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1
Gondor/Rohan Border

Last year of the Third Age

Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth reined in his horse beside a quick-flowing mountain stream and looked down into the valley that lay to the north, shading his eyes with a leather-gloved hand. "If we quicken our pace a little, we should meet the party from Edoras by early evening," he remarked to his squire. "Let the horses drink and then we ride on."

The squire bowed elegantly. His prince was a stickler for etiquette, even this far from the marble courts of Dol Amroth. As the boy led the first of the horses to drink, the air was shattered by an unearthly screech. A few soldiers who had not traveled with the Prince before quickly drew their weapons but the rest merely rolled their eyes and snickered at their untested companions.

For thundering up to the nervous soldiers was no enemy, only a black-maned stallion with an equally black-haired young woman clinging to his back like a burr. Her muddy skirts were hiked up above her knees giving the guardsmen a tantalizing view of shapely calves and bare, grass-stained feet. Her hair streamed behind her, snarled into wind-whipped tangles.

Still shrieking her earsplitting war cry, she shot past the small group of soldiers and wagons and splashed through the stream, soaking both squire and Prince. She guided the horse in a wide circle and finally reined him in, laughing like a loon. "Did I scare you, Tirio?" she asked the squire. He glared at her, wringing out his tunic. "Good afternoon, father," the young woman said sweetly. "You look nice and cool."

"By the Valar, LothÝriel!" bellowed the Prince, shaking water out of his soaking hair. "I should lock you up in the deepest dungeons of Dol Amroth." He caught his youngest child's blue-eyed gaze and held it until she finally looked at the ground, chastised. "Think you that Queen Arwen will tolerate these escapades of yours when you become one of her ladies?"

LothÝriel muttered something under her breath. "Speak up, child!" Prince Imrahil barked.

"I said, `twas not my idea to become a Queen's lady," she repeated rebelliously. "And I'm not a child..." Her stallion pranced, wanting to resume his run, and unfortunately drew the Prince's wrath.

"Did I not tell you that today, of all days, you were to choose a lady's mount?" The Prince was thoroughly disgusted. "Great thundering blazes, girl, that horse looks like he eats orcs for breakfast."

"I know. Isn't he lovely?" She looked upon the stallion adoringly and patted his silky neck. "The stable master had other plans for him, but I won out in the end." By which Prince Imrahil correctly assumed she had simply taken the horse when no one was looking. "Who needs to mate with those silly old fillies when you can ride with me, right my lad?" she crooned to the horse, who tossed his head and nickered.

"LothÝriel!" Prince Imrahil winced at hearing such indelicate talk from his daughter's lips. He sighed and massaged his throbbing temples wondering how his gentle, quiet wife, long dead these many years, had managed to birth such a hellion. He'd been grateful when the letter from Queen Arwen had arrived, inviting LothÝriel to spend a year at court in Minas Tirith. He had immediately agreed, hoping that his daughter would lose her tomboyish ways and acquire some polish while at court. It was quite obvious to the Prince that no man of sane mind would have her as she was and at ten and eight the time was fast approaching for her to be married.

While the Prince pondered what to do with his wayward child, another rider approached from the south at a much more sedate pace. "Annaereth!" the Prince barked, recognizing his daughter's handmaiden. "Did I not tell you to keep a strict eye on the princess today? And here she is careening about...a very hoyden in rags and tatters. What have you to say for yourself?"

The maid, Annaereth, shot LothÝriel a look of supreme irritation then bowed her head submissively. "I'm sorry, my lord Prince. I was lax in my duties." She sat her mare stiffly and held on to her reins for dear life, as if she would be thrown at any moment.

Prince Imrahil wondered again, as he had many times before, whether he had been remiss in allowing Annaereth to remain LothÝriel's maid. After all, the girls had grown up together and were more like sisters than mistress and servant. Perhaps he should have found his daughter a nice, strict governess...one that would have drilled some manners into his hopeless hoyden.

"Please, Father, don't shout. It was my fault. Pasha wanted to run, you see, and Anna is an awful...I mean, her horse hadn't the speed to keep up with him." The hoyden in question smiled winningly at her father and gave a sly wink to her handmaiden.

Prince Imrahil exhaled strongly through his nose, gathering together the rags of his patience. "When we meet the delegation from Rohan at sunset, a few hours hence," he said tightly, "I expect you to be clean and garbed like a lady, LothÝriel. LÚo, the Second Marshal, is doing me a great favor by escorting you to Minas Tirith and I expect you to be a credit to me. He is a personal friend to King ╔omer and I do not wish my relationship with either Marshal or King damaged. Am I understood?"

"Yes, father," replied LothÝriel, meekly enough that her father gave her a suspicious glance. "I understand."

"And LothÝriel..."

"Yes, father?"

"Trade that fire-breathing beast to one of the guards for a more suitable mount."

LothÝriel nodded obediently. "I'm certain your guards ride more ladylike mounts than Pasha, father."

"Blast it, LothÝriel, that's not what I meant..." but she had already turned the great stallion and ridden away, splashing the Prince once more in the bargain.

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