12. Chapter 12
An army of dwarves was hammering away inside my skull and my clothes clung to me damp and clammy. I groaned. Strong arms tightened around me. "Lothíriel?"
Slowly, the events of the morning came back: Corethir and his men, the fight. A stab of pain thrust through me. I struggled against the arms confining me. "No! Let me go!"
"Lothíriel, it's me!"
Blinking at the painfully bright sky above me, I tried to get my bearings. Soft sand lay under me and a man was kneeling by my side, bending over me. "Léona?"
He was all right! I tried to sit up, but the world spun round me. Léona slipped an arm under my back and steadied me. "Slowly! You've had a bad knock to the head."
Cradled against his chest, I took deep breaths and the dizziness receded. When I closed my eyes, I heard his steady heartbeat and felt his skin warm and firm against my cheek. A sob of relief rose in my throat. Léona was alive. Then the tears came.
He stroked my hair. "Hush, dear heart, it's over. I'll keep you safe. Now and always."
I nodded and clung harder. But the tears just would not stop. The thought that I might so easily have lost him was like a stab to the core of my being. Then the realization hit me that from now on I would have yet another man to worry about, another warrior in danger of sword, arrow and axe.
"Don't ever leave me," I sniffed.
"I promise," he whispered into my hair.
Not wanting to ever let go of him again, I wrapped my arms around his waist and squeezed. Léona winced.
That instantly cut through my teary mood. I straightened up. "Léona, are you hurt?"
I got my first proper look at him: sweaty and splattered with fine droplets of blood, a bruise forming along one side of his jaw and his shirt slashed all along the left arm, showing a nasty cut on the forearm. To say nothing of the small nicks and cuts all over him.
"Léona!" It came out as a squeak.
He patted my hand. "Don't worry, I've had worse."
"How can I not worry! Look at that arm!"
He glanced down at the blood soaked shirtsleeve and shrugged. "Took that at the beginning of the fight, but things improved once I managed to use one of them as a shield against the others."
"We have to get you to a healer," I protested and struggled to my feet. A mistake. The edges of my vision darkened and my temples throbbed with sudden sharp pain.
Léona caught me as I swayed. "Lothíriel, are you all right?"
"My head hurts," I groaned.
He peered into my eyes and gently probed the back of my head with his fingers. "That's a nasty lump you've got there, my sweet," he said. "I think it's you who needs to see a healer!" Carefully, he lowered me back onto the sand. "Rest a moment longer."
Sitting down helped with the dizziness, if not with the headache. For the first time since coming round, I took stock of my situation beyond the simple fact that Léona was alive. We were on the beach, just above the waterline. Cawelcwén wallowed in the shallow water in front of us, her bow drawn up on the sand. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw something lying further down the beach, a pool of red congealing around it. Chainmail glittered in the morning sun.
"Corethir?" I asked.
I tried to feel regret for the death of a human being. He had been some mother's child after all. Yet I felt nothing but relief that he would never again prey on another woman.
Léona followed my glance. "I warned him." The statement held cold finality.
I looked away. "His men?"
"Two dead, one knocked unconscious, one fled."
I could not fault his efficiency. "What about Bornathron and Maedwen?"
"The boy has a few bruises, but got off lightly, considering," he answered. "As for the girl, she is a bit dazed, but will be fine, I judge." He stroked lightly across my cheek. "How's the head now?"
I tore my attention away from the distracting feeling of his fingers caressing my skin and considered the matter. "Still hurting a little." Which was an understatement, but I did not want him to think that I was complaining.
Léona wasn't fooled though. "You're as white as chalk," he said with a frown. Then he seemed to come to some kind of decision and stood up. "I want to get you to the Houses of Healing as quickly as possible. You wait there while I sort things out." Looking round, he waved to somebody. "Maedwen, can you please sit with Lady Lothíriel for a moment?"
The girl obeyed with alacrity, but I noticed she gave him a wide berth, as if in awe of him. Ignoring her, Léona collected Bornathron and set him to gather our belongings, while he went to tie up the remaining mercenary, who by his groans was slowly coming round.
Maedwen took my hands in hers. "You look awful!"
Not really what I wanted to hear. She seemed to realize her lack of tact at the same moment, for she hurriedly corrected herself. "That is, a little under the weather, my lady."
I sighed and let go of my vanity. "No need for the 'my lady', Maedwen, just call me Lothíriel. And no need to mince words with me either. I probably look how I feel: as if a mûmak had accidentally sat on me."
She gave me a weak smile. "Not quite as bad." Then she produced a handkerchief from somewhere, dabbed it in the water and proceeded to clean my face. "You really are that princess who ran away?" she asked.
I could not fault her for her disbelief. "Yes."
"Fancy that! And you're truly running away with him, or did he..." her voice petered out as Léona approached to fetch another rope from the boat.
I did not feel myself sufficiently coherent to explain the exact circumstances of my flight. "I am running away," I answered, "but Léona kind of came along." Better not go into the matter of carpets.
"I see," Maedwen said, clearly doing nothing of the sort.
She fished out a comb from a pocket of her gown and offered to do my hair. To find out if there truly was a princess underneath the mess? Still, I was grateful.
"It's a good thing he did," she said and shuddered, "or those awful men would have carried us off." Her eyes shone with admiration. "He was magnificent! But I wouldn't want to cross him for anything in the world, not after the way he killed that thug. It was more of an execution than a fight."
She seemed very much in awe of Léona, almost a little frightened, and admittedly he had to be a good swordsman to take on those odds and win. But I had grown up amongst some of the best warriors of Gondor and knew that in the end they were just men like all others – fallible, vulnerable to sharp steel, in need of companionship and love. Perhaps with her experiences Maedwen found it hard to believe that somebody could be strong, yet not use that strength against those weaker than him. But Léona would never hurt me, on that conviction I would have staked my life.
Suddenly I remembered her husband. "What's happened to Gordir?" I asked.
"Bornathron knocked him out," she answered, her satisfaction evident. "They've trussed him up like a chicken."
An agreeable image. "Lovely! And now that you have your two witnesses of good standing, you can get your marriage dissolved."
"You really will help me?"
"Of course," I answered.
She paused in combing my hair. "I'm sorry I wasn't more of a help when that horrible man attacked you. I just didn't know what to do!"
I shrugged. "It turned out for the best." After all not everybody grew up with three elder brothers to teach them how to keep their own against them.
Léona, meanwhile, had finished with tying up the mercenary and was busy despoiling the bodies of the man's comrades. All the weapons he found he tossed in the bow of our boat, while his throwing knife disappeared in its sheath on his arm again.
"Bornathron," he called, and handed him back his sword. "It's a good weapon. Learn to use it."
"I will," the boy promised. Now that I got my first good look at him, I noticed that he had a black eye. However, the fight seemed to have filled him with fresh purpose and he gripped the hilt firmly.
Léona knelt down by my side. "We are ready to go."
But when I wanted to get up, he simply scooped me into his arms. "Lie still," he commanded and carried me over to the boat. I snuggled into his chest. Would it be unreasonable to demand to stay there for the rest of my life?
All the sacking and clothing had been piled up in the stern to make a comfortable bed and he put me down on it as if I were as fragile as glass. I sat up straighter. Whilst I did appreciate his concern, I wasn't at death's door yet!
Bornathron had pulled Maedwen to her feet and stood watching us.
"What are you going to do now?" I asked.
"I will take Maedwen to stay with my brother and his wife, and then I'll return to Minas Tirith," he answered. "Léona has promised to speak to Lord Húrin on our behalf."
Léona nodded. "I will see you there." He pushed Cawelcwén in the water and jumped in. "Goodbye!"
They waved to us as we pulled away. "Goodbye!"
"What about Gordir and the other man?" I asked.
"I'll send somebody to collect them." Léona grinned. "Meanwhile they have the opportunity to spend some time appreciating the fact that they're still alive."
The morning was getting on and the sun sparkled on the water when we joined the river proper again. I squinted as the brightness hurt my eyes.
"Why don't you try to sleep?" Léona suggested. "It won't take long to reach the Harlond, and from there it's only a short ride on horseback."
I nodded and closed my eyes. Having a bit of a doze and forgetting about my headache sounded like an attractive proposition. I did wonder though, why he was so certain of getting horses at the Harlond.
I did manage to fall into a fitful sleep for a while, but woke up again once we had passed the ruined bridges of Osgiliath. The Pelennor now stretched flat to our right, overlooked by the White City, and the Anduin was busy with boats of all sizes. I sat up and peered ahead.
Flowing in a wide curve, the river bore us ever closer to our destination, the great harbour of the Harlond. First the outlying warehouses came into sight, then the many jetties stretching out into the water. The sky, so bright and sunny in the morning, had clouded over and now a breeze sprang up, tugging at my hair and chasing shadows across the dull grey river. I shivered.
Léona noticed of course. "Nearly there," he said.
For some reason he kept glancing over his shoulder as he rowed, studying the shore. Was he looking for something? I straightened up and followed his eyes. Though the sun no longer shone, still I had to squint against the brightness. What wouldn't I have given for a cup of willow bark tea to take the edge off my headache!
The main docks, where the big merchant ships from the south moored, lay just ahead, but there were many smaller quays as well. Would we land at one of them? I let my eyes roam over the forest of masts, when suddenly something caught my attention: a sleek hull, standing out amongst the wide bottomed merchant vessels like a racehorse in a herd of cows.
"Oh, no," I breathed.
Léona twisted round. "What is it?"
He cast me a confused look, so I explained further. "Corsairs' Bane, one of Father's warships. But she is supposed to be in Pelargir, awaiting orders!"
And there the blue and silver pennant of Dol Amroth fluttered in the wind. At the top of the mast as well, which could only mean one thing.
"My father's on board."
"Are you sure?" Léona asked, nearly dropping his oars.
That moment a shout echoed across the water. "Hlaford min!"
I twisted round to see who it was. From one of the docks, a man was waving to us. Just then a gust of wind streamed his blond hair out behind him. Léona answered back in the language of the Rohirrim and I realized it had to be somebody he knew. The only word I understood was the name of King Éomer, which occurred several times.
"Who is that?" I asked, nonplussed by this turn of events.
"One of my men." A vertical frown had appeared between Léona's brows. "I had meant to take to horseback at this point, but if your father's here..." He came to a decision. "We had better see him first. Imrahil must be frantic with worry, or at least I would be in his situation."
I agreed reluctantly. While I had known I would have to face my father in Minas Tirith, I had not expected it to be quite so soon! Still, some things were better tackled head on.
Léona called what sounded like instructions and with a wave of his hand the man disappeared amongst the warehouses. Which left me with a lot of unanswered questions.
"Léona," I said, "how come one of your men was waiting here?" Surely it could not be a coincidence.
He shook his head. "I can explain everything, but now is not the time." The stone pier where Bane was moored loomed up ahead of us. "Do you trust me, Lothíriel?" he asked.
"Yes." I needed no time to consider the answer.
Léona took a deep breath. "Then trust me in this."
The skiff bumped into the side of the pier, where a narrow platform protruded onto the water and stone steps led up to the top. Léona jumped ashore and tied the rope to an iron ring set into the wall. Then he held out a hand to help me alight and I stepped across the narrow gap between the boat and the pier.
Our adventure was over.
Léona had delivered me safely to Minas Tirith, just as he had promised that morning three days ago – it seemed in a former lifetime. The damp smell of rotting wood hung in the air. Time now to wake up to reality after a long dream?
With his uncanny ability to read my thoughts, Léona touched my cheek. "A sad ending to our journey. But perhaps we will repeat it one day, without the worrying and the bloodshed."
A princess and a rider from Rohan? But why not cling to the dream a moment longer. I smiled up at him. "I would like that."
Suddenly Léona closed the distance between us. "Lothíriel, there is something I need to know, here and now," he said, cupping my face between his hands.
"What is it?" I stammered, taken by surprise.
His hands cradled my cheeks, warming them. Strong hands, calloused from wielding a sword, but always gentle with me.
"Lothíriel," he said, "you know me, don't you? Not Léona, the courier from Rohan, but the man standing before you."
"Yes, of course I do," I answered. How close he was.
"Will you marry me?"
Marry him! "But-"
"Don't think," he interrupted me, "just answer. Will you be my wife?"
"Yes," I said. As simple as that.
Warm lips seized mine. Any other thought I might have had got drowned by the pounding of blood in my ears. My conscious mind was sent spinning as Léona flooded all my senses. His taste, his musky smell, strong hands roaming across my back, rapid breaths matching mine. Somehow it was the most natural thing in the world to respond by slipping my arms around his neck and clinging to him. Léona. He knew what he wanted and I let him sweep me along with him, willing to follow wherever he would lead.
When he released me at last, he stared down at me. "You're mine," he said, his eyes fierce. "Always remember that."
I nodded, too stunned to speak.
"You down there!" somebody called.
I started, yanked brutally back into the world around me.
A guard was standing at the top of the stairs. "You there! This is the Prince of Dol Amroth's dock. You can't tie up your boat down there."
"It's the Prince of Dol Amroth, I seek," Léona answered, "for I'm bringing back his daughter."
"What?" he peered at me. "Is that really you, Lady Lothíriel?" Then he seemed to get his first good look at Léona. "You?"
The short exchange had enabled me to regain my composure. Recognizing the guard, I stepped forward. "Yes, Himdir, it's me. Is my father on board?"
He tore his gaze from Léona. "Yes...yes, my lady."
"Can you tell him I'm back, please?"
"Of course." With a last disbelieving glance our way, he turned round and started running towards the ship, hailing it loudly.
I swallowed. "Now for the reckoning." My headache, momentarily forgotten, returned in double force.
Léona took my hand and pulled me up the stairs. "It might not be as bad as what you fear. At least I hope not." These last words were spoken so low, I wasn't sure if they were meant for me.
When we reached the top of the stairs, we found Bane thrown into turmoil. Sailors ran across the deck to lean on the railings and stare down at us. I stole a glance at Léona. He had an abstracted, inward facing look, as if bracing himself for a fight.
My mind still reeled from his kiss and the promise I had given him. Marry him! The thought made my heart give a funny lurch, as if it wanted to escape its cage and fly to him. Even though in reality he already held it firmly – and had for a while, I realized. But what would my father say? And his king! Suddenly the impulse to run away rushed through me. To turn around, jump in Cawelcwén and lose ourselves in the many boats on the Anduin. If only we could find a place where nobody knew me, where we could forget all matters of state. Léona and me together. Alone.
As if reading my turbulent thoughts, he squeezed my hand in reassurance. "Leave it to me," he whispered.
Then steps pounded down the gangway. Father. He ran along the pier and swept me up.
"Lothíriel!" I found myself caught up in a tight embrace. "You're safe!" After a long moment, he held me away from him. His eyes widened in shock as he took in my appearance. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Father." I took one of Léona's hands in mine. "For I found somebody to keep me safe."
He looked from me to Léona. "It is you!" he exclaimed. "But how did you get here? The last I heard, you were lying ill at Cormallen. Aragorn and I were worried."
Léona inclined his head to my father. "A bit of misdirection, my friend. I'm afraid that I owe both you and your daughter an apology."
Ill at Cormallen? And King Elessar was worried about him? But before I could ask for an explanation, my father spotted Léona's bloodied sleeve. "Your arm!" he exclaimed. "Are you hurt? What happened?"
"Only a scratch," Léona assured him. "Imrahil, I would gladly explain the whole matter, but I suggest we retire to more private quarters first."
How familiarly he addressed my father! That moment a commotion at the other end of the pier drew our attention. A group of horsemen in green rode up, one of them leading a stallion. Surely that was Léona's grey? But how could that be? Léona waved to the newcomers to stay there and obediently they dismounted. Very obediently.
At the sight I got a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. Something strange was going on here and I did not like it one bit. Also my father was taking us turning up on his doorstep remarkably well. Too well.
"How come you know Léona?" I asked him.
"Lothíriel," Léona interrupted me. "I really think we should discuss this in the privacy of your father's cabin."
My father took in our audience of guards and sailors hanging on every word. "Yes, I agree," he said. "Come along."
Léona slipped his hand under my elbow to guide me, but I twisted away. I'd had enough of the men in my life making up my mind for me! "No!" I exclaimed. "I want an explanation now, not when it suits you." I turned to Léona. "Who are you? What are you?"
"But Lothíriel," my father broke in, "you must know that Éomer is the King of Rohan."
The King of Rohan? I closed my eyes, refusing to believe. It could not be. It must not be!
"No!" I whispered.
But suddenly so many things made sense: the easy way he had with my father, his unconscious air of command, his swordsmanship. And how he claimed to be able to speak for King Éomer! I opened my eyes again. Léona stood before me, looking the same as before, tall and handsome. Only now I noticed how straight he held himself and how an invisible space seemed to surround him. In one word: kingly. The pig!
"You lied to me." I had meant to scream, but all that would emerge was a strangled whisper.
He flinched. "Lothíriel, I'm sorry! Please let me explain."
I balled my hands into fists. "From the very beginning, you lied to me, playing the simple courier from Rohan!"
He took a step back. "No! So many times I meant to tell you, but it got more difficult every day!"
Léona – King Éomer! – extended a hand towards me. "Please, Lothíriel!"
I struck it away. "Don't you dare touch me!"
My father made a strangled sound, but I ignored him. Instead I advanced on Léona, who took another step back. If I'd had a knife that moment, Rohan would have lost her king! My headache reached a new intensity.
"Listen to me," he said, "I understand your anger. What I did was not very wise. But I meant what I said just now, when I asked you to marry me. Me, the man before you, not Léona!"
I had forgotten about the promise I had made him. How dared he try to trap me into marriage like that! Tears of rage rose to my eyes when I remembered his kiss.
"You piece of scum, to trick me so!" I breathed. "But I'll kill you first, before I marry you." I had thought I was angry before, but now my rage reached a new stage. Blood pounded in my ears and everything seemed to be tinged red.
"No, you misunderstand me!" Taking another step back, he reached the edge of the pier. There he hesitated. "Listen, my sweet-"
It was too much. I jumped forward and pushed him in the chest as hard as I could. "I am not your sweet!"
"Lothíriel!" For a heartbeat he teetered on the edge of the pier. The last thing I saw was an expression of complete surprise on his face as he fell backwards. Then water splashed across my feet.
A lance of pain shot through my head. I crumpled to the ground.
Hlaford min - my lord