The party from Dol Amroth camped for the night in the foothills of the great spine of mountains that ran from Minas Tirith to Edoras and beyond. It was a pleasant place, cool and shady and forested with great stands of pines. But any quiet the Prince and his party might have found there was soon disrupted by raised voices coming from Lothíriel's tent.
"Lothíriel, they're here...do hurry!" Annaereth's voice was high and anxious.
"Just another minute! If you want me to be clean and ladylike, it's going to take a bit of doing," Lothíriel shouted back from curtained-off corner of the tent where she was washing. As soon as she emerged, Annaereth grabbed her and bundled her into a burgundy velvet gown. "Ow! Not so hard," Lothíriel complained as Annaereth pulled the laces tight.
"You won't believe what I've heard, Lothíriel!" exclaimed Annaereth as she began brushing Lothíriel's black hair. She spared a brief wish for its natural curliness; her own hair was arrow-straight and fine as a baby's.
"Blazes, Anna...you'll leave me bald! What is it, for pity's sake?"
"The King has come with them!" Annaereth twisted the thick curls into a ladylike knot at the back of Lothíriel's head and started poking pins in it to hold it in place.
"Bald. And a pincushion in the bargain," Lothíriel muttered. "Do you mean that King Aragorn has come all the way from the city?"
"Nay, the young King Éomer...King of the Mark." Annaereth surveyed her work critically and sniffed, "Hmmph. I suppose it will have to do. No one has yet managed to spin silk from sheep's wool, but I can't be faulted for trying." Years of practice made it easy to hide her envy with teasing. Face it, Anna, she thought. She's everything you're not...beautiful, free-spirited, courageous...the list was depressingly long.
"A King, hmmm? That could put a serious damper on my plans, Anna. I'm quite vexed." Lothíriel's silvery eyes took on a glitter than Annaereth knew far too well.
"What plans?" Annaereth was instantly alarmed. "What are you up to?" Though she secretly admired her mistress' high spirits, she shuddered to think what effect they might have on a foreigner unfamiliar with Lothíriel's wild ways.
"Never you mind, nosy one. Suffice it to say that if I have to spend a year of my life as a stuffy old lady in waiting, I intend to have fun on this trip, king or no king." Lothíriel swept from the tent, dragging her velvet train behind her in the dust.
Prince Imrahil looked nervously from his daughter's tent to the approaching riders and back again. Finally, when it became apparent that Lothíriel was not going to emerge in a timely fashion, he signaled to his squire for his horse and rode out to meet them. As the small group of well-ordered cavalry came in sight, he was shocked to see the troop led not by their Marshal, but by their King. Éomer had paused on a low rise and Imrahil could see that Léo was with him, along with a thin, nervous-looking man-a steward or valet, perhaps-and nine Riders.
"Hail, Éomer!" he called, cantering up to the horsemen. "What brings you this far from Meduseld, my friend?"
Éomer gripped his friend's forearm in greeting. "Hail, Imrahil! 'Tis a fine day for a gallop, is it not?"
"That it is friend. That it is." Imrahil rubbed his arm surreptitiously thinking caustically that the blond giant had certainly not lost any of his strength since becoming king. "Do you ride back to Meduseld tonight or will you stay until morning?"
Éomer laughed, a rich hearty sound that Imrahil remembered well from their fighting days. "I do not return to Meduseld at all. Once we rejoin the rest of the Mark at the foot of these mountains, I will ride with them...and your daughter...to Minas Tirith."
"Do you think that's wise, Éomer? There are rumors of raiders in the hills along the Great West Road...orcs and men," Imrahil asked worriedly. "And unless I am mistaken, no woman has yet given you an heir."
"When did keeping track of my bed-partners become everyone's favorite hobby?" Éomer sighed, exasperated. "I have been far too busy being king to dally with any woman long enough to get an heir, friend. And I am not certain it is wise to remind me of that when I will be your daughter's escort for the next sevenday." The young king's blue eyes sparkled merrily and then widened as he caught sight of something in the distance. "By the Valar," he breathed. "What a beauty!"
Imrahil glanced over his shoulder and saw Lothíriel approaching. His lips tightened as he saw that she rode Pasha, against his express orders. But since Éomer seemed so taken by her, he thought it prudent not to make an issue of it. Perhaps getting the hellion married off wouldn't be as difficult as he had feared.
Lothíriel held Pasha to a brisk trot as she approached the Riders grouped on the hill. She couldn't see clearly what they looked like, exactly, but they all seemed very large and fair. As she drew nearer, one of them broke away from the group and rode towards her.
He was by far the largest man she had ever seen. Even from horseback she could see that he would tower over most men. He wore golden armor that flashed and glittered in the evening sun and carried both a sword at his side and a long spear mounted on his horse-and what an incredible horse. The beast stood eighteen hands if he was an inch and was as golden as his master's armor. The man rode with such an easy grace that he and the horse seemed like the same creature.
For once, Lothíriel was glad she was elegantly gowned and groomed. Really, he was quite attractive...with his long golden hair and heavily muscled frame he was quite different from the dark, lithe Dol Amrothis of her homeland. She blushed faintly and tucked a stray curl behind her ear, not for the first time wishing she had Annaereth's calm poise and elegant bearing.
The man rode up to her and bowed quite elegantly from the saddle. It was a graceful gesture for such a large man, only slightly marred by the lock of blond hair that fell into his eyes. He pushed it aside with an impatient gesture. "My lady, please forgive my presumption. When I saw you, I felt I had to come and compliment you on the beauty of your horse. I've rarely seen such a magnificent animal."
Her horse? Lothíriel suppressed an urge to giggle-that would teach her to worry overmuch about her looks. "Thank you sir. That is a compliment coming from a soldier of the Mark, to be sure."
"A soldier...ah, yes. A soldier of the Mark," he smiled pleasantly.
Lothíriel smiled back. She liked this young man and his refreshingly unfussy manners. Perhaps he would be an ally during the trip to Minas Tirith. Certainly that horse of his would give Pasha fierce competition in the races she was already plotting in her mind.
"Pasha is lovely, isn't he?" she said as they rode back to where her father waited. "He was bred from your own people's sturdy stock, sir, crossed with the best racers in Gondor. He is marvelously swift and tireless."
"He is lovely, indeed." He glanced at her, and she caught a glimpse of blue eyes that sparkled with intelligence and merriment. "But how did a little maid like you come by such a great beast? Does he not frighten you?"
"Frighten me?" Lothíriel was offended enough to twitch her heels against Pasha's flanks. The horse correctly understood this to mean that he was to run as if all the forces of Mordor pursued him. She spared a glance backward and was pleasantly surprised to see the soldier right behind her. His horse was fast, but hers bore a much lighter load. She was a full length in front when they reached the group assembled on the low rise. "Nothing frightens me, sir." she sniffed haughtily as he caught up to her. He was laughing, but there was obvious respect in his eyes as well.
Just then her father rode up and Lothíriel braced herself for a scold. Her hair had fallen from its prim knot into a riot of untamed curls and her gown was more dust-colored than burgundy. He would be furious at such an unladylike display. But then she saw that he was smiling, if a bit fixedly. "I see you have made the acquaintance of King Éomer, Lothíriel. Your majesty may I present my daughter, Princess Lothíriel?"
"King...? Oh, dear."
"Did you see that, Léo? By the Valar, the girl can ride! And Pasha! I need to speak to Imrahil about borrowing him for stud as soon as may be." Éomer rode beside his Marshal, headed towards the temporary camp.
"You really amuse me, Éomer." Léo laughed heartily. "You remembered the horse's name easily enough, but the girl's?" He coughed hastily, quelled by an icy glare from his king. "Ahem...anyway, I was speaking to the Princess' maid, Annaereth-a pretty little thing, I might add-and it seems the Princess has quite a reputation for playing the hellion. She will bear careful watching, Éomer."
Éomer looked ahead to where Lothíriel rode alongside her father. Her glossy dark hair tumbled about her shoulders and her musical laughter drifted along the wind. "At least you're right about that, Léo," he said to himself.