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6
The Great West Road

Celtic music fans may recognize the song in this chapter as an edited version of "Roddy McCorley."


~~~

As the shadows lengthened the troop traveled more slowly. The men were tired and the horses hung their proud heads with weariness. As they drew near the place where they would rendezvous with the rest of the group headed for Minas Tirith, one of Éomer's Riders began to sing-a signal to the main company that friends approached. Before long, the entire troop had joined in the rousing chorus and even the horses seemed to draw fresh energy from the lively music.

"What do they sing about?" In Lothíriel's curiosity she conveniently forgot her vow never to speak to the king again. She shivered involuntarily from the evening chill, and tried to snuggle closer to Eomer for warmth.

Eomer, glad that the princess had chosen to break her icy silence, drew the edges of his cloak around her so that they were both cocooned in its warm folds. "It's a very old song about Éorl, a great king of my people. He sang softly to her in the common tongue:

"See the fleet-foot host of men who sped with faces one?
From farmstead and from fishers cot along the banks of Bann,
They came with vengeance in their eyes.
Too late, too late were they.
For Éorl the Young went to die on the Bridge of Tûm that day.
Up the narrow path he stepped all smiling proud and young.
About the hemp rope on his neck the golden ringlets clung.
There was never a tear in his blue eyes.
Both glad and bright were they.
And Éorl the Young went to die on the Bridge of Tûm that day.
When he last stepped off the path, his shining pike in hand,
Behind him marched in grim array a stalwart, gallant band.
Eorlingas! Eorlingas!
He led them to the fray.
And Éorl the Young went to die on the Bridge of Tûm that day.
There was never one of all our dead more bravely fell in fray,
Than he who marched to his death on the Bridge of Tûm that day.
True to the last! True to the last!
He tread the onward way.
And Éorl the Young went to die on the Bridge of Tûm that day."

His voice was quite pleasant, deep and melodious. It was clear to Lothíriel that singing was something he did often and with great enjoyment. "I heard from one of my father's soldiers that your people sing while in battle. Is there truth in that?" she asked.

"That is true, princess, though I do not know how the tradition was begun. My people are great ones for singing; perhaps an ancestor of mine found that it calmed the horses and helped the men tell friend from foe on the battlefield. I'm told it's quite intimidating." He whistled softly to Firefoot who had begun to prance impatiently. The main encampment was now visible and the horse smelled his kindred...and his supper.

A full dozen small campfires blazed merrily in the falling darkness and Lothíriel counted a dozen middle-sized tents as well. Men milled about grooming horses, carrying water, and from the smell of it, cooking dinner. Her stomach grumbled loudly, making Eomer chuckle.

"A hungry horse and a hungry maiden! I shall have to be certain you both are fed the instant we reach camp, or I fear I will be devoured." He winced as a sharp elbow caught him in the ribs. "It is likely my men will favor you with more music before they go to their beds, princess," he said, returning to their earlier topic of conversation. "Perhaps you could be persuaded to sing for them some songs from your home as well?"

Lothíriel gave a most unladylike snort. "Only if they enjoy the music of croaking frogs, Eomer, for that is what they would hear from me should I venture to sing." Then, not wishing to sound ungracious, she added, "But I will play upon my hand-drum while Annaereth sings for you, if she wishes it. 'Tis not a common instrument for a lady to play, but it neither screeches nor shrieks when I touch it so my father thought it more appropriate for me than the others I tried to learn."

She felt a rumbling deep in Éomer's chest that shortly erupted in a full-blown shout of rich laughter. "No one shall ever accuse you of vanity within my hearing, princess!" He reined Firefoot to a halt beside the largest of the silken tents. He helped Lothíriel dismount and then tossed the reins to a very young rider. "I won't insult you, Endros, by telling you how to care for him." As the boy walked away, Eomer spoke in a low voice to Lothíriel. "The boy's father is one of my advisors. I brought him into the King's company in hopes that his father would look upon me more favorably," he said candidly. "He thinks my blood is too tainted for me to be the true King."

"Tainted?" Lothíriel was curious. The Prince's court at Dol Amroth naturally seethed with intrigue, but she had not realized that the Rohirrim, who seemed on the surface to be a simple people, had their share of political strife as well.

"Indeed," he said, casually laying a large hand on the small of her back and guiding her towards the main enclave of tents. "My father was born in Gondor, you see, for all that he lived in Rohan almost all his life. It didn't seem likely when he fell in love with my mother that their offspring would inherit the throne of Rohan, so they were permitted to wed. My uncle already had an heir and no one could have foreseen that they would both fall, leaving only me."

"You speak as though you were a poor substitute, indeed." Lothíriel concentrated on putting one foot before the other. The warm pressure of Éomer's hand on her back was most distracting.

"Sometimes I think I will never be even half the king my uncle was." He stopped outside a small tent flying his banner, a white horse against a field of green. "Sometimes, I don't even want to try," he said, almost to himself.

A bright fire blazed merrily in the cleared space between the tents and Aldor was supervising the preparation of supper. He had set large logs about the fire for seats. Eomer perched on one and stretched his long legs out before him, most thankful for such an attentive steward.

Lothíriel sat beside him, tugging off her boots with perfect unconcern and toasting her chilled toes in the warmth of the fire. "Being King troubles you, then." It was more a statement than question.

"I wouldn't say that," he replied. "But it is certainly something I never wanted nor expected to be. It's going to take some getting used to." He smiled at her, revealing a pair of roguish dimples that made him look suddenly much younger. "But I suppose that sounds strange to you, who were born to royalty."

"Not at all. I may have been born to it, but in case you hadn't noticed, I'm the most unlikely princess there ever was. I should have been born a sailor or a farmer or something. Annaereth should have been the princess...she's more mannerly than I could ever be." Lothíriel looked around for her maid, but did not spot her. "Speaking of Anna, I wonder where she could have gone to? I would really like to wash before dinner."

Eomer had a fairly good idea of where the maid had gone...he hadn't seen Leo since their arrival and it wasn't hard to add the two together. He had not missed the laughter and the longing glances between them as they rode together. "You must think me most ungracious, princess," he said, ignoring her protests to the contrary and getting stiffly to his feet. "Aldor?"

"Yes, my lord?" The steward materialized at his elbow, startling him. By the Valar, he would have to teach the man not to do that.

"Heat some water so that the Princess might wash, will you please? Have it taken into her tent...that one there beside mine." He extended a hand to help Lothíriel up. The hand she tucked into his was so small it was swallowed up completely in his grip. He laughed to himself, wondering again how such a tiny little thing could cause such chaos as she had earlier in the day. "Can you manage without your maid, princess, or shall I come help you bathe?" He favored her with a friendly leer.

"Don't be silly," Lothíriel tried to sound repressive, but she bubbled over with giggles. "I'm sure I can reach most of the spots myself and as for the rest, I suppose it will have to stay dirty!" With that parting comment, she walked off towards her tent barefooted, boots swinging in her hand.

******

"About the hemp rope on his neck the golden ringlets clung..." Lothíriel hummed to herself as she washed in the delightfully warm water. She wasn't quite sure what to make of the young king's attentions, but they were not unwelcome. It was quite refreshing to spend time with a man who seemed to be more interested in *her* than in her position or connections.

As Lothíriel briskly rubbed herself dry, the tent flaps parted and Annaereth rushed in, breathless. "The king said you were seeking me, Lothíriel. Is aught amiss?" Her pretty face was flushed and there were bits of leaves and grass in her dark hair.

"Not with me, dear Anna," Lothíriel laughed. "It is you that look as though all the armies of Mordor are after you. Sit down and catch your breath, girl." She took up her brush and began picking stems and bits of branches from her maid's hair, being especially careful around the large knot caused by the morning's mishap. "I don't think I need ask what you've been up to. The King's Marshal, is it?"

"Mmmm," Annaereth's indistinct reply could have been assent or simple pleasure at having her hair brushed. Lothíriel couldn't be sure. It was most uncharacteristic of her maid to dally with anyone, let alone a rough-and-tumble soldier. At the court of Dol Amroth, Anna's choosiness was as much admired by the ladies as it was bemoaned by the lords.

Lothíriel felt a most unworthy surge of envy, thinking of her maid in the arms of a suitor. As a princess, she had many freedoms. She went where she pleased, and for the most part, did what she wanted. But where her maid was free to approach whatever man she might wish, such dalliances were strictly forbidden a princess. That was a stricture not even Lothíriel would break, for her honor and that of her family depended on it.

She pondered upon the few touches she had shared with Eomer and thought that, pleasurable though they had been, they certainly weren't the sort of thing likely to lead to one coming home with twigs in one's hair. Quick upon the heels of that thought followed the startling realization that she rather wanted to come home with twigs in her hair, provided it was the young king's actions that put them there. Unfortunately, she hadn't the foggiest notion of how to communicate her wishes to Eomer, or what he might do if he knew of them.

Sighing, she finished smoothing Anna's perfectly straight, black hair. "There. Now you are fit to be among polite company without the world knowing how you spent your afternoon." The words came more sharply than she had intended and she bit her lip, ashamed. If Anna had found someone she cared enough about to dally with, would that not be a cause of joy for a true friend?

But Anna was too perceptive to be angry with her mistress and friend. She put her arms around her lady's slender shoulders and gathered her up in a warm hug. "Don't worry, dear Lothíriel. I swear you will find someone, someday who will make you happy." Anna's nimble fingers made quick work of rebraiding Lothíriel's curly mop and, since she would have nothing to do with a gown, helping her dress in a clean shirt and trousers.

"Come, my lady, let's have some supper," she said cheerfully. "And what's this I hear about you volunteering me to sing for this rabble?" Her eyes sparkled merrily as she followed her lady from the tent.

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