Éomer cursed himself for his temper. He had meant to scare that oaf of a brother and his friend, not Gliwen! But surely she could not think that he would ever do anything to harm her.
She looked back up at him, those lovely grey eyes guarded. "Would you really hurt them?"
He hesitated, not over the answer, but over how to phrase it. In the end he opted for the unvarnished truth. "Yes."
The thought of Dorgam taking advantage of her made his blood boil. Quite obviously the man could have no honourable designs on Gliwen, for it was the talk of the court that he had his sights set on marrying Princess Lothíriel. But that fine lord now knew he was a dead man if he as much as touched Gliwen; Éomer had seen the realisation in his face. Her proper place! What did Dorgam consider that to be – awaiting his pleasure in his bed? Involuntarily he clenched his hands into fists. As for Prince Elphir calmly contemplating his sister's dishonour, in the Mark he would have earned a whipping. Or a blade in the gut…
Gliwen interrupted his murderous musings. "Éomer, how did you know it was me and not my sister?"
That brought him up short. He had never for a moment doubted that it was Gliwen facing the two men with a vulnerable belligerence that just made him ache to defend her. "I don't know," he answered slowly. "I suppose I'm just getting better at telling you apart." The softer curve of her back? Black hair not confined to rigid coils and braids, but tumbling loosely across her shoulders? A voice warm with anger instead of her sister's frigid tones? "Princess Lothíriel is such a model of behaviour, your brother would never have criticised her anyway, so recognising you was easy," he attempted a weak joke.
But instead of making her smile, his words caused her to look away again with that stricken expression on her face. "Lothíriel is not as blameless as you think," she said.
That reminded him of something. "Tell me," he said, "did you mention our plans for this afternoon to your sister?"
"Eh…why?" Gliwen stuttered.
He shrugged. "It's just that at breakfast I could have sworn she knew more than she let on."
"I told nobody about our planned excursion," Gliwen assured him after a brief hesitation.
More people descended the stairs that moment, giving them curious looks, so Éomer took Gliwen's arm and drew her towards the door to the courtyard. "Perhaps I was imagining things," he said. "She wanted to show me the palace grounds, much to Ealdred's delight. But why would I want to traipse through the gardens with your insipid sister when I can take you riding instead!"
Her mouth drew into a wry line. "Why indeed."
No doubt her father's courtiers saw things differently. Fools! But he would not let such considerations spoil their last day together. "Never mind," he said, "let's just forget about them all. I mean to show you the enjoyment found in a day outdoors; we Rohirrim are masters at living in the wilds."
Perhaps he was finally getting the hang of the layout of the palace, for he managed to find the small postern gate that let out onto the kitchen garden at the first try. While they walked through the orchard, he told her about spending his summers under the vast skies of the East Emnet, riding guard on the horse herds. Those were some of his happiest boyhood memories and gradually he felt her relax at his side.
"I've told my men to await us at the bottom of the hill," he explained his plan, "for I won't have you walking about on your own. Do you need anything from your tower, a cloak perhaps?"
She nodded eagerly as she slipped inside, but when she emerged from her tower she carried not clothing but a pair of bulky saddlebags. Taking them from her he nearly dropped them in surprise, they were so heavy.
"What have you got in there?" he asked. "Bricks? We're only going for an afternoon's ride!"
"Just a couple of books I absolutely can't do without and some other stuff. Although sadly I had to leave Turgon's Aquatic Insects of Southern Gondor behind, it just wouldn't fit."
"What a shame," Éomer muttered as he slung the bags over his shoulder. The corner of a book caught him painfully in the back, but he also felt something soft and yielding, like a full water skin. Something clanked inside. The Valar only knew what she'd packed!
He grinned at her. "Well, now that we're properly equipped, shall we make our escape? How do we best get to where my men are waiting for us without anybody spotting us?"
She gave him an impish smile. "Follow me!"
Surefooted as a goat, she scrambled across the crumbling wall and then led him along a narrow path in the shadow of tall trees. "My father's guards won't spot us here," she confided to him. "And anyway, nobody keeps tabs on me. They will assume I'm helping Hingam with his bees."
While in principle he approved of the ease with which they got away, Éomer nevertheless frowned at the lax security of Imrahil's castle. "This place has more holes than a Lamedon cheese," he grumbled. "For an enemy it would be child's play to take it."
Gliwen shook her head. "Oh, it only looks that way, The General runs a tight ship. No stranger could come this way without arousing suspicion." She called a greeting to a shepherd sitting on a fallen tree trunk surveying his herd. "If you weren't with me, little Handir would already be carrying word up to the castle. But The General believes in seeming weak where we are strong to confuse the enemy. The idea's from some book, I believe."
Éomer wondered who this 'General' was, for he hadn't been introduced to the man yet. At least he seemed to be doing a good job and knew Hyarmendacil's Art of War. Very soon they reached the road to the northern beaches, less busy than the one leading to the town, and after a few bends found his riders waiting for them.
A fair number of curious glances were cast their way as he helped Gliwen onto her horse, a docile gelding taken along as a spare mount. She settled her voluminous riding skirts around her – so very Gondorian – when sudden doubt assailed him. "I'm not getting you into trouble, am I?" he asked. Young ladies were brought up so strictly here, should he have organised a female companion?
"No worse than I've been in before," she answered with a grin. "Don't worry, Amrothos and my aunt will cover for me."
As they had many times before? But then she had sneaked off to Minas Tirith during the war, compared to which slipping out for an afternoon's ride would be a breeze.
Éomer swung into Firefoot's saddle and kept a close eye on her as they set out. However, to his relief she was a competent enough rider, if a little out of practice. Somebody had obviously seen to it that she received good schooling and Statholfeast, her horse, would do the rest. It might not have the spirit of a younger horse, but knew how to take care of an inexperienced rider. A good choice for a mount, he thought as he watched her riding by his side, back straight and concentrating on getting to know an unfamiliar horse.
Yet even so it would be interesting to see her on something a bit more exciting. Mentally he reviewed the horses currently in training in Edoras and in his father's old stables in Aldburg. The Rohirrim might be famous for their grey battle steeds, but they also bred a number of lighter horses. Almost at once he knew which one would suit Gliwen: a sweet black mare called Aémette for her small size at birth. His stable master had not expected her to survive, but Aémette had surprised them all with her will to live and had matured into an elegant, long-legged beauty. Éomer tried to imagine Gliwen riding the mare – now that would be a sight to behold! Suddenly he grinned, remembering their conversation about silkworms. If she kept her promise, he would owe her a horse and Aémette would be royal payment indeed. Gliwen would be better mounted than any other lady in Dol Amroth! His grin faded as he realised that might not necessarily be a good thing for a humble beekeeper. Besides, Aémette was pure Mearas – to gift her to a woman was a proposal of marriage.
Suddenly he wanted to swear. Why couldn't Gliwen be the princess and that icicle Lothíriel the by-blow? Or else him still the simple Third Marshal of the Riddermark. Curse fate for giving him what he didn't desire and withholding what he wanted!
Sensing his rider's frustration, Firefoot shook his head and neighed. Gliwen threw him a startled glance. "Is something the matter?" Her hands clutched the reins as Statholfeast picked up the stallion's agitation.
Éomer calmed the horses with a few soft clicks of the tongue. "No, nothing." Why pain her by talking about what could not be? She obviously cared deeply for her family though they treated her so shabbily.
Soon after they emerged from between some dunes to reach the flat sandy beach that stretched for mile upon mile north of Dol Amroth. A pair of tree trunks bleached bone white by the sun marked the entrance of their path, but otherwise unbroken sand stretched before them.
At first the horses sank up to their fetlocks into the loose sand, but where the receding tide soaked the ground, the going improved. Foam frothed across their path and the wind whipped Gliwen's hair around her face, making her laugh out loud.
Éomer's frustration drained away at the sound. He intended to enjoy this day with her and would not think of what would follow. Or not.
"Are you up for a run?" he called.
Eyes sparkling with challenge met his. "Of course!"
And as they pounded away across the sand, he let the salty wind blow away his cares. At least for a little while.
For their midday meal they set up an improvised camp in the shelter of some dunes. His men all knew their assigned tasks and while two of them looked after the horses, the others set off in pursuit of game and to collect firewood. Gliwen offered her services as a cook, but was summarily refused by old Beaduheard.
"Probably just as well," she murmured to Éomer. "I tend to burn things. Amrothos claims I get distracted too easily."
He grinned. "Beaduheard won't let me near the food either. Even as a fresh rider in Elfhelm's éored I was always assigned to brushing down the horses." He motioned at the sand dune behind them. "Shall we climb up there and have a look around?"
Gliwen nodded. "Yes, let's." She lifted her arms over her head and arched her back. "I'm all stiff from riding."
Éomer was suddenly very aware of that slim body displayed so admirably by the close fitting Gondorian riding habit. He would not mind at all exploring aching muscles and rubbing the stiffness out of them!
Then Éothain cleared his throat audibly. "A nice idea, my king. I'm sure it would do the lady good to move about a bit."
Éomer coloured, wondering what his face had shown. He had not missed the emphasis put on Gliwen being a lady either. "Thank you for your concern, Captain," he snapped in Rohirric. "Be sure to post guards."
Of course Éothain had already done so, but tactfully refrained from pointing this out. In fact they could see one of his riders at the top of the dune as they scrambled upwards by holding on to scraggly bushes whose roots had somehow found purchase in the loose sand. Gliwen was somewhat handicapped by carrying a small wooden box, but she wouldn't give it to anybody else. The rider offered her a hand up, but then walked away to take up his post out of earshot.
It hit Éomer that all his men had been exceedingly polite and respectful towards her. Also there had been none of the good-natured grumbling over having to wait for their king that he had expected from his decision at such short notice. On the contrary, the men had vied over who would be allowed to come along. And down below, old Beaduheard unpacked a bulging bag of supplies, obviously determined that only the best would do for their guest. With a sinking feeling in his stomach he realised that they set high hopes in this outing with the woman they thought Gondor's most eligible maiden. How had he managed to land himself in such a tangle!
Unaware of his thoughts, Gliwen turned in a circle, taking in the sea stretching like a beaten sheet of silver on one side and the marshes on the other. As far as they could see, willows displaying the fresh silvery green of spring lined meandering channels, while reeds and sedges swayed gently in the wind, giving glimpses of hidden ponds. The muted sound of croaking frogs carried up to them.
"What is that?" Éomer asked, pointing to some white dots far away in the distance. "Are those wild horses?"
Gliwen shaded her eyes with a hand. "Quite likely. They share these lands with the black cattle that we raise. We call them water horses."
"Why is that?"
She motioned at the wetlands with their pools twinkling in the sunshine. "They are perfectly adapted to their environment: superb swimmers and they even have wider hooves that help them spread their weight more evenly on swampy ground."
He raised an eyebrow. "I thought you weren't interested in horses?"
Gliwen carefully put down her box on a bit of grass. "I just find it fascinating that without any human intervention they should be so well suited to their life. However, I'm hoping to spot much more interesting animals than that."
Éomer grinned, pretty sure that her definition of 'interesting' would not match his. "And what are they?"
"Well, there are the birds of course, for example bee-eaters or spoonbills, which look really funny." She peered under some scraggly tamarisks. "But what I'd really like to show you is an antlion."
"You have lions here!" he exclaimed.
Crouching low on the ground, she laughed up at him. "Only tiny ones, not in the least dangerous. Unless of course you happen to be an ant." She beckoned to him. "Have a look, here's one."
Intrigued, he squatted down beside her. In the dry sand under the small tree something had dug a small pit, circular and completely smooth.
"The antlion sits in the centre and waits for an insect to happen along and fall into the pit," Gliwen explained in a whisper. She leant forward and her hair brushed across his bare arm, soft as silk. Éomer had to rein back the impulse to wrap his fingers in its silken lengths. Completely oblivious to his thoughts, she peered at the small insect. "Parphen writes in his Natural History of the Falas that it even throws grains of sand at its prey to make it fall in, though I've never seen that happen."
"Fascinating," Éomer croaked, still fighting his unruly thoughts.
"I have to draw it!" Gliwen decided and straightened up, briefly balancing herself by placing a hand on his shoulder. His thin linen shirt did nothing to mask her warm touch.
Then she was gone, only to return a moment later with the wooden box she had carried with her. Sitting down cross-legged, she flipped open the lid to reveal a leather writing slope. From a drawer in the side she extracted a fat notebook, while a compartment at the top held a writing quill and a small inkpot. "My grandfather used to take this with him when campaigning in Ithilien," she explained, "but I use it for more peaceful purposes." Lovingly she stroked the satiny wood. "He designed it himself."
Completely irrational jealousy of a long dead man shook Éomer. To distract himself, he picked up the notebook and started to leaf through it. Tree frog, read the first page, length 1.5 to 2 inches, green with brown stripe along the sides. Has small discs on its toes like tiny saucers. Lives in trees. Well, obviously! Below she had drawn the picture of a small frog. The opposite page described a stag beetle and two different types of dragonflies.
"Did you draw these yourself?" he asked, inspecting the pictures.
"Yes. One of my science tutors had the idea of keeping a notebook of all the creatures we found in the gardens." With a sigh of contentment Gliwen looked out at the view over the marshes. "Do you know, I'd forgotten how nice it is to get out," she said. "When I was smaller, we used to sail to the outlying islands in the summer or spend time in our hunting lodge in the Tarnost Hills." She put the writing box aside and drew up her knees to rest her chin on them. "But then war started to loom over us and my brothers were needed elsewhere."
He sat down on the ground and stretched his legs out in front of him, careful to leave some space between them. The camp below might look busy, but he was only too aware that their every movement was keenly observed. "Yet surely now they could make some time for their sister again?" he asked. Or didn't they consider it worth their while?
She shrugged. "Erchirion is out chasing corsairs a lot and even Amrothos is often away on some errand or other of my father's."
"Well, I think you deserve some time off," he said. "Or does your sister expect you to produce her precious honey and mead without ever taking a break?" Princess Lothíriel's words of overseeing the servants still rankled.
Gliwen looked away. As a couple of times before, he had the feeling of some invisible barrier descending between them. "I'm taking a break now," she finally answered. "My thanks for the lovely ride."
"Now you sound exactly like your sister!" he snapped, goaded by her chilly tone.
Gliwen whipped her head round, eyes large and startled, like those of a frightened filly.
Éomer relented at once. "Oh, forget I said that," he groaned. How had he managed to spoil the easy mood between them? He picked up a stone and threw it at some bushes further down the hill where a magpie perched, observing them attentively. The bird gave a croak of protest and flew away. "Can't we just forget about the Prince of Dol Amroth and his pesky family for a day?" Éomer asked. "If any of them show up, I swear I'll dump them in the next swamp!"
A reluctant smile blossomed. "Even my aunt?" Gliwen asked.
Éomer gave the question grave consideration. "A daunting idea, I admit. Hopefully Ealdred is keeping her too busy in the library to come after us."
Gliwen drew a pattern in the sand with a finger. "Do you think he likes her?"
Éomer hesitated. As a well-to-do widower, Ealdred must have had a fair share of women dangling after him, yet he'd never shown any inclination to remarry. "Why do you ask?"
"I've never seen her so taken with somebody," Gliwen answered. She furrowed her brow. "You see, she's had some disappointment in her youth that she never talks about…I wouldn't want to see her hurt."
"Yet wouldn't you miss her if she moved away?" After all her aunt seemed to be the only member of her family to properly look after her.
But Gliwen shook her head. "Not if I knew she was happy. But do you think Lord Ealdred is serious in his attentions?"
Éomer decided on the spot that Ealdred would have to do the honourable thing, even if he had to force him into it. He would not see Lady Ivriniel, and by extension Gliwen, hurt by him. Although in all honesty the councillor seemed pretty smitten anyway.
"Well, I think he displays all the symptoms of falling for her," he answered lightly.
Gliwen perked up. "Really? What are they?"
Éomer shrugged. "He's oblivious to everything around him and craves her company, while thinking that nobody notices. And this morning he even admired her sense of dress! Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I just wondered."
That moment a commotion in the camp drew his attention. The two hunters returned, triumphantly displaying their catch, a brace of bright pink birds.
"What are they!" Éomer exclaimed.
"Just flamingos," Gliwen explained. "They breed in the brackish lagoons between the marshes and the sea."
"Birds? For a moment I thought one of my men had filched one of your aunt's hats!"
Gliwen choked with laughter, while down below old Beaduheard started to pluck the birds while they were still warm. Pink feathers floated away to be picked up by the other men. Perhaps some wife or sweetheart in the Mark would get them as an exotic present.
"Flamingos?" he mused. "I've never seen anything like them before."
"Oh, this place is very rich in bird life." Gliwen pointed at a pond surrounded by a belt of bulrushes and sedges. "See, cattle egrets. And there, do you think that could be a purple heron or is it too early in the year?" She frowned. "I need to consult Parphen's bird atlas for the exact migration time. I've got it with me, of course, but it's still in my saddlebags." She gathered herself to rise.
Éomer reached out a hand to hold her back. "Oh never mind about those birds."
Her attention arrested, she looked at him, the jet black hair cascading down her back framing her face in a dramatic contrast to her smooth, pale skin. Unable to resist, he briefly touched her cheek. "Please stay."
As a slow blush rose to her face, he felt a strange satisfaction that she should not be so completely oblivious to him after all.
"As you wish," she assented. Then she picked up her notebook and settled the small writing desk back in her lap. "I never got round to drawing my antlion anyway."
Content for the moment, Éomer watched her trace out the sandpit and its strange occupant on a new sheet of her notebook. With fierce concentration, she added some lines of writing, a vertical furrow between her eyes. Antlion. Length about half an inch. Dark grey colour. Lurks in bottom of pit, waiting to pounce on prey falling in. Dangerous to unwary ants crossing its path.
Aémette - ant