25. The Black Serpent
The Black Serpent
As the king rules his country, so the husband rules his house.
With firmness, wisdom and strength of purpose.
And as the nobles bow to the king, so the wife submits to her husband.
With obedience, humility and good cheer.
(Saying from Harad)
Muzgâsh stirred the coals in the brazier and blew gently. For a moment they flared up red-hot, blinking at him balefully like a dragon's eye. Whistling cheerfully under his breath, he drew a dagger from his belt and half buried it in the glowing coals.
That moment the sound of the door opening made him turn around. Two of his guards entered, each one holding on to an arm of the slight woman walking between them. Dwarfed by her escorts, she jutted her chin forward defiantly when they came to a halt in front of him.
Muzgâsh took his time looking her over, for so far he had only ever seen her briefly and from a distance. Pretty enough with the fair skin and dark hair so typical of Gondor. Large grey eyes dominated her face and the tight-fitting clothes hinted at quite delectable curves. The main thing, of course, was the noble blood she would pass on to her sons, but if Muzgâsh could get some pleasure out of doing his dynastic duty, so much the better. He let his glance linger on her chest, which rose and fell rapidly, although otherwise she seemed calm. Yes, she would do.
Even though he hadn't said anything yet, the princess seemed to feel his scrutiny. Muzgâsh could see her straining her senses, a vertical frown appearing between her eyes. Careful not to make a sound, he stepped forward and touched her gently on the cheek. She flinched violently and the two guards laughed.
Muzgâsh smiled. "Princess Lothíriel. Welcome."
"You are the leader of these men?" she demanded to know imperiously.
He chose to be amused. "Yes."
She lifted her head. "In that case I advise you to let me go at once. I'm warning you, when my father finds you, he will have you all executed."
Muzgâsh nearly laughed out loud at her belligerence. "That would be regrettable. Fortunately for us, your father won't find us."
"Oh yes he will. You are very much mistaken if you think there is any corner of Gondor obscure enough to hide you after what you've done."
When he started laughing she balled her hands into fists. "Just you wait, for you will find out that the Prince of Dol Amroth's arm has a long reach."
"Long enough to reach the City of Serpents?"
He thoroughly enjoyed the look of stupefaction on her face. "Haradrim?" she stammered.
"Yes indeed. I am called Muzgâsh." He could not resist adding the traditional Gondorian greeting. "Yours to command." The breath caught her in her throat, causing his men to chuckle.
But the princess soon recovered from her surprise. She frowned. "Well, I don't know what you have in mind, but let me tell you-"
"Enough!" he cut her off. "I do not have the time to bandy words with you at the moment. Later," he added suavely, "I will gladly attend to you at leisure."
His guards laughed again and the princess pressed her lips together. He did not miss the way she clenched her hands, though. Anger or fear? Then he frowned when he noticed how deeply her bonds had cut into her wrists.
Lifting her hands to have a closer look, he barked at his men. "What is this?"
Baran, the man on her left gave an uncomfortable shrug. "She was kicking and trying to get us with those claws of hers, so we bound her tightly."
The other man nodded. He still bore the mark of her cane on his face, a red welt across one eye. "A right wildcat, this one!"
Muzgâsh had heard all about the near escape of their quarry, but found it difficult to believe, looking at the diminutive woman in front of him. He unsheathed one of his knives and cut the leather thongs binding her wrists.
"I did not give orders to keep her bound. If your stupidity leaves her with ugly scars I will have you whipped!"
The princess rubbed her wrists and flexed her fingers, not saying anything, even though the renewed circulation of blood had to hurt. She did not look quite as cowed as he would have liked. He had thought that keeping her isolated in a dark cell for a while would soften her up, but perhaps with her being blind anyway it had not had quite the desired effect. Not that it mattered; she would still do exactly as he wanted.
"Sit her down," he ordered.
The princess did not resist as his men led her over to a table made ready earlier on and sat her down none too gently in a chair. Her clever hands brushed across the surface of the table, pausing momentarily on the quills and inkpot resting there. Then she folded them in her lap, her expression wary.
Muzgâsh picked up a parchment and laid it on the table. "You will write a letter for me."
"What kind of letter?"
No woman in Harad would have dared to question a direct command from him, but then they were taught proper submissiveness from birth. Obviously, this one had never in her entire life had a hand raised to her in chastisement for her forward tongue and immodest behaviour.
"Here is what you will write," he said. "Dear Éomer-"
"Éomer!" she exclaimed and jumped up. "You want me to write to Éomer?"
One of his men put a heavy hand on her shoulder and she sat back down on the chair. "What do you want with the King of Rohan?" she asked.
"That is none of your concern," Muzgâsh replied coldly. "You are simply the bait I will use to trap that particular lion."
Watching her mull over his words, he was reminded of the first time his father the king had taken him hunting on the steppes of Harad. Their servants had caught and tethered a gazelle to attract the lions' attention. At first he had felt sorry for the small, graceful creature, but his father had soon put an end to such silly ideas. And anyway, the lion would not get this particular gazelle. He would.
The princess folded her arms across her chest. "Write the letter yourself."
He had actually considered this, but had decided that the King of Rohan might well know her handwriting. This reaction, however, he had anticipated.
"Get the other one," he ordered.
In life, like in a game of Shah, it always paid to be one step ahead of your opponent, which was why his men were already waiting outside the door with their second captive. The woman protested loudly when they frogmarched her in and Muzgâsh saw Princess Lothíriel half rise from her chair, but then sink back again, frowning worriedly. He smiled in anticipation and crossed the room to the brazier. The dagger resting there was glowing with heat and he had to use a padded gauntlet to pick it up. Gripping it tightly, he carried it back to the princess, who listened to his steps approaching with open apprehension on her face.
"You have a choice," he told her. "Accede to my orders quickly and painlessly or fight them and I will exact the price for your disobedience."
She straightened her shoulders. "I will not lead Éomer into a trap. I prefer to pay the price."
Brave words, yet he could hear a tremble of fear in her voice. "But you will not pay the price," he said, relishing the words. "Your companion will."
The colour drained from Princess Lothíriel's face. "No!" she whispered. "You can't! Your quarrel is with me, not with my maid."
Muzgâsh grabbed her chin in his left hand and leaning over her, brought the dagger in so close to her cheek that she surely felt the heat radiating from it. "I can do anything I want to," he told her. "And whilst I do not intend to mar your looks, I don't care in the least what happens to your maid."
He paused a moment to let his words sink in. "Your choice, Princess. Quickly and painlessly...or slowly and painfully." When she still hesitated, he held the dagger so close to her eyes that her long eyelashes threatened to be singed. "Very painfully."
Still refusing to give in, she pressed her lips together and gripped the edge of the table. Muzgâsh let go of her abruptly and turned to his men. "Very well. Tie the woman down," he ordered.
Her grey hair dishevelled, the maid gave him a look half frightened, half defiant as they dragged her forward and started to tie her to another chair.
"Don't worry, Lothíriel," she gasped, but her voice trembled.
"Should we gag her?" Baran asked.
"That won't be necessary," Muzgâsh replied, watching the princess's face. "Nobody will hear her screams down here."
"No! Stop!" Princess Lothíriel exclaimed. "I'll write the letter."
Weak. Like all of them. Once again, Muzgâsh felt grateful to his father who had taught him at a young age that to care for somebody translated directly into weakness. During his childhood, any servant he had shown a liking for had been ruthlessly replaced until Muzgâsh had learnt to rely only on himself. And once he had passed into the boys' compound for his training as a warrior at the age of six, he had not even seen his own mother more than once a year.
He picked up a quill and handed it to her. "Write."
Her face lowered, she felt the edges of the parchment, dipped the quill in the inkpot and laboriously started to write. Each letter had to be formed slowly and painstakingly, one hand marking the position where she left off whenever she needed more ink. Dear Éomer...
Looking over her shoulder, Muzgâsh told her what to write. "I have run away from home to be with you."
Her hand clenched on the quill, but she obediently continued to write the letter. He leaned in closer, sniffing the flowery perfume in her hair appreciatively. "Hurry up!"
"It's difficult when you're blind," she snapped back. Muzgâsh frowned. Instead of being properly frightened she sounded angry.
He let one hand rest on the nape of her neck, exerting gentle but inexorable pressure. "Do I have to get the knife out again, Princess?" When she did not answer at once, he tightened his grip until his fingers dug into the sides of her neck. Such delicate skin. And such fragile bones.
Putting his other hand under her chin, he forced her to raise her face up to him. "Do I?"
"No," she whispered, her eyes wide and dilated. He could see the pulse at the base of her neck beating frantically.
"One more word of defiance, Princess, and your maid will feel my wrath. Is that clear?"
He eased his grip slightly and she nodded jerkily. "Yes."
Released from his hold, she bent over the parchment again. When Muzgâsh let one finger trail suggestively across her shoulder, he could feel her shivering under his touch. Soon...
She wrapped her cloak tighter around herself and picked up the quill again. "And now?"
"Write: a friend has given me shelter," Muzgâsh told her.
The other woman watched worriedly as the letter progressed, her laborious breathing the only sound in the room, apart from the crackle of the fire and the faint scratching of the quill on parchment.
Muzgâsh nodded in satisfaction. "Follow the bearer of this note. Tell no one where you are going and come alone."
Her writing seemed to slow down even further and he surprised a look of fierce concentration on her face. Suddenly she stopped. "Should I tell him to make sure that nobody sees him go?"
Muzgâsh blinked at this unexpected offer of cooperation. But he had seen it many times before. After the defiance and then the fear came the wish to please, to curry favour with the master. It had just been rather easier than he had anticipated to break this one's spirit. But she was a woman and a Gondorian - which meant soft and weak.
"Yes, you do that," he agreed.
The quill flew over the parchment now and he nodded in satisfaction at what she wrote. "Good. Now sign it."
"Yes, my lord."
A flourish and she finished the letter. He frowned down at the signature. "What does Lothig mean?"
She blew on the parchment to dry the ink. "It's what Éomer always calls me, his Little Flower." Keeping her face lowered, she handed him the letter.
Muzgâsh reread it quickly and then folded it up. When he turned back to the princess, she had got up and stood waiting submissively, clutching the sides of her green cloak. On her shoulder a gold brooch pinned the heavy fabric together and he frowned when he noticed the running horse depicted on it.
"You won't be needing this anymore," he said and unpinned the brooch.
"No!" she exclaimed, reaching out a hand. Then she lowered it slowly. "As you say, my lord."
He weighed the skilfully decorated piece in his hand. "The King of Rohan gave this to you?"
Reluctantly, she nodded.
He handed the brooch and letter to one of his men. "Show him the brooch to prove the princess sent you. And now get this on its way as arranged." Baran bowed and left.
"Take them back to their cells," he ordered the guards.
As his men led the two women out, he let his glance linger on the princess. Her hair had come undone and hung in a heavy braid down her back. For a moment Muzgâsh was tempted to follow her and test that newfound obedience, but then he dismissed the thought. He had to get ready for combat now, not let himself be distracted by a woman. Anyway, such things were more enjoyable after a killing.
"Get me my armour," he ordered one of his servants.
With a rattle the key turned in the lock, shutting her in. Her back against the door, Lothíriel sank to the floor and listened to the guards' steps receding slowly until she could not hear them anymore. She took a deep, shuddering breath. Safe. If you could call it such, being shut up in a cell. But at least she was unhurt and alone. For a moment there at the end, she had been absolutely convinced that the man would follow her and... She stopped herself from finishing the thought. It had not happened. It would not happen.
She drew up her knees and rested her head on them, wrapping the cloak tightly around herself. Now if only Éomer got her message. Surely he would recognise the warning she had tried to include. Please, please let him remember, she thought, and not walk blindly into this deadly trap.
But what else could she have done? Lothíriel knew that she would not have had the strength to listen to poor Hareth being mistreated in her place. During the war, rumours of what the Haradrim did to their women captives had even reached the sheltered ears of the Princess of Dol Amroth and the consensus amongst her ladies had been that death was preferable to being captured.
She got up and followed the wall to the small table, which she had found during her earlier exploration of the room. The cup of water still stood there and she took a small sip, rolling it round in her mouth before swallowing. Her stomach growled, reminding her that she had skimped on breakfast. With a sigh, she started a second investigation of her cell, but it yielded nothing new except for a small chamber pot underneath the bed. She weighed this in her hand, wondering if it would make a suitable weapon.
"Without a doubt," she murmured to herself, "they will tremble in their boots when they see you attacking with this."
Nevertheless, she put it within easy reach next to the bed when she sat down again. Now all she could do was to wait and to hope. A tiny spark of anger arose in her heart at her own helplessness. They thought to use her to trap the man she loved! How was it possible that a band of Haradrim had sneaked into Minas Tirith? She had no doubt that this Muzgâsh meant ill and wanted to kill Éomer. Reflexively, Lothíriel rubbed the back of her neck where it seemed to her she could still feel the man's iron grip. A warrior's grip.
"Éomer will kill you!" she said loudly. "And I will dance on your grave."
She hugged herself. Now if only she could fan that spark of anger into a brighter flame. Something useful like real rage, which would keep the fear at bay.
Éomer smiled down at Guthlaf. "You look well."
They had found the young rider sitting in a sheltered corner of the garden in the Houses of Healing, enjoying the morning sun, and had been greeted enthusiastically by him.
Guthlaf gestured to a basket of assorted breads sitting on a nearby table. "They're taking good care of me."
Bandages covered the stump of his right arm and he sat supported by cushions, but although lines of pain still showed in his face, he had regained some of his normal colour.
Wincing slightly, Guthlaf straightened his shoulders. "Soon I'll be fit enough to return home."
Éomer raised his eyebrows at this and pulled up a chair to sit down. "Take it slowly," he cautioned the young man.
Leaning against a wall, Elfhelm nodded. "Such a severe wound takes a long time to heal and it's no easy journey back to Edoras."
Guthlaf hung his head. "I know. But I'd been hoping to be able to return home with you. Will you be leaving soon?"
"Not just yet. I've arranged to stay in Minas Tirith a little while longer." Éomer ignored his Marshal's frown. "I have certain...affairs that I need to sort out."
"Oh, so it's true you want to marry the Princess of Dol Amroth?"
Éomer stared at the rider. Had rumours reached this far already? "Yes, it's true," he answered. "But who told you so?"
"Lothíriel did." He grinned. "She's been plaguing me with questions about the Mark."
"She's been to see you?"
Guthlaf nodded and picked up a piece of bread. "Every day since she got back from Emyn Arnen." His mouth full, he nodded at another low table nearby. "We've made a bargain. I teach her Rohirric and in return she teaches me to play Shah."
Éomer and Elfhelm examined the artfully carved pieces standing on the chequered board that Guthlaf had pointed out. A mûmak guarded each of the corners, next to them sat the knights on perfectly formed horses, then the wizards with their staffs and finally in the middle the king and queen. Even the pawns had all been carved individually with a loving hand.
"It's Lothíriel's own set," Guthlaf explained.
"Is she any good?" Éomer asked, curious. He had never learned to play this particular game, because had never really had the necessary leisure. Yet now that they were no longer constantly at war, it would be a pleasant way to pass some of the long winter evenings with one's lady. Well, one of the pleasant ways...
Guthlaf sighed. "Too good for me anyway, although she claims she's not particularly skilled." He reached over to pick up one of the pieces. "Lothíriel keeps telling me I should pay more attention to the pawns, but the rules are so difficult." Some of his good cheer seemed to leave him as he turned the piece round in his fingers. "I suppose that's what I will be from now on. Just a pawn."
"You can be whatever you choose to be," Éomer said firmly, only to be interrupted by a healer coming up with a tray of teacups. She dropped a wobbly curtsy and Elfhelm hurriedly relieved her of her burden before it could fall to the floor.
"The Warden sends his compliments, my Lord King," she said a little breathlessly. "He hopes to join you later, but has some urgent business to attend to just now."
"Thank you," Éomer nodded. "Nothing serious, I trust?"
"One of the healers was called out very early this morning and hasn't returned yet," she explained. "The Warden is trying to find out where he went."
She dropped another curtsy before leaving. Elfhelm handed his king one of the cups, giving it a doubtful look. "They call this tea?" he murmured.
Éomer had to agree with his assessment. The pale golden liquid looked nothing like the strong black brew, laced liberally with honey, that they drank in the Riddermark. On top of that it emitted a strangely fragrant scent. He wondered suddenly if Lothíriel would expect the household at Meduseld to serve this kind of drink. And what other luxuries of her homeland would she miss in the rougher climate of the north?
Guthlaf grinned as he picked up his own cup. "Lothíriel claims the Warden uses a single leaf of tea for a whole month, it's so weak."
They shared a laugh when Elfhelm suddenly straightened up. Éomer followed his Marshal's glance to see one of the riders they had left waiting outside approaching them.
"Is something the matter, Ceorl?" he asked, getting up.
The man gave a brief bow and a nod of acknowledgement to Guthlaf. "Éomer King, there is a man outside asking to have a word with you. He says it's urgent. Also he gave us this." He held out a hand.
Éomer picked up the round brooch, the weight familiar in his hands.
"That belonged to your father, Éomund, didn't it?" Elfhelm exclaimed.
Éomer nodded, thinking hard. "I gave it to Lothíriel the last time I saw her."
"She's been wearing it every day," Guthlaf confirmed. "Why would she give it up?"
Éomer traced the running horse, then frowned. "I don't know. But I want to have a word with this man."
He slipped the brooch into his pocket and turned to go. "I will be back for a longer visit soon," he promised Guthlaf.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.