Lothíriel was impressed with the quiet efficiency of Éomer's men. A shout alerted them to the meal being ready, and down at the campsite she got shown to her seat, a fallen log covered with a blanket for a cushion. They would not let her do anything, instead one of the riders handed her a plate, another went round with a pile of soft flatbreads that he shared out and finally Beaduheard came round to place slices of roasted flamingo on the bread. Éomer's squire Godwulf acted as his assistant and had a bowl full of salad made from spring onions, fresh mushrooms, cress and pieces of soft, crumbly sheep's cheese.
Lothíriel noticed that she was the only one with a plate, the others just wrapped the soft bread around the filling and with a neat trick tucked in the edges, so they had a tidy parcel of food to eat.
"I'm afraid we didn't have the time to hang the bird," old Beaduheard said, "but I cooked it still warm, so hopefully it shouldn't be tough."
"It tastes excellent," Lothíriel assured him and the old man looked pleased.
"Beaduheard is the best field cook in the Mark, that's the only reason we have him in our éored," Éothain threw in to general laughter.
"And because I can still cut you young ones to ribbons with one hand tied behind my back," the other man shot back. Looking at his crooked nose and the scar running from one ear down to his neck, Lothíriel believed him.
"Éothain and I used to be his scullions in our first year as riders," Éomer said with a dramatic sigh. "It scarred us for life."
Beaduheard waved a ladle at him. "Don't believe a word that boy says," he said to Lothíriel. "Half my grey hairs I owe to him and his fine friend."
It was obviously an old argument, enjoyed by all the participants, and Lothíriel was struck by the easy companionship Éomer had with his men. Even so she had no doubt that he expected to be obeyed swiftly and completely. Also the Rohirrim displayed none of the reserve her father's soldiers would have shown her, instead they peppered her with questions about the use the wetlands were put to, Dol Amroth's white horses, the salt pans with their strange pink colour and a dozen other topics. Some of the queries surprised her – why did they want to know if she minded the cold of winter? But she answered them all patiently.
"Let the girl eat," Beaduheard finally intervened. He turned to her. "I'm sorry that we only have tea to go with the meal, my lady, but Éomer King gave us very little warning."
At his words Lothíriel remembered the contents of her saddlebags. "Oh, but I have mead!" she exclaimed and put her plate down. "Let me fetch it."
"You brought mead?" Beaduheard asked.
Lothíriel suddenly noticed that complete silence had fallen and she had everybody's attention. Even Éomer's squire had stopped wolfing down his bread and regarded her with big eyes. "Yes," she said hesitantly, "I thought since Rohan furnished the meal, Dol Amroth would provide the drinks." It had really been a spontaneous decision, but now she started to doubt the wisdom of it. Had she committed some terrible social gaffe?
Then Éomer cleared his throat. "That's very kind of you." He added something in Rohirric, which made the men return to their meal. Next a quick command sent Godwulf to fetch her saddlebags. Conscious of the speculative glances cast her way, Lothíriel rummaged through them for the tin cups she had packed and the two wineskins full of her latest batch of mead. She liked to experiment with the process and the mead had come out a particularly rich golden colour, so she had thought they would like it.
Reverentially Beaduheard took the cups from her. "Will you pour for us, my lady?"
And so Lothíriel ended up offering each rider his mead in a dented tin cup, which they accepted with silent gravity. When she got to Éomer she was conscious of the Rohirrim holding their collective breath, but whatever they thought might happen obviously didn't, for he just thanked her with smile.
The riders very politely complimented her on the excellence of her brew, but Lothíriel was conscious of undercurrents that she didn't understand. Luckily soon afterwards the conversation moved onto innocuous topics again.
When the meal was finished, Éomer's squire headed down to the stream to do the washing up and the riders dispersed to prepare for striking camp. Having the feeling of only being in the way, Lothíriel strolled off towards one of the ponds and Éomer fell into step with her.
"Searching for more specimens to draw?" he asked.
Lothíriel cast a look over her shoulder, but they were already out of earshot of his men. "Not really," she answered. An overgrown bank bordered the pond and she clambered down to stand at the water's edge, where a few early water-lilies bloomed surrounded by a carpet of bright green duckweed. Big square boulders propped up the bank behind them like an irregular wall stacked up by a giant but then forgotten and Éomer wandered over to have a look.
"Did your people build this?" he asked, startling a lizard that darted away.
"I don't know," Lothíriel answered, joining him. "It could be natural, but the Numenoreans did have a number of quarries in this area."
Éomer nodded. "We don't call Gondor the stone land for nothing."
The breeze from the sea did not reach this sheltered corner and in the midday heat nothing moved. Only the cicadas kept up their incessant concert and high above them a kestrel screeched once. Lothíriel leant back against the sunbaked stone and stared out at the elder bushes and sloes that lined the opposite edge of the pond. Saying nothing, Éomer kept her company and somehow his silence soothed her.
She sighed. "So tell me, did I do something very awful just now?"
"Is that what worries you so?" He laughed, but turned serious after a moment. "Not awful, no. It is just that in the Mark mead is usually only offered in greeting and farewell or at high feast days."
"But why did your men react as they did?" she persisted. "They looked at me as if I'd grown a second head!"
He grinned. "Well, back home, if a woman offers a man a cup of mead – especially one she's brewed herself – it is usually taken as an invitation to court her."
Lothíriel lifted her hands to her mouth. "Are you telling me I just invited twenty men to court me?" No wonder they had reacted as they did!
"Not twenty," he drawled in response. "Just one." When she stared up at him in incomprehension, he flashed her one of his white smiles. "You see, they are all my men."
Heat rose to her face. She could feel it spreading along her neckline, up her throat and across her cheeks. And the man watched with lazy amusement – he kept doing that!
But she would not let him have it all his way. "Really," she said, cocking her head to one side. "What quaint customs you have. So it is the woman who takes the lead?"
She should have known he would not refuse such a challenge. "If the man lets her," Éomer answered with supreme confidence. "Think of it as resembling the courtship displays of birds." He lowered his voice. "Only a man has to come up with other ways to make his intentions clear."
Her fair skin really was a handicap – why hadn't she been born brown as a nut! But Lothíriel told herself that the heat she felt was from the sun-warmed stone at her back. "Such as?"
"With a woman of the Mark, he would offer to share his cup of mead with her. With a woman of Gondor…" He took a step closer and placed his hands against the wall on both sides of her. Lothíriel realised that she had somehow manoeuvred herself into a position completely at his mercy. Nobody could hear or see them, even if she struggled – and did she want to? The King of Rohan, it seemed, was not a man to miss such an opportunity. He leant in until their faces were but inches apart.
Looking up at eyes gone dark with desire, Lothíriel swallowed. "And with a woman of Gondor?" Her heart beat so hard inside her as if it wanted to burst its bonds. She grabbed a plant that grew in a crack of the wall to steady herself and the spicy scent of rosemary rose around them.
"With a woman of Gondor, he would have to be more direct…," he whispered.
His warm breath ghosted across her skin, making her shiver as he placed a single, leisurely kiss in the corner of her mouth. Then his touch, light as a feather, moved along the line of her jaw. Lothíriel gasped as he awakened senses she had not known she possessed. Her belly tightened up, robbing her of breath. How did he do that! It made no sense that using only his lips, he was somehow able to call her whole body to life.
Feeling faint, she took a firmer hold on the poor rosemary behind her, dislodging a small shower of sand. It would not do to tumble at his feet! Éomer meanwhile continued his progress down the exposed line of her throat, leaving a bewildering trail of heat and cold behind him.
"Éothain will have my hide," he murmured, "but how could I possibly resist you?"
Lothíriel leant heavily against the stone wall. The world had an alarming tendency to spin around her and she wasn't quite sure if she got enough air. Though how he managed to affect her breathing by just trailing a lazy hand up her arm defeated her. There was no logical explanation. She seized hard onto the rosemary plant that had somehow become her sole anchor to reality. More sand and pebbles rained down.
Unhurriedly Éomer moved upwards again, claiming his territory with a slow kiss here and there. Lothíriel tried to regain control of her senses, but her heartbeat displayed the most alarming irregularity and her body temperature just seemed to rise and rise. Much more and surely she would burst into flame. His very restraint worried her, for what would happen if he lost control?
Reaching her lips, Éomer paused. She wanted to scream at him to stop. She wanted to beg him to continue. And it would really be quite nice to be able to breathe again.
Then their lips met and the world spun out of control.
Lothíriel's knees buckled and with all her force she pulled at the plant behind her to keep her balance. More pebbles came loose to slide down to the ground. And then suddenly the trickle of sand became an avalanche that poured around her feet as part of the wall crumbled away. She cried out in surprise and flung out an arm to brace herself.
That moment a sharp pain pierced her hand. Pain blossomed all along her arm and she gasped out loud.
"Gliwen! What's the matter!" Éomer caught her before she could fall.
She looked down to see something shoot away through the dust and sand and slither into a crevice of the wall. All she got was the impression of a black and white pattern.
"An adder!" Éomer exclaimed and seized her hard. "Gliwen, did it bite you?"
Lothíriel lifted her hand. Blood trickled from a wound on her palm and there - two unmistakable puncture marks. It was all too much, her body protested. As the edges of her vision greyed, she swayed and closed her eyes.
"Gliwen, my sweet!"
Strong arms caught her. But it was something in Éomer's voice, a hint of panic, that made her struggle against her descent into sweet oblivion and open her eyes. Surely she was mistaken? This was one of the Lords of the West, whose valour on the Pelennor and at the Morannon had already passed into legend. She could not imagine him in anything but perfect control of a situation.
He picked her up and carried her a few paces to a boulder by the pond, where he sat her down. "Breathe deeply," he ordered, his arm around her shoulders. "Come on, Gliwen, do as I tell you!" The command held a note of desperation.
She obeyed and after a few moments felt better. "I'm sorry."
Ignoring her apology, he crouched by her side, one hand still supporting her back, and inspected the wound on her palm, all the while cursing softly in Rohirric. "Why didn't we stay in camp!" he exclaimed. "I'm such an idiot."
"It was my idea to go for a walk," she reminded him.
"Yes, but I agreed because–" He took a deep breath. "Never mind. You will be fine." Seizing her face between his hands, he made her look straight at him. "Do you hear, Gliwen, you will fine. You have to be! Fight the poison!"
Swallowing hard, she nodded. "I promise."
For a moment she thought he might kiss her again and braced herself, but then he straightened up. "We need to get you to a healer." He let out a loud shout in Rohirric that made her jump. She had thought them well out of hearing of the camp, but his battle voice carried far and brought his men running.
Éothain exclaimed in distress as he spotted the blood on her hand. "What happened?"
"Gliwen got bitten by an adder," Éomer answered. "We have to get her back to the castle."
Beaduheard hissed through his teeth. "That's bad. Adder bites can turn nasty."
Éomer shot him a look that made the old man take a step back. "She will be fine!"
Lothíriel meanwhile had taken the opportunity to inspect the wound more closely. The flesh looked torn, almost as if the snake had chewed on it. "It might not have been an adder," she threw in.
Éomer whirled round. "What do you mean? I saw it!"
"There is a type of whip snake that has very similar colouring," she explained. "I only got a glance at it, I would have to inspect it more closely to tell the difference." Now that she had got over the initial shock, a strange calmness possessed her. "Anyway, there's nothing much a healer can do. I'll find out soon enough if the wound was poisoned."
Every year a few cases of snake bite occurred in Dol Amroth, so she knew the symptoms well enough: swelling of the limb, pain and fever, sometimes faintness and vomiting. Yet most people recovered well enough. She tried to smile up at Éomer. "Don't worry about me. Perhaps I was lucky, we'll see."
"Well, I intend to find out now!" A string of commands in Rohirric sent his squire running off.
Éomer stamped over to inspect the spot on the wall where the snake had disappeared. Meanwhile Beaduheard, under Lothíriel's instructions, cleaned her hand with water and bandaged it firmly, using her orange scarf. "What does Éomer King mean to do?" he whispered to her.
She shrugged, not understanding either, but Éomer's plan became clear soon after when Godwulf returned bearing leather riding gloves and a horse blanket. Without further ado, Éomer slipped on the gloves and wrapped the blanket round his right arm. Then he picked up a fallen branch that lay by the pond and attacked the crevice in the wall that the snake had disappeared down.
Éothain jumped to his side. "Let me do that!"
"No! This is my task." Using the stick as a lever, Éomer prised away a stone and sand trickled down. He struck the branch in the opening as if piercing an enemy.
"My lady!" Éothain appealed to her.
She almost rolled her eyes. At times the Rohirrim did tend to treat their king as if he were a baby! And what extraordinary powers did they expect her to develop in order to stop him? But she did not want to hurt Éothain's feelings, so she just shrugged. "I'm sure the poor snake is long gone."
However, that moment a hiss emanated from the quickly growing opening and Éomer gave a shout of triumph. "There's the brute!" He dropped the stick and reached into the crevice. An instant later he withdrew his arm, holding a writhing snake in his fist. The animal must have got trapped in a deadend somehow and now sank its fangs into his leather gloves, but to no avail.
Éomer changed his grip and none too gently took the snake behind the head, holding it helpless. "So what do you think?" he asked, showing it to Lothíriel while his men crowded round.
She scrutinised it gingerly as it coiled itself around his wrist and arm, trying to wriggle away. What had Parphen written about distinguishing the adder from other snakes? This one had a bold black on cream pattern – quite pretty really – but none of the typical zigzag lines, which was promising. However, the markings could vary greatly. But the eyes – brown and round, not slit like those of an adder!
She sagged with relief. "It's harmless."
Lothíriel nodded. "Yes, look at the eyes, they're round. According to Parphen that's a clear sign."
"Well, I still want to get you to a healer as soon as possible," Éomer answered. "Fetch the horses," he told Éothain, then with his free hand drew his knife.
She held out her uninjured hand. "Éomer, what are you doing?"
"I will kill this brute," he said.
"No!" She struggled up. "You mustn't. The poor thing was just afraid of being crushed, that's the only reason why it bit me."
"I don't care," he snarled.
She put her hand on his arm. "Please let it go. Look, it's quite beautiful really and so elegant."
He stared at her in disbelief. "Beautiful? Really, Gliwen, you and your animals are enough to drive a man crazy!" With a sigh of disgust, he uncoiled the snake from around his arm and threw it into the bushes. Quick as lightning, it slithered away and disappeared. "Ungrateful beast!"
Not sure if he meant her or the snake, Lothíriel held her peace. In any case his men arrived a moment later with the horses, but when she approached Statholfeast she found herself intercepted by Éomer.
"You'll ride with me," he declared. "I'm not having you faint and fall off your horse."
"But I'm fine," she protested. "The snake was harmless. You saw the eyes yourself."
"I don't care what some long dead Gondorian says," he snapped, "I'm not taking any chances." Godwulf led up Firefoot. "Up you go."
"I'm perfectly capable–" She got no further, for Éomer seized her round the waist and quite simply lifted her into the saddle. The stallion gave an offended huff and started sidling away, forcing her to grab the pommel with her uninjured hand. She glared down at Éomer. "Of all the high-handed–"
"Enough. Both of you!" This was addressed to Firefoot who laid back his ears in protest.
A suppressed snort of laughter made her aware that Éomer's riders were all listening with unfeigned interest. Though fuming inside, she decided not to make a scene, swung her leg over the stallion's withers and settled her skirts as well as she could with only one hand. "Whatever you say, my lord."
When he mounted up behind her, she held her back rigid and stared straight ahead. Equally displeased, Firefoot kept his master busy by pulling on the reins and shying at the smallest thing. Éomer said nothing, just dealt with his horse by checking him patiently and with her by holding her firmly round the waist to keep her from falling off.
But gradually she felt herself relaxing. In truth her hand throbbed unpleasantly and it was a relief not to have to handle the reins. Also the aftermath of all the excitement left her tired and suddenly chilly. When she finally gave in and leant back against him, his body heat seeped through her clothes, warming her.
Keeping silent, Éomer just gathered her closer.
A/N Many thanks to Thanwen, who advised me on what type of snake I might find in Dol Amroth!