24. Opening Moves
At the start of the game it is imperative to gain control of the centre of the board and to secure all the vital pieces. Striking quickly and decisively, the opponent can be weakened to such an extent that he will never recover.
(Ulfang: Shah - A King's Game.)
The sun rising behind the jagged peaks of the Ephel Dúath bathed the upper levels of Minas Tirith in its first tentative rays, but the fields of the Pelennor still lay in the shadow, quiescent. Muzgâsh watched the smoke from a few cooking fires rise in lazy spirals in the still morning air. From his vantage point on the wall of the Third Level, he had a clear view of the green fields stretching out to the north until they met the encircling Rammas Echor.
The King of Rohan was back. Last night, Muzgâsh's men had brought the news that after three days of celebrating his sister's nuptials, King Éomer had at last returned from Emyn Arnen.
Muzgâsh smiled. "You have returned to your doom," he whispered.
He had spent the time well, getting everything in readiness. The gods had favoured him and had sent Imrahil home early, bringing his daughter with him. After three days of covertly observing every step the princess took outside the town house, he had put the finishing touches to his plan. These soft Gondorians granted their womenfolk so much freedom, it would be easy. Now it only remained for him to give the word.
Without turning round he lifted his voice. "The boat?"
Soundlessly the commander of his men, Shagnar, stepped forward from where he had stood guard at the top of the steps leading up to the wall walk. "I went myself to see the captain last night. He awaits us."
Muzgâsh nodded with satisfaction. "Very good."
He had originally intended to escape on horseback along the South Road as far as Pelargir and then to take the Harad Road, but now an addition to his plans had forced him to look for different means of transportation. Fortunately they had found a fast ship with a captain willing to be bribed not to ask too many questions. The man thought he was taking them as far as the Mouth of the Anduin, but it would be easy to persuade him to continue to Umbar. If a bag of silver didn't do the trick, a knife at his throat would.
"My Lord Prince, do you want me to send off the man to the Houses of Healing now?" Shagnar asked. The guttural accent to his Westron betrayed his origins from one of the eastern tribes of the Haradrim. Savages, but highly valued by the rulers of Harad for their ferocity in battle.
"Yes," Muzgâsh replied. "And have two men watch the Great Gates so we know if the King of Rohan enters the city."
Shagnar bowed deeply and went to do as bid. Muzgâsh had little doubt that King Éomer would want to visit Prince Imrahil that morning. Rumours that the King of Rohan meant to marry the Princess of Dol Amroth, and that her father was less than pleased about this, had been widely discussed in the taverns of Minas Tirith over the last few days. By keeping a watch on the city gates, they would know where to find King Éomer once the first part of their plan had been accomplished. Muzgâsh rubbed his hands in anticipation. Hunting on the plains of Harad had taught him that to catch a lion you needed the right bait and he had just the thing in mind. After all he was only taking back what belonged to him anyway.
By now, the sun had risen far enough above the mountains to reach the fields of the Pelennor. Inevitably, his eyes were drawn to a green mound near the road to the river. Covered with lush grass, it marked the final resting ground of King Théoden's steed - and the place where Muzgâsh's father fell. Dead, but not forgotten. Unable to help, Muzgâsh had been mustering their reserve forces in Osgiliath and had not even heard of his father's death until his brother Torog had ordered their retreat. The coward!
He looked back at the mound and his hand closed on the pommel of his sword. They had honoured a horse with a burial, whilst the King of Harad lay in an unmarked grave somewhere, his body trampled into the ground by the charge of the Rohirrim instead of being sent to the gods with the proper rites. And while Théoden, the slayer of Muzgâsh's father, had died himself on the battlefield, his nephew yet lived and thrived.
"Not much longer," Muzgâsh murmured. "Enjoy your last sunrise, King Éomer."
He would not live to see the sunset. Tonight, the King of Rohan would be lying on the ground, cold and dead, while Muzgâsh sailed down the Anduin.
Tasting the spoils of victory.
"The King of Rohan is back."
Lothíriel had to hide a smile. She plucked another note on her harp. The tune had a cheery rhythm, easy to master, like a pair of dancing feet. My love has claimed a ribbon from me...
"You knew already?" Hareth asked.
"Amrothos told me last night," Lothíriel explained. And anyway, Éomer had promised to return to Minas Tirith as soon as possible. So tied to each other forever we'll be...
"I see," her maid said slowly. "So that is why you insisted on having your Rohirric clothes washed."
Her fingers flying across the strings, Lothíriel nodded. To a far off land he had to go...
"I think your father is already getting tired of seeing you wearing them."
As an answer, Lothíriel just grinned, for she had ordered more of the same tight-fitting, sleeveless tunics. Though she wore trousers today, the prettily embroidered tunics went equally well with a skirt, so Prince Imrahil would soon see his daughter wear nothing else. To face a dark and mighty foe...
Her maid took up brushing Lothíriel's hair. "Will you be going to the Houses of Healing again today, to visit that rider?"
"Perhaps this afternoon." I wait for the day of his return...
"Why, what's happening this morning?"
With a flourish, Lothíriel finished the song. "You never know who might come calling." When his reward at last he'll earn.
She leaned back in the chair, to allow Hareth better access to her hair. Only her family would ever see it hanging loose down her back like this, thick and long. And her husband. While Hareth's clever fingers started to braid it at the temples and pin it up into a bun at the back of her head, Lothíriel speculated what it would feel like to have Éomer undo it. Nice, she decided, it would feel nice. Lothíriel sighed. It might be a long time until she would find out, for her father showed no sign of relenting yet. At least he hadn't carried through his plan of sending her back to Dol Amroth. But surely Éomer had thought of something by now. When Hareth had finished with her hair, Lothíriel got up from her chair and gave a quick twirl.
"Do I look pretty?"
Her maid laughed. "Ravishing."
Pleased, Lothíriel picked up her cloak - Éomer's cloak really -and fastened it with his brooch. Another item of clothing she had taken to wearing almost constantly in her battle of attrition with her father.
"I'll go and sit in the garden for a bit."
That moment there came a knock on the door. "My lady, there is someone to see you."
Lothíriel's heart gave a funny little leap. "I'm coming!" She opened the door eagerly. "Who is it?"
"One of the healers from the Houses of Healing."
"Oh!" Disappointment flooded her. She recognized the voice of one of the maids. "What does he want?"
"I do not know, my lady, but he said it's urgent. He's waiting downstairs."
After picking up her cane and with Hareth in tow, she descended the stairs. In the hallway the healer greeted her.
"My Lady Princess! The Warden sent me to beg you to come at once."
A southern accent, Lothíriel identified automatically, but not somebody she had met before. "Why, what's the matter?" she asked.
"The young rider from Rohan..."
"You mean Guthlaf?"
What could be wrong with him? Feeling sorry for him for being so far away from home, she had formed a tentative friendship with the young rider and had visited him several times over the last few days. Yet he seemed to have recovered well.
"Yes, him," the healer answered. "He came down with a sudden fever last night and the Warden fears for his life. Please come at once, he keeps asking for you."
"Of course I'll come!" Lothíriel exclaimed.
The stairs creaked as somebody descended and she recognized her father's steps. "Daughter," he asked, "is something wrong?"
"I've got to go and see Guthlaf," Lothíriel explained. "Healer-" She stopped, realizing she did not know the man's name.
"Baran," he supplied. Like many people meeting the Prince of Dol Amroth for the first time, he sounded slightly nervous.
"Healer Baran has come to fetch me," Lothíriel went on. "Apparently Guthlaf has taken a sudden turn for the worse. He probably wants to see a friendly face."
Her father hesitated only briefly. "In that case you have to go, of course. Let me call a guard to escort you."
Lothíriel was just about to agree to this when the healer interrupted. "The Warden has sent a couple of men with me to guard the princess. It really is imperative that we leave at once."
"That's very thoughtful of him," Imrahil said, sounding slightly surprised. "Very well then." He gave her a brief kiss on the cheek. "In that case I'll see you later, daughter."
Holding on to Hareth's arm, Lothíriel hurried after the healer, the two guards falling into step behind them. In the shadow of the houses, the early morning air still carried a distinct chill, and she wrapped her cloak tighter around herself, grateful for the warmth it provided.
The Houses of Healing were situated on the same level as the Dol Amroth townhouse, and Lothíriel knew the way well, so she was rather surprised when Baran suddenly turned to the left and led them down a side alley.
"Where are we going?" she asked. "I think you've taken a wrong turning."
"It's a shortcut," he replied, sounding strangely nervous.
"A shortcut?" Lothíriel tried to remember where this particular road would lead them. Behind them, she could hear the rumble of a cart turning down the same alley.
"Hurry up!" Baran said.
"Are you sure?" Lothíriel asked, slowing her steps.
One of the guards grabbed her arm, none too gently. "Move along!"
"What do you think you're doing!" she protested, digging her heels in. How dare he!
Beside her, Hareth gave a muffled cry. "Let go of me! Lothíriel, something's wrong. Run!"
The guard tightened his hold on her arm and when she tried to pull away, cursed at her. Acting instinctively, she brought her cane down on his head. With a loud crack it broke and the man let go of her for an instant. Slipping her arm out of his grip, she turned to run back the way they had come, hoping desperately that she would not stumble on something. This couldn't be happening to her!
"Help!" she shouted. Was nobody about?
Then somebody grappled her. Rough hands, the smell of mouldy fabric as a man threw a heavy blanket over her. The cart! she remembered. Were they in league? Lothíriel kicked out hard and was rewarded by a curse. But the man wouldn't let go and wrapped the fabric tighter around her, muffling her cries for help and cutting off her breath. Her attempts to claw herself free were met by another man gripping her arms and forcing them with brutal strength behind her back. She gasped with pain. Help! This could not be happening in Minas Tirith in plain daylight! She tried to drive her elbow into the man's ribs.
"Get me some ropes to bind this she-wolf," he called and Lothíriel recognized Baran's voice.
Kicking out with renewed fury, she threw herself to the side, not caring that he almost dislocated her shoulder. One of her shoes went flying. Desperately, she struggled for breath, but they pulled the thick cloth tighter across her face. Air! She needed air!
"Hold still," Baran snarled.
Weakening, she kicked out again. That moment something hit her over the head, hard. Pain and dizziness. Lothíriel felt her consciousness slipping. Éomer! I need you!
Oblivion claimed her.
He was back. Éomer nodded to the men guarding the Great Gates, who returned his greeting with a respectful bow. Firefoot's hoof beats echoed hollowly against the thick walls either side as they entered Minas Tirith. He cast a quick look back. Oswyn rode behind him with Galador following on a lead rope. Whilst the pony still looked slightly scruffy, the excellent care of his squire and a week of sufficient feeding had worked a miraculous change in him. His ears pricked forward with interest and his steps were springy, no longer tired and lethargic. Éomer looked forward to showing him to Lothíriel. She would be pleased.
On his back, the pony carried the warg pelt that Éomer had promised to give to Alphros. Whilst he did not need a pretext to visit the Dol Amroth town house, it would do no harm to arrive bearing a gift. And if it reminded Imrahil that he owed him his daughter and grandson's lives, so much the better. Never give up a tactical advantage! He wondered if Lothíriel had made any inroads yet into her father's refusal to let them marry. Éomer suspected that she could be a formidable force when she had made up her mind.
Slowly they wound their way through the heavy morning traffic, following the main road on its circuitous way up. On the Fifth Level, Éomer cast a quick look up. Above them, the swan-prowed ship flew in the wind. Perhaps she sat in the garden that very minute, waiting for him. Would they be able to steal a moment by themselves? The last three days had shown him what a disconcerting amount of his heart and his thoughts Lothíriel had taken possession of. Her absence gnawed at him almost like a bodily ache. Éomer sighed.
Next to him, Elfhelm cleared his throat. "We will be stopping at the Houses of Healing first?"
No doubt the Marshal had guessed the road his thoughts had taken. "Yes," Éomer replied. "I promised to visit Guthlaf as soon as I got back." Duty before pleasure.
Elfhelm gave a dour nod. The Marshal of the East-Mark had been an unhappy man ever since Éomer had announced his plans to marry the Princess of Dol Amroth. Whilst he had been shocked at Lady Wilwarin's machinations, the prospect of a blind queen for his country disturbed him even more.
"Elfhelm, my friend," Éomer said quietly. "Just give her a chance."
No need to specify whom he meant. His Marshal shifted uneasily in the saddle. "Éomer King, I'm only thinking of the good of the Riddermark. This has all been so sudden."
They passed under the gate leading to the Sixth Level and turned left towards the Houses of Healing. "I know," Éomer replied. "But I'm sure of my choice."
"She's very young."
"The years will remedy that," Éomer said dryly. And he was looking forward to spending them with her. Waking up next to her in the mornings and having her awaiting him when he returned from patrolling. Elfhelm's voice disturbed the pleasant vision of Lothíriel enthusiastically greeting him in the stable courtyard in Edoras.
"She's also rather temperamental..."
Clearly his Marshal referred to the painful scene at Lord Girion's. Éomer shrugged. "I've been known to lose my temper. You witnessed it on the Fields of the Pelennor, didn't you."
"You were justified!" Elfhelm exclaimed. "Why, you thought that Éowyn lay dead."
"Lothíriel was justified, too."
Clearly uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken, his Marshal looked down and patted his horse's neck awkwardly.
"All I'm saying is that the princess is a pretty young woman," Elfhelm said slowly, "and you are a man in your prime. Are you sure, you're not letting your...heart...overrule your reason?"
Obviously, his Marshal was thinking of a different part of his anatomy, but hesitated to say so. Éomer felt irritation welling up. "Yes, I'm sure," he said curtly.
They continued in uneasy silence and ahead of them, Éomer spotted the big wooden doors that marked the entrance to the Houses of Healing. Lothíriel would just have to prove her worth to her doubters, he thought with resignation. Hopefully she would soon get the chance to do so.
Somebody was rhythmically pounding her head with a hammer. Lothíriel groaned and rolled over onto her back. Nausea swept through her and she coughed weakly.
"Hareth?" she whispered, her throat raw.
Silence met her. Where was she? The springy mattress beneath her did not have the feeling of her own bed, and the sheets, though smooth, did not smell like her own. Slowly memories came floating back into her mind. Going to the Houses of Healing, the guard trying to grab her, a desperate fight. Lothíriel sat up with a gasp, only to have the world spinning around her. Her hands did not seem to want to obey her command to support her. Her hands...she lifted them to her face only to realize they were tied together at the wrists.
No! Panic swept through her and she struggled against her bonds, tugging and twisting until the ropes cut cruelly into her wrists. But no matter how hard she tried, they would not yield. Useless! Dizzy and exhausted Lothíriel sank back onto the bed. This couldn't be happening to her. Curling up into a tight ball, she told herself that it was all a bad dream. If she just went back to sleep she would wake up safe and sound in her own bed.
But the pain from her hands, the dull throbbing of her head and the chill slowly pervading her bones told a different story. She forced her ragged breathing to slow and tried to tamp down the mindless fear threatening to engulf her. Later - she would panic later, when she had plenty of leisure. And a shoulder to cry on. Preferably Éomer's.
Thinking of Éomer gave her something to hold on to. He would find her. After all, hadn't he rescued her from that warg? And in the meanwhile she would do her best to find out where she was being kept and who her captors were. Questions tumbled wildly through her mind. Who had abducted her and why? Were they after a ransom from the wealthy Prince of Dol Amroth? What were they going to do to her? How much time had passed? Did her father even miss her yet?
The minutes passed slowly and her breathing quietened as she tried to get her bearings. Musty air, damp and chilly with an earthy smell, like in a cellar. A few muffled sounds, coming from a great distance away: faint steps and a man crying out in pain somewhere, the words inaudible. She sat up again and explored the edge of the mattress as well as she could with her hands bound in front of her. A wooden headboard and behind that a wall, rough and cold, met her questing fingers. Then she slipped off the bed and leant against the wall for a moment, fighting dizziness. Now was not the moment to give in to weakness! She seemed to have lost her shoes at some stage and a smooth stone floor met the soles of her bare feet.
Step by careful step, Lothíriel traced the outline of her room. A few paces brought her to a corner and while following the adjoining wall, her legs collided with something, sending it flying. A quick inspection revealed a light wooden chair, then a low table. Carefully, she swept her hands across the tabletop, only to be rewarded with touching something cold and solid. A further examination showed her find to be a cup filled with some kind of liquid. Eagerly Lothíriel pulled it towards her and then knelt by the table, afraid to spill the contents if she tried to raise the cup to her lips. Water! She took deep, greedy gulps, but then stopped suddenly. How long would it have to last her? A second, very unwelcome thought entered her mind. What if it contained some kind of potion?
Though her maltreated throat cried out for more, she let go of the goblet and continued her exploration. Surely there had to be a door somewhere? Very soon she reached another corner and then found what she was looking for in the wall opposite the bed. Lothíriel traced the doorframe and grasped the handle, hesitating for a moment before trying it, afraid to dash her hopes.
Locked. Even though she had expected it, Lothíriel felt a wave of despair sweep through her and leant against the door, a sob rising in her throat. She wanted to go home. She wanted to feel the sun shining on her face. She wanted Éomer to hold her.
"Help me!" she whispered.
Her knees buckled and she sank down onto the cold stone floor, burying her head in her shaking hands. How could this be happening to her? Where were her father and brothers when she needed them - where was Éomer?
"I need you!" she shouted and then stopped, frightened of attracting the wrong attention.
Why me? Pressing her eyelids tightly together to keep tears from leaking out, Lothíriel gave herself a mental shake. Giving in to dejection would not serve anything. Slowly, she got up and continued her survey of her cell, but it yielded nothing more, and far too soon she reached the bed again. She did not like the fact that it seemed to be the most important piece of furniture in the room, the sheets covering it smooth and cool. At least sitting on it would keep her bare feet off the chilly floor. Then her hands encountered a pile of soft material. Lifting it to her face confirmed her guess. The smell of horse, leather, sunshine - his smell. As quickly as she could manage with her wrists tied, she wrapped Éomer's cloak around herself, feeling almost as if he were putting his arms around her. Some warmth returned and she stopped shivering. He would not fail her. Perhaps this very moment search parties were already combing the houses of Minas Tirith for her abductors.
Suddenly her ears made out the faint sound of footsteps. Not sure if she wanted them to approach or pass by, Lothíriel listened with trepidation as they got louder. A key turned in the lock. Getting up to face the door, she straightened her back and lifted her chin. The daughter of a long line of warriors, she determined to meet whatever fate had in store for her with courage and fortitude.
With a tortured groan the door creaked open.
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.