10. Chapter 10
Nightfall found us a few miles north of Osgiliath. Fed by many small streams issuing from the slopes of the Ephel Dúath, the Anduin had widened out, flowing majestically through the open plains. In the distance, the snow covered peak of Mindolluin gleamed orange in the setting sun and I could almost imagine a white speck at its feet.
"I suppose I ought to give myself up, once we reach Minas Tirith," I said.
Léona leant on the oars. "A sensible decision. Your father must be worried about you."
I stared down at the waters, which had turned inky black. "Yes. And the Harlond is always busy. You can slip away there and go back to your king with nobody the wiser."
"If only it were that easy," he muttered.
He shrugged. "Never mind. Let's find a place to camp for the night now."
I nodded. Perhaps we could have carried on in the dark and reached the Harlond later that night, but I for one had no desire to face my family any earlier than I had to. Tomorrow was soon enough. However, finding a suitable landing place turned out to be more difficult than I had thought. The riverbank was flat and sandy on both sides and far too open for Léona's taste.
"I have no desire to beat off every adventurer who thinks to investigate a campfire," he said, "better to hide from curious eyes."
In the end we found a sandbank that cut off a narrow channel of the river and had a thin covering of young birches growing on it, which would conceal us from passing boats. A long ago floodwater had washed up a whole tree trunk and the weather had scoured it to a silvery grey colour. Half buried in the sand, it provided an excellent backrest.
I sat down against it and investigated the bag of food that Léona had exchanged for my silver brooch. It looked like the merchant had thrown in a bit of everything he traded, from old, shrivelled parsnips to a cured ham. In the end I decided to make a stew in our newly acquired kettle, so while Léona collected wood to get a fire going, I borrowed a knife from him and cut the meat and vegetables into small chunks. I wasn't sure how it would end up tasting, but what else was there to do?
We settled to our tasks in companionable silence. Léona soon had a cheerful fire going and crouched down next to it, feeding it sticks, and once I had prepared the stew, he helped me place the heavy kettle amongst the coals.
I leant back against the tree trunk. "Now we just have to wait."
He smiled at me. "Not too long, I hope, for I'm hungry."
The light from the fire played across his face and I was struck by the thought of how relaxed he looked. The wary, knife wielding warrior had almost vanished – until something rustled in the undergrowth amongst the birches. But he relaxed again when it became clear that it was only some small animal, a mouse perhaps.
I picked up a stick and used it to stir my brew. The water was beginning to boil and the smell of cooking vegetables rose into the air. I sniffed appreciatively, for I was hungry myself. Then I suddenly realized that I had no bowls.
"How stupid of me!" I exclaimed.
"What is the matter?" Léona asked.
"We have nothing to eat from." I regarded the kettle dubiously. "I suppose we'll have to drink it straight from the pot."
Léona frowned in thought for a moment, before he rose to his feet. "I have an idea."
He disappeared amongst the undergrowth and came back a few minutes later with some pieces of bark. When he saw my mystified expression, he grinned. "Something every boy in the Mark knows how to make: birch bark cups."
He held one of the thin white sheets briefly over the fire to heat it up, before bending it into the rough shape of a square bowl by folding up the corners. Those he fixed in place with a couple of sticks that he had cut a slit in.
"There you are, my Lady Princess," he said as he handed the result over with a courtly bow.
I turned the bowl over in my hands; it was lightweight, yet functional. Playing along with his game, I inclined my head regally. "Thank you, my lord. Next time I run away, I might consider abducting you again."
He laughed. "You do me too much honour."
That moment the stew bubbled over and I had to rush to stir it, spoiling my dignified manner. Having made a bowl for his own use, Léona settled down on the other side of the fire and let his eyes linger on me while I tasted the food. I was aware of them, but his gaze held no demands, just warmth, like a cosy cloak being wrapped around me. Contentment swept through me as the light enclosed us in a protective circle, warding off the darkness of the night and all worries for the future.
By the time the food was done, the stars sparkled in the sky like a dragon's hoard of diamonds. I shared out the stew and when I handed Léona his bowl, our fingers touched briefly.
He smiled up at me. "Thank you, hlaefdige min."
I cocked my head. "What is a hlaefdige?"
"A lady," he answered. "In the Mark, the lord's wife sees to the serving of the meal in his hall."
I sat down and leant back against the tree trunk. "Don't you have servants?" Surely the Queen of Rohan would not have to carry plates of food round Meduseld?
"Yes, of course," Léona said, "but the mistress of the hall supervises them, assisted by her ladies. And she will serve the cup of welcome with her own hands." He blew on the hot stew. "By honouring her husband's guests she strengthens the bonds of peace between them." He hesitated. "It is a position of importance, Lothíriel, not just an ornamental one."
Nodding politely, I took a cautious sip of stew. Hot!
He gestured with the stick he used for a spoon. "They say that Queen Frithuswith held the country together when her husband, Fengel King, threatened to tear it apart with his greed."
I frowned. Why was he telling me all this? Somehow I got the impression he was working up to something – but what? "That was long ago, wasn't it?" I asked.
"Yes, I know," Léona agreed, "but it explains why no King of the Mark would want a wife who comes to him unwillingly."
"Oh!" I lowered my bowl. "Are you saying that King Éomer would not want to marry me?"
Léona had told me so before, but at the time I hadn't really believed him. However, I had now spent four nights away from under my father's roof, much longer than I had originally intended. In many eyes, that fact alone would make me ineligible – if it ever came out that I had spent them in Léona's company... I grinned to myself. There went my chances of becoming Queen of Rohan!
He had watched me closely. Now he put his bowl down. "Listen, Lothíriel, there's something I need to tell you-"
Wood slapped on water. Léona surged to his feet and spun round towards the sound. My stew went flying as he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me up.
"Get out of the firelight!" he snapped and pulled me along.
Blinking at the darkness, I stumbled after him into the bushes behind our camp.
We peered out at the narrow channel of water separating us from the other side. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, I saw a small boat approaching from downriver. The oars rose and fell irregularly, making me think that the rower had little experience. He tried to drive the skiff up on the sandy beach near our fire, but miscalculated on the strength needed and the boat started to drift backwards. With an exclamation of annoyance, the man jumped in the water and tried to pull the boat up onto the beach that way. Beside me, Léona snorted softly at the inexpert fashion the man finally managed to wedge it against some rocks.
He squinted at our fire. "Hello? Anybody there?"
I looked at Léona. Should we make ourselves known? But he shook his head at me, obviously preferring to observe the newcomer a little more.
When he received no answer, the man turned to the boat. "Strange, the place is abandoned," he said.
"Are you sure?" a woman's voice answered.
I realized that what I had taken for a bundle of cloth heaped in the stern was another person. She got up uncertainly and with the man's assistance alighted. Together they walked over to our fire and stood staring down at the remains of our meal. They looked young, no older than I, and although the man had a sword hanging from a belt slung round his hips, he did not move with a warrior's confidence. And anyway, nobody experienced in warfare would ruin his night vision by looking into the bright flames of a fire – even I knew that.
Noiselessly Léona rose to his feet, but when I wanted to follow him, he pressed me back down. Then he threw a small stone onto the beach behind the two, where it landed with a soft thud in the sand. They spun round at the sound and peered into the darkness.
"Who's there?" the man called. His hand went to his sword.
Léona stepped out from behind a bush. "What do you want?"
With a yelp of surprise, the young man whirled to face him. He drew his sword, but the tip wobbled unsteadily. Léona crossed his arms on his chest and glared down at him. From my vantage point I saw a brief glint of steel as he slipped one of his daggers from its sheath up his arm. Having seen him move, I knew he could slash the other man across the throat before the lad had as much as a chance to lift his sword. Besides, the silly girl was clutching his arm, further hampering his movements. An uneven contest.
"We were looking for a place to shelter for the night," the lad explained.
"No room here," Léona answered. He sounded annoyed.
Having got over his first alarm, the lad steadied his sword. "We do not want to disturb you; we'll camp further down the beach."
"No," Léona told him. "You'll get back in that boat and move on."
The girl looked up at him with wide, frightened eyes. She tugged at her companion's sleeve. "Bornathron, let's leave."
But the lad had more gumption than that, or perhaps he was just stubborn. "There is plenty of room," he answered. "You do not own this place!"
I sensed that Léona was nearing the end of his patience, although I couldn't quite understand why he was so adamant against letting them stay. They seemed harmless enough.
"Now listen..." Léona growled.
I decided to intervene before the lad got hurt and rose from my hiding place. Bornathron spotted me first when I stepped into the firelight and gaped at me. Léona did nothing so foolish as to turn round towards me, but his shoulders tensed.
"Léona," I said and touched him lightly on the back. "Why not let them stay further down from us? Surely that will do no harm?"
"I told you to stay hidden," he snapped.
"I'm sorry," I said, trying to sound contrite. I nodded at Bornathron. "Why don't you put that sword away? Somebody might get hurt else."
I did not add who was most likely to get hurt, but maybe he was clever enough to figure that out himself, for after a brief hesitation he obeyed my request.
"My apologies," he said, bowing to me, "we will not trouble you any further."
Warily they retreated to their boat and started to gather pieces of driftwood for their own fire.
Léona glared after them. "Impudent whelp," he muttered.
"What bothers you so much about them?" I asked.
He rounded on me. "What bothers me is that you disobeyed my orders! You might choose to forget that your father put a prize on your head, but I'm responsible for your safety."
"Anybody can see that they are a couple of innocents," I protested. "Why, you could get the better of that boy with both hands tied behind your back."
That seemed to mollify him a little. "Even so," he grumbled.
I went to pick up my sandy bowl and washed it out. The stew had survived our preoccupation with other matters without any harm, so I helped myself to another portion. Léona meanwhile had sat down again, but at an angle so he could watch our unwelcome neighbours.
I joined him and leant back against the tree trunk. "Look, I'm sorry," I said in a low voice for his ears only, "it's not like I fancy having them here either, but I did not want any bloodshed. The boy seemed determined to stand his ground."
"It would have served him right to get bloodied." When I said nothing, he sighed. "Yes, I know you're right. I just wish they had happened upon another site than ours."
I nodded. It was surprising they had found our little beach really, as it was well hidden from view. At least the stew had cooled down so it no longer burnt my tongue. We slurped it down in silent companionship.
"What did you want to tell me, by the way?" I asked when we had finished.
"Earlier on you said there was something you wanted to tell me," I reminded him.
"Oh, that," Léona answered. He looked away. "Nothing important."
Our bellies filled, we set about getting our bedding ready for the night. With the new blankets that Léona had acquired, I even had hopes of staying warm. He handed me two of them and only kept one for himself. I also noticed that he arranged the beds so he would sleep between me and the other camp. Where were those two anyway? I peered in their direction and spotted them bent over a pile of wood. As I watched, a spark glowed briefly, but then went out without catching.
"Wet kindling," Léona said, following my gaze. "He'll never get a fire going that way."
I said nothing, just continued watching them. Another spark. And another.
"Oh, very well," Léona sighed at last, driven beyond his endurance. He bent to take a piece of wood from our fire that had only partially caught and strode over towards them.
The couple jumped up when they saw him approaching with a brand in his hands. I followed behind more leisurely.
"Let me do that," he snapped and crouched down next to the wood. He handed the lad the burning branch. "Hold this."
Quickly he sorted through the wood pile, discarding damp pieces, and then rearranged them to his liking. When he was finished, he took the brand from Bornathron and thrust it into the pile. The wood began smoking.
"Get another branch from our fire," he told the lad, who went running to obey him.
Satisfied that Bornathron was in no immediate danger anymore, I turned my attention to the girl. She had sunk down on the sand and clasped her arms around herself, as if she were cold. Pretty, with a heart-shaped face framed by ringlets, she wore nothing but a short sleeved gown that one would put on for a stroll in the town. On a piece of sacking by her side were arranged their meagre provisions: a small roll of bread and what looked like a couple of squashed nut cakes.
"Are you hungry?" I asked.
She looked up at me and nodded, hope blossoming in her eyes.
I extended a hand to her. "Come along."
Having settled her by our fire with one of my blankets around her shoulders, I ladled some of the remaining stew into my bowl and handed it to her. Judging from the way she dug into the meal, she hadn't eaten much lately.
My curiosity got the better of me. "Where are you from?" I asked.
"Minas Tirith," she answered between gulps of food.
"And you're heading where?"
"Up the river. Bornathron has a brother who lives in a village in northern Ithilien who should take us in."
That sounded somewhat ominous. "Take you in?"
"Yes." My gift of food seemed to have convinced her of my trustworthiness, for she looked me straight in the face. "You see, we are running away."
"What!" I sat down abruptly.
"And there is no way I am going back to him," she declared with an unexpected hint of steel in her voice.
"Him? Your father?"
That exclamation brought Bornathron running, and behind him a frowning Léona.
"Maedwen, are you all right?" the lad asked and knelt down next to her.
She squeezed his hand. "I am fine."
Léona raised an eyebrow at me.
"She has just told me they are running away," I answered his unspoken question, "from her husband..."
"What!" Léona took a step forward. "I will have no part in breaking up a marriage."
At the condemnation in his voice, Bornathron jumped up. "Gordir has no right to call himself her husband!" His hands balled into fists as he faced Léona. "A husband is supposed to care for his wife, to keep her safe. Not to get drunk and beat her up every night!"
When I gasped, the girl nodded at me. "I can show you the marks," she whispered.
Léona made a strangled sound, as if he'd just eaten something wholly unpalatable. "But if he beats you, you can take him to account!" he said. "What about your father?"
"He's the one who gave Maedwen to that brute!" Bornathron interrupted him. "Just so he could get his flour ground at a better price at Gordir's mill."
"Father didn't know," the girl protested. "Gordir seemed nice enough. It's only when the drink takes him..." She shuddered.
Léona crouched down next to her. "Listen, Maedwen," he said, his voice gentle, "running away won't solve your problems. But if your husband beats you, you can petition to have your marriage dissolved."
She shook her head. "I do not have the witnesses."
"I need two witnesses of good standing to confirm my accusations before a court of law," she explained, her bitterness plain.
Léona looked at me for confirmation. I had attended Dol Amroth's grievance day often enough to know the truth of this, so nodded reluctantly.
"That's barbaric," he declared.
Bornathron nodded vigorously. "Which is why I decided to take her away. Once we're at my brother's, we intend to petition Prince Faramir to intervene on our behalf."
"We had no choice!" Maedwen said. A tear ran down one cheek. "And now he will beat me senseless if he ever catches up with me."
"Not if I have anything to say to it," Léona answered. He touched her lightly on the shoulder. "I promise you are safe here for tonight. And when we reach Minas Tirith tomorrow, I will take up your case with Lord Húrin, the Keeper of the Keys."
At the assurance in his voice, she gave him a watery smile. "Thank you."
Léona rose and clapped Bornathron on the back. "Let's move your stuff over here. And we'd better pull your boat further out of the water as well."
All decisions taken out of his hand, the lad nodded happily and followed Léona like an eager hound who had found his master.
Maedwen's eyes followed them. "I don't know what I would have done without Bornathron," she said. "We grew up together. What a fool I was to marry Gordir!"
"Did you do it to please your family?"
"Father arranged it all," she answered. "He said that a weaver's apprentice like Bornathron had no prospects, that I needed a proper man to take care of me. Besides, my family runs a bakery and they would profit from having a miller as a son-in-law."
Not an uncommon arrangement – and really not so very different from strengthening an alliance between two countries with a marriage bond. I wondered if the King of Rohan liked his drink?
"We are nothing but bargaining pieces in our menfolk's games," Maedwen said.
I stared at her. Had she read my thoughts? "But you have taken your life in your own hands now," I pointed out.
She nodded, her determination evident. "It was that princess who taught me that."
I got a hollow feeling in my stomach. "What princess?"
"The one who ran away. It's the talk of Minas Tirith! They say she sailed down the Anduin all on her own, and by now she might be halfway to Umbar." Maedwen hesitated. "Although I'm not sure if that's such a good idea. There are still corsairs left there."
I wasn't really listening, for I had a vision of girls running away all over Gondor, following my example. What had I started? Léona would laugh himself silly, if he ever found out!
"Please don't tell Léona that, will you?" I blurted.
"Your husband?" She looked at me in surprise. "You don't want to run away from him, do you? Believe me, if you find yourself a good man, you'd better hold on to him."
I blushed. "I know that!"
Fortunately the men came back that moment and rescued me from more such personal conversation. Bornathron happily gulped down the remains of our stew and made inroads into the bread as well.
"That was delicious,..."
He looked at me expectantly, and I realized I was supposed to supply a name to this well brought up young man. "My father calls me Rhovaniel," I replied after a brief pause, borrowing a nickname from my childhood.
He blinked at my strange phrase, but was too polite to say anything. "Just delicious, Rhovaniel," he repeated.
When he was finished, I collected the bark bowls and put them in the empty kettle, so I could carry everything down to the water to wash out.
Léona reached past me and took the heavy kettle from me. "Let me do that."
Under Maedwen's admiring eyes, he carried it to the water's edge for me. At least he condescended to let me do the actual scouring of the pot with wet sand, or I would really have started to doubt my knowledge of men.
Léona sat down on a stone to watch me. "Well, Rhovaniel," he said, rolling the name on his tongue as if savouring a private jest, "or should it be Lady Rhovaniel?"
"My brothers tell me that I am no lady," I replied, flicking some water his way, "and you'd better remember that!"
Léona chuckled. But certainly I looked nothing like a princess any more. When he had sent my bowl of stew flying earlier on, some of it had landed on my tunic, to blend nicely with the grass stains from lying in hiding the day before. I pushed back my tangled hair, which I had forgotten to braid that morning – that had seen better days, too.
With the kettle cleaned to my less than exacting standards, I rinsed the bark bowls in the water. Perhaps we could use them for tea in the morning. Then I rose and stretched. The moon had climbed over the Ephel Dúath, and lined the delicate new leaves of the birches in silver. A couple of bats flitted across the water and somewhere in the forest an owl called softly. I sighed. It was nice to enjoy a moment's peace after all the excitement. When I turned to Léona, I found him watching me. A good man, Maedwen had called him.
I put my head to one side. "Tell me, Léona, after all you've heard tonight, do you still want me to marry the King of Rohan?"
He tensed at my challenge and cast a quick look towards our campfire, where Maedwen and Bornathron were talking to each other in low voices, oblivious to us. "That's not the same," he objected.
"He does not drink any ale?"
"Of course he does! But-"
"There you go," I interrupted him triumphantly, "for all I know, he's down the tavern every evening and has a string of mistresses."
"Mistresses!" He laughed out loud. "In the Mark, if a man is unfaithful, his wife may burn his bed in public."
"Really?" I asked, momentarily diverted.
He grinned at my enthusiasm. "I've seen it happen. Though not to the king." He considered that for a moment. "And anyway, the bed in the royal chambers is so big, you'd never get it outside."
"I could dismantle it first," I pointed out.
"You probably would," he agreed. Then he rose and stepped up to me. "But only a complete fool would take a mistress when he has you in his bed."
His low voice made the blood rush to my cheeks. "You think so?" I stammered.
"I do," he murmured and slipped one arm around my waist. Suddenly I found myself caught against his chest. He slid his other hand under my chin, forcing me to look up at him. "And the King of Rohan is no fool," he whispered. "Lothíriel..."
The King of Rohan? I pushed him away. "Let go of me!"
"No! You misunderstand me-" He reached out for me.
"I understand you perfectly!"
"Let me explain-"
"No!" I stomped away to the fire, where Maedwen and Bornathron had fallen silent and were regarding me with wide eyes. "I'm tired," I snapped, picking up my blanket and wrapping it around myself. "Good night."
"Good night," they echoed uncertainly.
When Léona returned a while later with the kettle and bowls, I turned my back on him and closed my eyes, pretending to be asleep, but he did not try to talk to me anyway.
I buried deeper into my blanket.
Rhovaniel - wild daughter
A/N: Thank you all so much for your kind wishes! The hand is not much better, but at least no worse either. Looking after three children makes it difficult to rest it, but I've bought a special mouse and keyboard for work, so hopefully that will improve the situation. However, I've still got to rest it as much as possible, so have decided to forgo answering reviews for another week – sorry about that. Let me just say again that I really appreciate hearing from you. Thank you!
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