9. Chapter 9
Devoran shivered, getting another soaking as a black cloud let go when it hit the mountain. She eased herself away from the leather for a moment. Ugh! Everything was wet. Her hose stuck to the saddle and water dripped off her hat. After spending an altogether miserable night at Erech, she felt ghastly. Even though she and Drummer had tucked themselves under a rocky overhang, the wind-blown drizzle had reached them. The horror of the place hadn’t helped either. In spite of telling herself that the ghosts had gone, she had spent most of the night listening to every sound and longing for her own warm bed. How many more nights before she slept peacefully between clean sheets! Probably not until she got to Minas Tirith.
The enormity of her venture hit her again, and she swallowed down her anxiety. The further into the journey, the more she realised how difficult it was all going to be. Not that she doubted King Elessar would keep his word and welcome her, but she had never thought to arrive with barely any clothes to her name and looking like a waif. Would he let her hide herself until she had sorted it all out? She didn’t know. In fact she knew nothing about the workings of the Court at all. Except that the Queen’s ladies she had seen in Dol Amroth were all extremely elegant. She could hardly appear more different! Devoran took off her hat and shook off the worst of the water, before ramming it on her head again. Thank goodness it had stopped raining. She opened her cloak and pushed it back. Perhaps it would dry a bit… and perhaps she should stop worrying about something she couldn’t change.
Her most pressing problem at the moment was to replenish her food stocks, as she had nothing but oats, hard biscuits and cheese left. How she longed for some fresh bread and fruit. Drummer couldn’t complain, as he had feasted off the rabbits she had killed for him. Maybe she should have cooked one for herself but, even had she overcome her squeamishness to skin it, caution would have stopped her making a fire. It had been the odd glances she had got from the few travellers they had met that made her wary. Why had she not realised that such a well bred horse would attract attention, especially when ridden by a peasant lad.
Luckily most had been local farmers, and Drummer had been so defensive they had kept away. But if she was going to be the subject of curiosity, she definitely ought to take the high road, and not drop to the lowlands through Linhir. The towns would surely be more dangerous for her. A growl from Drummer brought her out of her reverie. He had become more and more protective as the journey progressed, keeping a few feet in front of Col for most of the way.
Pushing her hat out of her eyes, Devoran stared ahead. The sky was clearing, a watery sun making an effort to elbow between the clouds. She could see no one on the road, but from somewhere heard the clip of hooves and the rumble of wheels. She pulled Col to a halt, wondering where the sound was coming from. Moments later a small cart emerged from some trees onto the road a little way in front of her. It was loaded with vegetables with a goat tethered behind. A man and woman sat on the seat, the woman wearing a bonnet and the man, who was flicking a stick to make the mule get a move on, a hood and hat much like her own. A farmer and his wife going to market, she guessed. She could just see the fork in the road from here. Which way would they go? They went to the left – the high road – and she knew from the map that the first real village was not far along there. All she had seen so far were isolated farmhouses and a ruined castle. If it were market day she could restock. That thought made her keen to get there and she gathered up the reins again.
“Come on Col, you had some lovely grass last night, but I am very hungry.” She urged him on. There had been no point pushing the pace, and making Drummer run all the way. Although so far he had showed no distress, except that he had chosen to pad along the grass on the edge of the road whenever he could.
The land had softened since Erech, and once through the gorge at Tarlang’s Neck only scattered rocky outcrops pushed down into the high pastures. The pinnacles of the Ered Nimrais were way above her now. To her right the land sloped down towards the distant coastal plains, and as the sun won through, she saw the silver glint of a river way below. The road followed the undulations of the hills and she guessed the village was hidden by a small rise. Cirlion, if she remembered the name correctly.
She had been right about the market. Reaching the first dwelling, Devoran saw a woman coming towards her with a live chicken in one hand and pail of milk in the other. The woman stared, but ducked into the doorway of a low stone cottage without saying anything. The road widened, many houses clustering along its edges, interspersed with plots of cultivated land that supported pecking hens, goats and the odd cow. Gradually the beaten way opened into a sizable square, thronging with carts, stalls and people. Devoran stopped; she couldn’t let Drummer loose amongst that lot – Cirlion must be the trading centre for all the farms around. Many folk had brought their carts and were selling anything from vegetables to piglets off the back of them, but there were also some stalls and she saw one piled with pies and pasties and another where the stallholder had hung sides of bacon. Quickly she slipped off Col and got out a piece of rope; she’d have to tie him up somewhere. There wouldn’t be room between the stalls for such a big horse.
A spreading tree solved her problem. Old and knurled it grew at the side of a pond, shading a corner of the square. On one side a group of lads were playing knucklebones, and under the canopy of its branches on the other there was a queue of people. Devoran saw that they were waiting for the attention of a young woman who had a wooden table set up alongside her, on which were laid the accoutrements of a healer. The woman, who had her hair neatly braided around her head and wore a grey tabard over her dress, poured something from a stone bottle into a cup. She handed it to a little girl, who after a moment’s hesitation drank it down, screwing up her nose in disgust. Not wanting to interfere in the work of the local healer, Devon led Col and Drummer as far away as possible and tied them both to a low branch. The boys had stopped their game, watching her every movement.
“Don’t go near the dog,” she warned, in what she hoped was a convincingly gruff voice. “He’s dangerous.”
Drummer gave truth to her words by raising his lip threateningly to a small brown and white mongrel that got nosey.
The boys stepped back. But when Drummer did nothing more, one, braver than the rest, sidled up to Col.
“That’s a big horse you got there, can I have a ride?”
“Sorry! He’s a warhorse. Come any closer and he’s liable to kick you!”
That made them go back to their game. Poor Col, he had such a nice nature Devoran couldn’t imagine him kicking anybody. She smoothed her hand down his nose. “I couldn’t do this without you.” She hated the thought of selling him, but what choice did she have? Once she reached Minas Tirith he would have to go.
The boys had lost interest, and confident that Drummer would keep anyone away from her things and Col, she wandered into the market. A few curious looks were thrown her way, plus a lot of questions as to where she was going, but she answered with no more than a grunt and a nod of her head. She hated to be so ill-mannered, but was not convinced her disguise would hold at such close quarters, and being discovered as a woman would raise more problems. Luckily they must be used to travellers here, because only a few shrugs and scowls countered her rudeness, and the stallholders sold her what she wanted and left her alone. Bread, a couple of meat pasties, a piece of salted pork and some early apples were loaded into an empty hay bag. There were raspberries being sold from the back of a cart, but with no basket to put them in, she bought a handful and enjoyed them there and then.
Back under the tree Devoran stowed her purchases in the saddlebags, keeping out a pasty. The boys had gone, so she sat down with her back against the trunk to eat it, sharing with Drummer. Tired, she closed her eyes for a moment and, the pasty finished, Drummer curled up against her. They should get on, but her limbs felt heavy, and it was nice to be amongst other people, even if she daren’t speak to them.
The next thing she knew, her face felt hot. The sun had moved, long rays peeking under the branches. Devoran saw that the stallholders were packing up, and the lady healer had gone. Two young lads were taking the table away somewhere. Devoran got up quickly, brushing bits of leaf and crumbs from her tunic. She must have dozed; at this rate she’d never get to Minas Tirith. Devoran took hold of Col’s reins, deciding to find somewhere to mount easily. All the bags and her mother’s lyre made it more difficult than usual to get on his back. She skirted around the edge of the square, and passed by a woman selling milk straight from her cow. With just water to drink for days, Devoran would have liked some, but now she had reins in one hand and Drummer’s rope in the other, and did not dare to let the dog go with so many temptations for trouble around.
She was still tired in spite of the sleep, and her legs were suffering from the unaccustomed riding. Also she could do with drying off her clothes and perhaps washing a few things. With any luck there would be somewhere to camp just outside the village.
“That’s a nice bit of horse-flesh you got there, lad!”
Deep in thought, Devoran started, and looked around to see who was talking to her. Her eyes levelled on three men with mugs in their hands. Without quite knowing why, she shuddered – a scruffy ill-favoured trio she would rather avoid. Her eyes flicked upwards and she realised they were sitting outside an attractive inn – The Tickled Trout. The man in the middle got up, put his mug down on a table and took a step towards her. He had a coarse pock-marked face and sly slit eyes. Drummer growled, pulling on the end of the rope.
“No need to for the dog to take on.” His lips twisted into the semblance of a smile. “I’m just interested in how come a lad like you has charge of such a fine horse.”
She bit down a cutting remark that would tell him it was none of his business, and tried to respond as to the part she was playing. “I’m delivering him to my master,” she answered, mumbling into her hood. Mean eyes swept over Col.
“And I suppose that’s your master’s sword, is it?”
“It’s his spare,” Devoran snapped. “And I can’t hang about. I’ll be in trouble if I don’t meet him in time.” She pulled on Col’s reins, but the man whipped around to block her path. His two friends quickly put down their mugs and jumped up. Immediately Drummer launched at the nearest leg, teeth barred. Col’s ears went back, he didn’t like them either.
The man leapt out of the dog’s reach, drawing thin lips back in a snarl. “Keep the cur off me!”
“Then get out of my way!” Devoran hauled Drummer back, the rope biting into her hand. The man leered evilly at her, and her stomach churned in fear. She’d drop the rope if he didn’t let her pass. Drummers’ hackles were right up, and he was growling viciously.
“Oy! What’s going on here?”
Devoran swung her eyes around. A large, florid-faced man, wearing a brown apron, stood in the doorway of the inn. He strode towards them, a determined expression on his face.
“Leave the lad alone!”
“No harm meant,” the slit-eyed fellow said. “Just passing the time of day.”
“Then get out of his way, and drink up and be gone. I am fed up with you hanging around here upsetting folks going about their lawful business.”
The men slunk back to their ale. The Landlord scowled at their backs before he addressed Devoran.
“And you, lad, if you are travelling the road, you’d be better staying here tonight. There’s no other inn for leagues.”
Devoran shook her head. The exchange had shocked her and she had to take a few breaths before she could answer. “No, thank you, I will get on.”
“You’d be safer here. I’ll not charge you much if you share.”
“No. Thank you,” she muttered, pulling at Col. With another nod she hurried the horse and dog away, only then realising she was trembling. Out of sight she struggled into the saddle, wanting to get far away from such awful men as quickly as possible. How many more like that would she come across? She shouldn’t be doing this, and if Alhael hadn’t turned out to be so wicked, she could have written her letter to Amroth and all might have been different. Devoran sniffed, blinking back a tear: or it might not. There was no promise that things would have turned out the way she wished. But if Amroth still wanted to marry her, he would come to Minas Tirith. She just had to hold on to hope.
The light had nearly gone, and as Amroth followed Caedor past a wooded area, the road darkened even more. The Blackroot to the slopes of Lamedon in just one day! Everyone was weary, but he’d go on alone if necessary. At least they had dried out in the fresh breeze that had sprung up a few hours ago. The only good thing about the rain that morning was that it had made it much easier to pick up Devoran’s tracks in the soft earth. Amroth sighed, an empty hole in the pit of his stomach: at first he had not really believed she had not gone down to Dol Amroth. But Caedor had been sure, pointing out Col’s unmistakeable hoof prints – he favoured his right fore, probably due to his battle injury.
And then at Erech they had found her camp – a bracken bed made under an overhang, and nearby the remains of a rabbit with signs of dog all around. Now he had to accept that some madness had driven her along the lonely road through Tarlang’s Neck, and her first thought had not been to run to him. That dismayed him, but it didn’t stop him. Whatever her reasons, he had no intention of letting her go unescorted. She couldn’t know the dangers she faced: not every corner of Gondor had been swept clean.
Amroth put his hand up as Caedor stopped where the road forked. The others piled up behind, and Erchi came alongside him. They waited patiently, watching Caedor scour the road that dropped to the right. Shaking his head, he retraced his steps and started down the left hand fork.
“It’s no good, lord. It’s too dark to see,” he called as he walked back to them. “I can make out nothing.” He came up to Aero’s side. “I am sorry, lord. I have no idea which way she went. It will have to wait until first light.”
“We will light some torches.” Amroth couldn’t bear to stop now. He didn’t want her spending another night alone in the wilds. “If we go in twos we will find something.”
“Amroth,” Erchi said, his voice weary. “I understand your worries, but the horses and the men are tired out. And you cannot expect Caedor to do any more tonight. Let us start at first light.”
Amroth moved his eyes from his brother to the scout. Fatigue showed in both their faces. Reluctantly he nodded. “You are right, we shouldn’t push the horses any more. But I want to press on at dawn. If you will come with Caedor and just a few others, we can go at a good speed. The rest can bring the packhorses and follow us on. I know we will catch her tomorrow.”
Erchi yawned, nodding agreement. To be fair he had said nothing about the fact that Devoran had chosen Minas Tirith over Dol Amroth, for once forbearing to scoff and tease. Grateful for that, Amroth smiled at him.
“I really am sure it will be tomorrow.”
“Well, I hope so, little brother. I didn’t think the novelty of you chasing a woman would tire me out quite so much.”
Amroth found a laugh from somewhere, and slapped Erchi on the back. “Let’s get some supper.”
The men quickly set up the camp and got a blaze going. They needed something hot. Ana sat on a blanket, her head resting on her knees, thoroughly exhausted. Amroth felt a pang of guilt.
“Ana, I don’t want you riding with us tomorrow. Come with the packhorses and Lady.”
She looked up, her face thoughtful. “If you are sure you will catch Lady Devoran tomorrow, then I will, lord. My legs feel like jelly. But I’ve been thinking, about when you asked that farmer today if he had seen a woman rider with a dog. If it were me travelling through these wild lands all alone, I’d dress up as a man.”
Amroth stared at Ana; she was wearing hose and a woollen tunic. Cover her hair and it would be difficult to tell unless you were very close. If Devoran had done that, then hopefully the disguise would help keep her safe. “You are right; I am not sure why I didn’t think of it.” Not that it would have made much difference, a horse and rider would be strange enough in these parts anyway. But he wouldn’t ask about a woman again.
Up before dawn, Amroth had Caedor out at the first hint of a glow in the sky, choosing to search the high road first – she was a mountain girl after all.
“You’re sure, Caedor?”
With barely enough light to see, the scout pointed to one hoof print on the side of the road. “No mistake, lord. All the rest belong to ponies or mules. Fresh tracks too, it appears the road was well travelled yesterday.”
That fitted in with his instincts, and his fears: she had taken the road that hugged the lower slopes of the Ered Nimrais, shunning the safer way that ran down to Calembel and Ethring. “Well travelled? I wonder why.” Amroth mused. “A village nearby do you think?”
“Could be, lord.” Caedor replied. “One would expect it.”
Amroth hadn’t brought a map, knowing the way he had been expecting to take, and was now relying on memory. But they would soon find out what lay ahead. “Right, let’s get going!” He looked back to the junction and waved to Erchi and the other soldiers waiting there.
The road was good enough to keep up a fair canter, and Amroth’s hopes of catching Devoran soon increased. They topped a rise and saw the spread of dwellings before them, a sizable community stretched out along the road between two hills. Amroth swept down on the village, praying that after the wet night she would have had at Erech, she might have stayed under a roof.
Not many people were about, with the sky still pink from the dawn. The first woman he asked had seen nothing; she threw her hens a handful of grain and shook her head. “No, lord. But then it was market day yesterday, and the village was full to bursting.”
Amroth thanked her. But surely someone would have noticed the horse and the dog. No luck with the old man who crossed the square in front of them, who was more interested in his three sheep. Only by constant attention from his stick, and by his dog nipping at their ankles, did he have any chance of keeping them together.
“There’s an inn down there,” Erchi pointed along the road. “She might have stopped the night.”
If only she had! Amroth saw a pleasant inn, with some wooden tables outside. A large man was sweeping the dust from around the doorway. He raised his head at the sound of hooves, leant on his broom and watched them approach with interest.
Not keen on looking down on people when he wanted help, Amroth dismounted, and led Aero forward. “Good day to you. I am Amrothos of Dol Amroth.” He indicated Erchi. “My brother Prince Erchirion.”
The man opened his eyes wide in surprise, and bobbed his head. “Handor, lord. Landlord of The Tickled Trout, the best inn in Lamedon. Do you wish a room? And we have some good stables around the back.”
“Not at the moment, Handor. I am after information. We are tracking a… young man riding a bay gelding, should have a dog with him.”
Handor nodded knowingly and scratched his chin. “In trouble, is he, lord? I did wonder when I saw the fine horse.”
He’d seen her! Amroth’s heart thumped. “No, sh …he’s not in trouble. We just need to make sure he gets where he’s going safely. Is he here?”
“No, but he went through yesterday afternoon.”
Amroth’s heart sank. Damn! Why hadn’t she taken a room at the inn where she would have been protected!
“I tried to get him to stay the night,” Handor carried on. “The roads aren’t too safe. And he’d already attracted undesirable attention with that horse he was riding.”
“What do you mean?” Amroth demanded. But she was bound to cause interest, wasn’t she? Not many Rohirric warhorses here.
“There were three objectionable characters around. Said they were looking for work.”
Handor’s eyes narrowed. “But I have my suspicions. We have had a bit of trouble with thievery from the isolated farms, and one traveller lost his horse overnight. Nothing to link it to those three, mind, I am not saying that. But they gave your friend a hard time until I stepped in.”
Already hollow inside, this was everything he feared. “Where are they now?” Amroth waited anxiously, wanting to hear they were still in the village.
“Drank up and disappeared, I didn’t see them after that. Strikes me they could had had their eyes on that horse, and the fancy sword.”
“But they were on foot?”
“Aye,” Handor answered. “But the road goes the long way around the hill. There are many shorter paths for those that know.”
With cold dread stealing through him, Amroth swung around to Erchi.
His brother jerked his head in the direction of the road. “I think we had better get going. I don’t like the sound of this.”
With a quick nod, Amroth grabbed Aero’s reins and swung into the saddle. He shouted to Handor. “The rest of my party will be here soon. Send the men on after me, stable the spare horses and give the woman a room, will you?”
“Aye, lord. I’ll do that,” Handor said, a bit bemused.
Not even waiting to explain more, Amroth dug in his heels. Aero took off, the others in pursuit.
Devoran finished tying on the last bag, and leant her head against Col’s warm neck. She had no energy or inclination to continue her journey, which was why the sun now shouldered over the hill. She should be making use of every hour of daylight, but all sense of urgency had left her. What did it matter how long the journey took or even if she got there at all? The future was going to be so difficult that, right now, she didn’t want to face it. A tear trickled down her cheek. It had seemed such a good idea to go to court, but she had totally underestimated the problems her flight would give her. She was stiff from sleeping on the hard ground, sore from riding, covered in bumps where the insects had made a meal of her, and fed up with the hood that made her head itch when she got hot, even though she had plaited her hair for coolness. Not only that, the linen around her breasts had started to chafe. Devoran sniffed as Drummer rubbed against her legs.
“You are right, Drummer, I am feeling sorry for myself. That won’t do, will it? I have to go on; I can’t let my brothers down. They would have wanted me to be strong.” Suddenly some of Amroth’s words sent light through the grey in her mind – he had talked to her brothers; they would have been friends. Fool! What had she done! She should have gone to Dol Amroth, even if his father had not let him marry her, he would have made sure she was safe. But it was too late to change her mind now, stupid to go back through that village with those horrible men around. She had to go on.
Still sniffing, Devoran led Col to a rock. She had left the road the evening before and gone into a small dell, making her and Drummer a den under the bracken. Water, grazing and a rabbit for Drummer, it had made a good campsite. Except for the biters. Her arms were itching like mad, but she had to resist the urge to scratch, that would make them worse
“We must go, Drummer, I can’t put it off any longer.” Devoran clambered up on Col’s back and settled herself. “Let’s be off, Col, back to the road.”
She followed the stream down the dell. The water bubbled and tinkled over the stones, reminding her that she had heard that sound every time she had woken in the night. A dipper bobbed up and down on a boulder in the middle, but as she approached it took off downstream, skimming the water until it disappeared amongst the rocks. The stream hit the road in a rush but was forced under stone slabs, until free again, it plunged down the hillside bouncing over smooth rocks and swirling eddies under the overhanging ferns. The stream was travelling south, making for one of the rivers that cut down to the coast. Devoran pulled her eyes away and started east again; wishing for the unattainable would do her no good at all.
The road sloped gradually upward, winding around the side of the hill, while to her right the land fell steeply away where a scree slope had slid down from higher up. At some time, great boulders had fallen from the mountain; they dotted the hillside like marbles thrown by the hand of a giant. One huge one lay right next to the road, and as they neared it Drummer stopped. He let out a low growl, the fur on his back spiked in warning.
“What is, Drummer?” Devoran whispered. A lion maybe? She had been lucky so far, but would have expected one higher up in the mountains, not here. With Drummer still growling, slowly her shaking hand reached for her bow.
To be continued.
List of Original Characters in this Chapter.
Devoran- G Lord Duinhir’s Daughter.
Caedor – G Soldier in Erchirion’s Company. Trained as scout in Rohan. Married to Ana
Ana - G Junior maid in Dol Amroth. Went to Rohan with Lothíriel.
Handor – G Landlord of The Tickled Trout – an Inn in Cirlion, Lamedon