5. Protector of the Weak
Protector of the Weak
What ought to be the rules of conduct for a prince? I say: he should be generous in thought and deed, just and true to his friends but unyielding to his enemies, yet always ready to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
(Mardil Voronwe: The Prince)
The servant bent down to whisper in Prince Imrahil's ear. Too polite to eavesdrop, Éomer nevertheless was pretty sure he heard Princess Lothíriel's name mentioned. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his host freeze in the middle of lifting his wine glass to his lips. Then Imrahil got up so abruptly that he nearly sent his chair flying.
"Will you excuse me for a moment?" he said to Éomer. "A small domestic problem has arisen that requires my attention."
"Yes, of course," Éomer replied civilly, but he did not think the prince heard him, for by that time he was already halfway to the door leading out of the dining room.
Éomer watched him go with bemusement. Until tonight he had considered his friend completely unflappable. They had stood together at the last battle outside the Morannon, and even when facing certain death and the possible end of all they held dear, Imrahil had been calm and dignified, determined to do his best by his king and die in a way worthy of his ancestors.
Now, within the space of one evening, he had seen the Prince of Dol Amroth disconcerted several times. First of all, when Éomer had accompanied the princess in from the garden, his friend had looked very much taken aback and had not been his usual composed self for some time afterwards. In retrospect, Éomer wondered if Imrahil had been upset at his discovery of his daughter's blindness, or more worried about what she might have said to him. That there could be no dependence on the Princess of Dol Amroth sticking to the kind of unobjectionable topics of conversation that the other Gondorian ladies favoured, had become clear soon after.
Éomer had nearly laughed out loud at Imrahil's face when his daughter had innocently outlined her solution of how to control the canine population of Dol Amroth. In a way it was quite comforting to find that he was not the only male thrown into disarray by her choice of subjects.
The servants were impeccably trained and now served up an impressive collection of sweetmeats, ranging from familiar honey cakes over sugared almonds to exotic looking delicacies imported from the far south. Lady Annarima and Elphir valiantly kept up a rather desultory conversation about last night's entertainment up at the Citadel, but Éomer noticed that they kept throwing nervous glances at the door through which Imrahil had disappeared. As for Amrothos, he had given up all pretence of listening to them.
When the door opened shortly after, everybody stopped talking and looked up expectantly. However, it was only the same elderly servant who had fetched Imrahil. This time he stepped up to Elphir and whispered in his ear.
"I'm coming," the prince nodded, a frown appearing between his eyebrows.
When he got up, his wife rose from the table as well.
"If you'll excuse us, my Lord King," she said smoothly and took her startled looking husband's arm.
He was left alone with Amrothos. The door closed with a soft click behind the Prince and Princess of Dol Amroth and the servants silently refilled their glasses. Éomer's eye fell on the wine stain, which had resulted from Princess Lothíriel's earlier mishap. It was almost dry by now. He wondered what his sister would make of her witness. This was not the first time he had been invited to dine at Imrahil's table, but he had to admit tonight had been by far the most entertaining. Instead of the usual rather formal talk about the court of Gondor, the conversation had been animated and varied. The two youngest offspring of the family seemed to have an enlivening effect, even if they didn't always intend to.
Amrothos had occupied himself selecting one of the oranges artfully arranged in a basket of fruit in the middle of the table, and now offered one to Éomer as well. Their eyes met, and suddenly Amrothos gave a grin.
"Oh, let's just go and have a look," he suggested, putting the fruit back again.
"If you say so," Éomer agreed readily.
"Well, I can't very well leave you sitting here all on your own, can I," winked Amrothos, "and I'm dying to find out what's the small domestic problem, aren't you?"
Éomer was startled into a laugh. "Yes, I am," he admitted.
They were the last to arrive. A servant had reluctantly directed them to the small cobbled stable yard fronting the main gate and when they got there, they found the whole household assembled, watching the unfolding spectacle.
Princess Lothíriel stood in the middle of the yard, her nephew holding on to her skirts, and faced her father, Elphir and his wife. They were discussing something in low voices. The torches, set in sconces all along the four walls, threw their flickering light over the scene. What caught Éomer's attention, though, was the pony whose lead rope she was holding: a singularly sorry looking animal. It only took him a moment to take in its rough and mangy coat, the ribs sticking out its side and the apathetic way it hung its head and he was very much surprised to find such an animal in Prince Imrahil's stable.
Then Éomer spotted the riders of his small guard, who had been eating in the kitchen, and motioned to Éothain, their captain, to join him.
"What's going on here?" he asked.
His captain wore a carefully neutral expression as he exchanged a nod with the two of them. "It seems the princess bought the horse, but Prince Imrahil does not agree with her taste."
Éomer was not surprised. Beside him, Amrothos groaned. "She bought it? Whatever for?"
"Apparently to save it from being sent to the knackers'."
Éomer privately thought that he agreed with the previous owner's decision. What else could you do with such a wretched looking animal?
"A pony!" Amrothos exclaimed. "Couldn't she stick to dogs? This is getting worse and worse."
At his son's exclamation, Imrahil had looked over and now gave them a pained nod of acknowledgement. Éomer felt constrained to join him, although he had no desire at all to get embroiled in a family argument.
"I won't have my precious son seen with that flea-ridden bag of bones," Lady Annarima was just scolding furiously, and then checked herself when she spotted him.
Her precious son looked distinctly rebellious. Éomer had met the boy briefly the last time he had dined with Imrahil, and had thought him a bit dull and unnaturally reserved, quite unlike the children of the Rohirrim. Now he looked much more like a normal six year old.
"It's not fair," he protested.
"Alphros, you have to understand that life isn't always fair," his father tried to soothe him and hunkered down facing his son, "and this pony is much better off being put out of its misery."
"You have to trust us adults to know what's best," Prince Imrahil concurred. Éomer got the feeling it was not the first time the prince had used this argument.
"Aunt Lothíriel is an adult and she agrees with me," Alphros retorted at once and looked up triumphantly at his grandfather.
Lady Annarima opened her mouth to say something, but was forestalled by her husband.
"That's enough, Alphros," Elphir said, getting up. "Your mother and I have decided that the animal is going and that's final."
Princess Lothíriel had listened to the whole exchange with her lips pressed close together, her face white and drawn.
"No, it's not," she said flatly. "Galador is staying. I've bought him. He belongs to me."
Imrahil looked thunderstruck. "Galador?" he asked, "They dared name this ... animal after our forefather, the first Prince of Dol Amroth?"
"No, they did not name him at all," the princess admitted, "it was Alphros's idea."
Éomer was hard pressed not to laugh at the appalled expression on his friend's face and behind him he heard what sounded suspiciously like suppressed laughter. Amrothos had his face hidden in his hands, his shoulders were shaking.
"Where did you find him, anyway?" he asked his nephew when he had mastered his mirth. "Surely you could search the whole of Minas Tirith and not find a sorrier creature."
His sister frowned at him, but it was Alphros who answered his uncle's question. "Minardil told me about him," he explained.
"Who is Minardil?" Amrothos asked patiently.
"He's the son of Alphros's personal guard," his sister replied, "and only a year older than Alphros. As for the pony, it used to belong to the owner of that small tavern down the road."
"The Maiden and Dragon?" Lady Annarima asked in disbelief. "You took my son to that place?"
"He was perfectly safe. We took Minardil's father along and they were very polite," the princess replied soothingly.
Éomer had met the boy's guard, a big, dour man with a reputation to match and he had no doubt at all that the owner of the tavern would have been scrupulously polite to the Princess of Dol Amroth, backed by all her father's clout as well.
Lady Annarima's voice rose an octave. "Do you know what kind of company they keep in that tavern?"
"Not really," Princess Lothíriel admitted. "Why? Do you?"
In the crowd somebody tittered and the princess blushed slowly, obviously only now realizing what her sister-in-law was referring to.
"It's disgraceful, the way you're making a spectacle of us," Lady Annarima hissed furiously.
"I am not," Princess Lothíriel answered back calmly. "It's you who's making a fuss. All I've done is saved this poor pony from being killed and now I need a stall made ready in the stables."
Her voice was firm and reasonable and utterly assured again. Éomer stared at her in surprise. Was this the same girl who had gotten flustered at such a small thing as spilling a glass of wine at the dinner table? The pony gave a small whickering sound, almost as if aware of the discussion, and the princess reached out a soothing hand at once.
"Don't worry, little one," she said gently, "you're safe now." Her fingers stroked the rough-coated neck. The pony's head lifted, ears pricking forward for a moment.
"See," Alphros piped up, "all Galador needs is rest and some fodder."
"Well, he's not getting that in my stables," Imrahil said firmly, "and anyway they are full, there's no spare room at all."
"He doesn't need much room," his daughter pointed out. "Maybe he could share a horse box with one of the other ponies."
Elphir looked aghast at that idea. "What, and share fleas and the Valar only know what diseases with them as well?"
For the first time, the princess was slightly discomfited. "Maybe that's not a good idea," she agreed. "We'll rent a box in one of the inns then."
"Rent a box?" Lady Annarima echoed. "The inns are completely full for the wedding. And do you know how much that costs? Who's going to pay for all this?"
Princess Lothíriel hesitated and her sister-in-law at once pursued her advantage.
"How did you pay for this animal, anyway?" she asked. "You have no money."
Alphros clutched his aunt's skirts more firmly and looked up pleadingly at his mother. For a moment she wavered, but then she crossed her arms in front of her chest.
"Well?" Lady Annarima asked.
"I bought him in father's name," the princess admitted.
"I knew it!" the other woman exclaimed triumphantly. "How much did you pay for it?"
"Two silver crowns," Princess Lothíriel said reluctantly and Éomer shook his head. That was the price of a sturdy packhorse, not an inferior animal like this, and he was pretty sure the princess knew as much.
"Grandfather can give him to me for my birthday," Alphros put in valiantly. "It's only another six months."
"It's another seven months," his mother corrected him, "and anyway, what would you do with it? You've got a proper pony to ride."
Princess Lothíriel had turned to Imrahil. "Please father," she pleaded, "I only need a place somewhere for a few days and once he's stronger, we can send him home to Dol Amroth. I'm sure I can find someone there to take him in."
Imrahil hesitated, visibly torn between the desire to please his daughter and the fact that it was ridiculous to ship this kind of animal all the way to Dol Amroth. Lady Annarima had no such scruples.
"You mean, foist it off on someone, like you have done before," she snapped. "Who would voluntarily take on such a completely useless animal?"
"He's not useless," Princess Lothíriel snapped back. "It's just that he's been worked too hard and needs time to recover. You wouldn't look so good either, if you had to carry heavy loads all day, had to subsist on what little food you could forage, and got beaten by a stick every time you faltered."
The men were struck dumb at these words and Lady Annarima went an unbecoming shade of purple. "You dare compare me to this thing?" she gasped.
Amrothos turned away and seemed to choke on something. Éomer had trouble himself, to keep a straight face at the picture of the elegant Lady Annarima as a poor, bedraggled pony.
Imrahil cleared his throat. "I'm sure Lothíriel didn't mean it that way," he intervened.
For a moment, Princess Lothíriel wore the same rebellious expression as her little nephew, but then she apologized. "I'm sorry, Annarima, I meant no offence," she said.
"Yes, I'm sure she didn't mean to imply you were a flea-bitten bag of bones," interjected Amrothos, quoting her own earlier words back at his sister-in-law.
This didn't exactly help. Lady Annarima's eyes narrowed. "You two have been here less than a day and already your sister is making a vulgar spectacle of herself trying to play the noble rescuer," she lashed out. "Alphros is a child and doesn't know better, but she should. Just look at that ugly creature!"
The princess had gone white and now drew herself up to her full height, little though that was. "I can't," she said quietly, "but I don't need to. What I do know is that I can't just walk by, while they kill this poor thing, just because it's no longer useful."
"Lothíriel," her father said, "believe me, it's for the best. What would you do with him?"
"I don't know," she admitted.
"We don't need another horse, and anyway there's no room in the stables," Elphir said gently but insistently. "It's time to face up to those facts."
Éomer noticed that she had begun twisting her sleeves again and they were starting to look frayed.
"Lothíriel," her father said, "remember that back in Dol Amroth you promised that the next time, you would think before you acted?"
"I know," she replied with a catch in her voice, "and I did remember my promise, but I had to do something. They were going to kill him first thing in the morning."
Prince Imrahil sighed. "Daughter, I know you mean well, but you have to learn to control your impulses. First dogs, now a pony, what is it going to be next time? A mûmak?"
She gave a shaky smile. "If it needs rescuing..."
Her brothers smiled at that and Amrothos stepped up to her and gingerly laid an arm around her shoulder. "Little sister," he said, "it's true, you just cannot right every wrong."
"I know," she said and angrily wiped her eyes on her sleeve, "but still..."
Her voice petered off and by her side Alphros looked down and scuffed his boots against the ground. The wind had picked up and the light cast by the torches flickered wildly. Although the day had been warm, it was spring still, and the night air had grown chilly. The princess reached out a hand to the pony and when it shivered, she stroked it lovingly. Éomer watched as she ran a slender, white hand along the tangled mane and down the nose, as if trying to memorize its shape. The pony gave a low snort, obviously not used to such kind treatment.
"I'll take him," Éomer said.
Everybody turned to stare at him. Had he really said those words? Behind him, Éothain choked off a protest and the spectators whispered to each other in surprise. He cleared his throat.
"I'll take him," he repeated.
"My Lord King," the princess said uncertainly, "I didn't know you were here. What do you mean?"
"We can always use another packhorse," he replied nonchalantly. "I'll see to it that he gets fed properly and I'm sure he will come in useful."
"Éomer King!" Éothain protested behind him, speaking Rohirric. "We have plenty of packhorses, we don't need another one!"
"Not now," Éomer cut him off, although privately he completely agreed with his captain. Indeed, even the lowliest of their ponies was a prince compared to this sorry specimen of horseflesh.
"See?" the Princess of Dol Amroth said triumphantly. "The King of Rohan himself agrees with me that Galador isn't useless. And nobody knows more about horses."
Éomer did not quite dare to meet Éothain's eye. "You flatter me," he said modestly.
"Not at all," she assured him with a kind smile, but then her face suddenly darkened. "You won't get rid of him secretly, will you?" she asked.
That unworthy thought had crossed his mind, but only briefly. "I won't," he promised.
"Upon your honour as king?" she insisted. From behind her, Annarima gasped at her presumption.
He looked down into those grey eyes, almost black in the uncertain torch light. "Upon my honour," he said and was gifted with one of her dazzling smiles. It was uncanny how she seemed to know exactly where to look.
Then she turned to the pony and bestowed an even more dazzling smile on it. "Did you hear, Galador?" she said, "This is your new master. He will look after you from now on."
She handed over her end of the frayed rope as if it were the key to something precious and rare.
"You won't regret this," she assured him.
Later that night, Éomer rode down the winding road leading to the main gate, accompanied by his guards. Trailing behind him on a long leading rope was Gallant Galador, as his men had already dubbed the pony. He had briefly considered asking one of his riders to hold the rope, but had decided that would be unworthy of a king. Besides, it might teach him a lesson to better control his impulses in the future. He still did not know what had possessed him to say those fatal words, but once he had uttered them, he could not retract them of course.
At least Firefoot had refrained from taking any offence, obviously considering the pony far below his notice. Now the main worry on the King of Rohan's mind was how to explain the animal to his squire, who would have the dubious pleasure of looking after it. They would just have to corral it somewhere well out of sight.
When they passed the Great Gate and turned north towards their encampment, his guards fanned out in their usual vigilant formation. The road was packed with people visiting or returning from the fair and the going was slow at first. It was only when they had left the last tents behind them, that they could pick up their pace. The moon had risen to the zenith by now and their horses had no problem finding their way. It wasn't far, but after a while the pony began to flag, so they had to slow down again. Something told Éomer that the Princess of Dol Amroth might well check up on the well-being of his charge, and it would not do to have to admit that it had dropped dead of exhaustion before they had even reached their encampment.
The Pelennor was dotted with the campsites of those not lucky enough to get hold of a place at an inn, and he was far too deep in thought to pay them much attention. His guards noticed the occupants of one particular small campsite coming to have a look at their passing, but then again this was nothing unusual, the King of Rohan having gained quite a reputation by now.
What his guards did not hear, of course, were the words two of the men exchanged after the Rohirrim had passed by.
"Is that him, my lord?" asked the smaller of the two.
The other man nodded slowly, looking after the King of Rohan. He wore the simple woollen tunic of a merchant, but at his side was belted a sword and when he returned to their small fire, he moved with the feline grace of a warrior born and bred.
"Yes," he said with a smile.
Muzgâsh, son of Uldor, had not allowed himself any wine or other fleshly pleasures since leaving the City of Serpents three months ago, just as the rules demanded. However, now that he had come a step closer to his objective, he had one of his servants pour him a cup of wine to celebrate.
Sweet, and of a rich red colour, it reminded Muzgâsh of freshly spilled blood. He smiled.
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.