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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 30. Conspiracies Reforged
Evening was wearing on in the West. In Rohan, the guards paced their rounds upon the walls of Dunharrow, and stood all about the perimeter of the ever-growing encampment before its gates. All about the city, Riders tended their mounts, shaking out blankets to keep the horses from the cold, or joined friends huddled about the campfires, the newcomers mending tack and sharpening blades to the rhythm of Éorl's Ride. And in the kitchens, the cooks tended their pots and kettles, sending up clouds of savory-scented steam as men and women bustled here and there with new loaves of bread.
"Good day, Master Brandigsbuch!"
Merry, who had just arrived, waved and gave a smile to Master Fynláf, the rotund head cook of Dunharrow. "Good day, sir. Have you seen–?"
"The door, there." Fynláf jerked a thumb over his shoulder, towards the back of the kitchen. Stepping to one side and peering down the rows of cooks and tables, Merry caught sight of a small figure standing upon a stool.
"My thanks," he said, and received a nod ere Fynláf erupted into a flurry of Rohirric and went hustling off as swift as his bulk would permit after a pair of apprentices. With a snort and a shake of his head, Merry left the head cook to his duties and made his careful way to the back of the kitchen to join his cousin, who greeted him in his inimitable fashion:
Merry gave Pippin a quick grimace, even as he came to stand on tiptoe and peer over the edge of the kettle that his cousin was stirring. "Another lot of Riders came not a quarter hour ago," he excused himself with an appreciative sniff. And then he winced, as Pippin smacked the back of his hand with his spoon.
"Keep your ink-stained fingers to yourself, Master Scribe!" Pippin admonished with mock severity, eliciting a few sharp looks from those about him. The frowns, however, swiftly turned to amusement, for the denizens of the Dunharrow kitchens had by now grown accustomed to the ways of the holbytla in their midst.
"Some good you are to me, if you won't even give me a taste, and me famished. Friends in high places indeed!" Merry replied indignantly, nursing his fingers and also taking the opportunity to sample Pippin's stew off the back of his hand. "I'll have you know I spent most of today tramping up and down this city and its fields for Lady Éowyn and Lord Dúnhere. My tongue's all in a knot, and my head awhirl, and I've a cramp in my fingers that goes nigh up to my elbow!"
"Why Cousin Brandybuck, I thought you found Rohirric much to your taste," Pippin said innocently, and then deliberately sampled his own concoction, making a show of it. "Hm. That could use a bit of thyme."
"You try spelling Heldigsfyrdhing," Merry retorted.
"Happily, I've other concerns, as you will note. So, are you a cook or a curmudgeon?" challenged Pippin, and grinned when his cousin rolled his eyes.
"Cook, thank you," Merry replied, snatching the thyme jar out of the spice rack that the Dunharrow cooks had thoughtfully set upon a stool, that the hobbits might more easily reach it. And he sighed as he sprinkled a generous handful into the broth. "I don't mind, truly. Pity, though, that so few read or write–it would have been simpler to have them write their chieftain's name or village out themselves. I suppose it's good luck that so many have a bit of Westron, even if not very much."
Indeed, it was good luck, and the hobbits were glad of it, else scribing would have been an impossible task. Merry had certainly thought it would be one when Éowyn, trying to find a use for her unusual guests, had first asked whether they were lettered. "Aye, my lady, though not in your tongue," he had replied apologetically to her question.
"That is no trouble," she had said, and looked to Lord Dúnhere, who had nodded.
"Nearly all such records as we have in the Mark are kept in the Common Tongue, and we have need of such learned heads and hands as can wield a pen," Dúnhere had said.
As it turned out, however, the hands that would wield the pen had need of a tongue and ears able to wrap themselves about some Rohirric, and after the very first day of attempting to record the names and numbers and homes of those who had ridden to the Muster, Pippin had given up. "There must be some other chore to be done," he had declared. "I'm not sure whether they're saying fifty or fifteen half the time, and as for the names–! I'd be more help as a camp cook than a scribe!"
Fortunately for Pippin, the Rohirrim were apparently a people to take a man –or hobbit–at his word, and there was a need for cooks as well. Éowyn had spoken with Dúnhere, and that very evening, Dúnhere had arranged for the hobbits to meet with the chief cook of Dunharrow. After some persuasion of a culinary nature, Fynláf had agreed to allow them into his kitchens to help feed the city and the ever greater number of Riders camped on Dunharrow's doorstep. Pippin had quickly exchanged his pen for a hearthpot of his own, and although Merry had persisted in his scribal duties, he, too, came to help in the evenings.
For weary as he was by the end of a day of struggle with the speech of his hosts, he found his spirits lifted as soon as he crossed the threshold of the kitchens. And why not? After so many weeks of eating camp fare and all manner of improvised concoctions, a proper kitchen, attended to lovingly by its cooks, was a haven among havens. Even the careful rationing that prevented any elaborate dishes from being prepared did not dampen their spirits much: cooks were cooks, wherever they might be found, and the solidarity of the spoon (which was passed about regularly, on the apparently universal excuse that one should never allow a dish to go to table untested) was something no hobbit could fail to understand. In all their adventures, such fellowship seemed most like home, and the hobbits were deeply grateful to have found it. It made the waiting more bearable.
For even as Merry dragged another stool over to stand upon, so as to be able more easily to watch their kettle, Pippin glanced round at the men and women of Dunharrow's kitchens, then shot Merry a quick, concerned look. "I don't suppose there's any news from the west today," he said in an undertone, even as he made a show of stirring the stew.
"Not a word," Merry replied.
"It's been three days," Pippin said, anxiously.
"That's not so long a time. It would take that long for them to reach Helm's Deep and turn straight around to come back, or don't you remember what Éowyn said? If they fought even one day, they'd need to sleep and then set out again, and there might be wounded men with them," Merry said, striving to sound and be reasonable.
"Maybe so," Pippin conceded, but just as swiftly asked: "But then why are you out on the wall every morning before sunrise?"
Merry cocked a brow at him. "How would you know where I am in the mornings? You're never awake at dawn if you can help it."
"You're trying to change the subject," Pippin accused promptly. "And I'll thank you to note that I've seen quite a few sunrises since we left the Shire."
"But you wouldn't have, if Gandalf or Boromir or someone else hadn't wakened you," Merry pointed out. Pippin glared at him even as he reached for the salt.
"You're still changing the subject. If they can't have turned round yet, then why are you awake and watching for them so early?"
For all the times when Pippin showed no sense at all, there were, it seemed, an equal number of times when his cousin managed, whether by instinct or reason, to speak straight to the heart of a matter. I should be glad it's been happening more often lately, Merry thought, even as he glanced uneasily round at the Rohirrim. It was simply that he would rather not have to answer that question at present. Unfortunately, Pippin had that look that said he would drag it out of him somehow, and so, with a last quick look to either side to be certain none would overhear, Merry leaned closer to murmur, "It's not me who wants to be up early, it's Éowyn."
"Éowyn?" Pippin replied, brow furrowing.
"Yes. But keep your voice down, Pippin," Merry warned. "Better yet, let's not talk of this here–not everyone may speak Westron well, but if they hear their lady's name, they're more likely to listen anyway."
"But who would understand us?"
"Few enough, perhaps, but you've played that game of whispers–you know how easily things are ill understood from just a word or two," Merry reminded him. For a moment, Pippin looked rebellious, but after a moment or two, he sighed and nodded.
"All right, but I do want to know. Strider did say to keep an eye on her," he said pointedly.
"I know. And that's what I'm doing," Merry assured him. "But we'll talk later. When the evening singing starts, we can slip out. No one will miss us then."
"But I like the singing," Pippin said, and sighed wistfully. Nevertheless, he nodded his agreement. "After supper then. In the mean time, see whether Dame Egwyth will spare you some of those dried mushrooms she has, since you've got so good at Rohirric."
"It doesn't take a word of it to get anything, and you know it!" Merry retorted, but he climbed down from his stool nevertheless.
"But you're so good at seeming to try to make yourself understood. I just look pitiful, but that doesn't always carry the day. Or the mushrooms," Pippin added, grinning now.
Merry shook his head, as if resigned, but he had to suppress a smile himself as he made for the old woman carefully cutting up carrots. Mushrooms again, he thought, remembering Frodo's and Sam's 'adventure' with old Maggot, whom Frodo had found so unexpectedly kind after his tweenaged pillaging of the farmer's prized mushrooms. The first of many unexpected kindnesses. And now here we are in Rohan, in a stranger place than the Buckland borders, in a kitchen more homelike than anything I've seen since we left the Shire. Elrond was right–one finds friends in unexpected places.
Which was why, perhaps, he had continued with the scribing, despite its frustrations, for it kept him closer to Éowyn. Perhaps he would have done it even had Strider not asked them to be watchful, who knew? Merry found he had no answer to that question, but he liked to think that perhaps he might have done so of his own accord, out of curiosity, if nothing else. For Éowyn was unlike anyone he had met before–she'd a way with others that reminded him of nothing so much as one of the mistresses of the Shire's great families, and yet that fell short. Not even Lobelia Sackville-Baggins or Mistress Took of the Great Smials inspired the sort of deference that the men here showed Éowyn, and yet it seemed not to touch her. Indeed, she seemed to Merry almost to be sleepwalking, nigh heedless of the way in which others looked at her, as if they were insubstantial as dreams.
Which was not to say that she had no care for them–although Lord Dúnhere had the governance of Dunharrow, and saw to the daily needs of the city, Éowyn was a constant petitioner on behalf of her Edoras folk and the rest of the Muster, and she and Lord Dúnhere, so far as Merry could see, spent much time trying to find better ways of provisioning and housing all the guests. And when men came in the evening to make their oaths, it was to Éowyn they bowed and pledged themselves, not Dúnhere.
And she was kind to Merry whenever they spoke, and she unfailingly asked after Pippin as well, but there was, to Merry's mind, a strange note in her voice, or a flat look to her eyes at times that troubled him. He wondered, at times, whether he was foolish to worry over it, whether that something were native to Éowyn or common among women in Rohan. But Strider said to watch her, and I've not seen that... something... in any of the other women here, he thought, unhappily.
And so, when the singing started in the hall that evening, after supper, he was glad to creep away back to the kitchens, to a quiet corner near the door that opened onto the wood yard. There, warmed by the night hearth's flickering embers, and with a bit of free air from the door, they did a bit of rationing of their own; and when the pipeweed had been carefully shared out between themselves, they smoked their pipes and sat in silence for a time, listening to the swell of song. At length, though, Pippin stirred, frowning, and although they had come to speak of Éowyn, he asked worriedly:
"Do you think they're all right?"
"I hope so. At least there's a bit of comfort knowing they've both been doing this for a long time, Legolas and Aragorn," Merry replied, hoping indeed that he would not be made a liar by circumstances.
"But Frodo and Sam haven't."
"No, but Lord Elrond thought they had a chance, after all. That has to mean something," Merry reminded his cousin.
"I just wish I knew what. I meant it when I said I wished the Age would hurry and find a use for us," Pippin said, wrinkling his nose and frowning. Merry found himself unable to disagree, and so for a time, they sat silently. After awhile, however, Pippin spoke again. "It's not that I mind lending a hand here, if there's a need for it," he said slowly, as if thinking aloud. "It isn't that. It's just that everyone else seems to know what they're about, and we don't yet. And some others, they worry me with what they seem to be about."
"You mean Legolas?" Merry asked, and Pippin, after a moment's hesitation, nodded.
"Him especially. But I'm worried about Strider, too," Pippin replied, and sighed, blowing out a stream of smoke.
"And Éowyn," Merry murmured, turning to the matter at hand, thinking of that meeting in the hall between her and Éomer and the king's chief warden, and of all he had seen of her since.
"Yes, Éowyn," Pippin replied, blowing out a smoke ring and frowning. "Now that we've a bit of privacy, tell me about her. What is it that has you worried? I thought she was doing quite well."
"Oh, the Muster's in order–as much as it can be, that is. And she looks so calm most days–doesn't bat an eye at anything, but everything gets done. It's nothing to do with finding fault about all that," Merry replied, waving his pipe about to encompass the whole of Dunharrow and its guests. "But still, something seems wrong to me. I gather there was some sort of trouble in Edoras before we arrived–some trouble between the king and a counselor that no one thought any good of. You remember how we met her? That fellow she spoke of, Gríma? He was the counselor."
"But didn't she say he was a traitor?" Pippin asked, confused.
"Aye, she did. No small trouble, clearly, and the king being her uncle, she'd have as good a reason as any to despise him."
"But he's gone now," Pippin replied, sounding puzzled. "He died. What's the matter, then?"
Merry shrugged. "I wish I knew, but folk won't speak of it, or if they are speaking of it, it's not to me or not in Westron. But something is wrong," he replied, emphatically shaking his pipestem in place of a finger at Pippin. "She's always wiping her hands on something, have you noticed? And she's always the last one to bed." At that, Pippin raised an eyebrow, and Merry, after a moment, admitted with a slight flush, "All right, almost the last one to bed."
"So what's wrong, then?"
"I don't know," Merry said, and stared thoughtfully at flagstones. "But Strider seemed to think there was something brewing about her, too, if you recall. 'Keep her out of trouble', he said, and 'watch her', and so I have."
"Hmmph! He could've said what the matter was, if he were worried," Pippin complained.
Upon hearing which, it was Merry's turn to give his cousin a skeptical look. "We are talking about Strider, aren't we?" he asked, raising a brow.
"Right," Pippin said after a moment, and sighed glumly. "He is a close one."
"Closer than old Bilbo and Frodo ever were," Merry muttered.
"Closer than a wiz–very close," Pippin amended mid-sentence, and frowned again unhappily.
Merry, however, did not see it, for he had ducked his head against an unexpected well of tears. He did not know, even, why the sudden reminder of Gandalf should strike him so hard, when he had thought he had got past weeping in Lothlórien. But for some reason, the mere mention of the old wizard had wakened to life that grief, and so now he sat blinking in the dim quiet of the kitchen, determinedly puffing out a cloud of smoke to hide his discomfiture. Stop that, Merry, he told himself firmly. It's no use weeping anymore. If you're worried, then think what to do about it–there's nothing so wrong that nothing's to be done about it, so think!
Finally, when he thought he could trust his voice, he said, "Speaking of wizards and Frodo, we did read them right in the end. Didn't you say it yourself, back in Crickhollow? Frodo wasn't nearly clever enough for us, nor Gandalf either, in a way. Something always slips out when it comes to secrets. Even for folk greater than we are, things get lost, or we'd not be here at all."
In the near-dark, he could feel Pippin's eyes on him, and after a moment, his cousin asked, "Are you suggesting something, cousin Brandybuck?"
"Only that we have uncommonly busy friends, with uncommonly many concerns, and folk like that often miss what's closest to them," Merry replied in as light a tone as he could manage, raising his head to catch Pippin's eyes. Then, after a pause: "Can you keep up with Strider?"
"If you can keep up with an Elf," came the quick rejoinder. "And Éowyn?"
"Simple enough. Or why else do you think I've kept up the scribing?"
"And those morning walks of yours?" Pippin asked, a hint of a smile playing about his lips now.
"'The lady will need friends in the days to come'," Merry replied solemnly, doing his best to imitate Aragorn. To judge by Pippin's reaction, it was an entertaining failure, and Merry harrumphed, but wagged a finger at his cousin. "Practice makes perfect, as Sam's Gaffer always tells it," he reminded him, and did not mean only the impersonation of Rangers. Which only made Pippin laugh the more, and Merry smiled, heartened to see that. But despite that, his next words were serious, and Pippin, listening, grew thoughtful, too: "In truth, though, she seems very much alone to me. A sad thing, with so many about her."
"Is there anything I can do?" Pippin asked.
"Well, you could start waking up at dawn, for one. If you want to keep up with Strider, you'd best at least get used to it," Merry replied, and Pippin shuddered. But after a calming few puffs of the pipe, his cousin said:
"Then wake me and we'll walk together, all three of us."
"I shall. Old Bilbo spoke truly, back in Rivendell–we hobbits have got to stick together among all these tall folk or things get out of hand," Merry said.
"I wish we could talk to him now," Pippin said, with a wistful sigh. "If there's any hobbit who knows a thing or two about handling matters, it's him." Merry nodded slowly, as from the hall, there came a high, clear voice–a woman's voice, he realized, the first he'd heard singing alone since their arrival. Haunting and solitary, the melody carried through the halls, seeming to tell of a world of lonely longing, and the hobbits sat transfixed by it. After a time, it died away, and as it did, and a chorus of deeper voices took up the tune, Merry shivered. And then he raised his pipe, as if in salute, and said:
"For absent friends."
"Come home soon," Pippin murmured, speaking to the night without. The hobbits sat awhile longer, smoking in wordless companionship. The songs continued in the hall for some hours, and when at last the singers fell finally silent, Merry stood and gave his cousin a hand up from the floor. Arm in arm, they sought their beds and such respite as dreams could bring before the dawn.
Smoke was rising above Helm's Deep. The funeral fires burned hot, sending up the ashes of fallen enemies, and the denizens of the Westfold, the women and children who had sheltered in the caves, were at work upon the fields still. So also were the Dunlendings, digging trenches to hold the bodies of Riders and clearing debris under the watchful eyes of Erkenbrand's men. Éomer stood observing them all from the fort's battlements, above the scarred gates, and he felt a terrible sense of relief. Théoden, he thought, had judged very finely the speed of their journey to Helm's Deep, for while it would not do to arrive with blown mounts, he had been unwilling to risk too great a delay, for none knew with certainty what might await them: whether the orcs would still be camped about the walls or whether they would find themselves attempting, with naught but their cavalry, to storm their own keep held against them.
Neither the king, nor Éomer, nor Aragorn had cherished any illusions about what the outcome of such a battle would have been, and so they had been beyond glad to find that the Lord of the Westfold, together with Elfhelm, had held the gates against Saruman's forces. Nonetheless, and despite the advantage that cavalry and surprise gave the king's men, it had been a hard fight after a long ride to sweep the enemy from the walls, even with the help of the besieged, who had forced their way out of the poor, battered gates to pincer the orcs between the éoreds. And hardy though Éomer was, two battles and naught between but a grueling ride were making themselves felt in a bone deep exhaustion.
The Third Marshal sighed, then stretched, cracking his back and wincing at the ache across his shoulders, at the protests of stiff tendons and innumerable bruises and cuts, and the pull of the stitches Aragorn had set the night after the battle of Edoras. In the heat of battle, he had felt nothing, unless it were the savage joy of vengeance that had banished even terror, stripping him of all but that singular, exultant desire. But now that the fighting was done, flesh reasserted itself, and he was reminded that after all, men had their limits.
As if to put a point to that observation, something gold glinted in the corner of his eye, and Éomer turned to find Legolas standing nigh at hand. The elf had shed the light armor he wore to battle, and had even left his bow behind, but a shiver ran down Éomer's back nonetheless. A Rider of the Mark knew that look, and knew well to respect it if he wished to keep his head. War made all men a little mad, but that peculiarly emptied-out look to the elf's eyes ever since Gimli's death went well beyond the fury of the berserker or even the bewildered distraction the prince had suffered when Éomer had first met him. Whether it was some elvish mood or whether it bespoke that fatal loss of heart that often claimed such men in the end, Éomer did not know, and he found it hard to bear the other's presence since the battle for Edoras.
Nevertheless, the Third Marshal steeled himself, and murmured a polite greeting, for whatever unease he felt in Legolas' presence, Éomer was not one to forget a debt. Théoden might still be the helpless creature of Wormtongue, he reminded himself. For that matter, whatever composure he had had when Háma had come to free the pair of them he surely owed the elf after Éowyn's revelations. And so he manfully refused to flinch when, at length, Legolas tore his gaze from the slaughter fields below and those green eyes fixed on him. For a moment, the two simply stared at each other, but then something like pain flickered in the elf's face, and Legolas turned away, leaning against a merlon, folding his arms across his chest as if against a sudden chill. But Éomer saw, too, how he seemed to cradle his left arm in his right; indeed, the elf seemed weary... worn out.
Somehow, that was more troubling to Éomer than even the fearful rage that had carried the elf through the battle before Helm's Deep. Perhaps because he was too honest a man not to recognize a mirror when confronted with one, and the Third Marshal turned away at last, unable to bear the thought of his sister as that frozen, lifeless creature that had come to him from Wormtongue's embrace...
Enough of this, he thought, and sighed. He knew his own weaknesses, and if the bloodletting of the day had not cured him of his desire for vengeance, it had left him feeling... well, weary of it... weary of the need for it. "Thirty-three orcs and seventeen men," he murmured, and wondered how many more it would be ere he was satisfied.
And to his surprise, Legolas replied, "Forty-two orcs, twelve men. And the darkness remains."
"I beg your pardon?" Éomer asked, frowning. But the elf said nothing, seemed, indeed, not to be listening, or at least, not to be listening to Éomer. For he stood with his head canted to one side, eyes shut, as if straining to catch the notes of some elusive song. After a time, Legolas shivered, and blinked his eyes open with a shake of his head.
"I am sorry, did you speak?" he asked then, turning back to the Third Marshal.
"Nevermind," Éomer replied, waving the question away. Darkness, too, he understood well enough after Wormtongue's reign. And then, giving the elf a more concerned look, he asked, "Should you not be with the healers, Legolas?"
"It is an old wound; others are more in need of their services than I," Legolas replied, and Éomer gazed at him in frank skepticism.
"You will forgive me if I disbelieve you."
At that, the elf smiled a little, in that rather unnerving manner that he had recently adopted. Turning back to the field, he stared out at the sunset, as he replied, "Not all pains can be cured by healers; but sometimes those lesser wounds can make the others more bearable." And before Éomer could respond, he added, "Do not worry for me. Forty-two orcs are but a beginning, and if I am to better that tally, I shall need such healing as comes through leechcraft. But I would rather not trouble Aragorn at the moment–he has enough other charges."
For after the battle, Aragorn had exchanged his sword for the healer's scalpel. All captains had a duty to their wounded, after all, though for most, duty was satisfied by a visit and such speech as could be spared when so many needed care and comfort. After a wash and a brief meeting with Théoden and Erkenbrand to discuss the aftermath of the battle and the hour of departure from Helm's Deep, Éomer, Elfhelm and Aragorn had gone to the hospice hall. The wounded were still being brought in great numbers from the fields, and after being pressed into service to aid one man, Aragorn had spoken with the healers and shortly thereafter, joined them.
And although Éomer remained convinced Legolas would have done best to render himself up as a patient to his friend, he replied simply, "Then I shall not trouble you further on that account." And though it was, perhaps, unworthy of him, he could not help but remember their conversation in the dungeons of Meduseld. He warned me that I was too close to the matter of my sister's honor–I suppose I might say the same of him in the matter of Gimli that drives him now. I wonder, does he still see the danger in that, or has he come simply to accept it, as do all who would pursue vengeance? It was on the tip of his tongue to remind the elf of those words. For he must have a care, surely, for his people in Mirkwood, who should not be deprived of their prince for a private matter such as this, he thought, wavering in a most unusual bout of indecision.
But in the end, he held his tongue. The Men of the Mark sang many songs that honored the bond of brotherhood that war forged; there were worse crimes in the world than to cut all other ties for the sake of that bond. And besides, he knew too well that he was in no position to rebuke the elf, prince though Legolas be, when his own shame over Éowyn burned still so hot.
Just at that moment, Legolas stiffened, and leaning forward he raised a long-fingered hand to shade his eyes as he stared intently west. "What is it?" Éomer asked, squinting as he tried to follow the other's gaze. But the sun was too bright, and he blinked the dazzle-spots from his sight as he turned back to the elf.
"The guards on the perimeter have seen something," Legolas replied. "See how they cluster now? Look, others come, and the women and children retreat."
"Béma's blood, what now?" Éomer muttered, but obeyed when the elf waved him silent. After a time, Legolas grunted softly, and straightened, lowering his hand.
"Riders from the west," he said.
"Keen are the eyes of the elves," Éomer replied, and shook his head in frustration. "I cannot see them!"
"They are few in number, but the sun's setting has let them draw nigh without notice." With a curse, Éomer turned on his heel and dashed for the steps, taking them two at a time. He was at the gates and had ordered the guard there to join him by the time he noticed that Legolas had followed him.
"You are wounded, my friend; you ought to remain behind," he said tersely.
"And you live today because Gimli gave his life. I will not see that gift wasted," the elf replied in a tone that would brook no dissent. "Besides," he added, in a less fierce voice, "they are very few–I should think even taken half by surprise, that the guard upon the field should find them no great challenge."
Despite that assurance, Éomer waited impatiently as horses were brought, and a young lad came running up with a shield and helm and leather breastplate for Éomer, who was quick to strap the latter on. Legolas took a spear from among those leaning against the wall, and then leapt lightly into the saddle of the horse nearest him. Éomer thought he saw irritation flash across the other's face, but it was gone too quickly for him to be certain, and at the moment, he had other concerns than the annoyance of one rider.
With the swiftness of men accustomed to such exercises, the makeshift company formed up on Éomer and they were off at the gallop to join the perimeter guard, which had fanned out into a long line to meet the horsemen. But it seemed that Legolas was correct in his estimate, for even as they approached, the riders were encircled, and as Éomer watched, the lot of them dismounted apparently without offering even token resistance. Which was a relief, for despite his earlier thoughts, Éomer had had quite enough of battle and death for the day. Raising his arm, he signaled the company to slow to a trot, and though all men kept their weapons at the ready, just in case, when they met with the guards escorting the strangers, Éomer saw no hint of tension. Rather, there was an undercurrent of perplexed excitement among the perimeter guard, as one of their number hurried forward to greet Éomer.
"What news, Ceorl?" the Third Marshal asked.
"Strange news indeed, my lord. Some thirty horsemen, in strange garb, come seeking Lord Ælric," the man replied. "Their leader calls himself Halbarad Dúnadan, son of Hirthon." Beside Éomer, Legolas let out a cry of astonishment, and the Third Marshal shot him a sharp look.
"You know him?" Éomer asked.
"I know of him–he is Aragorn's kinsman and lieutenant in the North." The elf shook his head, gazing in wonderment at the grey-cloaked men, one of whom drew his hood back, then, and stood staring at Legolas.
"Let him come forward," Éomer said, and rather than wait on Ceorl, simply raised a hand and beckoned the man to approach. And when he had, the Third Marshal dismounted, Legolas following suit, and went to stand before the stranger. Halbarad made him a polite bow, though he had no qualms about looking Éomer straight in the eye, which suggested a man unaccustomed to bow to many. Yet there was no defiance in the other's look or manner, and Éomer could well believe the man was kin to Aragorn, looks aside. "I am Éomer, Éomund's son, Third Marshal of the Mark. You say you seek the lord Aragorn?" he asked.
"I do, my lord," the other replied, and then gestured to Legolas. "And unless I am mistaken, the presence of one of the Eldar in your ranks suggests he is among you."
"You are not mistaken. But what is your business to him that it needs a company of armed riders to accomplish it?"
"That he shall have to tell us," Halbarad replied, "for we were summoned to join him. Word came from Lothlórien: Let the Grey Company ride to Rohan, for Aragorn has need of his kinsmen."
Merry Christmas. Welcome to the AU of book V at long last. Dwim is currently enjoying the sunny weather in California, and has no access to her beloved books. weeps Citations will be rendered accurate sometime in January.
"Keen are the eyes of the elves"–TTT, "The Riders of Rohan", 39
Let the Grey Company ride to Rohan, for Aragorn has need of his kinsmen.–ROTK, "The Passing of the Grey Company", 57
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