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9
The Great West Road

EW has drawn a beautiful picture that goes with this chapter. It can be found in the photos section on the Yahoo! site.


~~~

As they rode on towards the highland where they would camp that night, the entire cavalry buzzed with talk of the next morning's race. Men traded wagers (a surprising number favored LothÝriel) and hotly debated the construction of the course. They entertained themselves by dissecting possible routes, arguing about the number of jumps and the distance of the course, and trading theories about what circumstances would favor which rider. It was generally decided that while Firefoot had more endurance, Pasha was the more agile of the two horses.

╔omer smiled to himself, listening to their animated discussion. Aside from a rousing battle, there was little the Rohirrim enjoyed more than racing their horses. Even the threat of rain from the gathering thunderheads in the west did not dampen their enthusiastic discussions.

The storm broke just as the road began to climb into the upland hills. Riders and horses alike were grateful at first for the warm rain that washed away the insects and the dust. But when the soft summer rain became a raging torrent they picked up their pace, eager for the shelter of dry tents. Perversely, just as the last of the tents were erected, the rain tapered off and the late-afternoon sun peeped through the receding clouds.

******

"Anna?" LothÝriel poked her head into their tent. "I saw a stream nearby and I'm going to bathe. Do you want to come?"

"Thank you for asking, but I think I will stay here and finish setting things to rights." Her maid was busily laying out garments to dry and putting the small space in order. "Please, LothÝriel...for all our sakes, don't go far." Anna's smile took the sting out of her words.

"Just as far as the stream, Anna. I promise." LothÝriel slung her bundle of dry clothes and towels over her shoulder and set off, admiring the sun shining crimson over the vast fields of grain to the west. The sight reminded her of a song she'd heard once, sung by an old, blue-eyed minstrel at her father's court. Glancing around to make sure no one was within hearing, she hummed it tunelessly to herself as she walked.

"Will you stay with me?
Will you be my love,
Among the fields of barley?
We'll forget the sun
In his jealous sky,
As we lie in fields of gold."

She was so intent on trying to stay in tune, admire the sunset, and watch her footing on the rocky bank all at the same time, that she did not hear the splashing coming from the secluded pool. Neither did she notice the clothing, all bearing the symbol of a white horse on a green field, strung about the branches of the concealing trees to dry. In fact, she didn't realize that anyone was there at all until she heard her name spoken in a familiar, mocking drawl.

Startled, LothÝriel looked up and saw Eomer, naked as the day of his birth, bathing quite unconcernedly in the pool. The water came up to his waist and was murky enough to provide at least token modesty, but the rest of him, from his muscular shoulders to his flat, tanned stomach, was quite exposed. When she realized that she was staring at the shimmering droplets of water that clung to the curling hair on his chest, she quickly dropped her gaze. Her rosy blush deepened to scarlet as she heard his deep laughter roll across the water.

"Come to join me in a bath, princess?" he called. "There is a princess under all that dirt, is there not?" He ducked under the water and came up shaking his long mane of golden hair, thoroughly splashing LothÝriel's boots and trousers. He was, she realized, enjoying baiting her and clearly did not expect her to accept his invitation. She, who had had her own bluff called earlier in the day, decided she'd had quite enough of being teased.

"There certainly is, and I intend to waste no time finding her!" She set down her bundle on the bank and kicked off her boots. Watching out of the corner of her eye, she saw ╔omer's jaw drop as he realized she was coming in whether he was there or not. Steeling herself, she pulled off her tunic and pants and stood for a moment on the bank, clad only in a thin shift and drawers. Then she dove in, coming up for air shrieking as if every Orc in Mordor was attacking her. "You could have told me it was f-freezing!"

******

"You'll-" Eomer broke off and had to clear his throat before he could continue. "You'll get used to it," he finished in a barely audible croak. He stood very still in the cold water, knowing both that he should tear his eyes away from the sight before him and that he could not, even if his life depended upon it. LothÝriel's hair, wet and unbound, hung past her waist but still did not cover the fact that what little she wore was turned nearly transparent. Her shift outlined her full breasts and clung tightly to the gentle curve of her waist and hips.

"You d-didn't think I'd d-do it did you?" she asked, shivering and laughing at once. She gathered up her sodden hair and wrung the water from it, revealing herself even more clearly.

"No, I didn't." he said very softly. He moved towards her and damned himself for each of the forward steps he couldn't seem to stop, perilously close to forgetting the stern vows he had made to himself just hours earlier. Drawing within a breath of her, he reached out and plucked a wet leaf from the smooth flesh of her shoulder. Her skin felt cool and he wondered if his palm felt as hot to her as it seemed to him. He could hear her breath quicken as he traced the line that separated the tanned flesh of her throat from the pale, creaminess of her shoulder.

"Why do you tease me so?" she whispered, trembling from more than the cold water.

"Tease you?" He felt light of head, as though he watched himself from afar, as he slid his hand around to cradle the back of her slender neck. "What do you mean?"

"You pushed me away last night." She tipped her head back, letting the ends of her black hair trail in the water. Her eyes were the color of the color of the sea at dusk, her expression a mixture of passion, innocent trust and confusion. "I thought you didn't want me." Her voice was so soft he could barely hear her.

"I think I would have to be dead, princess, not to want you," he replied huskily. He lowered his lips to hers and promptly forgot every doubt he'd entertained and every vow he'd made, drowned as he was in the sweetness of her. She stumbled slightly and he realized that she had been standing upon her toes in order to reach him. Fitting his hands around her waist (she was so tiny that he could nearly span her waist with both hands) he picked her up, thinking to make her more comfortable. He did not expect that she would wrap her legs tightly around him for balance, an action that placed him in a most awkward position indeed.

Even in the cold water, he knew he would not be able to control himself for very long in that position. But when he would have put her down she clung to him, placing feathery kisses along the line of his jaw and nibbling gently on the sensitive flesh of his earlobe. He traced a fiery path with his tongue down her neck to the hollow of her throat, feeling as though he was running headlong towards a great cliff and yet unable to stop himself. He gathered her tightly in his arms, intending to carry her to the riverbank where he could make love to her properly.

"Your majesty?" the reedy voice of his steward called through the trees, freezing Eomer in his tracks. As those two words fell upon his ears, he suddenly felt every drop of the freezing cold water against his skin and heard every one of his objections, vows and doubts thunder freshly in his ears. Abruptly, he released LothÝriel and she tumbled from his arms into the water, coming to her feet sputtering like a drowned cat.

"What was t-that for?" she asked, incredulous.

"For tempting me to do what I should not, princess." He waded out of the water, oblivious to her shocked stare. "Until we meet to race on the morrow, you will stay away from me. Is that clear?" Grabbing his clothes, he stalked off into the trees.

"Bastard," LothÝriel hissed, shivering in the icy water. "I hope you choke to death on my dust."

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