26. Of Eels
The fire burns it all.
Red wine and succulent meats, for a king does not want for anything.
A fine stallion to ride, for a king does not walk.
Slaves to attend him, for a king does not serve himself.
Concubines to please him, for a king does not sleep alone.
The fire burns it all.
(Turgon: A brief history of Harad and her customs)
The man had shifty eyes. With one glance Éomer took in the well-worn clothes of a nondescript brown colour, the way one hand hung at his side as if used to gripping a sword, his carefully balanced stance on the balls of his feet.
The man bowed obsequiously. "Please my Lord King, I need to speak to you on your own."
By Éomer's side, Elfhelm bristled. "You can't just march up here and demand to see the King of Rohan. It might be a trap."
The man held out both hands in front of him, palms upward. "I bear no weapons. I am merely a messenger."
An odd messenger this. Also he had a peculiar accent that Éomer could not quite place. "Princess Lothíriel sent you?" he asked.
"Yes, my lord. She gave me the token I handed to your man as proof."
"What is your name?"
"Baran, my lord."
Éomer came to a decision. "Very well, Baran. Let's go a little apart and you can give me your message."
"Éomer King!" Elfhelm protested. Éothain standing by the horses looked unhappy, too.
Éomer shook his head at his Marshal. "I think this is important. Besides, I can take care of myself."
Elfhelm hesitated, obviously not caring to argue this point with his king, and before he could muster any other arguments Éomer nodded at the messenger. "Lead the way."
Under the Rohirrim's uneasy looks, Baran led Éomer further down the road, towards the gate leading to the fifth level. With noon approaching, the taverns on either side were busy and the road packed with people coming and going. The man stopped at a blocked-up side entrance to one of the houses and pulled something from a pocket of his coat. Motioning Éomer closer, he handed over a piece of parchment.
"The princess wrote it herself," he whispered.
Warily, Éomer unfolded the letter. Instinctively he made sure the wall covered his back and kept a little away, just in case Baran tried to jump him. Something about the man made the hackles on the back of his neck rise.
Dear Éomer. Unmistakably Lothíriel's handwriting, the letters formed even more shakily than the last time. I have run away from home to be with you. He stared down at the letter. What! She had done what? And why? Her father would be furious! He shook his head in disbelief and continued reading. A friend has given me shelter. Éomer looked over at Baran. Did she mean him or someone else? Follow the bearer of this note. Tell no one where you are going and come alone, silent and unnoticed like an eel slithering through the grass. Lothig.
Éomer took a deep breath, trying to order his confused thoughts. Whatever had possessed Lothíriel to take such an imprudent course of action? Had her father threatened to take her back to Dol Amroth? Looking up, he noticed Baran watching him attentively.
"You know the contents of this message?" Éomer asked.
"Yes, my lord," Baran nodded. He gave an ingratiating smile. "The Princess took me into her confidence. She's waiting for you most impatiently."
He would have to talk to her at once. Looking back down at the letter, the signature caught his attention. Why did she call herself Little Flower? Slowly, he reread the message. Then his eyes lingered on the last sentence and he felt as if a bolt of lightning had just hit him. Eels! What had he told her that night at the banquet in the Merethrond when the cooks had substituted jellied eels for another dish - Just mention eels and Rohan will ride to the rescue.
Was Lothíriel in trouble? Involuntarily his fingers clenched, crumpling the letter. When he looked up, Baran had taken several steps back. "My Lord King?" the man asked, nervously moistening his lips.
Alarm swept through Éomer and his eyes narrowed. "Where is Lothíriel? What have you done to her? I'm warning you-"
The man took one look at his face and then suddenly turned and bolted.
"Stop!" Éomer shouted and started after him.
From behind, he heard alarmed shouts from his riders, but he ignored them. Quick as a rat running for cover, the man slipped between two carts. Éomer followed, but then hesitated. Where had he gone? There! He caught a glimpse of a brown tunic as Baran threaded his way through the crowd, pushing a woman over in his haste to get away. Curses followed him as he ducked between some tables standing outside a tavern. Éomer took off after him.
"Stop that man!" he yelled, but the patrons sitting over their drinks just looked at him in confusion.
Baran threw a hasty look over his shoulder and snatched a tankard of ale from a passing serving maid. What the...! Éomer only just managed to duck as the man hurled the heavy tankard at him. He tried to grab Baran, but the man shoved the screeching woman his way. Then he hooked the side of one of the tables and upended it, spilling ale all over Éomer.
"Hey! What are you doing!" one of the customers exclaimed angrily.
Éomer cursed and tried to duck around the shards and liquid on the floor. Why wouldn't the stupid woman let go of his arm and stop wailing! He shook her off roughly, but then one of the patrons grappled him from behind. He did not have the time for this!
"Let go," he snarled and punched the man in the gut. With a surprised look on his face, the fellow sank to the floor.
Éomer jumped across a bench lying on the floor, as just ahead of him, Baran sent another table flying. If only he could get hold of the scoundrel! Another patron tried to grab him, but he shoved him away. Where were his riders? That moment he saw that Baran had reached the road and started running towards the gate leading down to the lower levels.
"Out of my way!" he roared and drew his sword. The men nearest him backed away hastily. Then he had to duck as somebody threw a chair at him. Only a few more steps to the road.
"To the king!" Éothain shouted, throwing himself into the fray. Seeing the Rohirrim charging them, most of the patrons melted away.
Éomer pointed down the road. "Catch that messenger!" He sheathed his sword and started running, his men hard at his heels.
When they reached the main thoroughfare of Minas Tirith the road was thick with people. Where had the man gone? A couple of errand riders went by, throwing them surprised looks. Éomer hesitated for an instant, then plunged down the road towards the fifth level. Why did everybody have to wear brown today! And what if Baran had taken one of the little side roads or ducked into a tavern?
After some minutes of fruitless searching, Elfhelm took his elbow. "I think we've lost him."
Very much afraid that his Marshal was right, Éomer slowed down, then stopped. It was no use, the man had escaped. He swallowed a curse.
"What do we do now?" Éothain asked.
"Get the horses," Éomer ordered, turning on his heel. The iron hand of fear squeezed his heart. Let it all have been a misunderstanding, he prayed.
The door to the Dol Amroth town house opened at Éomer's third knock.
"My Lord King?" the servant asked, out of breath.
"Is Princess Lothíriel here?"
"I'm not sure," the servant stammered.
Éomer pushed past him, motioning for his men to wait in the courtyard. "I need to see her at once!"
"She might be in the garden..."
With a soft click, the door to the library opened. "Who is that shouting?" Imrahil's eyes widened as he took in Éomer's soiled clothes. "What have you done to yourself?"
It took only a couple of steps to cross the hallway. "Where is Lothíriel?" He had to stop himself from grabbing the other man and shaking him.
Imrahil's brows lowered. "Éomer, you stink of ale! If you think to further your suit this way, let me tell you-"
"Where is she!"
"Lothíriel went to the Houses of Healing early this morning." Éomer looked up to see Amrothos standing at the top of the stairs. "She hasn't come back yet. Has something happened?"
His hopes dashed, Éomer closed his eyes for a moment. "No!" He slammed his fist against the doorjamb.
"Éomer?" Imrahil was looking at him as if he doubted his sanity.
"I've just come from the Houses of Healing. Lothíriel isn't there."
"But she has to be. The Warden sent a healer to fetch her to see that injured rider of yours," Imrahil said. "Apparently he took a turn for the worse last night."
By this time Elfhelm and Éothain had joined them, too. The Marshal frowned. "But Guthlaf is fine. We visited him just now, he's recovering nicely."
Things were all starting to fall into place. "The healer, what did he look like?" Éomer interrupted.
Imrahil shrugged uncertainly. "Quite ordinary. You know the healers; they all look the same with their satchels and grey cowls..." His voice petered out.
Éomer and Elfhelm exchanged a look. "The Warden's missing healer!"
Éomer nodded slowly, seeing the outline of a scheme emerging. A monstrous scheme. "They abducted the man to be able to pose as coming from the Houses of Healing. Then they came here to get Lothíriel."
"But they had a couple of guards along as well!"
Guards? Lothíriel wouldn't have stood a chance. "Their own guards," Éomer said grimly, "to help with the abduction."
Imrahil's face went white. "Abduction? Are you sure?"
Amrothos hastily descended the stairs and took his father's arm. "Surely you're mistaken! There has to be another explanation, maybe Lothíriel got delayed on the way or she met a friend." He gave Éomer a distrustful look. "How come you know all this, anyway?"
Éomer took out Lothíriel's letter and handed it over. "This was delivered to me outside the Houses of Healing. The man wanted me to go with him. When I got suspicious he bolted."
Imrahil and Amrothos bent over the crumpled parchment, which smelled of ale. "But here she writes she has run away!" Imrahil exclaimed.
"A lie." He remembered the shaky handwriting and of its own volition his hand went to his sword. What had those villains done to Lothíriel to get her to write the letter?
"The signature!" Amrothos breathed suddenly. "Lothig. You know how she hates that nickname. We always used to tease her with it as children."
His father nodded, his eyes narrowing. "That's true."
"Another warning," Éomer agreed. If only he had been quicker on the uptake!
"Another one?" Amrothos asked.
Éomer shook his head. "I'll explain later. Now we have to decide what to do."
"Do you think they are after ransom?" Imrahil asked. "If they dare to hurt her..." He took a deep breath as if to calm himself.
"Does this sound like a ransom note?" Éomer asked, pointing at the parchment. "No, I think they've got something else in mind. I don't know what, but I do know that we have to do something at once and take the initiative away from them."
He stared down at the note. Lothíriel had sent him a plea for help, had expected him to act on it, and fool that he was, he had let the man get away. She needed him and he had failed her. He looked up to meet Imrahil's worried eyes and saw the same fear reflected in them. The blood in his veins turned to ice. What price would she have to pay for her warning?
Muzgâsh danced the dance of death. A double-handed stroke to the right, executed with glacial slowness but lethal precision, merging seamlessly into a slow pivot that would allow him to deliver a slashing blow across the belly of an opponent. His muscles strained as he held the position for a moment, perfectly balanced on one foot, his scimitar extended before him. Breathe in, breathe out. Unhurriedly, he shifted to the right, blocking an imaginary downward stroke by his opponent, then took a step back, inviting a counter attack. Breathe in, breathe out. Assuming the opponent foolishly accepted the invitation, this left you in the perfect position to deal a killing blow across his neck. As Muzgâsh brought his scimitar down in a slow movement, he could almost hear the sickening crunch of mail, sinew and bone breaking under it. Breathe in, breathe out.
He straightened up. It took years to master the dance, to teach the body to execute the moves flawlessly, whether slowly or lightning fast. But then a Prince of Harad was trained in it almost from the moment he drew his first breath. Had he lived, his sword master would have been proud of his pupil. However, death had claimed him on the Fields of the Pelennor on the same day as his king. With a sigh, Muzgâsh sheathed his sword, reluctant to return to the present. He always found a strange peace in the honing of the concentration until all else melted away. But what was taking his messenger so long?
"Any sign of King Éomer yet?" he asked Shagnar, standing guard on one side of the courtyard.
"None, my lord," his captain answered.
Muzgâsh frowned. It shouldn't have taken his man long to find the King of Rohan and surely King Éomer would want to come at once. Was something amiss? He cast a critical look over his preparations. The courtyard of the house had been cleared of debris and the cobbles washed. A trail of light grey ash marked the Circle of Death, the ritual killing ground. And not just any ash, but brought with them from his father's funeral pyre. Not that they'd had much to burn, except for an elaborate coffin, empty, and the requisite slaves and concubines for the afterlife.
That moment a shout went up from one of the guards by the gate. "It's Baran. But he's on his own."
The gate to the road opened with a bang and Baran stumbled in. Alone. Taking deep, gasping breaths, he crossed the courtyard and fell to one knee just outside the circle of ash. "My Lord Prince, forgive me."
Muzgâsh went still. "King Éomer?"
"I delivered the letter, just as instructed. But I swear to you, the moment he read it, he knew!"
"How could that be?"
The man lifted a hand in supplication. "I don't know. It was as if the message was written there plain for him to read. He tried to detain me, but I managed to escape - only just."
So now the King of Rohan had received a warning. Muzgâsh's hand tightened on the grip of his sword.
"Please my lord," Baran pleaded, babbling in his fear. "It has to be that woman. She must have slipped in a warning somehow. I tell you, he knew straightaway!"
The princess. Of course, that sudden offer of cooperation, the strange signature! Rage flooded through him. Did she think to try and best him this way? Well, he would teach her the price for interfering with his plans. But first he would have to deal with this quivering heap of misery at his feet. His hand went to the slim dagger at his belt, made from a curved piece of obsidian, as sharp as one of the fabled Elven blades. The visible symbol of his power as a Prince of the Blood over life and death.
Baran froze. "Not the Serpent Tooth! Please, my lord! I have served you faithfully all these years."
Muzgâsh considered him through narrowed eyes. Truth to tell, he had too few men as it was, and with his plans foiled for the moment, might well need every single one of them.
Slowly he lowered his hand and the man breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you," he whispered.
Muzgâsh motioned for him to get up. "Don't ever fail me again, or..." He did not need to finish his threat. "Now get you gone!"
Still trembling, Baran bowed and disappeared quickly in the direction of the stables, where he and the other guards had established their quarters.
Shagnar stepped forward, awaiting orders. "What do we do now, my Prince?"
Considering the question, Muzgâsh locked eyes with his captain. "This is a minor setback, nothing more."
So the King of Rohan would be on his guard now. It did not matter, for in the end he would still do exactly what Muzgâsh wanted him to. A true master of Shah found opportunity even in misfortune. After all, he still held the most important piece in the game. Even if it was only a hapless pawn.
"We will do absolutely nothing for the time being," he said slowly. When his captain gave him a surprised look, he added. "Let them sweat and worry, imagining the worst. Then when we strike, their own fears will make them weak and easy to mould to our will. Just send out a couple of scouts to find out where the King of Rohan is at the moment and to keep an eye on him."
"And the woman?"
Muzgâsh stripped off his leather gauntlets and handed them to his captain. "I will deal with her myself." He nodded a dismissal.
Careful not to smudge any of the ash, he stepped outside the Circle and strode over to the house. From the entrance, a short corridor led to the kitchen, and crossing it brought him to the trap door leading down to the cellar. His men had cleaned out some of its storerooms, where the owners of the house used to keep their supplies, and fitted them with new doors and beds for their guests.
The two men guarding the cellar vaults looked up from their game of dice and jumped up hastily when Muzgâsh descended the steep stairs. No outside sounds penetrated the thick walls and the air lay heavy and clammy.
"All is quiet, my lord."
Muzgâsh nodded in acknowledgement and turned to a small table standing by the door to the first cell. A brass candlestick stood upon it, which he lit from one of the torches set in brackets along the narrow corridor leading to further rooms.
"Open the door."
The men jumped to do as they were bid, then stood to attention by the door, which gaped open like a black maw. Savouring the moment, he took a step into the room. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the dim light cast by his candle and he spotted her in the shadows against the wall. The princess stood by the end of the bed, her head held high, the cloak clutched tightly around her as if it provided some sort of protection. A step closer revealed her grey eyes shading into black, large and unfocused in the flickering light. Young and vulnerable.
Smiling in anticipation he flicked a nod at the guards. "I don't need you anymore. Make sure I am not interrupted."
His men obeyed with alacrity. "Of course, my lord." They closed the door behind them.
As their hurried steps faded away, he saw Princess Lothíriel's fingers clench at her side. Muzgâsh let the silence grow until it stretched between them menacing and almost alive. If she had expected him to rage and rail at her at this little setback, he would disappoint her. He had more control over his temper than that and would not give a woman the satisfaction of seeing him lose it.
"And so we meet again, my Lady Princess," he said.
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.