My Favorite Aragorn Stories
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Twilight of the Gods: 21. Foes Unveiled
It was almost midday when the first settlement came into view. The thick banks of mist next to the river had long since given in to the sun’s relentless onslaught, and the more their mixed host advanced, the more the terrain changed. After the swampy surroundings of the Isen, the ground had become hard and dry, too dry even for the grass that had accompanied them all the way through Rohan. Only brown long-dead remains could be seen of it for as far as the eye reached, and slowly, the plains changed into a panorama of rugged hills, where sheer rock replaced burnt soil.
Raising a hand for his éored to halt, Éomer motioned for Thor and Elfhelm to ride to him. Together with the Gondorian King, the four men surveyed the peaceful sight they were granted. There was no movement ahead. No people on the dusty paths between the huts, nobody on the fields, not even animals. The place looked dead. And, as none of the Rohirrim spoke, an eerie silence stretched over the mass of riders like a blanket as they stood and stared, the air dry and full of dust that went into their eyes and mouths.
At last, it was Elfhelm who spoke.
“It is too silent. They either mean to ambush us, or they’re gone.”
“I would not deem it likely that they would ambush us in the middle of their village,” Thor replied without taking his keen eyes off the huts. “A battle within their settlement could easily mean a complete loss for them. And where are their animals?” He shook his head and turned Doloríon around to face his king. “No, they’re gone. With your permission, sire, I will ride ahead and confirm it before we move into the settlement.”
“We will all ride,” Éomer objected, having come to the same conclusion as his scout. He cast a brief glance over to Aragorn and found consent in the grey eyes before he turned to his éored. “Proceed!” Slowly, persistently, he urged Battleaxe ahead, well aware of the stallion’s nervousness. The quickly flickering ears, the thrashing tale and his overall tension were clear signs that the black had likewise recognised the unusual atmosphere, and the Rohirrim tensed along with his steed, ready to counter any fidgeting actions at once. The host of riders proceeded, eerily silent for a force of their number. Lances, bows and swords were readied as the warriors approached the village.
“Where are their fields?” Éomer mumbled quietly, more to himself than for the ears of the others. His gaze swept over bone-dry soil with deep cracks.
“There has hardly been any rain here all summer and spring,” his scout answered. “None of their crops have grown. What they have is usually over there.” He indicated a stretch of hard, dry ground to their left that, apart from a few dried branches and weeds, didn’t look much different than the ground they were walking upon. With a twitch of his eyebrows, Éomer turned to Aragorn and found his own frown mirrored. No matter what would result from their incursion, it was already a valuable experience, as their neighbours’ plight become more apparent with each step that they took. Silently, and well aware of his men behind him being equally shaken by the evidence of poverty, Éomer took in what his eyes showed him as they passed the fringes of the small settlement. There were not many huts, twenty at the most, all in various stages of neglect and decay. Nothing a Rohirrim would ever want to call his home, even if most of their own domiciles were likewise far from being luxurious.
A prickling feeling on his neck told Éomer that he was being watched, and as he shifted in the saddle, he found Aragorn’s concerned gaze resting upon himself.
“Seeing this, it becomes rather clear why they attacked you, brother.”
“Aye…” Éomer sighed and brought Battleaxe to a halt amidst the huts. Another thorough look confirmed that the village was, indeed, bereft of life. Giving Thor and four members of his guard a meaningful glance, the men dismounted, and the sound of their armour seemed overly loud in the leaden atmosphere. Éomer waited for his kinsmen to join him before he drew his sword and purposefully strode toward the first hut. Giving his own men a similar glance, the Gondorian king followed them, his keen eyes sweeping their surroundings for any tell-tale signs.
“They left in a hurry,” Thor explained as they entered the first hut. “They took no personal belongings with them. Look! Seems like they counted on returning here soon.”
Éomer came to a stop in the middle of the sparsely decorated, run-down hut and pivoted, clearly impressed by the signs of poverty he saw. Whatever his eyes swept over – ragged clothes, rusty pans and cooking utensils, shabby blankets on a cod which could hardly be called a bed – all indicated the conditions under which their western neighbours were living. Slowly, he lifted up a crude doll that had been made from old, stained linen and mouldy hay. This was what the children of Dunland had to play with? He remembered Éowyn’s elaborately worked and luxuriously dressed dolls. Even those little dresses had been worked from materials like silk and velvet; materials their western neighbours would never know in their lives… and they were using it for their toys! And even their commoners, the simple people… Éomer remembered that while their toys had not been as fanciful as those he and Éowyn had possessed, they had still been carefully crafted and made from materials far superior than this. With a bout of shame, he set the doll -- which looked more like a scarecrow to his eyes -- back onto the blankets and turned around.
“They fled from us. They were probably counting on us to make this incursion in order to end what had begun in Meduseld. They think we have come to kill them.”
“Do they?” Aragorn, a hand on the hilt of his sword, got closer. “If you had wanted to kill them you could have done so at Edoras or on the way back. The leaders would never have reached their home to warn their people.” He glanced around uneasily. “I say they retreated in order to lure us further into their land.” Éomer looked up, and Aragorn continued, “The question you have to ask yourself is this: will you risk it, considering they might have gathered their forces?”
The King of Rohan nodded with determination.
“I have not come the long way only to turn back now. And I will not let a filthy traitor thwart me, no matter whether he comes from Rohan or Dunland!” Aragorn nodded curtly and, like his friend, gazed at the crude furnishings of the hut. Éomer's fingers glided over a shabby curtain that hid a niche which probably in better times would have held supplies. Now it was empty. Inhaling deeply, Éomer turned around, and in the young king’s stormy eyes Aragorn could read just how disturbed he was by what they had found. “To live like this…” Words failed Éomer, but what he meant was obvious as he shook his head at himself, and with Aragorn in tow exited the hut.
“The treaty with Rohan could improve their lives, but at the moment we are far from it. There is still the necessity to find and convince Woldro and the others that your offer genuinely remains. And that will not be done easily. He might have lost part of his distrust since he reached his land without being harmed, but still… what we see here is no indication that the tribal leaders are willing to meet you on friendly terms.” Aragorn followed his friend, his gaze sweeping through the deserted village. At a stone-circled well, he came to a halt and followed the Rohirrim’s glance into the deep. There was barely more than a puddle of muddy water down there. Nothing one would drink unless forced to. And the Isen was hours away. “But I still believe there is a chance to establish peace.”
“There has to be,” Éomer stated firmly, and glanced up at the sound of steps. It was his scout.
“They went north,” Thor indicated the clearly visible tracks leading out of the village. “There’s another small settlement three to four hours from here. That is where they probably went.”
“Did you find anything?” Elfhelm asked from the short path he had explored on horseback, now headed back for his waiting éored. Galdur, having done similarly on the only other path, shook his head.
“There is nothing to be found. They have left. And if they possessed weapons, they took them along.” He looked to the two kings, who were slowly making their way back to their horses. “By the looks of it, they’re planning to ambush us on the way. They will not welcome us in a friendly manner, no matter with how much sympathy we are determined to treat them.”
Éomer narrowed his eyes.
“Captain, would you run from your enemy without your weapons?”
“But he is correct, sire,” Elfhelm stated uncomfortably. “They are drawing us deeper into their land. Perhaps we should not leave our main host at the Isen. If we run into problems deep within Dunland, they will be too far away to help us.”
Éomer swung into the saddle.
“We are here to salvage what we can. To convince them that we come in peace. It will be hard enough to do already in the wake of what happened at Meduseld. Entering their land with over 300 heavily-armed riders in addition to that will not help us achieve our goal.” He turned to his scout.
“Thor, to the next settlement. Lead the way.”
Fáred did not like what he saw. They had passed the second village – if the assembled huts deserved such a noble name – only to find it deserted like the first one. He knew there was danger ahead and he still asked himself why the King of Rohan had allowed the Dunlendings to leave Edoras only to follow them shortly after. There was no military logic behind this action. If he had wanted to continue talking with them he had had the chance before. To meet the enemy on his own terrain was neither wise nor recommended. And the captain did not like to see his own ruler ride into this barren land, so close to the Misty Mountains. He knew that King Elessar would risk his life for the sake of his friend, neglecting his duties as the leader of his own land. The Dunlendings could approach them from any side at any time they chose. They had the advantage of knowing the landscape, and no scout could change that.
Fáred brought his steed close to that of his king.
“My lord, in case the Dunlendings do indeed gather for an attack…”
The king merely glanced at him, knowing in advance what he was about to say.
“Enough blood has been spilled already. If it comes to a fight we will spare those men by any means.”
The captain had to bite down his contradiction, but found himself asking,
“And with what, my king, shall we defend ourselves? Courteous words?”
“It would be a start.”
The look accompanied with the words made Fáred swallow hard. It had been a clear command to let those unrefined inhabitants of that dreadful land live even if their hostility erupted. He forced himself to nod, but amidst his anger about the senseless order he was afraid for his king. His tendency to mediate could easily lead to his doom.
“I am beginning to hate this land,” Elfhelm muttered, his eyes scanning the rugged terrain they were passing through and had been riding through the entire day. After the darkness of the new moon had forced them to pitch camp in the middle of an obscure landscape full of possible hiding places, they had spent the night in a tense atmosphere, bracing for an attack that never came. None of the warriors had had more than a few hours of very light sleep, and it was showing in the manner of their approach – silent, edgy, nervous. Ready to react to the first sight of an enemy. The weather had changed from the dry heat of the south to cooler temperatures, and the air was so laden with moisture it felt as if they were riding through liquid. The mist that had given these mountains their name had lifted for the day, but its remains were still there, albeit invisible.
The two kings who were riding in front of the Lord of Westfold turned around and saw the marshal shake his head. “No grass, not a tree, nothing green to soothe the eye, and hundreds upon hundreds of places to stage an ambush at,” Elfhelm continued. “We could pass by those wretched tribal leaders without ever knowing.”
“Thor will know,” Éomer objected, his eyes resting on their scout who was riding ahead through the gorge, barely within sight. Looking for traces and signs of danger. ”He is a good man. Nothing will escape his attention.” He inhaled deeply and looked at Aragorn who was riding beside him in silence, likewise concentrating on their surroundings. “And we all have experience in the field. We know what to look for. I am not concerned that we will miss anything.” His stern gaze glided over the rugged hills to their left and right, the sheer cliffs and rocky outcroppings which left hardly more open than the narrow way they were riding through. Further ahead, the gorge appeared to widen, yet the sight of it left the Rohirrim king uncomfortable while he waited for his scout to return. He knew what had caused his marshal to vent his frustration. The tension had held through the entire day, and it was about time to release some of it. By now, they had ventured far into Dunland without catching so much as a glimpse of a Dunlending.
“And we cannot very well choose another way,” Aragorn mused, his grey eyes likewise on Thor’s black steed in the distance before they went up to scan the surrounding mountains. “After all, we are here to talk with them. If we retreat now, there will be no second chance.”
“It is a smart strategy.” Elfhelm pursed his lips and looked into Galdur’s grim face. The captain had been riding next to him for the entire day without saying a word. Ever since Éomer’s admonishment in the Golden Hall, the Westfold warrior seemed to have withdrawn deeply into himself. He answered when he was spoken to, yet did not contribute anything to their discussions on his own impulse, and every now and then, Elfhelm had caught the younger man casting a dark look into Éomer’s direction. As a man who had travelled through these lands more often than all of them, except maybe for Thor, his opinion and insights could have been valuable, yet the captain chose to remain silent for a reason Elfhelm could not comprehend. All he could do was observe, and Elfhelm did not like what he saw.
“Durden and Woldro will have realised by now that we are after them especially. So they retreat further and further to a place where they think they will easily gain the upper hand, knowing that we won’t pull back. And knowing that they are cutting us off from our main host.” He watched as his captain came closer after his brief exploration.
Éomer nodded, not surprised. His own instincts had been crying out for hours at the sight of the paths they had to take and the knowledge that they would be hard-pressed to defend themselves if the Dunlendings chose to attack them in full force; yet what alternative was there? Mulling the thought over and over in his head without finding an answer, he waited until Thor was reining in Doloríon at his side.
“I could not find any tracks, but that means nothing. Within their own land, Dunlendings are very cunning when it comes to disappearing without a trace.”
“What does your gut tell you?” Éomer asked.
“I think they came this way. Yet where they are now, and what they have planned, is hard to tell.”
“Very well…” Éomer urged his steed a few paces ahead and lifted his hand, gesturing for his men to proceed. “We will see what happens. Right now, it would appear as if the decision has been taken out of our hands.”
With a curt nudge Aragorn got Brego going again. Glancing at the slopes which were stretching to their right for a length he could not determine, he shared Elfhelm’s opinion that the Dunlendings could hide anywhere; yet he also agreed with Éomer that they had not come this far only to back off now. Still the abducted men had not been found, and even if they failed to start negotiations anew, they had to find the missing Rohirrim. He had barely begun the thought, when the noise of falling rocks catapulted him back to reality.
Spurring Battleaxe into full gallop was barely more than an instinct. In the same motion, Éomer readied shield and sword, but left his lance secured. He cleared the area of the rockslide in time with his éored,. However just then, ahead and from the sides, more Dunlendings than he could count in the short amount of time poured into the little valley, yelling their battle cries as they charged toward them. A number of them carried swords, others clubs and long, knifed poles which Éomer had never seen them use before. Still, he felt vaguely relieved to not discover long-range weapons among them. As ordered, his men fanned out to intercept the attackers. Neither bows nor crossbows were aimed at them, and aside from a number of small stones that rained down on them and were easily deflected by armours and helms, all that could hurt them would have to come within their range. They still were outside it, and Éomer used the moment to do something he had never done in his life.
He viciously reined Battleaxe in and brought him to rear, shouting, “Dunlendings! We have come to talk, not to kill! Lay down your weapons, and let us talk!”
A hail of stones answered him, and only a fast reaction saved him from a rock that would have hit his face as he brought up his shield. With a loud clank, the stone was repelled, and in the next second, the wave of hillmen was upon them. Readying himself for the first contact, Éomer was nearly unseated as his horse suddenly jumped forth with a shrill cry. Dimly he remembered that it was Battleaxe’s first skirmish, and even though he had attempted to train the black in armed conflicts with the help of his éored, it became immediately apparent that the stallion knew the difference. A knifed polearm was swung toward his legs to down him, and he leapt over it with effortless power. With a violent shift of his body weight, Éomer threw his steed around just as his hoofs touched the ground again, and the mighty shoulder threw their attacker to the ground. The next three had already charged toward him, and from all around the sounds of the melee rose.
A sword crashed against his greaves without cutting through, and Éomer kicked it out of his foe’s hands without dealing out a strike himself. From the corners of his eyes he saw motion, and brought Battleaxe around rearing, his powerful front legs kicking through the air. The two Dunlendings he had seen jumped back, barely escaping the thrashing hoofs. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the Rohirrim king suddenly found himself smiling at the revelation that his horse seemed to enjoy the battle. The black had given up all resistance and was now answering to commands he had barely given, displaying incredible instinct. Putting it to good use, Éomer charged against another group of attackers.
The king's command to strike but not kill had been clear, but it was hard to transform into reality. The hillmen struck to maim, and no courteous word would stop them. Tarés spurred his horse to intercept a Dunlending attacking his ruler from behind with a club and hit him with the hilt of his sword on the head, sending him to the ground. From the other side two men reached King Elessar, but he blocked their short swords and disarmed them without even cutting a scratch. While they stooped to grab their weapons Brego shoved them aside. To Tarés it looked like horse and rider were a unit of fighters, long trained in joined battles. He forced off another hillman gaining on him with a polearm, and his defence left the attacker with a bloody nose.
Hilberon felt like a young apprentice again. He was trained to fend off arms brandished at him, but to retaliate without causing deadly injuries was something no one had ever taught him. If he struck too lightly the man would come at him again, but if he hit too hard the king's order would not be fulfilled. He thrust his sword forward, penetrating the man's shoulder. His opponent dropped his weapon and stumbled back, and the young soldier congratulated himself for the one success. But the next adversary had already reached him, and he swung in his saddle, directing Harolyan to the right, and with yet another strike of his sword cut through the sword arm of the Dunlending. Exhaling, Hilberon watched the screaming man go down, only to face the next row of enemies. Harolyan pranced suddenly, and the Gondorian took two hands to hold the reins, before he realised that the steed had more battle experience than he. The attackers fled the wildly thrashing hoofs, and through the tension Hilberon almost smiled. For a moment he looked to King Elessar. The fighting skills of that man were legendary, and even in a strange fight like this he had the utmost control over his defence, the enemies, and the surroundings. When a figure appeared on a ledge it was he who noticed him first. Hilberon's gaze followed his. Three persons stood there watching the fight, and the young soldier recognised two of them, who had belonged to the delegation at Edoras. Then a hillman caught Hilberon's attention, and only out of the corner of his eye he saw King Elessar move his steed to where King Éomer's armour and helmet could be seen.
“Éomer! Éomer!” It was Aragorn’s voice that rang out over the noise of the raging battle. The Rohirrim king sheathed his sword and grasped the polearm of a very surprised Dunlending, wrenching it out of his hands with one fierce tug as he rode by and swinging it against another one, the knifed end cutting the other weapon in half. Only then did Éomer dare to look for the Gondorian. Aragorn was over to his left, anxiously indicating something that lay behind Éomer. Turning Battleaxe in a tight circle, Éomer’s gaze went up to where his friend was pointing, briefly becoming aware of movement, scurrying shapes in fur and ragged clothing high above them on a mountain path. For a second, he thought he saw the stout shape of one of the leaders who had been at Meduseld – Rulen, he remembered – then it too disappeared behind the rocks.
“I’m going after them!” Aragorn shouted. In the time it had taken Éomer to see what his friend had meant, Aragorn had made it over the field of battle to his side. “Can you and your men hold your own against them?”
“Are you jesting?” Éomer snorted. “Go! But see that you find Thor first. He’ll be able to tell you how to get up there. As soon as we’re finished here, we’ll come after you.” Another group of attackers came charging at him, ending their brief discussion.
Galdur lashed out a mighty strike, cutting through the polearm that was swinging toward him. A vicious kick sent his attacker sprawling, and with a quick shift of his weight, he threw Axálar around to run over the fallen body. Hardly caring for the agonised scream from below, he turned toward the next enemy, but as soon as the hillman saw what had happened to his kinsman, he turned on his tail and fled. A grim smile tugged at Galdur’s mouth as he directed his steed in a quick circle, momentarily free of attackers. Not far from him, his king was in the middle of a melee with three attackers, his attention bound, and directed away from him.
The thought came to Galdur like a bolt of lightning, and before he had fully realised his own intent, Axálar was already accelerating toward Éomer. He drew back his arm with the spear, preparing to put all of his weight and strength behind the thrust. It was now or never. No one would ever know what had happened in the heat of the battle. The Valar had granted him a moment of clarity in the heat of the skirmish, and he was determined to seize it. The Rohirrim would thank him for this. Tensing for the deadly thrust, the captain suddenly caught a blur of dark brown from the left, then something crashed into him with the force of a battering ram! Shrieking, Axálar came off his legs, and for an awful moment, his grey neck appeared over Galdur as he fell backwards, taking his rider along.
An awful scream from behind! Having deterred his attackers, who were running from Battleaxe’s powerful frame, Éomer thrust the stallion around to look, and the sight froze him. Galdur was down, pinned under the weight of his horse and screaming in agony! Before he knew what he was doing, the king had slid from his saddle and was running toward his fallen kinsman. Axálar was wildly thrashing and still screaming, unable to get up. Most likely he had broken a leg in the fall, but at this second, the Rohirrim king cared only for his captain as he already saw more Dunlendings charge toward them like seasoned scavengers closing in for the kill. A well-known mighty bay horse briefly charged through his field of vision as Éomer ran around Axálar’s hindquarters.
“Elfhelm, keep them off!”
The king was coming for him. The king had not seen what happened. The chance was still there. Through the haze of agony that ravaged his body, Galdur saw his sword lying close by. His fingers closed around it.
“Captain, hold on! Be prepared to pull back!” Éomer moved to the fallen’s side, dropping Gúthwine and laying his hands on the grey stallion’s saddle to shove him from Galdur’s legs, yelling for help. Missing his kinsman’s hard look and the sudden flash of his moving sword.
The king’s head shot up at the panic in Elfhelm’s voice, but what he saw could not possibly be: a spear was flying toward him, released from the marshal’s hand!
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