The steel knife was hard and cold against Eowyn’s throat. She froze, but a hand gripped her arm and began to haul her to her feet.
“Up. Get up,” a harsh voice hissed in her ear. “Make no sound, or I kill you. You understand?” She nodded and got to her feet, but her mind was racing. If Faramir were to come back now and be taken by surprise… she thrust the thought aside and focused her mind on something else. The water; the sunset she had just seen; the sweat gathering on her arm underneath where she was being held. Anything. Faramir must not know she was in danger or he would feel it immediately, and respond. And that could be fatal.
She let out a ragged breath and waited. Twilight began to deepen and she could sense her captor’s impatience. What was he waiting for? Her heart shrank with sudden fear – were there others hunting by the river? She shut down her mind again, fearing to draw Faramir to her.
Sudden shouts and cries broke into the silence, and the sound of steel against steel was carried clearly to them from further down the river.
Her captor reacted immediately. Pushing Eowyn forward, he hurried her to where Faramir’s borrowed horse was waiting, pulled up the tether and thrust her into the saddle before climbing up behind her. The animal reared a little, smelling fear and responding to the shouting in the woods, but the man held the beast in check, dug in his heels and galloped off into the dark.
In the half-light Eowyn could see his gauntlets clearly as he grasped the reins – black leather gauntlets, marked with gold and purple. An Easterling. But how could that be possible? No invading force had come near Lossarnach. Yet the man was here; his painfully strong grip was no illusion. She shifted uncomfortably in the saddle.
After riding hard for some time the horse slowed to a walk, halting outside an old farmhouse by a fast-moving stream. It had obviously not been occupied for some time – the thatch was bare in places and the wooden door was crooked on its hinges. The Easterling dismounted quickly, holding out an imperious hand to Eowyn. She almost laughed. This was not a polite offer of assistance, but a determination to keep her under his control.
She slid off the horse, grasping his hand, and landed surefooted on the soft earth. “Now what do you wish?” she murmured. He narrowed his eyes but made no response, pulling her in the direction of the farmhouse.
Once inside he bolted the door, took a length of twine lying on the scrubbed table, cut it in two with his dagger and sat Eowyn on a low settee, tying her feet firmly together. He considered her arms – one still in a sling – but thought better of it and wound the rest of the twine into a small ball, placing it on the table.
This task done he sat in a plain wooden chair, reached for a candle, lit it and placed it next to him where it could throw some light on Eowyn’s face. She, in turn, was able to get her first real look at him: tall and broad-shouldered, his black hair was drawn smoothly into a carved gold band from which it cascaded in a long tail behind him. His clothing was rich – plate armour, gold arm rings and hand-worked hide boots – but all bore the stains of long travel and time in the open.
“Why am I here?” Eowyn asked quietly.
“You do not talk,” he said abruptly. “I, Tibor, will talk. I ask. You answer.” She said nothing. “Who is the man, the soldier?” asked Tibor. “He is your lover, yes?” Eowyn paused, then shook her head. “I see you,” he said. “I see you,’ he repeated, emphasising each word. She felt her heart constrict beneath her gown. So they had been spied upon while they had talked and embraced by the riverbank. Beregond had been right to be anxious. Thank heaven the Easterlings had not acted while Faramir was still with her. Perhaps he was safe…
“Who is the man?” her captor asked again. Stirrings of anger began to rise in Eowyn’s chest; she would not answer him. She turned her head to one side. He asked again, but she remained silent. In one abrupt movement Tibor stood, took a few steps to where she sat and smacked her, hard, across one cheek. She gasped momentarily but did not cry out. Taking a few deep breaths, she turned her face back to his and looked him unswervingly in the eye.
This seemed to interest Tibor, and he sat back down to consider her. “You are not ordinary woman,” he said at last. She raised an eyebrow at this, but did not respond. He stood and walked to a bench by the wall, opened a pack that lay on it and drew out some bread, a few eggs and a handful of spring carrots. The scroungings of a man on the run. He cracked an egg into a bowl, dipped the bread into it and began to eat. Fire was not safe for them, thought Eowyn. It would draw unwelcome attention. She rubbed her cheek gently. There would be a bruise tomorrow.
The sound of footsteps outside startled them both. The Easterling put aside his bowl at once and picked up his long dagger. A voice spoke beyond the door in a language Eowyn did not understand. Her companion relaxed visibly, unbolted the door and opened it.
Another Easterling stumbled inside. Smaller and slighter than Tibor, he was breathing heavily and covered in sweat, blood smeared across one arm. Reaching for a chair he sat down, exhausted. Tibor looked out the door and spoke to him sharply. The newcomer shook his head, answered briefly, then put his head in his hands.
Clearly, thought Eowyn, at least one more was meant to return. She felt a surge of pride but said nothing and looked at the floor, unwilling to do or say anything to provoke the men any further.
The leader – for Tibor was obviously used to giving orders rather than receiving them – walked back to his chair and sat down facing her.
“Your man, he is lucky. Someone help – he kill my men. But he leave you behind. He leave you to me. And I know he is important man. You stay in the lord’s house.” She looked at him warily and he leaned forward. “I decide what happen to you,” he said softly, with an unpleasant smile. Eowyn gripped her hands together, consciously closing her mind to Faramir. Keeping him away; keeping him safe. The movement caught the Easterling’s eye and he noticed the rings on her right hand.
“Husband,” he said at last, considering them. He looked up at her, reached out and shook her roughly by the shoulders. “You will answer me,” he said angrily.
“He is not my husband,” said Eowyn firmly. Tibor brought forward his dagger and held it close to her throat. “I do not believe,” he answered. “You will tell me.”
Eowyn thought carefully. What was safe to say, and what should she conceal? Perhaps it was easiest to tell the truth – without mentioning the Steward of Gondor. “He is a soldier of Minas Tirith,” she said at last. “We hope to marry. He gave me this ring,” she pointed to the slender beryl and diamond band on her finger.
“And the other?” her captor asked, pointing to the larger ring in amethyst and gold that lay on the same finger. “It was my mother’s,” she answered. “Given by my father.”
“I take these rings,” said Tibor bluntly. “They give us freedom, because he is important soldier. No-one touches us when we have them, because they wish to find you. Yes?”
“No,” said Eowyn sharply. Her blood was boiling. She would not hand over the love token of Faramir – or her mother’s long-treasured ring – to some cut-throat Easterling as a bargaining piece. “I will not give them to you.”
Tibor’s dagger repositioned itself close to Eowyn’s heart. “You give them to me, or I kill you,” he said simply. “Or …” he paused, and his eyes roved down her body. He spoke a few words to his comrade, who stood immediately, grinning, and came to his side. In the fraction of a second that Tibor’s attention was distracted, Eowyn acted: praying that her left arm had healed enough to stand the pressure, she jabbed with her elbow hard into the smaller man’s solar plexus, while thrusting fiercely upwards with the flat of her right hand into Tibor’s jaw. In the few moments this gave her she grasped his dagger and cut her leg bonds with a stroke, raising it between them before he could recover himself.
“If you attempt to touch me, I will kill you,” she said evenly. Tibor clenched his fists, but did not move. His companion, however, began to gibber excitedly from where he sat, doubled up on the chair. The Easterling turned and spoke, questioning, and the smaller man nodded vigorously. Eowyn waited. Eyes narrowed, Tibor considered her again. “Your arm. How was it hurt?” he asked. She frowned. Why should this matter? He repeated the question.
“I was hurt in the battle at Minas Tirith,” she said, unwilling to give much away.
“Marbad say you fight,” said Tibor, motioning to his friend. “He say you fight karkut.”
Eowyn was puzzled. “I do not know the word,” she replied, trying to keep the dagger raised and her mind focused on the movements of both men. This was some trick to distract her. She must concentrate.
Tibor thought for a moment, weighing his words. “Karkut has no face,” he said at last. “He led army into battle wearing iron crown and riding a bleshad monster with wings. Marbad say you… you kill him.”
Eowyn felt the colour drain from her face. The Lord of the Nazgul. The horror of the encounter, and the stench of the monster, returned with full force and her left arm began to ache fiercely. With great effort she squashed the memories down; there was work to do first. She gripped the dagger more tightly, her chin raised. Tibor nodded and stepped away, hands raised. Marbad looked terrified.
“Lady, I honour you,” Tibor said suddenly, and bowed low with both hands laid flat on his chest. “We fear him. You do not. We take nothing from you.”
He turned to his companion and spoke briefly. Marbad sidled away from Eowyn towards the kitchen bench, blinking and sweating, hardly daring to take his eyes from her, and refilled the small pack with the few items of food that remained. Tibor poured the contents of a jug on the table into a water bottle, replaced the stopper and barked another command to his comrade. Nodding stiffly to Eowyn, he slung a bag over his shoulder and walked to the door. Sliding the heavy bolt back with a clunk, he strode out without a backward look.
Marbad eased past on the far side of the table and shuffled backwards to the door, keeping Eowyn in view. When he reached the threshold he dropped suddenly to his knees, hands clasped submissively in an attitude of worship. Then he bowed to the ground and departed.
For a moment Eowyn was too shocked to move. Then as the sound of hoofbeats rang out in the night she ran to the door, slammed it shut and rammed the bolt home. She looked about the humble cottage. Alone. Safe. Feeling suddenly weak at the knees she stumbled back to the settee and sat, hands trembling.
It was then she realised the Easterling’s dagger was still in her hands. Full of anger and disgust, she threw it to the floor, then ran a hand across her tired eyes with a sigh. Rest. That was what she needed. Pulling an old musty cushion to one end of the settee, she lay her head upon it gratefully and, amid physical and mental exhaustion, fell asleep almost immediately.