9. Chapter 9
How would she ever keep the bow still enough to take proper aim? With a word to Amaurea, Lothíriel dropped the reins and gripped tighter, guiding with legs and knees. The mare didn’t alter her course but charged in a straight line down the beach, coming up on the target at a dead run. Lothíriel nocked the arrow and pulled back the string, releasing the shaft just as the mare’s nose came level with the butt. They went past so fast that she couldn’t see if she had struck the target, but when they pulled up and turned to canter back, she saw a blue fletched arrow stuck in the outer ring.
Lothíriel raised her hand in triumph. “I hit it! I hit it!” She leaned forward pulling at Amaurea’s ears. Lothíriel loved her big ears, so different from horses bred in Gondor. And her nostrils, wide and flaring – to drink the wind – the Haradrim believed they contributed towards their horses’ incredible speed. Amaurea tossed her head, she knew she had done well, but then the intelligent horse liked to play her part. She liked to win, and probably, Lothíriel acknowledged, she liked to fight. The mare wouldn’t get the chance though, because her mistress had no inclination to be any kind of warrior princess, and the longer she worked with the maimed and the sick, the more abhorrent the thought of war became. But with her country still under threat, it seemed likely direct confrontation with the Dark-lord would eventually happen. An awful thought, not to be dwelled upon. Instead, she patted Amaurea’s neck, revelling in the bond between them. It was a good job Amroth was so tall or he would be trying to prise the mare from her. He expounded on Amaurea’s battle-worthiness almost daily.
“I hit it, Sergion!” Lothíriel shouted as her bodyguard cantered his horse towards her.
Sergion beamed. “You did. But you shot a trifle early. Don’t forget, the closer you are to the target, the nearer to the bull you release.”
“Yes. I’ll go again on the same line. Once I get a bull at this distance, I will move out.”
“Practice is everything.” Sergion acknowledged. “If you are determined to carry the bow whenever we ride out, then it becomes necessary to learn to shoot when riding at speed.”
Lothíriel wasn’t sure about that. She might feel obliged to take her bow with her, but knew that whatever Seron had told her, she only ever wanted to shoot at straw. Still, she enjoyed target practice – having energy to spare after working long hours in the Healing-house. And Amaurea loved the exercise.
It took her a few more passes to get a bull and then after she got one at the next distance, the day had grown too hot for her. Sweat ran down her face, and she wiped an arm across her forehead to keep it from stinging her eyes. “I have had enough,” she called to Sergion, “and so has Amaurea.” Although the mare hardly blew: desert-bred, her thin skin and soft fine hair dissipated heat efficiently. But the tide would be up the beach soon, so they would have to go.
Nodding, Sergion directed the men to roll the targets above the tide-line, and trotted Thunderer up to her. “You will have to try it in the confines of the training ring.”
Lothíriel laughed. “Yes, but not now. All I want is a cool drink.”
“An excellent idea,” Sergion replied. “And how do you intend to spend the rest of the day?”
“I may go with Meren to the port, if that is all right.” Lothíriel relished a day of comparative freedom – she did not need to report for duty until the next morning. Elphir’s wife had such taste and could help her choose some new shoes. In spite of Amroth’s teasing, she did get out of riding clothes and healer’s garb occasionally. “It will be hot; I will drive us in the carriage. There is no need for you to come,” she assured the warrior beside her. “You hate shopping.”
“Not my favourite,” Sergion agreed. “Just let me know when, and I will detail someone.”
Splashing though the surf cooled riders and horses, and put Lothíriel in even greater spirits. She might lead a protected life, but it had its compensations. And although unseasonable heavy rain had confined them the last few weeks, it did keep the meadows green long after they would normally be yellowing. As they trotted up the paved road to the city gate, she cast an eye to Mista. The old pony stood in the top corner of the paddock, peacefully surveying the comings and goings to the city. At one time he would have trotted down to greet her. Now, sleeping in the sun took priority. A slight wistfulness for her carefree childhood constricted her throat for a moment, but then she thought of Meren. She was really looking forward to an afternoon spent with her. They got on well, even though they had quite different personalities. Meren was good at all the things she was not. She could sew and sing and play a harp. Lothíriel couldn’t tell one note from another, strange that she could master languages.
The gate wardens saluted as she and Sergion went through. Lothíriel felt sorry for them standing for hours, but at least they were in the shade of the wall. They clattered up the street and with a wave to the guards, entered the palace courtyard. At that moment her father appeared from the side door that led to his study, a frown on his face. “Oh, Lothíriel, I wanted to see you. The messenger from Londpeler brought a letter from Eglaneth.” He waved parchment vaguely in her direction. “She is extremely ill - some kind of wasting disease.”
“Oh no! We knew her health was not of the best, but last time she wrote to me she said there had been a slight improvement.” Tears welled up, Lothíriel realising how much she loved Cousin Eglaneth. As she got older the more she appreciated the sacrifices the gentle lady had made when she took charge of a distraught toddler. Sniffing, Lothíriel held out her hand for the letter but her father continued to scan the page, screwing his face as he read.
“Well, now she says she is too ill to pen this herself and had to dictate it. She wishes to see you, but that is impossible.”
“Why is it? Of course, I shall go.” Lothíriel retorted, already planning in her mind what she would take.
Her father frowned even more, shaking his head disapprovingly. “No, Lothíriel. It is too risky. You know the threats Umar made, and that piece of coast is vulnerable to raiders. And although Londpeler is fortified…”
“But we have not had a raid for months.” Lothíriel remonstrated, “and we can get there in daylight. With Sergion and my guard adding to the garrison, I will be perfectly safe.” Her father’s face still showed his resistance, so Lothíriel tried cajoling. “Please, Father, I have to go. Cousin Eglaneth was so kind to me, and devoted many years of her life to my upbringing. It is natural she wishes to see me. And there are things I can do to relieve her. I have learnt so much these last two years.”
“They have good healers in Londpeler, Lothíriel.”
So they might. But however skilled, none had the gift she had been given: the gift to ease hurt and calm the sick. And if the worst happened and Cousin Eglaneth’s illness proved to be mortal, Lothíriel knew she could alleviate the pain of her passing. But she needed to convince her father. What use was her gift if she could not use it when needed? Just about to offer up another argument for going, she was assailed by one of her visions. It came out of nowhere – a funeral bier floating out to sea, decked with flowers, – but impatiently she pushed it aside as she had learnt to do. It could have nothing to do with Eglaneth and did not mean she would die – she would not be buried at sea. And, anyway, her visions had no timescale; this one might be way in the future. Giving up trying to persuade her father for the moment, Lothíriel gathered up her the reins. “I’ll see to Amaurea, Father and then we can talk about it properly.”
The bad news put shoes out of her mind, and the discussion as to whether she could visit Cousin Eglaneth continued into dinner. Amroth saying she should definitely not go to Londpeler and Elphir hesitant. Erchi settled the matter by volunteering to go with her. Londpeler was only a day’s ride along the coast towards Tolfolas, and besides, the Corsairs attacked at night, running their boats up the beaches on moonless nights. So with a guard and Erchirion’s protection, her father relaxed and gave his blessing to the expedition.
Another lovely day, after the weeks of rain the sunny weather was welcomed by everyone. Amroth half wished he had gone with his sister, a trip to Londpeler, which would mostly be a canter along the beach, sounded pleasant. If she could have told him how long she would be away he might have done so, but having just been given command of his first group of mounted warriors, he felt obliged to supervise the summer training regime. Amroth took a deep breath, inhaling the salty air. He loved this time of the morning, when it was still cool and fresh. Raising his spear in an answering salute to the guards, he led the small company out under the arch and onto the road at a swift trot. Down at the port two sets of masts showed between the houses that clustered around the harbour. Already he could see a line of wains heading for the city. Turning to Gidon riding next to him, Amroth set a bland expression on his face. “When we have finished on the beach it will be gone noon, I reckon we ought to check to make sure all is quiet in the port.”
Gidon grinned, not at all fooled. “Sample the ale, you mean?”
“Spear throwing is thirsty work!” A voice came from behind him.
A ripple of laughter and agreement flowed around the men but it by-passed Amroth; he had fixed his eyes on the rider galloping up the road towards them. Great Ulmo! Why should Oríon ride as if Sauron himself was after him?
Fifty yards further on, Amroth brought them all to a halt, just before his friend pulled up his bay with such ferocity that the poor horse snorted vehemently in protest, prancing sideways in front of Amroth’s big grey.
“Some irate husband after you?” Amroth couldn’t help teasing, but another glance at Oríon’s troubled face brought him up sharply. “What is it? “What’s the matter?” he asked once Oríon had calmed his horse.
“I am not sure,” Oríon replied, “but something is, and it could be bad. I’ve been down at the docks to check on some measurements. The fishing boat Blue Pearl came in on the first of the flood. I know her master well. Coras was coming up here to see your father but spotted me. Last night, they were stemming the tide back along the coast when they spotted an Umbarian three-master. She had her lights doused, but showed up outlined against the lighter sky. Coras immediately put out his own lights thinking she was a pirate vessel looking for game. But as he crept past he realised she was landing men on the shore, right at the mouth of the Ernil River. It doesn’t look like a normal raid because evidently she left the men there. The boats went back to the ship and then she tucked herself away in a cove behind that small island that lies half a mile out. They are obviously up to no good but…”
“Lothíriel…!” Amroth felt the blood drain from his face.
Oríon confirmed Amroth’s fears “Yes, my first thought. Father intended to take the route along the beach; the road takes more than a day.”
“A good place for an ambush,” Gidon muttered beside them.
Amroth did not need to be told that: nothing but one small village a mile inland on the river bank. And if you came along the beach and the river was up, that’s where you had to cross. Which it would be with the recent rain. Not only that, the thick woods at the top of the beach would provide plenty of cover. “He’s sure, your fisherman?” But as he said it, he knew the answer.
Oríon nodded. “Dead sure. He’s sailed the coast for twenty years. I can’t believe it’s a raid, there are no rich pickings on that piece of coast.”
On the contrary – one very rich picking! His sister! “Oríon, go and tell my father to follow on. I’m not going to wait.” Amroth turned to the men behind him, a cold fury stealing over him as the ramifications of the situation hit hard. “You all heard! If it is a trap there is no time to waste. They left about an hour ago, but will be taking it steady as it will heat up later.” With a murmur of agreement the group checked swords and spears and brought their mounts to the bit. Amroth raised his hand; it would be a gallop all the way to the river, or until he caught up with his sister.
Charging down the sward at the side of the road, he racked his brain, seeking for a clue as to whether Lothíriel might really be riding into an ambush. The messenger had arrived about the same time as he did every week. He’d carried the usual correspondence and often it included a letter from Cousin Eglaneth. They knew she didn’t enjoy good health so the call to see Lothíriel could be genuine. But hang on – the letter wasn’t in her hand. A forgery perhaps! Amroth cast his mind back to the messenger. He did not recognise him but then he didn’t know them all. And the man looked authentic: he wore the right uniform and carried letters from the garrison commander. But messengers could be waylaid. Yes, now he remembered! He’d gone to the tavern after dinner and spotted the messenger from Londpeler – nothing strange about that. Oddly though, the man had left immediately he and Oríon had entered, leaving his ale half drunk. It was all too much of a coincidence to ignore. Thank the Valar his company were out and armed.
Aldburg - The Riddermark
Éomer, tugged at the rope, making sure the pony was tied securely to the back of the cart. “You’ll take it steady. I don’t want him lame when he gets there.”
“Trust me, lord.” The merchant reassured him. “I’ll look after him and deliver him safe and sound. And we will be resting when it heats up, so don’t you worry.” He grinned, exposing a row of blackened teeth. “I wouldn’t do anything else, or you’d have my hide!”
“You can count on that,” Éomer replied. “And you’ve got the letter safe?”
The man patted his pocket. “All safe. I’ll deliver it personally.” With a nod of his head he hopped up onto the wooden seat at the front of the cart, flicking the reins and clicking his tongue. In spite of the gee-up, the skewbald pulling the cart moved forward reluctantly, ambling in his own time to join the end of the line. Making the journey to Eastfeld and back once a week, the horse knew where he was going and looked bored by the prospect. Éomer didn’t think there was much danger of him tiring the little pony with any spanking pace. And since Rolfic, the carter Éomer had entrusted to deliver his gift, countered the skewbald’s lethargy with no more than a few ripe words, Éomer felt he had made a good choice.
Watching the neat tail swishing from side to side as the little dapple-grey trotted behind the cart, Éomer felt really pleased. Éomund would love having a pony to ride, and Bergit would know how to manage the delicate animal. He’d hesitated sending a pony, although he’d longed to do so for some time, but with this little fellow being inclined to the laming disease, he’d found a good excuse. Rich grass aggravated his condition, so being unable to send the pony to graze around Aldburg, his owner couldn’t be bothered with him and had let him go cheaply. But Edwick’s sparse paddock would be perfect, and Éomer intended to send a load of hay when the summer ended. He knew there would be enough for now.
Turning his back on the small cavalcade of wagons and carts, Éomer ran his eyes over the outer fortification of Aldburg, routinely checking for any breach in the defences. A brooding sentinel watching over the Great West Road, for nigh on five hundred years the fortress had welcomed or repulsed travellers seeking the land of the Horse-lords. Built by Eorl when he had first founded the Riddermark, time and need had turned Aldburg from stronghold to city. Still smaller than Edoras, it was no less defended. The first protection was a formidable ditch, sharp spikes pointing skyward from its depths. This surrounded a high palisade made from ancient oaks and hard grey stone from the mountains. At the centre of the city an inner stockade enclosed the original Hall, the traditional seat of the Marshal of the East-mark.
The early sun only held a promise of the heat to come, but a pleasant feeling of belonging warmed Éomer as he gazed at the solid walls. He realised that more and more he had started to consider Aldburg his home again. Memories of his childhood and of his mother and father abounded here. Once he had wanted to forget, but now he enjoyed remembering the happy days before his father had charged off to his death. In fact the little pony he had sent to Éomund reminded him of the one Éowyn used to ride. And indeed Éomund was a bit like Éowyn as a child – fearless and spirited. Their mother’s death had crushed her. Destroying her confidence and turning her into a shy, retiring mouse, looking out at the world through frightened eyes. Théoden had brought her back: his gentle patience and love gradually restoring her strength and vitality. Éomer smiled to himself: now she sometimes had a bit too much. Conversely, he had reacted quite differently to losing both parents in so short a time: the anger and resentment in him leading to many clashes with his uncle. Théodred had sorted him, spending hours every day teaching him how to fight with every conceivable weapon. His cousin had succeeded in turning the vehemence he had directed at his mother towards the enemies of the Riddermark, and instilling in him a love for his land that would always demand his best efforts. Éomer knew that deep down he had never quite forgiven his mother: the loss and hurt had run deep. But at least now he could remember her with love and affection, grateful for years of love she had given him and recalling the time she had spent on his extensive education with appreciation.
Passing through the outer gate, a cheery salute from a guard brought himself back to the present. Not surprising that he would think of his parents today. Although he hoped not only his dead father would be proud of him, but Théodred also. For today he took over as second-in command of the East-mark Riders. And Aldburg would be seeing more of him. Revelling in the thought of the challenges ahead, Éomer strode across the main square towards the Hall. The city had come to life in the time he had being dealing with the trader and now the market place buzzed with merchants and farmers setting up their stalls. Memories ambushed him again, and he stopped to look at a pen of goats, recalling Éowyn feeding an orphaned kid with milk squeezed out from a rag. But the kid had died and Éowyn had been inconsolable for days. Their father had given her a puppy, which, against all the rules, she had sneaked into her bedchamber. He recollected his mother’s horror at finding a feather snowstorm and child and puppy asleep amongst the ravaged quilt. A smile must have crossed his face because a farmer grinned at him in passing. The smell of meat pasties assailed him next. A crate of golden crusted pies and tarts were being taken from the back of a cart and piled onto a stall. They must have just been baked, steam and aroma rose temptingly. Having missed his early meal, Éomer searched his pocket for a coin.
“Best pasties in the East-mark,” the pie-seller boasted, treating him to a wink and an eyeful of cleavage.
Éomer doubted that, and biting into the pasty confirmed his opinion that Bergit won on both counts: her pastry lighter and her face prettier that the buxom girl behind the stall. Damn! He certainly didn’t want those kinds of thoughts to disturb him today. However, they inveigled themselves into his consciousness accompanied, as always, by the inevitable feelings of guilt. He sighed; it was no good for Bergit to say they weren’t hurting anybody. Edwick might be unaware of his treachery, but wrong was wrong. Although Éomer knew that he could no more keep away than he could fail to breathe. Besides, stopping his visits would really make Edwick think something had happened and he could hardly bear the thought of that. So he rode to Eastfeld no more or less than before. Edwick welcomed him; they played Tafl, joked and talked as they always had. And every visit Éomer searched Edwick’s face for any glimmer of suspicion, any flash of anger or hurt. There were none. But each time Edwick appeared weaker than the last, and each time, once all was quiet, Bergit slipped across the yard. And he did nothing to stop her. Part of him wished his duties would take him to the far borders of the Riddermark, putting him leagues away from temptation. The other part knew he would not want to go. The only answer lay within himself, he just did not want to delve to find it. Finishing the pasty, Éomer deliberately tried to clear his mind of anything other than the business at hand, organising the patrols for the next few months required all his attention.
Entering the inner stockade, he hesitated, glancing at the sun. Judging there was just enough time to check on Firefoot before his meeting with Eorllic, Éomer turned on his heel and headed to the stables.
No quite as palatial as the Royal ones at Edoras, they were still spacious, cool and airy. Constructed like the wall and the Hall, from stone and wood, his ancestor’s priorities were evident – they could house a hundred horses. This time of the morning the place thronged with Riders and grooms, Éomer knew Firefoot would have been fed and watered and he’d rubbed him down himself the night before after hard exercise, so he could safely leave him until the cool of the evening. An hour or so shaking the stiffness out of him would be good.
Éothain appeared from Starkhorn’s stall as he passed on the way to see Firefoot. His friend carefully bolted the door and welcomed him with a sideways grin. “You got the pony off all right, then?”
“Yes. The merchant, Rolfic might not win any prizes for his looks, but he comes across as reliable. He makes the journey every week, so dare not cheat me.”
Éothain hung the bridle on a hook, and shifted his saddle from its position on the partition to a holder on the wall, eyeing Éomer with veiled amusement. “Mighty lot of trouble you went to, getting the little thing fit. I hope the lady’s worth it.”
Éomer froze, clenching his teeth in annoyance. Up to now Éothain had accepted the friendship without comment. “The pony is for the children.”
“Some would say that you are being extraordinary generous to someone else’s children.”
Meeting Éothain’s cynical scrutiny with a bland expression, Éomer deliberately kept his voice calm. If he got riled Éothain would know he had hit the mark. “Bergit and Edwick have been hospitable to me. The children, the boy especially, need to ride. Edwick would have provided a pony if he hadn’t had his accident. Now he can’t, so I am doing so. It has cost me only a little money and some of my time.”
“Is that so?” Thick brows rose a trifle. “Well, between you and me, I wouldn’t be surprised if you aren’t deputising for him in other ways. A woman needs a man, and a pretty one like Bergit isn’t going to be content for long with a husband who can’t…”
He didn’t get any farther because Éomer grabbed him by the throat, his fingers pulling the collar of his shirt together and grasping a lump of flesh. “Just don’t say it, Éothain! Don’t even think it! She loves him. That’s all you need to know.”
“Peace… Peace…” Éothain spluttered. Raising his hand, palm outwards. “I didn’t mean anything. And it’s your business. I won’t mention it again.”
“Good.” Éomer slowly released him, but did not move from the spot, burning his eyes into the other man. “You are right. It is my business!”
Éothain rubbed his throat, throwing him a half grin. “Don’t worry; you won’t hear another word from me. You’ve got a grip like a rabid warg.”
Un-mollified, Éomer turned abruptly and stalked off in the direction of Firefoot’s stall. Morgoth’s balls! He regretted his reaction even before he had reached his horse. His cursed temper. He should not have done that, but luckily he didn’t think there had been any witnesses. A laugh and a joke would have been a better way of dealing with Éothain’s natural curiosity. Damn it! Now he had probably confirmed his friend’s suspicions.
Leaning over the stall, brooding on how to repair the damage, Éomer heard a soft footfall. He didn’t move, knowing who it would be. A hand fell on his shoulder. “Tonight, when it’s cool, we’ll put the jumps up. Loser cleans out both stalls.”
The tension left him. Turning, he met apologetic eyes. Éomer grinned. “Éothain, if you think that under-bred piece of horseflesh is going to beat Firefoot….”
Somewhere on the coast of Belfalas.
Even worry for Cousin Eglaneth could not take away the joy of the day. Lothíriel’s sense of freedom intensified by the smooth pace of the mare beneath her and the vista all around. With only the glimmer of dawn apparent when they had left the city, heading eastwards they met the sun. A red marbled sky opened up across the horizon as they descended the steep path that led off the road and dropped down to the sand. No breakers today: the surf just gently murmuring in the quiet of the morning. Small wavelets, turned pink by the display above them, played brightly across a still-dark sea. Lothíriel edged Amaurea to the water’s edge, kicking up a spray that sparked from red to yellow to silver as the sun gained strength.
A few miles of a good paced canter and the group slowed as they approached a fishing village. With the morning fully light now, Lothíriel could see dwellings scattered along the edge of the beach. Slackening off to a jog, they threaded between upturned boats, wicker creels, lobster baskets and drying nets. Polished hooves skittered sandflies into clouds and disturbed the scavenging gulls who shrieked their displeasure, wheeling and diving overhead. Grubby village children, bare-footed and wide-eyed called greetings, and some ran out with offers to hold the horses if the noble lords would like to sample the freshly caught shellfish. Erchi had eaten in the village a few times before, and told Lothíriel there were a couple rough wooden tables set out on the sand under the trees. A wonderful spiced fish stew was served with hunks of coarse bread to sup up the juice. But Sergion, dispensing a few coins waved the children away, eager to push on— maybe on the way back.
The shoreline became heavily wooded and a long beach stretched before them, disappearing into the early haze. Sergion rode beside her. Shading his eyes he looked far ahead. “There is an inlet just out of sight; where the Ernil River meets the sea. Usually at this time of the year we could wade across, but with the recent rains the current will be strong. We’ll check when we get there, but I suspect we will have to ride inland along the bank. There is a small village and a bridge.”
Lothíriel nodded, encouraging Amaurea to pick up her pace. How perfect here: the white sand so firm and clean. Washed by the tide in the early hours, the unmarked beach showed that no man had walked the shore that morning. Only the imprints of wading birds, and the trails of the little red crabs scurrying in and out of the surf, blemished the pristine strand. Nothing in sight, not even a fishing boat at sea. A little island, beach sparkling white in the sun, stood a half mile out. How she’d love to be there, putting footprints in the untouched sand. Suddenly wanting to feel completely alone, a luxury so often denied her, Lothíriel urged Amaurea to the front of the group. Breaking into a gallop the mare charged ahead of the rest. Lothíriel could see no one. They were all behind her and she could pretend she was on her own in the wild. She had Amaurea and not Mista beneath her, and no Larca bounded alongside, but for a moment she could almost believe she was a child again. Pounding along the sand – no cares – no fears – just freedom. But as she revelled in it, she heard the beat of hooves bearing down on her.
“Lothíriel!” Sergion sounded mad.
Guiltily, she reined in the mare, allowing her bodyguard to catch up.
“Just hold it there, young lady.”
Yes, definitely mad. His voice uncharacteristically cold. Lothíriel wheeled Amaurea around. “Don’t be mad at me, Sergion. I couldn’t resist.”
His expression softened, “I know. And everything looks benign here, Lothíriel, but I have sworn to your father to keep you safe…”
“A justified telling off, little sister?” Erchirion’s scolding voice belied the merriment in his eyes. He pulled his horse to a halt beside her.
“It’s not only the safety aspect, we have a long way to go and I don’t want to tire the horses.” Sergion reminded them.
“Yes, I am sorry. I will not do it again.” Lothíriel smiled, trying to look contrite. She could usually get round him, and he was never cross for long.
Pacified, Sergion gave her a big grin. “Right, let’s get going. You’ve had one good gallop, we’ll manage another later.”
They set off at a canter, her in front flanked by Sergion and Erchi with the guards and knights arranged in a rough semi-circle behind. Soon, Lothíriel could see where the river cut a wide swathe through the sand. The trees hugged the beach sweeping around the edge of the inlet and following the river.
As they neared the river the beach became narrower as it curved inland and dark trees bordered the sand. Lothíriel didn’t even ask about crossing the river, for although the bed was a wide and shallow basin, filled by the tide twice a day, foaming water flowed to the sea down a deep channel in the centre. Suddenly, just as they turned the bend and headed away from the beach, Erchi put up his hand, bringing his mount to a halt.
“What is it?” Sergion asked, pulling up just in front of him. Lothíriel reined in, the men coming to a halt behind. Twisting around in the saddle, she saw Erchi looking at the sand between him and the trees, brows drawn together in a frown.
“Look at the sand. Where the sea has been it is smooth and flat, but above the tide-line it looks as though it has been swept clean.”
Sergion studied the area where Erchi pointed, his lip compressed into a thin line. His face changed as some kind of realisation dawned. “Turn Back!” he ordered. “Head for the beach!” But as the words left his mouth a cry came from the guard nearest the woods, and he fell from his horse.
Lothíriel gasped: a red fletched arrow protruded from his side. Almost immediately bloodthirsty cries came from the trees and even as her escort drew swords, a host of men erupted from the woods in front of them. Holding long, wicked looking spears aloft, they threw off black cloaks, revealing their scarlet tunics. Haradrim! Fear choked her. Great Eru! There were so many of them. Behind them another group emerged from the woods, waiting, spears and their evil curved swords blocking any escape.
Immediately, Sergion closed on her, and the others formed a ring, but Lothíriel had no doubt that even though her guards had the advantage of being mounted, they were likely to be overthrown by sheer weight of numbers.
Erchirion, standing in his stirrups, took a moment to assess the disastrous position they were in. “The river!” he shouted to Sergion. “It’s the only chance. Go! We will hold them off until you are across!
“Lothíriel, follow me! The rest of you provide a rearguard!” Sergion took off straight for the river. Lothíriel followed him, her brother and the escort spreading out like a shield behind them as the Haradrim rushed forward to try and stop them reaching the bank. Sergion attained the top of the low sand-cliff, a few feet above the riverbed and checked. The river flowed fast, frothing and bubbling, carrying vegetation and branches brought down in the recent storms. But the deep channel was narrow, shelving abruptly so that the water below them was only inches deep. “Come on!” he yelled at Lothíriel. Sergion jumped Thunderer down into the water, but before Lothíriel could kick Amaurea to follow him, the mare suddenly shrieked and reared up, nearly throwing her from the saddle. Losing a stirrup, she clung on, trying to bring the horse under control. But maddened by something unknown, the mare fought the bit, bucking wildly. “Amaurea what is it?” Lothíriel cried. She had no idea what was going on, never had the horse behaved like that before: as though it were petrified of something. Lothíriel could hear the sounds of battle behind her, but as she fought to get the mare into the river, Amuarea wheeled right. The maddened horse charged straight at the Haradrim line. Two men flung themselves out of the way, and terrifyingly, Lothíriel found herself the wrong side of the enemy blockade. Amaurea calmed slightly and Lothíriel strived to placate her, maybe there was a chance of making the beach or crossing the river farther down, but to her horror she realised that a man stood not a yard from them. Before she could pull away he reached out and grabbed the bridle.
No! It couldn’t be. Dumbstruck, Lothíriel recoiled in horror, shrinking into the saddle. No mistaking that leering, lecherous grin… Umar! Sweet Elbereth save her!
The mare sidestepped, slewing around her captor. Lothíriel was too shocked to do more than keep her seat. Umar said something she could not translate and Amaurea woofed through her nostrils. Ears flicking, the mare’s greeting sounded like a mixture of terror and pleasure. He uttered something in his own tongue, something soft and encouraging and she calmed further. “There, my clever one, you brought your mistress to me, just as we planned.” He said it in Westron, smirking up at her in his success. “You like my gift, Princess. How neatly you fell into my trap. You have changed her name, but she is still mine. She obeys me.” His black eyes held a jubilant gleam and, triumphantly, he held up two long, silver whistles.
Lothíriel had never seen anyone that looked so evil, but fear and anger clashed for dominance. Chest heaving, and shaking from rage and anguish, she rounded on him. “What have you done to her? What cruelty made her behave like that?”
He shrugged. “First you cause them to fear you, then you offer kindness. One whistle will panic, the other will call her to me. It takes a little effort to achieve perfection.” The smirk turned to a grin. “But worth it, don’t you think? When you reach your new home, I will show you exactly how it is done.”
“I don’t want to know. You… you are evil. You have abused her. She came because she was terrified.”
He tried to smooth the mare’s nose but Amaurea snapped her teeth, just missing his fingers. His jaw clenched, and anger flashed in his eyes, but then the smile returned. “She came because I mastered her. Just like I will master you, my green-eyed beauty.”
“You are nothing but scum!” Lothíriel spat at him.
Umar’s eyes narrowed. “You insulted me before, Princess, and you will pay for it. A thousand times you will pay. I will teach you to respect and obey me.”
“Never!” she shouted. “Filthy cur! I will die before I let you touch me!”
Umar threw back his head and laughed, “I don’t think so. What a waste that would be.” His eyes raked her wolfishly. “You know, Princess, I used to abhor women with spirit, but now I am inclined to think they offer the better sport.”
Frightened beyond reason, Lothíriel could make no response. Desperately she looked around for a means of escape: Sergion, her brother and most of her escort were still horsed and fighting valiantly, but a host of Haradrim stood between them and her. It was hopeless –surely the best of Dol Amroth could not prevail over so many.
Still holding the bridle, Umar reached up and laid his other hand on her leg. “There is no escape, Princess. See, our transport comes. Time to go.”
Flinching from his touch, she jerked her eyes around to follow his gaze. Total panic grabbed her. Emerging from behind the island she could see a three-masted ship, but worse, halfway to the shore already, three longboats were coming in fast, the rowers helped by the push of the tide. Rigid with terror, she could do nothing but stare. Then suddenly she heard Seron’s words in her mind: the horse will look after you. Just as if the old man stood next to her, she heard them clearly.
She would not give up! She loved Amaurea and was sure the horse loved her. There was still the faint chance of reaching the river. As Umar’s attention focused on the boats, Lothíriel gathered up the reins. Sending all the thoughts of the love she bore her horse, she called her name softly. “Amaurea, I need you. Don’t let me down.”
The large ears flicked and Lothíriel pulled on the reins. “Hótule, Amaurea! Hótule!” she shouted. “Hótule!”
Umar shouted something Lothíriel did not understand and put a whistle to his mouth, but before he could blow it Amaurea threw up her head violently, pulling the bridle from his hands and knocking him off his feet. The whistle fell to the ground and Amaurea gave an almighty shriek, but not a shriek of terror, one of anger. As Umar regained his balance and grabbed for the reins, Lothiriel kicked out, catching him under the chin. “Hótule, Amaurea!” she cried again and the mare, responding to her insistent hands and the Quenya command she had been taught, turned her back on Umar and headed for the river. Lothíriel heard Umar’s voice shouting orders, and a man lunged towards her, but Amaurea sideswiped him, sending him tumbling over. Lothíriel realised she had taken them by surprise: thinking their prince had her safely captured, the Haradrim had been absorbed in dealing with her escort. As another rushed at her, Lothíriel kicked Amaurea into taking a flying leap to the riverbed. Landing in the shallow water the mare stumbled, but regained her feet, sweating and snorting in her distress. Now Lothíriel was uncertain, men jumped down to the basin and at the river mouth, boats were landing on the shore. Ahead, the tumbling water frothed and boiled. It looked deadly, but if she didn’t brave it she would be captured. Amaurea, as if wanting to get as far away from her tormenter as possible, strained at the bit. Lothíriel dropped her hands and the horse lunged forward, letting out a long woof before she plunged into the raging water.
I do not wish to insinuate that all Haradrim ill-treat their horses. Umar has a warped personality and did not hesitate to use the mare harshly in order to entrap Lothíriel. Possibly he used the threat of fire coupled with the blowing of the whistle, to induce the panic reaction in Amaurea.
Hótule – come away.
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.