The corridor outside Éomer's room was deserted, but from the door leading into the main hall came the hum of many voices. Lothíriel took a deep breath as they approached the doorway. Her happiness still felt as fragile as the wings of a freshly hatched butterfly. He had forgiven her! Only moments after the bleak prospect of paying for her mistake for the rest of her life loomed over her…
A strong arm slipped around her waist and an instant later she found herself captured against Éomer's chest. "No need to rush," he murmured, "not when all the servants of Meduseld have made themselves so conveniently scarce."
His lips brushed against hers, calling up the usual alarmingly irregular rhythm in her heart. Lothíriel focused hard on her breathing, but so many sensations flooded her, she found her concentration slipping. Breathe in. Breathe out. Her world narrowed down until only his touch seemed real: firm lips demanding surrender and offering glimpses of unknown pleasures at the same time…warm breath ghosting across her cheek…the stubble of his beard soft under her seeking fingers. His hand pressed against the small of her back, burning through the layers of clothing like a brand.
Then he released her to gaze down at her with definite satisfaction. "Remember, you're mine."
A spark of annoyance rose within her. How could he kiss her and hold a conversation at the same time so effortlessly? It just wasn't fair! "And you're mine," she said, standing up on tiptoe to kiss him back.
The response was immediate. She found herself seized in a grip that allowed no escape – not that she wanted any! Ignoring all maidenly qualms, she buried her fingers in his thick hair. Heat flushed through her at the possessive way he ran his hands over her.
It was Éomer who broke off the kiss in the end. "It's going to be a long three weeks," he croaked, cradling her head against his shoulder. Lothíriel clutched at him for support, but his obvious breathlessness went a long way to make up for her incipient asphyxiation.
He straightened up and stroked a knuckle across one of her cheeks. "Lady of mine, you shouldn't do that."
She wasn't quite sure what she'd done to set him off in such a manner, but she nodded obediently.
"I really need to get that courier on his way," Éomer muttered half to himself. Then he shook his head. "But first the horses."
Lothíriel wondered why he put so much importance on showing her his horses, but perhaps it was the kind of thing for a horselord to do. Having recovered her breath, she smiled her assent. "Very well."
He offered her his arm and they continued down the hall. "There will be talk," he said, his voice low, "but remember, I'm by your side."
She shrugged. "I know." Anyway, the talk here would be as nothing compared to the rumours that would sweep the court at Minas Tirith. She could guess the probable turn they would take at the announcement of such a sudden wedding. But who cared!
Lothíriel threw back her hair. "It's only until the next scandal comes along, then we'll be forgotten again."
He grinned. "That's my girl. You know, perhaps I could talk Ealdred into abducting your aunt. That would upset Gondor's nobility and surely eclipse our small ruckus. What do you think?"
"I think Ivriniel would be more likely to abduct him," Lothíriel answered with a chuckle. She felt herself relaxing. Nothing really mattered except the fact that they had made up their differences; the rest would sort itself out. What had her aunt said – if Éomer really wanted something, nothing would stop him. The sensation might be like that of a swimmer swept along by a strong current, but since the destination suited her, she had no intention of putting up a fight.
Éomer pushed the door open and they entered Meduseld's big hall. Servants hurried about and at the tables below the dais his guards sat over tankards of ale and chatted. Éomer ignored the sudden silence that fell almost instantly and called for Hild.
The housekeeper bustled up the steps. "Éomer King?" She darted a quick sideways glance at Lothíriel and a big grin appeared on her face. Lothíriel felt her cheeks warming at the realisation that the old woman probably knew exactly what they'd been up to.
"I have two tasks for you," Éomer told his housekeeper.
"Yes, my lord. And what might that be?"
"First, to prepare our best guesthouse for the Princess of Dol Amroth and her brother."
Hild gave a disdainful sniff. "That has of course already been seen to." She bowed to Lothíriel. "My lady, I'm afraid your brother has caught a cold. I ordered him into his bed when he insisted he had to see you."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Lothíriel answered. Poor Amrothos! But she could not but be thankful that he had not managed to interrupt them.
Éomer seemed to agree, for he nodded his approval. "Entirely right. We must see he takes proper care of himself."
"I will attend to it personally," Hild promised, and Lothíriel had a vision of her forcing ill-tasting medicines down her brother's throat. "And the second task, my lord?" the housekeeper asked.
Éomer gave her one of his lazy smiles. "Oh just to prepare for a wedding to be held here in three weeks' time."
That caused a flurry of whisperings at the tables below, but Hild merely nodded. "Yes, my lord. Whom are you expecting?"
He grinned. "Only all of the Mark and the whole of Gondor."
"Very well. Is there anything else?"
Éomer laughed out loud. "No, that is it."
As the housekeeper withdrew with a curtsy, he leant down to Lothíriel. "That crafty old thing has probably been preparing for months. She and Éothain are hand in glove with old Ealdred."
"It will be all right, won't it?" Lothíriel asked, suddenly anxious. What if her father kicked up a fuss!
At once Éomer picked up on her unspoken thoughts. "Don't worry, dear heart! Aragorn will come through, he always does – remember, he has saved my skin more than once."
Reassured, she nodded. Her father respected his liege greatly, surely if anybody could smooth matters over, it was King Elessar. Everybody knew how he called the King of Rohan his brother.
That moment hurried steps sounded down the hall and Lord Ealdred approached the dais.
"Ah, just the man I'm looking for," Éomer remarked. "Ealdred, I want you to leave for Dol Amroth tomorrow morning."
"Dol Amroth!" Lord Ealdred's eyebrows shot up. "Of course, my lord. What are your orders?"
They all seemed to take Éomer's curt commands remarkably well! Lord Ealdred too grinned from ear to ear.
"You are to fetch Princess Lothíriel's belongings," Éomer answered. "I'm sure her aunt will be able to assist you there…"
Lord Ealdred's leathery cheeks reddened. "Yes, my lord."
Éomer turned to Lothíriel. "Is your wedding gown ready?"
"I think so," she stuttered. She hadn't really paid much attention to it, leaving it to Meril's discretion.
A decisive nod in Lord Ealdred's direction. "Well, whatever you do, don't forget that, as Princess Lothíriel will need it very shortly." He put Lothíriel's hand on his arm. "And now I intend to show my bride the horses."
Lothíriel pulled at Éomer's sleeves. "Don't forget my books! And my collection of rocks. And my shells. And…"
"Oh, just pack up her whole tower," Éomer threw over his shoulder at Lord Ealdred.
"A tower? Yes, my lord!"
Éomer chuckled as they trod down the steps from the dais. "I'll have to give him more precise instructions before he leaves, or he'll dismantle your father's property to bring it back here."
Then his guards surrounded them, showering them with congratulations. First Éothain, then old Beaduheard grabbed her hand and shook it enthusiastically. Was there a trace of relief in their voices as well? She rather thought so and felt a stab of remorse. Like a stone thrown into a pond, her foolish deception had caused waves in far-away places.
The news must have gone before them like a forest fire, for when they stepped outside Meduseld people lined the way down the steps, cheering and calling out well-wishes. At least she took them for such, as she didn't understand a word beyond Éomer's and her own name. It touched her that they should accept her so readily when they did not know her at all.
She expected Éomer to lead her to the stables – while she still didn't quite understand why he was so insistent on showing her his horses, it seemed the logical place to keep them – but he started walking down the street that led down the hill towards the gates of Edoras.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
A quick squeeze of her hand. "You'll see."
Above them stretched a sky slowly fading into the long summer evening, washed clear by the earlier rain storm, and if it hadn't been for the damp cobbles, she might have thought it all a dream. All along the road, the doors of the houses had their lintels decorated with greenery and midsummer flowers and the inhabitants had turned out in their best attire. A young girl presented her with a garland, which Éomer put on her hair with a possessive gesture. No doubt another unwritten custom!
At the big wooden gates, the guards stationed there pushed the two wings wide and she caught a quick glimpse of Godwine, son of Háma – grinning of course. But she was relieved to see that Éomer had not taken out his ire on the poor man. The crowd streamed out behind them in a colourful procession, chatting and laughing, yet a strange hush fell over them as they walked between the barrows.
Down by the Snowborne, tendrils of fog rose from the long wet grass. Éomer drew her to a halt by the banks of the stream, while the people of Edoras stood a respectful distance behind them. Lothíriel would have liked to ask what they waited for, but the hush had become absolute. Not even the children talked; only the soft murmur of water flowing over pebbles broke the silence.
They stood there long enough for the damp evening air to waft around her bare shoulders, making her shiver. At once Éomer drew her closer against his solid warmth. "Soon," he whispered into her ear. "Listen!"
Then she heard it: the muffled sound of hooves on bare earth. Gradually it drew nearer until suddenly the long grasses on the opposite bank parted. Grey forms solidified, as if the fog had taken on the shape of horses. From the crowd behind them came a collective sigh.
Confidently, the horses stepped into the water and approached the waiting humans. Lothíriel made out a small herd, made up of mares with their foals at their heels. Along one side ranged the stallion, prancing proudly and throwing up his thick neck. And what horses! Lothíriel's interest had always run to the insect world, but she had grown up amongst her father's knights and could tell these were out of the ordinary. They stood tall, clean-limbed and deep chested, and moved with a controlled grace.
"Mearas," Éomer breathed. "Come to pay homage to the Kings of the Mark, both dead and living."
The lead mare stepped onto dry land and after quickly circling his herd, the stallion joined her, while behind them the other horses lowered their heads to drink from the water. The small dark foals poked their heads around their mothers, peering at the humans curiously.
Éomer held out his hand and the mare blew into it softly. "Lady Aeringwind, you honour us with your presence," he said, adding something in Rohirric. Then he turned to the stallion, whose ears flicked forward and back inquisitively, as he regarded the assembled crowd. "Lord Thunorhófas, westu hál." After a brief hesitation, the stallion dipped his head almost in a greeting.
Éomer took Lothíriel's arm and drew her forward. "Please meet my bride, Princess Lothíriel of the Stoneland: my Gliwen." His voice went low and soft as he translated the words.
She found herself regarded with disconcerting awareness by large dark eyes as the lead mare lowered her muzzle to her. What had her books said – that the Mearas were said to understand the speech of man? This one certainly seemed to do so. Hesitantly she held out her hand, to have warm, moist breath smelling of hay breathed across it. The stallion huffed loudly in response. Involuntarily she wondered if they were bribable with a juicy carrot – or would they take offence at it?
Éomer reached up to pat Thunorhófas's neck. "These are our pure-bred Mearas," he explained, "the heart of the Mark. They spend the spring in the meadows of the Westfold and migrate to the East Emnet for the summer." He scratched the stallion's poll and Thunorhófas's ears twitched forward.
That moment Aeringwind nudged her in the arm, and greatly daring Lothíriel stroked her soft, warm coat. The mare seemed to enjoy the attention and rubbed her muzzle against her. Then she suddenly threw up her head and gave a loud neigh, making Lothíriel jump.
Another horse stepped forward from the herd with dainty, elegant steps. While most of the Mearas were silvery white, this one had a darker coat and black mane. Éomer sucked in his breath. "How did Aeringwind know!"
"Know what?" Lothíriel asked, confused.
"To call Aémette." He indicated the dark grey mare who approached them, ears flicked forward, her velvety black eyes focused on Lothíriel. "After I returned from Dol Amroth, I broke off her training and sent her away to join the free-roaming herd," Éomer explained, but his words only confused her further. She knew little of horseflesh, but surely the mare was beautiful – probably too lightly built to carry a warrior into battle, yet that seemed insufficient grounds to get rid of her.
Aémette prodded her gently, as if asking to be stroked, and Lothíriel complied willingly. There was so much intelligence in those eyes, she felt as if she was offered friendship by an equal. "Why did you send her away?" she asked. "I think she's lovely!"
In the dusk it was difficult to make out his face, yet she could have sworn he coloured. "She is," he agreed. "But I was a fool and I just couldn't stand the sight of her."
"Because she's yours."
While she still gaped at him, he bowed to the mare. "Lady Aémette, will you forgive me and consent to carry my bride?" Then he translated his words into Rohirric.
Lothíriel wasn't even sure that was necessary, the horses seemed to have such an instinctive understanding of him. In reply, Aémette snorted softly and lowered her nose to blow affectionately into his hands.
"My beauty," he murmured, "you'll take care of her, won't you?"
Unsure who he was talking to, Lothíriel swallowed a grin. If she ever got jealous, she would just retaliate by fussing over Firefoot.
"You'll like her," Éomer said to her. "So up you go."
He chuckled. "Don't worry, I'll help you." Weaving his fingers together, he turned to her. "Just put your foot on here and I'll throw you up."
"Éomer, she has no saddle," Lothíriel hissed.
"Oh, if Aémette allows you to ride her, she'll see to it that you stay on."
He smiled at her with such complete confidence, she really had no choice but to to comply. Unlike the voluminous Gondorian riding skirts, the gown Hild had furnished her with was just split down the middle with a pair of close fitting leggings underneath. It felt very strange to show so much leg as she placed one booted foot on his hands. However, Éomer simply boosted her up onto Aémette's back. His hand might have lingered on her thigh slightly longer than necessary though…
"Aémette means 'ant' in our language," he said. "I'm sure you'll find her almost as interesting as an insect. She's just a tiny bit bigger."
Lothíriel ignored his jest and twined her hands in Aémette's mane. The mare's body was warm and supple under her and she stood relaxed as she waited for her rider to adjust to the new feeling of riding bareback. Then Aémette took a few steps forward, graceful and perfectly balanced. A murmur of approval went up from the crowd behind them and Lothíriel looked round in surprise, for she had almost forgotten about them. Many smiling faces met her and impulsively she smiled back.
Éomer patted Aémette's neck and grinned up at her. "You will be the queen of a horse people, but we'll approach it by small steps."
His queen. Éomer had given her a magnificent gift, a piece of the heart of the Mark – just as he had offered her a part of his heart. After all the lies she had told him, it was a bold, generous act – one that she intended to be worthy of.
She bent down to him and took his hand. "Riding an ant seems a good beginning."
Aeringwind = Dawnwind
Thunorhófas = Thunderhooves
A/N: I hope you all had a restful holiday and a good start to the New Year. As you can see, this story is nearly over, but there will be a short epilogue to follow on. Once again, my thanks for all your kind comments!