8. Chapter 8
July FA 01 - The Morthond Vale.
“How much further? My backside’s getting stiff.” Erchi lifted himself in his stirrups and stretched.
“The village is just around the bend, you can see the roof of the house against that escarpment.” Amroth made no apology for waking everyone before dawn. He’d wanted to make sure of getting here today. And Erchi might not be keen on long rides, but Ana looked happy enough, having no trouble keeping up with the men on the eager gelding he had provided for her. They had made good progress, very soon now he would see Devoran, and a new life would begin. At least he hoped it would begin, but the nearer he got to the moment of meeting, the more uncertain he felt. Would she happily agree with his plans, would a part-time husband suit her? During the journey he had come to realise that he wanted her so much he would put himself to any inconvenience to marry her, but she might not feel quite the same. What a position to find himself in; no wonder the whole situation afforded his brothers so much amusement. Amroth sighed deeply; very soon he would know and more thought would not change anything. Instead he looked around at the rich landscape, a lot different from when he had ridden through at the tail-end of winter – crops tall in the fields and the roadside edges billowing with herbs and flowers. The folk they had passed had looked up and stared, but that was not surprising considering the soldiers and the pennants. Hopefully, with the good summer, he would find a few smiling faces in the village this time.
No, not smiling: a number of villagers stood in the middle of the road, looking to be discussing something serious. They turned immediately as the dogs gave tongue to warn of the presence of strangers, and Amroth saw Thathar in the centre of the group.
Right away Thathar left the others and took a few paces towards the line of riders, waiting for them to get close enough to speak. Worry lines creased his face, and sensing some upset Amroth kicked Aero on, Erchi following him.
Thathar nodded a bow. “Lord, a good time for you turn up, if I might say so.”
Alerted further by the words, Amroth had to push down his unease to acknowledge Thathar with a smile. “I am visiting Lord Duinhir again, Thathar.”
“Say you’re visiting who you like, lord, but it won’t be Lord Duinhir. We put him in the ground a week or more ago.”
Dead! Duinhir had died! Then all his plans were for nothing. Why hadn’t she written? Amroth realised Thathar was waiting for a reaction, he schooled his features to show none of the tumult he was feeling. “In that case we will go up and offer our condolences to Lady Devoran.”
“You’ll not be doing that either, lord. Lady Devoran ain’t there.”
“Then where is she, man!” Erchi interrupted, impatient as always.
Thathar glanced at him and back to Amroth. “Don’t rightly know, that’s what was worrying us. Ashild and Bregil came through a few days ago on their way to their daughter’s, and said Lady Devoran had hurried them away before Lord Alhael arrived. Well, he hadn’t turned up by yesterday evening and some of us got worried – her being alone –so I went up there. And she’s gone!”
“Gone! Are you sure?”
“The stables were empty, lord. Both horses missing, and the cart. The animals had all been locked up with food and water, so I’d say wherever she’s taken off for, she planned it.”
Gone off somewhere! Why would she do that? The poor darling must be distraught. Or she had some plan in which he played no part. Amroth forced himself to speak calmly. “Does anyone have an idea where she is gone and why?”
Éldes moved up to stand beside her husband, she folded her arms defiantly. “Probably wanted to get away from that cousin of hers. Understandable, he’s nothing but a bully. But she shouldn’t have took off alone.”
“Alhael! Where is he?” Amroth snapped out. If that lazy good-for-nothing had anything to do with this…
Thathar pointed to the house. “Up there, lord. Came with his wagons this morning.” He spat into the dust in disgust. “But he looked more angry than worried when I told him Lady Devoran was missing. Quite mad in fact, said she’d stolen the horse!”
Amroth gagged down an oath. Devoran had disappeared and Alhael bothered about losing a horse! “You say she’s gone, and she planned it Thathar, but we never passed her on the road.”
“That’s just what we were discussing, lord. She couldn’t have come down through the village, that dog of hers sets ours going something awful. We’d have known, night or day.”
“Then which way did she go? There must be another road,” Erchi barked.
“She must have gone over the mountain, lord. Taken the track to Erech. I have just come down from talking to Lord Alhael, thinking he would have sent someone after her. But he said he’d had no one to spare. So Cúnir and Thinben have volunteered to try and catch her, make sure she at least gets to the road safely. But they’re on foot, although they can use the paths and run all day.” He shrugged. “They have a chance because she’ll have to keep to the track, and that old horse will be slow.”
Amroth glanced to where two young men stood slightly apart from the rest, tall and dressed in grey, bows tied across their back. How many like these had been flattened into the Pelennor. He nodded to them. “Thank you. Lord Duinhir would be proud. But I think we will take over from here.”
“Doesn’t look as if I am likely to get off this horse yet awhile,” Erchi grumbled. “She must have known you were coming, Amroth, and couldn’t face marrying you!”
“Marrying you, lord.” Éldes exclaimed. With a great smile on her face, she moved close to him. Resting her hand on his thigh, she looked up into his eyes. “You get after her, lord. Lady Devoran deserves a good life and a handsome husband. Fair wore herself out looking after her father, that she did. And Lord Alhael did nothing! We all tried to help of course, but the burden fell on her. Lord Duinhir didn’t really settle with anyone else. Especially at night.”
Amroth felt sick: she must have had an awful time. And it sounded as if that sod Alhael had not lifted a finger! Why ever had she not sent word? “Don’t you worry, I’ll find her,” he assured Éldes. And he would, because for whatever reason she had left, even if she had no intention of marrying him, he couldn’t let her travel through the mountains on her own. If she didn’t want him, he would escort her to wherever she wished to go. A bleak thought, but one he might have to face. “Thathar, where does the mountain road start from?”
Thathar looked a lot happier than moments ago. “It starts behind the house, lord. The back of the stables.”
“Good!” Anger coursed through him as he thought of her taking one of the high lonely tracks on her own. There must have been a reason for her to have fled that way. His mouth twisted. “Going up there will give me a chance to have a word with fat cousin Alhael.” .
Wasting no more time, Amroth waved the column into life again. Most of them had heard the conversation and those who hadn’t would soon find out. His mind was already busy deciding what to do. It looked like a chase over the mountains would be the next thing; it would be quicker with just a few of them, although taking all his men gave him more options if problems arose. But first he needed to glean all the information he could.
When he reached the house the gate stood open; two wagons pulled up in the courtyard were being unloaded, some chairs and a table piled beside them. Alhael stood just by the door shouting orders to a couple of men, his podgy face red, probably from the rich looking tunic he had on in the heat of a July day rather than exertion. He looked up at the sound of the horses, blanching white when he saw Amroth. With a glance towards the two princes and the soldiers, Alhael’s servants picked up a chair each and quickly disappeared inside.
Alhael wiped his hands down his tunic, a forced smile on his face.
“Looks pleased to see you,” Erchi murmured.
“He’ll be looking worse in a moment,” Amroth spat.
“Don’t kill him, Amroth, not until we find out why she left and where she might have gone.”
About to jump down, Amroth hesitated. Every moment meant Devoran was getting farther away, and he didn’t know how long ago she had left. “Send Caedor to see if he can confirm she took the mountain road, would you, Erchi. The villagers could have been mistaken.” Although he doubted it. But if there were any signs Caedor would find them. Having been interested in tracking since a boy, the months in Rohan had honed his skills. Amroth dismounted and handed his squire the reins. Alhael had already taken a step backwards, but as Amroth approached, he pulled himself straight and bowed a greeting. When the man looked up, Amroth saw beads of sweat on his upper lip, and guilt on his face.
“Ah, my lord. We weren’t expecting you. I am afraid Lady Devoran is not here. She decided to take a little trip.”
The man was slimier than a slug! Amroth grabbed the collar of his tunic. “If she wanted to go somewhere, why didn’t you provide her with an escort?”
Held up on tiptoe, Alhael spluttered out an answer. “I would have done so, of course I would have. But she never told me her intentions.”
Amroth fixed him with a cold stare. “Didn’t she! So what made her go off without telling you?”
“I don’t know,” Alhael blathered, eyes opening wide in fright. “She was supposed to be here when I arrived. But she is ever headstrong.”
Amroth shook him irritably, convinced Devoran was desperate to get away before Alhael arrived. But that did not excuse him for neglecting to search for her. “Then why haven’t you sent someone after her!”
“I….” Alhael was trembling so much he could hardly get the words out. “I was waiting to see if she came back.”
“Came back! You thought she would come back when she took two horses and a cart?” Amroth challenged him.
Indignation pushed fright away for a moment; Alhael’s lips thinned. “She had no right to take that Rohirric horse.”
“Why you miserly cur. You’re worried about a horse!” Amroth could barely believe this. Anger flamed, but he needed information. “Tell me why she felt so desperate that she ran away without telling you where she was going.”
Alhael visibly quailed. “I have no idea, my lord.” Not believing him Amroth shook him viciously, and he stuttered out. “I am telling you the truth.” But he couldn’t hide the lie in his eyes. Furious, Amroth whipped out a knife, and pressed the point into the man’s throat. A speck of blood appeared.
“No…oh!” Alhael tried to pull away but Amroth gripped tighter, not letting go when he heard a woman shriek. But he swivelled his eyes around and saw Alhael’s wife in the doorway, white and shocked.
“Do you know why Lady Devoran left?” he bellowed.
Her mouth open, Corves shook her head, dropping her eyes from his. Amroth turned back to Alhael, sure Devoran would not have gone on any journey on her own without good reason. He brought his face close to Alhael’s, his voice controlled and hard. “I am a hair’s breadth from cutting your throat.”
“I tell you, lord,” Alhael stammered, “there was no reason for her to leave. I was prepared to fulfil my obligations and give her a home…”
“Obligations! Give her a home! This is her home you stinking crud!” More blood trickled down as the knife bit deeper. He wanted to kill the bastard!
“Hold, Amroth, killing him will tell us nothing.” In a quick movement Erchi grabbed Alhael’s arm; seizing his fingers he bent them back. Alhael screamed. “You’d better tell my brother what he wants to know, or I will break them.”
Sweat ran down Alhael’s face, he shook uncontrollably. Amroth withdrew his knife and smiled maliciously at him. “I promise you he means it. I would kill you cleanly, but Erchirion is not so fussy. He will break every bone in your body first.”
Alhael moaned and swayed. His eyes closed, as Erchi increased the pressure.
“Tell him, Alhael,” Corves called out, hiding her sobbing face in her hands.
Amroth caught his brother’s eye, cold and pitiless. “I think you had better,” he whispered.
Scared and quivering, Alhael could barely speak. Tears ran down his cheeks. “Let go, please let go. I said it with the best intentions.”
“Said what!” Amroth grabbed his collar again.
“Only that I would find her a husband. That’s quite normal. There was no need for her to run off on her own.”
“Unless you said something more.” Erchi sneered.
“Nothing that should have frightened her into leaving. She might not have liked my plans, but I have a right to gain from her marriage.”
“Why you grasping sod!” In one quick movement Erchi let go Alhael’s hand and chopped down on his forearm. The bone snapped just above the wrist. Corves fell to the floor in a faint as her husband let out a high-pitched scream. “Tell me what else you said to scare her, or I’ll break the other one.”
“The dog, I imagine,” Alhael whimpered, spittle running down his chin “I said I would kill the dog. She worships that flea-ridden mongrel.”
Incensed, Amroth pulled Alhael away from Erchi, and kneed him in the groin. He fell retching to the ground, choking on vomit. Amroth looked down at the writhing figure; he wouldn’t soil his sword on the man. With a last kick at Alhael’s leg, he clicked his fingers and his squire ran over leading Aero. Amroth jumped on his horse and moved the big grey right up to the pathetic heap, tempted to trample him into the ground. “Don’t make yourself comfortable in this house. King Elessar will not be pleased to hear that the daughter of one of his war heroes was frightened so much she ran away from her home.”
Erchi walked away in disgust. Leaving Alhael on the floor, Amroth wheeled Aero round to where the others were waiting. “We are leaving. There are still a few hours of daylight left and I want to get as far as I can. Ana, I’ll send two soldiers with you. You can wait in the village. I wouldn’t leave you with these dung gatherers.”
“No, Prince Amrothos.” Ana looked him right in the eye. “You’ll not leave me anywhere. I can keep up. When we find Lady Devoran, she’ll need a woman around. And anyway, I don’t want to be parted from Caedor.”
“She’s right, Amroth. Best to have a woman along.” Erchi laughed. “And she’s as good a rider as me.”
Better probably! Amroth nodded. “All right, Ana, and thank you. We will ride as far as we can tonight. Let’s hope Caedor has found something.”
They had gone barely a furlong up the stony track when Amroth saw him coming around the bend towards them. He had his head down scanning the ground but looked up when he heard them coming. A fair-faced young man, who had found his role in life. Erchi spoke well of him, and he was about to prove his worth.
“Find anything, Caedor?” Amroth called as the scout neared him.
Caedor nodded, a smile on his face. “Horse droppings, lord. Two different horses, couple of days old. Dog as well. Which makes me think Lady Devoran left in the morning, dogs tend to go first thing.”
“Never studied their habits, myself,” Erchi muttered, screwing up his nose.
But Amroth agreed with Caedor, most animals opened their bowels as soon they got moving after sleep. So, no mistake – his fears confirmed: she had come this way. But why ever had Devoran fled to the mountains, and not taken the quickest and safest way – down the valley to Dol Amroth.
“Right!” Amroth turned to speak to those behind him. “Ride in pairs. Caedor will go a hundred yards ahead. As good a pace as we can manage until we lose the light. We will eat then.”
Caedor wheeled his horse around and set off at an easy trot. Devoran had a couple of days’ start on them! Amroth forestalled the urge to push on fast. He might miss something, and anyway he couldn’t risk the horses, the loose stones were treacherous. He knew that Devoran’s pace with a horse and cart was about half of theirs. Hopefully less with an old horse.
Thoughts whirled around his head. Not as to why she had left, he knew that now – she would do anything if Drummer was in danger – but where she was going? Thathar said the track went to Erech, from there she could go three ways. Rohan he dismissed straightaway, no reason for her to go there even if she decided to brave the tunnel on her own. So it was either the road to Tarlang’s Neck, where she had another choice, south to Linhir or east along the mountain road through Lamedon. Both roads ended at Minas Tirith. A long way for a girl on her own. Or at Erech she could turn south and take the road to Dol Amroth. The sensible thing to do, and the choice he hoped she’d make, but if that was her intention then why hadn’t she taken the easy road down the vale?
Thinking through it brought him clarity; he called his Captain forward. “Gidon, Lady Devoran knows you. I want you to take four men and go back. Ride down the vale and cross the river, then head back to Erech up the main way. If she turned south at Erech you will meet her, she can’t be travelling fast. But get as far as you can tonight and break camp before dawn in the morning.”
Gidon nodded. “If we find her before you, shall we wait?”
“Yes, hopefully Caedor should be able to work out which way she went, and we will meet you.”
“And if we don’t find her, lord?”
“Ride back up to Erech, we will leave signs at the cross roads.” Gidon nodded. Glad of his quick understanding, Amroth smiled. “Take what you need and get going.”
“You think she’s going to Dol Amroth?” Erchi asked.
“Truthfully, Erchi, I have no idea. I am beginning to realise that she is not likely to do the expected thing.”
“Reminds me of someone else I know – running off into the wilds.”
Amroth raised his brows. “You mean Lothíriel. Yes, I hadn’t thought of that. There are similarities, but in every other way they are completely different. I just hope she meets someone who looks after her as well as Mithrandir looked after our sister. But I fear there are much more dangerous people around.” He didn’t want to voice his fears – a girl on her own. Not all men were honourable.
“She should be safe enough in the mountains,” Erchi muttered. “I can’t see why anyone else would want to be up here.”
Erchi was probably right: there was not even enough vegetation to graze a goat. But it didn’t stop his stomach churning with anxiety. Why in the Valar’s name hadn’t she sent him a message?
With Gidon gone, Amroth sped on, but the track deteriorated, becoming even stonier and broken, and the pace was slower than he wished. The sun had started to sink behind the peaks when Caedor called him forward. He pointed out where Devoran’s horses had drunk from a mountain stream – stones disturbed around the edge of a pool. And one dog’s paw-print in the mud. A little further on they stopped again where a rock fall covered half the road.
“She had to move the stones,” Caedor told him. “That pile there is not natural.”
“Would have slowed her down, doing all that,” Erchi mused.
Then it was no bad thing, but Amroth hated the thought of her being confronted by such obstacles and hoped she met nothing worse. The next time they stopped, Caedor’s words gave him a little heart. He had found where she had spent her first night, wisps of hay and horse dung giving away the spot. The light had almost gone and the horses were tired, so Amroth gave the order to make camp themselves. In only a few hours they had covered the same distance Devoran had travelled in a day. If they could make good progress on the morrow he had a real chance of catching her around Erech.
The men dismounted, stretching the stiffness out of limbs and buttocks before they started their chores. Amroth knew he was pushing them, but had heard not one word of complaint. Caedor went up to Ana and lifted her down, dropping a kiss on her head as he did so. She looked tired, but was smiling, certainly looking happy enough in her marriage. Amroth was glad everything had worked out well for her. Better than for himself so far.
One of the other men took her horse away, and she sank against her husband. “Give me a moment and I will help with supper.”
“Ana!” Amroth called over. “Go and rest. Leave it to the men.” She looked about to disagree, but Caedor led her over to a rock. “Sit there and do as you are told.”
“All right,” she gave in. “But I’ll not sit, I’d rather walk around for a bit to get my legs going.”
With only enough fuel carried for one fire, the meal needed to be simple, a stew made from dried meat and beans. But it smelt good, and Amroth ordered the wineskin to be passed around. They were all on short rations that night, no grass for the horses. But he blessed his decision to bring a few bags of grain mix. Fit and well nourished, the small meal wouldn’t hurt them tonight, and there should be grazing ahead.
After he had finished eating, Amroth wandered along to where Lady was tethered – on a rope wedged into a crevice by a rock. He rubbed his hand down her velvety nose. “I want her to be riding you, my pretty one, by my side.” Not out on her own in the dark and the wilds, exposed to countless dangers. He should be riding on, using every moment to catch up with her, but the night had darkened. Clouds gathered to hide the stars and the waxing moon was only a few days old. He looked out into the black emptiness below him – too easy for Aero to stumble on the stones and miss his footing on such a treacherous track. But he would be away at the first touch of light to the sky.
Amroth stared, his heart drum-beating in his chest. They had come around the outthrust of the mountain and stopped to look down on the Morthond River. “Is that what I think it is, Erchi?”
“Yes, afraid so.”
Amroth gathered up the reins, preparing to race down there, but Caedor spoke sharply. “No lord! Let me go down first, keep the others away. You will want to know what happened.”
Reluctantly Amroth nodded, knowing the wisdom of letting Caedor go first. He followed the scout down the track, his eyes locked on the awful sight of the wrecked cart. Sweet Elbereth, don’t let her be injured. But then sense kicked in and he realised that there was no sign of any horses, so she must have been able to release the carthorse. Unless the worst had happened and she had been attacked. But surely there would be no footpads in this desolate region, for there were no pickings worth hanging around for. The thoughts went back and forth, hammering his head.
“She camped here,” Caedor said. “More hay around, and you can see where the horses cropped the clumps.”
Yes, they would of course, Aero was doing just that. Amroth and Erchi followed Caedor across the bridge, but it was obvious what had happened and that Devoran, or someone, had undone the straps.
Caedor’s eyes searched the bank. Seeing something he ran across the bridge and knelt at the water’s edge. “She led one horse across, there are some prints in the mud. And the dog’s still with her.”
“What’s that?” Erchi called out. He had been looking to where the track started its climb to the road, and pointed to a pile of rocks.
Amroth could see some scraps of canvas poking out of it. He ran over and started pulling at the stones, throwing them to one side impatiently – books, a pair of candlesticks and a bow, possibly her father’s from the length of it. And a lyre, but not her mother’s: this one was made of wood. Everything had been wrapped up carefully. He swallowed in relief; she had done this herself to protect the things she could not take with her. But now it meant she was likely to be riding, and be making greater speed. He had to get on!
“Load this lot on the packhorses,” he ordered. “We leave as soon as the horses have had a drink.”
.To be continued. .
List of Original Characters in this Chapter.
Devoran- G Lord Duinhir’s Daughter.
Thathar- G A Bowman from the Morthond Vale. Wounded badly on the Pelennor.
Éldes- G Thathar’s wife.
Cúnir & Thinben – G Bowmen of the Morthond Vale.
Ashild - G Housekeeper to Lord Duinhir.
Bregil- G General Servant, Ashild’s husband.
Alhael- G Devoran’s cousin. Son of Duinhir’s elder sister.
Corves- G Alhael’s wife.
Caedor – G Soldier inErchirion Company. Trained as scout in Rohan. Married to Ana
Ana - G Junior maid in Dol Amroth. Went to Rohan with Lothíriel.
Gidon - G Captain in Amroth’s Company
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