The rain eventually stopped in the late afternoon. Waking up that morning to a steady downpour and a leaden sky had been a disappointment, even though the tour of the fortress and the explanations of the battle were made all the more poignant when she'd been told how a heavy storm had swept in as Saruman's army battered the walls.
Now though, the sky had cleared. Changed into dry clothes, Lothíriel decided on a last walk along the outer wall, mostly to enjoy a few moments alone before the evening meal. Keen to get as good a view as possible, she climbed to the top of the gate. A warm breeze lifted her hair and already was drying the stone beneath her feet. From her high vantage point she could see right down the valley, even glimpse the southern spur of the Misty Mountains through a gap in the cliffs. She felt much better with an open vista. Used to it at home, she supposed, where she could look out over the sea from just about every window. And of course at Meduseld one only had to walk to the door and out onto the high platform to see the plain spreading out for league upon league, leading the eye and the heart far into the distance. Being stuck behind thick, high walls where casements opened onto stone courts did not suit her, and she would not have liked to live at the Hornburg for any length of time. But the high crags, still glistening wet, held an odd beauty, especially when the rays of the dropping sun sparkled on the streams of water trickling down fissures in the rock.
'They say it will be fine tomorrow.'
Lothíriel jumped: she had not heard him on the steps. She nodded. 'The sky is painted with the blue of summer again and the clouds chased away over the plain. I know you need rain for the crops, but I am glad to see them go.'
Éomer came to stand next to her, leaning over the wall. He looked out in the same direction she had been gazing, taking a moment before he spoke again. Lothíriel used the time to study his hands which rested on the stone parapet beside her own. Strong hands, warrior hands, chaffed and scarred by the life he led. Like those of her father and brothers, hands that could be relied on. She stepped back as he spoke; unwilling to follow her thoughts on that, and cross that she found him so attractive.
'It rained all last night and all day today, we have enough for the moment. I'd rather you enjoyed your time here.'
'Thank you,' she said with a genuine smile, finding she meant it. There was no doubt he had come to better appreciate her presence in the Riddermark. 'I have enjoyed my day in spite of the rain. Gamling has been instructive in telling me of the battle, and Brythwyn and Elswite hospitable.'
'Good'. Éomer answered politely enough, but his eyes were distant, fixed on some inner thought.
'Are you reflecting on the battle?' she probed. 'It must have been horrifying, even for seasoned warriors.'
'Nothing can prepare you...' His face whitened and Lothíriel thought he was not going to say anything else, but then he seemed to collect himself enough to say in a strained voice. 'Like the Pelennor and the Black Gate, it was something I never wish to experience again. But somehow thoughts like that get pushed aside when you're actually in the middle of it. One's survival becomes the only reality.'
Lothíriel was not sure about that, not his personal survival anyway from what she'd heard. 'You mean Rohan's survival, not your own.'
A wry smile lightened his brooding look. 'Both, I suppose.' He went quiet again and then an eyebrow quirked. 'I did not want to die, you know, but it had to be a possibility and dwelling on it served no purpose.'
Lothíriel nodded. 'Gamling said neither you nor Aragorn wavered in spite of the horrendous odds. That in itself gives heart to others.'
Éomer moved away slightly, staring out over the field towards the dike. 'It's the role of a leader to inspire. Just before dawn, at the darkest hour, Aragorn stood here and taunted them. I missed his defiant speech, but the men were full of it and his courage seemed to herald our deliverance. '
'Where were you at that moment?' she queried, wondering if he had been injured.
'I was in the caves with a few others, fighting for our lives to stop the filth getting to the women and children.'
Lothíriel shuddered; she could believe Éomer would have done anything to protect the vulnerable. 'I would have hated to have been sent to the caves to hide. The thought of being surrounded by all that stone with orcs battling to get in would have undone me.'
Éomer turned to look straight at her. 'You would have preferred to have fought, like my sister?'
'Not really, but I do not like caves. I am not overly frightened of being underground but prefer to be in the open. I am no shield-maiden but have skill with a bow and think that I would not have hesitated to use it in defence if my home had been attacked. Mind you;' she said with a soft chuckle, 'if the enemy had actually scaled the walls I would probably have just run as far away as I could.' She sighed, glad she had never been put to the test and Dol Amroth had been left alone.
Éomer ran his eyes over her thoughtfully. 'I wonder...' He stopped in mid sentence, changing whatever he was going to say. 'I am sorry that I will have to neglect you again tomorrow but I will be tied up in meetings with village elders. However, the next day I will be visiting some of the smaller hamlets to inspect the re-building. I think you would enjoy that, if you care to come.' His voice held an expectant note to which Lothíriel was happy to acquiesce.
'I would like that, Éomer. The more I see of your beautiful country the better. And don't worry about tomorrow; Elswite thinks that the rain following on from such warm weather will encourage mushrooms to sprout. The first of the golden-horns are likely to emerge, and even some milkcaps. She asked me if I would like to accompany her up into a nearby forest to see what we can collect. It should be a pleasant way to spend a day.'
Obviously relieved by the change of subject, Éomer grinned boyishly. 'Still thinking of our stomachs, are you? I can't fault that.'
As expected there was no sign of rain the next morning, and it looked set to be another warm day. Lothíriel covered herself liberally in a mixture of cider vinegar and garlic, given to her by Brythwyn. The potent smell might be good at keeping biting insects away, but it likely meant no one else would come near either. Still, except for the guard detailed to look after the horses while they combed the woods for mushrooms, the rest of the small party consisted only of Elswite and two other women of the household. She doubted any of them would get close. But as she took Storm to a mounting block, the clatter of hooves made her turn round.
'I thought we'd come with you, Aunt Elswite. It's too nice a day to stay in.'
Elswite didn't look too pleased for a moment, but she responded pleasantly enough. Lothíriel nodded good morning to Alwunn and her friend, recognising the other girl as the daughter of one of Erkenbrand's Riders. Both were astride choice examples of Rohan's horse-breeding expertise, but two pairs of eyes fixed on Storm.
'That's a lovely horse, my lady. I saw him in the stables and couldn't believe he was yours.' Elswite immediately turned round, glaring at her niece. 'Oh!' Alwunn's hand flew to her mouth. 'I didn't mean to imply that you wouldn't be able to ride him, but he's a bit on the big side for a lady.'
Alwunn's cheeks had turned bright pink. She mouthed an appropriate apology, but her eyes held a definite challenge. Lothíriel inwardly sighed, wondering if her day was to be spoiled by antagonism. Nevertheless she tried to answer agreeably. 'Storm belongs to my brother. And you are forgiven, not many Gondorian ladies are able to ride, but my father runs mounted troops so I was brought up with horses.'
Alwunn nodded and immediately began questioning her on Dol Amroth; she seemed to be making an attempt to get over her hostility, although Lothíriel sensed that her effort was somewhat forced. But she did feel rather sorry for the girl if she had a real crush on Éomer and he treated her as nothing but a child; obviously he had not been looking closely. Sitting straight and tall on the back of her grey mare, Alwunn was everything one expected a Rohirrim maiden to be – fair skin, long blond hair tied in a tail and deep blue eyes. Erkenbrand's daughter was certainly a pretty girl, and presumably eligible in every way as a bride for Rohan's new king. Lothíriel couldn't imagine that someone would not point this out to him anytime soon. None of her business, she told herself sternly when she found the thought rather disturbing.
Once everyone was ready they headed out, cantering across the greensward between the gate and the dike, to turn towards the north and the next valley. The area they were heading for remained uninhabited, Elswite explained, the steep slopes not suitable for dwellings or crops, but they were clothed by a mix of beech, and ash with pines higher up. It was a favoured hunting spot, yielding both boar and deer. Evidently the forest was also bountiful with its offering of mushrooms during summer and autumn and other wild food at various times during the year. Elswite had been foraging there all her life.
Immediately they reached the trees Lothíriel was reminded of home, gasping inwardly as the familiar smell of the forest brought on a wave of homesickness. She couldn't remember when last they'd had real peace in Dol Amroth and she could ride far from the castle without fear of Corsairs, and swim without a guard watching her every move. By the time she got home, the best of the warm weather would be over and winter hiding around the corner. She'd still be able to ride of course, but swimming wouldn't be quite so pleasant.
Deep in her thoughts Lothíriel started when Elswite spoke to her. 'We'll leave the horses here; the tracks are too narrow and steep where we're going.'
A good choice: they were in a grassy clearing through which a small stream wound between banks of ferns. Not much grazing but enough to keep the horses occupied. And somewhere pleasant to come back to when it was time to eat the bread and cheese they had brought with them.
Elswite passed her a basket and they set off up the steep hillside, spreading out to search amongst the trees. Fallen leaves made a soft carpet beneath her feet and the drone of insects had a soporific effect on her; it would have been nice to just sit down with a book where she could see through the trees to the plain below and take in the peace of it all. But she didn't have a book with her and anyway there was work to do. She knew how depleted the food stocks were in this land, all help was needed. Lothíriel soon saw that Elswite had been right about the rain encouraging growth: toadstools grew in drifts all around her. She straightaway picked out a few kinds necessary to avoid – fibercaps, which would make one very ill indeed, and could possibly be fatal. There were even some death-caps, definitely lethal but luckily easy to recognise. Then she spotted a sprinkling of gold amongst the leaf-mould and moss. Hurrying over she found a large cluster of mushrooms growing around a tree, no doubt as to their identity: their shape, egg-yellow colour and the fruity aroma marking them as golden-horns, one of the most favoured mushrooms to eat. And they were just big enough to harvest. Having picked all she could of her first find, she moved further up the slope, careful to keep Elswite in sight as there were no marked paths and all the trees looked much the same.
'I've found some milkcaps,' Elswite called out a while later. 'There's not many and they're spread around. A little early for them, I suppose. But they're worth picking to add a bit of variety to our meals.'
Lothíriel went over and helped her search a wider area, pushing aside the forest litter to expose the orange caps of the golden-horns. Bending over for too long was hard on the back and after they had picked all they could see, Elswite suggested a break for the midday meal. She called to the other two women, who slowly stood up, stretching out their stiffness thankfully, but the girls were nowhere in sight. Elswite huffed. 'Given up already, I expect.'
They appeared in the clearing, however, just as the food was being unpacked. Both had a very small offering of golden-horns, and looked suitably chastened when Elswite suggested that they didn't deserve anything to eat. 'Lady Lothíriel has been working hard,' Elswite told them with a scowl. 'Which is kind of her, considering she's a guest. She certainly deserves her lunch.' She passed Lothíriel a pack of food and a mug of cordial first, but seeing the contrite faces relented and passed the girls a drink and a package wrapped in a cloth. Laughing under her breath and not without sympathy for the miscreants – she would have preferred to just walk in the forest herself – Lothíriel took her meal to the edge of the clearing and sat down with her back to a tree. Bread, hard cheese and some dried pieces of pear and apple from the previous harvest made her realise how lucky she was at home with juicy, fresh fruit always available. Perhaps when things got better in Rohan and they'd recovered from the war they would be able to trade more. The diet could certainly do with improving. But the bread was fresh, and she was hungry, so it got wolfed down gratefully, as did another mug of cordial. The sun shone from high in the sky, shafting down into the clearing and making her dozy. In fact she would probably have fallen asleep had she not been waging a constant battle with the biters. Didn't they know she was covered in foul lotion, or had it worn off already? She sniffed her arm, still a smell of garlic.
'Persistent, aren't they,' Elswite remarked as she slapped her own arm and flicked a dead insect onto the ground. With a sigh, she stood up, brushing down her skirt. 'I'd like to do at least another hour, if you don't mind. Now we are here, it seems a pity to leave so many.'
Lothíriel pushed herself to her feet, not keen as it was now hot and humid, but understanding Elswite's need to stock her larder. 'Of course, it's not worth going back yet.' She followed Elswite out of the clearing in a different direction than they had gone in the morning, climbing higher up through the forest. The change of location proved to be productive and very soon she and Elswite were kneeling amongst the leaves plucking mushrooms one after another.
Absorbed in her task, Alwunn's voice made Lothíriel jump. These Rohirrim could certainly move silently when they wanted to.
'Goodness, child, you startled me,' Elswite admonished. 'Don't creep up like that.'
'Sorry, but I wanted you to come and look at what I have found. I think they are the edible milkcaps, but if I pick them and they're not I will be in trouble.'
'Well,' Elswite answered, 'if they're not the right ones they won't poison you but they don't taste very nice. You can easily tell: if it's one of those we can eat, and the mushroom is fresh, then when it's squeezed orange-red milk comes out.'
'Yes, that's why we call them saffron milkcaps at home,' Lothíriel added.
Elswite nodded. 'That's right. And if there's no milk they're not fresh, but you wouldn't want to eat them then anyway, more chance of maggots.'
'I know, but I'm not sure. Can you come and see?' Alwunn tried to persuade her aunt with a beseeching smile.
Elswite wiped a hand across her face, not looking too keen. She heaved herself to her feet wearily. 'Where are they?'
Alwunn pointed upward. 'Quite a way, but there's plenty.'
Elswite hesitated. Lothíriel could understand that, a trek upwards in the heat would be better avoided, but Alwunn looked so disappointed. 'I'll come if you like to save your aunt the effort, Alwunn.'
'Oh,' the girl shrugged as if she did not care, 'I suppose so.'
'Don't be so rude when Lady Lothíriel has kindly offered,' Elswite snapped crossly.
'I just didn't think she'd want to, that's all,' Alwunn excused herself.
Lothíriel didn't, but her legs were younger than Elswite's, and no way would she let Alwunn's petulance stop her doing what was right. Without answering she put the mushroom she was clutching into the basket and got up to tip the contents of her basket into Elswite's – no point in carrying them higher.
Alwunn gestured to her friend to come, but the young woman shook her head, flopping down on a piece of grass.
Lothíriel shrugged; they were a lazy pair. However, she followed Alwunn upwards, in truth quite thankful for a break from being on her knees. That didn't last long however when she found herself climbing up a steep bank. 'How far is it?' she queried when the girl led her into an area where the trees grew thicker.
'Not far now.' They seemed to be weaving in and out of the trees, but all the time going higher. Alwunn had longer legs and Lothíriel found it difficult to keep up. The girl probably wanted her help, and the praise for finding the milkcaps, but didn't actually want her company.
Lothíriel was getting a bit fed up. Why had the girl come this far? There was no need, as plenty of mushrooms were growing lower down. 'You do know where you are going don't you, Alwunn? And I hope what we find is worth all this effort.'
Alwunn turned and gave her what Lothíriel considered to be a rather superior smile. 'It will be, you'll see, my lady. Nearly there.'
A few minutes later they reached a place where some trees had fallen, forming a small circular glade flooded with light. Sure enough Lothíriel immediately saw some golden-horns and a dozen or so milkcaps scattered amongst the little saplings which were taking advantage of the open area. But there were not many and she stood looking around the glade getting crosser and crosser, not managing to keep her irritation to herself.
'Have you brought me all the way up here for these few, Alwunn?'
'Well, it's the most I've found myself,' the girl flung back angrily. 'We can't all be as proficient as you at feeding everyone.'
Except for shooting her a dark look, Lothíriel ignored the remark. Someone had obviously been praising her housekeeping and annoyed Alwunn even more. Maybe Osythe, or even Éothain as he was always quick to applaud her efforts. Wanting to get back to more congenial company, Lothíriel knelt down to examine the milkcap in front of her. 'They are certainly the edible ones,' she said trying to keep her voice even, 'but we could probably have picked as many without coming all this way.' Lothíriel took the lid off her basket; they might as well take the lot now they were here, as there were quite a few golden-horns. 'Let's pick all we can and return to the others. Elswite will want to leave soon.'
Lothíriel had plucked a few more from the ground before she realised that Alwunn hadn't answered her. She sat back on her heels and looked around. Now where had the girl got to? Shrugging to herself she carried on picking – what a lazy little toad Alwunn was. The girl had probably brought her all the way up here to save herself the bother of kneeling in the dirt. Well, there was no sympathy now, and if she didn't come back and help she might even suggest a bread and water supper.
But by the time Lothíriel had gathered all worth picking there was still no sign of her. She got up and stretched. Tired now, she just wanted to go back and clean up before a restful evening sitting in the hall listening to the minstrels strumming and the Rohirrim singing. Something she enjoyed very much. Where was that dratted girl!
It took her a few minutes of calling to realise that Alwunn was nowhere around. For a moment Lothíriel couldn't believe it – surely she hadn't left her here deliberately? What would that achieve other than to bring down condemnation on herself? She must have done it out of sheer spite. Well, Alwunn would get a piece of her mind when they met up again. Resigned to a lonely walk back to the meeting point, she tied the lid down on her basket, and hefted it up.
Lothíriel took a few steps and then stopped; which way had they entered the glade? She studied the trees that edged the open space – they were dark and close together with animal tracks running between them, no well marked path. Obviously she had to go down as they had climbed a fair way to get here. But which track should she take? She walked a little way along one track and then turned to look back at the glade. Was that what she had first seen when she got here – a big fallen tree on the left? She wasn't sure because her eyes had been searching out mushrooms. Feeling it best to make certain she returned to the glade, but whilst she had been picking the sun had sunk down and the clearing now looked dark and very different from when she had first arrived. Undaunted, she tried the next track, turning after a few yards to make the same assessment. Yes, she thought that was it, and the path went steeply downwards which fitted with what she remembered.
Confidently she set off, promising retribution to one irritating Rohirrim maiden. Alwunn probably had wanted to give her a bit of a fright and make her hot, tired and irritable. Well, she had succeeded with the latter, but Lothíriel was not frightened – knowing others were nearby and anyway used to the forest at home. She amused herself by wondering what excuse Alwunn would come up with to explain her childish behaviour. Perhaps Éomer had the right of it seeing her as no more than a child and if he found out about this was unlikely to think of her any differently.
At first Lothíriel was sure she was following the right track, she could certainly remember stepping over a large moss-covered log that sprawled across the path, but as she went further she became unsure and stopped by a cluster of boulders. She had passed some on the way up, but thought they were on the other side of the path. And had it been this steep? Well, there was nothing to do but carry on, the track was taking her downhill so she should be able to get her bearings when she could see through the trees. Her legs were aching now with all the downhill walking. And she seemed to have been going for ages with no glimpse of the plain. Starting to get a little worried for the first time, Lothíriel came to a halt near a rocky escarpment. She certainly didn't remember that. Just then she heard the sound of a horn and her heart took a leap – she must have been missed and Aldred was guiding her in. Another blast, but unfortunately the sound came from way to the right. She had obviously taken the wrong path and needed to get around the other side of the escarpment. Relieved that she should be able to find her way now, she started to follow a small track that wound its way beneath the rock. But she hadn't gone more than a few yards when she heard the sound of stones falling. Spinning around she just caught the sight of a dark shape before a hand clasped over her mouth and someone grabbed her free arm. Lothíriel instinctively kicked backward, connecting with her assailant's leg.
She tried to bite on the fingers, at the same time swinging the basket round behind her. She kicked back frantically again, but he had warning this time and she couldn't connect.
'Grab her, Aglon, you useless sod. I can't keep her quiet and hold 'er at the same time.'
The basket flew out of her hands as her other arm was grasped painfully, but in the melee she managed to bite down hard on the fingers across her mouth.
'Ow..., you bitch! You'll pay for that.' He cuffed her across her the side of her face, the blow making her eyes water. A piece of smelly material was shoved between her teeth – no she couldn't breathe! Her cheek stinging from the slap, Lothíriel shook her head violently in panic. Bitten -finger shoved his face close to hers, foul-smelling breath making her retch. 'You'll have to be really nice to me after that.' He had a ghastly scar down the side of his face that made him look frighteningly evil; she froze in horror, not even struggling for a moment.
The man holding her laughed. 'That's right, cooperate and we won't be too rough.'
Bitten-finger sniggered. 'We might not, but Gorth there won't know what he's doing, he's never done it to a woman.' A gurgle from a few yards away made her eyes fly to a revolting looking specimen who was grinning at her salaciously, dribble running down his chin.
Terrified beyond measure, her mind jumbled by panic, Lothíriel fought hard to stop herself shaking. Where were her companions? Surely they were looking for her. And why was she here anyway, what idiot thought these mountains safe? Just then a horn sounded, closer than it had before. Lothíriel's heart thumped loud with hope. They might only have brought one elderly guard, but one Rohirrim warrior, however old, would see these two off in a flash. She discounted the dolt who was watching the whole scenario with an insane expression of expectation. She'd kick him in the teeth herself. But her face must have betrayed her hope as a wicked looking knife got held to her neck.
'Don't even think of trying to break free, I'll bleed you dry before they can get within shouting distance,' Bitten-finger growled.
'Better get out of here.' Aglon jerked his head towards one of the upward tracks. 'By the time they find her, we'll have had our fun and be long gone.'
Bitten-finger laughed, pushing her ahead of him. 'Won't be much left to find after the others have had a go.'
Others! Insides cramped with fear and legs turned to jelly, Lothíriel stumbled. Her arm was grabbed roughly and Bitten -finger hauled her upright. 'No tricks, just keep walking or I'll slit you open and leave you for the wolves.'
She'd wake up! She had to. But it was no dream, the punishing upward pace leaving her gasping for air through the gag. The horn sounded again, but it was fainter, farther off. She dug her heels in, not wanting to move, but a hand shoved her from behind, and a cruel laugh echoed in her ear.
'Looks like yer friends have given up.'
To be continued.