The Field of Cormallen, a year later.
Swallows dived and skimmed across the clearing; the setting sun turned them into black specks and their high, twittering call filled the air. Chasing insects for their evening meal, they were oblivious of the colourful assembly below them.
I smiled to myself. The courtiers of Gondor were not so very different – moving in a complicated dance of greeting and bowing and equally bent on filling their bellies. Or at least the throng was thickest amongst the eaves of the wood, where great pavilions had been set up for the farewell dinner, holding long tables with food and drink.
An arm slipped around my waist. "The festivities are even more lavish and crowded than last year," my husband grumbled. "If I have to be polite to one more noble who fills my ears with boring tales of hunting, I will jump in the river."
I chuckled and leant back against him. "It adds to their importance, to be seen to be on friendly terms with the famous King of Rohan."
Éomer snorted. "At least they have stopped throwing their daughters at me. For that alone I will be eternally grateful to you."
"Really? In that case I might have to consider how you can repay me," I teased him.
He pulled me closer against his side. "I will come up with something," he murmured in my ear and breathed a kiss on my temple. His skilful fingers traced the gold necklace he had given me as an engagement present and which I had worn ever since. My family thought the delicate shapes were furled roses, but I recognized cabbages when I saw them.
I caught the eye of a portly matron regarding me with disapproval written all over her heavily painted features. But then Lady Aeves had never approved of my wild ways anyway, and in addition I had ruined her matrimonial plans for her youngest daughter by so selfishly marrying the King of Rohan myself.
"We're scandalizing the court of Gondor," I whispered to Éomer.
"But I haven't even kissed you properly yet," he complained.
Briefly I considered giving in to temptation – after all my reputation here was probably in the gutters anyway – but I did not want to distress Father any further. My escapade the year before had caused quite a few white hairs.
"Father wouldn't like it," I reminded Éomer. I did not need to add that we owed him quite a lot for being so reasonable at having his daughter abducted.
Éomer gave an exaggerated sigh. "And what about your poor husband?"
"He will just have to wait."
"Lately I seem to spend a lot of time waiting," Éomer said, but relaxed his grip reluctantly. "Why, it took me half a year cooling my heels in Meduseld to gain my wife!"
I snorted. "It's traditional for grooms not to see their brides until the wedding day. And anyway, six months' engagement is scandalously hurried by Gondorian standards. Most women take longer than that just to settle on their wedding dress."
"I would have preferred six days."
We grinned at each other, both remembering my father's face when Éomer had told him as much. It had taken a fair amount of persuasion on my part to assure Father that indeed nothing inappropriate had happened between us that day. And even more persuasion to let us marry without the traditional waiting period of a year. Éomer of course claimed that it had been the alluring prospect of having me off his hands and in the responsibility of a husband, which had swayed my father in the end!
I looked up at Éomer. "I seem to remember that you told me on our wedding night that some things are worth waiting for."
"So they are," he said, suddenly serious. "And I've waited many years for you to enter into my life...and turn it upside down."
I melted against him. Éomer's charm was hard to withstand when he was teasing me; in the rare moments when he dropped his mask of easy assurance with me, he was irresistible. And increasingly he was learning to let go around me, after living under constant tension for so long. Éowyn had told me a little of the years before the war and I understood his ceaseless wariness and need to protect those he loved much better now. Nobody had escaped the war unmarked; Éomer's wounds were just less visible than others. If it meant finding knives under my pillow and having a husband who woke at the least disturbance, I could put up with that. Besides, being woken up by Éomer in the middle of the night had its compensations.
So he got his kiss after all, with nothing hurried about it – my reputation was past saving anyway. And shouldn't a docile and obedient wife like me do her best to keep her husband happy and fulfil his every wish?
He let go of me again with a satisfied sigh. "Later..." he murmured.
Warmth pooled in my stomach. "Is everything ready?" I asked.
He nodded. "As arranged."
"Still suspects nothing."
We exchanged another grin. Poor Éothain! I had come to like him over the last few months, but he often reminded me of an anxious mother hen, the way he fussed over his king and queen's safety. Éomer's disappearance the year before had probably taken years off his life, and only the prospect of eventually having an heir to the House of Eorl had cheered him up again.
Éomer offered me his arm. "Shall we, my Lady Queen?"
Together we moved out into the clearing. I caught a few more scandalized stares by elderly matrons, but with my husband by my side they were easy to ignore. To my relief the Rohirrim had viewed the whole affair with a much more tolerant attitude. Éomer's riders even seemed to admire my action of pushing him in the water! Which was completely irrational when you considered how they worshipped him.
As usual people instantly cleared a way for him and we hardly needed the guards trailing behind us as at a discreet distance. It amused me with how much awe people here regarded him. But then they had not seen him overcome by the children of Edoras on the first snowfall of the winter. Everybody had pitched in the ensuing snowball fight and nobody had escaped unscathed, not even the king and queen! Or how he would stay up all night when a foal was due from one of his favourite mares, partaking of the thick black tea of the stable-hands. I'd fallen asleep against his side more than once while sharing his vigil, but he did not seem to mind, only carrying me back to our chambers in the morning.
At the other end of the clearing our table awaited us. Marshal Erkenbrand called a loud greeting and I resigned myself to endure the usual teasing of how I had mistaken him for Éomer the year before, but fortunately Éowyn and her husband rescued me.
"All set?" she enquired as she embraced me.
"We are," I answered.
Her eyes glittered with amusement. "Éothain?"
"Knows nothing," I reported.
She chuckled. "I'll take care of him, as promised. And we will see you in Emyn Arnen...eventually."
Aragorn had joined the group as well. "Ah yes," he threw in, "I've heard you're paying a visit to Éowyn and Faramir after the festivities." He kept his face carefully bland.
Too bland! Was there anybody present who did not know of our secret plan?
Éomer nodded, but a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "We are hoping to see some of the natural beauty of Gondor along the way," he answered in a matching tone.
"Well, I hope there will be less excitement than the last time you took a tour of Ithilien," Aragorn answered.
"And less work for my court of justice," Faramir threw in.
My husband inclined his head. "I've taken precautions."
A bow, two quivers full of arrows, a couple of spears, his sword, to say nothing of the knives hidden all over his person – you could certainly call that precautions!
Just then my father and brothers joined the group and thankfully the conversation turned to other topics. All during the following meal I had to suppress the rising sense of excitement coursing through me. After the farewell dinner tonight most of the nobles would depart for their homes, although some might linger at Cormallen a day or two longer. But Éomer and I had different plans...
However, first we had to mingle with the crowd a little longer. Usually I did not mind this royal duty, as it enabled me to make contacts that would hopefully later benefit our trading efforts, but tonight I was impatient. Slowly we threaded our way through the crowd, by no means in a straight line, but continually edging nearer the trees circling the small clearing. Éomer had dismissed our guards earlier on, and now he casually bent down as if he had dropped something. I moved on and with a loud exclamation of pleasure hailed Lord Uilthor, a neighbour of my father's. He looked a bit startled at my enthusiastic greeting, but was pleasant enough, and when I chanced a glance back I saw that Éomer had taken the opportunity to fade into the shadow of the trees. For such a large man he could move surprisingly softly. Everything was going as planned.
Now it just remained to wait a little, while he collected a bag of food from the kitchen tents, and then I would make my own disappearance. I discreetly craned my neck to see if Éothain had noticed anything, but true to her word Éowyn had engaged him in talk. Soon I took my leave of Lord Uilthor and made my way to where the crowd flowed in small eddies amongst the trees. Fanning myself with my hand as if I were hot, I edged further away. How fortunate that the colour of my adopted country was green, for my dress blended in nicely with the foliage.
Surely now nothing could go wrong anymore. In an unobserved moment I slipped away amongst the bushes. Small paths led to the encampments and down to the river and I took one of those. A nightjar churred from the shadows, mirroring my exultation. Nearly there!
"Lothíriel?" somebody called at that moment.
I froze. Father?
"It is you!" he exclaimed.
When I turned round I found him descending on with me with large strides. "What are you doing here unescorted?" he asked, frowning down at me. "Where is Éomer?"
"He...he had to get something," I stammered.
My father took me by the arm. "And left you here all on your own? Really, I thought he looked after you better than that."
"He does!" I protested hotly. "It..it was my own idea to catch some fresh air."
"You and your ideas." Father shook his head fondly and I expected another of his lectures on the behaviour appropriate to a noble lady of Gondor. However, he only tucked my arm into his and began to stroll down the path with me. "At least it enables me to enjoy my daughter's company for a bit," he said. "I've missed you over the winter."
"I've missed you too," I said, not altogether truthfully. In fact I'd been so busy getting to know my new country and my new husband that I had hardly thought of my family. Also Éomer had taken me on a tour of the Mark, showing me Helm's Deep, the Fords of Isen and the Eastfold.
Father patted my hand. "I've observed you tonight..."
"You have?" Thoroughly alarmed, I wondered if he had seen Éomer slip away.
"Yes. And I was thinking how well you've grown into your new role."
Could it be he actually approved of me? I blushed under his praise. "Thank you, Father."
"You make a fine Queen of Rohan," he said. "And I also think that Éomer makes you a fine husband?"
My blush deepened. "Yes, he does."
"You two suit each other. I'm glad, for what more could a father ask for."
Just then the path divided into two forks, one leading down to the river, the other to our camp, and quite naturally my father took the one he thought I'd been heading for. I craned my neck to see if I could spot Éomer down near the river, but nothing moved in the shadows. What would he do when I did not turn up as arranged?
Our sentries were alert as always – even in peacetime Éomer took no chances – and hailed us the moment we emerged from the trees. My father solicitously insisted on escorting me to our tent and handing me over to my maid.
"After all, your husband would expect me to do no less," he said with a gentle smile as he kissed me good night. "I will see you in the morning, Lothíriel."
Not if I could help it! But first I had to escape from the best guarded camp in Cormallen. And from the clutches of my maid...
Aethelhild had not been included in our plans, and I did not feel up to long explanations, so I just let her help me into my nightgown and excused her as soon as possible. She saw nothing strange in this, as I did not usually ask for much assistance anyway. I heard her rummage around in the anteroom for a couple of minutes, but the moment she left, I jumped out of bed. However, when I poked my head round the canvas that divided our bedroom from the rest of the tent I nearly swore aloud. She had taken all my clothes with her for cleaning! And my shoes were missing as well. What should I do now? My nightgown, a frothy piece of silk and lace, might please my husband very much, but it was hardly the right apparel for creeping through the woods.
I looked round the tent for inspiration. Don Éomer's chainmail? A nice figure I would cut! Besides, I'd helped him into it in the past and knew how much it weighed. What else was there? The white sheets of the bed would give me away at once, but then I spotted the dark green coverlet that Aethelhild had folded up and deposited on a chair.
I wrapped it around myself, discovering that it covered me completely and could even be arranged to provide a makeshift hood to hide my face. But the problem still remained of how to leave the tent. Two guards were stationed at the entry at all times and though Éomer dismissed them at night, I doubted they would heed my words if I ordered them to abandon their posts. It was a foolhardy rider who went against Éomer's orders where the safety of his queen was concerned.
The back? After blowing out the lamp so its light would not give me away, I knelt down and carefully lifted the canvas of the outer tent. The first thing I spotted was a pair of boots, only three paces away. The guard it belonged to was just turning around smartly and I froze where I was. However, he strode past and moved out of sight. Yet just as I breathed a sigh of relief, another one came into view from the other side. He too turned around after a moment, but clearly they covered all angles. Why did the Rohirrim have to be so efficient! And what was Éomer doing meanwhile? Surely he'd worry if I did not turn up soon.
I had to distract them somehow, but how? What would a pirate princess do? Light a fire and slip away in the ensuing confusion? But I doubted that my husband would appreciate me setting fire to our tent – or the bed. I grinned to myself when I imagined what rumours that action would cause amongst the Rohirrim. No, clearly a more subtle plan was called for.
Then I had an idea.
After I had readied everything, I sat down on the bed and pulled up the sheets. Next I let loose several piercing screams.
As expected, that brought the guards running, swords at the ready. All four of them, I noted.
"What is the matter?" they exclaimed.
"A mouse!" I shrieked.
They relaxed. "My lady, it will be long gone," one of them laughed.
I apologized for the commotion and they filed out of the bedroom. But the moment the piece of dividing canvas dropped behind the last of them I dived out the bed, slung the coverlet around me and rolled out under the back of the tent. I could still hear them chuckling and talking amongst themselves in the anteroom and that gave me the time needed to race over to duck behind the next tent. Success!
A cautious glance back revealed them taking up their posts again, but I wasted no more time. Éomer would be waiting for me and I still had to get past our sentries. However, I already had an idea of how to accomplish that.
Wrapping the bedspread closer around myself, I strolled through the camp, but avoided the main thoroughfare. At the path leading down to the river, only a solitary rider stood guard. Excellent. Trying to conceal myself would be stupid, but I pulled up my improvised hood and took care that the light of the cooking fires did not shine on my face.
"Hey, you!" I called, pitching my voice so it sounded higher than usual. "I'm looking for the King of Rohan. Where's his tent?"
The guard frowned. "What do you want with him, woman?"
I let slip my coverlet, so a bit of bare shoulder showed. "What do you think?" I giggled.
He made a shooing motion with his spear. "Get you gone! The likes of you aren't allowed in camp."
I took a few steps down the path, praying to the Valar that my father wasn't still hanging around. "Really, a girl has to earn a living somehow," I complained, "what's wrong with that!"
He took a step forward. "Éomer King would have my hide if I let you pass. Try one of the other camps."
Still grousing under my breath for authenticity, I walked down the grassy path and into the shadow of the birches there. Dew moistened my bare feet. The things I did to please my husband!
Once I was out of sight, I paused. Would Éomer still be waiting for me down by the river? But what if he had decided to come and find me?
Suddenly one of the bushes behind me rustled softly. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a dark figure. What! Instinctively I drew breath to scream, but a large hand covered my mouth and only a muffled squeak emerged.
"Lothíriel, it's me!"
Éomer! I sagged against him and he loosened his grip. "Weren't you just asking for me?" Amusement swung in his voice.
I tried to kick his shin, but got tangled up in my coverlet. "It's all your fault! That camp is more difficult to escape from than Angband!"
He laughed and slipped an arm around me to steady me. "What were you doing up there? Did you forget something?"
"My father happened upon me and insisted on escorting me home."
"Ah, that explains why you kept your husband waiting." His fingers had somehow wormed their way past the bedspread. "By the way, what is this very interesting garment you are wearing under here, my sweet?"
I pushed against his chest, but with little effect. "You know exactly what it is! Aethelhild took all my other clothes away for cleaning."
Éomer chuckled. "How very obliging of her." Somehow I had ended up squashed against him. His arms imprisoned me neatly, while I was handicapped by having to hang on to the stupid coverlet. Giving up the unequal struggle, I let go of it and lifted my face to him. He accepted the invitation eagerly. His lips brushed across my cheeks and down to that sensitive spot in the hollow of my throat. I dug my fingers into his shoulders at the sudden wave of desire rising from the pit of my stomach. Six months of marriage and still he could turn my legs to water with a mere touch.
The crunch of footsteps on the path brought us back to the present. Éomer whirled round and a branch broke with a crack.
"What was that?" somebody asked.
I recognized the voice. Amrothos! What was it with my family tonight, they seemed determined to ruin our plans. And just when I finally had Éomer to myself and he had started kissing me properly. Go away! I thought at my brother. It took all my self-control not to stamp my feet and shout the words aloud.
"I'm sure I saw something move in there," another voice said. "Show yourself!"
Muttering a violent curse, Éomer pushed the bedspread at me. "You stay here," he whispered.
"What is it?" he said as he emerged from behind the bushes.
"Is that you, Éomer?" Amrothos asked.
"Obviously," my husband snapped back. From the tone of his voice he was in a foul mood, too.
I crouched down out of sight, the damp mosses making a soft cushion under my feet.
"What were you doing in there?" my brother demanded to know.
"Answering a call of nature."
"Oh! Well, my friend Lagornith and I were just on our way down to the river with a couple of bottles of finest Moragar," Amrothos said. "Would you like to join us? I guarantee that the wine's not been tampered with this time."
Down to the river! There would be no way we could get by without being spotted. Éomer seemed to realize the same. Thankfully he was a quick thinker.
"I wouldn't go that way," he said, "I saw your father take that path for a stroll not long ago."
I had to bite down a laugh at the dismay in Amrothos's voice. How had he come by those bottles of my father's favourite wine? Éomer's ruse worked though, for the two of them quickly decided to find a more congenial spot for their carousing.
"Thank you!" my brother called back as they doubled back on their tracks. "Are you sure you don't want to come with us, oh tamer of wild horses?"
I frowned. What was that supposed to mean?
"No, thank you..." Éomer called after him, "...oh chaser of princesses."
My brother's laughter echoed back to us as I picked my way out of the undergrowth. There were some sharp stones hidden underneath the moss!
Éomer plucked me up and deposited me on the path. "Now where was I?"
"You were kissing me," I suggested hopefully.
The corners of his eyes crinkled. "So I was. And I intend to continue where I left off, but I think we had better make our getaway before we get interrupted again."
I nodded and let him pull me along. Perhaps the next time he could simply persuade Éothain that we would be perfectly fine on our own? Or did he consider that too little of a challenge, compared to stealing out of camp? Just then I stumbled over a stone and bit down an exclamation.
Éomer stopped at once. "You're barefoot! What happened to your shoes?"
"Aethelhild took them." It came out rather plaintively.
"Why didn't you say so!" I found myself gathered up in my husband's arms, a most welcome development.
He strode along the track as if I weighed no more than a feather, and I buried my head against his chest and breathed in his scent. His warm male musk always made me feel safe and I loved to listen to the sound of his heartbeat.
To our right the murmur of the river grew steadily louder and then I glimpsed an expanse of silver through the thinning trees. The path dwindled to no more than a track trampled through the bushy grass before we reached our destination. As Éomer ducked under the hanging branches of a willow I finally saw it.
Almost reluctantly Éomer set me on my feet again, his hands lingering on my waist. "Cawelcwén," he announced.
The skiff was tied up in the shadow of the great tree, well hidden from view. She lay deep in the water, for Éomer had made sure to stock her up with everything we would need. It was only when I had pointed out that the boat might well capsize from the weight that Éomer had stopped adding more supplies. You'd think we'd be away for months instead of a week or two! But he had wanted to pack for every eventuality. As if I cared about getting a little wet or only having trail bread to eat. And anyway, if the weather turned bad, we could stop over at Maedwen and Bornathron's place as we had intended to in any case.
He pulled the boat close to the bank and helped me step into it. In my usual place at the stern blankets had been heaped up to form a comfortable cushion for me to settle on.
"How did you manage to smuggle all this stuff past Éothain?" I asked.
Éomer's teeth flashed white in the gloom. "Eafa helped me," he said, naming his squire. "And I stole away from some of my meetings with Aragorn to get everything ready."
Such an ingenious husband! I grinned to myself. Poor Éothain would be deeply unhappy at the idea of his king and queen gallivanting through Ithilien without a proper escort. I got the impression he would not sleep easy until the nursery at Meduseld was filled again at last. Still, he could not fault us for our efforts in that direction.
Éomer took up the oars and cast off. A few strokes and we emerged from the trailing branches of the willow trees onto the Fainglir River. I leant over the gunwale to dip my fingers in the water. Above me, the stars were strewn across the cloudless sky like a wealth of diamonds and over the Ethel Dúath rose the full moon, casting my shadow before me. The night would turn chilly before morning, I thought, although I had no worry of being cold.
"Are we going far tonight?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Just far enough to shake off any possible pursuit."
I leant back against my cushions and a deep sense of contentment swept through me. We were alone. For once there was nobody to make demands on his time, no advisors to bring papers to read or his Marshals with military concerns. Although much to the Rohirrim's amusement my arrival at Edoras had put an end to any late night conferences.
With a yawn I wriggled deeper into my blankets and stretched lazily. The way my husband's eyes followed my movements warmed me from inside. My coverlet had slipped to reveal my bare legs and he paused in his strokes for a moment to lean forward and run a possessive hand up to the white lace peeking out. A shiver started deep within me and Éomer grinned when he saw my reaction. The man knew far too well what his touch did to me!
I lifted my chin. "Well, oh tamer of wild horses?"
For some reason my brother's words, though spoken in jest, still rankled. Was that what he thought, that Éomer had tamed me?
My husband chuckled. "You know, pirate princess of mine, your brother can be a bit of a fool sometimes." He gave me the smile he kept for me alone. "Tell me, does a lion tame his lioness?"
A/N: as always I'm very grateful to my wonderful beta, Lady Bluejay. Also many thanks are due to the lovely ladies of GoI for their suggestions for improving the stories.
And finally a big thank you to you, my readers, for your enthusiastic support throughout the telling of this tale. It's much appreciated!
A/N: If you've enjoyed this story, I hope you won't mind if I plug my first original novel, now available as an eBook at all major retailers: Bride to the Sun (just search for 'Lia Patterson' on Amazon/iBook/Kobo/Nook etc). It features a spunky, dark haired heroine and a blond hero, but the story and the world are very different from my LotR fanfics.
From the blurb:
Once, she could pluck fire out of the very air. Now she is the most insignificant member of an imperial court seething with intrigue.
Shay, firedancer and bride to the sun, faces punishment for the crimes of her dead father: she has her magic bound and at the emperor's whim finds herself handed over as concubine to a barbarian lord. However, Lord Medyr of the Hawk doesn't particularly fancy such a dubious gift – proving a surprise both to Shay and to the man who wants to use them as pawns in his ruthless bid for power.
The reserved, self-controlled firedancer is bewildered by the task of having to deal with that strange creature, a male. Yet with enemies threatening on all sides, Shay and the hot-headed warrior from the north must build a fragile bridge of trust. But will they realise in time that the growing attraction between them is also their deadliest danger?
A tale of elemental magic, perilous intrigues, a tortoise and pond slime.