My Favorite Aragorn Stories
Playlist Navigation Bar
Twilight of the Gods: 27. Aftermath
Ridasha watched the healer's face. He was fighting within himself. His brows furrowed, he moved his head and parted his lips in a painful expression as if to contradict his treatment, but no words came. She leant forward, almost expecting him to say something – or to hear Úshemor speak to her through him. Any accusation would be justified. Ridasha swallowed hard. Harishdane had collected her belongings and had left her with the order to watch over the prisoner, and the young soldier had silently accepted the task with an obedient bow. An hour had passed, and she still sat close by the captive, only stood up once in a while to feed the small fire. What would the goddess do with her tribe – and with Harishdane's tribe? She had always considered the gods to be merciful, but the last years had taught her kin otherwise until the Jásheni-Rhûvenan had reached their shores. Ridasha remembered the day of their arrival. All other tribes had thought that only hopelessness remained and they had been willing to leave their home behind. The Jásheni were different, and they had demonstrated their superiority from the first moment on till their strength and skills had been known to all other tribes. The high priestesses had praised their arrival as a day of the gods' generosity and said that Harishdane and her kin were sent by them to lead the Easterlings to a better future. Ridasha could still recall the high spirits spreading among those present the moment Harishdane had been proclaimed as the leader of all tribes.
Rising slowly she went over to the stone Harishdane had used and knelt in front of it. Using her scarf to cover the surface she placed a small bowl with water on it and bowed to the simplest of shrines, praying quietly. She sang to Úshemor for forgiveness for herself, telling her that she had not willingly helped. But she was not sure that the goddess would listen. She remained on her knees for a time uncounted, and when she returned and hid her scarf under her tunic again, she looked again into the healer's face. He sweated and panted, and though he was still unconscious his mind seemed to scream for release. This night had turned out different from all others. Harishdane would be known for crossing a border that should not be crossed, and she would have to face the high priestess' punishment for her wrong-doing if Úshemor allowed them to even get this far. Ridasha shivered with anxiety. How could it have come to this? What had convinced her leader to mark this healer? How could she have thought it an unavoidable deed? He was a simple man taught in the skills of healing people, no wizard to fear. And he could not truly be a mighty soldier even though a pretty hunting knife had once belonged to him.
Aragorn felt paralysed. Something hot as well as cold quivered through his veins. From his neck down to his shoulder and his right arm. He flexed his fist – it still worked, and he could feel his cold fingers again. But the sensation of a creeping, crawling entity travelling through his body lasted much longer. A weakness still spread over him and finally grasped his whole body, making him shiver ceaselessly. He did not want to move, not even open his eyes. The strange scent was still in the air and made him heave. He heard the crackle of fire behind him, and voices talking in the distance. He assumed it to still be night. His body felt heavy and limp, and the fear that he might be unable to move at all made him slowly turn his head though the pain rose at once. He forced his eyes to open. Ridasha stared at him as if waiting for an important announcement, but he was unable to speak. Frowning she took her water-skin, opened it and held it to his lips to let him drink.
“Did you meet the goddess?” she asked lowly, and her look indicated how important the question was to her. He did not understand. “Did you see Úshemor?” He found no words and only shook his head slightly. She put away the water-skin. “You probably do not remember.”
He swallowed and looked around, and when he saw that they were alone he asked quietly,
“What did you do?” His voice rasped. “I felt… something on my nose.”
“Oh, it was nothing.” The feeble smile lasted only seconds, but she still looked at him.
“I saw… pictures of green grass and animals roaming there.”
“Sharos, yes. It is a peaceful picture, isn't it? But it is long gone. A mere memory.”
He wet his lips.
“What we had lies in ruins. Mordor's poisonous breath bereft us of our land.” She exhaled and her shoulders sagged. She rested her hands beside her drawn-up legs. “I do not dare to hope that we will ever return to peaceful times.” Again her gaze travelled to the red lines on the healer's neck, and regret made her flinch.
He gathered his strength to ask,
“Why did you speak up?” Ridasha did not answer. She was still unwilling to believe that their well-respected leader had executed a ritual that belonged to one of the oldest the Easterling tribes knew. Harishdane had insulted all that Ridasha believed in. Her confusion ran deep and she let the healer see it. “Was she… not allowed to do this?” he asked hoarsely and clenched his teeth when he tried to move.
“Úshemor will guide you from now on,” she said flat-voiced and was unwilling to say more.
Ridasha leant back. The healer had fallen asleep, and she felt the same exhaustion overcome her. Resting the back of her head against a stone she closed her eyes, but her sleep was filled with strange pictures of how the goddess would come over them to judge their doings. When she woke and found the campsite untouched and the captive still on the ground she breathed with relief.
Asentis stood in front of her. His beardless features with the dark brown eyes had always impressed her, but her admiration for the strength and skill of this man was spoiled.
“Make him get up,” he ordered, and she nodded curtly. “Quick. We need to move on!” Asentis turned and left. Since their camp lay within the mountain the morning light would not touch it for another half hour, but the sky had already turned to a pale blue. She drank water and found the healer awake. Getting closer she realised that the man had hardly moved.
Frowning, she asked,
“Does it still hurt?“ He nodded only slightly. Even his breathing seemed laboured. Kneeling before him, Ridasha gently pushed away the hair from his neck and let her finger rest at the edge of the symbol. “It is still swollen. This is quite unusual. You seemed to be in real pain too.” Again a nod. “That is… strange.” From a sack she carried with her she took a piece of cloth, drenched it with water and gently wiped away the blood.
He turned his head slightly so he could look into her face.
“What do you mean?”
“In those markings I witnessed during a proper ceremony the men and women did not feel much pain.”
“So this…” He could not go on, shut his eyes again.
“These markings are given to every prisoner of war,” Ridasha explained emotionless, moving back a step, but still crouching on her heels. Twisting the wet cloth between her hands she waited until he looked at her again, and the sound of her voice turned bitter. “In a ceremony at noon all the tribe’s prisoners are brought forward and the high priestess marks them and puts them under the guidance of Úshemor. This is our goddess who watches over all slaves so that they work properly and do not stand up against their tribe.” She looked down upon the cloth, letting the healer drew his conclusion. He did not utter a word, so she leant forward again to wipe the blood from his nose before she unbound his ankles. “You have to get up, Strider. The sun’s rising. We move on.”
Halamin could not believe what he saw. A gasp and a cry of shock escaped him, and he stared with wide eyes at his ruler being led to them from behind the rocks separating the circle. He knew he should be glad to see him alive, but that moment of joy was short-lived. The king's face was pale and haggard, his lips pressed tight as if to suppress pain, and the collar of his jerkin had been cut and partly bared his shoulder. The other soldiers turned and craned their necks, and murmurs rose to shouts of horror. A hillman grabbed Halamin's arm, but he angrily broke free, not even looking at his captor. All prisoners stood unmoving until their ruler had reached them.
“Strider…,” Halamin whispered sympathetically, “by the Valar, we feared the worst. What have they done to you?”
The king shot him a commanding look.
“Move on, Halamin, right now.” His voice was but a breath, and it took him strength to walk upright, but he passed his fellows, who still stood gaping, and took the lead of the group leaving the campsite through the tunnel.
“Aye,” Halamin answered quietly, exchanging a glance with Tarés as they followed. Both had seen the red lines on the king’s back shining through his dark hair. Tarés' face was ashen. ‘King Elessar has to return home,’ the captain had stressed to his second-in-command. ‘It is not his fight in Dunland, and no one at home would understand if he were to fall for his Rohan ally.’ He swallowed hard. The king was losing strength, and there was no help for it.
The night had been short, but now that he finally knew where to go, even the few hours of rest which darkness had dictated had seemed like an eternity for Éomer. Eagerness, determination and impatience personified, he stepped out of his tent when only the barest hint of the approaching daylight was showing itself on the horizon. The camp was already brimming with activity, every grasp well-practised and efficient. Soon, all signs that there had been ever a Rohirrim camp at the foot of these mountains would be gone, while they’d be chasing Aragorn’s captors. Slightly shifting his view, he recognised two approaching shapes through the early morning’s fog, and turned to greet them by raising his chin.
“Thor! Any occurrences during the night?” Éomer’s gaze briefly glided down to the shorter, squarely-built Dunlending at his scout’s side. The man looked uncomfortable, which was understandable given his status as a semi-captive.
“Nothing, sire. The men are ready to leave.”
“What will you do if you find them?” Woldro asked, casting more than one nervous side-glance at the Rohirrim soldiers around him. He was painfully aware of his exposed position and knew that his life was safe only for as long as the men’s leader held his protective hand above him. “Kill them?”
“That depends on the manner in which they confront us,” his opposite stated. “If they surrender, I might consider sparing their lives. But if they want the fight, I shall gladly bring it to them. And if they have laid but a finger on the King of Gondor, they will wish they had never heard of a realm called Rohan!” His fingers clenching around the hilt of his sword as if he could barely await the moment of the confrontation, Éomer’s gaze remained on the Dunlending for another moment before he finally addressed his kinsman. “Thor, you and Arnhelm ride ahead. Woldro will ride with Elfhelm. And make haste, we have lost too much time already.”
The sun was not up when the thunder of the great Rohirrim host echoed from the mountains, the sound travelling ahead for many leagues and announcing the coming of an army of riders, out for revenge...
The whisperings of her kinsmen behind her continued – “Why was he marked?” “How can this be done without Gishvané?” – and she lowered her head, unwilling to stare at the healer's back any longer. Upon leaving the campsite Harishdane had ordered Ridasha to watch over the prisoner, and had added with the same anger that she would hold her responsible for any action that the healer might take. Ridasha knew it was part of the leader's revenge for her obstinacy, and she had accepted it without argument, knowing she was walking a thin line now. The leader could decide her fate until they met the high priestess, and Ridasha was aware that her accusations the night before had brought her close to a severe punishment. She did not know if Harishdane had been benevolent for now or had acted out of necessity.
The two Easterling women shot her an angry glance and moved on, shoving the healer aside to take their places along the row of prisoners. Ridasha knew they considered her to be a member of the ceremony, and no words would change that. Not that she wanted to talk. Since the ritual had been violated she feared the wrath of Úshemor to come over them all, and the same anxiety had been uttered by others of her kin, who had seen the deep red mark. They knew that Harishdane had taken the healer to be her slave though it was forbidden, but, aside from the doubts and the whispered indignation, they would not openly accuse their leader. They would obey and march on and hope that the goddess might forgive the one mistake among the many brave and valuable deeds Harishdane had accomplished for the tribes.
When Asentis ordered the group to come to a halt, Ridasha lifted her eyes from the ground. After covering broken pathways which were treacherous to step on, they had reached a small arch which shielded them from the sun's heat. The Dunlendings ordered the prisoners to sit down and remain still. In times before she would have smiled about the primitive hillmen and their fear of the Gondorians and their voices, but today she was too concerned to even react. Her gaze found the healer again. He had been plodding himself along the path for the hours until noon, and when he almost fell to the ground two of his men quickly aided him to sit and let him drink first. Ridasha drank herself and stared at the blue sky, bare of any clouds. Half a day had passed since the violation, and still the goddess seemed to ponder about a proper punishment. Maybe she would strike so hard that none of them would be left alive. She shivered with the thought of all of her kinsmen being killed because of Harishdane's wrong decision. Lowering her gaze she watched the soldiers talk with the healer. He looked wretched and too exhausted to move on, and Ridasha asked herself what her leader would do if the wounds hampered him from going on. Would she let them all wait or make some of his men carry him? There was no way to leave him behind now. With marking him as a slave Harishdane had – at the same time – taken up the responsibility for his well-being. Ridasha suddenly realised that her leader had commanded her at the healer's side for that reason – to make sure the man moved on. Her lips curled to a bitter smile she quickly hid. Harishdane had executed a lesson in shrewdness, and Ridasha was the apprentice to get the blame.
Aragorn gave back the water-skin to Tarés and wiped his weary eyes with his palms. The soldier bent forward, whispering,
“My lord, what will you have us do?“
After a quick glance at the female Easterling who had stayed at the king’s side since their departure, Hilberon on the other side added:
“You command us, and we follow. Just let us know.“
With an effort Aragorn raised his head again. The hours of marching had been long, and he wished for nothing more than to lie down and close his eyes. He faced the young man.
“How is your arm doing?“
The son of Hiregon stood firm to his ruler’s look.
“It is healing,” he stated and could not cover his obstinacy. “When will we fight?“
Aragorn’s lips twitched.
“Not now. We move on,“ he simply said.
“We have to do something, have we not?” the young soldier pressed.
Tarés exhaled noisily. He had stayed at the king's side since they had left the campsite, and he cared too much for the well-being of his ruler to remain silent.
“But you are exhausted. You cannot...“
The king’s head snapped to his second-in-command, and though his voice was still low the finality in his tone could not be missed.
“I am getting better.“
The older soldier cast down his eyes, setting his jaw.
Ridasha stepped closer, unfastening a small sack from under her tunic. Immediately the men next to the healer looked up, a threat in their eyes to defend their comrade if necessary. Not for the first time the Easterling found their behaviour admirable and at the same time strange. Harishdane had told her that, aside from their kin, other races were no more than unrefined peasants with only little honour, pride, or skill. She had told them that she would lead the Easterlings to victory for the enemies would not be able to withstand a longer fight, and would soon give into their destiny.
“Why did you do this to him?” the elder of the soldiers accused her through clenched teeth. “He’s…”
“It was not she,” the healer silenced his fellow. His voice sounded as beaten and tired as he looked. “It was her leader.”
“You look like you are still in pain,“ Ridasha said quietly, and took a small dark brown leaf out of the sac. The healer looked at her, and though pride would keep him from admitting the fact, his eyes did not. She handed him the leaf. “This might help. Put it on your tongue.“
“Do not take it,” the elder soldier warned quietly. “It could be poison.”
The healer took it, asking:
“What is it for?”
Ridasha looked from the hateful eyes of the soldier back to the healer, who seemed cautious, but not utterly distrustful of her offer.
“It is only mishénian,” she explained, “it numbs the pain.” She paused a moment before asking, “Are you not of the race of Man?“
He raised his brows in astonishment.
“Why do you say that?“
Ridasha hesitated, anxious suddenly that she had revealed some valuable knowledge to him, but then decided to move on.
“I never...“ She swivelled around, but only a hillman passed her by. Exhaling she turned back again, careful now that no one listened. “I told you… I never saw this happening... after the ritual.“ The healer held her in his stare. His grey eyes seemed to look right into her, and she swallowed. “So I wanted to know if you are not Man.“
He tasted the slightly bitter leaf, frowning, thinking. From the head of the group shouts echoed. They would soon go on.
“You tell me that there are more prisoners bearing this mark? Men from Rohan and Gondor?“
Ridasha wanted to cast down her eyes, but could not. Though the question had been uttered without accusation she could read the horror in his expression. Finally she admitted,
“There are more prisoners... They will belong to the tribes.“
“Men you abducted from Rohan?“ The sudden realisation in his eyes made her frown. She had to be careful now. He seemed to know more that she had expected. “During the raids on the Rohirric settlements?“ She could not hide the answer he clearly saw in her face. “Where did you take them? What did you do with them?“
“They will be set under the guidance of Úshemor,“ she answered quietly and left the men alone, unwilling to endure the healer’s penetrating stare any longer.
“So they are not dead, but not better off than we,” Tarés muttered and stared after the woman. “Who knows where they are by now.”
“What did she mean?” Hilberon asked, rising when the Dunlendings got closer. “Will we all be…” He chewed on the word and swallowed hard. “Will this be done to us all?”
“I cannot say.” The king got up, trying to lighten the dreadful thoughts Hilberon bared on his juvenile features, but feeling unable to convince him. “But it has not happened yet, and if we stand true to each other, we will not let it happen.” He stared at the soldier, who was unable to accept the encouragement, but nodded nevertheless.
While the pain eased to a tolerable level Aragorn thought about Hilberon's words. Would it be the destiny of his people to be marked and led to Rhûn? He clenched his fists, dreading the thought alone. There had to be a chance to evade this doom, even if it would cost him. Seeing the worried faces of the soldiers only strengthened his determination to take whatever action to free his men.
He still pondered what the sign he bore now meant. Having heard the agitated whispers by other Easterlings behind him he had guessed that they disapproved of Harishdane's arrogation, but would this bear any consequences for him or his men? Would the Easterlings in the leader's company act against her? And what did the mark signify? Did it only show what Ridasha had talked about? But why had her leader been so eager to mark him instead of waiting until the ceremony would have been led by the high priestess? The king shivered and trudged on.
Behind Halamin, Dumarin snorted with exhaustion. The younger man had heard his comrade breathing heavily for most of the way, and now that the day waned he seemed hardly able to lift his feet any more. With every step he slurred over the stony ground, tripping time and time again in the dim light of yet another long tunnel leading through the mountains. He cursed and complained quietly until he finally asked:
“What did the king say? Where are we going?”
Halamin looked back over his shoulder. Dumarin's reddened face was covered with sweat, his shoulders sagged, and his uniform was partly torn.
“For now we move on. He will tell us when…”
“Move on!” Dumarin sneered and squinted when the Dunlending with the torch took a curve and left the group in complete darkness. “For how long? The end of days? There is no hope of escaping them!” He cursed again viciously when he hit his head.
“Don't say that! We should not lose our faith so easily!”
“Faith… hope! The captain is dead because he hoped to save…”
“Don't!” Halamin cut him off, and the stout man clamped his mouth shut. They took the curve and found the rugged path winding downward again. Dumarin grumbled ceaselessly, afraid that they would be led even deeper into the mountain. He hated the smell alone, and the stories told about the depth of the world he did not like either. “There will be a chance.” Halamin caught the glance of an Easterling guard with a torch and knew that his confidence relied on his ruler and his leadership. He did not want to think any further.
“Aye,” Dumarin replied with a bitter expression. “Did you not hear him last night? Did not your blood freeze when he cried?” Halamin lowered his head. He had been afraid he would not see his ruler again, and yet he had seen him – seen him tread the way with diminishing strength, keeping himself upright with nothing more than his will – and feared even more. “And still you think he’ll lead us out of captivity?”
“If he can't do it alone we must help him.”
Again Dumarin snorted, as if saying that Halamin was nothing but a dreamer, obstinately refusing to open his eyes to the truth.
“Look at him, my friend,” he therefore said, “look and tell me what you see! By nightfall he will be so spent he cannot even think about another attempt to escape. Or to lead us anywhere. If he lasts the night…”
“Dumarin!” Halamin almost shouted, “One should never think about such fates or even utter it! He is…” He stopped himself. He would never leave his king behind. And not until he saw his cold and dead body he would think of his ruler's death. He had prayed for his life last night and knew Tarés had done the same.
“He is losing,” Dumarin huffed, knowing that his comrade had meant something else. “And even if he regains his health on the way, how do we know that he will still be the same man then?” Dumarin exhaled noisily upon climbing down a steep staircase, which steps were partly broken and slippery due to the water dripping from an unseen spring. Without using his hands it was a difficult undertaking, and he panted even more when they reached the end of it. He longed for a rest and wondered if the sun had already set. The whole day he had pondered over their foes and their intentions, and finally Halamin was close enough to share his thoughts with him. “What if this mark… changes him? Turns him into one of them?” Halamin faced him again shortly, disbelief in his green eyes. “Now, do not look like this! She's a witch, don't you think? Put him under her spell for good and won't release him! How could we know he'll lead us to freedom, hum? He might do what she bids.”
“How can you say that?” Halamin shook his head and moved on, unwilling to listen to the stout man, but when he had fallen silent the younger soldier was pinched by the thoughts Dumarin had set in his mind. Though the great evil force in the east had been smashed he knew that it was impossible to eradicate it for good. He had to admit that he did not know anything about the way the Easterlings lived. Dumarin had told him about the fights along the mountains during the last days of the Ring War, but all the fat man had stressed had been his hatred and his despising the enemies for robbing the dead. Why should it not be possible they had witches among them? Women who used their knowledge of trees, herbs, and soil to brew strange potions? Could it not be that Dumarin was right? And if he allowed that possibility – what would it mean for the rest of the company?
The sun was mercilessly gleaming down on the dry, burnt grass as Lothíriel slid from her saddle. Up ahead, Récceleas was sitting on his still-twitching prey, his talons dug deeply into the rabbit’s flesh which would enrich their stew tonight. His keen eyes looked at his master as the Queen of Rohan approached him.
“Impressive,” Féofor uttered, amazed by how easily the animal was giving up its prey to accept a seat on the queen’s leathern glove. “I wonder how she trains them. I have never seen anyone hunt with the aid of birds before.”
“It is something the people in the settlements could well use,” the rider next to him said. “Meat is scarce and hard to come by in winter, and this method of attaining it looks easy enough.”
Lothíriel paid no heed to the two men who had accompanied her onto the plains, as she picked up the dead rabbit and put it into a leathern pouch. Her thoughts had been elsewhere for the entire day, and even though she had tried to flee from them by riding out and escaping the gloomy mood of Meduseld, at least for a few hours, she knew that her efforts were in vain. It was impossible to shake the mental image of Queen Arwen’s grief, her face as pale as moonlight; the lady having fallen deep into the clutches of a despair so deep that it left her frozen with fear.
Lothíriel knew about the power of elven premonition, even though she carried but a hint of that in her own blood. Something horrible was happening in Dunland, and both their husbands were caught up in it. Whereas, as dreadful as the emotions she had picked up from Elessar had been, Arwen at least knew that her husband was still alive, Lothíriel felt nothing of that sort concerning Éomer. Her connection was too weak, and so she had been doomed to watch helplessly, trying to comfort the Elf with words she had not believed in herself, until, this morning, she had likewise woken to a portentous feeling of foreboding. The feeling had followed her around like a shadow, a dark cloud over her head, robbing her of her breath.
In despair, she had sought out the captain of the Edoras-based éored and asked him to accompany her on her ride to the plains. But even here, in the middle of the sun-flooded meadows, the shadow had not lifted from her mind.
“Thank you, Récceleas,” she whispered, stroking the falcon’s throat and offering him a small piece of meat which he gratefully took from her fingers. “Your skill leaves us with a wonderful meal for tonight... not that she will eat much of it, I fear.” She closed the saddlebag in which she had laid the sack with the rabbit and fiddled with the clasp, when it hit her with a force that chased all breath from her lungs!
Her surroundings gone, her unfocussed eyes caught the flickering of fire while the taste of blood filled her mouth. And there were voices all around her, rising and falling in a mystic chant, and over them, the bright, threatening sound of steel meeting steel. Shouts. The reflection of fire in predatory eyes and glistening fangs, jumping towards her. A slashing sound, and an agonised yell, then the sound of something heavy hitting the ground. And blood. Lots of blood. And-
With a gasp, she returned into the world and found herself looking into Féofor’s concerned haggard face.
“My lady, are you well? What is it? You are deadly pale!” The captain had noticed how the queen’s fingernails were still digging into the leather of the saddlebag, and Lothíriel’s eyes were wide with dismay as she stared at him as if she had just woken from a bad dream. Worriedly, he stretched out a hand to steady her.
Lothíriel swallowed, her knees shaking and the quivering travelling up her body as a clammy coldness spilled through her veins, a dread the likes of which she had only experienced once before.
“I fear I am not well, Captain. Please, take me back to Edoras. I need to lie down!”
“Very well, my lady. Can you ride on your own, or would you wish for support? I can also send for a wagon.”
“No wagon,” Lothíriel mumbled as she placed a foot in the stirrup and pulled herself into the saddle. “I can ride. I just want to head back now.” She turned her mare and urged her into a swift trot, paying no further heed to the following guards. What was it she had seen? Something that lay in the past? Something that was happening this moment or something that would come to pass in the future? Or was it, like the wave, merely an abstract warning, not to be taken for real? If only she knew!
By initiating the peace talks, she had dreamt of a peaceful life for the people of Rohan. Now it looked as if the noble quest she had sent her husband on was about to claim his life. Lothíriel knew that she would never ever be able to forgive herself if she had sent Éomer to his death. What if he didn’t come back? What if his child would have to be raised without a father and to a mother the entire kingdom despised for first having turned their king against them and then getting him killed? What if…
‘Nothing has happened,’ she admonished herself, trying to deny it though she already knew better. ‘Éomer has his riders with him. Nothing evil can come his way.’
If only she could have believed it.
Playlist Navigation Bar