7. Chapter 7
For a while I amused myself watching a pair of swallows dive and glide across the waters, catching insects. They had returned early from the south, a good omen for a fruitful year. However, soon I got restless. My companion showed no sign of waking up and I didn't want to disturb him. He had watched over my sleep in the morning, so he deserved the same courtesy from me. But I had done nothing all day except sit around and now I felt the need to stretch my legs.
Very slowly, so as not to disturb Léona, I rose to my feet and strolled down to the small strip of beach. Lizards flitted into cover at my coming and a wagtail shot away across the water. I walked to the end of the tiny bit of land, pebbles crunching under every step. How inviting the river looked, sparkling in the afternoon sun. I bit my lip. To wash off the accumulated sweat and dirt of two days' travelling... A quick glance over my shoulder showed Léona still lying in the shade of the trees, his slumber untroubled. The temptation got too strong.
I stepped out of my shoes and untied the laces of my tunic. Another look back: he hadn't stirred. Yet still I hesitated, for I didn't want to get my clothes wet, yet couldn't very well swim naked. What if Léona woke up unexpectedly! Then my eyes fell on his shirt drying on the prow of the boat. When I picked it up, I found it still damp. It should not matter if I got it wet again, hopefully it would be dry by the time he woke from his nap.
Quickly I slipped out of my clothes and pulled the shirt over my head. It was so large, it covered me down to my thighs and I had to turn up the cuffs. The material felt very fine though, linen of the best quality, and around the collar and down the neckline ran a complex pattern of embroidery that I had not noticed before. As I touched the neat stitches, I wondered whose work it was. His sister's?
But the river called me. Leaving my clothes in a heap on a stone, I waded into the water. So cold! I had forgotten that the Anduin carried melt water from the Misty Mountains. However, once I had overcome the initial shock it felt wonderfully refreshing. The water was smooth as silk against my skin and crystal clear. I dived down to the bottom, where small fingerlings darted away into hiding. Coming up for air again, I threw another look at our island. Nothing. Léona slept like a log.
With a happy sigh I flipped over onto my back and let the current caress me. Bliss! When the river had carried me downstream of our island, I just rolled back over and swam upstream again. To somebody who had grown up playing in the rough waves of the Bay of Belfalas, the gentle pull of the Anduin provided no difficulty. I did this several times, letting myself drift a little further with each go. How good it felt!
Suddenly a new sound broke the drowsy quiet of the afternoon: short, regular splashes. Rowing strokes? Treading water, I searched for the disturbance. A boat was heading upriver, carrying three men. They spotted me at the same time that I saw them, for one of them nudged the other two and said something to them. A moment later, the boat changed direction and aimed directly for me.
I did not like the look of this! Putting on a burst of speed, I dived under and swam back against the current. When I resurfaced, I heard one of the men shout out, but I paid no heed, instead concentrating on getting back to our island. How far away I had drifted!
"Léona!" I called.
I reached the shallows only a heartbeat ahead of the keel of the boat crunching into the gravel behind me. As I staggered out of the water, a strong hand seized me. Léona! He heaved me up so I could hold onto his arm.
"What is going on here?" he growled and pushed me behind his back.
The men hesitated at the threat in his tone, and as I caught my breath again, I got my first good look at them. I did not like what I saw: they were dirty, with matted hair and wearing clothes marked with old stains. One of them had a pale, bloated face, another an angry red scar across his cheek. The sour smell of unwashed man wafted over.
Three of them! I would have liked nothing better than to cling to Léona for reassurance, but knew better than to hamper his movements at such a time, so instead just touched him lightly on his shoulder to let him know where I stood. Fear coiled in my stomach.
One of the men jumped off the boat and landed in the water with a splash. His small, squinting eyes bored into me. "We are looking for a woman."
"Not my woman," Léona answered and a knife appeared in his hand out of nowhere.
Squint Eyes took a step back. "Easy, horsemaster!" He tried to peer more closely at me, but I sought shelter behind Léona's broad back. "We mean no harm."
"Then get you gone and leave my wife alone." Léona stood deceptively relaxed, poised on the balls of his feet to strike out in any direction. Having one hand resting on his bare shoulder, I could feel the coiled tension thrumming through him, ready to explode into violence at the least sign. The dagger glinted in the sun, honed to a deadly edge. His other weapons he kept hidden for now, I noticed. As Amrothos said – it was the blade you did not see that killed you.
"Your wife?" Squint Eyes shifted a step away from the boat, but Léona moved with him, flowing to the right and keeping himself between me and them. In a lazy motion he waved his knife near the other man's crotch. Squint Eyes paled.
"Your wife?" the one with the scar repeated. "How would one of the Rohirrim come by a Gondorian wife?"
"Met her after the battle of the Pelennor," Léona snapped, "not that it's any business of yours."
They did not like the news that they were dealing with an experienced warrior, I could tell that. Squint Eyes fingered his own dagger, but did not draw it. He gave an ingratiating smile. "Just a small misunderstanding. We'll be on our way then."
The single word held enough menace to make Squint Eyes hurriedly push out their boat and climb in. As the current took it and swept it slowly away, the three kept gazing back at us and whispering to each other. Would they give up that easily? Léona put his knife away and crossed his arms on his chest, staring after them until they dropped their eyes and started rowing downriver. After what seemed like an eternity they disappeared out of sight behind the next bend.
Léona spun round and grabbed me by the shoulders. "What were you doing, letting yourself drift down the river, you fool!"
Now that the danger was past, I started shaking. "I was hot," I stammered, "so I went for a swim. I didn't realize I had floated that far away... and then suddenly those men appeared." Revulsion coursed through me. What if they had managed to catch me and drag me into their boat! "I'm sorry," I whispered.
The anger drained out of him and he relaxed his grip as he stared downriver. "We were lucky they had no bows along or they could have picked me off at their leisure. I knew I should have got a bow in that village! Or at least a sword."
The picture of Léona lying in his own blood, pierced by arrows, made my gorge rise. Somehow he must have felt my distress, for he turned back and squeezed my shoulders. "Don't worry, min swéte. I promised to deliver you safely to Minas Tirith and that's what I'll do."
I nodded and leant my head against his chest for a moment to regain my composure. The encounter had shaken me more than I cared to admit. His hands slid down my back and he gathered me close. I was safe. Léona's skin glowed warm and alive under my touch as I relaxed against him. He would look after me, I could trust him.
With a sigh, he nuzzled my hair. "I'm sorry you were frightened."
Just then a breeze sprang up and I shivered. Now that I was out of the water, the shirt clung like a clammy shroud to me. The shirt...
What was I doing! I pushed away from him. "Léona!"
He must have realized the impropriety of our conduct at the same time, for he snatched his hands away as if he were handling a hot coal. "Lothíriel, listen, there's something I have to..." His voice petered out as he got his first good look at me.
I followed his eyes. Much too loose on me and soaked with water, the shirt left a lot to desire as modest attire. I flushed with embarrassment. What had I been thinking of! There was nothing to do but to brazen it out.
"If you would be so kind as to hand me my clothes," I said.
He tore his gaze away. "Yes, of course."
A cloud moved across the sun, casting us in shadow. Léona looked up at the sky and swore softly in his own language. "It's getting late! We have to be on our way." He picked up my bundle of clothes and deposited them in my arms. "Quick, get dressed!"
Unbalanced by his sudden change of mood, I clutched the clothes to me. "Where are we going?"
"Away from here. Those ruffians might be back any moment."
I had forgotten about the three men! While he picked up the remains of our meal and resolutely turned his back on me, I slipped into my clothes. My braid hung like a wet weight down my back, so I undid it and shook my hair out loose. Léona's shirt I wrung out with limited success.
Without comment, he took it from me and spread it out across the prow of the boat again. "Get in," he commanded.
He seemed to have made up his mind what to do, for once I had settled in my spot facing him, he started rowing upriver again.
"What is your plan?" I asked.
"I know their kind," he answered. "They might not want to risk an open fight, but will be watching us, waiting for their chance to catch me unawares."
Fear settled like a cold weight in my stomach. Even Léona could not stay alert all the time; he would have to sleep sooner or later.
"Don't worry," he said, effortlessly reading my mind, "I intend to lose them before that."
The Anduin had narrowed again, flowing in a series of gentle curves, and while the woods of Ithilien still bordered our side, the other bank lay flat and open, giving onto the plains of Anórien. Léona kept looking over his shoulder, searching the riverbank with narrowed eyes. Suddenly he changed direction. When I peered past him, I saw what had caught his eye: a large tree had fallen down and rested halfway in the water. With a bit of careful manoeuvring, he managed to wedge the skiff behind it.
"Hurry!" he said and jumped to the shore. Then he began to cut down some saplings growing nearby. "Drape them over the boat."
In no time at all, the boat had disappeared behind a screen of greenery. Once that was done, he took my hand and pulled me up the bank and behind some hawthorn bushes. I cast him a questioning glance.
"Now we wait," he said.
Lying down on our stomachs, we settled ourselves on a bed of last year's leaves, where we could peer out at the Anduin through the branches of the bushes. For a long time nothing happened. Around us, the woodland came alive again. A woodpecker's staccato knocking echoed through the trees and woodpigeons cooed softly. Down at the waterline, something rustled through the grass and disappeared in the water with a plop. An otter?
Léona kept so still that I wondered if he had gone to sleep, but when I stole a glance at him I found him focusing all his concentration on the river. Sensing my gaze, he threw me a quick, reassuring smile, but then turned back to his task. Still nothing. A stone dug into my stomach and the setting sun shone in my eyes, making me squint. Maybe he had been mistaken and the three men had been so intimidated by him that they had decided to go their own way? I opened my mouth to suggest as much, when the first soft splash of an oar sounded. Léona leant forward like a hunting dog scenting its prey.
Splash, splash, splash.
Before they even came into sight, I recognized their voices. In the way that sound carries across water, I could hear them as clearly as if they stood but a few paces away.
"... do not like the look of that strawhead one bit," one of them said. It sounded like an old argument.
I could see the boat now and pressed down deeper into our protective covering of leaves.
"I've told you, he's just one man," Squint Eyes replied. "Once he's asleep, we'll slit his throat and that's that."
I had to press a fist into my mouth to keep from gasping. The swine! Léona remained motionless.
"But what if the woman is not the one they're looking for?"
The boat was past our hiding place now, but the answer floated back clearly. "We'll have to find another use for her then, won't we!" Coarse laughter greeted that last statement. Anger sparked inside me. Just let them try!
Beside me, Léona drew in his breath and then released it very slowly. When I turned my head I saw him still intent on the disappearing boat with his jaw locked and steely eyes. "I should have killed them when I had the chance," he said as if to himself. "And next time I will." It had the sound of a vow, and had I been one of those three men, I would have been frightened.
We remained in hiding until the animals around us returned to their usual routine. Léona rose to his feet and pulled me up. "Lothíriel, don't be afraid," he said. "I swear I won't let anything happen to you."
"I know," I replied, "and anyway, I'm not scared of such scum!"
A rare smile of approval rewarded me. "You have your father's spirit."
I blushed at the compliment, but his attention had already turned to the next step of his plan. He led the way down the bank to our boat, where it took only a few moments to throw the disguising bits of greenery in the water before we were off downriver again. Léona leant into his strokes, and with the current helping us, we soon reached the place of our meal again. However, he did not pause, but instead steered for the low thunder that announced the Anduin breaking against the tip of Cair Andros. I threw a nervous look at the sky. With the sun having set a while ago, the light was fading fast. Already the first stars sparkled above us.
Léona sensed my unease and straightened up from rowing. "If we can make it past while the light lasts, they will never catch up."
It made sense, even more so as the ruffians had no way of knowing which side of the island we would travel down. "Do you want me to look out for shoals?" I asked, motioning to the prow of the boat.
"Are you up to it?" The challenge held some of our earlier lightheartedness.
I lifted my chin. "Certainly."
As the roar of the Anduin grew louder, I crawled past him and settled down in the prow of the boat, staring down at the water. He had changed his position so he faced forward and now employed the oars much like paddles, only using them for steering. Moments later the cliffs of Cair Andros loomed up above us.
What would have been a tricky passage in full sunlight turned into a nightmare of foaming waters and swirling currents. Again and again I thought the boat would twist out of control, but always he managed to right it with his fast reflexes. Whenever I saw something emerge out of the gloom I called a warning, and by skill or luck we somehow made it past hidden rocks and snagged tree trunks. By the time the river calmed down again, I was soaked in cold sweat and spray.
When I looked round at Léona, his teeth flashed in a grin of triumph. "We made it!" The man had been enjoying himself!
He kept the boat in the middle of the river and let the current sweep us along. Full night had fallen and I was yawning with fatigue by the time he decided that we had shaken off our pursuers. Lacking a better landing place, we tied up the skiff to a willow tree that leant over the river bank, and shared the remains of our bread. No fire tonight.
I wrapped my cloak round me and chewed on my piece of bread, trying to convince my stomach that it was getting a full meal. "Do you think those men were looking for me?" I voiced the question that had been bothering me for a while. "Or was it just by chance they happened upon us?"
Léona was rummaging through our bag of food. "Now where did I put them?" he murmured to himself. A moment later something round and hard landed in my lap. An apple!
It might have been old and wrinkled, but I snatched it up greedily. "So?" I asked, taking a big bite.
He considered the question for a moment. "They were looking for you," he answered.
"How do you know?"
"Your father put a prize on your head."
I choked on the apple. "What!"
"Ten gold pieces to get you back safe and unharmed."
Ten gold pieces! That was a small fortune, enough to buy a fine farm and have some money left over.
"Unfortunately," Léona added, "in his determination to get you back, your father did not consider that he has sent every adventurer between Pelargir and the Falls of Rauros hunting after you." His own apple finished, he tossed the core in the water, where it floated away.
"But...but," I stammered, "how do you know all this?"
He shrugged. "It was the talk of the village where we stopped this morning."
And he had told me nothing about it! "Why didn't you say so!" I exclaimed. "I have a right to know."
"I didn't want to worry you," he answered.
How dare he decide for me like that! Then a sudden idea entered my head and I blurted it out without thinking. "So are you planning to collect the prize?"
He went still and I realized how preposterous the suggestion was. Would he be offended?
Léona started laughing. "It's an idea," he chortled.
I crossed my arms on my chest. Really, I failed to see the reason for all this mirth! By now Léona was laughing so hard, he nearly slipped off his bench.
"Enough!" I snapped.
While Léona slowly got a grip on himself again, I wrapped my cloak closer around me. I did not like the idea one bit of all those men out there looking for me with the aim of collecting a fat prize. As if I were a piece of mislaid treasure! And my father might have specified that he wanted me back unhurt, but what if the lucky finder decided to renegotiate the terms? Say, to take a noble bride into the bargain?
Léona leant forward and touched me reassuringly on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Lothíriel. Just be more careful to stay near the boat." Amusement swung in his tone. "Or the next time you go swimming, tell me so I can watch you."
Heat flooded my cheeks. I had learnt my lesson! Even though I could have done with another wash – my hair was full of leaves and twigs from lying in hiding.
Meanwhile Léona busied himself with spreading out our bedding of empty bags in the stern of the boat. "We will have to sleep here tonight," he said, "there's no place anywhere else."
We? As I watched uncertainly, he sat down and pulled one of the bags up to cover him. Then he moved over and indicated the space by his side with a sweeping gesture of his hand. "My lady, I am tired, so I bid you good night." He lay down and turned on his side to face outwards.
Reassured by his matter-of-fact manner, I crawled to the place vacated for me and followed his example, leaving as much space between his back and mine as possible. Just to be sure, I also stuffed two of the jute bags in the gap between us. The smell of cabbage hung about us and chill air crept up from the waters below us. Not that this seemed to bother Léona, for soon his regular breaths announced that he had slipped into well deserved slumber.
My second night in his company – third if you counted the one he had spent wrapped up in the carpet. I had not thought that travelling up Cair Andros would take so much time and had expected to reach Minas Tirith much sooner. What would my father say? I feared I was in for a severe reprimand. At least such a very public flight should have put paid to King Éomer's interest in me; surely now he would not want me anymore, good connections or not. Unless Father decided my escapade was all the more reason to get me married off as quickly as possible and made him an offer he could not resist? The fiefdom of Dol Amroth was the richest of Gondor.
I shifted uncomfortably on my hard bed of planks. I wasn't looking forward to having to face my father. Although if all went well, at least he would never find out that I had not travelled down the river on my own. Hopefully Léona could just fade into the crowd at the Harlond and make his own way back to his company. And out of my life.
I lay awake for a long time, watching the stars wheel above us. How little they cared for the concerns of us poor mortals.
Min swéte – my sweet
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