3. Suspension of hostilities
Suspension of hostilities
He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called an exceptional captain. For it is precisely when a force has fallen into harm's way that it is capable of striking a blow for victory.
(Thorongil: The Way of Strategy)
Lothiriel woke up early the next morning after a night not restful at all. She had retired soon after returning to the Great Hall with King Éomer, her headache not entirely feigned, but sleep had been a long time coming and had been troubled by confused dreams.
With a groan she rolled over and buried her head underneath her pillow. She didn't really want to face a new day. Her brilliant plan, so well thought out and almost foolproof, looked a lot less convincing now that it had been put to the test. She still didn't know what had possessed her to utter those last fateful words to the King of Rohan. What sort of woman he now imagined her to be she did not even want to consider and she shuddered at the thought of what her father would have to say if he ever found out about her appalling behaviour.
In fact it might be wise to consider a tactical retreat and make herself scarce this morning, just in case King Éomer did talk to her father. She sat up and cast a look out her window. The first pale fingers of dawn were only just stretching across the sky and if she made haste she could have her mare saddled and be on her way before the stables truly woke up.
A few minutes later she had dressed in one of her simple riding habits consisting of a pair of soft leather trousers and an unadorned linen tunic, had braided up her hair and slipped out of her rooms, a sleepy but faithful dog at her heels. To her surprise when she reached the stables she nearly ran into old Hathol, the head groom, who was just latching the door behind him. They both jumped.
"My lady!" he exclaimed, "you're up early."
"You are up early yourself," she replied, "is something the matter?"
He slowly shook his head, "Everything's fine. Just one of the guests going for a ride."
Lothiriel had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Which one?" she asked, trying for a nonchalant tone and not succeeding.
"The King of Rohan himself," Hathol replied, speculation filling his eyes. Lothiriel had no doubt that by now rumours would be flying thick as to the real reason for King Éomer's visit to Dol Amroth.
"Which way did he go?" she asked.
"Down to the beach I believe," the groom answered and Lothiriel hesitated, unsure what to do. Éomer was truly the last person she wanted to run into, on the other hand she felt like she very much needed a bit of solitude to order her thoughts.
"Lady Lothiriel?" Hathol asked questioningly and she made up her mind.
"Saddle Snowflake for me, please," she ordered him.
There were many paths along the shore and if she took one of the lesser-travelled ones along the cliff top it would be highly unlikely that she would meet him. No doubt he wanted to have a look at the sea close hand, almost all their visitors did.
Her mare already had her head turned their way when they entered the stables and gave a pleased whicker in welcome. Lothiriel stroked her soft white coat and felt comforted by the familiar smells of horse and hay.
"King Éomer had a look at her this morning, he was pleased with her condition," Hathol said proudly, smoothing out the saddlecloth.
Lothiriel froze. "He did?"
The groom nodded and heaved the saddle on. "He asked who exercised her. As if you'd let anybody else ride her!"
"Did you tell him that?"
"Why, yes, of course I did."
Lothiriel could almost picture the scene of the old man proudly telling the King of Rohan of her equestrian skills. Hathol had known her since she first learnt to ride and had consoled her more than once when she had taken a painful fall. She bit her lip. So now King Éomer knew her for a liar as well. Why had she panicked like that and told him all those ill-advised tales?
Silently she helped the groom get Snowflake ready and then led her out the stables, where her dog was waiting, jumping around in excitement. The mare gave a snort at Anca's antics, but it was more for form's sake, she had long since gotten used to the great deerhound following her mistress along everywhere. Hathol gave her a leg up and then patted Snowflake's neck as Lothiriel gathered up the reins.
"You'll stay close to the castle?"
Lothiriel nodded. She had always found close quite an elastic term. "Don't expect me back for a while, though," she replied and with a last backward wave urged her horse out the back gate of the castle and down the path that would eventually lead to the sea.
The sun had just risen behind the hills to the east and the walls cast long shadows across the fields bordering the castle. Further along were meadows of grass cropped short by sheep and bordered by low stonewalls. The wind was blowing inland today and as she neared the ocean the tang of salt intensified. The main path led down to the beach and then along the seashore towards the town of Dol Amroth, but about halfway down Lothiriel stopped and dismounted. There was a narrow trail leading off in the opposite direction here, but it was so little used that it was nearly invisible if you did not know where exactly to look. She examined the ground as she led her horse through the low growing bushes either side and was satisfied that nobody had passed this way for a long time, certainly not today.
Anca ran ahead, sniffing down rabbits' burrows, and Lothiriel mounted her horse again and followed more slowly, quite happy to let Snowflake pick her own pace. The ground was rough at first, but when they reached the cliff tops again the going got easier. Quite apart from being very pretty, her mare was also surefooted and had a lovely smooth gait. A gift worthy of a king, Lothiriel thought guiltily.
Now that there was no more danger of meeting the King of Rohan she allowed herself to relax and enjoy the view over the ocean. It promised to be a lovely sunny day and when a little later she happened on a sheltered grassy dell she dismounted again and turned the horse loose to graze while she sat with her back against a stone and watched the gulls diving over the edge of the cliff. Panting heavily, Anca flopped down next to her and she absentmindedly stroked the rough grey fur.
"I've landed myself in a fine pickle, you know," she said with a sigh and the dog put its head on one side as if earnestly considering her words.
If she was very, very lucky King Éomer would simply tell her father that he had changed his mind and take his leave soon after. If she was not quite so lucky he would tell Prince Imrahil just why he had changed his mind. And if she was really unlucky he would not change his mind after all and still ask for her hand in marriage.
Lothiriel groaned and hid her face between her hands. Had she really said those words last night – she, the serene and always controlled Princess of Dol Amroth? He had looked so utterly disgusted with her that she had wanted to tell him the truth at once, only that would have ruined all her carefully laid plans.
"It was a stupid plan anyway," she muttered in disgust and Anca wagged her tail as if agreeing with her.
When they had got back to the Great Hall she had introduced King Éomer to Lady Eilinel who was as witty as she was beautiful and he had spent the rest of the evening dancing with one pretty woman after the other. Her father had looked on worriedly, but had said nothing when she had retired soon after. Well, it seemed like the second part of her strategy had worked at least, but for some reason she could feel no triumph at her success.
She looked out over the sandy tidal flats stretching below her, noticing absentmindedly that the tide had turned some while ago and was coming in again. This part of the coast was well known for its dangerous currents and rip tides and people tended to stay off it even when the water was low. So it was with some surprise that she noticed a lonely rider ambling along towards the open sea as if he had all the time in the world. Wasn't he aware this whole part of the beach would be submerged at high tide and he had to make his way back as quickly as possible?
With a sickening feeling she realized just who it had to be out there, taking a solitary morning ride completely oblivious to the deadly danger he was in. What would be the consequences if the King of Rohan drowned in Dol Amroth without leaving an heir? Hadn't Hathol warned him not to come this way? But maybe the old man just had not remembered that not everybody was as conversant with the rise and fall of the tides as those dwelling on the seashore.
She jumped up and started shouting at him to come back, but her words were simply blown away by the rising wind and he did not seem to notice her frantic waving. Lothiriel hesitated, unsure what to do next. She could ride back to the castle and raise the alarm, but it would take considerable time to do so and by then it might already be too late. She checked the cliffs either side to see if there was a path leading down to the beach, but all she could see was the very faintest footpath, much too steep and narrow to attempt while riding a horse, even one as surefooted as Snowflake.
Down below King Éomer was still riding steadily out towards the sea, seemingly deep in thought and Lothiriel realized she had only one choice left. Turning towards her horse she grabbed the reins and quickly shortened them with a knot so they would not get tangled in the low bushes lining the path.
"Go home, Snowflake," she shouted, startling the mare, "quick now!" And when she gave her a hard slap across the rump the horse took off down the path in surprise. Lothiriel herself turned to the faint footpath leading down the cliffs, her heart in her mouth, Anca close behind her.
She never after knew how she made it down that treacherous path all in one piece. At one place she slipped on a tuft of grass and slid down several yards on her backside before she could grab hold of a scrawny bush to stop her slide turning into a fall. By the time she reached the beach she was out of breath, her arms were scratched from the thorny scrub and she was bleeding from several shallow cuts along her legs, but she considered herself fortunate not to have broken anything. Looking back at the hardly perceivable path she abruptly wondered how they would make it back up there again, for she'd had to jump down the last bit. And what about his horse?
No time to consider that now, she told herself firmly and started to run towards the distant rider. The beach was sandy at first, but she had to look out for hidden stones and pools filled with water that threatened to trip her. Already the tide was coming in with deceptively gentle waves, and having spent her whole life near the ocean, she knew just how quickly the water could rise, especially when it was so near to the full moon.
Anca went racing ahead, no doubt thinking the whole thing an excellent adventure and barking wildly, but this at last succeeded at attracting the rider's attention. He turned his horse round in one smooth motion and his hand went for the hilt of his sword, only to stop when he spotted them, no doubt thinking them not much of a threat. In fact he did not seem to recognise her when she finally drew to a stop in front of him, thoroughly winded.
"What is it girl," he asked sharply, "do you need help? Were you attacked?"
She shook her head, still too much out of breath to gasp out more than a few words. "You have to turn round at once," she panted, "the tide…"
As a matter of fact out here the water had already risen to her knees and Anca had found it difficult to keep up with her for the last part of their frantic run. Much to her annoyance he just stared down at her uncomprehendingly.
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
Thoroughly exasperated and close to panic she tried to grab the reins of his horse to get it going in the right direction, but that was of course a silly thing to do with one of the Rohirrim. She comprehended that fact the moment the big stallion reared up above her, those deadly hooves missing her by a hair's breadth as they came down again.
"What are you doing, you fool!" Éomer cursed, "Do you want to get yourself killed?"
"No, I'm trying to keep you from being killed," she exclaimed, "and we have to get going at once, King Éomer." Couldn't he see the water was rising all the time?
He had his horse under control again and now examined her sharply. "You know my name?" His brows drew together as he took another look at her.
"Princess Lothiriel?" he asked in complete disbelief after a moment.
"The same," she confirmed, "and now can we please continue this conversation when we've reached dry land?"
He ignored that last statement. "What are you doing here?" his voice was chilly.
"We haven't got time for that!" she burst out.
"Oh yes we have. I've found out you were lying to me last night about not being able to ride. What exactly are you up to?"
The water had now risen to her thighs and she had to grab hold of Anca to keep her from being swept away. Even his stallion was starting to get nervous, but he calmed the grey horse with no more than a quick word in Rohirric.
"Please King Éomer," she pleaded, "I'll explain everything, but we have to get back to the shore at once." If it wasn't too late already.
He stared down at her for a moment longer, and then seemed to come to a decision. "Up with you," he ordered and stretched out a hand.
Lothiriel hesitated. "What about my dog?" she asked anxiously.
He looked resigned. "Hand it up."
When she heaved Anca up, glad that the deerhound was so thin it didn't weigh much, he settled the wet dog across his saddle in front of him. His stallion wasn't too pleased about the dripping addition, but calmed down at another word from his master and allowed her to clamber onto his back behind Éomer. He turned the horse around and they set out for the shore at what was to Lothiriel a dismayingly slow pace.
"Can't you go faster?" she asked.
"I'm not going to risk breaking one of Firefoot's legs," he rebuked her, "There's no need to panic, it's not as if it is very far to the shore, anyway."
"Panic?" Lothiriel was thoroughly annoyed with him by now. "Don't you realize this whole beach is going to be completely submerged in a little while and we will be lucky if we can make it up the cliffs, never mind about your horse."
"Surely not!" But for the first time he sounded worried and picked up his horse's pace slightly. The water was now lapping against her feet.
"Surely yes!" she snapped back and her heart sank when she saw how far they still had to go.
After several minutes of this careful wading through the steadily rising waves and a near spill when Firefoot trod into one of the holes now hidden under the surface of the water it dawned on her that they were not going to make it. She couldn't even spot the place where she had clambered down the cliff face anymore and they had no time to search for it. Éomer seemed to realize the same thing, for he began to curse steadily under his breath. She wrapped her arms tighter around his waist and felt oddly comforted by his presence despite their hopeless plight. Then he suddenly changed direction, going parallel to the shore instead of towards it.
"What are you doing?" she asked in alarm.
"We won't make the shore," he sounded grim, "but there's a small island there, that we might be able to reach."
She peered past him and spotted a small outcropping of rock with a few scraggly bushes growing on top of it. While it was true it was closer than the cliffs, the incoming waves now threatened to sweep Firefoot's feet away from under him and the big stallion was struggling visibly and was only kept from panicking completely by the iron control his master exerted over him. He was murmuring encouragements in Rohirric as they drew closer to their only hope of survival.
Indeed they were within a few paces of the island and Lothiriel was already breathing a sigh of relief when a freak wave hit them, sweeping the dog away like a piece of flotsam.
"Anca!" Lothiriel shouted, tried to grab her dog and was thrown as the horse faltered beneath them. With an icy shock the waters closed over her head.
Flailing about wildly, she somehow made it back to the surface, only to feel herself being pulled under again by the vicious currents. Seawater filled her nose and she choked violently, now panicking in earnest. There was so much sand in the water she lost all sense of up and down. In her rising panic she struck out her hands to grab anything at all and felt one of them connect with something soft, but it was no use, she was sinking, being pulled down by the weight of her wet clothes.
What a stupid way to die so close to safety, was her last thought before darkness claimed her.
The quotation at the beginning of the chapter is from Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War'
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