The small band of horsemen rode single file down the narrow mountain path. Léo, bearing a still-dazed Annaereth before him, led the company and Éomer, along with a stonily silent Lothíriel, brought up the rear. Between them the Riders were vigilant, foregoing their usual traveling songs in favor of keeping a sharp-eyed watch on the surrounding forests.
They had ridden many miles down the twisting path before Éomer's anger began to cool. The girl had nearly cost him his life, and the horrors that would have befallen her and her maid had he not been able to rescue her made him shudder. After a time, a soft sniffle intruded on his brooding and he realized that Lothíriel was crying, though she was making every effort to hide it.
"Princess, how are you faring?" he asked politely, but she did not answer. She sniffled again and roughly dragged her sleeve across her eyes. He removed the soft kerchief from around his neck and handed it to her without a word, respectfully pretending not to notice her tears. He could feel her trembling against his chest, and felt sudden remorse at the way he had treated her.
Hellion or no, she had killed for him without hesitation-much as one of his own men might have done. Except Éomer was certain that, unlike his men, she had never killed before. The look in her eyes had told him as much. No, he thought, growing up in Dol Amroth had sheltered her from the violence that had plagued the rest of Gondor in recent years. She had spent the duration of the war safe and snug in the great castle by the sea and had no conception of the dangers lurking in the outside world.
Yet she had faced those dangers unflinchingly when they came upon her. And what had he done in return? Treated her like a wayward child incapable of even riding her own horse. He raised a gloved hand and lightly stroked her night-black curls, uncertain how she would receive his attempt to comfort her. "Hush, princess. Neither you nor Annaereth have come to any harm...nor will you as long as I am here to see to it. All is well."
"I-it seems to me that you are the one needing protection, Éomer, not I," she replied shakily. "T-those arrows were not m-meant for me."
He rolled his eyes-so much for comforting the maiden in distress-but kept his temper in check. "I'm sorry I haven't yet thanked you for what you did back there. It was most courageous."
"T-that sounds like an apology." She laughed a little, even as she dabbed at her eyes with the kerchief.
"I suppose...if it must be," he replied gruffly, not wanting the girl to think she had gained any sort of advantage over him. But his stern reply only made her laugh again, more confidently this time.
"I accept. And I will tell you the truth, Éomer...I felt far from courageous," she confided. "In fact, I was frightened nearly to death." This she said very quietly, as if something beyond her control compelled her to admit it.
The soft confession warmed his heart. "That in itself is a brave admission, princess." He realized then that he still held her very tightly around the waist and forced himself to relax a bit.
Freed from his iron grasp, she settled herself more securely within his arms, nestling closely against him. "That's better. If I *must* ride before you, I should like to be comfortable, at least."
At least the princess was comfortable-for Éomer suddenly was not. The last passenger he'd carried had been a battle-hardened dwarf-certainly a different experience than riding double with a sweet-smelling princess. He shifted uneasily in the saddle, for the pressure of her slight body against his was prompting a response most unsuitable for his current position-and company. He berated himself that the simple presence of a lady could make him behave like the most untested of boys. Resolutely, he forced himself to think about the endless piles of paperwork on his desk at Meduseld until he had regained some semblance of control.
They rode in silence for some time until the forest opened out onto a broad plateau. Lothíriel gasped in wonderment as she beheld the vista spread out before her. Below the mountain, fields of grass stretched far and away until they finally met the azure sky far distant in a perfect, unbroken arc. The wind coaxed the grain into rippling waves so that it seemed like a great, golden ocean. Birds darted here and there, busily feasting on insects and then disappearing completely as the fast-moving shadow of a hawk crossed over them. The great west road wound along the base of the mountains and provided a reasonably direct route between Meduseld to the west and Minas Tirith to the east.
"What do you think of my kingdom, princess?" Éomer couldn't keep the smug pride completely out of his voice as he drew Firefoot to a halt. It was worth every scrap of paper in his office to see his country spread out before him in all its fertile majesty. For the first time since ascending the throne, he realized that the demands made on him as king would always be matched by the rewards of ruling so great a land. It was his-all of it-and he loved it fiercely.
"I think you are lucky, indeed, to rule such a beautiful land, your majesty," Lothíriel replied, echoing his thoughts. "Why, a person could ride for days and never encounter any obstacle at all, Éomer," she continued, less formally. "How do you teach your horses to jump fences? I don't see any for miles around...nor any fallen trees."
"There are plenty of fences at Meduseld where most of my people dwell. But don't get any crazy ideas into your head, princess," he warned, meaning to be funny. "You won't be jumping anything for the next seven days without my express permission." The minute the words left his lips he knew he'd made a mistake.
"Yes, your majesty," she said frostily, drawing as far away from him as she could get and still stay mounted. He regretted the loss of their easy intimacy and didn't know how to bridge the chilly silence that sprang up between them. Rather than be caught saying something stupid, he simply gave his men the signal to resume riding and followed them as they continued down the mountain.