NC-17 slash, Frodo/Eomer.

This AU came about because of a LJ comment from Hanarobi about Eomer as a cowboy. Despite the title, this has nothing to do with the plot of the Western film "The Searchers." I just liked the multiple meanings of the word. But Hanarobi insists the proper title is "Frodo of the West."

As usual, I'm playing with canon. A lot. But to be nitpicky, I've compressed ages; book-Frodo is 23 years older than Eomer. I've changed that to only a two-year difference.

Searchers
by Laura Mason

"So what's a little fellow like you doing here at the Pony?" The very drunk man's voice drowned out the tinkling piano as he stuck out one long arm and wrapped it around the holbytla, just walking past his table after serving the Eored.

"Therein lies a tale, good sir. But telling such tales is thirsty work--" Ah, the holbytla was used to such attentions, and experienced enough to sell more liquor even as he gave the brute holding him a sweet smile. So the bright clothes and swaying hips were there to deliberately provoke attention. Eomer smiled to think he'd been watching in case the little one needed help. He meant to turn away, but his eyes stayed on the oddly-matched couple, fascinated, as the man called for more whiskey.

This first night in town, his men were playing poker and buying drinks for the loose women of Bree. And Guthlaf was already upstairs being entertained. None of them seemed to notice the bright eyes of the holbytla, but Eomer had been staring since he first glimpsed him behind the high bar. He'd never seen such creatures, only heard of them in childhood tales, until Theodred's injury sent him on this trip to the north.

But Eomer wasn't here to learn about holbytlan, or even to enjoy the entertainment available in a frontier town. He had business to attend to, business which would keep his uncle's ranch prospering despite the raids.

"Are you in?" Eomer pushed his cards to the center, shaking his head in reply, his eyes already drifting to the neighboring table.

"Now come here, little one." The man pushed his chair back and pulled the holbytla onto his lap, trying for a kiss. But the holbytla cleverly evaded the searching lips.

"My family came to Bree many years ago," he began, his eyes staring dreamily into the distance while his hands automatically parried the larger ones pawing at his clothing. "We came to live with our wealthy cousin. He'd slain a dragon, you see, and had more gold and jewels than he could ever spend--"

"Oh, shut up and give us a kiss," the man pleaded, finally managing to get one hand under the little one's shirt. The holbytla countered by raising the glass that had just been set before him, quickly moving it to block his lips just as the man's mouth swooped forward. Eomer wanted to laugh at the surprise on the man's face when his lips hit the tumbler, but that would start trouble. Instead he looked back to his own table, hiding his smile, and nodded to be dealt in to the new hand.

"Have a toast with me," the holbytla wheedled, and the man grudgingly touched his own whiskey to the other glass before downing the entire drink in one noisy gulp. Then he threw the glass to the table, and moved to slap the holbytla's still-full glass away.

But the drunk must have used more force than necessary, for the tumbler went flying from the small hand into the back of another large man at the bar, splashing him and his companions with whiskey. The three men turned, red-face with anger, and in the blink of an eye the drunk was being dragged toward the door while the holbytla calmly slipped behind the bar, tucking his shirt back into his trousers.

The game was forgotten as all eyes in the room watched the three men subduing the noisy drunk. The marshal who'd been pointed out when they entered the saloon was standing in the corner, watching for trouble from other patrons. Eomer turned instead to watch the holbytla. The barkeeper slapped the back of his head as he walked past, but he looked pleased with himself nonetheless. He merely ran a hand through the thick curls, rubbing away the sting, and climbed onto a stool to begin washing glasses as the man was tossed out the door to laughter and jeers.

Before another hour had passed, Eomer was alone at his table. His men had exchanged enough of their wages to stop gambling and look for other amusement. The crowd in the bar room had also dispersed. The dancers, finished with their shows for the evening, were circulating and choosing partners for private entertainment. When the little blonde singer came toward Eomer, he pulled his hat low, over his face and tipped his chair against the wall. She only pouted for a moment before moving on.

"Last call!" the barkeep yelled, and then the holbytla came out of the kitchen with a large tray and began gathering glasses. Eomer watched him lazily from under the brim of his hat. Perhaps he'd had too much to drink despite his good intentions, for the strange creature seemed very attractive. Perhaps it was the bare legs and feet -- so hairy -- that made the holbytla seem so vulnerable. His movements were graceful despite his weariness, but whatever he'd been up to earlier, he wasn't flirting now.

The holbytla had reached the empty table next to Eomer when trouble once again came through the door. It was the drunken man from earlier, now with a friend in tow. He was headed straight for the holbytla, who hadn't even noticed his entrance.

"There you are!" the man shouted. "Now I'll have you, you little rat."

Without thinking, Eomer was on his feet blocking the man's way to the holbytla.

"Move." His breath on Eomer's face reeked of whiskey.

"I don't think so. He's with me now." Eomer pulled the holbytla close to him, ignoring the little one's attempt to jerk his arm free. Eomer knew he could handle the man, even if he was larger, and his confidence seemed to have stopped the other man's assault. But then he heard the click of a trigger being cocked, and the man smiled -- Eomer had forgotten the friend.

"You probably don't want to do that," came a lazy drawl, and Eomer turned, confirming that a gun was pointed at him. But the marshal who'd been in the corner all evening was behind the gunman, his weapon pushed against the other's ear. Eomer relaxed; no one with even half a brain would try to outdraw a marshal. "Now put your peashooter away, Lester, and go home."

"Yes sir, marshal," the man stuttered, but even as he obeyed the gun stayed aimed at his ear. "Good night," the man added, backing out the door and tripping over his own feet in his anxiousness to leave.

"And you'd better join him, Harle," the marshal said, turning his attention to Eomer. "We don't want no trouble here tonight." Eomer held out his empty hand, trying to show he was no threat.

The drunk just stared at Eomer for a minute, then turned an angry look on the holbytla. "I won't forget you, hobbit. I'll be back," he growled softly, then turned and left.

The marshal sighed and holstered his weapon. "Frodo, you're going to get in trouble I can't fix one of these nights." He nodded meaningfully at Eomer, who only then realized he was still holding the thin wrist in one hand. He released it immediately, and the holbytla gave him a surly look as he rubbed it.

"I didn't ask for help from either of you, Strider."

"I was just..." Eomer began, then stopped as the ... hobbit? ... moved back to the table, picked up his nearly full tray, and stomped to the kitchen.

"Thank you for trying to help, but there's nothing to be done. Until I get Frodo to go back to the Shire, he's going to be in such trouble." The marshal's eyes were very intense, Eomer thought, as they looked him over head to foot.

The marshals were a strange group, enforcing the laws wherever they patrolled although no one knew who'd given them badges. It didn't matter; they were incorruptible, unlike the town sheriffs, and so highly trained that it was said they could even outdraw a wizard. Eomer stood still under his scrutiny, not wanting trouble.

"I am Eomer of The Mark. And you are ... Marshal Strider?" Eomer finally asked, just to break the silence. The marshal nodded.

"Strider will do. Pleased to meet you, Eomer. You're a long way from home."

"Yes. This is my first trip to these lands, though my uncle has done business with the men of Bree for many years."

"Your uncle -- he owns a ranch?"

"Yes. Theoden owns Edoras Ranch which lies far south, at the foot of the mountains."

"Not far from Isengard." Strider saw Eomer's surprise, for he added "Marshals travel the lands of Middle-Earth, Eomer, to wherever a lawman may be needed."

"I see," he replied, nodding, when a noise made them both turn to see the holbytla come out of the kitchen, once again carrying an empty tray. He moved to the farthest table from them and began clearing glasses again, carefully wiping the table as he did. "And his name is Frodo?"

"Frodo Baggins. I try to keep an eye on him, for he's only 21, just a youngster."

"Twenty-one?" Eomer was only 19 himself, but he was a full-grown man.

"The halflings, hobbits as they prefer to be called, aren't considered adult until they reach age 33. But that didn't stop his family from pushing him out into the world to earn his own living. Frodo is an orphan," the man continued. "His relatives were tired of caring for him, and no one noticed when he left their land instead of becoming a laborer there."

Eomer asked, "But doesn't his family need his income?"

"No, it wasn't a strain to feed or clothe him. Hobbits of the Shire don't even realize how lucky they are, to have rich lands and plenty of food. Many in Bree-land go hungry each night."

Eomer looked toward the kitchen, suddenly alarmed at how thin and pale the holbytla -- Frodo -- was. "Doesn't he--" he began, but Strider smiled and waved a hand dismissively.

"Oh, don't worry. Old Butterbur is a villain, but he feeds Frodo. Room and board in exchange for his work -- not as much as a hobbit would wish to eat, perhaps, but he's fine. Except that Butterbur puts him in those clothes and tells him he must be pleasant with the customers."

Eomer felt sick to his stomach, the whiskey he'd had turning sour at the thought of what "being pleasant" might mean. Strider was watching him, his face somber. "I need to get back to the hotel," Eomer confessed. "I had too much to drink -- more than I realized, certainly."

"I'll help you." Both men jumped at the voice behind them which showed the hobbit could move quietly when he wasn't angry. "Let me take you to your room." Without even returning the questioning glance from the marshal, Eomer let Frodo guide him out of the saloon and down the quiet street.

***

"I'm sorry I was rude." That was all Frodo said as they walked under the stars, and Eomer didn't immediately reply, though he had many questions. He pondered what he would do if his uncle told him to leave the ranch and find a way to support himself. But of course, he knew horses and could work as a hand on any ranch -- not that there were many as prosperous as theirs. Still, he had practical knowledge of breeding, feeding, and herding.

"Tell me about the Shire," was the response that came out, and if the hobbit was startled he didn't show it. In fact, he looked -- rather disappointed.

"The Shire is a magical place, but my family was driven out many years ago because of the curse on the dragon gold Uncle Bilbo brought home," he began, his voice distant -- much as it had been with the drunk in the saloon.

"I thought your dragon-slaying Uncle was here in Bree," Eomer said, smiling when his words made Frodo stop walking and look at him suspiciously.

"Why ask for a story if you've already heard the sad tale of my life?"

"I didn't ask for a story, Frodo Baggins, I asked you to tell me about your homeland. If I want tall tales, I'll tell you so." Astonishingly, the hobbit laughed, actually doubling over for a moment in his glee. Eomer decided he liked the sound of Frodo's mirth very much, and wouldn't mind hearing it again.

"Even old Strider doesn't talk to me like that," Frodo gasped between giggles. "Now you must tell me your name, so I will know who is the most outspoken big person in Bree." Eomer smiled down at him, but he felt rather sad at Frodo's words. Did he think all men wanted lies and pretense?

"I am Eomer of The Mark. Perhaps if I tell you about my home, you'll understand what I was asking," Eomer said thoughtfully. He spoke slowly, trying to find the right words. "I grew up in a land that stretches from river to mountain, wide plains covered in tall grass for the horses we raise. Have you seen true horses? They are like yet unlike the little ponies these men use -- our horses are bigger, stronger, and so graceful they break your heart. To watch them run free is the most beautiful thing..." His voice trailed off and suddenly he was embarrassed. But Frodo was looking up at him, his face full of longing.

Eomer turned away and kept talking to cover the emotion they both seemed to feel. "I spend my days riding our lands, keeping track of the horses we breed. My uncle owns the ranch; he sent me here on his business."

"You love your home," Frodo replied wonderingly. "You really love it there... with your uncle." And suddenly he seemed sad, sadder than could be explained by his words. "How very different it sounds from the Shire. My home is a land of hills and rivers, tilled fields and small towns that are far more civilized than Bree. There is a mail service, so everyone can send meaningless notes and letters about absolutely nothing occurring yet again this week. And everyone has their place, which they must keep very clear while they make their visits at teatime."

Eomer didn't understand what 'mail' was, but he thought he knew why Frodo sounded bitter about the people of the Shire. "Civilized, perhaps, but not friendly?" he asked.

"Oh, they're friendly enough to the right people," he laughed. "Not friendly like old Harle tonight was friendly with me. But if you have money and position, everyone is very friendly indeed." Frodo didn't continue, but Eomer knew an orphan had neither of those things. If Uncle Theoden hadn't taken them in, he and Eowyn might have ended up in some strange town, uneducated, trying to earn enough to live. But they still would have had each other. Frodo was all alone.

"You should see our ranch, Frodo. I think it's most beautiful in the Spring, when the horses foal. The young ones are all legs at first, barely able to balance. But soon enough they're..." He stopped talking when he realized Frodo had stopped walking. He was confused for a moment, until he noted that they were outside the hotel. He looked at the door where lamps still burned despite the late hour, and then back at the hobbit, feeling foolish. "Um, thank you for escorting me here, Frodo."

A smile lit the lovely face. "I fear you might keep walking until you reach your home, Eomer, if I weren't here." Eomer just stared stupidly at him, and Frodo's face sobered as he continued, "Do you still feel sick?"

"Ah, no," he managed to stammer, then pulled himself together to continue. "I feel much restored by the fresh air, thank you." Frodo was truly beautiful when he relaxed and smiled.

"Good. Then I'll say goodnight here. I need to finish my duties at the Pony." The hobbit held out a hand, and for a moment Eomer didn't understand. Then he remembered the customs here in the north, and he took the hand in his own.

"I hope we meet again while I am in Bree, Frodo. I... I would like to know more of holbytlan."

"Hollbel.. What did you say?" Eomer blushed when he realized he'd used their own word for the hobbits.

"My people's language is different from the Common Tongue spoken here. We have tales of little people who live in the north, and vanish into holes underground, who are called holbytlan." He couldn't read the emotions running across Frodo's face. "I hope I haven't offended you; I thought of the word when first I saw you. Before I knew your name--"

"No, not offended. Just... I've never heard of men who knew about hobbits before."

"It seems a jumbled knowledge, old tales confused by much repeating. The dwarves are the ones who live underground, aren't they?"

"Yes, but actually -- your people seem to have known us. Hobbits in the Shire also live underground, though their 'holes' are far more comfortable than most buildings here in Bree." Frodo smiled again, and Eomer forgot the lateness of the hour and the hobbit's duties.

"Tell me more." Eomer sat on the curb and motioned for Frodo to join him. He was delighted at how comfortably they settled together, bodies close against the night chill, as Frodo continued speaking.

"I've never seen the work of the dwarves, though I heard stories as a child. Have you seen their stone halls?"

"No, nor heard such tales. You must tell me the stories, for as we rode north we passed through lands where dwarves and elves used to live. Some ruins of their works can still be seen, though there was no time to explore. I mean to ask my cousin when I return home, for he has traveled this way for many years."

"Really? Men of your land travel -- ah, because you have horses to carry you. The men of Bree are as unadventurous as hobbits, and never go far from their homes. I have traveled more than most people I've met, just by coming here from the Shire." Frodo's eyes were sparkling in the dim light. "It's only a few days journey, while you've come so much further and had so many adventures. But someday I'll save the money to take the monthly stagecoach and see more of the wide world myself."

"We are not adventurers, Frodo. Men of the Mark need to trade, and that is the reason my cousin Theodred has been to many places, finding a market for our horses and bringing home the goods we need. He is very wise and has taught me since ... since we came to live with my uncle."

"My cousins -- the ones who are friendly, at least -- are all younger than I. It must be wonderful to have someone older who is so kind and helpful."

"I wager your young cousins would tell you that is so, Frodo," Eomer replied with a smile. "His kindness meant everything to us -- my sister, Eowyn, and me. It was frightening to lose our home, and to leave all we knew. But Theodred vowed to care for us, and he has ever been true to his word."

"When did your parents die?" Frodo asked, and Eomer was startled for only a moment. The hobbit was clever, he'd seen that. Clever enough to guess the unspoken, and attuned to such loss because he was an orphan, too.

"My father died when I was 11. My mother couldn't keep our lands by herself. I was too young... My uncle took us in, but she was so grieved that she, too, died." Eomer looked away, ashamed that his voice was so unsteady even at his age. A warm hand covered his and gently squeezed.

"I'm sorry -- I shouldn't have asked. It's... I was only a little older when both my parents died in an accident." Eomer nodded and returned the gentle pressure of Frodo's hand. They sat quietly for a moment before Eomer continued speaking.

"I wish I believed that my father's death was truly an accident. His body was discovered beside the creek after a storm. They tried to tell us his horse had thrown him, but I never believed... he was a fine horseman."

Frodo looked rather shocked as he whispered, "You think he was deliberately injured? Murdered?"

Eomer nodded and watched horror dawn in the wide eyes beside him. Hobbits truly were magical creatures, as Frodo had joked while spinning his tale, for it was plain that such violence was unheard of in his land. Eomer now understood why Strider felt that Frodo must return to the Shire. This rough land, and living among men -- it would change him. Frodo may have been able, thus far, to use his wits and charm to evade trouble. But how long could his luck hold? And how could a hobbit deal with violence from larger, stronger men?

The hobbit was still silent, his eyes far away. "I'm afraid I've shocked you," Eomer said softly.

"Yes.. I mean, no, it's not your fault. I've heard of such things, of course, since coming here. And even in the Shire, there are old tales from evil days in the past. But..." He visibly shook off his mood. "Is that why you carry a gun, like so many men here?"

"I carry it to protect myself from many things, Frodo. Other men, sadly, are among the dangers."

"That's horrible. I can't... Well, it's just wrong."

"Perhaps. But you will admit that Strider's gun was very helpful tonight."

"He's a lawman -- of course he must carry a weapon. But if those evil men didn't have guns, then everyone would be safer."

"Ah, but how do you keep evildoers from wearing guns unless you, too, have one?"

Frodo opened his mouth to argue, then stopped. "You want to keep me here, discussing this, all night, don't you?" he teased. "But this is the kind of issue only the very wise should decide."

"I would love to sit and talk with you tonight and for all my time here in Bree, Frodo. I admit it freely." Frodo blushed a very becoming pink which showed nicely in the lantern light spilling from the hotel doorway. He stood up and clasped his hands together, looking uneasy.

"I know you probably think... after seeing me in the bar, with that man touching me... But I'm... I don't..."

Eomer put out a finger to gently stop the sweet mouth. "Hush. I don't think anything, I don't know very much about you except that I wish to know more. I would like to be your friend, Frodo Baggins." Eomer smiled as he spoke, but Frodo's worried frown remained.

Then the hobbit threw himself toward Eomer, locked his arms around his neck, and pressed a hot, sweet kiss to his mouth. It happened so quickly that Eomer did nothing, just accepted the caress until Frodo pulled back, his eyes wide and searching.

Before Eomer could recover his wits enough to speak, Frodo turned and ran down the street, back to the Prancing Pony.

***

The next afternoon Eomer was leaving the general store, headed to lunch with his men, when Strider approached them.

"May I speak to you in private?" he asked in a soft voice, and Eomer nodded, then turned to send the men on alone.

"Don't get into any trouble. Have some lunch and relax until four, but then I want you all here to load the wagons." Guthlaf mumbled a reply, but Ceordwyn met his eyes with a nod and Eomer knew they'd all be rounded up for the work.

He let Strider lead him to a small saloon well off the main road, where the proprietor knew the marshal. He greeted them graciously and immediately brought out platters of food, quickly followed by drinks. The food was well-seasoned, cut into bite-sized pieces that tasted right with the tart beverage.

"This is very good," Eomer said, then realized how surprised he sounded. "I've never had such food before," he added.

Strider nodded. "Buldar comes from even further south, a city near the sea in the realm of Gondor." They continued eating in near-silence for a time, until the platters were almost empty and their glasses had been refilled.

"Do they always serve food in this manner, in his city?" Eomer asked, toying with a bite-size piece of fruit.

"Yes. It's considered impolite to use a knife at the table, in front of others. Various lands have different customs, and various people have different ways of behaving," Strider said, and Eomer nodded, wondering why the marshal had brought him here. But then Strider continued, and Eomer understood. "The hobbits of the Shire are unashamed of their emotions, whether rejoicing or sorrowful. They are affectionate beings."

"I.. I'd noticed that," Eomer admitted. "Frodo is quite ... interesting, and different from anyone I've met." He felt certain that their conversation outside the hotel had been witnessed by Strider.

"Frodo may be more guarded than other hobbits, due to his experiences." Strider looked almost sad as he continued, "Or at least, he believes that he has guarded his heart and follows his head. But he is an innocent in many ways, despite working at the Pony these six months."

Eomer wondered what in Middle Earth he could say to reassure the marshal that he didn't intend any harm to Frodo. But Strider merely held his eyes for a long time, both of them silent, then nodded. They finished their drinks, Strider paid for the meal, and they rose to leave.

Before Eomer parted from him, though, the marshal put a hand on his arm. "I believe you mean well, Eomer." He could only nod in response.

That night, when the Pony closed, he waited outside until Frodo came to him, as he'd known the hobbit would.

He guided Eomer to the edge of town, and then to a glade hidden from the road where a fallen tree formed a seat for them to share. As soon as Eomer was seated, Frodo was in his arms, kissing him.

This time, Eomer enthusiastically returned the kiss, but tried to only mirror what Frodo did and let the hobbit lead. That seemed to Eomer the best way to reassure someone who constantly fended off unwanted advances. He kept his hands on Frodo's back and didn't try to open his clothing or touch his skin.

And his plan seemed wise when it became apparent that Frodo loved their kissing, but wasn't ready to do more. The hobbit's own hands remained resting on Eomer's shoulders. If Eomer hadn't believed Frodo's words last night, his kisses would have confirmed the truth. He was almost completely inexperienced.

After a time, Eomer ventured to use his tongue to swipe Frodo's lower lip. The hobbit seemed surprised, but not afraid, and he cautiously did the same.

Frodo's kisses were nothing like those of saloon girls. Eomer clearly remembered his sixteenth birthday, when Theodred took him to the cathouse to become a man. The whores had been so bored as they initiated him that despite their expertise at providing pleasure, their actions left him cold.

But Frodo wasn't experienced or bored, and Eomer certainly was aroused as he watched Frodo's eyes, shining with the thrill of discovery, turn dark and wild with passion. His hands finally moved, gently tugging Eomer's hair, pulling him into kisses that explored every inch of lips, teeth, and tongue. Then he'd release him and gently finger-comb his locks back into place with a happy smile until Eomer returned the kiss, diving into his mouth until Frodo moaned and gasped, and both their bodies were singing with lust.

 

The night was a string of kisses, learning to please Frodo and teaching the hobbit to use his sweet mouth as a seductive weapon. When they finally stopped, the puffy reddening of Frodo's mouth was visible even in the pale moonlight and Eomer was more aroused than he'd thought possible.

Drunk on kisses and gasping for breath, Eomer held Frodo close, just rubbing his back, until the moon sank behind the trees. Then the hobbit whispered, "I must go back," and Eomer walked him home.

***

The second night when Frodo led Eomer back to their secret glade, he merely sat beside him, holding his hand. "Tell me about your sister. Was her name Eowyn?"

"Yes, that's right."

"It sounds much like your own name to me. Does it have a meaning in your language?"

"Her name means 'one who takes joy in horses,' and it suits her well." Eomer continued speaking, telling Frodo what a tomboy his younger sister still was, much to the housekeeper's despair. Eowyn had learned to ride, rope and shoot despite all attempts to make her ladylike. "She wears an old pair of my trousers and tucks her hair into a hat to go riding. And though she wishes to be a Rider, she has acted as the hostess of the ranch house for our uncle since she was twelve."

"You're very proud of her."

"Yes. She's extraordinary, and I don't think that's just my fondness speaking. I hope she finds her place in life, and a worthy man."

"Your uncle will probably bring suitors to meet her."

"Perhaps. I fear he still sees her as a child, but she is fast becoming a woman. And she is impatient."

"Everyone is impatient at that age," Frodo said sadly. "I realize how fortunate I was to grow up in the Shire, but when I was 16, I hated it there. It seemed so boring to me that I couldn't wait until I grew up to leave and find adventures, so I went looking for one."

"Did you really? You ran away from home?"

"I packed some sandwiches and made it as far as the last bridge before someone noticed and dragged me back to Brandy Hall. My cousin Bilbo was visiting, he was there when they scolded me. I told them I was tired of seeing the same trees each day." Frodo's eyes were far away, and his voice had gone so soft that Eomer thought the hobbit probably didn't remember he was there. "Bilbo told me when I reached my tweens, we would travel together and find adventure."

"Tweens?"

"The twenties are called that by hobbits."

Eomer nodded. "I am only 19, not yet a tween in your land." The comment seemed to pull Frodo out of his melancholy.

"Really?" Frodo smiled dangerously. "This means I am older and wiser, Eomer, and you must listen to my guidance." He lifted Eomer's hand and kissed it.

"If you'll kiss my mouth instead of my hand, Frodo, I'll promise to do whatever you wish," Eomer said teasingly, but Frodo dropped his hand, looking dismayed. The hobbit stood and abruptly moved away. "Frodo? Have I upset you?"

"You were joking. I know that," Frodo said, turning back to him and twisting his hands together. "But promises are not joking matters. You must feel the same, for you spoke of Theodred always being true to his vow."

"Yes, vows are sacred to the Eorlingas of the Mark."

"It's just that some people, they make promises but they don't intend to keep them, and they assume a child won't remember. And if it hurts to think you've been forgotten, it's worse when you realize it was never true, that the promise was meaningless..." Frodo was pacing as rapidly as he spoke, quite upset, and Eomer didn't understand what was wrong. Still, he pulled Frodo close to him and held him loosely.

"I'm sorry, Frodo. Be calm." The hobbit returned the embrace, his body still shaking with his emotions. Then he pulled away.

"There are no promises between us. We only have each day as it comes, and each night that we can be together." Frodo became calm after saying this, though Eomer didn't know why that should be so. But he accepted the warm kisses Frodo freely gave him until the hour grew late and they had to return to town again.

***

The Eored was leaving town in the morning, their time in Bree finished at last. The horses were rested and their wagons were packed with the supplies they'd bought and those acquired in trade.

"Eomer, you should join us this evening," Guthlaf said. "Last night in town, so we're going to celebrate at all the saloons. Have you seen the fancies at the Grey Wanderer? They don't wear much to begin with, and they take off even more when they dance." His comments would have quickly become crude, in hopes of making Eomer blush, for Guthlaf still thought of him as the boy he'd teased for years. But Ceorwyn interrupted him.

"Have you repaired that harness yet?"

"It needs a new cinch ring, boss." Guthlaf's demeanor changed instantly, becoming almost comically contrite. Though Eomer was in charge on this trip, as trail boss Ceorwyn was the voice of authority.

"Then go to the blacksmith now and don't let me catch you with a drink in your hand until it's ready, Guthlaf. We leave in the morning, and all our equipment needs to be in good shape." Guthlaf humbly muttered assent, but flashed a last lascivious smile at Eomer before jauntily walking away.

"Anything else you'd like done, Eomer?" Ceorwyn asked.

"No, I think we're ready. Will the men be ready at first light?"

"I'll have them mounted no matter how much celebrating they do tonight."

Eomer smiled, knowing he could rely on Ceorwyn's level head. He was grateful for the help; the negotiations were enough to worry about. "Good. I'll see you then, outside the hotel." Ceorwyn nodded and walked off, pulling his hat lower. Eomer remained where he was, waiting for Halbarad, his uncle's most important client and the only reason they'd come so far north.

It was time to conclude the negotiations which Uncle Theoden wouldn't trust to anyone except a family member. When Theodred was thrown by his stallion just two weeks before the journey was to begin, breaking his ankle, Eomer had been told to go in his place. Despite Theodred patiently teaching him, Eomer had been so nervous at this new duty that he'd dared to suggest his uncle should travel with them. That idea had earned him anger from Theoden and silence from the rest of the household. Only Eowyn, who was also disturbed by their uncle's reclusiveness, agreed with him.

So he'd come to Bree feeling that he was carrying the weight of the ranch. Eomer's ability to negotiate would affect their well-being for a year or more. But all had gone smoothly thus far, and Eomer wondered if that was because Frodo had pulled his attention away from his fears, letting him relax and rest enough to think clearly during these meetings.

Halbarad approached and Eomer moved to meet him with a smile, ready to discuss the grey and white horses this northman wished to have bred in the next year. They walked to the corral and stood there for nearly an hour, discussing Theoden's stallions and mares, and Halbarad's very specific instructions for how the pairs were to be bred. His knowledge of the ranch made Eomer a bit uneasy. Was this man remembering information from previous years, or did he have contact with someone on the ranch?

His uncle trusted Halbarad, saying he had never backed out of a deal or swindled them. Surely Theodred would have told his father how well-informed this man was about their affairs. But Eomer knew that Halbarad traded them goods which couldn't be found anywhere else. Their wagons were now loaded with seeds, food, medicinal herbs, long-burning lamp oil, and cloth so fine it was rumored that the elves wove it.

But Halbarad was just a man, not an elf, and Eomer decided he could trust his instincts, which told him there was no danger here. Though Halbarad carried himself with great assurance and an air of leashed violence, he remained polite and pleasant with Eomer, as he'd been through all their meetings. He was a bit like Strider, Eomer thought, a good man to have on your side, and not someone to be crossed.

Once Eomer had Halbarad's instructions clear in his mind, they turned to inspection of the horses brought north, the yearlings bred to Halbarad's specification. The man noted each one's name carefully, along with their sires and dams, on a sheet of paper with odd marks. Eomer realized it was writing, which he still thought was unnecessary. But perhaps Halbarad needed to record important things if his memory was as poor as Frodo's. Only yesterday the hobbit had admitted he couldn't repeat any of the Eorlinga words he'd been told, while Eomer never forgot any of the Shire words taught to him.

Eomer answered Halbarad's questions, half his mind on the one afternoon he and Frodo had been able to spend together. The hobbit showing Eomer his favorite places to walk, swim, and read. Eomer hadn't understood what he meant by reading until Frodo explained that stories were written down. That night he'd read a poem to Eomer, showing him the marks and explaining that without them, he wouldn't remember the proper words and rhymes. And when Eomer told him about the bards who came to the ranch every year to repeat tales both old and new, Frodo had been amazed. Although he could re-tell a story, Frodo didn't keep a word-for-word memory of each tale, as a bard would do.

"I believe our business is finished, Eomer. Give your uncle my regards and my best wishes for a healthy stable in the upcoming year." Halbarad's voice called him back to the present and his business.

"Thank you, Halbarad. It has been a pleasure to do business with you."

Eomer helped him run a guide rope through the harnesses until Halbarad was joined by two other people. Both wore hooded cloaks and Eomer couldn't see their faces, but one seemed to glow with an unearthly light, strangely beautiful. He wished them safe riding, and it wasn't until they were far down the road that Eomer understood he'd seen an elf. For a moment, he had an urge to follow them.

But instead, he thought of telling his news to Frodo, who knew tales of the elves but had never seen one. And so Eomer headed to the Pony for their last night.

He settled in at a corner table, noticing Strider wasn't in his usual spot as he walked past the fireplace. He couldn't speak to Frodo while he worked, except when ordering a drink. Still, Eomer enjoyed watching the hobbit move confidently around the saloon, serving drinks, smiling at regular customers, and enjoying the music. He was beautiful in the bright clothes Butterbur made him wear, and Eomer saw other admiring eyes follow his progress through the room. He smiled, knowing Frodo would be with him this night.

But what of tomorrow? The thought wiped away Eomer's happy mood. In the morning he would ride south, and he didn't know if he would ever come back. He sat brooding over Frodo's future and decided that tonight he must finally convince Frodo to return to the Shire and his own people. Or, if he would not, Eomer would ask him to look for work in Staddle, where Strider said it was safer. There were more hobbits living among the Breelanders in that village.

With such thoughts, the night flew past. It proceeded much as every night in Bree had done, with Eomer drinking ale, never whiskey after becoming sick that first night. He always watched the dancers, listened to the singer, played cards with his men until they retired. But tonight Eomer couldn't name a song he'd heard or remember if he'd won any hands in their poker game. His attention was fixed on Frodo, who had truly become Eomer's friend in their short time together. Not only was Frodo closer to his own age than Theodred, but the hobbit's love of beauty, his joy in a tale well-told, and his kindliness to horses and other animals made Eomer feel that Frodo was a friend of the soul.

And Eomer desired him so fiercely that it frightened him. His body ached just from seeing Frodo smile at him across the room, vividly remembering the hobbit's smell and taste. Each night they'd spent in each other's arms, talking and kissing, had built Eomer's desire until it was now overwhelming. Frodo was so loving and -- well, wanton, in his innocence. Eomer had left bruises on him two nights ago, unaware how rough he'd been while holding Frodo. And Frodo had not complained; no, the hobbit had smiled up at him last night with sultry eyes as he removed his shirt and showed the bruise on his shoulder. Frodo's obvious delight as he traced the dark marks left on that pale flesh had made Eomer's blood burn. He'd pulled the half-naked hobbit to him, Frodo melting in sweet surrender.

Tonight Eomer would keep a firm rein on his desire and his emotions. Tonight was about saying farewell and ensuring Frodo's safety, not about indulging his body. They had never gone beyond kissing, and that would not change now that Eomer was leaving town.

When Butterbur bawled "Last call!" Eomer left the saloon and went to his usual place, standing in the shadows by the livery stable. He gazed at the stars, buzzing with anticipation, until a familiar hand touched his. When he smiled down at Frodo, all his good intentions were forgotten in a rush of lust and affection. The hobbit's eyes were enormous -- he looked even more frightened than he had on that first night, when he gave Eomer a kiss and stole his heart.

"Follow me, quietly as you can." Frodo led him back toward the Pony, but they went behind the building, then up a wooden staircase on the back of the building, finally entering a dark hallway on the top floor. Then Frodo brought him to a ladder and climbed, pulling Eomer along behind him. At the top Frodo finally struck a flint and lit the waiting lamp, and Eomer cautiously joined him in what seemed to be a storage room running the length of the saloon. It was filled with old furniture and trunks.

"I've made a place for us, for tonight," Frodo whispered, and he led Eomer through the maze to an area where moonlight spilled in from a high round window, illuminating a mattress laid on the floor -- but covered in clean linens.

"Frodo?" It looked like -- but Eomer had to be sure the hobbit really wanted this. The face that turned up to meet his gaze was anxious, full of desire and reckless courage.

"Please, just for tonight," Frodo said. "I know you're leaving tomorrow. We can be together this once, though."

Eomer took the lantern from his hand and set it on a low beam, where it sent soft light throughout the area. Then he carefully lifted Frodo onto their bed, and knelt beside him. "I love you, and I always will -- even if this is our only time together."

They were clumsy in their passion and inexperience, but between kisses they managed to pull each other's clothing open, then remove it. Eomer was finally able to touch all of the milky skin that seemed to glow beneath his hands. It was bliss to be able to kiss Frodo's neck and shoulder and chest, and to tease his nipples until they hardened. He drank in Frodo's moans and sighs, and pressed their mouths together so fervently that Eomer imagined they would fuse like metal in the smithy's forge.

Frodo bit at Eomer's neck, his hands caressing wherever they could reach and branding him with each touch. Their desire spiraled, too intense for any delay. Naked flesh met flesh, and soon Eomer was spread out on the mattress, Frodo lying atop him, their bodies aligned in perfect, sweaty friction and pleasure. The grinding and rubbing went on, tempo increasing, until they were both sweating and moaning.

Burning kisses were interrupted by cries of completion as they clutched at each other, gasping for breath. Eomer felt Frodo shaking and tightened his arms, holding him until the tears stopped. He was a man and he wouldn't cry -- though he felt just as overwhelmed by what they'd done and his feelings for the hobbit. His Frodo.

By the time they calmed, Eomer had to speak of his fears. He sat up, moving Frodo to sit beside him. "Frodo, I must leave you in the morning. My duty to my uncle comes first, for I owe him everything."

Frodo remained silent, but he nodded his understanding.

"Why do you remain here, Frodo? Why don't you return to the Shire, as Strider wishes? You would be safer there."

"Safer?"

"Yes. I love you, Frodo, but my love cannot protect you while I am away."

"You think I want to be 'safe' among those who despise me, and who grudged every bite of food I ate for the past nine years? Safely tucked away where there's a regular stagecoach that goes nowhere, merely circling between towns where nothing happens -- and where no one wants me. Ah, but I will be safe, so I can live another 80 years in misery, all alone."

"Frodo, I want to know you are happy and well. If you stay in Bree I fear you will be harmed. These men who drink too much are dangerous."

"I'm careful, and I'm not helpless."

"No, you certainly are not helpless -- you've subdued me."

Frodo smiled ruefully. "I would say it's a mutual conquest."

"No, for you won't do as I ask."

"I can't go back, and I don't want to. Why, if I'd stayed in the Shire, I'd never have met you." The saucy look in the hobbit's eyes as he added that argument made Eomer groan and pull him close for a hug.

"Fine. I cannot make you leave, so I will make a promise to you instead. As soon as it is possible, I will come back for you."

Frodo pulled away from him with a frown. "No, don't say such things. You don't mean it."

"I swear it. You must believe me." Eomer moved after him, remaining on his knees to see Frodo's eyes.

"No!" Frodo shoved Eomer away angrily. "No promises, no false hope. What good will that be when you are back in your home and I'm here alone? Will your vow keep the next drunkard's hands off me?" He turned away from Eomer, his body shaking with emotion.

"Frodo, please, calm yourself. Why do you doubt me?"

No response. The hobbit remained turned away from him

"It's true that if you'd remained in the Shire, we wouldn't have met. Yet if you cannot believe me, nor trust my promise, perhaps it would have been better if we'd never met," he mused.

Frodo turned back, his eyes ablaze with anger despite the tears standing in them. "Not for me," he choked out.

"Nor for me, my love. Frodo, don't you feel how we are connected? I do not wish to leave without you, nor to live my life alone now that I know what it is to have such a lover and friend."

Frodo didn't answer in words, and perhaps he still didn't believe Eomer. But the hobbit moved into Eomer's embrace, and their bodies spoke again, words of love and bonding that Eomer heard echoing in his heart.

***

The sun was not high enough to shine in on them when Eomer woke with his arms full of warm, sleeping hobbit, yet he knew it was time to leave. His men would already be gathering outside the hotel.

Still, he lingered to enjoy one last moment of studying Frodo's face, so peaceful now as it rested against his chest, and tried to guess what dreams left that almost-smile on kiss-swollen lips.

"Frodo, love -- morning is here." He tightened his arms as he spoke, wanting to keep the hobbit beside him. But Frodo stiffened and pulled away almost immediately.

"Yes. Well. It is morning, and I'm sure you want to make an early start." Frodo rose and began pulling on his clothes, and Eomer sighed and did the same. "You have a long road ahead."

"Yes, two weeks of travel or more. I will be happy to see my home at the end -- but I am sorry to leave our little bower," he said, glancing around. "Thank you for arranging such a beautiful night for us."

Frodo blushed but didn't reply, busily bundling the linens as Eomer slowly dressed himself.

"Before I ride, since this is not your usual chamber -- may I see your room?"

Frodo's brows came together in confusion. "You wish--" he began questioningly, then stopped himself. "You certainly may."

Eomer answered what he'd been too polite to ask. "I would like to be able to imagine you there, after I am gone. And I will know where to find you when I return."

Frodo shook his head, his expression grim, but he didn't argue. His arms full of the linens, he led Eomer back through the dim attic, down the ladder, and then through a very quiet corridor. Eomer knew that the saloon girls now slept after a long night of entertaining customers behind those closed doors. He imagined Frodo someday doing the same, leading man after man to his bed, and Eomer's hands tightened into fists as he silently followed the hobbit.

At the far end of the hallway, directly above the kitchens, there were several doors. Frodo opened the center one and led Eomer into a room barely large enough for the two of them to stand within. There was no window, no wardrobe -- just the hobbit-sized cot, almost filling the room, a chamber pot, and some hooks on the door, full of the gaudy shirts Frodo wore in the saloon.

Eomer saw a homespun shirt and brown vest on their own hook, to one side. "Are these your clothes? What you'd prefer to wear?"

"Yes, I suppose. They aren't finely made, but they were my best when I lived in Buckland. I wore them on my journey here."

"Put them on for me." Frodo looked even more puzzled, but he obeyed. "I wish for you to see me off, and I'd like to see you relaxed and happy, in what you would chose to wear."

"Eomer -- I cannot. If I watch you ride away, I... I cannot."

"Please?"

The hobbit shook his head. "No. It would-- I must live here, Eomer." And then the emotion Frodo had been attempting to hide came pouring out of him. "I am sorry to see you leave, Eomer. I... I will miss you very much. I know," he said, holding up a hand to stop Eomer from coming any closer. "I knew all along that we would be parted, and I regret nothing. But... I cannot be certain I will be able to... I do not wish to be seen crying in the streets. Men already consider hobbits childlike--"

"Very well. Then let me see you here, before we say farewell. I will take the memory with me."

Frodo nodded and finished dressing. The simple clothes were large on him, and Eomer smiled reassuringly at Frodo while he seethed and thought of painful ways to kill Butterbur. He made the hobbit put on his cloak, too, though Frodo shook his head and laughed at the request.

"Ah, but you look dashing, Frodo. Quite the adventurer. But what's missing? Oh, your pack. Surely you have some treasurers tucked away."

Frodo laughed again as he pulled a knapsack from under the cot. "You are delaying, Eomer, and your men will think you've overslept. Shouldn't--"

Eomer's kiss stopped his mouth, but only until he lifted the hobbit, stooping to grab the knapsack Frodo dropped in surprise.

"Eomer! Put me down. I don't enjoy being carted about--"

Eomer kissed him again, then walked swiftly down the corridor to the main staircase into the saloon. No hiding now, he decided, and took Frodo down the steps, ignoring the angry words the hobbit hissed.

"Eomer!" The hobbit had lowered his voice, but his struggles increased. "You're going to get me sacked! I need my job--"

At the base of the stairs, in front of those cleaning the bar room, Eomer kissed Frodo again. It was a long, luxurious kiss that Frodo soon stopped resisting. When he moaned and clutched at Eomer, the man released his mouth, tightened his grip on him, and carried Frodo through the room and out the front doors of the Pony.

There weren't many people on the street at this early hour, but there were enough to upset Frodo. "Eomer, I thought you understood--" He sounded near tears as he struck at the man, but Eomer set his jaw and shifted Frodo's weight, throwing him over one shoulder and securely holding those feet immobile. Frodo's blows on his back were annoying but not painful.

"Frodo, you are the one who doesn't understand, he huffed as he strode along, wondering why he'd ever thought Frodo too thin. "You don't have to worry about living down our display."

The hotel was directly ahead, his Eored waiting beside their horses, the wagons lined up with Guthlaf already in his seat on the first. The men were watching his approach with various degrees of amazement. Had no one noticed his preoccupation with Frodo before this day? Well, now they would know where Eomer had been each night.

But when he strode up, Eomer saw there was another person watching with eyes full of amusement. Strider stood on the hotel porch, smoking a pipe. The marshal had apparently come to see them off. Eomer nodded to him as he finally set down the red-faced and angry hobbit, keeping a firm hold of Frodo's arm.

"Ceordwyn, my friends, this is Frodo Baggins. He is riding with us, back to Edoras." The men merely nodded, but Frodo turned white, his mouth open in silent amazement. "Frodo, you can ride with me, or in one of the wagons -- which would you prefer?"

The beloved face was now turning pink, eyes dancing with excitement as anger vanished. "You truly mean it? You'll take me home with you?"

"Yes, though you will have to pull your own weight on the trail," Eomer said. "There will be hardships, too." He stooped, leaning close to Frodo's ear to say in a lower voice, "I fear we do not have enough bed rolls and you'll have to share with me."

Frodo's smile was brighter than the sun poking past the horizon. He glowed as Eomer carefully tucked his knapsack into his largest saddlebag. Then Frodo turned to the marshal.

"Well, Strider -- I always told you I would find a way to see the world!"

"It's very good to see your dream come true, Frodo. Be happy." The man crouched down and embraced him, and Frodo clung to him for a moment. Then Strider rose, Frodo wiped at his eyes, and the marshal gave Eomer a look that clearly promised pain and death if he didn't make Frodo happy.

Eomer nodded, then extended his hand to the marshal. "Thank you," he said, knowing Strider understood he was grateful for the protection he'd given to Frodo. "Are you ready, Frodo?" Eomer asked, turning to him.

"Yes, and I'd like to ride with you, if it won't be too much for your horse."

"Not at all. You may find it tiring, since you are new to riding. But we will see how you feel in a few hours." Eomer lifted the hobbit again, and placed him upon the saddle. "Now hold Arod's mane, Frodo, and find your balance." With just a nod from him, the Eored mounted as Eomer pulled himself up behind Frodo. It felt very good to have the hobbit there, safe in his arms.

At his signal, Ceordwyn commanded "Ride out, Eorlingas," and they began the journey home.

***

Just before sundown, Eomer dismounted and watched the men scatter. Everyone knew their job -- setting up camp was routine, even for Frodo. Eomer watched the hobbit nimbly scramble out of the cook wagon and stretch, obviously tired of riding for so long. He was growing more accustomed to the trail, but his stiffness was obvious whenever he moved.

Frodo had spent the last five mornings astride Arod, held in Eomer's embrace, despite any saddle-soreness. It was one of the few times they could be close. Then after lunch, Frodo usually walked beside the wagons for a time, until he grew tired enough to sit in the wagon. Not that Guthlaf, who drove and was very friendly with the hobbit, was the problem. It was Gramund, who also rode in the cook wagon, who was not a very pleasant companion.

By the time Eomer had fed Arod and begun to look for firewood, the hobbit was pulling up wild onions near the riverbank, his hands already full of herbs. They were still in territory familiar to Frodo, and he easily found wild foods to add to their supplies. Eomer trusted that Frodo would quickly learn what wild herbs and plants grew in the Mark, as well, for he was clever and eager to learn.

It had taken only one of their usual camp meals for Frodo to offer to assist with cooking duties. But that offer had begun the trouble with Gramund. Though Frodo was friendly and kind with the man, asking his advice and opinion as he took over his duties, Gramund was surly and didn't seem to even appreciate that such a willing assistant meant less work for him.

Ah, but the rest of the men immediately accepted Frodo as their head cook, demoting Gramund to assistant after that first breakfast. He improved even the simple camp foods with seasonings and was clever enough to plan ahead for their meals. Beans and jerky soaked in buckets of water in the back of the wagon each day, so they would cook faster once they halted. And Gramund was set to work while he rode, either cutting up fruit Frodo found them, or cleaning and chopping roots, since Guthlaf confirmed that he could handle the driving alone.

So Frodo had made himself a place in the Eored, with most of the men content to have him as their cook. But they were all less happy about Frodo's place in Eomer's affections.

Though he and Frodo had only kissed a few times, when they could steal away from the camp, Ceordwyn wore a near-permanent frown. They didn't even share a bedroll, but there were scowls and averted eyes when they rode together and each time Frodo hugged him affectionately. He tried to explain how natural such affection was among the hobbits, but even Guthlaf, who seemed at ease with Frodo, didn't understand the hobbit's innocent physical affection. At least he talked and joked with Frodo, and if it reminded Eomer of the way the men had treated him as a youngster -- well, Frodo didn't seem to mind. Eomer thanked the stars that Frodo wasn't offended by the man's crudeness or his condescending attitude, for Guthlaf's friendliness would help keep a tenderfoot safe on the trail.

Then Eomer chuckled at himself while he walked back to the camp with an armload of firewood. Tenderfoot was the word for men, but it was singularly inappropriate for any hobbit. Frodo's feet were tough enough, no matter how inexperienced he was with horses or trail living. He stooped to set down his burden, and heard voices by the river.

"Frodo, the water's settled now -- shall I fill the pot?" Guthlaf called, and he heard Frodo's reply, fainter: "Please. I'll be done in a moment." Eomer smiled, knowing that Frodo was washing his face and hands, as he always did before cooking. Guthlaf called back, "I'll wait for you, then." Eomer sighed in relief, knowing he could relax his own vigilance just a bit. Guthlaf was looking after Frodo, too.

Eomer had realized that he loved Frodo that last morning in Bree, when he simply couldn't leave without him. But now Eomer was finding that part of loving Frodo was accepting that he couldn't always be there to protect the hobbit. Eomer might be injured -- or even killed -- at any time. There were dangers on the trail and at Edoras. But if the worst happened, Eomer knew that Guthlaf would help Frodo to reach the Mark. Frodo's skill at cooking would get him a job on any ranch, even though he couldn't ride a full-size horse alone. Frodo could live and prosper without Eomer, and that knowledge eased Eomer's heart and mind.

The fire was soon built and the men relaxed as their dinner, a stew that smelled better than any formal meal at Edoras, slowly cooked. It wasn't ready to eat until the night was fully dark and stars glistened overhead, but the food was so wonderful that everyone seemed content to have waited.

Eomer enjoyed the meal, the beautiful night, and the sight of Frodo by firelight, his face happy as he laughed along with the others at something Guthlaf said. He'd never looked so relaxed in Bree, Eomer mused. The freedom of the trail suited Frodo. He loved the stories the men shared around the fire, the songs Framwid crooned while the others slept, and loved the quiet days watching new vistas unfold as they rode.

Eomer only wished Frodo could spend the entire day in the saddle with him, for he cherished their mornings tucked warmly together, Frodo sharing his thoughts and showing Eomer things he hadn't noticed on the ride north. Even the ranch, which Eomer knew so well, would soon seem new, viewed through Frodo's eyes.

The men began scattering to prepare their bedrolls, and Eomer looked around for Frodo before he realized the hobbit had left the fireside after clearing and stacking the dirty dishes. Gramund was now scrubbing the tin plates with sandy soil to clean them as Frodo insisted that he do before scalding the plates with the clean water always kept boiling on the fire.

Eomer stood and stretched, not really tired despite the long ride that day. Tomorrow morning would be busy -- they'd stayed near the river as long as possible. Now it was time to load the wagons with all the water they could carry before heading southeast. The lands ahead were dry and rocky, with no rivers and scant vegetation. But if the mild weather held, they could be home in twelve days.

Eomer immediately tried to turn his thoughts from what awaited him at Edoras, but it was too late. He restlessly began to pace, his thoughts racing.

Eomer hoped his uncle's anger would be long past, or allayed by the success of his dealings with Halbarad. But even if he were still displeased, Eomer would return to his usual duties. That wasn't as unsettling as imagining the welcome that awaited Frodo from all the household. Ceordwyn's disapproval made Eomer fear that Uncle Theoden, and even Theodred, might be appalled that he'd brought home a holbytla.

And that was the rub, for he didn't want to present Frodo to them as a new camp cook or as the embodiment of the old wives' tales. He wanted everyone to see Frodo's beauty of soul, the quick mind and the loving heart. He couldn't keep their love a secret.

And Frodo's past in Bree would be another barrier. Eomer knew even the lowest-born in the camp considered themselves above anyone who'd worked in a saloon. Even now, living with Frodo, they couldn't see his worth -- one night, as he'd returned from relieving himself, Eomer had overheard someone muttering about 'the wet-behind-the-ears fool's harlot.' There was no way to change such long-held prejudices on this journey.

He kept walking, grateful that Frodo seemed unaware of the general coolness toward him. Either he was too wrapped up in the novelty of the journey, or Frodo was happy enough with the company of Eomer and Guthlaf to feel no lack of other friends. Most likely, though, was that Frodo had felt excluded and alone for most of his life and was simply used to it. Whatever the reason, Frodo wasn't sensitive to slights.

Eomer looked around in the darkness and realized he'd headed toward the river. His mouth slowly twisted into a smile, for that was exactly where he wanted to be right now. Frodo bathed after dinner each night, and Eomer suddenly wanted to see him enough that he didn't care if he'd been seen following the hobbit. It had been too long since they'd had any private time to speak. Or kiss. Frodo's lips were a very calming influence, as Eomer recalled, sure to drive away his worries for the morrow.

After being under the trees, the clearing beside the river seemed very bright with moonlight. Eomer stopped, unwilling to break the spell as he watched Frodo, hip deep in the water, his snowy skin glimmering as he cupped his hands and poured water over himself, then rubbed off the dirt of the trail. So much beauty... his.

Eomer swallowed and moved forward again. "Enjoy your bath, Frodo," he called, delighted when Frodo turned to him with a bright smile. "It may be your last one for a week or more." He was exaggerating; with luck it would only take three days to reach the Greyflood and once again have plentiful water.

"Then perhaps you should enjoy my bath, Eomer, since after tomorrow I'll be a smelly companion in your saddle." Eomer laughed at Frodo's words, but his body was already singing in response to the teasing tone of voice and the nude body revealed as the hobbit walked slowly toward shore.

"We will all be equally dirty, Frodo, for we will only have the fresh water we can carry in the wagons. Drinking water, nothing for cooking or washing until we reach Dunland."

"What is in Dunland?" Frodo purred, coming to stand beside him.

"M... mountain streams ... they cross the trail. Dangerous..." he stammered.

"Very dangerous, indeed," Frodo said softly, reaching for the buckle of Eomer's belt. "Wearing this eye-catching red leather, with this bright silver clasp, distracting me all day..." He unclasped the belt and pushed it aside, then began working on the buttons now stretched by Eomer's growing arousal. "I could think of nothing else."

"I... the streams... danger... in storms," he tried, then gave in to the burning lust as Frodo's small hands reached inside and touched his hardening flesh. With a moan Eomer sank to the ground, pulling the hobbit to him. "Frodo, love, it's been so long," he gasped before diving into the hot mouth eagerly opening to him.

It didn't take long for him to be just as naked as Frodo, the hobbit helping to pull off his shirt by kissing and sucking on his flesh as buttons were impatiently opened. They were frantic together, too long-denied to try anything new. They simply sought to be pressed together, skin against skin, and find completion as quickly as possible.

Afterwards, they lay together lazily kissing and touching, and Eomer found himself dreaming of the day he would be able to do this with Frodo in a comfortable bed, and teach the hobbit more about the pleasures to be found in lovemaking. Eomer knew he wanted to be inside Frodo's body, as with a woman, but he didn't know how it could be possible. He planned to speak to Westhau, the bard who specialized in erotic tales. Surely he would know how they could seek such pleasure with no harm to Frodo.

"You are far away, Eomer. Come back to me," Frodo teased. "Or I shall start planning what I must cook this evening, to prepare for our waterless days ahead."

"I'm here, Frodo, my love. My own." His arms tightened. "I am thinking of our future, and all the nights we shall spend together." Frodo sighed, but it didn't sound like he was content. "Frodo?"

"Eomer, we have this time. Must you seek the future, instead of enjoying what we have now?"

He sat up abruptly. "Do you not wish to remain with me?" He couldn't bring himself to ask if Frodo loved him; the hobbit had never said the words but Eomer had thought, when he agreed to come to Edoras, that he must--

"What I wish has seldom mattered," Frodo said bitterly. "I am not blind, Eomer. The men do not approve of me. Will your uncle be any different? Or Theodred and Eowyn -- will they be pleased that you are consorting with a hobbit?" Frodo was turned away from him, and Eomer couldn't see if his eyes were more angry or hurt.

"Frodo, no matter what others think, I am not merely enjoying myself with you. I love you."

"You can love me, now, but things may change once you reach your home." Frodo still wouldn't meet his eyes, and had his arms crossed over his chest.

"No, my love will not change, Frodo. I want to be with you always, and as long as you love me, too, I swear we will be together. No one will keep us apart." He put an arm around Frodo and felt him shake. "You are cold. Here, put on your clothing now. We've kept away from the fire too long." It was easier to deal with practical matters than to search for words.

As he lay in his bedroll that night, wishing Frodo were tucked in beside him instead of stirring pots and tending the fire, Eomer realized that words would never be enough for Frodo. He'd been betrayed by words in the past. Now only actions could convince him of Eomer's love, and it seemed only time would teach the hobbit to trust again.

***

They were so relieved to see the river ahead that they pressed on despite the gathering storm clouds. Eomer pulled Arod up beside the cook wagon and listened to Frodo cheerfully chatter about cooking up more beans overnight, if the wind didn't douse the fire. Gramund grunted, his usual cheerless self around Frodo, though he ate as heartily of the hobbit's offerings as all the other men.

"Eomer." He turned his attention to Ceordwyn, who rode up and kept stride with him. "This storm will break quickly, I fear. We need to secure the wagons carefully."

"And ourselves as well. Have the drivers bring the wagons close together once we've stopped, and we'll stretch oilcloth between them for shelter. Perhaps we can even manage to keep a fire lit."

"Or at least have dry wood for the morning. Good thinking," he said, quickly turning aside to speak to the other drivers. Eomer spurred his mount ahead, to scout the best location for their camp.

They all moved more swiftly than usual, and Eomer helped secure the supplies, making sure everything was tightly covered, while Ceordwyn directed the wagons into a tight formation and Guthlaf tied up the horses. Frodo was busy refilling waterskins while Gramund tried to start a fire.

When Frodo returned with the water, Eomer saw him shake his head and move to speak with Gramund. The man ignored him and kept stacking kindling, but Frodo kept talking, pointing toward the wagons. Gramund argued for a moment, then stood, angrily threw down the wood in his hands, and stalked off. Guthlaf, who'd approached during the discussion, took Frodo's buckets and moved them to the place the hobbit had indicated, then began gathering stones for the fire circle while Frodo moved armfuls of wood.

Frodo was correct; his location would keep the fire protected, as well as filling in the one area where there wasn't a wagon to block the wind and rain. Eomer kept working with his hands, but his brain was occupied with whether he should speak to Gramund, who was a fool and didn't know good sense when he heard it. In the end he decided to leave it alone, for the present. Interference might only cause more hard feelings, and Frodo didn't need to be babied; he was very good at handling men. Including him, he acknowledged with a wry smile.

Once the camp was ready, Eomer snatched some time to wash himself, knowing Frodo would have already cleaned up. It was rather foolish; they'd be too wet before long. But Eomer wanted to be clean and fresh enough to hold Frodo close this night as the storm raged. They could share a bedroll for warmth, protected by the darkness.

He walked well downstream from their camp, undressed and quickly cleaned himself. Dunland lay ahead, across the river which was fairly low this late in the summer. Even if the rain swelled it, their crossing should be easy. Dunland, then Isengard, and finally home. Whatever waited for them at Edoras, welcome or rejection, Eomer would have Frodo with him. If they had to leave the ranch, there were plenty of places the two of them could find jobs and be together.

He quickly pulled his clothes on over his damp skin when the wind suddenly died and the first heavy drops of rain fell. He hurried back to camp to find the horses a little restless but the men quite content, relatively dry and anticipating a hot meal. Frodo looked up from the pot he stirred and smiled as Eomer stooped and joined him by the fire.

"You're wet, and not just from the storm."

"I'm wet but cleaner, Frodo. So you won't object to sharing my saddle tomorrow." Lightning split the sky and the tempo of the rain increased, but all Eomer saw was the lusty joy in Frodo's bright eyes.

Storms would come, but with Frodo beside him Eomer felt he lived in the sunshine.

***

Morning was unpleasant. Everyone was damp and cold, and though Frodo had tended the fire throughout the night, water had seeped under the wagons, wetting the wood and turning the camp into a mud pit. Instead of a warming blaze, they had a smoking fire that didn't dry their clothing. Even the coffee took twice as long to prepare and didn't noticeably lift their spirits.

The wagon wheels had sunk into the rain-softened ground, and Eomer assigned men to dig them out, and others to gather brush to place in the ruts, while he tended to the horses with Ceordwyn. So he was away from the camp, filling feed bags when he heard a sharp cry, then shouting.

He froze, his heart nearly stopped with fear, before dropping all he held and running back to the wagons. There he again froze at the sight of Frodo sprawled on the ground beside the cook wagon, unmoving. How could the world change so quickly?

The men around him were still talking, arguing, shouting, but none of it made any sense. Guthlaf was beside Frodo, wiping mud from his face and calling his name, voice harsh with fear. Eomer stumbled ahead and pushed in beside him to grasp a cold hand. Only the faint movement of his breathing showed there was still life in Frodo.

"What happened?" Eomer asked, but no one heard his anguished whisper. He began to shake. "What happened?" he shouted, and the camp fell silent.

"We were moving the wagon, and no one noticed him there."

"Someone so small should be more careful," Gramund added, and Eomer wanted to break his neck.

"He fell under a wheel, Eomer, and the wagon rolled over him," Fromwid added.

"Rolled--" Eomer felt dizzy. The hobbit's clothing told the story plainly enough; the wheel had gone directly over Frodo's chest.

"Eomer, he may have broken ribs -- or worse. We must be careful if we move him," Ceordwyn reminded him.

"Empty the smallest wagon. Guthlaf, make up a bed for him, leaves and grasses, anything soft and close by. Gramund, bring me fresh water for him. The rest of you, repack the other wagons. But first cut some cloth from that bolt of green woolen, enough for blankets to cover Frodo's bed."

They moved to obey him without question, all except Ceordwyn. "You must watch his breathing, and look for blood in his mouth. If a bone has breached his lungs--"

"I know." But Frodo chose that moment to groan and his eyes fluttered, and Eomer immediately focused on him, not hearing any more of Ceordwyn's words. "Frodo!" He sat down in the mud, pulling, Frodo into his arms.

The hobbit coughed and groaned again. "What happened?" he whispered. "Hurts."

"You've had an accident. Don't worry, just lie still." Gramund finally brought the water, and Eomer wiped Frodo's face, then carefully gave him small sips of water. "Just rest, love. I'm here." Frodo wasn't resting, though. His face was contorted with pain, and each breath he took seemed to add to the pain. "You're the dirtiest I've ever seen you, holbytla, yet you're still beautiful," Eomer whispered, and Frodo tried to smile before coughing again.

The time seemed to drag as he watched over Frodo, but at last Guthlaf came to him. "The wagon is ready, Eomer. Let me help you." Between them they raised Frodo, who cried out once before biting his lip. They set him down at the back, on the bare wood, just long enough to remove his mud-soaked clothing, and Eomer noted the bruises were already showing on Frodo's chest as he shed his own jeans, heavy with filth, before climbing inside.

The men had left the cover on the supply wagon, loosened enough so that a sturdy branch in the center held it up, making a comfortable shelter. A lamp was lit beside the bed, too, and there was a waterskin beside strips of linen bandages. As Guthlaf helped him get Frodo onto the bedding, Eomer saw that several bedrolls were laid atop the damp grasses, to cushion the hobbit.

"Thank you," Eomer managed, and Guthlaf squeezed his shoulder.

"None of us like to see the little one in such agony. But Eomer, I don't believe this was an accident. Frodo would not be so careless."

"Did you see something?"

"No. But someone could have pushed him. I heard him cry out."

Eomer felt anger flare, bright and hot, but he brushed it aside. He needed to concentrate on practical matters. "We should bind his ribs. Frodo," he called, and pain-filled eyes focused on him. "This may hurt, but it should help you to breathe."

Frodo groaned when they rolled him to one side, but was silent for the rest of the movements. Eomer tried to be gentle, as did Guthlaf, but he saw pain cross Frodo's face at every motion, and he couldn't hold in a gasp when they pulled the cloth tight. Finally it was done, and Eomer gently settled Frodo back in his bedding.

"We're done now. Would you like more water?"

"No thank you. It does feel ... better." He gasped for breath after so many words, his face twisting again with pain. "Thank you both."

"I wish you quick healing, Frodo," Guthlaf said, gently touching Frodo's shoulder. He turned away and murmured to Eomer, "If you need assistance, call me."

"Thank you." Eomer settled beside Frodo, watching until the hobbit gave in to the exhaustion of pain and fell asleep. Then he climbed out of the wagon and dressed himself, noting that sun had risen enough to clear the mists of the night. There was no more time to waste. He called to the men to prepare to ride, and went in search of Ceordwyn.

***

"Eomer, are you certain this is wise?" Ceordwyn asked again.

"Not just oats," he told Guthlaf. "I'll need some beans, and dried pork. I'll be able to hunt for us, but extra food will be helpful." He turned to Ceordwyn once the other man moved off to obey him.

"My uncle expects us and the ranch needs the supplies. It's better to have fifteen men back to work than none, isn't it?"

"The holbytla may have more severe injuries than you know."

"That's why Frodo cannot travel."

"Surely it would be better for us to stay with you--"

Eomer almost laughed. "Ceordwyn, my friend. None of you are skilled at nursing. The men would be bored and getting into trouble in half a day. You must ride for Edoras."

"But you could be here for weeks, watching him die."

Eomer turned away. "I'll gather my gear. I'm keeping Arod, and Hasufel for the wagon." He managed to speak levelly despite his anger and fear.

He put water on to heat as he watched the Eored cross the river in safety, and he stayed by the fire as they moved out of sight. The bright sun and the smoke of the still-damp wood confused his eyes, and the men seemed to fade like ghosts into the shimmer of the horizon. If one of them had deliberately harmed Frodo...

With a deep breath Eomer gathered the towels and the warmed water, and climbed back inside their wagon. This was now his home, his and Frodo's, and it was so different from what he'd imagined that Eomer wanted to weep like a child. But instead he began to thoroughly wash Frodo, trying to remember how he'd seen others bathed in bed. But he was no nurse; his clumsiness caused enough pain that Frodo woke. As soon as the dull eyes focused on his face, the hobbit tried to smile.

"Don't like... being dirty," he murmured, watching Eomer.

"I know, Frodo. I'm sorry I woke you. Close your eyes; you need to rest and heal now."

"Time, later," he replied before a bout of coughing interspersed with moans of pain took his breath away. Eomer tried to soothe him and gave him water when he calmed enough to drink.

As he dumped the wash-water out the side, Frodo spoke again.

"Quiet," he said, his eyes puzzled.

"The Eored have left, Frodo. They are continuing to Edoras without us."

"No!" Frodo cried, trying to sit up. Eomer was quickly at his side, carefully holding him down, but he would not be still.

"You cannot travel now, not until you've healed. The movement of the wagon would only hurt you more."

"Your uncle... Eowyn..." Frodo finally went limp, though he still was distressed.

"They will be fine. There is nothing more important to me than taking care of you, my dearest. I love you. I will not willingly do anything to cause you pain."

"But... foolish." More coughing, more pain, and when Frodo stopped there were tears on his cheeks and a smear of blood on his chin. "Might... die."

"No," Eomer smoothly replied despite the fear clutching his heart. "No, but even if that were true, I could never leave you." Eomer gently touched Frodo's face, wiping it clean. "I promised you a future together, don't you remember? We won't be separated, Frodo, no matter what." He settled down alongside Frodo, one hand touching his curls and another resting atop his hand.

"Promises," Frodo managed to say, scorn and affection in the weak voice. "You... always ... want..." He turned his hand to grasp Eomer's tightly before falling asleep.

It felt like a promise to Eomer.

***

Frodo slept restlessly until mid-day, then grew feverish. He tried to speak too often, until he coughed himself out of breath. Eomer's attempt to give him water resulted in vomiting, and there was black matter in the fluid he brought up.

Now hours later, as evening approached, Eomer was laying rocks in the fire to warm them, knowing his body heat wouldn't be enough to keep the hobbit warm through the night. He didn't know what else to do. There was nowhere to turn for help. The healers at Edoras were too far, as was the doctor in Bree. Eomer thought Frodo's own land was closer, but he didn't know how to reach it.

He knew so little, yet Frodo was depending on him. He wished he had Frodo's quick mind and imagination to aid him.

When he bent to retrieve the stones and wrap them in a blanket, Eomer's head spun with dizziness. He fell back, away from the smoke, then lay back breathed deeply of the fresh air. The sun had gone down while he'd been absorbed in his thoughts. And he hadn't eaten all day, only had some coffee that morning, before the accident. Before his world changed.

That was careless and foolish, for he had to take care of himself before he could care for Frodo. Eomer needed to be strong enough to move Frodo, to keep him clean and comfortable, even if that was all he could do. He needed to hunt, even if Frodo was too weak to eat.

Eomer drank all the fresh water, chewing a piece of jerky by the fireside as the moon rose. Then he carefully brought the warmed stones into the wagon and laid them alongside Frodo, tucking the blankets back around his restless limbs. He was still too warm, but Eomer knew chills might follow with such a fever. He kissed Frodo's forehead, then blew out the lamp and climbed back into the still night.

Eomer gathered rope and their water skins, then walked toward the river. He set three snares, two in the woods and one by the river bank where there had been tracks that morning. Then he gathered water for them and headed back to camp.

When he could just make out their fire through the trees, Eomer thought he heard a voice. He dismissed it, certain he was imagining things, until he moved closer and realized there was another horse tied in the clearing. Weariness vanished and he ran the rest of the way, seeing that someone had lit the lantern in the wagon again. He threw down the water, ran past the fire, and barreled into a dark figure, who turned with a yell and threw him to the ground, the air leaving Eomer's lungs for a painful, panic-stricken moment.

When he opened his eyes, Eomer's assailant was bending over him with concerned eyes.

"Strider?" he gasped.

"Eomer. Sorry, you startled me." A strong hand reached down and hauled him to his feet, then tightened when he felt Eomer's body shaking with reaction.

He couldn't gather his wits. "How-- how did you know?" In his disorientation, all he could believe was that the marshal somehow learned he hadn't protected Frodo.

"Eomer, sit back down." The marshal eased him to the ground and pulled a flask from his jacket. "Drink. Don't argue, just do it."

It wasn't whiskey -- brandy, Eomer thought, his mind foolishly fixing on the problem of identifying the warmth burning his throat and making him cough. He'd been nine that holiday, and outraged when everyone laughed after he took a big mouthful of his father's drink, angrily saying, "It burns." The burn was welcome now, thawing his fear-chilled body and clearing his thoughts.

But before he could speak, a voice called from the wagon. "Strider, his chest is badly bruised under the bandage." The small figure climbing out of the wagon was another hobbit, older than Frodo. "It's not just the fever."

"No, he was injured -- one of the wagons rolled over him," Eomer managed to say. With an exclamation Strider was off to the horses, and Eomer watched him rummage through his saddlebag until the hobbit spoke again.

"Thank the Valar we caught up with you. Strider is a healer, you know," the hobbit said, coming closer. "I'm Bilbo Baggins, Frodo's uncle. Well, cousin actually. But he's such a respectful lad, and I'm so much older that he calls me Uncle Bilbo."

"Boil some of this water, Eomer," Strider instructed. "I have herbs that should help. Has Frodo been able to drink?"

"He did, but then he grew feverish and vomited. There's blood when he coughs -- whenever he tries to speak, he coughs. And..." Eomer filled the cookpot and hung it over the fire as he told them Frodo's symptoms, and answer the detailed questions from the marshal as best he could While they spoke, Bilbo trotted to the horses and came back carrying a box and a large unplucked bird.

Strider listened carefully, nodding as he mixed herbs and ground them on a rock. Bilbo cheerfully cleaned the game bird and began cooking.

In what seemed a very short time, Frodo's fever had been treated by a tea made of some bark. Strider assured Eomer the drink would settle Frodo's stomach as well. The hobbit's injured chest was encased in a plaster formed of hot water, mud and Strider's herbs. It smelled rather foul, yet noticeably eased his breathing. And Bilbo had soup prepared and warming on the fire, and was now insisting that Eomer take some of the meat.

"We didn't carry that chicken all this way to watch it go to waste." Eomer took the bowl the hobbit stubbornly held in front of his face and mumbled thanks. "You do look peaked, son. Frodo won't be ready for anything but broth for a few days. I'm thinking we can cover this pot and keep it cool in the river, then just heat what he'll take, small meals being best."

"Small meals..."

"Not something you usually hear from a hobbit, I'll admit. But the poor boy will be very sore, and too weak for more. At least, that's what I'm thinking."

"Indeed, you're correct." Strider, back from checking Frodo, sat beside the fire and gratefully accepted a plate of food from Bilbo. "Frodo won't be able to ride for many weeks. It's good you thought to keep the wagon, Eomer."

Eomer shook off the hopelessness that had kept him passive since their arrival. "He will recover? He's not... dying?"

"A Baggins, die from a little thing like that?" Bilbo snorted. "Well, I suppose you've had a bad day, and precious little encouragement. But we hobbits are made of sterner stuff than to give up and die."

"Indeed they are," Strider said with a smile. "Bilbo here practically bushwhacked me, you know. He told me that if I didn't bring him after you, to find Frodo, he'd make his own way to Edoras." Then his face softened as he looked at Eomer. "Frodo will live, Eomer. I've examined him and three ribs are broken. But whatever caused the bleeding, it now seems to have stopped; his stomach isn't distended and his lungs sound clear. It seems the rain was a blessing. The softened earth kept his injuries from being more severe."

Eomer turned away from the fire, and the marshal and the hobbit were polite enough to talk softly together and ignore him until he could once again control his tears.

***

He woke the next morning in the wagon, curled close to Frodo, smelling coffee and food. But the best thing was seeing Frodo's nose twitch, until the sniffing made his eyes flutter and, finally, open.

"Frodo, love. How do you feel?"

"Hungry," he said hoarsely, and took sips of the water Eomer offered, letting the man support his head. "Smells... good."

"Then I shall bring you something to eat right away. Just rest, love." He couldn't help kissing Frodo's forehead and cheeks before climbing out of the wagon and running to the fire.

"He's hungry!" The others laughed at his announcement, and Eomer joined them. "He's awake and he... oh, he seems so much better already."

Strider rose and squeezed his arm. "I'm going to say hello to Frodo, then, and feed him this cup of broth. You might want to go check those snares you set, Eomer, after you've broken your fast."

"I will. Thank you, Strider." He sat down and ate, beans and salt pork prepared as well as Frodo's own. "Hobbits all seem to be very good cooks," he commented. By daylight Eomer saw that Bilbo was dressed more elegantly than Frodo, and more practically, too. His clothes were well-made and sturdy, yet his vest had embroidery and gold buttons. Bilbo had a proper hat, no doubt from the best merchant in Breeland, while Frodo only had the hood of his cloak to protect him from the sun. "Thank you for doing this."

"It's all I can do just now, and no trouble. We hobbits learn to cook when we're very young."

They ate together in silence for a while, but when Eomer finished he asked, "Bilbo, you haven't seen Frodo since last night, when he wasn't awake. Don't you want to see him now?"

"Very much, but Strider asked me to wait. He's afraid Frodo will be surprised into sudden movement and harm himself." Bilbo fussed with his plate for a moment, then turned with a sigh. "And, to tell you the truth, I'm not certain Frodo will be happy to see me. I don't want to distress him."

"Not happy?" Eomer said confused, but then he remembered. "You're the uncle who promised to take Frodo traveling, aren't you? He never told me your name."

"With good cause. I let him turn 20 without a thought about that old promise. It wasn't until the family turned him out and he vanished that I realized... Well, it was thoughtless of me.

"I intended to bring Frodo to live with me, to be my adopted heir, when he reached his tweens. But I didn't tell him so, and then I just lost track of the time, still thinking of him as a child. And poor Frodo no doubt thought he was doomed to a boring existence as a farmhand or shopkeeper."

Eomer's heart soared, realizing what Bilbo's words meant for Frodo. Then, just as suddenly, it sank. Bilbo could give Frodo everything he'd never had: a home and a family that cherished him. Eomer knew it was the best thing for Frodo. Yet there was no place for him in such a prosperous, happy life. "So you came looking for him."

"Oh, yes. I love that boy, though I'm a selfish old grump. I had to see Frodo-lad, just to tell him ... well, just to let him know I didn't forget him." Bilbo poured the last of the beans out of the cook pot, onto what must have been Strider's plate, and began rinsing the pot. "It took me some time, but I finally tracked him as far as the stage. And when I arrived in Bree, I met Strider. He told me you'd left only two days before."

Bilbo stared at Eomer for a moment, then looked off to the south. "Some Bagginses have a love of wandering, and Frodo seems to have inherited it."

"Yes, the road agrees with him," Eomer said slowly. "He's happy here, happier than I've seen him."

"Well, no doubt it's my own fault," Bilbo said with a smile. "Too many tales of my misspent youth, combined with his cousins razzing him about being poor. Frodo probably thought one can find dragon hordes waiting around every corner."

"Dragon-- You mean that tall tale he spins about an uncle who killed a dragon is true?"

Bilbo laughed at the amazed outrage on Eomer's face. "It didn't happen quite like that, but I can tell you some stories, my boy. Let's go check your traps for food, and I'll bend your ear."

***

It only took two days, during which he rapidly improved, for Frodo to notice.

Eomer had lifted him out of bed and was giving Frodo lunch, the hobbit in his arms, resting against his chest, as Eomer sat with his back against the side of the wagon. When the final sip was done, Frodo gave a happy sigh. Then he turned his head, and two piercingly sharp eyes met Eomer's.

"You didn't make this broth. Does Strider cook so well?"

"Ah, no." He should have expected the question, but he was unprepared. "There is ... another person here, Frodo, helping us to nurse you."

"Why haven't I met him?" Eomer opened his mouth, then shrugged. "You never explained how Strider came to be here, either."

"Well, no. Why haven't you asked him?"

"I am asking you, Eomer. What are you hiding from me?"

"We were only concerned to keep you still and quiet while you heal, Frodo. Now relax and stop twisting around, I can see it causes you pain." He carefully settled Frodo back in his bed, then stretched out beside him. "Marshals have many skills, and it seems that tracking is one of them." Eomer couldn't keep his hands off Frodo; they moved restlessly, stroking his arms, feeling the warmth and life in him. "Strider followed our trail, to catch up with you."

"But what have I done, that the marshal would need to come after me? Butterbur owed me wages when we left, and I didn't steal anything..."

"I know, Frodo. It's nothing like that." He touched the beloved face, then kissed him. "I'll explain everything. One moment." And he sat up and slowly left the wagon, his heart heavy.

He moved to the fire and quietly said, "Bilbo. Frodo wishes to see you now." He sat down and stared at the fire, ignoring the marshal, though his head turned when he heard Frodo's startled cry when his uncle climbed inside their wagon.

Minutes that felt like hours passed, two hobbit voices rising and falling while the men sat silently, unable to make out their words. Then Strider stood up and stretched, looking at the horizon for a moment before turning to Eomer.

"Come, ride with me. I need to gather more herbs." They saddled their horses, then rode north, staying close to the riverbank. Eomer was grateful for the distraction, and even more grateful for Strider's silence.

They'd gathered willow bark and were searching for something called kingsfoil before the marshal spoke of the two they'd left at camp.

"Bilbo wants to take Frodo back to the Shire as soon as he can be moved. Since he's improving so quickly, I think we set off in a day or two."

Eomer stopped, feeling pain like a whiplash in his heart. "So soon?"

"Yes, though travel still won't be pleasant for Frodo. But he'll be more comfortable finishing his recovery in a real bed, with good fires and strengthening food."

"We could continue south, to Edoras."

"The Shire is only a week away, while your home is twice that distance. I know you don't wish to see Frodo suffer any longer than absolutely necessary."

"No, of course not." Eomer wanted to hit something at the thought. "It's only that Frodo never wanted to go there." At least, he hadn't wanted to before. Eomer wondered if that would change, now that Bilbo was speaking to him.

"He had his reasons, I'm sure, but it would be the best thing for him now. Perhaps he'll agree," the marshal began, then caught Eomer's eye and held it. "If you use your influence. It seems clear that you can help Frodo see reason or encourage his stubbornness, Eomer."

"I... You give me too much credit. Once Frodo knows what Bilbo has told me, he will be able to decide for himself."

Strider bent down. "Hamamelis. Very useful to staunch bleeding." He cut leaves and added them to the bundle of bark Eomer carried in an emptied saddlebag. Then he continued, "You don't seem very happy about Bilbo's arrival, though you know what it will mean for Frodo to be adopted."

"How can I be happy about losing him?"

"Why should Frodo's happiness cause you to lose him?"

Eomer threw down the bag of plants and clenched his fists. "He means everything to me, and all I can give him is my love and a place beside me on the saddle. Now his uncle comes, offering him security and a real home. Of course it's the best thing for Frodo -- but there's no room for me in such a life."

He felt foolish about speaking so passionately when he looked into Strider's calm face.

"I know enough about Frodo to feel certain that he would make room in his life for the one he loves. More than that, he would change his life to make you happy -- even if it meant going against his own best interests." The marshal casually flipped the knife he carried and caught it easily. "The question is, will you let him do that?"

"No! How could I? Bilbo truly loves him, I've seen that. And by coming here, he may be able to restore Frodo's trust in others, something which I have failed to do."

Strider looked at him with a half-smile. "Do you really think that? I'd say you've done a fine job of making Frodo open his heart."

"But he doesn't trust there is a future for us. He thinks I would leave him, if it became inconvenient."

"But you didn't leave him. Ah, dill, very good. This leaf helps relieve pain." Strider crouched down and began culling leaves, and Eomer stooped beside him. As they put the leaves inside the bag, Strider asked, "Are you planning to leave Frodo now?"

"No!" Eomer paused. "Not if I am welcome in the Shire. Though I do not know what I could do there, or if the hobbits will accept me."

"Bilbo has accepted you. I think he's the only one you need concern yourself about. Frodo is not fond of his other relatives, it seems."

"No, I'd noticed," Eomer said with a smile.

"At last. Kingsfoil." He cut a leaf and handed it to Eomer. "Very useful herb, and it grows in the wilds of the Shire as well."

Eomer twirled the leaf as Strider gathered more of the plant, noticing the smell and the pale blossoms. He would be able to find it again, but he still didn't know how to use such herbs. He'd always thought it was enough just to know about horses, how to ride them and care for them. He'd ignored other things, scorning anything the housekeeper, the healer, or even Eowyn could teach him.

Now, having faced his own helplessness when tending Frodo's injury, and seeing how many skills a good man like Strider took time to master -- well, it made Eomer feel rather foolish. He'd kept himself willfully ignorant. But he would do better, starting now.

"How is this herb useful, Strider?"

His head ached by the time they remounted and turned back toward camp, but he knew how to make an infusion to brew tea for several ailments from the kingsfoil and the other plants they'd gathered.

"Of course, there are other uses, such as the plaster. If you are interested, Eomer, I can teach you more while we travel."

"Yes, I'd be very grateful for whatever you can share with me."

The marshal smiled at him and said, "I am glad that you will stay with Frodo, Eomer. Love such as yours should not be denied." Eomer thought Strider's face changed, becoming almost sorrowful as he said this, his eyes drifting northward.

"He is my life. I do not wish to be anywhere save beside him." He nudged Arod and they moved away.

"I believe you. And I think you've shown Frodo you are a man to be trusted, Eomer." Strider must have heard the concern in his voice, for he reassured him. "You were the first to keep faith with him, no matter how Bilbo may atone for past neglect now."

As they rode, Eomer thought again about riding home before the snows, to see his family. It had to be done, but no matter how brief the visit, Frodo would feel abandoned when Eomer left him.

***

They ate dinner that night inside the wagon, the hobbits both looking perfectly comfortable though Eomer felt it rather cramped in the enclosure. Frodo was chattering away, more carefree than Eomer had ever seen, his face alight as his eyes moved from his uncle to the marshal, then rested a moment on Eomer as if drinking him in. Then the circuit would begin again, interspersed with smiles and more happy conversation.

"Uncle Bilbo never intended that I should apprentice with anyone in Buckland." He was filling them in on their conversation, aided by interjections from Bilbo and questions from Strider. Eomer was silent, observing them together. There was so much love it seemed a fifth presence in the tiny enclosure. Frodo adored his uncle, and now that he knew he hadn't been deliberately rejected, Frodo let his love pour out in every word and glance. "He truly wanted to travel with me. That's why he came after me, all the way to Bree."

"Indeed, it's many years since I took such a journey. Though I did remember my handkerchief this time, Frodo." And the two hobbits laughed at some old joke while the two men exchanged amused glances.

"He intended to come to Buckland sooner, but he lost track of my birthdays, which is very funny..." Eomer's blank look made Frodo giggle delightfully. "You see, we have the same birthday. September 22."

"But I don't usually have any fuss on that day, Frodo," Bilbo said with what was intended to be a grumpy air, but instead was plainly affectionate teasing. "Birthdays aren't important at my advanced age. You'd better come live with me, my boy, so we can celebrate together."

And that was the moment Eomer saw it -- this was the first time Bilbo mentioned returning to the Shire to Frodo. His entire face changed, shock followed by longing, then fierce resistance.

Frodo took a large sip of water. "You don't really mean that," he said lightly. "I'm going to The Mark with Eomer."

"Yes, I know. But I truly want you to be a part of my life, Frodo. I wish to adopt you as my heir, lad. You'd need to be present in Hobbiton for that ceremony to be legal. And you're still only a tween."

"I've been taking care of myself a long time now," Frodo said, seeming even younger than usual by insisting that seven months was an age of time.

"But you are rather young to decide what you want in life. Travel is one thing, but if you go with Eomer, what will you see beside his uncle's ranch? You'll have to take a job, some menial work no better than what you were doing in Bree. Is that how you wish to spend the rest of your days, cooking or cleaning?"

Frodo cast a despairing glance at Eomer, who could hardly meet his eyes. It was true; he had no intention of leaving the ranch and traveling. How could he? He knew nothing of the lands beyond Edoras, and had nothing but his saddle and his uncle's grace between him and poverty.

"I'm not afraid of working hard. There's nothing for me in the Shire. What could I do there?"

"As my heir, Frodo, you can do anything you wish. Study, write, learn to manage Bag End's lands and holdings. We'll have each other, a real family at last for both of us. And you can travel, if you wish, as a gentlehobbit should -- with home waiting behind you and plenty in your pockets."

Frodo looked to Eomer again, though the man didn't know what Frodo saw in his face. Then Frodo turned to his uncle and said, "I love Eomer. I wish to spend my life with him, Uncle Bilbo. And I don't think that can happen in the Shire."

"Can it happen in The Mark?" Strider asked, and they all jumped to hear his voice finally enter the debate. "Frodo, how were you accepted among the men of the Eored?"

"The same way I've been accepted by hobbits and men all my life, Strider. A few men liked me. Most ignored me. And one or two hated me, no matter what I did."

"Frodo," Eomer spoke hesitantly. "Do you remember what happened, the morning you were injured?" Frodo looked at him, rather startled. "Do you remember how you fell under the wheel, I mean?"

"I suppose I slipped in the mud." Eomer nodded, but Frodo wouldn't meet his eyes, and both Bilbo and Strider saw his avoidance, too.

"Guthlaf said you cried out."

"I don't remember," was the short reply, and Eomer let it go, vowing to find out the truth when he reached Edoras.

Bilbo sighed and pushed his plate aside. "Frodo, my dear boy, I don't claim to understand how a hobbit and a man like Eomer can find happiness together, yet I see the love between you quite plainly." He took Frodo's soup mug away and set it down, then helped him to lay back on his bed. "But I think you will have to make your own place to share that love, apart from both the Shire and Edoras."

He kissed Frodo's forehead tenderly, adding, "Let me help you to do that. Money eases many roads. Become my heir, and have a share of my fortune to go with the love you have always had."

"Uncle." Frodo sat up and reached after him, then threw his arms around Bilbo's neck, tears in his eyes. "You are too good to me."

"No, hardly as good as you deserve, my boy, but I would do right by you at last." The two hobbits embraced for a long time, and Eomer knew loving Frodo had changed him for the better. Their emotional display seemed right and proper, not excessive. Eomer couldn't go back to living among people who hid their feelings from those they loved.

"Good night, Frodo," Strider said, finally interrupting the hobbits' hug. "Sleep well."

As he left the wagon, Bilbo released his hold on Frodo and eased him back again. "I'll leave you with Eomer, Frodo. I think you two have much to discuss. But then you must rest."

"Good night, Bilbo," Eomer said, not really surprised when Bilbo quickly embraced him on his way past.

"Good night, Uncle," Frodo called softly, then turned to Eomer and stretched out his arms. He was beside Frodo a moment later, holding him gently, kissing him breathless. But when the kiss ended and they moved apart, Frodo was frowning. "You think I should go with him."

"Only because you are still healing, my love, and for the sake of your adoption."

"I don't want Bilbo's money, Eomer. That's not what I ever wanted from him."

"I know. You have his love, and that's what truly matters. But he truly wants to adopt you, Frodo, and with life so uncertain... Can you understand that I would feel easier, knowing you have what you need? Our lives can change so quickly..."

"My accident has made you afraid," Frodo said, kissing him. "I'm sorry."

"No, I spent many hours worrying about your future before this injury, Frodo." He smiled ruefully. "I think of you all day and dream of you each night. I am obsessed."

"Well I'm very glad to hear it," Frodo replied. "That first day, when everything hurt so badly, all I thought about was how lonely you'd be without me. I knew you'd be able to go home, and you'd be fine. But I felt so sorry to leave you alone."

Eomer gave him the gentlest hug he could manage, and a kiss atop his head.

Frodo continued, "Since it would make you happy, we can return to the Shire with Bilbo, long enough to formalize my adoption. And then, perhaps Bilbo would travel with us -- it has been years since he had an adventure, you know. He must be tired of the little hills and streams of the Shire by now."

Eomer laughed. "You know, many people live their entire lives without an adventure, Frodo."

"Ah, but they are not Bagginses, are they?"

"There's no one like you, love. But when I said you should go with Bilbo, Frodo, I didn't... Well, I won't leave you until you're safe in your homeland. But I cannot stay there with you. I must ride to Edoras, for my family expects me. Eowyn will be worried until I return."

"You could send word," Frodo began, then stopped. "No, you couldn't, could you? You'd need to send a messenger, or go in person." Frodo bit his lip, looking upset. "They can't force you to stay, can they?"

"Frodo, nothing in Middle Earth can keep me from coming back to you. I swear to you, nothing but death will separate us once I've completed my duty."

Frodo moved into his arms, silently hugging Eomer until he fell asleep in the guttering lamplight. Then Eomer kissed him, giving thanks to all the powers in Middle Earth, for Frodo had finally learned to accept the promise of a future together.

***

Bilbo was more comfortable driving the wagon than riding with either man, and he handled Hasufel easily, with the gentle authority of a good driver. Frodo seemed to enjoy his uncle's company on the wagon. They'd removed the covering while the pleasant weather lasted, so Frodo could lay in his bed and converse with Bilbo as he drove. Eomer heard the two of them talking and laughing as he rode ahead with Strider, scouting for the easiest road and discussing the herbcraft the marshal had learned while wandering in the Wild.

Of course, Frodo slept a good deal of the time, helped along by morning tea that included a generous dose of Strider's brandy flask, and sleeping herbs as well as the pain reliever Strider had taught Eomer to brew. Each morning they tightly bound up his ribs, yet it was apparent that when they were moving and Frodo was awake, he was in pain. His pale face and the way his hand clenched the side of the wagon belied the reassuring smiles he tried to give Eomer.

But the coughing didn't return, and the joy now radiating from Frodo's eyes outshone Eomer's memories of those first days among the Eored, traveling home. Then Eomer had thought he was seeing the hobbit happy and free at last. But this trip was showing him how Frodo was meant to be, easy in the company of those who loved and valued him.

Bilbo was humming, a simple song that spoke of journeying, and Eomer saw Frodo lie back and relax, his eyes heavy. Bilbo took off his hat and placed it over Frodo's face for shade, for it was a sunny afternoon. Eomer smiled; Bilbo would have a sunburned nose by nightfall, but he wouldn't complain so long as Frodo was comfortable. Their days on the road had further confirmed the bond between Bilbo and his cousin, and Eomer was glad of it. The thought of leaving Frodo for several months was growing more distressing each day, but knowing he'd be so happy and cherished with Bilbo made Eomer's heart lighter.

"Eomer," Strider called, and he spurred Arod ahead, until they were side by side. "The Shire lies beyond this river."

"This is the Baranduin, is it not? We followed it on the fourth day from Bree."

"Yes, though I doubt anyone from Rohan has ever crossed it and seen the land of the halflings."

"Rohan?"

"My people's name for the Mark. We call your people the Rohirrim."

"And I thought only Frodo and I had disagreements on proper names," Eomer laughed.

"Well, it is a good name," Strider defended. "The word comes from the elvish, and the meaning has to do with your people's skill at riding horses."

"Ah, then I suppose it is a good name for those who don't know us to use," he agreed amiably. "Just as holbytla describes the hobbits for my people, who think they are creatures of legend."

"Exactly. And it seems just as well that most men have not discovered the Shire and the hobbits."

"I agree, though I do not understand how it can be so. This is such a beautiful land -- and the hobbits seem very vulnerable to me. How have they remained here, at peace, for so long?"

"The hobbits are fiercer than you might think. Frodo's stubborn courage is not unique. But they have help in preserving their comfort. Marshals guard the borders of this land, to keep out those who might do harm."

"They must be very grateful for your help."

"They are not aware of it, which is how we wish it to remain. Men do not often come to this land. In fact, the two of us riding through will cause enough gossip for the next ten years."

"Strider, I intend to be a legend among the hobbits much longer than that," Eomer said. "There will be many stories of the man who was so lucky as to be the companion of the best hobbit ever to grace the Shire."

Strider smiled back at his grinning companion. "We're just a bit off course; there is a ford a little to the south. That will be the best place to cross with the wagon."

They made the crossing easily, though the jostling of the wagon brought Frodo awake with a pinched face and slitted eyes. He returned Bilbo's hat to him and looked around, some of his usual excitement in seeing a new vista covering the signs of pain.

"Where are we?" he asked.

"We're crossing the Brandywine, Frodo. If all goes well, by tomorrow evening we'll be near Hobbiton," Bilbo answered.

Strider, riding beside the wagon on the opposite side from Eomer, said "Be prepared to see some beautiful countryside, Eomer. Very different from the mountains and plains of your homeland."

"It already seems far different than the surrounding lands. Frodo has told tales of enchantment laid on the Shire, but I never believed the stories until now."

Bilbo snorted. "The only enchantment, dear boy, is fortunate geography combined with hard work. Hobbits have tamed their land and tilled it for centuries."

"And built villages that are beautiful, and much cleaner than those in Breeland," Frodo added. "But Bilbo is right about there being a lot of effort involved. Neighbors help the old and the infirm to maintain their property, and the wealthy families pitch in to help those less fortunate."

"And Sara told me you spent all your days pinching mushrooms," Bilbo said, shaking his head. "Frodo, if you'd shown your uncle what a clever boy you are, I doubt he would have tried to make you do such simple-minded work."

"Bilbo, no matter what I have observed, I'm not a Brandybuck. It isn't my place to do such things, for I don't have influence or wealth to spend my days in philanthropy."

"You could have both," Bilbo said, and the two hobbits exchanged stubborn looks, almost frowns. They'd had this discussion many times on the journey.

"It is an odd position, being a poor relation," Eomer said, and Frodo smiled over at him gratefully. "Eowyn dispenses my uncle's charity, in his name. She is much-loved by the families of the ranch hands, and not for any wealth of her own. But I always resisted such obligations."

"Ah, the fairer sex doesn't allow their pride to rule, at least not in a fine woman like your sister," Bilbo said. "Wouldn't you agree, Strider?"

To Eomer's surprise, the marshal's cheeks turned a delicate pink as he stammered, "I have the highest regard for all ladies."

"I'm sure you do, but that wasn't exactly the question," Bilbo teased, obviously enjoying the other man's discomfort. "In your experience, are the elf ladies very different in temperament from the gentlemen? Or are they all too noble to let their pride and stubbornness rule them?"

"Elves?" Frodo interrupted before Strider could begin to formulate an answer. "Have you seen many elves, Strider? Where? Are there really elves passing through Bree, as Eomer believes, or do they stay hidden in their own lands, as I always thought?"

"Frodo, calm yourself," Bilbo fussed, turning on his seat. "Sit back down immediately! If you fall out of this wagon and crack open that inquisitive head of yours--" Frodo obeyed him, but was obviously still excited at the chance to learn more about the elves.

"Why didn't you ever tell me any tales of the elves when we spoke in Bree, Strider?" Frodo persisted.

Bilbo laughed wickedly, and Eomer thought about how often Bilbo had drawn him into conversation about The Mark, Edoras, and his family. He'd told the hobbit much more than he'd learned in exchange, and evidently Strider had the same experience while spending eight days on a horse with Bilbo.

"Yes, Strider, why didn't you tell Frodo about the elves?" the older hobbit teased.

"Master Baggins, I used to believe the stories told about you in Rivendell were exaggerated, but I've learned the truth of them on this journey." Strider doffed his hat quite comically, and Eomer laughed.

"Rivendell?" Frodo asked. "Isn't that where the wizard brought you and Thorin's band, Uncle?"

"Yes, that was the name," Eomer answered, laughing when Frodo's startled eyes turned to him. "I've heard the story more recently than you, Frodo, for Bilbo was kind enough to tell me of his adventures while we nursed you." He tried to make his face very serious as he added, "Now I know the truth behind all those tall tales you spin, holbytla."

"Indeed he does," Bilbo added. "As for the elves, they may prefer their own lands. But they pass west through the Shire, too, for I've seen groups of them in the woods not far from Bag End."

Strider added, "And to answer more of your questions, Frodo, I was raised in Rivendell among the elves, as Bilbo learned during the days we tracked you."

"Oh."

There was so much longing in Frodo's soft exclamation that Bilbo and Strider asked at the same time, "What is it?"

"You must know many tales of the elves."

"Yes. Would you like a song, Frodo, to ease the road?"

"Please."

Strider's voice was clear, and though the tongue he sang was strange Eomer felt that the song painted images in his mind as they rode. By the time Strider finished, Frodo was sleeping and the sun was almost gone.

"We can camp tonight in that stand of trees, I remember there's a stream nearby," Strider said, pointing ahead to what looked like a grey shadow on the horizon as the sky dimmed.

Frodo woke when the movement of the wagon stopped, and was stretching his legs and gathering tinder when Strider came back with full waterskins.

"Is there water nearby?"

"There's a stream," the man replied, pointing to the northeast. "Past the trees, down an incline."

"Oh, I'd dearly love a chance to take a bath at last, and feel truly clean again."

"Frodo, we wash up every day," Bilbo chided.

"But that's very different. Please, Strider? If it's only a stream, it can't be dangerous. You can re-wrap my ribs when I return."

Eomer, listening to the conversation as he gathered wood, saw Strider and Bilbo exchange smiles. Then the marshal said, "I suppose even cool water might ease your sore muscles. You'll have to promise to stay well-wrapped by the fire after your bath, Frodo. And I can't let you go alone."

"No, indeed," Bilbo added. "But I'm sure Eomer will attend you."

Eomer nearly dropped the wood in his arms, and Bilbo didn't bother to hide his smile at both their stunned, reddening faces.

Eomer cleared his throat. "I would be pleased to assist you, Frodo. I could use a bath myself."

Frodo smiled and rushed to the wagon to gather blankets for them both. Eomer smiled back at him, but then sighed. The stream was within earshot of the camp; they wouldn't be able to do much more than steal kisses while bathing. Still, it was more privacy than they'd had in days. And Frodo was finally feeling like himself again, well enough to plead for this bath.

They walked through the trees hand-in-hand, not speaking, and Eomer realized he felt almost shy. That wouldn't do. As soon as they reached the water, he dropped to one knee, pulled Frodo close, and kissed him tenderly. That was all it took for the hobbit to relax and initiate more kisses, slow and langorous. They undressed each other, kissing and nibbling, and not even the sight of Frodo's vivid bruises could cool Eomer's ardor. They finally immersed themselves in the water, still clinging together, and kissed some more.

Eomer had almost forgotten how intoxicating and arousing such simple actions could be, but he felt certain it was only so with Frodo. No one else's kisses would be so magical. At last they could control themselves no longer, and began rubbing together in the water, keeping their mouths sealed together, drinking each other's moans and gasps, until they found completion. Then there was only the music of the water and their heavy breathing slowly evening out as they clung together.

There were no teasing smiles from Strider or Bilbo when they finally returned to camp, though they certainly knew what had occurred. Eomer busied himself warming Frodo by the fire until they ate, and then it was time to re-wrap his ribs. Once that was done Frodo insisted on sitting with Eomer by the fire, tucked between his legs and wrapped in his arms. Before long, his love was asleep there, safely held.

Frodo seemed so tiny at times like this, too fragile and precious to be left alone. Yet this was their last night together, possibly for many months. Eomer clung to him until he, too, fell asleep.

***

Strider rode south with him, almost as far as the Fords of Isen, saying only that he had an errand. Eomer couldn't help speculating about the marshal's business, but for the most part he was so glad of the company that he didn't ask questions. Strider knew many tales to shorten the road, and continued to teach him herb lore, as well as instructing him on more accurate shooting.

Strider was accomplished enough with his rifle to take down game while riding, birds and small animals which crossed their path. His skill meant they could ride further each day and still have dinner ready to cook that night, though at the campfire they missed the hobbits' talent.

Eomer was relieved to have an ally once they reached Dunland, where there seemed to be more wild men roaming than ever before. Once they crossed the Greyflood, Strider and Eomer kept watch each night, never sleeping at the same time. The raiders ignored the two men, for the most part, but Eomer knew if he'd been alone, he would have been an easy target.

The days went quickly, but the nights were full of dreams of Frodo. And in the silent watches when he was alone, Eomer replayed their farewell that morning when they'd reached the hill overlooking Hobbiton.

Bilbo had hugged him and wished him safe journeying. Then it was Frodo's turn, and they could hardly force themselves to end the embrace.

"I'll write you every day, Eomer."

"Frodo. Love." Eomer had kissed him, not caring who saw. "There is no post to The Mark. And even if there were, I cannot read your letters."

"No, but I can. And I will read them to you when you come back to me." With those words and a sweet, loving smile, they parted. And Eomer felt as if he'd left his most of his heart in that pleasant green Shire, held in Frodo's tiny hands.

The days passed until at last Eomer farewelled Strider and turned east, the lands once he crossed the river quickly becoming as familiar as his saddle. This was the Westfold, where he'd been born and roamed as a young boy. He loved it fiercely, though he'd lived at Edoras for eight years now and was used to its wide open lands, so perfect for the herds. But this was his father's land, nestled between mountain and forest, and it called to his heart.

By nightfall he was near the ancient fortress of Helm's Deep, sung of by so many bards. He camped there, recalling journeys with his parents when he was a child, listening to them recite the old poems, full of loss and valor. When he was young he'd often imagined what it would be like to take refuge in the Keep during a war. The safety he felt camping here this night was likely the closest he would ever come to such circumstances.

He was back on the trail at sunrise and reached Edoras in time to surprise Eowyn as she prepared for her morning ride.

"Eomer!" She dropped her gear and ran to him, beautiful even in baggy trousers with her hair carelessly pulled into a tail. Her face was alight with so much joy that he thought, perhaps, she hadn't heard the gossip about his scandalous behavior. But, no; her eyes were wise and merry and forgiving. She was a part of the ranch's circle of women who heard everything and said nothing.

"Such wonderful news, you will never credit it," she continued as he hastily dismounted and picked her up, spinning her in his arms as he'd done when they were children. "But where is your holbytla? For he should share these tidings."

"Frodo has gone to stay with his uncle while he heals, in their land."

"Oh." Eowyn looked very disappointed. "But you shall bring him to meet me as soon as he's well, won't you?"

He looked toward the house, then back at her radiant face. "That depends on our welcome, I suppose."

"Courage, brother. Uncle Theoden is healed of his malaise -- the evil within our house is gone at last." She tugged him toward the door. "Come speak with Theodred, we shall tell you everything."

"But my uncle--" Eomer protested. "I should report to him first."

"Uncle is out riding with a guest," she replied with a wicked smile at his shock.

"Out... riding?" Eomer repeated. "He truly is healed, then? This was beyond my hope."

"I know," she assured him, and suddenly tears were in her eyes. "It is a miracle. So much has changed while you've been gone."

"Not least your sister has discovered she has a woman's heart," came Theodred's voice from the doorway, and Eomer ran to embrace him. The heavy cast was still on his left leg, but his face seemed younger, eased of worry and pain lines Eomer remembered too well.

"You're not supposed to be walking so much," Eowyn scolded, taking one side while Eomer braced him on the other and walked him inside.

"Don't fuss. Save it for Captain Faramir."

"Who?" Eomer asked, noting Eowyn's blush at the name.

"One of our guests from Fort Ithilien, who's probably speaking to father right now about marrying this child."

"No! But-- Eowyn, you're too young!" Even as he said it, Eomer realized she hadn't been a child for many years, not with all her responsibilities and the pain of her uncle's growing infirmity weighing on her. It was only that her happiness this morning made her seem like the sister he remembered from so long ago. She, too, had been healed.

"He'd better be a damn fine man to deserve you," Eomer choked, and Theodred laughed.

"If you ask her, the sun rises and sets on him, of course. But he does well enough, I suppose. A younger son, though, and not much on a horse."

"He's brave and kind and learned -- and he rides well enough for a Gondorian," Eowyn declared. "Oh, love is odd, isn't it? I don't want any part of him to change. Yet knowing him has changed me so."

"If you've changed, it's only to become more beautiful," Eomer said.

Theodred grunted as they settled him in an armchair by the fire. "I'm getting saddle sores from this damn chair," he moaned as Eowyn pulled a hassock closer.

"No one cares about your sores, Theo. Best get one of your many sweethearts to care for them. Now put that leg up before it swells inside the cast again and makes you miserable all night."

"It'd be worth it to see Sprout here again. Now be a sweet cousin and go fetch us some lemonade, Eowyn." She stuck her tongue at him but obeyed, and Theodred looked him over, head to foot. "Well, you haven't grown horns or turned green from consorting with this holbytla."

Eomer felt his face heat, though he knew Theodred was seeking that very reaction. "I think you're more likely to do both from seeing Miss Sophie's ladies, cousin," he responded lightly. "Did Ceordwyn fill you in on our dealings with Halbarad?"

"Yes. Good job, little man. You got a fair trade for the horses, I'd say. Though I notice we're short a wagon and horse."

"I left them behind for the sake of speed. And it's just as well; the Wild Men are roaming in bands throughout Dunland. I've never seen so much activity in that wilderness. There's going to be trouble, beyond the raids we've had for the last few years."

"I know. But with father finally back to normal, I'm not as worried. Though we've spotted some new creatures, man-like but not men. Big and ugly they are, almost like orcs. But they don't hide from the sun, either. I don't know how we'll deal with them, or where they're coming from. But I have my suspicions."

"Isengard."

"Exactly. That wizard is trouble, though he hides behind crooked men. Did Eowyn tell you about Grima?"

"No, I didn't," she said, reentering the room with a tray. "Let's talk quickly, before Uncle comes back. He doesn't like to dwell on it."

"Your holbytla started all the fuss."

"Frodo? How is that possible?"

"Because Guthlaf got his harness in a tangle about some remarks from Gramund. Evidently the fool got drunk and was bragging about pushing the little one under the wheel."

"What!" Eomer splashed his drink all over himself, and Eowyn moved to daub at the carpet with a napkin while Theodred continued.

"Guthlaf tried to kill him with his bare hands."

Eomer wanted to do the same. "Good," he managed to say evenly, but his mind was blank with rage.

"Ceordwyn had to interfere, and when the men pulled them apart and were holding Guthlaf immobile, Gramund grabbed someone's knife and came at him. They stopped him -- Guthlaf's fine, not a scratch on him. But no one would stand for that kind of thing, so Ceordwyn told Gramund to find another ranch to punish with his cheerful presence."

"He's gone?" Eomer asked, still wanting to put his hands around that treacherous neck.

"Oh, but he didn't go quietly. The damned idiot was still drunk out of his head, and he stood there threatening the others with his 'important' friends. He told them he knew how to get rid of his enemies, and went into enough detail that Ceordwyn realized my ankle wasn't any accident. Evidently Gramund strung a wire to bring down Hammath." The anger in Theodred's voice wasn't about his own injury, Eomer knew, but about his mare being harmed so badly that he had to shoot her.

"Ceordwyn came to us, and we took Gramund to Uncle to repeat the story. Grima was there, as usual, and started to say that we were mistaken. He actually defended the miserable worm."

"But that was his mistake, for Gramund was a fool. He didn't thank Grima for his mercy. He looked at Ceordwyn and said, 'Now you see who runs this ranch. Grima will be your boss one day soon, and you'll regret defending Theodred'," Eowyn added breathlessly.

"And for a wonder, father actually heard and understood, and he banished them both from the ranch."

"That's all? They just left?"

"Yes. He didn't want to try to find a marshal and bring the law into it, and I agreed."

"You should have shot them both!"

"It's not our place, Eomer, to do such a thing. They're gone, father is himself again --"

"You could have been killed! And Frodo--"

"Again, Frodo. Don't try to change the subject. What are you doing with this creature?"

Eomer swallowed and looked at his sister's warm eyes for a moment. "Spending the rest of my life with him. Loving him."

Throdred's mouth twisted in distaste. "You need a nice girl, Eomer, to get these odd notions out of your head. Just because you've only been with--" he remembered Eowyn was in the room and paused. "Just because you haven't met a sweet young thing doesn't mean you don't want a real family, and a full life among decent folk."

"I do want that. With Frodo."

"You can't have it with him!" Theodred exclaimed. "Be reasonable, Eomer."

"I don't know how to make you understand, dear cousin. You haven't been fortunate enough to find your soul mate. If you had, you'd know what I'm feeling, and why I cannot give up my dream of a future with Frodo beside me."

Theodred looked angrier than Eomer had ever seen him, but before he could reply they heard voices from the hallway, and the noise of many feet coming in the door. Uncle Theoden came striding in, followed by several Gondorians in their black dress uniforms.

Eomer rose, his heart in his throat with equal parts dread and joy. His uncle looked so young and hale compared to the way he'd left him. He bowed to Theoden and spoke.

"Uncle. It gives me great joy to see you so well."

"Eomer, welcome home. It seems a long time since you left. Here, you should meet Damrod, Mablung, and Faramir of Gondor. They're buying horses for the troop at Fort Ithilien."

He nodded to the three men, noting how Faramir's eyes drifted to Eowyn, full of wonder. They chatted for a few minutes, while Theoden took off his gunbelt and settled in his chair. Faramir was polite and handsome, but Eomer thought he was a bit of a dreamer. Still, he seemed a fine man, and very much in love with his sister. When Theoden asked them to excuse him so he could hear Eomer's report of his business in the North, Eomer was able to give him a genuine smile, happy for Eowyn's happiness.

She left with the soldiers and a wicked grin back at her brother, though Theodred remained in the room.

When the door closed behind them, Theoden said, "I won't let them marry until she's eighteen." He stared almost dreamily at the door for a moment. "But I think they'll be very happy. I'm sure she didn't bother mentioning that Faramir is from a noble family? His father is the Steward of Gondor." Then his eyes fixed on Eomer, sharp and severe.

"So you've returned at last. The holbytla is dead, then?"

"No! Frodo has gone back to his own land with his uncle, to recuperate. But he is well."

"I see. Ceordwyn thought he would not recover."

"He was gravely injured, sir, but hobbits are a very hearty race. Still, I could not leave until I was assured Frodo would be well."

"I suppose you couldn't. I recall how you were with that injured colt when you were twelve. Still, though we've missed your help with the ranch, it was a fortunate accident. At least you've given up this mad notion of bringing a harlot here to warm your bed."

"Uncle, Frodo is no harlot. He's a fine, intelligent hobbit of good character."

"Who worked in a saloon and entertained the drunken riff-raff of that pisshole of a town."

"Who fell into financial difficulties and took the best job he could find, working in the kitchen of a saloon."

Theoden gave Eomer a long, appraising look. "Enough of this arguing. We'll waste no more time on the follies of youth. This affair is over. Now tell me what Halbarad wants done."

Eomer sighed but deferred to his uncle, as he'd always done. He gave his report, interrupted frequently by questions from the two men. And when his uncle dismissed him, he headed for the stable to groom Arod and have some peace to think. It seemed clear that his uncle would never understand that Eomer's "youthful folly" was a lifetime commitment to his love.

Bilbo had been correct; they could not live at Edoras together. But where would they find a home, and people willing to accept them both?

***

Three days later, Eomer was packing his saddlebags with all his belongings, ready to begin his return journey to the Shire in the morning. His uncle had only grunted when he'd announced he was leaving, as he'd grunted or changed the subject whenever Eomer tried to bring up his feelings for the hobbit.

Frodo was waiting, and he wouldn't waste any more time arguing with Theodred or trying to force Theoden to listen to him. He'd settled his affairs and pulled together enough money to pay for the wagon and Hasufel, as well as the supplies he'd packed for the road north.

But as he looked around the room, it struck him -- he was leaving his home and never coming back. He couldn't, not without Frodo accepted as his equal and his love. And that was simply too much to hope for. Strider and Bilbo had been the wise ones, foreseeing this outcome.

He heard the clumping of Theodred's cast before the knock on his door, but he still delayed before calling "Come in."

"My cousin, are you sure this is the right course?"

"I... Yes, Theodred. I know you don't understand..." Eomer began, but Theodred interrupted him.

"I do. I understand more than you know," he hissed, and Eomer was shocked to see so much emotion in those familiar dark eyes. "I only wish I didn't understand your feelings. May I sit down?"

"Please." He helped his cousin to sit on the bed, guilty for his ill temper.

"There are things I've never told you -- or anyone, really." Theodred shifted, looking guilty. "Father knows, of course. And don't tell me he doesn't understand love, Eomer. He loved my mother more passionately than you can imagine. When she died, I thought he would die, too."

"I'm sorry. I suppose every man believes he is the first to know true love," Eomer admitted.

"Of course. And I know you're a man now, not a child. But I lived many years before you, Eomer, and I suppose that kept me from opening my heart to you."

Eomer remained silent, feeling that any interruption might keep the truth from being spoken to him at last. He loved Theodred, he always would -- even if they never saw each other again. This was his chance to truly know his cousin, as an equal.

"Faleth lived on a ranch near Dunharrow. I met her at Harvest Moon festival when I was twenty-one, Eomer." He fell silent again, but his eyes were far away. Eomer knew Theodred was seeing her again, the way she moved and danced, and how her eyes had looked in the moonlight.

"Tell me about her," he pleaded, hoping speaking of this love would ease the pain in his cousin's eyes. But he'd been correct to stay silent; his words caused Theodred to shake himself back to the present and get right to the point, businesslike, as his father always was.

"Faleth died the winter I was 24, Eomer. Not two years after you were born." Theodred smiled at him affectionately. "I've never spoken of her to you or Eowyn, but I think of her every day. She was a light in my world. I've never cared to show my heart again in all the years since she left me."

"I'm sorry you weren't given all the happiness you deserve, Theodred." Eomer was mourning for their unborn children, the lost years of happiness -- and the loss of someone who would drive Theodred to be even more than he was. When Eomer was a boy, Theodred had seemed like a hero, a knight -- the wisest man in the world. But his journey had changed his sight, and now Eomer clearly saw how much more his cousin could have been, with Faleth at his side. Love could inspire a person to dare, and to achieve.

"Ah, don't let my sad story ruin your happiness, Eomer. You are happy, leaving us to go back to your Frodo."

"Happy, and sad, too. I don't think we'll be welcome here, even for visits." Eomer sat beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. "I will miss you. I've never thanked you enough for all you've done for me."

"Shut up, Sprout." Theodred embraced him, then struggled to his feet. At the door he turned and said, "I'll miss you, too, every day. Go with the sun in your face, my brother."

***

Eowyn was waiting in the yard with Arod, but Eomer could not leave without saying farewell to his uncle. He owed him that courtesy, and much more that he could never repay. He knocked and entered the parlor to find Uncle Theoden before the fire, drinking tea. He glanced up, then turned back to stare at the flames.

"You're really leaving, then."

"Yes, Uncle. I thank you for all your generosity these nine years. I am sorry I cannot remain to repay you with my work, but I must return to Frodo now."

"You say 'I must,' but what you mean is that you want to return to him. You chose to do so."

Eomer stood silently for a moment, trying to find the words to explain, even though he knew it was useless. "It is true that my duty and my desire are now one," he began slowly. "I made a vow to Frodo, and I cannot be false to him. That would reflect poorly on the honor I learned in your house, Uncle, from Theodred's example -- and yours.

"But it is also true that even if no promise bound me, I would go back to the Shire for Frodo."

By the time he finished speaking, Theoden was looking at him, his face intent but not entirely displeased. "Even if you know it angers me, you will do this. Even though it means you leave here with no money, no future, and may never set foot in Edoras again."

"Even then, sir. Frodo is my life. I love him and I always will."

Theoden snorted and stood up, shaking his head. "Theodred told me but I did not believe it. You have become a man at last. Is it love which has given you this courage to stand up to me, after so many years of meekly saying 'yes, uncle?'"

Eomer was confused by the question and the tone of Theoden's voice. His uncle looked almost happy about his defiance. "I think so, sir. Certainly knowing Frodo has changed me, and with his example before me I cannot be cowardly."

Theoden laughed. "Well, then. I must meet this bold holbytla. You will bring him here, I think." He strode to the door and called out, "Eowyn! Theodred! I want you both to join us!"

Eomer sat down, unbidden, in shocked surprise. His uncle wanted to meet Frodo?

Theodred came limping in, Eowyn on his arm, and it took a few minutes for them to settle down. Theoden spent the time fussing with something and muttering to himself. Then he turned and smiled at the three of them.

"I have news for all of you, and I'm not inclined to repeat myself. Eowyn, your Captain Faramir finally got to the point last night. I've given him permission to court you, with an eye to marriage once you're of age."

"Oh, Uncle! Thank you so much." She rose and ran to him, and as they embraced Theoden whispered into her ear.

Then he pulled back and said aloud, "He's an honorable man, and I wish you joy."

Theodred smiled, watching them, then looked over to Eomer who could only blankly stare back, dazed by all the changing emotions he was feeling. His little sister would wed in little more than a year. His uncle had accepted his love for Frodo. What a day -- and it was only an hour past sunrise.

"Now, Eomer is leaving us. But I'm going to ask him to remain one more day before he starts on his road."

"Uncle?"

"Theodred has told me what you reported, about the Wild Men. I don't wish to have you travel alone, and there are actually two volunteers who can be ready tomorrow to accompany you." Theoden smiled. "Guthlaf is quite fond of your Frodo. He and Framwid can take care of some business for me in Bree while you go fetch him."

"But..." It was amazing how slow Eomer felt, watching the others smile at him while his brain raced to absorb what he was being told. "Fetch Frodo? I was planning to stay in his homeland with him, until we decide where to live."

"Ah, but you have a place to live, Eomer." And Theoden turned, picked up a roll of paper, and handed it to Eomer.

He opened it to see the symbol from his father's gate so long ago, a rearing black horse with red harness before a mountain. His hand traced it shakily, but he still didn't understand what the paper meant. "Sir? I'm afraid I don't understand."

"Several years ago I purchased the land your family lost. I always intended to give it back to you, Eomer, when you grew up and settled down. And it seems both conditions have been met, though not exactly how I expected." Theoden sat beside him and put a hand on the paper, which was wavering as Eomer's hands shook. "This is the deed to your father's lands."

Eomer looked around the room. He saw tears in Eowyn's eyes, joy on Theodred's face, and the proud satisfaction of his uncle. His mouth moved, but he could find no words to say what it meant to him, to have his home back, and to have it become the place where he and Frodo could make a life together.

"Uncle--" But any further words were swallowed up in emotion, so he simply clung to Theoden, trying to somehow thank him.

***

Though he expected trouble every minute they were on the road, the trip north was uneventful. The bands of Wild Men were vanished, as if they'd never been, but Eomer still felt that many eyes were watching their progress, and wondered if the birds overhead were carrying news to Isengard.

They took watches at night, even after they left Dunland. Guthlaf shared the feeling that they were being observed, and Framwid was disturbed enough that he never sang at night, merely sat quietly with a hand on his rifle.

But when Eomer crossed the Baranduin, sending them on to Bree to wait for him, his heart rose and his body finally relaxed. He was near Frodo, and that thought was enough to have him galloping for the first hour after sunrise. Then common sense came back, and he walked Arod for a time, apologizing by picking him a green apple to eat.

He wondered if it was close to the time for Frodo's birthday, and how quickly his hobbit could be ready to travel south. There was so much to do at home. The house had been neglected for five years now, and they would need to repair and clean every part of it before the winter storms.

Lost in planning, the miles sped by. Eomer came to the top of a familiar hill and noticed Hobbiton in the distance. But it was a joyous voice that let him know he was home at last.

"Eomer!"

The magical beauty of the Shire itself was overwhelmed by the sight of Frodo, healthy and hale, running up the green hill toward him. Eomer leaned low in the saddle and Frodo leaped, and then his arms were full of the sweet presence he'd missed so much all these weeks.

They kissed until Eomer was dizzy, Arod protesting the yank on his bridle when Eomer finally steadied them. Then he pulled away from Frodo's mouth, asking "Tears? Frodo, what's wrong, my love?"

"Oh, Eomer. I knew you'd come back. Truly, I believed. But it's been so long, and you spoke of dangers... You said 'only death' would keep you from me..." he trailed off, embarrassed.

"That's still true, and you've evidently forgotten that I'm just as tough as a Baggins." He kissed Frodo's nose and added, "The road was smooth, love." They embraced again and he settled Frodo in front of him before nudging Arod in the direction Frodo indicated. "Now how did you know I'd arrived?" he asked.

"If you think a man on horseback can travel the Shire more swiftly than the news of it can fly from mouth to ear, you're much mistaken," Frodo laughed.

"I have much to tell you," Eomer said with a smile. "Let's get to Bag End and share it with Bilbo, too."

The older hobbit was even more friendly than Eomer remembered, making him welcome inside their cozy smial and pulling out enough food for the entire Eored. They ate for nearly an hour, while the sun went down and the air cooled.

Then came the catching up, sharing news and stories. Frodo showed Eomer the adoption papers making him Bilbo's heir, sealed with red wax and much writing which he didn't understand. Eomer in turn showed them his deed, and both hobbits marveled that a legal document could be done so simply, merely with a drawing.

Eomer found himself laughing and crying as he explained what his uncle had done, and Frodo cried, too, climbing in his lap to hug him. At the head of the table, Bilbo looked misty-eyed, as well. He felt no shame for sharing his emotions with these two, not when they loved him so well and shared his triumph.

"I'm so glad that your family wants to meet me, Eomer."

"I know, love. It's wonderful."

"I'm glad to see your family are quality people, Eomer. Though I must say I suspected it, after meeting you."

He bowed his head in reply. "Thank you, Bilbo. I'm very pleased to think I reflect a little of the goodness they possess." He cuddled Frodo closer, still not ready to let him go after such a long absence. "Now I must ask -- will you come south with us, and see our new home? I would be honored to have you journey with us now. But if you'd prefer, you can come in the spring, after we've finished working on the house. We won't have much to start with, but we can make you comfortable."

"Oh, Eomer, there's more news! You're not the only one who has accomplished something in the last months." Frodo jumped down and ran from the room. Bilbo winked at Eomer, but he wouldn't say anything until his nephew returned, bearing something made of brown leather.

"It's a book, Eomer. Here, this is the title page." Eomer took the object and looked at it. Pieces of paper were bound together on one side, covered in what seemed to be the same type of writing that Frodo had shown him in Bree. "It reads, 'Go East, Young Hobbit - A Tale of Bree Life' by Frodo Baggins."

"You wrote this?" Eomer opened the book and saw the fine lettering crowded on page after page. "All this, since I've been gone? Frodo, that's amazing."

"It's a novel, Eomer, a made-up story. You kept saying I told good stories, so I imagined what it would be like for a hobbit to go to Bree, and wrote it down."

"You said it was made up, Frodo, but you really did go to Bree."

"Yes, but I didn't start to wear a gun, or become a marshal, or any of the other things that Fosco Teabrand does in this book." Frodo smiled up at him. "When we first got here, I couldn't do very much. That's when I started writing. And once I began, it just went on and on."

"You've worked very hard," Eomer said, kissing him. "It's wonderful."

"But that's not all -- Bilbo found a publisher for it. Right now, the story is being run, chapter by chapter, in the Hobbiton newspaper. And it's being made into a book for the library -- that's a place where we keep books for everyone to borrow." Frodo laughed again, shaking his head. "You don't understand, of course you don't. But important part, Eomer, is that I'm being paid for it. They gave me money for the story, and they want more frontier stories from me. One or two a year, for as long as I can keep them interested."

Bilbo chuckled and added, "I think that will be a long time. Frodo's a natural storyteller."

"Do you suppose you'll find enough inspiration on our ranch, Frodo?"

"Eomer, what I'm trying to say is that we'll have my income, as well as what the ranch brings in. It should be a help, while we get started."

"It's wonderful, love," he replied. "Now I think we should clean up this amazing hobbit meal, and let Bilbo smoke by the fire."

As Frodo washed dishes, Eomer cleaned the table.

"You haven't read me any of your letters yet, Frodo," he teased, coming up behind him and nuzzling that tender spot on his neck.

"No, but I will. I want you to know how often I thought of you. I did write, every day you were gone." Eomer stooped to kiss him before turning to bank the fire. Frodo dried his hands and asked, "Would you like to hear a letter now?"

"I believe I'd rather see this fine Shire starlight, Frodo, if you'll come out to walk with me." They called goodnights to Bilbo and went out the kitchen door, through the fragrant herb garden and onto a dirt pathway leading toward the woods.

Eomer took Frodo's hand and felt the shiver that passed through his body. Their eyes met, and Frodo nodded before leading the way to a glade of saplings far from any houses. It reminded Eomer of Bree, and when he fell to his knees and began to kiss Frodo it felt as if no time had passed since those first days of discovery.

But they were no longer inexperienced or shy with each other. Eomer knew how to best please Frodo, and a few touches from Frodo could drive him mad in return. Soon clothes were shed and they were kissing and rubbing together breathlessly.

Then Frodo pulled away, saying "Wait." He reached for his trousers and dug into a pocket, withdrawing a vial of liquid. "Here. I want... Eomer, I want you to take me tonight. Be inside me," he clarified, but Eomer still stared at him in confused dismay. "Unless ... you don't wish to," he added in a small voice, looking down.

"No! I mean, I want... Oh, Frodo. I've wanted to do this for so long. But I don't... I've never done such a thing. I don't want to hurt you, and I don't know how to make it good."

"That's what this is for," Frodo said with a heartbreaking smile. "It's oil. To ease your way. And... I think if you use your fingers first, to open me, that would be best."

"How do you know such things?" Eomer asked, kissing Frodo to show he wasn't upset. "How did you learn this?"

"Oh, Eomer. There are books about lovemaking. Not hobbit books," he laughed at Eomer's amazement. "The elves write about it, about everything -- but few people read elvish. Uncle Bilbo's been teaching me, and I learned enough to almost understand. I think." He looked a little sheepish. "Even if I don't know very much, I really want to try. If you're willing."

"I think it will be very fitting for us to learn this together, Frodo, and to gather our own knowledge." Eomer opened the oil and smelled vanilla. "Who knows? Perhaps one day you will put this night into a book."

"Eomer!" Frodo smacked him, laughing, and Eomer added,

"At least now I see some reason to value these books of yours." Frodo's giggles grew in volume, and their lovemaking proceeded in that fashion, playful and full of joy.

Eomer discovered the pleasure of smoothing oil inside Frodo's body, the heat and tightness making his arousal throb while Frodo writhed with pleasure. More oil on Frodo's cock meant he could use both hands on the hobbit, feeling powerful as the small body jerked between the sensations he caused, unable to find a rhythm. By the time he felt Frodo had been opened enough for him, they were both covered in sweat despite the coolness of the evening.

And when he finally pushed inside that sweet furnace, watching Frodo's face freeze before relaxing into pleasure, Eomer felt like a king claiming his realm. This was his mate, his love -- and tonight he would give him pleasure, pour his seed within him, and make Frodo his own, forever.

He tried to go slow, to be gentle, but Frodo wouldn't allow that for long. Soon he was demanding more with his voice and his body, and then Eomer became lost to pleasure, pounding into him while Frodo's cries echoed around them. It was more intense than any lovemaking he'd ever known, and when it crested Eomer felt that stars were exploding inside him, blinding his eyes as his body shook.

When he could breathe again, his hand reached for Frodo's arousal. At his touch the hobbit cried aloud and found his own release at last.

They lay together in the grass, clinging to each other, Eomer's body still breaching Frodo's. He kissed the hobbit again and again, feeling that there were no words for what they'd just shared. But finally they calmed and moved apart, though Eomer kept Frodo's hand captured in his as they looked at the sky wheeling above them.

"Are you cold, Frodo?" he finally asked.

"A little," he admitted. "I ... I just don't want this to end."

"It never will, love," Eomer vowed, pulling Frodo into his arms and atop him, to warm him -- but also to demonstrate the closeness he intended they would share forever.

***

Bilbo decided to ride to Bree with them, much to Eomer's surprise, though the older hobbit wasn't planning to come south until the Spring. They filled the wagon with supplies, Eomer being certain to include a fresh supply of herbs, bandages, and many soft towels for Frodo's daily baths.

Food was the greatest part of the load, but there was a rocking chair which had belonged to Frodo's mother, and quilts Bilbo had been saving for him. Hasufel gave Eomer a mournful look at the size of the bundles, but he quietly assured the horse that the hobbits would eat half the food in a few days, and he seemed happier. He wondered if Bilbo had noticed how he spoke to the animals. Frodo had marked it during their first journey together, and begun to do the same.

The road to Bree was not long, and it was a blessedly uneventful journey. Eomer quickly grew accustomed to stares as he rode past hobbit dwellings, and smiled when Bilbo called cheerful greetings to one and all. Frodo split his time riding with the older hobbit on the wagon, or nestled before Eomer in the saddle.

So on a cold autumn night, they arrived in Bree just before the gates were closed.

"Two hobbits and a man. Don't see that every day," the gatekeeper said as he watched them pass. Eomer didn't like the speculative look in his eyes, so once they'd checked into the hotel he decided to find his men immediately, instead of waiting for the morning.

As expected, Guthlaf was at the Pony with a drink in front of him, watching the dancers perform. They joined him at the table, introducing Bilbo and ordering more drinks. Frodo smiled at the girl who brought their order, but she didn't seem to recognize him and walked away without saying anything.

Eomer watched Frodo rather than the dancing girls. He looked a little dazed, being back in this place where he'd worked so hard and been so alone. Now he was here with money in his pockets, surrounded by friends and family. It had to be confusing, to return to such a familiar place, yet have nothing be the same.

When Frodo felt the eyes on him and turned to Eomer, his lost expression vanished and he smiled happily. Eomer scooted his chair closer to Frodo's, and put an arm around the hobbit until the show ended.

That was when Framwid returned to them, for he'd been at the bar during the dancing. He smiled at Frodo, nodded courteously to Bilbo when Eomer introduced him, then sat down.

"We need to talk, Eomer. But not here."

"Too many ears," Guthlaf added in a low voice. "There have been an awful lot of questions this trip. Very different from our last visit."

"Questions?" Eomer echoed, but he stood and led them all back to the hotel, very aware of the other people on the street. He kept a hand on his holstered gun even while they climbed the stair to his room, unsure of their safety while in Bree.

Once the door was locked behind them, Eomer took a deep breath and realized the rest of the group was doing the same. They sat on the bed and chairs, looking at each other with sheepish smiles.

"So what's been going on? Framwid?"

"There have been men in town, asking questions about you -- why you weren't here with us, and where you'd gone."

"We didn't answer, boss," Guthlaf added. "But they spoke to the clerk here, and he told them we were expecting another man soon."

"Now the questions have changed. They want to know when we're leaving."

"Who would be paying them for such sneaking and spying?" Bilbo asked. "It seems very underhanded, having others bring information. Why wouldn't this person simply come here himself, and confront you?"

"Because he's not brave or honorable," Eomer responded. "This has to be Gramund's doing."

"That's what we figured," Guthlaf admitted. "He hates us -- Framwid's the one who kept him from gutting me. And he hates Frodo. Then again, it could be Grima -- he'd want revenge for your uncle tossing him out."

Frodo looked uncomfortable at the mention of Gramund, but kept silent. But Bilbo asked, "Why would this man hate Frodo?"

"Frodo took over his job as cook, though I don't think that's the only reason," Guthlaf said. They all looked to Frodo, but he walked over to the window and stared out without replying.

"They won't try anything here in Bree. But once we're on the road, we must be ready for an attack." Eomer looked around the room. "We'll need more supplies."

"We already bought rifles and ammunition, and made it seem like part of your uncle's business." Guthlaf looked a little sheepish. "We didn't actually find what he wanted, though. He was looking for some kind of weed they sell up north, that people smoke in pipes."

"Pipeweed?" Bilbo asked. "There's nothing easier. You can pick that up as we travel south."

"Bilbo?" Frodo rejoined the conversation, his brow creased with concern. "You're supposed to be heading back to Hobbiton, not coming south."

"Do you think I'd let you ride off into an ambush without me? My dear boy, I can be handy in a battle. Ask any number of dwarves."

"Oh, but that was so long ago--" Frodo began, but Bilbo cut him off.

"I managed to chase after you, Frodo Baggins -- and catch you, too. Do you imagine I'm too withered and decrepit to manage a simple journey?"

"No, of course not," Frodo stammered, looking distressed.

"But you didn't prepare for such a long absence," Eomer said, jumping in to help him.

"You young lads are soft," Bilbo scoffed. "Do I need more than I have on my back? I do not. I have plenty of gold and a handkerchief." That brought a smile back to Frodo's face, though Eomer still didn't understand the joke. "I'll be fine. But we need to make plans for this trip. Do you have any maps? Where would you chose to attack a party such as ours?"

Before morning Bilbo had drawn out a map of their route, aided by Framwid, and they'd discussed ideas for making the journey safer. They finally separated to sleep a few hours, but Frodo stayed in Eomer's room with him.

Once they were alone, Frodo said, "I'd rather sleep in your arms, while we still can." He looked quite serious, but Eomer chuckled.

"You can do that every night from now on, love. Everyone knows how I feel about you, but even if they didn't, I wouldn't want to hide it."

"Everyone except Bilbo still thinks I'm just your harlot," Frodo muttered, obviously not expecting an answer. But Eomer turned to him and pulled him closer, making Frodo meet his eyes.

"Why do you think that? Guthlaf tried to kill Gramund, you know, for what he did to you."

"What?"

"We know that bastard pushed you under the wagon, Frodo. What I don't understand is why you've been protecting him."

"But... I wasn't protecting him!"

"Then why didn't you tell me what he'd done?"

"I... I didn't think anyone would believe me," the hobbit said. "But even if you did, what good would it do? You'd only get hurt trying to fight him. No one else would think it a crime for him to harm a hobbit, particularly not a hobbit whore."

Eomer wanted to argue, but he realized it was close to the truth. Gramund hadn't been thrown off the ranch until the truth about Theodred's accident was revealed. So he kept silent while they undressed and climbed into bed together, and then he held Frodo close to him, dropping kisses on the soft curls tucked under his chin, until they both relaxed enough to sleep.

***

They crossed the Greyflood without incident, though the ford was one of the places where they'd planned for a possible attack, knowing assailants could hide in the trees and wait for their progress to slow. But the crossing was uneventful, and the land remained as deserted as it had seemed on the trip north.

Since the crossing their progress had been slow, all their nerves so constantly strained they hardly spoke to each other. It was too difficult to remain civil. It seemed that in some ways, waiting for an attack was more difficult than facing an actual assault. Too add to the discomfort, steadily driving rains in the last three days had slowed them even more, miring their wagon in mud and keeping them all cold and miserable, with their nights lacking the comfort of a fire.

Six days from the river, while taking his turn on watch, Eomer pondered what might lie ahead. Flocks of birds swept across the sky several times a day, but there was no other movement nor any sign of danger. Yet they all felt as if they were being watched, and at times Eomer felt that the power watching them was almost supernatural, able to slow or speed their path by sheer will.

"It must be the wizard at Isengard," Framwid said, making Eomer start. He hadn't even noticed the other man stirring. "Gramund cannot control weather, but rumor says that Saruman can."

"You may be correct. Certainly this feels more like his work, and not just Gramund plotting revenge."

"Gramund may have been sent to Edoras by Saruman, though I don't understand why he would want to harm your cousin." Framwid sat down beside him, pulling out his flask, which he held toward Eomer.

He shook his head, declining the drink. "It seems that the wizard craves power. Anyone who has influence or thinks for himself becomes his enemy."

"True." They remained silent for a few moments, and Framwid hummed an old tune. Then he added "Yet here there are only five of us, no threat to his power. We carry nothing of value."

"True." They sat together, watching the too-still blackness. There were no animals calling in the night, no hunters seeking prey. No moonlight pierced the clouds overhead. It was eerie, but at least the rain had ceased for a time. Eomer thought he missed the noise of it.

"It seems to me that they'll wait until we're closer to Isengard. The terrain at the foot of the mountains can hide many men and rifles."

"But they don't need many men to attack us. They could have done it easily, here in the wilderness. Or even a day or two out of Bree." Eomer stood and began pacing. "I cannot make sense of this. Saruman is gathering armies to himself, the Wild Men who hate us and these orc-men Theodred has seen. But who is his enemy? Not us; he doesn't need an army to stop us."

"He'd only need that many soldiers to take on a fortress. But The Mark has none, save the long-abandoned Deep. There are only the large ranches, like Edoras, and our people scattered on smaller farms and spreads."

"True..." Eomer stopped in his tracks. "Perhaps what we're sensing isn't danger to our party. Perhaps this watchfulness and silence is preparation for an attack on The Mark."

"But those questioning our movement in Bree? Why would they would be watching..."

"To make sure we don't return before their assault. If Saruman thinks we suspect his plans, he might fear our return. But why would he--" And then he realized it. "Strider. I traveled with the marshal, and Saruman's spies must have reported that to him."

"Strider, the marshal from Bree?"

"Yes. If Saruman believed we went to Bree to find him, and request aid, that would explain the questions in town and the feeling that we are being watched now."

"But we haven't done that."

"No. We bring no armies to fight for Edoras. And the wizard would know that by now, if we haven't been letting our fears make us see shadows where there are none."

Framwid asked, "Do you believe that?"

"No. All my senses tell me we are not alone or unobserved." Eomer sat beside him again. "But I also believe that must not be our main concern. Saruman is going to attack The Mark, and Edoras. Soon."

"Then the ranch is in danger."

"So I fear. Wake the others; I want to ride immediately, and not wait for morning. No more will this wizard control me."

Framwid roused the others, and with very few words they began to break camp. But when Bilbo asked Guthlaf to hitch Hasufel to the wagon, Eomer stopped them.

"No. We must ride swiftly. The wagon will remain here, until we can return to claim it." The hobbits looked concerned, but it was Guthlaf who spoke up.

"Then how will Bilbo and Frodo ride with us? They cannot control Hasufel at a gallop."

"We'll carry them before us."

"Eomer, that is not safe for them," he protested.

"Nor fair to our horses," Eomer replied. "But it must be done. Bilbo, empty all the saddlebags and fill them instead with ammunition. Frodo, pack up whatever dried meat we have into five equal shares, and leave the rest of the food supplies well away from the wagon. Guthlaf, saddle the horses. Framwid, you will take Hasufel -- tie her lead to your saddlehorn. Then secure the covering on the wagon. I will not have Frodo's possessions ruined when we return." He spoke boldly, hoping no one would see his fear that they would never return from this war Saruman was about to wage.

They quickly went to work, and soon all was ready. Finally the two hobbits, accompanied by Framwid, left to fill the water skins. Eomer was lost in thought, his hands busy securing the extra rifles on their saddles, but thinking of his uncle's home. His mind was full of images, other houses where the raiders had burned and slaughtered even the women and children. What if they were already too late?

"Aaaagh!"

The scream ripped the darkness, followed by gunshots. Then Eomer and Guthlaf were running to the water, their guns in hand though they could see nothing in the blackness. They called for the others, but there was no reply. Finally Guthlaf called "Over here."

"Framwid?" A moan, and a dark shape moving on the ground. They reached it and found Bilbo trying to push the unconscious Framwid off of him.

"What has happened?" But neither of the fallen could answer him as quickly as the sound of hoofbeats pounding across the river, fleeing into the night.

"They've taken Frodo," Bilbo said. "They've taken my boy."

***

It took too long to build a new fire, but it had to be done. All Eomer could think of was the swift horses carrying Frodo away from him. But he had to stay, see how badly Framwid was injured, and calm himself enough to brew them a pain remedy from the herbs he carried.

Once Bilbo had been treated, and Guthlaf knew what to give Framwid when he awoke, Eomer took a torch and went back to the river, looking for the man Bilbo said would be near the water. He'd been the first who'd tried to grab Frodo.

It took him a while to remember the place where they'd found Bilbo, but then it was easy to find the man Framwid had shot at. He was by the waterside, cold and dead. This was the man who'd screamed, learning too late that if you grab a hobbit, he will fight you any way he can, including taking a bite out of your arm. Bilbo was quite proud of the way Frodo had broken the big man's hold on him. And when the man screamed and drew his weapon, firing after Frodo, Framwid had fired at him far more accurately.

He stared at the dead face for a time, wondering if the heavyset man had a family waiting for him somewhere. Eomer felt uneasy with his own conscience, for he knew he would have shot the man himself, simply for daring to lay a hand on Frodo, even if he hadn't fired his weapon. His main regret at this death was their inability to get any information from the man as to who had taken the hobbit and where they might be going. That seemed wrong, but it was the truth.

He shook off his melancholy and spent a long time searching the area, in case Frodo was still there, injured. But there was no sign of him, and it seemed Bilbo was correct in believing he'd been taken by the second man, the one who'd hit Framwid from behind. But Bilbo hadn't seen much, since Framwid collapsed atop him, inadvertently striking him with his gun.

By the time Eomer went back to the fire to report, Framwid was conscious, though he had a lump on the back of his head and wouldn't be able to ride alone. Eomer had to spend more precious time bandaging his head with kingsfoil, and carefully deciding what they others should do. His own road was clear. Once the wounded were at ease, Eomer quickly worked, refilling his saddlebag with food and his splitting the supply of medicinal herbs. Then, with Guthlaf's assistance, he rearranged the supplies in their wagon, while Bilbo cooked up a breakfast for them.

When they sat to eat, Eomer said, "I've harnessed Hasufel to the wagon again, and cleared a place for Framwid to rest within. Bilbo can drive, and Guthlaf, you can ride with them as protection. I'm taking Blalyn with me, in case I need another mount."

"But... what of Frodo?" Guthlaf asked.

"I'm going after him. Their track will be clear; the soil is still soaked from the rains. And I can ride fastest alone."

Bilbo, who'd been helping Framwid to eat while keeping a cold compress his head, looked over to them. "Where are we to go? You believe war is brewing in The Mark."

Eomer took a deep breath. "Helm's Deep. It's the only safe place. Guthlaf, you know the way." He continued shoveling food into his mouth.

"Yes. But...there is nothing there."

"If my guess is correct, there may already be Eorlingas there, taking refuge from Saruman's raiders. But even if that isn't so, you'll have the supplies -- I've gathered our food and put it back in the wagon, and you have ammunition and weapons."

"As we ride, if it's not too late, we could try to warn the people of the Westfold to come with us," Bilbo suggested.

"I pray you can. Helm's Deep is the best place for you all."

"Boss, I can fight," Framwid said, but his paleness and shaking hands told another story.

"You already fought, and have been honorably wounded. Now I want to know you're safe and will wait for me. I must go." He embraced Bilbo, whose worried face tore at his heart. "I will bring him back to you. But Guthlaf needs your help, and I need to ride swiftly."

At Bilbo's solemn nod, he moved away from their fire and untied the horses. As he swung into his saddle, he called, "A safe journey to you all."

The hunt began.

***

He'd been riding furiously for two days, following the tracks, but Eomer wasn't sure he was gaining on them. The rider didn't try to hide their trail; he was on the most direct path to Isengard. Eomer rode both horses by turn, pushing against their weariness and his own despair, knowing it was the wizard's malice which made every movement closer to his stronghold a struggle. Eomer set his will and rode on, not even stopping to sleep that first night since the trail never varied its course. The darkness around him was not as deep as that within his heart.

But finally he had to stop, too exhausted to continue. The terrain was changing as he drew closer to the mountains, and if he pushed on in the darkness the horses might be injured. And he was sore, and hungry, and tired enough to miss something.

So Eomer fed the horses and watered them, apologizing to each for his harsh treatment. He tied them and ate some of his own food, then stretched out on the ground wrapped in his blanket. His mind was wracked with worries, but his body was incapable of resisting the pull of sleep any longer.

There were hoofbeats in his dreams, and he felt the motions of riding as he slept, humming in his muscles though he tried to relax. The sound of hoofs grew louder and louder, until his weary brain realized it was no dream and Eomer started awake, sitting bolt upright.

It was morning, later than he'd realized. And there truly was a rider approaching, though he was still distant.

He stayed motionless on the ground, watching the unknown person closer. He seemed to be following the same tracks, but in reverse. The rider's movements were erratic, listing sideways in his saddle, flailing his arm. As he drew closer, and Eomer saw the second figure, on foot, trying to avoid the hooves of the horse. The rider was deliberately urging his mount nearer, threatening the other person. The sideways movements were because the rider was striking at the smaller figure.

Eomer ran back to the horses and grabbed his rifle. He was still shaking with fatigue, so he lay down to take aim at the horseman, balancing on the rock. His shot still went wide, but it was close enough that the rider turned and fled. Eomer fired once more after him. Then he stood, and realized the small figure was no longer moving. He ran to him, hoping he wasn't too late.

"Frodo!" The hobbit was in a heap, face down in the dirt. Eomer carefully turned him over and was relieved to hear him groan. Frodo's face was sunburned and vividly bruised, and his clothes were covered in filth and what looked like bloodstains. His hands were still bound by heavy ropes in front of his body, and his wrists looked raw.

"Are you hurt?" Eomer asked. "Oh, Frodo, wake. You're safe now." But the hobbit remained in a swoon, and Eomer slung his rifle on one shoulder, then carefully lifted him and hurried back to the horses, fighting off his own exhaustion, and recognizing that Frodo was even more drained. It appeared that he'd had no food or water since he was taken.

When he reached the horses Eomer carefully settled Frodo on his blanket, then gave him a little water. It worked to rouse him; those eyes blinked, tried to focus on him, then blinked again. Eomer carefully cut his bonds, then drizzled more water into his mouth. After swallowing it Frodo smiled faintly.

"Eomer. I knew you'd come..."

He collapsed to the ground beside the hobbit, laughing and crying and kissing him, and feeling those beloved arms close weakly around his neck while Frodo nuzzled into him. He had a dozen questions, but none of them mattered as much as feeling the warm, living hobbit in his arms and simply rejoicing to be together again.

Finally he pulled back and managed to ask, "How did you escape?"

"I'd tell you to read my next novel and find out, but we know that won't happen," Frodo joked, his voice hoarse. He tried to rise, but was so weak he couldn't stand. Eomer, though he didn't feel much steadier at the moment himself, helped support him. "It was Gramund. He'd been watching us, following."

"That was him?" Eomer felt a flash of regret that he hadn't pursued and killed the rider. But no, Frodo needed him. Revenge could wait. He met Frodo's gaze, seeing pain in those beloved eyes.

"The second man is dead," Eomer said. "Framwid shot him, though he was knocked on the head."

"And Bilbo -- is he all right?" Frodo looked very anxious. "I was so worried."

"He's a bit banged up, too, but he will be fine once he sees you are safe. They're on their way to Helm's Deep." He gave Frodo another sip of water, then said, "I know you're exhausted, love, but can you manage to ride with me now?"

"You want to rejoin the others."

"If we do, Guthlaf can ride ahead to warn more people. It might save lives."

"I can ride," Frodo assured him.

Eomer lifted Frodo into the saddle, then climbed up beside him, happy to see that Arod and Blalyn looked well-rested. "You haven't told me what happened. How did you get away from Gramund?" Frodo shivered but didn't answer for a few moments, looking around them at the barren, wide-open landscape instead.

Then, in a small voice, he said, "I'll tell you everything, but not now. Not until we are someplace safe, with four walls around us."

Eomer leaned forward and kissed his head. "Whatever you wish, love. Let's go find Bilbo."

***

Eomer was more worried about the enemies ahead than Gramund behind them, and that almost cost them everything.

He'd decided to head southwest, in hopes of crossing Guthlaf's path, rather than backtracking. But the foothills of the mountains stretched to the west, making the land uneven and rocky, and so, many hours later, the horses were still carefully picking their way out of a deep gully. Frodo was sound asleep in Eomer's arms as they rode, waking with a start when the first shot rang out.

Blalyn went down with a scream, and fell into Arod, unbalancing him. Eomer tried for a frantic moment to control his mount, but when he realized the horse was going down he threw Frodo and himself out of the saddle. The landing was painful, but not as likely to break a leg as if he'd been trapped under the horse.

Then there was a second shot, and pain ripped through him, keeping him on the ground where he'd landed, too stunned to even cry out. Frodo screamed his name, but then all fell silent. Eomer heard the shooter approaching, rocks tumbling as he scrambled down to where they were. Gramund evidently knew these lands; he'd chosen a perfect spot for his ambush.

Eomer lay, breathing heavily and trying to gather the strength to fight, expecting Gramund would approach to make sure he'd been killed. But the man was too stupid to do that, and instead was calling to Frodo.

"Halfling, don't try to hide from me. I'll find you, and make it worse than last time," he hissed. Eomer's pain-filled mind went dark with rage, thinking about this man hurting Frodo. "Come out now and I won't whip you and give you to the Urks to eat, piece by piece." Gramund laughed, quite pleased with himself.

Eomer managed to move his right hand, though his arm was burning, and pull his gun from the holster. There was no strength in the arm; he'd need to shoot with his left hand, and he'd need to roll over to do that. Gramund might hear him. But there was no other choice, particularly when he heard a cry from Frodo and realized the man had recaptured him.

"There you are, little one."

"Let me go!" Frodo screamed, struggling.

"Go where? Your hero is dead, so where will you go? No one here wants a whore; you should be grateful I'll take you to Isengard as my slave. I could just leave you here to die. Now stop fighting me." Eomer heard the impact of the hand striking Frodo, heard the hobbit's cry of pain, and used the noise to cover his own movement. He rolled, got his left arm free and the gun transferred into the hand that could still obey his wishes.

"I'd rather die!" Frodo cried, and Gramund bellowed in anger, striking him again.

Eomer raised his gun and saw Frodo's eyes flash to him. The hobbit was deliberately trying to keep Gramund's attention on himself, and taking a beating to do it. Now if he'll just get out of the line of fire, Eomer thought, not trusting his left-handed aim.

"You rat!" Gramund screamed when Frodo spit at him. He kicked the hobbit, then stood over him as he tried to catch his breath. "I'll show you who's boss, and I won't be nice, either. Last time you shouldn't have been able to walk, but now I'll make sure you can't." The burly arms reached toward Frodo, but the hobbit hurled himself to the side, away from him. Eomer immediately fired.

Gramund screamed as the shot hit him in the shoulder, spinning him around. He threw himself at Eomer, who nearly blacked out at the pain of that bulk hitting his wounded arm. But he held on, struggling, though it wasn't enough. Gramund was larger and stronger. He would take the gun from Eomer, who could see his own death in the jealous hatred filling Gramund's eyes.

But Gramund grunted in pain and his grip loosened. Frodo had joined the battle, striking at the man, holding a rock in both hands and using it to pummel the broad back. It was enough; as Gramund moved one hand to shove the hobbit away, Eomer managed to turn the gun into the larger body. Gramund had just turned back to him, putting both hands over Eomer's, when he pulled the trigger.

He saw the shock in the man's eyes, surprise and disbelief. And then those eyes clouded over, and Eomer shoved as hard as he could to keep Gramund's body from falling atop him and trapping him.

"Eomer!" Frodo, frantic and unable to see who'd been shot, was also pulling at the man, and it was enough. Gramund toppled sideways, dead, and Frodo was in Eomer's arms, babbling with concern that quickly changed to relief.

Eomer managed to stay conscious long enough to tell him to get the saddle bag, but then all was darkness for what seemed a long time. When he woke, his first awareness was pain. Frodo was cleaning and bandaging his arm.

"The witch hazel stopped the bleeding," Frodo told him. "We use that in the Shire. But which leaves will ease your pain?"

"Bring me the bag, and I'll find them." The hobbit had managed to chase down Arod and had him tied near a boulder. Eomer watched Frodo climb up and rummage the saddlebags, coming back with the packet of herbs. Eomer carefully pulled out enough of the willow bark and dill. "Here, steep these in a cup of boiling water for five minutes."

Frodo quickly moved to make a fire, gathering weeds to burn. Eomer drifted for a while, then suddenly called out.

"Frodo! Blalyn--"

"I ... I shot her, Eomer." There were tears in Frodo's eyes as he turned back to his work.

"Thank you," Eomer breathed, relaxing into sleep again. Frodo roused him to drink the cooled tea, and waited until he saw some of the pain was relieved before he made Eomer rise and move away from Gramund's dead body. Just that small exertion had Eomer asleep before he could eat or take any water. He woke later, in the dark, to find Frodo cuddled up beside him sharing their one blanket. He was thirsty, but too tired to do anything except fall back into the darkness.

***

The next morning Frodo rose early, before Eomer woke, and walked far enough to find wood for a larger fire. He boiled water with kingsfoil to wash Eomer's shoulder, then rebandaged it while more pain remedy brewed. Eomer submitted to the hobbit's nursing, eating what Frodo gave him and drinking his tea. But then he tried to make Frodo attend to his own cuts and bruises, only to be met with stubborn denial of any serious injury.

"I'm fine. As Bilbo says, we hobbits are tough as our feet." He seemed determinedly cheerful, almost cocky, but Eomer was mulling over the fight with Gramund, and the way the man had spoken to Frodo.

"What did he do to you?" Eomer asked, then wished he'd bitten out his tongue before speaking. But he couldn't take it back. Frodo's whole demeanor had changed, and the tough, competent hobbit was gone. In his place was a haunted, battered child staring out of the same eyes.

"You said ...," he began, nearly stuttering. "I didn't ... have to tell ..."

"You don't. Calm yourself." But the words had been said, and he had to continue. "It's just -- yesterday, I heard how he spoke to you."

"It's over. He's dead," Frodo declared, his eyes drifting to the rocks. Behind them, Gramund's body remained unburied and exposed. Frodo's face changed again, wild hatred in his eyes. "I heard the coyotes with him last night. I wanted them to tear him apart. I would bathe in his blood..."

"Frodo, love, come back to me," Eomer pleaded, and the hobbit shook off his mood and stepped closer to him. Eomer put his good arm around him and held him, not surprised when Frodo began to shake and sob out his rage and pain.

"He hurt you," Frodo finally said, sounding very young. "I thought he'd killed you."

"And he hurt you, love. But we are strong -- not only hobbits are tough, you know." Eomer smiled and kissed him, and they remained intertwined. There were many kinds of healing yet to be done.

The sun rose higher in the sky, and finally they pulled apart.

"It's time to ride," Frodo said. "We don't have the supplies to stay out here."

"No. It's too close to Isengard, as well," Eomer replied. "We must attempt it." He knew he couldn't control Arod, but he thought Frodo could manage. He watched Frodo pack up their few belongings, then untie the horse.

"Will it be easier for you to mount from atop this rock?" Frodo asked.

"I think so. Can you mount alone?"

"I haven't tried, but I can reach the saddlehorn."

It worked; Frodo managed to scramble into the saddle by himself. Then Eomer threw himself up behind him, settling into the pain, knowing it would pass.

"Frodo, you're going to have to manage the reins," he admitted. "I can't control him today."

"I've only ever driven a wagon," Frodo said. "Is there anything different?"

"Arod is sensitive; don't pull too hard on his mouth. Touch the rein to his neck, and speak to him when you wish to start or stop."

"All right."

It went fairly smoothly, Frodo allowing the horse to slowly pick his own way until they cleared the rocks and the land became smooth and flat. Then he turned Arod south, keeping him to a walk, letting Eomer lean on his back.

Eomer wondered how they would dismount, or re-mount in the morning. They were low on food, and their progress would be slower now. At least three days, maybe four, before they'd reach The Mark and get to the Deep. His mind worried at these facts, but he let Frodo guide them and trusted the hobbit's quick intelligence would take care of the rest.

***

There'd been men guarding the ford of the Isen, but Frodo had urged Arod on and it amounted to nothing but a quick exchange of bullets as they splashed through the water. They'd ridden furiously for a while, seeing smoke rising from areas to the north, and passing one burned-out house before reaching the high ground near the mountains. From there they could see Helm's Deep, and before it the sea of enemies holding siege.

Frodo's dismayed gasp told the story. They were on this side, and if their friends and family were on the other, there was no way to join them. There were too many for the two of them to fight their way through, particularly since those guarding the long ramp to the battered old gate wouldn't recognize them as friends.

"There must be two hundred of them. Is there another way into the Keep?" Frodo asked.

"No. It can be held for a long time, Frodo, against even this many enemies."

"Yes, but they won't have enough food. No one was prepared."

Eomer agreed with a grunt, then said, "Let's head east. Keep well away from their camps. Perhaps there are other Eorlingas still outside. If we can join up with them, we may be able to break through to the Deep."

They rode in silence for a long time, but finally Frodo seemed to shake off despair, though his mind was still on the number of enemies they faced.

"Saruman, this wizard, must hate men very much."

"I only know that he is very powerful. In my lifetime, he has used that power only for evil."

"It seems so different from Bilbo's stories of Gandalf the Grey."

"You never met him?"

"No. Except for Bilbo, people only know him as someone who used to make fireworks for the Old Took's parties. And that was generations ago. But the stories sound--" Eomer interrupted him abruptly.

"Frodo, stop. Arod, halt!" Eomer suddenly called. "There, on the horizon -- what do you see?"

"Smoke -- there are torches. Eomer, is there a house in that direction?"

"I don't know. Quickly, let's see if anyone needs our help." Frodo touched the rein to Arod's neck as Eomer spurred him into a gallop. As they approached, they could see it was a band of Wild Men, at least thirty, attacking a smaller group on horseback.

Eomer was confused by the way the horsemen stayed bunched together, rather than spreading out to better attack, but then he realized they were protecting others. There was a group on foot, mostly women and children, behind them.

Frodo reined Arod to a halt and they both took up rifles, joining the fight. Eomer took down two Wild Men before some split off to attack them, and he noticed two of the horsemen taking advantage of the split in the group to move in, distracting their pursuers.

"Frodo, bring Arod around to the left, quick. Arod, go!" The horse obeyed both commands and moved, drawing more attackers away from the others. Frodo controlled their mount while Eomer continued firing off shots at the main body of Wild Men.

They circled almost completely around, then turned back. Eomer saw that the two men who'd come to their assistance had overwhelmed the smaller group. One of the riders seemed familiar, he thought, but it wasn't until a shot brought down the horseman that he realized who it was.

"Theodred!" Eomer was off the horse and running without thought, only knowing he must protect his cousin from the advancing enemy. He saw Theodred, dazed and bleeding, saw men approaching with their guns out, and began firing, screaming his rage. Then Arod was between them, covering him from the return gunfire.

Eomer had Theodred up and was dragging him away as Frodo turned the horse, keeping it between them and the Wild Men. He pulled Theodred behind a rock and screamed "Back, Frodo! Get back!" Eomer fired his rifle, again and again, not even seeing where Frodo went.

Men fell before him, and a part of Eomer's mind recoiled from such reckless killing, but he didn't stop reloading and shooting. Theodred was beside him, also shooting, and the group of Wild Men was finally reduced so much as to be outnumbered. Eomer saw their panic, and still he shot at them as they attempted to run away.

Finally it was over, the attackers all dead and the women wailing as they reached their own wounded and dead. Eomer was shaking, the rage running out of him. He felt sick, and when he stood up he actually retched there, behind his rock, before he could help Theodred get up. His cousin had a graze on his side, bloody and no doubt painful, but not serious.

"Thanks, Sprout." They embraced fiercely. "Damn fool thing to do, but I'm grateful."

"It was Frodo..." That was when he realized it. Frodo should be here, beside him. He would be, unless...

Eomer looked around frantically, calling for Frodo. And then he saw Arod on the ground a few feet behind them, his beautiful body marred with many wounds. He ran, Theodred following close behind.

"Frodo!" The hobbit was still in the saddle, his leg caught under the horse, unconscious but apparently unwounded. Arod had saved all their lives, and Eomer stroked his neck and said his name, thanking his brave friend. "Theodred, pull him free." He heaved the horse's body up, pain shooting through his arm, while Theodred carefully slid Frodo out, kneeling beside him.

"This is not how I planned to meet your halfling, but I owe him much."

"Theodred! Oh, Eomer, it is you!" Eowyn ran up and threw herself into his arms, dirt and tears streaking her face, a rifle tucked under her arm. "They burned Edoras, even set fire to the stables," she told him, then realized who Theodred was holding. "Is that Frodo? Is he injured?"

"His horse fell," Theodred said, "I think it's just a knock on the head."

Eomer touched Frodo's face and called to him, but he didn't stir until Eowyn retrieved their waterskin and Eomer splashed a few drops on Frodo's face.

"Ohhh. My head." There was a lump behind his left ear, Eomer saw, as if he'd hit his head on a rock when the horse went down.

"Can you walk, Frodo?" Eowyn asked, and Eomer saw him nod, smiling as if he recognized her. "We're setting up a place to care for the wounded, over there." She pointed and Eomer saw that the others had already gathered their men, though there were still women weeping over the fallen.

"I'll help--" he started, but Frodo cut him off.

"I can manage. Go ahead," and he waved Eowyn off. "If you think I'm letting you try to lift me with that arm of yours, think again."

"Fine. Go," Eomer said shortly, seeing the confusion in Frodo's eyes at his harshness, and the surprise on Theodred's face.

Frodo looked at him, then down at Arod, and stooped to pat the stallion's neck. He looked up at Eomer again, but he turned away from the hobbit and spoke to Theodred instead.

"Cousin, I need your help to retrieve the saddlebags. I have extra ammunition and some herbs that may be helpful for the wounded." Theodred was able to lift the body while Eomer pulled out his bags. He saw Frodo following Eowyn, head down, limping badly.

"Do you want to tell me what's up your nose?" Theodred asked, but he accepted the short "no" in reply, and carried one of Eomer's bags for him as they moved to rejoin the others.

Eomer kept glancing around, searching the horizon. It was too open here; he wanted to get closer to the mountains so the group could be hidden from hostile eyes. But they had to deal with the wounded first, and see if they could be moved. Surely Theodred shared his concerns.

They'd won a skirmish, but they weren't truly safe.

***

When they reached the area where the wounded were laid, Theodred looked around at the groaning men helplessly. He allowed someone to wash and bind his wound, but then quickly vanished, muttering something about those healthy enough needing to start hunting for food.

But Eomer stayed with the women, helping them move the seriously wounded, and offering his herbs. The kingsfoil wasn't familiar to them, but they still let him steep it in a pot of water. One elderly woman smiled at him, saying "That's a lovely scent," and he nodded. Strider had told him the weed would help soothe the wounded, as well as keep away infection. So he used the kingsfoil-water to clean out wounds, and to rinse the knife they used for digging out bullets.

The wound in Ceordwyn's shoulder wasn't much worse than his own, the bullet having gone through clean. But the Wild Men had hacked at him with their knives once he was down. Eomer carefully washed the many wounds, cursing under his breath at each moan.

He was still there, hours later, watching his battered friends sleep, their faces twisted with pain. Eowyn came to fetch him.

"We've prepared some stew. Your Frodo helped, so I'm sure you'll like it." Eomer followed her without answering, seething at the mention of the hobbit. "He's been working very hard, Eomer, helping bury the dead. Our dead," she corrected.

"How many?"

"Four men." She didn't offer their names, and he didn't ask. He knew they were his friends, co-workers, neighbors. People he'd known all his life, cut down by savages for no good reason. Rage bubbled just below the surface as he stalked up to the fire and took a serving of food in a tin cup.

Frodo looked exhausted, sitting in the midst of the men, eating hungrily. They'd been short on food for days now, which was quite a hardship for a hobbit. Eomer thought it just as well that Frodo was surrounded, since he didn't wish to sit beside the hobbit nor speak to him. He took a seat far away from that group, and ignored it when he felt worried eyes resting on him. Eomer chewed and swallowed, though the food was tasteless as ash in his mouth, not really listening to his sister and Theodred speaking beside him.

But eventually his cousin turned to him and brought him into the conversation. "Father has gone for assistance from the East Emnet. I don't know how many he can bring; they'll want to protect their own."

"Faramir will return. He left at the first rumors of attacks, to bring men from Fort Ithilien." Eowyn still glowed just saying his name, and Theodred smiled at Eomer, but he found it hard to look pleasant in return. There wouldn't be enough reinforcements, not to face the army he'd seen at Helm's Deep.

"I suppose Captain Faramir can vanquish all of Saruman's armies single-handed," Theodred teased, and she blushed but snapped back.

"His soldiers can handle a rabble of Wild Men. The women of The Mark can fight better than those oafs." And they had fought; Eowyn and a number of women had wielded rifles during the attack.

"But is that what we're facing?" Eomer asked. "Is this an uprising of the tribes, or has Isengard's full power been unleashed against our land? There are at least two hundred troops camped outside Helm's Deep."

"What?" Theodred seemed shocked at the news. "The bands that came to the ranch were no larger than the group who crossed our path today." Eomer looked around, and saw that everyone around the fire was listening to their conversation now. All seemed as dismayed as Theodred and Eowyn were.

"I'm afraid it's true. Frodo and I rode there, hoping to join up with Guthlaf and the others. But there's no way in." One of the young girls began to cry, and Eowyn gave him an angry look. He regretted not speaking to Theodred earlier, in private, but it was too late now. "It's best you know the truth. There's no place of safety ahead and nowhere to hide. We need to be ready to fight."

The talk continued for a while, arguing about whether to turn back or remain where they were, but the truth was no one around the fire could answer the questions. They hoped Theoden and his men would be coming soon, with more riders, but they didn't even have a plan to meet up with the reinforcements. Eomer's own pessimism seemed to gradually spread, and the conversation faded away.

Finally Eowyn excused herself to take food to the wounded with the other women, and Theodred went to check the horses again. Eomer shook out his blanket, but he should have known Frodo wouldn't let his avoidance stand. The hobbit looked nervous, but still came over to Eomer as everyone prepared to sleep.

"Eomer? May I speak with you?"

He rose and stalked away from the camp, knowing Frodo was following as quickly as he could on shorter legs. But he didn't slow down; anger made him continue walking swiftly, until they were out of earshot and the campfire's glow couldn't touch the black night around them.

"What do you want?" he asked when Frodo finally caught up to him.

"I... I'm sorry."

"You're sorry," Eomer repeated.

"What else could I do? I know it's my fault, Eomer, and I don't blame you for being angry. But I had no choice."

"No choice? You rode into gunfire, Frodo, and you want me to believe you had no choice?" he shouted. "You should have fallen back, and found a safe place out of the battle!"

"You were in danger! I'm sorry about Arod's death, I didn't mean for it to happen but I couldn't leave you alone out there. I'm so sorry I killed him," he concluded, and Eomer could hear the tears in his voice.

"You think I'm angry..." Eomer sank to the ground, all his rage evaporating. He wanted to laugh, or to cry. Frodo thought he was distressed about his horse.

"Eomer? Are you all right?" Frodo was beside him now, fearless even when approaching the angry man who only cared for his horse. Eomer reached out and grabbed the hobbit, pulling him into his arms, ignoring the pain in his arm to squeeze him tightly.

"Frodo, Frodo. It's not what happened to Arod, you foolish hobbit." Eomer nuzzled into his dirty neck, putting his lips on the steady pulse.

"But... you're so angry. It has to be because I hurt Arod. I know you loved him--"

"But not as much as I love you, Frodo. You could have been the one wounded and bleeding today. You threw yourself into danger, when you might have been killed. That's what angered me."

"Oh." Frodo seemed rather staggered by the idea, but he kissed Eomer back. "You're the one who ran into the skirmish, Eomer. I should be angry with you," he declared, tugging on Eomer's hair before again diving into his mouth with nips and kisses, still sweet as honey.

"Be angry, just kiss me," Eomer mumbled, his hands busily removing Frodo's shirt as the hobbit sucked and bit at his neck. Soon they were rolling together atop their discarded clothing, driving each other wild with teasing touches. Frodo was careful with Eomer's right arm, but everything else was fair game for stroking, tasting, and rubbing against.

It was possible they were both still angry, for they were rougher than usual with each other, and when Eomer held Frodo down and bit at his collarbone, he enjoyed feeling Frodo's struggles of resistance. For a wild moment, he thought about taking the hobbit, about driving inside him right now, without preparation or tenderness. Just imagining the act made him wild, and he sucked at Frodo's neck, knowing he was leaving bruises.

But then he realized his new marks were covering the old bruises Gramund had made on Frodo's neck, and that thought brought Eomer back to himself, suddenly horrified. He'd never before touched Frodo in anger, rather than with love and reverence.

Not that Frodo was objecting; as soon as Eomer released him the hobbit had turned the tables and pushed Eomer down on his back, kissing him roughly, his own hand digging into Eomer's good shoulder.

"Let me do something for you," Frodo whispered, and Eomer nodded his consent. The hobbit moved lower, until he was straddling a thigh, and began to kiss Eomer's arousal, then lick and suck at it. Eomer moaned and bucked into the hot mouth, but Frodo backed away. "Remain very still, or I'll stop."

"Don't stop," he pleaded. "Is this more of your elvish instruction, my hobbit?"

"Someday I'll find a picture-book for you, Eorling," Frodo replied tartly, then he again stooped to his task. His hands and mouth kept stroking, nuzzling, and arousing Eomer until he couldn't stop his cries of pleasure, his body arching as his essence flooded out. Frodo watched, a smug smile on his face, then rubbed his hand into the mess, gathering it. Eomer watched as Frodo then climbed up higher on his body until he straddled his chest. He settled down and began handling his own erection, making sure Eomer could see his movements.

"I want you to watch me come, Eomer. I want to show you exactly what I like, and how much watching your pleasure makes me want to explode." The hobbit's voice was husky and his demands kept Eomer's body tense, as aroused as if he hadn't just found release. His cock was still half-hard as he listened to Frodo's heavy breathing and the low, dark moans of pleasure as his hands worked, slow and languid movements gradually increasing in speed. Frodo was always vocal in his enjoyment, but tonight he was wilder than ever before. Eomer's eyes kept shifting between the busy hands and the half-closed eyes watching him, lower lip caught in sharp teeth, then releasing it so his wordless cries could spill out as his face contorted with passion.

Finally Frodo cried out a long, triumphant sound, and Eomer felt warm splashes hit his chest and neck. He watched Frodo shake and sigh above him, and a sudden impulse came to taste that spent cock. His hands cupped Frodo's bottom and pulled him up, until he could taste their shared pleasure on his hobbit.

"Oh, Eomer. Oh..." Frodo seemed to melt, his hands grasping Eomer's ears as his body curved over him. "I love you," he whispered.

Eomer didn't respond in words, just kept sucking at the softening member, wanting everything Frodo could give him. His hand crept into the cleft of Frodo's bottom, but when he touched the opening to the hobbit's body Frodo started up with a panicky cry.

"No!" Frodo was off of him and cowering well out of reach before Eomer realized what he'd done.

"Frodo, I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking... oh, love, don't be afraid of me." There was horror on the hobbit's face, a mindless fear that told Eomer everything he needed to know about Frodo's captivity. "It's me, Frodo. I won't hurt you."

The short gasping breaths slowed, then changed to sobs. Eomer put an arm around Frodo, gratified that he didn't pull away but turned into his body, hiding his face against his chest. He rocked with his lover, wishing he could kill Gramund again, more painfully.

***

"I can shoot a rifle, Eomer," Eowyn insisted. "So can Frodo." The two were side by side, and Eomer's initial satisfaction at witnessing their growing friendship was quickly turning into exasperation at the stubborn front presented to him.

"You are wounded, yet you're out here. None of us are soldiers, but we all want to do our part to defend your people," Frodo added.

"Eomer?" Eowyn asked, still holding the rifle she'd grabbed to begin this argument. Eomer gave up.

"Fine. You'll all take a shift. You can relieve Deorn in a few hours, Eowyn." She smiled happily and ran off, no doubt to rile up the other women. Soon they'd all be demanding turns on watch, as if they didn't have enough to do tending the wounded and feeding the camp.

"Frodo, don't go yet. Just when did you learn to shoot?" Eomer demanded.

"Uncle Bilbo taught me a little, while we waited for you." Eomer gave him a skeptical look, and Frodo looked a little sheepish as he continued. "I needed to know something about guns for my story, and I asked. Bilbo showed me the differences between a rifle and a revolver, and then decided I should know how to use them."

"Our rifles are larger than those of hobbit make," Eomer reminded him.

"But the principle is the same, and I can lean it against a rock if I need to fire. But we're really watching for your uncle, aren't we? It's not likely I'll be shooting."

"Not very likely, no," Eomer admitted. "We should be conserving all our ammunition, truly." Theodred's plan of scattering to watch the surrounding lands was a good one. But there were so few healthy men to cover such a wide territory.

They only had a few horses, given to those stationed farthest from the base camp. Most of the ranch's herd was running loose, no doubt mixing with the wild horses. It might be the work of many years to retrieve them, to sort out ownership and rebuild. But such concerns seemed almost foolish; right now they had no future beyond the upcoming battle. First they must drive the interlopers out of their lands. And that began with joining Theoden and the riders he would bring.

"You can go to that knoll, right now, and let Hama have some rest. He has a leg wound, so he may stay there with you."

"I'll bring him water and some food," Frodo said, trotting off with a cheerful smile. Eomer knew he was worried about Bilbo, but the hobbit was doing his best to stay hopeful. And it did seem the best way to keep the others calm and ready for the battle ahead. Certainly Frodo's attitude was more welcome than Eomer's. He was trying to be positive now, but most of the camp still regarded him as the one who'd brought such terrible news after a day filled with loss and grief.

He moved his arm again, glad to see it was responding to his wishes despite the twinges of pain. A serious wound, certainly, but healing nicely. Several days without riding and with plenty of good food had speeded his recovery. And Frodo's, though Eomer knew the wounds to his spirit might never heal. He only wished they could fade and vanish like the bruises on the hobbit were doing.

Perhaps if Frodo would speak with him, tell him what Gramund had done... But they still weren't safe, certainly weren't within a place with four walls and privacy to grieve or to love. They'd hardly been alone since that night of wild, angry passion. Even if they'd managed to steal some time, Eomer was afraid to initiate anything with Frodo. He'd been too uncontrolled, too furious, stirring up Frodo's memories so that their lovemaking seemed comparable to rape. He vowed that from now on, he would go back to the way he'd been when they first met in Bree, letting Frodo lead in all their encounters.

Eomer shook himself and went back to the shelter they'd put up for the three men so seriously wounded that they were still incapable of being up and around. He was to go searching for more herbs with Hadda, the housekeeper's niece. She'd been training as a healer, and he was looking forward to learning what she knew about healing herbs.

But when he drew near, he realized something was wrong. Hadda was weeping, and all the women looked grim. He glanced at the wounded, and saw a blanket had been pulled over Ceordwyn's face.

"No," he began, but the sad eyes that met his told the story. Ceordwyn's wounds had been too severe, and he'd suffered for days only to succumb at last to the great loss of blood. Eomer knelt beside him for a long time, remembering his steady, even-tempered running of the ranch drives. He thought back to Bree and how much support he'd given to Eomer, unasked, and how level-headed he remained in the face of the town's many distractions. Even Eomer hadn't kept his mind on business -- he'd been busy discovering the love of a hobbit, he thought with a small smile. But Ceordwyn had remained faithful to Theoden's business and kept everyone in line.

Eomer remembered only the good, choosing not to dwell on Ceordwyn's disapproval of Frodo joining their trip home, or the times when, as a youngster, he'd been disciplined by the man for thoughtless behavior or pranks. Ceordwyn wasn't young anymore, but he'd been in his prime -- he'd been cut down too soon. Eomer felt the rage again, but tamped it down, saving it for the time when he'd face the enemies who'd done this.

He stood up. "I'll dig a grave for him," he announced. "We'll bury him right away." Disease could spread if they didn't, though he hoped some of the outriders would be back for the burial, even if there wasn't a formal ceremony. They were Ceordwyn's friends, they'd want to be here.

He chose a place well away from their camp, near where the rest of the fallen were laid. It was a cool day and digging wasn't terribly unpleasant, though Eomer's arm throbbed. But his thoughts were all dark, centering on how many more graves might need to be dug in the coming days.

***

Only fifty men. Eomer counted them as they arrived at the camp, his heart sinking.

To those left behind in the East Emnet it must have seemed like an army, certainly enough to take on a band of Wild Men and drive them from the Westfold. They had to remain on their own lands, alert to enemies in the east and aware that raiders might still come from the west, and they couldn't imagine that they troops they sent west weren't sufficient for the task at hand. After all, they'd sent their best, skilled riders and marksmen.

But there were only fifty of them. Eomer saw the same knowledge in Theodred's eyes, and those of the others welcoming the reinforcements. There were so few of them. They couldn't win this battle.

Only Uncle Theoden didn't seem to realize it. Since his troop had been spotted by Deorn and directed to the camp, he'd remained calm and businesslike. He sent scouts ahead, reviewed the camp and was given all the new. There was anger in his face at times, and even great sorrow when being told the names of those who'd been lost in battle. But his fierce determination never wavered, and there never was the shadow of a doubt that his people would deal with Saruman's forces, and overcome them.

Theoden's scouts came back from Helm's Deep reporting there were still more than 200 of the enemy there, half Wild Men and the rest the huge, fierce orc-men who carried pikes and long swords designed to be effective against riders. They'd dug entrenchments facing away from the Keep, yet were sending occasional attacks against the door. The scout had seen one such assault driven back, but couldn't guess how many men were inside the walls.

"It doesn't matter how many are there. When we attack, they will come to our aid," Theoden said.

"Attack?" Eomer was glad the scout had repeated the word. Everyone present seemed equally surprised by his uncle's declaration.

"Of course. We're going to drive them out of The Mark. Their numbers don't matter. We are fighting for our homes, and they are not." Theoden looked around him at the men hanging on his words. "We did not start this war, but by all that's sacred, we shall finish it."

Eomer's heart swelled at the words, and the adoration he'd always felt for his uncle came back, stronger than ever, and he cheered with the rest of the men at the thought of going to battle their foes.

Frodo was beside him, equal determination on his face. He, too, was ready to fight -- for a home he'd never seen, and for their future together on Eomer's land. With a last shout of "Theoden!" they scattered and began to work, readying the horses and cleaning their guns. It was time for battle at last.

Only later, when he was calmer and busy with his duties, did Eomer realize how lucky they were. If his uncle hadn't been freed of Grima's influence, they would be lost now. Theoden was a great leader of men. Saruman and any other enemy of the people of The Mark would be wise to fear his influence and power.

The scout who'd been sent to Isengard returned at last on the same night they were planning to begin the attack. Eomer joined Theodred, Hama, and a select few in his uncle's enclosure to hear the report.

"There is no longer any guard at the Fords, sir, and apparently none at Isengard, either. The approach to that blasted tower was churned up and muddy, as if many feet passed there, but now it's all empty."

"What of the wizard? Was there any sign of him?" Theodred asked.

"None. I wasn't comfortable there -- it felt like I was being watched, and not by friendly eyes. But no one tried to stop me, no matter where I rode, and when I finally left I thought perhaps I only imagined it."

"Do you suppose the wizard isn't behind this attack?" Hama asked. "Perhaps it is simply that the tribes of Wild Men have joined with another race from the south."

"Perhaps," Theoden agreed thoughtfully.

"I don't believe it," Theodred argued. "Saruman has been plotting against The Mark for many years now. Who tells the Wild Men the lie that we stole their lands, and all that is rightfully theirs?"

"I do not trust the wizard, but unless he shows his hand more clearly we will not attempt to move against him," Theoden stated. "He is powerful; too much so for mere men to fight."

Theoden made plans, his trusted bosses leading Eoreds of twenty for the attack. Eomer was in Theodred's group, assigned to ride the farthest before swinging into enemy territory from the northwest. They'd be late in joining the battle, but they were among the healthiest riders, prepared for the possibility, however remote, of facing more enemies approaching from Isengard.

Finally their plans were set and all that was left was waiting for the grey hours preceding dawn. There weren't enough horses for all the men, so some were sent ahead on foot, to secure the trail and guard the rear during the battle.

Eowyn argued and fought, but Theoden would not be gainsaid; she was left at the camp with the other women. They were given arms and ammunition to defend themselves, and Theoden spent a long time speaking privately with Eowyn. When he left, she found Eomer and embraced him fiercely. She'd been crying, but now she seemed calm and focused.

"Take care of yourself, and Frodo. I still wish he were remaining here, with us."

"My sister, do you honestly think I could somehow make Frodo stay? He would follow us on foot, or knock someone else off his horse to join in this attack."

She laughed, such an unusual sound that heads turned all around them. "I believe you've met your match."

"Indeed." He sobered and looked at the riders mounting up for the ride to the Deep. "Bilbo is there, you know. But it's more than that. He won't leave me, no matter what I wish. And honestly, I don't wish to be separated from him."

"Then don't. Go on, no lagging." She stood watching while he found Frodo and got them both mounted. As the troop began moving, she waved and called to them, "Come back to me soon, my brothers."

***

The ride seemed short, though they obeyed Theoden's orders and kept to a leisurely pace, sparing the horses for the charge. Even after the first two Eoreds broke away to begin their attack, Theodred kept them moving at a walk. They heard the cries of battle, and could see the campfires of the enemy, but they continued on their course, alert for trouble on every side.

When they finally turned and galloped to join the battle, blowing horns and crying Theoden's name aloud, they surprised a good number of the orc-men. They'd been facing the other attackers, allowing the Eored to jump the entrenchments and ride them down before they could raise their weapons.

The Wild Men were already in disarray, screaming and running. There was a large fire in the midst of the enemy camp -- too large. Their stores of ammunition had been set on fire somehow, and the superstitious savages were leaving the battlefield, unmanned by such an ill omen. The Eorlingas let those who wished to flee go freely, concentrating on those who continued to fight.

Frodo controlled their horse, a long knife in one hand to ward off enemies who tried to grab at their reins or pull him down. Eomer, behind him, had his hands free to fire his rifle, taking down more distant enemies.

The three groups were successfully driving back the enemy, and when the gate of the old Keep broke open and Guthlaf rode out leading a small troop, all the Eorlingas cheered and sang an old song of battle and death.

But as the fighting continued, it became clear that they were still badly outnumbered. Many of the Wild Men had remained to fight, but the real problem was the orc-men who fiercely slaughtered both horses and riders with each slash of their long, heavy blades. They didn't seem to tire, while the Eorlingas were already weary.

Then there was a sound of bugles from the east, and the Eorlingas turned with hope toward the rising sun to see the men of Gondor crest the high land and ride down to their aid. Even the orc-men quailed at the sight of the fresh troops swooping down upon them, swift and fierce.

That was the final turning of the tide. Their numbers were now great enough to overwhelm even the powerful orc-men. The Gondorians carried pikes and swords as well as guns, and they swept through the ranks of the enemy using all three weapons with fatal accuracy.

Even as he continued fighting, Eomer smiled to think that Theodred would never again be able to tease Eowyn about her love's riding skills. Faramir was skilled with all his weapons, using them with deadly accuracy even while concentrating on the battle as a whole. He directed his men, cut off retreat for small groups trying to break away, and managed to capture a large group of Wild Men with just three men assisting him to herd them to the side, where their weapons were collected and they were bound together to wait the outcome of the battle.

Eomer was almost out of ammunition, and his arm ached. Reloading seemed almost impossible, as his hands no longer wanted to obey him. It felt as though they'd been fighting for hours, but finally it was ending.

Frodo pulled their horse to a halt and looked around them. "Eomer? What should we do now?"

"Stay here, Frodo. Rest the horse for a moment." He continued struggling with the rifle, finally managing to wrest open the chamber.

"Have we won?" Frodo asked, and Eomer was surprised at the question. But then he looked at the smouldering field from a hobbit's point of view, and he understood.

Bodies were everywhere, friends and foes. A few prisoners stood bound, and several groups were still fighting, though the enemy was completely surrounded and vastly outnumbered. In all the devastation, it was hard to see who'd won. The cost of this victory was high, and would seem even more so to a hobbit, Eomer knew.

Every life was precious to the Shire hobbits, and every death something to be mourned deeply. Eomer didn't think Frodo could take joy in the death of an enemy, though he'd hated Gramund enough to try. But even that justified hatred had disturbed Frodo deeply, and Eomer didn't want to encourage anything that might change Frodo's loving nature, or ultimately destroy his joy in life.

"We've won, Frodo, thanks to the sacrifice of many. They will not be forgotten," he added. Even as he spoke, the final skirmishes ended, the last of the orc-men dead. Theoden was riding out to meet Faramir, flanked by Hama and Theodred, and Guthlaf was there, on foot now, with a bloody gash on his face.

"Frodo, let's go see what the captains are deciding," Eomer said, and Frodo urged the horse forward, then cried out in surprise. Bilbo was there, beside Guthlaf, a huge smile on his face as he waved to Frodo with both arms.

Eomer thought the most satisfying part of the day was hastily dismounting so he could lift Frodo down and watch him hug his beloved uncle, there amidst the slaughter on the barren plain before Helm's Deep.

***

Eomer wasn't surprised when Faramir volunteered to lead a group of his men back to their camp to safely escort the women to the Deep. He smiled as he watched Faramir ride away, led by one of the rear guard. Tidings of their victory would be most welcome to all the women, but he was imagining how pleased Eowyn would be to see her hero.

The healthy men were piling the enemy carcasses to be burned, or carefully carrying their own victorious dead to lay in state beside the Deeping Wall. Framwid was there, near the gate, his songs forever silenced by an orc-man's blade. Many other friends, fine young men and greybeards who should have been resting in the sun, were laid there. Their families would wait for them in vain, Eomer thought. But he turned from the dead to the living, those wounded and needing his assistance. There would be time to mourn later, and then the rest of their lives to celebrate the victory they'd won.

Eomer put his own arm in a sling just to ease the strain the battle had imposed, and he enlisted Frodo and Bilbo's aid. He gave them instructions, and listened to their discussion as they worked. He thought the cheerful hobbit voices might actually lift the spirits of the injured. They certainly made him smile.

"When we arrived there were already people in the Keep, from the lands between here and Isengard. They had more supplies than we'd hoped, because they'd seen trouble coming and been bringing stores here for some time." Bilbo was boiling a knife for Eomer to use on Hathluf, who had a bullet in his ribs. "But the enemy must have seen their preparations, for he certainly bottled us up quickly, with all those orcs," Bilbo stated.

Frodo was ripping linen clean into bandages and rolling them. "But you knew we'd come."

"We knew many people would be coming, if the raids continued. Guthlaf wanted to ride out and warn people, but we were surrounded. And one of the ranchers, Wynlard, had sent his son to warn the West Emnet farmers and ranchers. So we just sat tight, guarded the gate, and waited."

He brought Eomer the knife, and watched as he rinsed it with kingsfoil water. "I see Strider taught you well, son," the old hobbit said, patting his shoulder. "Do you want me to hold him?"

"If you can. Frodo, can you help?" Frodo came quickly over, and though he was pale both hobbits held the man fast during the brief, painful procedure. Then Frodo insisted on washing the wound himself, and bandaging it carefully. Though he wouldn't admit it, Eomer was glad for his help. He was more tired than he'd ever imagined being, even more exhausted than he'd been days before, after riding with his wound.

The hobbits left him sitting and made the rounds of the other injured men. Only one looked hopeless, and Frodo spoke quietly with him and gave him water. Bilbo hovered nearby, and when the man finally slept Bilbo sat beside Frodo and continued filling him in on his activities during the attack. Eomer was falling asleep, but he heard them clearly.

"You started that fire? But how?"

"Well, you know we're much quieter than these men, Frodo." Bilbo said breezily.

"Uncle..." Frodo's voice was almost a growl; he didn't believe Bilbo. Nor did Eomer, really.

"Oh, very well. I used it, just to get out -- there's a back door on that gate, if you can believe it. Almost as if the builders knew there will always be a clever hobbit needing a way out."

"Bilbo, that was terribly brave, but so dangerous." Eomer wanted to laugh at Frodo's words, which sounded so much like his own remonstrances about Frodo's tendency to rush into peril. But he couldn't manage to open his eyes, much less move closer to the two hobbits and gloat.

"Nonsense. Once I started the fire, I went right back by the door. No one could see me, and I just hid until the battle was over." Why could no one see Bilbo? That made no sense.

"You take too many risks," Frodo protested, and Eomer wondered if he was dreaming this conversation.

"Me? Lad, I saw you there, riding right into the battle with Eomer. Love doesn't protect you from bullets, you know!"

"Neither does -- that."

A mystery, Eomer thought, just as he fell asleep.

***

It had seemed that the day would never come, but at last they reached their own land. The fence needed repair, Eomer noted, as they pulled through the old gate in their wagon with Frodo's possessions -- and far fewer supplies than they'd had when they left Bree.

As they approached the house, Eomer heard a gasp. "Oh, it's beautiful, Eomer. So cozy." Frodo smiled over at him, and Eomer laughed.

"I thought you'd be glad that we usually build our homes all on one level."

"Yes, I am! And it's not too big, either." Frodo had been very critical of the wide halls and high ceilings of the Deep, asking if giants had built the rooms rather than normal-sized men. He wasn't fond of stone walls and floors, either, it seemed. The tiny house that would now be their home was much more to hobbit tastes.

They unpacked and surveyed the damage done by years of neglect and the high winds that swept through the valley. There was much work to be done, and winter was close. But the fireplace in the main room wasn't blocked or damaged, and soon enough they'd have the roof repaired.

Frodo fixed them a simple dinner and they ate sitting on the floor together, atop a blanket. Even such rough accommodations were more than those returning to Edoras would have. Eomer's heart went out to his family, but they'd understood his need to repair his own dwelling before the snows came. They had plenty of willing hands, as the neighboring ranchers and farmers were thinking of rebuilding in the same area, as a village, instead of in remote homes in the center of their lands. The mutual protection might keep future raiders away from Edoras.

But tonight, Eomer wanted to forget the others and think about his own future with Frodo. The hobbit was full of plans for a garden and listened carefully as Eomer discussed the breeding horses he planned to buy in the spring.

As it grew later and colder, they built up the fire and their words fell away. They watched the flames and sat in silence. This first night in their home was special, almost sacred. Yet there was an old trouble between them.

"Frodo. We're safe, with four walls around us," Eomer said.

The hobbit nodded, squaring his shoulders. "Are you certain, Eomer? It doesn't matter; it's over now."

"Please, Frodo. I want to share your life -- all of it, good and bad."

Frodo's face was distressed, but he moved closer to Eomer and snuggled beside him. He wouldn't look at him as he spoke, staring into the fire instead.

"Gramund wanted to humiliate me. He told me I'd wait on him and do his bidding at Isengard. But that first night, when we stopped, he decided he wanted to shame me in another way." Eomer, watching him, saw the tears falling unheeded down his cheeks, glistening in the firelight. "Or perhaps he really believed that I was a whore and it wouldn't matter.

"He raped me. I fought him, Eomer, but he was too strong. He held me down, and I couldn't breathe. I thought I would die.

"Then he pulled down my trousers, and I wanted to die. I screamed, but I... I knew you were coming after me, and I was afraid you'd come then and see that. See him using me." Frodo shivered but Eomer didn't tighten his arm, afraid it would frighten him while caught up in these horrible memories. "So I stopped screaming.

"I begged him to stop but he only laughed. He was glad it hurt. He liked seeing me struggle and hearing me cry out. He was ... evil, Eomer." Frodo sounded almost surprised at the realization.

"When he was done he fell asleep. I couldn't believe it. He just fell asleep, never thinking that I might do anything but cower there and bleed." Eomer rubbed his shoulder at that; Gramund had been a fool, and underestimating Frodo was one of his worst mistakes.

"My hands were bound, but there was nothing keeping me there. So I pulled on my clothes and started following our trail back, because I knew you'd be following it, too.

"You know the rest." Frodo drew a deep, shuddering breath. "Except... I thought about killing him. I couldn't reach the rifle on his horse, not with my hands tied. And I didn't want to get close enough to him for the ones he wore. I couldn't touch him..."

Eomer kissed his head. "Thank you," he whispered, wishing he knew how to express everything he was feeling. Gratitude, to Frodo for being brave enough to share his feelings -- and to all the gods in Middle Earth that the hobbit hadn't been killed. Sadness choked Eomer, too, deep sadness that so much evil had ever touched his sweet hobbit. When Eomer took him from Bree, he thought he'd be protecting Frodo from men who'd hurt him -- not introducing him to a ruthless enemy who would rape him.

Then Frodo turned his face up, the marks of his tears still staining his cheeks, and kissed him. Eomer returned the kiss, his hands moving -- and then he stopped, carefully returning his arms to a loose embrace. He'd vowed that he wouldn't terrify Frodo again. Frodo could lead this encounter, until he was comfortable.

But the kissing didn't proceed as it had in Bree, with them carefully showing each other what was acceptable and delighting in the new sensations. Instead of Frodo touching him, or the passion between them increasing, Frodo's kisses slowed. Eomer didn't demand more, he carefully pulled back as well. And then Frodo stopped altogether, pulling away from him.

Eomer quickly released the hobbit, afraid he'd somehow triggered a bad memory. Frodo was staring at him, but he didn't seem terrified, just infinitely weary. He rose and moved away, and for some reason began tidying the room.

Eomer was so puzzled it took him a moment to realize what Frodo was really doing. He was gathering his belongings and packing them into his knapsack.

"Frodo? What are you doing?"

There was no answer. Frodo kept his back to Eomer and continued angrily stuffing clothing into his pack.

"Frodo!" Eomer stood and grabbed the arm holding the bag. It fell to the floor, the contents spilling out. "What have I done? I'd never deliberately -- tell me what I've done, I won't do it again, I swear!"

"I won't stay where I'm not wanted." Frodo pulled away and bent to gather his belongings again. "I'll go back to the Shire, or even to Bree--"

"Not wanted?" Eomer's head was spinning with confusion. "Why would you think--"

"I knew telling you would ruin everything," Frodo hissed. "Now you know ... I'm filth. You can barely make yourself touch me--"

"Frodo!" Eomer pulled the hobbit into his arms, stopping the ranting with his own mouth, pouring all his passion into the kiss. By the time he released Frodo, both of them had to gasp for breath. Frodo looked stunned.

"But... You stopped holding me!"

"I didn't want to frighten you with my passion, or do anything that would remind you of ... him," Eomer said. "But Frodo, never doubt that I want you. You're the most beautiful creature I've ever seen. Whenever you ride with me the feeling of you in my arms makes me hard. Watching you do the simplest things, cooking or filling a waterskin, makes me want to bend you over and take you on the spot. And that is true wherever we are, even if we're both filthy and exhausted. Frodo, I love you."

The joyous light that had been dimmed in Frodo's eyes for far too long was back, glowing brighter than a thousand candles. When Frodo came into his arms again, Eomer let his passion be unrestrained, and judging by the ecstatic cries and gasps from Frodo, his wildness was welcomed.

Eomer hastily pulled off every stitch of clothing Frodo was wearing, then explored that beautiful body with tongue and teeth and rough hands. There was a sweet belly-button to kiss, inner elbows to lick, toes to bite at and knees to nuzzle behind. Frodo didn't struggle at the manhandling, though he did giggle occasionally when Eomer found a ticklish spot on his ribs or hip. But for the most part, he seemed to understand the need to be reclaimed, inch by inch, and marked as Eomer's own.

Frodo's hands caressed what they could reach, and when Eomer swooped near his face he planted wet, happy kisses. Mostly he allowed his body to be explored and plundered, squeaking when a hot tongue probed between his buttocks, and sighing with pleasure when Eomer's mouth closed over his erection.

Eomer kept him on the edge of pleasure until they were both sweaty and shaking with need, then rose and began pulling off his own clothes. Frodo's pack was again dumped out, and Eomer found the vial of oil he'd carried for so long. He opened it and began preparing Frodo to take him, spreading the hobbit for his pleasure, opening him to love.

Frodo was crying when Eomer finally lowered himself, spreading his legs wide, and inched into the tight heat awaiting him. He kissed away the hobbit's tears, knowing somehow that they weren't from distress. Not this time.

He sank deep and Frodo's face twisted in pleasure, his eyes rolling back. Then Eomer rode him hard and long, his hands alternately pulling Frodo into his thrusts or demanding response from his hard, swollen cock.

"You're mine, holbytla," Eomer panted, sweat rolling down his face and plastering his hair down. "All mine, and nothing of mine is dirty. You're washed in my sweat and my seed, Frodo," he managed to gasp before his voice was lost to grunts and short barks of triumphant completion. His hand found Frodo's arousal one last time, demanding his release with long strokes that made Frodo cry out and arch into surrender. And then Eomer took his hobbit into his arms and rolled the blanket around them, speechless and shaken by the emotion of their joining.

As their heartbeats finally slowed, Eomer made yet another vow to his hobbit. "It will always be like this between us, Frodo. I will always love you with all I am."

Frodo was silent so long that Eomer thought he was sleeping. But then the hobbit whispered, "Yours," and Eomer smiled.

They were home at last.

Epilogue

"Look what else Bilbo brought with him!" Frodo said, holding up a large bound volume, red leather tooled with a running horse. "It's 'How The Mark Was Won.' He thought there should be a copy here, since it's all about this land."

"But no one here can read your book, Frodo," Eomer reminded him gently.

"I can. I thought, perhaps, after the wedding, when the bards come to tell tales, I could read a little..." He seemed very hesitant about putting his own work among the ancient tales of the Eorlingas, despite its success back in the Shire. Bilbo had told Eomer that Frodo was a very wealthy young man now, the new novel already in a second printing because the first had sold "like hotcakes."

"I think that would be wonderful. But you do realize, if you tell the tale to the bards, they'll be repeating it as their own soon enough."

"I don't mind. It's about your people, isn't it? And that's how they'd read it, if that makes any sense -- by hearing it told."

Eomer hugged him close.

"What was that for?" Frodo asked playfully. They didn't need any excuse for their frequent embraces.

"The usual -- for being a sweet and generous holbytla." Eomer moved back to the leather he was carefully punching and stitching as he repaired his saddle. Frodo returned to his desk, made for him in the Shire and sent by Bilbo once the house was rebuilt. The hobbit did all his writing there, and Eomer loved watching him work, carefully sharpening his pen and creating the characters that told his tale.

After they both worked in silence for a few minutes, Eomer said, "Will you read the book exactly as it is written?"

"Well, yes," Frodo said. "I'm no storyteller. If I tried to recite from memory, I'd make an awful mess of it. Why do you ask?"

He smiled. "Oh, nothing. I'm sure everyone will be glad to know that Fosco and his cousin Bunto were able to save The Mark for all those helpless men."

"Oh, Eomer. It isn't like that at all. It's just that Shire hobbits don't care much about what men do, so I had to tell it from a hobbit's point of view." Frodo chuckled, but after a moment he asked, "Do you think it will be offensive to your family? I never meant for it to seem that way..."

"Relax, love. I'm only teasing." But Eomer could see from the way Frodo's brow remained furrowed that he was still thinking about it. "Is Bilbo really going traveling again?"

"He wants to. He's closed up Bag End and given the Gamgees a fund for looking after it. He's coming to Edoras with us for the wedding, of course, but then heading north to visit the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain. It's terribly far away, but he promised me he isn't going alone. Gandalf is coming to Edoras to meet him, and perhaps some of his dwarf friends, too. I don't think any of them want Bilbo wandering in the Wild all alone."

Frodo didn't want Bilbo going off by himself, that was plain. But his opinion hadn't been asked, Eomer knew, for Bilbo was just as headstrong, even at his advanced age, as Frodo himself.

Before Frodo turned melancholy, Eomer changed the subject. "I'm sure you're looking forward to seeing Eowyn again. You two get up to more mischief -- I suppose the wedding party will find their teeth dyed blue or something equally dire."

"Now why on earth would we do something like that to Eowyn's bridesmaids?" Frodo asked, batting his eyes innocently. "However, we're not terribly fond of Theodred's fiancee, you know, and there might be a little lesson on being agreeable with your in-laws before the week is over."

"I think you're quite a scandalous influence on my sister, Frodo Baggins."

"Oh, yes, I am," he agreed proudly, his smile wicked. But the sunshine was only momentary. "I'm truly sorry that Eowyn will be living so much farther away now. Captain Faramir is a wonderful man, and I know she's very happy. But still... Fort Ithilien... I don't suppose I'll ever travel so far south." The sad tone didn't conceal the hinting in that oh-so-melancholy voice.

Eomer hid his own smile; Frodo knew damn well they could journey wherever he desired -- and no doubt would.

"I don't see how we could, with the young ones so helpless right now. There haven't been raiders since the battle at Helm's Deep, but the coyotes and wolves don't know to stay away from the fierce hobbit warrior here."

"Oh, but Guthlaf would gladly stay, and we could hire on some extra hands to help him."

"Hire on hands? Frodo, do you think money grows like grass? Furthermore, do you think I'd trust just any drifter passing through with my beautiful horses? I don't know where you get such wild ideas," Eomer scolded, and Frodo's face fell. He opened his mouth, but then closed it again, looking confused.

Eomer laughed aloud, and watched Frodo realize he'd been strung along. "Whatever you wish, love. Though I think Faramir would appreciate a honey's moon or two before we go tromping there for a visit."

"Oh, of course! Do you think that I don't understand, after having Strider and Bilbo and camps of men around when we first ... you know."

"First what, Frodo? I don't understand." Eomer dropped all pretense of doing his work, intent instead on seducing the hobbit away from his. He moved behind Frodo's chair and pulled the pen out of his hand, carefully setting it down. "What were you thinking of? This?" And his hands began to roam, unbuttoning the waistcoat and untucking the prim shirt.

"Eomer! Bilbo is here." His hands still had the ability to automatically fend off a man, though it had been a while since Frodo had needed that particular skill.

But Eomer persisted at his explorations, knowing it was a battle he would win. "Napping in the next room," he corrected, continuing to pull at the hobbit's clothing.

"Still--" Frodo protested weakly, the parrying hands slowing. Eomer gave a low, triumphant laugh and snaked his hand up under the fine shirt. When his fingers swept over a firm nipple and Frodo's head fell back against his shoulder with a sigh, Eomer smiled and reclaimed the honey-sweet lips he loved to kiss.

He thought, as they began to shed their clothing, that perhaps Westhau could add a tale to his repertoire, the story of how Eomer of The Mark was won by a holbytla -- and how Frodo of the Shire was won in turn. But then the delight of once again having Frodo in his arms, drugging him with intense pleasure, drove away all Eomer's literary aspirations.

 

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