The rain washed the oppressive mugginess away and the morning dawned bright and clear, with a refreshing hint of autumn in the air. On the wide plain that had been designated as the race area, men moved busily about constructing jumps at strategic locations. The course was mostly flat and bisected by a shallow stream It sloped upwards on its north side and wound for a short distance through some low hills.
Léo cantered up and saluted to Éomer, who stood on one of those hills observing the proceedings. "All is in readiness, my King." He swung down from Roval, patting his glossy neck affectionately, and continued less formally. "I've been listening to the men, Éomer, and they're putting even money on the girl. Are you sure you want to do this?" He laughed, bright green eyes sparkling with fun, for teasing the king was a privilege only enjoyed by his closest friends. And of course, Léo took advantage of his position as often as possible.
"It's a little late to back down now, is it not?" Éomer replied sourly, trying to tighten the girths on Firefoot's saddle as the huge gray nudged him none too gently with his nose. "You're the most spoiled horse in the Mark, so you are," Éomer groused affectionately, indulging Firefoot with the ear-scratching the horse loved.
"You're in a foul mood for a man who shared his bath with a princess last night," Léo said slyly, slapping his friend on the shoulder. "Yes, I know all about it. Anna told me."
Éomer fished in his pockets and came up with a lump of sugar which he offered to Firefoot. The horse crunched it happily, lint and all. "Anna talks too much. Or perhaps not enough if she didn't tell you how things ended up."
"She told me her mistress is none too happy with you," Léo said. "Which I don't understand at all. Didn't you, well...you know? I mean, what could she possibly have to complain about?"
Éomer rolled his blue eyes skyward and asked every ancestor in his lineage for patience. "Perhaps the fact that we didn't...you know" he mocked.
"By the Valar, Éomer! You're not going to get a more perfect chance than that. What in blazes are you waiting for?" Leo noticed that the women had emerged from their tent and let his eyes caress Anna's trim form. She was so lovely. A sharp tug on his long, blond braid brought him back to the topic at hand. "What? I'm sorry...I wasn't listening."
"I said try to think with your head Léo, instead of what's between your legs." Éomer paced around the top of the small hill, slapping his gloves against his thigh to emphasize each point. "The girl's a princess. I can't just tumble her like a common maid." He noticed Léo's eyes narrow angrily and rushed to apologize, "I'm sorry, my friend. That came out all wrong."
Luckily for Éomer, Léo had an essentially sunny nature. "No harm done. I know what you meant. And she won't be a 'common maid' much longer, for I mean to marry her, Éomer, and the sooner the better. Which, if you want my opinion, is what you should do."
"Marry Lothíriel? That's insanity, Léo. The girl's no more fit to be a queen than you are. Begging your pardon again." Éomer stopped pacing, realizing what his friend had just told him. "You're going to marry Anna?"
"As soon as I can get her to agree. Don't duck the issue, Éomer. It won't work with me." Léo loved Éomer like a brother, but he was not blind to his friend's faults. And chief among them was his stubbornness. "Lothíriel is bloody perfect for you, you great fool."
"Perfect for me, maybe, but what about my kingdom? Can you imagine her racketing about Meduseld on that great brute of a horse challenging all my guards and advisors to races?" Éomer's eyes found Lothíriel, who was briskly brushing Pasha even though the horse already gleamed in the early morning sun. "No, Léo. She's too young and irresponsible. It would be a disaster."
"The only disaster I see here is your exceedingly depressing shortsightedness." Léo swung back up on Roval. "That girl is in your blood, Éomer, and you'll never get her out. Take my advice: marry her and blast the consequences. She might surprise you. And if she doesn't...at least your life will never be boring."
Less than an hour later the troop, and Anna, were gathered near the racing field listening to Léo give final instructions to Lothíriel and Éomer. "You'll start on my signal. The race will be twice around the course, completing all the jumps. If you miss one, you lose. Don't bump each other too badly and try not to break your necks, please. First one back here wins. Ready?" Lothíriel and Éomer nodded grimly, refusing to look at each other. Léo sighed to himself, knowing that much more was to be settled by the race than whose horse was the faster.
"On my mark...three...two...one...GO!"
A great cheer erupted from the watchers as the two horses sprang from the start and thundered across the flats. Lothíriel and Éomer crouched low over their horses' necks, both to cut the wind resistance and to shout instructions to their animals. A shower of bright droplets spat rainbow sparks in the sun as they splashed across the shallow stream, side by side.
Anna gripped Léo's arm tightly, screaming "Run, Pasha! Move your tail, you misbegotten son of a-" The rest of her words were mercifully lost in the encouraging shouts of the men. Léo laughed out loud, amused that his prim little maid was so caught up in the excitement. Perhaps he'd make a horsewoman of her yet.
The horses sailed over the first jump, an arrangement of fallen logs and dead wood, still side by side. But as they landed, Firefoot stumbled slightly, and Pasha surged past him, taking a generous lead. Éomer swore and dug in his heels. Firefoot obligingly stretched out and ran faster still.
The next section of the course led the horses and riders up an incline into the low hills and Firefoot was well served by his great endurance. By the top, he had drawn even with Pasha once again.
Éomer slapped him gratefully on the neck, allowing himself a quick glance at Lothíriel. She was intent on guiding her horse and did not, or would not, look at him. Her eyes were narrowed in intense concentration as she spoke soft words of encouragement into Pasha's ear. Éomer thought he had never seen anything quite so beautiful as the sight of them-the black-haired princess and the black-maned horse were perfectly matched in both beauty and skill.
The men whooped and cheered as both horses cleared the third jump and raced past them into the second lap of the course. The race was going exactly as they had predicted. Pasha's agility was evenly matched by Firefoot's endurance and the outcome was far from assured. It was, Léo thought, one of the most exciting races he could remember.
As the horses approached the first jump for the final time, Lothíriel urged Pasha to run faster, wanting to gain as much ground as possible before climbing into the hills where she knew she would fall behind. As she leaned forward to take the jump, she felt something graze her cheek, perhaps a bite from some kind of insect. She flinched at the sting, but managed to maintain her concentration as she guided Pasha over the obstacle.
But as Pasha landed on the other side, Lothíriel suddenly sensed something very wrong. Firefoot and Éomer were no longer beside them. She risked a glance back and immediately pulled hard on Pasha's reins, turning him about, for what she had seen turned her blood to ice.
Firefoot lay writhing on the ground near the approach to the jump, one of his forelegs bent most unnaturally. Éomer lay motionless on the opposite side, clearly thrown from his horse's back, by what means she did not know. Dimly, she saw Léo vault onto Roval, dragging Anna up behind him. Help was on the way, but Lothíriel was terrified that it was too late for both rider and horse.
She was at Éomer's side in an instant, flinging herself from her saddle and kneeling next to him. She laid her head on his chest and sobbed with relief when she realized it still rose and fell. It seemed an eternity before Léo rode up on Roval, Anna clinging to him for dear life.
"Is he..." Léo began, but Lothíriel cut him off.
"He'll be all right, I think. Léo, please do something for that poor horse." Firefoot's shrieks of pain seemed to rouse Éomer, for his eyelids fluttered open and he tried to raise his head. "Hush, my darling...you mustn't move," Lothíriel said, much more calmly than she felt. Léo swallowed hard and disappeared behind the barrier of sticks and logs, his hand ominously on his sword hilt. Anna watched after him, clearly torn between her lover and her mistress. "Go, Anna. He'll need your strength if...Just go." Anna ran after Léo, leaving Lothíriel alone again with the wounded king.
"'Thiri...Firefoot..." he was struggling to get up, hundred of years of instinct guiding him to care for his horse before himself.
Lothíriel grabbed his shoulders and tried to hold him down. "Éomer, listen to me. You hit your head when you fell. You'll be all right, but you have to lie still or you'll..." she jumped quickly out of the way, "...be sick." Thankfully at that instant the men of Éomer's personal guard rode up to help.
Without thinking much about it, Lothíriel calmly began giving them orders. Within minutes, the young king was laid out on a stretcher and water brought from the nearby stream. Lothíriel bathed Éomer's hot forehead with a strip torn from her tunic, soothing him in a tuneless murmur.
Suddenly the guardsmen went silent and Lothíriel realized that she could no longer hear Firefoot's screams of pain. She forced herself to speak calmly to the men around the lump in her throat. "Take him back to the camp. He...he shouldn't be here now."
"No..." Éomer cried hoarsely. "My horse...Firefoot..."
"There's nothing you can do for him now, my king." Léo appeared beside them and his eyes were haunted. He buried his face in Anna's shoulder, shaking, and she held him close, giving him comfort though she was weeping herself.
"No..." Éomer cried again, at last gaining his feet. But as he staggered around the barrier and saw what all had been trying to keep from him, he swayed and would have plummeted once more to the ground, but for Lothíriel who was right beside him.
"Lean on me, my darling...that's the way." She placed her shoulder under his arm and supported him as he knelt down in the dust beside his horse. He knew then with crystal clarity that she would never let him fall, no matter what. But he had no time to dwell on what that might mean, for the sight of his beloved mount pushed all other thoughts from his mind.
The unnatural angle of one of the horse's forelegs and the clean stab wound through his great heart told Éomer exactly what had happened and what Léo had had to do. Éomer squeezed his eyes closed but could not stop the hot tears that traced pale paths down his dusty face. Firefoot who had ridden across all Rohan and Gondor during the war, who had led the charge at Helm's Deep and on the Pellenor, who had been his faithful companion for time out of mind...Firefoot was dead.
Blindly he reached out and was instantly gathered into Lothíriel's soft, slender arms, their gentle strength supporting him as he buried his head in her shoulder and wept.
It was late in the morning before all was calm again. Once he could be persuaded to leave Firefoot's side, the guardsmen carried Éomer back to camp and laid him in his tent. When Lothíriel and Anna were sure he had suffered no more than a bump to the head, a dose of poppy syrup sent the young king into a dreamless sleep. A group of men, led by Léo, volunteered to take care of Firefoot, digging him a grave not far from where he had fallen and piling stones upon it to mark the place. When they were finished, Léo would have sat up with his king, but Anna forcibly removed him from the tent and made him rest as well.
Lothíriel, left alone in the tent, felt her knees begin to shake and had to sit down on the edge of Éomer's bed. It was a fine time to fall apart, she thought, once everything was over. A wave of dizziness assailed her and she curled up beside Éomer, not wanting to leave him alone.
The late afternoon sun slanted through the open tent flap and shone upon Éomer's face. He stirred, feeling an odd weight pinning his right side to the bed. He felt a moment's panic, wondering if he'd done himself some lasting injury in the fall, before he realized that Lothíriel was draped over him. He gathered her sleeping form into his arms and held her close, wondering how he could have been so blind.
How could he have thought that this woman was not fit to be a queen? She had ordered his men around as calmly as any captain and they had obeyed her without question. In fact, she had taken charge of the entire situation as easily as she drew breath. She stirred in his arms, snuggling closer to his side. The scent of pine and grass was in her hair and he breathed it in deeply, letting its sweetness soothe him. He was torn between wanting her to wake so he could tell her how sorry he was and enjoying the quiet peace of simply holding her.
He remembered also that she had ordered Léo to see to his horse immediately and was grateful for that instinct, so similar to his own. Her quick thinking had probably saved Firefoot many minutes of suffering. That made him remember what had happened during the race and his stomach clenched anew. Everything had been fine. They had approached the jump side by side, Lothíriel slightly in the lead. The last thing he remembered clearly was seeing her flinch just as she sailed over the jump, as if stung by an insect. After that, all was a blur. What was clear was that Firefoot had refused to take the jump, and instead had crashed straight into it, throwing Éomer over. Why his battle-trained horse would do such a thing was beyond his comprehension. He knew he was missing something, but the more he tried to think, the fuzzier his head felt until finally all he could do was hold Lothíriel tightly against him and subside back into the blessed oblivion of sleep. Perhaps the morning would bring clearer answers.
The assassin speaks:
Once again I have failed and the accursed King yet lives. His horse, that I have long coveted for myself, died in his stead. I will have to find another steed as kingly when my time comes. And, by the Valar, my time will come.
I can only hope my part in this is not discovered before I can bespeak my allies in the hills and arrange for more direct action. For I swear that Éomer will not return to Edoras alive.