28. Pawn's Move
Only a player who understands the importance of pawns will become a true master at Shah. Being the most insignificant of the pieces, they are easily overlooked, yet if used properly can threaten the king himself.
(Ulfang: Shah - A King's Game)
Muzgâsh's men knew better than to stare openly at him, but he could feel their curious glances when they thought his attention elsewhere. He sat down at the table in the kitchen and motioned for the servant doubling as cook to serve him a late midday meal. That wildcat with her cursed candlestick! His head still smarted and his hair... He would have to cut it short before they reached the City of Serpents or he would make himself the laughingstock of the entire court.
It was a sign of course. He should not have let his physical urges overrule his mind like he had. The rules of the blood-quest insisted on renouncing all bodily pleasures until the revenge was accomplished. And with good reason, for such pleasures provided nothing but a distraction from the goal of avenging his father. But she had trembled so deliciously at his touch, her blindness only adding to her allure, that even now a part of him wanted nothing else but to go back and savour the sweet taste of her fear. And this time he would not let himself be fooled by any false submissiveness, this time she would yield to him completely, holding nothing back. He lost himself in the picture of the princess begging him for forgiveness and how he would punish her for her offences.
He started at his captain's voice. Distracted by that woman again! "What is it?"
"Your plan worked. One of our scouts has just come back. He says the hunt has been called off and the gates are open again."
Muzgâsh nodded and motioned for Shagnar to join him at his table. He took a spoonful of the rich meat stew that his servants had prepared for him. Not the tasteless stuff they ate here in Gondor, but well spiced and tangy.
"Are they searching the traffic leaving the city?" he asked.
Shagnar shook his head. "Not at the moment. What is your plan now, my lord?"
Muzgâsh took a sip of red wine. "They are warned anyway, so I have decided on a direct approach. I want you to carry a message to them, demanding that King Éomer come with you for parley."
His captain frowned. "What if he refuses?" Muzgâsh wondered if the thought had crossed his mind that the Gondorians might torture him to find out Princess Lothíriel's whereabouts. But he had taken that into account with his plan.
"He won't." Muzgâsh smiled. "For I will write that in that case the princess will die."
"But my lord, I thought you wanted to take her with us?"
Muzgâsh sighed. While he did not question his captain's loyalty or ferocity, he sometimes had his doubts about the quality of his mind. "King Éomer does not know that," he pointed out patiently. When Shagnar still looked doubtful, he added. "Trust me, the King of Rohan won't be able to resist the opportunity to try and rescue her."
"You lead him here, making sure nobody follows you. Then once he's here, I will challenge him." A simple and foolproof plan. Muzgâsh took another mouthful of stew. "We will have to leave the city as speedily as possible after I slay him, before his friends realize what has happened."
"I don't like running away like a common thief," Shagnar objected.
Muzgâsh nodded his agreement. "True. But we will be back soon enough. With an army at our back."
"And what about the princess? Will we have the time to take her with us?"
Frowning down at his stew, Muzgâsh pondered the question. They would have to move quickly after King Éomer's death. Besides, right now she was nothing but a distraction, a temptation to slake his thirst for revenge on her instead of saving it for the King of Rohan.
"We will send her down to the boat ahead of us," he decided. "And we might as well take her maid with us, too. Have we still got that old cart we used to bring them here?"
Shagnar nodded. "It's in the garden."
"Good. Put them in there and cover them with sackcloth. There is so much traffic through the gates, nobody will notice."
"But what if they somehow manage to attract the guards' attention?"
Muzgâsh drummed his fingers on the table. With the Princess of Dol Amroth that was a distinct possibility. "You're right, we will have to give them some kind of sleeping potion."
He took another swig of wine, for the hot food had made him thirsty. Then he smiled.
"Have we still got that healer's satchel?"
Her water was gone, all that remained of it a damp spot on the floor. Lothíriel sighed as she righted the table and chair with hands that still shook with reaction from the aftermath of her confrontation with Muzgâsh. As if she didn't have more serious concerns! But her dry throat scratched uncomfortably and she ached to wash the taste of him from her mouth. It seemed to her she could still sense the aftertaste of spices on her tongue, could feel his hands groping her, his smell compounded of sweat and leather clinging to her. Shuddering at the memory, she wiped her sleeve across her lips, wincing when she accidentally touched her cheek. Although the skin wasn't broken, she would soon sport a spectacular bruise from his blow. Unfortunately she did not think that would put him off - on the contrary, it would probably be more likely to excite him.
Lothíriel sat down on the bed again and lined up the chamber pot and candlestick next to her. What an impressive array of weapons, she thought despairingly. Wrapping her cloak around her, she hugged herself, trying to still the trembling threatening to overwhelm her again. She could not banish the thought that surely after having dealt with the latest crisis, Muzgâsh would be back and fooling him for a second time somehow did not seem to be an option.
"They are looking for you," she told herself loudly. "That man said as much. Éomer will find you soon."
But soon enough? a treacherous part of her mind asked. She rubbed her aching wrists. More bruises. Clearly the man had plenty of experience when it came to subduing unwilling bed partners and no scruples about using his superior strength against them. In fact the piece of scum had enjoyed her struggles. Well, except for in the end. She smiled savagely at the thought that right now, Muzgâsh's head was aching, too. Then her smile faded when she considered what price he might exact for her brief triumph.
Had it really been only this morning that she had woken up so full of joy at the prospect of meeting Éomer again? Filled with warmth and laughter, the memory seemed impossibly distant from her present circumstances. And what if Muzgâsh carried through his threat of abducting her to Harad? In that case I will kill him, she vowed to herself, no matter what it takes. For it would mean that Éomer... She could not finish the thought.
That moment, the faint sound of footsteps reached her ears. She got up hastily, hefting the candlestick in one hand. A Princess of Dol Amroth went down fighting she told herself. The door opened and somebody entered.
"Stay where you are," he ordered her.
Not Muzgâsh. Briefly, her knees went weak with relief. Lothíriel did not recognize the man's voice, but there seemed to be a strange note in his tone. Wariness?
He crossed the room and set something on the table, then immediately retraced his steps. Suddenly the rich smell of food and spices filled the air and her stomach growled in response. The door slammed behind the man, the key turning in the lock, but by then she was already halfway to the table. Tentatively running her fingers over the surface, she discovered a bowl of some kind of savoury stew and a big goblet of sweet smelling wine.
All of a sudden she hesitated. Dare she eat anything provided by her captors? What if the food had been tampered with? But the water she had drunk earlier on had been fine, she reminded herself, and she needed to keep up her strength. She gripped the edge of the bowl carefully and picked up the spoon. Hesitantly she took a small mouthful. The creamy sauce tasted delicious, rich and spicy, just as she liked it. She identified pieces of meat and vegetables and swallowed eagerly, dipping her spoon in the bowl for another helping.
And a drink at last! With shaking hands, she raised the goblet to her lips and took a big gulp. A sweet and strong wine, not watered at all - she would have to be careful not to drink too much of it. But how thirsty she felt! And the spicy food only made it worse. Then she frowned. The wine left a sickly sweet taste in her mouth, only very faint, yet fleetingly it brought back an unpleasant memory. Where had she tasted its like before? Running her tongue across dry lips, she could feel an oily residue. Suddenly the memory came back, vivid and filled with suffering. The Houses of Healing! Those terrible days after her accident when she had thought her head would burst from pain. The healers had given her a potion to dull the ache and make her sleep.
Lothíriel put the goblet back down. Why would they mix poppy syrup into her drink? She did not think the one mouthful she had drunk would affect her, yet there had to be enough in the wine to send her to sleep. Did Muzgâsh intend to take advantage of her while she was unconscious? The thought sent a cold shiver of dread down her spine, yet after a moment she shook her head. It made no sense. Her brief experience of the man told her that he would much rather have his victim conscious of whatever degradation she was suffering. No doubt he considered that the best part of it.
Which meant that they had something else planned, for which they needed her asleep and quiet. Lothíriel caught her breath. Could this be an opportunity to make a move of her own at last in this deadly game? After a moment's thought she went to get the chamber pot and started ladling stew into it, followed by the contents of the goblet. She did not have the strength to outfight Muzgâsh, but perhaps she could outwit him.
Another message. Éomer stared down at the parchment, then up at the messenger. The man had demanded to see the King of Rohan and insisted they meet in the courtyard. Unarmed and obviously not happy about that fact, he had the look of a battle-hardened warrior, a long healed scar tracing a white line across his cheek.
"I will have to think about this first," Éomer said.
The man nodded grudgingly. "Not too long, or..." He did not have to specify the threat any further, for the letter stated it quite clearly for him. The princess dies on the fourth noon bell, unless the King of Rohan follows my messenger.
Éomer retreated to the other side of the courtyard, where Imrahil and his sons stood watching anxiously. Without a word he handed the message over. While Aragorn and Elfhelm clustered round to read it, he let his glance wander aimlessly over the stables, his mind already busy making plans. In one window he caught a glimpse of two small, pale faces. Alphros and his friend had been told to stay out of the way, but their curiosity had obviously gotten the better of them.
"It's a trap," Aragorn stated, "but then you know that."
Éomer nodded. Imrahil raised an expressionless face. "What do you intend to do?"
"I will go with the messenger of course."
Hope flared briefly in Imrahil's eyes, but by his side Elfhelm uttered an incoherent protest. "My Lord King," he exclaimed, "please reconsider. Surely there has to be another way."
His Marshal gave a helpless shrug. "I don't know. But you are the last descendant of the House of Eorl. The Riddermark cannot afford to lose you."
"And I cannot afford to lose Lothíriel," Éomer pointed out harshly.
"They might not carry through their threat. After all, the princess is a valuable hostage."
"That is not a risk I can take." Éomer lifted his hand to cut off any further remonstrations from his Marshal. "Enough! It might be our only chance to rescue her." And his opportunity to act at last, to do something to save her - and to call the men who had abducted her to account. Yes!
"Have you got a plan?" Aragorn asked.
"Not yet," Éomer admitted. He drummed his fingers on the scabbard of his sword. Just walking into the trap blindly would not help Lothíriel either. "I'm pretty sure they are keeping her prisoner somewhere here in Minas Tirith."
Aragorn nodded. "I agree. Otherwise they would not have reacted to us searching the city like they did."
Éomer found himself looking over at the messenger and considering him. There were ways to make men talk against their will, to break even hard-bitten warriors. He abhorred such methods, but for Lothíriel's sake? From the Citadel, the bell rang the half hour. They were running out of time!
"We have to find a way for you to follow me," he said, thinking furiously. "Then when I give the signal, you attack."
Elfhelm looked unhappy at this suggestion. Éomer had to agree it was risky, but it might at least give Lothíriel a chance of being rescued even if he failed.
"But how can we follow you without being noticed?" Amrothos asked.
Éomer looked at the stables again. The two white faces were still pressed against the window, the smudges of dirt on their cheeks making the boys look like street urchins.
"I have got an idea," he said.
Lothíriel tried to let go of all her tension and concentrate on her breathing. She lay stretched out flat on her belly on the bed, her head turned to the side, eyes closed. The familiar sound of the key turning in the lock reached her ears, then footsteps. Heavy boots, she identified them automatically, three sets. Relax, she told herself. Of course right then a tickle threatened to develop in her nose.
One pair of boots approached the bed and stopped beside her. Somehow she knew without a doubt that Muzgâsh stood staring down at her. Feeling vulnerable and exposed, it took all her self-control to stop herself from clenching her hands on the sheets and to continue breathing regularly. The silence grew and she very nearly flinched when he started to pull away the cloak covering her.
"Did she drink all the wine?" he asked.
"Yes, my lord," one of his men answered from somewhere by the table. Baran.
With a soft whisper, the cloak fell to the floor. She could feel him bend over her and sniff her breath. "Excellent," he murmured.
His fingers traced across her cheekbones, to the nape of her neck and then started to comb through her loose hair. Despite her best efforts, her breathing grew shallow and it was all she could do to keep from recoiling. Fortunately he seemed too occupied with running a possessive hand all over her body to notice. A horrible thought crept into her mind. What if she had been wrong with her assessment of his character and he did intend to violate her while she lay asleep? Would she be able to strike at him with the candlestick she had hidden under her pillow as a last resort?
But he straightened up again. "If any of you touch her, you're dead meat," he said coldly. "Is that understood?"
"Yes, my lord."
"Good. Take her maid with you as well. You will hide them in the cart that we used before and smuggle them down to the boat. There you will wait for the rest of us."
Lothíriel's heart sped up. A way out of this horrible, dank prison! And would she and Hareth be able to escape on the way?
"Yes, my lord," Baran said. "What do we do if you don't show up?"
Muzgâsh hesitated. "If I'm not there by midnight, you sail and carry the news to my brother, the king."
"And the princess?" The suppressed eagerness in Baran's voice sent a shudder of revulsion down Lothíriel's back.
"Slit her throat," Muzgâsh answered coldly. "For in that case I will be dead."
Then he bent down again. "But don't worry, little one," he whispered softly in her ear, and for one panicky instant she was convinced he had seen through her deception. "I will come for you. But first I have to kill the King of Rohan." He gave a horrible low chuckle. "Wish me luck!"
His steps receded towards the door. "Hurry up," he told his men before leaving.
Lothíriel breathed a little easier with him gone and strained her ears to try and make out what the other two were doing. Despite their master's orders they seemed in no particular hurry to get her on her way.
One of them approached the bed and slid a hand along one of her legs. "It would be a shame to let a lovely thing like this go to waste," he said.
Lothíriel nearly betrayed herself by slapping his hand away. How dare he!
"Olog!" Baran said warningly. "Remember what the master said about touching her."
"I know. But what if he doesn't show up tonight? We don't have to slit her throat straightaway, do we?"
No, I will slit yours first, Lothíriel thought savagely. Once more she had to concentrate on keeping her breathing even.
"He will show up," Baran said, conviction in his voice. "Have you ever seen Prince Muzgâsh fight in earnest? He's absolutely deadly with a blade."
The words made her stomach clench with fear. Éomer! she wailed inside. But there was nothing she could do right now. First she had to escape, to have a chance to warn him. That moment one of the men put his hand on her shoulder, providing enough warning that she could will herself to stay limp when he rolled her onto her back.
"Let's carry her upstairs then," Olog suggested.
"Wait," Baran said. "I want to bind her first."
Before Lothíriel could give herself away by flinching, the other man laughed.
"Why bind her? Look at her, she's fast asleep. Besides, she's such a small thing and blind to boot, she'll be easy to subdue once she comes round."
Yes, Lothíriel thought at the men. That's right, I'm blind, weak and completely harmless.
"This one is a right wildcat," Baran answered. "I want her bound and gagged."
"Well, if you insist."
The man gripped her ankles and Lothíriel was on the brink of kicking him and trying to sprint to the door, when Baran interrupted. "Not leather thongs! They bite into the skin and the master wants no marks on her. I think there is some silk rope upstairs, let's go and look for it."
Olog grumbled at this, but let go of her legs and followed the other man out the door. Lothíriel held her breath, straining her senses, as they closed it behind them. No grating sound of the key being turned in the lock, just the faint echo of steps receding. In a flash she got off the bed. The door opened at her push with a screech that sounded agonisingly loud in her ears, but all remained quiet and there came no shout of alarm. Her questing fingers found the key still in the lock and she hastily pocketed it. Nobody would lock her in again!
A few careful steps brought her to the bottom of a flight of stairs, the floor rough and cold under her bare feet. As she explored the wooden steps leading up, the need to breathe fresh air, to feel open space around her nearly overwhelmed her. Yet she hesitated. What if the guards came back at that moment? She might not have much time! Would it be a better idea to find a place to hide? Clearly she was in some kind of cellar, for the air smelled moist and earthy. Trailing her hand along the cold stone she followed the wall of the passage and found another door next to the one leading to her own room. The key was stuck in the lock and she had some difficulty to turn it. As she opened the door, heavy breathing reached her straining ears and the lingering smell of spices hung in the still air.
"Hareth?" she whispered.
No answer. Overcoming her reluctance to enter another cell when she'd only just escaped one, Lothíriel cautiously crossed the room to where she thought her maid might be. Her outstretched hands touched a bed much like her own, then a warm body. She followed the curve of an arm to the shoulder and a quick brush across the face confirmed what she had suspected from the beginning. Hareth. Fast asleep.
"Please wake up!" she exclaimed and shook her roughly by the shoulders. A snore was her only answer. Tears sprang to Lothíriel's eyes. She needed somebody who could see, who could help her evade the men who would surely soon notice her absence and start searching for her.
A loud bang sounded from the hallway and she froze. Were they back already? Stumbling in her haste, she made her way to the door and pulled it together, leaving only a tiny crack, where she could listen.
"Hurry up," she heard Baran say. "We're running late! Remember, we have to get her away before the King of Rohan arrives. He will be here any moment."
Her breath caught in her throat. Éomer! How she wanted him. The steps descending the stairs stopped suddenly.
"Olog, didn't you close the door?" Baran asked.
"I think I did," the other man said hesitantly.
Their heavy boots clattered down the steps in a rush and then she could hear a breathless silence in the next-door room. The curses following it brought a smile to Lothíriel's face despite her desperate plight.
"Muzgâsh will kill us," Olog wailed.
"We have to find her at once," Baran said. "Why, she's blind and helpless, she has to be around here somewhere.
Lothíriel bit her lip. Too true! Where could she hide? Under the bed?
As if hearing her thoughts, Baran asked the other man. "Have you had a look underneath the bed? Maybe she just fell off in her sleep and rolled under there. "
A thump sounded from next door. "It's so dark I can't see properly," Olog complained, "but there is something there. Get a torch!"
Lothíriel took a step back when she heard Baran come out into the hallway, then go back in. Her hand crept to the pocket of her trousers. The key to her room! She still had it. And they were both in there, she could hear them rummaging around.
On tiptoe she crept out into the passageway, her heart beating so loudly that they could surely hear it. Her outstretched fingers reached the doorway of her former prison, then traced the actual door. As luck would have it, it opened outward, shielding her body from the view of the men inside.
"It's only a chamber pot," she could hear one of them exclaim in disgust.
They would come out the room soon! With shaking hands she fitted the key in the lock, then gave the door a shove to close it. Again it screeched, but the warning came too late for Baran and Olog, for she had already turned the key. Curses sounded, then the wood shuddered as the two men threw themselves against it.
"Now you get a taste of what it feels like," she murmured to herself and had to suppress a hysterical giggle.
But what now? Éomer! She had to warn him. Taking a deep breath, Lothíriel tackled the steep stairs leading up to the rest of the house. Willing herself to take them steadily and not rush - a fall would be disastrous - she ascended slowly. Behind her, she could still hear the two men shouting and hammering their fists against the wood and she suddenly worried if the noise might attract some of Muzgâsh's other men. But all remained quiet and after a few more steps she could feel the outline of an opening above her head. Straining her senses to the utmost, she slowly crawled across the edge of what felt like a trapdoor and then, after a fumbling search for the catch, closed it behind her, shutting off the noise from below. No sound of alarm.
In fact no sound of anything. The room felt empty, although faint smells of food still remained. The kitchen? At the thought her stomach rumbled loudly. She straightened up and took a cautious step forward, then another. Something hit her shin painfully. A chair, she guessed and then her outstretched hands met the smooth surface of a table. Following the edge brought her to a wall with a small window let into it. At the thought that somebody outside might spot her, Lothíriel dropped to the floor with a gasp, but again nothing happened. The house was so quiet around her, it seemed completely abandoned.
Suddenly faint voices reached her and after a moment of disorientation she identified them as coming from outside. One of the voices caused her heart to speed up in mingled hope and fear. Could it be? Lothíriel straightened up and with shaking fingers eased the window open a little way.
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.