Miriel: Princess of Rohan - 2. RED SUNSET
It was the golden hour before sunset, as deadly quiet as the calm before the storm. It was a normal sort of twilight, with the gathering darkness casting a spell of enchantment over the land and a chorus of crickets singing the world to sleep. Night-owls awoke and stood unseen in the thick branches of the trees, preparing for the evening hunt. The last rays of fading sunlight fell upon the small village tucked away in the hills of the land of Rohan. The workday had ended, and the entire village was still and silent, preparing their meals and resting.
But the swiftly vanishing light caught upon a sudden movement. A lone maiden was stealing out her door, clad in a simple dark dress and a matching cloak made of rough gray material. Miriel dashed up the dusty lane with her mother's words still ringing in her ears, and her light step hardly left a print in the loose dirt. When she reached the crest of the hill where the wild winds blew free and the grasses bent before her feet, the young girl stopped and spread her arms wide, glorying in the swift breeze as she danced upon the hill.
The white flowers sprang softly around her ankles as Miriel twirled and leapt over the sun-tinged hills with her long dark hair flying about her like streamers of gold and shadow. At last, when her exuberance was spent, she flopped down breathlessly in the grass and picked a handful of snow-white flowers for her mother, and she noticed for the first time how the setting sun lit the white balls of dandelion fluff into glowing pixie dust of silver and gold, and the wind waved them back and forth like sparkles of magic that played among the fields. Miriel picked one of the dandelions and blew on it and watched the little white parachutes go floating away on the breeze until they were lost from sight.
Miriel stood up and looked toward the west. She was shocked to see that the clouds burned a deep blood red. A black bank of clouds boiled threateningly on the horizon like sky giants leaping and falling, foreboding a coming storm. The once-gentle wind abruptly changed and blasted fiercely at Miriel, hitting her like a knife and driving before it swarms of dry leaves that clattered across the ground in their wild haste to flee.
Miriel stared at the ominous skies as she climbed to her feet and brushed the grass and stickers from her rough dress. She had never seen such a sunset in her life. Rather than filling her with awe and wonder, as it usually did, her spirit quailed as if she were standing upon the brink of grave danger and facing an unknown dread.
Before Miriel could consider the strange skies any further, she heard a shout behind her. Turning, she beheld three figures wearily trudging up the path that led toward her and the village.
"Father! Brothers!" Miriel cried joyfully, gathering her skirts and rushing down to meet them.
"Miriel, my darling!" greeted her father, catching the girl in his arms. "This is the perfect end to any day!"
Miriel pulled away and gave him a big smile as they headed homeward.
"You worked late again today," she told him, prancing like a fawn at his side.
"Always," replied her father lightly, playfully ruffling her dark, windswept hair.
"Everyone else made it home from the fields over an hour ago," Miriel reproached.
Her father grinned down at her.
"Why do you think we have twice the harvest they do every season? Wheat doesn't grow half so well when you sit cross-legged at home in an easy chair, relaxing and smoking a pipe!"
Miriel laughed merrily.
"But it is hungry labor," added her father, sobering. "Is supper ready?"
"As always," Miriel replied pointedly. "When have you ever known Mother to be late?"
It was her father's turn to laugh. Miriel turned to her brothers with a sly twinkle in her eye and put her hand behind her back. Suddenly she drew forth three shining, dull-bladed swords that had been hidden in her cloak.
"I thought we could get in a little practice before supper," said Miriel, tossing each brother a sword.
"Not a chance," returned the younger of the two. He was a quiet, serious, thoughtful boy who rarely caused any trouble. He quickly tucked the weapon into his belt. "I'm going straight in to eat."
"You're just worried that I'll beat you again, Elidor," teased Miriel. Elidor made no reply, which was typical of him. Miriel often wondered how Elidor could be so calm and passive when she herself, given the same challenge, would have given a fiery reaction to the insult and jumped up bristling, instantly ready for a fight.
Miriel turned from Elidor and looked at her other brother expectantly.
"What about you, Alastar? Are you greatly suffering from lack of food also?"
"And drink," sighed Alastar wearily, but he was smiling. "I guess I could spare a game with you. But just one!" he added quickly.
"All right!" Miriel whooped joyfully. She rushed up to the top of the hill, then lifted her sword and crouched into fighting position. Alastar stopped and faced her with his own sword drawn.
"Don't be long," their father advised as he and Elidor passed them by.
"It shall be a swiftly concluded battle," Alastar promised, swinging his sword so that it whistled through the air.
Miriel raised her eyebrows.
"Oh is that so? That's wishful thinking on your part, Alastar. This fight will be short indeed, but only if you beg for mercy!"
With that she suddenly lunged at him, and Alastar was caught off guard. Alastar barely managed to parry out of the way. The sound of swords clicking together, gay laughter and cheery shouts floated over the village. Brother and sister battled back and forth over the hilltop until both were quite winded. Alastar raised his hand for a temporary truce.
"Peace a minute!" Alastar gasped, leaning wearily on the hilt of his sword.
"All right, I grant you a minute," consented Miriel grudgingly. She backed away and watched her grinning brother while he caught his breath.
"At least I'll wear you out so Elidor can beat you later," panted Alastar.
"What! You? Wear me out?" Miriel cried in mock disbelief. She stepped forward and her gray eyes flashed. "Do you know how hard it is to wear me out? I'm tireless! I'm agile and quick! I could fight all night!" And with that she plunged after Alastar.
"Yeah, but you didn't work in the fields all day," retorted Alastar as he ducked and defended himself. "But your footwork is improving. You're pretty strong, for a girl. I'll give you that."
Alastar flashed a mischievous grin and tried to pull a fake slice on Miriel, and then like lightning he struck from the opposite direction. But Miriel leapt aside and with a sudden twist she threw the sword from his hand. It landed softly in a thick bed of weeds some distance away. Alastar looked startled, and Miriel threw back her head and shouted victoriously. She leaped into the air and pranced lightly around him.
"Alright, you win," conceded Alastar, grinning and lifting his hands in defeat.
Suddenly Miriel stopped and stared down her brother.
" `For a girl'?" Miriel advanced on him, and her sword was still raised. "What do you mean, `for a girl?' I'm just strong! Admit it! I have to be, to keep you two in line!"
"What? You, keep us in line?" gasped Alastar incredulously. "But you're the youngest!"
Miriel lowered her blade, still smirking playfully. "Everyone knows it's the girl's job to make the boys stay out of trouble, no matter how old they are!"
"You'd better watch it!" Alastar cried. He rushed forward and caught her in his arms, pinning her sword harmlessly to her side. Before Miriel could do anything she was hoisted onto his broad shoulder and swung through the air.
Miriel was wildly giddy and full of butterflies at being thus caught off guard.
"Stop it!" she shrieked, and she laughed and hollered to be put down. Alastar spun her until she was dizzy and giggling helplessly. Her long dark hair flew into her face and blinded her.
Abruptly Alastar stopped dead. Miriel's heart caught in her throat as she felt him go still and cold. Alastar stood staring wide-eyed at the western horizon. His hands loosened from her waist, and Miriel slipped shakily to the ground and impatiently pushed her thick mane out of her face.
"What is it? Are you hurt?" she asked, feeling a sudden chill of dread creeping over her as she looked upon Alastar's pale face. Alastar had gone chalk white, and he wordlessly pointed. Then Miriel also turned and looked into the sunset.
A lone rider could be seen against the reddened skies galloping towards them. His green cloak was in tatters and the shreds flew wildly around him. His bay horse looked sweaty and exhausted, but still the man on its back whipped it with might and main to move faster. Miriel saw a great cloud of smoke rising behind the hills.
In a single jump Alastar was running full speed down the lane, and Miriel leapt after him. They shot past silent houses and arrived at the edge of the village as the mysterious rider rushed up to them.
"Orcs! Orcs are coming!" he shouted, pulling his foaming horse to an abrupt halt before Alastar and Miriel. "Don't wait to gather anything. Flee at once! They're burning and slaughtering, and they're not far behind me!"
With that the man spurred the poor beast through the town. Bewildered people poured out of cottages to see what the noise was about. The rider repeated his grim warning as he bolted away and disappeared into the gathering twilight.
Miriel felt as if her breath were stolen away. Everyone knew the stories of bloodthirsty Orcs from Mordor and their terrible cruelties to captives, and the people feared them; but it was generally accepted that the greatest dangers lurked in lands nearer to Mordor, such as Gondor. Rohan had been well protected by its own armies of the Rohirrim, filled with strong, bold, green-cloaked riders of Rohan, and unless Miriel was very much mistaken it was a member of that same company that had just ridden through the town looking as if Sauron himself were chasing him down.
Rohan had also been guarded in part by Saruman, the White Wizard, who dwelt in Isengard. Miriel felt quite safe living in the shadow of the great Tower of Orthanc.
But it seemed that somehow all carefully laid securities had been breached and Orcs were running freely through the land. Miriel could see the cloud of smoke in the western sky growing into a menacing black giant that blotted out the stars. She realized with a flash of horror that it was from other burning villages not far away.
Alastar didn't hesitate for an instant. He dashed toward the stables.
"Miriel!" he yelled over his shoulder. "Get everyone outside! I'll go for the horses!"
Miriel ran for the house and breathlessly burst through the door. Her parents and Elidor had just sat down to a nice, quiet supper, unaware of the commotion. They hadn't even heard the rider racing through the town.
"Orcs!" Miriel cried, choking in her fright. "Someone just rode through and said Orcs are on the way! We must go at once!"
Her mother and father leapt to their feet as one and began frantically snuffing out candles. There were no questions asked; the expression on Miriel's face had been enough. Miriel grabbed their cloaks while Elidor stuffed a shirt of chain mail into a brown cloth bag, crammed along with a few other items he deemed important, and tossed it to Miriel.
"Where's Alastar?" shouted her father as he buckled a sword around his waist.
"Getting the horses!" Miriel hollered back, stumbling through the darkened house to the door. "Let's get out of here!"
The family emerged to find the entire village in pandemonium. People were running in every direction in a mindless panic. A lucky few managed to get on their horses, and they galloped off into the night without delay. Two or three of the bolder folks tried to establish leadership and were loudly shouting orders, but they were completely ignored. Mother's tore after frightened children, screaming their names. Fear choked the air.
Miriel couldn't help but feel that none of this was real. She half expected to wake from the dreadful dream at any moment and find herself in her own bed, drenched in a cold sweat. Miriel pinched her arm and winced in pain.
This was no nightmare.
Suddenly Alastar emerged from the boiling turmoil leading three large horses, the strong, swift beasts that Rohan was famous for. Only one horse wore a saddle; the others were merely bridled.
"Mother! You and Father ride this one." He tossed the reins of the saddled horse to his father. "Elidor, you take Hanskir. Miriel will go with me on Kaspir."
Their father, Elidan, immediately boosted Rowen aboard and climbed on behind her. Elidor stared at Hanskir and frowned doubtfully.
"Hanskir's not saddled," muttered quiet, serious Elidor, and Alastar whirled on him in a desperate rage.
"There's no time!" Alastar hissed. "Just get on, and don't you dare fall off!"
Miriel turned and gazed at the horizon. In the darkness it was hard to see anything beyond the hilltops, but she saw the rising smoke clearly blotting out the stars. Then she saw the crest of the hill vanish, as if a thick black curtain of night were being drawn down over it. The crawling black veil covered the hillside and spread toward the valley, like armies of ants pouring out of their holes and smothering the grass. Miriel's eyes widened in horror.
"Orcs!" she screamed. "They are upon us!"
"Give me your hand!" Alastar yelled, already mounted upon the black horse named Kaspir. Alastar grasped her arm and swept her onto the horse's back, seating her firmly in front of him. Miriel held on to the long mane.
"Let's go!" Alastar cried to the horse. Kaspir bolted, but he had little running room because of all the people that choked the lane. Someone blindly slammed into Kaspir's hindquarters, and the horse reared and plunged, catching the mad terror of those around him. Miriel fought to hold on.
She shouted down instructions and encouragement to the townsfolk.
"Quickly, please! Watch out! Run that way... there's still time!"
But nobody was listening. Everyone raced around, blind to the big horse and deaf to her words. Alastar was trying to calm Kaspir while threading the stallion through the thick crowds at the same time.
"Where is everyone?" asked Miriel all at once, looking up from the terrified stampede of people and glancing wildly about for some sign of her family.
"I don't know," Alastar muttered grimly. "We were separated."
At that moment a woman clutching a rolled blanket to her chest ran up to Miriel and seized her leg with a grip like iron. Her hair was a matted and tangled mess and a crazed light shone in her dark, pleading eyes.
"Please! Please take my baby away from here!" she cried, thrusting the crying bundle up at Miriel. Miriel hesitated. Tears of desperation shone on the woman's gaunt cheeks as she looked back fearfully at the approaching enemy.
"Please!" begged the distraught mother. "Take my baby!"
Miriel felt ready to cry herself. This woman was in as much danger as the child, and her only thought was for her baby's safety. Miriel choked and nodded shortly. She took the warm wriggling baby and held it tightly to her as fiercely and protectively as the poor mother herself would have done.
"I will do everything I can," Miriel promised firmly.
The crazed light dimmed in the mother`s eyes.
"Thank you, thank you," muttered the woman almost hysterically, smiling a little as she stumbled backwards and disappeared into the crowd.
Suddenly a long shriek came from behind Miriel and Alastar and was abruptly cut short. Miriel turned in time to see three houses burst into flame near the end of the lane. One of them was her own. A hoarse cry full of rage exploded from Miriel's throat.
"Don't look back!" shouted Alastar desperately. He gripped her waist firmly. "Whatever happens, Miriel, don't look back." He gave the horse a swift kick and they dashed upward.
Miriel obediently stared straight ahead, clutching the baby and gripping the straining horse beneath her with her knees, but she couldn't ignore the screams or the greedy roaring of flames or the sound of swords. Miriel heard unearthly bellows like the snarls and growls of lions or the snapping of wolves, but far more hideous, and she knew it must be the Orcs. The clamor was deafening. Fear and hate blazed inside her mind like a red fog.
Without warning an arrow whistled by Miriel's head and landed in the dirt ahead of them. Another arrow hit a man on foot, and he fell to the earth a short distance away.
"They're shooting at us!" Alastar yelled. He let go of Miriel's waist and jerked at the reins with both hands to turn the horse and send Kaspir surging ahead.
"Don't look back, Miriel! Just hold on! Run, Kaspir! Fly!"
Alastar found an opening and made for it, shouting at the horse. They burst free of the crowd and Kaspir broke into full gallop, bearing them to the edge of the village. Alastar gave a choked groan and fell silent, but Miriel was crying out in glee and urging Kaspir faster. The deafening noises of war faded behind her. Escape was very near.
Suddenly Miriel felt her back grow cold with the wind. She turned with a startled gasp. The space behind her was empty. Alastar wasn't there!
"Alastar!" shouted Miriel in terror, gathering the loose reins in her own hands and pulling Kaspir around hard. She glanced wildly in every direction, but she could see no sign of him.
"Alastar! Alastar!" Miriel screamed, driving her horse back among the swells of running people. "Where are you, Alastar? Alastar! Answer me!"
Miriel fought to control her horse, which was plunging in fear of fire and foes as they were caught in a stampeding tide of men, women and children. Kaspir's flailing hooves caught someone in the head. The victim fell and disappeared beneath a thousand feet. Miriel clutched at Kaspir's mane and neck and held on grimly to the wailing baby as she was thrown about helplessly.
"Kaspir! Stop it!" she cried to the horse in desperation, yanking at his reins and pulling him to the ground. "Alastar! Alastar, where are you?"
A scattered hail of arrows flew around them. Miriel looked up and saw black shapes silhouetted against the angry orange glare of the fires. It was the first time Miriel beheld the creatures of which she had heard so many dark tales. Little did Miriel know it would not be the last.
The Orcs were more animal than human, for their evil natures had corrupted everything about them, even their bodily forms. Their red eyes glowed in the darkness with a murderous gleam as they relentlessly pursued the fleeing townsfolk.
But Miriel refused to leave without her brother. She called his name over and over and searched among the running villagers. The Orcs were getting very close, and still Miriel stubbornly drove an unwilling Kaspir deeper into the village.
Suddenly Miriel screamed. Cold iron claws gripped her calf and tried to wrench her from the horse's back. An Orc had a hold on her, and Miriel swept the baby out of reach even as she looked in horror upon an Orc for the first time. Miriel kicked out wildly and caught him in the jaw. He gave a roar of pain and loosened his hold, and Miriel tore her leg away. Kaspir immediately wheeled and raced up the lane, heedless of Miriel's cries or commands, no longer obedient to the reins. He had had enough. The terrified animal galloped hard and bore Miriel from the midst of her kinsfolk, ignoring the screams of the wounded and the dying, not caring that he trampled them underfoot as he carried his rider out of the fires and clouds of smoke and into the far hills.
Miriel tried with all her might to control the runaway horse. She kicked at him and fought his head. She screamed and shouted. She pulled and yanked at the reins. She nearly dropped the baby in her arms in the midst of her panic, but she remembered him at the last moment and clutched him to herself as she desperately maintained her balance and somehow stayed on Kaspir's back as the horse tore away from danger.
Miriel gave one last futile pull on the reins, but it was no use. Kaspir blew past everyone and raced alone into the star-pricked night.
At last Miriel gave up trying to turn Kaspir. The blazing village faded behind them as they ran. Miriel looked back helplessly one last time as it disappeared over the horizon, and she had a brief glimpse of the town that had once been her home completely engulfed in flames.
Her vision blurred. Miriel buried her head in the straining sweating neck and hid in the billowing black mane and sobbed brokenly as the cold wind flowed over her. She whispered her brothers' names into the indifferent darkness. The peaceful silence was almost worse than the attack itself. It gave Miriel enough respite to think, and the only thing Miriel wondered was whether or not her family was still alive.
She didn't want to believe that they might be dead. She refused to even consider the possibility. But she remembered Alastar's choked groan, and the cold wind on her back, and clamped down on her imagination. It couldn't be true. They had to be out there somewhere, alive. Hot tears rolled down Miriel's cheeks, and she blindly touched the ring that her mother had given her only hours before.
They couldn't die. They couldn't leave her here in Middle-earth all alone...
There are some cliffhanger chapters coming up, and if you don't want to wait for me to get around to posting it all, then go to www(dot)talesofmiddleearth(dot)com and download the free ebook: Miriel: Princess of Rohan.