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Twilight of the Gods: 13. Torn
Just the fact of being called to the hot and crowded city of Minas Tirith for the second time within two weeks had given rise to Lord Ligatis’ anger, but when he learned of the latest developments on the land of the Easterlings, he lost his temper.
“Lord Aragorn, is that not exactly what we had talked about the last time?” Leaning forward he let his bony fist fall on the table with every next sentence. “That this people is massing to attack Ithilien? To kill our people? To occupy our lands?”
“The facts still do not indicate an attack,” the king retorted, but felt that the other noble men present would not agree with his opinion. And his own uneasiness had risen. Something evil seemed to lurk at Dagorlad, yet he could not name it.
“Then what, my dear Lord Aragorn, will?” Lord Iranelion insisted. His sweaty face was red as a ripe tomato due to the heat and his constrained anger, and his words came pressed through clenched teeth. “The Easterlings will not knock on any door or ask for your allowance to enter our lands. They will be swift and take what they want! Have you not listened? Do you not know what is said about that people? They were united with the Dark Lord of their free will! They wanted to share his dark power and overthrow all other peoples! They did not even refrain from robbing the dead!”
“The war is over, Lord Iranelion, and the Easterlings were beaten badly, driven back to the Sea of Rhûn. They almost vanished with all that was left of their kin when Sauron fell.”
“Then, my liege,” Ligatis cut in, “tell us in your wisdom why there are now more than five hundred Easterlings close to our borders.”
“I do understand your concerns, my lords, but since they are still roaming their own lands I can only order the squadron of Minas Tirith to take position along the border and stay on alert.”
“That is only their first step!” Lord Iranelion shouted. “Truly these murderers will summon all their power first and then cross the border! So there is no time to waste! Send the whole army to the borders and commit them to oblivion at once!”
“I objected to that proposal in the first place, Lord Iranelion, and my position is unchanged,” the king stressed with determination. “Invading Rhûn is not an option. Nevertheless I will order preparations. The squadron of Minas Tirith is ready to leave by tomorrow and…” He interrupted himself when the chamberlain came up to him after taking a message from the servant at the door. The chamberlain glanced uncertainly at the noble men before stooping to the king to whisper in his ear:
“A messenger from Edoras has just arrived and wants to speak to you immediately.”
Aragorn inhaled deeply and tried to hide his concern behind an imperturbable composure. The news of a messenger from Rohan alone would not have alarmed him; it was the fact of haste. The king looked into the other men's faces. They all were waiting eagerly for the news that had caused the interruption, but the chamberlain had been discreet enough not to spill the news too loudly. So the king nodded briefly before addressing the men at the table:
“A matter has occurred that calls for my attention at once.” He rose. “I will return as soon as possible.” With a short nod he requested Faramir to follow him. Ignoring the questions from Iranelion and Ligatis they both left the conference room. Outside they hastened to follow the chamberlain down the stairs and into the hall where a young soldier, clad in the colours of Rohan and with the white horse on his cuirass, waited impatiently at the threshold of the main gate. His bearded face showed not only all signs of fatigue, but also bore an urgency that Aragorn could feel without having heard the reasons for the man's coming. The soldier let himself down on one knee and bowed lowly upon seeing the king.
“My Lord Aragorn…”
Prince Faramir ordered the chamberlain to make sure the noble men stayed in the conference room so the conversation would not be overheard. The man bowed and hurried back to the stairs.
“Rise.” Aragorn halted before the dust-covered rider and waited until the man stood upright again without swaying. Judging by his appearance, the Rohirrim with the fair long hair tied into braids alongside his thin cheeks had ridden straight for days. He seemed exhausted enough to fall into sleep where he stood. “What kind of tidings do you bring?”
“King Éomer of Rohan sends me with an urgent plea. The message though is for you alone.” He looked at Faramir, uncertain whether he should continue.
“Speak!” Aragorn ordered him.
The soldier nodded and turned back to the king.
“The Dunlendings have agreed to negotiations about peace between Rohan and Dunland,” the man recited, and both Aragorn and Faramir could not hide their surprise. The soldier swallowed hard as if the words were too thick to fit through his throat, and lowered his eyes. “But they asked for the King of Gondor to lead the negotiations. They do not trust the Rohirrim on their word, so they will not come without your highness being present. They said they will leave before ever entering Edoras if Lord Aragorn will not greet them at its entrance.” He needed a moment to hide his reluctance and force his teeth apart, then added, “For this reason Éomer-king asks you to come to Edoras as soon as your highness can render it possible.”
“Who initiated the negotiations?” the king asked, and the soldier frowned. His voice still indicated that he did not agree with the contents of the message.
“I am not sure, my lord, my apologies for my ignorance. I only know that Éomer-king sent Thor to Dunland, and he returned with the news I just delivered.”
“Can you tell me what has happened before? Did the Dunlendings come to Edoras for any reason?”
The soldier's mouth twitched, and he found it hard if not impossible to conceal his anger when answering,
“The Dunlendings raided two settlements near the River Isen. They stole provisions, and killed some of our kinsmen.”
Shocked Faramir uttered,
“But these are bad tidings! What, in the name of the Valar, has then caused King Éomer's decision?”
“I do not know, my lord,” and the soldier evaded Faramir's stare, clenching his hands into tight fists. When the prince and the king only exchanged disbelieving glances the soldier bowed again to the King of Gondor. “May I wait for your answer, Lord Aragorn?”
“Let a servant show you to the soldiers' quarters. Is your horse taken care of?”
“Aye, my lord.” The soldier smiled feebly. “I did that myself.”
“I will send for you as soon as I have reached a decision.”
The soldier left, and, looking after him, Faramir and Aragorn remained in the King's Hall. Turning Aragorn let his gaze wander over the statues and to the throne. The steward's chair had been removed, and as always, the king found the hall depressingly empty. He doubted that laughter had ever roared between these walls of stone, and whether his predecessors had lived a lighter life – even for a short time – compared to his own. For a long time neither the prince nor the king broke the silence, and Aragorn contemplated his options while walking the carefully laid flagstones which reflected the sunlight pouring in through the high windows. The statues along both sides of the hall, casting long shadows, seemed as well as the king deep in thoughts, and when the chamberlain returned to the end of the stairs which led to the first floor the prince approached him.
“The lords are restless,” the chamberlain whispered anxiously with a short glance at the king, who seemed unaware of both men, staring at the pattern of the stones. “They want to know what is going on. What shall I tell them?”
“Tell them to wait,” Faramir replied with an angry undertone. “If they cannot take the time until the king returns they are free to leave. And to face the consequences.” The chamberlain's eyes widened, and he found no words to utter his astonishment. “Go!”
“It will be as you wish,” the chamberlain stated, but his high voice implied that he knew only bad things would come out of this announcement. With quick steps he went upstairs again, and when Prince Faramir turned the king had reached the throne, let his slender but strong hands rest on its artfully crafted back. And though the wood was hard to the touch the chair was no support of any kind, the signs, cut in by a skilled carpenter, bore no courage, no wisdom, and no hope if the one man, who was allowed to sit on that throne, did not bring these attributes with him.
“I never wanted that power,” Aragorn said quietly, and Faramir could only understand him since the tower was bare of any other sounds. Not even the wind, ever-blowing on the top of the city, disturbed the meaningful silence. The warm air, outdoors scented with flowers and fruits, here smelled of dust and wood. It was as if time had come to a halt to allow the two persons in the great hall to understand completely what lay ahead of them. Slowly Faramir walked up to the king, his steps echoing lowly from the walls. “For years I did not even think of setting a foot again into the White City. And when the crown was finally given to me I only knew that I would always try to do the best for my people.”
“Not only for your own people, my lord,” Faramir said having reached the stairs, setting one foot on the lowest step. The king still looked down on the broad wooden chair, in which he only sat while in judgement, and seemed unaware of the prince's remark. “Your aid for the Kingdom of Rohan was well received last year. And it will be in this.”
“And since I am the king should I not be able to withhold all evil from my people? Should I not use all my strength to make sure that everything is done to keep them safe? To devote my life to this purpose?”
“I put my own wishes prior to that of my people when I left the city a few months after the coronation. I spurned all advisers, and took only three men with me who paid with their lives for my ignorance.”
“Aragorn, my friend, stop that self-accusation.”
The king's grip around the backrest became so tight his knuckles were white.
“For almost four months the queen had to take care of the kingdom's matters, and only due to a twist of fate I was able to return to this… life and my duties.” He looked up. Faramir was appalled at the sight of the king's hollow and yet frightened eyes. Even though Faramir had had a glimpse into the dungeon's dark cell only now he seemed to fully understand the horror the king had gotten through. Faramir went up the stairs, not knowing why at first, but then he realised that Aragorn was swaying. But the king rejected his friend's help with a curt wave of his hand, and Faramir retreated. “It was to the luck of the Gondorian people that Queen Arwen knew how to handle the situation and that no great danger came upon us all. Now I am asked to leave my kingdom on behalf of a friend, whom I owe my help. But what kind of a king am I to leave Gondor behind me when danger is drawing near? What shall I rightly tell my people knowing that the Easterlings might summon more of their kinsmen for an attack? Shall I forsake my own kingdom to maybe save another? And that I do not know since the feud between Rohan and Dunland is beyond reckoning. None of the living know of its beginning, and the will to end it might turn out to be insufficient on both sides.”
“But yet it seems an overdue change of perception for both peoples has occurred. Who – if called for by name and renown – should stand back in the moment of need?” Faramir stood on the left side of the throne, a man in the prime of his life, proud and erect, experienced in warfare due to the long years he had served Gondor as a ranger. He stood fast to the king's inquisitive stare knowing what lay ahead. The king pressed his lips to a thin, bloodless line, not willing to accept the decision that was clear to be seen. He looked older than his years suddenly, as if the tasks he had accomplished and those lying ahead sucked the life out of him. “If there will be danger upon Ithilien in a week or a month we cannot ascertain right now, but the end of a feud that has caused misery and death for both the Rohirrim and the Dunlendings might be achieved due to your presence at the Court of Rohan.”
“The Easterlings are close to the border,” Aragorn finally said. “How can I choose between my kindred and that of Rohan?”
Faramir's stare grew intense.
“If there is a chance to find peace in Rohan it must be done now. The chance to end this feud must be grasped with both hands or both peoples will diminish. You know that. Your task lies in Rohan. If you want to grant me the honour of leading the army if a fight is unavoidable I will gladly accept it.”
Again a long silence followed the prince's words. Faramir watched the king's bowed head and sagged shoulders while he still leaned on the chair. He knew that if the decision were his, he too would not have wanted to turn his back on his kinsmen. When Aragorn spoke his voice was low and heavy with sorrow.
“I wished I could find another solution, my friend.” He faced Faramir, and his mind's torment showed clearly. “My heart is heavy laying this burden upon your shoulders, but it seems there is no other choice.”
“I am honoured by your trust in me, my lord.”
Aragorn straightened up, let go the backrest of the chair. His expression was that of a man torn to pieces between two goals both likewise important, but impossible to be reached at the same time.
“That kind of honour might be short-lived, my friend, and could turn out to be the hardest toil. I do not wish this toil to come upon you.” He held the prince in his stare, laying one hand on Faramir's shoulder. “I will make haste to return to Gondor, but if there is no other choice than to go to war against the Easterlings do not hesitate to send a messenger to Edoras. I will come to your aid without delay.” And when Faramir did not answer he pressed, “Will you promise me that?”
“If it is your wish, I promise to inform you as soon as the situation changes. But maybe there is a chance to handle it without weapons.”
“I know about your skills in the eyes of danger. You will find a solution consistent with the demands.” Aragorn exhaled and lowered his hand, but still seemed too tense to return to the waiting noble men and explain his decision. “I am honoured by your offer, more than I can tell. Especially in the regard of your young family.”
“Above all my wife will understand these decisions. And it is for her and my son's sake that no foe will roam our lands – if it ever comes to it.” His mouth twitched as his gaze travelled to the stairway. “But… at the moment it appears to me that the more difficult task might be to deal with the Council summoned upstairs.”
“Then I shall not let them wait any longer.” The king took another deep breath before leaving the hall for the stairs to the first floor.
He dreaded the moment he had to reveal the news, but the chamberlain, with a smile that was no more than a forced sign of politeness, had already opened the doors.
Even Lord Tóren, who might have been considered a voice of reason more than of old resentment, was angered when the message of Rohan's plea and the king's decision were recited.
“Of some of your latest judgements, my liege, it could be said that they were, with all due respect, odd, but of this…” He shook his head and waved his hand over the table, almost overturning the goblet in front of him. “This is neither wise nor recommended! It might be called folly, but this is a word too light for the grievous aspects of this decision.”
“You speak as if the Kingdom of Gondor would be left bereft of any defence. Prince Faramir is experienced enough to decide in my name.” Aragorn stared at Tóren with his piercing grey eyes. “And truly more experienced in solutions other than using sword and bow, a gift that is rare these days.” The lords only lifted their eyebrows disdainfully. The prince smirked knowing that no decision but that of sending all squadrons of the army to North Ithilien would soothe their wrath against the king. “He will take over command tomorrow at dawn when I leave for Edoras.”
“How can you dare to forsake your people on the eve of doom?” Lord Ligatis hissed and set his fierce small eyes on the king. “You steal yourself away to counsel two peoples which hate each other since the creation of the world!”
“The more need there is to end this feud at once and for good. For both peoples - or they will both diminish.”
“But is King Éomer of Rohan too weak to reign over his own kingdom?” Lord Iranelion sneered. The others nodded in agreement. “Should he not be able to decide alone if he grants peace or vanquishes his foes?” He turned round to watch the other noble men's faces and what he found made him look again at the king. His voice clearly showed that he knew the majority was behind his opinion. “For too long did the king desert his own land seeking fame in the west and doing deeds that led to lore. Gondor had to face his foes alone during the last hard years. For too long a time no allies marched with the armies of Gondor to defend our land against the rising Evil in the east. Now doom again is close, but you prefer to desert our people to become the counsellor of King Éomer! Is this truly necessary or just a pleasant excuse to be absent when it comes to a fight?”
“You forget yourself, Lord Iranelion!” Faramir shouted and quickly rose. “And you forget the deeds King Elessar did for the fortune of Gondor and all of Middle Earth! Indeed I did not see you fight in the last years of peril! I did not see you draw your sword to defend Osgiliath when tidings came of its fall! And I also did not see you attend the preparations for the defence of Minas Tirith!”
“I had other duties to fulfil,” Lord Iranelion replied arrogantly, though Faramir was right. “You cannot impute to me that I did not do my share!”
“It should be as clear to you as it is to me that without King Elessar's outstanding courage to walk the Path of the Dead, to summon allies beyond the power of our imagination the victory would have been harder to gain if not impossible. So I ask you, all of you lords, who you are to question the king's decision? Can you rightfully claim to have done more or more important deeds than King Elessar? - If so you may speak again, if not, you must remain silent.” He felt the touch on his forearm and turned away from the sweating and fuming Lord Iranelion, who had blushed and now cast his eyes down. Aragorn indicated to the prince with a slight nod to sit down again.
The lords fell silent for a moment. Only the heavy breathing of Iranelion could he heard. He poured himself wine, but his hand trembled and he spilled some liquid beyond the goblet. Lord Ligatis pursed his lips in disgust, but kept quiet, while Tóren stroked his beard, thinking. Some other men murmured quietly, but they too did not speak their mind. Finally Aragorn spoke:
“On the Pelennor Fields six thousand Riders from Rohan came to our aid to throw the enemy back. Without the help of this brave people Minas Tirith would have fallen into the hands of Sauron's allies and all of Gondor with it. Rohan paid dearly for this victory with many lives. It did not only lose its beloved King Théoden in that battle but nearly five thousand men.” He paused and kept the men in his glare when he added, “Shall I now deny help in their hour of need? Shall I deny them help to prevent further killings?”
Lord Ligatis huffed and his nostrils flared.
“They will never conclude a lasting peace, my lord! It is just a waste of time!”
“No! Both peoples need a chance for peace to ease their suffering,” the king immediately contradicted, his look adamant. “And it was never so close at hand as it is now.”
Lord Iranelion had drunk his wine and now put the goblet down with more force than necessary to stress his point. His face had not yet returned to its usual colour, and his eyes met those of the prince shortly before uttering,
“Those peoples from Dunland and Rohan – they are raw. Unrefined! Even if the negotiations do not fail within the first hour, both will find reasons enough to inflame the old hatred again and again!”
Faramir was about to defend the king when Aragorn rose and, leaning forward, put his hands on the table. He stared at the men with a cold glance, repulsed by their stubbornness and stupidity. When he spoke his voice carried the superiority and wisdom a man could only earn through years of inner torment, where decisions had to be made and tasks be fulfilled which none of those present had ever had the courage or skill to achieve.
“Even if some of either the Rohirrim or the Dunlendings do not agree to settle peace among the peoples it is still worth a try! Reaching the goal of peace, of roaming in a free land without permanent threat is what we all need to live a satisfying life and raise our kin. – The chances of the two Halflings to destroy the One Ring were considered as almost non-existent and all our losses on the Pelennor Fields and at the Black Gate would have been in vain if Frodo and Sam had not shown the ultimate courage to go on to the bitter end.” He paused and his words as well as his stare had driven the men to absolute silence. Aragorn inhaled deeply before continuing, “All of our peoples would have been slaughtered. None of the men and women you cherish would have returned to their homes. But the two Halflings ventured on nevertheless. They did not say that their kinsmen were safe in the Shire and that Sauron's power did not affect them as much as it affected Men. None of you would now be able to speak so haughtily about the perishing of yet another two peoples of Middle Earth if these two brave Halflings had turned their backs on you.” Aragorn challenged Lord Iranelion's look, but the noble man did not dare to meet his eyes. Ligatis snorted, but he too was unable to hold the king's stare. Lord Tóren's gaze wandered from one of them to the other until he finally bowed to his ruler. “So if there is one of you with another argument to be heard in this Council he should speak now.” Aragorn waited, but no one opened his mouth. Ligatis cleared his throat; it was the only sound in the room besides the shoving of Tóren's goblet to the middle of the table. “I will ride out tomorrow morning with an escort of fifty men. The squadrons remaining will be commanded by Prince Faramir. If he deems it necessary the men working on the fields right now will be called under arms.” He nodded briefly to all of them. “The Council is closed.”
The chamberlain opened the door, and both the king and Prince Faramir left the conference room again.
With a pair of tongs the young boy carefully took the last horseshoe of the day out of the fire, brought it to the anvil and laid the iron down where the smith waited with the hammer.
“Well done!” Hiregon exclaimed. “You're quite an apprentice! Now, step back a little, some sparks might fly your way.”
Vlohiri watched the square man, clad in a sleeveless shirt and long leather apron, handle the broad hammer with a precision that astonished him ever again. His eyes were fixed on the still hot iron that was wrought under the constant hammering. He felt at ease just watching the older man and gladly remembered the morning of the day when Faramir had allowed him to leave the steward's home to help out the smith, since the prince had to attend the Council. Immediately Vlohiri had thanked him and almost jumped down the streets to the stables. He had arrived shortly after the smith, and, after he had taken care of the king's horses (a task he had chosen to take over), he had asked again if he could be of any help for the smith. He had been busy all day and now felt the comfortable heaviness of his limbs. Going home now would be pleasant, and he smiled thinking about Faramir and Éowyn waiting for him. He would have a lot to tell about the day. Still dreaming, he was startled when a hand fell upon his shoulder. He turned, wide-eyed as if caught in the act of doing something wrong. But it was Hilberon.
“Hey, lad, who'd you expected? You look like you saw some ghost!” The young soldier laughed, but got no answer. For a moment, Vlohiri caught a glimpse of Medros’ face in his mind’s eye instead of Hilberon's. Quickly the boy turned back to Hiregon, but the smith had stopped working to pull his son into his mighty arms. “Wait a minute! You ruin my cuirass!”
“Ah, come on!” Hiregon slapped his son on the pauldrons. “If it breaks in an embrace what will happen when an arrow comes flying?” He smiled, but that did not hide the worry behind his words. “What news do you bring? And why do you run around in your armour?”
“Lord Aragorn ordered us to be ready to leave tomorrow morning.” Hilberon straightened and looked his father straight in the eyes. “I just wanted to let you know that he takes me with him to Edoras.”
“Edoras!” Vlohiri shouted, excited, and right before Hiregon could utter his surprise. “The home of King Éomer! Oh, that is wonderful!” Both father and son looked at him astonished, eyebrows lifted. Vlohiri knew at once he had made a mistake, and he blushed deeply. “I mean… for what reason? Is there another festivity taking place?”
“Festivity? No.” Hilberon shook his head, frowning, and, he had to admit, bare of any knowledge. Again he could not make anything out of the lad's strange behaviour. Why, in the name of the Valar, did he know anything about Edoras or the King of Rohan? “I don't know why the Royal Guard was called to get ready. I only know that the king ordered fifty men to ride with him and that time's pressing. Some will escort the wagons with food; the others will accompany the king. I will be with the king.”
“And? Who else rides with you?” Hiregon asks, finally lifting his gaze from the boy. “Some of your friends?”
“The captain will head the guard as usual. And, as far as I know, Dumarin, Tarés, and Halamin will also ride. Of the rest I don't know anything.”
“Very well.” Another hearty slap followed. Hilberon grimaced. “So you'll ride in good company.” He frowned. “Well, looks like the king's gotten some news from Rohan, right? I mean… the supplies don't need the king's company, do they?” His laughter roared, and his son laughed too. “Or are they of such value by now and we haven't known? If so, I'll buy a load of corn tomorrow.”
Vlohiri found it hard to share the good mood. His gaze fell upon the brown steed that gnawed on the box's wooden door. It had been brought in dusty, thirsty and hungry by a Rohirrim rider, who had matched the look of his horse. One of the stable-hands had offered his help, but the young man had only asked for water and hay for his steed, and though he had seemed to be dead-tired, he had unsaddled and brushed the horse and had waited until it was satisfied before he had left the stables. In regard of the haste the Rohirrim rider had arrived it seemed unlikely that a happy occasion was the reason for the king's precipitate departure. Last summer's wedding of Lothíriel of Dol Amroth with King Éomer had been planned long before. The demand to get ready from one day to the other to leave Minas Tirith indicated a less favourable possibility.
“Lad?” Vlohiri woke from his musing to look at Hiregon. “Lad, I asked you to clear up the place. Will you do that before you leave?”
“Sure.” He hastened to the anvil and put all tools back to their places, poured out the water, and added the horseshoe to the box where the unfinished pieces were kept. While he worked the conversation behind him continued.
“Well,” Hilberon said earnest again, “I don't think it's because of the corn or whatever he ordered to load up. Captain Fáred looked quite concerned when he told us to get ready.”
“He did, hum?” Hiregon nodded exhaling and stroked his beard. “It's clearly not just for the fun of the ride though I heard that the King of Rohan and King Elessar are friends. It might be you'll help settle quarrels with their neighbours.” His voice should sound light, but he could neither fool his son nor Vlohiri. “Or… something else. But I'm proud of you, son, I'm really proud. You'll make it. You'll get your name known.”
“Aye, father, I shall do what I'll be ordered to,” Hilberon replied somewhat uneasy at his father's trust. He knew that Hiregon expected good work from him and not only reports about the shooting of a doe. “In the eyes of Captain Fáred I'm the one who took the place of Tindalon, the one he'd have preferred.”
“He told you that, hum? Well, my son, don't get irritated. The king chose you himself, and about Tindalon… nay, I should say naught. Ere now he was a good soldier… or so I was told.” His look made clear that Tindalon was everything but a good soldier now. Hilberon gladly accepted the explanation “You'll do your best, don't doubt that!” Hiregon added in a lighter tone and saw Vlohiri approach. “You're done for today?” The boy nodded. “Very well. Will you come here tomorrow?”
“I don't know.”
Hiregon frowned, puzzled. Some strange sadness was to be read in the boy's features, but then… it was gone, and he did not bother himself with thinking about it.
“Well, then we'll see if you come! Good night! Run home now!” Hiregon bade them farewell. Hilberon returned to the soldiers' quarters, and the smith went down the street to the smithy.
Vlohiri turned and slipped into Brego's box.
“You'll be leaving again tomorrow,” he whispered stroking the stallion's mane and neck. “I wish I could go with you. I wish I were already grown up. I wished… Oh, Brego, this is not fair. Shall I be an apprentice for all times?” Brego gently nudged him and, as always, Vlohiri got him a few carrots. The steed took them while Vlohiri passed his hand over the warm silken fur. Finally he pressed his face into it and breathed the sharp smell. “Take good care of him.”
Aragorn returned late to the royal chambers. He had not seen his wife the whole day and embraced and kissed her when she came to him, dressed in a flowing gown of white and dark red as she preferred.
“I felt your sorrow,” she said in a warm and sympathetic tone. “Tell me what happened at the Council.”
Exhaling he let her go and paced through the candle-lit room. As always he found the chamber narrow and dark, and the thought of staying here all night was only eased by Arwen's presence. Aragorn was tired and worn out by the quarrel with the noble men and the subsequent preparations for his hasty departure for Edoras. If he rode hard he would reach Rohan's capital in six days, leaving the carts with the supplies behind him. He hoped he would arrive before either party would have changed its mind. The tidings of the raid on a Rohan settlement had irritated him. Why did they attack a village and then agree on negotiations? And why had King Éomer offered peace at all? The angry reaction of the messenger had been understandable, since the offer of peace seemed odd enough to question its sincerity.
“The Council did not agree to only send a squadron to the north-eastern border. They persist in sending all men under arms… to invade Rhûn. But that… was only one part of the discussion.” He hardly dared to look into her beautiful eyes, which rested with love-filled understanding on him. But somehow her expression changed: she knew he was about to leave her. “Today a messenger brought tidings from Éomer. He asks for my help as a negotiator between his people and the Dunlendings.” He paused and added quietly, “I will leave tomorrow at dawn.” He wanted to pull her into a tight embrace, not knowing what else to do to assure her of his love, but he remained in the middle of the room, unable to react. He felt like he was losing her again. “I am sorry, Arwen. I did not mean to leave you again.” He could not bear to say more. The thought alone of being parted from his wife again was dreadful.
Arwen looked at her husband, knowing his inner turmoil, having felt it during the day. At last she spoke.
“Aragorn, I do not want you to leave me behind. Not this time.” He kept quiet, and she stepped closer, putting her hands together in front of her bosom. Her voice was pleading, but still soft and light. She was the only one who could directly speak into his heart. “I let you go without question on occasions before, but…” She reached him and gently touched his hand, taking it into hers. “Let me go with you to Edoras.” There was no denying her. When he looked into her eyes, he could as well have asked the sun not to rise, “Éomer is your friend. He needs your help, and I know you are willing to give it. You think you owe him, but even if it were otherwise you would ride. But you will be gone for a long time.”
“I do not want you to be in danger.”
Arwen’s look softened to a half smile. Aragorn’s frown did not vanish.
“I will not name the dangers you passed. But for the time that is given to us let me be at your side.” He still hesitated. Minas Tirith was safe. The fortress was rebuilt. If necessary Arwen could command the army from within. The moment she would leave the city would be the moment no wall would protect her any longer.
“Arwen, on the day I wed you I promised myself to keep you away from any harm and I…”
She put a finger on his lips.
“But by this you will keep me away from your heart, too. Have I to remind you of the many years I survived without the protecting walls of a city? Do not let me linger here while you ride out. I know how to wield a sword, my Lord Aragorn.” He lowered his head. Fear for his wife filled him. The Elves might be immortal, but they still could die upon blades. What would happen to her if he had to leave Meduseld should the negotiations go ill? He was the one who had to protect her against any harm. “Do not let me beg for this.”
He looked up, astonished about her earnest.
“I never would, and I will gladly accept your company if it is your desire to ride with me.”
“You will accompany me,” she teased and kissed the corner of his mouth. “I am the faster rider.”
Neither Tarés nor Captain Fáred had been told more about their mission than that they would ride to Edoras with fifty soldiers. The king planned to arrive on the sixth day, and the captain ordered his men to take a second horse each with them when they saddled up in the early morning's mist. Suddenly he interrupted his commands becoming aware of the queen herself in the Royal Stables. He quickly bowed and saw his men – all of them reacting fast, as he gratefully noticed – do the same.
“Rise,” she said gently. “There is no time for formalities, Captain Fáred. Please, go on! We have to hurry.”
“At your command, Lady Arwen.” Captain Fáred shot a glance at the soldiers watching the queen in awe, and they turned back to their work with the same reluctance the captain himself felt. Any time he set eyes on the Elven Queen of Gondor he found himself close to stammering, which was – in his opinion – absolutely intolerable. He tried to calm down and continued saddling up his horse, but now and then he could not help casting a glance at the lady who closed the bridle on Asfaloth. Though she wore only a dark grey gown with a matching cloak and riding boots she seemed to shine within the yet-dark stable. But the captain shook his head at this stupid thought. She was an Elf, a queen and… the most beautiful living being.
Hilberon led Harolyan and the second steed he had been leant for the ride down the alley to the assembly point. Harolyan was fidgeting, and the soldier felt likewise restless. He had survived one journey with the king though it had proved to be dangerous in some parts. Now the second journey would begin, and he did not even know of its purpose. He did not fear the unknown danger; it was just a kind of uneasiness that had befallen him. It would have been better for him to know in advance what he was heading for. Halamin went at his side and Tarés behind them. Halamin was the only one who seemed to be in a good mood.
“It’s a soldier's life,” he shrugged when asked. “We ride out, we do our duty and we return.”
“Are you never afraid?”
They reached the main gate and passed it. The sky was sketched with some white clouds, and soon the sun, already casting its first rays over the eastern horizon, would warm the air. They halted where some other soldiers already waited, quietly talking with each other about the reasons for this hasty departure. Halamin looked the younger soldier in the eyes.
“Aye, sometimes,“ he admitted, then stooped to him, whispering confidentially, „But a soldier should not let the others know, lad. Courage is a good thing, and fear is a good thing. You need both to survive.“ He eyed the young soldier closely. "Don’t worry. Your courage will win over the fear that upsets you. I know that. You’d not have become a soldier if it wasn’t like that, right?“
"Right,“ Hilberon nodded and smiled, at least a little. His father trusted him, and he had always relied on him. So why should he worry?
But Halamin could read the trouble behind that feeble smile.
“Come on, my friend,“ he said with an encouraging slap on the pauldrons, "don't worry, and rather look forward to the ride itself.” He pointed with his hand westwards. “Beautiful landscape, mountains to your left, meadows to your right.” He suddenly grinned. “If there's time I can teach you some tricks with the sword.”
“That would be…” Hilberon looked back over his shoulder and his jaw dropped almost to his chest. Behind Captain Fáred a shining white horse came into view, led by Lady Arwen herself. “The queen accompanies us,” he said aloud without noticing it, and Halamin craned his neck to see her. “She will ride with us.” His voice had dropped to an awe-struck whisper.
“The other way round, lad, we accompany her! You know, that's why we are called the Royal Guard!”
Tarés laughed too, and they both drowned out the chatter around them, but Hilberon did not react. The Queen of Gondor got closer, her black hair shining like silk in the orange glow of the sun, and the cloak around her slender body changed colours with every step. Around her waist and inclined across her breast she wore a belt with golden patterns. On her back in a fitted sheath a sword with an artfully crafted hilt stood out over her left shoulder, a sight the young soldier noticed, but he was not surprised since his attention was directed to her face. Hilberon had never before seen her so close. On the day of the coronation and on some occasions after that he had been too far away to see more than her outlines. Now he got a good look at her exquisite face and neck, bare of any jewels... and her smile, which deepened when the king spoke to her. He felt like embracing everyone for the day was so good, and fair, and the light so enchanting… and found himself grinning like a fool when Halamin roared beside him again.
“Now, look at him, Tarés! If he does that the whole time he won't notice any foe until its ugly face blocks his view of the lady!”
Hilberon blushed at once and quickly turned his head to Harolyan. The queen was close now; she could even have heard Halamin's words. He closed his eyes for a moment listening to the thunder of his heart. Would he constantly embarrass himself on this journey?
“Mount!” the king ordered, and the young soldier got on his horse at once, while he heard Halamin and Tarés exchanging humorous words. Hilberon's face was red-hot, and he was glad that the rising wind cooled it. With the king leading and the queen at his side Hilberon felt secure enough to look forward again since he was in the second row following the royal couple. Unlike he had expected – and had seen when other women rode – Queen Arwen sat on her horse like a man. And she rode gracefully. The wind tangled with her long hair and with the cloak which was draped over Asfaloth's croup. Quickly the group of riders left the horses with the big carts behind them and followed the Old West Road in a gallop.
Suddenly the whole journey did not look dangerous at all.
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