8. Chapter 8
I was warm. Even the tip of my nose was warm. With a happy sigh I burrowed deeper into my lovely cushion. It had just the right firmness to rest my cheek against, and when I listened closely I heard the slow, comforting rhythm of a heartbeat. I was safe.
Strong arms closed about me and somebody snuggled into my hair. "You smell nice," he whispered sleepily.
With the remnants of my dreams still clinging to me like wisps of morning fog, I just nodded. I liked his smell too: a reassuring mix of sweat, old bags and...cabbage? Never mind. I yawned and felt myself drifting off to sleep again. Even my icy feet had regained some feeling, now that I had managed to wedge them between his legs. A warm hand moved up my back in a caress and he murmured something in his sleep. I liked how the words rumbled in his chest, even though I did not understand them.
Why didn't I understand them? I pondered the question for a while, until my drowsy mind supplied the answer: he spoke the language of Rohan, that was why. Content to have made sense of my world, I let my consciousness slip towards sleep again. Nothing bad could happen to me while Léona held me.
It was Léona! That realization brought me wide awake. I opened my eyes to find myself wedged against his chest in the most improper manner. His blond mane twined with my tangled black hair and my cheek rested against bare skin. Where had those jute bags gone! And how had his hands ended up inside my clothes? I calmed my hammering heart: he was fast asleep, nothing had happened. Anyway, if he had wanted to take advantage of me, he could have done so long ago. Alone with him in the wilds, I would have had no way to stop him. He was honourable.
"Léona," I whispered.
No reaction. When I peered around him, I saw that there was plenty of space behind him, whereas I had the ribs that lined the side of the boat poking into my back. If only I could shift him back to his original position, I could then pretend that waking up in his arms had been a dream. Gently, I tried to dislodge him by pushing against his chest. In response he tightened his grip and muttered something unintelligible. If anything I was now squeezed even closer against him! Thank the Valar that my father could not see us at this moment.
It was only the need for warmth, I told myself as I wriggled my feet free from between his legs. A glance up at the sky showed glimpses of pale blue veiled by morning mist. We must have slept through the sun rising.
"Léona," I whispered again, "you can let go of me now!"
His name provoked remarkably little response. And this from a man who in the past had woken up with a naked blade in his hands at the least disturbance! Instead, he had somehow managed to snuggle his head down the neckline of my tunic and seemed to like it there, at least to judge from his soft snores. I was torn between embarrassment and amusement. This couldn't be happening to me!
I pushed him away with more force. "You mustn't do that!"
Suddenly his arms tightened around me like bands of iron. In a single smooth motion he rolled on top of me, driving the air from my lungs.
"Léona!" I gasped.
Sleep-fogged eyes stared down at me: the eyes of a stranger. The raw hunger in them made me go still like a hunted thing. Pinned below him, I was helpless – completely at his mercy. At the same moment a strange frisson of excitement ran through me. He was going to kiss me, he was going to...
Léona shook his head in confusion. "Lothíriel?" He looked around and abruptly seemed to become aware of what he was doing. "What!" Hastily he crawled off me
Freed from his weight, I sat up and drew my legs to my chest. The chilly air enveloping me all of a sudden made me shiver. He wasn't going to kiss me after all. I squashed that thought violently. What was the matter with me!
His colour heightened, Léona ran a hand through his hair. "My apologies, my lady. I...I hope I did not frighten you?" Slowly, as if not to startle me into flight, he backed away from me.
The formality somehow served to create a distance between us that I grasped at eagerly. "Apologies accepted, Léona," I said, inclining my head. "You must have acted from a dream."
"Yes, of course." When I looked back up at him, his eyes were veiled. Surely I had only imagined the rapacious hunger in them.
By common consent we quickly attended to our morning ablutions, before setting out on our journey again. Just like the day before, the river was enshrouded in a fog so thick nothing showed of the opposite shore. Only above us a few gaps in our white blanket hinted at blue sky. I stared out at the wisps of mist parting with the thrust of our bow. My stomach might be empty, but seemed filled by lead. For a moment there, had I really regretted Léona coming to his senses? The thought was completely inappropriate for a Princess of Dol Amroth. I could not give myself away to a common rider like some carefree kitchen maid! I bit my lip. Anyway, I did not want to in such a manner – but being in his arms had felt so right. As if I had finally found the place where I belonged.
I closed my eyes at the welter of conflicting emotions coursing through me. Wisely or not, I had jilted this man's king. There was no way I could wed Léona and move to Rohan. Besides, he had not asked me to in the first place. For all I knew, he was married to a blond shieldmaiden and had half a dozen children stowed away in a cosy cottage somewhere. I shook myself. Like some silly girl I had fallen for a handsome face and a kind manner. Well, I would just have to get over it and accept that Léona had acted from one of those incomprehensible male impulses that my brothers sometimes displayed, nothing more. Shivering with more than cold, I clutched my cloak around me.
"We'll stop here for a bit," Léona announced.
I jumped and looked around me. A sandbank overgrown with scraggly grass extended into the river. Unnoticed in my brooding, he had steered the skiff up onto the pebbly beach. Others must have rested here in the past, for there was a circle of stones black with soot above the high-water line. Léona went to inspect the place, leaving me to climb out on my own.
When he began to collect pieces of driftwood, I followed his example, and soon we had enough for a small fire. Obviously he had lots of experience with lighting fires, for in no time at all he had produced a pile of fine wood shavings to use as tinder. I watched him strike a spark and nourish it into a small flame with judicious blowing. Why hadn't I noticed the strong line of his jaw before? Or the way he drew his brows together when he concentrated on a task? Becoming aware of my scrutiny, he suddenly looked up. Hurriedly I dropped my eyes and took a step back.
He motioned to our bag of supplies. "Do you know how to make trail bread?"
I had forgotten about the flour he had bought the day before. "Of course."
Glad to have something to do, I mixed up handfuls of the rough meal with water, added a pinch of salt, and kneaded the dough into flat, oval loaves. At home in Dol Amroth we would usually fry them in olive oil in a pan over the fire, but here we had to make do with resting them on flat stones near the embers. The result was of limited success, only made palatable by adding honey from our quickly diminishing stores.
I sat by the fire and watched him turn the pieces of bread over so they would brown evenly. He had large, capable hands and a swordsman's physique with strong wrists and sinewy arms. Along one forearm a faint scar showed where a blow had slipped past his guard and I had to squash the impulse to reach out and touch it. What had got into me! Resolutely I turned my attention away and stared into the fire.
Suddenly a thick piece of deadwood landed in the sand by my feet. I started and looked up.
Léona knelt down beside me. "Listen, Lothíriel, I would really prefer it if you would just club me over the head for my stupidity this morning and have done with it."
"What do you mean?" I stammered.
"You've been watching me like a startled fawn ever since," he said and put the piece of wood in my hands. "Go ahead and hit me," he urged, "I deserve it."
I could have laughed at how he had mistaken me. Or cried.
Léona closed my slack fingers on the wood. "Please believe me, I would never hurt you," he said, "or force you to do something that you do not want..."
But what if I wanted it? Wordlessly, I shook my head.
"It won't happen again," he promised. "I have learnt my lesson."
So had I! "That's not it," I said.
He looked unconvinced. "What is it then?"
Desperately I grasped at any pretence that would lead the conversation away from such dangerous waters. "I am worried about my father's reaction to my running away."
"Oh!" He sat back on his haunches, a vertical crease between his eyes. "Lothíriel..." He hesitated. "Perhaps I might be able to help you there."
He chewed his lip. "What if you could come to like... Éomer King...and he you?"
I couldn't believe my ears. "What?"
"He's not a bad person," Léona answered, sounding almost desperate. "Why don't you give him a chance? You haven't even met him yet."
"I don't need to meet him," I snapped, "I have seen him, that's quite enough for me."
"Seen him?" He looked as if I had indeed hit him with his cudgel.
"Yes!" I balled my hands into fists. "When you arrived in Cormallen, I saw you talking to him. He's so big, I could hardly miss him."
"But that was–"
"It doesn't matter," I interrupted him. "I know exactly what kind of man King Éomer is: the kind who would check out a prospective bride as if she were a horse for sale!"
That silenced him! I jumped up and took a few steps about the sand. Otherwise I might well have hit him with that piece of wood after all. How could he suggest that I marry the King of Rohan after what had passed between us that morning!
"Lothíriel, that's not how I – he – meant it, I'm sure."
Did he think I blamed him? I turned round to face him. "I know it's not your fault, Léona," I said. "You were just following orders." King Éomer did not deserve his loyalty! But then nobody had ever contested the King of Rohan being a good leader. It just hurt that Léona would take his side against me.
Léona looked up at me with open pleading in his eyes. "You don't understand. He never wanted to be king and customs are different in the Mark. Not the way they are here in Gondor, where noblewomen are expected to marry for reasons of state..."
And still he was defending his king! "I don't care," I shouted at him. "This Gondorian noblewoman will not marry the King of Rohan and that's my final word on it."
I stomped away to the skiff, half tempted to just get in and make my own way down the river. Let him walk the rest on his own! As if he had guessed my intention, he caught up with me after a few steps.
"I said I'd get you safely to Minas Tirith, and that's what I'll do," he reminded me as he swung over the side of the boat, "especially with those men still out there looking for you."
I nodded grudgingly. In my anger I had forgotten about our encounter with those ruffians the day before. Wonderful! My father had made sure that I depended on a stranger's protection in my own country. Men – who needed them!
But by the time the sun had burnt away the morning fog and favoured us with another cloudless day, my anger had drained away like water trickling out of a broken pot. Léona was just being realistic and I could hardly blame him for that. Obviously he had no real interest in me, for why else would he urge me to marry his king?
It was all just a silly infatuation of mine anyway. After all, I had only known him for two days, so surely it wouldn't take long to forget him again. Like Amrothos, who flitted after every new bit of skirt he spotted. Of course there was also my eldest brother Elphir, who had not looked at another woman since meeting his future wife at the age of eighteen. A depressing thought. He had to be the exception!
With Léona taking up the oars again, we made good progress, and towards midday we passed the southern tip of Cair Andros, where Faramir's rangers manned a camp. I hid below my covering of bags again, but when I peeked over the gunwale I saw that the place appeared deserted. Were they all out looking for me? There was a village around the next river bend, but Léona continued without stopping.
"Shouldn't we buy more supplies?" I asked.
He shook his head. "I'm not leaving you alone again. Hopefully we can buy something off a passing boat."
I wondered why he did not want to leave me. Because of those men, or because he was afraid I might give him the slip? Not that he was entirely wrong to worry about that possibility. Trailing my fingers in the cool water, I watched the landscape glide by slowly. Almost I could believe that we stayed still, while the world moved around us. To our right now lay the open grasslands of Anórien, stretching all the way to the foot of the Ered Nimrais, the White Mountains. A haze lay over the plains, but in the distance the peak of Amon Dîn rose above the dust: the first of the beacon hills.
"You were amongst the host of the Rohirrim that rode to our aid, weren't you?" I asked.
He cast me a surprised look and pausing in his task, leant on his oars. "Yes."
"Amrothos told me about it: the horror of the Witch King, and then the horns of Rohan at dawn," I said. "You see, my father and brothers were defending the lower levels of the City."
He nodded. "I know, I met them there."
In the bottom of the boat, I spotted the hat he had bought for me and picked it up. We must have slept on it, for it was squashed flat. "Amrothos thinks that without the Rohirrim they would have died there," I said, turning the hat round in my hands. I looked up and found him watching me closely. "Do you think me ungrateful for refusing the King of Rohan? I do realize what debt I owe him!"
Léona closed his eyes for a moment. "Some debts should not be collected." He leant forward, took the hat from my unresisting fingers, and put it on my head. "Lothíriel, do you trust me?"
"Then trust me in this: I will make everything right." Fleetingly, he brushed his fingers across my cheek. "You should marry for love, not for duty."
Against all reason, I found myself believing him. On the shore, a skylark rose into the air, pouring out its song and my heart lifted with the little bird. All would be well.
Léona took up the oars again, but more leisurely, and I got the impression that he did it mostly because he was used to always having something to do.
"I haven't been so lazy in months," he said, confirming my guess.
"I thought Rohan was at peace now?"
He nodded. "It is. But peace holds its own challenges. We've lived so long with the threat of total annihilation hanging over our heads that it's difficult to adjust to a future that holds no immediate threat."
Which explained his arsenal of weapons and his lightning reflexes. "How long have you been fighting orcs?" I asked.
Léona shrugged. "Killed my first one at sixteen...thirteen years ago this summer."
Thirteen years of fighting! But he forestalled any answer I might have made. "There were times of peace as well," he said, "foaling season in spring, or the Yule celebrations." His face darkened. "But the last years before the Ring War were grim."
My father had told me about King Théoden's councillor poisoning the aging king's mind. Had Léona witnessed that?
He shook his head. "Enough said of that. We won through in the end. So what about you?"
He grinned. "Were you always this wild?"
The way he said it sounded like a compliment, so I grinned back. "Wilder. At least I haven't burnt the boat yet."
"We used to play corsairs," I explained, "and Amrothos always insisted on being Thorongil. So one day, when he was busy assailing Umbar, I stole behind his lines and piled his boat with rags soaked in pitch. Then I set them afire." I smiled at the memory. It had earned me two weeks of bread and water, but had been worth it for the sight of my brother's face.
Léona broke down with helpless laughter. "Remind me never to cross you!"
Then suddenly he sobered.
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.