6. Chapter 6
Cold, so cold. I tried to burrow deeper into my bedclothes, but they were rough and stiff and would not warm me. Had my maid let the fire go out? Then an owl hooted softly and I came awake with a start. Of course, I was out in the wilds of Ithilien in March – no wonder it was chilly. Looking up at the sky, I saw a faint blush of dawn to the east, more a hope than a certainty.
I rolled onto my side and curled into a ball to preserve warmth. The fire had long ago gone out, I noticed, and squeezing my hands into my armpits didn't help either. In the end I gave up on sleep and sat up. Perhaps there were some embers left to stir into a blaze again? But the moment I poked a stick into the fire, Léona reared up from his blankets.
"What is it?" he cried out.
Taken by surprise, I yelped and sprawled backwards.
"Oh, it's you," he said sheepishly, letting the inevitable knife in his hand disappear again.
"Who else did you expect?" I asked, fully awake now.
Léona shrugged. "Old reflexes taking over, I suppose." He cast a measuring look at the sky. "It's early yet. Couldn't you sleep anymore?"
I hugged my arms around me. "The cold woke me. Do you think we could light the fire again?"
He pondered the question for a moment. "I don't really like calling too much attention to ourselves. Somebody might come and investigate a fresh fire at this hour."
"I suppose my father's men might spot us," I had to agree, my hopes of going back to sleep fading rapidly.
"I was thinking more of predators..."
"But wild beasts shun fire," I pointed out.
"Not the two-legged ones."
So that was what he was worrying about. With a tired nod I conceded his point and lay down again. "Yes, you're right."
"Are you very cold?"
"I'll manage." Perhaps if I piled up the bags on top of me, some measure of warmth might creep back into my body. But the ground had lost all memory of the heat of the sun and made a hard and clammy bed. My teeth started chattering.
Suddenly the crack of steel on flint sounded, and a moment later a flame flickered. I twisted round to sit up again. Léona was hunched over a piece of tinder, blowing gently until the fire caught. Once he had a merry blaze going, he sat back on his heels.
"You try and catch a little more sleep," he said. "I'll keep watch."
"Aren't you tired?" I asked, guilty that I had woken him up.
He shrugged. "I'll survive."
I wriggled closer to the fire, feeling better already. My arms still ached from yesterday's exertions and a wave of weariness swept through me. Falling back asleep would provide no difficulty at all.
"Thank you," I mumbled.
"I promised to deliver you safely to Minas Tirith, didn't I?" he answered. "That includes not frozen into an icicle."
Before sleep claimed me again, a strange thought flitted through my mind. Perhaps I had abducted the right man after all?
The second time I woke, it was to the sound of birdsong: a robin courting its mate. But when I moved, it was gone in a flash of red and brown. I yawned and sat up. Where was Léona? Then I spotted him down on the beach, no more than a dark silhouette outlined against the Anduin, where the first rays of the sun struck the opposite shore.
He held a slender length of wood in his hands, raised in what I recognized as the classical Charging Boar position, hilt next to the head and blade facing downward toward the opponent's throat. After a moment he transitioned smoothly into Leaping Wolf and then the next stances in the traditional training sequence, before starting over again, only quicker. I had spent enough time at the practice fields of Dol Amroth, watching my father's Swan Knights spar, to recognize a warming-up exercise, yet there were differences. As he sped up and began to move across the sand, cutting and thrusting at his imaginary opponent, he added none of the little flourishes so dear to my brothers. No, this man had only one aim: to kill as swiftly as possible.
I clasped my arms around my legs and wondered how my brother Elphir, the best swordsman of Dol Amroth, would fare against such focused ferocity. It would certainly be an interesting match! And despite the economy of his movements, Léona possessed a stark grace that drew the eye.
Gradually he slowed down again, until he finished the exercise in the identical stance he had started in. Then he turned round and saluted me with his stick. "You're up? That's good, for I want to get going soon."
I rose to my feet. "Where did you learn to fight like that?"
He drove the piece of wood into the wet sand at the water's edge, where it stuck quivering. "My uncle's master of arms."
"Your style is similar to that of our Swan Knights," I observed.
Léona shrugged. "There are only so many ways to kill orcs." He motioned to my pile of bags. "Time to go now, don't you think?"
Clearly he welcomed no more questions into his past. Still, it was no business of mine. So I nodded and helped him collect our few belonging and scatter the still glowing embers of our fire in the sand. It took only a few minutes, before we cast off and Léona took up the oars again. As our little beach disappeared around the corner, I felt a pang of regret: it was a beautiful place. But Léona seemed to be in a hurry to move on. He rowed with deep, strong strokes and kept close to the shore, where the current was sluggish.
"I'm hoping to find a village or fishermen to buy something to eat from," he explained when he saw my questioning look.
Since my stomach was clamouring for food, I agreed heartily with his plan. However, the forest on both sides of the Anduin remained unbroken. The rising sun had turned the water into a sheet of molten gold wreathed with low-lying swathes of morning fog. Small islands, circled with reeds, dotted the river and as we passed one, a flock of geese exploded into the air, honking their protest at our intrusion. I watched them veer in perfect formation and return to their sleeping place. Almost I could believe we were the first people to explore these shores.
Then I spotted several thin trails of smoke rising into air a little further upriver. When I pointed this out to Léona, he grunted with satisfaction and increased the rhythm of his strokes. However, while we were still out of sight of the place, he slowed down again and ran the boat up on a small pebbly beach hidden by trees. Picking up my satchel of belongings from the floor, he rummaged through it for the small drawstring bag that contained my money. The two gold coins and small items of jewellery he dropped back, but pocketed the smaller coins.
"Listen, Lothíriel," he said, "I will go in and see what provisions I can get here, but you stay hidden under those bags."
I bristled at his tone of command. While I appreciated his help with my venture, he seemed to have forgotten that he was spending my money and using my boat. Or at least the boat I had stolen! "I would like to have a look around as well – what is the harm in that?" I protested.
He shook his head. "No. We have no idea what kind of place this is. For all I know, it could be a brigands' lair! At the first sign of trouble, I want you to cast off and wait for me downriver."
I motioned to his belt. "You could give me one of your knives." After all, he had plenty of those!
"Do you know how to use one?" he asked back, his face carefully blank.
I hesitated. Gutting fish was one thing, gutting another human being a whole different matter.
He gave me no chance to reply anyway. "You don't, do you," he said, "which means that any knife I give you will likely end up being used against you. Whereas if you have none, you will not hesitate to run."
I could see the twisted logic in that. But what a suspicious mind the man had! I regarded the jute bags with little enthusiasm. "Do I have to?"
"Yes," he said. "Besides, your father's men will be looking for a single woman in a boat, not for a rider of Rohan."
Sound reasons. So I curled up in the stern of the boat and let him cover me with smelly, scratchy sacking. For additional disguise, he piled on some of the cabbages as well. It was going to be a long wait.
As if he could hear my thoughts, he patted one foot. "At least there is no danger of you being recognized as the Princess of Dol Amroth."
"You'd better be quick," I hissed back, suppressing the impulse to kick out at him, "or boat and princess will be gone when you return."
Muffled laughter, then the boat tilted briefly when Léona jumped out. Gravel crunched under his boots and leaves rustled, but very soon all sounds of his passage faded. With a sigh I shifted the bags so I could see a tiny section of sky through a slit in the sackcloth and settled in to wait.
I occupied myself with identifying what noises I could hear: the gentle lap of the river against the boat, birds calling to each other, a loud plop as a fish jumped out of the water. Suddenly, in the distance, dogs started barking. Had Léona reached the village? I strained to listen for signs of trouble, but apart from the dogs falling quiet again nothing happened. And when I came to think of it, Faramir's rangers would hardly overlook a nest of brigands right on their doorstep. Time crawled by and I shifted uncomfortably. My nose had started to itch, closely followed by my elbow and a hard to reach spot on my back. Really, how long did it take to buy something to eat?
Then the rhythmic splash of oars carried across the water. I tensed. What if they spotted our boat and decided to investigate? But whoever it was must have been in a hurry, for the rower never even paused as he went by. Slowly the sounds faded as he continued downriver. But where was Léona?
That moment a jay cried out harshly somewhere in the forest, warning all other woodland creatures of an intruder. The crack of a breaking branch followed. I sat up. If Léona wanted me to escape in the boat, I could hardly do so lying down and trying to impersonate a pile of cabbages. So I swung over the side of the skiff and leant against it, ready to push it into the current in case it was a stranger approaching.
But an instant later Léona appeared at the top of the bank, a sack slung over his back. He nodded in satisfaction when he saw that I had followed his orders and jumped down onto the beach. "All went well," he said and dumped his bag in the boat. "Let's get going again."
I climbed back and Léona pushed the skiff into the water, before scrambling on board as well. The current began to carry us downriver, but he quickly righted the boat and took up the oars.
"No brigands?" I asked.
"No, just a small hamlet of farmers. However, your father's men have been by asking for you, so you'd better stay down until we have passed the place."
Grumbling, I slid down out of sight. At least he did not ask me to cover myself with sackcloth again. Still, I felt more relieved than I cared to admit to have him return safely. He might have the annoying habit of trying to order me about, but his solid presence was reassuring. That last sentiment made me pause. Perhaps I should be more careful with my thoughts. And I would do well to remember that we intended to part company once we reached Minas Tirith.
Léona continued rowing for about an hour until we stopped to have a bite to eat. He had bought a loaf of dark rye bread, which could not have been more unlike the soft bread rolls served at my father's table, but I wolfed it down.
He grinned as he cut off another piece for me and slapped a slice of sausage on top. "At least you're not fussy."
"I've had much worse," I answered, thinking of the time my brother Erchirion had experimented with edible seaweeds.
Léona paused a moment. "So have I."
I wondered if he alluded to the ride of the Rohirrim to Minas Tirith. From what my father had said, they had mostly eaten the same as their horses – oats.
The worst of my hunger slaked, I motioned to his bag. "What else did you buy?"
He shrugged. "They did not have much to spare at the end of the winter, but I managed to buy some flour and even a little salt. Oh, and a crock of honey."
"A life of luxury!" I quipped. "What more could we want."
That surprised him into a laugh. "Yes, it should keep us going for a while." His brow furrowed. "Only I would have liked to get a bow, or better still, a sword, but they did not have any to sell."
More weapons? "What do you need a sword for?" I asked. "You already have three knives."
He paused a moment in cutting off another slice of bread. "Four actually. One was hidden in the other boot where you did not find it."
The man was a walking armoury! He must have seen the expression on my face, for he sighed. "I suppose it's difficult for you to understand, growing up in a world of relative peace and protected by your father and brothers. But for me the possibility of a knife in the dark was all too real."
"What? But who would want to kill you?"
"Wormtongue. He intended to kill all loyal men." Léona held his blade up for my inspection. "This knife saved my life in a tavern brawl arranged for one purpose only – to send me to join my forefathers."
I swallowed. What a life! Father had told me about King Théoden's traitorous councillor, how over the years he had poisoned the king's mind against those loyal to him. "But those days are past," I pointed out, "and you have to move forward and learn how to live in peace."
"I'm trying," he sighed, "but it's difficult when you have dwelled in the shadow of danger for so long." His hand tightened on his knife until the knuckles stood out white. "When you doubted your ability to keep your loved ones safe and all those entrusted to your care." He stared off into space.
I leant forward and touched him lightly on his arm. "Léona?"
He started. "I'm sorry. I should not bother you with my concerns."
"But I don't mind," I replied, "I just wish I could do something to help." Yet the moment I said those words, I bit my lip, hoping he would not misconstrue their meaning.
However, he just inclined his head. "You are kind." His meal finished, he picked up the oars again. "Perhaps I'm slowly getting accustomed to living in peace. Else I would not have left my sword behind in my tent when I visited Amrothos." He raised an eyebrow at me. "Of course I didn't know what awaited me there..."
I tried to smile at his words, though my heart was still heavy. I sensed old pain, the scars of wounds running deep. Had he lost many of those loved ones in the war? Members of his family, a sweetheart perhaps or ... a wife?
He continued rowing steadily, while I mulled over these questions. Once again I realized how lucky I had been to have my whole family survive the war unscathed. How easily I might have ended up like Léona, orphaned and sent to live with relatives, as had happened to so many children. In fact my father and brothers had all been besieged in Minas Tirith and would likely have perished there, if it hadn't been for the timely arrival of the Rohirrim – and King Éomer had played a large role in that. Did Léona think me ungrateful to want to refuse the offer of a man who had done so much for Gondor?
The spring sun had risen high by now, and the cold of the early morning was nothing but a distant memory. A couple of times other boats passed us, and every now and again we would see signs of habitation, but we did not stop. The land on the opposite shore slowly began to change, becoming stony and inhospitable, and the waters of the Anduin foamed against sharp outcroppings of rocks and swirled around boulders smoothed into strange shapes by the current. Léona kept well away from these treacherous waters, but as the channel narrowed the rowing got more difficult. I could never have done it on my own!
It was well past midday by the time we reached the northern tip of Cair Andros. The island was shaped like a ship, with a tall, rocky prow falling off steeply into the river, which broke against it with a continuous low roar heard from afar. Sweat ran down Léona's face and I gripped the gunwale tightly as we fought past. But above Cair Andros, suddenly the Anduin widened out again, flowing broad and lazy.
Léona leant back on his bench with a sigh. "We will stop for a while and have something to eat, before tackling the other side."
I nodded agreement. Growing up by the sea had taught me a healthy respect for the power of water.
A small island with some beech trees growing on it offered a convenient resting place, so we ran the skiff up on its small strip of land facing away from the main channel of the river. I jumped ashore and stretched my arms and back, glad for the opportunity for movement after sitting down all morning. Meanwhile Léona, who had stayed on the boat, had slipped out of his boots and threw them over to rest at the foot of one of the trees. His knives followed. What was he doing? As I watched in surprise, he stepped to the stern of the boat and balanced there for a moment, before diving into the river with a loud whoop.
Seconds later he resurfaced, a wide grin on his face, and brushed back wet hair from his face. "It's absolutely lovely, Lothíriel. Won't you join me?"
When my mouth dropped open at this preposterous suggestion, he laughed. "I promise to keep my eyes closed."
For the briefest instant, I was tempted, but then common sense reasserted itself. Frolicking around with this man in the water would be utter folly. "No, thank you," I answered. "I will see to the midday meal."
Not that there was much do: spread a piece of sackcloth on the sward of grass at the foot of the trees and lay out the bread and sausages. All this while carefully ignoring the splashing going on behind me. My few preparations finished, I sat down and leant back against one of the tree trunks. Did he have to puff and blow like a demented walrus?
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him emerge from the water and shake out his hair like a wet dog. Droplets of water flew my way, but I ignored them. Next he took off his shirt – marginally cleaner again - and laid it out on the prow of the boat to dry in the sun, before settling down across from me. I found it difficult to concentrate on my food with such a lot of wet man sitting there, but he seemed completely at ease and his appetite was unabated. Although to be honest he had earned it after rowing such a long way.
His thoughts seemed to run along the same lines, for he leant back against the trunk behind him and gestured at the river. "It should be easier from now on, going with the current."
"Do you think they're still looking for me?" I asked.
He offered me the last piece of sausage, but I shook my head. Chewing on the meat, he pondered my question. "I hope that the hunt will have moved downriver by now," he answered. "They have no reason to look this far north." He yawned and stretched out on the grass. "You know, if we continued up the Anduin, we would eventually reach the borders of the Mark."
"Do you miss your home?"
He shrugged and crossed his arms behind his head. "I just don't like being away too long."
Did he have somebody waiting for him? But it was none of my concern, so I did not ask. For the first time I wondered if he would get into difficulties when his absence was noticed. Surely a close companion to the king couldn't just vanish without a search being mounted. I turned to ask him, but the words died on my lips. He was fast asleep!
The dappled shade of the trees played across him as his bare chest rose and sank steadily. Here and there a faint scar bore witness to his calling, just as the well defined muscles of a swordsman did. But with his features relaxed, he seemed younger and carefree. Vulnerable. I looked away and gazed out over the river. In another day or two we would reach Minas Tirith – and I would take up my life as Princess of Dol Amroth again. I would do well to remember that.
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.