6. Chapter 6
The new dawn brought no hope to the four men who had gathered in the book-lined room. Already linked by kinship and friendship, despair now joined them in a futile alliance. This was probably why, with no prior agreement and after only a few hours contact with starched linen, they had independently made their way to Imrahil’s study.
Leaning with one hand on each window mullion, Sergion, commander of Swan-knights, watched a black-backed gull chasing a guillemot low over the top of the waves. Weaving and darting, the little bird fought desperately to shake off its pursuer. Diving though a crest, it emerged far beyond the foaming top only to be snatched by another gull sweeping down from above. Sergion sighed audibly, dropping his hands and turning back to face the other occupants of the room.
Erchirion, hand on sword hilt, paced back and forth by the door. Every heavy step reverberating on wooden boards. His brother Elphir, heir to the Princedom, sat to one side of the desk. Face pinched with misery, he repeatedly picked up a small glass paperweight between thumb and forefinger, dropping it back down on the leather-topped wood in time to the thump of booted feet. Also at that desk, shoulders slumped, head in hands, and ignoring the persistent jarring made by his two eldest sons, sat the Lord of Belfalas. To those who knew him he appeared a parody of his former self: a broken man, just holding on to hope.
Deep in self recrimination, Imrahil tried to tell himself that although every barren day lessened the chance, they would find his daughter. But if he were honest, they had run out of options. Wearily he ran through the steps they had already taken, searching for something they had missed. Elphir and Sergion had taken fifty men and ridden as far as Edhellond, checking every farmhouse and cottage. Nobody had any news of Lothíriel. But even if she had managed to dodge the patrols she would have had to find food somewhere. And shelter. Two days of atrocious weather had obliterated any possibility of picking up Mista’s tracks and even the keen-nosed hounds had no chance of fixing on a scent after the unseasonable deluge. Amroth and Oríon had taken men and dogs out as soon as the storm had abated, scouring the countryside around the city for days, but nothing. Erchirion had twice pulled every ship and every house along the nearby coast apart in the hunt for his sister. But at least they knew that with the tide out that fateful night, nothing had sailed from the harbour before they had searched it. And anyway, with Mista gone it was much more likely that Lothíriel had taken off somewhere on her own. But a trawl along the beaches produced no sign, and the only result from his visit to Ivriniel had been a dressing down for exposing his daughter to the machinations of politics.
The tramping stopped suddenly. “I’ll go after him.” Erchirion took a deep breath, his already massive chest swelling with intention.
Imrahil dropped his hands and lifted his head, seeing his own desolation mirrored in his son’s grey eyes. Blessed Eru, and he must look like Erchirion, sunken cheeks and grey, pasty skin. “Go after whom?” he asked, although he had a pretty good idea.
“That Haradric scum. He must have taken her. I’ll take a fast barque and a few men, hire horses in Umbar.” Erchirion’s hand tightened even more on his sword hilt. Drawing his gaze away from his father, his eyes flicked about the room looking for reaction.
The words bit through the apathy around him. Elphir pushed the paperweight away and stood up, but at the window Sergion shook his head. “You would never catch him before he reached his own lands. And anyway, he could not have done it, Erchi. A score of men escorted them to their ship. A ship you searched twice”.
“They could have taken her in a rowing boat and met the ship out past the reef.” Erchi argued.
“We would have known; they had nowhere to hide her.” His measured tones spoke logic.”
Imrahil agreed. “And, I swear he was as surprised as us. That would have taken planning.”
“Well, I can’t stay here doing nothing. I will take a company along the road to Linhir, search the villages, somebody must have news of her.”
His father very much doubted it: errand-riders had ridden out in every direction. He could not really believe that anyone would hide or restrain their princess – the consequences for doing so would be immensely harsh, against the reward for succouring her which would be great. But before any further discussion could take place the door flew open. Documents let loose by the misappropriated glass weight fluttered on the desk, and Amrothos launched himself into the room. He banged the door behind him, and the documents wafted to the floor. For the first time in a week Imrahil saw hope on his son’s face.
“I’m riding out. Larca got me up. He wants me to follow him.” Amrothos’s voice rose well above his normal tones. He stepped up to face his father across the desk, trampling papers and parchment under his feet.
Imrahil sighed. “Amroth, you tried that before. You took Larca into the paddock and asked him to find Mista. But he’s not a trail dog.”
Amrothos shook his head impatiently. “No, don’t you see. A week ago he just sat there, refusing to move. It wasn’t the right time. Now he wants to go, and it’s got nothing to do with following a trail. He and Mista have some other connection. With Lothíriel, too. You know she’s fey, and the three of them have a special relationship. He’s been scratching at my door trying to get me to go with him.” Dropping his hands to support himself on the desktop he leant over towards his father, eyes pleading. “We’ve got to take the chance, Father. It might be our only hope.”
“What utter rubbish!” Snarling at his brother Erchirion threw his arms up in the air in disgust. “Are you telling me we will waste time following a mangy old dog, goodness knows where, because of some connection it has with a horse?”
“Then what do you suggest we do?” Amrothos rounded on him. “Just because you cannot understand anything more subtle than a sword through the guts, does not mean that such things don’t exist. Lothíriel has something strange about her whether you acknowledge it or not, and I don’t care what it is if it helps us to find her. I shall go alone if necessary. I only came here because I have no idea how far we shall have to follow him.”
“Not far, the nearest rabbit warren, most likely.” Erchirion scoffed. “We should not have let those damn Southrons go. They must have taken her.”
Amrothos tossed his head in scorn. “You think they rolled her in a tent and threw her into the hold? And I suppose they roasted and ate Mista!”
Erchirion took a step towards Amrothos, hand balled into a fist, but before Imrahil could react strong fingers closed around Erchirion’s arm. “Leave it, Erchi. This is not the time to quarrel.” Sergion held on to him until he relaxed.
“You do what you like; I am going to search the villages towards Linhir,” Erchirion retorted, shrugging off the older man. The door slammed behind him, sending the documents in all directions
Amrothos, as though he had never been interrupted, immediately renewed his plea. “Father, are you coming, or shall I go alone?”
Elphir stretched, and then bent down to gather up the wayward paperwork. “I’ll come with you, Amroth. We have nothing to loose, and it’s better than sitting around here wrangling.” He dumped documents on the desk in an untidy pile. “It’s worth a try, Father. The three of them were always going off together, and Amroth’s right about Lothíriel, she certainly is a bit fey.”
True, and they had nothing else to go on. Imrahil knew he would go mad if he stayed sitting around doing nothing. He sympathised with Erchi there. “I will come but someone has to stay. If there is news from anywhere else decisions may have to be made.” He looked directly at Sergion.
Sergion nodded. “I will stay here. You will be better doing something.”
Imrahil stood up. “I am grateful, my friend. I know you feel this as much as we do.” He went around the desk, and clasped Sergion’s arm. “As always your support is unstinting.”
The small group: Imrahil; six of his guard; Elphir; Amrothos and Oríon, who insisted on being included, assembled in the space in front of the gates, waiting for provisions to arrive from the kitchens. None, except perhaps Larca, had any idea where this would lead. Waiting in the entranceway to the city, ignoring the curious stares of the gatekeepers, the lurcher stood poised for departure. His customary bored expression replaced by one of controlled impatience, holding his narrow head swivelled back towards the group of men, ears pricked.
Somehow, seeing the dog obviously prepared to lead them gave Imrahil a surge of hope. Not everything could be explained rationally, and Amroth and Lothíriel, out of them all, showed the most understanding of both dogs and horses. “We’re ready, Father.” His son’s voice broke into his reverie.
Imrahil nodded. “Right, you lead, Amroth. It’s you the dog relates to.” A few citizens hung around, some offering quiet words of support, and some looking downright surprised at the prospect of their lord and his sons following a lurcher. But Imrahil had no intention of explaining his actions.
Once out under the stone arch, Larca immediately dodged below the rails into the home paddock. But Amroth must have been expecting that because a guard stood ready to open the bottom gate. A lively canter up through the field, accompanied by much head tossing and bucking from the permanent residents – Warlord, Imrahil was pleased to see could still manage a good turn of speed – brought them out on the main way that ran from the port to Edhellond.
Amroth leaned down from his horse to open the top gate, and with no hesitation Larca turned left. The way they had all expected Lothíriel to have gone. The way they had searched thoroughly. The dog, not heeding any doubts, trotted along the edge of the beaten way. Amroth kept his mount close but did not push the pace. He had no idea how far they would be, and the dog was getting on in years. Being born almost the same time as Lothíriel, they had grown up together. Maybe that counted for something. But maybe not, and he was a fool to think the dog could find her. But fool or not, he’d take any chance at all to get his sister back. His father had aged ten years in the past week, and … Where was Larca going? With no warning the dog had disappeared into the trees on the right.
“We’ve been up there,” Oríon said coming to his side. “There’s a track that runs parallel to the road for a good way. The hounds didn’t pick up anything. Even though we searched for a good distance.”
“Yes, but any scent would have been washed away. And she could have taken the track to dodge the patrols.” But where would she have gone then, the track joined the road again after a league. If she’d left it she could only have gone inland. Not wanting to imagine what could happen to his sister lost in the wilds of the Tarnost Hills, Amroth kicked his horse and followed Larca through a stand of beech, their leaves glowing bright green in the morning sun.
Lothíriel dipped one toe in the water, but drew it out rather hurriedly. Did she really say she would bathe in the stream? Chiding herself for being a coward, she gingerly lowered herself into the water. Great Ulmo! She would freeze to death; the sea was never as cold as this. Teeth chattering, she rubbed herself over quickly with the small bar of soap and ducked again before scrambling out onto the bank and wrapping her cloak tightly around her. Struggling into her clothes, she thought longingly of her own chamber, the hot baths that were available at need and the endless supply of clean clothes. A week in the wild with only one spare shirt to her name had made her appreciate the luxuries of her home. Food too, she grinned. No doubt it would be waybread for breakfast.
When she got back to the cave, Seron held out a mug of steaming tea. It appeared to be one thing he had in plenty. Gratefully she cradled it in both hands. She should have waited until after noon to take her bath, it would at least have been warm when she got out.
“Do you feel better?” Seron asked her.
“Colder,” she replied grinning. “I always wanted to live in the wilds but now I am not so sure. When I’ve been camping with Amroth on the islands I could wash in the sea. And we cooked fish over the fire.” She took the small piece of waybread he passed her and pulled a face, remembering other pleasures. “The cook used to give us pasties to put on the hot stones.”
“Being concerned about one’s stomach is a sign of youth. At my age you have no time to eat. Too much time is spent thinking and when one remembers one is hungry, the appetite has gone.”
Lothíriel was not sure she followed that, but had got so used to his strange manner of speech that she didn’t bother to query it. She usually worked it out later. Now what was he doing? Seron had his head on one side and appeared to be listening. All of a sudden he stood up and put two fingers to his mouth, letting out a soft whistle. “What is it?” she asked.
“You have to go.”
“Go? Now.?” She scrambled to her feet, but Seron was already heading for the cave, tossing his answer over his shoulder.
“Yes, come on. Get your things together.” As he spoke he disappeared into the cave, coming back out with her bag even before she could get there. “Hurry, you need to be at the appointed place.”
Lothíriel started to feel a bit anxious, wondering why she should have to leave in such haste. “Where? Where am I going?”
“Home of course. Your family will be worried. I suppose I should not have kept you so long, but I will justify it to your father one day.”
“One day. Not now?” Somehow she had assumed he would be coming back with her.
“No, no. I have to be…”He put his finger to his forehead. “Let me think, where do I have to be? He shook his head, “No matter; when I get there I will know.”
In spite of her apprehension Lothíriel couldn’t help giggling. That made his eyes sparkle and his lips quiver. “Ah, here’s your pony. Come along now.”
Mista appeared from the direction of the stream, whickering softly when he saw his mistress. Before she even thought about it she was on his back, but after feeling disconcerted at the abrupt way she was being sent home, she suddenly found she was eager to be off. Seron put his hand on Mista’s head, talking quietly to him. “There, he knows where to go. Let him find his own way.”
“Will I see you again?” she asked, feeling a bit sad about leaving him in such a hurry but wanting to see her family.
Seron took hold of her hand, rubbing a long finger over her knuckles. “That, my child, is something I cannot answer. If all goes well we will meet again. But nothing is certain and we must just do our best and hope. Now off with you”. He squeezed her hand. “It is time.”
Eyes moist with unshed tears, Lothíriel nudged against Mista’s flanks. But as the pony moved forward Seron unexpectedly snaked out a hand from his loose, grey sleeve and grabbed its mane. Mista backed, letting out a whinny of protest. Clutching Lothíriel’s arm, Seron stared deep into her wet eyes, his own darkening. “Your bow,” he whispered feverishly. “You must keep it with you whenever you leave the palace. You will not wed him, but that does not mean you have nothing to fear. Promise me!”
Swallowing hard, a jolt of terror rushed through her. But she nodded and although thoroughly uneasy now, when his face relaxed into a smile, she managed one back.
“Good girl, you will come through. The horse will look after you.”
“Horse? What horse, Seron?”
“Your horse, of course. Now go on, there is no time to waste hanging around here.” A last squeeze of her hand, before he patted Mista’s rump and the little pony took off towards the track that climbed up the side of the escarpment. Lothíriel looked back and saw her friend leaning on his stick watching her. She waved, and he raised his hand. His last warning had turned the pleasure of going home into apprehension; she would have to hang on to all the other things he had told her. But from what he had said the world would change and no-one would be completely safe. She swivelled her head once more, but the overhang of the rock hid him from her sight. Would she ever see him again?
Amroth couldn’t believe it: for three hours Larca had been right in front of him, but now the dog had disappeared.
“Where did he go?” Oríon looked around, mystified.
“I am not sure. He must have dodged into the trees.” They had halted on the edge of an extensive area of scrubby woodland criss-crossed by animal tracks; the trees were not dense but too thick to see very far.
“What’s happening?” Imrahil called, catching up with them.
“He’s gone. Somewhere that way.” Amroth pointed. “But there is no true path just a lot of tracks.”
“The habited areas are way to the south; these upland regions are pretty desolate. I am beginning to think Erchi was right.”
His father’s initial optimism had waned. Amroth desperately wanted to keep hope alive, for all their sakes. “I’m not so sure. Larca has not faltered up to now. We’d better spilt into twos and search around. More ground will get covered that way.”
Imrahil sighed, still sounding despondent. “I suppose we mustn’t give up now. Use your horns to keep in touch.” He looked up at the sun, just starting to disappear behind a bank of cloud. “We’ll give it a couple of hours and meet back here.”
Half an hour threading down through the trees brought Amroth and Oríon onto a grassy plateau on the steep side of a narrow vale. Someway below them a stream chattered over jumbled rocks. They stopped, eyes scanning up and down the hillside and along the valley floor. Nothing!
But then, as the sun emerged from behind a cloud and the opposite slope threw off it shadow, Oríon shouted. “Mighty Eru, look!”
Amroth’s eyes searched in the direction of his friend’s outstretched arm. It couldn’t be! He blinked; desperately wanting to believe what he was seeing. The image was still there – just below the ridge on the other side of the valley a pony and rider moved along a narrow track. And trotting in front of them, immediately recognisable, the slim form of Larca.
Blessed Elbereth! Amroth put his horn to his lips and blew loud and clear. Kicking his horse hard and paying no heed to the rough ground, he took off down the hillside, thoughts centred only on the need to reach his sister.
The clear notes of the horn ripped through the trees, the high staccato of the call for quarry sighted piercing the still air. Imrahil and Elphir stared at each other, hope chasing away the increasing despair that had been bearing down on them. As Imrahil listened, a cold sweat broke over him. Only then did he admit how much, since they had started to range over this wild land, he had been expecting to hear the mournful drone of the Mort.
“That way!” Elphir pointed, and they took off in the direction from which the sound had come. Some minutes later they heard the horn again, this time the call of ‘to me’. Following the sound they headed more to the left and a better defined track opened up through the trees allowing them to race along. Now joined by the other members of the party who had answered the insistent notes, Imrahil urged his horse ahead, heedless of the twigs whipping against his face. Down into a stream gulley and up the other side, he at last emerged into the open. The narrow track continued along the hillside, but he reined his mount to a halt. Praise the Valar, the relief made him feel physically sick. He closed his eyes and opened them again, as Elphir reined his horse in alongside him.
“Great Ulmo, he’s got her,” Elphir whispered, his voice cracking.
“Yes.” Imrahil couldn’t get anything more out. Amroth had his sister huddled against him, looking like he would never let her go. Mista trotted along behind with Larca at his heels. The dog had done it, and Imrahil vowed it would live off venison for the rest of its life. Holding on to his patience he backed his horse into the trees, the track too narrow to allow a meeting. But moments later, having jumped down to the soft forest floor, he was holding up his arms to catch his daughter.
“I’m sorry, Father,” she mumbled as he crushed her against him.
Elphir caught Amroth’s eye, and mouthed, “Where has she been?”
Amroth shrugged. “Evidently an old man gave her shelter. In the next valley there’s a cave. Oríon’s gone to look for him.”
Elphir frowned, and signalled to the men behind him. “We’ll go and find this old man.”
He took off along the track. Lothíriel, safe in her father’s arms, realised what her brother was doing. But she didn’t worry, somehow knowing that her friend Seron would be long gone.
East Emnet – The Riddermark.
Gradually the camp settled, a few men already wrapping their cloaks around them and bedding down until their turn to watch. But then the wind got up suddenly, as it so often did on the plains, setting the grasses rustling and disturbing the horses. A Rider left the fire making to where they were tethered, his soft voice already crooning words of reassurance. Éomer didn’t move, continuing to stare into the fire, seeing not the bright dancing flames but rather a tear streaked face and haunted desperate eyes.
“Here, take a gulp of this. You look as though you need it.”
Éothain passed him a horn containing a dark liquid. He sniffed. “Bema, Éothain. What is it?”
“Something my old mother distils from the cider apples. It’s a bit sweet but packs a mighty kick.” He took a glug from his own horn. “Ahh..,” he said wiping his hand across his mouth. “It gets worse the longer it’s made.”
Not to be outdone, Éomer tipped up the horn, taking a big swallow. Bad mistake, he realised as he started coughing, his throat on fire. At least it left a warm glow. He coughed again – make that a hot blaze.
“Good?” Éothain inquired, sounding deceptively innocent. When Éomer didn’t answer he sat down next to him, sipping at his drink. “We could have stayed for a few days, the men would have understood.”
He’d not deny he’d been tempted; leaving his friends in such circumstances had come hard to him. But in a similar situation none of his men could have chosen to stay. The safety of the Riddermark came higher than two good people and even the king’s nephew. He shook his head, holding out the drinking horn for another measure – the stuff wasn’t too bad when you got used to it – “At least I left Edwick propped at the table and not in the bed. And there is family around to give help, he just wouldn’t let them near to begin with.”
A hand landed on his shoulder, giving a quick squeeze before being withdrawn. Éothain not one to show too much emotion. “A bad call. And after all the lass has been though. She didn’t deserve this.”
Éomer sighed. No, she didn’t and neither did an honest and true man like Edwick.
To be continued
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.