They wouldn't give up on her. Éomer never would. Pig-headed and arrogant he might be, but steadfast and unswerving in his duty, he would comb these mountains till he found her.
But the thought of what he might find caused her to shake uncontrollably. Her legs gave way again and she stumbled over a root. Bitten -finger dragged her to her feet, painfully squeezing her breast in the process.
'Don't lie down yet girl, you'll be spending long enough on yer back.'
'Yeh,' Aglon tweaked her other breast with unconcealed lust. 'As soon as we get back to camp.' Horror-struck, Lothíriel tried to pull away from her captor, but he held on. The half-wit made an obscene gesture, and Aglon brayed a laugh, adding his own vile sign.
Bile rose in her throat – no don't be sick! She would choke on her own vomit! Die! But wouldn't she rather die than be so violated!
'Walk properly or I knock ee out for a bit,' Bitten-finger threatened. Lothíriel steadied herself and tried to take regular breaths through her nose; the loathsome gag made it difficult to breathe. Willing herself to keep calm she tried forcibly to stop her mind from imagining what was going to happen to her. But the shaking started again. She wasn't going to survive this, and she so wanted to live! Éomer would have to tell her father...return her body...a great upwelling of anguish reached her throat— hard and bitter, blocking her airway. She might never see her family again! Never see Éomer again! For some reason that thought brought more anguish than anything else. No, he would come; she knew that with total certainty. But he might be too late!
Lothíriel gulped for breath, struggling against the gag. How would her parents bear it? Her father would be devastated...but...but...she steadied herself, and her mind cleared for a moment – he would expect her to fight, not to give up. Anger raged at the predicament she was in – she had no weapon, no means of defending herself...nothing to fight with except her wits. But right now her brain felt like mush. So did her legs. They were hardly able to support her as she was half dragged, half pushed, along a narrow track that went gradually upward. Suddenly Aglon let out a long whistle. Moments later it was answered by someone ahead. Her insides turned to water – this was it. She had to do something! But what? How could she convince them to let her go? Think Lothíriel. Think! What did she have on her side? Her rank and her nobility, nothing more. That thought gave her an idea and a rough plan started to form, but it would only work if she got the chance to speak. She had to get rid of the gag.
They had reached a clearing backed by a cliff face of weathered rocks and stunted ash trees. A trickle of water dripped over a ledge and at the bottom a shallow cave gave shelter to a group of three men sitting around a meagre fire and a cooking pot. All looked at her with some astonishment. Bitten-finger gave her a shove, and she stumbled forward, landing on her knees.
'Look what we've found. Something to warm us all up tonight!'
Leering grins appeared on two of the ruffians' faces, but the other – a tall black-haired man with a ring through his ear – scowled, got to his feet and stalked towards them. 'Are you mad, Carch? We were supposed to get through this dung-ridden land quietly, not set off a man-hunt with us as the prey.'
'Keep yer 'air on, Thanger.' Bitten-finger – Carch – wrenched Lothíriel to her feet holding her arms behind her back. 'Looks like she's a Dunlending bitch they use as a skivvy. Those horse-boys aren't going to waste any time looking for 'er.'
Thanger's eyes travelled up and down her, studying her thoughtfully. His attention flicked to Carch as he focused on her bruised cheek. 'Put up bit of a fight, did she?'
Carch shrugged, but said nothing; Thanger continued to stare at her. He was the leader, she could sense that, and probably had a modicum of intelligence. Her only chance was to play the outraged noblewoman. Lothíriel lifted her chin. Pushing her fear aside, she managed to stare defiantly back at him. He looked discomfited for a moment and she knew she was doing right. Then his eyes narrowed as he focused on her neckline and without warning he lunged forward, his hand delving into the top of her dress. Thanger had spotted her chain; he yanked hard. The momentary pain caused her to gasp through the gag. His hand came away holding a glitter of gold. He held it up, the swan-ship pendant dangling from his fingers, and thrust it towards Bitten-finger. The swan's diamond eye sparkled a bright challenge.
'A skivvy, is she,' he snarled. 'You bloody idiot, Carch.'
'So what!' Carch shot back, defensively. 'Who cares who she is? She's a woman, strip em and they're all the same.'
'Yeh, and perhaps she pinched the necklace,' Aglon blustered his excuse.
Thanger looked angrily between Carch and Aglon. 'I ought to bang your stupid heads together.' The others gathered around, all waiting for whatever was going to happen. Lothíriel felt like a tethered goat surrounded by wolves. Thanger raised his hand and she shrank away, but with an abrupt movement he wrenched the gag from her mouth.
Oh, the relief. Lothíriel sucked in air greedily. But her whole mouth had dried and knowing she only had one chance to get out of this, she tried to moisten her lips with her tongue. Not wanting to show fear, she twisted around furiously, trying to break Carch's hold.
'Take your hands from me,' she commanded in a tone gleaned from years of being a princess. 'If any more harm comes to me then all the wrath of Gondor and Rohan will come down upon you.'
Carch let out a breath, but still held on, Thanger swore loudly and the grins left the faces of the other men when they heard her highborn accent.
'Let her go, you cretin,' Thanger ordered as she continued to fight against Carch's hold. 'She ain't going nowhere, not till we say so anyway.'
'I didn't go to all this trouble to have her...'
'Shut up!' Thanger glared at Carch, his fingers curling into a fist. Carch eased the pressure on her arms and Lothíriel shook him off, stepping away and fixing her eyes on Thanger.
'Very soon these mountains will be crawling with Rohirrim warriors looking for me. I demand you let me go now. It will only get worse for you.'
'High and mighty, eh!' His lips twisted into a sneer and she guessed he didn't want to lose face, or his right to lead. 'You're in no position to demand anything, remember that! And Carch might be spot on: maybe we can have a bit of fun and be long gone. Horses ain't no use up 'ere.'
'That's right,' Carch leered at her. 'You're seeing sense now, Thanger. No point in wasting a bit of skirt.'
'I am worth much more to you alive and untouched,' Lothíriel blurted out trying to keep the panic out of her voice. 'All the gold you can carry if you let me be. Enough to buy you women for the rest of your lives.'
'Gold...we could do with some gold.' One of the other men moved a bit nearer, his eyes already alight with greed.
'Yes,' she said eagerly, nodding towards him. 'You can have gold.' She only had to hold them off for a while, sure that a proper search had already started.
Thanger held up his hand, motioning the gang to keep back. 'Don't get carried away, let's think this through.' He fixed his penetrating gaze on her. 'You'd better tell us who you are. Convince us like, that someone will pay for you.'
Would it be better to tell the truth, or pretend to be some other noble lady? Lothíriel hesitated for just a moment and then stood up straight, deciding the truth held more weight. 'I am Lothíriel of Dol Amroth. My father is Imrahil, Prince of Belfalas.'
That caused a shock. All of them stared at her, Aglon let out a low whistle between his teeth taking a step towards her. 'Let's do the business and get out of here sharpish.'
'No, you silly twat!' Carch shoved him aside and grinned maliciously at Lothíriel, his scar puckering hideously. 'She's worth a fortune to us, ain't that right, Thanger?'
Thanger nodded. 'Maybe, if she's who she says she is.' He stared at the pendant still in his hand, frowning.
'You are holding the proof,' Lothíriel said, stone-faced. Surely he would believe her. They all hailed from Gondor, Thanger from the backstreets of Pelargir judging by his accent. Would he recognise the device? She tossed her head contemptuously. 'It's the Swan-ship of Dol Amroth.'
'I ain't stupid,' Thanger sneered. 'But perhaps you did pinch it. Otherwise what are ee doing tramping about the forests in Rohan on yer own?'
'I was not alone...'
'Her friends weren't far away,' Carch interrupted. 'But she was picking mushrooms, does seem a bit strange for a princess.'
'I am a guest of Éomer, King of Rohan,' Lothíriel responded coldly. 'And I was picking mushrooms to help because the Rohirrim are short of food.'
'I still think we ought to shaft 'er and move on fast,' Aglon bleated. 'Even if she is that prince's daughter, how would we get her to Dol Amroth to collect a ransom? Those dung-shovellers would ride us down once we were back over the mountains.' He lunged towards her, but Lothíriel twisted herself out of the way.
'The King of Rohan will pay.' She aimed her plea at Thanger, frightened they would not take the lure of gold. 'He will pay a good sum for me; you just have to get word to him.' If she could only persuade them, it would give Éomer time to find her. Frantically she tried to work out how long it would take him to arrange a search of the woods. When she hadn't returned to the glade surely they would have sent someone back to Helm's Deep to get help. He should be there, having his meetings. Would he ride out straightaway? Of course he would, and the long summer days meant there was hours of daylight left. She just had to stall them.
'Rohan might not have food, but they have gold. You've heard of the Golden Hall of Meduseld, haven't you?'
The others mumbled together, but Thanger was collecting his thoughts. 'Are you important to him? Is that why the horse-king will pay for you?'
'I'm a guest,' she answered. 'Under his protection. He'll pay a ransom, all you can carry, because the weregild he'd have to pay to my father would be much, much more. If I am killed or ravished, my father will expect hefty recompense. King Éomer will be happy to pay you to get me back unharmed.'
'It's a chance, Thanger,' one of the other men put in. 'We got no hope of getting gold otherwise. Even where we're going I bet we'll just get paid in a bit of common coin.'
Lothíriel held her breath as Thanger looked doubtfully at her. 'It's how we do it that's the problem. Got a make sure the sods don't jump us when we collect the money.'
'If the King of Rohan gives his word he will keep it,' Lothíriel countered.
'We can have a knife at her throat when we meet with him,' Carch suggested.
'We got t' get a message to him first,' Aglon added his pennyworth. 'Let him know we got her and what we want. And we don't know where he is.'
They all started talking at once, arguing about the best way to get a message to the King of Rohan. All except the idiot who continued to stare at her whilst running his tongue around his lips. Lothíriel shuddered. She had to get out of here! Éomer would come for her, she knew that, but she needed to gain time.
Lothíriel glanced towards the edge of the clearing, wondering if she could make a run for it. If she was going to try, now was the only chance – when they had taken their attention from her. But the idiot was still watching; how far would she get? And a chase might inflame them. She hesitated and it was too late. The moment passed as Thanger lost patience.
'Shut up and let me think,' Thanger ordered when they all continued to talk over each other. The others stopped, waiting for him to speak. Definitely the leader. 'Right,' he said after a few moments. 'First we need some information.' He stood over her menacingly. 'Where will that horse-king be now?'
Lothíriel tried not to shake, she had to sound a lot more confident than she felt. Keep them thinking rescue was imminent. 'The King of Rohan is at Helm's Deep,' she said in an almost steady voice. 'In fact it wouldn't surprise me if he wasn't already on his way here, someone would have ridden back to tell him I'm missing.'
'How many were with you? The truth, or we'll do what Aglon wants: have some fun and move on.'
'There were five other women and a guard. I am sure that some of them will still be at our meeting place waiting to see if I return.' Lothíriel glared at him. 'They won't leave me here, you know.'
'Think yourself mighty important, don't you,' Aglon scoffed.
Lothíriel swung her eyes towards him scornfully. 'I know I'm important, I am a Gondorian princess. My value on the marriage market is great indeed, which is why I'm worth more to you alive and untouched!'
A couple of them shuffled their feet uncomfortably. They could probably be persuaded to let her go, but Thanger twisted his lips into a nasty grin.
'Maybe, but we have to work out how to get paid without putting ourselves in danger.'
Lothíriel said nothing; he was an idiot if he thought Éomer would pay a ransom and then allow them to get clean away, he was much too clever for that. And if they thought they could hold a knife to her throat and not get an arrow through their own necks they really were fools. None of them would stand a chance against Éomer's men.
'Where's this meeting place, that the next thing I need to know?' Thanger scowled at her.
Lothíriel looked up through the trees; the sun was westering, but far from setting. She pointed into the darkened forest. 'That way, towards Helm's Deep. It was a glade with a stream running through it not far off the plain, but I am not sure exactly where.' It didn't matter anyway, the Rohirrim would find them. Keeping that thought to herself, she nodded her head towards Carch and Aglon. 'I was a bit lost when they captured me.'
'I know more or less, won't take long to get down there,' Carch put in.
'Yeh, well you're the one to go, Carch,' Thanger said. 'If that horse-king isn't there one of them can get a message to him. A sack of gold divided into six bags...'
'One sack between us! That's not much for a blooming princess,' Aglon muttered angrily.
'We got t' carry it, haven't we?' Thanger said, throwing him a disdainful look.
'Well, what about a few ponies. Save our feet and we could carry more.' One of the others suggested.
'You blockhead!' Thanger spat out. 'I'm surrounded by numskulls. We have to get away without them following us, anywhere that ponies can go those horsemen can follow. On our feet they have no advantage.'
Just highly trained trackers and battle-hardened warriors! But Lothíriel looked down at the ground not wanting to give anything away. They were all a bunch of halfwits, even Thanger, though he thought himself so clever. She listened to them discussing where the ransom was to be passed over – a ravine they'd travelled through where they could look down on the Rohirrim. She gathered they had been keeping to the mountain tracks, heading for the Gap of Rohan. Somewhere up north good pay was being offered to those with strong arms and prepared not to ask questions. But from a few remarks made she judged that with their hands on such loot they might change their minds and head back over the mountains to Gondor.
A bit more furtive conversation and Carch tucked her necklace into his pocket. He headed off into the forest, mouthing a coarse suggestion towards her as he went. Aglon laughed, grabbing hold of her arm. 'Better hope you're worth what you think, sweetheart. I'm still wondering if pleasuring you ain't preferable to the gold.'
Angrily Lothíriel shook off his arm, invoking more ribald laughter as she dodged out of his way. Sweet Elberth, let Éomer be there!
'Stop that,' Thanger ordered. 'Keep an eye on her, but don't touch the goods.' He threw Aglon a malicious grin. 'Not yet anyway. Maybe we can get the gold and the woman if we're clever.'
Lothíriel froze, but before she could retaliate Thanger dished out more orders. 'You, Dairon, get after Carch. Don't let him or those sodding dung-shifters, see you. If they play foul get back here fast.' His lips twisted into a sneer. 'And if our friend Carch thinks he can start his own game and leave us out, use yer knife.'
Not such a fool then! Lothíriel watched helplessly as Dairon slipped into the trees. Four of them left: Thanger, Aglon, the idiot and one whose name she did not know. Still enough to keep a close eye on her, but somehow she had to find a way to get away and not wait for Éomer to rescue her. With the last remarks she knew she couldn't trust them to let her go unharmed. They weren't going to take their eyes off her though, because when she went to sit down on the edge of the clearing Thanger shoved her over towards the fire.
'We got a bit of a while to wait; you might as well make yourself useful, the stew needs stirring.' Lothíriel glared at him, perhaps she should throw the pot of hot liquid over them, but she couldn't hope to get all four. Reluctantly she sat down on the log near the fire, immediately wrinkling her nose. 'Whatever's in there, it smells awful.'
'Badger, does stink a bit, but its meat. You wouldn't be fussy if you'd been travelling for days.'
Lothíriel poked at the stew with a crudely carved wooden spoon, bits of grisly looking meat floated in a grey broth. She'd have to be starving to eat that. 'It's nowhere near cooked yet.'
'Don't worry, likely it will be an hour or more before Carch gets back. Time to eat... 'Aglon smirked suggestively at her, '...and maybe check out if a noblewoman's got the same bits as a slut.'
Lothíriel stared hard at him, the spoon in her hand. She would have liked to stuff it in his filthy mouth, grind it down his throat. 'The King of Rohan will want to know I am safe and well before he hands over any ransom. Remember that!'
'Keep it in yer pants, Aglon,' Thanger warned. 'Gold comes first, then the woman if we get a chance.'
Lothíriel went cold, her stomach cramping, No, she told herself sternly, Éomer would be prepared for any trickery. But just in case she must keep her fright down and be alert for any opportunity to escape.
Oh no, now she needed to relieve herself. No way did she want to inflame them any more so she sat quietly, occasionally poking at the stew and adding a log to the fire whilst they muttered to each other. She looked up at the smoke, the wood was dry and only a few wisps snaked towards the top of the tall trees, drawn through a crack in the rock. They had chosen a good place, so would the Rohirrim spot it, she wondered. Hopefully yes. How long before she could expect rescue? A good hour must have passed and nothing had happened except the ruffians were getting edgy. The pressure in her bladder was worse now, but still she hesitated to do anything about it. Then she heard Thanger say—
'If Carch isn't back soon we'll eat and move on. I don't trust those dung-shifters.'
Looking up quickly she saw Aglon's eyes on her. Immediately Lothíriel stood up; whatever was coming she couldn't deal with it when she was bursting.
'I need to go into the forest for a moment,' she said as haughtily as she could. Her rank was the only weapon she had.
Aglon grinned and started to get to his feet, but Thanger impatiently pushed him down. 'Not you. She needs to be able to tell the horse-king we didn't touch her, and I don't trust you. Garter, you go with her.'
Aglon muttered to himself but didn't argue. Garter, who was the quietest of the bunch and the one Lothíriel thought might be persuaded to let her go, nodded compliantly. With a swish of her skirts Lothíriel headed for the trees.
'Don't let her out of yer sight,' Aglon called after them. 'I ain't losing her now.'
'No,' Thanger muttered his reply quietly, but she caught his words. 'If Carch ain't back soon, the deal's off and we can have her.'
Sweet Elberth help! What could she do? She couldn't wait for Éomer to rescue her, somehow she had to escape. Lothíriel hesitated, looking around for somewhere to run. But Garter was right next to her. Ugh, he stank!
'That way!' Garter pointed ahead to where she saw another clearing dotted with some beech saplings and a few small rowans. No way could she escape easily though, as the trees closed dark around the open space. Her eyes fixed on a drift of golden horns, irrelevantly she remembered she had lost all the ones she'd picked earlier.
'I'm going behind that bush.' He didn't move until she spoke again, her voice as sharp as flint. 'Look the other way!'
A lifetime of obeying his 'betters' had their effect. Obediently he turned round. 'Don't you run off mind; I'll hear you in the undergrowth. And I'd soon catch ye anyway, a fair runner I am.'
She said nothing, desperate to get this over with, but as she readjusted her clothes she noticed something that made her heart beat faster. More mushrooms, but these were not the tasty golden horns, they were fibrecaps. An idea buzzed through her mind. Quickly she picked those she could reach, stuffing them up one of her wide sleeves and pulling the laces at the wrist tight.
'Finished?' Garter turned round when he heard her pushing around the bush.
'Yes, but I thought I'd take a moment to pick those.' She pointed to the golden horns. 'They won't take more than a few minutes to cook and might make your stew more palatable.'
He looked suspiciously at the fungi. 'They're all right to eat, are they? I don't want no stomach ache.'
'Of course.' She scowled, deliberately sounding offended. 'I know what I am doing. If you remember I was picking mushrooms for the pot when your friends captured me.'
'Go on then.'
With a little hidden smile of triumph she knelt down to pluck the orange mushrooms from the ground. 'Here, you take these.' Lothíriel passed a handful up to him.
'Hang on, I've got this.' Garter took the large kerchief from around his neck and put the mushrooms in it. He passed the whole thing back. Lothíriel inwardly recoiled at the sight of the filthy piece of cloth, but she wouldn't be eating them anyway. She quickly picked some more, as many as would fit in the makeshift bag.
'That's it,' she said standing up. 'I just need to make sure they are clean.'
'Not here you don't. Get back to the others.' Garter gave her a small push. She glared at him, but said nothing. Her mind was in turmoil, dreading that she would not get the chance to use her new found weapon. She had to get them in the pot undetected.
'What's that?' Thanger said immediately she entered the camp. He nodded towards the kerchief she was carrying, his eyes narrowing.
'She's picked some of them mushrooms,' Garter answered. 'Reckons they'll improve our stew.'
'As long as they don't kill us,' Thanger growled, looking at her distrustfully.
She stared fixedly at him, trying not to give away her guilt. 'I am not known for killing people with mushrooms. I know what I am doing. These are golden horns, they are extremely good to eat.' Lothíriel untied the bundle and showed him her bounty. Thanger shrugged, obviously having no idea, but Aglon nodded.
'She's right, very tasty. Might even make old brock go down a bit better.'
Ignoring Thanger, Lothíriel went over to the cooking pot. The stew was bubbling away, a totally unappetising smell rising from it. She sat down and laid the golden horns out, inspecting each one for maggots. But they were new and clean and didn't really need a wash off either. She started to tear them into pieces, popping them into the pot as she did so. Now she just had to make sure they weren't watching her and then empty the contents of her sleeve in as well. If there were a few maggots they couldn't be worse to eat than the badger meat. Aglon was watching her closely, though. He'd had his eyes on her ever since she'd been captured, and when she looked up she didn't like the lecherous expression she saw on his face. She needed to get him out the way for a moment so she could put her plan into action before his patience ran out.
Lothíriel gestured towards the other side of the clearing. 'Why don't you pull up a few of those ramsons, the bulbs will make the stew taste better still.'
But Aglon sneered angrily. 'I'm not yer servant.'
Lothíriel shrugged as if she did not care. 'Please yourself, it's your meal.'
He glowered for a moment longer and then stalked over to where she had spotted a few yellowing ramson leaves. The others watched him as he pulled at the leaves, swearing when the decaying top foliage broke off. But he got out his knife and started to dig; the idiot knelt down too, grubbing in the soil with already filthy fingers.
This was her only chance; Thanger and Garter were intent on what Aglon was doing. It seemed that neither was that used to foraging for food, so would probably not notice the difference in the mushrooms. It was Aglon she had to fear. But with no more thought Lothíriel fumbled at the laces of her sleeve, tipping the fibrecaps into the pot and poking them down into the liquid with the spoon.
Just in time, as Aglon stood up clutching a few meagre bulbs in his fingers. He threw them down onto the ground beside her. Lothíriel stared at him haughtily. 'I'll need your knife to take off the skins.'
'No,' Thanger's sharp voice cut in. 'You do it, Aglon. I ain't trusting her with a knife.'
Aglon curled his lip, anger and lust just a breath away. 'You better hope Carch comes back soon, lady, or those high-handed ways of yours will count for nothing.'
Lothíriel shivered but kept silent, not meeting his eyes and concentrating on the stew. She'd had a moment's unease when she'd tipped the fibrecaps in, not really knowing how many it would take to kill a man. Now she didn't care; the only worry was how long they took to act.
Aglon finished the bulbs and tipped them into the pot, studying the contents intently as he did so. Lothíriel tried to show no reaction to his scrutiny, she had been endeavouring to keep the mushrooms under the surface of the bubbling mess and break up the fibrecaps to make them look like the pieces of badger meat. Would he notice? With her heart thumping she carefully lifted out one of the golden horns to take his attention.
'Nearly cooked. We just have to wait for the ramsons to soften. That won't take long.' The thought of imminent food brought the others round.
'Good, I'm starving.' Garter punched Aglon on the arm. 'Didn't know you knew about mushrooms and things. Why didn't you get us some stuff before?'
'Cause he's a lazy sod, that's why.' Thanger said, scowling at Aglon.
'Kept going didn't we, needed to get on, you said,' Aglon replied, his face slightly red. 'Anyway, if we get the gold we'll be able to eat like kings...' His voice tailed off under Thanger's scorn.
'If we get the gold.' Thanger turned his attention to Lothíriel, his face set in a dark grimace. 'The light'll start to go soon; Carch or Dairon should be back by now. Unless your friends have played foul...'
'I imagine a message has had to go King Éomer at Helm's Deep,' Lothíriel interrupted, not being able to stop her voice quivering ever so slightly. 'That will take time.' Surely Éomer had ridden out as soon as he heard she was missing. Her fingers were trembling on the spoon – he should have been here by now.
'Well, I'm not happy. We'll eat and move on if no word comes. You,' Thanger said pointing at her, 'will be coming with us.'
'The food's ready.' She couldn't wilt now. Please let this work!
The four had bowls and spoons ready and in moments they were stuffing the vile looking concoction down as if it was the best venison stew. Apart from knowing what she'd put in it, the smell alone made Lothíriel gag. But that came from the badger, not the mushrooms, and they made no comment, eating gustily.
'You eat some,' Thanger ordered after he had gulped down half of his portion. 'If we have to move you will need it.'
'I'd rather not. I don't think I can face that badger,' Lothíriel answered, revolted by the sight of dribbles of stew running down his chin.
Scowling, he poked his spoon at her. 'Eat something.'
Sure she'd be sick, whether she ate the fibrecaps or not, Lothíriel gingerly fished around in the pot. Luckily the golden horns were still intact and their colour made them easy to pick out. She trapped one on the spoon, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the smell.
'Watch I don't force it down your throat,' Thanger muttered. But he didn't move, continuing to shove the stuff down his own throat.
'The mushrooms taste alright.' Aglon ladled in another mouthful.
Yes, eat plenty, she silently prayed. Her own mushroom hadn't got near her mouth yet but steeling herself she made sure to shake off as much juice as possible, before finally putting the spoon to her lips. Ugh, the badger had taken away any mushroom flavour. With grim determination she managed to chew and swallow without retching, and with Thanger watching her, another went the same way. Hopefully she wouldn't be ill unless she actually ate the fibrecaps. Then a thought came to her – if they were ill and she wasn't, would they catch on to what she had done? She would have to pretend. Knowing that she put the empty spoon to her lips again, managing to give the impression she was eating.
'Right,' said Thanger as he got up to rinse his bowl under the trickle of water. 'There's no sign of Carch, we need to decide what to do. Keep an eye on her,' he ordered the idiot.
Keeping an eye on her meant that the idiot sat down crossed legged on the ground a few yards away, his brainless gaze fixed on her. The other three went into a huddle, whispering quietly together.
She could hear them arguing, but they were speaking too low for her to catch anything much, except that she gathered that Garter didn't want to leave Dairon behind. It was probably already too late – with any luck a Rohirrim warrior had stuck a spear right through the crud. But then why weren't her rescuers here?
Lothíriel's attention was suddenly taken by a spasm of pain crossing the idiot's face. Intrigued and a little excited, she watched as he became increasingly agitated. Suddenly he lurched to his feet. Doubled up and grasping his stomach, he stumbled towards the trees.
'Where's he going?' Aglon looked up surprised, but at that moment Thanger staggered to his feet, clutching his stomach.
'What have you done, you bitch? You've poisoned us.' Sweat was pouring off him and saliva dripped from his mouth.
'I've done nothing,' Lothíriel retaliated, quickly standing up to get out of his way. She rubbed a hand over her own stomach and put a hand to her mouth as though she was going to be sick. 'It's you that's done any poisoning, I feel terrible; that badger must have been off. How long since you killed it?'
'We didn't kill it, we found it dead.' Aglon had now gone grey.
Then they would have probably been ill even without her mushrooms! She stepped back, as retching violently Aglon vomited onto the ground.
Thanger pointed his finger, his face a mask of anger. But before he could do anything more he fell on his knees, groaning. Garter just headed for the trees, following the idiot.
Aglon vomited for a second time, and fell down. He tried to get up but couldn't stand, swayed, and fell again.
Now she had her chance. Holding her stomach as though she were in terrible pain, Lothíriel made her way unsteadily towards the path Carch and Dairon had taken.
'You stay 'ere!' Thanger shouted.
No chance! Picking up her skirts, Lothíriel ran.
To be continued.
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.