3. Chapter 3
My grandfather had always said that a battle was lost or won long before the first blow was exchanged. "Planning!" he used to bark at my brothers when they assembled for their lessons in our library. I should have been studying the genealogy of Dol Amroth's princes, but listening to my grandfather's tales was so much more entertaining.
So when I got back to my tent, I pleaded a headache and sent Eirien to excuse me to my father and fetch me something to eat. Then I settled down to think. It would be no good for a woman to travel down the Anduin on her own, but I already had a suitable escort in mind – the question was how to secure his services, for I doubted that he would leave the attractions of Cormallen voluntarily. However, a glimmering of an idea suggested itself.
When Eirien returned with a tray of bread and cheese, I settled down in bed with a book and told her to take the evening off. As I had hoped, she jumped at the chance to have a look around the camp with her friends. She was young and pretty, so had many admirers amongst the other servants. I waited a little while to make sure she was gone, then got up and slipped on one of my riding cloaks. Not the perfect disguise, but it would do. While the perimeter of the Dol Amroth encampment was still guarded, security inside the camp was pretty lax. Also, I had timed my excursion carefully, for it was the hour for people to have their meal in the big pavilion put up for that purpose at the other end of the camp. I could hear the low buzz of talk and a few strains of music coming from that direction.
Walking with firm purpose in my steps, so nobody would question me, I soon arrived at my destination: Healer Curuvoron's tent. With no injured men to look after, he had probably joined the others for the meal, for no light burnt behind the thick canvas. I ducked inside and set my lamp on the floor by the chest that I knew contained his medicines. I had to be quick! But fortunately a Gondorian lady was expected to know some healer craft, so I had assisted him many times. The chest was locked, of course, for Curuvoron was a conscientious man. However, the same conscientiousness had also driven him to have a copy of the key made, in case he ever lost the original, as he had told me proudly. I grinned when I retrieved it from its hiding place under Curuvoron's pen box. Clearly the Valar were smiling on my endeavour!
A quick search through the contents of the chest produced the desired result, a phial filled with a yellowish mixture: tincture of valerian, refined with marjoram and lemon balm. Then I had a stroke of luck, for the chest also contained several bottles of red wine – for medicinal purposes, no doubt. They would save me a trip to the kitchen tent and possibly awkward questions, so I pocketed one of them as well.
Having relocked the chest and hidden the key again, I returned to my tent. Now came the tricky part: the dosage. I regarded the phial dubiously. A couple of spoonfuls would send an injured man to sleep and dull his pain, but I had to dilute it. In the end I emptied half the contents into the waiting bottle of wine. Then I stuck my head out the tent and called for a servant to deliver the bottle to its recipient. No need to sneak around when I could do things openly.
Now it just remained to wait.
It seemed to take forever for the camp to quieten down around me. Some of the Rohirrim and a good number of King Elessar's guard must have come to visit their Dol Amroth comrades, at least judging by the loud and off key singing drifting through the night. Finally, well past midnight, the revelry abated. I waited a little longer, just to make sure, then I rose and changed into a pair of trousers I used for riding. Before slipping out of the tent, I plaited my hair and picked up the bundle of food and clothes I had readied. This time I made sure to keep to the shadows, for it would not do to get caught outside by one of the sentries.
A well trampled path led through the grass down to the river, where a narrow ledge provided a natural landing place. And again luck favoured me, for tied up against the bank were three small skiffs. My father's swan ships had too much draught for sailing up the shallow Fainglir River, so our men had anchored them off Cair Andros and used these boats for unloading our gear. I had hoped some might still be around.
Quickly I chose the smallest one, untied the rope and jumped in. The oars lay in the bottom of the boat, and it took me some time to fit them into the rowlocks. All the while the skiff drifted out onto the water and I expected a shout of discovery any moment. Yet the night remained calm. Taking a firm grip on the oars, I dipped the blades in the water and took my first stroke.
The skiff began to spin! Hastily I pulled on the opposite oar, but I overcompensated and the boat drifted even more off course. The loud splash of the blades hitting the water seemed as loud as a shout to my ears. Meanwhile the flow of the river threatened to carry me downstream, away from where I wanted to go. I cursed silently – I had done this before, in Dol Amroth's harbour as a child, surely I could manage a silly little cockleshell like this.
Slowly my skill returned and I managed to right the boat and propel it in the direction I intended, if still more unsteadily than I liked. Fortunately I didn't have all that far to go, just around the next bend in the river. There I found a spot underneath a willow, well hidden behind its fronds, where I could tie up the boat out of sight. Now for the final and most difficult step of my plan.
I scrambled out of the boat and up the steep bank overgrown with grass and decidedly thorny bushes. Had I judged correctly? Yes! Outlined against the starry sky was the shape of a tent. A pennant stood next to it, hanging slack and dark in the still night air. The last time I had seen it, the morning breeze had streamed it out, displaying the swan and ship, as my brother proudly showed me the view. Trust Amrothos to pick the best spot to pitch his tent.
I grinned. He would not enjoy it much longer, not if I had my way. Knowing him, he would probably complain the whole way down to Minas Tirith, but I needed his company for protection, to say nothing of having somebody to row. Who better to choose than my favourite brother?
Keeping low, I crept closer. The tent had a small anteroom facing the view, and when I tried the flap that kept it closed, I found it undone. Better and better! I slipped inside and listened carefully. Nothing. Where did he have his cot? If he had drunk all the wine he might not even wake up when I dragged him down the slope – otherwise I would have to come up with an alternative plan.
I took a step forward into the darkness. And stumbled over something. Landing hard on the ground I only just managed to swallow down a cry of surprise. What was it? Cautiously I stretched out a hand to feel the obstacle I had fallen over. Some sort of fabric, covering long legs, smooth leather boots... my brother? But he lay so still! Cold panic seized me at the thought that I might have overdone the valerian and inadvertently killed him.
"Amrothos!" I whispered and shook him.
He gave a mighty snort and my heart started beating again. He lived. As if to prove it, he began to snore loud enough to bring the guards running.
I had to muffle his snores somehow, but how? I felt around for some cloth or something to stuff in his mouth, but found nothing on the smooth expanse of carpet. The carpet – of course! It looked like I had just had my third stroke of luck of the night.
It was a matter of moments only, to roll him over to the edge of the rug. Then I began to wrap him up in it, as easily as a mother swaddles a baby. Soon the snores faded away. And what was even better, with a bit of pushing and shoving I could roll him out of the tent and onto the grass fronting it. This was much better than having to drag him by his legs! I had to suppress a giggle – the carpet looked rather funny, with only the bottom of his boots sticking out. I decided to tackle the slope next.
At first it was slow going, but as the drop got steeper it was all I could do to keep him from getting away from me. In fact the carpet did slip out of my hands at one stage, but fortunately a thorn bush further down the slope stopped his descent. And through it all, Amrothos snored away quite happily. I felt sorry for his future wife – if he ever managed to find one. Finally, out of breath and with scratched arms, I reached the bottom of the slope. Here I debated unwrapping him from his prison, but in the end it seemed easier just to roll him directly from the overhanging bank onto the skiff. It was a bit of a drop, and I had to push hard to make sure he landed in the middle of the boat so as not to upset it. I winced in sympathy at the dull thump he made as he hit the wooden floor boards. And still he continued snoring!
As I cast off from my improvised mooring site, a feeling of exhilaration filled me. I had made it! That should teach the men of my family to treat me like a pawn in their games.
A waning moon had risen, casting dappled light through the leaves of the trees lining the Fainglir River, which helped me to find my way. I saved my strength for the moment, content to let the current take me at its own speed. In the stillness of the night, all sounds seemed preternaturally loud: the yip of a fox, some animal jumping in the water with a splash. At least I hoped it was an animal, for I had nothing to defend myself with apart from a snoring brother. But surely no orcs would dare to come so near our camp. Even so, I nearly screamed when leaves from a low hanging branch caught in my hair.
Every now and again, we would pass the camps of other travellers, marked by the embers of banked fires, and I kept to the shadows of the trees, so my passage would not be marked. Then, perhaps two hours into my journey, I had to take up my oars again, for we had reached the island of Cair Andros, where the Fainglir flowed into the Anduin and the waters got choppy. I kept close to the shore, where the current did not pull quite so hard and started rowing upriver. Faramir's rangers manned a camp at the southern tip of Cair Andros and I did not want to chance being spotted by them. Once my absence was noted, my father would be sure to send search parties all the way to Minas Tirith, so I had decided to head in an unexpected direction first. My plan was to head up the Anduin for about fifteen miles, till we reached the northern tip of Cair Andros, and then travel down the other side of the island, where nobody would be looking for us.
But very soon my back and arms started to ache from the unaccustomed exercise. This was harder work than I had remembered! Stopping for a breather, I sent a resentful look at the happily slumbering bundle in the bottom of the boat. Men! But the current threatened to sweep me downriver, so I had to take up rowing again.
By the time the dawn painted the sky a pearlescent grey, I was exhausted and had made hardly any headway at all. Fog rose in thin drifts from the water, hiding the opposite shore and swallowing all sound, until I felt that I was alone in the world. Well, except for the occasional snore from Amrothos. But I had the impression that his sleep got lighter and he started to move about restlessly. Time to find a suitable place for negotiations? Suddenly an island rose out of the mist, no more than a small outcropping of rock with a pebbly beach and a single gnarled tree hanging on stubbornly. It would have to do.
One thing growing up with three elder brothers had taught me, was that when dealing with men, it helped to be in the better bargaining position – sitting in a dry boat while they were on an island in the middle of lots of chilly water qualified as a better bargaining position. That way Amrothos would not be tempted to simply force me to return to the camp with him.
As I precaution I decided to remove his boots as well. Seizing the heel in one hand and the toe in the other, I heaved one off. But when I did the same to the other boot, I got a surprise: with a metallic clatter something fell to the floor. What was that? I bent to pick it up and came up with a thin length of steel. The dagger had a short ivory haft and finely honed edges – all in all an extremely deadly looking piece of weaponry – and when I looked inside the boot, I saw where it fitted into a tailor-made pocket. I turned the blade over in my hands. Who would have thought that Amrothos owned a thing like this and moreover wore it to a peaceful celebration? It spoke of a preparedness for trouble that did not quite agree with how I pictured my easygoing and carefree brother.
I pushed the thought away for later consideration. The question now was how to get him off the boat and onto the small beach? First I tried to unwrap the carpet, but it was all snarled up with twigs. My arms shook with exhaustion and one hand bled where a blister had broken open. Finally, with a heroic effort, I heaved the bundle up to rest on the gunwale. But that moment the skiff tilted dangerously at the shift in weight, and losing my balance I pitched forward. To my horror, I found that during my struggles the boat had started to drift downriver! Frantically, I grabbed for the carpet, but it was no use. With a loud splash the whole thing dropped in the water.
"Amrothos!" I yelped and managed to catch hold of a corner.
Somewhere I found the strength to pull one side of the soggy, heavy carpet out of the water. Empty! Where was my brother? A moment later I could not hold the carpet any longer and had to let go of it. But staring down into the river I realized that it had to be shallow, for I could see the ground.
Then a boat-length away an arm emerged from the water, flailing about wildly. A heartbeat later a head followed.
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