The rich man knows his worth.
The steadfast man knows his mind.
The wise man knows his heart.
(Saying from Rohan)
With a groan, Éomer rolled over and opened one eye. Just enough morning light pervaded his tent to enable him to see the sparse furnishings.
"What is it?" he croaked.
Oswyn opened the tent flap and stuck in his head. "Your wash, my lord."
Éomer sat up gingerly and motioned for him to come in. Oswyn had long ago learnt to announce his presence before entering, for the first time he had omitted to do so, he'd caused his king to surge stark naked out of bed, a dagger in each hand. A habit left over from the war that, and one Éomer would have to break when he got married. Another groan escaped him.
His squire rolled in a shallow wooden tub, positioned it in one corner and then left to fetch water. Éomer rested his head in his hands. It was throbbing gently, with not quite a hangover, but definitely more than a headache. When he had got back the night before, he had joined a group of his riders celebrating Éowyn's upcoming nuptials. They had sat around the fire, reminiscing about times past and passing beakers of ale. He should have gone easy on it. Or was it the after-effects of a different sort of intoxication?
Oswyn reappeared a moment later with two buckets and set them down by the tub, careful not to spill any of the water on the ground. Then he busied himself laying out a towel and fresh clothes. Éomer wrapped a robe around himself, strolled over and tested the water with one toe. Fresh from the mountains and ice cold, as usual. Still, it would do him good after last night.
His squire straightened up, a pair of boots in one hand. "Would you like me to get some hot water for you, my lord?"
Éomer shook his head and then winced. "No, that's fine." All the water had to be fetched from a nearby stream and he did not want to make more work for the servants than necessary. Let the ladies and children have their hot baths, he could manage.
He also waved away his squire's offer of assistance. "I'm not old and feeble yet, Oswyn. You go and get Firefoot ready." His squire nodded and ducked out the tent.
Now if it had been his wife offering to give a hand, that might have been a different matter. Éomer clamped down hard on that thought. Why did his unruly mind insist on straying in that direction? Of course he knew why, even though he still had no idea what had gotten into him the night before. After all, Lothíriel was not the first pretty woman he had held in his arms - but the first princess. And to think that he had considered his tendency to give in to mad impulses firmly under control! At least he hadn't committed the complete folly of kissing her in plain sight of everybody.
His glance fell on a small table standing in one corner of his tent and the blue ribbon lying on it. Éomer picked it up and let its shiny length run through his fingers. Did Lothíriel know what she had agreed to? He rather doubted it and knew he had no right to go through with claiming his due, unless he also meant to offer for her hand. To do anything else would mean to destroy that unconditional trust in her eyes.
A blind queen? For the first time he let his mind contemplate the idea. His advisors would probably have seizures at the mere thought. Bar a very few, they would never be able to see past Lothíriel's blindness to her courage and rare honesty. And her youth and inexperience spoke against her as well. Being Queen of the Mark was a heavy burden to lay on such small shoulders. Did he have the right to even think of it?
He let the ribbon fall to the table again and balled his hands into fist. Why did the crown have to pass to him? As Third Marshall of the Riddermark he would have been free to marry whomever he pleased, but now invisible fetters bound him: duty and love. Why did you have to die, Théodred? he thought angrily. No answer. There never would be one now.
With a sigh Éomer dropped his robe and stepped in the tub. For a moment, he eyed the ladle resting against one side, but then he shrugged and picked up one of the buckets. Resolutely he upended it over his head. The shock of cold water running down his body drove the last vestiges of sleep from his mind and he could not help cursing.
He recognized his sister's voice. That brought him even more fully awake.
"Éowyn! You can't come in."
She laughed. "Hurry up! It's getting on and I've brought breakfast for you."
Not sure how long his sister's patience would hold, he hastily finished his wash, dried himself and put on a pair of trousers and his boots. As an afterthought he picked up a certain blue ribbon and stuffed it into one of his pockets. He definitely did not want his sister to spot that. Then he held the tent flap open for Éowyn to enter. She slipped in and deposited the tray she carried on the table. Delicious smells wafted from it and Éomer's stomach growled.
Éowyn looked him over critically. "Well, my handsome brother, aren't you dressed yet? If go out like that, you'll have half the womenfolk of the camp swooning over you."
He gave her a pained smile and started on the bowl of hot porridge she had brought. He had the sinking feeling there only existed one woman that he wanted to swoon over him and she wouldn't do so at the sight of him. However, he wasn't about to tell that to his sister. First he wanted to sort out his own muddled emotions about the events of the previous night.
Apart from the porridge, the tray also held rolls of freshly baked bread, a small pot of honey and a mug of piping hot tea. Éomer felt his headache receding as he filled his empty stomach. Éowyn wandered over to the clothes his squire had laid ready for him and selected a shirt and tunic from them. "Put these on," she told him.
Once he had done so, she stepped round his back and towelled down his hair. "We don't want people to think you're a barbarian king from the Northlands."
He smiled involuntarily. "But that's what I am. Just like you're a wild, untamed Shieldmaiden."
She gave him a playful punch in the back. "I am nothing of the sort. On the contrary, in another day's time I will be a refined Gondorian lady."
Éomer nearly choked on his tea at that picture. "Yes, I'm sure. You'll be sitting in the garden, doing embroidery. Does Faramir have the slightest idea of what he's let himself in for?"
Éowyn laughed and started to brush out his hair. "Soon you'll have to find someone else to do this for you," she remarked in a conversational voice.
"Hmm." Slightly cheered, Éomer had to hide a grin. He had suspected that it wasn't sisterly care that had brought Éowyn into his tent so early, but rather sisterly curiosity.
Silence stretched between them until Éowyn could stand it no longer. "Oh come on, Éomer! Out with it, what happened between you and Lothíriel last night? Imrahil didn't look too pleased about it."
"Nothing has happened." Yet. Without warning, the memory of caressing Lothíriel's smooth skin flooded through him and he realized he would not be able to forgo claiming his forfeit. Her dark, unseeing eyes had tugged at his very soul.
Éowyn touched him hesitantly on the shoulder. "But..."
He turned round and gently took her by the wrists. "Sister, you'll have to trust me to manage my own affairs. I'm a grown man, you know." Although so far, he'd just gotten himself into a right mess. While he did not think that Lothíriel had objected to his treatment of her, he had a pretty good idea of what Imrahil might say about the same issue.
Éowyn searched his face, and whatever she read there made her frown worriedly. "I know. I just want you to be happy."
Éomer touched her briefly on the cheek. "I will be. Don't concern yourself with me, think of yourself and Faramir." He could hear the jingle of harness and a familiar wicker outside the tent. "Oswyn has brought the horses," he said. "Time to go."
Before they stepped outside, he picked up his cloak and fastened it at the shoulder with a circular gold brooch. His fingers lingered for a moment on the familiar device of the running horse encircled by a cunning pattern of interlaced designs. It had been his father's and he hoped would one day be his son's. He sighed.
After greeting Firefoot, Éomer automatically checked the position of the sun. Late morning already, but his men were all ready and they would be able to leave straightaway. He swung up on the stallion and gave the signal to move out.
Lord Girion of Lossarnach had inherited his lordship at the death of his father Forlong the Fat on the Pelennor Fields and his demesne lay in the shadow of the White Mountains. To get there, they had to ride south first, passing between Minas Tirith and the Harlond. The horses were eager for a run and they made good time, so that in little over an hour they reached the southern gate of the Rammas Echor, where they turned west.
Having the same goal, several other groups of riders joined them as they made their way up a wide side-valley that a stream had eaten into the sides of Mount Mindolluin. Homesteads with storks' nests perched precariously on the chimneys lined the way and every time they passed one, children came running, climbing on the fences and exclaiming at the exotic looking Rohirrim. The fields looked carefully tended, the pigs, cows and other animals well fed. A fertile country, it reminded Éomer very much of the West Mark.
After a while, the road started to climb the western side of the valley, leading through dense underbrush up to a grassy plateau. The Lords of Lossarnach had built a small hunting lodge at the edge of it and it was here that the meet would assemble. As they approached, they could hear the excited barking of dogs and over on one side stood a row of perches where falconers put up their charges. A small courtyard fronted the house, with a row of stables either side. It was packed with people and horses, but Éomer could make out their host standing on the low steps leading up to the door, talking to Aragorn and Arwen. Having inherited his father's legendary girth, Lord Girion was easy to spot.
Éomer quickly scanned the crowd, taking note of Faramir and his rangers making their way towards them, but mainly interested in another sight. Over in one corner, a group of Swan Knights stood waiting by their horses, and he could make out both Imrahil and Amrothos. Surely that meant that the Princess of Dol Amroth attended the event as well.
It took a disconcerting amount of self-discipline not to search for her at once like a lovesick youth, but to go and greet his host first.
"King Éomer," Lord Girion exclaimed in his booming voice, "how nice to see you."
Éomer had met Girion on the march to the Black Gate and had great respect for him. When he introduced Éowyn, the man bowed deeply. "The incomparable White Lady of Rohan." He turned to Faramir. "Now if only I were twenty years younger I would give you a run for this lovely lady's hand."
Faramir laughed. "I think you enjoy your status as a wealthy widower too much to do that."
Girion clutched at his heart. "You wound me! Or are you afraid of what a formidable rival I might make?"
Even Éowyn, whose eyes usually took on a glassy look at this sort of compliment, had to laugh.
Girion beamed at them. "I was just telling King Elessar and Queen Arwen what a splendid meal we have prepared for you. But first the hunt!" He went on to enumerate all the various treats he had arranged for them. "My men have tracked a herd of deer, some wild boars and even a big stag for you to hunt. For the ladies with their falcons we have arranged pheasants, partridges, ducks and wood pigeons to hunt here on the plateau."
Éomer nodded politely, but his attention was wandering again. "I have got to go and greet Imrahil," he excused himself after a moment.
"You do that," his sister said, unsuccessfully smothering a grin. As he turned to go, he saw Aragorn and his queen exchange a speaking look.
It took him a while to cross the courtyard, because he had to exchange greetings with all his acquaintances, but at least everybody made way for him - one of the advantages of being a king. He had almost reached the circle of Swan Knights when he spotted Lothíriel. She was leaning her head against Winterbreath's neck, stroking the soft coat of her horse, and something in her manner made him pause. She looked almost apprehensive, the way she stood slightly hunched over, clinging to the comfort of her mare. Then he got a glimpse of her face. A look of deep unhappiness on it, she had her eyes closed as if she wanted to shut out the world. At the sight, Éomer felt sudden rage kindle within him. What had caused this? Had her father scolded her for coming out on the stepping-stones with him the night before?
"Lothíriel!" he called and she started violently. At once, he cursed himself for not announcing his presence in a better manner. What had gotten into him?
Straightening her back, she turned towards him, her face a careful blank. "King Éomer."
He felt as if he had been doused with cold water for the second time that day. King Éomer? He had thought they had dispensed with titles. A sinking feeling pervaded his stomach.
"Lothíriel," he said again, more softly. "Forgive me for startling you."
"It doesn't matter."
She clutched Winterbreath's reins as if they were a lifeline, her knuckles turning white with pressure. Éomer had to stamp down hard on the urge to take her in his arms then and there. He desperately wanted to make her smile at him like she had last night. Or alternatively draw and quarter whoever had caused this unhappiness - before cutting him into small pieces, boiling him in oil and then killing him. His hands curled into fists.
"It does matter," he said gently, "to me."
That moment Imrahil came up behind her, laying a protective hand on her shoulder and Amrothos materialized on her other side. Identical cool grey eyes looked him over with open disfavour, matched by the chill in their voices as they greeted him.
"Everything all right, dearest?" Imrahil asked.
"Yes of course." She took a step back into the shelter of her father's presence.
What had happened? This was not the same woman who had smiled at him last night at their parting with such open joy, self-possessed and sure of herself. It couldn't be something he had done, it had to be her father's influence. He glared at Imrahil, who glared right back. Yet for a moment it seemed to him that below the other man's animosity lay surprise and worry.
Trying to think of a way to get her to talk to him unguardedly, Éomer took a step closer. "Lothíriel, would you like to take a short walk with me?"
Alarm chased across her face. "I don't think we have time for that," she stammered. "Isn't the hunt about to begin?"
Éomer cast a look back over his shoulder. Gesturing expansively, Girion still stood on the steps of his lodge, talking to Arwen and Aragorn. "Plenty of time yet." He lowered his voice. "I need to talk to you."
She hesitated. Beside her, Imrahil bristled visibly. "Perhaps another time. Like my daughter just said, the hunt will start soon."
Éomer gave him a challenging stare. "Not for a while yet."
Ignoring the other man, he turned to Lothíriel. "Please?" he said, willing her to hear the need in his voice.
Still she hesitated, clenching and unclenching the fingers holding Winterbreath's reins. What had Imrahil said about him to cause this anxiety?
"I won't give up until you do, you know," he said in a last desperate bid, crossing his arms across his chest. And he determined at that moment that indeed he wouldn't.
Lothíriel seemed to recognize that he would not yield easily. "Very well," she agreed, "a short walk."
Lothíriel shook her head. "I'll be fine, father. Amrothos can come along and watch over me." She sounded bitter.
Then she lifted her chin. The nod she gave Éomer could not be called cordial. "Lead the way."
When he offered her his arm, she took it, but only laid a hand very lightly on it, hardly touching him at all. In uncomfortable silence they made their way across the courtyard and round one side of the house. A couple of apple trees, slightly neglected, stood there amongst high grass. Éomer waved his guards back and at a soft word from Lothíriel, Amrothos stayed there as well, leaning against the wall and watching them through narrowed eyes. Éomer led Lothíriel to the shade of one of the trees, where they would be out of earshot. The barking of dogs and noise of the assembled guests talking to each other was muffled by the bulk of the house here.
The moment he stopped, Lothíriel removed her hand from his arm. Éomer studied her. She wore a pretty riding dress, distractingly tight fitting across the top and accentuating her narrow waist, yet despite the warm red colour she looked pale and drawn.
"What's the matter, Lothíriel?" he asked. "Is your father annoyed with us?"
She shook her head. "Nothing I can't deal with."
"Then what troubles you?" Something in her face warned him she would not welcome him taking her in his arms, although he badly wanted to do so.
"A slight headache, nothing more."
She turned away from him, rubbing a hand across the bark of the apple tree as if seeking distraction. As he watched those long, elegant fingers, all of a sudden he was struck by the desire of having her run them through his hair. Or across his skin? With a wrench he pulled his mind back to the matter at hand.
"Won't you tell me? I'm sure I can help."
At that, she spun round, as if goaded past bearing. "You know perfectly well what is the matter. Or at least you should."
He couldn't help it, he had to reach out for her hand. "What do you mean?"
"How can you ask such a thing after what you did last night," she snapped, withdrawing her hand from his and taking a step back. "Don't touch me!"
It dawned on Éomer at that moment that the man to be drawn and quartered and then cut into small pieces was himself.