I woke up with the jolt of a foot in my ribs, feeling as if weights were attached to my eyelids. Wet weights; I was clammy with water! Sitting up, I found that we were surrounded by grim-faced Rohirrim with long, sharp-bladed spears leveled at me, and that my folk were all bound; some of them had various bruises and contusions which told me that they had not submitted of their own free will. Swift lay ominously still nearby.
“What’s going on?” I demanded, my hand flying to my side. My scabbarded sword lay on the ground next to me in the sodden bedroll; I picked it up and fastened it to my belt.
One of the Riders, a one-eyed Rohir with white hair and beard, and an old scar seaming the side of his face, glared at me with his one remaining eye. “Who you, with demon blade?” he demanded, and I saw that one of his arms hung limply at his side.
“Marpol Lord Tintehlë, Warden of the Roads of Gondor and Arnor,” I replied promptly. “Why are Riders of Rohan manhandling allies? We have done no harm.”
“How you get here without word coming first?” a youth asked.
“Where is here?” I asked cautiously.
*Do not tell him, Marpol! This is not to be widely known.*
With an effort, I managed not to turn my head to look at Islilta.
*You are in the West Emnet, not far from Helm’s Deep,* 'Gift added. *Your sword blistered his hand for him when he tried to take it while you slept.*
“That I cannot tell you,” I said truthfully. “May I take something from my belt-pouch?”
Carefully I drew out the wallet which contained the letters of passage I had brought with me, and took out the one from Éomer. “Your King gave me permission to come, as you can see,” I said, holding it out.
He looked down at it blankly—and I remembered that many Rohirrim could not read. Apparently he was one of them. In fact, it seemed that none of the other old men and young boys in his patrol were lettered either. “False paper. You come.” He dropped it and the wallet disdainfully on the ground.
“Very well,” I agreed, although I had little choice. “Kindly untie my folk, and we’ll saddle our horses.”
“No. You saddle.”
I did so, making sure to mount Dir on Galadaur, packed up our camp under the patrol’s close supervision—they wouldn’t allow me to pick up my wallet of papers, and were surprised when I wanted to fill in the firepit, as if I was too barbarian to do so. I spread my wet blankets over the rumps of my two like sodden barding, and as I was about to mount ‘Gift, the leader said, “You put sword on pack-saddle. He bind hands,” with a jerk of his chin towards one of the others.
I folded my arms. “I will not give up my blade, although I doubt I would draw it on an ally in any case, but you may bind me if you wish.”
Tambaro and Cardin both opened their mouths to protest, but I quelled them with a look. The one-eyed Rider pulled the leather strap he used tightly around my wrists in front of me, and I mounted more clumsily than usual as a result. Once in the saddle, I at last could see what I had already suspected: there was no sign of Alta whatsoever. However, I had noticed a few bushes near the jacks trench quivering against the wind, and I had contrived to bury my belt-knife on its edge as I filled in the trench. It took a great deal of effort not to look back as we rode away.
A league onward, Islilta reared suddenly, jerking the line by which she was being led out of a Rider’s hand. Pivoting neatly on her rear hooves, she leaped gracefully over the horse next to her, and broke free, running out of sight eastwards in moments—aided by the other horses milling in the way of the startled Riders.
*Don’t worry, Marpol; I’ll find her and we’ll get you all free,* she said in my head.
There was much cursing from the Rohirrim, whose own horses also were abruptly not responding to the Riders’ attempts to recover her; some of them began to buck, two decided to graze, three simply went in circles, and one merely stood stockstill, turning his head to look at the Man on his back inquiringly.
A candlemark later, we reached a small holding, and were bundled into a shed like so much cordwood, our feet as well as our hand tied, with one young Rohir on guard.
Presumably, they were untacking the horses—and from the sound, ours were not cooperating. Under cover of the noise, Rihan asked softly, “Now what?”
“Now we wait,” I said calmly.
Dir and Cardin both began protesting; the result was the Rohir thumping both of them with the end of his spear. “No talk!”
*Please don’t resist to the point that they harm you,* I thought at ‘Gift as loudly as I could.
*Why should we make it easy for these idiots?* he retorted. *Oh, Islilta has found Alta, and they are on their way. These dolts don’t even have the brains to see that we are partly mearh, and treat us accordingly. They talk of harnessing me to a plow!*
*I’m sure they don’t mean that as an insult,* I replied. *This holding looks as if it was hard-hit by the war. I think they are desperate.*
He did not respond, but the noise diminished outside and then stopped.
To Mistress Altra Nénharma, House of Tintehlë, Sixth Circle, Minas Tirith, from Mistress Altáriel Nénharma, West Emnet, Rohan,
We have been traveling far and swiftly, for many leagues since leaving Taur Drúadain.
The latter part of our journey was not on the usual route, but on one suggested by Mithrandir, so we saw few habitations for some time.
I have been worried about Lord Marpol; he has exerted himself greatly to ensure our safety and speed our way, to the point that whenever we stopped, he would fall asleep
almost instantly, and had to be reminded to eat; every few bites, he would begin to nod and drowse. Dir has been fretting that he may sicken; Cardin is anxious, as am I, but the two Captains insist that we should take his word for it that he is well, or will be. After all, they have fought and worked together for many years; sometimes it is as if a mere glance and nod between them suffice for volumes of conversations! I try to be reassured by their confidence.
We had traveled into Rohan, although we did not realize that we had progressed to near Helm’s Deep, and had paused for a noon morsel and to allow my lord to rest. He had immediately fallen into a deep slumber—so deep, he did not wake when Riders approached us. I was near the jacks trench the boys had dug, for I had seen some berry bushes near it and wanted to harvest them for a sweet later. Some instinct caused me to push my way into the midst of the small thicket and hide—one I am glad I heeded, for they lowered their spears and took the others prisoner! It took a bucket of water dashed over my lord’s head and some kicking—his poor ribs!—before he was roused, and then he perceived it was too late to fight or flee. By then the others had all been overcome and bound.
The leader of that patrol, a very young Rider named (as we later learned) Corrigar, refused to accept the letters of passage Lord Marpol tried to show him; disdainfully, he dropped them on the ground! He insisted that we were there for no good purpose, for they had had no word of strangers approaching, and he deemed only brigands, spies or worse would be skulking through their lands. How anyone can skulk on a plain of grass mystifies me, but so he said over and over. That we had so many fine Rohirric horses angered him the more, especially that ‘Gift and Cardin’s Dart are both black, although I didn’t understand why a horse’s colour should have any significance. (I’ve been told since then that it was because whenever their enemies raided their horse-herds from outside their borders, they seemed to particularly target the black ones.)
So in his mind, we were at the least suspicious, and probably horse thieves, and there are few worse crimes in Rohan! He insisted that my lord saddle mounts for the others, and break camp by himself. I was relieved that he chose my Galanaur for Dir to ride, quiet as she is, instead of Nipper or Jitters, for while the lad’s horsemanship has greatly improved, he is still not as skilled a rider as the rest of us.
As Lord Marpol was filling in the jacks trench and fire-pit (apparently, the leader was surprised and somewhat derisive that barbarians such as we would dig one at a temporary stop, and take precautions against an uncontrolled blaze), I realized that Lord Marpol had contrived to pick up the discarded wallet of papers from the ground, and buried it and something else at the trench’s edge—and to sign to me in the hand-talk he and the Captains have been teaching us, “Stay hid.”
So I stayed still, then and for a long time after they left, herding our horses and the rest of our party. And the leader threw Dir’s satchel on the ground too, cuffing him so that he fell out of the saddle, to their merriment! He struggled to remount, having his hands tied, and the leader hit him again, although he managed to stay on.
Now, Mother, lest you quail to think of me alone in a foreign land, I ask you first, to take several deep breaths. After all, I write this to you, so I am all right! Second, I would remind you of all the training in woodscraft I had from Ada and Uncle, besides the instruction we had received from my lord and his Captains about what to do if we were separated by some mischance. I was armed with Uncle’s knives, my own belt-knife and now Lord Marpol’s, as well as by that knowledge. If I became ill or injured, I had Dir’s bag of remedies. I retrieved the basket of berries from the thicket, was glad that I had almost a full water-flask, and began walking in the same direction they had gone. I lacked a star-compass, but we had all studied my lord’s maps, the sun would help me navigate, and I had health, wits and a goal: to extricate them from this mess as soon as I could.
I believe I walked for nearly a candle-mark when I saw a horse coming towards me at an angle. As it came closer, I realized it was Islilta, trailing a broken lead-rein (they had led her as well as ‘Gift and Dart)—but it troubled me that she had come from a different direction than I was going, and as the few tracks I had been able to find in the grass indicated. Was I off-route and lost?
When she came up close to me and stopped, I walked towards her slowly, holding out my hand and making what Tarl used to call “horse sounds,” fearing to spook her. But she came closer, until I could loop up the rein and pet her.
I almost dropped it in shock when she spoke to me!
It was a voice, definitely female, slightly accented, inside my mind; it tickled a little until I got used to it. *Thank Nahar (1) that you are well!* she greeted me. *I would not want to be the one to tell Marpol that you were not intact, Mistress.*
“Are you all right, my lady?” I asked, realizing that she must be one of the mearas; it seemed only right to be courteous; I curtsied.
*I too am well. May I call you Alta? And you must continue to call me Islilta. Let us dispense with formalities; we must rescue them from those dolts.*
“I’m afraid I’m lost,” I confessed.
*You aren’t. I’m sorry I took so long to find you, but I had to lull them into thinking I was as biddable as an ordinary herd-mare before I escaped. It was actually rather funny; naturally, I had control of the others, so they got in the way of pursuit, and their horses decided not to cooperate with the Riders either. I could hear ‘Gift laughing for furlongs!*
“Are my lord and the others well? Was Dir hurt?” I asked anxiously.
*They have a few bruises, from trying to escape in the other direction, at Marpol’s orders, but were recaptured as they expected to be. I had to run in an arc to get here, lest they manage to follow, but I found another herd to muddle my track on the way. We aren’t too far from Helm’s Deep, and near there is where we must go. I know the way, if you can manage to mount.*
“Why Helm’s Deep?” I asked, scrambling onto her back. I spilled a few of the berries, but managed to keep hold of the basket and the satchel.
*Because that is where we will find someone who is more powerful than that. He intends to enslave them. Please don’t jerk on my mouth like that!*
I apologized, and we went on. I have never ridden a horse with such a smooth gait, and how swiftly we went! Truly, the mearas are remarkable horses! I believe now all the legends I read of their being related to the Elvish horses!
It was nearly dusk when we arrived at a village, clearly in the midst of being rebuilt.
Luckily, I thought when I dismounted in a side-street, they were having a market-day in their square. Most stalls were closing up, but I saw that one woman still had some loaves of bread, and I hastened over to ask her how much.
She glowered at me, said something that elicited laughter from her neighbors on either side, and then said in heavily accented Westron, “No price.”
“Surely you are selling these?” I asked.
“Not to bad woman like you.”
I could feel my face heating with embarrassment, for just then, my stomach rumbled loudly. “I will pay a fair price,” I persisted.
“Not sell you! Go!” And she hit me. It wasn’t a hard blow, for I instinctively ducked, but her hand caught and stung my cheekbone. Several thoughts raced through my mind then, along with my anger, but I quelled the violent ones, reminding myself that being taken up for brawling would not release my lord. I did not snatch up a loaf and toss down coins, nor strike her back, for either might bring reinforcements to her side who might overwhelm me. Yet to back away would seem too servile.
Before I solved this dilemma, a Man rode up and said, “Mistress Nénharma?”
Turning, I saw that he was a brawny old Rohir, well-dressed and –weaponed, on a good horse. Others were bobbing to him deferentially, including my opponent. I curtsied. “The day’s greeting, my lord--?”
“Éalagar son of Edulf,” he replied. I saw beyond him two younger Rohir, and Islilta, who thought at me, *I briefly spoke with him. He is the lord of this place.*
She came to nuzzle me, and I petted her head before replying. Ere I could, there was a burst of agitated speech in Rohirric from the stallholder. He replied to her curtly, and she gave me a startled look, before he turned to me. “My apologies that any treated you so meanly. Frejwyn has been embittered by her losses in the war, although that is no excuse.”
I nodded at her. “I too lost family; I share your sorrow, Mistress Frejwen.”
She paled and flushed, looking away. Lord Éalagar conducted me to his own home, just outside the village, and after a delicious meal in his solar with his wife, Lady Hungitha, and a sound night’s sleep, I woke early the next morning anxious to pursue my quest. I had slept in my shift, and was nonplused to see my outer clothing had been taken away. As I was debating wrapping myself in a blanket in order to leave the room, there was a soft knock, and Frejwen put her head in. “You sleep, lady?” she asked.
“The day’s greeting, Mistress Frejwyn,” I replied. “Yes, thank you, but I’m merely Alta, not a lady.”
She shook her head. “You speak to, ride the mearh; you are high lady. Please forgive; I sorry.”
“Of course I do. I hope we can be friends.” I smiled and she tentatively smiled back at me. “Will you come in and talk to me? I was looking for my clothes.”
“Not dry from wash, but I bring these,” and she came the rest of the way in, her arms filled with fabric. In a short time, I was dressed in a soft blue gown with white flowers embroidered around the hem and sleeves, with an over-vest of green, its belt clasping with small carved green enameled horse-heads, and my own boots, newly polished. As I dressed, we chatted; she had lost not only her husband, but also her young son—only fourteen, Mother!—and two brothers at the battle of Helm’s Deep. I wish more could know of Lord Gimli’s brave defense of the women and oldest men in the caves beneath! No wonder Éomer King gave him those caves as a tiny acknowledgement of his courage and skill!
“This make my speak to you worse,” she said. “I know, from him, that those other than Rohirrim good, but I treat you poor.”
I told her how great a change it has been for us, seeing Dwarves and Elves and Halflings on the streets of the City, and told her about Tarlmer and Jac. She asked if I’d let her dress my hair—my dark locks seemed to fascinate her, and I have marveled myself at how thick her own golden braids are. You will be amused to know that she fixed my hair in two long plaits in the back, after twisting the front part back on the sides; I saw Lady Éowyn’s hair that way once, only she had white tapes in hers, instead of the blue ones Frejwyn used in mine. A little maid came with a tray, so we broke our fast together before she led me downstairs to the Hall where my hosts awaited me.
Lord Éalagar took me outside to see where Islilta had spent the night in an elegant loose box, the finest in his stable, with a special door fitted with a latch she could manipulate herself if she wished to go outside to a fenced paddock. She had been groomed to perfection by the lord himself, and consented to be fitted with a beautiful saddle, finely-woven blanket, and matching bridle and saddle-bags, “My grandsire made the tack, from a dream,” he told us. ”He prepared then for this visit. Ladies, we are honoured to help you.”
Frejwyn brought my clothes in a bundle in my basket, which was tucked into one of the saddlebags, with food and a water-bottle into the other, and the satchel, which I slung over my shoulder by its long strap. She mounted a smaller brown mare, and the three of us, with several of Éalagar’s guards, rode out and across the plains.
Lord Éalagar had had no difficulty in deducing who their captors were; it could only be the small patrol led by one Corrigar. “He’s not a bad lad, lady, just very young and not the sharpest awl in the tack-room. We’ll soon get this straightened out. Don’t worry!”
I thanked him for his assistance, and shortly after noon, we reached a smaller holding. It was really a farm, and much poorer in every way than Lord Éalagar’s. The house was a ruin, evidently burned, and most of the outbuildings were either partly burned, or in disrepair, their thatched roofs missing or crudely patched. A few dispirited chickens scratched in the dirt, and a few children were standing about, scratching themselves and looking hungry. They ran when they saw us, calling out so that an old woman stuck her head out to see; she dropped a basin and stared before pointing our way in answer to my escort’s query.
That took us beyond the huddle of buildings to a field; on the way, I saw Dir and Cardin clumsily trying to repair a stone wall; Captain Rihan was engaged in fixing a pig sty, all of them guarded. Worst of all, I saw Captain Tambaro driving a plow—but it was hitched to my lord! That young leader was walking behind them both, wielding a long whip. Lord Marpol’s shirt hung in tatters from his body.
In moments, all was changed. They were halted, Lord Éalgar’s men surrounded them, and my lord fell to his knees. Islita took me swiftly to him, and I dismounted to kneel beside him even as he tried to get up. Captain Tambaro was already beside us; he had taken a few cuts of the whip as well, but nowhere nearly as badly as my lord had. After a few protests on his part, we got him onto Islilta’s back, the leathers adjusted for his longer legs, and back to the buildings.
Apparently Corrigar’s folk were sharing the stable-space with their horses and other stock. The largest stall was evidently Corrigar’s own; in a few moments, his belongings were ousted, and fresh straw brought in, the basis of a hastily-made pallet padded further by our own blankets, which I easily recognized—although they were incredibly dirty. Frejwyn brought the escort’s saddle-blankets, which were cleaner. Dir arrived, and with Frejwyn and Lord Éalgar to interpet our requests (in truth, thinly disguised demands), we shortly had his shirt off, and his hurts cleansed, treated and bandaged. In several places, you could see the muscles laid bare!
Lord Éalgar was so furious that Lord Marpol feared he’d half-kill Corrigar, and murmured to Captain Tambaro to restrain him. Neither captain looked amenable, but Cardin spoke up. “Pardon, my lord, but surely Lord Tintehlë has the right to face this Man, and to give his opinion on how we have been treated.”
Corrigar was brought, his hands tied in front of him, and I realized that he was indeed younger than Cardin, a mere boy. He had a black eye and a split lip, no doubt administered by his irate lord.
“This is a lord of Gondor, an important lord whose work will benefit our land too!” Lord Éalagar thundered at the hapless youth. “Gondor is our most powerful ally, and our King’s sister is wedding one of Elessar King’s highest, a prince of that land. And you, YOU shame us all by your behaviour! Do you think we have the gold to pay reparations? Do you think we are Dunnish, or the Black Enemy’s folk, to enslave others? Not only that, but you steal from them, like a common thief! If this lady had perished, instead of being a friend of the Mearh, her blood would be on your hands as well, as a common murderer, not a warrior! At the very least, you should be banished! At worst, you should be slain! What were you thinking?” All this was amidst a torrent of Rohirric; I give you Frejwyn’s hasty translation in a low voice.
Corrigar is no coward; he looked up at the old Man defiantly. “How was I to know who they were, and why should I care?” he demanded. “Outlanders don’t come here for good reasons, only to take and kill. What do I know of this ally, except that more of our folk died at their gates? Did they come help us, when we were beset? Will they make sure our women and children don’t starve this winter? What do I care who Éowyn the Faithless weds? She ran away from her duty, and I am being scolded for trying to do mine! There are no other Men to lead my folk but me, and I will do whatever I must! We go almost in rags, the winds blow through the stalls we share with the beasts, and the babes wail with hunger. Of course I shared out their goods! Of course I tried to put them to work! We have no horses strong enough or trained to plow, nor oxen. How shall we live without crops? How shall we live, all in Rohan, with our King far away with these outlanders, instead of here leading us as he should? What difference does it make if you do kill me? I have failed the trust my father gave me when he died, and that is my only regret!”
Lord Marpol had been lying on his front, but now he tried to raise himself up, and insisted upon sitting; Cardin and I hastened to support him on either side, while Dir checked his bandages. “Mistress,” my lord said to Frejwyn, “would you, of your courtesy, translate for me?” (Her understanding of Westron is actually much better than my first impression, and so is her speech when she is not agitated.)
She agreed, and so Lord Marpol spoke, pausing after each sentence so that she could express it, with Lord Éalagar amending her word choices here and there. This is what my lord said:
“Corrigar, as one warrior to another, I understand your reasoning. You are young to have the responsibility of your people’s welfare on your shoulders, and I can see why you feel desperate. I can tell you that that reasoning is flawed, but why should you believe me, a stranger? My king feels towards yours as a brother, and the reason why Éomer King has not yet returned to Rohan is that he has been making a treaty and planning for aid to come here from us. Your Riders saved Minas Tirith—Lady Éowyn saved us. I put it to you that she fulfilled a prophecy in going in disguise to the battle, for if she and Captain Holdwine between them had not slain the Lord of the Nazgûl, more would have died, if indeed the outcome had not gone the other way. Prophecy is of the Powers; can any being withstand Them?
“It is hard to ask others for aid when they seem to be in want as well. Lord Éalagar, can you not spare them the use of oxen or draft-horses for the sowing, at least for a day? If you all cooperate in this region, all will benefit by sharing resources. In the time we have spent here, I have seen that Corrigar truly cares for his people and strives to do his duty; it is simply too difficult for him, young as he is. What I want to know is why he insisted on whipping us, when we attempted to perform the tasks he set us?”
The youth flushed. “I…you made me feel…you did try, but I felt ashamed,” he admitted. “It was not right, to treat a Man, even an outlander, like a beast. It made me angry. There is nothing in the sagas about how to act. I did make a poor choice, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. These others look to you. And you were asleep when we overcame you. What kind of leader sleeps through an attack but a coward?”
Dirúvel said, “He is not a coward! My lord is a kind and gracious Man, and as a Healer, I tell you that he was exhausted from his duty, or you would never have taken us so easily.”
“Peace, Dir,” said my lord calmly. “You know the sagas?”
Corrigar raised his head proudly. “My father and grandsire were the finest scops in Rohan,” he said. “That is why we do not have a finer farm; they spent most of their time performing or composing. I was to be the next, to begin my training.”
“Which you will not receive,” stated Lord Éalagar, not sneeringly, but a matter of fact. “There is no one hereabouts who could train you, or would take you now, after this. At the very least, our laws demand that I banish you.” His upraised hand choked off the cries from the people crowded around outside the stall who’d been listening anxiously. “Ah, lad, if only your pride had not kept you from asking for help! If only you hadn’t acted as you have!”
Lord Marpol asked him, “Has he family to stand surety for him?”
“Corrigar is my sister’s son’s son,” Lord Éalagar said, “but in my position, I must abide the law.”
Lord Marpol nodded, but then rubbed his nose, and I took heart; he had thought of something. “May I ask another question? Corrigar, why did you treat my papers with such distain?”
“Why should I pay attention to papers?” asked the youth, and I realized that he must be illiterate, as many Rohirrim are.
“Because you would have been saved from the biggest blunder of your life!” snarled his angry great-uncle.
Lord Marpol looked at his Captains, another of those wordless exchanges, and then he looked at Islilta and ‘Gift, whose heads were looking in the outside door. Both of them bobbed their heads, while the Captains looked resigned. “My lord Éalagar,” he said respectfully, “may I make a suggestion?”
The old lord nodded.
“Since I was the one most injured by his actions, I ask that you put him into my hands. I must travel North, out of Rohan, but I will be coming back on my way home within a month or two. Let me see if I can teach him a different way of thinking, at least until Éomer King may return and judge his case. I pledge that I will return him. This I will do if you will agree to aid his folk as you can; I would have no one starve.”
After some discussion between the two of them, very quietly, Lord Éalagar agreed—if we’d permit Frejwyn to come with us as well. It was her own desire, for she said that the real reason she had been so rude to me was that she could not imagine how a decent foreign woman would be travelling alone; if I had a companion of my own sex, more folk would be pleasant to me, and she feels obligated to come with us. Lady Hudgatha told me privily this evening (for we removed back to Lord Éalagar holding the next day, taking everyone of Corrigar’s folk and their few belongings with us) that Frejwyn has been so unhappy with her losses, her home almost completely obliterated, that it would be a kindness on our part. To my relief, Lord Marpol consented. I will enjoy having another female with us, and she can help Corrigar learn Westron and improve her own.
I hasten to end this missive, Mother, for Lord Éalagar has agreed to send a messernger with it and other letters to Edoras, to be forwarded from there to Minas Tirith. Lord Marpol insisted on riding here (fortunately, with all of the folk, many afoot, we went slowly), but he has barely spoken to me, I know not why. All our goods have been returned or replaced, and we shall set out tomorrow on our journey. Frejwyn shall ride Jitters or Nipper; Corrgar has been given a horse named Wistian, with another called Dyrstig as a spare. So you see, we are all well, and you need not worry—although I know you will!
I shall write to you from our next stop. With love,
Your daughter, Alta
1. Nahar – The horse of Oromë of the Valar. He was Elvish and the forebear of the Mearas, so venerated by them and the Rohirrim.