her mare. The elegant chestnut suddenly decided that the ground on the right-hand side of the path looked less rough and therefore was preferable for her hooves. With no consideration to the fact that Amrothos's horse was already walking there, she pushed her way over in front of him, bumping into the bigger gelding. Her sudden manoeuvre surprised both horse and rider, and Amrothos couldn't prevent his red roan from startling and throwing up his head and, in the course of doing so, hitting Lothíriel hard against her shoulder. She was unable to hold back a cry. A wave of pain ran through her sore body. Erchirion urged his own gelding forward and seized her mare by the reins to bring her to a halt. Amrothos, who had his horse in hand again, reached over to support her.
"You are well, midget?" he asked, looking uncharacteristically worried.
Hearing this much despised childhood nickname, Lothíriel turned her head too quickly for the comfort of her neck, but she ignored the dull pain and glared at her brother.
"Use that word one more time and I will ram wormwood down your throat," she threatened, truly meaning it. But her brothers just burst out laughing.
Unfortunately her cry of pain had attracted the attention of her father and King Elessar, who had been riding at the head of the procession. They came back towards them at a fast trot, Elphir behind them. Lothíriel groaned, earning herself another chuckle from Erchirion and Amrothos. She just wanted to suffer in peace and quiet. She was able to bear anything as long as she was not forced to talk about it.
Imrahil reined in his horse, scrutinizing his daughter from head to toe. "Lothíriel, we have only a short journey to manage today. If it is your wish we can take a rest."
Lothíriel was grateful her father hadn't asked how she was faring. She could not have guaranteed her answer. "Thank you, Father. But I would prefer it if we continued to Aldburg." With an irritable sigh she added candidly, and rather unthinkingly, "I just want to get out of these clothes and into a hot bath." Neither her prickly tone nor her choice of words was entirely proper in the presence of the King, but Elessar didn't seem to take offence judging by his understanding smile. And her father and her younger brothers also didn't respond in any way. Only Elphir couldn't let this breach of etiquette simply go.
"Sister, your manners leave a great deal to be desired. You have to attach more importance to your speech."
Lothíriel was highly tempted to tell him what he could do with his patronizing attitude but Amrothos was, of course, quicker with his reply. He smiled at his eldest brother, who had ridden up beside him, and laid his hand on his shoulder. "You know, Elphir. You may look like a moron and talk like a moron but we will not let that fool us. You really are a moron."
"A truer word has hardly ever been spoken," Erchirion confirmed in all friendliness, "or at least not since dawn."
Amrothos gave him a glance of utter surprise. "When people agree with me, I always feel that I must be wrong," he said, sounding slightly disappointed.
Normally, Imrahil avoided getting between the lines when his offspring plunged into a battle of words, but this time he raised his hand and gave all of them a suppressive look, demanding wordlessly, a ceasefire.
"It is your decision, Lothíriel, but please let not your stubbornness overrule your common sense."
"Your father is right, Lady Lothíriel," the King said gently. "The tiredness you are feeling is nothing to be embarrassed about. Most men, not used to long hours on horseback, would have demanded a day of rest long ago."
Inwardly Lothíriel was scolding herself for not having been able to cover her discomfort better. She hadn't wanted her companions to become aware of how exhausted she truly was. Now, that the King and her father had left the head of their party, the entire procession had come to a halt and she had the feeling everybody was looking at her and becoming aware of her misery. She was only waiting for someone to make a remark about her delicateness - that was the last thing she needed to hear right now. She was able to deal with her condition as long as she was just left alone. As a healer she was well aware that there was nothing to be alarmed about. A good night's sleep in a comfortable bed and a few days of rest were all what her body needed.
She decided that some self-mockery would convince the others that there was nothing to be worried about. "It is not false pride, my Lord King, that lets me choose to ride on without a rest. It is rather the fear that when I get off the horse, I will not be able to mount it again." She managed a genuine sounding chuckle. "At least not in a remotely dignified manner." Her light tone appeared to persuade the men that her condition was not that serious.
The King turned half around in the saddle and pointed towards the direction they were travelling. "Do you see the foothills ahead of us? Behind them lies Aldburg." He looked up at the sky where the sun was barely recognizable behind low clouds. At least it wasn't raining any more as it had been for four days of their journey. "We have made good pace this morning. Shortly after midday we will arrive at our destination for today." Elessar gave her a pensive smile. "You certainly do have a stubborn streak, my Lady. That makes me wonder."
He didn't explain what made him wonder. Lothíriel watched him, slightly puzzled, as he returned together with her father to the head of the procession, gesturing to the guards to continue the journey. She could hardly call after her king and demand clarification.
She wasn't given the time to ponder Elessar's words. Elphir, who had unfortunately not joined his liege and his father again but stayed with his siblings, demanded her attention. When she was a child, the eldest of her brothers had showed the most patience when it came to answering her irrepressible questions. Her memory from that time recalled a reserved but warm-hearted adolescent who always found the time to tell his little sister a story. Retrospectively, she could not have said when or how their relationship had changed. But it seemed to be impossible for her to meet Elphir's standards when it came to proper behaviour – or what he considered to be the proper behaviour for his sister.
Nobody had protested with more outrage when their father permitted her to seek an education as a healer. While Erchirion had argued that she was too young to be separated from her family, Elphir considered it simply undignified that the Princess of Dol Amroth would have to care for people of lower birth. And she had learnt from Amrothos that he had – very much to Imrahil's surprise – tried to foil her bond with Éomer. Whatever his objections had been, her father had kept them to himself. Lothíriel, however, was afraid that her brother suffered from the same prejudice as so many of the Gondorians, who considered the Rohirrim inferior to them. She just wished Elphir had not insisted upon accompanying her to Edoras. If Éomer's opinion about Amrothos was not overly favourable she rather did not wish to find out what he might come to think of Elphir.
Unintentionally another groan escaped her, this one having nothing to do with her physical condition, but giving her eldest brother just another reason for one of his constant grumbles.
"The preparation of this whole journey was exceedingly inefficient," he declared.
"Thank you," murmured Erchirion, who had been the one responsible for said preparation. His brother took no notice.
"If it was decided – for reasons I still fail to understand – that Lothíriel should not travel in a carriage then at least she should have been provided with a palfrey."
"As she is not using a side-saddle there is not any real point in her riding an ambler." Erchirion miraculously succeeded in keeping the annoyance that he must be feeling from his voice.
Lothíriel began to wonder how long it would take for Amrothos to interfere . . . and then the true enjoyment would begin. At this moment she wished her brothers – all three of them, although Amrothos would pretend to be deeply offended if he knew – far away. By preference on the opposite side of the Ered Nimrais.
"Well, she should not be riding astride anyway." Elphir appeared to have every intention of dragging up an issue which had been crossed off long ago. "It is highly inappropriate for a lady of her standing. Had I known that you two were encouraging her to behave so inappropriately, I would have intervened at once."
"Over-estimation of his abilities is a trait in a man that never ceases to amaze me," Amrothos remarked, somewhat rhetorically.
Lothíriel caught Erchirion's gaze, harbouring between exasperation and amusement. Trying to mediate a truce between the eldest and the youngest of Imrahil's sons could become hazardous for one's own health.
"There is certainly no danger that anybody will overestimate your abilities," Elphir retorted humourlessly. "Up till today they have managed to keep themselves successfully hidden."
"Great talents flourish in obscurity," Amrothos reminded him with a suspiciously easy grin.
"If you have any talent at all then it is only the one of embarrassing others in front of their liege."
"If you mean by others - you, then let me assure you, you do not need any help to make a fool of yourself. So far, you have done very well on your own."
Elphir scowled, and looked at his younger brother in what he took for superiority. "Let me give you one piece of well meant advice . . . "
Amrothos was, of course, not interested in whatever lecture was going to follow and interrupted before he had to listen to it. "In my experience, good advice is something a man gives when he is unable to set a good example."
Lothíriel felt like shrieking. For a short moment she had the notion to dismount, sit down on the spot and refuse to take another step. Instead she cast a pleading glance at Erchirion who took pity on her.
"Hold it," he growled in his best authoritive voice. "I am fed up to the back teeth with both of you behaving in this infantile way. Do you believe your constant quarrelling makes Lothíriel feel any better?"
Instantly Amrothos, who was riding next to her, leaned forward and put his hand over hers. "I apologize, midg . . . sorry, dearest," he said with a smirk, rubbing his thumb over her knuckles. "Would it help, if we just left you on your own?"
"It would be indeed of benefit to my well-being if you and Elphir could move your arguments out of my earshot," Lothíriel replied with a strained smile.
"Your wish is my command." He squeezed her hand once more and then reined in his gelding. "Well, Elphir, let us take to our heels. You may try to outwit me at a distance."
"You may remove yourself," his eldest brother answered, sounding distinctly complacent. "There are a few instructions I have to give to Lothíriel before she meets her betrothed."
As Amrothos was now behind them the only reaction Lothíriel could get from him was a loud snort. Erchirion shot his older brother a look that left no doubt about what he was thinking of his frame of mind.
"Elphir," he began in a voice of forced calmness, "I would really appreciate it if you were capable of comprehending a few simple things. For example knowing when you have outstayed your welcome. You will be the healthier for it."
"It is not within your sphere of duty to tell me what to do and what not to do," Elphir repelled in a tone of hauteur.
"How about blackmail?" Amrothos had ridden up to him again. "I will tell Father that you are pestering Lothíriel and speaking ill of Éomer . . . once again."
"What?" Lothíriel stared alternately at her brothers in disbelief. "What are you talking about, Amrothos?"
But her brothers paid her no attention. Amrothos gave Elphir, who looked most irritated, a very unpleasant smile. "King Elessar will certainly be quite interested to learn what the heir of Dol Amroth has to say about a man he calls his brother."
Elphir's face worked furiously, his jaw jerking a couple of times. "I will not be intimidated."
"I was not considering intimidation," Amrothos clarified. "I was thinking about embarrassing you in front of your liege."
Elphir shot Erchirion an indignant glance, but the former just dismissively shrugged his shoulders. Snarling, the oldest of the Dol Amroth princes reined in his horse with too much force, causing the animal to rear. Giving it a violent touch of the spurs he forced the brown gelding into a gallop, leaving his siblings behind. Lothíriel was only just able to calm her startled mare.
Her brothers exchanged a look.
"Apart from those present, I really do prefer the concept of elective affinity," Amrothos announced before he spurred his horse into a canter to close up to his father and the King. As long as he was riding in their vicinity, Elphir would be reminded of his threat.
The abrupt movements of her shying horse hadn't helped Lothíriel's aching muscles. She pulled a face and then turned to Erchirion.
"What is the matter with Elphir? He has always been a bit smug and pompous. But I have the feeling I do not know him any more."
Erchirion waited a long time before responding. When he did, it was obvious he was somehow at a loss. "So do I," he finally said. "I wish it could be so simple to just say that five years ago he chose the wrong wife, one he cannot live with in contentment. Oraineth is very competent to run a noble household and she is fulfilling all the responsibilities of the wife of a Prince of Dol Amroth, admirably, but she is not a woman who is easily gratified." This was the first time ever Erchirion had made a judgement on his brother's wife.
Lothíriel's eyebrows drew together in thought. "Am I right in the assumption that she was not overly joyous when Father refused her brother's suit and promised me to Éomer?" Erchirion opened his mouth to answer, when Lothíriel cut him off. "Is she the reason why Elphir has opposed my union with Éomer so strongly?"
Erchirion looked at her quizzically. "Amrothos has told you that?"
"Yes, he has," his sister confirmed. "And for some reason of your own neither Father nor you felt it necessary to tell me that my oldest brother threw a tantrum when he was informed about my betrothal to the King of Rohan."
"You know, Elphir would reject emphatically the reproach that he had ever thrown a tantrum."
Lothíriel wouldn't let anything distract her. "If he disapproves so vehemently of this union why has he insisted upon accompanying us to Edoras?"
"He still finds it hard to accept, but as he cannot do anything to prevent it he will at least make certain that everything will be conducted properly."
"And he feels that the presence of Father and King Elessar will not be enough to guarantee compliance with the proprieties?" Lothíriel gave her head a little shake of non-comprehension. "What does he think could happen anyway?"
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Erchirion grinning and suddenly it dawned on her. "You cannot be serious," she said much too loudly. A couple of guards, riding in front, turned to look back at them.
"That is our brother for you," Erchirion reminded her, mockingly apologetic.
"I will be bonded to Éomer in three days and he feels until then he has to guard my . . ." She interrupted herself, unable to voice her thought.
"Your chastity?" Erchirion offered helpfully.
She averted her eyes, fighting one of those blushes, which always seemed to loom under her skin. "Amrothos is perfectly right. He is a moron!"
"That is one of Amrothos's more complimentary expressions. According to his newest theory, Elphir is an experiment."
Lothíriel raised her eyebrows questioningly.
"He thinks Father was still experimenting when he begot Elphir . . . and the experiment went wrong."
"Sweet Elbereth!" Only very rarely did Lothíriel let herself use profane language. "I just hope he did not mention that to others than you."
"He came up with that theory only last night." He chuckled a little. "But I have no doubt he will make it known to the world soon enough."
"That means there is not the slightest prospect of some peace and quiet in the near future."
"Not as long as Elphir and Amrothos are within the vicinity of each other."
"I set my hope in Éomer." Lothíriel gave a sigh in which irritation and frustration were mixed.
"It makes sense that a woman sets her hope in her coming union." Erchirion nodded his agreement.
"I was thinking more along the line of Éomer disembowelling at least one of those two brothers of mine; my preference being Elphir."
"Your demands on a husband are slightly unusual," her third brother commented wryly.
"I would not know what other demands to have on my husband or what hope I should set in this union." The moment she had spoken those words of uncertainty, she wished she had kept them inside as she had done for months now.
"Lothíriel?" The smile had faded from Erchirion's voice.
She felt his gaze on her profile and let her mind frantically search for words to tone down what she had just let slip out.
"Lothíriel, what is wrong?"
"You are not telling the truth," Erchirion accused her in a gentle tone.
Lothíriel caught his glance and swallowed. She felt her poise crumble slightly under his intense scrutiny.
"I am nervous. What do you expect? In three days I am going to be bonded to a man I hardly know and whom I have not seen in nine months."
"The fact of the matter is that you knew that when you gave your consent to the betrothal. Nothing has changed. And you enumerated several reasons why it was supposed to be a sensible decision."
This reasonable tone of her brother was really something to get annoyed with; especially because he only repeated the words her own inner voice of reason had been telling her again and again. But that did not ease those feelings of nervousness and anxiety.
"When I gave my consent I was still under the influence of my encounters with Éomer." That had come out somehow the wrong way, she thought. "I am not trying to say that now I regret having given my consent," she added in a rush. "But he is rather overwhelming and . . ." She let her voice trail off into silence, wondering when she had lost the ability to express herself in plain sentences.
She heard a low chuckle from Erchirion.
"I do not know Éomer King as well as our father does, but I have seen him fight. That man is a force of nature and I suppose that is how he comes across no matter in what situation."
"I will second that any time," Lothíriel murmured.
"If you do not regret your decision, then what is so obviously bothering you?" Erchirion tried to probe a bit deeper.
"When I gave my agreement to Father's plan, I was following my own feelings and wishes. At that moment they seemed most important, although of course, I wondered about Éomer's motivation and sentiments."
"Have your wishes and feelings changed?" he inquired carefully
"No," she hastened to clarify. "No, not at all. But suddenly . . . No, not suddenly but gradually it has become more important to know what Éomer . . . why Éomer consented to Father's plan and why he proposed. I am going to become the wife of a man whose reason to take me as his wife I do not understand."
"Perhaps his reasons are similar to yours," her brother asked her to consider.
"I do not think so." That came out with so much conviction that Erchirion blew out a long breath of surprise.
"What makes you so certain?"
"He is a man."
Erchirion blinked, again surprised. "I beg your pardon?"
"Men are different," Lothíriel pointed out as if those three words made everything quite clear.
"And you came to this conclusion . . . why? . . . how?"
"I had a lengthy discussion with Amrothos on the subject."
Erchirion coughed a couple of times and then cleared his throat. "Lothíriel, I do not think that a discussion with Amrothos is the right approach to get to the bottom of a dilemma."
She pointed a finger at him. "At least he is willing to discuss anything with me."
"Now I am truly worried."
Lothíriel swung around too quickly in the saddle and had to stifle a small groan. "Those were Father's words once. And I would not have thought that you too, would knock Amrothos."
"I am not knocking him," Erchirion appeased her. "I appreciate our brother for what he is: probably the most intelligent and gifted of Father's male offspring. But one cannot overlook the fact that his perception of the world is slightly different from the rest of mankind."
Without reflecting on his words Lothíriel just wanted to follow the impulse to defend her youngest brother, but Erchirion waved her silent.
"Let us forget about Amrothos for the moment. As I said before, I do not know Éomer King that well, but Father does and so does our liege. Over the past months I couldn't help but gain the impression that Elessar is absolutely satisfied with you becoming Éomer's wife. And as he had never made a secret out of the fact that he feels deeply about any of his friend's concerns, I think we can infer from that, that this union suits your betrothed wholly. After all, he did propose."
"After Father made an offer to him."
"Lothíriel!" Erchirion allowed impatience to interlace his voice. "Soon you will face Éomer. Why not wait this short time, if possible without cudgelling your brain? And furthermore," Erchirion bit his lower lip in a failed attempt to suppress a grin, "you will ask him."
"Ask whom what?" she inquired, hesitantly because she suspected his reply.
"You will ask Éomer why he wishes to make you his wife." He nodded with emphasis at the dismissive wave of her hand. "Yes, you will! If you have a question, you will seek the answer. That is a law of nature."
Lothíriel chose not to continue this discussion. Usually it was not like her to withdraw from an argument but the tiredness and exhaustion of her body had seized hold of her mind, which was working much too slowly and disorderly for her liking. She felt inferior to any potential verbal adversary at the moment.
Erchirion accepted her quietness. They rode side by side in peaceable silence. That was something Lothíriel appreciated about her middle brother. He did not feel the constant urge to speak, unlike Elphir who took any chance to lecture any in his vicinity or Amrothos who liked to keep himself occupied with his - admittedly - highly original verbal exercises.
Erchirion offered nothing but his presence. She was going to miss him. As she was going to miss Amrothos . . . and her father, of course. This would be a different kind of separation from her family than the one five years ago, when she relocated from Dol Amroth to the Houses of Healing. This one would be a finality. If she would be able to see her family as much as once a year she would count herself fortunate. That was the fate of women. It was they who had to leave everything behind and settle in with their husband and his kin. But in this case it was only Éomer. And she could not have said if that was an advantage or rather the opposite. As she was unable to predict anything about her future life.
Lost in her train of thought Lothíriel had failed to realize that they had reached the foothills King Elessar had pointed out earlier. They followed the eroded road through a sparsely wooded forest. Although the month of Viressë had been past by half the trees, showed hardly any of the first green of spring. In contrast, when they had left Minas Tirith, the woods of Anórien had stood in full foliage.
Soon they had passed through the wood and in front of them, to their left, rose a steep hill. On its top stood a fortified dwelling with walls of granite blocks and wooden palisades: Aldburg, the first seat of Eorl the Young after he and his people had been rewarded with the province of Calenardhon. Éomer's home as a young child, and after when he was the Third Marshal of the Riddermark.
As soon as the first riders, the standard-bearers of the King of Gondor and the Prince of Dol Amroth, emerged into the open field, they were sighted by guards in the gatehouse tower, who announced their arrival with the sound of a horn. Lothíriel had heard a similar sound before. She had heard it in the first light of dawn when the people of Minas Tirith, after a night of fear and desperation, had already given up hope. At that moment she had not fully understood the meaning of that sound, could not have known that it meant deliverance.
Over the last half mile the Guards of Gondor and Dol Amroth, who had travelled until then in loose groups, formed themselves into a military procession. Erchirion and Lothíriel had closed up to their father and their liege and Amrothos had taken again his place on his sister's other side, leaving an infuriated Elphir to tag along behind them.
Four horse lengths before the standard-bearer reached the gate the heavy panels were swung open, admitting the travellers inside. Lothíriel had hardly the time to admire the elaborate carvings of the gate when she found herself in the centre of a spacious inner courtyard, crowded by uncountable horses and tall blond men in mail and armour.
She had been told they would be received by the Royal Guard, but these riders did not look like a guard of honour. Even Lothíriel with her lack of experience was able to determine that those men had returned, not long ago, from an armed encounter. The horses were sweaty and dirty and so were their masters. A few of them had makeshift bandages, others were checking damaged weapons, but by and large they gave a blithe and rather excited impression. Whatever clash they had been involved in, they must have had secured victory. The calls, with which they hailed Gondor's King, were also calls of jubilance.
"It looks as if our Rohirric friends found a way to entertain themselves whilst waiting for us," Amrothos remarked, sounding quite envious.
Suddenly a whisper of awareness tingled through Lothíriel. She sensed his presence just before he called out.
Lothíriel turned towards the familiar voice, a shiver going down her spine. Had she truly feared she would not recognize it just because she had not heard it for a mere nine months?
Éomer stood on the top of the stairs leading to the hall, smiling at his friend and brother. She had never seen him wearing his full armour. He looked larger and broader than she remembered, and she asked herself how he was able to walk in all that mail, metal and leather, leave alone fight. Without a doubt the warrior, from that night long ago, was back. This time, fortunately, not wounded. At least, as far as she could tell from a distance.
And the dirt was back.
Rohan's King was definitely in need of a bath.
Elessar jumped off his horse and walked towards his friend who made his way down the five steps from the hall. "Éomer, is there a particular reason why the Royal Guard appears to have just returned from battle?"
Instead of an answer Gondor's King was given a tight bear hug, pressing him against a hard cuirass. The embrace looked not only uncomfortable but also painful. He freed himself with a laugh and cupped the younger man's face between his hands, pulling him closer so that there was just a hand's width between their noses.
"You are still not listening," he accused with pretended sternness.
"Of course I have been listening," the Rohír answered with a wide grin, seizing his friend's forearms. "I did not go out on my own. I took my guard."
"Éomer, you are a hopeless case."
"We had to find a way to occupy ourselves. I was thrown out of Meduseld. The women folk have taken over with the preparation of the festivities."
"And I might have escorted your bride only to find she would have to patch you up."
Éomer smile disappeared at Aragorn's words and, detaching himself from his friend, he slowly turned toward her. He did not have to search the crowd. He had known where to look for her. Suddenly Lothíriel was under the scrutiny of a pair of dark eyes and everything around her went out of focus when their gazes locked. It was too late to brace herself for the wave of excitement that always ran through her when she just . . . just saw him. Her stomach muscles contracted and her heartbeat quickened to a rate she would have considered, under normal circumstances, to be highly alarming.
Her pulse-rate was, right now, the least of her worries. He came toward her with the aggressive grace that was so much part of him, never taking his eyes off her. The intensity of his gaze held her captive until he was standing next to her. She could have touched him, but she was unable to move or to think of what else to do or to think of what to say.
Éomer looked up to her as if he was searching for something in her eyes. And whatever it was, he must have found it because his smile returned and the charm of that smile caught Lothíriel unexpectedly and warmed her like a blazing fire on a cold night. Suddenly she was filled with the most wonderful sense of anticipation, as if she were standing at the edge of something, about to embark on a spectacular adventure.
He extended a hand towards her. Lothíriel looked down at it. The hand of the warrior, well-formed but also strong and rough; caked with dirt and blood. Éomer must only have realised that when he followed her gaze, and he was about to pull his hand back when Lothíriel quickly grabbed it with her gloved one. She let the reins, which she held still in her other hand, fall onto her mare's shoulders and began to pull the glove from her fingers without letting Éomer's hand go. He watched her manoeuvre until her bare hand lay in his. His gaze returned to her face, his eyes gleaming more gold than green. Slowly he pulled her hand to his lips and she could feel them on her knuckles, firm and warm.
"Welcome to the Riddermark, Lothíriel of Dol Amroth."
He had spoken loud enough for all in their vicinity to hear, but his next words came in a whisper, meant only for her.
"I have been waiting for you."