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The End of All Things: 1. The End of All Things
Everyone in here belongs to the Tolkien heirs. I just borrowed them. Nobody is paying me for this story (Heck!) , except, hopefully, in reviews.
This is probably the darkest story I’ve ever written, and I apologize beforehand should it cause anyone distress. It is an AU, an attempt to write about the last charge of our heroes in a universe where Sauron had succeeded in obtaining the one ring, written from Éomer’s perspective. While it is in no way explicit, I would recommend that you don’t read this if you’re depressed or having an otherwise bad day! Reviews will be much appreciated!
A huge „Thank You!“ goes to NeumeIndil for betaing!
THE END OF ALL THINGS
So, this was the end. This was how it felt. For all these dark years that had passed, Éomer had been wondering how he would know when it was finally over and all resistance futile, and how that knowledge would feel. He had wondered whether he would still be around when it came, or if an orc-spear or the teeth of a warg would have ended his life long before that dreadful day. Now that it had finally arrived, it felt like a curse that he would have to witness the doom of mankind, but that was not all. His fate seemed even crueller than that: it had doomed him to be the last king of the Mark, the one ruler who would have to tell his kinsmen that darkness inescapable was on their doorstep, and that how they would meet it was their decision. Whether they wanted to meet it head-on, swords, axes and lances in hand to take with them as many of their foes as possible, or denying the hostile army the pleasure of killing them by drinking the draught of death which was right now being prepared by their healer in the marketplace. A grim, joyless smile briefly tugged at the young king’s lips as he pondered the paradoxical implications of a healer passing death.
He was the last king of the Mark. A ruler history would never know because after today, nobody would be left to sing the songs of his deeds. A ruler only for five days.
How had it all gone wrong?
Was there a different path they could have travelled which would have led to triumph? A different strategy? Perhaps if Gondor and Rohan had gathered their forces to guide the two Halflings to Mount Doom and destroy Isildur’s bane instead of sending them into the Dark Lord’s realm alone, they would have succeeded? Perhaps a different strategy on the Pelennor Fields would have thrown the enemy back?
Musing about it was vain, Éomer decided. The free people had failed, fate was about to claim them, and Middle Earth was about to fall into darkness. There was no more defying the Dark Lord’s power. With the master ring back on his finger, Sauron’s power had increased to the point where not even all armies of men and elves combined would be able to withstand him. The foul brood directed by his will would sweep over them like a rockslide, and it would come at them from both the east and the west, where the traitor Saruman was breeding ever more of his fearsome Uruk-hai.
Éomer could hear them where he sat, their deep growling chants of war. The earth shook under the impact of thousands upon thousands of spears being pounded on the ground in a steady, pulsing rhythm of anticipation. They were filling the plains around Edoras for as far as the eye could see, stamping the green meadows and soiling the ground of the Mark wherever they moved, killing everything in their path, be it beast or man. Those who had been fortuitous enough to flee from their army in time now sat trapped in Edoras, an island of survivors amid an ocean of evil, only protected by a wooden fence and gates which would not hinder the onslaught of their enemies for longer than a few blows of their battering rams. The singing and pulsing had been going on for two days now without interruption, ever since the first host had arrived on the tail of the last refugees, and their master’s spreading darkness had blotted out the sun.
Éomer knew why they had not yet attacked, and the thought filled him with rage. This was mankind’s last stand, and the Dark Lord wanted to savour the taste of his triumph for as long as possible. They were already defeated, but the actual act of vanquishing his foes would be the sweeter the longer he waited. The atmosphere was saturated with fear and terror, and its smell was overpowering, watering the foul creatures’ mouths. The dams of their foes’ restraint would break soon, and then evil would flood into the city of kings like a disease.
Éomer intended for there to be nothing left for them to take when that happened. He could not prevent the death of his people, but none of them or their possessions would fall into the hands of the enemy. Once the last host of men rode through the opened gates to meet its fate, the city would be burnt to the ground. As he sat now by the bed of his deceased uncle in these last moments of solitude before seeking a warrior’s death together with the others, people all across the city were lighting fires and spreading hay in the buildings and dousing it with oil. Rohan would vanish in a fiery blaze of their own making; its destruction would not be something the Foul One would be able to claim as one of his deeds, and once his brood entered the lonely mountain, they would find nothing but ash. It was not much of a satisfaction, but indeed the last act of defiance open to them.
A sharp knock interrupted his train of thought, and a moment later, the door opened and Éowyn stood in its frame, her face a mask of calm, but her eyes telling the full tale of the horror of these last days.
"Éomer, it is time. The city has been prepared, and the people are taking the draught." Her throat tightened dangerously speaking these words, and for a moment, wetness glittered in her dark blue eyes at the thought of the hundreds of women and children dying at this moment. "The others are ready to ride, too." She swallowed and stepped closer, silent tears running down her face as her gaze came to rest on the still form of Théoden-King on the bed. "Oh Éomer, how could it have come to this?" She fell into his open arms, choking on desperation, and he held her tight and closed his eyes against the onslaught of his own emotions.
For a while, brother and sister just stood there, silently seeking comfort in the other’s presence and revelling in it for the last time. As a true Rohirrim, Éomer had never questioned the existence of another realm after death, and yet now that their death was imminent, he could not help doubting whether he would see Éowyn again once the Ghost Horse had carried them both up to the halls of their ancestors. Death was but a doorway, a portal. Soon, they would be reunited with their parents, and their uncle, and Théodred, too. He had to believe it. It was something to embrace now, not something to doubt. All this he told her, whispering into her ear, and gradually, the shaking of the slender body in his arms subsided. Éowyn’s face was still wet as she lifted her head, but the expression of doom was fading from her eyes.
"Aye, brother, you are right. Let’s let them wait no longer. They may already be expecting us." Her slender fingers caressed his cheek.
"Be strong, Little Bird." He kissed her brow. "It is but a short moment of pain that separates us from them. It is the pathway we all must take." Holding her for a moment longer, Éomer was relieved to see conviction replace desperation in the dark blue eyes before him. "Are you ready?" She nodded. "Then let us say our farewells."
Turning away from her, he stepped over to the head end of the bed, where he dropped to his knees, and his gaze came to rest on his uncle’s pale face.
"Forgive me, Uncle, that I could not change our people’s fate. I am trying to do now what seems best for them. The enemy will not lay their hands upon them. We shall go out in a blaze of defiance, and all of us shall meet in the next realm soon, released from fear and suffering." Stroking Théoden’s cold brow, Éomer stood up. "Soon, our family shall be reunited. Wait for us at the gates, Uncle. We are coming. It won’t be long now." With a deep breath, he stepped back, and it was Éowyn’s turn to say her farewell.
"My heart is glad at the thought of seeing you again, Uncle. Tell Théodred that we are coming, and Mother and Father, too. We will leave these dark days behind us." With a kiss on the dead king’s brow, she came to her feet, and Éomer was proud to see the expression of calm readiness on her face. "Let us go brother. They have waited for us long enough."
When he stepped out of the armoury, adorned in full mail and cuirass for the last time with Éowyn by his side, the enormity of what they were about to do finally settled in Éomer’s mind, and his throat tightened at the sight of his younger sister in armour. His entire life he had fought to protect her, and now she would at last ride to war with him, and to her death. Given the choice between the draught and battle, she had chosen the battle, even if the valour proven would remain unknown. The thought of her pierced with arrows and hewn to pieces sickened Éomer, but that last choice in life was something every man and every woman had to make for themselves. He was not about to dictate it.
As they entered the throne room together, Éomer’s heart overflowed with gratitude at the sight of the people who would ride to their doom with them. The room was crowded, and where the Golden Hall’s doors stood open, he could see even more of his kinsmen standing outside. Most of Edoras’ men would accompany him in their last charge, only leaving few behind to set fire to the huts where the women and children were already sleeping the eternal sleep, their souls on the way to the green pastures of their ancestors. It was an end in all dignity, a proud exiting of this world.
Ascending the three steps of the dais to his throne, Éomer’s gaze briefly went over the banners behind him on the wall, and a sudden impulse directed his feet there. A hard tug was enough to let the ancient banner of Eorl the Young float down into his hands, and the crowd behind him gasped as he lifted it up.
"My kinsmen! The day has come when the horns of Eorl’s sons will sound for the last time. For the last time, the ground will shake beneath the hooves of our horses, and the air will ring with our battle-cries. We are not enough to defeat the enemy, but we will meet them head-on and fearless nonetheless, teaching them that they may be able to take our lives, but never will they be able to take away our dignity. Do not fear the darkness, because our ride goes not to doom, but to the realm of our ancestors, where no evil shall ever set foot. The time of suffering will end, and all of you shall soon be reunited with the family members you lost, in a better life than this. I will ask you now to unsheathe your swords with me, and to teach the enemy to fear us for the last time!" He lifted his hand, and Gúthwine sparkled above his head in the flickering light of the torches as he cried:"Hail the Mark and its people!"
A thunderous shout from hundreds of voices answered him.
Éomer’s gaze swept the front line as he felt the excitement of battle overtake him once again. Aragorn and the dwarf Gimli, and Legolas the elf, stood side by side with his friend and mentor Elfhelm, and Gamling the Old, and Éothain, and the two Halflings who had escaped the slaughter of Minas Tirith together with them. Though only of half the mens’ height, they held their short swords lifted into the air, too, and their expressions were as fierce and proud as those of the renowned warriors surrounding them.
"And hail to the last king of Gondor and his people who have followed him here! Hail, King Elessar!"
"And hail to all the representatives of the free people, who joined us in battle and gave their lives in defence the world we all shared; Elves, Dwarves and Halflings alike. May they all find the way to the halls of their ancestors and a life better than the one they are leaving behind."
After the last shout of defiance, it suddenly became very quite in the great hall; so quiet in fact, that the steady rhythm of their enemies’ song again seeped into the room, and Éomer found himself looking into solemn, frightened and yet expectant faces. There was but one thing left to say now.
"My friends and kinsmen… in this dark hour I am honoured to ride with you. After today, there may be none left to remember your last act of courage in this realm, but the gods will see it, and it shall not be in vain." With a deep intake of breath, his voice low but carrying, he said: "Let us not keep our enemy waiting."
The long line of mounted warriors and foot-soldiers descended the lonely hill in silence, walking toward a flickering sea of torches outside the city walls that was so vast, their number rivalled the stars in the sky. The atmosphere was a strange mix of gloom, pride and expectation, with none speaking as they approached the still closed city gates. The Evil One’s darkness had swallowed the sun above their heads, but the fires laid to the huts they passed clawed angrily at it and forced it back, shedding the last light this land it would ever see. The banner of Eorl wrapped around his upper arm to carry with him into battle, Éomer shifted in his saddle as the roar of flames erupted from behind, and the ancient Hall of Kings blazed; a beacon, a sign of their unyielding pride for leagues and leagues into the night. The sight of it was terrible and fascinating at the same time, and it seemed to Éomer that he was riding through a dark dream, not reality as he stared behind him. When he was finally able to avert his eyes from the inferno, he met Éowyn’s gaze to find his own emotions mirrored. So this was truly the end.
The heat was intense and the stench thick as they passed silently through the burning streets, and yet neither horses nor men seemed to mind as they approached the open place at the city’s lowest level, right behind the wooden gates. Despite the fires around them, Firefoot and the other horses remained calm underneath their masters, and Éomer asked himself whether his steed knew that they would not return from this last charge. Laying a hand on the stallion’s mighty shoulder in a gesture of farewell, he prayed inwardly that the grey one’s end would be quick.
Tension rose as their host moved into the marketplace, and with a barely noticeable tug on the reins, Éomer brought his steed to a halt just in front of the closed gates. Behind him, men filled the vast space. They formed no strategic battle formation, except for the first row. To his right was Éowyn, frightened, but ready to face destiny. To the left, Aragorn had halted Brego and returned his gaze, the shadow of a melancholic smile on his face as he regarded his brother-in-arms.
"It was an honour to ride with you, Éomer son of Éomund," the Gondorian ruler said with a slight bow. "I would that our friendship had lasted longer and weathered this storm, but in this hour of the wolves it is comfort enough for me to ride together with my friends and the sons of Eorl. I firmly believe that you spoke rightly when you said the Valar would bear witness of our last great deed. They will punish the Dark Lord and expel his evil ghost for all eternity. Darkness will not prevail, brother. Our death will not be in vain."
"Even if our friendship was forged in evil times, it outshines all darkness, brother. Let our last ride be the cause for the gods to partake in this war, and thus save all the folk who have not been extinguished yet." Éomer lifted his chin, and his eyes glowed with pride in the flickering twilight as he extended his hand to Aragorn, who took it.
A moment passed, and all that words could not say was exchanged by way of expression alone, and when at last they parted, both men were content. Éomer lifted his hand, his eyes going up to where his kinsmen awaited his signal to open the gate.
"Let the horns of the Éorlingas sound for the last time!"
A deep, many-voiced sound answered him as the great horn at the gates, as well as the warriors’ horns around him, rang out, reverberating in the air and even drowning out the evil chant and stomping from outside. It sent a chill down Éomer’s spine as he lowered his lance into attacking position, and when it ended, the armies fell to utter silence. No other sound was to be heard than the roar of the burning city. Their enemy’s singing had stopped. And then, suddenly, a clear voice began to sing an ancient battle-song behind them, lonely at first, it rose into the darkened sky, but soon picked up as man after man joined its uprising melody until the entire host was singing. Éomer’s hand fell.
"Open the gates!" Turning to his right, he spoke over the creaking and moaning of the old mechanism and the rousing song with an expression of confidence: "Fear not, Éowyn. I will see you on the other side."
And as they spurred their steeds together, at last joining in the ancient melody, she smiled.
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