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Of Falcons and Mûmakil

Chapter 8: The crossroads

by Lialathuveril

Chapter VII: The crossroads

“Wake up, my lady,” the maid said timidly. Lothiriel groaned and tried to burrow deeper into her blankets.

“My lady, you ordered me to wake you up at first light,” the maid tried again.

“I did?” Lothiriel opened one eye and looked at her blearily. Then she remembered the night before and groaned again. “I did!” she agreed and sat up with a sigh.

Over dinner last night King Éomer had explained what exactly he meant by hard work and she had started to wonder what she had let herself in for. She still wasn’t sure why she had made the offer to give Nightwind back. She had fought so hard to win the mare, had defied him and her brother and now on an impulsive whim she had jeopardized all that. She didn’t know why it mattered what the King of Rohan thought of her, but somehow it did.

It would certainly prove to be an interesting challenge, Lothiriel thought, and usually she liked challenges, just not so early in the morning. Yawning broadly she got up and dressed quickly as the air was rather chilly. She used to go riding every day back home in Dol Amroth, but even so her muscles were sore from spending the whole day yesterday on horseback. After casting a last envious glance at Melian who was still fast asleep on the other cot she opened the tent flap and slipped outside.

The sky had started to brighten in the east, but dawn was a long way off yet. The camp was slowly starting to wake up although there were still plenty of sleeping forms lying around the banked up campfires. Smiling she wondered if King Éomer was one of them. Melian had been scandalized when she realized he was going to sleep on the ground just like his men. Her sister-in-law had been visibly relieved when Lothiriel had come back with Éomer the day before, having made up their quarrel. Poor Melian, she thought remorsefully, she hated arguments and raised voices and had had a most uncomfortable couple of days.

Over on one side one of the riders had built up his fire again and was handing out cups of hot tea. Lothiriel grabbed one with a quick word of thanks and gratefully wrapped her fingers around it. The brew was sweet and much stronger than what she was used to, but it helped to wake her up completely. Some of the riders offered her a quick nod or a couple of words of greeting as she strolled through the camp down to where the horses were picketed and she resolved to learn some Rohirric, at least enough to say good morning in their own language; it only seemed polite.

Nightwind was tethered near one end of the line of horses, next to Firefoot. Early as it was the horses had already been watered and fed and Éomer’s squire was busy grooming the big stallion. When he spotted her, Beda wordlessly handed her a brush and curry comb. Lothiriel wondered if there was anybody in the camp who didn’t know what she was here to do. “You will have to look after Nightwind yourself until you know every inch of her and realize instinctively when there is something wrong with her,” Éomer had explained the night before.

At least the mare was pleased to see her and gave her an affectionate nudge with her head. Brightening up Lothiriel began to groom her with long even strokes. It was not as if she did not know how to do it, for as a child she had been expected to look after her little gray pony herself, it was just that when she graduated to horses it was no longer considered fitting for a princess to groom her own horse. She had to admit, though, that unlike some other traditions this was not a rule she had bothered to fight very hard. Her brothers would be rather surprised if they could see her now.

The black mare was leaning into her strokes, enjoying the attention and Lothiriel found herself warming to the task. “You are a lot of horse to groom, aren’t you,” she said, patting Nightwind’s neck fondly, and laughed as the mare whickered softly in reply.

By the time she had finished with combing the mane, picked Nightwind’s hooves and had run her hands down all the legs to check for swelling, the rising sun was painting the sky in delicate shades of orange and pink and the birds had started their dawn chorus. The camp had sprung to life by now and the servants had started to take down their tent.

Lothiriel decided she had earned some breakfast. One of the riders was baking griddlecakes on his campfire and she stopped to have a look. They smelt delicious and were probably rather tastier than the porridge her servants were certain to have prepared for her. He looked up, offering her one with a smile, and with a start Lothiriel recognized the rider from the archery competition. His name was Éothain, she remembered.

“Thank you,” Lothiriel said gravely and then hesitated. She had wondered before if he minded very much loosing to a woman and now decided to take the opportunity to talk to him. “I would like to say I think you’re one of the best archers I have ever met,” she told him. When he looked pleased at the compliment she added, “I know Nightwind should have gone to you. Do you mind very much not winning her?”

He gave her a slow smile. “I did at first,” he admitted in quite fluent Westron, “but the gold I won will come in handy. Hopefully I will be able to buy some horses to give to Alfhild.”

“Who is Alfhild, your wife?” Lothiriel asked curiously and sat down near the fire.

“Not yet,” he replied shaking his head, “but I hope she will accept my suit now.”

“Well I wish you the best of luck,” Lothiriel said, stretching out her hands towards the fire to warm them up, “is there any chance of another cake?” she asked hopefully and with a grin Éothain handed her one.

“They are easy to make,” he explained, “just mix flour, water and honey and then bake them on the griddle.”

“I am a hopeless cook,” Lothiriel had to admit ruefully, “my brother Amrothos claims I can spoil anything and tells me I will have to marry a rich man with a large kitchen staff.” They laughed together.

While grooming Nightwind the exercise had kept her warm but now Lothiriel found herself shivering in the chilly dawn air. She started as suddenly a heavy cloak was dropped on her. It was woven of green wool with a white horse embroidered on it.

“Finished with your chores already?” the King of Rohan asked her with an ironic smile. The cloak smelt of horse and of man but she wrapped it round herself, grateful for the warmth it provided.

“And a very good morning to you as well my Lord King,” she replied evenly, “yes, I’m finished with grooming my horse.”

“You had better saddle her up then,“ he said and grabbed a griddlecake, “we will be leaving soon.”

Lothiriel got up with a sigh. “Back to work,” she remarked to Éothain. Grinning widely he tossed her another cake.

“Do you think we will make to your sister’s today?” she asked when she had caught up with Éomer.

He nodded. “I certainly hope so, that’s why we are leaving early.” Picking up her saddle he motioned for her to put the saddlecloth on Nightwind’s back and then heaved it on. He watched critically as she finished bridling and saddling up. Once she was mounted he unhitched her stirrups. “You won’t be needing those today,” he said much to Lothiriel’s surprise, “or these either,” he added taking away her reins as well.

She looked at him in dismay. “How am I supposed to control Nightwind without reins or stirrups?” she asked, alarmed.

“With your legs and voice of course,” he replied quite unmoved, “it will improve your balance. Just sit deep in the saddle and you will still be in charge.”

When she still looked doubtful he added, “think of yourself as a heavy bag of grain.”

In her life Lothiriel had been compared to many things by the courtiers of Dol Amroth, most notably to a swan, but a bag of grain was not amongst them. Correctly interpreting the flash of anger in her eyes, Éomer threw one last remark over his shoulder with a grin as he moved on. “You can always think of yourself as a royal bag of grain if that feels better.”

Very funny, Lothiriel fumed. He was obviously enjoying winding her up, but of course it was her own fault for handing him the upper hand like she had done. Maybe it was time for a change of tactics concerning the King of Rohan.

Accordingly she only smiled at him sweetly when a little later they were on their way and he curtly ordered her to ride with him. “It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, King Éomer,” she said dulcetly. “Especially when asked so courteously,” she couldn’t resist adding when she saw his startled look.

He gave her an appreciative grin. “Princess Lothiriel, would you do me the great honor of granting me the pleasure of your company for a while?” he rephrased his command and she inclined her head in gracious assent.

The road had started to climb slowly but steadily as the mountains loomed nearer, and the sun at last rose over the Ephel Dúath and shed its golden light on them. It was still quite fresh, though, and Lothiriel was grateful for the borrowed cloak. As they rode at the front of their company, King Éomer finally clarified his reasons for making her ride without reins and stirrups.

“You wanted to be treated like one of my riders. I make all of them do without them for a while,” he explained and Lothiriel felt slightly mollified.

“Stirrups are easily lost in a fight and as an archer you have to be able to use both hands. Moreover it makes you more aware of how to use your body to control your horse.”

Lothiriel nodded thoughtfully. At first her hands had felt strangely empty without reins but then she had noticed how responsive the black mare was to her slightest aid. A soft touch with her legs was all it took to move her in the desired direction.

“This one is a princess among horses,“ Éomer said, nodding at Nightwind with an ironic side-glance at her, “sweet tempered, yet brave and proud. She has some meara blood.”

Lothiriel decided not to rise to his bait and asked intrigued. “What are mearas?”

“Mearas are the descendants of Eorl the Young’s horse Felaróf. It was said of him that he understood the speech of men.”

“Are you implying she understands what we are saying?” Lothiriel asked skeptically.

Éomer shook his head. “She is just more intelligent than most horses, but she does understand some commands.” He uttered a short word in Rohirric and the mare stopped abruptly, nearly unseating Lothiriel who had not been prepared for it.

“What else can you make her do?” she asked once she had recovered and gotten Nightwind to move again.

“Run, buck, rear and come to me amongst other things,” Éomer replied.

They rode in silence for a while as Lothiriel digested the meaning of his words. She absolutely did not like the feeling of sitting on a horse that could be controlled by somebody else. “Can anybody use those commands against me?” she asked finally.

The king shook his head. “She will only obey if she knows and trusts you, that is why it is important that you look after her yourself.”

For the next hour he kept her busy learning words of Rohirric and for once her training as a princess stood her in good stead. She had been taught ways to memorize endless genealogies and this was certainly more useful knowledge.

“What is the Rohirric expression for ‘tyrant’?” Lothiriel finally asked with an innocent face.

“Why do you want to know?” he replied and at once realized his mistake.

“It might come in useful,” she said with a mischievous look. Éothain, who was riding at his other side, hastily converted a laugh into a cough.

“It’s the same word as ‘princess’,” he said deadpan and she threw him a glare.

She was so easy to wind up, Éomer thought to himself, and rather enjoyed the way her eyes flashed when she was annoyed. Mind you, she gave as good as she got.

One of his scouts came cantering up now and looked rather startled when the princess greeted him in his own language. He recovered quickly, however, gravely answering her greeting and then proceeded to give his report. Apparently the roads were clear but Éomer still felt slightly troubled. For quite some time now the feeling of being watched by unfriendly eyes had grown on him and he had noticed Firefoot growing restless, too. They were approaching the crossroads and maybe it was just the old evil still lingering in Morgul vale even after the demise of the nazgûl that made him uneasy. The road was now lined with an avenue of massive tree trunks, killed in some long ago cataclysm. This country with its steep hills and dense forests of ancient trees was just so unlike the open plains of Rohan that it made his back crawl.

Sensing his change of mood Lothiriel had fallen silent at his side and was now regarding him with an inquiring look.

“If anything happens you will return to Lady Melian’s side straightaway,” he ordered her in a voice that brooked no argument. “Just make sure you stay on Nightwind’s back. As long as you manage to do that you are safe.” She looked slightly alarmed, but only gave a short nod. Donning his helmet, Éomer could only hope that for once in her life the Princess of Dol Amroth would do as she was told.

Up ahead he spotted the ancient stone statue that marked the place where they would have to take the road leading south.

***


Concealed in the gorse bushes high up on the hill ahead of them Mashrak was watching them with hate in his eyes. His scout had been right, it was the cursed horselovers. He remembered them from the battle on the Pelennor fields, singing as they cut his king down. That had been a bitter day for the black snake and he himself had barely escaped with his life.

Their leader was a tall man riding a bay stallion, a white horsetail on his helmet. He knew they were there, Mashrak thought suddenly, he could just tell by the tension in the man’s body, the way he covertly scanned the hills out of the corner of his eye. Probably alerted by their wretched horses with their keen animal senses.

“Which one do you want? Do you fancy the blonde or that dark one riding at the front?” Razmir asked him, leering at the women below. Mashrak frowned. It was typical of his brother to only have that one thing on his mind. He was a vicious fighter, totally disregarding any danger when there were women to be captured and the younger they were the better. Mashrak loved his brother dearly, but even he felt slightly repelled by some of the things Razmir did to them.

Below them the riders had reached the crossroad and were turning south. His hands itched to give the signal to attack, but he hadn’t survived as long as he had by taking stupid chances. The horselovers were simply too many and too vigilant in unfamiliar county. In a pitched battle they would hopelessly outmatch his own men. Mashrak preferred to strike quickly and covertly, taking whatever plunder they could get and leaving no survivors.

“We retreat,” he ordered. When Razmir shot him an outraged look he added, “Patience! Our time will come.”

Like a snake in the grass they would wait and they would watch. Sooner or later the horselovers would grow complaisant and make a mistake, they all did, and then he would strike.

Oh yes, their time would come, Mashrak thought.

***


Éomer felt a lot easier once they had taken the south road and turned their back on Morgul vale. The road had started to descend towards the fertile lowlands of Southern Ithilien and the forest was beginning to be interspersed with clearings. Huge oaks grew on either side, their roots covered in moss, and while the sun was shining in a cloudless sky, under the trees it was still pleasantly cool.

With a word of thanks the princess gave him back his green cloak and he rolled it up and stowed it away on his saddle. In a thoughtful voice she asked him, “Do you think there was somebody watching us back there?”

Not wanting to alarm her unduly he replied, “It was probably just the evil still lingering on in Morgul vale.”

She shuddered. “I remember the nazgûl flying over Dol Amroth during the war. I was terrified.”

He nodded. “Any sane being would be frightened by them.”

“Yet your sister slew their king. She must be very brave.” Lothiriel’s voice was filled with open admiration.

Éomer was always slightly bemused by the referent awe Éowyn was held in Gondor. To him she was still and always would be his little sister, to be looked after and protected. “She was very brave,” he agreed now, “and also very desperate.” His face darkened as he remembered those grim days.

“Let us talk about something else, “ Lothiriel said, observing him worriedly, “tell me about ents.”

His brooding look was replaced by amusement. “They are big and strong and very useful to have on your side,“ he replied. “Rather like mûmakil,” he couldn’t resist adding.

Lothiriel groaned. “Seriously, what do they look like?”

One question led to another and soon he found himself telling her about ents and the downfall of Isengard, about Uruk-hai and the battle of Helm’s Deep. She was an eager audience and her eyes shone when he told her about meeting the halflings on the field of Cormallen.

Lothiriel knew she had been lucky to have been spared the horrors of the war, yet at moments like these she still felt slightly cheated to have missed seeing all these extraordinary sights. All she had ever met were two elves, she thought. Remembering her meeting with Legolas she suddenly realized she hadn’t even had the chance to ask the elf what the stakes had been in his bet with Éomer. Lothiriel opened her mouth to ask the King of Rohan about it, but then closed it again. Maybe it was better to exercise discretion for once.

They stopped soon after at a small stream to water the horses and have their midday meal, but didn’t linger there long. The trees were starting to recede and to be replaced by open fields and there were solitary farmhouses every now and again. The inhabitants watched them warily at first until they recognized them as being from Rohan. By the time the sun was westering over the White Mountains they could make out the entry to a wide valley fronted by a solitary watchtower.

“Emyn Arnen.” Éomer announced.

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Chapter name
The crossroads
Created
15 Oct 2005
Last Edited
15 Oct 2005
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