"Are they gone yet?" Lothíriel peered into the distance, tracking the group-including her father-riding off into the rising sun. Without waiting for an answer, she began yanking open the laces of her green velvet gown.
"What are you doing?" Annaereth hissed in a whisper. "There are men all around us, Lothíriel...they'll see you."
"Don't be more of a twit than you must, Anna. There's nothing to see." She pulled the gown over her head revealing snug leather breeches and a boy's cotton tunic. "Now where did I put my boots?" She rummaged in Pasha's saddlebags and finally emerged with a pair of battered brown boots. Kicking off her embroidered slippers, she plopped down unceremoniously in the dirt and hauled the boots on.
"You cannot be serious," Annaereth protested.
"Never more so," Lothíriel answered cheerfully, pulling pins out of her hair and letting it tumble down her back. "Now if you would be so kind as to braid my hair for me, we can be on our way."
Annaereth made quick work of braiding her mistress' hair, grumbling under her breath all the while. "Can't imagine what you're thinking...surrounded by dozens of soldiers...no time to be immodest."
"Piffle," Lothíriel said, tying a red kerchief around her neck. "There is nothing at all immodest about a simple pair of breeches. Once we get to Minas Tirith, I'm going to have to be gowned and jeweled and pretend I'm a perfect little princess all the day long. So until then, I'm going to be just me." She was about to stuff the gown and slippers into her saddlebags, but Annaereth grabbed them and folded them neatly, stowing them in her own baggage.
"Now...I need something to stand on..." Lothíriel looked about for a stump or a rock from which she could mount Pasha, but the small clearing where they were camped was quite barren. Her father's squires were pestilential little prigs but they had their uses, especially when it came to helping her mount up. Her annoyance only increased when Annaereth hauled herself ungracefully into her saddle without any help at all. "Blast being short, anyway," she swore.
"May I lend you some assistance, your grace?" asked a deep voice from behind her. "Or perhaps find you a ladder?" Lothíriel groaned under her breath as Éomer strolled up to her, smirking faintly. He didn't wait for her answer, lacing his hands together for her to stand on.
"Thank you," Lothíriel replied, smiling fixedly up at him (up indeed-she noted that the top of her head would fit under his chin with an inch to spare). She was dreadfully embarrassed, and struggled to hide a blush as she grabbed Pasha's reins and accepted Éomer's practiced assistance. Once she was mounted he stood alongside Pasha, stroking the horse's glossy black mane.
"I came to tell you that my scouts have reported signs of orcs in the hills west of here, your grace. I would greatly appreciate it if you would stay with the company at all times today." He fixed his dark blue eyes upon her, as if he could make her obey his polite command by strength of will alone.
But she had learned much growing up in her father's court. She smiled artlessly, "I promise I shall not go anywhere unattended, your highness."
"Just Éomer, please. 'Your highness' is overly formal for a mere trail companion, to be sure."
"Then you must call me Lothíriel. If anyone deserves to be called 'your grace' it isn't me, for certainly I am the clumsiest wretch alive!" Good grief...I'm flirting, she thought. Too bad Annaereth is out of hearing...she'd be proud of me.
"You wouldn't know it by watching you ride. Few maidens of the Rohirrim could do better." That was high praise and she knew it. She began to remember what she had liked about the young king, before she knew of his station. He was exceedingly easy to joke with, even if his piercing blue gaze and towering stature made her a little nervous.
"Well, much as I'm enjoying your company, I need to muster the men or we will be all day getting started." He gave Pasha a parting pat and walked off towards the enclave of tents flying his banner. Then he paused as if he'd forgotten something. "Oh and Lothíriel?"
"My compliments on your riding clothes...they're most elegant, indeed." He winked at her and continued on his way, his laughter carrying back across the morning breeze.
It was cool in the mountains, but as the party rode downhill towards the Great West Road, the heat began to build. So when the scout rode up at full speed, Éomer knew immediately that something was amiss, for his men were too well trained to exhaust a horse on a hot day unless there was great need.
"Raiders, sire...we picked up their trail but a mile ahead, between us and the main troop. We'll have to either fight them or go around to the east." The scout gave his report, then dismounted and began rubbing down his overheated mount.
"We'll have to go around. We can't fight them and guard the women..." Éomer stopped abruptly, realizing that he hadn't heard a sound from either woman in far too long. Looking back, he saw that Lothíriel was gone. True to her promise she hadn't ridden off unescorted, for Annaereth was also nowhere to be seen. He swore long and colorfully and then shouted for his Marshal. "Léo! To me!"
When Léo cantered up to his side, Éomer summed up the situation tersely. "The girl is gone, and her maid with her. We've got to find them immediately-the scouts report raiders in the hills. You take half the men and look eastward. If you don't find them, circle around to the east and join the main troop. I'll take the other half and search west. Aldor," he motioned to his steward. "You ride with me." The thin man nodded, swallowing nervously.
"Your majesty..." Léo began a protest, but Éomer swiftly cut him off.
"There's no time, Léo. Any danger to my kingly person pales in comparison to what will happen to those women if they're caught. Now go!"
Éomer and his men fanned out in the western woods, looking for any sign of Lothíriel or Annaereth. Blast it all, but she couldn't have gone that far. Well, perhaps she might have if she'd been alone, he thought, but not with her maid along for the ride. Eomer had never seen such a terrible rider in all his life.
The ominous stillness of the dim forest was suddenly shattered by a woman's fearful shriek. Éomer shouted for his men and galloped off in the direction of the scream. When he found its source, he also found a scene he would never forget in all his life.
Annaereth lay motionless on a pile of leaves in a small clearing. Lothíriel, upon Pasha, stood between her maid and a mixed band of orcs and scruffy, sword-wielding men. She herself was armed with nothing more than a dagger, but the ruffians seemed reluctant to approach her fearing the horse's sharp teeth and hooves. Her eyes were wide and fearful but she sat up straight in the saddle, determined to protect her fallen friend.
Éomer wasted no more time. "Forth, Eorlingas!" he cried, brandishing his great sword and thundering into the clearing. For the space of a few heartbeats, all was chaos as the Riders cut down the few raiders not smart enough to immediately flee. Then as suddenly as it had begun, the skirmish was over. Éomer vaulted from his saddle and was at Annaereth's side in an instant, with Lothíriel just a breath behind him.
"Anna? By the Valar, girl, stop fooling around and wake up this minute!" Lothíriel's words were light, but her voice was rough and thick with unshed tears.
After an endless moment, the maid moaned softly and held her head. "What happened?"
"Those...things...surprised us and your horse spooked and threw you. Blazes, Anna, how many times have I told you...you've got to hold on." Lothíriel helped her maid sit up and felt over her dark head for bumps. "All is well, though...we haven't come to any serious harm."
"A blessing you don't deserve, Princess." Éomer said icily. "You both could have been killed or worse because of this little escapade. Not to mention putting my life and that of my men at risk." He expected her to defend herself, but he certainly did not expect her to throw her dagger angrily into the woods and launch herself at him. She caught him off balance and sent him sprawling into the dirt, flinging herself on top of him and trying to pin him beneath her.
"What in bloody blue blazes...have you lost your mind?" Effortlessly, he flipped over, trapping her slight form beneath him. "What can you mean by this...this temper tantrum?"
"Stay down!" she hissed, pointing to a nearby tree where two black-feathered arrows quivered. "Those were meant for your head, you great oaf. I got one of them...but I think there's still another out there."
"Got one?" he was thoroughly confused.
"One of the archers, fool. Do you think I go about throwing perfectly good daggers into the forest for no reason?" She rolled her eyes exasperatedly and squirmed beneath him, trying to win free of his weight. "Do you mind? You're crushing me quite flat."
At that moment, Léo rode up followed by the few men he'd taken with him. Surveying the scene before him, he shook his head and laughed. "You've certainly picked a strange time and place for a dalliance, majesty."
Éomer gave him an evil glare and got to his feet, looking around the clearing. "There are archers about, Léo. Lothíriel claims to have killed one of them." He extended a hand to the girl and helped her to her feet.
"That she did," Léo gestured towards the edge of the clearing where a man lay on his back, sightless eyes wide to the sky and Lothíriel's dagger embedded in his throat. "Looks like you have her to thank for your life, Éomer."
"I wouldn't have to thank her for my life if she hadn't endangered it in the first place." Éomer noticed that Lothíriel looked quite pale indeed and seemed unable to take her eyes from the raider's corpse. He whistled for his horse and Firefoot came cantering over obediently. "Take the maid up with you, Léo. Her horse is long gone, and she couldn't ride alone in any case. You," he addressed Lothíriel, "will ride with me."
"I will do no such thing!" she protested angrily, tearing her eyes away from the dead man. "I am perfectly capable of riding by myself."
"And capable of endangering every man in this company with your childish pranks. Yes, Princess, I'm fully aware you can ride by yourself," he replied coldly, picking her up and dumping her unceremoniously on Firefoot's back. He swung up in the saddle behind her, locking an iron arm around her waist as she struggled to get down. "But you will ride with me. I want you where I can see you."
The assassin speaks:
So, Éomer has a protector. I hadn't counted on a slip of a girl being able to save a king. But it matters not. For this was just an opening gambit...a convenient opportunity to test his weaknesses. The next attempt will be at a time and place of my choosing. And this time, I will not fail.