A knock on the door of his study made Éomer look up from wrestling unsuccessfully with replying to some minor enquiry of Elfhelm's. It annoyed him that he should find it so difficult to concentrate. All because of that woman!
Hild, the elderly housekeeper of Meduseld, entered without waiting for his invitation. "The Princess Lothíriel of Dol Amroth to see you, Éomer King," she announced in sonorous tones. Then her voice turned solicitous. "Do come in, Child." She crossed to the fireplace where a fire burnt merrily – Éomer had actually wondered what he owed that to – and pulled a chair forward. "Sit down here."
Princess Lothíriel hesitated in the doorway and shot him a wary look before obeying the old woman's command. He blinked in surprise at seeing her wearing a traditional Rohirric dress, consisting of a gown with a close fitting bodice worn over a white blouse. Lavish embroidery covered the dark red fabric of the split skirt, which provided a glimpse of long legs clad in leggings. Surely the riding dress belonged to one of Hild's daughters, kept for special occasions?
The housekeeper pressed the princess down on the cushioned seat. "There. That will keep the chill away and allow your hair to dry completely." She spread out Princess Lothíriel's freshly washed hair to fall loosely down the back of the chair. "You poor thing, getting totally soaked."
Éomer gritted his teeth at the reproachful sniff accompanying that last statement. The princess had only herself to blame for getting caught in the rainstorm! "Thank you, Hild," he said, "you may leave."
But it was difficult to cow somebody who had caught you filching sweetmeats as a boy. Hild completely ignored him. "Godwulf," she called, "are you coming?"
His squire entered bearing a tray of pastries, two goblets and a pitcher, which he set down on a low stool by the princess's side.
"You must be starving," the housekeeper said. She poured her a drink and pressed the goblet into her hands. "This will revive you, though it might not be as good as what you brew yourself," she nattered on, "or at least old Beadu tells me so. The man might be a fool, but he knows his mead."
Mead! Éomer pushed back his chair and rose. "That's enough," he said. "I wish to speak to Princess Lothíriel alone now."
Hild rested her hands on her hips and switched to Rohirric. "Now don't you frighten the poor child–"
"She is no child," he snapped. Less than an hour under his roof and already she was suborning his staff!
The housekeeper rolled her eyes. "Men! She needs a meal and a rest after that horrible soaking, not you barking around."
"It's all her own fault," he pointed out. After all she could have been nice and dry in one of the guesthouses.
Not one to concede defeat easily, Hild opened her mouth to make a reply, but at that moment Princess Lothíriel cleared her throat and they both looked at her. "You've been most kind," she said to Hild. "But I will be fine with King Éomer."
"If you're sure…?"
"I am." Princess Lothíriel softened the dismissal with a smile. "Thank you so much."
"Very well, but try to rest." She faced Éomer. "You ought to show your lady the bonfire later on. And the horses, of course." The housekeeper bustled out, sweeping Godwulf along before her.
Show her the horses – and on midsummer day! He had to remind himself that the old woman had waited half her life for a lady to preside over the hall and children to once again fill the empty nursery. And now that her own daughters were grown and had their own households to run, she had nobody to mother anymore. Although even before the war, she had urged him more than once to find a wife – somebody to add a bit of clutter to your life, lad, she had told him once, clucking her tongue over his room, which was unnaturally neat in her opinion.
He turned his attention to the woman in front of him. Princess Lothíriel sat in her chair, clutching her goblet as if for support, watching him with those large grey eyes and managing to project a waif-like vulnerability. No wonder she had awoken the housekeeper's protective instincts! But Éomer knew better: it was all an act. By now there would be no tavern in Edoras where the appearance of a mysterious woman returning a courting gift to their king would not be discussed exhaustively. Not that her identity would remain secret much longer – and then the gossip mongers would really have a field day! Of course it didn't help that his temper had got the better of him at her blatant provocation…
He sat down behind his desk again and quite deliberately took his time in tidying away his letter and writing utensils. Then he leant back in his chair. "Very well, I am keeping my word. You wanted to talk to me, Princess Lothíriel, so here I am. "
She swallowed audibly. "You called me Gliwen earlier on."
Éomer gripped the arms of his chair. He had forgotten how she somehow always managed to find the place where it hurt the most. Seeing her huddled there in the rain, wrapped in that ridiculously big coat and shivering with cold, for a moment she had been his Gliwen again, needing him.
But Gliwen was dead. The woman he had fallen in love with did not exist, only the impostor with her face; it had all been a pretence, with the single aim of getting him to the point of offering for her. Once they'd had him in the bag, they'd come clean.
Gliwen was dead!
"My apologies, my lady," he bit out, "it won't happen again."
She lowered her head and silence fell, only punctuated by the crackling of the logs in the fireplace. The soft light played over her creamy skin, set off by the white blouse. Éomer tore his gaze away, annoyed with Hild for dressing her in Rohirric clothes. It was a statement he wasn't willing to support.
Quelling his unruly thoughts the way he would master a fractious horse, he drummed his fingers on the desk. "Well?"
She chewed her lip. "When I came here I thought all I needed to do was to actually talk to you," she finally said in a low voice. "Getting to speak to you seemed the difficult thing, but now…" Her voice petered out.
She had no business to look so forlorn! Mentally he reminded himself once again of all the deceptions she had perpetrated upon him, all the lies she had fed him to get him to the point where she wanted him. They had played him like a fish caught on a hook!
"So what is it you wanted to tell me?" he asked with calculated brutality. "I don't have all day." Sometimes he hated the man she had turned him into.
Princess Lothíriel made a good show of wincing. "I wanted to explain how I ended up as a despicable liar," she whispered, echoing his thoughts in an uncanny manner.
But if she was hoping for him to contradict her, he would not oblige. "And how did you?"
"It all started that night in Minas Tirith…" she began, then hesitated.
The princess gazed around his room with unseeing eyes and suddenly he wondered what she made of Meduseld. It was nothing like the citadel in Minas Tirith with its grand throne room of cold, white stone. Of course he preferred the wooden pillars and tapestries showing the Mark's history to Gondor's marble statues, but would she look down her nose at them? A fresh wave of anger swept through him. Still, no doubt all she cared for was the title of queen – certainly she cared nothing for the man. He should have avoided that linen cupboard as if it contained the plague!
Unaware of his thoughts, the princess took up her stumbling tale again. "I know I shouldn't have kissed you," she said. "It was unwise…well, stupid really."
Yes, that was one question he had not been able to answer to his satisfaction: it had seemed like an impulsive act, for she could not have known that he would come that way. Or had she? How he hated that nothing was certain anymore. But then the best liars skilfully mixed truth with deception, just look at Wormtongue.
"So?" he asked.
Princess Lothíriel spread her hands. "When you came to Dol Amroth in the spring, I hoped you would not recognise me and when you did, I denied everything so you wouldn't tell my father."
Hah, a likely tale! She had to know he would recognise her. Her true miscalculation had been that she had thought he wanted a perfect princess and accordingly had produced her – but she had recovered quickly from that error. And now she'd had three months to come up with a convincing tale. It was the reason that he had wanted to send her away: he was afraid that when he saw her, he would be tempted to forgive her.
Éomer steeled himself. The princess had caught him once, but would not do so a second time! "Why should I carry tales to your father?" he asked. After all he had never mentioned a word to Imrahil about his daughter's deception, unwilling to show what a fool he'd been.
"I know now you wouldn't," Princess Lothíriel exclaimed. "But I didn't know you then. You were so stern. Éomer, I just panicked!" The words were a raw appeal for understanding. And still she said his name like nobody else did!
He gripped the edge of his desk and closed his eyes so he would not see that face raised pleadingly to him. Gliwen had never been real! How had they known to invent so precisely what he wanted? But he had seen the real woman behind the warm, caring facade: the lying, deceiving, calculating princess. Gliwen was dead. Dead. Dead!
He knew he needed to stay angry. A lesson from his childhood: how to combat heartache with fury. That last week in the Westmark, he had almost found contentment slogging through the mud, scrambling up mountainsides in slashing rain, driving himself to physical exhaustion so he could sleep.
He opened his eyes again and fixed her with a forbidding stare. "So you decided to invent a sister to put the blame on?"
She licked her lips. "Yes. I know it was stupid of me! But I just didn't think straight and said the first thing that came to my mind."
He actually agreed with her. It would have been much more clever to attract him in her persona of Princess of Dol Amroth. But of course they couldn't have known, for not every king liked a wife who indiscriminately kissed strangers in cupboards. That was probably why she had tried to put him off at their first meeting, only agreeing to accompany him down to the harbour at his insistence. Oh yes, he had reasoned it all out.
Still clutching her goblet of mead, Princess Lothíriel leant forward. "Éomer, all I can say is how sorry I am. I should never have deceived you, but once I put my foot on that path I did not seem to be able to leave it. Everything I said just pulled me in deeper!" A suppressed sniff accompanied the last word.
He would not comfort her! It was all an act, he reminded himself once again. "But you did come clear in the end didn't you?" he said.
"What do you mean?" Alerted by his sharp tone, she sat up straighter.
"Once I had offered for you, it didn't take you long to come out with the truth."
"Is that what you think!" She put down the goblet with a clang. "Éomer, did you read my letter?"
His hands twitched as he remembered holding the envelope, knowing if he opened and read her words…
"I burnt it." And he would never tell her that he got weak in the end and snatched the letter out of the fire, but only a small, illegible corner remained.
"What!" the princess exclaimed. "It took me three days to write that. Why, I even drew a diagram."
"I wasn't interested in reading it."
"But you were interested enough to send Lord Ealdred to negotiate an alliance," she shot back.
Éomer hesitated, for she had caught him there. The truth was that he had offered for her in a fit of pure rage. And ever since, he'd alternatively wanted to put her off and carry through with it anyway. What kind of hold did the woman have on him that he still wanted her!
"I told you, I offered you my hand," he answered stiffly. "The Lord of the Mark keeps his promises."
She got up and began to pace the room, her riding skirts swishing around her. "And the Lord of the Mark also seems to have convinced himself that I'm the only one to blame?"
"What do you mean to imply by that?"
She spun round towards him. "You weren't shy to invent a lie or two for your men either, were you!"
"Only to save your reputation."
"Or yours? And anyway, it's not exactly nice of you to come to Dol Amroth to court me and then you arrange clandestine meetings with another… I mean..."
Éomer crossed his arms on his chest as she tried to make sense and faltered, but she recovered quickly. "And should you go round kissing girls in cupboards?" she asked.
"I do not!" he snapped. "You started it."
"You didn't protest too hard!"
They were both on their feet by now. "I can tell you that's the wrong way to persuade me to push forward with the wedding date," Éomer said through gritted teeth, still clutching the edge of his desk.
She froze. "Is that what you think I'm here to do?"
"Why else would you come to Edoras, make a spectacle of yourself and flaunt that belt in my face?"
"Yes, why else?" Moisture glistened in her eyes. "Éomer, I once asked to you to listen to me regardless of whether I was an elf queen or an old crone. Do you remember?"
It felt like a punch to the stomach. He had a sudden vision of her sitting on that crumbling wall, laughing down at him, teasing him. His Gliwen.
The princess made a cutting motion with her hand. "But you have made up your mind not to listen to me," she said. "Very well, I release you from your promise."
"I'll tell everybody that I do not want to marry you. Publicly."
That brought him out from behind his desk. "What are you talking about! Anyway, your father won't allow it." He wouldn't allow it!
She raised her chin in a challenge. "In that case I'll run away with somebody – surely that will make me thoroughly unsuitable to be your bride. I've done so many outrageous things, one more doesn't matter."
"Lord Dorgam!" Éomer brought down his fist on the desk. "Don't even think about it." He would kill the man – never mind that in the past he'd thought they deserved each other.
A contemptuous snort. "Oh, he would never agree. But I'm sure that Amrothos can find a friend who'll oblige. After all I have a large dowry."
"I won't have it." Éomer pressed out the words between clenched teeth. From the first the woman had done nothing but drive him crazy!
"It's no longer your concern," she pointed out.
"You're trying to blackmail me!"
Unable to find an answer, he opened and closed his fists. "I…you…" He felt the urgent need to smash something, but unfortunately he'd cleared everything away.
Princess Lothíriel sighed and her shoulders sagged. "Look, Éomer, I do not want to quarrel with you. I know I've made mistakes, more than one, but I will set it right so nobody will blame you." She spread her hands wide in a helpless gesture. "I'm just so very sorry it had to end this way."
Squaring her shoulders again, she turned to go. Éomer watched her reach for the door handle and knew with sudden certainty that she meant it. If he let her walk out that door, she would also walk out of his life. For ever.
"Wait," he said.
She hesitated and looked back at him. There were lines of pain around her eyes, he noticed for the first time.
As the silence grew between them, Éomer realised he had to say something. He blurted out the first thing that came into his mind. "What was on that diagram?"
She frowned. "Diagram?"
"The one you sent with your letter. The one I burnt…"
"Oh. It was probably not a very good one anyway."
"What was on it?"
She turned round to face him fully, clutching her hands. "It was quite simple really: just the central problem from which all others stemmed…" She swallowed hard. "Cowardice."
Cowardice! When she had faced him down that afternoon all alone, far from home and friendless – well, apart from that useless brother of hers. They might not have mentioned so in his hearing, but he knew his men had been impressed with her spirit. And they didn't even know about a certain garden in Dol Amroth…
Oblivious to his thoughts, or perhaps taking his silence for agreement, she continued. "That night in Minas Tirith, I was afraid of my father catching me and sending me home, but in the end it would have been so much better if he had. Instead I acted supremely stupidly." She gave a helpless shrug. "I was tired."
"I know," he interrupted. "You had engaged in a battle as hard as any I had fought and with much less preparation. I never thought the less of you for it."
"I know that now," she exclaimed and it came out in a wail. "But few lords of Gondor would say the same. I did not know you then!"
It all made sense and yet…
"You lied to me," he whispered.
"I lied to you," she agreed, her voice level and hard.
Unable to contain his agitation, he paced to the fireside and back. There were two ways of looking at her, both equally plausible: either she was the most calculating liar he'd ever encountered…or a complete innocent caught up in the webs of her own deception. His heart urged him to accept her innocence, but he distrusted his heart in this matter. He had spent the last months building up invisible defences to protect himself from further hurt, walls as thorny as the one that circled Edoras. Could he really risk letting her inside them? What if it was all an elaborately staged act?
What if it was the truth?
Princess Lothíriel watched him pace the room and her face softened. "Éomer, you have to choose to either believe me or not. It is up to you whether you want to chance giving me your trust again." She shrugged. "I suppose it's like a flower mantis."
This brought him up short. "Eh?" What was she talking about?
"You know, a praying mantis that looks like a flower or a leaf. So when for example a blowfly comes along, the poor thing doesn't know if it's a real plant or not until it lands on it and well…gets eaten…or not…" Her voice petered out. "I'm sorry, I'm babbling," she stammered.
Éomer blinked at her words. The Kings of the Mark had been likened to many things in their long history, some of them not very favourable, but this had to be the first time one of them was compared to a hapless blowfly!
Then it hit him: nobody but Gliwen would make such a comparison. He looked at her again and saw her as if for the first time. Eyes shadowed with pain, she stood there slightly hunched in the manner of one waiting for the executioner's axe to fall – waiting for him to make up his mind to send her home. She'd come all this way, braved his wrath and the Mark's inclement weather just to speak to him and then called herself a coward. And blinded by his hurt pride he had refused to see the truth set so plainly before his eyes. Of course she was his Gliwen! Suddenly deep inside him, something loosened and the mental armour of ice that he'd built around himself shattered.
"I'm such an idiot!" he breathed. Crossing the room in a couple of large strides, he gathered her up in his arms.
She clutched at him in surprise. "Éomer?"
He finally did what he had wanted to do all day. Bringing his lips down on hers, he kissed her. Long and thoroughly. Gliwen just melted into his embrace in the most natural way, as if she had always belonged there. He tasted the salt of tears and briefly his conscience smote him for the way he had treated her, but then the sensation of holding her overruled all thought. Silky hair slid through his fingers, soft curves pressed against him, sparking a sudden surge of desire. He wanted her, had always wanted her from that first kiss in the aftermath of a bloody battle when she had offered him warmth and life and the chance to forget the heartache of the day.
His hands caressed bare shoulders, then met the soft fabric of her blouse. It would be so easy… Éomer pulled himself back – no, once had been quite enough. There was a proper time for such things.
Withdrawing a finger's breadth, he loosened his grip. "Will you marry me?"
Gliwen gasped, her warm breath caressing his cheeks. "I…yes!"
Gently he gathered her close again. "You don't hate me?" he whispered into her hair. What a brute he'd been!
She just shook her head.
"You have every right to," he told her. "I could kick myself! All these months I've wasted talking myself into a fury, coming up with the most far-fetched explanations for your behaviour, when the truth was so simple. Will you ever be able to forgive me?"
A trembling nod was her only reply. He took a closer look at her. She was clutching his shirt, her eyelids fluttering half closed, a single tear running down her cheek. "Gliwen!" he exclaimed. "Are you all right?"
With a tremulous smile, she looked up at him. "Yes. It's just all a bit much." She took a deep breath. "I thought I'd never see you again and the next moment you kiss me…" She made a vague waving gesture with her hand. "I'm not very practised at it, I'm afraid. I find it difficult to concentrate on my breathing at the same time."
Amusement rippled through him, followed by a wave of sheer happiness. "In that case we'll have to practise more," he declared as he lifted her up in his arms and carried her over to the chair by the fire. "But first, my sweet, I think you need some refreshment."
He grabbed the goblet of mead that she'd left on the small table and knelt next to her holding it to her lips. "Here, drink."
Cradling the goblet, Gliwen took a cautious sip. "If I'm not careful, I'll be drunk in no time at all."
"When was the last time you had something to eat?" he asked with a frown.
"The guards at the gate were so kind as to offer me some nut cakes. Before that – breakfast, I suppose."
She really had a talent for making him feel guilty! Then he spotted the pastries Hild had brought in earlier on. Bless the woman! "Have some of these," he said, seizing the whole plate and depositing it in her lap. "Do you want me to send for something warm? Venison, some soup–"
But she stayed him with a hand. "Please, that won't be necessary. I'm feeling better already." She nibbled one of the pastries and for the moment, Éomer was content just to watch her. He felt elated and exhausted at the same time, as if he'd come through a fierce fight. Which he had – a fight with his own stubborn pride that would not allow him to admit his wrong conclusions. "To think I left you to rot outside the walls of Edoras!" he said, shaking his head. "Really, it's a wonder you didn't decide to return to Dol Amroth on the spot."
A watery chuckle. "I was much too sore from riding for that." Hesitantly, she lifted a hand to his face, barely brushing it. "Éomer…you called me Gliwen just now?"
He seized her hand and pressed it against his cheek. "Because that's who you are. Fool that I was, I didn't recognise the truth before: Princess Lothíriel was the lie, Gliwen the truth."
She blushed. "Yes, I don't make a very good princess, do I?"
"Well, you made quite a convincing ice lady, but what man wants that in his–" Éomer stumbled briefly. "…eh…life."
Unaware of the direction his wayward thoughts had taken, she nodded earnestly. "I hated being so cold towards you, but saw no other way out." She sighed. "It seemed such a good plan at the time, but Amrothos was right: I should have told you the truth from the beginning."
Perhaps her brother was not completely useless after all. "None of us is blameless," he answered and squeezed her hand. "But no more plots from you, lady of mine, do you understand. Ever!"
Gliwen nodded fervently. "I promise!" Then her brows creased in a frown. "I suppose that means I will have to tell Father the whole story? All of it?"
He hesitated. What if Imrahil put the wedding off? Now that he had found her again, he wasn't sure if he could relinquish Gliwen, even for a short time. "We'll have to offer him some explanation," he mused, thinking aloud, "for your presence here will be impossible to keep secret."
She looked down. "I'm sorry. Was it very foolish of me to come?"
"Foolish and supremely wise at the same time." He flicked her cheek with a finger. "And it might even have worked if it hadn't been for my stupid display of temper." Reluctantly he turned his mind to the practical considerations her presence implied. Although deep inside he was too happy to worry overmuch about anybody's reaction – he would marry Gliwen even if he had to lay siege to Dol Amroth to get her.
"We need not go into the details of our misunderstanding," he decided. "I will just write Imrahil a letter to say that we've resolved it. If I send the missive by fast courier, it will reach him before any rumour does. You said he's in Minas Tirith?"
Gliwen nodded. "Yes, for King Elessar's wedding anniversary."
A sudden idea struck Éomer, blinding him with its sheer brilliance. "They all are," he breathed. "Your family, Faramir and Éowyn, the whole of Gondor's nobility!" He laughed out loud. "Why not simply invite them on to Edoras to attend our wedding?"
He was already calculating times and distances. "Four days for my courier to reach Mundburg, a couple of days for Aragorn to get the whole circus on the way, then another twelve days' travelling. We could be married in three weeks' time! What do you say to that?"
Her mouth dropped open. "You're serious."
He had wasted enough time! "I certainly am – the opportunity is too good to miss. Besides, we rode to Gondor's aid at a moment's notice, so why shouldn't they do the same?" Unable to contain his glee, he flashed her a wide grin. "I'm giving Aragorn more than twice the time we had, surely that's fair enough! So what do you think?"
Slowly she shook her head. "I think that you're still the most peremptory of all the males in my life!" Then a grin matching his own appeared on her face. "It's such a crazy idea, it could be mine. Yes!"
How he loved this woman! And he wanted everybody to know it. Abruptly he shifted the tray of pastries away and pulled her to her feet. "Lady, you've drunk my mead, will you now come and meet the horses with me?"
She looked at him with big eyes. "This moment?"
"There is no better." He laughed. "Besides, Hild must always be obeyed."
A/N: There's another chapter to follow plus an epilogue, but I will now take a break until after Christmas with publishing. I hope you'll all have a very Merry Christmas and until then!