The only warning I got was the creak of the stable door before a gust of cold air swept away the comfortable smells of hay and horse. Then Hlaefdige gave a soft whinny and strained forward. Annoyed at nearly being bowled over, I straightened up from grooming her, but the words of admonishment died on my lips. There he stood in the doorway: tall and broad, his wet, blond hair plastered to his head. Boots splattered with mud, tunic turned a dark grey with rain, the lamplight from the corridor glancing off a green gem on his sword hilt and piercing the early evening gloom. The Rohirrim had arrived.
Frozen like a fawn whose hiding place had been unexpectedly exposed, I could only stare at him, but he ignored me anyway, his attention focused on the mare. Too late did I remember the commotion I'd heard a little while ago from the visitors' wing, but then guests had been pouring in all week in preparation for the wedding of the daughter of the Prince of Dol Amroth to the King of Rohan. Only the bridegroom's party had not been expected until tomorrow.
Crooning something in Rohirric, he held out a hand and the traitorous animal went to her former master eagerly, nuzzling his hair and making him laugh. The low sound sent a shiver through me and involuntarily I shifted further back into the shadows. Surely he could hear the pounding of my heart? He ran his fingers along the elegant line of Hlaefdige's neck, across her back, and finally bent to check her legs.
"The mare looks well. Is it you who's in charge of her?"
Of course he would have noticed me the moment he entered the horsebox, but no doubt he had dismissed me at once as no possible threat to him. Suddenly realizing I still wore the old, floppy hat I'd borrowed earlier on from one of the grooms as protection against the rain, I simply nodded and pulled the brim lower so it concealed my face even more.
"Yes, my lord," I mumbled and took up my work again, brushing the mare's back with firm strokes. Just let him take me for one of the ubiquitous stable lads.
Silence. When I risked a quick glance, he had stopped stroking Hlaefdige and stood looking at my hand, an arrested expression on his face. I followed his eyes to see shapely fingers, roughened by soap water and with several nails broken, but nevertheless clearly belonging to no man. He drew in his breath, tension running through a body hardened by a lifetime of following the warrior's way. Then he ducked under the mare's neck in a fluid motion, like a lion closing in for the kill. I stepped away from him, only to have my back connect with the wall. No escape that way. With the horseboxes either side empty, we were completely alone.
"Well," he purred, "and what have we here?"
His eyes travelled down my body and I was suddenly acutely conscious of my hair caught up in a dishevelled braid and my thin tunic sticky with sweat. One of his eyebrows rose when he took in the grubby trousers I used for grooming horses, still wet from the rain and clinging to my legs. Not really suitable apparel to wear before a king. Even a barbarian one.
His eyes never leaving mine, he moved closer until I was forced to lift my face to look up at him. With a flick of his wrist he took off my hat, throwing it to the ground where Hlaefdige gave it a curious huff. Nardol will be annoyed if I get his second best hat trampled, I thought distractedly. Whatever he saw on my face seemed to amuse him, for white teeth flashed into a grin. "I've heard that the stable girls of Dol Amroth are famous for their beauty."
Then calloused fingers gripped my chin, tilting it up, and as I drew breath for a protest he kissed me. The world around me melted away, his firm body the only reality. Wet leather. Sweat. The sweet taste of desire. Mine or his, I did not know. The currycomb dropped from my fingers as they scrabbled up his chest to bury themselves in his hair. He gave a laugh then, low and triumphant, and his hand snaked round my back, pulling me closer. Demanding more. Getting it.
Aeons later his lips separated from mine and moved to whisper in my ear. "I've missed you."
My body suddenly remembered to breathe again and I gasped for air, leaning my head against his chest. "Éomer, we shouldn't be doing this."
"I know," he chuckled. Completely shameless.
But then I had always been the one holding back, trying to keep him at arm's length, cool and reserved. Until he touched me. What would my parents say if they saw us, shot through my mind. Not to him - he was a king after all - but Father would certainly have a few pertinent words for me. As for my mother, that pained expression would cross her face...
His hands were busy behind my back, undoing my braid with practiced ease, and now he smoothed out my hair strand by careful strand until it lay in a soft curtain across my shoulders. Just as he liked it. "Don't you have anything to say?" he asked in a low voice.
I looked up at that and tossed back my hair. "Like what?"
His eyes crinkled with laughter at my show of temper. "What about: welcome to Dol Amroth, my Lord King? I've missed you, too?"
Sudden anger filled me. He had no business to arrive early and surprise me in this manner! Had I known of his presence I would have stayed away from the stables even though it meant not being able to groom Hlaefdige. And to think that I had sworn to myself to greet him politely but distantly the next time I saw him, and instead I had practically fallen into his arms. Again. "What do you want?"
"What do I want?" His fingers trailed down to follow the line of my collarbone. "Haven't I made that abundantly clear, my pretty?" He bent to caress the hollow of my throat with his lips, calling up the memory of other illicit kisses. At first just stolen moments in the garden, then getting lost on purpose in the labyrinthine corridors of the King's Palace in Minas Tirith. Later carefully arranged chance meetings in the stables there, the guards having been left behind.
"Pretty?" I wriggled out of his grip and motioned to my soiled clothes. "Look at me. You call this pretty?" Why could he possibly want me like this? Well, apart from the obvious reason.
Unabashed, he grinned down at me. "Is that why you were hiding from me?"
As my cheeks heated up his eyes danced with laughter. "I admit it is not the most elegant of apparel, but I think it has its compensations."
I caught myself just in time from grinning back at him and regaled him with a cold stare instead. "Has it, my Lord King? Well, you should know." How many women had he smiled at like that, making their bones melt? Serving wenches and highborn ladies, chamber maids, princesses ... and stable girls?
A frown appeared between his brows. "What's the matter, sweetheart? What has happened?"
I averted my face. "I've had time to think, that's what has happened."
"To think. I see." The words sent ripples of silence across the room. A quick look at him revealed what I jokingly used to call his 'king face'. Cold and aloof. He had worn it when I had first seen him, the day the Rohirrim left for home after the great battles. I had been just one amongst the multitude lining the road and cheering, having joined some cousins on my mother's side for the day. Something in his bleak expression -one who had seen too many friends die - had called to me and when for some reason our eyes met I had offered him a shy smile, not thinking anything more would come of it. And nothing had, until many months later when he had sought me out at Éowyn and Faramir's wedding. But by then he knew who and more importantly what I was.
Hlaefdige butted him with her head and now he turned to stroke her nose. "Don't you agree it's a bit late for thinking?"
He was right of course. It had been too late the moment I allowed him to claim my lips for the first time. As I watched his fingers caress Hlaefdige's velvet coat, a stab of annoyance ran through me. It took me a moment to identify the reason for it. Wonderful, I was jealous of a horse now! I decided to change the subject. "Why are you here already?"
"I was impatient to get here and see a certain lady..."
"The Princess of Dol Amroth?" I challenged him. "For your much desired alliance with Gondor?"
He whirled round and gripped me by the shoulders. "The King of Rohan might be here to wed the Princess of Dol Amroth with all due pomp and ceremony," he said, "but I just want you. Surely you know that by now?"
How I wanted to believe him - but then how could I. "So what about the dowry?" Now it was out.
His expression grew wary. "What about it?"
"It has been sent to you already and in very generous measure I have heard."
"I needed it to feed my people during the winter!" he exclaimed and his fingers dug into my shoulders. "They would have starved else, surely you understand that. I promise to pay it back, for I do not want to be beholden to anyone."
I gritted my teeth. "As if that made any difference!"
"What else would you have me do? I had no choice!" More than a hint of his famous temper rang in the words.
I looked down. What else indeed? "So you decided Gondor owed you a princess," I whispered, "and took up negotiations." In fact I had seen the messenger ride in myself, not knowing what his pouch contained, just hoping for a letter from him.
"Yes I did." He slid his hands down to rest on my hips and pulled me closer again. "Come on, dearest. Admittedly it's a convenient arrangement, but I did not think you would mind."
Annoyance coursed through me at his words and I pushed him away. "A convenient arrangement!"
Éomer sighed. "My sweet, I am what I am and you are what you are, there is no way around that. So yes, I am glad that I can have it all." Catching one of my hands he kissed the inside of my wrist, where my pulse was beating a frantic rhythm. "A princess for my country...and a ladylove for myself." He pulled me into his arms and I could not find it in me to resist. "You know very well I don't care about marrying the Princess of Dol Amroth, I only care about you." A finger caressed my cheek. "Stubborn and contrary that you are." Ah, but the man's smile could charm a very nazgûl! "And I thought we had reached an understanding..."
Of course we had! In my world letting a man kiss me like I had carried its own consequences. "Listen, my sweet," he said, one hand cupping my cheek, "soon we can find a more private place, with just you and me. I promise to prove my love to you then. Trust me."
I closed my eyes and let him take my lips again. How could I deny that I wanted him to fulfil his promise? When I was with him all my doubts and reservations seemed to scuttle away as mice before a cat.
That moment Hlaefdige gave a loud snort and we both jumped. "Let me tell you, I'm sick and tired of slinking around like this," Éomer kissed the tip of my nose. "But I promise things will be different in Rohan. I want you by my side openly, to be able to show how much I love you."
Not quite meeting his eyes, I traced one of the horses embroidered on his tunic. "Your people might understand your taking the daughter of Dol Amroth to wife for what alliance she will bring, but won't they resent the presence of a Gondorian intruder in their midst?"
"Nonsense!" He wrapped his fingers around mine and stilled them. "Admittedly, it might be a little difficult at first, but I am sure you will win them over. If there are any snide remarks, just remember that you will always have my backing." He hesitated. "And then one day I want to have a child with you."
At his words I stiffened. "Everybody knows you are the last of the House of Eorl and that Rohan needs an heir."
He released his breath in frustration. "Didn't you listen? I do not want an heir, I want a child. Children! Yours and mine."
Unbidden a memory rose to my mind. Going for an evening stroll with him in the gardens of the Citadel, while the sounds of his sister's wedding celebration floated across the still night air. And in a dry and impersonal voice that had broken my heart he had told me about finding her on the battlefield and thinking his whole family dead. How many people dear to him he had lost in his life! "Éomer," I moistened my lips. "I-"
But I never got to finish my thought, for that moment steps sounded in the passageway outside. "Éomer King?" somebody called.
With a highly imaginative oath Éomer released me and spun round. The door to the horsebox eased open. I dived for my hat.
One of the Rohirrim stood in the doorway. Marshal Elfhelm, I identified him after a moment. His glance slid across me without recognition or interest as I bent to check Hlaefdige's legs, crouching down in her shadow. An exchange in Rohirric followed, too quick for me to understand, but the names were easy enough to make out: Imrahil. Lothíriel. No doubt the Marshal had come to find out what kept his king and to escort him upstairs to get changed for the evening meal with the assembled Dol Amroth court.
Éomer motioned Elfhelm to precede him out of the stall, but then knelt down next to me. "Little one," he whispered, "don't think too much! Life is really so simple: I love you and you love me." I nodded mutely and he bent forward to kiss me, taking his time about it, completely unrushed. Then he got up again with that feline grace particular to him, but at the door he stopped for a last look back. "By the way, you've got straw all over you."
A grin flashed across his face and he was gone, leaving me flushed with heat, yet cold and shivering. I sat down heavily and reached up to find my hat covered in straw from when it had lain on the ground. I ground my teeth. No doubt I looked like Éomer had just tumbled me in the hay. And to think that I had sworn to myself to deal rationally with him!
Having plenty of experience by now of stealing in by the servants' entrance I sneaked upstairs without anybody being the wiser and a short time later saw me making my way downstairs again: hair caught back into a demure bun, wearing a modest cream dress and with a hasty bath having removed the whiff of the stables. My only ornament was a hip-belt made of interlinked copper rings, studded with chips of green glass. A cheap trinket bought on a whim at a stall in Minas Tirith. Éomer's gift, the first of many.
The Great Hall hummed with people's voices; the stone walls echoing back laughter. Trestle tables had been brought in to accommodate the unexpected guests and I hesitated before trying to slip by them unnoticed to reach my accustomed place. However, the moment I appeared conversation amongst the Rohirrim ceased and I could feel their eyes following me as I walked the length of the hall. No doubt speculating about their king and me.
My mother's gaze flicked my way when I joined the family, but fortunately she was occupied in talking to a courtier. Only my sister-in-law frowned at me. "You are late. Where have you been?"
I shrugged. "Making myself pretty."
Culurien cast a disdainful look at my belt. "The Rohirrim have arrived."
"So I see."
"King Éomer is late, too."
"So I see."
Fortunately I was saved from further questioning by the entrance of the guest of honour. The hall fell quiet as Éomer made his way towards the dais, exchanging a greeting here, a nod to his riders there. I had seen it so often: men straightened up whenever he addressed them, eager for his approval and basking in the warmth of his attention. As for the women.... the man attracted them the way the proverbial honey pot attracted wasps. Or rather how a nice rotting piece of meat attracts vultures, I thought savagely as that mantrap Lady Eilinel simpered up at him. Yet half the time he did not even seem to notice and in all honesty I had to admit that he had never given me any reason for jealousy. Although I might have to share his attention while he attended to his royal duties, I knew I would never have to share his heart.
When he reached the dais he was greeted loquaciously and at length, just as protocol demanded. He had not looked my way, but somehow I knew he was as keenly aware of me as I had been of him from the moment he entered the hall.
Finally he made his way over to me and his gaze warmed when he spotted the belt around my middle. But knowing everybody's eyes on me, I schooled my features and sank into an elegant curtsy. "Welcome to Dol Amroth, my Lord King." I marvelled how cool and collected I sounded to my own ears, my voice not betraying the slightest hint of the turmoil within me.
He bowed over my outstretched hand, brushing a kiss across my knuckles. "My lady, I thank you for your warm welcome." Matching my frigid tone exactly and raising an ironic eyebrow, yet suddenly I fancied I saw a hint of hurt in his eyes at my cold reception. Trust me, he had said, don't think so much.
He straightened up and an awkward pause followed. Then he nodded and would have turned away to greet the rest of my family. All of a sudden I could stand it no longer, never mind about the consequences. "Éomer..."
When he looked back I snatched after him and a moment later I was in his arms. It took no more than a heartbeat for him to respond and as I laced my fingers in his hair, discarding years of lessons in comportment, I could hear my sister-in-law gasp. But she was drowned out almost immediately by loud whistles and cheering from the tables of the Rohirrim.
When we separated a long time later, I took a deep breath. "I've missed you."
Eyes no longer cold, but blazing with warmth, Éomer smiled down at me. "Oh Lothíriel! Not as much as I've missed you."
Hlaefdige - Lady