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King of the Mark
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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8
The Great West Road

The next day-the party's second on the road to Minas Tirith-dawned hot and muggy. The road turned slightly east and ran for many miles through a section of lowlands with pools of standing water and streams that the summer heat had left shallow and murky. The horses' tails were perpetually in motion and their ears twitched constantly to ward off the swarming mosquitoes and gnats. Their riders, unequipped with such built-in insect protection, were not so lucky. Muffled curses and the sharp sound of palms striking exposed skin could be heard up and down the line of cavalry as men and maids alike slapped at the pesky insects.

After a hasty noon meal the troop plodded on, tired, hot and eager to reach higher ground. There was no singing or laughing banter and each man seemed content with the company of his own thoughts. But several of the travelers had much more on their minds than relief from the heat and bugs.

******

Éomer led the men two abreast along the road and while he was alert to danger, as always, his mind also dwelled upon the intertwined problems of Lothíriel and finding a queen for his kingdom. He'd thought all night long about sending a messenger to Prince Imrahil, and if he'd still been only the Third Marshal of the Mark, he would have. There was the problem in a neat bundle-he was no longer Marshal, but King. And did a King not owe it to his people to bring them a queen who would rule them wisely and responsibly? He had not seen much in the way of wise or responsible behavior from Lothíriel.

So, after much soul-searching, he had not sent the messenger after all. When the troop set out, he had reluctantly ordered her to ride in the middle of the column so that he wouldn't be tempted by her presence at his side. Her look of hurt surprise had almost made him falter in his resolve, but he reminded himself again that in this he must behave as a king, not a man, and he held firm. It would be better for them both not to give the girl false hopes.

But as he glanced back along the dusty road, checking the line of riders for any signs of trouble, he allowed his eyes to rest for a long moment on Lothíriel. She was engaged in whacking at a very irritated Anna with a bug-swatter improvised from a handful of long marsh grass. A ridiculous, wide-brimmed hat shaded her freckled nose from the burning sun. Her hair was bound into plaits that hung nearly to her waist, but stray curls escaped every which way, clinging to her damp brow and cheeks. Her breeches and boy's tunic were smudged with dust. In Éomer's eyes, Lothíriel was dirty, sweaty, thoroughly disreputable and utterly un-queenly. And blast it all, there was no one else he wanted the way he wanted her.

******

"Will you stop that?" Annaereth snapped, glaring at Lothíriel. All morning long her mistress had been unquenchable, first peppering her with highly personal questions about Léo, then planning a series of escapades she was fortunately too hot to carry out, and finally this nonsense with the bug-swatter. Whether from Anna's sharp tone or the heat, Lothíriel seemed to tire of her game and, after sticking out her tongue, finally subsided.

Grateful for the momentary peace, Anna's thoughts returned to Léo and the startling offer he'd made to her the night before. After everyone had sought their beds, Anna and Léo had sat up beside the dying fire for a very long time, talking and kissing. (Anna admitted in the privacy of her own mind that there really had been more kissing than talking...) When she finally excused herself to go to bed, Léo had taken both her hands and told her...not asked but told her...that he intended to make her his wife.

Anna glanced at her mistress who seemed lost in thoughts of her own and wondered what Lothíriel would do if she knew of Léo's proposal. Anna had been aware for many years that Lothíriel's pranks and attention-getting schemes sprang from a deep well of loneliness within the princess. Lacking a mother, or even sisters close in age, Lothíriel had been raised by governesses and tutors more concerned with raising a perfect princess than in tending to the emotional needs of a growing girl. The princess deeply mistrusted the few girls of her own age station at the court of Dol Amroth; they fawned over her with false kindness to her face and teased her viciously behind her back. Instead, she had chosen to adopt her own maid as her confidante and best friend.

Knowing all that, how was Anna even to consider leaving her lady alone at the strange, highly formal, court of the King at Minas Tirith? A year was not too long a time to spend apart from Léo if it gave her lady peace of mind, was it? But when Anna looked back at Léo, riding tall and fair at the rear of the column, she did not think she could bear to wait that long.

******

Lothíriel stuck her tongue out at Anna and threw the bundle of marsh grass down on the dusty ground. Absently scratching a bite on the back of her neck, she admitted to herself that Anna had every right to be cranky-she had been plaguing her maid for distraction's sake all day long. It was quite apparent, however, that further teasing would make Anna genuinely angry so Lothíriel had no choice but to subside into the maelstrom of her own thoughts.

When the troop had set out that morning, she had thought to ride beside Éomer, but he had been curt in ordering her to her place at the middle of the column, "where as many eyes as possible will be on you." She had been most confused and had not understood how, when her own lips still burned from the heat of his kisses, he could be so unfeeling. But now Lothíriel glanced at Anna, neatly dressed in a sensible brown riding habit and just as tidy she'd been when she set out that morning, and thought she could guess the answer.

"Father was right," she said to herself. "Why would any man want such a hopeless hoyden as I am?" Her cheeks pinkened as she remembered how she had thrown herself at Éomer and kissed him until he'd finally forced her to stop. Like a wash of cold water down her spine, everything at once became clear. Éomer was avoiding her because he simply wasn't interested. Obviously, he wanted to protect himself from another unseemly attack and spare her the embarrassment of having to reject her publicly.

The tears prickled against her eyelids and she blinked hard, refusing to let them come. She kicked Pasha into a gallop and sped ahead, wanting nothing more at that moment than to reach Minas Tirith and be done with King Éomer.

******

Éomer was startled from his reverie by the sound of thundering hooves, his hand on his sword before he realized that it was Lothíriel. She was riding faster than she had any right to in such heat and he felt the quick flush of anger that she always seemed to provoke in him. "Come on boy," he said to Firefoot. "I know it's hot, but let's catch that lass and teach her a lesson." Obediently, Firefoot sprang into a gallop and shortly, king and steed caught up with the princess. Éomer leaned over and grabbed the reins from her hands, slowing both horses to a sedate walk.

Predictably, she rounded on him immediately. "Let me go," she demanded, attempting to grab Pasha's reins from Éomer and making both horses prance nervously.

"Not on your life, princess. You just earned yourself the privilege of riding on a lead rein behind me the rest of the way to Minas Tirith." He smiled tightly at her hiss of outrage. "I warned you."

"I won't do it. You have no right!" she cried angrily as he lengthened Pasha's reins and fastened them to Firefoot's bridle.

"You'll do it, or you'll walk," he shot back coldly. "Is it not enough that you almost got Anna killed? Must you also mistreat your horse? Really, princess, your selfishness astounds me."

"How dare you say such a thing?" she shouted, not caring who heard her. "I would never mistreat Pasha and you know it! He wanted to run."

"And you let him, even thought you knew it was dangerous for you both. You don't deserve such a loyal animal, princess, if you aren't responsible enough to care for his well being, as well as your own," he replied, leading both horses back to the main cavalry.

"You're just jealous," she spat back, "because you know Pasha is worth three of your horses put together." It was a ridiculous statement and she knew it the instant the words crossed her lips. But pride forbade her to admit it even when Éomer laughed out loud at such blatant audacity. "I'll prove it," she stated brashly. "I'll bet you that on Pasha, I can beat you at a race on any course you decide to set at any time." By that time, the rest of the riders had caught up and were listening avidly, clearly curious how their king would respond to her challenge.

"Oh, really?" was his icy reply. "And what will I get for participating in such an escapade?"

"My obedience," was her immediate answer. "I'll do whatever you say without arguing, all the way to Minas Tirith."

"Obedience? That's a tempting prize indeed." Éomer knew he should refuse to race her. After all, his was the position of power and he could force her to do his will, race or no. But he had never been that kind of leader or that kind of man. "What do you get if you win?"

"Freedom to go where I like and do what I please without your constant supervision," she replied, smiling sweetly.

Éomer glanced around at his men. By their expressions, they clearly expected him to accept her challenge. He slapped his gloves thoughtfully against his thigh weighing his answer. If he declined and simply ordered her to obey him, he risked seeming weak and dictatorial. On the other hand, if he beat her in a race (as I am certain to do, he thought) honor would compel her to obey him. That in itself was worth much.

"I agree," he said, enjoying the whoops of pleasure from his men as much as the startled expression on Lothíriel's face. She had not expected him to agree, the little minx. Well, he would show her who was King and who was not, that was certain. "I think we will race at dawn, when it's cooler. We'll stop in a few hours so that my men may set up a course of my choosing. In the meantime, do behave yourself, princess." And with that bit of condescension, he resumed his place and called for the men to ride on.

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