9. Chapter 9
The further we travelled down the river, the busier it got. I did not fancy spending all my time playing at being a pile of cabbages, so I jammed my hair under my hat and smudged my cheeks with a bit of dirt.
"This way, from afar everybody will take me for a lad," I told Léona.
He let his eyes trail over me. "I think you overestimate the efficiency of your disguise."
I blushed. "Nonsense."
It seemed to work, anyway, or maybe nobody cared to accost Léona, for we continued on our journey undisturbed. Whole families earned a living trading up and down the Anduin, and at one stage we even passed a large raft made of logs lashed together and then floated on the water. With the rebuilding of Osgiliath, wood and other building materials were in high demand there.
"How much further to Minas Tirith, do you think?" I asked.
Léona paused a moment. "We should reach it tomorrow."
Tomorrow – and then we would part company. I banished the thought. He had said he would make things right and I believed him. Why spoil such a nice day with worrying? I leant on the gunwale and watched the reflections of the sun ripple across the water. How far our brave little boat had carried us.
Struck by an idea, I turned to Léona. "We haven't named the boat yet!"
"Why? Should we have done so?" he asked.
"It's unlucky to travel in a nameless boat," I explained.
"Well, in that case, do you have any suggestions?"
I thought of my father's flagship, The Pride of Dol Amroth. And then there were Corsairs' Bane and Princess Míriel – called after my grandmother, but the sailors had soon nicknamed her Terror. Inspired by this, my brothers had always given grand names to all their skiffs.
"The Pride of Rohan?" I proposed with a grin.
He chuckled. "The pride of the Mark are its horses, not a tub like this."
"Something more mundane then? Lots of fishermen give their boats women's names."
Léona considered that for a while. Suddenly the corners of his eyes crinkled. "We'll call her Cawelcwén."
The name had a nice ring. Intrigued, I straightened up. "What does that mean?"
He dared! I picked up one of the cabbages and threw it at him. "No queens around here!"
He ducked and laughed. Then he turned serious again. "Lothíriel, listen..."
During our conversation, we had drifted along with the current and now we approached a bend in the river, where a stony beach extended out into the water. I happened to glance up, and what I saw through the sparse bushes made me blink in disbelief.
At the expression on my face, Léona slewed around. "What is it?"
Two tall masts with the sails furled, a hull displaying the sleek lines of a predator, and there, flying at the top of the mainmast, the silver and blue banner of Dol Amroth.
"It's Pride," I gasped, still not believing my eyes.
After one look at the galley, Léona turned the boat and started rowing back upstream. Soon the great warship disappeared out of sight again, while I was still trying to come to terms with her presence, for the last I had heard, my father's flagship had lain at the Harlond. He must have sent for her to assist in the search! I winced at the thought of the poor sailors having to row her up the Anduin. While she did have a shallow draught, she was a open water vessel, not made for river travel. What was Father thinking of!
Léona seemed to read my mind. "Imrahil really wants you back, doesn't he," he muttered with a shake of his head.
Now I felt bad about making my father worry so. But really, it was his own fault for promising my hand without consulting me!
Léona, meanwhile, had a spotted a suitable place for stopping, where the skiff would be hidden behind some large boulders. He jumped into the shallow water and tied the rope to the gnarly roots of a tree. Then he stood deep in thought for a moment.
"What do we do now?" I asked.
"Have a look at this ship of your father's first of all," he decided. He gave me a measuring look. "Listen, Lothíriel, I do not want to leave you behind on your own, so you will have to come along. Do you promise to do exactly as I tell you to?"
I nodded. Somehow I had long ago abdicated control of this venture to Léona, I realized. He led me up the riverbank and through the open woodlands that bordered the Anduin, until we reached a point above the tongue of beach extending out into the water. Crouching down, we could peek through the branches at the next stretch of river.
It was indeed Pride, and she had chosen a good place to lie in wait. The Anduin narrowed at this point, and anchored in the middle of the river, she commanded the approach both ways. When I looked closer, I saw that she had a couple of escorting skiffs along as well. One of them was just intercepting a boat coming upriver, a task made easier by two heavy hawsers stretched from Pride to the shore on either side.
I cast a look at Léona. He was busy studying the men searching the boat. They went about their work with routine ease, thoroughly checking every corner and lifting every blanket lying about. No hiding below cabbages from these men – but then they were my father's finest. I wondered who commanded them, when suddenly I spotted Amrothos leaning on the stern rail, watching the proceedings with fierce concentration. A servant was just presenting him with a tray of food, from which my brother absentmindedly selected something. Was that a leg of chicken he was chewing on? My stomach growled in response.
Léona touched me on the sleeve and jerked his head to indicate we should retreat. As we retraced our route, I hoped that my brother did not have any of Faramir's rangers along, for the dry leaves covering the forest floor rustled with every step, despite my best efforts. To make things worse, I managed to tread on a rotten branch as well, which broke with a crack that echoed through the woods. Léona winced at my mishap and a jay flew up, scolding loudly. Nevertheless, we reached Cawelcwén without being discovered.
"What now?" I asked. I could not help thinking that defeat was staring me in the face.
"You're not giving up, are you?" he asked back.
"Certainly not," I declared. Although I could see no way to get by unobserved.
He stood staring out at the river. The sun had passed its zenith and threw golden highlights on the ripples caused by the current. My stomach rumbled again, reminding me that I'd had nothing since that frugal breakfast of trail bread. If I gave myself up, I would at least get a decent meal. I strangled that unworthy thought.
"What about trying to slip by in the dark?" I suggested.
"I've been considering that," he said. "The hour before dawn is best, when sleeps beckons mostly strongly. And it might well be foggy again." Then he shook his head. "No. I dare not risk it."
"Why not? I'm game."
He rolled his eyes. "You would be. But I could never forgive myself if something happened to you. All it takes is an arrow in the dark. Your father's men are good."
"Oh!" No, I did not want to risk arrows either. What if they thought he was abducting me and shot at him? "In that case I see no way to get by," I said, deflated.
He crouched down, and with a stick drew a plan of the situation in the wet sand. "They have all directions covered. Did you notice they have a small camp on the other side of the river, so we can't even slip by on foot that way?"
I shook my head. "I did not see that."
He pointed at his map. "And on this side the riverbank is so steep that you'd have to take a large detour. Besides, I bet Amrothos has got that covered as well. I would."
"Are you saying it's hopeless?"
"Don't give up!" He grimaced. "Believe me, I've been in far worse situations."
Of course. Hadn't he said that he'd met Amrothos on the march to the Black Gate? And likely he had taken part in that mad charge of King Éomer's across the fields of the Pelennor. The ladies of Minas Tirith might consider that terribly dashing, but it couldn't have been anything but terrifying in the midst of battle. No, I did not think that the Rohirrim knew the concept of 'giving up'.
Léona tapped the stick on the ground, deep in thought. "If you are losing a fight, you have to shift the battleground..."
"A distraction of some sort?" I suggested. "Misdirecting them somehow?"
He went still. "Of course! You're brilliant."
I was? I tried to look suitably clever, although I had no clue what I had said to inspire such a statement. He was not paying me any attention anyway.
"Misdirect them so they give up their superior position," he murmured to himself, staring down at the sand. "But how? Ah yes..." He jumped up and went to rummage in the boat. A moment later he came up triumphantly with my bag of belongings. "Come on," he called, "we have to get moving."
Thoroughly puzzled, but obedient to his wishes, I got back in Cawelcwén. He dumped the bag in my lap and started rowing back upriver. "You had best decide which of your trinkets you can do without. However, it would be best if it were readily recognizable as yours."
Still mystified, I sorted through the pieces of jewellery that I had brought along, finally settling on a small silver brooch in the form of a swan.
Léona nodded when I showed it to him. "Very good. Anyway, if all goes to plan you will get it back. Eventually."
"What are you going to use it for?" I asked.
He smiled. "Bait."
Once he had rowed back up the Anduin for a mile or so, Léona told me to hide under my shelter of bags and cabbages. I complained at this, but he insisted, taking great care that I was completely covered.
"Remember, Lothíriel," he said, "you mustn't move."
"So we can catch a greedy little fish." I heard him chuckle. "Perhaps we can also solve the problem of your grumbling stomach."
I flushed. He had heard it! With a sigh I settled into my bags more comfortably. They were hot and scratchy. And I vowed that when I got back home, I would tell Cook to cross cabbage off the menu for the rest of my life!
For a long time nothing happened. Léona kept rowing, but only slow strokes that would keep the boat from drifting. Twice another boat went by, but they did not come near us. I had started to doze off, when again I heard the rhythmic splash of oars approaching from behind us. This time Léona picked up his speed and went to meet them.
"Oy!" he called.
"What do you want?" came the answer. "I'm warning you, we're armed!"
"Fools to tell me that," Léona muttered under his breath. Aloud he called, "I only want to trade."
The other boat drew closer. "What do you have to offer?"
"What do you have," Léona shot back. "I want food, blankets and one of those iron kettles I can see in your bow."
"That's a lot to ask for," the other bristled. "Have you got enough coin to pay for it?" An elderly man, I thought, from his voice.
"I've got something better," Léona replied. "Here."
I was starting to see where the bait came into his plans. The two boats bumped together, then rocked as he leant over.
The other man whistled. "Where did you get this from?"
"Never mind about that," Léona replied, "but I'm willing to trade it."
Another voice, a young one, piped up. "Father, it must belong to that princess they're searching for everywhere!"
"Quiet, Hallas," the older man said. His tone turned crafty. "A nice piece of jewellery, horselord. But what if it's stolen?"
"It isn't," Léona interrupted him. "A woman gave it to me. I got rid of some ruffians for her." In a few terse sentences he described the scene on the little island where we had rested the day before.
"You should have brought her with you!" the lad exclaimed. "She's worth–"
"Quiet!" his father snapped. "Where exactly did you say this was?"
"North of Cair Andros."
"And the woman, she went where?"
"Who can say? She could be anywhere by now."
Including right under your nose, I thought. Would they take his bait? But apparently Léona had judged their greed correctly, for the other man settled down to haggling with him. My foot had started to itch in the most annoying manner, but I dared not scratch it. Why couldn't they get on with it! In the end Léona got three blankets, a wineskin, a bag full of food and the kettle he had pointed out for the silver brooch. Robbery.
"Where are you heading for now, horselord?" the merchant asked. I could almost see him rubbing his hands.
"Back upriver for a bit," Léona answered, "now that I have what I wanted."
He deposited the bag of food near my hiding place and the smell of bread made my mouth water. It took considerable self-control not to snatch at it, regardless of betraying myself! Perhaps Léona shared my urgency, for he made his good-byes quickly after that and started rowing again. Soon the voices of the merchants faded behind us.
"They're out of sight," he said after a while.
Casting my coverings from me, I sat up. A look back showed that we had gone around a river bend from where we'd met the other boat. "What now?" I asked.
"We eat," Léona answered.
He grinned when I snatched up the bag of food, but I noticed he wolfed down his first mouthful of bread just as quickly. There were some delicious meat pies as well and a wedge of savoury cheese. In fact I did not slow down until I reached the shrivelled apples that still held a taste of last autumn.
I leant back with a happy sigh. "Do you think the merchant will take the brooch to my brother?"
"I am sure of it," Léona answered. "He came from that way, so knew about the blockade. I bet your father is offering a reward for information on your whereabouts as well."
During our meal we had drifted down the river, and sure enough the other boat was gone when we turned around the next bend. Léona rowed after them, but slowly so as not to catch them up. When we drew near again to the place where Pride was anchored, he slipped behind the same boulders that had hidden us before.
"It shouldn't take too long," he said as he jumped out the boat.
After surveying the situation for a moment, he climbed up on top of one of the big rocks and extended his hand to me. There was just enough room to stretch out on the sun warmed stone and peer out at the water without being seen.
"Now for the big fish," Léona said.
It took a while for something to happen. With my belly full at last, I would not have minded taking a nap, and I had to fight against my eyelids dropping shut. Suddenly the sound of a drum vibrated across the water, bringing me wide awake. Slowly it drew nearer. Then Pride glided into sight, her elegantly shaped prow parting the waters with white froth. Behind her, she towed the two smaller boats.
The great paddles rose and fell regularly in time with the drumbeats, driving her against the current. I bit my lip, feeling guilty for the wild goose chase I was sending them on. Rowing was hard work, and although my father's men were all volunteers, they had probably envisaged themselves fighting corsairs, not chasing a recalcitrant princess up the Anduin.
"I will have to stand them some barrels of ale when I get back," I whispered to Léona.
He cast me a quizzical look. "Having second thoughts?"
I spotted Amrothos standing at the prow, leaning forward as if he were driving the big ship up the river by sheer willpower. There was still time to hail them. Should I end my adventure and go back to being a dutiful princess? I hesitated. And then they were past and the moment was lost. Still, what harm could one more day of freedom do?
"No," I said.
"In that case the way to Minas Tirith lies wide open to us," Léona said, grinning like a little boy who had just pulled off a trick.
My good mood restored, I grinned back. "Neatly done. And a lot less messy than burning our way through with fireboats."
He threw back his head and laughed. "I hope I never run afoul of you."
With the drumbeats fading away, the afternoon had gone drowsily quiet again, except for the incessant buzz of cicadas. I stretched and rested my head on my arms, giving him a contented smile. "Afraid of being dumped in the water again, horselord?"
"Or worse." He reached out to tuck a wayward strand of hair behind my ear and his fingers brushed across my cheek.
Suddenly I became aware of how close to me he lay. Close enough to spot a faded scar on his temple, white against his tanned skin. And how his eyes no longer held the coolly assessing and slightly mocking look he had first favoured me with. How dark they'd gone! His fingers lingered on my cheek, before moving up to follow the shape of my brows.
"My pirate princess," he whispered.
The memory of having his arms around me when I woke up that morning flashed through my mind. But this time he was wide awake and knew exactly what he was doing. I closed my eyes as his clever fingers brushed across my eyelids, ghosted over my cheek and traced my lips. There they hesitated. The world hushed around me. Would he kiss me?
"Caw! Caw! Caw!" came a harsh cry.
I startled so violently that I nearly fell off the stone, but Léona's strong hands caught me before I had slid too far.
He steadied me. "It's only some crows!"
The birds had burst out of the canopy right behind us, and now flew across the water, cawing harshly to chase away a buzzard that had intruded into their territory.
Léona sat up. "Perhaps it's better this way," he muttered as if to himself.
The mood had shattered like the reflections in a pond when a stone is thrown in. He helped me descend from the boulder. "The afternoon is drawing on, let's get going."
Soon we had settled in Cawelcwén and were on our way again. Léona's face was closed and pensive as he picked up his oars, while behind us the crows kept squabbling away.
A/N: I have strained my right hand and am trying to stay off the keyboard as much as possible in order to rest it. So I hope you'll forgive me if I do not answer reviews this week, but I don't want this to develop into something chronic.
I'll just say a general thank you to all my readers and reviewers!
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.