A/N: First Meetings was written as a birthday present for Lialathuveril. It comprises six stories and a series of drabbles, which will be updated on a bi-daily basis. Lady Bluejay graciously betaed the anthology.
Lothíriel closed her eyes and leaned into the kiss, her breath hitching in her throat at the feel of warm soft lips pressing against hers and gentle hands caressing her neck and back. She knew it was wrong, to be wantonly kissing a man she barely knew, in the open where anyone could see, but it felt so good to be held. It had been so long since she had been held...
"Princess Lothíriel!" The sudden bark made her partner pull back in shock, and her own heart leapt with adrenaline. But she looked defiantly up into the angry face of the King of Rohan. "What are you doing?" he demanded.
She tilted her chin up, looked from him to her partner and back to him, and stated the obvious. "Kissing."
His eyes narrowed. "So I gathered," he rumbled, and looked towards the other man. The King started forward, but Lothíriel stepped with him, staying between the two men; he looked down in surprise and vexation.
"You do not need to shield me--" the man behind her said.
"Go," she said, without looking back. "If the King of Rohan has a quarrel with me, he can discuss it with me." She felt her expression harden as she kept her gaze locked with the angry Rohir. "Go." After a tense moment, she heard footsteps. The King stepped forward as if to go after her companion, but she stayed where she was, blocking his path. His eyes flicked down to her, then back up.
"I will deal with you," he promised the other man, "later." There was a tense silence as they waited for the other man to disappear past the battlements, and Lothíriel felt her heart beating forcefully in her chest. Then the King looked back down at her, and instinctively she tilted her chin up even further as she stared back at him. She couldn't tell in the dim light whether he was disgusted or just displeased. "That was not fitting behavior for a princess."
"Who are you to judge my behavior?" she retorted. "I do not recall asking you to do it." Even to her ears, her words sounded childish.
"I am a friend of your father's," he responded instantly. "I would not see his daughter dishonor her family by acting... with extreme impropriety."
"Dishonor!" She let out a snort of mirthless laughter and turned away so he could not see the tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. "Yes, honor is very important." Lothíriel could not keep the sardonicism out of her voice. "And duty." She did not know whether she felt more like laughing or crying, but either would be hysterical. "But when they are all that is left to me, it will be cold comfort."
"I am glad you recognize what you owe," the king said, but his voice sounded less certain now. "But--"
"If I admit to being wanton and shameless," she said, and was frightened when
she barely recognized her own voice. "Can we consider this discussion over?"
"You mock me." She could hear just by the tone of his voice that the King's eyes had narrowed again. "If your father will not speak to you--"
"Oh, yes, my father has been very lacking in that regard." She knew she sounded bitter.
"Obviously so, if you kiss a stranger on the battlements of Minas Tirith in full view of everyone below!"
"He is not a stranger!" she said. "I met him at dinner." She ignored the king's disbelieving snort. "And he-- he was willing to talk to me." She swallowed. "He was willing to listen."
"He was willing to do quite a bit more than that, I'd say," the king said harshly.
"He was not!" Lothíriel retorted. "He is one of the king's knights, he has honor!"
"One of the king's knights?"
She realized she'd inadvertently revealed more than she'd intended. "You will not seek him out!" she insisted. "You will not try to get him into trouble."
"He deserves it, for taking advantage of the prince's daughter. If he is one of Aragorn's knights, he has a duty--"
She whirled. "I am sick of duty, and he is a better man than you!" A lump was forming in her throat, but she swallowed hard and forced it back as the king of Rohan's astonishment faded into anger. "He saw I was upset, and he was just trying to comfort me, and you-- all you do is stand there and badger me and you have no idea--" The sobs tore from her throat and she spun around again, too proud to let him see her crying. Sliding to her knees on the cold stone, she rested her head against the low wall. "I just wanted to be held," she choked, speaking only to herself now. "I did not mind if that meant I had to be kissed as well."
She waited for the sound of retreating footsteps, and when none came she bowed her head, imagining the king staring down at her in disgust at the thought that her tears were meant to sway him. At least he would have nothing further to say to her. But though she tried to deny it, the thought of him telling her father what he had seen sent a cold, sick feeling through her. It is too late to change anything now. I will not plead with him. She buried her face in her hands as fresh sobs wracked her body.
The touch on her elbow made her start. "My lady," he said, his voice much gentler. "It was not my intention to reduce you to tears. Will you forgive me?"
She shook her head. "You were not wrong," she said, striving to keep her voice even. "You were right. Even if duty and honor are all that remain to me... I must uphold them." No matter how desperate she was for some simple human comfort. She sniffled and buried her face more deeply in her hands.
"No," he said. "I was wrong. I did not see that you were hurting." Startled, she dropped her hands and looked at him. He was kneeling beside her, and the anger had vanished from his expression, leaving only compassion. "Will you not tell me what is wrong?"
No one else had noticed that anything was wrong, not her father, nor her brothers, nor her cousin. Yet this man, this King she barely knew, had realized within moments of speaking to her. After a minute, she dried her eyes with the back of her hands. "Do you know how I spent the war?"
"Your father left you in charge of Dol Amroth."
Lothíriel nodded. "The city was full of refugees from Dor-en-Ernil," she whispered, and was quiet for a moment. "There was so much fear. Every day we heard fresh news of corsair raids, and the people would panic. It was so hard to keep order. When they are frightened... people will do horrible things to each other." She closed her eyes, trying to blot out the memories. "Every night I lay awake thinking that if the corsairs came, we did not have the strength to defend... and every morning I looked around, wondering if anything would still be there by nightfall." Her voice began to shake. "I was terrified. I knew I would fail my people if the enemy came, and see them all die, and yet they trusted me to lead them." She felt hot tears roll down her face again. "I was so alone." Her throat began to close. "Then when I came to Minas Tirith... my family was too busy to listen to me. They are taken up with celebrations, but I cannot forget the war." Her voice broke. "I am still alone." She pressed her hands to her eyes, but the king gently lifted her wrists away and pulled her forward so she was resting against his chest. He put his arms around her, and the simple human contact broke the last of her barriers, and she began to sob silently.
His hand moved gently on her back. "Forgive me if I am forward," he whispered, but his hold did not slacken, and she buried her face in his cloak as her body shook. All the grief and fear and worry of the past months, that she had kept bottled inside, poured out of her as she cried in the king's arms.
Finally her tears slowed. "You must think me weak," she said softly, turning her head so he would hear her.
"No." His voice was a rumble against her ear. "I think you very strong. It is harder to wait while someone decides your fate than to decide your own fate. To have kept so many safe with little experience and no guidance... would have crushed another."
"But I did not keep them safe!" Her voice was anguished. "If the corsairs had landed I would have been helpless! The streets would have run red with blood."
"But the corsairs did not land. They did not strike the most tempting target of the southern coast. Why is that?"
"Providence," she whispered.
She felt his head shake. "No. They thought you were strong." She looked up at him. "If you had not kept order in the city, if it had dissolved into chaos, then assuredly they would have landed."
Lothíriel blinked, and sat up, and considered this carefully. Finally she whispered, "Thank you for that."
"I am only telling the truth."
She looked at where her head had rested. "I've made a dreadful mess of your clothes," she said abashedly.
"It's not as bad as horse snot."
Startled, she stared up at him, and then caught the hint of warmth in his eyes. She laughed softly; it was the first time she'd been able to do so for weeks. The knot inside of her, already loosened by her outpouring, dissolved a little further. Then she felt her cheeks heat. "You were right to chastise me, earlier," she said. "I... I beg your pardon for what I said."
He shook his head. "You should not barter your lips for comfort," he said softly. "You should not have to." He extended his hand, palm up. "My lady, I am here for you if you need me."
She felt tears rise in her eyes again, but this time at his unwarranted kindness. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you." She took his hand, and his grip tightened on hers, as if sealing a pact.
She was afraid that he would leave, but he continued to sit quietly next to her, his very presence comforting. She looked out over the battlements at the stars shining in the clear sky. They were another comfort, and between the two she found she could talk about the war without her throat tightening. "The waiting was horrible," she said softly. "No one knew if any of our men were still alive, or if we would wake up to find the world enslaved and an orc army on our borders." She shivered. "I knew even if we won, there was no guarantee any of our forces would have survived. And I did not even know how I was going to feed everyone for much longer."
"How old are you?"
"Twenty," Lothíriel said.
"When I was twenty I was still a common Rider. I could not have done what you did." He stared out at the stars. "I am not sure I can do it for my own people, now."
"I think you can," she said quietly.
After a moment he looked back at her. "I hope you are right." His thumb rubbed over her fingers.
There was a comfortable silence, and then he said, "Eowyn was charged to keep Dunharrow and lead the remnant of our people."
Lothíriel had not heard that before. "But she was on the Pelennor Fields."
"Yes," he said. "She left her charge. She thought there was no hope, and so she rode to her death."
"But--" Lothíriel was astonished. "But she slew the Witch King! She was valiant!"
"Yes," Éomer said again. "She did mighty feats of arms. She was strong in one way, yet weak in another."
"Are you... upset with her?"
"For abandoning her duty? I cannot be, for I understand too well why she did it. For putting herself in danger..." He sighed, very softly. "I will never forget what I felt when I thought she was dead." It was her turn now to hold his hand more tightly. "And I will never forget what I felt when your father told me she was not," he added. "I felt as if my heart had come back to life." He shook his head. "I am not upset with her."
"I did not think there was any hope, either," Lothíriel said after a few moments.
"And yet you did not give into despair. That is a different kind of strength," he said. "No less than Eowyn's." After a moment he added, "Shall we make songs about you, too?"
Lothíriel could not help laughing. "Lothíriel the City-Keeper?"
"If you like. I'm sure Legolas could find a tune for it."
"He has a voice like-- like running water," she agreed.
They sat in silence again, and then he asked, "Will you come riding with me tomorrow, my lady?"
"I would like that," she said softly. Sitting with him, she was more at ease than she had been in weeks; and if her demons came back in the middle of the night, it was still worth it. "I--"
"Lothíriel!" She jerked her head around to see her brother Amrothos coming towards them. "Are you there?"
"Yes," she called back after a second's hesitation. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," he said, sounding surprised. "I just wanted to know where you were." She was surprised, too; he'd never come looking for her before.
Beside her, the king had stiffened. "I would like a word with you," he said to the new arrival.
Lothíriel shook her head. "Not about me," she said softly. "Please."
"Your family should not have left you alone."
"I think... I think maybe I can tell him," she said. "Tonight."
Éomer hesitated. "As you wish, then."
"Éomer?" Amrothos asked. "Are you with her?" Lothíriel released Éomer's hand as he came up beside them, and looked at the moon and reluctantly rose to her feet.
"I should take my leave, my lord," she said. "It's very late."
"Until tomorrow, then," Éomer said.
She stepped forward. "Thank you," she whispered. "For everything."
Éomer took her hand again and gently raised it to his lips. "I am at your service, my lady."