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Horsemaster
Chapter 3

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The moon had risen.  Eomer paced the ground
impatiently.  They had been waiting a week, so far
they had seen little.  Eomer sighed.  Perhaps he was
wrong in coming here.  Perhaps the attackers were long
gone.  Perhaps he was only using this wild goose chase
as an excuse to have the wide open sky above him,
instead of the ceilings of Meduseld.  As high as those
ceilings were, he would always prefer the sky above
him.  Elfhelm interrupted his thoughts.  

"You do not have to take watch, there are dozens of
men for that."

Eomer stared up the paths of the standing stones to
where it vanished into the darkness of the mountain.
"I know.  But I cannot sit for any longer.  This place
worries me."

"You feel an evil presence?" 

"No, that's just the problem.  I do NOT feel any
presence.  Always this place has filled me with dread.
As if an unseen evil was reaching out from the black
depths.  But I feel nothing.  Nothing at all,"  Eomer
said.

"You worry the attackers have escaped,"  Elfhelm said.

Eomer nodded.  "Don't you?"

Elfhelm looked reluctantly up the Paths of the Dead.
"I fear you may be right.  Though I wish you were
not." 

A quiet noise cut through the stillness of the night.
Eomer silenced Elfhelm with a glance.  They listened.
The clip-clop of a horse's hooves upon stone was
unmistakable.  Someone, on a horse, was in the tunnel.
   With a quick motion, Eomer urged Elfhelm to rouse
the men. 

Eomer ducked behind a standing stone and waited.  The
horse emerged first, riderless.  A small figure walked
beside the horse, hugging the side of the mountain,
using the horse as cover.  Who was this person?  Eomer
raised his fingers to his lips and let out a shrill
whistle.  As expected, the horse reared back, rushing
down the path.   Eomer's hand went to his sword, but
he did not draw it.  In the darkness, Eomer could
barely make out the shape of the small boy.   Eomer
eased his hand from his sword and walked into view.

"Halt!"  he said, holding out his hands in a gesture
of peace.  "Approach stranger and name yourself." 

Eomer's appearance did not have the result he wanted.
For the boy simply started to run.  Futilely, the boy
dashed behind the standing stones.   Eomer ran the
other way in an effort to cut off his escape.  The boy
ran into him hard and would have fallen to the ground
if Eomer hadn't reached out and grabbed the boy's
wrist to steady him.

Somehow the boy managed to wrench his narrow wrists
from Eomers grasp.  Only a well-timed move to the
right kept Eomer from getting punched in the face.  As
the boy pushed past him, Eomer grabbed him from
behind.   With a steely grip, Eomer easily held the
boy's arms to his side in hopes that it would calm
him.  But it had the opposite effect.  The boy
struggled wildly.  His feet thrashed out in all
directions.  A boot swung back and hit Eomer squarely
between the legs.  Eomer's knees gave way.  Determined
not to let the boy escape, he pulled the boy down with
him as he fell. 

They hit the ground hard.  The boy pinned tightly
beneath him.  Eomer shifted his weight to get a better
look at his small prisoner.  As he moved, Eomer could
not help but feel the gentle curves pressed against
his chest.  This was no boy.

Two wide blue eyes stared up at him.  And there was no
doubt that she was terrified.  Eomer felt her
trembling.  Instantly, he relaxed his grip.  Before he
could offer his apologies, the girl fought back
swinging her knee up to hit him again.  Eomer rolled
off her, groaning in pain.

Lothiriel scrambled to get to her feet.  All her
thoughts were bent on escape.  But there was nowhere
to escape to.  On either side of her were armed men
with spears pointed at her. 

Carefully keeping his distance, Elfhelm said, "We are
riders of the Riddermark.  We wish you no harm, my
lady.  But please name yourself.  For these roads are
dangerous and we must know whether you are friend or
foe."

"She is a foe,"  Eomer mumbled from the ground where
he lay.

Elfhelm laughed. "Ignore him, my lady.  That is his
wounded pride talking.  For it is not often that he is
bested by a girl less than half his size."

Lothiriel gazed at the men warily.  These were the
riders of Rohan?  The armor they wore was well-worn
from hard use.  At closer inspection, Lothiriel
realized they did not have the appearance of those who
had attacked her escort.  From the top of one of the
men's spears flew the flag of Rohan.   Her eyes
strayed to the man who lay on the ground.  He had
struggled to a sitting position.  The rest of the men
were trying hard not to laugh.  She felt a blush rise
in her cheeks but now was not the time to worry about
that.

She cleared her throat and tried to sound dignified
but given the circumstances it was hard to do.  "I am
Princess Lothiriel, daughter of Prince Imrahil of Dol
Amroth.  My guards were attacked by strangers on
horseback.  I mistook you for them and I am very
sorry.  But I would -"  Lothiriel hesitated.  She
would what?  Really appreciate it if they forget their
first impression of her and risk their own lives to go
check on her men?  She would be lucky if they did not
leave her stranded on the mountain pass alone.  "I
would be in your debt if you could spare some men to
see how my guards faired in the attack.  They were
attacked 2 days ride south of here."  She motioned
back towards the cave tunnel. 

Elfhelm and the rest of the men stared at her in
astonished wonder.  "What did you see, my lady?"

"See?"   she asked. 

Elfhelm pointed to the tunnel.  "What did you see?
What lies within those caves?"

"What do you think?  Nothing but darkness and
cobwebs."  Lothiriel stared at him, "This is your own
lands, do you not use the path to cross through the
mountains?"

Elfhelm stammered out a response.  "That way has been
closed to us for many years."

Eomer struggled to his feet.  "What manner of men
attacked you?"

Lothiriel shook her head.  "I don't know.  They were
dark haired and spoke with an accent I am not familiar
with.  It was two days ago.  We were camped along the
Morthond, south of Erech."

Eomer approached Elfhelm.  "It has to be the same men
that killed the horses."

"I shall take the men to Erech at dawn," Elfhelm said.

Eomer raised his eyes.  "You will go through the Paths
of the Dead?"

Elfhelm stood tall and glanced at Lothiriel.  "I shall
not have this small Princess out do us both in one
day."

Eomer smiled.  But his expression quickly turned
serious. "I should be the one to go.  If there is
still danger within those passages --"

"That is exactly why you must stay behind,"  Elfhelm
said.  "The last thing our country needs is to lose
another King."  He stared off into the distance up the
Paths of the Dead.  "I shall ask for volunteers.  I do
not want any to go who are not certain of their
courage.  Too long has this been a place of death."

Eomer nodded.  "Go no further than you must, I do not
wish to run the attackers deeper into Gondorian
territory.  Bring back word on her guards,"  Eomer
said.  "I'll take the Princess to Edoras in the
morning.  Leave a handful of men with me."

"Are you sure you don't want more than that?"  Elfhelm
asked, as he turned to walk back to the Firienfeld.

"Why is that?" 

"To protect you from her."  Elfhelm grinned.

Once he was out of sight, Eomer turned to Lothiriel. 
She was sitting wearily upon one of the broken
standing stones, her eyes were half-closed as if she
were falling asleep where she sat.  Eomer had been
prepared for all manner of people to emerge from the
depths of the tunnel, except for her.  The Princess
was a young woman, smaller than the women of Rohan in
stature and build.  Her long dark hair was pulled back
off her face, though little wisps were sticking out in
all directions due to their scuffle. She stood when he
approached her.    

"I am King Eomer, Lord of the Mark,"  he said with a
half-hearted attempt at a bow.  Formalities seemed a
bit pointless after their first introduction.

At the mention of the word King, Lothiriel's eyes
widened in surprise.  Eomer held back a laugh.  "I
promise I do not usually make it habit of tackling
princesses."

"Nor do I make it a habit of kicking Kings,"
Lothiriel said. 

"Some of  my men will leave at day break to see what
became of your guards,"  Eomer said. 

"Thank you,"  Lothiriel said through a yawn.

"You are exhausted.  Come,"  Eomer said.  "We shall
camp here till morning and return to my home in Edoras
tomorrow, if you are up for the ride."  He escorted
her down the path towards the Firienfeld where the
campsite was located.   

Eomer noticed she was moving like one who was
unaccustomed to long hours in the saddle.  And he
realized that what he had taken for pants, were thin
long undergarments worn by Gondorian woman.  A few
tattered edges of what was left of her riding skirt
hung from her waist.

"Princess?"  Eomer said, and hesitated, wondering best
how to broach the subject.  She looked up at him.
Instead of finishing his thoughts, he took off his
riding cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders.  It
was so long on her it dragged the ground. 

"Thank you," she said, as she pulled it around her.
"My skirt fell victim to the attack.  I decided it
would be better to let the ruffian take my skirt than
take off with the rest of me."  Though her tone was
light, Eomer could hear the fear behind her words.

"No harm will come to you here,"  Eomer said.

They walked passed the rows of tents.  He stopped at
his own and pulled back the flap.  Eomer was horrified
when he remembered the state of his room.  Old maps,
his extra clothes, and armor were scattered throughout
the tent.  Eomer quickly tossed his few belongs off of
his cot onto the ground.  "I'm sorry we don't have
better accommodations, but we were not expecting
visitors."

Lothiriel smiled.  "My room in Dol Amroth is not much
better, it will feel like home." 

When Eomer had finished piling his stuff in the
corner, he turned to bid Lothiriel goodnight, but she
was already curled up on his cot asleep.  He gazed at
her a few long moments and couldn't keep the questions
from dancing through his mind.  What was she doing
here?  Why had she traveled so far from home?

***********************

Lothiriel woke the next morning at dawn.  Since
leaving Dol Amroth, she had found it nearly impossible
to sleep any longer than sunrise.  The noise of the
birds as they woke had come to be the sound she most
despised.  She sighed and snuggled down beneath the
covers trying to block out the sound.  The blanket was
warm and smelled of hay and horses and of. . .a man. 

Remembering where she was, she sat up and glanced
around the tent.  In the corner was a pile of junk,
mostly traveling gear from the looks of it.  Lothiriel
had been so sleepy the night before she barely
remembered laying down and falling asleep.  What she
did remember vividly was her grand introduction to the
King of Rohan.  She moaned and flopped back down on
the cot.  Lothiriel couldn't decide whether to laugh
or to cry at the absurdity of it all.  Despite her
embarrassment, she had to admit that she was relieved
to be in Rohan.   A good night's sleep had done
wonders for her spirits.  She stood up and stretched.
Her stomach rumbled loudly.  Instead of dwelling on
her mistakes, she listened to her stomach and wrapped
the King's cloak around her before leaving the tent.

Nearby, she saw a group of men gathered around the
morning campfire.  She hesitantly approached them,
hanging back a little as she drew closer.   One of
them saw her and smiled. 

"Are you hungry?" 

"Starved,"  Lothiriel admitted quite truthfully.

"Come, sit, eat."

At her approach, they immediately stood, staring at
her with a look of awe.  Several of them bowed
politely, while other scrambled to give her a place to
sit.  Amused and a bit embarrassed by all the fussing
being made over her, she sat down and gratefully took
the plate of food and coffee handed to her.

Lothiriel eagerly began to eat, giving little notice
as most of them dispersed back to their own tents or
to eat elsewhere. 

She was half-finished with the food when a voice said,
"You are much too small to be able to eat all that
food."  

"You would be wrong in that assumption,"  Lothiriel
said.

Eomer laughed as he sat down beside her.  She studied
him for a moment in the light of day.  It had been so
dark the night before that she did not have the chance
to get a good look at him.  And she had been so
worried he was going to try to kill her that whatever
features she saw she had immediately turned into those
of an enemy.  It was no wonder she so easily mistook
him an enemy, for his size was intimidating.  He was
as tall in stature as the men from her own city.
Except where the Dol Amroth's were dark haired and
clean shaven, Eomer had long blond hair and a short
stubbly beard covering his cheeks.  There was an
intensity to his gaze that demanded attention, but at
the moment that gaze held nothing but boyish
amusement.

Eomer took a seat beside her on the ground.  "How do
you feel this morning?"

"I feel much better,"  Lothiriel said.  "I'm sorry to
have kicked you out of your bed." 

Eomer smiled.  "That is quite all right.  You look
well-rested."

"It has been too long since I had the comfort of a
ceiling above me, even though it was made of cloth,"
Lothiriel said.

"Your escort did not provide a tent for you?"  Eomer
said, surprised.

She shook her head, as she had a mouthful of food.
"We needed to travel light and fast, not be weighted
down by gear." 

Eomer smiled.  "Your father did not tell me that the
women of Dol Amroth were made of as stern of stuff as
you." 

At the mention of her father, Lothiriel dropped her
fork. "You ---- you have seen my father?" 

"He left Edoras a fortnight ago headed for Minas
Tirith.  He was on his way to lead his men to
Ithilien,"  Eomer said.

"So he is alive and well?"  Lothiriel could not keep
her voice from shaking with emotion. 

"Of course.  You didn't know?" 

"We have not heard from him since he left for Minas
Tirith.  That was nearly 6 months ago,"  Lothiriel
said.  "I left Dol Amroth hoping to find him."

"I know he sent a courier to you soon after the last
battle."

"There were no couriers. And those we sent to get news
of how things faired in Gondor have disappeared."
Lothiriel said.  "I came with the urgent message that
my father should return home with his knights
immediately."

"What has happened?"  Eomer asked.

"The Corsairs of Umbar are sailing along the coasts
attacking the villages.  My father took the majority
of our troops to aid Minas Tirith."

"I saw them, they fought valiantly and their presence
may have turned the tide of the war,"  Eomer said.

"I don't doubt that, but we need him back at home.  My
sister was left in command but she was forced to turn
the power of our land over to the Captain of the
Guard.  We know little about planning for war and I
refuse to let our country fall into the hands of evil
due to our inexperience,"  Lothiriel said.

"I will send word to your father at once,"  Eomer
said.

"Thank you,"  Lothiriel said.  "I know you are
burdened with problems of your own, without having to
deal with those of my home."

"It is not a burden,"  Eomer said.  "I am pleased to
help your father.  He is a good man.  I owe him much."

"How was he when you saw him last?"

"He missed his family,"  Eomer said.  "But he was
comforting himself with the thoughts of you being safe
at home.  He will be greatly troubled to find out it
is not so."

After eating breakfast and breaking camp, the riders
readied to depart for Edoras.  Lothiriel mounted her
horse and waited for the rest of the riders.   
Wordlessly, Eomer approached her horse and checked the
cinch to make sure the saddle was secured.  Satisfied
with his inspection he swung onto his own horse and
winced in pain. 

Lothiriel glanced over at him.  Her gaze drifted to
his waist before quickly rising back to his face.  "I
hope you are all right."  A blush spread across her
cheeks.   

"I will recover,"  Eomer said, grimly. 

Eomer rode beside her.  Their horses slowly wound
their way back down the mountain pass down the
mountain.  Eomer wondered if Lothiriel was strong
enough to ride that far.  Though she was still weary
from her long journey, she did not look like one who
was about to fall over in the saddle.  Lothiriel
seemed to guess his concerns.  "I have made it this
far, I can certainly make it a few more leagues.  I
assure you I am tougher than I look."

A smile spread across Eomer's face.  "I am well-aware
of that."

Disclaimer: This is a non profit story, with no copyright infringement intended. Plot by Jen, recognizable characters belong to Tolkien Estate.
 
Extra Note: The author, Jen, has been playing around with the gender of Erchirion for this fic. Just so you know.