3. Prophesy Part III
Prophesy Part III
It is true of the old, that whereas the recent past can sometimes be hard to recall, long ago happenings appear bright and clear in the mind and the intensity of feeling can still be sharp and raw.
I remember that during the first few weeks of Éomer's absence, I pushed aside my worries and concentrated on enjoying my son. Then the dawning awareness that my husband had left behind a precious gift growing in my womb brought more happiness. None but Hulde, my maid, shared the secret with me – only when alone, I hugged my belly, willing Éomer to come home soon. I wanted to share my joy with him.
But long before I experienced the anguished vision which had me riding madly for Gondor, the unease started. At first it gnawed at me in the night, so that instead of enjoying much needed sleep I spent hours staring out at the stars, trying to keep my husband safe by sheer force of will. Then by day, when sunshine should have swept away the lingering fears of the dark hours, I paced my room unable to concentrate on anything other than thinking of Éomer's return.
Now, in old age, I see the future through a veil. A veil that I no longer have the wish, or the strength, to push aside. But back then, in my vibrant youth, after my father's revelation that my green eyes spoke of a mystic ancestry, I accepted all that my foresight bestowed on me. Scenes flashed daily before my eyes, as brightly coloured as a new tapestry straight from the hands of its creator – Éomer was in pain, I was sure of it.
But the morning I awoke to find my sheets spotted with blood, unease was chased away – to be replaced by gut wrenching fear. Hulde told everyone I had a slight malady and made me rest on my bed. It did no good for her to say that such scares were commonplace, and if only I would relax, no doubt a healthy child would be born – nothing assuaged my anxiety. But after a week of keeping to my room feigning a head cold and having Elfwine brought to me to cuddle or play on the floor with his carved horses, it seemed she had spoken the truth.
Cautiously I resumed my duties, and for three days, except for the continued concern for my husband, my fear lessened.
So was it any wonder that Hulde trembled, when after my vision I announced my intention to ride for Minas Tirith? As me, she knew full well the tragedy I risked. But Rohan needed Éomer, and so did I. Unable to persuade me otherwise, she did the only thing she could: she offered to come with me.
'My lady, you cannot ride all that way with no female to accompany you. Lady Byrde cannot, as you have put Elfwine in her charge, and Lady Welwyn is still nursing her son.'
She was right: a queen, even the Queen of Rohan could not travel the land unaccompanied. I squeezed her hand, grateful for her loyalty. 'It will be fast, Hulde, and we may sleep with no more than a bedroll.' Horses would be changed at the waystations, but I knew I'd want to keep going as long as daylight held.
The first smile since I'd made my startling announcement crossed her face. 'My lady you forget, I was born following the herds.'
In my rush to go I had forgotten: my maid had come to me when I first journeyed with the Rohirrim after Eowyn's wedding, but her training at Aldburg had smoothed away any roughness. It was now easy to imagine her being brought up in a lord's Hall and not in the camps of the Eastemnet.
With no more time to waste, Hulde packed my things whilst I said goodbye to Elfwine. He frowned, and hugged my legs, but held Byrde's hand confidently when I told him I was going to fetch his father home.
Freed at last from the Hall – from the questions and disbelief – I ran along the path to the stables. Each step took me nearer to a certain fate, but any misgivings were winged away by my flying feet. A mind hampered by doubt would flounder at the perils ahead; I could not afford to falter.
The stable yard was thick with activity, many voices greeted me and in none could I sense disapproval. It seemed that the men of my guard trusted me more than friends and counsellors, or perhaps relished the chance of a long ride and time in Minas Tirith. Windshadow, my young gelding, was tethered to a rail, my groom brushing his black coat with long strokes, although it already gleamed brighter than polished jet. I saw tents and provisions being loaded onto spirited pack-horses, Déor having taken me at my word for a fast trip. But when he came out of the stable leading his fine grey, his eyes were troubled.
'Are you sure, Lothíriel?' he whispered so that none other could hear, 'this is a mighty undertaking. There are those that will not expect you to leave your son.'
I ran my hand down Windshadow's velvet nose and looked straight into my captain's eyes. 'I have learnt to trust my visions; I can only ask you to trust me.' Orders were one thing of course, but I wanted him to believe in me. A moment's scrutiny of my face, and he gave me a quick nod.
'Then we'd better make haste.'
Word had whipped around Edoras like a summer blaze flashing across the plains. The ancient came out of their houses, craftsmen put down their tools and women wiped floured hands on white aprons – all drawn to the roadway to gawp at their queen's departure. Muttering and murmurings of alarm, a doff of caps and the clouding of faces. But I understood – their king had gone to war to protect a land that in the past had held only enemies, and their queen was leaving, unplanned, unexpected.
Four days to Minas Tirith – if I could keep up the pace of the errand riders whose horses had worn a track in the road over the years since the Ring-war. Peace, and the friendship of two lands, of two kings, had meant communication had increased and hostelries had been built to serve the growing number of travellers. Goods of all kinds flowed across our borders, but best of all the expanding cavalries of Dol Amroth and Gondor craved our superior horses. The lucrative trade boosted Rohan's wealth and improved life for its people.
By slowing down only when we met a line of carts on a narrow piece of road across the marshes, the ground between Edoras and Aldburg was covered in three hours. The fortress stood on a low rise and had guarded the Great West Road for five hundred years, its huge, spiked palisade a visible demonstration of its power. Being the seat of the Marshal of the Eastmark, and thus Éomer's former home, I had a great fondness for Aldburg. But today I fought against stopping. Our intention was to travel close on a hundred miles before nightfall, and any thought of delay chafed me. It was during this first day that we were likely to be able to make the greatest distance. Each of us rode the best horseflesh Rohan could provide, and though the horses kept at the waystations were first class, they would be unlikely to be able to match the speed and stamina of our own mounts. Windshadow, given to me by Éomer after the birth of our son, had the fluid motion that would enable me to ride long and fast. But my protest had no effect upon Déor.
'It's wrong not to tell Elfhelm of your plans, Lothíriel. He will be in charge with you gone. A messenger is all very well, but we are going past his door.'
Suitably chastised, I nodded my assent. 'But I don't want to dismount. I have no wish to extend our stay.'
'Very well,' Déor agreed. 'In fact it is better for the horses if we keep them moving. And as soon as they have cooled, they will need a drink.'
I did get off Windshadow though, Elfhelm providing a lad to walk him around. Most of my guard stayed in their saddles chewing on pieces of dried meat, whilst merely loosening the reins and letting their horses amble around the yard at will. Elfhelm offered me something more palatable, but the thought of food turned my stomach. Instead, I quickly explained the reasons for my hurried journey, rocking from foot to foot in my impatience to get away again. The Marshal didn't argue with my decision, maybe because he'd witnessed my healing skills and knew of my reputation for foresight, or perhaps because he would take no chances with Éomer's safety. Wilflede followed her husband's lead and made no audible protest, only her eyes registering shock. She pressed a drink of honeyed tea on me and, as I tossed it back, quizzed Hulde as to the amount and content of the baggage we carried. She had a horror of me a arriving in the White City with nothing but one travel-stained riding outfit.
Clothes were the last thing on my mind, the whole quaking space in my head filled with anxiety over Éomer, but some part of me sympathized with her concerns. 'Don't worry, the wardrobes in my father's house are crammed with Calaerdis' dresses. She won't mind me borrowing them.' I looked round for Déor. 'But we must leave now.'
The men formed into a line again, and Elfhelm gave me a leg up. Within minutes the gates of the fortress were behind us, but I didn't look back as we crossed the meadows under the eaves of the White Mountains, taking a short cut that would save a league or two. Those working in the fields put down their tools and watched, shading their eyes to see who blazed a path through the grass. But all my attention was focused on the track ahead.
The next few hours passed in a blur of speed, but as the road wound upward through a stand of bright beach, I felt Windshadow's strength waning. I glanced towards Déor: foam flecked, his grey hung on the reins.
'We'll have to slow down, Lothíriel; I'll not kill the horses. We can change them at the next hostelry; it's about two leagues along the road.'
We had no choice, but I irked at the slow pace. And I knew that with so many of us, not enough horses would be in the stables, most having to be brought in from pasture. It would take time. The long days meant there was hours of light left, and I was wondering if I would be able to persuade Déor to ride on with me and only a couple of the men, leaving Hulde and the others to follow behind, when Windshadow suddenly lifted his weary head and pricked his ears. He let out a joyful neigh of greeting. Heads turned; horses and men staring at the silver-hued stallion galloping towards us.
My heart raced, blood pounded in my ears. A streak of sliver cleaved a path through the tall grass – muscle and bone, grace and splendor, a horse like no other – Shadowfax!
Now everything made sense and any lingering doubts I had were blown away by the sight of the legendary horse. He was coming for me – as his master had come to talk to a twelve year old child deep in the wilds of the Tarnost hills all those years ago. Because Middle-earth needed Éomer, and I had made my pledge. At whatever cost.
Shadowfax slowed to a canter, jumped a ditch and trotted up to where we had all stopped, placing himself directly in front of Déor and me. He tossed his head, blew down his nostrils and edged his way between us until his soft muzzle was level with me, his dark eyes conveying a message I could not fail to understand.
'He will carry me to Minas Tirith, Déor.'
Déor shook himself out of the stunned wonder brought on by the closeness of the magnificent animal, his eyes widening with anxiety. 'Lothíriel, you can't. We … I'll… never keep up.'
But I already had my feet out of my stirrups. 'That's why I have to go. Because it's the only chance for Éomer.'
'No, Lothíriel, you cannot go off on your own, the road is too hazardous. I have sworn to protect you from all danger … Éomer would never forgive me.'
Poor Déor, he faced an impossible choice – physically restrain me or let me ride off into unknown perils. But I did not think that Mithrandir would have his long made plans upset by footpads, or any other misfortune along the road. From somewhere, I was sure, he would be watching over me. The men crowded round, waiting for the outcome of the argument. Shadowfax stepped back so that I could meet Déor's eyes, appearing to be waiting to see what fate would decide.
'If I don't go, Déor, Éomer will not be around to censure you. This was meant to be, you must believe that. Remember what Mithrandir said at my wedding, when Shadowfax permitted Éomer to ride him …'
Déor nodded stiffly. 'He said the horse would return to the plains to sire a new generation for the Mark, but that no man would ever ride him again…' He stopped, realizing what he had said.
I smiled, sympathetic to his confusion. 'Mithrandir prepared for this even though he would not be here. He once said to me that if one takes care of the little things, then the big things take care of themselves. That is why he took time to ride halfway across Middle-earth, he needed to steer a young princess towards the Healing Houses. Now he has sent Shadowfax because every moment counts.' I leant towards my captain, lowering my voice, 'All that I have done, all that I have learnt was intended for this. If I turn back now, then I will be going against my destiny.'
Broad shoulders slumped, as Déor wrestled with his dilemma. He had not quite yielded to my persuasive words. But I could not wait and decided to ease his decision. Shadowfax, sensing the determination in me came close to Windshadow and in a moment I had hauled myself onto his muscular back. The great horse moved away, challenging any to stop him with a toss of his head.
'I am sorry, Déor. But there is no time to debate this.'
Déor took a deep sigh. 'I can only countenance this because, as Éomer, I have always trusted Gandalf. But you will not be able to keep going all the way to Minas Tirith. Both you, and Shadowfax, will need to rest sometime.'
'Yes, but I can sleep on his back and he will order the journey to suit himself.'
I'd hardly finished speaking before Hulde, white faced, trotted up and passed me a bag of food, which I slung across my back.
Full of anxiety, my captain's face was even whiter. 'Lothíriel, make no mistake, I will be right behind you.'
Tears filled my eyes and I urged Shadowfax near to him again, and squeezed his arm. 'I know you will.'
Before I could say more, Shadowfax sprang away. I gasped; he picked up an incredible pace straight off and we hurtled along the road. He would not let me fall, but I twisted his mane around my hand – needing the reassuring contact with him. League after league we travelled, the landscape flashing by as I dropped in and out of sleep. Darkness met us, but Shadowfax never slowed, even when we crossed the Mering stream, its fast waters glittering in the starlight. My body stiff, my muscles screaming, I tried to lose myself in sleep, falling forwards and wrapping my hands around his neck to bury my face into his silken mane. Night passed in a waking dream. After what seemed a lifetime, my eyes opened to a rosy dawn. Shadowfax had stopped. A quick look around showed me we had entered a wooded dell on the edge of the road where a waterfall fed a small pool. 'You must need to rest and drink boy,' I said quietly to the horse. His only answer was a whinny, but I cautiously slid from his back, leaning against his side as my legs gave way. They trembled uncontrollably and I stood there a moment not trusting myself to move. My whole body ached with exhaustion. Finally I took a step, reaching out to grab a sapling for support. Shadowfax watched until, when sure I was not going to fall over, he gracefully lowered his head to drink.
I fumbled for the pack on my back, knowing I ought to eat something – my stomach felt hollow and empty – but I had to force down a honeycake and a few mouthfuls of dried fruit and cheese. Shadowfax ate too, cropping the lush grass with strong white teeth. After restoring my provisions to my pack, I managed to put one foot in front the other and eased myself over to the waterfall, scooping the sweet water into my mouth, heedless of it running down my chin and soaking my shirt. I was just wiping my sleeve across my face, when Shadowfax lifted his head from the grass and swivelled it towards the road. I moved close to him, not sure what had grabbed his attention, but then I heard the unmistakeable sound of galloping hooves. Through the gap in the trees I saw a flicker of black and silver as two horsemen tore past – errand riders from Minas Tirith, I knew their livery well. The Valar help me, I also knew their mission – Rohan's King lay dying and they were taking the dreadful news to Edoras. The haunting fear that I might not be in time gave me new strength.
To be continued.
Original characters appearing in this chapter.
Hulde Lothíriel's maid. Originally from the Eastfold.
Déor Friend of Éomer, brought up in Aldburg. Appointed Captain of the
Queen's Guard after Éomer and Lothíriel's marriage.
Byrde Hama's youngest daughter, married to Déor.
Welwyn Erkenbrand's daughter, married to Éothain
Wilflede Hama's eldest daughter, married to Elfhelm