My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Twilight of the Gods: 10. A Conflict of Interests Part 1
Éomer’s voice was tense when he looked into the dressing room to see if she was ready for the all-deciding council. Which she was, Lothíriel decided upon checking her look in the mirror, but not necessarily for the fit of the stately clothes she wore, but for her bearing. Her expression. Inside, she was frightened of the prospects of what would come out of the discussion of all these great men of war that would be attending. Frightened by the prospects of the confrontation with the Lord of Westfold. Erkenbrand would attack Éomer, even if he was king, and she was uncertain whether her temperamental husband would be able to fend off the marshal’s accusations with the bidden rationality. In any case, it was clear to her that the council had the potential of turning very ugly very quickly, even if they had decided that they would not mention her vision. It was something none of the warriors would be able to accept.
“The members of the council have arrived. Are you ready?”
Tugging at her immaculate dark-green and heavily embroidered velvet gown, Lothíriel turned around, her features a perfectly bland mask of indifference, a mask she was determined to keep for the duration of the council. If they wanted for the meeting to go their way, they had to appear convinced and unafraid.
“I am, my lord.” She held out her arm for him, and he seized it, telling her with a short glance how much he appreciated the support she had decided to demonstrate through her presence at the council, even if it would only be silent. “Let us not keep them waiting.”
A thin smile.
“You look wonderful, Lothíriel. A true queen, not only of my heart.”
She was too surprised by his passionate statement for a reply, but then found she needed none for he pulled her into a tight embrace to kiss her. When they separated, she caught a glimpse of the same dread she felt in his eyes, and she held on to him for a moment longer, ignoring the servant who was waiting for them further down to open the door to the throne room and announce their presence.
“You are the true King of Rohan, Éomer. You are doing what must be done, and you will rise to become one of the greatest kings the Mark has ever had with this. Today, you will lay the foundations of a peace our land has never experienced before. Show them what you are made of, heir of Eorl!” Their lips met in another passionate kiss, this time initiated by her.
“Your ability to give great speeches is fast becoming frightening, my queen,” Éomer then smirked, finally steering them over to the waiting servant while battling his own anxiety. Fighting to make it disappear from his face and his stance. He winked. “If it would not be viewed as a sign of weakness by my marshals, I would let you lead the council!”
She smiled back at him, and for a moment, everything was good and what they were about to do impossibly far away. Then Éomer turned to the servant and nodded for him to open the door and announce them.
“Hail Éomer and Lothíriel, King and Queen of Riddermark!”
The assembled council rose as the royal couple strode down the aisle towards them, to decide the further fate of the Mark…
The Council of Minas Tirith could not be summoned until five days later when all sentinels had delivered the invitations. None of the noble men of Gondor had been in the city at this time of year, for they all had to watch over the peasants working for them on their feudal tenures.
The harvest of corn, rye, and hop had begun, not to mention the fruits and vegetables, which were brought to the city on large wagons. The vassals of the last war were busily trading with the farmers from South Gondor and Dol Amroth. Minas Tirith had become again the main market place at the great roads crossing from south, west, and north. Strangers filled the paved streets, yelling at those blocking the main way into the first ring. Carts and horses crowded the places, and the women at their stands cried out with disgust when one of the mighty steeds crushed its hindquarters into the vegetables. The guards had to end some of the haggling with harsh words, and before dusk they had thrown out some men, who were too eager to empty the inn of its beer.
The city was humming with activity, and every hour more people seemed to pour in through the gates. Those who could not find a proper stand within, swapped or sold their goods outside, praising their quality. They all concentrated so much on their businesses that even the lords, who arrived around midday, found it hard to force their way in. The guards tried ineffectively to help since the carts blocked every path. It took them time and sweat to allow Lord Iranelion and the two men of his company to ride up to the fountain and from thereon into the second ring which was less crowded. Lord Ligatis and Lord Tóren followed swift, riding up with their escort to the second and third ring.
From above the Embrasure Aragorn watched the arrival of the lords and their men. After the morning hours when he had sat in judgement upon some citizens, who had quarrelled with their neighbours, and a trader, who had sold leather that another man had claimed his own, the king had retreated to the Citadel. Now he knew that the pleasant time was passing fast. He could see Iranelion's strong-legged steed climbing up to the fourth ring, and the man riding it seemed to match his horse in stature and attitude. Aragorn's lips twitched. Iranelion had been among the close friends of the late Steward of Gondor, and since Denethor's death the lord had not rested to utter his complaints about the new reign. He would never have done so openly, but Prince Faramir had been listening by chance to the lord's rancour in some cases. Since the Council of Noble Men from Gondor was a tradition unbroken for centuries, the king could neither deny nor ignore its existence.
“Lord Aragorn?” Faramir, dressed in a dark-blue jerkin over a matching tunic and trousers, came up to the king. “Lord Iranelion will arrive shortly.”
“I just saw him.”
Faramir followed the older man's gaze. Iranelion spurred his horse along the slope to the fifth ring. His round, reddened face was covered with sweat, and he looked annoyed beyond words. The prince turned to his king.
“Would you like me to summon the other men, my lord?”
Aragorn could not help smiling though the task ahead seemed comparable to the wrestling with a boar. - A task he would have preferred to do.
“Faramir, my friend, on how many occasions shall I repeat myself that there is no need to call me other than by my name?”
“It shall be as you wish, my…” Faramir smiled sheepishly when Aragorn was about to correct him again. “Shall the Council begin as soon as the lords have arrived?”
The king but raised his hand shortly.
“Tell me about Vlohiri, please, since I have not seen him for quite a while.”
Faramir could quickly guess the intention to delay the meeting for another half-hour, but he gladly reported about the boy's progress in learning while in the background of the Citadel the chamberlain escorted the lords to the first floor of the White Tower.
“If he continues to learn at this pace I will not be able to teach him any more when another year will have passed. He never feels tired, it seems to me. And he never complains that he did not understood what I told him.” The prince's smile vanished when he continued, “But he does not learn for himself. And he did not take up the toil for me, either. I am but a tool, the teacher he needs. He respects me since I am the one, who has the knowledge to educate him, but… I suppose his eagerness is based on a clear intention.” The men exchanged glances. Aragorn finally broke the eye contact by looking over the city seven hundred feet below.
“What else does he do?”
“I saw him with Hiregon the smith at the Royal Stables.” Another fast-fading smile followed. “If he learns to shoe a horse as quickly as he has learned everything else, Hiregon will take him in as a new apprentice.”
“That would not be my intention,” Aragorn replied, but his tone indicated he was only teasing.
“Vlohiri's love for horses is clearly your merit,” Faramir added and, finally, earned a smile from the king. “He befriended Brego and, as I heard, Rohyren, too.”
“He did?” Now the king's smile broadened. “Who sent him to the stables?” The prince cast his eyes down. “I see.”
“He needed something different from the lessons in history, Aragorn,” Faramir continued. “The stable-boys are a friendly company, too. Vlohiri gets restless from time to time. And I thought it would be a good idea to let him do something with his hands.” His gaze travelled to the entrance of the tower. The chamberlain fidgeted already. The prince assumed that the lords were not happy about the king's being late. “And it might be a good idea to begin with the Council now.”
From the place at the Embrasure to the entrance of the conference room Aragorn managed to change his expression from refusal to equanimity. Upon entering the warm and sun-flooded room with its long table, made of dark wood, in its middle the lords raised from their seats, shoving the chairs behind them. The king faced them with a short nod and took his place at the head of the table with Faramir standing to his left. After the greeting they sat down. Wine, water, and ale had been served, and the chamberlain put a goblet of water in front of the king and the prince before he retreated to his place at the door to be present when his service was needed.
Aragorn looked from Lord Iranelion's still reddened face to the stout, bearded features of Lord Ligatis. The old man held his stare without flinching. Ligatis, as well as Iranelion had earned his lands and status long years before the king had returned to the White City.
Ligatis was the oldest member of the Council, a voice heard throughout the city and the land, and his deeds for the late steward were well known among the men present. More than a year ago, when the king had sat in judgement upon Lady Saborian and her son, Ligatis had shaken his head over the king's decision to show mercy. Though Sadur was Denethor's bastard son, he had not understood the king's strange action, which would – in his eyes – lessen the king's respect among the common herd. He had stressed his opinion more than once and with fierce arguments – one saying that everyone now was encouraged to abduct the king for his own purposes –, but, as it had turned out, the ruler had not listened to him. After that incident at the Council Ligatis had decided to leave the White City for good and only return from his lavish lands for a meeting like this. But his thoughts were with the peasants working on the fields. Without the owner's orders they might dawdle and neglect their work. Ligatis was eager to return home. He wiped his forehead with his thin-skinned hand. Outdoors it would not be that hot, too.
Opposite to Ligatis the third important member of the Council had sat down. Lord Tóren, a dour-handed man with experience in warfare as well as in pressing grapes, eyed the king with keen brown eyes which sparkled lively under thick dark brows. Tóren was tall, but slender, his face the very image of a hawk. Against the unwritten rules he did not wear the colours of Gondor for this meeting but dark-red and gold on his tunic and trousers. His family owned one of the biggest vineyards in Ithilien, and he had made a fortune by selling the wine to the southern lands. The sentinel Aragorn had sent had found him among the grape plants and had been quite astonished that the lord himself was working in the vineyard. Tóren smiled upon the memory. The villagers had had needed time to get acquainted with the landowner's behaviour, but by now it was a common picture to them to see Lord Tóren in plain clothes, speckled with grape juice, while he checked the grapes. He leant back and waited patiently for the king's report.
Aragorn thanked the lords for their coming and got straight to the subject.
“The Easterlings, my lords, have built up tents west of Dagorlad. There are probably a hundred, but it might be less. The gathering could indicate that they search for new land to live on, but it is not clear. They brought a herd of livestock which origin I do not know. The night we watched them they held a kind of meeting in one of the tents, and some weapons and banners could be seen on the outside. It appears there are more women than men in that camp, and they did not wear armour set aside one man. In my eyes it was no muster of belligerent soldiers.”
“How many men and women are waiting there?” Ligatis asked with a voice that was high due to his age.
“I cannot tell. There was only little movement. But a hundred tents could mean three hundred people. Since they are organised in tribes it might be two families or three.”
“Not more?” Lord Iranelion asked and put down his goblet to tap his thick fingers on its base. “Could it not be a lot more people? Soldiers you did not see? Maybe their armour lay hidden somewhere?”
“The messengers I sent out before reported of no more than a hundred people. My assumption might even be too high.” Aragorn held the man's stare. “Since there are more women than men in that area I suppose they are not mustering troops for an attack.”
Snorting, Ligatis leant forward on the table, and his eyes were mere slits when he fixed his gaze upon the king again.
“Not mustering troops for an attack?” he echoed, and his grey beard trembled. “I was told otherwise, my Lord Aragorn!”
“And who might this man have been who talked to you in other terms than the king?” Aragorn asked and his voice bore a superiority which stressed his status.
Ligatis cocked his head.
“You very well know that man, my liege. Captain Fáred reported to me shortly before we met, and his report included the fact that they did not only built up tents west of Dagorlad – and rather close to Ithilien's border – but also stole innumerable horses in the settlements of our northern lands. It is very easy to imagine the purpose the stolen horses will serve. They will weaken us and make them faster! They will cross the border soon and slaughter our people!”
“The number of horses remained quite countable,” Aragorn replied sternly. The other nobles reacted with murmurs and agitation. The king had to raise his voice to be heard. “And even if the Easterlings can be accused of the thefts – which was only proved in one case – this still is no argument for an impending raid on Ithilien. And truly not of any impending doom of the settlers. Since the Easterlings are not horsemen but infantry they might one use them as packhorses if the accusation proves true in the end.”
“And the beast?” Lord Ligatis interposed louder to drown out the arguments along the table. He was successful; the men fell quiet again.
“A beast?” Lord Tóren echoed with disgust. “What are you talking about, Ligatis? This is no children's play here.”
“What I am talking about here,” Ligatis stressed looking sternly to Lord Tóren, “is that some beast has attacked herds in that region. It may have devastated whole populations of pigs, goats, and what else we do not know! And we also do not know if it is alone or will soon appear in larger numbers!”
“Hold it!” Aragorn interrupted loud enough to make the chamberlain tremble with surprise. He raised his hand to quieten the immediate protests. “My lords, we should always fight exaggeration wherever and whenever it occurs. I visited the settlements along the border and in the north, and the herds looked very alive to me. All the settlers had to report were a few killed pigs. Nothing else.”
“And would that not be enough to be alarmed?” Ligatis asked slyly.
The king stood fast and lowered his hand again.
“I intend to send some hunters to that region to search for the beast, but that is not our main focus here.”
“It is since the Easterlings might have sent these beasts to terrify our people!”
“This has not been proven in any case,” Aragorn objected stern-faced.
“So what has been proven?” Iranelion shoved his empty mug to the middle of the table where it came to a clattering halt. “Do we need reinforcements? Are the Easterlings moving? And what kind of animal is it? A wolf or… what?”
Aragorn knew what Iranelion wanted. He could see that at least Ligatis agreed with him.
“We do not know what kind of beast it is,” he repeated. “It will be taken care of. And with this the argument is settled.”
“It might be a Warg!” Iranelion nodded to himself. “I saw many of them. The leaders of the Orcs were riding them on their attack on the Pelennors. Some might have gone astray, and now they attack the settlements for prey!”
“Wargs have not those claws the villagers described.” Aragorn tried to remain calm, tried to understand the noble men's concerns since their lands could be in danger. But his patience had limits. “We might be dealing with an animal that is yet unknown, but the hunters will find its tracks. And the beast, if it is still there.”
“Then what about the Easterlings?” Tóren leant forward and set his hawk-eyes on the king. “The reports look inconsistent to me.”
“Only regarding the number of horse-thefts, I might say,” Prince Faramir answered with silent agreement of the king.
“Oh, not only in those numbers, my young prince.” Ligatis raised his index finger. “Captain Fáred made it quite clear that there is no good to be expected from such an extraordinary movement so close to the border. It can only mean...”
“It is no army,” Aragorn stressed and his austere look made clear he would not tolerate further arguments leading into that direction.
“Then what? The Easterlings are nomadic, are they not? Then why should they build up a whole settlement of tents in one area where – if I may say so – no plants or grass or springs are known?” Ligatis shook his grey-haired head distinctively. “As any reasonable man would know, it is foolish to assume that they have changed their way of living within the past two years and are now about to settle down on infertile grounds.” He waved his bony hand. “Women or not… there is only one way to answer this threat.”
“Women were involved in the fighting at the Morannon,” Lord Tóren nodded and immediately caught the other men's attention. “I saw them fight. They were mostly archers, fought in the second row, never in the first. But I would not dare say that it is impossible for them to plan an attack on Ithilien since the eastern borders are less than protected. It might look like an invitation.”
“Right what I say.” Ligatis let his hand fall flat on the table and faced the king again. “Let us answer to the threat with the means at hand!”
The king could now hardly conceal his anger.
“And what would that be, Lord Ligatis?”
The prince let his gaze wander from Aragorn to Ligatis, whose sly expression had even deepened. The lord pursed his lips, and Faramir knew exactly what the old man would say.
“Let the captain and a squadron ride out to meet them. Show that rebellious people the place where they belong!”
“You imply to attack the Easterlings on their own ground?” Prince Faramir asked sceptically.
Lord Ligatis seemed close to spitting on the table.
“My young prince, what else could I have meant? A friendly conversation? An exchange of court rules? They might be even too stupid to understand our language!”
Lord Tóren hid his smile behind his hand, Lord Iranelion snorted while the other men at the table remained silent.
“I do not think that I like your tone,” Aragorn interfered glaring at the old man. “Have I to remind you that you are addressing the Prince of Ithilien, Lord Ligatis? Or are the rules of this house not known to you?”
“And with due respect, your highness,” the old man answered with a mocking bow, “I say that the late ruling Steward of Gondor would have followed my proposal without…”
“There is no need to mention the late steward, Lord Ligatis,” Faramir interrupted through clenched teeth, “since the land is now ruled by the legal King of Gondor!”
“Faramir, calm down,” the king said quietly in Sindarin, and the prince nodded curtly. Aragorn turned to Ligatis again. “Any action taken beyond our own borders at this time would damage our interests and violate the rights of this people.”
“You mean, King Elessar, that there is no action taken against this muster?” Lord Tóren asked, truly astonished.
“It is no muster, and I do not say we will do naught. But I do not propose to raise the whole army. The men are needed on the fields. Many soldiers returned to their families after the war and are now helping with the harvest. Calling them back at this moment would slow down that process, a fact that we cannot neglect. A fact that you cannot neglect, my lords. We need every available man to get our people prepared for the winter.”
“There are enough soldiers under arms,” Ligatis hissed. “Enough to get rid of this threat in weeks.”
“And if there are more women than men, all the better,” Lord Iranelion assisted, shrugging his mighty shoulders.
“I will not send any squadron to the north.” Aragorn looked from one man to the other, disgusted by the all too quick decision to invade another people’s land. “What I have already done is place dispatch-riders with fast horses along the border. The first group left two days ago. Another will follow soon. That way we will get news of any movement in a shorter time. And the squadrons in the City and at Osgiliath received orders to get ready.”
“That will be all?” Lord Iranelion frowned. “My lord, now it might be three hundred, but if they gather quick enough they will overrun Ithilien within weeks!”
“I do not see this imminent danger, my lord. It seems impossible that they have already recovered from their losses at the end of the war.”
Lord Iranelion quickly exchanged glances with Lord Ligatis. The older man spoke.
“Though you do not want to hear it, my liege,“ he said lowly and with a politeness that was as cold as spring-waters in winter, “but the Council's voice had once been ignored. That shall not happen again, for the fortune of all of us.“
Faramir took a deep breath before answering.
“And though your status in this Council allows you to utter your opinion, Lord Ligatis, it is still the king's decision what shall happen in this land.”
Ligatis smirked, but drew back.
“Your decision then, Lord Aragorn, is to remain silent and inactive until a sentinel will tell you about the invasion of Northern Ithilien?”
The king’s voice was strained and his grey eyes shone with a fierce glance.
“My decision is not to let myself be directed by old hatred and false assumptions. I will act upon facts which indicate a threat, not only a movement of nomads from one part of their land to another. But I will answer to stubbornness beyond reason and disregard of my decisions.” He rose and the noble men followed. With a curt bow the king left the Council first. The chamberlain opened the door for him and the prince. They both exited while the conversation behind them went on.
"You know what will come out of that?“ Faramir said quietly when the king and he had reached the fountain at the Citadel again. The day had started with light rain, but now the sun broke through and the wind brought warmth again from the south. "Lord Ligatis will not keep quiet about the argument.“
"I do well remember the opinion he stated in the last Council.“ Aragorn looked frustrated and angered, but his voice indicated how tired he was, too. He wiped his forehead and beard in a futile attempt to calm down. To Faramir the king looked like short to breaking into a run to loosen his tension. "His opposition will arouse unrest.“
"You could order him to keep quiet about the Council’s results.“
"Could I? As you told me Lord Iranelion, too, is always eager to utter criticism about my actions. What good would come out of forbidding the lords to speak their minds?“
"If the unrest harms the people this is a good enough reason.“ Prince Faramir waited patiently for the king's answer, but he got none. Instead the king stared down to the Royal Stables in the sixth ring looking for a boy well-known to Faramir. "Hiregon the smith seems to enjoy the boy's company,” he took up the subject of their conversation from before the meeting. "When I watched them from afar they were both laughing.”
"Hiregon's son started serving the Royal Guard some time ago. The old man was proud... and sad at the same time.“ Aragorn turned to his friend and found the understanding he had expected. "I have known the smith since I came to the city. He is the one smith who helped the other workers with the repairs in the City after the war. He is a decent and straight man. Only good can come out of this kind of friendship.“
"I agree. Vlohiri is always happy to be allowed to give Hiregon a hand. The boy's eyes were shining like he was granted a great fortune.“
"After what he had lived through no reward will be enough.“
"Aye.“ Faramir indicated a bow.
Aragorn's mouth twitched.
“Have I ever thanked you for staying in the steward's home since our return?” Prince Faramir did not reply. “It is about time that you and your family return to your own home. I have kept you from living your life long enough.”
“There is neither the need to thank me, Aragorn, nor for me to leave Minas Tirith. And I will not since Vlohiri has a lot to learn that can only be provided within the City.” He stood fast to Aragorn's stare, not letting him know that his decision was led by other intentions than those uttered. Aragorn accepted the answer with a curt bow. “I shall see that the second group of dispatch-riders leaves today.“
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