With apologies for the time it has taken to post the final chapter – I have had a busy few weeks. LBJ
'You've been dreaming all day, Lothy,' Amrothos accused with one of his mocking smiles. He hefted the saddle from Nightshade's back and passed it to a groom, waiting for her to reply. But Lothíriel only smiled in response – all she felt like doing – and didn't answer. Instead, she slipped her mare a piece of apple. Passing Aldburg just after midday, they had ridden for a few more hours before making camp just off the road where a small stream tumbled down from the high crags of the northern face of the White Mountains. She had been drooping with fatigue when Erchirion had called for a stop; he must have noticed her sagging in the saddle and not waited for her to complain.
'Were your thoughts on this magnificent animal, or on the Horse-lord who gave her to you?' her brother probed further when he got no comeback.
This time he flashed her one of his engaging grins, and Lothíriel turned away. There was too much knowing in those grey eyes. But he spoke the truth – fast travelling was not conducive to lots of conversation, which had allowed her to immerse herself in her own thoughts. Maybe not a good thing, because she had mused on nothing else but Éomer, and when she was likely to see him again. She had to face the fact that it would likely be months and months. But he had pledged to woo her properly, and he was not one to go back on his given word. However, when he had said that, he had been expecting to come to Gondor for Éowyn's wedding... she suddenly brought her pondering to a halt, realising what her brother had actually said.
Thinking hard, not to give anything away, she stared pensively at Nightshade as the mare was led away. 'Éowyn gave her to me, Amrothos.'
'Really...' Her brother laughed, tweaking the end of her plait. 'Do you honestly believe that?'
'Well I...' she stopped.
'Of course you don't,' Amrothos went on, grinning from ear to ear. 'Nightshade comes from the royal herd, and there's only one person who could give her to you. Don't tell me you have been in Rohan for all these months and not known that.'
Well she did, but had chosen to ignore it and pretend to accept what she had been told. 'I know that she was brought over from Aldburg, but I suppose I thought Éowyn had come to some agreement with Éomer. After all it was to help her that I came to Rohan.' The urge to have her suspicions confirmed won over discretion and she said casually. 'And anyway, if it's as you say, why didn't he gift Nightshade to me himself?'
'Yes, I wondered that too,' Erchirion said coming up behind her. 'But enquiries led me to believe that for him to gift you a horse would be tantamount to a betrothal.'
'Oh...' She had been right. Heat rose to her cheeks, which got Amrothos laughing more.
'And although he wanted you to have the horse to ride home, he can't actually announce your betrothal for another few weeks. Can he, Lothy?'
When she didn't say anything, Erchirion slid his arm around her. 'Is there something you want to tell us, little sister?'
'Yes,' Amrothos fixed her with his sharp gaze. 'Like exactly what arrangements you and Éomer have made with each other.'
Frowning at his brother, Erchirion gave her a squeeze. 'Don't tease her; I am sure she will tell us when she's ready.'
'What makes you think there is anything to tell?' Lothíriel put up her chin defiantly. Two to one was not fair.
Amrothos made a snorting sound. 'Lothy, as your brothers it is up to us to keep an eye on you. And that's exactly what we've noticed friend Éomer doing. Two eyes most of the time, he can hardly look anywhere else. So you might as well come clean.'
'I don't know why you came back with us, Amrothos,' Lothíriel snapped crossly. 'You seemed to be enjoying yourself in Rohan and could have stayed until mother felt like undertaking the journey home. Unless you also have a lady to woo in Gondor, that is.'
Amrothos held up his hands and took a step backwards. 'I'm much too young for any wooing. I will leave that to my romantic brother here.' Chuckling, he punched Erchirion lightly on the arm. 'But how could I stay behind when he needs my support? And anyway, I thought you could do with extra protection on the journey after your recent near disaster. But don't worry; I am sure I will be visiting Rohan again. Reasonably soon, I should think.'
'Why's that?' Lothíriel couldn't help asking, wondering if Éomer had issued an invitation for him to return.
'Your wedding of course. Brothers do come to weddings you know.'
'Oh, do you think it will be in Meduseld? I hadn't thought...' Lothíriel stopped, realising two pairs of eyes were staring at her, triumphant smiles quirking both sets of lips. She must be wearier than she thought to make such a blunder.
'As I said, sister dear, have you anything to tell us?' Smiling affectionately at her, Erchirion gently ran the back of his finger down her cheek. 'Loaning you my horse obviously worked.'
'A good job I persuaded you to agree to it, Brother', Amrothos butted in. Laughing he put his arm around her, pulling her away from his brother. 'So, you have me to thank that you were able to snare your king, Lothy.'
'I didn't snare him!' Lothíriel retorted, knowing further denial was useless. 'I spent the first few weeks not liking him at all...' She shrugged. 'But he sort of grew on me when I started to realise he had a kind, caring side. He certainly confirmed that when I was kidnapped.'
Scowls crossed their faces, and she thought they were about to censure Éomer about that incident, but luckily a shout interrupted them – the food was ready. 'Come on.' Erchirion took one arm and Amrothos linked his in the other. 'You can tell all whilst we eat. And we are only concerned for your happiness.'
She sighed, but after walking a few paces decided it was best to get it over with. 'Well, I will admit that Éomer and I have come to an agreement.'
'Then why so despondent?' Amrothos asked as they sat down.
'Because he promised to spend some time with me before a betrothal is announced. But Éowyn's wedding has been postponed, and she intimated to me that she now wished to be married in Meduseld. So I am wondering if I should have stayed in Rohan. If Éomer makes arrangements with our father, the next time I see him might be our wedding day.'
Erchirion paused the fork halfway to his mouth, frowning. 'But you said he promised to spend time with you before your official betrothal.'
She nodded. 'That's what he said. But we hardly had chance to talk after that, and things changed.'
'I don't think he's the type to go back on his promises, Lothy.' Erchirion confirmed her own thoughts.
'No, but he's hardly going to make the long journey to Dol Amroth with all the problems he's having to deal with in Rohan.' She sighed again. 'I should have stayed.'
'Do you love him, Lothy?' Putting his plate down on the ground, Amrothos looked at her intently. She could only answer him with truth.
'It took a long time for me to get there, and a few times he was very close to getting a kick on the shins, or worse.' They both grinned at that, making her feel a whole lot better. 'But yes, in spite of trying very hard not to, I have fallen completely in love with him.'
'Good.' Amrothos nodded his head as if he more than welcomed her admission. 'And Éomer, does he love you?'
She realised that both were keenly awaiting her answer. They had to be to have stopped eating. 'He says he does...' she hesitated as memories of his kisses assailed her senses. 'Yes, he loves me.'
Big smiles crossed their faces. 'In that case,' Amrothos said, nonchalantly picking up his plate again and taking a bite of chicken, 'it's better that you are going home. Staying in Rohan would make it difficult for both of you.'
She glared, not missing the innuendo of that at all. 'Don't talk with your mouth full.'
He shrugged, not at all put out by her censure. 'Just looking after your interests.'
Later, tucked in her bedroll listening to the gurgle of the stream and the occasional owl hooting, it struck her that her brothers were different. They had been very solicitous of her comfort – bracken had arrived for her bed, and hot water, just like that first night camping with the Rohirrim. But besides that the questioning of her had obviously been done out of concern for her happiness. Even Amrothos had only teased her gently, rather than the mockery she had come to expect of him. In fact it had become apparent that he had only decided to return to Dol Amroth when he had heard she intended to travel with Erchirion. War changed many things, and probably her normally irritating sibling had actually grown up. She settled for sleep, knowing that in spite of her heartache she looked forward to seeing her home and the rest of her family again.
Dol Amroth – just the battlements showed, hovering above the sea-mist like a ghostly castle returned from the depths of time. The mist that hid the lower walls swirled in eddies, blown by the freshening wind, and every now and again the breakwater and the harbour entrance appeared, only to be hidden once more. Nothing but the voice of the leadsman calling out the depths broke the eerie silence as the captain crept his ship forward. Straying out of the channel would have them on the rocks, but he had done this many times before. Then the harbour bell started clanging, guiding them in. At last the red marker on the end of the breakwater passed down the port side.
Lothíriel let out a breath she didn't know she had been holding – in such poor visibility the rocks that protected the harbour from invaders made the entrance difficult, even for the experienced. Now they were safe, she paced up and down on the deck, impatient for the ship to reach its berth, eager to get home after the long, hard journey. The only respite in the days of travelling had been when they stayed a night in Minas Tirith. But they had been up before dawn the morning they had left, and the few days at sea had not been restful either. The brisk following wind had brought them in much earlier than expected, but it had made for an uncomfortable motion as waves rolled beneath the ship. But at least Nightshade had taken the sea voyage in perfect stride, reassured by the relaxed manner in which the other horses coped with the journey, as well as the constant attention, shared between her mistress, the grooms, the princes and numerous Swan-knights.
The mist finally lifted as they entered the inner harbour and the sun broke through, pale but triumphant. Lothíriel shivered in anticipation – would Elphir be waiting on the quay, she wondered. Would they have been spotted in the mist? Word of their coming had been sent with a fast trader immediately on arriving in Minas Tirith, so hopefully he would know.
But of course the castle watch must have marked the ship far out and given notice of its approach as she saw Elphir searching the deck, trying for a first glimpse of his siblings as the ship turned for the quay. Forgetting all protocol, Lothíriel jumped up and down, waving frantically. He had spotted her, and waved back almost as enthusiastically. Then he reached down and Lothíriel realised that he was hoisting Alphros onto his shoulders. Oh, it would be good to give her little nephew a cuddle, she had missed him.
Lothíriel got the opportunity for a long cuddle, as seeing his father's admiring reaction to Nightshade, the little boy insisted on riding with her. She doubted she would have done it with any other horse straight from a sea-journey, but apart from obviously being pleased all four hooves were on dry land, Nightshade showed only a natural liveliness after the cramped conditions on board.
'I've missed you, Aunt Lothy,' Alphros confided as they neared the castle. 'You won't go away again, will you?'
'Not for a while, anyway,' she promised him. Perhaps she wouldn't at all. Entering through the big gateway, receiving the salutes of the guards, as she had done a thousand times before, she felt like she had never been away and her months in Rohan could have been a dream. Had she really snared the Lord of the Mark, as Amrothos had so crudely put it? Maybe Éomer had changed his mind, reconsidered his wish to marry a Gondorian now she was out of sight and others claimed his attention?
She shook her head, letting the memories flood back in. No, what was she thinking, why ever would Éomer change his mind – he was not a man who said one thing and did another...
'Aunt Lothy, I was telling you about the pony Father gave me, and you're not listening. I want you to come and see him as soon as we get to the stables.'
'I'm sorry, Alphros,' she said dropping a guilty kiss on his head. 'It's been a long journey and I'm tired. But of course I would love to see your pony.'
At last, satisfied that his aunt had made the right noises about his pretty little pony, Alphros took her hand and they went back into the keep and through to the family dining hall. 'I've brought her,' he announced, 'and she likes my pony.'
'I like him very much, Alphros,' Lothíriel agreed, 'and can't wait to see you ride him.'
Mildis got up, running around the table to give her a hug. 'Oh, I've missed you. And I imagine you've got so much to tell me.'
Alphros tugged at her hand. 'You can sit by me, Aunt Lothy.'
'Give your aunt some peace, Alphros, and let her talk to someone else.' Elphir held out his arms to his son, and the little boy reluctantly let her go to settle onto his father's lap, looking very downcast.
Lothíriel smiled lovingly at him. 'I will have time over the coming days to do all the things you want of me, Alphros, but right now I need a drink and a bath.'
After motioning to the servants that they could leave, Mildis indicated the empty chair next to where she had been sitting. 'Well, have something now and then we can leave the men to it and have a good gossip whilst you bathe.'
Her brothers were already tucking into a substantial meal even though they had broken their fast whilst still out at sea. She was not hungry, but seeing a bowl of peaches on the table, Lothíriel nodded – one thing she had missed in Rohan was abundant fresh fruit. She dipped her hands into the bowl of water left ready on the side, but as she dried them she stared at Mildis who was still hovering, waiting for her to sit down. Lothíriel's eyes went to her sister-in-law's stomach and then back up to her face, which turned a pretty shade of pink under her scrutiny. 'I think it's you that has news for me, Mildis.'
'Oh, I didn't think you'd notice.' Mildis put her hand on her slightly rounded stomach. 'I was going to tell you later.'
What wonderful news for them all! Even Amrothos stopped eating long enough to get up and give Mildis a hug, and congratulate his elder brother, who was looking at his wife with undisguised pride. After warmly embracing Mildis and Elphir, Lothíriel sat down and started to peal a peach, shaking her head when Mildis tried to press more food on her, all she really wanted was a bath. Amrothos took a swig from his mug and sat back in his chair, leaving the food for a moment.
'Father will be beside himself when he gets back,' he mused – 'a new grandchild, Erchirion finally getting leg-shackled, and a husband for Lothíriel. It certainly means I needn't make any effort at the moment.'
That woke Elphir up from his happy contemplation; he drew his eyes from his wife and stared enquiringly at his sister. 'A husband?'
Amrothos didn't give her time to answer. 'Our sister has come to an arrangement with the King of Rohan...'
'I knew it, I just knew it,' Mildis shrieked, jumping out of her chair. 'I knew you wouldn't be able to resist all that charm and golden hair. You're going to be a queen!'
'Charm!' Amrothos laughed. 'Our little sister didn't find him charming at first, did you Lothy?'
'About as charming as you on a bad day.' Lothíriel smiled sweetly at him. Had she thought he'd improved?
'Oh, you must tell me all.' Mildis stood up and grabbed her hand. 'Come on; let's go somewhere quiet where we can't be overheard.'
'It's not settled,' Lothíriel protested. 'I don't even know if Father has given his permission.'
That remark caused all three of her siblings to guffaw heartily. 'Can you really believe he will not welcome a king into the family?' Erchirion asked through his chuckles.
'Why will we have a king in the family?' Alphros piped up, scowling.
'Because your aunt is going to marry one,' his father explained. 'She will be the Queen of Rohan.'
'Where's Rohan?' Lothíriel heard him say as Mildis dragged her out, telling her to bring the peach with her.
'Mildis, I am not saying anything until I make friends with a big tub of hot water. My hair is full of salt, and my dress is stiff with it.' It was covered in horse spit too, but she didn't like to say that.
'Poor you. But I don't know why you spend so much time on deck. I just go into my cabin and stay there.'
Lothíriel laughed. She and Mildis were so different, but they had always got on well. That made her remember to ask something she wanted to know. 'What's Erchirion's intended like? He doesn't say much, and Amrothos just says she's pretty.'
'Very,' Mildis said smiling. 'Quite shy and quiet. Very suitable for him, I think. But I am sure you will soon meet her. It's you I want to talk about.'
But Mildis would have to wait. Lothíriel wanted her hair washed and no way would she discuss Éomer with a maid in the room. Or mention her kidnapping. So they discussed nothing more than commonplaces about Meduseld and Edoras.
'Meduseld sounds very different from Dol Amroth,' Mildis said, surprised, after Lothíriel had gone through the way a lord's hall was organised in Rohan. 'Everyone eating together, and the Hlafdige responsible for making sure all have enough to food?'
'Well, Mother does that here really.'
'I suppose.' Mildis grimaced. 'I hope she's around for a long time, I'm not sure I will quite be able to follow her in the same way.'
Lothíriel didn't answer her for a moment, waiting till the maid left the room. A lot of things would have to change when she left permanently. She drew her robe tightly round her, smiling at Mildis to ease her words. 'Perhaps when I go to Rohan would be a good time for you to start learning; Mother can't do everything on her own. And when your turn comes you will not be able to leave all the housekeeping to servants.'
Mildis wrinkled her nose. 'You're right, of course. I'll make an effort.' Dismissing that with a wave of her hand, she grinned mischievously. 'But never mind the boring things now; tell me all about your king.'
Where to start? And how much to tell? She had to be a little circumspect; after all Éomer would be her husband. 'I think Elphir's initial assessment of him being 'terse and proud' was very accurate,' she said after a moment's thought. Arrogant and pig-headed would cover it too, which made her wonder for the umpteenth time why she had actually fallen in love with him when she had tried so very hard not to. 'But that's only until you get to know him,' she continued, smiling reminiscently to herself. 'However, I admit that at times I wanted to do him bodily harm... in fact I told him once that he ought to go and sleep in the midden...'
'Lothíriel, you didn't!' Mildis exclaimed. 'Whatever had he done?'
Well, she could recount that occurrence. And she told a bit more, admitting how he had flirted with her and then got angry again for no real reason. Mildis listened open mouthed through most of it, recoiling in horror when she heard some of the details of the kidnapping.
'And you spent the night in a cave with him?'
Lothíriel nodded. 'He behaved totally honourably. And nearly froze to death so that I could keep warm.'
'Is that when he asked you to marry him?'
'Not exactly.' Lothíriel didn't want to give away all the intimate details. True, she had told most of it to her mother, but that was slightly different. She had needed advice. 'He asked me the night he came back from Minas Tirith.' She sighed. 'A few days later I left to come home.'
'And you say you haven't actually spoken to your father about marrying him?'
'No. Éomer was going to do that after I left.' Another sigh escaped. 'I was supposed to be seeing him again in a few months when Éowyn got married. But now that their wedding is postponed, I don't know when we'll meet again.'
'Your wedding day, I imagine,' Mildis echoed her worst thoughts. 'That would be quite normal with the distance involved. It happens even in Gondor sometimes, but mostly in arranged marriages.'
'I suppose so. I will just have to bear it. It's just that as soon as I realised how much I loved him, we parted.'
'It's a little hard,' Mildis agreed. 'But better than having to marry someone you don't want to. Which reminds me, Berenor's parents asked when you were coming back. You will have to think what to tell them.'
'You won't say anything, will you, Mildis? I wouldn't like to hurt them. Nothing must get out until the six months are up; even then it will be difficult saying I am going to marry someone else.'
But to her astonishment, when Lothíriel met with them a few days later, it seemed that the announcement of her betrothal would not come as a surprise to anyone.
After Lady Narhel had wiped away a tear, she put her hand on Lothíriel's arm and lowered her voice. 'We are sorry for you, of course, having to settle for an arranged marriage when you were expecting a love match with dear Berenor. But it's the best you can do in the circumstances, don't you think?'
'Arranged marriage?' Lothíriel echoed, not following at all.
Narhel nodded. 'We guessed immediately didn't we, Helcar?' She looked at her husband for confirmation, which he gave with a sad smile. 'As soon as you were sent to Rohan everybody realised your father was making plans with Elessar to marry you off to King Éomer. Well, it stands to reason doesn't it, now things have changed. Our Prince has never been one to miss such an opportunity. And of course Gondor's new ruler will want to make sure those Horse-lords are on our side in the future. We understand that, and hope you are not too unhappy about it.'
'But nothing has been said,' Lothíriel pointed out, still in a daze.
'Oh no, dear, quite right that you don't say anything until your grieving period is up, but that doesn't stop everyone from seeing the obvious, does it?'
The obvious? Did everyone really think she had been sent to Rohan as some kind of surety to keep their allies happy? Unable to listen to any more, she muttered an excuse and got away as fast as she could. Arranged marriage? Was that what the nobles of Gondor believed? Probably, and their assessment would be confirmed if she was sent off to Edoras when the time came like part of the aid agreement. Well, she told herself, as she hurried across the courtyard towards the stables, what did it matter what people thought? She would ignore the implications of the conversation and go by her own inclinations. She wanted to marry Éomer, and how that was achieved didn't matter. And she would make a special effort to enjoy herself in the weeks before her parents returned. Not that they tried to stop her doing what she liked, but life in the castle was inevitably more formal when they were home.
Reaching Nightshade's stall, she petted her horse shamelessly – the beautiful mare the living link between her and Éomer.
'Want to go out, Lothy?' Amrothos came towards her, leading his grey gelding down the space between the stalls 'The tide's out and the beach will be firm if you fancy a gallop.'
She certainly did, and she blessed her brother for suggesting it. She might need to keep her wits sharp around him, but at least he was not stuffy about how fast and how far they went, unlike some of the elderly grooms who accompanied her if there was no one else.
The gallop was all she hoped for Nightshade's first venture along the sand. The mare never faltered, loving the open space and happy to splash through the edge of the surf. Lothíriel laughed out loud with the exhilaration of the fast ride and determined to enjoy the good weather whilst she could. She had promised Elladan she would study some of the tomes in the castle library, but that could wait for the dark winter days.
So as the days shortened, but the weather stayed fair, she made the most of the bounty of a warm autumn, riding and swimming with her brothers and falling weary into her bed on many nights. Grateful to be kept occupied, Lothíriel took numerous turns at leading Alphros as he bounced around on the back of his treasured pony. And a couple of times she accompanied Erchirion when he rode to Edhellond to visit Annael, the lady to whom her brother had given his heart. As Amrothos had said, Annael was certainly pretty, also sweet and gentle, gazing at Erchirion with adoring puppy eyes. Just what he needed and liked, bringing out his caring, protective instincts. However, when contemplating her own romance, it struck Lothíriel forcibly that Éomer would have eaten a woman like Annael alive, but then Annael would probably never have riled him as she had. What did the fact that she could hold her own against a belligerent Horse-lord say about herself? Hopefully that she was just the wife he needed.
But however hard she tried to keep herself busy, moments of quiet found her musing about Éomer and her future life, and it was both relief and trepidation she felt when one morning Elphir sought her out as she came back from an early ride.
'A messenger has ridden in; Father will be home tomorrow, in the late afternoon. I have informed the kitchens, but you might like to check everything is prepared.'
Even though she had been expecting this news, a dry lump came to her throat. Perhaps there would be a letter from Éomer. Surely he would write something and not just leave it to her father to tell her exactly what had been arranged.
'Lothíriel, did you hear what I said?'
She jumped; her mind leagues away across the mountains. 'Of course, I was just thinking. Everything will be ready. But Elphir, you said the late afternoon, the tide will be in around midday.'
'It has no bearing, they are riding.'
'Riding! But Mother will hate that. I found the journey long and tiring, and was certainly glad to board the ship at the Harlond.'
Elphir shrugged, and turned away to pull at Nightshade's ears. 'Perhaps she's had a lot of practice, spending all that time in Rohan.'
Lothíriel rose early, wanting to make sure everything was ready for her parents' return. After a visit to the kitchens to confirm the dishes that would form the welcome supper that evening, she joined the family for the first meal of the day.
'What are you going to do this morning?' Elphir asked as he passed a plate of pastries.
Lothíriel chose one covered in nuts and honey and poured herself some pomegranate juice. 'I can do no more here – the rooms have been aired and the kitchens have their orders. I thought I would take a walk on the beach. It looks like the weather might soon break.' To be truthful, she wanted to be alone. Her father's return would no doubt signify a change in her life forever, just for this short while she sort of wished to hang on to the old one. If Amrothos wanted to ride today, she would tell him no. And where was he anyway, the meal was nearly over and he hadn't appeared.
'Where's Amrothos?' she asked no one in particular.
'He rode out very early,' Alphros answered. 'I was told to go back to bed, but I didn't, and I saw him riding through the gate with some of his men. He could have taken me. I like riding.'
'He's gone to meet Father,' Erchirion said. 'He must have fancied a long ride today.'
How strange that he had not asked her, not that she would have wished to go anyway. She turned to Elphir. 'You are still not expecting them until later in the day?'
'I have had no message to say otherwise.'
Lothíriel nodded, and put down her napkin. 'Then I have a few hours to please myself. I will see you all later.' She was still not convinced her mother would return on horseback, wondering if the messenger had got it wrong and only her father was riding.
'Lothíriel,' Elphir called as she made for the door, 'are you definitely going on the beach?'
'I am, and I intend to take a book.' She got out of the door quickly, before he could say she had to have a companion. He didn't, but she still hurried out the side gate, lest the housekeeper, steward or anyone else claimed her attention. But she told the gate guards where she was going, only sensible even though the lands around the castle had long been declared safe. Her kidnapping had made her more cautious than she had used to be. But she still took the cliff path, confident and steady footed as she descended, enjoying the view and the gulls wheeling around her.
Halfway down she stopped, breathing in the fresh, salt air. The tide was coming in and the shallows were filled with fisher-folk casting their nets to trap the shoals feeding on the worms and crustaceans woken by the return of the water. She scanned the sea, grinning with delight when she saw the tell-tale fins of a pod of dolphins heading in. The beautiful creatures streaked through the water as they chased their prey; from her raised position she could see them clearly as they boiled the water with their leaping and diving. And then without warning they were gone, heading back out of the bay together like an army given the order to retreat, the sea flat and quiet again.
The show over, Lothíriel continued down to the beach, and walked along to where the dunes started. She scrambled up to her favourite hollow, and took out her book. But it remained on her lap as she leant back against the sand, making no attempt to read it as her mind would not settle. It had all started in this place, months ago, when she had been trying to decide whether to go to Minas Tirith to give companionship to Éowyn. What a long way she had come since then – deliberately she thought back, going over all the things that had happened, how much she had achieved and what she might do if she really did return as queen. But before she had got very far, without intending it, her eyes closed. Not to sleep, but to doze, taking pleasure in the peace, she told herself.
A shout woke her. She sat up suddenly, but it was only one of the fishermen calling to his companions. They were nearer her now – having moved up the beach with the tide. She looked up at the sun, it must be around noontime and the tide would be turning. Sure enough they were gathering up their nets and some heaving full baskets onto a cart. She watched them as they started trudging back towards the port, following the line of the receding tide so that they could walk on the firm sand. Then her attention was caught by two figures coming towards her at the foot of the dunes. They stopped, looking out to sea, one pointing out something to the other, who was gazing around as if seeing something for the first time.
No, she couldn't believe it! What was he doing here!
Lothíriel stood up, her heart thumping wildly. He had come. Against all her hope he had kept his word. She couldn't move; amazement, joy, and even panic rendered her immobile as she waited for Éomer and her brother to climb up to her, her eyes fixed on the man she had fallen in love with.
'Look what I've brought you,' Amrothos called out. Éomer said nothing, looking intent on reaching her as quickly as possible. But riding boots and soft, slippy sand hampered him – three steps up, one step back. That broke her near trance, and she started to laugh. But whether because he had greater incentive, or Amrothos deliberately hung back, he reached her first. Lothíriel held out her hand, but there was no polite kissing of her knuckles, Éomer caught it in his and pulled her hard against him.
All her fears of the past weeks faded away and with a little moan of relief she dropped her head onto his shoulder, relaxing against him.
'I've missed you, Lothíriel of Dol Amroth,' he murmured, as he gently pushed some escaped hair back from her eyes and brushed his lips across her temple. 'There's been no one to keep me in order.'
Lothíriel could feel the beat of his heart, a whisper of breath against her cheek. He was the Éomer she had used as a pillow during that cold night on the mountain – trustworthy, steadfast – and all shyness left her. She looked up into his face, tentatively lifting her finger to trace an outline of his lips, drinking in the sight of him. 'I was not expecting this, how have you been able to leave Rohan for so long?'
'Ah...' He smiled, a little triumphantly she thought. 'There is something you do not know. The road under the Dimholt is open, which means that it is not so far, or as long a journey to get here now. Although this time the ride has been a little slower in deference to your mother. With just my men I can be back in Edoras in four days. But anyway, Lothíriel, my people will not begrudge me few sennights if it means that I secure the wife I want.'
'And I was kind enough to go and meet him. So you could at least show me some appreciation, Lothy, after I put myself out to get him here with all speed so that you could have a little time together.' Amrothos pulled a hurt face. 'But I seem to be superfluous.'
'We are both very appreciative,' Éomer said, not even looking at him. 'And will be even more so if you take yourself off for a while.'
Lothíriel gulped, expecting her brother to make some tart rejoinder, but he only laughed. 'I'll give you half an hour, and will be at the bottom of the cliff path, waiting for you.' He flourished Éomer an exaggerated bow, turned, and digging his heels into the sand, quickly ran down the slope to the beach.
'Elphir must have known you were coming,' Lothíriel reflected watching her brother depart. 'But he never said anything.'
'Your brothers thought to surprise you. Amrothos met us on the road this morning with the suggestion that I ride with him ahead of the rest. Elphir said you were down on the beach, and here I am. I hope you are pleased to see me.'
Did he doubt it? Amrothos was now out of sight, they were as alone as they were likely to be for some time. She would have to thank him later, and Elphir. Éomer glanced along the beach, following her gaze.
Turning back, he looked down on her with heat-filled eyes. 'Good, now I can kiss you properly.'
Her thoughts exactly.
Éomer bent his lips to her, kissing her with a smouldering passion that turned her legs to jelly and set a fire deep within her... she wanted this, these feelings, for the rest of her life. She kissed him back possibly with more enthusiasm than experience, but she must have been doing right as he growled deep in his throat.
'Did you speak to my father?' she murmured breathlessly when their lips parted.
He gently took her chin between his fingers, tipping it so he could look directly into her eyes. 'I did. But he has not given me full authority to marry you, only to woo you. The decision is yours. But if you agree, then he is happy that we get married in Meduseld early next year, possibly at the same time as Éowyn and Faramir. I am hoping that you will consent, and by the time I leave we can announce our betrothal.'
She saw a waver of doubt cross his face, perhaps she was not the only one who had worried about a change of mind. 'I thought we agreed to marry that night in the Meduseld garden.'
'We did, but since then you have had chance to reconsider.' He looked towards the sea, sweeping an arm around the expanse of beach. 'It is very different here; living in the Riddermark will not be the same at all.'
'I think I know that, Éomer, having spent so many weeks there. I still want to marry you.' Not being able to resist, she added. 'After all, I would hate to think of you not being looked after properly, since your comfort is obviously important to you.'
He expelled a frustrated breath, but then his lips curved into one of his slow smiles. 'You are not going to let me forget that in a hurry, are you?'
'Well, I might. If you kiss me again.'
With thanks to Lia for her expert beta – and The Garden of Ithilien workshop for their continuing support. LBJ