But you can’t stay here with every single hope you had shattered…
Big Country, In A Big Country
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King
They did the job they didn’t have to do, and they died doing it.
Terry Pratchett, Night Watch
None of the travellers on the Great West Road ever paid any attention to the stones that lay a hundred yards or so from the path. Rain and frost had eroded them, some had toppled over, and soil had buried them so that most protruded only a few feet and some had sunk completely beneath the earth. It would take careful examination to work out that they formed a perfect circle. There was nothing to indicate that once they had stood proudly upright, in a clearing in an immense forest of which Fangorn was only a tiny remnant, and had been used to focus a strange power.
No loremaster who now lived in Middle Earth knew that long Ages ago the circle of stones had been a gate, a portal to another world, through which many of the Avari had fled to escape the dominion of Melkor rather than making the Great Journey. None remembered that ‘Moriquendi’, ‘Dark Elves’, once had a meaning other than just referring to those who had not gone to Valinor. There had been true Dark Elves in those days but all of them had departed from Middle Earth.
And now, after twenty-five thousand years, some of their descendants were coming back.
Éomer tried to suppress the groan that sought to rise to his lips. The dreaded moment, it seemed, had come. Prince Imrahil was approaching him with a dark-haired maiden at his side. This would be Lothíriel, Princess of Dol Amroth, the girl all his friends and advisors seemed to be conspiring to press upon the new King of Rohan. He had been doing his utmost to avoid her but now, on the eve of the coronation of King Elessar, his luck had run out.
She had been described to him as a girl of great beauty. Her father and brothers might, perhaps, not class as an unbiased source in this matter. Faramir, too, was a relative and could conceivably be stretching the truth. However everyone who spoke of Lothíriel acknowledged her beauty, without exception, and Éomer did not doubt that the girl in question would prove, when he met her, to be physically attractive. She was also, according to all who knew her, a sparkling conversationalist and a graceful and skilled dancer. And she was even, more importantly from a Rohirric point of view, an accomplished horsewoman.
To complete the tale of this paragon’s virtues she had been left in charge of Dol Amroth, and the entire province of Belfalas, while her father and brothers were away fighting at the Siege of Minas Tirith. By all accounts she had handled the responsibility with immaculate competence. It was this particular accomplishment that had convinced the advisors from Rohan that Lothíriel of Dol Amroth would make an ideal Queen of the Mark.
And, indeed, she probably would. It was not the prospect of her proving unsuitable that was causing Éomer to dread this meeting; rather the opposite. If the hints dropped by her relatives turned into a formal offer of her hand in marriage it would be exceedingly difficult to refuse. Worse still it would be equally difficult, if not more so, for Lothíriel to refuse such an offer. They could end up trapped into a marriage neither of them wanted. Éomer would end up with an ideal Queen, perhaps, but the circumstances would hardly be conducive to her proving to be an ideal wife.
He focused his gaze on the girl as her father led her toward him. She was approaching with her eyes downcast, making it hard to make out her features or read her expression, but he believed he could make out a pout on her lips. She was not exactly dragging her feet but her posture, he thought, implied that she might share his misgivings about this meeting. Indeed, now he thought about it, he realised that some of his previous attempts to evade encounters with Lothíriel had succeeded with suspicious ease. If she had been making equally strenuous attempts to avoid him it was hardly surprising that he had been successful up to this point.
She was now too close to escape, unless he risked seriously offending Prince Imrahil by simply turning and striding off out of the room, and he would have to make the best of it.
“My Lord Éomer,” Prince Imrahil said, speaking far more formally than when they had spoken on the Pellenor Fields and on the march to the Black Gate, “allow me to present my daughter Lothíriel.”
“Lady Lothíriel,” Éomer acknowledged, bowing his head. He was suddenly struck by a momentary doubt. Was that the correct form of address to use when a king was speaking to a princess? Perhaps he should have checked.
The young woman raised her eyes and brought her face into clear view. She was certainly attractive, Éomer admitted, but no more so than several of the other ladies of Gondor he had encountered. There was a slight kink to the bridge of her nose, as if it had been broken at some time and imperfectly set, a minor flaw in what would otherwise have been perfectly-shaped features. She met his gaze, her clear grey eyes widened slightly, and then a smile came to her lips. Her face seemed to light up and suddenly Éomer understood why she was termed a rare beauty. “Éomer King,” she said. “It is a pleasure to meet you at last, my Lord.”
Éomer heard a muffled snort from her father. An expression of disapproval, perhaps? Lothíriel’s smile faded. Had she, as Éomer half suspected, been scheming to avoid him as he had tried to avoid her? And had her father become aware of her plan? It would seem likely. That was not important right now. What Éomer most wanted, just at this moment, was to see her smile again.
“I did not think there could be so many tears in the entire world as I have cried this past year,” Laelryne said. The former Priestess of Eilistraee, once one of the elite Protectors of the Song, dabbed at her eyes with a cloth. “And still more come. I see no end to sadness, no end to pain, and nothing ahead but further despair and desolation.”
The wizard Tebolvir, who had been a follower of Vhaeraun before his god’s death, sucked his lower lip between his teeth and bit on it before speaking. “I know that your – our – Lady’s teachings counselled against vengeance,” he said, “and, indeed, it would probably be futile in the long run. Yet surely it would, at least, bring some temporary comfort.”
Laelryne shook her head. “You are in error about the teachings of Eilistraee,” she said. “Vengeance is not forbidden. In a case such as this, when a virtuous warrior maid was despoiled and murdered, Lady Silverhair – were she still alive – would have heartily approved if I had led us forth to hang the scum responsible from tall trees. And I cannot deny that it would bring me a measure of satisfaction to do so. Yet, when it was done, we would be embroiled in a war that we cannot win – and Zar’quiri would still be dead.”
“It seems inevitable that such a war will come whatever we do,” Tebolvir said. “We are threatened on all sides. The worshippers of Lolth will seek to eliminate us, the Elves see us as irrevocably tainted by Evil and strive to wipe us out, and the humans see no difference between us and the Lolth-worshippers.”
“All true, alas, and I know of nowhere we can find a safe haven,” Laelryne said.
Tebolvir seemed to develop an intense interest in his fingernails. He opened his mouth as if to speak, closed it again, and returned to his scrutiny of his fingers.
“What is it, Tebolvir?” Laelryne asked. “I would rather you spoke, even to point out some uncomfortable truth, than kept to yourself something I should know. I am no Matron Mother. I do not vent my displeasure on the innocent messenger.”
“It is not that,” Tebolvir said. “Just – there is a safe haven open to some.” He continued to stare at his jet-black hands for a moment and then shifted his gaze to Laelryne’s face. Her skin was brown, deep and rich in hue, but decidedly not black. Her hair, however, was as black as a raven’s wing. “You could go to the Elves and be welcomed. You are of the Redeemed. By staying with us… are you not devaluing the sacrifice our goddess made?”
Laelryne looked at her arm, frowned, and shook her head. “Redeemed? So it is said. Yet for no virtue of my own but simply because of where my ancestors lived thirteen thousand years ago. I did not even know I was of Miyeritari ancestry until my skin and hair changed colour. Fifteen of us, out of forty-one, have changed. Am I supposed to take them and flee to Rhymanthiin, or to the Moonwood, leaving those of Ilythiiri blood behind to be slaughtered? How could I desert you and be able to live with myself afterwards?”
“I fear we will be slaughtered anyway,” Tebolvir said. “If you, and the other Miyeritari, leave then at least some of us will survive.”
“Survival without honour would be torment,” Laelryne said. “My mind is made up. The others may depart, if they so wish, but I am staying with my people. If only there was somewhere we could all go, somewhere no-one has ever heard of the Drow, where we could live in peace – but there is nowhere like that anywhere in this world.”
Tebolvir narrowed his eyes. “Not in this world, perhaps, but that does not mean that there is nowhere at all.”
“You know of a way to leave the world?”
“I might,” Tebolvir said. “In the forests of the North is a portal that is said to lead to other worlds. The snag is that the secret of determining the exact destination was lost when Illefarn fell. Not all the worlds it leads to are safe. But there may be a way to set some… parameters for the journey.”
“To leave the world would be an act of utter desperation,” said Laelryne, “but we may not have a choice. With our gods dead, and the Promenade destroyed, there is nothing to tie us here. If you could guarantee that we would reach a place of at least relative safely I would be willing to go.” She gave a grim smile. “Breathable air would be an important consideration.”
“Agreed, Jabbress,” said Tebolvir. “Also edible food, drinkable water, and a temperature that neither freezes nor burns us. If my idea is viable I should be able to ensure all those things and more. I shall consult with my fellow wizards and report back to you.”
“Do so,” said Laelryne. “It is a faint hope… but perhaps the only hope we have.”
“I hope you were not offended by my reluctance to make your acquaintance, my Lord Éomer. My father and my brothers had made you sound rather… intimidating,” Lothíriel explained. “They were full of accounts of you as a mighty warrior, utterly indomitable, almost a force of nature. My brothers, especially Amrothos, delighted in informing me that they had made a point of bringing me to your attention. Apparently they regaled you with exaggerated tales of my… charms. This caused me some embarrassment, as Amrothos no doubt intended, but it also made me rather nervous of meeting you.”
“From what I see,” Éomer said, “they exaggerated not at all.” He shot a glance across the room at her brothers. They were talking amongst themselves and, contrary to what he understood of Gondorian propriety, were very definitely not looking in the direction of their sister. Similarly Prince Imrahil, after introducing Lothíriel, had excused himself and gone off to talk to King Elessar. The conspiracy, it appeared, was progressing.
“You are too kind, my Lord,” Lothíriel said, “or else the description they gave you did not match the one they recounted to me. I half expected that at any moment you would arrive at Dol Amroth, astride your mighty charger, determined to carry off the remarkable woman who, in fact, existed only in their tales. You would then either be horribly disappointed, when you saw the real me, or else you would sweep me off to Rohan before I could muster any resistance.”
Éomer laughed. “If that was their intention,” he revealed, “it had quite the opposite effect. They succeeded only in filling me with an intense desire to avoid at all costs the woman they described.”
“They made me sound so horrible?” Lothíriel raised her eyebrows. “That fits neither with what they told me nor with your earlier words.”
“I had pictured a lady cold and aloof,” Éomer said, “beautiful, no doubt, but strange and intimidating to a simple warrior of Rohan.”
Lothíriel’s eyebrows climbed higher. “That, my Lord King,” she remarked, “sounds more like a description of the Lady Galadriel of Lothlórien than one of the Lady Lothíriel of Dol Amroth. Did your attention waver, perchance, and you missed a change of subject?”
“Hardly,” Éomer said. “You match the description perfectly – save for the part about being cold and aloof.”
“Oh, I can be cold and aloof when required,” Lothíriel assured him. “Indeed, it was my original intention to present such a façade to you, once I could no longer avoid a meeting, in the hope that you would be deterred and would go away.”
Éomer raised an eyebrow. “And what changed your mind, my Lady?”
“You seemed… uncertain of yourself for a moment,” Lothíriel told him. “It made you seem less formidable and, thus, less frightening. And then I saw something in your face that my father and my brothers had never thought to mention. A warm smile and kind eyes.”
There was no mercy in Laelryne’s eyes as she stared at the villagers. “That man,” she declared, pointing, “wears Zar’quiri’s swords. His guilt is certain.”
“I… found them, in the forest,” the man claimed. His voice quavered; unsurprisingly, as twenty drow crossbows had swung to aim at him when Laelryne uttered her accusation.
“I do not believe you,” Laelryne said. “There is, however, an easy way to tell if you speak truth.” She took a few steps across the village square, her eyes trained downward, until she found a patch of the muddy ground which was unmarked by footprints. “Walk across that piece of earth,” she commanded.
“I will not,” the man said. “You will pretend to recognize my footprints as matching ones made by those who slew the other drow and will use that as a pretext to slay me.”
“I seek only justice,” Laelryne said, “and to slay one who was not involved in her rape and murder would not be just. If you are innocent you have nothing to fear.”
“So you say,” the man said, “but all drow are killers and liars.”
Up to this point the villagers had been cowed into silence by the bright swords and levelled crossbows of the grim-faced drow warriors, but now a voice cried out from the crowd; a woman’s voice, sounding filled with anguish.
“Rape? You told me you had slain a drow raider in the woods. You lay with another woman, and by force? How could you betray me so?”
“Silence, woman!” the accused man growled. “She lies. You have fallen victim to her trickery and sent me to my doom.”
“No, she does not lie,” a male voice spoke. A man in studded leather armour stepped forward and left the ranks of the villagers. “We committed that black deed; Wittegar there, and Tobin, and me. The shame of it eats at my heart. I will face my punishment.”
“Traitor!” a third man spat out, no doubt the ‘Tobin’ named in the confession, and he drew a dagger and rushed out to attack the man who had given him away.
Tebolvir unleashed a volley of Magic Missiles and dropped Tobin in his tracks. Laelryne glanced briefly at the fallen man, as he writhed in agony on the ground, and then turned back to Wittegar. “Take him and hang him,” she ordered her followers.
“You can’t do that!” Wittegar protested. He backed away as three drow, one bearing a length of rope ending in a noose, approached. His hands went to the swords at his hips. “I demand trial by combat!” he yelled.
Laelryne shrugged her shoulders. “Very well,” she agreed. She drew her own sword from the scabbard strapped across her back. “That will save us time and trouble. Kill me and you go free.”
“I… uh?” Wittegar halted his retreat. To judge by the expression on his face he had been caught totally by surprise by her assent to his request; he had, no doubt, been clutching at the only possible straw. “You swear it?”
“I do,” Laelryne replied. So much, she thought, for his statement that all drow were liars; what would be the point of his request if it was what he truly believed? “If he kills me, let him go.” She raised her shield arm, brought her sword to the guard position, and waited.
“Right,” Wittegar said. “That’s more like it.” He drew both swords and faced Laelryne. “This won’t take long,” he said.
“True,” said Laelryne. She studied her opponent. He wore a steel back-and-breast, a decent compromise between protection and weight, but leaving some vital areas unprotected; a fair match for her lightweight hauberk of mithral chain-mail. Laelryne bore only the one sword, a straight blade with a hand-and-a-half hilt, and wore a small shield strapped to her left arm.
Wittegar towered over Laelryne, who was barely an inch over five feet tall, and his advantage in strength and reach was obvious. His footwork as he advanced showed him to be an experienced fighter and his victory must have seemed a foregone conclusion to the human onlookers. Once in range he delivered a cautious, exploratory, thrust to feel out his opponent.
Laelryne killed him. She withdrew her sword as he fell to the ground, walked to the man called Tobin who had been incapacitated by Magic Missiles, and cut off his head. She wiped her blade clean on the dead man’s clothing and returned it to its scabbard.
“You may go free,” she told the man who had admitted his crime. “You confessed your guilt and show repentance. These two deaths will suffice.”
He did not reply at once. He stood unmoving, mouth hanging open, his eyes wide. The villagers were equally stunned into silence.
"Retrieve Zar’quiri’s swords,” Laelryne ordered the three who had been ready to carry out the hanging, “and let us depart from this place.”
“H… How did you do that?” the man who had confessed gasped out, recovering somewhat from his shock. “You didn’t even move fast.”
“I have been a warrior priestess of Eilistraee for over two hundred years,” Laelryne told him, “and she is – was – the goddess of swordplay. I have fought in hundreds – nay, thousands – of such duels.”
The man nodded his head, frowned and bit on his lip, and then spoke again. “The Flaming Fist will come after you for these deeds,” he warned her. “They do not tolerate anyone but themselves dealing out justice and are likely to call this murder.”
“Let them,” Laelryne said. “We are leaving, not only this forest, but Faerûn. We sail to Evermeet.” One truth and one lie. If her words were passed on then anyone pursuing them would assume they had headed west, to the busy seaport of Baldur’s Gate, but their true course led to the north.
“Tomorrow I return to my lands in the North,” Éomer reminded Lothíriel. It was a week since their first meeting and during that week Éomer had taken every possible opportunity to have further conversations with this… enchanting princess. To think that he had avoided her for as long as possible! So much time wasted…
“Indeed so,” Lothíriel said. “No doubt, though, you will return to visit Gondor again. In the not too distant future, I hope.”
“It will be, I fear, longer than I would like,” Éomer said, “for there will be much to do in Rohan upon my return.” He paused and gathered his courage. Lothíriel certainly seemed to find his company as agreeable as he found hers but, perhaps, this was her diplomatic upbringing showing through. “I would like to invite you to visit Edoras. Subject to your father’s agreement, of course.”
Lothíriel’s face lit up. “I would like that very much, my Lord Éomer,” she said. “And I am sure my father will give his assent. There are no pressing matters to keep me here, or to require my return to Dol Amroth, at present. It could be soon, I believe, if you so wish.”
Éomer gave her an answering smile. “I do so wish. I shall speak to your father shortly.”
“Of course one or more of my brothers would have to accompany me,” Lothíriel went on.
“Of course,” Éomer said, nodding. “I would be delighted to have their company. We became good comrades on the march to the Morannon and the return.”
“During which time they entertained you with exaggerated tales of my alleged good qualities,” Lothíriel said. “I am glad that you were not too disappointed with the reality.”
“The reality quite outshines their tales,” Éomer assured her.
“You flatter me, my Lord King,” Lothíriel said. “My brothers were too busy telling me of your deeds, such as strangling mûmakil with your bare hands, to warn me of your silver tongue.”
“They told you what? No man could accomplish such a feat,” Éomer said.
“I may perhaps be exaggerating their exaggerations,” Lothíriel confessed, a twinkle in her eyes and a smile on her lips, “but in truth it was your battle prowess on which their description dwelt. It may not have been their intention but, as I told you at our first meeting, they made you seem the very model of a wild barbarian warlord. The reality was a pleasant surprise.”
“I am glad that you think so,” Éomer said. A frown crossed his brow. “I hope that Edoras will not be too big a disappointment to you. It lacks some of the amenities of Minas Tirith, I fear, and you may find it to be rather unsophisticated – even, one might say, barbaric.”
“I am no sheltered flower who recoils in horror when the surroundings are not sufficiently luxurious,” Lothíriel said. “I have made voyages on ships. They are not overly endowed with amenities and I coped well enough. And now that I know you, and have met your sister and the Marshalls and Captains of the Mark, I have no fear that Rohan is a land of barbarians.”
“Indeed it is not,” Éomer said, “but there are those who might think so. Saruman said ‘What is the House of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek?’ There are times, as I observe the splendours of Gondor, when I cannot help but feel as if there was an element of truth in his words.”
“Words spoken with malice by a traitor,” Lothíriel said. “Pay no heed to such venomous slander.”
“Yet it is true that we are less… civilised than Gondor,” Éomer said. “There are, for instance, few books in Rohan, a mere handful compared with the great libraries of Minas Tirith, for my people’s culture and knowledge is preserved instead in song and the spoken word.”
“The explanation, no doubt, for your silver tongue,” Lothíriel said, eyes twinkling.
“I have never thought of myself as one particularly gifted in the use of words,” Éomer said. “I was taught to read and write, true, but my skills are mainly in riding and the use of sword and lance.”
“Perhaps, then,” Lothíriel said, smiling, “my brothers were not so far wrong in their description. If your skill at swordplay exceeds your skill with words you must be a formidable warrior indeed.”
Laelryne cast her eyes over the three adventurers. Thorn, the elven swordswoman who had once served as Champion of Eilistraee, a lethal warrior; Sharlarra, the thief, a vivacious red-haired elf girl with eyes of an unusual violet hue; and Liriel Baenre.
It was difficult to believe that Liriel, tiny even by drow standards and not even sixty years old, could be the most powerful drow wizard on the surface world. Hard to believe, but true; of course her father, Gromph Baenre, was the Archmage of Menzoberranzan and quite possibly the greatest drow wizard in all of Faerûn. Liriel had inherited his talent for magic, although she had not yet acquired more than a fraction of his vast knowledge, and that was why Laelryne had sought Liriel out.
The diminutive wizard listened, intently, as Tebolvir explained the purpose of their visit. When he finished Liriel shook her head. “I might be regarded as something of an expert on portals,” she said, “but my experience is only with travel between places on this world. My father's Book of Portals, from which most of my knowledge is drawn, does not deal with portals to other worlds. Even if I was willing to help I doubt if there is much that I could do.”
“Even if you were willing?” Laelryne queried. “Then you are not?”
Liriel shrugged. “Vhaeraun’s worshippers tried to kill me, many times,” she said, “and the followers of Eilistraee cast me out. Qilué rejected me and Iljrene called me ‘that Lolth-loving bitch’. Why should I help you?”
“Qilué and Iljrene are dead,” Laelryne said. “I was merely a subordinate under Iljrene’s command, at the time of your visit to the Promenade, and I exchanged barely a couple of words with you. I don’t know what decisions I would have made if I had been in a position of command at that time. But I know, from your actions since then and from the fact that Thorn trusts you, that you are a good person. Too good, I believe, to withhold aid from those who need it. Eilistraee and Vhaeraun are dead, leaving us to the doubtful mercies of Lolth, and all that they stood for died with them. Our home has been destroyed and our leaders slain. I appeal to you simply as one Drow to another. We no longer wish to stay in this world of bitter grief and futile struggle. Help us.”
Liriel sucked in her lower lip and frowned. She was silent for a moment, staring into the fire, and then she raised her head and spoke. “Did you know that Viconia De’Vir is dead?” she asked.
“I had not heard,” Laelryne replied. “What happened?”
“She transformed, as you have done,” Liriel answered, “and Shar withdrew her protection. Lolth sent a contingent of yochlols to slay Viconia.”
“I am saddened to hear it,” Laelryne said, “but I must confess I fail to see the relevance.”
“She was, like me,” Liriel said, “an exile who trod her own path, and associated mainly with surfacers, instead of following Eilistraee or Vhaeraun. I did not know her well, in fact I met her only twice, but with her gone I feel… more alone.” She shuddered. “There seems to be something wrong with the world. As if… a path that could have been taken was not, and now the road ahead is one of strife and misery.”
Laelryne drew in her breath sharply. “That is exactly what I sense,” she said. “There is nothing here for us any longer. I suggest that, not only do you help us leave, but that you come with us.”
Liriel pursed her lips, frowned briefly, and then turned to her companions. “What say you, Thorn? Sharlarra?”
Thorn narrowed her eyes. “It is true that this is a time of tragedy,” she said, “but there have been dark times in the past and the Elves and the humans have always made it through. I think that to abandon the world, in the company of people we barely know, would be foolish at this time.”
“I agree,” Sharlarra said. “Out of the frying pan into the fire, as they say. However, Liriel, I think that you should help them. They did, after all, ask nicely.”
“Is it your intention, Éomer King, to ask the hand of my daughter in marriage?” Prince Imrahil fixed Éomer with a piercing stare.
“It is certainly a matter to which I am giving serious consideration,” Éomer replied, speaking as formally as he knew how. “Your daughter is both beautiful and worthy. Yet I do not feel that I can make such an offer before I am sure that she could be content in the Mark.”
“Well, it is a long way from the sea,” Imrahil said, “but she is not quite as obsessed with boats as she used to be, since the boom smacked her in the face and broke her nose.”
Éomer’s lips tightened and his brows lowered. “Who is ‘the Boom’?” he asked, his voice almost a growl. The thought of someone daring to strike and injure Lothíriel filled him with the desire to break the miscreant apart with his bare hands.
Imrahil’s forehead creased. “Who?” he echoed, his tone indicating baffled incomprehension.
Éomer was puzzled in his turn but assumed that he had misheard Imrahil – ‘the Boom’ would be a very odd title, after all – and that Imrahil had therefore misunderstood him in turn. “Who struck Princess Lothíriel in the face?” he clarified.
“No-one,” Imrahil answered, incomprehension still written all over his face, and then his brow cleared. “Oh, I see,” he said. “You are unfamiliar with nautical terms. A boom is a spar – a pole, that is – fastened along the bottom of a sail to keep it straight. It can swing when the wind changes direction. On one occasion, sailing out on the bay, Lothíriel was absorbed in watching a nearby dolphin disporting itself and she neglected to pay heed to the boom. It swung and caught her in the face. Luckily the injury was minor, although the traces can still be seen if one looks closely, and she has been more attentive to her immediate surroundings since then.”
“Ah, I see,” Éomer said, relaxing muscles that had tensed without his conscious bidding. “I misunderstood.”
“Anyway,” Imrahil went on, “I will grant my approval to your suggestion that Lothíriel should pay a visit to your home in the near future. Of course she shall be accompanied by at least two of her brothers. Erchirion and Amrothos, I think; Elphir has duties that will keep him in Dol Amroth.”
“Of course,” Éomer agreed.
“I am not sure of the necessity,” Imrahil said, “but it will do no harm.”
Éomer was confused for a moment, thinking that Imrahil was querying the necessity of Lothíriel’s brothers acting as chaperones despite it being his own suggestion, but then realised that Imrahil was actually referring to the need for Lothíriel to visit Rohan before there was any formal offer of marriage. “It is more important than you might think,” Éomer explained. “My grandfather, King Thengel, married a Gondorean lady. Morwen of Lossarnach.”
Imrahil nodded. “A kinswoman of mine,” he said.
“They lived in Gondor until Thengel was recalled to take the throne upon the death of King Fengel,” Éomer went on, “and it is said that Queen Morwen was never content in Rohan, and that she pined for her homeland. When Thengel died she returned to Gondor. She is… not remembered with fondness in Rohan. I would not want to find that Lothíriel, similarly, was discontented, even unhappy, in Rohan.”
And it would give Éomer a chance to see Lothíriel in different circumstances; thus far they had met only in the environs of the Court, in pleasant surroundings, and on their best behaviour. He did not think that she would turn into a shrew upon suffering minor discomfort, from everything he had seen he would judge that her humour and her sweet nature were far more than skin deep, but if he was wrong it would be advisable to discover his error before things reached the stage of betrothal.
“That is… sensible,” Imrahil said. “I suggest that Lothíriel, and her brothers and an escort of Swan Knights, travel in company with one of the convoys of provisions.” Rohan, devastated by Saruman’s pillaging forces, would have been in dire straits and facing mass starvation had Gondor not agreed to provide unstinting aid. “Next month, I think, if that is acceptable.”
Éomer managed to restrain himself from heaving a sigh of relief. He had half expected Imrahil to have suggested a date several months in the future, even next year, and such a long separation from the girl who was in the process of capturing his heart would have been hard to bear. “I shall look forward to her visit.”
“I have good news,” Liriel reported to Laelryne. “I have discovered where we can find the necessary rituals to ensure that your journey takes you to a… compatible environment.”
Laelryne heaved a sigh. “That is good news indeed,” she said. “I would like to depart with the minimum possible delay. The Greycloaks regard us with suspicion and I fear that the slightest wrong move, on either side, may result in conflict. We have already fought one skirmish against members of Eldreth Veluuthra and they will, inevitably, attack us again. And recently I have learned that the drow of Rilauven know that we are here and may be planning to move against us.”
“I don’t think you need worry about Rilauven,” Liriel said. “Apparently the city has been wracked by civil war and I doubt if they’re in any shape to look for trouble elsewhere. And they’d have to fight the Greycloaks if they sent an expedition to attack you in Neverwinter territory.”
“Perhaps,” Laelryne said, “but it would be best if we simply departed at once.”
“Ah,” Liriel said, “now we come to the news that is… not so good.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” the diminutive drow wizard explained, “We need a tome called ‘The Rituals of Shaundakul’. Getting it might be a little… tricky. My father had a copy, I remember, but obtaining it from Menzoberranzan would be highly dangerous bordering on impossible.”
“Are there no copies on the surface?” Laelryne asked.
“Certainly there are,” Liriel said. “It’s a human book. It’s just rather rare, and quite precious, and although the teachings of Shaundakul encourage the free propagation of knowledge that particular book could be… dangerous. You intend to open a portal so that you, and your followers, can travel from Faerûn to another world with a benign environment. However it would be possible to do the reverse. To open a portal so that something from somewhere hostile could travel here.”
“There are plenty of other ways to do that,” Laelryne said. “Indeed there have been so many extra-dimensional invaders lately that it’s hard to keep count. The King of Shadows, the Shadovar, the Daemonfey…”
“I know, I know,” said Liriel, “and if I’d seen any danger in you having the tome I would never have mentioned it. I only mean that the owners of copies tend to keep them to themselves.”
“We are not short of gold with which to pay,” Laelryne said, “and, after all, we only need the book for a single occasion.”
“Gold may not be enough,” Liriel said, “but I am sure that Sharlarra will be able to obtain a copy for you. There may be one in the Neverwinter archives. If not then she knows where she can get one in Waterdeep. It will, however, take time.”
“If there is a copy in Neverwinter, and if Sharlarra can… acquire… it, then within a ten-day,” Liriel said. “If she has to go to Waterdeep, and then use her powers of persuasion on whoever inherited the possessions of Khelben Blackstaff, then at least a month. If all else fails there will, no doubt, be a copy in Candlekeep. However the Librarians would never part with it and so you would have to go there yourself. But I don’t think it will come to that.”
“I suppose it cannot be helped and thus must be endured,” Laelryne said. “Well, at least it will give me ample time to prepare for our departure and make sure we have everything we might need.” She paused and clenched her teeth tightly together for a moment. “Unfortunately it also means more time in which things might go wrong. And in which our foes might move against us.”
“Haradrim?” Éomer frowned at Erkenbrand. “Are you sure? How could enemies have crossed all the lands of Gondor undetected?”
“I don’t think they did,” the Marshall replied. “I believe that they have been here all along. Survivors of the Pelennor Fields, a pitiful remnant who fled in the wrong direction, and who have hidden in the wilds ever since.”
“But that was months ago! Surely they couldn’t have kept their presence secret for so long.”
Erkenbrand grimaced. “There are swathes of the country uninhabited now, where Saruman’s hordes ravaged the Mark, and fewer Riders than before to patrol our bounds. The Haradrim have taken great pains to stay unobserved despite the privations they must be enduring. If they have raided our people for supplies it can only have been the smallest, most isolated, hamlets and farmsteads – and there are few indeed of those remaining, after the depredations of Saruman’s orcs. I can only assume they are obtaining provisions from the Dunlendings.”
“The Dunlendings suffered heavy losses against us, and must have been neglecting their own lands while occupied with fighting,” Éomer said. “I would not have thought they had much to spare.”
“They might be sharing what they have freely, out of their mutual hatred of the Rohirrim,” Erkenbrand suggested, “or the Southrons may be taking it by force.” He grimaced again. “My men have found signs that the Haradrim may have been reduced to eating their horses.”
Éomer grimaced in his turn. “They must be in dire straits indeed,” he said. He knew that the Haradrim were almost as much a horse-centred culture as the Rohirrim and eating their horses would be a desperate measure of last resort. “Even if they are not raiding our people now they will, inevitably, be forced to do so in the future. Unless they see sense and surrender – but, if they had been going to do so, surely they would have surrendered already. No doubt the Enemy convinced them that the men of the West would massacre or enslave any who were taken prisoner.”
“It’s what they would do themselves, if the tales I have heard of the Southrons have any foundation in fact,” Erkenbrand said. “I doubt that they will give themselves up peaceably after all this time.”
“Indeed so,” Éomer said, “and we must treat them as a threat. Until they are found, and destroyed or taken prisoner, our visitors from Gondor must always be escorted by a large group of Riders whenever they are out of Edoras.”
“Especially Princess Lothíriel, eh?” Erkenbrand said, grinning.
Éomer tried to keep his expression impassive. “It would hardly help our relationship with Gondor if Prince Erchirion or Prince Amrothos were to be slain by Haradrim raiders whilst under our protection,” he pointed out.
Erkenbrand threw back his head and laughed openly. “Have it your own way,” he said. “You are the King, after all. We will pretend that you pay attention to the Princess only as a matter of diplomatic courtesy.”
Éomer pursed his lips, ruefully, and then laughed too. “Is it that obvious?” he asked.
“No, not obvious at all,” Erkenbrand said, and he paused for a moment, his eyes twinkling, before adding “at least not to those who are blind.”
“I was trying to be… discreet,” Éomer said.
“Well, you failed,” Erkenbrand said. “Your feelings are written all over your face whenever you look at her. Everyone from the Marshalls of the Mark to the stable-boys must know.”
“No wonder Imrahil expected me to offer for her hand on the spot,” Éomer said. “Anyway, it would be important to ensure her safety even if it was a matter only of diplomatic courtesy. The Haradrim are a threat to our visitors, and to our own people, and must be dealt with. Taken captive if possible, and sent back to their own lands, but otherwise they must be slain. What are their numbers?”
Erkenbrand frowned, raised a hand to his face, and stroked his beard. “They are, as I said, making every effort to hide their presence. What tracks we have found have been those of horses in single file and it has been impossible to count them. I would say, however, that there must be at least forty or fifty.”
Amir Nizar ran his fingers over his beard, drawing it out to a fine point, and stared at the spy. “So, the barbarians know we are here. It was inevitable, of course, but it would have been better if the discovery had come later. What news of the Princess?”
“She will leave Rohan soon, to return to Gondor,” the spy said. His skin was pale, his eyes were grey, and he could easily pass for a Gondorian. Not surprisingly; he was the child of slaves taken in Belfalas by the Corsairs of Umbar and sold on to the Haradrim. However he had been brought up as a Haradrim warrior since early childhood and his loyalty was unquestioned. “I fear that, now they know of our presence, they will give her an escort too strong for us to overcome.”
“Then we must make them think the danger has passed,” said Nizar. “Do they have an accurate idea of our numbers?”
“Not at all, Lord,” the spy replied. “They think we are but fifty or so strong at most.”
The Amir bared his teeth in a wolfish grin. “Then we shall show them what they expect to see. Qasim!”
“Yes, Lord?” answered his second-in-command.
“Find volunteers for a suicide mission,” the Amir ordered. “Seek out those who have nothing to return to, those who have sworn oaths of blood vengeance, and men who are infirm and know they will not survive the long journey home. Can you find between forty and fifty who would give their lives to inflict a crushing blow on the Northern barbarians?”
“With ease, Lord,” Qasim replied. “And shall I choose horses for them from those in the worst condition?”
“You anticipate my thoughts,” said Nizar. “Make it so.” He folded his arms and began to plan.
His company, fleeing the wreck of the Pellenor fields, had found escape to the South cut off and the only option had been to turn North. They had stumbled upon a Dunlending village, inhabited only by women, old men, and children after the devastating defeat the Dunlendings had suffered at Helm’s Deep, and had taken it over by force. The men, old women, and boys had been slain on the spot; only the younger women had been spared.
With the village as a base, and by eking out the village’s supplies with the spoils of cautious raiding by parties of never more than forty men, the Haradrim had survived for months in relatively good shape. However Nizar had always known that it could not continue indefinitely; the Rohirrim would discover them eventually, despite such precautions as leaving orc corpses behind in pillaged farmsteads, gathering up the droppings of their horses, and riding out only in single file to hide their numbers from the hated enemy, and his aim had always been to find a way to break out and return to Harad.
Princess Lothíriel’s visit to Rohan offered the perfect opportunity. With her as a hostage they would, at the least, be able to negotiate passage through Gondor; if they could win through without being forced to surrender her then she would make a rich prize that would gain Nizar high status and renown. Unfortunately their spy had not learned of her visit in advance, and there had been no chance to intercept the relatively lightly-defended convoy that had brought the Princess to Rohan, but he still hoped to seize her on her return trip. As long as the escort was not too strong…
Still, it was good news that the Rohirrim underestimated the strength of the Haradrim forces. The Amir had commanded a squadron of a thousand cavalry at the Pellenor Fields. They had been cut to pieces, smashed by the onrushing Rohirrim, and had lost many; yet the survivors numbered far more than the yellow-haired barbarians suspected. Fifty or so, they thought? Hah! The fools.
The true number was three hundred and thirty-four.
Laelryne saw the party approaching and, briefly, her heart leapt. Half a dozen drow, with nothing unusual about them other than their being somewhat bedraggled, were accompanied by one much taller. Towering above the others, a full head higher than any drow Laelryne had ever seen save only for one; Qilué Veladorn.
As they drew nearer Laelryne’s momentary joy was dispelled. It wasn’t Qilué. This woman lacked the ethereal beauty of Eilistraee’s deceased Chosen. Her features were harder, her arms were corded with muscle, and her studded leather armour was designed for practicality rather than for visual appeal. A longsword hung at her left hip, a handaxe at her right, and a longbow and a quiver were slung across her back. The hilts of daggers were visible protruding from sheaths in her boots. She had the deep brown skin and jet-black hair of one of the transformed Miyeritari and her eyes were amber.
The tall woman halted and dipped her head briefly. “Vendui, jallil. You are the Matron Mother here?”
“We do not use that term,” Laelryne said, “but I am the leader. Laelryne, former Priestess of Eilistraee, at your service. And you are?”
“I am Cierre, ranger of Luruar,” the tall one replied. She swept a hand in a gesture indicating her companions. “And these are refugees from Rilauven.”
“We barely escaped with our lives,” one of them said. A male drow, clad in the dark red leather armour that some of Vhaeraun’s worshippers had favoured, with a short-sword at his left hip. “There was no pursuit, the Lolth-worshippers were satisfied with merely driving us forth from the city, but on the surface we were set upon by darthien and taken captive. They…” he swallowed hard, and his voice quavered, “they killed three of us, slowly, and declared that they would slay the rest after they attacked a rivvin village. They planned to leave us there, dead, to take the blame. And then, in the nick of time, Cierre came and freed us.”
“A noble deed,” Laelryne said.
Cierre shrugged her shoulders. “It was only what anyone would have done,” she said. “I just happened to be there.”
“No-one else could have done it,” said the spokesman for the drow refugees. “There were twenty of the darthien and she slew them all.”
Cierre lowered her eyes, dropped her left hand to the pommel of her sword, and caressed the gold orb with her thumb. “It wasn’t hard,” she said. “They had set only four sentries and they weren’t watching each other. I picked them off one at a time and, after that, the rest was easy.”
Easy? Laelryne felt her eyes widening. She deduced that the surface elves had been members of the fanatical Eldreth Veluuthra organisation, for only they would have planned to slay humans and place the blame upon the Drow, and she well knew the skill and ferocity of the Veluuthran warriors.
“It was a good deed, and bravely done, and I thank you. Not only for the rescue of these good folk,” she said, working on the assumption that the refugees were worshippers of Eilistraee or Vhaeraun and so could be regarded as good until they proved otherwise, “but because the elves you slew were our foes as well. We have fought them, more than once, but our clashes have been indecisive. At close quarters we outmatch them but at a distance their bows outrange our crossbows and they have the advantage.”
Cierre’s face, which had been almost expressionless up to now, lit up with a broad smile. “Then let me offer my arms in your service,” she said. “I have a duskwood longbow that was made for me by the finest bowyer of the Elk Tribe Uthgardt, with a draw weight of two hundred pounds, and I can hit my mark at a distance far beyond that which any darthiir can reach.”
Laelryne’s eyes widened again. She wouldn’t have believed it possible for any drow to wield an Uthgardt heavy bow effectively, even with the aid of a Giant Strength belt; it was the weapon of a male human archer, and an exceptionally strong and well-practiced one at that. Of course Cierre was freakishly tall… although that wouldn’t be a tactful way of putting it and would be unlikely to win her friendship.
“Your assistance would be most valuable,” Laelryne said, “and I am honoured. I accept your offer, gladly, but it can only be for a short time. We intend to depart from this world, in the near future, and I doubt that we shall ever return.”
Cierre tilted her head to one side. “An intriguing idea,” she said. “Tell me more.”
“Later,” Laelryne said. “First I must see to these displaced ones who are, no doubt, in need of rest, food, and shelter. I suggest that we talk further over a meal.”
Éomer beamed with delight as he greeted his two guests. “I note you arrive just as we were about to dine,” he teased, after they had exchanged hand-clasps. “I suspect this is no coincidence.”
Gimli gave a short bark of laughter. “You’re mixing us up with the hobbits, Éomer King,” he said, “and the timing was all Legolas’ doing. I just sat behind him on the horse and left the rest to him.”
“Gimli will never make a horseman, I fear,” Legolas said, “but with an axe he has no equal. And that is the purpose of our visit, for word has reached us that you have trouble with Haradrim raiders. His axe, and my bow, are at your service.”
“It seems an age since I have cleaved the skulls of foemen,” said Gimli. “I would not want my skills to grow rusty from disuse.”
“It will take long indeed for them to decline to the level of a common warrior,” said Éomer, “but, for now, I fear that I must disappoint you. You are too late. Grimbold’s éored came upon the Haradrim as they raided a hamlet in the Westfold. It was a bitter struggle, I am told, for the Southerners fought with the desperation of cornered rats. Yet my men had the advantage of numbers and prevailed. Eight Riders fell, alas, but the Haradrim were utterly destroyed.”
“Good to hear,” said Gimli, “but it is a shame that I missed a fight.”
“As did I,” said Éomer. “When a courier arrived to tell of the Haradrim’s presence I at once gathered the household troops to ride forth. However we had barely departed from Edoras when a second messenger met us with the news that the Haradrim had been defeated. If you wish to turn your axe on anyone, friend Gimli, it must be me.”
“Why would I want to do that?” Gimli asked.
“I am afraid that I have met yet another woman who I deem fairer than the Lady Galadriel,” Éomer revealed. “Prince Imrahil’s daughter, Lothíriel, has captured my heart and I will place her above any other.”
Gimli showed his teeth in a grin. “Aye, I saw the girl in Minas Tirith,” he said. “I’ll not deny that she’s pretty, for a human, but she’s not to my taste. It seems that you have a fondness for dark-haired women. I, however, am a dwarf and my preference will always be for gold.”
Éomer laughed. “So I have noticed,” he said. “And, though you are indeed no hobbit, you do have a fondness for food and for ale. Come, and you shall have both.”
Finding places for the two unexpected, but welcome, guests at dinner was accomplished with only a small amount of rearrangement. To find somewhere appropriate for them to sleep would be more of a challenge. Meduseld was overflowing already, with the visitors from Dol Amroth and their entourage taking up all the available rooms, and one could hardly expect two of the Nine Walkers to lie curled up in a corner of the Great Hall… If the worst came to the worst, Éomer decided, he would hand over his own room to his friends and spend the night in Firefoot’s stall. However his housekeeper was showing no signs of agitation and he guessed that she, miracle worker that she was, had already worked out a way to deal with accommodation for the extra guests. He could relax and enjoy the conversation.
“Legolas,” he said, after a round of pleasantries, “perhaps I could make use of your skills while you are here. I would be grateful if you could take a look at the place where the Haradrim were destroyed, and at the sites where we had found other signs of them, and see if you can determine whether we have disposed of them all or whether some may yet remain.”
The elf smiled and nodded. “Of course, my friend,” he said. “I am no match for Aragorn as a tracker, and I am more skilled in the woodlands than upon the open plains, but I will gladly do what I can in the absence of a trained Ranger.”
“Twenty years I have been a ranger in the Silver Marches,” Cierre said, “and now I have been banished.” Her face was expressionless; too much so, tightly controlled, and Laelryne could not tell if Cierre was holding back anger or tears.
“Why?” Thorn asked, bluntly. “Alustriel Silverhand is known as wise and just. She would not have sentenced you to banishment if you did not deserve it.”
Cierre did not reply immediately. She took a bite from a pheasant leg, chewed on it slowly, and swallowed. Only then did she turn her head to face Thorn. “One fight too many,” she said. “A merchant in Everlund tried to cheat me. I took him by the head and thrust his face through his shop counter. Then his guards set upon me and were stupid enough to draw steel.”
“You killed them?” asked Thorn.
“Quite possibly,” Cierre said. “It depends upon how soon they received medical attention. I did not wait to check and the messenger from Lady Alustriel did not mention their condition. He delivered only the sentence of banishment if I did not return with him to face trial.” She raised a goblet to her lips, took a sip of wine, and then returned her attention to the pheasant.
‘Two or three shop guards against the woman who single-handedly slew twenty of the Eldreth Veluuthra,’ Laelryne thought. ‘Yapping dogs against a dire tiger.’ She studied Cierre’s face, trying to read the deeper emotions behind the tall drow’s façade of casual unconcern, and sensed bitterness, loneliness, and pain. “Was it necessary to resort to violence?” Laelryne probed. “Could you not have gone to the authorities?”
“I threatened to do so,” Cierre said, “and the merchant laughed, and he retorted that the Elders would take his word over that of a filthy drow and I would lose my case. So I broke his face.” She lowered her hands and stared into Laelryne’s eyes. “Well? Are you going to refuse my offer of service?”
Laelryne hesitated for a long moment, weighing her decision, before speaking. “No,” she said. “There may have been a better way of handling the situation but you had no one to turn to, no one to guide you, and I will not condemn you for your actions. I ask only that, if some like situation arises again, you come to me before you act. Then, if we cannot obtain justice through the law, we will break the merchant’s face together.”
Cierre’s eyebrows rose. She laid down her food, and her goblet, and stood up briefly before going down on one knee facing Laelryne. She clasped her hands in front of her chin and bowed her head. “Bel’la dos, Jabbress,” she said. “My skills with bow, sword, and axe are yours. A’dos quarth.”
“I accept,” Laelryne said. “Resume your seat. You need not kneel before me.” Cierre sat down and picked up the remnants of her pheasant leg. “Do you, then, intend to come with us when we travel through the portal to another world?” Laelryne asked.
“That is my wish,” Cierre confirmed. “I had planned to leave this area anyway. I am barred from my home in Luruar, I am not welcome in the lands of Neverwinter, and I do not trust the Luskans. Most of my friends in the Elk Tribe have died or fallen from power. My life would be instantly forfeit if I returned to Menzoberranzan. I had thought that, perhaps, I might go to Rashemen. It is said that it is a land of harsh winters and muscular barbarians. I like both. That is why I headed this way, for I had heard of the portal, and I hoped it could transport me there and save me months of trekking across the continent.”
“There would have been no welcome for you in Rashemen, for the drow are hated and feared there,” Liriel Baenre put in. “You would be attacked on sight.”
“So, no different from anywhere else, then,” said Cierre.
“And that is why I plan to escape to somewhere we are unknown,” said Laelryne. She sighed. “If, that is, we can find such a place.”
Laelryne lowered the book and raised her eyes to meet Liriel’s. “Am I interpreting this ancient script correctly?” she asked. “It seems almost too good to be true. We can go to the ancient homeland of the elves, from which our ancestors departed long before the transformation of the Ilythiiri and the Miyeritari into Drow, where we could make a completely fresh start. Can it really be so?”
“My reading of the text is exactly the same as yours,” Liriel confirmed. “I think the world described fits the criteria you laid down quite well.”
“It does,” Laelryne agreed. “Assuming, of course, that the danger from which those ancestors fled is not still present.”
“Ah,” said Liriel, her pretty face lighting up with a smile, “that’s where the Rituals of Shaundakul come in. They are instructions for the casting of divinations that warn of perils beyond the portal. If that great danger is still there we will know and can choose an alternative destination. There are several other worlds which could be viable options.”
“One of which is the world the Imaskari plundered for slaves,” Laelryne said. “If records of that time still exist there then any who arrive through portals would be treated with suspicion or even slain on sight. I believe that this ‘Arda’, whence came our people, is the best option.”
“I thought you’d say that,” Liriel said. “I’ll get ready to perform the rituals.”
“And I shall begin preparations for the journey,” said Laelryne. “I must check on our stores of provisions, clothes, weapons…”
“The cares of a leader,” said Liriel.
“Indeed,” said Laelryne. “I never expected, nor wanted, such responsibilities. The only thing at which I excelled was swordplay. Qilué, Elkantar, Iljrene, Rylla, and Eldara all were senior to me. And then, suddenly, they were all dead and the Promenade had fallen. It was left to me to take care of the survivors only because there is no-one else.”
“You are doing it well,” Liriel praised.
Laelryne gave a short, bitter, laugh. “I’m glad you think so. I’m just stumbling along trying to do what I think is right and hoping I don’t get everyone killed.”
Liriel raised her eyebrows. “And yet your people have confidence in you. They are willing to follow you even to another world.”
“I will try not to let them down,” said Laelryne. She stood up, realised that she was still holding the book, and handed the ancient tome back to Liriel. “I must get on with those preparations I mentioned,” Laelryne said. “If our provisions and arms are in good order, and your divinations show that the destination is not excessively perilous, then we will depart in a matter of days.”
The spy brought word of the date when the Princess would leave Edoras to return to Gondor. Amir Nizar had made his plans in advance. They would have to take a circuitous route through Rohan, staying away from the settlements as much as possible, and so they would have to set off well before the convoy departed. However if they arrived at the selected ambush point too soon they would have to loiter there, awaiting the approach of their prey, and this would increase the chance that their presence would be discovered. Correct timing was crucial. The Amir made his calculations and gave the necessary orders.
The last thing they did before departing was to slay the captive Dunlending women. When the Haradrim rode forth they left behind them a village occupied only by the dead.
Rohan was a land full of widows, after the casualties the éoreds had suffered in the war, but the presence of the Swan Knights of Dol Amroth meant that there were as many men as women at the feast held to say farewell to the Princess and her entourage.
Éomer was not the only one for whom this occasion heralded a parting from one for whom he cared. One of the Swan Knights, a veteran with touches of grey in his hair and his beard, had become involved with the widow of Déorwine, chief of the King’s Knights, who had been slain at the gates of Mundburg. It was too soon after her husband’s death for there to be any question yet of betrothal but Éomer was sure that the Knight would be returning to Rohan. He was a worthy man, and a fine warrior, and if he wished to transfer his allegiance he would be welcome. But that was a matter for the future.
Tonight there was feasting and then there was dancing. Rohirric dances were very different from the formal balls of Gondor but Lothíriel coped very well. And not merely coped but, evidently, enjoyed herself.
The whole of her visit, Éomer thought, had gone very well. The people had taken to Lothíriel very quickly. Her natural charm, and the tact and diplomacy she had learned as the daughter of an important personage of Gondor, enabled her to win over even those who had initially been suspicious of the foreign woman. Not that she was entirely without flaws, Éomer had discovered that she could have a hot temper at times, but she was quick to apologise if she was in the wrong and to forgive if she was in the right. She only showed real anger at acts of cruelty or injustice. She would make a fine Queen of Rohan.
And, Éomer knew, he wanted very much for her to be his wife. He wanted to lie with her at night and wake with her in the morning light. He wanted to dine with her, to ride with her, to sit with her, to share his life with her in every way. To part with her, even temporarily, would hurt. It was, unfortunately, necessary. The rules of Gondorian propriety had to be observed. And so, in the morning, she would set off to return to her home.
He wanted her to stay. He wanted to go with her. He wanted to strip Edoras of Riders and send five éoreds with her to make absolutely, positively, certain that no harm could possibly befall her.
Unfortunately he was a king and owed a duty to his people. He had to stay in Edoras and continue the work of repairing Rohan from the ravages of the war. And he had to retain the army at home, ready to defend Rohan against any who might seek to strike at the weakened realm; there were still hostile Dunlendings, and some remnants of Saruman’s orcs, posing a potential threat. He was bolstering Lothíriel’s escort of Swan Knights with Riders of Rohan, certainly, but not even a full éored. Instead he was sending an éored that had suffered heavy casualties at the Pellenor Fields; thirty-eight uninjured Riders remaining out of their initial strength of one hundred and twenty. They, added to the twenty Swan Knights of Dol Amroth, should be more than sufficient to deter any foes.
Éomer put the thought out of his mind and concentrated on enjoying his last evening with Lothíriel before her departure. Storing up every word, every dance, and every touch of her hand to see him through their separation.
Including storing up the distinctly unusual, and definitely memorable, sight of Lothíriel dancing with Gimli.
Éomer watched with mingled amusement and envy. He would rather be dancing with her himself, of course, but for some reason Legolas had insisted on joining him for a serious conversation and Gimli had snatched up Lothíriel. Still, the contrast of the willowy princess with the compact block of muscle that was the dwarf was enjoyable to watch. Lothíriel’s broad smile and twinkling eyes showed that she was enjoying herself as well – and, for a wonder, was managing to avoid having her feet trodden on by the dwarf’s iron-shod boots.
“I confess I do not understand the human attitude to courtship,” Legolas said, “especially the customs of the nobility of Gondor.”
It took a couple of seconds for Éomer to realise that Legolas, who had been in the middle of reporting that he had so far been unable to confirm that the Haradrim raiders who had been slain constituted the entirety of the Southron presence in Rohan, had changed the subject. “Oh?” he said.
“Yes, for it is obvious to all that your fëa and that of Lothíriel sing in harmony,” Legolas observed, “and your marriage is inevitable. You wish to wed her, she desires the same, and her father’s approval is certain. Yet her brothers watch over her like hawks to ensure that you do not have a moment alone with her. When you dance they frown at the slightest physical contact that might exceed the bounds of their, what is it called, propriety. Very strange.”
“True,” Éomer agreed.
“Whereas they regard her as completely safe with Gimli,” Legolas went on, “and their attention has wavered.”
Indeed Amrothos was now engrossed in a discussion of cavalry tactics with Marshalls Elfhelm and Erkenbrand, his eyes never even straying in the direction of his sister and the dwarf, and Erchirion was deep in conversation with that Swan Knight who was involved with Déorwine’s widow.
“Are you saying Lothíriel is not safe with Gimli?” Éomer queried, perplexed.
Legolas laughed. “There is none more honourable than Gimli in all of Middle Earth,” he said, “and Lothíriel does not have golden hair. You need have no fears.” He set down his goblet and pushed back his chair. “The room grows overly hot for my taste,” he said, “and I feel the need for a little fresh air. I suggest, Lord Éomer, that you accompany me for a brief stroll outside to continue our conversation. You may find it to your advantage.” Then, much to Éomer’s surprise, Legolas closed one eye in a definite wink.
Éomer was even more puzzled now but he went along with the elf’s suggestion and accompanied Legolas out of the Hall. Once outside he saw Legolas take a deep breath, filling his lungs with the cool night air, and Éomer did the same. The air inside the Hall had smelt of wood-smoke, roasted meat, and spilled ale; the air outdoors was clean and fresh save for the slight aroma of horse manure which was ever-present in and around Edoras. To the Rohirrim, of course, that scent was not unpleasant.
“You are indeed fortunate, Éomer King,” Legolas remarked. “Lothíriel of Dol Amroth is a maiden fair, virtuous, and intelligent. She will make a fine Queen of Rohan and I am certain that you will be very happy together.”
“I believe so,” Éomer agreed. He thought he detected a slight tone of envy in the elf’s voice and focused his gaze on Legolas. “You have never spoken of your family,” he said, “except that I know your father is King Thranduil of Mirkwood. Tell me, do you have a wife, or a betrothed, waiting for you in your father’s realm?” The answer, if Legolas was willing to give it, might enable Éomer to put to rest certain suspicions, raised on occasion by some among the Rohirrim, about the relationship between Legolas and Gimli.
Legolas shook his head. “I have never met the elf-maid whose fëa sings with mine,” he said, “and I now suspect that she is not now to be found in Middle Earth. Perhaps I shall meet her after I sail West.”
The door from the Hall opened once more, before Éomer could reply, and Gimli led Lothíriel out into the night.
“What a coincidence that we should meet Éomer out here,” Gimli said. “Well, Princess, I have things to talk about with Legolas, and so I shall leave you in the care of your host for a few moments, if you will it.” There was not enough light to be certain but Éomer strongly suspected that he saw Gimli’s left eye close in a broad wink.
“And now,” said Legolas, “you can bid your lady a proper goodbye.”
Éomer grinned and said “Thank you, my friends.” Then he opened his arms, welcomed Lothíriel into his embrace, and met his lips with hers in a tender but passionate farewell kiss.
Ebony skin glinted in the moonlight as they danced. It would be the last time they danced by the light of Selûne; soon they would be in a world where a different moon swam through the night sky. Now they danced to say farewell to their destroyed homes, to their dead gods, and to Faerûn.
Those who had been worshippers of Eilistraee danced naked, as was their custom; the Vhaeraun worshippers were less comfortable unclad and most of them retained at least some of their clothing. Cierre, despite not being a worshipper of either of the two deceased deities, stripped down to her sword-belt and joined in the dance.
Some of the dancers shed tears as they gyrated beneath the moon. Some smiled and laughed, carried away by the rhythm and the motion, forgetting their cares for a while. There were those who slipped away, by pairs, into the shadows outside the clearing. Some were those in committed relationships but others were not. They may have sought to seek comfort and support before setting out on the journey into the unknown, or to say farewell to Faerûn in the most primal way possible, or merely to slake temporary lusts inspired by the nude dancing; Laelryne did not know the motives and did not feel that they were any of her business.
She did not participate. No-one made any such suggestions to her and, even had a male she found attractive made an advance, she would have felt it her duty to refuse. As the leader she had to stay apart, impartial, and aloof. Eventually, as the fire died and the dancers tired, Laelryne went alone to her bed.
And the next day, once all had arisen and broken their fasts, they assembled in front of the stone arch that housed the portal; the Voice of the Lost, greatest of the Song Portals of vanished Illefarn, the gate that spanned worlds.
Liriel cast the spell that opened the gate and a shimmering blue haze filled the arch. “Vedaust, Laelryne,” she said. “Aluvé.”
“Vedaust, Liriel,” Laelryne replied. “If you change your mind…”
“I doubt that I will,” said Liriel, “but I have the spell to open the gate. If the time comes when I must leave Faerûn then I will join you in Arda.”
“You will be welcome,” said Laelryne. “Vedaust… abbil.”
Then Laelryne gathered her people together and led them forward. They had numbered forty-one at the time when Tebolvir had first suggested that they depart from Faerûn. Since that time they had been joined by eleven other refugees, including Cierre and the six she had brought with her, but four had fallen in clashes with the Eldreth Veluuthra. Forty-eight drow advanced through the portal and vanished from the face of Faerûn.
Liriel never saw them again.