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7
The Great West Road

Canadian Maritime folk music fans may recognize the song in this chapter as "I'm a Rover." In my imagination, the tune Éomer and Lothíriel dance to is always Kilt's version of "Ashokan Farewell."


~~~

Supper that night was a merry affair. Éomer and Léo, Lothíriel and Annaereth and the nine men of Éomer's personal guard sat around the fire laughing and joking long after the meal was finished. Anna and Léo, especially, bore the brunt of the king's arch teasing, until poor Anna was so red in the face they all feared she would explode. Only Aldor and Endros held themselves apart from the merriment. Aldor was too busy bustling about filling plates and refilling cups (many, many cups) to join in the joking and Endros sat off by himself, scowling at all who came near. The rest of the riders in the camp took turns at watch, strolling by Éomer's encampment in pairs from time to time and offering their own raillery, often at their king's expense.

Lothíriel admired the casual camaraderie between the young king and his men. They seemed genuinely to care for him, and he for them. Yet his authority over them was both firmly established and never questioned. It was very different from the strict formality observed in the ranks of her father's legendary Swan Knights.

"I had no idea you were such a terrible child, Éomer," Lothíriel laughed at the latest tale of the king's childhood antics as regaled by two grizzled veterans and then promptly choked on a mouthful of wine. The king swatted her expertly between the shoulder blades, perhaps a tiny bit harder than necessary. "It seems all these men have some story to tell on you."

"Nothing compared to the tales I could tell on them, princess, if I did not fear offending your delicate ears." She arched an eyebrow at him and he laughed, holding up his hands in mock submission. "All right, perhaps they are not so delicate, but still, I will not lower myself to their level."

He was sitting beside her, frustratingly close but not touching. She had tried several times to move closer to him, but each time he moved away. She did not know if this was coincidental or not, but she felt too self-conscious to attempt any bolder overture. She glanced over at Anna and Léo, sitting side by side on a fallen log with their hands clasped in open view of everyone, and felt her stomach twist in a tight knot of jealousy until she could stand it no longer. Jumping up, she grabbed her maid's free hand and hauled her up from her seat, "Come, Anna," she said, forcing herself to sound merry, "We promised these men a song, did we not? Fetch my drum from the tent, would you?" Her cheeks burned and she was sure that Anna saw right through her ruse, but thankfully the maid only teased back.

"I made no such a promise, 'Thíriel, you did. I am sorely tempted to make you carry it out yourself, but I have too much pity on these kind men." Anna cast a fond glance at Léo before disappearing into the small silken tent.

Éomer, meanwhile watched the byplay with no small interest, glad that she had risen from her seat so close to him. He was trying manfully to control his desires but a full day of riding with her slender body pressed against him, followed by several cups of wine and her continued presence by his side was making it most difficult. He had reached the point where even the slightest of her touches was driving him slightly crazy and he had had to move away from her several times, lest she feel the heat radiating from him and realize its cause. He longed to simply take her in his arms and kiss her until she was senseless (among other things), but one did not simply attack a princess in such a base fashion. He wished that he had at least sought her father's permission to court her, but the thought had not yet occurred to him before he parted company with Imrahil. He groaned softly, wondering how he would survive the next six days in her company without going mad with frustration.

"What's the matter, your highness?" Léo teased. "Too much wine?" Éomer glared evilly at his Marshal, whom he knew understood precisely the cause of Éomer's frustration. He was about to respond in kind when Anna re-emerged from the tent with a large, round case made of hide and handed it to Lothíriel.

Sitting down beside her maid, Lothíriel drew forth a most unusual instrument from the case. It consisted of a willow-wood frame with a sturdy crosspiece attached to the back. A hide was stretched across the frame, fastened down by brass rivets all around the circle. Lothíriel fished around in the case and pulled out a small mallet and, placing her hand flat on the hide behind the crosspiece, tapped it experimentally against the drum.

Éomer could feel its deep, rolling rumble vibrating within him all the way from his head to his heels. Something was vaguely familiar about the sound, but before he could place it, Léo exclaimed, "I know that sound! The Swan Knights always had with them a drummer who played upon just such an instrument."

Lothíriel smiled. "Our knights use it to frighten their enemies, Léo, much like your men singing as they do battle." She tapped out an intricate rhythm that set everyone's feet to tapping. "But our sailors use it to accompany their shanties-a much more entertaining use, to my mind. Anna, what shall we give them?" she asked, continuing to play.

"Not that one, 'Thíriel," said Anna, blushing. "We're not even supposed to know that one." Of course nothing would do then, but for the men to hear it and finally after much teasing and pleading, Anna began singing:

Though the night be dark as dungeons, not a star to be seen above,
I will be guided without a stumble into the arms of me only love.
I went up to her bedroom window, kneeling gently upon a stone.
I rapped on her bedroom window - "My darling dear, do you lie alone?"
I'm a rover, seldom sober
I'm a rover of high degree
And when I'm drinking, I'm always thinking
How to gain my love's company
She opened the door with the greatest pleasure, she opened the door and she let me in.
We both shook hands and embraced each other and 'til the morning we lay as one.
"Now me love, I must go and leave you; though the mountains be high above,
I will climb them with greater pleasure to have been with me only love"

Anna repeated the chorus amid good-natured wolf-whistles and catcalls, her face crimson in the firelight. Léo was laughing uproariously at her discomfiture and demanded to know where two such gently bred ladies had learned such a song. "Down on the docks of Belfalas, where else?" she answered tartly. "You should know by now of my lady's habit of dragging me to places I've no business visiting." Then it was Lothíriel's turn to blush.

Éomer chose that moment to excuse himself, saying he wanted to make a last check of the encampment before going to his bed. Lothíriel watched him go, wishing she dared follow him. When she turned her attention back to the fire, she saw that one of the men produced a wooden flute and was playing a sprightly dancing tune. Of course Léo immediately claimed Anna for a dance, leaving the rest of the men to glance awkwardly at Lothíriel, clearly too intimidated by her position to do the same. She decided to save everyone the embarrassment of her presence and excused herself in a husky voice.

She did not immediately seek the solace of her tent, however. Instead, she walked along the edge of the stream by which they were camped, following it into a small copse of woods. It was a pretty spot in the moonlight, near enough that she could hear the merry music, but secluded enough that no one would notice the hot tears that she angrily dashed from her eyes. It was most ridiculous indeed. Why, in her whole childhood she hadn't cried so much as she had in this one day alone. It wasn't as if she'd even wanted to dance with any of those men.

What she wanted, she admitted to herself, was to be someone different entirely. Being a princess meant that men were either intimidated by her, or wanted her only for the power her position would bestow upon them. She longed to be a woman who could dance with a lover in the moonlight...who could twine hands with him in view of all who cared to look...who could lie with him amid the endless fields of grass. That the lover Lothíriel's imagination created strongly resembled Éomer made her sadder and angrier still.

******

Éomer paced angrily along the path downstream, heading in the direction that Léo said Lothíriel had gone. Blast the girl, anyway. Had she learned nothing from her experiences of the morning? What could she be thinking to wander off in the middle of the night? He was so worried by the time he found her in the grove of trees, he spoke to her much more sharply than he intended. "Lothíriel!," he snapped. "I distinctly remember saying that you should not wander off alone. Did you not hear my orders or do you simply delight in ignoring them?"

She had been sitting with her back to a great tree, arms wrapped around her knees, but the menace in his voice startled her to her feet. "Who do you think you are, storming about like that?" she demanded. "You scared me half to death."

"I think I am the King of the Rohirrim. I think that I am the leader of this expedition. I think that if you do not begin to stay where I bid you, I shall tether you to me until we reach Minas Tirith." Éomer advanced upon her with each statement until he loomed over her like an avenging dragon.

"You wouldn't dare," she hissed. She turned her back upon him, as if to walk away, and his anger boiled over. How dare she behave so disrespectfully when he was only concerned for her welfare? He stalked after and grabbed her, turning her around to face him and intending to give her a very large piece of his mind. But when he saw the marks of fresh tears upon her face, he hesitated.

One of the very few memories Éomer had of his mother was of the tears standing in her great blue eyes when she had learned of his father's death. Nothing was more certain to touch the sensitive soul he hid so well than the sight of a woman in tears. Thankfully, it wasn't something that happened often, for women of the Rohirrim did not cry easily, up to and most certainly including his sister, Éowyn. Still, when it did happen, he always felt obligated to do whatever he could to make those tears cease.

Unfortunately, in this case he hadn't the slightest idea where to begin. But as he stood there feeling ridiculous, holding the princess by the shoulders, the answer drifted to him across the evening breeze. Someone had brought out a fiddle and played upon it one of the sweetest melodies he'd had the pleasure of hearing in a long time.

"I think," he said in a much softer tone, "that you stole away before I could dance with you."

"Dance with me..." she repeated in a whisper, confusion at his sudden change of mood reflected in her eyes.

"Yes, princess. I was very disappointed to find you gone. Will you not share a dance with me before we go to our beds?" He held out his arms invitingly and was amazed to see that Lothíriel, the hellion who had killed his would-be assassin without batting an eyelash, suddenly looked shy as she stepped hesitantly into their circle.

Her awkwardness as he guided her through the simple, swaying steps surprised him until he remembered the mannerly Gondorian court dances he'd seen in Minas Tirith during his stay there. He realized that she had probably never danced so closely with a man before this and he candidly admitted to himself that he was most pleased to be the first.

When the poignant tune finally came to an end, he did not let her go but leaned down and placed an impulsive kiss upon her lips. He'd meant it to be only friendly, he told himself later, really, he had. But he hadn't counted on his hellion for she not only accepted his kiss, she returned it with a passion. Rising up upon her toes, she wound her fingers through his golden hair and tried to pull him closer, but only succeeded in knocking him off-balance so that they both went sprawling into a pile of leaves.

He told himself he should stop...that it would be dishonorable to continue. But she tasted of wine and honey and her lips were as soft as he'd daydreamed about during the long day's ride. As he kissed her, he became aware that she was touching him with gentle inexperience, running her palms lightly over his shoulders and back. The feathery touch was driving him mad and he knew if he didn't stop her that he would be unable to control himself any further. So for the second time that day, he trapped her body beneath his, grabbing both her hands in one of his so that he might exercise at least a little control over the situation.

Lowering his mouth to hers once more, Éomer allowed the tip of his tongue to caress Lothíriel's lower lip. Her resulting gasp of shocked desire inflamed him even as it instantly cooled his head. This was not any woman he held beneath him, but a princess. She deserved better than a tumble in the woods, especially as he was quite certain that she had never engaged in such activities before this.

With great effort, he tore his mouth from hers and looked down upon her. The sight of her lying there on a bed of ferns and leaves with her dark curls unbound about her and her fine, dark blue eyes half-lidded with pleasure almost did him in. Almost. Reluctantly, he got to his feet and, not trusting himself to say more, muttered only, "I'm sorry, princess," before he melted away into the forest.

******

Lothíriel picked herself up from the forest floor and made her way slowly back to her tent, shaking with repressed emotion. Her head swam with a thousand unanswered questions as she undressed and climbed into bed. Why had Éomer been so angry? And why then, had he become so suddenly gentle? And why, by the Valar, had he stopped just when things were getting interesting?

As she laid her head on the pillow, something sharp poked her in the back of the head. Fumbling in the dark, she fetched it forward and smiled when she realized what she had just pulled from her hair. A twig.

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