Please keep in mind that I wrote this when I was 15-17 and I really haven’t done any major edits or revisions since, except for a couple glaring discrepancies and things that I noticed as I was putting it up. There are a couple parts that are a smidge far-fetched or cheesy in retrospect…
Overall, though, it was better than I expected when I went back and reread it.
The illustrations are originals that I drew while I was writing it except for the awesome cover image, obviously, which I just found somewhere on the Internet and borrowed without permission. Sigh.
Concerning An Unusual Hobbit
Elbereth was an unusual girl. Not deformed, not queer, merely unusual. Unusual, that is, for a hobbit. And to be an unusual hobbit is, in itself, to be worthy of comment.
Her first uniqueness lay in the fact that no one, not even Granny Appledore, who raised her, knew her parentage or ancestry.
This in itself raised many eyebrows, for every hobbit, great or small, fat or thin, young or old, knows his ancestry exceedingly well, sometimes well past his great-great grandparents’ brothers and sisters and second cousins.
Perhaps a more visible oddity was Elbereth’s stature – towering nearly a foot and a half above the head of any other person in a group, she could not help being noticed.
A third point, of lesser importance, was that her hair wasn’t curly. It turned up at the ends, but the other half a yard of it was as straight as a plumb line.
And lastly, her feet, while large, were totally devoid of the thick, curly growth of hair normal to the feet of hobbits.
When Elbereth had been a young girl, she had been a head taller than other children her own age, but no one had thought much about it, as children do grow faster or slower accordingly. But by the time she was six, however, and meanwhile as tall as a normal adult, old Mrs. Appledore began to worry, and to desperately hope that she would stop growing.
That didn’t happen, unfortunately – Elbereth was clearing five feet at the age of ten.
If the local hobbits were surprised at the girl’s height, they did not complain. She was quite strong, and besides that was always willing to help put up a roof that was hard to reach at barn-raising, or to do things like clip shrubs which had grown above easy access.
But to say that no one wondered about her at all is an understatement. Quite a few hobbits wondered quite a good deal about this unusual member of their community, Elbereth herself included.
At the present, though, all this speculation had very little to do with Elbereth’s character. She was, it must be said, a rather typical young lady of fifteen, almost sixteen, years. Like other girls her age, she was somewhat concerned about what young men thought of her, spent a good deal of time fixing her hair, and was moderately concerned about clothes.
She had at least ceased growing, even if she was only four inches shy of the enormous height of six feet. Some counted her as pretty, although she was far from possessing a flawless complection and did not have perfect teeth, even if they were very white. Her figure was also not perfect, but she counted it as not all bad, since a sturdy, broad-shouldered young woman can do many things a slighter one cannot, such as chop firewood, lead stubborn cows and dairy goats along by sheer force, and pin down wriggling sheep for shearing.
She lived with her dear elderly “Granny” Appledore in the latter’s cozy hobbit hole in the East-Farthing, a few miles by road from the Brandywine River. They kept their own goats for milk and for sale, ate eggs from their half-dozen hens, and had a moderately large vegetable garden behind the house. They brought in a little extra money from doing other people’s sewing and mending, for Elbereth was very handy with her needle, and her dressmaking and fitting abilities were well-known locally.
They were close neighbors to the well-to-do Maggot family. Elbereth had grown up romping through the woods with the numerous junior family members, hunting for mushrooms and wildflowers. She could be counted upon to help with harvesting and other group chores; in return she would take a few large hampers of produce back to Granny. The spry old hobbit was getting older, and preferred to knit and putter about her little house and yard rather than go gallivanting about the countryside.
This Elbereth did with increasing frequency. She loved to wander slowly through the woods and fields, daydreaming the bright fantasies only young folk are capable of. Some she scribbled down in bits and pieces in little journals, some she kept in her head. Far away places called to her, and she considered what the world was beyond the peaceful confines of the Shire.
She did wonder what would become of her when she reached adulthood. Her chances of matrimony seemed rather slim at the present. True, young men did not avoid her, but they seemed for the most part reserved in her presence. A few, however, she counted her fast friends. Sam Brandybuck, for instance, would stop by and offer to help with chores, and he often danced with her at the little gatherings so common among hobbits. Sam was about four feet tall, which was somewhat over average (he was a descendent of the famous Merriadoc Brandybuck), and he and his friends helped out when “Beth” was short of partners, not from dislike, but from the simple reason that it is unpleasant to dance with a young lady who makes her partner feel small.
It was at one of these gatherings, when Sam noticed her sitting to one side of the dancers with the older women, that he nudged his cohort, Bungo Bolger, and, pulling him aside, whispered, “Beth’s all alone again, except for the old ladies and the little ones. Do you think you could stagger through next dance with me on your shoulders? I don’t weigh that much, do I?”
The amiable, stocky Bungo grinned. “Right,” he drawled. “Sure, as long as I don’t collapse from laughing. I hope you didn’t have much for dinner tonight.”
Chapter 1: An Evening to Remember
I was sitting with the old ladies again. Not that I didn’t like it, but there wasn’t much to do otherwise, except eat and dance, and I had already eaten as much as was good for me, if not more, and I was not a very sought after dancing companion. The party was still in full swing, but Granny was getting tired. The Maggots were leaving to take care of their cows, which grow most unhappy when their schedule is interrupted, and Granny told me she would get a ride home and take care of our spotted, long-eared goat.
“I’ll take care of Bluebell tonight, honey,” she said. “You can stay a little longer, for once.” So I decided to stay and chat with some of my friends who weren’t dancing and the old ladies.
A little girl had just clambered off my lap when I was surprised to find a towering Sam Brandybuck bowing low and a trifle wobbly before me, asking grandly, “ May I have the honor of this dance, Miss Appledore?”
“Why of course, Mr. Brandybuck,” I replied, and added, with a smile at the cause of his increased height, “and legs.”
Poor Bungo started to shake violently, and Sam nearly fell off. I had to steady both of them before we could begin to dance. It was really quite fun to dance with the two of them in this way, however, I had to rescue Mr. Brandybuck a few times when Bungo tripped or made an unexpected move.
When the party was winding down, Sam, after bidding good night to his exhausted “legs,” offered to take me home. He had a brightly painted little pony wagon and two sprightly ponies, and it was over a mile home, so I accepted.
During the ride, he was strangely quiet. He answered everything I asked him, but still said less than usual. I was surprised, because we usually got on famously, and teased each other endlessly. A couple times he said, “Elbereth, I, ah – never mind.” I wondered what he wanted to ask me that he was so embarrassed about.
Sam pulled up the ponies, Gandalf and Gimli, at the gate, and helped me down. I circled around in front of them, bestowing a pat apiece in passing. Sam opened the gate and said good night. I felt strangely embarrassed as I returned the good night and said ‘thank- you,’ and was relieved for some reason when I had passed him. I paused at the door to wave, and was surprised to see him still at the gate instead of in the driver’s seat already. He waved back. I went inside and closed the door, ducking under the lintel. If I hadn’t, I would have hit my head.
Sam watched by the gate for another moment, then slowly climbed into the wagon, where he paused, and with another long look drove off into the night.
Once I was inside, I went into the sitting room where Granny was knitting in her chair by the fire. She looked up as I came in.
“Did you have a good time, dear?” she asked, looking curiously anxious.
“Yes, a very good time,” I answered, surprised. I described what the boys had done, ending with “Sam brought me home.”
“Sam is a nice boy,” Granny said.
“Yes,” I answered, and blushed slightly.
Unexpectedly, Granny wiped at her eyes. “What’s wrong?” I asked, crossing the room to sit by her. She coughed, took a deep breath, and was silent. I put my arms around her, holding the little wizened figure like a child.
“I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “ I should have done it and put you where you really belong, even if it hurt, because you would be better off, hic, anyway. But you were such sweet little bit, I just couldn’t send you, sniff, away.” She wiped her eyes and drew a shaky breath.
“ Wha-a-a-at?” I asked, completely at loss. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“ Maybe not, hic, really wrong,” she wimpered, “but you, you’re not, not a hobbit. Not at all, sniff. You’re one of the Big Folk. A-a human. I was … afraid … that you were one of them when you kept g-growing.
“I – I just wanted to keep you,” the old hobbit moaned. “The Brandybucks inquired outside if anybody was missing a child. Nobody was, so I kept you.”
“But, how would a human end up in the Shire?” I demanded, flabbergasted.
This was not making sense. How could a human enter the Shire? There was a law that I had heard about somewhere that they were not allowed to pass the Borders without special permission from the mayor, and all sorts of legal permits, and a whole lot of other stuff.
“Sam Brandybuck and his brother Tom found you outside the Wood gate up at Brandy Hall when you were just a little baby, too small to talk. They heard you crying, so they went and got someone to open the gate and investigate. Brandy Hall was full of relations upon relations, as always, so Mrs. Brandybuck offered you to me because I had wanted a baby girl, but never had one – my boys were all grown up and married by that time. My husband, Rory, had died during the winter, and I was pretty lonely. So I took you, and you-you know the story from there.” Granny blew her nose and wiped her eyes.
“There were some things with you that they found, and I’ve been saving them for you. You’re quite old enough to have them now, anyway. They’re put away.”
I let her go, a bit numb, and she stood up and hobbled down the hallway towards the linen closet.
I sat on the floor, staring at the fire, too stunned to think properly. I was a human? True, I had wondered something of the like at times. But to be suddenly dumped from the accustomed mode of a fifteen-year-old-hobbit into the strange role of a misplaced fifteen-year-old-human was incredibly unbalancing. I couldn’t believe I was human! It was like listening to a story about someone else. My brain was still Elbereth Appledore, the hobbit. I looked down at my hands and was startled to realize they belonged to a human. Not to me. I lurched to my feet and stared critically at my face in the little oval mirror that hung over the fireplace. That is what a human looks like, my mind hissed at me.
But why me? I argued. I look like a hobbit. I think like a hobbit. I dress like a hobbit. I’ve never seen a human in my life!
Now you have, the voice nagged.
But I’ve been a human all along, I complained. If I’m still the same person, whether I’m a hobbit or not, so why do I feel so strange? I still could not come to grips with who I was. I felt like a stranger to myself. I felt hollow inside, purposeless. What was I doing here?
Lost in thought, I wandered idly around the tiny sitting room, fingering all the familiar objects I had known since childhood.
It seemed very warm in the room, even though the fire was not very large. I moved away from it, but it was still very warm. The air seemed hotter near my head than by my feet, but…
I gasped as a burning chunk of the ceiling fell to the floor by my feet. Through the hole it left, I could see flames licking at the roof! I grabbed a shovel from the fireplace and scooped the burning piece into the fire.
“Granny!” I yelled, running down the hallway. “Granny, the roof’s on fire!” She came out of her bedroom, frightened. “Hurry, we have to get out!” I took her hand and hurried her out into the yard.
Flames were licking hungrily at the sod roof. The dead grass from last year had caught fire from sparks from the chimney. The fire had not spread far yet, but the green from this year was not going to be enough, and I could see smoke from smoldering places spreading out.
I grabbed a bucket at the well, filled it, and ran up the slope to the roof to pour it on the flames. A stone wall at the rear of the house, where we had a back stairway, was holding them back, it seemed, but they were crawling down towards the garden on some morning glory vines. I jumped down, took the bucket Granny held out to me, and dumped it on the vine. Granny was at the well, filling pails as quickly as she could, but I didn’t know if she could keep up with me.
Back and forth, back and forth I ran, slowly drowning out the flames, driving them back farther and farther towards the chimney. Get a bucket, dump it, run back. Get another one. Granny was getting tired. I was getting tired. It started sprinkling, and I hoped desperately that it would rain.
My bare feet slipped in the wet grass as I scrambled onto the roof again. I had to be careful that I did not fall through a weakened place into the room below. The flames hissed in the rain, defying me.
At last the rain really came, and between the rain and me and Granny and the well, we finally got the fire reduced to reeking ashes. I filled a bucket and hauled it inside to put out any coals. Although the fire had burned several holes in the roof, the bits that had fallen through were already doused by the rain or smoldering on the floor. I put them out.
It turned out there wasn’t much actual damage to things other than the floor. The edge of the quilt on my bed was burning when I came into the room, but the bed itself had not caught fire, nor the mattress. I literally pulled the bed apart to make sure that fire was thoroughly put out. The quilt’s border was ruined, but I could put another one on and repair the damage. The rain was beginning to pour through the holes in the roof, so I put pots under the leaks and hoped for the best.
When I went outside again the rain was quite a downpour, and thunder was rolling overhead. Granny beckoned from the door of the small barn across the yard that housed our goats. As I headed over, we heard the unmistakable clip-clop of ponies and the rattle of a wagon approaching. Who on earth would be coming at this time of night? Had they seen the fire and come to help? I could see them coming from the direction of Brandy Hall. It was Sam’s wagon, and Gandalf and Gimli were definitely pulling it, but I saw no one in the seat.
Something was wrong.
I hopped over our low front fence as the ponies stopped uncertainly at the gate. They shied from me, but once I caught the reins and spoke to them they quieted. I hurried back towards the cart.
“Did you bad boys run away?” I crooned to the ponies. “You naughty…”
I stopped. Something was under the seat. A dark shape. A quiet one.
I cautiously approached and saw a small foot sticking out, a hand. Sam Brandybuck was slumped on the wagon bed.
He wasn’t moving.
“Sam?” I called softly. “Sam, is something wrong?”
He groaned slightly, tried to sit up, and winced sharply. His face was smeared with dirt, and his jacket was torn. I took him under the arms and eased him towards me, supporting him.
“There were two of the Big Folk,” he said with effort. “I asked them what they were doing here. They said ‘None of your business, Mister Nosey.’ Then …”
Sam made a face. “One’s…dead. The other’s hurt bad. They got me pretty good, but at least I had this.”
He laid his hand on the sword he wore. It had been in his family for generations, and he wore it sometimes, just for fun, never thinking he would have to really use it.
I dimly realized that most of the dirt on him was probably blood.
Sam continued, “It happened about a half-mile down the road, by – the little – turn around.” He slumped forward and blacked out.
Granny had come up and heard the last of it. “Take him inside, no, that won’t do, bring him into the barn. Then get my big kettle from the house and fill it with water; we’ll have to start a fire in the shed chimney.”
I gently edged Sam into my arms, a dead weight. He was heavier than I expected, and I had to watch my step so I wouldn’t slip in the mud. The rain was still pouring down. Granny opened the barn door for me, and I laid him on an old blanket she had placed on some the straw. He seemed so small and pathetic lying there, like a little child with his light hair and freckles.
Bluebell ma-a-aed softly to her new batch of triplets and looked over, chewing her cud. Her bright-eyed kids poked their little knobby heads through the bars to watch.
“Get a lantern from the house,” the old hobbit said, as I went for the kettle and water. “We’ll need some light.”
I nodded and fetched what she needed. It was difficult to take a burning brand from the house to the shed without it going out in the rain. I finally got the fire going with some dry logs from under the shed overhand as Granny inspected Sam’s injuries by lantern-light.
The little I saw over her shoulder did not look good.
“Elbereth, I want you to go get Tom Maggot. I don’t have much experience with this kind of thing, and I don’t want to make a mistake. It’s pretty bad.”
I nodded and bolted, scared to death.
I splashed outside and climbed into the wagon, fumbling for the tangled reins. The ponies gave me little trouble as we turned and headed for the Maggots’.
The clip-clop splish-splash of their hooves did little to ease my fears, nor did the steady patter of the rain. Passing objects seemed immaterial, wrapped in a grey mist.
We rolled into a belt of dark woods, where at least the rain was less. In the steamy silence a fragrance hung, not pine but cleaner, purer, healing.
What is it?
I groped in my memory for a name, a glimpse…kingsfoil. That was it. I halted the ponies, jumped out of the wagon, began poking through the underbrush, searching for the thick clumps of the weed. In a few minutes I found it. I yanked off a few ragged handfuls and stuffed them in my skirt pocket.
The Maggots’ sheepdogs set up an enormous racket as I turned into their lane, and soon sleepy family members were gathered around me, rubbing their eyes and wondering what in Middle Earth I was doing with Sam Brandybuck’s wagon in their lane in the middle of the night.
I briefly explained the situation to the farmer and his wife. Farmer Maggot then took charge. He gave orders for different supplies and sent Bill, one his older boys, off to Brandy Hall to fetch Sam’s parents. His wife and older children packed the wagon, and he called his oldest daughter, Pansy, to come with him.
“You’re the one with the knack for healing and such, you come with me. The rest of you, don’t wake up the little ones when you go to bed.” He climbed into the back of the wagon, Pansy sat up with me on the seat, and we drove off into the rainy blackness.
I stopped the ponies at the gate so the farmer and his daughter could jump quickly out. They hurried to the goat-shed.
I drove off the road, unhooked the traces, and led the soaking ponies after them. There was no room in the shed, so I tethered them on the dry side under the overhanging roof and took them hay and water.
When I went into the shed Farmer Maggot, Granny, and Pansy were clustered in a little knot around Sam. They did not look very confident. I hesitated.
“How is it?”
They looked up, startled. The stocky farmer sighed.
“Bad. His side is torn up; I’m worried about that; he’s lost a lot of blood. I haven’t seen anything like this in years. But we got herbs and bandages and stuff, and we’ll do our best…”
His words trailed off. I looked at Granny, then at Pansy. They looked away. Pansy met my eyes and shook her head slightly. She looked beaten, sad.
I turned and staggered outside. Thunder pealed overhead, and the driving rain struck my face, but I scarcely noticed.
Sam Brandybuck, dying?
It was so unreal. I shivered, but I didn’t want to go back in the barn. Water dripped down my nose and splashed in the muddy puddles by my feet. The rain was washing Sam’s blood off my dress, running into my pocket.
I pulled out the kingsfoil and looked at the dark, crumpled leaves. Just a weed. I had seen it a hundred times, smelled it a hundred times. I had worn its flowers in my hair in the spring since I was a little girl.
Then why couldn’t I stop thinking about it?
Something was pushing at the back of my mind, trying to get my attention. There was something about kingsfoil…but what? Something to do with the old tales of Ringbearers and far-off battles and an enemy in the East. Why couldn’t I remember it? Why was it important? Frustrated, I twisted the leaves in my hands. The strong smell of them drifted around me, enticing, prodding…suddenly I knew the answer.
I took a deep breath, resolved. Fighting a sick feeling in my stomach, I went inside. Granny, the farmer, and Pansy were grouped around Sam, cleaning his wounds. Bluebell was eating hay, but the triplets were asleep in a corner, their heads tucked in by their little round bellies.
Sam’s wounds looked worse now with the blood washed off of them. I wished they were covered. I always felt queasy when I was around people with holes in them.
The trio peered up at me. Sam was still unconscious. His face was so pale that the few light freckles stood out noticeably.
“Is he any better?” I asked.
Farmer Maggot replied grimly, “The bleeding’s slowed down, but he lost a lot of blood. I’m glad I sent Bill to the Brandybucks’. They would probably think he’s just spending the night with the Bolgers or some of his friends otherwise. Did you see if they’re coming yet, Beth, when you were out there? It seems kind of early to be expecting them, but they should be at least be getting close.”
“No, I didn’t see them.”
Pansy said quietly, “I’ll go a little and see. I-I need to get out.”
Her father nodded understandingly. He said, ”Don’t go very far. After what happened to Sam…be careful.”
“All right,” she replied.
I noticed that she had been crying. I walked out with her. Outside the shed, I slipped my arm around her shoulders. She was trembling.
She said in a little, choked voice, “Sam was always so nice, it’s – it’s so sad to see him like this.”
“ I know,” I said quietly. She looked up at me, sadly. Then she walked quickly away. Overhead, the spent rainclouds swirled and billowed, revealing a waning moon.
Chapter 2: The Experiment
I slipped back inside and timidly approached Granny. I showed her the kingsfoil in my hand.
“A long time ago, I read that it could heal those…on the point of death,” I said softly. “In the old tales they used it to heal those with wounds that poisoned their bodies and their minds.”
Granny looked doubtful. “Old tales aren’t always true now,” she said. “Names change. Things change. This might not be the right plant.”
“Granny, we have to try!” I exclaimed. “If it works we’ll know it. If it doesn’t…” I shrugged my shoulders helplessly.
Farmer Maggot looked up. “Anything’s worth a try, Rosemary,” he said to Granny, gently.
“Get some warm water,” he directed me. “We’ll most likely have to make some sort of tea out of it, then bathe it.” He gestured at Sam’s limp form.
I took the dish they had used for clean water and dumped it outside. I got warm water from the kettle. Slowly I crushed the slender leaves, creasing them to let the sap out. I pushed them into the steaming water.
The heady fragrance seemed to come out in a rush, filling the shed. The farmer and I looked at each other, surprised.
“I didn’t know it was that powerful,” Granny commented.
I soaked a cloth in the steeping liquid and, fighting my nausea, gingerly bathed the wound. The skin quivered as the water seeped against the raw places.
I swallowed and soaked my cloth again.
At last I put aside my bloody rag and sat back. The three of us silently shared a moment’s glance. Hope was a thing of the past. We had done all we could. Sam’s life, what was left of it, was out of our hands.
I awkwardly stood up and stretched my cramped legs. My head felt dull and tired, and every muscle in my legs and arms was aching. My clothes were sodden and heavy from the rain, my hair hung in a heavy, unkempt tangle down my back. There was nothing more for me to do here. I had done what I could. Granny was warming cider in the tea kettle, but I didn’t want any. This whole thing had to be a bad dream, a nightmare, an idle fantasy. None of it was real.
I leaned wearily on the rough bars of Bluebell’s stall, looking dully at the sleeping kids. A voice weakly filtered into my consciousness.
For a moment I could not move. I felt my eyes blurring, my throat choking, as the pitiful voice asked wonderingly, “Beth?”
Slowly I turned around.
“Uh-huh,” I remarked. It was not an intelligent thing to say, but I said it.
Farmer Maggot knelt beside him. “Sam! How’re you doing, lad! You had us worried, young man.”
Sam smiled weakly, then winced. “Ouch. Kind of sore.”
Granny regarded him sternly. “If you weren’t sore, I would think there was something wrong with you.”
I plopped down beside Sam, laughing hysterically. “Oh my. But there is something wrong with him.”
“Beth, that idea of yours was a wonder. I never would have thought of it. If I’d have known that it could bring a fellow from the brink of the grave, I’d have been using it for everything,” the farmer said ruefully.
Granny snorted. “Well! Now we have solid proof that it can pay to follow hunches, so don’t let anyone try to convince you that it doesn’t work out.” She smiled proudly. Farmer Maggot chuckled.
“I sent Pansy to see if your parents are coming,” he said to Sam. “They should be here before long. Meanwhile, if you’re feeling all right, could you tell me what happened? Elbereth told us that you’d been attacked by two men on the road. Do you remember how it happened?”
Sam thought a minute, then began. “I dropped Elbereth off here, then I kept going on my way home. I had passed your place, and I was entering that turn around place in the road when these two big men, Big Folk, came out of the bushes and such off to the side and stepped out in front of me. I stopped the ponies, and I said, ‘Hello,’ kind of cautiously. ‘Are you lost?’
“The bigger of the two got snippy. ‘Why should you care? Huh?’
“Then I got a little bit angry. I probably shouldn’t have, but I said, ‘Look here, now. Whether you know it or not, there’s a law that your kind aren’t allowed in these parts, and if you shouldn’t be here, then I have a right to make sure you get out.’
“They seemed to think that was funny. The littler one said, ‘Well now, ain’t that nice. We happen to be able to go wherever we please. Right, Strank?’ The other one kind of chuckled.
‘Yep, that’s right, so don’t you be givin’ us any sauce now, little Mr. Nosy. And you can just fergit you saw us, too; eh, Hossla?’
“I had had my hand on my sword hilt for a while, and now I loosened it a bit more. ‘I’m warning you, I don’t go in for that kind of talk. If you have any brains in your thick heads, maybe you’ll get the idea that you’re not supposed to be here when you get locked up good and proper for a while, since my word doesn’t seem to be enough for you. Get out. Tonight. Otherwise, you’ll be in trouble.’
‘Get him, Strank,’ the one by the ponies said. The bigger one jumed at me. I grabbed my sword and tried to fend him off. He got me in the arm, but I got him in the stomach. He fell back, making this horrible gurgling noise. I didn’t have time to really feel sick about it, though, because the other one came around from the other side. As soon as he left the ponies, they started milling around, but he climbed into the wagon, and we were thrashing around. I got him a few times, but then he got me in the side, and I almost fell off the seat, but I stabbed him pretty good in the shoulder, and he fell off the wagon when it lurched over a rut. He jumped at the ponies, and they started running. I sort of ended up under the seat – I could barely stay upright, and the ride was pretty bumpy. I got to the gate, and you came out, Beth, but how did I get in here?”
“I carried you,” I said. “You fainted. We’re in the barn. We had a chimney fire after you left.”
Farmer Maggot looked at me, alarmed. “So that’s why you have him in here. What happened?”
“It must have been sparks from the chimney,” said Granny.
“It’s not that bad,” I said, “but the house will need some work to get it back to what it was.”
“I’ll send some of the older ones over to help you clean it up tomorrow,” he promised.
Wheels and hooves sounded outside, and Mr. and Mrs. Brandybuck ran in, followed by Pansy. When they saw Sam looking quite alive instead of mostly dead, they stopped in their tracks and stared. They had thought he was on the point of death. We’d thought so too, but their faces were so funny that we all burst out laughing.
Watching them hug each other and pat Sam on the shoulder, I was content to sit back in a corner, out of the action, but that was impossible.
Sam’s parents were laughing and crying hysterically, and Pansy was hugging and Granny and her dad and Mrs. Brandybuck, and Farmer Maggot was wearing a smile that rivalled the sun. Sam’s parents squeezed his hands, since they couldn’t hug him, really, and wanted to know how he had improved so miraculously.
The farmer and Granny of course told my role in that. It made me feel kind of silly when they thanked me and exclaimed over the kingsfoil idea. I felt rather embarrassed by all the attention.
Mr. and Mrs. Brandybuck wanted to take Sam home, but they asked the farmer’s and Granny’s opinions. They thought it was possible, if great care were taken.
“If you like,” said Mr. Maggot, “I could send Pansy home with you; she’s good at treating wounds and such. You want to?” he asked his daughter. “I’ll have the others do your chores tomorrow.”
“All right, if you want me to, Mr. and Mrs. Brandybuck.” They consented and thanked all of us.
After the men had filled the Brandybuck’s wagon with straw and hitched up Sam’s ponies again, I carried Sam out.
“Hard to believe this all happened, isn’t it,” he mused, as I picked my way across the soggy yard.
“I’ll say,” I said quietly. “You take care, now, you hear?” I teased, carefully lying him in the wagon bed. The others climbed in, and they started off. Pansy drove the Brandybucks’ wagon, with Sam’s mother in the back with her son, and Mr. Brandybuck and Farmer Maggot drove in Sam’s wagon, talking in low voices.
Farmer Maggot would get off at his lane so he could catch a few hours of sleep before morning came.
Granny and I went back to the house and settled down in the guest room, which was undamaged, me on the floor and Granny in the bed, and fell into the slumber of exhaustion.
The gray mare, hidden in the dripping trees on the west bank of the Brandywine River, watched the wagon roll onto the ferry and slowly move across. It went up a hill toward a large hobbit hole, set far back from the water, which still had some lights burning in the windows.
Curious, she snorted softly when the man in the ditch beside the quay hauled himself onto the road. He slowly brought the ferry over, boarded it, and cut the ropes. The horse watched him drift slowly off southward in the current, out of sight.
She shook her mane and trotted off in a westerly direction, following the road which sloped up through the trees, away from Buckland. She paused to sniff at the body of a second man, lying in the mud at the side of the road, but he was dead. The mare continued on her way, vanishing into the night.
Chapter 3: New Things
Granny and I woke up rather late next morning, tired and definitely stiff.
We were just finishing breakfast when the doorbell rang to announce the arrival of several of the older members of the Maggot family, armed with tools and building materials, and soon we all went to work.
The boys worked on the house, repairing plaster, woodwork, and floors, and the girls helped with the mending of household articles that had been damaged, such as my quilt, curtains, rugs, and other things. We sat down for supper that night satisfied that we had done a good day’s work and that the old hobbit hole was back in its former condition. The crew of workers left then for home, laden with thanks and good wishes and a batch of Granny’s wonderful cookies.
When they had left, Granny exclaimed, “Why, I forgot about the things I’d been saving for you. I left them in the barn last night.”
“I’ll go get them,” I said, rising. “I remember seeing the bag in there.”
I went out to the barn and went inside, pausing to let my eyes adjust to the dimness. Then I went toward the fireplace where I knew the bag was, moving cautiously in the dark. The littlest triplet, a dark brown little girl with sweet floppy ears, poked her head out of the stall and tentatively nibbled my skirt hem.
“No-no, small fat baby,” I warned, extricating my dress. I scratched around her tiny horns and stroked her velvety, tiny nose, then felt around by the small heap of firewood left from the night before. My fingers contacted rough fabric, and I scooped the object up carefully. The bag seemed to contain metal pieces of some sort.
Idly, I thought of the stories of “Mad Baggins”, a character who was somewhat of a fireside legend, who used to disappear with a flash and a bang and reappear with bags of gold and jewels. I shook my head at myself. Don’t be a fool, I scolded. I took the bag into the house and set it on the kitchen table. Granny sat down to watch.
“Go ahead, open it,” she said. “I already know what’s inside.”
I loosened the drawstring and carefully reached inside. My fingers found a chain. I pulled it out and gave a cry of delight.
“Oh,” I breathed. From the chain hung a sparkling pendant of the most exquisite work I had ever seen. A crystal flower was bound by silver vines to two silver leaves whose stems intertwined. It shimmered softly in the light.
“Put it on,” Granny suggested. I did so and looked in he mirror. The elegance of the pendant looked dreadfully out of place against my work dress. It flashed in the light, as if it had a life of its own.
I felt inside the bag again and was amazed to find a sheath knife! I drew it slowly, the blade ringing slightly against the mouth of the scabbard. The blade curved subtly, followed by a line of flowing script embossed on both sides. The letters were Elvish, but I neither spoke nor read that language, so I could not interpret them.
“This looks…dangerous,” I remarked.
“It is,” said Granny. “I used it once to slice a roast, and it cut through it like paper.” I sheathed the knife, set it carefully on the table, and reached into the bag again. I touched a small cloth packet and drew it out. I lost hold of one of the sides and it unfolded into what looked like a blanket at first but turned out to be a cloak. It was made of a curious material which looked gray at first, but seemed to change to blend with its surroundings. I held it up, trying to examine the weave.
“This thing is – interesting!” I exclaimed, making a face.
“It was wrapped around you when they found you, honey,” Granny explained. “The only way we could look for you was by sound. You eventually pushed it away from your face a bit, and then we could see you.”
I hung it around my shoulders. As I looked for a fastening, I found a delicate brooch shaped like a leaf from the mallorn in Hobbiton, only smaller. The cloak was human-sized, nearly touching the floor behind me. I guessed that it had been made for someone taller…I winced. Probably my father or my mother.
I turned the bag upside down over the table to empty it. A spattering of coins fell out. I scooped them into a pile and shook the bag again to make sure there was nothing else in it. A ring fell with a sparkling clink onto the coins and rolled almost off the table before I caught it.
I held it up. The design was odd, for lack of a better word. A pointed, oval shaped green gem was the central piece, and two serpents crowned with gold formed the band with their twisted tails. I slipped it on. It went on rather easily, but it didn’t fall off. It seemed very conspicuous on my hand, but I liked it.
“That’s all there was,” said Granny. “Strange things, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” I said absently.
“You’ll get used to them,” she said. “You’re old enough to wear them now, and – well, growing up isn’t that awful, you know.” She winked at me. Then she looked at the clock. “My goodness, it’s getting late! We’d better get to bed. Good night, Elbereth.”
I kissed her good night and went to my room. But I didn’t go to bed right away. I sat on my bed for a while, looking at my new belongings, wondering about my parents. They must have been somewhat wealthy, or they wouldn’t have had these things. Had they been left with me to pay for my keep, or had they been left so I could trace my family? Had they not wanted me? Why had I been left, of all places, on the Shire border of the Old Forest instead of with some human family? Eventually I went to bed, unable to really find answers. I wanted to go to Buckland next day, to see how Sam was coming along and to tell him about my new things, and I would probably end up walking.
I was rather looking forward to it, actually.
The ferry drifted quickly down the river. Hossla lay on it, exhausted by loss of blood and his injuries. The little ponies had hit him with their hooves when he had tried to stop them, adding to his wounds from the hobbit’s sword. The stupid hobbit was probably dead now though, he thought grimly. Served him right! Thinking he could stop Haradrim trackers! If they hadn’t met that little nuisance, they would have met with no resistance, and they might have been done with the job by now. It was incredible, how a queen and a little baby could disappear so completely! Especially such a well known and well loved queen as Vardanelle, Queen of Gondor and Arnor. She had managed to stay hidden for fifteen years, without even a trace!
It was most frustrating for the men hired to track her down and get rid of her. As a cautionary measure, Hossla and Strank had been sent by their employer, Turin V, steward of Gondor, to look in the Shire. Although it seemed impossible, there was just a slight chance that the pair were in there, protected from discovery by the laws barring entrance by humans. The hired assassins had doubted the capability of any of the little folk to resist them, but that stupid Strank had had the bright idea to intercept one wearing a sword and question him. He had paid for his stupidity, but Hossla could not continue in this condition alone. He needed help, and he needed to find another of the steward’s henchmen to continue the job.
He never did, though, because he lost consciousness again, and while he slept, the ferry drifted down the Brandywine to the Great Sea and was lost, never to be seen again.
The day dawned overcast and breezy, but after breakfast I walked to Brandy Hall to see how the patient was coming along. I wore a lightweight red cloak to ward off the slight chill rather than my new one due to the mud. It was late spring, but the last few days had been somewhat cool. It felt good to be out in the fresh breeze. I entered the small belt of woods where I had found the kingsfoil and stopped.
There, not thirty feet away, stood a gray horse.
Not a small, plump, hobbit pony, born to pull and plow and work, but a slim, graceful mare whose white tail nearly swept the ground. She lifted her head and looked straight at me, showing no sign of fear. For a long moment we stood there, appraising each other.
“Hello,” I said softly. “Where did you come from?”
She took a few steps forward and stopped with a toss of her head. “It’s all right, you can come over,” I said encouragingly.
She lowered her head and came up to me. I carefully, slowly reached up and stroked her soft gray nose. She dropped her white head and gently shoved me. I laughed and rubbed her behind the ears. She was definitely friendly! She fearlessly curved her head around my shoulder, giving me a “hug,” as Farmer Maggot called it. I slid my hand along her back and over her quarters, then she bumped me against her side!
I looked at her, surprised, then she swung her head with a little toss toward her shoulder, almost as if she wanted me to ride her! I must not have gotten the idea soon enough, because she went down on one foreleg and lowered her back, almost as if she were going to lie down on the road.
I was completely shocked at first, but then I awkwardly clambered onto her back and got a handful of mane as she shifted back onto all four feet. I held on nervously. My legs felt like they were dangling loosely, and the ground seemed a long way down. I had never ridden a horse that big before. I was used to being crunched up nicely on a little fat drowsy pony who wanted to doze in the sun at every opportunity, and who looked as if I might be unpleasantly heavy for him.
I wondered if my unusual friend knew any commands and if I could give them without a saddle or bridle. Her ears were pricked delicately for instructions, and she looked back at me questioningly when I still gave her no orders. So I shrugged, squeezed gently with my legs, and off we went.
I turned her the way I was going without much difficulty, then decided to see if I could get her to stop. I leaned forward slightly and pressed my hand on her shoulder; I was trying to stop her by pushing in the opposite direction. I also called “Whoa”.
The mare got the message and stopped, looking at me curiously again. I laughed. “Very well, that’ll do, let’s try a little faster now.” I squeezed once to get her walking and then immediately squeezed again for a trot. I wanted to see what that was like, however briefly, without a saddle. It was not in the least what I expected.
The gray mare broke into a trot that was like a slow-motion dream, neck poised, tail arched. She seemed to spring into the air at every step, floating gracefully over the ground in an airy, easy stride. I had often imagined something like this, but I had never experienced it.
I asked for a canter, and she swung into a rocking gait that made the wind rush by even faster. I could feel the wind slipping through my hair, while the mare’s silver mane crested like a wave along her neck. I discovered that I didn’t need to hold too tightly with my knees if I balanced properly, keeping my weight forward. As the lane leading to the Maggot’s farm sped closer, I slowed the horse to a walk. The dogs started barking, and I peered towards the house. Bill, the oldest, saw me and stared unrecognizingly for a moment when I waved. Then recognition dawned.
“Hi, Beth!” he shouted. “Hey, wait a minute!” I turned the mare into the lane and met him halfway. “Wow, where’d you get that horse?”
“I just met her on the road. Don’t know where she’s from or anything.”
“Well, she’s definitely not from around here. Must have strayed in from outside the borders. I never saw her before.”
“Where are you going? Brandy Hall?”
“Yep. Going to see how Sam’s doing.”
“Sure thing. Golly, I didn’t recognize you at first on that horse. Say hi to Pansy for me. See you later. Got to get back to work!”
“Right.” Bill went back towards the house, and I turned the mare back onto the road.
The grey trotted smoothly along the well-worn cart track. The newly-green trees arched over my head, little sparrows sang and flew away from us, and the whole world seemed fresh and new and clean.
Suddenly the mare sidestepped away from the left side of the way, snorting and tossing her head.
“Whoa, easy,” I said. I wanted to see what was the matter. What I saw made me change my mind, but I found I could not look away.
A man, unshaven and ragged, lay still and crumpled in the new grass, clutching a long knife in his stiff hand. His face was frozen in a hideous leer, revealing crooked yellow teeth. A thin line of brown wandered from the sagging corner of his mouth onto the dirt.
I wrenched myself away from the morbid fascination of that dead face and hurried the mare forward, steeling myself not to look back. The world was beginning to be a strange place, vast and terrifying. Forgotten dangers seemed to be takeing shape in unusual corners. If the Shire was no longer protected from such things, what place was safe? The sun’s rays were growing chill.
The grey and I reached the Buckleberry Ferry, but the raft was nowhere in sight. There was nothing but the cut ends of the ropes that had bound it to both banks. Who had taken the ferry?
I peered up at Brandy Hall’s windows, across the river. No one was in sight. I could not swim very well, few hobbits could. The Brandywine was relatively deep and had a tricky current. Hobbits had drowned in it before.
I sat there on the strange horse’s back, thinking. She slow-footed her way forward and sniffed the end of the pier and the banks beside it. “Easy, there…what’re you doing?” I asked, trying to keep her from going into the river. Her ears swivelled toward me as she splashed one forefoot in the water, snorting.
“Can you swim it? What do you want?” I laughed. This horse was interesting. She tossed her head, seeming to say yes.
“Fine then, go aheeeeaaaaaad!”
The last word turned into a shriek as the mare took a flying leap out into the cold river.
Freezing water closed over my head for a minute, then under me the mare floated up, pushing my head out of the water. Quite unconcerned, the horse struck out for the opposite bank, with me clinging giddily to her back. She clambered out onto the bank with surprising agility, then shook herself like a dog, spraying water from her mane into my face.
I couldn’t do anything but try not to fall off. I laughed and tried to tuck my hair behind my ears. Still soaking wet, we started up the slope to Brandy Hall.
As we approached, the air was filled with the sound of hammers. Seeing no one outside, I went around back, leading the mare by a handful of mane.
A group of Brandybucks were working on a new ferry. Work stopped as I came up, and they clustered around, pouring forth a torrent of questions about the horse and the reason for my sopping wet clothes. They of course had to all express amazement at the way we had crossed the river and the mare’s size (the tallest of them came barely to her elbow), and hear several times the story of how I came across such an evidently “Big Folk” horse in the Shire. When they heard that they had then to all state a theory of where she came from and avow that none of those present had ever seen her before, even the few who had been to Bree and the surrounding area. No one in Buckland had such a horse or wanted one, so she was obviously from outside the borders. (I was rather relieved when nobody could say for certain who owned my companion. I hoped she was nobody’s. I dreaded finding out who her owner was already.)
When I got a word in edgewise and asked how Sam was doing, I was told that he was doing fine, which was a relief.
I entered the large, spacious hobbit hole. One of Sam’s sisters gave me a towel. I was still dripping. After drying off, I was directed to his room.
Pansy and Mrs. Brandybuck were with him, talking. They seemed glad to see me, but Mrs. Brandybuck seemed preoccupied with something. She left the room soon, however, and I talked for while with Sam and Pansy. Sam inquired about the damage to Granny’s hole, so I gave an account of the repair day we had had. I asked them when they had decided to make a new ferry.
“What was wrong with the old one?”
Pansy explained. “Nothing. It was gone in the morning after we came back. Somebody cut the ropes that held it to the quays.”
“I think it was the other one of the two who attacked me,” contributed Sam. “He was badly hurt, so he probably wanted a means of getting away from here without exerting himself too much. Makes sense, if you think about it. He couldn’t expect help from us, and we would turn him over to the authorities in Annuminas or elsewhere anyway. So he decided to get out of the nearby vicinity AFAP – as fast as possible.”
He grinned. Pansy flushed. I looked from one to the other for a minute, feeling like I needed to say something more.
“Are the authorities investigating the attack?” I queried.
“Yes. Dad sent messengers yesterday – one to Hobbiton and one to the area just outside the borders. Local rogues will be checked on there, and if they’re missing, or have been for a while, it will be investigated. I don’t see why anyone would come here anyway, unless they were just passing through. If they were, though, you’d think they would stay out of sight and not try to attract attention, if possible.”
Sam shrugged. “I don’t know why they would come here otherwise, unless to plunder vegetables or something. Beats me.”
After a while I left. I had observed that whenever Pansy noticed that I was watching her when she talked to Sam, she blushed. An amusing idea, that Pansy definitely liked Sam, and that he liked her, caused my early departure. I had started blushing whenever Pansy or Sam looked at me!
Chapter 4: Muffins
When I returned home, Granny had a visitor. Her guest was Mrs. Angelica Proudfoot, an old, creaky lady whose greatest delight was spreading bad news, true or probable, about anything. Therefore I reasonably presumed that this visit had to do with the recent invasion of the neighborhood by “Big Folk,” and stayed discreetly out of sight.
But I could not resist eavesdropping.
Mrs. Angelica’s dirges were very amusing from a picture’s point of view, but being actually present had always been very difficult for me. I frequently had trouble controlling my expression during her sermons, and, for Granny’s sake, I preferred that Mrs. Proudfoot did not see me laughing at her.
From outside the sitting room window, I listened and chuckled disrespectfully to my heart’s content, watching the grey mare investigating the quality of the grass in the lawn. I decided to name her Voronwë, partly because she looked like my idea of an Elf-horse, and partly because that was the name of one of my favorite characters in the old tales.
All the while, the entire conversation inside came floating clearly out to me. A few sentences set me into the thread of the conversation, and then everything else made sense.
Mrs. Proudfoot was doing the lurid subject of the attack full justice. I was relishing her dire predictions and baleful warnings when I was startled to hear her say, in her customary mournful tones, “Well, it’s a pity now, that Elbereth will have to leave these parts. She’s a great help, I don’t deny, but did you ever hear the like of this before? I wouldn’t be surprised if those rogues heard about her being here and came to escort her out. I wish that meddling young Brandybuck hadn’t been so saucy to them, we might have at least have found out their intentions. They could be, er, that is, could have been, officials. Still, though, he’s a Brandybuck. That family has always had a love of renown and glory that’s more than their share. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if when the investigators come they send the poor girl out. They’ll say, all high and mighty like, ‘What now, how’s this. Were you ignorant of the great law that your kind are not allowed here?’ And then they’ll hustle her out, and leave you all alone like this.”
When Granny replied, she sounded rather frostily pleasant. “Well, we don’t know anything for sure yet. They may not object very much, and the Mayor could very well stand up for her. She’s always been a good girl and never made trouble with us, I don’t see why she can’t stay here a few more years until she’s fully grown up and wants to perhaps marry one of her – her own kind,” she took a deep breath, “and perhaps – live elsewhere,” she finished rather haltingly.
What Mrs. Angelica had just said was true, and I hadn’t even had the sense to be dreading it. Granny, of course, would not let anyone order me to leave home without a fight, but what could she really do to prevent an order from a prominent leader of the Big Folk? I did not belong here anyway, so what would be the use of making a fuss and ruckus? I would just have to leave. But where would I go? What would I do?
Voronwë came over and rubbed her velvet-soft nose against my neck. Don’t worry, she seemed to say, you’ve got me to look after you. I slid my hand along her smooth cheek, clinging to the comforting animal closeness.
Mrs. Proudfoot was plunging on, undeterred by Granny’s lack of interest in the subject.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you even get a notice from the Mayor, requesting that she leave to preserve the peace. The chap who’s in office now doesn’t have much backbone. He wouldn’t stand up to Elbereth herself, if she shouted in his face. If an order comes from outside the borders, he’ll give in. Now, if my nephew had been elected…”
Here she broke off into a long expounditure of the virtues her nephew would have exhibited if he were mayor. Finally she returned to her former subject.
“Well, to get back to it, he wouldn’t throw her out. That’s plain as the nose on my face. What’s – What on earth! Help! Save me! Aaaaahhhhhrrrrgh! Oh! Oof! My goodness! Oof! Get it off of me! Aaaahhhhh!”
Voronwë, tempted by the smell of the goodies on Mrs. Angelica’s plate, had reached her long neck in through the window towards Granny’s guest, thrust her head over her shoulder, and made off with several of Granny’s famous pumpkin muffins. Mrs. Proudfoot had been knocked unceremoniously aside and was crumpled in an undignified position on the floor, her chair on top of her.
It must be said that the sight of a gigantic horse, combined with it’s attack on her plate, had alarmed the gossiping old lady extremely. Granny sat across the table, a degree shaken by Voronwë’s entry, but laughing helplessly at the position of her guest, whom she endeavored to assist.
I tried vainly to persuade the mare to come out of the window. I could not stop laughing, despite Mrs. Angelica’s venomous looks, but Granny’s efforts to control herself were in vain as well.
Our unpleasant visitor left without further ceremony, accompanied by our unheeded attempts at pacification. When she had gone, we staggered around in the yard in a most undignified manner, and finally collapsed on the grass, holding our aching sides.
“Oh my,” laughed Granny, wiping tears of merriment from her eyes, “Poor Angelica. I’ve never seen her so speechless in my life! We should be ashamed of ourselves, Elbereth, laughing at a poor lady like that. Where did that giant come from?”
Voronwë had finally left the window and was regarding us sideways from under her forelock.
“Oh, her? I met her on my way to the Brandybucks’ this morning. Nobody seems to know who she belongs to. She saved our lives today, hm?” I grinned reminiscently.
Granny said scoldingly, “Elbereth!” but she was chuckling. “Well I suppose we can keep the great muffin-muncher for the time being.”
“Provided, of course, we train her to eat nicely at tea parties,” I added naughtily. Granny and I went into more paroxysms; Voronwe shook her head disdainfully at the idea.
At last we went in to clean up. Granny, as we worked, seemed to be thinking a lot about something. Whenever I said something she seemed like she was either startled or wasn’t paying much attention.
“What’s up?” I finally asked her.
“It’s just what Angelica was talking about. Did you here that part?”
“Yes,” I sighed. “Something about my leaving.”
“Yes, that’s it. When you think about it a bit, it’s credible. There’s no king around now, the steward’s in charge from what I’ve heard, and he might not stop and think of more than the letter of the law and its carrying out. I would do my best to stop them, of course, but I’m only an old hobbit-granny, what could I do?”
I got an idea. Not a practical one, just a stupid one. “Well, you could persuade them with your cooking. Even a king might be influenced by that.”
She smiled wryly.
“Nice try, but I don’t think it would work. No, Elbereth, I’m beginning to feel Angelica was right. You’re probably going to have to leave pretty soon, somehow.” The old hobbit heaved a sigh.
Chapter 5: Plans
The thought of leaving began to nag at me. Every minute I was expecting a messenger to come and order me out of the Shire. I was nervous and jumpy for the rest of the day.
Granny huffed, “Well, maybe Angelica will be happy now, one of her worst ‘bad news’ is about to come true. Hmphf! I wish she would mind her own business for a change.”
It gave me slight satisfaction to see Granny get so mad about it. “She’s just making a guess. Most of the time we get a lot of fun out of her visits, after she’s gone home, of course. Just because she has a gloomy opinion doesn’t mean that we have to have it too,” I said with more conviction than I felt. But neither of us could shake off our gloom.
Next morning I got an idea. “Granny, what if I did leave for a while, just to see if I could find any traces of my parents or relatives? You could say that we had found some distant relatives of mine who lived not that far away, and that I had gone to visit them. Everyone is related, you know, however distantly, and if I did find some it would be really true. Mrs. Angelica could hardly say much about that, except that I was such an awful girl, running off and leaving you like that, but we could get Pansy Maggot or one of her sisters to stay with you, probably, so you wouldn’t be lonely.”
The old hobbit looked at me in surprise.
“It is an idea, but you’re pretty young to be running around by yourself. I could come with you, perhaps, but I’m getting pretty old for that sort of thing. Maybe we could find someone to go with you. My husband and I had a few acquaintances in Bree who might take you for a week or two, but I’m not sure if they could find you a place to stay for – well, permanently, I guess.”
“What if I went by myself and rode Voronwë? She’s fast, and she would be some protection. ‘Discretion is the better part of valor,’ you know.”
“I would feel better about letting you go if those ruffians hadn’t hurt Sam Brandybuck like that. The roads are dangerous if there men like that roaming about. But if you did go, you could come back when this has blown over. Hmm.”
She chewed on her lip thoughtfully. Then she brightened. “It might work. That dagger you have, you know, the one you got last night, no night before last. That and the horse should be enough if you stay in civilized areas, and don’t go gallivanting off to the Withered Heath or somewheres outlandish. You need to look for your parents and relatives quite definitely, and now is the time to do it. I’ll not have Angelica Proudfoot gloating over me. I’m going to miss you, though, even if I get one of Tom Maggot’s girls to stay with me. And if you find any relatives, you better write to me.”
The old hobbit’s shoulders slumped. “You’d better go before the end of the week, to be safe. We’ll have to start packing. We’re going to do this right and get you where you belong, where you should have been fifteen years ago. As for you, miss,” she said firmly, shaking a finger at Voronwë, who was watching the proceedings through the window, “you take good care of Elbereth, or else! You hear?”
The gray mare snorted and brought her head down forcibly, as if making an affirmative nod. Granny wiped her nose. “Well, come along, Elbereth. Let’s go see what you should bring with you.”
Over the next few days, we packed most of my clothes into some old saddlebags that had belonged to Granny’s husband, Rory. The old hobbit produced a small pillow and several blankets.
“They’ll be more comfortable than sleeping on the ground,” she said.
I adjusted an old saddle and bridle that I found in the shed so they could fit Voronwë. Let out to its limit, the bridle could squeeze onto the mare’s head comfortably, and the girth on the saddle fit too. The stirrups were a different matter. Even on the longest hole they were still too short for me, so Granny found some old belts, and I fashioned them into leathers long enough for me to use by buckling two of them together to use as one strap. It looked a little funny, but the arrangement worked.
Granny packed food for me for several weeks, and with the money from the bag I could buy more and stay at several inns if I wanted or needed to.
We eventually decided that I would leave at night, get out of the Shire when it was dark to avoid a fuss, and try to get into the official realm of Arnor before morning. Granny and I were both nervous about travelling at night, but it seemed the best plan.
I cherished those last few days at home, wandering about the house and the neighboring fields that I might never see again. I chopped wood for Granny and did all the heavy work I could think of, so she would not have to ask the neighbors. She was planning to ask her children to help her out when she needed, but I felt I had to do as much as I could for her. I felt guilty about leaving her, and nervous to be going into an unfamiliar place. I wasn’t exactly scared, but I didn’t know how I should behave once I was out in the world.
Neither of us ate much that last night at dinner. We were too wrapped up in our own thoughts. I was excited to be going out on my own, but I couldn’t feel quite right about leaving Granny by herself. She was growing old, and though she wouldn’t admit it, she wasn’t as strong as she had been.
I was finding that for me to leave the little hobbit hole where I had grown up, perhaps for ever, was not easy. The dear little place had many memories for me, and not all of them were of ducking under every beam I encountered.
“Well, you better get going,” Granny said after we washed the dishes. “It’ll be a bit of a ride until you’re in the clear.” She smiled bravely, but her eyes were filling with tears.
“Now, now, don’t cry! I’ll never be able to go if you keep that up!” I cried in distress, with a bit of dramatization for her benefit, to lighten the mood. She laughed at me.
“Oh, Elbereth,” she sighed. “Oh, my. Come on now, it’ll be midnight before I get to bed at this rate. Saddle up that horse and get a move on before I start sleepwalking.”
I slipped outside into the yard. Voronwë loomed up out of the darkness, a ghostly shape. She sensed something was up. I rubbed her head and went into the shed. Bluebell was lying down, chewing her cud, her little ones little soft heaps in the straw. I crouched in the bedding and stroked the nanny’s soft ears gently.
She was my goat, really. I had adopted her as an hour-old kid, abandoned by her mother, and I had bottle-fed her and loved her. She seriously considered that I was her mother, and I would miss her. Would she miss me? Would she be all right? I fondled her kids’ tiny faces and picked them up, one by one. First the black one with white markings, a sturdy little fellow who was definitely mama’s boy. Then the light tan one, who didn’t quite fit in but was such a sweet little chap. Then the tiny chocolate girl, whose face was the image of her mother’s. Her tiny hooves were still so soft, her heels felt like little toes. I could touch my thumb and first finger around the end of her teensy black nose, and her head was scarcely as long as the palm of my hand.
I set her down between her brothers and cupped Bluebell’s soft chin in my hand. “Good bye, small fat muffin,” I whispered, stroking her cheek with my thumb, “give mama kiss?” She nuzzled my face, pleased to hear her baby name again. I rubbed her furry shoulder and eased out, latching the gate. I gathered my tack and paused at the door. I could just see Bluebell’s white patches in the dark, and her jaw moving as she chewed her cud. “Sleep tight, small fat goats,” I said softly, as I did every night. I closed the door.
I set the saddle on the garden fence and warmed the bit in my hands. Voronwë slow footed over, curious. She had seen all these things before. I slid the bit into her mouth and the bridle over her ears without difficulty. It made me wonder where my horse was from. She had seemed used to both saddle and bridle when I had ridden her with them earlier in the week, and she had obeyed all the commands I had given her. For that I was very thankful.
I cinched the saddle in place, making sure it did not pinch her. The mare watched me with great interest. She followed on her own accord when I went up the garden path to get my bags and waited outside the door. I carried my stuff out and slung it behind the saddle. Granny stood in the round doorway, a halo of golden light around her little figure.
I looked at her, so frail and helpless yet so strong and brave. The lump in my throat got bigger. I knelt down on the paving stones and hugged her. For a long moment we did not say anything. I kissed her goodbye. She looked up at me, her smile very proud.
“Goodbye Granny,” I said. I could not say anything else.
“Goodbye, Elbereth,” she whispered. “Good luck. Be careful now.”
“I will,” I choked. I knelt down and hugged her again, fiercely. I stood up and took Voronwë’s bridle. It would be sacrilege to ride through that tiny yard. I walked down between the flowerbeds, Voronwë’s hooves clopping softly beside me. I opened the little gate and looked back.
Granny still stood in the lamp-glow, watching me leave her alone. She and I looked at each other for a long moment. The old hobbit looked very small and frail as she stood there, holding her shawl tightly around her thin shoulders.
I smiled, a small sad smile and nodded. I could not speak.
Granny tried to smile back.
I swung myself into the saddle and adjusted my skirt. I took a deep breath and nodded to Granny. Then I lifted the reins and urged the gray mare forward onto the road, away from the only life I had ever known. At the edge of sight I looked back and waved. Granny raised her small hand in farewell, and I turned my horse’s nose into the woods.
We had a long way to go before morning.
I had dispensed with many goodbyes because I wanted to slip out unnoticed. I asked Voronwë for speed, and the mare stretched out willingly. The road to the Maggots’ flew by in minutes. I caught a fleeting glimpse of lighted windows as we went past the lane. The dogs did not make a fuss, for which I was glad. The less most of the hobbits knew of my departure, the better. Word would get around fast enough as it was.
A few minutes after passing the farm, we reached the Buckleberry Ferry. The new raft had been completed, and was up against the pier on the other side. I pulled it over, using the long ropes that were now used to power it. As I was about to lead Voronwë onto the scow the moon broke out of the clouds, lighting the river and the landing brightly enough that I got out my map of the Shire and the surround to check on what road to take after the ferry.
My map was limited in detail, being of the area near the Shire and Bree, and including the Tower Hills and the Gulf of Lune, which were the western boundaries of the Shire, and the area around Lake Evendim, where the city of Annuminas was. I knew the general geography of Middle Earth from studying old maps, but that was a pretty shaky guide.
I wanted to go north to the Brandywine Bridge and enter the Big Folk’s land somewhere around there, and then continue on towards the town of Bree, which seemed to be a good place to start inquiries. How I would go about that business, though, I did not know. I would be lucky to get out of the Shire tonight – it was a twenty-mile ride to the bridge.
I turned Voronwë north, following the road which would eventually take us to the bridge. The gray mare thundered along in the dim moonlight, a lighter shadow in a world of shadows. Voronwë seemed to fly along as easily as a deer. I slowed the mare a few times to rest, but she didn’t seem to be breathing very heavily or to be weary. After about an hour we approached the bridge. There was no one about, and I let the mare have a few swallows of water at the river. Then we headed northeast along the fringes of the Old Forest.
The only obstacle now was the North Gate, which stood in sight of the bridge, at the end of a little street. There was a guardhouse there, occupied by men, who guarded the gate against trespassers who might try to enter the Shire. I could hear them as I waited in the shadows on Voronwë. They were laughing and playing some sort of game with dice or cards; I could vaguely see moving shapes through the guardhouse window. If they caught me I would be in trouble, big trouble. I sat quite still, thinking. The gate was locked, so we would have to go over or around it.
Are you crazy? my annoying inner voice squealed. That gate is five foot high if it is an inch!
But Voronwë could jump it, maybe... if I had been riding any pony in the Shire I would have never considered such a thing an option. I looked at the gate, measuring it with my eyes. Five foot was as high as the mare’s back, as high as my shoulder. The gate was solid timber. If we hit it…that would be messy.
Voronwë shook her long mane and snorted softly in impatience. What are we standing here for? she seemed to ask.
I leaned forward. Well, here went the most foolhardy thing I had ever done.
I asked for everything.
Voronwë gave everything. I held to the saddle for dear life. The mare pounded down the narrow street, past the prim hobbit-gardens, past the few lighted windows. Her hooves clattered and sparked on the occasional stone. Her mane whipped my face like a driving rain. The tall gate loomed closer, closer, closer – I heard a cry from the guardhouse – Voronwë surged upwards beneath me, leaving the ground far behind – we were falling down, down, down – Voronwë landed smoothly as I lurched forward over her neck and thundered on into the friendly darkness as a beam of light leapt from the opening guardhouse door.
Shouts and cries followed us, but once I recovered from the landing I was not worried. The men had not seen enough to remember us as we flew by. There were lots of white horses in the world, I was sure.
Later, I was inclined to pity the guards, especially when I began thinking of what they are probably doing still, arguing over whose fault it was that someone had gotten past the gate. Oh well. I wasn’t going to tell them who had eluded them.
The road ran smoothly eastward, plunging through the Old Forest for a few miles. The woods were sighing softly in the gentle wind, seeming to mourn something long ago. The trees were thick and tall, their long gaunt arms draped in dusty robes of curly moss. Some said the Forest was a strange place, full of whispering trees and wicked trees and spirits, but to me it seemed sad and dignified. Voronwë’s hoofbeats were muffled by the soft ground.
The trees began to thin out, showing glimpses of flatland and hills in the distance. I rode past the edge of the Forest and pulled Voronwë up short.
Before us lay the the Barrow-downs, the burial place of ancient kings of the kingdom of Arnor.
The great mounds stood tall and eerie in the moonlight, like sentinels of some spectral, long dead king. The wind swept mournfully around them, as if in a lament for those who would never return – giving the place a forsaken, eerie aspect, which made me shiver. I hurried Voronwë past them. She quickened her pace willingly, as if glad to leave the wind and the moonlight to their watch over the graves of the kings of the North.
Chapter 6: Bree
Voronwë turned into another road, flanked on the downs side by a low stone wall, heavily overgrown, and a hedge on the other. Ahead loomed the dark hill of Bree with its tall houses. Scarcely a light showed in the town – it was now past midnight. We had been going for nearly four hours, and I was sleepy. My legs were starting to ache. Voronwë seemed somewhat fresh still, even though she had been doing the work, not me.
I rode cautiously up to the gate.
The road we were following had joined another that came up from the south, and they ended here at the gate of Bree, the first town of humans I had ever entered. The gate seemed very high – it was far over Voronwë’s head.
I looked back down the road as I turned the mare so I could reach the gate to knock. No one was coming, from either direction. It made me feel jittery, sitting there in the dark, just having empty sky, wind, grass, and the night for company. I knocked, rather pounded, on the gate.
No answer. Hmm. I turned to look for a bell of something to make more noise with.
“What do you want?” a sleepy voice asked, startling me. I looked behind me, expecting to see someone. Then I saw that a little window in the gate was open, and a sleepy looking man with a lantern was looking out at me, at eye level! The man seemed huge and intimidating.
“Oh! I – I would like to stay at an inn, I’m a-a traveler,” I stammered. The gatekeeper looked closely at me. He was quite ugly and had a thick beard.
“Well, you look all right,” he sniffed, “no nasty type like those two who came through here a few nights ago. Proper rogues they were.” He closed the little window with a bang. I was taken aback for a moment, then bolts rattled and hinges creaked as the heavy gate swung reluctantly inward.
“Come in, come in,” the man urged. I saw that he was not necessarily ugly, just old. But he was so tall! His head was nearly at my waist where I sat in the saddle! “Not proper for girls to be out much in the dark. The Prancing Pony is just up the road a bit,” he was saying genially enough.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Oh, no problem. My, my, but you do have a hefty knock. Thought it was an earthquake out there.” He winked solemnly, and I realized that he was not such an ogre after all. “But I don’t mind. Getting too fat and lazy, not enough night work. Before long they’ll be calling me Old Fat Horty the Gatekeeper. Well, the Inn’s down that way, shouldn’t be that hard to find,” Horty said, pointing. “You’ll probably roll old Boris out of bed too, but maybe not. He gets a lot of customers from the west, Annuminas way, going south, even gets a few dwarves, but not that many.” He waved me off as I started down the cobblestoned street.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I had met my first human, and it had not been as terrible as I had expected. But humans were so tall! They seemed menacing just because they could look me in the eye. I had never seen anyone like that before. I began to realize what I must have seemed like to all the hobbits at home.
You’re in Big Folk territory now, I told myself, grimly. Get used to it. It was strange to be around buildings made for people my size, instead of half my size. They loomed over me threateningly.
I found the Prancing Pony without too much difficulty. It was a large, three-story house with a courtyard in front of it. There were still lights and voices coming from the downstairs windows, and here and there a lamp burned in the upper stories. I took a deep breath. The inn did not look extremely intimidating; in fact, it seemed quite respectable.
A cheerful voice at my elbow startled me, “Be you wanting stabling for your horse, miss?” I looked down and saw, of all things, a hobbit standing there.
“The name’s Tom, miss,” he added, still grinning merrily.
“Why, yes, thank you,” I answered, relieved to see a familiar shape among everything that was strange and unsettling. “Do you work here?”
“Yep, Butterbur has a couple of us helpin’ him with his work. It’s sort of traditional, that.”
I dismounted and led Voronwë after the stocky hobbit. I was afraid of seeming like a dunce, or I would have pestered him to death with questions about life in Bree. But I didn’t. Together the hobbit and I took care of Voronwë. I made sure she was comfortable, then left the stables.
“I’ll take good care of her!” Tom called after me. I nodded my thanks and sallied forth to brave the terrors of an inn full of humans.
I pushed open the heavy door of the Prancing Pony and went in, ducking instinctively. Then I caught myself. I glanced surreptitiously up at the lintel, which posed no threat to the top of my head.
No more ducking, it seemed.
A plump, aproned man in perhaps his fifties appeared behind the tall bar on my left. He was shorter than me. I mentally gave a sigh of relief.
“Can I do anything for you, miss?” he asked politely but fawningly.
He looked like the sort to talk forever without saying much to the point, so I said quickly, “Yes, I would like a room for one, at least for tonight.”
The rate was reasonable, and I agreed to it. “This way, ma’am” said the proprietor, all business. He hustled me through the coffee room, up a flight of steep stairs, and down a hallway, talking all the way. He opened the second to last door on the right, stuck his head in, pulled it out, and nodded to me.
I interrupted him for a moment. “You are Mr. ?”
“Butterbur, Boris Butterbur. I hope you’ll be comfortable here.” He lit the candles on the table from the one he carried. “If you need anything, just ring the bell here. Got to get back downstairs. Excuse me.” Mr. Butterbur shuffled off, leaving me feeling rather exhausted by his volubility.
The room was small but comfortably furnished. A fireplace stood in the wall opposite the door, and a window with faded forest-green curtains facing west looked out beside it. The bed was pushed against the right wall. A table with a two chairs stood in the center of the room, where it would receive the light from the window. A brass hand bell stood on it, with two pewter candle-sticks. I plunked my saddlebags down on the table and gingerly sat down on the bed. It was a soft, nice bed, very comfy and cozy feeling, but it did seem extremely long. I stood up and removed my gray cloak, draping it over one of the chairs. I opened one of my saddlebags and laid my nightgown on the plaid wool coverlet.
I was feeling pangs of hunger and thirst, so, locking the room with the seemingly huge key I had been given, I went in search of sustenance.
I slipped quietly down the stairs and looked around from a shadowy corner. There was still a crowd gathered at the tables and around the bar, eating, drinking, and talking. A group of dusty dwarves and a few sun-browned hobbits were joking noisily with some townsfolk over their pipes and ale. I had never seen a dwarf before, only heard about them. These were dressed in dark, earthy russets and greens and browns and had huge bushy, braided beards. They seemed a bluff, cheerful lot, if a little loud and fond of ale. I came to the edge of their group and caught Mr. Butterbur, who was glad to help me.
I took the food to a table in a dim corner. My nearest neighbors were two old graybeards, deep in their mugs of foaming ale, and they paid me no attention whatsoever. I was the only girl in the room other than the servers.
The food was delicious, a crusty meat –pie, mashed potatoes with gravy, a warm golden roll smothered in melting yellow butter… Mr. Butterbur had an excellent cook. I was almost done with it when someone called out a merry greeting to Tom in the courtyard. The brisk talk in the coffee-room lulled.
“Sounds like young Arador,” one of the older men grunted, turning on his stool.
The voice came again, soothingly. A horse whinnied. I heard the clip-clop of hoofs as Tom led the mount away. Then a young man of barely twenty strode into the cheerful coffee-room, his dark clothes dusty and muddy, his hand resting casually on the long sword at his side, his tall boots thumping the wooden floor.
“Good evening, Mr. Butterbur,” the young man waved to the landlord, who was bustling forward, full of importance. He brushed his dark, curly hair out of his eyes – “Yes, ale, thank you” – and exchanged warm greetings with several of the men, firm handshakes and a few quiet words. Some of the men seemed concerned about him, but he laughed them off.
“I come to you fresh from a battle with my ancient enemy, mud, who I’m afraid I will never get the better of, that’s all,” he declared, brushing wet spatters from his shoulders.
The dwarves guffawed, politely. It seemed the newcomer was someone of importance, but I had no idea what his office or rank was. He was dressed in subdued colors, navy blues and softer ones with silver threads, but the style of his clothes was longer and slimmer, more elegant than what the others were wearing. His black hair fell to his shoulders, and his sword and something in his bearing quietly hinted that expecting trouble was a part of his life. But for all his somber appearance he seemed a good sort, with sparkling dark blue eyes and a ready wit that could pick out a joke from the commonest threads of conversation.
“So, how’s the civil war coming, Lord Arador?” asked one of the dwarves of the young man. I pricked up my ears. Here was a name at least. And a title.
Arador leaned back against the bar.
“Oh, same as usual, pretty much, except that my dear relatives have been applying whetstones to their tongues,” he replied wryly. The hobbits chuckled. Arador continued, with a careless smile, “Therefore, I just avoid them as much as possible.”
Then his face fell, and his mood became more serious. “Unfortunately, however, they are becoming more and more determined.”
The men in the room sobered. One of the hobbits seated at the bar asked cautiously, “Er, what are they doing now?”
Lord Arador looked slowly from one face to another. Then he began a tale to make me mistrust my ears: “Well, as most of you probably know, fifteen years ago King Elrohir was murdered, and Queen Vardanelle disappeared, as well as the three month old princess. An extensive search was made, and is still going on, after a fashion.
“I was only four years old at the time, so my uncle, whom you’ve heard of as Turin V, became acting steward. (My father was killed in an accident a few years earlier). Well, now I’m twenty, nearly twenty-one, and officially old enough to take up the stewardship. My uncle, however, is not dreadfully fond of me; as you know, he wants to make his son succeed him as steward. I personally wouldn’t really mind being almost somebody, but not quite, for the rest of my life, but my existence is a source of friction in any case.
“But all that isn’t much to the point. Several generations ago in my family the steward received permission from the king to marry his youngest daughter. Therefore, my uncle, my cousin, and myself have some royal blood in us. If it were absolutely necessary, one of us could be crowned king.
“My uncle wants to make that happen; he wants to make himself king; and he could actually pull it off if it was known for certain that the queen and the princess were dead.
“My uncle is trying to make certain that he will be king in the near future. I know, it’s shocking, but I have heard him myself. Others have heard the same thing. I have given up trying to believe otherwise. Anyone could come to that conclusion by watching him send out his search parties. They go armed to the teeth, able to storm a place if necessary.
“A year ago, when my uncle first made public, in a way, his claim to the throne, I argued that he had to find out, positively, if Queen Vardanelle and the princess are alive or dead before he could do anything, and that if they were alive then he was out of luck. Maybe I should not have said anything, because he has taken me seriously and he is making sure the queen is dead before he takes the crown.
“My uncle is not planning his coronation yet, so he must not have found the queen and the princess, which is good. That’s why I’m here so often. It’s a matter of time. I have to find them before he does. There’s just no trace of them anywhere. I suppose that is good in a way, but it is frustrating for me.
“So that’s the story of why my relatives and I don’t get along. Turin is afraid that I’ll find them before he does, stir up the people against him, and get them back on the throne. My cousin isn’t too much trouble, he’s afraid of me in a more tangible way.” Arador smiled mirthlessly, then sighed. “And there’s another point. No one knows if the queen has the princess with her or not. She could easily have left her with someone else for safety. No one knows.”
The company in the room was silent when he finished. All seemed concerned or sympathetic. One of the men clapped Arador’s shoulder and murmured, “You’ll find them.”
A dwarf broke the silence.
“We’ll keep an eye out for them,” he said huskily. “The queen was dark-haired, wasn’t she?”
“Yes, she was. The princess didn’t have much hair when I saw her last, it was just light-colored baby fuzz.” A smile evoked by the memory tugged at the corner of Arador’s mouth.
He had a very nice smile. “So, she should have either dark or light brown hair by now, and she’s probably tall. The royal family has always been quite tall.”
The dwarf nodded. “Well, keep looking, Master Arador. Don’t give up hope. Strange things happen in this world, some as strange as the friendship between an elf and a dwarf. The Heir of Isildur returned from the North when hope for a king was lowest. It may happen again.”
“Thank you,” Arador said softly. He sipped his ale thoughtfully. He looked tired. A hobbit suddenly peered up at the clock.
“Time to be going, lads, it’s almost morning. We’ll be a sleepy crew tomorrow!”
Arador laughed wearily. “I should vanish so you can all get home and fall headfirst into your beds. Sorry! Good night!” The room emptied swiftly.
Arador sat silently at the deserted bar, finishing his mug. I stayed in my corner, afraid to be noticed. At last the young man followed a yawning Mr. Butterbur upstairs. I watched him go. Then I gathered my utensils and napkin, set them on the counter beside the empty mugs of ale, and went upstairs myself. I slipped into my room, locked the door, put on my nightgown in the dark, and went to bed.
Next morning, or should I say, later that morning, I woke up to a rooster crowing lustily beneath my window. We don’t have a rooster, I wondered sleepily, it must be the neighbors’… and then I woke up all the way and remembered that I was in the Prancing Pony, in Bree. I made the bed, dressed, and rang the bell for breakfast. When it was brought up I asked the hobbit who brought it several questions.
“Good morning, miss,” he sang out, setting a tray on the table.
“Same to you, and thank you.”
“Is there anything else?”
“Yes. I’d like to ask you a few things, if you don’t mind.”
“It’s okay, go ahead.”
“Do you know where the Bracegirdles live?” I asked him. That was the name of Granny’s friends in Bree.
“Sure I do. They live on the other side of the hill, with all the rest of us. My family has been living there for ages.”
“Thank you.” I considered asking him about missing children within the past twenty years, but I decided not to. I could ask the Bracegirdles that.
The hobbit nodded politely and left.
I hungrily attacked my breakfast of fried eggs and potatoes with onions, doing them full justice. Then I thoughtfully hoisted my saddlebags over my arm and sauntered downstairs, humming.
I was going to try to find a boot shop, and then the Bracegirdles.’ I had noticed last night that all the men were wearing shoes of some sort. Among the hobbits going barefoot day in and day out was normal – expected – but here it didn’t seem to be common in public.
Mr. Butterbur was in the coffee room, but he waddled over to me and asked if I was leaving.
“I might be back in a day or so, but I’ll pay my bill now and be done with it.” I paid him for the room and complimented him on his hospitality, which set his homely face beaming.
As he bustled off, three foaming mugs of brown ale in each pudgy hand, Lord Arador came down, also looking ready to set out. I nodded shyly to him in greeting and then headed for the stables to get Voronwë saddled up.
Tom was pitching hay when I entered.
“Good morning!” he called. He set down his pitchfork and hurried over.
“Hello. My tack’s right here in front of the stall, isn’t it?” I ruffled Voronwë’s forlock. She shoved her head against me, searching my pockets for treats.
“It’s right there, that’s right. Your mare didn’t give any trouble,” the hobbit stated cheerfully. “Oh, good morning, Arador.”
I turned to see him standing behind me, fondling a bay mare with a thin white stripe running down her face.
“Good morning, Tom.” He nodded to me. “Good morning.”
I flushed and murmured an acknowledgement. I had to look up to speak to him. Embarrassed, I turned away and began tacking up Voronwë. She had been brushed already, and fed. In the next stall the young lord was saddling up his mare himself. I could not help noticing how smooth and practiced every motion of the job was, how much care he took that the bridle lay smoothly and the girth did not pinch. He muttered sweet nothings to the horse all the while. I smothered a laugh and took the same care with Voronwë, who appreciated it. She and the bay put their velvet muzzles together against the wooden bars that formed the top half of the divider. Arador noticed this and chuckled softly at their antics.
“My, my, Princess,” he said to his horse, “you seem to be pretty good friends there. Could you introduce me?” The bay mare tossed her head and snorted to Voronwë. Arador looked back at me, still smiling his little amused smile. I smiled back and shrugged my shoulders expressively. “I’m afraid I do not know your name,” he said politely.
“Oh – I’m Elbereth…Appledore,” I added as an afterthought, suddenly noticing a sudden quick gleam in his eyes. He nodded acknowledgement, seeming to digest the information.
“Arador,” he introduced himself. “Do you live in Bree?”
“No,” I said, then generalized. “South of town.”
“I see,” Arador said briskly. He led the bay from her stall. I suddenly noticed the embroidery on his saddlecloth, black velvet with a silver tree in the corners. I hoped he wouldn’t notice my bare feet. I led Voronwë over to the mounting block and climbed its steps. Arador surprised me by taking hold of the headstall while I mounted.
“Thank you,” I murmured, surprised and pleased by his gallantry.
He smiled and swung easily onto his mare. “It’s nothing.”
We rode out of the courtyard side by side, but I soon dropped behind Arador’s bay. The narrow streets of the town were thronged with people of all descriptions, for it was a market day. Farm carts rolled by us, loaded with the earliest round of produce. Hawkers and peddlers, dwarves with packs nearly larger than themselves, hobbits and men alike smoking pipes, young boys mooning over pretty girls, flirting barmaids, staid tradesmen’s wives, it was all rather overwhelming to me. Everything was big, carts, people, vegetables. The night before had done much to adjust my perspective, but this would take some getting used to.
Lord Arador was weaving his horse in and out of the traffic as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and I hurried Voronwë after him, trying to see everything at once. Thankfully I was on horseback. It made everyone seem smaller, to a degree, but it made me feel very large and conspicious, more so than I felt at home. I felt that everyone must know that I did not belong, but in reality no one was really paying much attention to me. I looked about the same as everyone else to them.
At last Arador and I were riding down a comparatively quiet street. He drew back abreast of me again.
“I’m sorry,” he said, genuinely apologetic, “I should have asked you if there was anywhere you needed to go, since you do not know the way around the anthill.”
I shook my head, feeling silly. “No, I mean, don’t; I was just glad to follow someone else. It’s all right. Really,” I stammered, seeing he looked unconvinced. A smile was tickling his face, and he was fighting it, and he looked so funny…I laughed. Arador smiled.
“You’re sure?” he teased, still smiling.
“Yes,” I said severely. “Thank you for letting me tag along.”
Arador was still smiling, so I put on an airy face and nodded a composed good-day. Arador bowed, still savoring a smile. We parted ways.
In a way, I was relieved to be rid of him. He made me seem silly in my own eyes. But I wished I was still with him. He was so…agreeable, so polite, so…admit it, I told myself sternly…handsome.
Yes, handsome. And I was a young lady of almost sixteen who had just met her first eligible bachelor that she didn’t have to look down on.
Voronwë and I wandered the streets of Bree that morning, taking in the sights. I made a purchase – a few pairs of knit stockings. If I were going to buy boots, I would need them. That much I knew about footwear.
It was some time before I located a shoemaker. It was a little shop near the crest of the hill, painted in soft sky blue with gay red, black-eyed-susan yellow, forest green, and crisp white trim. A bulging flower garden overflowed the tiny yard. Soft lavender lilacs were blooming against the walls of the shop, and pink, red, white, and yellow tulips, yellow, white, and orange daffodils, iris in all the colors of the rainbow, and loaded snowball bushes covered all the available space, nearly obscuring the flagstone walk to the door.
There was a bay tethered to the tidy little fence. I realized with a start that she was Arador’s. Great. I feel like I’m chasing him.
I dismounted after a moment’s hesitation and tethered Voronwë beside Princess. I stuffed one pair of my new socks into my pocket, squared my shoulders, and forced myself to walk down the narrow walk, my skirt brushing all those dainty flowers and setting them nodding. I stopped to stroke the ruffled, velvety petals of a deep violet iris, inhaling the gently sweet perfume. I had irises at home.
The shop was dark after the sunswept garden. I blinked madly against the green spots floating before my eyes and peered into the heavily leather-scented gloom.
Two people stood by the counter, surveying me. Arador was one of them, the other was a stooped old man with thinning white hair and a thick, short white beard, swathed in a worn leather apron. Arador looked at me in a puzzled way.
“Hello,” I said, at loss for what to say. I swallowed, tore my eyes from him, and nodded to the shoemaker.
“What can I do for you, Miss?” he asked briskly.
“I need a pair of boots,” I faltered, acutely aware of Arador’s gaze.
The old man leaned forward abruptly and studied my feet over the counter. He popped back, came around, and pulled three pairs of lace-up boots from a shelf.
“Try ‘em all on, until you get a good fit,” he instructed.
I obediently sat down upon a little stool and put on my socks. I had never put on boots before, to begin with, and I had no idea what a ‘good fit’ was. I fumbled awkwardly with the laces, loosening them. I stuck my right foot into the left boot the first time, then hastily corrected my mistake. I struggled into the other one and stood. My feet were sliding around in them, but was that normal? I took a few steps and looked at the shoemaker.
“Too big,” he pronounced.
I sat down and wriggled out of them. On went the next pair. These did not slide so much. They were snug without pinching. I walked to the door and back, with Arador silently watching all the while. “These are better, I think,” I said.
The showmaker knelt and felt for my toe through the boot. “Yes,” he declared, “much better.”
“How much are they?” I asked timidly. The old man glanced at the slip of paper that marked the shelf and named the price. I paid it. Arador gathered up a parcel on the counter, bade the shoemaker good day in a familiar way, and went out, the door bell jingling brightly behind him. I timidly went out after him.
“We seem destined to meet,” Arador remarked resignedly.
“I didn’t do it on purpose!” I protested. “I just…ended up here.”
Arador laughed at my distress. “It’s all right. I shouldn’t tease you, since you’re new to the…area.” The sentence trailed off as his eyes wandered to a shadowy corner down the street a few houses down. I looked too, and saw a man lounging against a barrel, smoking a pipe.
Arador abruptly changed the subject. “Do you like flowers?” he asked brightly.
I was surprised by the question. “Yes, I do.” I indicated the swaying blossoms. “These are lovely.”
“Leafwell’s wife enjoys taking care of them. She’s been adding to this garden since she was a bride. The lilacs went in first.”
“Oh,” I said, interested.
“I don’t know the names of most of them,” Arador confessed. “Sometimes I wish I did.” He went out the gate, and I followed. We untethered our horses and mounted. My new boots felt strange in the stirrups.
We rode down the street at a walking pace. Arador was between me and the smoking man, and I was surprised to see an almost defiant look on his young face as he glanced at the lounger.
“Do you know who that man is?” he asked quietly, when we were past.
I looked at him blankly. “No.”
“He’s one of my uncle’s spies,” Arador said bitterly. I stole a glance at the man. He was still smoking, and he was watching us.
Arador’s voice was low and intense. “Whatever I say to you, you must not act afraid or unusual. Act normally.” Immediately I stiffened up, frightened by his tone. What was he saying?
“Did you tell anyone in town what your name was, besides old Butterbur and me?” he asked, slowly and deliberately.
“Just…an old lady I bought socks from,” I said meekly.
“Was that man nearby? Did he overhear you? Could he have heard what you said?” Arador’s face was very serious.
“I don’t know. He could have been. I didn’t see him. I mean, he could have been; I don’t know!” I protested in alarm.
Arador turned to flick a fly from his horse’s rump. “He’s following us,” he said quietly.
Fear gripped me. “Why?” I exclaimed, but keeping my voice down.
Arador sighed and did not look at me. “Yours is a dangerous name for a girl your age to have these days. You see…”
“Yes, I know,” I interrupted him quickly. “I heard you…last night…”
It was his turn to interrupt. “What?”
I faltered out, dreadfully embarrassed, “I-I was in the room last night, when you came in…I was in a corner; it was dark so you didn’t see me…I heard everything, the whole story…I see, why…my name…” My voice trailed off.
Arador was surveying me in amazement. “I see,” he said. He did not seem favorably impressed. Then, “You were there the whole time?”
I felt my cheeks grow pink. “Yes.”
He shook his head, laughing quietly. “You’re a pretty good spy yourself.”
I knew I was forgiven. I smiled, but then I nervously looked back. The smoking man was nowhere in sight.
“He’s gone,” I informed Arador. He shook his head.
“No, it only seems like he’s gone. He’s still there, somewhere. You’ll be shadowed every minute, now.”
A chill wind touched me. I looked at Arador with scared eyes.
The hills around the Bree-hill were thickly green with their spring growth, and a gentle wind sighed among the poplars. I chewed half-heartedly at my sandwich, trying to finish it. Arador wasn’t eating much either. We had gone for a picnic at the edge of this field so we could talk my situation over without being overheard, and the more I learned about this business, the more I was afraid of it.
It seemed that I was about the same age as the missing princess. Also, my name was Elbereth, which was the princess’s name. I also resembled the missing queen a good deal. And I was an orphan. Thus I was a good suspect for someone hunting the queen and the princess.
I had told Arador that I had been raised by a hobbit, but I did not say that I had lived in the Shire. I was afraid he would be dreadfully angry if I told him that.
To this day I do not know why I did not tell him about the things my parents had left me. Perhaps I thought that jewelry and such was unimportant at the time. I was much more concerned about what steward’s spies would do to me if they caught me, and how I was to avoid ever having the misfortune of finding that out in person.
“You need to stay away from towns and cities, and anywhere there is a lot of people,” Arador instructed me. “Those are the most likely places where you’d be discovered. People would be bound to notice your name. And the fact that you’re a fifteen-year-old orphan.
“Also, Turin expects that everyone passes through towns and such, so that is where he plants his spies. A lot of them look like normal folk, but some are southern, from Harad and farther away than that. We’re technically at peace with them, so they aren’t molested. They’re wonderful trackers, but they’re mercenaries to the bone. They work for gold, and that’s the long and short of it. Some of them do it because they like the thought of striking a blow at ancient enemies at the direction of other ancient enemies, but they’re a minority.
“The Haradrim ones are easy to spot, which is a comfort, in a way. They are usually short and thin, like rawhide, all wiry muscle and dark skin.”
I had a question. “What about…the one back there. He didn’t look like that, but he looked…queer, sort of…just nasty.”
“If they weren’t nasty they wouldn’t be hired for the job,” Arador remarked dryly. His chin jutted determinedly. “But they’re not going to get you.”
Arador stood up, tall against the afternoon sky, smiling again. I wiped my hands on my handkerchief and sat up straighter.
“You’re going to go to Amon Sul, where there is a guard of my henchmen ready to defend the tower against an army for the queen’s sake. They’ll help you in her name. Whether you’re the princess or not remains to be seen, but we’ve got to keep you safe until we find out.”
I stood up. “Where is…Amon Sul?”
“Northeast of here. It’s easy to find. You take this road, and then all you have to do is follow it until you see the tower. I’ll be there in at most three days; I have business with my network of watchmen, and then I’ll follow you.” He unpinned a silver star-shaped brooch from his tunic and placed it in my hand. “That will make them believe I sent you.”
Arador looked down at me. “You all right?”
I took a shaky breath. “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
Arador smiled comfortingly and patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ll look after you. I’ve got at least as many friends working for me as my uncle has mercenaries, so the scales are really more even than they seem.” He wrapped up the remains of our lunch and removed a large packet from his saddlebag. “This will keep you going so you don’t have to go back into Bree,” he said. “Food for the road. I can get more easier than you can.”
I peeked inside the wrapper. Jerky, two loaves of bread, cheese, apples, carrots. Enough for at least two weeks. “How long of a ride is it to Amon Sul?”
“If you ride fast, you could get there by noon tomorrow.”
“So…I’d have to make camp in the woods somewhere.”
“Have you ever done it before?” Arador asked.
“I’ll manage,” I grimaced. “At least it doesn’t look like rain.”
Arador and I mounted and rode briskly along the grassy road. I was fast losing my self-consciousness of him. We talked of sundry lighter matters: I asked him if Voronwë needed any special feed to keep her going on the wild and about his life growing up in Gondor.
“I’m an only child,” Arador told me. “My father died when I was nearly two, so I do not remember him at all. My mother is still living, though; we have an estate of sorts in Ithilien.”
“Where is that?” I interrupted, blushing at my ignorance.
“Between Mordor and the Anduin there is a hilly forest; that is Ithilien. Almost directly across from Minas Tirith, but back in the woods a few miles, is the steward’s estate. It was built after the War of the Ring, so it is a comparatively new building. The elves designed it, as a matter of fact; it looks completely at home in the woods, very open and airy.”
“Doesn’t it get cold in the winter?”
Arador laughed. “We don’t have cold winters in Gondor.”
“You don’t?” I didn’t know that. Gondor was beginning to sound like a nice place to live.
“The weather is cooler in the winter, and there is more rain, but it never is as cold as it is here.”
“Does it seem very cold to you when you come here in the winter?”
“Oh yes, I nearly freeze,” Arador smiled. “But the snow is beautiful. It compensates for a lot of things.”
We reached a slight rise. Ahead of us the road ran its grassy way eastward, curving in great loops among the little hills. The hilltop was a lonely spot, a place of waving grasses and crying meadow birds. Arador pulled up and turned to me.
“This is all the further I can go,” he apologized.
“Thank-you for coming this far,” I assured him. “I will be fine.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for more possible relatives of yours. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know; then you would be out of this mess entirely.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye.” Arador hesitated, then wheeled Princess and rode off westward. At a little rise he pulled up and waved. I waved back. Then he rode down the hill and out of sight.
Leafwell watched the two young people leave, a little smile playing over his lined face. He chuckled softly.
“I wonder what will come of it,” he said musingly. He made his way back to his home behind the shop.
His wife, a plump, gray-haired matron, looked up from her knitting with a smile.
“Young Lord Arador?” she asked.
“Yes, and a young lady. Customers.” The younger woman at the fire looked up suddenly from what she was stirring.
“A young woman?” she asked softly, her dark eyes intense. She pushed a wisp of dark red hair back from her face. “How old?”
“Why, what’s the matter, Lindorië? Is something wrong?”
“No, nothing’s wrong; just please, tell me what she was like!” The painful eagerness on her face surprised the old shoemaker.
“Well, let me see. She looked about, oh, eighteen, maybe a little younger; she had long light brown hair; gray, no green eyes. Country style clothes. It was funny, she wasn’t wearing any shoes at all. Usually they come in in a pair that’s too small.”
Lindorië stiffened. “Would you mind if I left your employ tonight, when my work is done?” she asked quietly. The old couple stared at her in astonishment. “It is of the utmost importance,” she added, trying to ease the blow. “I really must go. I said when I began working for you that I might have to leave on a moment’s notice, and now is that time.” Her face showed an agony of longing. Leafwell looked at his wife slowly, then turned back to the maid.
“Go ahead, Lindorië,” he said softly.
Chapter 7: The Watchtower
I turned Voronwë to the east and rode slowly along on the Great East Road, one of the few main roads that had been around from the days of Elendil the Tall and his sons. Arador’s words kept coming into my head. I wondered if I were the missing princess. Arador had said it was possible! I tried to not get my hopes up, but I couldn’t help it. I began to wish that I had shown Arador the ring and the necklace that had been in the bag, but it was too late now. A steward’s son and another’s nephew could maybe have helped me. Oh well. Then again, it seemed rather silly – especially because they could have just been things left for me to pay for my keep or just as some things for me when I grew older. Somehow that explanation seemed reasonable yet unreasonable.
Oh, yes, then there was that other factor…Arador was a very nice young man. I liked him already, even if I had only known him for a night and a day. I always had an overdose of imagination, so, well, you get the idea. It seemed silly to me, realistically, but he was very nice, and I was getting to the age when girls think more seriously about marriage.
You think about silly things way too much, I admonished my imagination. Aloud I said, “Come on Voronwë, let’s get going.” She snorted and picked up the pace.
There were few people living this way. The area south of Bree between the Brandywine and the Greyflood was well populated now, since there had been no wars for nearly six hundred years, but that was to the south. The Hills of Evendim, near the city of Annuminas, were inhabited as well, but they were to the west. I was going east, toward the Weather Hills, which ended at Amon Sul – also called Weathertop, I realized now – a great round hill standing like a sentinel that watched the flatlands between the hills and Trollshaws north of Rivendell, the home of the Elves.
There were no Elves in Middle Earth now. Their age had ended, their power had waned, and they had sailed into the West to the Undying Lands. There were Dwarves in the Blue Mountains near the sea, but even they were seeming to dwindle in numbers, however slightly. They had declined from the great war of the Dwarves and the Orcs, which had happened some time before the War of the Ring. Some seventy years before the War of the Ring and the overthrow of Sauron the dragon Smaug had been killed by the king of Dale, Bard the Bowman, freeing the dwarves’ ancient home of the Lonely Mountain in the north. That was now populated with many dwarves, and shortly after the War of the Ring a colony had been established in the Glittering Caves of Aglarond in Rohan, far to the south. They were still seen in Rohan and other places, and were renowned for their skill with metal. That much I had learned from studying history collected by Merriadoc the Magnificent, (Merriadoc Brandybuck), who had played an important part in the War of the Ring. He had been one of the Nine Companions, and after the War he had written many books on the history of Middle Earth from much he had learned in Rivendell in the libraries of Elrond.
Aside from Arador’s instructions, it was strange to be able to just wander around to wherever I wanted to go.
Voronwë cantered along all day. The weather was sunny, which was nice, but the day was rather cool. I was glad of my cloak. Early in the day we passed the Midgewater Marsh, on our left. The bugs weren’t too bad, but they were bad enough. I hate mosquitoes! Thankfully we put them behind in a hurry. As night was falling I turned the mare off the road into a little thicket of scrub. I did not make a fire, but ate jerky and cheese from Arador’s bundle. Voronwë slept beside me like a big warm dog.
Late the following morning I caught sight of Amon Sul. The watch tower stood tall and forbidding in the midst of barren lands. It had been rebuilt in the days of King Elessar, and now was occupied by guards, whose duty was to watch the wide empty lands to the north and the east. These men, apparently, were Arador’s friends. I rode slowly up to the tower gate, expecting to be challenged. There was a well-worn track leading to the gate, so the place seemed to have a good number of people living in it.
A flock of crows flew out from the upper crevices of the tower, cawing harshly. The whole place seemed quite gloomy and heavily grown up with moss. The sky was growing overcast, adding to the dreary appearance.
I dismounted, took hold of the heavy steel knocker, and thumped the gate hard with it. There seemed to be a little walled courtyard on this side of the tower, and this was the only visible gate.
But…no one answered. That was strange. I tried the gate, which swung inward easily.
“Hello?” I called. My voice rang a little on the stones. A few chickens skittered away from me across the yard, but that was all. The place seemed strangely deserted. Voronwë seemed uneasy. A feeling that something was not right was building up in my chest.
Someone should be here. I should have been challenged.
Puzzled, I closed the gate and latched it against the empty plains, but I didn’t slide the heavy timber bolts into place. The chickens seemed to be calming down. They were pecking and scratching around Voronwë’s legs, but they were still watchful.
“Stay around here for a bit, girl,” I whispered in the mare’s soft ear. “I’m going to have a look around here. Something’s not right. You can come after me if you think you need to after a while.” She poked her soft muzzle against my neck. I ruffled her ears and gave her a pat.
“All right, I’m going now.”
There was a door directly into the hillside, but I turned away from it and walked across the open space to the stables. They were empty. There was evidence that horses had been in it recently, and there were a few more chickens, but that was all, with the exception of an old fat calico cat who rubbed up against my legs. I picked her up and carried her with me to a door that seemed to go into the hill. The huge iron hinges creaked in protest as I pushed the thick door inward. A draft of cool air wafted out. I shivered and held the cat closer. It was dark behind the door.
The clouds were threatening outside, and it was getting darker by the minute outside, so almost no light came from behind me. Then I remembered seeing a lantern in the stable. I pulled the heavy door shut and went back. I found the lantern and carried it and the cat outside. I had matches in my saddlebags. I put the cat down while I fished them out, but she didn’t leave. She rubbed up against Voronwë’s legs and mine as I lit the lantern’s thick candle, and she waddled after me when I went back into the stable.
I pushed down on the door’s thick handle and pushed it open, again hearing the squeak of the hinges. The draft that came out made my candle flicker, even though it was protected by glass. I waited until it stopped stuttering, then went in.
I was in a narrow hallway. The walls were rough hewn and damp, but the floor was smooth. I went along it, trying not to touch the walls. Ahead of me I could see dark openings that were other passages. It was terribly quiet. There was no sound except the drip-drip of water somewhere in the dark. The calico huddled against my boots and emitted a plaintive meow.
Nothing happened. Absolutely nothing. I reached down and stroked her. She followed me closely along, the lantern light reflecting in her eyes, making them two green fires.
I reached the first intersection and stopped. This new passage was broader and drier. Arms were stacked along the walls in neat rows, but they were knocked askew here and there as if someone had been pushed against them. I looked to my right, towards what seemed to be the door I had seen from the courtyard. An icy hand stroked my backbone.
There was a dark heap on the floor. Metal bits glittered on it as the lantern light played on them. I peered at it in the yellow lantern-light, feeling a dread I had never felt before. I walked slowly towards it, first checking the other direction to see if anyone was coming. I could still hear the ominous plink of water falling.
As I came closer the disorderly pile on the floor took shape. It was a man. His feet were towards me, and he was lying face down on the floor. A sword lay flat on the floor under him. I looked at him fearfully for a moment. Was he dead? Was he alive? Had he been knocked unconscious or something?
I had to find out.
The calico cat sniffed at him casually, then showed no further interest. That chilled me. Cats know when something is dead or not. So do dogs. The cat wasn’t interested, so this man had to be dead. I bent over him for a closer look to try to see what had caused his death. I found a stab-hole in his back, near the heart. I carefully turned the body over, trying not to get blood on myself.
He couldn’t have been dead long, he wasn’t stiff. It was a young man – perhaps in his twenties. His sword was scarcely bloody, but the blade was notched and showed traces of having been in a fight with a powerful opponent. He wore black livery with a white tree embroidered on the front.
I looked around apprehensibly. This place was really scaring me. I remembered the crows I had seen go out from the top of the tower when I rode up. Were all the guards dead? Where were Arador’s friends?
I arranged the poor door warden’s body, since there wasn’t much else I could do for him. I was going to put his sword in his hands, but then I stopped, looking at the blade. What if there was someone in here still who might try to kill me, too? A knife might not be enough protection against a man with a sword. A big man with a sword. What if the murderers returned? Who was responsible for this?
I looked around fearfully at the dark walls around me. I had to go on. There could be some that were wounded and needed help. It was up to me.
I gripped the notched sword started down the long hallway. There were wall brackets on either side, but the torches were all out. I went to light one, but the end was soaked. I was in a dilemma for a minute, then I turned the wood upside down and lit the dry end with the candle in my lantern. I wanted to light the place up a little bit at least. It was too dark for comfort.
I went out of the broad passage back into the narrow one I had been in, and kept going along it. There was no one there, just a forge that had cooled to glowing embers and some lumber. I went back to the broad passage where the dead guard was and went up it.
The passage was long and straight. Banners hung at intervals on the walls, and there were more torches, but they were all out. I lit a few of them. The calico cat stayed close to my heels. I came to two more doors. They were closed. I cautiously opened the one on the right and peered in. The room appeared to be a storeroom – now mostly empty because it was only May and the gardens weren’t producing much besides weeds yet. There was no one in it. I closed the door and crossed the hallway to the other door, looking both ways for any sign of life. Nothing was there. I opened the door and went in, holding up my light.
I was in a banquet hall. It was ornate compared to the rest of the place so far, I guessed it was for when important visitors came. It was empty too. I saw a door in the far wall, so I closed the door I had come through, after looking out into the hallway again, and crossed the room to the other door, weaving around tables. This new door opened into a large kitchen with a huge fireplace with a smaller one on either side of it. A huge wooden cabinet stood to the right of the fireplaces, and beside it were stacked several huge beer casks, two layers high. The place looked as if the interruption had come in the middle of serving a meal. A few slit windows were in the north wall, and through them I saw that it was raining outside.
Then I saw something that made me forget all about the weather. There was a man lying on the floor by the door that went from the kitchen to the hallway. I set my lantern on the worn table in the middle of the room by some huge loaves of bread and closed the door I had come through. Then I took the lantern and walked slowly towards the body on the floor.
This man was heavily built and nearly bald. His short form was swathed in a huge leather apron that was stained with flour and the darker marks of blood. He was crumpled on the ground as if whoever had killed him had shoved him back into the room when he had closed the door.
I placed the lantern on the floor next to him and knelt down. There was a small cut and a huge bruise on the back of his head, and there were horrible slashes on his arms and shoulders. A bloody kitchen knife lay on the floor a several feet away from him, together with a battered rolling pin. I looked at him closely, trying to tell if he was breathing. The cat sidled up to him, rubbing against me in the process. That gave me hope. I felt for his pulse. I couldn’t find it at first, and then I thought it was just me because my heart was thumping so loudly that it almost hurt. But then I felt a faint pumping under my probing fingers.
This man was alive! I tried to arrange him a little more comfortably, but I was afraid that I might hurt him more, and he was hard for me to move. He was heavier than I was. I got some water from the well by the windows and washed his cuts the best I could. Some were still bleeding a little. That didn’t seem good to me. I pressed a towel that had been on the table against them to try to stop the bleeding. There was quite a bit of a red puddle on the floor.
I had heard Granny say that when people lose a lot of blood you had to try to get a lot of fluids inside them to help compensate. To do that, I would have to try to wake him up. I found more towels in a cabinet by the fireplace and wrapped up his wounds as best I could. Then I got more water from the well and started splashing water on his face. I patted his face and tweaked his ears, trying to wake him up. After a while he grumbled something and stirred. His eyes popped open.
“What-what happened? How did you get here? Who are you?” he bristled.
I gulped. “I’m Elbereth. Arador told me to come here, and I just arrived. I’ve been going around looking for people, but I’ve only found you and a dead guard so far. Don’t try to talk now, you’re hurt.”
The cook ignored me. “Those varmits!” he rasped. “They came here, posing as travelers. We didn’t suspect them, but something about them didn’t seem quite right. They looked too foreign for comfort, leastways to me they did. But anyway, they were having dinner with the men up in the mess hall, and all of a sudden they draws their swords and starts slaughtering our men! I heard the yells and screams and such, and I started for the door to see what the ruckus was all about.
“Then I sees my servers coming back, running and lookin’ terrified, yelling, ‘Help, help, they’re killing everybody! They’re going to kill us!’
A big beastly-looking fellow was running down the passage after them, waving a sword and laughing, so I grabbed my biggest knife and a rolling pin and tried to hold him off.
“ ‘Run, boys,’ I yells to the young ‘uns, ‘I’ll hold ‘im off.’ They ran, but I don’t think they got very far, poor things. But anyway, I tangled with that big fellow, and man could he fight! He was nasty and a cheater though, he got me when I couldn’t get at him. I remember I could hardly stand up anymore, and then he hit me in the back of the head, and everything sort of went black.” He paused for breath.
“Here, have some water. You’ve lost a lot of blood.” I helped him drink. He slumped back on the floor when he was finished and sighed.
“Poor boys, I wonder what happened to them. Did you find them anywhere? Is Arador here?”
“No, he said he would come in a few days. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but all I’ve found is a door guard, but he was dead – stabbed in the back.” This triggered a surge of anger in the old cook.
“Those stinkin’ murderers! They can’t get away with this for long! I’ll get them, someday…someday…Arador will help…” He sagged back on the floor. I tried to calm him.
“Easy, easy, they’ll be punished, but you have to take it easy now for a while. Have some more to drink. You need more liquids to help you get better.” I helped him sip some more water. His gaze roamed around the kitchen.
“There’s some ale in the barrel next to the cabinet, second row from the floor. Can you get me some?”
“Sure.” I got up and found a mug in the cabinet, then I filled it at the tap. “Here.” I supported his head again and helped him drink it, sip by sip. He sighed contentedly when it was finished.
“Ah, that’s better. I’ll be fine here for a bit now, if you can get me a few blankets and a pillow. You need to find out if any of the poor guards are alive still. There’s blankets and such in my room – that’s the door right next to this one.”
I found what he wanted in his room and made him comfortable. Before I left the kitchen I lit some of the candles for him. Then I closed the door behind me, taking the lantern. I left the cat with him for company.
I opened the door next to the storage room and investigated it. It was a cellar of sorts – kegs and casks and barrels were stacked to the ceiling. It was empty – of people, that is. I shut the door and kept going. I could hear the plink of water again now that I was in the hallway again. I lit the torch between the storeroom doors when I came out of the wine cellar. By the combined light of the lantern and the torch, I saw a staircase ahead of me. There were two more doors, however, that I had to inspect before I could go to the stairs. The door on the right was a dormitory. I looked in the wardrobes and under the beds, but I didn’t see anybody. I went out and closed the door.
Out in the hallway, I looked behind me, back toward the front doors. All I could see was the dead guard – no one else. I opened the door on the left side of the passage. It also was a dormitory, but near the door there were stacks of armor on shelves. There was no one in it. I closed the door and went toward the stairs.
The stairs were broad and of a comfortable height. As I went up, I found myself counting them. One, two, three, four, five, six; seven was a landing with a few narrow window slits, then the stairs turned right. Eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen; fourteen was another landing, also with a few windows. I looked out. The ground seemed pretty far below, considering that the hobbit holes I was used to were built on ground level or actually in the ground. I looked for any sign of human life or something moving, but I didn’t see anything. Thunder was crashing around the tower.
I kept going up. Now I was going the opposite direction than the one that I had been going when I started climbing. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty; twenty-one was the next floor. The plink of falling water was louder now.
Chapter 8: The Crows
I paused at the top of the stairs to get my bearings and catch my breath – as well as to get a grip on my fears. I shifted the sword to my right hand and held the lantern in my left. Then I went forward. Into the dark.
Almost immediately on my right was a heavy door. I cautiously opened it. There was a tremendous flapping and cawing, and a flock of crows tried frantically to get out. I jumped back as a few careened past me out into the hallway. I stood there, shaking, until they left. Then I went in, fighting nausea.
The room was a mess hall, but now it was in a state of chaos. Tables and chairs were overturned, food was on the floor; but worse, there were men lying all over the floor. The crows had started on a few of them. I felt awful, but I had to try to help them if I could. Not one of them seemed to be alive. I went through them, one by one. I hardly knew whether to feel sick or to cry. Then I heard a noise. I stopped, frozen. Every hair on the back of my neck was standing straight on end. My eyes darted around, trying to find the source of the noise. I turned around slowly. Nothing moved. The open door seemed menacing. I closed it, latching it securely. Then I held up my lantern higher to get a better look. There was a pile of bodies by the window – six or seven of them. I went toward it, picking my way around the mess.
The few on the top were definitely dead, no doubt about that. I carefully moved them. Near the bottom of the pile was an older man, perhaps in his forties. He was dead, but there was someone underneath. I looked down and realized that I was almost stepping on that person’s arm. As I looked down to watch where I moved my feet, the arm moved. I jumped like a scared rabbit, tripped over a chair, and fell in a clear space on the floor. I scrambled to a sitting position and stared at the arm. From this angle I could see more of the person who had moved. A face looked out at me. We stared at each other for a minute, neither of us saying anything.
“Are you all right?” the person asked politely.
“Um, ah, well, ah, ye-es. I guess so. What about you? Are you hurt bad?”
“Not really. My shoulder hurts and I cut my leg on something, and I’m squished terribly, but other than that I’m all right. Did you hurt yourself?”
“No,” I said, getting to my feet awkwardly, “Here, I’ll get you out.”
“Thanks.” The pale face watched me. I rolled the older man off of him.
“Why, you’re a little boy!”
“I’m eleven,” he said, a little defiantly. “I’ve always been short, though.” I squatted next to him, then knelt on the floor.
“You want me to help you up?”
“Let me look at your leg and such first.” I found an upright pitcher of water on the table and washed his injuries with it. He winced and made faces and said ‘ouch’ a lot, but he didn’t give trouble. While I fixed him up we talked a bit.
“Who are you?” he asked curiously.
“I’m Elbereth,” I said matter of factly. “Arador told me to come here.”
“Really? Are you Princess Elbereth?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Arador told me to come here, just in case I was, so I would be safe, but…it doesn’t seem that it’s too safe here anymore.”
“No,” the boy agreed sadly, “it isn’t.”
So how did you get here?” I asked him.
“I was visiting my uncle,” he said, looking at the man who had been on top of him. “He got hurt about when I did, and when he fell, he pushed me under him, so they wouldn’t see me. If this is what it’s like to be a soldier, then I don’t think I want to be one anymore. Those crows were awful.” He was close to tears. I tried to think of something to distract him. I rembered the cook.
“Oh, I found the cook. He’s alive. He’s cut up a bit, er, quite a lot, but I think he’ll be fine.” The boy brightened considerably at that.
“Really!” he cried. “That’s good. Is any body else?”
“Not that I’ve found.” His face fell.
“There might be a few on the top,” he said hopefully. “I don’t know if they got them or not.”
“Do you think you can walk?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. We could try it.”
“All right.” I got a grip on his arms and hoisted him up. He didn’t weigh very much.
“Oo, ouch, ee, I don’t think I really want to.”
I set him down. “I know! I can take you down and leave you with the cook. Oh, by the way, what is your name?
“Fingil. I’m from Annuminas.”
“Oh. I’m from south of Bree.”
“What’s it like there?”
“Well, it’s pretty nice,” I admitted. Then I sobered. “Come on. I have to get you downstairs so I can look around more.” I got hold of him again. “You have to stand up so I can lift you,” I said. He eased upright.
“Are you sure you can carry me?”
“Yep. You’re going to ride piggy-back.”
He giggled. “I haven’t done that for a while.”
I chuckled and hunkered down so I could get him on my back. It took a while for him to get situated, but then we started off. I started to head for the door, then I stopped.
“Oh, we need the lantern; no, wait. I lit torches all the way back to the kitchen. Hmm. Stairs are going to be a little dark. Oh well, here goes.” I picked my way around the bodies of the slain. Fingil managed the door. I was glad to be out of there. I wondered what time it was. The clouds made it hard to tell.
The stairs were very dark. I footed my way down them carefully, pausing at each landing to rest. Fingil wasn’t that heavy, but he was big enough to upset my balance considerably. We finally reached the bottom safely. There was still no one in the hallway except the dead guard by the front door. My torches were still lit, though, which was good. When we reached the kitchen door I called out the the cook to let him know who we were.
“I’m back! I’ve got Fingil. We’re coming in now.”
Fingil opened the door and we made it in. The old cook was quite happy to see us. I deposited Fingil on the floor beside him and made him comfortable as well. The old man was curious as to what I had found.
“I found more men,” I said, “but they were all dead. They were in the mess hall. That’s where I found Fingil.” The cook sighed heavily.
“Poor lads! There could be more on the tower – that’s the second and third floors.”
“That’s what I said, Mardil,” the Fingil agreed.
“They’re probably all dead, but I’m going to look some more. Do you have some sort of bell? I want you to have some way of contacting me when I’m up there.” I looked around the kitchen.
Mardil pointed at the cabinet. “There’s a bell in there, a hand bell. There’s a bigger bell that rings upstairs to tell when it’s time for meals, but the rope’s behind that door in the wall next to the chimney, you just reach in and pull it. The hand bell will work fine.”
I found the small bell and put it next to Fingil. “See you later. Ring the bell if you hear someone come in.”
I went back upstairs. I stopped at the mess hall to collect my sword and the lantern. I also closed the shutters so the crows couldn’t get back in. I suddenly realized that I was very hungry. I didn’t feel like eating in here, but I took an untouched loaf of bread from one of the tables and took it with me to eat as I went along. I went out and closed the door.
I lit a torch at the top of the stairs, then went on. Farther down the hallway was a door on the left that led into a large dormitory that was about as big as the mess hall. I guessed it was for the guards stationed upstairs. No one was in it and it didn’t look as if it had been disturbed. I checked it carefully anyway, but still found no one. I closed the door and went on.
There were two armories next, one on either side of the hallway. Most of the weapons were there still, but there were also a total of three dead guards in them. I guessed that they had run for weapons but had been killed before they could fight. There was nothing I could do for them, so I closed the door and kept going. The dead men still made me nervous, but I was getting used to seeing them. It was strange to feel that way.
I walked cautiously along the hallway. I was nearly certain that all the guards had been killed, but I had to go on and try to help any that were still alive. Besides, I wouldn’t feel easy knowing that there were some places in here that I hadn’t explored or found out about.
The passage ended at some more stairs. They had twenty-one steps as well, with slit windows on each landing. A pale light shone down from the head of the stairs, giving the stones a ghostly pallor. I slowly climbed toward the light source, pulling my cloak closer to stop the chilly feeling that was creeping over me.
I went back upstairs. I stopped at the mess hall to collect my sword and the lantern. I also closed the shutters so the crows couldn’t get back in.
I suddenly realized that I was very hungry. I didn’t feel like eating in here, but I took an untouched loaf of bread from one of the tables and took it with me to eat as I went along. I went out and closed the door after me. I lit a torch at the top of the stairs, then went on. Farther down the hallway was a door on the left that led into a large dormitory that was about as big as the mess hall. I guessed it was for the guards stationed upstairs. No one was in it and it didn’t look as if it had been disturbed. I checked it carefully anyway, but still found no one. I closed the door and went on.
There were two armories next, one on either side of the hallway. Most of the weapons were there still, but there were also a total of three dead guards in them. I guessed that they had run for weapons but had been defeated anyway. There was nothing I could really do for them, so I closed the door and kept going. The dead men still made me nervous, but I was getting used to seeing them. It was strange to feel that way.
I walked cautiously along the hallway. I was pretty sure that all the guards had been killed, but I had to go on and try to help any that were still alive. Besides, I wouldn’t feel easy knowing that there were some places in here that I hadn’t explored or found out about.
There wasn’t much else on that floor. The passage ended at some more stairs. They had twenty-one steps as well, with slit windows on each landing. A pale light shone down from the head of the stairs, giving the stones a ghostly pallor. I slowly climbed toward the light source, pulling my cloak closer to stop the chilly feeling that was creeping over me.
When I got to the top of the stairs, the place wasn’t that creepy at first glance. This was the top of the tower, and a tall battlement encased the open space. In the south-eastern corner a smaller tower, the lookout post, rose slightly higher than the rest of the level. A sodden black velvet flag embroidered with a silver tree was flapping mournfully at its peak. I left my lantern on the topmost step. The rain had slackened, but the heavy gray clouds were racing past overhead, and thunder still rumbled occasionally in the west.
There were more bodies lying in a heap in the shadows off to the right. I went over to them. All dead. Some had been stabbed in the back, but the majority had been killed in combat.
I left them and went to the battlement.
The view was incredible! I could see for miles. The gloomy after-storm light made the area look lonely, but it gave me a thrill of something – freedom, perhaps, but the dead behind me gave me a prickly feeling down the back of my neck.
Hoofbeats rang out far below. I started, terrified. My heart hammered so hard that it hurt me. I put my hand over it to slow it down, but it didn’t help. I flattened myself beside an arrow slit, trying to see the approaching rider without being seen myself and clutching the dead guard’s sword in a death grip.
Chapter 9: Visitors
I scanned the landscape for a moving shape. I made out the dark outline of a horse on the road, coming from the west. I strained to see who it was, but I couldn’t tell. The horse was trotting slowly as if it had been going for a long time and was tired – sort of a dogged determination, but not quite complete exhaustion yet.
Then I rembered in a flash that Voronwë was down in the lot and the gate wasn’t locked. What if the man on horseback down there was one of the murderers? I looked toward the lookout post. It had to wait. This was more important, or was it? I looked back at the approaching figure. He was still pretty far away. I looked at the stairs. I picked up the lantern and ran up the tiny half-tower.
There was one figure here. As I approached him, he opened his eyes, scaring me. I jumped. He was almost as startled as I was for a second, then he relaxed.
“Who are you?” he whispered.
“My name’s Elbereth, or you can call me Beth, doesn’t really matter that much. Are you hurt bad?”
“Sort of. But I’m not dead yet!” he grimaced. Then he winced. “What about the others, what happened to them?”
“Most of them are dead. Mardil, the cook, and the boy, Fingil, are alive. Everyone else I’ve found has been dead.”
The guard stared at me in horror. “What? How? This is awful.” Suddenly we heard a shout from below. I turned toward the sound doorway, then back to the guard and explained.
“There’s someone coming along the road. The gate isn’t locked. I have to go down there. I’ll try to be back as soon as I can, do you mind?”
“No, go. I’ll be fine.”
I peered through the arrow slit again, saw more figures on horseback, and fled down the four flights of stairs, not even pausing to tell the cook and Fingil that there was someone outside. I darted down the side passage that led to the stable. I could dimly hear the clash of metal outside, and shouting. I slipped into the stable and closed it’s heavy door behind me. I stopped to catch my breath and get an idea of what was happening. Voronwë wasn’t in the building. I ran out into the courtyard.
Voronwë was up on the battlement of the outside wall, watching the goings on. I climbed up next to her – a little scared because there was no railing to keep me from falling back into the courtyard– and peeked over the wall.
There seemed to be a battle going on out there. Five or six horses were milling around, and blades flashed dimly in the moonlight as the riders fought desperately in the dark. Most of them seemed to be working together, trying to get behind one of the fighters. One of them raised his sword to strike, and I couldn’t help it.
I screamed, “Look out behind you!”
That startled all of them. The one that seemed to be fighting alone dashed forward towards the stockade. I jumped down from the wall and opened the gate. I caught a glimpse of the horse’s striped face as it dashed past me. The rider leapt from his horse beside me and slammed the bolts down as I pushed the gate shut in the faces of the other riders. There was a crashing thud as the foremost horse smashed into the door, and the gate shook. I secured the bolts the rest of the way before I really turned to see who the man I had let in was. I heard him gasp as I turned toward him. I stared in amazement. The man looking down at me, who I had let in, was Arador!
“Hello,” he said, seemingly for lack of something better to say. Then Voronwë landed almost beside us and pulled up short.
“Whoa,” I exclaimed, jumping back. She snorted. Suddenly there was a pounding on the gate. We started, brought back to the business at hand.
“Open the gate!” a rough voice demanded.
I was glad I was not there alone.
Arador countered, “Why should we?”
To me he said under his breath, “What do they think we are, stupid or something?” The way he said it made it funny, but I was too scared to laugh. The man outside went on.
“We have the authorization of the steward of Gondor and Arnor, his lordship Turin V. Authority has been given us to take all traitors and underminers of his realm into custody, to be judged according as his clemency sees fit.”
Arador snorted. He did not seem impressed. I rembered that he was the steward’s nephew, and that his uncle didn’t like him, but why wasn’t he obeying his uncle’s authority? It still held for him, didn’t it?
Arador pursed his lips, thinking. “Is that so?” he called back. “So I’m considered a traitor and disturber of the peace now, is that it?”
“We have our orders,” came the reply.
“Hmm. Well what if I don’t feel like being slaughtered in cold blood or poisoned or executed like a chicken just because I’m trying to find the true rulers of the place and in the process get my dear uncle bumped down a notch to where he belongs and he doesn’t like it? What about that?”
There was an angry murmur, and then low-voiced consultation on the far side of the gate. The voice spoke again.
“Then we shall lay seige to this place and force you to give yourself up to us. We will return in the morning to see if you have changed your mind.” I heard the sound of horses going away.
“Come on,” he said. “We have a while. They can’t get in unless they use ladders, and there aren’t any trees tall enough for miles. Why are you the only one here? Is something wrong? Where’s the garrison?”
“They’re inside. Dead, for the most part.”
He stopped short. “Dead?” he repeated incredulously. “How? When did it happen? Today?”
I took a deep breath. “From what the live ones have told me, some men who seemed to be travelers arrived sometime during the day yesterday. During the meal they suddenly pulled out weapons and started slaughtering everybody. It’s awful. There’s bodies here, there, and everywhere. I’ve only found three survivors.” Arador stared at me, shaken.
“Three? Only three?” He turned away.
When he continued speaking his voice was shaky. “I can’t believe it.” He slumped against the wall. “This is all my fault. They supported me and the queen, and my uncle found out about it.” His shoulders sagged and his head drooped dejectedly.
A strange thought struck me like a load of paving stones. If I was a princess, those men had died fighting for me. They had died because of me, or because of someone like me.
It was too much. Really it was my fault. I couldn’t think clearly.
Arador straightened and moved slowly toward the tower. I remembered that he had been fighting. Was he hurt? I touched his arm. He started.
“Are you all right? Did you get hurt out there?”
“No, I’m fine. What about the animals, did they take them?”
“Yes, all except some chickens and a cat.” I stepped in front of him and took Princess’s reins. He looked at me, puzzled. “Go inside. I’ll take care of her. The men – most of them, that is, that are alive – are in the kitchen.” Arador looked as if he was going to protest, then he sighed. He touched my shoulder with a hand that he hardly seemed able to control.
“Thanks,” he said. He ran a hand over his horse’s sweaty neck and went towards the door.
“Oh, wait!” I called. He turned toward me. “There’s a body just inside the door, just so you know.” Arador nodded and went on.
“Come on Princess – you too Voronwë.” I smiled tiredly. At least the animals didn’t seem to have that many worries or cares. They understood my mood, however. They insisted on nuzzling me all the way to the stable and making little comforting noises. They were obviously trying to cheer me up, and I must say that I appreciated it.
In the wine cellar it was dark. Very dark. A figure cautiously peered around the huge ale casks at the faint light coming under the door. At the approach of footsteps outside, it ducked back into its hiding place and melted into the inky blackness of the room.
I tended the two mares carefully and left the stable, then slipped up the stairs to the wall and cautiously peeked over the slightly outcurving edge. Nobody was there; that was good. I made a circuit of the wall and still found no one, so I climbed down and went back into the tower. The sky was completely dark now.
I found Arador with Fingil and Mardil in the kitchen. Arador had opened the door when he had heard me coming to see who it was.
“Hello.” I suddenly felt very tired. My adrenaline was giving out after being up all night. The calico cat rubbed up against my legs sleepily. “Hi kitty,” I said, picking her up. “Sleepy, hm?”
I rubbed her head and turned to Arador, feeling an overpowering urge to plop down in the nearest chair. “There’s a man up at the top that’s alive. I didn’t have time to bring him down here yet because I heard you coming on the road and I didn’t know who it was. We’d better bring him down.” He nodded.
We went up the stairs. On the next floor Arador turned to me.
“Where are the others?”
I made a face. “They’re in the mess hall. I checked them over – Fingil was the only one that was alive.”
He pushed open the door and went in. I didn’t. I had had enough. When he came out he looked years older. He closed the door without saying a word.
We went on. When we came to the top level he said that we needed to move the bodies so the birds couldn’t get them.
The wounded man was waiting for me. He was surprised to see Arador.
“How did you get here, Arador, er, my lord?” he asked. “You must have just arrived.”
Arador smiled. “I did. How are you doing?”
“Tolerable. They didn’t get me that good. I pretended I was dead when I was getting overwhelmed, I hope it wasn’t cowardly, but the situation was hopeless and the others were already gone. They had gotten my arm pretty well so it was hard to hold them off.”
Arador grimaced. “Well, at least you were prudent, Ciryon. It was probably wise. Come on, let’s get you downstairs where it’s more comfortable.”
We got him to his feet without too much difficulty. He put one arm around Arador’s shoulders on one side and held on to my arm on the other, and we managed quite well. Arador held the man’s sword belt to hold him up. We hobbled down the four flights of stairs and into the kitchen.
Arador went back upstairs to move the dead under cover. I started after him, but he stopped me in the hallway.
“Please, not this time,” he asked softly. I nodded and obeyed.
I hunted around the kitchen and rustled up something to eat for supper – fried eggs, cheese, potatoes, fresh bread. Arador returned when we were eating, and I fixed him a plate. He ate silently. None of us felt like talking much.
After a while, Arador said, “We’d better arrange for regular watches on the walls. I don’t think they have beseiging tools, but we should be prepared.”
Arador and Ciryon racked their brains for guarding shifts and what we were to do with the many unfortunate men who had fallen.
I volunteered my opinion. “I saw a lot of wood near the forge – maybe we could make some coffins and keep them in a cool place until we can bury them. We’re going to have to do it soon, like today or tomorrow.” Mardil nodded.
“Good idea. There were twenty men in the garrison all together. There should be enough wood. It’s on hand for emergencies like this anyway.”
“We’re going to have trouble guarding this place, with only three, counting Fingil, that aren’t hurt,” Arador said grimly. “The rest of you are going to have the job of making coffins. They don’t have to be fancy, but they have to be tight.”
“There’s sealer near the forge in a keg,” Mardil put in. “I can probably cook if Fingil helps me, and the rest of the time we can help Ciryon. You and, er, Elbereth…” he trailed off a moment, then blinked and went on, “will have to help us get the bodies into the boxes, though.”
I wasn’t looking forward to that, but there wasn’t much choice. It seemed that I was going to be a lookout, guard, and healer all tied up in one tired bundle called Elbereth Appledore.
Arador was talking. “The men outside said they would come back in the morning, so we need to be watching on the walls. I will take the first watch. Elbereth, I’ll call you after midnight. It’s getting late, so those of you who aren’t watching had best go to bed.” He turned to me. “Where do you want to stay?” he asked softly.
I realized the delicacy of the situation. “I’ll take a corner in here, if that is all right.”
“And we’ll stay on the other side,” Mardil proposed. Then nobody is off by themself if we’re attacked again.”
Fingil helped me find bedding for everyone while Arador went outside for the first watch. We banked up the fire and went to sleep in our corners of the big stone kitchen.
I woke up with a start the next morning. Arador had not called me! I slipped out of the kitchen to look for him. He was standing above the gate, leaning on the battlement.
“You didn’t call me,” I accused him.
“You needed to rest,” he answered. “I didn’t.”
I looked at his red-rimmed eyes and thought differently, but decided not to argue.
“Are the rest up yet?”
“No. When do you think those…men will come back?”
“Should be soon. But’s early yet.”
“Well, I’ll fix some breakfast. Are you going to come in for it?”
“Send Fingil out for me when you’re ready.”
I went back inside. After breakfast, Arador gave me instructions for when the time for parleying came.
“Stay near the top to watch them. I’ll go down and talk with them. You need to shout if you see any with bows.”
We hastily finished the remains of our breakfast and went to our appointed duties. I was almost to the top floor when I heard a hail from below. I ran across the windswept open space to the rampart and peered down. I could see Arador crouching on the walkway over the gate, and outside three men sat on their horses, while beyond them in the brush I saw two more, but none of them seemed equipped with arrows or means to send them.
A tall man who carried a long sword was speaking, but the wind was strong and I could only catch snatches of what he said.
I heard Arador laugh, and then he said, loud and clear, “This is my answer, the final one. We will not surrender to you now or ever. That is my last word, and you can stop trying to convince me of my uncle’s mercy and clemency, because I know from personal experience that he possesses those virtues in very small amounts.” Arador stayed there for a minute, and he seemed to be listening.
The tall man spoke again, then he and the others rode back to their companions and held a meeting. They finished and trotted toward the Weather Hills and out of sight, or, that is, out of the sight of someone closer to ground level than I was. I, however, watched them make a wide circle around the tower and split up, positioning themselves at intervals like sentries, only they were watching us. In a few minutes Arador joined me.
“So, what have they done since they rode off? Spread out to watch us?”
I nodded. “See, they’re in a big circle, and they are all mounted, so they can communicate quickly if we try to get out.” I pointed their positions out to him. He nodded thoughtfully.
“Hmm. We have two horses, and if we charged through the gate… It’s still pretty risky – we have five people to get out, and three of them are wounded.”
“Could we send the wounded out on the horses while we slipped out on foot? None of them have bows that I saw.”
Arador stared at me thoughtfully. “It might work, but we have to wait for a dark night. The moon’s almost full now, but I think we have plenty of provisions, at least for a few weeks.”
“I have some in my saddle bags, from what you gave me, and from home. With that and what we have we can last for a while.”
Suddenly there were shouts from below, inside the tower. We both turned sharply to see, and Arador dashed for the stairs. After a second and a glance toward the sentries I followed him.
We careened headlong down the stairs, swept around the last turn onto the landing just before the first floor and stopped. Arador stood ahead of me, sword drawn, listening intently. All noise had ceased. I looked around in apprehension. What was going on?
Then I heard someone laugh.
“Gelion!” Ciryon was exclaiming, from somewhere not that far away. “So that’s where you’ve been. How did you get there without being seen?”
Arador relaxed and turned to me. “Sounds as though they’ve found someone.” We scurried down to the wine cellar door, which was open. A boy, older than Fingil, probably about my age or a little younger, was helping Ciryon up off the floor. Fingil was leaning against the door frame.
“Arador!” the strange boy exclaimed. “You’re here? When did that happen?” Then he saw me and stopped, confused.
“This is Elbereth,” Arador explained hastily. “She might be what we’re looking for…you know,” he said.
“When did you get here, Arador?” the boy asked, with a curious look for me.
“I arrived near sunset and found the place in an uproar with Elbereth for a gate warden.”
I blushed and looked quickly away.
“Come on, Gelion,” Fingil exclaimed. “Mardil’s probably dying to know what we were hollering and making the fuss about.”
So we made the pilgrimage to the kitchen to inform the cook of the addition to our number. I also found out more about the boy. Gelion was Fingil’s cousin, the son of the uncle who had protected him in the fight. He was very much shocked by his father’s death, and was very quiet. Arador seemed to respect how he felt and did not press him, and he quietly told the rest of us to let him be alone for a while. He took Gelion to the mess hall to see his father, and the rest of us were subdued for quite some time, out of respect and sympathy.
When Arador and Gelion returned, we discussed plans for escape and we improved and elaborated on the plan of the able slipping out while the wounded made a dash for it on horseback.
Then we went to our respective duties. Gelion watched at the gate, and Arador and I walked around the top of the battlement, on guard. It was a rather boring job, so we talked to pass the time.
Arador told me more about his family and Gondor. I couldn’t really tell him about the Shire and Granny, so I mostly listened.
“Do you know what I liked to do when I was little? I would go up to the huge outcrop of rock that juts out from the seventh level of Minas Tirith and try to shout loud enough to hear an echo. Sometimes I could, but more often than not I couldn’t. My mother didn’t approve of it, and now I can see why.”
He smiled at the remembrance. I laughed.
“I know that if I had tried it Granny would disapprove and…” I realized what I had just said, and I tremulously finished, “…and say I sounded like a foghorn.”
He hesitated a moment then burst out,“Elbereth, are you running away from your family? I don’t want to make you angry, but it seems almost like you are.”
I looked at my feet. How could I explain about the Shire and everything? He was looking at me intently, worriedly. Finally I blurted out, “Well, er, I grew up in the Shire.”
Arador didn’t catch the full meaning of what I said right away, but then it hit him like a cartload of bricks rolling down a hill.
“The Shire? But you’re a girl, wait, that’s not what I mean, you’re a person, a human; how could you have?”
“I know,” I answered, feeling ridiculous. “I’ll explain.”
So I blurted out my story. I informed him how I had found just outside a private gate that led into Buckland when I was just a baby, and how the hobbits had found what was presumed to be my name stitched into the soft wool blanket they found me wrapped up in. I wound up with the events that had made me leave voluntarily – the attack on Sam Brandybuck, the fire, meeting Voronwe, Mrs. Angelica’s upset (which made him laugh, by the way) and the reason why Granny and I had decided that I’d better leave, at least for a while. I didn’t feel quite right telling the part about returning, but I did anyway. I felt he would understand why we planned on it, since after all that was where I had lived all my life.
“Now I understand the Elbereth Appledore,” he said when I had finished.
“Yes. Granny thought that would be good, since she was literally adopting me. My first name, though, was on the blanket.”
Arador was looking more and more thoughtful and agitated.
“And you are about the princess’s age. When is your birthday?”
“Granny always made the day they found me, May 16, like my birthday, so I say I’ll be sixteen then. She didn’t know my real one, but she thought I was about five months old when she got me.”
“Today’s the sixteenth.”
“It is? I lost track of the days.”
Arador smiled. “Happy Birthday.”
Arador got back on track. “When the hobbits found you…May…that is about two months after the Queen left Minas Tirith.” He began walking distractedly back and forth. “Everything you’ve just said has been more and more proof that you may be who we hope you are.”
He looked at me steadily, clearly wondering how I would react. I did a bit of fast thinking. Where was all this taking me? I might find who I really was, who my parents were, and if I had any family. I would find out if I were a princess or not.
But then again, Arador was in such disfavor with his uncle that he might be imprisoned, or even killed, and then what would happen to me? And if he found out that I was a princess, I wouldn’t be able to go back to Granny, and she would be all alone. I didn’t want to do that.
A wave of homesickness swept over me at the thought of Granny and her little hobbit hole. Every feature rushed at me – the garden, the flowers, the window boxes, my room, Granny’s eyes, twinkling over a joke; everything would be gone if I became a princess.
But what about my family? What about my parents? My relatives? Should I let them worry and fear and grieve over their lost daughter? What should I do?
I looked at the young man standing beside me and then looked away, past the wide flatlands between this lonely tower near the hills, back toward the place where I had grown up.
And other questions flooded my head. What if Arador found out that I wasn’t the princess? What would I do then? Could I go back to live with Granny again, take care of her when she got too old to do her housework, and the little bit of gardening she loved?
“I’m beginning to wonder if I want to be a princess after all. It sounds rather dangerous.”
Arador smiled wryly. He knew I was only half serious.
Chapter 10: Escape
That evening the whole troop of us was sitting around the fireplace, packing supplies for our escape. We rationed out a good amount of food for each of us and packed it into saddlebags (in my case), and packs and even a couple of sacks for the others. The horses had been given a good feed and only needed to be saddled. Ciryon, Gelion, and Fingil had been able to finish several coffins, most of them double (for convenience), and we had filled them with the dead and moved them to a cool place near the forge. That done, there had been a bit of shuffling before it was decided who should say something, but finally Arador, being the highest dignitary, had said a few words. That over we had returned to guard duty and packing, and now were about ready to go.
I would be sorry to leave the others, Arador and Mardil in particular. I had become very fond of the crusty old man, but my liking for Arador was of a different sort. I supposed I was somewhat in love with him. I always wanted to talk to him, but when we did meet I could find little to say, and blushed instead. I didn’t want to seem partial, and I tried to talk to all of them, but I felt like he was watching me quite often. He was very nice.
At sunset we checked on the positions of our enemies and memorized where they sat. Gelion and Arador would accompany me past the sentries, while Mardil, Fingil, and Ciryon rode Voronwe and Princess and dashed past the men who watched the gate. We were confident of both horses’ speed and agility, and hoped greatly on their success. Arador had arranged a meeting place with them, some long abandoned trolls’ lair in the hills, from whence they could go to their separate homes and ways. Fingil would go back with Gelion, Ciryon would return to his home north of Annuminas, and Arador would take Mardil to the old man’s sister’s house, where he would be able to recover. Arador would go south, he told me.
“I have some important business there,” he told me, as we stood on the tower, scanning the surrounding area for the sentries. “Very important. And, I must say, most of it concerns you, as I said this morning.”
“Yes,” he replied. “I must tell you something. I – believe – that I have found out something more about you.” He seemed pleased.
“I’ve been looking at this ring,” he casually lifted my hand, startling me, so I saw what he meant, “and I think I have seen it before. In Gondor. When I was a boy.”
I removed the ring from my first finger and held it out to him.
Arador smiled his little charming, crooked smile that pulled up only one side of his mouth. He began to slowly turn the ring in his hands, inspecting every part of it, then, frowning, leaned closer until the tip of his nose nearly touched the green gem. Still frowning, he experimentally slid it onto his finger and held it away to look at the effect. “Is it a man’s ring?”
“I have no idea. It is a little large.”
He took the ring off and gave it back. “I believe I’ve memorized it now. When I leave, I will see if I can find a drawing of it in the archives – then I will know for certain.” Arador looked thoughtful. “Will you be riding to Gondor?”
“I – suppose. Now more than ever?”
“It would be – very good – to have you there. Where I can keep an eye on you and Uncle at the same time. Not that you need watching,” he explained, “but maybe guarding.”
We took another turn around the battlement. “Do you know the way?” Arador asked at last.
“Roughly enough to arrive. I follow those mountains,” I pointed, “until I come to the pass, and then I follow the other mountains until I come to Edoras, and then I assume there is a road to Minas Tirith.”
“Yes. But I do not want you going there alone. Wait for me in Edoras. If you are in danger, go straight to the King and explain everything. He is your uncle, if it happens that I am right. He will protect you in any case.”
“How is he related to my ‘parents’?” I was acquiring relatives at an alarming rate.
“His wife, Queen Merrilen, is your ‘father’s’ sister. And he himself was a close friend of the King. They have a son who is slightly younger than you are, who would be your cousin.”
“I see.” I shook my head to clear it. “How soon do you suppose you will be in Edoras?”
“Hopefully within a month, unless I am assassinated,” he said cheerfully.
“Somehow I do not find that very comforting,” I grimaced. Arador chuckled and checked the sentries once more.
“We had better go down, in any case. It is getting dark, and the others will be waiting.”
“How long will it be, do you think, before you’ll be able to send Voronwe back for me?” I asked, as he opened the door for me and we started down the dark stairs.
“I don’t know,” Arador shrugged. “It all depends if the others can shake them as soon as we hope to do. Gelion and I will go as fast as we can – luckily for us he knows a short-cut, so we won’t have to follow the road. What if,” he said suddenly, “I have them send her back for you as soon as they’re safe? You wouldn’t have to wait so long then.”
“No, don’t do that. I can wait. If they wait for you and Gelion, I’ll know that you’re probably safe, because it will take longer. You could send a note with Voronwe,” I added hopefully. “It would let me know that you all made it.”
“It’s a good idea,” Arador acknowledged, “yes, I will do that.”
After a while, we put out all the lights and said good-byes, grouped for possibly the last time in the old kitchen. I’m afraid I was a little emotional, but everyone else was too, so it wasn’t that bad. Then we all went to the stables to saddle up. We got Mardil and Ciryon, who was almost able to walk by himself now, onto the horses, and Fingil led the mares to the gate.
Arador, Gelion, and I then scurried back upstairs to a north window where we had a rope. The window was in a dark corner in the wall, in the shadow of a butress, and the ground below was lumpy and overgrown – good cover in the heavy darkness.
The others would give us a little time to get down the rope, then, when we heard the gate creak, they would run for it and so would we.
Gelion dropped the coil of rope over the sill after Arador fastened one end to a bed frame, then slid carefully down.
“Go,” Arador whispered to me. “I’ll go last.”
I climbed carefully out of the narrow opening. Arador kept a grip on my wrist until I got a hold on the rope.
“Thanks,” I whispered, feeling recklessly incautious and embarrassed and dizzied by being so close to him. “I’m fine now.”
I began inching down the wall. Gelion held the end of the rope so it would not swing so much. He steadied me once I reached the ground, and soon Arador was slithering down, muttering under his breath because his scabbard kept clinking against the stones. He dropped lightly to the ground, and we all peered around. The sentries didn’t appear to notice us.
On hands and knees, Gelion in the front and Arador in the rear, we began to inch away from the wall, easing our way through the tall grass. Behind me Arador, hissed, “There they go!”
I could see his teeth shining as he grinned. Shouts rang out, and more hooves began to shake the ground. I heard the rasp of steel leaving steel as Arador and Gelion carefully drew their swords. We were still now, with only a few more yards until we were safe in the bushes.
“Looks clear,” Gelion whispered, and began to move again. I started to get up to keep moving – and Arador’s hand clutched my ankle. I jumped, then twisted my head around to see him.
“Don’t move!” he mouthed. Then I heard it. A horse, slow-footing toward us. It was so close I heard the faint creak of the saddle and the jingle of the bit. I heard Gelion catch his breath ever so quietly. The horse snorted. I was holding my breath. Swifter hoof beats came up, crashing through the shrub just ahead of Gelion.
“Come on, what are you dawdling for!” a harsh voice rasped. “They’ve gone, the Chief wants us to follow.”
“But – ”
“Never mind ‘but’” snarled the newcomer. “Get moving or you’ll pay for it.”
“But I thought I saw something move,” protested the other obstinately.
“And you thought you saw something move,” the harsh-voiced one sneered. “Imbecile! Haven’t you ever heard of the wind? Don’t you know there were only two of them in the tower? The steward’s brat and the girl? They’ve just left, there was nobody else, they’re all dead, REMEMBER? Now MOVE IT!”
The other mumbled something unintelligible, but he followed.
Arador let go of my ankle. “Let’s go now.”
I eased to my hands and knees, trying to move quietly, but my skirt was caught under my knees and as I shifted it, I cracked a stalk, wincing at the noise. Finally we reached the bushes. Now the scrub was taller and we could walk crouching instead of crawling. Little twigs and brambles kept catching in my hair and scratching my face, and I kept tripping on my skirt.
My back was aching from bending over for so long when we reached a jutting ridge that marched out from the Weather Hills.
“Is this far enough?” I asked.
“Yes,” Arador replied, peeking over the top of the ridge. “I don’t see them. Gelion, let’s go.”
Gelion nodded to me, then it was Arador’s turn. “In Edoras, then. I will come as soon as I can. Good luck.” He held out his hand.
I took it gingerly and squeezed it, but then Arador stood a moment, still holding my hand. “I hope – that I am right. Good-bye…Elbereth,” he said softly, looking down at me. He was smiling the little smile that made my heart do triple time, but I didn’t want him to stop.
“Good-bye,” I returned briskly, smiling cheerfully at him in the dark. “Don’t get lost, either of you.” I watched them go silently – well, almost silently – off into the night, and I wondered if I would ever see either of them again.
Long after they were gone, I kept watch in their direction. Admit it, you like him, I told myself severely. However, you don’t know much about him, and you’re going to keep your feelings to yourself. Now, find a comfortable spot and wait until Voronwë gets back.
That took quite some time, longer than I expected. I hoped that was a good sign. I had fallen asleep by the time Voronwë returned. She woke me by gently sticking her nose under my chin. I jumped awake with a start, and for a minute I didn’t know where I was. Then I remembered.
“I see you have returned, madam,” I said teasingly, ruffling her ears. “How’d it go?” Voronwë snorted softly and cocked her head back and forth, almost saying, so-so, not that bad. I laughed a little, and she blew hoarsely, her nostrils flaring, her eyes showing white, reminding me of the danger. “Oh, yes, I remember; I must be quiet.” I said more softly. “Do you have anything for me, big girl?”
The mare flicked her head toward the saddle. I got up and found, on closer inspection, a note sticking out of an outer pocket of the left saddlebag. I pulled it carefully out and unfolded it.
Elbereth – They killed Ciryon; he fell off. Fingil is taking it hard. The rest of us are fine. Watch out for wargs and wolves, they can be nasty. Keep your sword handy and your eyes open. May the Valar protect you.
It was a shame that there was so much hate in the world.
Lindorie slipped through the shadows by the side of the East road, leading the chunky farm horse she had purchased upon leaving Bree that morning. Her progress had been slow but steady. The north gatekeeper had said something about the girl’s going east. That was the only clue she had. But it was enough. She had to find that girl. And it had to happen soon, before the girl was found by the steward’s men. Arador could be trusted, that was a relief, but even he might not be able to do enough.
It had been a long time since she had last seen her daughter.
Now she would be sixteen. If only she had been in the shop when Arador had brought her in, so she could have seen her!
“Elbereth,” she whispered, a catch in her voice. A flood of memories rushed over her, of innocent blue eyes and wispy hair, of tiny little toes and fingers that had tangled themselves in her hair and her heartstrings. Of her husband, so long dead, killed in the time of youth that had ended so abruptly that night for him and for her.
It had been a long road since then. The terrifying trip north, the horrible fear of being caught, the heart-wrenching parting with her child. Then the days she had spent looking for employment nearby, and finding the position with Leafwell and his wife. The long years of housework and the tormenting fear that she not done right in leaving her baby with the little people.
Tears filled her eyes as she remembered what had been, before her world had overturned and her happiness had fled. Lindorie had not been her name then. No, she had been someone quite different. Her hair had been different, too. Then it had been dark, dark brown, almost black, untouched by any of the red dye that now stained the part of it around her face.
The gelding’s nicker jerked her back to the present. Someone was coming; she had to get off the road. She pulled the clumsy horse behind a low rise and held its nose to keep it quiet. The jingle of bits and the creak of leather sounded loud in her ears. Lindorie watched through a screen of bushes as the group passed. Men, six of them. Haradrim. She knew that immediately. They were probably on the track of the very person she was tracking. The men talked among themselves, and she strained to hear. They sounded disgruntled.
“Don’t see how they managed to give us the slip,” one grumbled. “That one we took care of wasn’t Arador or the girl. I thought we had killed him in the tower, but he must have played dead or passed out. They must have found him.”
“Yeah. And how’d they hide the tracks in the dark, that’s what I wonder,” whined another. “They left hardly a trace worth following.”
“Why don’t we just give up?” suggested a third.
“Because we have our orders,” rasped an authoritive voice. “If you want to go back to Turin,” the woman stiffened at the name, “empty-handed, go ahead. That’s an easy way to lose pay and favor, and your head as well, all right.”
This was followed by more disjointed mumbling, but the woman called Lindorie’s heart leaped. They had not caught Elbereth! She had gotten away!
She waited until the rattle of horses’ hooves faded into the distance, then mounted. The chesnut was tired, and he had never been much to speak of, but she had to go faster now. Weathertop, the tower the men had mentioned, was not far ahead.
Lindorie dismounted in the silent courtyard and led her mount into the stable. She found a lantern, lighted it, and slipped into the tower. Nothing alive met her eyes. The cat that had greeted Elbereth had gone with Mardil, and the last chickens had been taken by the steward’s men. Aside from the constant, slow drip-drip of the water that ran into the well, there was absolute silence.
She squared her shoulders, drew her cloak around her more tightly, and set about searching for any sign of Elbereth or Arador’s presence. She had visited this tower, over fifteen years ago; her memories would have to serve her now. She roamed the silent hallways and the bare rooms, looking for any signs of life. She found the coffins near the forge, read the crudely carved inscriptions and breathed a sigh of relief. Neither Arador nor her daughter was in any of them.
But wait! Who had made these? Certainly not the steward’s men. That she knew from experience. There must be either someone still alive here, or those who had escaped had done it. She remembered the news of the one man that had been killed escaping. Had he done it? But where were Arador and Elbereth? Where had they gone? They were definitely not in the tower, that was certain, after the search she had made. They must have escaped as well. That was good, of course, but now she had almost no ideas as to where they had gone.
If Arador was taking Elbereth to a place of safety, they would be anywhere from ten to thirty miles from here by now. It was so frustrating! They could only have been gone a couple of hours, at most! And worse was the knowledge that she could never catch them with the mount she had now. She would have to plan a strategy to intercept them, or at least to follow in their general direction.
It seemed most likely that they would have headed south toward Tharbad, and from there on to the plains of the horselords. Arador knew that Leofa of Rohan would give Elbereth protection, but – but would she be safe even there? Lindorie suddenly realized that she could not stay safely at Weathertop much longer. The men would probably be back. She hurried down to the stables again and mounted her tired horse. A few more miles, and she would make camp. No fire. She would start for Tharbad in the morning.
Meanwhile, Arador, Mardil, Fingil, and Gelion sat around a sputtering fire in what used to be the home of the three notorious trolls Tom, Bert, and Bill, who had become known to the general world with the publishing of the memoirs of one Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit of great renown. (These trolls had been encountered by the hobbit and his companions, thirteen dwarves, and the wizard Gandalf, the bearer of the elven Ring of Fire. The wizard had kept the trolls arguing until daybreak, when they had turned into stone, in which state they may be seen today by the curious visitor to the North.)
Thus their home was uninhabited. Another famous hobbit, Frodo Baggins, author of the ‘Lord of the Rings’, the chronicles of his adventures in the War of the Ring, together with King Aragorn II and three other hobbits, also saw the stone trolls on their way to Rivendell, T.A. 3020, nearly six hundred years before the fugitives from Amon Sul spent the night in the trolls’ cave.
The smell of troll had quite worn off.
Next morning Lindorie was up early. She ate a frugal breakfast, then scrambled up a pile of boulders to scan the countryside for signs of her enemies. Slowly she turned in a complete circle, shielding her eyes with her hand. When she had determined that there were none in sight she slid ungracefully down to her horse and mounted. With a last look at the surround, she turned the chesnut south and started for Tharbad.
That same morning Fingil routed the others out of their blankets early.
“It’s daylight,” he whispered, as Arador jerked awake at the hand on his shoulder.
“Well, we may as well wake up the others. It’s a long ride,” he yawned, straightening the kinks in his back.
The two friends woke up the others. Gelion helped fix up something to eat, and they put out the fire.
“We’ll take turns riding,” Arador said decisively. “Mardil, you’ll have to ride the whole way, but the rest of us will take turns riding behind you. Fingil, you can ride first.”
“But Arador, won’t it save Princess more if we take a turn riding only if we’re really tired? Because I’m not tired now.”
“All right, good idea. Come on.” The young man turned and started down the hill, following the faint trail they had followed the night before.
Gelion slung his quiver over his shoulder and walked quickly to catch up to him. “So we’re going to stick close to the hills?”
“Yes. I hope that way we won’t be spotted. They will be on the patrol today on the eastern roads. When we pass the tower we’ll stop and see if they buried Ciryon. If they haven’t, we will do it.”
Fingil walked beside Princess and talked with Mardil. The old man was feeling better today and was able to hold the reins himself. They kept their voices down. They didn’t want anyone looking for them to be able to track them with their eyes closed.
Later they stopped for lunch about a half mile to the northeast of Weathertop. Arador and Gelion went off to see to Ciryon, but they returned in about an hour.
“They buried him,” Arador said when they were in earshot of the others. “Somebody went to the tower last night. Not a sign of Elbereth where we left her either, except footprints and broken twigs. The mare got back to her then, they must be heading south already. That’s good. We didn’t see any of Turin’s men at all.”
“Good,” grunted Mardil. “The less I see of them, the better.”
Arador smiled grimly.
The afternoon was uneventful. They skirted the Midgewater Marshes on the north side, and finally reached the main road to Annuminas. Here Gelion and Fingil set off together for their homes to break the sad news of Geliad’s death, and Arador swung up behind Mardil to ride the last few remaining miles to the old man’s married sister’s house, where Mardil stayed when he occasionally got off work for a few weeks. The kindly people pressed Arador to stay the night with them, and he gratefully accepted, on the condition that they not tell anyone who he really was, in case the steward’s men made trouble for them. The young man knew that his presence would not go long undetected, on account of his popularity, but at least it would keep Mardil’s relations safe for the night he stayed under their roof.
That night Arador had trouble sleeping. He was comfortably bedded down on the floor in Mardil’s room, and he had eaten a wonderful dinner, but sleep steadily evaded him as he stared up at the blackness. A face hovered unbidden before his eyes, smiling trustingly up at him, framed by loose strands of hair that had escaped from the braid at the back of her head. He sighed and turned his head to look out the window. Should he have let her go on into the wild alone? She couldn’t have an idea of what it was like. What if something happened to her? If she didn’t make it he would never be able to forgive himself. He remembered the excited grin she had worn when she slid down the rope from the window. She’ll be all right, he told himself doggedly. The mare will take care of her, at least.
He forced his mind to turn from the troubling question of his feelings to the difficulties ahead. Where should he go? If he went all the way to Minas Tirith to hunt through the libraries there, he would only arouse suspicion. But he needed information, lots of it. Illustrations would be a great help…his mind roamed to a tall black tower at the foot of the Misty Mountains.
Isengard! Most of the wizard Saruman’s collection of books was still there. The wizard would have been interested in the history of the Numenorean kings because of his search for the One Ring. If only there was something on heirlooms there!
He would go to Isengard. Tomorrow. He had planned to leave then, but he hadn’t known exactly where to go. Fingil and Gelion had gone on to their homes already. Mardil had been the last, and he would understand. He looked at the sleeping form in the bed a few feet away. The old cook was snoring lustily. Arador smiled fondly. Yes, Mardil would understand. He also wouldn’t ask many questions either, though the shrewd old man would probably guess that it had something to do with Elbereth. The young man chuckled softly as he thought of what Mardil would probably think then.
The next morning Arador had the disquieting feeling that he was running out of time. He packed his bags and slung them over his mare, then turned for a quick farewell to his hosts. He had said goodbye to Mardil earlier, and he shook hands with the man’s sister and her husband – stout, comfortable people, already proud grandparents. The woman pressed him to take some fried eggs, sandwiched in a small loaf of bread, for breakfast, even if he had to eat it on the road. Arador accepted gratefully, nodded, and swung himself into the saddle. A touch of his heels to Princess’s flanks and they were gone. The two old people watched him ride away, straight and tall in his saddle, his dark hair swept back by the early morning wind.
Chapter 11: The Fight
Voronwe pulled up gladly, snorting and blowing as she splashed into the river shallows to drink. I wiped my face on my sleeve.
“Phewf, hot today, huh, old girl?” Voronwe stuck her head almost completely underwater in reply and flung her head back, tossing droplets at me. “All right, I’m coming in, just wait a second.”
I pulled one foot up in front of me and began unlacing my boot, keeping the other foot in the stirrup to steady myself. I finished that one and did the other, then tossed both articles of footwear onto the grassy bank. I dislodged my bare toes from the cool irons and dropped down next to the mare. The water felt wonderful. I swept the saddle bags off her back and toted them to the bank, then removed the saddle and bridle.
“There, go play for a while.” I grinned wryly as the horse waded out into deeper water.
We had been on the road two days since that night at Weathertop when Ciryon was killed. Well, more like one, in the terms of actual travel. We had gotten a late start the morning after leaving Weathertop, and now it was mid afternoon of the day afterwards. I dug through the baggage and located the map.
This river was the Hoarwell, or, if we were south enough, the Greyflood. Well, I would find out which one it was if we crossed another river soon. I didn’t know if I had been holding a pretty true course or not, but I thought we were closer to the junction of the Hoarwell and the Loudwater than I had planned to be. I would have liked to see Rivendell, the ancient home of the Elves, but the map was very vague and while my memory of it’s location was pretty good, I didn’t want to risk it without a good map. It was probably just as good; that far north was pretty wild, and I didn’t want to run into trouble. Maybe some day I could go to Rivendell, with my family perhaps, if I ever found them.
Right now I wanted to go south, to Rohan and Gondor, the great southern realms of men.
I carefully tucked the map back into the pocket of the saddlebag and pulled my single braid over my shoulder. I yanked out the ribbon bow and unraveled it from my hair. I pulled the braid apart, shook my head to loosen it all up, and splashed into the clear shallow water after Voronwe.
Half an hour or more later we returned to the bank and I had some lunch – bread and cheese from Bree and an apple. Voronwe applied herself to ferociously trimming the surrounding grass.
“How ‘bout staying here for the rest of the day, huh?” I asked the mare lazily. “Sure is nice.”
Voronwe tickled my chin with her whiskers and went back to her grazing. I stretched out on the tall, soft grass and took a nap. When I woke up the sun was quite over to the west, but it wasn’t dark yet. I decided to try to go fishing. I whittled a little hook and dangled it from a long stick. The water was clear enough for me to see the fish, so I could pick and choose a bit for a big one. I waved my bait (a nice fat worm) under the bored noses of several good-sized trout before I was rewarded by any response. A big sunfish went for the poor worm and tried to steal my improvised rod as well. I flipped him up onto the bank and almost lost him while I was trying to hold onto him and find something to clout him over the head with. Voronwe watched the proceedings with great interest, and when the fish started flopping back toward the river, she stepped on him carefully to hold him still.
“Thanks, I can take it now,” I said, laughing.
The mare cocked her head at me airily.
She snorted forcibly.
“Oh,” I bowed. “If it please you madam, may I please have the fish?!” I gritted out the last few words in mock impatience. Voronwe carefully lifted a dainty gray hoof and gave the fish a cautious nudge, studying it curiously. It flopped under her very nose, and she jumped back in surprise and gently held it down again. She looked at me questioningly, her head tilted to one side, her sweeping forelock spilling rakishly over one eye.
“Thanks.” I got a grip on the fish. Voronwe lifted her foot to let me grab it, and I clubbed it hard a couple times. “Never seen one of these things out of the water before, have you?” I grinned at her. “Well, I am going to eat him, believe it or not, but I don’t think you’d like the taste.”
As I sat by the little fire under the willows that night, cleaning up after the meal, Voronwe suddenly stiffened. Her ears swept back alongside her head, her tail flicked up, her head lowered menacingly, and I thought she growled. But wait, horses don’t growl…it was a wolf!
I caught just a quick glimpse of a dark shape with shining eyes under the trees before it was gone. Voronwe didn’t relax. She edged a little closer to me and the fire, and I scrambled to my feet. It felt like every hair on the back of my neck was standing up as tall as it could. I looked around nervously, my hand on the sword from Weathertop. I glanced down at it for a moment, thinking how stupid it was to stand there and be as afraid as if I had no weapons. I drew the blade and peered into the shadows. The fire was burning down; it needed more wood. I picked up a nearby branch and shoved it into the little fire, then tossed a handful of leaves and grass on it to make it flare up.
The sudden glow lighted the clearing with a flash. My eyes went wide. There, under the trees, were four wolves, thin, scrawny, their green-yellow eyes glowing menacingly. I darted a glance behind me. Our camp was right by the water’s edge, at least they weren’t behind us yet, but they encircled the fire all around us. A snarl brought my full attention back to them with a jerk.
One wolf, a little bigger than the rest, was standing a little forward, hackles raised threateningly as she faced the bared teeth and flashing eyes Voronwe was regarding her with. Then, with eye-blurring speed, the mare leapt into action.
Long white forelegs smashed down as she grabbed the wolf by the scruff of the neck and pounded it into pulp. The wolves made a rush. I swung the sword awkwardly at one that was sneaking around behind Voronwe. The blade hit just above the shoulder blades. The wolf turned and jumped at me, snarling, his fangs gleaming and wet. I stepped back and brought the sword up to try to block his charge. He crashed into me, trying to get my throat. His claws raked my shoulders and I staggered back, trying to push him off of me.
I tripped over a root and fell, the wolf on top of me. I pushed the loose fur at the base of his throat to hold him off, the sword useless at such close quarters. The knife! I groped for it with my left hand. It was under me, it wouldn’t come out. I shifted, punched the wolf in the eye to make him back off, and whipped the curving blade out. The wolf pushed forward again and I stabbed at him. The knife made a slash in his neck, but it didn’t kill him. I shifted the blade to my right hand and struck past the gleaming, snarling teeth at his throat. The wolf gurgled sickly. I pushed the dying animal to one side and jumped up. Voronwe was like a white whirlwind – she was holding her own against the two remaining wolves. I grabbed the sword, my knife in my left hand again, and gave the nearest one a solid whack on the back of the neck. He crumpled soundlessly, and the single remaining attacker decided that discretion was the better part of valor and showed a clean pairs of heels, howling in discouragement.
Voronwe neighed a defiant challenge after the retreating form. Then she turned complacently back to me as if nothing had happened.
“My, old girl, you sure are a fighter. Afraid I’m not much of one, however.” I rubbed behind her ears and started numbly going over the mare’s sleek body, looking for injuries.
Voronwe was practically unscathed. A few scratches ran down her legs, but she seemed alright. She sniffed at the blood welling from the scratches in my shoulders from the wolf’s claws, then at my bloody hands.
“Hmm, I got more beat up than you did. I’m going to see if I can wash these off. You may as well come too, my four-legged bodyguard.” I waded unsteadily a little ways from the bank and sat down on a rock, wincing as the cool water seeped into the claw marks. Voronwe splashed over, and I leaned against her solid white shoulder, thankful to be alive and to have a friend.
I was starting to shiver in the cool darkness, so I turned my attention to cleaning up my injuries. I leaned forward until my shoulders were under water and rubbed them gently. I took my hands out of the water and inspected them. They were rather cut up, but the bleeding was slowing down, which was good. Suddenly I wondered why the wolves had attacked us. Were they that hungry? The country seemed lush, but was there a food shortage? I hadn’t seen any deer or even rabbits all day. With such a large pack they could easily have cleaned out the area pretty well. I hoped the reason was no worse than that.
With one of the wolves still at large, and all the dead ones lying around, I decided to camp on the other side of the river for the rest of the night. I returned to my fire and dragged the slain wolves away from it. Then I got my things together and called Voronwe. I loaded her up and we crossed the river. It got pretty deep in a couple spots, but not really over my head. I unloaded the mare on the opposite bank next to a different willow tree and assembled wood for another fire, then decided against it. The night was warm and I had already eaten, and Voronwe was protection enough against any wolves, so I recrossed the river and put out the fire. Then I crossed the river for the third time in twenty minutes and changed my wet clothes, which were practically ruined anyway, and curled up in my cloak to try to use the rest of the night for what it was intended. Voronwe plopped down beside me, and her comforting warmth put me to sleep in record time.
Lindorie camped that night in a cluster of hills a day’s ride south of Weathertop. She had made good time that day, and she had met no one, a fact she was thankful for. To see women traveling alone through the wilder parts of Eriador was uncommon, and she had been afraid of being stopped. She looked up at the full moon, and remembered another night, also with a full moon, that had changed her life forever.
She had been in the nursery in the palace of Minas Tirith, putting Elbereth, who was scarcely three months old, in her cradle. Her husband had wandered in for a few moments to say goodnight to her and the baby. He had had a long, trying day hassling with complaints and petitions and reports, and he was going to go to bed early. She remembered his face, so handsome and cheerful, his brown eyes, his thick auburn hair, rumpled from running his hands through it, tucked behind his ears and falling to the shoulders of his heavily embroidered green doublet. He had kissed the baby, kissed her, and gone towards the bedroom. She had finished with the baby and gone out on the balcony to look at the moon. Below her the city had slept, it’s white walls gleaming softly in the moonlight. Then she had heard a knock at the door of their rooms. She had turned towards the sound, but a quick rustle of garments, the sound of the door opening, and a murmur of low voices had convinced her that her husband had taken care of it. The voices ceased, the door closed, and there was silence. She had gone to her dressing room, prepared for bed, and entered the bedroom. Her husband was already back in bed. She had gone around to his side of the bed to blow out the candle when she had noticed something odd.
Her husband generally snored. Not very loudly, but he snored. Now she could hear nothing, and he had not even sighed aloud. Was he playing a game? She bent over him closely, her hand resting on his chest. Her hand touched a wet patch, wet and sticky. For a moment she was puzzled, then she gave a gasp of horror.
Someone had stabbed him in the heart.
She felt his pulse, listened for his breathing, but there was nothing. He was dead, murdered. She staggered back with a sob and knelt by the bed, resting her head on the edge as her eyes filled with tears and overflowed.
Suddenly she stiffened. What if his murderer came back to kill her and the baby too? She must go, quickly, but where? The sound of someone stumbling quietly on the stairs in the servant’s passage decided her. She gently kissed her husband one last time, then tiptoed to her dressing room, wrapped herself in a dark cloak, and ran into the nursery. She snatched up the baby, who was too sleepy to object, and darted into a closet, where she slipped back behind the double row of gowns to the secret compartment she had discovered when she was a child. She pressed in the crack between two stones in the wall and stepped into the small recess behind the low door that opened inward with a soft click. She closed the door behind her, sat down on the bench that was the niche’s only furniture, and pressed her ear to the tiny hole that allowed the occupant to listen to what went on outside. She heard the servant’s door creak open, heard soft footsteps, then a muffled angry exclamation. She heard the person check both dressing rooms and their closets, held her breath when whoever it was checked her closet very thoroughly, muttering roughly, in a terribly familiar voice.
“I know you’re in here, you little wretch! Come out, right now, or it’ll be worse for you. Grrrr, not in there. Where is that woman?”
She stifled a gasp. It was Turin, the steward! He had killed her husband, his friend. But why? Why would he do a thing like this? For power? Money? Revenge? For what?
She heard him go through the nursery, give a subdued cry of rage at the baby’s being missing as well, then heard with relief the creaking of the servant’s door again and retreating footsteps. Cautiously she opened the little door and felt around in her closet for her plainest clothes. She changed into them, wrapped the dark cloak around her once more, and, leaving the baby for the moment in the recess, slipped out into her dressing room for her purse. She then paused at the door to the bedroom, assured herself there was no one there, and darted to her husband’s dressing room. She didn’t dare take a sword, but she snatched up the deadly elven knife that was as much a family heirloom as a weapon; then, as an afterthought, she also took the intricate ring, set with a green stone and worked in the design of twin serpents, that was also one of the heirlooms of their house. She then slipped cautiously to the nursery and put together a bag of baby supplies. She slipped back to her closet, picked up the baby, closed the recess’ door, and went back to the bedroom, where looked one last time at her husband; then she slipped noiselessly down the servant’s staircase.
The kitchens were empty. She slipped through them easily and cautiously made her way to the stables. She found her mount, a white mare, and saddled her. She mounted and made her way boldly through the streets of the city. She gave the passwords at all the gates, and none of the guards stopped her until she reached the huge main gate of the city. Here, however, they were more exacting. She had told them that she had urgent family business in the country, that she had received notice of it only late that afternoon, that she wanted so much to be off as soon as possible…etc. The guards, sensing a tragedy and affected by her tearful tones, relented, and let her pass. She had then ridden off into the night, and from that time forth she had never been seen in Gondor again.
Chapter 12: The Dead End
The next morning I was booted out of a nice warm sleep by Voronwe, who, dissatisfied with my wasting such a beautiful morning, shoved her dripping nose into my face.
“Uhgh, stop it!” The mare responded by stealing my blanket. “Hey, hold on! Give that back, Voronwe!” I called desperately. She snorted and shook her head.
I scrambled to my feet. “All right, you win. Come on, I need to put it away. Come on, let me have it,” I insisted. “Now don’t be naughty, my friend. Bad horses must be punished, same as naughty young ladies and gentlemen.”
Voronwe dropped the blanket on the saddle and cocked her head at me.
“Very well, I forgive you. My, this sure is a nice day. I hope it doesn’t get as hot as it was yesterday.” I looked at Voronwe. “So, is that why you woke me up so early, huh?”
The mare tossed her head.
“Well let me get something to eat first, then we’ll hit the road again. Deal?”
Voronwe snorted forcibly in the affirmative.
Later that morning we crossed another river. Now I knew where I was. The river we had camped by last night was the Hoarwell, and this one was the Loudwater. Somewhat farther south they joined to form the Greyflood, which flowed to the sea. I tried to go straight east from where we crossed the river, towards the Misty Mountains. Once I reached them I would have an easier time finding my way to the Gap of Rohan.
The country was rolling and heather covered, with few trees and many rocks. Songbirds and larks flew wildly from beneath Voronwe’s pounding hoofs as we cantered along. Before long we could see the huge mountains in the distance. Their lofty peaks were still snow-covered, but their sides seemed green. We went far that day, and we camped on a spur of the mountains, among some stunted trees. Ahead of us, a little to the south, towered the tallest peak in view. It had three heads, so I supposed it to be Caradhras, over which the Fellowship of the Ring had attempted to go, but I was not sure. In any case I didn’t want to try it. From what Arador had said, and from what I had read in the Red Book, it was quite dangerous, and as I had no inclination for falling off a cliff or breaking my neck, I planned to take the less risky way through the Gap of Rohan.
However, my plans went rather drastically wrong.
All the next day Voronwe was nervous. She kept craning her neck and looking around whenever we reached a comparatively high spot. I guessed that there were some wolves around, but I figured we could handle them. What I didn’t know was that wolves are very different from their distant cousins, the wargs of the Misty Mountains.
Wargs are huge hairy beasts, almost the height of a horse’s withers at the highest point of their humped backs; they have ever been the friends, or rather allies, of orcs. True, the parties had occasionally eaten each other, but more often they co-operated, and there is no doubt that either single or ridden they are formidable enemies. There were no orcs now, of course, but the warg population was on the rise in the wilds, despite vigorous hunting by the men of the Ford of Carrock and of the North.
I had heard of wargs, even seen sketches of them, but it never occurred to me that they were causing Voronwe’s anxiety until an enormous brown hulk launched itself for the two of us as we picked our way through some large boulders. The mare screamed and suddenly reared, smashing at the warg’s face. For a split second I was too stunned to move, then I drew my sword and slashed at the monster, although I doubted I could really do anything against something that huge. We seemed to be holding it off when another one came at us from behind. I hardly had time to see it before Voronwe bowled the one in front of us out of her way and took off at a pace that rivaled the wind, dodging wargs and boulders as she tore across the rocky terrain.
I was afraid she would break a leg, but she never did. She sailed over fissures and gullies, kicked the occasional warg who got too close directly in the face, and kept going. Wargs sprang from behind boulders and tried to head us toward the mountains. Suddenly I realized Voronwe’s hoofs were clattering as if they were on a street, and that we were on a street. For a minute the incongruousness of a road in the middle of nowhere scarcely struck me as odd. Then I started calling frantically to Voronwe and pulling at the reins.
“Voronwe, get off of here! We can’t go this way! It’s a dead end!!!” This old road led to Moria!
I sawed on the reins, trying to turn her to the left, still clutching my sword in my right hand. It clattered against the rock wall on that side, threatening to glance out of my hand. I was distracted with it when Voronwe soared gracefully over the three-foot curb on the left and started a breath-taking descent, scaring me out of my wits.
I had never been a screaming sort of person, and I was too scared to scream now. I managed to collect enough sense to realize that I should lean backward, so I did, while the mare’s hoofs barely touched the terribly steep rock of the gorge we were descending into.
Then the wall curved inward. Voronwe made a horrible sound like a scream that echoed…and echoed…and echoed as she flung her hoofs desperately towards the wall she could not reach. I could only stare at the shale-strewn bottom of the gorge.
Chapter 13: The Misty Mountains
As Voronwe and I plummeted downward, I honestly thought we would be killed. But I did not have much time to think. I started out of my frozen state with a jolt as one of the mare’s forefeet struck the wall just at the right unfortunate moment to make her hindquarters start toppling forward over her head. I forgot to breathe as we made a complete flip in midair and slithered down the rest of the wall, which was a navigatable slope again, to the bottom. Voronwe nearly fell on landing; we stopped for a breathless moment to get our bearings. Miraculously, I hadn’t dropped the sword or impaled either of us with it. We raced up the gully towards the mountains with me feeling more or less shaky and light headed. Voronwe must have felt even worse. We came out of the fissure onto a somewhat rocky plain, which sloped up to the first towering peaks just as the wargs figured out to where we had disappeared. They came after us again in full cry.
Voronwe gave little sign of her fatigue. She kept gamely on, putting on a blinding burst of speed that amazed me and chagrined the wargs. We were nearly to the treacherous ground of the high peaks when the wargs, now maybe a quarter of a mile behind us, must have decided to look elsewhere for lunch, as we were not worth all the effort. Voronwe waited until we could no longer hear them or see them before slackening her pace to a ground-eating canter. I kept looking back, expecting to see our pursuers, but there was no sign of them. Before long, a light dusting of snow covered the ground around us, and up ahead it looked deeper.
It was odd to have snow in May but it was nice at the same time because it was cooler up here and both of us needed to cool off. However, after a while it got quite chilly, so I got out my strange cloak and put it on. As I looked back, I suddenly noticed that Voronwe was leaving bloody marks in the snow behind her. I stopped her immediately and dismounted. Her pace had slowed even more as we climbed, but she was breathing heavily nonetheless.
She watched dully as I went around to look at her legs. What I saw made me start crying.
“Oh Voronwe,” I whispered, a choke in my voice. Her legs were a bloody mass from hoof to hock. Torn pieces of skin dangled from long, oozing cuts in the backs of her legs. I got a loose handful of snow and started trying to wash some of the blood off. She did not fight me, but her muscles jumped and twitched no matter how careful I was. When I got most of it cleaned up, I carefully lifted her hoofs. The hard outer walls were chipped, and little pieces were missing, but at least they were not so bad. I went to the saddlebags for something to use as bandages. I found an old blouse that was getting rather frayed at the edges that had cuffs which buttoned to the elbows. I cut the sleeves off with my knife, unbuttoned them, and carefully buttoned them around the mare’s lower legs. They were an almost perfect fit. I then folded the top part of the sleeve down around the cuffs and wrapped it tightly with strips from the bodice. When I was finished, Voronwe looked like she was wearing stockings. I sheathed my knife, put away what was left of the blouse, eased the reins over the mare’s head, and led her towards what looked like a pass. At least, it was some sort of a road that climbed upward towards what looked at least like some sort of way over.
We followed this road for quite some time. I was getting very tired and cold, and Voronwe stumbled after me as if she hardly cared where we went. When I looked back now and then there was still no sign of the wargs, but it seemed almost as if I could see all the way to Weathertop. The sun was sinking slowly but steadily toward the far western horizon and Valinor, and we still had not come to the cliff Arador had spoken of. I supposed it was still farther away and kept doggedly on. I was glad for the snow for Voronwe’s sake, perhaps it would ease the pain and keep any swelling down.
We had just rounded a shoulder of the mountain when I saw the place I had been looking forward to with a sinking kind of anticipation. Ahead of us, the road made a curve to the left, then it curved out to the right beside a drop of thousands of feet. There was no curb. My stomach started being inflicted with butterflies, but I kept leading Voronwe forward. I did not want to be stuck on that cliff when it got dark.
We passed the last vestige of a curb. I kept close to the left wall, as far away from that enormous drop as I could get. The wind howled past us, whistling through the mountains, pushing at me, scaring me. We kept going. We rounded another curve to the left, and a beautiful sight met our tired eyes. The end of the horrible trail! The road went between two walls! I was very happy to see that. We reached the safer part of the road without mishap and continued along. Suddenly I realized we were going downhill! It was a very nice feeling. It was getting dark, and colder, and I wanted to be off this beastly mountain before my toes froze off. I was very, very glad I was wearing boots.
A light snow started falling as Voronwe and I trudged down the steep track that went down the mountainside. Far below, I could see the Dimrill Dale, a wide valley between the arms of the mountains. Inside the dale was a large lake, the Mirrormere. But that was out of our way, and it was a long way down. Finally, when it was getting quite dark, the snow stopped falling, the ice underfoot gave way to grass, the clouds parted, and a beautiful full moon came up. We staggered the last mile or so downward and camped next to a little series of waterfalls that splashed down into the valley.
The next morning I tended Voronwe’s legs again. The blood had dried hard to the fabric bandages, but I rubbed salve into them generously. We started off, both of us walking.
I stopped at the top of a little rise and looked to the east. A wood seemed to be there, a shimmering golden one, which I assumed to be the great realm of Lothlorien, once home of elves. I had little idea if any elves still remained or not, but I wished to at least see the famed golden mallorn trees. There was one tree of that kind in Hobbiton, back in the Shire, but I had never seen more than one at a time.
It was afternoon when Voronwe and I finally reached the trees. On the outskirts, the woods was well-spaced, and consisted mostly of ordinary trees, with here and there a great mallorn. Wildflowers grew in profusion among the trees, as did thick, long grass. I led Voronwe forward, cautiously. I had no wish to be shot full of arrows by a vigilant Elf, who could hit a bird’s eye in the dark, so I sang, hummed, and whistled parts of an old song about the elves’ Queen of the Stars, after whom I was named. It apparently worked, for no arrows flew out from among the trees.
As the mare and I trudged onward through the thickening forest, I became increasingly amazed at the size and beauty of the trees. Their great silver-gray trunks rose smoothly, without break, for nearly thirty or more feet before any branches protruded. I could not reach halfway around any of the larger ones.
The first profusion of wildflowers began to give way to two kinds of six-petaled flowers, one white and the other gold. They nearly carpeted the ground with their abundance, and where the sunlight fell through the golden blossoms overhead, the ground gleamed like the treasure hoard of a dragon.
As the sun’s rays began to slant towards evening, Voronwe and I came to a great mound in the wood. Two great mallorns grew in ancient splendor in the center, and around them, in a ring, stood smaller trees that were entirely silver – branches, leaves, and all. Someone – most likely the elves, had obviously planted them that way. A monument of some kind, I thought? I led Voronwe to the top of the mound, marveling at the unearthly beauty of the place in the beams of the westering sun.
Easy to overlook at first between the colossal mallorns, a seeming bank of the golden and the white blossoms attracted my attention, and I stepped closer to investigate it. Leaning over them, I saw that a stone slab was laid flat in the midst of the delicate flowers, which almost hid it from view. There were words engraved on the slab in a graceful script. I knelt and brushed the flowers aside, and I read the following inscription.
Queen of Gondor and Arnor
Wife to Aragorn 11, Elessar Telcontar, of Arnor
Daughter to Elrond of Rivendell and Celebrian of Lothlorien
TA 241-FA 120
There were a few lines of elvish script beneath, which I presumed translated what I had just read. Between the inscriptions was an engraving, inlaid with silver, of what looked like a coat of arms or a heraldic emblem, maybe a significant symbol from her life.
I was amazed. I had heard of Queen Arwen, of course, but I had not known that she was buried in Lothlorien. I leaned forward again to look more closely at the symbol on the stone. As I did so, the pendant I was wearing slipped from inside my blouse. I reached up automatically to tuck it back in. Suddenly I stopped, the necklace between my fingers.
A chill swept over me. A roughly triangular shape, with two wings at the top. I looked at the engraving on the tombstone. A roughly triangular shape, with two wing-like pieces at the top. Feeling like the hand of Fate, I slipped the chain over my head and laid the pendant beside the engraving. They were identical. Absolutely identical. It was all too unearthly to be real – how had I ended up with a six-hundred-year-old necklace that had belonged to a queen of Gondor who had been an Elf?
Maybe someone had made a copy of Queen Arwen’s necklace, just because it was so beautiful, but my necklace did not look like a copy. The workmanship was flawless, delicate – and the whole thing glowed as if it had a life of its own. Also, silver tarnished over time. The pendant had been in a bag for fifteen years, but there was not a single speck of black on it. Come to think of it, my ring, which I had lent to Arador, had not been tarnished either. This whole affair defied reason. How had I ended up with these things? Did they have to do with Arador’s suspicions about my family?
I sat down in shock and slumped against one of the mallorns. Did this mean that I was the heir to the throne of Gondor?
Arador hunched his shoulders against the steady, cold rain and tried to draw his sodden cloak tighter. Princess plodded wearily along through the mud, head low, a picture of tired determination.
“We’ll be there soon, lady,” he said, gently rubbing her withers. “We’re almost there.” He peered through the darkness, dimly discerning the nearby trees and mountains.
Princess stopped for a rest at a deserted crossroads. Arador dismounted to read a rough wooden sign. Only a few more miles, he thought wearily, pulling his hood farther over his face. I hope Galdor is still up when we get there.
He remounted the mare and turned her down the left-hand road. The trees on either side grew steadily thicker and wilder. Great gnarled roots and huge twisted branches like arms stretched grimly apart, blocking entry to the forest. Thick, gray-green beards of moss hung everywhere. When Arador could see over the treetops, he could see the mountains closing in.
For what seemed a long time the two plodded onward. Both were bone tired after their frantic race against the clock that had started at Weathertop. Arador knew he was not getting enough sleep, but his habit of rising early had driven him mercilessly into the saddle. They had left Mardil’s sister and her husband five days ago. They had reached Bree that evening, and in the morning they had set out again. That day they had camped where the Greenway met the south road leading from the Shire. The next had seen them in Tharbad, crossing the Greyflood. Then they had gone through Dunland, and today their goal was the tower of Isengard, in the Nan Curunir, the Wizard’s Vale.
At last, Arador saw the glistening black tower ahead. “Only a little more, Princess,” he whispered. The bay quickened her pace almost imperceptibly.
“Ho, hoom, now, then, let me see…young Aragorn, no, Aradan, no, no, that’s not it, what is your name again, it’s slipped my memory, I’m afraid…I’m very sorry, but men have so many names.”
Eyes rolling, nostrils whistling, Princess shied away as an enormous gray-green figure took a seven-foot stride forward.
“Easy, girl, easy,” Arador soothed her.
“She seems, hmm, a wee bit, hoom…hasty,” commented the tree-like creature, stroking his long, mossy beard with a hand that resembled nothing more than gnarled tree branches. His green eyes flickered with a strange light, like sunlight on a green pool. A peal of thunder crashed overhead, shaking the very earth.
“Hmm,” the giant continued, “Oromis is hunting in Valinor tonight.”
“I’m going to Isengard, Treebeard,” Arador said, a little smile tugging at his lips. He had met this strange creature before.
Treebeard was an ent, a shepherd of the forest of Fangorn, a tall, tree-like figure with branches growing on his head, leaves and moss for hair, and skin that looked like gnarled tree bark. He was millennia old and had seen countless conflicts between good and evil in Middle Earth. At the head of his people, he had defeated the evil wizard Saruman’s army at Isengard during the War of the Ring, and he now took care of the vast forest of Huorns, a very tree-like variety of ent, that stood in the Nan Curunir, the Wizard’s Vale.
“Ah, yes, so I thought,” rumbled the ent, his voice like an ancient, deep, woodwind instrument. “Human folk don’t like, hmm, staying out in the rain, like ents,” he continued. “Rain is, hoom, very refreshing, for ents. But, I suppose, hm, you do not think so, youngling?”
“I’m afraid not,” Arador said resignedly. Treebeard loved to talk for hours. Hopefully he wouldn’t this time.
“Aahhhh, that’s too bad, now,” sighed the old ent. “Come along, hm, with me.”
With an inward sigh of relief, Arador guided Princess after the ent as he led them through the ranks of trees to the ruins of an arch. Two twisted steel doors lay a little ways off, reflecting what little light there was.
Past the arch lay the great hollow of Isengard, a mile in circumference. The gleaming black tower of Orthanc stood tall in the center. Arador saw a light shining in one of the windows.
“Galdor, hoom, is still, awake,” chuckled Treebeard. “Always studying, always thinking, always busy, that one is. I will, see you later, master…hoom, I have forgotten it. You humans have too many names.”
“Ah, yes, that was it. Hmm, hoom, you’d best be going, before Galdor locks you out, young master Arador.” The ent smiled beneficently down upon him and stood aside.
Princess walked warily around Treebeard’s long legs and started down the paved road leading to the tower.
Arador turned the mare toward the stables at the side of the tower, long, low buildings almost hidden by a clump of thick evergreen trees. He opened the heavy wooden door and went inside. Three tall, athletic young men of about his own age, the sons of the warden of the tower, turned from their chores to gape at him.
“Hey, it’s Arador!” one of them finally exclaimed, coming forward to clap him on the shoulder. “You look just about done in.”
“What, and rob my dear uncle of the satisfaction of doing it?” Arador quipped wearily in feigned astonishment. The men laughed and helped him unsaddle and care for Princess. “I have to talk to Galdor,” he said, when they finished. “See you later.” They waved him away good-naturedly and returned to caring for their own animals.
He almost stumbled from the building and made his way through the drizzle to the tower steps. The wind buffeted him as he began to climb, swaying his tired body from side to side. Once he lost his footing and half fell. He made the door and pulled the bell-cord, loudly. After what seemed an eternity, the massive black door swung inward and a tubby man of middle height peered out.
“Hello, Galdor,” Arador said wearily.
“What’re you standing out in the rain for?” exclaimed the little man, pulling his long, fur-trimmed robe tighter. “Come in, come in,” he cried, seizing the young man’s arm and hustling him inside. “Here, sit by the fire; I’ll get you something to drink,” he urged. Arador put out a hand to stop him.
“Galdor,” he said. The little man looked up at him, almost frightened by his tone.
“What is it?” he asked, his bustling manner gone.
“I came here for information. Galdor, I think I’ve found what we’ve been looking for.”
“You have?” gasped the tower-keeper. “Where is she?” he cried, looking around as if he expected to see someone hiding behind Arador.
“No, she’s not here. I did not really tell her my suspicions, because, well, I might be wrong. I don’t know. That’s why I came here. And it’s not the queen.”
“The princess?” Galdor breathed.
“What’s she like?”
“Looks a lot like both her parents. Rather tall – taller than you, at least. Long brown-gold hair and green eyes. You’ll never guess where she’s been all these years.”
“Of course I can’t guess! Otherwise we would have found her long ago.”
Galdor gaped at him. “Seriously? Why,” and his face began to show comprehension, “it’s the perfect place, really. No human’s are allowed there, so Turin’s men could not go in and search. But how did the queen manage to stay hidden with the hobbits? Did they know?”
“From what Elbereth has told me I believe the hobbits found her when she was a baby and an old widow raised her. She has no idea who her parents are, but she has left the Shire because two of Turin’s men did come in; they caused some trouble – nearly killed a hobbit friend of hers. The old widow thought it would be better if she left so human authorities or the Mayor of the Shire wouldn’t order her out; she hoped the affair would be quietly smoothed down in the girl’s absence.”
“Two of Turin’s men got in?” gasped Galdor. “What…?”
“They’re dead, she told me. The hobbit who was attacked killed one of them, and wounded the other badly; I’ve seen nothing of him, and she hasn’t either.”
“Phew,” Galdor breathed. “So her name’s Elbereth, right? That is the princess’s name, sure enough. Funny, I never really thought of calling her that, or of thinking of her as a girl – goodness, me, almost a woman by now. How old is she?”
“I think she said she was fifteen. I couldn’t seem like a busybody, you know.”
“Yes, yes, of course. So you came here to tell me.”
“Yes. I need to try to find information on the heirlooms of the line of kings. She’s wearing a ring that looks like the one Queen Vardanelle used to wear, the one with the green stone.”
“The ring of Barahir!” the little man breathed. “Come on, we’ll look at the books. I’ve got a really ancient one, actually written by Saruman himself, on the heirlooms. Has many illustrations, too.”
He led the way to a study with tall, wide windows covered in iron tracery. Books were either shelved or stacked on the heavy table beneath the windows. Galdor lit a few candles from the one he carried and scanned the piled shelves.
“Ah, here we are,” he said with satisfaction, handing a heavy brown tome to Arador. A page fell out, and he stooped to pick it up.
He looked at the page number and flipped through the book to the right place. Galdor looked over his shoulder in consternation.
“The picture of the ring is gone!” he cried. Arador turned over the page he held in his hand. A terrific flash of lightning poured in the windows, lighting the parchment page and showing a silver ring with a green stone, twined round with crowned, battling serpents.
Darkness fell again with a colossal peal of thunder, but Arador scarcely heeded it.
“That’s it,” he said quietly.
Chapter 14: Rohan
For the rest of the time we were in Lothlorien, I was trying to come to grips with the fact that I might be a princess. Like every average girl, I had always make-believed I was royalty, since they were the most interesting things to pretend to be. But being royalty was much different from pretending to be royalty. I wished for Arador, to either get me out of this mess, or, if I couldn’t get out of it, explain it to me.
Being something I didn’t know much about was scary.
I knew I had to find him somehow. He had spoken of Minas Tirith, but that was a very long way away from the Silverlode River and northern Rohan. He had said to go to the king in Edoras only in an emergency, but I could probably find out there where Arador could be found, if nothing else. The only problem was that my map did not have either Minas Tirith or Edoras on it. The Misty Mountains formed the far eastern border of the paper.
I had never imagined, when I left the Shire, that I would go this far. All I had now were my memories of the old maps at Buckland that I had pored over almost two months ago. I broke a stick from a bush and scratched a crude map in the dirt on the riverbank, where Voronwe and I were resting for the moment. We had just crossed the Silverlode River, and to the south of us stretched miles of plain. On my right marched the mountains – I could follow them as a guide for going south. Edoras, on my sketch, looked very far away across unfamiliar territory. I sighed and mounted Voronwe. We may as well get started, I thought.
The mare’s legs were much better now. We had spent a few days in Lothlorien, and I had removed the bandages from her legs.
We cantered, trotted, and sometimes just walked during that trek across Rohan. Occasionally we galloped, with the wind racing beside us, but we didn’t do that often, because of Voronwë’s legs. However, as she healed, we galloped more and walked less.
On our second day in Rohan, we crossed the River Limlit and saw the beginnings of the mighty forest of Fangorn to our right. A day later, we saw the first signs of habitation in Rohan, a village beside the Entwash River.
I rode Voronwe slowly down the central street, absorbing the different style of the Rohirrim houses. It was evening, so I saw few people. I presumed them to be eating their dinners. Voronwë nickered and looked to the left, and I followed her gaze. A little girl of perhaps two was sitting in the dusty street, playing with a little stick. Abruptly I became aware of a dull thundering noise. I looked at the perfect blue sky and wondered where the thunder was…and turned around.
Charging toward us was the largest herd of horses I had ever seen in my life. Voronwe and I were directly in their path. Suddenly my attention was drawn to the little girl, who had stood up and was toddling away from the oncoming horses. Voronwë acted faster than I could think. She spurted forward, sending clods of earth flying, snaked her head forward, seized the back of the child’s smock in her teeth, and galloped down the length of the street into the rope corral at the end with the herd thundering at her heels. I dimly heard a woman scream and men shouting, and when the herd was in the pen Voronwë trotted back to the gate and carefully set the toddler back on her little feet. I slid from her back and went to the little girl.
“Are you all right?” I asked, not knowing if she could talk yet.
She was not hurt at all; nor did she seem in any way frightened by her near brush with death. The herders all clustered around us, all talking at once, some in their native tongue, and a blond woman darted past me and gathered the little girl to her heart, gasping and crying in one, “Theodwyn!”
A man on a dapple-gray charger galloped up and dismounted. He hugged the woman and the child and spoke to them in a language I did not understand. When they had all calmed down the woman and the man turned to me.
“She is my daughter,” the woman said. “I cannot thank you enough for what you did. I am Eorla; this is my brother, Lanthir, and my daughter, Theodwyn.”
“I didn’t do anything, really,” I said, feeling sheepish. “Voronwë,” I laid my hand on her neck, “did everything.”
Eorla touched Voronwë gently on her velvety nose and whispered something to her in the language I could not understand, which I presumed to be Rohirrim.
“You must stay with us,” she said. “You both have saved my child, and I shall never forget it.”
I walked with them a little ways down the street, away from the herders, leading Voronwë. Eorla I found very nice, and we began talking of many things, as is women’s wont.
“I am only visiting here,” she told me. “My husband is in the Guard at Edoras; I am visiting my parents and my brother, with my children.” Two little boys, the oldest of whom I judged to be about seven, ran up to us. “My boys, Hama and Merriadoc. Lothiriel, the baby, is inside,” she said. I blinked to hear such a familiar name.
The boys were shy at first, but I wiggled my eyebrows and grinned at them, and they thawed fast. When we reached Eorla and her brother’s house, the two of them quickly acquainted their mother, Brunilda, a matronly figure, with what Voronwë had done, and she made both of us welcome at once. Lanthir and I cared for our respective horses, accompanied by the little boys, and entered the house after washing our hands by the door.
The Rohirrim people and their houses were very different from the houses I was used to. The houses were made of wood, with thatched roofs, and everything that could be carved was carved in figures of suns and horses. The people were tall and blond, and even the men wore their hair long. The women wore dark, long dresses with flowing sleeves decorated with contrasting braid.
Soon Eorla’s father, Haldir, entered and was also told of Voronwe’s exploits, and he welcomed me warmly. He had a long white beard and carried a staff to lean on. His blue eyes twinkled at me.
“I suppose you must call me Grandfather, like everyone else around here,” he said. I felt at home with him at once. During the meal, the family wanted to hear about my travels, so I told them the general story – that I was an orphan searching for family ties. They were sympathetic and wished me luck. Then the talk switched to horses. Haldir turned to me.
“Your mare looks foreign bred,” he commented. “She’s not from Rohan.”
“No, not that I know of.”
“She reminds me of some other horse, though,” the old man mused. “I feel I’ve seen one that has similar mannerisms and build before. Ah, yes, that was it. She looks like the horse of young Lord Arador, from Gondor.”
I looked up, startled, to hear that name. “Really?”
“Yes,” he answered. “They could be twins, but for their color. Lord Arador’s horse is a bay.”
“That’s interesting,” I said.
“Father,” Lanthir put in, “do you think the two could be the twins we had with the herd five years ago? The ones who disappeared? I was just thinking of it.”
Haldir stared at his son. “Lad, I believe you’re right! Lord Arador’s mare has the winding stripe on her face, and your mare,” he turned to me, “is built the same, seems about the same age, and has similar gray shading. I remember those twins now. Their mother appeared with the herd one fine day, just like that, and she was expecting. She was the swiftest, liveliest old mare I had ever seen. She stayed with us for about three months, had her twins, a bay filly and a white one, and, when they were old enough to travel, disappeared one night. We never saw hide nor hair of them until this year, if we are correct, of course. What made you think of it, son?”
Lanthir grinned. “Well, I was just remembering them, since they were the only set of twins I had ever seen in my life – I was twenty-five at the time,” he explained to me. “Then you were talking about foreign-bred horses, Father, and the thought jumped into my head.”
“Now I wish for the anniversary to come sooner, so I could have a chance to see the mares side by side,” laughed Haldir.
“The anniversary?” I asked, puzzled.
Haldir nodded at Brunilda to tell me. “Every five years, on the anniversary of the king and queen’s wedding, there is great event in Edoras. The anniversary is always a holiday, but every five years it is celebrated with special festivities. There is a race, parties, dancing, archery contests, wrestling matches, and fighting with wooden swords. Many peddlers and traders come to sell their wares,” she said.
“We leave at the end of the week,” Eorla added, her eyes shining. “I will be going home with my children – my husband, Leod, was not able to come here this time. We live in Edoras.”
“If you don’t mind waiting three days, you could travel with us,” Haldir offered.
I looked around the table at Brunilda, Lanthir, Eorla, and the children. I would like staying with them for a while. It felt good to be among friends again.
I turned to Haldir. “I would like that very much,” I said.
“Good!” Eorla cried. “You must stay with me while you are in Edoras. I am so grateful for what you did…”
I flushed. “Oh, but I didn’t do anything. Voronwë did all the work!”
“But if you hadn’t taken her here she wouldn’t have done it,” Eorla stated. “Please stay with my family.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I would like that.”
Haldir shifted in his carved chair. “Good! Now everything is settled.” He turned twinkling eyes upon me. “Don’t let my daughter feed you to death,” he whispered loudly in my ear. Everyone laughed.
During the next three days, I helped Eorla with her children by taking them out with me to see the herd. Lothiriel, the baby girl, had to stay with Brunilda, at the house, but Hama, Merriadoc, and Theodwyn all fit on Voronwë’s back, so away we went. Sometimes I would let them hold the reins, while I walked beside. Voronwë always took good care of them.
We would pet the foals and the older mares, talk with the herders, and then share lunch with them. Haldir and Lanthir showed me how to use my sword from Weathertop better. I had kept it tucked away, under my saddlebags, but Merriadoc found it and wanted me to show it to him, so soon the whole family knew about it. I was glad to learn what the two men could teach me – I was quite an ignoramus in fencing skills. At first, they were curious about where I had gotten it, but I told them that I had found it, which was true, and they did not question me further.
In the evenings, I would help Brunilda and Eorla with the meals and packing. The Rohirrim ate a lot of meat – pork, beef, and chicken – but they also ate seasonal vegetables.
At last the great day of departure arrived. We set out early in the morning, all of us mounted. Haldir had Hama in front of him in the saddle, Lanthir had Merriadoc, I took Theodwyn, who had become very fond of Voronwë (and of myself, I may add), and Eorla had Lothiriel, the baby, in a package on her back. Brunilda tied the packhorse’s lead rope to a ring on her saddle. Some of the other villagers and their families rode with us, making ours a large group – about twenty horses all told.
Fortunately, the weather was quite nice, the sun shone, the wind blew, and flocks of little birds flew overhead. We rode along at a steady pace, most often walking, but occasionally going a little faster. The Rohirrim taught me many songs in both the Common Tongue and their own language, and I sang them various humorous compositions from the Shire. We were a very merry group.
When the sun would start to sink towards the Misty Mountains, we would stop and set up camp for the night. After the meal, Haldir or one of the older men would give us tales of the first kings of Rohan – Helm Hammerhand, who had built the great fortress of Helm’s Deep, near Isengard; Eorl the Young, who had brought the first of the Rohirrim south to aid Gondor, and who had been given the land of Rohan as a gift for his loyalty; and Felarof, Eorl’s great white stallion, who understood speech and was buried with his master in one of the burial mounds before the gates of Edoras, the capital.
I had read some of the tales before, but they were much more vivid when the helmed and armored warriors of Rohan told them, their voices deep and rolling as the plains.
It took us two days full days to reach Edoras. As we progressed, I lost sight of the Misty Mountains to the right and instead began to see the White Mountains ahead of us. When we neared the capital, there were many more gaily-dressed people on the roads. Almost all rode horses, and nearly all the men wore armor of some sort. Everyone was in a good mood. Sometimes there would be as many as a hundred people singing a song or a ballad at once. Jokes sparked on all sides, young men on fine horses galloped up and down the long lines of carts and people, and pretty girls wore flowers in their long golden hair. The vast scene was exciting.
A young man galloped toward us along the line. “Edoras!” he cried, pointing his spear. I looked ahead and caught my breath.
The city of the kings of the Mark stood atop a rocky hill, backed by a staggering panorama of snow-capped mountains. A wooden wall surrounded the hill, and inside it the tall, dark buildings, with their golden thatched roofs, rose smoothly, covering the sides of the incline. At the crest stood a great hall, it’s pillars worked with gold and carved everywhere with great wooden figures of horses’ heads. Green banners floated in the brisk wind, occasionally revealing a flash of white, which I knew to be the emblem of a white horse, the symbol of Rohan. Beside the city flowed a sparkling stream. Around the hill grew a forest of white tents in neat rows, like a vegetable patch. Everywhere the eye could see horses were staked out.
The spectacle was awe-inspiring.
When we approached the gates, moving slowly for the crowd, the guards let us through with no trouble. Inside the city, the streets were somewhat narrow and thronged with people and more people. Shops displayed brightly colored items, jugglers and acrobats did their tricks on street corners, and uniformed men on bay horses, whom Haldir told me were members of the Royal Guard, rode past us frequently. About halfway up the hill we reached Eorla’s house, a comfortable, moderately large place, and we cared for our horses. Eorla and Brunilda unpacked, and Haldir took a nap. Lanthir and I, on the other hand, took the children to see the sights.
Hama and Merriadoc wanted to get some carved wooden swords and shields. Theodwyn liked a doll with a colorful wardrobe. Lanthir looked at armor, and I looked at everything. Merchants were everywhere. Some, with dark, curly hair, the boys said came from Gondor. Most of these sold bright mail and swords and metal products, but others sold fine cloth and jewelry. I noticed that many of the Gondorian ware was worked in stars or trees, and I asked one merchant why. He looked at me strangely but told me that they were the arms of the city of Minas Tirith, the capital. I passed on and looked at some Rohirrim goods, observing, again, that the horse and sun motifs were prevalent, as were fantastic, fluid designs that seemed woven together. I thought of buying a few things, but decided to save my money for necessities. I did, however, buy some dwarven seed cakes and found them delicious. The vendor was the first dwarf I had seen since the ones in the Prancing Pony in Bree, and I found it rather hard not to stare at him. He was shorter than I was but much broader, and his braided, coarse beard fell below his waist. His voice was deep and gruff, but he cracked jokes and muttered to himself in the most amiable way. I again thought that if all of his race were like him, I would like to meet more of them.
After an hour or two, Lanthir and I took the children home. When we entered, we found a tall, handsome, blond man speaking with Eorla – her husband, Leod. The children ran forward and began clamoring for him to hear what they had seen that day, and what they had done at their grandparents’ house, and funny jokes they had heard, and making a general ruckus. Leod greeted Lanthir warmly, and welcomed me, thanking me for saving Theodwyn, and he confirmed Eorla’s invitation to stay with them while I was in Edoras. Embarrassed, I tried to pass the credit off to Voronwë, but he thanked me nonetheless, much the same as his wife had done. Shortly afterward Brunilda appeared, all dressed up, and disappeared with the children, saying they had to get dressed. I turned to Eorla, puzzled.
“There is a feast tonight, at the Hall,” she explained. “The Royal Guards and their families are invited.” She looked at her husband.
“We would be pleased if you would join us,” he invited. I thanked them both and went to find something suitable to wear. I dug through my bags and found my best party dress. I wondered if it would be suitable, so I went for Eorla’s opinion.
“I don’t have any idea,” I told her. “Will it be all right?” I doubted it.
Eorla gave me a conspiratorial smile. “Let’s look through my closet and see what we can find.” Giggling like girls, we looked through her clothes. “This one!” Eorla exclaimed, holding up a beautiful brown and russet gown.
“Oh,” I breathed. “It’s beautiful.”
Eorla smiled. “I made it, many years ago, and wore it the first time I met my husband. I would like it very much if you wore it tonight.”
“Thank you,” I smiled shyly.
“Go see if it fits,” she said, giving me a playful little shove.
A few minutes later I emerged in glory. The dress fit perfectly, and I loved every detail of it. The bodice and skirt were a light wool, dyed a rich dark brown; tiny gold embroidery threads defined the waist. The sleeves and collar were gorgeous russet colored velvet, also embroidered with gold thread. The sleeves were fitted to the elbow, then flared to my wrists and were embellished with embroidery near the shoulder; the neckline was pentagon shaped in the front and round in the back, the collar, also embroidered, curved to a graceful point in the center. I felt like a princess, and I told Eorla so. She looked very pleased.
Her dress was a lovely golden tan, embellished with slightly darker trim, and she wore her golden hair loose. I asked her to do mine the same way, and she did. After we had complimented each other extravagantly on how we looked, we joined the rest of the family as a gong began to sound outside.
I was amazed to see Haldir and Leod in the opulent uniforms of the Royal Guard.
“I didn’t know you were in the Guard,” I said the older man.
“I used to be,” Haldir explained, “but I retired. My son-in-law is still in active service.”
Hama, Merriadoc, and Theodwyn looked very funny in their fine clothes. Theodwyn was very proud of her little dress and its ribbons and bows. The boys wore their new wooden swords in their little belts, and strutted like two miniature tom turkeys. Lothiriel, the baby, was in a long nightgown of a dress, and she chewed on her fingers happily and gurgled at us from her grandmother’s arms.
“We’d best be going, or we’ll be late,” Leod said, so we set out.
The night was soft and warm, full of stars and torchlight. Many other people were going the same way we were, laughing and talking. We climbed the stone steps to the Great Hall, which was blazing with light and overflowing with people. I looked around in wonder.
The Golden Hall of Meduseld was over 1,000 years old. Started by Eorl the Young, first king of Rohan, it had been finished by his son, and had been the home of the Kings of Rohan ever since. Carved wooden horse heads dominated its decoration, and gold-embellished wooden pillars marched down its length. Rich, ancient tapestries hung on the walls, and at the far end upon a dais stood the carven throne of the king on a great bearskin rug, backed by the war-banners of Rohan’s kings.
Tonight the hall was full of people, Royal Guards and their families and guests, like me. The king had not yet entered, so the people milled around and talked with old acquaintances and made new ones. Eorla introduced me to a girl named Dara, whose father was a merchant from Gondor. They were the guests of some of Leod’s relatives. Dara was a few years younger than I was, but we got along quite well from the start. She was a little shorter than I was, with dark hair, a freckled nose, and a ready smile. We talked a good deal about Gondor, its cities, customs, people, and merchandise. She introduced me to her father, and I found he was the man I had asked about the star and tree motifs that afternoon! We were laughing at my ignorance when a hush fell over the room and everyone stood up. I turned to see what it was about.
The Royal Family was approaching the dais – King Leofa, a tall, stern man in his late thirties or early forties; Queen Merrilen, his wife, brown-haired and stately; and Prince Fastred, a boy of about fourteen. They were followed by their guests – Farin, dwarven lord of Helm’s Deep, and four dwarven retainers; a dark-haired man in rich robes who seemed Gondorian; and then, to my absolute astonishment, Arador!
He was dressed with excellent taste in dark blue and black with silver embroidery; he wore his sword, and his hair looked as if he had exerted himself to comb it. I thought he looked very handsome, and the thought brought butterflies to my stomach.
The king, meanwhile, was mounting the dais with the queen. Once the royal guests were in their places, the Royal Guards gave throat to a great shout, “Hail Leofa King!”
The people all answered, “Hail!”
A page brought a cup of mead to the queen, and she presented it to the king. His eyes played over the audience for a moment. I thought his eyes looked almost sad, but then he smiled. He began to speak.
“Tonight,” he said, “we celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of that glad day when Rohan again crowned a queen. Since that day, there have been many joys, many anniversaries, and some sorrows. Nevertheless, Rohan has prospered. Thanks to you, my Royal Guards, peace and order have been preserved. We must be thankful for our blessings.”
“Aye,” the crowd rumbled.
The king lifted the great cup. “To Rohan,” he said, and drank.
And then the festivities began.
The quantity of food was staggering. Two whole roast pigs were set upon one table, surrounded by beef ribs, steaks, bacon, chicken, turkey, pheasant, and more. On another table breads, rolls, muffins, scones, pastries, flans, and sweet breads innumerable were set out, and still another table bore cakes, pies, fruit dishes, and candies. Along one wall, kegs and barrels of wine and ale were placed. Salads and vegetables were set out with the platters and utensils. It seemed to me that there was enough food to feed an army.
The king and his guests were served first, then everyone made their way to the tables. I heaped my plate and sat with Dara, keeping an eye on Arador. I noticed him scanning the crowd intently, and wondered if he was looking for me. I didn’t know if it would be considered proper if I approached him, so I waited to see what the evening would bring and wondered whether or not he would know me in the fancy clothes I was wearing.
When people seemed to be slowing down in their eating, the musicians began tuning up in a corner by the dais, and the young men pushed some of the tables against the walls. I speculated on the possibility of there being a few dances I recognized. Dara told me that many of them were simple; I hoped she was right. I scanned the crowd for Arador, who had left the dais, but did not see him. I joined Dara in looking for prospective partners.
The king rose and escorted the queen to the cleared space on the floor and other couples followed. I saw Leod and Eorla, and Lanthir with Brunilda; closer inspection found Haldir holding the baby, surrounded by a horde of little ones who listened raptly to the tale he was telling them. I turned back to Dara and found Prince Fastred asking her to dance! Her face was very pink as she accepted. As the prince led her away, I thought how nice he looked, in a red cape edged lavishly edged in gold, a dark green velvet tunic, and golden-brown trousers. His shoulder length wavy hair was blond, his eyes a clear gray-blue, and he wore a small sword. Dara complemented him in her simple gown of dark blue.
I turned away and came face to face with Arador! We stared at each other, our eyes devouring each other’s faces. His hands found mine.
“Elbereth,” he breathed.
“Dance with me,” he whispered, leading me towards the dance floor.
I nodded, my heart too full to talk.
The dance was a dream. Every turn, every movement, was delight. At the end, Arador took my arm and led me out onto the terrace, away from the other people outside. He took me in his arms.
For a long time we stood there, my head against his chest. We did not need to speak. We were too happy for words.
Arador finally stirred. “I was worried about you,” he murmured against my hair.
“I’m here,” I whispered.
I felt him nod. “Did you have trouble?”
“A little. Wolves and wargs. But we made it.”
“Wargs?” His face was worried.
“Near the Misty Mountains. They chased us up the Redhorn Pass, so we crossed there and visited Lothlorien.”
“I wondered where you were. I waited at Isengard, but you didn’t come, so I came here. When did you arrive?”
“Today. I’m staying with a family I met in northern Rohan. The daughter lives here, with her husband.”
Arador nodded. His arms tightened around me. “I found your family.”
“You did?” I looked up at him.
“Elbereth, this is going to be hard to believe.”
“I’m the princess, right?” I asked quietly.
He stared at me. “How did you know?”
“When I was in Lothlorien, I found the gravestone of Queen Arwen, and it had this,” I slipped my pendant out of my dress, “design on it.”
“The Evenstar,” Arador breathed. He looked at me in wonder. “I didn’t know you had it.”
“I’ve always kept it hidden.”
“I see. I went by your ring.”
“Yes. It is an heirloom of the house as well, the Ring of Barahir. King Aragorn II used to wear it. I remember seeing it on your mother’s hand, when you were a baby.”
“When I was a baby?” I couldn’t imagine being a baby anywhere other than the Shire.
“I used to hold you.” Arador smiled down at me. “I was about four at the time…the queen was helping me hold the new princess on my inexperienced lap.”
“You were holding me?”
“I was rather fond of you. My mother would take me to see you and your mother, and I would pester your mother to let me hold you. You had very little hair. And very small hands. And tiny fingernails.” He smiled.
“What was my mother like?” I asked quietly.
“About your height, dark-haired, with brown eyes – very graceful and queenly.”
“And my father?”
“Very tall, taller than me; his hair was nearly the color of yours, and his eyes were gray. He was very handsome, I remember, and the whole country loved him.”
“Why did they kill him then?” I demanded, sad that I would never know him.
“I don’t know. To gain power, perhaps. It could have been a foreign spy. We don’t know at all.” He held me, comforting me. I laid my head on his chest again.
“So what are we going to do now?” I asked, after a pause.
“Introduce you to the King and Queen of Rohan.”
“Queen Merrilen and King Elrohir were brother and sister, so that makes you the queen’s niece.”
“And Prince Fastred is my cousin?”
I looked up at him frankly. “It’s hard to believe,” I confessed.
“You’ll get used to it,” he encouraged me.
“Do I have to meet them right now?” I asked, hoping I didn’t have to.
“Tonight wouldn’t be good,” he agreed. “It would be too hard to keep the meeting unnoticed. We’ll try for tomorrow.”
“Good,” I said, relieved.
Arador laughed softly. We stood there for a few silent moments.
“Can you point out to me who you’re staying with? Then I can find out where you’ll be; maybe I know them.”
Arador looked toward the door, where the light was making a golden pool on the paving stones of the porch. “I don’t want to leave,” he sighed. His arms tightened. “Not ever.”
I nodded. His lips brushed my hair, then my cheek. I looked up at him, a little afraid. His eyes smiled down at me so gently I forgot my fear. He leaned down and kissed me.
“Let’s go back,” he whispered.
Chapter 15: The Race
For the rest of the night I was radiant with happiness. Arador and I danced a few more dances, and when we weren’t close to eachother, we looked. I scrutinized Queen Merrilen more closely and saw some resemblance to the face I saw in the mirror every morning. I wondered if she would like having me as a niece. I hoped so.
When the party got out it was late, very late. Arador and I looked our goodbyes across the room, but I said goodbye properly to Dara and her father and my other new acquaintances before trailing out after Leod, Eorla, and their family. When we reached their home, we all went straight to bed.
In the morning we all slept a little late. After we ate breakfast, Eorla showed me some clothes her sister-in-law had given her to use or pass on and offered me whatever fit.
“I’ve taken what I can use already,” she told me.
I selected a green dress with long, pleated sleeves and skirt, black and blue embroidered trim, and a V-neckline, along with a few others, plain brown and dark colored everyday dresses with light sleeves that could be rolled up. I thanked Eorla for them and packed them with my saddlebags, except for a light brown one with pinstriped sleeves, which I put on.
I found, though, that the Rohirrim skirts were longer then what I was used to; I had to be careful not to trip.
Haldir told me that there was to be a horse race that afternoon and asked if I was interested. “There are no fees for running,” he told me. “And you could get a nice prize.”
I told him I would think about it, since the idea appealed to me. I was sure Voronwë had a good chance of winning.
That day was much like the first. I went out with the children and Lanthir, hoping to see Arador. I did not, but I saw an archery contest on horseback, mock swordfights, Dara and her father, thirty million children, and forty-eight billion adults (or so it seemed). The noise was amazing.
We returned to Eorla’s house for lunch, a great roasting dish of small potatoes and chopped turnips in a milky sauce, covered with a sharp cheese, complemented with strips of crispy bacon and ham. I helped with the dishes afterward, and just as we were finishing, I heard a gong ringing again.
“What is it for this time?” I asked Brunilda.
“It’s the warning for the race,” she explained. “Are you running?”
“Yes,” I replied, “should I go somewhere? I don’t know where the course is.”
“Go down through the city gate and ask anyone you see,” she laughed. “Everyone will be going there.”
I hung up my dishtowel and hurried to saddle Voronwë.
“We’re going to run,” I told her. “Let’s go!” I swung into the saddle and we went as fast as was safe with all the people down to the city gate. I saw a huddle of horses in an opening in the crowd, so I rode Voronwë over to them. A man asked me if I was in the race, and when I said ‘yes,’ he entered something in his book.
“That’s the starter,” a young man told me. I nodded and turned towards the sound of cheering. Prince Fastred was riding a great dark gray with a black mane and tail to join the entries.
I looked at him with curiosity, knowing now that he was my cousin, and I liked what I saw. The other riders spoke to him with respect when he joked with them, but they seemed to like him. I was glad to see that there were one or two other girls riding besides me. One girl looked like she was racing against her brother; there was a great similarity in their faces.
All the horses were splendid-looking animals, tall and powerful. I thought some looked a trifle heavy compared with my slim Voronwë, but then all the Rohirrim horses were of stockier build, bred to carry a man in full armor with his heavy iron-tipped lance and shield.
The gong at the top of the hill sounded again, and there was a flourish of trumpets. The King and Queen were approaching to view the race, accompanied by their guests. Arador caught my eye and smiled, and I smiled back. Princess and Voronwë snorted and tossed their heads at eachother; I saw Haldir in the crowd, looking closely at the two of them and nodding in a satisfied way.
The trumpets sounded again, and the crowd fell silent. The starter proclaimed some rules, then directed us to line up along a strip of broken sod between two banner-hung poles. The starter asked us if we were ready, and there was a chorus of ‘ayes.’
I began to feel a few tense butterflies in my stomach. I felt Voronwë tense her muscles and relax.
The trumpets blared. We were off!
All the horses broke well. Voronwë’s first sprint carried her ahead of the crowd, and she slowed slightly to stay just in front of the surging pack. Prince Fastred was up slightly behind us, and the whole group was staying close together. Far up ahead was the short line of fence that marked the turn. Closer was a series of trenches the horses had to jump. Prince Fastred’s horse and Voronwë sailed over the first of them together, perfectly in step. The second was wider, with the third a pace later. The horses went up, down, up in a fluid movement, clearing both. Then came the turn.
I saw a bay with a white star moving up on the inside on the turn, coming past the prince’s mount and Voronwë. Voronwë lengthened stride and sailed up even with the bay, and so did the prince’s gray. A black nose pushed even with my elbow, and Voronwë again picked up the pace. We thundered around the turn into the backstretch. The prince let the gray go. He uncoiled like a tight spring and shot past the bay out to a place a few lengths in front, and a second later Voronwë joined him.
The prince grinned at me and urged, “Let’s go, Shadowmane!”
I leaned forward and asked Voronwë, “Shall we?”
She snorted and stretched out into high gear. I caught a glimpse of the surprised look on the prince’s face as Voronwë calmly proceeded to pass him as if he were standing still, then we reached the ditches again. Voronwë bobbed over the first two, then sailed over the third into the homestretch.
I glanced back to see the prince some distance behind, still leading the rest of the pack. Then the roar of the crowd burst upon my ears as Voronwë slowed to a canter to cross the finish line, the victor.
The ovation of people was tremendous. The noise was almost a physical thing, rocking me in the saddle. As soon as the other horses passed the line, the crowd surged around all of us, congratulating, commenting, praising. I felt someone pat my boot and looked down to see Haldir.
“Congratulations,” he said, smiling broadly. “Go before the king, with the prince.”
I scanned the mob for Prince Fastred and found him making his way toward me. “Come with me,” he called. The bay that had caught up just before the turn, which had apparently won third, followed him. Voronwë fell in beside Shadowmane, and the crowd parted to allow us to pass through until we sat our horses directly before the mound where waited the Lord of the Riddermark.
I had never been that close to a king before, and I found it somewhat intimidating.
The king wore a regal outfit of velvets and gold braid, and he wore a gold circlet set with a single diamond in his fair hair. His great white stallion could have been born in Valinor, for his great majestic bearing. The queen sat beside him on a light gray mare with a flowing white mane.
I saw Arador close behind them, smiling at me, with the five dwarves on their stout ponies and the dark man from Gondor.
I heard the queen take a sharp breath as she saw my face, but she recovered immediately. I wondered if she saw a resemblance in me, but I did not have much time for speculation, for the king began to speak.
“I congratulate you all,” he said. “Your horses have run well and swiftly; may they live long and be with you many years.” He turned to the bay’s rider, a young man. “You have ridden well, Bregolas, the queen will bestow your prize.”
Bregolas rode slightly forward, and kissed the queen’s hand. She gave him a small velvet bag, and he bowed and returned to his place. Then it was the prince’s turn.
“You did well, son,” the king told him, and the queen presented his prize in like manner.
Then it was my turn. I did not know what to do.
“You have done best of all, Eorla Swiftrider,” the king addressed me. “What noble name does your steed bear?”
“Voronwë,” I replied, loudly, for the crowd’s benefit.
The king laid a hand on the mare’s forehead, between the ears.
“May she live long,” he said. The queen rode forward now, and taking a golden brooch from a velvet bag, she pinned it to Voronwë’s headstall, then smiled and handed the bag to me. I kissed her hand, as I had seen the others do, then was surprised to hear her speak to me.
“Come to me this afternoon,” she whispered. I looked up, feeling a knot form in my stomach, and nodded slightly. She smiled, reassuringly, and drew back.
Then the king, the queen, and the prince rode back toward the Golden Hall, and Arador congratulated Bregolas, then came over to me.
“The queen talked to you?”
“Are you busy?”
“Not particularly,” I said. “We don’t have any definite plans, that I know of.”
“Good. Meet me in the Golden Hall in a few minutes; I’ll take you where you need to go.”
“All right.” I smiled up at him; he smiled back and rode after the royal family.
Then the crowd claimed my attention. Countless men asked me Voronwë’s origin, breeding, etc, which I did not know, of course.
Haldir stepped in and saved me by telling the story he knew (he told me he was certain now that Voronwë and Princess were the twins he remembered), and I left him satisfying the crowd. Dara came and congratulated me, with her father, and the dwarven seed-cake vendor did as well, since he remembered I had been one of his customers, and he gave me a little packet of seed cakes. I told him they tasted just like a great recipe from the Shire that I was familiar with, and he confided that the recipe he used had been Bilbo Baggins’, obtained through the thirteen dwarves who had been his companions. I smiled at the connection; Granny’s recipe was the same one.
At last I made my way back to the city and up the hill. I stabled Voronwë at Eorla’s house and walked to the Hall; I was luckily less conspicuous on foot. There was an informal court session being conducted by the king, so the Hall was open to the public. I slipped in and soon spotted Arador, chatting with the dwarves from Helm’s Deep. I drifted close and pretended to be watching what the king was doing.
Arador finished with the dwarves and brushed past me, whispering, “Come.”
I followed unobtrusively as he ducked through a shadowy door into a hallway. “This way,” he said, taking my arm.
We turned a corner and met Prince Fastred. He looked at me curiously and softly exclaimed, “You’re the one who won the race, aren’t you?” When I nodded, he grinned. “Small world, isn’t it?”
I smiled. The prince led us to a door leading into a comparatively small room with few windows. Queen Merrilen was seated in a faldstool by a small desk; she rose when we entered and came to me.
“Elbereth,” she said softly, looking closely at my face. I nodded solemnly, biting my lips nervously. “You look very much like my – my brother. Please, all of you, sit down,” she invited. “We must wait for the king.”
I thought it odd how the royal family referred to eachother by their titles, instead of ‘my husband, my wife, and my son.’ I felt terribly uncomfortable just sitting there. Queen Merrilen looked unsure of how to proceed. At length the king entered, and we all rose.
“Sit down,” he said brusquely. “We don’t have much time.”
He sat beside the queen and began asking me questions: my name, my age, where I was brought up, who took care of me, why I had stayed in the Shire so long, why I had left the Shire, who the men were who had caused the trouble, where I had gone when I had left the Shire, when and where I had met Arador, how I had reached Rohan, and what things I had from my parents.
I showed him my ring, my pendant, my knife, and the strange cloak, which I had brought along, and I described the money I had, which I had not brought along. I think the heirlooms convinced the king pretty well. The queen showed me portraits of my parents, and she and the king had me hold the pictures while they compared the faces with mine. Then the king asked me another question.
“When is your birthday?”
“We didn’t know. We always used the day the hobbits found me just outside the Shire.”
The king looked at Arador. “How long does it take to ride to the Shire from Minas Tirith?”
“It could be done in a month.”
I looked from one face to another. “Why a month? What is it?”
Queen Merrilen looked at me gently. “On the fourteenth of April your father was murdered and your mother disappeared with you.”
The king, startled, looked searchingly at his wife. It was the first time she had called the king of Gondor my father, and it struck me as well. The Queen was convinced.
King Leofa sighed. He looked at me, then at Arador, then at his wife and son. “This is going to be a difficult campaign,” he said.
Chapter 16: Relations
When Arador and I left the Golden Hall, I was walking in a daze. King Leofa and the queen were convinced of my claim to the throne of Gondor and had offered their assistance. However, they had warned us of what the steward’s spies could do. Arador thought they would be leaving Edoras before nightfall to warn Minas Tirith, but there was nothing we could do to stop them without arousing more suspicion.
Prince Fastred, however, had a brilliant idea. If arresting the spies in Edoras would cause a commotion, why not do it when they were out of Edoras? It had been resolved that men would be assigned to follow them out of the city; then Arador would take a small band of Royal Guards at night and try to overtake them.
Once that had been resolved, the main question was what to do with me.
The Royal Family wanted to have a chance to know me better and desired that I stay in Edoras for a few days. They thought I would be comparatively safe with Leod and Eorla’s family, and I would definitely attract less attention there. Arador said he needed to go to Minas Tirith immediately to start ‘spreading rumors,’ as he called it, of my existence. For the plan to be effective, he said I needed to be in Gondor within a week, and the king agreed with him, but how was I to ride to Minas Tirith, alone, unnoticed? In the North there had been questions, wouldn’t there be more where a hunt for me was going on?
Then I remembered Dara. Her father was a merchant from Minas Tirith, known as a good man to Arador, and he would most likely be heading there soon, when the anniversary celebration was ended. So now Arador went to collect a few Royal Guards and I went in search of Dara and her father.
I found them in their usual place and told them Arador needed to speak to them on something important, and they followed me back to the Golden Hall. When the plan was outlined to them, they looked at me in unveiled wonder, but agreed wholeheartedly to take me with them when they returned to Minas Tirith.
Dara could not believe I was a princess, and seemed unsure of how to address me. I told her to just act as if I were a normal person, since after all I was her friend and we were trying to be inconspicuous.
Dara and I walked back to Eorla’s house after the planning session, talking about Minas Tirith and Gondorian etiquette. I told Dara not to say anything to Eorla yet about our plans, since they would not take effect for a few days.
Arador left that evening to ride to Minas Tirith. I was able to say goodbye properly and wish him luck. He told me not too spend too much time worrying.
“I’ll be all right,” he said, smiling. “I’ve only been ‘spreading rumors’ for three years now, so my relatives shouldn’t throw me in prison or anything like that.”
“Remember Weathertop,” I cautioned him. “In Bree you said they were becoming more concerned.”
He smiled and hugged me. “The people in the city won’t let them do anything to me,” he reassured me. “They’re going to like you even more than they like me.”
I laughed, then sobered. “I hope so.”
Arador leaned close and looked into my eyes. “They will. Don’t worry.” He smiled and was gone.
The next morning I went to the Golden Hall and managed to discreetly ask Prince Fastred if the spies had been caught.
He seemed to be enjoying the excitement of political turmoil, for he quickly said ‘yes’ and that they had been clapped in irons.
When I looked surprised, he grinned and said it served them right.
For the rest of the day I wandered around Edoras, sometimes with Dara, sometimes with Lanthir and the children, watching the people and the contests of the last day of the festivities. I wished Arador was there, but I knew it was important that he go to Minas Tirith.
The next day I felt almost lonely, watching all the people leaving and packing up their tents. Some were staying on, but more than half were returning to their homes. I rode Voronwe around outside the city, watching the people and letting the mare have some exercise.
My prize from the race had been heavy gold coins, a welcome addition to my funds, which were dwindling. The brooch on Voronwe’s headstall made her conspicious, I thought, but she was very proud of it and strutted like a rooster. Dara teased her and said she was vain, but Voronwe merely tossed her head and looked airily away.
That day my relatives invited me for a private lunch, which was a very elegant affair. I wore my green dress and tried to be on my best behavior. By the end of the meal I think we were all good friends; Queen Merrilen and I especially.
My cousin, who insisted I call him by his first name, took a great liking to me and Voronwe, despite the fact we had beaten him soundly in the race, and he wanted to know all about the Shire. When I went down on my knees to show him how short a hobbit is, he was amazed and asked how tall their houses were. I told him I had to duck to go through all the doorways. When Fastred declared he wanted to live in a hobbit hole with geraniums on the windowsills and a bright yellow door, his parents laughed and said they would call it the ‘Golden Hole,’ while I told him that he would soon develop a crick in his neck.
“But you didn’t get one!” he protested.
I laughed, “I just didn’t tell you about them!”
Near the end of the week Dara and her father came to tell me that all was ready for our departure. King Leofa wrote a letter to Turin V, the steward, against my need, and the whole royal family showered me with gifts. I packed my saddlebags, thanked Eorla and her family for their generous hospitality, and hugged each of the children at least three times before they would let me leave. Theodwyn wanted to know when I would come and visit. I told her she would have to come see me when I lived in Minas Tirith so she could ride Voronwe. Haldir told me to be careful on the roads. Brunilda told me to tell them when I was going to be married, and they would come to my wedding. I blushed when I thought of Arador, but told her I would do it. Eorla and Leod gave me plenty of food for my journey, and thanked me again for saving Theodwyn. Lanthir shook my hand and told me to win every horserace I entered, which made us all laugh.
The whole family stood by the door, waving, as I set out with Dara and her father for Minas Tirith, the city where my future would be decided.
Chapter 17: Gondor
That four-day journey to Minas Tirith was a strange time for me. I felt like a little pawn in a vast game of chess, with a great storm brewing over my head. Yet all around me was peaceful. Farmers tilled their fields and weeded their crops, which were growing well. Sheep, horses, and cattle grazed in the pastures. Children played by the houses. Every now and then a troop of soldiers rode by, the only reminders of the state of watchfulness.
Dara’s father, whose name was Aranel, drove a cart with his few leftover wares and his family’s belongings. Dara had a little chesnut mare with a star on her nose, and she rode with Voronwe and I a little ahead or to the side of the cart. At noon we would stop and picnic in the lush grass, then continue. At night we would sleep in the cart, Aranel on the seat and we girls on the floor in the back.
During the fourth day we approached the Druadan Forest, the ancient home of the Woses, or Wild Men. They had not been seen since the War of the Ring, but as we passed along the outskirts of the wood, we heard a muffled pounding, soft, then louder, then fading, then growing again. Drums, one calling, the other answering. The sound was somehow touching, the remnant of what once was a culture, that now was never seen.
We moved on, but now and then that day we would hear those throbbing, pulsing drums.
The next day we woke early, before it was light, because Dara wanted me to see Minas Tirith in the sunrise. We saddled our horses and rode ahead along the road. We galloped up a small hill and reined in.
Before us lay a sight such as I had never seen. Gleaming like white marble in the clear morning light, a vast monument to the memory of fallen Numenor, stood the White City.
The slim tower of Ecthelion, the topmost point in the seven-levelled city, shone like a glittering spike of pearl and silver, a beacon in the golden light. My eyes lingered on it for a moment. There, in that citadel, I had been born. There my parents had lived; there my father had died. The thought had a strange poignancy, as if a heavy mantle of grandeur had settled itself upon my shoulders, cloaking me in the very essence of my ancestry. As we watched, a chorus of silver trumpets rang out, welcoming the dawn. The sound was the pealing of fairy horns at that distance, a light, airy sound.
Aranel drove up behind us with the cart and stopped as well.
“Minas Tirith, the city of kings,” I heard him say softly. “May it be so again.”
The city of Minas Tirith had been built by Elendil the Tall, who had come over from foundering Numenor with his sons, Isildur and Anarion. It was build on seven levels, out of the stone from towering Mount Mindolluin behind it. A great sharp-edged cliff rose from the second level to the seventh, like a great ship-prow. A mile or so from the city ran the Pelenor Wall, the first defense of the city, within which the famous battle of the Pelenor Fields had been fought during the War of the Ring. The rebuilt city of Osgiliath was nearby, built on both sides of the River Anduin.
We rode down the hill towards the Pelenor Wall. I could scarcely take my eyes from the city. The sunlight played on bright banners and the armor of men on the walltops, little sparkling points of light. Great trebuchets stood at intervals on towering stone bastions.
We passed the wallgate with no trouble and entered the Fields. Off to the right, among the waving grasses, stood a mound topped with a graven stone, and Dara and I rode over to look at it. She told me it was the grave of Snowmane, the horse of King Theoden of Rohan, who had ridden to the aid of Gondor in the War of the Ring. Close by was a great patch of bare black ground, where the winged beast of the Witch-King of Minas Morgul had been slain by the shield-maiden Eowyn, niece of Theoden. The beast’s body had been burned, and ever after no grass grew in that place.
We rode back to the cart and joined the line of wagons approaching the great gates of the city.
The Great Gates scared me. Nearly fifty feet high, wrought of mithril by the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain after the War of the Ring, they were figured in scenes of the battle of the Pelenor Fields. Aranel explained the plates to me: the charge of the Rohirrim, the arrival of King Aragorn II in the Corsair ships, the great mumakil of Harad, the fall of the Witch-King, and other smaller details.
A squadron of armored guards stood near the gates, questioning those entering. Aranel and the cart were allowed to pass without trouble, and when he said Dara and I were with him, we were allowed through as well. I was glad I was wearing my long Rohirrim dress, because I looked less unusual.
The square just behind the Great Gates could have held the Golden Hall easily. Shops and houses lined the sides, and gaily colored market stalls were set up on the fringes.
In the center of the square a great steel sculpture of an armored horse and rider stood in solitary majesty, dominating the plaza. I asked Dara who it was.
“That is Elendil,” she said. “The statue is almost as old as the city.”
Elendil was one of my ancestors.
We followed Aranel and the cart closely through the narrow streets filled with people. Bright flowers grew in the courtyards and window boxes of the houses, and I heard many different languages spoken. There were the Gondorians, tall and proud, dark of hair and eyes; fairer folk from Rohan and Dol Amroth, who wore lighter, brighter clothing; a few dwarves, tramping stoutly along in their burnished mail; and even a group from Harad, which was now at peace with Gondor. These were swarthy of skin and short, lean and active-looking people. Some wore veils that hid their faces, and most wore jewelry of some sort.
Aranel went to the south side of the city, to a stone house on the third level, within a courtyard. Several other buildings also faced into the yard. Dara dismounted and went to the house next to theirs.
“Glaedhwin,” she called, “we’re home!”
A stout, bustling woman, whose gray hair was streaked with black and pulled tightly back into a severe bun, emerged. “Dara!” She scurried down the steps and enfolded the girl in her ample embrace. She hugged Aranel as well, and then she noticed me and turned to Dara. “Who’s this?” she asked, giving me a suspicious look.
“This is my friend Elbereth, who journeyed with us from Rohan,” Dara introduced me. I made a slight bow and smiled. Glaedhwin’s beady eyes appraised me from head to foot, reminding me of one of Granny’s hens. Her glance strayed to Voronwe. Mine did too, and I winced as I saw that my sword was protruding from under the saddle flap.
“Since when do women and girls carry swords?” she demanded, turning on me.
I shrugged slightly, vaguely uneasy. “Since they find the need to defend themselves pressing enough to do so.” I met her gaze, half challenging, half afraid to seem defiant, but not wishing to reveal my reasons. The wrecked hall at Amon Sul passed through my mind.
Aranel rescued me. “Elbereth has travelled far alone, Glaedhwin – she is an orphan in search of her relatives,” he said firmly.
Glaedhwin did not seem too impressed, but all she said was, “Hmph!”
After she had disappeared into the house with some of the baggage, Dara whispered, “Don’t mind her too much, Elbereth. She just likes to be in control of everything, and she lost her only child when he was about your age. It was an accident brought on by carelessness, so she is particularly bitter against young people, who are careless sometimes.” I nodded, resolving not to judge the woman too harshly.
Glaedhwin, whom I learned was a widow who cooked and kept house for Dara and her father, prepared us a hasty breakfast while we unloaded the cart and stabled the horses. After we had eaten, Dara and I washed the dishes while Aranel went to check on his shop and hear the latest news. Before he left, seeing me washing dishes, he seemed uncomfortable, but I shook my head slightly and he seemed reassured.
Dara then took me on a tour of the city. We looked at the shops and the children playing, then went to the windswept walltop to look over the Pelenor Fields. As we were walking along the Lampwrights’ Street, I suddenly stopped, arrested by the odd antics of a group of boys and a few little girls wearing strange clothes and carrying handmade bows and staffs.
“You have to be Galdalf, Lindir, because you’re the tallest,” one girl was saying determinedly. I leaned against a wall, feeling a wave of homesickness engulf me. I, too, had had to be Gandalf, because I was the tallest.
The scene changed before my eyes until I once again saw bossy Amelia Bracegirdle wagging her finger at me, the other hand on her hip, saying, in the same tone, “You have to be Gandalf, Elbereth, you’re the tallest.”
I remembered the play we had done, starring me as Gandalf in ragged robes, false beard, and paper hat, of the disappearance of Mad Baggins at his 111th birthday party, remembered seeing Granny in the audience, clapping and laughing at my staff-brandishing and gruff roaring and setting off of small fireworks.
“Elbereth?” Dara was looking at me, a concerned look on her face. I roused myself and stood away from the wall.
“I’m all right.”
We returned to the house in the courtyard for lunch, then saddled our horses for a longer tour of the city. We were going to be going to the seventh level to view the museum and other buildings, so we changed into nicer clothes. I put on my green dress, with my knife belted on my saddle. I was going to be in the steward’s territory, so I felt I should be careful. I hoped we would see Arador.
When we rode through a tunnel to the north side of the city, I was struck by how much brighter it was.
“The north side gets more sunlight, so that’s why the richer people live here,” Dara told me. We rode up a gentle incline to the fourth level. I marveled at the houses we passed, tall and stately mansions. Liveried footmen stood at some of the doors, watching the passing people.
“What is that smell?” I asked Dara.
“It is the linthos trees, from south,” she told me, and pointed out the white-blossoming saplings in some of the courtyards. “Many rich folk like to have them, because they resemble the white tree of the king.”
“They’re beautiful,” I said.
We had just drawn our horses aside to allow a troop of mounted guards to pass when we heard people shouting.
“What is it?” I asked Dara. She listened a moment.
“I don’t know. It sounds serious.” She looked at me.
We rode quickly to a place where we could see higher up in the city, craned our necks, trying to see.
“There’s a trebuchet moving!” Dara cried, pointing. I followed her arm and saw the huge machine on the sixth level swinging back and forth erratically. Tiny shapes seemed to be swarming around it.
We spurred our horses into a gallop. As we approached the gate to the fifth level, where a crowd was gathering, I cried, “Look out!” People scattered like dried leaves, letting us pass. I felt Voronwe’s hooves slip on the marble paving stones, but she caught herself and we maneuvered around the turn.
Dara fell behind as Voronwe clattered up the hill, dodging people and carts. Men were still shouting on the sixth level, women’s voices were joining the noise, and the consternation was spreading.
As we approached the gate to the sixth level, I felt Voronwe bunching her stride so she would not slip. People turned to stare as we thundered past them, then followed us. Ahead was the tunnel through the ship prow, and beyond it was the swinging trebuchet. We ducked through the dark hole and out into the sunlight again.
Suddenly a cart pulled out in front of us, blocking the road! Voronwe gathered herself…and jumped.
Up, up, up we went, until I saw the cart beneath us and a sea of upturned faces, then down until Voronwe’s hooves found the pavement again. I let out the breath I had been holding as the crowd hastily parted to let the mare pass, and we clattered the last hundred yards to the trebuchet.
There was a cleared space around the machine, and as Voronwe passed the edge of the crowd I was able to see what had happened. What I saw made me sway in the saddle and clutch the pommel with shaking hands.
A man’s arm was trapped in the ropes that wound around the wheel that cranked the sling arm back. I could see the man’s face, white, with staring eyes – a despairing face. Three men were chopping with axes at the ropes, but they were thick, at least three inches across, and they were not making much headway. Voronwe clattered up the steps to the bastion as I swung out of the saddle, feeling for my knife under the saddle flap. My feet scraped the ground and I ran up beside the trapped man.
For a moment our eyes met, then I slashed at the ropes, just above his arm.
A strand broke. I slashed again, and another sprung free. I struck again and the last strand parted. I started working on another, then another, until all the ropes were hanging loose. As I cut the last one, one of the men with the axes jumped down beside me and gently but swiftly edged me aside. I hastily stepped back, and he began to carefully peel the ropes from the man’s crushed arm.
The poor fellow winced and trembled with pain as horrible rope marks were revealed on his forearm. I slipped around the man who was removing the ropes and took the injured man’s good arm as he closed his eyes, shaking. I looked at the man with the axe, and suddenly realized it was Arador! He looked over and caught my eye for a moment with a slight start followed by a nod, then went back to work. Four men came up with a stretcher. Arador finished, and other men stepped up and helped him lay the injured man on the stretcher; then the bearers started off, the crowd backing away to make a lane.
Arador turned back to me. “Thank you.”
“Where are they taking him?”
“To the Houses of Healing. It’s not far.” He said softly, so only Voronwe and I heard, “You made it. When did you get in?”
“I need to talk to you, when this is over.” He looked at me closely, making sure I understood. I nodded, took Voronwe’s reins, and followed the stretcher, staying close to him. As we walked, he told me what had happened.
“They were testing the trebuchet, and as it was winding, the poor fellow reached across the wheel to adjust something. The rope caught his arm and dragged him around a bit; I don’t know if it can be saved.”
He saw the look on my face and caught my arm. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll manage.” We passed a stairway on our left, leading up to the seventh level, and I caught a glimpse of the Hall and the Tower.
Arador followed my look and said quietly, “We’ll go there afterwards.”
“Here are the Houses,” he said.
The Houses of Healing were essentially a large villa, containing many small rooms, that had a garden at the back that ended at the outer wall of the sixth level. The Warden, its master of lore and principal healer, met the stretcher at the door.
“Bring him in here, this way, this way,” he instructed. He was a small, wiry, talkative man in his fifties, dressed in dark robes, with short-cropped hair and a clean-shaven, wizened face.
I handed Voronwe’s reins to Dara, who had just come up, and followed Arador as the Warden directed the stretcher-bearers to a tidy room with a bed and tables full of instruments and vials. Arador stepped forward and helped lay the man on the bed; the bearers retreated outside the room and stood with me by the door. We watched as the Warden, assisted by Arador, examined the man’s arm. I caught snatches of the healer’s talk.
“Hmm, pretty bad there… muscle torn up here…that tendon is nasty, no, don’t think I can do it.”
“What!” exclaimed Arador.
“I’ll have to amputate it,” the Warden said, drawing the young man away from the bed. “It’s torn up too badly to ever function properly again.”
“No!” the injured man cried weakly. Arador turned to him and knelt by the bed, taking his uninjured hand.
“Brandir.” He took a deep breath. “I do not know what I can do, but I will try to save your arm. But if we cannot, you must understand. It will be useless for the rest of your life if we cannot heal it, or it could become infected. We would have to amputate it then. You must understand this.” He looked straight into the man’s eyes. Slowly Brandir nodded.
“Go ahead, Arador,” he said weakly.
Arador stood up and whispered something to the Warden, who left. Then he came to me and drew me aside.
“I’m going to need your help,” he said. “It is said that the hands of the king have healing power; it is all we have for hope.” His hands gently took mine.
It broke on me suddenly why Sam Brandybuck had improved so rapidly.
“I will help.”
Arador looked at me. “If you are going to be…ill, tell me.”
I nodded, feeling my stomach knot.
Arador squeezed my hand and turned back to the bed, and I followed him. The Warden re-entered with a basin of steaming water and some familiar green leaves, kingsfoil. He set the basin beside the bed.
Arador nodded to me. I took the leaves and crushed them over the basin, their pungent fragrance soothing me. I pushed the leaves into the water and took a deep breath. The Warden, a slightly questioning look on his face, handed me a soft cloth. I smiled my thanks and dipped the cloth, soaking it throughly. With Arador and the Warden watching closely, I washed Brandir’s arm as gently as I could. He shivered violently several times, and Arador tucked the blankets closer around him.
When I was nearly finished, the Warden handed me a roll of bandage. My fingers fumbled with it and I dropped it. I quickly ducked down to retrieve it and seized it as it rolled under the bed. As I stood up I realized that Brandir was staring at me. So was the Warden. I reached up…and felt the Evenstar outside my dress.
Chapter 18: Revelations
For a moment I stood there, not knowing what to do, feeling all those eyes on me. Then I took a deep breath and began bandaging Brandir’s arm. The man relaxed as he felt the pain subsiding, and closed his eyes with a sigh. The Warden, with a hesitant bow to me, shuffled out when he saw I was nearly finished bandaging, taking the basin with him.
“Good job,” Arador commended me, meaning my ‘royal bearing.’
I made a wry face. “Thank you.” I tied off the bandage and sliced the long end off with my knife. “There.” I turned to Arador, half hesitantly. “What do we do now?”
Arador’s eyes darted around the room. “This way,” he directed, leading me from the room and through the garden, then along back ways to the seventh level.
“This is the servant’s entrance,” he explained, as we entered the great hall of the kings from a small back entrance. Several serving-men stared at us, but Arador paid them no heed.
“Where are we going?” I asked wearily, as we turned down yet another passage.
“In here,” he whispered, and opened an ornate door. I looked around, astonished at the richness of the appartment.
“What is this place?”
“It is the place where your parents lived, the set of rooms reserved for the kings. It is almost a whole house.”
“It seems too large for just two people.”
Arador smiled. “This was the receiving room, then here,” he steered me through a doorway, “were the bedrooms, dressing rooms, and,” he took me through more doors, “is the nursery.”
I looked at the little cradle, the carved rocking chair, the neatly folded blankets. This was where I had lived, for the first few months of my life. I had probably been sleeping in that little cradle when my father was murdered.
We left the nursery and entered an ornate but comfortable ‘living room’ that opened out upon a balcony with a view of the north side of the city. An embroidery frame stood in the light from the balcony, a sofa stood by the fireplace, and a writing desk filled a corner beneath a lamp. A soft, deep rug, hooked in many colors, covered the floor, muffling our footsteps. Heavy brocade curtains hung by the tall windows.
“Has it been kept this way all this time?” I asked softly. Arador nodded.
“It was always hoped that the queen would return.”
“But she never did.”
“Not until now.” Arador looked into my eyes and smiled.
“So what do we do now?”
“I want Turin to have a chance to acknowledge you without much external pressure. Maybe it will shake him enough, maybe it won’t. In that case we will have to get out of there fast and appeal to the people of the city. If they recognize you, Turin will be forced to give in.” He opened a closet and withdrew a long sword with scabbard and belt. “Put this on – you might need it.”
I looked again around that ornate room, thinking how strange it was to be standing in a palace plotting to overthrow someone in another room of the same building.
I took the sword and buckled it on. “Well, let’s get it over with,” I said. Arador nodded, and we left the royal suite.
The steward of Gondor leaned forward in his chair, looking piercingly into the swarthy faces of the men who made up his personal guard, impressing upon them the importance of what he was saying.
“If the princess secures the throne, the war with Harad will be off. You came crawling to me when your own people threw you out; you desire revenge.” He shook a bony finger at them. “See that you finish her this time. You bungled this job fifteen years ago, do not bungle it again.” He smiled evilly, scornfully, at those hardened men, men who had murders, many of them, on their calloused, jewelled hands.
On the way to the throne room, Arador coached me. “Act just the way you did in the Houses, it was magnificent. Don’t show it if you’re nervous.” He glanced quickly around, saw that no one was in sight, and gave me a quick hug.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered against my hair.
We rounded a corner and approached a door flanked by guards. Arador asked one of them, in a soft voice, “Is the steward alone?”
The man glanced at me, startled, then answered, “His son and the captains of his personal guard are in there.”
“Good enough. Don’t announce us.” Arador looked closely at the guard, who nodded, then glanced at me again. I met his gaze and favored him with a slight nod.
“Ah, my lady…? I…ah,” the man seemed unsure of what to say.
“Yes?” I encouraged him.
The man knelt unsteadily, then said more firmly, “We will fight for you, my lady, if you require us.”
I looked down at him, unsure of what to do. By this time the other guards had knelt as well. Finally I offered my hand to the captain, who kissed it. “Thank you.”
I stole a glance at Arador, and he nodded encouragingly. “If you hear that we are having difficulties, your protection would be most welcome,” I finished, my eyes travelling slowly over their earnest faces.
They smiled up at me, touching in their loyalty. I smiled a little, then took a deep breath and nodded to Arador, who carefully, quietly pushed open the door.
Turin V, steward of Gondor, gorgeous in rich dark robes, his lean, hook-nosed face still handsome under his gray hair, was in conference with his captains, mostly dark, shifty-looking fellows recruited from the ranks of paid assassins from Harad, over an issue which, under the circumstances, struck me as amusing. He was outlining measures to put down the rumors that the heir to the throne was in the city, while that same person was tip-toeing towards him, hearing every word he said, behind the line of polished black pillars that marched around the spacious hall. Arador stepped through the line of pillars into full view, steering me with him.
“Uncle,” he said clearly, releasing my arm. All noise in the hall ceased as the steward and his captains turned to see who had intruded on their council.
I felt the steward’s somber dark eyes play over me, saw him pale slightly as I made myself meet his eyes.
He addressed Arador. “Who is…this?” he asked, distantly.
“You know who it is, Uncle,” Arador returned, in a penetrating but soft tone. “You know why I have brought her here.”
“I can have no idea, unless it is to announce her as your future bride, nephew. My congratulations.” His voice was silky.
Arador straightened as his voice rang out through the hall. “The Lady Elbereth has not come on a journey of four hundred miles on so trifling a matter,” he said clearly. “She has come to claim her birthright, one withheld for nearly sixteen years, and she bears proof of her title to it, as you can see.”
The steward’s face contracted, a mask of cunning descending over it. “So that is why you have come,” he said softly, tilting his head back slightly and looking at us from under heavy lids. I forced myself to stand straight and still under his scrutiny, wishing he would come to the point.
Turin smiled evilly. “Arrest them,” he ordered. His captains sprang at us, drawing their swords.
“Traitor!” Arador cried, his sword rasping from its scabbard.
The company of guards who had recognized me burst in, swords drawn. Arador slew the first of the captains while another dived at me. I blocked him wildly, glad my blade was long enough to keep me safe. The loyal captain appeared at my left, fighting with quick efficiency. The steward’s son was hovering on the edge of the fighting, his sword limp in his hand, not doing anything to assist either side. I remembered how Arador had said he was afraid of him.
More men were pouring in from other doors, joining the steward’s forces. Slowly our little band was driven back, down the length of the hall. We backed into the passage leading to the outer doors, resisting stiffly, leaving a trail of dead and wounded steward’s men. I felt a hand grab my shoulder and shook it off, thinking it was only one of our men. Suddenly rough hands seized us from behind. My sword was wrenched from my hand, and someone unbuckled my sword belt and took it away.
I heard Arador cry, “Elbereth!” and saw him go down under a pile of assailants. A leering man, swarthy and evil-looking, put a thin, strangely wrought dagger to my throat.
“Don’t move, little princess,” he sneered.
I obeyed wordlessly, but my eyes were not still. Our men were all down, and the steward’s men were binding the them. My captain gave me an ‘I tried!’ look, and I shrugged my shoulders sympathetically. The steward lounged over, gloating. Arador was hauled to his feet and stood up beside me, glaring at him.
“So,” chuckled the steward, rubbing his hands together wickedly. “A claimant to the throne. How nice of my dear nephew to try to oust me. Oh no, that won’t happen now. I’ve been too careful in my plans for that. Instead, you are going to go.” He smiled, his eyes full of triumph.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Arador snarled, struggling in the arms that held him.
Turin laughed. “Put them over the ship’s – head,” he commanded, and turned away. The men closed around and led us through the great doors out onto the terrace, leaving the bound guards behind.
As they hustled us down the steps, I caught a glimpse of a flowering white tree near a fountain, the white tree of the king. I looked away. The terrace was clear of people, except the guards on duty, but Turin’s men made us walk past them sedately, looking more like an honor guard than our jailers. One of our captors even acted as a guide.
“You saw the white tree of the kings on your way in,” he proclaimed, “Now we will see the view from the edge of the terrace.”
They marched us along, past the steps leading to the lower levels. The parody of it sickened me. Arador tried to struggle a few times, but one of the men hissed something in his ear; they looked at me, and Arador stopped. His eyes were stricken.
We passed the last few guards. I looked out between two stone pillars at the great panorama below, but it only filled me with dread. I looked at Arador as the men shoved him up beside me. His eyes met mine for a moment, then he made a leap for one of the men’s swords; but four lean, active fellows tackled him and pushed the two of us, struggling wildly, over the low parapet into space.
I screamed, the sound echoing, and echoing, and echoing.
Chapter 19: Ghosts
Down, down, down we went. The wind rushed past me, tearing at my clothes and whipping my hair. I could scarcely breathe. My mind was racing; I wondered what dying would be like; I feared the end of the fall…then Arador, slightly below me, grabbed my hand and looked beseechingly at me.
“Elbereth!” he cried, his voice almost carried away by the great rush of air. “You must try to land on top of me, understand? It’s your only chance! Do it!”
The ground and houses below were rushing up at us terribly fast. I started to say, “Arador…”
But I never finished the sentence. Something grabbed my waist, knocking the wind out of me. His hand was ripped out of my grasp. I screamed.
I caught a glimpse of his amazed face as a second talon stretched down and caught him too, then felt the terrific drag as the enormous creature who held us tried to level off. I clutched the scaly foot that held me with all my strength.
“It’s an eagle! Hang on!” Arador shouted by my ear.
Our rescuer, pulled low by our weight and the force of our fall, skimmed over the roofs of the first level, caught the updraft from the city wall, and swooped up and over the Great Gates and out over the Pelenor Fields, where he caught the strong south wind that was blowing and gained altitude again. Arador and I relaxed a little and looked up to watch as the great snow-white eagle flapped his wide-spreading wings and circled to pass over the Great Gate back into the square. Looking down, I saw people scattering like leaves as the great bird majestically plummeted toward the paving stones. I saw the ground rushing up to meet me, then the talon about my waist loosened. My feet struck the pavement with numbing force, the talon released me, and I fell forward. I can remember hitting my head, then darkness fell.
The great eagle set Arador down some thirty feet beyond Elbereth, then flapped his enormous wings and alighted upon the statue of Elendil’s great horse.
Arador also fell upon reaching the ground, but he managed to save himself to a degree, escaping with torn trouser knees, skinned hands, and a bruise on his forehead. As he dazedly rose to his knees, the crowd pressed forward, silent with wonder, but leaving a wide berth around the statue.
Few noted the tall, dark-hooded figure who stood slightly apart from the crowd, twisting pale, slender hands nervously together. Those nearby drew away, sensing something strange.
Arador turned and saw Elbereth stretched out upon the pavement, not moving.
“Elbereth!” he exclaimed softly, and stumbling to his feet, he staggered over to her and fell to his knees. “Elbereth,” he said again, touching her long hair that flowed loosely about her on the cool paving stones. He gently turned her over and saw that she breathed. With a cry of relief he looked up.
“She’s alive!” he cried, suddenly noticing the hooded figure who stood near, bent attentively forward. Something familiar stirred in his memory, but at that moment he felt Elbereth’s head stir slightly by his knee and his attention turned wholly to her.
I slowly opened my eyes, winced, and commented, “Ouch.”
Someone chuckled, and I looked over. Arador was kneeling on my left, looking down at me with a vastly relieved expression on his face.
“Are you all right?” he asked. I made a face.
“I believe I’ll live.”
I looked past my feet and saw the Great Gates gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. A rustle of feathers turned my attention to the great eagle who perched behind Elendil, his white head cocked to one side, watching me. He gave a hoarse cry and stretched his wings before settling down again on his steel perch. With Arador’s help, I got to my feet to thank him. But as I stood up, I glanced to my right, towards the crowd, and stopped, a strange sight halting me in my tracks.
A richly robed, graceful woman, her velvet gown a deep purple embroidered in black leaves and silver stars at the hems, her hood thrown back, stood a little before the crowd, looking at me with an intenseness, a longing, that I had never seen before. Her dark hair, above soft brown eyes, was bound with a small silver circlet, set with a single stone that gleamed and sparkled even in the shadow; her pale face looked hauntingly, strangely, familiar to me.
I heard Arador take a sharp breath beside me, heard him whisper, so quiet was the crowd: “Your Majesty.”
His arm loosened on mine, and he slowly fell to his knees. I sensed rather than saw the crowd kneel with him, leaving only me standing there, facing my mother.
I took a hesitant step forward, looking into those sad, longing eyes.
“Mother?” I said, ever so softly.
But she heard me. With a glad cry she leapt forward and took me in her arms, sobbing and laughing all in one. The spell was broken. The crowd began applauding as we hugged each other. Still holding me, Mother stood before the great statue of Elendil and addressed the eagle, who bowed his white head solemnly.
“I thank you,” she said, beautifully majestic, “more than words can tell, for your great flight and skill in the saving of my daughter. This day you have saved the hope of Gondor, and its people shall be forever grateful.”
The eagle shifted from one talon to the other, looking uncomfortable. He reminded me of Arador, always embarrassed when praised.
Mother continued. “If there is assistance you desire of me, that is within my power, you have but to request it.”
The eagle cleared his throat, opened his beak and shut it a few times, then spoke in a raspy, hoarse voice.
“There is one favor, O Vardanelle Queen of Gondor, that you can render to me at this time, that I wish. The eldest of my chicks but two days past fell from the eyrie, its wing breaking in the great fall. If the skill of the healers and the Queen can mend the flight of Elvatar, the debt will be amply repaid.”
The queen bowed regally. “The skill of the healers and of the Queen will be employed to restore Elvatar’s flight.”
The eagle raised its mighty wings and threw its head back, giving a great cry in its joy. It sprang into the air with a great rush of wings and was gone.
My mother turned to the kneeling people and smiled, a beautiful, overflowing with happiness smile. The people of Gondor smiled back, and the queen gave them permission to rise. Arador was smiling back as well. But he was smiling at me.
I saw Dara in the crowd and beckoned and smiled for her to come up. She came, blushing prettily, leading Voronwe and her own mare.
“Mother, this is Dara, a friend from this city, who has helped in making sure I arrived here.” I took Voronwe’s reins as the queen thanked Dara, then looked at Arador.
“I’m amazed to be alive,” he said smiling.
I laughed. “Me too. I don’t even know what the eagle’s name is.”
My mother turned to us, smiling a little. “Where is your mother?” she asked Arador gravely.
The young man bowed. “She lives now across the Anduin, in the White Hills of Ithilien.”
“And how has she fared?”
“Well enough, my lady, but she is saddened by all that has passed, and smiles seldom.”
The queen nodded thoughtfully, then turned to me. “I know that my sister and brother-in-law are well,” she said, “for I saw them from the crowd in Edoras when I passed through it.”
“They aided me,” I said. “King Leofa has written a letter against my need, for the steward, but I do not know if I will need it now.”
Vardanelle turned once more to the people and raised her hand for silence. “My people,” she said clearly, “this day the steward has forfeited his office. He has refused to recognize the heir of Isildur, my daughter, once already today. Without your loyalty she may never be recognized, for I ask you now to come with me to the Halls of the King, for a reckoning!”
The people roared their approval, but the queen silenced them instantly. “Our hope is in secrecy at first,” she explained. A lane was opened. I offered Voronwe to Mother to ride, and she accepted. Dara pressed her mare’s reins into my hand.
“I will bring her back,” I promised, and rode slowly beside the queen through the crowded streets of the city. Arador, at the queen’s request, rode after us with a hastily summoned guard of honor from the Great Gates. Silently the people of Minas Tirith followed us.
When we reached the steps leading to the seventh level, where horses were not allowed, we dismounted, and the horses were led away to the royal stables. Ten of the fountain guards, seeing the queen, hesitated a moment, then came to meet us at the head of the steps. One of them stepped forward and knelt before her.
In a majestic gesture, she removed his black silk mask, bidding him to speak.
“My lady,” he said, “we have as our prisoners the men who tried to cause the death of the princess and the Lord Arador.”
The queen thanked him, and told him and his men to escort us to the Hall, which they did, making an arch over our heads with their long spears. The queen, Arador, and I made a hasty plan, which was given out to the guards, who posted themselves about to prevent the steward’s men from entering the hall. The people silently filed onto the terrace behind us, filling it to capacity.
According to our plan, which was mostly Arador’s, I climbed the steps to the great doors, while nearly fifty guards, with Arador and my mother , slipped around inside to unlock them and to provide the backup for the plan. I straightened my dress, made sure the Evenstar was in plain view, and nodded to the black-cloaked fountain guards. With their long spears, they slowly pushed the heavy doors open with a bang, stepping back quickly so they would not be seen. A gust of cold wind from gathering storm-clouds in the east swept through my hair and billowed my heavy skirts as I stepped slowly into the Great Hall.
Chapter 20: The Queen
Once again, Turin V was in council with his captains. But this time they were deciding the fate of the small handful of guards who had attempted to aid Arador and I. These men were bound hand and foot, thrown on the polished floor before the throne, and Turin was addressing them mockingly.
When the great doors swung inwards with a resounding boom, accompanied by a gust of rain-washed wind, the steward was justifiably surprised to have his councils broken in upon for the second time in one day.
One can even sympathize with him for shrinking back in his chair when he saw that the intruder was a person who had been just thrown over a five-hundred-foot cliff by his guards.
I took another step forward.
The steward’s men took a step back.
I was glad Arador had formed his plan by playing on their southern superstitions. They were all thoroughly convinced that I was a ghost.
I met the steward’s eyes, accusing, threatening him. He cringed back in his chair, his face working. I saw a moving figure on my right and saw my mother, also according to plan. But what she said surprised me.
“Turin,” she said, commandingly. The steward was jerked from one terror to another. But his fright on seeing me was nothing to what it was on seeing the queen. His hands jerked convulsively, clawing at the air, trying to push her away from across the room.
“Why did you kill my husband?”
I stared at her. Arador had mentioned something, but he hadn’t been sure.
Vardanelle’s eyes bored into the shaken Turin, compelling him, punishing him.
Almost frothing at the mouth, he gasped out an answer. “I – I wanted – to be k – you know what I wanted!”
Vardanelle took a step forward.
The steward strained back in his chair so hard and so suddenly that I jumped. Then he slumped forward, his eyes staring, his mouth foaming, and fell to the floor. He was dead.
Guards, led by Arador, poured into the room and bound the Haradrim captains, while others freed the loyal men who had been captured.
While the last of these ‘transactions’ were taking place, the steward’s son wandered into the room.
“What’s going on!” he cried in panic, looking frantically around. He saw me and stared. “I didn’t want them to kill you!” he pleaded. “He always made me go along; I didn’t like it.”
He was shaking with fear.
Vardanelle stepped closer. “We will not hurt you,” she said clearly. “But you must re-affirm your loyalty before we can trust you.”
He nodded, a little scared, then ran forward and knelt at her feet. He clasped one of the queen’s hands with both of his and said solemly, “I swear to serve the house of Elendil till the end of my days.” Vardanelle smiled and laid her other hand on his head, acknowledging the oath, and bade him rise. Fairly beaming with happiness and a new-found security, he rose and almost ran to help Arador.
Carrying the long sword he had given me earlier, Arador approached. “I found it in a corner,” he explained to me.
The queen looked at him in wonder. “What do you mean?”
Arador looked a little abashed. “Before I took her in here, I got her the king’s sword,” he said. “I thought she might need it.”
“It was – Father’s sword?” I exclaimed.
“It has been the sword of many kings,” my mother said softly, “for it is Anduril, Flame of the West, reforged from the shards of Narsil the sword of Elendil for Aragorn, first king of Gondor since Earnur fell long ago.”
That night there was great rejoicing in the White City. People sang and feasted, celebrating the return of the royal family. In the royal appartments, another celebration, of a smaller nature, was going on. Arador’s mother, Aradhel, had come from Ithilien to see her friend and queen again, and to meet me; Dara and Aranel came; the acting head of the Fountain Guards, named Turgon, along with the captain who had first been loyal to me, whose name was Minardil, were there; Arador’s cousin, the steward’s son, whose name was Dirhael; and of course Arador, myself, and my mother, Queen Vardanelle.
After a marvellous dinner, the time came for us to relate our tales. Everyone elected that I go first, so with some reluctance I began. I told of my childhood in the Shire, Granny, the incident with Turin’s men and Sam Brandybuck, the decision to leave the Shire, the meeting with Voronwe, the ride to Bree, the meeting with Arador and hearing his tale of my father’s death, the ride to Weathertop, or Amon Sul, as it was called, the carnage I had found there, Arador’s arrival and our escape with the survivors, my journey south, the battle with the wolves, the flight from the wargs, the crossing of Caradhras, Lothlorien and the grave of Arwen Undomiel, Rohan, Leod and Eorla and their family, the race, the King and Queen of Rohan and Prince Fastred, my journey to Minas Tirith with Aranel and Dara, and the events of the afternoon before I met Arador.
Arador related what we had done at the Houses of Healing, our confrontation of the steward (supported by Dirhael’s information), the fall from the great cliff, and our rescue by the eagle. He also told what he had done after leaving me near Weathertop – guiding the wounded men to their homes, the long ride to Isengard, the finding of the sketch of the Ring of Barahir in one of Saruman’s books, the journey to Edoras, then the meeting with me and the royal family and the ride to Minas Tirith.
When he had finished, Queen Vardanelle began her history.
The Queen’s Tale
Nearly a week after finding Amon Sul deserted, the sorrel stumbled into the small city of Tharbad, built around a crossing of the Greyflood. It’s clapboard buildings of unfinished wood stood close together, as if afraid of the wilderness. Despite the comparatively remote location, the city was thronged with people of many lands, mostly traders from both the North and the South, on their way to distant lands. Lindorie kept her hood pulled low over her face, to minimize the risk of meeting someone who might remember her features from the time when she was well-known among the races of men. But now no one recogonized her. Men shouldered past her with scarcely a glance, seeing nothing in the travel-stained, cloaked figure that spoke of the beautiful woman who had once been Vardanelle, wife to Elrohir, the queen of Gondor and Arnor.
With a sigh of relief, Vardanelle gained a quieter street and looked around for an inn. Not finding one, she unwillingly made her way back to the bustle of the main streets. Leaving the sorrel at one of the hitching posts of a prosperous-looking establishment, beside a merchant’s string, she summoned her courage and walked toward the door, with a casual glance at a group of men struggling with a dun horse. Arrested by the stallion’s spirit, she turned to watch.
The dun was lathered and dusty, a disentegrating packsaddle strapped to his back, a worn bridle on his head. His dark eyes rolled fiercely, and his inky mane hung unkempt over them. His small hoofs lashed out suddenly at his handlers, knocking a man down. On a sudden inspiration, Vardanelle approached a man who was directing the others.
“Would that horse be for sale?” she inquired.
The burly fellow looked at her in unaffected surprise. “Nobody’ll buy ‘im,” he grunted. “He’s given us trouble for the whole time we’ve had ‘im, and we’re sick of ‘im.”
“How much would you want for him?” she asked casually.
“You wouldn’t want to buy ‘im, ma’am. He’d tear you to shreds.”
Vardanelle allowed herself to smile slightly. “How much?”
“I’d say Master Holdwine wouldn’t want over fifteen silver for ‘im. He’s practically worthless.”
“Thank you.” She walked away and entered the inn’s coffee room.
“Can I help you?” a weary counterman asked her.
“Yes, where might I find Master Holdwine? I believe he’s a merchant.”
“That’s me, ma’am,” boomed a voice behind her. “How may I be of assistance?”
“We might talk elsewhere?” Vardanelle hinted significantly. “On a business matter?”
“Of course, of course.”
“It concerns horses, so outside?” The towering merchant followed her out.
“Now what was it, ma’am?” he asked, when they were on the porch.
Vardanelle went to her sorrel. “I’m looking to possibly exchange this horse for another. He’s quiet, can pull a wagon or cart, and wouldn’t spook if an orc appeared under his nose. I need a horse that can move and keep moving faster than a trot, it doesn’t matter if he’s a trifle hard to ride.”
“Well, ma’am, the only horse I got that I might be willin’ ter git rid of is that dun there,” he pointed a thick finger at the still-struggling stallion, “an’ I don’ think you’d want ‘im, ma’am. He’s a mean one. Has to be nearly starved before he’ll do anythin’.”
“I’d like to look him over, however, if you don’t mind.”
“Go ahead, ma’am,” the merchant said, shaking his great head, “but stay out of reach of ‘is hooves an’ teeth.” He watched from the porch as Vardanelle calmly walked to the writhing group of men around the dun. “Let the lady see the brute,” the merchant commanded.
The men moved back, and she winced as she saw the rope welts on the dun’s shoulders. He tossed his head, revealing a large white star between his eyes.
“Give me the rope,” Vardanelle said quietly to one of the men. The stallion eyed her warily. Softly the woman began to speak to him, her voice sliding easily over the strange words in a gentle rhythm.
A Elbereth Gilthoniel,
Silivren penna miriel
O menel aglar elenath!
O galadhremmin ennorath
Fanuilos, le linnathon
Nef aear, si nef aearon!
The stallion snorted and flared his nostrils. The men holding the other ropes slacked them, staring at Vardanelle in wonder. She shortened her rope, moving closer to the horse. He rolled his eyes warningly. Softly she spoke to him again, in a form of the elvish words that beasts understand, in the Old Tongue of Gondor, asking him what he feared.
You will be no man’s servant? she asked him softly. The stallion tossed his head and neighed defiantly.
But you must be a friend, for a time, she told him. These men will not let you go with me unless you will let me be your friend. When my need is finished I will free you if it is in any possible. Her hands slipped closer on the rope, and the stallion’s eyes fixed on hers.
You have my word.
The stallion bent his proud head and touched her hand.
Vardanelle smiled and stroked his cheek. “Release him,” she told the hostlers. The men dropped their ropes and backed away as the woman untied all but one of the ropes, the one she held. She loosely fastened it to a post and began to remove the packsaddle.
Seeing Holdwine hovering in the background, she turned to him. “Would you be willing to make the trade?”
“Ma’am, if you can handle the brute like that, sure, take ‘im. With yours in exchange I feel almost like I’m cheatin’ you, he was that worthless.”
“I’ll need my tack though; you can have yours back.”
“Right, right, of course.” One of the hostlers took the packsaddle, and Vardanelle unsaddled the sorrel, remembering when there had been a host of grooms who hovered about her in case of need, and took off her saddlebags. With a last pat she took the gear to the dun and slipped his headstall down on his neck. After bridling him, she carefully placed the rough saddle on his back.
She unbuckled his worn bridle and gave it to Holdwine. “Thank you. I hope the sorrel works out well.”
“Same to you, ma’am, same to you. I jus’ hope he don’t give you any trouble.” Vardanelle smiled; she doubted it. “Ma’am, I don’ want to be pryin’ or such, but what was you talkin’ to ‘im? I’ve never heard it before.”
“It’s an old song, an elvish one, that I learned as a child. It’s said the elves could tame beasts by speaking to them, and I remembered the song, so I made the attempt.”
“I’ve never seen anythin’ like it, ma’am. It near makes me wish we had elves about still, it does.”
“Yes.” She smiled. “Good day to you, Master Holdwine. I must be moving on; good luck on your travels.” She mounted the dun and turned on a thought to the merchant.
“Where did you get him?”
“Up near Annuminas way. A farmer caught ‘im in ‘is field and tried to break ‘im, but he couldn’t, so he sold ‘im to me. I figure he’s about ten years old, though you would scarce guess it, an’ I got nowhere near ‘is teeth.”
“Thank you. Good day.” With a nod to the merchant she turned the dun and rode off down the street.
Vardanelle had good cause to be glad of the dun’s friendship in the week and a half that followed. They made good speed, crossing the Greyflood at Tharbad, then across the slightly populated lands to the region near Isengard, where they spent a few days travelling in the company of a trade caravan, then on across the windswept plains of Rohan to Edoras, just before the anniversary festival. Resisting the urge to talk to her sister, she inquired after a girl travelling possibly alone, but received no favorable answers. People said that Arador was with the royal family, but some said not, and she could not risk meeting him yet. Disappointed, she stayed hidden in the city for two days, but saw nothing of either him or her quarry. The next day, the day before Elbereth arrived in Edoras with Eorla’s family, she left the city to ride on to Minas Tirith.
On arriving there, she took lodgings at a small inn, then spent the days wandering about the city – always in disguise, for fear of spies – until the afternoon when she found her daughter at last in the square by the Great Gates.
There was a moment of silence after the queen had finished. Then I asked a question.
“Where is your horse, Mother?”
“I had him brought to the royal stables, with your mare, and tomorrow I will give him his freedom.”
Arador had been tallying something in his mind. Now he spoke. “My lady, you arrived at Amon Sul only the day after we left! I walked past your camp a few miles to the north the same day you started for Tharbad. It is incredible how close we were, yet so far apart.”
Arador’s mother, Aradhel, reached over and took the queen’s hand. “It is good to have you back again, Vardanelle,” she said, smiling. The queen smiled back, then turned to me.
“We must have your Granny here,” she said, “if she will come the long way from the Shire. We have much to do here before your coronation.”
“What?” I gulped. “My coronation? But…you are the queen.”
My mother smiled sadly. “Yes, but I do not have the will to rule anymore, Elbereth. The burden will fall on you, now that you are of an age to bear it, but I will always be there to help you, until my time comes.”
Arador rose and came to kneel at my feet. He took my hands. “You can count on me,” he said, looking up at me seriously. “For the rest of my life.”
I didn’t know what to say, and everyone was looking at me, but I said sincerely, “Thank you.”
Chapter 21: Beginnings
Granny did come to Gondor. When she arrived, she was amazed at the White City and that I of all people would be ruling it. I showed her all over the place, introduced her to everyone I knew, and talked with her for hours on end.
“It’s strange, Elbereth,” she said one day, almost sadly, “you don’t belong to me the way you used to.”
“But Granny,” I protested, “I’ll always belong to you. Always.”
“It will never be the same, though,” the old hobbit murmured. “I suppose it’s like you were married, belonging to a lot of people besides me. It’s where you were born to be, though, dear, and your mother’s a fine woman, and young Lord Arador.” She looked at me closely, noticing my flushing face.
Her eyes twinkled just like her old self. “I’ve noticed you two talking and smiling at each other,” she teased me. “He’s a fine young man. Now, while we’re on the subject of matrimony, I have some news for you from the Shire.”
“Who?” I demanded, a big suspicion forming.
Granny put on a grand manner and loftily proclaimed, “Mr. and Mrs. Gamling Brandybuck and Mr. and Mrs. Tomlin Maggot are pleased to announce the engagement of their children, Mr. Samwise Brandybuck and Miss Pansy Maggot.”
“I knew it!” I cried, laughing helplessly. “I had a suspicion of it when I left, that day I went to visit Sam at Brandy Hall, but so soon! They must really be in head over heels.”
“Oh, yes they are. They say that you started it all, by the way, by going for the Maggots when Sam was hurt.”
“But Granny, you were the one who sent me for them, so it’s really your fault!”
We both laughed so hard we cried.
Granny wiped her eyes. “The wedding’s set for two months from now, though; they would like for you to come, if you can. But I don’t know as you can, now.”
“I don’t know either. We’ll have to ask my mother or Arador, they should know. I would definitely like to go. I’ll have to see. Right now I’m swamped with something that’s even bigger than a wedding, the coronation. I don’t know what to think about it, whether to dread it or look forward to it.”
What I had told Granny was true. I was getting used to the idea that being royalty was not an easy job, but being officially crowned was going to put a lot more stress on me. True, the queen and Arador were helping with a great amount of the work, but it was a totally different experience to have everyone look up to me. In the Shire I had been somewhat of a public figure, a curiosity, and the hobbits had looked up to me perforce (what else could they do, when I was two feet taller than they were), but this was different.
People older than me, wiser than me, taller than me, as well as those younger, less wise, and shorter than me, were going to be looking to me as a model, as an inspiration, as their queen.
Several times a day, I had to go through fittings for my queenly outfits. I didn’t mind it, really. I’ve always loved pretty clothes, and these were simply stunning. My only fear was that I would stand out too much, but Mother told me that as the sovereign, I was supposed to stand out, be someone who was easy to find in a crowd.
I was still nervous, though.
My coronation gown, for example, was very beautiful and very bright in a rich way. The bodice and skirt were a heavy red velvet. The overskirt, which did not meet in the front, to show the red underneath, was hemmed in gold, and the front corners at the hem were heavily embroidered to round the inside corner. The sleeves were capped until a little above the elbows with a fitted black piece, then came a strip of black, gold, and silver embroidery and a full, flowing red sleeve that completely covered my hands if they were at my sides. The neckline was a slight scoop, trimmed in gold, black, and silver embroidery, and the waistline, also embroidered, was straight around the back until it met the black overskirt in the front, then made an angle and dipped down to a point. It trailed in the back, sweeping the floor behind me for a foot or two. The people of the city were definitely going to be able to see me when the day of the coronation came.
Granny was also being fitted for a gown, but hers was much darker. Hers was a green with delicate pale blue trim. The skirt was so long that she joked she would trip and fall down flat if she actually wore it, but we both knew she wouldn’t.
Chapter 22: The Heir of Elendil
The coronation day at last arrived, bright and sunny, with a light wind to ruffle the flags of the city – black with a flowering silver tree.
As the time for the ceremony arrived, I was amazed that I was really not nervous.
The trumpets sounded, seven fanfares, and the innumerable people packed onto the terrace outside the hall cheered as Queen Vardanelle, with me beside her, followed by Arador, Aradhel, Dirhael, and Granny, stepped through the wide doors onto the steps. The queen held up her hand.
“My people,” she began, “today is a day of rejoicing, a day when we forget our cares and lay aside our griefs. For today Gondor crowns a new queen, Elbereth Telcontar, only child of your King, Elrohir, who passed down the Rath Dinen nigh on sixteen years ago. Will you have this queen? She is young, very young, but she has already fought for Gondor’s freedom, against the dictates of Turin, who tried to overthrow this country’s peace. She comes to you from the North, like King Elessar at the return of the house of Isildur. The Ring of Barahir, given to Barahir father of Beren, who wedded Luthien, by Fingon King of the Noldor, she bears; and the Evenstar of Arwen Undomiel of Rivendell. The sword of the kings, Anduril, Flame of the West, she has wielded. Will you have her take up the scepter of Annuminas and the Silver Crown of the Kings?”
With a great voice the people shouted, “Aye!”
From the Hallows came six fountain guards, bearing a casket upon which lay Anduril, unsheathed. They halted at the foot of the steps, and Arador and Dirhael, side by side, went down and opened the casket to reveal the scepter and the winged crown that had last been worn by my father. Arador lifted the purple velvet pillow that bore the crown, Dirhael took the pillow with the scepter, and he placed Anduril beside it. The two young men came slowly, solemnly up the stairs and knelt before Vardanelle.
The queen took the silver crown in her two hands and raised it. Arador and Dirhael rose and moved to her right and behind her as she slowly, majestically turned to me. For a moment our eyes met, then my mother smiled.
With a rustle of draping velvet I knelt, aware that our gowns complemented each other perfectly, my red and black and her silver and royal blue.
Queen Vardanelle slowly, gently set the winged crown upon my head.
I took a deep breath. I saw a tear course down her cheek, as bright as the stone in the Crown of the North that she wore, and Granny’s eyes were very bright as she stood beside her. On impulse, I hugged Granny, still on my knees, then clasped my mother’s hands tightly. Feeling a smile start, I stood up and turned to face my people.
Flowers began falling from the tower of Ecthelion, white and pink rosepetals like a gentle rain. The people were roaring, “Gondor! Arnor!” with a voice like thunder.
Dirhael approached, bearing Anduril. Slowly I grasped the long silver hilt and lifted the long sword from the cushion.
“Anduril!” roared the people, and I made four long strokes in the shape of an eight-pointed star, hearing the blade whistle in the wind.
I thrust at the sky, shouting, “For Gondor!”
The people echoed me, “For Gondor!”
I shouted, “For Arnor!”
The people roared, “For Arnor!”
I shouted, almost carried off my feet, “For the White Tree!”
The people shouted seven times, for the seven stars, “Elbereth!”
While they were acclaiming me, I took the scepter and raised it in my left hand. When they had finished, I handed Anduril back to Dirhael, and turned to Arador, who was kneeling before me with the keys to the White City and Annuminas. I took the keys, then gave them back to him, saying, “May the stewards be ever faithful.”
I smiled at him, and he kissed my hand. I placed the scepter on his cushion for him to put away, and went slowly down the steps, followed by a contingent of Fountain Guards, to welcome the important guests who had come from other lands.
First by the steps stood King Leofa and Queen Merrilen with Prince Fastred. I embraced the queen, since she was my aunt, and saluted the king and the prince. Fastred had a most undignified grin on his face.
Next came the Prince of Dol Amroth, from the south of Gondor, with his wife and their young son and daughter, who bowed to me. I embraced the Prince’s wife, who was my mother’s cousin.
After them stood Farin, Lord of the Glittering Caves, with a contingent of dwarves, along with a few from the Lonely Mountain.
Beyond them came the crown prince of Harad, a country once more a friendly neighbor, now that Turin’s plans for a war were over. The prince wore brightly colored robes and a great multitude of gold rings and bracelets; he made me a very strange, elaborate bow. “Now our countries will be ever at peace,” he said gravely.
Then were ranked the Warden of Annuminas and all the lords of the provinces of Gondor and Arnor, who all bowed as I passed.
And then I saw Aranel and Dara with Glaedhwin. I embraced Dara, who blushed helplessly.
I turned to the hundreds of people from all those lands who stood there, cheering me, hoping in me. Suddenly I saw a little girl on the edge of the crowd, holding a little bunch of flowers. She toddled straight toward me, her outstretched little hands holding the flowers.
It was Theodwyn.
I crouched down to meet her, and she gave me the flowers. I hugged her and kissed her plump little cheek, and she skipped back toward her parents and grandparents and brothers, who I now saw in the crowd. I came to them and thanked them for all they had done for me, embracing Eorla and Brunilda. With a last smile for the huge crowd, I turned to go back to the steps. My guards parted to let me pass, and I walked up the aisle the people had left for me.
On the steps Arador was smiling at me, and I smiled back.
All that week the White City celebrated. I was celebrating too, with the nobility and my friends. We had great feasts and parties in the receiving rooms adjoining the Hall, with music and dancing and storytellers and minstrels.
When we would dance, Arador danced with me often, as befitted his rank, and I came to love him even more than I already did. During one gathering, my mother pulled me aside for a moment, saying, “You are good friends with the Lord Arador, I see.” Then she said outright, “Elbereth, are you serious in liking him? I see there is affection between you, but is it enough that you would wish to marry him? He is a worthy young man, and he has proven himself many times over, but are you sure he is your choice.”
I blushed and replied, “I’ve liked him very much since we first met, in Bree, and I’ve never seen anything to dislike in him. Yes, I think I would like very much to marry him.”
Queen Vardanelle embraced me.
“So young,” she said, and I heard the smile behind the tremble in her voice. “I can remember when your father first danced with me; I was young, like you, only two years older. I thought of little else after that, and as time passed, we met more often, and after a few months, he asked me to be his wife. That night, I was the happiest girl in Gondor.”
Mother’s approval of Arador took a weight from my mind. I slipped out onto one of the wide balconies, my pale blue gown with yellow rosebuds and tiny green leaves embroidered at the hems swishing softly on the stone floor. The cool night air was refreshing after the heat indoors, and a light breeze ruffled my hair and skirts. I fingered the velvety petals of a half-open pale pink rose, thinking.
“Elbereth?” Arador had come up behind me, a tall, straight figure. I turned to him, a little smile on my lips. He looked down and sighed.
“Elbereth, I…well, I know we’re friends, and what happened at Edoras, we were both excited…Elbereth, if you want to take anything back, you can. You do not have to marry me, if you feel you do not want to. I’m only a steward, a caretaker, and my duty is finished.”
I looked at him in the dusky twilight, sensing how keen a dejection he felt, renouncing what he wished if I felt it would be unwise. I touched his arm.
“Arador – ” I shook my head gently. “No, I do not want that. Arador, I need you; I can’t do this on my own.”
I saw the hope spring into his face as he clasped both my hands. “Elbereth,” he breathed. I sank to a bench as he knelt before me, still holding my hands.
“Will you marry me?” he asked, tears in his eyes.
I bent my head lower and smiled into his upturned face. “Of course I will,” I said, tenderly.
And then he took me in his arms, and if anyone had been watching us, he would have seen Arador kissing me most happily.
Chapter 23: Preparations
Arador and I announced our engagement to our close friends and relatives two days later. Mother and Granny were very happy for us; Dara was amazed that I was going to be married.
“Elbereth, you’re only two years older than me!” she exclaimed in disbelief.
“You will have to be my bridesmaid,” I said, laughing.
Queen Vardanelle helped us choose a suitable date. My coronation had been in late June, so the wedding was scheduled for September 4th. Preparations began almost immediately. I planned and sketched my dress the way I wanted it, and we worked on details for Arador’s coronation in coordination with the wedding.
I was sad that I would not be able to visit the Shire. However, Mother, Granny, Arador, Dara, and I did travel to Annuminas. We visited Bree and stayed at the Prancing Pony, much to Mr. Butterbur’s delight and pride.
The recently married Mr. and Mrs. Sam Brandybuck came out from the Shire to visit us, along with the Maggots and Granny’s grown children and their children and in-laws. The Prancing Pony was full to bursting.
Sam and Rose were very, very happy. They were thrilled that I was to be married soon, and gave me a set of silver spoons as a wedding gift.
Mardil, Fingil, and Gelion came out to see us as well. They were amazed that I was the Queen of Gondor and Arnor. Mardil kept muttering, “I just can’t believe it.”
Leafwell and his wife came too. The old shoemaker prided himself on being the first to suggest marrying me to Arador, and we all had a good laugh over that. They were shocked and proud that my mother had stayed with them for so long in servant’s guise, and we granted them a pension for life in return for their kindness, as well as an honorary title.
We invited them all to the wedding; we were back in Minas Tirith by the beginning of August, where wedding preparations were going in full swing.
One day, as I was trying on my wedding gown, a simple, soft white dress with a slight V-neckline, long, fluttering, gauzy sleeves capped with a highly embroidered top, and a flowing train, Mother came in with a square, velvet-lined case with silver clasps wrought like leaves and vines.
“This is for you,” she said, showing me the beautiful silver crown inside. “It has been worn by all the queens of Gondor and Arnor at their weddings since Arwen Undomiel.”
I took the circlet in my hands and turned it, absorbing the exquisite detail, which was based upon a butterfly. Strings of hanging jewels looped at the sides and and mingled with the wearer’s hair in the back.
Mother said softly, “Can you imagine it, Queen Arwen had pointed ears. These,” she touched a looped strand, “would frame them perfectly.” I carefully set the crown upon my head and turned to the full-length mirror as all the seamstresses and fitters gave little exclamations of delight.
King Leofa, Queen Merrilen, Prince Fastred, Leod and Eorla and their family, Haldir and Brunilda and Lanthir, and a whole flock of other Rohirrim people descended on Minas Tirith a full two weeks before the wedding. The embassy from Harad arrived a few days later, and right on their heels came the Prince of Dol Amroth and his family, who were related to me through my mother. A week before the ceremony, a swarm of people, including numerous hobbits of my acquaintance, arrived from the North.
Hostelries and inns were doing wonderful business. My closer friends and relatives were quartered in the Hall’s numerous rooms.
Prince Fastred declared that he wanted to sleep in the top room of the Tower of Ecthelion, but he had to be content with a room on the third floor of the Hall of the Kings. I noticed, busy as I was, that my cousin was becoming very good friends with Dara; when I told Arador, he laughed and told me to keep it in mind for a few years.
Chapter 24: Bells
September 4th dawned clear, warm, and bright. I woke up early, my stomach full of butterflies, but then I thought about Arador and they fluttered gaily away. The ceremony was scheduled for eleven, so Granny, Mother, Queen Merrilen, Aradhel, Dara, and I had a leisurely breakfast of bacon and eggs and talked about days gone by, but my attention was often turned aside by thoughts of Arador.
Finally it was time to dress. I put on my gown, one of my maids fixed my hair more beautifully than I could ever have done, and Mother set Queen Arwen’s crown carefully on my head. The Ring of Barahir was on my right index finger, and I wore the beautiful Evenstar pendant.
Dara was very sweet in a dainty dress of pale lavender, one of my favorite colors. Granny wore her best dress with the burgundy velvet bodice, brown woolen skirt, and the lace shawl which she had crotcheted for her own wedding. Mother looked beautiful, as always, in a rich deep purple velvet with silver Gondorian motifs embroidered into it, and she wore the Elestirne, the crown of the North. Queen Merrilen wore a gown of Rohan green set off by gold-worked sleeves and underskirt.
Once we were all ready, I hugged them all, especially Mother and Granny, and we walked through the passages to the Hall, where a contingent of fountain guards met us with the Silver Crown. I took a deep breath, smiled at my friends and relatives, and took the arm of King Leofa, who, as my nearest male relative, was to give me away. Dara, primly holding her little bouquet of flowers, started forward. The great doors swung open, letting in a sweet breath of perfumed air.
Gravely we processed out onto the steps. When the people saw the doors open, they began to cheer wildly and to throw flowers in profusion. Arador, waiting at the head of the stairs, smiled at me. King Leofa gently took my hand and placed it in Arador’s. The bells of the city were pealing the wedding chimes. A fanfare of trumpets sounded, and the bells and the people fell still while Arador and I made our marriage vows. Then Arador took me in his arms and kissed me, and the people cheered even louder than before. But as a body of six fountain guards, bearing the Silver Crown in an open casket, approached, they fell silent again.
I took the crown and looked at it for a moment, realizing what it meant and what it was to the people of my countries. I turned and handed it to Queen Vardanelle, and Arador and I, holding hands, knelt before her. Slowly, gravely, she placed the crown upon his dark hair; and then she smiled at us.
“May your days be blessed,” she said softly, her eyes very bright. We hugged her and Granny and Queen Merrilen and Aredhel and King Leofa, while our people cheered, and then turned to the great crowd who had come to see us. All our friends were there: Mardil, Fingil, Gelion, Leafwell and his wife, Sam and Rose Brandybuck; Leod, Eorla with Lothiriel, Hama, Merriadoc, and Theodwyn; Haldir, Brunilda, and Lanthir; along with Aranel and Glaedhwin, Prince Fastred, of course, and the lords of many lands and provinces with their wives and descendants. And so Arador and I began our married life, while the White Tree flowered and all the bells rang in the City of the Kings.
Four years later, I sat one night at the writing table in our suite, writing the final pages of my story. The candles burned brightly, lighting the vellum with a warm glow. Elrohir, Arador and I’s first child, came running in to say good night, followed by his father carrying our three-month-old little girl, Galadriel.
As I hugged and kissed my little boy, he asked, “Mother, are you ‘most finished wif da story?”
I laughed. “Yes, I am.”
“Can I weed it?”
“When you’re older,” I told him, ruffling his light brown hair and tweaking his freckled cheek. “Hop into bed, now, and I’ll be there in a minute to tuck you in.” He kissed Arador goodnight and raced off to his little bed.
Arador put his free arm around my shoulders. “You’re nearly finished.”
“Only a few more words to write,” I said, smiling up at him. I dipped my pen, and carefully wrote, with a flourish, these words, perhaps the most important ones, and certainly the last, of my book:
Elbereth and Arador eventually had seven children, four boys and three girls, and they lived long and happily. Gondor and Arnor were at peace with the other realms during their reign, and remained so long afterward.
Granny eventually came and lived in Gondor permanently. A hobbit hole, a perfect replica of the one near Buckland, was built for her near the city, and she had her little goat cart and grew flowers and vegetables and knitted and crotched little things for her adopted grandchildren.
Queen Vardanelle lived for many years, helping the young royal couple fulfill their duties and giving valuable advice. She lived with Aredhel, Arador’s mother, across the Anduin in Ithilien, but journeyed often to the White City to see her grandchildren.
Prince Fastred, that young rascal, did end up marrying Dara. Prince Elrohir, aged five, ran to his mother one day, very much scandalized. “Mother, Fastred’s kissing Dara!” His parents were very pleased with his choice of a wife, and also showered Arador and Elbereth with reams of good advice.
Fingil and Gelion eventually became members of the Royal Family’s personal guard; Mardil retired and received a generous pension.
Sam and Rose Brandybuck lived to a great age, and their married life was blessed with ten healthy and good-looking children.
Princess and Voronwe lived long and useful and well-loved lives, and when they died they were burried together near Snowmane’s mound, and the white flowers of symbelmine grew there.
The dun stallion never bore another rider; he did, however, often return to the fields of Gondor and Rohan, and was no longer afraid of men, for a gold medallion braided into his mane told men not to molest him.
Leafwell and his wife did not live many years longer, but their last years were made very comfortable, and they grew flowers by the hundreds in their little garden where Arador had first noticed that Elbereth was not wearing any shoes.
And so they all lived happily ever after, to the end of their days, which is how all stories should end, after all.