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Horsemaster
Chapter 2

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Thick rain-soaked clouds hung in the sky in the early morning
light.  Lothiriel stifled a yawn.  The butterflies dancing around
her stomach all night long had given her little chance for sleep. 
Under normal circumstances, leaving the city would have been
cause for celebration, but all she felt now was sleepy and scared. 
If it was even possible to be both of those things at once. 
Doubts rose up in her mind one by one, but she fought them off. 

In the distance, Dolore was giving Lothiriel's guards last minute
instructions.  The sight of him gave her a well-needed dose of
courage.  No matter what the consequences of her journey were,
she already knew it was the right choice.  Though Dolore was a
good man and loyal to her father, he was not the one who should
be leading the people.  Her father was the only one who belonged
in that position.  Dol Amroth was not the same without him.  And
she was determined to do everything in her power to bring him
back.  Even if she had to walk to clear across Middle-Earth to
find him.

Erchirion rushed out the gates.  "Sorry, I'm late."

"If I didn't know better, I'd think you could care less that I was
leaving,"  Lothiriel said with a grin.

"I have a present for you," Erchirion said.  She reached into her
pocket and pulled out a small vial attached to a silver chain. 
"Inside is sand from the beach.  This way, you will take part of
home with you where ever you go."

Erchirion slipped the silver chain around Lothiriel's neck.  "It's
beautiful."

"Take care of yourself, Lotty."  Erchirion gave her sister a warm
embrace.  "And remember everything.  I want a detailed report of
all the lands you see and all the people you meet."

"And I will come home with Papa riding beside me," Lothiriel said.

Erchirion nodded and hugged her again.  "I am going to miss you!"

Lothiriel mounted her horse.  With one last wave to her sister,
she followed the riders along the path that lead away from Dol
Amroth. 

After months of waiting idle with worry, the simple act of
mounting her horse lifted her spirits.  Taking action was far
better than waiting.  No wonder men were so eager to ride off to
war.  Lothiriel found herself caught up in the excitement of the
adventure that lay before her.  For she suddenly realized that by
days end she would see sights that she had never before seen. 
Not even the thick clouds could dampen her spirits. 

******************************

The clear skies over Edoras did little to lift Eomer's spirits as he
approached the stables.  After the attack, he doubled the guard
on the horses but the remainder of the night past in silence. 
Eomer expected that.  From the tracks he and Elfhelm followed
around the edge of the gates, the servants of Sauron who
murdered the horses were long since gone.  Hopefully, they would
pick up the trail in the light of the morning. 

Eomer walked down the long row of stalls until he reached his
horse.  Although Rohan had the best-trained stable hands in all of
Middle-Earth, most riders of the Mark tended their horses
themselves.  Unlike some of the peoples of Middle-Earth who
merely viewed horses as a mode of transportation, the Rohirrim
viewed them as a revered member of society.  Horses were not
merely tools, but were living, breathing creatures worthy of
respect. 

Eomer's horse had carried him through the grasses of the Mark,
over the long road to Minas Tirith, through the carnage of the
battlefields of the Pelennor.  A constant companion, never once
shying away from his duty.  Eomer knew men who had done less.

The sweet scent of hay instantly relaxed him as he pulled his
saddle off of the rack and lay it over his horse's back.  Eomer's
eyes strayed to the empty stalls.  The deaths of the horses was
disturbing, but it was the eye of Sauron that worried him.   

From the time Aragorn had appeared at Eomer's feet, dreams
and legends had been springing to life around him.  Stories he had
listened to as a child were suddenly true.  Elves.  Halflings. 
Isildur's heir.  Sauron. 

Would the world ever return to normal?

Eomer had been at the gates of Mordor when Sauron had been
destroyed.  Sanding alongside his men in what he thought would
be the last battle of mankind, Eomer had been overcome by the
unbidden joy that rose in his heart as the world was rid of evil. 

But he had also heard Sauron's servants cry out in rage.  Some of
them had put up a feeble attempt at a fight, but most of them
had scattered.  Despite their best efforts many of them escaped.
And now?  Perhaps now they were seeking revenge in whatever
why they could.  Eomer had no intention of letting terror return
to Rohan. 

The eored was ready and waiting when Eomer rode out of the
stable.  After picking up the trail at the edge of Edoras, they
followed the footprints through the open plains that lay between
them and the shadow of the White Mountains.  

Elfhelm reined in beside Eomer as they approached the looming
cliffs.  "If they have ridden to Dunharrow we shall have no
trouble finding them.  For there is no way of escape within that
mountain path."

Eomer nodded but he was not so certain.  There was one path
that could be taken but the thought of taking it was such a
horror that none among the Rohirrim would even consider it a
possibility.  Until recently, Eomer would have never considered it
either.  But like all else in his life, even old fears were being
altered.

Eomer pushed those thoughts from his mind as the horses came
upon the first of the twisting switchbacks that lead up the side
of the mountain.  At each turn in the road stood the "fatboys" as
Eowyn had always called them as a child.  Though he would never
call them that aloud, in his mind he still thought of the short
stumpy stone statues as the fatboys.   Eowyn had spent many an
evening making up stories about who could have carved the
ancient ruins.    

As they climbed the last of the rocky switchbacks the road
widened and went up a steep slope into a high rolling grassland
known as the Firienfeld.  The  green grasses of the Firienfeld
spread out a half mile before the tall pine trees grew in the
steeping slopes that lead up to the mountains.   Cutting through
the middle of the Firienfeld was a road.  Tall stones lined it, some
broken, some leaning, some crumbled to dust.

They followed the tracks of the attackers along the road,
between the tall standing stones.  When Eomer approached the
steepening slopes where the pine forest began, his men hung
back.  He did not blame them.  Nor did he urge them forward.  

Only Elfhelm dared to ride beside Eomer.  Eomer followed the
tracks silently.  Never in all his years had he ridden so far down
this road.  The Paths of the Dead.  The branches of the pine
trees hung thick above the trail, blocking out most of the rays of
the sunlight.  It was stifling beneath them.

"Surely they could not have gone any farther,"  Elfhelm said.  "No
man has come back alive from the Paths of the Dead."   

"You are wrong,"  Eomer said.  "Aragorn traveled these paths with
his men."

Elfhelm shook his head. As they approached the edge of the
mountain face, one standing stone stood tall, like  a guard in the
middle of the path.  "Did you see him walk down these roads with
your own eyes?"  Elfhelm asked.

"I did not.  But I do not doubt his word, or those of his
companions,"  Eomer said.  He urged his horse to go around the
stone as he followed the tracks.  They came at last to the sheer
mountain face.  The Dark Door stood before them.  Upon the
archway were etchings long since faded with age.  What lay
beyond it into the depths of the mountains only a few upon
Middle-Earth could say.

Eomer dismounted and followed the tracks until they disappeared
into the darkness.  He gazed long into its black depths.  But he
could see nothing.

"This is madness,"  Elfhelm grabbed Eomer's arm and pulled him
back from the entrance as if he expected him to be completely
engulfed should he accidentally set a foot across the threshold. 
"Surely they are dead."

"I am not so sure they are,"  Eomer said.  "If Aragorn was the
one spoken of in legends, the one who rose the spirits of the dead
to battle, then after they fulfilled their oath their spirits would
depart and the Path would be safe once more."

"Do you want to be the one to test this theory?"  Elfhelm asked.

Eomer looked at his old friend and smiled.  "No.  But I will not
have my people terrorized."

Elfhelm thought for a long moment.  "If they did use The Paths
of the Dead to cross through the mountains, they could be on the
other side of the Hills of Erech by now."

"If they are bent on revenge they may be back,"  Eomer said. 
"Let's set up camp on the Firienfeld.  I want to keep watch over
the road.  At least for a week.  Let's see what happens."

Elfhelm sighed audibly as Eomer mounted his horse and road back
to the Firienfeld.  There was nothing else for them to do but
wait.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Lothiriel squirmed uncomfortably in her saddle.  After a nearly
week of riding, Lothiriel realized that adventures weren't all they
were cracked up to be.  Since day one, her legs were constantly
aching from the long hours in the saddle.  Before this trip, she
had never ridden more than a few leagues from home.  Even then
she had always been back to Dol Amroth well before sunset. 

Sleeping was difficult.  If you could call the endless nights of
tossing and turning sleep.  It was not the ground that bothered
her, that was a trivial thing, like sleeping upon the floor of
Erchirion's room when she was little.   The noise was what kept
her awake.  The sounds of animals foraging in the nearby bushes,
creeping ever closer to where she slept unnerved her.  As much
as Lothiriel did not want to admit it, she was scared of sleeping
outside.  Lying under the open sky offered a spectacular view of
the stars, but Lothiriel felt small and exposed.  As if all the evil
in the world could walk up and grab her at a moments notice from
the dark corners of the night.  The men standing watch as she
slept did little to ease her worries.  And every day she was more
exhausted than the night before. 

Her guards set a quick pace, determined to get to Rohan as
quickly as possible.  If the riding and the lack of sleep wasn't bad
enough, her guards barely looked in her direction.  So far, she'd
barely spoken two words.  Lothiriel wondered if she would
completely loose the use of her voice by the time they reached
Rohan. 

The only saving grace was the beauty of the landscape that
greeted her eyes in every direction.

They had been climbing steadily since they began following the
course of the Morthond River.  Behind them, it stretched out like
a silver ribbon, winding its way down from the foothills of the
mountains to where it joined the River Ringlo.   And the
mountains!  Lothiriel had never seen anything of such beauty.  The
tops of them were white with snow, and the jagged peaks seemed
to touch the sky. 

It was the view of the mountains that she kept her eyes fixed
upon during the long rides.  Every day they loomed closer and
larger before her.  They were traveling north west, following the
southern edge of the White Mountains.  They would cross the
River Lefnui and pass over the mountains at their lowest
elevation.  Though the route was well-known among the travelers
of Dol Amroth, it was not widely enough used to even offer a
path.  And only those who knew it well could find their way.  The
trail was long but not a strenuous one, and for those traveling
from Dol Amroth to the northern lands of Isengard or Rohan it
took many weeks off the journey.          

Lothiriel had known there was a wider world beyond Dol Amroth,
but she had not been prepared for the sheer size and wonder of
it.  The empty spaces they passed through seemed devoid of any
signs of civilization.  Were it not for the fact that her men knew
the way, Lothiriel would have thought they were the first people
to ever set foot upon these lands.  As a child, she had imagined a
great many things.  But the untamed lands that surrounded her,
was more stirring to her blood than any imagining could have
possibly been. 

Even the smell and feel of the air upon her skin was foreign to
her, so different it was from the salty sea-rich air of home.  The
sun was sinking low in the western sky, when they stopped to
make camp. 

While the guards prepared for nightfall, Lothiriel watched the
sunset.   The guards formed a circle setting their bedrolls around
the campfire.  Lothiriel grabbed her own bedroll and her traveling
blanket and laid them out.  When the small ration of stew had
been eaten for supper, the stars were already twinkling overhead. 
A few of them men sat up talking amonst themselves, she could
hear their friendly banter, but no conversation was offered in
her direction.  Tired and lonely she curled up beneath her
traveling blanket and drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

"My lady!  My lady!  You must wake up!"  a guard shook her
roughly. 

Lothiriel woke with a start.   Around her rose a commotion of
voices, shouts in the dark.  Her sleep clouded mind struggled to
gain her bearings.  She sat up and rubbed her eyes. 

The young guard's gaze was full of worry.  "Hurry, my lady."

"What's happening?"  Lothiriel glanced around the campsite.  The
guards had made a ring around the fire and were standing with
their swords drawn and ready. 

"We are under attack,"  the guard said.  "The two men standing
watch were. . .killed."

"Killed?" 

"Yes.  You must stay down and you must stay quiet,"  the guard
said.  He drew his sword and stared out into the darkness. 

Lothiriel lay still.  She strained her ears against the silence of
the night but heard nothing but the pounding of her heart.  Long
tense moments stretched out as they waited.  And waited.  And
then, one quiet sound cut through the darkness.  To Lothiriel it
was not a violent sound, until one of the guards cried out and fell
to the ground.  An arrow protruded from his chest. 

The guards called the retreat and they moved to the cover of the
nearby trees where the horses were wrangled.  Lothiriel stumbled
along.  The circle of horses offered more protection from the
enemy's arrows.  And once the horses were quieted, again all fell
into silence. 

Lothiriel crouched beside her horse.  Her body was tense, ready
to spring to action at a moment's notice, but what action she
would take she did not know.  She had no weapon.  She did not
know how to fight.  And she was surrounded by unseen enemies. 
She thought the night could get no worse.  But she was wrong. 

The silence was pierced by the loud whooping of men.  From all
sides the screaming grew.  The guards of Dol Amroth held their
swords ready, waiting for the attack.  And it came. 

In one swift and terrifying moment the forest seemed to come
alive with movement.  Dark shapes penetrated their circle of
horses.  The men were dark haired and darkly clothed so they
were hard to see under cover of night.   A never ending stream of
curses came from their lips in a language that Lothiriel had never
heard. 

And soon after, cries of pain joined the war cries as men began to
fall in battle.  Swords glimmered in the moonlight.  The sickly
sweet stench of blood filled the air. 

Beside her,  an attacker's blade plunged straight through the
body of one of her guards.   He fell at her feet, his eyes gazing
up at her, gasping for breath.  He reached out to her.   Lothiriel
cradled his head in her hands, but there was nothing she could do. 
The sounds of the battle surrounding here were all but blocked
out as she watched the young man die in her arms.  As he
breathed his last breath she was grabbed from behind.

Lothiriel struggled to gain her footing as the man pulled her by
the hem of her skirt.  With a firm yank, Lothiriel managed to rip
herself free,  leaving the man holding nothing but the tatter
remains of her skirt. 

Around her the battle waged.  She looked for protection but her
men were too busy protecting themselves to even look in her
direction.  The horses were pulling on their ropes in a vain
attempt to break free from the madness that surrounded them. 

Quickly, Lothiriel rushed to her horse and pulled loose the reins. 
She flung herself into the saddle and urged her horse away from
the carnage.

Lothiriel rode hard and fast with no clear direction of where she
was going except to escape.  Her horse needed no encouragement
and soon the sounds of the battle were all but a distant memory. 

After some time had passed, Lothiriel slowed her horse.  Exactly
how far and how long she had ridden she did not know.  The
terror of the attack had over-run any normal sense of time and
place.  It seemed to have lasted an eternity, but Lothiriel knew it
could not be so.  For the first light of dawn had just begun to
lighten the sky.

Lothiriel let the horse pick the way and he eagerly trotted back
to the river.  The Morthlond rushed past them, flowing over the
rocks.  The sound was soothing.

"Stay calm,"  Lothiriel told herself.  But that was easier said than
done.  Her horse took a long drink.  Lothiriel dismounted and
filled her canteen.  Letting the icy water cool her throat.   She
took a few deep breaths and tried to decide what to do.  

Lothiriel had no intentions of riding back to the scene of the
attack.  If her men had survived they would pick up her trail and
follow her.  If they did not, her attackers would pick up her trail
and follow her.  Either way, someone would be behind her.  But
she had no way of knowing whether it would be a friend or a foe. 
And she did not plan on sitting around and waiting to find out. 

Reluctantly, she mounted her horse and rode on.  But where she
was riding too she had no way of knowing.  Though Lotty had
poured over maps many times, looking at a map was far different
than riding over the terrain.  Following the Morthlond seemed as
good of a path as any.  She vague recalled stories about the Hill
at Erech and the fertile valley that lay beyond it.  If there was a
fertile valley there had to be farmers.  Perhaps she could find
help there. 

The sun rose into the sky and she kept her horse at a fast pace. 
And though she was unsure of where she was or where she was
going, the River offered comfort.  For she knew that the river
wound its way far to the south and fed into the Bay of Cobas near
her home.  Perhaps if she did not make it back to Dol Amroth, the
water she was staring at would. 

Home had never seemed further away.  Lothiriel could scarcely
convince herself that Dol Amroth even existed anymore.  For all
she knew, she could be walking upon another land in another
world.

The hours blended into one another.  The mountains loomed large
in front of her.  And she kept her gazed fixed on them.  They
seemed steady and enduring.  And if they could last throughout
thousands of years of wind and rain and war, then she could
surely survive a ride alone. 

Lothiriel hummed songs to herself.  The sun warmed her face, and
the brilliant blue of the sky spread out above her but she could
not ease the terror rising in her thoughts.

By nightfall, she could see Erech, though it was still several
leagues away.  Lothiriel was relieved to know where she was.  It
gave her some reference point.  Though she did not want to stop,
Lothiriel knew that she and her horse both needed rest. 

She curled up on the ground, shivering.  Both from fear and the
cold.  Her traveling blanket and bedroll were long gone.  The long
under pants she wore gave little protection from the elements,
for it was never intended to be worn alone but simply to cover her
legs as she rode in a skirt.   Lothiriel cursed the attacker who
ripped off her skirt.  And the thought of him brought to mind the
rest of the events of the attack.  She closed her eyes trying to
force the thoughts from her mind but was bombarded by images
of death.  Sleep was a long time coming. 

Lothiriel woke with the dawn and began the ride towards Erech. 
Beyond the Hill of Erech was the valley.  And people.  And help. 
She steadied herself with the thought of a farmer greeting her
with open arms before the days end.  The sun had barely risen
into the sky, by the time the huge black stone came into view. 
The Hill of Erech rose up steeply on all sides and atop the hill was
the half-buried black stone.  It was smooth as if someone had
spent long years polishing it.   As Lothiriel rode passed, she
wondered how it came to sit there and she wondered if perhaps it
fell from the sky.

By noon, she approached the valley.  The lands were green and
sloping rising up towards the sheer mountain face.  She could see
the trees planted in orderly rows.  An orchard.  And she sped her
horse to a gallop when she saw the houses in the distance. 

Within minutes, the first house came into view.  But there was no
warm welcome awaiting her.  There was no one there at all.  The
supporting beams and roof still stood but the inside of the house
had been gutted by fire.   She followed the well-worn path that
lead to the other houses and found much of the same.  Not one
house within the valley was inhabited.  Who or what had happened
to the people she didn't know.  But there were no signs of life
except for the green fields that surrounded her. 

Lothiriel dismounted and picked through what remained of one of
the houses.  There was little inside that was salvageable. 
Everything was ash.  Kicking through a pile of ashes, Lothiriel
discovered the burnt remains of a man.  After one glance at what
remained of his body, Lothiriel stumbled out the door of the
house.  There was no help here.  If anything, there was only more
danger. 

Wearily, Lothiriel mounted her horse, with no clear intention of
where to go next.  Then she heard it. 

In the distance sound of voices rang out, yelling identical to the
haunting war cries she'd heard during the attack.    

All the fears of yesterday came back in full force.  Lothiriel rode
as fast as she could away from the voices.  She followed the path
over a bridge that crossed the raging Morthlond River.  The
mountains rose up before her and she raced into the cover of a
ravine that fed the Morthlond.  Slowly her horse picked its way
up the steep slope.  So narrow was the path that the sheer cliff
walls were nearly close enough for her to touch on either side. 
They seemed to rise up so high that they nearly obscured all of
the sun.  It was like riding from day into twilight with a few
steps.  But she urged her horse forward.   Higher and higher they
climbed through the steep ravine until she stopped and
dismounted.

A high-arched gateway lead into a darkened tunnel into the heart
of the mountains.   Lothiriel studied it for some time.  Upon the
gateway was a swirling script she had never before seen.  Her
eyes could not penetrate the darkness of the cave. 

What lay beyond the gateway she did not know,  but she knew
that only danger lay behind her.  The path she was on seemed
well-worn enough.  And it was obvious that men had made the
gateway, so it had to lead somewhere.  Beside the edge of the
gateway was a stash of torches.  Though it took her some time,
she managed to get one lit. 

Giving her horse a gentle urging, Lothiriel rode into the black
depths of the mountain and without realizing it, entered the
Paths of the Dead.

Disclaimer: Recognizable characters and places are owned by JRR Tolkien. This is a non profit story, no copyright infringement intended.
 
Extra note: Jen, the author, has played around with the gender of Prince Imrahil's child Erchirion .