Plan your campaigns well, for a single change of circumstances can turn the hunter into the hunted, the trapper into the trapped.
(Hyarmendacil: The Art of War)
Éomer's guide cast a nervous look back as they turned into a side-alley off the third level and Éomer followed his glance. Just the usual late afternoon traffic on the road: servants returning from their errands, a man setting up his stall to sell food, two labourers driving a cart of refuse. And a boy leading a scruffy looking pony. Nothing out of the ordinary.
His guide appeared to think so too, for he relaxed visibly. The man had scanned the streets tensely all the way from the Dol Amroth townhouse, but now he seemed satisfied they weren't being followed. They stopped at the entrance to a dilapidated looking house and Éomer's hand strayed to the grip of his sword when he felt unfriendly eyes on him. But nothing untoward happened. The door swung open and his guide motioned to follow him inside.
Éomer risked a last look back. Minardil had hunkered down and was examining Galador's hooves. Their eyes met briefly and the boy gave a quick grin. No doubt he thought it an excellent game to be included in the adults' plans. Fleetingly Éomer wondered if Alphros had been very disappointed not to be allowed along, but indeed they could not have risked giving Lothíriel's captors another such hostage.
He straightened his shoulders and entered the short passage leading into the house, all the while trying to calculate how long it would take Minardil to get reinforcements. Three levels up riding the pony, then back down again through the traffic - it would take some time.
A courtyard opened before him and his eyes were drawn straightaway to the man standing at the other end, waiting for him. He had an air of command about him and Éomer's breath quickened in excitement. Would he finally get to deal with the man responsible for Lothíriel's abduction? He had a lot to answer for.
Slowly he crossed the open space, his shoulder blades itching all the while. A sideways glance confirmed two men crouching on the roof of the building to his right, bows at the ready, and he was glad he had donned his chain mail, brought from the camp by Éothain. It felt infinitely better to at least have some kind of protection against arrows. Several more men had taken up position along the side of the courtyard, their swords sheathed as yet. Not good odds. Five on the left, three on the right, Éomer noted quickly, plus his former guide, who now stood behind their leader, having been handed a sword. And possibly more of them hidden in the house? A beautiful trap, but then he had known as much.
On the ground a circle of some grey material had been traced. Ash? He studied his opponent as he approached it and the man took a step forward, moving with a fluid grace that tugged at something in Éomer's memory. Piercing black eyes in a dark skinned face met his own. The man had a strange hairstyle, with a short patch that looked almost singed along one temple. As tall as Éomer and heavily muscled, he wore a scarlet tabard over his hauberk. Éomer felt his eyes widen when he recognized the Black Serpent device. Haradrim?
As if reading his thoughts, the man gave a smile. "King Éomer. We meet at last."
Éomer stopped just outside the circle of ash. Time. He needed time, he reminded himself, even though he itched to draw his sword and wipe that smirk off the Southron's face.
"Where is Princess Lothíriel?" he asked curtly. Never show weakness.
"In a safe place."
Éomer did not allow his fingers to clench and give his anger away. Instead he gave the man a cold look. "If you want to hold parley with me, I insist on seeing her first and making sure she's unhurt."
The man gave a little wave of one hand. "Oh, she's not damaged too badly. But I'm afraid you won't be able to see her just now."
A couple of the guards sniggered and for a moment murderous rage clouded Éomer's view with a red haze. He wrestled it down. Lothíriel needed him to think clearly, to find out where she was kept prisoner and rescue her, not to lose his temper. Even if it meant not being able to choke the life out of the man on the spot. But if the Southrons had dared to touch Lothíriel... Éomer took a deep breath. The man was watching him expectantly, as if waiting for an explosion of wrath, his black eyes glittering with anticipation.
Éomer inclined his head. "I have an offer for you from the King of Gondor. Hand back the princess and he will spare your lives and give you an escort to the borders of his realm."
"A generous offer," the Southron replied with a smile. "But I think we'd rather take the princess with us. Her stay with us so far has proven to be most entertaining."
Despite his best efforts at self-control, Éomer's hand went to his sword. What had they done to Lothíriel? Damaged? Entertaining? The need to kill swept through him, yet he dared not give in to it and the rat knew it. Éomer had met his like before, the type who taunted and tortured their opponents rather than kill them cleanly. He had to remind himself that surely Lothíriel would be a valuable hostage to these men.
"What is it you want then?" he asked, deciding to cut to the bone of the matter.
The man took a step forward, his eyes burning with sudden fire. "I want revenge, King of Rohan!"
Éomer gave him an icy stare. "In my country a true man settles his grievances directly and doesn't take out his ire on a defenceless woman."
"That's what I intend to do. I suggest we fight it out here and now - to the death." The Southron motioned to the circle of ash.
Éomer hesitated, wanting very much to accept the man's offer. "What is your name?"
"Muzgâsh, son of Uldor. A Prince of the Blood from Harad."
What was a Haradrim Prince doing in Minas Tirith? Not that it mattered; the man would never see his home again.
"Very well," Éomer said. That moment a sudden movement over at the house caught his attention. One of the ground floor windows banged open and somebody leaned out.
"Éomer, it's a trap! He wants to kill you!"
Lothíriel! His body responded before his mind had a chance to make a conscious decision. With no memory of drawing his sword, he pivoted to the right, cutting across one guard's belly and pushing the man at his comrades who were only now starting to move. An arrow whizzed by as he sprinted in the direction of the house.
"I want the woman alive," he heard Muzgâsh shout behind him, just as he yanked the door open.
A dark passageway met his eyes, completely deserted. He slammed the door shut and dropped the heavy bar across it, hoping it would hold his pursuers for a moment, then started to run down the hallway in the direction where he thought Lothíriel to be. Careful, he reminded himself, it might be part of their trap. Although he doubted it from the surprise on Muzgâsh's face.
"Éomer! Help!" the cry issued from one of the rooms ahead of him and his heart missed a beat. Bursting through the door, he saw Lothíriel standing at the window, her arm caught in the grip of one of the Southrons, who had reached through and now tried to pull her out through the narrow opening. She had a plant pot in one hand and was attempting to bash the loudly cursing guard with it. But it took no more than a couple of steps to cross the kitchen and seeing Éomer's naked blade aimed at him the man jumped backward from the window with a yell. Freed, Lothíriel whirled round, swinging the pot at Éomer and hitting him full in the chest.
"Lothíriel!" he exclaimed. "It's me!"
She dropped the pot, narrowly missing his feet. "Éomer?" Then she threw himself at him, clinging to him like a drowning woman.
Éomer allowed himself a single moment to revel in the feeling of holding her close. "You're safe now," he said gently, "I promise." She gave a choked-off sob and he swore to himself that he would never let anything bad happen to her again. Not while he lived.
Pounding echoed down the hallway from the main door, reminding him they were far from safe yet. He took Lothíriel by the shoulder. "We have to get out of here."
She wiped one sleeve across her eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. "What do you want me to do?"
That moment a creak sounded from behind them, causing him to spin round. A trapdoor in the floor was slowly being lifted from below and a hand gripped one side of the opening. It could only be more enemies.
"Quiet," he whispered to Lothíriel.
Not wanting to let go of her again, he took her by the hand and led her across the room, trying to tread as silently as possible. Then before the man below could open it completely, he kicked the trapdoor shut again. A loud exclamation of pain, followed by a crash rewarded him. Hopefully he had broken his neck.
"Let's get out of here," he said, pulling her towards the door. "Follow me!"
She stumbled on the shards of the broken pot and he cursed when he noticed she was barefoot. Nothing to be done about that for the moment, though. The hallway reverberated with the sound of pounding, but the door still held. Where to now? A narrow stair led up to the upper floor, and after a brief hesitation, Éomer started to climb it, drawing Lothíriel with him. She followed gamely.
Upstairs another hallway met them, stretching the length of the house with doors either side, some of which stood open to let the evening sun shine in. With their steps muffled by an old carpet and dust motes dancing in the light, it seemed strangely peaceful. Éomer paused at the entrance to one of the rooms, then plunged inside, still holding Lothíriel's hand. He needed to sound the alarm and call for support!
The room stood empty except for an old table and a couple of dilapidated chairs. Crossing the room quickly, Eomer wrestled open the window. Inoring the loud shriek of protest from the neglected hinges, he reached for the horn hanging at his belt and gave a short blast, as arranged. To me!
Nothing happened. Éomer leaned out the window, trying to catch a glimpse of the entrance to the courtyard, but could not spot any movement there. Lothíriel stood next to him, clutching one of his sleeves and when he saw the silent trust on her face he cursed inwardly. Where were they? What was taking them so long?
"Don't worry," he said, "your father and brothers will be here soon."
She nodded bravely. "But what do we do in the meantime?"
"We have to buy time."
Suddenly running steps sounded in the passage and he cast a frantic glance around. To the right a door stood slightly ajar, leading into a connecting room, but before he could pull Lothíriel in there, a shout sounded from behind them.
"Here they are!"
He whirled round, pushing Lothíriel behind him. "Stay put there!"
Two men stood in the doorway, their swords drawn. Probably the archers from the roof. Éomer gave a grim smile. "Only two of you?"
They faltered visibly. But then they fanned out into the room, moving with practised ease. Not practised enough. A lightning stab to the right made one of them stumble back and Éomer took the opportunity to pivot round and put all his killing fury into a two-handed stroke at his other opponent. The man brought up his own sword to counter it, but much too weakly. Guthwinë bit deep into the man's collarbone and then severed his windpipe. He sank to the floor with a choked off gurgle. Éomer had already yanked out his blade and turned round in the same motion, meeting the slash aimed at his back by the other man. He laughed in exultation when he saw the dismayed expression on the Southron's face at his comrade's death.
"Don't you like the odds anymore?" he chortled.
A series of powerful blows drove the man back against the wall, his defences crumbling under the sheer force of Éomer's strokes. Then in an unexpected move he slipped his sword under the Southron's guard, opening a long gash along one arm. There! When the man cried out in pain and reflexively lowered the arm, Éomer took advantage of his longer reach to slash him across the face. Clutching his head, the man crumbled to the floor, but before Éomer could deal him a killing blow across the neck more steps sounded in the passage outside.
He whirled round and pushed Lothíriel through the door into the neighbouring room. "In there!"
She stumbled and he steadied her quickly before slamming the door shut behind them and bolting it. Where to now? He could see no other exit. That moment somebody threw himself against the door behind them, making it shake alarmingly. They were trapped.
Lothíriel gripped his arm, her eyes wide with terror. "Éomer, are you all right? What do we do now?"
He gave her a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder and considered their options. The only furniture in the room was a four-poster bed, its drapes old and faded. How long would he be able to hold the door against the men on the other side? Long enough to allow his men to reach them? And where were they?
He pulled her towards the window. "We need help!"
Éomer shoved open the window and again sounded his horn. To me! Still no answer. A quick look down showed them to be near the gates. Studying the scene, the beginning of a plan formed in his mind. After a quick wipe on his trousers he sheathed Guthwinë.
"Wait here!" he ordered Lothíriel and then ran to the bed to pull off the covers. Dust filled the air, making him cough, as he dragged them towards the window and threw them outside. They landed in an untidy heap below their position.
"We have to jump."
The colour drained from her face. "Jump? But-"
"It's not high," he lied ruthlessly and climbed onto the windowsill. "Trust me."
After the briefest of hesitations, she took his hand and let him help her up. Éomer guided her hand to where she could grip the iron frame of the window in order to clamber over. Groping for support, she slowly lowered herself until she hung over the drop. It tore his heart to see her close her eyes, trembling. But what else could he do?
"Now!" Éomer ordered.
Lothíriel let go. He held his breath as she landed on the bed covers below him with a suppressed cry of pain. In fact he did not release it until she got up again, swaying slightly. That moment the door to the room burst open, but he had already jumped. The impact with the ground drove the air from his lungs, the weight of the chain mail bearing down cruelly on his shoulders, and he fell to his hands and knees.
"There they are!" Somebody exclaimed above him and he staggered to his feet. They had to get out of here! His legs protested at the abuse, but he forced them to move, pulling Lothíriel with him towards the gate. She leaned into him for support, but uttered no word of complaint as she limped alongside him.
Ahead of them five Southrons materialized out of the shadows of the gate and spread out in a half-circle. Éomer stopped abruptly.
Caught off balance, Lothíriel grabbed his arm. "What is it?"
"More of them."
Slowly he unsheathed Guthwinë. Five against one in an open space and with the need to protect Lothíriel as well. Not good odds.
"Who wants to die first?" he called.
Not fooled by his bold words, the men smiled. One of them had a red welt across his face and looked particularly eager.
"You will, King of Rohan!" he shouted back.
Éomer pulled the horn from his belt and blew it as loud as he could manage. The sound echoed back from the buildings around them, brave and true, and for a moment the Southrons faltered and drew back. But when no answer came, they laughed and stepped forward again. It was time for him to sell their lives as dearly as possible.
Éomer turned to the woman beside him. "I'm sorry I failed you."
"You didn't," she protested. "You came for me."
Fleetingly, he let one finger trace across her cheek. So soft. So dear.
Lothíriel grabbed his hand. "Éomer," she whispered, "have you got a dagger I could use?"
He hesitated and she clutched at him. "I want to fight, too."
"You will get hurt!"
"Please..." she faltered. "I don't want them to take me alive."
Éomer swallowed a curse at the unfairness of it all. "Very well."
His hand went to his belt, but that moment he saw movement out of the corner of one eye. The Southrons had chosen to launch the attack. Éomer slewed round to meet them.
Suddenly horns sounded from outside. The great horns of the North! Éomer's attackers stumbled to a halt at the sound and looked at each other in apprehension. Then the gates behind the guards burst open with a deafening bang and men boiled through. At the front ran Aragorn with Andúril glittering unsheathed in the setting sun. The sword rose and then descended in a deadly arch, catching the first of the Southrons in the act of turning towards these new enemies. The next one fell to Imrahil, and the remainder to the Swan Knights and Éomer's own men following close behind.
Aragorn stopped next to Éomer and clapped him in a quick embrace. "My friend, are you all right?"
Éomer nodded. "You came at the right moment. Again."
Next to him, Lothíriel's father and brothers clustered round her, hugging her. She looked rather overwhelmed and bewildered by their sudden rescue. Éomer could not blame her; a minute ago they had not expected to see another sunrise.
"Éomer?" She reached out blindly for him. When he took her hand, she moved into his arms and buried her face against his chest. "Are we safe now?"
"We are," he reassured her, stroking her hair and feeling light-headed himself. "Aragorn and your father have arrived with reinforcements." She started to tremble and he held her closer.
His own guard of riders surrounded them now and Elfhelm came up to ask for orders. "What do we do now? Are there more of them?"
Éomer gave a tired wave at the house. "In there." He hesitated what to do. But their leader still remained to be dealt with. "I'll show you," he said, gently releasing the shaking woman from his arms.
"Let us deal with them," his Marshal protested at the same time that Lothíriel clutched at him convulsively.
She lifted a face drained of all colour to him. "Do you have to go?"
"Listen to the princess," Elfhelm seconded his unexpected ally.
When Éomer still hesitated, Aragorn waved him back. "You have done enough. Look after your lady and leave the rest to us. We can manage."
Next to him, Imrahil nodded. Éomer could feel some of the battle fury drain out of him, leaving him tired and sore. "There are at least ten left, possibly more," he said.
Aragorn nodded and called for his guards to follow him. Amrothos and Elphir collected their Swan Knights and ran after them while Elfhelm directed some of the Rohirrim to secure the garden behind the house and man the gates. Lothíriel hid her face against his chest again when the ugly sounds of fighting erupted from the house. There would be no quarter given by either side.
Imrahil hesitantly reached out a hand and touched Lothíriel on the arm. "Daughter, are you hurt?"
Not looking up, she took a shaky breath. "I'm fine. Éomer saved me."
Imrahil brushed across her loose hair and bit his lip. "Lothíriel," he asked in his gentlest tone, "did they try to...touch...you?"
Involuntarily, Éomer's arms tightened around her. If they had dared...fresh fury rose within him at the thought.
But Lothíriel shook her head. "Their leader wanted to," she said haltingly, "but he got interrupted when you started to search the city."
Éomer closed his eyes in relief. Perhaps his efforts had not been completely in vain. "I will look after you from now on," he promised. And he would have the rest of his life to do so.
He locked eyes with Imrahil for a moment. The other man opened his mouth as if to utter a protest, but after a look at Lothíriel clinging to Éomer closed it again and gave a grudging nod. It seemed they were still allies for the time being.
Éomer slipped one hand under Lothíriel's chin and lifted up her face. Then he brushed back her hair along one temple to confirm something he had noticed earlier on, but had been too busy to deal with. As he had thought a nasty bruise met his eyes and he drew in his breath in a hiss. "He hit you!"
Lothíriel lifted a hand to the slowly purpling skin and winced. "Well, I hit him first," she said. At their surprised silence she added almost apologetically. "It was the only way I could think of to stop him, so I hit him with a candle stick." She swallowed. "He got rather annoyed."
"Oh Lothíriel," Éomer breathed. "I'm so sorry you were put through all this pain and terror." He could not help noticing that several of the laces of her tunic were torn and looked to be tied back together inexpertly. The urge to slowly strangle the Southron prince until his face turned purple and his eyes popped swept through him again. At the same time he had to squash the thought how distracting a sight those gaping laces provided.
Lothíriel squeezed his hand. "You came for me, just as I knew you would. That is all that matters."
His brave little love. Éomer stroked her hair. Tumbling down her back in a cascade of midnight silk, it provided another distraction.
That moment Amrothos came out the house and ran over to them. "Aragorn sent me. He asks you to join him in the cellar, for there is a problem."
"What kind of problem?" his father asked.
"The leader of the Southrons demands to speak to Éomer. He has taken Hareth for a hostage."
Lothíriel gasped with dismay. "Oh no! She will be completely helpless. They gave her poppy juice to send her to sleep."
"I'm coming," Éomer decided at once.
"Me too," Lothíriel said.
At his sister's words, Amrothos silently shook his head. Éomer could guess what sounds and smells would meet them inside the house. Gently he disengaged Lothíriel's hands. "Let me deal with this."
"But he wants to kill you! His father was the King of Harad that your uncle Théoden killed on the Pelennor fields and now he wants revenge."
Éomer stared at her, several things becoming clear to him. So that was why the man had wanted to face him in single combat. One more reason to make her stay in the courtyard, out of harm's way. He briefly squeezed her hands. "I want you to remain here with your father. Please."
After a moment she unclenched her fingers from his own with a visible effort and took a step back. "Be careful," she whispered.
"Don't worry." He beckoned to Elfhelm. "Guard the princess with your life." The Marshal nodded and Imrahil slipped an arm around her shoulder.
Inside the house the expected evidence of carnage met him. It looked like the Southrons had chosen to make a last stand in the room where he had found Lothíriel. Over by the window one of the healers they had brought with them was bandaging the arm of a Guard of the Citadel. Several bodies lay sprawled ungraciously on the floor, but to his relief they were all those of enemies. The air smelled of freshly spilled blood and guts, but the smells of death had long ago ceased to bother him. He had always considered that a doubtful accomplishment.
Amrothos led him to the trapdoor in the floor that he had noticed earlier on. A steep stair led down into a cellar, where a long corridor stretched away into darkness.
"We found several cells down here," the prince explained. "One was empty, but the Southron got into the one where Hareth was held. We also found the missing healer." His voice sounded grim.
"Is he alive?"
"Barely. Apparently the Southrons used him for their amusement."
Éomer needed no further explanations. So this was where they had kept Lothíriel prisoner? But how had she managed to escape? Fleetingly he caught a glimpse of a door hanging broken on one hinge, guarding the entrance to a sparsely furnished cell, but then the men clustering at the entrance to another room claimed his attention.
Aragorn turned to him. "He's the last one left alive, but has taken a hostage. The man refuses to negotiate with anybody else."
A quick look inside the cell revealed the man who had named himself Muzgâsh. He held a wicked looking black blade to Hareth's throat. Her head lolled to one side, her grey hair partly undone and she was fast asleep.
Furious black eyes met his own. "One cut and the woman is dead, King of Rohan."
Éomer let his glance wander around the bare cell, the only furniture a small table and a bed. The air brushed chilly against his face. They had kept Lothíriel down here, helpless and frightened? And the man had tried to assault her?
He gave the Southron a savage smile. "I have a suggestion for you, Prince of Harad."
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.