4. Chapter 4
He surged out of the water and flung back his hair, one hand extended in a claw. With the other he took a swipe around him, before dropping into a fighting crouch. Steel glittered in the dawn light.
Instinctively, I grabbed the oars and took a hasty stroke to carry me out of reach. My breath caught in my throat. Where had my brother got that knife from? The man was downright dangerous! As if dazed, he shook back his mane of wet blond hair. Blond? Blond! It couldn't be! His eyes fastened on me, then flickered to both sides, as if seeking for enemies in the mist. It wasn't Amrothos at all! Impossible. I looked in the bottom of the boat, half expecting my brother to still be lying there, wrapped up in his carpet.
Holding his knife at the ready, the man straightened up. "Who are you?"
He was so tall, the water only reached his waist. And that deep, commanding voice – I had heard it before. Léona? I felt as if somebody had just dumped me in cold water.
"What are you doing here?" I stuttered.
His eyes narrowed. "Do I know you?" He lowered his knife a fraction. "Princess Lothíriel?"
Still stupefied, I nodded.
He shook his head, as if he could not quite believe it either. "What's going on here?" He looked around at the river and the small island. "And where is here anyway?" A sudden thought seemed to strike him. "Did you dump me in the water?"
He looked murderous! I snatched up the oars and took another couple of strokes away from him.
"Stop!" he snarled. "Come back this instant!"
So commanding was his tone, I nearly obeyed. Léona here! How could that be? But it was slowly coming clear to me. I must have got the wrong man! But how had he come to be lying on the floor in my brother's tent?
"Where are we?" he asked again. "Answer me, woman!"
"On the Anduin."
"The Anduin," I repeated. "That's Cair Andros over there."
"It's a dream," Léona muttered. "It has to be a dream." He lifted his arms and looked down at his soaked shirt. "Only it's too cold to be a dream. Béma! Would you care to explain, Princess Lothíriel, why you brought me to Cair Andros and dumped me in the river?" His voice had the sting of a whip.
I jumped at his tone. "I didn't mean to! It was an accident."
"An accident? Wonderful!" Just watching him standing there in the water made me shiver with cold, but he appeared quite unaffected by it.
He seemed to have decided I posed no threat, for he turned his attention away and peered down at the water. Spotting something, he bent down to retrieve it. Another dagger! How many of those deadly things did he carry round with him?
"You're not supposed to be here at all," I told him.
"I know that!" he snapped back. "I'm supposed to be in my warm, dry bed."
He had no need to make me feel guilty! "Well, you shouldn't go to sleep in my brother's tent then, should you," I pointed out. Although I might have had something to do with that – had he shared my brother's wine?
Léona frowned. "What has that got to do with it?"
"Everything! It's not as if I wanted you along!"
He was unimpressed by my low opinion of his company. "Then why am I here?"
"It was dark and you lay on the floor," I explained, "so I wrapped you up in a carpet, thinking you were my brother." My beautiful plan was in tatters – and all because of this annoying rider of Rohan being in a place where he had no business to be!
"A carpet," Léona groaned. He put away one of his knives in the scabbard at his belt and the other in a sheath hidden against his forearm. "I don't remember a thing," he said. "The last memory I have is of drinking a glass of wine with Amrothos. Your brother serves potent stuff! I usually carry my wine better than that."
I chose not to explain the nature of that particular drink and just shrugged. The reality of my situation began to sink in. I had the wrong man along! What should I do now?
Meanwhile Léona had taken off his shirt and wrung it out. "This water is cold enough to freeze off one's... never mind," he muttered. I averted my eyes. What was he doing? Noblemen did not take off their clothes in front of ladies! Although he was so completely soaked, it made no difference anyway.
"But that's beside the point," he said. "What I want to know is what you are doing here? You should be in your warm, dry bed, too!"
"I am running away."
Léona closed his eyes. "Please, let this be a dream!" He groaned. "Imrahil will have my hide."
Really, the man was on very familiar terms with my father and brother! "You needn't worry," I shot back. "Nobody will ever find out about your presence." I indicated the other side of the Anduin, still hidden in the morning fog. "If you swim across this channel, you can make your way back to the camp without anybody being the wiser."
He stopped in the process of wringing out his hair. "What are you talking about! I will most certainly return to the camp, but with you in the boat. And then you can explain this whole sorry mess to your father."
"No, I won't!" I exclaimed. Who did he think he was to order me around like that? I immediately made up my mind to carry through with my original plan. "I'm going to Minas Tirith and from there I'll take a ship home." Let him explain my absence to my father – that would serve him right!
"Will you cease talking nonsense!" He made a chopping motion with one hand. "It's out of the question. I won't let you."
"You can't stop me," I pointed out, "you're in the water, I'm in the boat."
Léona looked like a man whose day had just gone from bad to worse. "Don't you dare!" For a man who was standing in the water half-naked and soaked to the skin, he managed to exude an astonishing sense of menace. I eyed the distance between us with some disquiet, but decided I was safe for the moment. Nevertheless I took a firmer grip on my oars.
"I am off now." My eyes fell on his boots still lying in the bottom of the boat. "I will leave your boots on the other side of the river, so they don't get wet."
As I slipped the oars into the water, he lunged after me. "Come back this instant! That's an order."
Valar, the man was fast! My muscles protested at the abuse, but I managed to propel the skiff away from under his grasping hands. However, only an instant later and he would have had me. In the deeper water I slowed the boat to a stop and looked back. He had straightened up again, his face dark as thunder.
"I don't take orders from you, Léona," I shouted.
"What?" I guess he wasn't used to a woman defying him, for he looked very much surprised.
"You heard me!" Sudden fury took me. "Who do you think you are? You come sneaking into Dol Amroth under false pretences to give your king a good report on me, so he can decide at his own leisure if he wants me or not! Tell me, do you take the same measures when you buy a new mare?" He opened his mouth as if to reply, but I gave him no chance. "Well, I'm not playing along with your game," I lashed out, "and your precious king can find himself another wife!"
He ran a hand through his hair. "Oh! You know about that..."
"Yes, I do! Amrothos told me about King Éomer's offer – after that, it didn't take much to figure out your role. As you see, you have only got yourself to blame for the situation you ended up in." Let him think on that as he made his way back to Cormallen! In fact I was tempted to throw his boots in the water, so he would have to go barefoot. That would serve him right.
I took up my oars again. "Good-bye."
"Wait!" he called.
What more did he want? When I hesitated, he held out his hands in front of him to show they were empty and took a step back. "Look, Lothíriel, I won't try and grab your boat again. But you must see that I can't possibly let you go on your own."
He still acted as if the decision was up to him! "You can't stop me," I pointed out.
"It's far too dangerous for a woman to travel down the river on her own," he added, ignoring my words. "What if you encounter brigands? Or get into difficulties and the boat capsizes?"
"Nonsense!" I shot back. "I can handle myself." But as if to give me the lie, one of the oars slipped out of my hands and nearly got away.
Léona nodded at my mishap. "The sensible thing is to return to Cormallen together and settle the matter with your father." He pulled a wry face. "I can guarantee you that the King of Rohan won't be interested in marrying you after this escapade. You may have my word on that."
The cheek of the man! But I would not rise to his bait. "King Éomer likes his women docile, does he?" I asked in my most honeyed voice.
"He likes them reasonable!" Léona snapped. Then he took a deep breath. "Lothíriel, I assure you he would not want an unwilling wife."
He seemed very certain of his king's motives! I shook my head. "That's what you say! But what reason have you given me to trust you? You haven't exactly been truthful with me, have you!"
Léona had no good answer ready, for he lowered his eyes. The sun was gaining ascendancy, melting away the fog in long swathes of vapour. Suddenly, as if a window had opened, the opposite shore appeared out of the mist: a solid, dark green wall of vegetation. With a loud cry, a heron took off from a dead branch that reached up to the sky. I eyed the forest with some trepidation. You could easily hide a whole army of bandits in there. Still, Léona had probably only mentioned brigands to frighten me and make me do his bidding.
"Good-bye," I said again.
Léona reached out a hand. "Lothíriel," he pleaded, "if you won't listen to reason, at least let me come with you."
"I suppose I'm partially to blame for your running away," he admitted grudgingly, "and I feel I owe it to your father to make sure you are safe. This is my offer: I will help you get as far as Minas Tirith, from where you can get passage on a ship to Dol Amroth. And after that I promise you need never look on my face again – or King Éomer's."
What an astonishing offer! I didn't know what to say. It would be nice to have protection while travelling – he would be good at that, I had no doubt – but the whole proposal seemed far too pat. He had to have something planned!
"You promise not to give me away?" I asked.
"And to assist me in getting to Minas Tirith without being caught?"
"And not to send word to my father?"
"Yes, woman! Now come here and let me get in that stupid boat. Béma, but this river is icy!"
"Upon your honour?" I insisted.
"Upon my honour."
Somehow he left me no time to think his words over. Before I knew it, I had rowed the boat over to him. He grabbed the gunwale and heaved himself into the skiff, nearly capsizing it in the process.
"At last!" He threw a dark look my way. "You deserve a spanking for dropping me in the river like that!"
It occurred to me that I had not made him swear not to hurt me. Or dump me in the water in his turn! Surely he wouldn't, would he? But after a tense moment he settled down in the stern, where a pile of empty jute bags remained from the boat's previous users. When he stretched out his long legs before him, water pooled around them. The smell of wet man hung in the air.
"Well," he said, somehow effortlessly taking command of the situation, "do you have some kind of plan or are we just going to drift aimlessly down the Anduin?"
I was already regretting that I had accepted his company. "Of course I have a plan!" And this ungallant rider of Rohan did not even offer to row for me!
Ignoring my blisters, I grabbed the oars and started to move the skiff forward. "We will travel up the river until we reach the tip of Cair Andros," I explained, "thus confusing possible pursuers. And then we will journey down the other side."
At first my anger lent me strength, but before the little island had even receded out of sight, my arms began to shake with fatigue. I was nearly spent! And all the while, Léona was watching me critically.
He sighed. "Oh, let me do that! I want to arrive in Minas Tirith before midsummer, you know."
If only I could pitch him overboard again! But I did not have the strength, so I surrendered the oars to him and we exchanged places. The skiff rocked sharply at the shift in weight, but I knew how to handle myself aboard boats. Léona, I noticed with some satisfaction, had to cling to the gunwale until the rocking subsided.
He did know how to row, though, with long, powerful strokes that propelled the boat across the water effortlessly. Settling myself on the damp bags, I watched him covertly. He seemed to be deep in thought. Why did I get the feeling that matters had just been taken out of my hands?
Who was this man anyway? He had such an air of command, I could no longer believe that he was a simple courier. Also the easy manner with which he'd joked with his king spoke of long familiarity. Was he noble born? Not one of King Éomer's Marshals – their names I knew – but perhaps the captain of one of their so-called éoreds?
I yawned. It seemed a lifetime ago that I had watched King Elessar and the Rohirrim arrive at Cormallen, so much had happened since. Yet it was only yesterday afternoon! The sun was burning away the last remnants of the morning fog and I closed my eyes to better enjoy the warmth. Finding the rhythmic splash of the oar blades in the water oddly soothing, I buried deeper into the bags. In a little while, I would turn my mind to dealing with the upset to my plans that Léona had dealt me, but right now it was rather pleasant to relax for a moment. Just briefly...