A/N: I own nothing. The cover image is of Rodin's "The Kiss," in which the lovers embrace but their lips never meet.
In His Face A Shining Light
But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth Beren came upon Luthien at a time of evening under moonrise...Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Luthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Iluvatar...As the light upon the leaves of trees, as the voice of clear waters, as the stars above the mists of the world, such was her glory and her loveliness; and in her face was a shining light.
- The Silmarillion
Chapter XIX "Of Beren and Luthien"
They found the queen's horse first. Dawn was a wash of orange overtaking blue across the sky, and the air had the bite of a premature spring, sweet but bitter. All the woods were yet in darkness, peaks of pines like the inky ridge of a porcupine's back running along the horizon. It was a sunrise that, for Eomer, would obliterate the memory of all sunrises before it.
Grimund ahead gave the call, then Eomer saw it too, that blink of white against the darkness, almost a milky blue color in this light like a patch of late-melting snow. Next to him Aldhelm gave a blast on his horn, calling off the other search parties.
"Sir," Grimund slowed until he was alongside.
"No. I will go first." Eomer answered what his old friend did not ask.
Though with all of his being he wished he could look away, he spurred Firefoot ahead, further to the edge of the forest where strands of a once-proud white mane blew in the air.
He had always had a strong stomach. Sights and smells of a battle did not bother him. He had seen too much for it to have any effect on him any more – the blood-glazed spears, the entrails split and steaming against the snow, the warm red spurt pouring over his bare hands like water. Eomer could eat a full meal before a campaign and lose none by day's end.
But this morning there was a buzzing in the back of his skull, and a roil set to in his stomach as he came close to what remained of the mare he had given Lothiriel on the day of their betrothal. A beautiful white mare, a mount fit for a queen.
There should be more flies, the thought came to him as he stepped closer to the carnage. Where were the carrion birds? But all was eerie silent, until Firefoot suddenly reared, sending up a shriek, as if he had scented something in the air. Eomer tried to urge him on, but the stallion was adamant, bucking and tossing, eyes rolling back in his head.
Eomer dismounted finally, left Firefoot to his fit and went on ahead, alone. As she had been alone, when she came upon this place.
The air was only broken by the soft morning song of thrushes. He walked by the first dead crow, and the next, wings splayed and broken as if they had fallen from a height. Then Eomer broke into a run, the ice tipped grass of early morning turning to cold water as they grazed the top of his boots.
The mare Almaren took so readily to Lothiriel, though it bore no love for him; scenting him, she would toss her tail and peel back those smooth lips to let the strong teeth show. In fact he hated the damn horse, the way she would raise a ruckus every time he came near, as if he were a threat to her dark-haired mistress, as if she had to be warned whenever her lord and husband were to be within a stone's throw. But he had also been a little jealous; for he had a way with horses, and it galled him that the half-Meara had taken it upon herself to dislike him so much, so specifically.
With her back to him, Almaren might have just have lain down to rest. The trampled grass told its own story, of pursuit and capture, of a stand, and then defeat.
The sight brought him up short as he circled the corpse. Three grey wolves, their bodies lean with a winter's hunger and their jaws still red with Almaren's blood, struck dead even as they dug their snout into her lacerated, red belly. They lay there, like pups at their mother's milk, eyes glazed, her red blood drying on their teeth, their legs collapsed and unmoving.
As for that damn horse, her eye was closed, and her coat unmarred but for for the wolves at their feeding, and it looked as if she had been sleeping but for the one red mark on her neck where the poison must have gone in through her largest artery, filling her heart and the rest of her body in seconds. A bloody hand print sealed that death's kiss.
All he felt, then, in that moment, was a need to know if Almaren had bitten the bastard who did this to her. It was only the call of Aldhelm in his ear, bidding him cease, that he came to and found himself trying to pry open the jaws of the white horse, clenched tighter in death than even that one time when she had nipped his shoulder and left a trail of slime over his best ceremonial robes.
How Lothiriel had laughed and laughed. Almaren was the one thing that would really make Lothiriel laugh, he thought, one of the only things that gave her true joy. And she had fought for her mistress, and was dead, and with nothing to show for it.
"Poison," Aldhelm said, "sir, she's been poisoned."
He wasn't stupid, Eomer thought. He knew it was poison. He just had to make sure that she got some bastard good, that she fought back. The Haradrim - and it was the Haradrim, he knew it in his bones - they prized horses of the Rohirrim, and killing Almaren was no casual brutality for them, but a declaration of war.
It was no small thing, to kill a descendant of a Meara, even if the damn horse was half Meara and likely half demon. Eomer just wanted to make sure that she took a part of someone with her, he thought, as Aldhelm dragged him back from the cold mouth of the horse, opened now.
Something dropped from between the rows of white teeth. In the red haze of his mind Eomer thought, hoped it was a attacker's hand, or a bit of cloth to lead them on. But then Aldhelm picked the metal ensign up with a cloth, and he saw it was Lothiriel's seal, the Queen's seal.
Eomer felt lightheaded.
"Why would she leave this, sir?"
Why would she leave this, he wondered wildly. She gave it to her horse, she left it for him to find - the badge of her office, the symbol of her authority that she carried at all times, as he did, worn around the neck and next to her heart. Leaving it was as good as relinquishing her position as queen. She may as well have tossed the damn ring back at his face too, given what she's done, Eomer thought, suddenly in a towering fury as he stared at the loop of well-worn leather and the small medallion on the end of it.
Then a memory came to him, snapped along the darkened paths of his mind like a strike of lightning, left him blind.
We cannot afford war with the Haradrim, and you know this, sir.
She had never gotten out of the habit of calling him sir.
What we cannot afford is to leave that threat sitting merrily east of our borders, Lothiriel.
I know, she said, but now is not the time. You'd beggar the country, and cripple the young who are left. There will be no Rohan left if you and Aragorn were to call the men to your banners again. Both of you know this.
He had looked at her across the fire. She deferred to him in council always and only ever said these things, important things, in their own chambers. She was always so serious, so serious.
And what if they were to kidnap me, wife? Hie me off to the famed Cages of Harad, never to emerge again? Would you leave me there to rot? Would there be no war waged for Eomer's life?
She looked at him, that steady, grey-eyed look.
If they were to take you, Eomer, I'd come after you with both Gondor and Rohan at my side.
And why is that, wife?
Because you are the heart of this place, sir.
Even today he remembered how surprised he had been at that, how suddenly touched and yet taken aback, as if he had glimpsed something in her, something that he had not hitherto suspected. Then she blinked, smiled her wry smile, and she was Lothiriel again. Young, but dependable, tough-minded, his ally in the restoration of his country.
I'd go to war for you. But for no other reason. She said. For no one else. Promise me that. For Rohan, for your people.
"She's telling us to let her go," said Eomer, staring at her ensign.
"No," said Grimund, who always seemed to understand Lothiriel better than Eomer did, "The queen is commanding us."
He was right, Eomer thought. Giving up the ensign was as good as giving her up her queenship. The council would understand this. They would at least understand that no war needed to be waged on behalf of one who was no longer the queen of Rohan.
She had his promise. But in the end she took the choice from him.
That woman, he thought helplessly. That maddening, infuriating woman. He was so angry at her; he had never been so helplessly angry at her, at anyone – except for his sister, except for his sister that time, lying as dead in the Pelennor.
He wanted to curse her. Lothiriel, you are going to die, he wanted to say, in pain, in humiliation, away from all that you know and love. They will have no mercy for you.
And he thought he could see those grey eyes, steady as ever through the red haze at the edges of his mind, and hear her say in that steady, low voice. For no one else, she said, There will be no Rohan left. Promise me.
They burned Almaren's body. Grimund and Aldhelm exchanged uneasy glances over the mask-like face of their young king, still kneeling in the grass, his eyes dry and not a word on his lips.