5. Chapter 5
It was the smell of cabbage that woke me. Cabbage? I tried to sit up – and regretted it straightaway. My back protested at the sudden movement by sending a stab of pain down my spine, as muscles I had not known I possessed cramped up. And my arms felt as if somebody had pummelled them with stones. I groaned.
"Are you hurting?" The voice held no sympathy. "It's best if you move as much as possible, to work out the stiffness."
Stiffness? What a complete misnomer for the agony coursing through me. But my indignation gave me the necessary strength to struggle upright. I glared at Léona, who grinned back insolently. He sat on the rowing bench easily, taking slow strokes, as if he was in no particular hurry. On his head perched a straw hat and at his feet lay a pile of cabbages.
I must have stared at them as if they were an apparition, for he chuckled. "Do you like my purchases?"
"You bought them?"
"Well, I could hardly have grown them, could I?"
Another glare just earned me more chuckles. I lifted my chin in challenge. "How am I supposed to know you're a cabbage lover?"
"I am not. In fact I'm heartily sick of them – we had them all winter."
I closed my eyes. Wonderful. Not only had I abducted the wrong man, he also seemed to be touched in the head. Why couldn't I just go back to sleep! "Then why buy them?" I asked.
"It's the perfect disguise. Or would you search for a princess amongst cabbages?"
I opened my eyes again. "No." Perhaps he was cleverer than I thought.
He bent down. "I bought a hat for you as well." A straw hat, identical to the one he wore, landed in my lap.
"Thank you," I said reflexively.
"That's all right. I used your money."
With his chin, he motioned to the floor and I saw my bag of belongings lying there. "I found your little stash and thought you would not begrudge me using it for a good cause."
The cheek of the man! But to get miffed would only play into his hands. So I smiled. "I am sure my new accoutrement will stand me in good stead at the next reception in Merethrond. The ladies of Minas Tirith will blanch with envy."
The corners of his mouth twitched at my sally, but he let the subject drop. I sat up straighter and peered over the side of the boat. Where were we anyway? The sun glancing off the river struck my eyes, and I had to squint. Long shadows reached across the water from the trees growing on the opposite shore, yet we were still in sunshine. I let my glance wander upwards. There rose the dark green slopes of the Ephel Dúath, lit by the sinking sun. So late! Surely I couldn't have slept the whole day away? My stomach chose that moment to show its discontent with a loud rumble. Perhaps I had.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"About halfway up Cair Andros, I judge," Léona answered.
Only! Surely the island wasn't all that long, if I remembered my maps correctly. He had rowed the whole day and that was all the distance he had covered?
As if reading my thoughts, Léona shrugged. "I had to stop and hide several times, for the Anduin has been thick with ships looking for you. It's a mystery to me why, Lothíriel, but they seem to want you back."
I chose not to reply to that. The man was very free with my name as well! But hopefully the rest of the journey would pass faster and I would soon get rid of his troublesome company.
He had been peering at the underbrush on our side of the river, and now he suddenly picked up speed and changed direction for the shore. A brook emptied into the river at this point, forming a small sandbank. Léona forced the boat up the stream until it hit the bottom with a soft thud. Jumping out, he heaved it up onto the sand far enough so it would not slip back in the water.
Holding on to the gunwale, I got up gingerly, my muscles still not happy with any sudden movement. When I looked back towards the river I saw that clumps of tall reeds screened us from view. Did he intend to stop here for the night? And didn't I get a say in our plans, too?
Strong hands grabbed me around the waist and lifted me out of the boat. I yelped with surprise. "Léona!"
He set me down gently. "We'll make camp here for tonight. I've done enough rowing for one day." He reached past me and picked up something from behind his bench. "Are you hungry?"
The smell of raw fish joined the pervasive reek of cabbage hanging around the boat. I regarded the brace of trout he held up for my inspection with surprise. I had seen no fishing line anywhere. "Surely you did not catch those yourself?" I asked.
"Bought them," he admitted.
"You've had a busy day."
I did not like his self-satisfied smile one bit. The man was up to something! But what? Anyway, he needed to be taught a lesson. As my grandfather used to say, a battle could only be won by taking the initiative.
I took the fish from him. "Well done, Léona. You go and gather firewood, while I see to our meal."
My assumption of command did not go unnoticed by him, but he merely lifted an eyebrow in question. "You know how to cook fish?"
"I do," I answered him firmly and shooed him away. Growing up with three older brothers had taught me some useful skills.
I surveyed our campsite. Not a bad choice, I had to admit. A sandy beach formed a small semicircle, merging into low shrubs and then the thicker undergrowth of the forest proper. Sloe trees bloomed along the edge, overgrown with woodbine, and a blackcap warbled from the leafy shadows.
I dropped the fish back into the boat and had a quick rummage through the contents of my bag. The remnants of yesterday's evening meal, half a loaf of bread and some hard cheese, should still be in there. Nothing. All I found was a dry crust of bread. However, I could guess where my supplies had disappeared to. That man must have the appetite of a hungry lion!
Whistling off-key, Léona emerged from the forest with a pile of dead branches, which he dumped on the sand, before proceeding to collect large stones to lay in a circle to contain the fire. Aware of the fact that I had so far done very little to get the meal started, I picked up one of the empty jute bags and went to see what I could forage. As I had hoped, ramsons grew profusely along the little stream. Soon I had picked enough of the pungent leaves to suit my purpose. Further exploration yielded a clump of wild spring onions and some chives.
The ground was sandy and suddenly a flash of brilliant blue flew past – a kingfisher! Like a living jewel, it hovered in the air for a moment, before darting into a hole in the river bank. When I clambered up the bank to examine the site more closely, I suddenly spotted clumps of brown morels growing along the top. What a lucky find! Thanking the little bird, I gathered enough of the bounty to add savour to our meal, but made sure to leave enough for other hungry mouths.
The sun had sunk behind the tops of the trees on the other side of the Anduin by the time I returned to the camp. My muscles still ached, but Léona had been right that using them loosened them up. He had a merry fire going and looked up from feeding it more wood when I stepped out from the trees.
"There you are!" He frowned. "You shouldn't be wandering away too far from camp, Lothíriel. It's getting dark."
I shrugged. It would probably be no use pointing out that I had stayed near the stream all the time, exactly so I would not lose my way. Quite apart from the fact that the sound of rushing water would lead me back in the direction of the Anduin even if I lost sight of the lighter sky to the west. Men liked to think that they were the only ones able to find their way through the wilderness, even if they had zero sense of direction, like my brother Amrothos.
My stomach cramped in protest, demanding to be fed, for I'd had nothing all day except water and a handful of early strawberries I'd found growing on the forest edge. Fortunately I'd prepared fish many times before, while out for an afternoon with my brothers.
"May I borrow one of your knives?" I asked Léona. "The small one from your boot would be perfect."
Reluctantly he handed it over. It was a matter of moments only to fetch the trout and gut them on a flat stone. He didn't seem too pleased to have his fine blade used this way, but if he treated my things as if they belonged to him, why shouldn't I do the same to his? The heads cut off, I stuffed the cavities of the fish with the morels and spring onions I had gathered. Finally I wrapped each one up in several layers of ramson leaves. Scraping aside some of the coal with a piece of wood, I placed the wads amongst the ashes, before moving the coal back to cover them.
He watched me dubiously. "Wouldn't it be easier just to spit them over the fire?"
"Easier, but less tasty."
I rose to my feet and wandered down to the water's edge. The fish would take a while to bake through, so I might as well wash off the garlic smell of the ransoms. When I dipped my hands in the stream, I sighed with contentment. Lovely and cool after the heat of the day. Unable to resist, I slipped off my shoes and turned up the legs of my trousers. Wading into the brook, I wriggled my toes in the soft sand. Then I cupped my hands and scooped up water to wash my face and neck. Bliss! My hair felt sweaty and confined, so I undid my plait to let it tumble loose down my back. Spreading my arms, I stretched them up to the darkening sky, where the first stars blossomed.
Behind me, a log in the fire collapsed with a loud crack and I started. I had forgotten all about Léona. When I turned round and retraced my steps out of the water I found his dark eyes watching me. Suddenly self-conscious, I turned down my trouser legs and plaited my hair into a proper lady's braid again, before I sat down across the fire from him. How very isolated this spot was. It had seemed quite reasonable that morning to accept Léona's offer of protection, but in truth I knew nothing about him. Had my predilection for giving in to wild impulses led me into trouble, as Amrothos always said it would? Certainly my aunt Ivriniel would advise me to run and hide in the forest, rather than spend a night in the company of that most dangerous of animals, a strange man.
"Do you think the fish is ready yet? I'm hungry."
The sudden question made me jump. But at the same time, normalcy resumed and I chided myself for my silly fancies. After all, the man had made it abundantly clear what he thought of me. It was far more likely that he would dump me in the water in a fit of temper than that he would make unwanted advances. No, my virtue was safe, and if I could make sure nobody ever found out about his company on this journey, surely I would yet manage to preserve my reputation.
In a lighter mood, I poked one of the small parcels with a stick. "I don't think they're done yet."
Wearily, he rubbed his forehead. "You know, your brother ought to have a word with his steward. I've still got a headache from that wine."
The wine! I bit my lip and looked down.
"Lothíriel." Somehow he managed to infuse my name with a wealth of threat without even raising his voice. "You look guilty. Out with it!"
I swallowed. "I put something in the wine to make Amrothos go to sleep."
Silence. Then he released his breath in an explosive exhalation. "Béma! I always thought my sister was a handful, but at least she never tried to poison me!"
"Not poison!" I protested. "I just wanted to make sure he did not wake up while I carted him around." Léona had a sister?
"It certainly worked." He frowned. "How did you get me into that boat anyway? Did you have help?"
"I rolled the carpet down the hill..."
"You rolled me down the hill?"
Really, he made it sound like a crime! "And why shouldn't I?" I shot back, for I still hadn't forgiven him for spoiling my beautiful plan. "It's your own fault for visiting Amrothos at the wrong time." Come to think of it, he had never explained what he had wanted there. "Léona, what were you doing in my brother's tent anyway?" I asked.
He picked up a piece of wood and used it to spread the coals more evenly. "Nothing much," he answered, "I got to know him quite well during the march to the Black Gate and just wanted to discuss some small matter with him." He might as well have shouted that this small matter had something to do with me. And I rather thought I knew what it was.
"Were you afraid I would make a scene when I recognized you in your king's company and put two and two together?"
He would not meet my eyes. "Something of the sort, yes."
I decided to let silence speak for me – let him stew over that for a while. Stew...the trout! They should be done by now. Using two twigs as tongs I lifted a couple of the parcels out of the fire. The outer layers of ramson leaves were burnt black, as expected, but when I carefully folded them back, succulent white flesh emerged, the scales peeling back with the remaining leaves. A mouth-watering smell filled the air and Léona leaned forward eagerly.
Using a flat stone for a plate, I handed him one of the fish parcels with a flourish. "The evening meal is served, my lord."
He grinned appreciatively. "Thank you, my lady."
It was the last thing either of us said for a while as we dug into the meal. Lacking table knives and spoons, we used our fingers to tease the tender meat apart and stuff it into our mouths. What a feast! Only now did I appreciate how hungry I was. And Léona certainly had a very healthy appetite as well.
When the last morsel had disappeared, he leant back with a contented sigh. "I haven't enjoyed a meal so much for ages."
"Nothing like hunger to add taste to your food," I agreed, "although the fish could have done with some salt."
He licked his fingers. "You underrate your skill."
I shook my head in denial, but I have to admit that secretly I was pleased. On our excursions, my brothers had always taken for granted that I would turn their catch into a tasty meal, and it was nice to have my efforts appreciated. So when he asked me where I had learnt to cook fish in this manner, I told him a little about growing up in Dol Amroth and tagging along after my brothers and their friends. With Father away in Minas Tirith so often, we had sometimes run a little wild, I suppose. Yet for me those years had been filled with fun and excitement, before the gathering darkness in the East had put an end to all that.
Léona shook his head in disbelief when I told him the story of being marooned on an island in the bay for a night because Amrothos had misjudged the tide. "Uncle would have had something to say to me, had I endangered my sister in such a way!"
"Oh, it wasn't dangerous," I answered, "just cold and uncomfortable." Then my curiosity got the better of me. "Why your uncle and not your father?"
Léona picked up a stick and started to draw patterns in the sand. "My parents died when I was eleven, so we went to live with my uncle."
"I'm sorry!" What a terribly inadequate expression! I bit my lip. "Was your uncle very strict with you?"
He looked up in surprise. "That's not what I meant. Uncle treated us as if we were his own children." He smoothed out the patterns he had drawn. "But I never had much time for games after that; I was too busy learning the warrior's trade. I first rode against orcs at sixteen years of age and was given the command of my own éored five years later – and I had earned it." He said it proudly, but I felt sad for the young lad shouldering the duties of an adult.
Léona broke his stick in half and threw it in the fire. "Anyway, that's long past. I suggest we turn in now, as I want to make an early start tomorrow." He rose to his feet.
I followed suit, suddenly feeling awkward in his presence again. What sleeping arrangements did he have in mind? But as it turned out, they were very simple: he collected the jute bags from the boat and spread them on both sides of the fire. Although I noticed he made do with a couple and gave all the rest to me. With my cloak wrapped around me and a full belly, I felt my eyelids beginning to droop the moment I lay down. Léona, however, still sat up, carefully checking over all his knives.
"Good night," I yawned.
Shining steel in hand, he paused for a moment. "Good night, Lothíriel."
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.