The true lady will always show an amiable and pleasant countenance to the world. At no time will she allow any sign of inner turmoil to spoil her gracious manner, nor will she ever lift her voice above what is considered appropriate in polite society.
(Belecthor: The Gondorian maiden's guide to proper deportment)
Éomer stared down at Lothíriel, feeling as if he had been punched in the gut. In the distance, the dogs were still barking loudly and the branches of the apple tree above him moved in the slight breeze, throwing dappled shade on her face. No longer luminous with joy, but tense and angry. His fault.
"You're talking about what happened at the fireboats."
"Yes, obviously," she bit off.
He lifted a hand and then let it fall to his side again. Once again his imprudent impulses had got him into trouble. "I know I got carried away." Yet she had not objected, he was sure of it.
"Carried away? You touch me in that manner and then go and..." her voice broke and to his horror he saw tears in her eyes.
He took a step toward her. "Lothíriel, please. I'm sorry! Believe me, I never meant to cause you any unhappiness."
"Well you have."
Éomer felt even worse. If one of his riders had forced his attentions on an unwilling woman, he would have punished him most severely. To have her accuse him of taking advantage of her and to see her in such distress cut him deeply. Yet at the same time he could not believe that he had misread her so completely. Perhaps he had overwhelmed her by asking for too much too quickly? She was so young and inexperienced after all.
"You are right," he said, "I deserve some censure for what I've done."
Tentatively, he picked up her hand again. Stiff and unyielding, but at least she didn't pull away this time. "I don't know what got into me - I just acted without thinking. Will you believe me when I say I never intended for this to happen?"
Lothíriel turned her head away and nodded without a word.
He grasped her hand more tightly. "I'm so sorry. Will you forgive me?"
She sighed and seemed to soften slightly. "I know you would not intentionally set out to hurt me. Father explained to me that customs differ in Rohan."
In his heart, he knew they did not differ in that respect, but he eagerly grasped at the excuse she offered him. "Perhaps they do. I'm deeply sorry if my actions offended you."
Lothíriel gave a tiny shrug. "Let's just forget about it."
Éomer finally saw his way clear again. Like a filly made jumpy by inexpert handling, she needed to have her trust restored. He would just have to step very carefully from now on and endeavour not to startle her again.
"Can't we be friends?" he asked.
A small nod. "Yes of course. I value your friendship."
Looking at her, Éomer cursed himself for a beast. This serious-faced young woman bore no resemblance to the girl who had teased him with a mischievous grin at the fair the day before. Only now did he realize what a gift her smile last night had been and how much he wanted another one.
"Please don't look so unhappy," he exclaimed impulsively, touching her lightly on the cheek. "I know I overstepped the line, but I meant no harm. Perhaps in time we can make a fresh start."
She trembled at his caress. "What do you mean?"
The feeling of her soft skin proved intoxicating. He knew he trod a thin line, yet he could not resist letting his fingers roam to the nape of her neck. How he would have liked to undo her heavy braid.
"I know I should not ask this here and now, but I simply can't help it," he whispered. "You and me?" Desire flooded him. Those lips...
"You are the King of Rohan. What would people say..." she swallowed back more tears. "No, there can be no you and me."
Yet he felt her leaning towards him and for a moment it seemed to him he could hear an echo of his own longing in her low voice.
"Lothíriel..." he chose his words very carefully. "I might be a king, but I'm also a man. And surely there is nothing shameful when there are feelings between a man and a woman? It's the most natural thing in the world."
She thrust his hand away as if it burnt her. "You dare!"
She cut right across him. "I don't care how customs differ in Rohan, but that kind of dishonourable and contemptible behaviour is not acceptable here. You deserve a flogging for suggesting such a thing after your actions last night."
He blinked. Dishonourable and contemptible behaviour? Surely she was overreacting? Why, he hadn't even kissed her! A spark of anger stirred within him.
"You can't tell me you disliked it completely," he said without thinking, "I felt you respond to me."
She gripped her cane as if she wanted to hit him with it, no longer looking young and vulnerable, but almost menacing. He was suddenly reminded of her facing down the warg.
"I can't believe you have the nerve to say that. You are a despicable scoundrel!"
Amrothos came running towards them, his face grim at his sister's obvious distress. "What do you think you're doing!" he barked at Éomer and pulled Lothíriel into his arms.
She pushed him away, still incandescent with rage. "Oh, let me be, Amrothos. I don't need your help to deal with this scum." She rounded on Éomer. "Don't you dare come near me again! Or King of Rohan or not, I will personally skewer you with a sword. I'm going home now."
With an angry swish of her riding skirts she turned on her heel and strode away. After a last glare at him, Amrothos hurried after her. In the distance, the dogs' barks had reached a new frenzied pitch.
Éomer was left contemplating his unmitigated stupidity. What had possessed him to utter those fatal words? It seemed he could not touch the Princess of Dol Amroth without committing some fresh folly. With a curse he slammed his fist into the trunk of the innocent apple tree, causing it to shudder. Then he rubbed his aching knuckles and cursed some more. Slowly, he walked back to his guards, only to be met by accusatory looks after venting his feelings in that way.
"What is it?" he snapped.
Probably loath to provoke his legendary temper, his riders lowered their eyes, but he could feel their unease in the tense silence as they walked back to the courtyard. Even Éothain looked disturbed at his king's behaviour.
As they rounded the corner of the house, a sudden noise made Éomer look up. It sounded like hundreds of wings beating and before his astonished eyes a huge flock of birds rose into the air from behind the stables. Faintly, he could hear the excited shrieks of falcons from beyond the courtyard.
"My pigeons!" somebody wailed and Éomer's attention snapped back to the house.
Girion had an expression of outraged incredulity on his face as he stood watching the birds slowly dispersing into the wooded hills around them. Then a man wearing the green and brown garb of a huntsman came running into the courtyard, forcing his way through the crowd towards the steps of the house.
"My lord!" he shouted. "They're all gone!"
"I can see that myself," Girion barked.
The man looked confused for a moment, then he followed his master's glance. "Oh, the wood pigeons as well!"
The crowd had fallen silent at his words. Girion looked down at his man. "As well?"
The huntsman made a helpless gesture with one hand. "Somebody opened the doors to all the cages."
"Are you telling me all my birds are gone? The partridges and quails? The pheasants? My ducks?"
The man nodded unhappily.
Girion went red in the face. "And where were you while all this happened?"
The poor man flinched. "The dogs!" he stammered. "Somebody threw sausages and meat to the dogs and they got so excited, they started fighting each other. We needed all the men to separate them and that's when we think it happened."
Yelling emanated from behind the stables and then a group of Girion's men emerged, dragging something between them. As they made their way through the crowd, Éomer realized they held two boys. Just as they passed his position, one of them looked up, his face white, and with a shock Éomer recognized Alphros. He started forward. What had Lothíriel's nephew been up to?
"Get Prince Imrahil," he ordered one of his men and then pushed his way through the crowd until he reached the steps of the house. Once he reached the vantage point, he glanced over towards the Dol Amroth party. They were on horseback already, but his rider had reached them and stood talking to the prince, holding onto his stirrup. As he watched, Imrahil dismounted hurriedly and started to make his way towards them, the rest of his family following behind.
Lord Girion stood staring down at the two bedraggled looking boys his men had deposited at his feet. "What is the meaning of this?"
"We caught them, my lord!" one of the men said. He held a small cage aloft with two wood pigeons in it. "They were just about to set these free."
Imrahil had reached them now. "Alphros! What has happened?"
Girion turned towards him. "You know them?"
Elphir stepped forward, his face thunderous. "My son. You will explain your treatment of him."
The guards let Alphros go hurriedly, and with a sob he ran into his father's arms. Elphir gave him a hug and raked the men standing on the steps with a grim glance. They shrunk back, but the one holding the cage stood his ground.
"We caught them setting the birds free," he reiterated.
"Nonsense," Elphir snapped. "My son wouldn't do a thing like that."
Lothíriel stood behind him and Éomer wondered if she had anything to do with her nephew's prank. But the surprise on her face told a different story.
Behind her loomed one of Prince Imrahil's guards and now the other boy looked up, guilt written large across his face. "I'm sorry, father," he whispered. Then he lifted his face to Lord Girion. "But we had to do it."
"Minardil!" Imrahil's guard said warningly.
The boy shook his head. "It's not fair! The poor things were all cooped up to be slaughtered. They wouldn't have had a chance."
Elphir took his son by the shoulders. "Is this true?" he asked. "You let Lord Girion's birds loose?"
Alphros nodded miserably and Girion's face darkened. Éomer remembered he had a well-known temper, although his fury was usually directed at orcs. "This is an outrage!" Girion bellowed. "I want them punished."
Imrahil's guard stepped forward. "They will be." Elphir looked displeased as well.
All this time, Lothíriel had stood by her youngest brother's side, asking for whispered explanations. Now she joined the group on the steps.
"May I have that cage?" she asked Girion's man.
Surprised, but used to obedience, the man handed it over.
"Are these the last birds?"
Éomer had a sudden premonition of what was about to happen. In her face he recognized the hushed calm that fell before the first gusts of a tempest unleashed their violence. But he could not make up his mind what to do.
The hunter nodded. "Yes, my lady."
Unhurriedly she searched for the door, slipped the hook and opened it. The two occupants fluttered out and took to the skies.
"Lothíriel!" Imrahil said on a strangled note.
Girion went as red as a beetroot. "What are you doing!"
She calmly handed the cage back. "Just releasing them to freedom, where they belong."
"My men spent three weeks catching those birds for the ladies to hunt!"
"Shame on them then."
"Lothíriel," Imrahil intervened, "You will explain yourself."
She lifted her chin and Éomer thought she looked magnificent in her anger. "It was my idea. I told Alphros and Minardil to free the poor birds."
Her nephew looked up at her, surprise quickly replaced by hope. The other boy closed his open mouth with a snap and lowered his eyes. Girion was momentarily struck dumb by her words and like a master fencer, Lothíriel took the opportunity to get the next hit in.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," she told him roundly, "catching poor, defenceless creatures with the express purpose of killing them just for your entertainment." The sight of the slim woman facing down an opponent twice her size was almost comical.
"That's enough!" Imrahil protested. "Lothíriel, you will apologize to Lord Girion for spoiling his hunt."
Crossing her arms across her chest, she sniffed in disdain. "Some hunter he is." Éomer winced. Tact was not her strongest suit. She knew how to hit the mark, though. In the crowd, somebody stifled a laugh.
Girion looked as if he were about to suffer an apoplexy. Aragorn laid a calming hand on his shoulder. "I think that's enough," he said with quiet authority.
Apparently recognizing the voice of her liege, Lothíriel lowered her arms and her stance lost some its belligerence. Éomer thought it time to try and calm the waters.
"Girion, my friend," he said. "It is a regrettable incident, but I'm sure we can still enjoy your hunt. I think my sister would have preferred the birds to go free, too."
Hoping for her support, he searched the crowd for Éowyn, only now noticing her and Faramir's absence. "Anyway," he went on, "The Rohirrim prefer to hunt in the wild. It's more of a challenge."
Girion looked slightly pacified at these words, his colour back to normal again. But before he could answer, Lothíriel turned to Éomer, her voice low and dangerous.
"And as a hunter you like a challenge, don't you?"
Éomer stared at her. Couldn't she tell he was trying to help her?
She balled her hands into fists. "You like to play sports with innocent, helpless creatures. Well, beware, because some of the creatures being hunted bite back."
Her rage was almost palpable, yet it seemed to Éomer that an undertone of hurt and desperation resonated through it. "Lothíriel, please..." He wanted to reach out and erase that unhappy look from her face.
"Don't touch me," she snapped at him, as if she could read his mind. "You make me feel sick!"
Éomer felt his own temper rising. A quick glance showed him Imrahil's face darkening with indignation while Elphir gripped the hilt of his sword. She had no right to make him look like a complete villain in front of the whole court of Gondor.
"I think that's enough, my Lady Princess," he said, letting some of his anger leach into his voice.
It did not impress her in the least. "You, my Lord King, have the manners of an orc," she informed him, leaving him momentarily speechless.
Lothíriel dropped a faultless curtsy in Aragorn's direction. "I'm leaving. King Elessar, please have the kindness to excuse me and pass my regrets to Queen Arwen. Amrothos, your arm!"
Her brother sprang to her side and with the two boys hurrying close behind, she swept through the crowd, which miraculously made way for her. After a quick word of excuse to Girion and their king, Imrahil and Elphir followed, but not without throwing another threatening scowl in his direction.
Éomer suddenly became aware of hundreds of pairs of eyes regarding him with varying degrees of censure and condemnation in them. She couldn't have chosen a better place to publicly humiliate him. What annoyed him even more was the fact that his heart still insisted on offering excuses for her.
Aragorn cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should commence the hunt?" he suggested.
Girion agreed thankfully and as if released from a spell the crowd started talking again. Speculating about what had passed between the King of Rohan and the Princess of Dol Amroth, no doubt.
He went to fetch Firefoot, studiously ignoring the clumps of courtiers chatting to each other and falling silent at his approach. Some of them ostentatiously turned their backs on him, while others glared at him challengingly. Did Lothíriel know she had done more damage to his reputation in five minutes than Gríma Wormtongue had managed to do in all his years in Edoras? Well, let them talk. What weighed heavier were the unhappy looks from his riders. What did they think he had said and done to Lothíriel for her to react this way?
"King Éomer," he was hailed at that moment by a female voice.
He stopped reluctantly and turned towards the speaker. "Lady Wilwarin."
She reached out a hand, covered by a long white glove, and touched him on the arm. "What an unfortunate incident just now."
Unfortunate incident? Surely complete disaster would have been a better description. Éomer suppressed the sharp reply that rose to his lips. "Yes, rather unfortunate," he agreed.
Having had his fill of female company for the morning, he would have passed on, but she stopped him with a gentle gesture.
"Dear Lothíriel has always been so terribly headstrong," Lady Wilwarin said. "I'm afraid her father rather spoiled her, but then that's understandable, isn't it. You have to excuse her. She's so young still, hardly more than a child herself."
Not a fact that Éomer liked to be reminded of. "Quite," he replied sharply. Then he told himself not to take out his temper on an innocent bystander. She wasn't to blame for the whole mess he had landed himself in, after all.
"You'll have to excuse me," he told her. "King Elessar awaits me, I believe."
"Of course. I just hope this hasn't put you off Gondorian womanhood completely." She accompanied that last statement with a suggestive look through her long lashes and smiled at him.
Éomer felt he had reached his limit. "No," he replied. "It has put me off all womanhood."
Her smile faltered and with a curt nod he continued towards the horses. He looked forward to some four-legged company. Firefoot could be difficult and temperamental, but Éomer knew how to deal with that. And even at his worst, the stallion's actions were straightforward and understandable, not unpredictable and downright contradictory.
Now, if he got lucky they would encounter another warg. Or better still, a large band of orcs. Accompanied by a couple of mûmakil. And a nazgûl. Anything that he could take his temper out on with impunity sounded extremely attractive at that moment.