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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 17. All the King's Horses...
"This horse finds every patch of uneven ground!" Aragorn sighed softly and gripped his companion the harder.
"I assure you," he replied, "that you imagine things, Gimli! Hasufel has his pride, for he was foaled in Rohan and knows this land. If you find a horse with a smoother gait, I should pay you in gold for him!" That might have elicited a grunt, but it was difficult to be certain as the wind tore at their words, whisking anything less than a shout away. The Ranger felt the Dwarf's diaphragm contract, but that might have been due to Hasufel's lifting slightly to clear a patch of stone. Gimli had awakened that morning ill-tempered from the fever and dizziness that assailed him, but Aragorn judged him well enough to continue on at a good pace.
Of course, the Dwarf's dislike of horses made it difficult for him to push on at what the Ranger would normally have considered a good pace, even with Gimli seated safely within the circle of his arms before him. Equally, however, Gimli's pride made it impossible to suggest that he tie him in place for security's sake. At least I know he shall be well enough, Aragorn thought with no small relief. Given another two days, the Dwarf would likely be as fit as ever, Durin's folk being a hardy race that did not succumb easily or for long to illness. In truth, Legolas still worried Aragorn more than Gimli, for the nature of his injury meant that it was in the Elf's hands to better or worsen his state. Let us hope that he has found a way to help himself!
Whatever Gimli's complaints about their mount, Hasufel ran swift and smooth over the plains of Rohan. And if the horse was not one of the near legendary mearas, still, he was a worthy beast and Aragorn at least had horsemanship enough to appreciate his efforts. Indeed, for all that the Ranger continued to rein him in, Hasufel, after a few minutes' even speed, would begin to accelerate again. Given his head, he would doubtless make the journey at a gallop, but there was no point in causing Gimli to suffer overmuch. For beneath the gruff complaints, there was a definite edge of fear to the Dwarf's tone that he could devote no energy to suppressing. Not while he battles this poison, Aragorn thought grimly. And yet we need haste, for though Éomer said naught overtly, there is something gravely wrong in Rohan. No horse herds in the Eastfold, and a new law that goes against former custom. And a note in Éomer's voice that, reviewed now countless times in his mind, made the Ranger deeply uneasy. What passes at Edoras and elsewhere that could teach one so fearless as he to fear?
By Aragorn's calculations, Legolas would have reached the court yesterday, if the company had ridden through the night. And if we press hard, we shall see Edoras by sunrise tomorrow. He glanced down at the top of Gimli's head, hesitating an instant on his friend's behalf, ere he came to a decision. "Hep! Gá, Hasufel!" With a snort and a toss of his head, the horse fairly leapt to obey, and Gimli's curse was lost in the wind. The day waxed and waned with but one stop, and as night fell, still Hasufel bore them ever homeward to Edoras.
Éomer opened his eyes and sighed softly, grimacing at the crick in his neck. The arm that pillowed his head was numb from lack of circulation, and his legs felt cramped and stiff. Injuries inflicted by Legolas aside, a night spent in a dungeon cell barely longer than Éomer himself was tall, and with but a hard plank for a bed, guaranteed discomfort. Particularly since he and the Elf had to share the plank, quarters were close indeed. Éomer had not actually intended to sleep at all that night, but the cell's oppressive atmosphere had worn him down more thoroughly and swiftly than a hard-fought battle, and in the end he had succumbed to the siren song of sleep.
Alas, as he had lain curled up on the bench, cursing the splinters, his mind had immediately begun to tumble through the events of the past few days with frenetic intensity. Éowyn's pale face and Gríma's hated one kept reappearing just as he thought to drop off into slumber, dragging him back to painful wakefulness. As a result, he was now thoroughly exhausted but unable to lie still any longer. Levering himself up on one elbow, the Third Marshal clenched his teeth as his headache returned in full force, and he glanced blearily at his cellmate.
Well, he thought, no changes there. Legolas sat cross-legged with his feet tucked up under himself, hands laid upon his knees, seemingly having never moved even once during the night. Éomer had wakened several times at odd hours, and the sight of the Elf staring unblinking at the wall beyond the bars had been… eerie. Whether he slept or sat entranced, the Third Marshal had not the slightest idea. More, he knew not whether it would be safe to rouse him in less than dire need.
For do they not say that one ought not to wake a sleep-walker? Éomer wondered, wishing he knew whether the Elf suffered from a similar affliction. But since he did not, he would assume that it was best to leave Legolas to his own elven devices and let him wake on his own. Why does he not blink? He does when he is conscious, so one assumes that he needs to at times. How does he manage without his eyes drying out? Éomer gave a soft grunt as he sat up and stretched carefully to work the kinks out of his muscles. Such trivial questions were a sure sign of his mind's attempt to occupy itself, and he brushed them aside irritably, considering his own state of being.
Though no light filtered into the dungeon, he was fairly certain that it was morning, and his stomach complained of its emptiness. The guards had not fed him since his incarceration, though they had brought him water. Éomer knew better than to let himself become dehydrated for fear of drugs, and so he had drunk what was given him without complaint and hoped for the best. Now, though, since he had decided to leave Legolas alone, he had problems of a more immediate and less weighty concern than poison in his drink. For the lavatory area was on Legolas's end of the cell, and Éomer's bladder informed him that he needed to use it now.
With a soft sigh, the young man rose and moved forward a pace to stand just on the edge of the elf's field of vision. Still, Legolas did not move, and Éomer pursed his lips, hoping that the prince would not mistake him for an enemy as he passed before him. After yesterday's demonstration of elvish martial prowess, Éomer was not particularly eager to startle the other into a second violent reaction. But nature called, and so, holding his breath, he stepped in front of the elf, half-expecting to be thrown up against the bars before he could blink. But nothing happened, and after a moment, Éomer let himself breathe once more and continued the short distance past Legolas to the hole in the ground that served as a latrine.
Four more days, he thought distressedly. Four more before a trial, and who knows how long Wormtongue may drag it out? I shall be happy to see the execution grounds if only to see the sky! That was a depressing indicator of how low his spirits could sink, and Éomer sternly berated himself for self-pity. Unfortunately, thoughts of Éowyn or Théoden only woke a chill and helpless anxiety that seemed to him worse than his own grim future. Would that I could simply not think! But that, too, was an impossibility, and Éomer shook his blond head sharply as he finished his business, trying to jar himself out of his bad mood.
Alas, the quick movement only gave him double vision as the pain in his head stabbed at him, and Éomer hissed softly, wincing. Turning much more slowly out of respect for the headache, he took a very curtailed stride forward to grasp the bars, leaning against them wearily. I wonder how Elfhelm fares. If he took most of the King's Muster with him, he might last for a while, or at least retreat to Helm's Deep in good order. I know not if I can hope for more than that.
Éomer had been born and bred to a tradition of war and horsemanship, and he had studied his sword-craft since he was ten. He knew very well that if something did not change soon, then the Mark was lost. Indeed, even if something utterly unexpected occurred–should Gríma die—O happy thought!—and the king rise this very morning, for example–there were forces at work that they could not control. In his absence, the Eastfold was under Éothain's command, and though Éothain was a competent, hard-nosed sort of fellow, he lacked the charisma to lead well in time of trouble. And then there was Anórien, which was prostrated before the Enemy. Cair Andros and Ithilien fought the tide, but both forces had lost significant numbers at Osgiliath and elsewhere this summer, and he knew not whence Minas Tirith would draw replacements.
If they can find them at all. The Gondorrim are a valiant people, but they have been losing Anórien for two years and more now, and I think the break may have come. Sauron could send his creatures through the fens and over that land unchecked, and we would have no way to know it ere they reached the Eastfold! At least there were no shepherds or horse-herders still at large in that region, for sensing the darkening of their fortunes, he had withdrawn them all to relative safety early last summer after Osgiliath's fall.
"Someone comes again." The voice behind him spoke suddenly and without preamble, and Éomer jumped in his startlement, whirling to face his elvish companion, ignoring the pain. Legolas had not moved a muscle, but his eyes were now closed, and there was a different quality to his silence: a listening attentiveness that bespoke a fine concentration. Éomer glanced almost automatically back over his shoulder, though he supposed he would need to wait for a time ere the visitor or visitors arrived given the elf's acute hearing. "A light step… running… tripping, almost… a stutter… no armor, nothing to sound against aught else…" The Elf's eyes, green as Rohan's fields and greener, even, opened once more, and there was a glimmer of dread in them as Legolas looked to Éomer.
"Who is it?" Éomer asked, feeling premonition stir unpleasantly, and his gut knotted up painfully. No… The footsteps reached the marshal's ears, and he felt every muscle tense. Too light… too light to be a man…
"I think," the Elf said with manifest reluctance, "it must be—" Please let it not be–! Éomer squeezed his eyes shut as the footsteps skidded round the last corner "—Éowyn!" That last was addressed past him, and Éomer turned slowly round to see his sister standing there once more. Swathed in a dress that drew out the deep blue of her eyes, she seemed very pale, and her eyes stared at him with a mixture of relief and agony. Dark circles lay like woodland shadows beneath her eyes, which were a bit swollen as if with weeping, and her hand shook as she stepped forward and reached through the bars for her brother.
"You are alive!" she murmured, reaching up to lay her hand to the side of his face as Éomer hastily thrust his left hand through a convenient gap to catch her shoulder as she swayed unsteadily. And though her tone was enough to break a man's heart, Éomer heard the terrible relief in it.
"Éowyn…" he breathed, his own voice sounding suspiciously husky.
"Alive!" she repeated, as if to reassure herself, and then gave a little laugh that ended in a sob as she bowed her head. More sobs followed, and she began to tremble like a leaf.
"Béma ahredde ús! Éowyn! Éowyn!" Éomer felt something akin to panic come over him, and he grabbed her hard through the bars. "Éowyn!" he cried, giving her a rough shake.
What happened next, he was not precisely certain, but there was a sharp crack! and he found himself suddenly gazing at the wall to his left, breathing hard, and his right cheek ached and throbbed. Someone clutched his arm urgently, and as he slowly turned back to gaze at his sister he realized that it was Legolas who held him. Éowyn stood there gripping the bars in a white-knuckled grip, and her face was expressionless now, eyes hooded and cold as ice as she stared at him.
"Never speak of this," she said in a low voice that would brook no argument. "And never again let me see you panic, Éomer. I cannot bear it!" She raised her eyes to his once more, and for all the flatness of her voice, the haunted, pleading look in those eyes told the true tale. Éomer reached up and touched his cheek, frowning as he felt at the cut there, and he glanced down at her hands once more.
"Mother's ring," he murmured softly, and wondered at the sudden divorce of his feelings. He could name every one that passed through his heart and soul, yet it seemed that he had suddenly lost the ability to feel them. And perhaps I should be glad of that, for else I know not what I might do! "What are the terms?"
"I told him I would have none of his crafting or purchase, only this one," Éowyn replied calmly, as if she were discussing the cost of flour for the kitchens. "He agreed to that, and said that in the morning he would see that I was let in to see you again. Any day I like, at any time, even."
"So for the groom price. What of the bride's price?" he demanded, and Éowyn's eyes flitted away almost nervously. "Éowyn…"
"A little thing, brother… so very little in the end, for I have not your wealth to draw upon anymore." Her voice grew tight with suppressed tears and humiliated rage. "Just a little blood… he promised to take care if I bled too much after…" Black specks danced in Éomer's vision, and he felt his legs turn to water. Legolas's hand on his arm went quickly round his waist and he felt the Elf's shoulder brace him. Sucking in air, he shook his head sharply and willed himself to keep to his feet, to look at her once more. Éowyn stared back with no small concern, and she grasped his hands suddenly. "Are you well?"
"Can you even ask me that?" he demanded, dazed and incredulous.
"How could I not? Éomer, this is the price of your life, do you understand? There is no other way, and you must live long enough–" She shook her head sharply, cutting herself off. What she meant by 'long enough,' Éomer did not know, and in his preoccupation, it slipped past him unnoticed in the wake of her next words: "Were it not for you, I would have slit his throat and gone to the scaffold happily! Were it not that you are both here, under his power, I would have done it last night. Do not then waste this!"
"And so instead, I shall spend my days in this pit, cursing fortune that I live at all!" He should not have said that, but the words were out, flying past his lips in an instant, and Éowyn's expression grew taut as a strung bow. Releasing him, she stepped away, drawing herself up with forlorn dignity, and before his very eyes he saw her armor herself once more. Of a sudden, there simply was no more pain, no more feeling, no remorse: there was only Éowyn standing straight, cool as steel and as pliant. "Éowyn!" he began again, but she shook her head, commanding with that gesture his silence.
"Rest, brother. You are overwrought. I shall come to see you again soon, at least once a day. And be certain to eat, both of you. Good day." Nodding politely to Legolas, she turned then and strode away, and Éomer heard her footsteps retreat down the corridors.
"Éomer?" Legolas' voice at his side was soft and filled with grieving concern, but the marshal scarcely heard him. Éowyn… ah Béma, Éowyn! Éomer thrust the Elf aside, turned, went to his knees, and promptly threw up. There was little enough to vomit, but it was enough to make him feel worse than ever and he slammed a fist into the stone wall, not caring that he cut himself in doing so. Any pain was preferable to the nauseated horror that filled him, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the very real possibility of tears.
He felt another's hands upon him, felt himself drawn into the shelter of another's embrace, and it was a measure of his discomposure that he did not shove the other away. Words sung softly in a strange tongue reached him over the sound of his own ragged breathing, and in spite of himself, he felt himself falling under their spell. Though he clung to the hurt, his anguish diminished somewhat and the raw edge of hysteria was muted into a sort of pained acceptance. He felt a hand touch his face, reach around to cradle his head gently, and a lassitude descended the likes of which he had never experienced before. "Rest, Éomer," Legolas said gently, letting his song die for a moment. "I will wake you when she returns." Unable to resist the compulsion laid upon him, Éomer let himself drift away on the tide of an elvish melody.
And as Legolas soothed Éomer, Éowyn went straight to the kitchens. The women there murmured politely to her, but they quickly perceived her black mood and made haste to move out of her way for she did not slow nor look left or right. Edoras was a great city, and had many mouths to feed in the king's household alone, so the kitchens were correspondingly vast. And since she had been fifteen, they had been Éowyn's responsibility. Now she went and gathered the account sheets and summoned the headwoman to her in the medicinal storehouse. "Have you seen to my instructions?" she demanded.
"Aye, my lady. All that you have asked be stored away, I have laid up against need."
"Good. Then I wish for you to procure the following herbs, for I think we may also need them," Éowyn said, and began reading from the list she had made for herself this morning, before her visit to the dungeons. The woman listened intently all the while, committing her lady's words to memory, for she did not read. And when Éowyn stopped, the headwoman nodded, though she frowned slightly as well.
"All shall be as you command, my lady."
"Have you all of it firmly in your memory?"
"Of course, my lady!" the other replied, frowning at that uncustomary question.
"Very good then. See to your business, then," Éowyn replied, tucking her list into her kirtle.
"I shall begin today, since it seems urgent. But we have as much as we need of the last item, if I may say so–"
"You may not." The finality in Éowyn's voice cut the other off brutally, and the headwoman sucked in a breath as she gazed up at the cold face of her mistress.
"As you wish, then," she murmured, baffled by the other's expression. "May I go, my lady?"
"Please do so." Éowyn waited until the woman had gone, then she shut the door to the storehouse and locked it with a large key. Then, assured of her privacy from all, including her betrothed, she sank down onto a barrel of grain and wept as tremors shook her. How did it come to this? she wondered, fairly dizzy with shock. Éomer's reaction had been worse than any rage she might have imagined, and guilt and doubt racked her. Should I have refused? Should I have let him carry out his threats? But in her heart, she knew that she could never have permitted that. Indeed, she had tried for years to find a way to free herself from the threat of just this bit of blackmail, but so long as she loved her brother, Wormtongue could always use him against her.
"Your brother lives on my patience, and your good behavior, my dear," Gríma had warned her last night. "He is one word away from a very... lingering... death. Do not think, either, that ridding yourself of me shall save him, for I have had much time to devise this." And liar though she knew him to be, she had had no choice but to believe him in this, nor had she been able to refuse him. If Éomer were to fall in battle, that would be one thing; she would grieve, of course, yet a warrior's death was honorable and she could ask no more for herself in days so dark as these.
But for him to be tormented in the darkness of his cell, to die a little each time should she refuse her master's commands, and finally to be tossed to the pyre without ceremony—that she could not have endured if there were aught she could do to prevent it. Indeed, she would sooner let him face the hangman, for she knew he could endure that with dignity, and at least all of Edoras would learn how a good man faced unjust death. Not that any such considerations eased the sting of her brother's recrimination, and she clapped a hand over her mouth so her sobs would not attract attention. Curse you, Gríma Wormtongue, whom I must now call 'husband'! For a moment, her mind went utterly blank as she struggled against herself to suppress her memories. She had heard that some women bled profusely after the first time, and sometimes that was quite dangerous. Éowyn supposed others would consider her fortunate that she had not, but for herself, she would have been happy never to waken to this day.
But I have, and the nightmare may not end soon. Edoras must be readied for siege for that army shall not stop at Helm's Deep, and my preparations are nearly complete in that respect. Assuming Gríma knows not all, the word spreads even now throughout the land: come to Edoras and be ready to defend your land! Whether the arrival of Riders at Edoras would spare her brother rather depended upon whether they found her a married woman or not. For she did not doubt Théoden would conveniently die soon thereafter, and Gríma would then make himself lord of the land. And then they would be his Riders, bound to obey him in all things, and who beyond Edoras knows enough to refuse to bow to him? If only it were Elfhelm who came first, even then, there was a chance that the Mark at least would be spared the rule of Gríma Wormtongue, for Elfhelm knew too much to lose the chance to topple the tyrant from his throne. He would not be brought to bow by the confusion sown by the honey-tongue of a usurper.
But it would still be too late for Éomer, of that she was nearly certain, even assuming all went as her rather desperate plan called for. It would need but a sign, and sentence would fall. And if things did not go as hoped for, well, she would have far longer to endure, for whatever might happen to Éomer, she doubted Gríma would give her up so easily after so long spent lusting after her. Then it would be war between them indeed, and so she prepared against both campaigns, the long one of patience as a captive queen and the short one of victorious rebel, and made herself accept that in either case, Éomer was lost.
I am sorry, brother, she thought tearfully. Perhaps it were better I had the courage to defy Wormtongue, even though it bring your death and worse about. But I cannot. And perhaps it is best this way. I could not refuse last night, but I see clearer by day, and perhaps even weakness can be made to serve. For as long as he thinks me wholly cowed by threat to you, I have some small freedom, which I would not otherwise have had. And so your shame and mine, that I have bought you these days, may be redeemed, though neither you nor uncle shall, perhaps, live to see it.
But whatever comes about, Gríma shall not outlive you long, not even if it is to be the long campaign, she vowed silently. For it is as they say, that all things are in the end of our own making. Yes, my husband… come to your wife's sweet arms and learn the measure of my love! A foolish girl you may think me–a toy to amuse you in your pride. But I know of the creatures of the earth, even the lowliest. And why not? For I know what it is to look up from the ground. Know you, Gríma, of the hourglass spider? The one that devours its mate? No? Well, soon enough you shall! You play at high politics, but you know naught of the sort that go on in the bedroom, do you now?
Thought of vengeance helped to stop her tears, for she could not afford to waste her strength on useless regrets. It is done, after all. Let Wormtongue taste the fruits of his labor! Wiping her eyes, she stood and let herself out once more, going back through the kitchens. But as she passed a large hearth, she reached covertly into her kirtle and tossed the list into the flames ere she moved off to speak angrily with one of the cooks for leaving a fire unattended like that. And all the while, while the unwitting victim endured her tongue-lashing, wondering what had gotten into Lady Éowyn of the Mark, the list was swiftly consumed. Soon, there was nothing left, and only two knew that it had ever been… or that the last item on the list was foxglove.
"Eat, Gimli!" Aragorn ordered, tossing his last packet of lembas to the Dwarf. Gimli fumbled to catch it and he shot the Ranger a suspicious look. They had come at last to a halt for the day, and both were weary.
"You continue to say that, but I note that nothing has passed your mouth but air and words," the Dwarf replied, which feisty response elicited a smile from his weary companion.
"The Elves would say that that is sustenance enough at need."
"And so the Dwarves are correct: Elves are daft," Gimli countered, making no move to eat anything at all. "Besides, you are no Elf, Aragorn. For which we ought both to be grateful!" he added.
"And I am not ill, either," the Ranger responded, resorting to his trump card reluctantly, for he knew that no Dwarf liked to be reminded of weakness. "Riding is exhausting work for a novice, as well, and we have still some hours to travel ere we draw nigh to Edoras."
"Alas, if you faint for hunger, I shall then be in dire straits for this horse heeds me not at all," Gimli said archly, ignoring Aragorn's reference to his own diminished capacities and casting a wary look up at Hasufel. Returning his dark gaze to the Ranger, the Dwarf continued on in as reasonable a tone as ever a Dwarf employed, "At least take half, for truly, it shall do neither us nor Legolas nor anyone good if you cannot speak for us."
Aragorn shook his head and raised his eyes heavenward a moment as if in silent appeal, but he chuckled softly, too. "Very well! Such as we have, let us share it since otherwise we shall argue the night away." Gimli snorted but obeyed, though his left hand still shook as he broke the wafer in two pieces. The Ranger reached across the space and snagged the smaller morsel, which earned him another glare, but he ignored it. Hunger he had lived with before and he had made do with less for far longer than this hunt without collapsing.
There is, of course, a first time for everything, Aragorn admitted as he ate, and the Darkness saps my strength even as it wears away at an Elf's resistance and delays a Dwarf's recovery. May Frodo and Sam at least endure it with equanimity! In the mean time, they would soon be reunited with Legolas, and the Ranger hoped that they would find him much improved. If he is to endure our news, he shall have to be better or I know not how we shall tell him. Truthfully, even if the Elf were fully recovered, Aragorn was not certain how to speak of Merry and Pippin to him. A part of him wished to give the task to Gimli, whose friendship with Legolas had blossomed so unexpectedly deep, but that would be cowardly. How is this any worse than telling a family of a Ranger's death, after all? Alas, if it was no worse, it was also no better, and Aragorn hated that duty with an almost religious fervor, though he never forewent it.
"Tell me more of these Rohirrim, Aragorn," Gimli interrupted his thoughts just then, and the Ranger mentally shook himself. "You said you had been among them before. When was that?"
"Many years ago, admittedly," Aragorn replied. "After I had wandered for a time, learning my trade in the north, I went south to learn of Men of different sorts."
"And you admire these horse-lords?"
"I do. They are an honest people by and large, being much concerned with honor. Not unlike Dwarves are," the Ranger said pointedly, and Gimli grunted. "Less somber than the Dúnedain–whether of Arnor or Gondor–they are, and also less learned, but no less true in the end, whatever prejudice may make of such differences."
"And yet, my friend, you seem worried despite such praise." Gimli quirked a dark brow, and Aragorn grimaced slightly.
"Not all is well in this land if the king orders all strangers to come before him or be put to death. There are other things that I miss besides hospitality: we have seen no sign of horse herds nor of any sort of Men, though the custom of many folk here is to drift with the seasons, driving their herds and flocks to different pastures. And Éomer is afraid of something: I read it in his voice. Afraid, and ashamed!" He shook his dark head. "That takes some doing, Gimli, to intimidate a Marshal of the Riddermark."
"And yet you counseled me not to fear for Legolas, knowing all of this?" The edge in the other's tone was unmistakable, and Aragorn sighed softly, meeting the other's stony gaze.
"Yes, because in spite of this… this malady that plagues the land, the Rohirrim are not easily cowed. Even now, I think that one who obeys the king's edict, even be he one of the Eldar, of whom the Rohirrim are suspicious for lack of knowledge, need not fear for his safety, particularly not wounded as he is. I doubt that our friend suffers too greatly unless he has somehow managed to embroil himself in Rohan's troubles, whatever they be."
"And what are the chances that he shall do just that?"
The Ranger and the Dwarf stared at each other for long, and finally, Aragorn responded: "I should hope that he would be wise enough to leave well alone…"
"But," the Ranger sighed, "this is Legolas that we speak of, and I ought to know better than to expect him to behave." Gimli grunted at that, and looked away, while Aragorn cursed silently for having misjudged how best to handle the Dwarf's concerns. He had been too weary and preoccupied at first to deal with Gimli's nearly frantic fears, and had sought only to calm them enough to buy both of them some peace for a time. But clearly he had erred in painting too positive a picture, and now what he had hoped would be a gentle enough wakening to the tension in Rohan seemed a reversal of his previous assurances. And so I seem a liar. Valar help me, I ought to know better than to fall into such a simple trap of words!
"Would they kill him?"
"I cannot tell you 'no' without a doubt, Gimli," Aragorn replied, spreading his hands slightly in a gesture of helplessness. "But in Rohan, the crimes that earn a capital sentence have to do with treason, murder, or rape. And now this law against trespassers, but Legolas has gone to present himself before the court, so he cannot be tried and sentenced to death for his obedience."
"And he is not bound to Rohan, so he could not commit treason, could he?"
"I cannot see how he might."
"And he has no reason to wish anyone in this land ill…"
"No, he does not." Neither mentioned the third possibility, for Legolas could have no interest in defiling a woman thus. 'Tis more likely he would prove a murderer! Aragorn thought, dismissing the very notion. Gimli issued another grunt and fell silent for a time, chewing thoughtfully, and the Ranger was reminded that he, too, had to eat. However much he had protested at first, he never wasted what he was given.
"Well," Gimli said at length in a gruff tone, "I suppose then that he is safe enough, in spite of troubles." Gloín's son gazed steadily at him, and Aragorn felt some of the tension in his gut unwind at the oblique forgiveness.
"I hope that he is. For I would not lose him either," Isildur's Heir replied, and Gimli offered a ghost of a smile ere he growled at Hasufel. The horse was tethered on a long enough line that he could wander a bit in search of grass or other bits of greenery, and he now nuzzled the Dwarf, apparently drawn to the scent of lembas. "Away with you, horse! I have naught of interest, surely!" And when Hasufel continued to nose about Gimli: "Aragorn!"
"Eathe, eathe, mín freond!" The Ranger stood and reached down to catch Hasufel's ear, guiding the animal's head up away from Gimli. The horse whickered at him and butted him in the chest, and the Dwarf snorted.
"See? Dangerous beasts with no respect!"
"One day you must ask Legolas to teach you the way of the Elves with horses," Aragorn replied, stroking Hasufel's neck soothingly. "He but seeks a reward for his labors, as do we all in the end." The Dwarf watched skeptically as the Ranger broke off a small corner of his portion of lembas and offered it to his mount. Hasufel gladly accepted and Gimli rolled his eyes.
"Has he not all the fields for his manger?"
"He has worked as hard as we," Aragorn replied.
"Hah!" But the Dwarf said no more on the subject, only finished his frugal meal ere he turned a wise eye up to his friend. "And what reward do you hope for when this war is over, Aragorn?"
"Gondor restored and a life lived in peace for the first time since I was fifteen, or a little younger," the Ranger replied simply. And sensing that Gimli stared at him still, he raised a brow and asked, "What more could I hope for?"
"I had hoped to learn that, as I know not," the Dwarf responded, cocking his head. There were times when a Dwarf's height had definite advantages, and this was one of them: when taller companions habitually looked down to hide their smiles, he saw them clear as day, even in the dim light of their fire. "All right! I saw that, and now I think I may hazard a guess, for though I be a Dwarf, I have seen that look before even on Men! Who waits for you at home, my friend?"
"No one," the Ranger replied, and Gimli frowned, for however unexpected, the answer rang true. Narrowing his eyes, the Dwarf tried a different tack:
"Legolas suspects, you know."
"Does he indeed?" Aragorn gave the horse an affectionate slap and murmured something that caused Hasufel to move a little ways away and return to grazing on the dew-damp grass. "And has he confided these suspicions?"
"You keep many secrets, Aragorn, for one so honest!" Gimli replied, unwilling to admit that Legolas had not, but knowing full well that his refusal to answer the question was its own admission.
"If I did not keep them, I would not be so called," the Dúnadan replied. "And if you do not rest now, then tomorrow you shall suffer for it. I shall take the first watch and wake you later."
With a resigned but amused shake of his head, Gimli said, "Very well then. I shall not ask further, but one day one of us shall learn the truth!"
"Then I wish you fortune in that endeavor. Good night, Gimli!"
"Good night!" The Dwarf curled up beneath his cloak and was soon asleep, for in truth he was more weary than was his wont at the end of the day. Thrice-cursed orcs! he thought disgustedly as he drifted off to sleep.
Meanwhile, Aragorn stood watching him for a time ere he shivered and pulled his cloak close about him, going to stand near Hasufel for what warmth the horse's body could offer. Good luck indeed, my friend, he thought. For I would share my dream with you if I thought I had a hope of attaining it. But all I have is one night of memories and guilt the next morning that taints all my remembrance. How could I share that with any, even did it not compromise Arwen's honor?
With a shake of his head, he put such remorseful thoughts aside and turned his attention to the future. Tomorrow we reach Edoras, and then… then we shall learn the truth, whatever that may be.
Béma ahredde ús!: Oromë save us! Tolkien writes that Oromë was called Béma by some men. I have just chosen to assume that these men are the Rohirrim or their ancestors (RotK, 393).
Eathe, eathe, mín freond!: Easily, easily, my friend!
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