Éomer reined Pasha to a halt at a crossing in the road and slid from his back, looking for tracks. All the horses of the Mark were shod so that their hooves left very distinctive patterns. He was puzzled to find those patterns mixed in with the marks of commonly shod horses. Clearly Lothíriel had ridden this way in company with at least four other riders. He bent down to examine the tracks more closely, noting that the Mark horse left very light tracks, as though she bore little or no weight. By contrast, one of the common horses left imprints somewhat deeper indicating that it bore a heavier load.
The blood nearly froze in his veins as he realized that Lothíriel, whatever her reason had been for leaving the camp alone, had been taken from her horse against her will. He debated going back to seek Léo's help but he feared losing the trail. So he followed the trail signs as fast as he dared, hoping with all his heart he would reach her before any harm befell her.
Her captor dumped Lothíriel unceremoniously to the ground and then dragged her by her long braids, leading her stumbling into a dank cave. Casually he flung her against the hard rock wall, against which she huddled miserably with her knees drawn up to her chest. He pulled the gag roughly from her mouth and thrust a skin of water into her hands. She drank greedily but managed only a few sips before the skin was yanked once more from her grasp. She licked at the spilled water on her hands, trying to ignore his mocking laughter.
"It is a sad thing to be deprived, isn't it princess? So has my life been...licking at the crumbs when I should have been given the whole loaf on a silver tray." Her captor mocked, throwing back his hood.
"You!" Lothíriel exclaimed.
"Yes, it is I, princess," said Aldor. "The King's loyal steward." His voice quavered nervously as he mocked what he once had been. "But today he shall recognize me as his kinsman and heir before he goes to his death. Your presence here will ensure that." Aldor pulled a wicked-looking knife from a sheath at his waist and waved it in her direction. "Yes, I think a few well-placed slices upon his beloved will put our young king exactly where I want him."
Lothíriel cringed back against the wall because she thought it was what the madman expected of her, but her eyes raked the cave, searching in vain for a way to escape or at least to warn Éomer when he came. For she realized that he would always come for her, no matter what. The thought warmed her even through the cold dampness of the cave. "You say you are my king's kinsman. By what right to you claim that relationship?" she demanded, trying to sound frightened. In truth, it was anger that surged through her and an abiding need to get away before Éomer arrived and put himself in deadly danger.
"You will regret your arrogance before this day is over, princess." Aldor's eyes swept over Lothíriel and their expression chilled her to the bone. "But I see no harm in telling you that am the son of Éomer's cousin, Théodred. My father," Aldor spat the word bitterly, "never bothered to learn whether my mother bore a child before he cast her aside. Then he got himself killed before I could do the deed myself. A pity. But it is no matter. For neither my father nor my cousin will rule at Meduseld. For I-I who have cringed and scurried for all these years behind the Kings of the Mark-I will be king in their stead!"
"You will never succeed," Lothíriel sneered, angered that he would threaten Éomer so openly. "You're a just mad little man with very big delusions," she taunted him. Perhaps she could provoke him enough that he would make a mistake in his anger, allowing her to escape. Unfortunately, she underestimated the strength of his hatred, so carefully nursed over the years.
Aldor grabbed her braids, yanking her painfully to her feet and slamming her into the wall, face-first. He pressed his body to hers, grinding most intimately against her. "And who will stop me, little princess?"
"I will." Lothíriel sobbed in relief and fear both as the familiar, deep voice resounded within the cave. Éomer stood in the entrance with his sword in hand, a king made of molten gold, backlit by the morning sun. Lothíriel thought she had never seen anything both so beautiful and so frightening in her life. "Let the princess go and we shall settle this as men. You are a man, are you not?" he mocked.
"My manhood is not in question here, your majesty." Aldor's voice was contemptuous. "Even if it were, I am not so stupid as to enter a contest of arms with you. No, you shall do as I say or the princess will die before your eyes." He pressed his knife against Lothíriel's throat and whistled, clearly some kind of signal.
"Éomer, behind y-" Lothíriel's warning was cut short as Aldor tightened the knife to her throat, drawing a thin rivulet of blood. Éomer had only begun to turn when the cudgel descended upon his head, knocking him into unconsciousness for the second time in two days.
When he woke, Éomer found he was bound tightly and lay with his head in Lothíriel's lap. Though her hands were also bound, still she stroked the blond hair from his brow as she murmured to him under her breath. "Welcome back, my darling. Can you sit up?" Working together, they were able to lever him into a sitting position beside her.
"How do you fare, love?" he asked hoarsely, for he was terribly thirsty. He looked around, noting that they were quite alone in the small cave.
"All the better, hearing you call me so," she replied, smiling softly. "I feared you would not be so charitable, considering the mess I've gotten us into." She snuggled as close to him as their bonds would allow.
He placed an awkward kiss on the crown of her head. "I share the blame with you, princess. I, too, left the camp without telling anyone where I was bound."
"Well, we shall have to get out of this together, shall we not?" Lothíriel said lightly, though her dark brows were drawn together in a worried frown. Her courage warmed him even more than the heat of her body.
They sat like that for several long moments, and when at last Éomer spoke again it was to say, almost shyly, "This hardly seems the place to speak of it, Lothíriel, but I'm sorry that I didn't offer you a proper proposal."
Her laughter rang like small bells in the gloom. "It was lovely, Éomer. It is I who should be sorry that I did not tell you right away what was in my heart." She shifted with some difficulty and faced him so that she could look into his eyes. "I would like nothing more than to be your wife and queen, if you still want me. For I believe that, in spite of myself, I have quite fallen in love with you, my king."
"And I with you, my princess...nay...my queen." Éomer barely brushed her lips with his when the sound of clapping resounded through the cave.
"How very touching," Aldor said, entering the cave followed by four hideous orcs. "I'd like you to meet my allies, Éomer. They weren't my first choice, I'll admit, but one does what one must, I'm afraid." He yanked Lothíriel to her feet and shoved her toward the orcs who surrounded her immediately, drooling and laying their filthy hands upon her. "One move, boy, and I give her to them. You understand my meaning? Good." Aldor cut the ropes that bound Éomer's wrists and threw a parchment down in front of him. "That is official recognition that I am your heir. You will sign that and then I will kill you."
"Given that outcome, why should I oblige you at all?" Éomer knew with a sick surety what the answer would be, but he asked anyway to buy time.
"Because if you do not I will tell my 'friends' that they may use your little princess however they will until she dies of it." Aldor dropped a quill beside the rolled parchment.
"Éomer, no!" Lothíriel shouted as she saw him reach for the quill. "You must not do it! I'm not important...your kingdom is!" If Éomer had entertained any lingering doubts about her fitness to rule Rohan alongside him, they were cast aside by her words. Slowly, he put quill to paper, scratching out his name and titles.
Aldor snatched up the parchment, laughing insanely as he rebound Éomer's hands. "You may proceed, my friends," he called, once he was certain the young king was tightly bound.
"NO!" Éomer cried, struggling vainly against his bonds. Lothíriel screamed then and did not stop. Her piercing shrieks of terror rang in his ears for long moments after the orcs bore her from the cave then stopped abruptly.
"Now, you will die the death I have long planned for you, boy." Aldor advanced upon Éomer, knife drawn.
"Think you that my people will follow a madman?" Éomer spat, beyond caring if he lived or died.
"It matters not whether they will or no, once my allies arrive from the hills to keep them in line. Your people...my people will do as I say or they will die. As you will..." Aldor stepped closer to Éomer, who kicked out with both feet and knocked Aldor to the ground. The madman snarled insanely and lunged at Éomer, who barely managed to get his roped wrists between the knife and his throat.
The adversaries remained locked in that position for many long moments, but the smaller man had the advantage of leverage and gravity and slowly his blade drew ever closer to the young king's neck. Éomer closed his eyes and the pain of knowing that Lothíriel was gone made him welcome the death stroke he knew was coming.
But suddenly, Aldor fell limply upon him and when Éomer's eyes opened again he saw that three black-fletched orc-arrows protruded from his former steward's back. A strong hand grabbed the corpse by the collar, casting it away from the king and there stood Léo, bow in hand, looking vastly relieved. "Thank the Valar! I thought I'd come to late." He helped Éomer to his feet and cut his bonds.
"Lothíriel!" Éomer bolted from the cave and was immediately blinded by the noonday sun. "Princess?"
"Éomer," a sweet voice cried and he thought he'd never heard such a lovely sound. "Oh, my darling, I thought you dead for certain!" Lothíriel flung herself into his arms, nearly knocking the breath from his body.
"I'm harder to kill than you might imagine, princess." He swept her up in his arms and kissed her until they were both gasping for breath. Léo's laughter finally caught their attention.
"If I might interrupt, your majesty..."
"Léo! How can I thank you, my friend?" Éomer exclaimed. "And how in the world did you find us?"
"Endros sought me out just after you left and confessed everything. Seems Aldor had offered him a high post in his government or some such thing. But the boy's heart was too good, Éomer. I hope you won't punish him too severely." Léo whistled and Éomer's personal guard materialized, leading Pasha and Lothíriel's gray. "Shall we ride, your majesty? I believe we have a delivery to make."
"We shall ride, Léo, but I'm afraid the King and Queen of Gondor will have to settle for only half of what they're expecting. For this princess is coming home with me." Shunning the dainty gray, he lifted Lothíriel into Pasha's saddle and swung up behind her.
"You're going to have to find a new name to call me, once we're wed," Lothíriel teased.
"Queen you may be in title, my love, but you will always be my princess." He tightened his arms about her and whistled to Pasha who obediently bore them down the road to Gondor.