I will have to choose a light colour, Lothiriel thought, surveying herself in the mirror. After her brother had left she had dismissed her servants and had given orders not to be disturbed. Now she looked regretfully at her favourite dress. A deep midnight blue with long sweeping sleeves and tiny pearls embroidered along the hem, her father had given it to her for her last birthday. She would have liked to wear it, but against the white walls of Minas Tirith it offered no concealment whatsoever. So she chose a light green dress instead with a tight fitting bodice and long narrow sleeves. It sported only a modest skirt, but that was all for the best with what she had in mind.
Lothiriel sighed. It was a shame she could not wear trousers like the women in the far south did and even some of the Rohirrim maidens, but for a princess of one of the noble houses of Gondor that was just unthinkable. In one of her chests she had found an old cloak of a silvery grey colour and now she donned that as well. Carefully she pinned up her hair and then put up the deep hood. As a final touch she picked up a basket of apples she had requested earlier on. It would do, Lothiriel decided as she grinned at her image in her mirror, now even her brother would not recognize her if he passed her on the street.
Outside, dusk had fallen and as she eased the casements of her window open, the scent of roses flooded the room. After a quick glance to check if anybody was about, she scrambled over the windowsill and dropped into the garden. Slowly she edged past the carefully tended flowerbeds and then crouched down to crawl beneath the kitchen windows. Above her she could hear voices and laughter as the servants enjoyed a sit-down after dinner. What would they say if they could see her now? she wondered with a smile.
At last she was past and gained the outer wall of the garden. Here a small postern gate led out onto a narrow alley. It was locked, but the key was still kept hidden underneath the same chipped blue flowerpot. Still carrying her basket of apples, she slowly eased the door open and then slipped through, leaving nothing behind but the scent of crushed herbs.
Éomer, King of Rohan, was feeling restless. He was not used to not having anything to do. The last year since the end of the Ring War had seen him riding all over the Riddermark; the armies of Saruman had left much destruction in their wake and there were many homesteadings to be rebuilt and widows and orphans to be provided for. As a result it was only now, nearly a year after they had taken his uncle Théoden's body home for burial, that he had felt able to return to Minas Tirith to visit his good friend Aragorn, the King of Gondor.
They had arrived five days ago and after settling his men in their quarters he had unexpectedly found himself with free time on his hands, time to think. It was then that Éomer had decided to avail himself of his sister's longstanding invitation to visit her and Faramir in Ithilien. He still missed Éowyn, and Meduseld, where the kings of the Mark made their home, seemed strangely empty without her. He was impatient to be off now, but the days when he could just have packed his bags, saddled Firefoot and ridden off were past, now that he was king. There were messages to be sent to the Mark to arrange for his prolonged absence and also to Éowyn and Faramir to apprise them of his coming.
The Hall of Merethrond was ablaze with lights and filled to bursting with the nobility of Gondor, come to celebrate with their new lord. At the centre, as ever, were King Elessar and Queen Arwen. Éomer watched as they moved through their guests, greeting even the most humble with a gracious smile and a few kind words. The queen was dressed in a simple white dress, but she moved with such unearthly grace, she made all the other women in the hall seem clumsy and overdressed by comparison.
She was, Éomer reflected, still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. And I should know, he thought wryly, after all I must have been introduced to most of the marriageable maidens of Gondor during the last few days. He had been amazed at the number of noble lords who had found it incumbent on them to pay him a visit in his humble tents accompanied by their womenfolk. The maidens had all been charming and prettily mannered, but Éomer had no intention whatsoever of marrying just now, no matter what his councillors said about the necessity for an heir.
He groaned inwardly as he saw yet another lord heading his way, a determined expression on his face and a pretty blond woman trailing in his wake. He was starting to feel like a castle under siege.
"Here comes another hopeful father," Éothain, the captain of his guard, said with a twinkle in his eyes.
Éomer shot him an irritated look. "Aren't you supposed to protect your king?"
The other rider only grinned as an answer, but then Éomer recognized the man approaching them. Surely Lord Elphir of Dol Amroth was too young to have daughters of marriageable age? He had met Elphir during the ring war and had thought him an able warrior, if not quite the inspiring leader of men that his father Prince Imrahil was.
To Éomer's considerable relief he introduced the young woman as his wife and then went on to inquire about his health.
"I am well, thank you," Éomer replied, "and how is your esteemed father?"
"He is staying in Dol Amroth and has sent my humble self to do the honours of the family," Elphir said with a proud smile.
"I am sorry to have missed him," Éomer said with genuine regret, "please give him my sincere regards when next you see him." With that he nodded his head and would have passed on, but Elphir detained him.
"Actually, Your Majesty, it is on my father's behalf that I have a request to make."
When Éomer lifted an eyebrow in polite enquiry he rushed on. "You see, I have heard that you are planning to visit Lady Éowyn in Ithilien. Well, it just so happens that she has invited my sister Lothiriel to stay with her and I wondered if you would mind if she and my wife Melian joined your party for the journey there."
Éomer did in fact mind being imposed upon in such a manner and was just about to utter a polite refusal, when Lady Melian rushed in, looking acutely embarrassed. "I am sure it is the last thing the King of Rohan could possibly want, to escort us to Emyn Arnen. We will only delay him!"
This was so precisely what Éomer had been thinking, that he had no choice but to assure her that of course he would be more than pleased to look after them. Inwardly he sighed, for this was sure to add several more days to the journey. When she still looked worried, he further reassured her. "I am always honoured to be of service to my good friend Imrahil."
"You are too kind," she murmured softly, still not sounding quite convinced.
"May I make Princess Lothiriel's acquaintance?" he asked in order to distract Lady Melian.
"My sister isn't here," Elphir answered for his wife, "she is much too young for this kind of thing."
He was looking rather pleased with himself, Éomer noted, as well he might. So now I am expected to play nursemaid to a little girl as well! Enough was enough.
"We will be leaving on the morning of the third day from now," he said rather curtly. "Please make sure you are ready," he added and then excused himself.
To Éothain he remarked in their own language, "I think I will escape into the garden before being cornered again."
Éomer waved his guards back when they would have followed him, and making good on his words he quickly went out through one of the great side doors leading into the gardens. Outside it was a lovely summer's evening, the sky only just turning into a deeper shade of blue and the first stars appearing in the east. The full moon was rising slowly over the Ephel Dúath.
In the main part of the garden there were torches and musicians playing, but to the right was a narrow strip of grass leading up to a low wall overlooking the roof of the stables and the six hundred foot drop down to the northern end of the Pelennor. It was here that Éomer settled himself, leaning against the parapet, and looked out over the fields below.
The grass was green again and it was hard to belief that one of the bloodiest battles of the Ring War had been fought here little more than a year ago. If he strained his eyes he could just about make out the big green mound of Snowmane, king Théoden's steed. The place, he thought bleakly, where I became King of the Riddermark.
Then he suddenly straightened up. What was this? Below him a trapdoor opened in the roof of the stables and a ghostly figure emerged. It seemed wrapped in a voluminous gray cloak. Instinctively his hand went to his sword at his side, only to remember that he had left it in his quarters, according to the customs of Gondor. Cursing silently he pressed back into the shadows cast by the parapet as the figure below looked around and then cautiously made its way toward the wall.
Lothiriel had been sorely tempted to go down to the fair. When she reached the main thorough fare of Minas Tirith there were many people making their way down the hill; whole families with their children running ahead laughing and couples walking along hand in hand.
It would be nice, she thought, to stroll through the stalls looking at the wares on display or to try some of the exotic foods on offer. If only Amrothos, the brother nearest to her in age, had been here they would probably have done just that. However, Amrothos had stayed behind in Dol Amroth. With a shrug and a rueful smile Lothiriel turned right and made her way up the hill, towards the stables.
The main gates to the Citadel were heavily guarded and if she turned up there the guards would probably just send for her brother. But not for nothing had she spent all those summers playing with her cousins around Minas Tirith. They had known all the back ways in and out of the Citadel and it was one of those she intended to take. She smiled to herself, wondering what Faramir would say if he could see her now.
The last guests had arrived a while ago and the royal stables were quiet again. When she cautiously peered round the corner into the main quadrangle there was nobody in sight. The grooms were probably enjoying a round of beer in the common room, having to wait up until all the guests had departed again.
Lothiriel hesitated for a moment and then decided to walk openly across the square. Her back crawled and she expected to be hailed at any moment as she made her way purposefully to the main doors of the stables, trying to look as if she had every right to be here. However, nothing happened.
Minas Tirith was not a city of horsemen and the original stables had just been a row of horseboxes hewn into the bedrock below the Citadel and connected by a long gallery. Then at some later date the available space had been doubled by the simple expedient of building another row of boxes on the other side of the main hallway. These were suspended over the steep drop to the rocks below and supported by massive stone girders. The Numenorans had been master builders and few of the people working there and certainly none of the horses ever realized there was nothing but air underneath the seemingly solid floors.
The hinges of the doors were well oiled, Lothiriel noted with approval as she slipped through quietly, still carrying her basket of apples. The inside was only dimly lit and the air was warm and filled with the familiar smells of hay and horses. The only sounds to be heard were contented chewing and an occasional soft whinny. Briefly she wondered if her brother kept his horses here, too. She would have to borrow one of his for the journey to Ithilien, as they had not been able to bring any horses with them on the boat up the Anduin.
Lothiriel would have loved to have a good look at all the occupants of the stable, but at any moment a groom might come in and catch her where she had no right to be. Even so she peeked into the horseboxes every now and again as she made her way down the long stone hallway. The one she was looking for was near the end and considerably larger than the others. In the past it had always been used for storing hay bales and bags of oats.
It was then that Lothiriel encountered her first setback. She had been expecting the box to be empty, but instead a magnificent bay stallion occupied it. Her father's warhorses were anything but small, but this one was at least a hand taller again. Glancing at the foreign looking saddle on its rack next to the door she realized he had to be one of the famed steeds of the Rohirrim. Lothiriel sighed to herself. While she had always wanted to see one of them close up, this was not really the right time and place.
As she stepped closer, he turned round and laid his ears back against his massive head, giving her a threatening look. Rather nervously she wondered if it was true that the Rohirrim trained their horses to attack any strangers who tried to steal them.
For a brief moment she considered backtracking her steps and trying her luck with one of the less frequented servants' entries, but then she squared her shoulders. She had never been the least reluctant to handle any of the animals in her father's stables and she would not start being afraid of a horse now.
"Hush, my beauty," she murmured softly in Elvish as she opened the door to the box and eased inside. One ear twitched forward and the stallion took a step towards her. Belatedly Lothiriel remembered her basket of apples, brought along for just such an eventuality.
"Here you are," she whispered, holding out one of the ripe red fruits and then held her breath as he approached another step. Big yellow teeth closed over the apple and she slowly released her breath as the stallion nuzzled her side looking for more.
"See, you are quite friendly really, aren't you. I wonder what is your name?" He huffed as if in reply to her question and getting bolder she patted his neck, offering him some more apples. He was beautiful, she thought, stroking the lustrous brown coat and getting more confident by the minute. By the time her basket was empty he seemed quite used to her presence in his box and she had finally spotted what she had come for.
In the far corner of the room, just above the window, was a small trapdoor giving access to the roof. For a moment Lothiriel debated trying to climb onto the stallion's back in order to reach it, but then decided that would be pushing her luck. Fortunately there were still some bales of hay left lying around and she was able to stack them one atop the other and climb onto them. The latch was stiff with disuse, but by mustering all her strength she was able to slide it open and cautiously lifted the door onto its side. All this time the stallion was watching her attentively, probably hoping for more tidbits.
"I am afraid, I am fresh out of apples, mellon," she told him with a smile and a last backward glance and then climbed onto the roof. This was strewn with debris and bird droppings and she had to be careful not to soil her dress. As she straightened up Lothiriel caught her breath at the drop to her right. Had they really dared to come this way when they were mere children? Guiltily she thought of her father who thought her safe and sound in Minas Tirith. He had always warned her not to give in to her fits of temper, she remembered with a chagrined smile. If news of this escapade reached him she stood no chance of ever being allowed to leave Dol Amroth again!
Well, there was only one thing to do and that was to go on. It was only a few yards to the outer wall of the Queen's Garden and once she had climbed that, no one need ever be the wiser how she got there.
Taking a deep breath she carefully balanced along the narrow roof towards the safety of the wall. Fortunately the full moon had risen by now, helping her to make out any obstacles. Less fortunately, the roof was slightly slanted and the footing beneath her thin slippers was treacherous. At one point she stumbled over a rock and sent a cascade of pebbles over the edge. After that she was twice as cautious and breathed a real sigh of relief when she finally gained the wall. It was child's play to scramble over the parapet and drop onto the soft grass beyond.
I have made it, she silently congratulated herself.
It was then that Lothiriel suddenly felt herself grabbed from behind with brutal strength.
"And what have we here then!" a harsh voice whispered in her ears. "A spy or just a thief?"
As she drew breath to scream, a large hand covered her mouth, choking her.
Mellon - friend